How did these ingenious Malay mothers come up with the idea of this idiom, which was no doubt of singular use when correcting their children's handwriting? Many theories are open for consideration, but one possibility is that it originates from some ancient folk tale which probably went something like this:
|The chicken's feathers were long and sleek,|
like the kind that people use to write with,
except that they were a clean white color.
Although the chicken has changed in many ways ever since she lost the ability of flight, she had always been a very motherly character. Even in those days, she always protected her children with as much fervour as she does today. But her love was not reserved only for her children; she acted as a motherly figure to everyone who came into close contact with her in the forest. As such, she was often respected and loved by all the animals in the forest, especially among the birds, who treated her as their own mother. Even the parrot was polite around her. The young mother hen spent her days eating any fruit or berry she could find, so that when she returned to her nest, she could, like most birds do, regurgitate her food for her little chicks to eat.
But then, there came a year when the land was infertile. The weather had been hot and dry, and many of the plants in the forest were suffering. The grass was dry and dirty, and the leaves of the trees were yellow. Many bushes and creepers withered and died, and as a result, even the animals were at want for food. It was truly a bad season for the forest, and in the ever-ongoing competition for survival, every animal had to fend for himself.
Well... nearly every animal. For while each of the animals were able to get their fill by chewing dry grass and munching sour and unripe fruits, the chicken was entirely at a loss as to how she was going to feed her children. Very few trees bore fruit during the famine, and those that did bore malnourished, sour fruits. The mother hen simply could not gather enough food everyday for her whole nest of hatchlings, and everyday as the famine went on, their cries of hunger gnawed at her heart. It was with despair that she flew around from tree to tree everyday, trying to gather enough food, while all the time her only thoughs would be those of her half-dozen baby chicks at the nest, waiting for their mother to come home, in full faith that she would satisfy their hunger every single day...
On one such day, the magpie was loitering around the branches, keeping his eyes out for any shiny objects. It was at this time that the chicken landed on a nearby branch, and, poking her beak into the leaves, found a measly peck of unripe berries. Insufficient as they were, mother hen needed to collect as much food as she could for her babies. She gulped down the berries, and sighed. The magpie had been watching her carefully for a while. Then, he flapped over to her branch.
"Morning, good mother hen. How are you on this bright and sunny morning?" The magpie always played dashing little charmer around ladies, even the chicken. But mother hen always saw him as the greedy casanova he was, although he never loved him the less for it.
"Bright and sunny morning, yourself. While everyone's struggling to stay alive in this famine, you're here collecting dust and looking for shiny objects and pretty ladies. A rolling stone gathers no moss, you know, and right now you're gathering as much moss as these trees here."
The magpie cackled. "Hey, what can I say, mother hen, the easy life comes to those pf them as works hard to get there. I'm good at finding things I look for, whether I desire them to be shiny, or edible. I've never had trouble finding food." The magpie scratched his beak. "Although, ma'am, I guess you can't quite say so for yourself. How are the kids these days?"
Mother hen sighed and looked away. "They're... keeping up. But I know the famine is getting the best of them. Everyday, they look a little bit thinner and smaller. There's not enough food about here these days, and I'm doing my best to keep them well-fed, but it's just no use."
The magpie fluttered his wings in shock. "Hey, ma'am, you worrying a bit too much about your children, and I think you've forgotten to take care of yourselves! Have you seen your reflection lately? Have you been remembering to keep some food for yourself after feeding you children?"
It was true, the chicken had not been allowing herself much food as of late, out of fear that her children would not have enough to eat. Now, she was thinner still than her hatchlings. She was silent.
The magpie thought for a bit. Then he came up with an idea. "You know, mother hen... the reason why I'm still happy and healthy during this difficult time is, I know where to find food where no one else knows it exists. It's my own little secret of course -" he tapped the side of his beak with a feather - "...but you've always been nice to me and my cousins, so I'm going to do my best to help you."
The mother hen looked up sharply with a glint in her eye. "Oh, thank you very much, I'm sure, but I don't really think I can-"
"It won't come free, of course," the magpie went on. "I'm a man of business, and a collector. I can't give away something for nothing you know. And yet... you don't have much to give, mother hen. But then, you do have your feathers."
The chicken's feathers, when she could still fly, were long and sleek, like the kind that people use to write with, except that they were a clean white color, like a swans. The mother hen prided herself for her feathers, and often took care of their condition by tweaking them into shape with her beak during her free time.
"Your feathers aren't exactly shiny, ma'am, but they're very pretty, and I would love to have some of them in my collection. Your feathers are some of the prettiest in the forest, the peacock's feathers being the prettiest. But she wouldn't let me have any..." The magpie snickered. "At least, not at first."
The chicken eyed the magpie warily. "You want my feathers, then? And what will you give me in return, pray tell?"
