Saturday, July 21, 2012

Storytime: Chicken's markings

There is an idiom in Malay: "cakar ayam". Roughly translated, it means something like "chicken's markings". The singular word "cakar" (pronounced chah-kar) means claw, and "cakar ayam" can be conceived as meaning, "marks left by a chicken's claw on the ground". The meaning of this idiom shows that it was not made by ancient Malay elders who sat around in circles, trying to find life's lessons through everyday occurences and scenes, but rather, it was probably invented by a group of mothers who needed a way to drive their lessons home. "chicken's markings" means "bad handwriting", as in, "Your writing looks like chicken's markings!"

How did these ingenious Malay mothers come up with the idea of this idiom, which was no doubt of singular use when correcting their children's handwriting? Many theories are open for consideration, but one possibility is that it originates from some ancient folk tale which probably went something like this:

The chicken's feathers were long and sleek,
 like the kind that people use to write with,
except that they were a clean white color.
There was once a time when the chicken was not the portly and flightless bird that it is today. No, there was once a time when the chicken could take to the skies just like any other bird. When she needed to get around or escape from danger, she just spread her wings and took off to the sky, for all the world as if she were a swift or a pigeon. Of course, as a bird capable of flight, she did not spend much time on the ground, and for the most part she dwelled among the treetops of the forest, making her nest in the tree branches and eating fruits from the trees.

Although the chicken has changed in many ways ever since she lost the ability of flight, she had always been a very motherly character. Even in those days, she always protected her children with as much fervour as she does today. But her love was not reserved only for her children; she acted as a motherly figure to everyone who came into close contact with her in the forest. As such, she was often respected and loved by all the animals in the forest, especially among the birds, who treated her as their own mother. Even the parrot was polite around her. The young mother hen spent her days eating any fruit or berry she could find, so that when she returned to her nest, she could, like most birds do, regurgitate her food for her little chicks to eat.

But then, there came a year when the land was infertile. The weather had been hot and dry, and many of the plants in the forest were suffering. The grass was dry and dirty, and the leaves of the trees were yellow. Many bushes and creepers withered and died, and as a result, even the animals were at want for food. It was truly a bad season for the forest, and in the ever-ongoing competition for survival, every animal had to fend for himself.

Well... nearly every animal. For while each of the animals were able to get their fill by chewing dry grass and munching sour and unripe fruits, the chicken was entirely at a loss as to how she was going to feed her children. Very few trees bore fruit during the famine, and those that did bore malnourished, sour fruits. The mother hen simply could not gather enough food everyday for her whole nest of hatchlings, and everyday as the famine went on, their cries of hunger gnawed at her heart. It was with despair that she flew around from tree to tree everyday, trying to gather enough food, while all the time her only thoughs would be those of her half-dozen baby chicks at the nest, waiting for their mother to come home, in full faith that she would satisfy their hunger every single day...

On one such day, the magpie was loitering around the branches, keeping his eyes out for any shiny objects. It was at this time that the chicken landed on a nearby branch, and, poking her beak into the leaves, found a measly peck of unripe berries. Insufficient as they were, mother hen needed to collect as much food as she could for her babies. She gulped down the berries, and sighed. The magpie had been watching her carefully for a while. Then, he flapped over to her branch.

"Morning, good mother hen. How are you on this bright and sunny morning?" The magpie always played dashing little charmer around ladies, even the chicken. But mother hen always saw him as the greedy casanova he was, although he never loved him the less for it.

"Bright and sunny morning, yourself. While everyone's struggling to stay alive in this famine, you're here collecting dust and looking for shiny objects and pretty ladies. A rolling stone gathers no moss, you know, and right now you're gathering as much moss as these trees here."

The magpie cackled. "Hey, what can I say, mother hen, the easy life comes to those pf them as works hard to get there. I'm good at finding things I look for, whether I desire them to be shiny, or edible. I've never had trouble finding food." The magpie scratched his beak. "Although, ma'am, I guess you can't quite say so for yourself. How are the kids these days?"

Mother hen sighed and looked away. "They're... keeping up. But I know the famine is getting the best of them. Everyday, they look a little bit thinner and smaller. There's not enough food about here these days, and I'm doing my best to keep them well-fed, but it's just no use."

The magpie fluttered his wings in shock. "Hey, ma'am, you worrying a bit too much about your children, and I think you've forgotten to take care of yourselves! Have you seen your reflection lately? Have you been remembering to keep some food for yourself after feeding you children?"

It was true, the chicken had not been allowing herself much food as of late, out of fear that her children would not have enough to eat. Now, she was thinner still than her hatchlings. She was silent.

The magpie thought for a bit. Then he came up with an idea. "You know, mother hen... the reason why I'm still happy and healthy during this difficult time is, I know where to find food where no one else knows it exists. It's my own little secret of course -" he tapped the side of his beak with a feather - "...but you've always been nice to me and my cousins, so I'm going to do my best to help you."

The mother hen looked up sharply with a glint in her eye. "Oh, thank you very much, I'm sure, but I don't really think I can-"

"It won't come free, of course," the magpie went on. "I'm a man of business, and a collector. I can't give away something for nothing you know. And yet... you don't have much to give, mother hen. But then, you do have your feathers."

