A Tale of Wolves and Sheep
Nature is full of wonderful relationships. Take the vast clearing, for instance, that lies west of the forest. These days, it's full of goats and birds, but long ago it used to be a wolves' forest, and a large flock of sheep lived in the clearing—large enough to do it justice, if not fill it from end to end. But the wolves hunted them, of course, and they were dwindling. The wolves were fierce hunters, though none could say what their hearts held. The sheep lived in fear of them, and spent most of their idle time watching out, fleeing, and cowering from predation.
However, a few of the sheep learned how to speak to the wolves, and in a daring act of diplomacy, they appealed for mercy. To their unexpected fortune, it turned out that while the wolves of the wood were uncommonly fierce on the hunt, they also had exceptionally compassionate hearts. They listened to the ovine envoys. These sheep argued that at the rate they were being slaughtered, the wolves would soon start to starve, and would be forced to fight amongst each other for the slim pickings that remained. The pack leaders concurred, turning to look at each other with amused and premonitory growls. “What do you suggest?” asked one of them.
The envoys suggested that the wolves did not need to eat them every week.
“But there is no other prey nearby,” the wolves pointed out.
The sheep pointed out that wolves, too, are made of meat. Was it too much to ask that one week out of every five years, the wolves could feed on themselves instead? They had in mind a bloodsport in which the wolves would devour the most despised among them and celebrate their own survival... but when the wolves agreed, finding this argument fair, they had something rather else in mind.
When the designated week arrived, the wolves were far too fond of one another to fall into battle or institute some cruel lottery or contest. Instead, each wolf ripped from its own body one leg, and it was on these they fed for one week. In some cases, fond comrades or alphas and betas tore a leg apiece from each other, but in the end, each wolf had given the same.
Once healed, the wolves resumed preying upon the sheep, but they were now three-legged and did not hunt with their usual acumen. Even so, their craft and ingenuity netted them enough sheep to abide, and while the number of wolves shrank with the passing of the years, it was only by enough to achieve a rough equilibrium. New cubs were born with four fresh legs, and they eagerly or solemnly tore themselves down to three before they were five years old. Mature wolves became two-legged, and some of their elders became one-legged, as time went by. The packs developed new tricks to facilitate the budding art of hunting with fewer than four legs.
Moreover, the week during which the wolves fed on themselves grew into a ceremony, for it was the perfect opportunity for them to put aside their unending enmity with the sheep and commune with them. So it came to be that every five years, the wolves would join the sheep in their vast clearing and both races would share with each other the advances of their respective cultures. There were plays and sports and dances, enjoyed by all. Then they would jokingly rip off their own legs together. At first it was only wolves who gave legs during the week of communion, but then a few brave sheep made an offer—instead of having each wolf lose one limb every five years, wouldn't it be fairer if each sheep willing to have one of its legs torn off by a wolf would earn the boon of having a single wolf tear off its own leg? Indeed, this constituted a major act of heroism for the sheep who thus crippled themselves, for it earned an extra measure of safety for the flock. (And by most measures, it was more fun.)
Some of the sheep, tired of a constant diet of grasses and greens, decided to try nibbling some of their own mutton in a gesture of affinity for their wolfish neighbors. While they couldn't stomach great portions, their metabolisms were able to process moderate amounts of meat; some of them even found it tasty! In time, the tradition became to pool all the severed legs and concoct a variety of dishes from them: stews, soups, slurries and hashes. The sheep would eat their modest fill, and then watch with fascination and hungry wolves feasted. And games were played with hooves and paws.
After the ceremonial week, hostilities were always suspended for a few days while those who contributed legs to the feast recuperated and accustomed themselves to life with one fewer. And when they did resume, an air of understanding between the classes of predator and prey lingered for several weeks to come, making this a magical time.
Over the course of decades, the flock of sheep started to become extremely enthusiastic about dismembering themselves for the common good. Traditions and games were invented around the removal of legs, fore and hind, and the number of legs they offered every five years rose sharply. The wolves, kindhearted as they were, honored their agreement and increased their savagery toward themselves. As the sheep outnumbered them greatly, they found themselves running very low on legs. They tried their best to keep killing sheep through strategic formations and trickery, holding on for several more decades, but eventually their packs and population collapsed, since it is very difficult to bring down anything without any legs at all.
The sheep were distraught and tried to help the wolves to recover, some even offering their own lives in the name of averting disaster. But by the time the danger was recognized, it was too late, and the wolves went extinct. The sheep were heartbroken.
Their population multiplied, naturally. But not too much. For they remembered the importance of the wolves, and some among them were appointed as hunters, to occasionally terrorize and castrate the unsuspecting among them—they would not go so far as to kill each other, but a few well timed castrations was an effective way to control the population.
As their society developed, the sheep invented machines with which they could sever their own legs just as the wolves had, metal spikes simulating their canine jaws. The sheep kept up their sports, and every year, they sacrificed a hundred legs and recalled everything they could of the culture of the wolves. They wore wolf pelts passed down through the generations, and sang the songs of wolves, and bleated to the moon, and staged hunts on the downs between their champions. And then they boiled the meat from their severed legs in a huge cauldron and supped on the broth, all as one. And they remembered.