politically radioactive

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.4 (Fall 2017)


F I N A L    I S S U E

Fiction & Poetry


Alternative Idiots: A Politically Radioactive Fable
Peter T. Singleton

What makes an animal fable “politically radioactive”? Nothing, if you’re not paying attention to current events.

It didn’t start with the bulldozers, though they and the other heavy equipment brought everything to a head. The animals of the jungle floor were ready to kill those of the canopy well before the machinery of the city humans was growling and fuming at their common doorstep—and the birds and creatures of the trees had long been every bit as eager to murder their brethren of the underbrush. Thus the mortal threat that should have united them instead made either group a mortal threat to the other. Yet there was really little irony in the situation, if any brain superior to an animal’s had stood by to contemplate it; for the truth is that they would probably have found a way to ruin their idyllic existence if the bush had never felt the touch of a tread.

The birds had always loathed the warthogs. Those tusked, grubbing beasts were supremely ugly. They ate out of the dirt, and their thoughts played in the dirt. Their snorting and grunting interrupted lovely birdsong, and it also tended to destabilize trees where bird families nested. Nothing of the elevated could be said to characterize their attitude. They thought only of themselves—and only of their bellies, at that. Life was just a matter of day-to-day survival with them, where beauty wasn’t awarded the slightest part.

In turn, the warthogs were utterly contemptuous of the birds. Those fetherbrains had been lavishly endowed by nature for some reason, and so they believed that everybody else, too, should be able just to flutter about the treetops all the livelong day, sing sweet songs, admire the view, and pluck a succulent berry now and then. They worked at nothing, day after day, and they couldn’t understand the need for work. They had been born in beautiful plumage, and so they thought that anyone lacking it must have made the choice to look ugly. They dropped their excrement on the heads of passers-by far below, and so they had convinced themselves that they didn’t defecate and that the recipients of their refuse were just making up slanderous stories. Useless, vain, stupid, and flightly… of what good was a bird to the world?

There were other animals on the forest scene, of course—but these inevitably drifted into one camp or the other as time passed, if only because they were forced to choose sides. The baboons shared an airborne residence with the birds, and when hobbling about on the ground were often in competition with the warthogs for food; hence they tended to veer feathery in their sentiments, though every bit as ugly and horrid as their hated enemies. Indeed, the warthogs regarded them as hypocrites and opportunists. The birds squawked at their ape-neighbors and shunned them for their grotesque nature, yet didn’t refuse their help since it was obvious that they detested warthogs. For their part, the baboons embraced several elements of the avian life. They lolled about at midday, copulated whenever they felt like it, and even flung ecrement down at their enemies—deliberately and expertly aimed it, not content simply to relieve themselves haphazardly. They had all the odious qualities of birds and none of the pleasant ones, pretending that they were something other than the foulest creatures in the jungle. The warthogs had a saying about them: “If a bird had to live closer to earth, he would be a baboon.”

On the warthogs’ side, generally speaking, were the leopards. They didn’t really play about in the trees like birds and baboons; if they hung from a limb, it was for a purpose. They seemed, indeed, to have a purpose in everything they did, though the warthogs mistrusted them because their minds were altogether too agile and devious, like their sinewy bodies. Constantly laying traps and exploiting circumstances, leopards could certainly not be said to spend their time floating about in the clouds with bird-brained fantasies warbling in their throats. Yet because nothing they did was ever transparent, the most you could claim was that they were definitely not birds. True, they were very fond of snatching any unattended baboon youngster, and they had in fact done far more to deplete the baboon population than had the warthogs; but they were also not above grabbing a lone piglet who was not on his guard, or at least… well, they pulled it off precisely by dropping suddenly from above. Their coloring was part day and part night, part sun and part shadow, so you couldn’t really see them coming. Once you heard their purring voice, you could rest assured that they were taking your side, for the time being. But you might hear nothing at all when one was about, and that might be the last moment of your life.

Then there were the pythons, who also devoured eggs and little birds—and even baby baboons—liberally; yet for some strange reason, they were embraced by the featherheads as allies during jungle disputes. Their beautiful scales and oneness with lofty limbs seemed to designate them as part of the airborne world, as did (according to the warthogs) their lolling about and evading all hard work. Yet they were incapable of any breezy thought. They probably had a genuine stake in resisting the warthogs, for without trees they were doomed; but just as probably, they took advantage of their alliance with the birds as a means of acquiring easy snacks.

