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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.1 (Winter 2013)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
More Politically Forbidden Fables
Peter T. Singleton
The Blue Jackal
A rare black jackal once mated with an even rarer albino jackal; and rarest of all, a blue jackal was born of this union. The animals of the savanna believed one and all that this wonder of the world had been sent from heaven. As the pup grew, therefore, he found himself coddled by every creature around him, including those that would have devoured his parents without a second thought. For if a black beast bears the mark of ill omen and if a pure albino is a horrendous freak, blue hide was something entirely unheard-of in any creature that walked the plains, nestled in the underbrush, or scaled the mighty baobabs. Only the occasional bird wore indigo feathers—and all of this species, as the migrant wildebeest reported, dwelt in the rainforest much farther north. Who knew if a stupid wildebeest was even capable of reporting facts? It might well be that the very birds of the air had no cousins clad in any such remarkable blue.
And so the lions brought the pup his meals, the powerful elands allowed him to travel on their backs, the apes presented him with succulent fruits from the highest branches, and the water buffalo lay beside him when the monsoon wind blew cold and wet a few nights a year. The jade-colored adders—the most poisonous snakes on the savanna—even allowed the blue jackal to make temporary rings and necklaces of them at his play. Nothing that he asked was denied him. Most of his desires were satisfied before he could so much as think them up.
When the pup became a full-grown jackal, he naturally was made king over all. The transition was not without strained moments, for Blue Jackal had some strange predilections. He deeply mistrusted the lion race, despite having been served abjectly by its members from childhood. The lions noticed that he appointed leopards and other predators that lived by ambush and trickery to his cabinet in preference to themselves. They grumbled in their secluded prides, yet said nothing in mixed company. After all, this was no ordinary beast like themselves, but the One Ordained by Heaven.
The vultures, likewise, were secretly outraged that Blue Jackal claimed all the ripest, rankest carrion for himself rather than partaking of the fresh kills brought to him. And while the source of their discontent was a selfish regard for their own bellies, more noble creatures like the puma and the cheetah found these table habits unworthy of a mighty sovereign. Why would a lord hand-picked by the gods prefer nuzzling his snout in stinking carcasses to tearing away red meat that still bled?
The crocodiles were displeased that the King regularly dug up and gobbled down their eggs. The hippos did not care for his banning them from certain shores where he liked to drink. The egrets were expected to give him the pick of their chicks when he felt inclined to snack without so much as raising an alarm.
Of course, all such hardships had been part of daily life before Blue Jackal’s blessed arrival. Yet the animals themselves had always imposed a kind of rhythm upon their occurrence. Those who could attack would attack, those who had good defenses would defend, and those who were masters of escape would run away. Now they were expected to discard the natural balance established in their affairs from time immemorial and to substitute a new regime based on Blue Jackal’s whimsy.
His Highness was not unaware of the dissatisfaction in certain quarters, for the lizards reported everything to him (in return for a special exemption from his snack menu). At a critical juncture, he broke with his custom and called in the two most robust lions—Black Mane and Crusher—to help bring the situation back under control. The two male terrors of the savanna slaughtered within one day the dozen or so malcontents who appeared at the top of Blue Jackal’s “kill list”. In return, they were given the right to butcher their choice of Blue Jackal’s one-time intimates, the hyenas.
Upon the hyenas’ skulking to Blue Jackal’s smelly palace under cover of darkness and protesting the purge, the King responded, “What can I do? They are so powerful, those two… they would turn on me and kill me if I tried to rein them in. Be patient. Black Mane is growing old, and the day will come when Crusher will not be able to resist us all on his own.”
Thus did Blue Jackal sustain a new balance in the affairs of the savanna—a precarious balance that he redistributed almost daily by feeding off the labors of others. In fact, he behaved exactly like a jackal.
Far, far aloft in the treetops, a gimlet-eyed hawk was occasionally joined by another of his feather. No lizard could climb to branches so high—and hawks, in any case, could mount no real threat to any animal of the plains larger than a hare. So the one would remark:
“Brother, they say the blue sky came to earth on the day when our lord and sovereign was born. Yet to me, from where I perch, it sometimes seems that the world has gone to the dogs.”
“I tend to be of that opinion myself,” would say the other. “But what would you have us do? His hide is blue.”
