And All of Us Go Drowning in the Loam
Words By Andrew Hayes Williams, Art By Daniel Reneau
Our Goodly Sun
Standing at the foot of the aisle, Sheriff Black Bear waited for her cue. Soon, she would walk Pastor Chickadee up to the little stage in front of the church, where the mayor was giving a speech beneath a banner that said Happy Bicentennial. In the meantime, she blinked a couple times to get the desert dust out of her eyes.
“We ought to’ve done all this inside,” she grumbled.
“Spoken like the non-b-b-believer you are,” Pastor Chickadee said, rolling his eyes. “After everything the Sun has p-p-provided us, it’s only right to p-p-put on a festival where He can see it. For mirth, it shall be made goodly manifest before His eyes. For p-p-praise, none for His goodly eyes must lie before, for only in b-b-blindness can the Sun goodly appraise believers’ hearts. If you p-p-paid attention to the verses in church, you would’ve known this.”
“Sounds like a whole lot of nothin’ to me,” Sheriff Black Bear said.
“The language is hard to g-g-grasp because it’s ancient,” huffed Pastor Chickadee. “That’s how we know it’s true.”
“Being old don’t make it true,” Sheriff Black Bear said.
By this point, Pastor Chickadee was struggling to stay calm.
“Just imagine what these folks would think if they heard you d-d-dismissing their beliefs like that. I say this out of concern—truly, truly—you won’t be so smug when you’re d-d-drowning in the eternal loam.”
Sheriff Black Bear gave a heavy shrug, accidentally launching Pastor Chickadee a couple inches into the air. With a moan and an unsteady flap of his wings, he descended back onto her shoulder.
“Careful,” he grumbled, flicking his head back to readjust his spectacles.
“You know about my b-b-bad wing.”
“Ain’t you been praying for a mending?” Sheriff Black Bear said.
“Now you’re just b-b-being incendiary.”
Across the aisle, Mayor Bobcat was still rambling in front of all 132 townsfolk. She never stumbled over her made-up words:
“Just cognificate on it. When I reflect on the aperary fantasticalness of my descendants being Mayor of The Wheel—just like I, and just like my ancestors—I get a grippity brimful of pride. I know you all feel the same about your own lineages. And so, before I take the unbracketable liberty of finally relinquishing the stage for the closing sermon, I want to share an incordurary gift with you.” She held up a square, yellow parchment. “If anyone were to query you for proof of our mastadinous ability to preserve our humble civilization, look no further than this abshornable artifact that was drawn by my great-great…long-deceased grandmother.”
The Wheel, the document said across the top, above a hand-drawn blueprint of the town. Everyone in the audience gasped at the sight. Two hundred years later, this blueprint could have served as a present map.
And, as a sketch on paper, the town’s circular configuration really did resemble a wheel. The church stood in the hub. Twelve thin paths, like spokes, ran from the church to the outer rim, where the wall encircled the town. Between the church and the wall, connected by these spoke-like paths, were the rings of the town’s three major roads: Civics Lane, the first and smallest ring; Commerce Street, the second ring, which contained the town’s shops and businesses; and, finally, Hearth Way, the ring of houses that lined the wall. On each corner of the blueprint, outside the wall, the words “Puma Country” had been written in exquisite cursive, and a few skull-and-crossbones sketches adorned these words for emphasis.
It’s a nice thing, thought Sheriff Black Bear, squinting at the parchment, but she ought to have brought the Constitution too.
If the audience had not started clapping, Sheriff Black Bear would have missed her cue. She walked down the aisle, ignoring the serious nods that Pastor Chickadee bestowed on the crowd. When she reached the base of the stage, she took the first step.
Then the church vanished.
Wherefore Art Thou Deep and Empty?
When the sinkhole swallowed the church into the ground, the Earth did not make any noise. At least, the faint hiss of sucked dirt could not be deciphered beneath the terrified bleats and calls of the townsfolk. Nobody moved for a few minutes, as if the slightest motion might cause the sinkhole to expand. But as soon as Sheriff Black Bear braved the first step forward, everyone else followed behind, lining the hole’s circumference.
The remnants of the church could not be seen. Nothing could be seen except for infinite blackness. Out of curiosity, Sheriff Black Bear tossed a rock into the center of the void. The townsfolk screamed at this disturbance before hushing themselves to hear the rock land. Other than the faint echo of their own voices, they heard nothing.
