Macaloon Chapter 30

Theobald & Malcolm Meet
the Ja-Ja’s 

Theobald had never seen such a endless pond, one where he could not even view the other side.  He couldn’t have been more elated, although being elated as a rule made him nervous, such a condition was incautious.  Playfully, rolling over and over in the clear, invigorating water, amid the abundant trout he spotted, he couldn’t understand why the boars would poop into it.  Swimming along with Malcolm, out from the shore, he was as happy as ever he allowed himself to be.  Trees edged down to the pond, reeds and bushes rose at the water’s edge.  He couldn’t believe how peaceful and pleasant it seemed, much more so than his home in Feckly.  And there was no sign of boars.

“What do you think?” asked Malcolm, abruptly, “should we chance getting closer to see if there’s something to eat?’

Theobald felt guilty.  He had downed a small trout moments ago.  He knew that Malcolm was hungry and that the sight of foliage near the shore line was enticing him.

“Yes, I think we might chance it.  There’s a point just ahead.”

For a breath, Theobald’s old anxiety returned, but what could possibly harm them?  He could see no large animals, and anything larger than himself Malcolm could easily fight off.  Unless, of course, it was minks.  The thought made him shudder.  “Malcolm?  Let’s use caution.”

“Right,” he said, his eyes rolling up in the direction of his missing ear.  “I had that in mind.”

Malcolm started for the shore.  Following, Theobald realized that it might be safer if he led.

“Malcolm?”

“Yes?”

“Let me go first.”

“Alright.”

“Wait until I look things over.”

“Okay.”

Passing Malcolm, Theobald started for the shoreline, makinging for a small cove near the reeds.  He submerged.  The view of the wavering reeds below the surface was restful and he drifted through lilies until he could make out the edge of the shoreline.

Watching intently, he let himself float upward.  On the surface, all was quiet.  Large willow trees shaded the bank, waving gently in the breeze and Theobald could even hear birdsong.  Relieved, he turned to fetch Malcolm but Malcolm was right behind him.

“I don’t see anyone.”

“Nor do I,” said Malcolm, dipping his head down into the water to pull at some shoots.

Then Theobald heard laughter, not loud, and somewhere close by as Malcolm’s head emerged from the water which cascaded from his rack like a waterfall.

“Did you hear that?”

“What?” said Malcolm, chewing thoughtfully.

“Laughter.”

“Laughter?”

“Yes.”

“Not the wind?”

“No,” said Theobald, listening.  “I don’t think so.”  He couldn’t hear it now.  He sighed as Malcolm submerged his head again.   Wasn’t he was past panicking?  He must learn to relax.

There it was again.

Malcolm’s head resurfaced.

“I heard it again.”

“What?”

“The laughing.”

“You’re sure?”

“Quite sure.”

Malcolm didn’t stop chewing, but he was obviously thinking.  “The only thing that makes an animal laugh,” he said after a few breaths, “is another animal.  You only heard one?”

“I think so.”

“The same one?”

“Yes.”

Malcolm considered further.

“What do you think we should do?” asked Theobald.  He was uneasy, and wanted to slip back out into the depth of the pond.

“Wait to hear it again.”

They waited.  Then, clear as a crow’s caw, it sounded, a giggling laugh which vibrated through the trees then died away.

“It doesn’t sound unfriendly,” said Malcolm, still chewing.

“That’s what I thought,” stated Theobald.  “Do you think we should go see?”

“Well,” said Malcolm, thoughfully, “we’ll have to go ashore sometime, and since it, whatever it is, doesn’t sound threatening we could take a chance, I suppose.”

“That was my thought, but let me go first.”

“Right.”

Theobald started paddling for the bank, shaded by Willow trees and covered with Hazel bushes, a tree length away.  He could see no animal but again he heard the pealing laugh.  He edged his way through lily pads and his nose touched the bank.  He looked around carefully.

“What do you see?” Malcolm asked.

“Nothing.  You heard it?”

“Yes.”

“Should we look?”

“Yes.”

Theobald pulled himself up onto the bank, nudged by Malcolm.  He could hear the water dripping from Malcolm’s body as he lumbered up behind him.  Then, from behind a Hawthorn thicket up the slope of the bank under a large oak tree, the laughing came again.  Glancing up at Malcolm who nodded and proceeded towards the thickets, Theobald pulled himself forward, trying to keep pace.  Malcolm reached the bush, stretching his neck to peer over it.

