Once upon a time, there was a beast-man who wandered into a swamp. He didn’t mean to get stuck in there. Probably, he was minding his own business and managed to get in up to knees before he even knew it.
The beast-man knew he needed help; he didn’t want to die in the swamp, after all, so he hollered for someone to come and save him.
The first to come by was a rabbit-girl. She was a bit shy, but she’d seen the bodies of other travelers who had the misfortune to wander into the swamp and she was a kindhearted rabbit-girl, so she stopped. “How did that happen?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions! I’m stuck! Help!”
The rabbit-girl was a bit taken aback by the beast-man’s abrupt words, but she didn’t want him to die, so she grabbed a stick and held it out to him.
The beast-man muttered mean things under his breath. He grabbed the stick and let her pull him out of the swamp. Rabbit-girl was panting by the time the beast-man had struggled free of the green, fetid water. “There, you’re safe. You can go left here to walk along the beach and avoid the swamp,” she told the beast-man.
He glared at her … and walked right back into the swamp. Soon, he became stuck again, this time farther out. “Help! Help!”
He was too far out for a stick to help. Rabbit-girl wasn’t sure what to think of the beast-man and she sure didn’t know why he had walked right back into the mess knowing he’d get stuck.
“Are you going to help me?”
“Why did you walk back in there?”
“Because I thought it would work this time. Go get me a rope or I will die!”
Rabbit-girl sighed and tossed away the stick, telling herself that even though the beast-man was rude and kind of dumb, he was a living creature who deserved her respect. She went off into the woods and used her fluffy bunny fingers to weave a rope out of ivy. When she had a good length, she hopped back to the edge of the swamp and tossed the beast-man the rope.
She tugged and pulled and hauled the beast-man out of the swamp. Her hands were tired and all she wanted to do was get home and have a nice carrot. “If you don’t want to go by the beach to the left, you can get around the swamp by walking to the right through Dimwood Valley.”
The beast-man nodded. “It took you long enough to get me out of there.”
The rabbit-girl glowered at him and hopped off. Before she’d gotten more than twenty feet away, she heard the slosh of the beast-man’s body in the swamp water.
He’d gone in again.
She ignored him and hopped away.
“Help me, you stupid rabbit-girl! What kind of monster are you?”
Rabbit-girl ran into the woods and hid under a leaf, shaking from the beast-man’s rude words, not sure what she’d done to deserve them. She’d been trying to help but the beast-man made her feel like she’d been the one to push him into the swamp.
Bird-woman cawed from the top of the tree under which rabbit-girl hid. “What’s wrong with you, girl?”
“Nothing,” the rabbit-girl said, peeping out from under the leaf. “There’s a beast-man stuck in the swamp.”
“Ah,” said the bird-woman.
Rabbit-girl hopped from under the leaf. “He is stuck and he wanted my help, but every time I help him, he gets himself right back into danger.”
“Mm,” said the bird-woman. “Then stay away from him.”
Rabbit-girl thought for a moment. “If I leave, he’ll die.”
“Then save him.”
“He won’t let me.” The rabbit-girl’s whiskers trembled furiously. “What do I do?”
“Whose trouble is it?”
She thought for a moment. “His, because he’s stuck. Mine, because I’m not the type of rabbit or girl who would let someone die in a swamp.”
The bird-woman ruffled her glossy black feathers. “What will happen if you stay here saving him?”
“Eventually, I’ll starve to death too.” Rabbit-girl thought about the fresh, crispy carrots waiting for her at home. “Why does he keep doing that?”
“Going back into the swamp?” the bird-woman asked.
Rabbit-girl nodded her head, her bunny ears flopping.
“He likes being in danger and in pain. He likes that you stand there at the edge of the swamp worrying about him and he went back into the swamp after you saved him because he thinks that’s the only way you’ll care about him.”
Rabbit-girl snorted. “That’s stupid.”
The bird-woman cawed again and took flight, leaving rabbit-girl alone.
Well, almost alone.
She thought about leaving him in the hopes that someone else would come along to save him, but she was too kindhearted to do it. Instead, she hopped back to the edge of the swamp and picked up the rope.
