The Squirrel Eaters
by Jen Sexton-Riley
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4
The carved wooden gate was locked with an ornate golden mechanism that the pair could not figure out from the outside. Godfrey indicated that Charlotte should stay behind as he made use of an overgrown rabbit tunnel that someone had hollowed out beneath a slightly concave area in the wall. As he pushed through the ivy and weeds that concealed the hole from all but rabbit eyes, he looked around the garden slowly, taking in the lay of the land and assessing the level of danger present.
The garden was enormous. From Godfrey’s point of view, it seemed to go on as far as the eye could see. Lines of sight were obscured not only by the lengthening shadows of trees, but also by bed after raised bed of early lettuces, curly-tendriled bean vines inching up rough pyramid-shaped frames of branches and twine, and a miniature forest of spicy-scented greens springing from halved wooden barrels filled with earth. These last ones smelled intoxicating, and Godfrey caressed a leaf in passing to fill the air with a breath of hot, earthy perfume, his eyes closing momentarily while he inhaled deeply. Radishes? Heaven.
As he opened his eyes, slightly drunk with the mixed scents of so many lovely plants, a movement just beyond a cucumber frame sent him belly-flat to the earth, ears pinned to his back. A sound, too, a weak, mewling note like the blowing of a broken pipe.
Godfrey stayed completely still for a long time before taking a deep breath, arranging his features into as close an approximation of the fierce golden garden wall guardians’ snarls as he could. He began a cautious, inching approach to the source of the sound and motion. As he moved closer, his sensitive ears picked up the sound of shuffling hooves, the cropping of grass by herbivore teeth, and more of the decidedly weak mewling. He began to relax slightly. These must be the Tartary vegetable lambs, and from the sound of them he was fortunate to have Charlotte along to help transport them back through the woods, since they sounded both large and somewhat feeble.
Godfrey rounded the cucumber frame, ready to finally set eyes on these prized creatures, but as he stepped out into their midst, he had but a moment to take in their size and number, for directly in his path was Mr. Bell, down on all fours in his hide vest and pointed cap. His milky-lensed spectacles were inches from Godfrey’s nose in the darkness.
Charlotte jumped when she heard the scream. Then she froze.
“Godfrey? Godfrey! What happened, are you okay? Godfrey, let me in! You were supposed to unlatch the gate and let me in! Godfrey! God—”
The gate unlatched and swung open. Inside, Godfrey stood up on his haunches, panting, catching his breath. He showed her his empty palms: Just hang on a sec. He bent over at the waist, braced his forefeet on his twitching hind leg muscles and leaned there, taking a few deep breaths to compose himself.
“What was it,” Charlotte whispered. “Mr. Bell?”
Godfrey nodded, his face grim.
“Oh no, let’s get out of here! He must have seen you!”
Godfrey shook his head. He seized his own throat in his front paws, rolled his eyes skyward and stuck his tongue out to one side.
“Dead? He’s dead? Oh no! What happened? Godfrey, you didn’t kill him...”
Godfrey raised his eyebrows in surprise, placing his paws on his chest. He shook his head side to side, and hopped back into the depths of the garden, motioning Charlotte to follow. They walked upright and unafraid now, and it took only a minute or two to traverse the distance, past the raised beds and pole pyramids, the radishes with their spicy breath and the cucumbers in their frames.
As they rounded the corner, once again there was Mr. Bell, down on his hands and knees as he had clearly been for quite some time. His limbs and torso were completely encircled in pea vines, covered in pale flowers which reflected the rising moon’s light in a way both delightful and unsettling. His eyes were obscured by the milky white of his spectacles’ lenses, which was a blessing. Near his left hand was a small watering can. Near his right was a spool of green wire and a pair of pliers.
“His soul must have flown the coop while he was out here doing some gardening,” Charlotte said. “Hey, he died like he lived, right? Bossing plants around. No wonder he wasn’t answering Mom’s notes.”
Godfrey only half-heard, because now he was free to take in the reason for this mission. The vegetable lambs of Tartary, Agnus scythicus, now surrounded them, such as they were.
Roughly the size and shape of their mammalian namesakes, the vegetable lambs differed from everyday sheep in several important ways. They were covered in a downy coat of pale, wool-like herbaceous threads shot through with tiny white flowers. They were tethered to the earth by a thick umbilical cord of a deep reddish hue, which disappeared into the soil. Though the cords provided the lambs with much-needed hydration and minerals, they also defined the limits of their movement. Their nourishment was therefore limited to the grass and other vegetation reachable within the circle of motion this botanical ball and chain allowed.
With their caretaker deceased and unable to provide replenishment for their forage within reach after the lambs had eaten the grass down to the roots, about half the herd had withered and perished. The thin bodies lay still in circles of earth eaten completely bare, with the marks of their death throes clearly etched into the soil.
