One of my playmates and I were making little cows out of clay. The clay was sticky and smooth since it came from a white-ant hill; it didn't fall apart the way clay with sand in it does. It was the beginning of the rainy season, and there was a light drizzle. So we were modeling our clay in the shelter of a big tree.
Presently two of the older boys from the other side of the village came along. One of them was very strong, and he had the nickname of Kywe Gyi, which means Big Buffalo. He was carrying a live heron inside his shirt.
"Where'd you get the heron?" my friend asked Kywe Gyi. "Did you hit it with your slingshot?"
"Yes, I shot it down by the pond," answered Kywe Gyi.
"And I hit one too," said the other boy, "but it got away."
"Take it out and let me have a look at it," I said to Kywe Gyi.
Kywe Gyi pretended to be reluctant, but the finally took the bird out of his shirt. They'd tied it up with a vine so it couldn't get away. I look the bird in my hands and immediately fell in love with it. What a beauty! Its feathers were as white as milk, and its beak and legs were a lovely greenish blue. How wonderful, I thought, to have heron for a pet! I was very fond of pets and at that time had a dog, a cat, and a big hen. The hen was just then sitting on fourteen eggs, and I was already looking forward to having many baby chicks when the eggs hatched. But now suddenly I could think of nothing except how very much I longed to have Kywe Gyi's beautiful heron.
Kywe Gyi could look at my face and tell what I was thinking. He said: "Do you want it for a pet?"
"Oh, yes!" I answered quickly. "Will you give it to me?"
"Sure, you can have it, but you must give me something in return. I want ten cigarettes." None of the boys in my group smoked, but Kywe Gyi and his friend were older and had already started smoking in secret.
"Oh, I want the heron very much, but I don't have any cigarettes," I said.
"But your aunt-the one who lives at your house-does, doesn't she? Get some of hers."
"Oh, she wouldn't give me any, and I wouldn't dare take them without asking. No, I couldn't do that. I'll give you some money instead."
"No, money won't do me any good. It's cigarettes we want. If you won't trade for cigarettes, we'll find someone who will."
I was overcome with disappointment at his words. Did I dare steal some of my aunt's cigarettes? No, that wouldn't be right, and surely I'd get a beating.
"Well, so long," said the other boy. And then Kywe Gyi took the heron out my hands. The bird began beating its wings wildly as though it didn't want to leave me. My heart was beating hard; all I could think about was that somehow, anyhow, I simply had to have that heron.
"What do you think I should do?" I asked my friend. But he only shook his head and said I'd have to make up my own mind.
Kywe Gyi and his friend were walking away-taking the heron with them. It was still beating its wings and seemed to be calling to me. Suddenly I could stand it no longer.
"All right," I shouted, "it's a trade. Ring back the heron and I'll get the cigarettes."
Running to the house, I went straight upstairs to my aunt's book cupboard. With clay-covered hands, I took out the cigarette tin and counted out exactly ten cigarettes, which left the tin almost empty. Then I carefully put the tin back in its place and ran back to where the boys were waiting.
"Here," I said to Kywe Gyi, "here're ten cigarettes." He handed me the heron, and that's the way I became the proud owner of the most beautiful heron in the world.
I said goodbye to my friend and took the bird home. I made a cage for it out of an old box and some bamboo bars and gave it something to eat. Then I sat down and simply watched the lovely bird until after sundown, when I could hear voices in the kitchen, where supper was being made.
After supper I went back to my heron, but soon I became conscious of my aunt's scolding voice. "Who's been stealing my cigarettes?" she was saying. She asked everybody in turn, except me. She knew I didn't smoke and hence never imagined I could have taken her cigarettes.
Finally she decided the thief must be one of her younger brothers, my uncle San Aung, who also lived with us. She said that there were muddy fingerprints on the cigarette tin and that Uncle must have gotten his hands muddy when he went fishing that morning. And then she really started scolding him: you'd have thought she was accusing him of robbing a bank.
"But I did not take your cigarettes!" he kept saying. "Don't I always ask you if I want something of yours? Anyway, I now have plenty of my own. Look, here's my pack, almost full."
"But it must have been you," my aunt said. "Who else could it have been?"
"Well, I didn't touch your old cigarettes."
"You're telling me a lie. You're a thief, that's what you are! Don't ever ask me for anything again."
Now Uncle San Aung was like an elder brother to me. As I listened to my aunt's scolding words I became more and more ashamed. Uncle was being called a thief and a liar because of something I had done. Actually, even though I hadn't thought of it as being so bad, I was the real thief, and if I now kept silent, wouldn't I be a sort of liar as well? Can't even silence be a kind of lie?
My aunt kept screaming at Uncle San Aung, and I could tell that he was getting more and more angry. His face was deep red, and I was afraid he was actually going to hit his sister. What a thing that would have been!
I ran into the room where they were and spoke quickly. "Please forgive me, Aunt, but I'm the one who took your cigarettes."
"What?" My aunt and uncle both spoke at the same time. "I wanted a heron for a pet so badly, and ten cigarettes was the price. I just had to have that heron," I said, trying to make them understand.
"Who ever heard of such a thing?" screamed my aunt. "Becoming a thief just for an old heron."
And Uncle joined in the scolding. "Just a common thief!" he said. "Aren't you ashamed! And just for an old heron."
"No, no," I told them. "It's a beautiful, beautiful heron. I just had to have it." But I could see they didn't understand. "Why didn't you ask me?" said my aunt.
"I was afraid you'd say no."
"Well, anyone that doesn't have the courage to tell the truth is a coward as well as being a liar."
"I promise never to do it again," I said.
"All right," my aunt said, lighting one of her remaining cigarettes and beginning to smile a little. "This time I'll forgive you. But don't you ever do such a thing again, or I'll have to start calling you Ngatetpya because you will surely grow up to be as big a thief as he was.
"No, no, Aunt, please don't. Now that I've told the truth, I'm not really a thief, am I? I'm not like Ngatetpya, am I?"
"No, you're not a thief," she said, patting my shoulder and smiling broadly. "Come on, then, show Uncle and me this beautiful, beautiful heron." And she laughed out loud.
As the three of us walked toward the heron's pen, I told myself once more: "No, I'll never, never be like Ngatetpya!