Saturday, April 2, 2011

Anthropomorphism -- Doleful Creatures

NOTE: Another bit from a story I've been working on for a while. Read another isolated fragment here. Still in its infancy.

The animals of Purdy Farm knew something had to be done.

They gathered in the barn on a moonless night, cattle sweeping the stalls, the roosters herding their harems, the pigs grunting sleepily, the crows lining the rafters overhead.

Adora Belle, a Guernsey cow, was nervous of the crows. They didn’t belong to the farm particularly, they did no valuable work. But Littlebottom the cat and Janos the donkey convinced her they had as much a stake in what went on in the barn as any animal that worked at, burrowed under, flew over or snuffled through the farm. The crows had even managed to talk up the meeting enough in the woods and fallow prairies that a family of porcupines, three bright-eyed raccoons, a moth-eaten badger and a gaggle of field mice were in the barn, clustered close together, eyeing the others with awe and suspicion.

Across the barnyard, past the wagon-barn and the well, Farmer Purdy snored in his cot in the living room, close to the fire. His sleep was fitful. He woke often, to poke the fire, to sit up and cough a bone-rattling, hacking cough into an old spotted handkerchief. As he sat in the darkness, the room illuminated fitfully by the glow from the fire grate, he spotted the pile of paperwork on his cluttered desk. He coughed again, shivered, rolled into his blanket and turned back to the fire, his back to the desk.

“Is everyone here? Is anyone missing,” Adora Belle asked over the cackle of the crowd. The animals settled, a bit reluctantly. A mother mouse tried to shoosh her brood who’d started a game of hide-and-seek in the milking pails and butter churn.

"This is prob’ly all that’s comin,’ Belle,” Janos said. He looked around the barn. It was not as crowded as he would have liked. But so many had gone. The horses. Most of the cattle. All of the sheep. Only one of the sheep dogs remained, a depressed creature who slept in the hay loft and tried, once in a while, to halfheartedly herd the chickens. Someone had even taken the scarecrow Ma Purdy made years back, leaving the fields open to the crows that shuffled on the rafters, trying hard not to relieve themselves on the animals below.

Adora Belle cleared her throat. “We’d like to thank,”

“Kin we dispense with the speeches, miss, and get to th’ point o’ this meetin,” the badger asked. He stopped his own speech with a fit of coughing as the crows chuckled overhead.

“Easy, grandfather, don’t make this speech your last,” a crow shouted. The others laughed.

The badger stopped coughing. “Fine for you flightly young’uns to make fun of an old badger,” he said. “Freeloaders that you are, flyin’ in when the corn and raspberries is ripe, never doin’ nothin’ but eatin.’”

A crow dropped form the rafter, flew a tight corkscrew and landed with a thump on the ground in front of the badger’s snout. “Pretty preachy for a codger who hides in the woods all day, scared of his own shadow,” it said. “Don’t see you hitched to the plow!”

The badger snapped at the crow, making it hop backwards into a startled chicken. “I don’t work here, aye, but I don’t pilfer, either,” he said.

“Gentle friends, gentle friends,” Adora Belle lowed, stepping lightly over the chickens and ducks to the spot where the crow and badger eyed each other. “We don’t have time for fighting. We’re here,” she said, “to stop the Closure.”

All the animals in the barn heard the capital letter, the older ones explaining to the younger ones what they’d just heard. Closure. The word had been whispered, lowed, clucked, squeaked and grunted among animals living on and near the farm since Littlebottom first brought it to them two weeks ago. No one was really sure what it meant, but Littlebottom knew it meant the farmer had retired to his cot, growing more ill by the day. He rose only to stoke the fire, visit the outhouse and to stare forlornly at the papers piled on his desk.