Theobald hurriedly pulled himself after Malcolm, peering under the thicket.  A large, fat young Badger lay lazing under the oak tree.  Pre-occupied with sucking on the stems of a small plant, the Badger didn’t seem to have noticed them.  Taking his mouth from its stem, he stared off for a moment and then abruptly began to laugh.  As he laughed, he looked up and saw Malcolm looking down at him.  He stopped, then laughed even harder.

Theobald glanced up at Malcolm who seemed as perplexed about this behaviour as he was.  He wondered if the laughing and the sucking on the plant were related.

“Hello,” said Malcolm.

This threw the Badger into an even greater fit of laughter.  He was laughing so hard his breathing was laboured.

“Are you alright?” inquired Malcolm.

The Badger, rolling back and forth on his back, laughed uproariously.  Theobald glanced up at Malcolm who was patiently watching the Badger.  After some breaths, the Badger’s laugh dwindled to wheezing and then petered out altogether.  He peered up at Malcolm quizzically.  “Did Dorian send you?” he asked.

“No…” said Malcolm.

“No?”

“No.”

The Badger looked at them suspiciously.  “You not from the Yawlers, are you?”

“What are the Yawlers?” asked Malcolm.

In a sing-song voice, the badger sang out, “Rules, rules, regulations, specifications, specifications.  Rules, rules, regulations, specifications, specifications.”

“What are specnif..ications?” asked Theobald.

“Indeed.  What are they?” demanded the Badger with irritation. “A complete waste of time.  Do you realize,” he suddenly added, looking fiercely at them both, “that they want to eradicate the ja-ja with a yawl?”

“What?” asked Malcolm, politely, glancing at Theobald.

“They want to eradicate the ja-ja with a yawl”

“What is that?”

“Don’t know the ja-ja?” said the Badger, quite surprised.

Malcolm shook his head.

The Badger grabbed a clump of plant stems with his paw and ripped them from the ground.  “This is ja-ja.  Now ask me, what does the ja-ja do?”

Theobald looked at him.

“Go on, ask me.”

“What does the ja-ja do?”

“Ahhh,” said the Badger.  “And why is the ja-ja loved by some and hated by others.”  He smiled and waited.

“What does the ja-ja do?” muttered Malcolm.

“And why is it loved by some and not others?” asked Theobald.

“The ja-ja, my friends, is my other friend.  My consoler, my pathfinder, my comfort, my shelter… my everything.”

Theobald was now certain that the Badger had bumped his head against a tree.  These thoughts were plainly loco.  He would have to get Malcolm’s attention so that they could leave without irritating it, which would not be easy.

“The ja-ja,” continued the Badger, “turns the moon into the sun and the sun into the moon.  The ja-ja makes all my senses tingle as if…”  The Badger seemed to lose all thought.  His expression slowly changed from avid to wistful and he seemed to forget that Theobald and Malcolm were there.

Theobald wanted to leave quickly.  The Badger’s behaviour made him nervous.  He glanced up at Malcolm, but Malcolm seemed determined to communicate with the Badger.

“I was wondering,” said Malcolm quietly, “if you could tell us where we are.”

The Badger looked up at him, as if trying to remember who he himself was.

“Can you tell us where the pond ends?”

The Badger gazed vaguely at Malcolm for a breath, then looked over at the pond as though seeing it for the first time.  Then he pointed out to the horizon in the far distance.  “There.”

“It is far?”

“Oh yes, quite far, I should think.”

“Has anyone seen the other side?”

“Some say there is no other side.”

“What do you say?”

“I?  I say I already have one side, why should I worry about another?”

“That’s that a good point…ah, what is your name, by the way?

“What’s yours?”

“Malcolm.”

“They call me Benlow.   Here, Malcolm, try this.  I find this useful in contemplating questions such as yours.”  Benlow held a clump of the plant up to Malcolm who reached down and took the ends in his mouth.

“Malcolm…” said Theobald, alarmed.

Malcolm hesitated then started munching on the plants.

“No, no, no, just suck…” Benlow said, hurriedly reaching to retrieve the plants, but Malcolm had ingested and was now munching on the ja-ja.  Theobald watched, anxiously.

Malcolm swallowed, then stood quietly, contemplating.

Theobald noted Benlow watching Malcolm curiously with a half smile.  “I think we should leave, Malcolm,” he said.  “We have to find the others.”

Malcolm, staring thoughtfully about, as if trying to understand something, didn’t appear to have heard him.  “What’s supposed to happen when you eat the ja-ja, Benlow?”

“All becomes clearer.”

