Friday, 4 April 2008

The Vulture Sculpture

This is a short story I wrote for 'Notes From Underground' magazine.

The frogs at the bottom of Mr and Mrs Watson’s garden were deeply religious.

They loved praying, and singing hymns, and gathering to listen to wise words and tell stories. They had a strong sense that they had been put at the bottom of the garden for a reason. That reason was God.

This God, they felt, must love them very much to have given them such a wonderful garden to live in. They felt he must be watching them at all times, and helping them when they were in trouble, and comforting them when they were sad.

When the lush, green lawn, and the dark, cool pond were as beautiful as they were – well, how could they not believe that some wonderful God was looking after them?

There was only one problem.

They couldn’t find him.

They looked everywhere: he was not at the bottom of the pond – there were only weeds there; he was not in the wheelbarrow; he was not inside the stomach of the dead crow they found; he was not standing quietly behind them, running into a bush every time they turned round – they had tested this theory thoroughly; he was not in the shed; he was not hiding silently in the daffodils.

The frogs gathered one Sunday morning to sing their hymns.

This is how one of their hymns went –

We love you! We love you! We love you – you’re great!
We don’t know where you live, or what you look like, or how you smell,
We don’t know why you put us here or where you went,
But we’re sure you must be brilliant!
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah – ooh, brilliant!
Do you have a pair of magic shoes?
Do you have an invisible nose?
Do you have a telescope that lets you see inside our minds?
We don’t know!
But we’re sure you must be brilliant!
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah – ooh, brilliant!

The little frogs sang their froggy hearts out, and jumped around in a circle. They wore crowns made of buttercups, and gave each other a special pat on the back at the end of every hymn, to let each other know what good friends they were.

The frogs loved their hymns.

But today was different. Because today, half way through one of their hymns, one of the younger frogs, whose name was Winstanley, suddenly spoke up.

“This is rubbish! Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish – what are we doing?”

The other frogs didn’t know what to say.

“What do you mean ‘what are we doing’? We’re singing our hymns – like we do every Sunday,” replied one kindly, older frog called Turbot.

This only seemed to make Winstanley more angry.

“But why? Why? WHY? We’ve never even met this God! We don’t know who he is, or where he went, or what he does for a living! I mean, it’s ridiculous worshipping someone you’ve never met! How do we know he’s brilliant? He might be a complete goofball for all we know! … or … or maybe …”

The frogs, very shaken by what Winstanley was saying, hung on his every word.

“… maybe he doesn’t even exist!”

Winstanley had got himself so worked up that he jumped up in the air and did a summersault – which was not something any of the frogs had ever done before.

Turbot had a son, whose name was Kibble. Hearing Winstanley’s words, Kibble began to cry. Turbot comforted him, saying, “There, there – ignore silly Winstanley. I’m sure God exists, and I’m sure he’s looking after us.”

But Kibble said just what Winstanley had said.

“It’s ridiculous worshipping someone you’ve never met!”

All the young frogs were upset.

The next Sunday, hardly anyone came to the Sunday meeting. They stayed down by the pond, looking embarrassed, and hoping no-one would ask them why they were not at prayer. Some of the young frogs had just stayed in bed, and refused to go.

Winstanley himself sat under the big oak tree, sulking.

Turbot was baffled.

“But we’ve always had prayers on Sundays!”

He looked around in desperation.

“Dad!” piped up Kibble, “Dad, I was wondering – I’m … I’m not sure I want to go to prayers any more …”

Turbot gasped.

“But why ever not?”

“Well – I’m not sure I … um … believe in God.”

Turbot gulped.

“Oh my! Well – son, you are an awfully good boy, and you did ask me – so I suppose I can’t make you come if you don’t want to. Go and play with your friends by the pond, and I’ll see you later.”

Turbot, along with just three other frogs, sang some very sad hymns indeed that day.

Meanwhile, back in the house, Mrs Watson had reached a decision.

“Darling – that’s it! I can’t stand it any longer. Our garden is lacking! It is incomplete, unfinished, half-baked! All our neighbours gardens are much better. That lawn is missing something, and I am going to go to the garden centre to find out what!”

She stormed off into town, and returned two hours later.

“Darling! I’ve found the very thing – why, it will make our garden the best garden on the whole street, and hopefully all our neighbours will be completely miserable!”
She jogged with glee to the bottom of the garden, carrying a very heavy thing. It was so heavy that she had to hunch down whilst carrying it, and ended up looking like a over-dressed gorilla.

With a mighty groan, she plonked it down next to the pond.

There!

Lovely.

It was a massive vulture, carved out of white marble.

It looked very fearsome, and if this didn’t make all her neighbours hate themselves for having inadequate gardens, then nothing would.

So there it sat, at the bottom of the garden, from that Sunday on.

This is what the frogs had to say about it.

“AAAAAAAAAAAARGHH! Oh no! AAAAARGH! What is it! Oh God! Oh God! Oh God, help us! Please help us, God! Save us from this terrible thing! AAAAAARGHH!”
They were all cowering in the bushes, hiding their children under their tummies.

