Aesop’s Masquerade Ball

Once there was a bird who got so lost that it didn’t know that it was a bird.  And this bird came upon a nice lake and found a tree by the lake with a low-lying branch to rest on.  As the bird perched there, a fish swam by who had traveled so far from the mountains that it had forgotten that it was a fish.  

When the fish swam by the branch, it saw the branch move.  So the fish swam back to look again.  And the bird saw the lake move and saw that it had a mouth and eyes.  So the bird stared at the fish and the fish at the bird.  The fish asked the bird if it was a part of the tree.  And the bird asked the fish if it was a part of the lake.  

Some other birds came and landed on the tree and asked the bird why it was talking to a fish. And some other fish swam by and asked why the fish was talking to a bird. The bird asked the others what a bird was and the fish asked the others what a fish was. The other birds told the bird it wasn’t a fish and the other fish told the fish it wasn’t a bird so that they’d stop talking to each other. Then the others flew and swam away.

The bird said “I guess I’m not a fish.”

The fish said “I suppose I’m not a bird.”

So the bird asked the fish what makes a fish a fish.  And the fish said a fish is a fish because it swims in the water.  And the fish asked the bird what makes a bird a bird.  And the bird said a bird is a bird because it flies in the air.  And both asked each other to prove it.  The bird flew in the air.  The fish swam in the water.  

But the bird said that it could swim too.  And the fish said that it could also fly.  And so the bird dove into the water and swam and the fish jumped over the bird and flew through the air.  So they said that sometimes a bird can be a fish and a fish a bird.  

And then a bug flew by who had gotten so lost that the bug had forgotten what it was and the bug asked the bird and the fish and they both said they knew exactly what it was, food.  And they ate the bug.  Then the bird told the fish that it wished it were a fish.  And the fish too wished that it were a bird.  The other birds came back and asked the bird if it had figured out who it was and it said it was sometimes a bird and sometimes a fish.  The other birds laughed and flew away again.  The other fish swam back, too, and asked the fish who it was and it said sometimes a fish and sometimes a bird.  And they laughed and swam away.  

Then the brother of the bug they ate came by and wanted revenge so it told them that they were what they ate and escaped before they could eat it.  

The bird asked the fish and the fish asked the bird if they were in fact bugs. And when the other birds and fish were coming back, they buzzed off together convinced that they were indeed bugs being hunted by the other birds and fish.

Since they were bugs now, they refused to eat their own kind so they starved and without food they became lightheaded. When they witnessed the sun rise on their last day, they believed that they had become reflections of that light dancing on the water and did not notice that they left their bodies behind.

An Arrow in the Throat

Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who hoped to have a baby boy but got a girl instead.  As she grew older, she didn’t seem to care enough about anything.  Her parents tried to make her learn how to be a seamstress but she was too lazy to be good at it.  All she wanted to do was go for long walks in the woods and over the hills.  She was always running away when she was supposed to be working.  And the village took the side of her parents and said the girl was useless.  They gave up trying to find her in the woods and just let her roam.  And when she returned they told her to eat the scraps from the garbage heap.  

This made the girl even sadder for she could not resist the urge to run away from any work her parents or the village wanted her to do.  Even when an old woman asked her to help carry some sacks of grain, she’d eventually drop it and run for the woods.  The girl became like a ghost to them.  People stopped talking to her or noticing when she was around.  This hurt her feelings even more because next to wandering in the woods, she loved talking about walking in the woods and now nobody listened to her.  

Then one day whilst walking in the woods, she saw a frightful army of invaders creeping toward the village.  So she climbed to the top of a hill overlooking the village and screamed louder than her little body ever did.  So loud it shook the needles off some trees.  So loud it made the old lady drop her sack of grain.  So loud her parents ran out of the hut as if the village were on fire.  So loud everyone in the village looked up and saw her wildly pointing down the hill where they saw dark shadows moving amongst the trees.  

Her warning gave the villagers enough time to gather their tools and weapons and fight the invaders until they killed most and captured the rest.  Then it dawned on them that if the useless girl hadn’t screamed they might all be dead.  They looked amongst them and she was not to be seen.  They searched the woods and climbed the hill and found her with an arrow stuck through her throat.  Her fragile body pinned against a tree.  Her little purple tongue dangled out the side of her mouth as if it were trying to limp away to wander in the woods.

