Knotted Fables, Novella Excerpt, by John P. Bourgeois

Based on how frequently she saw the stork and heard the bird’s clacking beak, the hare knew she was kilometres ahead of the tortoise. Comforted by this, she stopped to graze at a particularly emerald patch of nettles and dandelions. The run had famished her, but the hare did not want to eat her fill at the banquet. Not in front of the other animals.

“The victor must be genteel," she told herself.

The hare ate. The afternoon sun wallowed in the soft light on her calico coat and in the brilliancy of the tender leaves. The hare thought about how she had arrived at this life juncture. “What am I doing in this race? If I win, I look like a bully. If I lose, I look like a liar and a slowpoke, slower than a tortoise! If only I’d kept my mouth shut…nothing gained, all lost. The tortoise did insult me! But only after I made fun of him."

The hare nibbled on another rumination.

“Will a lion be at the feast? Did the fox invite lions? Or wolves? Great. Win or lose, I still lose. Why go on? Maybe if I’d thought, I could stay here and munch quietly in this lovely spot." She did just that, for a moment.

“Can I quit the race? How would that look?! Not any worse than finishing as dinner at my own banquet." Her stressing had destroyed her appetite, but she tarried in the meadow. When the stork came again, the hare concealed herself beneath a rhododendron. The tortoise passed his adversary’s idyllic refuge. The hare still hid.

She was oblivious to the lion stalking out of the forest’s undergrowth.

In the same woods but at a different time, the hare had rejoiced. Yet, her jubilation ruined the spring poetry by injecting raucousness into the drone of the thawing forest. The hare bragged about her latest exploit to all, both those who would willingly listen and most trying to escape the racket. Hopping ecstatically, almost frenetically, evangelically, so that even the aloof ravens above the canopy heard, the hare thumped on the fresh grass to signal that all of creation's attention belonged to her.

“I'm so fast even the lion can't catch me! He tried! Yes, did he try!" her tale began again. “I was like zoom, vroom, KABOOM! That last bit, that 'kaboom,' that's where I kicked a sandstorm worth of dust right in his open mouth. And right too when he thought he had me!"

The claims echoed throughout the woods, woods where only minutes prior larks had garbled their syrupy woos; shabby squirrels had stored fur coats for next autumn; and itching twigs eased forth leaf buds in the same manner that one might imagine growing fingernails. Although the place had not been quiet, its tone had been more measured, the meter more regular. Now, harmony had not only left, it had left no vestiges of its having been there.

“Big, ole lion coughing and hacking while I hippity-hopped away."

The hare reenacted the scene. The danger’s seriousness lost its bite as the herbivorous-bucked teeth gaped in no semblance of ferocity, let alone abject terror. This poor showing drew giggles from the captive (not captivated) audience, laughter the hare saw as approval.

“Easy as air I was. He had nothing! Nothing! Nada on me!"

After the first recitation, animals had applauded politely. Since the encore performances signaled no reprieve, the claps had subsided into bored silence that lasted for a half-minute before the hare restarted. The story amused none any longer, yet none resumed their own business. All were the hare’s prisoners. Her monotony incarcerated them.

Velveteen paws gestured grandiosely. With only minor variations, the hare harangued the woods until she annoyed the trees themselves, to mention nothing of their suffering inhabitants. She bound from boulder to birch, from beech to brook in case any living creature hoped to evade her story. The hare raconteured ad nauseum to the whole forest.

A dry winter had left two months prior, and the encroaching summer looked to be a sticky scorcher. This middle season was a respite from extremes. In its moderation though, spring became an exaggeration of normality. The relative climatic calm allowed life to awaken from its deep frozen nap. Or perhaps life had not even slept but merely been forgotten? For its part, maybe spring too had merely been remembered, never having slept or even left? Could it be possible that the very act of anthropomorphizing nature diminishes its innate beauty by reconstructing it as somehow human?

It is best not ponder such digressions here.

