Monday, July 29, 2013

Chapter 6
A Story

That night, like every night, those who chose to made their way to a snug warm room that had, for as long as they remembered, been used to tell stories. Isobel was the town’s storyteller. She learned them sitting at her late mentor’s knee and knew she would one day pass them on to her own successor, in the old way her revered mentor had taught them to her. With a dramatic flourish, she ran a paw through the hair on her round head and began the tale she called “How Prairie Dogs Came To Be.”

 One day, more cold times ago than we can count, after all the other animals were already here, the prairie spirits were bored. One said, “Let’s make a big ball and roll it around on the clouds.”
The spirits gathered dirt, cried on it to make it wet—for rain is nothing more than spirits crying—packed it into a tight ball, and rolled it around on top of the clouds. They were having so much fun they didn’t notice a gap between two clouds. The dirt ball fell through the hole, hit the ground with a dull thud, and broke into clumps.
        “Doggone it,” said one of the spirits, “there goes our game.”
        “Maybe not,” said the spirit who had suggested making the ball. He pointed at one of the clumps the ball had broken into. “That lump looks like some kind of animal, maybe an undersized woodchuck? Let’s see what I can do with it.”
He picked up some dirt, wept on it to make it soft, and shaped four legs, which he then attached to the clump. Next, he took two shiny stones and put them on the part of the clump that looked like a head. Presto! Eyes! Then the spirit made a hole under the eyes and blew into it. But the clump didn’t move, so the spirit summoned the other spirits to help.             “When I give the word, let’s all send a great gust of wind—for wind is nothing more than spirits blowing—into this hole.”
        The spirits sucked up so much air that animals in the area began gasping. Then the spirits blew the air into the hole with such force that the clump tumbled backward across the prairie until it rolled to a stop in a patch of purple poppy mallow. It bounced to its feet, brushed prairie dust from its coat, and looked around.
“What a lovely spot,” it said in perfect Rodentese. “I’ll dig myself a place to sleep and stay here.”
        The spirits liked the new animal. Every time they got bored, they made another one of these creatures, sticking to the same formula. Between their efforts and the natural habit of all animals, the prairie soon held more of the new animals than clouds we can count.
Yet, oddly, the spirits hadn’t bothered to name them. The spirit who had put the legs and eyes on the first clump said, “It isn’t fair that all other animals have a name and these do not. Because they live on the prairie and bark to each other, I know the perfect name.” And he called us prairie dogs.
Chapter 7

Tousled scraps of cloud tumbled untidily through the brooding, chalky light. A brisk wind whisked through town as cool air descended on the land like dead aspen leaves in heavy snow. Corot sat watching the light fall on his familiar prairie. He found it hard to think about leaving everything dear to him.
In his mind, knowing where things were and how they looked made friends of them. Even bits of brush seeming no different from other bits revealed unique features that distinguished them. The same was true of the rocks by the creek, mostly gray but some flecked with brown and showing streaks of green never in identical patterns. He wondered why he found it so reassuring and thought that it might have something to do with familiarity breeding community. He knew that recognizing their individuality gave him a sense of being a part of them and leaving would feel like he was abandoning much more than his town.
            Hieronymus saw the sadness in his friend’s face. “Looks like you haven’t figured things out any better than I have,” he told him by way of greeting. “Where does that leave us?”
            Corot couldn’t resist a little self-mockery. “Between a rock and a wet place,” he said, smiling. “Or right where we were. You tell me.”
 Hieronymus grew grave. “We need to decide if we should leave or stay put. And if we decide to leave, we also must decide where to go.”
            “It’s a choice we’ll all have to consider. When we’ve told every resident of the colony, each can choose what to do. And if all, or even most, decide to leave, won’t so ungainly a group be at greater peril?”
            Hieronymus’s tail twitched. “Sure. But we still have to leave the decision to those whose welfare is at stake. Let’s call a meeting.”
The next day, all adult members of the colony crowded around the entrance to the main burrow. They murmured and shrugged, wondering what was going on. Hieronymus looked around, smiled slightly at Corot, and took a deep breath. “Friends, I know you are all wondering why I called you here today, and I don’t want to keep you wondering, so I will be frank. Corot and I have seen people measuring the land we live in. On the other side of the people trail, they have those things they sit in and move over the ground on. We even saw one of those things they use to dig big holes. You all know what this may mean: more people burrows on top of ours.”
A collective gasp escaped the assembly, followed by a deep silence. Hieronymus looked out toward the hills. “Listen, by the time we know for certain, it may be too late to relocate. Moving is never easy and harder when we don’t know—can’t know—what lies beyond our borders. What we do know, of course, is that a people town exists to the east and more people towns are to the south.”
He paused to let his next sentence take form in his mind. “Each of you needs to decide for yourself what to do. Those of you with pups that haven’t opened their eyes yet have the hardest choice, or maybe no real choice. Those who leave will surely face dangers. Those who stay may face destruction.”
             The air was instantly abuzz. Friends rubbed noses and chirped comforting words. Others shook their heads and moaned or sat dazed, unable to move or speak.
            Hieronymus was dismayed, but hardly surprised at the impact of his announcement. He tried to refocus the group’s attention. “Do any of you have questions?”           
            “Will those who leave go west or north?” Pericles shouted.
             “We aren’t made for mountains, especially not in the cold time. North.”
            More sighs and chatter. Then Isobel asked, “Who will lead?”
Hieronymus looked at the others with wide eyes. “I don’t know. Does one of you want to?”  His question was met with silence all around. He took another deep breath. “I guess I’ll have to,” he muttered in a barely audible voice. “If you want to join me, please be ready by sunset tomorrow. I know it’s quick, but we’ve no time to lose. We don’t know how long it will take to find a suitable spot for a new town. Now, we all have lots to think about, so let’s adjourn.”
As he watched the group disperse, Hieronymus hoped he had made the right decision. He stood at the burrow a long time, gazing north into the distance.