Malcolm seemed to be concentrating hard.  Then gradually, he smiled.  “I think I see your point, Benlow.  The ja-ja will help us consider… these matters furrrrrther….”

Benlow started to laugh.  Malcolm giggled, then started to laugh.  Theobald felt a chill.

*

Miranda, resting on a fallen oak, heard laughter in the distance.  Was it Malcolm?  Why would Malcolm be laughing?  Was it coming from the pond or near it?  If she followed the laughter would she find him and Theobald?  She waited, listening intently.  Again, the laughter echoed through the trees, through a small incline she was facing.

She started off the oak then stopped when she saw a short, hairy boar step out from a clump of Chokeberry bushes.  It hadn’t seen her and so she tried not to move or make any noise.  Then, another, younger boar emerged from the bushes and butted the older boar in the rear. She recognized them.  “Move on, move on,” the younger commanded.

The older boar, casually sniffing about, glanced at the young boar with a mild look of forbearance and sniffed about for something to eat.  Miranda remained still, hoping they would pass.   As she watched them, the young boar turned and spotted her.  He stared at her, trying to assimilate what he was seeing.  She stared back at him, not moving.

Miranda judged the distance from her to the boars to be about 1 tree, and the same distance from her to the tall oak behind her.  She could outrun them, she was sure, and make it there safely, but when to dash for the tree?  Now?

“Don’t move!” commanded the young boar.

Miranda sprang for the oak tree and was some distance up it by the time the boars reached it.

“You must accompany us now,” commanded the young boar, trotting round the oak, glaring up at her while the older boar watched curiously.

Miranda knew conversation was pointless.  She remained silent while eying the surrounding trees for an escape route.

“Answer me at once!”

Miranda stared at him.  She could see that her silence was angering the young boar but that the older one seemed unphased.

“Respond or the entire Federation of Grattie Brina will have you demised, do you understand?  Answer me.”

Miranda continued to gaze at him which seemed to incense him more than she might have imagined.

Glaring at her, the young boar shouted, “Bewley, run and get the others.  We must bring this animal to justice for its arrogance.”

“Excellent,” said the older boar, without moving, “I shall probably get a promotion for this.”

“Never mind, Bewley.  The Council will be expecting me, as leader, to report.”

“I think that I should be…”

“Bewley, don’t be insubordinate.  You stay and guard it.”

The young boar took a final haughty look at Miranda and trotted off hurriedly.  The older boar watched him until he was gone and then lay down.

“You can come down if you wish,” he said quietly.

Miranda said nothing, but watched him.

“You may not remember me.  I was with Boris when you came from Macaloon.”

Miranda watched him.

“You have a lovely name.  Miranda… hmmh.  “I’ve only met a fisher once before.  They’re rare here, but occasionally you can see one if you’re off the beaten track.  You need not fear me.”

“No?”

“There’s no advantage being boarish.  I’m part of the Federation, but an insignificant one.  I’ve managed to remain apart.”  Bewley smiled and bowed his head.  “I convinced them to appoint me ‘Brother Bewley of the Bold, Watcher and Protector of the Boundaries of the Federation of All Animals of Grattie Brina’ by suggesting that, as a precautionary measure, I should remain at large, to watch for any animals encroaching on the Federation.  I would also forestall any animals trying to claim our homeland until such time as Federation forces had been mobilized.  It hadn’t occurred to them that other animals might want to take their small, ruined section of forest, but after the idea had dwelled with them for some days, they sent me off as quickly as possible.  The only problem is that they don’t trust anyone, particularly themselves, and appointed two of us to protect the Federation—and to watch each other—so I spend my days with Boris, or like today with Bob Boar, who as you may have gathered is rather zealous in his duties.”

“Their behaviour is, ah…”

“Yes, it leaves a lot to be desired.  You may have noticed that there are no females in the Federation.”

Miranda hadn’t noticed at the time but upon reflection realized that she hadn’t seen any.  “No, I didn’t notice.”

“You may have noticed also that most of the boars are older.”

“There were young ones.”

“Yes, but they’ve come from outside the Federation.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Over time, as the males became more pompous and useless, the females banded together and left.”

Miranda was astonished.  Females, in her experience, always stuck with the male of the species.

“The males threatened and cajoled them and even pleaded, but the females had been treated so poorly for so long, and the males had behaved so… ah…”

“Stupidly.”

Bewley smiled.  “Yes, if you like.  I believe that the felling of the trees was the final indication to the females that they should leave.”

“Have the old boars always been like that?”

Bewley’s expression reflected sadness.

