Sunday, February 9, 2014

In the arena - original short fiction

In the Arena
by Alli Kirkham

The crowd rustled. The stadium stunk. It was almost time for the final bracket.

There is a long tradition of people and animals playing horrifying games together or in close proximity. Horses in chariot races. Lions in Rome. Bear-baiting. Bullfighting. There is a tradition.

This was, perhaps, a bit different.

The sport hadn't been very popular at first, but was decidedly more sporting than an English hunt or an Indonesian cock-fight. Humans never walked away in shame from a cock-fight. The trainers never risked anything in a dog-fight other than the cost of the dog (and maybe some small piece of human dignity, but who's counting?)

Skunk-Chasing was another thing altogether.

The rules were few and simple: Chase the skunk from a wide area into a narrow kennel. If you get sprayed, you lose. No hurting the skunk. Pretty much everything else was left up to the competitors.

There were a few brave, stupid players, probably similar to the rednecks who had made up the game, who favored a tossing approach; you tried to sneak up on the waddling fuzzball and toss it into the kennel either before it started spraying or in a direction where the spray wouldn't hit you. The obvious downside was that you had to get close enough to a skunk to pick it up, and even though they could be kittenish and sweet animals they still had teeth and claws in addition to their terrible glands.

Kids who played tended to be tempters - toss the skunk a tasty treat and guide it, like ET following a candy trail, into the kennel. Sometimes this worked but it depended on the temperament of the animal; many skunks were suspicious little critters and would happily eat two or three snacks before dousing you in stink.

Some people were stompers - you make yourself big and wave your hands over your head and stomp close to the skunk until it runs away. Even a skunk knows that doing gymnastics when something big is running at you isn't a great plan. But a scurrying skunk is hard to heard, and if a stomper has to make more than one adjustment to the course of the running critter he's pretty much bound to get sprayed.

I was different. And I was hated for it - I made the game dull. I was a befriender.

I was the last human player in the bracket. I'd gotten six skunks kenneled today at the quietest, least exciting matches of the tournament. When I walked into the corral there was no booing, just some shifting and a general frustrated sigh. But the watchers always cheer more for the skunk anyway. They let him out of his little crate and he wandered to the edge of the corral, unhappy in the daylight and trying to find some shade. Blinking and pouting. Poor little fella was scared.

I walked a couple of steps closer to him and lay down on my back, stretching out my limbs. Muttering started in the crowd, but died down to a hush real fast. That was another rule - if a watcher tried to scare the skunk or made too much noise, they traded places with the chaser. Most watchers wanted to not stink more than they wanted to heckle. The skunk seemed pleased that it was suddenly occupying a much quieter place. It stepped a bit closer to me and sniffed and outstretched hand (one which I had dipped in peanut butter before entering the ring). It snuffled and backed away. He was a suspicious one.

In response I took my hand back and rolled over on my side. Suspicious skunks tend to be curious too; he waddled around in front of me and sniffed after the peanut butter. I sat up.

Mr. Skunk was feeling feisty - I stretched my hand out to him and he started doing a handstand. The crowd held its breath and I held still. He let his back feet down and started licking my fingers. I had won.

It only took a few more minutes before I had the skunk in my lap, petting his back and chattering gently to him. He handled it okay when I stood up and followed me along the edge of the pen after I put him down in the kennel. I gave him a plum from my pocket and he started munching it contentedly.

After I walked out of the ring, the crowd broke into half-hearted applause. I shook a couple of hands and collected my check, champion again.

It's an okay game, even if it's not much of a challenge. It's an okay way to make a living at least. The secret, I've found, aside from playing nice and being patient, is to stink anyway. You don't take it as hard if you lose and the little critters seem to feel bad for you. At least that's what I've found.

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