Think about the last time you heard a story.
Maybe it was a bedtime story you heard from a grown-up. Maybe it was a folktale you heard on this podcast!
In today’s episode, we’ll hear a story about how the very first stories came to be.
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Our story is called “She Tells Seashells.” Versions of this tale come from the Zulu people of South Africa.
Voices in this episode include Elle Borders, Amy Brentano, Rya Cox, Adele Donnelly, Hrishikesh Hirway, Ken Jackson, Igor Shimelonis, Sidney Sholley, Mike Smith, Alexia Trainor, and Joaquina Kalukango.
Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango has starred in many Broadway shows including The Color Purple and Slave Play. And grown-ups, you may know Joaquina from Lovecraft Country on HBO, and the movies One Night in Miami and Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia.
This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Amory Sivertson. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.
ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRound. We’d love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.
Things To Think About After Listening
You can tell your own story by doing a Picture Swap!
Here’s how it works. Gather a group of people, hand everyone a blank piece of paper, and ask each of them to draw a picture. Once all of you are finished, invite everyone to swap their drawings with the person next to them.
Next, go around the circle and have everyone make up a story based on the drawing they received. Then if you’d like, start all over with a new batch of pictures, and a new batch of stories!
Musical spotlight: The Kalimba
In the Bantu language of South Africa, kalimba means “little music.” The kalimba is a modern version of the mbira (which you’ll hear in our season 1 story, “The Lion’s Whisker,” our season 2 story, “Cow Wells and Cow Bells”, our season 3 story, “Leopard’s Rhythm,” and our season 4 story, “Three Little Critters”); both instruments make sound when you use your thumbs or fingers to pluck thin metal strips known as “tongues” or “tines.” The tines are mounted on a wooden board; sometimes this board is hollow, sometimes it’s flat. The kalimba’s bright, bell-like sound has been enjoyed on its own (as a solo instrument) and as accompaniment for dancers and singers. You can hear Eric Shimelonis play the kalimba in other Circle Round stories including “Sweet and Sour”, our South African tale from season 3.
NARRATOR: Way, way back… in the days when our only light came from the sun or the spark of a fire… there lived a woman named Manza.
Manza’s village lay between a river and an ocean. And every morning, after sharing a hot breakfast of porridge and tea, she and her children washed and scrubbed the dishes, then headed out the door.
MANZA: Alright! We have a big day ahead of us, darlings! Let’s get to work!
NARRATOR: Some of Manza’s children tended the family’s avocado trees — watering the roots, pruning the limbs and plucking fruit from the branches.
Others journeyed out to the fields, picking grass to weave into baskets.
Still others packed up their fishing lines and headed to the river, where they baited their hooks and caught carp, trout, and bass.
As for Manza, she sat on a rocking chair on the porch, humming to herself…
NARRATOR: … and carving wood.
With her tiny pearl-handled knife, Manza etched and chiseled pieces of teakwood into elaborate pictures of animals and birds, flowers and trees, mountains and valleys. She even carved portraits of her fellow villagers, who displayed them proudly in their thatched-roof houses.
So… between tending trees, weaving grass, catching fish and carving wood… Manza and her children kept busy all day long. And when the light grew dimmer and the air grew colder, Manza called the kids back to the house…
MANZA: Come on home, my dears! It’s dinner time!
NARRATOR: …and served up a meal of fried bread, cabbage and beans.
But after the food was eaten and the dinner dishes were washed and scrubbed, Manza’s children sat by the fireside… and complained.
CHILD 1: Uch. I am so bored!
CHILD 2: Me too!
CHILD 3: Me three!!!
CHILD 4: Now that the sun’s gone down, it’s too dark to play outside.
CHILD 1: …Too cold, too!
CHILD 2: …But what in the world can we do inside?
CHILD 3: With nothing but this fire lighting the house, it’s not like we can draw…
CHILD 1: …or play games…
CHILD 2: …or even run around!
CHILD 4: Oh, if there was only something we could do to pass the time!
NARRATOR: Now… you may be thinking to yourself… ‘Hang on, hang on! It’s cold, it’s dark, these kids are cooped up inside… There’s totally something they can do to pass the time! They can tell stories!’
Well, here’s the thing.
Back in those days, there were no stories to tell.
No tales… no yarns…
People didn’t even know what those things were!
But as we’ll soon hear, all of that was about to change.
You see, one evening, as Manza gazed at her grumbling, restless children, she had an idea.
MANZA: I know! I’ll go out and ask the animals what they do to entertain their kids once night falls! Surely they have all sorts of amusing ways to while away the evening hours!
NARRATOR: So the next morning, Manza put her oldest child in charge for the day, and set out on her mission.
The first animal Manza encountered… was Rabbit. The furry creature was perched on her haunches and nibbling bright red berries off a bush.
MANZA: Good morning, Mother Rabbit! I have a question for you. Once night falls, how do you entertain your children?
