1st Prize spring 2012
The Philosopher & the Weasel
by Alice Dryden
Socrates was sitting cross-legged in his cell when the weasel bellied in through a gap at the base of the wall.
It was a beautiful little beast, with soft, russet fur fading to cream on its belly, and bright black eyes. Its slender tail was tufted at the end, and it travelled with a liquid, looping motion. To Socrates, it seemed such a perfect creation that it might have been the original Form or Idea of a weasel on which all other weasels were modelled. The philosopher sat still as a marble statue, watching his visitor sniff and scurry its way to the crust of bread in his clay bowl.
“Kaire, Big Beard!” said the weasel. “Mind if I take this?”
"There are two possibilities here," said Socrates out loud - softly, so as not to frighten the animal. "Either the weasel is talking, or I am imagining it due to hunger, loneliness or madness. I do not consider that I am mad, for I can still reason, and I have been hungry and alone before, yet nothing of this sort has happened. Besides, if this were a trick played by my mind to keep me company, why a weasel?"
The weasel cocked its head and stared up at him. "You could be dreaming," it offered.
"True, little friend, but in dreams a stone floor never felt this cold and hard, nor have I ever wondered in my dreams if I was dreaming. No, you are a talking weasel, and I ask myself if you are a god in disguise, if you alone among weasels can speak, or if all weasels can speak but none has until now spoken to me."
"I don't think I'm a god," said the weasel, standing up on its hind legs to get a better look at the bearded man, "because the gods don't require mortal food, and right now I require that bread." It eyed the crust again.
"You can not only talk, but reason!” Socrates marvelled. “Why do you want the bread?"
"Because I want to live," replied the weasel. "Why are you locked up in here?" it added.
"Because I also want to live."
“Are you hiding from your enemies, then?” It puffed out its fur, ready to defend itself - and maybe Socrates too - if enemies burst in.
“No - in fact, my enemies put me here.”
“And they’ll let you out soon?”
Socrates gave the upward nod that meant a negative. “They are going to kill me, bringing me hemlock to drink, because they say I have blasphemed against the gods and led the youth of Athens astray. They would let me go if I renounced the things I have said, but I will not.”
The weasel’s front paws shifted up and down on the edge of the bowl, its nose a thumb’s breadth from the crust. But it couldn’t resist another question.
“So you’ll die if you stay? You said you wanted to live!”
“Weasel - what does it mean to be alive?”
“I am alive. You are alive. The bowl and the crust are not. What do living things like us have in common?”
“Eating!” replied the weasel brightly. “If I don’t eat, I die. I move so quickly and my heart beats so fast that I need to spend pretty much all my time hunting and eating to stay warm and alive.” Its acorn-shaped head darted forwards and it snapped up the crust, which hung from its mouth like a big brown moustache. Socrates uncrossed his legs and leaned against the wall, watching his guest.
“It’s true that you eat and I eat, but does not fire also consume? Is fire alive, then?”
“Ungh.” The weasel dropped most of the bread to the floor, chewed its mouthful thoughtfully and swallowed before replying. “No...no, it’s not.” It poked the remaining crust with a tiny claw.
“Oh, don’t stop eating, please!” said Socrates. “It may not be the characteristic that makes you alive, but it is still necessary! Think about what you said just now.”
The weasel looked down at itself. “I’m warm...and I move about...” it demonstrated, scampering in a little circle - “and my heart beats. The dead are still and cold.”
“True again. But consider plants. Are plants alive?”
“Yes!” cried the weasel, pacing up and down. “But they don’t have hearts and they don’t move!”
“They move a little. Yet even a dead tree may sway in the wind. Try again!” Socrates leaned gently forwards and extended a finger to the weasel.
“Growing! Plants grow bigger and so do animals!” It touched its nose to the philosopher’s hand and darted away again.
“Children grow, yes, but old men such as myself, we shrink. We are still alive, though, are we not?” He cupped his hand coaxingly. The weasel moved towards him with a sideways motion, brushed his hand with its cheek, then climbed into his palm. Socrates held it against his chest.
“You’re alive. And warm!” It pressed itself to him. Socrates could feel the quick heartbeat, like a fluttering leaf.
“What about puddles?” the philosopher continued.
“Puddles?” The little head cocked, puzzled.
“Puddles grow in the rain, and so do rivers and the other bodies of water. And fire, again - fire grows larger as it feeds.”
“Big Beard!” wailed the weasel. “You’ve got me so confused I don’t know if I’m alive or not!” It gave his thumb a little nip.
Socrates stroked its head with his forefinger. “Don’t doubt that you are alive, weasel. You’re quick with life, fizzing with it - this old man delights to see such a vigorous creature.” He rubbed at the soft fur under its chin. “To say you’re not alive would be like saying you’re not a colour, when you’re red as a fox and white as snow on Mount Olympus. Yet if I were to ask ‘what is colour?’, you might find that question difficult too. It is a problem I have spoken of in the past. At present we are discussing life - at the end of mine.”
The weasel was silent for a few moments. Its eyes were closed and its nose pointed at the ceiling as Socrates rubbed its chest and belly.
“Tell me something,” Socrates said at last. “My kind think that your kind, the weasels, conceive through the ear and give birth through the mouth. Is that true?”
The weasel stared at Socrates, its jet-bead eyes wide, then sprang from his hand and began to stagger about on the stone floor, whooping with laughter. It collapsed on its side and waved its little paws.
