Long, long ago, women grew beards. They were not like the beards of men. Women's beards were longer, thicker, and more beautiful than those of men. The women took great care of their beards. Some became so proud of them that they looked down on men, including their own brothers and fathers and husbands. One of the proudest was Nkemdiche. She and her three sisters were the daughters of a man named Enyioma. They were admired for their beauty, but especially for their beards.
Near their home lived a wealthy and good king named Enyi Mba. His favorite treasure was a gold ring. His daughters were also of good heart. One of them saw one day that the servants were very busy, and decided to help them by washing all the plates in the household herself. She picked them all up but did not notice that one of the plates was the plate on which the ring was kept. She took the plates, ring and all, down to a stream to wash them. She never saw the ring slip off the plate into the stream. The rushing waters carried away the ring, and soon a fish swallowed it.
Downstream, a boy was fishing. He caught enough fish that day to sell some and bring the rest home to his family. After he roasted a fish for himself, he cut it open and found the ring. Excited, he took the ring to town the next day and sold it to Nkemdiche.
The king was known and respected far and wide, boy the boy did not know that the ring was the king's. Nkemdiche did, but was too proud and selfish to return it to its rightful owner. Instead she hid the ring inside her long, thick beard.
It was not long before the king discovered that his ring was missing. No one, including his daughter, had any idea what had happened. The news of the missing ring was announced throughout the kingdom. The little fisher-boy heard of it and realized whose ring had been in the fish. Knowing that the king would not punish him for his ignorance, he ran to the king's servants and told them how he had found the ring and, not knowing whose it was, had sold it to a town-woman named Nkemdiche.
The king's servants searched everywhere for Nkemdiche, but no one knew where she was. She had hidden herself, hoping to think of a way to keep the ring. Unable to find her, the king's servants suggested that the king offer to marry any woman who could bring back his ring. No one in town had been told why the servants were searching for Nkemdiche. There was confusion everywhere while the women searched every corner of the town.
Soon Nkemdiche came walking proudly into the king's presence. "I know where the ring is," she announced. "I have it." The king asked for his ring, and she pulled it from its hiding place in her beard. All the servants realized what she had done. The men-servants were shocked, but the women-servants, ever proud of their beards, were amused at how Nkemdiche had fooled the searchers.
The king sent all the women, including Nkemdiche, out of sight and hearing and took counsel with the menservants. They talked of how much contempt the women were showing them because of their beards, and how Nkemdiche had used hers to steal the ring. At first the enraged king wanted to have Nkemdiche put to death, but he was wise enough to wait till he had calmed down. With his anger cooled, he gave another order instead.
"Let the beards of all the women be shaved. Let every bit be scraped from their faces, even the faces of my wife and daughters. For these beards are full of evil. We know of a paste that will cause hair not to grow- let it be put on the jaws of all women, so that no girl or woman will ever again grow a beard to trouble men with." This the king declared with a growl upon his throne, and it was done. Since then, women have not grown beards.