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“Spots Before Stripes” is a coming-of-age, anthropomorphic story about a lazy leopard who discovers the error in his waysShare Tweet LinkedIn Embed pszr.co/yOsTH 307 views
|Children's Middle Grade|
|4 publishers interested|
Epicello is a leopard who appears to have everything – a supportive family, friends throughout the animal kingdom and a lioness who is in love with him. He has been given all that he needs without ever having to work for it. This to Epicello seems like the perfect crime, but his indolence and selfishness soon lead to tension and division between he and his family and friends. Gradually his ties are severed and Epicello finds himself alone and unable to provide for himself. Epicello must return to the lessons ignored while he was in the lap of luxury to prove to those around him and more importantly, himself that change is possible.
Chapter 1: Let's Get One Thing Straight - The reader is introduced to the main character, a lazy leopard named Epicello. We gain a glimpse into his personality and how he spends his days - Epicello does not like when other animals mispronounce his name; he prefers to spend his days sleeping in a tree far away from work.
Chapter 2: Breakfast By Champions - While Epicello sleeps, his father, Leopold and older brother, Kipp are hard at work hunting. After a painful bout with a gazelle, Leopold and Kipp secure a successful kill. Father and son walk to Epicello's tree where he is fast asleep. Leopold tells Kipp to give a piece of the meat to his younger brother. Kipp begrudgingly does as he's told. Kipp and Epicello get into a fight as Kipp is tired of taking care of his younger brother. Epicello tries to explain to Kipp that he is struggling with his self-identity concerning his spots. Kipp does not believe him and thinks Epicello is only making excuses. Kipp leaves the scene, telling Leopold to deal with Epicello as he no longer can stand to be around him.
Chapter 3: The Ties That Bind - Leopold tries to calm Epicello who is upset from the words Kipp said to him. Leopold tells Epicello to walk to his den with him. Along the journey, Leopold asks Epicello about his struggle with his self-identity. Leopold reassures him that it is normal what Epicello is going through, but Epicello feels his situation is much worse. Leopold and Epicello greet Floris, Epicello's mother and Leopold's wife in the den. She sends Epicello on the errand of delivering a present to Epicello's sister, Montessa. Montessa upbraids Epicello shortly after he arrives saying it isn't right the way he takes advantage of their father.
Chapter 4: A Scapegrace's Honor - Leopold secures work for Epicello with two of his friends. Epicello decides to meet his elephant friend, Dalton. While they are talking, a clumsy and gullible bear named Sampson appears. Sampson has a bee's nest stuck to his head. Epicello pulls to nest off then cons Sampson into thinking there is a hidden place in his tree where the best honey flows. Epicello convinces Sampson to sand down a branch in the tree while he is looking for the honey. Dalton is angered by Epicello taking advantage of the credulous Sampson and tells Epicello so.
Chapter 5: In the Air - Leopold and Kipp are hunting. Kipp is hungry and becoming desperate. He sees a fawn he wants to attack, but Leopold constrains his son, telling Kipp the potential prey is too young. Kipp becomes upset and brings up the subject of poachers who have appeared on the land. Kipp tells Leopold man is their greatest threat and that they need to prepare for their return. Leopold advises Kipp to be at peace with the world and let what will happen happen. Leopold pleads with Kipp to reconcile with Epicello.
Chapter 6: A Meeting of the Minds - Epicello spends the afternoon playing with two of his friends, a pair of golden langurs named Jinx and Jax. They are an unwitting double act. Jax is a scholar of sorts; Jinx is a fool. Sampson shows up to the scene and informs Epicello there was no honey in the tree. Epicello acts surprised though he knew there was none. Floris catches Leopold sneaking away from their den with meat for Epicello. She reminds Leopold he can't keep enabling their son. Leopold tells Floris about the employment opportunity for Epicello. She is dubious Epicello will take the opportunity seriously. Leopold has faith in his son. He tells Epicello where and when to meet his friends. Epicello sleepily agrees, but never shows. Leopold is embarrassed in front of his friends as they wait for Epicello.
Chapter 7: Black and Blonde - A young lioness, Seren waits for Epicello with Jinx and Jax. She is smitten with Epicello. She is nervous when Epicello finally appears. Seren tries to talk with Epicello, but he seems disinterested. He would rather play with Jinx. Jax consoles Seren saying there are other fish in the sea. Suddenly a black panther named Scourge appears. The animals are frightened. Epicello feigns bravery as he asks Scourge what he wants. Scourge tells Epicello he knows of the riff between he and Kipp and the effect old age is having on Leopold. Scourge tries to convince Epicello and tells Epicello he can help him. When Epicello declines, Scourge becomes enraged.
Chapter 8: Things Fall Apart - Leopold returns to his den downtrodden. Floris knows why and shouts Epicello's name across the wilderness. Epicello sprints home. Inside his parents' den, Floris asks her son why he didn't meet Leopold's friends. Epicello makes petty excuses. Floris dismisses her son. Epicello knows he disappointed his parents and looks for comfort from Leopold who tells Epicello he is disappointed in him. Epicello can feel things falling apart. He goes to Dalton then Seren for comfort, but both dismiss him.
Chapter 9: Sweet Sorrow - Epicello falls back on his friend Jinx for support. Epicello tries to have an intelligent conversation with Jinx, but to no avail. While hunting, Leopold is killed by poachers. Kipp kills the poachers in retaliation. He carries his father's body home to Floris so she can say goodbye then Kipp buries his father.
Chapter 10: First Loss - Epicello awakes to find his father didn't leave any meat in his tree. He goes to Leopold and Floris's den to inquire. Epicello thinks Leopold is still mad at him for not meeting his friends and that Leopold is withholding his meals. Through tears, Floris explains to Epicello how Leopold died. Epicello doesn't believe what he is hearing. Epicello is in a tailspin, but he eventually comes out of it with Floris's help.
