Your Humble Servants
by Roger Pitcher
Toots swung the barn doors wide to let the early morning sun wake the livestock. The rush of familiar animal smells and voices grounded him, giving him the strength to face the shadowy menace that threatened Bishop’s Creek.
He rolled his old lawnmower out of the barn and coaxed it to life, piloting it up, down and over the yard. Mowing the lawn was a small ritual that helped Toots keep his mind empty.
He needed to not think, to keep his mind fixedly far from thought, especially ideas of any kind. A person’s ideas were easiest to read and the most valuable to keep secret. Keeping an empty head, he believed, was the best defense against an Alien trying to infiltrate your brain.
When the Aliens first arrived, Toots had tried to organize a local Resistance. He recalled their first meeting. “These Aliens,” he’d argued, “can fast pick up on a mind that is thinking ideas, and they don’t like it. They’ll do anything they can to replace your ideas with theirs. If that happens, well, you can kiss this planet goodbye!”
His neighbor Wilson had nodded in sheep-like agreement. Wilson was always agreeable. But now, he suspected that Wilson had been infiltrated, been compromised. Toots worried that the whole neighborhood would be compromised in turn by Wilson.
An Alien infection, he reckoned, would spread faster than barley blight. If that were to happen, who then would be able to keep a secret? The enemy would swiftly know of the Resistance. Who could tell how or when or what reprisals would occur?
Toots didn’t want to believe the worst of Wilson. He’d known him his whole life long. Wilson’s Pa had saved Toots’ father’s life in the war. Old Man Toots repaid the hero’s deed with a gift of his south field. Wilson’s field, his father had named it.
It’s possible, thought Toots, giving his old neighbor the benefit of the doubt, that Wilson was not infiltrated at all. Could be Wilson simply forgot everything that transpired at their meetings as soon as he crossed the barn threshold. Wilson, admittedly, was not the sharpest tool in the shed.
He thought back to the moment he suspected Wilson to be infiltrated by the Aliens. Wilson had started to make sense. That was it! The man, thought Toots, had always been a dullard. His suspicion was confirmed when he saw Wilson mowing the lawn of the Elementary School.
Wilson drove the John Deere back and forth in a diagonal grid. Toots knew that Wilson was a strict perpendicularian: parallel to the street, then crosswise with the building. He’d never varied this method in the twenty-seven years he’d been cutting the school lawn. This diagonal thing could only mean an Alien influence was at work inside him.
Toots finished his mowing and returned the machine to the barn. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he relaxed. A change came over Toots when he was around animals. His mind would slip into a sort of lull. Cow-brain, he termed it.
There was a comfort just being around those large animals. All his cares and worries melted away and he returned, in his mind, to a simpler time. They couldn’t talk, but Toots felt he knew what they were thinking.
By chance he’d discovered that the rudimentary thoughts of animals were an effective screen to the Alien’s attempts at brain infiltration. Whenever the Aliens tried to engage Toots in conversation, with their peculiar little translate-boxes hanging around their necks, they seemed to know he wasn’t at all happy to see them. “They’re trying to read my mind,” he suspected.
It wasn’t until they’d followed him, uninvited, into the barn, pestering him to trade Wilson’s field for some blankets and beads, that he was sure about the mind-reading and stumbled on how to thwart it.
Upon entering the presence of the animals in the barn, the Aliens reacted with confusion. They were so expert at logical debate, reasoned Toots, that the presence of these unstructured animal minds gave their superior brains nothing to work on.
Even when Toots shouted at them, they acted as if he wasn’t even there. They had bowed low and in their peculiar voices that sounded like reeds rustling in the wind, saying, “Your humble servants,” and high-tailed it out of there.
After that run-in, the cows, chickens, pigs, goats and old Dobbin, the ancient horse, were kept crowded in the barn so that Toots could plot in secrecy.
Tom the goat, Wellington the pig and old Dobbin had come from other farms that had sold out to foreign investors. The animals had been in their prime when Toots had taken them in. Now they were mostly old. “Old like me with not much left to give,” mused Toots.
The animals talked to him; not in words, but he knew what they were thinking and was sure they knew what he was thinking, too. People would have called him crazy if they’d known about it, but Toots didn’t give a hoot about what people thought.
He rose every morning just before sun up to milk the cows. What milk he couldn’t use he’d pour on the earth, giving it back to the Universe. He always skimmed the cream off the top and set out a bowl for the feral cats that frequented the barn.
Sure, Toots could have sold the farm and the animals too but, without them, his sense of the world and his place in it wouldn’t seem right. And anyway, animals weren’t as disagreeable to Toots as most people — and all Aliens.
* * *
Toots had been the first person in Bishop’s Creek to report an Alien sighting. He was laughed at — at first. Over at the barbershop, Rance the barber had almost sliced off Mayor Gracey’s ear when Toots had run in that April morning three months ago announcing what he’d seen.
Nobody laughed when, the following morning, two Aliens walked in for haircuts. It had been challenging to say the least to trim cleanly around their forty or so eye and ear stalks, but Rance prided himself on being a professional.
The Aliens were quiet and had waited their turn. The Dorcas twins didn’t fluster them. Blanche Dorcas yelled at her kids, “Leave them two whatevers alone.” They just sat, minding their own business, eyestalking the Police Gazette or the Sporting News.