“Aye, the Closure,” the badger shouted. “We wood folk have heard talk of the Closure from yon crows and mice,” he said. “None of us understand much what it means. I know closures when it comes ot tunnelin, but there be no tunnels o’ concern o’ the farmer on Purdy Farm. Ever sicne I closed that one the skunks had dug into the root cellar. Soft livin’ they was lookin’ for, yes, not knowin’ that in my time I seen soft livin’ bring the poison, the traps, the shotgun, I have.”

“Is that what happened to your face, grandfather,” the young crow laughed.

“Nay,” the badger said. “Lost me eye and me ear in a scrap, I did. Just as you’re about to. And if I can’t find yon ear, I’ll go fer the brain! An’ I doubt I can find that.”

“Get him, Chylus, get the ratbag!” the crows in the rafters shouted. A few flew off, circling over the badger and crow, hoping for a better view of the fight. The chickens cackled and ran, crashing into each other and the other animals as they tried to find places to hide. The filed mice lined up on the lip of a pail, leaning forward expectantly. The porcupines stepped nervously from one foot to another, not wanting to witness a fight but unwilling to flee, lest they put an eye out with one of their quills.

“Silence,” Janos whispered. “Silence.”

The donkey joked often to Adora Belle that he wasn’t a donkey at all. Wheezing in his raspy voice, he said, “I’m all hoarse.” But over any din, be it cackling chickens, a gale ripping shakes off the barn roof, the roar of a tractor, all the other animals could hear Janos’ whispers. They quieted. The crows flying overhead made a few more passes, then flew back to their roosts in the rafters. Chylus, eyeing the badger suspiciously, hopped back, turned and flew to a rail on one of the stalls. The badger stared evilly up at him.

Adora Belle spoke. “We haven’t time to fight amongst ourselves,” she said. “Littlebottom will tell us why we’re here. Littlebottom!”

The cat looked up from his perch on a pile of gunny sacks. He stood up, stretched, then leisurely walked to the center of the crowd of animals, tail erect, walking daintily as if on the carpet in the Purdy farmhouse hallway.

“Someone needs to put a quill up that cat’s bottom,” one of the porcupines said. The field mice nearby twittered. They did not trust Littlebottom one bit. They’d lost too many relatives to be friendly with any feline.

Littlebottom glanced at the mice and licked his lips. Then he turned, jumped onto a bale of straw near where Adora Belle stood, turned a few times, then settled on his bottom, his back to the mice and wood folk, addressing the farm animals. “Two weeks ago, while perusing the farm mail, Farmer Purdy stumbled across an envelope which, upon opening brought him distinct physical, and as you all know, mental anguish as well,” Littlebottom said. “This was not, I knew immediately, the same kind of physical duress that overtakes Farmer Purdy when he reads his bills, his bank statements nor even the letters from his sister Patricia, who lives in a townhouse in the city and fills her letters with her absolutely horrid memories of growing up on the farm, questioning him in every letter why he insists on hanging about with filthy pigs and ducks and why don’t you just sell the farm and bring Littlebottom and live with me, well, not with me, but nearby, perhaps on the other side of town where the rent is cheaper and more fitting to a man of your social proclivities. Those letters almost always put him in a rage, and whether it’s cold or not, dinner time or not, he always stuffs them in the stove and scratches around for the matches.”

“Get to the point, please, Cat. We haven’t got all night,” the porcupine father said.

Littlebottom gave the porcupine a sour look, over his shoulder. “I was just getting to the Closure,” he said. “There are four of them, or so he read from the letter two weeks ago. Four Closures. They’re coming from the bank, because the letter came out of the same kind of envelope he gets his bank statements in, except this one had a lot of red lettering on the front that I couldn’t quite make out.”

“Probly cause Purdy didn’t read it,” Chylus said. “That cat’s no reader.”

“What’s a bank, now,” the badger asked. “Never get nothin’ from the banks I know, down at the stream.”

