[They] make a sport of the sublime.
If they could see it as it is,
they would be unable to bear its aspect.
Hide and Seek
The locker room was empty now that the day's events had begun. There was a dull rumbling and buzzing from the crowds attending the Winter Games. Most of the sounds abruptly disappeared when the locker room door closed. It was a little late, and he was probably missing the first of his competitors out on the yard. There was music from some jingle or advertisement coming from the monitor in here. Silence would have been preferable.
Unfortunately the music was replaced by something worse: members of the press interviewing the masses about which sports among the Winter Games they were there to see. The sounds of crowds in the background were now being supplied artificially, caught by the microphones as little herdlings discussed their favorite sports. The jackrabbit wrinkled his nose, irritated. The whole environment, the games themselves, seemed so artificial now.
"Snow Burrow excavation, I've been watching since the speed trials last week," said a spotted calf. He smiled into the camera. "I like watching them dig!"
"Just straight races for me," said a goat.
The unseen interviewer turned to a group of others, mostly sheep and swine. "What do you think about other events? For instance, do you have any thoughts on Gymnastic Baffling?"
The jackrabbit stopped, cocked a long ear, and listened. He had rounded a corner in the aisles of lockers, and despite his irritation about the broadcast, he entertained backtracking to watch.
"It's so confusing," said a voice likely belonging to a juvenile sheep. Herdlings like her made up the majority everywhere you turned. The stands outside were packed with them. She continued describing why she was confused. "It's hard to tell how it's judged, for one thing. Someone jumps around, leaps over a log, goes under a bush; and then some dogs sniff around for half an hour? How is that a sport?"
Turning in disgust, the jackrabbit made his way along the lockers until he found one with his name engraved into a metal sheet bolted to the door: "Simon Mint". He opened it, took off his shirt, and pulled out three decoy scent flags. They were "flags" in name only; the first ones he had used so many years ago were simple cloth bundles. The newer ones were made from long strips of fabric with pouches sewn at the ends, and contained clippings of his fur and even some of his blood, donated the previous week, and were useful in leaving false scent trails if the need and an opportunity arose.
These weren't the decoy scent flags he had given to his manager, Dickerson, the day before. These new flags sported a colorful camouflage pattern with a logo on the side: "Dread Beyond". Just under that was his name. He held one to his nose, sniffing. Yes, it smelled like him along with some strange scent from the fabric. Apparently his new agent, a badger named Miles Filk, and his old bloodhound manager Dickerson had been able to track down a corporate sponsor for him after all.
That couldn't have been easy. His was a name connected to the old days. It was spoken in the same breath with the disgraced greats, who went down in flames when the scent-masking drug scandals broke. There was also the matter of him taking up a position, displacing someone younger. "I thought he was retired" was the first comment he had heard at the announcements of who was chosen to represent his province for the various events. "Can he still even compete in the newer style? What is he going to show anyone that hasn't been seen before?"
Simon put his street clothes away and shut the locker. Winning Gymnastic Baffling, or any sort of Baffling events, was never about feeling irritation or anger. He was counting on fear.
It was always about fear. Before Baffling was even a sport, before there was a name for it, when leaving a twisting trail to confuse those in pursuit was a matter of life and death…Gymnastic Baffling was about a fear of being caught and pinned into place.
He had been participating in the drug use, artificially covering his scent to make it easier to leave a deceptive track, but back in those days he wasn't important enough to investigate or prosecute, so he escaped unscathed except for his reputation. Since then he had tried all sorts of ridiculous ways to get ahead: diets to control scent, alternative medicines, even meditation and a brief stint with a hypnotherapist who claimed he could put Simon back in touch with his "untamed" side.
It was definitely tough to compete in what had been called the "new style" of tumbling and leaping about, especially at his age. But the urge to escape it all had to be able to overcome this. The anxiousness of being watched and wanting to get out of view: that was at the heart of the sport, he knew it. All the rest of the modern nonsense, the "new style", wouldn't help him, but that primal instinct, the need to escape, would do it. "Maybe you should escape from all of these extra trappings: engraved metal nameplates? Custom-made, designer decoy flags? Run from that." But he smirked and set that thought aside. He couldn't stop the world from turning.