The blowhard hare broke all tranquility, innate or introduced. Unable to get away from this ego- bloated mammal, one animal opined an alternate perspective on the reported event.

“You are telling us that you almost got caught, then?" the tortoise asked after twenty minutes of trying to outpace the hare and another five of trying to ignore the story. Dry amusement puckered his face. His eyes criticized the hubris in leporiform.

An interruption to her narrative did not long befuddle the hare.

"Shoot, almost got caught! That's what you think and what the lion thought, but that's not how it went! Now, you, little tortoise man, you wouldn’t have had a chance -- big cat versus little you."

"Is that so?"

The baseless braggart irked the normally patient tortoise. He attempted to burrow but could not penetrate the parched soil. The hyped-up hare persisted her assault. The tortoise thought slowly yet deeply and could not have kept pace with the hare attack. Instead of composing retorts that he could not deliver until they were too old to have any bite, he dedicated his energies to munching on violets. The flower scented his shearing beak. He would have liked to have lingered in the odor. That clean, purple odor. Any activity, any sense to distract him from the hare.

For her part, the hare mistook the tortoise’s silence as smugness.

"What?! You, you think you could have outrun the lion? With your stubby turtle feet and scaly legs?!"

She jumped in circles around him. She crushed the flowers, and their bruised petals scented the air that vibrated with the hare-sterical abuse. The taciturn stoic stood his ground. Tension built between the dynamic and static. The probability of collision fattened in the void and grew unavoidable. The force that had enjoined the forest to listen to the hare’s story now enjoined it to listen to her attack. Animals are said to sense nearing storms.

“Plus, did you know you have an RV hitched to you? What is that on your top, a pueblo?" She rapped on the shell, “Hello, anyone home?"

"Just us lion food."

The hare hunched onto all fours and drew her face taut to taunt the tortoise’s attenuated features while impersonating his morose timbre. She had the impertinence to eat the last unblemished violet.

As the hare continued to billow the tortoise’s boiling temper, the crowd of animals swelled. They were eager to hear news other than the hare's boasts, and the tortoise had been haughty to each of them at least once, or so every observer had imagined. Egged on by the audience's renewed attention, the hare bounced atop the reptile’s shell, onto his feet, near his bald head. During this torrent of motion, the hare continuously insulted the tortoise on the full catalog of unfathomable topics. Most are unprintable here.

Without escape, the tortoise lost himself in muzzled fury. Even the messianic calm will flip a table when pushed. How the tortoise had been pushed! Bright shapes popped before his withered face. His stomach knotted. His three chambered heart raced like it had seven. Time dilated. The cruelty went on and on and on, as old and vain as spring itself. Finally, the tortoise exploded.

"Look, Fuzzy!" he snapped, "If you are so sure that you can beat me - shell and all- how about a race?"

Cocking his head at an angle so extreme that he could have cricked his own neck, the tortoise narrowed his garrulous eyes. Though the tortoise's initial comment had not flustered her, the hare scratched her head at this proposal.

"Well, I don't know...I mean..." She looked at the crowd, which looked back at her. The hare would have wished the other animals gone now, now that she appeared to be a warmonger rather than a comedienne.

The tortoise saw his enemy's turmoil. Reason had passed from him. Escape and dignity had fled both adversaries, leaving them bare to the observers' ravenous, crazed, hungry stares. Again, the tortoise pressed.

"Are you afraid? If you won't face a slow tortoise, how do we know that there ever was a lion, or is it some fur-brained story?" The tortoise imitated the hare, "I beat a lion, yes I did. Beat him good like a rug. Beat him like a meringue.’"

“You really expect to win?" she asked in voice lowered so as to hopefully not be heard by the other animals.

The tortoise guffawed, “You are afraid! I did not think you could act like such a mouse. This makes me wonder how much of your reputation has been embellished." The tortoise got right in the hare's reddening face to accuse her. “I bet you don’t even like carrots."

The crowd gasped.

This insult set any caution in the hare's heart afire. Its ashes left only vindication. She crossed her arms over her chest in resolution and found her original swagger once more.

