“Tell us a story, grandpa,” the children said.
Grandpa put down his pipe and glared theatrically. This made the children all giggle, because they all knew that he’d been waiting for them to ask. Telling the kids stories was the high point of Grandpa’s evening.
“Go away,” he said, formulaically. “Go away and leave me alone.”
The children took the cue and clustered closer. None of them were actually his grandchildren, but the whole village called him “grandpa” and every evening the kids would come crowding into his house for a story. Childless himself, he enjoyed children and enjoyed telling them stories, but there were rituals to complete before he could start.
“Story, grandpa,” the kids chorused. “Tell us a story now.”
Grandpa completed the ritual of glaring once more. He looked very much like a sleepy old tortoise, so it wasn’t that much of a glare, more a heavy lidded blink of his ancient eyes. Finally he picked up his pipe and poked at it with a fingernail.
“All right,” he said with badly-feigned reluctance, and began sucking on the pipe. “What sort of story do you want to squeeze out of your poor old grandfather tonight?”
There was a cacophony of noise as each child shouted what he or she wanted. Grandpa sat back, sucked at his pipe, and waited for the noise to abate.
“Since none of you can decide,” he said, as he always did, “I’ll choose a story for you. Listen, then, to the story of why the warthog and wild dog live in a burrow made by the aardvark, and listen well, for this is a tale you have not heard before.”
Long ago (grandpa said) the Creator made the world, and then he made the sky, the sun and the moon and the seasons, and then he made the minor gods to watch over the world and the sun and moon and the seasons. But then he thought there was still something left to do, so he decided to create the plants and animals.
So he laboured mightily day and night, turning out all the animals from grasshoppers to giraffes, the vultures flying through the air and the fishes in the river. He gave each of them what they needed to survive. To the rhino he gave its tough skin and horns, to the impala its speed, to the lion its strength, and so on. At last he thought everything was done, and was about to go back into his hut to sleep. But he noticed that there was something missing, one final creature he needed to make. And so he created the aardvark.
Now, the aardvark he created was nothing like the one we know now. It walked on its hind legs and had hands and feet like a man’s, no tail, small ears and a short snout. The Creator made it, decided that he’d completed his work, and went to sleep.
Now the aardvark walked about the savannah and the forests, and saw all the other animals, and it seemed to him that he was the best of them all, because he walked on two legs and had hands, and because the Creator had made him last of all. And because he thought he was the best, this made him haughty, and he refused to greet the other animals as brother and sister.
So the other animals were irritated, and got together for a meeting, in which they decided that they would have nothing to do with the aardvark. They would not help him in any way, or talk to him at all.
The aardvark was not concerned at this at first. He wandered around the savannah looking at this and that, and thinking how great he was compared to the mole rat and the fish eagle, because he could walk on two legs and because he had hands. But then time passed and he began to get hungry.
First he thought he would try to eat some of the grass, like the buffalo and the white rhino. But the grass was too hard for his teeth.
Then he thought he would try to reach the tender leaves at the top of the trees, but he did not have the long neck of a giraffe, and he could not climb the trees because of the thorns.
Then he thought he would dig for bulbs and tubers like the warthog, but his hands were useless for digging.
Finally he thought he should hunt his food down, but on two legs he was so slow that when he tried to chase a wildebeest down, it scarcely troubled to canter away.
So the aardvark was in a fix. He was extremely hungry, and growing concerned that he would starve to death.
So he swallowed his pride, went to the hyaena and begged her to give him some share of her kill. Butt he hyaena looked away, picked up the meat and trotted off to her cubs.
Then he went to the baboon troop and asked the leader to find him some morsel to eat. But the baboon leader pretended that he did not exist.
Then he went to the elephant and asked the matriarch of the clan to help him find some food. The great beast didn’t even deign to shake her ears at him in warning.
At last, the aardvark was so exhausted and weary that he trudged all the way back to the Creator’s hut and began knocking at the door. He kept knocking and knocking until the Creator finally rose from his slumber and opened, extremely cross.
“My Lord,” said the aardvark, “please give me some other form, because in this body I am going to die of lack of food.”
