... echidna education. Twisted Tales Contest, March 2021
|Bartholomew was irritated. And an irate echidna is NOT a pretty picture. Every hackle stood up, so he looked like a small spinifex bush atop the solid-looking mound that disguised a large ants’ refuge.
“NOT more tourists! Oh, p-l-e-a-s-e! Gimme a break! When’s a fellow meant to digest his dining experience with all this clicking of cameras? That’s what I want to know!” Bartholomew didn’t say the words out loud, mainly because he couldn’t. Echidnas don’t have vocal chords. So what he lacked in voice, Bartholomew made up for with serious heavy breathing—blowing massive streams of hot air from his tiny mouth. What he could do was make a serious whuff, whuff sound and once again, he found this frightened the tourists, especially when he waddled towards them. Between whuffing and raising his spines to their ‘uprightest’ position, he presented a formidable picture. They were too busy scurrying back to their car to witness his diabolical grin. They would never, ever know what a gentle soul hid beneath those ferocious prickles.
The trouble is, they had no idea how important today was, he thought as he flattened down his spines once again. Coming out of his l-o-n-g winter hibernation this year, Bartholomew had revelled in the warming blossoming of the day, as if spring had sprung overnight. Mm-mm, he thrummed in deep contentment… all those ants! His first meal in months had gone on and on when he lay down over the nest, letting the little treaties race over his tongue, and then ‘schloop’ he went, and scooped up mobs of the little morsels.
What a feast this lot served me. He sighed. Didn’t have to ‘snout ‘em out’. Didn’t even have to dig for them this time. They just rushed in like traffic on a freeway disappearing into a tunnel… MY tunnel, this time! Y-U-U-U-U-M-M-Y! Boy! Does that sticky spit of mine come in handy, or what? And after that magnificent munch-out, there I was. Minding my business, I was. All but comatose with the welcome warmth seeping right through my quills, I was.
The message had passed rapidly through the entire ant colony - Dire Danger Lurks Above and Time to Batten Down the Hatches. The colony held its collective breath, no doubt hoping the sudden quiet meant the manic marauder would move on to a new stomping ground. Unfortunately for them, this was NOT the reason for the silence. All Bartholomew had done for some hours was nana-nap. Ahh, but that sun feels good when the tummy ‘down-under’ is full, he’d thought as he blew a last enormous sigh, dislodging soil around his long nose before drifting off to Echidna Dreamland.
In dreams he was his Mummy’s dear little baby again. He couldn’t remember his own birth and his earliest days, of course. But someone older and wiser (an Uncle perhaps?) had told him the story of his kind. It wasn’t a legend. No. This was the ‘real stuff’. In dreams, Bartholomew heard the words as if for the first time. Haar-humph! The important first thing to know about echidnas is that we are the oldest surviving mammals on Earth today. (Oh yes… that was definitely Uncle Winston, the oldest echidna in our family.) And even in sleep, Bartholomew nodded in agreement with himself. He’d discovered this to be the best practice, as arguing amongst yourself got boring. You always won… every single time.
And it was from Uncle Winston that he’d first learned about the non-voice stuff. He hadn’t been able to help himself from interrupting to ask how come they were talking to each other, if they had no voices. “Ahh… easy-peasy my young fellow. Although we say and hear the words we speak, it’s the rest of the world that has the translation problem. To them, it sounds like we only huffle and whuffle as we shuffle along,” and Uncle Winston had WHUFFED to demonstrate this point.
Maybe our voice became lost in the mists of Time? Bartholomew wondered… but Uncle Winston had drawn his head spines into the deepest frown, so he wasn’t eager to interrupt this most serious history lesson again, especially when he heard the next important thing was about breeding. Now his attention was complete.I’ve been thinking about how it would be to have a wife and family in a home burrow somewhere, someday, but I don’t know anything about echidna ‘shenanigans’. What Bartholomew learned from Uncle Winston would have made his eyebrows raise sky-high… IF he’d had eyebrows. He knew a bit about human breeding - well, not how they do it or stuff like that, he thought, and his pink underbelly skin would have reddened somewhat if he’d had blushable abilities. Instead, he found himself unable to look Uncle Winston straight in the eye as an unusual feeling of embarrassment crept through his quills.
What he’d learned until now was overheard from some Araby-type tourists dressed in lots of long floaty material. They wondered about our marital or partnering habits, compared to theirs - things called harems and some religious mob where a man had many wives… or partners… or something like that. And some of these people stayed together for life! But Uncle Winston taught Bartholomew that this was bizarre and unknown in the echidna world.
“It’s the female who cracks the whip over her male admirers, at our place.” Uncle Winston shook his head in disbelief that there was any other way. “When she is feeling amorous, it’s not unknown to see her with an entourage of up to ten males following in her footsteps… for up to a month, and—”
Bartholomew couldn’t help himself from interrupting this time. “I’m going to need to run after some dame for an entire month?” This was a horrifying thought. You’d have to have snacks ‘to go’ to be sure of keeping up with the pursuit team. Oh, woe is me. I don’t think I want to grow up any more.
