The Stag and the Snail
It was a familiar rendezvous, and many of the animals turned there, as much from habit as from fatigue, glad to meet old acquaintances. On the day which concerns this story, there was an unusually large throng, and they chatted together sociably about the different events of their lives and the circumstances of their neighbours.
In one corner a group were noisily comparing notes with one another about the length of time it had taken them to travel certain distances. In this group was the stag, who monopolised the conversation and boasted of his own speed, and the buffalo, trying to be affable, said that they were bound to admit that the stag was now the swiftest animal in the jungle since the dog had run away to Man, and the entire company nodded in agreement.
There was, however, a little grey snail in the grass with her shell on her back, who was very disgusted with the boastings of the animals, especially of the stag, as if swiftness was the only virtue to which an animal ought to aspire. In order to put a stop to their talk, she called out mockingly for them to look at the lather that covered their bodies from over-exertion and to compare her own cool skin which had not perspired at all in spite of the journey; consequently, she claimed the honours for good travelling for herself.
This was received with much displeasure by the animals, who felt that their dignity had been flouted, for the snail was an insect in their estimation, not fit to be admitted to their august company. The stag began to canter gracefully round the grove to prove his superiority, his fellow animals applauding admiringly, but the little snail was not to be silenced, and to show her contempt, she challenged the stag to run a long race with her, declaring that she would beat him.
Many of the animals urged the stag not to heed the challenge of the snail, as it was only given to affront him, but he said that unless he would run she would always insult him and call him a coward who had shown fear of a snail. So it was settled that the stag and the snail should run a long race, from the Rubber grove to the top of Mount Shillong, on the animals’ return from Luri Lura.
The name of this little grey snail was Ka Mattah. As soon as the animals left the grove, she summoned together all her tribe to consider how to proceed so as to beat the stag in the long race. Many of the snail family found fault with her for her foolish challenge, but they were all prepared to help her out of her difficulty and to save her from the disgrace of defeat. It was decided in the family council that the snails should form themselves into a long line edging the path all the way from the Rubber grove to Mount Shillong,and hide themselves in the grass so as not to be discovered by the stag. So, the snails dispersed and formed themselves into a long line on the edge of the path.
As soon as they had sold their wares, the animals hastened to the grove, laughing among themselves as they walked at the foolishness of Ka Mattah in setting herself up against the swiftest of the animals, and they planned how to make her the general laughing-stock of the jungle for her audacity. When they reached the Rubber grove, they found Ka Mattah ready for the race, having discarded her cumbersome shell and put herself into a racing attitude on the path, which caused them no little amusement.
As soon as the signal was given, she dived into the grass and was lost to sight, while the stag cantered towards the mountains. After going some distance, he stopped, thinking that there would be no need to run further, as he imagined that the snail was far behind and likely to have given up the race, so he called out, “Heigh, Mattah, art thou coming?”
To his surprise, the voice of the snail answered close beside him saying, “I am here, I am here.”
Thereupon he ran on more swiftly, but after running several miles, he stopped again and called out as before, “Heigh, Mattah, art thou coming?”
And again the voice answered close to his heels, “I am here, I am here,” upon which the stag tore off at a terrific pace through the forest, only stopping at intervals to call out to the snail. As often as he called, the voice answered close to his feet, “I am here, I am here,” which set him racing with ever-increasing speed.
When he reached the Iei Tree Mountain, he was panting and quivering from his great exertions and longed to lie down to rest, but he saw before him the goal to which he was bound and spurred himself to a last effort. He was so exhausted as he climbed up the slopes of Shillong that he was giddy and faint and could scarcely move his wearied limbs, and, to his dismay, before he reached the summit, he heard the tormenting voice of the snail calling out from the goal, “I have won, I have won.”
Exhausted and defeated, the stag threw himself full length on the ground, and his disappointment and the sickness due to the terrible strain he had put on himself caused him to spit out his gall-bladder. To this day no gall-bladder is to be found in the anatomy of the stag, so he carries in his body the token of the great defeat he sustained through the wiles of Ka Mattah, the little grey snail, and the pathetic look has never gone out of his eyes.
Next: The Leap of Ka Likai