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Poor Turkey Girl

by JaneBaileyBain

In early times there lived a girl who was so poor that she earned her bread as a turkey-herd.

Every morning she left her tumble-down home to collect the flocks of families richer than her own. She would drive them out into the plains and watch all day as they foraged among the dry grass. Sometimes she was so lonely that she talked to the birds.

“How I wish that I had a pretty dress,” she would say. “And nice food, and a ribbon for my hair.”

But although she was shabby, she had a kind heart and always looked after the birds in her care. Because of this, the turkeys were obedient and always came when she called.

One day the girl was driving her birds out of town when they passed a procession of youths and maidens. They were preparing for the spring festival of the Great Dance. No-one even noticed the drab little bird-herd. The girl watched them wistfully and chattered to the turkeys.

“How I wish I could attend,” she cried. “But it is impossible that anyone so ugly should take part.”

Little did she suspect that her birds understood every word. They clustered together, gobbling and squawking. At last one of the biggest cocks strutted up to her. Fanning out his tail and the skirts of his wings, he spoke to her.

“Maiden mother,” he announced, “We are thankful for your good care and have decided that you are worthy as anyone to attend the dance. Do as we say tonight and you shall join the festivities. But take care that you return to us in good time, lest we think that you have left us. Do not become harsh to us as others are to you now.”

The girl was very surprised, but she found it quite natural to converse with her turkeys. When the sun set, they turned for home of their own accord. The big turkey escorted her into their hut and laid her wrap on the ground. In a moment it was transformed into a shimmering cape covered with gleaming feathers. The turkeys circled around her, clucking and grooming until her hair was brushed smooth and her skin burnished brightly. Then they began coughing up things they had found and swallowed: a necklace, ear pendants and many rings for her fingers.

When the girl was properly adorned, she thanked the birds delightedly. As she turned to leave they called after her:

“Maiden mother, know that we love you! Never forget us if your luck changes tonight! Remember our words and do not tarry too long!”

“I will remember,” she cried, and rushed away into the night.

When she entered the main square, all eyes turned towards this beautiful stranger. Murmurs of appreciation ran through the crowd. The youths and maidens held out their hands and invited her to join their circle. Her heart was light and her smile dazzling as she danced. The hours sped by and suddenly she saw that the sky was getting light. Breaking free, she slipped down an alley and hurried back towards the turkey hut. But meanwhile, the turkeys had begun to wonder why their maiden mother was gone so long.

“She has forgotten us,” they said. “It is just as we feared. Now that she has good fortune, there will be no-one to look after us. We had better leave whilst we can.”

The birds bustled out of the door which the girl had left open. They ran up the valley calling loudly to one another. By the time the girl arrived, they were long gone. Her cape was in tatters, her hair tangled, her skin dusty and dull. She was just Poor Turkey Girl once more.


"This is a folktale told by the Zuni poeple of New Mexico.  It is reminiscent of Cinderella - the best known story in the world - but with a moral sting in the tail!"

This story is reproduced by kind permission from ‘StoryWorks’ (2015), a practical handbook on storytelling © Jane Bailey Bain