Godfrey looked from the lambs, each easily ten or more times his size, to the grey sock he had brought along to carry them home in. With a roll of his eyes, he flung the sock into the air, where it snagged high above his head on a gooseberry net and fluttered like a small flag.
The lambs that were still living were stumbling round and round their circular prisons, yearning open-mouthed toward the rich, green vegetation just outside their reach. Every so often, one let out a desolate mew which sounded more like air blown over the mouth of a bottle than any sound made by a living throat.
“These guys look terrible. They’re not going to make it back home in this condition, and they are way too big to carry. We’ve got to give them a little pick-me-up,” Charlotte said, reaching into the cucumber frame and tearing out a handful of vines covered with pointed leaves and yellow flowers.
She approached one of the mewling lambs and shook the offering near its dark green, mossy head. The lamb stopped its repetitive circling and turned toward Charlotte, opening its mouth to a much wider gape than the average animal possibly could to reveal a bottom row of square, white teeth and a toothless upper gum of deep green.
In one bite, it collected the entire handful of cucumber vines and flowers and chewed slowly, the lower jaw going round and round as well as up and down, gazing at Charlotte with thickly lashed eyes of deep amber, bisected by horizontal bars of black. As it chewed and swallowed, it seemed almost instantly to straighten up a bit, take more notice of its surroundings, and turn a healthier shade of green.
“They’re weird,” Charlotte said.
“They’re really plants?”
Godfrey shrugged and nodded, pointing to the umbilical stem, which looked like any other large plant growing from the ground except for the fact that it terminated in a large, green, flowery and very hungry sheep.
“I think if we give them all a little snack, we can probably dig up the roots, tie each one’s roots up onto its own back like a backpack with Mr. Bell’s little spool of gardening wire, and just lead them back home. They’d probably follow us anywhere, as long as we keep shaking a handful of food in front of them and give them a little nibble now and then. But...”
Godfrey looked at Charlotte with raise eyebrows. But what?
“What about poor old Mr. Bell? We can’t just leave him here. That isn’t a very fair or fitting end to such a long life of scholarly adventure. He deserves better. He deserves to be remembered.”
* * *
“Did you cook this, Mom?”
The old scarred platter was in its glory, with a massive rack of Tartary vegetable lamb ribs circled upon it like the crown of an enormous queen. Sixteen long, translucent green bones stood tall upon a florid bed of mashed root vegetables, which swirled from deep orange sweet potato to snowy white turnip, golden parsnip, red carrot and blue-purple potato. Within the crown of lamb ribs, an aromatic mountain of crumbled cornbread with spinach, wild mushrooms and rosemary exhaled richly perfumed steam. Her mother’s face shimmered, flushed and smiling, through the delicious atmosphere.
“She sure did, Potato Bug,” said her father. “Straight from the garden. Now let’s have your plate so we can all eat, and then you can get back to your project out in the back yard.”
“Don’t worry, Dad. Godfrey and his family are watching the pot for me,” Charlotte said.
Charlotte’s mother finished serving the veggie lamb, stuffing and vegetables and took a bite.
“Mmm, it is just so tender! I love how the flavor of the veggie lamb blends so well with all the rest of the other vegetables,” she said. “And best of all, no animal had to lose its life for this meal. It just tastes so... wait a minute. Hold on just one minute. Something tastes a little bit familiar. What is this?”
Charlotte’s mother poked at a little slit in the flesh of the Tartary veggie lamb, exposing a small snippet of meat, like a hidden seed slipped under the tender surface. She stabbed the little shred with the end of her knife and held it before her eyes.
“Is this...?” She looked at her husband with wide eyes.
“I just missed that squirrelly taste,” he said, taking the knife from her fingers and popping the nugget of squirrel meat into his mouth, snapping his jaws like a cartoon alligator. “What about you, Inchworm?”
* * *
Godfrey and his family took turns stirring Charlotte’s boiling pot. Herb-filled bandanas tied around their sensitive noses, knotted behind their long ears, masked the unpleasant scent. Slightly upwind, their picnic spread of blackberries, doll mugs of chamomile tea and carrot cake muffins tasted even more delicious next to a merry outdoor fire, as all things do.
As Godfrey handed the stirring stick over at the end of his turn, with the hearty mewling of the transplanted and well-fed Tartary vegetable lambs a distant music from the family’s veggie patch at the bottom of the yard, he picked up the milky-lensed spectacles and pointed hide cap from the pile of odds and ends beside the fire pit. He put them on.
He strutted and took a few comical turns, to the delight of his family. The flames reflected in the pale, opaque lenses danced in front of his round eyes and threw a giant, long-eared, winged shadow against the illuminated woods surrounding the yard. The rabbits’ high-pitched laughter mingled with the sparks and acrid steam and climbed toward the evening sky.
Copyright © 2019 by Jen Sexton-Riley