“We Just Want a Better Life”
Starlings would be comical birds if their numbers were not so dangerously immense. The other birds of plain and forest lived in constant terror of starling swarms. The jays found enough berries, the robins enough worms, and the wrens enough moths on any given day of spring or fall. The harvest of tasty morsels usually sufficed, in fact, to fatten them up so that the leaner pickings of winter were no great hardship. The days from late spring to mid-autumn, however—and every day of summer in between—had forever brought a veiled threat of ruin to the lives of all the birds native to the heartland… or it seemed forever, anyway. Only the ancient owls could recall a time when no one had ever heard of a starling. It was said (or the owls said) that the first of these crowd-following cacklers had been imported from a faraway place because some foolish human thought them quaint in a cage. If only cages had no doors!
Nowadays, all hatchlings were brought up from their third week in the nest to listen for a distant but growing shriek and to watch for a distant but growing cloud.
For wherever starlings appeared, catastrophe quickly followed. There were simply too many of the invaders for the resources of any field or wood. They would mob the treetops in a screeching blanket, fouling or smothering food that was inedible to them but simply got in the way of their massive passage. Then, if the coast was clear, they would blanket the meadows in black, picking every seed from the earth and condemning the fields in their wake to years, perhaps, of barrenness. They had as much right to eat as any other creature, no doubt… but there were so very, very many of them! When they came and came in thousands and thousands, the other birds fled as if a ravenous forest fire were descending from high heaven.
The jays, though the loudest and most braggart of birds, were first to retreat, pausing at every copse along their flight to fling back raucous protests. As if even a dozen squawking jays could have been heard above the deafening screech of ten thousand starlings!
The robins were somewhat more plucky—but they, too, would finally retire in order. The tiny wrens had the enviable trick of being able to hunker down in low-lying shrubs, motionless and invisible: they would follow later, after the chaos had moved on. Only a fearless mockingbird would sometimes linger and pick a fight with any starling that crossed his path… but there was little satisfaction in such courage. Though no starling would ever stand and return even a single peck, the sheer number of whirring wings and the sheer volume of incredible cacophony would at last drive the lone hero aloft and away in search of fresh air.
It was through the reports of these mockingbirds that the other winged denizens of wood and meadow became familiar with the standard starling appeal to pity.
When a big gray mocker stood his branch and chested a nameless starling backward into the leafage, the shocked intruder would invariably roll his round eyes, kick with his puny claws, and wheeze with an outstretched tongue, “We just want a better life!” And then he would vanish in the feathery blur of black.
At the end of a particularly bad summer, the songbirds called a meeting. They had reached the edge of their native habitat, yet still the starlings came on. Relentlessly—every morning, every afternoon—the dark whirlwind would appear in the distance, threatening the peace of each new refuge. Now there were no refuges left. Directly ahead were the icy, bald-faced mountains… and beyond those (so a migrating goldfinch had said), the vast wastes of the open sea. The mountains had no berries, the snow no moths, and the sea no worms. They were backed up, then, against certain extermination.
“I heard a buzzard say,” volunteered a bluebird to the gloomy group, “that his family lives quite nicely on the mountain cliffs. Perhaps he would tell us how.”
“Fool!” snapped a robin. “They tear the carcasses of mountain goats. And hawks live on those same cliffs. Where would the likes of you find cover from a hawk on a mountain cliff?”
“I met a gull once,” meekly tested a vireo. “He said the coastline is full of fish that humans simply throw away.”
“What’s a gull? What’s a gull?” peeped the sparrows all at once.
“Fish!” chirruped a cardinal, his red plume cocked over a scowling black mask. “Which of us do you suppose has a beak to eat fish? Have you ever tried? Have you ever tried?”
“Quite tasty!” hooted an owl invisibly—for the other birds would not perch in his presence.
“Butcher! Murderer!” screamed the jays. “Butcher! Murderer!” And it was some little while before they could be prevailed upon to settle down and keep quiet.
But when silence was renewed, it oppressed almost more than the jays’ racket. Though the sun still needed a couple of hours to fade from the canopy, one would have thought that night had enveloped the forest.
At last a little wren twittered from far below. “And the other way? The other way?”
“What other way? What other way?” scolded the sparrows?
“Where the sun rises—the sun rises!” answered Wren.
“I told you a conference full of these feather-brains would waste our time!” brooded Mrs. Cardinal.
“But you know… Wren may have a point,” mulled a new voice in a meditative twirl of the tongue.
The other birds looked far aloft, where sunlight gilded the high branches.
“What do you mean, Pecker?” said Robin. “Explain yourself.”
