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'A Song for the Spirits' | Ep. 17125:38
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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

A famous author named Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

What he meant by that is things like love, money, and fame can be temporary; but the truth lasts forever.

Story continues below

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Today we’ll meet two characters who must choose whether or not to tell the truth. And that decision changes their lives forever!

Our story is called “A Song for the Spirits.” Versions of this tale originally come from parts of West Africa, including the countries of Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Voices in this episode include Feodor Chin, Chelly Li, Shawn Richardz, Marion Toro, Dawn Ursula, and Krys Marshall. Krys stars in the Apple TV+ series, For All Mankind. You Circle Round superfans may recognize Krys from our season 3 story, “The Birds and the Trees.”

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Circle Round’s supervising producer Nora Saks. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.


Coloring Page

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on FacebookTwitterInstagram or Pinterest, 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

The wooden flute was the fisherwoman’s most cherished possession. What’s something you own that means a lot to you? A favorite toy? A pet dog or cat? A blanket knitted by a parent or grandparent?

Think about it, then draw a picture of you and your beloved belonging. And if you’d like, share that picture with us! Ask a grown-up to snap a photo of your drawing, then email it to circleround@wbur.org.


Musical Spotlight: The Tambin

Composer Eric Shimelonis playing the tambin, a.k.a. sereendu, fulannu or Fula flute. (Courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)
Composer Eric Shimelonis playing the tambin, a.k.a. sereendu, fulannu or Fula flute. (Courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)

The tube-shaped wooden flute known as the tambin is played all over West Africa. Typically the tambin has three holes, and is wrapped with leather and wax and decorated with sea shells. Experts compare its sound to that of the Arabic ney, which we featured in our season-one episode, “The Answer Your Seek.” Some listeners may remember hearing the tambin in the score of the 2018 Marvel blockbuster Black Panther.


Story Transcript

NARRATOR: On the outskirts of a small village, where the little wooden huts met the edge of a dense, leafy forest, there lived a fisherwoman.

The fisherwoman had to work hard to keep food on the table, clothes on her back, and a roof over her head.

So every morning she’d wake at the break of dawn…

FISHERWOMAN: (stretching, yawning) Ahhhh!

NARRATOR: …eat a humble breakfast…

FISHERWOMAN: (ad-lib chewing/eating)

NARRATOR: …then walk through the dense, leafy forest to get to the ocean.
The fisherwoman would untie her boat from the usual tree and attach her fishing net to the side. After that, she’d paddle out onto the water (paddle sounds) cast her net (net whooshes).. and wait for the mackerel, catfish, and sardines to come swimming in.

And while she was waiting, she would play…

[SOT: flute playing]

NARRATOR: …her flute.

[SOT: flute playing continues]

NARRATOR: It was a simple wooden flute, carved from the root of a tree. The fisherwoman’s mother had made it for her when she was a little girl. Now it was her most cherished possession.

The fisherwoman would sit in her boat and play and play. Until…

[SOT: flute suddenly stops]

FISHERWOMAN: Oh! I can feel the net tugging!

NARRATOR: …her net filled up with fish.

FISHERWOMAN: Better pull in my net and see what I’ve caught!

NARRATOR: Once the fisherwoman pulled in her net and emptied her catch into the boat, she would cast her net again and play her flute. She would do this over and over, all day long, until…

FISHERWOMAN: Oh! There’s only one hour left before sundown! I must pull in my catch and hurry back to shore, so I can get home before nightfall!

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman was always in a hurry to get home before nightfall.
And do you know why?

Well, in order to reach her little wooden hut, she had to walk through the dense, leafy forest, right?

And according to legend, that dense, leafy forest… was haunted! The fisherwoman remembered her mother telling the story, many years ago.

MOTHER: (Reverb) It is said the forest is filled with mysterious spirits – spirits who do not like humans! During the day, these spirits sleep… but once the sun goes down and the sky grows dark… the forest spirits emerge from the shadows and float through the trees! Casting their spells in the ghostly gloom! And hunting for humans to haunt! (beat) So you must never be in that forest come nightfall. Never!

