Such was not the way things were

A fat mouse hung from a thorn like a coat from a coat rack. The thorn entered through its chest on the left side, pierced its heart, and exited through its back. You had to get over their furry texture and musky smell. But once you did, mice were delicious. That’s what the shrike thought to himself.

The shrike hopped over to another branch, where he had impaled an unusually large bee on a thin thorn. Bees weren’t his favorite, and they could sting, but at least they were good for eating in portions. You could start with the abdomen, come back for the thorax, and preserve the head for last. You could eat other animals in portions too, of course. But their bodies were not as neatly compartmentalized, and things got messy quickly. That’s how the shrike felt.

The shrike then flew over to another thorny branch on which he had impaled a lizard. The lizard looked at him and said:


The shrike looked back in surprise and asked:

 How come you are still alive? I impaled you through the heart, like I did the others.
 No you didn’t. My heart is on the other side.
 Your heart is not on your left?
 Yes it is. But I was born in a mirror, and my left is your right.

For a moment they were silent. Then the lizard spoke again:

 I am the lizard Scheherazade. What is your name?
 I have no name.
 But if you have no name, then how do you remember who you are?
 What does it matter who I am?
 Well, it may not matter to you. But it matters to me. I’d like to know my executioner. Give me a few days, and I will find you a name.

The shrike flew off with a harsh shriek that pierced the air like the thorn did the lizard Scheherazade.

The next day the shrike came back. He looked over his food and decided on the unusually large bee. He carefully slid the bee from its thorn, like plastic wrapping from a straw. Just as he was about to feast on the bee’s abdomen, he heard the lizard Scheherazade say:

 I’m hungry.

The shrike looked at the lizard. He was confused. Food should not be hungry; a shrike should be hungry. And food should satisfy that hunger. Such was the natural order of things. That’s what the shrike thought to himself.

 That bee is awfully large for a single shrike, the lizard Scheherazade continued. Any chance you’d be willing to share? Just the head maybe?
 Why would I share? The shrike asked.
 Because if you don’t feed me, my body will become thin and wiry and tasteless.
 Don’t worry. I will eat you before that happens.

That was true and the lizard Scheherazade contemplated her options for a moment. Then she said:

 If you give me the head, then I will tell you a story to entertain you while you eat.
 What kind of story?
 Give me the head first and then I will tell you.

The shrike considered the offer. Food should not tell stories. Such was not the way things were. On the other hand, no-one, neither food nor shrike, had ever told him a story before.

 Ok, the shrike said.

With his sharp beak, he snapped the bee’s stringy neck, and gave the head to the hungry lizard, who immediately gobbled it down.

 Thank you, the lizard said. Now I will tell you a story.

Everyone on, around, and below mount Olympus was excited. Gods, demigods, humans, animals, nymphs, nereids, and naiads, none could contain their excitement. Zeus, king of gods, and Hera, prime goddess among goddesses, were to be wed. The party would last for three hundred years. Helios would halt his chariot in the afternoon sky to freeze the sun so that the party would not be interrupted by night. Generations of mortals would come and go without ever knowing anything but the party. It would be the greatest event the world had ever seen.

To make sure that only the best food would be served, Zeus and Hera had announced a contest. The god, person, or creature who would offer the best food would be allowed one wish, to be granted by Zeus himself. Many of the guests participated in the contest, offering exquisite dishes and drinks. Mortal kings brought the best meats, vegetables, and fruits that their lands had to offer. The divine blacksmith Hephaestus presented a sweet drink of liquid gold that invigorated the body and intoxicated the mind. And beautiful nereids offered oysters that stimulated the senses and carried sweet, edible pearls inside them.

Just when Zeus and Hera felt that they could not eat or drink any more, they noticed a small creature who had been too shy to present her offering. She was a small winged creature, beautiful, vulnerable, and fierce, all at once.

 Hi little one, Zeus said. What is your name? And what did you bring for us?
 My name, oh glorious king of gods, is Melissa. And what I offer is just a few drops of a drink that I have made myself. It’s not much, but I worked hard on it, and I hope that you will like it.

She handed a small chalice to Zeus. It contained a few drops of a sticky, amber-colored liquid.

 Hmm, what is this? Zeus asked his wife-to-be.
 Here, let me have a sip, Hera replied.

She took a small sip, making sure to leave some for her king of gods.

