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Hangs Thereby a Tail

Assyrian bas relief. British Museum.

He was a tall, thin man in his early fifties, with long graying hair retreating from a high forehead, and an erect aristocratic bearing better suited to a baronet than to an artist and professor of art history. He gave no hint that he harbored the kind of curiosity that leads to mortality in felines.

On a visit to a Middle Eastern museum, he was intrigued by an Assyrian bas-relief in which ancient warriors swam eternally across a river, stealthily approaching, but never engaging, their enemy. Alert and determined, the soldiers carried their weapons at the ready in one hand. The other arm was draped almost casually over an inflated pig skin.

The pigskin piqued his curiosity. He had seen inflated pigskins sold in the marketplaces as storage containers. The legs and neck were securely tied off. A plug at the nether end gave access to the vessel.

Eager to see if art truly imitated life, he stopped by a local market. After a short bout of negotiation, he acquired a sturdy-looking pigskin. Tossing it into his rented Jeep, he headed out of town.

Far outside the city, along a barren, rocky river bank, he spotted a group of boys, pigskins in their arms, jumping into the swiftly moving water and rafting down to a sand spit about a quarter of a mile away. There they came ashore and ran back to their starting point.

It was as if he were seeing those long-dead Assyrian warriors, some of whom had probably been about the same age as these boys. Watching the youngsters moving easily in the water, he came to the conclusion that there was nothing to it. He stripped off his clothes, threw them into the Jeep and, in a state of nature, plunged into the water.

However, there are tricks to all trades and this was no exception.

In the days when it was commonplace to kill the bearer of unpleasant tidings, artists found it prudent to show their wealthy and powerful clients in the most flattering light. The professor remembered this as he dangled beneath the pigskin like a poorly–secured blimp gondola. He began to suspect the ancient sculptor, under the humorless eye of an Assyrian master, had been more concerned with self-preservation than with accuracy in his art.

The intrepid professor now realized that it would have been impossible for any warrior to concentrate on the coming confrontation with both arms wrapped around a slippery skin that had suddenly seemed to regain free will. The solider could only have hung on grimly, determined not to pierce the skin or himself with his weapon while, out of his line of sight as he dangled low in the water, his enemy was preparing to cut his throat.

Once the professor had mastered the technique of clinging to his craft, though, it became apparent that his position in the water was really very convenient. For the skin was not completely airtight. In order to stay afloat, it was necessary to blow it up continuously. Cheek to cheek with the aft end of his questionable craft, he found the anal plug was conveniently placed to effect re-inflation.

About this time, he was ready to give up the experiment, but the gods had already taken the decision out of his hands. Not knowing the eccentricities of the river, the professor had not stayed close to shore but had plunged unwarily into the mainstream. The current was surprisingly fast and strong. While contemplating his predicament, he had been carried swiftly past the sand spit where the boys watched in delight as he sped by.

He finally managed to bring his vessel ashore, rather abruptly, a mile or more down river. Barefoot and battered by his landing, he started limping back along the stony shore to his Jeep.

When he arrived, the boys were gone and the Jeep was not quite as he had left it. Tires, seats, steering wheel—everything was gone. Including his clothes. Fortunately, he had not discarded the pigskin.

Sunburned, bruised, and disheveled, clad only in a distinctive pigskin kilt, he had difficulty hitching a ride back to town. Finally, a military transport gave him a lift. Stoically, he bore the sidelong looks of the truck’s occupants as they made the interminable drive into the city.

The soldiers dropped him unceremoniously in front of his high-end hotel, leaving him to saunter alone into the marble tiled lobby dressed only in the shreds of his not-inconsiderable dignity and the folds of the tired pigskin.

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