They swung from trees quite gracefully before National Geographic was there, snapping away. They groomed each other and played with each other before Jane Goodall showed up with her notepad, ponytail, and her khaki shorts. They flew hither and thither with aplomb and indifference to everything except the location and quantity of their next meal. Quality is not of great concern to an animal, of course. They do not reject a worm for being “a tad mealy,” and they do not cringe at the “mouth-feel” of a tender mouse. There is no kitchen in the wild to which to banish an unsatisfactory dish.
The animals were, in general, a complacent bunch in those days. Certainly there was a squabble or two, but these came and went like the wind, and were not given much more thought than that. This one’s in my burrow. This one’s eaten my kill, or my young. That sort of thing. But, at least each fight arose from a logical and organic conflict. No animal ever decided that it did not like another simply because of the color of its fur or feathers. That type of disagreement was best left to the human race, which would come in time.
In these days, animals rose with the sun, without exception. This was, after all, the logical and organic thing to do. Piercing sunlight is hardly conducive to a proper night’s rest. When the sun showed its first inkling of desiring a rest, all the animals would hurry back to their nests or their warrens or their trenches or their holes and sleep peaceably for the night. The snores and whistles and breaths of a billion different creatures echoed throughout the world, but there was nobody there to hear it: no quarrelling merchants, no back talking politicians, no hikers or bikers, no terrorists or atheists… no one at all, but the animals, the sleeping animals in the dark.
One morning, when the sun rose as it does, and the animals scurried this way and that way to find breakfast and lovers, a particularly adventuresome gray creature bounded away from his brothers and sisters in search of something he had never seen. He wanted to know something very simple: he wanted to know what he looked like. When he looked into the small, black eyes of his brothers and sisters, he saw what looked like some creature staring back at him, but it was so warped and distorted that he just wasn’t sure it was even he. He was always asking his brothers and sisters what he looked like, but they were very silly and brutish and never gave him a straight answer.
“You look a right bastard to me!” one of his older brothers offered before rolling about on the ground in utter hysterics.
“You’re no help at all,” the young gray creature cried. “I hate you!”
Whatever he looked like, he thought, he at least hoped he didn’t look like his older brother. What a cruel, hurtful being he was. He couldn’t possibly look like that, he thought. Though, the reflection in his brother’s eyes… it was similar. Well, he really couldn’t tell. His older brother rarely ever kept still long enough for him to have a good, solid look anyway. He was always moving about and hanging from branches and generally being very silly. The small, gray creature was not interested in silliness or mucking about. He just wanted one thing: to know what he looked like. So he set off to find someone who would tell him.
He wandered about for what seemed like forever, but it couldn’t have been very long, for the sun in the sky had barely moved. He came across several black birds going at a corpse rather energetically with their probing beaks.
“Pardon me,” said the small, gray creature.
“Clear off!” one of the birds shouted, a pink, quivering bit of food flying out from its beak.
“I’d like some help, please.”
“What’chu want?” asked another, after tearing off a sliver of flesh matted with bloody hair.
“Well, you see, I’m a bit curious about… well… oh, it’s silly, I suppose.”
“What is it?” asked the third bird, impatiently stamping down its claw on the deformed head of its prey, forcing out a bit of peach-colored brain.
“I… I want to know what I look like is all. Just… what I look like.”
“What he looks like!” one black bird joyously exclaimed to the others. “What a laugh!”
“Quite precious, really,” affirmed the second bird, swallowing down its flesh in one strong gulp.
“Look—are you taking the piss out of me?” asked the first, still cackling as these kinds of birds do.
“Taking the…?” the small, gray creature began, his brow furrowed.
“Mate— honest. Look at us lot then. You see him, right? Shit’ead over ‘ere?”
“What’s he look like?”
“Um… well… he’s very… dark like the night, with dark eyes, his legs are quite thin, like very small twigs,”
“And, um, his… his mouth is sharp—pointy, like a jagged rock.”
“Okay,” said the bird. “What about me, then?”
The small, gray creature looked at him. He looked at the other one. And the other one.
“Here. How ‘bout this, then?”
The first bird moved in between the other two, and then the third bird took the place of the first. The second one didn’t move at all, and continued eating.
“What ‘bout now?”
The small, gray creature was thoroughly confused by now.
“I don’t know!” he cried. “I can’t tell you apart anymore!”
