Among the wild animals I have not known was a family of woodchucks who lived in a hollow log on the edge of a farm in New York State. Not that they cared much whether it was New York State or some other state. I mentioned it only that the details of this story may be verified by anyone who is inclined to doubt them. It was New York State.
Now here was a thing that distinguished this family to start with, from all other families of the neighbourhood—they lived in a hollow log. All their relatives and friends lived in the ground. I don’t know how this family got started living in the rotten log. But I do happen to know that there were a great many warm discussions about the relative merits of a house in a log, and a house in the ground, and though many ground houses in the best locations and with all modern improvements were offered to this family, they stuck to the house in the log.
The house certainly did have one advantage; it had two doors. And not only that, the log was part of an old fence, and the fence ran between the garden and the cornfield. So in the summer when the garden stuff was fine, all you had to do was to walk down the hallway of the log, until you came to the left-hand door, and there you were right in the garden. But when fall came and the garden was dried up, the corn was stacked in shocks or husked and put into the crib. All you had to do was to go down the hallway, to the door that turned to the right, and there you were in the cornfield. Quite aside from these advantages, who would live in a house with one door in it when he could just as well have one with two?
The log-house family consisted of a father, mother, and four children. The youngest of these—the favourite of the family, was named Monax. His mother had heard that the scientific name for woodchuck was Arctomys Monax, and being of a scientific turn of mind, she was much taken with this name. But no woodchuck in her neighbourhood had two names. So she took the last of the two and called her son Monax.
Monax had never been out in the world. He had been down to the two doors, and had looked out, but that was all. But he had been well instructed at home. He knew about men, and how they would sometimes try to catch woodchucks; and all about dogs, and about the corn-crib; and for a long time he had known all about garden vegetables and corn. He was certainly a promising boy, even his father and mother acknowledged it, but he had one problem—he could not learn which was his right hand and which was his left.
In the fall Monax’ father was laid up with rheumatism. He was a terribly old fellow to groan and carry on when he was sick, and his wife had to stand by him every minute. The house had to be fixed for winter, and the other children were at work on this. Saturday came and someone had to go to the market. Who was there to go except Monax? So it was decided that he should go.
Mrs. Woodchuck gave him his instructions. She always gave everybody their instructions. “You go out at the right-hand door,” said Mrs. Woodchuck to Monax; “mind me, at the right-hand door. You go through the cornfield ’till you come to the big rock in the middle of it. Then you turn to the right again.” She paused for a moment, and a look of hesitancy came into her face. “Do you really know?” she asked solemnly, “do you really know your right hand from your left?” “Yes,” said Monax. “Hold up your right one,” said his mother. Monax’ mind was in a whirl. He tried to imagine himself with his back to the cornfield door, where he stood when he had his last lesson on the subject. If he could only get that clearly in his mind, he could remember which hand he held up then. But he was too excited to think. So he held up one hand; he hadn’t the slightest idea which it was. “Correct,” said his mother, “correct. Your father said it was not safe to let you go, because you did not know your right hand from your left. But he under-rates you.” She spoke almost angrily. Then her mind seemed to be relieved, and she proceeded with her instructions. “Through the cornfield,” she said, “’till you come to the big rock; then you go to the right ’till you come to the edge of the field. You will see a couple of men in the cornfield. But do not be afraid of them; they are only scarecrows. Go right ahead. At the edge of the cornfield, by the maple tree, you turn to the right again—always to the right. Then you will see the barn. Go in and look around there. Keep away from the horses and don’t mind the odour. If you find a basket of corn on the barn floor, help yourself and come home. If you don’t you will have to go a little farther. Just to the right of the barn a few yards—always to the right—is the corn-crib. That is where your father and I get most of the supplies for the family. You climb up into the old wagon-box that stands on the scaffolding, and jump from that into the crib.
Getting out is much easier and after that all you have to do is to come home. You needn’t hurry especially. I won’t be worried about you, because there are no dogs there—the dog lives away over on the other side of the fence beyond the garage—and I know the scarecrows will not hurt you.”
So Monax started out. Down the hall he went, pondering his instructions. If Mrs. Woodchuck had not gone back to tie another piece of red flannel around Mr. Woodchuck’s rheumatic knee, she might have observed that Monax moved slowly, as if in deep thought. But she observed nothing, and so said nothing.
Monax was in deep thought. He was trying to decide which was his right hand and which was his left. If he could only be sure of either one of them he could guess at the other one. He had to know before he got to the first of the two doors. Why were everybody’s two hands so much alike? How could anyone be sure which was which? He stopped and held up one, then the other; they looked just alike. He struck one of them against the wall; then the other, they felt just alike. He couldn’t stop long about it; if his mother caught him at it, she would probably suspect what was the matter with him, and his little journey into the world would be stopped before it began.
