Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Odd Duckling

When I was young I remember hearing a story about an ugly duckling who grew up to be a beautiful swan. At the time I couldn't help wondering how a swan's egg would get mixed up with the duck eggs without the mother duck noticing.
I had some trouble with the title for this story. At first I was going to call it "The Exceptionally Ugly Duckling", but that seemed cruel. Then I was thinking of "The Sixth Duckling" in deference to my favorite Orson Welles film, but that seemed dark. In the end I decided on "The Odd Duckling". 

Once there was a duck, and her name was Quack. Now this a very good name for a duck, because when you say to the duck, “What’s your name?”, they can reply “Quack” and be right.

Quack lived by a pond. She had a large and well-built nest in a clump of tall reeds, in which she looked after her five, pale green eggs. Every morning she would spend conscientiously sitting on her eggs to keep them warm. At 11am she would get up, count her eggs, and then waddle down to the pond for her daily exercise and her lunch. She would return an hour later, count the eggs again, and then return to sitting on them for the remainder of the afternoon.

Now ducks are not very good at counting. You and I can easily count to ten, on account of having ten fingers and thumbs. In an emergency we can take off our shoes and socks, and then we can count to twenty. But a duck has just two wings and two feet, and consequently they have trouble counting to any number higher than four. Quack was no exception. Sometimes she counted four eggs, sometimes she counted five, and sometimes she counted six. Occasionally she even counted seven or eight. This didn’t worry her unduly: she assumed that this was just the way things were with eggs.

One fine spring morning, at 11am, Quack got up from her nest and counted her eggs. This time it so happened that she got it exactly right: five. She spent a pleasant hour paddling in the pond and munching on duckweed before she returned to her nest to count her eggs again. Once again she managed to count the eggs exactly right: six.

Of course Quack was used to the number of eggs changing when she got back from the lake, and so this did not worry her. She might have noticed that one of the eggs was larger than the others, and that it looked like it was carved from a solid piece of onyx, flecked with red and gold veins that sparkled in the sun. But Quack was very short-sighted and not the most observant of ducks.

She did notice that one of the eggs seemed warmer than the others. Indeed, after sitting on them a little while, her bottom got quite uncomfortably hot, and she had to go back to the pond to cool off. Still, she assumed that the egg must have been laying in the sun, and did not worry about it. Ducks are not very smart animals, and Quack, as I’m sure you’re beginning to realize, was not the smartest of ducks.

And so, one morning, a few weeks later, as spring started to turn into summer, and the wildflowers blossomed in the fields, the eggs started to twitch. Quack stood back and watched with pride as cracks began to appear and, one by one, the ducklings emerged.

The first five ducklings were yellow and fluffy, and tumbled over one another like little yellow powder puffs. The sixth duckling was different. In place of downy feathers she had shining blue-green scales. Her eyes were like shining red jewels, smoke drifted from her nostrils, and her wings were golden but shaped like the wings of a bat. Even Quack, looking at her sixth duckling, could not fail to notice she was a little odd.

Say what you like about Quack, but she was a good mother. On seeing her seeing her six new hatchlings, Quack said to herself “These are all my ducklings, and I will love them all equally”. She called the six ducklings to attention and solemnly lead them in procession down to the pond. The sixth duckling did her best to waddle behind the other five. She landed with a splash in the pond, and a small cloud of steam rose about her as she paddled behind the other five.

Now, whilst this was happening, many miles away, in an eyrie high in the wall of a sheer cliff face, overlooking the ocean, a dragon was crying. The dragon sobbed huge, jewel-like tears the size of duck eggs. As each tear fell from her ruby eyes and hit the rocks below it shattered into a thousand sparkling fragments, to be followed a second later by the next tear.

The dragon was sad because she had lost the thing that she cared for most in the whole world: her beautiful, precious egg.

The way it happened was this: the dragon was returning to her nest from hunting for cabbages one afternoon (dragons love cabbages), when she saw an eagle perched in her eyrie and pecking at her egg. She roared, and swooped down on startled eagle, spraying flames as she went. The eagle grabbed the egg in its talons and flew off as fast as it could, with the dragon giving chase. The two creatures raced for miles, swooping over the tops of trees, circling and then soaring above the clouds, until, exhausted and with its tail-feathers smouldering, the eagle dropped the egg.

