Three Mulla-mulgars, The


At first the three brothers lived so forlorn and solitary together they could scarcely eat. Everything they saw or handled told them only over and over again that their mother was dead. But there was work to be done, and brave hearts must take courage, else sorrow and trouble would be nothing but evil. This, too, was no time for sitting idle and doleful. For a little before the gathering of the rains there began to seem a strangeness in the air. After the great heat had flown up a tempest of wind and lightning of such a brightness that Nod, peering out of his little tangled window-hole, could see beneath the gleaming rods of rain and the huge, bowed, groaning trees no less than three leopards crouching for shelter beneath the Portingal's sturdy little hut. He could hear them, too, in the pauses of the tempest, mewling, spitting, and swearing, and the lash of their angry tails against the wall of the hut. After the tempest, it fell cold and very still, with sometimes a moaning in the air. Strange weather was in the sky at rise and set of sun. And the three brothers, looking out, and seeing the numberless flights of birds winging with cries all in one direction, and hearing this moaning, hardly knew what to be doing. They went out every day to gather great bundles of wood and as many nuts and fruits and roots as they could carry. And they found everywhere wise creatures doing the same—I mean, of course, collecting food—for none beside the Minimuls, the Gungas, and the Mulla-mulgars have fire-sticks, and most of them fear even the sight and smell of flames.

And Nod, having his mother's quick hand, made a great store of Manaka-cake and Sudd-bread. He dried some fruits, pulped others. And some he poured with honey or Ummuz-juice into the Portingal's little earthen pots, many of which were still unbroken, while he who had first used them was but a bony shadow-trap in the corner. And Nod and Thumb made two great gourds of Subbub, very sweet and potent, so that, because of the sweet smell of it, the four-clawed Weddervols came barking about their hut all night. But the Manga-cheese their mother had made melted in the heat of the great fires they burned, and most of it ran down out of the cupboard. They filled the wood-hole with firewood, and stacked it outside, above Nod's shoulder, all against the hut.

And it was about the nineteenth week after Mutta's death that Thumb, as he came stooping to the door one night, saw fires of Tishnar on the ground. Over the swamp stood a shaving of moon, clear as a bow of silver. And all about, on every twig, on every thorn, and leaf, and pebble; all along the nine-foot grasses, on every cushion and touch of bark, even on the walls of their hut, lay this spangling fiery meal of Tishnar—frost. He called his brothers. Their breath stood round them like smoke. They stared and snuffed, they coughed in the cold air. Never, since birds wore feathers—never had hoar-frost glittered on Munza-mulgar before.

These Mullas danced; they crouched down in the dreadful cold, thinking to warm their hands at these uncountable fires. And, lo and behold! in a little while, looking at one another, each was a Mulgar, white and sparkling too. Their very hairs, down-arm and up-arm, every tuft stood stiff and white with frost. Like millers they stood, all blazing in the night.

And that was the beginning of Witzaweelwūlla (the White Winter). For it was only three days after Tishnar's fires were kindled that Nod first saw snow. Now one, two, three, a scatter of flakes, just a few. "Feathers," thought Nod.

But faster, faster; twirling, rustling, hovering. "Butterflies," thought Nod.

And then it seemed the sky, the air, was all aflock. He ran out snuffing and frightened. He clapped his hands; he leapt and frisked and shouted. And there, coming up out of the swamp, were his brothers, laden with rushes, and as woolly with snow as sheep. Because it looked so white and crisp and beautiful Nod even brought out a pot and filled it with snow to cook for their supper. But there, when he lifted the lid, was only a little steaming water.

By-and-by they began to wonder and to fear no more. How glad they were of all the wood they had brought in, and of their great cupboardful of victuals! They made themselves long poles, and would go leaping about to keep themselves warm. They built such roaring fires on the hearth they squatted round that the sparks flew up like fireflies under the black, starry sky. Snug in their hut, the brothers would sit of an evening on their three stools, with their smoking bowls between their legs. And they would open their great mouths and drone and sing the songs their father had taught them, beating to the notes with their flat feet on the earth floor. But, nevertheless, they pined for the cold and the snow to be over and gone, so that they might start on their journey! Every morning broke bleak and sparkling. Often of a night new snow came, till they walked between low white walls on their little path to the forest. But in spite of the cold which made them ache and shiver, and their toes and fingers burn and itch, they went out searching for frozen nuts and fruits every morning, and still fetched in faggots.

Often while they squatted, toasting themselves round their fire, Nod would look up, blinking his eyes, to see the faces of the Forest-mulgars peeping in at the window, envying the Mullas their warmth, though afraid of their fire, and calling softly one to another: "Ho, ho! look at the Mulla-sluggas [lazy princes] sitting round their fire!" And Thumb and Thimble would grin and softly scratch their hairy knees. Thumb, indeed, made up a Mulgar drone, which he used to buzz to himself when the Munza-mulgars came miching and mocking and peeping. (But it was a bad and dull drone, and I will not make it worse by turning it into my poor English from Mulgar-royal.)

