M. Skeel

The Legend of the Bandicoots

Once upon a time there was a place in
the forest where strange creatures lived....
In the shadows the bandicoots whispered
the stories of their clans..

Of days long gone, of heroes come and gone, of great dangers and disasters and heroic survival against the odds.

"The story of the Bandicoots is a long one, stretching back across time to the days of the last dinosaurs, when the earth was ruled by the terror of the reptiles. In that day the earth was one great land covered by one great forest that stretched from one side of the great encircling ocean to the other.

The dinosaurs had ruled for so long that the bandicoots of that time had no concept of any other arrangement. For them there was no time before the dinosaurs.

But in the life of the planet, the dinosaurs had ruled for mere days and soon they would be gone.

The memory of the great Ending came from the southernmost clan, for only it of all the clans survived. They told of a great light in the sky. First it had been a star among countless unnamed stars. Then it had grown larger and larger until it rivalled the moon in the sky. The bandicoot children romped and played in the eerie double light of the night sky and hunting was easy. The elders shook their heads and worried while the younger generation spoke in awe of the new sky god and how it must surely lead to better times. It was an omen though, of that they were all agreedÖ

It grew larger and larger and then suddenly was upon them. Far to the north they watched a fiery ball arc across the sky and explode. The bandicoots turned from it like the morning sun and fled to their deep burrows. Some time later, as mothers and fathers huddled with their children, grandparents and aunties and uncles, the earth shook around them, a fierce wind hurtled by above them and a terrible sound was heard. They clung to one another in the darkness and took comfort from each otherís warmth.

Then darkness settled upon the forest and did not go away. The sun did not come up and the continuing darkness brought with it a cold this land had not seen before. Far to the north, the earth was severed and the ocean swept in to fill the new gap between gondwana and the motherland. The bandicoot clans of the north were gone forever, their voices stilled but it didnít matter to the southernmost clan, who still huddled in a terrified bundle deep beneath the earth. Their bellies were full from the good feedings of the two moon nights, their fat layers thick, the coats warm and woolly. They did not bother to emerge into the darkness for many uncountable nights in the time without sun.

Never before had the bandicoots lived without cycles of sun and moon. They went into a torpor, all wrapped up together in a life-saving embrace. Their heat was maintained in the insulation of the earth. Outside the temperature was dropping below zero and beyond. The forest was gripped in a strange dark winter and all the large animals that had survived the first explosion were dying. The largest dinosaurs were stopping in their tracks, unable to generate the energy to move their feet. As the earth below the cloud layer cooled, and as the plants died back in the suffocating darkness, unable to make sugar without sunlight, the great herbivorous dinosaurs, confused by the darkness, numbed by the cold, began to freeze and starve at the same time. They stumbled about, looking for food, but slower and slower with each degree drop in the temperature. Many stopped even trying to feed or find water. They simply stopped in the darkness and waited, like the bandicoots in their deep burrow. But for the dinosaurs and a great many other plants and animals the end of the wait brought only death.

The few that survived, like the bandicoots, were ready for the change though they could not have predicted the need. They were warm in their fur coats. They had layers of fat to slowly burn. Their bodies could slow down to a slow pace, waiting for the warmth to return. And they had each other. In their love for family and tribe there was a kind of salvation, for the group together created a greater mass in which to hold the heat of life. And deep within the pouches of the mothers were tiny embryos waiting to develop, safe in a way that the eggs of the reptiles were not.

All over the land, now riven by the crater of the meteorite that had nearly ended life on earth, the eggs of the reptiles were dying, just as their parents were dying. They were cooling down beyond the ability to maintain life. Soon there was no next generation to carry on for the adults who were dead, dying and helpless around them. All around them ecosystems were collapsing as species after species ceased to exist when the last individuals of each species succumbed to the relentless cold and darkness.

