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  • Nadia Jamal

The Teis

Updated: Oct 5

In a lush forest beyond the valley lived the teis, who were tree eating insects. They lived among the very tall trees whose leaves-in the shapes of long triangles-adorned their tops.

Teis were tiny creatures, but they could see far, and so they gazed quite often, up to the tops, to look at the beauty of the green triangles. They did this because it was simply in their nature to see the beauty of things.

The teis subsisted on small bites of tree trunk, which they would gnaw at with two tiny sets of fangs, one to grip with and one for chewing. Each bite would travel through a series of twists and turns in the intricate digestive wiring of the little creatures, resulting in the expulsion of—let’s call them nuggets.

But these nuggets, when buried into the ground, made excellent fertilizer. So, in a kind of circle, the trees fed the teis, and the teis fed the trees. There was something else, too: generation to generation, teis passed down a unique and practical skill, known only to these insects: they would gather fallen leaves and roll them, using all four fangs in fluid motion, into leaf croissants.

Wherever sunlight shone through the canopy, teis left their croissants to bake there all day, collecting shimmers from the sun. And, by nightfall, holes would be dug, and each leaf buried into the soil along with their nuggets. This is how teis brought food and light deep into the root system of the trees, well below the ground.

The passing along of knowledge and information from elder to younger had always taken place among the teis of the lush forest. The elders (having been youngers once) understood that the youngers would see and learn from the ways that they lived. So, the elders held on to all that had been passed down to them. They carried with them, above all else, their knowledge of the Great Spirit.

The trees, the leaves, the sunlight, the ground, the roots, and the presence of one another—these had all come to them as gifts from the Great Spirit. The elders knew this because they had learned to listen.

In the quiet of the forest, the Great Spirit connected with them, by the rustling of leaves or through the quiet rumbling of the earth, and in the quivering of tree trunks or by way of changes in the air. They knew that the Great Spirit had given them the beauty of life, so that they could experience it.

And so the teis prospered and their numbers grew. In fact, they were on the verge of learning more than they had ever known before, because the Great Spirit saw that there were those who were ready and eager to experience more. But some among the teis were not ready, and unrest began to spread.

A small group of teis, who called themselves the 'Sees,' stepped forward: “There are too many of us,” the Sees began to say. “All you have to do is look around you and see with your own compound ocular mechanisms. Soon, we will not have any more trees to eat. We will have to share a few trees amongst too many. How will any of us live a better life than we are living today? Something must be done.”

The elders listened, and they, too, stepped forward. “The Great Spirit provides. We have nothing to fear,” they said.

But the Sees laughed at this. A murmur grew among the crowds of teis listening.

One of the elders responded. “The youngers may not remember, and others of you may have forgotten,” the elder said, “so we will remind you of our stories. We recall the time of the long drought, when the leaves turned to ash and the trunks shriveled. It was then that the Great Spirit taught us to share. We learned to gather, and to give. We grew closer to the Great Spirit and to one another.”

Another of the elders stepped forward and continued: “The youngers may not remember, and others of you might have forgotten, so we will remind you of another story. We remember the grave floods, when the light of the sun touched nowhere upon the forest floor, and waters rushed in from every direction. It was then that the Great Spirit taught us to climb. Up above the waters we climbed with much effort, but we came to learn of the sweeter wood of the upper trunks. And when the waters and darkness passed with time, the sunlight shone upon us again.

“So, you see, dear fellow teis, no matter the circumstance, we have always been protected and cared for by the Great Spirit. There is nothing to fear.”

It was the Sees’ turn to speak again: “Thank you, elders. Thank you for your charming stories, but we do not see a Great Spirit. How can we be expected to rely on something we don’t even know to be real. We only rely on what we can see. Surely, you can reason?”

The murmur among the teis grew loud again, but the elders left it at that; they had said their piece and now it was up to each tei to decide for itself. It wasn’t long before the crowds dispersed then, returning to their work of gnawing, digesting, rolling, burying, and resting for the night.


The Sees continued spreading their message. The fear of too many teis and a limited tree supply grew in the hearts of the masses. The minds of many youngers became captured by the promise of change from the old ways, which they did not understand. Many of the not-so-youngers agreed with one another on the intelligence of the arguments put forward by the Sees. “Yes, yes—very intelligent, I have to concur,” they said. “Indeed, very reasonable, of course,” they went on, not wanting to appear to one another as if they couldn’t understand the brilliant, forward-thinking logic.

