Fractal Myth

Saira's Snails.

[Michelle Chapman ©2001]

This is a story about an Australian girl called Saira, who lived on a bush property in NSW, just west of Sydney. Most of her neighbours were farmers, and their land had been cleared, long ago, to grow paddocks of grass which sheep and cows could eat. Saira and her parents, however, loved the Australian bush. They planted lots of native trees around the edges of their paddocks, and helped the bush to regrow along the creek that marked the back of their property. Saira liked the strong, clean smells of the bush, and the delicate bush flowers. She was always delighted to see the birds playing and feeding in the branches, like the big Glossy Black Cockatoos, which made so much noise as they crunched the she-oak nuts, and the bright Crimson Rosellas, and the active, acrobatic Flycatchers, and many other beautiful feathered friends. She also loved learning about all the bush animals. She knew where the strong, stubborn Wombats had their network of tunnels, and she listened to the Ring-Tail and Brush-Tail Possums when they danced on her roof at night. Once she had even seen a fluffy little Sugar-Glider. All the bush creatures were Saira's friends, and she was always very careful, when she went for a walk in the bush, not to do anything that might hurt or frighten them.

Because Saira loved the bush, she knew how important it was to keep it as a home for birds and animals. She knew that if she bought pretty flowers, like those she saw in other people's gardens, and planted them in the bush, it could be dangerous for her bird and animal friends. To avoid this problem, Saira's parents had built special gardens in their backyard, near the house. Here they grew fruit and vegetables and flowers. All the birds and animals could visit, but the foreign plants could not escape into the bush and become weeds.

Saira really enjoyed playing in the garden, planting seeds and watching the little plants grow big and flower. Then, just before her eighth birthday, her parents gave her a little garden as her very own. She was very excited. Using her small red spade, she loosened the soil, mixed in lots of compost, and gathered baskets full of dried leaves to use as mulch.

"But what are you going to plant?" her father asked. Saira thought very hard. At first, she thought she would plant lots of different kinds of blue flowers, because blue was her favourite colour. She drew a picture to see what it would look like, and decided that the blue flowers would look much prettier if there were lots of other colours in her garden as well. She told her parents what she wanted, and soon her little garden was full of seedlings. There were sweet-scented violets, and funny-faced snapdragons, lovely blue larkspurs, and bright golden marigolds, tall, colourful hollyhocks and around the edge, a border of delicious strawberries. Of course, it would still be many weeks before her plants were big enough to flower, but Saira did not mind. Every morning before school, she skipped out to say 'Hallo' to her garden, checking each plant to see whether it had grown overnight, and guessing how long it would be before the first flower buds arrived.

On the morning of her eighth birthday, Saira got up very early, and ran out to see whether any of her plants had grown a flower for her birthday. To her surprise, she suddenly discovered that something had been eating her fragile seedlings. A shiny silver trail told her who the guilty party was. A snail! She looked around more carefully, and soon found there were lots of snails in her garden, and that many of her plants had silver ribbons pointing to nibbled leaves. Saira didn't know what to do. She did not want to crunch and smash them. She was a very kind young person, who didn't like hurting anything, even a slimy snail. She decided to count them, to see how many there were, but she kept losing count because the snails wouldn't stay still. They kept crawling away and getting her all mixed up, until she was sure that she had counted the same snail over and over again.

Just then, Saira's Dad came past, pushing the lawn mower.

"Why don't you paint them blue?" he asked. "Then you can find them easily, and you could paint a little white number on them, too, so you will be able to tell which ones you have counted."

Saira thought this was a great idea. If she painted the snails blue they would look very decorative in her garden, and since blue was her favourite colour, she would not mind so much when they ate her flowers. She went and got the new paintbox, which had been her Dad's birthday present to her, chose the prettiest shade of blue, and began painting the snails. She had just finished painting the twelfth snail when her Mum called her in for her birthday lunch.

"Be good", Saira said, shaking her finger at the snails. "I will be right back, so don't go anywhere."

After lunch Saira came back to her garden to look at her new blue snails, but there were no blue snails to be seen - only four plain brown ones.