Woodpecker cocked his crimson pate and continued. “The lands that the starlings have already ruined, far east of here, may have had time to green up again.” He paused to listen for a grub, then decided that he had only heard the bark creak. “Starlings never stop and settle. All they know is being on the move. The spaces where we lived last year may be ready for us to live next year.”
“But they’re so far away, so very far away!” complained Jay. “How will we make it from here to there?”
“You’re a better flyer than I,” said Woodpecker. “Yet I see no other way, but to try.”
“Some of you will have to stop and catch your breath every ten miles,” said the canny Robin, “but the rest of us will wait. If we stay together, like the starlings, then no hawk will be able to pick us off.”
“We’ll mob him! We’ll mob him!” cheered all the jays.
“No other way! No other way!” piped Wren happily.
“Meanwhile, we must eat our fill,” concluded Woodpecker… and he resumed his tapping probes of a dying trunk.
The extraordinary migration was a tremendous success. Every bird from wood thrush to meadowlark collaborated in the great exodus. (The owls came, too, but were forced by communal pressure to follow by night.) Miles and miles of wasteland they covered, occasionally passing the tornadic starling advance yet never drawing the attention of those millions of eyes, all intent on the next green horizon. On the third day, the voyagers crossed a great river together and were able to renew their energy along the far bank—for its shores offered reviving thickets and pastures, sure enough. They flew another day, and then one more, just to be sure that they had placed an immense distance between their new homes and the starling menace. The rolling farmlands and foothills of their adoptive range were so fertile that winter itself did little to diminish the rich forage at hand.
The following year was the best of their brief lives. Even the owls (who had plenty of mice to gorge on and seldom molested a songbird now) could scarcely remember a fatter time. Those who insisted otherwise were probably staring through the golden film of old age, as Woodpecker sagely remarked. Even young owls were nostalgic creatures.
Eggs came aplenty. The greatest challenge to existence now was keeping squirrels and snakes away from nests.
Then one fine day in July, a mockingbird was prowling about in his honeysuckle haven as the other bird tribes took their deep noon nap. A noise so far away that he at first thought it imaginary made him halt his movements, bend his head, and listen. His tossed his feathery skull as if trying to shake out a bad dream, and listened again.
The screech, though very remote indeed, was unmistakable this time.
In a blend of fury and panic which he did not pause to analyze, Mockingbird launched himself into the quadrant of the sky that was producing the horrid cackle. He immediately spotted a small dark swirl once he had elevated himself above the low treetops of the meadowland. Still caught up in a passionate frenzy, he winged breathlessly toward the mass whose blur was beginning to resolve itself into hundreds and hundreds of individual dots. There would be single outliers around the fringe—scouts screeching out encouragement every time they spied an unpicked field. His keen sight isolated one of these as it coasted unsuspecting over a blond pasture.
The collision was so hard, with Mockingbird’s claws deliberately projected toward the other’s unguarded flank, that the scout instantly fell in a trail of uprooted feathers.
Mockingbird descended and alit over the upturned body. He opened his beak wide, his lean tongue hissed, and his eyes squinted like a snake’s.
With the final breaths remaining in its shattered rib cage, the scout panted, “You have so much! You have so much! We only wanted you to share. We just want a better life.”
And Mockingbird, able to bear no more, drove his long beak into the scout’s throat.
A wise man one day decided that he required an answer from God. He knew, of course (being wise), that Fortune is a strumpet. It never shocked him that the most virtuous people suffered the most humbling hardships. The greatest wealth is quickest made, he realized, by men who best falsify promises, who load their merchandise most heavily with the cheapest glitter, who raise their voices highest with the least shame, and who fawn upon the influential most transparently with the faintest regard for dignity. He knew these things, did the wise man, as he knew that mushrooms rise from fallen logs and bright flowers from dung. Nature was a rhombus of paradox. It had always been so, and would always be so. Only a fool protests against natural rhyme and rhythm.
Nevertheless, as the wise man grew older, he became more troubled at the ferocity with which he saw affliction visited upon the humble, the chaste, the true, and the righteous. It was not enough to God, apparently, that good people should be drawn close to Him by having none of the distractions of wealth around them. He must also torment them with the persecutions of tyrants, who always and everywhere hound exponents of truth. He must try them with sudden deaths, rare diseases, childlessness, and other improbable agonies that rain heavily on those who stray out of the mass’s protective blur, just as the pure white gazelle draws the tiger’s attention first as she hazes the herd. A good man was more often harassed by creditors with unlawful claims because his honor restrained him from countering with equally vile tactics. Good men were the soonest passed over for rightful appointment or promotion because their virtue bound them from circulating bribes and slanders as their competitors did.