The chicken's feathers, when she could still fly, were long and sleek, like the kind that people use to write with, except that they were a clean white color, like a swans. The mother hen prided herself for her feathers, and often took care of their condition by tweaking them into shape with her beak during her free time.

"Your feathers aren't exactly shiny, ma'am, but they're very pretty, and I would love to have some of them in my collection. Your feathers are some of the prettiest in the forest, the peacock's feathers being the prettiest. But she wouldn't let me have any..." The magpie snickered. "At least, not at first."

The chicken eyed the magpie warily. "You want my feathers, then? And what will you give me in return, pray tell?"

The magpie's eyes had a steely glint to them. "Yes, I've thought about that. Tell me, have ever tried eating worms? No? But you've heard of them? Oh, yes, worms are the tastiest meal a bird can get his hands on, and they're highly nutritious, too. Perfect for a nest of growing kids, I would say. Of course... you have to know how to get them. And as luck would have had it, I do! So, let me cut a deal with you. For each of your feathers, I will bring to you as many worms as you beak can carry! How does that sound? Good deal or what?"

Indeed, in these difficult times, the offer was a very tempting one right from the get-go. Mother hen was never a very vain creature, and had always been very clear on her priorities. Without any hesitation, she agreed to every condition that had been layed down by the magpie... "if it's not too much trouble for you, of course."

The magpie laughed. "Oh, it's not a problem, ma'am. Now, if you'll just give me one of your feathers? Thank you so much. Wait right here, I'll be right back."

And so it happened that this cute little business relationship was started between mother hen and the daring magpie. Worm after worm the magpie brought and laid on the ground in front of mother hen, until she decided that she could not carry more than that. Then she brought the worms back to her nest, and that day the baby chicks had a feast.

"What are these things, mother? They're so delicious!"
"Eat up, my little darlings. Those are worms. Do you like them? I'll make sure to get more for you tomorrow."

The next day, the chicken plucked off another one of her exquisite feathers from her wing, and handed it to the magpie. Once the feather had been safely tucked into his nest, the magpie got to work, disappearing into the forest and returning a while later with a squirming worm in his beak. Once the magpie had found seven worms, mother hen would scoop them up in her beak and take them to her nest, where she and each of her babies had one worm each. This continued for many weeks. For one of her feathers, the magpie would bring seven worms to the mother hen, and she would take them home to her babies. By degrees, the baby chicks got healthier and started growing bigger. Mother hen was overjoyed, and never once did she ever regret trading her feathers for worms; until...

One day, mother hen plucked off another feather from her wing, and handed it to the magpie. The magpie flew deep into the forest, and returned with a worm, which he laid on the ground in front of mother hen. Then he disappeared into the forest again. Before long, there were seven juicy worms on the ground, and mother hen picked them up. Having received his feather and mother hen's thanks, and having completed his end of the deal for the day, the magpie took off into the air and went to look for more excitement. The mother hen took off in the other direction towards her nest. Or at least she tried too. By now, she had lost all her feathers down one side of her wing, and she was quite unable to fly! Oh dear, she had not quite realised it before, but she couldn't fly without her feathers! She panicked, but acting on instinct, she ran back to her nest on her feet, flapping her wings and trying to take flight. Eventually she found her way to the tree where her nest was. Calling up to the nest, she said "Children, are you alright?"

The chicks started chirping excitedly. "Mother is home! Mother is home! And she's brought worms for us to eat! But why is mother on the ground?"

"My little darlings, I'm afraid I can't quite fly anymore! I don't know how I'm going to come up to you!"

"That's okay mother! Then we'll just come down to you!"

One by one the yellow little hatchlings leapt out of the nest towards the ground. Their mother screamed at them to stop, but stop they would not. Fortunately, their wings had become developed enough for them to slow down their descent, and before long all six babied had landed safely on the ground.

"Yay! Mother is home! Mother is home! And she's brought worms for us to eat!"

The chicken was not sure how to feel now that her babies had leapt out of the nest, and she knew that she had no way of getting back to the nest herself now. But, upon seeing her children happily eating the worms, all her worries dissolved, and she forgot entirely about the nest. That night, she led her children into a safe place under some bushes, and there she roosted, with her chicks under her wing. She settled down to sleep, and she felt the reassuring warmth of her little babies. Their nest would be left unbothered for many years to come, until a gale would blow it away. But for now, mother and children lived their lives without worrying about the future.

The next day, the magpie was shocked when mother hen came to see him with a yellow cloud of hatchlings trailing behind her. "Well, good morning, ma'am. Is it Bring-Your-Kids-To-Work Day today?"

"Shut up and get me my worms," said the mother hen, plucking a new feather off her wing.