After an endless time in the dark and yet still before the cold was unbearable, the elders of the tribe, as the most expendable and at the same time the most knowledgeable, crept to the surface to examine the world as it had become. There was a great deal of debris covering the entrance to the burrow. The elders made a narrow winding pathway through it but left most in place as protection against whatever lay beyond. As they made their way towards the surface they felt for any sign of lightness or fresh air upon their small eyes and long whiskers. They listened for the sounds of the world they had known, but there was nothing.

They made their way slowly, nose to tail, with old grandmother in the lead. As her nose poked through the last layer and into the air, she stopped. She pushed her head half way out so her eyes and ears were exposed as well as her sensitive nose and whiskers. She sniffed and sniffed at the heavy air. She swivelled her ears in all directions. Her eyes registered nothing at all in the gloomy darkness, unbroken by even the stars. Moonless nights she knew but this was something different. The cloud that surrounded her was not a raincloud and there was no feel of sun beyond, no matter how faint, even though her body clock told her the sun should be high overhead.

Old grandmother jerked her head back in and began pushing her way backwards. The others behind her had been eager to reach the surface. They had expected to emerge behind old grandmother and survey the situation. They resisted her efforts to push them backwards but she was relentless. She turned round and used her teeth and claws to drive them back until they reached the first room in their burrow. They gathered round her as she shared her findings of what was above: the smell of death in the heavy air, the choking smoke, the dropping temperature. One by one they made their way to the top to confirm what old grandmother had found. It was not pleasant. It was worse than she had conveyed. It was the beginning of the legend of the hell place that came after the time of the two moons..

They crept back to the tribe deep in the burrow. As they went, they closed off the tunnel to the top and the side tunnels. As they reached the familyís bunker, they sealed off the final exits with dried grasses. Air could still seep in and out but much of the cold would be held at bay till the earth itself froze. The parents worked for a few hours, bringing in whatever organic materials they could find, grasses and sticks, to make a deeper bed in which to huddle. Then they snuggled around the babies, made themselves comfortable and told stories until one by one, the tribe went to sleep..

They told the old stories to comfort their frightened loved ones. For those who had ventured to the surface could not help but show the fear that they felt at the terror above them. It was not like the terrors of the past; all the predators that had dogged their footsteps and killed the old, the young and the weakest of the tribe. This was like a dark shroud over their home, formless and terrible. They had no words to describe it or understand it so they turned instead to the stories of the tribe. Stories of triumph in the face of great dangers, known dangers, like snakes or two footed predatory dinosaurs.

Old grandmother knew all the stories. Long after the others had told all she knew, old grandmother kept talking, telling the stories of the old times, when there had been only one clan instead of many and all had spoken the same language. As her voice droned on in the darkness, the bandicoots drifted off the sleep and into a deep torpor. As the temperature around them dropped, old grandmother droned on, repeating her stories now, determined that if she did not wake up at the end of this terrible time, those that did would remember the stories.

Her voice droned on and the dreams of the sleeping bandicoots were filled with the heroes of old, the first bandicoots, who first grew fur and took to living in burrows and coming out at night to hunt when the dinosaurs were still and silent. There was the first mother, who made a pouch in her belly to hold her babies. The first father, who taught his children to hunt in the night.

Finally old grandmother could speak no more. She was tired, deathly tired. The cold was seeping into her back, which was exposed because she had taken the outermost position. She had the right to burrow into the group for she had done her duty on the edge. Another bandicoot would have gladly taken her place. But they were all asleep. Only old grandmother was still awake. Her bones ached in the cold air but she held her position. She did not know how long this terrible time would last but she felt deep within her a certainty that it would end and that the sun she had never loved before would return. The bandicoot clan would survive she thought and the sun would return. "Perhaps not in time for me but the others will go on" she thought.

A kind of contentedness settled over her. She had done her duty all her life. She had protected the clan, born healthy children and raised them, learned the stories and lessons of the tribe, and now she had passed them on. There was nothing more she had to do but sleep..