The whole village looked at her face and wept.  They wept for weeks and not just for what the invaders had done but in far greater measure for how they had treated her.  Those who had said the most hurtful things like “she’s just another mouth to feed” and “maybe she should never come back” felt the pain as if they had an arrow in their throats that they had shot into themselves.  From then on, the villagers said, “you’ve got an arrow in your throat” if anyone talked bad about someone else without seeing that person’s bigger purpose or contribution to the entirety of their existence. 

The Hermit’s Shell

Once there was a hermit who lived in a giant shell on a tiny island. And each room in her shell was connected by a central spiral staircase. As she got older, her shell grew taller with more rooms being added. And she always stayed in the newest room at the very top where she made herself a new bed out of kelp and a table and chair made from pebbles. Whenever there was a storm and the sea covered the island, her shell stayed put because it was so heavy after all those years of rooms being built. And when she got older than anyone else alive, her newest room in the shell overlooked the clouds that drifted over the sea. And if she wasn’t in her new room, she was visiting the other rooms where she felt as old or as young as when the room was built. On her last day, she spiraled out of her shell for the first time since she began building it and sat on the beach to feel the water on her toes and looked at the sunlight bouncing off the water until her last nightfall. And she laid back in the sand and saw millions of shells twinkling in the night sky before she went to sleep beside her own sparkling shell with the final thought of the greater part she had played by doing what had come so naturally.

The Lantern with Two Wicks

Once there was a lady who had to travel through a tunnel. At the entrance there was a lantern. An old hermit came out of the woods and told her, in his raspy voice, that she should be careful in that tunnel and take care not to let both wicks in the lantern go out, or else. When she asked what he meant by “or else,” he told her to just go ahead. So she took the lantern with two wicks that he lit for her and it burned so brightly that she easily walked into the tunnel and felt like it was going to be no problem at all until there was a strange breeze that blew one wick out. The tunnel darkened considerably with the flicker of one flame. She walked slower and held the lantern with both hands as steadily as she could. She heard the sound of other footsteps behind her and she turned around so quickly that the other wick went out. In the darkness, her eyes could not adjust as the sound of steps got closer and the last thing she heard in that raspy voice was “I told you so.” She spun around and sprinted as fast her legs would with her arms outstretched. And when she saw the light at the end of the tunnel she could feel his breath on her neck. And his giggling made her scream.

When she got outside the tunnel, she grabbed a branch and beat the old hermit who was out of breath. She beat him like the dog that she thought he was. And when she stopped his appearance changed and she believed him when he whimpered that he was only trying to help but was an old fool in how he went about it. She apologized for beating such an old hermit with the branch and they both laughed about it until the lantern with two wicks lit up in the middle of the tunnel. And a voice was carried by that odd wind but they bothered not to listen for they had already set off running into the woods together.

The Best Night’s Sleep

Once there was a lodge whose host refused no guest.  Every year there was a festival that brought people from the entire land.  And it was known that this lodge would take anyone in.  So the guests who arrived first found other place to lodge because they knew that this lodge would be the most crowded of all even thought the host was also the nicest of all hosts.  And those people who came early tended to be the most responsible and easy to look after.  Then the lodge’s proper rooms filled up in an instant.  And the host had many more folk that she fit wherever she could.  there would be people sleeping under the kitchen counter, on the tables, up in the rafters, and even in closets.  Kids were stuffed in cabinets.  And when she offered the bed behind the kitchen, a guest asked where she would sleep and she’d tell them not to worry about her and to take the bed.  And rumor had it that from this answer she gave over the years that she in fact did not sleep at all on this night.  And so she had this air of sacrifice about her.  And it made her guests see her smile as a smile of genuine concern for their well-being.  Eventually it became so full that the people who had the rooms had to share them with more people.  It seemed as if everyone was bickering and fighting over their space. 

By the end of the night, she gazed on the spectacle with the biggest smile.  Look at all these arms and legs twisted up together in some strange tapestry, she told herself.  And then she closed the door quietly behind her and stepped over into the house next door that was entirely hers.  And her empty house felt like the most spacious castle she could ever imagine being in.  And on that night, as every year, she slept better than any other night.  

Father’s Wolves

Once there was an old man who was meaner than his pack of wolves.  He never met a kid he didn’t want to kick.  He saw everyone as a mouth to feed and so kept his distance with mean words and mean behavior when needed.  Still, he had a child by accident and out of fear for her life the mother left him but he kept the child.  And since it was his, he took him in and taught him to be tough for his own good.

