‘A long, long time ago, so long you could count the ages on your fingers, and your father’s fingers, and your father’s father’s fingers and so on, and so forth, and still not have counted them all,’ Maetis began her story, and the children listened open-mouthed,
‘the first Beings were created. They were the Animals. They weren’t so different from us Humans, then. And they all looked more or less the same. Bear didn’t have his thick furry hide, nor knew how to fish for his dinner. Cat didn’t have her dainty nose and slashing tail. Wolf didn’t have his teeth nor his howl.’
One of the children asked the inevitable question: ‘How did they get them, Maetis? How did Cat get her tail, and Wolf his howl?’
‘Listen, and I will tell you,’ she said, and smiled. ‘I will tell you the tale of Pyki, the Magpie. As you know, Pyki’s incessant chatter irritated the gods so much they struck him with lightning, turning him black and white, and inadvertently gave him the ability to see both in the real world and the Other world. But he only used the knowledge for his own ends, and so made more trouble for himself.’ Maetis sat back more comfortably and began her tale.
‘One day, Pyki was flying over a stream when a ray of the Sun struck the silver scales of fish swimming in the stream. The beam of light caught his eye. He went down to investigate, and perched on a large branch at the bank of the stream. He saw Eldi, the water-rat, and said:
“Tell me, brother, what are those precious objects in the river?”
Eldi laughed at him and said: “Why, you silly bird, those are just slippery fish,” and went about his business, his nose twitching, his whiskers guiding him along.
Now Pyki was eternally hungry. His interest was raised. He thought: “Those fish might make me a hearty meal,” and he tried to get one. But however he tried, he could catch none. He fell in the water trying to catch them with his feet. He tried swooping them up with his beak in flight, but the fish were too slippery, and down he went again. He even tried to bang them on the head with a stick, but he was neither strong nor agile enough for the task. Soon Pyki was tired, and had a cold besides, from all those involuntary baths.
He could have gone home then, and have his usual insects for dinner. But his mind was set on the fish. So shiny, so lovely and fat. He went back to his perch on the branch, blew his nose, and started to think.
When he was done thinking, he looked about the banks of the river and soon found what he sought. There were water-sprites bathing in a shallow pool between the reeds, a bit further downstream. Water-sprites are shy creatures you know, and because they are of the Other Realm, humans don’t usually see them. They look just like very small Humans, but for that they seem made of flowing water and frothy air. To your eyes or mine they would look like the blurry images at the edge of vision, and you would probably not notice them at all.
These water-sprites were female, and Pyki took care to approach them respectfully. “I beg your pardon, O Ladies of Alluvial Loveliness,” he said out loud, to warn them of his presence. There were little shrill cries at his approach, for the bathing nymphs were of course naked. Some of the cries sounded more excited than anxious, but Pyki covered his eyes with his left wing anyway, as he walked with care through the reeds, using his sweetest voice: “Please do not worry for your modesty on my account, O Wonderful Maidens of the Riveting Rivulets…”
Despite their cries, he was pulled into a large gathering of twittering water sprites enthusiastically. They splashed about in a small pool fringed with reeds and grasses. They made a place for him to sit while they crowded about him, fluttering excitedly. One cheeky sprite dared to pinch his feathered shoulder, giggled and blushed as she whispered to another.
“My ladies,” Pyki said, “it pains me to see such luminous creatures as yourselves without the adornments your beauty deserves.” The water-sprites were properly flattered, and interested too. “By the length of my tail and the brightness of my eye,” Pyki said, “I have found a place where the brightest of gems and the rarest of silver necklaces are to be found for the taking. Though they are of the finest jewelleries the earth can bring forth, they would be but poor companions to your beauty….”
“Really?” the water-sprites said. They’re not the brightest of creatures you know, on this Plane or the Other.
“Truly, it is so,” Pyki said.
“Where would one find these precious ornamentations?” one of the sprites asked, her eyes bright with greediness.
“Alas,” Pyki said, “‘t is in a place where I cannot go, or I would have laboured to lay these fine specimens of earthly beauty at your feet long ago.’
“Take us to this place!” they exclaimed unanimously.
Pyki took them to the spot where he had glimpsed his fish. “Behold!” he cried. The sprites were looking about them in confusion, until he said: “There! Look in the water!” The Sun’s rays glittered on the shiny scales once more. The sprites wasted no time diving in; they hardly looked but aimed for the brightest reflections and threw whatever was there in a heap on the river bank.
After some time, Pyki was standing in an ever growing heap of delicious fresh river fish.
When the sprites returned to behold the fruits of their labour, they stood looking at a heap of dead fish in bafflement.
“Where are the jewels?” they said. “Where are the gorgeous riches?” Then they spotted Pyki in the distance, running off with as much fish as his wings could carry. They knew then they had been deceived.
Water-sprites can cook up a storm when they are irritated, and this they were in the extreme, dripping mud and slimy fish scales still. The eldest and most eloquent of them cast a spell on Pyki, saying:
“May you ever be allured by shiny trinkets, gathering them whenever you can, even forsaking the gathering of food, until you have laid the promised riches at our feet!”
And so, children, the Magpie cannot resist the most worthless of shiny objects, and must fill his nest with them if he can. But I don’t think he will ever be relieved of the spell, because if there is ever a way he can get out of doing an honest day’s work, he will.’
From: ”Curse of the Tahiéra,” © Wendy Gillissen