The Dark Time Arrives
Although Theobald had begun his trek to the meadow the evening before, to prepare his thoughts for the meeting, the journey had wearied him, and in the early morning darkness he fell asleep as soon as he arrived. He awoke to bright sun, the mist rising from the meadow grass into a radiant blue sky, the air sweet, cleansed by the light rain of the night before. Theobald, however, was still timorous. Watching the many animals assemble, bright of eye and chatting incessantly, he wondered why they weren’t—like him—dreading the day ahead. Were they oblivious to the contention that, he had no doubt, would ensue? Crawling to a spot near the Speaker’s tree, he waited, and a few breaths later Malcolm and Rollo joined him.
“He’ll be here soon. He’s collecting last minute votes.” Malcolm seemed unconcerned, but Theobald couldn’t imagine who would vote against the rats.
When Manley arrived, Ronald’s vanguard had already secured the hillock across from the Speaker’s Tree. As Theobald peered across the meadow at the hillock, it seemed to him that there were a greater number of rats than previously, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Do we have enough votes, Manley?”
“Are Beryl and her friends here?”
“Yes, but there’s only nine of them.”
“Every vote helps.”
“Who’d you speak to?” Theobald knew he had no right to press Manley, that he would have done his best.
“Hogie, Warren Woodpecker, Miles Muskrat, Fred Flying Squirrel and his wife Delores, Hamo Hawk, the Wood Frog twins, the Robin brothers, the Tree Swallow family, Phil Fox and Peter Porcupine, Field Mouse Montgomery—possibly twenty-five in all.”
“They’re all voting with us?”
“That’s not very many,” emphasized Rollo.
“How many votes did you in bring, Rollo?” asked Theobald, pointedly.
“You asked how many I spoke to,” said Manley, “but I’m expecting many more votes than twenty-five.”
“How many?” asked Rollo.
“I can’t tell yet.”
As Theobald expected, Ronald arrived just breaths before the meeting began with a small group of rats, probably his inner circle. “There’s Ronald.”
“That’s Ritchie,” whispered Rollo, “his aide-de-corp.”
“How many rats?” asked Manley.
“Hard to tell, they’re everywhere. Oh, look, there’s the weasels.”
“Those two from the Bark Burrow, the male with the scarred snout, and the female who’s ordering the other weasels into position.”
“Let’s spread out before it starts,” said Malcolm, “to see if we can find any undecided animals.”
Rollo grimaced. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” asked Malcolm sharply.
“Suppose they think I’m with the other rats. It’ll confuse them.”
“He has a point,” said Theobald. “So maybe just we three.”
“You can’t move very fast,” said Manley, “and seeing as you’re the one who everyone thinks is behind this, it would look better if Malcolm and I spoke on your behalf.”
Suddenly, they heard the “cawing” of Cecil Crow who flew low over them.
“Too late,” said Rollo.
Theobald looked up as Harry Horned Owl flew in and perched on the lowest branch of the Speaker’s Tree.
“Whoo Whoo, come to order,” announced Harry. “Order! The Green Time session of the Forest Council is called to order. Now, any new business to add to the agenda?”
“The Tree recognizes uhm…” said the Horned Owl, squinting about to see who was addressing him. “Whoo… whoo?”
“It’s Elmer, Harry.”
The old elk, who was known to Theobald, had often led his small herd to drink at Willow Pond. Theobald wondered how he might vote.
“What is it, Elmer?”
“I’d just like to say that I’m in favour of letting the beavers dam Willow Pond.”
“That was decided at the last meeting, and it’s actually Grand Pond.”
“Now, any new business to add…”
“Excuse me, Harry?”
“Can I ask what was decided?”
“The decision was to allow the beavers to continue daming Grand Pond’s lower end.”
“Oh, good. That’s an excellent idea. You know, whenever the meadow floods, the forage is always much better.”
“Yes Elmer, thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Harry.”
“Now can we proceed?”
Ronald Rat suddenly stood up on his hind legs, and gave a slight wave with a piece of bark. “Mr. Speaker?”
Harry Horned Owl sighed. “Yes, Ronald?”
“Having given the agenda a cursory glance, and noting that we have much ground to cover in a relatively short time, I would like to suggest that we eliminate item four.”
“The question on the open to debate is that item four of the agenda be eliminated. Any discussion?”