"Fine, lil’ tortoise man. We'll have your silly race. And when I win, we'll have a big party compliments of the loser to celebrate me conquering the lion and whipping you with these big, beautiful feet."

Emboldened, she kissed each of her soles, as a boxer might kiss flexed biceps in intimidation. The tortoise only nodded and leered. A smudge of the hare’s foot grit had dirtied her nose.

With the braggadocio of the hare, the spunk of the tortoise, and the guarantee of a party after the race, multitudes assembled two weeks later. A dog took wagers. Despite the banquet to follow, vendors sold concessions. Organic grub juice washed down currant cakes, mulberry mochi, and kudzu puddings. Modifying his plans, the fox did not festoon the race grounds in streamers and lanterns due to the risk of rain.

Grasshoppers played their frivolous madrigals and courageous ballads on woodwind, percussion, and strings. Several of the insects even sang traveling songs about waltzing Maddie. The other animals secretly jigged to the music, tapping their toes as they strode past. However, if they stood nearby to listen, the grasshoppers would demand to be paid and harass the listeners.

“Pay if you enjoy it," the grasshoppers chirped. In coughed excuses, the patrons dispersed.

A stork stretched her wings and performed vocal exercises. Her otherwise meager voice resonated through her megaphone of a beak. She would provide the commentary, flying between the runners and the information-eager crowd. From her bill clattered an arpeggio, until she heard what a failure the exercise was and switched to tongue twisters.

She repeated ever faster, “Wisp wrists wither water while wings wattle wrangling rung."

At the starting line, the tortoise and the hare psyched up themselves while psyching out their opponent. The hare did jumping jacks. Her ears drummed against the tortoise’s shell in a petty effort to annoy the reptile. For his part, the tortoise did not prepare in any way other than extending each appendage (neck, arms, legs, tail) in turn as far as possible and waving said appendage around. From far away, the maneuver looked like a ridiculous dance. The other animals watched curiously eager for the race.

The scents of feasting had lured a soldier ant who escorted seven workers for derelict scraps. At the race grounds, the insects searched among the spectators’ feet.

“What a way to spend a day," exhorted the soldier.

“Better than foraging," replied one of a nearby grasshopper quartet.

“We’ll see," the soldier scoffed with a shrug.

From beneath a food cart, two half-buried frogs watched this chatter but spoke only to each other. They murmured softly, but even in their quietness, mud and fear’s sallowness subdued their tone.

In spite of the convivial banter and splendor around them, to the competitors this race was very serious, very expensive business.

"You ready to pay? I'm feeling a shy peckish. You'll need half dozen banquets just for me."

"First, you have to win, and I’ve been practicing," the tortoise lied. He lowered his racing goggles. The hare threw an aviator’s scarf jauntily over her shoulder. The stork flew to the starting line. A clover chain stretched between two trees. She stood in the middle of the lane and cast the most minuscule shadow in the late morning. After having given instructions to the racers, the stork sounded for general silence. Opening remarks outlined the day’s schedule, the course, the fete to follow. Occasionally the stork tilted her head upward to try to remember an obscure detail. Hearing the restless crowd shifting, she forewent the minutiae and hastened to start.

“Mark. Set. GO!"

The stork snipped the florid link with a beak’s clap. The scarf whipped the air. Dust billowed from the line. The hare dashed like a hyphen. When the dirt cloud settled, the tortoise had not moved his entire body beyond his starting position. After cheering for the ribbon cutting, the animals looked pitifully at the racing reptile then dubiously at each other. The outcome seemed foregone. They all marveled at the contest's futility.

Well most marveled anyway. Busy overseeing the exactness of his caterers' preparations, the fox would not have known that the race started had it not been for the mass's cacophony. “So much to do," he moaned. “I hope they don’t finish the race for at least an eon, preferably two."

