Friday, 11 July 2014

The Wastage of the Willows – Branch I; Leaf V

Not dark yet…

When the Badger called all the inhabitants of the river bank together, for the first time, under the ancient small-leaved lime tree, no-one could remember such a gathering happening within living memory; nor could anyone imagine what it would lead to.

The Mole and the Water Rat had enlisted the mice and rabbits to ensure that everyone was aware that the meeting was taking place: spreading the news keenly from burrow to hole to nest, hall and field, and beyond; and even nailing handmade notices to the willows. Some of the animals were still scared of the Badger, back then: but his sagacity, seniority and authority drew them in, nonetheless, to listen to what he had to say.

Raising himself up on a convenient mossy log, under the tree’s thinning canopy, as the sun started to bed behind the mustered, eager throng, the Badger repeated the grave news; and warned the river-bankers of the impending threat: an expansion of the Wide World – an invasion, in reality – encroaching on what they all thought of as theirs: their land, their territory, their homes. “But why is he doing this?” whispered the Otter: “HIS home is safe. No-one would dare attack the Wild Wood.”

“Because he cares, is the simple answer,” stated the Rat. “Because he cares not only for himself, his cosy seclusion; but because he cares for ALL of us; doesn’t want us – or our little piece of the countryside – to be hurt; to be damaged; even to disappear. Badger’s a noble beast; and would put himself out for any one of us. As he sees it: any harm comes to us, it comes to him.”

As the Badger delivered his speech, thoughtfully, and with measure, the animals’ fear of him faded away, and they started to gather closer: encouraging him to invite them to ask questions, to tell their peers THEIR thoughts: what could be done; and when; and by whom. Which of them would help him fight the battles that lay ahead?

For a moment, silence fell – not a harsh silence like the threatening stillness that arrives just before a summer thunderstorm; but a gentle, thinking silence, like the one that emerges just before a duckling leaves dry land for the first time, to discover the joys of the river; or a fledgling sparrow first takes to the air. This was a new situation for everyone: the making concrete of an idea of community that had, until now, just been a loose fellowship – creatures of passing acquaintance united by location, rather than in common purpose.

“What do you need us to do?” squeaked a small voice, hesitantly, instinctively, from the back of the crowd. The expectant calm was broken; and a huge feeling of relief and even comfort spread through the throng. If this small creature – “Oh, it’s one of the young rabbits,” murmured the Mole – was brave enough to stand up and make itself heard, then they could, too. Not that permission was needed; nor bravery; just that someone had to be the first to stand in the Badger’s rather large paw-prints – and not for fame, neither; nor reward – but because they realized the importance requisite in such steps; and knew that others would then follow suit.

“To be honest, at the moment, I’m not sure, young fellow,” smiled the Badger, thoughtfully – stretching his arm out generously towards the smaller animal: beckoning him to his side. “But if enough of us can get together to talk things through; discover how others have dealt with such menaces; how the rules of the Wide World can help us; then, presently, I’m sure we’ll be able to start working out a plan of sorts. We can then reconvene, and move those ‘things’ on: making sure we’re all in agreement.”

As he spoke, several others – including the Mole and Water Rat, of course; and even a pair of weasels – joined the Badger and the small rabbit by the sturdy trunk. Realizing that he was towering over them, the Badger gingerly climbed down; and sat on the thick fallen branch instead – by which time, he was surrounded by eight or nine volunteers: some of them not really knowing why they had walked forward; but understanding that this was IMPORTANT; that their lives were about to be altered, irrevocably; and it was up to them to make sure this was for the better, rather than for the worse.

“Thank you, all,” intoned the Badger, as stillness returned. “Thank you for coming” – as he looked around the wider group – “and thank you for making yourselves known” – bringing his gaze to those close by him. “It is, sadly, only in times of trouble, that we need to come together, like this; and it has been many lifetimes since last it happened; but I KNOW we will all do our very best – each in our own way – to protect what we have; what we river-bankers all stand for. I also know that this is far too big simply for the Council of Animals to address. Although they are known for being cautious” – a momentary glance towards the Otter inviting his tacit agreement – “I am certain they will help us in their own way: especially with their knowledge of the law…. But this is something different, something new; and it will take the strength at the heart of us all to fight and to win. I can make no promises, though. I just know it is better that we try, than stand idly by, and watch our beloved world fade away.”

As the gravity of these words sank in, the sun finally disappeared, the assembly dispersed; and, with the orange glow of the clouds reflecting in the Badger’s now glistening eyes, there rose a cooling autumnal wind: presaging what was to come, perhaps; and ensuring that supper, that evening, would be a more solemn affair than usual, all along the river, and in the meadows between it and the Wild Wood. Tones would be hushed; thoughts would rehearse themselves more thoroughly than of usual – anything flippant being held back for another day – and a new tangible mixture of solemnity and hope would suffuse itself through the air and through the ground, and through the very water. Change was coming; and coming far too soon.

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