Friday, May 31, 2013

Chapter 3

Like most unmated boars, Hieronymus shared a home burrow with two other bachelors. He had gotten lucky, he knew, with his burrow mates. Meshach was a joker and helped cheer Hieronymus up when responsibility weighed too heavily on his shoulders. He could also mimic birdcalls with uncanny accuracy, sometimes even fooling a crow or starling into believing he was one of their own.
            Corot kept mostly to himself, performed his colony duties conscientiously, and spent most of his spare time sitting quietly, in all kinds of weather, staring skyward. No one knew if he was thinking, meditating or just liked looking at the sky, but the clan was quite certain Corot wasn’t counting clouds. Out of respect for the privacy of others, a hallmark of prairie dog etiquette, no one asked. Hieronymus had lived with him long enough to know that Corot’s thoughtfulness contained a fair bit of observation and that, if patient, one would be rewarded with a unique understanding of the part of the world they inhabited. 
The burrow was empty when Hieronymus returned to it. He had satisfied his hunger with prairie grass and now, weary from all of his efforts, wanted a snooze.  Hieronymus was fearful for his sister but unsure of what, if anything, to do about her predicament. Curling up in his corner of the sleeping chamber, halfway between the two entrances, he tried without success to sleep. He didn’t want to take sides in a dispute he was not party to. Still, his impulse was to help Esmerelda, since no other member of the colony would be eager to defend her. She had no close friends in Little Left. As he drifted into a fitful sleep, he thought about the fact that Esmerelda had again proved to be her own worst enemy.
            When Hieronymus awoke the next morning, Meshach lay curled up sleeping, but Corot’s place was still empty. Hieronymus licked his front paws and wiped his face before walking up the tunnel to the burrow’s back entrance and out into an already bright summer morning.
            A small clan had emigrated from a larger town to the east and founded Little Left long before Hieronymus was born. No one knew the reason for the exodus, not even the storytellers. Some believed they were fleeing a plague that wiped out half the town; some believed they were escaping a leader bent on waging war on other members of his colony.
            Most, however, believed the people had squeezed them out, just as they had done to several other colonies, to make room for the expanding people towns that lay to the east and south of Little Left. Some of the older sows and boars swore that the people had grown ominously closer as the years went by.
            To the west were the lands of their cousins the chipmunks and marmots, their homes on hills rising tall and dark against the horizon. No one Hieronymus knew had ever been there. It wasn’t forbidden, but it was difficult for them to travel where their favorite grasses didn’t grow, and the ground grew too hard to dig during the cold time.             There were stories, too, of different people living in what was now called Little Left, long ago. Isobel told him that in the old stories their name was the Hinono-Eino, but that the people now called them the Arapaho. A small people town farther east bore the name of their Chief, Niwot, meaning “Left Hand,” and so the founders of the colony took on the name Little Left Hand, which had shortened over the years to Little Left.
            A trail ran along the length of the colony on the people town side, and people seemed to take pleasure in the proximity of the prairie dogs, often throwing nuts, fruit, and strange food to them. Many in Little Left were so used to the people and their food that they encouraged the practice by sitting on their entrance mounds chirping for handouts. Hieronymus disapproved of the practice for the dependence it fostered.
Many people walked along the trail with canines straining harmlessly on ropes, and some young boars liked to feel brave by getting as close to the canines as possible. They would step just out of reach of the lunging rope and laugh. Now and then, a free canine thought they were prey, or just fun to chase, but rarely came close to catching the much quicker prairie dogs. Once when Hieronymus was a pup, a canine had snagged Solomon’s father when he ventured too close. The prairie dog escaped but was never the same in the head and often cowered in his burrow at the sound of a canine’s bark.
Over time, a game developed wherein an intended victim waited until its would-be canine captor came close and then would dive into his burrow. As the canine sniffed and whined at the entrance, another prairie dog would pop out of a burrow a short ways away and bark to make its presence known. When the canine tore off after him, it met the same frustration. Back and forth the canine would run, to the utter amusement of the prairie dogs. Because the human did not like their canine companion to look foolish, they usually called it back.
Once in a great while, a small canine was rash enough to go down a burrow after a prairie dog and would meet with a barrage of dirt kicked into its face. Most of the time the tactic persuaded the partially blinded pooch to call off the chase. If determination overrode sense and it continued its pursuit, more of the same awaited it until, pawing dirt from its eyes, the bedraggled dog emerged from the burrow’s back door to the jeers of colony residents sitting atop their mounds, delighting in their victim’s discomfort.