He seemed to get his wish. Hours passed with nary a sign of the competitors. Well, the tortoise remained in sight half an hour after the hare had disappeared. When the racers had gone, the stork flew from the hare to the tortoise and back to the party with progress updates. By the time she delivered these reports, both contestants had traveled farther apart and farther along the course. Exact locations were never known. Besides, the hare would surely win. With every update, the absurdity of the competition became more obvious. Four miles apart, ten miles, then fifteen. The hare passed the halfway marker before the tortoise had traveled even a quarter of the way. Among timber and over meadows, the solo animals went. As the race was run, tempers lessened. The hare tired. She stopped to rest and reflect in an especially verdant spot.

“I lost her," the stork admitted.

Truth be told, the stork had not seen the hare in more than an hour but had kept searching. The bird needed to find the mammal. Hopelessly, she returned to the spectators to face her rebuke.

“What do you mean? How’d that happen? Silly bird!" The animals churned.

The vendors' stocks had been depleted, and the fox would not allow the crowd to have only a soupçon of the upcoming feast. The multitudes were hungry and restless. Hangrily, they considered eating the useless stork.

“ The tortoise is about halfway through. I’ll go look for the hare some more." Harsh words trailing her, the stork rushed to find the anticipated winner.

Like a mirage in the wavering heat of late afternoon, the lethargic throng saw the myopic tortoise before he could see them. Encouraging him to hurry, the animals cheered. The loudest were those who bet on him; the tortoise paid 9 to 1. The dog looked forlorn and annulled all his bets.

Not one to be bandwagon inveigled, the tortoise kept his pace and was,



Cymbals clanged as he crossed the finish line. The result was unexpected. A fluke. No one foresaw it. "Where's the hare?" the tortoise asked once he had caught his breath.

"No one’s seen her," said the grumpy dog.

"Probably preoccupied by her reflection, the vain rodent!"

The tortoise had never won anything before and did not know how to comport himself. “Am I the greatest creature alive?" he asked himself. Conquest empowered him. “How can I feel so good!?"

The stork placed a laurel on the tortoise’s head, but it slid down to become a leafy necklace instead.

The animals feasted, guffawed, and gallivanted for hours, for days. Struggling to keep up, the fox’s servers circulated around with berry kabobs and fruity drinks. Romaine wraps went rapidly. On spits, sheep-laden rotisseries rotated under the carnivores’ drooling eyes. The fire lighted the revelry until the sun rose again, and the animals cavorted into the next day without notice or shame. During that time, the other animals berated the stork for losing the hare who had still not arrived. The stork did not mind in the slightest and hooted with the others, stumbling over her own lanky legs when they got tied up in her beak. This balance problem of hers did not improve as the party wore on.

On the other hand, the tortoise watched from his place of honor on the dais. He nibbled on minced horn melon and declined repeated offers to soak his achy legs in scalding mud baths. With disgruntled biliousness, the tortoise lorded over the crowd. His win was nothing if the hare were not there.

On the second day, the dog left the party. His distended abdomen almost scraped the ground. Sticky drinks and fat drippings splotched his brindle coat. Happily for him and his narcissism, the sun’s brilliance perforating the conifers dappled the pine strewn floor. Mottled coolness covered his stained fur. In spite of his earlier gluttony, a large femur spanned his mouth.

“For later," he explained to the animals as he departed mutton mouthed.

In their argot, the grasshoppers openly mocked the dog's avariciousness, “You worry about tomorrow, you miss today. What will you do when you have neither?"

“Tomorrow always comes," the dog said.

The grasshoppers nodded, “ This is true, but you will not always come with it."

“Then I’ve missed nothing."

“You missed today," they countered.

“I think I would like that, if missing today meant having fewer conversations with you." The insects laughed; the dog was such a good sport with them.

The dog walked away. For the grasshoppers, life provided their necessities, and when it did not, the grasshoppers lived life elsewhere. They refused to grasp the dog’s preoccupation with meals. Like time and life, food came, and food went.

Of course, the dog had to think about his next snack. Between meals, his wondrous appetite enabled him to devour flocks of ducks or geese when the farmer was not looking. More commonly, the dog ate three heaping bowls of kibbles and endlessly whimpered for more.