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman had always heeded her mother’s words.

Until one fine day in the middle of spring.

The day began as it always did, with the fisherwoman rising at dawn, walking through the forest, then paddling onto the ocean and casting her net. As usual, she took her flute from her pocket and began to play.

[SOT: flute]

NARRATOR: As she played, the fisherwoman waited to feel the tug of her net as it filled up with mackerel, catfish, and sardines.

She waited… and waited… and waited some more.

But the tug never came!

So hour after hour, the air was filled with soft, sweet music as the fisherwoman played… [SOT: flute]... and played [SOT: flute]… and played some more. [SOT: flute]

NARRATOR: Until…

[SOT: flute stops]

FISHERWOMAN: Oh no! I got so carried away with my music that I lost track of time! The sun is going down in less than an hour! But why didn’t I feel a tug on my net? I’ve been out here all day!

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman pulled in her net and flung it into the boat.

FISHERWOMAN: I can’t believe my net is empty! Now I’ll have no fish to sell at the market! But nothing I can do about it now. I must hurry back to shore so I can cross through the forest before nightfall!

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman paddled extra hard and extra fast to reach the shore. Then she sprang from her boat, raced across the beach, and took off through the forest at a full sprint.

FISHERWOMAN: (Runs fast, pants, breathes).

NARRATOR: The air grew colder and the light grew dimmer. And then… seconds before the sky went completely dark, the fisherwoman emerged from the forest and raced inside her little wooden hut - slamming the door behind her.

[SOT: door slam]

FISHERWOMAN: Whew! That was close! A few more minutes – seconds, even – and those forest spirits would have gotten me! Man, I’m so worked up, I need to calm down. I think I’ll play my flute to help me relax.

NARRATOR: But when the fisherwoman reached inside her pocket…

FISHERWOMAN: What?!?!

NARRATOR: …the flute wasn’t there!

FISHERWOMAN: Oh dear! I must have dropped my flute in the forest as I was rushing home! But I can’t leave it there! It’s my most cherished possession! I’ll just have to brave the forest spirits and get it back!

NARRATOR: A silvery moon shimmered in the night sky. But as the fisherwoman entered the forest, the trees were so close together, and their canopies were so tangled and full, she couldn’t see a bit of light. The fisherwoman fumbled through the darkness, trying to catch sight of her beloved flute.

FISHERWOMAN: Come on! My flute’s gotta be here somewhere! Just please let me find it before the forest spirits find me!

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman’s heart beat faster and faster as she moved deeper into the forest. Then, just when she was certain her heart would burst from her chest, she found herself in a moonlit clearing – and came face to face… with the forest spirits!

SPIRIT 1: Human!!!

SPIRIT 2: What are you doing here?

SPIRIT 3: Don’t you know that we own this forest come nightfall?

SPIRIT 4: How dare you intrude?

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman felt her hands go clammy and her mouth go dry.

FISHERWOMAN: (Nervously) I - I - I’m sorry, forest spirits, but I’m just a humble fisherwoman who’s come to find my flute! I lost it in the forest today, and I need it back. It was a gift from my mother, and it’s my most cherished possession!

NARRATOR: The forest spirits stared at the fisherwoman with glittering, ghostly eyes.

SPIRIT 1: Ohhhh! So you lost your flute, you say…?

SPIRIT 2: Your most cherished possession…?

SPIRIT 3: Well, it just so happens we have many flutes here!

SPIRIT 4: Perhaps one of them is yours!

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman watched in wonder as the treetops began to quiver. And then, what should come drifting down from the branches, but a cascade of flutes.
Only these flutes were unlike any the fisherwoman had ever seen! Some were made of brilliant bronze. Others were made of sparkling silver. Still others were made of glistening gold. The rest were encrusted with gemstones: diamonds and rubies, emeralds and sapphires.

