(a Zuni tale)
Once upon a time there lived a young Zuni girl named Liseli. She was one of the most beautiful girls in all of New Mexico, but she was terribly poor and all alone in this world. No one paid attention to her or recognized her inner or outward beauty. She was always dressed in tattered clothes, her face streaked with sweat and dirt as she worked day and night herding turkeys.
Liseli did not mind her work. She loved these creatures that her people called “Earth eagles,” for they had brought her people many blessings. The turkeys taught the Zuni people how to grow corn and fight off evil spirits. They helped the people to recognize the blessings of the Earth.
Liseli was humble and kind, and the turkeys loved her and always followed her lead. She seemed to have a magic way.
One day, when she was 16, Liseli was driving the turkeys to pasture when she heard the village priest proclaiming from his pueblo that in just four days the village would celebrate the Dance of the Sacred Bird. There would be feasting and dancing.
“Wear your finest clothes!” the priest announced. “We shall dance until dawn.”
Liseli had never been to a festival. She had never joined in the celebration of the summer solstice. She had never danced. Her heart sank; she longed to go, but she did not have beautiful clothing. She would never be welcomed looking the way she did after a hard day’s work. And she had no one to help her prepare.
Soon she began to dream aloud of a time when she might dance, when one day she might fall in love.
“Someday I’ll dance with a handsome young man,” Liseli sighed. “Someday.”
At sunset, she led the turkeys back to their corral and closed the gate behind them.
“Goodnight, my friends,” she said.
At dawn, Liseli was once again driving the turkeys out to pasture, and she passed by many villagers preparing for the dance. Women were cooking big pots of food, and young girls fussed with their sashes. They painted moccasins. Everyone in the village seemed to be celebrating already.
A tear dropped from Liseli’s eye as she realized that once again she would be left out of the fun. But just as they reached the farthest field, the largest, oldest turkey, nearly 12 years old, strutted up to her. This was a turkey Liseli had known all its life. To her amazement, the turkey began to speak.
“Maiden mother,” he said, “we all talked about your dream. We want you to enjoy the festival in honor of the Sacred Bird.”
When Liseli had recovered from her surprise, she bent down and looked the turkey in the eye.
“You can talk?” she asked softly.
“When we must,” the turkey said. “And we wish you to dance with all the men of the village.”
Liseli’s heart filled with joy, but she shook her head and said, “Why waste your words to speak of the impossible? There is no sense of talking nonsense.”
But the turkey stood his ground and insisted, “We’ll dress you prettily, and everyone will wish to dance with you. But you must promise us you will never forget us.”
Liseli stared in wonder and replied, “How could I forget you? You have been my life.”
The turkey shivered with happiness, but he went on: “You have been a humble and hard-working girl, Liseli, and you have always been kind. But sometimes when people grow rich in material wealth, they forget their humble beginnings.”
“I could never forget you!” Liseli said.
And so the turkey instructed her to bring all her clothing the next day.
The next morning, Liseli brought her tattered rags and handed them over to the turkeys. As she did, the turkeys stepped forward one after another and pecked at the pieces. They surrounded those rags and shook their feathers, and after a while, to Liseli’s astonishment, items of clothing as beautiful as any she had ever seen emerged from those tatters. When she put on her deerskin moccasins and her manta, a beautiful dress wrapped with a sash, and pulled on her deerskin leggings known as puttee, she looked lovelier than any woman had ever looked.
“Go now,” the turkeys said in unison. “But leave the gate open in case you forget about us. And return before midnight or we will know you no longer care.”
“I will never forget you, I promise,” she said over and over, but at their insistence, she left the gate open for them and hurried to the dance.
When she walked into the gathering, everyone turned at the sight of this exquisite woman. People whispered among themselves:
“Where did she come from?”
“She must be a princess.”
“Why has she honored us with her presence?”
The young men of the village each asked her to dance. All night long she was not left alone, and as the night wore on, Liseli grew happier and happier. Indeed, she started to wonder how she could ever leave this life of joy and fun for the company of turkeys.
And so she stayed and danced, and the hours passed.
And she forgot about the time.
When midnight struck, Liseli suddenly remembered her promise. She broke away from her partner and hurried back to her old friends, but by the time she had reached the corral, the turkeys were gone.
She ran out to the fields calling to them, but they were nowhere in sight. And as she stood there, her beautiful clothing turned once again to rags. Once again, she was left all alone.