You can listen to me read this story on episode 97 of The Word Count Podcast.
The Rules of Meerkats
Ricka is a good meerkat. She follows the Rules of Meerkats as well as any young pup in the burrow, reciting the five rules with the other pups twice a day, as is required.
- Always help each other
- Always stay together
- Always be vigilant
- Always obey the sentries
- Never leave the territory
Most days, Ricka loves being a meerkat. She loves playing in the tall grass beneath the trees, teasing the sentries on duty, finding things to eat by the creek, always making sure she stays within the boundary of the colony.
But there are days when Ricka wishes she were something else. Those are the days when everyone must stay in the burrow all day, when they can’t show nose nor whiskers above-ground. Might be, there’s a flight of hawks above, swooping low enough that you see the metal glint of their sharp wings. Might be, there’s a pack of wolves stalking, looking for easy pickings, ready to tear apart anything as small and soft as a meerkat pup.
Today is one of those days. The sentries raised the alarm before sunrise, calling out the signal for jackals. Now everyone huddles below ground and Ricka is curled up in the common area with her older brother, Rayve. They play a game in the dirt, drawing o’s and x’s with their claws, and because they are both bored and because they both hate losing, the game sprawls wide across the floor.
“Why do we follow the rules?” Auntie Maine asks the pups gathered around her.
“Because we’re safer when we take care of each other,” someone answers.
“Because predators can’t find us when we stay underground,” says someone else.
“Because we’re scared,” Rayve whispers to Ricka, careful to keep his voice low.
Ricka pretends not to hear, but Rayve keeps talking anyway.
“I wish I was outside,” he says. “With the sentries.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Ricka snaps. “You’re not old enough. And we’re safe in here.”
Rayve gives her a look, muttering that sometimes, she’s an insufferable baby.
All day they wait for the safe signal from the sentries, but it never comes. Not from Peeve who is on duty in the trees, not from Greer on the knoll at the edge of their territory, nor from anyone else. Night comes and still no signal. Ricka lies awake, listening for jackals. Rayve says he can smell them, but she only smells dirt and old food and sleeping meerkat bodies.
Ricka’s limbs itch to run and climb, dig in the dirt, swim in the creek. Still, she tries to sleep. Tries to remember that she’s lucky to be a meerkat. To have a place of refuge. To not live in the open. Ricka knows the stories of what it was like Before, back when there was no difference between jackals and hawks and wolves and meerkats. When everyone lived in the open. Before everyone had to choose what to be. Before the world, and everyone in it, changed.
She isn’t sure how long she’s been asleep when Rayve wakes her.
“Come on,” he whispers, and she does, even though she knows better. She goes with him because otherwise, Rayve will go alone. He’s her big brother, but he has always been foolhardy, and meerkats must look out for each other.
Treading carefully, they make their way through the burrow to the farthest exit, close to the tree-line. There is no guard there, and Rayve winks at her. “Sentry off taking a piss. Hurry, sis.”
Ricka sighs and hurries.
Outside, the air is cool and smells of leaves and dirt and dew. The night rustles with secret movements and Ricka thinks of jackals, wondering if they can see in the dark.
“We should turn back,” she whispers but Rayve keeps going.
“I know where Peeve sits when he’s on duty,” he says. “We’ll go give him a fright. It’ll be a laugh.”
Ricka trundles on behind him, imagining eyes and teeth everywhere. Peeking up, she sees the sky. There are stars and darkness there, and a sharp sliver of moon. Ricka thinks of the steely eyes of hawks, watching from above. She wonders what it’s like to be a hawk or a jackal. To live without a burrow. To spend every night outside, beneath the sky. She wonders what it’s like to be feared.
They both smell the fire before they see it. It’s in a dell, hidden until they’re almost upon it, and in the pale glimmer of moonlight, in the ruddy flicker of flames, Ricka sees. She sees the jackals, huddled around the fire. Sees what they are eating. Sees Peeve, who is no longer Peeve, and knows he won’t ever call out her name again when he comes back from sentry duty.
Crouched in the darkness at the lip of the hollow, Ricka sees the jackals for what they are. She sees herself and Rayve for what they are too, and in that moment, everything she thought she knew falls away: the rules of meerkats, the burrow, the stories of Before, all of it is torn asunder. Shivering, she sees the world as it is and as it was and as it will always be.
Glancing at Rayve, she knows he sees it too.
Ricka turns and runs. She runs, waiting for the jackals to rip her open. She runs from the fire and the moon, the eyes and the teeth, and by the time she’s back at the burrow, scuttling through the metal doors at the entrance with Rayve behind her, she wants nothing more than to be meerkat again. Anything but a jackal. Anything but meat.
Standing in the tunnels that have kept her people safe since the world changed, Ricka looks at her dirty, shaking hands and thinks of the fingers (claws) of the jackals, tearing and ripping. She thinks of their faces, their smiles and teeth too much like her own, thinks of the world out there and the world in here. Ricka stares at her hands until they are paws again, reciting the rules of meerkats until all resemblance to the jackals has receded, until she is meerkat through and through, once again.
© Maria Haskins 2020
Cover art made by me, using Canva.