A Race for the Ages

Submitted into Contest #235 in response to: Make a race an important element of your story.... view prompt


Bedtime Funny Kids

The Hare pushed his way through the crowd, glad-handing the gentlemen, signing autographs, and availing himself of his handsomeness for selfies with the ladies; reassuring all and sundry with an excess of caffeinated wakefulness that this time he would prevail in the race. He punched the air theatrically, and the crowd cheered with effervescent joy, confident in a crushing victory for the famed speedster, not to mention – for a few – a modest return on their wagers with the bookmaker. The Hare was the crowd favorite.

As for the Tortoise, recently arrived from Ecuador, he waited patiently on the starting line, flexing his muscles, testing his spiked claws in the dirt, attracting little attention from the disdainful crowd, for whom he was an aberration, an absurdity, an asterisk in the annals of athletic history. Beneath his shell, the Tortoise seethed with resentment. He would show them.  

One sly old fox quietly placed a bet with the bookmaker, and the payout odds for the Tortoise’ unlikely victory dropped precipitously, and as the new odds were chalked up, a tremor of excitement ran through a good part of the crowd. Someone must know something. The change in sentiment spurred a small riot as would-be punters placed their bets, down to the wire. You could smell the fear and greed.  

The race official unfurled his white flag and called the two runners to their marks, which hushed the crowd and prompted the Tortoise and the Hare into their final preparations and rituals. The Hare flexed and stretched, each languid pose drawing Oohs and Aahs from the ladies, notwithstanding the slight paunch that good-living had deposited about his mid-section. The Tortoise, on the other hand, seemed to have entered a place of Zen-like stillness, of the kind that athletes like Michael Jordan, or Michael Phelps might recognize, but which – for the rest of us mortals – is understood simply as The Zone, unknowable in its essence, known in a swish-shot, a cracking half-volley, or an Olympic record.

The Hare leaned towards the Tortoise, “in case you’re wondering, there’s not a hope in hell that I will get caught napping this time. I’ve drank enough coffee to sink a cruise ship”. It was both a confidence shared, and a threat delivered.

The Tortoise crouched low on the ground, tendons and muscles rippling beneath a taut tan hide, and whispered to the Hare, “Prepare to eat my dust you muddle-headed buck-tooth ass!”.

The Hare, a child of Catholic parents, was shocked by the uncalled-for invective. Deep concern, a flicker of doubt and fear, was expressed in the flaring of his nostrils, and a flattening of his long ears.  The Tortoise had struck where it hurt most, at his self-confidence, at his mental acuity. It was a matter of great sensitivity since madness was said to run in his family and he secretly worried that he possessed a second-rate mind. 

Silence in that moment before the race, when hopes and dreams carry the heart aloft.

The Colonel whipped the flag down, the crowd erupted, the forest itself shook with excitement, hats and babies were thrown in the air, jars of beer were drained, teens moshed, pickpockets pocket-picked, improper embraces and kisses were exchanged in the darker recesses of the merriment.  

The Tortoise accelerated off his mark, throwing up a cloud of dust as his legs urgently scrambled for purchase, and his bullet-shaped body gathered momentum, and soon he was gone from the starting line, proceeding at an astonishing pace for a Holocene reptile.

Silence again. The hopes and dreams were as bubbles about to burst.  

When the dust cleared, when sense, perception and cognition had been reunited, when disbelief had been exiled, the Hare was stock-still frozen, poised like a Victorian fool at the starting line, which elicited a murmur of concern among the ladies, derision from the men. The bookmaker, fearing a lop-sided payout, bellowed “GET FUCKING MOVING YOU HAIRBRAIN!” from his elevated position atop a wooden ladder, so loud and so shocking when expressed with Scottish conviction, that the Hare, already discombobulated by the Tortoise’s snide remark, leapt vertically into the air, pirouetted in an involuntary spastic manner, then hit the ground running with a demonic energy that propelled him at great speed into the crowd, where he bounced around like a pin-ball before being directed by a burly steward in the direction of the race course, whereupon he bounded off in pursuit of the Tortoise, a half-seen spectral blur accompanied by the rush of the wind.

And in no time at all, he caught sight of his foe on the looping course. “That was a very unpleasant thing you said to me”, complained the Hare slowing to a pace that matched that of the Tortoise, “said in a very unpleasant way. It was unsportsmanlike”.

