You ever hear the story of how Fox tricked Tiger into thinking he was the King of the Beasts? Well, one day Fox was taking a midday stroll through the forest, cigarette dangling precariously from the end of his snout, white-tipped tail swishing at a jaunty angle, when he heard a branch snap not five feet behind him. He paused long enough to TAP TAP TAP the ash from the end of his cigarette and turned to find that he had a close-up view of what might well have been thousands of jagged teeth, accompanied by a low, rumbling growl of the type that has made more than a few of the forest’s denizens mess their trousers. Not Fox, though. He was slicker than Mother Goose’s shit and he knew that no good had ever come from showing fear to a predator.
“Hail and well met, Tiger!” he said, bowing deep enough that the tip of his tail stopped just above the ground in front of him. “I’m afraid I didn’t think to carry any breath mints today, but if you — ”
And just like that Fox was flat on his back, pinned beneath an enormous, striped paw, with only his head and tail free and clear. He had, however, managed to keep the cigarette in his mouth, which is an impressive feat if you think about it.
Tiger’s wide, flat face rose into view over the paw. He bared his teeth again, and Fox tilted his head to the side just in time to avoid most of a drop of tiger spit big enough to put out a small fire. Tiger just stared down at him for a moment, yellow eyes deep and impassive.
“I wonder if you’ll be as funny, Fox, after I’ve shat you back out,” Tiger said, and his voice was deep and rumbly enough that it tickled Fox’s ears. Tiger hated each and every one of the creatures of the forest and the kingdom beyond, but he hated the clever ones the most, and there was not a one more clever than Fox.
“While I’d never underestimate,” Fox said through gritted teeth, wriggling like a worm on a hot sidewalk, “the comedic potential of dung . . . ” He leaned his head forward, just enough to crush the burning tip of his cigarette into the soft, downy skin between Tiger’s toes. Tiger leaped about a hundred feet in the air, letting out a yowl that would have broken glass if there’d been any nearby, but he landed on his feet, like always. Fox, meanwhile, was brushing dust and dirt from his fur. “That’s much better!” He took his tail in both paws and held it up to his face, looking for dirt. “Now, as I was saying,” he licked the pad of a paw and rubbed at a grass stain, “you’re not going to eat me.”
Tiger, who was sitting on his haunches, spreading his toes to squint the tiny burn, stopped to look at Fox. “And why is that, do you think?” He bared his teeth again, as his face was not terribly expressive. “Because I would tend to disagree.”
“Oh, Tiger,” Fox said, dropping his tail and placing his paws where a waist might have been. “I sometimes forget that no one ever talks to you because you’re such a terrible bore — ”
“Because they fear me,” Tiger said, because deep down it did bother him that none of the other animals liked him, though it never occurred to him to stop trying to eat them.
“Okay,” Fox said with a condescending nod, “‘fear.’ Anyway, that’s why you haven’t heard the news. I’m King of the Beasts now! All the beastly denizens of the forest, not to mention the kingdom beyond, are now my subjects. They fear my wrath, as should you.”
Tiger had a lot of things to recommend him — his strength, his speed, his ability to digest almost anything he swallowed — but he was, bar none, the most gullible creature in the forest. He was also the second dumbest, after Sloth. “Wait, seriously?” he said.
“I’ll tell you what,” Fox said. “I really shouldn’t have to, but I’ve always liked you — ” Tiger nodded at that blatant lie, because like I said, he was a dummy. “ — so here’s what I’ll do. I’ll follow the path in the same direction I was going, and you follow from as close or as far back as you like. If the first three creatures we encounter don’t flee in terror at the sight of me, well,” he sighed, “I’ll let you devour me.”
Tiger’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, and he thought about the offer for a good long while, not realizing that he’d lost the game the moment he allowed Fox to talk to him. He looked at Fox, looked down the path, and looked at Fox again. “Promise?” he said.
Fox resumed his stroll through the forest with Tiger stalking through the trees behind him, drifting from one side to the other and back again. Tiger did his best to keep out of sight, but not only was he the size of Old Mother Hubbard’s Cadillac, he was orange.
After a bit of walking, they came upon a big, thick log, upon which a roughly man-shaped creature was seated. It was covered in thick, coarse hair and beard, so long and intertwined that it was unclear where one ended and the other began. It looked like nothing more than a tumbleweed with pale, skinny arms and legs sticking out of it. It had a pair of boots much too big for its skinny little feet, made of strips of banded metal, one of which it was wearing and one of which was on the log next to it. Its bare foot was also propped up on the log, and it was doing its best to trim jagged, yellow toenails with a potato peeler.