Only Winstanley felt differently.

He was crawling towards it, with an expression of great seriousness on his little froggy face. Turbot thought he was mad.

“Winstanley! What are you doing!”

He had reached the vulture sculpture now.

He was shaking.

“Oh, great one – have you finally come to us? Have you finally returned to our garden?”

He spoke in a whisper, and reached out his webbed foot, shaking, to touch the marble.

“God? Is it you?”

As his wet toes touched the cool marble, a shiver went up his spine, and he knew
that he was in the presence of God.

“It’s … it’s … it’s him! You idiots! You fools! Cowering in the bushes, eh? Running scared when God has finally shown himself to us!” he yelled at the other frogs, “Well – I’m not frightened. I am your servant, God – do with me as you will!”

He was jumping and doing summersaults now, as only he could.

The wind blew fiercely all of a sudden, and the trees in the garden danced madly in
the gale. The sound was deafening, and Winstanley had to scream to say –

“Do with me as you will!”

The very next moment, a little white thing, carried by the wind from the garden next door, sailed through the air, over the trees, and landed on Winstanley’s head.

All the frogs were amazed.

It was a skull – the tiny, white skull of a shrew.

It sat on Wintsanley’s head. He began to laugh.

“Oh, almighty God! You have spoken! I told you to do with me as you wanted, and you made me your priest – your prophet! I will not disappoint you!!! Ha ha ha!”

Well, the other frogs didn’t know what to think.

Winstanley paraded around all week in his shrew-skull-crown, fussing over the vulture sculpture. He brought it weeds from the pond as a gift, and cleared a circle around it, and polished its beak.

The next week, they all gathered around for Sunday hymns – even the younger ones.

After all. God clearly must exist – he was sitting right in front of them.

None of them knew what to say to him. What could they say? Should they ask how he was? Should they talk about the weather? Should they tell him a joke?

Winstanley thought he knew what they should do.

He had written a new hymn.

This how it went.

Death! Death! Blood and death!
You are the God with firey breath!
You will crush our enemies and swallow the moon!
You will scream and bite like a big baboon!
Please don’t eat it! Please don’t eat us!
We’ll do anything you say, if you promise not to beat us!
Aaaargh! Aaaargh! Aaaargh! Blood and death!

As you can imagine the atmosphere was a bit different that Sunday.

Winstanley made them all dance a very different dance, where they thrashed around like the trees in the wind, and waved their feet, begging the vulture sculpture not to eat them.

“Almighty God of Storms! Devourer of worlds! Please, answer our call! Speak to us! What is your name?!”

But the vulture sculpture did not reply.

Wintsanley looked around nervously, then made everyone sing and dance again.

When they were finished, he asked once more –

“Devourer of worlds, what is your name!”

But the vulture sculpture did not speak.

That was when Winstanley made a decision.

Winstanley was very good at imbirdsonations. He was famous for them. He could imbirdsonate almost any bird – from sparrows to owls, from robins to kestrels. It couldn’t be too hard to do an imbirdsonation of a vulture, could it?

He decided that, as the vulture sculpture’s priest and prophet, it was his job to make sure everyone kept worshipping him, and kept on being frightened of him.
With his back turned to the other frogs, he started to speak in his vulture imbirsonation.

“PUNY FROGS! WEAK, SQUISHY AMPHIBIANS! KNEEL! BEG! SHAKE IN FEAR TO HEAR MY NAME! FOR I AM SQUALL! I AM SQUALL, GOD OF DEATH, AND I AM NOT MERCIFUL!”

The poor little froggies were terrified. They lay flat on the ground, and trembled.

“KNOW NOW THAT IF YOU DO NOT PRAY FOR ME EACH SUNDAY, I WILL BE DISPLEASED! IF ANY OF YOU MISS SUNDAY PRAYERS, FOR ANY REASON, I WILL PUNISH YOU MOST TERRIBLY!”

At this, one of the smallest, shyest frogs, whose name was Dunstable, and who was hopelessly frightened, put his hand in the air.

“… um … please … your … um … terrible God of Deathliness …”

Squall did not seem pleased.

“WHAT IS IT?”

“… well … well, it’s just that I’ve got to visit my sick grandmother next Sunday … um
… I promised I would … she lives in the shed, and is too weak to come to prayers, and …”

Then, all of a sudden, something terrible happened.

A football flew over the hedge from next door, and smashed Dunstable on the head.

Everyone gasped.

Dunstable looked about, dazed, and began to cry.

Winstanley felt certain that this had been a sign from God. He pushed his shrew-skull-crown back on his head, turned away from the other frogs, and continued his imbirdsonation.

“SEE? SEE? SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DISPLEASE ME? DO YOU THINK I CARE ABOUT YOUR STUPID GRANDMOTHER? WELL, I DON’T – I MIGHT GOBBLE HER UP TOMORROW FOR ALL YOU KNOW! YOU WILL COME TO PRAYERS NEXT SUNDAY, JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!!!”

