A Trick of the Tail
“Katie, you’re supposed to be drawing a picture of your friend!” Emily’s voice was a shrill, plaintive, tattle-tale whine that crawled under Miss Simpson’s skin and set up housekeeping.“Emily, let me handle any problems, please,” she said, moving quickly to Katie’s desk. Emily’s words had already cut poor Katie, though. The tiny redhead had quit drawing and her face was scrunched into a fierce scowl. Her thin arms crossed, then uncrossed stiffly, then crossed again tight against her little chest as she hunched protectively over her drawing. She didn’t look up when Miss Simpson reached for the paper.
“I told you!” Emily trumpeted as the teacher’s eyes fell on the drawing.
“This is a very good drawing, Katie,” said Miss Simpson. “Emily, keep your eyes on your own work, please.”
“Well, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to!” protested Emily.
“That’s really no concern of yours, now is it? And if you don’t mind your own business you’ll sit in the hallway for the rest of art period.”
Emily sniffed audibly and glared at Katie. What a perfect victim the brat makes, thought Miss Simpson.
At time for recess, Katie was slow to leave her desk and even slower to pull on her jacket. Miss Simpson bit her lip, then made a decision.“Katie, would you talk to me for a moment before you go outside?”
Katie turned slowly and walked woodenly over to Miss Simpson’s desk.
“That really was a good drawing,” Miss Simpson said with a smile. The child’s eyebrows knit together and her frown became, if anything, darker. She stood to the side of Miss Simpson’s desk glowering at a mote perhaps two feet off the ground and somewhere to the left.
“It really was okay for you to draw a picture of a friend other people can’t see.”
This time the little girl cut her eyes at Miss Simpson. “Other people see him,” she muttered.
Miss Simpson sighed.
“Katie, I’m going to ask Mr. Carson to spend some time with you, okay? And you can talk to him about problems you might be having with Emily or with the other students, or even at home. He’s a really nice man and he’s a good listener.”
Katie shrugged. The motion was exaggerated, defensive. The mote had moved another foot to the left, and the child took a half step toward it, still glowering.
“Go ahead to recess.” Miss Simpson watched the child slowly stomp out of the room.
“Miss Simpson showed me the picture you drew of your friend. Why don’t you tell me about him?”
Mr. Carson’s cajoling tone seemed not to penetrate Katie’s sullen mien. She sat tight-lipped in the molded plastic chair kicking her feet alternately toward the metal waste can. The school counselor’s cramped office could barely hold the two chairs, his desk, a file cabinet, and stacks of papers, files and books that littered every available surface. Mr. Carson allowed nearly two full minutes of silence before he spoke again.
“I’m going to talk to your parents,” he commented decisively. Katie shrugged her exaggerated shrug and swung her feet harder.
Mr. Carson rang the doorbell at the house on the edge of the small town. A baby cried somewhere behind the closed door. Footsteps pounded rapidly closer and a boy about ten years old and as red-haired and freckled as Katie threw open the door. “Mom!” he bawled over the staccato barks of a terrier when he saw who the visitor was. A man dressed in a sleeveless undershirt came from what appeared to be the kitchen.
“Mr. Holden? I’m Fred Carson.” The counselor held out his hand for a shake and Katie’s father led him to a sofa covered with unfolded laundry. Thrusting the clothes into a plastic basket sitting next to the sofa, Mr. Holden waved at the counselor to sit. A moment later they were joined by Mrs. Holden.
“It isn’t abnormal for a girl Katie’s age to have an imaginary friend,” began the counselor.
“Tishapus isn’t imaginary,” said Mrs. Holden.
Mr. Carson cleared his throat. “What I mean is that children often create playmates when they feel isolated among their peers.”
“He’s not her playmate,” said Mrs. Holden.
Mr. Carson shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Katie insists that she has a friend who looks like a faun, or a satyr – like Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I assume that’s where she got the idea, anyway.”
The Holdens exchanged a look. Mrs. Holden nodded slightly to her husband, and Mr. Holden rose. “Please excuse me a moment,” he said. Mr. Carson gestured permissively.
