Then it's finished. I read it over, and I nod in satisfaction, until suddenly I wonder, "Who will want to read this?" If I don't have a ready answer for that, there's no point in asking, "Who's going to want to publish it?"
THE CANDLEMAS JUDGE is that kind of story. It's a children's story, but few children could manage the vocabulary. Or follow the sentence structure. Or catch the humor. It's too long to send to Cricket, too short to be printed as a book.
Maybe it's not really a children's book? As soon as I asked myself that, I knew who the story's readers would be. Inside all of us is our "inner child." And sometimes that inner child wants a little attention, wants us to pamper and indulge him.
So here's a story for you to read on a day when you are just too tired and discouraged to be adult, when being a grown-up feels like more bother than it's worth, when you and your inner child are looking for some fun!
Allow me to introduce myself. I am William Wadsworth, Woodchuck, (or Groundhog, if you will) and I am writing to correct several matters of fact which were erroneously reported in an article your paper ran on January 28th under the title, “Groundhog Fears Shadow.
I suppose you are thinking that groundhogs can’t read. As a matter of fact, most groundhogs are very fond of reading – the common lot prefer romance novels and whodunits, of course, but reading’s reading, I always say. Stretches the mind, don’t you know.
But to get on with it, I read in your paper-- No, before I go into that, let me straighten one thing out. I object to the term groundhog. Woodchuck is a much superior term, and quite descriptive, whereas “groundhog” suggests a somewhat porcine character, implying that the subject in question has the habit of overeating. This—I assure you—in not the case. It’s true that as a group we woodchucks put on a good bit of weight over the summer, but if you have ever seen one of us emerge from his home early in spring, you will see that February and March find us quite spare, almost bony, in fact.
Now, if we have that squared away and you agree that henceforth your paper will refer to us properly, as woodchucks, I will get on with the subject of my letter. As I said, I was reading your paper the other day, and I came upon the feature concerning February 2, or Groundhog’s Day, as we Americans refer to it, but which my ancestors called Candlemas Day.
Ah, surprised you again, didn’t I? I suppose you thought that all animals on the continent were native? (Excluding those in zoos, of course.) Actually, animals as well as humans can emigrate, and I am a descendant of the first William Wadsworth, who was born in Holmbury, St Mary, England, in the early 1700’s. To understand my letter properly, you will have to let me tell you a story, which is not actually story, but fact—the account of how the first William Wadsworth came to our shores, and how his coming altered the history of woodchucks in America.
Unnoticed he was, and unnoticed he stayed as the farmer handed over the basket to a merchant who took it directly to London Harbor where the potatoes were sold to the captain of a sailing vessel. And so, with no intention on his part, William set sail for the New World.
I won’t bore you with an account of his first months in this country; suffice it to say, he met the local inhabitants, found them congenial, if a little uncouth, and settled down in this pleasant area of what is not Pennsylvania. The late summer months passed without incident, and by the time September rolled around he had established himself as a fine fellow. Indeed, the mothers in the neighborhood began to regard him as a “good catch” for their marriageable daughters, so that he was often the recipient of invitations to dinner, to local square dances, etc.
It was at one of these dances that the incident occurred which would change his life forever. There happened to live, in the next burrow but one, a family by the name of Plumpton, who had a comely daughter named Priscilla. Priscilla had quite caught William’s eye, and as a consequence of several extended conversations with her, he had formed a most agreeable opinion of her personality and wit. In short, he was in love.
There is nothing like love to make a chap lose his usual common sense and try in the most extraordinary ways to appear manly and admirable. My ancestor was no exception. As he and Priscilla were discussing the long winter ahead, William asked idly, “Who has the honor of being Candlemas Judge in these parts?”
Imagine his surprise when Priscilla merely looked perplexed as she repeated “Candlemas Judge?” in an enquiring tone.
“But surely there is a Candlemas Judge,” he remonstrated. “Someone of judgment and sagacity and of the most upright character who has been selected to announce on February 2, Candlemas Day, just how much longer the winter will last?”
Priscilla replied that she had never heard of a tradition like this, and that in her opinion, one of the most annoying things about winter was the uncertainty of its ending. You never knew when to be up and about. Nobody wanted to be wandering about when no one else was around for company, of course, yet if one slept too late, all the desirable sites for new burrows would be taken, not to mention the fact that romances would have already been flourishing while one was still deep in dreams.
“Do you mean to say,” William asked with amazement, “That no one has been picked for this important position?” For, of course, in the Old World the bears and the badgers had monopolized the office for generations.
When Priscilla replied that to her knowledge the post was vacant, it occurred to William that the woodchuck who could claim the title of Candlemas Judge would stand a very good chance of becoming the successful suitor for Priscilla’s favor. Accordingly, he began to cast about for a plan that would assure him a good chance of attaining the position himself.