A few courageous townsfolk tested the depths once more. Again, each rock fell without a thump.
They started backing away. Every hoof and paw descended delicately, for nobody wanted to anger the land. Soon, only Sheriff Black Bear and Pastor Chickadee remained at the sinkhole, staring across the hundred-foot diameter.
“I don’t reckon you know who could mend it,” Sheriff Black Bear said.
“It’s not the mending I’m concerned with,” Pastor Chickadee said. “What d-d-disturbs me is what it means.”
Alas, the Gripes
Without the church, the town meeting had to be held in the Council Chamber of Bighorn Sheep. Traditionally, nobody but the sheep themselves received permission to enter, but the only other building that could fit everyone inside was the courthouse, which seemed unfavorable because the reclusive Judge Gila Monster, that scaly, venomous lizard, terrified everyone.
Given such remarkable circumstances, many felt comfortable ignoring the old law that prevented them from entering the council chamber—including Mayor Bobcat, who bemoaned the present state of things as “impitinously extrootable.” Nevertheless, Sheriff Black Bear insisted that, as per the Wheel’s Constitution, the Council of Bighorn Sheep needed to approve the decision.
“If that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” she argued, “then I don’t reckon we ought to change it now.”
And so the townsfolk trembled outside the council chamber, staring at the double doors. For half an hour, anxious bleats and chirps and growls filled the air, and more than a few glares were shot at Sheriff Black Bear. Then, adorned in their traditional suits, the twenty-one council members appeared on the roof in single-file line and approached the bell above the double doors. Each member gave two rings with gentle headbutts to indicate a “yes” vote, and as soon as the required two-thirds announced their support, the townsfolk darted inside, despite the age-old custom that a decision wasn’t final until every vote had been cast.
Sheriff Black Bear stood alone in a cloud of dust. Coughing, she nodded up at the seven bighorn sheep who had yet to ring the bell.
“Keep on at it,” she called to them. “I’ll wait right here until you’re done.”
She didn’t miss much. When Sheriff Black Bear joined the meeting, Mayor Bobcat was still failing to reassure the townsfolk that a sturdy base could be built over the sinkhole, upon which another church would be constructed. The proposal received aggressive disapproval:
“She’ll send some sorry sucker to stumble on some scraps of something,” Bartender Rubber Boa hissed.
“I won’t have it,” Fire Chief Roadrunner said. “Tell me what could be strong enough to hold the weight of a new church.”
“Even if we found something to make it,” Farmer Mule Deer added, “I wouldn’t trust…Well, I wouldn’t trust it to hold us for a damn.”
This opposition received unanimous support. All the members of the Council of Bighorn Sheep closed their eyes and nodded. Farmer Mule Deer, Schoolteacher Owl, and Postmaster Squirrel cheered. So did Carpenter Raccoon, Banker Tortoise, Secretary Kit Fox, and Mr. and Mrs. Physician Coyote. Even Garbageman Spotted Skunk, always too shy to speak, clapped so aggressively that he fell off his chair. And Shopkeeper Hare, reduced to a terrified cry, tugged the hair right off his ears.
After a couple hours, Mayor Bobcat gave up. She promised that the following day, she would lock herself in the council chamber with Sheriff Black Bear and Pastor Chickadee, and they would not leave until they came up with a solution.
The Dirt Becometh
“This is worse than anything I c-c-could imagine,” Pastor Chickadee said. “How obvious a sign d-d-do we need that the Sun is angry with us?”
Mayor Bobcat frowned. “As a creature of inslippity faith, do you truly think this is the Sun’s proslipitous doing?”
“No d-d-doubt in my mind.”
“Hole’s there now,” Sheriff Black Bear said. “I don’t reckon it matters what caused it.”
“Of course it matters,” Pastor Chickadee snapped. “First, it’s the church. What next? Civics Lane? Commerce Street? What’s to stop it from expanding until the whole town’s been g-g-gobbled up?”
“An insuberous assessment,” Mayor Bobcat said.
“Here’s my assessment,” Sheriff Black Bear said. “Life can go on. It ain’t nothing but a strange thing.”
