Animal crackers

30 June 2004 | Children's books, Fiction

Fables from the children’s book Gepardi katsoo peiliin (‘A cheetah looks into the mirror’, Tammi, 2003). Illustrations by Kirsi Neuvonen

Rhinoceros

The rhinoceros was late. She went blundering along a green tunnel she’d thrashed through the jungle. On her way, she plucked a leaf or two between her lips and could herself hear the thundering of her own feet. Snakes’ tails flashed away from the branches and apes bounded out of the rhino’s path, screaming. The rhino had booked an afternoon appointment and the sun had already passed the zenith.

When the rhinoceros finally arrived at the beautician’s, the cosmetologist had already prepared her mud bath. The rhino was able to throw herself straight in, and mud went splattering all round the wide hollow.

‘Do your very best!’ the rhinoceros said. ‘Try all the latest state-of-the-art stuff.’

The puny little cosmetologist hopped into the mudbath alongside her client and began scooping sludge onto the rhino’s neck. Her client scared her. The huge body weighed tons, and the creature’s weird heavy head seemed threatening and unreal. It was like a fairy-tale dragon’s head. The snout sported two large horns, but the cosmetologist made out two further swellings behind them that could develop into horns. On each side of the head there glittered a tiny bleary eye, unbelievably ugly.

‘I don’t believe this is going to work,’ the cosmetologist said, spreading energising eye-cream round the rhino’s wrinkly bags.

‘It’s got to work!’

The rhino leaped to her feet, raising her head and letting out such a piercing squeal the cosmetologist’s knees began to shake.

‘Well, perhaps it won’t help a lot,’ the cosmetologist added cautiously.

‘It jolly well will!’ the rhino said.

‘Well then, it will,’ the cosmetologist said.

The rhino fell onto her side and the cosmetologist began massaging depilatory cream into the skin. The rhino’s problem was thick skin. She thought all her problems derived from too-thick skin.

‘I’ll never get a chap,’ the rhino whined in a forlorn voice, drawing out each word.

‘Oh, someone’ll come your way,’ the cosmetologist said in a consolatory tone. She’d got the face pack ready and the rhino needed to lie still. ‘Most of us do find someone.’

‘I went walking through the National Park with that in mind. Not making a display of myself, you know, but in view all the same,’ the rhino said from under her face pack. ‘But guess what happened.’

‘What?’

‘A handsome rhinoceros was coming towards me, and when I rushed up to look, and gave a prod with my horn, it turned out to be a jeep.’

‘Quite a surprise,’ the cosmetologist said, trying to maintain a professional tone.

‘And then the next one,’ the rhino said. ‘Looked rather imposing, I must say. He was coming straight for me and I galloped up to him.’

‘Well?’

‘It had a loading platform.’

‘It was a car, then? A pick-up truck?’

‘Something of the sort,’ the rhino said wistfully. ‘But handsome it did look, anyway. See one like that, and you’re really turned on.’

‘Not a single proper chap?’ the cosmetologist sympathised.

‘Not one. One minibus.’

‘A minibus?’

‘And what a hullabaloo from there, as well!’ the rhino said. ‘One of these days someone’s going to take a pot-shot at me and hit me.’

The cosmetologist began to break the face pack, which had dried in the sun. The rhino’s case made her feel pity. The rhino wanted a chap, and that simple wish was leading her into all sorts of mix-ups.

‘Supposing you got some spectacles?’ the cosmetologist said.

‘Wouldn’t help,’ the rhino said. ‘And anyway, in my eyes, cars too are attractive.’

The cosmetologist had removed the body hairs and was beginning to rub a moisturising cream into the rhino’s skin. The skin was five centimetres thick in places, and the cosmetologist knew that no cream was going to make it supple.

‘I am a little too forthcoming, I know,’ the rhino said. ‘Possibly I might be giving them cold feet.’

‘Possibly,’ the cosmetologist said and skated along the rhino’s back with herbal cream on the soles of her feet.

Then she asked her client to turn her other side.

‘Feels nice,’ the rhino said sensuously and stretched her back legs.

The cosmetologist bent to examine the effects of her work. The depilation had achieved nothing. The rhino’s wrinkled skin seemed slacker than before. The mudbath had removed the parasites, but otherwise the skin was thick as ever. The rhino had a short neck, stiff legs and three weird toes. Her long upper lip gave her a sorrowful look. Next time they ought to try an astringent face-pack. Now it seemed as if the rhino’s whole face might dissolve into mud.

‘My brain’s so small,’ the rhino said feebly.