As her husband left the room, Katie’s mother turned to face the school counselor directly. “Mr. Carson, we don’t expect you to believe Katie. We hope you will believe your own eyes, though.”
Before he could respond, Mr. Carson’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened. Accompanying Mr. Holden back into the living room was a creature about five feet tall which looked for all the world like it had the legs and haunches of a goat, the torso of a man, and wickedly curved horns on its head.
“Mr. Carson, meet Tishapus,” said Mr. Holden.
Detective Dennis P. O’Leary banged the empty coffee mug down so hard it should have broken. The sharp sound bounced off the bare walls of the interrogation room. The stranger on the other side of the table winced just slightly at the noise, then his expression smoothed out again.
“I told you, we don’t take to vagrants here in my town,” O’Leary barked. The stranger’s wide-eyed stare didn’t betray fear. Inexplicably, he only seemed curious, his head cocked slightly to one side.
“Why not?” asked the stranger in his odd, lilting accent.
“Why not? Why NOT?” blustered O’Leary. “Because we don’t!”
The stranger nodded thoughtfully. O’Leary had the notion the stranger was filing his response away to study later.
“What do you tolerate, then?” the stranger asked. His words were mild, not at all confrontational.
“What do you mean, ‘What do we tolerate’? We tolerate law-abiding citizens and visitors who know their place!”
“What place is that?”
O’Leary’s eyes narrowed as he leaned across the table, his out-thrust chin close to the stranger’s long goatee. “Are you getting smart with me, boy? Because if you’re getting smart with me you won’t be leaving my jail until a judge says you can.”
The stranger’s expression showed confusion for just a fleeting flash of a moment, then rearranged to display detached curiosity. “I am trying to become smarter, yes,” he answered. “Will you share your knowledge with me?” He held up his oddly deformed hand and reached toward O’Leary.
O’Leary slammed his big fist on the table so hard the empty ceramic mug jumped. The stranger jumped slightly, too.
“Boy, your mouth is getting you in deeper,” warned the burly policeman.
“Deeper?” This time the stranger’s confusion lingered in his expression for more than a split second. “I do not understand ‘deeper.’ Can you explain it to me in other words?”
O’Leary spun on his heel and banged on the locked door, which opened almost immediately to admit a smaller man who nodded to O’Leary as the policeman left the room. The new man took the seat O’Leary had vacated. He was silent for almost three full minutes, just studying the stranger through frankly appraising eyes. Then he cleared his throat.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
“You are Doctor Will Handy. I remember you.”
“The police need your real name,” Handy said.
“I do not believe they will be able to pronounce my name. They may call me Tishapus, like the others do.”
“The police need your real name,” Handy repeated.
The stranger was quiet for a moment, then Handy’s head spun as a whisper of sound, emotion, and images assaulted his mind. Even seated solidly in his chair the psychologist nearly lost his balance.
“Tishapus is a good name,” the stranger explained.
“No, I need your name,” Handy objected. Again the feelings, images, and unrepeatable tones washed over him.
“Really, Tishapus will have to do, unless you prefer to use a different word for me.”
Handy’s head swam, but this time from understanding. “That’s your name?” he whispered. “How did you do that?”
The stranger peered intently into Will Handy’s eyes for several long moments. “My language works differently than yours,” he finally said. The statement was so obviously true, and so obviously impossible, that Dr. Handy’s mind reeled.
The psychologist rose shakily and paced the room. He returned to the chair, sat down, sat silently for a moment, then rose again and stood across the table from the stranger.
“Where are you from?” he asked Tishapus.
“The children call it Heaven, but it is not the heaven of your culture’s religious belief system.”
“The children are right,” Handy said it almost to himself, but the stranger heard and nodded.
“The young always accept notions foreign to them much easier than do fully grown creatures,” agreed the stranger. “In this case I believe they have imposed a familiar idea onto their new knowledge. It most likely makes the new knowledge easier for them to talk about among themselves and with others.”
Will Handy nodded thoughtfully.
