Cruelty of the Innocent

"Here, kick it to me!"

"Oi, let me have a go!"

"Stop hogging it!"

The jarring, raucous voices mingled into one, an unintelligible scream brimming with barbarity. It was a filthy sound, to come from such young, supposedly innocent creatures. Yet it did come from children, and it continued to sear the air violently.

There was a mass of them, boys and girls attired in their scuffed school uniforms. Like flies to a carcase they were drawn to the object of enjoyment that they swarmed around. It was a small round thing, a jolting brown blur as the children lashed out at it and sent it on to the next player. Smothered beneath the filthy noises of the tormentors were the sharp squeals that escaped from it with each blow.

The brown ball flew onwards, lurching around the body-formed arena. Then, a boy caught it under his shoe, a smile twisting his lips. The ball twitched, and slowly began to unfurl. Staring from above a quivering nose were two black beads, fear and pain churning in their depths. For a moment the little creature thought that its torture was over; that this terrible pain would fade. But the boy whose shoe pinned it down snorted and began the game once more. His kick sent it rolling over the tarmac, and hastily it curled itself inwards again.

The throbbing of the children's noises persisted, a dull hum in the ears of the animal. It did not know what this terrible infliction was, and though its mind was not able to form words to ask its questions, it still wondered, "why?"

Suddenly, the thunder around the animal died away. The volleys of blows ended. Having been tricked before, though, it remained tightly furled.

"Out of the way," a deep, indifferent voice called. A woman, her hair tied back in a tight bunch, parted the sea of children. Aware of the ranks of adulthood and childhood, they stepped away. Already some were sensing the foreboding signs of wrong doing. The lusty screams and the throb of the mob had all enwrapped them like a spell, bringing them under the power of senselessness. Now they watched the teacher bend down to inspect their instrument of enjoyment, fear growing on them.

"What-who was involved in this?" The woman snapped sharply, a wavering in her voice betraying the unexpected compassion that was beginning to rise in her.

Silence.

"Who did this?" She repeated, with terrifying potency. She rose to her feet, the dark brown creature trembling in her shadow. It had finally unfurled itself again, and even if more blows came it would not be able to defend itself. Its muscles rippled in spasms, and blood banged in its ears. It was too injured to move.

Some of the children, fearing punishment, slowly raised their hands to point at others. Accusations of pointed fingers and frightened gazes darted around them, and the teacher stared vehemently at them all.

"Since it appears that you are all guilty, you will all be punished. Go to the cloakroom and stand in silence. Now."

Their heads bowed, with eyes averting each others', the children filed away from the playground and into the school building. They could have been a crowd of spectres, as they marched across the ground in sombre grey uniforms. The teacher watched them go, and then knelt down beside the injured animal. As she swept her gaze across its short, trembling length, unwanted tears prickled her eyes. As the creature had done so during its torture, she now asked "why?"

Footsteps tapped the tarmac, and she looked up. A fellow teacher approached, his face grave.

"Miriam? I saw the children were sent in. What's-"

Miriam had pulled off her navy plaited jersey, and now wrapped the stunned creature in it. She rose, clutching the bundle of fading life to her chest.

"Perhaps the children can explain what they were doing to this hedgehog. Tell the head I've got to leave school for a short while."

"But…it's a hedgehog. I think it's best to put it out of its misery."

"No. There's the wildlife hospital a few miles away. I'll see what they can do for it."

Ignoring the man's reproachful gaze, she strode away, heading for the car park beside the school building. Wrapped in the woman's warm jersey, the hedgehog lapsed in and out of consciousness. Its previous agony had faded to a dull throb of aching pain. Yet, the pain in its mind was far greater. For it did not only fear its own demise: it feared the loss of the tiny babies that dwelt in its womb, babies that were nearly ready to journey into the world. The mother hedgehog could no longer feel the nudging within her belly that had been so strong before. All it could do now was lie in this soft, warm hollow, waiting the final wait as the glimmers of life faded from its eyes.

Miriam reached her car. With one hand she fumbled in her pocket for her keys, and unlocked the vehicle. She clambered into it, carefully setting down the lumpy jersey on the passenger seat beside her. She awakened the car's engine, and drove out of the school premises achingly slowly.

Once on the main road, she increased her speed, the car's body rumbling. Her eyes flicked from the road to the bundle next to her.

"Please, hang in there," she murmured desperately. Her compassion for the creature at this time cooled any anger she might hold against the children, the torturers of this innocent, unknowing animal. Now was a time to try and undo what damage had been wrought. Retribution could come later.

She drove onwards for four miles or so, steering along curving and bending roads. Eventually, a sign indicating a lane to the animal hospital loomed out from the bank, and Miriam turned. The car juddered on the stony roadway, causing the woman to wince as she thought of the hedgehog. The buildings of the hospital came into view, and relieved, she guided her car into the premises.

