The following story is adapted from an Objibwa folk tale and appears in slightly modified form in Songs of Circe, my forthcoming short story collection.
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In the First Days, before the Step Stones connected all the worlds like pearls on a shining silver string, the animals were the only People. In those days, Raven and Owl had not yet come to Circe, and so the wisest of all animals was Beaver. With his nimble little hands, sharp teeth and sharper mind, Beaver was a master architect, and he built many clever things; because he traveled through not only the forest but all the waterways of the world, he saw and learned many things as well. Because he was so wise, people often came to him for advice and information, which he stored in his head the way his cousin, Squirrel, stored nuts in the trees.
However, despite his wisdom and kindness, Beaver had one rather annoying trait: he was terribly vain about his lush, fluffy tail.
Whenever he would speak with the other animals, inevitably Beaver would try to bring the subject around to his tail. All the animals knew this, and although they found it insufferable, they put up with it, because eventually Beaver gave them the answer they were looking for.
One day Coyote, who was very tired of eating chipmunks, turned his ravenous glance toward the sky, where he saw Sparrow conducting her daily business on high. “I’ll bet she’d make a tasty morsel,” thought the trickster. “I’ll ask Beaver how to fly and then I’ll have myself a nice bit of dinner on the wing!”
Coyote found Beaver near the Big River, where he was cutting trees with his big, strong teeth. He was nearly finished with a heavy pine, which swayed precariously as he chewed.
“Beaver,” said Coyote, “How can I fly like Sparrow?”
“Hmm,” replied Beaver, dusting the wood chips off his chin. “Have you considered flapping your tail really quickly? It’s a very lovely tail, and so fluffy!”
Coyote, who could see where this was going, tried to change the subject.
“I don’t think that would work – Sparrow uses her wings, I think.”
Beaver was not impressed by this assertion.
“Pfah! What good are feathers compared to tails? Take mine, for example…so lush and full. Why, I bet I could soar right up to Inri’s* lodge in the Heavens if I wanted to!”
And then he turned, stroking and preening, eyebrows raised, waiting for Coyote to compliment his tail.
Coyote, however, was grumpy, hungry, and – not to put too fine a point on it – more than a little tired of Beaver’s bragging. So Coyote (who was also clever, and as mischievous as Bear was strong) decided to play a little trick on his friend.
“Beaver, your tail is truly without compare,” he said, gesturing toward the fluffy black brush with an appreciative wave of his paw. “But I’ll bet it would look even more lustrous if you stood over here, in the sunlight, where I could better admire it.”
Beaver grinned and moved away from the river, standing next to the tree he’d been gnawing.
“How’s this?” he asked, twirling his tail in a little circle. “Isn’t it the most amazing tail you’ve ever seen? Don’t you wish your tail looked like this?”
Coyote grinned and said “Oh, yes, naturally. But I have an idea – why don’t you sit on that rock, and spread your tail out so that everyone can really admire its fluffiness and shine?”
Beaver, who was terribly flattered by all this attention, walked over to the big, flat rock at the river’s edge. “Like this?” he asked, spreading out his thick black tail.
“Perfect,” replied Coyote, pushing over the tree.
Beaver, who had his eyes closed as he basked in both the sun and Coyote’s praise, tried to leap out of the way, but it was too late.
The tree came down with a sound like an angry thunderclap…and when Beaver finally squirmed free, he saw that his beautiful tail had been smashed as flat as a canoe paddle!
When he saw Beaver’s tail, Coyote burst into laughter. “On second thought, Beaver, I think I prefer my tail after all,” he gasped, heading off into the scrub to look for unwary chipmunks.
Beaver was despondent. “Look at me! I’m hideous!” he sobbed, dabbing at his eyes with his newly flattened tail. “Now everyone will make fun of me and no one will respect me ever again!”
Otter, who had been swimming nearby and saw everything that had taken place, sat down next to his friend and put a comforting paw on his shoulder. “There, there, Beaver! Don’t you know that your friends like you because you are wise, and kind, and friendly? Who was it that taught Eagle how to build her nest with strong sticks?
“I did,” said Beaver in a small voice.
“And who taught Turtle to carry her house with her, so she could make it home at a decent hour?”
“I did,” said Beaver, with a little more confidence in his voice.
“And hey, who taught me to smash urchins with a rock, so I could get the tasty meat from the center?”
“I did!” said Beaver, smiling.
“That’s right!” replied Otter. “We don’t care about your silly old tail, we like you because of who you are!”
“Really?” sniffed Beaver. “You don’t care about my tail?”
“Trust me,” said Otter, rolling his eyes when Beaver wasn’t looking. “Besides, with a tail like that, just think of how much easier it will be to swim! And if you ever need to send a message, well, you could slap it down on the water and I’ll bet it makes a thunderclap almost as big as yon pine did when it fell!”
Beaver gave the water a tentative slap with his tail. A tiny thunderclap rolled across the water, causing several of the other animals to raise their heads and look in his direction.
And so from that day forward, Beaver did many things with his tail – swimming against strong currents to explore new rivers, patting mud into place on the damns he built, and, of course, sending important messages when there was danger!
Older and even wiser than before, Beaver never bragged again, but let his tail do the talking.
And that is the tale of Beaver’s tail.
*i.e., the Sun God; c.f. Tezcatlipoca