He tied one of the decoy flags to each arm, and tied the last one around his left thigh. He had drawn the fifth position out of five athletes today. Even though there would be some time before he needed to be on deck, it couldn't hurt to watch the competition. Watching their routines would prevent him from copying them too closely. Nobody wanted to give the judges a puzzle to solve that they had seen once that day already.
On his way past the monitor, he tried to ignore the interviews and insipid stories about the private lives of other athletes but stopped when the show switched to a weather report. "Light but steady snow forecast: good for skiers and sledding events, good for the tunneling races, and for the bafflers; but bad for those in the water events," said an obnoxiously cheerful skunk.
A mink came into the locker room, panting and exhausted. A pack of six hangers-on surrounded him: likely a manager, a trainer, an agent, and some others whose positions Simon could only guess. "You did great, Mike! Just great!"
"We'll see, Al. We'll see, won't we. I missed the dismount from that big log--why is that thing even there, anyway? It's almost as tall as I am, when it's lying down! Who picked this yard for competition?" There was no answer. "Anyway, I planted my feet harder than I meant to jumping down from it, and there's no way the dogs won't sniff that out."
"At least you only tossed one of your decoy flags," said the oldest one there, also a mink. "Keeping two decoy flags on you until the end might earn you back enough technical points to make the difference."
The young athlete angrily punched the row of lockers. "It wasn't good enough! They'll track me, every step, and pin down what I was doing every second in the yard!" He suddenly noticed the jackrabbit there, watching. He bared his teeth, but his manner betrayed more shame than anger. "You…back in the day, you always said it came down to fear. You're Simon Mint, right?"
"Yes." Simon nodded. "Fear can help you more than confidence." He passed the group, on his way out to the field to wait on deck and watch the other athletes. "Definitely more than anger at your past mistakes can help you."
"I'm sure THAT rabbit knows a thing or two about having made mistakes," muttered one of the mink's entourage. Simon ignored him. It wasn't worth it.
The doors to the yard swung open, and the cold embraced him like an old friend. There was a snowshoe hare here, "Jumping" Joe Wishful; another mink who Simon recognized due to his infamous showboating and obnoxious behavior, Billy Zane; and a fox who Simon didn't know. They, and now Simon, were all standing on deck, in a rectangle drawn on the ground, under the referee's box and next to another door leading to the judges' den.
The doors were all in the face of a wall which marked the beginning of the stands. The crowd wasn't visible from this angle, but they were easy to hear muttering. For the most part, they were silent. It was considered good manners during the judging phase.
The judges were all out in the field on all fours, sniffing and calling out comments to note takers who followed at enough of a distance to ensure they didn't step on any important evidence. "Quite a draggle," Billy said. "But poor Mike left a trail we can spot even from here, even without the sniffing and snuffling." He cut an unpleasant laugh short when he noticed Simon there, and rubbed his hands together. "Well! Simon Mint, nice of you to show up, so nice to see you. Did you know our ref today is that old owl, Bingham? I believe you've worked with him before in your years…and years…and years of competing."
"Simon Mint?" The fox approached and shook Simon's hand. "An honor to meet you, sir! And I'll bet you've been observed by pretty much every referee with any sort of reputation."
Billy rolled his eyes and smirked at the other rabbit, who shook his head. "You talk a good game, Billy," said Joe. "Too bad that's not what will count out here."
The judges came back to the referee's roost. That position was indeed filled by Sherman Bingham, an owl who had indeed been involved with the sport for years. He began reviewing the comment logs from the judges' scribes; subtracting from the gymnast's score when their trail had been correctly followed and described by the judges, according to his notes; and awarding points for situations when the judges couldn't read the trail correctly and were "baffled". The referee, who witnessed the run, was the ultimate authority on the score, based on his opinion of how baffled the judges were.
"Judging should be its own sport," the fox said. "Tracking should be, I mean. It's an art form unto itself."