Uncle Winston was frowning again; ignoring Bartholomew’s question and continuing in his firmest voice. “Such is Life in echidna territory, my lad. ONLY the most dedicated stalker will be the Daddy of her… wait for it… puggles!”
This time Bartholomew was speechless (and huffle and whuffle-less, too!).
“Yes, my boy! Truly… that’s the name of the naked little babies who chip their way out of their shell with what we call their ‘egg-tooth’. Handy little blighter, that one. It’s also used to drag themselves along their mother’s hair to the sanctuary of her pouch. Hmm… puggles! Now there’s a bit of natural selection that’s stood the test of time.” And he reminded Bartholomew once again about the echidna being the oldest mammal… and some think that’s nought but a granny’s yarn. Harrumph!”
Then Uncle Winston held up a paw. “I know what’s coming next, so before you even ask… yes you were a puggle; and yes you were in your Mum’s pouch; and yes, you got milk to live and grow in there. But she doesn’t have a teat in there, so how could she feed you? What do you reckon, young fellow?”
Carefully scratching his head between his spines, Bartholomew couldn’t imagine the answer. “Uhrr… a milky did home deliveries?” he ventured. Sounds too wild, but this is turning into one amazing story, so who knows? His amazement deepened when he learned his Mum had milk patches in her pouch instead, and his nuzzling as a piffling little puggle made her milk leak out of special pores onto tiny hair follicles for him to suck up.
Bartholomew learned his home had been a hollow, deep underground at the end of a tunnel, and his Mum had never left him alone until all his spikes had grown. Then she had left him to go forage for food… at first for only a few hours, then a day, then several days at a time. In some magical way, she had known the exact right time to bring him out into the world.
“And then?” Bartholomew felt puzzled. It was like there was a kind of mist over his memory of his Mum.
“She left you to begin your life alone from that day.” Uncle Winston sensed this was a tender moment and shuffled closer to Bartholomew (well, as close as their collective spikes would allow). “Don’t take it to heart, young fellow me lad. Happens to all of us. It’s the echidna way, you know.”
Bartholomew moved - inexplicably uncomfortable - kind of ticklish or something. And he woke… to find an army of ants crawling through his spines, all over his body, as though he were some giant jungle for them. It seemed none realised what they were bungling their way through… HIM! What was that? Did I hear them say, ‘Naa-na-na-naaa-naa...the bogey man’s gone awa-a-a-a-y’,” as they tromped along? And wriggled their bottoms at me, too? Talk about adding insult to injury.
Phew! If I could talk, I’d say a few choice words, he thought; and angrily whuffed SO hard, 94 ants fell off his snout alone! I’m well and truly antagonised with this lot. If the plan was to make me good and ready for something tantalising, they’ve succeeded. Dead antsy I am now! And he cleaned up a few hundred in moments. If the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, imagine the flavours that could await across the road, he thought and abruptly turned to cross over.
Without looking both ways as his mother had taught him, and with his deepest, gruffest, whuffingest grunts, he began his seek and destroy mission. Luckily for him, one of those pesky tourist cars had pulled up some distance back to get some photos of him. Seeing him beginning his waddle across the road, the lady got out, ready to wave any other cars to a stop to allow him a clear crossing.
Bartholomew never even saw her, so intent was he on stalking his prey. It didn’t take long for his powerful forepaws to rip open some rotting logs to find new blood - like slicing through jelly with a steak knife; until his snout took over, poking and pushing and lifting leaf litter out of the way until his super sense of smell, combined with the strange almost electrical vibes those ants gave out, led him directly into their home. It took only a few minutes to bury his nose up to his eyeballs and hit ‘pay dirt’. The new ant colony rushed every which way, trying to escape this relentless hunter, but Bartholomew was not to be deterred. What sort of pathetic excuse for an echidna would I be if I let them pesky ants win… even once? He snuffed, and then he whuffed some more, and licked the odd crawly off his chin with that formidable ‘roll-out’ tongue. Hmm… pesky, but delicious!
And now he dug himself in to their actual nest, seeing as how they’d made the soil soft for him to burrow down. He didn’t know what an amusing spectacle he made, sinking down as mounds of dirt grew up on each side of him, his powerful burrowing claws hidden from sight. Bartholomew ensured he submerged himself just deep enough so he once again looked like a small spinifex bush. If the tourists had not been watching him so carefully, they would never have picked him out, once he had settled in. The lady with the camera came closer again, after having backed off several steps when he had WHUFFED loudly as some of his terror-stricken dinner had gone the wrong way — UP his nose. She had almost performed a triple back somersault with shock.
But Bartholomew never knew or cared. He was ready to float off to echidna heaven on earth—fast asleep with a bellyful— and dream this time of the Great Echidna in the sky and an endless stream of ants marching across the clouds straight towards his open mouth.