Preface & Reader Response
The animals converse with well-honed senses and faculties, including extraordinary intuition, empathy, and imagination, that humans are generally content to leave undiscovered, dormant, or undeveloped, considering it the purview and parlance of primitive beings.
GATHERED AT THE POND
Into the Garden
Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V
by Jerry Murley
In the middle of the midlands stands a pond. It is quiet and inactive to the hasty traveler, but not to the slow, watchful eyes that return to the scene often. The pond is fed by a wet-weather spring and the water runoff of a farm that is surrounded by hills. In dry weather the pond is covered with a thick layer of light-green algae.
The pond terminates at a low dam where its excess water spills in a steady, modest flow through a hole, falling about a foot to a culvert running beneath the road. Once on the other side of the road, the overflow tumbles a foot or more into a creek. The creek flows south one hundred yards to a fork where it meets another creek of equal size flowing from the hills in the west. Within a mile the combined branches empty into a small river.
There is a second pool of water nearby with the same water source and a similar discharge of overflow. It, too, has green algae cover, but its surface is less still than the pond's. The two bodies of water differ mainly in shape: one is narrow and more shallow, and the other is larger, rounder, and deeper. They are divided by a wedge of weed-lined land, a small grassy triangle with an old, large pecan tree in the center.
Following a rain, the hypnotic sounds of rushing water from these closely situated channels of water envelop the roadway. In spring and summer, the air is rich with the smell of wild flowers, honeysuckle, damp grass, and the sweet, pungent odor of manure. Even amid hints of decay, signs of living energy are palpable and compelling.
Daily, animals collect around the pond for nourishment and to satisfy their curiosity. Humans pass the pond as well. The old farmer, the young farmer, and the young farmer's wife work around the pond a couple of times a week. And an old walker and the young walkers, a man and his wife, travel the road once a day, often stopping to talk with the farmers and other road-walkers.
The animals in these parts, like animals elsewhere nowadays, enjoy a subtle skill that few humans have mastered. They use a power – recognized today as language interpreting telepathy, or LIT for short – to converse with beings of other species. They have advanced with this natural technique to where they can loosely translate the activities and commerce of humans – about as loosely as humans have developed in their capacity to understand one another. They don't speak in the manner of humans, but rather they converse with their eyes, sounds, smells, gestures, and well-honed senses and faculties, including extraordinary intuition, empathy, and imagination, that humans are generally content to leave undiscovered, dormant, or undeveloped, considering it the purview and parlance of primitive beings.
Their method of communication does not lend itself well to keeping secrets, but several of these animals have devised ways to try to conceal and disguise. There are multiple differences in ability and opinion among the animals at the pond. This makes loose talk both confusing and highly irritating.
Among the animals that frequent the pond are several who because of their wider range of habitat are able to spread news from afar to the animals that are more confined in their ways. The great blue heron is one of these, and the red-headed gray fox is another. They often bear news of the river otters and muskrats by the creek and the wild turkeys, deer, and yard animals on surrounding farms.
The gruff bullfrog figures himself something of a social critic and a wit. He alone among the animals has created nicknames for all other beings, leaving himself, his one and only object of admiration, the moniker of Bullfrog. The lanky and wise old heron, he has named Gandy. The agile, swift-footed fox, he calls Redrick. The large and languorous retired black bull is Bulward.
These are the regulars at the pond, but the population is much larger with various frequenters to the area. The number of denizens of the area swells and contracts on a seasonal basis. There is the exotic but discreet tree frog nicknamed Trina, the fat and silly groundhog named Gwobbly, and the farmers' wild black cat called Frank. Surfacing from the depths of the big pond now and then is the ancient visage of a ponderous but easily irritated alligator turtle called Snagnap. Other wiseacres and cutups that occasion the place include the young heron that sits on the post in the middle of the pond, never entering discussion or offering information so much as joining Bullfrog in the ridicule of everything done and communicated by others. And a perpetually perturbed kingfisher mocks everyone from his perch on a bare tree limb by the road. All have little patience for the rude racket and meddlesomeness of the crows, who drop by just to stir things up, cawing their neighbors to distraction, and terrorizing the nests of smaller animals.
On this morning, a few animals gathered, as is their wont, for a slow, early morning exchange of stories and updates. The bull had been fed his allotment of hay by the farmer. As the farmer left the area, Redrick moved swiftly from the hedgerow to the pond.
|Redrick complained about the treatment of his kind by the farmer. The fox sensed that he was being pursued unfairly. Just within the past few weeks, two of his younger relatives had been caught in the farmer's groundhog trap in the garden and met an untimely and ignominious end. He lamented, "They were not even eaten by a hunter while fresh but tossed over the fence for the vultures to pick at." At least given their numbers, the vultures take little time in returning local death to the life cycle. Redrick did not know why the farmer was determined to do this to him, but he was equally determined to not have it done.