“No.  Originally, there was no governing force.  All the animals functioned in chaos—herded together, or not.  And each animal looked out for itself, and then for the herd.  Life could be cruel, although fair on the whole.  Boars were like any other animal.”

“Then, Belden began to talk about how much better life would be if one of the boars—being the largest animal—guided the rest, relieving them of having to make decisions about how we lived.  Somehow he got all to agree to let him make decisions for everyone.  Then he formed the ‘Committee For the Fulfillment of All Boars and Creatures Within the Realm of Grattie Brina’, consisting of his friends, and which at first resolved some issues and fractions that arose.  Then this committee began to ask for things, ‘to facilitate their deliberations’ such as having other animals forage for them.”

“Is that when they started bringing truffles?”

Bewley nodded.  “The Committee insisted on the finest that could be found.  Then they demanded that certain areas of the forest—lush, comfortable areas with plenty of shade and good clean running water—be set aside for their use only in which to conduct their deliberations.  Then they implied—quite insistently—that this process of deliberation would be much more productive held in private.  Though most animals didn’t like not being allowed to participate, this too was granted them.

Then, one day a proclamation was issued stating that its members wished to be referred to as ‘honourable’.  Most animals were disgruntled by this, but of course no one asked, “Why?  Why do you need to be called ‘honourable’?”  Bewley glanced at her.  “The idea of having to call any animal ‘honourable’ all the time is silly, don’t you think?”

Miranda nodded.  “Did they say why?”

“They insinuated that the boars on the Committee were finer boars than any others and that they deserved the respect of all.  Then someone noted that, though the Committee now had plenty of forage and a lovely home by the pond for its own use—used by the Committee and its friends—they were accomplishing less work.”

“This observation flew through Grattie Brina and soon the Committee was called to account.  They insisted that they were in the midst of work of such significance that if not fully realized ‘events of a calamitous nature’ would result.”

“Was that when they made the trees fall?”

Bewley nodded.  “Most of the other species began to see that they were being used.  So when the Committee demanded that forage be provided for all boars, the other animals sensed it would be best to leave.”

“Why did they make the trees fall?”

“As security.  They implied that dangerous animals could hide behind them.”

“Why would they do that?”

“They wouldn’t, if they had any sense.  It was a ruse to control the other boars.”

“How did they make the trees fall?”

“Woodchucks.  They explained to the woodchucks that a large group of beavers would be arriving to take up residence and push all woodchucks from the area.”

Miranda felt a twinge of despair.  “Woodchucks and beavers get along.”

“I know, but the boars managed to scare enough woodchucks to cut down a swath of trees under the pretext that if the trees were already cut the beavers wouldn’t stay.”

“That makes no sense.”

“I know, but it frightened the woodchucks.  Then, once the woodchucks had cut the trees, Belden and the others chased them away.”

“But it’s not healthy.”

“No, but Belden convinced them that basking in the sun is.”  Bewley sighed.  “I know.  It makes no sense.”

Miranda wanted to know about the animal bones, but was it was safe to ask?  “What about the bones?”

“The bones?  Oh yes.  They belong to those animals who expected to be protected by the boars but of course the Boars are too fat to protect anyone.  We think they were left by wolves.”

Laughter suddenly echoed through the trees.  Miranda looked sharply toward the sound.  It sounded like Malcolm.

Bewley frowned, “it’s the ja-jas.”

“Ja-jas?”

“Some badgers and a few other animals, I’m not sure whom actually.”

“Where do they habitat?”

Bewley glanced at her, curiously.  “You would better spend your time elsewhere.”

“That sounded like the laugh of my friend.”

“Oh, in that case, I know a shortcut.”

*

Manley’s nose felt moisture in the ground.  He dug faster.  He must be near the pond.  He paused then started burrowing up, breaking the surface almost immediately, and peering out into the brightness.  The shimmering beyond, he assumed to be water, much like that day in the Forest, when he first met Bernard, a day he remembered of fear and and joy.  He looked about quickly.  He seemed to be alone.  He was tempted to call out, but knew how foolish and dangerous that would be in a strange land.  “Malcolm?!” he yelled.  “Miranda?!  Theobald?!”

He listened.  There was no answer, but he could hear a rustling, some animal or animals moving in the bushes ahead.  He was about to dive back down into his tunnel when something bounded in front of him and he sniffed hare.  He sniffed two Hares, and heard them bounding back and forth, in and out of the bushes, one Hare squealing now and then.  Suddenly, they bounded out from the bushes, one being chased, almost running over its snout, then dashing off.  The Hare chasing tripped over Manley and stopped.

