I reckon I make a pretty package, trussed up in spider webbing like a turkey for the table. Only my heavy boots are poking out the one end, and my long beet-red face out the other. Two-dozen quantlings and more are carrying me above their heads into the undergrowth, and I wouldn’t like that situation any day of the week, but these guys are the world’s worst mail couriers. By the time they’ve bounced me off a passing tree or dropped my corners into swampy puddles for the tenth time, I can honestly say I wouldn’t even hire them to do baggage handling at the airport.
As a gentle reminder that no matter how bad things look, they can always be worse, the spear-happy rat I met at the start has gotten free from his handler and is padding alongside me as I bounce and shuffle along. For the first time I notice that one of his eyes isn’t like the other, being glassy and white, and in that moment, I christen him Milky.
Milky isn’t trusted with carrying duties, probably because when he moves, he’s even less co-ordinated than his brothers and sisters. Still, what he lacks in getting his feet to move in the same direction as one another, he makes up for in good ol’ fashioned enthusiasm. It takes him two steps to cover the same distance as his compadres manage in one, but he trots along gamely, and joins in with the chorus of chittering going on beneath me.
Did I mention the noise? If it ain’t bad enough that it takes these crazy critters every angle except a straight line to travel between two points, they’ve got this rythmic chant going on and they’re picking up speed as they head deeper into the brush. I’m fair hurtling along now, top of my head leading the way and my nose and toes stretching for the sky. It’s another hundred yards along before I realize that the chittering is a shanty, a song like sailors used to help them all keep time as they moved. For a moment, I feel something like grudging respect, and then it disappears along with my stomach as I’m tipped without warning into the darkness.
It’s downhill now, all the way. Scratchy paws are losing me as I’m moving. It feels like I’m being passed from slow runners at the back to faster ones at the front. Though who knows what’ll happen if I gain too much momentum and run out of hands to carry me. Imagine for a moment that you’re on a steep rollercoaster, except for some reason it’s corkscrewing right down into the cold, dark earth and you’re not a hundred percent sure that the safety harness is fitted right.
“Quiiiiccckkkkerrrrr,” a voice hisses. “Quiiicckkkeerrrrr!” Milky, still running alongside, takes this as an invitation to poke me in the ribs with his cane. I yell back at him for what it’s worth, though you’d never know it was a shout. The space beneath the earth has closed right in around me.
“What in hell is your problem? You want me to go quicker, poke them, not me!” The little quantling trembles defiantly, his single white eye like a cloud in a thimble.
Faster, always faster, and then all at once the tide evens out beneath me into a wide cavern punctuated with glowing purple light. Sounds of digging and other general scurrying fill the heavy air, and the shadows of rats and other small creatures flit in and out of the tunnels around. When I finally come to a stop, I’m left at the base of a raised platform where a hunched, quivering bundle is resting. Journey successfully completed, the quantlings take a few steps back.
When nothing happens for a few seconds, I look back at the expectant crowd before me. “What? What do you want me to do?”
The quantling who I’d met at the beginning along with Milky steps out of the crowd and bows reverentially. I dub him Priest, because he looks a bit like one. “Bennn…yoooouu arre innnn the presssennnce of ourr roooyyaaallltttyyyy…ourrr belloovvveedd Prrrinnnceesss Nooodddlless.”
I wait a second, to see if my ears really had heard what I’d thought they’d heard. “Princess…Noodles?”
“Itt wasss the naaaammee writttenn onn tthhee bllaaannkett wee foounndd for herrr.”
“Oh, I see now,” I say, deadpan. So the royal babydaddy had gone searching through the garbage and come up with an instant noodle wrapper to use as a blanket for the new princess. All considered, she’d probably got off lightly with the name she’d chosen.
“Herrr majjessttyyy loovesss huuumannsss, anndd sheee wanntedd a huuumannn name.” There’s a general buzz, and I can sense the tension in the crowd. It’s broken by a piercing squeak that shattered my poor old eardrums. At the same time, the bundle on the platform above me stretches out and begins to moan.
“Where is the human?” says a small, indistinct voice, and I see a depth to the darkness before me that might have been a mouth, and tiny yellow teeth.
