11-1 fiction

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

 

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.1 (Winter 2011)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Four Politically Wicked Bedtime Stories

Peter Singleton

 

A Tale of the Tail

        The monkeys and the apes, being very similar animals–indeed, first cousins–detested each other incorrigibly.  They found infinite reasons to boast their superiority or to protest their victimization (for in creativity, at any rate, they were fully equal).  The apes were bigger and fiercer, but the monkeys could more easily vanish into the forest canopy at the least hint of danger.  The monkeys could reach the highest, most succulent fruit on the branches closest to the sun, but the apes thrived on nourishing grubs and other small creatures that the monkeys hadn’t the muscle to dig out.

The monkeys had long, limber tails which allowed them to balance upon wobbly limbs and leap from treetop to treetop; but the apes had large brains, which allowed them to plot.

This final distinction proved decisive on the apes’ behalf.  It must be noted in the interest of accuracy, however, that the origin of their ultimate triumph lay in chance.

As a particularly agile monkey teased a young lady-ape one day, gymnastically swinging in branches far above her and taunting her by tossing down the inedible pits of consumed fruits, the ape fired a verbal barb aloft, almost weeping in her fury.  “You tree-pig!  You cruelest, most filthy of creatures!  You shouldn’t even be allowed in the company of decent animals!”

At first this protest merely drew howls of laughter from every monkey within its hearing, as you may well imagine.  A more mature ape would never have uttered such a complaint, for the apes were a proud race, in their way.

Then the young ape began to sob in good earnest.  When her mother ran to comfort her, she explained her distress between snivels.

“I hate them!” she concluded.  “I hate them more than lions, who only attack us because they’re hungry and know no better!  I hate them more than vultures, whose victims are dead and beyond feeling!  They make me ashamed to be an ape.  I hate myself because I look so much like them!  They have no occupation all the livelong day but to stuff their ugly mugs and then jeer at all the animals laboring hard below them.  They never attend animal councils–and if they do, they never have anything useful to say.  Crude, stupid creatures!  They never think of anyone but themselves!  Wicked, evil creatures!”

“Stop crying now, my sweet,” consoled the mother, hugging her little one to her sagging breasts while scowling up into the trees in the same gesture.  The monkeys had grown completely silent, their pink tongues hanging from open mouths as they marveled at these unheard-of accusations.

“Rejoice that you do not resemble a monkey in the one critical way,” pursued the mother in a malign purr, still peering above.  “Their tails alone allow them to sail over us in mockery–but their tails are their great curse.  Because of tails, they never have to think out a plan of action against the lions.  They never have to show courage.  They never have to form close bonds with their neighbor monkeys.  One scent of a lion or rustle of a leopard, and they’re all off into the treetops like a flock of witless birds.”

This impromptu speech was apparently enough to make the monkeys start pondering their tails for the first time in monkey memory–and to ponder them with shame (for the monkeys lacked the sense to see their situation other than as the ape had described it).  In the ensuing days, they behaved with a strange reserve aloft, whispering among themselves whenever an ape came in sight and–above all–pulling their tails in tight behind them.  If they descended to drink from the stream, they shuffled oddly with their long tails minimally exposed.  If they fished through the leaf litter for easily plucked beetles, they used a single hand, the other keeping their long tail curled from display.  The apes were mystified in the early going, and did not so much as flash a derisive smile in their perplexity.

“What are they up to?” asked one ape gravely of the troop elder during their dusk council.  “What do you think they could be hiding from us?  Do they intend to stone us at a sign from Big Gray?”

“I must admit that I have never seen anything like it, in all my long years,” said the elder.

“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” volunteered the mother ape.  “I made fun of their tails the other day, and now the hairy idiots are trying to pretend that they don’t have any whenever we come around.”

