The fairest in the land

26 January 2012 | Children's books, Fiction

Two fables from Gepardi katsoo peiliin (‘The cheetah looks into the mirror’, Tammi, 2003). Illustrations by Kirsi Neuvonen. (More fables by Hannele Huovi here.)


The air rippled above the pile of stones. The lizard twitched her hip and took up an s-shaped pose like an ordinary photo model. After a moment she changed her left side to a convex curve. The movement was quick and graceful; the lizard’s tail swished through a broad arc so quickly you could hardly see it. Her thin, blistery skin pressed against the surface of the stone. The lizard felt the rough, raised patterns through the thin skin of her belly. She felt unpleasant, but otherwise the place was good, and the lizard did not have the energy to look for a better one. She looked through her eyelashes at the fissured sky and saw the golden disc shining at the centre of the dome. She was happy. Everything in her life was good, the weather was pleasantly dry, the temperature exactly suitable.

The lizard rummaged in her string bag and found a pair of sunglasses. Through the glasses the sand looked dark brown and the trees lush and damp. The lizard took out her sun-cream and began to rub her skin with it. She smoothed the cream lazily, with light, circular movements and thought as she smoothed that her light complexion was delicate. She was thin-skinned, more sensitive than many of her friends, and of the lizards hers was the clearest lizard’s skin. She blushed with pleasure as she thought about herself, her round-kneed legs, her pretty nails, her tail. She slit her eyes and saw in the sky a black dot drawing a great figure of eight on the blue surface. Satisfied, the lizard adjusted her position. Then she changed her right side to a convex curve and sank into the white light. She no longer thought of anything.

And then came the hawk! It flew like an arrow over the pile of stones, falling straight from the sky, a feathered missile. It was a beak and a claw. A hawk’s shriek. A fluttering of wings. Then it was gone.

And the lizard!

Only her sunglasses, her towel and her string bag were left on the stone. The other lizards’ weeping and lamentations were already to be heard from a crevice in the rock. Someone had seen the lizard’s tail rising into the heights. There she now flew, a lizard without wings. The lizards sang a dirge about a hawk’s claws, how beautiful it is to die by their blades, how lovely it is to fly, how sublime a fate to be the prey of a hawk.

Red flowed on the stone, fresh lizard blood.

The blood smelt sweet and beckoned carrion flies.

Soon a green cloud with a shining shell buzzed over the stone. The flies stopped at the pool of blood and patted she with their flat fly snouts, sucking.

At that very moment the lizard crawled out from the hole in the stone and retrieved her string bag and towel. Blood flowed from her behind. Shreds of skin hung round red flesh. That looked awful, but she smiled broadly in the direction of the other lizards. Her whole tail had been ripped off.

‘It’s working again!’ the lizard said, showing her bloody behind.

‘It really is!’ shouted the lizards. They had stopped singing.

The lizard rummaged in her bag for a mirror and used it to examine her backside. The shreds of skin would soon heal. The bloody backside was the most sensitive of all; there was no skin there at all. Now she was no longer merely the most thin-skinned of the lizards, she was actually skinless, raw. Although the site of her tail was tender and hurt, the lizard was delighted. This was exactly what she had been aiming for, a perfect performance, swift and exact. She knew she was skilful.

The other lizards crowded round offering their congratulations. In her speed, her surprising strength and the grace of her movements this lizard was insuperable.

At the point where the tail had broken off the bloody surface quivered as the lizard moved. Only a few little red drops were still falling on to the stone, and the flies hurried to devour them like a musical, glittering cloud.

‘A perfect day,’ the lizard said.

‘A perfect performance,’ the other lizards said.

‘It’ll be another couple of days,’ the lizard said.

‘A week,’ the lizards said.

‘Then I shall do it again,’ the lizard said.