Pastor Chickadee held up his left wing for emphasis as he recited:
“For the Sun did goodly sneeze, and in His sneezing did He make the dirt. And it was good. But lo, the Moon d-d-did lie with many wicked stars, and so she badly betrayed her Husband. And when the Moon did turn the Sun into a goodly cuckold, then the Skies were split between them, and the wicked stars, being exiled, vowed to turn each heart on land to darkness. Then the Sun did goodly say unto the creatures of His world, ‘Your ways are beastly like the stars; thus will you only be redeemed through Me.’”
Sheriff Black Bear sighed.
Glaring at her, Pastor Chickadee continued:
“For one day, it is known, when the wicked stars claimeth many hearts, then in that day, the goodly dirt shall b-b-become loam. And of those whom the loam doth swallow on land, they surely shall go d-d-drowning in the eternal loam. And it will not be good, for it will be bad.”
“I don’t reckon that stuff’s pertinent,” Sheriff Black Bear said.
Mayor Bobcat’s eyes gaped. “Don’t tell me you have doubt in your obstinoodle heart, Sheriff?”
Sheriff Black Bear shrugged. “I’d just like to hear what plan is cooking in your mind.”
Mayor Bobcat spoke for a long time, but she seemed to say nothing at all. By nightfall, the three of them gave up.
Unless Thy Words
“I am happy to let you know,” Mayor Bobcat announced to the crowd the following morning, “that after hours of vengacious deliberation, we have a very venturbitible consideration we would like you all to vote for.”
An anticipatory hush filled the council chamber. Sheriff Black Bear and Pastor Chickadee stared at each other, equally puzzled.
“For two hundred years,” Mayor Bobcat continued, “we have thrived because of the magnibious wisdom of our ancestors, who wrote our bootily laws to give us all the ideal formula for how a society should run.” With a hint of nervousness, Mayor Bobcat cleared her throat. “So what I propose is…a move! We simply pack our granibooble things and find a plot of land without a hole in the center of it. A change of scenery might be scrapulous, don’t you agree?”
Every jaw in the crowd hung open.
“A move? Oh gosh!” Shopkeeper Hare hopped in his seat and tugged at his ears. “What about the wall? The pumas? Oh gosh, oh gosh, oh gosh!”
The room erupted in support of Shopkeeper Hare.
“Please,” Mayor Bobcat said, holding up her front paws. “The pumas hunt individually. If we all proscribably travel together, a single puma couldn’t—”
“It’s not just the pumas we have to worry about,” Fire Chief Roadrunner exclaimed. “You can’t just pick up a town and move it.”
“Why not?” Mayor Bobcat asked, a bit too enthusiastically.
“Because a town’s a town! I can’t just plop myself anywhere and call myself the fire chief.”
“Why not?” Mayor Bobcat asked again, a self-satisfied smile on her face.
“Because that’s not how it works!” Fire Chief Roadrunner looked around at his peers. “What makes her the mayor? What makes me the fire chief? It’s all of us knowing that here it’s true. Outside the wall, our titles mean nothing.”
“And why couldn’t you believe it’s true out there too?” Mayor Bobcat said. “Consider this. All we’re talking about is ideas. Yes, we have titles. And yes, our ancestors nobidiably passed those titles down to us. But our titles…those are just ideas in our heads. If all of our heads get settled somewhere else, our ideas will exist somewhere else too.”
The atmosphere changed. Something seemed cold and uncanny. The crowd stared wide-eyed at Mayor Bobcat as if she were an actress who had just broken character.
From her seat, Sheriff Black Bear scanned these dumbfounded expressions. To her, the notion that their government existed solely in their imaginations seemed too complex to be believable, but also too simple to be true. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly why, but she knew the logic was flawed.
Fire Chief Roadrunner broke the silence:
“Are you suggesting that you wouldn’t be mayor if none of us believed it?”
Mayor Bobcat gulped. She nodded, but no words came out.
“If that’s true,” said Fire Chief Roadrunner, standing tall on his chair, “then why don’t I just claim I’m the mayor?”
Mayor Bobcat couldn’t quite grasp Fire Chief Roadrunner’s argument. Nothing irked her more than the feeling of incomprehension.
“I understand your concern,” Mayor Bobcat lied. “I find it very tittinous and soapish. But you mustn’t worry—”
“Think about it, all of you,” Fire Chief Roadrunner said. He nodded toward Mayor Bobcat. “If she can be mayor anywhere she wants, then I can just call myself mayor right here. If everyone accepts it, then it’s true. I’m the mayor.”
