Friday, March 1, 2013

If An Aardvark And A Komodo Dragon Were Actually To Decide To Engage In Combat, It Almost Certainly Would Not Go Like This, But, Then, Maybe It Would As There Are Many Things About The Natural World We Do Not Yet Understand. (Short Stories With Long Titles)

An aardvark and a komodo dragon ran into each other one day, an unlikely prospect as one of them lives in its region, and another lives in its own region, and it does not seem as though those regions would overlap.  Do not expect, though, more specifics than that about which region each lived in, for what good would it do to tell you that the aardvark roams the savannahs of the southern African continent (if that is what it does, and where it does it, also unlikely, as aardvarks do not seem the type to roam, but more the type to stroll leisurely,  or perhaps stand and ruminate for lengthy periods of time)? What good would it do? It is not central to the story, whereas the fact that these two happened to meet, at all, is, in fact, central to the story, as it led to a battle to the death, as so often such meetings do.

Here is how they met, these two previously-unknown-to-each-other now-mortal-enemies.

aardvark was standing in line outside a coffeeshop when komodo dragon happened by.  It may surprise you that neither aardvark nor komodo dragon has a name, not even a first name, not even a nickname, but then, that is the way of the animal world.  They know how to tell each other apart, animals do, without the use of names.  Their languages do not work the way ours do, involving many more scents and motions than we would ever utilize to communicate, even subconsciously, and they live in cultures where the individual is not as important, as, say, survival, and so they rarely worry about individuality because they are so often worried about survival.

That is true of many animals, if not all, excluding the "human animal" as we like to style ourselves.  We worry very little about survival and worry a great deal about who is on television that night, and so we have the time to devise names and then shorten those names and then make puns on those names.  You will never see a group of salamanders, for example, sitting around calling each other "Gary Larry Bobarry Banana Fana Fo Farry."

They don't go in for that.

When aardvark saw komodo dragon he did not immediately react and that might have been enough to make komodo dragon react in return, for who can tell how these things start?

"I would like to eat you," komodo dragon told aardvark, suddenly, and it should be noted that they did not speak english.  This is a translation, and a loose one at that, but the essence is being conveyed.

"I should like you to not," answered aardvark back, firmly, and he moved forward in the line for his coffee.

"Then we are at an impasse," komodo dragon reasoned, and aardvark nodded, a little.

"Yes," he agreed. "Yes we are."

"But I am hungry," continued komodo dragon, and he opened his mouth wide to show how empty his belly was and how  hungry that made him, but aardvark noted also that the gesture emphasized komodo dragon's teeth, and he felt in his own mouth his own feeble teeth, more suited to eating tiny insects than other larger animals.

"There is a fine restaurant around the corner, one that serves steaks.  You could have them prepare it rare, if you'd like, although I understand they frequently warn against the consumption of undercooked meat, these days."  aardvark pointed hopefully, and added, "I, myself, am rather undercooked, as well."

"The thing is," komodo dragon pointed out, "I do not have a reservation.  And I am a komodo dragon."

"The restaurant is not likely to discriminate."  aardvark had reached the counter and ordered a medium coffee.  It was not what he had wanted.  He had been planning to order something frothy, something whipped, something chilled, perhaps, but komodo dragon was distracting him and, it must be admitted, worrying him.  This was not natural, this komodo dragon attempting to eat him this way!

"I propose..." komodo dragon said, and paused for dramatic effect, "A series of contests."

Aardvark sipped his coffee.  It was hot and bitter.  He considered.

"Go on," he said.

* * * * * *

komodo dragon: 0  aardvark: 0

* * * * * * 
"FOR THIS CHALLENGE" shouted komodo dragon, in his Russian accent, or perhaps it was a Russian accent.  Probably Eastern European at any rate, aardvark thought but he was not an expert on accents, per se, and listened as komodo dragon shouted over the wind "WE MUST EACH PARACHUTE OUT OF THIS SMALL AIRPLANE AND SEE WHO CAN COME CLOSEST TO THE TARGET DOWN THERE."

aardvark had surmised as much, when they got on the small airplane, but that did not overcome a minor fear of heights as he stared out the open door, watching as komodo dragon strapped on his parachute.  He himself had never parachuted before, the very idea being ludicrous! He is a ground animal, an earth-pig, and should not be up in the air.  But he could not falter, as he did not want to be eaten, not by this reptilian giant, not by anything.  He had always thought of himself as near the top of the food pyramid.  There were animals above him, those who he could expect to fear and perhaps meet in a moment of unguardedness, but he was careful, and fast, and smart.  He worked out.  He read all the latest magazines.  He was going to be unpredatored and at best be food for carrion-eaters.