An unknown animal spat from the darkened trees, “You don’t honor your bets, and you take leftovers home. You’re nothing but a cur!"

“Never trust a canine."

“Dirty dog!"


Several animals hurled variations of these insults at the dog. Yet, no plaintiff did anything to stop him from leaving with the bone or to force him into honoring his debts. The masses were having too good of a time to war. As the dog bid farewell, it became apparent that this event did not mark the dog's first time to renege wagers.

A dismissive grin on his jowls, the dog replied, “Shame on you for trusting me. Again. And again." His jaunt said he was confident that the bamblers still had not learned.

Even the fox took time out from his supervisory duties to wit, “How are you going to take it home?" the party planner asked.

“In my jaws," said the bewildered dog. “How else would I do it?" As soon as he asked, the pooch knew the punch line.

“I recommend in a doggie bag!"

Gleeful peals erupted throughout the remnants of the party as the pun was retold in guest cliques. The stork laughed far too loudly, and the senatorial tortoise permitted himself to smile at the lame joke.

On his way home, the dog strutted. His belly swayed on the path, rocking him from side to side. Dirt caked his paws wet from spilled beverages and vitreous dew. On a low bridge, the grit plaster fell away, and the clicking of his nails on the splintered planks mesmerized him. Mentally he listed the chores that awaited him at the farm. Although he had a mutton joint in his mouth, eating topped the list, followed by assorted other, more tiresome tasks: marking the wagon, counting the flock, ratting the barn. He felt overworked and underappreciated. Special notes indicated those duties that he could procrastinate on. The dog suddenly emerged from his thoughts. He saw movement off to the side. Past the railing. In the water. He stopped to examine this curiosity.

What luck! A pink and meaty bone rested in the jaws of a scruffy, albeit handsome, dog. “I think I can take it from him."

The dog paced the bridge. When the dogs’ eyes were not locked, they gazed at the others’ bone.

Both slobbered clear and clotted despite being well-filled, overly satiated.

Longingly longing longer into the running river, the dog decided, “I can definitely get that bone." He placed his own morsel on the bridge slats to chase the other dog’s food.

Yet when the dog returned his sights to his adversary, he exclaimed, “He put his away too!" His opponent had the same astonished reaction. He obviously hoped to pull the same ruse.

“Oh, I see."

The dog sat on the bridge and stared into the water to analyze his problem.

“I could just leave with my bone and leave that dog with his bone, but a single thigh bone will hardly last me two dinners. I must take his, or else I’ll likely starve. Still, I saw how that dog looked when I did not have my bone. I think that he is after my food like I am after his, but that puppy does not intimidate me. I can win. I’ll have both. I must have both. I deserve both."

A similar line of thought processed behind those inimical, identical watery eyes. The dog calcified himself.

Thus the dog, committed to the act, formulated a plan as to how to nab the other bone. “If that dog keeps his bone in his mouth when I do, then to get that bone, I have to keep my bone in my mouth at the same time. OK. Simultaneously, he’ll be after my bone. Hmm. He shouldn’t put up too much of a fight. He looks soft."

The dog snarled at the foreign dog, who grimaced in kind. Although the dog winced and worried, he was positive that the other dog had yielded first.

Bone in mouth. He neared his opponent. The wind held its breath, though the river banks’ foliage rustled in expectation. With solid steps, the dog’s nails clacked slowly on the bridge boards. Lowering his head, the adversary’s head rose to jeer at the dog.

“Perhaps he is a more combative than I assumed," the dog thought as he came to within an inch of his foe.“Courage. Courage and patience," he mumbled around the bone.

Pausing for a moment, a shimmer of schooling fish marred the river-dog’s countenance. The bridge- dog perceived this as a weakness.

The dog snapped at his reflection! In that second, two suppers were lost.

