Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Writer Babbles: Anthropomorphism

NOTE: I've long held a fascination with critter lit, fueled by a third-grade reading of Robert C. O'Brien's "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH," followed by Ivy Ruckman's "Melba the Brain" followed by countless other similar tales. So, years ago, I started writing one. Here's an excerpt. I still think it's got possibilities.

Ima pouted earnestly in a dark dry hole filled with the odd tangy smell of humus mixed with forty-weight. Not only had she not been allowed to say good-bye to her new friend Ernie, or indeed stay around a few extra minutes to witness the rantings of the enormous yet flower-covered Mrs. Nussbaum, but her father and mother in the zeal most parents even in the lower echelons of the animal kingdom are prone to exhibit, grounded their little daughter for the rest of the week.

Moles, by the way, invented the parental concept of grounding. The offending imp is condemned to sit idly pondering on his or her sins in a dark underground chamber (hence the term 'grounded') until the punishment is lifted. Spending days on end in a dark hole devoid of any elements of entertainment value outside of the occasional errant pillbug and crabgrass roots dangling from the ceiling is certainly a more heinous punishment than banishment to a bright and airy bedroom filled with all the creature comforts, telephones, televisions and clean changes of underwear children of the lesser decades even up through their twenties earn by whining until their parents break down and buy them what they want or break down and force their children to work fourteen hours a day at a beet farm to keep up payments on the double room at the state mental hospital.

Human children do, however, have that option open to them. Moles have even less enthusiasm for socialized medicine than does the average human, and state-run facilities for the mentally stressed are limited to the occasional rattlesnake den. Then again, Moles can, if they feel energetic and stout enough, can tunnel right out of their chambers of punishment and once again breathe fresh free air, providing their tunnels don't collapse on them first. They must also, even the females, go as long as three months without manicures.

Of this, Ima cared little. Thoughts of revenge against her sister Pinecone, though briefly entertained, were abandoned in favor of thanks to her younger sibling for starting the family off on this grand adventure, even if at the time the grandest adventurer of the family was holed up in a dark pocket of air two feet below the surface. She had actually been in the presence of a big 'un--Ernie, he called himself--who didn't act as if he wanted to squash his tiny questioner on the spot. "Indeedy," Ima thought to herself as she sat on her rump in the dark, listening to the vague earth-scratchings of her father and brothers as they widened tunnels and carved out bigger living quarters, "he seemed right nice, that Ernie. A bit dumb, a bit talkative, but not a bad sort. If only father hadn't taken me away so soon!"

A timid scratch near the tunnel entrance stopped Ima's thoughts. "Ima, didja get the candy?" Pinecone's narrow face and cheerful whiskers poked into Ima's chamber of punishment and smiles lit up their faces and the darkness around them. "I wanna eatit. Dat smell's still got my tummy all rumbly." Pinecone shuffled into the room and pawed at her sister.

"Stop it, Pinecone!" Ima squealed as Pinecone's whiskers tickled her ears. "Of course I brought you a bit. Wouldn't be sporting of me not to, after all it was your nose that smelled it in the first place." Pinecone danced an anxious jig as Ima pulled a chewed bit of candy corn out of the satchel she always carried. (No matter if you've never seen a mole with a satchel; chances are you've never taken a really good look at your average mole anyway. And if you had, even the dimmest of moles knows to ditch any vestiges of cranial sophistrication whenever one of us big 'uns gets too close.)

Pinecone gently snatched the candy out of Ima's paws and immediately set to contented chewing. "Um, yum, um YUM!" she mumbled between bites, sending bits of candy corn flying about in the gloom. While Pinecone chewed and yummed, Ima settled once again comfortably on her round bottom and thought of her new and interesting friend, the giant Ernie. In retrospect she realized the rashness of her daring-do, her conscience still stinging with the razored lecture she received from both father and mother mole. That giant could have easily squashed her flat as look at her. "But still," Ima thought while Pinecone continued to yum in a rather sticky voice in the darkness next to her, "he didn't squash me. That must mean something."