The cosmetologist couldn’t believe her ears. She looked at her client in astonishment. This was unusually candid speech.

‘Sorry?’

‘They’ve done some research, showing I’ve got a small brain,’ the rhino said.

‘Fortunately, the male has too,’ the cosmetologist said and made the rhino smile. She looked dreadful.

Seen from far
a machine can seem alive.

Kangaroo

‘Oho, what’s this then!’ the kangaroo mother said, holding a tiny item that was eyeless and earless and totally hairless. ‘Doubt whether this’ll live,’ she said. Then she dropped the little joey in her pocket.

‘Oho,’ said the pocketed joey, fumbling forward. ‘So this is what the world’s like. Smells good.’

And his paw happened on mother kangaroo’s big dug. Fancy that! The pouch wall had a tap flowing with warm milk. The joey sucked and sucked.

It was dark and warm there, in the pouch. It smelled of milk and mother kangaroo’s pouch-sweat. A more wonderful place no one could imagine! When he got hungry he only had to turn his head and there was this wonderful pimple. When you went to suck at it, warm milk flowed down your paws, and soon the joey started to feel dozy and crept to the bottom of the pocket to sleep. And while he slept his mother bounced along through the bush, snapping up leaves to eat, hopping and humming to herself, and curveting so comfily all the time that the joey slept cosily.

This was a jolly good life in the joey’s opinion. The sun gleamed through the pouch-skin, and sometimes the world looked fawn-coloured, and sometimes a glowing orange.

‘This is how I want to live my whole life,’ the joey said.

One day, nevertheless, he did look out.

My, how brilliant and bright it was in the world! His eyes watered like anything, he was so dazzled. Quickly his head went back inside the pouch.

‘Wow!’ he said and grabbed hold of his mother’s titty, sucking and sucking, and soon the milk was pacifying him and he went off to sleep again in his marsupial pouch.

But then a day came when the mother kangaroo took hold of the joey’s ears and he was forced to push his head out.
‘You’re big already,’ his mother said. She’d noticed that he’d grown whiskers.

‘How do you mean?’ the joey said, already guessing his mother had something bad in mind.

‘It’s time for you to hop out of my pocket,’ his mother said.

The joey felt round his comfortable pouch. It was a dark, warm and peaceful place, and there was an excellent milk-tap on the wall, so you got a stomach-full merely by turning your head.

‘I’m not leaving to go anywhere,’ the joey said. ‘I want to live here all my life.’

This was something the mother kangaroo had never come across before. She didn’t know what to do. She stood with her paws crossed over her chest and thought. The joey pushed his head out of the pouch.

‘You’re so beautiful,’ he whispered.

‘It’s so nice just being with you,’ he murmured.

‘You’d be left all on your own if I jumped out of the pouch,’ he said and again began sucking the mother kangaroo’s friendly titty, which hung from the back wall of the pouch specially for him.

‘I can’t go on carrying you any more,’ his mother said.

‘Don’t carry me. Let’s just hang about here,’ the joey said.

The mother kangaroo came to a stop and from then on they stayed where they were. The joey lay about in the pouch and his mother plodded about carefully, just enough to get something to eat. She couldn’t be bothered to see the world any more. Nor did she hop about for fun.

A crow flew by and cawed:

‘You crazy kangaroo! Chuck that joey out of your pocket. As two, you can take much further trips. And youthful eyes see more!’

But the mother kangaroo lay under a bush and patted her huge pocket. A gigantic joey was sucking her breast in the warm, dark pouch. They thought life was fine just like that.

A person can live in a pocket
all their life long.

 

Chameleon

A new Director had come to the office.

‘Time for a makeover,’ the Director said and smiled broadly.

The chameleon smiled back. He was just running down the corridor and was exactly the same grey as the corridor wall’s concrete. The Director did see the smile, however.

‘This office is now in for a new development,’ the Director said and smiled.

‘Yes, overdue,’ the chameleon said, and his skin began to show stripes in line with the director’s pin-stripe suit.

‘The times require new measures.’

‘Work demands commitment,’ the Director said.

He looked energetic and his slimline leather briefcase efficiently sliced the air. The chameleon’s skin began to mimic the briefcase’s metallic colours, and the Director gave the chameleon an approving look.

‘Commitment, that’s it,’ the Director said and continued on his way without a glance back.

The chameleon stood in the corridor and sniffed the air. From the Fly Office’s kitchen a smell of coffee was wafting into the corridor. He decided he’d have a cup before hastening off to his desk.