Rather, three were. Just as the dog chomped at his own bone, a crocodile lunged from the water to snatch the dog off the bridge. In the bubbling spume of the famished crocodile, the femur jammed the gnashing teeth apart and gave the dog scarce chance to flee with an intact hide. He did so as quickly as possible. The abrupt sprint and the brimming gullet were not friendly. At a healthy distance from the river, the dog's stomach evicted the feast from the past two days. He was left voracious anew and without a single meal.

“That pariah stole my bone! Purloined the food right from my mouth!" the dog incensed. “How dare he! The only reason he bested me is because he sicked his pet crocodile on me. Why does he have a pet crocodile?! If I ever see that dog without his reptile pal, I’ll…I’ll…well, he just better hope I never meet him again! He used a crocodile to steal my bone! Who does that?!"

As he trudged home, the dog practiced his bites on his lengthening shadow. He wrung imaginary bones from pretend dogs, always winning. He was quite ferocious when alone.

The dog’s slow demeanor and broad hips had attracted the crocodile from down river. Waiting, stalking, timing. She crawled closer, bypassing corpulent carp and massive mullet for dog. She had been craving canine since waking up. She had dreamed of tasting them.

“Go easy. Do not disturb the water."

Ironically the fish lives that she had spared were what alerted the dog to her approach and prompted him to act recklessly. No living creature had ever wedged her jaws apart, had ever been so brazen or so brave.

For all her efforts and plans, what had she earned? A tiny bone. She spat it down the river reproachfully

Her head low to an eddy, a wolf drank the swirling river. Deep, cool drafts soothed her gastric abyss. The hunger abated for a moment.

"But my pups! What’ll they have? They'll waste away if I don't eat soon," she said.

Empty desperation swam through her eyes staring into the water. Her unflattering reputation had prevented her from being invited to the race and its feast. Formerly, the farmers had combed the woods to eradicate wolf packs from the timbers. People had burned whole forests over allegations of wolves decimating livestock. Other animals wanted to be as far from that rumored carnage as possible. The wolf could not blame them for her ostracization. With a family of her own, she troubled herself about their wellness and avoided situations that might endanger them. Though now, she was the danger.

Despite her hunger and worries, memories simpered her muzzle. In the good days, the wolves had ravaged sheep flocks. In the last raid, she had lost her mate. Though the specifics of the incident were unclear even to the wolf herself, her compatriot marauders instilled such fear into the farmers and in the forest that the title of outcast persisted. She maintained a lonely existence.

As she was regretting her fallen fate and the fate of her unblemished young, a bone washed onto the bank. A pink and meaty bone from a large animal. Without a thought as to where it came from or to whom it belonged, the wolf gobbled down the morsel whole. It was too large for her. The femur wedged sideways in her throat. The wolf tried to swallow the bone, thinking that if it could reach her gut she would be fine. The bone secured in her throat. The wolf realized what trouble she was in. Hacking and shaking her head, she could not extract the bone. While the technique worked for tearing out ovine roasts, it proved ineffective against their scraps.

Already weak from malnourishment and further taxed through asphyxiation, the wolf’s world whirled around her head. She looked at the ground to steady herself, to establish a reference point. Vortices near the shore exacerbated her dizziness. She clamped her eyes shut and took shallow, unrushed breathes. Eight minutes afterward and surefooted once more, she raised her head and opened her eyes. Along the river's opposite bank, a crane waded.

"Pardon me, Mister Crane," she called as best she could.

"Yes?" the crane replied, not certain of the lean canine. He had overheard her prior mutterings. He knew her plight, knew her needs. He wanted to help but not at the cost of his own life.

"I seem to have gotten a bit of food caught in my throat."

"I know. I watched you wolf it down."

"Haha. Good one." The exerting false laughter hurt her throat. “Could I trouble you to help me remove it?"

"How?" asked the crane.

"Use your comely long bill to pull it out."

"Why should I shove my head past your teeth, inside your head, and down your throat to retrieve food that I can’t eat? You might as well make a snack of me while I'm so close to your digestives. That way you would have two meals in one."

