Then they turned to me and said, "It's settled; you're the one who'll be going. Don't think we made this decision lightly; we had lots of reasons for choosing you. For one, to the victor go the spoils; you're the one who discovered the beast that washed ashore one morning. Really, all we did was witness your discovery. And so, by law, you should make the most of it. But up until now, you haven't done a thing. There it lies, inviolate, still as a shipwreck. Can't you see it mocks us? It's up to you to unravel this living riddle. That gaping mouth, cool as a mausoleum, is all yours, as is that thick carpet of a tongue of indeterminate color. Think of your parents, your village! Go forth without fear. If the mouth swallows you, too bad. You shouldn't have been playing hooky on the beach. If it lets you back out safe and sound, so much the better. We'll know more than we do now. Go! Your parents' wishes go with you."
"Oh yes, go my son," said my parents, hypocritically, "you have to leave home someday. Lots of boys have jobs already at your age. But what could you have hoped for? You've always been scrawny. You'd have had a hard time plying a trade! Lying around the house all day, doing nothing—is that a life?"
And they raised their eyes, brimming with tears, rejoicing inside all the while over ridding themselves of the twentieth hatchling of too ample a brood.
"Go, my friend," said the little girl who lived next door. "My heart breaks when I think about the future, but I have never doubted you. Go, and remember your childhood friend!"
And she clasped me to her fragile breast, inhabiting her role, featherbrained as any woman, thinking all the while about how quickly she'd replace me.
"We have another reason for choosing you," the elders went on. "You are the youngest. It is appropriate that youth run risks and that respect be reserved for those older in years. Moreover, the elders are wise; who would keep peace and order in the village if they left? Blessed youth, foolhardy age, go forth and do us proud."
"I don't know what to make of all this," I said slowly and quietly—not without noticing, to my secret joy, the bored, annoyed looks all around me. "Anyway, I run a great risk. God knows what dangers await me in the mouth of the beast. But if I refuse to go, I'll have you to face. As far as I know, not a single fellow citizens envies me my fate, and if I refused, my dears, you soon stone me in your fear and frenzy. So I must choose between two monsters. Upon reflections, I prefer the one I don't know."
And to much applause, I leapt into the great beast. The carmine rug of his tongue cushioned my fall. A wind was blowing from the south. The beast's breath was deliciously perfumed. "Uh-oh!" said I, surprised, and from outside came the crafty echo, "Oh! Glory be to God, he's alive!"
I planned on staying that way as long as I could, though God had nothing to do with it. What I didn't know was that life in my new abode would be so pleasant. I've never been one for the company of my peers, but the beast's, I must admit, was captivating: I hadn't a chance to feel trapped or bored, not even for a second. No sooner was I on my feet than I started exploring the place; my host graciously gave me free rein. Its mouth was carpeted with lichen of various colors, and its palate had a finer shimmer than the bluest sky. The great organs of its whalebones rang out at the slightest touch, but I refrained from abusing them, appreciating more than anything a silence that I, who'd always lived amidst my parents' drunken bawling, had never known. A mysterious silence hung in the air like a bird in the sky of this massive maw, a calm punctured only by low digestive notes from the deepest depths. These distant borborygmi cadenced my stay, and as the beast ate on a very regular schedule, I fell into the habit of scheduling my activities by this music from the depths. Such activities were few and far between, but very absorbing, the first being to sleep late. Woken all my life at dawn by fraternal howling or a paternal boot to the backside, I'd never known the pleasures of prolonged sleep. I enjoyed myself to the hilt, and the beast seemed accomplice to my pleasure. All morning long, a ruminant, cud-cradling motion traveled its tongue as it remained unmoving on the sand, not even stirring the slightest tip of a fin. But toward noon, I heard cries from outside. Leaping to my feet, I peered out through the hole of the nearest nostril and glimpsed a few fellow villagers tiny in the distance.
"Ahoy there!" the delegation hailed me distractedly.
"Ahoy yourself!" I replied.
"Are you hurt? We called out several times this morning. What are you up to?"
"I was sleeping," I said.
"Sleeping! What a fine speech you made for someone who was just going to sleep in a fish's belly!"
"I'm not the one who made a speech," I said, "and I'm not sure this is a fish yet. I've only explored the mouth so far."