"Ima! Ima!" Pinecone had obviously finished her candy. She poked her sister in her sliver-sized mole ribs and agitated her hands as if she were preparing for flight. "Dat big 'un TOUCHED you! Was it gross an' slimy? Did he taste like toadstools; did he smell like Ditchbottom after rain?"

Ima paused to think while her sister fidgeted impatiently. She drew her claws through her whiskers and patted the fur on the side of her head. "Well," she started slowly, "he did smell better that Ditchbottom. . ."

When his toaster oven broke the week before, Ernie turned immediately to the owner's manual he had dutifully saved and learned enough to fix the problem. Plumbing difficulties had been solved with the help of Mr. Fix It on PBS and a book borrowed from the local library. So when the neighborhood moles suddenly began speaking hedgerow English to him, Ernie sought quick information from his books.

Farley Mowat seemed quite skilled at understanding wolves, dogs and owls but as he was a naturalist and not an imaginary his adventures in the arctic tundra had little bearing on encountering talking moles in a trailer park.

A bit out of C.S. Lewis helped a bit: "This was bad grammar, of course," Lewis wrote on page 101 of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, "but that is how beavers talk when they are excited; I mean, in Narnia--in our world they don't usually talk at all." Though he spoke of beavers and not moles, Ernie thought beavers to be a closer relation to moles than any other example that easily came to mind.

"So, bad grammar," Ernie said aloud as he held the book in his hands. "that crit--Ima--did speak a bit odd." The book slipped out of his hands and tumbled to the pile of paperbacks at his feet. "What am I saying?" Ernie hollered, jumping off the couch and pacing back and froth from living room to kitchen in his tinny trailer. "I'm insane. What happened today, it, well, didn't. Couldn't. I've had one too many hits with the snake. I'll go for a walk. Clear the head." He opened the door.

"Hey! Big 'un! We'd like some candy corn, too!"

Ernie's eyes bugged at the two moles (Ditchbottom and Tummythumper) standing timidly at the head of his porch steps. "Um, sure," Ernie burbled, staring down at the two diminutive trick-or-treaters. "Hang on a second." He backed up, closed the door, then sat back down on the couch. "Doctor Bean. Where's his number?" Ernie shuffled through wallet cards and fished out the psychiatrist's.

Tummythumer and Ditchbottom, meanwhile, waited patiently on the porch, leisurely leaning their backs on the bag of charcoal. "He is a bit slow, like Ima said," Ditchbottom said as he picked his mole teeth with a bit of twig. "Don't really know what she sees in him."

"I see the candy, at least," said Tummythumper as he rubbed his corpulent belly.

"Now, let me get this straight," Doctor Bean said to Ernie over the phone. "You've got two moles on your front porch asking for candy corn."

"Right. And it's not even Halloween."

"Why do you think," Doctor Bean asked, "they're asking you for candy corn?"

"Well," Ernie said, "I gave some to their sister earlier on today and I imagine they're jealous."


"Or hungry. I only gave their sister a little bit," Ernie said. "She wanted some for her sister. Didn't mention any brothers."

"Ah," Doctor Bean said. "Hold on a second, will you, Ernie?" Cupping his hand over the receiver, Doctor Bean whispered to his secretary, "Emma! Get Ernie Hoobler's file out, please! And get on the other line and take notes. I think the Science Project Mice Loose on the Bus Episode's made him blow a gasket once again!"

"Anyway, Doc," Ernie said, "I can't talk long. They're outside waiting now. What do you think I should do?"
Emma stifled laughter as Doctor Bean shot her a nasty look. "Well, Ernie, what do you think you should do?"
Ernie thought for a moment. "You know, Doc, I'm thinking they'd like some vanilla wafers. Hold on a minute." Ernie put the phone down on the couch.

