Francis Albert Walrus
Original Russian text by Grechko Vlimpy
Francis Albert Walrus lived on an ice floe with his 45 wives. (Forty-five is a significant number of wives, for obvious reasons, but Francis didn't make a big thing of it.) Francis had many responsibilities and duties which occupied virtually all of his waking hours, and some other hours as well. Like all walrus, Francis was conscientious to a fault. But, unlike most walrus, he preferred to think of himself as a renaissance walrus, a philosophical walrus of leisure, a devil-may-care walrus of the world. Thus, even though he was busy from sunup to sundown (and even longer in the winter), he nevertheless averred that he had nothing to do but lounge around the ice floe flippering his whiskers and contemplating the eternal verities. A more reflexive walrus might have wondered why he spent so much more time thinking about lounging, and thinking about thinking, and so little time actually supinely contemplating, but Francis was also too busy for introspection. If asked, he would have insisted, "Of course I know myself. I live a life of scholarly contemplation. Knowledge IS my life." But in fact he was much too busy.
Every morning Francis arose before dawn, amazed to have slept so late and feeling somewhat rushed and flustered. He yawned, stretched his considerable length and girth, gave a resounding bellow, and plunged into the Arctic (or possibly the Atlantic, as your narrator is somewhat tentative about ecosystems). While his forty-four wives and innumerable children slept on, Francis was off the ice floe and into the water for the first of the day's important tasks: fish-fooling.
Francis had been fooling fish for years. He was a master, to his certain knowledge the only master of fish bamboozlement. Francis' technique was elegant in its simplicity. He met with the fish and addressed them as peers. "Fish," he explained, "I am a walrus. You, however, are not. What a pity. Nevertheless. As I was saying. You are just dumb fish. But I'm here to provide you with an opportunity to create some meaning in your essentially futile and pointless little lives. You - yes, YOU my friends - with a small initial sacrifice, YOU can actually become - A WALRUS. Or at least part of the great, all-encompassing, eternal walrus. Think of it: a chance finally to rise above your miserable daily existence, eating food and flailing about in the sea of life. Consider. You're going to die anyway. Why not, instead of just rotting away, become a part of something tremendous, something perfect, something transcendent. Such as a walrus. Think of all the terrible fates that can befall a fish. It's so depressing. Better for you just to swim right up here into my mouth. Well.... At least, the most highly evolved, the most succulent, may swim into my mouth. The rest will have to content themselves with my wives and children. Of course we will eat you, but in the nicest way possible. And then - and then, my friends, you won't be just dumb fish any more. You'll be - part of us. Walrus. Then you too can gaze down upon the dumb fish in the sea with pity, compassion and contempt. Until you eat them."
A few hours of this each day and fish were queuing up for miles to become food for the walrus. Between Francis' powers of persuasion and a little word of mouth advertising, the walrus community was always well and easily fed.
Francis finished his morning pep talk, ate his fill of ecstatic fish, and heaved his bulky body back onto the ice. When one of his great flippers accidentally swept a sleeping cow and infant walrus into the ice water, Francis didn't notice. He was too busy congratulating himself on being a good provider, experiencing pity and compassion for his breakfast, and considering his next task, all the while reminding himself that in just a moment he would once again be engaged in leisurely contemplation of the eternal verities.
Francis lumbered into the center of the sleeping herd, grunting licentiously. He mounted a succession of cows (all of whom, until the moment, were sleeping innocently) until satiated. "What a loving family walrus I am," thought Francis comfortably. What the cows thought is not recorded. Feeling replete, Francis thought to reward the cows with a love song. Raising his voice to its highest pitch so that sheets of ice cascaded off a nearby glacier, Francis sang, "My name is Francis... Francis Albert Walrus. I sing love songs. I'm singing you a love song. And this is how it goes. My name is Francis... Francis ALBERT Walrus.... I sing love songs...."