Finally, the rhinos: thoroughly land-bound and possibly even uglier than a warthog. Sometimes their merely scratching their wrinkled hide on a tree trunk would topple the whole green edifice over in a great crash… so they were naturally classed in the warthog column by all concerned. Yet they themselves seemed little interested in jungle politics as long as they had a cud to chew, and they were so irritable and unpredictable in their self-contained world of grazing and basking in the sun (a world as intellectually tiny as their bodies were vast) that you never knew when you might set them off. Dealing with them was all a matter of approaching from the right angle; and on the whole, considering how little they had to contribute, the warthogs avoided approaching them at all. “With friends like a rhino, who needs enemies?” they would say. They heaped a contempt upon these great beasts which fear kept them from dishing out upon the leopards. Blind, dumb, stupid, mute… but very occasionally useful, if you could point them in the right direction.

Such were the lines of battle, even before the city humans drove their first machine, chugging and grunting, along the forest’s edge. And the initial response to the threat showed much about the past state of the jungle community (and everything about its future, if any animal had possessed the wits to prophesy).

“Those city humans are getting too close,” grumbled the warthogs. “Let’s go overrun their camp and gore every one of them that gets in our way.”

“They’re here because of you,” countered the baboons from low limbs, who were much better with words if not much keener between the ears. “Humans hate ugly creatures like you, and you tear up their farmlands. They’re coming to kill you all—and good riddance.”

“Ugly? How could anything be uglier than you apes?” snorted one warthog.

“To a human, we are the most beautiful animals in the jungle,” retorted a baboon. “We look just like them. If we were to put on a few birds’ feathers, we could walk among them and not be noticed.”

“Except for your stink!” chortled another warthog.

“Oh… and from you, they will make perfume, I suppose,” answered the baboon sarcastically.

“I don’t think rushing their camp will be a very good idea,” opined a leopard with a tired yawn from a slightly higher branch (startling everyone, for none had noticed his presence before then).

“Why not?” asked a young warthog naively. “We are many more than they, and we have sharp tusks!”

“True enough. But they have rifles. And sometimes dynamite, too.”

“What are rifles and sometimes-dynamite?”

The leopard wheezed, and a flickering smile showed through the shadows. “Just remember this. In a fight with humans, it always starts well but never ends well. Even one of these worthless birds could peck their eyes out the first time around. But the second time… why, they have sticks of thunder that can bring down an elephant with one bolt.”

“That’s a rifle,” announced an older warthog boastfully. “I’ve seen one.”

“Too bad the elephants disappeared,” lamented a momma warthog nursing a piglet. “I’ll bet they could roll one of those machines over into the mud.”

“Maybe a rhino could do it,” volunteered another tusker. “I mean, if we could get one to stop chewing his cud and actually do something.”

“If we could get the rhinos to trample all of you warthogs,” persisted a baboon, “the problem would be solved.”

“The city humans didn’t drive their heavy machines here to hunt warthogs, you dumb ape!” sneered an ancient warthog with exceptional insight. “They won’t spare you even if they destroy all of us. They won’t spare any of you!”

“That would be the only good thing about this,” mumbled another hog, taking a stab at dark humor.

“You’re lying about humans as you lie about everything else!” railed a large, strident baboon, throwing out his chest from a safe perch. “I like humans. They leave food for us at the edge of their cities in cans and large bins. Tasty food. They’re our friends. It’s you warthogs that they’re after—no doubt about it. They’ve created machines that move like you and sound like you, but are much more powerful than you. And they’ll run you all down, and we’ll be cheering when they do!”

“You’re frightening my baby!” snarled the mother pig.

“Good! Maybe he’ll drop dead!”

The leopard wheezed another lazy laugh. “This isn’t going to turn out well.”

A python awoke just then a raised his immense flat head to glisten in a ray of sunlight. “What… what’s going on?”

A few days later, a certain rhino did in fact take it upon himself to rush a bulldozer that was idling near his precious scrub domain. Since none of the other animals had spoken to him, his charge was obviously an idea that just happened to seize him from somewhere at that moment. The huge yellow machine lifted infinitesimally on its treads, but never altered the rhythm of its idling. The rhino recoiled in his tracks, clearly dazed. Somehow he managed to keep his feet, and after another couple of minutes he plodded back to continue his chewing. The city humans gathered about the machinery, oooed and ahhhed for a while, elbowed each other, laughed, snapped photos with their smartphones, and eventually went back to work.

Three bulldozers removed a great deal of brush that day, and also took down several small trees. Aware of the rhino incident, the other animals now painfully conceded that pachyderms were not the answer.