Chapter 11: Old Habits - Epicello seeks Kipp's help, wanting to avenge his father's death. Kipp informs Epicello that he already killed the poachers. Kipp dismisses Epicello saying he doesn't care if Epicello lives or dies. After Epicello leaves, Kipp remembers what Leopold said to him earlier and has a change of heart. He goes to find Epicello. In the meanwhile, Scourge found Epicello first and torments him. Scourge says Epicello needs to hurt Kipp for oppressing him. Epicello tries to ignore Scourge, but he becomes enraged. When Kipp appears, Epicello attacks his brother, pinning Kipp to the ground. As Epicello is about the strike his brother, he snaps out of his spell and runs away.
Chapter 12: The Life Thing: Kipp chases after Epicello. When Kipp finally catches up to Epicello, he tells Epicello he will help him. Kipp teaches Epicello how to hunt. Epicello confesses his guilt and shame to Kipp. Kipp tells Epicello he is proud of him.
Chapter 13: Until Perfect - Epicello struggles with the idea of killing another animal. He asks Kipp if he could survive as a scavenger or herbivore. Epicello attempts to hunt a gazelle but is greatly outmatched. Epicello continues to try and succeeds with a kill. Epicello tells Kipp he has an idea of how to deal with the poachers.
Chapter 14: Full Circle - Epicello devises a plan regarding the poachers that involves all of the animals' help. Epicello informs the animals it is better to scare the poachers instead of just killing them because more will just return, but if the animals scare them enough, the poachers will tell the others at home it is unsafe to return. The poachers arrive and Epicello's plan works. The story concludes with Epicello proudly showing off his spots to the world.
"Spots Before Stripes" is written for a middle-grade audience. "According to book scout Rachel Horowitz, 'Everyone is looking for humor! There were a lot of series with magical animals this year (2017), an evergreen theme, but people would also like to read something funny.'" Samantha Howard explains, "Another trend in middle grade is serious topics. Middle grade characters are often looking inward, finding out who they are."
"Spots Before Stripes" is a serious, introspective novel exploring topics such as society, responsibility and autonomy. It is balanced with plenty of comic relief.
"The Jungle Book"
"Watership Down "
"Bambi: A Life in the Woods"
"Spots Before Stripes" is similar to these books in that they are all anthropomorphic, sometimes misanthropic and address serious topics. "Spots Before Stripes" differs in that it contains more humor and different themes such as the main character being sequestered because of his poor and selfish decisions.
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Chapter 1: Let’s Get One Thing Straight
Beneath the unrelenting heat of the Indian sun, there stood a mighty tree in defiance of its arid environment. In between the sun and this tree, the clouds had scattered throughout the pale blue sky to avoid being scorched by the star that hung directly above them. Without their interference to preclude the sun’s intent, the air was thick and dry making the task of breathing seemingly impossible for the animals that relied on it. They had adapted, become used to the short supply of oxygen or as used to it as one could become and realized controlled and brief breaths were the trick to survival in these parts; deep inhalations would only fill their lungs with steam.
This tree was unique in more ways than one: firstly, it distinguished itself by its sheer size. The way this tree’s branches extended endlessly upwards gave it the appearance of a peculiar, foreign winged giant hunched over with its head buried beneath the ground, resting and ready to take flight to some distant planet. Secondly, at the end of each branch were thousands of healthy and hydrated leaves colored in verdant splendor by a constant replenishment from a secret water supply. Their greenery was in stark contrast to the yellow, torched grass all around it that had turned to hay under their habitat’s brutality. There was death and decay along the ground, the passing of foliage and creatures who had succumbed to the heat. There were rocks aligning this exposed graveyard; there were boulders present since time began standing boisterously to act as milestones to unseen travelers. There was the occasional burning bush, charred to crisps, the accustomed tumbleweeds passing through to kinder terrain. Lastly, this tree was different than the others because it was more than just a tree, at least from the perspective of one animal, an animal who viewed the world through his perspective exclusively. To this animal, this tree was more than just bark, branches and leaves. It was a home, sanctuary and refuge chosen painstakingly for the shade and anonymity its foliage provided and the cool breeze it shared with its inhabitant whenever it flapped its wings.
It may seem logical to assume the animal in question was a fledged one who in its travels along the skyway sought a safe and comfortable place to rest its weary wings or one who had claimed this territory for its height so the bird may build its nest away from those who meant it harm. It may seem logical to assume the true animal who lived here was a member of the monkey family who had sought these strong branches to swing from and play within the community to which it belonged yet the animal who resided here neither flew nor swung. He was a part of a separate species altogether. Logic is not obvious in this situation because the animal who spent the majority of his days and nights sleeping loftily here shunned logic restlessly because of the weight it carried. To accept logic would have meant he would have to accept personal responsibility and work like all the rest and that was to be avoided at any costs for the animal who slept here was a lazy leopard as most who knew him would agree though he begged to differ. Not so much lazy as he was troubled, he would tell you, misunderstood and all alone on his island of suffering he would continue for indolence is only a symptom not a diagnosis. The blame for his inability to rise above his reputation fell on the shoulders of those around him who held him there, not on his own shortcomings, but you will have to decide for yourself which is the truer adjective.
I can tell you though without ambiguity what his name was yet there is some discrepancy even there about how it is pronounced. It is spelled Epicello. If he were here beside me as I write, he would undoubtedly tug on my shirt to urge me to explain to you in detail how the syllables that made up his moniker should roll off the tongue so there is no confusion as to how it is said. If you were conversing with him in person and happened to mispronounce it by accident or carelessness, he would stop you in the middle of your sentence, give you an agitated look of the eye, tap his foot, cross his paws and snobbishly correct you: “Ep-A-Chell-O,” he would say slowly and sternly so you would not make the same mistake twice. To further guide you, he would say, “Ep- as in ‘episode’ an ‘A’ in between and ‘cello’, like the musical instrument.” That’s how he demanded he was addressed, not “Ep-A-Cell-O,” or “Ep-A-Kell-O” and certainly no abbreviations of letters, not “E.,” “Ep.,” or “Epi.” Ep-A-Chell-O, thank you very much. His parents chose that appellation for him and only him after much thought. He imagined the happiness on their faces when they decided on the name and called their son by it for the first time. To misspeak of it would be to directly insult his mother and father, an offense he did not take lightly. He could mistreat and take them for granted so much as he pleased, but no other animal must even dream of it. Don’t mispronounce his name, don’t question how he lived out his days and don’t burden him with reminders of the obligations he had neglected and you’d get along swimmingly.
