SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE – A Fantasy Short Story by Nicholas De Waal
On those long, languid evenings at the table, when the familiar chatter of dinner tinkerings articulated the space of his little home, Hare would often afford himself the greatest of pleasures. He would draw into himself, stare long and hard at the trophies and race memorabilia on the adjacent wall until his home seemed to disappear and he would be back there. He was convinced no other animal in the forest could have ever felt any feeling close to it. The feeling of standing at that starting line, the forest alive with the hum of collective excitement, families, friends, strangers, all gathered to watch him race. The great Hare, the fastest runner of his and all generations. Oh how he adored it, the pressure, the expectations, the world on his shoulders, the rare power in his hands to inspire and excite.
And then that whistle would sound and he would be off, nothing besides remaining, nothing but corners and straights, a world blurred, until he crossed that second line, the finishing line, and the world would explode into ecstasy. When the tightness in his stomach would turn from relief to euphoria, he had won again. The feeling never lost its significance, even after so many races, it was always the same, and Hare would feel almost guilty and think to himself how sad it was no other in the forest would ever be as happy as he was then.
But then he would remember, remember he had forgotten, forgotten himself, and he would go crashing down from those Euphoric heights in his mind to the cold, hard reality below. The reality of a race raced, a career finished. And he would be ripped back to the present, to the table, to the coldness of those medals hanging on his wall collecting dust. He would look down to find Mrs Hare’s carrots, the same bland meal, it was clear the options for different ways to prepare a carrot had long since exhausted. And he would look beside him, not finding adoring fans, but rather his children pulling faces at him. And then they would begin to throw their food at each other and Mrs Hare would give him that look he hated, and he would gather what little energy he had these days to scold them. He’d then feel his stomach knock against the table’s edge and would try in vain to remember the specific moment or date his gut had begun its steadfast mission of protrusion. It was in these moments Hare was reminded of his reasons for his outings into the night.
What had begun as one riveting night excursion, soon became routine. Hare would sneak out in the quiet hours of the night, leaving Mrs. Hare to her deep slumber and disappear deep into the woods. He would slink through the dark, creaking trees until he reached that forbidden part of the forest, a place the most civilized avoided, but Hare knew they were missing out on an unlikely paradise. He would travel through the tunnel of a giant hollow log, and see on the other side a buzzing of light and life, of pleasure and vice. The largest casino in the whole ecosystem.
It was here, as tonight, Hare could taste a semblance of that former thrill, an inkling of that adrenaline, of that uncertainty now so foreign to his life of neutered, stable uniformity. Hare sat down at a table of those he recognized as former athletes themselves and placed his staple ridiculous bet. Hare often found himself placing down acorns he didn’t have and unfortunately tonight was just one of those nights the pendulum decided to swing against him. So he lost, lost that which he didn’t have to lose, and the big bosses were not happy.
See the Casino, like so much of this part of the forest, was owned by the Fox Mafia. And the Foxes did not appreciate clients who couldn’t pay their due. And so Hare used whatever charm he could muster and pleaded he would have it for them soon. Just give him a couple days. A couple of days it would have to be, because Hare knew, like everyone else in the forest, the Foxes may officially be titled omnivores, but they were carnivores through and through.
The next afternoon, Hare woke to a splitting headache. Groggily, he turned over in his bed to find a little note Mrs. Hare had left him. He lifted it to his face, a shopping list. More carrots. Hare sighed, a long, winding sigh, before hopping up out of bed.
Hare’s neighbourhood looked like any other in the forest, a collection of little dens, burrows, and nests, all lined up in placid, suburban rows. It was the burrow across from him, Hare knew to avoid. Here lived Tortoise, and one should know getting caught in neighbourly conversation with that shelled fellow was a dangerous predicament, one which could potentially lead to death by boredom.
Hare despised the bogus act Tortoise seemed to perpetually play, the family man, content with his little life in suburbia. The way Tortoise would sit out the front, arm around his wife, watching his children play in the grass, as if some great live exhibition of the family ideal. Hare couldn’t particularly blame Tortoise though, Tortoise had never experienced anything else. He had never tasted the thrill of the high life, the chaotic allure of those bends and straights. Of course he’d be content withering away in quiet insignificance.