“No!” the beast-man cried. “Why don’t you come in here and drag me out?”
“I don’t want to get stuck in there with you.”
“Don’t you like me? Don’t you care about me?”
Rabbit-girl tied one end of the ivy rope to a tree and turned back to the beast-man. “I’m going to throw this to you again and then I’m going to leave. You can choose to pull yourself out and you can choose to wade back in. I’ve given you what I can give.”
“No,” shouted the beast-man as rabbit-girl threw the rope. “No!” he cried as she hopped away.
Three days later, rabbit-girl hopped by the swamp hoping she wouldn’t see the body of the beast-man floating in the swampy water. Instead, she saw giraffe-boy and gator-boy and wolf-woman tossing a rope out to the beast-man. He would stagger to shore and sit with a bowed head while they gathered around him, patting him and soothing him. As soon as they stopped paying him attention, he waded right back in the swamp.
“Help us get him out, rabbit-girl,” called the giraffe-boy. “He said you made the rope but left him alone.”
“I did,” rabbit-girl said. “I got tired of pulling him free.”
“He’ll die in there,” said gator-boy. “And that will be on you.”
“No,” she said. “How many times has he wandered back into the swamp after you pulled him out?”
Giraffe, gator, and wolf stared at each other. “Four times,” giraffe-boy said. “But he can’t stop himself.”
“Because he has a condition. You can’t blame him for his condition,” wolf-woman said.
“I can’t. He can’t blame me for keeping myself safe, either.” Rabbit-girl hopped away, leaving them to figure out what to do on their own.
Another week passed and rabbit-girl ran into gator-boy looking weary. “You okay?”
Gator-boy shook his head. “That beast-man kept going back into the swamp. I had to leave.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
“He’s probably dead.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She hopped down to the swamp that evening. Sure enough, beast-man was still in the swamp. There were baskets of food piled beside him and someone had tossed flowers all around him. He laughed at her when he saw her.
“You wanted me to walk around the swamp. Look what your friends brought me! They cared about me and brought me everything I needed.”
“I see,” she said. “But do you care about them?”
Beast-man sniffed and bit a large chunk of meat off a bone. “Why do I need to care about them? I’m the one in danger.”
“You put their lives in danger and you made them feel bad they couldn’t help you. They even worked extra hard to keep you alive even though you were the one who walked back into the swamp!”
Beast-man drank from a canteen. “I didn’t mean to get stuck in here,” he said. “There should have been signs put up, warning me about the swamp.”
“You made me feel bad!” rabbit-girl said.
“You left me here to die.”
“I saved you!”
“Maybe I didn’t want to be saved. Maybe I needed a friend.” Beast-man’s eyes welled with tears and his bottom lip stuck out like rabbit-girl’s little sister’s did when she was about to cry.
“Then why didn’t you ask me?”
“You don’t care! None of them cared about me. Here I am, stuck in a swamp and they all left me.”
Her head was beginning to ache. “They all tried to help you.”
“Yeah, for a few days. Then they stopped pulling me out.”
“They were probably tired.”
“So am I! Don’t you think I’m tired of being stuck in the swamp!”
She wanted to shout back at him, but instead she hopped away, cringing at the shrieks behind her. After a few minutes, she stopped and leaned against the bark of an old tree. Above her, the bird-woman cawed.
“What are you doing here? Another animal-person stuck in the swamp?”
“No,” said rabbit-girl. “It’s the same beast-man.”
“And what are you doing back here?”
“I don’t know. I thought he would have left by now, but he’s still there. Why won’t he leave?”
The bird-woman shook her head. “Every time he whines about being stuck, someone comes to help him.”
“Have you helped him?”
“I talked to him, but I didn’t throw him a rope.”
“Because he’s not really stuck. He just likes the idea of being stuck. Look at all the attention he’s gotten. Of course he wants to be stuck. I might get myself stuck too if it means I can get all that attention.”
The bird-woman ruffled her feathers. “Do you think someone that needy will let themselves drown?”
“Maybe, indeed. And if he does, what’s it to you?”