But then a chance encounter outside a coffee shop and he was in it now.

komodo dragon pulled down his goggles and watched aardvark do the same.  Start tough his grandfather had always taught him.  Someday you will take over the business and you do not start with little challenges.  That lets the prey gain confidence, and later rounds will be harder.  Start with the toughest thing you can imagine.

komodo dragon was not sure this was it, or that this was a good idea.  He had asked then, that day:  "What if prey wins the first challenge? Will it not get more confident even then?"

Grandpa had spit to his right and looked at the sun they basked in, then scratched the hard-as-rock-dirt ground they lay in, the riverbed that in rainy season would be thrashing with water and downed trees and drowning animals, easy pickings for komodo dragons who wished to fish half-sodden food out of it.  Not for us! grandpa had taught komodo dragon.  We hunt.  We challenge.

"Win the first one," grandpa had told him.

And komodo dragon launched himself out of the doorway, aardvark shortly after him, the wind whipping more ferociously at him, now, from two directions, the strong wind that pushed back against the plane and now shoved him violently to his left and underneath aardvark, and the fake wind that was the air pushing at him as he fell through it, the buffeting force of air particles that he ordinarily moved through with no difficulty but which now fought him as he fell through them, fought him as ineffectively (he hoped!) as aardvark would. He had never tasted aardvark.  He hoped it did not taste like chicken.

The air did not hold him up but he tired of fighting it and sinuously laid his large limbs alongside his bulky body, pulling his tail straight and dropping like a dart, faster, faster fasterfasterfaster shooting through the air, angling himself towards the target.

Having never been skydiving before, he wondered how long he could wait to pull his chute.

aardvark tumbled and rolled, blinded, his goggles askew, the wind causing his eyes to tear up, his mouth opened in a 0 of panic, and he saw a green giant blur below him as komodo dragon shot past, back towards the target.  In his mind he knew he should count to 10 but he couldn't wait and his little hand-claws pawed furiously at the ripcord.  He heard billowing, puffing, flowing, and he felt a jerk and a tug.  The parachute spread above him and all feeling of falling stopped.  He was floating, dangling at the bottom of a series of cords that held him to his savior, that sheet of nylon spread gloriously and brightly above him.

Below him, komodo dragon rocketed back, a thin green line now, lower and lower and lowerlowerlower until aardvark held his breath in suspense: would he fail to open his chute in time?  But a small red dot ballooned into a crimsonfloweryexplosion and komodo dragon was floating down serenely, thousands of feet below him.

And headed in the right direction.

* * * * * *
komodo dragon 1   aardvark 0

* * * * * *

aardvark waited patiently for the timer to click down.  There were still twenty minutes remaining in the time allotted, and his souffle would be ready in 10.  All he had to do was bide his time.

"No komodo dragon will be able to cook," he had gambled, and he might have been righter than he knew.  komodo dragon's station was a mess, a slather of raw meat still on the counter, blood on the floor, powder on his nose and his apron a bedraggled mess.

* * * * * *

komodo dragon 1  aardvark 1

* * * * * *

"We don't have to do this, you know," aardvark told komodo dragon.

"I think it is absolutely necessary," returned komodo dragon.  He gripped the edge of his pen in his front claw and stared at the paper.

"SHHH!" said the librarian.

"Have you tried antelope?"  asked aardvark.  He wondered why komodo dragon had chosen this challenge, and he thumbed idly through the sheaf of papers before him.

At the table across from him, a few antelope looked up and frowned.

"Natural selection," he whispered to them.  "Circle of life.  Don't get huffy."

"SHHH!" the librarian told them, with a warning look.

"Too stringy," komodo dragon said, and began writing again.

Now the antelope frowned at him but after a moment each decided that trying to convince a predator of their merits as a meal was probably not an argument they should win.

"Good luck," muttered one sarcastically to aardvark as they got up to head for safer territory.

aardvark ignored them this time and wrote on his own paper.  He had plenty of time.

Had I but just three wishes, he wrote, and continued

I'd wish them all on you.
One wish would be cast to the stars
To pray they shone on you.

Then left with just two wishes
Which could be used or saved,
I'd give the second off to time
And bid you longer days.

With one wish in my pocket
And you still standing near
I'd wish away all evil harm
So that you'd never fear.

I'd then have no more wishes
And need no more, my dear.
With your life safe and long and lit
My conscience would be clear.

