Once in his travels Woodchuck felt a bit tired and lay down to nap in a town where he knew no one and no one knew him.
To his surprise he was arrested because he found out in this place not to be known by anyone was illegal.
He was put in jail overnight and after being seen by a judge in open court remanded to a facility for the care and punishment of longer term offenders.
Woodchuck was unable to speak in his own defense.
There was no argument he could make to the charge of not being known.
A court-appointed counsel answered the charges for him with a plea of no contest.
Woodchuck could not comprehend the length of his sentence because he didn’t understand time very well.
He began the dreary task of letting the days elapse.
With him was the box that contained his penis as those who know Woodchuck’s story will remember well.
He was allowed to keep it with him in the jail cell for in processing his record it was determined he was entitled to an accommodation that the box and its contents were part of him and to separate them would be considered an overstepping of the authority by which he was held.
Yet Woodchuck soon found that to have the box with him was a mockery.
His penis was free to leave the box that Woodchuck of course never locked and slipped out between the bars to Woodchuck’s dismay.1
When this happened the first time Woodchuck awoke with a panic because he knew what had happened before he had even opened his eyes.
Woodchuck stood upright in his bunk in the manner of the people.
He hit his head hard on the bunk above leaving him lightheaded.
He stood away from the bed and half-fell toward the bars grabbing them to keep from falling on the floor.
Pulling himself to his feet he flexed his arms and felt how solid the bars were.
He looked out in one direction and then the other but saw only concrete floor and other cells whose interiors he could not look into.
He looked back into the room and saw in one corner a hardcover book.
This began Woodchuck reading.
His penis not with him he was able to finish the book quickly.
It was the story of a man an artist who attempted to live for love but the woman with whom he fell in love and also her twin sister with whom he also fell in love were instead dedicated toward politics and so the man directed himself toward politics.
This proved disastrous as the man became hopelessly entangled with the worst political enterprise of his age and ended up deprived both of love of his art and of his self-respect implicated as he was in the murders of countless souls.
In the end he killed himself.
The novel’s tone was largely satirical.
After a couple of days an old Badger came by wheeling a cart from cell to cell stacked with books nearly to his eyes.
Hagghhh hissed the Badger.
He handed Woodchuck a book.
This one was more difficult to follow and it took Woodchuck longer to finish.
It concerned a woman who lived with her husband the director of a large corporation and their son in a region noted as a resort for athletic people.
It was a symbolic novel about the powerlessness of being a woman in a male-dominated world and its depictions were brutal.
For instance in one scene the woman saw her son sniffling and bent over to wipe his nose.
Seeing her bent over the director came up from behind and began to have sex with her.
As her husband fucked her from behind her son began to sodomize her in the mouth.
The narrative didn’t much distinguish between events that were actually taking place actions that may have been taking place in character’s minds and symbolic depictions of power relationships.
After finishing this book Woodchuck slept the people say not out of despair like before nor because he had discovered any type of peace but because he was tired and needed to rest his burning eyes.
He was awoken the next day by the return of his penis sliding between the bars at daybreak fresh from adventures.
The penis having returned Woodchuck was now teased again by the prospect of freedom and he had enough of his confinement.
But there was little he could do with this feeling.
Woodchuck boxed the soft penis and tried again to go back to sleep.
His despair had now returned.
He put his head on the box.
Coming to life after a few hours the penis resumed its dislike of confinement and began to pulse thudding against the box from inside.
Indeed it was against Woodchuck’s own nature to keep him enclosed.
At length Woodchuck fell again into unconsciousness his sleep uneasy and restless.
In the middle of the night Woodchuck woke up with the blanket threadbare and full of holes twisted all around him and himself off the bunk on the cold floor of his cell.
His penis again was gone.
It was dark but his cheek flat against the floor Woodchuck was aware of a presence outside the bars.
It was old Badger and his books.
Again he hissed at Woodchuck.
Badgers Woodchuck knew were not friendly.
Woodchuck was handed another book.
Woodchuck wanted to begin reading but it was still very early morning before dawn.
