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Fables for our Time

The Owl Who Was God

     Once upon a starless midnight there was an owl who sat on the branch of an oak tree. Two ground moles tried to slip quietly by, unnoticed. “You!” said the owl. “who?” they quavered, in fear an astonishment, for they could not believe it was possible for anyone to see them in that thick darkness. “You two!” said the owl. The moles hurried away and told the other creatures of the field and forest that the owl was the greatest and wisest of all animals because he could see in the dark and because he could answer any question. “I’ll see about that,” said  a secretary bird, and he called on the owl one night when it was again very dark. “How many claws am I holding up?” said the secretary bird. “Two,” said the owl. “Why does a lover call on his love?” asked the secretary bird. “To woo,” said the owl.

     The secretary bird hastened back to the other creatures and reported that the owl was indeed the greatest and wisest animal in the world because he could see in the dark and because he could answer any question. “Can he see in the daytime, too?” asked a red fox. “Yes,” echoed a dormouse and a French poodle. “Can he see in the daytime, too?” All the other creatures laughed loudly at this silly question, and they set upon the red fox and his friends and drove them out of the region. Then they sent a messenger to the owl and asked him to be their leader.

     When the owl appeared among the animals it was high noon and the sun was shining brightly. He walked very slowly, which gave him an appearance of great dignity, and he peered about him with large, staring eyes, which gave him an air of tremendous importance. “He’s God!” screamed a Plymouth Rock hen. And the others took up the cry “He’s God!” So they followed him wherever he went and when he began to bump into things they began to bump into things, too.  Finally he came to a concrete highway and he started up the middle of it and all the other creatures followed him. Presently a hawk, who was acting as outrider, observed a truck coming toward them at fifty miles an hour, and he reported to the secretary bird and the secretary bird reported to the owl. “There’s danger ahead,” said the secretary bird. “To wit?” said the owl. calmly, for he could not see the truck. “He’s God!” cried all the creatures again, and they were still crying “He’s God!” when the truck hit them and ran them down. Some of the animals were merely injured, but most of them, including the owl, were killed.

     Moral: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.

The Shrike and the Chipmunks

     Once upon a time there were two chipmunks, a male and a female. The male chipmunk thought that arranging nuts in artistic patterns was more fun than just piling them up to see how many you could pile up. The female was all for piling up as many as you could. She told her husband that if he gave up making designs with the nuts there would be room in their large cave for a great many more and he would soon become the wealthiest chipmunk in the woods. But he would soon become the wealthiest chipmunk in the woods. But he would not let her interfere with his designs, so she flew into a rage and left him. “The shrike will get you,” she said, “because you are helpless and cannot look after yourself.” To be sure, the female chipmunk had not been gone three nights before the male had to dress for a banquet and could not find his studs or shirt or suspenders. So he couldn’t go to the banquet, but that was just as well, because all the chipmunks who did go were attacked and killed by a weasel.

     The next day the shrike began hanging around outside the chipmunk’s cave, waiting to catch him. The shrike couldn’t get in because the doorway was clogged up with soiled laundry and dirty dishes. “He will come out for a walk after breakfast and I will get him then,” thought the shrike. But the chipmunk slept all day and did not get up and have breakfast until after dark. Then he came out for a breath of air before beginning work on a new design. The shrike swooped down to snatch up the chipmunk, but could not see very well on account of the dark, so he batted his head against an alder branch and was killed.

     A few days later the female chipmunk returned and saw the awful mess the house was in. She went to the bed and shook her husband. “What would you do without me?” she demanded. “Just go on living, I guess,” he said. “You wouldn’t last five days,” she told him. She swept the house and did the dishes and sent out the laundry, and then she made the chipmunk get up and wash and dress. “You can’t be healthy if you lie in bed all day and never get any exercise,” she told him. So she took him for a walk in the bright sunlight and they were both caught and killed by the shrike’s brother, a shrike named Stoop.

    Moral: Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.

The Moth and the Star

     A young impressionable moth once set his heart on a certain star. He told his mother about this and she counseled him to set his heart on a bridge lamp instead. “Stars aren’t the thing to hang around,” she said; “lamps are the thing to hang around.” “You don’t get anywhere chasing stars.” But the moth would not heed the words of either parent. Every evening at dusk when the star came out he would start flying toward it and every morning at dawn he would crawl back home worn out with his vain endeavor. One day his father said to him, “You haven’t burned a wing in months, boy, and it looks to me as if you were never going to. All your brothers have been badly burned flying around street lamps and all your sisters have been terribly signed flying around house lamps. Come on, now, get out of here and get yourself scorched! A big strapping moth like you without a mark on him!”

     The moth left his father’s house, but he would not fly around street lamps and he would not fly around house lamps. He went right on trying to reach the star, which was four and one-third light years, or twenty-five trillion miles, away. The moth thought it was just caught in the top branches of an elm. He never did reach the star, but he went right on trying, night after night, and when he was a very, very old moth he began to think that he really had reached the star and he went around saying so. This gave him a deep and lasting pleasure, and he lived to  great old age. His parents and his brothers and his sisters had all been burned to death when they were quite young.

     Moral: Who flies afar from the sphere of our sorrow is here today and here tomorrow.

The Unicorn in the Garden

     Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. “There’s a unicorn in the garden,” he said. “Eating roses.” She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him. “The unicorn is a mythical beast,” she said, and turned her back on him. The man walked slowly downstairs and out into the garden. The unicorn was still there;  he was now browsing among the tulips. “Here, unicorn,” said the man, and he pulled up a lily and gave it to him. The unicorn ate it gravely. With a high heart, because there was a unicorn in his garden, the man went upstairs and roused his wife again. “The unicorn ate a lily,” he said. His wife sat up in bed and looked at him coldly. “You are a booby,” she said, “and I am going to have you put in the booby hatch.” The man, who had never liked the words “booby” and “booby hatch,” and who liked them even less on a shining morning when there was a unicorn in the garden, thought for a moment. “We’ll see about that,” he said. He walked over to the door. “He has a golden horn in the middle of his forehead,” he told her. Then he went back to the garden to watch the unicorn, but the unicorn had gone away. The man sat down among the roses and went to sleep.

    As soon as the husband had gone out of the house, the wife got up and dressed as fast as she could. She was very excited and there was a gloat in her eye. She telephoned the police and she telephoned a psychiatrist; she told them to hurry to her house and bring a strait jacket. When the police and the psychiatrist arrived, they sat down in chairs and looked at her with great interest. “My husband,” she said, “saw a unicorn this morning.” The police looked at the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist looked at the police and the police looked at the psychiatrist. “He told me it had a golden horn in the middle of its forehead,” she said. At a solemn signal from the psychiatrist, the police leaped from their chairs and seized the wife. They had a hard time subduing her, for she put up a terrific struggle, but they finally subdued her. Just as they got her into the strait jacket, her husband came back into the house. “Did you tell your wife you saw a unicorn?” asked the psychiatrist. “Of course not,” said the husband. “The unicorn is a mythical beast.” “That’s all I wanted to know,” said the psychiatrist. “Take her away. I’m sorry, sir, but your wife is as crazy as a jay bird.” So they took her away, cursing and screaming, and shut her up in an institution. The husband lived happily ever after.

    Moral: Don’t count your boobies until they are hatched.