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Nids Love Big Eyes
All creatures weird and wonderful, And they’re talking about us
By Claire Berry
Chapter One Once upon a time there was a beautiful valley where all the animals lived together in perfect peace and harmony. Well, almost. Since eating was the most important activity, virtually the only activity, killings did happen, blood was spilled. Nature red in tooth and hoof, the
animals would nod when someone’s daughter was despatched by a hungry leopard. That was the way things were and everyone accepted that if you were in the wrong place at the right time for a hungry aardvark, it was your tough luck. If one of your kids had his head bitten off by a newt, you simply went out and made a few more and that was that. When the lion had eaten a lifetime’s worth of zebra, he in turn was eaten by the ants, who were eaten by the aardvark and so on and so forth. There were rules of course, everyone made a contribution and nobody took more than his fair share, and because they were blessed to live in the most beautiful valley in the very centre of the universe, the animals of Giggletree counted themselves the most fortunate of beasts and lived each day as though it were their last. Which for many of them, it was. It was a good life for the animals, the sun came up and the moon went down, plants burst out and babies were born. It became hot and rained every day and after a while it became cold and dry and there was no food. Some of the animals died, others ate things they’d never previously thought of. Then at last delicate green shoots burst forth, followed by the babies, and round and round it went in an endless reassuring loop that could be counted on never to change. Occasionally there was something unusual like snow, and
the time the giraffe was struck by lighting, but mostly, life went on very much as normal, whatever that was. Then the Nids arrived. In the beginning, there weren’t many of them. The animals laughed, some even felt sorry for them. They had no fur to keep them warm, except a tiny patch on the head. Some were a sensible mahogany colour suited to the scorching sun, while others were pale and pink. useless at defending themselves. They were absolutely
They had no hide,fur or carapace and
worse than that, no claws to speak of although some of the females had talons with berry-red tips. Their bones were pliable and chewy and they
tasted a bit like chicken. Strangest of all, their teeth were hidden inside their mouths, and from time to time they would bare them at each other and not even fight. They were delicate and hapless and they succumbed to the
mosquitoes without a fight. All the animals agreed that the Nids weren’t real animals although they resembled the monkeys to an extraordinary degree. The monkeys were
anxious to retain their reputation and refused to believe they were even part of the same genus, although all the evidence was there, two legs, head looking forward, arms dangling. “You’re all related, “said Uncle Lemon decisively in an attempt to put to end to a squabble between the bush babies and gibbons that threatened to turn ugly. “Bush babies are prosimians, which means you’re primates, but not Nids. Gibbons are technically hominids of the lesser variety and you
baboons, I’m afraid to say are definitely hominids. You’re all related, look at your thumbs!”
“We’re not Nids,” the baboons insisted, sitting on their hands. Some of the animals were curious, friendly, hungry, foolhardy, they looked through the windows of the Nid’s shelters. Lured by exotic smells they nosed their way through the doors. When they got too close, a banga
sounded, loud enough to send an owl spinning into orbit. A while later, they would fall over with a sigh, tongues dangling. The Nids took their bodies and cut them open, tore off the skin and hung it up to dry. Sometimes they used the skin to cover their own soft, defenceless hides or used them as floor coverings for their homes. Sometimes they killed things and didn’t even eat them, and the body of someone’s mother was buzzed for days by vultures and flies, until the ants carried it away and only bones were left. It was barbaric, and nobody knew why it was happening, but everybody hoped it would soon be over, that things would go back to normal. Whatever that was. Not all of the animals remembered the way things “were”, some had only been born an hour or a day ago, but there was a general feeling that things were better in the past and even better in the very distant past and that the best times of all were when the world began. “Opposable thumbs,” Uncle Lemon said. “That’s our problem. Our thumbs are fantastic for stripping the soft leaves off a branch or emptying a tasty pumpkin, but not much use for anything else.” Who knew that thumbs would make such a difference? that things would never be the same again? XXX Who knew
From the depths of the desert where gemsbok trudged across searing sand, a spring bubbled up from a long dry riverbed and trickled feebly through a sandblasted landscape of camel thorn and euphorbia, butter tree, and butternut. The trickle of water met a fellow trickle and over the miles the thousand trickles became a river that meandered and dawdled and dallied until the ground began its long slow slope towards the sea, picking up speed, swirling and foaming and boiling over boulders and rocks. Up and over it went, eddying into a gorge ringed with corkwood and jackalberry, twittering with butterflies, cackling with loeries and heaving with lichens and orchids. The gentle green landscape of love grass and milkwood calmed the river and with one last flirtation of a waterfall, it flowed into a basin, which thousands of animal feet had stamped deep and wide over the years. From this monstrous bath dish, it trickled out into the savannah, a thousand trickles ribboning the horizon. One day, Uncle Lemon reclined on a branch in his favourite fever tree, sunning himself, feeling the warmth seep through his chromatophones, stirring up his melanophores, melting his bones like honey from a hive. It was a day as perfect as it was possible to be, the sun glowed and there was just enough of a breeze across the river to cool his belly, which was comfortably distended by the juicy grasshopper he’d just finished. He felt slightly guilty about eating the whole thing, he’d meant to take just a bite and leave the rest for later, but it was such a lovely day with the dappled light on the leaves, the flurry of white butterflies and heaving of insects on the mossy forest floor. The whole universe vibrated with thrumming, buzzing life.
Suddenly he realised the thrumming was not the universe at all, but something else, the quivering quaking, clanking of a monstrous vibrating machine, rumbling over the rocks and crashing through trees. A massive something darted through the trees, moving faster than any living creature could imagine, a creature the size of an elephant, with no trunk, or legs or even ears for that matte. Apart from the noise, there was the smell, even at a distance it make the nose sting. A flock of weavers rose like a cloud from
their vast nest as the creature roared past the Big Baobab, sending springbok skittering giddily into the bushes. It seemed to be heading along the river to the waterhole where a few drowsy wildebeest raised their heads, beards dripping. The creature slowed before the steep slope of the basin and
shuddered to a stop with a venomous hiss. An arm swung out, and the strangest pink ape-like thing climbed out and jumped to the ground. Uncle Lemon rubbed his eyes, perhaps he should not have eaten the grasshopper after snacking on termites all morning. He blinked hard, he was surely seeing things. There had never been Nids in the valley, one had heard the stories of course, mostly wild rumour and innuendo, but here they were climbing out of their horrible machine and standing around, making noises to each other, baring their teeth and not even fighting. One of the Nids, a very round, well-fed Nid, made a loud Nid noise and they began to scurry around like ants before a storm, zithering this way and that, fetching poles and planks from the creature, carrying them with their opposable thumbs and dropping them on the ground underneath a huge syringa tree. Uncle Lemon feared for the Nids if they dared to touch that tree, it wasn’t just any old syringa, it was The Syringa, the biggest syringa for miles
around. It was Ingwe the leopard’s favourite tree, her home, her castle. She was away in the Blue Mountains, hunting for donkeys, and had said she would be gone for some time, which could mean anything from ten sunupdowns to a whole summer. She always came back, Ingwe was indestructible. The Nids were obviously not too bright, they seemed inordinately interested in the tree, they touched it, looked up into its branches. One of them picked up a branch of some sort that began a tremendous buzzing noise that jangled the nerves. The Nid held the instrument against one of the
branches, and it fell to the ground as thought by some strange magic. Uncle Lemon lurched into action. His eyes, like everything about him, weren’t what they were and he hoped fervently that he really was seeing things. He shimmied down the tree, which in chameleon terms meant two steps forward, one step back, hand over hand, limbs creaking, vacillating over every stilted step. The fastest he could go was a short scurry on flat ground and it annoyed him that while the mind could soar like an eagle, the body could do little but inch past the tortoise, who was also on his way to see what the noise was all about. And not only was the mind yoked to the body, but
instinct trumped urgency, he paused to snap up a juicy fly, before hauling himself painstakingly onto the Big Rock. Kitiki, the meerkat, was already there with her little brother clinging to her legs. The waterhole was deserted, animals huddled in the bushes and watched as the Nid sliced through the tree like a hornbill through a banana. The branches tumbled to the ground with a sickening crash, letting in a stream of sunlight that made the crocodiles blink. Nobody knew what to think. “I can’t look”, Kitiki said, putting her hands over her eyes.
“I don’t want to be here when Ingwe gets back,” said Kitiki. “That tree’s been in her family for generations. Someone needs to tell her, someone has to go and find her, prepare her gently, you know. It’s such a shock to lose your home like that.” She hoped Uncle Lemon would ask for a volunteer so that she could go on her big adventure, the one she was so anxious to experience before it was too late. She’d heard all about the Blue Mountains, they were full of Nids in bright clothes sliding over very cold ice with long shoes tied to their feet, going nowhere in particular. According to Ingwe, they climbed up the highest peak, slid down and climbed up again, slid down and climbed up again, all day long, up and down going nowhere. Mighty strange, the animals thought, but they had long since given up trying to figure out what the Nids with their extraordinary thumbs were up to. Marilyn appeared from the shadows like a phantom. mother, I’ll find her.” “Nobody has to go,” Uncle Lemon insisted, “she always comes back, nobody has to go.” Marilyn pretended not to hear, and as he watched her spotty rump slink into the bushes he wondered what use it was to be the Leader when nobody listened, and saying something twice was no use at all. Since none of the animals had a sensible Plan B at hand, the most they could do was closely monitor any other décor changes the Nids might have in mind. Days went by, and still Ingwe did not return. The animals were kept awake day and night with the banging and hammering of the Nids and the “She’s my
infernal buzzing of the tree slicer. Their noxious elephant went up and down the hills, fetching sticks to build their shelter. It wasn’t any ordinary shelter like the monkeys would build, it was bigger than anything they had ever seen, with a platform all the way around and a long walkway of wood that led to another platform which stretched out, oh horrors over the watering hole, where the animals went to mingle and chat, and for some of the more sneaky ones, snatch a meal. The noise and lack of sleep made the animals snappish and irritable. The nocturnals foraged bleary-eyed during the heat of the day and were picked off like plums by the cheetah. The bush babies woke up ten times a day, taking off expectantly through the trees before they realised the sun was still up. It played havoc with the digestion, and worse than that was the arrival of a number of new animals to the territory, refugees displaced by the Nids activities. The Eastern lions were forced to move into Big Willie’s territory and a vicious fight was as sure at nuts were delicious. Nobody was in the mood for the usual levity and jollity, and with no opposable thumbs and in some cases no thumbs at all, the animals were powerless to do anything but watch and wait. One day, Jane, decided to lighten things up and have a little fun with the Nids. She was once was a pet in a Nid house, she’d eaten Nid food and been dressed in Nid skins by small Nid children before she made herself so objectionable they’d dumped her on the side of the road. Jane was an
invaluable fount of wisdom on Nid related oddities. Some of the things she said were so outlandish, so impossible to reconcile with logic and reason that
the animals listened politely, their heads reeling. She’d thought up most of their names and was universally considered an expert on all of Nid. She didn’t seem the least bit frightened of them, she swung languidly from tree to tree right at the edge of where the Nids were banging and hammering, and as she reached the last of the trees, pretended to lose her grip and she scrambled and somersaulted through the branches before landing on her feet in front of them with a flourish. To the surprise of the animals watching, the Nids didn’t pick up the banga sticks and blast a red flower in her chest. They put their hands on their hips and moved their
shoulders around, baring their teeth, without fighting. Jane made the most of it, swinging up and down on the platform, pulling faces and making rude noises with parts of her body. Astonishingly, the Nids did nothing but bare their teeth and not fight. One of them held a small black box to his face, which made the clicking sound of a cricket. Someone threw a banana at her, she caught it expertly and scuttled into the bushes to eat it in private. Her antics succeeded in restoring some of the humour in the valley but, on balance, they were not happy, not happy at all. Uncle Lemon was
continually pressed to hold gatherings for some special interest group or the other, all complaining bitterly. “They can see my babies bathing,” griped the hippo. “All our privacy is gone.” “I have to go all the way around the acacia trees to get to my cousin Fred’s place,” Handbag the rhino grumbled. “My bunions have been
particularly troublesome and this Nid home is right in the middle of my
favourite shortcut. The other path is full of pebbles and my shins are full of cuts and scratches, not to mention the flies.” “You can mention flies,” said Uncle Lemon, flicking his tongue. It was almost time to eat, there was a glut of midges and unsuspecting baby flies would be trying their wings in a minute or two. If he did not move fast, he’d miss out on the bounty. “I really think I had better go and look for Ingwe and Marilyn,” said Kitike in a small concerned voice. “Don’t you have kittens to look after?” Uncle Lemon said, and it gave him a pang when she dropped her head meekly and walked despondently away. He sighed, it seemed that there was always one lone individual who had to defy her species, break out of the chains of her genus. He didn’t know why it was like that, but he knew they didn’t last that long. Standing out from the herd was not a useful survival strategy in the owl eat mouse world in which they lived. The monkeys were despatched to spy on the Nids, who seemed to find the antics of their relatives adorable. They returned each day with outlandish stories that could barely be believed. The other animals decided enhancing a story for dramatic effect was a monkey. “They hold this up to their faces and drink what’s inside,” Jane explained, turning over an object she’d purloined with her opposable thumbs. She put the object on the ground, and the animals gathered around to examine it. It was hard on the outside, but inside was something like water. She picked up a rock and smacked it against the object and it shattered into
pieces, spilling a liquid onto the ground that stung the eyes, and smelled of fermented apples. “The Nids do fight, we’ve seen them” said one of the monkeys, his eyes stretched to their whites by what he’d seen, “But they don’t bare their teeth and put on much of a display, they’re sneaky that way. “After they’ve been fighting, they cuddle together and slap each other on the back, and then they howl. Then they fall over and in the morning, they wake up very slowly and howl again.” There was only one Nid who looked as though she might be female, who seemed to be the mate of the small round Nid. Perhaps that was why they howled like that and fought with one another, the animals mused. Nid behaviour was both baffling and entertaining. They set sticks on fire, put them in their mouths, and seemed quite happy like that. They were very fond of water and washed themselves all over every single day in waterholes they built inside their houses. They grew no food and never
seemed to forage but their giant machines brought them an endless supply of fruits, some of which the animals had never seen before. They tossed these out at the monkeys, and soon the inevitable happened. around that titbits were to be had, and the invasion began. An old aunt arrived with her son, and his cousin and brother and soon there were so many arriving daily to entertain the Nids with cute antics and partake of the bounty, that the platform became perilously crowded. After a while the Nids seemed to tire of the game and instead of throwing out treats, began to throw rocks. The monkeys quickly learned what to do and threw the rocks back at the Nids, and soon once again, the dreadful banga noise was The word went
heard across the valley and that was the end of the monkey’s spy activities. Also the end of the old aunt, but at least some of the Nids had the grace to eat her. Pisi, the hyena swore that they made rain come out of the grass. She was adamant that, while doing important investigative spy work on the container outside the Nid’s house, she had seen with her own two eyes real actual rain coming upwards out of the grass. It didn’t seem possible, even for the Nids, who seemed to make excellent use of their opposable thumbs. One morning, Todi the bush baby, rooting under a cushion bush to feed the cravings of the wrigglings she had in her belly that would soon be endlessly hungry babies, she heard a sound like an antelope being strangled. It was Ingwe, the tall speckled queen of the forest stepped gingerly from the shadows on aching paws. One of her ears was ripped into tatters and her tail had a strange kink in it. Her head hung low as she stumbled towards the Big Rock, putting one weary paw and then another onto the ledge and heaving herself up. “She had a fight with a Big Willie,” said Marilyn coming up beside Todi. “Showed him who’s king of the beasts, that’s my mom.” “Hey,” said the mom, staring at the sky where her tree used to be, panting heavily, her powerful shoulders heaving. “What the …, my tree, who took my tree?” She leapt around and faced the animals narrowing her eyes menacingly. “Where’s my tree, if someone’s taken it I want it back, right this instant.”
“Oh Ingwe,” Kitiki said in a tiny voice, “we wanted to warn you, the Nids came and cut it down.” “My tree?” Ingwe roared, “What Nids? This is a Nid-free zone, how did Nids get in here and cut down my tree and put up that grotesque display? Now I’m cross, now I’m furious, now I’m really really mad.” She leapt from the rock and began to walk along the path that skirted the water hole and led to the dip where the water was shallow enough for a crossing to the other side with minimal wetting of feet. “No, no,” Kitiki cried, running alongside her. “They’ll catch you, and ... you’ll be a coat.” “A pair of shoes,” a passing crocodile remarked with a shiver. “Come back, let’s talk about it, “Uncle Lemon said, hopping behind, but Ingwe would not listen, she paused briefly to investigate an intriguing scent on a wild mango tree and continued along the path as if she was in no hurry at all. It had been a long journey and she’d been longing to sit in her tree with its perfect view of the waterhole, up above the other animals. Call the lion the king of the beasts, she scoffed, she was empress supreme when she sat in her tree. The blood pounded in her brain at the thought that her beautiful tree was now gone. One of the Nids saw her coming and froze, the hammering stopped and an eerie silence echoed over the valley. The Nids stood motionless, paralysed; even the frogs stopped in mid-croak. Ingwe paused to nibble on a flea on her ankle and continued her saunter up the path.
Ingwe strolled up to the Nids who stood rigid with fear. She bunched up the muscles in her neck, took a breath from the very depths of her lungs and gave a spine-chilling growl. Fine hairs stood up on necks all over the valley. “Who’s in charge here,” she roared, “I want to speak to the person who’s responsible for this … this vandalism. Without a by your leave, you people have cut down my tree and I want it back, you hear me, exactly where it was right now.” She stepped relentlessly forward and the Nids shrunk back, each trying to manoeuvre himself behind the other. It was too easy, she thought, they did nothing but stand there rooted to the earth, staring at her with their round strange eyes. Not one of them tried to break away and run for it so that the game could commence. They just stared as though that alone would strike fear in the heart of the empress supreme. They offered no challenge at all, and to be honest, she didn’t think they looked particularly tasty, but having made her stand, she had to carry through no matter what. Cluck the guinea fowl in a vain attempt to distract them leapt into the air and ran across the veld, bouncing through the glass clucking and bouncing and hopping from one leg to the other. “Me, me, here, here, catch me,” she said, leaping and flapping, “I’m delicious, tender and tasty. You hang me in a tree for a few days, with
marinade, nothing too pungent, rosemary and kooboo berry leaves. Catch me. She’s stringy and tough, she runs around all day. Me, me, catch me.”
A loud banga echoed across the valley, sending the springbok scudding into the bushes. A thrill of terror ran through the animals, especially those who had never heard the sound before. Ingwe leapt back, her claws scrambling in the dust, her feet twisted beneath her. She tried to leap forward, but a bloom of blood now dashed the front of her chest. She stretched out her neck, gave an agonised cry, then her tail swung and graceful arc and she lay herself gently on the ground. “Oh no,” Todi said, covering her belly with her hands, feeling the little kicks and twitches of her soon-to-be offspring. “Mom!” Marilyn cried, rushing forward, but Uncle Lemon stepped in her way, lifting a long green finger. “Marilyn, listen to me, we don’t need another death. This is nature red in tooth and hoof, we can’t confront them directly.” One of the Nids nudged Ingwe’s prone body with his foot. He crouched down next to her, and pulled up her lip to show the perilous fangs. Another picked up her kinked tail and they dragged her into their shelter. Before long her lovely glossy spotted coat hung dripping from a tree. After Ingwe’s death, a strange ennui settled over the animals. Life carried on as almost normal, but there was a simmering anxiety that would not go away. Everyone was too depressed to come up with a Plan B. “Stick your head in the sand,” was the ostrich’s advice, “works for us.” XXX One day, the Nids filed out of their structure, climbed into their elephant, it rumbled up the hill and an eerie silence descended on the valley. It never came back.
At first the animals were suspicious.
Why would the Nid build a
splendid structure and not live in it? It made no sense. They resisted the impulse to take a closer look at the Nid house and drank from the water hole with an anxious eye up on the platform. The tension eased slowly, some of the bonhomie returned, but it was too good to last and everyone knew it. Next to the Nid structure was a piece of wood with Nid lettering on it. Towel, who was the only animal who could read, circled it and squinted at the letters. “Giggletree Lodge,” he said. “Giggletree Lodge,” asked Uncle Lemon, “what does it mean?” “Giggletree plus Lodge,” said Towel, who didn’t know what it meant either. XXX Pisi the hyena was about to take a stroll around the Nid’s deserted structure where an enticing smell of delicious Nid debris wafted across the river, when she heard a familiar vibration. Down the hill came one of the Nid’s infernal machines, although this one was less an elephant than a giant caterpillar. It roared past the Baobab Tree, belching black fumes into the weaver’s nest and came to a screeching halt in front of the Nid structure. Pisi realised with horror that not only were the Nids back, but they had brought others, lots of others, a line of Nids streamed out of the caterpillar. They looked like the usual Nids except they all had black hair and each one carried a little black box against his chest, which he held to his face, and the clicking sound it made seemed to be a source of great satisfaction to them, because they faced each other with these boxes held up to their eyes, and clicked,
they opened their mouths wide showing tiny teeth, and clicked, they made gurgling sounds and slapped each other on the arm or back and clicked again. After a few minutes of this, they filed into the Nid shelter, disappearing from sight. “Well that’s just great,” grumbled Pisi, “more Nids, just what we need. Even if we pick them off one by one, there seems to be an endless supply where they came from.” “Unless you’ve got a plan B, young lady, there’s nothing to do but sit and wait”, Xammi the lion snarled. Pisi rounded on him, jaws snapping. “You big bad lion you, king of the beasts,” she spat, “why don’t you do something. Go and eat one of them for instance, but no, you get your
lionesses to do all the work so you don’t mess up your mane.” “Oh right, when there’s the risk of losing a major limb, it’s we boys that have to go out there while you chickens park on your fat bums at home.” “Chickens?” Pisi shrieked. “Alright you two,” said Uncle Lemon, “there will be no eating of Nids.” The sudden Nid influx was a worry and nerves were drawn taut as the skin of a gecko after a post rainstorm bug buffet. In the late afternoon, as the sun dipped over the horizon unleashing streaks of purple, gold and pink, the Nids filed out of the structure along the walkway and onto the platform that stretched out over the waterhole. They wore body skins of flowery colours and they gabbled at each other, waving their arms and baring their teeth.
Handbag decided at that moment to saunter down to the water for a drink. Apart from her bunions, she’d had a mouthful too many fermented custard berries, and her head was pounding in a low thrum. She picked her way delicately down the hill, her bulk swaying from side to side. “Ow, ow, sharp thorn,” she muttered peering myopically through the bush. Something strange happened to the Nids when she came into sight. They leapt to their feet with excited cries, flung the black boxes against their eyes and clicked like the crickets at the annual dung beetle ball match. ”Oh relax,” said Handbag looking up to see what the commotion was all about, “it’s just me having a drink.” She was pleased that the Nids had noticed her extraordinary beauty, sadly a little depleted now, but still quite magnificent for her age. She turned her photogenic side towards where they were standing, and a great ooh sounded. She turned to the other side, which quite frankly she did think of as her best profile, it put her magnificent curving horn on full display. clicking from the Nids was positively desperate. A group of blesbok clustered at the water hole, and despite their attractive markings, and delicate curving horns, the Nids didn’t even look at them. One of the warthogs slipped into the water and rolled over onto her back with her legs sticking adorably into the air, but the Nids didn’t look at her either. Suddenly there was another outbreak of excitement amongst the Nids. Crunchy, one of the elephants appeared and they turned away from Handbag The
and began clicking at Crunchy. He filled his trunk and poured a stream of cool water onto his back, waving his ears and closing his eyes in bliss. After a few minutes of elephant excitement, the Nids calmed down, their excited cries were muted. They turned as one to watch something in the grass, a large buffalo nosed his way through the trees, his horns crashing away the branches in his path. It was Yatsi and he paused for a moment to shake his monstrous head from side to side, which set up another round of excitement amongst the Nids. A red-billed oxpecker perched on Yatsi’s neck and drilled his beak into the thick skin. “You’re one of the Big Five,” he said. “Is that some sort of club?’ Yatsi asked. “They’re the animals the Nids really like, I heard it from Jane. Out of all the millions of animals, you’re in the top five.” “I see,” said Yatsi, delighted that at last his unique qualities were being appreciated. Their interest in the hippos was desultory at best, the zebras barely registered a flurry of clicks and the crocodiles were completely ignored. Then along came Ingwe’s lovely daughter Marilyn, slipping out of her tree and slithering down the rocks towards the water, her dazzling skin rippling with each step. The Nids made the sound of a low moan and the clicking began. “Big Five?” Xammi the lion said, tossing his tawny mane. “I’ll give them Big Five.” He strolled up to the Big Rock and heaved himself up. He could see himself reflected in the water and he had to admit he cut a fine figure. His
ears were a little bitten around the edges, and his nose was, well, large. He had to admit he’d put on a few pounds, that his waistline sagged, but he did think the extra bulk added a certain gravitas to his bearing. He was
undoubtedly what he was, the king of the beasts and worthy, yes worthy of the adulation of even these pathetic pink creatures. He loosened his neck, stretched his back legs, and bunched up the muscles so that they rippled to rigid, threatening attention. He threw his black-tipped mane out of his eyes, drew a deep breath and roared a mighty magnificent lion roar that frightened the snakes right out of their skins and sent every creature in a two mile radius skittering into the undergrowth. The Nids forgot Handbag, they forgot the elephant, they forgot the buffalo and the bird, and even Ingwe’s lovely daughter. The king of the
beasts roared and the sound shook the trees, the stones, the rocks and the composure of the giraffe, who pitched forward into the water on her nose. “Lordy,” said Uncle Lemon, watching him preen and pose. “This is not good. Not good at all.” XXX It got worse. It was all about the big five as far as the Nids were concerned, they barely glanced at the jackals, completely ignored the springbok, despite their charming leaping and bouncing, and didn’t even raise their heads when the aardvark came bustling out of her hole with her cherubic baby clinging to her back. It was a poor state of affairs to say the least. Xammi had his nose so far up in the air he was constantly tripping over the gerbils.
“Watch where you’re going klutzy,” they cried as he came running along with his mane streaming out behind him. “Out of my way, peons,” he said contemptuously. “You’re not even in the top five thousand.” The elephants roped their kids into the show, little Macauley was herded into the water and sponged off, whether he needed it or not. The zebras seethed with resentment at all the attention the rhinos were getting. ”We’re also odd-toed ungulates but you don’t see the Nids falling over themselves to click their boxes at us”, they snapped. One day, Pisi was walking along the path to the waterhole, keeping an eye out for any hooves or ears or other Xammi leftovers when she came to a strange structure blocking the road. It was a boom of some sort, and next to it was an officious little newt. “Stop,” the newt said, “where are you going?” “Where am I going?” Pisi said, barely able to suppress a giggle that bubbled up through her lips. “You’re asking me, Pisi, queen of the hyena where I am going?” “That’s right. This is a restricted area between sunrise and sunset. You’re not allowed.” She thought about biting his head off, it wouldn’t be difficult, but she’d done it once, eaten one of them and they really did taste like chicken, but with millions of little bones, she’d been picking them out of her teeth for weeks. “A restricted area, therefore some come in and others not,” she scoffed.
