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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.2 (Spring 2016)
Fiction & Poetry
Another Politically Incorrect Fable: The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Peter T. Singleton
Whether the wolf in sheep’s clothing bears more than a random resemblance to any particular figure currently in the news is a question whose answering has been left to the reader’s discretion.
The sheep were angry. Season after season, they had supposed themselves to be selecting the strongest ram as their leader. Yet season after season, each newly exalted, handsomely horned head of the herd would make the same old sordid, sanguinary deals with the wolves. It would always be explained, after the fact (when the current season’s ram was faced with the evidence of new slaughter), that those sacrificed had served the common good. Their loss had been necessary. Yes, the flock had been led into a box canyon—or yes, the flock had been led too close to the woods; but this was so that the wolves would harvest a few outliers and leave the rest alone. Usually the ram in question would even admit with a certain pride (once he was pressed) that all had been arranged beforehand between himself and the wolf pack. He would likely ramble off the names of the newborn and yearlings that had been spared thanks to his powers of compromise. As long as the group remained in the middle, he would conclude grandly, safety was assured.
Of course, one sheep a little more astute than the others would always point out that such advice was nonsensical, for there could not be a middle if there were not an edge—and the sheep caught out on the edge hadn’t a chance. To this the ram—every ram they selected—would infallibly counter, “Then be sure that you’re not the one caught out on the edge.”
The three black sheep were outliers to the eye, even when they moved in mid-herd. Yet for all their oddity, they might as well have been invisible to predators. Precisely because of their distinctive coloring, they seemed to evade such misfortune as meeting with a wolf’s jaws hidden in some tall, succulent grass. Since they blended with the shadows, they must have slipped past the enemy’s watch more easily; and it was also likely they they simply didn’t look as big and tasty to a wolf in their dull, non-reflective wool.
This was how some of the older rams, who had enjoyed leadership and then been forced out in votes of no confidence, reasoned the issue. In the downfall of each, the three black sheep had played no small part. Thanks to their strange invulnerability, they had grown mature; thanks to their maturity, they had been able to observe much and piece together certain hazy truths; and thanks to the wisdom of experience, they could stir the rest of the flock to a pitch of rebelliousness that threatened social stability. With every new slaughter of followers and every disgraced leader, in fact, the black sheep seemed to read a little deeper into the reigning ram’s behind-the-bush deals—and to spread the news a little quicker.
Thus it was that the aging rams, seeing the flock nearing that catstrophic point where it would perhaps follow nobody at all, hit upon a desperate stratagem. It would not do for one of their kind to stand for election again, for the chances of even an initial success appeared dim now. If things were to degenerate to the point of every-sheep-for-himself, the mass might not willingly allow the aged to linger in the center; and, with their aching joints no longer as springy as before, the rams feared being left behind at the bottom of a hill or on the rocky bank of a stream—right on the edge. Life without some sort of treaty between themselves and the wolves would be neither pretty nor long.
A new ram therefore joined the flock one day as if by magic. When the morning mist lifted, there he was, looking down upon them all from a precipice. The flock milled uneasily and was close to stampede; for when the stranger started down the scree, his loping gait seemed all too familiar—and not at all ovine.
The old rams, however, rushed to reassure everyone. They pointed to the stranger’s great swirling horns (even though these appeared to ride upon his skull at an odd angle) and to his wavy white pelt (even though this appeared to shake at every step as if it would come off). The eldest pair of rams insisted that they had met the stranger before, high up in the mountain, and had invited him to come down and join their group.
“He has survived alone these many years,” they said, “because he has been able to beat the wolves at their own game. He runs as they do the better to escape them. He hangs his head as they do the better to catch their scent. He peers over his shoulder as they do the better to detect their slinking approach.”
“And his tail?” asked one fair sheep. “How does it come to look so like a wolf’s?”
“Because it is a wolf’s,” answered the stranger for himself, having reached the valley floor. “I attached it to mine so that I would appear a wolf from a distance.”