“I object,” Theobald said hurriedly. He felt himself trembling. “Item four is the issue tabled last fall. We’ve all had the winter to consider the matter, so I doubt it would take much time.”
“Ronald?” Harry Horned Owl prompted.
“Mr. Speaker, we have many more important things to decide. And I’m sure we all don’t want to spend this gorgeous day in endless discussion.”
Theobald noted Manley trembling as well. “Manley, are you all right?”
“What?” said Manley.
“Your snout is twitching.”
“It is? Oh.”
“Any comments?” said Harry surveying the meadow.
Waiting, Theobald was surprised to hear Manley shout out, “I… ah, I’d like to speak to that, Mr. Speaker.”
Everyone looked about, trying to see from where the voice had come. Malcolm lowered his head, and whispered, “Grab on.” Fumbling, Manley grabbed a horn on his rack and hung on as Malcolm lifted him up.
“Mr. Speaker,” exclaimed Manley, nervously, balancing on Malcolm’s rack. “As the leader of the Corporation knows, this issue affects every animal of the forest. The fundamental question is, do some animals have the right to interfere with the rights of other animals? I hope that you’ll permit a full discussion and then a vote.”
There was a silence.
Ronald Rat was quickly back on his hind legs. “That’s all well and good, Mr. Speaker, but really, we of the Corporation are still at our wit’s end to understand what all the fuss is about.”
“Perhaps we might consider letting the beavers dam some of the other ponds as well.”
“You stupid elk!” screamed Frida Weasel. “We’re talking about whether or not respectable animals have the right to make lucre, not what…”
“Order, order,” shouted Harry Horned Owl. “Order. I must ask for civility. What we’re discussing, Elmer,” said Owl, kindly, “is whether or not to debate the issue of allowing karmeting in the Forest.”
“Oh, right, sorry.”
Theobald noted that Ronald was carefully observing Frida. Was he wondering about the value of her support? Then, he raised his paw. “Mr. Speaker?”
“Perhaps, if everyone is agreed, we could save time by simply going to a vote.”
“All right. The motion is whether or not everyone is agreed on going directly to a vote on the issue.”
“Mr. Speaker.” Theobald heard a female voice ring out.
“It’s Miranda,” whispered Manley.
Theobald peered across the meadow to where a black Fisher Marten stood on a fallen tree, near the tree line, accompanied by females of various species—skunks, turtles, shrews, badgers, and a muskrat.
“The Tree recognizes…” Harry squinted to see who was addressing him.
“Miranda Fisher Marten,” prompted Malcolm.
“Miranda Fisher Marten,” intoned Harry.
“Mr. Speaker, many females consider this issue to be of the greatest import…
“Not this again.” Manley heard Fred Flying Squirrel groan.
Hearing the aside, Miranda Fisher Marten stopped, and slowly surveyed the meadow. “Before some of my male friends jump to erroneous conclusions, let me assure them that we do not see this as a female/male oriented issue. Mr. Speaker, it is much more fundamental. We believe that the activities of the Corporation of Rats represent an infringement on the rights of all the animals of Feckly Forest.”
All the rats booed Miranda.
“Order, order,” shouted Harry.
A female Rat suddenly bounced up onto a rock. “Tracy Rat is one female who’s not infringed.” All the rats cheered.
Ronald held up his hand and the cheers stopped. “Mr. Speaker, if I might say a word or two.”
“Mr. Speaker, I have not yet finished.”
Harry nodded at Miranda.
“This issue, if accepted, will mark a dangerous precedent. It will give the Corporation of Rats the right to enforce an activity other animals find objectionable. What happens if the Corporation, having gotten the Council to okay bum-sniffing…”
Ronald bounced to his feet. “Mr. Speaker, could we please ask all animals to use the proper term… karmeting?”
“I apologize, Mr. Speaker,” added Miranda, “but most animals know this activity by its informal name. What happens if the Corporation decides that Rats should have the right to tell other animals where to stand or where to live or which parts of the forest they can use or not use, or tell other animals what they can and cannot eat. Once a precendent has been set, will the Corportation insist on more rules which will effectively dominate others?”
Warren Woodpecker, sitting on the branch of a dead tree at the edge of the meadow suddenly spoke up. “Manley Mole told me there was a conspiracy between the rats and the weasels.”
All the animals fell silent as they looked at the rats and the weasels standing nearby and then at Manley, sitting on Malcolm’s rack.
