19 At Last, Food!

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Stephen Whiteside
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19 At Last, Food!

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Fri Oct 28, 2011 5:49 am

19 At Last, Food!

© Stephen Whiteside 28.10.201

Clinging to the line between land and water, the two weary rodents kept an eagle eye out for anything edible. The flood had already begun to recede slightly. While there was a small untouched grassy patch above them to their right, most of the rest of their world, and certainly all the land immediately around them, was covered in fine silt. This gave a dull greyness to everything.

You might think that a rat or a mouse would be indifferent to aesthetics. This is simply not true. The monotony of their surroundings hit home to them both, and contributed to a general lowering of their mood. To make matters worse, the sky had clouded over - pale grey above and darker grey below. The only thing that could be said in favour of the day’s weather was that perhaps two little rodents marching along beside the water were a little less obvious to passing predators than might otherwise have been the case.

Food. It was all they were interested in now. It had been so long since those last precious lumps of cheese. And how long would it be again before they tasted anything so delicious? Thoughts of a peanut cow seemed so utterly remote as to be barely worth contemplating, yet the alluring image never left Horatio’s mind entirely. Horatio did not quite appreciate this himself, but he was a tough little critter, who gripped his dreams very strongly, and never abandoned them entirely. Magnifico, while undoubtedly the more ‘down to earth’ and practical of the two, came to rely on Horatio’s ‘crazy dream’ far more than he would ever imagined. Practical people can struggle to generate dreams of their own. Not always, but sometimes.

As was so often the case with these two, it was the smell that hit them first. And it was not a nice smell, either, but it was definitely organic. And that meant food. Not gourmet, necessarily, but energy. Bulk to fill stomachs, fuel for weary muscles, even glucose for addled brains.

Fish. Rotting fish. Revolting to many, and certainly not especially attractive to them either, but remember, rodents are scavengers. While they might not particularly like it, they can, and will, eat things that many animals would simply refuse to touch. Rotting fish being a case in point. This lack of fussiness, this adaptability and flexibility, was a very powerful virtue for two creatures struggling to survive in the aftermath of a holocaust.

But it wasn’t just one fish. It was a whole school of small, silver fish, lying stiff and wide-eyed in the shallows, some already stranded on the mud by the receding tide. What calamity had caused them to die in such numbers? Sick fish, old fish, die. Sure. Everybody understands that. But why a whole school? And why just this one? Water is filled with oxygen, but occasionally it isn’t. And sudden temperature fluctuations can play havoc with fish, too. Who knew? They were all untouched. A toxin, perhaps? If so, could they be poisonous? Would the toxin transfer to the bodies of Horatio and Magnifico if they ate the fish, and kill them also?

Horatio thought briefly of what it must be like to be a young fish, a baby fish, in a school that is dying. The young like to think that their parents and grandparents can cope with anything, that they will always be there to support them. And usually, that is the case. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes life poses threats to them every bit as challenging as what it poses for their children - perhaps even more so - and the young must bear witness to the failure of their elders, magnifying enormously their own fears and anxieties. Sadly, that’s life. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. Not often, but sometimes. Horatio was grateful that that was one thing he had been spared. By the time his own parents began to fail, he was already grown-up.

Sometimes, risks just have to be taken. Even big risks. Horatio and Magnifico were going to eat these fish, if it was the last thing they did. This was the best meal they had seen since meeting up, and they weren’t about to let it pass untouched. Without a word, the two approached, and began to nibble. Nibbles soon became bites, and bites became gulps. Soon they were wolfing down the fish.

Which is an odd thing to say, isn’t it? Wolfing it down. Not ratting or mousing but wolfing. I wonder how the wolves think about that. I imagine they’d be quite embarrassed if they knew. All self conscious.

It didn’t taste too bad. The fish lying in the open air and drying out were rotting, but those simply lying in the shallows were still relatively well preserved. It wasn’t cool, fresh, fish, which is the best way to eat fish if you can’t cook it, it was warm, stale, raw fish, but it still wasn’t too bad. They would have eaten rotting fish if they had had to. And probably one day they would have to. But this day was not it. This day they ate passable fish, and were grateful.

They didn’t follow Magnifico’s advice and eat slowly on long-empty stomachs. They ate fast. Very fast. And they kept it down, not like Horatio who had vomited his first big meal of cheese way back when he and Magnifico had first met, all that time ago. Of course, cheese is much fattier than fish. Perhaps that was the difference. And perhaps it wasn’t. Who knows?

Eventually, they could eat no more. Their bellies were straining. They could barely walk. They had still only eaten a fraction of the fish that lay before them. It seemed an enormous waste, but they were going to have to leave the vast majority of them untouched.

Now it was time to find some shelter, but the effort of walking was great now, and fatigue descended upon them like a physical blow.

Horatio and Magnifico woke many hours later, without even realising they had slept, to a world transformed.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer

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