Epicello was sprawled snuggly across the widest and strongest branch in his beloved tree, his torso straddling the bark, his paws and tail dangling in the air on either side. His right cheek rested against the branch, his chin was perched up proudly outlining the semblance of a smile as though he had just petted and proclaimed his love and gratitude to the tree just before sleep had overtaken him. He raised his eyebrows and creased his whiskers as he drifted through the magical adventures in dreamland, journeys aided by a full stomach and rested bones. Epicello’s body was long and lean from play, not work. He was of that awkward age between childhood and adolescence where we cling to the ease and forgiveness of our youth while navigating through the treacherous waters of self-reliance, a transition that increases exceedingly in difficulty when we resist the change. We will return to this scene of serenity shortly so we may explore an austerely different picture that was unfolding only hundreds of yards away to meet the one who made Epicello’s repose possible.
Two other leopards were busy toiling for a kill, endangering their lives anytime this necessity called. They could be impaled by the horn of a wild deer or thrashed by the hindlegs of resistant prey, but the leopards hunted so they may feed the hungry stomachs of a village, a certain able-bodied cat in particular. The elder of the two was Leopold. His fur was majestic, reflecting the wisdom and care of old age. His eyes no longer opened as wide as the younger generation’s, a casualty of the long years he had lived. Leopold in these days seemed to glide more than he walked or ran, pulling his legs together with a single effort to minimize any further damage. His joints were painfully inflamed and stiff; his bones fared no better. Leopold had moved from soldier to commander and in his army of one was his other son and brother to Epicello, Kipp, a brash and ornery prodigy, caught between his desire to assert his dominance over his father and to a servitude for the man who had raised him. He was three years his brother’s senior (which is an eternity of a difference in a leopard’s lifetime), vastly different in temperament yet similar in appearance to Epicello. However, Kipp was the victor in every comparative category: bigger, faster, quicker and significantly stronger by virtue of his tireless industry.
Leopold and Kipp laid their bellies atop a hill, stalking a herd of gazelle in the near distance. Kipp twitched his tail, opened his eyes wide in eager anticipation, ready to pounce. “Now’s the time, Pa,” he whispered to his father then pointed to a large member of the group. “That one is their pack leader. When he turns his attention, I say we sprint full force and attack!”
But his excitement was halted by reason. “Easy, son,” Leopold said. “If we run at them with all we’ve got, we’ll create enough hysteria to give them enough time to react. Then we’ll come away with nothing or worse, risk injury if they decide to retaliate. The first rule of hunting is to never jeopardize the safety or wellbeing of your fellow pack members even if you don’t come away with a kill,” he said more sternly. “Never compromise the safety of those you care for. Understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” Kipp said impatiently. “What do you suggest we do then?”
“I’ll slowly walk out there so they can see me,” Leopold explained. “When they do, their natural reaction will be to run. In doing so, they will scatter. Once they have separated, I want you to use all of that stored up energy you have inside of you and chase one.” He locks eyes with Kipp. “Pick only one and stick with it. Got it?”
“Got it,” Kipp said, nodding restlessly.
“Good. Let’s go.”
Leopold and Kipp diverged, the father walking gently towards the herd while Kipp moved into position, taking coverage behind a straggly bush. Leopold grew ever closer to the hunt; his silent movements did not initially alert the gazelles of impending danger until one of the steeds perked up his ears to hear the leopard’s foot inadvertently snap a branch on the ground. Leopold cringed, hoping the crack was not audible. The gazelle froze in horror, its head bowed in suspension above the puddle it was drinking from. Time stopped in that moment; the rest of the herd saw the terror in their leader’s expression and without shifting their heads, moved only their eyes to locate where the attack would come from. Leopold ducked his head beneath the grass, his body hugged the ground as he stealthily inched closer to the herd then suddenly predator and prey were face to face. In that split second of calm before the storm, the gazelle’s mouth opened wide, the grass he was chewing spilled outwards then as prophesized, the pack panicked and ran for their lives in every direction.
“Now, Kipp! Now!” Leopold yelled to his son and like a trapdoor spider, Kipp emerged from the bush, instantly breaking into a full sprint. Leopold has taught his son well; Kipp’s strides are long and lucid as he runs with a methodical gracefulness, the blur of his legs moving in unison giving the appearance he was walking on air. He had a particular gazelle in his crosshairs. Leopold watched with intense interest; he ran away from the chase, shepherding the rest of the pack from Kipp who by now was on the gazelle’s heels, shadowing its every movement.
The dance continued, this battle for life and death with just Kipp and his target. The gazelle, flooded with fear, looked over its shoulder to sense the distance of its predator. As it did, Kipp thought it an opportune time to attack. He took a final stride to prepare him and when his legs met in the middle of his body, Kipp gathered his momentum and rose from the ground. Just as he was about to land on top of his victim, the gazelle used a sudden surge of adrenaline to break hard and unexpectedly to the right and Kipp not anticipating the move, was sent face first into the ground. “Keep at it, Kipp! You almost got him!” Leopold yelled.