“Where will you go if the police release you?” he asked after a few moments.
“Katie’s playhouse is comfortable for my present purposes,” the stranger said amiably.
“You understand that Mike and Beth Holden say you can stay in their home, don’t you?”
“Yes, but my studies will best be conducted if the local population has better access to me. Although it would probably be the best place for my research, Mike Holden said that I could probably not stay in the gazebo in the park.” The stranger hesitated. “Who could give me permission to station myself in the park gazebo?”
“You’re actually serious,” Handy said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Of course,” the stranger – Tishapus – said.
“And you have no money, so you can’t get a room at May’s boardinghouse.”
The stranger shrugged. “Money is a concept I had not planned upon when I came to study your species.”
“My species? Not my society or my culture, but my species?”
Tishapus nodded. “We must understand the basics of your species before we try to study your social structure in great detail.”
“You’re telling me there are more… people … like you?”
“You did not expect this to be true?” the stranger’s demeanor radiated cool amusement. “Interesting.”
Handy stepped back from the table. “Excuse me, please, Tishapus.”
In the hallway outside the interrogation room Handy conferred with Detective O’Leary and Captain Mitchell. “I’ve not encountered anyone like him, that’s for sure,” he began.
O’Leary snorted. “Fellow’s crazy, ain’t he? We need to call the State Hospital and have him committed.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Handy disagreed.
“You don’t really think it’s okay to let him go back to that little girl’s playhouse and camp out, receiving guests like he’s visiting royalty, do you?” the big detective sneered.
“Come on, Detective. This is something different than a regular stranger in town. You have to recognize that. You recognize it, don’t you, Tom?” Handy asked the captain.
“He’s not in a costume, that’s for sure,” Mitchell replied.
O’Leary rolled his eyes. “The hell he’s not!”
“Dennis, for Pete’s sake. His knees bend the wrong way. That’s no costume.”
“Prosthetic legs. And he’s deformed. He’s as human as you or me. His mama was on drugs or something when she was pregnant is all,” O’Leary stated flatly.
“Detective, did you ask his name?” Handy inquired.
“Yeah. He wouldn’t say. He just kind of whistled at me.”
“Whistled at you,” Will Handy echoed.
“I’m saying we should take him up to the State Hospital and have him worked over by the docs there. Not that you aren’t a doctor, Doc Handy, but you know what I mean.” O Leary’s communication skills were better suited to interrogation than to diplomacy.
“No, Dennis, he’s done nothing wrong and the parents of those kids aren’t worried about him being a danger. The Holdens have even invited him to stay in their home. No one will say he’s a danger to himself or to anyone else, other than Dave Hernandez, that is, and you know he’s never happy about anything. We can’t have him committed unless we think there’s some problem.”
“Being delusional isn’t a problem?” O’Leary demanded incredulously.
“If the delusion isn’t harming him or someone else, then no, it’s not a problem. And to be honest, I’m not so certain he’s delusional.”
Captain Mitchell nodded at Dr. Handy’s words. “I’m going to release him, then. The Holdens are waiting and want to take him home with them.”
“Wait a minute,” objected O’Leary. “What if he’s a child molester? We can’t just let him go.”
“Detective, I have interviewed the fellow, and so has Dr. Jenner. Aside from possible eccentricity, we find no delusions that we can verify as delusions. The guy isn’t human. If he is, then he’s the next step on the evolutionary ladder and we can’t verify that there are similar mutations anywhere in the world. In short, he’s not from around here. We have nothing to indicate he is a threat.”
“Not only that, but if we lock him up then we’re going to have some angry citizens to deal with,” added Captain Mitchell. “Bill Costello has drafted a habeas corpus petition that he’s going to file with Judge Miller if we hold this fellow much longer. And Judge Miller’s kid is one of Katie Holden’s friends. She’s been playing with this … Tishapus. With her daddy’s permission, I might add.”
Detective O’Leary threw up his hands in disgust. “Fine,” he snapped. “But this won’t be the end of it. I can promise this fellow’s going to be trouble sooner or later.”
