Feleng the fishmoth loved stories. ‘Mama,’ he said every night, ‘please tell us a story. I promise we’ll go to sleep straight afterwards. Please, please, please!’
Mama Fishmoth only knew one story, and she was a bit tired of telling it. But Feleng and the other fishmoth children begged so much that she always gave in. She told them about her adventures in the kitchen. She spoke about her long journey there, and about all the big, strange things she had seen in the cupboards. ‘Humans use so many things, like cups and plates and spoons,’ she said. ‘Humans are very strange!’
The best part of the story came when Mama Fishmoth told the children about all the food she had tasted. ‘There were breadcrumbs, apple peels, delicious lumps of porridge and grains of sugar behind the stove …’ she said.
‘Yum!’ they murmured in dreamy voices, ‘yum, yum!’
But soon their eyes grew huge. She had reached the terrible part of her story – the day a human had tried to squash her. ‘I ran for my life!’ said Mama Fishmoth, rolling her eyes, and all the fishmoth children shivered and moaned and twitched their feelers … That meant it was time for bed.
One day, Mama Fishmoth told her children to go out for lunch. ‘Feleng, you are the oldest,’ she said. ‘Please take good care of your sisters and brothers.’
Fishmoths don’t eat every day, so the little fishmoths were very excited. Impatiently they waited until the humans had left and the house was quiet. Then one by one, they slid out of the crack in the wall where they lived. ‘Follow me,’ whispered Feleng. ‘Do exactly what I do.’
Up, up, up the leg of a huge table they slithered. On the table were three or four open books with paper and crayons scattered about. ‘Look at all this tasty food, just lying here waiting for us!’ chuckled Feleng’s sister Phuti. ‘It’s a good thing the human children are so messy!’
‘Yum!’ said all the fishmoth children as they climbed into the spine of one of the books. ‘Yum, yum!’
But suddenly, Feleng spoke. ‘Don’t eat the books,’ he said. ‘Eat that instead.’ He pointed to a crumpled up drawing. ‘That will be tastier. There’s lovely crayon on it.’
‘Oh, all right,’ said his brothers and sisters. They were too hungry to fight with him. Soon they were all busy nibbling at the drawing − all except Feleng. First, he stared at the black squiggles and the bright pictures on the open pages of the book. Then he climbed up into it, and began to move slowly and carefully from squiggle to squiggle. At first, his brothers and sisters were too busy munching to notice what he was doing. But after a while, his little sister Fifi looked up. ‘What are you doing, Feleng?’ she asked in her high, squeaky voice. ‘Why aren’t you eating?’
Feleng just smiled. ‘You wait and see,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you later.’
That night, when the little fishmoths were cuddling up to their mother in the crack in the wall, Feleng started to speak. ‘I know what you want!’ said Mama Fishmoth. She was in a good mood after her peaceful day alone at home. ‘You want me to tell you a story.’
Feleng grinned. ‘Not tonight,’ he said. ‘Fifi, tell Mama what I did today.’
When Mama Fishmoth heard how Feleng had moved along the squiggles in the book while the other children were eating, his mother was a bit worried. ‘What were you doing, Feleng?’ she asked. ‘All children need to eat, you know.’
‘I can eat tomorrow,’ said Feleng. ‘Today I did something even better – I learnt how to read!’ Then he explained how he had looked from the black marks on the page to the pictures. ‘I realised they were telling me something,’ he said. ‘After some time, I started to understand what the squiggles meant … they are letters, and letters make words. And words make sentences, and sentences make stories. So tonight, you can rest, Mama – tonight it’s my turn to tell YOU a story!’
With that, Feleng told his mother and brothers and sisters a story about a human child who went down to the river and met a crocodile. ‘What’s a river? What’s a crocodile?’ shouted the little fishmoths.
‘I don’t know,’ laughed Feleng, ‘I’ll have to find out tomorrow. But the picture showed a huge, scary creature with a very big mouth.’
‘Like a human!’ said Mama with a shudder, and all the fishmoth children shivered and moaned and twitched their feelers … That meant it was time for bed.