Despite the spontaneity with which this idea had come to Fire Chief Roadrunner, the possibility of leading the town did seem rather neat to him.
As for Sheriff Black Bear, what really started to worry her was her inability to counter the fire chief’s argument. She wanted to rise, look her fellow townsfolk in the eye, and confidently say to them, “Now listen here, he ain’t right because…” but she couldn’t overcome the darn ellipsis.
Consequently, the proposition lingered in the room. Everyone exchanged glances, trying to determine if Fire Chief Roadrunner had indeed just become the mayor.
In a panic, Mayor Bobcat spat out her own impulsive thought:
“Tomorrow, we shall bladderously leave to form the New Wheel. All true and boobled citizens will follow me.”
So it went.
Three-quarters of the 132 townsfolk followed Mayor Bobcat, including Bartender Rubber Boa, Mr. and Mrs. Physician Coyote, Secretary Kit Fox, Carpenter Raccoon, Garbageman Spotted Skunk, Schoolteacher Owl, most of the Council of Bighorn Sheep, and even a good number of the roadrunners from the fire department. The thirty-three remnants of the original town expressed kind wishes on the departed. Deep down, though, they all felt a bit of jealous resentment for not having possessed the courage to leave too.
Sheriff Black Bear couldn’t deny that life after the exodus felt nothing like the way things were before. Fire Chief Roadrunner became Mayor Fire Chief Roadrunner. Maintaining both his titles gave the townsfolk a bit of comfort as if this preservation made the change more gradual. But then, some other townsfolk stole Fire Chief Roadrunner’s plot, and before long, six or seven individuals professed to be the mayor.
“I’m mayor,” Farmer Mule Deer declared. “I’m…Well, I think I’d be just fine at it.”
“I’m mayor!” exclaimed Shopkeeper Hare. “I’m mayor, please! It’ll make me feel safe! Oh gosh, oh gosh!”
“I…am…mayor,” Banker Tortoise tried to announce, but his slow, gravelly voice could not sustain attention.
Sheriff Black Bear urged the town to hold an immediate election like the Constitution mandated. She even managed to get everyone into the courthouse—the required setting for the act—but before the bounty of declared candidates could give their speeches, a new contender emerged: Judge Gila Monster, the most intense and frightening creature the town had ever known. A room full of wide eyes watched him as he rose to his judge’s bench.
“I shall tell you why ye shouldst accept me as your leader.” In between his raspy sentences, Judge Gila Monster took deep breaths through his nostrils. Every inhale had a hint of a whistle. Every exhale resembled the sound of wood being sawn. “For many years, I tried to warn you. Your hearts hath turned from the goodly Sun. And in these turnings didst ye anger Him. In sooth, the Sun despiseth our vile nature—His mercy doth redeem the least wretched among us, but His goodly grace shall not extend to those bereft of faith. Yea, He hath sent our town a warning and a test: without a goodly soul to discipline you, ye shall bear witness to the hole’s expansion. Ring by ring, our town shall be devoured, until all of us sink down into the earth, and in our consumption shall we find ourselves drowning in the eternal loam.”
Terrified cries filled the courthouse. Standing beside the judge’s bench, Sheriff Black Bear peeked down at Pastor Chickadee, who was perched upon her shoulder.
“There’s that faith you’re always on about,” she whispered, her voice wavering with fear.
“That’s not my faith,” Pastor Chickadee snapped. “He’s just a q-q-quack.”
“Now this is a whole bunch of phooey,” Fire Chief Roadrunner said to Judge Gila Monster, walking up to the witness stand to give himself a platform.
“Bear witness,” Judge Gila Monster said with a sneer. “How he blasphemes against the Sun, calling Him…” He closed his eyes, as if in pain. “Phooey!”
“No,” Fire Chief Roadrunner protested. “Your basis for being mayor is phooey. I called myself mayor first, so I should be the one to get it.” He looked into the crowd. “Go on—vote.”
“We ain’t heard from all the candidates yet.” Sheriff Black Bear took a step forward. “And I just got to say, I don’t think we ought to throw away our principles like they’re nothin’. That stuff about the Sun might be okay for sometimes, but a bunch of old stories ain’t—”
“What heresy is this!” Jude Gila Monster pointed a scaly finger at her. “Begone, Sheriff. In thy flippancy, thou dost vituperate all true believers!”