NARRATOR: Rabbit swallowed her mouthful of berries and twitched her long fuzzy ears.
RABBIT: How do I entertain my children once night falls? Why, I have a hard enough time keeping track of them all! I give birth to four litters a year, you know. And with that many boisterous bunnies scampering about, I hardly have time to think about entertaining them! You’d better ask someone else.
NARRATOR: So Manza thanked Rabbit, and moved on.
Before long, she came to a wide open field, where she spotted Impala bounding by.
MANZA: Good morning, Father Impala! Listen, I’m sorry to bother you, but I have one quick question: once night falls, how do you entertain your children?
NARRATOR: Impala used his sharp hooves to skid to a stop, then he wheeled his horned head to the left and the right, blinking his eyes anxiously.
IMPALA: How do I entertain my children once night falls? Why, I have a hard enough time keeping the little scamps safe! Do you know how many animals around here want to eat us?!? Lion! Leopard! Hyena! Cheetah! Python! I’m too worried about becoming somebody’s dinner to think about entertaining my kids. You’d better ask someone else.
NARRATOR: So Manza thanked Impala, and moved on.
Eventually, she reached a forest, where she spied Owl roosting in the canopy of an acacia tree.
MANZA: Good morning, Mother Owl! I wonder if I could ask you something: once night falls, how do you entertain your children?
NARRATOR: Owl blinked open her glittering round eyes and fluffed her chest feathers.
OWL: (as she wakes up) How do I entertain my children once night falls? Dear lady, did you see what I was doing just now? I was sleeping! Owls are nocturnal! We sleep during the day and we hunt all night! Every evening, I fly around silently, scouring the ground for crickets and beetles, shrews and rats! I’m too busy gathering food for my kids to think about entertaining them. You’d better ask someone else.
NARRATOR: So Manza thanked Owl, and moved on.
Eventually, Manza reached the sparkling silver waters of the ocean. As the waves rolled and crashed against the shore, Manza sighed and plopped down on a huge rock.
MANZA: Ugh! Can’t anybody help me figure out how to entertain my kids once evening comes? Will we just have to keep sitting around in the dark and twiddling our thumbs? (sigh) This is hopeless!
NARRATOR: She was just about to get up and trudge back home, when…
NARRATOR: … she heard a voice!
TURTLE: Oh, I wouldn’t call it “hopeless,” Manza. I know exactly how to get you what you need. You just have to trust me.
[theme music in]
NARRATOR: Who do you think spoke up just now?
And what are they talking about?
We’ll find out… after a quick break.
[theme music out]
[theme music in]
NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “She Tells Seashells.”
[theme music out]
NARRATOR: Before the break, a talented woodcarver named Manza was desperately seeking a way to keep her kids entertained during the cold, dark evening hours.
Manza asked some of the animals how they passed their time at night; unfortunately, they didn’t have much to offer. But when Manza reached the ocean and sat down on a giant rock, she heard a mysterious voice say that it could help!
MANZA: What?!?? Who are you? Where are you? And can you really help me find a way to — Woahhh!
NARRATOR: Before Manza knew what was happening, the giant rock she’d been sitting on… moved! Manza jumped to her feet, and as she stared down at the rock… which was nearly as big as a bed… she realized it wasn’t a rock at all. It was actually a…
MANZA: Sea Turtle?!???
TURTLE: That’s right!
NARRATOR: The enormous sea turtle stood up on its wrinkly grey feet, stuck out its wrinkly grey head, and gave Manza a friendly nod.
TURTLE: Climb onto my back and hold onto my shell, Manza. We’re going on an adventure!
NARRATOR: So Manza took hold of Sea Turtle’s shell and together they plunged into the ocean. To Manza’s astonishment, she found she could breathe as they glided down, down, down… past rainbow-colored fish and spotted eels, slippery fronds of kelp and bright branches of coral.
When they reached the very bottom of the sea, Manza could hardly believe her eyes! Standing before her was a grand, shimmering castle… and when Sea Turtle floated through its doors, Manza caught sight of a throne — a high, regal throne made from thousands of glittering, glistening shells.
Sitting on the throne were two individuals who looked a lot like people, only their hair was as green and willowy as seaweed, and on their heads they wore crowns made from sea glass.
KING: Greetings, good woman from above! We are the King and Queen of the Sea!
QUEEN: What brings you down to our kingdom?
NARRATOR: Manza bowed her head. She had never met royalty before — let alone royalty on the bottom of the ocean!
MANZA: Your Majesties. With Sea Turtle’s wonderful assistance, I’ve come all this way to ask… a favor.
NARRATOR: The King and Queen exchanged a look.
QUEEN: What kind of… favor?
NARRATOR: So Manza told the King and Queen of the Sea all about her dilemma. How her children grew bored and restless at night, with nothing to do to pass the time.