“What,” he shouted, “are you doing there?”

“Sorry,” said Manley, “Uhm, I didn’t mean to…”

“Didn’t mean to what?  Is there no place else for you to stand?  What were you doing there?  Watching?”

“Watching?” repeated Manley, dumbly.

“Watching.”

“Watching what?”

“A bit of rutting.  Like that, do you?  Watching?”

“Rutting?”

“Rutting.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know…’rutting’…”

“Don’t know rutting?”

“No…?”

“Are you being humourous?”

“Ah, no…”

“Rutting, my fellow, rutting.  You know, male and female, together, rutting.”

“Oh, I see,” said Manley, pretending to understand.  He didn’t like the way the Hare made him feel stupid, nor did he understand what he was talking about.

“Don’t you rut?”

“Ah yes, no, I haven’t.  Recently.  Or ever.  No.  I don’t think… so.”

“You don’t appear very rutty.”

“I’m sorry,” said Manley, puzzled, “I don’t know what…”

“You don’t know what ‘rutting’ is?”

“No… actually no.”

The Hare stared at him, twisting his lips, thoughtfully.  “‘Rutting’, he began to explain, speaking slower and more distinctly, “is when two animals of a species, such as two hares…” he examined Manley carefully, “or two… you are a…?”

“Mole.”

“Right… two moles, a male and a female, get together to make more hares or moles.”

“I see,” said Manley.

“Now of course, if you’re like me, you love rutting for itself.  The thrill of the chase, that moment when you see a female you want to rut with and you can see by the way she’s looking at you that she thinks that you’re very rutty, if you know what I mean.  You will find,” he continued, “that some animals just aren’t rutty at all, and some animals have an abundance of ruttiness.  I believe I’m one of those.”

“I don’t know,” said Manley, still wondering what the Hare was getting at.  “I mean, yes, I think you would be.”

“I’d say,” said the Hare, “and don’t get your leg twisted, but I’d say, from your appearance, you do not have an abundance of ruttiness, do you?”

“No… that is, I hadn’t thought about it.  Is it important?”

“Well, let’s face it.  What else is there in life if an animal isn’t ‘rutty’?”

“I don’t know,” said Manley, confused.

“Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Rutting liberates one.  It makes you feel good all over and…, oh my gosh, look at the tits on that one.”

Manley peered hard at the Hare.  He seemed to be staring at something.  “What about the female?”

“What?” muttered the Hare.

“What about the female?”

“What about her?”  The Hare’s tone was suspicious.

“Does she like rutting?”

“Of course, loves it.”

“I just asked because she was squealing.”

“Of course, she was squealing.  Never heard of squeals of delight?”

“No.”

The Hare shook his head.  “Pardon my saying so, but you seem remarkably immature.”

Manley knew he was being slighted.  “Yes, I might be.”

“Oh-oh,” said the Hare, his nose twitching.  “I smell foxy.  Bye-bye.”

The Hare bounded off in a single large jump.  Faster than it took Manley to hear the word “fox” and jump back down into his tunnel.  Which he did, promptly.

*

Malcolm stared at the bee buzzing at the yellow petals.  He’d never watched a bee before.  It was fascinating.  It’s wings seemed to move beyond sight, so fast that they almost stood still.  The bee would hover and then dart.  Hover and dart.  Hover and dart.  Or dart and hover.  Could a moose do that?  Hover and dart?  He stood poised for a moment, and sensed that he was hovering.  Could he dart?  He felt he could but perhaps it would be better if he didn’t.  He almost wished he were a bee.  What did know about them?  About their lives.?  Nothing.  He’d spent his whole life being a moose in the forest and he knew nothing about bees.  Bees probably knew more about him.  Even Melwin probably could… oh why did he have to think of Melwin now?  He was feeling so remarkably clear, so lucid and relaxed, why did he have to think about Melwin?  And yet—was he mistaken?—Melwin whirling in his brain didn’t seem to cause him any anger or anxiety.  He wondered what Melwin was doing at that very moment.  He wondered if Melwin had ever tasted the ja-ja.  Ha, ha.  No, most certainly not.  Melwin had probably never even heard of the ja-ja.  Ja-ja, ja-ja, ja-ja, what a lovely sound.  Ja-ja.

“Malcolm?  Malcolm?  Malcolm?”

“Theobald, Theoballlld.  Theooobald.  Theobaaald.  Theo.  What a lovely name.  So many ways to say it.”

