The forest is dry. Its soil is brittle. Its air is sharp and clean. The pine trees smell like antiseptic. Spirits live in the forest. They invite Jenna to play.
“It’s great fun to look for truffles, ” suggests Boar. “Also, if there are any knights around, we can gore their sides.”
“Take to the air as a duck!” offers Duck. “Nothing flies as elegantly as a duck.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Coyote says dubiously.
“It’s not a lie,” says Duck. “There’s an implicit ‘exactly’. Nothing flies exactly as elegantly as a duck.”
“I can’t come and play,” says Jenna. She’s chewing on a hamburger and writing in a black and white composition book. “I’m writing a book of examples of filial piety.”
“Oh?” says Duck. “Can you read some to us?”
Jenna swallows, and recites:
In 1983, the giant spiders were very hungry. One had a clutch of eggs, so she was extra-hungry. They tried to eat me, but I’d always bonk them on the nose. So the mother grew very thin. She thought she might die. “Don’t worry, mother,” said the little spiders, hatching. “You can eat us!” So she did. By keeping their mother alive at the cost of their own existence, the little spiders fulfilled their filial duty.
“That’s very moving,” agrees Boar. “But is it really virtuous?”
Jenna considers. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think the sacrifice is beautiful, but does it compare to the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”
“I don’t know,” Duck answers. “What is the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”
“I’m biased,” Jenna says, “since they keep trying to eat me. But I think it’s the way that they’re cruel without hating. They do monstrous, horrible things. But inside their heads, it’s cold, clear, and empty. They’re not ugly like demons. They’re pretty. Like the winter. And they have potential.”
“You should read another,” Coyote says, slouching.
Vicious Lily was a robotic assassin created in 1925 to advance the cause of Impressionism. “What is your o-pin-ion of Mo-net’s pain-tings of the Thames?” it asked me. I assured it that all of Monet’s works were masterpieces. “Good,” it said. “I will let you live.” Then it turned to the wall. “What is your o-pin-ion of the Rou-en Ca-the-drals se-ries?” The wall made no answer. Vicious Lily’s laser arm clicked. A dial spun. Vicious Lily blasted the wall until nothing remained but rubble. “Take that in the name of ro-bot jus-tice!” it said. Not a moment went by that Vicious Lily did not think of its creator, Monet.
Boar grunts. “It’s a robot. It can’t help it.”
“Robots can break their programming,” says Jenna. “It happens all the time on TV. Plus, I heard that if you flip your Transformers toys into a special third configuration, they come to life, embezzle your money, and flee the country in disgrace.”
“Point,” says Coyote. “In a way, a robot that doesn’t break its programming exhibits filial loyalty. Still, I’d think that a true example of robotic loyalty would be a death machine that, having broken its programming, decides to go around killing people for the agency that created it anyway.”
“That would be more impressive,” says Jenna, “but I haven’t seen an example of that. Do you think I should fictionalize my work for greater impact?”
“Not really,” says Coyote. “I’m just sayin’.”
Jenna takes a few more bites of her hamburger, swallows, writes a bit more, and then recites:
Mei Ming was born in 1975. The monster pulled her from the shadow’s womb. The shadow kept her in the tunnels to protect her from the world. Mei Ming wasn’t scared of spiders, but thieves—that’s scary! I tried to look at her with my flashlight helmet, but she shrank from the light. “It’s best to live in the shadows,” she said. “That way my mother always knows where I am.” She gave up light for her mother’s peace of mind—that’s how pious she was.
“What did she look like?” wonders Duck. “I mean, was she all shadowy?”
“A little,” agrees Jenna. “You could definitely see the filial resemblance.”
“You should stay away from her,” counsels Coyote. “The tree never falls far from the branch. Bad eggs like that only lead you into trouble.”
“It’s an interesting issue,” Jenna decides. “I don’t think she can be a bad egg, because if she’s evil, that’s just being loyal to the shadow. And if she’s wonderfully sweet and nice, then that’s not very much like a bad egg, either.”
“Nor like a deviled egg,” Boar points out. “Those aren’t sweet. They taste of mustard.”
“I want mustard,” Jenna says unhappily. It’s hard to find condiments in the tunnels sometimes.
“It’s not about taste,” Coyote answers. “It’s about security.”
I met a girl standing over her father’s grave. She was wearing a jacket. “He had a hundred plans,” she said. “But none of them ever worked. So I’ve decided to honor his memory. If you can catch me, your next plan will succeed.”
“It’s dangerous to make promises like that,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “When you make a promise that humans can’t fulfill, you can’t be human any more. I’m okay with that.” By making this promise, she put her filial duty to her father’s memory above the human condition.
“The human condition’s not so great,” Coyote points out. “Now, me, I’m great. Compare and contrast as you will.”
“Humans live out in the world,” Jenna points out. “You hang out with Duck, Boar, and me.”
“See how my fur shines? That’s classy. The human condition doesn’t have class like that. And my teeth are just glorious.” Coyote smiles. “Case closed.”
“What are you going to do with the book when you’ve finished writing it?” asks Duck.
“I’m going to take it to the market and trade it for three magic beans. Then I will plant them, climb to the top of the beanstalk, kill any nearby giants, and, making a block and tackle from their ligaments and bones, lower the castle into the forest.”
“That’s a stupid plan,” Coyote says. “Why don’t you just trade Cow?”
Jenna lifts a finger to answer, pauses, and turns bright red.
“What?” Coyote asks.
Jenna ducks her head. “My lunch had no foresight,” she embarrassedly admits.