Nod often sat watching the Forest-mulgars frisking in the forest, though every morning the light shone through on many perched frozen in the boughs. The Mullabruks and Manquabees made huddles in the snow. But the tiny Squirrel-tails, with their dark, grave, beautiful eyes and silken amber coats, still roosted high where the frost-wind stirred in the dark. Sometimes on a crusted branch of snow Nod would see five—seven—nine of these tiny, frost-powdered Mulgars cuddling together in a row, poor little frozen and empty boxes, their gay lives fled away. And when his brothers were gathering sticks in the forest, he would smuggle out for them two or three handfuls of nuts and pieces of cake and Sudd-bread. All the crusts and husks and morsels he kept in a shallow grass-basket, which his mother had plaited, to feed these pillowy Squirrel-tails, the lean Skeetoes, and the spindle-legged flycatchers.

Birds of all colours and many other odd little beasts came in the snow to Nod to be fed. He summoned them with the clapping of two sticks of ivory together, till his brothers began to wonder how it was their victuals were dwindling so fast. But once, when Thumb and Thimble were away in the forest with their jumping-poles, and he had ventured out on this errand with his basket full of scraps, he forgot to put up the door behind him. When he returned, skipping as fast as his fours would carry him, wild pigs and long-snouted Brackanolls, Weddervols, and hungry birds had come in and eaten more than half their store. The last of their mother's treasured cheese was gone, and all their Ummuz-cane. That night Thumb and Thimble went very sulky to bed. And for the next few days all three brothers sallied out together, with their poles, searching and grubbing after every scrap of victuals they could find with which to fill their larder again.

Some time after this, so hard and sharp grew the cold that Thumb and Thimble were minded to put on their red metal-hooked jackets when they went out stick-gathering. They took their knives and nut-sacks over their shoulders, and muffled and bunched themselves up close, with cotton-leaves wound round their stomachs, and their skin caps pulled low over their round frost-enticing ears. And they told Nod to cook them a smoking hot supper against the dark, for now the snow was so deep it was a hard matter to find and carry sticks, and they meant to look for more before matters worsened yet. So Nod at once set to his cookery.

He made up a great fire on the hearthstone. But in spite of its flames, so louring with gathering snow-clouds was the day that he had to keep the door down to give him clearer light; and, though he kept scuttling about, driving out the thieving Brackanolls and Peekodillies that came nosing into the hut, and scaring away the famished birds that kept hopping in through the window-hole, even then he could not keep himself warm. So at last he went to the lower cupboard, under the dangling Portingal, and took out his sheepskin coat. He put away the dried kingfisher which his mother had wrapped in the fleece to keep it sweet, and buttoned the ivory buttons, and skipped about nimbly over his cooking in that. Then he heaped more wood on—logs and brush and smoulder-wood—higher and higher, till the flames leapt red, gold, and lichen-green out of the chimney-hole. Then he said to himself, flinging yet another armful on: "Now Nod will go down and get some ice to melt for water to make Sudd-bread." So he went down to the water-spring.

And he stood watching the Mulgars frisking at the edge of the forest, vain that they should see him with his pole and basket, standing in his sheep's jacket. He broke up some ice and put in into his basket. Then he plodded over to his mother's grave and cleared away the hardened snow that had fallen during the night on her little heap of stones. "Kara, kara Mutta, Mutta-matutta," he whispered, laying his bony cheek on the stones—"dearest Mutta!" And while he stood there thinking of his mother, and of how he would go and bring down a pot of honeycomb for her death-shadow; and then of his father; and then of the strange journey they were all going to set out on when Tishnar returned to her mountains; and then of his Wonderstone; and then of Assasimmon, Prince of the Valleys, his peacocks and Ummuz-cane, and Ummuz-cane, and Ummuz-cane—while he was thus softly thinking of all these happy things, he suddenly saw the gigantic Ukka-tree above him, lit up marvellously red, and glowing as if with the setting of the sun. He shut his eyes with dread, for he saw all the forest monkeys lit up too, stock-still, staring, staring; and he heard a curious crackle and whs-s-s-ss.