He came to the first door, and a sudden inspiration came to him. He never knew how it was, but he felt perfectly confident which one was his right hand. It seemed perfectly simple, somehow. It was this one. So he turned out into the garden.
He didn’t see any corn-shocks. But he was not surprised at that. His mother had said maybe they would have been hauled away by this time. He looked ahead. Yes, there was the big stone. It did look a good deal like a cement horse-block. “But then,” he said to himself, “they make stone these days so that you can hardly tell it from cement.” He looked for the two scarecrows. If they were there he would know he was right. And there they were. They were awfully good imitations of men. One of them was walking about just a little. On a page of the “Scientific American,” which his mother brought home a few weeks before, he had read about the talking pictures that Mr. Edison had invented. He hadn’t read of the talking scarecrows, but he had no doubt there were such. “You never can tell what these men will invent next,” he said as he moved then leisurely by.
At the big stone he turned—this way—he said to himself. “It is surprising how sure I am about my right hand now.” He came to the edge of the field. There, just as his mother had said, was the barn. It looked more like a garage than a barn. But styles change. Anyway, there it was to the right, just as his mother had told him. “If you are sure of your direction everything else takes care of itself,” he said. “The location is right.”
He went into the barn. He noticed the odour; something like gasoline.
He looked for the horses; none there. He glanced about for the basket of corn. All he saw, instead, was a bunch of waste lying on top of a big red tank. Where the horses ought to have been was an automobile. “Probably they have changed it over from a barn to a garage since mother was here,” he said; “if you are going to keep up with the times these days you can’t stay in the house; you’ve got to get out where things are doing.” It was no use to look for corn there. So he took his time to look around the barn, and then moved leisurely out. Just a few yards to the right again, as his mother had said, was the corn-crib. He had never seen one before, and this one looked small to him. It looked more like a dog-house to him. But the location was right again—“always to the right,” his mother said.
The old wagon box wasn’t there. But at the back end of the corn-crib there was a board tacked up from the crib to the tree. That was probably one end of the scaffold that had held the wagon box. Of course they wouldn’t leave the wagon box there all fall. Probably they were using it to haul corn, at that very moment, to that very crib.
Meantime Mrs. Woodchuck was growing very worried at home—for Monax had taken more time for his journey than his mother thought he would. Mr. Woodchuck’s knee was very bad, and whenever he had rheumatism he was more pessimistic than usual. “I tell you,” said he, “that boy will never get home. He doesn’t know his right hand from his left.” “I tell you he does,” said Mrs. Woodchuck; “I tried him on it just before he went.” “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Mr. Woodchuck stuck to his position, “if he had turned out that left-hand door, into the garden and had gone to the garage instead of the barn. There is one thing for sure; if he tries to get corn out of that dog kennel, he will find out his mistake.” Mr. Woodchuck’s lack of sympathy always irritated his wife.
“Keep still,” she said, “you will give me nervous hives again if you keep saying such things.”
Monax had climbed up onto the board. He paused to look around a moment. Then thinking that he must not be quite so leisurely, he jumped quickly through the little window just under the roof.
Then things began to happen so fast that Monax could hardly keep track of them. For what Monax had really done was just what his father said he probably would do. He had turned to the left every time, where he ought to have turned to the right. He had gone through the garden instead of the cornfield, past the cement horse-block instead of the big stone, mistaken the garage for the barn, and now, worst luck of all, he had jumped into the dog kennel instead of into the corn-crib.
The old dog had been after the sheep and cows, and was fast asleep on the floor of his kennel. Still, he didn’t propose to lie there and be jumped on by a woodchuck—not in his own kennel. And Monax—well, perhaps he wasn’t surprised when, instead of landing on top of a crib of corn, he fell clear to the bottom, and felt his feet touching something furry that moved. But it didn’t have time to move much. Monax felt that a crisis had arrived, and it was time to act. He didn’t wait to look for the door of the kennel; he didn’t want to try any more new routes. He just rebounded off the back of the dog like a rubber ball from the pavement. Up he went, breaking the woodchuck record for the high jump, back through the window, onto the board, down to the ground quick as a flash. The dog was after him, but Monax was six feet ahead.
Away he went, past the barn; the car was just backing out; it came over Monax that it wasn’t a barn after all. He dodged under the car; the dog had to run around it; three feet more gained. He went by the big stone at full speed,—it looked more than ever to him like a cement horse-block. Past the two scarecrows; he could see that they had moved quite a little since he passed them coming out. He didn’t have much time to reflect, but it did come over him that these were not scarecrows, but men.
On he sped, through the garden; it was perfectly plain now that it had never been a cornfield, and on like a flash through the garden door into the log-house, and into his father’s room—fluttering and trembling.
“Did you turn to the right?” asked his mother.
“I did—on the way back,” said Monax.