“Well,” said the first bird, “that’s because we’re all brothers. Same parents, you know. Tell me somefink—you got brothers, li’ul one?”
“I’d bet my little dodgy meal ‘ere that you look just. Like. Them.”
“No….” the small gray creature shook its head.
“Speakin’ of food,” the third bird piped up, digging its claw into the carcass’s head and raising it up, with its hollowed-out, bloodied eyes and torn scalp, “you sort of look like him!”
The small, gray creature stared, horrified. The sight he saw was gory, repugnant and foul beyond anything he had ever seen—it turned his stomach and it frightened him. He turned away and skittered away as fast as his legs could carry him, howling all the way in concert with the insidious, mocking screeches of the three black birds.
He ran for miles it seemed. Quite hungry, he felt too sick to eat, and so he didn’t. After a while, he no longer knew from what he was running, but he knew he had to keep going, and so he did. Finally, he found he could run no longer today, away from his demons, away from his beasts, and so he stopped. He stopped by a small pool of water that had collected in the rotted-out hull of a tree. He dunked his mouth hurriedly in the pool and he drank for quite some time, until he had his fill, and then he drank some more. He looked up to make sure he was safe from those who would harm him, and then he looked left and right to ensure the same. Once he had assured himself that he was quite alone, and after he had rested for a good bit, he decided to take one final sip of water before continuing on. He raised himself up on his hind legs and craned to get a good position for drinking when he stopped. He stared into the water, which was still as the ground for the wind breeze barely blew today. Usually, he drank water so quickly, and often with his eyes closed as he would simultaneously put some water over his head to wash the itches and scratches away but, today, for this final drink, he was in no rush and so he looked. He looked. He saw. He had never seen a more charming sight in all his life.
His face was powder-white, just like fresh-fallen snow. The prettiest pink was his nose and his lips—so delicate and sweet, almost smiling. His eyes and ears were black as the darkest mud. He marveled for quite some time about his ears—so perfectly round, it didn’t seem possible. He rose up his hands to the water and he saw that they were black, too, which he knew, but he had never really looked before. He splayed out his tiny, pink claws and he flexed them and brought them in. Gently, he reached one of them into the water, and his beautiful face disappeared.
“Oh! Oh, no! Come back, please! Come back!” he cried. And, gradually, as the ripples subsided, it did. His powder-white face and all came back. The small, gray creature was much relieved. He observed elegant, long, graceful hairs pouring out from his beautiful, pink nose. They were indeed quite fine. He posed this way and that in front of the water, and he was most impressed with what he saw. This was the truest view of himself he had ever had, and could ever hope for. He knew at once what he must do.
He scurried back the way he came as fast as he could, as fast as his small, pink feet could carry him. Animals always know where they are going, it seems. He made his way through the rocks and twigs and stones and grass and vines and trees back to the birds, who were finishing up their meal from the morning. There was not much left by this point—small bits of fur and flesh, mostly bones and foul-smelling shards of organs. The sight and the smell disgusted the small, gray creature, but, nevertheless, he presented himself proudly to the birds.
“I have seen myself,” said the small, gray creature.
The birds looked at him.
“I am beautiful.”
“You what now?”
“I said, ‘I am beautiful.’”
The birds looked at each other.
“Are you ‘aving us on?” asked the first bird.
“Look at me, and you will see.”
“I see you,” said the third bird.
“You see me. I said ‘look at me.’ Look, and you will see how beautiful I am.”
“Look, mate. I’ve ‘ad about enuff a’ this,” the first bird said, about to turn away. The small, gray creature scampered to get in front of him.
“Look,” he insisted. “Look at me.”
The first bird reluctantly obliged. He stayed still for quite some time and he stared at the small, gray creature with the lily-white face and the black ears and eyes. He looked at him for a long, long time. He studied him. He took his time. He didn’t just see. He looked. Finally, he said,
“My God… I didn’t realize it before… I just… I didn’t look before. You’re right. You are beautiful.”
“I know,” said the small, gray creature. “I am. I truly am. You two,” he said, commanding the attention of the other two birds. “You must look at me, too. Really look.”
“Get off out of it,” the second bird said dismissively.
“Yeah, piss off. Wha’ja take us for, a lot of wankers, yeah?”
“Stop it, lads,” said the first bird softly, his jet-black eyes locked with those of the small, gray creature. “Stop it. Just look at him. Really look.”