The elders had their place, and it was in the past, for the world of the teis was changing. This became the sentiment of the times.

One day, the Sees told the others that they had been to the end of the lush forest, and there, they had seen a great creature in the valley. “These creatures are not puny and pathetic like we are. They are enormous. Big, elephant-like creatures. They are called belics. And they will help us. They have agreed to come to the forest. And we, the Sees, will use them to all of our advantage.”

The crowds roared with applause at the announcement; their fangs tapped in excitement. While the elders tried to bring forward their concerns, the masses were no longer willing to listen at all. And so it was, that by the same time the very next day, the large bounding creatures began to enter the lush forest from the valley below, and the Sees were seen sitting on the backs of the belics, high up above everyone else.

The belics were not graceful creatures, to put it kindly. In fact, they seemed a bit oafish. Perhaps they were only disoriented, which would have been completely understandable, considering that they now found themselves in an environment totally unlike the one that they were used to. In the open valley, they’d been accustomed to lots of space for their bodies to move about, but here in the forest, with trees everywhere, they had to tiptoe and turn sideways, and mind their trunks. Even then, they crashed into the tall trees at every turn, which only added to their disorientation. It was for this reason that the belics began to sweat profusely.

Very quickly, the belics became completely dependent on the sees for any and all instructions, which the Sees gladly gave. From their comfortable positions on high, they could speak directly into the belics’ ears.

From very high up, the Sees had access to the sweetest parts of the tree trunks. They could pull at the fresh leaves and use them however they pleased—no more waiting for leaves to drop, only to have to roll them into silly leaf croissants. The Sees could wrap themselves up in the luscious fresh leaves, if they wanted, fold them into hats for the fun of it, or simply eat them. And, of course, they would drop nuggets from their places on the backs of the belics, and the nuggets would slide down the belics’ sweaty bodies and fall to the ground, with no one below to bury them.

Over time, the prophecy of the Sees began to unfold: the tree to tei ratio had shifted. With many of the trees undernourished, damaged, or fallen, the remaining tree trunks had become overcrowded with teis gnawing at them, clambering irritatedly over one another. Leaves were growing scarce. Piles of unburied nuggets and large puddles of belic sweat had changed the landscape of the forest.

The elders decided that, whether or not they would be heard, it was their duty to speak up. And so they stepped forward once more, to share their concerns: “Fellow teis, the belics are destroying the forest, through no fault of their own, but on the instructions of the Sees. The Sees do not understand the ways of the forest, or the nature of teis.”

But the Sees responded quickly and they used the trumpets of the belics’ trunks to make themselves heard: “It is you, the tree eating insects, eating all the trees!” The voices of the sees blew loudly through the belics’ trumpeting trunks. “It is your nature that is the problem. All you do is eat, eat, eat, gnawing at the poor trees all day long. It is you who have destroyed the forest! You have to cut down on your gnawing. Don’t you care about the forest? You are like parasites. Besides, you are just jealous that we have access to the higher up trunks. But we did the work to get to where we are! And any one of you can climb up here and enjoy the life we live. There’s nothing stopping you!”

Teis everywhere heard the pronouncements of the sees. “Quite right,” they said to one another. “There really is nothing stopping us. If the Sees can do it, so can we!” And so, teis of every age began to look up to the sees, making it their desire to become just like them. They worked hard everyday, scrambling up the slippery sides of the belics, dodging nuggets, to try to reach the tops.

The Sees neglected to tell them, though, that they, themselves, had reached the tops much more easily, for the belics had come from down below, having climbed from the valley up into the forest. The Sees hadn’t had to climb at all—they simply stepped onto the backs of the belics at the point when their backs were flush with the forest floor. After that, they had had children up there, and those children hadn’t had to climb to get to the top, either.

Day-by-day, the state of the forest grew worse, with trees destroyed, nuggets piling up, and the tree roots dying. By now, teis everywhere were filled with fear, discouragement, and despair. They revered the Sees for making it to the top, and they tried to understand everything about them, and about how they, too, could get to the top, even as impossible as the task appeared.

