We who are here at Ennien have come to celebrate Festival, to give thanks to Sivao, the camp that sustains us all. You have come through the forests. You have come over the rivers. You have used your claws and your teeth and your tails. You have asked me for a song, and I will sing a story of CloudShape to-Ennien, how she lost her whiskers and won them back again. I will tell you how it happened.
A to-Srallansre may be proud of her fur, and a to-Vensre may cherish his ears or his voice, but we to-Enniens, we treasure our long tails and our fine whiskers. You always know by the lashing of the tail when we are mad, and you can tell our slightest thought by a twitch of our whiskers.
Now it happens that CloudShape was in the forest one day, searching for berries to bring back to CleverThoughts, for he was currently in her favor, and she knew that their children would be the best hunters and the craftiest planners, makers and doers of great things. She was in search of a corner of the forest she had visited once before, far from camp, where the trees stretched overhead like a tent and shaded the ground from the strong heat of the sun. As she approached this bush, she smelled the scent of grabfoot on the air, and she heard the crackle of dead leaves under its feet, so she unsheathed her claws and made herself low to the ground.
"CloudShape!" called the grabfoot. In these days, all the creatures of Sivao knew each other, for we were fewer then, long before our cities grew, and when Walks were even more dangerous than they are now. CloudShape's first two children Walked too soon, and now EveningStar and BrightMoon look down on us from the night sky, where their mother placed them so she could see them every night.
"Tear-Mouth," she answered him. "Why do you call me, here in the forest?"
Tear-Mouth the grabfoot had long envied the fine whiskers of our people, and he had it in his mind to steal them for himself and leave CloudShape looking a fool. She had got the better of him many a time, and he would be glad to see her humbled.
"I wish to borrow your whiskers," he said. "If I like them, I may ask the gods to grant them to my people, but let me try them first, for a day, to see if they suit."
"And what will you give me, if I let you borrow my fine whiskers?"
"You come here seeking silverberries, don't you? I know where the finest berries are, finer by far than these, so succulent that the juices will run down your chin and mat your fur."
CloudShape considered the offer with suspicion. "You are no friend to my people. You and your family kill our weak and sick and young, tear their flesh with your sharp teeth. Why would you offer me this?"
"I have no use for the berries. Should I let them rot on the branch, when I can trade them to you for something I want?"
She still had no reason to trust Tear-Mouth, but CleverMouth had quite a weakness for silverberries, and the time was approaching when they would sequester themselves away from the rest of camp.
"Do you swear by the spirits that watch over us that you will keep your promise?" she asked Tear-Mouth.
"I swear by the spirits of the forest and the earth that I will return here with your whiskers tomorrow," Tear-Mouth replied, and no one would dare to break such an oath.
"Very well," said CloudShape, removing her whiskers and handing them to Tear-Mouth. "Tell me where to find these berries."
The silverberries were quite as good as Tear-Mouth had promised. CloudShape ate her fill and brought as many as she could carry back to camp, where CleverThoughts ate so much that his belly bulged and he lay by the fire for hours, purring with satisfaction.
The next day, CloudShape returned to the place where she had met Tear-Mouth. At the appointed time, she smelled his scent in the air.
"Tear-Mouth," she greeted him. "Did you enjoy my whiskers?"
"I did," he said. "My brothers and sisters say they look very fine on me."
"Then you will ask the gods to grant you whiskers of your own?"
"No, I think not," he said, backing out of reach. "I think I will keep these for my own, and my people will envy me."
CloudShape bristled, her fur standing on end. "You swore to give them back! You swore by the spirits of the forest and the earth!"
"I swore to return here with your whiskers, not to return them to you." And with that, Tear-Mouth turned and dashed into the forest.
CloudShape immediately gave chase, but Tear-Mouth knew this part of the forest well, and it seemed that he might outsmart and outdistance her. But then she saw a tree that she recognized, and an outcropping of rock, and she thought of a way she could trap Tear-Mouth.
She circled to the left of him and called out, "Tear-Mouth has stolen my whiskers! Catch him, YellowLeaves!" Then she circled to the right of him, her long legs stretching and bounding. "Tear-Mouth has stolen my whiskers! Catch him, SilentRiver!" In this way, she deceived Tear-Mouth into thinking that CloudShape's people were on every side of him, and his only escape was to run straight and run even faster.
In this part of the forest, the trees grew tightly together, old dead trunks lying on the ground, young trees fighting to grow the tallest to reach the sun. Tear-Mouth had to slow to pick his course, and all the time he heard CloudShape behind him, calling to her friends to catch him, catch him, catch him.
The ground grew smooth under CloudShape's feet; they had reached the path she was driving Tear-Mouth towards. This path branched, and she forced Tear-Mouth to the right with another call.
What Tear-Mouth did not know, because the gods had not given whiskers to the grabfoots, is that whiskers serve many purposes. They help us move in the dark when BrightMoon is not in the sky. They let us sense which way the wind is blowing. They help us to speak to our brethren without using our voices. But they also help us move through tight spaces, because as we all learn as small children, where the whiskers will fit, the body will follow.
The thief did not know this, and so when he squeezed in between two tree trunks, desperate to escape CloudShape, his whiskers bent back, and his body lodged tight and would move no more. He thrashed as if he were caught in the jaws of a slashback, but all his efforts only wedged him in tighter.
CloudShape came to a halt beside him, her sides heaving, and sat down on the ground to catch her breath. "Well, Tear-Mouth," she said, "you are at my mercy. I could kill you for breaking your promise to me."
Tear-Mouth said nothing, but continued to fight against his trap, eyes wide with panic.
"I think I will leave you to live with a lesson, though, and the memory that you tried to trick me and failed." She pulled the whiskers from his face, and he cried out in pain.
"And of course," she said, placing the whiskers back where they belonged, "I will also leave you stuck here, looking like the fool you are." And with that, she returned to camp and to CleverThoughts, her tail held high.
When the wind blows, you can often look up in the sky and see CloudShape in whatever form she has taken that day, and know that it is the lashing of her tail that has set the air in motion. And when there are only a few wisps of white in the sky, and all the world is still and quiet, you know you are seeing the tips of her fine, fine whiskers.
That is how it happened.