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Fairy tales

A group of fairy tales I wrote back in the 1990's.

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Jamal And The Snake

Copyright 1994 by Lee van Laer

 

Jamal was walking home from market through the wood one afternoon in the sunlight.

Birds were singing; the sky was clear. All was right with the world. Suddenly, he heard a voice in the grass beside him.

“Pick me up,” it whispered. He looked down, and saw a snake. It was really a very good-looking kind of snake. He picked it up.

"Eat me. Let me live in you. I will help make your life happier.” said the snake.

“Don’t be silly,” replied Jamal, for although he was quite young, he wasn’t born yesterday. “No one wants a snake living in them.”

“Au contraire,” replied the snake. “Everyone already has a snake in them but you. You’re at a disadvantage. It’s time for you to find one that suits you and swallow it. Frankly, I’m just the right snake for you. I have special powers- I know just what others are up to, and I’ll keep you advised. With me as your companion, things will always go your way.”

Jamal thought about it for a minute, and decided he could use a companion like this, so he swallowed the snake. It wasn’t that bad, really; it slithered down his throat easily and nestled in his stomach so naturally that he hardly knew the snake was there.

“See?” said the snake. “It’s going to work out just fine.”

Jamal got home, and his mother was cooking dinner. She was upset. “Jamal” she said,  “You haven’t done your chores. You’ve got to stop idling about on your way home from market.”

“What does she know?” whispered the snake. “Don’t listen to her. She’s forgotten how to enjoy life.”  Jamal found himself in complete agreement, so he said to his mother, “What do you know? You’ve  forgotten how to enjoy life.” His mother stuck a bar of soap in his mouth for talking back, and he went to bed without dinner.

“You’re pretty useless,” he said to the snake.

“No, you’re pretty stupid,” said the snake. “By now you’re old enough to know your mother is unreasonable. You need to be more clever about these things.”  Jamal thought about it, and had to admit the snake was right.

The snake turned out to be an excellent companion. He did have all the answers. No matter what situation Jamal encountered, the snake helped him to clearly see how foolish other people were, and how correct Jamal was. “Self esteem!” the snake would say. “You’re better than these guys. Remember it.” Obviously, thought Jamal, the snake was right about everyone having a snake, because everyone else thought & acted more or less the same way as Jamal did now. Funny how nobody talked about it, though.

After a while, the snake started to get Jamal into trouble. One day, he was yelling at a friend who wouldn’t let him have the ball they were playing with, and all at once the snake leapt out and bit him.

“Hey,” cried the other kid, “you hit me!”  His nose was bleeding. There was more trouble, because the friend ran home and told his parents, and Jamal’s dad whipped him with a belt for fighting.

“What did you go and do that for?” he asked the snake that night.

“That kid got me mad,” said the snake. “I couldn’t help it. He had it coming.”

“Well, don’t do it again. It made me feel bad.” said Jamal, but the snake did do it again. Before you knew it, the snake was acting up all over the place, getting mad at everyone. There were fights, tantrums, notes from school.  

“You’re not cooperating,” he said to the snake.

“Tough luck,” said the snake. “You’re stuck with me.” Worse than that, the snake was getting bigger, and the bigger it got, the harder it was for Jamal to influence it.

The snake thing was going badly, he decided privately. Something had to be done about it. The problem was, the snake was always there, watching every move. He was afraid things would get worse if it realized he was trying to get rid of it.

One day, he read an ad in the paper. “Snake remover,” it said. “the easy way to get rid of  snakes.”  There was a picture of a green bottle filled with juice. Jamal ordered a case of it, and drank it just like the instructions said. It made it a lot easier to forget about the snake, but it didn’t remove it. The snake kept right on growing, and things weren’t improving. This might be OK for some folk, but Jamal wasn’t satisfied.

Jamal went to see the wise man that lived in the woods. He timed it just so the snake would be sleeping (he was getting a little better at snake management, so he could pretty much figure this kind of thing out by now). “I’ve got a snake in me,” he said.

“Hmm. A snake.” said the wise man.

“I swallowed it.” volunteered Jamal.

“Most everyone does.” said the wise man.

“Well, how do I get rid of it?” asked Jamal.

“That’s what they all want to know,” said the wise man. “Here’s a book.”  He handed Jamal a huge leather-bound book- at least six thousand pages, with lots of tiny print. “How To Get Rid Of Snakes” the cover said in fancy gold letters.

“This thing is too long,” Jamal said. “I could never read it.”

“I know,” said the wise man. ‘All I’m trying to tell you is, getting rid of snakes is very difficult. People have been trying to do it for thousands of years.”

 “Bummer,” said Jamal. By now he was starting to feel hopeless. The wise man could see this, and he started feeling sorry for Jamal. Most children didn’t even realize they had a snake in them. They forgot as soon as they swallowed it, and for the most part they never noticed it again. Jamal was different.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” said the wise man. “I’ve got a snake too.”

“Jeez.” said Jamal. “You don’t look like it.”

“I know,” said the wise man. “The thing is, you need your snake.”

“Why?” said Jamal. “He’s causing me major problems.”

“Humans have been living with snakes in them for so long it might kill them if they didn’t have one,” said the wise man. “In fact, if others found out you had no snake, they’d definitely kill you. Humans without snakes scare people.”

“OK, so what do I do?” asked Jamal.

“Get comfortable with it,” said the wise man. “Keep a real close eye on him. Once you get to know your snake well enough, he’ll start to lose weight. They hate being watched. It ruins their appetite. The smaller they get, the less damage they can do.”

Jamal went to see the old man regularly, and he learned how to watch his snake. The snake didn’t like it much. He started sulking. He kept finding new ways to get around Jamal, but he kept on shrinking, too. It took years, but eventually he curled up in a tiny little ball, and wouldn’t even come out to talk unless Jamal asked him to.

By that time, Jamal was the wise old man in the woods. There weren’t many vistors for a long time. Mostly, folk just went about their lives.

One, day, however, a boy came to him looking very unhappy.

“You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve got a snake in me” he said.

“Hmm. A snake” said Jamal.

 

 

The Woodcarver's Tale

Copyright 1994 by Lee van Laer

 

 

Many hundreds of years ago, there lived at the foot of the great mountain of Ali Shan a woodcarver by the name of Li Mung. He was an uncommonly gifted artist; his nimble fingers could flick a knife over a block of wood and create figures to delight the eye- flowing, graceful forms of birds, snakes and all manner of rare and imaginary animals sensuous maidens and bearded wise old men: fierce dragons, and clever puzzles of interlocking shapes designed to frustrate any attempts to separate them. He was a quiet, gentle man: if he was a little given to too much vanity, he came by it honestly, for truly his skill was great. Who could really blame him for it?  After all, no one is perfect.

              Li Mung had learned the craft of woodcarving from his capable father, sitting at his knee in the dim light of an oil lamp at night, whittling little pieces of teak or ironwood into pigs and ducks. Li Mung, however, had a natural talent that, as his father soon saw, ran well beyond the ordinary. The water buffalo that his father carved, a chunky, workmanlike representation of the animal, would spring to life in Li Mung's fingers, the muscles rippling like real flesh as he adjusted a line here, a curve there, to express the inner qualities of the beast as he saw them.

              The father wished to send Li Mung to the city where he could study under a real master, but the money was never there. Such privileges were reserved for the rich, and Li Mung's family had few resources, being humble farmers. Nevertheless, over the years the boy's reputation grew, and as he passed into manhood a certain small following of minor noblemen and businessmen from the surrounding countryside sought the young man out for the tiny sparks of life he captured and rendered in wood. Despite this, Li Mung never earned much money for his carvings- he did them more for the love of the work than for the money, and he was a poor businessman, always willing to sell a piece for less than its worth. Whenever Li Mung finished a carving, you see, it ceased to interest him, for all his delight and joy in the carving was in the act itself, and not the result.

              Li Mung might have bargained harder for his pieces had he known a small but thriving market for them was growing up outside the tiny village. His wood carvings were often sold at many times the price he charged for them in faraway cities, and some had even reached the mainland itself, where they commanded high prices as folk art of an extraordinary nature.

              Li Mung, however, uninterested in wealth, continued to live with his wife the way he had always lived, planting and gathering his crops, hunting small game, and collecting choice blocks of wood from the lowland forests for his pastime. He had little use (or so it seemed) for riches: what he had was enough, and never, in his short life (for he was but twenty five years old at the time of our story), had he known greed, or coveted another man's possessions. In fact, aside from his vanity (and that was truly a small flaw) he seemed blessed of the gods, and had the respect of all who knew him. His life was satisfying; he accepted it, and never thought to question it, or ask for more than what he had.

              Li Mung apparently planned to sleep his quiet life away in the village of his birth, which nestled comfortably in its valley abutting the mountain. Fate, however, had more sinister plans for him.

              A path from the small village led up into the hills, but the villagers rarely ventured up much further than the height where the last stands of bamboo grew. It was at that height that the air began to grow cooler, even on the hottest summer days. Everyone knew that to continue climbing from this point was to risk an encounter with spirits. You could hear them rattle their bones in the stands of bamboo when the breezes blew, up there on the lonely slopes.

              All the villagers were certain the mountain was haunted by the ghosts of their ancestors. It was their cold breath from beyond the grave that cooled the air above, and caused the spirit mists that steamed upwards from the treetops, and poured down  the hillsides in rivers of gauzy gray silk. Strange noises could be heard here at night  it was a place where trees glowed in the twilight with mysterious green fire, and where lanterns were seen bobbing about at night at heights where no man walked in the dark. For these reasons, no one was really tempted to go too far up the side of the mountain ...even during the day. After all, what if one didn't make it back before night fell?  And, truth be told, everything the village needed could be found without risking the wrath of those supernatural beings who made the mountain their home.

              Now, it came to pass during one particularly rainy spring that the streams flowing off the mountain swelled to enormous proportions. Water poured off the sides of the mountain in great torrents, flooding the plain and sweeping portions of hillside down in calamitous mud slides. In fact, the hills above the town itself gave way, and it was only through luck that the village was spared destruction. As the rains poured down, the small rivulet that ran through the village (which was so tiny it dried up for most of the summer) became first a stream and then a river, cutting a deep gouge between the huts. The flow grew greater and greater, alarming all the villagers, who feared their whole town might be swept away in this terrible flood. For three days and three nights, the waters flowed faster and deeper, until, at last, on the third night the villagers prepared to flee, fearing the worst. By this time the river was a raging, roaring animal of a waterway. Li Mung and his wife packed their belongings (they had little to pack other than his carving knives, a few of his best carvings, and some pots and rice) and sat up with the other villagers, waiting for dawn to light their way to safety.

              It was just before the dawn broke that an enormous crashing was heard tearing down the mountain, a crashing so horrendous that it sounded as though the world was about to end. The villagers sat frozen in terror, convinced that the entire mountain had collapsed and was about to bury them all in a mass tomb.

