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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

How the First Coconut Came to Efate

Pacific Islands, Vanuatu
Folk Tale


Long ago, deep in the darkest forest of Efate, there lived an enormous serpent. One day, the time had come for the serpent to give birth. No sooner had she crawled inside a cave than she began to give birth. As she finished, the exhausted serpent drifted off to sleep.

Suddenly she awoke to the sound of human cries. Frightened, she turned to make sure that her newborns were safe and discovered, much to her surprise, that a human baby girl was nestled at her side.

From that day, the serpent nursed the baby girl as lovingly as any human mother could. Each morning, the serpent would gather berries for her daughter to eat and would comb her daughter's long black hair with her tongue. She taught her daughter how to swim like a fish, how to speak the language of the trees, and how to hug the Earth tight enough to hear its voice.

But the mother knew that the time would come when her daughter would have to leave. On the girl's nineteenth birthday, the serpent wept in sorrow; she realized that she could delay the moment no longer. Calling her daughter to her side, she said, "My beloved daughter, outside the walls of this dark forest there is a land of light. There, you will find humans who look like you. They will claim you as their own. You must live with them and learn their ways. Be kind to them. But if they ask you who and where your mother is, promise me that you will not tell them of me. If you do, it will hurt us both." Through her tears, the girl promised never to betray her mother.

The serpent then led her daughter to the edge of the forest. Although the girl was reluctant to leave her mother, she was curious about the world that her mother spoke of so mysteriously. As the serpent disappeared back into the darkness, the girl stepped forward into the sunlight.

After walking a few miles, the girl came upon a village. She marveled at the grass huts and stared shyly at the young girls, who were carrying baskets of taro and yams. While she was admiring the girls' brightly colored skirts, she felt someone touch her shoulder. Turning to see who it was, she drew in her breath. There before her was the most beautiful human she could ever have imagined. He was like her, but different. The two gazed longingly into each other's eyes. In an instant, they were in love. The man brought the girl to the chief of the village and asked that a marriage ceremony be performed. Before the day was over, the man and the serpent's daughter were husband and wife.

The two lived very happily together. Although the man was at first puzzled that his wife did not know how to weave mats or roast pigs, the girl was so charming and beautiful that he quickly dismissed any suspicions. Very soon, the girl forgot the life she had left behind.

Years passed, and one day the serpent's daughter gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Although she was delighted by her new son, she started to remember her own mother and longed to see her once more.

"What's wrong?" the husband asked, when he found his wife weeping one morning. Forgetting the promise that she had made long ago, she told him of her mother. She did not mention, however, that her mother was a serpent.

"We will visit your mother," her husband said. "She should be given the news of her grandson. I will gather my brothers, and together we will call upon her." Eager to see her mother again, the girl agreed.

The day of the visit arrived. Together with her husband and his brothers, the serpent's daughter journeyed to the forest. As the men cleared a trail ahead of her, she lingered behind, waving to the trees and calling to the birds she had known as a child. When they came closer to her mother's cave, the serpent's daughter began to worry. How would her husband and his brothers react to the sight of her mother, an enormous serpent? She ran up ahead, telling her husband that she needed to speak to her mother alone. Before opening the cave door, she asked that he and his brothers wait outside.

The serpent's mother was filled with pure delight upon seeing her daughter. Sliding down from her bed, she licked her daughter with her tongue. The girl, too, was overjoyed. How could she have been separated from her for so long?

"Well, my daughter, you have kept your word," said the serpent mother. Only then did the daughter remember the promise that she had made long ago to her mother. She burst into tears.

Seeing her daughter's face, the serpent mother realized that her daughter had forgotten her promise. And she knew the fate that lay before her, "When I am dead, take my head with you," she said. "Bury it in a good place. Remember to water the ground where you bury it."

The daughter, terrified by these words, searched for a place to hide her mother. But the mother refused, saying, "No. Lead me out of this cave."

When the serpent appeared at the door of the cave, the men were shocked. Fearing her size, they rushed at her, stabbing her with their sharp spears.

As the serpent lay dead, they gathered around her to take a closer look. The serpent's daughter asked her husband to cut off her mother's head and give it to her.

That evening, the girl buried the head outside her hut. Every day she watered it with her tears, remembering the love her mother had shown her. Soon, she noticed a sprout shooting out of the ground. By this time, her small son was walking. Calling him to her side, she asked her son to promise to always nurse the plant properly and lovingly. The small boy agreed.

Years went by and finally the tree bore a fruit which had both water and flesh. The fruit of the tree was as delicious as its leaves were useful. They called it the coconut.

And this, my friends, is how the first coconut tree came to Efate. 

About the Author

Kara Jackson

"How the First Coconut Came to Efate" is told by Kara Jackson (Peace Corps Volunteer, Vanuatu, 1997–1999). Kara taught math at Onesua High School on the island of Efate. Her student Amineo Rarua collected this tale from her grandmother, Tourmet John.

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