“Exactly,” said the newt. “We can’t have all these non-big-five riff raff passing through the big five zone, dropping orange peels and making the place look untidy. You’re getting in the way.” “I see,” Pisi said. “And how to you suppose I am supposed to get a drink then.” “You have to go back the way you came until the path forks. Take a left at the neem tree, follow the path between the sneezewoods and if you meet any of your relatives or other Non-Big Fives, tell them not to try and sneak past, I’m taking names.” “That’s really funny,” Pisi said with a malicious smirk, and she lunged for the newt, jaws snapping. She caught his tail, but it came off in her mouth and the rest of him scurried up a slippery rock, and into a crevasse. “You’re not allowed in there,” he squeaked, “It’s a restricted VIP area. It’s the regulations, it’s compulsory.” “I, Pisi, queen of the hyena do not accept Nid notions of what is beautiful and what is not worthy of their regard. We all live here, whether we’ve got big moist eyes and a cute fur coat. Now excuse me, I’m going to have a drink.” She stepped delicately over his carefully constructed barrier and continued down the road. When he was sure she was gone, the newt
slithered down the rock and as he returned to his post, he saw his boom disappearing into the forest in the jaws of an otter. It got worse. Yatsi became so insufferable the oxpecker refused to peck his ticks.
“See if I care,” Yatsi said, tossing his horns, but late at night the animals saw him in the caterpillar bushes, frantically scratching his inaccessible itches. The elephant churned up the water so such a degree with photogenic trunk action that some of the animals moved upstream, which put pressure on those upstream to move even further upstream. The impala found hippos shuffling around their doorstep, making noise all night while they were trying to sleep. “You’re just jealous,” Handbag told the aardvark, when they complained that the stamping and posing was compacting the ground and making it difficult for them to burrow. “You’re just jealous,” said Xammi when Kitiki pointed out that the huge creature with their many windows in which the Nids had arrived, had been joined by another one and another one, and that the few visitors had turned into a crowd, jostling each other for space on the platform and spilling onto the grass that sloped down to the water hole. Nobody was getting much sleep. Something had to be done. “It’s time we had a meeting,” said Uncle Lemon. “Meeting,” said the impala to the hares. “Meeting,” said the termites to the jackal. It had been a long time since there’d been a meeting. When the Nids had first arrived and the first banga was heard in the valley, there’d been a meeting. It had not gone well, Uncle Lemon recalled. The lions tried to boss everyone around. The herbivores didn’t come because the lions were there, and the butterfly bats boycotted because they were in a dispute with the
lizards over a piece of prime territory. The elephants had become all huffy over some insignificant slight and started pulling down trees, and the meeting had degenerated into chaotic shouting and threats. When nobody was
looking, the honey badger swallowed the termite queen. At this, the ants marched angrily back to their nest, decrying the lack of discipline. Everybody knew that this meeting was important, that things in the valley had changed and that they had to adapt or perish. If they were lucky and if they came up with a decent strategy, the might fight back. The meeting was held at the water hole after the coppery sun had slid into the desert and the mosquitoes had driven the Nids into their shelter. As a precaution, everybody acted natural so that if anybody was watching, all they would see would be thirsty animals slurping water between the weeping willows and green hair trees. Uncle Lemon sat on the highest spot on the big rock, a spot that befit his role as leader of the animals. Nobody remembered how he came to be leader, if leader was the right word. He was not even close to being the biggest animal there. He was small and green, except when he was black, or a dullish brown, and for his species he was relatively ancient, but his authority was absolute, everybody listened to him, even if they didn’t exactly obey. “Order order,” he said, pleased at the excellent turn out, the critical nature of the proceedings had been effectively communicated down the line. “Thanks for coming everybody, we all know why we’re here. The Nids are taking over our valley, if there’s one thing we can do, it’s to stand together and come up with a plan for getting rid of them.” “It’s a crisis,” said the hippos, “they watch us bathing and everything.”
“They’re not looking at you,” Xammi sniffed, shaking his mane out of his eyes. “We’ve got to drink the muddy water downstream,” moaned the jackals, who were at seven thousand something on the list, apparently.. “You’re just jealous, honey,” Handbag smirked. “What about the rats?” the rats said. “What about the rats?” Uncle Lemon sighed. “Vermin, that’s what they call us. They don’t even know us; look how clean our hands are. We do nothing but clean ourselves all day long. How can they call us dirty?” “They call us ugly,” the warthogs chortled, “Imagine that?” “We’re tasty,” the antelope said. “They sauté us with onions.” “Order, order,” Uncle Lemon said. It was happening all over again, everyone with a petty gripe, bickering about status and rank and perception. Who cared about pecking order when they were facing the greatest crisis of their lives. “We have a common enemy,” said Uncle Lemon, “let’s have a bit of discipline. You, you with the nose, put down that beetle and listen. And you, smelly one, stop that thing you do with your leg.” “I can’t help it,” the polecat whimpered. “Stop looking at my kids like that,” the mongoose said to the eagle. “I haven’t done anything” the eagle replied innocently, although he was drooling onto his chest feathers, “just admiring your lovely succulent children.”
“I told you all to eat before the meeting,” Uncle Lemon snapped. “This is not the time for base, animal appetites. How are we going to get rid of these crowds, these infernal Nids?” “We need to separate them and pick them off one by one,” said Dingding the cheetah, “they don’t seem to run very fast.” “An ambush,” the baboons said, banging their chests to be heard above the hubbub. “We lure them into the bushes and twist their heads off.” “I can run into their house and poke them in the leg,” said the warthog helpfully. “We can’t risk a direct attack, those banga sticks are dangerous” Uncle Lemon said. “We have to be more devious and subversive. We need a something with bite. We need to make it inconvenient for the Nids to be here, or at least unpleasant or boring.” “They put nets over their beds,” the mosquitos whined, “we haven’t had a decent meal in weeks”. “We’ll just eat their house up,” the termites said. “In fact, we’ve made a start already.” “They’re here to see the big five,” cackled the hadedah. “If they don’t see the big five, they’ll go away and everything will go back to normal.” The animals fell silent. “That’s it! You clever bird, you,” Uncle Lemon cried. “The big five must hide.” “You’re just jealous, honey” said Handbag. yourself, you’re positively green”. “Take a good look at
“Oops,” said the eagle, hunching his shoulders guiltily, between his lips was the end of a furry tail, a furry baby mongoose tail. “Sorry, ma’am,” he mumbled. “Slip of the …ah, tongue.” With a shriek of rage, the mother mongoose threw herself at the eagle, fangs flashing, claws ripping, feathers drifting off in all directions. “Now stop that,” Uncle Lemon said. Nobody was listening. Xammi grinned lasciviously at Pajama, who
took off running as fast as she could and in all the excitement, the porcupine shot a quiver of quills at the bat eared fox, which hit the oribi in the rump. “Ow, ow, why are you picking on me?” she cried, taking off into the night. Uncle Lemon sighed. It never worked, trying to bring them all together. That was the problem, there was no solidarity, no sacrifice for the good of the whole. It was every jackal, rodent and pigeon for himself. The meeting reassembled after a fashion following much argument, status display, mock charges and bouncing around by the springbok. The animals looked accusingly at the big five, who shifted uncomfortably. “I must admit I’m getting a little sick of those silly things around me all the time,” said Marilyn, “I mean, you don’t want them to see you when you’re having a bad spot day, it’s a strain.” “The kids want their own mini waterholes,” the elephants complained, “it’s getting a bit much.” “Well, alright, “said Handbag, “I still maintain it’s jealousy, but I’m getting a little fed up with them too, how do you propose that we, um, larger animals hide when we see a Nid?”
“Good question,” Uncle Lemon said, thinking hard. “Anyone got an idea?” “It’s easy,” said the baboons, “turn around and show them your bum.” The baboons turned around and showed off their shiny, cherry-red bums to the hilarity of the rest of the animals. Handbag batted her eyelashes. “It’s alright for them, but my bum isn’t really my best feature, I do have my pride, you know.” “That’ll be the signal,” said Uncle Lemon, “when I shout “show bums”, everybody turns and shows their bum to the Nids. Have you got it?” They had it and what’s more, it sounded as thought it might be fun too. It was a bold plan, but just audacious enough to stand a chance. It was against their natural instinct when cornered to turn their back on an aggressor, but it was becoming clear that the Nids weren’t really animals, or if they were, had removed themselves so far from the other animals, there was no instinct left. All they could do was adopt devious Nid thinking and hope for the best The plan secured, the diurnal animals went to bed and the nocturnal animals went foraging with a lightness of spirit they hadn’t felt for some time. XXX The next day, as the sun peeped shyly over the horizon streaking the sky in swirls of pink and peony, the animals took up their positions at the watering hole. The non-big-five animals were thrilled to be able to drink
wherever they wanted and they frolicked and skittered with the joy at the unaccustomed surprise. The mood was so infectious that Uncle Lemon
worried they might not be able to keep straight faces.
Towel hovered over the Nid’s house. It didn’t look that big from where he was, a speck surrounded by wilderness. He counted himself lucky he could see things from many angles, it made it easier to fathom the big picture, a talent that had saved his life many times. All the other animals were rooted to the ground, trapped while he aloft in the crisp blue morning was quite certain there was no better place in the world to be. He tilted a wing and began a long steady swoop towards the grassy roof of the structure and as he hovered overhead, he saw the Nids filing out, one by one, walking in their funny walk. He swooped over them, and one of the Nids looked up. He could not resist twirling to show off before diving towards the water, skimming up a mouthful, and soaring up into the limitness sky, the sign that Uncle Lemon, sitting on the Big Rock, was waiting for. “OK, everybody,” said Uncle Lemon, “they’re coming, we wait until we hear the first click then on three. “ They waited, tension mounting, the hyenas couldn’t stop laughing, and since they were non-big-five animals, Uncle Lemon moved them further up hill and put the zebras on the other side to round out the tableau. The Nids milled aimlessly around the platform, baring their teeth at each other, yammering, spitting, putting burning sticks in their mouths and blowing out streams of smoke. Handbag, ever the drama queen, sauntered down to the water until her toes squelched in the mud and took a long, slow drink. The Nids turned to watch her, one of them pointed, they all turned to look, black boxes were raised, a click was heard. “One, “ said Uncle Lemon.
The animals waited, the Nids clicked. “What’s after one,” Uncle Lemon whispered to Kitiki. “Two four,” Kitiki said. “Two Four go,” said Uncle Lemon. The animals stopped whatever they were doing, drinking, scratching their fleas or regurgitating food for their children. They turned their faces away from the Nids, and all the Nids could see from the platform were furry, stripy, wrinkled and saggy bottoms. The Nids looked at each other, scratched their heads, gabbled a bit, the black boxes dangled silently around their necks. One of the Nids shuffled across to the other side of the platform, and they all shuffled after him. The animals shuffled in the opposite direction. The Nids shuffled back to the other side of the platform, but all they could or ever would see were bottoms. After a while, the small round Nid with the shiny head, came out and saw what was going on. The Nids began to shout loudly at him, complaining and waving their arms. The round Nid put his hands on his hips and looked at the animals “Now see here you,” he shouted, “turn around.” He picked up a stone and threw it in the general direction of the wildebeest, but they didn’t even twitch. Although they were dying to cavort away and laugh, all the animals kept to their roles, except for Xammi. He had never to his knowledge agreed to hide or show his bum. He climbed on a rock and posed, his magnificent mane falling over his shoulders. A flurry of clicking came from the Nids.
Thwack! A large rock plunked into the water next to where Xammi preened. “Who threw that,” he roared, brushing droplets off his glossy coat. “Get back into line and show your bum,” the baboons growled, showing fearsome curving teeth. “You’re just jealous,” Xammi hissed, but he looked from the Nids sitting high on their platform to the animals who knew where he liked to snooze in the hot afternoons and pragmatically turned and showed his elegant rump to the puzzled watchers. Some of the animals enjoyed the game so much, they began to make rude noises with the lower parts of their bodies, but Uncle Lemon put a stop to that. “Let’s not behave like Nids please,” he said firmly. XXX After many days of turning the other cheek, the morning came when they saw the Nids carrying their belongings out of the house and putting them in the caterpillars. In and out they went with their innumerable bags and boxes. The caterpillars started their earth shattering noise and a cheer went up when they began to move, following each other up the hill, past the Big Baobab and the camelthorn with the hovering weavers, past the marula trees until they were out of sight. It wasn’t over yet. New Nids arrived, but the animals knew it was important to keep up the pressure. If they weren’t hiding in the trees or under the water, they were showing their bums to the Nids on the platform. The small round Nid brought in smaller Nid machines, about the size of a medium
hippo, that were able to drive through the bush and over rocks, but they made so much noise, the animals could hear them for miles and quietly disappear into the undergrowth. The click of the black boxes was heard less and less, and before long, there were no more caterpillars, no more Nids in bright colours. Only two Nids remained, the short round pink Nid and his short round pink female, and they began to shout at each other and throw things. One day the small round Nid climbed into his small elephant machine and instead of turning around and going up the road as he usually did, he travelled along the edge of the watering hole, to where the animals who had already drank their fill stood, ruminating. They heard the dreadful noise, and froze, looking, waiting. Suddenly the creature burst out at them, and send them chargine down the slope towards the water hole. The animals in front of them were pushed into the deeper water, and there was a screaming melee of animals coming and going, until some of them managed to make it to the bank and scramble out of the way. The Nid machine circled around and came to a juddering halt. The Nid poked his round head through a hole in the side of the creature, and in his hand was the banga stick of the animal’s nightmares. He held it to his
shoulder and fired and down went a wildebeest calf, banga, and Pajama’s cousin kicked and screamed. The wildebeest fled back into the water and decided to stay there huddling for protection against the hippo that sunk in the muddy water to their eyeballs. The Nid and his machine roared off after a group of antelope who scattered into the hills. It jounced over a boulder, crashing through branches and leapt into the air so that its four round feet
were off the ground. The animals wondered if it would fly like a bird, in which case the Nids were far cleverer than they looked, but it bounced back to earth with a crash like any other creature and as it did so, the crust of ground that covered an intricate mole burrow system gave way from the weight and the it fell into a gigantic hole, turning onto side like a tortoise in a high wind. The execrable noise sputtered and died. The animals heard a groan, a creak as the arm of the creature opened, and the head of the small round Nid appeared. He looked around, blinking. Marilyn stood at the edge of the toad trees waiting her chance. She sidled as far forward as she dared, flattened herself against the ground, inching forward until she ran out of cover and sprinted as fast as she could up to the Nid machine, flattening herself against it. The Nid tried to climb out of the wreck holding the banga stick in front of him. Marilyn could see the back of his shiny head, pink ears sticking out and a circle of sparse hair. In a bound, she curled her arm around his throat. She could feel the beating pulsing veins in his head and neck, smell the stink of fear. She knew and he knew that with a swipe she could cut his head right off. “Don’t make a move,” she growled into his shell-like ear. The Nid’s eyes bulged so much, they looked about to pop right out of his head. “Did you say something?” he whispered, trying to turn his head, but Marilyn increased the pressure on his neck until he gagged. His pink face turned a livid red, and a nauseating sheen of sweat made him slippery in her grasp. “Don’t eat him,” Uncle Lemon cried.
“Aw, just a nibble,” said Marilyn, licking his neck and spitting the taste out. The Nid’s throat made a strangled shriek. “Are animals talking?” he spluttered. animals talk?” Marilyn smiled enigmatically and with a swipe from her paw, extracted him from the machine like a tortoise from its shell. He flopped onto the “What is this? Am I hearing
ground like a dying fish. Marilyn snatched up the banga stick in her jaws and flung it to Crunchy who caught it with his trunk and smashed it against a tree. Within seconds, the monkeys had swarmed all over the Nids machine, crawling inside to emerge with strange treats, some of which didn’t look especially edible. The other animals formed a circle around the Nid and
looked at him closely. Liquid seemed to be coming out of his eyes and he panted as though he’d been running. A pungent smell rose from his skin and he shook and blubbered, and covered his eyes with both of his pink hands. He uncovered them and covered them again as though he were hoping it would all disappear. The animals were dumbfounded. “Well, what are we going to do with him?” said Marilyn, positioning herself within leaping distance of the trembling Nid. “Are you animals speaking?” the Nid cried. “Am I going completely crazy or what is this?” “We always speak,” said Uncle Lemon. “You’re a chameleon,” the Nid cried, “chameleons don’t speak.”
“On the contrary, my species has a long tradition of eloquence. Who do you think taught you Nids to speak, you didn’t think it up by yourselves you know.” “This isn’t happening,” the Nid said, shaking his head. “I’m in a dream, it’s that cheap whisky, too much television, maybe something I ate. Maybe I’m asleep? That’s it, it’s a dream, I’m going to wake up in a few minutes and laugh. It’s stress, there’s no business, no visitors.” “Well sir,” said Uncle Lemon patiently, “if you look around you, it most certainly is happening, you are here and so are we, and some of us wouldn’t mind a little snack, if you know what I mean. The question is what are we going to do with you?” “You’re not going to eat me, I own you,” the Nid said, throwing back his shoulders and pushing out his chest. “I paid for this whole valley and
everything in it, and that means you. All of you. Every last ant.” “You own us?” the ants said, barely able to suppress their giggles. This started the monkeys off and once the hyena started, it became a free for all. Marilyn circled the puffed up creature, bunched up her muscles and leapt, knocking him onto his back, she lay on him with her full crushing weight, her spotted muzzle inches from his streaming face. “You smell funny but you’ve got lots of meat on you, I’m going to hoist you up in my tree and live off you for a few days.” The Nid had turned from red to a very disturbing white and he struggled to breathe with the huge weight of Marilyn, who was chunkier than
she looked. She got up, but not without breathing into his face to show she mean’t business. The Nid’s mouth went rubbery, “In that case, if someone will be kind enough to point me the way home, I’d be glad to …” “Not so fast,” said Marilyn, rising to her feet and stretching her toes. “Your people killed my mom.” “You’ve kept us awake for weeks,” said the hippos moving menacingly forward. “You called us ugly,” said the warthogs, horns bristling. “You banga’d my cousin,” Pajama cried. The Nid turned this way and that, but all he could see was wave upon wave of angry talking creatures and a chorus of complainants. “He’s leaking water,” chortled Handbag, “how revolting.” “It’s a dream, please let me wake up,” the Nid begged, and his legs seemed to give way. He fell to his knees, with his hands held tightly together. “Oh that’s pathetic,” said Marilyn. appetite.” “Please don’t kill me,” the Nid cried, running his hand over the dome of his head. “I won’t say anything, I mean about the talking and stuff. Nobody would believe me anyway. I’ll keep it quiet, please just let me go. ” “We’d like to think you’re learned your lesson,” said Uncle Lemon. “I have,” said the Nid, nodding his head like a parrot. “I really have. I’ll just pack up and leave, if that’s alright with you. I mean, my business is ruined already and now I’ve got animals that talk.” “Promise you won’t come back?” said Kitiki. “Now, I’ve completely lost my
“Promise,” said the Nid. “And if you do?” said Xammi, licking his lips, “I’ll have your liver with a little wild onion.” “I’ll rip out your heart, mince it into little pieces and not even eat it,” said Pisi, snapping her jaws. “I’ll just be moving along then,” the Nid said, and as he sidled away, he bared his teeth. The animals gasped and instinctively bared their own teeth, bristling for a fight. The Nid quickly closed his mouth and backed away slowly. “Wait a minute,” said Marilyn. “Before you go, let’s have those skins you use to cover yourselves, they may belong to our relatives.” The Nid put a hand against his chest. “They aren’t skins, they’re polyester, they are made in a factory.” The animals looked at each other, but nobody knew what polyester was, or a factory for that matter. Marilyn was implacable. “I don’t care where they come from hand them over” The Nid hesitated, but Marilyn fitted her jaws to his leg, and he quickly took off the skins that covered him until all he had was one last piece of white fabric which he clung to with shaking hands. “You can keep those,” said Marilyn with a contemptuous flip of her paw. The Nid’s body was pink all over and globular, vaguely hippo-like in appearance, its flesh-folds soft and defenceless. They weren’t half as scary without their tools. He sidled towards the road, and the animals let him go.
Although some of them were quite hungry from all the activity, they knew that eating the Nid would bring bad fortune onto their heads and besides it was obvious they weren’t really animals, although they had some uncannily animal-like behaviours. As he ran, he stopped to look behind him, like a klipspringer did and which is how they became everyone’s favourite easy meal. XXX The next day, so early in the morning the birds weren’t even chirping, the small round Nid and his small round female hurriedly carried their belongings out of the house and put them inside their machine, and made their way for the last time up the road. At the entrance, they stopped, the Nid got out and next to the sign that said Giggletree plus Lodge, he put up another sign. He got back into his creature and continued up the road past the Big Baobab, past the marula trees and the weavers settled down into the tree with a weary sigh, hoping it would be the last time they were so rudely awoken. Towel, swooped up and squinted at the sign. “For sale,” he said. “What does that mean?” asked Uncle Lemon. “For plus sale,” Towel said, shrugging. “It means exactly that, and nothing else.” “It doesn’t matter what it means, the Nids are gone,” Kitiki cried, “they’ve gone forever, and they’re never coming back.” For plus sale, it worried Uncle Lemon, there was something ominous about it although he didn’t understand what it meant. He brushed it to the back of his mind. The sun shone in an iridescent sky and the grasshoppers
were so plentiful he could reach right out and snatch one without moving more than one or two muscles. He did just that, and as he bit its head off, and as he crunched it between his jaws, he thought how wonderful it was to be alive, to be a chameleon sitting on a tree in the most beautiful valley in the world, and how glad he was that things had finally gone back to normal. Whatever that was.
Chapter Two One afternoon as the sun bathed the forest in a shimmering somnolent haze, Maki the bush baby woke up and found he couldn’t move. There was nothing wrong with his body, but his sister’s head pinned one hand to the floor of the nest, the other one was trapped under Auntie Bertha, the cousins were sprawled out over his stomach and Aunt Margaret’s daughter snored against his leg. The twins were under mom, and dad’s arm curled around Uncle
Abner’s foot. It was the usual midday lovepile, and while he usually enjoyed the closeness, the warmth of the leaf lined sanctuary in the fork of a bladder nut tree, lately he’d been feeling restless, a vague rumble of dissatisfaction started somewhere in his belly and moved down his now numb legs. His feet itched, the calloused soles magnetized by something he couldn’t fathom. He rubbed them together more than was strictly healthy for a bushbaby, and sometimes he thought he heard someone in the distance echoing the sound. He wasn’t a baby any more; soon he would be sleeping in a nest he would make himself, fighting for his place in the chain between leopard and midge. No more playing the fool, wrestling, pouncing, tail-pulling and funny walks. No more stretching and yawning and lolling in bed watching the sun go down, no time for scratching and stroking and brushing each other up for an evening of exciting grasshopper hunting. Life would be a non-stop round of eating, smearing scent charms on trees, and keeping away from teeth and sharp claws. He couldn’t wait. On the other hand, being part of a crowd offered such benefits, comfort in numbers, early warning systems, lookouts, spies. When he left the nest for
the last time, he would travel alone, a scuttling snack for eagles and snakes. And yet it was a small price to pay for glorious giddy freedom. Or was it? He’d been pondering this question for some time, whether it was possible to be safe and free at the same time, whether one could completely eliminate all risk and still live a life worth living. He’d tried to talk to old Abner about it, on the basis that he was grizzled and ancient and had seen a lot of life. “You’ve got to understand, kid, it’s no good hanging around the house trying to cling to the past, trying to be safe. If you have to make a choice between freedom and security, well what do you want, a cage?” A cage! It was a Nid word that resonated with evil and foreboding. Although few of the animals had ever seen one, mothers used the threat of a cage as the most extreme of last-ditch punishments for unruly pups. “If you don’t eat your ant larvae this instant, I’m going to find a cage to put you in,” Maki’s own mother had said on more than a few occasions. There were various descriptions of what a cage was, but the majority of animals were still baffled. All they knew was that a cage was the worst thing in the world to end up in, except being turned into a hat. “Anyway, kid,” Old Abner continued, “you can always be a vagabond like me, best of both worlds. I come and go as I like, I’ve got you and your mom and all the rest of you for company when I want, but I can set out into the blue yonder when my fancy takes me. Sure I haven’t passed on any of my genes the way everyone else does, but hey there’s though little critters in the bush without me adding another few.” It sounded reasonable, and while one part of him longed to fly out to The Yonder he’d heard so much about, the rest of him was rooted to the nest,
the shackles of the loved ones, the sinuous threads of familial duty. Paralysis had set in. An animal alone was a sad thing, but wasn’t that freedom taken to its conclusion? No constraints. His sister was right, he spent too much time thinking about things that weren’t important. He seemed to be driven by some foolhardy itch that no amount of foot-rubbing could soothe. A spark of sun flashed through the canopy of trees, the dazzle made him dizzy. It was too early to be up and about, but he couldn’t keep still. He gingerly uncurled dad’s arm from Auntie Bertha’s foot so he could reach around and push Jeannie’s head gently to one side, taking care not to put his toes in Uncle Abner’s ears. With a bit of cunning maneuvering, he slid under the cousins and free at last, crept to the edge of the nest and looked down the trees to the forest floor, which seethed with creatures going about their business. At that moment, a grasshopper with bad timing flew past, and Maki snatched it out of the air, stared in disbelief at his good luck, and bit its head off before it could slip away. As he munched, his eye was caught by the Nids’ now-empty nest. It would be sturdy in a high wind and cozy and warm inside. It had been many sunup-downs, and nobody had seen any Nids, vines crept stealthily towards the abandoned shelter. There was always a chance the Nids might return one day, but since most of the animals couldn’t think more than a sun or two forward or a moon or three back, it was less of an immediate worry than finding a juicy tidbit for lunch. bachelor nest. Before he set off he rubbed his cheek on a willow branch, and smeared chest smell on a nearby rock so the others wouldn’t worry when they woke up and found him gone. He caught a whiff of some delicious, juicy, chewy gun, Not to mention an ideal
oozing out of a nearby acacia tree and his tummy set up an irresistible rumble. He leapt onto the lowest branch and scampered up the tree, He
scooping a nugget of gum on his way and stuffing it into his cheek.
