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The Whale in the Tree and How it Got There by Mark Rigney



This is the familiar tale told by the father:

A crow sat in a tree, holding a small bunch of red grapes in its beak. Directly beneath the crow sat a hungry fox. This fox wanted the grapes very badly. He said to the bird, "Crow, I have never seen such an astonishing creature as yourself. Can there be anything in the world as beautiful as you?"

Flattered, the crow blushed and said, "Dear me, that's very kind," and, in the instant that it did so, the grapes fell from its beak. The cunning fox caught the grapes in his jaws and ran off to his den, well content with his prize.

*

This is the response made by the son:

"Father, this is a tale of avarice and vanity. Tell me a story of revenge so that I may learn how to deal with prideful people."

This is the tale told by the father:

A crow sat in a tree, perched on a dead limb. The limb creaked in the early morning wind. Eventually, the fox climbed out of his den and yawned and stretched.

"Good morning, Mr. Fox," said the crow. "Did you have a fine sleep?"

"Yes, I did," said the fox to the crow, "and thank you for asking."

"My pleasure," said the crow. "I was so humbled by your cleverness yesterday that I have decided not to compete with you any further. At the end of this branch, I have hidden another bunch of splendid red grapes, even larger and juicier than the first. If you'll just come closer, I'll drop them down to you."

The fox did as he was told and stood beneath the branch, wearing an expectant grin. The crow, knowing already that the branch he sat on was dead and teetering, took one small step away from the trunk. Then he took another. Crack! The branch broke and fell; the crow flew up to the skies, perfectly safe, and the fox lay dead on the ground, crushed by the weight of the branch.

*

This is the response made by the son:

"Father, this fox was not very smart. Tell me a tale of wisdom that I may learn to be more clever than the fox."

This is the tale told by the father:

An owl sat high in a tree, peeking out from the hole in the trunk where he lived. He watched the crow fly away and then he watched the fox, all broken on the ground. He said to himself, while fluffing his feathers, "Two observations can be made at this time. The first observation is, boycott grapes. The second observation is, do not expect a handout from those you have wronged." Then the smug old owl went to sleep, his great eyes shut against the sun. When darkness came, he flexed his wings and lofted away to the meadow. He caught nine mice that night and ate them all, leaving not even their tails.

The surviving mice mourned their loved ones; they built nine tiny monuments, made from the husks of leftover seeds. Then they all met together in the great mouse hall and prayed fervently, with soft, keening squeaks, that they might be delivered from the scourge of the owl. Their prayers were quickly answered, for, the very next day, a terrible storm came up and knocked the owl's tree to the ground. The owl was killed instantly, but the mice were safe in their tunnels. The harpers among them composed an epic poem to commemorate the event, but, within a day, the poem was forgotten, for mice are busy creatures, and have no more sense than a stone.

*

This is the response made by the son:

"Father, the mice are even more despicable than the owl, for, although he was a murderer and unrepentant, at least he had a brain and he used it. Tell me a story of mice, so that I may know what good a mouse might be to the world."

This is the tale told by the father:

Once, long ago, the king of the mice learned that a new creature had come to the forest.

"Humans," said the king's chief advisor. "They are very large, and they walk on their hind legs, like angry bears."

The king pondered for seven moons about how to greet these new arrivals, and at last he determined that it would be best to send a gift. "What shall we give them?" he asked his queen.

The queen of the mice, being generous, told the king that it would be a fine thing to give the poor hairless humans new cloaks to keep them warm. "Make them up cloaks of mouse hair," she said. "Summon our finest weavers."

This the king did, and when the cloaks were ready, he and a million of his finest retainers went out to present their gifts to the humans. Unfortunately, the humans screamed and ran away, for, even then, humans were unreasonably afraid of anything small and numerous. In the ruckus that followed, several hundred of the king's most loyal retainers were stepped on and smushed. In a fury, the king ordered a new gift be given the humans: the feces of the survivors.

