The Consequences of Compassion

Algol sniffed the air, the scent of blood tensed her muscles up in anticipatory glee. This was no ordinary scent, this was deer meat. Her favourite.

Her instincts kicked into overdrive, crouching low, her muscular body hugged the ground as she landed her hind-paws in exactly the same spot that her fore-paws had just vacated, making no sound at all as she glided effortlessly around her victim, moving downwind so as to not alert the keen senses of the deer about her presence. When Algol slipped into predator mode, she existed in some sort of automated zone where every movement came to her without thought or reflection. In that moment she forgot her worries of finding a suitably strong mate so that she may further the cause of the species. She forgot the constant shifting of the territorial boundaries that she had to be wary of for her own well being. When she had prey within reach, the hunt consumed her mind completely.

Algol had been a solitary hunter since her mother had abandoned her at the age of two. She had been fully grown, but naive and reckless. She made many mistakes borne out of inexperience, and Nature hardly ever forgives errors from her subjects, but she had made it through the crucial orientation period and was now a feared predator in her hunting zone.  Her healthy, bulky mass of muscle bore witness to her success rate which was amongst the best in her species. She was now in her prime and had enough experience to pick her targets to further aid her chances of bagging a juicy meal for herself.

Finding a perfectly placed patch of tall grass to camouflage her attack, Algol crept forward, head lowered, searching through the blades of grass for the creature to whom she was to bring the message of the Angel of Death. A minute of reconnaissance, and it was decided. A tender fawn stood ten metres away from its mother, staring into the distance while chewing on a blade of grass with such an air of nonchalance that it could only be excused on account of its inexperience.

Algol purred softly, congratulating herself on her good fortune. This would do very nicely indeed. A quick hunt, a juicy meal, a good night’s rest. Just as she liked it.

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Lyrae, reflected on her son’s behaviour with her heart weighed down with worry. She was a seasoned deer, and had reared many fawns successfully and had also seen many meet an early, untimely demise. She could tell, with the wisdom of Time, which ones were suitable for survival and which seemed doomed from the beginning. Spica seemed destined for the latter. He had a careless arrogance that was the bane of any prey species, and by an unfortunate coincidence, in the two weeks since his birth there had been no attacks on the herd, further dulling his sense of alertness to danger. She had done her part diligently, keeping as close to him as possible, trying to prevent him from straying too far from the herd, trying by example to instill in him the same instincts for survival that had allowed so many of her offspring to flourish. But Spica seemed blind to the constant threat to his kind and indeed showed an inclination to be a daredevil. It was a trait that went hand in hand with an early death. Lately, Lyrae had begun to wonder whether he was worth the effort at all. She had no wish to expend valuable energy in trying to save a lost cause.

Even as her frosty thoughts took this morbid turn, she heard the unmistakable rustle that could only signify the beginning of a hunt, quickly followed by the warning call of the deer who was on watch.  Dread overcame her as she bolted, looking frantically around for Spica. She spotted him staring right at her with a look of petrification and she saw also a lioness flying through the air towards him. The maternal instinct within her raged, urging her to turn back and try to save her son’s life, but the voice of experience had taught her better, and she flew away with the rest of the herd, her mind blank from the pain that only a mother can feel at the loss of her child.

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Spica’s legs trembled as he trod on the hardened mud. He had barely learnt how to run a couple of days ago and still did not feel comfortable on his legs. The jumpiness of the deer around him used to make him jittery, but in two weeks he had not seen any reason for concern and was beginning to believe that his elders were prone to melodrama and exaggeration. His mother followed him around endlessly and he never seemed to get a single moment to himself and this bothered him no end. He did not understand why all the deer needed to travel, graze and rest together. He was perfectly capable of finding grass and grazing on his own and he most certainly could find a comfortable bed for himself with no trouble at all. It was irksome to him that he needed to share his patch of grass with another ten fawns, each of them stumbling and bumbling into each other, nudging each others’ mouths out of the way to get at a patch of grass.

He had noticed, however, that his mother had gradually begun to lose her zest for stalking him and for the past few days had allowed him sufficient room to alleviate his feelings of suffocation. He particularly enjoyed walking some distance from the herd and tending to his thoughts in relative solitude as he was doing right now.

