IN WHICH THEOBALD ATTEMPTS
Theobald, plodding labourously through hawthorn bushes, could hear the din of voices growing louder as he neared Grand Meadow. His resolution began to waver. He was weary, having travelled since first light, and unsettled at the prospect of speaking to so many animals.
Struggling to reach the tree line, he pulled himself into the meadow by mid-morning, and realized, peering through the milling tangle of legs and bodies and hearing the din of angry and placating voices, that the meeting had already started.
Drawing himself through dung and tall grass and past limbs, he found higher ground in the shade of a pine tree and then, with great effort, pulled himself onto a flat rock from where he could see most of the gathering. He was awed. Cramming the meadow and the grassy slope beside it, more animals than he knew existed were attempting to speak or trying to listen. A Great Horned Owl, perched on a prominent dead oak over-looking the meadow, hopped up and down, shouting “Order! Order!” On a branch above the owl, Theobald saw a flock of crows and for a breath feared they would drop rocks on his shell.
Then he saw them. A horde of rats congregated on a slope opposite the dead oak, vehemently waving their paws and shouting “Rats got rights! Rats got rights!” at a large beaver sitting patiently nearby, unphased. A well-padded, sleek Rat rose up confidently at their head, and waited to speak.
Beside him, Theobald noticed a Hedgehog and a Mole. The Hedgehog stared at him; the Mole sat quietly listening, its eyes closed. The Hedgehog looked away, but when Theobald glanced back, he was staring at him again.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” Theobald asked him.
“There’s a motion to continue damming the stream.”
“Oh.” Damn the stream? thought Theobald. “Why?”
“To flood the meadow.”
“Oh? To what purpose?”
The Hedgehog looked at him askant. “For better forage and that sort of thing.”
“Why are the rats objecting?”
“They say it floods their burrows and that sort of thing.”
The Hedgehog glanced about cautiously. “Some say that the burrows shouldn’t be where they are.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I said.”
“You mean the rats are squatting?”
The Hedgehog whispered conspiratorially, “The situation is dangerous. Anarchy is rife and that sort of thing. Decisions are being made by a mob.”
The noise increased, the rats now angrily shouting at a large Moose. The Hedgehog’s revelation and the angry voices made Theobald nervous.
“Order!” cried the owl.
“Mr. Owl,” bellowed the Moose.
All eyes looked to the Owl on the branch. “The Tree recognizes…” shouted the Owl, “Melwin Moose.”
“MALCOLM Moose, Mr. Owl,” shouted the Moose above the din.
The Owl peered across the meadow. “Sorry. The Tree recognizes Malcolm Moose. Order, order.”
“Damming the lower end of Grand Pond creates a flood plain which irrigates not only this meadow but backs up into Moose Meadow and as a result gives us all much, much better forage…”
The Moose paused. In the silence, Theobald thought he heard the sound of an animal breaking wind.
“… which,” continued the Moose, “is of benefit to all. I propose we continue damning the stream.”
The well-padded sleek rat stood and casually waved his paw at the Owl.
“The Tree recognizes Ronald Rat.”
Abruptly, all the other rats stopped shouting.
“Mr. Owl, of course, my moose friend is absolutely right. Damning does create excellent forage which is of benefit to many of our friends. However, while we continue to try to supportive of our fellow animals in this instance, many members of the Corporation will be left homeless by the flooding, many even meeting with loss of life.”
“Why don’t they just move their burrows?” insisted the Moose.
Angry cries erupted from the Rats.
“Would that it were that simple, Mr. Owl.” shouted Ronald.
“Order, order!” shouted the Owl, “Does someone wish to propose a motion?”
Ronald Rat waved his paw. “Mr. Owl, before we bring the matter to a vote, let’s ensure that we’ve exhausted all possibilities.”
“Are there other possibilities?” asked the Owl.
“There may be, which is why I propose that we strike a committee to weigh the possibilities.”
Malcolm Moose waved his antlers. “I propose we vote on the issue.”
“All right,” said the Owl, “all those in favour of voting now?”
Every animal in the meadow raised a paw, excepting the rats.
“Can we have a motion?”
“I propose,” said Malcolm Moose, “that we ask Beryl Beaver to again dam the stream at the south end of Grand Pond to flood the meadow to achieve better forage.”
“All those in favour?” asked the Owl.
Theobald noted that many paws and wings were raised, but that the rats hadn’t moved.
“All those against…?”
All rat paws were raised but none from other animals.
“The motion to dam is carried. Last item please, it’s ah… Helga Hare.”