Any fears Hieronymus and Corot had about too large a group wanting to leave were quickly put to rest. Most members of the colony chose to stay, betting that any new people burrows would not begin until after the coming cold time. Abandoning the town any sooner would be unnecessary, and even foolhardy.
The group that assembled the next evening was small. Hieronymus smiled at his fellow journeyers as they appeared at the mouth of the main burrow. Ludwig always sought adventure. Annapurna didn’t want to be awakened in the middle of even partial hibernation by a people ground cruncher demolishing her burrow. Solomon was a born optimist and equated change with improvement. Meshach wondered aloud what kinds of birds inhabited distant places and speculated on the fun he’d have learning their calls.
Next to him stood a dowdy single sow. She had a fondness for long and unusual words and complex locutions. Because of this habit, her friends called her Sesqui and had called her by that name for so long that they—and even she—had forgotten her given name.
Hieronymus grimaced when he saw his sister. Having her along would make his job more difficult. One uncooperative prairie dog might be the undoing of the others. He was sure Esmerelda reckoned she could avoid the extra shift in the puppery by hitting the road. Yet somehow he was happy to keep her close, no matter what her reason or how sour her attitude. She ambled up and looked at the others nervously. Her decision to join the group caused a stir.
Sesqui confided her misgivings to Hieronymus in a whisper. “The presence of a prairie dog of such parasitic proclivities, immune as she is to peer pressure, may plague the progress of our proposed purpose.” 
“Indeed, she may prove to be a pain,” Hieronymus answered. “But we can’t choose for her, Sesqui. Maybe things will work out.”
Annapurna made no effort to keep her sentiments private. “Look,” she told Hieronymus within earshot of others, “I know she’s your sister, but cooperation is imperative on this journey. You know very well how much cooperation we can expect from Esmerelda.”
Solomon heard Annapurna’s comment and went to Esmerelda, who was chewing on an alfalfa stalk some distance from the others. “What sacred mission brings you to my side this time, Solomon?” she asked with withering indifference.
“To tell you I’m pleased you’ve chosen to join those of us leaving Little Left and to suggest you make known what I hope is your intention to cooperate with the others on a dangerous journey.”
“Just as I thought,” Esmerelda replied with a smirk. “At least a few of the others consider me a liability. Well, friend, know that I will prove myself the Queen of Cooperation. Sorry to hear they’re so foolish as to think I’d do anything to put them—or myself—at any unnecessary risk. Care for a bit of root?”
“Thank you but I had some wild spinach with Isobel a short time ago. And I think I should relay your message to Hieronymus as soon as possible. He may have something to say about it.”
“Of course. My brother, always the leader, always the wise one. Having grown up with him, it’s hard for me to think of him that way. Somehow he doesn’t seem suited for the role.”
Solomon took a step closer to Esmerelda so that his nose almost touched hers. “Please keep your opinion to yourself. Anything that undermines the confidence others have in him will endanger us all. Besides, if he sticks his neck out for you—” 
Before Solomon could finish his sentence, Esmerelda turned away from him and distanced herself from the group even more.
 “This is all of us then,” Hieronymus said and looked at each of his friends in turn. “We face a difficult journey and must stick together and look out for each other. We’re a team and I hope the beginnings of a new flourishing colony. Are you all ready?”
The others looked around at each other, nodding, and the rest of the colony crowded around them, touching noses and offering last bites of sweet prairie grass to fortify the travelers for the tough road ahead. Then, as they made for the north end of the town, a lone sow stepped out of her burrow, calling for them to wait.
