|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian
Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims
-- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for
short. But SCABS or no, the mysteries of interpersonal relations
Go here for more information on the setting.
by Phil Geusz
©2002 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
It was four in the morning, and I was up and restless. This was probably due to a bad case of nerves, compounded by being in a strange place many miles from home. Scallion's house was big and imposing, not at all like my cozy little converted janitor's closet back at the Shelter. He'd inherited the home from his parents, and they from their parents before them. Despite the fact that I was undoubtedly a welcome guest, I felt a little odd as I wandered up and down the hallways, trying to compose myself enough to sleep. I'd testified before the United States Congress that day about my experiences with the Lapine Colonies, and garish memories of the bright TV lights and staring, predatory political eyes were still coursing almost unchecked through my head. Ever since yesterday morning I'd been trembling slightly; my body refused to slow itself down at all, no matter what my mind did to try and reassure it. Tonight, I would address a local church group that had done a lot of good work on SCABS-related issues and I would have to thank them, and tell them how much more work there was still to be done. Then, a few days later it would be a PTA, and then a Rotary club, and then five other groups spread out over the next two weeks before I returned to my home and my clients and the Shelter Hot Line once more.
Even worse, in another two months the whirlwind would begin all over again, this time with me camped out at Phlox's place in Nebraska. And it would go on and on and on, until I'd either won my fight in support of Representative Carmike's Colonies Reorganization Act or the endless strain had broken me once and for all. My backers had asked for even more speeches and the like from me, and had offered large sums of money in travel expenses. They had even offered to pay for a full-time traveling companion, or professional counseling if that was what I needed it to help deal with the stress. I didn't think that my speeches were worth all that much, but Scallion had sat in the gallery today in the House of Representatives and claimed that I'd "knocked them dead". The Lapine Justice Foundation had called to let me know that their e-mailboxes were bulging already. Even the Rodent Scabs of America had sent me private mail suggesting that we join forces; while rodents didn't have socialization problems of the same magnitude that we lapiform Scabs did, they had their Colonies too, and wanted to make sure that their case was heard.
Sure enough, just as promised I was living at the center of a whirlwind, and just as equally expected I wasn't enjoying the experience even just a little bit. I wanted a drink, in fact, and I wanted one quite badly. However, I didn't go looking for the liquor cabinet. If I started drinking every time I got nervous, what with how things were shaping up, I would turn into a hopeless alcoholic in nothing flat. Instead, I sighed and resigned myself to a sleepless night. It wasn't my first, and it surely wouldn't be my last, I told myself. Certainly not if I took my new role as a SCAB advocate seriously.
This being mid-December, dawn was still a very long way off. My fellow Watership Downer and I had been sleeping together in companionable rabbit-fashion, and all of my belongings were shut up in the bedroom with him. I didn't want to disturb my friend by knocking things about while trying to hunt down my laptop and power cables and other impedimenta in the darkness. Scallion had been generous enough in allowing me to stay at his place, and in volunteering to drive me here and there while I was in town. It would be ungenerous of me indeed to repay him by disturbing his rest. He was a lucky rabbit indeed, was Scallion, to still be able to drive. So very few of us could.
There were pictures spread all over the walls of Scallion's main hallway, pictures that spanned four generations of the Napleton family. I scanned them idly, and amused myself by trying to pick out which one had been Scallion before his big change. It wasn't very difficult, even though the Napletons had seemingly been one of those families who sent generation after generation to the Navy. The photographs were arranged in chronological order, I was able to determine after a few minutes of study. The eldest Napleton's wedding photo featured a painfully young officer in full dress whites and sword marrying an equally youthful bride. Later pictures showed him flying a Navy biplane and serving aboard what looked to me like the USS Ranger. His pictures vanished quite abruptly about the time that he switched to a monoplane, and I had to wonder what had happened. There were no wartime photos of him, as one would expect. Had he perished in an accident just before the war? Or of illness, perhaps? Had he died at Pearl Harbor, on the very first day of fighting? I would never know.
He'd left children behind him, however, children who'd grown up and presumably would have made their father proud. His only son had already been in the Naval Academy at the time of his father's death; the boy's first class photo was dated 1939. The younger Napleton had served exclusively on the heavy surface-warfare ships, judging by the pictures. In one of them, he was standing by the 'A' turret of the USS Wisconsin, in another he was posing proudly in front of a shipboard twin-missile launcher that looked to date from the late fifties. He'd aged gracefully but died young; either that, or he hadn't considered his post-Navy life worth memorializing in photographs. The very last picture of him was of a shrunken husk of a man in civilian clothing, perhaps suffering from cancer, saluting the ensign aboard a recommissioned and rejuvenated Wisconsin.
Scallion, whose former name was Peter Napleton the Third, I gathered from his Naval Academy class photos, was this man's son. His brother became a Marine, according to the photos. He'd been a large, proud, almost swaggering man. This Napleton had made Colonel and then also vanished from the photo record. As near as I could tell, Stephen Napleton had been a lifelong bachelor. But Scallion, however...
I inhaled sharply despite myself at young Peter's wedding picture, though it shouldn't have come as any surprise to me that a young Naval officer should marry. Scallion's wife had been very beautiful indeed, and the couple's love for each other seemed to radiate out of the picture like some sort of radio signal. The young Mrs. Napleton's eyes absolutely glowed, and Peter stood tall and proud with his father beaming benevolently over his shoulder. Just a few feet down, there was a picture of a baby, and then some shots of a dark-haired young man named Peter Napleton the Fourth --
"Hello," Scallion's voice said from just behind me. I started involuntarily, then turned around and greeted my host.
"Hello," I replied in kind. "I couldn't sleep, and..."
Scallion smiled, then shrugged. "It's all right, I suppose. These pictures are out here to be looked at; some of them have been hanging for more than a half-century. This wall is a family tradition."
I nodded respectfully. "Is that the old Ranger?" I asked, pointing at one of the earliest pictures.
"It is!" Scallion agreed, his smile widening. "You have an excellent eye. My grandfather was in her initial air group."
I nodded again. "And your father served aboard battlewagons?"
"Yes," he replied enthusiastically. "He was a plankowner of the Wisconsin, in fact, and eventually commanded 'A' turret."
Then I pointed at a picture of Scallion himself, standing on the bridge of an underway replenishment ship. There was a lot of gold braid on his cap, and I suspected that he was in command of far more than just that one single vessel. "And you, you worked in Fleet Logistics."
Scallion grinned a little lopsidedly. "Someone has to deliver the groceries," he pointed out. "Mostly, I commanded a desk in the Pentagon."
"Mostly, maybe," I agreed, looking back at the picture. "You never told me that you'd been married."
Suddenly my friend's smile was replaced by a mask of pain, something that I'd never, ever seen before. Normally, Scallion was one of the most fun-loving people whom I'd ever known. Even SCABS hadn't dampened his enthusiasm for living and laughing and playing; he was more of an overgrown child than an adult. In fact, it had probably been his basic optimism and sunny disposition more than anything else that had persuaded me to join the Downers and participate in their silliness. Now, however, his face was cold and empty. The look didn't suit him, I decided, didn't suit him at all. "The Flu," he whispered. "It was the Flu. She died."
"I see." Looking back at the wedding photo, I could still feel the love that was emanating from it. It was clearly time to change the subject. "Are you ready for breakfast yet? I don't know about you, but I'm starved." I wasn't at all hungry, of course, but it was the only thing that I could think of to say to relieve the tension.
The little brown lop cheered up immediately. "Yes!" he declared, rubbing his belly through his kid's pajama shirt. It had pictures of fire trucks printed on it, and I wouldn't have been caught dead in the thing. But it was exactly the correct size for my friend and suited him perfectly. "Yes, of course! I'll whip us up a salad, and you can check your e-mail. I'll bet that it's still pouring in!"
It was indeed still pouring in, as was perhaps to be expected, and Scallion thoughtfully brought our meal into the bedroom for us to share while I slogged through my inbox. Some of the mail was from hate groups, of course, and more of it was mere spam. Most, however, was from people whom I'd never heard of, congratulating me and encouraging me to keep on fighting the good fight. "i've never seen a rabbit speak out before," one particularly touching letter said. "it must be very hard for you to get up in front of everyone. i live in a colony now, and will probably never leave. they treat so many of us as animals, even me when i've gone feral. don't they understand that i still have a soul? i have a doctorate in english. i am human too. i want more than just a warm hutch, even when i can't think." The fact that the letter was written in all small letters spoke volumes; it meant that whoever had done the typing was probably a full-morph or near to it, someone who could not handle a typewriter keyboard properly any longer. Probably, in fact, the sender had picked the message out one letter at a time with a pencil in his or her mouth. I had to type that way too, due to my forepaws, though at least I could sit comfortably at a desk while doing so. It was perhaps a very small blessing, being comfortable while I typed with my mouth, but a blessing nonetheless. After all, when one is a lapiform Scab, every blessing counts.
