to An Understanding
Malcolm peered across the meadow. At almost any distance, his brother was a blur—but he could see the shape of Melwin’s rack and snout, and what looked like a rather large beaver.
No doubt Melwin was giving this poor beaver the benefit of his so-called wisdom. Malcolm was continually amazed that animals even asked Melwin for advice. Couldn’t they see through him? Obviously not. Occasionally, Melwin’s advice proved useful, but it didn’t make him sagacious. Lucky, maybe. Yet animals hounded the meadow to seek his brother’s counsel, even asking Malcolm where the ‘wise moose’ lived. Malcolm once told a chipmunk that he was the ‘wise moose’, and the chipmunk returned a day later to scorn him by raising his tail and thrusting his rear at him. Melwin wise? He had to laugh.
Was he envious of his brother? Of course not, he just hated to see other animals being duped. He wouldn’t mind quite so much if Melwin weren’t so arrogant about it. Asking his brother for advice could result in useful information—it was Melwin who had advised Malcolm of the succulent shoots at the wet end of Moose Meadow—but it always resulted in Melwin displaying the most insufferable superiority, which only exacerbated Malcolm’s irritation.
The question was, why didn’t animals think that he, Malcolm, was wise? True, he wasn’t always rational in discussion, often angry in fact—but who was? Melwin. Did that make him wiser? No. Besides, rationale isn’t everything.
Was it because his stories, cloaked in detail and metaphor and a multitude of necessary facts, seemed to take much longer to tell than the sparse ones Melwin told. Did that make his brother wiser? Not likely.
Or could it be because his body expressed elation when he orated by occasionally breaking wind. Melwin didn’t break wind. Malcolm wondered why. In the excitment of hearing yourself speak out, wouldn’t it be natural for your body to react with exuberance?
Malcolm was utterly perplexed; and his head ached from pondering this maddening question endlessly. Why did animals respect his brother and not him?
Couldn’t he just ask someone? Wouldn’t that be the wise thing to do? But who? He couldn’t ask just anyone, like Macy, a crusty old moose, of little mind, who resided in the scrub of Moose Meadow, spending his days lugubriously staring at trees, a routine interrupted only when he broke wind, which he did frequently—after which he glanced about, sniffed the air, and muttered, “how fragrant the wind is today…..” Living as dull an existence as could be imagined, Macy was of the belief that his life had been wildly eventful and often remarked, “I led the herd once.” If any animal were foolish enough to ask what herd, Macy would snort, “A herd of moose to Boggy Bog.” If asked why he had gone there, Macy would stare vacantly at the questioner and grunt, “And led it back”, implying that the import of travelling to Boggy Bog and back again was obvious.
Malcolm usually tried to avoid Macy, as he had noticed that Macy always deferred to Melwin. Perhaps this bias, Malcolm wondered, might ensure an honest answer from the old moose. So he trotted over to Macy’s corner of the meadow. He began to have doubts as he watched Macy chew on a twig and stare lugubriously at a larch. Macy was a bright as a rock, but then again what did he have to lose?
“Hi Macy. Nice day.”
The old Moose grunted, and continued to stare at the tree. After a long silence, Malcolm could bear it no longer. “Macy,” he said, “I have a question for you.”
Macy didn’t look at him, didn’t bother to respond, or take his eyes from the larch.
“Why do you think it is that animals seek out my brother for advice but not me?”
Macy, still chewing, thought deeply—if that were possible—then stated, “because you’re stupid.”
This response, delivered with such directness and sureity, took Malcolm’s breath away. “Stu… stup… stupid…?” he stuttered.
“Your brother is the smart one. You should be proud of him.”
Malcolm was stunned. What had the old Moose said? Stupid?! Was he stupid? No, he wasn’t stupid. Emphatically, no. Macy was wrong. Wrong. What could he know—this old moose who broke wind and stared at trees? Obviously nothing. Malcolm had never liked Macy, calling him “long in the haunches and full in the paunches”. It wasn’t very witty, but all the animals who knew Macy had laughed.
Who would ask this stupid old moose about anything? Somebody stupid. Maybe he was stupid. He felt stupid. Maybe he was just as stupid as Macy. They had much in common, stupidity and the breaking of wind. Maybe he would end his days just like Macy, a larch-staring, dense-thinking, smelly old moose, forgotten in a corner of the forest somewhere. Desperation shuddered through Malcolm. He wasn’t stupid, was he? How could he be? He had simply asked the wrong animal—but wasn’t that stupid? Could he be certain that he was even as smart as Macy? Yes, of course he could; but the question was, was he as smart as Melwin? It hadn’t been smart to ask a stupid, smelly old moose; he needed to ask an intelligent animal. But who? Who? Of course. Melwin. He’d ask his brother. If Melwin were truly wise, he should be able to explain the reason for this disturbing anomaly to him.