wadded an extra blob of the gum in his other cheek and as he swung himself up into the canopy, he swooped and glided and chewed, hurling himself from branch to branch, playing his favourite game of flinging himself into the air and grabbing the next branch at the last split second. As he leapt and hurtled through the trees, consumed in anticipation, he closed his eyes with the bliss of the moment and sailed out where the next tree should have been, but wasn’t. For seconds he had the glorius feeling of flying out into space until gravity intervened and he landed in a sickle bush with a crash bang splinter. This at least prevented him from rolling down the hill and into the river. Pain, Pain, he groaned, as he got up and looked around to see if anyone had seen him bruised and battered, with twigs in his vanity. He ran his teeth through the fur on his chest and neatened up his face with his feet. He peeped through the branches and could immediately see a potential safety problem. Once over the river, there were no trees, not even one, all the way to the Nid shelter. There was a long expanse of the short very green grass the Nids liked, and a bush or two where he might huddle, but the coverage was inadequate to say the least. He would have to make a run for it or at least a vigorous hop. Swing was his thing, swooping and gliding between the trees. Hopping was for emergencies only. The ground sloped sharply down to where the river was narrow enough to jump in two or three mighty hops. He kept an eye on the sky, an
adolescent bushbaby out in the middle of the day would be a hard miss for a
one-eyed eagle, or a cheetah with a limp. He clambered up the embankment on the other side, it was steep and he had to balance on his tail so much it began to feel quite raw. A cluster of mayflies rose up and buzzed his nose, triggered a sneeze, and his plan to effortlessly bound to the top ended in a in an undignified scrambling and clutching at weeds. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it, something circling about his head, the long slow confident sweep of a raptor, licking his beak and limbering up his talons. The circling became faster, Maki felt dizzy, he could hear his heart banging away in his ears. So much for freedom if you end up as eagle chew. He heard the crack of a twig, and every hair on his body stood to attention, but it was only a duck with a line of miniatures waddling towards the water hole for a swim. He looked up for the eagle but it was gone, a puffy cloud drifted over the sun. He looked again and now it was plummeting, at dizzying speed straight for the bush where he was huddling. Maki’s cry strangled in the back of his throat. There was nothing to do but roll up his ears, put up his fists and squeeze his eyes closed. There was an almighty flapping of wings, and
shattering of twigs, Maki felt the breath of his wing on his cheek, and then the short shriek of a mouse as the bird lifted himself into the air. The cries of the mouse grew softer as it was spirited away. Maki let out a long slow lucky breath and tried to calm his trembling limbs. He was starting to regret the impulse that drove him from the warmth of the nest into this foolhardy adventure. He wished he were home, safe cuddling with the others. But then again, he couldn’t just stay huddled in the reeds for the rest of his life, adventure was in his blood, he was a bushbaby
not a crybaby. It was onward and forward, there was no going back. He took a deep breath and leapt out of the bush, hopping as fast as was anatomically possible over the prickly grass. He wondered if it was true what Jane had said that the Nids made rain come out of the grass. He zigged and zagged to confuse anything watching, trying not to look up at the sky. He heard a rustle and turned in mid-hop, tripped on a rock and rolled the rest of the way into the bush. A shower of berries rained onto his head. The Nid’s shelter was enormous up close, the walls were hard and rough to the touch, totally unsuitable for chewing. Some parts of it were
wood, but it would take too long to munch through, even if he could find a few woodpeckers to help at such short notice. He heard a noise and this time he was sure it really was a noise, one ear turned forward, the other backwards, but all he heard were hippo babies wallowing and the hadedah’s maniacal call. Just then, his tail was grabbed, he leapt around, it was Jane. “You’re much too tense,” she grinned. shriveled fruit, “Custard apples, try one.” “I almost jumped out of my skin,” Maki cried. He was embarrassed to be so grateful to see a face that wasn’t trying to kill him. “What’s a little boy like you doing out here. Planning on getting into the Nid’s house, huh, huh? I saw you looking at it, wanting to get inside are you?” “Just thought I’d look around,” said Maki, trying to look casual. Jane was a notorious gossip; he didn’t want Uncle Lemon finding out about his expedition, never mind his mom. “I’m just curious that’s all. By the way, how does one, you know, get inside?” She held out a handful of
“Come with me,” said Jane, and she scampered around the side of the structure. Maki hopped behind her, keeping an eye peeled for slow moving objects in the sky. Jane stopped and pointed at a wall of the Nid’s shelter. This side of the shelter looked different, it was made of squares set into the hard walls of the structure that glimmered when you looked at them at a certain angle, “See there,” said Jane, “those little squares, they’re windows, you can see through them to the other side. Some of them you can wind down with a handle, like in their cars, but that’s another story. This kind we have to break.” Maki was baffled. Jane scoured the ground and picked up a rock, hefted it in her hand, she looked at the windows, straightened her shoulders, tilted her head to one side and the other, pulled back her arm, and flicked the rock at the wall, and instead it bouncing back like a cracked nut would, there was a loud crash and the rock disappeared into the shelter. “See,” Jane continued, “now there’s a hole, I’m too big to get through it, but you’re a little squirt, you climb in and once you’re inside, I’ll show you how to make the hole bigger so I can get in.” Maki was not sure his legs would be able to move, he wasn’t sure he understood the concept of windows. “Listen sonnyboy, enough with the questions, climb through the hole, and do what I tell you.” Jane helped Maki climb onto a ledge beneath the Nids windows. He inspected the hole Jane had made with the rock, its edges were sharp as cacti. He put one foot carefully through the hole and slid his body between
the spikes, and as he extracted his other leg, his foot caught, and he fell backwards off the ledge and onto the floor with a dull smack. He pushed himself up, panting, his eyes adjusting to shapes in the gloom that he could not recognize. Things loomed out of the walls, a herd of animals coming straight at him, their eyes glassy, petrified to the wall, and oh horrors, Ingwe the leopard, Ingwe the Terrible baring her horrific teeth. A herd of buck surrounded her, mouths agape, a buffalo, a warthog bristling with curly teeth, all mounted on wood and motionless, and Maki, who thought he had seen the worst of the chamber of horrors, could not believe his eyes when he saw the foot of an elephant, hacked off under the knee, standing in a corner. He leapt away, shuddering. “Are you there?” Jane called from the other side of the Nid wall. Maki could not take his eyes off Ingwe’s head, he was fearful, yet fascinated. Ingwe had been dead for almost a half summer, and yet she looked as fierce and fresh as yesterday. It seemed the Nids had contrived a method to make things live forever, he could only wonder at their motives. “Look for a hard thing that pokes out,” said Jane from the other side of the Nid’s wall. Maki shook himself out of his torpor, and climbed back onto the ledge. It was an amazing thing this window that didn’t wind. It was there, but not there, invisible but solid, and of course breakable. He looked for the hard thing that poked out, and it struck him that opposable thumbs would have been an advantage. Opening a window wasn’t something a giraffe could do, for instance. He took hold of a stick that was cold and hard and which
seemed to poke out in the way described and pushed against it.
“Push it up, sonnyboy, up, harder.” Maki pushed but it didn’t move, he pulled it, swung on it, and still it didn’t move. He got underneath, bent his legs and pushed with his shoulders and with a creak it began to move upwards until it clicked, and the window swung out into the garden. He lost his balance and tumbled into a rosebush with a crashing thud. He didn’t try and get up immediately. He felt defeated, every bone in his body ached and now he had thorns in his bum. Jane yanked him out of the bush by the scruff of his neck and thrust him through the window, setting him onto the floor of the Nids shelter. “It’s every monkey for himself from this point,” Jane cried, making a beeline for the door. Maki took a look around the shelter, it was all so new and wonderfully baffling. He was astonished how much stuff the Nids had, so many things scattered around, they slept on platforms, covered with skins of different colours. The waterhole was a revelation, he could not imagine how they did it, a waterhole right inside the house, and according to Jane, they washed themselves every day. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes … He heard Jane before he saw her, she rifled through the Nid’s objects, tossing powders and grains onto the floor. “This is the kitchen, this is where the real edibles are, the motherlode of munchies is hidden in these cupboards. She reached into the back and
pulled out a stick which she put to her nose and inhaled. “Chocolate, Maki, look” she cried. “It’s made of beans.” She peeled the skin off the stuffed it in her mouth and closed her eyes, dribbling chocolate saliva onto her chest. covered in mud. It looked like a piece of stick
Maki’s ears picked up a strange sound, a squeak of some sort. “Help help,” someone whimpered. The voice came from the corner, some sort of box and inside it was a small beige rodent. Suddenly Maki realized what the box was, the dreaded
cage, it was every bit as frightening as he’d always feared, solid and cold and small, impossible to escape. He peeked through the bars and huddled in a nest of straw was a gerbil of uncertain health. He lay on his back panting, his hairy feet facing the sky. He looked familiar to Maki, the markings on his face, the fur on his feet. nevertheless. “We thought you’d gone to the big sandpit in the sky,” Maki cried, “what happened to you?” “I don’t know,” Suttee gasped. “I was just walking along, minding my own business, somebody grabbed me and before I knew it I was in prison. I haven’t done anything, I’m innocent, I swear. I was framed, I tell you, it’s a travesty.” He had rigged up an intricate series of pulleys with string and a hook and survived by snagging dog pellets from a bowl on the floor. The bowl was empty now, and had been empty for some time by the looks of Suttee. Maki tried to work out how to open the cage since he now had experience of Nid things that poked out. He pulled and twisted and tugged at everything that poked until he found something that moved and made a hole big enough to get his hand inside and he was able to gently lift the gerbil out of the cage and place him on the floor. It was Suttee, a very thin, pale, Suttee, but Suttee
“Thank you my child,” Suttee said, “I thought I was a goner for a minute there. Haven’t eaten for a week, look at me, I’m a shadow of myself, my hair is falling out in chunks.” He picked a piece of fluff off his chest and let it drift to the floor. “Thank you for saving me, you’re a real hero.” “Oh it was nothing,” said Maki feeling a warm and comforting glow. “If it’s not too late, there’s a budgie, maybe you can do something for him.” “What’s a budgie?” Maki asked. “It’s a bird, a very blue bird,” said Suttee. “The Nids like them. They speak funny, but they’re good sorts mostly.” “Oui,” came a pitiful voice through the doorway. The bird’s cage hung from the ceiling of a room surrounded on three sides with Nid windows, and crammed with plants and trees in pots. Maki swung up the branch of a sycamore tree and peered into the cage. “Well, hello, hello hello,” said the bird, leaping up and flapping his wings, looking amazingly cheerful under the circumstances. But it was all for show, he faltered, stumbled, and keeled over on his side. “So glad you’re here,” he croaked through his dry beak. “A drop to drink, please, a morsel, an apple perhaps.” Maki had the cage door open in a flash. The bird was in a sorry state, he flapped one wing feebly, and it was clear he had not used the limb in some time. Maki filled a walnut shell with water and carried it back to the bird. He watched as it dribbled into his gasping beak. He swallowed painfully, his throat bobbing, at Maki adoringly. “So cool, so good,” he murmured.
Maki found an apple in the kitchen among the debris left by the marauding Jane. When he returned, the bird had managed to wobble to his feet, and he stood swaying, bobbing his head furiously. “Ah, my saviour, thank you. Allo, Iook how thin my legs are, I used to be such a pretty boy.” “You’re free now,” Maki said. “The Nids have gone, and they’re never coming back.” The budgie bobbed his head, eyeing the apple, but made no move to leave the cage. All of a sudden, they heard a sound, a vibration in feet, toes, hooves and flippers, a familiar vibration, one that had not been heard in the valley since the Nids had left. Maki cocked his head and listened with both ears forward and to attention. It was a Nid machine of some kind and it was coming closer, they heard the weavers fly up as it passed the Baobab Tree coming straight towards them. “The Nids are back, run for your lives,” cried Jane, her arms were full of Nid delicacies, and she had a piece of fruit in each armpit. “See you back at the forest,” said Suttee, skittering past with bulging cheeks. “We’ve got to go,” Maki said, taking the blue budgie’s wing and trying to lead him to the edge of the cage where he could flutter to the ground. The budgie extracted his wing firmly and closed it tightly against his body. “Go?” he said, “Go where? What for? This is my home, it has my swing and my mirror. The best view in the neighbourhood, morning sunshine, where would I go”
“You don’t understand, this is your chance to be free, come quickly, they’ll be here soon.” “Ma cherie, I don’t know anything but life in this cage, the wild, I cannot catch insects to eat? Allo, no.” Maki hopped up and down, the Nid machine seemed unbearably close. “I’m sorry to be harsh, birdie, but the Nids left you here to starve to death, at least when you’re free you don’t starve to death.” “That is so, but not all Nids are like that, sometimes you will get lucky you will get a tame one.” “You might get a banga stick in your pretty face, how about that?” Maki snapped, and he hopped off the verandah onto the grass, checking the sky for eagles. “Oh alright, I’m coming,” said the bird. He stepped gingerly to the edge of the cage and fluttered to the ground. “You can’t fly? You’re a bird and you can’t fly?” “I’ve never had to,” the bird sniffed. Maki tucked the bird’s head under his arm and set off across the grass, and he didn’t bother to worry about eagles and snakes. He focused his eyes on the tantalizing red bush at the river’s edge, and ignored his aching legs. He thought of his nest, the family would be waking up, and all he longed to do was lay his head on a pile of leaves. The bird became heavier with every step, his tail dragged in the dust, and he kept up an endless stream of chatter and strange jokes and questions that had no meaning. Maki did not have the breath to answer, the bottlebrush seemed as far away as ever. If he survived the day, he decided, there was nothing he would ever be afraid of ever again.
“So you’re a bushbaby, when you grow up, what do you become?” At last they crashed into the bottlebrush and Maki could rest and catch his breath. Jane was already there, munching through a variety of strange objects that didn’t look like food at all. Maki flopped down on a mossy branch, his body ached so badly he thought he might never get up again. The Nid machine roared into sight, a giant blue tortoise, the blue of the bird and just as dusty. It came to rest next to the Nid shelter, and the animals watched with sinking hearts as an arm shot out the side of the machine and a Nid climbed out, a tall pink Nid with dark brown hair. He looked around, bared his teeth, swung his arms in the air and then he did a curious thing, he began to jump up and down as though he was very excited, leaping this way and that, baring his teeth and making whooping sounds. It was most peculiar, even for the Nids. “We better let everyone at home know it’s back to showing bums again,” said Jane, munching loudly. “Home, yes, home,” said the blue budgie, “and where is this home you speak of? Is this where I shall live now that I am a free bird.” “You’re not living with me,” said Jane, “I don’t get along with birds, no offense.” “I live in a nest in a tree,” said Maki, “you can come home with me. My mom won’t mind, we kids are always bringing strange creatures home. No offense.” “Then it is decided, lead on to your nest.” XXX
Uncle Lemon’s joy at seeing his old friend Suttee was tempered by news of the Nid’s return. He climbed painstakingly onto the Big Rock to see for himself and there it was, a large blue tortoise parked under a tree, and a glow of a light in the window of the Nid house. “Only one, all by himself, we’ll just keep a beady eye on him,” he said, “if he steps out of line, it’s back to bums.” XXX The Nid seemed all right as Nids went. He spent a lot of time sitting on the platform watching the animals and scribbling on white Nid leaves, which Jane said they made into bundles which they looked at intently for long periods of time. Beyond that she couldn’t explain, and the animals were as mystified as before. They got so used to him that they almost forgot he was there and carried on as normal, grooming, nipping tails and splashing water in each other’s faces. He seemed to be particularly interested in the monkeys and they played up to this fact, giving him lots to scribble about. Life went on almost as normal for almost all the animals, except the blue budgie. He tried his best to fit in, but it was hopeless. The bushbabies slept in a higgledy piggledy pile, fussing and playing and nibbling at each other for hours, chirping and bumping the tree. He liked to sleep on a totally motionless branch with his foot curled behind his head. More than once he’d pitched forward in the middle of a dream and fluttered to the ground in a dizzy swoon. Due to his intense blueness, it was hard for him to hide when an eagle came over, and after several close calls, he was forced to accept drab camoflage so as not to stand out. He stopped preening his blue feathers and
they quickly turned dull and smeary, and he covered the most iridescent areas of his fabulous plumage with a layer of mud. The worse he looked, the worse he felt. His attempts to bond with other birds were met with bemusement, it’s not that they were unfriendly, they simply didn’t understand him. He was completely useless at catching his own food, even the ants laughed at his feeble attempts. Some of the animals took pity on him, and left morsels where he could find them, but as well meaning as the half-chewn pomegranate and strip of buffalo haunch were, he grew thinner and thinner and more and more miserable as the days went by. “And then I saw this beak and these huge wings,” he cried, describing yet another attempt on his life. It had rained, and he was still damp, his tail feathers drooped along the ground. Maki handed him a grasshopper leg, and he chewed morosely. “Merci, my dear friend, but I fear I’m not long for this world.” “But you’re free,” said Maki. “think about that, you could have died in that cage.” “I’m nothing but a morsel for a jackal ” he cried, sitting on the branch of the tree and looking morosely out across the valley. The Nid’s blue tortoise came into sight, and whizzed past the marulas, roared down the hill and up to the Nid house where it came to a halt with a squeal. The Nid got out of the creature holding bags filled with Nid stuff. The budgie straightened himself up, his mouth began to water, an unfamiliar light gleamed in his eye and his head began bobbing in an alarming way.
“I’ve just had a brilliant idea,” he said. “There’s the Nid, he’s all alone, surely he’d like a little companion, such as myself. I do speak their language, you know.” “Do you really want to go back inside a cage, dependent on them?” cried Maki. “I want my mirror and my swing,” said the bird, “and ah, cuttlefish, look at the state of my beak, it’s disgusting, my wings, just mortifying. I want to go home.” “You won’t be able to come and go as you want, you’ll live at the whim of another species, it’s against the natural order of things. All animals want to be free.” “I’m totally the wrong colour for the bush, everyone’s trying to kill me, and I haven’t had a decent meal in weeks. You’re wild, Maki, you’d find a cage intolerable, but me, I long for my apartment on the verandah, I dream of a saucer of seed. I am attacked my giant watermelon in my dreams.” “If it’s what you really want, I’ll do anything I can to help,” Maki sighed. Perhaps it was true that freedom didn’t suit everyone, that some would rather be safe than free. Perhaps safety was a freedom of sorts, freedom from fear. The bird looked ecstatic at his brilliant idea and Maki followed him down to the water hole for a wash, enjoying his high spirits, but skeptical about his enterprise. He flittered and flapped in the water until the caked mud gave way to his familiar glossy plumage. It was risky to be so blue, but at last he felt clean. He preened his feathers until they sparkled. Finally he bobbed his approval of his appearance, and packed up his belongings, a yellow feather, a seed pod, and the remains of a lemon apple Jane had given him.
It was early afternoon, the rest of the family waved drowsily as he made his goodbyes. Maki accompanied him down to the river, swinging
through the trees as he hopped along the ground with his little package under one wing. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Maki asked, in one last attempt to persuade him to change his mind. “Nids aren’t to be trusted, they’re mean. They put our heads on their walls, how about that?” “Ah, yes some are bad, but a tame Nid is a wonderful thing, truly a delight. I must at least try, my young friend.” Maki watched him hop across the boulders in the river, up the bank on the other side, past the bottlebrush and as he reached the top of the embankment, he gave a cheery wave with his blue wing and disappeared from sight. XXX The blue budgie had decided on the bold approach, no need to appear meek and pathetic, it was not in his nature, not him. It was enough that he was handsome, accomplished, with a cheery disposition and bright eyes. He flittered up to his old cage, but his delight was short lived. It looked as though a family of mice had been dancing in there. Seed husks and droppings were everywhere. It was just as well, he sighed, it would be the ideal opportunity to redecorate, the drapes were all wrong anyway. And the door had to come right off and stay off, it didn’t do to take the cage thing too far. As he was inspecting the damage and making plans, the Nid appeared. He stared,
rubbed his eyes. The budgie took a deep breath, it would be the performance of his life.
“Budgie? A budgie? How did a blue budgie get all the way here,” the Nid asked. “It’s like this, see …” he began, and he stretched his neck, and tilted his head to one side until the Nid bared his teeth very wide and he felt a steady loosening of the terrible knot of anxiety that had twisted his guts since he’d been out in the wild. At last he could relax, sleep the whole night through without waking up shuddering in fear. By some incredible miraculous luck,
he’d managed to find a tame Nid. What luck. He was so tired, his eyes were drooping when the Nid came out with a large plate, bearing a smorgasbord, a veritable feast of gourmet delights, slices of ripe orange papaya, strips of cucumber, a banana cut into slices and even, bless him, a tumbler of mixed seeds and nuts. The budgie plunged his beak into the luscious fruit. “Bon and merci, my good man,” he gasped between breaths, “Won’t you join me, have a cashew. Where did you get them? They’re super fresh.” It was clear that the Nid did not understand him, perhaps it was the accent, but he showed his teeth a lot in a way that looked as though he might be happy to have a little blue companion. Either way, he didn’t seem to be planning to eat him, which was a big advantage. That evening, he sat on his swing, and watched the sun go down over the waterhole where the animals snuffled and lowed and stamped their feet. He crunched on an after dinner peanut and sighed with contentment. By some incredible stroke of luck, he’d managed to find the tamest of Nids. He was right where he belonged, back in his penthouse with the view over the water hole where hippos and elephant lolled and gamboled. Let the other
animals have their freedom, their damp beds, and odd food they had to spend all day chasing. Nids or no Nids, free or not, with a banana in one claw and a macadamia in the beak, life was about as normal anyone could ever want it to be.
Chapter Three On the last day of the animal’s year, when the moon was as full and fat and round as it was possible to be without bursting, the animals held a night of fun, their Frolics. It was a tradition that stretched as far back as anyone could remember, a time for all the animals in the valley to come together peacefully and show gratitude to whichever deity their species held sacred, whether it was an aardvark, a distant star, a purple warthog or in the case of the worms, a worm. Each species had its own idea of how the world began. The birds, for example, thought the earth was inside a giant egg floating inside another egg and so on to infinity, whereas the baboons came from the planet of the bright light, which was destroyed in a great explosion, flinging them all out into the cosmos. The cats and lizards worshipped the sun, while the meerkat believed the animals had once lived in the center of the earth, and burrowed their way through the crust. The chameleons thought it obvious to anybody with the sort of swivelly eyes that could see both ways, that the world rested at the very top of a gigantic branch of an immense tree. Tolerance was a virtue universally practiced and although they might ridicule the more fanciful theories of how the earth began, it was a social courtesy to confine all snickering and chortling to one’s own burrow or nest, and never show less than the utmost respect for the silly beliefs of others.. Whatever they believed to be true about their world, Frolics was a break from the stodgy daily routine of killing and eating and grazing. It was a time to play the fool, and defy the rule of thumb (whether they had thumbs or not) that said they lived merely to eat and breed. Most of all it was a chance
for each and every creature to stand up proud and say “This is me, I might not be here tomorrow, but I’m here right now … impersonations.” Some of the animals unfortunately had to be sacrificed for the gorging and feasting, but every living creature down to the tiniest ant got a special meal, a party hat and the chance to show his talents on a universal stage. The only animals not included in the merriment were the Nids. Consensus had not been reached on whether they were animals at all. According to the elephants, who had been around a long time, Nids used to participate in the Frolics in the old days when they lived naked off the land. One day other Nids arrived, and these wore skins and carried the dreadful banga sticks, and the naked Nids fell dead like the animals around them. Those that did put on skins didn’t die and they turned their backs on their animal origins and that was the start of the troubles and the end of the Nid’s invitation to Frolics. Some things, it was felt, had to remain sacred. Fortunately for the animals, they saw the tame Nid jumped into his blue tortoise before the sun was up and roar away up the hill. He did this from time to time and often came back only the next day. There was virtually no chance he would catch them singing or dancing instead of sucking down water and ruminating. As the sun began its tip towards the parched lands, streaking the sky with purple and gold, the air in the valley became suffused with the tingling excitement of a million creatures making last minute adjustments to their costumes. A large clearing in the middle of the forest was the venue for the amusement; crickets ran back and forth, rubbing newt fat into their carapaces, and I can do frog
watching out for falling trees, which the elephants were removing to make more space for the giraffes. The woods rang with dipping diving loeries, and hadedah practicing their scales. An officious crested barbet hunched his
shoulders and hopping temperamentally up and down the branches trying to keep order, but he was cheerfully ignored by everyone involved. It was important to get into the right frame of mind for Frolics. The only way in which a warthog in a banana hat could balance on his tusks was if he was in a state of absolute concentration. As the sun bulged orange on its downward journey to the other side of the earth, the owls began hooting, and all activity came to an abrupt stop. They stood motionless, listening to their own breathing, watching the glowing disc hesitate in its trajectory into the horizon. At the same moment, the cool silver moon rose in the east, and the two orbs faced one another across the savannah. The orchids sprang open their glorious flowers and a great cloud of white butterflies ascended from the forest floor and hung dazzlingly in the air. Xammi the lion sauntered into the middle of the clearing and stretched his proud neck, took a long deep breath, stepped back and blasted out a roar that would have made the elephants hair stand on end, if they’d had any. The jackals howled, the hornbills trilled and the games began. Two ducks and a cootie opened the festivities with a lively acapella rendition of an ancient duck drinking tune, with Suttee drumming his feet and a chorus of squirrels clapping walnut shells. Due to the great many animals and the need to fulfill each animal’s aspirations, a myriad acts were performed at the same time and when your turn came you fell into line and gave it what
Some of the animals were shy and the most they would do was a
short poem, others loved the attention and played to the crowd. The plovers did an intricate broken wing dance that had the wild dogs howling, and the perennial favorite, the bees once again got everyone on their toes, wings or hooves. Jane presented a stand up comedy act that had the animals rolling
in the aisles “But seriously folks, those warthogs are so ugly …” “How ugly are they?” the animals sang. “When everyone else shows bums, they show faces.” The warthogs weren’t too pleased with this, but for the sake of peace they laughed good-naturedly. It was the ethos of Frolics that there would be no fighting, arguing and bad feelings of any sort, everyone was fair game and every animal got its turn for a ribbing. “And those hippos, they’re so fat,” said Jane. “How fat are they?” the animals cried. “They’re so fat, when they get out of the water hole, the level sinks by half.” The hippos stamped their feet in delight at getting a mention. “One snake says to the other, it says, are we poisonous, the other snake says why? The snake says ‘because I just bit my lip’ “ Marilyn, watched the proceedings from her favourite sausage tree. Her presence made some of the animals nervous, so she kept herself aloof. In any event, she was not given to joining in with groups. She had no desire to cluster and felt repelled by the very thought of being part of a herd. She hunted alone, and if she met another of her kind, they were encroaching on
her territory and should just walk away if they knew what was good for them. They passed each other like phantoms, taking care not to tread on each other’s paws. She’d sensed a male roaming around, had smelled a certain aroma on a tree that spoke of a fine fertile prospect. She’d felt a certain urgency to breed since her mother’s death, her line was down to one, her brothers had perished very young, one of snakebite, the other of an internal parasite that left him gaunt and wasted within days. Her mother had fought off a gigantic hyena and lost half an ear to save her last kitten. She’d taught her that
darkness was her friend, that porcupines were more trouble than they were worth. She’d taught her how to suffocate a gazelle, lying with her full weight on the animal and holding on for grim life. She taught her how to move so quietly as to appear like magic out of nowhere and just as she’d learned how to be quiet, she taught her to make lots of noise to cause panic and a stampede. That way she could pick up the stupid or old without much effort. She already had a cave picked out for her future family, and on days when rain sifted endlessly to the ground, thrusting the animals into a maudlin gloom, she retired there and slept for hours, dreaming of chase and conquer and mewling cubs. From high up in her favourite tree, Marilyn watched the geckos dancing in grass outfits, a squirrel juggling and two rows of peacocks that bowed and scraped, twirled artistically, their tails fanned out to show rows of iridescent eyes. All the activity made her hungry and she consulted her larder for something appealing to eat. There were assorted springbok parts, nice and
ripe after two days of hanging, a half-eaten mongoose and the rest of a baboon ear that she really needed to throw out. She pulled a springbok haunch closer and sniffed it. Pisi had been hanging around under the tree for some time in case a piece of Marilyn’s bounty accidentally dropped to the ground. Marilyn was such a good hunter, she forgot what she already had hanging, and tossed out old stuff that was barely a month or two old. If she could, she would have climbed the tree and snatched whatever she wanted. She jumped up to the first branch, but it seemed that retractable claws were essential for the business of tree climbing. Prey had to be
snatched before it got up the tree, or on the way down. The only way to cadge a shred of Marilyn’s loot was through flattery and wheedling, although it sometimes got her a rock on the head. “Come on purr-cat,” she wheedled, “Don’t be so greedy, just a nibble, that shred over next to the haunch, just that, you’re not going to eat all of that?” “Go catch your own food, parasite,” Marilyn said, “I’m eating every last morsel and drop of blood, lazy bones, go on out and get your own, and while you’re at it, bring me a couple of those pigeons, and not the grey ones, they’re tough as anything.” Pisi gritted her teeth and gave a harsh laugh as she paced around the tree, steaming and roiling with impotent hunger, casting a baleful eye at the Marilyn who laid it on thick, smacking her lips and licking her paws between bites of springbok leg.