Months passed. The darkness persisted. Winter settled on the corpses of the dinosaurs, too cold now even to rot. The life forces of the trees retreated to the deepest roots or survived only in seeds. In the oceans all was dying, the plankton first, with no sun to feed upon, then all the tiny animals that fed upon the plankton forests, then the fish and finally the great predatory reptiles. Some of the sharks died out also but a few sank down in the depths and waited out the cold, just as the bandicoots were doing in their burrow.

In other parts of land and sea a few adaptable or lucky creatures were surviving also. Less than ten percent of the species that had existed only a few months earlier but enough it turned out to repopulate the earth when the sun finally returned. Turtles survived and crocodiles. The feathered dinosaurs, the birds, clung to life in a few places. And other descendants of the therapsid reptiles besides the bandicoots also survived the great catastrophe. Rats and mice, shrews and bats, the early cats and dogs, and the first primates all had clans that survived somehow and somewhere. Most were far to the north, on the great land mass that would someday be Asia. But some, like the bandicoots, were on the southern land, now drifting off into the endless southern ocean.

Some three years after the great disaster the earthís winds scattered the dust and the earthís gravity pulled it back to earth. The sun slowly penetrated the thinning clouds and the earth began to warm again. It took a while before the warmth penetrated to the bandicootís burrow. By that time old grandmother was dead, as were some of the others. But those who had started with the thickest layers of fur and fat and the best health were still alive. They were thin now to the point of starvation but not to death. As the earth warmed they awoke from their torpor. They stretched their stiff bones and muscles and moved around the burrow.

At first their minds were clouded by the long sleep and they did not know where they were or why. But as they found the bodies of the dead, they remembered the time of the two moons, the great explosion, the end of the days. They poked and prodded all who lay there until they had awoken all those capable of being awakened. The living huddled together nose to nose away from the dead and comforted one another. Then old grandmotherís oldest child, a strong male called Bogong because of his weakness for the grubs of this moth, turned to the tunnel and began pushing and burrowing his way to the surface. The others waited, too weak to explore. They stretched and preened and waited his news of the world above.

Bogong had a job to get to the surface. The long months of ice and snow had created a havoc of the ground above the burrow. He had to dig as he had never done before, through packed layers of earth and refuse. He tried to go straight up but he was forced sideways at several points by ground to hard to move. Finally he broke through. Above him the sun shown through a thin layer of clouds. Around him were the skeletons of dead trees. His patch of earth was dry but downhill from him he could see pools of water were the snow had melted. Around him nothing moved or lived. He sniffed with his keen bandicoot nose. The air was much fresher and easier to breathe than it had been last time he had been out of the burrow with his mother all those years ago. And the sun was back.

Bogong, like his mother and all his kind, was not a lover of the sun. It represented danger for it exposed one to sharp eyed predators. It was the moon that Bogong and the bandicoots loved and worshipped. Moonlit nights were times of good hunting. They were times for parties and playing for falling in love and making babies. Yet in this time of great tragedy Bogong had learned a lesson. Even to a nocturnal animal, the sun is god. Without it life cannot exist. Bogong raised his nose towards the light and blinked his small eyes.

It was good to escape from the darkness at last. "I will tell my children not to ever forget Mirri, the sun again," he thought as he returned to the tribe. "It went away because we did not love and honour it. We worshipped the Jaalinya, the moon instead. Perhaps that was why there were two lights in the night sky before the darkness: to tell us that we must worship both gods, and not just one."

Bogong returned slowly to the tribe, partly because he was weak and because he was thinking about the portents of this strange time. He went to his wife, Telkuk, and nuzzled her, glad that she and some of her offspring were still alive. Two of the last litter were beside her and deep within her pouch, an embryo clung to her nipple. She nuzzled him back and questioned him about the world above. "Is it safe? Can we go out now? I am so hungry!"

His answer to her and the others was cautious. "Mirri is back at last! All the trees are dead and there is nothing moving on the land. I smelled no enemies. There are no snakes or lizards about. But I smelled no fresh food either. We will have to see what we can find."