The Aliens didn’t settle their tab that day but no matter; every business in Bishop’s Creek extended credit, even to newcomers. They returned to the barbershop the following day, bearing gifts: blankets and beads. Toots’ Grandpa used to tell stories about Grandma Toots who would pay in kind: chickens, eggs or mending, during the Great Depression. Rance accepted the wampum without question.
The Aliens had two items that were really popular with the townsfolk. Air-conditioning blankets, which you could wrap around yourself on a hot summer’s day to stay cool and dry, and the flavor beads. The flavor beads could produce the taste of any food you imagined.
There was one bead each of gold, silver and bronze color, like Olympic medals. You held them under your tongue and imagined peach cobbler and the taste filled your mouth and your belly felt full. It was said they also provided nutrients that a body needed, but Toots refused to put anything Alien in his mouth.
After the Aliens first appeared, Toots had no trouble finding like-minded folks eager to meet and fret over the looming menace. But with the passage of time, fewer people seemed to care about the Alien presence or about the Resistance. Now, only the die-hards or the newly curious bothered to show up.
Toots convened an emergency session. Rance the barber was there, and Wilson; Dave Lennox who owned the air conditioner store stopped by; Mayor Millard Gracey with his wife Grace could always be relied on; even Principal Evans from the Elementary School.
Wilson had mentioned to Principal Evans about the meeting, and Evans declared his intention to come see what all the fuss was about. Evans was one of those people who have a little more education than other folks and feel that that gives them the right to take charge of everything.
Evans immediately set to take charge of the meeting. “Listen now,” he blared, “we’ve had non-residents visiting Bishop’s Creek since right after the war. So these new visitors are from farther away. So what? They seem like an intelligent race. We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss their overtures.”
“What are you suggesting?” asked Grace Gracey.
“No more of these clandestine barn meetings,” Evens answered. “I say we deal with them openly. We could convene in the school library.”
Evans, thought Toots, was always trying to show off that school library. Every year taxes seemed to go up, all for the purpose of fattening the school budget. “I don’t have no kids,” grumbled Toots eying the Principal with open contempt.
Mayor Gracey raised himself off of a hay bale where he’d been perched and stood to address the small assembly. “L... Look here,” he sputtered, “summer visitors are one thing, space Aliens are another kettle of fish altogether.”
“Millard,” said Grace Gracey, “remember your blood pressure.”
The Mayor swabbed his sweaty face with a brightly colored cloth kerchief and continued. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “my folks, generations back, came from Ireland so I’ve got nothing against the immigrant. But these Aliens, are they going to invest in our community, build houses? Put down roots? Or are they just more summer folk going to race their power boats all day on the lake and buy up all the best land, drive up prices and make it difficult for us natives to stay in our homes?”
Toots clanged an old cowbell that hung from a nail on a post. “Settle down now.” All quieted as Toots took the floor. “These aren’t just more summer folk, they’re Space Aliens from outer space. Invaders come here to impose their way of life! For all your fancy education,” he glared at Evans, “you sound like a bunch of damned fools!”
“No need for such strong language,” countered Rance. “People have a right to their own opinions. It’s still America after all.”
“But for how much longer?” rejoined Toots.
“I’m glad you raised that point.” said Evans, “for I have a plan.”
Toots had by this time whipped himself into a patriotic isolationist fervor and was hoping that the others would be infected with it as well. But leveler heads prevailed.
Evans continued, “America, as Mayor Gracey has reminded us, is a nation of immigrants. We’ve got a real opportunity here to add to the national tapestry some new strong threads. Fourth of July is next week. Why don’t we show these space people how welcoming we can be?”
“Rance” — he nodded at the barber — “you’ve had dealings with these folks. Would you mind stopping down at the lake and paying a social call to their spaceship? You can extend an invitation from all the citizens of Bishop’s Creek.”
Rance agreed, and everyone seemed happy an agreement had been reached. Everyone save Toots. As the others filed out into the humid summer night cloaked in their brand new A.C. blankets courtesy of the Aliens, Toots remained to cogitate privately in the company of his animals, mopping his brow with a soaked handkerchief in futile defiance of the prevailing sentiment.
The following morning, Toots stopped in at the barbershop, hoping to persuade Rance over to his own views. The barber was trimming the nose hairs of a customer. “I stopped down early this morning to invite them Alien folks to the big Fourth of July celebration,” he announced as Toots slid into an empty Belmont chair.
“Strange thing though,” he continued, dabbing a nostril nick with styptic pencil, “they seemed to already know all about it. I guess Wilson must have stopped down the lake last night.”
Toots instantly knew what had happened. The Aliens had been reading somebody’s mind, probably that windbag Evans. That man, thought Toots, was so full of himself even the chickens could read his mind.
“So,” he barked at the barber, “will your Alien buddies be joining us on the Fourth?”
“They told me they would attend and would bring a surprise. I told them surprises are all well and good, but a green salad would be appreciated.”
Toots figured the reason Rance was so buddy-buddy with the enemy was ’cause he was the first in town to receive an A.C. blanket and those fancy taste beads. See how well he likes it when them Aliens is feasting on barbequed Barber, Toots jested to himself without an iota of mirth.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Roger Pitcher