And the lizard lay down with her belly against the surface of the stone, spread her legs in all directions and listened to the quiet aching of the site of her tail. She was enjoying herself. The lizard turned her left side to a convex curve and recalled that among the elements of the performance’s climax had been the sickening, wild smell of the hawk’s belly-feathers. The smell of carrion and death. And blood.

And perhaps the sweet smell of a new tail.


Sometimes fear and loss have

           a strange, stimulating enchantment.


The cheetah looked in the mirror. He had oiled his body carefully, the muscles of his limbs moved beneath his spotted skin and his strong shoulder blades protruded from his back like wings. His hips were narrow. The cheetah pulled on a sprinter’s tight shorts, spun round in front of the mirror again and tried to see himself from behind: how his tight buttocks quivered, how he could control every tiny muscle of his thighs.

The cheetah had shaped his body dedicatedly and, muscle by muscle, built up his body. He had concentrated particularly on developing strength and speed. Now he knew he was the fastest on the savannah.

‘I am the fastest,’ said the cheetah to his reflection.

‘I am the fastest,; said the cheetah’s reflection.

The big cat’s tail curled in the air. The dense spots of his coat coalesced, in his tail, into thick rings, which the cheetah particularly liked.

‘I have the longest tail,’ said the cheetah to his reflection.

‘I have the longest tail,’ said his reflection.

And because the cheetah was the fastest and most handsome, he had begun to hunt by day as well as by night. Thus everyone who wished to could see the cheetah’s astonishing hips and his firm muscles. For that reason the cheetah liked most of all the gently sloping and undulating savannah and its short grass. There he found himelf a termite mound, a stump or a fallen tree on which he sat down. Everyone could see the cheetah and the cheetah could see every pretty gazelle that passed by, if he wanted to look.

Gazelles are the best meat,’ said the cheetah to his reflection.

‘Gazelles are the best meat,’ said his reflection.

The cheetah was not interested in antelopes, guinea fowl, gnus or zebras, although he sometimes hunted even them, if nothing better was on offer. He was interested in gazelles. Their lyre-shaped horns aroused a musical feeling in the cheetah; as if the whole herd were playing the same composition. The gazelles’ white bellies stimulated the cheetah’s mind and the dark stripe on their sides made the big cat tremble. The mere thought of a gazelle made the saliva froth beneath his tongue.

‘The best and the fastest,’ said the cheetah to his reflection.

‘The best and the fastest,’ said his reflection.

For an easy prey was not enough for the cheetah. He chose the fastest, and the fastest was the gazelle. The gazelle was a cautious animal, but fearless nonetheless. He was as if made for running and he sped across the plains as light as wind across a meadow. The herd of gazelle ran boisterously to and fro trying to put a suitable distance between he and the predator that surveyed it from on high. Every gazelle believed that the herd’s light dancing improved the savannah’s atmosphere. And he was indeed true: the pop of horns and ankles also refreshed the cheetah’s mind. He loved the gazelles’ beauty. The creature was, in the cheetah’s opinion, just the right size, and it could be approached without being noticed.

‘I shall take the one I choose,’ said the cheetah, stretching languidly.

‘I shall take the one I choose,’ said the cheetah’s reflection.

When he was hunting, the cheetah crept. He hid in the grass and approached his prey carefully. His heart beat frenziedly as he crept through the short grass. His muscles tautened, his eyes stared steadily at his lightly dancing prey. With his paw he carefully pushed aside the grass, his tail curled and shook with excitement. And then, one-two! The cheetah leaped into the air, with a couple of bounds his speed increased giddily, the herd fled, but the prey ran awkwardly, and the cheetah was constantly gaining on it. The gazelle was fast, but the cheetah was faster. He was a practiced and extremely effective hunter.

The cheetah was a sprinter. He never ran long distances.

‘I love beauty,’ said the cheetah to his reflection.

‘I love beauty,’ said the cheetah’s reflection.

The cheetah looked in the mirror once again. For a moment it seemed as if he was his reflection’s reflection.


Sometimes it’s worth running.


Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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