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The Dreaming



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How the Echidna Got His Spines


Echidna



Piggiebillah the Echidna was once a man. When he grew old, so old that all his friends had died, he lived with men who had been boys when he was middle-aged. They were all strong and tireless, and able to hunt all through the hot sunny hours of the day, and to travel long distances in search of food, but Piggiebillah was too old to take his part in providing food for the tribe.

No-one gave him anything to eat, and it was surprising that he remained so well. As he grew older he seemed better nourished than anyone else. In fact it was so very surprising that some of the people became suspicious and kept a close watch on him. After some time they discovered something that Piggiebillah had kept a secret to himself for years.

When he left the camp one morning, he was followed, and it was seen that he went to a rock at some distance from the encampment, and hid in its shadow. The watchers peered at him from behind bushes, wondering what he was waiting for. They soon found out. A young woman came along the path. Piggiebillah sprang out, and before anyone could move or give a shout of warning, he plunged his spear into her body. The old man dragged her off the track, ate her limbs, and hid the rest of her body away for a later meal.

The disappearance of many people of their tribe, and of visitors who were expected and never arrived, was at last explained. A secret meeting was held and it was unanimously decided that Piggiebillah must be killed. He was so active, in spite of his great age, that he had to be taken unawares.

They waited until there was a dark night without a moon. The old man was lying at some distance away from the fire. The men gathered silently round him. He was sleeping on his back with his mouth shut to prevent his spirit from wandering. He moved in his sleep and murmured, 'I hear the butterflies stamping in the grass.'

While he dreamed of butterflies the men drove their spears into his body. Piggiebillah groaned as they beat him with their clubs. Bone after bone in his body and arms and legs was broken, and at last the terrible cannibal lay still.

His wife was looking on in horror. She hit her head with her digging stick until the blood ran over her breast. Her name was Guineeboo, and when she fled from the scene she became Guineeboo, the Red-breasted Robin.

The men crowded round the fire, laughing and chattering over their easy victory. But Piggiebillah was not dead. He dragged himself painfully into the deeper shadows until he came to the burrow of Trapdoor Spider, Murga Muggai. He fell down the hole, and stayed at the bottom until his wounds were healed.

The one thing he could not do was to pull the spears out of his body, nor did the bones in his broken limbs knit together. Nobody recognised Piggiebillah when he came out into the daylight again. He crawled on all fours, with his broken legs splayed out, and the spears were a bristling forest on his back. For food he dug with his hands, and had to be satisfied with ants and other insects, and scraps of food.

Piggiebillah had turned into an Echidna, the little animal that scratches for ants because he cannot eat other food, and burrows underground to escape from his enemies.

A.W. Reed, Aboriginal Fables & Legendary Tales (Aboriginal Library)

  

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