In all I had received over a hundred e-mails that required immediate action, and the sun was high in the sky before I finally emerged from the bedroom. My mail still wasn't completely caught up, and probably never would be again so long as I lived. However, there was a limit as to how much work I could possibly stand to do at one sitting. This December had been an unusually warm one, and Scallion had not only landscaped his several acres in all sorts of interesting varieties of plants, but he had also planted row after row of shrubs very close together in a near-random pattern that made for all sorts of interesting hiding places and lots of privacy while exploring. Best of all, he and some other Dandelion Warren Downers were in the process of excavating a complex warren down underneath the surface. Scallion had only just begun this particular labor, but already he had dug out a very nice gathering area centered under an old oak stump and had five separate entrances and exits up and running. Scallion's weedpatch of a yard probably drove his neighbors nuts; this was after all a fairly well-to-do neighborhood, and the rest of the stately old houses were possessed of carefully manicured lawns spotted with perfectly-cultivated flower and vegetable gardens here and there. The locals were too sympathetic to Scallion's condition to complain out loud, however, or so I assumed. All of his neighbors waved and smiled as we drove by. They seemed friendly enough.
First I got down on all fours and slowly stretched the kinks out of my body, and then I went hunting for Scallion. He didn't seem to be anywhere to be found in the house, so very quietly I eased up to his office door and listened. Scallion didn't appreciate being disturbed when he was in his office, I knew. Though he collected a full disability pension due to his SCABS, my friend continued to do consulting work from time to time for both the Navy and several large shipping firms. He was very private about his work, I'd discovered; in fact, I'd never been inside his office at all.
All was quiet; clearly he wasn't inside.
Well, if he wasn't inside, I reasoned, then he must be out working or playing in the yard. I went out the back door and, down on all fours, scurried about Scallion's pleasant maze of a backyard. He wasn't anywhere to be found, though the exercise felt very good indeed after having stared at a computer screen all morning. It was a beautiful day for mid-December, with the temperature pushing sixty degrees and all the watery winter sunshine that anyone could ask for; there wasn't a cloud in the sky. "Scallion?" I called out down a warren entrance, but he didn't answer. Apparently he wasn't underground, either.
Finally I decided to see if Scallion's car was gone, and it was there that I finally hit paydirt. My friend had pulled it out into the driveway and crawled up alongside the motor; only his hindpaws protruded out from under the sports car's long hood. "Hi!" I said, walking up, and Scallion started, banging his head on the underside of the hood.
"Ow!" he cried out, and I cringed at the impact.
"Sorry," I replied weakly.
"It's all right," the little brown lop replied. "I do that all of the time."
I nodded sympathetically. I got startled all of the time myself, of course, and if in fact Scallion spent as much time under the hood as it would seem...
"I'm using a little oil," Scallion continued, removing his greasy work gloves. I envied Scallion his hands sometimes; they were very deft and nimble. "There's no leak that I can see. I think she's sucking it in through the crankcase ventilator."
"Probably," I agreed. Scallion's pride and joy was an old sports car that he'd bought while overseas and had shipped back home. He'd kept the thing through war and peace, and even SCABS had not been able to take his favorite toy away from him. Indeed, I rather suspected that his determination to keep his "Baby" was why he was still able to drive so well, when most rabbits couldn't get a license at all. Scallion kept a cheap econobox to get around in as well, when the weather was really bad or when his beloved was in the shop. It was unloved and neglected by comparison, however, and spent most of its unhappy life gathering dust in the garage's back corner. "Or maybe it might be your valve seals. I haven't seen any smoke."
"There is just a little, when she first starts up," Scallion allowed as he walked into his garage in search of something. "But not enough to justify a quart every three hundred miles."
"Mmm," I agreed thoughtfully as my friend picked through the shelves. Three generations of Napleton junk littered Scallion's garage, I knew. Still, it caught me off guard when he hopped up onto a shelf and then reached 'way back for something.
"Aha!" he cried out, smiling.
"Aha?" I asked.
"Aha!" Scallion affirmed. "Aha, aha, aha!" Then he hopped back down off of the shelf and with a flourish produced...
...a rubber acorn! "Want to play?" he asked.
Suddenly my muscles were trembling all over, and I realized that my little romp through the back yard had in reality been only a warm-up. Even a few weeks before, I knew, I would have found such a game to be far beneath my dignity. But I was a little older, now, and far wiser. No one ever outgrows having simple fun. "We've only got about two hours before I've got to leave to give my speech," I pointed out. "And if we do this, it will take one of them to get me cleaned up and presentable."
"More than one," Scallion adjudged. "I don't intend to be easy on you." He reached back and, tapping the power latent in his hindlegs via an odd rocking motion, launched the acorn like a bullet out the back door of the garage and off into his maze.
To no one's surprise, we didn't have any trouble whatsoever killing the rest of the afternoon.
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
The D.C. Ecumenical Council was holding a symposium on "SCABS and the Community" that particular day, and I'd been invited as a guest speaker. If the truth were to be known, I'd really been sought out for my experiences as part of the staff at the West Street Shelter rather than out of any great concern about the Colonies; the Ecumenical Council was giving serious consideration to rationalizing their makeshift network of charitable SCAB services into a theoretically more efficient whole. They'd told me that I could speak about the Colonies as well if I wished to, however, and so I'd added the stop to my schedule.
Scallion hadn't wanted to hang around for this particular speech; in fact, he became progressively quieter and more unresponsive as we approached the Baptist Church that was serving as a meeting place for the assembled clergymen. "I'll see you at ten," he growled as I hopped out, and then roared off so quickly that I could smell burned rubber. Had I done something wrong, I wondered for a moment? Then I shrugged and went inside. Scallion was every bit as much entitled to be moody as anyone else, after all, even thought it didn't suit him at all. He hadn't had to drive me all they way into town in the first place, if he hadn't wanted to. I was perfectly capable of calling a cab.
At any rate, my official duties didn't leave me very long to think about Scallion's problems. Father Monaghan met me just outside the door, all smiles and flashing blue eyes. "Phil!" he greeted me with hand extended. "How are you? It's so good to see you again!
I nodded and offered a paw, which Father Monaghan accepted and shook firmly. Father Monaghan had once referred a very difficult client to me, a guinea-pig morph with five children. I'd eventually found him employment in an appliance factory, but not until after he'd attempted suicide in despair of ever working again. Monaghan and I had met at his bedside, and had spent many hours quietly waiting together to find out if James would live or die. "Hello, Father" I replied. "It's good to see you, too. Still keeping the faith?"
He smiled. There was nothing like the threat of the imminent death of a mutual acquaintance to get a religious discussion started. We'd talked long and earnestly that night, both of us. "Yes, of course. And I suppose that you're still a hard-core skeptic?"
"First class," I agreed. "I'm going to feel a little out of place here tonight."
The priest snorted. "Don't worry; there's no danger of you being contaminated with theistic ideas. The benediction is long since over with, and everything else is politics as usual. We clergy are no different than anyone else." He cocked his head consideringly. "Speaking of which, you've been moving in some highly unusual circles lately. Aren't you and Congressman Carmike kind of a political odd couple?"
I shrugged. "First of all, we're not a 'couple'. He's very much the senior partner, and so far as I'm concerned he's welcome to it. Second of all, no, I don't share much common ground with him politically except for this one thing. So long as he wants to improve conditions in the Colonies, I'm with him. I don't care why he wants to improve them, so long as he works with me towards doing so. The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Monaghan frowned. "I wish that it were so easy for me to find common ground," he said. "Many of Congressman Carmike's stands are very consistent with those of the Church. But in other cases..." His voice trailed off.
"Yes," I agreed with a sigh. Carmike's stand on a whole host of moral issues were anathema to Rome, just as I hated his support of 'Big-Brother' style government. "But the enemy of my enemy is my friend," I repeated firmly. "At least until this particular war is over. Then we get to choose up sides all over again."
"Perhaps," Monaghan replied doubtfully. "Perhaps." His eyes glazed over for a moment in thought, then with a start he seemed to remember where he was. "Oh, my!" he exclaimed. "You're due to speak in half an hour. There's a little room off behind the altar, a private chamber where the minister gets ready for services. Would you like to borrow it to go over your notes?"
"Yes," I replied immediately, though I was fairly comfortable with my speech. After all, except for some additions about the Shelter it was pretty much the same one I had given to Congress yesterday. But Monaghan had spoken two magic words, 'private' and 'little'. "Thank you!"
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
The speech went off fairly well, I thought, though there was some trouble at first getting the microphone to adjust low enough to accommodate me. I spoke for about twenty minutes, letting my audience know what was at stake every time a client rode off in the Colony truck. "Committal is almost always a one-way ticket," I explained. "I am the very rare exception. There are no second chances for a lapiform Scab, no re-evaluations, and no appeals. The Colonies are forever, and they will always be forever so long as the Department of Human Services draws their funding in part from the inmates themselves." I also spoke glowingly of the West Street Shelter, as I'd been asked to for this special audience, portraying Splendor as the angel that she indeed was behind her gruff exterior and cataloging the services that our organization provided to the Scab community. When I was done, the applause seemed genuine and went on for a long time. I felt the linings of my ears redden, and then retreated to my minister's cubbyhole until the night's program was completed.