“If he dies and I could have done something about it–”
“You can’t make his decisions for him. You can’t force him onto the Beach path or the Valley path. You can’t carry him away; he’d just find somewhere else to get stuck.” The bird-woman tipped her head and sighed. “If you’re that worried, sit on the bank with him, but don’t bring him anything and don’t throw the rope to him. Just sit there so he isn’t alone. You aren’t obligated to do even that, mind, but if you must, make sure you don’t help him. Don’t get drawn into his games. Just wait. Eventually he’ll get cold or tired or hungry and he’ll save himself.”
“Why is he like that?”
The bird-woman lifted up into the air with a few beats of her wings. “He’s convinced himself that’s the only way he can have friends.”
Rabbit-girl still didn’t get it, but she hopped back to the edge of the swamp and sat, just like bird-woman said. She didn’t get the beast-man a stick or a rope or fetch him water or food. She just sat and told stories and sang little songs. Eventually, the beast-man waded out of the swamp, tired and pissed.
“Why didn’t you save me?”
“You didn’t let me.”
The beast-man frowned at her. “You should have saved me the way I wanted to be saved. You should have helped me every time I asked for it. You didn’t, so you are a bad, bad rabbit-girl.” The beast-man stomped away.
Rabbit-girl sat on the bank feeling sad. After a while, she heard the faint sound of the beast-man screaming. She hopped up and ran toward the noise to find the beast-man stuck in a hole. Big fat tears ran down his cheeks.
“No one ever pays attention to me! They don’t help me. They ignore me and leave me to drown.” When he saw her, he turned his back on her and said, “SOME people don’t know how to take care of me.”
Rabbit-girl watched the other animal-people jump into the hole to save the beast-man, patting and hugging him when they’d gotten him out of the hole. They fed him, gave him food and he seemed to be okay … until he ran and jumped back into the hole.
Rabbit-girl didn’t wait to see what happened next. She knew. She left the beast-man behind and hopped back home wanting to curl up in her cozy burrow and eat crisp carrots, fresh from the garden. On the way she saw gator-boy, his foot stuck in a trap.
“Help! Help!” he cried.
Her experience with the beast-man made her wary, but even though she was worried gator-boy would do the same thing beast-man did, she stopped to help him escape the trap. “Are you okay?” she asked as she patted gator-boy’s back.
“Yes. It hurt but you saved me. Thank you. Giraffe-boy and wolf-woman didn’t help me. They told me I was acting like the beast-man, but I wasn’t, I swear.” Gator-boy shook his foot and winced.
“I have a cloth in my burrow that I can tie around your foot. Do you want to come with me to get it?”
“Yes, please,” said gator-boy.
Rabbit-girl tied the cloth around gator-boy’s foot and he stayed for carrots and listened to rabbit-girl read from a book of fairy tales. After she had read two stories, gator-boy said, “Why do you think the beast-man kept walking back into the swamp? He was obviously sad. He cried and moaned and whined a lot.”
“Bird-woman said he liked being stuck. And after a while, his whining didn’t sound very real anymore. It was just a way for him to manipulate us to get us to do what he wanted.”
“That’s dumb. He was kind of a jerk.”
Rabbit-girl nodded. She wondered if the beast-man was still jumping into the hole or if he’d moved on to another way to get stuck and get attention.
When the afternoon faded to evening, gator-boy had to go home. “Thank you for the cloth,” he said.
“Thank you for sharing carrots with me. Good night, gator-boy.”
“Good night, rabbit-girl. We should do this again sometime.”
“Yeah. I think this is how friends are supposed to act, huh?”
Gator-boy nodded. “I think so.”
Rabbit-girl and gator-boy became good friends. The beast-man is still stuck in a mess crying for help. Maybe someday you’ll come across him stuck in a swamp or a hole or a trap. It’s okay to stop to help. Just remember that your health and safety are just as important as his.
(My mom used to write me stories like these. She had elegant, looping handwriting and she would draw pictures to go along with the story. Rabbits and turtles and bears and more. My mom was a talented lady. Love you and miss you, Mom!)