The wolf did not hesitate. "I'll reward you."

“With what? How much?"

No scruples barricaded her. She would be saved; it was only a matter of how much salvation would cost her. “I'll give you four bushels of the ripest peaches you've ever seen," bartered the wolf.

"They aren't in season."

"Trust me."

The crane doubted the sly mammal. “From where? Which farmer?"

“Your concern is the bone. Mine is the peaches. The longer we blather, the more this bone embeds itself in my throat."

"Make it five bushels then," the crane countered.

"OK," the wolf barked.

The bird had fallen for her wile but did not know it. She would have said five tons if she had needed to. The crane flew to the wolf on the sandy shore. She sat and spread her jaws. Her tail tip swished the bank, smoothing the rippled grains.

The crane's pin feathers graced the wolf cheeks deftly, determinedly. In his mind, he could taste the drupe's nectar, although his job was not yet begun.

"Angle your mouth toward the light." The wolf obeyed.

"Why didn't you chew?" the crane asked.

The wolf gargled out a response through her open jaws.

"Don't talk with my head down your face. You think that bone's a nuisance. Would you care for my face rapier stabbing your throat?"

The wolf had a reply but kept it to herself.

“Also I think you have TMJ. Your jaw popped when you opened your mouth. Does it hurt to chew?"

The wolf considered shaking her head, but the crane did not seem to want a dialog, rather only a diatribe. He had started on another subject. The wolf's dental habits.

“When was the last time you flossed? I’m sure you probably have a good excuse for not. Do your gums bleed?"

“I can’t floss without thumbs. Besides you have a gizzard, not teeth," the wolf thought.

“Why's he asking all these questions when he knows full well I can't answer?"

The wolf asked herself these and other ponderings as a means of distracting herself from her quiescent plight. She thought about the crane: his fishy scent, his demeanor, and a thousand more observations that fled as the crane began tugging at the obstruction. The crane’s vermilion plumes struggled and slammed into the wolf's throat. She gagged peristaltic spasms.

A jolt! A jerk! From inside the wolf's jaws came the crane with the bone. "Thank you!" rasped the wolf.

The bone was the length of the crane’s beak and the diameter of his head. "You’re welcome. I’m surprised you didn’t choke on me while I was in there."

The crane inhaled the riverine air that was so much cleaner than the reek emanating from the wolf’s brackish bowels.

The wolf also breathed. She enjoyed the warm air much like she had the cold river water. When both were properly aerated, the crane touched on the business of payment.

“My reward, the peaches. When can you deliver them by? I'd prefer the bushels staggered over time if possible. If that’s impractical, I'll take them all at once. Either way is fine. Whatever is easier for you." His nonchalance belied his discomfort in discussing reimbursement.

"PEACHES! Count that bone as your reward, bird! The bone and your luck that I didn't bite off your head when it was already so near my fangs. The wolf growled at the crane who flew off after snatching the bone from the sandbank. “Why shouldn't I eat you anyway?"

“Why indeed?" thought the crane.

He serenely lighted onto an oak branch and stared at the wolf, at the life he had saved.

The wolf ignored the bird and returned to her rock den hidden among vermiceous roots mining into granite. Hanging mosses draped the entrance. Evening came as the wolf arrived home. She nursed her pups on what milk remained. The whelps were fluffy, but the wolf felt their scrawny muzzles pricking her drained underside.

She had to catch a meal soon; easy prey was fair game. Even scavenging could not be discounted. In her prime, the wolves predated on sizable game, but alone with bellies to fill, starved arrogance could not be humored. It did not provide meat. The wolf could not be finicky. She had to eat tonight.

Once the three little wolves huddled together in sleep, their mother hunted. Ten minutes later the wolf was half a mile from her den. She had picked up the sour, acidic scent of an animal that was deathly sick, if not already departed.

“ Tonight, I will dine," the wolf thought.

