Mr. Fox and the Geese, A Story for Autumn

Author’s note: this story is a retelling of the Grimms’ tale, “The Fox and the Geese.” It first appeared in OfOtherWorlds in 2015, and was subsequently published in Fractured and Other Fairy Tales, 2015.

Mr. Fox liked to walk along the edge of the old city. One spring evening, he was strolling along, and he happened upon a field where a flock of geese were gathered, gabbling away and walking through the stubble.
“What do we have here?” he said, eyeing the fat geese, as he leaned on his walking cane. “Looks like dinner.”
The geese were terrified, and they honked and cried for mercy.
“Mercy,” laughed Mr. Fox. “You will find no mercy here. I’m interested in some dinner. Now you just line yourselves up in a row, and I will wring your pretty necks one by one, and then I’ll take your carcasses back to my house in the city.”
But there was one old goose who was at least as cunning as Mr. Fox. She was a grandam of the flock, and she peered up at Mr. Fox.
“Mr. Fox,” she said, bobbing her head, “since you are going to eat us anyway, I don’t suppose you would mind if I told my children and grandchildren one more story?”
Now, if Mr. Fox had a weakness, besides a greedy desire for fresh goose, it was for a good story. “Oh, very well,” he said, petulantly. “Tell your story. But when you are done, I expect you to line up like good little geese so I can pick out the fattest for my table.”
The old goose began her story. She gabbled and honked, telling of faraway places, of all the things she had seen on her travels, of the lives of people and animals, of strange and secret things only seen by moonlight and starlight. And before she was finished, she was joined by one of her children, and together, they gabbled and grumbled and honked of the places they had seen together. They were joined by the others, one by one, until soon the whole flock was gabbling the story of their travels, from the hot countries of the south to the wide spaces of the north.
The sun slowly set, and Mr. Fox listened, forgetting about everything else as he was swept away to places he had never known.
Did Mr. Fox ever get his dinner? Who can say?—for the geese are still telling their story to this day. And if you stop to listen, in the spring and the fall, you can hear it too—the gabbling of travelers’ tales upon the air.

Summer Travels

This summer, I had the good fortune to visit some fascinating places. I’m prairie born and bread—used to open spaces, long summer evenings, and cold winters. But I love the ocean and had the chance to visit more than one.
In May, I travelled with a friend to Newfoundland, where we drove from the ferry landing at Port Aux Basque to Cape Spear, the eastern-most point of North America.
I returned to the east coast in June, visiting Prince Edward Island for a conference, where I took the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours historical Charlottetown, then drives straight out into the Charlottetown Harbour.
Finally, in July, I met one of my daughters in New Zealand, where we spend a week touring the North Island before flying to Melbourne. We had the chance one day to drive part of the Great Ocean Road, built by Australian war vets after the first World War. We also visited the Moonlit Sanctuary, where we had the chance to meet some local wildlife. All in all, a summer I will remember.

Animals, Animals, Animals

Earlier this week, in response to “Adult Nostalgia and Children’s Classics,” Laura Frey, from Reading in Bed, commented on remembering some childhood favourites of her own. She referred to Redwall, which is the first in a series of twenty-two books by Brian Jacques. I haven’t read the whole series, but it’s one that loses you in a world of animals living in a medieval-style abbey.
Laura’s comment got me thinking more about animal stories and longer books featuring animal characters. Picture books about animals are most likely the first books that children will encounter. From the Little Bear books to the Franklin series to Peter Rabbit, such books are formative for a child’s reading life. My own kids loved all of these books. One of the earliest picture books I remember about an animal—in this case a bird—was P. D. Eastman’s Are You my Mother? These books have the virtue of finely conceived anthropomorphized animal characters that speak straight to the heart of any child.
Animals appear in countless longer books for kids as well, sometimes more anthropomorphized and sometimes less, and often showing the line between good and evil. Cluny the Scourge, a nasty bilge rat from Redwall, is one of the more serious animal villains from such books. Jacques series is one of those in which it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad—for one thing, the good guys are vegetarians.
Another of my favourite animal books is Watership Down by Richard Adams. You will learn more than you ever wanted to know about rabbits in reading this book. A group of rabbits, led by Hazel, leave their home in the Sandleford Warren to find a new home in the nearby downs. Remember, these are rabbits making their way across a couple of miles of tame English countryside. But for these rabbits, the world is full of danger and unexpected turns. It’s a far cry from the bunnies of the Beatrix Potter books, and General Woundwort is another great animal villain—nastier than Cluny himself.
Talking animals appear in all sorts of texts. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are one of the kindest old married couples you’ll meet. Funny they don’t have any kids of their own. As part of his education, the Wart, from The Sword in the Stone, is turned into every animal imaginable. Those texts that focus more exclusively on animal characters also incorporate an animal morality and code of behaviour. In Narnia, for example, talking beasts have a higher place in the order of things than dumb beasts. In Watership down, the rabbits recognize their own compassion and fellowship, or animality, in the face of the cruelty of humans.
The treatment or mistreatment of animals is something else to think about with many of these books. The Harry Potter series, as a case in point, includes many animals, but they are often the subject of transfiguration classes, and the Ministry of Magic has a department expressly for dealing with magical animals, The Department for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures, which we first meet in The Prisoner of Azkaban during the trial of Buckbeak the hippogriff. Granted, Harry, Ron, and Hermione take Care of Magical Creatures, and Hagrid is fanatical in his love and respect for animals, but rowling’s world remains somewhat ambivalent when it comes to the treatment of magical and non-magical creatures.
I’ve mostly been commenting here about animal fantasies, or fantasies involving animals, but don’t forget about all of the books that feature realistic animals, or show kids interacting with real critters. Books about boys and dogs or girls and horses are genres unto themselves. My own daughter loved The Pony Pals, and as a young teen, I loved reading realistic stories involving animals, such as Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens.
Books about animals, whatever the kind, become a way of helping you to connect with the natural world, even if you live in the city. I’m fortunate to live in a neighbourhood where I’m able  to get my fill of nature: from the robins, crows, and merlin’s that make their home here, to the rabbits that eat my flowers and the crazy squirrels that live in the giant spruce in my backyard.
Find yourself some animal books, and remember all those creatures with whom we share the planet. I’m always interested in hearing about what other people are reading, so I welcome your comments. And don’t forget to check out Laura Frey’s blog, She’s funny, and a sharp reader.