All day, slogans were trumpeted through the trunks of the belics and repeated by teis all through the forest: “There are too many teis, and not enough trees! Cut down on your gnawing! Cut down on your gnawing!” and “Bigger is better! The bigger the higher! The higher the sweeter!” Even the elders began to grow weary because the loud trumpeting edicts and announcements of the Sees made it difficult, if not impossible, to hear the Great Spirit.

Sometimes, to keep the teis from seeing the futility of their efforts, the sees would instruct a belic to lift one of the desperately climbing teis with its trunk. When the tei reached the top it was greeted by the Sees there, and told that it could stay up high with them, just as long as it never told the secret of how it got there.


Things went on this way for a long time, but a small group of youngers and not-so-youngers developed a longing inside of them that was so strong, it called them to one another. They longed to see beauty again, but all that they could see now was that something was not right. And though they were unsure of themselves and uncertain about what should be done, they decided not to fear what others would think of them. So, they gathered together and went to visit the elders.

“The only way to know,” the elders gladly counseled them, “is to listen to the Great Spirit.”

“But we can barely hear ourselves speak to one another, let alone hear the whispers of some invisible Spirit,” they complained.

“Then we must keep a night vigil—when the belics slumber and their masters sleep with them, we will stay awake, to listen in the quiet of the night for the guidance of the Great Spirit,” the elders reassured them.

That night, they sat quietly. The next night, they sat quietly, again. Night after night, they sat in the quiet and listened. And soon, they began to hear the Great Spirit, which told them of a way forward. The Great Spirit gave to each one of them a task to complete. The work that you are given will take you forward and bring beauty into your lives, said the whisper of the Great Spirit to each one of them.

Eagerly the small gathering of teis—youngers, not-so-youngers, and elders alike—set to work, to do the tasks that they were given. Some went to work burying nuggets, while others folded croissants and found sun shimmers in which to bake them. Some worked at the belic puddles, lifting droplets of water to the edge of the forest and dumping them into the valley. Others were given the job of telling the old stories, while some were asked to imagine new ones.

But as they set out to do their work, they found themselves afraid that whatever it was they were doing would not be enough to make any real change. They felt discouraged, uncertain, and even began quarreling with one another. They all seemed to notice that the others were going too slow, or not doing things right.

“You should lift the droplets out like this,” said one of the teis who had been burying nuggets.

“Are you talking to me?” replied the droplet lifter, quite offended. “You have no idea how hard this is.”

“Right, well if you’d do it how I said you should…”

And soon enough, all of the work came to an angry stand-still.

The elders counseled the small gathering again: "We must return to the quiet, and listen to the Great Spirit." So they sat again each night in the quiet to listen. Night after night, they sat together, only to listen. And this is how they got better at listening, so that even during the trumpeting hours of the day, they could still hear the presence of the Great Spirit. Then, one day, they learned that the quiet of the night existed within themselves, and that the voice of the Great Spirit was coming from inside their own heart-like organs.

Come to me when you need help, said the Great Spirit to the teis, and I will send you the help you need. Come to me when you wish to offer help, and I will show you how to be of help. And so the teis learned to respect each other’s work and ways of being. There was much less quarreling and more time spent listening to the needs of one another and to the Great Spirit.

With so much work that needed doing, the small group stayed busy day-after-day. They would come together at the resting hours of the evenings to share time and stories with one another.

Before long, they began to see changes in the parts of the lush forest where they lived and worked. They began to see beauty in the small sprouts of new trees that would one day grow to be very tall. In fact, they saw beauty everywhere that they looked because, not only could they see what was already there, but they could imagine all that was possible, too.

Other teis, tired of a life of chasing the dreams created by the Sees, felt themselves drawn to the small gathering and joined them; they longed to see beauty again, too. And the small gathering grew and grew. They all learned the ways of the lush forest and of the nature of the teis, and they listened to the Great Spirit, in the quiet of the night, inside themselves.

I cannot tell you how this story ends because it is yet unfolding. The Great Spirit promised the teis new experiences, the details of which are still secrets held within the heart-like organs of each one of us. We can all listen for ourselves. I can only imagine that it will be beautiful.

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