“Malcolm?”

“Ah, Theo-bald, what is it?”

“Are you alright?”

“I told you, Theo-beo,  Ha!  Theo-beo, Theo-beo, do you like that name?”

“No.”

“Oh, well what about Beo-Theo?”  He could feel a giggle starting in his belly, but he suspected that Theobald wasn’t in the mood for laughing.  He stiffled it.  Why was Theo-beo so serious all the time?  What was it that made him so gloomy?  It was fascinating to suppose.

“Malcolm?”

“Yes, yes, yes, my hard-shelled friend.”

“Shouldn’t we be looking for Miranda and Manley?”

“Yes of course we should.”  Now, what was it he’d been thinking about?  An insect?  Yes!  Bees!  Yes.  Does Benlow know about bees?  Where was Benlow?  “Where’s Benlow?”  He asked looking down at Theobald.

“He said he was going back to his sett for a nap.”

“Ah, very wise.  Good time of day for it.”  Malcolm nodded and, feeling his head bouncing up and down, wondered about nodding.  Was it natural?  An odd sensation, nodding.

“Malcolm?  Are you alright?”

“Just nodding, Theo-beo.  It’s a peculiar sensation, don’t you think?”

“Malcolm?  Are you sick?”

Malcolm noted Theobald’s expression radiating anxiety, his poor frightened eyes fixated on him.

“Theobald, I am fine.  In fact, I feel more alive than I have for a very long time.  I think it’s something to do with the ja-ja.”

“You’re acting very peculiar.”

“It may be peculiar to you, but to me, Theo-beo, I am discovering new and exciting ideas and sensations even at this very breath.”  Malcolm exhaled and then inhaled again.  What an interesting sensation.  Air comes in, air goes out.  In, out.  In, out.  He glanced at Theobald to see if he was taking note.  He was, and still with the worried expression on his face.  “What should we do now,” he asked Theobald.

“We have to find Miranda and Manley.”

“Of course we do.  Or, alternatively, they need to find us.”

Malcolm marvelled at his lucidity.  With the ja-ja, everything remained clear and obvious, and surprising.

*

Manley tunnelled further.  He knew the fox wouldn’t be able to get at him, but he might be waiting, making it difficult to surface.  He was so near the pond and yet he couldn’t get there.  Maybe if he kept tunnelling through the moist earth, he would reach the pond and his tunnel would fill with water and he could float along into the pond.  What was he thinking?  Suddenly, he realized that the earth in front of him, as he was digging, was falling away.  There was another tunnel just beyond, a larger one.  He stopped dead still.  What animal lived there?  He sniffed and smelled badger.  He started to pull himself backwards as fast his hind legs would pull.

“Get out!” came a gruff voice from the badger’s tunnel.

Manley almost jumped back in surprise as a large badger’s head poked itself through the hole in the tunnel and peered at him fiercely.

“I’m… ah, sorry.  I… ah, tunnelled the wrong way.  Goodbye.”

“Stop!”  The voice was deep and implacable.

Manley stopped.  He wanted to shut his eyes.  He didn’t want to see those fierce eyes again.

“Come here.”

It wasn’t an invitation, more a command—but a badger, if he was going to eat him, wouldn’t command him, would he?  He would just do away with him.  Wouldn’t he?

Slowly, Manley moved forward, pushing his way through the hole into the badger sett.  He could smell the cleanliness of the sett, the bedding obviously freshly found.  He admired badgers and their habits, when they left him alone.  “What do you want?” he asked wearily.

The old Badger looked at him.  “What do you want?”

“What?”

“What are you doing here?”  The old badger’s tone was kind, belying its fierce expression.

“I was avoiding a fox.”

“Ah. “  The old Badger seemed to think for a breath.  “Well, you may rest here for a time.”

“Thank you, but I don’t want to impose.”

“It’s no imposition.”

Manley was confused.

“You’re a stranger here, am I correct?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

“Good?”

“Yes, I need an impartial opinion.  Where’re you from, by the way?”

Manley explained about Feckly Forest and the rats and the distance they had come across the mountains and the Plains of Vastidity.  The Badger was silent during Manley’s story, and for some time after he’d finished.  Then he shook his head sadly and said, “I hadn’t known that, beyond the fields and forests and ponds of where I live, there were other places, though sometimes I may have had sleep thoughts about them.  What you say intrigues me.  For the first time in my life I have the inclination to see other places.  Our own home is not what it was when I was young.  There have been many changes, not intelligent ones, I find.”   The Badger was silent and though Manley found the silence uncomfortable he did not attempt to speak.