The people trail was busy and noisy this particular morning, so Hieronymus decided to make the trek across town to look for breakfast at the base of the foothills. He needed to fortify himself for what difficulties the day might bring and he liked the wildflowers and evergreens much more than the standard fare of prairie grass that sprouted amidst the burrows. The view of his town and its surroundings from the hillside also gave him a sense of contentment. It calmed him, though he wasn’t sure why.
            At the edge of town, where the creek slid around a small boulder, he came across Corot. His friend was sitting beside the water, taking in its slurp and gurgle, his thin frame still and his back slightly hunched. He seemed to be pondering the creek with all absorbing interest.
“Corot,” Hieronymus whispered, not wanting to startle him.
 “Hello, Hieronymus,” Corot replied, without turning towards him.           
 “What are you watching?” Hieronymus asked as he sat down beside his friend and burrow mate. “You usually spend your time elsewhere.”
            Corot looked up as though he’d just awoken from a dream and didn’t know what to make of it. “I wanted a cool drink and then something about the way the water flows got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could move the way water does? When it bumps up against an obstacle, it doesn’t fume or turn back. It finds a way under, over, or around without fuss or complaint, just by dint of persistence and in a graceful, sinuous way.” He smiled and inclined his head toward the creek. “Look at it wind around that rock. The water changes shape a bit, folds into itself and then out again. It’s such a subtle movement. I wish we could do the same when we come up against obstacles—change ourselves instead of trying to change everything else.”
            Hieronymus didn’t always know what to make of Corot’s musings, but he liked to listen and knew most often they would sink in later, when he least expected. “Would you like to come with me a ways up the hill to look for breakfast?”
            Corot scanned the sky for hawks and saw none. “Of course.”
Halfway up the hill they came upon a succulent raspberry bush. As they began to pick berries, a flock of sparrows burst from the bush with a rattling like heavy rain. Corot watched them fly off, circle, and return to another bush farther up the hill.
The two boars ate as many berries as possible, standing on their back legs to grab branches and pull them down until the sweet fruit was within reach. A little higher up the hill, Hieronymus knew of a patch of Indian paintbrush. They went there and grazed on the red flowers.
When they had their fill, Corot motioned to Hieronymus. “I want to show you something,” he said. The two friends moved into the shade of an overhanging rock.  This was the view that Hieronymus so loved, with its panorama of their orderly town and the people town beyond it. Beyond that was prairie, sprawling brown flatland for as far as his eyes could see. He liked to think of all the colonies out there and what they must be like, their different ways of life.
            Corot interrupted his friend’s reverie. “See anything to concern you?”
            Hieronymus squinted down. Everything looked normal. A few people strolled along the path and he could see Solomon chatting with three young sows. “No. Why? Do you?”
            Corot pointed. “There, just this side of the first row of people burrows.”
Hieronymus could hear a tone of worry permeating Corot’s normally placid voice and focused harder on the scene below them. “The people there? Aren’t they just watching birds?”
            Corot shook his head. “Look harder, my friend. That thing they’re looking through, it’s not for watching birds. Do you remember the warnings from the group that came through here, fleeing from their colony? People use that thing to measure the land.”
Though he dreaded it, Hieronymus asked anyway. “What’s happening?”
“More people burrows are coming, maybe the big kind, maybe a small group of people burrows, or maybe just one with space around it for cows and chickens. Whatever it is they’re building, our town is at risk.” Corot pursed his lips. “You’re aware of what my grandmother saw as a young sow?”
“Tell me.”
“The highest burrow in the people town didn’t stand as high as where we are now. The tallest was white with a steep pointy roof and crossed sticks on top. We can no longer see it because those big flattop burrows there block our view. I think the people must have many pups, and when those pups grow up, they have to find their own burrows to live in, so they build them above ground. If more of the people are born than die, they have to keep building more and bigger burrows. Think about it, Hieronymus. Someday they might cover every prairie from horizon to horizon and we’ll have to dig our burrows where they can’t build theirs.”
            Before Hieronymus could answer, Corot grabbed his friend’s paw. “Never mind that now. Look up there!” A red-tailed hawk circled above them. “I don’t think he sees us sitting here in the shade, but we can’t wait here long before a coyote catches our scent, and if we move, the hawk will spot us.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what to do.”