When he was finished, Francis pursued the herd, which had unaccountably drawn away to the most distant part of the ice floe, and corralled a group of young walrus. Educating the young was one of Francis' most important tasks, and he took it as seriously as he did cow-pronging, fish bamboozling, and love song singing. (That is to say, he didn't make a big deal of it.) "Now, my young," he began. "Soon you will be adult walrus. There's nothing finer than the life of the adult walrus. Nothing to do but lie around all day thinking higher thoughts." (Here some of the younger males began to stir and whisper among themselves, but Francis didn't notice.) "There are many important things you need to know about being a walrus, though, before you take your place in the fine community of bull walrushood. For example, did you know that the walrus is the highest form of life in the universe? Of course you did. All other creatures aspire to be walrus, but only WE, WE FEW, have the opportunity. And why is that? Because we are SELF AWARE. All these other creatures - fish, for example - desire above all to be like us. But they can't. They can, of course, under certain circumstances - "
Here he was interrupted by an outcry among the cows. "Oh, oh!" they said. "What is that?"
"What? Where?" asked Francis, his timing destroyed and his train of thought derailed.
"There," they said, "over there, Francis. There. In the distance. I'm sure I see it. It's a strange creature. Coming this way."
All the young walrus knew, as Francis did not, that Francis' most important task, the one he took most seriously of all, was the patrolling of the ice floe. In this way he prevented any lower forms of life (or, as he called them, "dumb things") from contaminating the walrus community, and incidentally ensured that he never encountered any ideas but his own.
Within moments, all the cows and calves were twittering about the approaching stranger. Francis rolled off in the direction of the ostensible interloper, completely unaware that invariably, daily, at just this point in his lecture to the young an interloper was always detected by the cows but somehow never appeared in the ice floe. Behind him, barely audible, a cow murmured, "Fooled again, the big dork." Because they knew that, as surely as day follows dawn, once Francis was done lecturing he would begin mounting again, and they weren't sure which activity they found more tedious. As Francis heaved into the distance, the cows and calves returned to their own preferred activities: allowing fish to swim into their mouths and gossiping.
As it happened, on this day a strange creature really did ascend the ice floe. Francis approached it warily.
"Hello," he said with dignity. "My name is Francis. Francis Albert Walrus. I sing love songs. And who might you be?"
"My name is Claude Penguin," replied the stranger. "With a name like that, you might think I'd be a penguin. But I'm not. Penguins are dumb. And I'm not a penguin."
"Hmmm," said Francis. "You appear to me to be a penguin, and a mighty dumb one at that. At least, you have the look of a penguin."
"You think I look like a penguin, and that would be fine if by that you mean that I don't look like a penguin," said Claude.
"You have webbed feet and waddle like a penguin," said Francis.
"You think I walk like a penguin, and that's fine, but you can't tell a penguin by how it walks," said Claude.
"You're wearing stupid black and white feathers just like a penguin," said Francis.
"You think I'm feathered like a penguin and that's fine, but you can't tell a penguin by its feathers," retorted Claude.
"Well, said Francis, "the I Ching says that one can know a penguin by how he chooses to fill his own mouth. And I happen to know that penguins like to fill their own mouths with fish. What do you eat?"
"I eat fish," Claude replied, "but not like a penguin."
"What do you mean, not like a penguin? How do penguins eat fish?"
"They chase them through the water and catch them," said Claude. "But not me. The fish I eat swim right into my mouth because they're searching for a higher form of consciousness."
"Egad!" exclaimed Francis. "You must be a walrus!"
"Walrus!!!" Claude cried. "Where???? Don't say things like that! I'm not a walrus! Walrus are BAD! And YOU aren't a walrus either! Walrus are huge white hairy beasts with black noses and sharp teeth and terrible claws like grappling hooks. They EAT penguins. If I were a walrus, I'd be running away from me, if I were a penguin. Which I'm not."
This gave Francis pause. He said tentatively, "So what you're saying is.... That is to say.... You must be me. That's it. You're me, and I'm a walrus, I'm sure of it."