“Hey Hare!” Hare quickened his stroll, not daring to look any other direction but straight ahead. “The offer still stands for you to bring the family over for our famous lettuce leaves.” Tortoise, ahead of Hare on the path, reached out an arm to catch Hare’s attention and eventually Hare had no choice but to engage with his neighbour.
“How have you been?” Tortoise asked him, a pang of almost concern strewn across his wrinkled face.
“I’ve been fine.” Hare fired back.
“I am saying this out of nothing but the concern of a friend, I sometimes hear you heading into the woods at night, and I just wanted to check you are okay. There can be bad folk out there in the trees.”
Hare was taken aback, by Tortoises, intrusion into his life, but remained calm, “You must have mistaken me for someone else.”
“Perhaps.” Tortoise dropped it.
But Hare could feel his fur start to prickle. “And what business would this be of yours anyway?”
“I’m just trying to help,” Tortoise replied, his neck retreating slowly into his shell.
“What help could you ever give me?” Hare snarled, the final embers of his patience now extinguished. “Look how slow you are, it’s almost pitiful, do you ever even get anywhere.”
“Yes,” Tortoise responded, his eyes suddenly growing resolute, “And I get there sooner than you think. I’ll run you a race and prove it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Hare chuckled, continuing his walk. But he could see Tortoise was serious about it, so he stopped, his eyes growing wide in excitement at the possibility of humiliating his neighbour.
“Let’s do it then.”
And so the race was set. A race so ridiculous, that news of it had spread to every corner of the forest. A tortoise racing a hare, the audacity was almost admirable. But some pundits, some of whom had even raced Hare back in the day, felt the whole concept insulted the sport. Not to mention it made their old rival look completely unhinged.
“I think it shows the state he’s in, racing Tortoises.”
Others mirrored the sentiment, “He’s a legend of the game, but it seems all legends seem to struggle with knowing when to stop.”
A particularly snarky comment from one of his greatest rivals, Mr. Deer, went something along the lines of “He’s gotten fat, I have my money on the Tortoise.”
But Hare cherished the naysayers, they were what little he could latch onto, in motivating himself for a race he was bound to win. Hare trained day and night for the next few days, he knew he didn’t have to, but at the end of the day what better excuse could he have to neglect everything else that nagged him? He could miss those trying afternoons teaching his eldest about the history of the forest for school, or those unnecessary errands his wife would allocate him when she went off to work. He particularly enjoyed running past Hare’s house, where he would make sure to sprint his fastest. It was always the same image at Tortoises’s, the reality of the situation must not have reached him, perhaps he was dull. Tortoise needed to be training, but as far as Hare could see when he peaked his head out his window and looked across the street, Tortoise was still living his slow, sluggish family life. Oh well, he never had a chance anyway.
But see, the problem with news such as this spreading so far and so wide, is that it had also trickled into the deepest, dampest parts of the forest. And so one night at that familiar dining table, Hare heard a loud, booming knock at the door. Then a couple more, like loud snaps of thunder against the wood. Hare jumped to his feet cautiously approaching the entrance. He creaked the door open to a slit, peering through, then peering up. Two sets of sharp teeth beamed down at him. Two foxes, looming over him, their eyes curious and hungry.
Hare tried to gather himself, squeaking out, “Can I help you fellas.” He had now snuck out the door, shut it, and was hiding its handle behind his back. His family watched through the window in silent, frozen fear. “Look I said, I’d get you the acorns,” the words stumbled over each other out of his mouth. “And I have some of it okay. Just give me a moment and I’ll retrieve it for you gentleman.” He started behind him, but one of the foxes’s paws slammed against the wood, stopping him in his tracks.
“Our boss has had a change of mind.” The fox said, slowly licking each of his razor-sharp teeth. “You don’t have to pay back a single acorn?” He smiled, almost endearingly at Hare. Hare reared back in surprise, not trusting.