The chicks were overjoyed as they watched the magpie fly back and forth as he laid worm after worm on the ground in front of them. Everyday, mother hen would dwell on the ground now, with her little darlings trailing behind her. There were very few beasts around during this time of famine, and the chicken was quickly able to become accustomed to life on the ground. She continued to trade a feather for worms everyday, but while her children grew healthier, her own supply of feathers diminished. Very soon, mother hen knew, the day would come when she would pluck her last feather. And what could she do then? Even if fruits were to return to the trees, she would have to forage for food on the ground. The future was uncertain, but she did not want to cause her children to worry, so she tried not to think about it.

But that day came sooner than she had anticipated. The last feather on her body, sticking out of her back, was plucked off and handed to the magpie. The magpie looked at it ruefully. "Well, what now, ma'am? I can bring you your worms for today, but what then? A deal is a deal, you know. If you don't have any feathers, I can't get you any worms."

Mother hen sighed again, just as she had done that morning when the magpie had addressed her problem of finding food. It seemed like it was just yesterday. But now, her problems were back. She had no more feathers, and it would be a long time before she would grow any new ones. She was as bald as a fish, and she had no idea how she would find food now that she couldn't pick fruits from the trees.

The magpie read the sadness on her face, and he tried to brighten her up. "Hey, don't worry about it, ma'am. We'll worry about that later, okay? I'm sure we can come up with some sort of a deal. But for now, don't worry about it. Let me get you your worms now, alright?"

The chicken nodded, but didn't say a word. The magpie quietly took off into the forest. One by one, he brought the worms to her, and mother hen felt that she might be counting down the last worms she would ever see in her life. One worm... two worms... three worms, the magpie brought to her. Four more to go, one for her and one for each of her chicks...

Suddenly she felt a chill down her spine. She turned to her babies, who were flapping around each other playfully and having a good time. She tried to count them. One, two thr- hold still, little darlings, mother is trying to count you- one, two, three, four, five- little ones, please, don't fight- let me count you again- one, two, three, four, five. Five? But there should have been six of them!

The magpie returned with the fourth worm. "Magpie, have you seen any of my little babies?"

The magpie looked surprised. "No, ma'am, I haven't, other than the six of them standing over there- my goodness, there used to be six of them didn't there? Oh dear, where could one of them have gone of to?" Mother hen burst into tears. "Don't worry, ma'am, don't... don't panic, I'll go look for him, okay? He couldn't have gone far."

Through sobs, mother hen thanked the magpie for his kindness, and he flew back into the forest, calling for the little child. In the meantime, the chicken was engulfed in fear and worry, wondering where her little baby could have gotten to; until a giggling voice emerged from the depths of the forest. "Mother, mother! Here I am mother! Don't cry!"

The little chick tottered out of the trees towards his mother, who scooped him up in her loving wings.

"Oh, my baby, my baby! Where did you run off to? You made mommy so worried!"

"I'm sorry I ran off, mother. But listen! I know the magpie's secret! I know the magpie's secret! I know how to get worms?"

"What? What are you talking about, child?"

"We knew you were worried about looking for food, and that today you were going to give up your last feather, so we agreed that one of us would go follow the magpie today! When he flew off to look for the worms, I followed him. He went to a place where the soil was very soft, and then he scratched at the ground a lot, and then a worm appeared, just like that! But I was hiding well, so he didn't see me!"

The mother hen was shocked at her children's actions, and she reproached them for coming up with such a scheme without telling her. But at the same time, she could see light at the end of the tunnel. Was that really the was to look for worms? Scratch at the ground to unearth them? She decided to give it a try. She remembered a place nearby where the soil was a bit softer; presumably the magpie had chosen a further place to guard his secret. She made her way there, with the chicks happily trailing behind her. She tried scratching at the soil, and she was surprised to find that her talons were perfectly shaped for digging up soil. She was even more surprised when, amidst the upturned earth, she saw a live squirming worm! The babies chirped with joy, and scrabbled to get the first worm. Before long, the chicken had unearthed at least a dozen worms! She and her babies ate more than they ever had that day. Having had their fill, and now possessing the secret of finding worms, the mother hen led her children away, without a worry for what the future had to hold.

And that, little ones, is the long and short of the story. The magpie eventually returned to tell the mother hen that he couldn't find the child anywhere, but he was shocked to find that she and the rest of her children had left. He was even more shocked to find that, in a nearby clearing, and lot of soil had been disturbed, and there were clear scratch marks all over the ground. He knew that the deal was over, but he was glad that mother hen would be able to find food for herself and her babies from now on. Mother hen and her chicks continued to eat heartily every day, and each of the little hatchlings grew into fine young birds, while mother hen herself started putting on weight. Even after her feathers had grown back, much, much later, she did not fly anymore. Her new feathers were not as beautiful as her first set - they were stubby and frayed easily. She told her children that this was the reason she could not fly anymore - but the truth which she would not admit was, she thought she may have grown too heavy to fly anyway! By and by, whenever an animal in the forest came across some strange scratch marks over the forest floor, they learned that these marks meant that the chicken had recently been searching for worms in that area, and they would say to each other, "Well, here's the chicken's markings again. I'm sure she and her children are surviving well." Indeed, long after the famine was over, each of the chicks grew up to prefer a life on the ground, and no chicken since has ever been able to fly. Mother hen would never be able to fly again, but she thought it was a small price to pay in order to learn the secret of looking for worms.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Storytime: Elephant feet.