“Hold on now,” Sheriff Black Bear said, holding up her forepaw. “I ain’t vituperatin’ no one. I just want us to focus on the stuff that’s real.” As soon as she said it, she spat out an addendum: “Real in a ‘here on Earth’ kind of way, not in a ‘real by believing’ one.”
Clearing his throat, Pastor Chickadee held up his good wing to get the crowd’s attention.
“I think what my friend here is t-t-trying to say is that we can’t all lose our heads. T-t-take it from me—Sheriff Black Bear loves our sacred Sun, and our t-t-town would simply fall apart without her. I mean, g-g-golly, Judge, I d-d-don’t like your insinuation.”
The crowd cheered for their beloved sheriff. Judge Gila Monster squinted skeptically at Pastor Chickadee. Then, with disdain, the little black marbles of his eyes drifted to Sheriff Black Bear.
“Come on,” said Fire Chief Roadrunner. “I’m sick of all this pointless squabbling. What’ll it be, folks? Me? Or that kooky judge? Hands for me!”
After a bit of mumbling, a majority of hooves and paws rose into the air.
Judge Gila Monster glared into the crowd. “Hast ye forgotten the Sun’s goodly sinkhole? Wouldst ye tempt Him to expand it? Ye knows how in scripture, He spake of punishing the wretched. Only I possesseth ample righteousness to save us.”
Again, a majority of hooves and paws rose into the air.
“One vote each,” Sheriff Black Bear instructed. “That’s how the Constitution wants it. And I reckon we ought to let the other candidates—”
“Enough!” Judge Gila Monster snapped. “We shall let the Sun decide.”
No Light, There is None
Sheriff Black Bear protested the idea because the Constitution banned the practice. Nevertheless, the duel of rams commenced. Of the two bighorn sheep who had not followed Mayor Bobcat to the New Wheel, one was assigned to represent Fire Chief Roadrunner, the other to Judge Gila Monster. As scripture prescribed, the Sun would grant protection to the ram of His choice.
The duel took place in front of the sinkhole. Beneath a sky full of gray clouds, the rams butted heads. At first, the knocks of the horns sounded gentle because neither ram had ever combatted before. This didn’t last long.
Hearing each thunderous strike of horns, the townsfolk covered their heads, as if, just by watching, their own skulls would start to crack. The spectacle of violence seemed foreign, the former council members without their typical suits unnerving.
After a few more blows, the rams stepped away from each other. They scraped their hooves into the dirt. Pushing off their hind legs, they charged at one another. Their horns interlocked. They each jerked their heads to the side, trying to snap the other’s neck. As they jerked, they inched closer and closer to the sinkhole…until they both fell in.
What the Silence Means
Nobody heard a thump. Not a cry for help, not a distant groan. Not even a vague, echoing shuffle of hooves. There was nothing.
Finally, gripping his ears, Shopkeeper Hare spoke first. “Oh gosh, oh gosh, does that mean…” He looked up at Sheriff Black Bear. “Who’s the mayor?”
She gulped at the question. “That ain’t my job to say. If an election ends in a tie, the decision’s got to go to…” She stared into the sinkhole as if its quiet were something to be seen. “The council.”
The realization was starting to settle: The last two members of the Council of Bighorn Sheep had disappeared.
“Well…what…now?” Banker Tortoise asked.
The clouds started burning off, and a beam of sunlight landed on Judge Gila Monster.
“A sign!” he announced. The townsfolk turned to look at him. “Our Sun hath been appeased by our sacrifices, and lo, He doth stare upon me! Accept me as your leader, or the hole shall widen in His goodly wrath!”
Everyone disliked the prospect of having Judge Gila Monster as mayor. But everyone really disliked the prospect of drowning in the eternal loam.
Right after his immediate inauguration, Mayor Judge Gila Monster ordered everyone to follow him to the locked, ten-foot-high door in the wall, where he rambled for hours about the sacred destiny of his rise to power. First, he ordered that “Judge” be removed from his name, arguing his two titles were the same according to scripture. Then he claimed that an enemy of him was also, more importantly, an enemy of the Sun, so he unlocked the door, pointed at Fire Chief Roadrunner, and commanded, “Therefore, foe, begone!”
Everyone screamed as he opened the door. The night-shrouded treachery of Puma Country lay exposed before them.
