Monday 19 February 2024

SHORT STORY: The Natural Order of Things

This tale can be found in Jared Woods' most recent publication, Licking the Bottom of the Love Jar. It is a collection of short love stories which are as magical as they are upsetting. You should totally get it! Available on Amazon paperback and Kindle!

Nobody noticed Jordan sneak out of the warren on the first night. Such a triumph fed into an arrogance that begets sloppiness. His second time was clumsier, and faint noises disturbed the slumber of his little sister, Cashew. She held no secrets the following daylight, whispering her witness to Kale, who, in turn, notified the elders.

The rabbits were sceptical. Jordan was never one for dishonesty, while Cashew had a reputation for dreaming the wildest of visions. But when Jordan crept from his bed on the third night and bounced out the hatch, the fake snores of the seniors ceased as they sat up, dismayed by the truth of the tale. Their anxious murmurs spoke over each other, amplifying in volumes until they roused many newborns, crying in the dark from confusion.

It was decided that Daddy Walter and his eldest son, Basil, would track Jordan through the forest to reveal the meaning of his strange behaviour. Granny Ginger said she had a bad feeling about this, but she had a bad feeling about everything. So, with great caution, father and firstborn left the protection of their home to venture out into the nocturnal reflection of Clayfield Woodlands.

Rabbits know rabbit tracks, and they pursued Jordan's shallow prints pushed into the soft dirt. Owls interrupted the silence as beetles scattered aside, the black world seemingly aware of these unusual midnight hoppers. Daddy Walter kept up a speedy start-stop motion, sprinting beneath the moonlight into the shadows faster than most eyes could detect. Basil matched the pace, but he was skittish, ears darting in erratic directions, unsure where his focus would be the smartest to fall. Luckily, the trail did not lead them far away, the two rabbits hopping up Eden Hill, slipping behind some bushes and then trying their best to make sense of the horror before them.

There was Jordan, perched on the top of the hill, gazing upwards at the constellations. But he was not alone. His excited speech and laughter were shared by a snake many times Jordan's size as they both pointed out star patterns and agreed on their significance. Walter and Basil were frozen stiff with their ears flat against their bodies, unequipped to register this scene of unimaginable converse. But when the snake's tail gently slid around Jordan's shoulders, Basil's fight mode initiated, and he bounded forward, baring as much of his incisors as his gums would allow while growling in a surprisingly deep tone. The snake's head whipped back to note this incoming attack and then zipped away into the bushes, the shimmer of its moonlit scales gone in an instant.

Basil embraced Jordan, thankful to the ancestors for his safety. Jordan awkwardly reciprocated the hug, feigning appreciation, but when his eyes met his father's, he understood he had been caught. The three returned to the warren and rested without a word.

Between sunrise and breakfast, Basil was already exaggerating his heroic story as one for the Book of Legends, and the children crowded him with lights in their pupils. Daddy Walter used this opportunity to call Jordan aside and quietly scolded him for his foolishness. Without saying as much, Daddy Walter made it clear that snakes and rabbits were not to mingle under any circumstances, as snakes were their deathly enemies, and other such relationships would disrupt the natural order of things. Jordan took the words well and thanked his father for the wisdom. The two hugged, and Daddy Walter was satisfied to write the episode off as teenaged curiosity, a characteristic he himself was known for at that age.

Three nights came and went without incident, and routine sleep was enjoyed by everyone. However, on the fourth, Jordan carefully rolled from his patch and inched his paws to the exit. It may have been a clean getaway too, but in his excitement, he brushed a stone from the wall, softly pattering to the floor. Jordan froze to gauge any stirring, then moved onward when the chorus of breathing did not waver. But like before, Cashew's dreams betrayed Jordan, and this time, she went straight to wake the adults to report what had happened.

Upon Eden Hill, Jordan and Crowley, the snake, held one another, expressing their emotions through tight squeezes, confessing how much they had missed these starlight moments over the previous days. They reminisced humorously about their first chance meeting, when Jordan was foraging for gazanias and had accidentally slipped down Crowley's burrow, facing fangs, certain he was a goner. Instead, Crowley was sympathetic, and he helped Jordan out to freedom. The unlikely friendship quickly evolved into a romantic connection, a love they both yearned for, yet a love neither family would understand. The recent exposure had threatened the affinity they were only beginning to explore, and they agreed to be extra vigilant with their future endeavours. But this concurrence had just as soon proved futile, as Daddy Walter loudly interrupted the exchange, sending Crowley darting out of sight again while Jordan trembled with guilt.

When Daddy Walter's teeth dragged Jordan into the warren by his ear, the whole household was awake and pacing. Daddy Walter was enraged, announcing that their son was engaging in interspecies relationships with a snake, of all creatures. A tirade of fury was discharged upon Jordan from the male rabbits while his mother cried tears of unprecedented sorrow. Jordan was overwhelmed at first, but the ceaseless offence boiled into a frenzy of his own, and he shouted that he was in love with Crowley, "love is love!", and they were destined to be together. Reactions varied from condescending laughter to declarations of nausea until Daddy Walter sent Jordan to bed to await his discipline in the morrow. Only the newborns slept that night.