“Mr. Owl,” said a plump Hare, stepping forward, accompanied by a knarly old Badger.
“The Tree recognizes Helga Hare.”
“Mr. Owl, Blanche Badger and myself would like to propose a wonderous idea for a most exciting event. We believe a Festival of Us to celebrate the richness of the animal spirit will be of lasting benefit to all.”
“And, what…ah, would that be, exactly,” asked the Owl, dubiously.
The Hare smiled at the old Badger.
“It would,” murmured the Badger, in a quivering whisper, “be a celebration of the unique joyousness of our beingness.”
“Beingness. Our joyous uniqueness.”
The Owl hesitated. “What kind of ‘celebration’?”
“Well,” said the Hare, breathlessly, “all animals would gather in the meadow to view objects of our animalosity.”
“Objects?” asked the Owl.
“Yes. For example, there could be wonderous gnarlings on dead trees. Or branch erections. Possiblyh uniform defecations, and inspired urinations.”
“Inspired,” muttered the old Badger.
“Mr. Owl,” said a Black Bear, standing abruptly. “I got better things to do than be staring at Marlings on dead trees.”
“Gnarlings!” snarled the Hare.
“Order, order,” called the Owl.
“I have no hesitation,” said Ronald Rat, quickly jumping to his hind feet, “in saying that the Corporation, in the interest of good fellowship, would support such a celebration.”
“That’s most encouraging,” Mr. Owl,” said the Hare. “Such an event, I can assure everyone, would be most uplifting.”
“Uplifting,” muttered the old Badger.
Theobald, uneasy with all the tension in the meadow air, was having second thoughts about speaking. Would he be able to get his words out? What if he should stumble? As he looked about, wondering how the animals would react to his complaint, he noticed a few rats sniffing at other animals’ anuses. The animals seemed to take no notice, but Theobald felt his anger return.
“If an animal wanted to speak to the gathering,” he asked the Hedgehog, “how would he go about it?”
The Hedgehog gaped at him. “Are you going to speak?”
“I’d be afraid.”
“Afraid?” echoed Theobald.
“It’s dangerous to have opinions. The order of the day,” the Hedgehog looked about anxiously, “is anarchy and that sort of thing.”
“Although this mob contains some astute thinkers.”
“I see,” said Theobald confused. Then he saw rats again, sniffing through the crowd. “No,” he said, determined, “I will speak.”
“You will?” muttered the Hedgehog.
“I would be quite nervous,” said the Mole.
“I am,” muttered Theobald.
A large stag near the moose stepped forward to address the gathering. “I should like to say…”
“You must be recognized by the Tree,” childed the Owl.
“The Tree recognizes… ah…”
“Donald Deer, Harry.”
“Donald Deer, proceed.”
“…I think there’s very little point in flooding a meadow for new forage if we’re going to cover it with… dead trees and defecations.”
“That‘s a point, Harry!” boomed the Black Bear.
“Order,” admonished the Owl.
Ronald Rat was up on his feet. “It would be a shame, Mr. Owl, to forego an uplifing experience of this kind. We feel it could be a most worthy endeavour.”
Theobald noted that some animals were losing interest.
The Owl pondered the matter. “As there is nothing to be done until the Spring,” he said, finally, “I suggest we table it until then. All those in favour, say aye.”
“Aye,” shouted a large number of animals, some of whom had started to wander off.
“Lastly,” said the Owl, “open discussion. Anyone to raise an issue?”
Theobald hurriedly raised a claw. “Mr. Owl?”
“The Tree recognizes… who… who…?”
“Theobald Turtle,” repeated the Owl.
“Umm… Mr. Owl, I… ummh, wish to bring to everyone’s…. ah, attention, a matter of concern…”
Gazing out at all the eyes now focused upon him, Theobald, who had never before spoken to more than one animal, suddenly forgot what he had come to say. Then he noticed a rat sniffing Blanche Badger’s anus, and remembered. “Yes, a matter of great concern. I question the activities of a group of animals who are abusing the rights of others.”
He had their attention now, all were gazing at him curiously. “We all know that animals have to be free. And we also know that everyone must be tolerant of others so that all animals feel equal. No animal should be subjugated to the wishes of others, otherwise life as we know it here in Feckly Forest would become intolerable.” He felt encouraged hearing a few animals murmur “quite right”.
“The point is that the Rats, specifically the Corpation of Rats, have been abusing the rights of others.” Glancing at the rats, Theobald noted that all had turned to stare at him, dumbfounded.
“That is a very serious accusation… ah…hoo..” said the Owl.