“Our trees! Our beautitul trees!” shrieked the birds (who had participated in virtually none of the discussions up until now). “The noise! The horrible noise! It is too horrible to bear! Oh, and the stench of those machines! Their horrible pillars of stench! It is such that no refined animal’s nostril can endure it! Stop them! Stop them! Tell them how wicked they are, and how much they are offending us!”

An exhausted warthog, his belly resting heavily in the mud, huffed through his great snout and mocked, “You city humans, stop! Don’t you know you’re offending the birds?”

“Oh, baboons! Please do something!” trilled an indigobird hysterically. “You understand humans. Speak to them. Tell them to stop!”

“It’s no good as long as the warthogs are alive,” responded one baboon as if in a threat; and then another broke in energetically.

“Yes, the city humans are here for the warthogs. I heard them say so—I understand their language. One of them today, on their lunch break… he was leaving me part of his bread, and I heard him say, ‘These baboons… they’re just like us. Nice people. One can reason with them. A pity that we may have to kill them all just to get at the warthogs.”

“You were picking ticks off your mother while they were eating, fang-face!” rebutted a hog from below. “Which one said it, huh? The one in the red shirt? The one with white hair?”

The baboon lifted his hairy chin with dignity. “He does not wish to be named.”

“Oh, he is right! I know the baboon is right!” chirped a bunting. “The warthogs are so horrible! How could the city humans not hate the warthogs? Any animal must hate them—they are so crude and ugly!”

“You, bread-eater,” snorted the mocking hog after meditating his jibe for rather too long, “you are the only animal on earth whose excrement comes out of both ends! Did you use the unnamed human’s gift to make yourself a dung sandwich?”

It should be said, lest this remark be thought wittier than it really was, that the warthogs made similar jokes at a rate of about three times a day. For his troubles, the tusker received a projectile of digestive leftovers right between the eyes.

Thus the progress of the bulldozers continued, slowly but steadily, for the next week without any response from the animals other than heightened hysteria from the birds, renewed story-telling from the baboons, an ominously mounting sullenness among the warthogs, and a collective shrinking back into the jungle’s deeper reaches.

About this time, a battered old lion wandered into the woods. A younger male had dethroned him from his rule over a large pride, and he had taken to roaming from end to end of the savanna in search of what food his weary joints and war-torn teeth could capture. The city humans seemed to be spreading everywhere nowadays, so his problems were not simply those of advancing age. Where once the large herds would at least have allowed him to chase jackals and vultures off of a fallen carcass, there were but tiny groups of antelope which didn’t necessarily leave behind a residue of sick and elderly. The brush that had once concealed hares and grouse was also greatly reduced, cleared for farmland and the grazing of domestic animals (which the old warrior knew better than to molest). Nothing much was left for the tawny simba but to stray deeper and deeper into the jungle, where his long stride was of no use but where he might, on a given day, take some small animal by surprise.

The other animals were at first very uneasy about the lion’s appearance. He was a stranger, a drifter, whose presence only complicated their situation (since they didn’t know his intentions). The leopards, especially, snarled, narrowed their eyes, and coiled on their low tree limbs.

Yet after a certain amount of bristling and baring of teeth, the other animals began to relax their guard. Perhaps the recent immigrant brought a fresh breeze of external realities that gave them all brief relief from their incessant circle of bickering. Perhaps, too, his high praise of the paradise they inhabited (and whose virtues they had long forgotten) was flattering to them. Certainly his tales about his travels interested them, and they wondered if all the wisdom he had acquired might hold the secret to escape from their present crisis.

“We have to drive out the warthogs,” repeated the baboons, as if looking for the great cat’s approval. “It’s the only thing. Or they can take themselves away from here, for the good of everyone. If they ever thought of anyone but themselves, they’d have left our forest long ago. Now they’re going to get us all killed….”

And they went on and on in their chattering manner. The lion listened silently and blinked heavily, appearing to know that any protest against this view would waste his breath.

“They’re so ugly! They’re so ugly!” chirped the finches in vapid support.

The lion smiled. “Not half as ugly as a hyena. But even the hyenas are rare now. There’s nothing for them to hunt. Far, far toward where the sun sits at noon in midsummer, I have heard that there are still great forests and green grasses. But I am too old to make the trip. Some of you birds, perhaps, might make it.”

“Will he help us? Will he help us?” chattered the birds, as if they had heard nothing.

“Well, there’s no room for you here,” purred a leopard guterally.

“Shut up, you!” snorted one of the largest warthogs. “He can lead us. He was once a king. He will know what to do, if anyone does.”

