The council that decided disciplinary matters, jokingly called the Fur Trap by many residents of Little Left, consisted of six members, each serving a term of two cold times. Every half cold time, a new member of the colony came onto the council to replace the member whose term had just concluded.
No one remembered where the system came from, but it made for continuity and change. Over any period of three cold times, the council underwent a complete turnover. Most adults in the colony served their term willingly and with a sense of grave responsibility. From the time the pups were very young, their parents impressed upon them a simple lesson: cooperate or perish.
The council that would determine Esmerelda’s punishment consisted of four females, Vashti, Antigone, Salome and Annapurna and two males, Pericles and Solomon. Members sat in a semicircle in the burrow’s largest chamber. The space occupied a central spot in the town and could hold up to twenty adult colony members if they crowded together. Striations along two of the walls testified to different geological periods. The floor was unpadded except for what hairs the group lost by brushing against each other. Any gathering that required the presence of all residents of nearby burrows used this chamber as a meeting place.
Esmerelda didn’t think she would have much trouble from the two males. Pericles seemed honest and fair, and Solomon was always sensitive to his popularity with sows. But she was concerned with the females, and she turned her eyes to them first as she entered the chamber.
Salome acknowledged her without smiling or touching noses. She was a “salty old sow,” as Solomon called her, with a wiry reddish coat and a long scar on her side where a raccoon had clawed her. “You should have seen what I did to him,” she liked to joke. Still, she had always been kind to Esmerelda, as if she understood and respected the fact that Esmerelda had to look out for herself. She was also the longest serving member of the group, stepping down in only four suns time. She opened the meeting without formality. “Do you know why you’re here, Esmerelda?”
Esmerelda sat up on her haunches and looked Salome straight in the eye. “Yes.”
“Is there anything you’d like to tell us about what prompted your theft or your thoughts since then?” Salome looked around to make sure all were paying attention.
Esmerelda looked briefly at each member of the council. Solomon winked at her. She stood and walked gracefully forward. “Hunger prompted my actions.” The council members glanced at each other. “As well as impatience,” she continued hastily. “And neither excuses what I did. If every prairie dog in the colony took from the emergency food stash every time he or she was hungry, we’d have nothing left for a time of need. Those of us who are impatient by nature still bear responsibility for what we do. We can choose to succumb to our hunger or disregard it.”
Salome blinked in surprise and looked at Antigone, who shrugged.
Solomon brushed the white tips of his whiskers, leaned forward, and smiled at Esmerelda. “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”
Esmerelda pursed her lips, scratched her chin, and then shook her head.
“Nothing?” Annapurna’s mismatched eyes, one brown, one blue, urged something that Esmerelda couldn’t read. She shook her head again.
“Does anyone else wish to speak?” Salome asked, looking toward Solomon. He hesitated and then gave a curt shake of his head. “Very well. Esmerelda, please leave now so we can discuss what your punishment will be.”
Esmerelda turned and strode out of the chamber as fast as she could without breaking into a run.
The council members repositioned themselves into a circle. “That was a good speech she gave,” said Pericles. “I’ve never heard the case for personal responsibility put so succinctly.”
Vashti frowned and thrust her unusually pointed grey chin forward. She had an acute sensitivity to both words and body language. “Excellent speech . . . except for one thing. It lacked affect and sounded rehearsed. I’ve never heard Esmerelda talk that way before, so softly and in a monotone.”
“Neither have I,” added Antigone, “but that’s not what bothered me the most. She never said she was sorry, not even when Solomon all but invited her to.”
Everyone nodded except Solomon. “You’re right. I hoped she’d apologize. But I think we’re here to judge actions, not attitudes. In a way, it shouldn’t matter what one of us says. How are we to know if it’s sincere or not, anyway?”
“That’s true, Solomon,” Annapurna chimed in, her eyes flashing. “But apologies still have a purpose, if only to make both the wronged and the wrong-doer feel better.”
Vashti crossed her forelegs. “Are you telling us that if another sow pokes you in the eye, you’ll hurt less if she apologizes?”
“It won’t hurt less,” Annapurna replied, pausing as if in thought for a moment. “But I might accept the hurt more easily.”
“And be less likely to retaliate,” Solomon grinned and looked at the others for praise of his observation.
They lapsed into silence. At last Antigone spoke up. “It sounds like what Annapurna is saying is that an apology helps restore social order. An offense is destructive to the social order, so an offender should help rebuild the order. The sincerity of the apology isn’t the real issue, which is good because we can never read what’s in another’s heart. The important thing is a willingness to engage in a social ritual that restores the kind of spirit essential to communal well-being.”
Salome nodded. “We’ve sure got some interesting ideas dancing around the chamber, but we need to come to a decision. Vashti, what do you think the punishment should be?”
“I say we insist Esmerelda replace what she took twofold and make a promise that if she ever takes from the emergency food supply again, she will voluntarily leave the colony.”
“Is that enforceable?” Annapurna asked.
“Maybe not, but it does send a strong message. And what prairie dog would want to stay here as a pariah, a promise breaker?”
Salome looked at Annapurna. “What do you think?”
“I like the idea, but would tack on an extra shift in the puppery.”
“That’s a fine solution!” Solomon said. Everyone nodded.
“Done,” Salome declared. “Annapurna, will you announce our decision to any colony members who inquire? And Solomon, please go tell Esmerelda what we decided.
“I’ll be happy to,” Solomon said with a smile and trotted off.
As he meandered toward Esmerelda’s burrow, Solomon considered what would be the least confrontational way to break the news. While he did not know Esmerelda well, he knew her well enough to anticipate a rash of antipathy no matter how he worded the message. “What a pity that sow isn’t more personable. She’d be so much happier,” he muttered to himself.
He decided on a brief, low-key delivery. After rousing her from her burrow with a jaunty whistle, he delivered the news succinctly and without emotion.
Esmerelda glowered at him with unabashed disdain. “Look, Solomon, what you’re claiming was a theft, I thought of as a loan and planned to repay it pronto. You’d think I absconded with half the stash and used it to throw a party. Anything more than a
warning is unjust. This just isn’t fair.”
Solomon touched her shoulder and recited what he remembered about the council meeting. “Rules are never perfect, just the best thing we have to protect us from chaos,” he proclaimed with a calm air. “Think of rules as the price we pay to live in a community. Our friendships are the basis of community, and the rules help preserve the friendships. At least we’re consistent and have the same rules for everybody.”
Esmerelda rolled her eyes.
“Hey, don’t look like that. Your punishment is far less severe than it might have been. And . . .” He caught himself.
“Go ahead, finish your sermon. I can’t wait to hear how you bring your pure and holy thoughts to a climax,” Esmerelda hissed.
Solomon didn’t take the bait. “You know, I’ve always admired your independent nature, your rebelliousness. It scares me, but in a good way,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Solomon turned and walked away.
Esmerelda stared after him, her mouth agape.