"Say it louder, I don't think they heard you kissing up to them," Billy chortled. "You'll need every spare point you can get to beat me. I'm not going to drop a single decoy flag during my run--they're a crutch, you know, for those of us who don't have the ability to pull off the truly spectacular moves."
Simon felt his foot tremble. He ached to thump it against the ground, to work up some adrenaline and forget about this idiot pup of a mink.
"You say that like nobody's ever thought of it before," Joe said. "That other mink, what's his name…Mike Morecold? He only dropped his first flag to leave a false trail so there'd be some confusion about that ugly fall from the big log out there. You're even shorter and stumpier than he was. You'll fall right on your face if you try to pull off any tricks around that log."
The snow was falling just thickly enough so that no artificial snow from the nearby machines would be needed to cover the previous run. That was actually a slight disadvantage: the artificial snow had a strange sent to it that occasionally had worked to a baffler's advantage. But the natural snow had a pleasing aesthetic to it. Simon watched it fall, covering up Mike's run. The scoring hadn't gone well, and it was no wonder that Mike the flatfooted mink hadn't stayed to watch the tally.
Simon nodded in silent greeting to the judges. There was a bloodhound who he recognized, and two newcomers to the profession, both spaniels of some sort. They'd be easy to fool. The bloodhound would be the real opponent here. The jackrabbit would have to turn the owl's eyes and his skilled nose against each other somehow.
"Second up," an electronically enhanced voice blared from the press box. "Lance Querry."
The fox walked past the press box. For the first time Simon noticed that his own manager was there, talking with his new agent. The fox, Lance, spoke with his own mentors and trainers, waved to the crowd, and then crossed over the flagstone path that separated the rest of them from the yard, where he would perform.
It wasn't a bad yard. Simon had seen better. It had quite a few large bushes, mostly briars; a few trees, especially on the north side, but nothing impressive; there was a bit of a pond on the south side, which was obviously artificial and a feeble attempt to comply with the newest set of rules which demanded the inclusion of a water feature. If it was truly a hasty addition, it might have a concrete lining which could come in handy as it wasn't possible to leave tracks there. It would take a good three minutes to walk the length and another three minutes to finish the breadth of it at a relaxed pace.
The dominant feature was a huge log. It couldn't have come from a tree that grew here; it looked taller than Simon was. That must have been the log that the mink had been talking about when he came into the locker room after his run. The jackrabbit couldn't think of a good reason to be on it unless someone wanted all eyes on him.
A flagstone path to be used for foot racing in the Spring Games now separated the stands, the deck, the doors, and the referee's roost from the yard. Even with the snow falling, the flagstone was visible. Simon looked up; even with light snow, the sun could be seen peeking out from time to time. Despite the prediction on the monitor's report, it didn't look like it would keep snowing all day.
Lance was had begun. Lithe and strong, he was bounding in zigzags, leaping off of tree trunks big enough to support his weight, sometimes swinging on higher branches, and tumbling lightly when he hit the ground. He even walked on his hands for short distances to and fro between groups of small shrubs. Whether that would work or not remained to be seen; Simon wasn't impressed, but he had to admit that he couldn't do it. "I wouldn't do it," he said to himself. "When did this all become about showing off? He should use the cover, not perform in front of it."
Eventually Lance made his way to the huge log. Jumping up and scrambling a bit, he almost met the same disgraceful fate that Mike the mink had. The bark on top was either worn down to nothing, or it was icy up there. The jackrabbit made a note to take special care there.
Lance turned away from the crowd, and suddenly seemed to lose his footing. "Sun's in his eyes," Joe said. "Idiots who designed this yard arranged it so the sun would shine directly in your face as the day goes on."
"It'll shine in the ref's eyes too. That'll make it easier for you to win, what are you complaining about?" Billy snorted. "Personally it's probably a good thing that nobody will be able to watch you too closely."
