It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and our mother had already hauled out the big iron pot to start broiling things for dinner. We lived way out in the boonies and we had to make do with what we could grow on our own, or track down. Mother was rattling beamish proud of us and pleased beyond imagination with what we’d captured that day, for our catch far exceeded even her wildest expectations, not to mention our own, and proved beyond all doubt our worth as consummate hunters. We won’t confess that an extraordinary degree of good luck had a hand in it.
Before we ventured out this day, however, she had lined up all five of us outside our hut like soldiers for a few cautionary words of advice.
“Boys . . .” Here she paused and warily eyed our sister, Prudence — a misnomer if there ever was one. “. . . an’ girl.”
Prudence grinned back with excited anticipation. This was to be her inaugural hunt with her brothers.
“Yes, ma’am?” we cried in unison.
“Exceptin’ fer Prudence here, I know that this ain’t yer first time out fer victuals, so you may think I’ve gone soft in the head tellin’ yer all over again how things be. But it don’t hurt none to be reminded that yer ain’t foraging fer nuts, fruits, an’ vegetables, all right? It’s protein yer quest this here day. An’ some o’ the protein in these here parts don’t always take keenly to endin’ up in our soup bowls and would be much more inclined seein’ you endin’ up in their soup bowls, if yer follows my drift.”
We followed. And we did not mind her “little talk” with us, because it was always both instructive and entertaining, not to mention the fact that we also appreciated that our dear mother fretted for our safety.
“First off, my babies, lay off the jubjub,” she warned, shaking her gnarled index finger at us for emphasis, “a desperate bird if’n thar ever was one, that lives in perpetual passion. And sidestep by all means the evil-tempered bandersnatch. What with its long neck, snappin’ jaws, and swift lope, it kin, if yer not careful, easily become the diner rather than the dinner, if yer knows what I mean.”
“Yessum,” we replied in submissive unison.
We weren’t exactly sure what perpetual passion might even mean without some subtext. We were already old and wise enough not to query our mother too much in some areas. While she did possess an innate poetic talent of sorts, she’d still on occasion mix up her words, raising in our minds questions we’d learned were sometimes better left unasked. We’d already coached our sister Prudence — who was younger than the rest of us and still prone to innocent and foolish inquisitiveness — to keep her mouth firmly sealed and we’d explain things to her later. It was a test for the poor girl, but she acquiesced to our superior knowledge and experience . . . at least for now.
With respect to our mother’s admonitions, she needn’t have bothered. jubjub birds tend to be a tad on the gooey side except the young ones, so we kids weren’t all that keen to feast on one anyhow, unless nothing more appetizing came our way. As for bandersnatches, they were just too darned risky when pitted against our less-than-masterful skills, even if they do taste out of this world. So we always gave them wide berth.
“And,” she continued, cocking a direful eye at each of us, “unless yer be so shamefully hard up as ta have no other recourse for prey, ferget about borogoves altogether.”
We bobbed our heads vigorously, shuddering at the thought. Borogoves, you see, are thin, shabby-looking birds with feathers sticking hither and thither, strongly resembling something along the lines of a festering mop, and tasting fairly akin to one.
“Last, but sartainly not least,” concluded our mom with a dreadful, albeit rhythmic, shout, “beware the jabberwock, the jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Nay, don’t yer squawk! Yer far too slight. Yer be no match.”
“Yessum!” we shouted back.
Hah! As though we had to be told. We were in no way about to squawk. The jabberwock — while we’d been assured by wizened troubadours in the district to be a banquet like no other on earth or in heaven — was without question entirely out of bounds for the likes of us, and we knew it all too painfully well. Some years ago, our dear departed father, God rest his foolhardy soul, thought as a Harvest Festival present for the family he could treat us to jabberwock entrecôte. As a consequence, however, and to put it gently, we feasted naught that day, though alas the jabberwock most certainly did. You might say that we no longer observe that particular occasion in quite the festive way most other folk do.