Malcolm trotted quickly back to his end of Moose Meadow to find his brother knee deep in marshy water, grazing thoughtfully on shoots.
“I’ve just been to see Macy…” Malcolm announced breathlessly.
Without pausing in his chewing, Melwin glanced at his brother, then off at the crow in an oak tree nearby who was dropping rocks on a bush.
“…because I’ve been bothered for some time,” Malcolm continued, “by the odd way in which animals relate to us.”
“I’ve noticed, “ said Malcolm, noting that Melwin was listening but trying to appear not to, “that animals always ask you for advice. Yet you have few, if any, friends. While I, who have many friends, have few animals asking me for advice.”
“Which animals ask you for advice?” asked Melwin, pointedly.
“There’s been a few,” said Malcolm, lying.
“Is there a point to this, Malc?”
“Yes, I’ve just asked Macy what he thought and his reply was interesting. He told me,” said Malcolm, hesitating, “that I was stupid.”
“Well,” said Melwin, “he’s wrong.”
“Yes, you aren’t stupid. You’re dull-witted. There’s a difference.” Melwin turned his attention back to the crow.
Speechless, Malcolm stared at his brother, aware of a wrenching throb in his groin, as though he’d been kicked in the bowels. It was true. He was stupid… and dull-witted. He was stupid to ask Macy; he was dull-witted to ask his brother. He had clearly demonstrated why animals thought his brother wise and not him.
Unaware of anything except Melwin’s voice repeating “you’re dull-witted” over and over in his mind, Malcolm stumbled off through the trees, through the night until, at daybreak, he found himself staring out at Boggy Bog. “You aren’t stupid, you’re dull-witted. There’s a difference.” Was there a difference? What was it?
Wading out mindlessly into the Bog, gaping at a tree sticking out of the water, he tried to understand. Yes, he was becoming like Macy—stupid, staring at trees, his antlers encrusted with moss. He hadn’t broken wind yet today but he was sure he would, because that’s how stupid he was.
‘I’m not dull-witted.”
Malcolm realized that someone was speaking to him. He peered ahead at a half-submerged log. Was that a branch or a tall bird? “Is somebody talking to me?”
“I am, go away.”
“I’m not stupid or dull-witted.”
“Yes, you are. You’re scaring my dinner.”
Malcolm realized it was probably a heron. “Oh. Fish. Right. Sorry.”
“You should be.”
“I’ll go now.”
“Yes, do that.”
“Don’t hurry back.”
Malcolm lumbered up out of the Bog, shuffling back into the Forest, unable to rid his mind of Melwin’s words, “you’re not stupid, you’re dull-witted, there’s a difference.”
The ache gnawed at his thoughts; he wanted so badly to stop thinking.
“Say Malc, how come so down?”
Sitting on a branch, just ahead, grinning at him was his friend Rollo Rat. He hadn’t seen Rollo in weeks. Unlike the other rats of Feckly, Rollo was solitary, he hummed his own tune and pleased himself. For reasons Malcolm couldn’t remember, Rollo had become, and stayed his friend for many winters. He liked Rollo even if his rat friend always carried a pungent odor.
“No, no. You’re not stupid, or dull-witted,” Rollo said assertively after Malcolm explained what had happened.
Malcolm shook his head glumly. “No, they’re right.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t give a Moose’s ass what they say. They’re hairy with envy. In point of fact, I think your brother and Macy know that you’re smarter than they are. In point of fact, one a pompous ass and the other’s as dim as night.”
Malcolm almost laughed.
“That’s why they said what they said. You’re much wiser than they are.”
“But if I’m wiser, why is it that all the animals go to Melwin for advice?”
Rollo grinned at him. “It’s because you’re too wise.”
“Most animals are intimidated by smartness, so they don’t look for it, just the obvious kind which isn’t very smart at all. In point of fact, real smartness is obvious only to really smart animals. So most animals can’t see how wise you are because you’re too wise, but they can see how wise Melwin is because he’s not so wise.”
Malcolm tried to understand. “You mean I’m wiser than Melwin?”
“You’re the wisest animal I ever met.”