Gandy, the old heron, had been standing in the shallows at the edge of the pond. Hearing Redrick's concerns, Gandy offered wise assistance in an attempt to inform the fox about the history of his kind, in terms of the farmer and the pond, and to ease the gnawing discomfort of the troubled fox. "Your kind has but recently returned to this area after a many-summer absence. You all died of rabies back long ago. The farmer is fearful of a return of rabies, afraid that his farm animals will be bitten by a sick fox. The farmer has his concerns as do we."
Bulward suddenly and restlessly stepped back a few inches. Bulward's eyes widened, as he lowered his head; he issued a muffled snort and looked hard at the perplexed fox. Bulward told Redrick to "stay clear of the farm animals if you feel sickly." And he warned him not to "nibble on any" unless he "planned to devour them completely." Redrick did not know whether to try his sly grin or to leave in typical stealth, but he decided to keep his thoughts to himself by thinking about tasty mice and to lie low when the farmer was around. He had no intention of going into the garden or of getting under foot of Bulward.
Trina listened drowsily and silently from the dark moist folds of the pecan tree. Gwobbly had managed to extract his flabby, rotund carcass from his hole, but upon hearing of the farmer's trap in the garden, his slow entrance was followed by a quick but labored exit into the ground. The consistent, timid behavior of the hapless groundhog much amused all in attendance.
Gandy told a tale of similar doings by mankind that he had heard from the river otter and her three nearly grown pups a couple of mornings before the rains had started. From where the east and south creeks meet, another road follows a slow incline west up into the hills. Gandy's story was about the man who lives on the lake about two miles upstream from the fork in the road. "The man who lives there put buckets of small fish into the lake and then hunted the fish with his young children using sticks and string with hooks," Gandy said. "When the otters close by began to feed from the plenty in the lake, the man hunted them down too, and threw their lifeless bodies into the woods."
By now Snagnap, the haggard alligator turtle, had come to the water's edge and extended her head to hear more about mankind hunting animals of the waters. She blinked her eyes as she looked in dismay at the others.
These two stories about man much mystified the animals at the pond. The road-walkers, who passed by each morning, seemed always to be interested in just seeing the various animals. Road-walkers would stop and in whispered quiet, watch intently. But they never tried to approach the animals. There never seemed to be much danger of injury or capture from the road-walkers. With bemused looks, the animals paused. Gandy had not meant to worry them. He and Bulward often indulged themselves by telling familiar tales to reminisce and to sharpen the instincts of the younger, less-experienced animals. They well knew that animals could never tell for sure about the ways of mankind and should remain cautious and pliable.
Death is a frequent but oblique topic of exchange at the pond. Otherwise the animals give it little further thought, except for the lingering suspicion that it happens to most of the animals eventually. On that point they emphasize to their young, and repeatedly remind themselves, that getting oneself ensnared is something to be avoided at all cost, excepting cases of urgent nourishment, procreation, and protection of family, when competitive circumstances render the rewards of success worth the risks of capture. The animals are particularly unsettled by pain, especially needless and prolonged pain that does not end in being instantly snatched from their desired activity and consumed by another animal – a natural predator. Death, the vague outsider, is the object of much humor among the pond animals, though it is a humor that barely conceals the dread of losing the freedom to come and go as they please. In the society of those gathered at the pond, it is wicked good fun at times for the sages among them to gang up on sensitive denizens and gently tease them about an exaggerated specter tracking their every movement.
Bullfrog came late to the gathering yet quickly got the drift. In his contained habitat, he pitied the fox about as much as he could pity any being. He commenced to change the subject to his own concerns. He was quite relieved that the recent week of early fall rains had ended the summer drought. "The pond is fresher and seems more abundant," he said, emphatically flashing his long, ample tongue. However, he quickly retracted his sunny statement and expressed the reservation that there was never enough abundance for a bullfrog. Bullfrog is always one to gripe about his conditions or the grousing of others.
All quieted as the young road-walkers passed by. Funny thing was that they, too, were talking about the recent rains. When they had past, a couple of crows flew to a treetop and a fence post and made a big commotion then left. The gathering at the pond once again composed itself to a more civil level. Redrick said his goodbyes and quickly moved on. Snagnap withdrew beneath the algae. Bullfrog submerged himself after a few obstreperous croaks.
Old Bulward and Gandy were left as usual in their separate but complementary contemplations about how one day followed another much as the day before, season after season – about how new, eager, innocent lives followed the decline of others. These thoughts gladdened their hearts with contentment. For the pond, always changing but unchanged, had endured for many, many summers. Their animal associates, whose numbers and breeds varied, were yet abundant. The developments of mankind had not yet disrupted their age-old ways of life. And there was not a drop of anxiety that the present felicitous climate and constant pattern would ever ever end.