            “You’re right. We can’t stay here. If one of us even sneezes, the hawk will spot us. The bird sees all, but it only grabs prey on the wing or hits them in the open field. If it knows you’re under a tree or bush it can’t penetrate, it won’t try.” Hieronymus scanned the hillside. “We need to take turns going from tree to tree. While the hawk is watching for one of us to come out from under one tree, the other has to make a beeline to another in a different direction. We have to keep it diving for one and then the other of us, going back and forth. Don’t run for a tree farther away than the distance between our town entrance mounds. We can cover that distance three barks time faster than the hawk can adjust his sights and reach the ground. Got it?”
            Corot nodded, eyes flickering, plotting.
            “I’ll go first,” said Hieronymus. He took a deep breath and bounded straight downhill toward a pale green spruce tree with low hanging branches. No sooner was he out from under the overhanging rock than the hawk saw him and dove like a stone plummeting through the sky. Hieronymus heard the whistling of the hawk’s feathers as it streaked toward him. He made a quick right turn. In the fraction of a second the hawk took to change direction, Hieronymus jagged back left and leaped for the spruce. The hawk spread its wings to break the dive. At the same instant, Corot took off from his spot and headed for a bristlecone pine. The hawk spotted him and spiraled up to make another dive, but by then Corot had attained his target. He slid under the tree and sucked air into his burning lungs.
            While the hawk collected itself for another attempt, Hieronymus fled the safety of the spruce, his sights set on a hollow log near the bottom of the hill. But the hawk didn’t take the bait, instead keeping its sharp eyes on Corot’s tree. Five minutes passed, then ten. The hawk kept circling.
            Hieronymus knew that Corot would be frightened, as he was for both himself and his friend. But he also knew that if they survived this, they’d have quite a story to tell. Meshach would spin it so that they would all be laughing their tails off at dinner. Suddenly he grew serious, knowing that they needed to get back and tell the rest of the colony about the people’s plans.
            Hieronymus glanced back and forth from the predator to the tree. Time was running out. He could almost smell a fox. It’s now or never, he told himself. He chirped to Corot to stay put and jumped into the open. Running up and down the log, he barked his loud contempt at the circling bird. The hawk took notice and dove. Hieronymus sprang back into the log, as Corot, not missing a beat, ran for the next evergreen in his path toward the town and the safety of a burrow.
            The hawk wasn’t the only one to hear Hieronymus’s loud barks. Ludwig, standing lookout at the edge of town closest to the foothills, scanned the sky and spotted the threat. He sounded the alarm for an overhead enemy. Prairie dogs above ground left off eating grass and ran for their burrows. This would get the hawk’s attention. The bird took the bait, flying down to snag a straggler.
            Hieronymus and Corot saw their window of opportunity. Both bounded down the hill to the creek. There they hid among the rocks until the hawk, with a frustrated curse, flew off toward the city. There it would find the easier—if less tasty—pickings of pigeon, robin, or unwary kitten. With the coast clear, Corot and Hieronymus hurried back to their burrow on shaky legs.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Chapter 2

Pausing at the back entrance mound of his sister’s burrow, Hieronymus let the sun warm his face. He pressed his paws together and looked at the many entrance mounds around him, then at the looming burrows of the people town to the east, and then up at the pale blue sky. A soft wind ambled across the prairie, carrying with it the sweet aroma of honeysuckle.
            He wasn’t quite sure what to say to Esmerelda. Stealing food was a serious offense, especially when it was from the emergency stash in the communal burrow. Little Left took its rules around provisions with utmost seriousness. Esmerelda would have to appear before the colony council and they would decide her punishment. Hieronymus didn’t know whether to scold or comfort her, but he felt he had to say something. Withdrawal in the face of stress had always struck him as unbecoming.
He thought again that if only their parents had been more nurturing, Esmerelda might have turned out differently. Maybe they both would have. Born only minutes apart, they were as unalike as two prairie dogs could be.
In reaction to their parents’ neglect, Esmerelda developed a “me versus them” mentality. If she came across another pup who had collected a pile of pebbles, she thought it natural to pilfer a few for her own. When she was “it” during hide and seek, she always left one eye open to see which way the other pups had run. If hiding, she liked to crowd into another pup’s good spot. “Let’s just share this,” she would suggest with feigned camaraderie. “There’s room for both of us.” Then she always made sure the other pup was more exposed, and so more likely to be found.