That happened around eight o'clock, which left me two endless hours of socializing with the clergy before Scallion came to pick me up. I'd promised to make myself available for informal questions after the session, so I had no one to blame but myself. Still, it was very difficult to meet so many new people all at once while at the same time trying to remain sensible. As luck would have it, I became the center of the biggest knot of conversation all evening long; if Father Monaghan hadn't somehow intuitively understood my situation and remained steadfastly by my side, I probably either would have had to excuse myself to hide for a little while, in direct violation of my promises, or else risk going into total panic.
"So," an older bearded man asked me. "You're an employment counselor?"
"Yes," I replied through the lump in my throat.
"And your West Street Shelter provides you with full professional facilities? A secretary, and all of that?"
"Yes," I answered again, sincerely wishing that I could go hide under one of the pews. It looked nice and dark and private down there...
"And they pay your salary as well, this Shelter of yours does?" he asked. "Counting everything, how much do you cost?"
I felt my spine stiffen, but Father Monaghan answered for me. "Phil is a volunteer," he explained tersely. "He draws no salary, but does require a small office and a phone line in order to function."
"Oy!" the bearded man said, holding up his hand placatingly. "I meant no insult, truly I did not! I think that a professional ought to be paid, is all, and I was wondering what it would cost for to set up into business someone like the rabbit here."
"We would probably be able to find a volunteer, Rabbi Kellerman," suggested an older lady who I suspected was a minister as well. "Volunteers are always cheaper."
"Not if they don't know their stuff!" interjected the bearded man. "Not if they don't do the Scabs any good! Better to pay a professional, I think, and get a higher return on higher costs."
The conversation swirled in circle after circle after circle, and I was bombarded with questions about Shelter expenses, Shelter funding, Shelter stipends, Shelter community relations, even Shelter architecture. Several times I tried to steer the conversation back to the Colonies, but my hosts simply would not have it. "One of the primary sources of community support in my home town for Scabs and Scab-support institutions," I said at last, "is a local bar."
There was a moment of silence in the room. Eventually a man in a clerical collar scowled and spoke up. "You mean, like, a bar that serves alcohol." The last word was almost a curse.
"Why, yes!" I replied blinking rapidly and turning up the corners of my mouth a little, just as Phlox had recently taught me. "That kind of bar. Is there any other kind?"
The fight about 'appropriate' community support was on after that, just as I'd hoped that it would be, this time sucking in even Father Monaghan, my self-appointed protector. Finally, at long last, I was able to break away and find a quiet corner to tremble in. It didn't last long, however, before a tall, thin and very young minister came striding over to speak with me.
"Yes?" I asked, a little snappishly. It was long past time for me to have a few moments to myself.
The minister stopped a good five feet away from me, then edged to one side so that I would not feel trapped in my corner. It was a very thoughtful gesture. "I've been wanting to talk to you all night, sir," he said politely. "My name is Peter."
I nodded, part of me liking this young man already. "My pleasure," I replied. "What can I do for you?"
"You've actually been in the Colonies?" he asked respectfully.
"Yes," I replied. "For over six months."
"And..." He squirmed. "Are they really as bad as you say?"
I narrowed my eyes a little and cocked my head slightly to one side. As often as I now spoke of my commitment, I still didn't enjoy doing it. "Yes, they are. Or most of them are, anyway. There's a 'showplace' Colony out in Utah, where conditions genuinely are fairly good. That's the one that they run the Press through all of the time. When I come across a client who legitimately does need to be institutionalized, I try to have them sent there if the family agrees."
The young man pressed his lips together. "I see." Then he seemed to come to a decision. "I have a very small congregation," he said at last. "A very small one indeed. In fact, I have to work as a maintenance man part-time in order to support my family; there's not enough of us to pay for a full-time minister."
"But we're very proud of being four-square in favor of doing the right thing," the minister exclaimed with sudden energy. His eyes glowed and his face grew stern, and suddenly I understood that this was a preacher with a real future ahead of him. "We're very proud of being real Christians, not cardboard cutout compromisers. We take the Word of God seriously." He paused, and looked down at me. "Almost every Sunday we invite a guest speaker to tell us about some sort of real-life evil out there in the world, one that we can actually help to do something about if we put our minds and our hearts to work. A lot of the time, we bring in speakers to discuss the evil acts that our own government is undertaking in our name, backing torture or oppressing social justice or standing in the way of the democracy that we claim is so sacred." He paused and looked me in the eye. "Will you come this Sunday at eleven and speak to us of the Colonies?"
"I..." It was too much emotion, too much interaction, too fast. My heart was beginning to pound, my pupils were narrowing, and I was very much on the edge of losing control. "I..."
Just then, Monaghan came to the rescue. "Excuse me!" he declared, stepping past the Reverend Peter. "Excuse me! I think that our guest needs some air."
"Yes," agreed Peter, stepping back yet another pace from his already comfortable distance. "I'm so sorry, sir..."
I waved a forepaw dismissively. "It's not you," I said tiredly. "You're one of the few who know..." Then my voice failed me again.
"Come on," Father Monaghan said to Peter. "Let's get him outside."
And working together they did exactly that, shielding me from further questions all the way. There was a sort of little park bench outside the church proper, creating a nice small space underneath it that was closed in on three sides. I looked up at the priest, and he nodded. "Go ahead," he said gently. "It's all right. I'll make sure that no one sees you down there."
"Thank you," I murmured, and then I was off like a shot to recover myself as best I could. For what seemed like a very long time, but which could not have been more than a minute or two, I laid down on the dewy grass and clutched my hindlegs to myself, trembling and trying to calm down.
"I'm so sorry," I heard Pete say to Father Monaghan off in the distance. "I knew that he was stressed; anyone could tell by looking at him. I tried not to make it worse."
"I know," Monaghan replied soothingly. "And he knows it too. He said that it wasn't your fault. Not many people have the gift of effectively dealing with timid-species Scabs; you did the best that you were able."
Peter sighed. "I'd really like to have him come out and address the congregation, you know. I really would."
Then it was Monaghan's turn to exhale noisily. "Give me your card," he said. "I'll stick it in with Phil's speech notes; I know where he left them. If he calls, he calls. If he doesn't..."
"Right." Pete agreed. "If he doesn't, then he doesn't. And I'll understand entirely. He can only take so much of this. After all, rabbits will be rabbits; it's not their fault at all."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
The next morning, I woke up alone and bad-tempered after a night filled with chasing nightmares and long-toothed ministers. Scallion had been silent, almost surly all the way home, and had spent the whole night in his office. I didn't begrudge my friend his moodiness; he remained polite and agreeable on the surface. Still, however, his scent turned had dark and nasty, and he wasn't the slightest bit interested in making conversation. Or, for that matter, in snuggling.
I'd finally selected a front bedroom for myself and gone to bed, this time moving my stuff just in case I woke up once more in the middle of the night. Scallion's bedroom door was open when I padded past, and the room was vacant. A quick sniff indicated that my friend had not slept there, and part of me rather suspected that this meant he hadn't slept at all. I went downstairs and made myself breakfast, my friend having thoughtfully left chopped makings in containers that I could easily handle. By the time I was finished eating, an hour or more had passed and I still had not seen my host. Frankly, I was growing a little worried. The sun was shining as gloriously today as it had the day before, and it promised to be another unseasonably warm December day. What a waste it would be if he and I did nothing at all to take advantage of such a gift from nature! Finally I repackaged the food and put it away, then clumsily loaded my dirty plates into the dishwasher. There was still no sign of Scallion, so I tiptoed down to his office to see if perhaps he might still be working. I was still many feet from the door when I detected the tap-tap-tap of his computer keyboard. He was inside, all right, and typing away.
My shoulders slumped a little at the realization that there would be no wild game of 'acorn' this morning, no crazy dashes through the narrow aisles between the hedges, no short cuts through the ever-growing warren beneath the lawn. I was merely a guest, after all, and Scallion had a full and active life to live that had nothing at all to do with me. Perhaps it was something from work that was bothering him so much, I reasoned. If so, then the best possible cure was to allow him the time he needed to straighten things out. Scallion had made a truly profound transition when SCABS changed his life forever, I knew. He'd been an Admiral, a man near the apogee of a very demanding profession. A special flag had flown to indicate which of his ships he might be aboard at any given time, and salutes had been fired when that flag was raised and lowered. He'd been a very influential person in the Fleet, I'd gathered from little bits and pieces, though he never, ever spoke of his former life. It must have been very, very hard indeed for such a powerful and successful man to resign himself to being just a little brown lop-eared bunny, never to command ships or fly a flag again.
Sighing, I pressed my lips together and shook my head in resignation. Scallion was already something of a hero-figure to me, I realized deep down inside myself. Of all the lapiform Scabs I'd ever met, Scallion was the one who seemed most comfortable in his new skin. He laughed and played and snuggled in gleeful acceptance of who and what he'd become; there was not a shred of the dignified Admiral to be found in his normal, day-to-day character. It was almost as if he'd somehow successfully locked away his former life, accepting his new lapine form as a gift rather than a curse. He'd even legally changed his name, and I'd watched him take clear delight in the new one every time he introduced himself to anyone. I'd already learned a lot about dealing with SCABs on an emotional level from Scallion. Over the past few months he and his fellow Watership Downers had taught me more about experiencing and cherishing the joy of life than anyone else ever had, even back when I'd been a Norm.