“Animals are queer in their various ideas of themselves, don’t you find?”

Manley nodded, though he wasn’t sure if this applied to all animals.

“It is my belief that the behaviour of the animals here will one day bring about their destruction.  The ideas they have are quite impossible.  Some spend inordinate amounts of time grooming themselves and thinking of their appearance, more than normal care would require, it would seem.  Some try to acquire more forage than they can actually eat.”

“What do they do with it?”

“That’s a good question.  I believe they store it.  And in many cases it rots before they can consume it.”

“That makes no sense.”

The old Badger nodded.  “Some try to extract more from their surroundings than they give back.  They suck the trees dry of sap, they graze the grass down to the ground, they leave no seeds for future growth.”

Manley was astonished.  Surely the old Badger was exaggerating.

“Some animals think nothing of defecating and urinating where animals eat and drink.  One did so, in fact, down the entrance to my sett only a moon ago.  Some animals,” he continued, “spend all their time rutting or thinking about rutting, or about how rutting makes them feel.  Other animals believe that they should be dominant, that all other animals should receive instructions from them—which sounds like your rats.  One species spends all its time making rules for all the animals in the Forest—rules which are impossible for the other animals to understand—and then wonders why they aren’t obeyed.  And some animals believe that there is an animal, one great animal who lives in the sky—or in a tree or somewhere above us—and who has the power to do anything he wants.”

Manley was now alarmed.  If what this Badger was saying was true, this place was far more dangerous than Feckly Forest, even with the Rats.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Manley nodded.

“Am I batty or are they batty?”

“They are.”

The old Badger smiled.  He seemed relieved, Manley thought.  “Good, I could tell you were intelligent.  I feel much better now.  Tell you what, let’s rest and then we’ll find something to eat.”

“I’d like to but I’m looking for my friends.”

“Ah yes, of course.  Well, let’s rest and then go find your friends.”

“Yes, all right.”

*

Miranda climbed the hill faster than Bewley who was wheezing heavily as he followed her up through the trees.

“Just ahead,” he gasped, “there’s a clearing with a view”.

Miranda darted ahead, coming into a bright, sunlit, rocky clearing as the sun was disappearing behind the trees behind her.  She could see over the still pond below, its other side far in the distance.  It was vast.

“Which way are the boars?” she asked Bewley as he finally joined her, gasping.

“Back the way we’ve come, the other side of the trees.  Just down below is one of the places where the ja-jas meet.  It’s forbidden of course by the Federation.”

“Ja-jas?”

“Those who suck the root of the ja-ja plant.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“It makes them giddy.”

“Is that why it’s forbidden?”

“If you’re giddy it’s hard to take Belden and Bracken seriously, isn’t it?”

“It’s hard even if you’re not.  Which way?”

“Straight down.”

Miranda started down the rocky slope, bounding from rock to rock.  As she glanced back, watching Bewley trying to negotiate a trail downward, she thought she caught a whiff of something familiar on wind, like Wode Dog.  Could there be Wode dogs here?

*

Manley listened.  The old badger was wheezing in his sleep.  Manley liked him well enough but suspected that the old Badger would slow his search for the others.  It was impolite to leave without telling him, but he knew that if he woke him, the badger would insist on coming.  Manley crept down the sett, finding two grubs which he hungrily devoured.  Then he heard snoring nearby.  Creeping down another tunnel, he discovered a young, fat badger asleep in another sett.  He started off again and kept moving until he glimpsed light at the end of the tunnel.

Emerging cautiously, he could sense no sign of danger.  He was on the edge of a dell, a short distance from a clearing.  It didn’t seem familiar, so he must have travelled some distance.  He tried to calculate in which direction the pond lay, but had no sense of it, except that the sun was now beginning to set in the trees behind him.  Was it in the opposite direction, he wondered, remembering their first night in Grattie Brina?  Scenting no one about, he started up what seemed to be a slight incline.  He considered tunnelling but the ground was beginning to turn rocky.  Anxious, but able to travel quickly through the pine and fir trees, he resisted stopping, and reached a clearing with a small brook which ran down the incline through the clearing.

He could see no one in the clearing, and he was so thirsty, so he darted forward and drank from the brook.

“That’s not your water, you know.”

Manley smelled fox before he looked up.  Was that blurry figure, a short distance away, a fox?  He glanced back to the trees.

“You wouldn’t make it in time,” said the Fox quietly.

