The Armless Girl


A widowed father chooses not to remarry and relies on his young daughter to perform his wife’s household duties of cooking and cleaning. When the girl reaches puberty, he attempts to coerce his daughter into filling the sexual role of his deceased wife as well. The girl steadfastly refuses his advances, bursting into noisy weeping that threatens to alert the neighbors. The next day the father takes her into the woods. Once again he demands that she have sex with him. When she again refuses, he cuts off her arms with a knife and leaves her in the woods to die. Bleeding and in tremendous pain, the girl suffers in solitude until hunger forces her to her feet. Dazed, she begins to wander through an endless forest, ascending and descending.

pair hands

Finally the armless girl reaches a walled homestead. Dropping to her knees, she crawls through a hole in the wall and rolls her body into the garden where she feeds like an animal on fallen corn and peaches. For three days, unable to stand without her arms, she rolls through the garden eating from the ground until servants discover her, mud–covered and filthy, and mistake her for a wild pig. They bring the dogs to attack her, but her cries stop them. The armless maiden is required to relate the story of her father’s crime three times before she is rescued and brought into the homestead. Once bathed, the family realizes that even without her arms the girl is beautiful, and she is soon married to their son.

For a time the couple were happy, particularly with the birth of a child, but gradually problems arise. Without her arms, the new mother can not perform the expected domestic duties of a woman, and her in–laws begin to grumble. They want their son to take a second, more suitable wife, but he refuses. Eventually, the husband leaves for the city, looking for work, and his parents, pretending to be his wife, compose a letter stating she is pregnant again by a man other than her husband. The young woman, unaware of the forged letter, receives two replies. The first is from her husband demanding to know more about her unexpected pregnancy. A second letter arrives almost immediately after the first. This one is written by her father who, after learning of his daughter’s survival, pretends to be the husband and threatens to burn her into ashes if she remains at home. The young woman and even her in–laws are sorely troubled by the threatening letter, and reluctantly they tie the baby on her back and allow her to leave the homestead.

The young woman returns to the woods and begins a second journey, ascending and descending the endless forest until, weary and thirsty, she comes upon a lake. As she bends awkwardly to drink, afraid her child may slip from her back and drown, a magic bird appears, and with a splash from each wing, restores her arms. Whole and able to do tasks for herself, the young mother jubilantly cares for her child: nursing the baby, bathing her, dressing her, pinching her until she cries and then comforting the child in the shelter of her newly restored arms. And when the woman is satisfied, she reties the baby on her back and returns, not to her husband’s home, but to the neighbors. There she waits until her in–laws learn of her return and come to visit. Astonished by her transformation, they beg her forgiveness and desire only to write on her behalf to their son. But the young man is already on his way home, worried about his wife and child, convinced that something is terribly wrong. It takes a while, but slowly the tangled knot of forged letters is unraveled and the husband declares his love for his wife.


from a recollection by Midori Synder of “A Father Cuts Off His Daughter’s Arms,” performed by Mrs. Nongenile Masithatu Zenani, a Xhosa storyteller from South Africa, and translated by Harold Schueb

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