For me, seeing Scallion in a such a black mood was a little like discovering that Superman wasn't quite bullet-proof after all.
Sighing, I turned to look at Scallion's wall of pictures once more. It must be nice to have such a heritage, I told myself, such a sense of belonging to something bigger than one's self. My eyes danced lightly over the Ranger and the Wisconsin and Scallion's unknown supply vessel, and lingered for a moment on my friend's wedding picture. There was so much love there, so very much love! Scallion must have been someone very special as a Norm too, I mused, to know so much love and to rise so high in his profession.
It was only then that I noticed that some of the pictures I had seen yesterday were gone. Scallion and his wife had been gifted with a son, I recalled. And though I'd not made it past his baby pictures before being interrupted, there had been others which I had not had time to look at in detail. They were gone now, all of them, with only blank spaces on the wall offering mute testimony to the accuracy of my memory. There was no son to be seen now. It was almost as if there had never been a Peter Napleton the Fourth.
Instead, there were only empty nails.
I pressed my lips together and shook my head vigorously so as to stretch my ear muscles; now not only was I nerve-wracked and overstressed, but suddenly I was down in the dumps too. Maybe staying with Scallion hadn't been such a good idea after all, I told myself. Maybe I shouldn't go stay with Phlox next year while doing my speaking in the Midwest. Maybe I should just check into motels like everyone else and eat rubber food from the bad restaurant in the lobby and huddle alone at night in bed, desperately needing another rabbit to socialize with and having none... Angrily I turned and stomped down the little hallway, no longer really caring if Scallion heard me or not. I had work to do too, I told myself, important work! And it was just as well that I get down to it.
Father Monaghan had been as good as his word, I could see when I opened up my little notebook. Pete's card was stuck right in between the pages of my speaking notes. "The Reverend Peter Christopher", it read, "Church of the Holy Savior". Then there was a telephone number.
Scallion's house only had one line, since he lived alone. I hated to interrupt his work if he was on-line, but on the other hand I couldn't wait all day to answer this call, either. Hesitantly I picked up the phone's receiver, and to my relief heard a dial tone. Then I placed the receiver on the desktop and, very carefully, picked out the number with a pencil in my teeth. The connection clicked, and began to ring.
"Hello?" Peter's voice answered; I bent over to bring my mouth closer to the receiver.
"Hello," I replied in my most businesslike tone. "This is Phil, of the West Street Shelter. We spoke last night about a speaking engagement?"
"Yes, of course!" Peter replied. "Sir, I am so sorry..."
I sighed, though not loudly enough to be heard over the line. "It was nothing," I answered. "Honestly. In fact, I took special note of the fact that you made an effort to be considerate." I paused a moment, then stuck my neck out a little. "Tell me, have you had dealings with lapiforms before?"
There was an awkward pause. "Limited ones, yes," Peter acknowledged. "I once had cause to study up on the subject. I'm very short on practical experience, though."
"Right," I agreed. "For what it's worth, your efforts were appreciated." There was a long awkward pause, as usually happens when animal instincts intrude into human social affairs. Finally, I spoke again. "I'd very much like to come and address your group," I continued. "Though I don't want to arrive under false colors. Politically, I fear that I have little in common with the way that you described your congregation. And, you also need to be aware that I am not a Christian. In fact, I'm an agnostic. A rationalist."
"I see," the minister replied. "Well... I'm grateful that you told me up front. That was very kind of you."
I nodded reflexively, though of course Peter couldn't see me.
"You should know," he continued, "that we bring non-Christians in all of the time. We've invited Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Shintoists, anything you can think of if they might advance our understanding of the true situation in the world. Don't get me wrong, sir, once you're gone we'll pray for your conversion. I'll personally pray for your conversion tonight, in fact. But we won't pester you; that isn't polite. And it doesn't work anyway."
"Good," I agreed. If praying for my soul made him feel better, that was perfectly fine with me. "And the politics?"
"Well..." There was a long pause. "We recognize that we're not exactly mainstream. It's hard to convince average people that the country they believe so deeply in is responsible for so much evil in the world, when we could be doing so much good." He waited for me to reply, but I failed to rise to the bait. In point of fact, I was convinced that my country already was doing the world an enormous amount of good, perhaps more than any single nation ever had before. Certainly, we were imperfect and had shortcomings that genuinely needed to be addressed. One needed look no further than the Colonies, for example. The kinds of cures that Peter's sort of idealism would implement for these shortcomings, however, were in my opinion far more damaging than the diseases they were intended to cure. I'd thought through my positions on the major issues very thoroughly, and felt no need to debate them any further. "Anyway," Pete continued, sounding a bit disappointed at losing his chance for an argument, "we'd be glad to have you anyway. People need to know more about the Colonies."
I nodded again, this time in approval. "We do share common ground, Reverend," I replied formally. "Where good people share common ground, we need to work together even if we disagree about many other things. Congressman Carmike and I, for example, have deep differences. Yet, I rather suspect, it was his staff who first brought me to your attention."
"Heh!" Peter replied. "That's true enough. Would you care to speak for about thirty minutes tomorrow, at the opening of our service? You'd be welcome to join us for the remainder, or else you'd be free to leave. We'd understand."
"I'd be honored," I replied. "Though I wouldn't feel comfortable at your service."
"Right," Peter agreed. "I can pick you up tomorrow morning, if you'd like. Though you'd have to wait for me to finish up at the pulpit before I could drive you home again."
I pressed my lips together; Scallion had offered unconditionally to take me wherever I needed to go, whenever I needed it. But with him in such a funk... "Yes," I replied. "I'll take you up on the ride, if you don't mind. Though I'd rather call a cab to bring me home than just wait around. I fear that I have much work to do."
"Of course," Pete agreed. "Where are you staying? By the airport?"
"No," I answered. "A good friend is putting me up. I'm at 9427 West Habernathy, in Rockville."
There was a very long silence. "Do you know where that is?" I asked. "I fear that I don't know this area very well. I can't help much with directions."
"Uh..." Suddenly Peter seemed at a loss for words. "I... Uh..."
"I can take a cab both ways," I offered.
"No," Pete answered after another long delay. "No, that won't be necessary." He sounded a little angry, all of a sudden, almost defiant. "Meet me at the end of the driveway, on the other side of the hedges at ten tomorrow morning. I'll be driving a red car with a clergyman's parking pass on the front bumper. All right?"
"All right," I agreed, not understanding at all what was going on. "I'll see you then."
"Looking forward to it," Peter replied gruffly, though obviously he wasn't looking forward to it at all. "Good-bye."
"Good-bye," I said into the now-dead receiver, feeling very much at sea. What in the world was happening here?
And how on earth had Peter known that Scallion's house was fronted by a row of hedges?
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
I mused on this for a very long time, while replying to e-mails and chasing down a couple of job leads for a client back home. I couldn't really concentrate on my work, however, not after my talk with the Reverend Christopher. He had known that Scallion's house had a row of hedges out front...
Very silently I shut down my computer again and went prowling down the hallway outside Scallion's office once more. Something nasty was nagging at my subconscious. It was something about Scallion's pictures. There was some truth there that I had not quite absorbed, some factor which had registered but which somehow I could not quite grasp.
Scallion was no longer typing behind his office door, though the light was still on and I could hear him moving around and rustling paper from time to time. He'd been working for over six hours that I knew of without a break, and probably for much longer. Eventually he'd need to eat and sleep, I knew, no matter how badly he wanted to escape from whatever it was that was bothering him. Just then, however, I hoped that he would give me a few minutes more. Grimly I moved up and down the line of photographs, examining and studying and sniffing at each one. The more I looked, the more convinced I became that the images were trying to tell me something very important. Despite my every effort, however, the faces of the Napleton clan remained mute.
It was the faces, I realized suddenly. There was something about the faces themselves! Something oddly familiar.
Peter Napleton the First, I realized, bore more than a passing resemblance to Peter the Second, as was right and natural for a father and son. Similarly, Peter the Third, my friend Scallion, had looked very much like both his father and grandfather before he'd undergone his drastic changes...
...and the Reverend Peter Christopher favored the three generations of Napletons who had gone before him, as well. Indeed, he was the spitting image of his great-grandfather.
Suddenly everything fell into place: Scallion's foul mood, Peter's shock at recognizing his own boyhood address, even the Reverend's radical political agenda. Everything fit, except for one little detail, and I rather suspected that the portraits could resolve that one as well. I stepped down to the very last photo which Scallion had left hanging, that of his wedding. It was hung rather high on the wall, and the frame was ornate and deep enough that it cut off the bottom edge of the picture from my view. I pressed my lips together, then decided that I needed to know. As quietly as I possibly could, I scooted a footstool in from the family room and hopped on top of it.
Sure enough, there was a little brass plaque right under the photo. "Wedding of Peter Napleton III and Deborah Christopher," it read.
"He goes by his mother's maiden name," Scallion's voice said from behind me, and I nearly leapt through the ceiling in fright. "Little Peter had it legally changed, in fact. He's wanted me to take his pictures down off of this 'bloody warrior's wall' for years now. I didn't take them last night down out of petty spite; I need for you to understand that. He's wanted nothing further to do with any of us for quite a while now, and I just decided that it was finally time."