Nod turned his little head and looked back over his shoulder. And against the snowy gloom of the forest he saw not only sparks, but flames, wagging up out of the chimney-hole. The door of the hut was like the frame of a furnace. And a trembling fear came over him, so that for a moment he could neither breathe nor move. Then, throwing down his basket of ice, and calling softly, "Mutta, O Mutta!" he scrambled over the snow as fast as he could and rushed into the hut. But he was too late; before he could jump, spluttering and choking, out of the door again, with just an armful of anything he could see, its walls were ablaze. Dry and tangled, its roof burnt like straw—a huge red fire pouring out smoke and flame, hissing, gushing, crackling, bubbling, roaring. And presently after, while Nod ran snapping his fingers, dancing with horror in the snow, and calling shriller and shriller,

"Thumb, Thimble; Thimble, Thumb,
Leave your sticks and hurry home:
Thicker and thicker the smoke do come!
Thumb, Thimble; Thimble, Thumb!"

he heard above the flames a multitudinous howling and squealing, and he looked over his shoulder, and saw hundreds upon hundreds of faces in the forest staring out between the branches at the fire. By the time that Thimble and Thumb in their red jackets were scampering on all fours, helter-skelter, downhill out of the forest, a numberless horde of the Forest-mulgars were frisking and howling round the blaze, and the flames were floating half as high as Glint's great Ukka-tree. They squealed, "Walla, walla!" (water), grinning and gibbering one to another as they came tumbling along; but they might just as well have called "Moonshine!" for every drop was frozen. Nor would twenty flowing springs and all Assasimmon's slaves have quenched that fire now. And when the Forest-mulgars saw that the Mulla-mulgars had given up hope of putting the fire out, they pelted it with snowballs, and scampered about, gathering up every stick and straw and shred they could find, and did their utmost to keep it in. For at last, in their joy that the little Portingal's bones were in the burning, and in their envy of the Mulla-mulgars, their fear of fire was gone.

And so Night came down, and there they all were, hand-in-hand in a huge monkey-ring, dancing and prancing round the little Portingal's burning hut, and squealing at the top of their voices; while countless beasts of Munza-mulgar, too frightened of fire to draw near, prowled, with flame-emblazoned eyes, staring out of the forest. And this was the Forest-mulgars' dancing-song:

"Bhoor juggub duppa singlee—duppa singlee—duppa singlee;
Bhoor juggub duppa singlee;
Sal rosen ghar Bhōōsh!"

They sing at first in a kind of droning zap-zap, and through their noses, these Munza-mulgar, their yelps gradually gathering in speed and volume, till they lift their spellbound faces in the air and howl aloud. And with such a resounding shout and clamour on the Bhōōsh you would think they were in pain.

For the best part of that night the fire flared and smouldered, while the stars wheeled in the black sky above the forest; and still round and round the Mulgars jigged and danced in the glistening snow. For the frost was so hard and still, not even this great fire could melt it fifteen paces distant from its flames. And Thimble and Thumb in their red jackets, and Nod in his cotton breeches and sheepskin coat, shivered and shook, because they weren't hardened, like the Forest-mulgars, to the icy night-wind that stole fitfully abroad.

When morning broke, the fire had burned down to a smother, and most of the dancing Mulgars had trooped back, tired out and sleepy, to their tree-houses and huddles and caverns and hanging ropes in the forest. But no sleep stole over those Mulla-sluggas, Thumb, Thimble, and Nod, sitting on their stones in the snow, watching their home-smoke drooping down and down. Nod stared and stared at the embers, his teeth chattering, ashamed and nearly heart-broken. But his brothers looked now at the smoke, and now at him, and whenever they looked at Nod they muttered, "Foh! Mulla-jugguba, foh!"—that is to say, "Foh! Royal-Flame-Shining One!" or "Your Highness Firebright!" or "What think you now, Prince of Bonfires?" But they were too sullen and angry, and Nod was too downcast, even to get up to drive away the little mole-skinned Brackanolls and the Peekodillies which came nosing and grunting and scratching in the ashes, in search of the scorched oil-nuts and the charred Sudd and Manaka-cake.

The three Mulla-mulgars sat there until the sun began to be bright on their faces and to make a splendour of the snow; then they did not feel quite so cold and miserable. And when they had nibbled a few nuts and berries which a friendly old Manquabee brought down to them, they began to think and talk over what they had best be doing now—at least, Nod listened, while Thumb and Thimble talked. And at length they decided that, their hut being burnt, and they without refuge from the cold, or any hoard of food, they would wait no longer, but set off at once into the forest on the same long journey as their father Seelem had gone, to seek out their Uncle Assasimmon, Prince of the Valleys of Tishnar.