 Oh my. Oh my! Oh my! It’s absolutely wonderful! Hera exclaimed.

Zeus, now curious, took the chalice from his goddess and drank the remaining liquid. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. None of the other contestants had even come close. Melissa was the winner.

 Hmm, indeed, not bad at all, Zeus said. What is it?
 I call it ‘honey’, Melissa said.
 How did you make this … honey?
 Oh, my fearsome king, it’s such hard work! It’s made from the nectar of flowers. But each flower carries only a little nectar, so even after flying tirelessly for a full day, I have collected only a tiny bit of nectar for a tiny bit of honey! And oftentimes, the little honey that I’ve been able to make is immediately stolen by nasty thieves. And then I’m forced to watch while they eat it, because I’m too small and defenseless to protect my honey!
 Oh my sweet Melissa, Hera said. How awful! But your hard work has paid off. Because it’s clear that you’ve won the contest. Don’t you agree, my love?
 I suppose so, Zeus replied.
 So go ahead and claim your prize, Hera said. Tell my godly husband-to-be your wish.

Melissa danced in excitement, tracing a complex pattern in the air.

 I know what I want! Melissa said. I want a weapon to protect myself! I want a deadly stinger like that of a scorpion! Then I will kill all the nasty thieves who try to steal my honey!

Zeus and Hera looked at each other. They had not expected such a dark wish from such a sweet little creature.

 Little Melissa, Zeus replied. You will have no such thing, and shame on you for asking for a weapon on this day of love. I will give you a stinger, but your stinger will be cursed. If you ever use it, you will inflict pain on the one you sting, but you will suffer an even worse fate yourself: You will die!

Melissa looked at Zeus in disbelief. He had promised to grant her wish! She could not believe that he had broken his word so casually.

 But I do sympathize with your hard work, Zeus continued. So I will give you a colony of workers to help you collect nectar. You are now a queen with a colony entirely your own!

Melissa flew off, followed by a cloud of workers of which she was now queen. She felt angry and humiliated that her wish had not been granted, and ordered her workers to build a hive for her to hide away, invisible from the world. There she stayed for many years, until one day, a particularly sunny summer day, she felt better than most days and decided to go outside again. As soon as she left her hive, a shrike swooped down from the sky, grabbed her, carried her to his bush, and impaled her on a thorn.

 That’s a lovely story, the shrike said.
 How do you feel now that you know who you are eating? The lizard Scheherazade asked.

The shrike thought about this for a moment, while he swallowed Melissa’s thick thorax. Then he replied:

 It feels no different. The bee may have been called Melissa. And she may have catered to a divine wedding. But she’s still a bee. And it’s for a bee to be eaten by a shrike. And for a shrike to eat a bee. Such is the natural order of things.

Because that’s how the shrike felt. And with a cold shriek he flew off.

The next day the shrike came back, hungry. He lifted the fat mouse off its thorn, and, with the mouse in his beak, hopped over to the branch of the lizard Scheherazade.

 I would like to hear another story, the shrike said.
 I would like to have some of that mouse, the lizard Scheherazade replied. Preferably a soft bit. The liver perhaps. The bee’s head that I ate yesterday was awfully tough, and it didn’t sit quite right with me during the night.
 Then I promise to give you a choice cut of the mouse this time, if you promise to tell me another story.

The shrike tore open the belly of the mouse, carefully extracted the liver, and gave it to the lizard Scheherazade.

Mr. Jingles lived in the space between the walls of the house of a baker. It was a rich life. Food was everywhere. Mr. Jingles needed only to poke his nose through a crack in the wall, and breadcrumbs, dough, sugar, and spices were there for the taking. But while Mr. Jingles was rich, he was also lonely. He lived by himself in the house. Except for the baker and the cats. But the baker never noticed him. And while the cats were too fat and lazy to pose a threat, they weren’t great company either.

A canal passed behind the baker’s house. One day, while Mr. Jingles sat next to the canal to feast on a particularly tasty piece of chocolate cake, he saw a beautiful girl on the other side of the canal. Her snout was firm yet delicate and her fur was a soothing shade of brown. He looked at her while she scurried about, searching for something to eat, not noticing the admiring looks that came from the other side of the canal. If only he could give her something to eat! Even if he was slightly overweight, and even if he smelled a little musky at times, if he brought her a piece of lemon cake, or if he brought her a crumb of pecan bread, then surely she would love him. And there was plenty of space in the house for both of them and their offspring. The baker’s house could easily support a modest family of a hundred or so.

