August 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
They were bigger than she’d expected.
The ad in the Farmers’ Journal said simply, ‘Piglets for sale; domestic breed’. They slept on beds of straw she prepared for them beside the hot press, their forelegs neatly tucked in and their hind legs sticking out to one side. She sat cross-legged on the carpet every evening and watched their rounded bellies rise and fall.
She fed them on milk and handfuls of dog biscuits. The pigs greeted her with expectant snorts each time she returned with bags from the supermarket. They let her scratch their chins and even rolled over on to their bristled backs to be tickled, their trotters dangling. She laid newspaper on the carpet and didn’t invite her friends around.
That September, there was a heat wave. Whenever she left the flat, she ushered the pigs on to the balcony. She had set up a little area for them away from the plants, under parasols, where they were to stay and be good until she got home from the office.
One afternoon the pigs got hot, then tired, then bored. They forced open the door to the living room and attacked the sofa and cushions, leaving yellow sponge and strips of upholstery all over the floor. They shoved over the kitchen bin and rooted through the spilled rubbish. They overturned chairs and smashed open the glass cabinet where she kept her mother’s china. Finally, as though realizing they would be punished, they crept up onto her bed, and, burying their fleshy snouts under the duvet, waited for her return.
The farmyard was at the end of a long track. Chickens and geese scattered as she pulled up next to a rusted tractor. The farmhouse door opened and a man stepped out followed by a small boy wearing a shiny tracksuit tucked into overlarge rubber boots. She killed the engine, got out and opened the boot.
– They’re … she pointed.
The boy peered in and pushed a finger through the wire mesh.
– They’re so quiet, he said softly.
– Would you like to see where we’ll put them? the man enquired.
The boy took her by the hand and they followed the farmer around the back of an old red barn to a sty with plenty of fresh straw and a trough filled with scraps: eggshells, potato skins and carrot ends. There was a tap by the wall and under it a plastic bucket.
– They’ll be happy enough here, said the man.
She nodded, but did not let go of the boy’s hand.
– Rua Breathnach
April 7, 2011 § 2 Comments
The Flamingoes’ Stockings
Once upon a time the vipers gave a dance. They invited the frogs and the toads, the coral snakes, the flamingoes, the alligators and the fish. The fish, not having legs, couldn’t dance; but, as the dance was held by the river, they lay on the banks and applauded with their tails. The alligators, to adorn themselves, slung garlands of bananas around their necks and smoked huge Paraguayan cigars. The toads had stuck on fish-scales all over their bodies, and glided along, as though they were swimming. Every time the toads passed near the river banks, haughty in all their affected splendour, the fish would goad them and make fun of them. The frogs wore perfume from head to toe, and walked on their hind legs with their chests out. And as a finishing touch, each of them was bearing a small lighted torch; a firefly held aloft.
The coral snakes were absolutely splendid. They were dressed in long satin gowns; red, black and white in colour, and they danced in a truly serpentine fashion. When they danced and made little pirouettes on the tips of their tails, the other guests all clapped like madmen.
Prettiest of all were the vipers. Each one, without exception, was wearing a dancer’s costume matching the colour of its skin. The colourful vipers wore little skirts made of tulle; the green ones in green; the yellow one wore yellow skirts; and the yararás, a little smock made of grey tulle patterned with stripes the colour of bricks and ashes; this being the colour of the yararás.
Only the flamingoes – who at that time had white legs, and had then as now big twisted noses – only the flamingoes weren’t enjoying themselves. You see, being rather stupid, they hadn’t known what to wear to the dance. They were jealous of everyone else’s costumes, and most of all of the coral snakes’. Every time one of these passed in front of them, in a coquettish manner, their dazzling gowns flowing behind, the flamingoes felt sick with envy.
So one of the flamingoes said:
– I have a plan. We’ll put on black and white coloured stockings. The coral snakes won’t be able to resist us then.
So all at once they took flight, crossed the river and went to knock at the door of a village store.
– Tap, tap! – they knocked with their feet.
– Who is it? – the store-owner asked.
– It’s the flamingoes. Have you got any black and white stockings?
– No, I don’t – came the reply – are you out of your minds? You won’t find stockings that colour anywhere.
So the flamingoes flew off to another store.