The poor dragon watched helplessly as the egg tumbled through the clouds and disappeared from view. For days and weeks afterwards she searched high and low for any trace of the fallen egg, until, convinced that it must have broken into a thousand pieces, she returned to her eyrie to weep.

But the egg didn’t break. It’s fall was slowed by a bunch of tall reeds and, miraculously, it landed unharmed in a waiting duck’s nest.

Back at Quack’s nest, things were not going so well for the sixth duckling. At first the five feathered ducklings had been very happy to have such an unusual and different sister. When a fox had come sniffing around their nest, looking for easy pickings, it had quickly run away with its tail between its legs. And when another family of ducklings had tried to make fun of Quack and her brood down at the pond, the sixth duckling had chased after them with sparks flying from her nostrils, so that they fled in terror, floundering and flopping, with stubby wings splashing wildly in the water.

But every day the sixth duckling grew bigger, till there was no room for both her and her siblings in the nest. She didn’t like to eat duckweed or the small fish that swam in the pond, but was always hungry for larger, stranger kinds of food. Worse yet, she caught a cold from spending so much time in the pond, and every time she sneezed she set the nest on fire. Poor Quack had to beat out the flames with her wings which were soon singed and black with soot.

Quack reluctantly came to a decision: for the sake of the other five ducklings, she must let the sixth, odd duckling go. Sorrowfully she told her ducklings the news. She gave her sixth duckling one of her tail feathers to remember her by. The other ducklings gathered round offering goodbye hugs and pecks.  One single tear fell from the sixth duckling’s eye, and lay, shining like a perfectly cut diamond, on the ground.

And so the strange little duckling with blue-green scales, ruby-red eyes and golden wings set out on her way. First she crossed the pond, and then followed the small burbling stream that headed out towards the neighboring forest. As she followed it the stream it got wider and more sedate, and was joined by more bubbling streams until it seemed more of a river than a stream. Some of the time she paddled along in the water, as her mother had taught her, but then she would try following her instinct and flying, and with a few beats of her golden wings, she was sailing above the silvery snaking river, watching it winding between the steep banks below.

The first evening she slept in a haystack on a farm that backed on to the river. She was awakened in the early hours of the morning by shouts from the farm house, and was surprised to find the haystack ablaze. She waddled back to the river as quickly as she could. After that she slept amongst rocks, or on bare earth with nothing flammable nearby.

After many days of travel the river opened out into a wide, boggy wetlands through which she could no longer swim. She took to the wing once more, and found herself soaring above the marshland, then the beaches, and suddenly the glorious, wide open ocean.

For many hours the odd duckling flew over the ocean, entranced by the majestic waves and the far horizons, until, tired and hungry, she landed on a small islet. There she found some wild cabbages which she ate, ravenously, and she fell asleep on the sand beneath a swaying palm tree.

In the weeks that followed she flew far and wide over the ocean, every day going a little further and feeling a little more brave. She had many adventures: she had tea with mermaids (though the tea tasted of seaweed); she played checkers with an octopus (though the octopus always won); and she flew above the clouds with an albatross (though the albatross kept complaining that ancient, grey bearded mariners were taking pot shots at him). And every day she grew a little bigger and a little stronger.

Some weeks later, flying further than she ever had before, the odd duckling came to a range of high cliffs and landed on the rocky beach at the cliff’s base. From high above she could hear the sound of sobbing, and a tinkling that sounded like crystals or jewels breaking on the rocks above.

The duckling was curious and flew up searching for the source of the sounds. She found a ledge, high up on the cliff face, and on the ledge was a creature bigger than any the duckling had seen before. In spite of its size, the creature looking familiar, much like the reflections the odd duckling and seen in the pond long before. It had huge red eyes of flame, was covered with shining blue-green scales bigger than dinner plates, and its great golden wings unfolded to caste a shadow  bigger than the biggest thunder cloud.

“Hello,” said the odd duckling. “Why are you crying?”

The creature stopped, and stared at the duckling in surprise and wonder. “Who are you?” it asked after a long pause.