Emma and Doctor Bean strained their ears to hear the goings-on in the trailer owned by the crazy man who talked to moles: a cupboard opened and closed. Wax paper rattled; a door opened. "Boys," they heard Ernie say, "Boys? Oh. There you are. Take a few vanilla wafers. I promise they're good. Much better than candy corn." Doctor Bean and Emma strained to hear tinny voices; heard nothing but breeze. "Yes, sharing with your sisters would be nice. Oh, is that what happened? I thought she'd been stung by a bee, the old biddy. Tell your father, then, well done. Next time I'll give him the barbecue fork. Sure, boys, sure. Come back any time. Your parents, too. I'd like to speak with your father, thank him for betting that azaela patch off my porch earlier." The doctor and secretary heard footsteps, followed by a door closing. Ernie then picked up the receiver, and said through vanilla wafer crumbs, "I've sent them off now, Doctor. With vanilla wafers for all, of course. You know, their father is quite a brave character, attacking my neighbor with a picnic fork and all."

Doctor Bean wrote "He's gone and leaped!" on a bit of paper and showed it to his secretary. "Who attacked your neighbor with a picnic fork, Ernie?"

"The mole's father, like I said," said Ernie. "Quite the fellow."

"Um, Ernie, why did you--er, the father, attack your neighbor?" Doctor Bean asked.

"From what the boys tell me," Ernie said, "the old fellow got a bit confused. Meant to jab me in the foot, as I was the one who caught his daughter and all. Moles can't see all that well, doctor, or so I gathered when the boys had to smell about for their wafers instead of sighting them out. That's what the encyclopedia said, anyway."

"Ah hah," Doctor Bean said. Emma left the room to cover up her laughter. "You caught his daughter, you say.

Um, Ernie?"

"Yes, doctor?"

"I'd like to discuss this in my office," Doctor Bean said, "say, tomorrow morning. I'll call your supervisor."
"But doc, I can't come in tomorrow," Ernie said. "Miss Griffin's class is going on a field trip tomorrow and, well, I promised Ima and company they could come with us."

"Who's Ima, Ernie?" Doctor Bean asked.

"She's the mole I met this afternoon, doctor," Ernie said. "She's never been to a museum. Nor her brothers and sister. I thought it might be fun. For them. They'd be disappointed if they missed it."

"I see," Doctor Bean said.

"Anyway doc, the reason I called."

"Go ahead, Ernie." Doctor Bean rubbed his eyes and sighed.

"Ima's parents seem a bit timid," Ernie said. "What's the best way to approach parents who are afraid you only want to squash or shoot their daughter for digging up your flower beds and garden as well as sneak-thieving your candy corn?"

A laugh exploded deep in Doctor Bean's stomach but he managed to turn it into a cough. "Well, Ernie, I don't know if this will work with moles, but among humans the protocol is to prove to parents your good intentions. Do a little work around the house--er, hole." Doctor Bean began to giggle. "Dig a tunnel, or--ha-ha-hollow out a new room. Give them a few, uh, doilies to, uh, spruce up the place, Ernie. I hear moles are very f-f-fond of doilies." He cupped his hand over the receiver and shoved his face into the coat hanging on the coatrack to muffle his increasingly voluminous chortles.

"Thanks, doc," said Ernie. "I'll try that." A dial tone replaced Ernie's voice.

Ima hummed an old mole tune a she brushed her fur and gazed into her dim reflection in the shard of glass pushed into the wall in front of her. Deciding to make the best of her undergrounding, Ima had busied her sister with orders and convinced Ditchbotom to dig out a small skylight in her ceiling, which he then covered with a domed bottom of a clear plastic soda bottle.

Why exactly she found Ernie Hoobler exciting even she couldn't quite tell. She wasn't even sure if she liked the enormous dim-witted and hairy beast; or if Ernie could look beyond her own moleishness to the real Ima under the furry coat and behind the near-sighted eyes.