“A bank,” Littlebottom said, not turning to face the badger, “is, well, sort of like a church, I believe. I’ve never been to one. But when Farmer Purdy gets his letters and there’s one from the bank in the pile, he always says something like, ‘It’s from the bank. Lord, what do they want now?’ He always talks about not having enough in the bank. It’s probably because he doesn’t go there that often. Ma Purdy used to take him to church every Sunday. I think they went to the bank on occasion, too, but since she passed, God bless her, he’s been to neither.”

“Ma Purdy was a right beast,” one of the crows said. “Threw apples at us. Put out the scarecrow.” The murder of crows, as a whole, shuddered. They hated the scarecrow, rejoicing the day it was blown away during a thunderstorm.

“What do we care that a Closure’s coming, four of ‘em or not,” one of the pigs grunted. “Maybe better pickings once they come. Slop’s been a bit thin, lately.

That question started a cacophony of talk in the barn, waking a few of the pigs, who’d fallen asleep.

Raccoons have collected change over the years. They have enough to pay the first $25 note for the farmer, gives them more time to get a harvest in.

One way to get crows to panic is to swear to wear an old shirt and hat and stand in a field.

Chylus and the oldest mouse child are the only only ones who can read. They go into farmer house to read bank letter, dad mouse goes with to protect. Chylus burps up wet shrew all the time. He and mouse kid start to become friends. Chylus is a young un too.

Before you presume, know:

Though they are raccoons – black masks, ringed tails, nimble fingers and all – they do not have foresty names like Ring-Tail or Crawdad. Neither do their names rhyme. Nor would they come up with their own names, taken from nature or from their own feats of bravery or skill. Raccoons, see, don’t need names. Warm fur, food, a place to sleep. And kits of their own.

Their mother left them nameless, calling them, collectively with their two brothers and sole sister, “my little kits” because, as their mother knew quite well as soon as they were old enough they’d leave the hollow in the tree where they were born and go off into the big world to find fish, walnuts, berries and spouses of their own, giving perhaps only fleeting thought to the kindly mother and mostly absent father left behind.

The other animals around Purdy Farm, however, called them This and That. They got the name from Farmer Purdy who, returning from the henhouse where the pair snatched eggs, from the dairy where the pair gobbled cheese, from the granary where the pair purloined corn, responded, “Oh, this and that,” to Ma Purdy’s question on the source of the frenzied cackling, the missing cheese, the diminished corn.

Neither one minded the names. Neither one knew who was This nor who was That. Frankly, only a few of the other animals around Purdy Farm bothered to keep them straight, either. “No honor among thieves,” the old badger muttered often when This or That were about. “No sense namin’ them, either.” That the raccoons knew the badger’s name was Aloysus infuriated the badger even more.

Chylus the crow calls them Procyon and Iotor, for reasons he kept to himself.

Before you wonder, know further:

"We’re brothers and stick together for the case of the narrative,” This or That said (I don’t know who is who, either, and the two aren’t telling). “If it weren’t for this story, I wouldn’t be within five miles of him.”

"Nor I,” That or This replied. (I’m sorry; it’s all very confusing. And they just lose or chew up the little name tags.)

They would not spy for the animals as they tried to discover the mood and musings of Farmer Purdy. “We won’t wear vests nor ties nor say things like ‘My fur and whiskers,’ either,” said This. Or That. “So don’t even ask.” But, they agreed, if they happened to learn anything in an off-hand way while they were plundering the Purdy Farm, that they would pass it on to the animals more concerned with the welfare of Farmer Purdy, if only because his welfare directly impacted their own. Secretly, they planned to steal Farmer Purdy’s shotgun and hang it in a tree in a part of the woodlot they knew the farmer visited only rarely, hoping that once they stole it and hung it in the tree the rains would come, so that when the farmer found it, it would be rusted solid and useless for peppering their rear ends with buckshot.

“We’d shoot him,” That said. Or This. “But then who’d plant the corn?”

Know also: Raccoons are not as cute and cuddly as you'd think.

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