The latest competition was inspired by the endeavours of Charles Foster, who, in his fascinating, funny book Being a Beast, recounts his attempts ‘to learn what it is like to shuffle or swoop through a landscape that is mainly olfactory and auditory rather than visual’. As a badger he took up residence in a hole and ate earthworms (they taste of ‘slime and the land’). And as an urban fox he ‘lay in a backyard in Bow, foodless and drinkless, urinating and defecating where I was, waiting for the night and treating as hostile the humans living in terraced houses all round — which wasn’t hard’.
It’s a mighty tall order to enter the cognitive and sensory world of a different species. Foster himself acknowledges that any attempt to shuffle off his human skin entirely was doomed to failure. The best you can do, he says, is to ‘go as close as you can to the frontier and peer over it’.
The task was made even more difficult by the fact that you — presumably — drew the line at spending the night in the garden for research purposes. Bearing that in mind, it was an impressive entry. The best of the bunch are printed below. They earn their authors £30 each and the bonus fiver belongs to D.A. Prince.
I must locate the chestnut I buried three weeks ago. Scent is no clue: a fox has drenched this garden, and lawn fertiliser overwhelms the subtlety of decay. The ceramic pot of winter-flowering pansies, now uprooted across the terrace, yields nothing; six rapid excavations in the lawn produces only worms — and blackbirds have no sense of community beyond the avian. My nails are black with earth. But here’s a pine cone, only part-gnawed: the nuts are hidden but the woody husks are bite-able, tearable until the milky, musty pulp is chewable. Disgust is easy to swallow when this is the only food.
But there’s one activity I’ve postponed, largely through fear — not just of failure but because fatality cannot be ruled out. Yet only by entering fully into the branch-swinging aerial acrobatics, the elegant leaps and midair balletics can I be truly a squirrel. My fate is sealed.
To live as a skunk, I knew, I had to be both foul-smelling and visually distinctive. I wanted predators to recognise me at a distance by sight so they would keep well out of range of my pungent spray. (And I would live in fear of the great horned owl swooping down soundlessly to sink its talons into my flesh before I had time to lift my tail and fire a blast from the stench glands on either side of my anus.) I chose an all-black outfit of hoodie and wool trousers, decorated with a pair of broad, white stripes neck-to-ankle down the back. I sprinkled the fabric with a synthetic thiol, and carried a plastic squeeze bottle of the same rank sulphur-based chemical compound. Of all the skunk’s omnivorous dining habits, it was the capture and consumption of live bees straight from the hive that proved most vexatious.
I have never understood humans, our only enemy on the oceans. There is a certain irony in the description of me as ‘killer whale’. Killer best suits man, with his lust to murder anything bigger and better than himself. My life is one long pelagic peregrination. Left alone, I would possess a cerulean paradise; playing, feeding, travelling and raising my family. Whales have what bipeds don’t have: a telepathic understanding of each other. Our science is not man’s science, but no less wondrous, devised over millennia. We build no clumsy boxes on which to move through the sea; our beauty, our speed, our skills we place proudly on show. We need no disguise for helplessness for helpless we are not. Today my boundless world brings me the invigorating chill of frost on my back and lonely rainbows; tomorrow I shall devour the drip of eternal sunshine.
low-moo herd fliesaplenty hoofed on no-dirt concrete hard-foot no-grass-mud shed echo vacuum zoom our shit out barge-shove to teat pull robot milk us in stall gulp squirt tail lash squirt gulp push shove to herd yard milkflow test to zap germs we all tread on weigh to track us health and food-need all we get sort in pens robot washwashes teats and blowdries em each wash it gets better at it we croon song bye bye mastitis bots are friendlier to udder push shove to mud-grass chomp cud chew chew cud it’s us or houses on land jog-joggers don’t like our shit on pretty white feet they moan no bot to clear mess in roads we go to shoot-bang house dead slump we is low-moo herd fliesaplenty hoofed on no-dirt concrete hard-foot no-grass-mud shed echo
You wouldn’t believe the predation. Who doesn’t pick on us? And the fact is that not all our natural enemies eat us. So it must be some kind of genocidal hatred with the big ones who lay traps to destroy us.
Yes. The traps. The beer trap, for example. Free booze, who can resist it? But there’s so much you overdo it and either drown or pass out on the lawn and wake up as a thrush’s breakfast. But it’s the cool way to go for many, who prefer it to the salt or the cereal that dehydrates you. The feeling is, something will get you sooner or later, so make the most.
The upside? I guess it’s the hermaphroditism. That’s like sex cubed, and something our persecutors will never know. My personal opinion: the bastards are envious. That’s why they use ‘slug’ as an insulting trope among themselves.
There’s a hash tag on Twitter at the moment #RemoveALetterSpoilABook (examples include Loud Atlas; Three Men in a Boa; The Tale of Peter Rabbi). Your next challenge is to remove a letter from a well-known title and submit an extract from the new book (150 words maximum). Please email entries, wherever possible, to firstname.lastname@example.org by midday on 1 June.