All The Animals
Dreamed c.1986 by Sharon Lynn Pugh
Once upon a time I lived in a house in the woods with some animals and let winters come and go. We were all animals then. It was our way. And one was a dragon, who would also come and go, a mythical beast of occasional fire who inspired disbelief. When he spoke, it was the purest of nonsense, though I would sometimes write it down. That too was my way, to put words down on the leaves of books and keep the covers closed. Then they were mine, retractable like claws, making no noise.
The main magic of the dragon was that he could fly, which accounts for his appearances and exits without consideration of those of us whose powers were more mild. But what could we do but complain? We couldn't fly, and we didn't know where he went on his flights, or whether he spoke the same nonsense when he was there. We were burning to know, but what was the use of asking him?
Once I said, for example (using my most serious voice, striving to be sincere), "why do you only talk nonsense to me here, when I would like nothing better than to hear the truth?" He only smiled. "Well," I said then, settling my frown down further over my eyes, "why don't you live here like the rest of us instead of all this coming and going? Where do you go? What is it like in this imagined place?" In reply to which he did not reply but began counting the buttons on my coat by twos, observing that if I had two more I would have the same number as a sow.
He was wrong, though, and he knew it. I wasn't a sow. I was a fox.
That was enough. I tumed away, though not before he did, for as usual he was eager to be gone. And those of us who live in the woods, the regular animals as we like to call ourselves, said we didn't care because he wasn't real anyway.
"Foxes don't care," was how I would put it, and the others would agree.
Meanwhile, time grew small in the winter there, life grew mean and small because I had not learned to cope. The cold was always just inside the door; darkness hovered close to every lamp. The faucets became plugged with ice at night, and turds remained in the toilet after it was flushed. Ashes lay on the rug. I could not bear to bathe.
Winters I could not eat except furtively, watching from the corner of my eye, sensing that I was supposed to wait, but wait for what? "This is my house,', I thought. "I live here. Everything that has happened so far ends here, and now I am at home. " But I was not convinced.
"How long will it take," I wondered, "before I can really believe: I am at home?' I went over it again and again. I was supposed to be here. There was nowhere else. And when I was here, someone was at home, even in winter. But I was never able to persuade myself that this was true, or that I was doing the right thing.
And the dragon would come and go, but that didn't change anything.
One day a visitor came, someone who was not an animal at all, regular or otherwise. In fact he didn't even like animals, and the others went quietly away when he arrived. As for me, he must have thought I could be saved, for I opened the door and let him in. I led him past the cups on the drainboard, past the black iron stove, past the onion sprouting in the wooden bowl, and into the room at the heart of my little house. He observed the cobwebs gathered in dusty shands about the rafters, and where he sat his neatly pressed trousers became touched with small hairs. I apologized, but I didn't mind. Frankly, I preferred the cobwebs and the animal hairs to his pants and would have told him so if it hadn't seemed rude. For his part he was quite polite, and so, accordingly, was I.
When he came again he brought food, a sugared pastry, which I cut into pieces to serve on the pink paper of the bakery. The same cobwebs were hanging from the same rafters, he pointed out, and his tidy trousers were soon covered with an assortment of tiny hairs, white, yellow and gray. Nevertheless he stayed until the light fell under the shadow of a distant wing, signalling the Dragon's flight, and then dapperly took his leave. This man of the times had no wish to meet that archaic beast. Next time, he said, he would bring bacon and eggs for me to prepare.
So I looked hungry to him. Well, he was wrong.
"Why no," I said. "Then I would have to wash the dishes, scour the pans, wipe the top of the stove, sweep the floor, dry the dishes, put them away, and say thank you. It would take all morning at least."
In reply to this he laughed and said, "you are too lazy. You are supposed to do things like that." But I did not agree. He looked at the cobwebs once more and brushed the material on his legs, waiting for my reply.
"Well, so I am lazy," I said with a shrug, but I was thinking to myself that in fact I had always been otherwise, active and alert, working myself to exhaustion day after day, though not in a way that he would comprehend. He laughed again and left, only to return another time with another pastry, done up in pink paper again and tied nicely with a string.
"I am your chance," he declared. "l am still a chance. You can still put out the animals and be clean."
But I wouldn't listen to that, nor would I tell him what he had failed to see for himself, so preoccupied was he with my rafters, that I too was an animal, and indeed a fox.
One day I called a conference of the animals because I had something to announce.
"Animals," I said. "From now on there are going to be important changes in the way things are done. There are questions to answer, solutions to pursue, and I am going to devote myself more seriously to these affairs. Because of this, there will be no more waiting on you."
The dragon was the only one to object. The others looked agreeable and simply would not comply. "You," I said to him, putting my hands on my waist and assuming a stance. "You don't even live here." But then, as we have seen, I wasn't sure whether I did either, so my point blurred. And then I commanded them all out, and only I remained, sitting alone for much of the rest of the day and pondering the next step. But their indolence vexed me.