“You’re wasting your time waiting for me to come down the tree,” she said, but the spirit of Frolics did touch her heart, and she tossed down the rancid baboon ear, which Pisi snatched it up with a smirk, chewing vigorously. “You’re not hunting for fresh tonight then?” she asked innocently. “Nah, got enough to keep me going. Go follow someone else, I heard the lions bag something over where the stinkwoods meet the river. Better hurry.” “Thanks, puss-kit, you’re a pal,” Pisi said, slinking away with one last lustful look at the springbok leg. It was an ancient game between cats and dogs. There was no kill where the stinkwoods met the river and Xammi would be down at the water hole admiring his mane and practicing his roar before his big moment. It was Frolics, nobody was killing anything, it was an iron-clad and quite necessary rule of Frolics that you ate before you came. Handbag launched into a slapstick impersonation of a Nid trying to dance, she had just twirled a remarkably adept pirouette for a creature her age, when Marilyn saw something out of the corner of her eye, a flash of some sort. She pricked up her ears, but all she heard were crickets and one of the antelope doing a solo. Marilyn caught the flash again, she was sure it was some sort of Nid object; it was not something that came from nature. She caught a whiff of something familiar, a Nid scent., something they put on their faces after they scraped the hair off. Why they did this was another of those Nid mysteries none of the animals could understand. It seemed to have something to do with the females, who oddly enough didn’t have any hair on their faces. Most of them, at least.
Marilyn became alarmed. Where the Nid smell was, a Nid was sure to be, and if he was close enough to reek of Nid smells, he was close enough to see land on her face in the wrestling pit. If a Nid had seen what the animals got up to during Frolics, there would be no end of trouble for the valley. He would have to be stopped, and although it was Frolic night, and violence of any sort was frowned on, she would have to do it before it was too late She slipped into the trees and followed the smell, along the edge of the clearing, keeping her spotted self in the leaves and shadows. As she passed the Giant Anthill, she saw the outline of his shoulders, his hands were in front of his face, holding a little black box against his eye and she heard the cricketlike chirruping noise. The Nid’s black boxes had been much discussed
amongst the animals. Jane had tried to explain that animals came out of the boxes, squeezed flat onto very thin slices of tree. Nobody really understood what this was all about, and until new evidence presented itself, black boxes were not to be trusted. She slid through the undergrowth soundlessly, brushing aside branches, her blotted skin rippling invisibly between the trees, and the Nid, unable to smell her, clicked away with his little black box, baring his teeth excitedly, and making a hyena sound. Marilyn stood in the darkness, looking at him, so soft and pink and shiny, he was in no position to put up any resistance, she could tear him to pieces with a flash of her claws. Tthe Nid stopped clicking the black box, turned his head in her direction. He had sensed her and he slowly stepped backwards towards the blue tortoise waiting in the shadow of a thorn tree. Marilyn matched him step for step until the cover of caterpillar bushes was gone, and she bunched up
her muscles, and charged across the clearing. The Nid had the arm of the blue tortoise open and he leapt inside, pulling it closed as Marilyn launched herself off the ground. Her nose hit the hardest object she’s ever hurled herself at, she fell back, sparks fizzled in front of her eyes. The tortoise leapt into life with that insufferable noise so much worse at close quarters. Her ears jangled. The tortoise executed a nimble turnaround for a creature of its size, and she glared as its blue behind scuttled away. She got up and dusted herself off. That does it, she thought, Frolics or no Frolics, violence was not an option. By all the laws of the natural world, she was not longer obliged to show mercy to any Nids. XXX “What’s with the urgent assignment,” Jane asked, creeping into the bottlebrush where Maki waited. She had a hat with an upturned brim on her head and pumpkin crumbs around her mouth. “Marilyn said it was important, she needs our Nid house expertise, top secret and crucial, that’s what she said, crucial to the very survival of the valley. There she is.” Marilyn slunk out of the bushes, looking from side to side. “The Nid saw us,” she said, “he was clicking with that black box thing .” “A Nid, watching our Frolics?” said Maki, “If this gets out, the hats, the costumes, we’ll be finished. Nids will come for miles around, we won’t have a minute’s peace.” “The circus,” Jane said with the shudder, but there wasn’t time to explain.
“We have to make sure the black box doesn’t escape,” Marilyn said, “One of us will have to eat it.” “I’m full,” said Maki, putting him hands over his bulging stomach. “On second thought,” said Jane, “I might have space for one more morsel. Not the black box, but some nuts would be nice, or some of those squashy pink things, and those ones with the sugar all over, and if they have chocolate, well, I’m prepared to make the sacrifice for the good of the community.” “You’re not allowed to eat the Nid” Maki said sternly. “I won’t eat him unless I have to” said Marilyn, “I just want to scare him a bit, so he won’t make trouble for us.” It sounded reasonable, a quick in steal the box and out and nobody getting hurt. They hurried across the grass to the house, Marilyn loped
ahead, her head whirring with strategies for dealing with the Nid. Nids were deceptively devious for creatures that weren’t animals any more. Towel
hovered overhead, to warn them of anything coming. He swooped over the Nids house, touched down on a window ledge and looked through the glass as Maki and Jane hopped and jumped and did combinations of both across the great expanse of green grass. “He’s scratching his head,” Towel called, “now he’s eating something, now he’s drinking a beverage.” Jane and Maki went around the side of the house to look for the holes they’d make on their previous visit, but they were no longer there. They stared, puzzled, wondering if it was the same wall. The Nid’s shelter was large, with angles and corners all over the place.
“We’ll just break another one,” said Jane, picking up a rock. “Wait,” said Maki, “do Nids have good ears?” “They can hear the wrapper come off a chocolate nut at fifty paces.” “We better move away from where he’s sitting.” Marilyn followed them, hugging the shadows, she was not sure what they were planning, but they seemed to know what to do. They hopped up onto the Nid platform, and saw the blue budgie swinging in his cage. “Ah hello boys and girls,” he called out, “a visit from my friends, how superb.” He looked the picture of healthy blue exuberance, his coat shone, his eyes sparkled, and he flew out of the cage through the open door and swooped to the floor with a twirl of his wings, landing with barely a wobble. “This isn’t a social call,” Marilyn snarled, putting her nose up against his beak. “Your Nid has been watching us, he’s been clicking that box thing at us.” “My Nid?” said the budgie. “But he’s always doing that, he doesn’t mean any harm. It makes a picture. Like a small miniature copy of us on a thin slice of tree. It’s a copy, there are lots of them, you can make as many of them as you want.” Marilyn had heard that story before and was no more inclined to believe it now than she had the first time. “He saw us playing the fool, it’s our Frolics night, do you know how serious that is? It’s not for Nids, it’s not for slices of tree, it’s private. You can come, but Nid’s are not invited.”
The blue budgie was unacquainted with wild animal festivals, but fully understood how serious it was when Marilyn bared her gigantic teeth at him. “Please don’t eat my Nid, spotty kitty,” he cried jumping up and down in front, fluttering his wings piteously, “he’s a good Nid, he’s kind, he gives me paw paw to eat and meranky pips. He freshens my water twice a day.” “Get out of the way, beak-nose, and nobody gets hurt,” Marilyn snapped. Jane weighed up a few rocks in her hand before she found the right one, she stepped back, paused and charged flicking her arm and wrist so the rock hit the Nid’s window with a crash, followed by another softer crash, and one or two more faint crashes were heard inside the house. Maki was waiting and he climbed quickly through the hole, taking care not to shred his arms in the process. He found himself in the edibles room, which smelled so strongly of pine needles and lemon it made his eyes water. Smells came from all corners of the room, guavas and pears and bulbs and branches of sweet smelling herbs, garlic and hunks of meat hung up like leopard kill. He was thinking about how the Nids were a strange combination of animal and machine, when he realized that one of them was coming towards him and would see him on the windowsill with Jane and Marilyn waiting for him to push the hard thing that poked out. He gave a frantic signal to Jane and leapt onto the floor, scurrying behind a box just as the Nid came into the room. Suddenly the gloom of the room became instantly dazzling white and he was blinded, spots hovered in front of his eyeballs. He
squeezed his eyes shut until the pain subsided, listening as the footsteps of the creature came closer. The situation was perilous, he was about to end up
dead or in a cage in the Nids house. On Frolics night. He had an act, a song and dance he’d been practicing all year. Up close, the Nid’s legs were massive, Maki thought he just might be able to fling himself through the window without severing a major artery if he had the element of surprise on his side. The Nid’s legs moved away, there was a sound of running water, and the light became the blackest darkness he’d ever known in his life. As soon as his heart slowed its tremendous banging, he tiptoed back to the window. His knees were wobbly, and he felt very tired. He pushed up the latch, and Jane slipped into the room. “Look?” she yelped, leaping for a bowl of bananas and grapes. Marilyn put her huge paw on the ledge, bent her powerful hind legs to leap up, but Maki stepped in front of her. “I have to tell you something before we go in there,” he said. “Out of the way, squirt, I’ve got a job to do,” Marilyn said. “Your mom is on the floor.” Marilyn’s eyes flashed, she growled softly in her throat. “Worse than that, her head is on the wall, the teeth, I saw it, it’s terrible.” Marilyn took a deep breath. This was not the time for sentimentality. It gave her one more reason to despise the Nids. She might not kill him after all, might take off a leg or an arm instead. She brushed Maki aside and leapt inside. She was momentarily confused by all the unfamiliar smells, the sight of meat hanging up made her mouth water, but there was no time for a quick snack. She loosened her neck muscles with a few swinging exercises and
walked through the house, from room to room, down passages and up stairs until the concentration of Nid smell was at its most pungent. She loped down a passage and came to a room that seemed to be made out of trees. The Nid sat on some sort of log with armrests, watching something across the room very intently. It was a large black box that flickered with a blue light. The Nid was so absorbed in whatever it was he was watching that he hadn’t even smelled her. trance. He seemed mesmerized, oblivious, snared in some sort of
She would have to ask Jane what it was about this box that
fascinated the Nids so much. She padded delicately across the floor until she was right behind him and could see what he was watching. It was an animal that looked just like her, but tiny. The animal seemed trapped in the little box. It turned looked at her, flapped a fly away from its ear and then it seemed to disappear. In its place was a crocodile, sunning itself on a bank. Marilyn was confused. Was this what the Nids did? Captured the animals with their little black boxes, shrunk them and kept them prisoner in other black boxes? Where did the slices of tree come into it? It was all so confusing. With a shiver of horror she realized that she was standing on her mother’s skin. What had once been the skin of the finest of mothers, lay under her dusty feet, and there on the wall was her head, it snarled at her, unblinking. The Nid took out a small piece of wood and stuffed leaves into it, with a snap he made fire come out of his hand, and he set the leaves alight sending a plume of smoke into the air. Marilyn was astonished that he not only
seemed comfortable with this arrangement, but closed his eyes in apparent enjoyment. Suddenly he snapped out of his trance and saw her, made a strangled sound in his throat, and jumped to his feet. He lunged for a banga stick propped against a table, but Marilyn was quicker, she leapt for it, wrestled it out of his puny hands and crushed it with her monstrous jaws, spitting out the pieces on the floor. She walked up to the Nid and pushed him back into his chair, putting a heavy paw on his chest. “Now you listen to me, hominid, we animals were having a private gathering and you clicked your black box at us. So here’s the deal, you hand it over and nobody gets hurt.” The Nid’s mouth opened and closed like a carp. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stuttered, but his pale blue eyes did not meet Marilyn’s yellow ones. “Hand it over Niddy-boy and we all go home and forget it ever happened.” The Nid’s eyes flicked away and Marilyn followed his glance. The
black box lay on a log next to his chair. The Nid reached over and grabbed it, hugging it to his chest. “Please,” he said, “nobody has even seen animals in party hats, it would be the sensation of the year, it would revolutionize research as we know it, bring a whole new understanding of the animal kingdom, the fact that animals actually have rituals with a socio-religious significance is
unprecedented. It implies a rationality of thought, a forward planning that people don’t really attribute to animals currently, and in a legal sense there
would be no more reason to deny animals the same rights as humans, or at least children have. People would come from all over the world for a chance to …” “Stop right there, buddy, that’s really wonderful for you Nid persons that you get to see animals playing the fool, but not so great for us. We don’t want the noise and Nids crawling all over the place. Not for us, now hand over the black box, smelly pink person or you’re paste!” “It’s only a camera,” said the Nid, holding it out. “I took the film out. The film’s the thing, a camera’s nothing without film, so eating the camera is really not necessary. It’s a Nikon, it’s new” “Flattery will not win me over, Nidsky,” Marilyn said, snatching the box between her fangs and with one mighty thrust of her jaws, she crunched it until it shattered. It tasted foul, but she chewed and ground and spat out the pieces, while the Nid looked on, his forehead becoming increasingly furrowed. “Now give me the film thing,” she said. The Nid took out an object the size of a small mouse. swallowed it in one gulp. “One of you Nids shot my mom, but I’m not going to eat you, no, I’m the better person, I’m the forgiving person. You didn’t see anything you didn’t hear anything, except cute and furry animals going their normal animal business, get it?” “I’m sorry,” the Nid sighed. “I don’t mean you any harm. I’m a Marilyn
scientist, I don’t shoot animals, I study them, I learn about them.” “Study? Learn? Like when I was a cub and my mom showed me how to flush out a honey badger without losing an ear.”
“We study the animals so we can understand ourselves better. For example, the apes, we’re closely related, so if we observe ape behaviour, we can extrapolate …” Marilyn gave a snort, “don’t let the monkeys hear that, they want nothing to do with you.” “But it’s true,” he said, ”we’re on the same family tree, gorillas, baboons...” “Oh the baboons will be extra delighted to hear that,” Marilyn chortled. Now that she got a chance to look closely at the Nid, there was an undeniable family resemblance. He stood straighter than the monkeys and there were one or two things about the nose and ears, but otherwise, anyone could see they were brothers under the fur. “The point is we study animal behaviour and make comparisons with our own behaviour.” “But you’re really just guessing aren’t you?” The Nid was silent. “I mean, you see a monkey scratch his nose, you think his nose is itchy, meanwhile he’s signaling to his brother that there are some nice juicy guavas in a nearby tree, but he doesn’t want his cousin Fred to find out.” “Does that happen?” the Nid asked, a stricken look of comprehension came over his face. “All the time.” “What does it mean when they rub their heads like this,” he said, making a twirling motion with his hand over his head.
“Oh they only do that when you’re around, it makes you start scribbling like mad, we all laugh.” The Nid was pale, he looked as though he wanted to cry. “That Frolics thing you talk about, what’s it for? It goes against all expectations. What’s the evolutionary advantage of something like that? It doesn’t seem to make you fitter or increase your chances for reproduction, yet you expend quite a lot of energy on it to no gain for yourself. Why?” “You’d be surprised how much fun it is to do something for no better reason than its fun.” “So it releases tension,” said the Nid. “What tension?” said Marilyn, “where do you Nids get these ideas, you just speculate, watch us for a bit and come to conclusions about our behaviour based on what you would do.” “Sort of blows away twenty years of behavioural observation when you see a hippo in a tutu,” sighed the Nid. “There, there,” said Marilyn, patting his hand. “It only happens once a year. The rest of the time we’re quite normal.” The Nid hunched his shoulders forward and lookedintently at Marilyn. “I can help you if you let me stay here,” he said. Marilyn arched an eyebrow. “Help us? Really? Explain.” “I can warn you if anyone’s coming.” “Oh please, we can smell you guys coming a mile away. Never mind the noise you make, if I may say, that’s the loudest tortoise I’ve ever heard.” “As long as I’m here, nobody else will come. If you chase me away, somebody else will come, I’m hoping to buy the place, I’m waiting for my
funding to come through. I want to start a primate research station here and a hospital.” She couldn’t begin to understand what he meant by that, but she had to admit he had a point. It might be a good idea for the animals to have a tame Nid on hand who wanted only to gawp at the monkeys. After all, she could always eat him later, if she had the stomach for it. She stepped up to him and curled back her lip, showing scarlet gums and sumptuous curling fangs. “Alright, you can stay, but no more black boxes of any sort. “And I’m taking my mom.” “Please do,” the Nid said, pulling up the sides of his mouth without baring his teeth. Marilyn leapt onto a chair and unhooked her mom’s head from the wall. She wrapped it in the skin, picked up the bundle in her mouth, and ambled out of the front door. The blue budgie hopped up and down in distress, wringing his little wings, his forehead creased in worry. “Did you consume my Nid?” he asked in a small voice. Marilyn loped past him without a sound, her tail swinging behind her. She hurried to her cave, nosed through the clump of grass that concealed the entrance and deposited the head and skin in its cool, dark depths. As she emerged, she caught the whiff of something unmistakably male, unfamiliar, and intriguing. Her nose took her to a large flat rock covered in moss, she inhaled deeply, he was undoubtedly masculine, somewhat mature but robust and well nourished, bold and fertile and he’d just killed and half eaten a wildebeest. It hung temptingly in a nearby sausage tree.
Could life be more perfect, Marilyn wondered as she munched on the tender part of a wildebeest leg and watched the elephant smackdown, the grande finale in the Frolics lineup, with the handsome stranger eyeing her from a nearby tree. The balance was restored, normal had returned with the addition of a tame Nid and soon, one day, squirming babies, and nothing could possibly be more normal than that.
Chapter Four Papa was dead, the news rippled through the colony faster than a grape through a squirrel. It was hard to believe that someone like Papa could do something as ordinary as die. He’d ruled the meerkat colony as a
benevolent despot for as long as anyone could remember, expanding their small network of apartments from a paltry twelve to almost fifty. He wiped out all those who challenged him and subordinated the rest, but he’d always prevailed. He was a feature, a fixture, his removal plunged the entire colony into chaos. The story went that he’d been standing in the fork of a tree, balancing on his tail, eyes scanning the horizon. He must have been lost in thought, or distracted by something, but what he didn’t see was the eagle that swooped down, snatched him out of the branches and whisked him squealing away. The competition to replace the alpha would be fierce, schemes would be launched, plans hatched, whispers hissed in corners, alliances would form and split, with horrible acrimony. The contenders were desperate to win the prize, some even to the death. Danger lurked from outside the colony as well, roving gangs of intruders looking for a chance to take over the snug caverns; the carnage was bound to be terrible. On the surface, the meerkat carried on as normal, but there was no more playing the fool, silly postures, tail-pulling. No wasting of energy for something as frivolous as fun. They watched and waited, because deep in the bowels of the earth, a saga played out that meant life as they knew it was over. Worse than the battle for top male was that for the supreme position amongst the meerkat, the queen.
She was the most powerful animal in the colony, and what she said, went. The current queen was in a bad state, she’d been savaged by a With
caracal and was not expected to live through another breeding season.
Papa gone, a power vacuum had opened up, and everyone knew it. For the first time ever, the two top positions were up for grabs. It caused a special
ripple of attention amongst the drudges and helpers, food gatherers and kit minders who, surrounded by relatives with whom they could not mate, were destined to remain barren, powerless, and subordinate. If an outsider came in with his fresh set of genes, they stood a chance. The burrows zinged with a manic excitement that was disruptive to the routine and brought out the worst in everybody. The queen was not giving up without a fight. The other animals were so accustomed to her authority, they continued to cower before her. Although the stench of death hovered in the tunnels, nobody dared defy her. Not yet. One morning the queen summoned Kitiki from the nursery where she was feeding one of the princes, who promptly spat out everything she gave him. She hurried through the tunnels to the queen’s quarters, entering on all fours, keeping her eyes to the ground and her tail tucked away, as she’d been taught. The queen reclined on her side, languidly popping grubs between her lips. Because she’d been unable to move, she’d become enormously fat. A livid scar lashed the flesh from shoulder to hip, crusted over with purple blood and suppurating. The air was full of the smell of dread.
“Well my little kitten,” she said, peering at the young creature abasing herself before her, “how you’ve grown.” “I’m nearly one season old, ma’am,” Kitiki stammered, keeping her eyes to the floor. She was dying to look at her up close, but the penalties for insolence were unspeakable. “One season old, that is a big girl,” she said, “I must say you’re very good with the little ones, I’m sure one day you’d like to have some of your very own.” “Oh no,” said Kitiki, she was not about to fall into that trap. “I want to look after your babies, they’re so, er, interesting and so, er, they have such good appetities.” “Good girl,” said the queen, patting her on the head. “Because you know what happens to little helpers who have a little slip and coma back with their own little brats, don’t you?” She leaned back, and Kitiki trembled under her gaze. Banishment was death. A meerkat without a burrow and an army of scouts and sentinels was very soon to be found between the jaws of a hyena. “You see, my kitten, I may be injured, but I’m still in charge, and you can tell those aunts of yours they can forget it, whatever they’ve got in mind, they can forget it, I’ll rip them to shreds, you hear me?” “Yes, ma’am” said Kitiki, and risky as it was, she stole a forbidden glance at the matriarch. Her eyes were milky, her nose dry and crusted. Waves of pain washed over her face as she rolled onto her other side, torn and bulbous and finished.
“I’m not dead yet,” she muttered, “I’m not ready to go, I’ll feel better tomorrow, you’ll see. I’m not eating enough.” She picked through the grubs and pulled out a fat, wriggling specimen dropping it delicately into her mouth. Kitiki backed discreetly away through the entrance of the hollow, turned and ran along the passage that led back to the nursery. One of the aunts stepped out in the path and blocked the way. The other aunt leaned against the wall behind her, trying to look casual, listening intently. “How’s she looking, Kiti, you better tell us” Selma said, grabbing her paw and twisting it sharply. “She dead yet?” rasped Thelma from behind. good in there.” “She’s fine,” Kitiki said, darting past their grasping claws. “It’s only a matter of time,” the aunts sneered. Kitiki hurried into the nursery and not a moment too soon, one of the prices had his nose jammed into a jar she had retrieved from the Nid’s throwaway. She’d had just about enough of the little brat, he’d been a “It doesn’t smell too
nuisance since waking up, refused to eat his breakfast and demanded fresh scorpion instead. “Ow ow, help help,” the prince yelped, jumping up and down. “That’ll teach you a lesson,” she said, tugging at it, turning it this way and that. until it popped off his face. He rubbed his nose, whimpering.
“You’re always nosing around things that are none of your business. Curiosity killed the cat, don’t you know.” “I’m going to tell my mother you gave me a dangerous toy,” he sniffed.
“I didn’t ask you to jam your nose into it.” He’d been whining for scorpion most of the day, and she had the baby to look after as well as the other two, it was too much. To top it all, the little monster jumped up, kicked her shins and ran away giggling. Kitiki sighed; she was not cut out for this life of dull drudgery, her mind was enslaved with thoughts of other places, the Blue Mountains, the ocean, which the animals that had seen it talked about with awe. A few rare hours off gave her barely enough time to forage enough to keep herself alive. Her only options were to challenge the aunts, hope the new king would not be related to her, or leave the colony, which didn’t bear thinking about. Cousin Henry dashed into the nursery with fistfuls of fresh bugs and at last she got a chance to go outside to find something to eat. In times of
desperation, she scurried up to the Nid’s house, and this was one of them. She had just bounded across the grass around the house when she heard the tremendous roar of the blue tortoise coming in her direction. She leapt into a bush and watched trembling as it charged straight towards her before screeching to a halt in a puff of dust. The animals were very curious about the blue tortoise, but few of them would go near it. Kitiki was fascinated. It went up and down the road and never seemed to get tired. It would disappear for a while, sometimes days, and then it would come back and what happened between these two events was a mystery and an intrigue. She’d also figured out that the tortoise didn’t move unless the Nid was inside. He climbed out, bags rustling in his hands, leaving the arm of the tortoise sticking out. She heard him cooing softly at the blue budgie on the
other side of his shelter and could no longer resist. She leapt out of the bush, ran up to the tortoise, and nipped one of its funny round legs. It did not move. She biffed its bum, but still it didn’t make a sound. Inside she could see chairs for sitting on, how clever the Nids were. She climbed cautiously inside, the
smells were harsh and unfamiliar, very Nid-like smells unknown to nature. She marveled at the buttons and knobs and pulled at one. A stick shot across the window and sent her scurrying under the seat, puffing and hissing. The stick went backwards and forwards, and she hoped it would get tired and stop, but it went back and forth until she cautiously pushed all the knobs back in and the stick stopped its movement. It was another baffling but ingenious Nid invention that Jane would have to explain. Suddenly she heard the sound of the Nid coming back to the tortoise, and crawled under the seat, crouched down until she could no longer see him, in the hope that he would not be able to see her. She closed her eyes as his footsteps came closer, and waited for the death blow, but the tortoise rocked gently as he got back into the front seat. The arm of the tortoise slam
thumped closed and with a jingling sound and the Nid coaxed the machine into noisy life. With Kitiki trapped inside. The tortoise rattled and vibrated down the road and Kitiki was jiggled up and down and thrown from side to side, until she felt faint. “Help help,” she cried softly, but the roar of the creature was too loud and there was nobody to hear her. When they climbed a hill, the tortoise’s roar became a deep-
throated hum which turned into a soft whine as they rolled down the other side. She steadied herself by climbing into a box the Nid had on the back seat, holding tightly to the sides, so she could see where they were going.