Today, little ones, I shall tell you the story that lies behind the Malay idiom, "kaki gajah". Translated over to our favourite language, it says "elephant feet". The meaning of this idiom is, of course, very simple; "elephant feet" means "big feet". Very big feet, too, the elephant has. Of course, of all the animals in the forest, many of them have very big feet, such as the grizzly bears and the ox and the sasquatch. So why was it, then, that the Malays of old chose the feet of the elephant as their specimen? The answer lies, not just in the fact that the elephant has the biggest feet of them all, but also because of the extraordinary tale that lies behind the elephant's humongous stompers.Now, of all the animals of the forest, it can safely be said that the elephant was one of the most well-known creatures that there ever was. In fact, the elephant was almost as famous as the lion himself. This was because of the extraordinary tales that shrouded the elephant's history and made him a very mysterious creature to behold indeed.

The elephant's eyes popped open. Fire. Fire. FIRE!
Of course, everyone knew that the elephant had such small eyes despite being a large animal because the elephant had been blinded by some hunters' spears, but managed to escape, and the worm who lived underground gave his eyes to the elephant, since he didn't need them in a world of darkness. And everyone had heard of how the elephant once had a pair of very normal-sized ears, until he invoked the wrath of a swarm of ants, which crawled into his earholes and bit him so much that his ears became swollen into the size that they are today. And it was practically general knowledge in the forest that the elephant's long trunk was caused by that one day when the crocodile bit the elephant's nose and wouldn't let go, and in the tug of war that ensued, his nose was stretched into the long trunk that we see today. There wasn't a creature in the forest who hadn't heard all of these extraordinary tales, and they often visited the elephant to hear these stories from his own lips. However, the elephant would soon have yet another fantastic tale to add to his own collection, but if he had known it at the time, he would have taken measures to avoid it; and it is fortunate that he didn't, otherwise he would not be the great animal that he is today.

It must be mentioned that all the creatures great and small loved the elephant. His long and painful past had made him very experienced and wise, and he was also a brilliant story-teller. His kind ways and smooth tongue gained him favor in the eyes of everyone, even the king of the jungle, the lion himself; so much so, that the lion appointed the elephant as the Sentinel - or guardian - of the forest. Of course, at the time, the elephant was not as large and frightening an animal as he is today - in fact, he was rather sleek and graceful, like a deer or a fox, in some ways. His feet were not anything extraordinary; there were a little stout, but nothing more. However, he was still an incredibly tall animal, and had earned the respect of all the animals of the forest, so he carried his duty as the protector of peace in the forest with pride.

However, for all his good will and responsibility in carrying out his duties, the elephant had two enemies. Neither of them were very large or dangerous, but they were enemies, nonetheless. Or at least, he was their enemy. These two animals were the parrot and the monkey. The parrot always had a wonderful time messing with the minds of the inhabitants of the forest, and the monkey always got a good laugh out of causing trouble for others. However, ever since the elephant became the Sentinel, their theatrics were brought to a stand-still. With his wisdom and uncanny sense for anything out of place, the elephant always seemed to appear at the exact right place at the exact right time - which would actually be the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time, for the two pranksters - and he would bring a screeching halt to whatever little bit of mischief either one of them was up to. And yet, while this state of affairs brought much aggravation to the parrot and the monkey, the elephant himself never had any ill-feelings towards the two of them, and took them both as nothing more than a couple of little rascals who just wanted to have their fun and never really meant anyone any harm.

One day, the parrot and the monkey met together and decided that they had to do something about the elephant. Their lives simply weren't the same without pulling a prank or two every other day, and their operations had always failed to take off ever since the elephant had been put into a position of responsibility. Together, they discussed the matter long and hard, and between the both of their twisted minds, they were able to hatch a nasty plot that would be certain to get the elephant out of their way.

One morning, while the elephant was patrolling the forest as usual, the monkey and the parrot leapt out of the trees to meet him. "Oh, hello, you two." The elephant smiled at the two little ones, as the parrot landed on his head and the monkey began swinging on his trunk. "Not getting into any trouble today, are you?"

"Pooh, of course not!" Replied the parrot (this incident took place, of course, quite some time before the parrot's voice had been mangled by the bulls), "We've been up to absolutely no mischief today at all! Why, we're the most innocent little angels that you could hope to meet in this forest. Isn't that right, monkey?"

The monkey swung himself up onto a branch level with the elephant's face. He put a hand over his mouth and sniggered. "That's right! We're little angels, so we are!" And he sniggered again. "But we've come to meet you because we want to talk to you about something." And here he started giggling so uncontrollably that the parrot had to hiss at him to stop.

Good-humouredly, the elephant smiled at the monkey and said "Well, if there's anything I can do to help you, you can always ask me. I'll do my best to answer any questions you have."

"Oh, that's rich, alright. No, no, no, you've got it all wrong, mister," said the parrot, pecking at the elephant's huge ears. "We're here to help you, don't you get it?"