“Theobald,” said Theobald.
“Theobald. Most serious.”
“I am aware of that, Mr. Owl, but I believe that the animals of Feckly Forest have respect for their fellows, except for the Rats.”
“Liar. Untrue, untrue,” yelled all the Rats at Theobald.
“Order, order,” shouted the Owl.
Ronald, slowly rising up on his hind legs, smiled confidently and raised a paw. “Mr. Owl?”
“The Tree recognizes Ronald Rat.”
Watching him, Theobald waited nervously. Ronald took his time, as though collecting his thoughts. Then he focused his gaze upon Theobald who suddenly felt chilled. “I know of no abuse,” said Ronald, “of which members of the Corporation have been guilty. Perhaps our new friend Theobald will enlighten us as to the specific nature of his complaint.”
“Yahoo, yahoo, yahoo!” shouted all the Rats.
Subjected to their beady-eyed glaring and taunting, and Ronald’s confident tone, Theobald’s confidence began to wilt. “My complaint, Mr. Owl” he forced himself to say, “is that I don’t like other animals sniffing my bum.”
The meadow grew silent, and it occurred to Theobald that all the animals were remembering Rats sniffing at their anuses.
“I believe,” he said, “that it’s intrusive, and rude.” A few ‘Hear, hear’s’ around him were muttered. “And I would like to propose that such activity be banned.” Midst the cries of protest from the Rats, Theobald heard more murmurs of agreement. He felt encouraged.
“Mr. Owl.” Ronald Rat was back on his hind feet.
“The Tree recognizes Ronald Rat.”
“Mr. Owl, we can appreciate the concern that our friend Theobald has expressed here today; and we are aware that some animals might not be aware of the value of these Corporation activities, some of which might be misconstrued. Karmeting, for example, the activity in question, when viewed from the wrong perspective, might seem frivolous.”
“Not frivolous, Mr. Owl, intrusive,” insisted Theobald. Behind him someone whispered, “What’d he say?”
“It’s intrusive.” whispered another.
“I hate that.”
Ronald waved again for silence. “Fellow animals, on behalf of all who live here in Feckly Forest, the Corporation has, of its own accord, been conducting research into the habits of our fellows in order to service the needs of all. It will, naturally, at the proper time, in due course, make this information available.”
“To what purpose??” asked the Moose.
“Order, order,” shouted the Owl. “The speaker must be recognized by the Tree.”
“The Tree recognizes Malcolm Moose.”
Hearing that someone else would speak, Theobald felt relieved.
“I would just like to know,” said Malcolm, “what use this karmeting is.”
“It’s a very significant and productive activity,” responded Ronald quickly, “but I have no wish to waste the council’s valuable time with a detailed explanation. Suffice to say, we are able to provide information on the habits of the animals of Fecky to help us with the important decisions we all need to make.”
“Such as?” persisted the Moose, loudly.
“Ah, well,” Ronald hesitated. “The issue of insect control, for example, into which we have looked closely. We all know what a problem insects can be, especially during those hot summer months, as no doubt our moose friend can testify.”
Ronald chuckled, and the other rats joined in. “We, at the Corporation, have expended much effort gathering information on insects—which insects are found in which areas; of the animals which live in those areas, which animals eat them; which animals then eat which animals which ate the insects; which insects might prove to be beneficial to which animals; which animals should protected from which insects; and so on and so forth.”
The Black Bear stood up abruptly. “Excuse me. Harry?”
“Mr. Owl,” the Owl admonished.
“Whatever. I’d just like to say that I don’t need no rats telling me which insects I’m gonna eat, okay? I mean, if I wanna eat some butterflies or wood moths, I’m gonna eat some.”
Ronald waved his paw. “That’s not our…”
“And another thing,” continued the Bear, “Any of them rats coming sniffing my bum, I’m gonna kick his butt, real well.”
Hearing an animal nearby mutter, “stupid, stupid, ugly bear”, Theobald noticed a squat porcupine whispering to a red fox who twirled his mane with a claw.
“And another thing,” said the the Bear, “Them porcupines outta be banned, going around sticking them needles in everybody.”
“Order, order.” commanded the Owl.
“We sympathize with our good friend Billy Black Bear,” continued Ronald, placidly, “but we must insist that the research which we conduct can be of use to all animals.”
Then Theobald realized that Mole was speaking. “Can you name a single instance in which this information has made even the slightest difference to an animal’s existence here in the forest?”
For a breath, there was silence.