Ronald hopped up on his feet, and waved his paw in the air. “Mr. Speaker. This is preposterous. A conspiracy? A conspiracy to do what? Pursue simple, harmless activities that certain other animals don’t wish to see us pursue? Frankly, Mr. Speaker, we have grave doubts of the sincerity of the opposition that’s been raised against us. It’s even conceivable that a conspiracy might be in force against us. The knowledge that we acquire from Karmeting enhances the lives of the animals of the Forest. Ask yourself, have these activities infringed on anyone? There may have been minor inconveniences, but that’s a small price to pay for the benefits. As to the question of dominating others, can anyone imagine me dominating our good friend Malcolm Moose?”
Laughter rippled through the meadow.
“I put it to the meeting that, in a manner of speaking, a meadow has been made out of a molehill.”
Theobald heard Manley gasp.
“You’re going to abolish laughter,” accused Hogie Hedgehog. For a moment, there was silence.
Then Ronald began laughing, abruptly joined by all the rats guffawing—forced laughter, noted Theobald.
“Mr. Speaker, here’s the problem in a nut-shell. Certain animals have gone around creating hysteria over absolutely nothing. That’s why I proposed at the beginning of the meeting to delete item four from the agenda. It has already taken up too much of our valuable time. It was a non-issue at the last meeting and it remains so.”
Everyone looked up at Harry Horned Owl, who seemed to be pondering.
“Since it was I who started this, which has, I agree with Ronald Rat, gotten out of hand, perhaps I might have the last word?”
“Any objection?” asked Harry in general to the Meadow. A murmur of assent passed over the crowd, except for the rats who remained silent and watchful.
Theobald raised his head as much as he could. “This issue boils down to the right to be left alone. Ronald and the Corporation would seem to be of the opinion that animals don’t have this right; that some, namely the Rats, should be allowed to sniff us. If they are allowed to sniff us what is next? Will they be allowed to touch us? To kick us? Or, as our good friend Hogie suggested, stop us from laughing? We don’t know. We do know that once a precedent has been set it will be impossible to undo. So if we take a vote, that’s what I hope you’ll consider. Ask yourself what freedoms you’re being asked to give up and what you’re being given in return.”
There was silence as Theobald pulled his head back down, his neck muscles aching.
“All right, if there is no objection, perhaps someone might make a motion.”
“I move that the Forest Council abolish bum-sniffing,” said Malcolm in a loud voice.
“I second it,” said Miranda.
“The issue,” continued Harry Horned Owl, “is whether or not the Corporation of Rats should be allowed to perform the activity known as bum-sniffing…”
“Karmeting,” corrected Ronald.”
“… I beg your pardon, karmeting. Or whether they should not be allowed. All those in favour of allowing it raise a paw or wing.”
Many, many paws and wings, it seemed to Theobald, were raised. While the Robin brothers circled overhead, taking count, Theobald tried to estimate if anyone at all was going to vote for their side. He noted that a Fox and Porcupine were voting with the rats.
Harry took the count from the Robin brothers. “Now, all those in opposition to allowing it raise a paw or wing.”
To Theobald’s surprise, a large number of paws and wings were raised and for a moment he was hopeful of—if not victory—then perhaps a tie vote. He was puzzled that the Fox and the Porcupine had again raised their paws.
“That makes it eighty-seven for karmeting and seventy-nine against.”
“Yahoo, yahoo, yahoo,” the rats started shouting.
“Order.” shouted Harry. “The motion to ban Karmetting has been defeated. Now, let us begin at the top of the agenda. Item one, a Celebration of Creativity has been proposed…”
Turning away, Theobald caught a glimpse of the rats heartily congratulating each other, and laughing, as he slowly started crawling back to his pond.
“Theobald,” shouted Malcolm, stepping to him, “remember that seventy-nine animals voted for your motion.”
“Yes, but will any come to my aid when the rats attack me?”
“If anyone should be worried,” said Rollo, almost cheerfully, “it should be me.”
Theobald glanced up at Malcolm who had noted that what Rollo had said was true. The Corporation would be after him as well.
“It would be safer if we lived closer to one another,” suggested Malcolm. “Theobald could take up residence in the pond here, although it’s not as big, and Rollo and Manley could burrow in near the meadow.”
No one spoke as they thought on it.
“I think I’m safer in my pond, but Rollo would be safer here.”
“Where would I sleep?”
“In a burrow.”
“I’ve never dug one.”
“I’ll dig it,” said Manley