My earliest memory of being spellbound by a piece of writing is of being read to as a small child from a book of Georgian (as in Caucasian) folk tales, the Yes and No Stories. For a time, I used to ask for “The Fox, the Bear and the Butter Jar” every night.
I was embarrassed about this. My older sister, quite reasonably, wanted to hear something new—usually a fresh chapter from one of the numerous Dotty Dimple and Little Prudy volumes that had belonged to our grandmother. But the attraction of my story was stronger than my reluctance to look foolish. I would beg, and many nights my mother and sister let me have my way.
Actually, now that I think about it, it was mostly the first page of the story that gripped me.
For one thing, the initial “T” of the title was gorgeously decorated with a bright red design. (The illustrator, one Simon Lissim, I now know thanks to Google, was born in Kiev in 1900, the son of a banker; was part of the circle of émigré artists around Diaghilev and Bakst in Paris in the 1920s; joined the French Army in 1939 and drove a munitions truck until the fall of France; then crossed the Atlantic and became an American, teaching art at City College for over 25 years.)
But more important, the perfection of the text itself held me transfixed. Here is that first page:
There was, there was, and yet there was not a fox who went out walking.
As he walked he chanced to pass a deserted house set back from the road in an overgrown garden.
“Perhaps,” said the fox to himself when he saw this, “perhaps some small piece of bacon or an end of cheese has been left in there.”
He went up the path, pushed open the door with his nose and stepped inside. To his surprise, who was sitting in a chair by the kitchen table but a bear.
The fox bowed politely. “Be victorious, Bear,” he said. “And if I may ask a personal question, how do you happen to be in here?”
“For the same reason you are,” answered the bear. “To see what I can find.”
The fox sat down on the other side of the table and they talked over their situation. Finally they agreed to live there in the house and make a home together.
It seemed to me uncanny. How could the writers (George and Helen Papashvily, a Georgian immigrant and his American wife, presumably retelling a much older tale) have known how intensely a deserted house would appeal to me—and not just any deserted house, but one set back from the road in an overgrown garden? And how could they have divined the reason: the hope of finding something there, especially something to eat—what better than a small piece of bacon or an end of cheese? The courtesy of the fox, the thrilling panache of his salutation, his flowery yet bold move to a direct question, set up the bear’s deadpan answer. And then it’s clinched: These two share a situation. They talk it over, and they set up house.
The exquisite pacing and unity of this first scene are never matched in the rest of the story, though it has nice moments. The bear finds “a big clay jar full of melted butter” in the storeroom and sets it aside for Easter morning. When the appointed day comes, he puts “grass bouquets here and there to make the rooms look happy.” Then, “clacking his claws together with joy,” he calls the fox to the feast.
Of course it turns out the fox, behind an elaborate ruse, has snuck the butter (“He licked and licked and licked with his long pink tongue until the skin over his stomach was tighter than a drum head”). The rest of the story exposes the fox’s greedy and unscrupulous nature while leading, through perilous twists and turns, to his final comeuppance and the slightly lame moral: “So whenever you eat melted butter, remember it’s easy to be smarter than anybody once. But not twice.”
Years later, reading this story to my children, I discovered that my mother used to edit the beginning when she read it aloud—and in doing so improved it. Her first sentence is the one quoted above, obviously better than the Papashvilys’ awkward “There was, there was, and yet there was not, there was once a fox who went out walking.”
What so captivated me long ago turns out to have been a collaboration, across cultures and over time, of many minds. Soon, I expect to be reading “The Fox, the Bear and the Butter Jar” to my new granddaughter—the edited version, that is. I wonder how she’ll like it, and whether she has inherited the editing gene.