This Australian Aboriginal story, taken from Jean A. Ellis’ collection This is the Dreaming, is strictly speaking more legend than fairy tale (as you might be able to tell from the title) but contains all the familiar ingredients: towers, terrible ideas, and forbidding landscape features. It begins with two brothers, Tajalruji and Kalruji, who are the best hunters of their people and BFFs besides. All that comes to an abrupt end one day while they are out hunting and come across an exceptionally pretty girl digging up yams. Both brothers are betrothed to other women but each immediately decides he wants this girl instead. Neither approaches her with his plan; no, they tell each other straight away. Cue mutual outrage.
They argue for a long time, but you can’t talk someone out of love at first sight. What are they to do, then? The obvious solution is to ASK THE GIRL WHAT SHE WANTS, but that does not even occur to them. A physical fight is out of the question, as it would contravene the laws of their people, so the brothers settle on a contest of skill. Using the black boulders that scatter the plain around them, they will each build a tower. Whichever brother builds the higher tower will win a chance with the girl.
All this debate has not been subtle. Overhearing their decision, the girl stays to watch them commence their work. All day the brothers labour on their towers, keeping pace so well with one another that neither dares sleep. As word of their contest spreads an audience gathers and people start picking sides, but the girl herself offers no opinion, only watches in amazement as the towers climb ever higher.
For three days Tajalruji and Kalruji create their improbable architecture with the stamina of born performance artists. By the morning of the fourth day clouds are massing on the horizon and a powerful wind has begun to blow, but the brothers won’t stop and no one wants to leave.
Then the storm hits. Thunder deafens the crowd; an abrupt torrent of rain descends. The towers are the nearest shelter, so that’s where the spectators go to escape the downpour, but they soon see there is no protection to be found in this place. Tajalruji and Kalruji are snatched up by the storm; the girl they were so desperate to impress is thrown against a boulder and carried away into the clouds. At last the towers can withstand the onslaught no longer and collapse, crushing the people hiding beneath them.
No one survives the storm.
By the time the clouds clear, all that’s left of the towers is a vast tangle of black boulders: a newly-made mountain that is also a tomb. The brothers and the girl are never seen again.
That is what you might call a downer of an ending. Legends are like that. Black Mountain is actually a real place in northern Queensland, though I have never been there and after reading this story, don’t especially want to. It’s interesting to note, though, that while most legends and fairy tales reward the hyperbolic displays of their heroes, in this story it’s what leads to their eventual destruction. The girl, of course, couldn’t win no matter what. Imagine how awful it would have been for her if one of the brothers had succeeded – the peer pressure of the crowd would have forced her into marriage with a total stranger based solely on his ability to construct a tower with his bare hands.
Towers never end well.