"I --" I began, but my heart was still racing from the sudden fright, and words would not come. "I --"
Scallion sighed. He was drooping all over, I could see, and his eyes were red from overwork and from crying. "I knew that he'd be at your church meeting last night, Phil," he explained. "And I was afraid that you'd recognize him. I really didn't want to drag you into the middle of all this. Really, it's none of your doing. I'm sorry that I've been so, so..."
In an instant I was down on the floor, comforting Scallion. It must hurt so badly, what he was going through! We hugged and cuddled, and for the first time that I could ever remember I was glad that I was a rabbit instead of still human. After all, had I still been human I would have had to comfort Scallion with words instead of by snuggling, and I was by no means certain that the right words even existed.
"How is he?" Scallion finally asked, his words nearly sobs. "Is he..."
"He's fine," I assured my friend. "Physically, at least. He went out of his way to be kind to me."
"That's my little Pete," Scallion answered, smiling and weeping both. "Such a soft heart, he always had."
I squeezed the lop once more, then pushed him away slightly. "There's something that you need to know," I told him.
"What?" Scallion asked, suddenly looking a bit frightened. "You said that he was okay..."
"I did," I replied soothingly. "And he is. But, I've gotten myself deeper into this than I ever intended to, Scal. I didn't know when I made the commitment, but I've promised to speak at your son's church. He's coming by to pick me up tomorrow."
For a long moment, Scallion didn't move a muscle. "Oh," he said after a bit.
"Yeah," I replied flatly.
"Well," he said. "That is interesting. Thank you for telling me up front, Phil."
"Of course," I replied. "You know, I could cancel..."
"Oh, no!" Scallion replied, wiping furtively at his tears. "Don't do that! We all know how important it is that you talk to people about the Colonies, Phil. You shouldn't miss the chance on account of a family tiff that doesn't have anything to do with anything. I want to help you talk to people, not keep you away from them." He pulled himself stiffly erect. "I've nothing against Peter's congregation, and certainly I've nothing against you. You're here for a reason, Phil. Do your work and don't worry about me. I'll arrange not to be around when Peter comes by." He hesitated. "What time will that be?"
"Ten," I answered. "Ten in the morning tomorrow. He said that he'd meet me out on the street."
"Right," Scallion replied, half-smiling. "He swore in God's name that he'd never set foot on this property again. At least he's a man of his word, I'm glad to see." Then the smile faded, and my friend deflated again. "I'll arrange to be in my office at that time, Phil. I certainly bear you no ill will over this, and apologize sincerely on behalf of the entire Napleton family for getting you mixed up into our private little mess." For a time our eyes met; Scallion's, I could quite clearly see, were brimming with tears. Still, by sheer force of will his tone remained polite and conversational. "In the meantime, then, if you don't mind there's food in the refrigerator. Feel free to use the phone as much as you like; I won't be needing it." Then my friend spun on his heel in a very military sort of way, and marched into his office. The door slammed behind him, and then there was nothing to be heard but the sound of a heartbroken rabbit wailing his agony out to a cold, uncaring universe.
For perhaps a full minute I stood staring at the outside of Scallion's office portal, listening to him wail. It hurt to know that my friend was in so much pain, hurt in a way far deeper than any non-lapine Scab can ever understand. Finally I dashed down to the kitchen and picked up a salt shaker to knock on my friend's door with-- my soft forepaws are pretty much useless for that sort of thing. Then, when he still didn't answer but instead merely kept right on crying, I took the doorknob in my mouth-fortunately it was oval, so that I could gain enough purchase to turn it -- and let myself in.
When the door swung open, Scallion didn't even look up. He was collapsed over a very low custom-built mahogany desk, wailing away as if the world had ended and there was no hope left for anyone at all. The desk was strewn with photo albums, I could see, and the pictures of Peter the Fourth which Scallion had clearly spent all night removing from them.
"I've failed at everything!" wailed Scallion. "Everything that ever mattered! My wife is dead, and my only son hates everything that we Napletons have ever stood for. We've stood proud and together for generation after generation, and now..."
I stepped over and touched my friend on the shoulder; instantly he threw himself at me, hugging me so hard that I was nearly bowled over. "I sent him to the best schools," Scallion sobbed. "I went to his music recitals and read to him every night that I possibly could, except when I was at sea on active duty. Deborah doted on him, and was a room mother every year..."
I nodded and listened as best as I could, as bit by bit Scallion poured his heart out to me.
"...he didn't want to join the Navy," he said at last. "And that was all right with us, it was something that we could accept. We loved Peter!"
"So it wasn't that he wanted to become a minister?" I asked. "That isn't what broke up your family?"
"No, no, no!" Scallion declared, a little angrily. "For God's sake, Deborah's father was a minister; he married us! Why should we be upset if he chose to follow his mother's heritage rather than mine? That's family too! Hell, I was proud of him!"
"It's okay," I said, patting Scallion on the back. He was terribly upset, I reminded myself, and assuming that I knew things which I in fact did not. "So, what did break you two up? Was it your wife's death? Your disease, maybe?"
Scallion rolled his eyes. "No, no, none of that. It was all long over and done with by then." He scowled fiercely. "It was that cursed college!" he growled through clenched teeth. "That cursed, left-wing liberal college that didn't have any trouble at all accepting my 'blood money' when it came time to pay tuition."
"Ah," I answered, now beginning to understand a little. "So it was the politics that broke things up?"
Scallion's head fell, and his fists balled. "My son called me a hired killer!" he wailed. "My own flesh and blood! A baby-killer!"
I sighed, and looked around Scallion's office. Behind his desk was the traditional Navy 'bragging wall', filled with pictures of the ships he had served on and photographs of my friend with other officers and politicians. Suddenly I gulped; one of the pictures showed Scallion and his wife eating dinner with a notably right-wing former President of the United States and his First Lady! Indeed, everywhere I looked Scallion's Navy career seemed to be on display. There were little model supply ships mounted on shelves, some of them very futuristic looking. A heavily gold-braided hat sat on a similar shelf, a hat that looked to have seen considerable wear even though it certainly was too large to fit on Admiral Napleton's new head. Excepting that one traditional wall of photographs out in the hallway, I suddenly realized, which was a family shrine too sacred to be moved, Scallion had compacted his entire former life into this one little room, a place that he never let anyone else ever enter. There wasn't a single other sign of his past anywhere else in the house. So far as I knew, I was the only other warren-member who knew that he had ever served in the military at all. Even Hayseed, our Alpha, didn't seem to be in on the secret.
"He called me a baby-killer!" Scallion wailed again, "and said that three generations of killers was plenty enough for one family! How can a father deal with that?"
How indeed, I wondered as I stood and held my weeping friend. How indeed did a father deal with a son whose most essential basic concepts were so radically different than his own? How could anyone manage to maintain a relationship across such a gulf? It would be far easier for me to try and love a child whom SCABS had turned into a predator, I decided, than one with whom I had such a fundamental difference in religion or politics. Certainly, the Martian Flu had brought new levels of diversity into the human experience. It had widened our horizons enormously, at the cost of leaving us more fragmented than ever. Yet there had been plenty of cause for fragmentation even before SCABS, and families had broken up over insoluble differences in opinion since the very beginning of humanity. Scallion's situation was tragic, yes. It was all the more tragic because of what SCABS had subsequently done to his life. And yet, his was a story that had been played out a thousand times before.
"Shh," I encouraged my friend. He was very tired now, and had been through more than enough emotional trauma without rest. "Hush, now, and let's get you to bed." Rather meekly, the lop complied, and I stayed with him until he finally fell into a deep, hopefully dreamless sleep.
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
Scallion and I didn't see each other again before the Reverend Christopher arrived next morning to pick me up. Our sleep schedules had been knocked askew by his all-nighter, and probably he woke up right about the time that I finally quit wandering the halls and retired. When I got up again, Scallion was once more locked up in his office, as he'd promised he would be when his son arrived. It didn't seem right to disturb him under the circumstances, so I sort of snuck out of the house to wait near the street. It was just as well that I didn't have to wait long; Scallion's across-the-street neighbors had a pair of Rottweilers, I could tell from the liberally scent-marked hedges, Rottweilers which apparently were exercised daily right where I was standing. The longer I stood and waited the more nervous I became, until finally Peter rolled up in his little car and, reaching across the passenger compartment, swung my door open for me.
"Hello, Reverend," I greeted him, getting in.
"Hello," he barked back, his voice sounding much like his Admiral father's once must have on a bad morning. Peter was very uptight at being where he was, I could tell from his tone. Angrily he raced his little engine, let out the clutch much too quickly, and with a roar we were on our way, the Reverend's mouth set into a grim, hard line.
"It's a beautiful day," I observed after a time. The weather is almost always a safe subject for conversation, being something that we all experience together. "It's been beautiful all fall, in fact. There's not much chance of a white Christmas though, I suppose."
Peter scowled. "It's the global warming," he muttered. "Our greed altering the world's climate."
I sighed, and decided to plunge right in. "Reverend... May I call you Peter?"
"Sure," he agreed, as if it did not matter much what I called him.
"Peter," I continued. "I found out last night who your father is."
There was a very long silence. "I see," he replied at last.