"Oh, yes, we can help you, alright," chimed in the monkey immediately, "We can help you, and your ugly mug."

"What? I-"

"You see, mister," the parrot went on, "we couldn't help but notice that you are, without a doubt, the funniest-looking animal that ever graced the forest with his presence." The parrot sneered. "I mean, have you ever seen your own reflection? Just look at these small, squinty eyes," said the parrot, bending down to look straight into said small, squinty eyes, "and these large, floppy ears." The parrot teased one of the elephant's ears with a wing, and it flopped all over the place.

"And this outrageously long nose!" Laughed the monkey, leaping down from his branch and grabbing on to the elephant's trunk. "As you can see, my good man, you've got a very nice combination here of small, large, and long, all throughout the various parts of your face!" The monkey laughed aloud and once again began swinging on the elephant's nose.

Slightly miffed, but regaining his composure, the elephant gently shook them off. The parrot perched himself on to a branch, and the monkey landed on the ground."It's all very well of you two to point it all out, but what can I do?" said the elephant. "You yourselves have probably heard the stories which led to my disfiguration, and as you can see, my life has been nothing but one misfortuned after another. Of course I look at my own reflection everyday, and I wish I could have my own features back, but I know that the past is past, and there's nothing I can do about it."

At once the monkey started bouncing up and down excitedly. "Oh, but that's the best part, big guy! That's what we've been waiting for you to say all along! You see, big guy, what if we told you that... there was, somehow or another... a certain way... that you could get your old face back!"

The parrot started flapping excitedly around the elephant's head. "Exactly! We came here today to tell you everything that we have just heard! You see, mister, we heard that there was this... magic fountain somewhere up in the mountains behind the forest, and if you drink the water from the stream of this magic fountain, it is said that your face will become young again, just like it was years ago."

Even though the elephant's eyes were small, they must have widened to twice their size when he heard those words. This was certainly the first time he had ever heard of any youth-restoring fountain - although of course, little ones, such legends are very popular in our own world - and while he was not sure whether or not to believe the parrot, he definitely wanted to hear more about it. "A magic fountain that can restore an animal's youth, you say? In the mountains behind the forest?"

"Oh yes," joined in the monkey, "as soon as we heard about this magic fountain, we went to the mountains to have a look ourselves. And guess what? We found the very place! It is the place where a small waterfall gushes out of the rocks, and the spray creates a rainbow in the air when the sun is just above the trees. The place is very rocky, but oh, how beautifully white and smooth the rocks there are! And a flower can sometimes be seen poking out of the cracks of the rocks there. The water there is as sweet as honey, and we have no doubt that that very place is where the magic fountain itself gushes out its water!" The monkey's eyes had lit up during his narrative, but as he concluded, he was unable to contain himself, and burst into a fit of laughter.

"But there is one condition," continued the parrot, seeing that the monkey was unable to talk. "In order for the water from the magic fountain to work, it takes a lot more work that just sticking that nose of yours into the water and taking a drink. No, it requires a lot of work. You have to live next to the stream, eating nothing but the flowers that grow there, and drinking nothing aside from the water from the stream. Every day, you have to climb quite a long way further up the mountain, where you will find a place where a large number of boulders are piled together. Now, these boulders might look like the result of an ordinary lanslide, but believe me, according to what I've heard about the magic fountain, these boulders are magical. Everyday, you have to carry seven of these large boulders, one by one, down to the waterfall, and throw the boulder deep into the water. Only once you have thrown in seven boulders, then the water will have its healing effects, and you can drink it. Mind you, you have to do this everyday, for the magic disappears every midnight, and the healing process is a gradual one."

The elephant was astounded when he heard the parrot's explanation. However, underneath his amazement, a bit of suspicion poked its head out and said "But how do you know so much about this magic fountain? Who told you about it?"

The monkey howled with laughter even louder and rolled around on the floor. "Oh, that's a good one, that is! You see, big guy, heeheehee, we know so much about the magic fountain, because we're the one's who-"With a loud screech, the parrot swooped down from his perch, grabbed the monkey in its talons, and hastily withdrew into the forest. "We heard it over the grapevine, mister!" He shouted back. "If you really want to know more about it, why don't you go ask the owl?" And with that, the duo were gone, as quickly as they had appeared.


That night, the elephant went to look for the owl to find out more about the magic fountain. Considering how wise and knowledgeable the owl was known to be, he would certainly know about something as mystical as a fountain of youth, if one really did exist. However, as everyone knew, the owl had been having some problems of his own lately.

"Ah, sweet moon, wilt the day never come when thou shalt be mine, oh sweet, sweet, majestically magnificent moon?"

Such were the words that met the elephant's ears as he made his way towards the owl's tree. Already he could see, high above him, the silhouette of the owl, sitting on the highest branch of the tree, outlined by the light of the very idol which he worshipped, and indeed lamented at this very moment.

"Halloa, sir owl!" Called the elephant. "Might I trouble you with a question, sir? I would not like to disturb you, but everyone knows there is not a creature in the forest half as wise as you!"