“I’m a duckling,” said the odd duckling. “At least I think I am,” said the odd duckling. “Though sometimes I’m not sure”, she added doubtfully, and she proceeded to tell her long and strange story.

As she talked the creature’s eyes grew bigger and wider, until finally the odd duckling stopped and looked up at the huge creature which starred at her in wonder.

“You’re not a duckling, you are a dragon,” said the creature, “and you are my baby!” With that the mother dragon wrapped her huge, golden wings around the baby dragon, and as she hugged her tightly, her heart filled with joy.

From that day on the baby dragon lived with her mother, and she grew ancient and huge and wise, the way that all dragons do.


Friday, September 16, 2016

The Rabbit In The Moon

The Rabbit In The Moon

A Traditional Folktale from Japan

A Note on the Translation: 
I made the Moon-with-rabbit above as a contribution to the birthday present for a friend, and wanted an authentic version of the story of The Rabbit In The Moon to go with it. 
Variations of the story of the Rabbit in the Moon exist in many Asian cultures. In some versions the Old Man of the Moon is replaced by the Jade Emperor (Chinese) or Sankra the God of the Heavens (Indian). In some versions the additional animals change, for example a monkey, an otter and an jackal. A version of the story is included in the  Konjaku MonogatarishÅ«, a collection of Japanese stories from the Helen period. 
As is often the case with historical folk tales and fairy stories, contemporary translations and retellings have often been altered or sanitized to fit better with modern sensibilities and ideals. Despite extensive research, I was not able to find a modern translation of the story which satisfactory captured the original intent. Consequently I have provided a new translation which attempts to better capture the spirit of the earliest Japanese versions of the story.
(Note: May not be suitable for younger readers)

Long ago in Japan a monkey, a fox and a rabbit all lived together and were best friends.

Now the Old Man in the Moon looked down from the sky and wondered at how kind and gentle the three animals were, and he wondered which of the animals is the kindest. One day he determined to find out, and so he came down to earth and disguised himself as a beggar.

“Please help me,” said the beggar to the three animals, as they gathered around a fire, “for I am very hungry.”

“Certainly we’ll help you,” said the monkey, the fox and the rabbit.

First the Monkey went and gathered all kinds of good fruits and nuts from the trees and laid them at the feet of the beggar. “I can offer you these fruits and nuts,” he said.

Then the fox went and caught a large, tasty fish and laid it and the feet of the beggar. “I can offer you this fish,” he said.

But the rabbit could only gather grass which the beggar could not eat, and had nothing to offer.

When the rabbit’s turn came, the beggar looked at him expectantly, then at the fire, and then back at the rabbit. The fox licked his lips. The monkey started to chatter excitedly.

“No Way! That’s fucking bullshit!” said the rabbit. “Screw you, I’m getting the hell out of here!”

Before the beggar, the monkey or the fox could do anything, the rabbit hopped the the rocket-ship that the beggar had arrived in and took off. (Foolishly the Old Man of the Moon had left the keys in the ignition.) The rabbit flew straight to the moon where he lived for ever afterwards. The Old Man was stranded on earth, and was devoured by wolves a short time later.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Armadillo and the Porcupine

Once there was an armadillo named Arnold. He had a shell of tough armoured scales. He had armoured scales on his head and tail. He could also jump very high. He lived in a dark and mysterious forest. There were jaguars who lived in the forest, who liked to sit on tree branches and drop on animals as they walked underneath. But they never dropped on Arnold because they were afraid to bruise their noses on his hard scaly shell.
In the same forest there lived a porcupine named Pieter. He had spikes on his back. Sharp pointy spikes. Lots of sharp pointy spikes. The jaguars didn’t drop on Pieter either.


Now in the forest there was a lake. The animals would come to the lake to drink water. Some would come to have baths. The jaguars would sit in branches of the trees by the lake hoping to drop on the other animals as they went to get a drink of water.

One day Arnold was walking along the trail at edge of the lake when he heard the sound of of crying from a small hole in the bank. He went up close to have a look, and saw a mouse, sitting in the hole and weeping.

“What’s the matter?” asked Arnold in a kindly way. “Why are you crying?”