“The Bradford County Cantaloupe Festival is apparently getting off to a good start. We’ll check back with our weather team shortly and get a live update on weather conditions for the weekend. In other news, an event of a different sort seems to be going on in the small community of Pleasant Ridge. Candy Olsen is on the scene and will tell us more.”
The red light on the camera let Candy Olsen know she was being beamed live into the living rooms of television viewers across the region. She smiled directly at the red glow and began speaking.
“Thank you, Frankie. I am waiting at the home of the Holden family of Pleasant Ridge for an event that may be monumental indeed. The being that calls itself “Tishapus” has agreed to give Channel 8 an interview, and in a few moments I hope to be sitting with him at the picnic table you see behind me. There is a festival atmosphere here. It seems the entire town has turned out to observe the interview. We’ll be broadcasting the interview on the late news tonight.”
The red light blinked out as the anchor on the set, an hour’s drive away, resumed reading from the teleprompter.
The petite blonde television news reporter settled herself uncomfortably at the child-size picnic table in the Holden’s front yard. Despite her cheerful assertion, the little house on the edge of the middle class neighborhood on the edge of the small town didn’t really seem festive. Sure, people milled around everywhere, but their faces were solemn, guarded. No festival ever seems to be protectively distrustful of television cameras. When the lens would swing in their direction more often than not the people of Pleasant Ridge frowned and looked away. Candy Olsen was certain that people attending the Bradley County Cantaloupe Festival were grinning as they ate their melons and danced in the street. She was fairly certain people there would pose for the cameras and act silly. There was no foolishness or gaiety at the Holdens’ home, though.
A commotion by the small frame house drew the attention of the people milling about the yard. Indistinct voices hummed in a higher pitch of excitement and a knot of movement crossed the 30 or so feet toward the picnic table.
The creature had been described to her, but the reporter was not quite prepared for actually seeing it in reality. In one corner of her mind she was aware that she was staring stupidly and that her gaping mouth was being caught on film. She couldn’t pull her wide eyes away from the creature, though.
Its face was vaguely human, but the planes and angles were wrong. The face looked like one of those Photoshop images of the sheep-child that periodically appear on the cover of the sillier supermarket tabloids. The face was too narrow, too long; the cheekbones too high; the beard – no, there was no beard, except for the white tuft the grew in an elegantly thick corkscrew curl from the creature’s chin. Sleek silver-gray fur covered the creature’s torso and face, then became curly ginger brown at the crown of the creature’s head. At waist level, the ginger fur reappeared, longer, curlier and denser. What was it called when dogs had that kind of coat? Wire-hair. The mouth, almost a snout or a muzzle but not quite, curved upward at the corners. She wanted to reach out and touch the horns. Were they densely matted hair, like the horn of a rhinoceros? Were they light and woody, like the antlers of a deer, or bony like those of a ram?
Candy Olsen rose from her perch on the bench of the picnic table. Tishapus walked gracefully toward her. His knees bend backwards, went through her mind. Those aren’t hooves. I thought he had deer hooves, but those are pads, or paws. No, they are hooves, they just don’t look like any hooves I’ve ever seen. Her observations of the creature’s physical characteristics fled as she felt a nudge against her mind and the sensation of amusement, not her own amusement but someone else’s tickled the edges of her consciousness.
Tishapus stopped nearly three feet away from her and bowed slightly. She saw what she thought was a stubby tail tipped with a copy of his goatee. She started to say something, then wasn’t sure what to say.
“Hello.” That was inane, she thought. What a great first impression I’m making. She mentally shook herself. She wasn’t there to make a good impression. She was there for an interview.
The reported indicated the picnic table. “Shall we sit? I’m Candy Olsen.”
The creature bowed again and moved to one end of the table. Rather than sitting on the bench he sat on his haunches. He leaned forward and crossed his arms on the table.
“Please you will excuse me,” he said softly, “But it is not comfortable for me to sit on a bench or chair the way your kind does.”
“N-no, I suppose it wouldn’t be comfortable,” she replied, unable to take her eyes off the creature.