Having nabbed the fish earlier that day, the crane was responsible for the red herring whose scent the wolf pursued. Now, she was far enough away from the den that the crane could work uninterrupted. He stooped into the wolf’s burrow under crags and among roots, having followed the wolf. The crane tripartited the bone.

Meat scraps had been left on the femur. The bird's breaks revealed unctuous, white marrow that dripped onto the hot liar’s floor where the fat melted and steamed. The blind whelps sniffed and wriggled like maggots. Using his smell to locate the pups, the crane fed them the bone fragments. The shards lodged in their throats. The puppies wailed, whined, whimpered. The bone had dug too deeply into one pup's larynx. The faintest yip failed to escape. The crane removed that puppy's bone slightly. The crane left when the pup trio supplicated for the wolf in an idioglossia spoken only between mother and offspring. The wolf heard. Her query had taken her a mile from the den, yet she tore back without the food. The wolf rushed through the dewed ferns and burdocks. Her tongue lolled.

Inside the rugged promontory with her pups, she sensed their predicament. Attempting to remove the objects herself would only choke her young all the more. At least they could breathe, as labored as those breathes were. The wolf knew she could not save the litter. Not alone. She wagged, yet the wolf did not calm herself. In her panic, she did not detect the unusual scent in her den.

She looked for help outside. Among fig foliage, the insidious crane feigned sleep. Spotting the bird, the wolf called.

"Crane, quick I need you to take some...something out of my puppies' throats, please!"

“Like mother like pups?"


"Strange that you need my help again so soon. It must be karma. What will I get this time? More peaches?"

"Whatever you want! Just please help!"

"How many are there?" the crane inquired.

“How many what?! Peaches?"

“Don't be thick. I know you don’t have peaches. How many pups are there? How big is your litter?

What is the whelp count?"

"Three," she jittered.

"Three, huh? I'll tell you what." He pecked at an itch beneath his right wing for a full forty-six seconds. “I’ll help you if you give me one."


"Give me one of your puppies now, or you'll lose all three. Mathematically, it's in your best interest."

"Do you need me to go over the arithmetic with you?"

"What will you do with it?"

The crane could not smile. His face was not built that way, but if he were able to, the crane would have smiled.

"Two for the price of one. That's a bargain. You're wasting time."

From inside the den, the whelps wept in whispers. "Alright but you have to choose which one you take"

"Fine. Bring them out. I'll take my reward first, and afterward take care of the other two. Don't try to negotiate."

Not piercing their scruffs lest she agitate the obstructions, the wolf brought her pups into the night air, the moonlight silver on the crane's plumage and gray on the wolves' coats. The bird descended to the ground without concern for the predator. In fact he ignored her as though she were no more a threat than the ground itself. Less even. At least the ground had substance, had resistance. In her current state, the wolf had nothing but despair.

The crane savored this carefree style, more than he would have savored the peaches. He knew he was the best means of saving her litter. The crane selected the pup methodically. He wedged the least bony one in the fork of two cedar boughs.

"For insurance," he said. The pup’s milk teeth scratched his beak during the bone removal procedure.

“Must be more careful," he thought.

The crane plucked the bone from the young wolf's throat. It cried with the item’s removal.

“What is it?"

The wolf saw the white object but could not identify it.

The crane flew back to the ground, the bone in his mouth. “Do you have these littering your cave?" he asked.

Guilt abashed the wolf’s tail. “Yes," she admitted.

The crane shook his beak. The wolf paced distraughtly. “Just hurry," she pleaded.

Making skilled, faultless work of the other two puppies, all three whined in unison. The three bone shards lay piled before the arcane aperture of the wolf's den. Without a farewell, the crane flew off. He grabbed his prize-wolf along his trajectory. He did not stop but while still in midair simply grabbed the pup out of the tree. The cub mewled across the argent treetops and white-black river. The crying stopped. Her two whelps inhaled fully. The mother wolf pawed at the mounded bones to discover the source of this attempted infanticide. The shards fit together so well…

In vengeful epiphany, the wolf bayed.

Meanwhile, her remaining pups lapped femur fat from the hot earth.


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