As he reflected happily on his new-found freedom, he suddenly heard an ominous bleat from the watch deer, the very bleat he had been taught to dread. As if in unison, the entire mass of deer tore away from their carefully chosen positions, fleeing pell mell as if the very hounds of hell were after them. He saw his mother look back at him, he glimpsed the conflict within her mind, the flame of maternal love battling with the storm of reason and prudence. He saw the flame extinguished and in that moment, even as his mother turned away from him, he knew his end was near.

Suddenly he was sent flying by an almighty blow. Landing several metres away, thoroughly winded, with tiny spots of light appearing before his eyes, Spica stood still, staring straight ahead at the vision of approaching death in its most terrifying form. The lioness’ mouth opened, emitting a terrifying snarl as its hind legs coiled to propel it for the final blow.

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Algol salivated profusely, overjoyed at the ease in which she had been able to secure her prey. The fawn had just stood there, not even attempting escape and now stood staring at her, paralysed by fear, imitating in a beautiful moment of foreshadowing the locomotion skills of the corpse he was about to become.
And then, at the last moment, just before her teeth were about to sink into the fawn’s neck, Algol’s eyes met Spica’s and she stopped dead in her tracks.

What she saw there was not the wish to flee. What she saw was not the docile fear that she had seen in the eyes of the countless deer she had hunted before this. What she saw instead was a streak of wildness, a flame, a zeal, an enthusiasm that was heretofore non-existent in that species. There was fear in those eyes, certainly, but it was the fear that his adventure should come to an end before it had even begun, before the experiences that this strange world had to offer had the chance to hit his senses, before, in short, he had had the chance to live.

Algol, maintaining a composed exterior, was experiencing a chaotic deluge of feelings internally. Her instincts had abandoned her for once and she was treading on new and very dangerous grounds and was consequently unsure of herself for the first time in many months. She reflected on how the fawn had stood separate from the herd, aloof, solitary. In his solitude, Algol saw a microcosm of her own life, a reflection of her battle that she had waged with life and survival. For the first time in her life, she felt a kinship, a feeling of fraternity. Here was one who viewed the world as she did.

The fact that the creature was her favoured prey was not lost on her, indeed, that was the root of the conflict that waged within her. Her years in solitude had sharpened her pangs of longing for companionship, but she was not naive enough to think this liaison would be without repercussions. She could not tread anywhere near the territory of other lions or else the fawn would be devoured without a second glance. This also meant she could kiss goodbye any dreams she had of finding a mate to propagate her species. This was a battle between a fresh, ardent, new-found desire and one of the deepest seated instincts that Algol had ever harboured within her. She contemplated long, but the freshness of the spring of desire also brought with it the mystique of the unknown, which proved to be the decisive lure.

Algol’s decision was made, she advanced cautiously, so as to not spook the fawn, and lay down beside it, purring soothingly. The fawn had not moved an inch in all this while and, bewildered by the sequence of events which had gone contrary to everything he had ever been taught, he continued to stand motionless, fearing a movement might reawaken the predator within the lioness that had for some reason been put to sleep.

Hours that felt longer than years passed by, and soon a red dusk settled over the landscape. The trembling in Spica’s legs got worse. He had not rested them in hours and they were unprepared for such continuous strain. Despite him exerting his last vestiges of energy to keep himself upright, his legs buckled beneath him and he tumbled to the ground right before the lioness.

It warranted no more than a grunt from Algol, who didn’t even flinch. Spica’s fatigue eventually overcame his fear and he fell asleep, resigning himself to whatever fate had in store for him.

With dawn, his eyes opened to the sight of Algol staring at him. There was none of the menace that had permeated through every inch of her body yesterday. Her gaze was mild, comforting, even friendly. Her countenance bore all the hallmarks of camaraderie, though every iota of common sense told Spica otherwise. But here, his inexperience in the ways of the world helped. A seasoned deer would have taken every opportunity to flee. It would have taken full advantage of the lioness’ hesitation, never pausing to consider why she did not complete the hunt. But Spica was new to this Earth, he did not have any established opinions of his own yet. And the events of the previous day had shattered his belief in the wisdom imparted to him by his elders. They obviously did not know what they were talking about. With courage fortified by ignorance, Spica approached Algol and there began the strangest friendship that ever existed on Earth.