              The roaring and crashing grew until it seemed to encompass the world- a great splitting and cracking of lightning and thunder, heaven meeting hell, dragons at war- and then suddenly ceased, just as whatever it was seemed certain to crush them all. At the same time, the terrifying rush of water pouring down the mountain slowed to a trickle, and then stopped.

              Clearly a miracle had occurred!  The whole village rushed out to see what awful fate had been spared them that gray morning- and behold!  Just above the village, lying wedged across the stream bed lay a great, unimaginable leviathan of a tree, diverting the massive flow of water several hundred feet off to another course. Just behind the tree's bulk was backed up an enormous mound of mud and rock- a landslide that, if not for the tree, would have obliterated the village and all its inhabitants in the blink of an eye.

              The tree bore scars attesting to its headlong run down the mountainside- huge portions of bark torn away, branches sheared off, roots broken and twisted in the strange shapes of goblins. Still, because of its great size it retained an aura of grandeur, a majesty unattainable by a lesser tree.

              It was immediately clear to the village that this tree was sent by the gods to spare them- for what other agent could have guided the tree down so fortuitously into the exact spot where it would stop the stream?  They surrounded it in wonder, awestruck. The tree itself was so large, argued the village sorcerer (he was, in fact, a poor excuse for a sorcerer, with little real power, but he was all they had, so they listened) that it must be a magic tree- surely the grandfather of all trees. The name stuck, and from that day on the village referred to the tree as the grandfather tree. In little time, the tree became a symbol of good fortune, and plates of rice and fluttering strips of red paper with prayers were left beside it daily by villagers grateful for its intervention. Some even ascribed supernatural powers to the tree, believing it to have magical properties, and would leave offerings of fruit and requests for some favor among the roots. All, that is, except for Li Mung, who saw in this wondrous tree not magic, but a new and amazing kind of wood, perfect for carving. This was a new and unknown type of tree- but, clearly, a tree, and not, as far as he was concerned, any sort of magical creature whatsoever. Li Mung, however, knew his fellow villagers well, and concealed his thoughts from them, not wishing to incur their ill will. He knew they would be aghast should they catch even a hint of his real feelings about the tree, and- rightly, as it happened- suspect him of desiring to cut the tree up for use in his carvings.

              And oh! What carvings could be made from such a wondrous tree!  The tree was so big that whole eagles with their wings spread wide could be carved life sized from the trunk!  He saw entire nations of sculpture before him in his mind's eye when he beheld the vast bulk of the tree. Each morning he would leave his hut at first light, climb the few hundred feet up to the tree's resting place, and sit in the early morning light, imagining the wonderful carvings he would make... if only such a tree were his to carve. That root, there, carved just so, would yield a great snake twisted about its prey, a fat jungle pig. The gnarled portion there would be the face of a god, the sweep of the wood next to it transformed into a robe of clouds. Elephants, tigers and dragons, emperors and courtesans, horses and buffalo all writhed within the wood, waiting to be set free. Li Mung coveted the wood. He caressed it with his desire, knowing all the while that this tree, for one, would remain forever beyond his reach.

But, he thought to himself... What of other trees?  For unlike his neighboring villagers, Li Mung believed this tree to be no sacred, magical thing, but rather some unknown new type- magnificent, but still ordinary- which grew at the great heights above, in regions no one had ever dared venture. Perhaps, he reasoned, if he were bold enough, he might climb high enough to find another such tree-or perhaps more than one!  Perhaps such trees grew in profusion high above the clouds, breathing the thin air of the ghosts.

              As the weeks passed, Li Mung's hunger to chop the tree into manageable pieces grew and grew. The fact that he could not have it made him all the more desirous of it, and the desire swelled up in him like some mushroom from moist, rotting wood, blooming into his mind until it became an obsession. He even risked whittling some tiny portions from the back of the trunk, low to the earth where they could not be noticed, and tried his knife on them.

              The wood was everything he hoped for, and more. It yielded to the blade like butter, but felt solid as iron. It did, in fact, seem to have a magical property to it, for it took shape like no other wood in the world, and the tiny turtle he carved from it was so lifelike that all the villagers- not suspecting, of course, the source of its provenance- marveled at it, proclaiming it the best work he had ever done, as, of course, it was.

              It was not long before the desire to get more of this marvelous wood overcame all reason.

              Now, Li Mung, although not particularly superstitious, had a certain pragmatic respect for ghostly lore. After all, why take chances? Ghosts had a nasty reputation for playing cruel tricks on the unwary, and enough bad luck came a man's way in life without seeking it out. Nevertheless, his newborn greed was such that the lure of the grandfather tree's wood outweighed his fear, and he plotted for the day he might climb to the upper reaches of Ali-Shan, where he reasoned more of the great trees might be found.

              And so it was that one summer afternoon, while the rest of the village lay sleepy in the heat, he set out alone, without telling the other villagers, with his blanket, a small bag of rice and vegetables, and his largest saw. He climbed up past the grandfather tree, up into the rustling lower stands of bamboo where green light suffused glades of ferns up further still, to where the last stands of bamboo tapered off, giving way to the flora of the cooler, temperate highland slopes. Here ferns grew larger, and mosses covered smooth stones that hinted of jade and alabaster. The ground was moister and slipperier: the air grew cooler still, and Li Mung began to wish he had brought his jacket, for the heat below had deceived him into believing that the air above would be warmer than this.

              The forest grew tall here on the steep slopes; there was an almost unnatural silence as he ascended, broken by the occasional eerie, echoing call of some unfamiliar bird, or the intermittent snap of a twig beneath his feet. As he climbed, the air gradually grew thinner and more difficult, it seemed, to breathe: yet, paradoxically, it seemed to grow thicker at the same time, as a fine mist began to develop, slowly enshrouding him until he could see no further than a hundred feet or so above him. He thought to himself as he trudged upwards, “I am now among the clouds”, with a sense of wonder. Strangely, though, his spirit didn't feel buoyant, as though it were in the clouds- actually, it felt as though it were thinning with the air, dissipating and growing less substantial with every step. The feeling was not fearful, but rather depressing. He began to question what he was doing, braving these upland stands of pine on this obsessive quest for some dream tree.

              By this time, the air had grown cool enough to become really uncomfortable. The sun was not visible- he was by now completely surrounded by cloud- but, he guessed, it must be midday. Li Mung began to seriously consider turning back.

              Just as he reached the decision to abandon his search, a huge tree stump loomed in front of him through the mist. Rotted and crumbling, infested with insects, it was nonetheless without doubt the stump of a grandfather tree- a stump much older than the tree which the rains had brought down the mountains. A chill of excitement overcame him- the trees did exist up here, after all!! The revelation revitalized him, and rather than turning back, he began to bound forward through the fog in leaps, expecting at any moment to be rewarded with the sight of a living grandfather tree.

              He did not have far to go, for not a hundred feet above the stump, he located a huge tree rearing up out of the ground and disappearing into the clouds above. Its trunk was so immense, he saw, that it might take days to cut this tree down with the tools he had, if it were even possible at all. He sat at the base of the great tree, trying to grasp some strategy that would yield him the carving wood he so desperately craved. It was clear that no one man alone could fell this monster.

              As he pondered at the base of the tree, he spied another great trunk in the distance which had fallen over, perhaps due to its great weight, or a wind storm.  It lay twisted on its side, like a dead beast. Nevertheless, he could see from the green shoots sprouting from the fallen trunk that the tree still had life in it: and some distance from the base of the tree, some smaller branches were within easy reach, and of a size to be easily cut.

              He clambered up the side of the tree, clinging to knotted root and tangled branch, and walked down the trunk (carefully, for he now stood some twenty feet from the ground)  until he reached a suitable limb. He was so excited that he had completely forgotten the lunch packed in his sack. He prepared his saw and sank the blade into the bark, its teeth biting with each pull deeper into the treasured wood.

              As he cut, a sweat built up in him despite the cool air. Soon he was grunting with the exertion of it all. And, as the saw bit ever deeper into the wood, he gradually became aware of someone watching him.

              Li Mung stood about sixty feet from the roots of the tree where he was cutting. From behind the rise of the roots, where splinters of wood stood up like lances, peered the face of a beautiful young woman- an unclothed young woman, which was astonishing, considering the cool air!

              Intrigued by her presence, Li Mung stopped sawing and waved at the girl. “Hello,” he called. “Who are you?”

              “What are you doing to my tree?” Replied the woman, in a voice that carried the sound of the wind through fir branches and the songs of birds.

              “I'm cutting it,” replied Li Mung, stating the obvious. He paused, waiting for a response. When none came, he began to saw again.

              “Stop that!” cried the maiden. “Didn't you hear me?  This is my tree!” And she scrambled up onto the trunk with an agility that surprised Li Mung. This was an especially nimble girl, he decided. The girl whisked along the trunk until she stood but a few yards from him, her long dark hair swung over her shoulder, sweeping down her front to cover her.

              “This is my tree. You may not cut it!”  said the girl.

              “Don't be silly!” replied Li Mung. “As you can see, here it lies on the mountain slope- too large by far for any one person to own!-And besides, what does a slip of a girl like you need a huge tree like this for, anyway?”

              “This tree is my home,”  replied the girl. “You cut it at your peril”.

              Li Mung, who was bolder than most of the men in his village anyway, laughed at this threat. “Your home?  There are no homes up here on the mountainside- no villages, no clay for pots, nothing!  And as for you, well- a girl like you has no business up here among the mountains. There are, according to some, a profusion of ghosts about. You had best be off to your parent's, before one of them snatches you!”  

              “We will see who does the snatching,” said the girl in a dark voice. Li Mung was taken aback by her intensity. “And perhaps there are more spirits about here than you can imagine!  As I said before, this is my tree. Don't trifle with me!  If you take any wood from this tree of mine, you will pay full value”, she said, with fire flashing in her eyes, “when the time comes!”

              Li Mung snorted. Then, to his astonishment, the girl leapt off the tree to the ground, and vanished into the undergrowth.

              For a moment, he considered the incident. Was she a spirit or fairy?  The chances seemed, on the one hand, good- here she was, stark naked in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, her appearance and demeanor were, if anything, quite normal- aside from her absurd attachment to the tree.

              Perhaps, he thought to himself, she was some woodland elemental, a guardian of the trees themselves. After musing over this thought for a few moments, he cried out “Young lady!  Please, let me explain!”, and peered about, expecting her to pop out again. In a minute, Li Mung decided that no response was forthcoming, so he volunteered more. “I am a woodcarver, an artist,” he exclaimed, “and I need this wood- which is by far the best I have ever carved!- for my work!” Assuming this explanation was sufficient, he finished sawing off the branch he was working on- alone, it was at the outer limit of what he thought he could carry down the slopes- and set off back down the mountain. Of course, the downhill trip was both faster and easier, despite the added burden of the branch, and before twilight was upon him he arrived at the village.

