Sunday, April 27, 2014

Not Zen 108: Not Me

In the smallest of bison herds lived the largest, most powerful male, thick of shoulder, armed with horns, hooves, and heavy fur.  He led his throng from tundra to plains for foraging.  In the summer, the nearby males joined the rest of the group for the breeding season.  As in other such conclaves, each male or female concentrated on their rivalries during this time.
But even after mating season ended, members of the herd stayed focused on rivalries.  It was a trend that had continued for years.  All into the fall and through the winter, the problem grew.  It remained through the departure of the male herd.  It worsened when the males rejoined.  It was so prevalent that the lead male had to speak.
"I can't keep watch on the entire herd all of the time," he told the lead females.  "Even I must sleep. There are many grey wolves gathering.  Other bison need to fulfill their duties as adults."

"We see the wolves," said his most recent mate.  "And we watch you drive them off."

"When I was young, all adults pitched in to defend.  I don't think we can continue with only me and a few others."

Dusk arrived.  In the waning light, additional wolves emerged from the north.  As the lead male had done before, he gathered his allies. 

Lone wolves sometimes take down adult bison on their own.  They were powerful foes and, on this night, attackers outnumbered defenders.  The wolves stampeded the herd.  The lead bison dashed to protect the calves.  All of the young ones were slow on their feet.  The herd left them behind.  Predators swarmed to take the youngest.

One of the leader's allies, an old male, fell in the fierce defense and was killed by the wolves.  In the aftermath, the leader succeeded in rescuing the children.  Only four females and three grown males remained by his side for the duration.

When he brought the calves back to the main herd, he roared.

"Everyone must defend the children!" the male bellowed in his fury.  "Everyone!  It's is the duty of every adult.  What kind of herd doesn't  protect the young?"

"I have no children," said one male.

"My calf was born first.  He kept up," said a female.

"Listen to yourselves!"  The male stomped the ground.  "You all benefited from the herd when you were young.  You lived under the protection of the adults.  They took responsibility.  If they had left you to fend for yourself the way you left our calves this evening, you would be dead."

"The times were different."

"We have our own struggles," said a mother.

"A herd that doesn't care for its young will soon be old," he insisted.  "Then it will perish.  Next time, I expect you to look after the calves."

Over the course of an hour, he talked them into it.  Everyone agreed, whether due to his insistence or because they had been prompted to remember their youth, to take part in their mutual defense.  Even disgruntled bison remembered how they had been helped by the herd once.

By morning, a few wolves showed themselves again.  They came from the east and the north.  Adult bison swarmed to defend their young.  The predators hung back to watch the herd and study it for weakness.  Perhaps they felt satiated by their recent kill.  They waited.

In the following dusk, more wolves came.  The herd could not escape.  Some of the adults lost their courage.  In the morning, an attack by a lone wolf wounded a female.  The wolf escaped unharmed.  The leader and three others chased it to no avail.  

The lead male returned, troubled by the lack of herd spirit.  He reminded the adult bison of their promise to protect the calves.

That evening, a pack of wolves chased the herd. Again, the children fell behind.  Again, the leader and a few others mounted a defense.  Despite their efforts, one of the attackers wounded a calf.  Then four wolves latched onto and dragged down a female, possibly the calf's mother.

By the time the leader and his band of rescuers returned to the herd, they were trembling with exhaustion.  Their only consolation was that the wounded child had recovered.  She no longer bled and she seemed hardy enough to survive.  That was a victory.

"You were gone a long while," said the leader's recent mate, who had stayed with the great herd.  "A lone wolf came again.  We did not know what to do."

"You defended yourselves, I hope."

"Why were you not here?"

The leader described his situation.  He could not protect the whole herd.  No one could.  "You must take responsibility, all of you.  I realize now, that our herd must be weak.  It's not that our adults here aren't strong.  But the wolves follow us, our group, more than any other.  That must be because they know that we will give up our members to them."

"But it's the fault of the children themselves," said a female.  "They are too slow."

"Why would you expect children to fend for themselves?  You are the ones who are fully grown.  Calves fall behind because they are weak and small.  They need us to provide food, water, and protection."

"Then it's the fault of their parents.  The parents should provide."

"And if they cannot?  How long can we survive without helping one another?"  The male raised his voice to the crowd.  "Are we not, each of us, responsible to the rest?"

Silence was the response.  The leader had almost made up his mind to leave.  He decided to give them a last chance.

"Who is responsible for this child?" he called, hoping that the adults would call back to him in their acceptance of responsibility.

"Not me."

"Not me."

"Who is the mother?" a female asked.

