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Water-rat and fire

There was a time, which lasted many ages, when man lacked the most valued gift that mankind has ever known, the gift of fire. Strange to tell, it was discovered by Water-rat of all people! Before his epoch-making discovery, men lived a miserable existence, eating food of every kind raw and shivering in their makeshift shelters on winter nights.

Amongst those who suffered in this way were Water-rat and his wife. Life went on pleasantly enough in summer, but in winter, after spending some hours foraging for food in the billabong where he lived, Water-rat would creep through the tunnel that led to his burrow, soaked to the skin and feeling as miserable as only a Water-rat can feel.

The only way he could get any warmth into his flesh and bones was to snuggle close to his wife, an attention she failed to appreciate. And this was not the only thing she complained about. Their home was too small, especially now that the family was increasing. In summer it was hot and stuffy. In winter a dank wind blew through the tunnel from the billabong, penetrating every corner.

'We need a larger home,' she kept saying. 'Why don't you make another tunnel with a room at the end where the wind won't whistle round it? I can't keep anything dry where we are. When you come in from food gathering, water gets everywhere and makes puddles on the floor. Look, there's mud everywhere you've been walking.'

Water-rat was disinclined for the hard work entailed in digging a tunnel and constructing an annexe to his burrow. It was all very well in his courting days, when he was young and strong, but now he was older and most of the day was taken up in feeding a brood of young Water-rats.

Constant nagging by his wife at last drove him to it. From then on he was the one who did most of the complaining. The further he got from the soft soil of the bank, the harder it became, and full of rocks. When he came to the roots of a tree, he was ready to give up, but his wife pointed out that it would be a pity to waste all his work.

One day he backed out of the tunnel in sudden alarm.

'A strange thing has happened,' he said. 'I was gnawing at the root when my teeth slipped and I bit into a stone. There was a flash of light. What do you think could have happened? What could it have been?'

'Imagination,' his wife said shortly, thinking it was only an excuse to stop work. It was not imagination, for as he went on with his work, the same thing occurred several times. On each occasion it was when his teeth closed on a stone.

'It's a very strange thing about the lights that come and go so quickly,' he said one night. 'I can't understand it. One of the lights fell on my paw today and it was hot. It burnt my fur. I could smell it. I wonder what it is.'

The sparks struck from his teeth had set him thinking. 'If I could make them last longer instead of dying as soon as they are born, we could light up our burrow and make it warm,' he told his wife.

He thought about it for a long time. One night he dreamed that the burrow was flooded with light as though the sun was shining inside it, and that bright red and yellow spirits were leaping up from a pile of sticks on the floor. Strangest of all, his wife and children was holding their paws out to the leaping spirits, and steam was rising from their fur. A word came into his mind. It was the word that Water-rats afterwards used for Fire when it raced through the bush and sent them scurrying into their burrows.

When he woke he wondered whether there was some way of summoning the fire spirits. He remembered that the tiny baby spirits that were born and died in an instant appeared when he bit accidentally into a rock. Back in the dark tunnel he clamped his teeth against a stone and once again a spark appeared. Holding a stone in his paws, he struck it against a rock face and a shower of sparks flew out.

'They die too quickly,' he thought. 'Is there a way to make them live?'

Night after night he experimented in the burrow, striking one thing after another against stones he had dug out of the tunnel.

'I wonder if there's another way, ' he reflected. He looked round. In the corner were two pieces of wood that had been floating on the water of the billabong. They were quite dry. One was flat, the other was a stick, pointed at one end. He set it upright on the wood and twirled it between his paws. Presently a tiny wisp of smoke rose from the flat piece of wood. He scattered dry grass on it and kept on turning the stick in his paws, pressing it against the base piece.

With a shock he realised that the baby spark spirits were gathering in the grass. He blew on them and suddenly, in the smoke, the flame spirits came to life. Water-rat had discovered the secret of fire. There was great rejoicing in the burrow that night. The family was sitting round the fire, warming themselves and watching the dance of the shining spirits. Every night the family went to sleep warm and well fed, for they had also discovered the art of cooking food.

But as summer came, the Water-rat woman resumed her complaints. 'It's so smoky inside that I can hardly breathe,' she said. 'Why don't you take the flame spirits outside?'

As the days were growing longer and warmer, Water-rat agreed. Taking his apparatus on to the bank, he kindled a fire. He was glad when his wife appeared satisfied with an outdoor meal.

As night fell, wide-eyed animals of every kind gathered round, watching the flame spirits. Water-rat saw the reflection of the flames in their eyes and hastily extinguished the fire.

In time the animals became bolder. They saw how much better food must be if it were cooked by the spirits of the flame that provided heat as well as light. They begged Water-rat to give them some of the fire. Water-rat at heart was a very selfish animal. He kept the fire to himself and his family and refused to tell the secret to anyone.

The other animals tried to take it from him by force, but Water-rat was too wily. As soon as he saw them coming, he poured water on the fire. They resorted to stealth. Animals of every kind tried to steal the fire. Tortoises crawled through the long grass, large animals like the kangaroo jumped out unexpectedly, small birds flew past trying to snatch a piece of the fire, but all in vain. When every attempt had failed, the animals ventured to approach Eagle-hawk, who was usually too proud to associate with earth-bound creatures. They told him what they wanted and asked him to help.

'Yes,' he said reflectively. 'I have seen this fire of Water-rat and wondered what it was. From what you tell me, it could be very useful. You've been going about it all the wrong way. Leave it to me.'

He soared up into the sky on his powerful wings until he was lost to sight; but he, the great Eagle-hawk, could see the ground far below and everything on it. He saw Bower-bird building its mound, the waterlilies floating on the billabong, Brown Snake gliding through the grass stalking a small animal, and Water-rat coming out of his burrow and swimming across the water.

With spread wings he floated down through the air and fell like a thunderbolt on the startled Water-rat. Sharp claws dug into his back and Water-rat felt himself being lifted up, far from the earth. It was a frighting experience for an animal of land and water. Even more frightening was the thought that Eagle-hawk would feed him to his fledglings. He begged to be released, promising anything that Eagle-hawk wanted if only he would return him to earth.

'If I open my claws, you'll return to earth more quickly than you want, Water-rat,' Eagle-hawk said with a touch of humour. 'There's nothing you can give me that I want, but you can do something for your fellow animals down below. You know how much they want to share the fire you've discovered. Promise me you'll give it to them and I'll set you down by your own home. But if you try to cheat and keep the fire to yourself you'll come with me for another journey in the sky. That journey will have a different ending. I'll drop you like a stone.'

Water-rat was only too anxious to make the promise, and for fear of what might happen he kept it faithfully.

The gift of fire has been known to men for so long that most of them have forgotten that it was first discovered by Water-rat; but selfishness is not quickly forgotten, and Water-rat has never been popular, either with men or animals.

Story courtesy of Aboriginal Myths, Legends and Fables (1993) A.W. Reed, Reed, Chatswood, pp. 198-202