“Are you sure?” he asked, staring for the door again. But the paw stayed firm. “Oh yes of course,” the fox replied, “You just need to do one thing. Throw the race.”
“Throw the race?” Hare almost burst into laughter at their ridiculousness, “I couldn’t lose to a Tortoise if I tried.”
But the Foxes kept their hungry glare, their eyes narrowing. “Well, then I guess you’ll have to try a bit harder. Five hundred acorns to one, Hare beats Tortoise.”
The other fox chimed “I like those odds for the Tortoise.” And they burst into snarling laughter.
Hare shook his head and Foxes stopped laughing, their heckles raising. “You got yourself in this mess, here’s your ticket out. We come back here, we leave with a full stomach.” And with that they rushed off into the woods, leaving Hare in quiet desperation. He stepped back inside, his family still frozen, watching him in fear. Hare stared in horror at their wide, pleading eyes. He had caused this, he had put them in this danger, and for what? He imagined himself losing them, the pain, the ache. His mind wandered through memories, the once mundane now emboldened with all the meaning in the world. He had failed his role here, he had failed to protect them.
The race was tomorrow.
The day of the race it was as if the whole forest had come to watch. Those privileged with feathers watched from the air while those who could climb perched on branches. The rest stood along the track, creatures great and small buzzing at the prospect of seeing Hare plucked out of the myths and placed back on the starting line again. Hare watched Tortoise reluctantly leave his family’s embrace before joining him at the line. Then Hare looked over to spot his own family in the crowd, he could see through their wide eyes and ruffled fur, that they were still shaken up from last night’s intrusion. Hare could feel his eyes become almost teary as the pangs of guilt began to cascade throughout his body. Behind them, far in the distance stood those same fox enforcers, ready to see him take up his end of the deal.
Then the whistle sounded and Hare stumbled forward, tripping over his own feet. The forest erupted into pointed laughter at the fat Hare. He stood up dusting himself off before shooting forward, almost as if running from the now muffled laughs. He wanted to show them. Show them he was still their idol. He was still the fastest to ever grace them with his presence. So he sped up, faster and faster, shooting around each bend and corner. The forest faded into nothing but a blur. He would show them he was still significant.
But then he slowed, his breathing tightening. He was getting tired, he never gets tired. And with that, the reality of his situation slowly reemerged to the forefront. He could not win this race. He had a family. A family who would suffer from his neglect, his affinity for chaos, speed. So he slumped down under a tree, defeated. The onlookers laughed and he played up the character, “I can sleep and he still won’t beat me!” Then he lay down, shut his eyes in pretend sleep, and waited for Tortoise to pass him by.
It was agonizingly long before he finally heard the slow, heavy steps of Tortoise passing him. He opened his eyes to a slit, watching the shelled figure continue achingly slowly past him and around the final bend. So Hare waited, calculated; enough time to sprint convincingly after Tortoise but still lose. Finally, the moment came, and he played up his panic for the crowd, how silly he was to have slept that long, and rushed off after Tortoise. He could see the figure ahead of him about to cross the line and worried even he might still end up winning. But he didn’t, and Tortoise slumped over the finish line to win the race.
The forest erupted in cheers and jeers. Everyone’s minds blown at the sheer impossibility of what they had just witnessed. Tortoise was hoisted up by the crowd, cheered on as the most unlikely of heroes. Hare looked over at the Foxes, who nodded their approval before slinking away. Then slumped to the ground in exhaustion. He felt arms wrap around him from above and craned his neck to see his family hugging him. He smiled, feeling the warmth of relief. Other animals pointed at him and sneered but he couldn’t have cared any less.
Then he felt slow footsteps behind him and a hand tapped him on the back. He turned to find Tortoise above him and raised himself to meet him. Tortoise shrugged, “I thought you had me for a second there,” and they both chuckled. Then Tortoise continued, “My offer still stands you know…Saturday we would love you and your family over for our famous lettuce.”
Hare considered it a moment then smiled warmly, “You know what Tortoise, to be perfectly frank I can’t stand lettuce. But I think I’ll come for the company.”