The bull turned and left.  He had been their leader for so long, others tried to follow.  Whenever those who had answered 'not me' tried to join him, the bull drove them off.  He allowed those who helped the herd to remain by his side.  The others, he left to themselves.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Not Zen 107: Full Teacup

A teaching candidate won a position at a large university.  She was a wiry woman, energetic and animated as she spoke.  Her lectures sparked ideas, laughter, and gasps of understanding from her students.  After her first semester, her classes over-subscribed.  Her department chair noticed.  Although he was nearing retirement, he took an interest in new ideas in his field.  He decided to attend one of her classes.

He arrived early enough to get the first seat.  Soon, he found himself surrounded by students.  He raised his eyebrows when late arrivals brought chairs and placed them in the aisles.  Other students stood in the open doors.  He watched the teacher arrive.  She launched into her material.  Hands flew up.  She answered questions.  The department chair learned that her ideas did not agree with his but her arguments were well-formed and backed by research.  His face remained impassive.  He considered her take on matters that he'd once thought were settled.

Although he felt well-hidden in the crowd, by the end of the class the young teacher recognized her colleague.  She invited him to stay after the lecture to share a pot of tea.

They talked for a while in the young woman's office.  The old fellow did not seem much interested in his tea.  He let it rest on the table by his side.

"I found your talk quite instructive," he mused.  He rubbed his beard.  "You have innovative methods."

"Oh," the teacher blushed.  "I have nothing to teach one such as you, sir."

"Huh."  The old seemed to notice his tea at last.  He grabbed the cup.  "My drink has gone cold."

With a shaky hand, he held out the teacup to his younger colleague.  Obediently, his host picked up the teapot.  She started to pour.  With a yelp, she halted. 

"Professor, your cup is already full," the young teacher complained.

"I know.  You'll have to pour harder."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Not Zen 106: Safety

On an early summer day, a dog chased gray squirrels. The squirrels scattered and rested, then scattered again as the dog raced through them. Eventually, one squirrel knocked over another. The dog caught the fallen one. It shook and killed its prey.

The fallen squirrel was the father of a newborn. His mate watched as he died. She hid her pup's eyes.

"Don't look!" she hissed.

"What's happening?"

"Nothing. I'll keep you safe."

"I can't move, mama. You're sitting on me."

By the next day, her dismay over the loss of her mate had grown into a determination that the incident would not be repeated with her child. She vowed to keep him safe in their nest, a hollow cleft between branches. 

When her pup wanted to leave the tree for food, she stopped him. She brought back acorns for two from her dead mate's cache. When he wanted to run and play, she pushed him back to the nest. When she caught him hanging upside down from their branch, she scolded him. When he learned to misbehave as she foraged for food, she gave up her work and relied on her sister in a neighboring oak tree.

"You're spoiling that child," said her sister.

"He does plenty," she replied. "But I make sure he's safe when he does."

"How will he grow up? Every time he asks you if he can do something, you do it for him."

"He's safer that way."

A month later, when her pup asked where he could hide nuts for himself, she allowed him to watch as she did it. He didn't go farther than the base of the tree. When a cat came out to hunt at dusk, the neighbors came out to watch. But the mother did not want her child to see. She hid him deep in her nest.

"What was that thing?" he asked.

His mother blocked his view. "You don't need to know. Stay where it's safe."

Her pup protested but he didn't fight.

By the time her pup reached maturity, he'd given up his protests. He'd come to expect that his mother would protect him. Once as his aunt was visiting, she sighted another cat. She showed it to him and took the opportunity to explain about predators.

"Don't tell him about murder!" his mother cried. "It gives him bad dreams."

"But he needs to know," said his aunt. "Everyone does."

"Go back to your own tree!"

In the late summer, the young squirrels left their parents' nests. Her son was the last. She didn't want to let him but she had to admit that he'd gotten too big for their nest. Her child saw what the other squirrels had done to find hollows in trunks and branches. Those were all long taken. He saw the nests others had built from twigs and leaves.

"How can I build my home?" he wondered.

His mother built his home, not too far from hers. All autumn, as the squirrels gathered food for the winter, her child did his best. He roamed cautiously. He was nearly killed when he failed to flee from a housecat. He found acorns all around but didn't know how to store them. He'd only watched his mother do it before, so his caches were easy to find. Other squirrels looted them. As he grew more desperate to gather food, he lost some of it forever as he ranged too far and buried too deeply.

During the winter, his mother fed both of them. They came close to starvation. They were the first squirrels out to forage in the spring. Yet they both lived thanks to the mild weather.

"Mother, how can I find a mate?" he asked one day.

"They're all around. And you're healthy. Why have none chosen you?"

She consulted her sister. Her sister pointed out that the young squirrel had been tested by mates and by rivals. He always failed.

