The boy tore a leaf off a bush and inspected it as though he’d never seen such a thing before.
“Your stories are boring,” he said.
The two girls nodded together in agreement. “Very boring.”
I was a bit stung. “Well, I do the best I can. Excuse me if it’s not enough.”
The boy wagged his head at me. “It’s not the kind of stories we want. That’s all.”
I sat back and crossed my arms. “So you can do better, is that it?”
He looked at the girls, and they giggled. “Of course we can do better.”
“Fine,” I said. “So tell me a story. Why don’t you?”
“All right,” they said together, and whispered a few moments. Then the boy nodded and grinned.
“Long ago...” he began –
Long ago, at the start of the world, the Great Goddess looked out over the mud and thought it all looked very lonely.
“I think I’ll make animals to live here,” she said. “Then it will be a lot more cheerful.” So she picked up a handful of mud, and made it into an animal, which was the elephant. That was the fist animal she made.
“I’m hungry,” the elephant said. “Give me something to eat, Great Goddess.”
“Oh dear,” the Great Goddess said. “I did forget that, didn’t I.” So she picked up more mud and breathed on it, and grass and trees appeared. The elephant went off, merrily eating the grass and leaves from the trees.
“Now I’ll make other animals, and I won’t forget to give them things to eat,” the Great Goddess said to herself. So she began creating more animals, and plants, and soon the mud was covered with things which ran and jumped and skipped, the air was filled with birds and bats and insects, and the sea and rivers with fish and jellyfish and whales.
After the Great Goddess had made all of this, she looked down at her hands and found she had a small amount of mud sticking to her fingers. She rolled it up and was about to throw it away when she thought better of it.
“There’s just enough to make a small animal,” she thought. “Just one more.” So she shaped it, and gave it a pair of eyes on stalks, and a mouth and everything else. But when she had done all that, she found there wasn’t any mud left over to give it legs.
“Oh well,” she said, putting the new animal down on the ground. “You can crawl on your stomach. And as for your name...I think I’ll call you Snail.”
Snail looked around with his stalked eyes and saw all the many animals jumping and running and flying around; the deer with his spotted skin, the hummingbird with her long beak, the tiger and the wolf and the monkeys in the trees. Then he looked at himself and was very ashamed.
“I’m so ugly,” he said. “Why did you make me so ugly. Great Goddess?”
The Great Goddess looked at him and felt a little ashamed of herself. “I’m sorry,” she said, “All I can do is give you a nice nature, so that you will never hurt anyone by word or deed.”
So Snail went away sadly on his belly, wincing at the pain of the pebbles and gravel he had to crawl over. All the other animals were curious about this ugly little creature, who was so different from them all. But Snail was so nice to everybody that most of them soon grew to love him. And this made some of the others very jealous.
One of these was Shrew, who was not jealous but always angry. She began to hate Snail so much that she couldn’t sleep for the anger burning inside her. At last she decided she could not bear it any longer and would have to do something about it.
So one day she went looking for Snail, determined to kill and eat him. It wasn’t easy for her to find him, though, because he was so small and well-hidden among the moss and earth. Finally, after a long search, she saw him as he was crawling slowly up a rock, far too high for her to reach.
“Brother Snail,” she said, looking up at him. “I love you so much. You’re the nicest animal of all. Everybody says that there is no animal to rival you.”
Snail had watched her coming with trepidation, for he knew well that she was sly and untrustworthy. “Thank you, sister,” he said. “You’re so kind to say so.”
“It’s such a pity that you’re so ugly, though,” Shrew said spitefully. “You’d have thought the Great Goddess would have given you something to let you look a little better, at least.” And she turned and went away.
Now, of course, Snail had always felt sad at his lack of good looks, and the words of Shrew struck deep into his sensitive little soul. So he went crawling slowly back to the Great Goddess.
“I am so ugly,” he complained to her. “The more I think about it the more hurt I am with how ugly I am.”
“There’s nothing to be done about it now,” the Great Goddess replied. “I have no mud left over to give you colourful wings or bright fur, or long legs like the gazelle.”
The snail thought about it a bit and had an idea.
“Please make me a silver path for me to crawl on, Great Goddess,” he said. “I want to look at least a little bit better than I do, because everyone says I am so ugly.”