“A new colony needs a storyteller, doesn’t it?” said Isobel as she caught up.
Hieronymus nodded. “It sure does, Isobel. Welcome to our jolly band.”
With that, the group left the town, many of them not quite as jolly as Hieronymus had suggested, for they all knew they were facing an unknown that almost surely included danger along the way.
With Hieronymus in the lead, they trotted to the west end of town and turned north at the creek. The group walked fast and stuck close to the water, weaving their way through willows, reeds, and bushes in single file. After an hour of travel, Hieronymus decided to have a look at what lay beyond what they could see amidst the thick growth.
“Stay hidden here while I see what lies ahead,” he told the others.
As he maneuvered cautiously up the wide creek bank, he caught a whiff of something quite unlike anything he’d ever smelled. He moved slowly in its direction and soon found himself at the edge of a square field full of round plants, most of which were about half the height of a prairie dog sitting on its haunches. They glowed a pale green in the moonlight and he plucked a leaf from one. He nibbled it a bit cautiously. It was neither sweet like berries nor bitter like roots, neither tough like pine needles nor mushy like the flat grainy pieces of food people leave behind. The texture reminded him of a large green leaf he once found in a hiker’s discarded lunch sack, something tasty enough to eat but not so tasty as to leave him craving more.
            He hurried back to tell his companions about his discovery. All except Isobel were eager to taste the plant. She feared it could be some kind of trap, or even poisonous.
“No sweat,” said Solomon. “I’ll stay here with Isobel if one of you will bring me a piece of the plant so I can taste it too.”
            Esmerelda scowled at him. “Aren’t you the chivalrous one, ready to serve and protect the sows.”
            Hieronymus frowned at his sister. “There’s no call for that kind of talk, Esmerelda.” Then to Solomon, “I’ll bring you a leaf.”
Left alone, Isobel and Solomon weren’t sure what to say. After an awkward minute of silence, Isobel spoke up. “Thank you for staying here with me. If something dreadful befalls our friends, I won’t have to return alone to Little Left.”
“Aw, I’m sure they’ll be fine. But if calamity did strike, would you really want to go back rather than continue on with me?”
“Gosh, I’ve never considered what I’d do if something horrible happened to us and I was one of only two survivors.”
“Me either, but I think starting another colony would be important.”
“I guess so . . . if possible, of course. It would depend on . . . well, you know.”
Solomon smiled. “Let’s assume we all make it safely to a place where we can build new burrows. What do you think you’ll miss most about Little Left?”
“Pups. No matter how nice a spot we find, it won’t feel like home until we have pups around. Why, we won’t even be a real colony until we have at least a second generation.”
Fixing Isobel in his steady gaze, Solomon paused as though to reflect. Then he replied in a near whisper, “Really?”
In the patch of leafy plants Hieronymus had found, each prairie dog took a turn standing lookout while the others tasted the strange round plants. When all had eaten their fill, they started back to where they had left Isobel and Solomon. Once there, Hieronymus presented Solomon with a leaf he’d brought back, as promised.
As they regrouped, Ludwig had an idea. “Won’t it be better to cross the creek instead of staying on this side? If we cross, we can get farther from the people whose plants those may be. Wouldn’t that be a good idea?”
Hieronymus gazed across the creek. “We’ll stick to this side and the thick cover for now. We can cross later if we have to.”
Ludwig opened his mouth and then thought better of it. It was clear to all who dictated tactics.
Ozymandias looked at Hieronymus and smiled, acknowledging his leadership, then leaned toward him and whispered, “When I get older I want to be like you.”
            “Then let’s both hope the prairie spirits make me worthy of your wish,” Hieronymus said as he returned the youngster’s smile.
Chapter 8
Corot in the Creek

