Alice Millington St Albans, UK - The Thief.
Scum- that’s what they call me. Vermin. Dirt. Those have been thrown around too. But dangerous? I never thought I was that. I was nothing, nobody, foraging around in the bins for scraps, just a bite to eat to fill my aching belly. It wasn’t my fault when they came.
The taste of cat food filled my mouth and I stuffed the morsels hungrily. I hadn’t eaten food for so long. I’d been ill. Not feeling myself. Strange, it was. But you carry on as normal out here, sick or healthy. The alternative is death.
The shadow of dusk enveloped my sight, and I thought it was a trick of the light when the cat food I’d been eating disappeared in front of my eyes. Yes, as I craned round, the food seemed invisible from sight, vanished into the night. I put my paw out experimentally, touching the pavement in front of me. It wasn’t the light. The food had gone.
A flash of white in the dark, and I suddenly recognised the thief.
“It’s you!” I gasped. “You give that back!”
The skunk jeered, waving its tail mockingly as it clasped the last scraps of cat food- my cat food- in its paws. Make no mistake, this skunk had venom in its eyes as well as its scent glands; we’d crossed before over food and I wasn’t going to give in this time.
“Make me.” The skunk’s dark eyes flashed and it showed its sharp white teeth. An outstretched paw offered the food and I made a furious swipe at it before the paw withdrew hastily, still clutching my food. I stood on my hind legs, my tail slashing the ground. A nerve twitched in my eyelid.
“Give me the food, and no-one will get hurt.” I warned, my voice low and trembling with agitation.
“Is that a threat?” The skunk seemed amused. It twitched its tail.
“Yes.” I suddenly sprung at it, infuriated at its smug possession of the food I needed so badly, its stupid flashing dark eyes and sharp-toothed smile. It recoiled in shock, before twisting round sharply and trying to sink its teeth into my fur. I retaliated, screeching, clawing at the black and white tufts on its back, ripping out hunks of matted fur. The food fell to the ground, forgotten. We were a rolling ball of screeching, snarling fur, bashing into dustbins, the alley walls scraping our backs the flash of tooth and claw consuming us. I smashed into a dustbin; the contents flew all over us. We didn’t care. There was nothing there except the fight, just riding the bloodlust that overpowered us. I sunk my teeth into the fur and came away tasting blood. The skunk yowled, and suddenly there was the choking smell that overwhelmed me, and I sank to the ground, spluttering. The skunk smiled, staring down at me writhing on the ground, and it reared up for the kill.
Lights. Noises. A flurry of movement. The skunk hesitated, alarmed. I took advantage of its momentary distraction and sprang upwards, teeth bared, but when my teeth found hold on flesh, it wasn’t the skunk’s watery blood I tasted at all. It was the meaty undertone to the rich red liquid that could only mean one thing.
The piercing scream echoed through my ears as if it would never stop.
“Ray! Ray! Come and see what this freaking piece of vermin did to me!” footsteps blundered closer to the open door and another shadowy figure accompanied the screaming, hopping one.
“What, honey? Oh, mother of God. That did that to you?” The new figure stared down at me, and I stared back, frozen with fear and shock.
“Yes. It hurts!” the first figure- the one with blood dripping from its forepaw- whined shrilly.
“Sarah, we’ll go to the ER. After I deal with this piece of scum.” A fat pink forepaw reached out and snatched me by my scruff. A flash of metal, and I was tossed into an empty silver dustbin. The lid went on, and I was in darkness.
“I’ll deal with you later.”
That’s how it came to be that, three days later, I sit on the cold metal table in the room. A figure approaches with a needle, and stab of pain hits me. I collapse, the cold of the metal of the table harsh against my frantically beating heart. My eyelids feel so heavy.
“This rabies virus will become an epidemic soon if we don’t watch out.”
“It’s all these raccoons in the cities that are responsible. This one was foraging in the dustbins in someone’s back yard, would you believe?”
“I hate raccoons.”
“Shush, Adam- he might hear you!”
“Oh, Mandy, get real. It’s not as if this thing can understand English. This one’s probably almost dead by now anyway. Good thing they managed to save that poor girl it attacked, that’s all I can say. The whole raccoon species is just a filthy, dangerous, rabies-infected piece of dirt.”
“Well, at least this one won’t be spreading rabies further. I think he’s slipping away.”
The world vanishes around me. My vision fades to black.
A brilliant flash of white slashes through the darkness.
I close my eyes.
Very Highly Commended : Song Zheng Yi
And then there were three.