She saw Handbag foraging, and called out to her, but she turned away from the noise and trotted away. She signaled frantically at Pajama grazing on the side of the road, but she meandered into the trees, without even looking up. They passed the Big Baobab, the camel thorn, the skittish weavers, the marula trees, moving so fast she became dizzy and had to shut her eyes. “Oh dear, oh dear,” Kitiki said, trying to cling on as the movement of the blue tortoise flung her from one side to the other. The reality of the
situation was coming home to her, they would notice she was gone when the kits missed their lunch and the queen would be livid, they might not allow her back if she smelled Nid-like. Despite her fear, she felt exhilarated as the world flashed past, things that looked like buffalo but without the horns, fat woolly creatures and birds with lustrous russet feathers, feet tied up and carried upside down where they clucked mournfully. She saw a zebra, except it was brown all over, and on top of it was a Nid, an astonishing sight. What a thing to tell the others at home, Nids rode on top of animals, and the animals didn’t see to mind. They also rode on rickety looking machines that looked as though they were made of sticks with wheels. Clever Nids, she thought, trying to think of a reason a wheel might be useful in the meerkat world. She saw massive versions of the Nid tortoise, and some of these carried buffalo looking animals on its back, all jammed together where they moo-ed softly. The Nids seemed to like their dogs, they walked with the creature trotting happily alongside. Traitors. She thought she saw one of her kind, but it was a strange sort of ginger cat sitting on a wall licking its tail.
The further they went, the more Nids there were, and the more tortoises. The shelters became bigger and then there were rows and rows of huge Nid colonies, clusters of Nids living side by side like bees in a long skinny hive. The window of the tortoise slid open and let in a blast of welcome cold air. The Nid held something that looked like a small stick, covered in a
brightly coloured peel, which came off with a crackle. An aroma of nut drifted through the tortoise and Kitiki’s tummy roiled and rumbled. She hadn’t eaten since the previous night. She drooled as she watched him bite and chew. He ate half of the stick, wrapped up the rest and tossed it on the back seat. Kitiki looked at it, looked at the Nid, all she could see was the back of his head, she crawled out of the box, snatched it up, and climbed back inside. She unwrapped the colourful peel and bit into it with a sigh and tasted the most wonderful thing she’d ever encountered. It was buttery and sweet it danced on her taste buds, melting deliciously to trickle down her throat. It also had nuts and something crispy she couldn’t identify, which turned out to be quite tasty. Before she could stop herself she had eaten the whole thing, and her stomach and the motion of the tortoise made her feel drowsy. She wished she were home, standing on top of a hill with the other meerkat, playing with the babies in the shelter of the burrow, anywhere but in this blue tortoise with the trees flashing past and the stomach ache. They were getting deep into Nid territory, the houses were impossibly huge and so many Nids, Nids everywhere, of all colours, sizes and shapes. Who knew there could be so many Nids in the whole wide world?
When she awoke, the blue tortoise had stopped. She peeped out of the window, she seemed to be in a huge house, the biggest house she’d ever seen. It was a house for Nid tortoises, there were rows and rows of them, in different sizes and shapes and colours. They sat silently next to each other, waiting for the return of their Nid. Without him, they were nothing but blobs of hard stuff in different colours. She heard footsteps, a jingle, she jumped back into the box, and pulled the lid over her head. The tortoise’s arm opened and she heard the Nid cough. Let’s go, she thought, that’s enough adventure, let’s go home now, but she was jolted to one side and another. It felt as though she was being picked up. She steadied herself against the jostling, but panic engulfed her. She’d managed to find herself in another sort of cage, maybe worse. She hit the side of the box with a thwack, rolled over to the other side and bumped her head. The Nid stopped walking, she heard a swoosh, he took a few steps, swoosh, and the floor jerked and she had the strange sensation of rising slowly into the air, like a bird in a thermal. She was not afraid of heights, but trees were her limit, this was something different. All of a sudden it stopped, something swooshed, and she felt the familiar jolt of the Nid walking. “Ah Michael, put your stuff in my office, I’ll meet you out front,” said a voice. “Lovely, thank you,” the other Nid replied. The jostling stopped and she felt herself on solid ground. The voices grew softer and softer and at last it was quiet. Kitiki waited in the dark for a few moments to make sure they were all gone, before lifting the lid and
pushing it to the side where it dropped to the ground with a clatter. She found herself in a small white room containing boxes, boxes on other boxes, white boxes with strings that came out of them all tangled up together like monkey ropes. It was clear the Nids were fascinated with boxes of all sorts. She headed for the window. Jane had told everyone about the hard thing that poked out that made the window that didn’t wind open. There didn’t seem to be one, which was probably a good thing, because she almost swooned when she looked down at the miniscule trees clustered around a shimmer of grass a very long way down below. Not only was she trapped and lost, but halfway up the sky. There was only one way out, the door. It was open a crack, and she eased it wide enough so she could peep through. It was another enormous Nid room, bigger even than the house for tortoises down below, and in it were rows of boxes on top of other white boxes, and in front of each box sat a Nid with his pink hands and clever opposable thumbs held out in front of him, tapping. They sat and tapped and sat and tapped, and every now again they shifted something, some of them had strings over their heads, and they talked and tapped, bared their teeth and talked, and since everyone faced the same way, they talked to the back of the head of the Nid in front of them and so on. Up close she could see small variations in their features, they were different colours, some were pink, others brown, the males all wore the same skins, but the females seemed to be more brightly coloured, their fingers and ears flashed with shiny things. She tried to see if they were tied to their desks, but it appeared not. How they managed to sit still for so long was a mystery, no real animal would
be able to do it, not with so many of them confined in such a small space. They would be tearing each other’s eyes out in no time. Kitiki waited until the coast was clear and scurried across the passage, where she hid under one of the tables. She smelt something she thought might be food, and scurried through the monkey ropes that came out of the white boxes, until she came to some sort of bag made out of woven plant. She sniffed until she found an opening, reached in a claw and extracted a huge banana. She tore back the skin and bit great chunks out of it. It was too good to leave behind, and she had no idea where her next meal would come from, so it was well to eat as much of it as possible. There was something else in the bag that smelled good, and she fumbled until she pulled out something she’d never seen before. It was brown and soft, and covered in a peel that could be seen through. She tore it open and it consisted of two pieces of soft grainy stuff with a layer of something nutty in the middle. She touched it with her tongue, savoured the rich buttery taste and began to lick it enthusiastically. Just then, a pair of knees thrust themselves at Kitiki. It was a large Nid, an enormous Nid, her monumental legs were just inches from her head. Kitiki paused in mid-bite, trying not to breathe, or even look at her, just in case she sensed something. The Nid resumed tapping on her machine. “How can I help you today?” the Nid said. “Your account number. I’m sorry we don’t cover that, I’m sorry sir, it’s not my fault sir, please shout at me, sir.” Kitiki tried to sidle away, carrying the rest of the banana and the nutty thing, climbing between the strings that came out of the backs of the boxes.
She dropped the banana, bent to retrieve it and bumped into another pair of knees. The knees shot backwards and a face appeared, the face of a Nid female with pineapple coloured hair. Her mouth stretched wide in a terrible grimace, and the shriek that came out of her shook Kitiki down to her toes. “A rat,” the Nid screamed, pointing a long red claw at Kitiki who dropped the nutty thing and stood there, trembling. “Rat!” she cried, not only was she trapped but now they were insulting her. “I’m not a rat, I’m a million miles removed from a rat, why, we’re not even distantly related. I’m not a rodent I’m almost a cat. What’s your problem? Nids like cats, Jane told me.” Some of the other Nids got up and gathered around to have a closer look. “That’s a really cute little rat,” one of them said. “I’m not a rat,” Kitiki insisted. “I’m a suricate, from the family Herpestidae.” Perhaps all the tapping and sitting in rows made them deaf, they simply didn’t listen. Either way it was not the time to get on her high horse genuswise, it was time to escape. A Nid came towards her with a long long stick
with a pouch on the end, that he held above his head and it looked as though he was about to bring it down on her head. Kitiki charged straight into the ankles of the screaming Nid with pineapple colour hair. She fell backwards and he scurried up the leg of another, jumped across into someone’s hair, over shoulders, slipping down and scampering over feet until everyone was screaming and running away and ducking behind desks. She reached a solid wall, doubled back, again over heads and ankles until she saw what looked
like an exit, and leapt towards it, her claws scrabbling on the shiny floor. She scrambled down a passage and through a hole with steps that led down. If she could reach the ground, if she could only catch a glimpse of the sun, she might be able to survive with most of her limbs intact. Down and down the steps she went, with the Nid with the pole in hot pursuit. Suddenly a hole slid open in the wall, and she saw a silver room with buttons on the wall and a startled Nid standing in the doorway. Kitiki looked at the throng of Nids behind her, the Nid in front of her, she hesitated for a moment and ran through his legs. He dashed out of the room and with a swishing sound, the doors closed and she was alone and trapped, like the proverbial rat, with nowhere to go. The room began to move with a shudder, and it felt as though she was descending, the ground seemed to be getting closer. The box ht the ground with a bump and the doors swooshed open to reveal a crowd of Nids, all looking at her as though they were terrified. She hesitated in panic for two or three seconds, and as soon as someone began a high pitched screaming, she charged straight for the nearest pair of ankles and dodged between screaming Nids, wondering, and not for the first time, why they were so frightened of her. She nipped a leg that was in her way, and ran towards what looked like trees and grass, but in between was one of the Nid’s invisible window walls and she went tumbling, landing at the feet of a large Nid dressed all in blue. Her head rang, stars jumped before her eyes. She
staggered to her feet and the Nid in blue pressed something and the window again slid miraculously open. She smelt the grass, the air with its strange Nid
smells, put her head down and ran eyes closed, until she reached a leafy bush she could dive into. “Phew,” she panted. “That was close. Rat indeed.” She suddenly remembered what she’d said to one of the princes, about curiosity and its effect on cats. She’d had a lucky escape and it was not over yet, although she was on solid ground, she had no idea where she was. It looked as though she was in the country with the water and the trees, all around her were Nid towers, some higher than the tallest tree, all of them full of Nids. One thing was for sure, there were lots of Nids, more than
thousands, more than the wildebeest could muster around their migration. There might even be more of them than ants. The bush she was in was spindly and sparse and and the grass under her feet felt funny. She could not hear if any grubs burrowing underneath, because of the noise of the tortoises that came and went with dizzying speed. She was still hungry, she wished she’d eaten more of the banana because there seemed to be nothing around that seemed remotely edible. The ground felt much too hard for burrowing. A short distance away was another clump of bushes, but as she tried to run for it, a Nid tortoise zoomed straight at her and she had shrink back against a tree. “Well hello there little suricate,” said a kindly voice. “Aren’t you a long way from home.” It was a hadedah. He walked along the grass poking his beak into the ground, spearing up edibles and chewing noisily.
“I’m lost, I came here in a giant tortoise and I don’t know how to get home again.” “Where do you live?” “Next to Towel’s tree at the water hole on the bend of the river.” “That’s a little vague, my dear, there are many rivers and many trees.” “I don’t know,” Kitiki said. All of a sudden she felt like crying. “Please don’t blubber, I hate a blubberer. Here have a snack.” The hadedah handed Kitike an earthworm he had just pulled out of the ground. Kitiki ate it thankfully, wiping her tears on the back of her hand. “Just think carefully now, north, south east or west.” “I don’t know what that means,” sniffed Kitike. “That way,” the hadedah said, pointing in one direction, “or that way, and if not that way, perhaps that way or the other way.” “The sun was on this side of my face when I came here,” Kitike said. “Then It should be on the other side when you go back,” said the hadedah and resumed poking his beak into the grass. “Just one more thing,” Kitike said, “how do I get out of here without getting killed.” “What are you? Cat or a rat,” the hadedah asked. “I’m a cat,” said Kitiki proudly. “Sorry the rats won’t help you then,” the hadedah said, stalking off. Kitiki let the sun fall on her cheek and began to walk, keeping well in the shadows, and huddling against trees. She sidled around a corner and came into a passage that had a Nid container, like the one in which Nids
would toss their sometimes delicious remnants of food. A group of rats stood around, nibbling. “Hey, look at this?” said one of the rats when he caught sight of her. “A refugee from the wild. Lost I suppose.” They surrounded her, their teeth bared, and she shrunk against the wall. Although she was bigger, there were many more of them, and they circled her, snickering, swaggering and rolling their eyes. “I escaped from the Nids, I need to get onto the right path home, please would you help me?” “What’s a Nid?” “Those, those pink things that run the place.” “We call them Binks,” said a particularly ragged rat with a half-chewn ear. “What sort of a rat are you anyway, you look a little bit like a cat.” “A cat,” the rats hissed, shrinking back in unison. “I’m a rare wild kind of rat,” she said, narrowing her eyes and poking out her teeth, hoping to look more rat-like. “Your nose is different,” said one of the rats scrutinizing her face suspiciously. “I’m totally and definitely and completely a rat,” said Kitiki. “Alright, we’ll help you, as long as you’re a rat. For cats, we do
nothing, hear me, and it’s nothing personal. I’m sure there are very fine cats out there, but I don’t know any. They like to eat us, we’d prefer they didn’t. OK, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be you look ratty enough, come.” He led her into a hole in the ground and down a very steep pipe, which she had to slither through at such speed, she lost her footing and her legs
swung out dangerously before she managed to grab a rock and steady herself. They reached the bottom of a very dark hole and the rat led her onwards, through a maze of tunnels. It was astonishing how he could
remember which way to go. He did not even hesitate. It had seemed a long time since she’d climbed into the blue tortoise, now here she was following a rat through the bowels of the earth, with thousands of Nids above her, and who knew what perils still to come. It seemed to become lighter, she could see something green, real green, and real trees and grass and sky. The tunnel ended near a stream that meandered through Nid houses. Dogs barked frantically, and over above her head, a very noisy bird glided slowly past. “You’ve got a few blocks of houses, then you’re in the country, and you’re on your own” said the rat. “Watch out for the dogs and cats and keep out of sight.” “You’ve been very kind,” Kitiki said. “Thank you, um, my dear rat, much appreciated.” She took off at a run although she was not sure in which direction she should be going, she felt the sun on her cheek, keeping to the shadows, past high walls and gates which kept away the packs of leaping, howling, slavering dogs that taunted her as she scurried past. “Hey guys,” one of the dogs barked, “A rat, a delicious big fat rat.
Come here little rat, come and play with us, we’ve got a ball, see.” “I’m not fat,” Kitiki shouted as they jumped against the gate, flashing perilously sharp teeth and jaws dripping with saliva. This set off an elaborate round of barking all the way along the street; it seemed that the entire colony’s
dogs were baying for her blood. At last she reached a field and could slow down, rest against a wall. She peeped around the corner, and as she was about to dash for it, a shape dropped to the ground next to her and a hairy arm circled her neck and flung her backwards. “Well, what do we have here,” said a voice. It was a huge ginger cat, with a long fluffy tail streaming out behind him and a death grip paw. “Oh please don’t eat me,” Kitiki cried, “I’m not a rat. I’m a cat like you, we’re practically related.” “Oh please,” the cat said, releasing her neck, “I don’t eat rats, I couldn’t be bothered. My tasted incline to salmon, anchovy spread, chicken, only the breast mind you, and I’m rather partial to the water in the toilet bowl. I’m just like to see if I’ve still got it if you know what I mean, that I can still do that cat thing, even though I don’t have to. Of course, I might chase you just for the fun of it, pointy-nose, so don’t get too relaxed.” “I’m lost, I have to get home, I have children to look after.” “You’re a mighty funny looking cat if I may say so,” the cat said suspiciously. “I’m not a cat, I’m not a rat, I’m something in between.” “That’ll explain it. No self respecting cat would not be able to find his way home, hmmm, well I’ll help you, as long as you don’t tell anybody. I don’t want to lose my reputation as a killer, especially amongst the birds.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Here’s what you do, kid, put all four feet on the ground and feel the waves going through your feet.” “My feet,” Kitiki said, looking at them. She didn’t feel anything in them at all, maybe it was something only cats have.
“Well, you just follow the vibration and if you stray off the path, your feet will tell you, second thing is to follow your nose.” Kitiki touched her pointed nose. “You breathe in, let air run right through your nasal cavity, deep breaths. Suck it all in and out and once again. You try it, in out, do one, deep breaths.” Kitiki felt quite light headed by the time the cat was satisfied that she had learned to breathe properly and let her stop. “Thanks you very much, sir,” Kitike said. “Whatever,” said the cat, flopping to the ground in a patch of sun and yawning. “Off you go now, it’s time for my afternoon nap.” Once Kitike became aware of the pull under her feet, once she’d inhaled nosefuls of air, she ran without wavering up hill and down dale, all through the night, perhaps there was more cat in her than she’d thought. From time to time she took a wrong turning, but the tingling in her feet stopped and she had to back up a few feet before she found the path again. At last, she heard a hoot and saw an owl sitting on a tree stump. It looked just like Towel, but she couldn’t be sure. She approached cautiously. “Towel?” she whispered. “Powell,” said the owl. “Towel’s my nephew, my great grandfather’s sister’s cousin, on my father’s side of course, although you can never really be sure, can you?” He cackled loudly. “Hey, junior you in there?”
Kitike heard a muffled hoot from inside a tree and Towel’s head popped out, he blinked his eyes. “Well, little Kitiki, we thought you’d been taken to the Big Banana Tree in the Sky.” “I’ve had such an adventure,” she said, “’I’m so glad to see you.” “From the looks of you, you need a juicy grub sandwich and a good lie down.” She was so tired she barely managed to trudge all the way home. As she approached the burrow, one of the squirrels came hopping towards her in a great hurry. “There you are, nobody knew where you were? you’d been taken.” “I’ve had such an adventure, Bloppy, I can’t wait to tell everyone.” “You can’t go home,” Bloppy said, hopping excitedly around her. “The queen is dead, Aunt Selma and Aunt Thelma had a terrible fight, your brother had to run for his life. anything.” “I didn’t leave, I was kidnapped,” Kitiki said, covering her eyes. The little ones, she would never see them again, she was banished, would probably never see her brothers again and not only that, she was homeless. She had fought so hard to get home only to find she didn’t have one. But then again she had survived Nidworld, the rats and a cat all in one day, she would survive this, would start digging her own burrow this very minute. Her They’re looking for you, you left without saying Everyone thought
tiredness slipped away as she contemplated the work that needed to be done.
“Dad said you can stay in our old winter burrow until you can dig one of your own, we’ll bring you something to eat later.” It was a start, all she needed was something to eat, a long nap, she’d be back to her old self. The burrow was in bad shape, most of it had fallen in, but there were one or two serviceable chambers, and she was sure she could restore the rest. She wandered through the tunnels listening to the echoes, feeling very alone. The aunts would be merciless in their revenge, she
couldn’t go near her old home, it was time to face the fact that she was all grown up now and had to do adult thing, find a mate and breed, just as soon as possible. She remembered the drudgery of the nursery, the tyranny of the little princes, the queen’s strident demands all day and all night. Now she would be able to forage all day long for herself, fatten up a bit, she could see her ribs clearly through the fur of her chest. Three little squirrel faces appeared at the door with two grasshoppers, a handful of jackalberries and, her favourite, a scorpion claw. “Thank you so much,” Kitiki said, “say kids, would you like to hear about my adventures in the land of the Nids?” Of course they would. They sat wide eyed as she regaled them with her exploits, until they dropped off one by one to sleep cuddled up in a heap. XXX Once the story got out about Kitiki’s adventure in the blue tortoise, everybody wanted to go. When the Nid came out of his house, there were so many animals crammed into the tortoise that they could hardly breathe. Little Macauley the baby elephant sat on the roof with his eyes tightly shut in the
hope that if he did not see the Nid, the Nid would not be able to see him, but unfortunately that was not the case. “Everybody out,” said the Nid, proving that there was nothing at all wrong with his eyesight.
Chapter Five One day, Maki was strolling along the path through the forest collecting leaves for his bachelor nest, he’d reached the point where he thought he really, really might be ready to move into his own place, strike out for himself and become a adult. He’d found the perfect tree after two seasons of looking. It was a big sturdy mopane with wide gnarled branches and an excellent view of any approach from which a predator might swoop, glide or slither. He didn’t mind that the worms also lived there, they kept themselves to themselves and he in turn didn’t eat any of them. There was virtually no temptation, the great hairy multicoloured crawlies that oozed all over the branches tasted horrible. He was almost ready to move out, but at the same time he had to be sure that everything was right, that there were just the right amount of leaves, and that it was safe from eagles and so on. It wasn’t that he was avoiding leaving the family nest, the very thought was silly. He was waiting until the conditions were perfect, then he would make his move. There was no rush. “Help, help, “came a plaintive voice from the base of a yellowwood tree. Maki cocked his head, it sounded very much like someone in need of rescuing and if there was one thing he knew, it was rescuing. He dropped his load of leaves and hopped through the bushes into a clearing where he found Uncle Lemon lying on his back like a giant beetle, arms and legs flailing. His skin had turned from its usual lemon green to a disturbing bronze with yellow spots. The ants tried to help, since he was blocking the entrance to their nest, but they lacked the bodies to accomplish an efficient turnover.
Maki scooped him onto on his feet, bracing him until his legs stopped wobbling and could try a step or two. He seemed alright apart from a few bruises, but he was utterly devastated at gravity’s reminder of his own mortality. “I fell,” he whimpered, “there was a particularly succulent dragonfly and I reached out my tongue and … I don’t know what happened, I dropped like a stone.” “Not good,” Maki said, “that doesn’t sound like you. You usually anchor yourself down with your tail.” “I forgot,” said Uncle Lemon ruefully. “But even so, I’ve never fallen out a tree, not ever. What is a chameleon that falls out of a tree? Dead meat for a puff adder, is what.” “I think you should go down and see Doctor Duck, just to make sure there’s nothing wrong.” Uncle Lemon shuddered “That quack? Never. Plain truth is I’m fat I’m a globule, I have no self discipline.” “You’re a little well rounded,” said Maki, “but everyone’s carrying a few pounds. It’s been a good summer but who knows what the winter will bring? We have to eat ahead, the squirrels pack a store in a tree trunk, we need fresh so we squirrel in our bodies. We have to. It’s the prudent thing to do.” “Sweet of you to say that, dear boy, but I’ve been piling on the pounds for years, slowly day by day, all those high fat grasshoppers, all those late night salty dried crickets, and flopping into my hammock for a nap. wonder I’m corpulent, I’m a libertine, a voluptuary a gargantuan slug.” No
He looked at his paunch, which had almost returned to an optimistic green. “You’re a lovely colour,” Maki said helpfully, “and it doesn’t matter what you look like, you’re an excellent leader.” It didn’t do any good. Maki gently helped him climb his tree but Uncle Lemon was determined to be inconsolable. “I’m a big fat green, no brown spotty slob,” he said, “I need to go on a regime of some sort, get back into shape, get fit again. I used to be the stud of the neighbourhood. You won’t believe me, but I used to zip downriver to cousin Basil’s and zoom back without breaking a sweat gland. My muscles were ripped, I tell you, ripped. Now look at me, soft, flabby and disgusting. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking I was a gravid female, with a bellyful of eggs, looking for a place to dig a hole.” “You have a lot of other good qualities,” Maki said, helping him heave himself into his hammock. He lay back and his tongue snapped out to snag a passing fly, it was halfway down his throat before he realized what he’d done. “Look at me, eating again,” he cried, “I’ve got to do something?” There was only one animal who could help him, he would have to put aside his prejudices, swallow his pride and ask for help from the creature he dreaded most. XXX “What do I do, doctor,” said Uncle Lemon. “I’ve been slower than
usual, and my back, my leg, my arm, this part here on my head, don’t even talk about the lump under my nose.”
“I won’t,” said Doctor Duck, peering at the chameleon lying in front of him, “it’s quite simple, you’re obese, you’re corpulent, you’re overweight, you’re over-endowed with adipose, well rounded and quite bulbous too.” “I know I know, OK!” said Uncle Lemon, irked gingery by his smug, self righteousness and prissy yellow plumage. He snapped his beak when he
spoke, and his voice came through his nose in a supercilious drawl. “What you need is a brumation.” “Sounds like something I don’t really need, what is it?” “It’s like hibernation, but you don’t sleep, there’s no torpor. You run around as normal, but you reduce your consumptive intake drastically and if you’re hungry you take perhaps a sip of water.” “A sip of water with all these grasshoppers flying around, there are so many of them I can just flip out my tongue. What am I going to do?” “Well, we all overindulge in times of plenty, but if it makes to slow to get out of the way of a puff adder, we have to do something about this, don’t we?” “You too? You’ve done this brumation thing?” “No,” sighed the doctor, rolling his eyes, “I was speaking for your, um, type as a whole. I myself have never been more than a pound overweight in my life. I eat only the freshest swamp shrimps. Haven’t touched a frog in years. “ Uncle Lemon sighed, resistance was futile, facts had to be faced. He’d been hoping for a miracle cure, of course, but the duck was having none of it. “Those grubs you eat are very high in fat,” he said. “They’re my favourite,” Uncle Lemon groaned. “And the termites, they’re loaded with grease.”
“Life won’t be worth living.” “You need a bit of self disciple,” Docduck said. “You’re eating for the future instead of for now. You’re worried that you may not have enough to eat tomorrow so you stuff yourself beyond your limits.” “Doesn’t everyone? I remember the drought of 63, I was skin and bone. We ate stones!” “There’s no rule that says you have to eat every single grasshopper that comes your way. Let it go, you’ll feel better for it too, you’ll sleep better and you’ll be lighter on your feet. Have faith. Nature will provide tomorrow’s grasshopper tomorrow. You don’t have to eat it today.” Just what he needed, Uncle Lemon thought, a philosophical duck. He squirmed at the thought of the how many months and years he’d eaten in advance. “Of course, there are many underlying reasons for overeating, comfort, boredom, childhood rearing plays a part, food as reward, food as punishment, the whole concept of why we eat food at all becomes disrupted, and we naturally pick up bad habits. Tell me about your mother.” Uncle Lemon put his head to one side, leaned back, stretching out his legs. He tried to remember, but the image was blurred. “She was always pushing food at me, eat your grub or you can’t have any butterfly wings, roll out your tongue and let me have a look, you’ve been eating ants again, haven’t you? Look at me with both eyes when I’m talking to you. On and on.” Doctor Duck rubbed his chin thoughtfully and harrumphed.
“Perhaps you resented this use of food to control you and so now you deliberately flout her quite sensible eating advice to reassert your independence from her?” “Well, she left the day after I was born, we chameleons grow up in a flash, we don’t toddle after our mothers for weeks like others I can mention, anyway, I never saw her again. I thought I saw her once in a tree on the other side of the river, but it could have been her sister, anyway, I don’t think she recognized me.” All the talk made him extraordinarily hungry, and he snapped up two files and a lethargic cricket right in front of Doctor Duck’s astonished eyes. “You think the laws of nutrition don’t apply to you?” the duck roared, flapping his wings. “You think that you alone of all the animals will eat
whatever you like without restraint, without suffering the consequences? You’re old now, you can’t eat the amounts you used to.” “I’m not old, I’ve got months and months to go, and I refuse to succumb to drooling senility. You’re right, Doctor, I’m fat and I have to do something about it, I’m going to start brumating tomorrow.” “Why wait for tomorrow,” said the doctor. “You’re only fooling yourself, so tonight you’ll stuff yourself to bursting so that you feel so sick in the morning, you don’t want to eat. Start right now, this minute, change your attitude and you’ll stay slim for the rest of your life. You can have the life, vitality and body you’ve always dreamed of. Why wait?” “One more thing, doctor, for how long should I keep this brumation thing going, two days, three?” “For the rest of your life,” Doctor Duck bellowed, waving him away.