The other apes inquired more narrowly after the episode… and thus was born their new strategy.  They decided to act deeply offended every time a monkey showed its tail in their presence–not to threaten it or to scoff at it, but to appear deeply wounded inside.  And the ploy worked like a charm: they had discovered an entirely new species of power, which required not so much as a flex of their superior muscles.  If a monkey swung by innocently over an ape’s head, the latter would exclaim sulkily, “Was that for me?  Are you just showing off to remind me that my cousin couldn’t escape the leopard yesterday?”  If a monkey lolled back half-asleep on a high limb, its tail draped luxuriously downward, an ape far below would shout, “Do you think I don’t know you have a tail?  Do you think I’ve forgotten that I’m likely to die young, through no fault of my own?  Just remind me, why don’t you!”

Initially, a few monkeys responded to the new campaign with their typical jeers (tittering, “Go ahead and die, then!” or, “Too bad the leopard didn’t get you, as well!”).  When they were universally shunned by ape society on all occasions, however, they grew deeply morose, and the older ones shushed the younger as soon as a single impertinent word took flight.  For the next several weeks, the jungle became a very somber place.

When the apes perceived that the monkeys could not withstand complete ostracism from the primate community, they pushed their advantage farther.  “With those silly tails of yours that allow you to run from your higher duties,” they grumped, “you might at least bring us down a little fruit that hasn’t already rotted.”  For this and other such services, the monkeys were rewarded, not with thanks, but with a faint remission of the past weeks’ steady reproaches.

So far were the apes able to work their way into the monkeys’ tiny heads that the word “tale” was forbidden in any conversation lest it create bad feeling, even though its identity with “tail” was mere accident.  Then the word “tell” was likewise proscribed, because its proximity to “tail” was sure to remind any ape of an impending, wholly unjust doom.

A monkey, for instance–trying to be sociable to a newly won ape-neighbor–might blurt in its constant chatter, “You’re so very right, my friend!  The best fruit grows higher up the riverbank, where it can get more sun.  I was just telling that to Snubnose…”

And the ape would thereupon burst into tears, as if on cue.  Beating forehead dramatically with palms, she would sob, “Tail!  Tail!  If only my baby had had a tail!  She might still be alive today!  Oh, how can I ever forget!  Oh, why did the Great One who created us also curse us to this dangerous life on the ground?  What did we ever do?  Why are we so hated?”

In such a way did the apes make virtual slaves of the monkey race without lifting a finger.

 

Zebra’s Uninvited Guests

        All of the older animals in Echo Valley had heard of a place which might have been (it was said) the Garden of Eden.  It received regular rains because White Horn Mountain caught the clouds that drifted across the plain and wrung them out on its lower slopes.  Yet elevated as the forest was, the rainwater drained at a steady rate, most audibly in a glistening little cataract to the south.  The air, thus dried out, denied mosquitoes the humid, vaporous setting that they preferred.  The fertile, shaded bowers were so cool in the summer and so warm in the winter that life within this enchanted wood seemed a constant springtime, saving only that plump, sapid fruits were always coming ripe.

The luckiest animals of all actually inhabited this idyllic slope.  They had not discovered it or conquered it in any sense: they had simply chanced to be born upon or near it, and had thereafter grown into a rather easy and very healthy life through no particular merit of their own.  They well understood, upon reaching maturity, the good fortune that had fallen their lot; and while they were far too sensible to envy the life of those other animals down on the hot savanna or high up near the snowline, they also felt no guilt about enjoying what an accident of birth had bestowed upon them.

Except, that is, for Zebra.  He was something of an oddity, having wandered up to the forest as a young colt rather than being born beneath its rich canopy.  He had often told the other animals (every new arrival at their first meeting, and many an old acquaintance umpteen times) about his youthful ordeal: getting chased away from his mother by ravenous lions, suffering the clawed swipe of one predator on his left flank (a dramatic though small pale scar still shot across his pelt’s zigs and zags), miraculously escaping, and at last stumbling terrified through the mountain’s foothills as darkness gathered.  In this adoptive home he had healed and grown strong.  He had, indeed, led a much longer, much fatter life than most of his species.  Yet despite this great fortune–or because of it–he always concluded his recitation with a lament for the unsaved thousands of his kind forever starving and running for their lives down on the plain.