“What do you want to eat?” the Creator asked.
“How about meat?” the aardvark said. “I could do with a nice joint of flesh.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the Creator snapped. “The lion and the leopard, the hyaena and the wild dog, have all taken meat as their food.”
“Then how about grass?”
“What will the elephant and the buffalo, the rhino and the antelope eat? Do you wish to compete with them?”
“In that case...” the aardvark looked around frantically and saw a termite nest. “I want to eat those,” he said desperately, his stomach convulsing with hunger.
“All right,” the Creator said, and the aardvark fell on four legs and grew claws on his hands, sharp enough to dig into a termite mound or ant hill. His snout became heavy and elongated like a pig’s, his tongue grew long and sticky, and his front teeth vanished. Because his body was now so heavy at the front, he almost fell over, so the Creator gave him a thick tail for balance, and turned, yawning, to go back inside.
“But how should I defend myself from predators?” the aardvark asked plaintively. “If they catch me they shall kill me.”
So the Creator gave him thick, tough skin and a pair of long ears so he should be able to hear the predators coming, and went back to sleep.
So the aardvark stumbled off to dig into the termite mound and eat enough to kill his hunger pangs, but he was not happy. He could hardly bear to compare his current situation to how he had been earlier, and cried bitter tears to himself when he thought of how he had become deformed and reduced to eating tiny crawling insects. But there was nothing he could do but endure it, because the other animals still wouldn’t talk to him.
They laughed at him, though, and jeered at him for becoming so ugly and ridiculous. The poor aardvark could only cry to himself. He thought that this was his punishment, and finally decided that this was the way he would end up spending the rest of his life, friendless, alone, a figure of fun to everybody.
And then one day the land was invaded by the driver ants. They came in a living river, millions of them in a black stream sweeping across the savannah and eating any animal they could catch. Nothing that they caught escaped their terrible jaws. They struck terror into the hearts of the animals.
So they all went together to the Creator, to beg his help. But the Creator had finally fallen asleep again after the interruption from the aardvark, and could not be roused. And the animals were afraid that the driver ants would catch them all, and swarm over them and eat them to the bone.
Meanwhile the aardvark was sleeping in the shadow of a baobab, and some of the ants found him and bit at his nose and snout. But instead of retreating in agony, the aardvark automatically stuck out his tongue, scooped them up, and ate them all.
Then he came fully awake and began eating all those millions of driver ants. He ate the huge-headed blind soldiers, the scurrying workers, and the swollen queens with equal impartiality. They bit at him but could not penetrate his thick tough skin, and with his claws he dug them out from any crevice in which they tried to conceal themselves.
And so this is how the other animals found him when they came to see how far the ant tide had risen – slowly but surely, all by himself, turning the advance of the ant army into a rout. Finally the surviving drivers retreated, defeated.
And so the savannah was saved.
Then the animals came to the aardvark, and praised him, and wanted to be his friend. But the aardvark was unhappy, because he thought he did not deserve it, and he felt bitterly ashamed when he remembered his earlier behaviour.
The other animals would not hear of it, though. They insisted on singing his praises, and the aardvark was very embarrassed.
So he went away and dug himself a burrow, inside which he decided to hide from the other animals except during the night, when he would come out to feed. And that is the way he lives to this day.
But some of the other animals, like the wild dog and the warthog, continued to hero-worship the aardvark, and followed him around. Finally he moved away to a new burrow in order to get away from their admiration. But they decided to honour him by using his old burrow for their own home, and that is the way they live to this day.
Grandfather sucked on his pipe and looked contemplatively through the window. It was late in the evening and his audience had departed. From his window, with the light off, he could see far, all the way to the termite mounds dotting the plain.
Near one of the mounds, a shambling shadow moved, low to the ground, swinging a heavy tail. Grandpa sucked at his pipe and watched as the aardvark got to work on the rock-hard earth with its claws.
Grandpa smiled, watching, his supper forgotten. He looked at the aardvark and thought about tomorrow’s story.
He might tell the tale of the hyaena, he thought. The children would like that.
The bloated yellow moon shone on the savannah and rose into the sky.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011