"Is it safe to go out with the sun still up? We are all so hungry and thirsty, I donít think we can wait."

Bogong didnít answer her as he pondered his revelation. "I think it is time we stopped fearing the sun so much. I think that is why she went away. Because we did not care enough about her. We have to honour Mirri in the future, just as we honour Jaalinya."

"Honour Mirri? What a strange idea! She is cruel to us. She reveals us to our enemies! How can we honour her?"

"I donít know," Bogong answered. I wish Old Grandmother was here to explain it to us. But she isnít. And this is what I think happened. Mirri came into the night sky with Jaalinya because she was jealous. And then she went away to show us that we need her too. Now she is back. Do you want it to be dark all the time again? I donít think we could survive if it happened again."

The other bandicoots were getting restless. They had food and water on their minds more than anything. "Take us up, Bogong! Take us up! You must lead us now that Old Grandmother is dead! We need something to drink. We need food. Take us up!"

So Bogong lead the tribe to the surface. Tulkuk gasped when she saw the land around her. All the forest of her childhood was gone. Only skeletons remained around them. The younger bandicoots pushed past her and headed down the hill to water. Bogong watched and listened but there was nothing. Finally he joined them and they all drank and drank, relieving the thirst of a three year sleep.

Then they spread out in all directions, searching for food. They found no large animals but everywhere that the snow was melted, seedlings were sprouting up out of the rich earth. The bodies of beetles and other insects lay where they had frozen and then melted. The bandicoots feasted.

The sun set and the moon rose, still faint behind the clouds but visible. The bandicoot clan regrouped beneath a giant dead tree. They curled up on the leaves of the dead tree and listened to Bogong as he explained his theory again. They argued with him as bandicoots will but in the end they agreed with him that the best thing to do was to be nice to the sun.

"We could get up before dark from now on," one suggested. "Yes, and go to bed a little later in the morning, after the sun rises!" Bogongís daughter answered.

Tulkuk was not so sure. "only if its safe."

"I think it will be," Bogong answered. "I think food may be hard to find for a while and we will need the extra hunting time. But it will be safer because our old enemies are dead. I explored a bit today and I found a great dead dinosaur. It is rotting now and not very nice. But I did not see any living dinosaur. Perhaps our enemies are all gone. Perhaps the sun was more angry at them than us. I donít think they ever honoured the sun even though they lived by her rays. Perhaps the sun has saved us for this purpose Ė to do her honourÖ"

"I donít know Bogong. Maybe you are right. It certainly seems safer. I hope you are right anyway. But in the meantime I think we need a new burrow. We cannot go back to our refuge now. It has the bodies of our dead in it. I think we must leave it to them now. It is their grave and we must move on. For the sake of the children."

"You are right Tulkuk. It will be a sacred place for us. It is the tomb of Old Grandmother and the Elders now. We will have to find a new homeÖ"

So Bogong and Tulkuk led the clan away from their refuge. They found a good site and dug a new burrow. As they prospered and new babies were born, they told the youngsters Old grandmotherís tales of the distant past and they passed on the legend of the time of the two moons and the great disaster. Bogong initiated a new ceremony. Each year, on the anniversary of their emergence into the new world, the tribe gathered together on the site of Old Grandmother and the Eldersítomb. There they sang the old legends and added the new one. And there, as the first light of a new day dawned, they honoured Mirri the sun and asked her never to leave them again.

"So ended the Last Age of the Dinosaurs and
so began the Age of the Bandicoots."

Old Grandmother finished her story just as the sun rose over the sacred ground. The bandicoots who had sat enthralled around her for the telling of the story stirred and rose and faced the sun. They squinted their tiny eyes against Mirriís rays. They raised their whiskered noses and stood on their hind legs to face her. As one they bowed low to honour her. Then slowly they followed Old Grandmother home.

Copyright © M. Skeel All Rights Reserved