The Aborigines of Victoria and Riverina/Chapter 18
THE LEGEND OF THE courtenie (NATIVE COMPANION) AND kurwie (EMU); OR, HOW THE WICKED ONE WAS PUNISHED.
Before the blessing of the sun's cheering rays was vouchsafed to the earth, when the days and nights were alike dreary and dark, and long prior to the advent of man; when, in short, the earth was little better than a dark, cold wilderness, and was inhabited by the birds of the air and the beasts of the field only, it might be supposed during that cheerless time that peace and goodfellowship was the rule which obtained amongst the birds and beasts, but it was not so, for even in those days strife was more common than amity; the birds and beasts quarrelled continually, and much bad blood and general discomfort accrued accordingly. Broken bones were not by anyway uncommon in those days; even grim death's visage occasionally entered upon the already dreary-enough scene of their incessant disputes.
The courtenies (native companions) were nearly always at the bottom of every disagreement, and like ill-conditioned attorneys, they seemed to make a point of laying themselves out for mischief and were never at rest unless so engaged.
The kurwie (emu) in those long-since bygone days dwelt altogether in the clouds. She had immensely long wings then, which bore her wheresoever she felt inclined to go. During her manifold flights through airy space she occasionally caught a passing sight of the earth and the birds and beasts thereof, and these glimpses of terrestrial life gave much food for thought, and little wonder either, as everything she saw there was so very different to what existed in her cloud sphere. The little that she had seen of the earth and its creatures raised her curiosity to such an extent that she at last resolved to know more about them, so one day she soared quietly down until she was near enough to the earth to be able to take note of the on-goings there. From the point of observation which she had chosen she saw the various beasts and birds of the earth enjoying themselves after their respective natures, and wished in her heart that she might join them in their sports; amongst them all, however, the proceedings of the courtenies met with the greatest approbation.
Having thus seen the courtenies so apparently happy, dancing and singing, the kurwie could not help returning again and again to view their proceedings in the swamps, and to listen enraptured to the sweet tones of their voices. On one of these occasions she became so ravished by reason of the dulcet music and graceful dancing of the courtenies, she could no longer contain herself in the clouds, so swept right down amongst the birds and beasts much to their consternation. With the exception of the courtenies every bird and beast that could fly or run took themselves off in the direst of terror; the courtenies would gladly have done the same had they been able, but fear, craven fear, had paralysed their wings, so that they were unable to budge even a single feather; this fact, however, is not much to be wondered at, as the sudden and abrupt advent of such an uncouth monster as the kurwie seemed to them was cause ample enough to frighten the very bravest, whether beast or bird.
When the kurwie found that her feet felt firm and did not sink into the ground, she folded her wings with much complacency, after which, on finding that she possessed the power of progression (of which, until then, she had been entirely ignorant) other than that of flight, she stalked majestically up to the courtenies, bowed gracefully, and wished them "good day;" the salutation having been politely reciprocated by the courtenies she proceeded to account to them for her unlooked-for presence—"For ever so long it has afforded me much pleasure watching your usual avocations in the swamps, and the wonderful aptitude which you display in capturing the fine fat fish and frogs with which they seemingly teem, has met with my unbounded admiration; and, really, the unaffected gusto with which you gobble them when caught has made my beak water on many occasions. Your music, too, to which I have greedily listened with the utmost rapture, surpasses every sound I ever heard, and you excel so in dancing that in watching your frequent performances I have been so carried away by sheer excess of delight that I have caught myself on more than one occasion endeavouring to tread a measure in the air, taking your finished example as a guide, but, of course, failure to a most lamentable degree was the unvarying result. Now, should you not object, I shall be highly pleased if you will condescend to instruct me in all these wonderful accomplishments. Without doubt this is a great deal for a stranger, such as I am to you, to ask, but really I am so enamoured of all your graceful acquirements, as well as being most anxious to feed on the dainty produce of these inviting marshes, that I would almost undergo any amount of privation; yes, indeed, I would even endure considerable physical pain to gain my end. And the mere face of my having overcome the hereditary pride of the kurwie race so far as to place myself under an obligation to any bird, should, methinks, be quite proof enough of my extreme longing in the matter, therefore I fancy that you may be inclined to pardon me for the coolness of this request."
"Oh! as for that Madam Kurwie, I don't see anything particularly cool about your expressed wish for extended knowledge," replied a gaunt dame courtenie. "We shall only be too delighted to impart whatever we may know, of which so courteous and clever a stranger as yourself happens to be ignorant (the fear engendered by the kurwie's abrupt appearance on the scene had, thanks to her excessive suavity, quite departed), but, as far as I am able to see, it is almost impossible for us to comply with your wishes, and the reason thereof is obvious enough, as you will readily admit when I explain it to you." Before the conversation had reached so far, at a sign from the courtenie with whom the kurwie was holding converse, all the assembled courtenies had placed their wings across their backs, making it appear to the simple kurwie that they were wingless. "You see, you have very long wings of your own, which carry you whithersoever you may wish to go; now it is a noted fact that birds with wings, capable of flying, can never learn to catch fish and frogs as we do, nor is it possible for such birds to be taught either singing or dancing." The courtenie dame said all this so pat, and in such an emphatic manner, as could not help but impress the innocent kurwie with its truthfulness; she therefore hung her head most disconsolately; after a little consideration, however, she brightened up somewhat, as she asked—Whether there was not some means by which the mere accident of her having wings in common with the whole kurwie race could not be remedied so that she might be enabled to gratify her inordinate longing by being taught the role of a terrestial bird?"