              Separated from the enormous trunk that birthed it, the branch appeared much like any other piece of wood, and there was little remark on the part of the villagers as to Li Mung's absence. They all assumed Li Mung had spent the afternoon, as he often did, in the careful selection of a particularly choice piece of carving material on the lower slopes of Ali-shan.

              Li Mung sat contentedly in his hut that night, preparing the first of the pieces of wood hewn from the branch, blocking it out into the beginning of a master work. He felt sure, for some reason, that with this miraculous wood in his hands, anything he carved would vibrate with life- and it was likely so, for an artisan starting out with full confidence in his material is all the more likely to create something miraculous. Thus it was that he coaxed the gentle, flowing shape of a naked maiden from this raw piece of the earth and the sun; a maiden bearing a notable resemblance to the strange girl he had met up on the mountain. Her hair flowed around her to preserve her modesty, making smooth, curving lines around her supple limbs. Li Mung went to sleep that night satisfied that his work was well on its way.

              The next morning, Li Mung awoke before sunrise. The excitement of the new piece he had begun prevented him from sleep. He decided to take a long walk down to the river in the valley and wash himself, to begin the day as fresh as possible. He wended his way through the reeds that lined the sides of the path to the river, all the while with the image of what he was carving in the front of his mind.

              He finally came to the water and knelt by the riverbank. preparing to wash his hands, when to his astonishment he looked up and saw the girl he had encountered the previous afternoon up on the mountain.

              “What are you doing here?” He exclaimed. “I certainly didn't expect to see you!... Although it's not an altogether unpleasant surprise,” he admitted.

              “I warned you not to cut my tree and steal from it,” she replied, in the same lilting voice of the day before. “You chose not to listen.”

              “And it's a good thing I didn't!” He replied, bending down to wet his hands. “If you cared to stop by my hut, you would see that I am creating a most beautiful sculpture of you with the wood you begrudged me!”

              “I know you are a carver,” said the girl. “I understand this kind of thing, for you search for beauty- and beauty is my mother.”

              Li Mung looked up again at these odd words. What could the girl possibly mean?

              “However, you have taken what was not yours to take- and punishment is due!- For, while beauty is my mother, my father is made of crueler stuff...,”  Her face hardened suddenly with these words. “Such is my judgment” spoke the girl. “Before, your fingers fed the hearts and minds of your people with your work. Now your fingers will be fish of the mud, to feed the bodies of your people. In this way, they will continue to serve.

              With this, she flicked her hand in the air at him, and he felt a twinge of apprehension. Maybe this girl was not the innocent thing she appeared to be at all, but in fact some lunatic. As this thought crossed his mind, he felt a sharp pain in his fingers, submerged in the muddy river water- and he withdrew his hands, only to see, in horror and astonishment, each of his fingers transform into a wiggling fish and drop off, leaving him with stumps where his hands had been. He screamed in uncomprehending anguish, holding his mutilated hands before him as the fish dropped into the water. As he looked up, the girl was gone.

              Of course, Li Mung never carved again, but lived on the sufferance of his fellow villagers. And from that day on, the little fish that lived in the mud of the river became a staple in the diet of the people- although Li Mung never developed a taste for them himself.

             

             

             

             

             

             

             

             

             

 

Pleeping In The Jungle

 

Copyright 1994 by Lee van Laer

 

 

Pleeping was having an absolutely horrid day.

              It all started with a rude awakening early in the morning. Up until now, he had always slept in in the morning, but today his father had come into his room and dumped him unceremoniously on the floor. “It’s time for you to figure out who you are,” he said.

              “What do you mean?” answered Pleeping, still groggy from sleep.

              “Today you are twelve. It is time for you to gain an identity,” said his dad.

              “I have an identity. I am Pleeping, your number one son,” said Pleeping, confused.

              “Not any more,” said his father. “It’s the day to start your rite of passage into manhood.”

              “No one ever said anything about this before,” said Pleeping. “What am I supposed to do?”

              “The way it goes is, I kick you out of the house, and you go out to seek yourself,” said his father. “You find out what you are. I should warn you, it can take a long time.”

              “Where do I live?  What about food?” asked Pleeping.

              “That’s your problem now,” said his father. “You’re on your own during the rite of passage.”

              “This stinks,” said Pleeping. “Why can’t I just pass into manhood normally, without this unpleasantness?”  He flopped back down on his mattress in disbelief. His dad lifted him up and propped him on the floor. “Anyhow, I don’t know how to go about this,” protested Pleeping.

              “Experiment. Ask around.”  said his father. “Now, beat it, and don’t come back ‘til you’ve figured it out.” He shuffled Pleeping, still rubbing sleepy seeds out of his eyes, out the door of the wooden house and to the edge of the jungle. Pleeping started back towards the house, protesting, but his father tossed an overripe papaya at him. “Go,” he said. “I’m not kidding.”

              Pleeping trudged off into the jungle, baffled. Perhaps dad had lost his mind. No one had ever told him about this before. He was sure that if he split for a while and came back while only his mom was around, she’d straighten things out, but it didn’t work that way. Later that afternoon, when  he crept back to the house, mom tossed scraps of food at him and yelled. Pleeping slunk back into the jungle to pout. He settled himself at the base of a large mahogany tree and pondered his fate. “I’m a little boy” he thought to himself. “That seems clear enough. What other kind of identity do I need?”  He sat under the tree for a long time. Finally, he decided that he’d better be off and about; if he had to seek himself before he could get home for a nice hot meal and his warm, soft bed, the sooner he got under way, the better.

              He was walking along the jungle path when he met a tiger. Ordinarily, this would have scared him out of his wits, but he was depressed. All the same to him if he was eaten.

              “Ho, stranger,” said the tiger.

              “Ho,” said Pleeping morosely.

              “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?” said the tiger jovially.

              “Very funny,” said Pleeping. “What it is is, I’m having an awful time of it just now. My parents kicked me out to find my identity.”

              “Look no further,” said the tiger, “you’re clearly a tiger.”

              “I am?” said Pleeping, astonished.

              “ ’Course you are,” said the tiger. “Clear as day.”

              “I’m not orange, and I don’t have stripes, or claws, or big sharp teeth,” said Pleeping, doubtfully.

              “Details,” said the tiger. “Come along, and I’ll show you what it is to be a tiger. It’s easy, really. Just follow my lead.” They trudged off down the jungle paths. Pretty soon they came to a big rock in the sun. “Stretch out here,” said the tiger. They both stretched out in the golden rays. It was warm and comfortable. They just lay there.

              “What are we doing? said Pleeping.

              “Sunning ourselves,” said the tiger. “We spend a lot of time lazily hanging about, we tigers.”

              “Great,” said Pleeping. He was beginning to see huge advantages in being a tiger, because at home he probably would have been beaten for this kind of behaviour. “Besides,” he thought to himself, “just wait until I go home as a big, powerful tiger. Won’t they be impressed!  That will teach them to throw me out like old dishwater!”  He settled back on the rock and relaxed, very satisfied with himself.

              “So, what else is there to being a tiger?” he asked.

              “Attitude,” said the tiger. “Tigers are fierce and ruthless. We take what we want, and we kill anything that stands in our way. We are the kings of the jungle.”

              “Excellent,” said Pleeping. “That’s just the kind of person- I mean tiger- I want to be.”

              Later that day they killed some prey. It was great, what with the excitement of the chase and all that blood and stuff. Pleeping had a rather harder time of it, since his claws and teeth weren’t anywhere near as deadly as the tiger’s, but he did passably well, screaming and fiercely tearing into the prey. It wasn’t easy to get used to swallowing big hunks of raw meat- in fact it was pretty disgusting-, but he figured that was because he just hadn’t fully assimilated himself into his proper identity yet. It would all come, with time.

              “This is really fabulous,” he said, “I am a tiger,” amazed he ever could have doubted it.

              “Told you so,” said the tiger smugly.

              Pleeping was glad to have found himself so easily. Being a tiger was far superior to being a little boy. He and the tiger had the run of the jungle; other animals lived in fear of them. Everything about being a tiger was great until the day the hunters came for them.

              It started like any other day- sneak up on a clearing, jump on a farmer’s cow, chomp down and eat. They were just settling down to a good meal when a huge clamour filled the jungle-the sound of sticks beating on sheets of tin rolled like thunder through the underbrush. It was terrifying. Then a shot rang out.

              “Scram!” yelled the tiger. “It’s the hunt!”  They fled through the undergrowth in a panic, tangling themselves in the vines, tripping over logs, splashing through streams. More shots rang out. The tiger fell, wounded. “They got me,” he said melodramatically. “Save yourself.”  Pleeping withdrew to a safe distance and watched as the hunters tied his friend to a stout pole. Six of them hoisted the bleeding corpse into the air.

              Being a tiger suddenly and completely lost its appeal.

              Pleeping was devastated. He slumped down into a hollow at the base of a tree. “Cheez,” he thought to himself, coming to his senses, “I’m not a tiger at all, and thank God for that!”  His heart was beating so fast it felt like it was up in his throat. He tried to catch his breath.

              “Psst,” said a voice next to him, “What are you doing?”

              “Recovering from a very terrible experience,” said Pleeping. “I got involved with this tiger, see. He told me I was a tiger too, and for a while there I really believed him. Then hunters rubbed him out, and I suddenly realized I’m not a tiger at all.”

              “Tigers,” said the voice, “all brawn and no brains. Very unreliable. Any fool can see you’re not a tiger.”

              “Maybe so, but then what am I?” said Pleeping.

              “It’s patently obvious. You’re a snake,” said the voice, and now Pleeping could see that his new companion was a huge python, coiled under the leaves at the base of the tree.

              “Cool,” said Pleeping. Being a snake sounded like it had possibilities. “I don’t have scales or fangs, though.”

              “Details,” said the python. “Come along, and I’ll show you how to be a snake. It’s really very easy. Just follow my lead.” He slithered off into the woods. Pleeping scrunched down onto his belly and followed. No matter what the snake said, it wasn’t easy to move around like this. “Are you sure I’m a snake?” he asked. “Slithering like this hurts my tummy.”

              “Slithering isn’t absolutely necessary,” said the snake. “It pays to be flexible. Just think of yourself as a two-legged snake.”  Pleeping gratefully stood up and followed his new teacher on foot. “Being a snake is far more a matter of attitude,” said the snake. “Right attitude is what counts.”

              “What kind of attitude do you mean?” asked Pleeping.

              “Snakes don’t really have feelings. Snakes could basically care less about anyone else. We  are our own masters, answering to no one. We are powerful, dangerous, and carefree.”

              “Sounds excellent,” said Pleeping. “That’s the kind of person- I mean snake- I always felt myself to be- deep down inside, you know, where it really counts.”

              “I figured as much,” said the python. “Don’t worry, you’re going to make an outstanding snake.”  Pleeping totally believed him. He thought about how great it would be to go home as a lithe, powerful snake, so tough that he did not have to listen to his mother or father.

              They spent half the day lazily sunning themselves on a rock. “This is just as good as being a tiger,” thought Pleeping to himself, “better, even.” Then they slithered off through the jungle to find some prey to eat. Pretty soon they came across a rabbit browsing on some grasses in a  clearing.