With that, the prayers came to an end, and the frogs limped off to their homes, confused and anxious.

As they were leaving, Squall said.

“THANKS FOR COMING EVERYONE. BE GOOD. DON’T MISBEHAVE OR I WILL CRUSH YOU!!! DUNSTABLE! I’VE GOT MY EYE ON YOU!”

Over the coming months, things only got worse.

Winstanley kept on deciding that Squall would want new rules, and if people disobeyed those rules, Winstanley felt certain Squall would want them to be punished.

First he decided that everyone was going to have to wear blood on their faces. He made a little pin-prick on his toe with a thorn, and smeared the blood on his cheeks – and then made everyone do the same. Poor Dunstable was very squeamish, and wept pathetically when he was told to prick his toe, so, as punishment, Winstanley made him wear a waistcoat of thorns for a whole day. His skin was covered in scars, and he was miserable.

Then Winstanley found a dead mole by the wheelbarrow, and made everyone carry around one of the mole’s ribs as a ceremonial staff. At the prayer meetings, they would bang the ribs together like drumsticks. This, as you can imagine, was really gross. Turbot said he thought maybe they could use twigs instead, Winstanley got annoyed, and as punishment he imbirdsonated Squall into saying that Turbot had to spend all night inside the dead mole, and think about what he’d done.

But the final straw came when he told the frogs they had to take it in turns to stand in the middle of a circle, and have everyone tell them what was wrong with them. Poor old Dunstable went first, and everyone shouted at him that he was a coward, and a sissy – and of course they all felt terrible afterwards.

The following Sunday was the first really cold Sunday in November, and the frogs were all shivering. Winstanley was in a foul mood.

He chose kibble to go in the middle of the circle and be insulted.

Kibble cried.

Turbot said that Winstanley had gone too far, and that he wasn’t going to let his son
be abused in this way.

Then Winstanley started doing summersaults and screaming, and getting ready to think up the worst punishment yet.

A mile away, the Dangerous Birds Sanctuary had just had a bit of an accident. Their prize Egyptian Vulture, which was a big female called Marjorie, had just escaped.

Whilst the Dangerous Birds Sanctuary employees scampered around, fetching nets, and getting into vans, and calling the airforce, Marjorie had flown all the way to Mr and Mrs Watsons’ garden.

When she caught sight of all the tasty looking frogs by the pond, she flapped down eagerly to investigate.

This is how the frogs reacted.

“AAAAAAARGH!!!! OH NO! WE’RE SO SORRY!!! OH NO! OH NO! PLEASE FORGIVE US, GOD OF DEATH!!!!”

Marjorie didn’t know what to make of their ribbiting, and paused to investigate the funny looking marble sculpture beside her.

Winstanley was screaming.

“See! See! See how angry Squall is! I knew it! I knew it! He is here to punish you! You
idiots! This will serve you right for not believing in him!”, he summersaulted wildly as he shrieked, “Turbot – the only way for you to save us all from being eaten is to sacrifice your son! It is sinful to love your son more than God, so now you have to give him as a sacrifice! Yes, a sacrifice, a …”

As Turbot wept – desperate to save everyone from Squall, but unable to give up his son – all the other frogs ran about in a panic.

But then Winstanley stopped talking.

He stopped talking because, just as he was in the middle of a summersault, Marjorie had snatched him out of the air and gobbled him up. There was a sickening crunch as she snapped his bones.

Poor old Winstanley. He had not been God’s favourite son after all. He had only been her dinner.

With that, Marjorie decided she did not much like the taste of frogs, and flew away.
As winter came on, and the frogs prepared for the harsh, frosty months, they took a little break from their Sunday meetings. They had become rather awkward, after all. Who were they supposed to pray to now? Winstanley must have been wrong about Squall, because Squall ate him. Furthermore, Squall clearly didn’t care one jot about the frogs, because he had flown away and not come back.

So who was really their God?

Where was he?

They were back to square one on the board game of praying.

Then, just before Christmas, as a warm yellow glow was pouring like honey from the windows of the house, they found themselves – on a Sunday, as it happened – all absent-mindedly singing a hymn they used to know.

It was a nice, friendly hymn from the good old days – and as they sang it, they knew everything would be alright.

We love you! We love you! We love you – you’re great!
We don’t know where you live, or what you look like, or how you smell,
We don’t know why you put us here or where you went,
But we’re sure you must be brilliant!
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah – ooh, brilliant!
Do you have a pair of magic shoes?
Do you have an invisible nose?
Do you have a telescope that lets you see inside our minds?
We don’t know!
But we’re sure you must be brilliant!
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah – ooh, brilliant!

1 comment:

Vera Chok said...

Hi Leander, I love your work! Have been trying to contact you via your agent, on behalf of Peter Morris. Would like to invite you to an event. Do drop me an email if you've got a moment and I'll send you the information

Kind regards verachok@gmail.com