“You have questions you would like me to answer?” She heard his voice in her ears and in her mind at the same time. She wasn’t altogether certain that his spoken words were what she really understood.
“Yes,” she said, and nervously consulted her notes. The interview began.
“Candy, we can’t use any of this for the playback on the late news. You’ll have to summarize what he said.” The frustration in the editor’s voice dismayed the reporter.
“None of it? But he was eloquent and answered the questions beautifully! What do you mean you can’t use it?”
“Have you listened to the tapes?”
“No, why would I? You are the editor. I just do the interview.”
“Candy, the creature didn’t speak. He sang. Or, it sort of sounds like singing. And he didn’t use words. I don’t know how you talked with him.”
“What do you mean, he didn’t use words? He spoke plainly and clearly. Everyone there heard him!”
“Watch the playback, Candy. Just watch it.”
Sighing with exasperation, the reporter nodded to the cameraman. He began the playback.
Moments later, Candy Olsen stalked away to create a summary of her interview with the creature. No one had taken notes. It was all being captured on camera, so there had been no need for notes.
“I’m going to miss you. I wish you wouldn’t go.”
“I will miss you, too, little one.”
“Why can’t you stay?”
“When I left my home no one believed I could come here. I have learned about your race and now I need to go back home and tell my people about you.”
“Who’s going to tell other people here about you, though?”
“The ones here who saw me and knew me will tell. They will tell the people they encounter, and those people will tell others.”
“No one believed you were real until they saw you. Once you’re gone no one will believe in you, either.”
The creature looked at the human child with sadness. “Whether or not the people who hear of me believe, those who saw me do. They know. You know.”
The little girl sighed. “What if your family and friends don’t believe you about us?” She felt Tishapus’s wry amusement.
“They probably won’t. Creatures with no tails? And intelligent creatures without horns? And the odd way your bodies are constructed? They will laugh at me and call me crazy.”
“Then why tell them?”
Tishapus thought for a moment.
“I will tell them because knowledge is good, and if our races ever meet for trade my people should understand you people’s customs.”
Katie was quiet. Then she asked, “Is that why so many of the grown-ups are going with you?”
“Yes. They want to know how to get to my people. And I think some of them still don’t believe that my people exist or that my home exists.”
“I want to come with you, too.”
“I would like that. When you are older, perhaps you can be the ambassador from your race to mine.”
Katie smiled. She hopped down from her perch on the swing and hugged Tishapus. He hugged her back.
The vehicles had been left behind when the road ended. A group of eight men and women hiked the mountainous trail with the creature called Tishapus. Mike and Beth Holden, who had hosted him, Bill Costello, who had defended him, Candy Olsen, who had interviewed him, Dr. Willard Handy, who had examined his mind, and Dr. Emma Jenner, who had examined his body were the friendly people along for the trip. Dennis O’Leary, who had never stopped doubting him and Freddy Carson, who had reported him as a suspicious vagrant to the authorities, were there to represent those who refused to believe what was plainly in front of them.
They were above the tree line and the terrain had become more difficult. As the group crested a ridge, there was an area that was fairly flat before a cliff face rose again. Tishapus headed for a cave opening in the cliff.
“I thought we might camp here for the night,” he explained.
Detective O’Leary snorted. “You’ve brought us all the way up here to camp out. How nice.” He had grumbled and complained the entire trek.
Bill Costello shook his head. “Give it a rest, O’Leary,” he said in disgust. “You’ll get your proof in the morning.”
Talking quietly among themselves the group began making camp.
After eating their dinner, the Holdens, Costello, and the two doctors sat near the cave entrance and played cards. O’Leary and Carson sat off by themselves talking quietly. Tishapus had wandered away from the campsite to the open terrain. Candy Olsen fidgeted with her camcorder, then walked the short distance to the creature.
“I hope I can film the city better than I could film you,” she said as she seated herself next to him.
Tishapus glanced at her and again she felt his amusement wash over her. His melancholy mood dampened it somewhat, though. “That will be a difficult experience to explain to my people,” he said.