His immediate thought was to go before the Sharp Bend Woodchuck Advisory Board and apply to them for the honor, but when he reflected that his chief rival for Priscilla’s favor also happened to be the nephew of the Board chairman, he dismissed that idea.
This brought to mind one of the little adages by which he guided his life: He called it
It occurred to him that filling the position before it was recognized as vacant would be the easiest way to attain his goal. But one must not merely fill the position, one must fill it admirably. Accordingly, he took himself to the Woodchuck Community Library and began to research the climatic history of the Sharp Bend area.
He discovered that the area’s period of heaviest snowfall was January 15-February 14, that March storms were often characterized by sleet rather than snow, and that spring weather could not be relied upon with any certainty before the last week of April. Now, here was a dilemma. The latest any woodchuck sleeps in March 17, the date which humans call Saint Patrick’s day, but which is known to Woodchucks as Last Call to Breakfast.
The most highly esteemed Candlemas Judge is he who can pick the date between February 2 and March 17 by which the worst of the year’s winter storms will be over. In short, if you wake your friends on March 8, say, and they are frozen in their tracks on March 9, your reputation as Candlemas Judge is seriously impaired and you had best resign immediately.
With these statistics in mind, one day in early October William bade Priscilla a fond good night and retired to his burrow. He set his inner alarm clock for February 2, secure in the knowledge that no woodchuck in his right mind would awake before then, and settled down into winter’s long sleep, little dreaming of the shock that would confront him when he awoke.
February 2. William awoke slowly, dozing off and on for a few hours, loath to leave the snugness of his burrow for the uncertainties of a winter’s day.. Shortly, however, he remembered the fair Priscilla and arose with alacrity. This was his chance to distinguish himself in her eyes; he must venture outside and for the first time try his hand at weather prognostication. Scrambling down his tunnel to the surface, he cleared the entrance of its soil and vegetation and poked out his nose.
It was a beautiful day; if he were prone to self-doubt he might have believed that he had overslept and that he was waking to the sunshine of May. The breeze that ruffled his fur was rich with the scent of damp earth and new growth. Close to his doorway the meadow grasses had already begun greening up; evidently, the unseasonably warm weather had been around for some time.
William was suspicious. Of course, there are years when spring arrives early, dislodging a weak and faltering winter, but such springs come only once or twice a century. On the other hand, a period of warm February weather, or False Spring, is fairly common. William needed more encouragement than a warm day and a few patches of green before he would confidently predict winter’s approaching demise.
Determined to gather all the information he could before he made his prediction, he set out on a survey of the area. He was heading down toward the Plumpton’s burrow when he was astonished to see Priscilla coming his way.
“Oh, William,” she greeted him, dimpling prettily,” Isn’t this weather glorious? I was just coming to wake you.”
“But, Priscilla,” he protested. “Surely you shouldn’t be up so early? Winter may still have surprised in store for us.”
“Oh, it’s quite all right,” she assured him. “Actually, Freddie woke me a week ago.”
“Freddie woke you?” William was dismayed. Aggrieved. Crestfallen. Freddie was the rival mentioned earlier, the nephew of the Board Chairman.
Imagine William’s even greater chagrin when he learned that the previous fall, as Priscilla was heading for her burrow, she had run into Freddie and had told him about the Candlemas Judgeship. Freddie had at once hurried to his uncle and persuaded that old codger to appoint him Candlemas Judge on the spot. Then, in a break with tradition, Freddie had awakened in Mid-January, and on January 21 had proclaimed winter’s end, waking all his friends and relatives with the news.
“But, Priscilla,” William remonstrated, trying a new tack, “Even if we have no more winter storms, which is by no means a certainty, there can’t already be enough food for us all?”
She admitted that this was a problem, and that some of the elders had gone back to bed, declaring that early spring or no, they weren’t going to stay awake while hunger pangs rumbled, and there was nothing to fill an empty belly.
“Still,” she said, “Who could bear to miss these glorious days? Freddie and I are going to have a picnic this afternoon, William. I was just coming to see if you wouldn’t want to join us.”
Ordinarily such an invitation would have pleased and flattered him, but not this time. He would have been embarrassed to admit it, but he was trembling with jealousy. Not only had Freddie secured the position William wanted so badly, he had also managed to have a good dozen days to press his suit with Priscilla, while William slept away like an unsuspecting babe. And now those two were going picnicking together. No matter that Priscilla said she wanted William to go too; doubtless she was merely trying to salve his feelings. He’d be as welcome as a second tail, as the old saying goes. “Thanks just the same,” William said stiffly, “but I have already made other plans.”