The flutes glided through the air, then stopped and hovered right in front of the fisherwoman’s very wide eyes.

SPIRIT 1: Well, Human...

SPIRIT 2: As you can see…

SPIRIT 3: …we have all kinds of flutes here!

SPIRIT 4: Surely one of these flutes belongs to you…?

NARRATOR: As we all know, none of the flutes belonged to the fisherwoman. But she knew that any of these glinting, glistening instruments could make her a fortune if she claimed it as her own, then sold it at the market! Never again would she have to struggle to make ends meet!

But was she ready to sacrifice the truth… for treasure?

[theme music in]

NARRATOR: If you were the fisherwoman, what would you do?

We’ll find out what happens, after a quick break.

[theme music out]

[SPONSOR BREAK]

NARRATOR: I’m Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to Circle Round. Today our story is called “A Song for the Spirits.”

[theme music out]

NARRATOR: Before the break, a humble fisherwoman was searching for her lost flute when she came face to face with the spirits who haunted the forest at night!
The spirits showed the fisherwoman all kinds of fancy, glittery flutes, and asked which one was hers.

FISHERWOMAN: Actually… none of these flutes are mine! My flute is a simple instrument, carved from the root of a tree! It’s nothing fancy – but it means the world to me.

NARRATOR: The forest spirits exchanged a look and the fancy flutes vanished.

[SOT: vanish]

SPIRIT 1: Alright then, Human…

SPIRIT 2: …if you’re certain none of these flutes are yours…

SPIRIT 3: …then look inside your pocket.

SPIRIT 4: We believe you’ll find what you’re looking for.

NARRATOR: So the fisherwoman reached inside her pocket. And what should she find there but…

FISHERWOMAN: …My flute! Thank you so much! My heart would have been broken without it!

SPIRIT 1: You’re very welcome, Human.

SPIRIT 2: But you cannot leave us – not yet.

SPIRIT 3: First you must use that flute of yours to play us…

SPIRIT 4: …a song.

FISHERWOMAN: A song…?

NARRATOR: A smile spread across the fisherwoman’s face.

FISHERWOMAN: It would be my honor to play you a song! Listen to this.

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman lifted her flute to her lips, and began to play.

[SOT: flute plays]

NARRATOR: The sound was soft and sweet, and within moments…

[SOT: voices sing along]

NARRATOR: …the forest spirits began to sing along! Their unearthly, otherworldly voices rising and falling with the music!

[SOT: music comes to a close]

NARRATOR: When the song was over… the forest spirits gathered around the fisherwoman.

SPIRIT 1: Human, now that you’ve played for us…

SPIRIT 2: …we would like to give you a gift!

SPIRIT 3: You’ll discover the gift when you go fishing tomorrow.

SPIRIT 4: May it bring you everything you deserve!

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman thanked the spirits, then headed back home – full of amazement at meeting such supernatural beings… and full of relief at having her beloved flute back.

The next morning, the fisherwoman began the day with her usual routine. She awoke at dawn, she ate breakfast, then she walked through the dense, leafy forest to the ocean. She untied her boat from its tree… then paddled into the waves [SOT: paddle]... and cast her fishing net into the water. [SOT: cast]

NARRATOR: But just as she was about to play her flute…

[SOT: big tug, water splash]

FISHERWOMAN: My goodness! That was quite a tug! Is my net full of fish already?!?

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman pulled on her net to bring it in. It was so heavy, she had to use every muscle!

FISHERWOMAN: (Grunts as she pulls in the heavy net).

NARRATOR: But when she lifted the net into her boat, she saw where all the weight had come from. And it wasn’t from mackerel, catfish, and sardines. Instead, it was from…

FISHERWOMAN: …a chest?!?

NARRATOR: A wooden chest, bound in brass. And when the fisherwoman pried the chest open, can you guess what she found inside?

FISHERWOMAN: Woahhhhhhh! Treasure!

NARRATOR: Indeed! Every kind of treasure imaginable! Bronze, silver, gold, plus all sorts of gemstones: diamonds and rubies, emeralds and sapphires.