Priest squeaks back, and the bundle says, “Think of our reputation. Speak human. I want him to know we can.”
There’s a long expectant silence, before I venture, “I’m here. I can hear you.” As an afterthought, I add, “Your majesty.”
The bundle before me shifts in the space and forms into a bulbous furry body with a distended abdomen. A single paw is clutched across her face and eyes, and I half expect her to say, “Woe is me!”
Instead, Princess Noodles opts for the no-less-dramatic, “Human, I am dying.” At this, the crowd of rats around me becomes highly agitated. I can see them pushing and nudging, stepping on and over one another, unsure what to do. They may not have all spoken human, but their fear is clear to see.
I’ve never been a man much use in a highly charged emotional situation. It’s not my fault, not really. On my father’s deathbed, he’d told me off for leaving work early to come and say my goodbyes.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say carefully.
Princess Noodles twists violently, replacing the paw on her face with another. “It’s okay. I appreciate your presence at this dark time, but I fear your diplomatic mission will come to no happy end. The pain…is so great. I don’t know how long I have left.”
Priest tiptaps up and stands next to my head. “Herrr maajjesssttyyy isss verryyy sicckkk. Wee needdd yoooouu tooo heeeeal herr withh yourrr maggiiicckkss.”
“There is nothing you can do for me,” Princess Noodles asserts bluntly. “It’s all my fault. I should never have eaten the green bacon.”
I have a sudden memory, like Milky has poked my tired brain into action with his makeshift spear. A few weeks back, Pierre had been cleaning out his chest freezer when he’d stumbled upon a rack of pork ribs that his father had been saving for the day of the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup triumph in ’93.
“Jees,” I’d said, when he’d brought it out. It had pretty much fought him every step of the way.
“If this was any greener, the broccoli would be making it their god about now,” he’d replied.
So the Stanley Cup Bacon had found its way into the garbage, and from there, courtesy of a foraging party more prone to curiosity than good judgement, into the digestive tract of the much-loved Princess Noodles. No surprise she was feeling bad. That thing had been in cold storage so long it had remembered how to oink.
Then and there, everything came together. “I can help her,” I say to Priest.
“No one can help me,” Princess Noodles cries out. “I am beyond aid. But surely, it was my great pleasure to finally meet a human before I died.”
Melodrama, thy name is Noodles. “First though, you gotta get me out of this web.”
“Arrreee yooouu ssuurrree yyouu caannnn heellppp?” Priest asks.
“I know a guy. On the surface. Get me back up there and I can do the rest.”
“I willl commeee wiitthhh yooouuu,” Priest says, cutting me loose with a rusty razor blade and leading me back towards the entrance. Milky gives me a baleful one-eyed stare as I walk past him.
As I’m led back up the tunnel, Princess Noodles calls out, “When I die, don’t eat my body. I don’t want the humans to think we’re uncultured.”
Priest has to pretty much drag me back up the slope out of the underground. I could tell he was nervous that I was going to make a run for it. It don’t matter one bit. A bit of fast-talking, Princess Noodles can have her cure, and I can get back to the farm in time to make sure Pierre is okay.
We hadn’t made it ten feet from my tipped-up truck when the undergrowth bursts open to the sound of galloping hooves. It’s that little piaffhomme girl with the thing for Pierre, and she’s travelling at speed. When she sees me, her eyes widen and she calls, “Help me, monsieur!”
Not five seconds later, Pierre comes barreling between the trees, shotgun in his hands. He raises it to his shoulder, points it past me at Rosaline and makes as if to pull the trigger.
“Boy, what in hell is wrong with you?” I might have mentioned, I’m having a day. I pluck the shotgun out of his hands and leave him standing there dumbstruck in the centre of the clearing. Man stares at piafhomme who stares at quantling, and no-one knows which question to ask first.
There’s five seconds of complete silence, broken finally by Milky, who steamrollers his way into the thicket and stops by Pierre’s leg. All eyes turn to him, and he responds with a squeak that is almost a whistle, before thumping Pierre full in the crotch with the blunt end of his spear.
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