A moment later, the owl was at a more presentable height, and the elephant could clearly see that his eyes were round and large - probably from staring at the moon all night, he thought to himself. The owl blinked and considered the elephant from several different angles, by cocking his head this way and that.

"Yes? How can I help you? You are that elephant fellow that I hear so much about yes? The Sentinel of the forest? I can see that all the stories I've heard about you are true, at least in their outcome, if not in their actual occurance."

The elephant sighed. "Yes, owl, I know. My hideous face is obvious for all to see. But that is just what I came to ask you about. Have you ever heard about a magical fountain that can restore the youth of a person's face just by drinking the water from it?"

The owl blinked. "Yes, in fact, I believe I have heard of such a fountain once. A fountain of youth, so I heard it being called. It is said that just by drinking the water that flows from such a spring, your youth will be restored hence the name. Of course, I have only heard legends about it, and doubt forever enshrouds the matter of its existence. Ah, but you say that this has something to do with the condition of your face? You are to harsh on yourself, elephant; I would not say you were hideous. You are merely... out of place. In fact, I see the makings of a great beast in your features - if only you would stop punishing yourself about it and let it shine through."

The elephant was silent and looked at the ground. The owl continued, "No doubt you intend to search for this spring of mystic water to restore your regular features, yes? In some ways, it may be doubtful that youth-restoring water would be able to restore stretching and swelling, but considering that a face can take on all kind of scars over time, and that the fountain is rumored to be able to cure even those, it might just work for you. However, as I said, one would not even be able to begin looking for this fountain, for it remains enshrouded in mystery."

The elephant spoke up. "Oh, but owl, earlier this morning, the parrot and the monkey told me that the fountain of youth does exist! They said that it is located in the mountains that loom over a forest, at the waterfall where a rainbow forms when the sun rests just above the trees!"

At this the owl's eyes grew even wider - although they were already so wide, it didn't make a perceptible difference. "Really? Is that so?"

"Yes, that is what they told me!" The elephant nodded earnestly. "They said that I might be able to turn my face back to normal by drinking the water there. Oh, but they also mentioned a strange ritual. Something about carrying down seven boulders from the mountains to the water before the magic water would work. I thought they might be joking with me, but they said I should ask you about it, and you have just told me that such a fountain does exist!"

The owl considered this for a while. "Well, well, well. The animals certainly pick up a lot of strange stories from the roots of the forest. Did they perchance tell you from where they heard this tale? No? Ah, well, nothing can be done about that. As for the singular account of the magic boulders, I think a lot can be done to explain that. The mountains behind the forest are known to be the site of many strange and wonderful myths, most of which revolve around the existence of spirits and guardians of the mountain. These entities have long ago faded away, but it is possible that some of their power - or magic - may have been left in the mountain, which leaks out over time in certain locations; such as, for example, into the boulders that they mentioned. Such magic power could catalyse the youthenising reaction of the water. However, I somewhat doubt that the fountain of youth is really located in those mountains. There is a slim chance that what the monkey and the parrot says is true, but it is a slim chance. You may just be chasing clouds in this effort, elephant."

The elephant shook his head. "Thank you, owl, but I think the risk is worth the reward. I am certain in my own mind that the fountain of youth can restore my old face again, and I must try to find it. Thank you for your information, owl. Good night."

"Good night, then, elephant. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavour, and shall await any further development of this tale with interest." The owl watched the elephant leave, and once he was out of sight, the owl heaved a heavy sigh to himself. Then he alighted to his previous roost on the top of the tree, and said, seemingly to himself, "Ah, poor elephant. He is too much hurt by his past experiences to realise that what hasn't killed him has truly made him stronger. However, until he realises for himself the power that life has given him through his pain, he cannot truly be a strong animal. When that day comes, he will truly be a magnificent beast.

"Ah, moon! Sweet, sweet moon!"


And so the events came to pass that eventually led the elephant up the mountains and to the waterfall where flowers grew out of the rocks. Having been granted leave by the lion, the elephant left for the mountains, and after a long climb, he reached the place. It was truly as beautiful a place as the monkey and the parrot had described; the rocks were as white as snow, and the water was as clear as crystal. When sundown came, just as the sun was above the treetops, a rainbow was visible through the spray of the waterfall as it hit the rocks. There the elephant stayed for three months, and following the advice of the two pranksters, he ate only the flowers around the water, and he spent every day from sunrise to sundown hiking up the mountain to a place where there were a pile of boulders - it really did look like a landslide, but the elephant let it, well, slide - and with some effort, he was able to bring round his long nose to hoist and steady the rock -which was nearly as big as himself - onto his back. Then he would carry it back down to the waterfall; and this was always the hard part, because he could easily lose his footing on the craggy path, and tripping with such a massive load on his back would lead to disastrous results. Seven times a day he did this, and it was such a wonder that he managed it. But his determination carried him through.