The lizards were sitting in the kitchen having coffee and looked dissatisfied. They were discussing the new situation, but the talk stopped when the chameleon opened the door. There was a piece of snaketail on the cakedish, and an iguana passed it to the chameleon.

‘Thank you, but I only eat invertebrates,’ the chameleon said, not even glancing at the snaketail. Gradually he began turning orange like the tablecloth.

‘Everything’s going to pot,’ said a horned lizard and gave the newcomer a look. ‘Before long nothing we do will do.’

One of the chameleon’s eyes was looking east, the other west. The divergent gaze was confusing and began to disturb the horned lizard.

‘Do you agree?’ the lizard asked, checking up.

‘Oh definitely! We need no reorganisation here,’ the chameleon said, looking as angry and worried as the other lizards. He had a glow as orange as the tablecloth.

‘Time for a revolt,’ the horned lizard said.

Then, with one of his eyes, the chameleon saw the Director coming toward the kitchen. He concentrated himself and immediately his skin paled to a shade of grey. When the Director opened the door, he’d already developed a couple of pinstripes on his skin.

‘Down to work,’ the Director said, looking severe.

‘I was just off,’ the chameleon said smoothly.

He slipped off into the corridor while the others remained listening to the Director’s announcement of the new coffee and meal times, commitment, the new corporate spirit, and the Fly Office’s objectives for the year.

The chameleon settled down at his desk to lie in wait for insects. He immediately began toning in with the office colours; his thin skin started glowing green and brown and some orange spots formed on him. He got down to work, took up a correct posture on his office chair, grabbed the chair back with his tail and took tight hold of the chair legs with his forked toes. On one side of the desk sat a severe old iguana, and on the other a young trainee lizard. This little miss had dolled herself up nicely, and the chameleon absorbed some of the colour of her dress into his flank and gave her the glad eye. Both of the other two already had a pile of trapped insects in front of them. They’d been toiling at their desks all morning.

The chameleon’s eyes wandered to both sides. Then he saw a fly. He concentrated both his eyes on the victim and began to sway to and fro. He studied his prey from each side and now and then his eyes rested on the glass window that showed the Director’s office. Just as the Director came though his door the chameleon struck.

‘Splendid,’ the Director said. ‘Excellent shot.’

The chameleon showed him the fly he’d nabbed on his tongue.

‘Model yourself on this gentleman,’ the Director said. ‘Then things’ll go well.’

The chameleon smiled contentedly and in an instant turned as silver-grey as the Director’s tie. The old iguana looked cross, and the trainee missie was astonished the Director had taken no notice of the pile of flies she’d caught.

In the course of the day the chameleon did his best to fire off his tongue whenever the Director was walking by. He was praised for this several times, even though his whole catch was not particularly great. At the end of the day the insects were weighed and packed and sent for sale. The new Director was pleased.

The chameleon had had to change colour many times during the day, sometimes to suit the Director, sometimes his colleagues. He’d reproduced the office wall and the corridor; in the Fly Office Shop he’d turned as multicoloured as the shelves of canned food; and, working-out in the gym in the evening, he’d tried to make his skin shine like the skins of those sweating around him.

He arrived home absolutely fagged out. He felt as if he’d never manage to be a chameleon for one more day. Changing colour wore you out.

But when he woke the following morning, a sunray fell on the tip of his tail, and it turned as yellow as a sunlit branch. The chameleon couldn’t give up.

The secret of mutability is flexibility.

Shark

‘Sometimes I feel lonely, but mostly I enjoy my own company,’ the shark said. ‘I’ve been accustomed to it since I was a small fry.’

Tapping the answer into his communicator, the reporter muttered that he’d understood. The computer was an excellent gadget, a state-of-the-art, waterproof model, and the journalist was proud to have been entrusted with it by his paper. He was swimming alongside the shark in an underwater drawing-room and observing with astonishment the gold-framed reliefs of ancestors the shark had hanging on the walls.

‘What made you hang the pictures like that?’ he asked. ‘In the human way?’

‘Why not?’ the shark said coolly.

The reporter’s communicator performed a simultaneous translation of the conversation. In recent times the languages and modes of consciousness of the animals had increasingly been revealed to humans. Animals had become celebrities. The phenomenon was of great interest, since previously the human race had reached the point of becoming completely alienated from the animals. Now they were re-establishing communications with other creatures and nature generally, through the media. Cinema and TV screens showed the adventures of top thoroughbreds, superdogs and wandering wolves. Animal stories and nature romances were all the rage.

The interview with the shark’s realm would throw new light on shark-life and shark-thought. The reporter had decided to find a new angle on the dangerous marine predator. He wanted to write a very personal human-interest story about the shark’s day-to-day existence.