              “OK, watch how this is done,” said the python. He snuck up on the rabbit so slowly you could barely see him moving. Then, in a burst of speed that seemed almost impossible, he threw his coils around the rabbit and squeezed it so hard its eyes popped right out of its head. “Gross,” thought Pleeping to himself. After the rabbit was totally dead, the python opened his mouth wider than Pleeping ever thought possible, and swallowed him.

              “There,” said the python. “Now you do it.” Pleeping wasn’t convinced of his abilities in this area- after all, he had only just started to be a snake- but he did his best, sneaking up on a little monkey and strangling it. He didn’t feel good about it; killing these little furry animals was different from killing a big ugly cow, and besides, when he was a tiger, the other tiger had done the killing. Pleeping had just mostly watched. He felt sorry for the little animals they were killing. “Better not mention it,” he said to himself, “attitude is everything.”

              “I can’t swallow it whole,” he said to the snake.

              “Got to,” said the python. “This is a key part of being a snake.”

              “Maybe I’m not a snake after all,” said Pleeping.

              “No, no, you are definitely a snake,” said the python. “We’ll let it go for this time.”

              Pleeping did his best to settle into being a snake. He liked it for the most part, but it became increasingly evident that his snake skills were not up to par. The toughest part of it was that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop feeling bad about killing his prey. He felt worse and worse about this, because the python was treating him very nicely, and he actually liked him a lot. It bothered him so much, however, that he finally decided he had to mention it..

              “Are there any, well, vegetarian snakes?” he asked one day.

              “What on earth are you talking about?” replied the python. “For us snakes, it’s meat, meat and still more meat.”

              “I feel sorry for these animals we kill,” Pleeping explained. “I’d rather eat bananas.”

              “Y’know, I’ve about invested enough time in you. You’re not measuring up. I was absolutely sure you were a snake, but now I’m beginning to doubt it. Maybe you better take a hike.” 

              “I thought you were my pal,” said Pleeping.

              “Your mistake, bud,” said the python. “No feelings, remember?  Now, beat it!”  he hissed at Pleeping.

              “Just like that?” said Pleeping.

              “Just like that,” said the snake.

              Pleeping felt awful. He wandered further into the jungle. By now he had spent many days lost in the uncharted wilds, and with every step he was further and further from civilization. He was, however, managing to stay alive in these relatively dangerous surroundings, which for a twelve year old boy is quite an accomplishment. That night, he climbed high into a tree to sleep. The tree frogs were peeping all around him. “Maybe I’m a frog,” he thought, but then he decided a frog’s life didn’t have much to recommend it. Who wanted to be tiny, slimy, and helpless?  He dozed off in the crook of a branch.

              The next morning, as he was climbing down, there was a flutter of wings. An eagle perched on the branch next to him. He was still a long way from the ground.

              “Ho, stranger,” said the eagle.

              “Ho,” said Pleeping.

              “Why so depressed?” asked the eagle, for he could see Pleeping’s downcast expression.

              “I’ve just had a terrible experience. First I was a tiger, but that didn’t work out. Then I was a snake, but my snake teacher flunked me. Now I don’t know what I am.”  Pleeping burst into tears.

              “Snakes. Bah!” said the eagle. “Heartless creatures. You should never listen to them. Any idiot could have told you you’re not a snake.”

              “What am I, then?” asked Pleeping.

              “An eagle,” said the eagle.

              “No, really” said Pleeping. “This is how I got into trouble the last two times. Besides, I don’t have feathers, wings, or talons.”

              “Details,” said the eagle. “Come along, and I’ll show you what it is to be an eagle. It’s very easy, really. Just follow my lead.”

              “OK, but before I agree I’m an eagle, what do eagles do?” asked Pleeping. By now he had enough experience with this kind of thing to be suspicious.

              “Eagles are bold, noble creatures that soar miles above the clouds,” said the eagle. “We are strong, loyal, and pure of heart.”

              “Do you kill little furry animals?” asked Pleeping.

              “Only when absolutely necessary,” said the eagle, declining to elaborate.

              “Sounds pretty good,” said Pleeping. He visualized himself boldly swooping down from the skies into the clearing where his house was, startling and amazing his mother and father. “That description pretty much fits me. Where do we start?”

              “Leap out of the tree. Soar on your wings,”  said the eagle.

              “Like I said, I don’t have wings,” said Pleeping.

              “Trust me,” said the eagle. “Wings aren’t absolutely necessary for soaring.” Pleeping figured that, knowing the eagle was strong, loyal, and pure of heart, he could definitely  trust him. He leapt off his branch, propelling himself out into the sky, and fell twenty feet straight to the ground. He landed with a huge thud in the loamy jungle soil. It was only by a miracle that no bones were broken; as it was, he was bruised beyond all understanding.

                The eagle peered down from above with a surprised expression. “Gee, you aren’t an eagle after all,” he said.

              “No, I’ve finally figured it out, though,” said Pleeping. He hauled his aching body upright and began the long walk home.

              Days later, he arrived in the clearing where his family’s house stood. Dad!” he called out. “I’ve figured it out!”

              His father came running around from the back of the house. “Tell me what you’ve learned, and what you are,” he said.

              “Well, first I was sure I was a tiger, then I was sure I was a snake, and lastly, I was sure I was an eagle,” said Pleeping.

              “So what are you, actually?” said his father.

              “An idiot,” said Pleeping.

              His father burst into a smile of joy. “That’s exactly right!” he said. “Everyone is, but most men never learn it. You have done well, my son.” He led Pleeping into the house, where his mother served a huge feast.

              The next day, Pleeping was allowed to sleep in. When he got up, his dad took him fishing. 

              “It’s not really so bad, being an idiot,” said Pleeping as they sat at the river bank.

              “Just remember it,” said his dad, “whenever you get grand ideas about yourself.”

              The fishing was good that day.

The Greedy Miller

 

Copyright 1994 by Lee van Laer

                 

Once upon a time there was a miller who owned a large, rich mill on the banks of a river. Villagers for miles around all brought their grain to him to mill, and he kept the tenth part. He grew ever wealthier on his share of the grain, but as he grew older, he became greedier and greedier.

              His mill was the only one in the area, and the miller could charge what he wished. “It’s all right to demand more of the farmers,” he thought to himself, “After all, without me, their grain would be useless,” and so he began to charge a fifth part of the flour that was milled from the grain. The farmers were outraged, but there was little they could do.

              Soon the miller’s storehouses and coffers were overflowing, but it was not enough. “I shall charge a third part of the flour that is milled from the grain,” he thought to himself, “for I must have a grand new house.” The farmers were even more outraged, but again, they had no choice, for there was no other mill to take their grain. The miller’s power and wealth grew and grew. He built himself a grand mansion, and bought much of the land in the area.

              The miller was still not satisfied. “I shall charge a full half of the flour that is milled from the grain,” he decided, “for I have become a figure of great importance hereabouts, and I must purchase myself a baron’s title, that I may have a position befitting my stature.”  This time the farmers were so incensed by the usurious charges that they met in secret to discuss the problem, but again there was nothing to be done about it. In the end, they paid the price, and the families in the area became poorer and poorer, hungrier and hungrier. There was never enough flour to spare for the farmers themselves when the milling was done.

              One day, when the miller- now a magnificent figure, dressed in expensive silks and finery- stood outside his mill supervising the delivery of grain, a farmer he had never seen before pulled a heavily laden wagon up to the gates of the mill.

              “I need my grain milled,” said the stranger, “and you seem to be the only miller in these parts.”

              “I don’t know you,” said the miller, “where do you come from?”

              “Oh, around,” said the stranger. “What is your charge for milling?”

              “A half part of the flour that is milled,” said the miller. An odd expression crossed the stranger’s face. “This is most unusual,” he said, “I never thought anyone could charge so much!”

              “I can,” said the miller, “I am, as you said, the only miller hereabouts. Look around you- observe the fine mansion, and my carefully manicured gardens!  It costs an arm and a leg to keep these grounds up, let me tell you!”

              “So I see,” said the stranger, “but think of the awful burden you place upon the villagers you mill for. They are all but starving, as is obvious to any fool.” 

              “Pish!” replied the miller, “They are grateful to me. All the folk here look up to me. They need to see a man who is a success!  It gives them hope.”  He puffed himself up importantly. “You can grind your grain here, or let it rot,” he said cheerfully.

              “Let me think it over,” replied the stranger, and he rode off.

              The next day he reappeared. “I have thought it over,” he announced to the miller, “and I have decided to make you a proposal.”

              “Why should I listen to a proposal?” said the miller, “This mill is, as you know, the only choice you have.”  The stranger made no reply, instead, he silently opened his sacks of grain. It gleamed like pure gold. The miller- an experienced man- immediately saw that the stranger’s grain was of a quality much finer than any other; his greed got the better of him, and he wanted nothing more than to gain his half of the fine flour this would make.

              “You may have half a share of my full harvest,” said the stranger, “if you agree to charge the rest of your customers only what is fair- which is to say, the tenth part of the harvest, as is customary.”

              The miller agreed at once, and the deal was struck. The stranger brought cartload after cartload of the fine grain to the mill. For seven days and seven nights, the mill turned, grinding out only the very finest golden flour.

              On the eighth day, the stranger pulled up with the last cart. As he did, he saw the miller completing a transaction with another farmer who had been there the day before. It was clear that the miller had broken his promise, for he was charging the farmer half of the flour that was milled.

              “How dare you?!  We had an agreement!” he said in outrage.

              The miller laughed at the stranger in contempt. “An idiot’s bargain!” he chortled. “Your crop is all milled, but for this one cart. What can you do?” 

              “I can but ask you to keep your word, and take only what is rightly yours,” said the stranger.

              “I shall do just as I please” said the miller.

              “It is on your head, then!” replied the stranger. “Mill the last load, and be damned!” He turned his back on the miller in a gesture of contempt, and departed.

              The miller was no more than amused at this turn of events, and it was with delight that he put the last load of the stranger’s grain into the mill that night. All night long, as he slept, the mill wheels turned, and the grain passed through.

              The next morning, the miller went down to the millhouse only to discover the hoppers full not of flour, but sand.

              “How can this be?” he shrieked in anger, checking the last sack of whole grain. Grain it was, but when he put it through the mill, sand was once again all that came from beneath the millstone. In fact, all of the stranger’s sacks of flour were now sand.

              “This grain be damned!” cried the miller in frustration. He went to the day’s business and milled the first loads brought to him. They, too, produced nothing but sand, and the angry farmers accused him of cheating them. Only by surrendering some of his stockpile of flour could he send them on their way, grumbling. By the end of the day, it was clear that no matter what grain went into the mill, it would produce only sand.

              The stranger never came back for his last load of flour. The miller was ruined, and died of a stroke less than a month after he had to close down his mill.