As such, we set our appetites instead on slithy toves, and the slithier the better. Their principal diet is cheese — with a preference for our local versions of mozzarolla, brie, feta, and provolone, though they won’t sneeze at humbler varieties — and even though they are the darndest-looking beasts you’ll ever lay eyes on (I kid you not: they look like a cross between a badger, a lizard and a corkscrew), they’re toothsome comestibles indeed and fairly easy to find because for some odd reason they love to conglomerate around horologes, sundials, and sand glasses. But . . . if they catch sight of you before you catch sight of them, they’ll straightaway rotate and bore right into the ground faster than you can nock an arrow, and you may as well dig your way to China before you’d find them again anytime soon. We were also on the lookout for mome raths, those succulent, greenish pig-like critters. Raths habitually wander off from their drifts, always a mistake since they can only be safe in a large group.
Eager to be on our way, we shuffled impatiently, preparing to break ranks.
“I’m not finished!” she thundered, stopping us cold in our tracks. “Hear me out, yer boys! Although yer sister Prudence here is a rough-‘n-tumble youngster in her own right an’ I ‘spect will hold her own with yer on this hunt, yer be sure she gets home alive an’ in one piece. So don’t yer be takin’ any unnecessary risks. If anything happens to her, yer can be sure that I’ll feed the pack of yer to the first peckish carnivore passes by this here home. Understood?”
With affection she then shook her apron at us and cried, “Then be off with yer, my beloved brats . . . and godspeed.”
And off we went. All five of us were pretty keyed up at this point, eager to catch us something, anything, that would please our mother . . . and more especially fill our bellies with something meaty. Fruits, legumes, vegetables, seeds and grains are all just fine in their place — and in moderation, mind you — but the juicy flesh of game cooked to perfection, served with love, and shared in the company of family and friends . . . well, what could possibly be greater pleasure?
The fact that we did not run across any raths, borogoves, bandersnatches, jubjugs, toves, or, for that matter, any other varmints larger than rats and squirrels, and very few of these, should naturally have cautioned us that something adverse might be underway. The tulgey wood was unusually silent except for the soft rustling of leaves, the esurient croak of a few high-flying scavengers, and our own movement through the brush, which was in fact passibly stealthy for a bunch of pubescent rustics such as we, something we had learned from our father before he tossed caution to the wind, forgot in his excitement to replace his freshly honed sword inside its sheath worn on his hip, and paid the price.
“Mighty quiet ’round here,” muttered Prudence imprudently as we entered a clearing shaded by a lone tumtum tree.
“Sshh!” we four boys shushed in chorus, making more noise in the end than did our young sister.
We all paused then and listened.
“Aye, she’s right,” whispered Frogmire, eyes wide, drawing a smug smerk of triumph from Prudence and a toss of her head.
“Something’s afoot, surely,” mussitated Thystlegoode. We all nodded in agreement.
I should perhaps interject here that among us five siblings, only Prudence received a becoming name, albeit the wrong one. We brothers, to our most profound regret, were burdened with sobriquets that could only assure that we remain hidden and unsung for the remainder of our lives in this godforsaken forest. No legends would be minstreled o’er the likes of us, of that you can be sure . . . unless it were in jest. The other brother was christened Axelfrothe, and I, alas, Pangbourne.
Not now, though, to ruminate upon our sore misfortune. Even as wet-behind-the-ears as we might have been, we knew that either we had brought about the silence of the forest creatures ourselves, or not far away something else had, and probably more dangerous. It was time for us all to be alert. Those of us with javelins grasped them tensely, those with bows armed them, while dear, sweet Prudence, not to be trusted with such weaponry, surprised us all by carefully withdrawing from her tunic our late father’s prized vorpal sword! No wonder she’d been marching behind us with what we’d believed an affected stride. And a wonder that she had not sliced herself in twain!
We brothers rose up as one to protest her brazen act, but she hissed for us to be still, raising her free hand to an ear. We stopped abruptly and listened. At first there was nothing, and after a moment we were about to turn back on our sister, when she hissed softly again. “There!”
And in that same instant, for the first time in our young lives, we heard from afar the ominous, unmistakable whiffling, burbling sound about which we’d been recounted by our elders that could be no other but that of the dreadful jabberwock. We gaped at one another in terror.
“Did not a man of letters once write that discretion is the better part of valor?” queried Axelfrothe in a whisper, preparing to beat a hasty retreat.