After various attempts Woodchuck discovered that if he sat in the rear of his cell next to the toilet there was a small amount of light coming in from an overhead vent from one of the prison light towers.
Nestling himself up against the toilet and positioning the book near his eyes Woodchuck found he could read until full morning.
It was appropriate to be reading the book in such a place because it too concerned a man in jail who did everything he could while he was there to read as much as possible.
The books the man read so affected him that he changed his name and pledged himself to new goals in life including the service of a cultish mentor figure.
The man became famous in the service of his mentor but the mentor became jealous of the man’s fame and betrayed him.
A long coda to the main narrative made clear that this betrayal led ultimately to the death of the man most likely at the hands of henchmen who likewise were servants of the mentor.
Badger was now coming more often to Woodchuck’s cell and each time made a horrible sound at Woodchuck while handing him a new book.
Woodchuck read more and more his appetite for books insatiable.
The books all had prefaces and forewords and lists of titles by that author and others and by this means Woodchuck discovered more books to select from Badger’s cart.
There was little else to do in his confinement so Woodchuck consumed dozens.
When his penis returned he didn’t notice it at first until the penis lay itself in the crack of the book before his eyes.
Penis was as usual impatient.
Woodchuck tried to capture it by with a quick movement shutting the leaves of the book but penis jumped away.
Woodchuck lunged at it again but still could not catch his penis.
He tried to ignore it but could not keep from staring at the penis that was his but nevertheless would not stay attached to him that was full of his blood yet somehow something he could not control.
Over and over it nodded at Woodchuck as if telling him who really was master.
Woodchuck tried once again to subdue his penis and again his penis disappeared from the cell.
This remained the pattern of more days than Woodchuck knew how to count.
Days became weeks.
Badger kept visiting but never got any less combative.
Woodchuck lost track of the number of books he read.
Except for the days when he was tormented by his penis he was content and Woodchuck might have remained in this situation even longer had he not one day been visited by Warden a tall and broad grizzly bear who resembled Lyndon Johnson.
Most of the time Warden sat in his den watching the television sets that showed him every part of the prison.
He let himself into the cell without a word.
This reminded Woodchuck that even though he had begun to think of the cell as something of a home he had no rights to prevent others from entering.
Warden carried with him a small stool on which he sat and drew himself up next to Woodchuck.
His bulk loomed over Woodchuck and he spoke with his snout scant inches from Woodchuck’s face.
Sir said Warden in a tone of voice that emptied the word of any ounce of respect Your penis has now had the run of this place since the time you arrived here.
We can’t have that.
We can’t have a prisoner whose penis has the run of the place.
I have seen all that thing has gotten up to through the jailyard and I’m sure I missed the greatest part of it but nevertheless it has had the run of the place.
We must ask you to leave.
Woodchuck did not have any say in the matter.
Warden nodded to the books that were now stacked in piles all around the room.
These books cannot go with you he said.
They are the property of Badger.
Warden took out a handkerchief and wiped it across his forehead.
That damned Badger he said Is another one of the plagues I have to live with day to day in this place.
Cripes we wouldn’t even have a prison without him.
He’s a rich man and a powerful one.
Don’t let his manner fool you.
He’s angry but he doesn’t have to be.
No one can touch him and he comes and goes as he pleases.
Warden looked at the books.
Looks like he’s got his teeth sunk into you pretty good he said to Woodchuck.
He continued This place would be a place that still made a kind of sense if the prisoners stayed prisoners but that Badger is always out to upset the equilibrium even though it’s him that gives us the place to begin with.
That’s bad enough.
But when we get a penis in here that comes and goes as he pleases that has the run of the place and that isn’t to say just among the prisoners either no the run of the place no we can’t have that.
It galls me.
I can tell you it also galls me that I don’t know any more about you than when you first came into my jail.
I try to make it my point to figure out every living soul that comes into my jailhouse.
You have evaded me.
But I don’t care.
That’s just one more way of saying how much I need to send you and your penis packing out that gate never to come back.
