It was his favourite day of the year. Groundhogs do not have birthdays but Phil had seen how the people did birthdays and decided this day must be his. People paid attention to him, there were treats, and for a short time he was someone very special indeed. Just for one day, once a year.
For every other day of the year Phil more or less stayed in his habitat. A place made by the people to look like the outside, with the same mud and rain and sky. But if you looked at it closely, if Phil scampered towards the woods, there it was. The fence.
Phil would sometimes lie down, on the dirt of what was essentially a faux forest floor, and look up at the sky. Up there, there was no fence, and the space seemed to open up around him. There was mud underneath and sky above, and there was Phil in the middle, that was all.
Phil was lonely, although he was strictly speaking never entirely alone. Other groundhogs would come and go. The injured and the unsociable, brought in to his habitat but always swiftly removed. At this time of year he wouldn’t see any for months on end, he was never quite sure why.
It didn’t matter much though, thought Phil, there were still others to speak to. And so he tried, with the birds that landed, or the other animals he could sometimes see in their adjacent habitats. But it was the humans he liked most of all. In the weeks before his birthday the humans would always be there. He would see them on and off throughout the year, but not like now. It appeared like the world would open up to him. He was special, he thought, at least for a little while.
When the time came for his birthday he would be put into a box, which he didn’t like, but it was a means to an end, and he did like what preceded and what followed. There would be treats, there would be berries and vegetables he hadn’t seen for months. There would be new sounds, and people. Oh the people! And there was always, always, a crowd.
The crowd would cheer him on and for the rest of the day they would applaud and smile at his appearance. It was always his favourite day, is what he thought to himself that particular day, as he lay looking at the snow falling from the darkening sky above.
He wished he could have this day every day, and for all the days. There would be treats and there would be the outside and there would be the people, and they would all chant his name. They would all be happy to see him. His heart surged as he thought of the moment he was held up to the crowd, when he was special, when he was happy. Then it dropped as he remembered the moment that he was always returned to his box.
Because groundhogs don’t know much about birthdays they don’t really know about birthday wishes. But right then, as the sky darkened to black on this February 2nd Phil wished that he could have all this again. And he fell asleep thinking of all the people and all the outside, sad that it would be a long time before he could see it all again.
The next morning Phil was woken by loud noises and the shuffling sounds of a food bowl. With a great sense of despondence he went out to greet the noises. As his paws hit the frozen ground he noticed that the snow had gone, and as he approached his bowl he was greeted by berries and special vegetables, like the ones he only ever had on his birthday. Not long afterwards a box was brought in, like his birthday box he thought.
Phil spent the car journey not knowing exactly what was happening, and wondering whether he should be scared, or whether this was just like one of the trips that wasn’t his birthday. In which case there would be people, which made him happy. Phil was put into a bigger box, the noises outside were loud. This was exactly like his birthday. Before he had time to calculate what was going on two hands came into the dark space and pulled him out into the light. He was held aloft as he had been before.
It was his birthday! He thought with excitement. He was here all over again. Had another year passed already? Had yesterday not happened? Phil didn’t know what to think, but the crowd were chanting his name, and Phil was thrilled. He was here, and everything was better. When the day was over and he was eventually carted off back to his habitat his mood did not drop as it usually did. He’d had his birthday all over again. Would it be the same tomorrow?
The next day it happened all over again. Another birthday in which Phil ate all he was given and pawed at the humans and revelled in the attention. He was here again. And again. And again. And again. Phil was delighted. Every morning he would be woken with the best kinds of food and he would be cooed over and spoiled. People would talk to him and smile. Phil didn’t know much about people, but he liked the smiling.
As each day passed so Phil discovered something new to enjoy; another person in the crowd, another treat to eat. There were people he would meet after the morning and he realised that the more he pawed at his box the more inclined the people were to take him out, the longer he would stay here with them and not be taken back to his habitat. The depth of the day grew and Phil was happy to live in it forever.
Phil couldn’t have told you how many times he’d lived that day. And, to be honest, he didn’t care. It’s not just that groundhogs don’t think about things in such depth, it just didn’t matter, because he was happy. This was happy, every day. Until, eventually, it wasn’t.
It wasn’t that Phil became unhappy, he just became used to it. At first it was just contentment he felt. Then it was familiarity. And, as we all know, familiarity breeds contempt. So as Phil had found new things to enjoy about the day, he now found new things to annoy him.
The crowd seemed to get louder by the day. The people were rough with him. The food was the same. But that box! The box was the worst thing. It felt small, and he was jammed in; he never liked it. And as time went on so he wriggled and nipped at the people whose job it was to get him into it.
The see-through green mesh of the box appeared especially designed to poke fun at his captivity. Like the wire fencing surrounding his habitat. It was there to fool him into the feeling of freedom, while only ever reminding him of the outside, which was always just out of reach.
One day it occurred to Phil that there might be something else possible, something other than this day. He’d been heaped into his box again, after the festivities, which now appeared to him as loud and crude. But another person had gotten into the seat next to him, someone he didn’t know, but someone he felt he had seen before.