– Tap tap! We’ve come to buy some black and white stockings.
The store-owner raised his eyebrows, and asked:
– What’s that you said? Black and white what? You won’t find any stockings around here. Are you crazy? Who are you, anyway?
– We’re the flamingoes – they responded.
Once the man heard that, he said:
– Ah, well then you must be very crazy flamingoes …
So on they went to another store.
– Tap, tap! Hello there. Listen, we’re looking for black and white stockings.
The store-owner shouted from behind the door:
– What colour? Black and white? Only big-nosed idiot birds like yourselves would think of asking for black and white stockings. Get out of my sight!
And with this, he flung open the door and drove them away with the handle of a brush.
The flamingoes went from one store to the next and each time they were thrown out like fools. But, as chance would have it, an armadillo, who had gone to take a drink by the river, saw them, and wanting to make fun of them he called them over to him in friendly tones.
– Good evening, gentlemen! I know what it is you’re looking for. You won’t find stockings of that kind in any store in these parts. Maybe in Buenos Aires, but you’d have to order them by mail. My sister-in-law, the Owl, might be able to get you some. Just ask her nicely and I’m sure she’ll give them to you.
The flamingoes thanked him, and flew away immediately to the Owl’s cave.
– Good evening, Owl! – they said – We’ve been told you have black and white stockings and we’ve come to ask you if we can borrow them for the night. Today is the day of the vipers’ big dance; and if we wear black and white stockings the coral snakes won’t be able to resist us.
– Why, of course! – said the Owl. Hold on a minute, I’ll be right back. And she went off, leaving them there alone. In a little while she was back with the stockings. Only they weren’t really stockings at all; they were coral snake skins, which the Owl had lately acquired on one of her hunting sprees.
– Here they are, the stockings – she said. There’s nothing to worry about, only take my advice: dance all night long, without stopping for even a moment. Dance with you sides, with your tails and with your beaks and whatever you do, do not stop, because if you do there’ll be hell to pay. But the silly flamingoes didn’t quite realize how dangerous their predicament was, and they fit their legs into the snake skins without giving it a second thought and flew off to the dance in a delirious frenzy.
When the flamingoes were seen arriving kitted out in their fantastical stockings, the other guests turned green with envy. The vipers longed to dance with them, but because the flamingoes legs were moving so fast, they couldn’t make out exactly what material their wonderful stockings were made of.
Later on that night, the vipers began to have their doubts about the stockings. Whenever a flamingo danced up close to one of them, they would crouch down on the ground to get a better look. The coral snakes, in particular, were feeling very uneasy. They couldn’t take their eyes off the stockings, and lay flat against the ground whenever a flamingo came near, trying to feel with their tongues the dancing legs of the birds; the tongue of a snake being able to touch and feel like a person’s hand. But the flamingoes danced on and on, even though they were very tired and completely out of breath.
The coral snakes, becoming aware of this, asked the frogs to lend them their torches, which were little fiery bugs, and waited in readiness for the flamingoes to collapse from exhaustion. And so it was that one of the flamingoes whose legs couldn’t support him any longer tripped on an alligator’s cigar, and stumbling, fell in a heap on the dancefloor. All the coral snakes rushed toward the fallen bird and inspected his legs up close with the torches. They saw immediately what kind of ‘stockings’ these really were, and they let up an awful hissing sound that could be heard even on the far side of the river.
– These are no stockings! – cried the snakes. We know what they are! They have tried to fool us. The flamingoes have killed our brothers and sisters and have put on their skins like stockings! Their stockings are made of coral snake skins!
On hearing these words, the flamingoes were filled with dread at having been discovered, and tried to fly away; but not one of them had enough energy to move a single feather. So, the coral snakes, taking their chance, threw themselves in a frenzy upon the birds, and biting furiously, they tore off the accursed stockings and snapped at the flamingoes legs hoping to kill them. The flamingoes, in agonies of torture, jumped this way and that, without, however, being able to free themselves from the snakes’ fangs. Until, seeing that there was not one bit of stocking left to tear off, the snakes, feeling avenged at last and putting their costumes back into place, finally released the flamingoes from their grasp.
