Even emperors have dilemmas. Long, long ago, the Jade Emperor had to decide the order of the years, a cycle where each would be represented by one of the animals that lived in that distant land.
After some time pondering in lonely shrines, where the only sound that disturbed his thought came from the snow crumbling through the leaves, the emperor came up with a plan. He would stage a race in which all twelve of the animals would take part.
Sending his minions out across the earth, the emperor gathered these fabulous beasts in one place, and carefully he outlined his plan. He would draw a line in the sand to show the race’s start and another to mark the end. At his signal, the sprint would begin. The competitors would then stand in precedence for all eternity depending on the order in which they crossed the line.
The animals assembled in an unruly mass around the start. The cock pecked around in the mud while the dog barked at something in the distance that none of the others could hear. The sheep chewed the cud, indifferent to its surroundings.
Others concentrated on the race ahead. The finishing line appeared as a white strip across the ox’s wide brown eyes. The dragon reared its long neck above the others, its nostrils speckled with soot. The tiger flexed and unflexed her claws.
With a flick of his sleeve, the Jade Emperor brought his hand down and the race began in a flurry of grunting, roaring, neighing and bleating. A feather or two fluttered away.
Leaping ahead of the dust cloud, the tiger surged into the lead, its lean body lengthening and contracting as it pounced.
The dragon’s neck snaked alongside, darting forwards, darting back, its body still stuck in the following pack.
As they reached the halfway point, the pig and the cock, the dog and the monkey were falling far behind, but the ox was beating a relentless path towards the finishing line. Even the tiger could feel its breath blow upon her back.
Below them, jumping now this way, now that so as not to get trampled by the pack, the rat surveyed his chances.
“Blimey,” he thought, “I haven’t got a rat’s chance of being the first over the line.”
At that moment, a ball of clumped hair bounced before his eyes as the ox swerved to avoid a pot hole to its right.
“Sod this for a lark,” said the rat. Summoning up the last of his strength and whispering a prayer to his own underhanded god of vermin, he sprang up as far as he could into the sky. Arms scrabbling, his luck was in. The rat clung onto the ox’s hair with all four legs and tail.
The finishing line was coming closer and closer. The rat felt a pain in his chest, as though someone were squeezing his heart.
“Mustn’t give up!” he said.
Paw over paw, he scaled the ox’s tail. At the top, wrinkling his nose against the stench, the rat dragged himself over its haunches. The bare brown back was as curved and smooth as the couch of the emperor himself.
The tiger was just behind the ox. The rat saw the slit of her eye open as she stole a glance at her foe. Though the yellow earth span beneath the hurtling cat, yet still she could not edge ahead. The ox’s hooves shook the earth as it drove.
Fearful of being flung off, the rat hopped, skipped and slid along the bucking spine. Balancing on one foot, he wobbled on the bump of bone that sat between the horns. Feeling slightly sick, he spied the finishing line.
“So close … not yet …” he muttered, “not now … too soon … and … Go!”
Eyes closed, the little fellow leapt off the ox’s head and landed on his chin over the finishing line, the rest of his body following afterwards, spinning tail over toe. The ox thundered past with a great bellow of despair.
Brushing down his fur, the rat was just about to claim his prize when he spotted the third-placed tiger grinning nearby. A tiger’s smile is like light shining off a mincer. One giant paw landed near the rat. The tiny rodent quaked with fear.
And then the Jade Emperor was there, looming even over the tiger, a giant amongst the animals, so that even the mighty ox and dragon must bow before his power.
“The rat wins!” The emperor proclaimed. Meanwhile, the hapless pig had still not yet wobbled over the line. “And so he takes precedence over all the other animals. The order of the years shall follow the order of the contest, which is to say: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, cock, dog and, oh pig, you’ve decided to join us at last.”
“And the moral of the story is?” asked the tiger, once the Jade Emperor had departed.
“There is no moral really,” said the rat, munching a celebratory bit of cheese, “but animals like you think it’s all about power and strength, determination and running, but there ain’t nothing that serves you so well in this life as good old-fashioned cunning.”
(c) Alastair Savage, 2016
Enjoy the year of the monkey!