“No, he can’t!” Fire Chief Roadrunner yelled, behind a chorus of fellow protestations.
Sheriff Black Bear scooped up the terrified bird, hugged him against her chest, and started walking back toward the heart of town.
“You ain’t going nowhere,” she reassured him. “You ain’t going nowhere. You ain’t going nowhere.”
Something sharp dug into the back of her leg. The pain grew worse and started rising; with his sharp claws, Mayor Gila Monster was climbing up her body. When he reached her shoulder, he whispered to her, “I sense thy doubt. Before it consumeth us, I shall make it known to all.” Then he opened his purple, venomous mouth and reached for Fire Chief Roadrunner.
Though nobody in the town’s history had any personal experience with the matter, legend stated that a bite from a Gila monster caused a torturous death. And so, Fire Chief Roadrunner jumped out of the sheriff’s arms. Mayor Gila Monster hopped down too and chased the fire chief out the open door.
Trembling, Sheriff Black Bear sat down impotently on the dirt.
“Banishment,” she mumbled through her heaving breaths. “The Constitution don’t allow for that.”
She knew no one could hear her.
Late that night, Sheriff Black Bear and Pastor Chickadee remained at the front of town, staring out at Puma Country. Despite the protests of anxious townsfolk, Mayor Gila Monster had demanded that the door be kept open for two reasons: to warn that banishment awaited any heretic, and to provide a test of faith. Pumas would not come, he had reasoned, if the Sun had no cause to punish the town.
So the sheriff and the pastor sat beside each other, beneath the glow of the stars and the full moon. They listened to the crickets and watched the land outside the door, hoping Fire Chief Roadrunner would return. They vowed to hide him if he did.
“Maybe we should just g-g-go after him,” Pastor Chickadee suggested.
Sheriff Black Bear shook her head. “He’s fast and small, can hide just fine. With all those pumas, I’d just attract attention.”
“And it sure is d-d-dangerous out there, p-p-particularly at night.”
After a few hours with no sign of pumas, they breathed a little easier. Sheriff Black Bear studied the shadowy landscape outside the wall: the moonlit dirt, the silhouetted cacti and yucca, the jagged blackness way out west where the stars were hidden behind Puma Country’s mountains. She wondered about Mayor Bobcat and the others, if they were still alive, if they were still together.
“If we did go,” she said, cocking her head to the side. “You reckon I would still be Sheriff Black Bear?”
“What k-k-kind of question is that?” said Pastor Chickadee. “Of course you would. That’s who you are.”
“But out that door, I wouldn’t be sheriff of nothin’.”
Pastor Chickadee looked up at the stars. “I remember flying, b-b-before my wing was b-b-busted. And even way up there in the sky, I knew I was still me. The name ‘pastor’ just meant I knew what I b-b-believed, that I had strong c-c-convictions.”
“‘Sheriff’ ain’t like ‘pastor.’ I don’t got convictions.”
“Horsefeathers,” Pastor Chickadee scoffed. “You honor the law even when it’s b-b-beyond saving. I would say that sure is respectable.”
Sheriff Black Bear shrugged. “There’s a purpose to the Constitution. It’s not a bunch of rules to please a big thing in the sky. It was made apart from all that.”
“And written b-b-by some folks with finite knowledge,” Pastor Chickadee squabbled.
“I don’t got the mind to say if some of it needs fixin’. But for two hundred years, it didn’t let no one get banished to the pumas. It didn’t let none of us battle each other.” She nodded toward the open door. “Out there, I reckon it’s a mighty bloody world. And if the Sun really created it, then I reckon He’s mighty bloody too.”
Pastor Chickadee frowned. “That may be so,” he conceded, with a hint of exasperation in his voice. “All I know is this: I wouldn’t b-b-be anything without the Sun to g-g-guide me.”
Sheriff Black Bear shook her head. “I ain’t got Him, and I don’t reckon I’m nothin’. And we’re friends because you’re good, not because the Sun would want it.”
She felt like she just had a realization, but she couldn’t quite figure out what it was. She knew she had always appreciated the order of the Wheel. She just hadn’t considered why before.