Whenever he caught the boy playing with the wolf cubs he whipped both the boy and the cubs.  he had a pack of wolves and needed them tough to protect his possessions and to hunt and to survive the harsh winters.  He fed his boy, the wolves, and himself only enough to survive.  To be hungry was to be alive in his mind.  If the boy made mistakes around the house, he would froth at the mouth and then punish him so that he wouldn’t make those mistakes again.  One of his favorite punishments was making his boy more the woodpile from one side of the house to the other and back again.  And the boy hated his dad when he had to move the woodpile and wished he were never alive.

As soon as the boy was old enough, he ran away to find another place to live.  And he found a village where he learned a trade.  He met the kindest person he had even known and she taught him how to love.  And he learned to make friends.  And when he lost one in a tragic death he feared not to show how helpless he felt in the face of such loss and wept in front of everyone.  This was something he knew his father could never have done.  And precisely so, his father’s inability to show sadness and accept the vulnerabilities of life hardened him from the inside out and made his misery pour into anyone who knew him.

And with his wife and kids, they made the family he never had together.  And the home was a place of love not of punishment.  A place where anyone makes mistakes sometimes and the others help out instead of using it as an opportunity to hurt one’s family.  He saw the framework of the village interlacing each person into its fabric and providing as such as it could for all while always having some problem in the process of being mended.

As he got older, he thought of his dad alone in his hut in the woods and how the mean old man had destroyed any relationship with others in order to not feel weak.  He felt sorry for him so he went to see the mean old man one more time to see if he could change his mind.  But he didn’t tell anyone in his family about it.

The wolves in the pen looked famished.  The cabin was gloomier than he remembered.  His dad bullied his way out to meet him on the steps and did not welcome him in.  Father asked what he was doing there and in that mean voice and in those cold eyes, he thought his dad did not possibly recognize him.  But he did.  And he told him that he ran away once, and once was enough for him.  

He tried to tell him about his life but his father cared not for one word nor did he ask any questions about his family.  It seemed to him that his dad could not bear the thought of any happiness that he had found.  And his father said some mean things but his son did not fear this barking old man anymore.  He knew his father was trying to scare him off.  And his father grabbed a pail of scraps and told him to get out of his way.  That pail of scraps reminded him of how hungry he was growing up here.  And it angered him that this continued with the wolves.

The father went in the pen to feed the wolves but saw that his son was still standing there like an idiot.  He heard his son tell him that he was an old fool who confused toughness for strength and he was actually pushing everyone away because at heart he was a chicken who was afraid of love.

The son saw his father froth at the mouth.  And this made him think of the many times his dad punished him for his misery.  In a fit of anger, his dad slipped in the mud and hurt his leg so bad he couldn’t get up.  The wolves snarled closer.  The mean old man looked at his son with a confused expression.  And the son knew that his dad would rather suffer the consequences than ask him for help.  Before he could help his dad, the wolves lunged onto his father.  His son opened the gate and chased the wolves off with his sword but it was too late.  

The mean old man could not ask his son for help for his heart had already been carved out by a sick pride over his toughness.  And the wolves teared him limb from limb.  One last time, he moved the woodpile to a clearing on the other side of the cabin.  And he placed what was left of his father’s body and set it afire.  Somehow the burning felt like a return to his father’s natural element that was left to catch fire to anything within his reach instead of harnessing it for a better life.  And he returned to the warmth of the family and village who loved him as much as he loved them and taught his kids to place strength over mere toughness and to balance their worries with love.

The Bell in the Woods

Once there was a wise old woman who found a bell in the woods and it was hanging from a tree.  She knew such a bell had to be important and so she respected it enough to take a seat and wait for someone else to come by and ring it.  And when it was rung by someone else, the man who rang it stood still as it rang inside and out.  The sound filled every space with the brilliance of the sun shining on every part of the sea.  And he fell to the ground with a smile on his face. 

She returned to the bell many years later when she knew her time had come.  She rang it so gracefully that the forest wept a gentle rain. And in an instant so powerful, it felt as if the universe had exploded and collapsed at the same time as she saw the entire life of this husk completed and was reunited with the light shed by the sound of the bell.

I wrote this fairy tale and 49 others in the course of two weeks last year. And I put together a schedule based on three categories that made sense to me after I had written them: order, chaos, and cosmic (a truer unity than order). Each week, I look at the list and post one. By now, I’ve forgotten the list’s order and so every week holds a bit of a self-induced surprise. This week, before consulting the list, I was walking in my neighborhood and heard the bell ring on the campus nearby. Due to the stay at home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the poem (within a passage included below) For Whom the Bell Tolls came instantly to mind. Two days later, I looked up my story list and it was none other than this one! In the last week, I’ve had nothing but tears for all the stories I’ve heard in the news especially the diabetic ones because I share that affliction (and have suffered through near-fatal pneumonia once). And I hope the suffering only brings to light the strength of our compassion for others and ourselves.

