Sunday, March 10, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Shenandoah

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Shenandoah

Why is it lately you never see a clean marmot? They’re always filthy. Caked in mud. Even after they bathe at the creek – which is filling with silt now, by the way – they’re never clean for long. 

Dunno. I seen ol’ Labrum. He couldn’t talk through all the sneezing – said he had dirt up his snout.

Maybe they had a collapse. 

Could be, could be. The rabbits say they’re moving a lot of dirt again. 

Not the life for me. 

They continued fishing in that curious way raccoons have, feeling along the creek bottom and around the rocks until they snagged a minnow or a hellgrammite as their eyes wandered from the forest floor to the treetops to the sky and beyond. 

Food’s getting scarce. So much silt in the creek these days, food’s movin’ south for clearer water. 

Aw, still plenty as far as I’m concerned. You’re just a glutton. 

From over a pile of rocks at the creekside opposite This and That, a marmot watched from a place of concealment. 

As the raccoons drew closer, he watched more steadily, paws ready on a long thin reed poking out of the ground. The reed rattled a bit as the marmot toyed with it. It was loose in the soil. 

This and That grew closer, still fishing, occasionally eating. 

The marmot watched. He began picking up the reed, dropping it, picking it up, dropping it, drumming rhythmically on a hubcap buried deep beneath the surface. As the reed tapped on the hubcap, another marmot watched and recorded the message the other tapped out.

A foreman poked his head into the tiny hole where the monitoring marmot sat. 

“Any news?” she asked. 

“No,” the other said. “Just the raccoons by the creek.” 

The foreman nodded, retreated. 

The marmots dug.

Those marmots not digging were hauling in wood. Not twigs or bits or branches, but great baulks of timber carefully tamped down vertical shafts or buried in horizontal trenches. 

Those marmots not digging or hauling in wood were busy at the spots where the timber intersected, tying them together with lengths of soaked rawhide, or feeding shorter bits of wood through short tunnels built to tie the vertical posts together. 

Those marmots not digging or hauling in wood nor busy tying timbers together worked in other tunnels surrounding the works, stringing bits of barbed wire into a net that would stop any other random diggers from coming into their chamber without bloodied paws and noses. 

And those marmots not doing any of that watched.

Far below, in a slowly-growing chamber, a knot of marmots worked on a scaffold, fixing pulleys and belts and bits of rope and chain stolen from local boys’ bicycles and gears and bits of wire and treadle belts where three marmots ran first to the right, then to the left, then back and forth again, changing direction, trying to throw each other off the belt, laughing when they did, cheering when they did not.

They still were trying to communicate with the Purdys.

But no marmot worth his or her salt goes forward without a Plan B. 

Aloysius listened, which was unusual. 

You need to lay off Jarrod. Now. You’re driving him mad. 

‘Tis true, Aloysius said. But he’s naught got far to go in that direction, given what he’s done. 

And that’s it, Magda said, flapping her wings impatiently in Aloysius’ face. You know he feels incredibly guilty about what happened to the beavers. Why do you have to keep opening up that old wound? 

Because, miss – and you can stop your flapping right now or I’ll break your scrawny black wings – the world deserves to be tole. If we don’t remember what he did, and nobody talks about it, well, pretty soon the dumb ones will have forgotten and the mean ones will have died and no one will be around willing to tell the truth about yonder fearful leader. And it will all. Happen. Again. 

It’s a pity badgers live as long as they do, Magda sighed.

Just as pitiable how short crows’ memories are. Now, if it had been the crows, not the beavers, decimated as they were, you wouldn’t be here defending that Holstein pheasant, admit it. ‘Course, you’d have had to fly in from a different murder entirely to hear the tale, because all the crows her would’ve been stone dead. 

We forgive and forget, we crows. 

That’s as may be – dammit, I didn’t just say that, did I? It gets under the skin, these expectations. That may be, Miss Crow, but we badgers never forget. It’s how we live so long. Show me a trap once, I never forget where the spring of it is. And damned if I don’t tell the offspring the trick of the trap as well, so I don’t have my nights and days haunted by the screams of those caught inside. 

I’m asking you as a friend, Aloysius. Please lay off Jarrod. The memories worry him thin enough. Hearing them repeated every day is making it worse. He hasn’t eaten in days, since your last rant. I’m afraid he’s, well, trying to kill himself. 

Humph, Aloysius said. If he went, then who’d be our self-appointed Conscience and Torturer? You looking for a new job, Miss? Murder getting too crowded and the treetops too boring? 

No, Magda said simply. I’ve seen the leader’s job, Aloysius. And I don’t want it. When one leads in this woods, love quickly runs cold and sour. 

It’s to cover the smell of the blood, Miss. 

Magda left Aloysius with no firm promise of good behavior, but she expected nothing less. Sometimes, planting the idea in the badger’s head was enough. It might take him a few weeks to mull something over, but he could come around. Or he could get smashed on the road by a dairy truck. Either way, Jarrod’s burden would be lightened. 

She found him where she left him, huddled in a ragged nest in the armpit of crossbraces at a cell phone tower near the forest edge. He said, in scattered recollections, that he’d made the nest long ago for a young bride who had disappeared the night of a fierce storm. He’d not visited the nest much since then, certainly not in the mornings after a rain when the air was clear and the sun seemed only a few minutes away with its rays burning through the morning fog. 

She found him there, singing softly: 

I long to see you,
And hear your rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away, we're bound away,
Across the wide Missouri.
She did not know what the Missouri was, nor this Shenandoah. And Jarrod sang it so softly, so quietly, there were times she scarce could hear the words over the whistle of the breeze in the crossbraces. But he seemed more restful after a good sing, more able to close his eyes and sleep a sounder sleep if he sang before he settled, so Magda would perch there nearby, downwind, listening for the song. Chylus came on occasion and though he could not hear the music, he sensed Magda’s reverence and remained quiet and solemn, perched next to Magda whose heart he could feel beating fast through her feathers.

And far below, nibbling grass at the foot of the tower, near a friendly black hole leading to the warm dark earth, a marmot watched, solemn as well.

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