This once said, Thumb lifted his fat body stiffly from his stone, and took his jumping-pole, and frisked high, leaping to and fro to make himself warm again. Soon he began to tingle, and laughed out to cheer the others when he tumbled head over heels into a snowdrift. And they combed themselves, and stood up to their trouble, and thought stubbornly, as far as their monkey-wits would let them, only of the future (which is easier to manage than the past). Then they searched close in the cooling ashes and embers of the hut, and found a few beads undimmed by the heat, and all the Margarita stones, which, like the Salamander, no flame can change; also, one or two unbroken pots and jars and an old stone kettle or Ghôb. Nod, indeed, found also a piece of gold that had lain hid in the Portingal's rags. But all the little Traveller's bones except his left thumb knuckle-bone were fallen to ashes. Nod gave Thumb the noddle of gold, and himself kept the knuckle-bone. "Sōōtli,"[5] he whispered, touched his nose with it, and put it secretly into his pocket. And glad were they to think that only that morning they had fetched out their red jackets and Nod his wool coat.

When the Forest-mulgars heard that the three brothers were setting out on their long journey, they came trooping down from their leafy villages, carrying presents, two skin water-bags (for the longed-for time when the ice should bestir itself), a rough stone knife, a wild-bee honeycomb, a plaited bag of dried Nanoes and nuts, and so on. But of these Mulgar tribes few, like ants, or bees, or squirrels, make any store, and none uses fire, nor, save one or two solitaries here and there, can any walk upright or carry a cudgel. They munch and frisk and chatter, and scratch and quarrel and mock, having their own ways and wisdom and their own musts and mustn'ts. There are few, too, that cherish not some kindness, if not for all, at least for one another—the leopard to her cubs, the Coccadrillo to her eggs. But back to our Mulla-mulgars.

The forest of Munza-mulgar saw a feast upon its borders that day. The Forest-mulgars sat in a great ring, and ate and drank, and when the sun had ascended into the middle of the sky and the snow-piled branches shone white as Tishnar's lambs, Thumb, Thimble, and Nod, rose up and sang, "Gar Mulgar Dusangee"—the Mulgars' Farewell. While they sang, all the Forest-mulgars, in their companies and tribes, sat solemnly around them, furred and coloured and pouched and tailed. Shave their chops and put them in breeches, they might well be little men. And they waved slowly palm-branches and greenery to the time of the tune; some even moaned and grunted, too.

"Far away in Nanga-noon
Lived an old and grey Baboon,[6]
Ah-mi, Sulâni!
Once a Prince among his kind,
Now forsaken, left behind,
Feeble, lonely, all but blind:
Sulâni, ghar magleer.
"Peaceful Tishnar came by night,
In the moonbeams cold and white;
Ah-mi, Sulâni!
'Far away from Nanga-noon,
Thou old and grey Baboon;
Is a journey for thee soon!'
Sulâni, ghar magleer.
"'Be not frightened, shut thine eye;
Comfort take, nor weep, nor sigh;
Solitary Tishnar's nigh!'
Sulâni, ghar magleer.
"Old Baboon, he gravely did
All that peaceful Tishnar bid;
Ah-mi, Sulâni!
In the darkness cold and grim
Drew his blanket over him;
Closed his old eyes, sad and dim:
Sulâni, ghar magleer."

And here the Mulgars all lay flat, with their faces in the snow, and put the palms of their hands on their heads; while the three Mulla-mulgars paced slowly round, singing the last verse, which, after the doggerel I have made of the others, I despair of putting into English:

"Talaheeti sul magloon
Olgar, ulgar Nanga-noon;
Ah-mi, Sulâni!
Tishnar sōōtli maltmahee,
Ganganareez soongalee,
Manni Mulgar sang suwhee:
Sulâni, ghar magleer."

Then the Mulla-mulgars cut down stout boughs to make cudgels, and, having tied up their few possessions into three bundles and filled their pockets with old nuts, they took palm-leaves and honey-comb and withered scarlet and green berries, with which they canopied as best they could their mother's grave, nor forgot poor gluttonous Glint's. They stood there in the snow, and raised their hands in lamentable salutation. And each took up a stone and jerked it (for they cannot throw as men do) as far as he could towards the forest, as if to say, "Go with us!" Then, with one last sorrowful look at the befrosted ashes of their hut, they took up their bundles and started on their journey.

At first, as I have said, the Mulgar-track is wide, and even in this continually falling snow was beaten clear by hundreds of hand and foot prints. But after a while the lofty branches began to knit themselves above, and to hang thickly over the travellers, and to shut out the light. And the path grew faint and narrow.

One by one their friends waved good-bye and left them, until only Noll and Nunga (Mutta-matutta's only sister's only children) accompanied them. Just before sunset, when the forest seemed like a cage of music with the voices of the birds that now sang, many of them desperately from cold and hunger rather than for delight, Noll, too, and Nunga raised their hands, touched noses, and said good-bye. And the three brothers stood watching them till they had waved their branches for the last time. Then they went on.


[5] That is, Magic, or Strangeness. When the Mulgars of Munza see anything strange or unknown, they will whimper to one another, as they stand with eyes fixed, "Sōōtli, Sōōtli, Sōōtli," or some such sound.

[6] So I have translated "Babbabooma."

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