In the meantime, without the guardian back at the forest, the monkey and the parrot had full run of the place. Not a day would pass without some kind of mischief being played on at least one of the forest's inhabitants. In fact, if they were feeling good, and had the energy for it, they would incessantly pull pranks on the animals from sunrise to sundown - coincidentally, the same period of time during which the elephant would be lugging rocks around in the mountains - and while they usually worked individually, they would sometimes work together to pull of the most magnificent of heists the forest had ever seen. It was truly a tough time for the forest, but most animals were of the same mind as the elephant: namely, that the monkey and parrot were just a couple of jokers, who never really meant anyone any harm. As such, not real action was taken against them, and between the two of them, they painted the forest red.

One particular evening, the duo had just pulled of a real good one - before long the owl would wake up to find that his wings had been glued together by resin - and they were laughing together against a tree after making their getaway. The parrot looked up and saw that the sun was resting just above the treetops, and he remembered the elephant.

"Hey, monkey," he said, to his partner in crime, "what do you think the elephant is doing right now? It must have been, what, a few months since we first told him that story about the magic fountain?"

The monkey, who had stopped laughing to listen to his friend, burst afresh with hoots and shrieks of laughter at the thought of the elephant. "Yeah, the elephant! Oh, the poor, poor elephant, and his poor, poor face! He really ate that one out of our hands didn't he?" And he laughed so hard he may have fallen of his branch.

The parrot sniffed. "Well, its only natural that he should believe us. We really did our homework on that one, eh? We went and scouted out that nice-looking river in the mountains, and you were the one who found the landslide and came up with that incredible story of the magic boulders. For that, my good man, I take my hat off to you." With one wing humbly held against his chest, the parrot bowed comically, and the monkey was able to compose himself sufficiently to stand straight with a bloated chest and raised head, an equally comical picture of pride.

"Oh, yes, we really did our homework on that one, no doubt about it," the monkey agreed. "Indeed, I doubt we'll ever pull off something as beautiful as that ever again. The magic boulder story was a stroke of genius. But don't forget, you were the one who came up with the idea of the magic youth-restoring fountain in the first place, and for that, my good man, I take of my hat to you." And now it was the monkey's turn to bow comically, and the parrot preened.

"Pooh, that was nothing. The owl babbles about all kinds of silly stories, and I sometimes go to listen to him; you know, to laugh at his senility. But all in all, it was a wonderful heist. The reign of peace in the forest came to an end the day the elephant went to the mountains in search of his youth - and where the forest's peace ends, our peace begins! Eh, chummy?" The parrot nudged the monkey in the ribs, and he burst into laughter all over again. This time the parrot felt compelled to join him, and the laughed so hard that the whole tree shook, as if for all the world the tree itself was laughing with them.

Eventually they came round, and in the silence that often follows such sudden explosions of merriment, they each became lost in their own thoughts; although their two thoughts were of one mind. They were thinking to themselves, how was the elephant surviving up there? Certainly, the magic boulder story ensured that the elephant would have to stay near the waterfall all the time, and prevented him from coming back to the forest everyday after a mere draught of the "magic" water - but how long would the elephant continue to be blinded by his own desire for his old face again? Would he soon get too tired of such a harsh daily routine, and return to the forest dejected and heart-broken? Or would he die of exhaustion first? Either way, both outcomes seemed rather grim, and they started to wonder, in the privacy of their own heads, whether or not they had gone too far.

As a matter of fact, at that very moment, the elephant had just lifted his seventh boulder of the day back to the waterfall - just in time to catch a glimpse of the rainbow. Just as he had always done for these past three months, he tossed in the last boulder, took a nice long draught of the water which he believed would bring about his restoration, and spent some time picking and eating the flowers that grew there - fortunately, they sprouted in abundance. Then, as the sun finally sank below the horizon, and darkness fell, the elephant fell into a deep sleep. The next morning, just as he had always done, he woke up at the first glimpse of the sun's rays, and breakfasted on a few more flowers, and went to the edge of the water to look at his reflection, and see whether he was starting to become younger. However, there did not seem to be any difference. Indeed, there had not been any difference at all these past three months of hard trials. The elephant sighed, but just as he had done everyday, he raked together the fragments of his strength, and was determined to carry the boulders again.

After all, he thought to himself today, I've already done this for three months. It can't be much longer now before I start noticing the effects of the water. And once the healing begins, I have no doubt it will act very quickly on me. Then finally, oh so finally, I shall finally be rid of these small, squinty eyes, this outrageously long nose, and these large, floppy ears...

As he thought this thought, he absent-mindedly waggled his ears a little, as if to remind himself just how large and floppy they were. Suddenly, just as he did that, something caught his hearing. He paused, and listened intently for a while, but all he could hear now was the sound of the wind. But he was sure that, just for a split second, he had heard something else. Like the cry of an animal.

He tried waggling his ears again. This time, since he was listening for it, it was definitely there. A soft cry, carried by the wind, from the direction of the forest.

He waggled them again. ".....r......" This was amazing! He had never realised that he had such excellent hearing before. He closed his eyes, shut down all other senses, and only listened. "," ....a soft cry, carried on the wind..... "," ....turn this way, turn that way, waggle the ears all around, try every angle.... "," .....the cry of an animal? No, a cry for help.... ""

The elephant's eyes popped open. Fire. Fire. FIRE! His adrenaline started rushing, and acting suddenly and purely on instinct, he whipped his nose into the breeze, and sniffed the wind. Smoke! He could smell smoke! Cries of fire, and the scent of smoke, all coming from the direction of the forest!