Manley felt tired, so very tired.  It was strange, in a way, how he had come so far only to be dispatched by a fox, but at least he wouldn’t be anxious any longer.  He would be at peace.

“Come with me,” said the Fox gruffly and started off, and Manley obediently followed.

The Fox led him back down the incline, along the brook to a bramble thicket.  Coming into which, Manley could hear terrified squawking which brought back his anxiety.  Through the thicket they went, coming out on the other side to a small pond in the brook.  He scented ducks and could hear them swimming about, panicked.  Then he scented foxes.  What were they doing?  He scented blood, and knew then that the foxes were killing the ducks.  From the duck squawks, he knew there were many of them.  He was horrified.

“Follow me,” said the Fox beside him.  As they walked the scent of duck blood—duck death—became overbearing.  Abruptly, Manley walked into a pile of duck bodies.

“Awhhhh,” he cried.

“Ha, ha,” laughed the fox.

“Tell them to stop,” he shouted.

The Fox stopped laughing.

“Tell them to stop!” Manley yelled.

“What?”

“Tell them to stop.”

He could hear the Fox say, “stop” and the splashing subside.

The duck squawks abated.

“What’s going on?” asked one of the foxes.

The Fox beside Manley said, “He wants you to stop.”

“Why?”

One of the foxes, with a duck hanging limp by the neck in its mouth, came up close to Manley, gaping at him.  The scent of the duck’s blood sickened Manley.  “Why?”

The Fox leaned over to Manley and said, “they want to know why.”

Manley was angry.  He understood that animals killed each other to survive, that was to be expected.  What wasn’t expected was these foxes killing many ducks.  Why? What they did think they were doing?

“They want to know ‘why’?” asked Manley angrily.  “Are they so stupid as to ask ‘why’?”

All the foxes were silent.  The ducks had stopped squawking.

“Any animal who kills another animal,” said Manley, “without dignity is a coward.  Any animal who gangs up with others of his species to kill is a weasel.  Any animal who enjoys killing the animal is… ah, another weasel.  Does that answer your question?”

The Fox who had brought him, stepped close and said softly, but firmly,”don’t ever call us weasels.  When you call us that, you shame us.”

“Then act like foxes.”

“Who is he,” yelled one of the foxes, “to tell us how to act?  What is he anyway?  Some kinda rat with a big snout?”

“I don’t think,” said the Fox, “that we need to resort to insults.”

“I’m a mole and where I come from,” said Manley, glaring out, “the foxes chase the ducks one on one, and only when they’re hungry.  If you continue in this manner for fun, one day the word ‘fox’ will mean the same as ‘weasel’.”

Manley knew that his words were taunting but the foxes were silent.  “What you’re doing,” he continuted, “shows no respect for other animals.  I’m aware that you have to eat, but at least do it with some dignity.”

He could hear one of the foxes step forward.  “I wouldn’t mind tucking you away.  And I think I could do it with dignity.”

As all the foxes laughed, Manley resigned himself to die.  What did he have to lose?  “Is the fox the wiliest of all animals?  Or the most cowardly and stupid?”

“Who are you?” asked the Fox who had brought Manley to the thicket, appraising him.

“I’m Manley Mole.  Who are you?” Manley asked defiantly.

“Where do you live?”

“Nowhere, at the moment.”

“Where did you live?”

“In a Forest.”

“Which one?”

“One many days travel from here.”

“I admire your bravery.”

Manley was surprised.

“And even though you do speak with wisdom, I’m afraid we must make an example of you, or other animals will think they can insult us as well.”

Manley wondered if he could out-fox them.  “If you must dispatch me, could you do it near the pond?  I have no fear of dying but I would prefer it be somewhere beautiful.”

“Hmmm,” mumbled the Fox, surprised.  “What do you think?” he said to the others, “shall we vote on it?”

“Wha differnce oes it make?” grumbled a fox with a duck in his mouth.

“Shall we vote on it?”

Manley heard a murmur of assent.

“All those against…?”

Two foxes brayed ‘nay’.

“All those for…?

Manley was heartened to see the other three howl out in his favour.  Now, he had only to think of an escape between here and the pond; or maybe something would distract them.

“You have your wish,” said the Fox, “my name is Fenwick, by the way.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise.  Shall we set off?”

“Yes.  Which way?”

“It’s alright, I’ll lead.”

Fenwick set off at a trot back through the thicket and up the hill along the stream.  Manley, followed by the other foxes, struggled to keep pace.  Strangely, the thought of death was only momentarily chilling.  For the most part, he felt hopeful.

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