As she explained her situation, she noticed a smile start to spread across the King and Queen’s faces. By the time she was done, both of the sovereigns were beaming from ear to royal ear.
KING: Well, good woman from above!
QUEEN: It just so happens that we know exactly how to help you!
NARRATOR: Manza’s heart fluttered.
MANZA: You do…?
KING: Yes! We do!
QUEEN: We just ask for one thing… in return.
MANZA: Of course! Anything! What is it you desire?
KING: Well… given that we rule over the waters…
QUEEN: … over every ocean, lake, and river…
KING: …we’ve never laid our eyes on dry land.
QUEEN: Not once! Though we’ve always wanted to.
KING: But you see… as water-dwelling people…
QUEEN: …we can’t survive in the open air!
KING: So we ask you, good woman from above…
QUEEN: Can you help us see the earth?
NARRATOR: Manza was confused.
MANZA: Can I help you see the earth…!?
QUEEN: The animals and birds!
KING: The flowers and trees!
QUEEN: The mountains and valleys!
KING: We want to see it all!
QUEEN: Can you help us?
NARRATOR: Manza wasn’t sure how she could possibly help the King and Queen get what they wanted. But what else could she say, except…?
MANZA: Of course, Your Majesties. I will help.
NARRATOR: The King and Queen clapped their hands.
KING: Oh, wonderful, wonderful!
QUEEN: If you can come back in one month’s time…
KING: …and give us what we ask…
QUEEN: …then we will give you what you ask!
NARRATOR: Manza thanked the King and Queen, then jumped onto Sea Turtle’s shell. When they returned to the water’s surface and reached the shore, Manza asked Sea Turtle to meet her in one month, so she could return to the King and Queen’s sea palace.
Sea Turtle agreed, and as the sun began setting in a thousand shades of pink, red, purple and orange, Manza headed home.
The next morning, after the family ate breakfast, got dressed and headed outside to work, Manza sat in her rocking chair on the porch and agonized over the promise she had made to the King and Queen of the Sea.
MANZA: What in the world was I thinking?!? I’m a wood carver, not a magician! I whittle pieces of wood and make pictures! There’s no way I can help the King and Queen see animals and birds, flowers and trees, mountains and — (gasp) Wait a minute! Of course!
NARRATOR: Manza sprang from her chair and sprinted to the shed where she kept her wood. She rummaged around until she found a particularly large piece. It was a tawny-golden color and the size of a door.
MANZA: This should do it! Time to get to work!
NARRATOR: Manza began to hum as she etched and chiseled, chiseled and etched… until the light grew dimmer, the air grew colder, and it was time for dinner.
She did the same thing the next day… and the next… and after one month’s time, she wrapped her latest carving in a layer of cloth, strapped it onto her back, and returned to the seashore… where Sea Turtle was waiting.
Manza hopped onto the massive creature’s sturdy shell, and together they drifted down to the bottom of the ocean.
When Manza unveiled her creation to the King and Queen of the Sea, the monarchs fell silent.
MANZA: (uncertain) I, uh, I hope you like it, Your Majesties. You’ll see how I etched and chiseled all the details you requested. The animals and birds… the flowers and trees… the mountains and valleys… I even included pictures of my children picking fruit and weaving baskets and catching fish. I mean, I know it’s not the actual earth. But I figured a carving would be the next best thing!
NARRATOR: The King and Queen didn’t say a word. They just stared at Manza’s carving, their eyes growing wider and wider. Manza’s heart, meanwhile, beat faster and faster, until… at last…
KING: It’s magnificent!
KING: You have helped us see the earth…
QUEEN: … and now we shall help you.
NARRATOR: The King and Queen waved their hands, and suddenly, what should appear before Manza’s eyes but a dazzling, spiral-shaped shell.
KING: This shell, good woman from above, will help you and your family pass the time.
QUEEN: When you get home, just hold it to your ear… or to your children’s ears… and it will entertain you like nothing else in the world!
NARRATOR: Manza could hardly wait to take the magical shell for a spin. Clutching it to her heart, she thanked the King and Queen of the Sea for their generosity, then hopped onto Sea Turtle’s back and returned to the world above.
That evening, when the light grew dimmer and the air grew colder and Manza’s children began fretting and frowning by the fireside, she took out her new shell.
She asked the children to gather in close.
And as they huddled together, she held the shell up to their ears.
The moment she did, they all stopped fretting.
They all stopped frowning.
Instead, their eyes grew bright… their faces did, too.
And do you know why?
Because the shell that Manza received from the King and Queen of the Sea… it contained the world’s first stories. Stories about heroes, stories about tricksters… stories about challenges and stories about triumph.
And Manza’s children went on to tell those stories to their children… who told them to their children… and so on and so on.
And thus, ever since, we’ve always had a way to pass the time: we’ve circled round and told stories.
And just like the Queen said, those stories have the power to entertain us like nothing else in the world.