"Where did they go?" she asked the brown snails, but they didn't say anything, so she carefully picked them up, one by one, and painted them blue, too. Saira was going to stay and watch to see what happened to them, but her Mum called her again. It was time for her to get cleaned up and put on her new dress, because her Grandma, her Aunt and her favourite cousin were coming to wish her Happy Birthday. She ran back inside, instantly forgetting about the mysteriously disappearing blue snails.

Saira had a lovely time playing with her cousin, and opening all her wonderful birthday presents. Her Grandma gave her a necklace of blue beads, her Aunt gave her a shady straw hat, with a blue rose on the brim, and her cousin gave her an enamelled blue hair-clip. Saira was delighted. The beads, the hat and the hair-clip all perfectly matched the new blue dress her mother had made.

Later that afternoon, when her visitors had left, Saira remembered her snails and went out to see how they were.

"Don't you think you should take off your new things first, in case you lose them?" her mother asked.

"It's OK", Saira replied. "I am only going to be in my garden."

"Well, just be careful," her mother warned.

"I will," she promised.

When she reached her garden, however, there was not a snail to be seen. She searched under the leaves, behind the rocks and everywhere else she could think of, without finding a single snail. Finally, Saira sat down on her garden bench to think. She was worried that by painting the snails' shells, she might have hurt them, and she had not wanted to do that.

Suddenly, Saira saw a flash of shiny black wings and a male Satin Bowerbird landed on a branch nearby, looking closely at her. He was quite a large bird, not as big as a chicken, but much larger than a wren or a robin, and his feathers were so black that they shone metallic blue. Saira thought he was the most beautiful bird she had ever seen.

"Hallo", she said, and the Bowerbird answered with a strange chirring, whirring call. "Is something wrong?" she asked, wondering why such a shy bird would be sitting so close to her. Then the Bowerbird opened its wings and glided to a branch in the next tree. It sat there and watched her. When Saira didn't move, the bird flew back to the first branch, and then returned to the branch that was further away.

"Do you want me to follow you?" Saira asked, and the Bowerbird repeated his short hopping flight. She stood up and walked towards the second tree. This time, the Bowerbird swooped on to a farther branch, and looked back to make sure that Saira was following. In this way, flying from tree to tree then waiting for Saira to catch up, the Bowerbird led her down past the dam and into the bush on the far hill.

"Where are we going?" she asked, after a while. "I promised Mum I was not going to leave the yard." The Bowerbird just repeated its whirring chuckle, and flew on to the next tree.

"This is as far as I am going." Saira said, when she reached it. "I am tired, and I have to get home." But the Bowerbird would not listen to her. He flew to the next tree and sat waiting.

"All right," Saira said, feeling annoyed, "but this better be good!"

When they reached the next tree, instead of landing on the branch, the Bowerbird fluttered down to a little clearing beside the creek. It was his bower. Saira felt very privileged to be invited to see it by the bird himself. She looked very closely.

The Bowerbird had woven together stiff strands of dried grass to form the walls of his bower. Using a twig as his paintbrush, he had painted the inside walls with a mixture of charcoal and saliva. All around the bower were scattered his collection of blue things. Saira saw that he had picked blue tinsel lily flowers, and berries from the blueberry ash. She also saw many blue things he had borrowed from around her house, including blue clothes pegs, the lid of a blue biro and even her guinea-pig's little blue plastic water dish.

Finally, Saira saw the cause of the Bowerbird's distress. Crawling around the little clearing were sixteen bright blue snails. The Bowerbird chattered angrily at them, darting around his bower, carefully picking up each snail and placing it exactly where he wanted it. Each time, however, the snails started to crawl away, disturbing his artistically arranged patterns. Saira started to laugh, and the Bowerbird stopped chasing the snails and turned to glare at her.

"Yes, I know. It is my fault." She said. "I think I can help, though." Very quietly, Saira reached up and took the blue rose from her new straw hat. She tiptoed across the Bowerbird's clearing, picked up her guinea-pig's dish, and put the rose down in its place. The Bowerbird watched her very closely, and hopped over to inspect the plastic rose. It seemed to meet with his approval, because he took it in his beak and rearranged its position slightly, then stepped back and looked at it, first with one eye and then with the other, turning his head back and forth, making sure he was satisfied with the effect. Next, Saira took off the necklace of beads her Grandma had given her. There were exactly sixteen blue beads on the string. The Bowerbird was fascinated.