“This town,” she said, trying to work out her epiphany. “Its rules, its laws. It gave us something away from all that stuff. It told us, ‘Here’s a fine way to be good just to be good, to respect yourself and others.’ It didn’t say we’re all born bad, like we ain’t deservin’ of redemption. It said we got our jobs to do, our community to serve, that we ain’t born needin’ redemption at all—and anyone who does need some redeemin’ should get it, ‘cause everyone deserves a second chance. It gave us worth. Dignity, that’s what it comes down to. I don’t reckon no one deserves any less than that.”
“I’d say that sure sounds like a c-c-conviction,” Pastor Chickadee said. “And that’s what makes you sheriff. It’s part of who you are, and it would b-b-be with you anywhere you g-g-go.”
Even as the words left his beak, they both knew what they needed to do.
Traveling through Puma Country in the dark would be too dangerous, but they decided they would sneak off soon. They would try to find Mayor Bobcat’s New Wheel, and even if they couldn’t, they would wander knowing they hadn’t left much behind. For as much as Sheriff Black Bear had initially resented the thought, she was starting to accept that maybe this town was more than just a place. If dignity was what she wanted in a home, she sure couldn’t find much of that here anymore.
After some thought, Pastor Chickadee nodded to himself. “You know something, Sheriff? You have a heart that’s d-d-darn near g-g-golden.” He cleared his throat and quickly added, “It’s just your soul I have some worries for.”
And All of You Go Crowning
An hour before dawn, Mayor Gila Monster summoned everyone to the sinkhole. Sheriff Black Bear and Pastor Chickadee hesitantly joined, because they didn’t want to leave until after sunrise. They stood beside each other, waiting for the second chance they knew they both deserved, and despite some trepidation for what might lie ahead, their excitement outweighed their anxiety.
Then the mayor started speaking.
“In scripture, the Sun saith: If thou hast doubt, then thou wilt go drowning in the loam. If thou heedest words of disbelievers, likewise shall perdition await thee.”
His splotchy head rose and lowered as he scanned each face.
“Ye know these verses well. But mine eyes still see bewilderment upon your countenances. Ye wish to know wherefore I called you here with exigency, what exegesis I hath to impart. Hearken to me, all ye true believers, for lo… the Sun did speak to me in the night!”
The crowd gasped.
“Aye, He did relate to me the cause of His divine retribution—his making of the hole, his intention to expand it. With goodly words, He promised we will all be damned if we maintain one grievous fault. What giveth us this woe? What transgression doth enrage the Sun?” Scowling, he leaned forward. Everyone fell silent, awaiting his deliverance. “Someone of power in this town concealeth wicked doubt!”
Sheriff Black Bear shook. Her heart pounded. She and Pastor Chickadee exchanged a glance. The message was clear: despite the pre-dawn darkness, they needed to leave now.
Mayor Gila Monster peeked behind himself at the sinkhole. The moment his back was turned, Sheriff Black Bear started reaching down to pick up her friend. But the mayor’s gaze returned to them, a smirk on his face.
Sheriff Black Bear froze.
“Let us sacrifice this heathen, lest the earth consume us.”
He stormed toward the crowd. Everyone screamed as he grabbed Pastor Chickadee from the front row. Sheriff Black Bear raised her paw to strike, but Mayor Gila Monster kept her at a distance by flaunting his venomous mouth.
“Methinks thy pastor hath doubt in his heart,” Mayor Gila Monster said to the crowd, wrapping his claws around the pleading pastor’s neck.
“I d-d-don’t have d-d-doubt!” Pastor Chickadee vowed. “I have stronger faith than anyone!”
Mayor Gila Monster held the pastor over the sinkhole.
“P-p-please!” Pastor Chickadee flapped his wings as best as he could. “I can’t fly! I got a b-b-bad—”
“Thou hast a bad wing. Yet thou hast spoken of healing prayers. Methinks we must test thy faith. If thou truly hast no hidden doubt, then the goodly Sun shall regrant thy flight.”
The mayor cocked back his arm, about to throw, when Sheriff Black Bear stepped forward.
“It’s me,” she said. “I’m the one who don’t believe.”
And All of Them Go Frowning
Mayor Gila Monster gave a proud, contemptuous grin. He stepped away from the sinkhole and placed Pastor Chickadee back on the ground.
Sheriff Black Bear gulped and backed away.
“Flee not!” Mayor Gila Monster commanded. “If thou dost, I shall ensure the sacrifice of every creature here.”
