Jack followed his two brothers along the top of the cliff toward the Temple, wishing Anselm would stop nudging him toward the edge.
The three primitive lemmings were on their way to the Temple for a festival called “Survival of the Fittest.” There, while enjoying the harvest of grains, nuts and fermented berries, each rodent would report what he or she had accomplished during the year. The most useful member of each clan would be chosen to carry on the family line, while his siblings were run off the cliff with stones.
Angus led with a confident stride. A rodent of action, he’d done most of the work around the burrow.
Anselm followed with the sack of walnuts intended for the offering, popping nutmeats in his mouth and tossing away the shells. “I did all the bartering, so they should choose me. Remember that tasty pile of dead insects I scored? Mmmm-mmmm! Besides, the clan leader needs to breed next spring, and I’ve had some luck with the females.” His tongue tickled at a piece of walnut stuck between his teeth.
Jack dragged behind, picking up any shells that didn’t go off the edge of that ominous cliff and scratching them for leftovers. He’d spent the summer lying around the burrow, gambling for beetle shells and mooching off his brothers. The way he saw it, he had two options: he could tell the truth and meet his just but unhappy fate, or lie like a weasel and hope nobody noticed. He shuddered as one of Anselm’s nutshells rolled over the edge. He could almost feel the stones on his back, his paws running until they met nothing but air.
At the temple, Angus and Anselm went straight for their family seat. Angus sat with his jaw clenched as Anselm yammered about the true meaning of Survival of the Fittest. Jack slunk off to the refreshments and grabbed some fermented berries; if he was going to die, he might as well enjoy his last hours. When he made his way back to his seat, his paws were full and his cheeks bulging with delicious, juicy berries.
As the rituals and sermons started, Anselm grew piously quiet. Angus sighed with relief, scratching his furry ear as if trying to rid himself of an excess of verbiage. Jack watched the proceedings with one unfocused eye and chewed down berry after fermented berry.
All too soon came the Hearing of the Accomplishments. The first family up had three females–two quite pretty, while the third was ugly as bat droppings. This homely one had a flat face, very little fur, and a tendency to stand on her two back legs. Jack listened drunkenly as the three took turns bragging. When it came time for the congregation to go outside and make their decision, Jack was so drunk that he wobbled as he tried to stand. Angus and Anselm pushed past him with their paws full of stones, knocking him back on his rump.
Anselm grinned down at him. “Don’t worry, brother, we’ll be back for you. Very, very soon.”
Jack popped another berry. This was not going to be fun.
After several more families took their turn, Jack felt the stomachful of berries backing up inside him. “I’ve got to go out and use the facilities,” he whispered.
His brothers didn’t even bother to look away from the action. Outside Jack found a bush, did his business, and promptly passed out.
When Jack woke up, he found himself lying in his own droppings under the bush, the ugly female rodent asleep beside him. He sat up, adding to the pain in his head with a bump against a low-hanging branch.
His string of curses woke the other rodent, who sat up with somewhat more grace. “Good morning,” she said.
Morning? Jack peered out from the bush and noted the rosy shade of the dawn sky. “Holy groats, it is morning! What happened last night?”
“All the other girls in the clan were so jealous of my sisters, they couldn’t wait to send them over the cliff. They even gave me rocks so I could help. As the newly chosen leader of my family, I spent the rest of the evening out here, checking out the males.”
Jack shook his head. “No, I mean me–how am I still alive? I can’t have been chosen; I have no leadership ability whatsoever.”
“Oh, that! Well, when you didn’t show up to report your accomplishments, your brothers decided to just throw you off the cliff before letting the mob choose between the two of them. But while they were out looking for you, they couldn’t stop arguing. They were so busy pelting each other with rocks, they both accidentally went over the edge.”
“Son of a bitch.” He rubbed the morning guck from his beady little eyes. “Leaving me.”
She nodded her knobbish head. “Leader by default.”
“Damn.” Jack slid his paw under the female’s atrociously rounded buttocks. It occurred to him that she’d look much better in the dark. “Hey baby, want to check out my burrow?”
“Sounds good.” She pried his paw off her bottom and wrapped her fingers around it. “I know this little trick called hibernation you might like.”
Jack thought he might like that very well indeed, whatever it was. “All right then! Let’s go see what evolves.”
Cathy Douglas lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she works at a metaphysical store downtown. She otherwise spends a lot of time either writing or messing around outside. This story came about when somebody asked her if she was going to start a writing group, and she said, “Are you kidding? I have all the leadership ability of a drunken lemming!”