For all they cared, they could be wearing little striped shirts in a circus and earning their own way. For all they cared, I could be frying meat that was not for them and spending the rest of the day on subsequent tasks. And for all they cared, they could be diminishing to invisible points, replaced by images and replicas. For all anyone cared.
Suddenly it was all very depressing, and I put my pen aside, having written nothing. And then the animals had come back in, demanding to be waited on, which in time I did, even on the dragon, knowing that he would soon leave.
"Let him go," I said to myself. "Whatever he says that is of any interest at all, I will write down as my own. " And that is what I have done.
As time passed, the situation continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate, but I was the only one who cared. Knowing this, I felt my flesh weep, but the other animals were not concerned. "Animals, animals," I said. "You are much too kind. They are killing you, yet you go on, sitting agreeably by your plates, waiting to be waited on, and you don't see." The more I thought about it, the more I carried on.
"Look at the lions," I pointed out. "They live in zoos, mostly, and have become quite dependent on their foe. They are as bad as you. Look at the dragons. There is only one left."
But there was no response. Their eyes had gone shut, and I noticed that they had begun to get fat. Disgusted, I began furiously to write things down that they would never understand, hoping nevertheless in this way to aid and abet them, but they were doing nothing for me to abet. Very well, then, I would do it myself. But do what? How could I know?
But I will not say it. I will not be right.
I am only a fox. I am a skinny, shifty, raggedy-tailed fox, running scared through the woods, grinning as I go. My home is in hiding. My living is to steal. My companions are the animals, and even my lies are not my own but belong to a dragon, mythical for as long as I can recall, who appears only in dreams. I am only a fox who runs swiftly into the forest until she must stop. As long as the night goes on, she continues to dream, and I have been dreaming since winter began and cannot stop.
It began as a dream of peace for Fox, an interval of rest, but changes were happening both inside and out that would soon become apparent. Outside, of course, winter was crystallizing over the woods, stilling the ripples of the water, stripping the branches thin against the sky, turning the earth hard, and chilling the blood of small animals, many of whom died. And on the inside, Fox's little brain had unaccountably begun to grow, stretching and swelling by itself until now it was as large as her head and growing larger, with the result that her head always hurt, and she was always thinking. There was no explanation for this. It is the way things often happen in a dream.
"This is ridiculous," she complained to herself as she hurried through the woods one day. "I don't have to put up with it." But her brain only continued to grow, now to the point where it had opened a crack in her skull, so her thoughts were not only large but cold. In this condition, she begun to comprehend matters which previously had been obscure, and in so doing brought together fragments of the past which had been shattered at the time but now lay in a position suggestive of the whole, a reality obliquely realized and a puzzle for a fox. Not feeling adequate for the occasion, she decided to ask the dragon for his advice.
"Hey, Fire Drake (for such was his name)," she said when she had found him in the woods. "Hey, I have to ask you something."
"All right, little Fox," he said. "But be quick about it. I can't stay here long."
"Well, it's about my head," she said. "Look what's happening." And she bowed down to show him the division in her skull. "Tell me what you see," she said, "and then I'll tell you what I've been thinking."
But the Fire Drake was suddenly in a great hurry to be off. "Ah, I must go now," he said, as if some matter of great urgency was at hand. "We can discuss this again." And then he was on his way. Fox stood speechless, watching him unfurl his rippling silver self in the bright winter air, shining against the sky.
"Hey, Fire Drake," she shouted then, running up behind him as he flew away. "Hey, wait, I just have one little question!" But the Fire Drake was already soaring off over the forest and did not hear.
Fox sat down on a log and watched him go. As she sat motionless, the wind whipped sharply through the crack in her head and chilled her to the tip of her tail, reminding her that it was not just her skull that was split, but her whole self, a fault that had been there for as long as she had been dreaming and perhaps before that. In any event, she could no longer remember how or when it occurred.
All she knew was that the new cleft evoked the ancient one, and all the pain of it, which had begun to weave itself like living tissue inside her, a web that spread and hung on every nerve.
"I'm sick of it," she said in a low voice. "I'm sick and tired of all this." But no comment came from the windy wood.
Very well, then, she would do something about it herself. Fox looked down and began to search around the log until she found a straight and sturdy stick which could be broken at an angle to produce a sharp point. Having fashioned this instrument, she probed her body until she located the old crack, the original split of herself, which was now concealed under thick scar tissue and fur. Then she poked the point of the stick through, relaying the puncture along the line of the fissure and bringing up a dotted line of blood.
It must have hurt, but Fox continued to press, driving the stick straight inward until it pierced the very center of the web of pain. And then she twisted the shaft to swab the web into a bloody lump and pulled it out by the handle through the crack.
And it would be difficult to say whether or not her tiny fox-heart had gotten wrapped up and pulled out with the pain.