Kipp, spurred by his father’s encouragement, stood angrily. He shook the pain from his cheeks and once more broke into a full trot after the gazelle who by this time was a squint of the eye away. On and on the chase went. The gazelle counteracted Kipp’s every move, stopping its stride without warning to turn in an opposite direction until Kipp became keen to the antelope’s patterns and prepared for liftoff once again. This time with renewed concentration, Kipp found himself on the gazelle’s back. He unsheathed his claws, revealed his fangs in preparation for the kill, but the gazelle resisted with every fibre of its being, coming to a complete stop and buckling which in turn catapulted Kipp through the air like a throwing star. He somersaulted fifteen feet above the ground, giving him a nauseating view of the land as he spun. Leopold cringes in anticipation of the hurt his son will momentarily experience. At long last Kipp finally hit the ground with a tremendous thump, sprawled out on his back under Leopold’s nose. Kipp rubbed his head and grimaced from the pain radiating from it. “We could really use him right about now,” he said to Leopold who frowned.
Chapter 2: Breakfast by Champions
It would have been a peaceful Sunday stroll with nature and the breeze, calm and quiet where one could collect his thoughts without intrusion from where Kipp and Leopold were to the tree where the lazy leopard slept had it not been for the agony father and son felt from the hunt. They walked with a limp; their bones were bruised. There were thorns from the landscape protruding from their fur like a porcupine’s quills yet they succeeded with a kill. A gazelle’s carcass was slung over Kipp. He dropped it to the ground to give his shoulder a rest. Leopold smirked in beholding his youngest among the leaves, the personification of a pride he felt for his kin. Kipp conversely muttered something indiscernible under his breath. Nevertheless, Leopold prompted Kipp with a nod and Kipp being familiar with the signal, begrudgingly sliced off a piece of flesh from the carcass with his claw. He held it in his paw for an extra second, stuck his tongue out in precision, wound up his arm and hurled the meat into the tree. It smacked Epicello in the face, exactly where Kipp had intended, abruptly waking him up. Kipp laughed hysterically at his brother’s confusion; Leopold shook his head. Epicello wiped the dreams from his eyes and looked down from his perch to see his brother and father below. “Dinner is served, your majesty,” Kipp said mockingly bowing to Epicello who swiftly slithered down the tree. He stood before Kipp and was received by a smug look. “I hope it’s to your highness’s liking,” Kipp continued.
Epicello rubbed his face, still slightly dazed. “Was that really necessary?” he asked.
“No, I suppose it wasn’t,” Kipp said. “But then again, it wasn’t necessary for me to almost break my back to bring your meal you should have gotten on your own.”
“You couldn’t have just woken me up politely?”
“I waited as long as I could,” Kipp said still sarcastically. “I didn’t want to disturb your beauty sleep. I know you require twenty hours of it a day.”
Leopold intervened by stepping between the brothers, understanding the violent direction their conversation is quickly headed. “That’s enough, boys. Cooler heads will prevail.”
“Forget that, Pa,” Epicello said. “He’s always on my case about something.” He turned to Kipp. “I want to know, what’s your problem with me?”
Kipp smiled to restrain his true feelings. “You don’t want to do this,” he said walking away.
Epicello trotted after him. “Yeah, Kipp, I think I do,” he said.
Kipp ignored the provocation and kept walking in an opposite path. Epicello reached for Kipp’s shoulder to stop him. Kipp sensed his brother’s arm extending towards him and turned to block it, pinning Epicello to the ground in the process. There was a fierce, frightening look in Kipp’s eyes that scared Epicello. The younger of the two squirmed and struggled to release his brother’s grip, but it was too strong. Leopold’s first reaction was to stop this fight as it unfolded, but his paternal instinct suggested it might be wiser to allow the brothers to settle their differences in this way. “Get off me!” Epicello screamed.
“You want to know what my problem is?” Kipp said through gritted teeth, working his rage to a lather. “You’re my problem! Every member of the animal kingdom contributes it share. It took a village to raise you, but you have no intention of paying them back. You have no problem taking, but what have you ever given?”
Epicello finally broke free from Kipp’s stronghold. He rose to his feet, standing nose to nose with Kipp. Tears of injustice, of frustration swelled in Epicello’s eyes. “And what’s your excuse?” Kipp pursued, but no response came from Epicello. Kipp continued the unilateral conversation. “There are mouths to feed, dens that need to be built. You’re able to walk, run and climb like everybody else, so why aren’t you out there helping?”
“I told you,” Epicello said quietly out of the range of Leopold’s ears.
“Oh, right!” Kipp said flamboyantly. “How could I have forgotten? If you had been born with stripes instead of spots like your sacred tiger, all of your problems would be solved.”
Leopold stepped between the two. “That is enough, Kipp! There is no need to kick a man when he is down.” He muffled his voice to spare Epicello. “You know he is struggling right now. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
Kipp was unconvinced. “Of course you can make it drink by making it feel like it is dying of thirst. And how is the only way to do that? Why would a horse drink if he doesn’t have to, if it knows someone will put the water in his mouth for him?” Kipp moved his focus away from the proverb and onto the leopard who was the reason for it. “Such a pathetic excuse. Look at him, Pa. There’s nothing wrong with him. It’s all in his head.” He addressed Epicello directly. “It’s time to grow up and start carrying your weight around here.”
“You’re not helping, Kipp,” Leopold said. “Let me handle this, okay?”
“It’s always someone’s else fault, isn’t it?” he asked Epicello.
“Then we agree?”
Kipp smirked, annoyed. “You’ve got a smart mouth and no sense of when to keep it shut.” He stared at Epicello, pitying the leopard. “Yeah, Pa. You deal with him,” Kipp said. “I’m through trying to.” Upon Kipp’s exit, Epicello’s parting salutation to his brother was not a goodbye or a see you later but instead the straightening of his tail vertically to mimic a middle finger which in our species means something very rude indeed.
Leopold saw the obscene gesture and playfully disapproved. “I saw that, Epicello,” he said.
“You can’t ride Pa’s coattails forever!” Kipp shouted over his shoulder on his way out and this insult was too much for Epicello to bear. He lunged after Kipp, but was restrained by Leopold.
