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The Pride of Lions
Somewhere, a lint brush supplier is enjoying the mint he is making off me. Brush, brush, pick, brush. It's like some kind of physical mantra. I have no less than six lint brushes at home, and have lost count of the number I keep in the drawers and on the tables at the store.
Pick, brush, pick, pick, brush. There. Carmel Sherwood, at your service. And, yes, I had the name _before_ the caramel-hued fur. I look in the mirrors, checking all angles of my suit before deciding I am certainly hair-free, aside from the coat that, since SCABS, blankets my face and thumbed paws. I rock my ears slowly, distracting myself with their movement as I complete my presentation with shoes and overcoat and make my way out the front door to the street.
It's always quiet, before the seven-thirty meetings we hold every Monday in the small, rarely used neighborhood hall in this rather dark corner of the City. Thank goodness for my ears' dexterity; their motion keeps me sane, again like a physical mantra of some SCABS philosophy, keeping my feet to a controlled, tapping rhythm on the deserted sidewalk as I think and think and think some more.
I have never been afraid, and now I may just go over the edge into vicious, so I keep my ears moving the way one might pick at their fingernails or crack their knuckles with pent-up, angry energy. If anyone pulls anything tonight, so help me-- but I know I am setting an example, perhaps the _only_ example for many of the people who will be attending our meeting tonight. What a chance, and yet what a chance to blow it, too. This could go so many ways. Gentleman is my middle name, if you want to get figurative; I must try to keep it that way.
The lights at the whitish (needs paint) hall shine out on several strangers entering through the single, wooden front door... I hear so many voices that I cannot place that at first I feel this must be wrong. Then a sort of triumph thrills through me. They came. They're coming. They're here, and I _will_ have my say. We all will. If we can keep it professional, no reason why any violence should break out, and this could be exactly the chance I have been hoping it will be. We have been waiting for this for a long time, and it is only because of the horror that had to precede it that I feel any fear at all. Fear for the emotions of others, really. But this cannot be pussyfooted around, if you will, and allow us to come out ahead. We must be blunt. We must be bold.
They're _here_. They are within the range of our voices, they have entered our space. Put all this angry energy into arguing, I tell myself. Talk it out. _Prove_ your point. No one here directly affected the rabbit cause before this, most likely. They are curious; we have become a media fad... For the short time we are, we must fight with all the resources we can acquire.
It has been an uphill fight.
When I got SCABS, several years ago, it became a laughing matter with my family. What began as a nervous attempt to lighten the blow of change grew into a joke for the relief of any tension during family SCABS discussion... He he, a haberdasher with a full coat of fur. Chuckle, guffaw, ha ha ha. It makes me smile, actually, now. This is manifested as a little wrinkle of the left side of my short muzzle. The constant struggle to keep the stock at the store free of my own hairs has become a comforting reminder of my family's true, if nervous, support, and whenever they call from Oklahoma I first have to answer "What do you want for Christmas this year?" with "Well, I can always use another lint brush." Giggle, chuckle, and on with the real news, with real life. We kind of _ease_ into it.
No wife, no kids, no pets. Nothing against any such things-- just determined to get something else started first. Tonight may be the stepping stone I need, but I hesitate to get too excited; the anger comes on stronger when I think of the kind of thing we are fighting, of the misinformation running rampant with powerful and power-mad individuals supporting it all the way. Sure, pick on the rabbits. It stands to reason, timid little things, satisfy your need for an easy victory for your macho side... And they listen. They _believe_ these things.
Before I had SCABS, I didn't know one end of a rabbit from another, and quite frankly, it didn't matter, because I never had any contact with any animals other than the neighbor's curly-coated dog. And people have tried to tell me of the fear that will come, of the extreme difficulty of running a clothing shop for men where I come into contact with dozens of strangers each day, of the wisdom of withdrawing from society and huddling in a cage somewhere.
Well, I didn't listen to them. And I went out and got some books of my own, and I made some friends, and we have been working towards a goal which, in so many directions, seems impossible. But ahead, over one more hurdle, may well be the way, the real, true way.
I stride purposefully into the neighborhood hall, eyeing newcomers with impartial, neutral greeting and winking at Susan when she greets me with a determined nod. I take my place at the long, cheaply veneered folding table at the far end of the room and clear my throat. Amazingly, all chatter stops.
