Watch out for hungry gophers!
by Robert Aubrey
I'd just returned to Northampton one evening in August after a summer romp across Ontario, British Columbia, and Washington. It was a very warm and dry summer--the perfect backdrop for lots of serendipitous and sometimes insane encounters with Canadians, Americans, and the occasional extra-terrestrial. I spent much of my time and energy (and all of my money) honing my craft, which is creative loitering. Now, back home, my first chance encounter on Pleasant Street was with Kent...perfect, he was someone with just the right mixture of alcohol, cannabis, and post-traumatic stress in him to appreciate the splendid tales of far-away travel I could spin.
We sat on the floor of his one-room efficiency for an all-night tete-a-tete. I wanted to tell him about the astounding neurolinguistical insights to which I'd been privy as the result of long exposure to a variety of inhospitable elements--heat, wind, cold, rain, mosquitoes, rats, religious proselytizers, law enforcement authorities, and so on.
"Drugs are okay'" I told him, "but I found that if I treated my body like a broadsword in some medieval smithy's shop--if I beat it, if I burnt it, if I plunged it into ice-clogged streams, if I subjected it to a million little pinpricks from thorns, gravel, broken glass, stinging nettles, yellowjackets and wasps, all under the blazing noonday sun, or at night under the haunting hoot of the owl, tormented by the sharp fangs of the fox, the badger, and the boar--if, in general, I let things of this sort chop away at my corporeal being, then the upshot of this mad, psychotic, and needless masochism would be the release of my mind from bodily constraints, where it would be free to bind with Pure Direct Knowledge of the Aether.
I'm not certain Kent caught all of my preamble, preoccupied, as he appeared to be, with fending off a sinus attack or perhaps having some sort of coronary situation. Either way...
"I've learned that nonhuman animals can actually think--not just thoughts of food, sex, and more food--but deep thoughts, thoughts that plumb the mysteries of the Universe."
"No, Bob, you're mistaken--thinking is the domain of humans. We're the only animals with language skills."
"And that's exactly why dumb beasts are capable of deep, intensive thought. Seamless thought--they're unhindered by words, by the need to categorize, to impose logic and reason onto all their sende data, so as to make the unfamiliar fit into their worldview. They possess Zen by instinct. They're not so much animals as they are 'dharmamals'."
"They can't think."
"They can, and they can communicate these thoughts as well. I've sat for long stretches staring at the face of a retired beagle and watched in rapt fascination as her face changed from one emotive expression to another. We've had whole conversations with our eyes and noses, wrinkles around the mouth, barings of the teeth...that hound outcommunicated me, even--she could move her ears around and I just simply could not, no matter how I put my brain to the task and marshalled words around my cerebrum. I know that a few humans can wiggle their earlobes, but not me..."
"Now you're just being silly."
"No--this is silly: I had a premonition of my own death recently. I am going to be killed by gophers. I know it's true. I was sitting in a park in Spokane a few weeks ago watching a guy feeding bread crumbs to a couple dozen gophers who'd come up to the park from the riverbank below. They were crawling all over him like kittens, taking the bits of bread from his hand and then standing on their hind legs as they hungrily nibbled. When the bread was gone, he got up and left and most of the little critters went back down to the riverbank. A few lingered, scouring the ground for crumbs. I said, 'I'll take over now', and I pulled out my bag of peanut butter sandwiches. I broke off pieces and offered them to the guys who'd stayed behind. They shuffled over my way and made tentative grabs for the grub. Gradually they became more accustomed to me and by and by I had half a dozen of the cute little buggers crawling all over me begging for more.
"Then I felt a little paw grabbing my elbow and shaking it. I turned to Mr. Gopher and said, 'Here ya go, lil pardner, I saved the last piece for you'.
"'I don't need your handouts, Mr. Human, I'm perfectly capable of fending for myself', the gopher said in perfect Queen's English.
"I complimented the gopher on his verbal skills and he responded, 'Yeah, yeah, save it, I'm not here to be validated by you, I'm here to give you fair warning'.
"'Warning? For what?'
"'We don't like you--you personally, that is; most humans we can brook no problem, but we know what you're up to and we're not going to let you get away with it'."
"Gophers can't talk, Bob", Kent informed me.
"Maybe not, but this one did. And I took him seriously. He wouldn't give me any details, just that vague warning and I knew that things would end badly for me...perhaps as early as that night when I'd be camping out a couple miles away, up above the river. I studied the faces of those gophers. I had nothing left to feed them, yet now they were coming out of the woodwork, about thirty of them. They assembled before me, lying there on the grass, and stood up on their hind legs, waving their forepaws about to maintain balance. Then they filed past me, coming within inches of my face--I could smell the peanut butter and garlic on their breaths--and each one uttered a single syllable into my ear."
"Gophers can't talk."
"That one gopher could, and it may well have been a fluke. The other gophers didn't really speak per se, they'd merely been trained by their leader, the mastermind of this plot against me, to make the sounds approximating a single syllable.
"Here's what they said: 'You-just-wait-when-you-least-ex-pect-it-we-are-go-ing-to-sur-round-you-and-we-are-go-ing-to-kill-you.'
"Then they all went back down the hill and disappeared on the riverbank. I haven't seen them since, but it's all I think about now. After all my trials and tribulations, this is how it's going to end for me--I'm going to die at the hands, or should I say, paws, of a bunch of furry little prairie dogs."
"You're smarter than a gopher, Bob," Kent reassured me.
"So what?! Sure my brains a lot bigger than theirs--what good's that gonna do? These buggers are quite disciplined and have been well trained by their leader, who indeed goes by the nom de guerre of 'Mr. Gopher'. Mr. Gopher's got over 500 loyal adherents and they can mobilize on moment's notice and undertake all manner of hardship on long marches to get to anyplace on the continent I might be, and with a single word will do Mr. Gopher's evil bidding!"
"C'mon, Bobby, you're smarter than gophers. You'll have 'em on a spit over your campfire, lickety-split."
"No, I don't think so. That's not how it plays out in the premonition. It ends with my carcass sprawled out on the desert floor. Buzzards circle overhead while 500 gophers take turns tearing at my flesh with their teensie-weensie incisors. A few of the older and bigger gophers, Mr. Gopher included, have smashed open my skull with rocks, and now my brains have spilled out onto the dusty ground. Mr. Gopher says, 'My, my, this human sure had a lot of brains. Good thing he didn't use them.'
"Then all the other gophers roll around in laughter, 'Ha, ha, ha, hardy, har, har!' That eerie gopher laughter, whimsical and maniacal, echoes in my head all the time now. It haunts me. It's worse than poi dogs howling at the moon...I'm doomed, man."
"Yeah? Well, it's a good thing gophers can't talk...and dogs can't think."
"Maybe so, but do you wanna know what your cat just told me, the same cat who you claim loves you unconditionally? You wanna know what he said?"