"There is certainly one way in which the thing could be done," said Dame Courtenie, "but really I do not like to propose it, lest in doing so you may imagine that I purpose making a bumbuma koeworie (laughing jackass) of you; or, at least, that the required sacrifice (for there is a sacrifice in it, and a great one, too) would be greater by far than the benefit accruing; but since you seem to have taken the matter so much to heart, I shall tell you the penalty you must pay, ere you can attain your wishes, and then, of course, it will rest solely with yourself whether you will agree to it or not. It is this simply, you must allow yourself to be shorn of your wings, and so become a walking bird, such as I am. Remember, however, that if you elect to have your wings cut off, you will ever after be compelled (whether you like it or not) to walk on the earth, and perhaps you might not be altogether willing to do that, as who knows but what some fine day you might have a longing to soar untrammelled away into the mysterious depths of the clouds, as has been your habit hitherto, and in the event of some such case arising, it is more than probable that your disgust at the cause of your inability would be considerable; consequently, your having complied with the rule which alone can procure you the advantages possessed by the animals of the earth, would be a constant source of regret to you; therefore, I strongly advise you to consider the matter well in all its bearings before you think of coming to any decision."
The sly dame Courtenie saw plainly enough that the poor innocent Kurwie had already made up her mind to the sacrifice of her wings, although all the time she pretended not to be paying the slightest attention to her too-willing victim's cogitations; however, when the stupid simpleton, after no very long course of thought, said: "Well, you cut 'em tertow (wing or arm) belonging to me, for although lam perfectly well aware of the seriousness of such a proceeding, still I think that the advantages I shall gain thereby will considerably more than counterbalance the deprivation."
When the deluded biped had finished speaking, the wicked Courtenie's eyes twinkled with untold roguery. So greatly overjoyed was she at the success cf her nefarious scheme, she came very nearly forgetting her assumed which walks the earth." Thereupon the cunning dame Courtenie made a few Thespean steps, in which she was joined by all her kindred there assembled, brimful of malicious glee, after which one and all cut an astonishing wing, by way of finale; then, spreading out their wings to the ambient air, they flew away, leaving the mutilated Kurwie lost in wonder., and so spreading out her wings in perfect jubilation, which, if she had done, as a matter of course her little piece of diabolism would have come to a termination. With a severe struggle, however, she managed to keep her countenance whilst she performed the required amputation, but almost before the delicate operation was finally completed, she gave unrestrained reins to her mirth, so spread wide her wings, bowed several times most gracefully to her all too confiding victim, and finished off by saying: "I hope, dear Kurwie, that you will be successful in your sport, even to the top of your heart, and that your vocal powers, when you try them, will far outrival in sweetness those possessed by any other bird
The Bumbuma Koeworie, sitting on a neighbouring tree, saw and heard the whole performance, and although up to that time he and. all his kind had been mute birds, the successful wicked cunning of the sly dame Courtenie thus displayed before him so tickled his risible faculties, that before he was aware of it he burst out with a loud, long and joyous laugh, and from thence even to the present day, anything at all comical or absurd passing under the observation of the Koeworie, is certain to elicit much and prolonged laughter.
When the Kurwie's consternation, consequent upon the abruptness of the Courtenie's departure, had subsided some, what, she soliloquised thus:—"How vilely that abominable old Dame Courtenie has imposed upon me to be sure, to say that she and all her fellows were only walking birds, when 'tis plainly enough demonstrated that they can fly as well as ever I could. I trust that the cunning creature has not perverted the truth as much with regard to my being able to catch fish now that my wings have been out away; but this thought need not trouble my head long, as I can easily put it to the test, which I shall do forthwith." Alas! that it should fall to our task to relate it, but, sad to tell, the poor misled Kurwie's first fishing experiences nearly proved fatal to her, and after all she did not succeed in capturing even a paltry tadpole, much less a fish. After shaking the water out of her feathers upon reaching land, to console herself, as it were, for her decided failure in the fishing rôle which she had just adopted, she raised her head with no inconsiderable amount of pride, drew it well back, closing her eyes the while, and opening her beak to the widest possible extent, intent upon flooding the whole vicinity with a stream of unheard of melody; but alas! and thrice alas! the horrible sounds which issued from her throat were so terrible to hear, the Kumbama Koeworie came nearly tumbling off his perch from the force of downright fear, whilst she herself had all but swooned away by reason of her own discordant uproar.
