Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Chapter Twenty-One: Knee-High by the Fourth of July

Chapter Twenty-One: Knee-High by the Fourth of July 

The crows were the first to notice the twine.

It was hidden subtly along the rows, blending in with the color of the dirt, held in place by twigs. At first they thought it was just a bit of baling twine pulled up from the depths when Yank disced the ground last fall, but seen it tied to the twigs shoved snugly into the dirt aroused their suspicion. 

Others had seen it, too, but none asked questions. It was theirs to plant and occasionally weed, and if there was twine among the corn and brambles, it was none of their concern. 

This and That remained unquestionably silent on the matter.

Soon, other areas of the field sprouted the diminutive fences. First it was the shrews, ostensibly marking off plots their children were responsible for weeding. Others followed, and soon the field was a patchwork of fiefdoms demarcated by twine and not spoken of above a whisper, and never in mixed company.

If the Purdys noticed the fencing off of their field, they made no sign. Pa Purdy wandered the farmyard listlessly, took to long walks in the woods along the creek bank, sometimes far into the box canyon where the rusty traps still lay inert and sprung. Yank wandered the forests, too, with a bit of rope and his shotgun, broken, carried in the crook of an arm.

Lazy beasts. No wonder the farm is lost. Neither one of them has so much as lifted a finger since the bank order came. And I’ve seen it. Well, the cats have seen it and brought reports. They say it’s not a terrible amount of money the bank wants, surely one harvest of a good crop of corn or potatoes would pay the bill. But no nevermind. They do nothing. We do it all. And for what? So the louts keep the farm. We live on the edges, still to fight the poison and the shotgun and the cats and the cold. While they sit in the warm all winter. 

The marmots plotted. They measured. They dug burrows, deep burrows underneath a shelf of basalt, where the cool rock would keep food preserved for a long time. They burrowed into the cellars on the Purdy farm, into the cellars on nearby farms to study. They observed methods of insulation and drainage and storage and piling and sorting. Then they filled their tunnels back in carefully and the humans never knew their handiwork had been observed. 

But the twine fences in the field, not theirs. Not theirs. They had bigger fish to fry. 

The plans evolved and the tunnels to the neighbors’ cellars re-opened. Bit by bit, the grand burrows underneath the table of basalt rock filled. The neighbors put out a fair number of traps and poison and did a good go at killing the local rat population, but still, they noted, their stocks of stored seed slowly disappeared. If one farm became militant and wet to watching the stocks of feed and seed at night with torches, the marmots filled in the tunnels, quietly. The farmers grew smug. Dropped their vigilance. Then the tunnels were re-opened and the pilfering begun anew. 

The plan had one flaw, the head marmot knew. And it burned within him, not knowing how to solve it. The gathering would go on, however, because once the problem was solved, the rest of the plan would fly into action and soon there would be new owners of Purdy Farm, new owners who did not bring traps and poison. New owners who would not tolerate theft by others, not of their kind. 

He smiled in the darkness. 

Aloysius sneers at waistcoats and slippers. Paneling and mead, he said. Be they the affectations of human storytellers, they are fine things to pine for. Fine things to have. Fine things to ward off the chill of a tunnel or the damp of spring, the disgusting ends of worms and the innumerable ants who insist the tunnels underground were share and share alike. 

He was glad Jarrod had noticed the fencing, was beginning to become concerned. Concentrate on that, Holstein pheasant. Let it keep you busy, worrying over who is marking off what and for what purpose under the sun so loved. The more the busybody occupied himself with the shrews and crows and voles and raccoons and sparrows, the less attention he would pay to the faithful marmots, who weed a grand section of the field without fences or demarcation, whose corn grew faster than any other plot on the farm because, night and day, the marmots fertilized the ground while the other animals wasted their fertilizer on the grass and flowers in the forest.

Faithful marmots. Who seek no reward.

If only they could solve the problem!

Humans asked too many questions. Marmots – and most animals – ask too few. Where the animals wake and wander and find things to eat and water to drink and feel the sun or the rain or the wind or the snow and take what is found because that is what there is offered, humans asked questions. They asked, Why should I find food, if there are others who can find food for me? If I pay them, they will give, and find other food for themselves. They asked, If the winter wind is too bitter, the snow too deep, why not move the snow out of the way, pile it up, so our vehicles may wander the roads as we sit in heated comfort, going to buy the food that others have found for us and laid aside for us in the winter so we do not have to scrabble under the snow to find twigs and berries to chew on. 

Off they would go, then, earning and spending money, buying food, buying shelter. And fine entertainments. Even the Purdys, whom the marmots knew still had to gather some of their food for themselves, had enough money for a radio, for a television, for heat in the wintertime and, for Ma Purdy, trips to visit her mother, some eighty miles distant. 

What was important is this: The head marmot had seen inside other houses. Far richer houses built on plots not much bigger than what the Purdys farmed. Where the Purdy money went, the marmot knew not, but he reasoned with someone more intelligent in charge of the farm, the money would come and not be frittered away.

But the problem stopped them. 

The problem was that humans asked too many questions. 

If, perchance, the human found sixty bushels of seed corn, bagged and ready for market, at the depot or behind the seed store, with a polite note attached to it reading “Pray, sir, put the money for this seed corn in an envelope and put the envelope in the hollow of the beech tree overhanging Purdy Lane near the crossroads; we are sorry we cannot collect ourselves, but we are shy folk,” they treated it as a grand joke, moved the seed inside the warehouses to sell and never left the money in the envelope as promised. And when another note, sent with a dearly-produced stamp, invited the humans to come to an old barn over the hill from the Purdy Farm to collect another sixty bushels of seed corn and to leave the money in an envelope on the stool in the barn’s northwest corner; we are sorry we cannot be there but we are shy but we are nearby with shotguns,” they came with shotguns of their own and after scouting about and seeing nothing more than a chipping family of marmots screaming angrily at the intrusion, shot at the marmots, took the seed corn and again left without making the payment, as instructed.

Who is dumb enough to leave seed corn in such a manner, and expect payment to be left where the rats can eat it, they asked. But not too loudly, mind you, in case the ears attached to the shy family with shotguns were nearby. 

And others asked, Who are the thieves, then, who steal our stored stocks and try to sell it in such a manner? If they were honest folk, shy or not, we would know of them and know that they had indeed planted and harvested what they sell, rather than, as we suspect, steal it from us. 

So the owners of the seed store and the mercantile grew richer and the local farmers more suspicious and the marmots came no nearer to solving the problem.
But they were smart. A solution would come.

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