Algol revelled in observing her new friend, admiring the swiftness with which Spica’s legs gained strength and the grace with which he could now run. She watched with fascination as Spica gorged himself on the abundant grass, wondering how any creature could relish tasteless leaves as their daily nourishment. She learnt the different moods of the fawn, learning to read its body language and the way of life of the deer. Never before had she taken the trouble to get to know her prey. She could, at a glance, identify the weakest link in any herd and approximate how close she needed to get to kill it, but she could never before tell what a hungry deer looked and behaved like as opposed to a well fed, well rested deer. After years of the same adrenaline fuelled hunts followed by lazy naps, she found this break in her routine splendidly refreshing.

She soon began to foster an almost maternal protectiveness towards Spica. Jealously guarding her territory, she did not allow any predator to come close enough to catch Spica’s scent. She also felt increasingly reluctant to go hunting on her own for fear of leaving Spica unprotected. Spica’s extended stay with Algol had numbed his survival instincts to a great extent. He no longer feared predators and frolicked about with gay abandon. Algol realized that she was responsible for this and it only served to reinforce her determination never to leave Spica unsupervised.

Every time an opportunity to hunt presented itself to her, she thought hard about the options she had. And each time she chose Spica’s well being over her own need.

As was to be expected, this state of affairs could not last very long. Algol’s strong frame began to lose its mass, her muscles progressively shrinking to insignificance. Her ribcage was soon visible through the mangy skin that was losing its texture with alarming rapidity. Despite all these signs, Algol remained fiercely and loyally protective towards Spica, never once wavering in her resolution.

These signs did not go unnoticed by Spica, but he felt himself powerless to do anything to change the status quo. He had always been the subordinate in this relationship, allowing the stronger will of Algol to dictate the course their lives took. He did not possess the mental acumen, nor the physical strength to heave Algol off the path that she seemed to have chosen so wilfully.

Finally, the day arrived when Algol laid down to her midday nap, and never got up again. Spica pranced around Algol’s shrunken frame as noisily as he could, hoping to at least elicit an irritable grunt from those stationary lips. However, it was not to be, and the ever growing stream of ants that flowed in and out of Algol’s mouth unmolested provided sufficient proof to Spica that all was not well.

Not knowing what else to do, Spica spent another night with Algol, sleeping beside her, wondering at the stench of decomposition that emanated from her body. But come dawn, the arrival of vultures signalled the onset of the scavengers, and even Spica’s untrained mind recognized that his tenure with Algol was at end.

Distraught and wracked by fear for the first time in weeks, he left his guardian, never more lost or afraid for his life than he was now. His life had been turned upside down by Algol’s arrival, and now her departure brought on upheaval of an even more unwelcome nature. He craved for some form of company, for he had only known the feeling of safety when in the presence of a guardian. His mind turned back to his mother. He resolved at once to return to the herd and reunite with his biological guardian.

With the freshness of youth powering his limbs, it did not take him long to follow the tracks of the herd and catch up with them. He found them easily enough, but found that rejoining them was much tougher than he had anticipated.

His long stay with the lioness had tainted his scent. He did not smell completely like a deer, but contained traces of the lioness’ scent as well. The result was that every time he approached the herd, they mistook his scent for that of a predator and bolted.

Eventually Spica learnt the same tricks that Algol had picked up over the years. He began to circumnavigate the herd, moving downwind so his scent would not alert them. He began to get closer and closer, until finally the day arrived when he surprised them by arriving in their midst. The watch deer had obviously not spotted any predator, and yet the scent was unmistakable. The herd bolted immediately as usual. But Spica had expected this. His motive lay elsewhere.

As the herd whizzed past him in speedy blurs, his eyes scanned the masses for those familiar eyes. He found many faces that were familiar, as well as some new ones, until finally his eyes fell upon Lyrae’s. She stood some thirty metres away from him, staring straight at him, the expression of recognition unmistakable on her face. The herd quickly overtook her and fled, leaving only Lyrae and Spica facing each other.

Spica was uncertain of how to proceed, pawing the ground nervously, looking at his mother for some hint of how it was going to be. The remainder of his life hinged on her reaction, on the next few moments. Tentatively, he took a step towards her and stopped again. He searched her eyes for the rekindling of that flame that had been extinguished all those weeks ago.

Lyrae’s eyes stared black at him, blank, emotionless. She glanced away towards the herd, fast disappearing in the horizon, and then looked back at him. Then, suddenly stiffening up with resolve, she turned away from Spica and sped away after the herd.

Spica stood staring after her. He never attempted to track the herd down again. A week later he was killed by a pack of hyenas that ambushed him while he grazed alone.

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