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.

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