Humans are more useful to us outside our bellies than in…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Nick McDonell’s The Council of Animals, featuring illustrations by Steven Tabbutt. A captivating fable for humans of all ages—dreamers and cynics alike—The Council of Animals is available July 20th from Henry Holt & Co.
“‘Now,’ continued the cat, ‘there is nothing more difficult than changing an animal’s mind. But I will say, in case I can change yours: humans are more useful to us outside our bellies than in.’”
After The Calamity, the animals thought the humans had managed to do themselves in. But, it turns out, a few are cowering in makeshift villages. So the animals—among them a cat, a dog, a crow, a baboon, a horse, and a bear—have convened to debate whether to help the last human stragglers… or to eat them.
Rest assured, there is a happy ending. Sort of.
The animals decided to vote. They chose a location more convenient to some than others.
It was a vast superyacht, grounded upon a cliff, high above the sea. A bulldog arrived first. He was grizzled, mostly grey, and arthritic. His undershot jaw, however, retained much of its fierce, stubborn strength. He was a determined looking sort of dog. Limping into the shade of a smashed helicopter—fallen from its place on the yacht’s deck—he sniffed the wind for creatures. He smelled none and so lay down, snout upon paws, to wait. Anticipating the difficulty of the journey, he had left his pack before dawn and was, in fact, early.
Next came a horse, trotting—idiotically, thought the dog—in zigzags, toward the yacht. His almond coat was glossy and his mane was streaked blond from sunshine. A brilliant white stripe ran down his muzzle. He slowed to a panting rest. Catching his breath, he nosed for something to eat in the weeds beside the dog.
“Good afternoon,” said the dog.
“Where are the sugar cubes?”
“Sometimes they have sugar cubes.”
“None of them are here.”
The horse appeared to think about this.
“That’s the point,” added the dog.
Dog and horse regarded each other for a long moment.
“No carrots either.”
… You bloody fool, added the dog, internally.
The horse continued nosing in the weeds. “The cat told me to tell you she’ll be late,” he said, through a mouthful of dandelions.
Before the dog had time to complain about this, the horse snapped his head up in alarm and looked down the promontory. Though it had been agreed no animal should harm another for the duration of the meeting, he could not banish instinct. He smelled the bear before he saw her.
The dog, too. Together they watched her pad along, ropey muscles rolling beneath her fur.
“I thought it would be a snow bear,” whispered the horse.
“Polar bear,” corrected the dog.
This bear was a grizzly, and though certainly fearsome from afar she was not, really, a very strong or well-fed bear. She looked rather scruffy, in fact. Harried.
“Good afternoon,” said the dog, as the bear joined them in the shade.
“Have the others arrived?” asked the bear.
“Not yet,” said the dog.
“The cat told me to tell you she’ll be late,” repeated the horse.
“No surprises there, eh?” said the dog, hoping to befriend the bear.
But the bear only grunted. Perhaps it would be a long wait. She pawed her way into the broken helicopter’s cockpit. Rummaging about, she was pleased to discover a spiral-bound flight manual. She hooked it with a claw and carried it out to the grass.
The bear looked at helicopter diagrams, the horse ate, and soon the dog dozed off.
He hadn’t been asleep long when a striped cat arrived. Purring, she rubbed along the horse’s great hooves, then nodded respectfully at the bear and found herself a perch in the crashed helicopter, upon one of its soft, upholstered seats.
The cat had just begun grooming a leg when, with a sharp caaw!, a crow announced himself. He descended in spirals and landed on one of the propeller blades.
“Bird blessings on you,” said the crow, by way of greeting.
And then, almost as soon as the crow had landed, the ringing of a bell cut the seaside air.
As one, the animals looked up to the source of the sound. It was a yellow-eyed baboon, peering at them from a hatch in the yacht’s deck, high above. In one pink hand this baboon held a brass bell, which he shook again with great vigor before stowing it in a small bag he wore over his shoulder.
“Order!” shouted the baboon. “We’ll begin! For victory!”
The bear closed the flight manual and the horse stopped chewing dandelions. This baboon seemed very excited. He clambered down the deck and landed neatly beside the dog.
“I’m up, I’m up,” insisted the dog, though he’d been fast asleep.
“But, baboon,” said the bear, “we can’t begin. We’re not all here.”