He did, in fact, have other plans: he planned to retire to his burrow, bury his head in his pillow, and forget he had ever heard of Priscilla, Freddie, or the Candlemas Judgeship.
Is there anything cozier than lying snug and warm under the comforter while raindrops tap rhythmically on the roof overhead? Despite his wounded pride, William felt drowsily content on the March morning when he awoke for the second time that winter. He was lying there reflecting on
when he heard a voice calling from the mouth of his tunnel. “Oh, Mr. Wadsworth! Yoo-hoo, Mr. Wadsworth, are you awake?
Surely he recognized that voice? He did. Priscilla’s mother, Eunice Plumpton, was calling to him! He scrambled out of bed, drew the coverlet hastily over the rumpled sheets and called back, “Come in, come in, Mrs. Plumpton! I’ve just been sitting in my armchair having a good read.” (And, indeed, his book was lying open on the floor where he had laid it before retiring.)
With hurrying footsteps, Mrs. Plumpton came into his chamber. William looked at her in surprise. Her bonnet was awry, her spectacles askew, and her tail was twitching with agitation.
“Why, whatever is the matter, Madam?” he asked.
“I knew no good would come from waking so early!” she wailed. She told William that earlier in the day Priscilla and Freddie had taken Priscilla’s Sunday School class for a hike along Sharp Bend Creek. “The weather looked like it was clearing,” Mrs. Plumpton said, “and the little ones were so restless from being shut in for the last few weeks, what with the rain and the wind and all. But now the rain has started again, and the creek is rising, and no sign of Priscilla and Freddie coming back. I’m sure I don’t know what could have happened to them.!”
“I’ll go looking, and I’m sure I’ll find them in no time at all.”
In spite of his cheery words, William found himself less than cheery some hours later. He had tramped alongside the rising waters of Sharp Bend Creek for the better part of the afternoon. The little creek, normally quiet and shallow enough for the smallest of cubs, was threatening to spill over its banks, and its rushing waters frothed and churned with broken-off branches and limbs from upstream. But nowhere had William seen any sign of Priscilla and Freddie and the Sunday School class. As he plodded along with the cold March wind snatching at his wraps and the rain poking icy fingers through his fur, he wished he were home in bed, or in a nice dry cave someplace—anywhere, in fact, other than out in the cold and wet. He was reflecting on
Wadsworthian Adage III:
as he neared the spot where Sharp Bend Creek empties into Diamond Lake.
Suddenly he thought he heard a new sound carried on the voice of the wind. He stopped and listened. Yes! He heard the forlorn wailing of a woodchuck cub, and it was coming from the direction of the creek. William broke into a run. As he stumbled along the bank, the creek made the acute turn which gives the stream its name
Rounding the bend, he saw a sight he’d never forget. A small, triangular island rests in the mouth of the creek where it empties into the lake, and there, on that island, Freddie and Priscilla and the Sunday School class were marooned. Doubtless earlier in the day, crossing the creek had been merely a matter of stepping upon rocks protruding from the water. But the rapid rise of the waters had covered over the rocks, and the swift current was by now far too strong for the Sunday School group to ford. Even as William watched, their foothold grew smaller, and he realized there was no time to waste.
Fortunately for all concerned, William remembered that only a short distance upstream, he’d seen a fallen tree lying half in, half out of the creek. “Hold on, Priscilla!” he shouted. “I’ll be right back.”
As soon as Priscilla and Freddie pulled the branched end of the tree in towards the little island, William busied himself with the pole and swung the trunk end around until it snagged on the mainland. A bridge was in place! William himself carried the two youngest cubs back to shore, while Priscilla guided the middlers. Freddie brought up the rear in sullen silence.
When the soggy group straggled back into the woodchuck colony, William modestly instructed Priscilla not to relate the events of the afternoon, but the cubs, of course, would not be silent, and soon the whole community knew of William’s valiant rescue.
It is not surprising that before the week was over, Freddie had resigned the post of Candlemas Judge and retired to his burrow with a cold in his chest and a bad case of sniffles. Upon Freddie’s resignation William was offered the position of Candlemas Judge by popular acclamation. He accepted the post the same day Priscilla agreed to be his bride. And so well have the Wadsworthian descendants filled the office over the years that it has remained in the family for generations.
Sir, I hope that this brief journey into history has given you a sense of the importance of the Candlemas Judge to woodchucks in general. I hope, too, that your paper will not again take part in perpetuating the silly notion of a “groundhog who is afraid of his shadow.” The truth of the matter is that a worthy Candlemas Judge will not be taken in by the sunshine of a False Spring. If, in the face of sunshine, he turns his back and retires to his burrow, you can be sure his sensitive nose has discerned in the air the small of more winter on the way.
Thanking you for this opportunity to correct the record, I remain, yours truly,