The coral snakes were sure the flamingoes would die, because half of them, at least, were of the venomous kind. But the flamingoes didn’t die. They ran off to throw themselves in the water to relieve the terrible pain. They cried out in agony, and their legs, which had up to then been white, were now coloured due to the venom in the snake bites. They spent days and days like this, not being able to rid themselves of the awful burning sensation in their legs, which were now red coloured, because they were filled with poison.
All this happened long long ago. And yet, you can still see the flamingoes wading with their coloured legs in the water, trying to soothe the burning sensation of the venom. Sometimes they move up onto the shore, and walk around a little to see whether the pain has gone. But they soon feel the effects of the venom again, and run back to plunge their legs in the cool water. At other times the pain is so bad that they tuck up one of their legs, and stand like this on one foot for hours on end, because they can’t bear to straighten it out.
That’s the story of the flamigoes who once had white legs and now have coloured legs. The fish know this story well and are always making fun of the flamingoes. But the flamingoes, as they cool their legs in the water, never miss an opportunity to take revenge, and gobble up any little fish that comes too close to poke fun at them.
Translated from the Spanish by Rua Breathnach.
November 1, 2010 § Leave a comment
Urashima ran up among them and grabbing hold of one of the children’s sticks, held it above his head and shouted, “This turtle has done you no harm! Why do you torment it?”. The children were quiet and stared at their feet. After a few moments, their mothers could be heard calling them inside for their evening meal of fish and rice. They left silently in groups of twos and threes, trailing their sticks behind them in the sand. Urashima watched them go and then stooped down to see what condition the turtle was in. The poor creature was not physically damaged but was quite obviously exhausted and afraid. It had tucked its head and feet in under its black and green patterned shell.
Urashima spoke to it kindly, saying: “Now little turtle. Your ordeal is over. You can go on your way. I won’t hurt you.” But the turtle wouldn’t budge an inch. It lay there helplessly, no doubt wishing to be left alone. Urashima cupped his hands, and scooping up some sea water, poured it over the turtle’s back. He did this four or five times before the turtle dared to poke out its curious head and open its beady eyes. Urashima sat with it and spoke to it soothingly. After a while, the turtle extended its legs, and looking around warily began slowly, very slowly, to move towards the breaking surf. Urashima watched it as it tumbled around in the first breakers and finally disappeared beneath the waves. “Goodbye, my friend!”, he whispered, and turned for home.
Five years or more passed before Urashima fulfilled his wish to sail into the horizon. His father had grown old and seldom used the boat for fishing. In the natural course of things, Urashima had taken over as the family’s breadwinner, and it was now he who plied the waters and brought home the catch. And so, it happened that one evening Urashima was fishing a few miles out to sea. He had been fishing all day, but had caught nothing. He was loath to return home empty-handed. After all, his ageing father and mother depended on him for food. He made a wish and cast his net one last time into the darkening waves. Immediately he felt a small tug. “At last,”, he thought to himself, “something to show for my troubles!”. When he pulled the net in, he did not see the familiar silvery struggling body of a fish. Instead, a round body thumped down on the planks in the bow of the boat, entangled in the nets. “Turtle meat!”, he said aloud, and laughed. But when he had disentangled the creature, he saw that it was too small to feed even one person; let alone three hungry people. He was about to throw it overboard when a small voice said, “Don’t throw me back! I’ve come to find you. You who saved me all those years ago”. Urashima stood holding the turtle for a moment. He looked around him to see who was speaking. He was afraid. It was getting dark and he feared that it might be an evil spirit that was summoning him from the deep. He kept calm, however, and asked aloud, “Who speaks?”. Again the little turtle piped, “Here I am. Do you not remember me?”. Urashima had no doubt this time who had spoken and, in his fright, dropped the creature overboard. At this, the turtle grew to an enormous size and swam alongside the boat. Lifting its head out of the brine, it said, “Don’t be frightened. I was sent by the daughter of Ryujin, the Dragon of the Sea. I have come to fetch you and bring you to Ryugu-jo, the Dragon’s Palace in the deep. The turtle paddled around to the stern of the boat and pushed its hind quarters up against it. “Sit up on my back and I will take you there.”