“You animals here,” he would drone, shaking his bulky head (such “you’s” always excluded himself), “you have no idea how others struggle.  What luxury you enjoy… how unfair life is!”

And then he would bray a hoarse sob or two, leaving his hearer extremely uncomfortable and a little bit deaf for the moment.

Most of the animals nevertheless liked Zebra well enough.  He was not too haughty to give young macaques a joy ride on his broad back from time to time.  In return, their clan had roofed him a stable in the forest so that the heaviest downpour never dampened his hide.  For the muskrats, he would haul rotten logs a short way (very short) to form backwaters in the river–a favor repaid by their keeping open a little channel of running water to his hideaway.  The python had woven him a hammock of vines in return for his scaring off giant eagles from her slithery children with his fearful hee-haw.  The parrots brought him choice morsels of fruit for similar boons… and so on, and so on.

Zebra, in short, proved to be a most serviceable animal–the only one of his kind in the jungle.  That he actually did little more than was entirely natural to him in these exchanges while the others performed extraordinary labors either did not occur to anyone or was considered of no account.  As an animal proverb has it, “Thank the sun, though he have no choice but to shine–for no one can take his place.”  All the same, the sun dealt out no raspy nasal sermons about “you animals here”.

Tension rose, however, one summer when the rains seldom came.  They came less often to the slopes of White Horn Mountain; and to the vast blond plain beneath, they must not have come at all.  Droves and  herds and throngs of plains animals–zebra, wildebeest, impala, and even elephant and giraffe–began to wander off their beaten track in search of food and water.  Their dusty masses gnawed at the mountain’s foothills a little farther up every day, perversely resembling a watery flood whose deadly surface rose and rose.  The hawks first brought the news.  Then the high-seated, far-seeing macaques took to brooding more than usual in their study of the horizon.  The wide-ranging pygmy deer next brought in evening reports wide-eyed.  Everyone was alarmed.  Every animal of the woods grew more alarmed every day.

Except for Zebra.  As the sun drew low each afternoon and the roosting birds chattered of impending doom, he took to reviling every animal about him.

“You hypocrites!” he would snort, lifting his neck so that its unique white collar shone amid shadowy stripes.  “What would you have them all do–starve at a comfortable distance, so that you wouldn’t have to watch vultures circling their carcasses?  Meanwhile you grow fat in this forest.  Heaven forbid that you should have to share one blade of grass with the hungry!”

“But it won’t be one blade of grass,” a macaque would always pipe up.  “There must be thousands and thousands and more thousands of them below, and all of them are headed this way.  If they once reach our forest, it’ll all be gone in a day–”

“As if struck by a plague of locusts!” the falcon would always say, who always wanted someone to ask what locusts were.

“Yes, and it will never grow back,” observed the old leopard sagaciously.  “Fruit, seeds… everything gone.  No way of renewing itself next year.  Starvation for them, starvation for us.”

“What an excuse!” would snort Zebra again.  “As if there weren’t greenery around us to feed millions and millions!  What a sorry excuse–what pitiless animals you all are!”

These exchanges became so bitter that the animals finally decided to have their revenge.  One evening, when Zebra returned to his elegant stable (in a singularly foul mood, since he had found no animals at the usual evening palaver-place), he received the shock of his long, fat life.  His roof had fallen in, his freshwater conduit had run dry, his hammock had collapsed, and his larder was empty of succulent fruits.  There was no mystery, furthermore, about who had worked the vandalism.  As his eyes grew adjusted to the deeper shadows, he recognized virtually all of his neighbors hanging from the trees or sprawling on the ground.  His big jaw fell open, and of a “hee-haw” he could manage only an awed “hee”.

“How inconsiderate of you!” snarled a voice–the leopard’s–from over his head.  “I brought my whole family to sleep on this nicely laid roof, and now it has all fallen in before I could even settle down the cubs.  I expect you to provide better by tomorrow!”