“Very clever,” said another sheep. “But what about your claws?”
“I have learned to sharpen my hooves as the wolves do,” answered the stranger without hesitation. “Their feet are made just like ours, but they know how to sharpen them.”
“Is that true?” asked another sheep of the old rams.
“Very true,” said the eldest. “The technique is difficult and painful, though. Only a strong, brave sheep would try it.”
“And your teeth?” asked still another sheep. “And your tongue?”
“What works for the hooves works for the teeth,” coolly responded the stranger, “though it is difficult and painful, as has been said. Once your teeth are honed, your tongue lolls out. It’s all entirely natural.”
“And the eyes, too, are entirely natural, I suppose,” scoffed the first black sheep. “But no… you stitched them together at the edges. That must have been very painful!”
“Who are you to joke about my eyes?” snarled the stranger. “Just a filthy black sheep! No good white sheep would be seen beside you!”
“We black sheep know how to tell a tree from the forest,” said the second black sheep, “for the herd doesn’t do our thinking. How would you acquire a wolf’s tail to fit upon your own?”
“I nipped it off with my teeth.”
“Which you had sharpened to look like a wolf’s. But how would the wolves have let you approach one of their dead?”
“I looked like one of them, from a distance.”
“With your hanging head and your tail?”
“Yes. Just so.”
“But you had not yet chewed off the tail! What wolf-like lies you tell!”
“And you! Your lies… the lies that come out of your mouth are blacker than your wool! And ‘wool’ is almost the same word as ‘wolf’—so maybe you are more of a wolf than I!”
“Easy to prove who is the liar,” said the third black sheep. “Remove your tail, if you can.”
“I cannot. It is firmly attached. And anyway, I cannot reach so far behind myself.”
“Then how did you attach it, to begin with?”
“Your mother did it for me. She likes a long tail.”
The flock broke into laughter at that. Baaaaaah! Baaaaaaah! Baaaaaaah! The racket was so loud and so general that the black sheep could ask no more questions. The old rams, whose lips had grown pencil-line thin during the interrogation, now began to show their teeth again and to nod their yellowed horns steeply at each other.
In the weeks that followed, the stranger proved a very satisfactory leader to the flock—or to most of the flock. His decisions did not seem particularly novel or ingenious, yet there were no more ambushes in narrow passes and no more being harried in the tall grass by the wolf pack. Miraculously, there were no woolly casualties at all… except for the black sheep. The first of these was found dead behind a boulder one morning. He had obviously not wandered there to graze during the night. It was plain, rather, that some wolf had caught him by the throat as he slept and dragged him away from the flock to a remote hiding place. The second black sheep met his end in broad daylight, but not before the eyes of his mates. A few recalled hearing a sudden fury of thrashing in the tall green grass along the river, loud but brief. The body was not found until some vultures began to circle overhead, prompting the flock’s braver souls to thrust their muzzles back into the grass. At that moment, the remaining black sheep asked the stranger, now the Leader, how his own muzzle came to be so bloody.
“I tried single-handed to chase the wolves away from our fallen friend,” he said, “but it was too late.”
“And you said nothing all afternoon?” cried the last black sheep angrily.
“Of course not. Why upset the flock? They might have panicked, and then our losses would have been far greater.” Then he added, as if in an inspiration, “The villains won’t be back any time soon. I punished one of them severely with my sharpened teeth and hooves, even though I was wounded in the process. My cuts are slight.”
Never popular with the group, the two black sheep were not viewed as much of a loss. Some of the matriarchs even bleated that life was distinctly better now without them. As for the remaining blackie, his protests found no sympathy at all. The Leader had acted courageously and bore the scars to prove it (though no one had actually seen any scars, but only blood). What kind of a sheep would reproach his conduct when it was so clearly heroic?