The minute daylight broke, Daddy Walter took Jordan to the Head Bear, retelling the sinful story with disgust. Head Bear nodded slowly, occasionally looking towards Jordan, whose gaze drooped low from the weight of shame. After brief contemplation, Head Bear agreed that this was an outrageous crime against Clayfield Woodlands and would require additional council attention. He called an emergency meeting the following afternoon, and many animals turned up, having caught the gossip from the wind, wanting to affirm such an abomination firsthand. Both Jordan and Crowley were in attendance, and they shared distressed glances. Crowley's scales displayed fresh streaks of injury where his parents had let him know their standpoint.

The council heard the tale, and each member took their turn to express disbelief in a relationship so disgraceful and repulsive. Suggestions for a punishment ranged from beatings to exile, but Clements Jackal spoke with compassion, asking the council to consider the adolescent ages while underhandedly implying that parental neglect may be a factor. Jackal suggested a form of experimental conversion therapy, where a suitable variation of virtuous education could realign these children to societal norms. Certain representatives felt this was too lenient, but Head Bear appreciated the hopeful tenderness of the idea, and he outlined a program.

Jordan and Crowley were assigned to opposite sides of the forest to undergo their respective treatments. These lessons mainly comprised of senior members from their species who emphasised traditional values and folklore myths, teaching these misguided youths about the importance of continuing bloodlines. Jordan yielded to the disciplines rather quickly. Crowley was more stubborn, but as the months rolled by, the regular reports were positive, and the frantic chitchat died down until the woodland had largely forgotten the matter. Progress became so promising that Jordan was allowed weekend visitations back at the warren, and the relief from his absence overpowered the scandal, so much so that even Daddy Walter was happy to ignore the past and welcome his son home.

That was until the fateful evening when a curious fawn overheard some birds chirping that they'd glimpsed the infamous interspecies duo snuggling in a cave by Stellar River. The fawn snooped to the region, stunned to verify the rumour. She darted away to deliver the word despite the couple's cries for confidentiality. Jordan and Crowley knew there was no lawful way around this, and they made a break to escape the forest forever, only to be caught by a command of racoons sent to retrieve the sinners. A trial was called immediately, and the whole of Clayfield Woodlands dropped their business to attend. Even the nighttime critters were woken by the clamour and forced their groggy bodies to the gathering. The fury of the council was blind to any sympathies, and Head Bear was quick to accept a new ruling: the first Clayfield death sentence in over two centuries.

Public response was mixed. Some were enthusiastic about a verdict they deemed overdue since the initial hearing, but an underground opposition also grew in urgent volume. It came to light when a tortoise and beaver protested the judgement by publicly kissing in front of the sacred Five-Finger Tree. These two were imprisoned, but their stunt triggered a mass reaction, where creatures of all kinds marched through the shrubbery, chanting that it was an individual's right to love whichever species one chooses, for "love is love", and it was nobody's business. Acts of defiance were becoming increasingly courageous, with widespread displays of interspecies affection and even an incident of a weasel spending a night in a woodpecker's nest, helping to warm her newly laid eggs.

Endless council meetings took place, desperately seeking a way to cease this immoral hysteria, but each suggestion was rejected as either too extreme or impracticable, while every session was inevitably interrupted by loud demonstrations, calling for acceptance where "love is love is love is love". The most significant disruption came when Clements Jackal declared her resignation from the council and was soon seen on the other side, fighting for the freedom of all relationships.

What appeared as an irresolvable conflict ultimately ended with the worst of tragedies. Distracted by the strife, everyone ignored the warnings from neighbouring woodlands and were not equipped when the human machines tore through their homes. Trees that once kept families safe were demolished in a swoop, soil upturned into inhabitable sludge. Creatures scattered to the outskirts of the forest. Many risked their luck and relocated to yonder lands. But even more were killed. Both the iconic kissing protesters, the tortoise and beaver, were killed. Clements Jackal was killed. Jordan was killed.

During the final days of the Clayfield Woodland massacre, Daddy Walter located a shelter within a cave by Stellar River. Having long lost his family, he was appreciative to find Head Bear's familiar face hiding here too. At first, their shared trauma prevented any conversation, but as the sun fell away and the monstrous machinery hushed their violent upheaval for the day, Head Bear found some words.

"You know, it pains me to admit this," he said. "But it was not until the plunder of our forest that I realised every creature—you, me, the birds, the snake, the boy—every creature was part of the same singular entity. Even in our differences, our unity made us the forest."

Daddy Walter slowly nodded in agreement. "I understand. We were so absorbed by our customs that we became our own enemy. We forgot that we were Clayfield as one. And now everything is gone."

The two sat listening to the water gushing by, punctuated by several birds and insects calling out for help, the night quieter than it had ever been. Finally, Head Bear laid back, exhausted and drifting to sleep, offering one conclusive mumble.

"I suppose those crazy kids were right in the end. Love is love. And love is always better than hate."

Daddy Walter swallowed the dry lump of loss in his throat as the warning of a tear stung his eye. He echoed the sentiment.

"Love is always better than hate."

This tale can be found in Jared Woods' most recent publication, Licking the Bottom of the Love Jar. It is a collection of short love stories which are as magical as they are upsetting. You should totally get it! Available on Amazon paperback and Kindle!