And they did. They were reluctant at first, thinking it a joke, but, as they moved in closer, they were drawn in. Their eyes pored over the white fluff of the small, gray creature’s face, the gentle flow of his whiskers; their eyes traced the lines made atop his head by his perfectly round, black ears. They were completely and utterly transfixed.
“I am beautiful,” stated the small, gray creature.
“Aye,” the three black birds affirmed in union. “That you are, lad. That you are.”
After they uttered those words, swiftly, silently and immediately, all three black birds fell dead to the ground, in a heap of feathers and beaks and bones they lay still before the small, gray creature. Certainly he did not mourn the passing of three simple birds, birds who had so callously mocked him and who could not truly understand his beauty until they had been forced to look upon him, to really look. The small, gray creature though regarded their bodies, and the faded corpse of the animal upon which they had feasted earlier, and a feeling of dread came over him. He was almost quite taken ill, particularly at the site of the ravaged carcass of the small animal. He could stand to look at it no longer, but he knew at once what he must do. He had to share such beauty with the world—with any creature who would take the time to really look inside him. He hoped, of course, that it would not cause the same results as befell the birds, but this was a risk he felt he had to take. Life was, after all, far too short to live in ignorance of such beauty.
And so he made his way throughout the woods where he had grown up. Along his way he encountered various animals and birds, and all he bade them do was to look, really look at him. Some refused curtly and went on their way—but some took the small, gray creature up on his request. Quite simply said, all who truly took the time to really look at the small, gray creature perished the moment that his beauty had been realized. The small, gray creature was not particularly distressed or even bothered by this occurrence. After all, beauty had its price and, if this was the price, then at least these creatures went to their deaths having made at least one important revelation in their otherwise meaningless lives. That was how the small, gray creature reasoned, at any rate.
Gradually, as the months rolled into years as they tend to do, the small, gray creature’s actions, and their results, began to catch the attention of the Grand Epistle, who was granted authority to oversee all living creatures on Earth at that time. The Grand Epistle and her betters had significant and grand, and grandly significant plans for the promulgation of various species, and they had detailed schema relating to population control and its methodologies. The small, gray creature and his seemingly fatal beauty had not been factored into their tables and charts and graphs and so on. The Grand Epistle looked at her spreadsheets for the past few years and grew alarmed by what she saw. There were animals that, quite frankly, no longer existed because they had fallen victim, quite unknowingly, to the small, gray creature’s beauty, or at least his adamant insistence thereof. She knew at once what she must do.
Though hesitant always to show herself on Earth, this was indeed a rare circumstance requiring her immediate intervention. She never permitted the animals to see herself in her actual form, but she was quite conflicted about what form she ought to use to appear on Earth. Finally, after much deliberation and conference, she made her decision, and she appeared in a small clearing late one evening, while the small, gray creature was fast asleep. She watched him sleep for a moment or two. He breathed so rapidly, she could see his lungs inflating and deflating almost constantly through his fur. She watched his nostrils expand and contract with every breath ever so slightly, blowing his gentle whiskers to and fro like windswept grass. She was careful not to look too closely, not to really look. She didn’t think herself vulnerable, but how could she be sure when so many had perished before her? She took a step closer, hoping a crunched leaf beneath her foot would be enough to wake him from his slumber, but he did not start. And so she said aloud,
“You are very beautiful.”
The small, gray creature awoke at once and got hastily to its feet, certainly caught off guard.
“I—I know,” he said, hurriedly. Then, composing himself, he repeated in an even tone, “I know.”
“When did you first realize it?” she asked.
“A long time ago,” the small, gray creature said, remembering, “I was teased by a few black birds—they were very cruel— and I ran from them until I got to a patch of water. As I was about to take a drink, I looked into the water, deeply, I really looked at myself for the first time, and I saw it. I knew it. It was true.”
“You’re very lucky,” she said, “most creatures never get to really see themselves, let alone realize their own beauty. You must be very proud.”
“Quite,” he said. “I am quite proud indeed.”
“Indeed,” repeated the Grand Epistle. “I wonder, have you ever realized the beauty in another’s eyes?”
The small, gray creature looked at her.
“I don’t understand.”
“Have you ever looked—really looked into the eyes of another to try to see their inner beauty?”
The small, gray creature thought about this.
“No,” he replied flatly.
“Ah.” She regarded him. “What is your purpose here on Earth would you say?” the Grand Epistle asked.