A nearby volunteer saw the arrival, and walked over to ask her what she'd come for.

"This hedgehog," Miriam said tersely, ducking into the car to bring out the animal cradled in her jersey. "I found it on the school playground. The children…the children were kicking it."

The volunteer nodded in understanding, her brows curving in empathy as she took the bundle from the woman.

"I'll get it to surgery. You can come as far as the door, if you'd like."

"Yes…I think I will. Thank you," Miriam answered, as the volunteer started hurrying away. She struck up an equally fast pace, and they quickly reached a low-roofed building. Slit-eyed windows offered little view of the inside, and a blank beige door stared impassively at them.

"Could you wait out here, then? We shouldn't be long, I don't think," the volunteer said, hand pushing down the door handle to gain entrance to the surgery.

Miriam nodded, her eyes set intent on the bundle in the volunteer's arms. The little creature wavered between life and death, and at this point she could nothing to help it edge its way back towards life.

The volunteer disappeared with the hedgehog into the building, shutting the door behind. Miriam's face sunk as emotions pressed down on them. She could do nothing but stand here in the brisk April wind, waiting to know if her effort had helped to save the creature. Alone, her mind was finally free to boil in anger at the children, and their actions. How could people so young do this? Why had they done it? Had some savage, primal instinct overcome them and forced them to revel in the pain of a defenceless creature? One of the reasons she'd first become a teacher was to help raise and nurture the next generation; to bask in the glow of their innocence and their endless curiosity of the world around them. Today, she had become disillusioned, and finding a way to retrieve her pride in her pupils seemed impossible.

For perhaps half an hour, she mused and lamented. Her feelings flickered from anger to sadness, then depression and confusion. Time swept by, and the sudden voice of the volunteer tore her back to earth.

"Um…would you like to come in?" She asked. Miriam turned to inspect her face for any betrayal of emotion. She saw nothing but sadness in the volunteer's eyes, and she knew. She knew that the poor creature had not lived.

"I…I suppose so." Her head bowed low, she followed the volunteer into the building. A sharp medical smell came to her nostrils, and she watched the grey tiles pass beneath her as they walked down a corridor and then turned into the vet's inspection room. She looked up as whiteness pressed against her vision.

The vet, clothed in a green overall, stood solemnly beside his inspection table. On the inspection table itself was a terrible, grave sight. Miriam forced herself to stand there, surveying the dead creatures before her.

There were three of them. The mother, her belly still bloated from carrying her babies, and the two smaller hedgehogs whose eyes had never even opened. They lay in a line as human dead are lined after a natural disaster. Miriam didn't think she'd ever seen something so horrid, so heart-wrenching…familiar anger rose up like a furious volcano, ready to disgorge molten lava upon the land. Suddenly, she wanted to hurt those who had done this awful crime. She wanted to hear the children scream for forgiveness, she wanted them to understand what they had committed…

"We tried to save her, but she'd been too badly hurt. I hoped we might be able to save the pups, so I did a caesarean. They were already dead when I delivered them though. Anna here said something about children on a playground," the vet said, shattering Miriam's dark visions. She looked up, her voice a stutter.

"I came onto the playground and they were all crowded around something, shouting…I made them part and in the middle of them was…was the hedgehog. They were kicking her around…oh, God, I can't believe how they ever did such a thing…" Her words came out as a fevered torrent. Anger flashed in the vet's eyes.

"They…they kill-no, murdered an innocent creature and…its babies too," she continued, hands trembling.

"You tried. That matters," the volunteer said kindly, touching her arm. Through lenses of tears, Miriam nodded in reply, and then spoke.

"I…could I bury the bodies, please?"

"We usually bury the dead animals on the premises, but…it doesn't really matter where they're buried," the volunteer replied, looking to the vet for confirmation. He murmured a quiet "yes".

"Thank you. Thank you for trying."

Half an hour later, Miriam was on the road again, driving back to school. This time though, instead of a quivering bundle beside her on the passenger seat, there was a green shoe box, utter silence from within. Inside was the hedgehog mother with her two babies, who had never even had the chance of life. That chance had been stolen from them. They now lay in eternal slumber. Miriam intended to bury them on the school grounds, and show the grave to the buried animals' murderers. She would make the murderers learn. She would make them learn to value life, and she would teach them innocence, for they clearly could not be innocent unless.

This is from a true story.

William Blake saw only innocence in children. He dedicated poems to their angelical spirits, encircling them in auras of purity. Did he never see what the innocent are capable of? Did he ever see innocence tainted? Would he have wondered if children could be something less than innocent by themselves?

They were created innocent

They were born innocent

But they were not innocent.