Here is John Donne’s larger section of the meditation (XVII) from which the well known poem is derived (in the public domain from www.gutenberg.org):

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

The Rattling Carriage

Once there was a carriage that rattled so much that it struck fear into the passengers who rode in it.  And there was a man who believed that he feared nothing and so he sought out this carriage and took a ride in it.  

He watched the other passengers, one by one, slip into their fears as the carriage rattled them this way and that.  They pushed their bodies back into their seats and their hands gripped anything near and their knuckles whitened as much as their faces.  And they were speechless as they closed their eyes as hard as they could and waited for the torture to be over.

And the carriage swung around turns on a mountainous road but this did not frighten him at all.  And the carriage rattled harder as it outrun some thieves who had tried to ambush them on the road, but he did not fear them because he was well-armed.  And the carriage jolted one of the passengers, a little boy, off his seat and out the window, but the man caught the boy by the ankle without even a flinch of fear for the child.  

Then the rattling stopped.  And the quiet allowed the passengers to open their eyes and relax their grips.  Everyone felt weightless as their bodies slightly hovered over their seats and the passengers laughed at how good it felt compared to the heavy rattling before.  The man looked out the window but only saw the air and yelled at the laughing passengers and called them insane.  They laughed even more at the face the man made.  It was the face of someone who had never felt fear before and it looked really funny to them.

When the carriage rattled again, the man could not believe it so he looked out the window again and he saw that they had gone down a very steep path of sand.  And he begged them not to tell anyone about how – as he put it – he had merely lost his cool for a moment.  And the passengers smiled at him in a way that made him give that face again.

The Secret Drawer

Once upon a time there was a very small boy whose parents had died in a terrible accident.  A carriage had bolted along the country road and squashed them under its wheels.  But he wasn’t an orphan for long because a carpenter and his wife adopted him.  From the first day, though, it was clear why.  They needed a worker to help with their business.  And this carpenter had seen the boy’s size as extremely useful to his purposes because he was in the business of building elaborate wardrobes, mostly for wealthy landowners and even royalty.  

Now everybody has secrets and such people as his customers had more to lose if those secrets ever came out.  So they needed wardrobes with secret drawers that no other carpenter could ever figure out or especially anyone who would know about such things and expose or blackmail these customers of good fortune.  

So the carpenter taught the boy the basics of his trade and the boy’s small hands were nimble and as good at detailed work as the carpenter suspected.  Also the carpenter would make a box for the boy to get into and practice woodworking in that box for however long it took to finish a particular task.  Then, the carpenter would make another box, but smaller.  And they did this until the boy could fit into a box of the dimension that the carpenter needed for him to be able to not only fit into but work in as well.  

One day, the boy was ready.  The carpenter had him climb into a wardrobe.  In there he traveled from drawer to drawer until he had found a drawer the size of that smallest box and he contorted himself to fit in it and built a secret drawer from within that no carpenter could build in the normal way.  When he finished, the carpenter inspected it and was astonished at how secretive it was.  

When the first wealthy customer arrived, it was imperative that the boy hide from sight and so he put him in a box.  He had already told the boy that the wealthy people could not know how the secret compartment was made so they could never know that he existed.  Knowing that he’d have to hide in the box, the boy had already made a few peepholes that looked more like pinholes to an average sized person.  

He peeped on the wealthy customer and heard the carpenter mention his name and title.  He was a duke from the north who was amazed at the woodwork but astonished at the secret compartment.  When the carpenter took all the credit, the boy felt the box shrink on him.  This box was much bigger than the one in the wardrobe that he worked in.  But now this box felt much smaller.  Unbearable.  It hurt so bad to have his legs and arms so confined that they yearned to flail out but somehow he managed to stay contorted until the duke left with the wardrobe.  

Busy counting his money, the carpenter forgot to tell the boy to come out of the box.  The boy slipped out of the box and grabbed a few of his things and snuck outside where the Duke’s carriage was about to leave.  He managed to slip himself under the carriage and between the axles.  And he rode this way for the entire day until they reached the duke’s castle.  