But Mr. Jingles did not see any way to cross the canal. And he knew better than to try swimming. His fat body would sink immediately. Soon he would get in shape for his new love. But for now he had to find another way to cross the canal.

Then he saw a frog, floating leisurely in the canal.

 Frog! Mr. Jingles cried.

The frog looked up and saw Mr. Jingles standing on the side of the canal.

 Hi there, furry friend, the frog replied. What can I do for you?
 I need to get to the other side of the canal, but I cannot swim! Would it be at all possible for you to carry me across? Only if it’s no trouble.
 Of course, my friend. No trouble at all. Hop on.

Mr. Jingles climbed down to the water, carefully holding on to the chocolate cake with his mouth. Then he climbed onto the frog’s back.

 Off we go, the frog said.
 Thank you so much! Mr. Jingles mumbled while keeping the chocolate cake between his teeth.

With a single kick of his hind legs, the frog carried them to the middle of the canal. Then he stopped.

 Say, my furry friend, the frog said.
 I cannot help but notice that you’re carrying a most delicious piece of chocolate cake. I think it would be only fair if you gave this to me. As a crossing fare, so to say. Wouldn’t you agree?
 I’m sorry, my amphibious friend. But I cannot! This piece of chocolate cake is for a lady on the other side of the canal. It is my gift to her, in exchange for her love.
 Ow, I see.

The frog exhaled and sank slowly until he floated three centimeters below the surface. Mr. Jingles had to stand on his hind legs to keep his snout and the chocolate cake above water.

 Oh my, oh my! Mr. Jingles mumbled in worry.

The frog came up again and said:

 You see, my furry friend. If you do not pay me my crossing fare, which after all is rightfully mine, then I may not carry you across. In fact, I may not even carry you back to where you came from. I may simply leave you here. But don’t worry: It’s only a short swim to either side of the canal.
 But I cannot swim!
 In that case, you might reconsider giving me the chocolate cake, which, I remind you, is rightfully mine.
 But I cannot give it to you! It is for my delicately snouted love!
 Then you leave me little choice.

The frog exhaled again and slowly but surely sank to the bottom of the canal, carrying the fat Mr. Jingles with him. Then, when only the tip of Mr. Jingles’ snout was still above water, a shrike swooped down from the sky, lifted him out of the water, carried him to his bush, and impaled him on a thorn.

 Such a lovely story, the shrike said. You truly have a way with words, my leathery lizard.
 Thank you, the lizard Scheherazade said. How do you feel now that you know the story of Mr. Jingles?
 I feel lucky to have caught Mr. Jingles before he got in shape. Because I prefer fatty foods just as he did. On the other hand, I feel unlucky because I did not know that there was a frog within reach of my claws. Because I prefer frogs over fat mice.
 But how do you feel knowing that Mr. Jingles never got to meet his slender-snouted love?
 I feel no different. The mouse may have been in love, but love has no taste. Mice have taste, once you get over their musky smell. And it is for a shrike to taste them. Such is the way things are.

That’s what the shrike said, because that’s how he felt. And then he flew off.

The next day the shrike came back. He sat on the branch where the lizard Scheherazade hang from her thorn.

 There’s nothing left to eat, the lizard Scheherazade said.
 There is, the shrike replied.

They were silent.

 I can tell you another story, the lizard Scheherazade said.
 There’s no-one to tell a story about.
 I can tell you my story.
 I already know your story.
 I can tell you your story. And in doing so I will reveal your name.
 I have no story. And I need no name.

They were silent again.

 Don’t feel bad, the lizard Scheherazade said. You are a shrike and I am a lizard. And it’s for a shrike to eat a lizard. And for a lizard to be eaten by a shrike. That’s the way things are. That’s who you are, even if you do not have a name.

The shrike held the lizard Scheherazade gently in his sharp beak and slid her off her thorn. Then he ate her. Food should not tell stories. Food should not have a name. A shrike should not have a name. Such was not the way things were, and he was glad that things would now go back to normal. That’s what the shrike thought to himself.

He felt how the lizard Scheherazade sat heavily in his stomach. And he felt how a tear formed in his eye. He quickly swept the tear away with his nictating membrane; such was not the way things were.