One white skinned. One dark skinned. And another whose skin was yellow. Each of a different creed and race, but with a common dignity shared between the three. They had never met, were strangers to each other in sight, speech and form. And yet, in this strange field, this field of flowing white poppies with little ruffled petals floating in the breeze, in this strange, empty eerie silence, so calm and yet so ephemeral, a void missing but an angel’s harp, in this dreamland, they felt intertwined with each other. Like a wave of déjà vu, with memories only forged and remembered in dreams. And somehow, they understood each other’s speech, each other’s hearts, in a link seen so rarely, only within the confines of reverie.
It started with the silence, the awkward moments at the beginning with every meeting between strangers. The quiet was a refuge for three to whom the manners of each was unfathomable, to whom the behavior of each was foreign. And as each stared at the other, judging, the tension was palpable. Smothered and grew. Stoked by the shyness of unfamiliar faces, it raged. Until finally, it burnt, unable to be contained. And only then did the probes of first tentative words start to emerge, still blind and feeling their way through like the wriggling of blind worms.
“Hey……what’s your name?”
The ice was broken. The first few questions were simple. Names. Occupations. Relations. The daily anecdotes that dominated so much of conversation and lives. Arbitrary questions that change from person to person, and whose answers, like puffs of smoke, evaporate and vanish as soon as they reach the mind, until no memory of the conversation is left by the end of the day. But these fleeting conversations are important nonetheless; for without the labels that divide us into the different fragments of society, what are we?
But still they talked, continued to know each other better, until the trio imagined each other as friends. They knew each other’s names now, knew about the times one had fallen and twisted his ankle hunting, knew the other’s perchance for his cozy home in the middle of a winter wonderland.
So they started telling more, sharing more. Their common fears. Fears of starvation and poverty, at thoughts of watching their children cry of hunger, of watching the fear in their wives’ eyes. Fears of change, at the society rapidly evolving around them, as grey slowly replaced green and new gizmos and gadgets told of their rapid decline. Fears of death, at the common thought of staring down the barrel of gun.
And they talked not only of the fears that bound them all, but what inspired the courage to face another day. Their hopes that the sons they left behind would grow up healthy and strong, just like their father, that their daughter would find a loving mate, a guardian and protector. The nostalgia for the good old ways of life, where people appreciated the world, and the world appreciated humanity. Their wish for a hopeful, fulfilled life. The three sat among the field of cotton discussing their dreams and nightmares, as the bright rays of the afternoon sun illuminated their features.
But even as they shared, they noted. They noted that within each heart lies a shred they would not speak off, a sliver of which they would not tell. And within their own heart, they knew that deep within themselves were secrets that they would never be willing to reveal. They guessed at the other’s deeds. Perhaps one was a thief? Had he abandoned his wife? Or maybe killed another for his possessions and lands?
But what of it? They disliked it, but could they judge others when they themselves were doing the same? Deep within each heart lies a place so dark that nothing, not even silence, can speak of it. And so, they attempted to ignore it, and move on with their conversation of arbitrary snippets.
But it went on, and on. It weighed on their minds, jiggling both curiosity and annoyance with every sentence, a fog growing with every word. The air grew tense. Glares exchanged. Harsh words flew across. And even as they bared their teeth against the other, they cried. They were the same, almost. Why could they not understand each other? Why could the others not understand him?
Then a thunderclap. And rain.
A shower of droplets cascaded upon them. They stared at each other, at the knives extended in their hands, at the snarls of teeth against each other, and at the look of desperation in each other’s eyes. And then, they remembered.
They remembered the day of their deaths. A rusted rifled held by a callused hand. Snarls. A litter of cubs whimpering in the dark, their mother curled protectively around them, mists in her eyes. Baring of fangs and claws. Terse, unintelligible words. Greed in their eyes, but also, desperation. The desperate eyes he knew all too well, mirrored in his eyes in times of want and drought. His fur gleamed in the bright sunlight. He knew that look. He knew that for their families, for their own survival, they would not back down.
They were common, so different, yet so much alike. They each had their own fears and wants to dream of, each had their own little dark secret they needed to conceal. They each had their own interests, they would never have met. But deep down, they were the same construct. They had the same goals. And in the end, they had the same fate.
They understood at last.
And so the three leopards bounded across the white field they now call home. And when the clouds parted below their feet, they would look down upon the remnants of humanity, and weep for their brothers who sent them up. Tears of sorrow for the beasts who understood, the last of their kind.
Very Highly Commended : Fiona Doyle - A Stolen Crown
The floor is damp - the night air has fallen like a blanket, it has come ever so quickly this year. I Hear a crash in the distance. I stop, I freeze for a second - nothing. I creep forward, then I begin to stride once more. The leaves rustle as my weight falls over them, a few fall gently to the floor, they dance in the wind, delicate and beautiful before they settle on the cold, wet, ground.