Blood rushed through the elephant's brain, and his thoughts were all a blur. He did not know what he was thinking or doing, except through a vague feeling of duty and responsibility. In his sudden rush of fear and confusion, he only acted on instinct, and was only marginally aware of what he was doing from that point onward. However, a single thought, which had buried itself so deeply in his heart, that he was aware of it even when all else was a blur, was: "Protect the forest from danger, guardian, Sentinel!"

By the time the elephant had descended from the mountain, the fire had really gained volume, and it was raging powerfully. The sky was turned orange and black, as smoke poured out from all sides of the forest and made the sky look dirty. All sorts of small creatures were fleeing, and they rushed past the elephant without noticing him in their anxiety to look for safety from the forest fire. As animals streamed past him, the elephant made his way to the forest. Suddenly, he was aware of the flapping of wings above his head as something flew over him. He dismissed it as a bird, in flight, but then a voice called him. "My dear elephant, is that you?"

The elephant turned around. There was the owl, hovering a short way off the ground, regarding him with eyes that seemed bigger and rounder than ever. "Owl!" shouted the elephant. "Tell me quick, what has happened? How did this fire start?"

The owl was quick to answer. "I'm not too sure, I was sleeping, when all of a sudden the cry of fire woke me up. I saw the flames and the smoke, and I fled here as fast as I could. But look at yourself, lad! Have you seen your reflection lately?"

The elephant shook his head. "I know, owl, the magic fountain hasn't worked! I'm still as hideous as ever!"

"No, my elephant, you are not hideous! Quite on the contrary, you're the most magnificent beast I've ever seen on land, or air, or sea! At the call of duty, all you fears are washed away, and your true prominence shines through! And look at yourself, you've turned into a truly formidable creature to behold! But nevermind that! The forest cries out for your help, Sentinel! Go and prove your worth to everyone!"

Indeed, after months and months of rigorous training, the elephant had grown in size. No longer was he the partially slender, partially graceful, funny-looking animal that he was three months ago. All the weight-lifting he had done had added to his bulk, and he now had a truly large and muscular body, which complemented his features. His squinty eyes, his large ears, and his massive trunk - which had also grown stronger in the mountains - served to complete his rugged look, and with a fire of his own burning in his eyes as he sought to save the forest, he was truly a magnificent beast, just as the owl had prophesied. As for his feet, they had been flattened out and made stouter by the immense weight of seven boulders resting on them daily.At this moment, the elephant realised that he had a much greater power than he had ever imagined himself capable of. With his massive trunk, he heaved fallen trees out of the way. The flames harmlessly licking his rough hide, he made his way to the river, and he sucked water in threw his trunk, made his way to the place where the fire was the strongest, and then he sprayed. His small eyes were mostly unaffected by the thick smoke, and he could see as well as he could in daylight. It took several trips to the river and back before the fire was weakened, and after that he stomped out the last of the flames with his large feet. It was a long and painful effort, but the Sentinel of the forest never allowed the fire to frighten him, and he never hesitated even for a moment to leap into the centre of the flames in order to douse out the core of the fire. At last, when the worst seemed over, and only a few embers remained of the potentially disastrous forest fire, the elephant's ears picked up another signal - sobbing. Slowly and calmly, following the choking, broken sobs, the elephant eventually came across the source of the cries, and also the source of the fire: the monkey and the parrot, huddled together and crying with tears streaming down their faces - and a pair of flintstones in the monkey's hands. What kind of prank they had been trying to pull off with fire which ended up setting the entire forest on fire, we shall never know; for it is a secret that is kept among the monkey, the parrot, and the elephant. The kind guardian decided not to let anyone know the true cause of the fire.

Thus comes to an end the most important and most epic story behind the elephant. The elephant continued to be the Sentinel after that, but never once did he ever fret over his strange features again. He realised, by and by, that each of his oddities were actually advantageous, and he had no reason to be ashamed of them. Indeed, they only served to add to his new impenetrable, rugged image, and if he was respected by the innocent before, he was feared by the wrong-doers now. For many years, the elephant happily recounted to any creature who was interested to listen, the tales of his life which gave him his small, squinty eyes, his large, floppy ears, and his outrageously long nose. But now, he did not tell these tales with sadness anymore, but rather with pride, and he blessed the worm, the ants, and the crocodile for what they had done for him. He also blessed the monkey and the parrot who set him off on his journey to find peace with himself, although by and by, he did come to peace with himself, although not by correcting his disfigurations, but by learning to accept them.With this, every tale has been told, and it is time to close the book and put down the pen. We have seen how the elephant transformed from a small, weak, deerlike animal, to a large and formidable beast. Up to now, a greater creature has never yet been seen than the elephant. However, there still remains one question: How is it that such a magnificent beast as the elephant, is rumored to be afraid of the little mouse? Ah, that, little ones, is a story for another time, and there will someday be time for that story; but not today.