James Roderick Burns
Now Is the Time for Every Good Man to Come to the Aid of the Party
AT EIGHT O’CLOCK, representatives from every home in Bony Creek – the S Section, Route 25, even Bony Creek Village itself – gathered in the University’s Memorial Culture Hall to hear the announcement. Rows of foldaway bleachers, ordinarily extended solely for Sewer Rat games, now heaved with close-packed, eager bodies. The bunting which garlanded the overhead beams was limp with sweat and expectation.
‘Laydies’n gennulmun,’ said Mayor Cooper, smearing a lank strand of hair across his scalp, ‘please be upstandin fr’owah extrordinry guest.’
A roar, then wooden groans released by two thousand lifting backsides, and applause reached parts of the arena the Rats could only dream of. After a minute the backsides resettled. Every eye strained for the lectern.
‘Ladies, gentlemen – boys and girls – persons of all genders, and none – may I be so bold as to introduce myself?’ A roving spotlight focused in on two milk-crates draped in Sewer Rats silk. The speaker took hold of the lectern with small, dextrous paws, cream-fur fingers lined in black, and stepped into the light: a button nose of pebbly leather buffed to a high shine; white muzzle, grey stripe running up between two fuzzy bat’s ears; and that trademark mask, two broad black swatches framing a pair of eyes that shone like drops of luminescent oil. As one, the audience swooned.
‘I am Phineas Linklater,’ he said, ‘and it is a privilege – nay, pleasure! – to address you. I am the first of my kind to do so, to be able to do so, blessed as I am with the gift of speech. And yet such is the point of my talk: these marvellous sounds, this noble eruption flowing from my snout to your ears like a crystal stream, was no gift, but instead hard-won and perilous in its acquisition.
‘Let me share my story.
‘We are an industrious people. Long accustomed to gathering food from every source; grubbing up what sustenance the earth affords; and latterly, the treasures yielded by those bountiful canisters of delight you call trashcans. Calumny! Rich, dark and moist, they sit cherished as a favoured child in the bosom of every raccoon.
‘People of Bony Creek, think on! In my youth, in a town not dissimilar to this, I learned of the trashcan – its mellifluous, tinkling lid, the yielding warmth of a fragrant liner. But soon a stout woman crossed our path, setting upon us with her broom-handle, applying its severe guidance to my stripy noggin!
‘It was not much later that I found myself striking out on my own, drawn to the whispering delights of the suburbs. Yet what did I find? From the sylvan delights of your very own S Section came a strange, rebarbative attitude towards my kind – an attitude, moreover, found in every householder!
‘At first, I crept onto a back porch, placed tender paws through the latticework, and looked inside. All seemed well.
‘Children reclining, adults sitting before magical boxes of light, their naked paws tippety-tapping at a grid of black squares marked with strange white symbols. I hung from the eaves; listened to the sounds of amusement issuing from mouths; tracked the tappety-tipping to things called letters, and from these constituent blocks, to words, and from those, language itself! With each tap a freedom-blow was struck for raccoon, family, friend and party. Like the moulding of your unfortunate Frankenstein, I pieced together from life’s hurly-burly a new, mysterious world.
‘I saw such strange things – now and again, even figures of my own kind drawn upon a great screen of light – that I was moved to remonstrate with the occupants. Prying open a screen-door I made it to the kitchen, armed only with a smile and my few, new-found words. Oh humans, it was dreadful! Terrible as the tales of Tom and the headless, skirted woman.
‘The lady of the house, sauntering in for ice-cream, stopped dead before me.
‘I bowed, making to introduce myself, but she screamed as if I had already sunk my claws into her neck! I spluttered, waved a pantomime of innocence, but it did no good. Her shrieks had drawn the man of the house, a lumbering goliath five times my height, black bristles sprouting from the backs of his hands. He ducked back, then flailed at me with an ornamental poker. The resulting crash drew the children: first a teenage boy, who yelped then skedaddled for the safety of the den; second, a sweet goth-girl draped in black, who may yet prove the saviour of our bond. She leant down to my cowering form, extending a hand.
“Hi, little feller. What’s your name?”
‘I bowed low, extending my own paw in turn. She was about to take it when apeman and the boy returned brandishing shooting-sticks, and the mother resumed klaxoning as if to shatter every window. For one brief moment I smiled at the girl, then squeezed through the ragged hole in the screen-door and disappeared under the decking to lick my wounds.
‘Human beings, I beseech you: let us come together, as goth-girl and raccoon pioneer almost did, in my own sad story. Let us unite in affection and mutual understanding, in service of the greater good between our peoples. Let us hymn unity, with this marvellous stream of sound which you have bestowed upon me. Let us sing of empathy and understanding, come together in dignity as the world watches and puts aside evil deeds. I propose a new bond of trust, set like a band of diamond on the velvet of our minds. A kind of Truth and Raccooncilation commission, if you will….’
At eight-thirty, across every Bony Creek neighbourhood, small hands flipped the switches of innumerable garages and with high, triumphant chattering – accompanied by the pumping of tiny fists – knocked the lid off every chest freezer in town.
About the Author
James Roderick Burns’ short story collection, Beastly Transparencies, is due from Eyewear Publishing in Summer 2022. He is the author of three collections of poetry – most recently, The Worksongs of the Worms (2018) – and a short fiction chapbook, A Bunch of Fives. His work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including The Guardian, Modern Haiku, The North and The Scotsman. He can be found on Twitter @JamesRoderickB.