Meanwhile, the fox waved his arms in an unfortunately comical way, trying to avoid falling off; luckily for him, he succeeded. He walked to the end of the log, and then backtracked nearly perfectly, stepping into each footprint with incredible precision. Removing one of his decoy flags, he crammed it into a hole under a branch on the fallen log.
"Waste of a flag," Joe murmured. Simon had to agree. It wouldn't mislead the older judge, the bloodhound, for long: he would know that Lance was obviously not still on top of the log, despite what the scent was telling him. Still…Simon had seen dogs baffled by things that he felt would be obvious before. Maybe the fox was thinking like a dog? It could come more easily to him, being what he was.
Being what he was: a fox. It was a stereotype that his kind was more likely to be on the judging team than on the fleeing side of the performance. But watching the flashing orange tail, the occasional sight of teeth as Lance exerted himself to vault over some obstacle, awakened the impulse to run in Simon. "At last," the jackrabbit whispered. He thumped the ground with his feet to relieve some of that nervous tension, and once again had a crazy thought: running like this on command, to be judged, was inherently unnatural. How far could this all go, knowing it was timed, knowing the owl was watching all along? How far could it really go, compared to what this event could be?
A loud yelp snapped Simon back to attention. Lance had stumbled and stuck himself rather badly on some briars. The audience gasped and murmured to itself. Listening as best he could, Simon concluded that there couldn't be very many spectators up there; the stands were perhaps just under one third of their capacity.
Lance hurriedly finished a perfunctory round of the yard, but he was bleeding from being pricked by the briars, and that spelled a complete loss for him. Simon, Joe and Billy all thought the same thing to themselves: this was bad for Lance, but good for them. If the snow didn't cover up all the traces of blood, it might be possible to use the confusion of mingled scents to confound the judges.
The fox's trainer and manager, both woodchucks, met him on the walk away from the yard, on the stone path. The boundary between the world of the watchers, and the world of the performer who danced out a trail in hopes that it would be difficult to untangle, paying homage to a much more urgent and dangerous task in bygone times. Simon knew from experience that walking across such barriers would be electrifying going one way, and debilitating going the other.
The canines came out, crossing over into what was now their world: the trail, a puzzle to solve, something they'd mull over and methodically pull apart as the young of their kind might do to a toy, revealing everything hidden inside. They moved back and forth, heads to the ground, sniffing and inspecting and calling out their observations as the owl watched and waited to again compare their guesses with his account, and give Lance his score. "He'll regret dropping that flag," Billy said.
"You aren't going to drop any, is that what you said?" Joe shook his head. "You ought to, it'll distract from that minky stink you leave everywhere you go."
"What'd you say earlier? ‘You talk a good game', was that it?" Billy snarled. He was riled up.
Simon winced inwardly. It wasn't as though he wanted Billy to do well, but he hated to see a serious performance spoiled by anger. The dissatisfaction he felt with how distant his sport felt from anything important or real was welling up in response to this. It took some effort to wrestle it back under control.
"Mr. Mint?" A voice called out from the stands, very near Bingham's station. "Up here."
"Simon!" A gruff, deeper voice joined them. It was his agent, Miles the badger. He stood next to some young ones: an arctic fox, another jackrabbit, and two little skunks. "I've found some of your cheering section."
His manager had pleaded with him to help Miles sell himself as "the new Simon Mint". "Just think of the endorsements," he had said. "Make a career for yourself after the events are over. Don't turn away from all of that."
But Simon had mixed feelings about all of this. Was he a hero to kids? Maybe only in the artificial world of what Gymnastic Baffling had become, pulled away from its roots. Still, fans were fans. He did feel appreciative, deep down. A sudden impulse swept over him, and he could barely prevent a smug look at the mink. That arrogant, plodding Billy Zane...let him watch this.
He crouched, and then leapt into the air. He landed gently on his rump, sitting on the protective ledge in front of the youngsters in the stands, after a graceful half turn on the way up. He looked out at the yard, where the judges were still sniffing, and nodded to himself. After a quick glance through the nearby spectators, he focused on the fox, who was the oldest one of the group. He extended a paw, and shook his hand. "Well hello!"