              The mill was soon reopened by an out-of-towner who refused to believe the tale of the sand. Mysteriously, the mill produced only the finest flour for him from the very first day he put it back into operation, but, then again, he was an honest man, and he never charged any farmer more than the tenth part of the grain they brought him.

             

             

Lily White

copyright 1993 by Lee van Laer

              Once upon a time, in an enchanted kingdom on an isle surrounded by boundless oceans, there lived a wise king who ruled his subjects well, and was much loved by them. His lands thus prospered, and all through the world the wealth of his domain was known.

              Despite all of this, the king had failed to produce an heir. He and his wife had tried for many years to have children, but without success. Far and wide they searched for a physician or magician who could help them, but all their efforts, even through the most powerful magic, came to naught.

              One hot summer morning, when they had almost given up hope, the queen was walking in the gardens of the estate. She took the path to the marshes, hoping to see the iris in bloom, but when she reached the banks of the pond and parted the cat tails that grew at the edge, she spied a crane with a frog struggling in its bill, about to be swallowed. Feeling pity for the frog, she cried out and startled the bird, who dropped the frog and flew away.

              "Thank you," said the frog. The queen, startled, replied, "You can speak?"  Actually, she was not that surprised, for in their kingdom enchantment was not at all unusual.

              "Indeed I can," replied the frog. "You have saved my life. The enchantment that binds me in this form is strong, but I am able to grant you one favor. First, however, you must know that a wish that does not come from the heart is not within my power to grant. Second, you must be told that there is a price. It may be more than you wish to pay."

              The queen thought for a moment, and said, "My wish is to have a child, for my husband and I are without children. It is a girl child I desire, white as a lily, with lips as red as ruby. For this, no price would be too great.”

              "I understand your wish is a true one,” said the frog. "However,” he continued, "you have asked for a life, and the price of a life is always a life. Furthermore, I must warn you, in sorrow shall you bring forth your child and in sorrow shall she come to age. This is the price. Do you still want me to grant your wish?"

              "I do," said the queen. She returned to the castle, telling no one of her encounter.

              In less than a year, the queen was indeed pregnant, and when her time came she gave birth to a baby girl. The birth was a hard one, and the queen died that same day, knowing that the frog's prophecy had come true. The baby girl became known as the princess Lily.

              After the death of his wife, the king became despondent, and nothing would satisfy him short of a new wife. He began to court, and eventually asked for the hand of a queen from a neighboring kingdom in marriage. His counselors were appalled, and advised him against it, for the new queen was a sorceress with a reputation for cruelty, but he refused to heed their advice. The marriage took place.

              Now, it came to pass that in the second year of the baby's life, the king fell ill and died. On his deathbed, having finally come to know his second wife's true nature, he feared for his daughter's life. The king (who was himself a student of magic arts) with his last breath passed a curse, such that the queen might rule in his place for only as long as his daughter remained alive. The queen raged when she discovered this, but the curse of a dying man cannot be broken.

              The sorceress seized control of the kingdom, and, unable to kill the king's daughter, cast her into a dungeon, where she could never learn anything of the outside world. She gave out the story that the girl had died, and entrusted her care to servants who were expert in the arts of deceit. The servants saw to the girl's every need, so that she might never know of her confinement. In order to render her compliant, the queen drugged her food and  passed spells so that Lily spent her life in dreams. Thus hypnotized, in her imagination she lived a grand life, filled with friends and parties, wealth and riches, and the adoration of her subjects. The maiden grew up in a world of illusions, like an opium addict, unable to distinguish between her dreams and the reality of her imprisonment. Each day the queen sent grand visions to her, and each day she imbibed them as the very nectar of her life. Unaware of her condition, she actually enjoyed it, never having known anything else. The stepmother's plan of enslavement was a complete success.

              Then, one day, the stepmother was called away to a far corner of the kingdom on urgent business, and, being in a rush, failed to properly set the spells for Lily's continuing enchantment in motion. When she realized her mistake, it was too late to return and correct it, but, she reasoned, one day could do little harm. She would simply intensify the dreams upon her return, and soon there would be no memory of the gap.

              She underestimated the impact on Lily, however.

              That morning, when she awoke, Lily realized with astonishment that she lay in a dirty straw bed in rags, rather than in her magnificent four-poster, dressed in fine embroidered silks. The floor about her was cold stone, littered with scraps of food and clumps of dirt. Her grand room had shrunk to a small cell, and instead of tall windows that looked out on rolling hills, all she saw was a tiny barred window, shuttered from the outside. The shock was so great that she felt sure it was a nightmare, but after a few moments she realized that somehow, this was in fact the real world. She fell back on the straw bed in bewilderment and burst into tears. When she opened her eyes again, she saw a Vole sitting at the end of her bed, who said, "Why do you cry so?"

              "I don't know who I am or why I am here!" she cried. "Obviously I am the victim of some foul enchantment, for only yesterday I was the highest princess in the land, surrounded by finery and friends. Now I am nothing!"

              "Ah," said the Vole, "so you are, indeed. I have been observing you for many years. Perhaps I can explain your predicament,” and he proceeded to tell her the whole tale of her imprisonment. Lily listened with astonishment as the tale unfolded, and she grasped the nature of her captivity. The Vole ended the dismal tale with a ray of hope. "You may escape," he said, "if you keep to my advice. You must stop drinking the water and eating the food that the queen sends you. Instead, pour it down the drain in the floor, and eat only such morsels as I may bring you through the cracks in the wall. The food I bring you, little though it may be, will be only of the finest, purest quality. By eating it, you may regain your strength. However, take care as you do so!  Leave all as it is. Do not clean or otherwise change the room, or yourself.  You must work in secret. Should the queen realize you are attempting to recover, she will surely cast even stronger spells to bind you!  Because I will be in great danger, I can only bring you your food in secret, so you may never see me again until such time as you have gained the strength to escape. You will know when the moment has arrived. Then, in your hour of need,  you must call me with all your heart, and I will come."  The Vole departed swiftly, for the footsteps of a servant could be heard approaching.

              Lily reclined on her bed, and feigned oblivion so that none suspected she was no longer under the queen's control. The Vole had spoken true- the spells of illusion could not work well without the herbs and potions slipped into her regular food. The dreams still came, but their power was greatly lessened, and the less Lily believed in them, the less power they had. She survived only on the tiny scraps of grain and meat the Vole brought her, which miraculously seemed to nourish her, perhaps even more than the huge plates of poisoned food which had been her fare for so many years. She suffered greatly through the days and nights as she worked to recover, but she persevered, and slowly her strength began to come back to her. As her health improved, however, she slowly realized that she knew nothing of the outside world, and she feared that even if she should escape, she might be easily recaptured, for how can one who knows so little stay free?  She wished to ask the Vole this question ,but she could not, for he would not show himself, and she dared not call him until she knew the hour of her freedom had come.

              It was late one night as she pondered this problem, despairing of hope, that a small black Cricket appeared on the floor beside her. "Why do you cry?" asked the Cricket, for tears streamed down Lily's cheeks. "I seem to know nothing," said Lily, "having been imprisoned here so many years.” She told the Cricket her tale, ending with a sob. "I have had my birthright stolen" she said, "and know nothing of how to regain it, even if I had the strength of ten men!"

              "Have no fear!" said the Cricket, "for, though tiny, I know all there is to know of the outside world!  My folk range far and wide; we learn and transmit all that can be known, and we mark the passage of all times with our song. Each night I shall come and sing to you of the outside world, and you shall learn all you need to know. Lest I be seen and captured, however, I must hide within the wall, so my song will be faint. Listen well, lest you miss some crucial part of what I have to tell!  When the time comes, and your need is greatest, call me with all your mind and I shall come to help free you.” So the Cricket came late every night and sang to Lily through the walls. She sang of the blue sky, the sun, the moon and the stars. She sang of trees and grass, of the flowers in the field. She sang of all the fish in the sea, beasts on the land and birds in the air. She sang then of men and women, arts and sciences, histories and geographies. Lily listened well, for she knew her life depended on it. Her heart soared with joy at first as she learned of the glories of the natural world, but as the Cricket sang on, she learned also of the wicked queen's rule, and of oppression, poverty, cruelty, and war. The Cricket's song revealed a world of dangers, where abuse and hatred ruled, and people lived their lives in fear. Indeed, it became clear that the tyranny of the queen had all but destroyed the kingdom. The Cricket knew nothing of the effect her tales had; as faithful reporter, she brought the facts alone. She could not see that with the passage of time the Princess grew ever more despondent and apprehensive. The world outside sounded so profoundly evil it seemed beyond help.

              The anxiety and fear the Cricket's songs provoked weighed ever more heavily on Lily's soul, until depression all but destroyed her. Late one night, after hearing a particularly awful tale of betrayal and murder from the Cricket, she lay awake, once again sobbing in hopelessness, but this time from hopelessness that came from knowing more than she wished to, rather than less.

              "Why are you crying?" came a voice from the end of the bed. Lily opened her eyes and saw a Salamander, glistening black with glorious red spots upon his back. "I am captive," sighed Lily, "and have no hope at all!"  As she recounted her tale of woe, the Salamander listened with great attention. She then told him of the Vole, the Cricket, and her efforts to gather enough strength and knowledge to free herself. "Alas!" Lily cried as she finished, "even though I might have the strength of ten men and all the knowledge there is in the earth, there can be no power great enough to overcome such corruption and evil!"

 "Foolish child," said the Salamander. "Of course there is. Your friends the Vole and the Cricket know much, but they can only supply part of what is needed. You know nothing of faith, hope and love. Learn these; no power of evil can stand against them. Without them, no effort to be free can succeed."

              "How can I learn of these things?" asked Lily. "I know nothing of such emotions. All my experiences of them have been illusions, deceitful dreams sent by the queen."

              "You must listen to your own heart," said the Salamander. "It alone can lead you to the truth. You must feel everything that comes to you, good or bad, to its fullest. By experiencing your life as it is, you will come to something greater. You must hope for your freedom, and have faith that it will come about. As for love, I can only promise you that this, too, will come."

              "But my life is one of misery," said Lily. "All I can feel is despair."

              "Then at least you know this much," replied the Salamander. "It is our lot to suffer first, so that we may know true joy later. Such is the will of the almighty. You must follow the thread of your life without fear; think of me as your guardian angel. No matter how awful your despair may be, I will come to you each night and enter your dreams to cleanse you of your pain. And when the time of your greatest need comes, and all seems lost, you must call me with all your soul, and I will come."  The Salamander looked in Lily's eyes as he spoke.

              "One last piece of advice," said the Salamander. "Never forget who you are. Never forget why you are here. Never forget what your only aim must be- escape, and the inheritance of the kingdom, which is rightfully yours.""

              After some thought, Lily realized she had no choice but to follow the advice of the Salamander. What other hope had she? 

