“The other animals didn’t feel one bit safe. They stood at a distance and tried to talk things over with the tawny, scrawny lion.”
—The Tawny Scrawny Lion, Katherine Jackson, 1951
The six of them stood around the watering hole—Elephant, Monkey, Kangaroo, Zebra, Bear, and Camel. The mood was sour. Yes, they had avoided the lion’s chase this morning, but only because Rabbit happened to hop by. Just in time, as it happened, to be pawned off on the lion, whom they had been trying to talk things over with.
It was merely a stay, they knew. Tawny Scrawny Lion would be back. Monkeys on Monday, kangaroos on Tuesday, et cetera.
“What really irks me,” said Elephant after Rabbit and Lion had walked off together, “is that he chases all of you just once a week, but he chases me twice a week.”
“It’s probably because you’re the slowest,” Kangaroo offered, unhelpfully.
“You think I’m the slowest?” Elephant asked.
Kangaroo looked around, a little embarrassed for Elephant. “Who would be slower?”
Elephant lolled his trunk, nonplussed. He thought he might be able to outpace Camel, with her spindly legs and those cumbersome humps. Even so, he could see Kangaroo’s logic. Didn’t make it sting less, though.
“I don’t think the problem is which one of us he chases,” Monkey said.
“Conspiracy theory time,” Zebra said to Bear in a loud whisper.
“It’s okay to laugh,” Monkey said. “But look around. An elephant, a bear, a kangaroo? Three different continents right there. Explain that, please, Zebra.”
Zebra shrugged. Monkey always brought insoluble problems to the council. None of them really knew what continents were anyway.
“What exactly are you implying, Monkey?” said Elephant. “Because the rest of us here are trying to work on this Tawny Scrawny Lion problem.”
“Oh, I’m so sick of the whinging lion,” Bear said.
“Everyone is,” said Kangaroo. “He’s the worst.”
“Don’t you think this all feels…a little engineered?” Monkey said. “Like, we’re being—what’s the word?—manipulated?”
“Who would do that?” Camel asked. “And to what end? That’s just straight up crazy.”
“I don’t know who and I don’t know why,” Monkey said. “But you can’t deny that there are some strange things about our circumstances. The six of us, totally wrong ecosystems—except for Elephant and Zebra. Well, and Lion. That’s not even counting Rabbit, you know.”
“And his five fat brothers and five fat sisters,” interjected Bear.
Kangaroo stared daggers at Bear.
“Right?” Monkey said. “The fat sisters and brothers. Have any of you even ever seen them?”
“I’ve never seen them,” Elephant said.
“Me neither,” Camel said. “Why have we never seen them?”
“Stop stirring shit up, Monkey,” Kangaroo said.
“Let the monkey explain his thing,” Bear said.
“He chases us, but he never eats us,” Monkey said. “What’s he living on. I mean, Bear, you eat bugs, right? Elephant, trees and stuff?”
They both nodded.
“Just the other day,” said Monkey, “’I wished Elephant could cause less destruction with his diet.’”
“What?” Elephant said, again on the defensive.
“I was walking through the forest and, you know, all the trees were missing in a wide swath. It looked like a tornado had passed through, and I was like, Good Lord, Elephant. Just have a salad or something.”
“What’s a tornado?” Camel asked.
“Listen,” Elephant said, ignoring Camel, though he also didn’t know what a tornado was. “I eat what I eat.”
“Exactly,” Monkey said. “We have our natures. But there’s something unnatural about all of this.”
Camel looked at Monkey, something like recognition in her eye—like she knew just what Monkey was talking about. Monkey saw it, or thought he did. But then it was gone. They all took a drink of water, Zebra anxiously checking over her shoulder in between sips.
“Where do you get this stuff?” Bear asked Monkey.
He shrugged. “Just comes to me.”
“Maybe…think about it less?” Bear said.
“Don’t you wanna know the truth?”
“About Lion?” Bear said. “Not really. I hate thinking about him. I find him confusing.”
“That’s right,” Monkey said. “He is confusing. It’s all confusing.”
“Just leave it be,” Kangaroo said.
“I knew I couldn’t talk to you all about this,” Monkey said. “Forget I mentioned it.”
That night, his dreams were plagued by weird furless monkeys, perhaps ancestors from a past life? He did not sleep well, in any case, and he woke with a stiff neck and feeling just terrible. This fact was exacerbated by the realization that it was Monday, the day Lion chased him.
“Ah, god,” he thought. “Mondays.”
And then, while he was waiting around to be chased by Lion, Rabbit hopped by out of the blue. All of the others stopped drinking water and eating bugs and grasses. They all looked stupefied to see Rabbit alive.
Elephant said, “Rabbit, oh you wonderful rabbit. What in the world did you talk to the tawny, scrawny, hungry, terrible lion about?”
The strangest thing yet occurred to Monkey just then: Why was Rabbit wearing clothes? Red trousers and a blue shirt? Where did they come from? He remembered now that rabbit had on clothes yesterday, too. Why?
Next, things got worse. He realized that bear, too, was dressed. He now had on a top hat and a tie of some sort.
Reluctantly he looked down at his own body. Was this a tutu? Is that what you called it? And a polka dotted kerchief?
“We had such a good time with that nice, jolly lion that I guess we forgot to talk about anything at all!” Rabbit told Elephant.
Was Rabbit messing with them? Or worse, just messing with Monkey? Was Rabbit the actual villain? Or—wait!—was he the lion, in a bunny suit? There were a lot of possibilities no one else seemed to be considering. This knowledge was crushing for Monkey.
As he felt the onset of his first panic attack—his throat tightening, his palms soaking—he saw Rabbit wink at him. It pushed him over the edge. His mind convulsed, the world went bright, then dark.
When he woke, he was by the water. He no longer wore the tutu and kerchief.
Had it been a dream?
He looked around and saw Camel.
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s everyone else?”
“They went to Rabbit’s house.”
“Why would they do that?”
“They wanted to see Lion playing with Rabbit’s fat brothers and sisters with their own eyes.”
“Oh,” Monkey said.
“Are you okay?”
“Not at all,” Monkey said. “Why didn’t you go?”
Camel shook her head. “I don’t know exactly. I didn’t trust it. It’s like you said, something about our situation isn’t quite right.”
Monkey nodded, bent and cupped some water into his hands and drank.
Jerry Gabriel is the author of two collections of stories, Drowned Boy (Sarabande) and The Let Go (Queen’s Ferry). He lives in Maryland and teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.