“The Hyena,” an ecstatic abject fable by Paul Bowles

“The Hyena”

Paul Bowles


A stork was passing over desert country on his way north. He was thirsty, and he began to look for water. When he came to the mountains of Khang el Ghar, he saw a pool at the bottom of a ravine. He flew down between the rocks and lighted at the edge of the water. Then he walked in and drank.

At that moment a hyena limped up and, seeing the stork standing in the water, said: “Have you come a long way?” The stork had never seen a hyena before. “So this is what a hyena is like,” he thought. And he stood looking at the hyena because he had been told that if the hyena can put a little of his urine on someone, that one will have to walk after the hyena to whatever place the hyena wants him to go.

“It will be summer soon,” said the stork. “I am on my way north.” At the same time, he walked further out into the pool, so as not to be so near the hyena. The water here was deeper, and he almost lost his balance and had to flap his wings to keep upright. The hyena walked to the other side of the pool and looked at him from there.

“I know what is in your head,” said the hyena. “You believe the story about me. You think I have that power? Perhaps long ago hyenas were like that. But now they are the same as everyone else. I could wet you from here with my urine if I wanted to. But what for? If you want to be unfriendly, go to the middle of the pool and stay there.”

The stork looked around at the pool and saw that there was no spot in it where he could stand and be out of reach of the hyena.

“I have finished drinking,” said the stork. He spread his wings and flapped out of the pool. At the edge he ran quickly ahead and rose into the air. He circled above the pool, looking down at the hyena.

“So you are the one they call the ogre,” he said. “The world is full of strange things.”

The hyena looked up. His eyes were narrow and crooked. “Allah brought us all here,” he said. “You know that. You are the one who knows about Allah.”

The stork flew a little lower. “That is true,” he said. “But I am surprised to hear you say it. You have a very bad name, as you yourself just said. Magic is against the will of Allah.”

The hyena tilted his head. “So you still believe the lies!” he cried.

“I have not seen the inside of your bladder,” said the stork. “But why does everyone say you can make magic with it?”

“Why did Allah give you a head, I wonder? You have not learned how to use it.” But the hyena spoke in so low a voice that the stork could not hear him.

“Your words got lost,” said the stork, and he let himself drop lower.

The hyena looked up again. “I said: ‘Don’t come too near me. I might lift my leg and cover you with magic!’” He laughed, and the stork was near enough to see that his teeth were brown.

“Still, there must be some reason,” the stork began. Then he looked for a rock high above the hyena, and settled himself on it. The hyena sat and stared up at him. “Why do they call you an ogre? What have you done?”

The hyena squinted. “You are lucky,” he told the stork. “Men never try to kill you, because they think you are holy. They call you a saint and a sage. And yet you seem like neither a saint nor a sage.”

“What do you mean?” said the stork quickly.

“If you really understood, you would know that magic is a grain of dust in the wind, and that Allah has power over everything. You would not be afraid.”

The stork stood for a long time, thinking. He lifted one leg and held it bent in front of him. The ravine grew red as the sun went lower. And the hyena sat quietly looking up at the stork, waiting for him to speak.

Finally the stork put his leg down, opened his bill, and said: “You mean that if there is no magic, the one who sins is the one who believes there is.”

The hyena laughed. “I said nothing about sin. But you did, and you are the sage. I am not in the world to tell anyone what is right or wrong. Living from night to night is enough. Everyone hopes to see me dead.”

The stork lifted his leg again and stood thinking. The last daylight rose into the sky and was gone. The cliffs at the sides of the ravine were lost in the darkness.

At length the stork said: “You have given me something to think about. That is good. But now night has come. I must go on my way.” He raised his wings and started to fly straight out from the boulder where he had stood. The hyena listened. He heard the stork’s wings beating the air slowly, and then he heard the sound of the stork’s body as it hit the cliff on the other side of the ravine. He climbed up over the rocks and found the stork. “Your wing is broken,” he said. “It would have been better for you to go while there was still daylight.”

“Yes,” said the stork. He was unhappy and afraid.

“Come home with me,” the hyena told him. “Can you walk?”

“Yes,” said the stork. Together they made their way down the valley. Soon they came to a cave in the side of the mountain. The hyena went in first and called out: “Bend your head.” When they were well inside, he said: “Now you can put your head up. The cave is high here.”

There was only darkness inside. The stork stood still. “Where are you?” he said.

“I am here,” the hyena answered, and he laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” asked the stork.

“I was thinking that the world is strange,” the hyena told him. “The saint has come into my cave because he believed in magic.”

“I don’t understand,” said the stork.

“You are confused. But at least now you can believe that I have no magic. I am like anyone else in the world.”

The stork did not answer right away. He smelled the stench of the hyena very near him. Then he said, with a sigh: “You are right, of course. There is no power beyond the power of Allah.”

“I am happy,” said the hyena, breathing into his face. “At last you understand.” Quickly he seized the stork’s neck and tore it open. The stork flapped and fell on his side.

“Allah gave me something better than magic,” the hyena said under his breath. “He gave me a brain.”

The stork lay still. He tried to say once more: “There is no power beyond the power of Allah.” But his bill merely opened very wide in the dark.

The hyena turned away. “You will be dead in a minute,” he said over his shoulder. “In ten days I shall come back. By then you will be ready.”

Ten days later the hyena went to cave and found the stork where he had left him. The ants had not been there. “Good,” he said. He devoured what he wanted and went outside to a large flat rock above the entrance to the cave. There in the moonlight he stood a while, vomiting.

He ate some of his vomit and rolled for a long time in the rest of it, rubbing it deep into his coat. Then he thanked Allah for eyes that could see the valley in the moonlight, and for a nose that could smell carrion on the wind. He rolled some more and licked the rock under him. For a while he lay there panting. Soon he got up and limped on his way.

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