Rollo’s assessment came as a blinding insight—he wasn’t stupid, or dull-witted after all. It was perfectly clear now. All his life, Melwin had made Malcolm believe that he, Melwin, was wiser, but what if he, Malcolm, were the wise one? Could the truth be that simple? Malcolm felt his body vibrate. This explanation was so obvious that he wondered at not having thought of it himself. “If I’m so wise, how come I didn’t know that?”
“Even the wisest animal can’t know everything.”
Malcolm gazed warmly at Rollo; what a remarkably intelligent friend.
Returning to Moose meadow, he found Melwin in conversation with Hamo Hawk. He evesdropped long enough to gather that they were discussing Forest politics, a subject he found exceedingly dull, so he trotted playfully around them.
Melwin glanced at Malcolm sternly. “Malcolm, I’m thinking. Would you mind not prancing about?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Melwin,” Malcolm responded. “I should have been able to see that you’re giving the full weight of your mental prowess to some important matters. Please excuse me.” He looked at Hamo. “We must be quiet, my brother’s attempting to think.”
Malcolm saw Melwin glancing at Hamo as if to say “you know how dull-witted my brother is”, but, remembering Rollo’s words, but was unphased. He giggled when he realized that if Hamo was listening to Melwin, he must be a creenhead as well. And giggled again when he noticed Melwin watching him. For the next two days, he subjected Melwin to sarcasm and giddiness, which baffled and irritated his brother.
The next day, Melwin announced he was taking leave of Moose Meadow for a few days.
“Would you mind,” he asked Malcolm, “telling that to any animals who come seeking me?”
“Not at all,” said Malcolm, who galloped gleefully about the meadow once he’d gone.
After trudging and tunnelling, Manley had edged closer to Moose Meadow and, catching the scent of a large animal, sensed it was just beyond. A moose? As he listened, he heard the large animal prancing and talking. To whom? As he listened he caught the words, “who’s dull-witted now?” Was this the moose he was looking for? If so, this didn’t seem like very wise behavior, although, with the exception of Bernard, he really hadn’t known any wise animals. He waited for the animal to stop prancing, and in a moment of stillness, hastened out into the meadow. “Excuse me,” he called out, anxiously.
“What?” said the Animal, startled.
“I’m seeking advice,” said Manley, raising his head.
“What?” came the surprised reply.
“I’m seeking advice,” repeated Manley.
“Yes. Are you Melwin Moose?”
“No,” the Moose mumbled.
“Do you know,” asked Manley hesitantly, “where I can find him?”
“He doesn’t live here?”
He could hear the Moose—Manley was sure now it was a moose—shift his weight, but he was silent. It seemed uneasy. “Please,” said Manley, “it’s important.”
The Moose didn’t respond. Manley felt defeated.
“Why do you want to see him?” the Moose asked abruptly.
“I need his advice. I was told he was wise.”
“Who told you that?”
“A field mouse.”
“Hmnh. I suppose some might consider him wise.”
“Do you know him?”
“I’m Malcolm Moose, his brother.”
“Oh.” Manley felt a sense of relief even though this moose seemed a little angry.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Manley, you might not know that certain animals, who understand such things, consider me to be his equal.”
“Really?” Manley could feel the Moose scrutinizing him. Suddenly, he realized that this moose wanted him to seek his advice. He was wary of doing so, even though he desperately needed to share his problem with someone. Could he risk offending this moose and wait for the other one to return?
“In fact,” the Moose continued, “some consider me to be smarter than Melwin.”
“Really?” Manley repeated, trying to sound respectful.
The silence was unbearable. Manley tried to decide.
The Moose bent his head low. “You could ask me for advice.”
“Please,” said the Moose, humbly, “ask me.”
When Manley realized that the Moose was begging him, he decided, and explained about the root-banging. The Moose, Manley assumed from his silence, seemed to be listening attentively.
“Well,” said the Moose when Manley had finished, “to be frank, I’m not sure what you should do.”
Manley lost hope.
“However,” continued the Moose, “that’s not to say that a well-placed word or two might not have some effect.”
Maybe, thought Manley, a word from a large moose might make Susie take notice. “It would,” he said. “When could you come?”
Manley rejoiced. “Now?”
When they arrived at the Bark Burrow, Malcolm lowered his snout to the entrance of Susie’s tunnel, sniffed and listened. Manley could hear his breathing over the root-banging. After some breaths, Malcolm raised his head. “Call her out,” he instructed.
Manley put his head in the tunnel. “Helloooo,” he shouted. The root banging stopped. Manley waited, and soon he heard Susie Bitch Badger’s breathing as she waddled up the tunnel.