Hieronymus led them north, always keeping the creek near. When clouds pushed in front of the moon, they traveled close to the water to make better time. When gaps in the cloud cover left the moon visible, they wove their way through the willows with a deep silence, not knowing what lay ahead.
By the time the first faint glimmer of dawn unfolded on the horizon, Hieronymus saw that all but Ludwig and Ozymandias were struggling to keep pace. “Let’s rest as soon as we can find a safe place.”
            “I wonder when will that be,” Esmerelda sneered. Sweat and dirt disheveled her normally well-groomed coat. “When the willows sprout ripe fruit and shelled almonds fall from the sky?”
            Hieronymus shot her a dagger look. “Now listen, I know you’re tired but—” 
“Esmerelda has a point,” Corot interrupted, stretching from haunches to head and stifling a yawn. “We don’t know how far we’ll have to go to find a safe spot or even which direction. Maybe we can fashion one for ourselves right here. Feel here, the ground around the creek is still soft from the early rains. We can dig out a depression and cover it with those reeds and sticks. By the time the sun is high in the sky we’ll have had enough rest to carry on.”
            Hieronymus surveyed the ground with a frown. Solomon ran a paw over his forehead and opened his mouth as if to speak, but Corot nudged his shoulder and he stayed quiet.
Hieronymus nodded. “Good idea. Let’s get to work. Half of you go with Corot to gather sticks. The rest stay here and dig with me.”
“Now you’re talking,” Solomon said as he began to dig at the black earth with his back paws. “At least we know how to do this, don’t we?” he joked, and the others laughed wearily as they joined him.
Twenty minutes later they had dug a shallow hole in the creek bank. Hieronymus worried it wasn’t deep enough, even covered with sticks and reeds, to afford much protection, but it was the best they could do. When the last of them had piled in and pulled the last stick over the opening, they nestled against one another like newborns in a puppery and fell asleep as only exhausted animals can.
Everyone except Hieronymus, that is. He lay sandwiched between two of his companions, wondering what he had gotten himself into. He knew he’d done the right thing in telling the others about the people measuring the land and what it might mean for all of them. But he hadn’t planned on becoming the leader of pilgrims and having to make decisions that would affect others’ lives. And he knew that some of those decisions might be life or death ones. It didn’t feel right for them to dump so much responsibility on him. Oh, it was flattering, perhaps, but not fair at all. Why couldn’t Solomon or Corot have taken the leadership role? Both were smart and serious. Why him? But he knew the answer, and as its impact seeped into his consciousness the way rain makes its way to the roots of weeds, he drifted into uneasy sleep. 
The sun’s hot breath beat down on their dugout. Hieronymus had been dreaming of a giant town that spanned as far as the eye could see. He smiled as he awoke, savoring the warmth and the proximity of nine other furry bodies before he realized where he was. With a groan, he lifted his head and saw Corot crammed between Esmerelda and Isobel. With a flick of his head Hieronymus signaled his friend to join him in rousing the others.
“Let’s go, friends,” he said.
They pushed back the sticks and scrambled out of the hole. The others took the cue and followed in short order. Only Esmerelda, now stretched out luxuriously, kept her eyes closed.
            “Aren’t you coming with us?” Corot asked.
            “I need to sleep a little longer,” she mumbled, turning over and hiding her head with her paws.
            Sesqui put her paws on her hips and peered down into the dugout. “Extend your somnambulism for such duration as you elect, Esmerelda. You can search for us at your leisure and with your customary diligence because we’re nigh upon absenting ourselves from this unpropitious position.”
“Exactly so!” Annapurna exclaimed.
Esmerelda snorted in derision but pulled herself out of the dugout as the others turned to leave.
            Soon the creek began to bend to the east, toward farmland and people. To continue on their northward course they’d have to cross and then leave the water behind. Hieronymus kept an eye out for a suitable place to get across. At a wide, shallow section of the water he saw a series of rocks, none more than a prairie dog length apart, extending from the near side of the creek to a partially washed up branch on the other. He led the group across, each of them springing easily from rock to rock and finishing with a bound over the branch to dry land.
All but Corot, who, bringing up the rear, had stopped to watch a muskrat grooming herself by the creek. In his rush to catch up, he didn’t notice the natural bridge his friends had made use of and none of them had noticed his absence. By the time he saw them on the other side of the creek and they saw he was not with them, he was well beyond the point where the bridge forged the creek. Worse, the creek had narrowed and the water was now both deeper and moving faster.
            Corot scanned the creek and saw a spot where it widened enough to make its sides shallow. He waded in and started across. He had gone only a few feet when the sandy bottom gave way to a declivity and his back paws started to tread water. Although weak, the current carried him along for several seconds until he bumped against a pointed rock. Jarred by the impact, he still managed to scramble onto the temporary sanctuary.
As he sucked in air, Corot saw a flatter rock toward the far side of the creek. It was a gamble, he knew. If he could get to the rock, he could wade the rest of the way over. “If I miss it, there’s no telling where I’ll end up,” he muttered. “But risk it I must.”
With a deep breath, he jumped as far as he could toward the other side and paddled with all his strength. For a moment, he headed straight toward his target, but then the water swerved to circumvent the solid obstacle in its path. As the creek whipped him around the rock, Corot lunged for it and grabbed a rough edge with one paw. Kicking furiously to counteract the force of the current, he pulled himself toward the rock and got his other paw on it. He struggled to shift toward the upstream side where the current became his ally and pushed him against the little island of stone.
Soaked and now shivering, he tugged himself onto it. Ignoring the frantic chirps of his horrified friends, he shook water from his coat, gathered his strength, and sprang toward safety. Hitting the water with a kerplosh, the desperate prairie dog disappeared under it for an instant before emerging and paddling with what might he could muster. His effort brought him to within a few prairie dog lengths of shore. Testing the depth with his hind legs, he felt sand under his paws and between his toes. He pushed against the soft bottom and, seconds later, clambered out of the creek and into the embrace of his relieved companions.           

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