“Easy, Epicello,” Leopold said. “Forget about it.” He picked up the carcass along with Epicello’s portion and started in the opposite direction. “I have to give this to your mother. Come on, walk with me.”
They had been on their journey for a few moments. Leopold noticed Epicello’s silence as he was deep in his sorrow, his flattened ears and withdrawn eyes and knowing the way to happiness for Epicello was usually through his stomach, Leopold tried to console his son with his ration. “Aren’t you going to eat?” Leopold asked.
“No, I’m not hungry,” Epicello said petulantly.
“You’re not hungry?” Leopold repeated with a smile. “There really is a first time for everything.”
Epicello’s expression remained. “Come on, can’t you let it go?” Leopold asked.
“No, Pa,” Epicello replied holding back tears. “I hate the way he walks around like he’s so much better than everybody else. He acts like his way is the only way. He thinks he’s always right.” Epicello kicked a stone on the ground. “So what if he’s good at killing. He’s a leopard; he’s supposed to be good at it.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Epicello. Regardless of how your feel about him, you have to give credit where it is due. We aren’t entitled to anything in this life simply by birthright or by virtue of a benefactor. With all due respect, you’re a leopard too and you’re not good at killing. Kipp does have the claws and teeth needed to kill just as you do, but he has worked hard to develop his prowess. When I began to train him, he couldn’t so much as stalk an elephant. Now he is hunting prey quicker and more dangerous than he is. How do you think the difference came about? Kipp was honest with himself. He knew where he wanted to be and more importantly, where he was and set out to strategically change his fortune. I will admit, your brother does have a tough time controlling his emotions. I know it’s hard to believe, but he still loves you and wants what’s best for you. He just has a different way of showing it.”
“I know you don’t believe me, but examine the evidence. How many times has Kipp invited you to join us in a hunt and after you declined his invitation, he many times did he encourage you? How often has he told you how great you could be if you only showed some interest? And to me this is the most crucial test of someone’s character: when it has come to pushing and shoving, scream and shouts, has Kipp ever used the occasion to insult you in ways that weren’t related to the argument?”
Epicello thought momentarily. “It hurts Kipp to see you not living up to your potential,” Leopold continued. “He knows you’re capable of so much more.”
“And what do you think?”
Leopold hesitated. “Your mother,” he said clearing his throat, “And I think a little more responsibility wouldn’t kill you.”
“Great. So, you’re taking Kipp’s side then?”
“I’m not taking anyone’s side, Epicello. We’re all just looking out for you and trying to prepare you to be self-reliant. What would you do if Kipp and I weren’t here to help you? I know you don’t want to think about those things, but you have to. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
Epicello shrugged his shoulders. “I guess so, but you guys sometimes make me feel like I’m the bad guy.”
“Nobody ever said that.”
Epicello commanded his father’s attention to ensure Leopold did not have the wrong impression. He stopped walking to lock eyes with Leopold. “You do know I appreciate everything you do for me, don’t you?”
“I know you do,” Leopold said warmly. “You’re a good kid, Epicello.”
Father let some time pass between him and his son before he resumed their conversation. He took the opportunity to consider the gentlest way to broach the subject he was concerned about. Should he begin with an anecdote? A joke? An apology in advance of the discomfort the topic would bring? Seeing their journey would soon be at an end, Leopold at last decided to meet the problem head on. Still, he squirmed slightly as these words left his lips, “I know this is a sensitive subject for you, but was there any truth to what Kipp said back there? You know, about your spots.”
Epicello’s countenance changed. He showed a look of panic as though he had just been cornered by a foe. His eyes opened wide to survey the land and as such, consider his options. Then reason came back to him in some small form and Epicello did not flee. He did however, move a few feet to the right and slow his pace so he may fall behind his father and be out of his direct line of vision. Leopold saw the change in proximity and stopped walking altogether. “Listen son, you needn’t be nervous,” he said. “I promise I’m not judging you. I just want to know so I can help you. Does it still bother you?”
“Sometimes,” Epicello said hesitantly.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Everybody wants stripes. It’s like they say, you have to earn your stripes. They are badges of honor.”
“I see. And who is everybody?”
Epicello thought. “Well, just me I guess.”
“Let’s look at it from another angle. What is it about the tiger’s stripes that you like so much?”
Feelings of admiration flowed through Epicello. “They just look cool. I mean, stripes represent the power, grace and strength of the tiger. Who wouldn’t want that?” He looked down at his fur wishing he could shed his skin. “Nobody wants spots. They’re not cool. Leopards, jaguars and cheetahs all have them. There’s nothing unique about spots. They make me look like I have some kind of disease.”
“Then you’re saying I look like I have a disease too?”
“No, it’s different,” Epicello backpedaled. “You’re-”
“And you’re wrong when you say there is nothing unique about your spots. It’s true those other cats you mentioned do have spots too, but no two patterns are exactly alike. God gave tigers stripes for a reason just like He gave us spots for a reason. If He wanted leopards to have stripes we would; if He wanted tigers to have spots, they would. Do you really think God made a mistake?”
Epicello shrugged his shoulders. “You don’t seem to realize tigers are just as likely to be plagued with insecurities as a leopard or any other animal. Just because they are endowed with stripes doesn’t mean they are inherently envied. They still have to sell their confidence to others by showing they are comfortable in their own skin.” If Leopold were human, he would argue it is not the clothes that make the man, but just the other way around. The charismatic man could wear a tattered, old pair of pants and shirt and shoes with holes in them and still make others envious while the man unsure of himself could don a tailored suit and still not draw the admiration of strangers. “I was your age once,” Leopold continued.
“Oh Pa, not another ‘When I was your age’ speech.
“Just hear me out on this. I know what you’re going through.”
“You’re at that terrible age between adolescence and adulthood where you’re trying to make sense of it all. You’re trying to figure out where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Sound familiar?”
“Well, yeah. So how did you get through it? I wouldn’t have thought you ever doubted yourself. You seem so confident.”