Uncle Lemon made his way back to his tree in a slough of depression. To live with minimal nibbles and a sip of water, it was a tragedy. Counting each cricket leg and letting ripe grasshoppers hop on their merry way, it was unnatural. Food was such an integral part of life’s pleasure, he had no idea what he would do if he wasn’t catching things and eating them, or thinking and scheming about catching things and eating them. Time would hang heavy; he’d have to take up some sort of pastime. There was exercise, of course, but since chameleon movement consisted of a ponderous stilted stalking, indecision and irrelevant leg waving, it didn’t take long before he was puffed and quaking and ready to lie down. It was only when he reached his tree that his normal emerald green colour returned. He stood at the gnarled roots of his home and looked up into the canopy, and his hammock suddenly seemed a very long way up. “Psst”, said a voice. It was a small, tan weasel with matted fur and a tooth missing. He motioned stealthily to Uncle Lemon to join him under a bush. He had a long damp sniffy nose and looked at Uncle Lemon with pink-rimmed eyes. “I hear you’ve got a problem,” he whispered. Uncle Lemon’s eyes widened. News traveled fast in the animal world, but this was ridiculous. “Don’t worry,” said the weasel,” your secret’s safe with me, guaranteed discretion. Here, take these pills, no brumation, no exercise, you’ll lose
weight just like magic.” “No brumation of any sort? No exercise? How is it possible?”
“These pills contain a magic ingredient that melts the fat away, even while you eat all the foods you love. Exercise? Forget it, lie down, relax and let the magic do its work.” It sounded wonderful, a magic pill that would melt the fat away, no fuss, no mess, no pain. Wasn’t nature wonderful? He promised to return the next day with three grasshoppers for the newt, and climbed into his tree with the box of pills. The doctor had said to start immediately and he did, slipping the pill between his lips and swallowing hard. He sat in his hammock and waited for the fat to melt away. He examined his stomach, he flexed his flabby arms, pinched his puckered thighs, but nothing seemed to be happening. Well, he thought, if it doesn’t work, I won’t pay up the crickets, no harm done. Then something seemed to steal slowly over him, he began to feel strange, not bad strange, but he didn’t really feel like a nap after all, which was unusual for him. In fact, he felt as though he wanted to go for a run, yes a run. Cousin Basil would be home, he could visit, it was a long way, but he felt suddenly incredibly, marvelously energetic. He leapt out of his hammock, scurried down the tree and hurtled through the trees. “Hi Handbag,” he said as whizzed past the rhinos ruminating in the grass. “What was that?” Handbag said, as a green spark streaked past. “HI Pajama.” “Uncle Lemon, what the ...” Pajama cried, but he was already out of sight.
He ran up the hill and down the other side, all the way around the Big Rock to where the trees ended and the yellow savannah began and he could really stretch his legs. By the time he reached Cousin Basil’s tree, that lay on the edge of the wetlands and pulled up underneath it, the blood coursed through his veins, making his fingers and toes tingle. “What a nice surprise,” said Basil looking down the tree trunk. “Come on up and have a bite.” In a trice, Uncle Lemon scuttled up to the branch where Basil lay in his hammock watching a bird fight with a lizard. beetle head.” Uncle Lemon was surprised to find that he didn’t feel hungry at all. On the contrary, the very thought of food and putting it in his mouth was almost sickening. If this carried on, his brumation would be as easy as snapping up a drowsy dragonfly on a hot summer afternoon. “Can’t,” he said emphatically. “I’m on a brumation.” “I tried that once, I thought I was going to faint, worst two hours of my life,” Cousin Basil said. Since Uncle Lemon wasn’t going to eat the beetle head, Basil didn’t mind if he did. He licked his fingers fastidiously afterwards casting cautious looks at Uncle Lemon. He didn’t look right in the face somehow, he was more olive than lemon, and his eyes seemed to be twirling in different directions. “So what’s the news from your side of the pond?” he asked. “How’s the egg situation, I’m just dying for some of those the little beige speckled ones.” “Pull up a twig, here, have a
“Average, you know, it’s out of season,” Uncle Lemon replied.
found he was having a great deal of difficulty sitting still, his legs trembled to be off, his feet tapped, he squirmed and shifted and finally he sprang up. “Sorry Baz, would love to stay for a chat, but busy busy.” “But you only just got here,” Cousin Basil said but Uncle Lemon was already halfway down the tree, arms pumping, legs whirring. He hit the
ground running and with a cheery wave whizzed away into the distance. Dingding the cheetah had just managed to get her cubs settled down for their afternoon nap, when Uncle Lemon screeched to a halt in front of her. “Race you to those trees,” he said. She wasn’t sure she liked the look of his face, his eyes glittered, or at least the one that looked at her, the other one swiveled in a random and peculiar way. “Oh all right,” Dingding said, unable to resist any challenge that involved her one unique skill. They set off, and Dingding tried her best, but it seemed that Uncle Lemon was possessed of some supernatural power, they ran around the anthill, past the Big Rock, through the forest, into the hills and back past the water hole, and she only beat him by a mile. Certainly some sort of world chameleon record. “Let’s run back,” said Uncle Lemon bouncing to be off, but Dingding collapsed in the shade of the tree, and it was clear there would be no more racing for her. Uncle Lemon ran in a way he had never managed even as a stripling, and the more he ran, the more he wanted to run, just to see how far and how
fast was possible, pushing the limits of his endurance, enjoying the scream of his muscles, the throbbing in his head, they way his eyes bent backwards from the speed. He ran so fast that he ran right past his tree, doubled back and scuttled up the trunk. On the way he abstemiously passed up two beetles and a moth that was not as well concealed as it thought. He climbed into his hammock and snuggled down gratefully. He looked at his stomach, the fat was
definitely melting off, he jiggled his arms, they seemed much less jiggly to him, and even his thighs weren’t quite so puckered. Suddenly every last bit of energy drained away, his eyelids drooped and he fell into a deep sleep. He dreamed about grasshoppers, they were everywhere, the trees had been stripped bare, the animals stood bewildered in a flurry of grasshoppers so numerous they bumped into him with their powdery legs. “Eat us,” they cried in raspy little voices, “Not all of us, just some of us, not me, him! Eat him.” When he woke, he felt sluggish and dozy, he could barely open his eyes. His head felt as though it was filled with algae. Every muscle in his body screamed with its own kind of pain and his tongue dangled in an alarming way. “I’m hungry,” he groaned, and nibbled on a stale cicada arm he had lying around. He took out the little box of pills and inserted one between his lips, swallowing it with a little dew caught in the hollow of a leaf. Almost instantly he was on his feet and off, scuttling down the tree, loping over twigs and roots, bounding through the grass, careening over rocks and cliffs.
“He’s not going to last long if he keeps that up,” said Pisi, chewing thoughtfully on a duiker rib. XXX A few days later, Maki met Uncle Lemon at the water hole where he slurped up great mouthfuls of cool water. “You look fantastic,” Maki said. “your brumation really seems to be working.” Uncle Lemon preened, turned this way and that so Maki could see his svelte new figure, his streamlined arms and muscular thighs. “It’s these pills,” he said, holding out the box. “They’re wonderful, I can run all day, I’m never tired, and I don’t feel like eating at all.” “Are you sure they’re safe,” asked Maki, squinting at the box. At that moment a little wind came up which whipped the box right out of Uncle Lemon’s hand, it dropped in the water, bobbed on a ripple for a tantalizing second. “Eek,” he said, trying to snatch it back, but it was pulled away by the current into a whirlpool that twirled and eddied and they watched in horror as the little box sank into the depths of the waterhole. “Oh well, can always find that weasel again and get some more,” said Uncle Lemon cheerfully. “Be careful,” Maki cried, but Uncle Lemon was already a blur in the distance. XXX After a long morning of browsing, musing and playing the fool with the other mares, Pajama sauntered down the waterhole and drank deep of the
cool water. All of a sudden, a strange feeling came over her. She felt like kicking her heels into the air. It was most peculiar. She’d been looking
forward to a little snooze in the shade of a tree, but she no longer felt tired. She was, in fact, raring to go, but since it was midday and the sun was high overhead, most of the animals were curled up and snoring in a spot of cool shade. She set off at the gallop down the path, looking for a prank or a playmate. Dingding had just settled herself in the shade to lick herself clean when Pajama pranced in front of her. “Race you to the waterhole,” she said, bouncing up and down on the tips of her hooves. “Not you too,” Dingding said. “What’s going on? I was just thinking about catching a snack, I’ve got kittens to feed, I can’t keep wasting my energy on you lot.” “You can’t catch me, slowpoke,” Pajama said, turning around and presenting a juicy thigh. “Scaredly cat, you’re chicken, that’s what you are, peck, peck, peck.” Dingding took a deep breath. Taunts about her ability as a short
distance runner she could not tolerate. She took off after Pajama, round the anthill, past the Big Rock, back over the anthill, around the Big Rock, over the hill, down the dale and all the way around the waterhole, Pajama too seemed to have supernatural energy and speed and to Dingding’s annoyance, the stripy bum remained a length or two ahead. “What’s the matter?” Pajama cried, as Dingding collapsed to the ground with exhaustion. “Aren’t you hungry? Look, look at this lovely fat rump of mine, yum yum, delicious.”
Dingding grunted, but did not move. There was something going on, that was for sure, but she was too tired to think about it. Pajama streaked
away to find somebody else with enough energy to chase her, and at last Dingding could close her eyes. “Hey, Hey,” said a voice in her ear. It was Gucky the crocodile. He had crawled all the way out of the water hole, up the river bank and stood in front of her, his eyes bright and shining, teeth glittering in the sun. “Race you to the anthill,” he said, thumping his tail. XXX “What do you mean, you can’t give me any more,” Uncle Lemon cried. The weasel leaned against a tree with his arms crossed over his chest. “My fee is a rodent of some sort, preferably a mouse, but any little shrew or gerbil will do.” “Give me a pill and I’ll bring you ten really juicy grasshoppers.” “Oh no, I’ve heard that a thousand times. exceptions.” Uncle Lemon grabbed his neck and shook him until his teeth rattled. “Please please, you’ve got to give me some more, I’m so tired, I can’t keep awake, and hungry! I’ve had six crickets and fourteen flies already and it’s not even lunchtime. “ “I can’t give you any more. I don’t have any. I can’t get any. The tree’s finished until the summer. I do have something you rub on your chest and it melts the fat like magic.” “I’m not rubbing something on my chest, give me the pills.” “Get a grip,” the weasel gasped. “I mean, let go.” Payment upfront, no
Uncle Lemon let him go, and he staggered off, casting reproachful glances over his shoulder. Uncle Lemon felt ashamed of himself, the socalled leader of the animals behaving like a hooligan. It didn’t matter that he was provoked; he was supposed to be the so-called leader, set an example. What had come over him? It was the pills, the magic pills now drowned in the waterhole. Just then, Handbag thundered past at a speed she had never reached in her prime. She galloped away into the distance, sorting. An uneasy feeling began to steal over Uncle Lemon. He hurried to the Big Rock that overlooked the water hole, climbing fastidiously hand over hand and as he crested the rise, an astonishing sight met his eyes. Springboks bounced up and down
the hills and valleys, white rumps flashing, propelling themselves a dizzy distance into the air. Everywhere he looked there were animals in motion, running, jumping, swinging, somersaulting, the baboons started a food fight and fruits and roots were being flung in all directions. The elephants squirted water all over everyone, while the jackals howled at a moon that wasn’t there. The lions chased the buffalo, who raced the rhino, who ran after the wildebeest, who stomped on the tortoise. It was a disaster, it looked like a bee’s nest after a honey badger’s gentle annihilation. “Oh dear,” said Uncle Lemon, “it’s all my fault. What in the world am I going to do?” Just then a ferocious crack of lightning ripped across the sky trailing thunder that crashed about the valley with flashes of blue and purple. The wind swooped down and whipped up the trees, sending the grass into a flurry. The more timid animals scurried into their burrows and caves, but the rest
continued frolicking, bouncing and a strange howling that echoed around the valley. A rumble sounded, lights flashed against thunderous clouds and the rain swept down in sheets onto the animals, pouring into the earth, pooling and eddying into the river that fattened as it rushed over rocks and plunged down ravines, gurgling into the sink of the water hole. It swirled round and round and spilled out over the waterfall into the thousand streams that fed the delta, which it submerged into a vast lake, plundered by cranes and frogs. The animals downstream would get it, but it was too late to warn Uncle Baz. He lay in his hammock and watched the water drip off the leaves. He could only hope that the rain would wash the pills out of the water hole or at least keep the animals out of harm’s way until things could go back to normal. He caught a fresh grasshopper, ate it and caught another. He was about to catch a third, but he stopped himself. Moderation, he thought, or at least if he felt hungry later, he’d catch one later. The doctor was right, there would always be grasshoppers, one only had to have faith. It was good to believe that, almost compulsory, or else why bother to get out of the hammock in the morning. XXX The diurnal animals were slow in getting up after the debauch of the night before, but one by one they trickled out of nest, hole and burrow and made their way down to the waterhole. Uncle Lemon watched them from the vantage point of the big rock, some looked at the water warily. Others hung back to see what everyone else was going to do. Finally Pajama sunk her nose into the liquid and blew
bubbles, but then she began to leap around, wiggling her rear and baring her teeth, swishing her tail around in a circle. Suddenly she stopped. “I’m just kidding,” she chortled. “Come on in, the water’s fine.” Uncle Lemon breathed a sigh of relief. They seemed to be back to their old selves. The crocodiles burbled peacefully in the shallows, the
springbok sipped silently as far away from the crocodiles as possible, the elephants slurped gently. It was calm, peaceful, somnolent, just the way it should be. Normal, in fact. Just then, he spotted Cousin Basil moving at a tremendous speed from his home downriver past the baobab, past the quiver tree where the crested barbets lived, over the big anthill. He looked different, he was a brilliant
emerald green, and he virtually flew up the big rock and screamed to a halt in front of Uncle Lemon. “Wanna race?” he said, bouncing up and down, poking Uncle Lemon in the ribs. “Come on, lazy bones, race you to the waterhole.”
Chapter Six It was a crisis, the animals agreed, a disaster of epic proportions, a catastrophe, a mystery, a puzzle that baffled everyone, something would have to be done, and soon. It was the sun, it seemed to have got lost. It hadn’t appeared for a long time, longer than anyone could remember. Without watches or calendars and with only a vague conception of time, the animals weren’t sure when last the sun had shone, but they all knew it had been so long that some of the younger animals thought it was something the elders made up to entertain them. Under normal circumstances, the animals could count on the sun
coming up and going down every single day. There were clouds that covered its glowing face from time to time, but they came and left. This forbidding grim blanket so close to the earth was something they’d never seen before. Time became measured in When the Sun Was Still Shining and the start of the Big Gloom. “It’s those Nids,” the wildebeest grumbled. It was a safe bet that if something out of the ordinary happened, it could be blamed on the Nids, but the very thought of the their being able to control the weather, along with everything else, was something nobody wanted to talk about. The reptiles were particularly badly affected by the lack of sun, the crocodiles stretched out on the river bank optimistically; waiting for the heavenly hot air, but it never came. The birds waited for the sun to heat up their nests so their eggs would hatch, but it remained gloomy as ever, day after day after interminable day. The cats were miserable and howled and fought all night, waking up the diurnals and since everyone was frightened
and tired, they became irritable and snappish. Uncle Lemon’s joints were killing him, and the gloom meant that the grasshoppers kept to their hiding places instead of flying around they way they were meant to. “We’re sitting ducks,” the lizards complained. “We’re being picked off one by one, it’s open season on cold blooded creatures.” “Our babies,” the birds cried. “If they don’t hatch soon, they’ll die.” Everyone had a theory on the sun’s absence, which added add to the general disquiet. The cheetah, who believed they got their phenomenal
energy from the sun, were convinced they were being punished for eating aardvark. The baboons thought it was a sign that the planet was dying and spent hours making complex escape plans and cuffing each other. The
worms were delighted, they didn’t much like the sun, but everyone suffered in some small way, even if it was a persistent skin itch that was impossible to reach. Uncle Lemon felt overwhelmed by the desire to curl up in a ball and hibernate, he could hardly keep his eyes open. Tragedies were a daily
occurrence, bird parents flew off anxiously to see if the sun was at least going to come one day, and had their eggs eaten by rapacious cervals. “I’m sure the sun is very busy somewhere else, and I’m sure it’ll be here soon,” said Kitiki brightly trying to cheery everybody up, but each day the animals scanned the horizon, hoping their devotion would draw the golden orb right out of the clouds. To no avail, the sky remained as dull and grey as before. “We’re going to have to send someone, a representative, a delegate, a parly, someone find out what’s going on,” Uncle Lemon said. He’d been
sleeping all day, but was still bone tired, he was hungry, but could not raise the slightest bit of interest in the business of fetching food. He could hardly roll himself out of his hammock, it was that bad, but he managed to wobble onto his feet and stagger out onto a branch where he happened upon some leopard butterflies and although his spring-loaded tongue was unusually sluggish, managed to get two of the younger ones before they scattered. They were mostly wing, but he munched slowly, racking his brains for a solution to their problem, frustrated by the fact that, being a squamata he simply did not have enough information on which to base a sound judgment, let alone a way to turn it into a plan of action. The sun did what it did and nobody could do anything about it, but quite clearly as the leader, he would need to be seen to be doing something, if only to keep their spirits up. Someone would have to go over the mountains in the direction in which the sun rose and find out what was happening, the survival of the animals depended on it. Volunteers were called for and a mini-stampede ensued, almost everyone had something more pressing to do. There were a few adventurous volunteers mostly those animals who, due to the extreme conformity of their social systems were desperate for something more. Kitiki was first in line and she based her suitability on the basis that she’d already been on an adventurous journey into Nidland and knew her way around. “You’ll be moving through Nid territory in the daylight,” said Uncle Lemon, “You have to be able to pass for a Nid animal.” That eliminated any of the elephant and zebra, as well as the bigger of the wildebeest. Phydeaux, the wild dog, was passably Nid-like in a low-light
situation, but he refused to travel without at least his cousin Spot and auntie Ruff. “We’re pack animals,” he said defensively. “Strength in numbers and all that.” “Maybe one of you can pass as a Nid dog, but not the lot of you. Look at yourselves.” They did, and thought they looked remarkably handsome, if not quite like Nid dogs. Uncle Lemon shook his head. He was looking for a certain something that went beyond the ability to blend in, a smart kind of cunning, a calm demeanor, tenacity, and most of all courage. He’d seen a mother jackal defend her cubs from a lioness, when good jackal sense would have dictated that she save herself, sacrifice the little ones for the sake of those she would have in the future. She’d pushed the pups backwards into a cave with her rump, and snapped and snarled at the predator that loomed over her. With a swipe of its huge claws, the jackal’s ear was ripped open, but she stood her ground and attacked desperately, her jaws inches from the big cat’s nose. The lioness seemed to think the result not worth the effort and wandered off to find something easier to eat. The jackal’s mate returned and found her in a terrible state, for days he brought food for mother and pups until she recovered her strength. From time to time he saw them, always together, the female with the ripped ear, the male with his handsome black and silver markings and a succession of healthy robust puppies stumbling at their feet. “Bring me Carol,” Uncle Lemon decided.
“Calling Carol,” hooted Towel, jumping off a branch and swooping away. “Er, about Carol,” said Pisi, sidling up to Uncle Lemon. “I think you should know that she’s not what she used to be.” “What do you mean?” said Uncle Lemon. He glared at her, this was not the time for idle gossip, slander and innuendo, the future of the valley was threatened as never before and only Carol could save it. “Her mate died, surprised a snake curled up in an old burrow. She hasn’t been the same since. Lives in a cave near the black rock and hardly comes out, scavenges for food.” When she loped out of the bushes, he was shocked by her appearance, so gaunt he could see the shadows of her ribs beneath the dull, flea-bitten fur. The torn ear had healed somewhat but was nevertheless
mangled, she looked as though she was preparing to die. He felt unutterably sad for her, but she was perfect for the job he had in mind. She had none of the usual silver jackal markings on her back, she looked just like a mangy, sorry Nid dog, the kind that Jane said got tied up next to the house with a rope around the neck and left alone all day. “We have an important job for you Carol,” said Uncle Lemon gravely, and she listened intently as he explained the situation, what she was to do and not forgetting all the perils she might encounter along the way. As he spoke, he saw a remarkable change come over her, her spine stiffened, a light gleamed in her eyes and finally when she got to her feet and her tail wagged enthusiastically, he felt a surge of relief that at last something was being done about their perilous situation of the valley and of Carol.
The animals that hadn’t been chosen for the important task of finding the sun began muttering and complaining, but Uncle Lemon put up an arthritic finger and gave them his sternest look. “The judge’s decision is final,” he said, “and that is that.” XXX The animals hoped the sun would greet them as usual in the morning, but it was not to be. Once again, a heavy grey thickness hung low overhead, and to make things worse, for some of the animals at least, a light and chilly drizzle filtered down through the trees. “Be careful,” said Uncle Lemon, as Carol set off down the road. She followed the river downstream to where it became narrow enough to cross before it before it fanned out into the hundred trickles of water that made up the wetlands. Her feet became soft in the damp ground, and after a time she reached solid, baking-hard ground and her foot pads cracked, her fur became matted with spiky plants that clutched and left their seeds. She
walked briskly and once or twice it crossed her mind that it would have been better if her mate was walking by her side. She missed him in a hollow way she still didn’t understand, other animals seemed to take these deaths in their stride, they simply went out and found someone else, amongst her breed death meant you hunted alone. She walked down valleys and up hills, until she crested a rise and saw a valley laid out below her, a strangely flat landscape divided into squares with fences and Nid structures and hundreds of animals she did not recognize crammed close up to each other. The sky was still a ghostly grey, but it seemed lighter, she was definitely getting closer to the sun. She quickened
her pace through the trees to the bottom of the hill, and remembering that she was a Nid dog, walked as casually as possible up to one of the Nid fences, where the creatures stood quiet and placid, chewing. They looked like
buffalo, but the wrong colour for the bush, snowy white with splotches of black that everyone knew could be seen for miles. The animals stood and munched, making no attempt to escape, although the fence could easily be broken with the application of the many strong shoulders present. They seemed dull and uninterested, not to mention totally inarticulate. “What kind of animal are you?” she asked, leaning nonchalantly on the fence post. “Moo,” said the animal and chewed, staring off into space. The Nids seemed to like white animals, in another field was a flock of creatures the size of small deer, with long curly fur all over their bodies. They shrank back as she approached, quivering and trembling and huddling very close together, and yet making no move to run away. “Baa,” they said. It seemed to Carol that belonging to Nids turned animals into their masters, they lost the old speech and the instincts that kept them safe from predators were blunted and lost when there were none. She met a creature that looked a bit like a canine, it was black, another terrible colour for the bush, although not as bad as white in the survival stakes. The canine had a pointy face and a long body with very short legs. When the canine saw Carol, he began an annoying yap yapping that made her teeth itch, all the while bouncing up and down on his stubby legs.
“If you don’t stop doing that I’m going to snap your neck,” she said politely. “Oh, alright,” said the canine. “What kind of canine are you?” “I’m a daschund,” the animal declared. “This is my house. You not a real dog, you wild dog, you here to steal the lambs. I will have to call my owner.” He had a slight accent, but she found she could understand him quite well as long as he didn’t speak too fast. “I’m not looking for lambs, I’m looking for the sun,” she said, “our valley hasn’t had any sun for such a long time, the animals are getting sick and will soon die if the sun doesn’t come out soon.” “That’s nothing, ve make our own zun here,” said the dachshund. “Come wiff me,” the canine said, and he led the way into the Nid shelter. She hesitated on the step, it was a Nid house after all, she’d never been in one, it smelled funny, a kaleidoscope of smells some of which she couldn’t identify. “Pay attention, doggy,” the dachshund said. “Look up at the sky” He climbed onto a chair and pressed his nose to the wall and instantly Carol was blinded by the dazzling force overhead, it was as though the sun had instantly decided to appear, not gently on the horizon bathed in golden clouds, but all in one go. She rubbed her eyes with her knees. “Now, watch,” he pressed the switch with his nose, and the sun disappeared, and the room suddenly seemed darker.
“How do you do that?” Carol breathed, looking up at where the sun had been, stars danced over her retina. “Iz a bulb,” said the dog. He jumped off the table, and disappeared around a corner, Carol heard rustling and scratching and finally he emerged with something in his mouth. It was round on one end and straight on the other, and identical to the bulb of the sun that was in the sky of the Nid’s house. “Ve haff a zun in each room,” said the dachshund. “Well that’s very nice, thanks,” said Carol, and she was about to take it in her mouth, astonished at how easily her mission had been accomplished, but the dog stood in front of her and held up a paw. “I vant two mice and vun sausage,’ he said. “What do you mean?” she said bamused. “Two mice und vun sausage I said.” “I don’t understand, maybe it’s the accent?” “You gotta pay, doggy. Every vun gotta pay,” he yapped, bouncing on his chubby legs. “You’re out of luck, I don’t have a sausage with me right now, jackals don’t have pockets. I can regurgitate the lizard I had for breakfast, if you’d like that?” “Not good enuff, two mice, one sausage. Ahhh, your face, look at your face, alright, I make a deal. Vun mouse und two sausages, that’s my last offer.” Carol looked at the bulb, she looked at the dachshund. She had come so far already, her goal was in her grasp, and now this creature was about to
spoil it by demanding food from her for his Nid sun. She wasn’t about to be pushed around by cheeky Nid creature. “I already told you, I don’t have anything with me, I’ll pay you later.” “No, no, no credit. I know you wild ones, I give you zee bulb, I never see you again, pay up, doggy, or I’m going to bark.” “Is that a threat I’m hearing,” Carol said. “Bet you can’t run half a mile with those silly short legs of yours.” The dachshund began to bark, yap, yap yap. Carol laughed. “Is that the best you can do? Whoo, my ears are hurting, whooo, I’m so scared.” Suddenly there was a sound, and a Nid appeared in the doorway, a huge Nid, an enormous Nid, the largest Nid Carol had ever seen in her life, and the Nid had a stick in her hand, which she held up above her head, Carol grabbed the bulb in her mouth and jumped for the window and what she thought would be freedom, but she fell to the ground, still gripping the sun tightly between her teeth. The huge Nid bore down on her with the stick held high, with the dachshund yapping and darting between her legs. The Nid swung with the stick and glanced off Carol’s head, and before she was able to raise it once again, Carol pretended to be running one way and at the last moment ran the other towards the open door, and with thoughts of the stick crashing on her head she was down the stairs, over the the farm fence and into the bushes before the huge Nid had reached as far as the garden gate. “Phew,” she said, and as she opened her mouth, the bulb slipped out, tumbled onto a rock, fell to the ground with a crash and broke into pieces.