“It is true”, the Tortoise replied, irritably, “You are a scatterbrain, and slightly mad, to boot. It is a well-known thing, widely reported and commented upon”.

“It may be an oft-said thing, but it is an expression of opinion not of fact, and therefore not in the category of knowledge. You owe me an apology!”, said the Hare, risking escalation, fisticuffs or even a duel, “and besides, you plod like a dull, mean-spirited, lugubrious dolt in your silly shell. For three millennia I have lived in the shadow of your victory, and it irks me terribly that you go about living large, swanning around, acting like you are the bees-knees, while I live in that shadow and am the butt of all jokes”.

It was the Tortoise’ turn to take offence. “How dare you! You know nothing of what it is to be an asterisk, to stand atop the podium but receive no recognition for all work, the talent, the sacrifices made, not to mention the mental anguish of being forced into a role that is not of your choice”.

“How so?” said the Hare, curious.

“I never chose to be in this stupid race. The role was thrust upon me by that idiot Aesop, just to prove a point that – frankly and generally speaking - is a recipe for failure, an artful appeasement, an opiate for the ignorant masses. In my experience, you actually can fool most of the people most of the time, and slow and steady seldom wins the race”. The Tortoise turned to the Hare and looked him in his red-rimmed eyes, “can you not see how unfair it is that I am pitched against a Division I athlete, and tied for eternity to a proverb with which I have profound issues?”

The Hare fell silent as he contemplated this outburst of grievances, then unveiled those of his own.

“You do realize that there are two losers in this tangled-up situation, right?” said the Hare, appealing with outstretched paws for sympathy, “In the constant re-telling of the story of this race, I am forever hauled across the coals of humiliation, pierced through with a reputation for stupidity, tarred with the brush of hubris. I am, like you, trapped in this race, in the story of this race, but on the other side of the proverb”. 

The Tortoise was moved to tears. In the Hare he’d found a kindred spirit. “There you have it!” he exclaimed, “we are trapped in the story of the race. The race, the race, always the race, ahead of us, behind us. I am but a bean on a board, calculating and recalculating distance, time, fractions, fractals, percentages, binomials, and mean-deviations Halfway done, three-quarters done, seven-eighths, and so on and so forth”.

“Like Zeno’s arrow”, said the Hare, “we will never reach the finish line”.

“That thought is constantly on my mind”, said the Tortoise, “that I will be forever trapped in this race by ethics and mathematics”.

They stopped in the forest, suddenly weary and lacking the will to go on. They sat and contemplated their conjoined fates.

“Perhaps we can change the narrative?”, suggested The Hare, “For instance, why do we race in the first place? Sport is not in our nature, nor is there any obvious symbiotic or parasitic benefit to us from the competition into which we have been thrust. We are randomly selected, placed in an invented setting by a deranged mind for the amusement of a callous crowd.”

“Like Christians thrown to the lions”, said the Tortoise.

“Like beef and lamb in a Doner kebab”, said the Hare, overcome by exhaustion and complexity.

“You should rest”, suggested the Tortoise to his new friend, “the stress is taking its toll”.  

“Indeed, that and the after-effects of several cups of coffee”, said the Hare, wearily. He sighed and slumped upon a nearby moss-covered rock.

“Rest up a while”, suggested the Tortoise, sitting down nearby on a patch of warm grass.  

The Hare yawned, the Tortoise yawned in cross-species contagious sympathy, which caused his hooded eyes to droop, and within seconds the two adversaries were united in afternoon slumber, their race run.

The Tortoise opened one eye, scarcely more than a slit. The Hare was lying on the rock on his back, snoring, his back feet were twitching, as if running a race in his dreams.  

The Tortoise slunk away, and proceeded onward in a self-loathing, reptilian kind of way. The crowd cheered and jeered in equal measure when he slid across the finish line. 

“Slow and steady wins the race’, proclaimed the race official with unassumed authenticity.

“Victory, snatched from the jaws of defeat”, thought the Tortoise as he was raised shoulder high by the crowd, conveyed to the podium, installed thereon, and promptly presented with a silver cup and a one-thousand-dollar check, “and to the winner the spoils”.

February 02, 2024 18:39

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