"I'm sorry, Grandma," Saira said quietly, as she broke the string, being careful to catch all the beads in her skirt. Then she leant over and picked up a blue snail, and put a blue bead down instead. The Bowerbird quickly realised what she was doing, and soon he was hopping around collecting the snails and putting them in the little blue dish for her. Every time he dropped a snail in the dish, the Bowerbird stopped and looked suspiciously at Saira. He watched her carefully, until he was sure that she had given him a blue bead in exchange for each blue snail. Before too long, Saira had a dish full of sixteen blue-painted snails, and the Bowerbird was happily bouncing around arranging his new blue rose and his sixteen blue beads.

"Well," Saira said, "I hope they bring you luck." As she turned to go, she heard another strange whirring chirring call in a nearby tree. Looking up she saw a female Bowerbird, with a fawn and cream striped breast and bright olive-green wings.

"It's all right," Saira told her. "I'm just leaving. He's all yours." As she walked away, Saira looked back and saw the girl Bowerbird slowly hopping around the bower, looking carefully at all the blue things the boy Bowerbird had collected. Meanwhile, he shyly rearranged each piece until his pattern was perfect.

When she got back to the house, Saira's mother and father were waiting for her.

"Where have you been?" they asked. "We have been worried." Before she had a chance to say anything, her mother noticed the missing rose on her hat, and that she no longer wore her new blue beads.

"Oh, Saira," she said. "You promised you wouldn't lose them."

"But I didn't." Saira protested. "I gave them away. I had to. It was all my fault." Clutching the dish of blue snails, Saira began to cry.

"Come on," her father said. "Sit down and tell us all about it."

Saira sat on her father's knee, with her mother beside them, and she told them everything that had happened, from the moment when she discovered the snails had been eating her flowers.

"You see?" her father said. "It wasn't your fault at all. It was my idea to paint the snails blue. I had forgotten about the Bowerbird and his borrowing."

"Don't worry about your presents," her Mum said when she had heard the whole story. "I am sure if you write a letter to Grandma and Aunt Lucy and explain what happened, they will understand."

Saira dried her eyes.

"But what am I going to do about the snails?" she asked. Already the pretty blue snails were trying to crawl out of the dish and escape.

"Just let them go." Her Dad said.

"Won't the Bowerbird just come and get them again?" Saira asked, worried to think of the poor bird being tricked again.

"Trust me," her father said, and pointed at the big black cloud on the horizon. "You and your Mum should go in and get started on those letters, or you are going to get wet. I'll stay for a while, and make sure everything works out."

So Saira and her mother went inside and wrote nice long letters to her Grandma and her Aunt. They told them all about the blue snails and the Satin Bowerbird, and what had happened to the blue beads and the blue plastic rose. While they wrote, Saira's Dad sat out on the verandah and watched the rain fall.

The next morning, the rain had stopped, and Saira ran out to see her garden. Almost everywhere she looked, she saw plain brown snails, happily munching away at her plants.

"What happened to the blue snails?" she asked her father.

"The paint washed off in the rain," he explained. Saira told him that she had decided that sharing her flowers with the snails was better than trying to change them.

A week later, a package arrived in the mail with Saira's name on it. Inside was a note from her Aunt, and one from her Grandma. Her Aunt had sent Saira a new blue rose for her hat, but this time a posy of blue plastic forget-me-nots surrounded the pretty rose. "So you will always remember your Bowerbird friend", the note said. Nestled inside the note from Saira's Grandma were two strings of beads. Looking at them closely, however, Saira realised that each blue bead was in the shape of a snail. The note that came with them said "I don't think the Bowerbird will want to pinch these beads, after his past experience with blue snails, but I have put in a spare one, just in case." Saira quickly wrote two little thank-you notes, and then skipped outside to her garden, wearing her straw hat with the blue flowers, and her new blue snail beads. As she wandered through her flowers, she heard a now familiar whirring chirring sound overhead. Looking up, she saw the glossy Satin Bowerbird peering down at her. He scratched at his wing with his beak and plucked out a shiny blue-black feather, which he dropped. The feather came spiralling down out of the tree and landed at Saira's feet.

"Oh, thank you," she exclaimed, and picking it up, she put it carefully behind the forget-me-nots in her hat. "Now I know that you will not forget me either," she said, and the Bowerbird agreed, warbling his chirring whirring song.

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