Once upon a time there was a fox named Heinrich who owned a circus. He was proud from his red and white muzzle to his absurdly long tail that his circus was the most popular one in the kingdom of Erkundigung.
There were many other circuses–some with bigger tents and more beautiful performers. But when it came to dazzling, glittering spectacle, Heinrich’s was the best: dancing bears and talking donkeys, goats who balanced themselves on ropes strung high above the center ring, a chorus of wolves who howled songs from the Rosenkavalier, penguins who wore clown hats and kicked balls at ranks of terrified hens, dogs who did triple turns off rings onto the trapeze.
Each night, alone in his wagon, Heinrich counted the day’s receipts. Each day the take was better. Heinrich slept well and snored loudly.
Heinrich took his show from Munich to Berlin, from Cologne to Dusseldorf. When the wagons rolled into the towns and villages in between, children and their parents lined the streets smiling brightly, waving kerchiefs and sometimes, as his carriage passed at the end of the parade, placing a garland around Heinrich’s neck. He had the keys to thirty three towns and cities, a tidy income, and the reputation of knowing what people liked to see. Whenever questioned about his success, he said modestly, “I am a fox, and foxes have a knack.”
It was hard work. No one knew how hard. Most of the performers, from the high-rope head Nanny goat, Gertrude, right down to Otto the emperor penguin and Ambrose, the juggling lion, had been friends of Heinrich for years.
But, as time passed it became difficult for Heinrich to ask the performers to do the old tricks, jumps and skits. “Age is the enemy of swiftness and with fame comes infirmity.”
Their timing was slower. They missed cues. One evening Gertrude tumbled from her high rope and had to be carried from the ring whinnying in pain. Otto on another evening forgot his glasses and kicked the ball toward the stand instead of the hens, knocking an ice cream cone out of a little boy’s hand. Ambrose could not be trusted to make his way through a single verse of Die Gedanken sind Frei without forgetting the lyrics.
The younger performers, not as brave or talented or famous as the old stars, began to grumble.
“Heinrich is going to spoil it all for us,” a young lion said. “We need something new.”
“Heinrich is too old. We know what people want,” squawked a hen. “But does he let us do it our way? Never.”
“For one thing,” said a lion, “We don’t need so many acts.”
“Exactly,” said a young penguin, who had been waiting five seasons for Otto to disgrace himself. “What do you suggest?” :
“Get rid of the penguins,” said the goat.
“Get rid of the goats, said the lions–we can help.”
“Get rid of the lions,” said the wolves.
“Get rid of the donkeys,” said the donkeys.
As he watched the animals squawking and braying and whinnying their preferences fron the shadows, a sullen gray wolf named Renfrew stepped forward. Heinrich had employed him for years to balance the accounts, and in recent times to buy gallons of ice cream for little boys who had become victims of Otto’s nearsightedness.
“I have a modest proposal, said Renfrew. “Get rid of Heinrich.”
“We can’t,” said the animals in unison.
“He’s the only one who knows how it all works,” said the lions.
“He’s the only one with brains,” said the donkeys.
“He’s the only one who keeps us from tearing each other apart,” said the goats.
“He’s the only one who knows the way to Munich,” said the hens.
“He’s the only one who knows how the tent goes up,” said the dancing bears.
Renfrew smiled. “You silly beasts. You’ve been taught to believe that by the old miser. Now, if you had a clever new ringmaster–say a wolf with skills at keeping the books and staving off dissatisfied customers–we could do new and wonderful things. And don’t worry: I know the way to Munich and I can learn how the tent goes up. Who’s with me?”
A pig named Cherise stepped forward: “I am,” she said firmly pulling herself up to her most resolute height.
“Splendid,” said Renfrew. “You are in charge of raising money for ice cream. You do like ice cream, don’t you?”
“Ever so much” said Cherise.
“And who else?”
“I am,” said a Labrador retriever named Bartleby, whose job for many years had been bringing Heinrich his supper and washing the dishes afterward.
“Splendid,” said Renfrew. You are now the master of accounts. “And you are also to find out how the tent goes up.”
“As for myself, I will run everything. Just leave it to me. You will have your jobs–and I will finally have a position worthy of my talents. What could be happier?”
At this there was feint applause from the animals, though privately they wondered: Renfrew had worked in the shadows for years. Cherise, it was well known, ate more ice cream than she earned, and Bartleby, though a fair enough dishwasher, was untried in other affairs.
Still, they reckoned, a job is a job, and who would hire high-flying dogs and talking donkeys in a bad economy?
On return to his caravan on a Saturday night, Heinrich found Renfrew sitting at his desk counting the day’s returns.
“Can I help you?” Renfrew asked with a thinly disguised and toothful smile on his muzzle. “I think you must have the wrong wagon”
“No, this is my wagon,”said Heinrich.
“No dear chap: it’s mine. So is the circus. We have arranged for you to travel with us in a somewhat more modest wagon for a time. And of course, we’ll continue to use your name, your itinerary, and the goodwill you have generated. But you must not get any ideas. I’m running this show now. Changes will be made.”
Heinrich disappeared into the evening and sat in despair in a much smaller wagon, one which had previously been used for the chickens. “I should have got rid of that wolf years ago,” he thought. “And the labrador too. And the pig.”
The following day, Renfrew, dressed in a fine new suit and vest, cravat and opal tie-pin, called the performers together.
“I have been looking at the books,” he intoned ominously. Cherise smiled and struggled to keep her eyes above the table. “We must get things under control.”
“Control?” repeated a donkey who did not know the word.
“First, we will not go to Munich. Second, we will not go to Cologne. third, we will not go to Dusseldorf. That is my plan.”
“Where will we go,” asked a rat, whose function depended on circumstance.
“We will stay right here,” said Renfrew. “Until conditions improve.”
“When will that be?” asked a young dog.
“When I decide,” said Renfrew. “And one other thing.”
“What?” said the performers in unison.
“Just staying put isn’t enough. Costs are mounting, especially the cost of feed. We must also let some of you go. Bartleby smiled broadly and Cherise grunted in approval.
“So for the time being, I am putting the lions, the goats and the penguins on furlough. And since the chickens are only needed for the penguins, the chickens must go too. I will review the situation with the donkeys in six months.”
“But people will not come out here to this muddy town in the middle of nowhere to see talking donkeys,” said a lion.
The donkeys nodded enthusiastically.
“You are suggesting I don’t know what I’m doing,” said Renfrew, “and that is insubordination. You’re fired.”
“But you’re firing us anyway,” said the lion.
“Nonsense,” said Renfrew. “I said furlough. Bartleby, put a note in this lion’s file saying that he said I said something I did not say nor mean to say. Does anyone else wish to challenge me?” said Renfrew. “Bartleby, please take down the names of all those who wish to challenge me.”
But no one did.
Six months later, the circus was still in Teufelsdrockh. It hadn’t traveled from the spot. Holes were beginning appear in the tent, but only the high-rope goats might have repaired it, and they had been fired. The crowds were down to five and six–everyone who came still remembered Heinrich’s circus. But the new show consisted of a few talking donkeys, a tap-dancing dog, and a rat who scuttled back and forth across the ring for no purpose.
“We could hire some new performers,” said Bartleby to Renfrew as the financial picture blackened.
“We would need money for that,” said Cherise,” not nearly as happy a pig as she once had been.
“We will do what I decide,” said Renfrew as he looked out of his window onto the muddy lot. “When I decide. By the way, dog: I notice the eastern half of the tent has collapsed. I don’t suppose you know how to fix that, do you?”
Moralia: Boni pastoris est tondere pecus, non deglubere.