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Schakale und Araber

A story ("Jackals and Arabs") by this Austrian author.  You can read the original here.

We set up camp by the oasis.  My fellow travelers were asleep as an Arab, tall and white, walked by me.  He had tended to the camels and now went to his spot to sleep.  I threw myself back into the grass: I wanted to sleep, yet could not.  The plaintive howl of a jackal echoed in the distance and I sat up again.  And what was so far away was suddenly close by: a throng of jackals had surrounded me.  They had eyes of matted gold, at once both shining and fading, and slim bodies as if they moved nimbly and properly under the command of a whip.    

One of them came up from behind me, pushed his way through under my arm, quite close, as if he needed my warmth, then stepped before me and spoke, at this point almost eye-to-eye:

"I am the oldest jackal far and wide.  I am happy to be able to greet you here still.   I had almost given up all hope, since for you we have been waiting an eternity.  My mother waited and her mother waited and all their mothers up through the mother of all jackals.  Believe this much!"

"That surprises me," I said, forgetting to light the pile of wood that lay ready to fend off the jackals with its smoke.  "To hear that surprises me greatly.  I have come quite by accident from the farthest regions of the North and was planning a short trip.  What do you want then, jackals?"

And as if encouraged by this perhaps all-too-friendly comment, they narrowed their circle around me.  All of them had short, hissing breath.

"We know," the eldest began, "that you hail from the North, for precisely on that fact rest our hopes.  There one has reason, something that cannot be found here among the Arabs.  As you know, no sparks of reason can be beaten out of their cold arrogance.  They kill animals so as to eat them and they loathe carrion."

"Do not speak so loudly," I said.  "Arabs are sleeping just nearby." 

"You really are a foreigner," said the Jackal.  "Otherwise you would know that not once in the history of the world has a jackal ever feared an Arab.  We are supposed to fear them?  Is it not unfortunate enough that we have been cast out among such a people?" 

"That may be, that may be," I said.  "I am no judge of things that are so far away from me.  This appears to be a very old dispute; it therefore must be in the blood and could also only end in blood."

"You are very clever," said the old Jackal, and all of them began to breathe more quickly with agitated lungs even though they were standing still.  A bitter smell only bearable through clenched teeth now escaped their mouths.  "You are very clever indeed.  What you say corresponds to our old teachings.  We will take their blood and the dispute will come to an end."   

"Oh," I said more wildly than I wanted.  "But they will defend themselves; and with their flints they will strike you down in packs."

"You misunderstand us," he said, "for the type of person that would also not get lost in the extreme North.  We are not going to kill them.  The Nile would not have enough water to cleanse us.  What we will do is run away from the mere sight of their living bodies, into the fresh air, into the desert, which after all is our home." 

And all the jackals, some of whom had come from very far off, lowered their heads between their front legs and rubbed them with their paws.  It was as if they wished to conceal a dislike so horrible that I would have most preferred to leap away from this circle in a single bound.

"What then do you plan on doing?" I asked and wanted to get up, but could not.  Two young animals had already bitten my shirt and knee-length garb.  I had to remain seated.  "They consider your train," said the old Jackal in an explanatory and serious tone, "an indication of honor."  "They have to let me go!" I said, turning first to the old Jackal, then to the young ones.  "And of course they will do so," said the old Jackal, "if you so wish.  But this will take a while, as they have in our custom bitten quite deeply and must slowly retract their jaws from one another.  While they are doing so, listen to our  request."  "Your behavior has not made me exactly receptive to that," I said.  "Do not hold our awkwardness against us," he said and now for the first time assumed the plaintive tone of his natural voice as an aide.  "We are poor animals; we only have our jaws.  For all that we wish to do, for the good and the bad, we only have our jaws."  "So what do you want?" I said, only mildly appeased.

"Lord," he said, and all the jackals began to howl.  In the far distance this seemed to be a melody.  "Lord, you must end the dispute that has split the world in two.  Our forefathers described who should do so, and this is how you are.  We must have peace from the Arabs; breathable air; a view of the panoramic horizon that is cleansed of them; no cry of the lamb that the Arab stabs to death; all animals should die in peace; we should be able to drink our fill undisturbed and eat the carrion to the bone.  Cleanliness and purity, this is all we want."  And now they all cried and sobbed.  "How do you, noble heart and sweet entrails, endure this world?  Dirt is their white; dirt is their black; horror is their beard; one must spit at the sight of the corners of their eyes; and when they raise their arms, hell opens up from their armpits.  For that reason, o lord, o dearest lord, with the help of your capable hands, with the help of your capable hands you will slice their throats with these shears!"  And after he had signaled with his head, a jackal came carrying in his teeth a pair of small, rusted-over sewing scissors.    

"So at last the shears and now an end!" called out the Arab leader of our caravan who had crept up to us against the wind and was now swinging his massive whip.

Everything happened rapidly, but they remained at a certain distance crouched down tightly, these many animals so stiff and close upon one another that they resembled a small herd encircled by lanterns or ghost lights.

"Now, lord, you have also seen and heard this drama," said the Arab and laughed as merrily as the restraint of his tribe permitted.  "So you know what the animals want?"  I asked.  "Of course," he said, "everyone knows what they want.  As long as there are Arabs, these shears wander through the desert and will wander with us until the end of days.  They will be offered to every European to accomplish this great work; and every European will appear to them to be the chosen one.  These animals possess an unreasonable hope; fools, veritable fools they are.  We love them for that; they are our dogs, more beautiful than yours.  Look now, a camel died in the night.  I have had it brought here."

Four porters came and threw the heavy cadaver before us.  Hardly had it lain there for long before the jackals raised their voices.  Each one, as if irresistibly drawn, came stumbling in, their bodies grazing the ground.  They had forgotten the Arabs; they had forgotten the hate, and the all-extinguishing present of the powerfully evaporating corpse bewitched them.  Soon one of them was on the animal's neck and his first bite found an artery.  Just like a small, racing pump that wishes both unconditionally and hopelessly to put out a massive fire, every muscle of the jackal's body jerked and jumped in place.  And soon atop the corpse all of them partook of the same work.

The leader cracked his sharp whip here and there over them with some power.  They raised their heads, half in ecstasy and half-fainted; they saw the Arabs standing before them; now they felt the whip upon their snouts.  They leapt back and retreated a small distance.  Yet the camel's blood already lay there in puddles giving off a stench, and the body was ripped apart in many places.  They could not resist; again they fell upon it; again the leader raised his whip.  I grabbed his arm. 

"You are right, lord," he said.  "We shall leave them to their job.  It is also time for us to break camp.  You have seen them.  Wonderful animals, don't you think?  And how they hate us!"

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