Then Fox got up from the log and threw the bloody lump as far into the forest as she could, where we shall hope it did not become implanted and grow. And then she drew her fur tightly about herself in an effort to bind the crack, lashed it with her tail, and began to run.
Now that she was hollow inside, Fox felt the cold even more sharply than before, but her brain seemed favored by the change as it rounded and swelled itself more grandly than ever. There was no doubt about it. The crack in her head was now spread so wide there was no way to keep out the light of day.
"Hold it!" she shouted as she come to a skidding halt, throwing up leaves and pebbles on both sides. The debris filtered down over her, some of it falling into her open skull. "I don't have to ask that Fire Drake anything," she proclaimed to the silent forest.
"The truth of the matter is (for such was the power of the illumination that she took it to be the truth), I can tell him a thing or two."
And with these words, she pivoted smartly on one heel, dug in again with her front paws, extended her head forward and her tail behind in a perfect line from her back, and shot off again, [running through the forest] until she had arrived at the Fire Drake's latest landing.
For a moment she simply stood there, her fur wrathfully patched and her tail now standing upright. "Foxes don't care," she announced, fixing him with a steady eye. "They don't care what dragons do or where they go."
"What's that?" asked the Fire Drake, inviting her with a gesture to sit down. "What did you say, little Fox?"
Fox climbed up on a nearby rock and took some time settling herself down. Then she looked at him steadily again and said, "you can do whatever you want. Fly away, Fire Drake, it's up to you. Foxes don't care." And she shifted slightly to sharpen the angle of her glare.
"What's this?" asked the Fire Drake, who seemed to be genuinely puzzled. "Hm. Well. I was just about to have a little picnic here. Would you care to join me?"
Without altering the direction of her eyes, Fox got down from the rock and moved over to where the Fire Drake was laying out a white cloth. Then she sat down again, swiveling her head on her neck so as not to break the continuity of her glare. "Foxes don't care whether you come or go," she said. "It's entirely up to you."
Just then the Fire Drake brought out a large platter of sandwiches, a cake with thick icing, and a basket of fruits, all Fox's favorites. Her nose began to quiver.
"Foxes don't care," she said again, tucking a napkin under her chin and wiping her paws on her fur. 'You don't have to worry about a fox." The Fire Drake poured some steaming hot coffee from a thermos into a cup. "Foxes aren't going to be putting up with the old stuff anymore," she remarked as she selected the largest sandwich on the plate. And then her mouth was full, and she said no more.
Some time later, the plate was empty, and Fox's stomach was full. "Oh my," she said, sitting back against her rock with a sigh. "Thank you, Fire Drake, that was a very good picnic." And then she remembered the message she had come to deliver.
"All right," she began again, turning the edge of her glare toward him once more. "Foxes don't care. Have I made that clear?" But just at this point, her words were unexpectedly interrupted by an enormous yawn.
"Here, little Fox," said the Fire Drake, picking her up and carrying her over to a soft bed of leaves, where he settled her down and covered her with the picnic cloth. "I think you need a little nap now."
"Foxes have other fish to fry," she muttered almost inaudibly as she curled up and turned her nose into the leaves. "They don't havue to put up with anything."
And then she was fast asleep in the leaves, her stomach full and her body nicely warm under the Fire Drake's cloth.
And so she slept until deep in the night, the hour when the last pocket in the farthest corner of the forest fills with darkness, and the last drop of water freezes, and all foxes wake up to find themselves alone.
"Hey," she said, jumping up from her nest of leaves. " Where's that Fire Drake?" But of course he was gone. "Well," she said then, "I better get going." And off she ran.
I have written this down, but I do not believe what I say. Once upon a time I lived in a house in the woods, but this is not true. It happened, but it is not true. Piece by piece, dream by dream, I have put together my life, which has not occurred, and the animals are right to look coolly beyond me when they have emptied their plates.
Nothing has worked out. I am back to where I began, only smaller now, and less strong, and every day there are new things to fathom and to fear. The dragon has gone to his imaginary place forever. The visitor may arrive again with another pink box, and if he does, I will not be rude. But he too must go, he and his sweet rolls, without a trace if that can be arranged.
That is how hard I have had to become, living in the woods, winters too. In due time, the animals will be informed of this plan and assigned their share of the task. But they too have vanished casually into the forest with a minimum of display, and I am left to my own devices to begin again.
And you may ask why it all began in the first place, in reply to which I can only say that none of this is according to plan, and there is no plan. It is only a story. It is only a dream. No one is really at home in the house in the woods. If they should happen to ask, you can tell all the animals that. Wherever they are. If they should ever return.
--Sharon Lynn Pugh
My apologies for the line in brackets, inexplicably missing from my scan. From context it's clear "running through the forest" is the gist. I can't consult the original, as it was returned to Scripps Institute just before every library in the world froze solid in a blizzard of coronavirus.
SOURCE: Dreamworks: an Interdisciplinary Quarterly (v.5, no.1, 1986, p.20-25)
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