“To share my beauty with as many creatures as possible—with any who will look upon me while the daylight shines, while we are all awake to enjoy such beauty. To be beheld. That is my purpose. But I’m afraid I am quite tired now, you should be, too. I will to bed. Now, in the morning, by the light of the beating sun, if you would stay and look at me, really…”
The Grand Epistle cut him off.
“I think not, young chap,” she said. “Tonight, by the glow of this glorious moon, we shall try something a bit different tonight. Look at me, if you will. Look. Look at me.”
She raised two small, pink, clawed hands up to the small, gray creature’s face. In her black, round eyes he saw his face, distorted and mean, as he saw it in the eyes of his brother’s. He hated what he saw. The sharp stink of rotting flesh singed his nostrils and he immediately began to feel sick. The small, gray creature looked deeper into the eyes of the Grand Epistle and, this time, he saw bone and blood and brain—and small flies. He nearly doubled over in pain and horror, but he was transfixed, just as those three birds had been so many years ago, staring into his own eyes.
“You,” she said, “you are beautiful, my lad. But there is great danger in such beauty. You do not care whom you harm. It consumes you. Your conceit and your self-infatuation make you hideous to me—not worthy to be seen and appreciated.”
“No, that’s not true,” the small, gray creature protested.
“It is. It sadly is. It forces me to do something that as Grand Epistle of the Wood I shall perhaps always regret, but I do it because it must be done. I will grant you eternal life.”
The small, gray creature could not believe what he had heard. Eternal life? Here he had thought he would be punished in some way, or killed, but it was not so. He was elated.
“Oh, thank you, Grand Epistle. Thank you!” he cried out, his eyes still locked in her gaze.
“Thank me not. You shall remain living forever, but you shall never again sleep whilst the moon is pulled down from above. From this moment forth, you will be always awake, prowling, trolling in the night. You shall sneak and slither while the cold wind howls, you will find nary a friend in the dark. You will live forever the most hated and mistrusted and avoided creatures in the Wood. You will sleep by day, when the glorious sunlight warms the hearts and bodies of all else around you—but it will be you to roam alone in the darkness.”
The small, gray creature trembled in her clutches as he felt a surge of hotness emanating from her little, pink claws—he knew the deed was done. He shivered a bit, but felt instantly alive and awake against his will. This was to be his first night of full alertness. He was forever damned, but he was determined not to give up yet.
“Grand Epistle—I have one final request,” said the small, gray creature.
“And what is that?” she inquired.
“Spare me a friend or two, a companion for my eternally wakeful nights. I can live with being awake in the dark, but I cannot live alone. I need others to know beauty, even that of a creature of the night.”
The Grand Epistle looked upon the small, gray creature with a mixture of disgust and ambivalence. She considered him, she even looked at him.
“So be it. Carry on,” was all she said before vanishing into the night.
For centuries to come, the small, gray creature lived though his nights with relative ease. He even found time and energy to play with some of his new companions—the brown one with the dark patches around its eyes—there were others, too who joined him in nighttime mischief. Gradually, human came into being, but they bothered he and his friends naught. But, after the pre-Raphaelites and the Raphaelites and after the Tudors and the mock-Tudors and after the victors and the Victorians, there came a class of humans who built smooth, paved surfaces that gleamed in the night, and, on these surfaces, big objects with round feet would come chugging along. At first, they moved slowly, but, as time wore on, they got bigger, and moved faster. There were more and more of them as time went on.
One night, one of his brown companions with the black eye-patches was not by his usual tree, and so the small, gray creature ventured out to look for him. He did not have to look far, for on one of those smooth, shiny surfaces he found him. The small, gray creature cried out in agony, for the brown creature with the black eye-patches lay dead, his body had been torn quite in half—its gleaming, red entrails lay strewn across the long, smooth path, and its rib bones poked out and glowed eerily by the light of the moon above. He knew now why the Grand Epistle had granted him so many acquaintances for his eternity of nocturnal wakefulness: this was to be his torment; this was to be his agony, to slowly watch each of his friends become extinct, a side-of-the-path horror. And, as he gazed in sorrow at his lost friend, a single, black bird swooped down from above, passing by the full, terrible moon and landed on the smooth surface below. He sank his beak down into the flesh and innards and pulled them apart with a shake of his head. The black bird stopped when he heard the anguished cry of the small, gray creature. He looked at the small, gray creature—really looked at him. And he winked.
And kept right on eating.