DEFINING MORAL COWARDICE
THE RIVER PHOENIX
A short story by Mark Stewart
She hobbled along the pavement, her limping gait unnoticed by those she shared the sidewalk with. She was ashamed of the leprous tumour on her foot, of the disfigurement which set her apart from everyone else. Instinctively she knew the deformity, swollen and gnarled, would never heal; the cancer had penetrated too far, like an invasive root; and besides medical treatment simply wasn’t available.
Even in the crowded city she lived the life of an outsider, shunned by the busy multitude. There were no shelters she might have gone to for a night’s rest, nowhere that might have provided a break from the ever present dangers that the streets obliged her to contend with. She scavenged for food wherever she could find it. In the summer she searched for shade, in the winter for warmth; both were equally scarce.
She was used to being kicked, swatted away and spat at. She had seen others of her kind, too many to number, die beneath all manner of wheels, or simply collapse from hunger never to get up again. She had suffered the worst fate that can befall any parent and had outlived her children, both of whom had died from disease and pollution long before they had learnt how to fly.
Hers was a life lived at the very margins of the city: in gutters and on rooftops, on railings and on girders, each offering a precarious perch, a momentary respite from the never ending hunt for a safe place to rest. A grainy soot had long ago covered her wings and settled in her lungs; it stung her eyes and found its way between her feathers, a corrosive cloying presence as permanent and inescapable as the tumour had become.
She lived in a grey world devoid of colour. Even the great river, around which the city had formed like a malignant coral, was the colour of ash, as if it too were made of sullen clouds. The city’s smog hid the sky from view, the incessant fumes that issued from exhausts, chimneys and boilers depriving her even of that transient solace.
She might have lived a little longer had it not been for the wheels of the buggy that had crushed one of her wings. She had been pulled from beneath the contraption by the buggy’s owner, who had quickly tossed her aside. “Urgh! Dirty thing! Such a nuisance.” She could still feel the woman’s contempt and her cold fingers, which she’d wiped quickly on her coat after she’d tossed the pest away.
Now, weary and unable to go any further, she slumped to the pavement and closed her eyes. The sounds of the city faded and for a moment there was nothing. Then a stray shaft of sunlight fell upon her body and she heard the sound of leaves moving upon a bough, or rather upon a multiplicity of boughs, so many that it sounded as if the sea were nearby. A quiet tin-tabulation reached the thin membrane of her inner ear: the sound of her avian cousins celebrating the joy of being alive.
She didn’t need to open her eyes to see the unsullied sky, to know that its blue vaults lay above her, a cathedral space that reached to the very edge of the atmosphere. Her outstretched wings quickly caught the ascending currents, carrying her back to the nest where her chicks waited to be fed. At the top of the tree she found herself surrounded by a display of multifoliate greens, by every permutation that chlorophyll can conjure.
After she had calmed her offspring, she returned her gaze to the sanctuary wood. Below her a clear stream traced a path through a water meadow. As if obeying some ancient law of alchemy the water seemed to perform its own version of photosynthesis, transforming the elemental properties of sunlight into submerged ingots of gold, the transmuted photons gleaming on the river bed, each a miniature reflection of the distant sun. It was a treasure that no city banker would ever be able to plunder. At noon, the reflected light transfigured the entire wood, turning each trunk into a pillar of fire, and each of its winged denizens into a phoenix.
She shook her wings, which caught the light, casting their own iridescence upon the air. Her foot no longer hurt and when she glanced down she saw that it was once again whole and complete. In time, the dusk came and went while she settled in to sleep beside her dozing chicks. For the first time in her life, she was no longer afraid of the coming dawn.
In the city, on one of its many streets, no one saw the body of the pigeon as it was swept up by the rotating brushes at the front of the dust truck. No one saw it disappear from view, just as no one had noticed the bird while she had been alive.
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Mark Stewart, June 2015, All Rights Reserved
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Artist illustrations by kind permission of Britta Noresten:
COMPASSIONATE ACTION ON STEROIDS
The United States, Canada, Australia, France, Romania…The whole world. Today literally millions of compassionate humans across The Planet are marching for what is the greatest social justice issue of our time. Millions upon millions of humans are no longer sitting idle while slaughterhouses abuse, torture and mercilessly kill nonhuman animals.
Bless us ALL who are taking action/lending voice
Until ALL slaughterhouses are closed….
MARCH TO CLOSE SLAUGHTERHOUSES WORLDWIDE
JUNE 13, 2015
See video of the masses marching today in Paris, France (below)
Artist: Katharina Rot
THE OAK AND THE HEATHER
by Mark Stewart
He had been running for a long time, so long that he could no longer feel his legs. His feet were cut and blistered, ripped by a razor wire mesh of brambles and thorns, and his body heaved with the effort of breathing. The fur on his throat and belly, once the colour of bridal satin, was now a tangled mane, matted and coarse: and though the mange was not yet upon him the chase had reduced his tail to a withered stump. Warily, he looked back along the length of the stream he stood in, listening for the sounds of pursuit. The hunt had begun yesterday morning and it was now dusk. He looked down at the water flowing over his torn feet and took a few sips from the stream, trying to fill his empty belly just to abate the nagging hunger that cramped his stomach. The dogs were close but he knew they couldn’t follow his scent in the brook and that if he reached the old farm house he could hide under the barn. It was a dangerous ploy; if they trapped him under the boards his running days were over. But he had to rest and sleep. But first there was the road to cross.