The magpie's eyes had a steely glint to them. "Yes, I've thought about that. Tell me, have ever tried eating worms? No? But you've heard of them? Oh, yes, worms are the tastiest meal a bird can get his hands on, and they're highly nutritious, too. Perfect for a nest of growing kids, I would say. Of course... you have to know how to get them. And as luck would have had it, I do! So, let me cut a deal with you. For each of your feathers, I will bring to you as many worms as you beak can carry! How does that sound? Good deal or what?"
Indeed, in these difficult times, the offer was a very tempting one right from the get-go. Mother hen was never a very vain creature, and had always been very clear on her priorities. Without any hesitation, she agreed to every condition that had been layed down by the magpie... "if it's not too much trouble for you, of course."
The magpie laughed. "Oh, it's not a problem, ma'am. Now, if you'll just give me one of your feathers? Thank you so much. Wait right here, I'll be right back."
And so it happened that this cute little business relationship was started between mother hen and the daring magpie. Worm after worm the magpie brought and laid on the ground in front of mother hen, until she decided that she could not carry more than that. Then she brought the worms back to her nest, and that day the baby chicks had a feast.
"What are these things, mother? They're so delicious!"
"Eat up, my little darlings. Those are worms. Do you like them? I'll make sure to get more for you tomorrow."
The next day, the chicken plucked off another one of her exquisite feathers from her wing, and handed it to the magpie. Once the feather had been safely tucked into his nest, the magpie got to work, disappearing into the forest and returning a while later with a squirming worm in his beak. Once the magpie had found seven worms, mother hen would scoop them up in her beak and take them to her nest, where she and each of her babies had one worm each. This continued for many weeks. For one of her feathers, the magpie would bring seven worms to the mother hen, and she would take them home to her babies. By degrees, the baby chicks got healthier and started growing bigger. Mother hen was overjoyed, and never once did she ever regret trading her feathers for worms; until...
One day, mother hen plucked off another feather from her wing, and handed it to the magpie. The magpie flew deep into the forest, and returned with a worm, which he laid on the ground in front of mother hen. Then he disappeared into the forest again. Before long, there were seven juicy worms on the ground, and mother hen picked them up. Having received his feather and mother hen's thanks, and having completed his end of the deal for the day, the magpie took off into the air and went to look for more excitement. The mother hen took off in the other direction towards her nest. Or at least she tried too. By now, she had lost all her feathers down one side of her wing, and she was quite unable to fly! Oh dear, she had not quite realised it before, but she couldn't fly without her feathers! She panicked, but acting on instinct, she ran back to her nest on her feet, flapping her wings and trying to take flight. Eventually she found her way to the tree where her nest was. Calling up to the nest, she said "Children, are you alright?"
The chicks started chirping excitedly. "Mother is home! Mother is home! And she's brought worms for us to eat! But why is mother on the ground?"
"My little darlings, I'm afraid I can't quite fly anymore! I don't know how I'm going to come up to you!"
"That's okay mother! Then we'll just come down to you!"
One by one the yellow little hatchlings leapt out of the nest towards the ground. Their mother screamed at them to stop, but stop they would not. Fortunately, their wings had become developed enough for them to slow down their descent, and before long all six babied had landed safely on the ground.
"Yay! Mother is home! Mother is home! And she's brought worms for us to eat!"
The chicken was not sure how to feel now that her babies had leapt out of the nest, and she knew that she had no way of getting back to the nest herself now. But, upon seeing her children happily eating the worms, all her worries dissolved, and she forgot entirely about the nest. That night, she led her children into a safe place under some bushes, and there she roosted, with her chicks under her wing. She settled down to sleep, and she felt the reassuring warmth of her little babies. Their nest would be left unbothered for many years to come, until a gale would blow it away. But for now, mother and children lived their lives without worrying about the future.
The next day, the magpie was shocked when mother hen came to see him with a yellow cloud of hatchlings trailing behind her. "Well, good morning, ma'am. Is it Bring-Your-Kids-To-Work Day today?"
"Shut up and get me my worms," said the mother hen, plucking a new feather off her wing.
The chicks were overjoyed as they watched the magpie fly back and forth as he laid worm after worm on the ground in front of them. Everyday, mother hen would dwell on the ground now, with her little darlings trailing behind her. There were very few beasts around during this time of famine, and the chicken was quickly able to become accustomed to life on the ground. She continued to trade a feather for worms everyday, but while her children grew healthier, her own supply of feathers diminished. Very soon, mother hen knew, the day would come when she would pluck her last feather. And what could she do then? Even if fruits were to return to the trees, she would have to forage for food on the ground. The future was uncertain, but she did not want to cause her children to worry, so she tried not to think about it.