As though in a trance, Urashima, forgetting all danger, climbed over the stern and onto the turtle’s back. As he did so, he felt a great internal change come over him. He gasped like a fish on dry land and suddenly wished only to plunge into the sea’s murky depths. Soon, he was gliding through the deep waters, breathing naturally as though it were his native element. He held tightly to the turtle’s neck and thought not of his vessel far above nor of his distant home and parents. How long the journey lasted, he could not say. For who can tell the time when all is unchanging darkness? He must have slept, however, for when he awoke he was on dry land, lying on a bed of lush, green sea-grass.
When his eyes had re-adjusted to the light, he saw that a beautiful maiden was seated next to him, weaving a garland of anemones and singing a strange and enchanting song:
“Come to my father’s palace in the deep,
where time does pass but none do weep.
I’ll be your companion and flower-wife,
for this day you spared my life.”
She smiled down at him and made him drink a thimbleful of water. To his parched lips and tongue it tasted sweeter than honey. She kissed his forehead and bade him sleep. But he was not tired. He gazed around him in wonder. There was no sky above; only a vault made of red coral, resting on slender pillars of solid crystal. He looked and listened for what seemed like a long time and then fell into a deep slumber.
Urashima awoke to the same sight every morning – if morning it really was; the smiling maiden, the garlanding of flowers, the gorgeous palace above his head. He felt no need or desire to move. Words were rarely exchanged between him and the maiden. An understanding and appreciation of beauty and love seemed to pervade all things. He lived in a blissful, awakened dream, and wanted for nothing. He neither longed for the past nor hoped for the future. All was an eternal, unchanging present, where the hours were undivided and toil and hardship unknown. On awakening, he would drink a thimbleful of water and listen to the song of the beautiful maiden. The song never varied, and he never got tired of hearing it sung. The maiden, indeed, was a flower-like creature, and her kisses were as sweet as nectar. But, unlike an earthly flower, her splendour did not fade.
One morning Urashima awoke and found that he was alone. He was greatly astonished and afraid. He called out but only the echo of his own voice replied. He stood up, feebly, and walked slowly towards a source of light at one end of the palace. As he passed through a high arched doorway, he could hear long-forgotten sounds: the chirping of birds, the hum of insects and bees, and the great surging movement of life itself. He wandered, leaving the glittering palace behind. He walked through flower-carpeted meadows until he reached the sea. He walked along the beach blindly, drinking in the tastes and sounds and smells that reached his senses. He walked and walked following the curve of the shore. The landscape became barren and rough. The sea roared and thumped against the cliffs. Sea-birds were swept inland by high winds, shrieking. The sea-spray bit into his skin. It was cold and harsh. Still he continued onwards, the faint sun at his back. Again his surroundings changed. Thick drifts of snow blanketed the fields. Life seemed scarce in the air and on the ground. Small birds clung to the black-barked trees and did not sing. His feet were red and frost-bitten; his hair and eyebrows were encrusted with ice. Urashima realised that he must be on an island, or that he must have wandered a long time, for presently the sun shone on his face again. It was springtime and the grass grew underfoot. The Dragon’s Palace stood out against a clear blue sky.
At the doorway of the palace stood the maiden, his wife. She looked at him oddly. “Where have you been?”, she asked. “Have you seen the four seasons?”, she added with a smile. Urashima replied, “Yes, my love, and my heart is filled with sadness and longing.” The maiden looked puzzled as he uttered these words. “How can you be sad when you have me and all else you desire?”, she asked. “I must travel back to see my home and family again. I will never be happy unless you grant me this wish”, Urashima replied bitterly. The maiden looked at him strangely, and said, “You will be taking a great risk in parting from these shores. No mortal has ever done so and lived to tell the tale. But if it is your heart’s wish, I cannot stop you.” There were tears glistening in her beautiful eyes. She took him gently by the hand and said, “Before you go, take this box, where the weight of all the time you have passed here is stored. It will protect you. But I warn you: under no circumstances must you open it. For then surely we shall never meet again. ” Urashima accepted the box and kissed his wife on the forehead. A swirling mist enveloped the palace and, in the twinkling of an eye, the giant turtle appeared by his side and bade him sit up on its back. He took one last look around, but the maiden had vanished, and the Dragon’s palace grew faint like an image distant in time and space.