‘This is my forefather from the Cretaceous Period,’ the shark explained.

‘A hundred and forty million years ago?’

‘May well be,’ the shark said.

He wasn’t interested in the passage of time. In his view time had been the same since the beginning.

‘This one is from the Jurassic Period,’ he said.

‘Wow,’ the reporter said. ‘Truly long ago.’

Never in his life had he seen anything so old. Cautiously he fingered the petrified ancestral bones.

‘This is believed to belong to the Carboniferous Period,’ the shark said, pointing with a fin to a third framed relief of an ancestor.

‘Two hundred and seventy million years without changing,’ the reporter said.

‘As you’ll observe, sharks live, fundamentally, a conservative life,’ the shark said. ‘What we do is eat other creatures. Nothing else happens.’

The reporter swam a little further off, although he knew the shark was capable of unbelievably fast spurts. He’d made a gentleman’s agreement with the shark: the shark would not interfere with him, and he, for his part, would carry out a unique interview, allowing the shark a share of the proceeds. If everything went according to plan, the reporter would become rich in spite of the share.

‘We’re top-class world-wide. Your rockets and aeroplanes are still modelled on our streamlining. Sharks have an extremely effective body, and so we’re still the peak of evolution,’ the shark said in a lecturing style. ‘Evolution is our keyword.’

‘Evolution?’ the reporter said, keeping a few yards off from the shark, who was moving with unbelievable grace. ‘But you’ve been doing exactly the same thing for over two hundred million years!’

‘Advanced evolution implies systematic exploitation of the environment, adaptation and prevision,’ the shark said. ‘Evolution means effectualness. The shark eats effectually. I’ll demonstrate.’

The shark opened its mouth. The reporter’s heart took a couple of extra beats as he bent to look at the shark’s maw. There were five rows of teeth, set with sharp triangular fangs. The shark’s mouth was a perfect mastication machine.

‘If a tooth gets damaged, it restores itself in a week,’ the shark said.

The reporter gave a thought to teeth and the shark’s point about effectuality.

‘Nowadays we talk a lot about teamwork,’ the reporter began tentatively.

‘Not us,’ the shark said. ‘We feed alone.’

The reporter looked at the functional but stylish drawing-room. He didn’t feel at home there: the room evoked frigidity and spiritual desolation.

‘It all starts in the womb,’ the shark said. ‘The fry that hatches out first eats all the rest.’

The reporter shuddered.

‘So you were born entirely alone?’ he asked.

‘No, there were two of us,’ the shark said in correction. ‘Me and my sister. Mother had two wombs.’

It gave the reporter the shivers to picture the first hatched-out fry starting to eat its younger brothers and sisters till it was finally left all alone.

‘So it becomes a habit,’ the shark said. ‘When I arrive anywhere the first thing I do is start eating up the others.’

‘You eat up the others,’ the reporter repeated.

‘Yes, I always eat the others,’ the shark said.

The shark had become restless. It was finning round the room at quite a speed. The human smell was heavily invading its nostrils, and it had a keen sense of smell. The shark was often said to be the sea’s nose.

‘This is what I do,’ the shark said, hurtling towards the reporter and swallowing him in one.

‘Somehow I just have to eat the others,’ the shark said, in some state of excitement.

Then it calmed down and took a leisurely swim up towards the surface. It saw the shadow of a ship above it and decided to swim up and take a look. On the deck people were running about looking alarmed.

It was already night, a sultry night, and the stars were huge and shining brightly. Above, in the midst of the firmament, there glowed a pale arc, the sky-highway of the Holy White Shark. The sight of it gave the shark a celebratory feeling. It swam a solitary circle round the ship, feeling it had been a traitor. Then it decided to dismiss such thoughts from its mind. The reporter had been greedy and foolish.

‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,’ the shark said, and the message was translated on the editor’s communicator.

The reporter was sitting in the shark’s belly and sending out an SOS. He did get through to the fleet’s mother ship, which had brought him to sea.

Then he leant back to wait and think what he’d do if help didn’t come in time. Fortunately the shark’s digestion was slow. Fish it digested in a few days, but the reporter was meat. Digestion would take a week, perhaps two. So perhaps after all he’d get his incredible story told and become rich. The headline might be ‘My Motto: Evolution and Effectiveness’. The reporter looked around. The shark had swallowed all sorts of things. The belly contained rope, sail-cloth, bottles, nail-boxes and a hammer.

Someone eats others
because solitude has become a habit.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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