"It's a tremendous coincidence," I said. "I'm very sorry. None of this is any of my business at all."
For the first time, his face softened a little. "It's all right," he replied. "You're just caught in the middle here; I fully realize that. In fact, I thank you for being honest with me that you know."
I nodded. "And I thank you for not making this any worse than it has to be." We rolled on for a time, and I decided to press my luck a little. "You know about your father's condition, don't you? If you do not, I feel a duty to tell you."
"Yes," Peter replied. "He had changed by the time Mother died." Then he laughed bitterly. "Not that it's changed him in the places that matter. He's still a reactionary elitist. New, progressive ideas still bounce off of him just the same way that they always did." He turned and half-smiled at me. "I made an effort to learn about lapiform Scabs so that Jeanette and I could take care of him," he explained, "and try to keep him out of the Colonies. I thought that becoming more vulnerable might make him see reason, might teach him something about what it's like to be oppressed." He sighed. "But it didn't work out at all. We'd get together, and I'd help out around the house just like old times for a little while. Then something would happen and the next thing you knew we'd be arguing politics. And then..." He shook his head angrily.
I pressed my lips together; it was easy enough to picture. "He's very independent for a lapine," I agreed. "He's almost like a big kid when he's with other rabbits."
"He's always been just a big kid," Peter agreed. "That's part of the problem. He won't grow up and learn how things really work in this world. Instead, he worships America like a god. It's three entire generations of systematic political indoctrination at work, of course." He sighed. "I can't blame him for being unable to overcome his background, I suppose. The older I get, the more I can understand that." Then he scowled again and pounded his steering wheel. "But damn him! He won't even try to see things my way!"
I nodded soberly, trying to hide my instinctive flinch at the sudden loud noise. It was fascinating in a way to have a conversation with someone like Peter from time to time, I reflected. Couldn't he see that from Scallion's point of view, he himself had been politically indoctrinated to the gills and filled with irrational basic assumptions and beliefs?
We traveled down the road for several miles before I spoke again. "So," I said at last. "You mentioned a wife. Do you have any children?"
Peter nodded, accepting that once more I was seeking common ground for friendly conversation. "Two," he said proudly. "Twin girls, named Sarah and Mary. They're eighteen months old."
"Wonderful!" I replied, feeling my ghost-smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. Soon, I told myself, soon the nerves would relearn their proper tasks and I'd be able to smile properly once more.
"How about you?" Peter asked in return.
"None," I replied sadly. "And now it's too late. You never really miss not having children until all of a sudden you can't."
Peter nodded sympathetically. "I'm sorry for you," he replied. "I love my children more than anything else on earth. My life wouldn't be complete without them."
I nodded politely, though a dark voice whispered in my ear that Scallion would certainly agree with his son on that, at least. Had my friend ever even laid eyes on his grandchildren, ever sniffed their clean, pure scent? I doubted it; indeed, he might well not even know that they existed. Sarah and Mary, I whispered to myself, making certain that I had committed the names to memory. Sarah and Mary. This much, at least, I could give him. "Children are the center of everything," I agreed cheerily. "They are the very personification of hope."
"Yes," Peter agreed with a smile. "Hope and love and charity." Then he pointed out a small building on the left side of the road; it was an old storefront that, I could see from the cross painted on the front glass, had been converted into a church. "That's the place," my driver said happily, his earlier angst at visiting his one-time home seemingly forgotten. "The Church of the Holy Savior. I know that it doesn't look like much, but we've saved a few souls and done God's work for the good of the planet, and it doesn't get much better than that."
It would have been so much easier to deal with the whole situation, I thought to myself as I climbed slowly out of the car, if Peter had been a villain. It would have been so much easier if I could have simply blamed him for Scallion's pain and named Peter Napleton the Fourth as a traitor to his proud family name. But Peter Napleton the Fourth, aka Peter Christopher, wasn't a villain at all. He was merely a good man who stood tall and proud for what he believed in, just like his forefathers before him. He was a good and strong man who had sacrificed much in the name of his little church, and who had certainly bypassed many far more lucrative careers in pursuit of what he honestly perceived to be loftier goals. I didn't agree with him, of course; in fact, I had rarely met a man whom I more intensely disagreed with about almost every subject under the sun. Yet I could not see him as a villain, any more than I honestly believed that he saw me as one.
So why couldn't he and his father get along? It was such a tragedy!
Just then Peter spoke, and I was startled back into reality. "What was that?" I asked. "I'm sorry. I was... daydreaming."
"Your notes," Peter asked politely. "Would you like me to carry them for you?" He glanced down at my forepaws, then looked away politely.
"My notes?" Suddenly my heart froze. "My notes! I must have left them at home!"
"Oh, no!" Peter's concern was genuine. "That was such a wonderful speech that you gave! Would you like to go back to the house and get them?"
I looked across the street at a bank's digital clock. Eleven-seventeen, it read. There was no time; Peter was the minister, after all. He couldn't be expected to be late to his own service! "No," I said ruefully. "I'll just have to make something up from memory."
"Can you do that?" Peter asked, clearly relieved. "You can use my office. I've got paper and pen in there."
I couldn't use paper and pen, not with my forepaws, but the privacy was another matter. "Please," I agreed instantly. "I'm so very sorry!"
Peter smiled, and impulsively patted my head. "I know you're a non-believer," he said, "and I respect your views. But sometimes I don't know exactly what to say on Sundays at about this time myself. When that happens, I just walk into my church and let God fill my mind." He smiled. "You'd be surprised. I've delivered some of my best sermons that way."
I looked down at the ground. I had a hard enough time speaking publicly with notes... "Right," I agreed weakly. "Like I said, I'm sure that I'll come up with something."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
Forty-seven minutes later, I was no longer nearly so confident in my ability to improvise. I was pacing back and forth in the little room listening to an organ playing and a small choir singing pre-service hymns. If I'd still been human, I would have been sweating profusely. Of all the times to forget my notes!
Then Peter's voice came clearly over the PA system. "Brothers and Sisters," he began, "Welcome to Sunday services. Today we are most fortunate to have visiting us a victim of the Martian Flu, a lapiform SCAB who has been systematically victimized by the corrupt system that was intended to help him, and who is here to speak out and make us more aware of the plight of..."
I heard the words flowing past, though their meanings were no longer registering. My heart was racing a mile a minute, I was panting heavily, and my forepaws were shaking. There were endless rows of eyes outside the little room, I knew, hungry, meat-eating eyes that would reach out and bite me right where I stood! Peter's voice died away and I knew that for better or for worse it was time for me to step forward. I gulped once, and again a second time. Then suddenly, without even consulting me first, my feet were carrying me out to the little podium off to one side of the altar. There was a Nativity scene off to my right, I noted, the baby Jesus gazing up with improbably wide-open eyes at the brand-new world around him. In front of that was an Advent wreath with two candles lit. I'd not seen one of those since I'd given up going to church as a boy, I suddenly realized. My, but it had been a very long time!
"Hello," I greeted the congregation in a nearly inaudible squeak.
"Hello," some of them replied aloud, while others bobbed their heads up and down and smiled. Peter had leveled with me entirely, I could see as I looked out over the sea of faces. His congregation wasn't much in terms of sheer numbers. Nor were they particularly well-to-do, judging by their plain clothing and open, honest expressions. They seemed friendly enough, however, and my pulse slowed just a little bit.
"As your Reverend Christopher already knows," I began, my voice still very soft, "I've somehow managed to leave my notes at home. How terribly hare-brained of me!"
The joke was a lame one, but it brought sympathetic laughter. "Therefore, I'll be sparing you the long speech that I gave before Congress last week detailing the conditions in the Lapine Colonies and the methods that our government is currently using to force the wealthier inmates to pay for these institutions by confiscating their wealth. I'll also spare you the lecture on the shortcomings of our overloaded legal system, which rubber-stamps whatever the government doctors might care to say and rarely allows us lapines a proper chance to defend ourselves. I won't even go into how the commitment hearings are normally held long before a lapiform Scab like me has had the months and years of experience living in a long-eared body that are required to build self-confidence, so that hundreds and hundreds of people are condemned who might otherwise have been able to survive in normal human society. Because I don't have my notes right in front of me, I can't quote percentages and raw numbers. So, you will be spared that part of my speech."
For a moment I looked around the little church, hoping to find some inspiration. Without facts and figures, even those parts of my usual routine that I'd memorized were utterly ruined. What was I to do? Everyone still seemed to be listening attentively, at least, and that was all to the good. Reverend Peter had sat down in the front row with his wife, and his twin daughters were lying asleep on the pew. The Christophers were only one of many families present in the church, each with their own lives and lore and histories of conflict and reconciliation. So, I asked myself, what did I really have to say to them? I closed my eyes for just a moment, searching for words...
...and then, just as Peter had predicted, the answer came to me.
"The family of Man," I began again, "has grown in some very strange and unpredictable ways in these past few decades. We've added new viewpoints to the human experience, and seen the universe through new eyes. Yet we still seem to be haunted by the same old difficulties, seem to return again and again to the same old dilemmas. I have come to you to ask for your help in seeking justice for lapiform Scabs like myself, for help in rebuilding a system that desperately needs reform and change. Yet, what is justice, anyway? Pontius Pilate asked himself that question two millennia ago, but today we seem to be no closer to answering than we were back then. One man's idea of justice remains another man's tyranny, one man's sacred ideals another's horrid nightmares. We disagree in good faith, but we disagree profoundly none the less.
