A Story From: Laos
Read Time: 8 to 10 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
LONG AGO in Laos, the Land of a Million Elephants, there once lived a 10-year-old orphan named Mansay who managed to get by with the help of kind villagers who provided him rice and fish. The boy was born lame and could not walk, but other boys in the village included him in their games as much as they could.
You might think Mansay wouldn’t be much of a playmate, but he was the champion in at least one game. The boy had spent a lot of time alone, and as a result had become very skilled at shooting pebbles. He would practice flicking pebbles at faraway targets and could hit tree trunks he could barely see, as well as leaves in the topmost branches of tall teak or palm trees. Younger boys gathered mounds of pebbles for him and watched, issuing one challenge more difficult than the next, but he nearly always hit his mark.
One morning Mansay amused himself by shooting pebbles in a broad banyan leaf in the outline of a boy. The banyan leaf cast a dark shadow on the ground, and when sunlight shone through Mansay’s holes and the wind ruffled the leaf, the circles of light that fluttered on the ground in the shape of a boy seemed to dance. When the village boys came that day, they were delighted with the show. They built a cart for Mansay with wheels and moved him to the shade of a large spreading banyan tree with many overlapping banyan leaves where he could create a more dramatic display. First he flicked his pebbles to create the outline of an elephant in one leaf, then a baby following its mother in another, and before long he had brought to life an entire herd of elephants that seemed to charge whenever the breeze blew.
The boys were so enjoying the sport they didn’t hear a procession approach. It was the king – King Souligna Vongsa – on his way to visit a nearby city. Frightened at the sudden appearance of marching guards, the boys quickly rolled Mansay’s cart out of sight and hid themselves behind the trees.
The cool shade of the spreading banyan tree looked inviting to the King in the heat of the day, so he commanded his men to stop and rest. When the wind blew, he was startled to see images of elephants on the ground moving about as if they were alive. He called to his guards, “What art is this? Whoever created this wonder – Find them!” But all the boys could hear was the King’s commanding voice saying: “Find them!” and they fled home as fast as they could, leaving poor Mansay behind.
In short order Mansay was discovered and, trembling, was brought before the King. Though most everyone in Laos knew King Souligna Vongsa to be a good and just king who had settled treaties with their neighbors and brought peace to the land, any king can be fearsome and unpredictable. “Who has done this?” said the King in a commanding tone, pointing to the images on the ground.
“I did,” Mansay whimpered, not knowing what else to say.
“Ah, so it was you?” said the King, stroking his chin. “Prove it.” He told his guards to gather some pebbles. “Make another picture,” he ordered.
Just then a songbird landed on a low branch. Mansay flicked pebbles onto a banyan leaf in the shape of the bird. He placed the body of the bird on one side of the leaf where it was bent and its head on the other so that when the wind blew, the image of the bird on the ground appeared to sing.
The King laughed heartily and clapped his hands. A second later all his guards also laughed and clapped each other on the back.
“My son,” said the King, “you have a remarkable talent.” He was silent for a moment, then said, “Yes…I know exactly what you can do for me.” He ordered his guards to lift Mansay onto an elephant. Silently riding in the King’s procession, Mansay did not know where he was bound or why. After traveling for a number of days, the grand buildings of the capital of Laos, home city to the king’s castle and the pride of Southeast Asia, came into glorious view.
“Now young man,” said the King to Mansay after his attendants at his castle had bathed the boy and clothed him in a handsome collared white blouse with criss-crossing gold trim, “I have an important job for you. Soon I will meet with my councilors. One of them is a man I am fond of but who talks too much, and I need him to be silenced so I can hear what the others have to say. I’ve arranged for a curtain to be hung behind my throne and you will sit behind the curtain. There is a hole in the curtain. You’ll be able to see the councilor I’m talking about because he’ll be seated right across from you. Let him speak for ten seconds. Then you are to shoot a mud pellet through the hole, directly into his mouth. Whenever he opens his mouth to speak after that, you must do it again.”
Mansay was carried to a chair behind the curtain and handed a basket of mud pellets.
As soon as the King opened a question for his councilors to debate, the councilor he had described seized the opportunity to talk. After ten seconds – thwop! – something revolting flew into his mouth. He immediately closed his mouth and swallowed the vile thing, whatever it was. As soon as he had rinsed the taste down his throat as best he could by swallowing, he found another opportunity to speak. But when he opened his mouth – thwop! – again a terrible tasting thing – was it an insect? – flew in. He had no choice but to swallow that disgusting thing, too, as inconspicuously as possible so none would be the wiser. And so it went for the rest of the meeting, much to his confusion.
“My friend,” said the King, slapping the councilor on his shoulder at the end of the meeting, “I can see you finally realized how important it is to allow others to speak. I’m pleased and impressed with you!”
“Well, I…actually…” said the councilor.
“Oh, um nothing, I mean… Yes, um, what I’ve always said…That it’s a wise man indeed who will listen to what others have to say.”
“Good man!” said the King, smiling.
From then on, the councilor held his tongue and council meetings were much improved. Mansay was invited to stay at the King’s castle for as long as he liked. In the years that followed, he never lacked for food or shelter, or an audience.
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.
The plot of this story is noteworthy not because the protagonist is physically handicapped, but because the handicap is not at the center of the story. Rather, this story centers on themes of learning and perseverance, and the mastering of a skill.
Laos is a landlocked country about twice the size of Pennsylvania. It is one of the areas of Southeast Asia least touched by modern civilization. More than half the people live along the Mekong River, its major transportation route, and most are subsistence farmers. In the 1960s, nine years of US bombing left Laos devastated. Over 2 millions tons of bombs - more than the US dropped during all of WWII - rained on Laos. On a per capita basis Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history. At present, a communist government is in power and the grandson of the last king of Laos, who had famously said, "Alas! I am destined to be the last king of Laos!" and was forced to abdicate in 1975, currently lives in exile in Paris, France.
King Souligna Vongsa came to the throne in 1637 after defeating four rival claimants and his subsequent rule for 57 years is considered the golden age in Laotian history. He negotiated peaceful relations with the neighboring states of Siam (Thailand) and Viet Nam, and within the kingdom gained a reputation for firm, just rule. The first European visitors to the capital of Laos wrote awed reports about its rich and beautiful palaces and temples, saying it was the most magnificent city in all of Southeast Asia. King Souligna Vongsa died in 1694 without an heir, following which internal dissension brought about a split of the country into three separate kingdoms.