As he left the stream he thought for an instant of the mothering den and of his brother. The few brief weeks he’d spent in the den had been the happiest of his life. That too had come to an end with the sound of barking and the blaring horns. After that he had never seen his mother again. Or his brother. From that day forward his life had become a hunted thing. He had learnt to be swift and fleet and to court the shadows, even on a summer’s day. And he’d come to understand that most humans were dull creatures, devoid of imagination; they showed in his field of vision as dark silhouettes – blacker than a raven’s wing – without the aurora that accompanied other animals, even the ones that wanted to eat him. But in the ways of death the human mind was cunning and determined: they tried to kill him with snares, with poison, with guns, with clubs and with knives. And often with dogs. They had no respect for leaf or bough, stream or rock. Or for any living thing, not even each other. Once he had seen them shoot one of his avian cousins – the bright green birds whose wings flashed like mirrors in the sun – from a tree, laughing as it fell. “The first one of the season! Bloody nuisance. What a racket they make.” The killers had not collected their trophy but had left it on the ground to rot. Later, he had sniffed at the tiny body but had not been able to bring himself to eat it. The meat seemed tainted somehow.
In his short life he had known only one safe place, the tall oak that stood with two others at the end of a long garden. Under its roots he had made a solitary but inviolate home. He knew better than to venture into the adjacent plot even though it contained a great many hens, albeit all in cages. That was a place of death. Instead he waited for nightfall and the single figure that would walk, without fail, down to the end of the garden to leave meat and other scraps not far from the base of the tree, always on a sheet of newspaper. Sometimes in mid-winter and in early spring there was a whole carcass to eat; but mostly it was just the scraps, though these were always offered in abundance. He should never have left there. His mistake, he now realised, was to venture too far from the oak, into the adjoining fields. That was where the hounds had picked up his scent; and like a treasured bone they had refused to let it go.
Like the chicken farm the road was a place where life came to an end. He often saw the bodies of other animals at the roadside: the badger, the hare, the partridge. Death here was swift, faster even than the hounds, coming upon the unwary with bewildering speed. He paused at the edge of the road, so tired he had to sit, even though he knew he really shouldn’t.
He felt a sensation of warmth beneath his foot and looked down to see a small pool of blood. He studied it curiously, the way he had once peered at that tiny emerald bird, as if he couldn’t quite believe it was real. He suddenly felt drowsy, more tired than he had ever been and knew with absolute certainty that the barn was beyond him. Better to wait here a while and sleep. Perhaps the dogs had lost his scent or were as tired as he was, and had given up. He knew that wasn’t true but right then all he wanted was to close his eyes.
He saw the lights in the distance far off down the road; in seconds the beams were upon him and then just as quickly gone again, like the hunting wings of an owl or hawk. Or so he thought. When he raised his head to look – and what an effort that required – the beams had come to a halt. A single silhouette walked towards him, emerging from the light, and for a moment he thought he was back in that safe place, sitting beside the oak, waiting for the scraps to arrive. And, yes, there was the familiar smell; if he could just get to the food he would be strong again, well enough to take up the run once more. He limped towards the piece of newspaper on which the food rested. When the cage door closed behind him he was too tired to care. Slowly he gulped back the food. He was asleep on the floor of the cage, his body curled around itself, before he had fully swallowed the last piece.
The man walked between the heather, tracing a path that only he knew. He was far from the nearest road, further still from the closest town or motorway. In his hand he carried a silver cage, which swung gently with the weight of its occupant. He didn’t have far to go now – just over that small rise – and smiled at the thought of what was to come. The gorse, with it endless capacity for snaring hooves and paws, made this poor country for a hunt, which meant it was ideal in every other respect. There was plenty of wild fowl and the many highland streams ran clear and clean. At the top of the rise he knelt and put the cage down. He took one last look at its occupant, a moment of farewell, and then lifted the door. There was an instant of hesitation and then the fox was gone. The man watched it bound over the heather until he could no longer distinguish its russet coat from the surrounding countryside. The first of the season, he thought to himself. May there be many more.
Mark Stewart, May 2015, All Rights Reserved
Republications approved as long as the entire short is republished with credit to author,
photographer and links to sources
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There can be no reasonable judgement deserved
for ignorance nor indifference,
while we are yet asleep,
However, as awakening increases,
therefore, accountability increases.
As you do as you will …
consciously choose to do no harm.
For Nonhuman and Human Animals,
For The Planet,
As awareness increases,
non-violent, compassionate action
as a priority.
Choose to do No Harm.
~ Gerean Pflug for “The Animal Spirits”
are amongst the gentlest of breathing creatures;
none show more passionate tenderness to their young when deprived of them;
and, in short,
I am not ashamed to profess
a deep love for these quiet creatures.”
~Thomas de Quincey