(A Cambodian Folktale)
Once upon a time, a shepherd named Munny wandered the hills near Angkor Wat with his herd of goats. Whenever the weather was difficult, with the rains heavy and the days short and dark, he sheltered at the foot of an old tree or in a ruined temple. Munny was friendly with all the animals, and they introduced him to the beautiful world around him. He understood their language as they spoke of a time when magic ruled the Earth and their cities were powerful, drawing visitors from far and wide.
One night, Munny sat by his fire near the city of Siem Reap, which once had been a center of trade and now was built only of memories and stones. He dreamed of the old days. He could almost hear the sounds of people and animals. He could see vendors selling their fruits and vegetables and other wares, and he fell asleep dreaming of those days.
At dawn, Munny woke. With his crook, he stirred his animals and led them into a valley for fresh water and herbs. This was one of his favorite spots, for here he could bathe in a waterfall. Later that morning he had just sat down to peel a sweet mango for breakfast when he heard laughter. A few of the goats heard it too and began to walk toward the sound.
Suddenly, a girl with thick black hair and light in her eyes danced from the shelter of the trees. She skipped toward Munny, and he stared in amazement. She was more beautiful than anyone he had ever seen.
“I saw you bathing in the hot springs,” she said. Munny blushed.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” she went on, and as she talked, Munny’s shyness fell away. The two sat and talked of the villages he passed through in the countryside, of the people who lived there. She told him her name was Sikha, and Munny began to imagine marrying her and building her a house near this waterfall. He promised himself this would happen one day.
But at sunset, Sikha’s father called her home.
Munny was totally smitten. For the next year the young man could think of nothing other than marrying Sikha. He saved nearly every coin he earned selling his wool, and when he had enough money, he purchased a ruby ring and went to Sikha’s house.
There he introduced himself to her father. “I’ve come to ask Sikha to marry me,” Munny said.
“Why would my daughter marry a peasant boy like you?” her father demanded. “I will agree to this only if you pass a test.”
And with that he led Munny to the river, and there he bound his legs in rope.
“You will stand in the river up to your neck for three days and three nights,” Sikha’s father explained. “You must do nothing to warm yourself. If you succeed, I will know you are strong. Then you may marry my daughter. But if you fail to endure the cold, you must leave this place and forget all about my daughter.”
The water was freezing, but Munny was determined. For two days and two nights, he stood in the water without moving. He was cold, and he was exhausted, but he thought of his beloved Sikha, and she gave him strength.
On the third morning, he looked up at a faraway hillside and saw a fire burning. He closed his eyes and imagined the sound of crackling wood and the smell of smoke. He thought of nights he had slept wrapped in his blankets, surrounded by his animals. Suddenly, without thinking, he reached his arms toward the fire.
The moment he did, Sikha’s father appeared. “You have failed!” he cried.
Munny begged him to reconsider. “I only moved my arms,” he said.
“No, you failed!” the father insisted.
So Munny went to the village judge and told him all that had happened. The judge agreed to hold a trial to decide who was right.
On the day of the trial, Munny reached the courthouse and saw that Sikha’s father had lavished many gifts on the judge, but Munny had nothing to give.
Munny and Sikha’s father made their arguments. When they were through, the judge said, “You failed, Munny. Because you have lost, and to pay court costs, you must prepare a large banquet tomorrow. After that, you will have to leave this village.”
Munny was furious and hurt. As he walked back to the river trying to figure out what to do, he passed Rabbit, who asked what was wrong. Munny told him the tale.
“I am a well-known judge,” Rabbit said, “and I can fix your problem. Sell your goats, and with the money you earn, prepare a great many dishes. Most important, prepare a pot of soup, but add no salt.”
Munny trusted Rabbit, who was wise, and did all he suggested. Rabbit brought a bowl of salt to the feast, and he placed it beside the pot of soup. He and Munny filled every plate and every bowl. The gathered guests began to eat.
The judge tasted the soup and scowled. “Pass the bowl of salt,” he said.
Rabbit shook his head. “Forgive me, judge, but surely seeing the salt is enough.”
“Fool!” the judge cried. “How can the mere sight of salt make my soup taste better?”
Rabbit grinned. “Then tell me this, judge. If the sight of salt cannot satisfy you, how did a faraway fire warm this boy?”
The judge understood. “You are right,” he said. “I have changed my judgment. Munny has passed the test. He can marry Sikha.”
Sikha’s father respected the judge’s revised decision.
As a result, the judge ordered Sikha’s father to buy Munny’s herd of goats as repayment, and Munny and Sikha lived happily ever after.