"How did you ever get him to judge these, anyway?" asked aardvark, laying down his pen and looking at komodo dragon.

komodo dragon waved him away, scratching out a word on his own pad.

"Time!" said Robert Frost, the poet.

"SHHH!" said the librarian, and pointed to a sign on the wall, which said

LIBRARY RULES:

1.  ABSOLUTE SILENCE.
2.  NO HUNTING.
3.  POETS ARE NOT EXCUSED FROM RULE 1 BUT ARE EXCUSED FROM RULE 2.

"Understood," said Robert Frost, the poet.

The three of them walked out into the hallway, Robert Frost bringing up the rear and closing the door behind them, and made their way to the library steps.  Once there, out on the street in the fine fall afternoon, the sun streaming down to hit the sidewalk across the street but leaving them in a cool shadow, the poet turned to them.

"Okay," he instructed them.  "Read."

"Right here?" asked komodo dragon, eyeing the crowds walking past.  A few stopped and watched, and he felt self-conscious.

"A poet never fears the public," Robert Frost, the poet, told them.

"Is that a saying or something?" komodo dragon asked.

"Read," Robert Frost, the poet, commanded.

"Yeah! Read!" yelled an antelope from up the street.  komodo dragon looked at him, and he scampered a few feet further back, near the E bus stop.

"I will go first," aardvark volunteered, and without further preparation he read his poem, pronouncing the syllables crisply and not pausing at the end of the rhymes but instead reading it through as though spoken, the correct way.

"Excellent," said Robert Frost, the poet.

"Bravo!" yelled the antelope at the bus stop.  A few of the onlookers nodded appreciatively.  It was a fine poem, exactly the sort of love poem the challenge called for.

"Your turn," aardvark told komodo dragon, who riffled his papers nervously.  "This is for the contest, after all."

komodo dragon cleared his throat, and looked at Robert Frost.

"A poet never hesitates," Robert Frost, the poet, said.

"Seriously, are these actual sayings?" komodo dragon asked.

The E bus came and went, the antelope declining to get on.  Now all the waiting had raised an expectancy in the crowd and the relative quiet after the bus pulled away seemed almost silent, although a city of that size is never silent at that time of day (3:18 p.m., on a Wednesday, as it happens.)

komodo dragon held up his paper.

The crowd watched, not really a crowd, about 7 people counting the antelope as a person and counting Robert Frost, the poet, as a person as well.

komodo dragon looked at them all.

"My love poem," he said.

And he dropped the papers and grabbed the aardvark and ran off.

Behind him, Robert Frost, the poet, picked up the papers.  Most of them were blank.  Some had scratched out words on them.  The one komodo dragon had been holding had written at the top

Their once was a lady komodo dragon from Nantucket

Robert Frost, the poet, smiled slyly and tucked that paper into his pocket.

"A poet," he told an old woman carrying an onion who stood next to him, "Gets his inspiration from many sources."

* * * * * *

komodo dragon 1 aardvark, technically, 2

* * * * * *

aardvark struggled only momentariliy before deciding komodo dragon was too strong for him to wrestle away from.

The antelope hadn't even tried to help.

Circle of life.

As komodo dragon ran down the street, his mind raced.  Where should he go?  Traffic was busy, but who was chasing him? Maybe nobody?  He looked over his shoulder, saw that nobody was paying any attention. He slowed to a brisk stride, keeping a good grip on aardvark.

"We had a deal," aardvark mumbled from under his grasp.

"Had," komodo dragon said.  "I am a predator.  You are prey.  This is the way it was always going to end."

"Did you always plan to cheat?"

komodo dragon looked surprised.

"I am not cheating," he said.  He stopped, held aardvark up in front of himself.  "Why would you think I am cheating?"

"The contest.  I won."

"So?"

"So you should not eat me."

"I am a predator.  You are prey."

"Then why the contest?"

"I gave you a chance at life."

"And took it away."

"No, you misunderstand.  When you were standing in line in that coffeeshop, you were doomed.  Whether or not I walked by, whether or not I gave you a sporting chance, whether or not you prevailed in the contest, even before you and I knew the other existed, before our lives crossed, you were doomed.  You were always going to die, and all that remained was the manner in which your life ended.  And when I saw you, that, even, was no longer in doubt.  You were going to be my prey.  But I gave you an opportunity, before the end, to live one last bit."

aardvark remembered how many afternoons he had spent, slumped in a chair, thumbing through copies of The Atlantic and wondering if perhaps he should not get a job, or get married.  A tear formed in his eye.

