Defending the Common Mahang

My very first memory was of me falling from a great height. I had no idea what was happening as I plummeted down, my surroundings whizzing by in a green blur. Then it hit me. The soft, damp ground that enveloped my entire being. My heart was cold from being abandoned by Mother, but my body was warm. I had no idea where I was, and I couldn’t see Mother. I was scared and lonely. But as the sun flecks shone down on me and the rain nourished me, I knew I had to grow, even if I was on my own.

I never had much of a strong character. Unlike the others who surrounded me, I didn’t build up walls of thorns to protect myself. I didn’t warn enemies to stay away, it just wasn’t in my genes to do so. I knew for sure that this weakness would eventually lead to my suffering.

I still remember the day I first saw her, the one who triggered the start of my painful journey. She had wings as brown as fallen leaves, but with a tiny metallic blue spot at the bottom which set her apart from the landscape. She laid white domes on me. These domes had many broad-based spikes that glistened in the sun. After three sunrises, creatures crawled out of the domes. They were small and hairy, with their bodies as white as snow. Their pure appearance was a stark contrast to their personality. First, they consumed the domes they lived in. Then, I was next.  They crawled along my leaves, chewing and ripping me apart. I screamed in anguish, but the forest’s reply was silence except for soft crunching noises. They made sure to leave just enough for me to recuperate so that there was still plenty left for tomorrow. Despite their merciless preying, I grew even taller. I heard a voice calling them ‘Caterpillars’, so that’s what I called them too.

One day, a gang of strange creatures intruded my premises. They looked like branches broken off from the other trees around me, with legs as long as their body.  They bared their mandibles and bit down on me hard. More and more of them came, approaching me like an army of mindless zombies that wouldn’t stop until they had had their fill. The Caterpillars abandoned me for their safety, but I couldn’t move. My screams could not be heard; my struggles were futile. All I could do was watch in fear as I was torn apart. When the monsters were done ravaging, they trotted off triumphantly, leaving me in shreds. It was enough for me to lose my breath, but not quite enough to kill me.

With the little energy I had left, I built myself up again. The Caterpillars appeared every now and then. I was bitter about them leaving me in the lurch when danger loomed, but what was I expecting? I was simply food for them, and if anything happened they could run, while I was rooted to the ground. Just as I thought the worst was over, another creature appeared.

This creature was different from everything I had seen. Her body was as black as night, and the shape of her abdomen resembled a heart. I was apprehensive about her arrival. Would she finally be a much-needed friend, or was she just another foe?

My first impression of her was already going downhill. She greeted me by chewing part of a young shoot and stayed inside. Soon after, a chill ran down my stem. Was she laying eggs inside of me? I felt a mixture of confusion and anger, but there was nothing I could do about it. Days later, miniature versions of her swarmed out. They were much smaller, but their bodies were as black and shiny as their mother’s. Following their emergence, I found myself making tiny starch sacs for them to eat. This sapped my energy and stunted my growth. No matter how much I wanted to stop this, I couldn’t. It was as if it was in my nature to provide food for them. I hated them; I wished I had thorns or poisons to shoo them away. But as usual, I was defenceless.  All I could do was limit the amount of energy I was putting in to make food for them, in hopes that they would starve and leave me alone.

Then something interesting happened. The black and shiny creatures approached the Caterpillars. They were instantly friends. The black and shiny creatures crawled onto the Caterpillars and started feeding on sugary droplets on their bodies. The Caterpillars didn’t seem to mind them. How were they not angry? These things were leeching off them, consuming their precious sugary secretions. Could they not fend them off? Were the Caterpillars as defenseless as me?

Lost in my thoughts, I was a second too late in noticing something unfamiliar crawling on my leaves. The Unfamiliar One looked very similar to the Caterpillars, but it was black with yellow streaks. Many of the black and shiny creatures swarmed to the frontline, while some surrounded the smaller Caterpillars, forming some sort of protective shield. The Unfamiliar One stood its ground on a nearby leaf and the staring contest began. Both parties were not willing to back down. Seconds later, the army of black and shiny creatures charged forward and the Unfamiliar One fled for its life.

Did the black and shiny creatures protect the Caterpillars? Was that why the Caterpillars willingly fed them? I noticed the other plant beside me which didn’t have the black and shiny creatures being chewed into shreds by other nasty creatures. On the other hand, my leaves were mostly intact. I was so preoccupied with my own selfishness that I never noticed that they had been protecting me all along. And how did I repay them? By limiting the amount of food sacs I made for them. Guilt struck my heart, and I wanted to make it up to them.

Just when I was about to prepare a feast to thank them, I saw the mother whispering to her children. They formed a line and started descending down my stem. I shouted for them to stop, but they couldn’t hear me. I quickly produced more food for them but nothing could lure them back. All they wanted was food and shelter in exchange for protecting me. They were my friends, yet I treated them like foes. I was left alone again, and maybe this time I deserved it.

If you liked this story, check out another pair of organisms which rely on each other to survive here!

Written by Tina Liow
Illustrations by Toh Bee Suan

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