Were we not in the direst straits just then, we probably would have expressed some shock and disbelief that Axelfrothe would even know of a lettered man, much less have memorized a line from one. We were, after all, five forest-bound analphabetic ignoramuses, having received not even a modicum of formal education. Or so we thought. We had only time enough to raise an eyebrow at our brother before choosing between fight or flight, now perceiving the distinct galumphing of the jabberwock in our direction.
“We must face the monster,” grunted Frogmire.
“I say flee,” insisted Axelfrothe.
“He’s too close,” asserted Thystlegoode. “He’ll catch at least one of us . . . no doubt Prudence. Those who survive cannot return home to face our mother with one less child. Better that we all fight and die than that.”
It was true. We all glanced at one another and nodded. Our bows were already drawn and armed, our spears at the ready. Prudence gave our father’s sword a couple of test swipes at the air. We drew back in fright that she might slay us unintentionally before the jabberwock did so by choice.
“There! Let us put our backs to the tumtum tree.”
It was a smart move, for the tumtum tree has heavy, thorny, low-hanging branches, which would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the winged jabberwock to arm an open air attack against us. It virtually was forced to land on the ground, which was about the only slim advantage we had in our own favor besides a lucky strike at the beast with our arrows and lances. I say slim because the jabberwock, though large and seemingly lumbering to outward appearance, is in fact swift to strike once worked out its strategy. Our shafts and arrows could indeed be lethal, for jabberwocks are not invincible, but only if we made no error would we all return home safely. We circled the tree so that our backs inclined toward the trunk and each of us could protect one another from a different angle against the attack that was sure to come.
“What now?” asked Frogmire.
“Momma says ta pray fer courage an’ strength in time o’ need,” replied Prudence.
“No better time like the present,” I said.
And so we prayed. Loudly. It’s curious to note how one’s attention to prayer becomes somewhat distracted when imminent death is breathing down your neck, while at the same time more focused and fervent. I don’t know how to describe it exactly. But at the instant we saw our awful adversary emerge from the forest and into our clearing, that same prayer became razor sharp and, in an instant, all fear seemed to shuffle off, and a terrible calm enshrouded us that even the jabberwock seemed to sense. Its gallop toward us slowed and then braked to nearly a full stop at a distance of four rods. Perhaps it was because we had stood our ground and not fled that had confused the creature. Perhaps it did not smell our fear, for we had lost it in prayer. Could it be that we were something that was not to be so easily trifled with? The beast observed us, perhaps recalculating the ratio between its degree of hunger and the degree of pain we might inflict upon it in return. With careful, but unconcealed stealth it began to circle the tumtum tree, wings undulating slowly.
It was gigantic, towering above us four times our height. How could we possibly best this monster of monsters? It was stunning. We might well have lost our courage then and there at the mere sight of its magnitude had Prudence not suddenly begun to chant, “Here, kitty-kitty-kitty.”
We four brothers gawked at her in stupefaction, thinking she’d surely lost her mind, then at one another, and finally back at the jabberwock. It had ceased its circumambulation and gaped. She was taunting it!
“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty,” our sister intoned, bobbing her head, thrusting out her chin, and wagging her eyebrows as though daring the beast to take the bait. Our father’s sword was now half-hidden behind her, just enough that the jabberwock could see she had one, but not enough to show its potential deadliness. What on earth had possessed her!
“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty. . . .”
We all now saw that the jabberwock had begun to fidget. It snorted and pawed the ground with one hind leg and then the other. Its long neck and head swayed back and forth with an air of uncertainty. It’s forelegs clawed the air. Its serpentine tail slapped the ground behind it. The feelers on its head and jowels writhed.
“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty,” cooed Frogmire softly, joining our sister’s provocations.
Our gaze shifted to our brother. He was actually smiling! And then, one by one, we understood, and grins appeared upon all our faces. We turned back toward our adversary.
“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty. Here, kitty-kitty-kitty . . . .”
The giant jabberwock blinked, its ferocious ruby eyes glaring at us in its wrath, its razor teeth snapping against one another, greenish froth oozing from its maw. Wings now beat the air, lifting it halfway off the ground. It let loose at last a thunderous roar that shook the very gound, and even at that distance we could smell its fetid breath. Then it charged.
“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty. Here, kitty-kitty-kitty . . . .”