Candy snorted. “It was difficult to explain to mine,” she agreed.
They sat quietly for a time, gazing at the flood of stars that just couldn’t be seen from populated places. “Do they look the same where you live?” The reporter asked.
“The stars are the same,” nodded Tishapus. “And they are just as difficult to see from my city as they are to see from yours.”
“I suppose that is a price civilization must pay.”
“One of many prices,” agreed the creature.
“What do you believe is the steepest price we pay to live in a society?”
“Is this another interview?”
The reporter laughed softly. “I seem to have a habit of asking questions.”
“Yes. But they are good questions.” Tishapus fell silent and Candy contented herself with soaking in the sounds and ambience of the night. An hour passed, then two. She was content to sit silently beside this strange creature.
“Acceptance,” said Tishapus.
“What are you talking about?”
“The steepest price we pay to live in a society. We give up acceptance.”
Candy thought for a moment. “Acceptance of what? Acceptance by whom?”
“Giving up the acceptance of what our senses tell us.”
Candy looked at Tishapus quizzically. “Who rejects what they see and hear?”
Waves of sadness washed over Candy, and she knew it was a projection from Tishapus.
“How many of your people who saw me accepted me immediately?”
Candy hesitated. There were so many who had claimed Tishapus was wearing a costume or that he was a trained animal performing for his handlers. Twice Tishapus had been asked to travel with a carnival because his “costuming” was so good. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not™ offered him a lifetime billeting as a permanent attraction at its main museum, with travel benefits and luxury accommodations when he would travel to its locations worldwide. Tishapus was a freak, a sideshow attraction. Very few people believed he was a member of a real species. At worst they referred to him as a mutant. At best, they called him deformed.
“It’s hard to accept what is strange to us, what we’ve never before seen,” she said aloud.
Tishapus nodded. “When we live in a group the group’s opinion matters. If the group thinks something is odd, wrong, or somehow unacceptable, then the individual will adopt the same opinion. It makes learning new things very difficult.”
“Do your people act this way, too?”
“My people will not believe me when I tell of my visit here. They believe that creatures such as yourself are the creatures of myth.”
“I wonder if it has always been this way.”
“I believe it has not. I believe when both of our species were younger, we accepted strange and unusual things with curiosity, not disbelief. I believe that we once accepted things more easily.”
“It’s a shame our civilizations have advanced so far, then,” Candy remarked. “One voice cannot change minds.”
“The individual’s opinion matters for nothing unless he can convince the group to agree. I cannot imagine that this is anything new. Even in a primitive society, the individual needs the cooperation of the group in order to survive.”
“‘No man is an island,’” quoted the reporter.
“An apt description. No, no individual can really survive alone. Our species are both very social species. So despite the evidence the individual sees, he must sometimes reject what he knows to be true in order to be accepted, or he risks being ostracized from his society, shunned or ridiculed for his nonsensical beliefs. He rejects the proof and reality of his senses for the acceptance of the group, because that is how individuals survive.”
Candy didn’t respond immediately.
“You’re talking about acceptance on many levels,” she finally said.
“Yes,” agreed Tishapus quietly.
When she sun’s first rays flooded the floor of the high ledge, Tishapus leaped up with a glad cry. Candy Olsen, who had fallen asleep sometime during her vigil with the creature, opened her eyes to a flash of brightness that was gone almost as soon as she sensed it, but which left behind an impression of golden minarets against a turquoise sky.
“Do you see? Do you see?” Bill Costello’s excitement was met by a gasp of “oh!” from Beth Holden, who walked dreamlike toward the rising sun, and by exclamations of “yes!” from Will Handy and Emma Jenner. Mike Holder said nothing, but in three strides had caught up with his wife, grasped her hand, and joined her eastward movement.
Then Tishapus was gone.
“I didn’t see anything,” announced Dennis O’Leary.
“Me, either,” groused Freddy Carson. “Let’s have breakfast and head back down the mountain. I guess Tishapus ran off in the night.”
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