*

This is the response made by the son:

"Father, you are becoming transparent. You mean to tell me that mice are great weavers, yes, but you also wish me to understand that it is our own fault that we humans are sometimes afflicted with hantaviruses. Everything in your stories is linked, one to another, cause and effect! You imply that everything happens for a reason, but I remain unconvinced, for I am still a child, and it is the task of children everywhere to doubt what their parents tell them. So, father, do me this favor. If you can, tell me a tale with no reason at all."

This is the tale told by the father:

A humpback whale sat in a tree, holding a small bunch of red grapes in the gaps between his baleen. Directly beneath the whale sat a hungry tapeworm. This tapeworm did not care in the least for the grapes held by the whale; the tapeworm wanted only to get inside the whale's tremendous girth, where he fully expected he could live happily ever after.

So the tapeworm said to the whale, "Whale, I have never seen such an astonishing creature as yourself. Can there be anything in the world as humpbacked as you?"

Flattered, the whale blushed and said, "Dear me, that's very kind," and, in the instant that it did so, the grapes fell from its maw and the tapeworm stretched and stretched and managed to jump inside the whale. The whale did not mind, for the whale understood what the tapeworm did not: that whales cannot live in trees, in the sunlight, without water. Sure enough, in a few short hours, the whale had died, leaving the tapeworm nothing but the rotting hulk of its carcass and no prospects whatever for the future.

*

This is the response made by the son:

"No, father, even when you try to make meaningless banter, you tuck a moral inside. It must be that I am too old for tales. Why not save us both some time and give me, instead, a blow-by-blow explanation for each of your fine stories? Tell me the plain facts, without the gimickry and dressing-up. Distill for me the meanings. For example, how will a given story improve me? What will each accomplish, once it works its way deep inside like a tapeworm, yes? to the guts of my brain?"

The father frowned and looked at his son with some concern. After a long, pensive silence, he said, "My child, it seems you have an answer for everything. May I, then, tell you a tale of wonder and beauty? One last tale, before you are grown?"

"Yes, please," answered his son. "That would be very satisfactory. You could, however, skip the part about wonder; I understand wonder very well. Beauty, on the other hand--that, I admit, is something of a mystery. When your words are done, and if I listen very hard, will I understand beauty?"

"No," said his father, "for that, you will have to do more. Throughout the long and shining poem of your life, you will have to listen again and again and again. If you do that faithfully, what you hear will change. Listen to the changes. Perhaps then you will discover the hiding place of beauty."

The son cast about him for a likely hiding place. At last, he looked up. "Does it hide in trees, like a whale?" he asked, and he studied his father's eyes for signs of certainty and truth.

Now this particular father had lived his whole life in the great rolling hills of the great flattened deserts, and he had eaten the driest dust from the swollen rivers and flown to the loftiest heights with the moles in their burrows. Because of these and a hundred fewer experiences, he knew enough of himself to realize that even if he searched beneath every last boulder, even if he stole the elephants’ memories, and yes, even if he picked the winsome mind of the world’s greatest inventor, Sheherazade herself, he would never have the skill to render beauty explicable -- not for himself, and certainly not for the mind of a child. Nor did he have the time, not with his son sitting expectantly before him, to fabricate a sufficiently clever lie.

This, then, is the tale told by the father:

Once there were a handful of children, children very much like yourself, all poised at the beginning of things and desperate for confirmation, the forward march, new foods, adventures beyond all imagining. So it surprised no one, least of all themselves, when they elected to go on a bear hunt-- they were going on a bear hunt, a life-long bear hunt, a bear hunt, a bear hunt, a great big bear hunt and they would surely catch a big one, and it was a warm and lovely day.

And oh, my son, they did not yet know enough to be afraid.



Mark Rigney has worked as a zookeeper, a retail trainer, and served most recently as technical director for MacMurray College Theater. He now lives in Evansville, Indiana, where he is a full-time stay-at-home father; when his son is asleep, he becomes a full-time writer. His stories have appeared in Rain Crow, Sou'wester, Bibliophilos, The Rambunctious Review and The Kit-Cat Review. Deaf Side Story, which details a musical collaboration between deaf and hearing actors, is forthcoming from Gallaudet University Press.


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