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A Fire Tail



The relationship between fire and story goes back a long way. Since the first deliberate kindling of fire, people have been gathered into the warmth and light from the fire-side, which also assured safety from predators. To prepare for cosy season, we're sharing a story from Chris Salisbury's new book Folk Tales of the Night perfect for Winter.

As language evolved into more complex speech patterns and extended vocabulary, it’s easy to see how the form of telling each other stories about the day’s events evolved. These stories would have been an essential part of processing events and wrapping up the day. Nobody knows this for sure, of course, but it is human nature to socialise and make relationships through verbal communication. It would naturally follow, then, that when these early peoples were blessed with time and leisure and the impulse to communicate, the sharing around the campfire would take all sorts of different forms, from dramatic reportage to funny accounts of what had transpired that day. Significant past events would have been reprised and told again, and of course, significant dreams would be shared. I wonder if this dream-sharing was the first formal structure of telling narratives. Either way, the trend developed into the huge variety of forms and genres of stories and storytelling that we see the world over. The stories migrated from their first natural home of fireside telling to appear anywhere and everywhere that people were gathered. It is fitting, then, given that provenance, that we include some of the following stories, which all feature the element of fire in some way

A Fire Tail...

Cowichan, Canada

In the time before time, so long ago that the time could only be counted by suns or moons, a band of Cowichan Indians was drying deer meat in the morning sun. It had been a very cold night, and they spoke of how good it would be to have their own ‘small sun’ to warm them when the big sun left them to the night’s cold embrace. They had nothing else, for this was so long ago that people did not know how to make fire. Of course, they knew they were only dreaming out loud because to have that, it would take power and magic to obtain, and not one of their shamans had that much power. As they wished and talked, they suddenly noticed a little bird who was calling close by. They did not recognise its call, and this was unusual. So, they stopped talking and gave it their attention, and more so when it flew closer to them. They saw that it was a beautiful brown bird with a bright red tail, which seemed to shimmer and shine even when the bird sat still. They were mesmerized by this flickering red and orange light on its tail as this curious creature hopped from branch to branch, until the bird looked down on them from a branch right above their heads.

The oldest man spoke the languages of birds, and he greeted the bird in the old way, praising its song and its plumage.

‘What do you want, little bird?’ he asked.
‘Nothing do I wish for myself, but I can bring you what
you would dearly wish,’ it replied.
‘How so?’ said the old man.
‘Do you see my tail?’ said the bird. ‘It is hot and bright
like the flaming feathers of the sun. I can make you a gift
of this, which will comfort you when the north winds of
winter blow, that will cook your meat and bring light and
cheer when the sun sinks below the ground.’
‘That would be a great gift!’ said the old man. ‘My
people surely need this to ease their suffering in the long
cold nights of winter.’
‘Well, if you want it, you must earn it,’ said the little
bird. ‘Tell your hunters to meet me here at dawn and ask
each one to bring a little dry branch with pitch pine on it.’
The bird then disappeared, and the old man said to his
companions, ‘We should follow up that invitation, it may
bring us good fortune.’
When the sun shone again, the hunters waited in the
same spot, as invited by that strange little bird. Each carried a branch with pitch pine on it, as they had been told.
With no warning, suddenly the brown bird was perched
on a branch above them.
It asked in a language that, this time, all could understand, ‘Are you ready?’
They answered, ‘Yes!’
‘Then you must follow me, if you can, and the one who
first catches up with me will be given the gift of fire from
my tail, but only if the one who does so is respectful, is
patient, and tries hard without losing faith or courage.
Come! Let’s go!’

The bird flew off over the rough ground and thick forest. The chase was long, and it was difficult for the hunters to keep pace with it as it darted between the trees. For many, the going was too tough, and they fell away. Over fast-flowing streams and then marsh and swamp, the little bird continued to fly, perching occasionally on the rocks and the branches to keep the hunters interested. As the chase went on, more hunters dropped out. By now, there were only a few left in the chase. At last, one young warrior got close enough to call to the bird. He was hot, and tired and somewhat frustrated and even angry.

‘Give me your fire, you miserable little bird. I have followed
you far and I deserve the prize for I am the strongest!’
‘I shall not,’ said the bird, flying higher. ‘You think only
of yourself. You shall not have the prize.’
A second young man caught up with the bird. ‘Give
your fire to me,’ he called. ‘I have followed with faith
and courage, and I am the best warrior and I deserve the
reward. It will make me stronger to have it.’
‘A good man does not simply take that which belongs
to another, for his own ends,’ the bird answered, flying
faster and faster.

Soon, when it was no longer being followed, the little bird flew to the ground and perched on a branch above a woman who was sitting against the trunk of the tree below, nursing an old man who looked very frail and sick. The bird cocked its head onto one side and watched her for a while tending to the sick man. Then, it opened its beak and called for her attention.

‘You, who take good care of others, I have treasure to
share with you. Bring a branch with pitch pine on it,’ said
the bird. ‘I have fire on my tail, and you shall have it to
keep your sick friend warm and to cook your food, and to
bring you comfort at night.’

The woman was afraid, at first, of a bird that could speak. She said, ‘I don’t deserve such a magical gift. I do this because it is the right thing to do. We people take care of those who are sick.’ ‘You are a good woman, thinking of others,’ said the bird. ‘Now, do the thing that will bring your people much
happiness. Fetch a branch and take of my fire and bring this precious gift to your people.’ The woman then brought a branch and kindled it from
the little fire that flickered on the bird’s tail. She walked with it back to her people and she shared it with them. And so, the first flames were brought to the first people. That was all long ago, and since that time, those first people who lived in the wild world have had fire to keep them warm and cook their food. And they’ve been singing the praises of the birds ever since!

Extracted from Folk Tales of the Night by Chris Salisbury

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