“And this stream!” squealed the boars.  “Look–it’s dry!  All we did was have a little drink and a little bath!  Half of our number hasn’t even arrived!”

“Your hammock,” said the chimpanzees, “doesn’t have any spring at all.  You must sleep like a corpse!  This is miserable workmanship–just miserable!”

“And what do you mean by gorging yourself on those fruits that the parrots bring you daily?” accused the chattering bats together, hanging upside-down from a limb.  “We’re still hungry!  We’re still hungry!  Look at how fat you are, you shameless old jackass!”

This was the last straw–Zebra could take no more.  He flew into a fury, braying and snorting, gnashing his teeth and kicking his hooves, whipping his head and flailing his tail, stomping everything underfoot and snapping at anything in the air.  All the animals instantly vacated his premises–every one of them unscathed, for in his rage he never came close to hitting any target.  No doubt, he was happy enough just to see them leave without having hurt any of them–yet happiness was scarcely discernible in his voice.

“This is my house!” he wheezed.  “My house, and I didn’t invite any of you!  You have no right!  My hammock, my fruit!  You have no right!”

“Don’t worry,” returned the macaque chieftain, “we won’t do this again.  But when the hordes come trampling down our trees, we’ll send them straight to you.”

 

Thrush and Sparrow

        When Whirrbelow the thrush married Chatterbox the sparrow, he received no one’s blessing.  He had always been a bird of a different feather–a rebel, a trouble-maker, a loud-beak, a feather-ruffler.  Nothing that any of the other thrushes ever did was good enough for him.  They were too locked into their routine, too caged up in their thinking: they sang the same tired song all the time, they all wore the same tired colors, they all hung out in the same part of the woods, and they all nested at about the same tree level.  They would never let anything into their airy-headed lives tomorrow that had not been there yesterday.  They were somnivolant zeroes–flying zombies, fluffed-out corpses, the Perching Dead.

In addition, they were bigots of the first twig.  For to his arsenal of criticisms, a young Whirrbelow had early on taken it into his hollow-boned head to charge his species with disdaining the common sparrow.  Of course, every forest bird turned up his beak at sparrows: their song was the least varied, their plumage the dullest, their habits the most numbly gregarious, their forage tactics lacking any trace of individual initiative.  In other words, while the thrushes did indeed view themselves as somewhat superior to sparrows, they were not alone in this–and the reasons behind their view, interestingly, were precisely those that Whirrbelow always cited for scorning thrushes.  In fact, when he first started courting Chatterbox (with several rare notes and peculiar hops that she didn’t understand at all), Whirrbelow’s old Uncle Croak didn’t hesitate to point out the inconsistency.

“Young peck-spackler!” he crowed.  “So you think we’re too brown for you, eh?  How do you like them colors?  Wait till you get a headful of that chatter–it won’t take you five minutes, and you’ll be singing our song just to keep enough sanity to land upright.”

After a few such exchanges, Whirrbelow was more convinced than ever that Chatterbox must be his mate for life.  The more his friends and relatives tried to warn him of possible complications, the fiercer he squawked about their blind prejudice, and the firmer he grew in his resolve.

On his marriage day (for he was never in any doubt that Chatterbox would marry him–after all, she was merely a sparrow), no one of either family attended.  Together the two proceeded to build an odd sort of nest in a remote part of the forest at a very unusual height.  Whether their honeymoon was happy or sad, it was certainly not much disturbed.

Eventually, as the days wore on and the seasons changed, little “sprushes” (as the families of both parties contemptuously styled them), began to appear.  Yet the chicks were sickly from the start: some of Chatterbox’s eggs would not even hatch.  A single little one survived that first spring; and, after another cycle of seasons, a mere two more had managed to cling to life.  Yet further worry lay in the long wait to hear the chicks’ first piping notes.  Would they sound like thrushes, or like sparrows, or like something in between?  Would they not ever sing at all?