“His head would look good in some hunter’s home,” smirked the leopard.

The lion squinted treeward, contemplating a repartee, but decided against it. “There may be a way,” he continued. “There may just be a way.”

“I hope it doesn’t involve the rhinos,” said a python very slowly. “One of them tried to attack the humans’ yellow elephant, but…”

“Yes, yes,” interrupted a couple of warthogs impatiently. “That happened a while back. Now tell us: what is the way? Shall we attack? Take out their entire camp and send them running?”

“And marching back the next day with dogs and rifles,” mocked the leopard.

“What’s a rifle? What’s a rifle?” chirped a jay.

“I’m afraid our spotted friend is right,” said the old king. “You must not attack the men directly. Also, they must not know that their problem comes from you. But you must create a problem—some of you—with their machines. The machines must appear not to work. They are left here in the dark, night after night, far from the humans’ campsite. There is a way to cripple them every night, so that the city humans may at last grow discouraged. But to follow this way, all of us must work together. And from what I have seen, I do not know if you animals can work together. It will cost you your homes for sure, and perhaps your lives, if you do not. Yet I very much doubt that you can do it.”

“It’s those baboons, those cackling bags of dung!” snarled the warthogs. “And also their friends, the featherheads. How can you accomplish any plan with a featherhead?”

“We don’t need a plan!” howled the baboons. “All we need is for you to leave! The city humans are good to us—we are their brothers. It’s you they hate. If you don’t leave, we’ll all die.”

And dusk darkened into night once more as the two sides barked, snarled, and snapped back and forth. The old lion simply turned his swishing tail to them and made for a place to bed down.

Another two days of destroyed forest habitat were required (the bulldozers were now assisted by raucous chainsaws) before the animals could bring themselves to beg the lion for advice in the dusk’s final flush. In fact, the request was a little short of unanimous. The birds had all but gone to sleep, many of them having already twittered, “Things will be better tomorrow,” before burying their head under a wing. Only a couple of baboons openly pleaded with the thick-maned wanderer, while others remained sullenly silent or else hissed in whispered fragments, “Waste of time… kill the warthogs.” The warthogs themselves had an oddly annoying way of begging advice, since their throaty exhortation, “Be our leader—we’re ready to roll!” implied that a single plan was already fixed in their minds. The leopards and the nighthawks provided most of the sincerity… and a leopard’s sincerity is about as solid as the color of his pelt.

“You all must work together,” repeated the lion. “The only thing to do is for the birds to muck about inside the engines of the machines—pulling on wires, scattering straw… that sort of thing. Python, you could also help by crawling up into the machines and pulling things apart with your coils as much as ever you can. But the pythons move too slow to get from here to the equipment camp between dusk and dawn. The rhinos will have to carry them on their backs.”

“Fat chance of that!” smirked a leopard.

“Then we will have to carry them together. I can carry one, perhaps, though I am old. And the birds… they will have to make their approach very quietly, so as not to alert the city humans in their tents and around their fires. In fact, most of the birds cannot see by night, so we must make our move while dusk lingers. That means that you, warthogs, had better make a diversion on the other side of the camping ground. Get into a fight…”

“That should be easy enough for them!”

“And you, baboons, go to the same place and raise a ruckus.”

“That should be easy enough for them!”

“The leopards can perhaps take some of the birds on their backs—for the later we start, the better the chance of not being seen. We can’t be seen—you must all understand how important it is that the city humans not suspect us of ruining their machines.”

“But you said you wanted us to be seen.”

“He said we should create a diversion, stupid! Don’t you know what a diversion is?”

“Do you? Did your father, that you also don’t know?”

“Shut up, all of you! Listen to the king and do what he says! It’s a good plan, but we have to work together!”

A hawk had angrily screeched these last words—and too loudly, for they woke up the rest of the birds, who flew into a panic and raised such bedlam that no more strategy was laid in that evening’s session.

Over the next five evenings, however, the project came together just as the lion had described it—or, at any rate, the animals all claimed that they understood what they had to do. Finally the big night arrived… and none too soon, for an enormous tulip tree had been brought down that very day, causing the birds to scold the workers for hours and leaving them in a feather-weight fighting frenzy. Even a rhino seemed to have been enlisted in the undertaking, outraged by all the noise that was constantly being created. Yet as dusk fell, he was nowhere to be seen. Some said that he must have lost his way, being so short-sighted; others that he must have mistaken the agreed-upon day, being so absent-minded; and still others that he had probably ignored his promise and gone to sleep, being so indifferent to the misery of other animals. (After all, fewer trees meant more grass for him.)