The final black outlasted his partners by several days. It seemed, indeed, as though the rest of the flock expected news of his demise daily, and stirred a little restlessly when it was tardy in coming. Those who had bleated quietly about the improvement in their life without the other two now whined openly about the last black’s durability. He was a cautious one. He kept to the middle as they wandered, he wove and sprinted his way through high grass, and at night he would be last to bed down and find a resting place in the darkest shadows. No longer was he raising any objections in their flock assemblies… yet his very silence now shouted out, since he was the only one of his kind.
The elder rams were not content with the situation. As quiet as their last adversary had grown, they nevertheless knew that he would not remain so when once they launched the final phase of their plan. This called for a complete fusion of the sheep and wolf communities, with the former feeding the latter as needed and the elders selecting members to be sacrificed on a regular basis. Finally they decided to press the issue. After all, if the flock would accept rule by wolf because it had no choice, it scarcely had more of a choice now just because of one black sheep.
The Leader called an assembly that evening. The elders primed the audience by expressing their support—to a ram—of everything he was about to lay before them. “It will require a return to Skull Canyon,” they hazarded.
The last two words were bleated timorously from end to end of the flock as if a chilly breeze had arisen. Skull Canyon had been the scene of the greatest slaughter any could remember.
“Be silent!” commanded the Leader, calmly but firmly. “A plan has been worked out which will bring peace between us and the wolves for all perpetuity. In Skull Canyon is lush grass and plentiful water for us, but also deep caves and tall trees for the wolves. Both will be happy there.”
The flock appeared soothed by the Leader’s confidence–so much so that the black could indeed no longer contain himself.
“Have you all gone mad?” he bellowed. “Skull Canyon is a death trap! Do you even know what words mean any more? ‘Skull’, as in ‘death’… and ‘canyon’, as in ‘trap’? Get it? You’ll be boxed in, plugged up in the wolves’ favorite playground. They’ll pick your bones!”
“Oh, stop your negativity!” bleated one sheep.
“Go play with your mother!” sneered another, bidding with little success for one of the Leader’s unique jokes.
“Don’t you know who he is?” shouted the black, reaching a paroxysm of impatience that gave him the courage to step up beside the Leader. “Don’t you know who killed my two friends?”
“And good riddance!” yelled one of the crowd.
“I wish he’d kill you, too!” yelled another.
“He’s a wolf!” cried the black “A wolf in sheep’s clothing! Look!”
And with that, he smartly snatched the woolly pelt from the Leader’s back and revealed… a huge, hulking timberwolf.
A great gasp made the entire flock appear to shrink in upon itself and grow still, like a pond turned to ice.
The Leader looked them over for a moment, lolling his tongue and sniggering. Then he explained with infinite condescension:
“Of course I’m a wolf! How could I have brought off this deal with the wolves if I weren’t one myself? Come on, you all know me! How long have I been your leader? And how many of you have died under my care? You’ve never been safer or happier, have you? Of course you haven’t! Come with me, then, to Skull Canyon. We’re going to call it Happy Canyon from now on. You’ll see—things will be great there! Just great! I promise you!”
Then he turned to the black, who stood gaping at them all with the sheepskin still at his feet.
“As for you…”
A weak voice went up in the back of the flock, its words at first indistinguishable. But they were caught up by another voice, and then another. Within seconds, the chant was loud, clear, and universal.
“Kill him! Kill him! KILL HIM!”
… which the Leader proceeded to do, before them all and to their raptured delight. They marched over his corpse until every hoof was tainted with blood as they made for their bedding-down place. During the night’s celebration at having liberated themselves from the last black sheep, they slept very little. They were still quite giddy in the morning as the Leader brought them into Skull Valley; and there the wolf pack slaughtered them one and all, from the youngest lamb to the eldest ram (with something about a deal caught forever in his strangled throat). It was a pointless, insane slaughter, for most of the mutton fed only maggots and vultures. Very soon, the wolves were going hungry once more. But a wolf’s nature is to be a wolf, with or without a sheepskin on his back, with or without a deal signed by his claw.
After a teaching career spanning three decades, Peter Singleton now lives in semi-retirement in the North Texas area, where he is a freelance writer and part-time teacher.