Sheriff Black Bear looked around at the faces of all the townsfolk. While only thirty-three remained, she couldn’t tolerate the idea of contributing to the attrition. She had always upheld the Constitution to protect her town, to help them live in peace, to let them die with grace. Dignity, yes; she wanted it for all of them. She wanted it for herself too.
But if she ran, or fought and failed, and the remnants of her precious home got murdered; if the townsfolk died, then she died too, who would be left to remember what was right?
As Mayor Gila Monster approached with his venomous mouth wide open, Sheriff Black Bear closed her eyes. Her body tensed. She waited for his bite, for the excruciating harbinger of that wretched demise.
Instead of pain, something else came to her—the shrieks of the townsfolk.
Sheriff Black Bear opened her eyes. As soon as she saw it, she snatched up Pastor Chickadee by his good wing and placed him on her shoulder. At any other time, he would have thanked his friend for her protection. But this…not even the faintest chirp left his beak.
Pumas surrounded them. Paw by paw, they crept forward from all directions, their whiskers accentuating their leering snarls. When one of them got too near to another, each one clawed and bit at the competition. Though they didn’t hunt in packs, the open door could not have long evaded any of their keen eyes. The Wheel had always enticed them as a bastion of easy kills.
The townsfolk started running. Some headed north, and pumas met them. Others south and pumas met them. East and west, pumas met them, and nowhere in between worked any better. With nowhere to go, the sprint turned into a circle around the sinkhole. The pumas chased them, around and around. Only Sheriff Black Bear stood still, watching this whirlpool of the living that surrounded her—watching as this whirlpool started piling with bodies. Pastor Chickadee sobbed at the sight. One puma caught Shopkeeper Hare, ripping off his head with a quick bite. Another devoured Farmer Mule Deer, tearing apart his body limb by limb.
Two pumas chased Mayor Gila Monster, who tripped over himself and rolled across the dirt. As the beasts approached him, he stared in shock up at the sky and pleaded, “Oh goodly Sun! Thou knowest mine heart is true and pure. I ask for thy protection from—”
One of the pumas shook him by the head, shattering his spine. The other grabbed his lower half, and the two beasts tugged for him until his body split in half.
All the while, every time a puma neared Sheriff Black Bear, she struck it away, and Pastor Chickadee pleaded for her to flee. But when she looked back down the road, more pumas approached, and she knew she could neither flee nor fight them all off.
“Go, p-p-please! Just try to get out!”
“No use,” Sheriff Black Bear said.
With blood on their snouts, several pumas approached them.
“Go,” Pastor Chickadee begged. “I’m not ready to d-d-die!”
Sheriff Black Bear stared at the sinkhole. She got down on all fours and ran towards it.
“What are you d-d-doing?!”
“I ain’t going out as food.”
The pumas pursued them. Pastor Chickadee bounced up and down as he clutched with all his strength to the back of Sheriff Black Bear’s neck.
“What about the loam?!” he exclaimed. “What about the loam?!”
Sheriff Black Bear reached the edge. Pastor Chickadee let go. A puma caught him in its mouth, and the last thing he saw was Sheriff Black Bear leaping, belly launching toward the center of the hole, tumbling downward through the odd-begotten black.
And All of Us Go Drowning in the Loam
After the last remaining puma licked her bloody chops, she pounced over the carcasses and stared into the sinkhole. Blackness seemed to go on for miles. Her instincts caused her body to tense and her paws to dig into the dirt. Did this sinkhole have a bottom? If so, what could be found there?
Despite the terror these depths invoked—or, perhaps, as a consequence of the awesomeness—the hole seemed to possess certain signs of life: daunting but not haunted, only spectral in a sense.
What made her curious was something she had witnessed as soon as the chickadee had landed in her mouth. Out of everyone in this enigmatic old town, only one individual had opted for escape. The others ran, pitifully fought, and sobbed for mercy. Jumping into the sinkhole probably would have killed them, but wasn’t the faint possibility of survival preferable to the certainty of dying in a predator’s mouth? At that point, wasn’t their best option a gamble with the unknown?
Apparently, only one of the animals had thought so. While the others had been too frightened of what they couldn’t see…somewhere, somehow, that sole beast might be breathing. The puma knew nothing of the black bear that leapt, from its name to its sex to its role in the town. She only knew one thing: it must have been a creature of great faith.