              As days passed into weeks, and then months, Lily grew ever stronger, and, as the Salamander had promised, each night he appeared in her dreams and somehow cleansed the pain and fear she felt each day. Soon Lily realized that she was strong enough and wise enough to escape, but the right moment- the one she would know in her heart- never seemed to come. Perhaps it was this long waiting period that seemed the most awful. Each day she rose in the hope that this would be the one, and each night she went to bed despondent, for nothing ever seemed to change. What would the sign be?  How would she know it for what it was?

              What Lily could not know was that her efforts, which had started their life as a tiny seed in the mysterious and magical air that surrounds all of us, had grown into an invisible, but nevertheless great, tree. Its roots reached deep into the castle, spreading out to fill every nook and cranny of the lower levels, so that even the worms that crawled in the soil beneath the stones of the foundation itself sensed her. The worms knew of the great power she had acquired much better than Lily herself, and they furthermore knew her to be the true queen. They spread this message far and wide through the soils of the kingdom, and it grew up through the roots of the flowers in the field to be collected by the bees and spread on the winds by pollen, until every living creature whispered of her imprisonment and hoped for her salvation.

              The branches of the tree that Lily's efforts had become spread above her into the sky, and they bloomed and sent the scent of truth through the air until every bird that soared on the winds above the castle knew of her, and spread the news of hope far and wide throughout the kingdom on their wings. Every farmer and householder in the land could hear a new lilt in the bird song on the air, felt a new lift in their feet, and a new hope in their heart. It was as though a breath of spring were here, even though the summer was almost over. Some even began to speak openly of a day when the evil queen no longer ruled, even though to do so was certain death.

              The trunk of Lily's tree became thicker and thicker, grown straight and true through the heart of the castle itself, blocking much of the wicked queen's evil magic. Lily herself was the heartwood of the tree, strong and bold and filled with hope. Even though her task seemed impossible and her efforts endless, she kept the Salamander's counsel and continued to work, despite the fact that there seemed to be no results. Each day she reminded herself of who she was, and took strength from the fact that she could at least make an effort that day to be a little stronger, a little wiser, a little less hopeless.

              The evil queen had begun to sense there was something wrong, but she could not quite put her finger on it. She knew only that her powers had diminished, and she grew ever more frustrated. Spells to control others were more and more difficult, and it even became necessary to execute several of those who refused to obey her- a decision she made reluctantly, since even the most evil magician tries to avoid having too much blood on their hands. After all, the price of a life is a life, and it is known among those who practice black magic that one can only avoid paying the price by using tricks for just so long.

              Now, Lily's miraculous tree, subtle and invisible though it was, had grown so great that it could no longer remain hidden if a determined sorcerer attempted to locate it. One day, the queen decided she must cast a spell to discover the source of this disruption; she spent many hours in her laboratory mixing elixirs, chanting spells, and burning incense, until the light from the candles and the smoke from the burning herbs swirled into an orb that revealed the tree. The queen was shocked that such magic could grow under her very nose; she knew that it must be powerful indeed, to have existed for so long undetected. At first, she thought to nip it before it grew any further; then, to her horror, she discovered it had grown so large, spread its roots so deep and branches so wide, that there was no way of destroying it short of chopping its heart out. The tendrils of the tree's magic were already curling about her, and unless it was destroyed at once, it would cut her off from the source of her own magic forever.

              As she searched for the center of this disturbance she saw with even greater astonishment that at the heart of the great tree was none other than Lily White. She knew that she must immediately go to the cell and put Lily to death, for nothing else could save her. On her way to the cellars, she cursed herself for having ignored her for so long. Who could ever have guessed that a mere child would grow so powerful?  By all rights, she should be little more than a mindless maggot by now. Clearly, something had gone terribly wrong, but it was too late to stop it. Now, killing her would surely bring down the king's curse and cost her her rule, but with her powers intact she might still have some chance of survival. Without her powers- well, it is said that the fate that befalls a black magician stripped of their power is too awful to comprehend, and she knew that she must avoid that at all costs, even at the expense of her kingdom.

              The queen reached the door of Lily's cell in a rage. "Fools!" she shouted at the guards. "The girl you watch over has tricked us all, and acquired powers beyond any comprehension, while you idled here at the door!  Who has been allowed to see her?  Never in a thousand years could she have acquired these powers on her own!"

              "Why, mistress, no one, ever!" replied the amazed guards. "The prisoner has been sealed behind this door for all these years, lying on her bed under the covers, in a stupor!"  The queen was confused by the guards' report; she could sense they were telling the truth, but she knew there was no way for Lily to have become what she was alone. Nonetheless, there was no time to dawdle. "Open the door!" she commanded. "The little beast is now a powerful sorceress. I must destroy her at once!"

              Lily heard the muffled commotion from behind the thick door of her cell, and she somehow knew at once that this was the moment of truth. With all her heart, and all her soul, and all her mind, she cried out to her friends, "Stand by me, now!  The time has come!" and turned to face the door as it burst open.

              The queen whirled into the room like a tornado, dressed in black, her eyes aglow with an evil green light. She clutched the jewel that hung about her neck, and pointed a bony finger at Lily. "I know not how you came to be so powerful, child, but die you must, and die you shall!" she shouted. She raised her arms to the sky and uttered a curse; a pack of wolves appeared in the room, circling Lily with death in their eyes. Lily cringed in fear.

              Suddenly, as if from nowhere, the Vole was by her side. "Have no fear," he whispered. "You have prepared for this moment well!"  Once, twice, three times the Vole scratched upon the ground, and in a flash of thunder and light, he was no longer the Vole; no, he had been transformed into a lion, snarling defiance at the enemy!  Now it was the wolves' turn to cringe, but they did not have much time to do so, for the lion was upon them in an instant, rending flesh and breaking bone. Before the sorceress could react, her pack of creatures lay battered and bleeding on the floor of the cell. The lion crouched by Lily's feet, directing a baleful glare at the queen.

              "So," hissed the queen, her eyes like slits. "You are too strong for me to attack so directly. Very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat!"  Indeed, she had subtler forms of magic at her command. She gestured in the air again, and a plague of locusts materialized in the realms of magic where the tree grew, ready to strip its leaves and starve it of nourishment forever. Lily could not see what was happening, but she sensed something was wrong, for her body trembled in pain as thousands of tiny jaws began to gnaw at the magic extension of her soul. She cried out in surprise and fell to the ground. As her face fell to the stones, she saw her friend the Cricket. "Take heart," sang the Cricket, "for help is always near!"  The Cricket chirped once, twice, three times, and in a flash disappeared. The Cricket was not gone, however, but transformed to a million praying mantises, creeping through the branches of the tree in the unseen realms where it lived. Everywhere they crept, they encountered locusts, and the locusts died by the hundreds of thousands in the spiny claws of the mantises. In moments the plague was over, as the scraps of locust bodies fell through the branches of the tree into the real world, littering the queen with a soft rain of scaly wings and legs. "Damn you once and damn you twice!" shouted the queen. "Enough of such games!"  She raised her arms above her for a third time, and let loose a blast of fire directed straight at the heartwood of the tree- and Lily herself. Lily had no time to react, but before the fire surrounded her, the Salamander appeared by her side. "Have faith," he said, "for the pure of heart can walk through the fires of hell itself!"  Once, twice, three times the Salamander twisted his tail. As the flames engulfed them, the Salamander too began to burn, but he burned with a fire ever brighter than the flame itself, and was unharmed. To her amazement, Lily, too, began to glow with the same light. "What can this be?" she asked the Salamander. "It is the fire of truth" said her friend. "It will burn away all that is evil and leave only the good."  Within herself, Lily could feel a transformation taking place, as though her whole body was being lifted up through the clouds. The evil queen could see what was happening. She cried out in frustration, but there was no way to stop what was taking place- the very fire she had created was the instrument of Lily's metamorphosis.

              As the flames blossomed around Lily, a shimmering gown of white clothed her body, and she was covered from head to toe with glittering crystals of diamond. "Good," said the Salamander. "These are the sign of your work; thus can all men know your nature. The queen, too, has a crystal which is the source of her power, but, as you can see, it is corrupted."  Lily looked, and saw for the first time the gem that the witch so desperately clutched in her hand-  a twisted thing that glimmered with a pale, sickly fire. "The queen's soul was deformed by her greed and anger, which crystallized into the gem she wears. Destroy this gem, and her power will be no more," continued the Salamander. Somehow, Lily knew exactly what to do- she lifted her hands gently, gestured just so, and the crystal dissolved into fragments that trickled through the queen's hands like dust. The queen let out a wail of anguish, and fell to the ground. With her magic gone, the illusions of beauty and health she had created collapsed, and before them lay a sickly old woman, sobbing in a heap of rags. The woman who had only moments ago been the embodiment of all evil now seemed helpless and pitiful.

              "Rise," Lily commanded her. A feeling she had never known filled her heart. "Though you have done great wrong, your life is not yet over. There may still be a chance to atone. As for myself, in my first act as queen, I forgive you."  She bent over to grasp the old woman's arm. The Lion, the Mantis and the Salamander watched in approval as she helped her to her feet.

              "This is the act of a true queen, a worthy one," said the Salamander in a hushed tone. "It seems you have learned the lesson of love, as well. "  He summoned the terrified guards, who fell to their knees at the magnificent sight of Lily. "Sound the bells from the highest towers" he told them. "Rejoice, for the darkness is past, and a new queen rules this day."  The guards rushed to do his bidding; throughout the kingdom, the sound of the bells spread the news to all creatures that the moment of freedom had arrived.

              "Who are you, really?" asked Lily, bewildered by the rush of events. "And how can I ever thank you?"

              "We are no more than your own heart, and soul, and mind," said the Salamander. "We were driven apart by the spell that bound you, and forced to range the world alone. Only by bringing us all together in the same place through your own unrelenting effort could you have ever freed yourself- a task, I must say, that you accomplished well!" 

              "I do not understand," said Lily, still confused. Nevertheless, she could feel the presence of her three friends inside her, connected together by some mysterious chemistry.

              "This is the true nature of magic and miracles- they can never be fully understood. Why, under the right conditions, voles may even become lions, and crickets mantises!” replied her mentor. With that, the three creatures began to shimmer and fade. "Remember," whispered the Salamander, "if you bring all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind to each task, you will always do right.”

              Lily went on to rule the kingdom , as was her birthright. The magical tree of her soul continued to spread its branches to cover the lands she ruled, and it nourished the spirit of her people with its rich fruit. The old queen, a broken woman, was retired to a small farm, where she was allowed to make a decent living raising geese. At the end of her life, she repented her sins, and it is even said that when she died, her last breath was a blessing upon Lily White.

              Lily's kindness and compassion set an example for the kings and queens of all nations, even those far and across the seas. When asked for the source of her wisdom and goodness, Lily always attributed it to the suffering she endured when young. She never mentioned the Vole, the Cricket or the Salamander. She tried, however,  always and everywhere to remember the advice of her mysterious friends, and she adopted their sign as the standards of her flag. If some thought it odd, they never said a thing, for she was a good queen, and people ruled by a good queen are more than willing to overlook a few peculiarities.