All Pinecone knew was that she was getting very tired of being a lady-in-waiting. Finding the shard of glass Ima stared dreamily into had taken the better half of the morning and led her almost too close to Mrs. Nussbaum's busybody poodle Snoops who snapped and bit at the mere shadows of birds flitting across the green patch of Nussbaum lawn. Then there were trips to the sunny lip of the ditch for fragrant purple flowers to take away the musty underground smell of her lady's waiting chamber and trips to the lawn of Mr. Onslow to cull the largest and yellowest dandelions for Ima to smell and then rub the yellow pigment on her moleish cheeks (which most mole males find very attractive; a pigmentation Ima hoped would attract the eye of even the most dim-witted of handsome giants). As Pinecone watched Ima absently weave purple flowers and the yellow heads of clover into a crown for her head she wondered if the smells and sights and sounds of last evening's encounter had completely chased her sister's mind away.

"Ima," she asked, "you mind's gone, ainnit?" Ima continued to weave flowers and hum an old mole love ditty quietly to herself. "Ima," Pinecone insisted, "roof's cavin' in!" Her sister hiccupped, but continued singing. "Snake's a-comin behind you!" Pinecone almost shouted, trying to get any reaction out of her daydreaming sister. She jumped up and down, jigged side to side, kicking up pebbles and raking dirt from the low ceiling above Ima's sleeping alcove. "Gonna get et! AIII!" Pinecone frowned deeply. She wrinkled her upper lip in disgust at her mushing sister, sitting on her round bottom weaving a stupid Flowering Mole Wreath of Affection. She felt like tossing pebbles at her sister's head. She felt like dousing Ditchbottom in rainwater and hiding his smelly furry body in some dark corner of Ima's chamber.

Pinecone felt like tattling.

She poked her head out of Ima's chamber door and peered down both long hallways of the family tunnel. She could hear Ditchbottom and Tummythumper playing at some underground game a ways down to the left and heard the snores of her parents from a chamber not too far to the right. She looked back at her dreamy sister, who had finished her first wreath and was earnestly yet absently at work on a second, much larger wreath. "Ima!" Pinecone shouted in a whisper. Her sister actually looked up form her work to stare at her. "Hoo you makin' that big 'un for. . .oooohh!" Pinecone's eyes drew round; her jaw dropped and her whiskers quivered. "Dat's for the big 'un, ainnit?" Pinecone hissed, shaking her head from side to side. Ima, suddenly drawn out of her odd trance, timidly nodded her head--her eyes much wider than Pinecone's.

"Um, Pinecone, it's like," Ima stammered, raising from her seat and squattling towards her sister, still perched in the somber gloom of the chamberway.

"Ima," Pinecone screeched, "he's a BIG 'UN! How can you--love--a big 'un?" Then suddenly: "Oooff! Stoppit! Aaaaghh!" Pinecone popped like a cork out of the chamberway, with Ditchbottom and Tummythumper wadded up in a crumpled heap on top of her. "Offa mee!" Pinecone squeaked from the bottom of the writhing pile of tiny moles. With claws flying and whiskers gently jabbing her brothers in the eyes, Pinecone pulled and struggled out of the heap.

"We heard Pinecone," whispered Tummythumper, huffing and puffing and batting at Pinecone's tail which was in his eyes, "We heard Pine--getcher tail outta my face, sis!--Pinecone hollerin' about a big 'un an' we thought maybe he found yer fancy-pants skylight, Ima."

"Where's the big 'un?" Ditchbottom asked--in a rather muffled voice from the very bottom of the still struggling pile of moles trying in vain to right themselves.

"He's in her DREAMS," Pinecone whined, finally stepping out of the moley pile and pointing accusing fingers at her older sister, who stood bathed in a shaft of filtered sunlight streaming in through her skylight. "That big 'un who held her yesterday--she likes him."

Ditchbottom and Tummythumper righted themselves and stood in stock silence in a row next to their sister Pinecone, whose fingers still pointed in Ima's direction.

"You," Ditchbottom squeaked, "like him?"

"That big' un?" Tummythumper asked, incredulous.

"He smelt funny," Ditchbottom said, "like something wet after a rain."