“This is Malcolm Moose,” he said, imagining Susie twisting her head upward, and staring at Malcolm’s enormous body. He wondered if just the sight of him would cause her to stop.
“I’d like a word or two, if you wouldn’t mind stepping out of your burrow,” Malcolm said politely.
Susie hesitated, then Manley heard her venture forward, followed by her daughters.
“I understand there seems to be a conflict of interest which has engendered a undesirable relationship between certain neighbours.”
“A whats?” said Susie Bitch Badger, loudly.
“An undesirable situation brought about by certain actions.”
“What’re yutz talkin about,” sneered Susie, somewhat defiantly thought Manley, considering she was speaking to a large moose.
Malcolm cleared his throat. “It’s important to understand that no animal is alone. We all need to maintain a semblence of civility in the Forest so that we might forego an atmosphere of terror and fear.”
“What’re yutz talkin about,” repeated Susie, with a tone of irritation.
“Some time ago not too far from here,” Manley heard Malcolm say, “I became aware of a similar situation. A certain animal had built his burrow out into the entranceway of his neighbour. Needless to say, that animal clearly demonstrated a lack of consideration regarding the possible consequences of his action…”
“What’re yutz talking about,” repeated Susie, quite loudly.
Manley thought he heard someone breaking wind. The Moose?
“I’m offering my services,” said Malcolm, “to assist in this matter. So, if you will forebear to be patient for a few breaths longer, my good badger, I shall endeavour to acquaint you with the purpose of my story.”
“I gots better things to do than listen to no moose. No moose which smells.”
The Moose cleared his throat, and weighted his voice with authority. “Be that as it may, I have come here with the aim of alleviating circumstances that could be potentially volatile. I suggest you devote a few moments to assisting me.”
“Don’t wastes my time,” Susie snarled defiantly. “I gots my rights.”
“What rights have you got?”
“And what rights are those?”
“I don’t got to talk to no mooses and other rights.”
Suzie glanced at Manley. “I gets to bangs my roots as loud as I wants.”
“What about the oak?”
“What about the tree, the oak tree?”
“What about it?”
“Doesn’t it have rights?”
“Trees don’t got no rights.”
“Are you sure?”
“You some kind of goofy moose? Trees got no rights cause they’re stupid.”
“As opposed to badgers?”
“Was you callin’ me ‘stupid’?”
“All animals—and trees and plants— have rights,” cautioned Malcolm angrily. “And, they all have the same rights—and obligations. You are not free to exercise your rights when those rights violate another animal’s rights. Is that clear?”
“Yeah? Well I’m going into my burrow to bangs my roots and yutz can rub your ass up a tree.”
Manley almost admired Susie Bitch Badger until he realized that her bravery came from sheer ignorance.
“I will warn you,” said Malcolm, grimly, “only once, not to resume your root-banging.”
“I don’t takes no orders from no stupid mooses what smells.”
Manley heard her step back into her tunnel followed by her two daughters.
Manley knew Malcolm was angry from the sound of his heavy breathing. He waited. Within a few breaths, the root-banging started again. Malcolm snorted, and then bellowed. It frightened Manley. Then he heard a loud thumping sound and realized that Malcolm was stomping the ground above Susie Bitch Badger’s burrow. He heard shrieks from within. Then, the shrieks stopped. Manley was stunned.
After a breath, Manley felt Malcolm’s snout touch his. “What have I done?” he whispered, anxiously.
They heard a whimpering sound.
“Dig, Manley, hurry,” Malcolm urged.
Manley started tunnelling in, his front feet clawing at the earth. He heard the whimpering grow louder as he dug his way forward. The earth gave way in front of him and he could hear one of Susie’s daughters weaping. Not knowing what to do, he withdrew. Backing out, he felt Malcolm’s snout rub against him but neither could speak. They waited. They could hear moaning coming towards them as Susie’s daughter crawled out from the tunnel and stood weeping. Beside her, Manley could feel her body shake, and Malcolm’s snout gently stroke her. Still crying, she huddled against them.
“Do you think they’re…?” Manley asked.
“Yes,” Malcolm muttered.
Manley was horrified. What had he done? Susie Bitch Badger and her other daughter were dead because of him. He’d wanted the root banging to stop, but not like this. He knew the moose had not intended to harm the badgers, but had been unable to control his anger. The root-banging noise had been silenced; but was now replaced by the little Badger’s whimpering cries. Manley was mortified.