I have that kind of voice, deep and somewhat growly and commanding of attention even when simply preparing to speak-- but the utter attentiveness of the gathering is at once encouraging and frightening. They truly are interested. That means that one slip could be dreadfully harmful to the cause, even to our individual selves. I glance once for support to Susan and the other regulars who have arrived thus far, and gain a small smile from Susan. I nod gratefully and turn my attention back to the assembly.
Between the formation of the thought and the rising of sound to my lips, whole memories and new ideas come and go as if in one breath I must decide what is to be spoken tonight. Yet I know this is just a beginning... Trite, in its way, yet deeply risky and certain, so dreadfully certain, to be ineffectual where it counts most. The day will still come, I tell myself. I will probably be at the head of it, then, supported by the members of a group who feel my charisma, voice and education may best represent us politically.
We tried, for years, to raise funds for a private lapine colony, run for lapines by lapines and educated normals and other individuals with SCABS, but the government has seen fit to illegalize the privatization of SCABS colonies in the United States of America.
That being the case, we held onto our oh-so-slowly accumulating funding and took a different tack. One in which I figure heavily-- the reorganization of the _government's_ colonies. Get yourself hired, Carmel, said the members and supporters of our little Pride group. Fight it until you're the _head_ of one of those things. They can't discriminate against someone with the kinds of evaluations you've had. And this is the time to get public opinion on our side. Tonight is a start. So many voices will speak out here that I feel overwhelmed to know them all.
Tom Henway-- was a rabbit, is a rabbit, knows full well and admits that, while in the form of a huge Belgian hare, he was a violent drunk and a very angry man. His form has returned to human, by some twist of the virus, yet he feels a great kinship with the form that taught him what he really was. Tom still considers himself a rabbitmorph, and speaks publicly on the subject of SCABS nationwide. He will be here tonight. His current health he credits to the animal he became, the animal whose frustration would not be squelched and whose angry outbursts were Tom's own.
"SCABS is not an excuse," says Tom. He is speaking to Mr. Geusz tonight, if the bereaved rabbit will hear him. Later, he will join us and have his say. "The Press is for us," he told me over the phone, "and as long as they are, as long as there is outrage, there is a chance to get a word in for the lapines. I will try to talk to Mr. Geusz, but in a way he is, has been, part of his own problem. It is uncertain whether he will talk to me. _We_ have to act now, whether _he_ is ready or not. I know you and your group can field questions about lapines far better than I could... My area is the psychology of SCABS overall. But I will come, and I will back you up."
Susan. A rabbitry owner from way back and a source of fascinating and emboldening information for those of us who meet every Monday night. I can sense her apprehension from here, through the crowd and the smell of old carpet and plastic, and I know that of all people she has the most to fear. We did not _choose_ our SCABS. No one can accuse us, rightfully, of any action taken through desire for the disease. We are here for support. Many times, it is Susan who gives it. Be we beaten, cursed, misunderstood, yes-- even killed, we who have SCABS can go down knowing the accuser is _wrong_. But what can Susan say to those who deride her for choosing to spend her time with SCABS? She is not the only normal to do so, certainly, and for each one that does there is a special attack, but with her it has to be the fact that rabbits have long been her companion animal of choice. The chances for a bestiality insult are too obvious for many a low individual to pass up. They call her a devil, we who benefit from her knowledge and giving call her a saint, and in other circles the exact opposite is going on, around and around and around.
Our Susan will ever be accused of choosing to spend her time with us. However, by a natural courage instilled in us by our rabbit forms and upheld by Susan's encouraging stories of the stories of born rabbits, we will ever kick and bite the jerks who say so.
But not tonight. In my immaculate suit and gleaming coat, I am setting an example of human-turned-rabbit, a man in a new shape, a business owner from here in the City. A City invaded by government agents determined to cash in on the fable of the SCABS rabbit. If anybody lays a hand on Susan or any of the other friendly normals, let the guards handle them.
If I asked you to guess, off the top of your head, what species is represented most, besides lapines, in our Pride group gatherings, what would you guess? Soft, fluffy-- what? Try dogs. Soft and fluffy nothing, unless you count the Bichon, Opal, who stops by every few sessions or so.
The dogmorphs are our second largest representation here, although tonight, of course, the majority are curious normals and members of the Press. What do the rabbits, those weird little creatures, have to say about this? Are they cowering in their homes, afraid to come out because of the Colony Man? Are they whimpering masses of plushy fuzz, staring at the grey picture of a hanged man, unable to tear themselves away from a horror which must surely be theirs? Don't they _all_ wish they were dead?
