Jul 30 2013

After the race, the hare couldn’t look the tortoise in the eye for a week. She couldn’t even speak to him for a month, which was difficult, since they lived next door to each other and even shared a vegetable garden. She woke up every day long before the tortoise stretched his head forth from his shell to water the garden and pick her carrots, then shut herself in her burrow and wouldn’t come out for anyone.

As soon as she could make herself she knocked on his door and asked him if they could race again. “I don’t know about that,” said the tortoise, “I think you’ve got some training to do.” The hare felt hurt and angry, but she didn’t let it show. She agreed that it might be an idea, and that they should race in a year’s time. “That sounds reasonable,” said the tortoise with a grin, “I wouldn’t want to humiliate you a second time.”

The days passed quickly for the tortoise. He didn’t do too much thinking about the approaching race, because he was busy with other things, and he didn’t care about winning. But he spent most of his days in his beautiful study looking out over his pond, and beyond the pond was the hare’s field, where he could see her training. Month after month the hare trained vigorously but with no very apparent improvement. She routinely overtrained and worked herself into a stupor. She tripped over nothing but her own eagerness and hurt herself. She stomped her big back feet in tantrums of rage. The tortoise found himself very amused by her struggles.

In reality, the tortoise only told himself he didn’t care about the race, but deep down he cared a great deal. All the time he was sipping his tea and enjoying his delicious breakfasts and laughing at the tortoise, he was taking victory for granted. He was comparing himself favourably to everyone he had ever known, not only the hare, but to others he’d known who had been successful in different ways, and usually in more meaningful ways. He didn’t recognise that they had worked hard for their achievements, or that his success had been due more to the weakness of an opponent than to any special effort of his own.

On race day the hare was nervous. The whole neighbourhood had shown up to see them compete, and even the carnivores had agreed to keep their appetites quiet. At the starting line she starting shivering and couldn’t seem to stop, and her teeth chattered. But when the cuckoo sounded and she started running, she felt better immediately. The cheering of their mutual acquaintance faded behind her and her anxiety was all dissipated in the serenity of the balmy afternoon. The gentle breeze played in her fur and her long ears pointed straight up with delight as though they would float away if they could. She stopped to smell some roses and nibbled their delicate petals as though she had never tasted them before. She thought she had never known such focus.

Before she knew it the hare had returned through the large circuit marked out for the race, and there remained only a little way to the finish line. With the hint a smile playing at the corners of her lips she lay down for a nap in the soft clover beside the track, just as she had planned. Everyone had started cheering when they had first caught sight of her, and when she lay down they cheered and shouted even louder, but she felt so overwhelmed with peacefulness that she had no trouble slipping away from consciousness. She felt as though she would sleep and sleep and sleep.

For a little while she did sleep the sound sleep of true satisfaction, but then she began to dream. She dreamed that she was having tea with the tortoise in his quiet study where he had laughed at her all year long. As things are often somehow wrong in dreams, something here was strange with the hare, and she realised that it was because this dream had given her a great intelligence. But instead of enjoying sophisticated conversation with her friend she was using the superior facilities of her mind to break him down and hurt him. Every time he offered some observation or piece of information, she countered in such a way that made him feel stupid and small. He figeted, stuttered, spilled his tea, and blinked back tears. And the hare was intoxicated with her own malice.

She awoke very abruptly and sprang to her feet filled with terrible regret. Peering towards the finish line, she saw to her relief that the whole gathering was glaring at her balefully and muttering with impatience, and that the tortoise had not yet arrived. As fast as she could she retraced the race, tripping over her own eagerness and excitement to make things right, until she reached the tortoise. She hoisted him onto her back and hopped along as tough he were lighter than air. And so they finally crossed the finish line together, and all the other animals congratulated them, and everyone was happy.

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