At the castle, the duke had his wardrobe placed in his bedroom.  The boy found it remarkably easy to slip into the castle.  There were hiding spots for him in every room.  He could easily contort himself to fit into any space and so he found his way to the duke’s bedroom and watched the duke place his most precious secret in the secret drawer that he had made.  When his wife came in, she had asked him about the Queen’s jewel that they had stolen and if the compartment was secret enough so he showed it to her.  That night the boy snuck into the kitchen and nibbled on some bread and cheese.  Then he found a comfy spot inside a cabinet so full of bedsheets that it was like sleeping on a bed itself.  In the morning, when the duke and his wife left to go hunting in the forest, the boy slipped into the wardrobe and retrieved the Queen’s jewel from the secret drawer.  He pocketed it and left the castle.  

It took him a few days to get back to the carpenter’s house.  The carpenter and his wife yelled at the boy for having disappeared.  They were very upset.  They had given him room and board and all he had to do was some little work in exchange.  They said they would not be able to forgive him and that he’d have to be locked up from now on.  So she made a bed for him in the closet and that became his bedroom.  

The boy made a secret drawer in his new bedroom and put the Queen’s jewel in there for safe keeping.  For weeks the carpenter set to work on a new wardrobe for another wealthy customer and the boy waited until his work was needed.  But one day, the duke returned with some guards and accused the carpenter of having stolen his precious secret item which was so secret that he could not say what it was but he said that the carpenter knew exactly what he was talking about.  The carpenter was confused and apologized.  The boy had never seen a man grovel like the carpenter did.  He kissed the feet of the duke as he begged for trust.  

The duke did not believe him and he had him and his wife arrested for theft.  Lucky for the boy he had his carpentry tools hidden in his bedroom and he was able to carve his way out of the locked door.  The boy found the jail and slipped into the cell with ease.  

The boy asked the carpenter if he could agree that if he got him out of jail and cleared him of the crime would he and his wife give him back his proper bedroom and let him work on the wardrobes for not only room and board but for a proper profit.  The carpenter eagerly agreed because he wanted this nightmare to just go away.  He knew nothing else but carpentry.  He cared for nothing but his business.  

So the boy rode from carriage to carriage and found his way to the queen’s castle.  He slipped into the queen’s study and startled her with his voice.  He bowed and told his story to the Queen as honestly as he could.  The queen heard true remorse in the boy’s voice and saw his tears of regret for having put the carpenter, who might not be the best father to him but did give him a roof and meals and work, in jail.  The queen mulled it over until her eyes lit up with the glimmer of an opportunity.  

She took back her precious stone and had her staff prepare a bedroom for the boy.  She had the carpenter and his wife taken from the jail to her court.  And she had the duke and his wife executed tout de suite.  

At a lavish dinner, the queen instructed the carpenter and his wife that he would be exonerated from the accusation of theft, and the boy too of course, if and only if they would make her the grandest wardrobe with multiple secret drawers.  They all agreed eagerly with wide smiles of joyful fear at the powerful presence of the queen.  But, she told them, the wardrobe had to be built in the castle and only after that would they be able to return to their home.  

And so the carpenter, his wife, and the boy built the wardrobe of wardrobes.  Absolutely ornate in detail and a labyrinth of drawers with several secret drawers that would defy anyone’s sense who did not know exactly where the secret drawers were beforehand.  The queen inspected the wardrobe with absolute approval and told them that she would deliver the payment to their house, but that the she had one more request that the boy stay with her for another week because she had enjoyed having a boy around ever since she had lost hers to a hunting accident.  The carpenter and his wife agreed without a second thought and revealed to the queen a lack of genuine concern for the boy.

A carriage took them away from the castle but took a detour into the woods where they were executed and buried.  And their home and workshop were bequeathed to one of the queen’s subjects who had been a loyal servant and an aspiring carpenter.

The queen told the boy that the carpenter and his wife had given her sole custody of him and that she hoped that he would accept her as his suitable guardian if not mother.  The boy kissed her hand and she hugged him.  And this is how the boy became the queen’s son and spy.

Same Fish

Once there was a fisherman who saw a school of fish.  And each of these fish appeared to him as the same fish.  They were all one fish really just separated into many kinds of the same fish.  And after he caught that fish, he walked home and saw the longest vine with a thousand bulbs about to bloom and they appeared to him as one and the same bulb.  And after the sun set, he ate his fish by the fire and looked up at the sky and saw all the stars as the same star split into many, but all the same, one star, really.  And when he walked through the village to go fishing the next day, he saw the people as himself, as the same person divided into many. And when he talked to some of them he felt like he was talking to himself.  And when they looked at him they looked at themselves as much as he did himself when he looked at them. Back on the boat he cut the fish open. Split it down the belly. But each half became a whole again and now there were two fish but they were also one.