Whimpering, my ear. I was _growling_. Could have given the dogs a run for their money. A low-degree rabbitmorph from the paper got us some copies of a police photo to show around and arouse some anger. It worked, too. Jake Helsner is sitting on his wife's lap right now, kneading her slacks in a distractedly angry fashion much the way I swivel my ears, mumbling to himself despite the silence of the room. Jake's wife watches the newcomers, unconcerned by her husband's quiet ranting. She knows he has never been saner. The colony rep should just be glad that was a closed hearing. At least, by now, we have all settled into the knowledge that the most politically advantageous stand to take is an eminently civil one.
The dogmorphs have great respect for we who frequent these gatherings, for they have found a kinship with another domestic species. We domestic European rabbit SCABS are not as rare as you might think, and we are learning, and trying to show, the advantages to this particular form. In this, the dogs join us. Could SCABS possibly be affected by the victim's mind striving toward something appropriate, something familiar or, in certain cases, something seemingly inevitable? We do not, of course, know, and this disease becomes more and more mysterious with every question the researchers think they have answered.
Domestic animals, most especially the dog, were made by man, in man's own image. Our social tendencies, our toughness, our usefulness to ourselves, being the man combined with the rabbit, come from centuries of design. The domestic forms are works of art. When we began to attest to this, dogs joined us, realizing that we had the same sort of support to offer them. All of us domestic morphs are designed to coexist with man, and with each other. We have actually sparked a Canine Pride offshoot, and there is talk of involving horsemorphs. We would certainly be glad to include them.
Right now, however, the question of lapine competency has once again overshadowed all else.
When I speak, every word will be ripped apart in the search for the meek idiocy that has been the stereotype of the rabbit SCAB since the first one appeared. And the rabbits have been letting themselves be treated this way. Some, certainly, are not as humanly communicative as they were. There are those who, as with any other SCABS type, have become almost fully the creature set forth by the virus. Why this is may not be what everyone thinks. The "truth" of the rabbit is, they immediately suppose, fear. And fear reaches back to the horror of seeing the daily suffering of loved ones, of being cared for like an animal they are not yet used to including in their fundamentally changed world.
So they go all the way, purposely, whether this purpose be conscious or not. For rabbits are highly intelligent. They know full well what is going on around them, are inquisitive... They check things out, and they realize, if they were human, _I was human_. And the overwhelming implications of it all can drive them into themselves where they will be even less intelligently behaved than a normal rabbit, for they believe that a rabbit is a blank, an empty, a frightened creature.
It is not only rabbits who do this. No, all SCABS may, for with the awakening in the new body comes the identification of choices. Do I go home, attempting in some way to pick up where I left off? Do I, like Tom, take this as an excuse for pent-up anger to be loosed upon a sometimes pitying public? Or do I, as have so many "mindless" people, _choose_ the knowledge that, as an animal, I can be cared for by professionals, allowing myself to relax into a forgetful haze?
I, of course, chose to go home. If my paws had not had thumbs, I would have thought of something. But it is understandable that other SCABS might not have the desire, the strength or the presence of mind to decide to go home.
In some cases, they have no choice. They are whisked away to a government SCABS catchall and treated like dirt. Even _humans_ withdraw in situations like these. And the rabbits... Well, the rabbits have been told that their poor little hearts and minds can barely take the outside world. They begin to believe it. They begin to think they haven't a tough bone left in their bodies.
Well, I'll tell you something... I read and heard some about what went on before Manuel Murdoch committed suicide. And so help me, those government officials deserve to get tied up in some tangly attempts at manslaughter charges, if not in some tangles with fighting-mad rabbits. After all, being newly signed as responsible for him, the officials were at the least criminally negligent in allowing that young man access to his own death. But the truth is, rabbits, even Mr. Geusz, are buying into a fear that has become a slogan for the macho anti-SCABS. Be scared, bunnies, they say, be very scared. And so the bunnies are, even to the point of denying the instincts that truly do manifest themselves. Why, that man scent-marked Manuel Murdoch's entire hospital room. What does he think, that rabbits are all cuddly and friendly and, as I said, don't have a mean bone in their bodies? It's amazing how well Manuel responded, considering the fierce territoriality of us rabbits. It's astounding that he wasn't terrified of the person who would be his benefactor. It seems to be somewhat despite, and somewhat because of his fellow rabbit's treatment that Manuel Murdoch became the relatively healthy young man he was-- until his suicide, very nearly the closest thing to a heroic suicide I have seen in the news for some time.