“It comes with age and by overcoming obstacles, my son. You and I are a lot more similar than you would have ever imagined. My best advice to you is to try and see yourself from someone else’s perspective.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me ask you this. Does it ever seem like you’re the only one making a big deal about your spots?”
“Trust me, the rest of the world doesn’t see you the way you see yourself. You may look at yourself with disgust and think there is something wrong with you, but all the other animals never noticed anything abnormal about you. I can speak for them when I say we see you for what you are – a normal, healthy beautiful leopard.”
Epicello smiled, touched and relieved by his father’s words. “And you want to know another secret?” Leopold asked. Epicello replied in the form of an eager nod. “You may think all the other animals are staring at your imperfections, but they’re not because they’re too busy thinking the same thoughts as you. They’re hoping you don’t notice their imperfections. There will come a day when you are actually proud of your spots as you should be.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I’m proud of mine,” Leopold said with a wink.
There are in fact three stages of grief. They are denial, acceptance and the third as Leopold mentioned, pride. Denial is seen when one is faced with adversity and whether in his mind or the physical form the impasse is too great, he refuses to believe the dreaded change in events. This person (or animal) can from outward appearances still lead a happy life, but the discontent will burrow and fester and manifest itself in other ways. Denial is a way of setting aside a problem one hopes will resolve itself through natural or divine courses. The problem with denial as you may have reasoned, is it takes the inherent power we possess away from us, the power to reach from within and stand in strength in front of that which is aggrieving us. Anger and denial are counterparts; they usually go hand in hand or perhaps the proverbial fork in the road is the better analogy. Some sink into despair and retreat inwardly in the wake of heartache; some let their oppressor turn them to fire, setting ablaze everything in their path through an unwillingness to empathize with others and a caustic tongue yet this is still a form of maladjustment. Rage is a double-edged sword which often in a circular way cuts he who holds the blade. The reason these types cannot or will not consider another’s point of view is because they reason if they have conquered the same battle, why can’t someone else? What they fail to take into consideration is how finely tuned the differences in individuality are. Which direction each of us will travel depends largely on our temperament, personality, birth order and the extent of injuries we have endured up until the stalemate.
Leopold had neglected to inform his son of the first two stages because he had been daft in part and wishful in full to assume his son was familiar with the others and had long overcome his denial and was now transitioning from acceptance into pride. The shift had been relatively seamless for Leopold and Kipp for that matter. They had unearthed their conflict, struggled briefly with it then moved past it through reason and the turning of sorrow into success. In truth, Epicello had never been in denial about the circular patterns on his fur. He had accepted it quickly and in doing so, had vastly overblown its relevance. Epicello had obsessed over his plight, regarded it as hopeless and read the minds of the other animals who he was certain felt he was disgusting and unlovable. He had soon realized he couldn’t outrun his spots and so the only solution as he saw it was to seek refuge in isolation. In his monomania, Epicello had turned molehills into mountains, growing them exponentially each minute he devoted to his thoughts and since he allowed no time for other preoccupations, this pattern became a habit of his. During the infancy of his son’s struggles, Leopold had told Epicello not to worry about confronting the world just yet. “Take some time for yourself and until you’re ready, I will provide for you,” Leopold had reassured his son. Therefore, Epicello grew accustomed to spending his days without the constraints of obligation, became used to everything being given to him without work and at present it was difficult to distinguish how much of Epicello’s inexperience could be attributed to true suffering and how much pure indolence had contributed to his learned helplessness. That is the trouble with maladies that can’t be seen or detected by the eye. Sadness won’t show on a scan of the brain; the mind is only a metaphor.
Chapter 3: The Ties That Bind
It was a mystery to not only those who knew him, but to Epicello himself as to why his spots caused him such considerable grief. It was as inexplicable to him as to how the seasons knew exactly when to change or how this universe had come into existence. Stranger still were the origins of it. His earliest memory with this dilemma was a sinking feeling he was disappointing his father, that Leopold would be ashamed to walk through the plain side by side with his son and to claim ownership of the boy. This unreasonableness can’t be blamed on Leopold. As you have seen thus far, he was nothing but loving, supportive and nurturing towards his son since he came into this world. Perhaps Epicello had seen the tigers parading through the leopards’ jurisdiction, spreading their monarchy with every royal step. Maybe Epicello had seen them in a lauded light and sentiment had gotten the better of him. It could be he had heard a derogatory comment about him or his kind from another animal in passing and the insult he thought he had brushed off buried itself deep into his psyche.
What Epicello did know unequivocally was the sensation his spots caused him. He avoided interactions with other animals as often as he could. When fate or necessity made his isolation impossible, he kept a distance from the others, faded into the background. His paranoia caused whispers to speak like shouts, turned innocent conversation to incrimination. He could feel every set of eyes on him; the line of vision between him and the observer was like a blowtorch. Epicello had the physical sensation of being burned alive by their glances. He was moderately at ease around his kin and closest friends. They had shown Epicello through years of trust they weren’t concerned with his stigma or understood the damage their words would inflict on Epicello and kindly bit their tongues. They didn’t stare at his fur when they thought he wasn’t looking or give him horrified glances when he approached. They didn’t question him as to why he looked the way he did even when Epicello prodded them with prompts like “Have you ever noticed anything different about me?” or “I look okay to you, don’t it?” When asked the reason for his odd inquiries, Epicello would respond, “No reason in particular. I was just curious.”
Amongst strangers, he was a nervous wreck. In solitude, Epicello was the most comfortable. Socialization to him was tantamount to funambulism – he who walks the tight rope would surely fall to his death the moment he took his thoughts and stare away from the immediate space and goal in front of him to view the thin string beneath his feet or the open heights he was suspended from. In this way, Epicello was able to function as a normal member of his society for brief periods of time so long as he didn’t look down at his spots or take his focus away from the resistance to go down the slippery slope of his thoughts. This, I hope you understand, was tremendous toil to resist the urge to contemplate his greatest worry when duress provoked it every moment, to be admonished ad nauseam not to think of a pink elephant when one already has. What an existence to be tormented by a monster of his own making, to be mired in muck when all around him others were grazing on greener grass. Still, though he never would have believed it, he did have a say in the matter. In fact, Epicello had complete control over his thoughts and destiny had he stood up to his fears. As it was, he didn’t and they ruled him when it must be just the opposite. Epicello had no serenity or possessions because he left his life to chance yet no contingency exists because things don’t happen for a reason; they happen for whatever reason we ascribe to them.