The man’s face was pale and sallow, Phil recognised him from the crowd he saw every day. The man’s greyness had stood out to Phil, but for the same reason Phil had always dismissed him. Phil was important, this man was just a grey figure in a festival of fun. But there was something now in the way this man looked at Phil that made him realise this was something here, and they were in it together.
The man drove them away and as he did so he released Phil from his box. This, Phil took great delight in. He scampered over the seats, looking up through the windows. A rush of energy coursed through Phil’s blood as he revelled in the wild abandon, the excitement, the difference. And then, it all stopped.
Phil awoke, energised and elated at what had just passed. He had broken away. So excited was he that when the people came to collect him he rushed passed them. But not knowing quite where he was going he was quickly cornered and caught. As he was put in his box he grunted and groaned, but still there was something there. Something to be fought for.
The next day Phil attempted to outrun his handlers for a second time. And the next day. And the next. Until one day he managed to run far enough from them that he found the open gate. But then he was caught, again.
The next day, on hearing movement, Phil bolted from his burrow to the open gate. He made it out into the lane before hesitation slowed him down and he was caught by unseen hands. Phil would follow the same route for the next few days, furious and energised, but never quite knowing where to go next.
Each day Phil was caught, again and again. He was never sure how to make it out of the maze of people and cars so he never made it close to the trees beyond. Recognising his failure, he changed up his plan. Each day, after the festivities, and after he was returned to his habitat then he would attempt to double back and escape while his handlers were distracted. But it was even more useless than his morning attempt; they always caught him at the gate.
He considered all the other ways out. Sometimes he would try to escape while at the festival site, but there were always too many hands to catch him. Even if he evaded them, Phil thought, there were too many people and cars and buildings blocking his path to the woods. Someone would always catch him. He even tried digging his way out of the habitat, happily biting people so he would be returned there early. But he could never dig deep enough, and the next day he would have to start all over again.
Phil was stuck. And he was angry. He came to loathe the people, who he now saw as his happy captors. Each day he would squirm and make as much noise as he could just to escape their happy smiles. He was happier back in his habitat. Each night, like that first night, he would lie in the snow covered clearing and look up at the sky.
On this particular night, for the first time, Phil thought about his freedom, really thought about. What did he want? Was it freedom from this day? From these people? Or did he just want to be out there? Among the trees, finding his own food, building his own burrow, and being with others like him?
While he imagined all of this his mind and heart swelled with something he had not felt before, and had only glimpsed while looking up at the sky. It felt something like nothing, but it didn’t make him feel empty at all. He felt no panic, or despair, no feelings of being trapped or controlled. It wasn’t quite happiness but it was something better in a way. If you’d asked Phil to name the feeling he couldn’t have told you what it was, but he could have told you that it felt amazing.
These thoughts and feelings were with Phil the next day when he woke, and were with him still when he was held up to the crowd. He no longer loathed them, no longer wanted to be free of them, free of anything in fact. The hatred and the fear had been replaced by something else. Phil had realised what he wanted, and it was more than this.
When the pick-up truck was leaving town that day it made its scheduled stop after slipping on some snow and veering into the tree line. The people got out and stood just beyond the open car door as they always had. They would be a while, they always were. As they talked Phil looked at them, and then passed them, into the woods beyond. It was then that an idea struck him.
It was a brave but stupid idea. And there was not a second left to reconsider it. Phil would have to think fast and move even faster. As the men walked around the truck Phil pushed at the side of the box. To his amazement it moved, only by an inch, but there it was. Phil pushed and pushed, making little progress. And so, energised by panic, Phil hurled himself against the side of the box.
He was moving now, but it wasn’t far enough, and it wasn’t fast enough. As Phil heard the men approaching he looked towards the woods, and in that moment a great well of sadness opened up within him. And as quickly as it opened so Phil was filled with a deep desire, bigger than the sadness he saw. Phil had an indisputable and primal need, to live.
Phil pushed and pushed with all his weight and mind and rocked the box to the edge of the seat. Then in a tremendous show of stupidity and courage Phil pushed himself and the box out of the car. He braced himself for what would come next, but as he hit the ground the box broke and he was thrown into the soft snow beyond. It took Phil a moment to notice this, and in that same moment the people had heard the box breaking and were running toward him. As they ran for him Phil turned and ran away from them, moving as fast as he could, into the woods.
Phil ran and ran, the people had stopped long ago but he could not. It was almost dark when he finally noticed they had gone for good. The snow was falling thickly around him, and he raised his head to the sky. Like so many nights before he felt the free flowing world around him; a world which, even if it was only for tonight, he was finally a part of.
The next morning Phil awoke. The first thing he noticed was the light. He was outside, not in his burrow, but huddled tightly in a thicket of branches. The second thing he noticed was the snow. There was snow, and he wasn’t in his habitat, and there weren’t any fences, and he was outside! Properly outside! He ran around the trees and sniffed the ground and looked up towards the sky. He was free, and he had never felt more alive.
Phil scampered off to investigate this new world, to find food, and to burrow, and to do all the other things he had risked his safety for. As his heart lifted at a future without fences, back in town a weatherman awoke to find that he had lived into tomorrow. And the two of them set off in their different directions, no longer searching for a future, but enjoying the present that they had made.