“Yes, the cats are late as usual,” added the dog. “Very disrespectful.”
“This dog must still be sleeping,” said the cat in the cockpit, and the horse whinnied with laughter.
A look of great frustration darkened the dog’s square face. “I was just… thinking!”
“We are all here—” said the baboon.
“Bird blessings,” interrupted the crow, “on all creatures!”
“Bird Gods are important! Very important,” agreed the baboon, before turning to the bear. “All of us are here. Anyone who is not here is not us. That’s we. So we can begin.”
“But if the others aren’t here,” said the bear, slowly, focusing on one bit of the problem, “how will they decide how to vote?”
“They vote as we tell them,” said the baboon. “Animals like that.”
The bear frowned. “Still,” she said, “I think it is better not to rush.”
“Horse,” said the baboon, ignoring the bear, “I looked everywhere, I worked very hard—very hard!—and found this for you.”
And the baboon produced from his shoulder bag a yellow box. He ripped off its top with his teeth and set it down for the horse.
The box, the animals saw, was full of brown sugar.
In a blink, the horse snuffled it all up. He even began chewing on the box.
“Where did you get that?” asked the dog.
“Only I can get it for you,” said the baboon. “Only I!”
“I could get it, too,” said the crow, “Praise be to The Egg.”
“Dog,” said the bear, who did not want to be distracted from the issue at paw, “don’t you agree: better not to rush our vote?”
The dog, puffing out his chest, was pleased to be consulted. He decided he would say something wise about how, in the wars, it was always better not to rush.
But before he had managed to say anything, the baboon was talking again.
“Not rush?” exclaimed the baboon. “But we have to rush! For safety! For our victory, right, dog? We must have order!”
The dog, now confused, hesitated. “I disagree,” purred the cat.
“Fully agreed!” said the dog. He disagreed with cats, on printsiple.
(Though which printsiple it was, he could not precisely say.)
“That settles it,” said the baboon. “Crow! Call us to order!”
“But,” said the bear, “but—”
The crow cawed out, in his powerful voice: “Animal council in ORDER!”
The dog saluted. The cat sighed and shook her head. “All animals,” the crow continued, “make their mark!” In their respective ways, each animal marked territory. The bear scratched her back against the yacht; the dog peed on it. The cat rubbed her cheeks against the helicopter seat; the horse dropped a dung pile. The baboon howled and slapped the ground. The crow sang out his song, then pronounced:
“Caw! The question is set, with the blessing of the Bird Gods, by previous animal council! The Animal Kingdoms listen and agree, in the light of The Egg! Caw…”
“Takes a minute to get going, doesn’t he?” muttered the dog to the bear.
“And with nest blessings we pray for wisdom in our vote. WHEREBY: The Calamity destroyed the ecosystems of many eggs and animals! WHEREBY: humans caused The Calamity!”
Here the baboon hissed and bared his teeth. The crow continued.
“… and WHEREBY: only a few humans survived The Calamity! RESOLVED: the Animal Kingdom, represented by the ambassadors here marking their territory, shall, to protect against further Calamity… Eat all the humans! Animals, how do you vote: YAY OR NAY?!”
“I can’t believe it has come to this,” whispered the bear to the cat.
“It’s not over,” whispered back the cat.
“Caw!” called the crow. “It has been agreed by rabbit procedure that the DOG shall speak and cast his vote first. I yield to the dog. Caw!”
Animals have, of course, always communicated. Many work together to mutual advantage—like oxpeckers and rhinoceroses, for example, who both benefit when oxpeckers eat ticks out of a rhino’s hide. Or hyenas and buzzards, whose mutual understanding of quantum mechanics has been much enriched by their full moon gatherings.While some animals prefer solitude—pigeons are obviously more social than snow leopards—no animal lives in total isolation. Communication—interspecies and intraspecies—is constant. Even bony zompompers at the bottom of the Marianas Trench like to chat with blue whales now and then.
Humans, however, never communicated with animals. Let alone attended their formal meetings. This was not for want of invitation from the animals. Often enough, any animal would tell you, they’d tried to communicate with humans. But humans spoke only their own human languages. They did not speak grak.
Excerpted from The Council of Animals, copyright © 2021 by Nick McDonell.