In old Africa, in the big jungle between the two mighty rivers, a crowd had gathered.
Chimpanzee huddled under a copse of trees whose limbs tangled together under the higher green canopy. Hippo watched the proceedings from the banks of the bog. Tiger prowled near a big stone that had been in that spot since the beginning of the world, even before the jungle grew around it.
Man crouched behind a log, half-hidden by a tree. Only Tiger noticed him at first. Licking his lips, he invited Man to come closer. “You will not be harmed this day,” Tiger promised. “Come closer. Father Crocodile has passed. His family mourns. We choose our new king of the jungle together.”
Young Crocodile plopped his belly up on the bank of the bog. He grinned as Hippo realized (with some alarm) that he had arrived. How long had he been watching this meeting from beneath the placid waters?
“Father swims with our ancestors now,” Young Crocodile said. “But I am here. I hope I am not too late for my own coronation.”
“That is a good joke, Crocodile,” said Chimpanzee. “Your kind have had their turn.”
“I haven’t had my turn,” Crocodile said. “And I have a very terrible bite. Don’t tempt me.”
Chimpanzee inched away, baring his own fangs at Crocodile while hanging from a tree limb. “You would have to catch me first. Just try to get up here.”
“This is not right,” Hippo said. “Our king is not chosen by the sharpness of their teeth or how high they hang from a tree. What matters is raw strength. No one can match mine. I would be king.”
Tiger nodded. “It is true, Hippo — you are strong. Crocodile has his bite. Chimpanzee is crafty…”
“Your own prowess is known throughout the jungle,” Chimpanzee added.
“How nice of you to say so,” Tiger purred. “So you see, we have a problem.”
“How will we choose this time?” Hippo asked.
They all thought upon it.
Once more, Tiger turned to Man, who watched surreptitiously from his crouching position. He was small and wiry, malnourished and dirty. In his right hand, he held a sharpened stick that Tiger had never seen before. Curious.
“Man, why don’t you decide for us?” Tiger asked.
“What?” Crocodile asked. “No, our fates will not be decided by that weakling.”
“Man lives in the jungle with us,” Tiger said. “Why should he not choose?”
Man crept forward a little. When he spoke, his voice was different than they had heard before; not so meek as they were accustomed to. “If I may choose, then I choose myself,” he said.
The other animals laughed in unison. Chimpanzee’s cackles were particularly rich. “Man, King of the Jungle! Hah!”
“Man is weak!” Hippo shouted.
“Man has no claws, nor fangs worth showing off,” Crocodile joined in.
Tiger was quickly regretting his suggestion. With a tired shrug, he asked Man to explain himself.
“It is true that I am not so strong as Hippo,” Man said. “I have no claws or sharp teeth. I cannot even climb so easily as Chimpanzee. Compared to all of you, I am weak and clumsy. But many times we have met in this place to decide on a king. I am always passed over. It is my time now. That is only fair.”
Tiger shook his head. “Man, you may not have the gifts of the rest of us jungle dwellers, but we appreciate your humour.”
“That is not enough to be king!” Crocodile shouted.
“Quite right,” Tiger replied. “Man will not be king of the jungle, now or ever. I am sorry, Man. You must choose among us.”
Man considered this, crouched on a log. Finally, he stood and spoke. “Before I tell you my choice, I will show you something.”
“What mischief is he planning?” Hippo asked.
“Man is wasting our time!” Chimpanzee shouted.
Tiger was the most patient among them. “Let us give Man this favour,” he said. “He is surely sad to know he cannot be king here — now or ever.”
Man bade the animals to follow him to a part of the jungle where others of his kind were known to dwell. They came to the bank of the river and were very surprised to see what lay on the other side. Mushroom-shaped huts dotted the landscape, made from the very trees of the jungle. More Men with sticks — and their Women — had lit campfires that made the animals feel leery. A rickety fence of long poles topped with coconuts and connected by vines formed a rough circle around the camp.
This was all very unnatural.
“What have you done here, Man?” Tiger demanded to know. “You have cut down this part of the jungle. What is the meaning of this?”
Man looked to Tiger, keeping his back to the river and the sharpened stick at his side. “Every time, the animals of the jungle select a new king to rule,” he said. “It makes no difference who you choose, for the rhythms of the jungle do not change. You live as you please. You can get along well enough with your own gifts — sharp claws and teeth and the cunning of natural hunters. I was given no gifts, nor favours from any of you. But I have learned things of late.”
“You speak differently now, Man,” Chimpanzee said.
“His tone is that of a master,” Hippo said. “Does he not know he will never be king here?”
“Let him finish talking,” Tiger said, watching Man very carefully now. “I would know his mind.”
Man nodded to Tiger, with the unprecedented bearing of an equal. “You will not allow me to be king of the jungle,” Man said. “I think now I was never meant to be there. With sad thoughts, of late, my people have moved to the other side of the river. We have met with others who showed us many things.”
“What is that pleasant smell in the air?” Crocodile asked. Now the animals realized that smoke from the people’s campfires was wafting toward them, though it did not smell like ordinary smoke. It smelled… delicious.
Man ignored Crocodile. “These others showed us how to live outside the jungle,” Man said. “And when we learned from them all that we could, we had one further use for them.”
Now Tiger noticed that the things atop the poles of the encampment across the river were not coconuts, as he had first assumed. They were the skulls of other Men, picked clean and gleaming white in the new moonlight. He could guess what was in the people’s cooking pots.
“Where are these others?” Chimpanzee asked, very curious at all of these developments.
“They are gone now,” Man said. “All gone. But my people remain. On that side of the river, from now on, I will be king.”
“But you were supposed to choose a king for us!” Hippo said. “What do we care of what goes on beyond the jungle? Quit this nonsense, Man! Come back with us and choose a king to rule the jungle. We have given you this task.”
Tiger cautioned his friend in the bog. “Man has changed,” he said. “We should not bother with him anymore.”
“Man is insulting us!” Chimpanzee said. “Leaving the jungle behind is folly. Man, come back with us! I will drag you back with my own strength.”
Chimpanzee’s words were angry, but as he ambled towards Man, who still held his sharpened stick, he felt his anger and courage disappear. What was the power in the stick that made Chimpanzee pause? Or was the power in Man himself — who looked at Chimpanzee with a sneer?
“From the edge of these trees to the far side of the land where your eyes cannot see, I am king,” Man said. “I will be king of the jungle too — and in time, you will see that.”
“Man has gone mad!” Crocodile shrieked. “He is so insolent! I would rend him with my sharp teeth!”
Tiger held Crocodile back. “That is not wise,” Tiger told his friend. “Animals, let us all return to the jungle. Man will go his way now.”
“Goodbye, Tiger,” Man said, still respectful of the great beast’s power. “Goodbye to all of you. Until I come back to the jungle.”
“You are not welcome in the jungle anymore!” Hippo shouted in a hurt voice.
“He will come anyway,” Tiger whispered. “The king will claim his territory.”
The animals went back into the trees. Man went back to his camp to live among his people. But they did not stay in that place for very long.
ASSIGNMENT: THE KING IS DEAD
Chaos. Revolution. A chance for positive change — or an opportunity for the new boss to be just like the old boss, only worse. What a great starting point for a story! Politics is another passion of mine, so stories of how power structures change and why they get set up in the first place are compelling to me. That said, I didn’t want to write a dry political tract — it made more sense to me to let the ideas flow naturally out of a kind of primeval fable of animals acting like people and vice versa.
– Jonathon Narvey