“Oh no,” she cried. She tried to pick it up in her mouth, but the pieces were sharp, she tasted blood. “What am I going to do,” she said. “I can’t go back there with that little snitch and that big, enormous Nid. What am I going to do?” Suddenly she felt something warm on the top of her head, something she hadn’t felt for a long time, it was the sun, it shone out in a dazzling shard onto the biggest Nid shelter Carol had ever seen, lighting it up in dazzling corrugated silver, for an instant, then it disappeared behind the clouds. Perhaps the building was the sun’s house, Carol wondered, it was certainly large enough and shiny. Although one was never sure how large the sun would be, it didn’t make sense to have a building that large unless one was going to put something large in it. That was Carol’s logic, she couldn’t see any flaws. She approached the building carefully; making sure nobody saw her by sidling against walls, slinking in and out of bushes and cocking an eye for the traitorous dachshund. A few Nids milled around, setting fire to sticks and putting them in their mouths, baring their teeth and making noises at one another. One of them went into the building and she slipped in as the door closed behind him, and was rigid with horror at the terrible sight met her eyes. The structure was quite clearly not the sun’s house, it was crammed with animals, the creatures that said moo and the creatures that said baa. The moos were in rows, there were thousands of them, row upon row of silent and waiting. A Nid with a short stick prodded a moo onto a platform, tied his front legs with a chain, tied his back legs with a chain, and off he went all by himself along the platform, followed by the next moo and the next, until they
reached a cliff, an abyss. When it looked as though they would fall over the cliff and into the abyss, a Nid put a machine against the moo’s head, the moo gave a strangled cry, twitched, jerked and was still. A giant hook came down, a Nid attached it to the chains on the moo’s feet and the animal was turned upside down, and dangled on the end of a chain. Its place was taken by a right side up moo, which soon ended upside down just like the others. Carol suddenly realized where she was, she was in Hell. She knew about hell of course, all animal parents used Hell and cages as a terrible warning when their little ones were naughty, they were the universal parental instruments of chastisement, although descriptions of hell were vague as nobody had ever been there. “Eat your spinach or you’re going to hell”, mother ducks would tell their recalcitrant babies. “Stop playing with that otter and eat it or you’re going to hell,” Carol recalled her own mother saying. If you were good, you went to the Big Savannah or the Tree or Egg or Planet in the Sky, where there was lots of sunshine, and good things to eat. If you were bad, it was straight to Hell for you. It was quite clear that the moos and had been very bad to end up upside down like that. There was worse to come. She saw hundreds of baa’s in cages. Nids were grabbing the baa’s and cutting their hair off. The naked little animals cried and shivered and once they were hairless and pink like the Nids themselves, they ended like moos, hanging upside down on hooks. It was almost too much to bear, and then she saw the pigs. They were very funny looking pigs, not at all like the bushpigs she saw in the forest,
covered with fur and with long sharp teeth. These pigs were completely pink and hairless just like the Nids and they were jammed together like, bushbabies in a nest, hardly able to move. There was worse. Chickens, hundreds of them, no thousands of them in cages so tiny, they couldn’t even stand up. Carol felt sick to her stomach looking at them. Their feathers were falling out, their beaks had grown so long they could barely eat. They must have been terribly naughty chickens, Carol thought, but her stomach churned from the stench, and she could bear no more. She slipped out of the structure and was relieved to breathe the cool air outside. Then she saw it, it was the sun, it was out and high overhead. Her mission, she had almost forgotten the task she’d been set. “Hey, mister sun,” she said, “I mean no disrespect and I know you’re busy, but would you mind .. would you mind terribly …” The sun did not answer, although it seemed to Carol he was listening. “Our valley hasn’t had sun for a very long time. becoming sick, would you mind ….?” “Dere she is.” Carol heard a familiar yap, and around the corner came the dachshund, with the enormous Nid with her stick, and right behind them was another Nid with a banga stiick. Carol flattened her ears back, stepped back a pace. She knew the odds, knew what was at stake. She waited until they were almost upon her before she ran straight at them, dodging past the dachshund and giving him a little nip on his round bottom as she passed. The enormous Nid was The animals are
screaming maniacally, and she swiped her with a claw in mid-hurtle. The other Nid stopped and put the banga stick against his shoulder. Carol ducked this way and that, she pretended to be running in one direction then stopped and took off in a different direction, so that the Nid did not know which way to point the banga stick. So intent was he on pointing that he didn’t see her coming straight at him until she was right on top of him, digging her claws into his face, bouncing off and running as though all the demons of Hell were after her, although she now knew there were no demons in hell, no devils with sharp shiny teeth, no cauldrons of fire, just Nids and cages and upside down moos. As she ran, she heard a loud banga and felt something pass so fast next to her ear it made a pwing noise. Gathering up the very last of her strength, she leapt across a rock, skirted a small pond and hurled herself into the bushes as the pwings flew past her ears one after the other. She lay in the bushes for a while, panting, heaving, it felt as though her lungs were on fire. She could see the Nids standing together, the one with the banga stick, the enormous one waving her broom, the little dog yapping and bouncing around their feet. The enormous Nid lifted her foot and kicked at the dog, and he gave a strangled cry and ran away with his tail between his legs. When she finally caught her breath, she looked up into the sky. The sun was slipped in and out of the clouds so smoothly, it looked as though it was daring her to follow, but then it slipped into its grey blanket and did not reemerge.
Carol’s shoulders slumped, her tail slumped, her ears slumped, she’d failed, she’d been through the jaws of hell and failed. There was nothing else to do but make the long journey home, and hope she didn’t end up as a leopard snack on the way. She refreshed herself at a nearby pond and began the long journey, trudging on her aching feet, her heart heavy. As she walked, she noticed that the sun seemed to be following her. She stopped and the sun stopped. She walked and the sun walked with her. She felt a surge of joy. She hadn’t failed after all. The sun had heard her plea and was following her back to the valley. She was so happy, her tiredness disappeared and she began to run, and as she ran, so did the sun. The clouds melted away and soon the sky was blue and clear with the sun high overhead. She heard a noise, a soft whine, but she did not stop, there was no time, she was worried that the sun would change its mind, would go back to where it came from. It was a whine of desperation and hopelessness, and she slackened her pace, trying to block the sound and force herself to continue on her mission. It sounded like the whimper of some canine-like creature. She stopped, and the sun stopped too, she turned off the path and went into the trees, with the sun following until she found a clearing. There was a Nid shelter, but it was not a very good shelter as Nid shelters went. It consisted of wooden pieces cobbled together and next to it was a small white Nid dog tied up with a taut length of rope. The creature was trying to reach a bowl of water, which was just out of reach, and he jumped and yelped as the rope pulled him back again and again.
Carol went up to him and without a word, nosed the bowl carefully alone the ground so that he could reach it. He plunged his nose in the water, slurping and splashing, he looked up at Carol. “Thanks … sorry …. It’s been three days.” He was white all over, that really terrible colour the Nids loved so much, and not only that, but his fur was very long and silky, just perfect for the ticks and twigs and blackjacks. “What the heck kind of animal are you anyway,” asked Carol. “I’m a Maltese poodle, from Malta originally, although I’ve never been there.” “Your hairdo is a bit impractical for these parts, if I may say so. Must take an age getting ready in the mornings.” “Tell me about it,” the poodle said, handing Carol a peculiar shaped object that looked as though it could be food. “It’s a Dog-Log. If you don’t like it, I’ve also got some Puppy-O’s left over, they’re my favourite.” Carol crunched the Dog-Log between her teeth and to her surprise, found it quite delicious if a little dry. “Help yourself,” said the Maltese, pushing a bowl of strange yellow, hard things at her. They weren’t too bad, and it felt good to have a full
stomach after all the activity. “I have to go,” she said, the poodle looked stricken. “Where are you going? Are you leaving me?” “I have to go back to my home, I’ve got the sun and I have to take him back to the valley.”
The poodle looked confused. “You wouldn’t be prepared to help me escape would you? I can’t stand being tied up here, he goes away for weeks and I run out of food. I’ve been trying to get away for years, do you think you can chew me free?” “Of course I can, but once you’re free, where are you going to go?” said Carol. “With you, of course. To the bush, I’ve been dreaming about it for years, every day, chained up to the house, dreaming of mountain streams and forest trees.” “But you’re a Nid dog, you don’t know anything about the wild. DogLog’s don’t grow on trees, you know. What do you know about hunting?” “I’ll learn,” said the Maltese. “You can teach me, I bet you’re a fantastic hunter.” “I used to be,” said Carol ruefully. He seemed like an innocuous little fellow and if he wanted to be free it was no skin off her ear tips. She began to chew at the rope that was around his neck, taking care not to chew off his ear. When the rope fell to the ground, the poodle bounced up and down with joy. “I’m free, I’m free,” he cried. “Good for you, now I have to go and deliver a sun.” “Race you home,” the Maltese said, hurtling away in the completely wrong direction, he turned around, bounced a few times just for the joy of it, and followed Carol and the sun on the path to his new home. As they got closer, she realized that it was good to have a fellow by her side, another body to share the load. His joy and exuberant spirits began to
infect her, she felt her heart lighten, the trees seemed more fragrant, the birds melody made her heart ache, all around her life buzzed and hopped and fizzled. He never once complained about being tired or about the fact that his hairdo quickly became a mess of sticks and mud, which had the virtue of making him a little less white and likely to be the target of a snack incident. When they crested the rise on which the giant anthill stood and looked down over the valley, she could see that the sun had already arrived, the savannah was bathed in a rolling, luxurious golden light, the river sparkled. The animals frolicked, wallowed and rolled over and over in the dust. She climbed onto the big rock which was bathed in sunlight and looked down at the waterhole, where the crocodiles lolled, thawing their ancient bones. The cats had trampled places for themselves in the long grass, and stretched out for a bout of serious sun worship, vowing to never touch aardvark ever again. The meerkat watched delightedly as the scorpions
scuttle out of their holes to sunbathe, waving their pincers in the air. The baboons were engaged in a celebration of their own. The sun’s reappearance meant they didn’t need to leave the planet at all, which was convenient because in any event, nobody had come up with a suitable idea for accomplishing this. Eggs were hatching everywhere in a cacophony of
chirping, and as Carol took the path that led past the water hole and into the valley, she looked back at her panting companion. “This isn’t going to be easy, you’re not an actual wild animal,” she said. “I know,” said the poodle, looking crestfallen, “I know I’m a sissy, I’ve never done this amount of running in my life, my feet are bleeding, but I’m a
dog just like you are, under this sissy hairdo beats the heart of a wolf, you’ll see.” XXX They made an odd couple in the valley, the grizzled old jackal with the torn ear, and the weirdly proportioned, fluffy, dirty canine she’d adopted as a substitute made. It was not unusual, intra-species friendship was common, but the animals didn’t know what to make of one of their own taking up with a strange newcomer. They had never seen such a creature before. He was very polite, he didn’t push his way into the water like others that could be mentioned. He waited until the springbok moved away before taking his turn standing next to Carol, with his shoulder against hers, lapping enthusiastically with his pink tongue. “Excuse me for asking,” said Handbag, ever keen for a bit of juicy gossip, “are you a boy or a girl?” “I’m a sort of a boy,” said the poodle. “Sort of? That’s like being sort of pregnant, har har,” she chortled. “I was a boy,” the poodle said, wistfully, “then I went to the hospital and they put me to sleep and then they cut …” He broke off. The animals stopped their drinking and frolicking and listened attentively. “Cut what,” breathed Pisi the hyena. “They made it so I can’t make babies,” said the poodle, dropping his head. Horror rippled through the animals. “The Nids did that? Cut off your, um, bits?”
“Barbaric,” said Xammi the lion, checking to make sure his bits were still attached. “I’d never let anyone do that to me, I’d take their head off first.” “Well, they didn’t ask me,” said the poodle, “one day I was a boy, next day I was …” “Bitless,” said Magog with a shudder. “Does anyone have anything to eat,” the poodle asked. “I haven’t had anything since breakfast.” “You can have this termite,” said Magog, sticking out his tongue. “I’m a bit sick of them, day in and day, out, termites, termites, termites, nothing but termites, toasted termites, termites on toast, baby termites, geriatric termites, nothing but termites all day long.” “I’ve got a vulture wing I’m not going to eat,” said Xammi. “Thanks very much, but I can’t really eat actual food. I’m used to
Canine Chunks, Vitadoggie with extra vitamins, maybe a handful of Poodle O’s?” “Poodle O’s,” said Magog. termites.” “It has no preservatives,” said the poodle. “I’m afraid we’re out of Poodle O’s,” said Pisi, “but I’ve got this iguana toe here, and it’s only two weeks old, bit fresh for my liking.” “I don’t mean to be rude, and I thank you most kindly, but I don’t think I’ve ever eaten an iguana toe.” “There are some guineafowl up the road, but you’ll have to catch them first,” offered Magog helpfully. “Sounds good, make a change from
“Catch them?” said the poodle. “You mean run after them and grab them and then …” “That’s right.” “Pull the feathers out?” “They’re a bit chewy if you don’t,” said Pisi. “I can’t do that?” the poodle said, shivering. “We can all help you with a scrap or two from time to time,” she explained patiently. “But it’s every zebra and warthog for himself in these parts. Bush rules, we don’t make ‘em and we don’t break ‘em. Try the iguana toe.” “Thanks,” said the poodle taking the iguana toe, “I’ll learn, I’m a dog, we’re all wolves, right?” The wolves looked up from their drinking, gave the poodle the once over and snickered. He felt a bit conspicuous amongst the sabre-toothed cats, and striped horses, but their regard was more curious than hostile, more hunger than haughtiness. It was obvious to anyone that the mouthful of fur he represented was not worth the effort. He took a few bites of the iguana toe. It didn’t taste too bad, a bit salty and crunchy, almost like chicken, not as good as the gardener’s leg, but not bad at all, nothing like a DogLog, or a Dogdin Crunchie, but just possibly something he could get used to.
Chapter Seven One day, Xammi the lion sauntered jauntily through the bush, relishing the cool breeze that wafted over the river. He sauntered jauntily because, being who he was, he didn’t have to worry about being surprised by sudden death. He alone of all the beasts was secure in the knowledge that he could dilly-dally and dawdle, through the strange and intriguing smells that drew him from candlewood to camphor tree without worrying about a claw in the neck. Only the most shortsighted or foolhardy creature would dare try to catch him by surprise. It didn’t mean that life was all peaches and pears. scored his own pride of lionesses. He hadn’t yet
Not even one lioness, truth be told.
Lionesses were, apparently, not to be had. Big Willie and his gang had swept up the available females and held them in a ruthless grip. They were a
formidable force, wily and experienced and not to be approached directly. He still had the scar on his nose from his last encounter with one of Big Willie’s boys. Subterfuge was the only way to go, the subtle approach, but what? He was forced to pause in his plotting of Big Willie’s downfall, when something closed around his tail with a tremendous clang. “Ow, ow, pain, pain,” he cried, eyes smarting. A crocodile’s jaw
attached to some sort of vine was clamped over his tail, and as he leapt away, he was snapped back sharply and fell with his nose in the dust. He
scrambled to his feet and roared a blood-curdling, feral groan that sent a flock of tambourine doves into a dead swoon. They thudded to the ground like ripe apples.
It crocodile teeth stung but it wasn’t so much painful as undignified and more than that, he was trapped. He thrashed and leapt with his entire weight against the vine, but was snapped painfully back again and again by what he presumed was a wretched Nid invention, until he had no choice but to stop and think of a Plan B. He lay down and tried to think, stood up and tried to think, but the rattling vine was tied securely to a sturdy old oak, and no matter how he tugged and leapt, he only made it worse for himself. Mobile, he was king of the beasts, but attached to this Nid device and unable to move further than the it allowed, he was brought to the level of any old giraffe. Once the word got around that he was vulnerable, he could expect no mercy from the hyena, who had scores to settle, not to mention some of the adolescent elephants, who might remember that he killed their old grandma, never mind the fact that she was already ancient and toothless and could hardly walk. Elephants were funny like that. The situation quite clearly called for a mature response. Putting his pride in his armpit, he roared as loudly as he could, hoping that Kevin or Hairy or Zola were in earshot. He waited, listening for crashing leaps through the grass. He could only hope someone would come to his aid and soon,
because without his brothers, he was good for a day or two of miserable starvation and terror at most. He could ask a passing hippo for help, but he would rather have chewed the tip off his tail than ask another creature for help. It struck him that chewing off his tail was something he might have to consider. He liked the little black tuft on the end, which went with the black tips on his mane, that made him look twice as regal and was apparently irresistible to lionesses.
Not that he’d had an opportunity to put it to the test. His nose caught the whiff of something, the peculiar synthetic aroma that clung to the Nids. He heard footsteps, something was scrunching
through the grass with a clumsiness that could only be accomplished by a creature with only two legs. It was the tame Nid, and Xammi almost sighed with relief until he saw in his hand the dreaded banga stick. Xammi crouched in the grass until the Nid was almost on him and leapt out. The Nid shrank back, and the vine pulled Xammi backwards and he rolled over and over in the dust, before leaping up with a blood curdling roar. “Whoa, fella,” the Nid said gently. “What have we got here?” Xammi lay down on his side and huffed through his nose, bunching the muscles in his legs as though he’d been trapped for days. He pulled back his lips and displayed the twin blades of the long curving canines. The Nid
looked intently at the vine that snaked along the ground. Xammi hissed and lifted his head. The Nid jumped back. “I can’t help you unless you stop trying to remove my face,” he said. “You’re a Nid,” snapped Xammi. “You can’t help it. You kill us for fun.” He was reluctant to make deals with anyone, being king of the beasts and all that, but it seemed that on this occasion he simply didn’t have a choice. Oh the humiliation, he thought, to be saved by a Nid, it was
something he would never live down. Of course, it was better than being saved by one of the animals he usually ate, like a zebra or a wildebeest. That would be truly, tragically mortifying, and also impossible owing to the thumb aspect.
He lay completely still as the Nid forced the teeth of the crocodile apart with a stick and pressure from the marvelous thumbs which seemed to have a thousand and one uses. With a snap, the crocodile jaws opened and
Xammi’s tail was free. He jumped to his feet and turned around to gauge the damage to his handsome appendage. It had acquired a strange kink but was not that much the worse for wear. The Nid untied the vine from the tree and looped it over his shoulder, and with the crocodile teeth under one arm, he turned his back and began to walk away. Xammi could not believe his luck. Now was his chance, if he
killed the Nid, the hunters would come with their banga sticks and Big Willie would be taken care of. All he and Kevin and Hairy and Zola needed to do was stay out of sight and the pride would be theirs, every last cub and lioness. He eyed the Nid’s back, the soft pink neck. It would be easier than filching cheetah kill, and yet could he claim to be the king of the beasts if he did not have honour? It would not be right to kill him straight after he had likely saved his life. Not to mention his dignity. A deal was a deal, and if one creature could be counted on to keep his word, it was the king of the beasts. XXX Despite his intention to keep the whole thing hush-hush and attribute the damage to his tail to a really ferocious crocodile, he couldn’t help regaling Kevin, Hairy, and Zola with the story only slightly embellished. “Wow, so the Nid saved you then?” said Kevin. “Well, I would have got away, he just saved me from biting the end of my tail off.”
“Shoo,” breathed Hairy. understand them. which?”
Some kill some don’t, how would you know which is
“He did something for you, you ought to do something for him in return,” said Jane popping out from behind a tree. “It’ll be good for your karma.” “What’s a karma?” Xammi snapped. “It means one thing leads to another,” she replied, “Do good and good will be done to you. It’s like I do you a favour, you do me a favour, see?” “Since when have you ever done me a favour,” Xammi asked. “But I might,” she quipped. “Do me a favour get out of here, pickle nose,” Xammi roared lunging for her, but she swung away out of reach. “Why are you always hanging around us, don’t you have any friends of your own.” “It’s the safest place on the whole savannah,” chirped Jane. “Nobody’s going to bug me with you guys around.” “He’s right,” said Zola. “Doing something nice for the Nid is the right thing to do. Catch him a nice fresh weasel.” “There’s a bit of that donkey left over from last night’s banquet,” said Hairy, “a nice shoulder bone. Maybe he’ll enjoy that.” It sounded reasonable to Xammi. At least it would allow him to butter up the Nid just in case he decided to eat him later. “Better yet,” said Kevin, who prided himself on his bright ideas, “Why not find him a mate, he’s all alone, he’d appreciate that.”
“Good idea, bat-nose” Xammi said. “Except that’s going to require a Nid girl, anyone got one of those hanging around?” “I saw one on the other side of Big Willie’s territory, where the old sneezewoods are,” said Hairy. “Well, I think it was a Nid girl. Bumps on the front, isn’t that how you tell? Lots of hair, long claws on their fingers.” “We haven’t checked on the health of Big Willie lately?,” said Xammi scratching his chin, “he might be getting relaxed by now. Think we should have another go?” “I’m still sore from the last time,” groaned Zola. “We’re never going to get at those lionesses with that gang stomping on us each and every time.” “Scaredy cat,” scoffed Kevin. “I say we stroll through there tall and proud and if he picks a fight, we … run for it.” “We all need to bulk up more before we have another try,” Zola insisted, “maybe next spring. Let’s take the other route, the river way, and cut over the top instead.” “Chicken, that’s what you are,” said Kevin. “No wonder your mane doesn’t grow out, no wonder your beard’s so wispy and pale.” Kevin made a mock charge but Zola stood his ground, they snarled at each other, muscles tensed and bulging, fangs flashing, staring without blinking. “OK guys,” said Xammi, “one thing we don’t do is fight amongst ourselves. That’s what they want us to do, and then they win.” Zola eyed Kevin resentfully, they were brothers, but it didn’t mean he didn’t hate his guts. He longed to take a chunk out of his leg, but social cats were specifically prohibited from biting each other’s body. Besides Xammi
was right, they had to stick together. It was their only hope of usurping Big Willie and breaking his stronghold over the females. Mating season was beginning all around them, birds were doing it, bees were doing it, animals in pairs scurried around. Everyone was doing it, except for them. Xammi decided he had to be decisive. “You guys can stay here all day and snooze in the shade or you can come along and have an adventure. Are you in or out?” “Even if she is a Nid girl and even if we find her, how are we going to get her all the way over here?“ asked Hairy. Xammi had to think about that for a while, being totally ignorant of the ways of Nid females and what it would take to tempt one into mating with their Nid. The answer seemed obvious, nothing complicated, no complex strategic maneuver, just a simple snatch and grab using an irresistible lure. “Marilyn has a nice kudu leg hanging in her tree,” he said. “Go ask her if we can borrow it. It’s been there for a day or two, should be really tender and juicy and aromatic. No female of any species will be able to resist.” XXX Xammi, the brothers and the kudu leg set off for the far corner of Big Willie’s territory, through the land of the snakes, around a grove of butter trees, past the big marula groaning with leaves and fruit and weavers atwitter. They were not oblivious to the fact that the animals cleared a path in front of them. It was proper and fitting that lesser beings should scurrying out of the way when the brothers came through, and watch in awe as the four great beasts passed by. Someone had to be top of the food chain, why not four
young, studly lions on a Nid securing mission with a bit of provocation thrown in. “So where you guys going,” said Jane, swinging from tree to tree, just out of range of an irritable claw. “Hey, hey, fuzz face, I’m talking to you. Where you going?” “Buzz off, chimp,” said Hairy. “You’re going to pick a fight with Big Willie, aren’t you? Can I watch?” Zola took a swipe at Jane with a spiked claw, but she scampered out of reach and thumbed her nose insultingly. He charged at the tree, made it to the first set of branches, Jane was already off, hurtling from branch to twig and no matter how fast the lions went, she got to where they were going before them, and was ready with a smart remark. “Say, Xammi, what happened to the old tail there, looks a little bit kinky,” she chirped. Xammi ground his teeth and eyed her malignantly. Sooner of later she would make a mistake, come within range, and that would be his chance to eliminate the annoyance once and for all. He was patient, he could wait, that was the key, waiting and watching and choosing the right moment to strike. They reached a small river, and paused for a quick drink, there would be no use walking into a foreign situation with a thirst on. It had been quiet so far, but not ominously so. Perhaps Big Willie had moved further north, into the mountains for the season. They entered a small copse of trees piloted by the ever present Jane, and came to a clearing which had a small round Nid structure with a grass roof. Xammi grunted softly and they sank into the
grass, slithering forward on their bellies towards the shelter. A door opened
and a Nid came out. She looked somewhat like any Nid, except she had bumps on the front and a long mane of luxurious black hair he would have killed for. She stood next to a string that stretched between two poles, and reached up to hang the skins Nids used to cover their bodies. The animals were mystified by the Nid’s skins and the purpose thereof. Some of the skins were cobweb-thin, useless for keeping out the rain or cold the claw of a major predator. “You’re not allowed to eat Nids,” said Jane, popping out of a bush. “We’re not going to eat her,” hissed Xammi. “Keep your voice down, we don’t want her to run away.” “It’s the rules,” Jane repeated. whatsoever.” “We’re taking her to the our Nid to be his mate, alright, now step aside.” Jane laughed so much she almost fell off his branch. “What?” Xammi demanded. “For a start, she’s a different colour.” “So what?” “Nids are funny that way,” said Jane. “Not all of them, but some of them, beats me what difference it makes, that’s Nids for you.” “Well, he’s all alone and she’s all alone, I don’t see why the colour is a problem. Anyway, she’s the only Nid girl we’ve got. She’s got to come with us, we’re going to lure her with this kudu leg.” This time Jane laughed so hard she did fall out of the tree, and rolled on the ground, chortling and smirking, well within pawshot of the indignant “No eating of Nids for any reason
lions. They looked at each other, wondering if perhaps there just might be a hole in their strategy. “You’re going to throw that out and wait for her to grab it, is that what you’re planning?” Xammi tied a sturdy vine to the springbok leg and tested its strength, Nid females were smaller, she would not be difficult to snare. The leg smelled ripe and really delicious, and for a moment he thought he might take a quick bite, but everyone was watching him, and if he had a bite, they’d all want a bite, and that would be the end of the kudu leg. “She’s never going to eat that, it’s a bit elderly if you know what I mean, not to mention raw, Nids burn their meat, didn’t you know?” “Don’t argue, button eyes, just take the leg and drop it as close to her as you dare.” “That’s very trusting of you, how do you know I won’t run off with it, I’m partial to little bits of meat from time to time and I’m not as fussy as a Nid.” “I know where you live,” Xammi said in a low voice. Jane scampered out of the bushes, towards the Nid, with the kudu leg under one arm. The Nid turned, saw her and bared her teeth, but she didn’t seem frightened and didn’t try and run away. Emboldened, Jane did a wiggly dance she knew Nids loved, with lots of lip smacking and showing off and casually tossed the kudu leg until it rolled at the Nid’s feet. The lions crouched in the grass and watched as the Nid approached the meat lying in the grass. She bent to look at it and at that moment Xammi pulled on the vine and it slid away. The Nid bared her teeth and stepped forward and again he tugged. She looked up towards where the brothers
were hiding, put her hands on her hips, and bared her teeth, making monkey noises and shaking her shoulders. returned to her basket of skins. “She’s not grabbing the leg,” Hairy said, “why isn’t she grabbing the leg?” “Anyone got a Plan C?” Hairy asked. “If she’s not going to eat it … “ said Kevin, licking his lips. “Tried to tell you, some Nids don’t eat meat,” said Jane, swinging by one arm on a branch. “Some of them eat only vegetables, and some of them don’t eat eggs but only fish, others will have a little chicken, but no red flesh. It’s something about having a face.” Xammi was puzzled. “That’s weird. I mean, you eat what you catch, end of story. What is it with these Nids, don’t eat this and don’t eat that. If it’s less than ten days old, you eat it.” “Not true for Nids, shaggy head, “Jane said. “They can eat anything they want. Did I ever tell you about chocolate? ” “About a million times,” the lions roared. The brothers paired off and went off to look for the most delicious vegetables they could find. Kevin managed to dig up a huge carrot, which Jane advised them to wash first. Once again Jane sidled as close to the Nid as she dared, dropped the carrot on the ground and tiptoed away. The Nid turned and saw the carrot traveling over the ground. “C’mon Niddy-girl, c’mon,” said Xammi, reeling in the vine. She stepped closer to where the long grass began, put her hands on her hips, and her voice was strong and clear. After a while, she turned away and
“OK, guys, what do you want?” The brothers looked at each other. something. “You go,” said Kevin, nudging Zola. “You’re got experience with Nids.” “I’m too shy,” said Zola, “Hairy, you’re the oldest, you go.” “No, let the stupid monkey go,” said Hairy, “Oh for Pete’s sake, you wussies, I’ll go,” Xammi said, getting to his feet and ambling up to the Nid, not too close, but close enough for him to make sure she was indeed a Nid female. “There’s this Nid, see, over on our side,” he said, “he’s all lonely, we feel sorry for him, so we’re looking for a mate for him, and since you seem to have all the right bits … we were wondering if maybe you would …” “It looks like you’ve got the right bits,” Kevin pointed out, “although we can’t be sure.” The Nid made a funny sound through her nose. “It’s quite alright,” she said, “I have the right bits and I thank you very much for asking, but I’m not looking for a mate right now.” “That’s not the point,” said Xammi. “Our Nid needs a mate, and since you’re the only female Nid around …” “Well,” said the Nid, “as I said, I thank you kindly, but I don’t want a mate right now.” She picked up her basket, and at that moment, Xammi almost made a run for it, but he was too late. She opened the door of the shelter and closed it behind her. “Women,” said Zola, “you never know where you are with them.” Someone would have to say
“OK, Plan C, here’s an idea,” said Kevin. “We have to get the Nid here.” “Great idea, buster,” said Hairy, cuffing him around the ear. “How are we going to do that? Grub pie with raspberry sauce on a string?” “Good one,” Jane snickered. “Beetle off, twig nose,” Xammi roared, “before I remove your ears one by one.” “So you don’t want to hear about my brilliant idea then?” “Brilliant? You? Don’t make me laugh, my stomach hurts already,” Kevin said. “See all those things she’s got hanging on that line?” The animals looked at the skins blowing in the breeze. “They call them clothes,” said Jane. “Those are pants, mostly boy Nids wear them, but sometimes girls as well. That flowery thins is a dress, Nid girls wear them, but the boy’s don’t unless they’re pants.” Xammi sighed, “and your point is?” “We take the dress to the Nid. He picks up the Nid girl’s scent on it and will come and find her.” “That’s a silly idea,” Hairy scoffed. “What makes you think he’ll follow her scent, Nids aren’t like us, they don’t have those instincts anymore, everyone knows that.” “Do you have any other bright ideas, whiskerface?” Jane smirked. She scampered across the clearing, grabbed the flowery dress and pulled it off the line. XXX
Nothing happened for a very long time, at least it seemed like a long time to the brothers, who hid in the bushes, watching. Jane had slipped into the Nid’s house and planted the dress on the Nid’s sleeping platform. She positioned herself in a tree, to see what the Nid would do with it. The Nid walked past it a few times without seeing it, which she knew was normal, since Nid’s heads were always full of busyness. When he finally stopped his pacing and saw the object on his platform, he seemed quite frightened. He jumped back as though it was a snake and his head swiveled from one side to the other. He went to the window and peered outside, but all he saw was Jane casually pretending to inspect the berry situation in a nearby tree. He returned to the dress and picked it up, looked at it for a very long time and finally, when the animals had all but given up on his, he brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply. “See,” said Jane to the brothers who waited at the bottom of the tree. “That’s what I’m talking about.” Still nothing happened. The Nids seemed to be lethargic to the point of ennui in matters of love. For the whole of the next day the Nid did his usual eating, washing, feeding, talking to the blue budgie and scratching on slides of tree. He
watched the monkeys for a bit, took a nap and ate something brown. The next day was the same. The brothers were starting to think they might need a Plan D. “Maybe we should get one of his skins and take it to her,” Hairy ventured, but the others shot him down with a look.
