Joel the Elephant (a fable of sorts, but not really: my version of a children’s story)

Once upon a time, in a place similar to New Jersey, there lived a kindly elephant named Joel. Joel never wore shirts, but he always wore shorts – shorts that cinched tightly around his rotund waist in a way that was uncomfortable to look at.

One day, Joel happened to be taking a stroll. His mind was on nothing in particular, and his heart was light. He swung his trunk about in his customary cheerful way, and nodded benignly to every person, leaf, toad, and bird that he passed.

It happened that a baby bird had caught sight of Joel, and had been intently watching him for some time. The bird was safely within the confines of its nest, some 15 feet above the ground, and felt that it could survey the elephant unabashedly from there. It was most fascinated by the shorts the elephant was wearing. “Too small. Shorts too small,” the baby bird muttered to itself in its stilted bird-language.

Of course, Joel realized he was being watched, and he swiveled his eyes about nervously. Initially he couldn’t pinpoint the location of his “stalker” (as he had begun naming the menacing feeling); but he suddenly noticed a hideous tuft of downy feathers poking up over the side of a branch above him, and upon seeing the tuft quiver, he knew he had found his antagonist.

“Show yourself, you wicked thing,” Joel said, politely. He was trying to be mean, but was failing miserably.
The tuft became as still as stone. All quivering ceased, and the only audible sound was a watery intake of breath from the place of the nest.

“Come on, then,” said Joel, “Why stare at me in such a covert way? It’s shameful and weird. Let me see your face.” His tone was now so kindly that the baby bird wanted nothing more than to poke its head over the nest. And so it did.

You and I both know that baby birds aren’t much to look at. Well, even with that in mind, you and I would both have reacted much like Joel did upon seeing this particular baby bird, who was so terrifically hideous that Joel went blind for two whole seconds. “Sweet mayonnaise,” gasped Joel, and then immediately regretted it, since his mother disapproved of expletives.

“I…I bird,” said the baby bird. It smiled at Joel. This made Joel feel ill, because he thought at first that the bird was turning its beak inside out. Upon recognizing something akin to a smile within the distortion, however, he felt his shoulders relax and his heart expand.
“Yes. Yes, you are a bird,” he replied, employing that infuriatingly condescending tone so many people use when talking to babies. The baby bird blinked in annoyance at him, and then continued.
“I baby bird, and you large thing in shorts too small. Bad shorts, look dumb.” It then let its beak hang open, and this made it look both wise and stoned.

Joel took a moment to ponder this well-meaning insult. He realized that the baby bird was just trying to make sense of things, trying to figure out syntax and semantics, and probably trying to grasp the concept of object permanence. On top of that, it looked like something you’d find under rock. So rather than take offense to the prattling infant, Joel decided that the baby bird was someone he could find a friend in.

“You don’t like my shorts?” he asked the baby bird, smiling. The baby bird shook its head solemnly, and then whispered, “Too tight. Too yellow. Where mama? Where worm? What is life?”

At this, Joel became fed up. He liked his shorts, and he’d never been good at talking with baby birds. “Farewell, bird,” he said, and continued along his merry way.


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