             

Robocoyote

Copyright 1994 by Lee van Laer

                 

The people lived in the land. It was rich land, with enough for all. The sun rose and set on bountiful crops of corn and squash, and clear waters flowed from the hills through the village. The trees were filled with the song of birds.

              Then the white man came, and took their land. He poisoned the earth, killed the animals, and rubbed out the people until there were almost none of them left. He herded everyone who survived onto desolate reservations. He even wiped out the sacred totem animals one by one, though he didn’t know it. Crow and Buffalo Woman bit the dust, and Bear and Fox weren’t far behind. The last one to die was Coyote. When Coyote died, the people all but gave up hope, because Coyote was their heart & soul: resourceful, clever, funny, but, more than anything, full of life. No one ever thought he could die.

              “You’re killing everything,” said the Indians.

              “Progress,” said the white man.

              The saddest thing was that the white man had to be excused, because he had broken all his sacred ties with the land, and didn’t even know what he was doing. The people just resigned themselves to wait until better times came along, or everything died. Whichever came first.

              Eventually, a medicine man named Little Tree Frog Sleeps Not Much got friendly enough with some white people to tell them what they had done. When they finally understood, they felt really guilty. After the medicine man explained how important Coyote and the other totem animals were, they felt even worse. They got together to talk it over. “What we did was wrong,” they said. “We’ve got to do something to make up for it.” Because of their very big God, Science, white people were filled with an endless stream of miracles, so it wasn’t hard to think of a plan.

              A few months later the white men who meant well showed up on the reservation. They were, as usual, interrupting a sacred ceremony, but the tribal elders were too polite to tell them.

              “We brought you a gift, Little Tree Frog,” said the white men. Little Tree Frog was what everyone called him for short.

              “I like gifts,” said Little Tree Frog. “Show me.”

              They opened a large crate. Out stepped a big dog made of metal. He had some scruffy fake fur on him, but you could tell he was metal. There were little wires sticking out of him, and his eyes glowed a funny yellow color.

              “What’s that?” asked Little Tree Frog.

              “It’s Coyote,” said the white man.

              “That’s not Coyote,” said Little Tree Frog. “It’s a weird metal thing.” He was amazed the white man could be so obtuse. Then again, after everything else that had taken place, it wasn’t amazing at all.

              “Well, he’s yours,” said his white friends. “We felt like we had to do something to make up for rubbing out all the sacred Totem animals and whatnot. He’s fully programmed with everything we know about Coyote, and he’s packed with the latest simulation software. We nicknamed him Robocoyote. Really, you ought to give him a try. He won’t disappoint you.”

              “Thanks,” said Little Tree Frog. His friends left, and they finished the ceremony. When they were done, he turned his attention to Robocoyote. He had no idea what to do with it, but there it was. Throwing it out would be as wasteful as the things white men did, and besides, it might insult his friends, and cause them to stop bringing the other truly useful gifts they offered, such as the spray starch that kept the eagle feathers on his bonnet stiff and attractive. “C’mon,” he said to the metal dog, “Let’s go fetch sticks.”   

              “I’m not programmed to fetch sticks,” said Robocoyote. It wagged its metal tail. Pretty lifelike, thought Little Tree Frog to himself.

              “Well, you’d better learn,” he said. “Coyote was always big on fetching sticks.”

              “That’s baloney,” said Robocoyote. “I’ve been programmed with the background on every Coyote Story there is, and there isn’t a single mention of fetching sticks in any of them.”

              “Just goes to show you” said Little Tree Frog, “how much white folk know about Coyote.”

              “You don’t get it,” said Robocoyote. “I have Every. Single. Coyote. Story. programmed into me. There’s no stick-fetching. None.”

              “No, you don’t get it,” said Little Tree Frog. “Those stories are horsepuckey. The real Coyote had nothing to do with the stuff in those stories.”  Robocoyote took this in, and computed it. He didn’t like the sound of it. It questioned the very premise of his existence.

              “How do you know?” asked Robocoyote.

              “I’m an Indian Medicine Man, aren’t I?” replied Little Tree Frog Sleeps Not Much, and Robocoyote had to admit this was true. It had him worried.

              “What’s the point of all those stories if they’re horsepuckey?” he asked.

              “There you go again, trying to figure things out just like a white man,” said Little Tree Frog. “Then again, that figures, seeing how they made you.”

              “How can I fulfill my job as a high-tech totem replacement if I don’t have the right programming?” asked Robocoyote. “My whole purpose of life is ruined.”  He prepared to melt down like the completely logical robots that self-destruct in sci-fi movies when someone feeds them a contradiction. The first step to a successful meltdown, he knew, was smoke coming out of his ears.

              Before he could get more than a tiny trickle of smoke going, though, Little Tree Frog said, “Don’t worry, we can fix that. I’ll teach you how to be the real Coyote.”

              “Wow!  Do you think you can?” said Robocoyote. His eyes shone a little brighter than before. He shut down the smoke.

              “I’m an Indian medicine Man, aren’t I?  Anyway, I guess I have to, seeing as all the real totems are dead. You may be a machine, but you’re our best hope right now.”  replied Little Tree Frog. “Now, let’s fetch some sticks.” They did, and Robocoyote had to admit it wasn’t all that bad. Kind of fun, actually.

              The next day, Little Tree Frog started to teach Robocoyote how to be a real totem animal. “Run over to that canyon wall and climb it,” said Little Tree Frog. Robocoyote ran over and smacked into the sandstone cliff with a loud clank. He did this again and again, until Little Tree Frog couldn’t stand it any more and yelled “STOP!” 

              Robocoyote limped back to him sheepishly. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m not programmed for climbing. Wanna hear some tribal lore instead ?”

              “This is all wrong,” said Little Tree Frog. “The real Coyote would have figured out how to get around this problem. I’m learning about you, though. Let’s try something else. Cross that river over there and bring me some cactus flowers from the other side.”  Robocoyote plunged into the water eagerly. Some bubbles came up where he went in, but that was the last Little Tree Frog saw of him. After about an hour, he realized Robocoyote wasn’t coming out again without help, so he jumped in and fished around underwater ’til his hand felt a tail. He yanked him out. “Not good,” he said.

              “Metal doesn’t float,” replied Robocoyote.

              “We need a couple more tests,” said Little Tree Frog. He had Robocoyote try to walk on fire and breathe with the wind, but Robocoyote failed these, too. He was afraid of walking on fire, and he didn’t have any lungs to inhale with.

              “It doesn’t look good,” said Little Tree Frog. “You’ve failed all four elements- earth, air, fire and water.”

              “What does that mean?” said Robocoyote.

              “It means you’re totally unconnected with the world,” said Little Tree Frog. “You’re too mechanical. The only way you know how to respond to the world is through your programming; you’re completely automatic. The white men who programmed you meant well, but as usual they did it all wrong. We need to replace some of those machine parts of you with real, living parts. Then you’ll work better.”

              “It sounds good, but how can you stick living parts in me?  I’m a machine,” said Robocoyote.

              “There you go again, white-man thinking,” said Little Tree Frog. “Just follow me and we’ll take care of it.”

              They went up into the mountains and stood at the top of a peak. A storm brewed up. Lighting struck all around them. Robocoyote was terrified. “Bad enough this could short me out,” he said, “you, it could toast to a crisp!” 

              “Stay cool,” said Little Tree Frog. “I’m protected.” He held up his medicine bag.

              “What’s that got in it? asked Robocoyote.

              “Lizard bones and some crystals,” said Little Tree Frog. Robocoyote thought it sounded dubious, but by now he knew what the answer  would be if he said it. He watched while Little Tree Frog communed with the spirits. He knew that’s what he was doing, because his data banks were crammed full of books about it. It was frustrating watching him, though; Robocoyote had no idea how to do it himself, and yet he knew that the real Coyote would have had to be in intimate contact with the spirits at all times. He could see there was something serious missing in him. Robocoyote had been stuffed full of an amazing amount of knowledge, but now he could see he didn’t understand any of it. He thought about this for a long time while Little Tree Frog was busy.

              After a while, Little Tree Frog finished communing with the spirits. “OK, I think I’ve got it,” he said.

              “What?” said Robocoyote.

              “The spirits told me what to do,” said Little Tree Frog. “Follow me.” They went down to the bottom of the mountain and built a sweat lodge.

              “Why are we doing this?” asked Robocoyote.

              “Shut up and build,” said Little Tree Frog. They finished the sweat lodge, and fired it up. They sat there in the steamy heat. Rivers of sweat were trickling down Little Tree Frog, but Robocoyote, being metal, was as dry as a bone.  He wanted to ask Little Tree Frog if this thing was going to work on people who couldn’t sweat, but by now he had at least learned to keep his mouth shut.

              After a long time had passed, Robocoyote’s circuits started to overheat, and weird things began to appear in the air in front of him. He saw a cave with a swarm of bats flying out of it. Then he saw an eagle, a mountain lion, and a huge mutant snake. After that, he passed out. He came to with Little Tree Frog Sleeps Not Much dousing him with water. He spluttered and sat up.

              “What did you see?” he asked. Robocoyote told him. “Good. Those are your sacred places and totem animals,” said Little Tree Frog. “That last one was Snake Mother. Very big medicine.”

              “I thought all the totem animals were dead,” said Robocoyote.

              “Maybe I was wrong,” said Little Tree Frog. “It can happen even to medicine men. Anyway, tomorrow  we go to the caverns.”

              The next morning, they set out down one of the canyons, and before long they came to a gaping hole in the side of a cliff. “Open, Sesame,” said Little Tree Frog.

              “You’re getting your legends all mixed up,” said Robocoyote, “and besides, it’s already open.”

              “There you go again,” said Little Tree Frog. “You take all the fun out of things.”  They crept down into the cave. Outside, it was as hot as a pistol, but down in the cave it got cooler and cooler. There was slippery, soft mud on the floor; they could hear bats rustling about on the ceiling. Little Tree Frog had a small torch to light their way. After several hours, they were deep down in the bowels of the earth. It felt like being entombed. They came to the banks of a small underground stream. Little Tree Frog reached into the stream and pulled out two newts. “These are your lungs,” he said. He opened the panel in Robocoyote’s chest and popped them in. Robocoyote could feel them wiggling around.

              “This is all screwed up,” he said. “We’re down in the earth. These are earth animals. You can’t get air from them. It’s mythologically inconsistent.”

              “Shh. Listen,” said Little Tree Frog, rolling his eyeballs in disgust, and Robocoyote listened. It was deadly quiet. All around him, though, he suddenly realized he could hear the soft sigh of cool air as it flowed through the caves. “Amazing,” he thought to himself, “the earth itself breathes.”

              “This is the birthplace of air,” said Little Tree Frog. “From earth it comes, and to earth it returns. We can feel it when we are aware of the connection between our body and our breathing.”  Robocoyote could feel something odd happening in him; there was a wiggling feeling, and all at once, he had lungs. He sucked in a breath of air; it was pure nectar. As he exhaled, he could feel the tingling force of its energy suffusing through his body.