This predicament was sadly not new to Epicello. He carried on as best he could. The end of his and Leopold’s journey was in a field, sun scorched and windblown where beneath the benevolence of the tall grass, a graceful and lovely leopard named Floris tidied up her den at the edge of a cave in anticipation of her husband’s and son’s arrival. She smiled as Leopold in the lead approached. He dropped the gazelle carcass before her, heaved a sigh of relief now that his back was unencumbered. “I hope you like your steak rare, my dear,” he said to Floris. Her response came not in the form of words, but a kiss to her husband’s lips.
“Gross,” Epicello said turning away from the display of affection.
“Good morning to you too, Epicello,” she said in good humor then craned her face prominently to one side and closed her eyes. Epicello begrudgingly drew closer to his mother and looked around, ensuring there were no witnesses. He quickly gave her a peck on the cheek then withdrew as though he had just committed a crime. “Before I forget, Dalton came by earlier looking for you.”
“What does he want?” Epicello asked rudely.
“What does he want?” Floris repeated with some disgust. “What kind of thing is that to say? He doesn’t want anything except to be your friend. Go and see him later that is if you can find time in your busy schedule.” Floris laughed. She looked to Leopold who suppressed a smile.
“Ha ha, very funny,” Epicello said, dripping in sarcasm.
“So, how did the hunt go? Was Kipp there?” Floris said turning to Leopold, but she couldn’t help but notice how Epicello tensed with the mention of his brother. “What-”
“Uh, honey, why don’t we talk about it later?” Leopold interjected.
Floris understood. “Oh, okay.” Some silence filled the air before Floris grabbed a handwoven blanket from the base of a tree she had made of leaves and branches. “Speaking of your siblings,” she said to Epicello, “I told your sister you’d bring this to her today.”
“What is it?” Epicello asked, looking strangely at the gift.
“It’s a blanket, you know, for the baby.”
“Do I have to take it over?” Epicello complained.
“Yes, Epicello, you have to and shame on you for asking that. You should be happy to do something nice for your sister.”
“Why can’t she come over here and get it?”
“Because she’s at home with her newborn.”
“Well, I don’t see why I should have to walk for miles and endure this heat for something that has nothing to do with me.”
“Because we’re family. We help each other out.”
“No more ifs, ands or buts,” Floris said peremptorily. “You do realize in the time you’ve spent arguing with me, you could have gone there and back by now. Come on now, get going. What else do we ask of you?”
Epicello looked at his father with entreating eyes. “Pa?”
“Sorry, kid,” Leopold said. “Your mom’s the boss.”
Epicello huffed his indignation and ripped the blanket from Floris’s hand. “Fine!” he exclaimed, storming out of the den.
With Epicello gone, Floris expressed concern for her sons. “What happened this morning?” she asked Leopold.
“He and Kipp aren’t getting along.”
Floris frowned. “Sibling rivalry I suppose.”
“I fear it may be more than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Epicello is really hurt by his brother. He feels like Kipp is bullying him and I have to say, I don’t completely disagree with him. I really wish Kipp would find a better way to express himself and his frustrations rather than just yelling all the time. Epicello is different; he’s sensitive. You have to know how to approach him.”
“They’re definitely different, I’ll say that much. I know they’re both our sons and we love them the same, but let’s try and look at this objectively. Does Kipp have a right to be angry with Epicello?”
“I would say so. It isn’t fair to him that Epicello doesn’t carry his weight. It isn’t Kipp’s responsibility to have to feed his brother anymore. That isn’t what I’m arguing though. The matter at hand is how can we get them to set aside their differences and work together and how can we motivate Epicello? It frightens me to think he still needs motivation from an outside source at this point.”
“A share of the blame has to fall on us. That much cannot be denied since we raised them. Motivation shouldn’t have to come from an outside source. It should come from necessity. You’ve loved him too much, Leopold, if ever that was a crime. If you want to help him then stop helping him. Let him live in discomfort for a while and put the responsibility for his life on his shoulders or he’ll have to learn the lesson himself the hard way on his own. It will be the most difficult thing you have to do as a father to see your child struggle helplessly, but just remember in times when you want to intervene that adversity made you who you are and Kipp who he is and the absence of it sadly has made Epicello who he is.”
“That’s just it though – Epicello is no stranger to adversity. It’s just his adversity is of a different kind.”
“I had a feeling this would come up. You’re certain then that his self-esteem has paralyzed him to the point of inaction or is he just making excuses?”
“Granted it is of his own creation, but I am convinced his suffering his real. I’ve seen the fear in his eyes, the change in his gait whenever I bring it up. I believe if he were exaggerating his struggle, his words could be rehearsed and he could say what need to be said to fool, but his body language would deceive. Such is life I suppose,” Leopold said hopelessly. “We will bang our heads against a wall in search of a solution.”
“Don’t despair,” Floris assured her husband with a rub of her paw along his back. “In either case, hard work is the remedy. The busier we keep, the less time we have for frivolities. It takes an extraordinary mind to be able to sit in solitude and not be tormented by his own thoughts. May that be said of Epicello someday.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right,” Floris bantered to reintroduce levity into their conversation. “When have I ever been wrong?”
“That’s why I love you,” Leopold said with another kiss.
“Can’t you stay a little longer?”
“I would if I could, my dear, but there’s work to be done, so as much as it pains me to say, I must go. See you tonight.”