"Help me find him a mate, sister. Please," she begged. It took a long while, but his aunt found a lonely female who was willing to meet the grown pup. But the interview ended abruptly.

"He can't care for himself," the female said. "So how could he care for my children?"

"This is a shame," his mother said. After the female had left, she turned on her son. She cried, "How did you get this way?"

"Well, it took a lot of effort to make him like this, didn't it?" said his aunt.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Not Zen 105: In Evil Circumstance

Rome overthrew Emperor Tarquinius. The senate ruled.

In the summer after his overthrow, Tarquinius endured the heat to ride across the lands of Italy. He gathered allies to retake the empire. The strongest of his collaborators was the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena of Clusium. He was a burly man, tough, well-spoken, and his own general. It was Porsena, not Tarquinius, who led the combined forces. In thick bronze armor, he rode at the front of his own three legions with supporting forces behind.

Porsena captured town after town. He annexed Roman territories and made them his own. He took Roman hostages. Soon, he besieged the city of Rome. But at the end of the fighting season, the war had fallen into a stalemate. Porsena retreated to friendly lands. He negotiated with the Roman senate.

Meanwhile, the Roman hostages labored in camps. They had a doctor to care for them. He was young and healthy. Yet one day he lay down in the grass next to his tent and would not get up.

One of the hostage women, Cloelia, came with her sisters and chaperone to persuade the doctor to rise.

"I can't give aid to evil any longer," he told them. "I save men but then Porsena kills them. I heal women but he forces them into slavery or marriage. There's no longer any point to what I do."

"Rebellion, I could understand," said Cloelia, who had been raised on the stoic virtues. "But not despair. Don't give up."

"You will be forced to marry, too," he said. "You're young and noble. You'll be forced or you'll be killed."

"Perhaps. In the meantime, I'll do what I can. You're our doctor. I understand that the Etruscans hate you and call you names. They throw stones. But if our enemies kill you for your kindness to others, then at least you will have died honorably. I'll fight to protect you if the moment allows it. That's the only honorable thing I can do for you and my sisters. But until then, someone else's evil is no excuse for yours."

"Will you fight and die for others? You, a girl?"

"Keep us alive for another week. Then we'll see."

Within an hour, the doctor rose and returned to work.

Cloelia was aware that most of the Roman hostages were to be ignored by the treaty between Porsena and Rome. Some men would be ransomed but no women. Cloelia and her friends had been separated from their local sweethearts, many of whom had been murdered. So the women would be raped or forced to marry Clusium men or both. 

The young woman gathered spies and allies in camp. She kept her plans close and kept an eye on the guards.

A week later, she grabbed the young doctor as she escaped with troops of women in tow. She commanded her force like an army. She deployed scouts. She eluded her Etruscan pursuers by crossing rivers and hiding in woods. She packed food on donkeys and dragged tents behind along so that her women would not be betrayed by the need to visit Etruscan towns.

In a few weeks, she was in Rome. Her band of hostages rejoiced.  But they arrived to find that a treaty had been signed. Cloelia and her friends had been given to Lars Porsena. Their lives had been decided.

Porsena demanded the return of his hostages. The Roman senate agreed. They threw Cloelia in jail along with her fellow maidens and the men who had helped them escape. The senators knew they needed to send Cloelia back or face another seige by the Etruscans. It was the Roman army that marched her band of noblewomen to the enemy camp.

"To be betrayed by our own countrymen is an evil that I can't stand," complained the doctor.

"Their evil is still no excuse," Cloelia replied.

"Are you clinging to your honor?"

"This betrayal is no excuse for me, either."

The prisoners marched, hands bound behind their backs, into the Etruscan war camp. The great general Porsena stood at the head of a column of soldiers. He saluted them.

"Who is the girl he led this mob?" he demanded.

No one had their hands free but they all looked to young Cloelia.

"Well done," announced Porsena. "This prison was guarded like any other. Only you escaped and with many of your fellow maidens as well. Therefore, I will grant you, Cloelia, the right to free half of the male hostages. Many will not receive a ransom, so they will have to be killed. Save who you will."

The choice was a great burden but Cloelia decided to free the younger half of the prisoners. That way, she included the poorest and also her friend, the doctor.

But the doctor refused to leave.

"I will work here," he announced to Porsena and Cloelia, "and care for the sick and the wounded. I will heal all who have been grieved by the war. The evils of battle do not excuse me from my duties. Cloelia had made me understand that this is so."

"If you're determined to heal, I can feed you," Porsena grudged. "But you must know that we will kill some of those you save."

"Nevertheless," said the doctor with his hands still bound behind his back.