Mortal Terror

354px-Parmigianino,_circoncisione,_dettaglio,_coniglietto

Lila was one of seventeen puffballs cometing through the burrow, bouncing off the walls, occasionally landing on one of the two slower, larger puffballs that served as nose-muffs in times of danger. Of course, every moment was a time of danger, as far as the bunnies were concerned. With every foot-pat or duck’s quack from above, with every shadow that swept over their twig-and-leaf trellis, the nervous hopping intensified.

In one quiet moment, Lila asked the mother puffball: “Why is the world so full of terrible things?”

“Things don’t decide whether they are terrible or wonderful, my little niblet,” the mother puffball replied. “It’s only our minds that make up such stories, so that we have something to run from. Otherwise our hearts would stop beating and the shadows would freeze into a permanent night.”

“That’s a frightening thought,” Lila remarked. “Now I’m afraid all of our fears will desert us!”

“Wonderful, dear. If you trust in that mantra, you might survive to adulthood. You’re one of my favorites,” her mother confided.

A shrill cry from above set the rabbits to darting again. Lila darted with extra gusto, trembling at the thought of smashing into a sister or brother and blowing both their skulls open, meanwhile quivering at the notion of being too slow to escape the talons of whatever hungry bird was swooping over the burrow.

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In September, Lila was sent above ground to search for “blueberries” in the underbrush. But she had to bring home the right blue berries, which proved harder than it sounded. The  patch of berries the color of deep-earth marble smelled sharp and nettling, so she averted her eyes, already feeling the cherry-red blood rolling down her chin tuft as if she had ingested a deadly fruit. She turned to the tiny stars on the ends of the low branches of a flowering bush, but they swayed in the wind like a hangman’s noose she’d read about in some book. She skittered deeper into the forest, scanning for glimmers of blue.

The leaves or the sunset brought darkness. The soft lantern-berries clothed in elegant jade foliage made her tongue water, surely a sign of botanical trickery. What was that shine over behind the oak tree? She turned on her heels to flee it. Her impassioned leap landed her directly in a hard wooden box, with a metal lock that clicked on top, blocking out the sun’s last orange light. Unseeable voices boomed foreign sounds. I’ve let my fear desert me, Lila realized with a shiver. And now the shadows will consume my corpse! Perhaps there was hope, for her heart never stopped accelerating. Then there was smooth movement, next bumpy movement, finally stillness.

It grew to be nightfall. Stars invaded the box as it was tipped onto its side. Lila darted out. She immediately tried to dart back in, since the hard, straight world surrounding her bore no semblance to the woods and burrow she knew. A veiny, furless grip clamped around her waist. She froze, only her nose still twitching as if it could fly off her face and find a hiding place in the rafters of the cluttered, flickering studio.

“It’s awfully skittish, but it can be trained,” went the sounds from the thick throat of the man with veiny hands as they tightened around her waist. “I promise you, Mr. Marvello, by Prague next week this roadkill will be appearing and disappearing into your hat at the slightest wink of your eye.”

“Well, let’s hope I mean every wink then,” came another voice, crackly like a sudden rain in the dry season. “I wouldn’t want my props mistaking a meaningless tic for a command, acting out and sending the show off-kilter.”

“Your magic will surely prevent all ill, sir,” went the bellowing voice. With that, hands and papers and sharp black sticks were spearing and sailing from air to table; the grip around Lila’s waist loosened. She seized the instant to soar down onto the smooth cold floor, where she skedaddled toward the nearest morsel of light.

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It was a high-ceilinged tunnel, lit only by what seemed to be contaminated little yellow suns growing out of the wall. A shadow shifted at her 2 o’clock – a long, angled lady boxed into a mess of arms and legs as cigarette smoke blew from the red rose above her chin. “Cute little thing, com’ere,” the shadowy woman lisped, softer than wind. “I’ll take care of you and love you and keep you safe from that rotten magician. You don’t have to be scared of me. Com’ere.” Standing on her hands with her slippers pointing at the ceiling, she blew a smokey kiss Lila’s way.

Lila hopped onto the windowsill and threw herself against the glass. She bounced back into the hallway, right into the cage of the woman’s hands. They held her tightly enough that she could not escape. Screaming let me go didn’t seem to have any effect on the gargantuan creature. Lila squirmed toward the window.

The shadowed lady breathed a sigh, a thick stream of smoke that curled up against the wall. “If that’s really what you want, who am I to deny you?” She stood and unlocked the window, shoving the rickety panes out into the chill air as the smell of broken pavement and lavender grass permeated the hallway. “Be free, little one.”

Lila threw herself over the windowsill and into the dawn. Stripes of sunlight hit her at uneven angles. Heavy boxes roared along the concrete. She dove into the bushes at the side of the road. Sunlight dappled within the branches, not enough to see the tip of her own nose twitching, or even know if it was. So out she jumped again, the back way, and through the gardens and villages and forests she ran, until she reached the heart of the woods full of blue berries where her burrow lay hidden safely under a cover of leaves and twigs. Home. Or was it?

Sounds she hadn’t noticed as a child now swarmed around her ears: the metallurgic-toned song of a nesting bird, the rattle of wind through berry-gravid vines, the singular howl of a faraway fox, the buzzing of the stars against their velvet sky, too excited to fly in one direction or zip in another. Lila wanted to dive right back into the burrow she’d come from, but she stopped. What if her family didn’t live there anymore? What if the mother puffball had replaced Lila with a new favorite? What if there was a new litter of babies who would snark and snuffle at her, the lone failure of their parents’ ancient past?

New light came, blinding. It wasn’t from the moon, but from an automobile.

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Doors swung open. Heavy boots crunched onto the ground. Lila stood paralyzed. The dusty scent of the old burrow beckoned, while from it voices of imaginary hateful parents and new evil siblings pushed her away, closer to the poisonous car and hands wanting to grab her. She could not decide. She was grabbed by the hands.

“Stupid animal,” the deep voice bellowed, too loud for the forest night. “Too scared to help itself. Well, lucky thing you’ve got people with a financial interest in saving your cotton-y tail.”

Before he could say more, Lila bit him. Her teeth punctured his skin and dug deeper and deeper, and she imagined she was sending all the near-deaths she had died and all the flashes of light and hours of pitch darkness that had slowed her heartbeat into his veins, thrusting the redness of berries she’d never let bleed down her hungry cheeks and the whiteness of stars she’d never lain out in the cold to count, all like stones to sink in his blood. He dropped her, cussing. Car door slammed, and the lights and sounds left. It became impossible to distinguish one shadow from another, and Lila should have felt safe, but she was a bunnyrabbit, and they never do, even after death freezes them solid. When the hawks and vultures found her body in the morning, there was nothing left inside to eat.

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Image credits in order of appearance:

By Parmigianino – Parmigianino, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15825207

By Various – Scan from the original work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14764261

By Ludwig Knaus – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36175233

By E3xglobal – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10992948

By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/db/43/29f54926b02ab20e93a66635926f.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0038679.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36629198

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