"She's makin' him," Pinecone said, then whispered: "a wreath."

"Gross," the three said in unison.

"Mole-heart, mole-heart, love with the sun," Pinecone chanted, grinning a mocking grin and bouncing on her heels.

"Mole-lass, mole-lass, make a wreath for one!" Ditchbottom added in a rather silly voice.

"Leaf-dance, earth-dance, wed the lucky pair," chortled Tummythumper, grabbing Ditchbottom's hand in his left hand and Pinecone's hand in the other and dancing them about in a circle around their sister who wore an exasperated look intensified by her halo of light.

"Love of one, love of two, tunnels through the air!" All three chanted at once. They danced and repeated their chant as Ima sighed and tried to push her way out of the lively circle. Ditchbottom broke the circle long enough to snag a bundle of purple flowers from the floor. He bowed in mock solemnity sweeping the flowers deeply behind his back as Tummythumper and Pinecone stared and giggled withe their paws over their mouths.

"Accept, fair molelish lady," He said, sweeping the flowers from behind his back and snapping his body out of the bow and to attention, "yon bundle of ditchflowers as my token to thee." He chortled and was joined in a chorus of chortles by his brother and sister.

"My dearest moleish lord," Ima said, graciously taking the flowers from her brother's paw, "I accept thy bundle," with this she put the flowers to her nose and inhaled deeply, "that I may use them, dearest, to BLIP you right on top of the head." The flowers and their accompanying overpoweringly purple smell sang through the air as Ima aimed and landed them with a smack on top of Tummythumper's fuzzy head. Pinecone and Ditchbottom stopped their chortling and merely held their paws in front of their open mouths. Ima stormed out of her chamber, leaving Tummythumper to brush fragmented petals and stems from his fur.

Ima stormed back into the chamber, shaking her fists. "I'm undergrounded." She said, nearly a whisper. "You all get out. Now." Her three younger siblings silently and slowly shuffled out, single-file. Ima stonily watched their retreating fuzzy backs and kicked about at a few of the flowers crumpled on her floor. She sat back at her reflecting-glass and arranged her flowery wreath on her head. Softly, she sang, trying hard to conceal a smile: "Mole-heart, mole-heart, love with the sun. . ."


She gasped and turned to the door, abruptly interrupting her flower arranging and her humming. Her father shuffled in through the door, squinting at the sudden light and holding back a yawn with the back of his paw. "What was all that noise I heard just now? And why are there broken flowers all over the floor in here?"
"Oh, Daddy!" She jumped from her reflecting-glass and wrapped her arms around her surprised but pleased father.

"Daddy is it now? My, my," Dirty-Fur mumbled, patting his daughter lovingly on the back of the head. "You haven't called me daddy since you were toe-high to a giant." He continued to pat her head as she continued to squeeze him tight. "I'm pleased you're not mad at me anymore, dearie. I love you so. That's why parents act the way they do at times--they love you--though their actions and harsh words may sometimes appear to mean the opposite."

"I love you, too, Daddy!" Ima said, trying hard to control the quiver in her voice. She released her grip and sat back down at her reflecting-glass, but this time rather than looking at herself she turned opposite and stared into the squinty eyes of her father, who plopped onto the ground near her feet.

"I was so scared for you, yesterday," Dirty-Fur whispered, putting a paw on Ima's knee. "I'd have rather faced a cat than that giant."

"But the big 'un--Ernie--isn't a bad sort, daddy!" Ima pleaded, putting her paw on top of her father's. "He may seem a bit slow, but more than that, he seems quite nice--not like any other giant, by any means."
Dirty-Fur sat blinking in the sunlight that cascaded over his head and shoulders from the domed hole in his daughter's ceiling. "He did seem the decent fellow," he said, more to himself than to the pleading looks his daughter gave him. "More willing to talk than to squash, at any rate. That must mean something." Ima put her head in Dirty-Fur's lap. He stroked her head, now bathed in light along with his own, and repeated to himself: "More willing to talk than squash. That must mean something."

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