Tragically, the last possibility appeared to be the reality.  Month came and month went, but none of the little sprushes could sing a note–not a single peep.  During this time, Chatterbox’s quibbling and scolding began to grow in volume and frequency, as if to fill the awkward silence about the nest.  In the early days, she had found no fault in her handsome husband (after all, he was a thrush).  As the unusual toil of their lonely life together bore down upon her, though, her cockaded hero lost his panache.  Whirrbelow could scarcely bear to come home any more, after a while.  His forays into the underbrush grew longer and longer, and on certain nights he didn’t return at all.

It was after one of these that he came dragging in at dawn, trailing his tail feathers, to find the nest sealed entirely closed.  He pecked meekly, then with more vigor upon meeting with no response.  At last a volley of chattering erupted so loudly that even the thick wall of dried mud and sticks could not muffle it.

“Get away!  Get away!  Now, now–get out, get out!  You cheated me, you chit!  You frittered my life away, you twit!  You pompous, fluttering idiot!”

The chatter was so vocal that other birds–including, of course, other thrushes–could not help but notice it as they stretched their necks and prepared to greet the sun.  The racket was not at all unlike a jay sounding the alarm at a hawk’s approach.

Whirrbelow had to retreat in shame; for as long as he remained near the nest, he only drew more and louder abuse.  Winging his way past his old mates, all open-beaked and staring, he couldn’t restrain his indignation.

“This is all your fault!” he rasped over his shoulder.  “If it hadn’t been for your snooty attitude, Chatterbox and I could have lived in peace!”

 

Desert Matriarch

           Everyone knows that lions hate hyenas and hyenas hate lions.  One of the rare occasions for which a huge dominant male of the lion species will rouse himself from his perpetual daydreaming and bolt at full speed is the too-close trespass of a hyena; and hyenas, for their part, will never miss a chance to mob a juvenile lion that has unwisely strayed too far from its kind.  For both, the hooved beasts that they devour on the grassy plain day after day are mere food: the menu was put together by Mother Nature, and its composition conceals nothing in the least personal.  For each other, however, they entertain an animosity that will endure until the end of time.  When the Golden Age comes and the lion lies down with the lamb, he will continue to stir himself from that supreme comfort for the prospect of sinking his jaws into a hyena.

Thus it was that the hyenas were ever thinking of some way or other to destroy their mortal enemy.  And certain of their thoughts were quite clever, for the weaker always have the greater incentive to grow smart.  Ayesha, the shrewdest hyena matriarch within any animal’s memory (and also the most insanely vengeful), finally hit upon an extraordinary strategy, so clever that the lions would never see the shadow of their descending doom’s hammer.  They would, indeed, welcome the very forces that would soon tighten around their necks like a great noose.  (The philosophical vultures went so far as to murmur among themselves that this was the plan’s chief appeal to Ayesha–that the lions would account their damnation a blessing right until the end: “Fiendish,” pronounced one of them from the bleak branch of a baobab.  “Only a hyena…”)

The scheme was just this.  The hyenas would encourage the wildebeest to overpopulate.  “Circulate among them,” Ayesha ordered her low-rumped ladies.  “They will shy away, but they won’t run if you go singly instead of in groups.  Spread out, and mingle.  Tell them that we shall not chase their young or sickly this season–that we shall only harvest the fallen.  Tell them, even, that we shall keep the smaller predators–the cheetah, the wild dogs, and the lesser jackals–from harassing them.  Tell them to make babies as they never have before.  You will not  have to tell them how to do that!”

And the pack laughed and laughed, sending up the antlers of a nearby herd of eland.  Ayesha continued:

“Tell them that, by this time next year, their numbers must be twice what they are now.  Then they can rule the plains as they will.  Why, in one stampede, they’ll be able to trample every lion in the valley, if they will only show the tiny bit of courage required to run at the pride rather than away from it.”

“A sand grain of courage is yet more than any wildebeest can muster,” brooded the matriarch’s almost toothless mother.