"Just remember, you're not there to daydream," they said sternly. "From now on, keep your eyes open. Keep on the way you do, and that stupid animal could swallow you before you know it!"
"Don't worry," I said, and dove nimbly right into a little lake in its tongue. I swam around delightedly, flooded with a feeling of well-being. The creature's saliva was cool and rich. I cupped it in my hands and even drank some of that sweet, springwater-tasting liquid. Not so stupid, I thought, plunging into the tonsils' grotto. A warm darkness enveloped me, and I emerged into a high-ceiling hallway sparking with stomach juices. I began the difficult descent, using the lumpy surface, and the closer I got to the great vital organs, the more the roar of a forge filled my head, and I felt ever more strongly the shaking of the beast's inner workings.
The next day, there they were again, sitting on the sand. The elders were with them, looking displeased.
"You've certainly kept us waiting," they said. "Where were you?"
"Where you sent me," I said. "This time, I went down as far as the stomach."
"Ah! What did you see?" they asked, moving closer despite their fear.
"You'll never know," I said disgustedly. "You wouldn't understand, it's not a sight for people like you. And even though I could describe it for you, I won't; I don't want to."
"Now fancy that!" said the elders, striking the ground with their staves. "Shouldn't you thank us for even being where you are? For your sake, we denied ourselves—so youth might have its chance. We are disappointed. This experiment has gone on long enough. Come out now, it's raining, a storm is on its way. We can't wait much longer."
"Go find shelter then," I said. "I'm staying right here for now. I won't return to the village."
"We'll see about that," they shrieked, "Come out or we'll come after you!"
And as they started hurling insults, I burst out laughing.
But that evening, there was a great eddy, and I almost died, smothered under the tongue of the beast when it suddenly flipped up into the air. I caught a glimpse of an elder tossed into the mouth and caught between two fearsome teeth, which hideously ground up dismantled body. An uproar rose outside. The beast, which had so peacefully offered me asylum, refused it to others. I was grateful to it for so radically discouraging any other attempted attacks. While the storm hurled out lightning on the shore, I gave thanks to the great beast.
From then on, under a diluvian rain that gave no respite, they came in little groups to bombard me with their entreaties. First they sent my parents.
"Listen, son," they said, reaching out their arms toward me imploringly. "We know what you want. Yes, it was shortsighted of us to let you leave. Yes, we used to hit you sometimes, in the heat of anger. Yes, we neglected you a bit, since you were the twentieth. But understand—such mistreatment was the fruit of poverty. Look around you—our lands are flooded. Help us, son! Help us to shelter in the mouth of the beast, against water and cold! Save the village!"
Perching on a tooth, I spat on their heads.
The rain stopped, and a hellishly hot sun began shooting out its shafts. A swarm of pests burst forth from the fetid waters and invaded the village. So they sent me the little girl from next door. Her eyes were ringed and her cheeks sunken, her pretty shoulders had withered, and great bug bites covered her arms.
"My friend," she said, "We waste away, and it is your fault. It is hot, very hot. Drought has destroyed the harvests. The wells have run dry. Children die in their mothers' arms. O my friend, this cannot be your wish. Let me come seek cool and shade in the belly of the beast."
"Go away, the lot of you! You and everyone else!" I said wrathfully. "May the waters wash you off and the sun burn you to a crisp, I don't care. You rejected us. Too bad for you. Don't try coming in here. Peace and warmth are mine inside the beast, pleasure and repose. Leave us alone!"
But the sun's fury only increased. It burned everything without pity. Overnight, the village went up like a torch. Those who remained began wandering aimlessly, afflicted by hunger and fever. On the shore, the beast ate and drank. Its massive organs went on with their slow work of life. Its impregnable flanks protected my slumber and dreams. Those below grew furious. They accused the beast of causing all their ills, and decided to put an end to it. The beast had brought their woes upon them; if it went, so too would their woes.
They gathered their flagging forces and erected a great scaffolding by the sea. Then they set to boiling a great many cauldrons of oil and pitch, which they hoisted up on cables. They poured these into the open maw, amidst a terrifying ferment and a pestilential reek of burning meat. Then the fight with the beast began. But, following natural channels, I'd struck out right for the rear exit and come out laughing into the sea.