Mark Washburn

From the cruel shadows comes a new Queen Charlotte

Today, we’re going to spill about Charlotte’s dark underground, a royal secret they don’t tell to just anyone.

It’s about this groundhog nonsense.

You know that every Feb. 2, functionaries in various cities trot out their ceremonial groundhogs to have a look around. If it sees its shadow, that means something will happen with the weather. I’m no expert at folklore.

Charlotte’s groundhog is named Queen Charlotte. It lives quietly 364 days a year, then suddenly holds a press conference in February that attracts every TV station in town. People who ache for Charlotte to become a world-class city shake their heads in disgust at this podunk tradition, then quietly lean in to hear what the groundhog has to say.

This has been going on for decades, even though groundhogs live maybe eight years, and that’s only if they watch their calories and don’t smoke.

That’s right. Every few years they carry an old groundhog out, paws up, and slip in a new one. This is done in secret, in the midnight hour, on tiptoe.

This has been one of those years. Queen Charlotte is dead; long live Queen Charlotte.

It’s not as easy as you might think. You can’t just call up PetSmart and order up another groundhog like it’s a pizza. Professional groundhogs, it turns out, are pretty rare.

When the last Queen Charlotte croaked (cancer, age 7ish), authorities began casting around for a successor. One was finally located in Raleigh. It was what people call a “rescue.”

This is another secret: Our groundhogs tend to come from the ranks of paupers. If you go back through the royal lineage, you hit Queen Charlotte of the mid-2000s. She was an orphan discovered under a porch in Statesville.

When found, she was so sickly she couldn’t even walk. She looked up at the homeowner with her poor black orphan eyes, and the next thing she knew she was with a group of animal rehabilitators who specialize in Cinderella stories. A few months later, wham, she’s groundhog queen of Charlotte.

Marvin Bouknight, director of the Charlotte Nature Museum, believes the new Queen Charlotte has similar roots. You don’t get into the royal pipeline by hanging out in a meadow.

Charlotte Nature Museum is the city’s Buckingham Palace of groundhogs where Queen Charlotte goes about her duties, snuffling the royal air and rising up on her haunches to gaze into the eyes of children.

Our last Queen Charlotte, it can now be told, was a rhymes-with-witch. Liked to bite the hand that fed her. Didn’t excel at formalities. Had her dark side.

“A bit of diva, perhaps,” sniffs Bouknight, who believes in keeping up appearances. He won’t say it, but one hears there was not an extended period of mourning.

So now we’ve got a new queen, and here’s the rub: She’s still learning. When groundhogs do their prognostications, there’s this part that the keepers reverently call “The Simba Moment” when someone lifts it high like its the wrassling championship belt or something.

This isn’t happening with this Queen Charlotte. It turns out that The Simba Moment takes a long time to get used to. Our current queen has only been here three months.

So on Monday, there will be a secret confab – sort of like a school board meeting when they fire a superintendent – at which our wee Queen Charlotte will waddle out and see a shadow. Or not. Then she’ll dispatch emissaries to inform the media.

By next year, after Queen Charlotte grows a bit, the February pageant should return to its regular format.

That corny thing may keep us from reaching the threshold of world-class, but so be it. There’s something even better, although we only think about it once a year.

It’s called living in a city that stops to be kind to little orphan groundhogs.

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