"Love and caring," I continued, "are the common ground of all that is human and perhaps of all that is good in the universe. We do have our differences, we humans. For example, I am not a Christian and do not wish to become one. However, I recognize in all of you the common bond of humanity. I recognize in you the same basic essence that exists in my own heart, and I recognize you as fellow members of my extended family. I recognize that I owe you fairness in my dealings with you, and owe you dignity and respect. Just because we disagree about many important things does not mean that we cannot find common ground upon which to build a relationship."
I sighed. "There are many worthy causes in this world to which a group of good people like you might dedicate yourselves, an endless array of needy families and broken societies and so many hungry, hurting children that the soul cries out in agony to even think about it. We live on a planet filled to the brim with pain, and injustice takes a thousand forms in our daily lives. Reverend Christopher tells me that you as a group really and truly care about the pain and suffering that's going on everywhere, and looking into your eyes I believe that it's true. You understand that all of humanity is one big oversized family, and that we are all indeed brothers and sisters beneath the skin. You understand that today humanity is not defined or limited by the presence or absence of scales or feathers or fur anymore than it is limited by skin color. You understand that humanity is defined by concern for the well-being of others, and by the presence of love and caring. You understand that humanity is best defined by the common ground that we all share, and which is the basis by which we reach and touch one another's souls. This common ground, this love and sharing and sense of family, is the most important thing that there is, and that there can ever be. We all understand this, at a certain level, even though we rarely discuss it."
I paused for a moment to consider my next words carefully. "I've lived in a Colony as an inmate, and I've been treated as a subhuman. I've been denied the love and caring that all of us humans owe one another, and for a time perhaps the lack of it did indeed make me less than I might have been. I had difficulty speaking while I was in the Colony, ran about on all fours a lot, and didn't think as clearly as I might have. Yet, underneath the surface I remained human, part of the family of Man. I was different, yes. But I shared common ground with my keepers, whether they chose to acknowledge it or not."
I waved a forepaw out over the congregation. "Can you imagine," I asked, "what it's like to be become legally less than human? To be ripped away from the family of the human species and declared to be something else entirely? To be denied the loving common ground that was your rightful heritage and birthright, and locked away from those whom you love?" I shook my head theatrically. "There are many causes out in the world that you might honorably choose to support," I continued. "Many causes indeed, some of them at least as urgent as my own. If you choose to spend your limited time and resources working towards reducing world hunger, say, or freeing political prisoners, then I will understand entirely. In these actions you will be improving the world and benefiting the family of Man, and thus enriching our common ground for the benefit of us all. If, however, you could find it in your heart to write your lawmakers in support of Representative Carmike's Colonies Reorganization Act, or perhaps even visit a Colony and try to bring a little sunshine into the lives of the inmates there and reassure them that they are indeed still part of the human family, then I would be most grateful indeed. For so long as the Colonies stand in their current form, then the family of Man is broken asunder, and our common ground as a species is thereby impoverished."
Suddenly I realized that I'd drifted far off topic, that I'd probably made rather a fool of myself, in fact, in my attempt to improvise. I looked down at the podium, my ears burning in shame. What a hash I'd made of things! Still, however, I had to make some sort of closing statement, had to try and wrap up my broken little speech as best as I possibly could. "The Colonies as they are today," I said slowly, "are a place where there is no hope and no future for anyone. Almost no one ever gets out once committed; I am far and away the rare exception. I would submit to each and every one of you, as one human being to another, that this fact alone is enough to condemn the current system in the eyes of justice. No human is ever beyond hope. No human is undeserving of caring and of affection. No human is unworthy to walk on our common ground of mutual respect and trust. No human deserves to be abandoned by the rest of their family, bereft of hope and of love."
I raised my eyes one last time, though it was very, very hard after I'd done so badly. Peter was staring off into the distance, I could see, probably bored to tears and regretting the day that he'd met me. How much pain I had brought into his life and the life of his father, with such a poor, pathetic excuse for a speech as the only compensation for all the hurting! "Thank you for your time," I said, though my words trembled uncertainly. "Thank you all so very, very much for sharing some common ground with me, and for accepting me into your family, at least for these few moments." Then at long last I was free to dash back to the little room behind the altar once more and tremble, tremble, tremble until my damaged humanity was once more strong enough to carry me home.
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
From then on, there was little danger that I would ever attempt to speak off the cuff again, despite the fact that the Reverend Christopher wrote me that very Sunday evening to inform me that not only had his congregation enjoyed my speech tremendously, but that it had impacted him personally in a big way as well. He and his wife, Peter claimed, were resolved to spend long hours praying together over its true meaning. Despite his kind words I felt as if I'd flubbed the whole thing terribly, and resolved in the future never to speak at all again in the event that I was so careless as to leave behind the most basic tools of my trade. As December wound down I spoke before Rotary clubs, women's civic groups, and even a tiny meeting of the Libertarian party.
My days off I spent huddled alone in Scallion's back bedroom catching up on Shelter business and making what inquiries I could via e-mail on behalf of my clients. Despite my reduced case-load, I still had plenty to do back home. I'd hoped to spend at least a few of my afternoons out seeing the sights and just driving around the countryside with Scallion, but he remained in a deep, deep funk. After an intense internal debate I'd told him about his granddaughters, and predictably the news had lowered his spirits even further. He rarely left his office the whole time that I was in Washington, and even though I'd truly done nothing wrong I felt vaguely guilty about what had happened to him. Our friendship, which had looked so promising at one point, had been nipped in the bud. The afternoons were warm and sunny, and I was living in the midst of historic places and museums the like of which could be found nowhere else in the world. And yet Scallion and I spent our time politely avoiding one another and making only the most banal of conversation. It was a relief when the sun rose at last on December twenty-fourth; by dark I would be home among friends for the holidays.
"Well," Scallion said when we sat down to breakfast. "This is your last day here."
I nodded. "Thank you very much for the use of your home. And for the rides."
The brown lop smiled slightly, though the expression looked very false on his otherwise dead features. "Thank you for what you're doing, Phil," he said softly. "And I'm so very sorry for... for..."
I sighed and nodded, acknowledging that which my friend could not bring himself to say aloud. "It's all right, Scallion," I replied. "And I'll be seeing you at the Warren meeting in Pittsburgh at the end of January."
His smile faded. "I don't know," he said softly. "I'm thinking about taking a few months away from the Downers."
My jaw dropped. Scallion was the living embodiment of the Watership Downers, at least in my mind. "I don't know if that's a good idea," I began. "Scallion..."
He shook his head and turned away. "Don't. All right Phil? I know that you mean well, but please. Just don't."
I nodded and looked away. "I'll never tell anyone," I said softly. "You know that."
"Yeah," he replied. Then he reached for the salad bowl and changed the subject. "By the way, have you heard the weather reports?"
My ears pricked up. "No."
"Hmm," he continued, mixing and stirring chopped veggies as he spoke. "It seems that winter is finally going to break in a big way. By noon, they're predicting ice on the ground here, followed by heavy snow. The temperature will be dropping forty degrees today."
I pressed my lips together. "My flight leaves at three-thirty."
"I wouldn't count on it," Scallion continued. "According to what I heard this morning, the weather people are calling this a freak storm, something really odd. They weren't predicting anything like it, even as late as last night." He nodded at the window. "Look outside; it's already raining."
I got up and stepped over the kitchen window; sure enough, the wet stuff was already falling. "Oh, no," I whispered to myself.
"Oh, yes," Scallion contradicted me. "You'll need to stay on the internet today to make sure, but I predict that your flight is going to be canceled." He stepped over beside me at the window and shook his head disapprovingly. "I don't like the looks of this, don't like it at all. As soon as we've eaten, I'm going to take a last-minute inventory, and make sure that everything is shipshape. I'll also bring in enough groceries for the two of us. You're welcome to spend Christmas here."
I nodded slowly, my lips still pressed firmly together. I was no sailor with long years of experience in weather-watching behind me, but even I knew that a forty-degree temperature drop in one day plus a little moisture spelt trouble, trouble, trouble in December. "Thank you," I agreed at last. I really didn't want to spend the holiday with Scallion, or at least not the reclusive, gruff Scallion that my once-playful friend had seemingly transformed himself into. However, it seemed likely that I would have little choice.
"You're very welcome," he replied sincerely, reaching out and touching my shoulder for the first time in days. "More welcome than you'll ever know."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
By noon the streets were glazed every bit as thoroughly as had been predicted, and the airport was closed for the duration. The TV news showed images of a pair of Scab-reindeer handing out candy canes and trying to cheer the stranded travelers, and I felt very lucky to be sitting in Scallion's family room in front of a nice warm fire on Christmas eve rather than trying to camp out in a nasty, crowded, noisy airport. "God help sailors on a night like this," my host said as he looked out the back door across his soggy, frozen yard. "'Twould be one hell of an ugly night to be at sea."
"I would imagine so," I agreed, flinching away from the blast of cold air that was suddenly blowing in. "I certainly hope that I never find out."