When Urashima reached the shores of Suminoye, he was surprised to find it familiar but somehow different to how he remembered it. No longer were there colourful fishing boats bobbing on the waves, and the wooden huts among the dunes were rotting, half-buried in the sand. No children played on the shore and, apart from an old woman sitting on the beach cooking a herring on a stick over a fire, not a soul could be seen. The old woman had spotted him as soon as he emerged from the waves. She hid the charred fish under her shawl and watched him suspiciously as he approached. He bowed to her and asked her if he might dry himself by the fire. He stood in silence for a long time. The old woman, perceiving that there was little threat to her fish, began toasting it over the embers again. Eventually, he asked her did she know his parents and if some disaster had overtaken the fishing folk thereabouts. The old woman looked at him curiously and said that there had been no fishing folk here for as long as she could remember, and that the names he had mentioned belonged to a time long past, and all but forgotten.
He was puzzled, and leaving the old woman he walked again among the dunes searching for a sign of life. He found nothing; only scraps of wood and iron. Desolately, he came down to the shore and looked out to the west. The evening sun projected a tongue of flame over the calm waters. He sat down on the sand and, handling the box the maiden had given him, thought of his father and mother and how they must be buried somewhere in the dunes. Perhaps some planks from his little fishing vessel had floated in with the tides and confirmed their worst fears and imaginings? Perhaps they had died of hunger, or of grief? Too much time had passed to know the truth; and yet, for Urashima it had hardly passed at all. For a long time he looked out to sea. At last, the sky grew dark and slivers of moonlight were reflected on the surface of the inky black waters. The chariot of stars rode across the heavens from east to west. His thin cloak ruffled and flapped in the breeze. “Goodbye, eternity”, he whispered and, lifting the lid of the box, he was immediately turned to dust.
– Freely adapted from the Japanese folktale, Urashima Tarō, by Rua Breathnach.
October 11, 2010 § 3 Comments
Mr Rhinoceros was hot and bothered. He trudged lazily across the savannah under the hot afternoon sun. He was fed up with hot weather and nasty flies nibbling his ears and getting in his eyes. He was on his way to the watering hole where all the animals of the reserve went to drink and wallow in the cool muddy waters. “I’m going to stick all day long in the mud”, he thought to himself, “and if anybody talks to me I’ll pretend I’m asleep”. With that, he gave a tremendous sigh that ended with a grunt. At last, in the haze, he saw the pool ahead and began to feel better already at the thought of wading into the oozing mud and covering himself up to the nostrils. But when he got to the edge of the pool, he saw that it was almost dried up and that if he were lucky he might be able to get mud up to his knees. “This must be why no-one is around”, he mused, “they’ve all gone to the delta”. He was in no mood to follow them such a distance, so he began slowly treading towards the centre of the pool. “Well, at least no-one is here to bother me,” he exclaimed out loud. Just then, he realized that three of his stumpy feet were stuck in the mud and that he couldn’t move. His fourth (back, right) foot was left dangling in the air. He knew that if he put it in he had no chance of getting out and that night would come and bring crocodiles and other sneaky predators who would wait for him to get weak and then gobble him up alive! He began to struggle but this only made his three feet sink faster into the thick black mud. It was then he started to panic, and he almost lost his footing altogether.
He began to sob, and wish that he had never left his shady spot under the trees that morning. Just as he was beginning to give up hope of ever getting free, he saw what he thought had been a stone in the middle of the pool moving in his direction. At first, he was afraid it was a crocodile coming to get him but then he remembered that crocodiles don’t have backs shaped like stones. He then saw that this “stone” had four legs, and that it even had a head! It was moving very slowly and seemed not to have a care in the world. At last, it arrived alongside the rhinoceros and poked out its head. “I’m looking for some water” it remarked, yawning widely when it said the word “WATER”. “I have been here a long time and I can’t find a drop; I’m beginning to get thirsty”. Mr. Rhinoceros looked at this strange creature and said, “I didn’t know stones drank water?”. “They don’t”, replied the “stone” distractedly, “but I do, and I’m asking you if you’ve seen any hereabouts”. All this was very strange to the rhinoceros; but just then it struck him that the stone could help him to get unstuck. “If you help me get out of this mess, I’ll bring you to find some water. There is a river not far from here where I’m sure you can get some”, he offered. The “stone” looked at him for what seemed like a very long time and then said to him nonchalantly, “Alright, it’s a deal.” Though, to tell the truth, he didn’t look in the least bit convinced.