"Oh, Mr. Mint, my daddy talked about you a lot," said one of the skunks. "He watched you compete plenty of times. Why, how you just jumped up here! That's higher than daddy is tall! He wouldn't even believe it."
"You want autographs, kids?" Miles waved a pen around in front of their faces.
"Of course they don't," Simon said with a grin. "They want clippings. That's how it's done." The young jackrabbit gasped, and the fox covered his muzzle with his paws and muttered something unintelligible, his eyes wide. The skunks began jumping in place. "Any true fan knows that if you want to follow a baffler, you need to be able to catch his scent. Do any of you have a clipper?"
One of the skunks handed over a nice pair of grooming shears, a pair that cleverly folded up into a compact, blunt and solid cylinder that could fit into a pocket. Simon carefully trimmed some fur from the same patch he had shaved to get the fur to pack his decoy flags. "I've cut this down a little short," he said. "I'll have to try to smooth this out a bit. Could I hang onto these for a little while?"
"Ahem," coughed Bingham, who had silently landed behind Simon at his referee's station. "Please return to the deck, Mr. Mint. We wouldn't want you to pick up strange scents up here. Wasn't it your mentor, Walt Mond, who cheated his way to victory 24 years ago by doing something like that?" The owl eyed the skunks.
The young jackrabbit lowered his ears, and the smaller of the two skunks sniffled, on the verge of tears. Simon made no indication that he had heard what the owl said; he trimmed the logo from the decoy flag tied around his thigh. It created a hole into the pouch where his old fur, mingled with his small donation of blood, rested. He handed the logo, to the skunks. "You can keep that, too. And please, honestly--I'd like to hang onto these. I need to look my best down there, so I'm going to do my best to smooth this bald patch out. I'll see that you get them back, I promise."
He hopped down, and smiled at Joe. Billy was no longer on deck: the judges were filing past them, ready to be sequestered once again, and the mink was striding out to the yard across the flagstone barrier. "He had a few choice words for you," the snowshoe hare said.
Simon nodded and played with the shears in their compact form. At the owl's station, he had seen that the briars went on and on outside the fence, which was merely a rope net to mark the boundary; it wasn't a serious barrier. The sun was on its way down, and due to the poor planning noted earlier by Billy, Bingham was facing west. By the time his own turn came up, the owl would be trying to watch him against the glare of the sun.
He immediately cursed himself for the glee he had felt about that advantage. The unreality and disconnect between the sport and what he was truly here to do today, what should have been motivating him, was as jarring as ever. Brand name decoy flags; cults of personality which were giving rise to rude, entitled clods like Zane; endless suspicion and judgment concerning ways to cheat, or at least game the system: suspicion that, Simon had to admit, was warranted on occasion. "Everything was fair game, back when this wasn't a game," he said out loud.
Joe didn't hear him; he was watching the mink. Billy tumbled and wheeled about energetically. He actually climbed into some of the trees, backing down again quickly, dodging and leaping in figure eights to leave false trails within false trails, all under the watchful eyes of the owl.
He climbed the large fallen tree trunk, descended, and re-ascended it several times, jumping off to firmly plant his feet in a mocking version of the other mink's failed move. He then climbed up the log yet again, and waved to the crowd. "Moron," Joe spat. "I'll show him."
Billy trotted off of the yard, and did a cartwheel at the end of the walk to land in front of his party. It was at least the same size as Mike's. Billy also had a reporter and several of his own fans trying to get his attention.
"He didn't drop any of his flags," Joe said. "Well, that won't be enough to help him."
"Don't lose your cool," Simon said. "It's about running. Run to escape, run to hide." He set his paw on the other rabbit's shoulder. "Flee from us, Joe."
The snowshoe hare thumped the ground with nervous energy, born from anger. "I'll make him eat all that pride," he said. The mink waved at the two rabbits and flashed an unfriendly smile at them. "That cocky moron." Joe showed no sign of calming down.
As Billy sat among his entourage, Joe walked prematurely out to the yard. The dogs watched him, frowning; Bingham signaled the press box, and the announcer stammered for a moment. "Joe…Joe Wishful, up next."