"Hmph!" Scallion agreed, closing the door and sitting down next to me. "You know, I've always thought that you were smarter than you looked. Me, now, I had to go join the Navy just to be sure."
I nodded and tried to smile, though the corners of my mouth barely lifted.
"So," Scallion asked me after a time. "What do you do on Christmas?"
I raised my ears inquiringly. "What do you mean?" I asked after a moment.
"What do you do on Christmas?" he asked again. "What are your family traditions?"
In recent years, I'd spent my Christmases drinking too much in a certain bar. Before that I'd had one terribly lonely holiday in an apartment, and the year before that an even worse one in the Colonies. "You mean when I was a kid?" I asked at last.
He shrugged. "Yes, if you'd like."
"Well," I began, remembering. "We opened our gifts on Christmas Eve."
"Right," agreed Scallion. "Us, too."
"We ate finger foods, usually really good stuff that we only ate once a year. Everyone opened just one present at a time, except for the really little ones who couldn't stand to wait."
Scallion smiled. "That's how we used to do things."
"Then we'd play family games," I remembered. "Nothing special, just cards or something. But we all had fun."
Scallion remained silent for a long, long time, his eyes very distant. "We always put up our tree on Christmas Eve," he said very quietly. He nodded at the corner of the room furthest from the fireplace. "It went over there. The whole clan gathered here. One of the uncles or in-laws would play Santa Claus, and on Christmas Eve he would give out presents and candy to the littlest ones. The kids would scream and dance, they would get so excited, while the older ones who knew what was going on would laugh at them and pretend that they were much too big for candy and presents."
I nodded; obviously Christmas had once been quite a production in this house.
"I haven't put up the tree in recent years," Scallion said slowly. "In fact, of late I try to go for a long drive on Christmas Eve, to look at other people's decorations."
And to get away from this old house and its memories, I finished for him mentally. Then I nodded again. "I can see where Christmas might be a hard time for you, given how things have turned out."
He shrugged. "Sometimes." Then he reached under a chair and pulled out a present. "But not this year, Phil. Thanks for coming and staying with me."
My jaw dropped. I wasn't exactly shocked; after all, people do give each other gifts at Christmas-time, and I'd gotten something for Scallion as well. This gift, however, was wrapped in such fine paper and decorated so lavishly with fancy little ribbon-sculptures that I rather suspected the wrappings were worth more than my entire present for Scallion. "But... But..."
"Just open it," Scallion directed.
"To Phil," the card said. "To whom no cause is ever truly lost. From the Watership Downers." I looked up at Scallion in thanks, and then, very carefully, bit off one end of the surprisingly heavy little package.
Inside was a brand new laptop computer. I looked over at my friend, astounded. "Scallion! But..."
He held up a hand. "You're doing important work, Phil, work that we want very badly for you to succeed at. Sometimes I think that your little project is the one thing that all of us Downers have in common. And we understand that for you to succeed, you need proper tools." He paused. "You are familiar with this model, aren't you?"
"No," I had to admit. "I don't follow this kind of thing very closely."
Scallion smiled. "I see. Go ahead, then, and turn it on."
The laptop was much smaller than my own, though only a little lighter. The screen must be pretty tiny, I thought to myself. I searched and searched for some kind of latch, but could only find a little green switch. "That's it," Scallion said. "Put it on the coffee table and press the button."
I did so, and suddenly the plain little box came alive. A dandelion came to life in mid air above the machine, the emblem of our warren. It was a holographic machine! I'd never even heard of such a thing! My eyes widened in amazement. "Wow!" I said. "This is incredible!"
"But it's not the best part," Scallion replied proudly. "Look down."
I did so, and in front of the laptop was projected a glowing keyboard and trackball-style mouse. "That's amazing!" I whispered.
"Mm-hmm," Scallion agreed. "It surely is." The machine continued to boot, and in a flash the glowing keyboard quintupled in size. "Try it, Phil."
The projected keys were now large enough for my clumsy forepaws. Suddenly I understood the real import of Scallion's gift, and a tear formed in the corner of one eye. "Scallion," I began again. "I can't possibly accept --"
"Try it, Phil," he said again, cutting me off in mid-sentence. "You're a professional now, doing a job that is important to us all. You need proper tools. We can't have you wasting so much time with a pencil in your mouth any more."
I gulped, and turned to face the glowing keyboard. Gingerly I reached out and touched the mouse; the little arrow icon stirred slightly against the dandelion background and then began to move to the right. I shifted my forepaw slightly, and the arrow skittered off to the left.
"Select the word-processing program," Scallion suggested.
It felt very odd to be manipulating a computer with a forefoot instead of my mouth, but in a trice I had the arrow over the appropriate place. "To click," Scallion continued, "just bounce your hand up and down quickly."
I did so, and before I knew it the word processor was up and running. Very carefully I pressed down the oversized space bar with my left forepaw, and the cursor slid over obediently.
I hadn't been able to operate a keyboard since the Flu. Not any keyboard. And I'd never been able to find a voice-recognition program that didn't prove to be so frustrating that it challenged my sanity.
Suddenly my forepaws were flying over the insubstantial keys. "The quick brown rabbit hopped over the lazy smelly old dog.", I tapped out in a fraction of the time it would have taken me to express myself with a pencil.
"Hooray!" Scallion cried out, hopping up and down in glee and for the moment at least his happy old self. "Hooray! I knew that it would work for you, if we adjusted the keyboard big enough!"
"Hooray!" I agreed, spreading my arms wide and letting Scallion fall into them. We hugged for a seemingly endless time before I finally pulled myself away. "Thank you," I said at last. "Thank you all so very much!"
Scallion grinned. "Thank you!" he answered.
Then it was time for me to offer my own gift. I'd left it behind the couch a couple of days earlier, planning to call Scallion from the Shelter on Christmas and tell him where his gift was. It took only a moment for me to duck underneath and pull it out for him, and it took him only a moment longer to deal with the clumsy wrapping job that was the best I could manage. For a very long moment Scallion looked down at his gift, and when he raised his eyes they were filled with tears. "How did you get these?" he asked at last.
"Does it really matter?" I asked softly. "I happen to have a few friends in low places, is all." In point of fact, I'd once done a cage call for the wife of a local photographer, who had been very grateful. It was a very rare thing for me to ask for something in return for my services, and in truth I wasn't sure that I really wanted to know precisely what strings the owner of Capitol Photographic Services had pulled among his fellow professional photographers in order to obtain copies of the baptismal photographs of Sarah and Mary Christopher. So far as I was concerned, the important thing was that I'd gotten them, and that they were now in the hands of a very deserving and appreciative owner.
"No," Scallion replied after another very long silence. "I don't suppose that it does."
Then we snuggled again in front of the warm fire for a very long time. We'd have probably fallen asleep and spent the night there, if it hadn't been for the doorbell.
Our heads rose as one. "Who could that be?" Scallion asked.
"I don't know," I replied, swallowing down a host of typically rabbity fears. Your average lapine does not in the least appreciate being disturbed in his home at night by unannounced callers. "Maybe someone's had an accident?"
"It could well be, on a night like tonight," Scallion answered grimly. "I'll get it. You wait here by the phone."
"Right," I agreed. As Scallion grimly padded off I carefully removed the receiver from the family room extension and, picking up the pencil that was kept there for my convenience, dialed first a 'nine' and then a 'one'.
Scallion looked back at me, and I nodded grimly. Then he swung the door open wide, revealing...
...the Reverend Peter Christopher and his wife Jeanette, each of them carrying one of their twin daughters.
"Hello, sir," Peter said formally. "Merry Christmas."
For a long moment Scallion was too shocked to reply. "Hello, Peter," he said at last. "It's been a very long time."
Peter nodded grimly, then looked over at his wife. She nodded as well, and then he spoke for them both. "Too long, we've decided. Much too long. Jeanine and I have been doing a lot of praying, sir, about the real meaning of right and wrong and what we owe our fellow men. Even more, we've been praying about what we might owe you. We think that it's past time for us to try and rebuild our family on the common ground that we share as fellow human beings, instead of allowing our differences to keep us apart. I'm willing to try again, if you're willing. " He paused, looking his father in the eye. "Sir, may we come in?"
"Of course!" Scallion answered, scurrying out of the way. "It must be terrible out on the roads! I can't believe that you drove all the way over here in this mess."
"It's Christmas Eve," Peter replied as if explaining the obvious. "We have to put the tree up; I've got one out in the car. And besides." For the first time he smiled. "There's a couple of little somebodies here that I'd very much like to introduce to you..."
Very quietly I picked up the photographs of Scallion's granddaughters that I'd given him for Christmas and stole up the back steps to my little bedroom. He wouldn't be needing questionably-obtained pictures so badly anymore, not with the genuine article back in his life. Nor did the Napletons need me sticking my nose any further into their private family business, at least not for the next few hours anyway. It would be best for everyone if I simply vanished for a time, and let the others rediscover each other without my interference. There was after all plenty of Shelter work still to be done, and on this particular night it would be a pleasure to do it.
After all, it was Christmas Eve, and I was warm and dry and in a house that had suddenly and most unexpectedly been filled with love and hope. What more could anyone possibly ask?