FISHERWOMAN: These riches must be gifts from the forest spirits! (Calls out) Thank you, good spirits! Thank you!

NARRATOR: After that, the fisherwoman no longer struggled to keep food on the table, clothes on her back, and a roof over her head. But she used her new riches wisely, and didn’t keep them all for herself. She held on to what she needed, and shared the rest with others.

Now… it just so happens that the fisherwoman had a brother: a successful merchant who was always off traveling the world. The fisherwoman hadn’t heard a peep from her brother since he struck it rich. But one evening, the merchant happened to pass through his sister’s village. When he heard about his sibling’s sudden prosperity, he decided he’d pay her a visit.

[SOT: knock on hut door, door opens]

FISHERWOMAN: Brother! Is that really you? It’s been so long!

MERCHANT: So it has! But my travels finally brought me to your village. And when I heard about your newfound fortune, I just had to come by and congratulate you! Tell me, Sister… how have you come to be so wealthy?

NARRATOR: So the fisherwoman sat her brother down and told the story of her lost flute, and her encounter with the forest spirits in the moonlit clearing.

The merchant was overcome with envy. Sure, he already had plenty of money, but his dream was to be as rich as a king! And by the time his sister finished telling her tale, he knew just how he’d make it happen.

MERCHANT: That is truly an amazing story, Sister! But listen. It’s getting late, and I have quite a journey ahead of me. Would you mind if I spent the night?

FISHERWOMAN: Not at all! I’d love to have you. I’m so happy you’re here!

MERCHANT: I’m so happy I’m here, too. (Almost to himself, evilly plotting) Very happy.

NARRATOR: So the merchant and the fisherwoman went to bed… but they didn’t both go to sleep. The merchant secretly stayed up, then snuck out of the hut and into the forest.

He stumbled through the darkness, searching for the moonlit clearing where the forest spirits dwelled. And at last…

SPIRIT 1: (Accusatory) Human!!! NARRATOR: …He found it!

SPIRIT 2: What are you doing here?

SPIRIT 3: Don’t you know that we own this forest come nightfall?

SPIRIT 4: How dare you intrude?

NARRATOR: A chill rushed down the merchant’s spine when he saw the spirits, but he was determined to carry out his scheme.

MERCHANT: I didn’t mean to intrude, spirits. I’m just a poor merchant who’s come here to find my flute! I dropped it in the forest today, and I really want it back.

NARRATOR: The forest spirits stared at the merchant with their glittering, ghostly eyes.

SPIRIT 1: Ohhhh! So you dropped your flute, you say…?

SPIRIT 2: And you want it back…?

SPIRIT 3: Well, it just so happens we have many flutes here!

SPIRIT 4: Perhaps one of them is yours!

NARRATOR: The merchant’s heart skipped a beat as the treetops shook and the air filled with magnificent flutes. He feasted his hungry eyes on the bronze, silver, and gold, the diamonds and rubies, emeralds and sapphires.

SPIRIT 1: Well, Human…

SPIRIT 2: As you can see…

SPIRIT 3: …we have all kinds of flutes here!

SPIRIT 4: Surely one of these flutes belongs to you…?

NARRATOR: The merchant shook with greed as he beheld the luxurious flutes sparkling in the moonlight. How could he choose just one?

SPIRIT 1: Well, Human…?

SPIRIT 2: We’re waiting…

SPIRIT 3: So tell us.

SPIRIT 4: Which one of these flutes is yours?

NARRATOR: The merchant took a breath.

MERCHANT: It’s… that one!

NARRATOR: He pointed a trembling finger at the flute encrusted with gemstones.
The forest spirits exchanged a look and the flute whooshed out of the air and landed right in the merchant’s hand.

[SOT: flute whoosh]

MERCHANT: Woah! This is amazing! Thank you, forest spirits!

NARRATOR: The forest spirits exchanged another look.