But that day came sooner than she had anticipated. The last feather on her body, sticking out of her back, was plucked off and handed to the magpie. The magpie looked at it ruefully. "Well, what now, ma'am? I can bring you your worms for today, but what then? A deal is a deal, you know. If you don't have any feathers, I can't get you any worms."
Mother hen sighed again, just as she had done that morning when the magpie had addressed her problem of finding food. It seemed like it was just yesterday. But now, her problems were back. She had no more feathers, and it would be a long time before she would grow any new ones. She was as bald as a fish, and she had no idea how she would find food now that she couldn't pick fruits from the trees.
The magpie read the sadness on her face, and he tried to brighten her up. "Hey, don't worry about it, ma'am. We'll worry about that later, okay? I'm sure we can come up with some sort of a deal. But for now, don't worry about it. Let me get you your worms now, alright?"
The chicken nodded, but didn't say a word. The magpie quietly took off into the forest. One by one, he brought the worms to her, and mother hen felt that she might be counting down the last worms she would ever see in her life. One worm... two worms... three worms, the magpie brought to her. Four more to go, one for her and one for each of her chicks...
Suddenly she felt a chill down her spine. She turned to her babies, who were flapping around each other playfully and having a good time. She tried to count them. One, two thr- hold still, little darlings, mother is trying to count you- one, two, three, four, five- little ones, please, don't fight- let me count you again- one, two, three, four, five. Five? But there should have been six of them!
The magpie returned with the fourth worm. "Magpie, have you seen any of my little babies?"
The magpie looked surprised. "No, ma'am, I haven't, other than the six of them standing over there- my goodness, there used to be six of them didn't there? Oh dear, where could one of them have gone of to?" Mother hen burst into tears. "Don't worry, ma'am, don't... don't panic, I'll go look for him, okay? He couldn't have gone far."
Through sobs, mother hen thanked the magpie for his kindness, and he flew back into the forest, calling for the little child. In the meantime, the chicken was engulfed in fear and worry, wondering where her little baby could have gotten to; until a giggling voice emerged from the depths of the forest. "Mother, mother! Here I am mother! Don't cry!"
The little chick tottered out of the trees towards his mother, who scooped him up in her loving wings.
"Oh, my baby, my baby! Where did you run off to? You made mommy so worried!"
"I'm sorry I ran off, mother. But listen! I know the magpie's secret! I know the magpie's secret! I know how to get worms?"
"What? What are you talking about, child?"
"We knew you were worried about looking for food, and that today you were going to give up your last feather, so we agreed that one of us would go follow the magpie today! When he flew off to look for the worms, I followed him. He went to a place where the soil was very soft, and then he scratched at the ground a lot, and then a worm appeared, just like that! But I was hiding well, so he didn't see me!"
The mother hen was shocked at her children's actions, and she reproached them for coming up with such a scheme without telling her. But at the same time, she could see light at the end of the tunnel. Was that really the was to look for worms? Scratch at the ground to unearth them? She decided to give it a try. She remembered a place nearby where the soil was a bit softer; presumably the magpie had chosen a further place to guard his secret. She made her way there, with the chicks happily trailing behind her. She tried scratching at the soil, and she was surprised to find that her talons were perfectly shaped for digging up soil. She was even more surprised when, amidst the upturned earth, she saw a live squirming worm! The babies chirped with joy, and scrabbled to get the first worm. Before long, the chicken had unearthed at least a dozen worms! She and her babies ate more than they ever had that day. Having had their fill, and now possessing the secret of finding worms, the mother hen led her children away, without a worry for what the future had to hold.
And that, little ones, is the long and short of the story. The magpie eventually returned to tell the mother hen that he couldn't find the child anywhere, but he was shocked to find that she and the rest of her children had left. He was even more shocked to find that, in a nearby clearing, and lot of soil had been disturbed, and there were clear scratch marks all over the ground. He knew that the deal was over, but he was glad that mother hen would be able to find food for herself and her babies from now on. Mother hen and her chicks continued to eat heartily every day, and each of the little hatchlings grew into fine young birds, while mother hen herself started putting on weight. Even after her feathers had grown back, much, much later, she did not fly anymore. Her new feathers were not as beautiful as her first set - they were stubby and frayed easily. She told her children that this was the reason she could not fly anymore - but the truth which she would not admit was, she thought she may have grown too heavy to fly anyway! By and by, whenever an animal in the forest came across some strange scratch marks over the forest floor, they learned that these marks meant that the chicken had recently been searching for worms in that area, and they would say to each other, "Well, here's the chicken's markings again. I'm sure she and her children are surviving well." Indeed, long after the famine was over, each of the chicks grew up to prefer a life on the ground, and no chicken since has ever been able to fly. Mother hen would never be able to fly again, but she thought it was a small price to pay in order to learn the secret of looking for worms.