Chapter 7: The Tale of Tata's Paw
In the beginning, there was the sea and the sky. The sky was dark and bore no sun or moon, and the sea lay deep and still under its formless expanse. And through the world walked Eve.
There was no land, so she walked in the water, and where her paws touched the sea floor they brought up mud, and that mud became the islands that we live upon. When Eve's gems shone, they let out a light so powerful that one became the sun and the other the moon, and together they scattered the light of the third and that became the stars.
Under her light the islands began to flourish. Seeds buried deep in the mud grew into tall grass and bushes full of fruit, and soon the islands were green and lush. Drawn by the warmth, a stagmole tunnelled to the surface, and became the first animal to see the sun. He did not care for it, but when he returned to tell of what he had seen, the other animals were drawn to the light and the abundance of food that he spoke of. And so they emerged from the underground, all the animals you have ever seen, the rabbils and bearyena, the crabbits and even the bluebirds in the sky, they all entered the world.
One creature, exploring this bright new place, came across something shiny in the ground. She tried to dig out out and found it was a shard of Eve's light, and it shone upon her chest and became her gems, and she was the first nicheling.
The nichelings had found themselves in a beautiful home, full of food and greenery, and so they spread across it and had many children, and for a while all was well. But soon their little island became crowded with their children and their children's children. The bushes were stripped of fruit, the rabbils were scarce, and nichelings went hungry among the bones of their tribemates.
Some, realising that the island could not support so many of their kind, tried to cross the sea and find new lands to settle. And so they did, but everywhere they travelled, then found terrible things. In the deserts there was no water. In the savannahs, wildfires consumed their nests, and there was nothing to eat but the withered fruits of cacti that stung when you tried to eat them. The jungles were full of deadly plants and savage apes, and in the mountains they encountered blizzards so cold they froze nichelings solid, and some say that if you visit the very coldest mountains, you can still find them trapped within the ice.
(A few of the assembled travellers exchanged nervous looks. "What's an ape?" said Meana, flexing her claws.
"I don't know, but it was always in the story when Silais used to tell it," said Laana. "I suppose it is some kind of monster, but it doesn't live in the mountains, I'm sure."
"Are we going to freeze solid?" said one of the twins.
"Not if we stay together," said Kois.)
Those nichelings who managed to swim home all told different stories, but each ended the same way. "We cannot survive there." Yet their home island became more crowded by the day, and survive there they must.
With nowhere else to turn, the nichelings called for Eve to help them. Eve was compassionate, and when she saw her children's plight, she made a deal. "Gather food and plants and earth from the places you wish to go," she said, "and bring them to me."
So the nichelings did just that. They swam out and brought back fir branches and vines, cactus spines and withered berries, sand and snow and shells. It was dangerous work, and not all of them made it back, but eventually they had a pile in the middle of the island that grew day after day with all their treasures.
Now in those days there was a nicheling who loved tricks and games of all kinds. His friends called him Clay, after his brown pelt, but you will know him by another name, Tata. Tata had grown tired of playing tricks on his tribemates, though, and he thought that it would be a grand thing indeed to prank Eve. Surely the tribe would never see such a trick before or since! So he thought for many days of what to do, while his tribemates gathered from other lands, and at last he had an idea. He went out and dug up a ball of clay, and left it in the pile. There he hid it, under all the other trinkets so nobody would know it was there.
When Eve came to look upon the pile in the shining light of day, nobody noticed Tata's contribution. And on that day, the tribe came to the centre of the island, where Eve stood, and received her blessings. One by one, she looked over the treasures they had brought, and the nichelings were transformed. When Eve found jungle vines, she gave her children bright poisonous coats and soft paws that would make no sound, to hide and defend from the predators that lurked within. From sand and cacti, she gave out slender, fast bodies and long ears to shed the sun's fierce heat. From the shells came fins and the secret of breathing underwater. And from the snow, there came thick pelts and strong claws so that their bearers may take down any prey they needed.
But deep down in the pile, Eve found the dirt, and it transformed her children in ways nobody, not even Tata, had expected. Nichelings who had come expecting Eve's gifts were left with withered, useless paws, twisted snouts and teeth, eyes white with blindness and blood that flowed and flowed without end from even the least of wounds. In shock they looked for the one to blame, and Tata, upon seeing what he had done, fled the gathering. It was the worst move he could have made, because everyone knew he liked to play tricks, and now everyone knew who was responsible.
In her anger Eve scooped up the dirt and hurled it at Tata as he ran, and it hit him upon the left paw. He stumbled and fell to the ground as his paw shrivelled and grew too tiny and twisted to walk upon. But the tribe were still on his tail, so he struggled to his feet and raced off on three legs, and vanished into the tall grass.
The tribe never saw Tata again after that day. Where he fled, nobody knows and nobody will know, not even Eve, and perhaps it was his tricks and clever mind that saved his life from the anger of his tribe and any more of Eve's retributions. But he was not finished with the world, and long after Eve had withdrawn into sleep, her work done, so Tata emerged again.
Sometimes he would look different, and sometimes he bore a new name - Clay again, or Reef, or Maeta - but he was always the same, always looking for a new trick to play, a tribe leader to outsmart, or anything else that he found amusing. And so he walks the world today, but he has never forgotten his first trick, for Eve will never let him forget as long as he looks at his paw.