As the baboons cursed the absent pachyderm for a fat-sided warthog with a horn, the lion set about minimizing the loss. “I will take a small python on my shoulders,” he said. “Two of the larger ones set off hours ago at my instructions, since the camp is now so near that the distance should not tax them. Rhinos are always risky allies: we’re entirely better off this way.”

Reassured by his commanding attitude, the other animals fell into place. Finches and buntings settled along the lithe spines of leopards. Baboons and warthogs began the devious circuit that was to bring them out of the brush on the camp’s far side. A small, stray herd of impala looked up in alarm where the horizon curled into a plain, their horns and ears pricking the purple sky. They had been privy to none of the planning, as animals that had no stake in the crisis; but their noses and ears told them more than their eyes that something very unusual was afoot.

Up to a point, all went perfectly. The old lion reached one massive machine poised in the clearing, detectible more by the heat that came from its great steel frame than by its visible mass.

“Off, now,” huffed the simba, “and find yourself something underneath to seize and bend.”

“Ssssooo ssslick!” he heard one of the huge snakes sigh with delight from within another dozer’s gears.

Then the birds leapt off their leopard-palanquins and raised a needless chatter. “Where do we go? Where do we go? Is it here? Is it here? How ugly—what a smell! What a smell!”

The lion was about to risk a short, dull growl to quiet them down when the shadowy brush erupted into such cacophony as he had never heard even when springing a trap on a clan of monkeys as a youngster. The baboons were howling one and all with such volume that one could almost see their fangs in the starlight. The warthogs were squealing and snorting in response, and thrashing the brush all the while like the machetes of the city humans. This was more than a diversion: it was obviously full-scale war. In animal language, blood-curdling shouts of, “Bite them! Claw them!” and, “Gore them! Trample them!” were interlaced in a deathly wrestling match.

And the scene of the chaos was exactly wrong. It was not on the far side of the city humans’ tents and fires: it close to the clearing that held the machines. The mortal enemies had not been able to contain their mutual hatred long enough to travel a mile together.

“Exterminate them, every one!”

“Wipe out their filthy race! Wipe them all from the face of the earth!”

The screeching and squawking that went up from the birds would perhaps not have been noticed above the other racket; but any ear that had already been alerted by the one would likely have noticed the other since they were so close together.

“Oh, it’s terrible! Oh, the machine has bit me! Oh, it’s eating me! Oh, where is the sky? Where are my trees? Oh, oh, oh… I’m so unhappy! I’m so unhappy!”

“Mmmm!” said the small python whom the lion had borne on his back. “Tasty!”

And his flat, protruding head, its mouth pasted over with feathers now, showed clearly in the torchlight that was nearing from the city humans’ campground.

None of them would have escaped, perhaps, if a rhino had not inexplicably charged in just then and raged through the city humans’ campfires. The attack was unscripted and to no apparent purpose, probably just a result of the irritable beast’s dislike of smoke; but it managed to stir human shrieks and cries into a mix already scrambled enough to signal the end of the world.

The old lion narrowed his eyes and shook his great mane philosophically. Before he set off at a lope into the darkness, he paused—sparked by a twinge of his former kingly wrath—and took off the snake’s head at one swipe.

A leopard followed him back into the jungle, trailing a baby baboon from his jaws.

“Since we have to head for the hills now,” he mouthed over his morsel, “we might as well do it on a full stomach.”

By the next day’s dawn, the lion and most of the leopards were indeed miles away. They knew that their comfortable home was gone for good, lost to stupid squabbling and suicidal hatred. Of the other animals, even those who were quite mobile hung around to see what the future would bring. It brought men with rifles and dogs. The warthogs were hunted down and killed, one by one, to the baboons’ delight; and then the baboons, too, were picked off one by one as they ran out to congratulate their human cousins. Most of the birds, for whom instant escape should have been easiest, simply kept circling the scenes of ruin and keening their loss, singing between spurts of weeping that tomorrow just had to bring something better. The snakes were decapitated expertly with machetes wherever they were found; and a rhino who got so grumpy with the hunting dogs and hunters that he couldn’t be reasoned with was also taken down with an exceptionally high-caliber gun. But most of that particular breed continued to find a peaceful spot, chew their cud, squint at their shadow, and and leave behind large cakes for the flies.

Peter Singleton has now fully retired from teaching and given himself to freelance writing, editing, and blogging.  He lives in the North Texas area but is contemplating a move to parts farther east.