“That is why we must build them up to it,” responded Ayesha.  “We must fill their empty skulls with visions of grandeur.  Tell them that we fear the lions and need their gracious help.  Tell them that we will serve them when once they have ground our enemy into the dust.”

“This is preposterous!” whined Cleopatra, Ayesha’s arch-rival for the queenship.  “Even if we could stir them to such brave action, what would keep them from crushing us in the same stampede?  The stupid animals–they’re likely to crush everything, everyone–even themselves–in such pandemonium.”

“Ragged, half-eared flea-bag!” snarled Ayesha.  “Baboon-toothed nag–old hide full of holes, and all of them dry and smelly!”

With these foul terms and many more such, the queen chased her rival up and down the riverbank, halting her vile vituperation only now and then to nip at the smaller dog’s heels.  Yet she was careful not to overtake Cleopatra; for to kill her would have been to shatter one subversive cabal into several, and Ayesha held the reins of power cannily, with a little slack.

The plan went just as she had conceived it–up to a point.  Whether the wildebeest heeded the tempting seductions of the dogs fawning about the vast herd’s outskirts, or whether the babies they constantly made in all circumstances simply grew up far more abundantly under the hyenas’ protective eye, the next year’s crop of horned, grunting goats exceeded the stars in the night sky.  The lions indeed strutted and roared as they had never done before, since a meal was always within an easy dash.  They, too, brought forth more cubs than any of them had ever seen in one place; and, for a brief while, they terrorized the hyenas at twice the usual rate, since the harassment was now pure fun and the energy expended upon it was always readily restored.

Ayesha’s subjects began to grow disgruntled.  At that juncture, everything appeared to have worked exactly opposite of the desired effect.  As for the projected stampede, the wildebeest seemed not so much too faint of heart as too devoid of understanding.  They had never been very well organized: now their numbers sprawled from end to end of the plain in utter chaos.  To have reminded one of them of the grand plan would have been to pull a locust out of a swarm and advise it of a shortcut to better fields.  Even when the lions–or the cheetahs, or the wild dogs–came directly at them and hauled down one of their mass, the others scarcely looked up from chewing their cud.  They clearly preferred to use their collective enormity as a safety zone, content to watch another individual fall in their place, rather than to employ it as a crushing hammer.  They were invincibly small-minded.

The situation became so bad for Ayesha that she had to withdraw to the caves of a rocky outcrop in the dead of night, advised just in time by a faithful follower of Cleopatra’s coup.  Her entourage was now less than a third of what it had been.  Her machinations appeared to have failed disastrously.

Then, with astonishing rapidity, the balance of power on the plain shifted like a mighty stone finally dislodged from a cliff by a small rain shower.  The wildebeest had so overpopulated the valley that all forage was suddenly gone.  As they now starved, they were never more easily captured and devoured, and for a while the savanna’s fiercest predators made out better than ever.  But jaws can eat only so fast, and the die-off of the antelope left thousands and thousands of carcasses strewn across the plain within a few days’ time.  After a month, the predators themselves began to starve.  The lion cubs that had arrived so prolifically in the spring, if they did not waste away of hunger, had to fear being gobbled up by their pitiless sire.  Only the vultures thought that heaven had come to earth.

Flanked always by her mother, Ayesha studied these events with a fixed smile that claimed more of her face daily.  “You see?” she said at last.  “The lions are almost all dead now, every one.  Soon we will be able to close in and finish off most of the few survivors.”

“Cleopatra remains at large,” commented one of her faithful from the cave’s deeper shadows.  “She and her pack run far and wide fighting the vultures and gorging themselves.”

“Far and wide, yes,” answered Ayesha with narrowing eyes.  “Every dog for herself.  First we destroy what we can of the lions’ young… then we take the rebels, one by one.”

“And after that, my daughter,” whimpered the dowager empress, “what will be left us then?  A huge desert with bleached bones and no food.”

“Yes,” said Ayesha, “and it will all be ours!”

 

Peter Singleton has contributed essays and short stories to Praesidium since the journal’s inception.  He currently lives in the Dallas area in semi-retirement.