SPIRIT 1: You’re very welcome, Human.

SPIRIT 2: But you cannot leave us – not yet.

SPIRIT 3: First you must use that flute of yours to play us…

SPIRIT 4: …a song.

NARRATOR: The merchant had been so excited to hear his sister’s story that he’d forgotten all about this part of it. He had never played a flute before in his life! But he mustn’t let the forest spirits know that!

MERCHANT: (Nervous) A song…?

NARRATOR: A shiver coursed through the merchant’s body.

MERCHANT: Uh, I’d be delighted to play you a song!  Listen to this!

NARRATOR: The merchant lifted the flute to his lips, and then –

[SOT: horrible, off-key flute sound]

MERCHANT: Uh, sorry, sorry! I just need to warm up a bit. Let me try again.

[SOT: horrible, off-key flute sound]

MERCHANT: Yeah, I don’t know why I’m so out of shape! I play this thing all the time!

[SOT: horrible, off-key flute sound]

MERCHANT: Okay, one more time.

[SOT: horrible, off-key flute sound]

MERCHANT: And one more time….?

[SOT: horrible, off-key flute sound, continues to cover the following]

NARRATOR: As the merchant played sour note after sour note, the forest spirits did not sing along. Instead…

SPIRIT 1: Human! [SOT: music stops] Now that you’ve played for us…

SPIRIT 2: …we would like to give you a gift!

SPIRIT 3: You’ll discover the gift when you go fishing tomorrow.

SPIRIT 4: (Dramatic irony) May it bring you everything you deserve!

NARRATOR: The merchant clutched his bejeweled flute to his chest as he turned around and raced through the forest. When he got back to his sister’s hut, he tiptoed inside, crept into bed, and went to sleep.

The next morning, the merchant made his sister an offer.

MERCHANT: Sister! You’ve been working so hard all these years, catching fish in that boat of yours. How about you take the day off? And I go fishing for you?

NARRATOR: The fisherwoman grinned.

FISHERWOMAN: Well, that's mighty generous of you, brother! Do you really mean it?

MERCHANT: I do! You stay home, put your feet up, and relax. I’ll take care of everything.

NARRATOR: There was a skip in the merchant’s step as he made his way through the dense, leafy forest.

MERCHANT: The forest spirits promised me a gift when I go fishing today. They said it will bring me everything I deserve! I can hardly wait to see what treasures lie ahead!

NARRATOR: The merchant untied his sister’s boat, paddled into the ocean, and cast the fishing net. And then, all at once…

[SOT: big tug, water splash]

MERCHANT: Oooo, goody goody! With a tug like that, the net must be full of bronze, silver, and gold, plus all sorts of gemstones! Diamonds and rubies, emeralds and sapphires!

NARRATOR: The merchant strained as he pulled the net toward the boat.

MERCHANT: (Sounds of effort as he pulls the heavy net toward boat) Agh! This thing weighs a ton!

NARRATOR: But just as he was about to lift the net out of the water, he saw where all the weight had come from. And it wasn’t from bronze, silver, gold, or gemstones. Instead, it was from…

MERCHANT: …a SHARK?!????

[SOT: shark thrashing]

NARRATOR: Indeed! A shiny black shark was thrashing about in the net! Chomping its enormous jaws and showing its rows of jagged, sharp-edged teeth!

[SOT: shark thrashing, continues below the following]

MERCHANT: But – YAHHH! — the forest spirits – EEK! – said their gift would bring me – YIKES! – everything I deserve! I don’t deserve this! YOW! Do I..?!??

NARRATOR: The petrified merchant leaped from the boat and dove into the water. He swam as hard as he could toward the shore. When he reached the beach, he took off running through the dense, leafy forest. When he got to the other side, he kept on running.

Some say he never stopped. He was never seen in the fisherwoman’s village again.
The fisherwoman, meanwhile, continued doing what she always did: casting her net and playing her flute and sharing both her good fortune… and her big heart.

Rebecca Sheir Twitter Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.

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