Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Peony Ridge

[Media prompt] China’s animal torture internet channels gain huge following from making a show out of cruelty.
Peony Ridge*

The peonies were over. Not far from the edge of the bamboo forest, where flowers from the scattered magnolia trees had started falling to the damp earth, and a weeping willow cast its ragged shadow across the grass, there was a dirt track snaking from the brook at the bottom of the gully towards the top of the slope, where it petered out. In places, the grass was stamped down from the tread of men who, labouring up the hill, sometimes stopped in the shade for a rest before continuing.

On spring evenings, when twilight mists covered the gully and the forest, and the sun was a dull flare on the horizon, a handful of bamboo rats came out of their burrows to feed. Most of them stuck close to the clumps of bamboo, gnawing at the grass there; the more adventurous moving further away to snack on the last of the plum blossoms. Most, however, stayed in their labyrinth, content to eat the underground parts of plants. It was a peaceful colony.

In the grey light, at the entrance to one of the burrows, sat Li Guang, the largest rat in a colony of bigger than average rats. Having held their territory for decades, against innumerable incursions from neighbours, the rats of the bamboo forest were sizeable and warlike. Hello, general, said a rat coming out of the burrow behind him. It was Wang Qiang, the fourth wife of the head rat, and she sat for a moment beside Li while surveying the grass and slope. Hello, said Li Guang, shifting uncomfortably. Although incomparably brave, most famous for a solitary rear guard defence that held off half the clan from the bottom of the gully, he was awkward in the company of beauty. Don’t worry, General, said Wang Qiang, I won’t bite. She smiled at him warmly before scurrying off to join her children.

As night began to fall, Li set off on his rounds with two of his most trusted warriors. He called out to a group of youngsters frolicking around the willow tree that it was time to go back. They quickly ran towards home. He stopped at the top of the ridge, looking down towards the brook, its quiet burble a familiar sound. He was about to turn westward when he saw something unusual near the edge of their territory. The others saw it, too. Yuan, Zhang, he said, stay here and keep a look out. He trotted down the slope, seeing, as he got closer, a silver rod half concealed by leaves and dirt. He sniffed the air, catching the faint scent of man, the hair on his back prickling.

Calling Yuan down the slope, the two of them investigated. I don’t like it, said the general, the words barely out of his mouth when there was a loud crack, as though a branch had snapped, followed by a cry of pain. As Li turned, seeing Yuan’s back leg caught under the silver rod, blood covering his fur, a beam of light blinded him and the sounds of a man blundering through the undergrowth propelled him up the slope where Zhang, his ears stiff with fear, was standing.

Quick, said Li Guang, call out the defenders. Hurry, he shouted, turning to look at Yuan as Zhang sped towards the burrows. The man carried a small box emitting light in his hand, pointing it at Yuan, circling him, then crouching down, pushing the box closer until it was almost touching the trapped rat. Yuan bared his teeth, jerking furiously to free his leg, but he was trapped tightly. Hearing a noise, the man looked in Li’s direction, his face a sickly yellow.

When Zhang returned, General Li outlined his plan, sending a group to both flanks, and one to the rear, at the bank of the brook. When the man got down on all fours, positioning the box in his hand awkwardly, Li Guang, Zhang and three others ran down the slope, leaping onto his back. At the sound of his screams, the others attacked, and in a frenzy tore into the man’s flesh. Within seconds, his ears and nose were ragged flaps of bloodied skin. He swatted vainly at his assailants, but weakened quickly as the rats ripped great strips of fat and muscle from his body. Zhang sank his teeth into an eye, rupturing the cornea and lens, clawing until it was severed from the optic nerve. The man howled in pain, and then fell to the ground, clutching at his face.

When it was over, Yuan freed and carried back to the burrows, Li Guang inspected the box lying on the ground. Its light was dimming, and as he peered into a dark circle on one end saw himself dimly reflected. Li turned his back, and with a powerful kick of his hind legs kicked the box into the brook, where it sank.

Had he known that people all over China were watching a live stream of the entire attack, many of them now vomiting noodles onto keyboards, Li Guang would no doubt have smiled. 

* With apologies to the late Richard Adams and Watership Down. However, I'm certain Bigwig, Silver, Fiver, Hazel, Holly, and all the other rabbits in that "dazzlingly brave" story would no doubt be smiling also. 

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