“What a load of vole feathers!” it spluttered. “You lot are really weird, you know that?” Socrates watched, smiling, as it rolled and wriggled in its glee. Then, suddenly, it sprang to its feet and fluffed out its tail. “That’s it! Children! Plants make seeds, and animals make babies!”
It took a celebratory munch of crust, its cheeks bulging in a self-satisfied way.
Socrates nodded. “Very true! But some females are unable to bear children, are they not? Are they less alive? And what about those men who choose to share their life with another man, rather than producing fruit in a marriage?”
“Aww, Big Beard. You’ve got me every which way I turn.” It pouted. “Anyway, I can’t hang around here any longer. Eating and Hunting and Hunting and Eating, you know.” The last of the crust disappeared into its mouth, and its white throat rippled as it swallowed.
“Wait,” Socrates said. “Do you have children yourself?”
“Three little ones in the nest,” it replied proudly. “How about you?”
“Three children also - boys - but they are grown and able to fend for themselves. My other children, however, are not so strong yet.”
“What other children?” the weasel asked over its shoulder, pausing on its journey back to the crack in the wall.
“The children of my mind; my thoughts. I have to die so that they may continue to exist.”
“I don’t understand,” said the weasel, one paw held off the floor. “Your thoughts have no substance. When you die, they won’t exist any longer.”
“Tell me, weasel, if there wasn’t enough food for you and your offspring, what would you do?”
“If they were still suckling...I would let them die, and then I would eat them,” it said in a small voice. “After all, if I died they couldn’t survive without my milk, but I would live to have more babies.” It shifted restlessly, obviously anxious to return to the kittens in its nest, but it did not leave.
“And if they were bigger?”
“If they were on the point of learning to hunt for themselves, then every scrap I could find would go to them, even if I starved. I’d be content to die, as long as I knew I’d set those little guys up for their journey.”
Socrates nodded. “Then you understand how it is for me and my reasoning. If I go to my death still believing in those ideas with a full heart, my children go out into the world. Maybe they will survive, and maybe not. But if I renounce my beliefs to save my own skin, it will be as if I turned upon my helpless babies and devoured them.”
The weasel crept up to Socrates again and curled at his feet. “And you’re ready to die for the sake of these ideas?”
Socrates looked into the bright little eyes above the quivering muzzle, weighed up the value of the simple, easy lie, decided against it, and nodded no. “Willing, perhaps, but not yet ready. I want to see my boys grow up and marry. I want to hold my grandchildren. I’d like to eat a ripe fig just once more before I go to whatever awaits beyond, Hades or black eternal nothing. But that choice has not been given to me.”
“It’s a paradox,” grumbled the weasel. “If you live, you die, but if you die, you live.”
“We have reached the end of our journey together, weasel, and discovered what all living things have in common: life seeks to prolong life. By eating in order to survive; by producing children; or by passing on some other reminder of itself, be it creating sculptures, writing plays, or endeavouring to be remembered as just and kind. The mother is prepared to die for her children, the soldier for his country, and I for my philosophy. By passing ourselves on in this way, we make ourselves immortal.”
“Vole feathers,” the weasel said again. “You’re crazy. Give up your life for ideas - sacrifice your days so that other creatures, not even your own babies, might - might, mind you - remember your thoughts and tell them in turn to others? I wouldn’t do it. Not a scrap of energy to spare. In fact, I’ve wasted enough talking to you already.“ It turned its back on the philosopher and polished off a couple of crumbs.
“Don’t ever stop wondering, weasel,” Socrates said. “Now you know the way, you must keep asking questions, and teach your sons and daughters to do the same. People - and weasels - who have ceased to marvel at the world may have hearts that beat and feet that run, but are they truly alive?”
A key turned in the lock. As the heavy door creaked open, the weasel flickered across the floor like a tongue of flame and vanished into the world beyond the wall.
The guard picked up the empty bowl from the floor. “Hope you enjoyed that, Gramps,” he said. “It was your last meal. Hemlock for breakfast. Sleep well, you heretic bastard.”
He slammed the door, leaving Socrates alone. The philosopher drew his cloak around him as the cell grew darker. He watched the stars glide past the tiny window, marking his last hours.
The sky was just beginning to lighten when he heard a scuffle and a thump, and made out a russet tail and hindquarters wriggling through the wall.
“Got one!” the weasel announced, shuffling in backwards with all its fur awry. It was tugging a roundish object almost as big as itself, which it tucked under its chin and rolled across the floor to Socrates.
The prize was dusty and bruised from its journey, but when Socrates split it with his fingers the centre was pink and smelled sweet. He offered a chunk to the weasel.
“No, no, it’s yours,” it said. “I’ve got the rest of my life for eating. And for questions! Oh - you insist? Really? In that case..."
Together, in silence, philosopher and weasel explored the nature and meaning of a ripe fig.
Why this story won
An exemplary fable! Its structure is immaculate, its logic is thoughtful and the phrasing is exquisite. Everything is under control. It works as a dramatised syllogism and the inherent frame of conflict - Socrates is about to die - maintains the pace and the reader's interest to the very end.
Alice Dryden is a graduate of St Hugh's College, Oxford, in Literae Humaniores. She works as a web developer and does most of her writing when she ought to be doing something else. Alice writes mainly for children, which suits both her sense of humour and her desire to write about talking animals. She is currently working on her third manuscript; the second is still seeking a publisher, while the first has long since slunk home with its tail between its legs. If she isn’t writing, Alice is probably out on her motorbike. www.alice.dryden.co.uk Twitter: @Huskyteer
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