Animal Stories

Easterine Iralu

People say that the bear is a stupid animal. He built a platform in a tree and went to sleep in it. Then the rain fell on him and roused him from slumber.

He sat up in the tree and muttered to himself: "This can't be my house as I had built my house so well no rain could have possibly gotten through it. I must have fallen asleep in my neighbour's house." Then he quickly climbed down and looked up at the tree carefully. After some moments he said, "Why it is my house alright, I had better climb back up fast before somebody comes along and claims it." So he climbed back up and soon fell asleep. When it rained he repeated what he had done before. People say the bear does this continuously which is why they like to say, "Oh the bear? He's such a stupid animal." But the tiger is wild and wonderful. He was the elder brother of Man when Man, Spirit and Tiger lived as brothers and Man was the youngest of all. On the day their mother died, Tiger said, "I want to eat the flesh of our mother, let me eat." Then Spirit, who was the eldest, got very angry. He said, "That is a taboo thing to do and we cannot live as brothers anymore if you say that." But Tiger was a meat eater and he could not stop sniffing around to find out where they had buried their mother. Spirit and Man left him in deep disgust. Still, they had to decide who was to live in the woods and who should live in the plains. So Tiger and Man were made to race to a certain point so that the winner would live in the better place. As the race was finishing, Spirit threw a stone at the finish line, and Man began to shout 'I am first, I am first' and Tiger looked up to see that the finish line was moving. So Tiger conceded that he had been defeated and made the woods his home.

Many years later, Tiger sought to draw close to his younger brother, Man, and if some men so desired, their spirits put on the spirit of the tiger and they became weretigers. So the man became a weretiger and his spirit roamed the dark woods as his elder brother did. When he sighted a deer or a smaller animal, his instinct was to crouch till it came closer, and then, he would spring upon it. His strength amazed him. He continued to marvel at his own agility. Tall trees and rocky ravines no longer worried him. He sprang easily from tree to ground and from rock to rock and from rock to prey. He grew accustomed to feeding on the flesh and blood of smaller animals but it was the power in his limbs that made him love being a weretiger. "Grandfather, can I become a weretiger too?" asked his grandson when he was old enough to know. "Surely, my child," replied the man. And the pair cooked a chicken and shared the liver and they ate it with pieces of country ginger and after that, the boy became a weretiger. But because he was young yet, he progressed from smaller forms of animal life. So his spirit was first a wildcat and then a young tiger and finally a great tiger. His tiger lived for 19 years, which is very long as far as tiger years go. When his clansmen heard him growling in the woods, they called out, "It is I, elder brother, I mean no harm," and he gave them company if they spent the night in the forest and they were comforted by his presence for they knew that other animals would not come near if he was about.

So, to be a weretiger was thought a noble thing by some men. But the shrew mouse was honoured more by the spirits who called it their pig. Once, a fisherman was troubled by a shrewmouse as he tried to trap fish. No fish would come near his traps. Then he saw a shrew mouse hovering nearby. He drove it away. Later, the fish came in swarms toward his trap but the shrew mouse chased them all away. So the man killed the shrew and soon after, he caught much fish in his traps. His fishing was so successful that when he finished it was too late to go home. He rested that night underneath a large stone and fell asleep. In the night, he woke when a spirit called out to the stone to ask: "My pig has not come home tonight. I fear some man might have killed him. Did you see any bad men loitering around here today?" The stone replied no to the spirit. But the man had heard every word and he was so frightened that he ran home at first light. After that day, he never fished in those waters again.

But all animals have a guardian spirit, a protector, his name is Chükhieo. There is the story of one man who went to his fields early in the morning to chase away birds feeding on his grain. But he found that someone had been there before him for the stone on which the person had whetted his machete was still wet. So, that night, the man sat by the river and waited to see who would come. He heard almost indiscernible noises that were followed by heavy footsteps. It was Chükhieo, a wiry little hair-covered man. He wore a raincoat. The man pounced on him and seized him. At first, Chükhieo hissed and spat at the man but the man was a hunter and he did not let go his grip on Chükhieo. Then the little protector said, "If you'll not kill me and if you'll let me go, I will give you any animal you ask for." The hunter agreed to this and he set Chükhieo free. As the guardian spirit of wildlife went up the hill, all the animals in the forest followed him. There were so many of them that the man could not decide which to choose from and as he wavered, Chükhieo reached the top of the hill and let out a shrill whistle. It made all the animals stampede and they broke into a mad run up the slope. A jungle cat was trodden on by the other animals and was killed so the man took that home, cooked it well and ate it.

His friend, a trapper of wild animals, heard this story. The trapper inspected his traps every morning. One morning, when he came up stealthily he saw a short, hairy man goading a stag into his trap. The stag was stubborn and the small man was panting as he pushed the animal into the trap. The trapper was unprepared for such a sight and he forgot himself. He let out a loud guffaw that was so loud both man and animal turned to look at the trapper. The trapper could not help himself. He was convulsed with laughter and he rolled on the ground laughing and holding his sides. Tears rolling down his cheeks, he looked up again hoping to see the pair again. But the guardian spirit was so deeply insulted by the man's laughter that he slapped the stag on the rump and the animal took off in great haste. Then he shook himself all over, as dogs do after they've been in water, and he sprinted off in another direction. The man's laughter stopped as suddenly as it had appeared. After that day he never found any more animals in his trap and he told and retold this story to his children and to younger men as a warning against untimely laughter.

Very far away from the woods where Chükhieo was spirit guardian, lived an old Sami Fisherman. The old man fished by a large lake and in the middle of the lake was a sacrificial stone. The old man never saw a day when he was not blest with a good catch of fish. After every catch he rowed to the middle of the lake and smeared the sacrificial stone with the fat of the fish he had caught. Now there was a young lad who worked as the old man's assistant. The lad thought the old man's daily ritual was a silly custom and one day when he was feeling more wicked than usual, he rowed out to the middle of the lake and took out the sacrificial stone and threw it into the deepest part of the lake. When he rowed back to shore and looked, he was shocked to see the sacrificial stone standing in its own place. So he rowed out again, tied the sacrificial stone to a stone bigger than it and threw both into deep water. Back on shore, he saw that the sacrificial stone was standing in its former place again. The old man was very angry with his assistant when he came to hear of this. He curtly told the lad to pull in their fishing nets. The lad did this but there were no fish at all in their nets. All the nets were empty of fish except for one net which held the heart of a reindeer. So the two of them cooked the reindeer's heart and ate it.

When morning came, they saw a reindeer near the lake. Wild reindeer meat was always favoured above domesticated reindeer so the old man took out his gun and shot it. He told the boy to quarter the animal and cook its flesh. As the boy was working on the reindeer, he called out to the old man frantically, "There's no heart, this reindeer has no heart!" The old man thought for a while and then he said, "Maybe its not a real reindeer." "What about the heart of the reindeer we ate last night?" asked the boy. "Maybe that was not real either" said the old man. The lad grew angry at this and he feared the old man so he left him the next day. The old lady who told me this story says that the spirit of the old man is still to be seen near the lake.

Easterine Iralu is a columnist for