Thus, when all too late, she had discovered how completely gulled she had been by the plausible cunning of the wicked Courtenie. Being, however, sensible beyond the general run of birds, she saw that repining would be but of very sorry avail, as do what she might her wings could not be restored to her; therefore, comforting herself in the best manner possible under the trying circumstances, she stalked away from the scene of her folly a wiser though a much sadder bird.
She walked away leisurely across the swelling undulations of the plains, pecking the succulent herbage as she passed, which she found wonderfully palatable and more to her taste than anything her late cloud world could offer, and when, with a crop full almost to bursting, she found herself comfortably squatted under the fragrant shelter of a Myall scrub, she came to the conclusion that she was not so badly off after all. She therefore thereupon determined never again to allow either her curiosity or appetite to induce her to forsake that of which she was already assured for the somewhat doubtful good of a brilliant shadow.
Time passed on its course even in those times, when the sun did not shine upon the earth, and when the season came round when it was usual for the animals of the earth to add to their several kinds, the Kurwie had nearly forgotten that she had ever been other than a terrestrial bird, and the scene of her transformation had almost faded from her memory.
In this teaming time both the Kurwie and the Courtenie were honoured by the cares of maternity, and some short time after the production of the respective broods, one day the sly old Dame Courtenie espied the Kurwie with her numerous covey coming along by the margin of the marsh upon which she was feeding with her brood all about her. Just then a maliciously cunning thought occurred to her, which caused her to tell the young Courtenies hastily to hide in the grass with the exception of one, and with this solitary one she walked about pretending to be carefully catering for its welfare, when up stalked the Kurwie surrounded by her large family of Kurwielets.
"Good day," quoth the Kurwie, "how do you get on? but I need scarcely inquire either, as it is palpable enough to all that you are as happy as can be, and small wonder I may say, seeing you have only one chick to provide for; but if you had as many little bills to provide for as I have you would find yourself in a very different pickle, I can tell you."
"No, I should not," replied the cunning old dame, "I know better than that. Why, my clutch was quite as numerous as yours is when I had done hatching."
"What has become of them, then? I only see one."
"Become of them, indeed, why dead to be sure. I pecked all their brains out—yes, and ate them, too, and very good they were. I had no idea of killing myself by scratching for so many; no, not I. One is ample for any reasonable bird to rear."
"Ah, to be sure, I never thought of that," soliloquised the Kurwie, "it is not by any means a bad idea;" then aloud, "I say, Dame Courtenie, did you not think it very wrong to kill all your brood but one chick?"
"Wrong, indeed, not I. I even find one a greater tax on my energies than I care for, but I'll rear him now that he is so well grown. If I were in your place, however, I should kill (without the slightest scruple) every chick you have, and never think twice about it, that I should. Why, by the time that these young ones of yours are old enough to look after themselves you will be quite worn down to bones and feathers, when, if you don't take care, you will stand a fair chance of visiting your old aerial abode in the clouds through the agency of a whirlwind. Now, don't you be soft-hearted in the matter; just take my advice, and let their brains out without more ado. If, however, you should have a sort of slight affection for the little torments do as I did, save one, but if you do like me you will find that one all too many for your personal comfort."
"Well, Dame Courtenie, I think you are quite right, a clutch like mine is too much of a good thing altogether. Many thanks for your good advice, which I shall follow incontinently. I shall save one, though, just for company's sake."
The foolish Kurwie was but a very short time engaged in the destruction of her promising brood, whilst the cunning old Courtenie looked on all the time with badly-suppressed glee, and when but one of the late numerous clutch remained alive she clapped her wings and danced, ejaculating the while, "Geralka Beralka, Geralka Beralka," which brought the whole of her abundant brood speedily from their hiding places in the rushes to her heels.
The vile, barefaced wickedness of the cunning Dame Courtenie being thus patently made manifest, rendered the poor simple bereaved Kurwie absolutely dumb, so that she could do nothing but gaze open-mouthed in speechless horror; but whilst so engaged the punishment of the wicked overtook the infamous Dame Courtenie on the spot where her latesthad been so shamelessly enacted.
Her long graceful neck, which had hitherto been the admiration and envy of bird and beast, became awry and crooked on the instant, and her dulcet vocal powers disappeared as though they had never been, leaving her with two discordant notes only, these being the tones by which she had been accustomed to call her family around her, Geralka Beralka, Geralka Beralka, and from these, down even to the present time, the tones have not varied. This deprivation, together with the crooked neck, still remains distinctive characteristics of well-merited punishment, and doubtless they will be reproduced from generation to generation through all time, or so long as the Courtenie race has a single representative on the fair face of the earth.
- In those days the native companions had much sweeter voices even than swans; however, because of their wickedness, this pleasing organ was taken from them, bat they still possess the talent for dancing unimpaired.
- In those days the bumbuma koeworie (stupid head, jackass) was a perfectly mute bird; his vacancy of look consequent thereon, together with his great unmeaning head and beak, gave rise to his soubriquet amongst the beasts and birds.