“A pleasant day to you, my good goblin,” said Fox with a small bow. “I don’t want to discourage an impulse towards grooming, but I believe you may be doing that wrong.”
The goblin looked up, shrieked, and fell backward off the log, all at roughly the same time. It was up in a flash, and it didn’t even bother trying to run, not with that big, iron boot on its foot. It held the boot in its hands like a package and hopped on the bare foot, and with such speed that a passerby might be forgiven for thinking that that was its preferred method of travel.
“See?” Fox said, turning toward the forest behind him with his arms extended.
“Goblins are cowards,” Tiger said from behind a young maple. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
After only a few more minutes, they ran into a group of short, stout men in grimy coveralls and miner’s helmets crowded around a transparent, crystal coffin with a young woman in it. One of them stood at the coffin’s head.
“We’ve done everything we could, men,” he said. “We’ve tried shaking her, we’ve tried shouting at her, we’ve tried throwing cold water in her face — ”
“I drew a mustache on her!” said one of the others. “DER-HAW!”
The leader glared at him for a moment, then sighed. “Yes, thank you, Marbles. That was fine work. The point is,” he went on, managing to give the impression he was addressing everyone except Marbles, “we’ve exhausted our options. There’s only one thing left to do.” He pulled something out of one of his pockets. “We’ve got to drive this wooden stake right through — ”
Fox, who had pointedly cleared his throat a few times, gave up and said, “Ahem.”
The little men turned as one, and then the leader said, “SCATTER!”
There was a momentary flurry of panicked shouting and tiny, flailing limbs — one of the little men said, “But what about the princess?” and another cried, “She might as well be dead already!” — and then they were gone.
Again, Fox turned back. “Must we really see this exercise through to its inevitable conclusion?”
Tiger, who was doing his best to blend in with a circle of toadstools, said, “We agreed to three. Keep walking.”
Some time later, Fox heard a couple of high, piping voices and stepped into a large clearing that looked like it had been hit by a tornado. Straw was scattered everywhere, and a pig in overalls was using a push-broom to sweep it into piles. Another pig in an apron was wearing work gloves and collecting things from the ground — shards of glass and dishes, scraps of linen, what looked like a broken television antenna — and tossing them into heavy-duty garbage bags.
“I’m just saying,” said the pig in the overalls. “It seems like too much of a coincidence.”
“Listen, man,” said the one in the apron, “I love Iggy as much as you do — he’s our baby brother — but he’s also an unreliable piece of shit. I mean, who builds a house out of straw?” He dropped half a dinner plate into his bag with a clink. “He’s gonna show up in a few months looking for the insurance money.” Another broken plate, another clink. “And then he’s gonna blow it all on truffles.”
“Seriously, Ziggy,” the sweeping pig said. “A big, bad wolf starts stalking all three of us — a wolf who speaks exclusively in rhyming verse, by the way, so you know he’s deeply disturbed — and the very next day Iggy disappears?” He stopped and leaned on the broom handle. “That doesn’t seem like suspicious timing to you?”
“That mangy wolf with the lazy eye did all this? What, did he blow the house down?” The pig made a jerk-off gesture with its hoof. “Iggy probably paid him to — ”
Fox, who had been quietly approaching them, cleared his throat. They both looked toward him. “Gentlemen,” he said. “It’s me.”
The pigs just stared for a moment, glassy-eyed, then took off sprinting in opposite directions. After a few seconds, the one in the overalls darted back the other way, following his brother, running so fast his feet barely touched the ground.
Fox waited until they had cleared his line of sight, then turned, raised his arms to his sides, and said, “Eh?”
A minute later, having sent Tiger on his way by royal decree, Fox lit a fresh cigarette and started walking again. If there was a bit more spring in his step and a bit more swish in his tail, who could blame him? When he finally caught up to the two little pigs — and they had run a long way — the one in the overalls was hunched over, hooves on knees, spitting and dry heaving. The one in the apron was lying on his back in the grass, gasping for air. They glanced at Fox as he passed them, and he tipped an imaginary hat in their direction. A wicked grin split his face as he heard, just before moving out of earshot, the pig on the ground pant, “Did you see the size of that fucking tiger?”
CHARLIE HARMON has spent his entire life in and around Chicago. After stints as a barista, receptionist, camp counselor, and barcode salesman, he made the decision to return to college, and is now an MFA student in Columbia College Chicago’s Department of Creative Writing and recipient of the Follett Graduate Merit Award, if that’s the kind of thing that impresses you. He has been published in Prairie Voices, Kittenpants.org, and Columbia’s Story Week Reader. He lives with his parents, because MFAs don’t grow on trees.