              “Amazing,” he said. “There’s no way to explain this.”

              “Good,” said Little Tree Frog. “You’re already in better shape than you were when we came in. Just stay aware of your breathing.” They climbed out of the cave.

              “Now we need to find Eagle,” said Little Tree Frog. He burned some grasses and chanted. Pretty soon Eagle swooped down from the skies. “Hey, this must be the easy part,”  said Robocoyote. “It’s all easy,” said Little Tree Frog. “Thinking about it is what makes it hard.”  He addressed Eagle politely. “Eagle,” he intoned sonorously, “this is my stupid partner Robocoyote.”  Robocoyote scowled at him, but he just scowled right back and continued. “He wants to be one of the people, but he is too stupid to qualify. Your thoughts soar to the highest heights; even one of them would be enough to help guide Robocoyote to intelligence. May we borrow just one small thought for my friend here?”

              “Of course,” said Eagle. He plucked a feather and handed it to Little Tree Frog. He popped open the hatch in Robocoyote’s skull and dropped it in. Eagle soared off to do whatever it is eagles do.

              “ Great. Now I’m a feather brain,” said Robocoyote sarcastically. “That took some nerve, calling me stupid like that to a complete stranger.”

              “It doesn’t pay to be proud or sensitive about these things,” said Little Tree Frog. “You have to see what you lack, and ask for help. As to feathers, they’re very underrated as brains. They have a flexibility and lightness to them totally lacking in the average brain. Feather thoughts have great possibilities.”  Robocoyote thought it over, and he had to agree. Suddenly it made perfect sense. He wondered why he never saw it that way before. “It’s the Eagle’s gift,” said his mentor. “Anything that increases our understanding comes from above.”

              “This is great,” said Robocoyote, exulting in his newfound understanding, “let’s find  Mountain Lion and Snake Mother so I can finish this up!”

              “Not so fast,” said Little Tree Frog, “we’ve done enough for a while.” The next day, he chopped wood all day.

              “Hey,”, said Robocoyote, “call Mountain Lion, so I can move this thing along.”

              “I’m busy chopping wood,” said Little Tree Frog. “Later.”

              “C’mon, it’ll only take a second,” said Robocoyote. “Look at how fast it went with Eagle.” He kept badgering Little Tree Frog, but without success. It went like that for a number of days. Little Tree Frog fished, slept, and picked berries, but he didn’t call Mountain Lion. Robocoyote got more and more pissed off about the whole thing, but Little Tree Frog refused to cooperate. Finally, just as Robocoyote was about to despair of ever getting any further on his spirit quest- in fact, he had taken to sulking in the shade most of the day out back of the teepee by the cottonwood trees-, Little Tree Frog got up one morning and said “OK, today we go to see Mountain Lion.”

              “OK,” said Robocoyote, pretending that he wasn’t really excited.

              They climbed up into the mountains. The air was cool and filled with the scent of pine, but Robocoyote didn’t notice; he was too busy thinking about Mountain Lion and all the courage he’d learn from him. He knew he’d become a true spirit warrior once he had Mountain Lion’s heart beating in his breast. Finally they rounded an escarpment and came across Mountain Lion lying on a rock in the sun. He was fast asleep, sprawled out and totally relaxed. “Yo!” said Little Tree Frog.

              “Yo?” repeated Robocoyote, “what kind of language is that to use when addressing a totem animal?”

              “Get with the times,” said Little Tree Frog. “We’re working under real conditions, and real people say ‘yo’, these days.”

              Mountain Lion was awake by now. He sat up and grunted at them. “This is my friend, Robocoyote,” said Little Tree Frog. “He’s trying to become one with the people, but he’s very tense. He needs to relax.”

              “Ahem” said Robocoyote, “Not to interrupt, but I came up here for courage, not to learn how to relax.”

              “Who’s the medicine man around here?  You’re just a bunch of sheet metal and electronic components. Until this is over, you let me make the decisions about what you need.” Little Tree Frog turned to Mountain Lion again. “Robocoyote would like to know if you can spare a few of your tail hairs.”

              “I’m not sure about this guy you brought, but for you, Little Tree Frog, anything,”  said Mountain Lion, and he plucked a few tail hairs. Little Tree Frog fastened them to Robocoyote’s coat, and they left.

              Robocoyote was impressed. “Boy, I must say you’re well connected,” he said. “Getting hairs from Mountain Lion just like that. What’s this malarkey about relaxing, though? I thought after the fire test, you told me what I needed was some balls.”

              “You’ve been bugging me about this for a week now. What you need is patience, not courage; you’re too tense. Getting connected can’t happen when you’re tense. It sucks up all your spirit energy. Now, because you’ve spent you whole life as a machine, you’ve never been able to relax. Those white men who made you never appreciated the value of relaxation. They don’t know thing one about it. Those tail hairs from Mountain Lion are going to grow right through that thick metal hide of yours and penetrate down to the innermost layer. When they work their medicine, you’ll have a new sensation of your body. Check it out.”

              Robocoyote decided to bide his time and see what was going to happen. After a few days, if he tried, he could feel himself tingling all over. He was aware of the breeze on his skin, and a vibration inside his exoskeleton telling him the state of every component. Between his new lungs, his feather brain, and his lion fur, he was well on his way to feeling complete. He could tell there was something lacking to pull the whole thing together, though. He figured Snake Mother would have it, but for some reason the urgency he felt about meeting Mountain Lion was gone. For the first time ever, he felt relaxed, mellow, and patient. He just hung around with Little Tree Frog, expecting that sooner or later they’d take care of it.

              He waited three weeks. They fished, chopped wood, picked berries. All was right with the world. Robocoyote got so comfortable he almost completely forgot about Snake Mother. One day, though, he stumbled across a rattler sunning himself on a rock. It scared the daylights out of him, but he suddenly remembered his mission.

 

“Yo, what about Snake Mother?” he asked Little Tree Frog.

              “I thought you’d never ask,” said Little Tree Frog. ‘I was starting to worry.”

              “What do you mean?  You told me I was too impatient when it came to Mountain Lion, and now you’re telling me I should have pushed you on this?”

              “Balance,” said Little Tree Frog, “balance. You need to remain alert when you’re relaxed, not fall into a coma. Now that you’ve finally asked, it’s time to go see Snake Mother. I gotta warn you, though, this is the dangerous part.”

              “Dangerous?  Why is it dangerous?”

              “You need what Snake Mother has, but she isn’t gonna want to give it to you. You’re gonna have to take it.”

              Robocoyote figured this was OK, because with Little Tree Frog Sleeps Not Much to help him, he pretty much assumed he was going to succeed. They went to the lake where Snake Mother lived. Robocoyote could see Snake Mother lurking at the bottom of all that cold dark water, rippling the surface with her undulating coils. It was a frightening sight.

              “What do I do?” he asked.

              “Jump in there and get three of her scales,” said Little Tree Frog. “Asking politely won’t work here. Your best chance is to get ‘em before she even knows you’re there.”

              “You’ve got to be kidding,” said Robocoyote. “That thing is the size of a blue whale. Its jaws could turn me into scrap metal in a nanosecond!”

              “Nah”, said Little Tree Frog, “you’re too quick. Go for it.”

              Robocoyote was terrified, but he figured now that he’d come this far, there wasn’t any choice. He jumped in and dove down. At first it seemed easy, but the deeper he got, the thicker the water seemed to get, and the further away Snake Mother appeared to be. She began to look bigger and bigger. Robocoyote was starting to worry. Before he had lungs, being underwater hadn’t affected him, but now he was starting to run short of air. It wasn’t a good feeling. He finally got down to where Snake Mother lay. The light was faint; he could see her coils stretching out endlessly in every direction. The scales were the size of dinner plates, and down here in the dark they glowed with a strange phosphorescence. He brought himself up against her body with a sweeping motion of his paws, and grabbed a scale in his jaws. He ripped it off with all his might. Snake Mother reacted instantaneously; she writhed and thrashed violently, twisting her head towards Robocoyote. Her jaws opened. He saw the gaping rows of razor teeth coming at him just as he managed to snatch scale number two off her body. The sight was too much for him. He headed for the surface like a ballistic missile, with Snake Mother’s steely jaws right behind him.

              Robocoyote burst up out of the water in a fountain of spray, and leapt onto the shore. “Run for it!” shouted Little Tree Frog, and they skipped like rabbits, they leaped like deer, they soared like hawks away from the shores of the lake. “Wow,” thought Robocoyote, “we’re flying,” and they were. Snake Mother’s claws and jaws snapped shut in the air behind them like a vise, but all they got was a shred of deerskin from the seat of Little Tree Frog’s pants. The two of them cleared the top of the ridges around the lake, and collapsed on the ground. Snake Mother coiled herself angrily back into her lake. After an indignity like that, no one was going to get anywhere near her for a long, long time.

              “That was great!” said Little Tree Frog, laughing and clapping him on the shoulder.

              “Unbelievable is more like it,” said Robocoyote. “You must have been totally out of your mind, sending me down there. On top of that, I blew it. All I got was two scales.”

              “I know,” said Little Tree Frog. “You failed. Whatever made you think you could succeed?  No one could have. It’s impossible.”  He took the scales and tossed them aside.

              “Hey, my Snake Mother scales!” said Robocoyote.

              “They’re worthless,” said Little Tree Frog.

              “What did I do it for, then?” asked Robocoyote.

              “So you could fail” said Little Tree Frog. “Coyote is always getting defeated. He just keeps on trying. Once you know that you will always fail, you are on the road to success.”

              Robocoyote thought about that all the way back to the teepee, which means, for a very long time. When they got back, they brewed some coffee and settled down around the camp fire. After a while, Robocoyote asked Little Tree Frog, “So, am I ever going to qualify as a totem animal?”

              “Let’s play fetch” said Little Tree Frog, and they did.

             

              Epilogue

              A few months later, Little Tree Frog’s white friends came up to the reservation to see how he was doing with Robocoyote. He was nowhere to be seen.

              “Where’s Robocoyote?” they asked.

              “Over there,” said Little Tree Frog. Robocoyote was over there, but now he was indistinguishable from a million other scruffy, mangy reservation dogs. He was rolling in the dirt, tussling with a couple of puppies.

              “Little Tree Frog,” said his white friends, mystified, “what kind of way is that to treat a three million-dollar totem replacement?”

              “Oh, is that how much he cost?” asked Little Tree Frog. “Yo, Robocoyote, you cost three million dollars!” he shouted.

              “That so?” replied Robocoyote.

              “Lay some hip tribal lore on us,” said the white friends to Robocoyote.

              “That stuff’s all baloney,” said Robocoyote. “Let’s play fetch.”

              “You screwed him all up, Little Tree Frog,” said his white friends in dismay.

              “Maybe so,” said Little Tree Frog. “But at least now he can fetch sticks.”

             

             

             

             

               

             

                  

             

 

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