Hieronymus, meanwhile, embraced what should have been his parents’ responsibility. Taking care of and protecting Esmerelda seemed as natural to him as playing and eating. Once, when he saw two older pups pushing and teasing his sister, he tore into one of them with a fury almost unseen among prairie dogs, biting one of the bullies in the flank, drawing blood and a shriek of pain. As he whirled to meet another attack, the other young boar backed away.
“Come on, Cortez,” the bully said with bruised bravado, grabbing his injured companion. “We can come back and give this creep a licking later.”
Hieronymus remembered how his sister, her face bright with surprise, had stared at him with unabashed admiration.
“Esmerelda,” Hieronymus called and peered down into the burrow. No answer. He barked again, louder. 
A sleepy voice floated up from the dark tunnel. “I’ll be right there, brother.” Moments later Esmerelda peeked out of the entrance and yawned. “Good morning, Hieronymus.” She climbed out and brushed the dirt carefully from her golden coat. She had always been proud of her unique coloring and slim body that set her apart from the other sows in Little Left. She took pains to keep it that way. Her emerald eyes glittered in the sunlight. “Now I wonder why you’re here.”
            “Look, Esmerelda, it’s not really my business and certainly not my problem.” Hieronymus worried the dirt around the burrow with a back paw.  “If you don’t want to talk about it, okay. I don’t want to lecture you—”
“Then don’t.”
Hieronymus gave her a grave look. “Have you at least thought about what to say to the council?”
             “What’s there to say? I was hungry and too tired to go out for a nibble. I contribute to the emergency food supply, so why can’t I have a tidbit to snack on?”
Hieronymus shook his head.
“What? It’s not theft, just taking what is rightfully mine,” she said defensively. “I planned to replenish the supply later.”
            “You know how far that tack will get you. The council will ask you what would happen if everyone ‘borrowed’ from the supply whenever they were hungry and didn’t feel like looking for a snack outside.”
             “I’ll think of something,” she said as she turned back toward her burrow. “Thank you for coming by,” she tossed over her shoulder, “but if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go back to sleep now.”
Tired from his work in the puppery, dismayed at having had to intervene in a foolish dispute, and frustrated by Esmerelda’s obstinacy, Hieronymus groaned as he strolled grumpily back to his burrow, reproaching himself at every step for having tried to reason with his sister. “Why did I think I could convince her to behave any differently than she always has just because she got caught and would have to answer to the council?” he said to no one in particular.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Journey From Little Left Chapter 1

Ever walk into a bookstore to look for a novel and find yourself confronted by shelf after shelf of novels? We all have. Have you ever then wondered if so many other people could write novels if you could? I sure have. So a few years back I gave it a shot. Here's the result.

Gary Michael

Chapter 1
A Difficult Day

The rumble of passing cattle echoed through the puppery and the ceiling began to crumble. Within seconds, dirt engulfed the five tiny, pink sleeping infants. Isobel, the sow on duty, threw herself over the pups to shield them. As suddenly as it had begun, the clomping stopped and the dirt shower ended. Choking from the dirt shower, Isobel hurried to clear the blanket of brown earth from the coughing babies. To her horror, she saw one wasn’t breathing. She blew into his mouth and gently squeezed his fragile rib cage until his lungs issued a feeble cough.
“Thank you, my little Lazarus,” Isobel said as she closed her eyes in relief. “And thank you gracious prairie spirits.” She continued to blow and squeeze until the pup stopped gasping and began to breathe rhythmically. Then she barked for help. The puppery needed hasty repair, lest the cattle tromp back by the same route and cause irreparable damage.
Soon Hieronymus appeared at the puppery entrance. One look at the damage told him he would need help. He called for nonurgent aid with a low chirp. Moments later, Zophar trundled into the puppery as quickly as his colossal heft would allow and glanced around.
            “We’ll need to wet and compress the soil to keep more dirt from falling, but we also need to find a piece of wood to act as a pillar,” Zophar instructed, drawing “compress” and “pillar” out to make sure Hieronymus got the point.
            Hieronymus hurried down to the creek on the western border of the colony, contemplating how lucky Little Left was to have Zophar. He was always eager to help and always seemed to know what was needed. Hieronymus quickly gathered the water in his mouth and tucked several sticks under a foreleg. He wasn’t sure if the sticks would meet Zophar’s requirements, but decided that Zophar could decide that for himself.
            Zophar looked at the sticks skeptically. He picked up one and held it upright. “Too short,” he proclaimed as he tossed it aside and grabbed another. “This one will fit, but the bend will increase over time until it snaps or falls out of place.” He squinted at the remaining sticks and selected a birch branch. “This may work,” he said.