Mr. Rhinoceros had once seen his mother use stones as steps to cross a running river; and so, he had an idea: “If you stand still over here I can place my one free foot on top of you and pull my other feet free. Then, I’ll be able to roll over to the edge of the pool, put you on my back, and we can go in search of water”. The “stone” made no reply for a few moments, as if it were trying to take in what it had just been told. Then, ever so slowly turning, it began to walk over to where the rhinoceros had indicated nodding with his horns. It placed itself bravely beneath the one free foot and, to the astonishment of Mr. Rhinoceros, drew in its legs and neck and became an immobile stone again.
The rhinoceros placed its foot on the curved “back” and, applying its weight, tugged with all its might to get its other feet free. For a few moments, nothing budged, then, all of a sudden, one of the hind feet came unstuck making a loud suction noise: “SHGLOOP”. The rhinoceros could now fall over on one side (its two right feet being free) and, in doing so, yank out the other two on the left. It lay half-submerged and exhausted in the mud, with its clodded toes sticking in the air, and looking rather like an enormous beetle toppled helplessly on its back.
For a moment, Mr. Rhinoceros was so exhausted and happy that he forgot everything else. When he came to his senses again, the “stone” was nowhere to be seen. He looked left and right, arching his strong neck this way and that. “Well”, he said, “that’s a pity. It must have changed its mind.” Presently, he squirmed his way backwards over towards the edge of the pool. When he was on his feet again, he set off lazily in the direction of the delta. He had sauntered about ten yards when he heard a strange but familiar voice in his ear: “AWFULLY kind of you, sir”.
He almost jumped with fright (he was really a very sensitive rhinoceros). It was the “stone”. It was sitting on Mr. Rhinoceros’s back, nestling between his big hump and his shoulder blades. When he recovered from this shock, he thanked the “stone” for his assistance, said he hoped he hadn’t been too much of a burden, and promised there would be plenty of water to drink very soon. The “stone” said laconically, “Yes, that’s good”, and then added, “It has been at least a month since I had some water. My poor throat is dry as a bone.” And he emphasised the word ‘bone’. So, the pair set off for the delta; the rhinoceros walking at a slow steady pace and talking about the weather, the flies, and the general state of affairs on the savannah. All three were “a bother and a nuisance”, in his estimation. The “stone” merely said “Mmmm” and “Ahhh” from time to time and the rhinoceros, thinking that he must be parched (the poor fellow) reassured him constantly saying: “Not long now,” or, “Hold on there,” and went on complaining about everything.
And so, with the gentle bumping and swaying of the rhinoceros’s gait and the monotonous drone of his voice, the “stone” (who was really a turtle) was soon soundly asleep. He was dreaming that he was little again and that he was at the seaside with his mother and father. They were teaching him how to swim. Each time he ventured into the water, a big wave would come crashing down and toss him upside down or back-to-front. He was terrified, and paddled his little legs with all his might, he tiny eyes closed. His mother nudged him back in the right direction again and his father swam in front of him to protect him from the pounding surf. At last, he made it past the big waves and was soon paddling gleefully around in the water. He was free for the first time and yet he felt the sea powerfully surging around him. When he surfaced for air, he saw that the land was further away and that his mother and father were still there, no bigger than two shiny pebbles on the shore. He ducked his head and tried to swim back towards them. It was no use, however; his limbs were too weak to carry him against the strong current. Soon, the land was out of sight. The water seemed colder now, and so he began to paddle slowly, letting himself be carried by the tide. By nightfall, he had travelled a long way. The sea was inky black. And yet, before the little turtle’s eyes swam shoals of creatures infinitely smaller and brighter than the stars above him.
When he awoke, he found himself on land again. This time, however, it was not the sandy shore where he had left his parents. Instead, it was what seemed to be a slate grey rock half-submerged in the water. Nothing grew there, not even one shrub. His throat was very dry. He stretched out his neck and tasted the water. It was fresh and sweet! He drank his fill and moved towards the edge of the rock, letting his body slide out into the cool current….