“I don’t see what the problem is,” said a gurgling voice in the back. “Everyone should do what they want, and leave others alone.” As the Rats cheered approval, Theobald glanced at Miles Muskrat, whom he knew from the pond, and whose placating manner he found oppressive.
“I mean, I got things to do to get ready for winter, you got things to do to get ready for winter, why are we wasting all this time?”
Ronald quickly jumped up. “Mr. Owl, I couldn’t agree more. Our good friend Miles is right. This is an important issue and we need to reflect upon it. I suggest we table this discussion until our next meeting.”
For a breath, Theobald felt anger, then relief. He was tired.
Most other animals, also weary, murmurred assent and Harry Horned Owl looked up at Cecil Crow who flew up over the gathering to “caw” the meeting to a close.
As the animals dispersed into the forest, Theobald suddenly felt alone. He heard a ‘crack’ on his shell and then Cecil Crow landed on the ground in front of him.
“You didn’t know you could speak, did you? Was I right? You made quite an impression.”
“Yes indeed. I doubt the rats will forget you.”
Dazed, Theobald watched, as Cecil flapped his wings and rose into the sky. Malcolm Moose lumbered up, followed by a baby badger. Malcolm bent his head down and murmurred to the Mole who nodded. Then he addressed Theobald. “I just wanted to tell you that animals I’ve spoken to also find this ‘karmeting’ intrusive. They agree it’s an important issue.”
“Will they be speak out?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure many will.”
Of that, Theobald had much doubt, but as he watched the meadow empty, he felt relief at having forced himself to take a stand.
It took him a day to crawl back to the pond. He then ate fish and insects to prepare for hibernation and calm his mind. As he lay in the mud, trying to release his tensions, Theobald felt an sudden foreboding—no, not a foreboding, it was the tramp of animals approaching, trodding the underbrush methodically, firmly, with purpose.
Through a space in the reeds, he saw them coming for him, a troup of rats led by Ronald who strode right up to him. Resisting the urge to tuck back into his shell, Theobald tried to appear unconcerned, but he was frightened. The rats glared at him hatefully and he realized they would have no hesitation in tearing at his flesh with their little rat teeth. He kept his eyes fixed on Ronald, who smiled at him reassuringly.
“Good day to you, friend Theobald,” said Ronald. “Did you return safely from Council?”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Theobald, politely.
“Good, good. Are you refreshed?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Good, good. Well, we’re hoping you might be able to spare us a breath or two.”
“Of course,” said Theobald, masking his fear.
“There’s one or two points I’d like to clear up, having given further consideration to the matter which you brought up.”
“Yes?” Warily watching the other rats hedge him in, Theobald tried to gauge how quickly he could slip into the pond.
“We’ve taken the matter under advisement and think that there may be some validity in what you say. We may have been overzealous in certain instances, thereby inconveniencing some with our activities. Of course, this was not our intention, and so we will be redefining our areas of endeavour in order not to interfere with the functions of others.”
“So?” asked Theobald.
“So?” replied Ronald, with a puzzled expression.
“What does this have to do with me?”
“Well, we thought you might want to reconsider your motion until such time as we can reconfigure this particular activity so that it does not have the capability of offending anyone. Who knows, it might even be of benefit to you one day.”
Theobald knew that to avoid rats tearing at his flesh all he would have to do would be to drop the matter, even though he knew that the Rats would continue their activities exactly as before—but he was angry.
“I brought the matter up because I find it extremely annoying to have rats, or any animal, sniffing at my anus. I see no justification for these useless, self-serving endeavours of the Corporation to what?… dominate others? Nor can I imagine how you might make them less offensive. I hope the Council will see fit to ban them entirely.”
Ronald stared at him. Theobald had once witnessed an eagle swoop down and remove the carcass of a vole from a weasel’s mouth. The weasel’s expression of hatred had been of equal intensity.
“I see,” replied Ronald. Then he smiled again. It was not a warm smile, or even an attempt at one. It was a dark, foreboding, sinister wave of the lips, “There is nothing more to be said then, is there?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Good day, Theobald.” His smile vanished as he strode back into the undergrowth, followed by all the rats except two who, while pretending to ignore him, inched closer to Theobald.
Theobald understood he had waded into a raging stream. He knew he would have to be vigilant at all times now to stay alive. Trying not to appear to hurry, he turned and began pulling himself to the edge of the pond. Suddenly, someone was nipping at the fleshy part of his hind claws as he struggled to reach the water. With one final effort, he dove into the pond, down deep into the enveloping darkness. He felt his anxiety ease, but knew that the course of his life had changed irrecovably. He now feared the days ahead.