“I’m crying because I miss my wife and baby,” said the mouse. “They’re trapped in a hole in the bank a little up past that tree, and I can’t reach them because there’s a jaguar in the tree waiting to drop on me.”

Arnold thought a little. “I’m going in that direction along the trail,” he said. “Why don’t you walk underneath me? You’re small enough that the jaguar wouldn’t even see you and he wouldn’t drop on me because of my scaly shell.”

So Arnold continued his walk along by the edge of the lake with the mouse scurrying underneath him.

Now a little further along, Pieter the porcupine was walking along trail by the edge of the lake in the opposite direction, when he heard the sound of crying from another small hole in the bank. He stopped to have a look and saw a mother mouse and her baby hiding in the hole and weeping.

“What’s the matter?” asked the kindly porcupine. “Why are you crying?”

“We’re crying because we miss our daddy mouse,” said the mother mouse. “He’s trapped in a hole in the bank past that tree over there, and we can’t reach him because we’re afraid the jaguar in that tree will drop on us.”

Pieter stopped and thought. “I’m going in that direction along the lake,” he said, “and the jaguar won’t drop on me because of my spikes. Why don’t you come with and walk underneath me.”

So Pieter continued along the bank of the lake, with the mother mouse scurrying along underneath him, carrying her baby.

A little while later Pieter and Arnold passed each other going in the opposite directions. They said “Good morning,” to each other. The jaguar watched from its tree, feeling hungry.

Arnold came to the second hole in the bank. The mouse scurried out from between his legs and into the hole. He cried “Where are they? They’ve gone!”, and put his little head between his paws and sobbed.

“Well, I didn’t see any mice on the way,” said Arnold the armadillo, trying to comfort him “so they must have gone on this way. You wait here and I’ll carry on round the lake to see if I can find them”. The mouse was thanked him profusely as he set out on his way.

Meanwhile Pieter the porcupine had reached the first hole. The mother mouse and her baby ran eagerly into the hole. “He’s not here!” she cried, and the baby started to wail.

“We didn’t see him on the way,” said Pieter sympathetically. “Maybe he went round the lake the other way. I’ll keep going and look for him.” The two mice waved to him gratefully as he set out on his way.

So Arnold the armadillo walked round the lake in one direction, while Pieter walked around in the opposite direction. Eventually they met on the opposite side of the lake.


“Excuse me, but have you seen a mouse?” they both asked at exactly the same time.

“I’m sorry,” they both said, again at the same time.

“I was looking for a mouse,” they both said.

Arnold held up a paw. Pieter paused. Arnold explained about the mouse in the first hole, and how he had helped him reach the second hole, and now was looking for the mother and baby mouse.

When he’d finished, Pieter explained about the mother and baby mice in the second hole, and how he was now looking for the daddy mouse.

Of course they both saw immediately what had happened. They walked around the lake together till they reached the second hole.

The daddy mouse was pacing up and down inside the hole. Arnold and Pieter told him what had happened, and the three of them set off together, with the mouse scurrying beneath Arnold.

At last they reached the first hole again. The daddy mouse raced out from underneath the armadillo and into the arms of the mother mouse, while the baby gurgled happily. The mouse family were overjoyed to be together again.

They offered to share their cheese with Arnold and Pieter who politely refused. (Neither armadillos nor porcupines like to eat cheese.)

Pieter and Arnold walked off together chatting about the adventure they had had, and from that day forth they were always the best of friends.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Wicked What

The Wicked What

A bed-time story for Sophie

© 2016, Anthony Kosky

Once upon a time there was a Wicked What.

Now a Wicked What is a bit like a Wicked Which only even more more wicked and unpleasant.

In fact, this Wicked What was especially bad because she hated it when people mistook her for a Wicked Which. She would travel around the magical kingdom where she lived, and whenever she met someone who would say “Excuse me but are you a Which,” she would turn them into a Newt. Or, if they were already a Newt, she would turn them into an Artichoke, or something even worse.

And wherever she went, she would cast spells to make people grow warts on the end of their noses. Or, for those who already had warts, she would cast spells to make them grow noses on the end of their warts. Either way, it was very Wicked and made people very unhappy.