            Zophar tried to fit the stick between the floor and ceiling of the chamber, taking less care to avoid stepping on the babies than Isobel would have liked. “Oops, a tad too long,” he said. He gnawed off the excess quickly and fit the stick into place. “Perfecto. Now if you’ll just dribble that mouthful of water onto the fallen dirt here, Hieronymus, we can push it back into place.”
Together they picked up wet dirt and plastered it to the top of the chamber. When they finished, Hieronymus touched a paw to Zophar’s shoulder. “We’re fortunate you came so quickly. You’ve done the colony and especially the parents of these pups a great service.”
“Think nothing of it. I’m happy to have helped,” Zophar said as he backed his bulk slowly out of the puppery. “Call on me anytime. Usually those cattle skirt our town. I have no idea why they chose a route right over us today. Damn beasts had better not do it again. Maybe if we dig big holes for them to stumble on, it will discourage them. Of course, if one breaks a leg, or even just twists an ankle, people will be over here in no time pouring poison down our entrance mounds.”
Hieronymus and Isobel exchanged knowing smiles, both glad that Zophar’s expertise at maintenance balanced his pedantic streak. Hieronymus followed him out of the puppery.
 Outside, the sounds of an argument reverberated through the town like furious static. As far as Hieronymus could tell, it was coming from two of the boars on sentinel duty. He hurried to investigate.
 Ludwig and Lucretius were wrangling over which of them should stand lookout from the central post. The slight rise of the post in the otherwise flat expanse the colony occupied provided the best vantage point for spotting approaching danger, whether from the sky—hawks and the occasional eagle—or on the ground—badgers, foxes, and coyotes. The other post sat on the western border of the town, and it was from here an attack by land was more likely to come. Hieronymus sighed as he approached the sentinels. He didn’t welcome the task of adjudicating peevish disputes, but no other colony member was willing to do it.
            Ludwig, the tallest prairie dog in the colony, was especially effective as a lookout. Sitting upright, he could see farther than the others, and his sharp chirps carried well beyond the colony boundaries. If an adolescent strayed toward danger, Ludwig’s call was more likely to reach him than any other sentinel’s. Hieronymus touched noses with him and turned to Lucretius, who was so busy arguing he ignored him. Although no match physically for Ludwig, what Lucretius lacked in length and vocal range he made up for with devotion to duty.
            “But I can see farther and be heard halfway to the next town!” Ludwig argued as he crossed his forelegs over his chest and scowled with an imperious downward curve of his mouth. “Any question about whose turn it is to patrol the high spot should be resolved in my favor.”
            The fur rose on Lucretius’s back and his paws trembled. “Nonsense,” he barked. “If anything, you should let those of us who don’t have your natural advantage take the higher spot.”
            Hieronymus watched the boars until they exhausted their voices and fell to silent staring. “Obviously, you’ve both given serious thought to this matter.” They turned to him, ready to listen. “I commend you for your mental prowess. But please tell me, has it occurred to either of you rational animals to draw rocks?”
            Ludwig hung his head and kicked at the dirt while Lucretius flicked his tail from side to side. Neither spoke. Hieronymus picked up a pebble and put his paws behind his back. Then he held out both his fists. “Okay, you know the game. Which paw holds the pebble? We’ll do it until one of you guesses correctly and the other does not. That way, neither of you can claim the contest was unfair because only the other boar got first guess. Ready?”
            Ludwig mustered a weak smile. “You take the high spot today, Lucretius. I’ll cover it next time.”
            Hieronymus tossed the pebble aside. “Thank you, my friends. “Now, Lucretius, remember to pay special attention toward the south there. We’ve had fox sightings that way of late.”
            Lucretius stood up taller and nodded.
            “There you are,” a voice called. Hieronymus, caught off guard, swiveled. Solomon had a smooth, quiet way about him, walking as if on oiled haunches. He held up a paw.
            “What is it?” Hieronymus asked. He was impatient now to get something to eat, perhaps a bit of bouncy beet or erect knotweed.
 “It’s your sister. She’s in trouble,” Solomon replied and looked behind himself. “I thought you should know.”
            “What now?” Hieronymus said with uncharacteristic gruffness. The day was pushing the limit of his patience.           
            “Esmerelda got caught sneaking food from the emergency stash. She’ll have to go before the council.”
            Unsurprised, Hieronymus thanked the boar and, making his good-byes, went to find his sister.