Epicello was by this time in the field where his sister and her family’s den lay under a small copse. His resentment had not yet subsided despite the perspective of a five-mile walk. He still kicked a trail of dust with his heavy feet, continued his soliloquy to an unseen audience of how his sister was Leopold and Floris’s favorite, how she had never endured any great tragedy when he saw his antagonist, Montessa, there under a kind tree, her newborn at her teat. She was a pretty leopard, thin with youthful eyes, aged in between Epicello and Kipp. Montessa resembled Floris in figure and form. Epicello squirmed at the sight of Montessa nursing his nephew. “Ah, do you have to do that?” Epicello asked looking away.
“Yes, Epicello. I have to feed my son,” Montessa responded tersely. “How else is he supposed to eat? Don’t act like you’re so repulsed. It’s perfectly natural.”
Epicello attempted maturity. He turned his head slowly towards his sister, peeking through a squinted eye then cringed again when the scene peeked between his eyelids. Montessa shook her head. “If it bothers you that much,” she said gently turning her baby aside amongst the short grass.
“Here,” Epicello said handing her the blanket.
Montessa viewed the gift with confusion. “What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Some sort of blanket Ma made.”
Montessa raised her eyebrows then put the blanket on top of her cub. She looked back at Epicello who not knowing how to conclude the exchange, introduced palaver. “So, what’s your husband up to?” he asked awkwardly.
“He’s out working like everybody else.”
“What for?” Epicello asked genuinely confused.
“What kind of question is that?” Montessa said annoyed. “Because shelters need to be built and mouths need to be fed, including yours.” She looked smugly at her brother. “What is it you do all day anyways?”
“I don’t do anything and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Montessa rolled her eyes. “Don’t you ever think about anyone other than yourself? Isn’t there any part of you that wants to move on with your life and start a family of your own or do things like that?”
“No, not really. The way I see it, I don’t have much time in this life, so what’s wrong with me wanting to enjoy it as often as I can? Life doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to you and Kipp and Pa and Ma. You’ve found your place in this world and you’re happy to live out the rest of your lives in the way that you choose, but it’s not for me. What I’m trying to tell you is, I know I’m going nowhere, so why would I be in a hurry to get there?”
“It is precisely because of that way of thinking you’re heading nowhere. You’ve left your life to chance. We have achieved what we wanted through planning and effort. You can change your fate at any time, but you have to be willing to work for it. The three of us keep telling you the same thing, but it doesn’t seem to be registering in your mind.” Epicello hung his head and stared dimly at the ground as Montessa upbraided. “It would be perfectly acceptable for you to spend your days however you want if it was only you who was affected by your decision. What you need to realize is nothing in this world is free. What may come to you for no cost comes at a steep price to someone else and I think you know who I am referring to.”
“So what? I have Pa; you have your husband. What’s wrong with taking a handout?”
“Nothing if you are willing to reciprocate, but what you’re taking from Pa is not a handout.” Montessa said introducing ire to her voice. “You’re taking advantage of him. You know he is too kind. He isn’t the type that will ever tell anyone he cares about no. That doesn’t give you the right to use him. You may think the relationship you and Pa have is the same as mine and my husband’s, but they are vastly different. We are equals; he makes sure we are safe and fed while I raise our children. Pa provides everything for you and what do you do for him in return?”
Epicello couldn’t sustain an argument because he had no leg to stand on since he had always taken the easy way out. He looked for the quickest exit. “Look, I didn’t come here for another lecture. I get enough of that from Kipp. I came here because Ma told me to. I’ll see you around,” he said departing.
Epicello’s response to his and Montessa’s exchange exemplified what Leopold meant when he said they would bang their heads against a wall in search of a solution. He lacked the ability or the willingness to search his own soul and point the finger of blame back at himself. When he left his sister’s den, his eyes didn’t swell with tears of shame or frustration for the truth Montessa had elucidated. Instead he continued on as he did on his journey over, muttering damnation of others under his breath and kicking a trail of dust in his steps. Montessa hadn’t outwitted him. She had simply rehearsed her speech long before he arrived and used the occasion to belittle her little brother when she should have been grateful to him for doing her a favor by travelling a great distance in the sweltering heat over hills and rocks, stones and thorny terrain just to bring her a gift. Her method of disarming was through specious reasoning. It may have sounded as though there was a ring of truth to what she said, but it was all just cleverly worded. She wouldn’t last more than a few minutes in Epicello’s mind. Everything came effortless to her. She was attractive; her markings were beautiful so she would never have to worry about working a day in her life. Why hadn’t Epicello been born so fortunate? And how dare a princess compare herself to a pariah. She would never know the agony he suffered each passing minute; none of the animals would. This stream of consciousness kept him servile to his suffering. It is a great waste of time to compare sob stories. The lens with which we view the hardships of others is bias because we can only see and hear about it and not experience it internally. Furthermore, suffering must be compared globally and not on a side by side basis. Despite our autonomy to choose freely, our decisions still seem to be tinged with some regret. Maybe Montessa envied Epicello’s freedom of not being in charge of another’s life; perhaps Epicello was jealous in some small measure of Montessa’s importance in the eyes of her cubs. The mind is infinitely more complex. Epicello’s at present tormented him, but it also had the potential to separate him in rare and coveted ways. This is just one example from a multitude. In the end, the universe is an impartial equalizer. Meanwhile, Epicello’s parents, friends and brother and sister were running out of ideas and patience. They were confronted with the question of how does one help another who doesn’t want it and at what point does one relinquish hope and watch with sorrow and regret when the incorrigible walks right into the pitfalls you saw from miles away?
As it was, Epicello returned to his tree for some shuteye. His mind was laden with tension and annoyance. When he awoke, he would feel refreshed and ready to endure the barbs thrown at him. He climbed the bark to his favorite branch, circled around it a few times to find the spot he had worn smooth from the countless hours he had spent on it, sputtered a final affront subvocally to his sister then plopped down. Epicello let out a large yawn and closed his eyes.
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