"Skydiving was wonderful, wasn't it?" he asked komodo dragon, who grinned fiercely.

"You were terrified," he said.

"I was," aardvark agreed, without regret or shame.

Then he wriggled free and began running himself.

komodo dragon immediately took after him, of course, and the chase lasted only a block, past the shoe store and the wedding dress store and the bakery, to end in the corner bodega, aardvark standing in the candy aisle, komodo dragon looming in the doorway.  There were three aisles to the store, and the door at the back was locked.  aardvark picked up a handful of Milky Ways, brandished them at komodo dragon.

"Really," komodo dragon said, his accent barely audible as he hissed.  The storekeeper watched them boredly.  "Is this a better way to end it? It will end, and it will end with you as prey, me as predator.  But my way had dignity.  You were given a chance to fly, to star, to teach the world of love via your poem.  And you chose not to leave on that note, but to die in a dirty bodega..."

"...Hey!" interrupted the shopkeeper.  komodo dragon ignored him.

"With a handful of candy bars as your ludicrous defense."

"I don't want to be prey," said aardvark.

"But that is the way of it," said komodo dragon.

aardvark dropped the Milky Ways, dropped to all fours.

"Let me ask you something," komodo dragon said.

"Why not?" aardvark said.

"Did you write the poem about someone in particular?"

aardvark shook his head, but he was lying, and komodo dragon knew it.

"Who was she?"

aardvark shrugged.

"Do you want to tell her?" komodo dragon whispered.

* * * * * *
game over

* * * * * *

komodo dragon hoisted aardvark up to the countertop.  The shopkeeper handed the phone to aardvark, who stood on the counter next to the beef jerky and the lottery tickets and cigarettes and fliers for missing cats, and dialed the number.  It had been five years!

Five years!

komodo dragon watched aardvark's paws shake a little as he held the receiver in one and toyed with the cord in the other.

The phone on the other end rang once.

Twice.

Thrice.

It was picked up and he heard her voice, greeting him.

He couldn't talk at first and she asked if someone was there, who it might be.

"Go on," komodo dragon whispered.

"Yeah, go on, talk, man!" the shopkeeper said.

aardvark mumbled, "Hi, it's me," into the phone, and there was a silence on the other end of the line that only he could hear.  komodo dragon and the shopkeeper had to guess what was going on. After a long time, aardvark heard the voice ask if it was him.

"It's me," he said.

More silence. komodo dragon wished it was on speaker phone.  Was she talking? What was she saying?

"I'm sorry I left you," aardvark said into the silence.

"I was scared," he added.

The other end of the phone was still silent.

"But I'm not anymore," aardvark said.

Then he heard crying on the other end of the phone, crying so loud that even komodo dragon and the shopkeeper could hear it.

"What..." aardvark said, because he knew that crying was expected but was not sure why she was crying, whether it was new sadness or old sadness or both, leftovers made to look new.

She told him that the gypsy had promised her that aardvark would call her, once, before he died.

aardvark began crying, too.

"Prophecies are slippery," he said between tears.  But below him, komodo dragon's bright eyes glowed and his teeth were sharp and he still stood between aardvark and the door.

How else could this end? he thought, but he was not thinking, at that moment, of komodo dragon's teeth, only of the day he had walked out the door.

"I flew, sort of," he said into the phone, and she began crying again.

* * * * * *
aardvark flies, again
* * * * * *

In times of greatest danger, there are ways to bend the laws, if you really, really want to do so and muster all your energy.

Here is what happened.  It was not too extraordinary, but it was somewhere between ordinary and extra-ordinary.

aardvark shouted "I always loved you!" into the phone.

The shopkeeper clapped and laughed.

komodo dragon, sensing what was afoot, lunged and snapped together his terrible jaws.

aardvark had jumped as high and far as he could, using all of his might, to go straight up in the air, but as he was below the cigarette rack in the bodega he bumped into it and rolled to the side and crashed into komodo dragon's sensitive nose, falling to the floor and leaving komodo dragon gnashing his teeth onto his own tongue.

They all three froze for just a millionth of a second, until aardvark bolted out the door.

komodo dragon sighed.

"Aren't you going to get him? Or are you letting him go?" the shopkeeper asked incredulously.

"Neither. And both," komodo dragon said.  "I am predator, he is prey."

The sunlight, outside, hit that particular part of a fall afternoon that makes you remember that once it was summer but it will not be again for some time.

"I can be patient," said komodo dragon.


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