The Great Goddess sighed. “All right,” she said. “I hope you won’t regret it, though.”
“I won’t,” Snail promised. “It will also protect my tender belly when I crawl over rough ground.”
The Great Goddess thought about this and found that it was a reasonable idea. So she picked him up and rubbed a little ointment on his belly, and as he crawled away he left a beautiful shining path behind him. And the other animals saw it, and were entranced.
“This looks so good,” they all said. “You’re so lucky, Brother Snail.”
When Shrew heard about Snail’s silver path, she was even more consumed with jealousy. “I must find and eat him now,” she thought. And she went scampering out of her burrow, to look for Snail wherever he might be.
“Your silver path,” she said, “will make it easy to find you this time, Brother Snail.” And when she saw the path, she went racing down it as fast as she could go, her mouth already working that the idea of biting into Snail’s soft body.
Now, one of Snail’s friends was Butterfly, who was flying around and saw Shrew come running along the silver path. Quickly, she flapped her way to Snail.
“Climb up the nearest tree,” she said when she found him. “Shrew is hot on your trail, and I think she means to harm you.”
Fortunately, a tree was just beside Snail, so he began crawling up its trunk. It was, of course, slow and laborious work, and he had only just managed to get a little way up it when Shrew arrived.
“Oh, Brother Snail,” she said when she saw him. “I wanted to commend you on your beautiful little road. How brightly it glitters in the sun! I could look at it all day.”
“Thank you, sister,” Snail said, but did not pause in his crawl. “It’s kind of you to say so.”
“Will you come down here and make more of this silver path for me to admire?” Shrew asked. “It would be ever so nice if you only would.”
“Perhaps some other time,” Snail told her. “For now, I think I’ll climb up to the top of this tree, for I have a sudden yearning for a view.”
So Shrew abandoned all pretence, and jumped up at him, her teeth snapping. But he was just too high to be caught.
“I’ll find you,” she shrieked angrily. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to come down from that tree, and when you do, that trail of yours will follow you everywhere. You can’t hide any longer, Snail.”
Snail thought about this and realised with dismay that she was right. So when she had gone away he came down from the tree and crawled as quickly as he could, which was very slowly indeed, to the Great Goddess, who was cutting her nails, and told her what had happened.
“Maybe I could build you a home,” she said, after thinking for a while. “You could hide inside it, and cone out only when it is safe.”
“But I move so slowly,” Snail objected, “that even if I come out when it’s safe, I may not be able to return to it in time if it’s no longer safe.”
“You’re right,” the Great Goddess admitted. “Wait a moment. I think I see a solution.” She took one of her nail parings, and fashioned it into a shell, which she put on Snail’s back. “There,” she said. “Now you can take your house with you everywhere you go.”
So Snail had his house on his back, and now he could hide from Shrew whenever he saw her. This made her very angry, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. She tried, though.
“Brother Snail,” she said sweetly. “I must apologise for my temper the other day. I was not well, and it affected my mind. I would like to make it up to you.”
“How?” Snail replied from inside his shell. “Please explain.”
“I’d like to invite you to come to my house for a meal,” Shrew said. “We can talk at leisure over it and settle all misgivings.”
“Yes,” Snail replied. “I really would love to be your friend, Sister Shrew. But I can’t come to your house till you’ve come to mine. So, if you’ll only step inside...”
This, of course, Shrew could not do. So she was reduced to only gibbering with rage.
Snail waited till she had gone away, and then he looked around the inside of his house.
“I really ought to get a TV set in here,” he said.
“A TV set?” I asked. “Really?”
“Why not?” the boy replied. “Don’t you think he’d like a TV, girls?”
“Of course,” the girls giggled. “And don’t forget computer games as well. And books.”
“Lots and lots of books,” the boy replied. “Otherwise he’d be bored when hiding from Shrew. Right?”
“Right,” I grinned. “Well, you’d better be going home now, it’s almost lunchtime.”
After they’d left, I turned to go back indoors, when from the corner of my eye I saw a little snail crawling up a wall. Something – perhaps my shadow – must have startled it, because it immediately shrank back into its shell.
I looked at it and imagined it sitting in its shell, watching TV while it waited for me to go away.
Then I shook my head to clear it of the idea, and went into the house.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014