"But no," said Claude smugly, "you can't possibly be a walrus. Everyone knows that walrus are busy from dawn to dusk, and even longer in the winter, taking care of their herds and lecturing the young and patrolling their territory."
"Hmmm," said Francis. "You - that is - I - may also do those things."
"No," said Claude with certainty, "those things are too important. If you were doing those things, you'd never have time for the arts, or for metaphysics either. Also there's your name. No walrus has three names. Walrus have one name, like Walt or Wilt or Milt or Matt. You can't possibly be a walrus. Maybe you're a penguin." Claude paused. "I regret to inform you that I'm not here right now. Please leave your name and I'll get back to you as soon as possible." Claude bent over and crammed his head up his butt, such that no amount of persuasion would induce him to remove it.
Francis was confused. The two things in life of which he had always been certain were that he was a walrus and that he lived a life of contemplative leisure. Looking at Claude he began to wonder which of them was the penguin, or the walrus, or what, or where.
When Claude finally returned from not being gone, he and Francis began to consider these ideas, by which I mean to say that they began to argue. They argued through the day and into the evening. Francis finally demonstrated, by use of his superior reason and also because he had the much louder voice, that Claude was not and could not possibly be a walrus, although there remained some confusion as to whether Francis was Claude or whether a walrus was a polar bear or a penguin or even a baloncesto.
Claude was heartsick. He was a penguin. A penguin! All his hopes and dreams, all his goals and desires reduced to this! All he was, all he could ever be, was just a dumb penguin!
"Well, then," he concluded, "if I am a penguin - then so what?" With that he leaped into Francis awaiting jaws.
Francis felt a change. "What am I doing standing around here arguing with someone who isn't even there? I'm a busy - ah, whatever. I have important things to do! I have to mount my cows and lecture the calves and patrol the periphery of the ice flow. It may be that occasionally I will sing a love song, but I certainly have no time or inclination for leisure. As for metaphysics - who cares?" He called the herd together to share with them his newfound wisdom.
"Walrus!" he said. "And by that I do not actually mean walrus at all! You're not walrus! It's just like I've been telling you for years! We're not walrus! I can prove it! Reason this through with me. It's so obvious. If we were walrus, we'd all be fleeing from the penguins. We all know how dangerous penguins are, with their black noses and their sharp teeth and their terrible claws and their webbed feet. We'd have to flee. If we were walrus. And, of course, if there were any penguins. But there aren't any penguins, at least not here, because I ate the last one. At least, I think that was me. Maybe I was the last penguin. I don't know. Anyway, one thing I am sure of, there are going to be some big changes around here!
"It must be obvious to you, as it is to me, that we've been going about this fishfooling all wrong. Getting them to swim into our mouths was hip for awhile but we've evolved beyond it now. Henceforth, in line with my new understanding of our anatomy, we'll have to teach the fish to stop swimming up our butts, which we thought were our mouths but of course that's wrong, and have them swim into our mouths, which we thought was up our butts, but of course that was wrong."
Even as he spoke, a vast transformation swept the walrus herd, or perhaps the transformation was only in Francis' mind, who knows. Before his eyes, cows and calves were recast as polar bears, with black noses and sharp teeth and terrible claws like grappling hooks. Others became baloncestos, signed by Michael Jordan and David Robinson. Then the entire herd of polar bears and basketballs fell upon one another, and when the haze of blood and bone cleared, only Francis remained. His herd had eaten itself, down to the last flipper, nose, and rebound.
"But[t] then again," he said in a quieter tone, "I don't know shit."
Francis slipped into the icy water. He swam disconsolately for awhile, considering how meaningless his life had become now that he had no herd to protect and furthermore he didn't know shit. Suddenly to his left he noticed a set of vaguely familiar jaws, and he saw the solution to the problem of his life. Resolutely, he flexed his dorsal fin, inhaled deeply through his gills, and swam beneath the waiting teeth.