At the age of 23, Allen Barillo’s most important accomplishment remains the one he’d made fifteen years ago in Ms. Peterson’s classroom at George Mackey Elementary: his discovery of the ruggamuff.
As part of their lesson on taxonomy, Allen and his classmates were required to conjure up their own contributions to the animal kingdom. The rules were as follows: each student was to make a submission showcasing their animal including a proper scientific name, visual evidence, and other physical characteristics (such as height and weight). For this weighty task, the class is given until the end of the school day — one and a half hours.
After 20 minutes the students begin to show Ms. Peterson their work. She smiles and nods at each, though it’s only after Sally Rogers submits her assignment that the teacher’s eyes really shine and she grants Sally the rare privilege of choosing a polished stone from the small wooden box on her desk. A handful of students catch the quiet exchange but one of these is Pete Lang, who loudly asks what made Sally so special. Ms. Peterson, in her way of challenging her students, assures everybody that the assignment is straightforward, but to perhaps be more creative with this opportunity; she loves cats and dogs as much of the next person but there’s only so much variation that can occur from individual to individual. Most of the students take this information for granted but none of the seven subsequent submissions are quite worthy.
Allen Barillo’s greatest strength is his ability to follow directions. He could color within the lines better and faster than anybody, he did his chores effectively and without complaint, and he always knew better than to challenge authority. His tendencies are not a natural inclination towards order so much as a fervent aversion to conflict. He enjoys praise, hates fights, and lives to see others content. In a world where comfort and familiarity are intertwined, Allen avoids making waves. Such affectations are useful in getting people to like you, and Allen is well-received in all crowds. Unfortunately, such affectations are not useful in being creative, and it’s this particular symptom that causes grief for the young student.
Allen glances at the assignment for the umpteenth time. Everything seems clear and yet so ambiguous. Every time he thinks of a creature he realizes that it’s just a poor derivative of something that already exists. The idea of creating something out of nothing seems impossible but he craves that polished stone, a prize he’s somehow never earned despite his studiousness. There’s another sensation welling up inside, the sensation of one reaching his limits and seeing a gate leading to the greater beyond for the first time. He stands before the gate and realizes that, with some effort, he can push it open.
These feelings in mind, he stretches his imagination to find new sources of inspiration. The background noise of the class gets louder as more of his classmates finish the assignment and chat with one another. 18 minutes before the submission deadline, Allen begins to panic. His eyes frantically scan the room and his brain rummages through his memories hoping for something, anything that could get his pencil moving.
Out of desperation, he draws a circle.
Within the circle he draws two eyes.
And then it comes to him.
Immediately he starts to draw long, smooth strands of fur on his circle, he adds a nose and tiny fanged mouth. It looks like a simple little thing, but then the piece de resistance: Allen draws a box around his circle creature and adds several more boxes next to it, each depicting the circle with different degrees of fur pointing out. Beneath each box is a caption describing the different terrains on which the circle is capable of surviving and the role that it’s fur plays in each.
He imagines how big the circle is, maybe about twice the size of his tiny palm, which places it at about 15 centimeters. Although the circle’s minuscule (practically invisible) appendages grant it some mobility, its light weight and hypersensitive fur allows it to travel at much faster speeds alongside the elements much like a tumbleweed might. For protection its fur hardens and sharpens, much like a porcupine, and thus it belongs to the Erethizon genus. Unlike it’s pointy cousin, the circle is also capable of coating its fur with poison thus granting it further defense. For food, the circle eats whatever plants may come its way.
To complete its name, Allen decides to name the species after his mother, Camilla, and thus the Erethizon Cammilance is born. Riding the liberating way of creativity, where “just because” is a completely reasonable justification, Allen Barillo chooses the common name ruggamuff.
Ms. Peterson accepts the class’s last submission and smiles at Allen, just as she’d done for every other student. She then reads through his assignment and nods at the beaming disciple. “Have a nice weekend sweetie,” the teacher says kindly and bids him adieu.
Later, as he finishes his after-school snack, Allen Barillo, artist without polished stone, continues beaming as he imagines Erethizon Cammilance bounding across the country.