The hare jumped into the yard, turned, and stared directly at Billy. He pulled one of his decoy flags off and dropped it conspicuously on the ground. It was a challenge: an announcement that even with the loss of points for tossing the flag, he could still beat the mink.
"It's wrong," Simon thought to himself. "It's the wrong attitude. You're not here to show off, you're here to run." A new thought came to him, finally punching through the feelings he had experienced all day about the distance his sport had come in the wrong direction. "Don't run to escape for yourself, don't run to show off. Run and escape for them, showing them a trick they haven't seen and won't see coming again, even if they expect it. It's not about rules, penalties, and putting on a show. It's the essence of escape."
There was a loud crack out in the yard, and a low, pained moan. The spectators shifted, some standing; a few howled and shrieked. Simon had not been watching, having been absorbed in his thoughts. Shaking his head and looking up, it was clear that a jump had not gone well. It was that large stump again: Joe had apparently slipped off of it. One of his massive feet was bent to the side, obviously broken. The snowshoe hare was able to right himself, and endured a humiliating short hop to the barrier where a crew of medics met him and carted him away. "At least he made it back from the yard himself," Simon thought. "That would have crushed him, being taken out of that world, not under his own power." The thought of leaving that other world at all suddenly seemed depressing to Simon.
"Disqualified," came the announcer's voice. The sun had come out; no more snow was falling. The snow machine was rolled over by a crew and started rumbling. "When sufficient snow is spread we will begin our final exercise for the day."
"Escape for them." Simon folded his paws and waited. "Not from them. For them."
The crowd got distracted, waiting; this was the last performance of the day, and talk of the injury had brought in a few more spectators from other events. There was a constant rumbling murmur from the stands. Simon leaned against the wall, hearing it and feeling the vibration through the concrete, but staying out of sight until finally a small amount of static, a breath sent over the microphone, and then an announcement silenced it all: "Simon Mint."
Simon walked across the threshold, smiling, ears perked and held high. The yard looked clean, but looks were deceiving. Parts of the tracks were still visible. A depression from where Joe Wishful had fallen was easily spotted from here. Simon walked through it.
The area where Lance Querry had bled still had the odor of fox about it. Simon inhaled, felt the old ancestral panic that he had wished for earlier in the day, and he let it wash over him. His foot stomped against the ground until the dread drained away. He looked at the briar patch and smiled again.
With a graceful leap he vaulted onto the large log. It was definitely slick up here, and he was thankful that he chose to land in a seated position, as he had in the stands. He stood and saluted the owl, who stared back at him.
After a slow glance through the crowd, he removed the decoy flags with great decorum. He placed the first one from his right arm across the log, then the second flag from his left arm across it. Gathering some snow, he crushed it against the third flag, soaking it in cold, melted moisture. He then packed in a bit of the dense snow, plugging up the hole he had cut earlier.
The crowd was murmuring and restless. He was taking off all of the flags in full view of everyone? What was he planning? Why wasn't he trying to dodge, leap and baffle?
He started swinging around the last decoy flag, the one that had come from around his leg. The weight of the damp snow inside it gave the pouch a bit more momentum so that it could be thrown through the air for a good distance without fluttering back to the ground. And so he threw it, in line with where the sun was hanging low in the sky.
The owl as well as many of the spectators watched the flag rise, and then blinked or turned away as the sun dazzled them. Those who didn't follow the distraction later said that Simon leaped toward the briars on the back border, where Lance had opened up his paw, and then he just disappeared.
After a few seconds, the owl rang a bell marking a disqualification. But Simon Mint did not reappear. Even though the briars seemed raggedy, thin, and unable to hide anything, the brown jackrabbit had vanished in the sight of the entire audience, and was not found again that day. Only a hole in the boundary marked where he had passed beyond the world of the yard without returning to the ordinary world that held the deck, the referee, the judges' secret quarters, and the spectators. They hadn't seen how he had done it; they were baffled.
The skunks never did get their clippers back.