The good, it seemed, were a race marked for quick execution. The wise man found this most unwise—for how would goodness ever prevail if it were hunted to extinction? That the strongest sword is that whose steel has been tempered most in the hottest flames was clear to him; but eventually the smith gives the sword its final cool bath, and once it cools the blade survives for centuries. In God’s forge, the good appeared to be incinerated. What good were the good, once their ash was scattered over the earth and forgotten?
So the wise man began a long ascent up the highest of the high, snow-capped mountains, where God’s most favored temple was said to sit near the summit. The trip across the lowlands and the foothills itself demanded more than a month. The man ate seeds out of pods and bulbs off of tubers as he went; and, as the elevation steadily increased, he found fruits that grew blond in the unveiled sunlight and edible leaves that insects had not mangled. Occasionally a farmer or a traveling merchant would give him alms, for pilgrims were recognized as holy. The thought occurred to him, indeed, that perhaps he had lived too near the city for too long—that God was much less harsh upon the good where people of all sorts were fewer and simpler.
As he neared the snowline, there were no more farms, and no more roads. The pines that grew high and soughed in constant breezes sometimes yielded small nuts from their cones, but their needles were as sterile to an empty belly as deadwood. Slender silver streams ran swift with sweet, cool water; yet the only life in them was a rare mountain trout, and to catch one was the work of half a day sometimes.
In the snow, the pilgrim found less food than ever. Stones mocked his hungry eyes by turning into apples or yams, and in a kind of madness he almost grabbed up some to eat when the damp, misty nights would close early about him. He would seek a rock overhang or burrow under some aged cedar needles in the evening’s final light, curl himself into a ball, and shiver himself to a sleep from which he scarcely cared to awake. In the vivid dreams known well to the starving, he would stand before God and ask:
“Why do you hate us? Why did you create us only to hate us all? You say you hate the wicked, yet you punish them with prosperity. You say you love the good, yet you reward them with misery and death. Some say that you are in charge of all that stands, sits, or moves—yet if this were so, a man could only conclude that your cosmic mind is insane, for you punish most what you love the most. Some say that you have charge of little, since you cannot be mad and cannot love evil… yet who, then, has more control than you? And how, then, may you be called God? Who gods it over you? Why are you as cold and numb as this mountain, or why are you as starved and pitiful as I? Are you just another tyrant, or are you just another fool?”
At some point during some day or night, he forgot his hunger and thought no more of eating. The snow oddly thinned, and the mist that never lifted sometimes turned silver instead of gray. The sun, perhaps, was now so close that snow would hardly fall and ice hardly condense from the air. In some ways, things seemed to move in reverse. The world around the summit was strangely inside-out.
Either the temple’s eaves were the gentle downward, outward sweep of fir trees, or else fir trees formed a natural temple. Either the temple’s columns were shaped to mimic slender, maidenly tree trunks, or else tree trunks mimicked the columns of a temple. The wise man did not pause to consider. He sounded a bell that might have been clear ice, and entered a doorway that threw no shadow. He sought God inside, and he saw a passing mist that might have been God’s robe. Or else he saw God’s robe, which to mortal eyes appeared a mist.
God’s hand, or the hand of sleep, lay him upon a smooth stone slab. There he felt himself die in a way that allowed him to feel death. As he lay dead, for minutes or for days, he felt himself being dead, and felt the life within this feeling of death. No words or even thoughts passed through his mind. He could feel the mist sweep over him at times, or perhaps a miraculous ray of sun. Once he felt the tickling bristles and the cold damp nose of a beast caress his ankles. By the sneeze that followed as the thing padded away, he knew that a leopard had examined his corpse. And his heart, which he heard beating once a minute (or perhaps once a day), beat no faster as he saw the swinging tail disappear in his mind.
When the wise man at last staggered his way back down the mountain’s slopes, from mist to snow to piney stones to orchards, he stopped where the orchards grew and the roads occasionally passed. Though merchants and travelers would file past twice an hour on their way down to the city, he asked none for conveyance. Neither would he spare to any a word of warning. He finished his unnumbered days where the streams still ran slender and swift, and he spoke seldom—never except in response. Farmers would see his ragged appearance and give him alms. He would look through the shoulders of passing men and spy the invisible ocean beyond the continent.
A faithful contributor to this journal from its inception, Peter Singleton lives in the North Texas area, teaching at several institutions of higher learning and writing his fill in semi-retirement.