Oh Man, if you would share peace with the Rabbit, do not trap nor anger him. Do we hate the feeling of suffocation. I like a comfortable, small bedroom as well as the next lapine, but it is as Susan tells us time and again; we are not out in the wild, where we might have the time and the space to escape each other or any other threat that might set us off. No, we are, as SCABS, part of a human society, and as we _are_ humans that is as it _should_ be. But so many of the lapines have given into the meekness that leads to despair rather than virtue, and so many more have succumbed to the pressures of colony "information" about rabbits, that there are few people even willing to consider the truth of our form.
Susan has been outspoken on the horrid unfairness of the very idea of the colonies, for, as she emphasizes time and again, the SCABS affected with American cottontail forms are housed with and exactly as those who are the emboldened, manmade European domestic rabbits. It is cruelty to humans, she says. Cruelty to humans based on severe neglect of their specific needs.
Father William, from the Catholic church I attend here in the City, agrees. "The soul of the man is in the lapine," he insists, as often as anyone will ask, "or in whatever form the virus has made the person take. Are we to befriend and bless those with a progressive disease of any kind, yet assume that the person afflicted with SCABS is no better than an animal?
"And at that, what of the animals themselves? They are thought entitled to better treatment than our own friends and neighbors have received at the hands of these holding areas.
"I cannot condone any such treatment of SCABS. I stand firmly behind any peaceful attempt of the SCABS Pride groups to influence the government to more humane and Christian procedures."
That, unflinchingly, from a man who is the sole pastor of a rather out-of-the-way church in this area of the City. He has ever had my respect, and following my SCABS I clung to his calm words... One night, following choir rehearsal, a Humans First group arrived with-- you want primitive-- _torches_ outside the rectory. I was there, emerging from the rehearsal with two of my dog friends, and I led the counterattack. We managed to lower their morale considerably without actually killing anyone, and since then the gratitude and protection between our group and Father William has gone both ways, although he has gently suggested that we might try a more _peaceful_ approach next time.
And there will be a next time. Tonight, even, if we are unlucky or if the wrong word hits the wrong nerve in the wrong person. On a typical meeting night there might be five to twelve of us in this hall. Tonight the place is full of forty or fifty people already, and still they trickle in. Some seem to be looking for signs of weakness or fear, but as yet we have not given them any. We won't either-- not those of us who meet here regularly, anyway. This is _our_ territory.
It is as well that Tom Henway went to see if Mr. Geusz wants to talk and learn about the outrage his young friend's death has brought about in this community. Tom is better at that sort of thing-- I might have made the poor fellow submit before speaking with him, although my version of domination generally involves a little staring down before relaxing, and nothing too antisocial. I am sure Mr. Geusz knows full well the impact of what has gone on, but the personal impact upon him must certainly overshadow that tremendously. Most likely, Tom will just offer his sympathies and then return to include his words in our side of the argument here. Mr. Geusz has lost a friend, and at the same time we have gained an ally, in the very same person. Dead, Manuel Murdoch is as immensely powerful as any of us standing here preparing to use our voices.
Still, the wrenching sensation in my gut when I think of the grieving rabbit has not subsided since seeing the photo of Manuel's body. Yes, Mr. Geusz has furthered the misconception of the rabbit. But he brought us all a friend we never met. Perhaps Manuel will change things, even for the man who now mourns him so deeply.
Perhaps _I_ will change things.
My companions seem to think it is a very real possibility.
The air and my vocal organs ready themselves, and tonight it _counts_. Times like this bring forth surging images and stories of all the rabbits Susan and others like her have known. A simple one flashes through my mind, and my long ears prick forward as though I can see him...
A small rabbit, loping unconcernedly across a lawn, nibbling a bit of grass here and there, a huge dog following at a matching pace. The dog noses the rabbit. The rabbit turns instantly and, much to the dog's dismay, swipes it a swift blow across the nose with a front claw...
The rabbit continues its ambling, the dog recovers and does the same, and the pattern repeats itself.
Over and over, never afraid, never in the least ruffled, the rabbit swats the intruding dog with a claw and then goes about its life. Over and over. Which is more stubborn? I suppose it depends, in the end, whether the dog learns to stop out of boredom or whether a respect is formed when the rabbit finally gives him one good, raking clawmark that he won't forget.
My own dogmorph friends have seen me fight. Well, they're going to see me do it again. The scents of the comradely, the angry and the indifferent meld in my nostrils as I begin to speak.
"Ladies and gentlemen..."