Now one day she was walking through a forest (as her broomstick was being repaired) when she came to a bridge crossing a shallow stream. Just as she started to cross the bridge an Ugly, Hairy Troll jumped out from underneath and bared her way.

“Who dares to cross my bridge?” said the Ugly, Hairy Troll.

“Out of my way,” said the Wicked What, “or I shall turn you into a troll.”

The Ugly, Hairy Troll gave her an ugly, hairy smile. “I’m already a troll,” he said.

“Very well then,” said the Wicked What, “I’ll turn you into a Handsome Prince,” and she took her wand from her pocket and zapped him.

The troll, who was now a Handsome Prince, looked at his reflection in the stream and screamed. “Waaaaah,” he wailed. “How can I go back to my Ugly, Hairy Troll Wife, and my Ugly, Hairy Troll Children. They’ll scream when they see how un-ugly I’ve become.” And he ran into the forest crying and gnashing his perfect, white teeth together.

Now, a little way away, in the forest there was a clearing, and in that clearing a beautiful Princess was having a picnic. She was singing cheery songs to the birds and little woodland creatures, and eating dainty cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches.

Suddenly the Troll stumbled into the clearing. “Oh, a Handsome Prince,” thought the Princess. “Would you like to join my picnic?” she asked politely.

The Troll (or Handsome Prince) looked startled, but by then he was very hungry so he approached the Princess’ picnic blanket warily and sat down. Of course, though he looked like a handsome prince, he still had the table manners of a troll. So, pretty soon, he was shoveling the cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches into his mouth with both hands at once and chewing noisily with his mouth wide open. Then, when there were no more sandwiches left, he took the elegant cup of tea that the Princess had kindly poured for him, emptied the entire contents of the sugar bowl into the cup, drank it down in a single gulp, and let out a large and exceptionally smelly burp.

“You do seem a little unusual for a prince,” said the Princess politely.

“I’m a troll,” grunted the Troll.

“You don’t look like a troll,” said the Princess. “Though you do rather act like one,” she conceded.

The Troll explained sadly how he’d been transformed.

“It must be that Wicked What causing mischief again,” said the Princess thoughtfully. “I’ve heard about her. I think it’s time to teach her a lesson.” And she set off into the forest looking for the Wicked What.

She spotted her a short while later, trudging along the path through the forest and muttering wicked things to herself. The princes ran ahead and then stepped onto the path in front of the Wicked What just as she rounded a corner.

“Excuse me,” said the princess in her most innocent voice, “but are you a Which?”

“I’m not a Which, I’m a What,” shrieked the Wicked What, “and I’ll turn you into a Newt!”

But, just as the Wicked What drew her wand and sent a blue-green spell fizzling towards the Princess, the Princess took a mirror from behind her back. The spell bounced off the mirror and hit the Wicked What square on the chin.

A bewildered Newt lay on the ground at the Princess’ feet. Before it could collect its thoughts and run away, the Princess picked it up by the tail and dangled it in front of her face. “Oh no,” said the dismayed Newt. “Serves you right,” said the Princess.

“Now,” continued the Princess, “I happen to have with me a de-newting spray from the royal wizard. I might turn you back into a What, if you promise to turn this poor Handsome Prince back into a troll and then leave my kingdom and never bother us again.”

“Or,” said the Princess in a menacing voice, “I could just sit on you.”

The Newt gulped, and promised to do as it was told.

“Pinky promise?” asked the Princess. The Newt nodded again.

So the  Princess took a small aerosol can from her purse. She sprayed the Newt from its nose to the tip of its tail, and took a step backwards. After a few seconds there was a soft hissing noise and the Newt seemed to unfold into a rather sorry-looking What.

The What muttered a spell pointed her wand at the Handsome Prince who had just come out from hiding behind a tree. With a puff of smoke, the Prince transformed back into an Ugly, Hairy Troll.

The Ugly, Hairy Troll was so happy to be returned to his normal form that he tried to give the Princess a hug and a big, slobbery kiss, but she declined politely and the troll of ran off dancing and singing happily to himself.

Then the What reluctantly handed her wand over the princess, shuffled away in a subdued manner, and was never seen again.