Water drops onto my nose. I hate water, as if knowing this it falls faster, heavier. I pad on, I think about my family. Dead. I have feelings, they don’t know that? Do they care? I stalk forward. Will I see anyone of my kind again? Probably not, I haven’t in a long time. I feel like a rare diamond as I walk on - I whish my own instincts would be enough to protect me. Not anymore. I whish I didn’t know - I whish I was young again, careless, wild, looked after. But I’m not and know.
I Think back. I don’t remember much. I try to think harder. The land stretched on back then - there were no roads. There were many other families in this area, I’m sure there were. I had a son. Not much - a thin creature, but my heir, my baby. He was so beautiful, I think some more.
I try so hard to remember what it was like before they came. I’m sure it was peaceful, and I was well fed, but its hard to find food now, it’s scarce, and there is no more peace. Constant fear. I lie down. It feels like giving up - no, cant do that. Would they? Would those that invaded my home give up if I took their child. No. They’d kill me. Funny that. They wanted mercy when they were weak, powerless. I’ve heard the stories. Heard how we were the ones that they thought about and feared. Not anymore. I wander if I will be part of them stories. One of the mighty that have fallen - one of the last. I wonder if my legacy will die with me or will I become a myth? No. Can’t think of that.
I reach the end of the wood - It used to be a lot taller, it used to spread for so many more miles, so many more each way. Now I stare at fallen trees, mudded pools and destroyed vegetation and homes. I hide under the cover of the night, I whish I didn’t have to, but I can’t die. Not yet. I stalk towards the a small mound, my mound, closer to the debris. I feel tired as I stand staring at my destroyed home. I stand proud where I used to for one final time. I let out a stunning ROAR! They heard me, I’m sure of it. I don’t want to run, but I know I should. Yet I’m not scared anymore. I’m the king of the jungle and they have taken my crown - stolen from me, and then wasted it cruelly and out of greed. They should fear ME. They would, they would if their weaponry did not protect them. I think of the time that will fall upon them, when something stronger and better them will make them feel how I now feel. Today is not that day, nor tomorrow. Soon though, soon.
I run. A lion running from a human.
The predator running from the prey.
Soon I’m sure they’ll be the lion. Soon.
I stop and stare back one last time, and then I disappear into the darkness. Hopefully not for good. Hopefully not for forever.
Very Highly Commended : Megan Ann Owens, Derbyhsire UK - My Story:
It’s not something I wanted to see, as an eight year old girl on holiday. A plot of land smudged with blackness. When I was here earlier in the year I saw trees and grass, wildlife and joy in the booming land of beast, bird and insect! Now, it’s gone.
Something has to wander away alive from the degrading tatters of their used-to-be homes. As man saunters in with his flames and hoes ready to cut down our precious nature in order to build a new factory of grow crops of the ‘more-important’ kind. That something is often an animal, very rarely will it be a human, and it’s often a Grizzly Bear.
A lot of animals suffer, a lot go unnoticed, they’re all tortured by the curse of being unable to speak our language and even when they try to communicate we turn the other way; those who don’t get pushed to the side by fellow mankind. The Grizzly will rise on her hind legs; considering to cause an argument, but so many times she has walked away- walked away to find a new home. If she was uprooted after spring season, she would have to travel with two young cubs to a new foreign land- somewhere so far from what she was used to and although her mate was long gone she would pine for company.
If she was thrown away in winter then the rough winds, cold snow and scarce food would drive her to death. She would watch her cubs die then slowly stop herself, she would be left to the mercies of nature itself and soon she would be nothing but a buried memory beneath man-made structure. Even that may have been a mercy. Can’t anyone imagine what it would be like if the table were turned? If man were forced from their homes by brutal means such as fire or loud incomprehensible machines. We would run and scream as scary sights would cut down our shelter; hideous smells would intoxicate our children and ear-splitting sounds would confuse us.
Why should that happen to anything on earth? It is our earth, as our babies are our responsibility; the earth is in our charge. If we destroy it too quickly then we have only ourselves to blame, if we don’t look after the environment then we can’t complain when the animals forsake us when we need help. We should thank whoever or whatever created this beautiful planet for all it has given us: plants that provide medicines, food and pretty sights; water which holds such wonders beneath it and life and animals that provide companionship, balance and marvellous highlights.
The Grizzly Bear has done nothing to us, they are docile and only care to tend to their young and live in peace. All they ask is to be left alone in a place they like to call home, just as we ourselves do, so they may live a free and kind life.
I say this only now- as I look upon the burnt, char that used to be grass and trees- that we have caused so much terror to such amazing creatures. The wind has picked up, and as it blows embers towards me I catch the sight of two figures treading their way across the ‘field’, only two now. Only two. I see what we have done, and hope to unite with others to stop what we are doing. A single tear trickles down this pale face, into the ground that is now empty and dead...