Within the hour Woodchuck was standing at the spot at the corner intersection in the town where he had first been arrested a free person holding an empty box.
As he saw others go by others who still did not know him he kept thinking that he saw in each one some resemblance to Badger.
Some turned and hissed at him.
But he was not to see the Badger again nor Warden nor the town nor his penis again until some time after when all that had happened to him just a short time before had begun to assume the aspect of a story one that had happened a long time before to someone other than himself.
1 - Several commentators have noted that Woodchuck seems in this story to lack the ability to shrink himself down to the size of “the people,” i.e., groundhogs, as is seen in “Woodchuck and Hank Williams Zombie,” “Woodchuck and Lemur,” and some other stories. Here, such ability would allow Woodchuck to slip out of the cell as easily as does the penis and give chase. Numerous interpreters have weighed in on this and related issues in the story. It may be that regional variations exist in the abilities Woodchuck is said to possess. It has also been suggested that perhaps Woodchuck forgets about this ability in this particular circumstance, as if “thrown off his game” by his sudden imprisonment. He may also feel a need to see himself punished, even though the story presents the conditions of his imprisonment as being rather arbitrary and unfair. It may be that on a continent where Calvinism was introduced some five centuries ago, the story affirms a Calvinist notion of perpetually deserved punishment. Woodchuck may also wish to be free of his penis, either as a self-punishment or, as still others have suggested, a step toward enlightenment. The bars, in the latter reading, may be seen as a convenient obstruction, and Woodchuck’s unwillingness to avail himself of a diminution in size that would enable him to follow his penis an act of spiritual self-abnegation. It has also been pointed out with particular reference to this tale that Woodchuck is essentially a variable creature in all stories of his exploits, whose abilities mutate and atrophy at turns. Another approach is taken by those who focus on the theme of narrative storytelling itself in this tale, containing as it does oblique references to three different works of twentieth century literature, two novels and an as-told-to biography. (By agreement with the publisher, the identities of these works, though identified in the scholarship, are not herein disclosed, the prospect of guessing these identities being deemed part of whatever pleasures the present volume may be presumed to grant a reader so inclined.) One of the more interesting theories about the references or synopses is that they might be an instance of tampering by a latter day re-teller of a much older tale. That is, if we remove these synopses, which constitute less than one-fifth of the overall story, a coherent narrative remains in place. Arguably, then, since it has been suggested origins of many of these tales may have been as orature, prior to their formalization (or, some say, ossification) as written literature, the synopses may have been added to this text, and conceivably, as one commentator has suggested, any number of versions of the story may have existed over time, oral or literary, containing different narrative synopses as circumstances determined. None of these other texts are extant. Indeed, though none of the conjectured antecedents of the present tale have ever been evidenced, and though the literariness of the present text, as a written text referring to other written texts, in a story themed around bookishness, is undeniable, such earlier versions of this text as may have existed may have borne little resemblance to the text that comes down to us. But even leaving aside fanciful surmises, the tale’s intertextuality invites speculation. Is a metacommentary of some sort intended, where we are asked to identify the summarized works to obtain the lenses provided by these extratextual but as-it-were network-linked plots, to comprehend in full the present text? Perhaps the long commentary on this issue makes too much of what are simply plot exigencies for the Prison-Teller, as the narrator of this particular Woodchuck story has come to be known. But what then would such a decision tell us about the Prison-Teller, if we can assume such a figure, or if we can call this figure a single figure instead of, if we accept many-author theories, a palimpsest of repeated acts of telling?
These questions represent many of the suggestions advanced by interpreters, and this is not an exhaustive list. Elsewhere in this volume, although other tales have interpretive halos just as elaborate, footnotes have been suppressed in the interests of making a less cumbersome text.
TED PELTON is the author of four books, including most recently the novella Bartleby, the Sportscaster. He is also the founder and publisher of Starcherone Books. “Woodchuck in Prison” is from The Trickster Woodchuck, a work-in-progress of linked stories, seven of which have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail since 2007.