Jane reported that the Nid was sleeping with the dress next to him, which might or might not be a good sign. The only thing they were sure of was that Nids took their own sweet time in satisfying their biological urges. XXX The next afternoon, as the brothers settled in for the afternoon snooze in the shade of a neem tree, Towel swooped overhead, circled, dipped his wings with a flourish, and landed on the ground with a thump. “Wake up,” he screeched into Xammi’s ear, “the Nid’s getting into his tortoise, and he’s got the dress with him.” “Right boys,” said Xammi, leaping into action. “Kevin, you take the anthill and see where he’s going, Hairy, you’re at the water hole, and don’t drink too much. You were useless for anything last time. Zola, I want you to come with me, we’ll take the shortcut and we’ll all meet up at the river crossing.” The animals ran off to take their positions as the Nid’s blue tortoise huffed and puffed and disappeared over a rise. XXX “Blue tortoise past the merankies,” called Kevin from his perch on top of the anthill. “Do you mind doing that somewhere else,” the ants said, “the whole place is rocking and shaking.” “Blue tortoise over the bump,” cried Hairy between surreptitious slurps of cool water. “Can you see him,” Xammi asked Zola. They stood in the shade under the bridge, watching the road. They’d taken a short cut that led straight
through Big Willie’s territory and still they had neither seen nor smeled any of them. It was peculiar and disquieting. Although he’d been cavalier about hunters shooting Big Willie, it was by no means certain that having shot Big Willie the hunters would not turn their banga sticks on them. “He’s coming up the hill,” Kevin said, running up panting behind them. “Pelican nose anyone,” asked Kevin, handing around crispy pieces of cartilage. The friends crunched thoughtfully, keeping their eyes peeled for the Nid machine and it’s lovestruck occupant. “Did you see that little Pecks in action last full moon at the Dung Beetle club,” Kevin asked. “That kid has got ball skills,” said Zola. “I fancy the meerkat, of course, they kick backwards, so you have to face them the wrong way around…” said Xammi, picking a piece of pelican nose out of his back tooth. “Blue tortoise at four o’clock,” called Towel from high in a tree. “Is everybody out of sight?” Xammi whispered. “Kevin?” “Check,” said Kevin. “Hairy?” “Check,” said Hairy. “Zola?” “Present and accounted for,” said Zola. At last the blue tortoise came into sight, zoomed over the bridge and up the hill. At the top of the rise, it stopped. The arm opened and the Nid got out, went to the side of the road where there were great bunches of flowers
and began to gather them until he had a huge bunch of different colours and shapes. He climbed back into the tortoise and drove away. “What was that all about?” said Kevin. “Maybe that’s what girl Nids like to eat,” said Zola. “Where’s that Jane, ask her what it means,” said Hairy. “Did someone ask for me,” Jane said in a childish voice. “Someone really asked for me instead of trying to kill me?” “What’s that mean, him picking the flowers.” “It’s a good thing, it’s what Nid girls like. You’re showing off that you’ve got energy to spare and you’re brave enough to risk your neck to do something to please her.” “So she doesn’t eat them?” asked Hairy. “Not as a rule. They sometimes fling them out of the door, but mostly they like to put them in a container and after a while knock them over on the floor. It gets a bit complicated with them.” It was more than complicated. It was becoming quite clear to the
brothers that the gulf in perception between primates and cats was a chasm which could possibly not be breached. XXX “Stop pushing, I can’t see,” said Kevin, as Hairy squeezed in between Zola and Xammi to watch the Nids in the cleaning. The blue tortoise rested under a tree, and the Nids sat on a swing on the platform of the round shelter, their bodies turned towards one another, baring their teeth, and shaking their shoulders. The female Nid wore a number of jangling things around her arm and ears and she waved her hands around, so they flashed and tinkled. They
seemed to love baring their teeth at each other and never seemed even close to fighting. “Why doesn’t he jump on her,” asked Kevin. “Yeah, he’s close enough, he could just grab her.” “That’s not allowed,” said Jane,” they put you in a cage for that.” “Whooo,” said the brothers in unison, although they had never seen a cage, they were familiar with the concept and could not resist a shiver. “He’s bigger than she is, he can use those special thumbs of his.” “Girls love chocolate, that’s another Nid thing,” said Jane, swinging on a branch with one arm. “Every year they have a day when boys have to give the girls chocolate, did I ever tell you …” “A brazillion times,” the lions roared. “They’re showing their teeth.” “He’s touching her head,” said Jane. “Is that good?” Hairy asked. It was achingly slow, like some of the birds with their dances and bowing and scraping in front of the females who were dull and brown and not even very appetising. “Look, look, they’re getting up.” The Nids were indeed getting up. The boy Nid stretched out his arm to the girl Nid, and she took his hand. They stepped forward and put their arms on each other’s shoulders and then they were dancing, twirling around and around the garden in each other’s arms. “That’s good, isn’t it?” asked Hairy.
“A roaring success, boys,” Xammi said. “Let’s go off to the water hole and get sloshed, see if there are any cute lionesses around.” “Yeah,” said Kevin, “girls with big, big, noses.” “Big long tails and fluffy ears.” “Yeah,” Hairy said. “And big yellow eyes, that always gets me.” “Nah,” said Xammi, “big strong shoulders for bringing down zebra. Let me know if any of you see any flowers around, you never know when I might need some.” XXX Having done his favour for the Nid, Xammi was wondering where his karma was, Jane decided to stay and watch the Nids, so he couldn’t ask her, but he thought he was entitled to his karma, since he’d done so much energysapping work for it, without so much as a mouthful of sustenance. He was eyeing out a herd of antelope, wondering if there might be one or two geriatric ones they might bring down without too much stress, when he heard a sultry voice. “Well hello there, you with the kinky tail,” it was a lioness, he became breathless instantly. She was tall in the shoulder with a curving belly and powerful shoulders. “We just brought down a fresh zebra, would you care to join us for a snack? “Aren’t you one of Big Willie’s pride?” Xammi said suspiciously. It
might be a trap, and he was not in the mood for a fight. A fresh zebra femur was a tempting thought, but caution overruled greed. “Big Willie’s gone,” said the female with a choke in her voice. “Hunters, shot him and then Spike stood on a snake and wasted away, then Zip and
Zap got taken by an elephant. We’ve only got one old guy left, and he’s not going to last very long” Xammi’s jaw dropped in astonishment. What an absolutely magnificent stroke of luck. It could not possibly be more perfect. After all the years of being beaten up by Big Willie and his minions, his entire pride of fertile females had dropped into his paws like an arthritic aardvark. “Well,” said Xammi, “my brothers and I are somewhat famished, we’ve had a long day, right fellas?” “Too right,” chorused Zola and Hairy and Kevin. How astonishing, he thought, on the same day he did a favour for the Nid, his greatest wish was granted. Coincidence, he didn’t think so? Karma? He liked it.
Chapter Eight In the hullabaloo of breeding season, Jane felt very left out and alone. She’d never had a mate or a baby. She was born in a cage in a big white room with tiny windows and a mat for sleeping and a food bowl. The first thing she’d seen when she’d opened her eyes was a furry brown teddy bear that gave milk through nipples that tasted funny. There were others of her
kind, in their own individual cells, so they could at least talk to each other, but the stories they told were so dire and awful and hopeless, it was sometimes better to say nothing at all. She’d always felt a vague sense that she should be doing something with her hands, her body, but there was nothing to do but sit in her cage and pull the fur out of the teddy bear. When she slept, she dreamed of things she couldn’t understand and for which she had no words. She had a sense that she was being watched, sometimes by one person, sometimes by many, she never actually saw them but she could sense their breathing. What were they looking at? From time to time a Nid, or a human as she knew them in those days, in white skins from top to toe, would come through the door and poke and prod her, and stick a thorn in her arm and she would fall asleep and wake up days later with holes in her body. When she grew began beating her head against the wall, she was taken to a wonderful place, a huge cage, with enough space to run around. There were logs of wood tied together with rope, which were to be climbed, and the tyre of a car on which she was allowed to swing. She discovered she was a natural at climbing and swinging, and she loved to climb to the very highest part of the very biggest log and look at the sky for hours, savour the
colours of the sunsets, the clouds scudding across an aquamarine sheet. At last she could smell the rain, feel the soft tickling on her face. It was all so achingly beautiful, she began to look forward to waking up in the mornings. She shared her paradise with others of her kind. When she arrived, she crept into a corner with her arms over her head, waiting for one of them to attack her, but they ignored her completely and carried on climbing, swinging, somersaulting and rolling over and over in the sand. It looked like so much fun, that she inched closer and was soon sharing her sorry tale with the rest of the troop. One of the older monkeys had been born in the wild and he related tales that made Jane’s hair stand on end with desire. Normal monkey babies, were carried around on their mother’s bodies as they swung form tree to tree. It sounded like some fantastical paradise, full of monkeys ricocheting around with babies clinging to their fur. Sitting in a cage chewing on her fingers was all she knew. One day a Nid family came and took her out of the cage put her in their car and drove to their house, where it was expected she would become the family pet. Most of the time she was trapped in a small cage, and when she was let out she had to wear the dreaded Nid skin around her loins so she wouldn’t pee on the furniture. It took endless hours to loosen the increasingly intricate fastenings, but at least gave her something to do, which didn’t involve shredding curtains and cushions and flinging things around, all of which sent the Nids into some sort of apoplexy. After a few months, they no longer let her out of the cage. Instead thrust their bulbous faces at her through the bars. The short ones were the
worst, they poked her, talking their strange gibberish. One day, she scratched someone’s eye, accidentally of course, and that was the end of that. At the next home, a strange incident happened involving all the glasses in the kitchen, and at the home after that it was some apparently crucial Nid gadget. Finally she’d ended at the place where she encountered the ambrosial chocolate for the first time, slipped to her by a kindly old granny with no teeth, who made funny cackling noises at odd hours of the day and night. The old dear disappeared one day without a trace as though she had never been and the family carried on as if nothing had happened. Jane
wondered what Nids did with their old ones. She imagined they left them out in the bush for wild animals to take. She missed the old lady’s long fingernails scratching her itchy spots and began to make odd noises of her own at all hours of the day and night. After several unfortunate incidents of mayhem,
they put her in the car and drove until they came to a stretch of savannah, where they opened the door, plonked her on the ground and drove off. Jane looked at the car becoming increasingly small in the distance, wondering just what they were playing at, but she could hear the birds singing in trees. These were real trees with leaves, and real eagles and a real dog coming straight for her. She darted towards one of the trees, scampered up and swung into the highest branches as though born to the life. Despite her inexperience, she managed to keep herself nourished while simultaneously avoiding being eaten. She managed to find a safe place to sleep every night, and on the whole life was very much improved when she moved into the lush valley and never left. She managed to integrate herself with the other animals as an honored but eccentric guest and font of all
wisdom in Nid-related matters. The animals came to her for names for their offspring and travel advice in Nid territories. She was happy as it was
possible to be, but when she looked at the little monkeys practicing and tumbling and running back to mom when they fell, she felt the overwhelming desire to cuddle not a real clambering, squalling, gurgling infant, but a furry teddy bear smelling vaguely of rubber. XXX One day a terrible noise rang out through the valley, the sound sent a ripple of chills through the valley. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the Nid’s house, and it set the bird’s feathers on edge. It sounded like the cry of a terribly unhappy baby animal, but nobody was sure what kind of animal it was. They hurriedly counted their offspring, checked that fingers, toes, claws and noses were accounted for and that they were fed and content, but the sound continued. “Somebody has to go and make sure everything is all right,” Maki’s mother said, looking at him in a meaningful way. Although Maki’s bachelor nest was ready, he had not yet moved away from home. He’d meant to break out and be an independent bushbaby, he’d meant to sleep alone in his own nest, had tried to on several occasions, but the hoot of an owl or the snarl of a leopard sent him scurrying home, huddling in the sleeping pile with the others. It wasn’t that he was afraid or anything, rather he was afraid for the safety of his family. If he wasn’t there and
something happened, he would regret it to the end of his days. “I don’t like to leave you all here by yourself in case something happens,” he said.
“Things always happen, my boy” she said. “now go.” He sprang into the trees, and looped his way from branch to branch, but his heart wasn’t in it. It wasn’t that he was afraid of moving to his own place, he was waiting for the right moment, that’s what it was, the right moment would present itself, he was sure it would, something would happen and he would know it was the right time. He didn’t think that rushing into new living arrangements was a good thing, all sorts of things could happen, disasters. A claw through the skull, that sort of thing. Jane sat on a rock that hung over the river, watching the Nid house with her hands over her ears. “The noise,” she groaned, “What is the matter with that creature? It’s driving me dilly. Imagine what it sounds like in there!” “Poor little thing,” said Maki. “I hope everything’s OK.” “We’ve got to get it to stop,” Jane begged, “my nerves. “It sounds like they’re killing it. Do Nids kill their babies?” “Not as a rule,” said Jane, “but I don’t think you can blame them with that racket.” “Sounds like it might be someone in need of rescuing, do you think,” Maki ventured. “Are you busy?” “Never too busy to go after the prospect of a crumb of chocolate,” she said. They set off down the embankment, across the river and up the other side, into the bottlebrush to pause for breath before hurrying across the long expanse of short grass where they were most vulnerable to airborne attack. Maki felt safe hopping alongside Jane, she was large enough to frighten off
the birds, which allowed Maki to concentrate on his hopping technique, and keep his eyes peeled for anything coming at ground level. They reached the verandah and hurled themselves up the stairs, startling the blue budgie, who was in his bedroom with the door open. “Ah, dear friends,” he said, puffing out his chest and repositioning a renegade feather. “Please come in, I’d offer you a beverage, but the Nid and the Nidess, they are asleep, very tired, very very tired.” “It’s the noise, it’s terrible, what’s wrong with the Nid’s baby?” “Ah yes, but babies cry, is it not so?” the budgie said, shrugging his shoulders. “Where have you heard of a baby who doesn’t cry. Yes yes she’s been intolerable, but she’s sick. Such a sweet child, she has captured my heart” Although Maki knew in the abstract that Nids had babies like other animals, he could hardly imagine what they would look like. Fish, he thought, somewhat like baby fish, although they made enough noise to shake the bones out of the ground. “Can I see it?” asked Maki. “Please, just a little peek, I won’t touch anything, promise.” “We just want to see the little screamer,” Jane said with a grin, “no thoughts of light pilfering or anything of the sort like that.” “Pah, I suppose it is OK, where’s the harm?” the blue budgie replied. “You’re just going to look, yes? beauty, perfection itself.” Jane rubbed her hands with glee. She was quite sure she had figured out exactly where the real mother lode of goodies in the Nid’s house was kept. Ah she’s adorable, an angel child, such
There was a door from the kitchen into a sort of mass food storage, and if she could just get it open, all the Nid’s treasures would be within her grasp. The blue budgie explained how to open the door that led into the cool, dark depths of the house. They followed him down a passage, tiptoeing as quietly as they could along the wooden floor, past the room where the Nids lay sprawled on their sleeping platform. Jane went off to reconnoiter on her own and Maki followed the blue budgie down the passage and into a small pink room, where he discovered that the Nids kept their baby in a large wooden cage in the middle of the floor. It seemed barbaric to keep them confined like that. It that was what they did to their own offspring, no wonder their treatment of their fellow animals left a lot to be desired. Maki climbed up the leg of the cage and looked in at the little face, he was startled. It wasn’t so much a miniature Nid as a wrinkled monkey,
proving beyond any reasonable doubt that monkeys and Nids were branches on the same tree. “Aargh, it’s so wrinkled,” Maki said. The blue budgie perched on a wooden thing that dangled from the ceiling and looked down at the sleeping baby fondly. “Well, I do admit that they’re not as handsome as some of your offspring, but they do iron out eventually.” At that moment, the baby opened her eyes, her face screwed up. It was clear she was about to make that terrible sound again. Maki covered his ears in anticipation, but the baby caught sight of the blue budgie and made an urp sound. She saw Maki and opened her toothless mouth and made a
gurgling noise. She stretching out her hand to touch his soft damp nose and very gently stroked his fur and rubbed his ears. She took one of his little hands in hers and brought it close to her face, turning it over, examining the furry outer side in contrast to the smooth palm. She took one of his fingers in her own little hand and carried it to her mouth. “That tickles,” Maki said, giggling. The baby giggled, Maki giggled, even the blue budgie chortled. Jane appeared at the door, her face alight with excitement. In her hands was something wrapped in a brightly coloured crinkly peel. “Look, Maki, look what I found,” she said, hugging it to her chest and closing her eyes in rapture. When she opened them again, her eyes fell onto an even more wonderful object, an object that made her forget the chocolate, forget where she was, forget everything in a moment of mad desire. On a chair next to the window, was a teddy bear, a little brown, fluffy teddy bear with a plastic nose, reeking of synthetic fibres. frantically. “Eeeeeeek!” It was a sound to chill the spine of a demon, far worse than the baby cry was the mother shriek. She stood in the doorway, her mouth so wide open the animals could see curved rows of tiny teeth. The blue budgie got such a fright, he leapt into the air, knocked his head on the ceiling and fell to the ground in a faint. Maki stared at him, frozen to the spot. What to do, the window was closed, the only exit was blocked by the shrieking body of the Nid and the male Nid loomed up behind her. In his hand was a stick and some sort of net. Her heart began to beat
“I just wanted to look at your little baby,” Maki tried to explain, “admire your very cute, um, yes, very pretty little baby.” “Don’t forget they’re scared of us,” Jane barked at Maki. “You take her and I’ll take him. Go for the ankles or the head and run like hell, did you get that?” “I think so,” Maki stuttered. He was shaking all over, but he snapped into focus and leapt up to the wooden dangly object that came from the ceiling and it began to swing alarmingly once, twice, three times, and with one final desperate leap, he flung himself straight for the mother Nid’s head. She cringed as he bounced off and landed behind her on the floor, rolling over until he hit the wall with a smack. Jane kept herself low and, clutching the chocolate, ran for the father Nid’s legs, biffing him on the kneecap with her fist as she passed. dropped like a stone, clutching his leg. They ran blindly, slipping and sliding on the floor down the passage, skidding around corners, and through the open door, across the cold tiles of the verandah, down the steps and into the nearest shrub before daring to take a breath. It didn’t look as though the Nids were inclined to pursue them any further. It had been another perilously close call, too close. Maki wondered if perhaps the rescuing business was becoming a little bit dangerous. Jane peeled the chocolate like a banana with a beatific smile on her face. She broke off a piece and handed it to Maki. “Taste this and taste heaven, kid” she said. Maki put the chocolate in his mouth and chewed, inhaling the taste, it was alright, he supposed, sweet in a way that was not wholly unpleasant He
tasting, and yet, it wasn’t a juicy piece of acacia gum, or a grasshopper, or even a pear. Everyone was used to the way Jane embellished a story, she
insisted she saw Nids make rain go into the sky from the grass instead of the other way around, an anecdote ludicrous enough to dent her credibility as a Nid expert with some of the animals. It was probably a monkey thing, he decided, which only proved once again that monkeys and Nids were on the same branch of the same tree. XXX When he finally returned to his old nest, his mother checked him over for scratches and bruises. “You should have seen it, mom, it’s so ugly. Blue budgie says it gets better looking, but….” “I asked you to go over there to see what was happening, I didn’t ask you to go into the baby’s bedroom. Nids are scared of us.” “Scared of us, but they’re so big and we’re so small.” “They startle very easily, and that makes them dangerous, stay away from the Nids, Maki, it’s too dangerous.” “I’m not a kid anymore, mom, I can look after myself.” “Can you really?” she said, “Well prove it then, spend a whole day in your own nest all by yourself.” Maki hesitated. He’d been looking forward to roughhousing with the twins, or tickling Jeannie and pulling her tail. He would be alone, all by
himself, out there with the eagles and owls and leopards. “I’m waiting,” Todi said. “But what about you, what if somebody …”
She had him cornered, there was no escape, this was the moment and it had been thrust on him, he’d run out of time, it was now and no later, ready or not. XXX Maki put a fresh layer of leaves over the bedding he’d collected and over the weeks and months of his indecision. He lay on his back and looked up at the stars through the trees, wondering why he’d been so afraid to be on his own. It didn’t feel bad, there was plenty of space to spread out without someone else’s tail up his nose. Finding a female and knowing what to do were something else, but he presumed it was something for which there was an instinct which would kick into place and everything would be alright. “Did you like it, the chocolate, wasn’t it fantastic” said a voice from the bottom of the tree. It was Jane. She shimmied up to Maki’s nest and settled herself on a branch next to him. “It was alright I suppose,” Maki said. “Alright? Just alright? I’m not wasting any more on you, that’s for sure. Ah well, it’s an acquired taste, not everyone gets it. You guys prefer gum, hmmm, I think I saw something that smelled of passion fruit, next time …” Maki shuddered to think there might be a next time and neatly changed the subject. “What a strange looking baby, just like a baboon, but she wasn’t frightened of us at all, did you see? The Nids are so much bigger and they’re terrified, but not the babies. Nids, who can understand them.” “Next time we’ve got to make ourselves an alternate escape route before we start nosing around. That’ll be your job.”
“I’m not going back,” Maki said firmly. “We only managed to escape by the tips of our ears. I’m finished with the rescuing business, I’m going to find a mate and fill up this nest with baby bushbabies.” “We have to go back,” Jane burst out. She took his paw in hers and tugged it fiercely, “you have to help me, there’s something I have to get from the baby’s room. It’s important, more than that, it’s crucial. I saved your life, you own me a favour.” “When did you save my life?” Maki asked. “But I may,” said Jane. “It’s too dangerous for us to go back there just to eat some chocolate, I don’t think that stuff is very good for you, my tummy still feels funny.” “It’s not chocolate, it’s something else, I have to have it and you’ve got to help me.” “I’m not going to help you steal something from the Nids,” Maki said, shaking his head. “You don’t understand, the Nids, they have everything, and if they don’t have it, they can get it. If something breaks, or gets lost or gets stolen, they go out to a big enormous house where everything they want is laid out in rows and they hand over slices of tree and get a new one. It’s a small thing of very little value to them, but it’s hugely important to me. They won’t even notice it’s gone.” She looked at Maki with big moist eyes, her head tilted earnestly to the side, her unibrow furrowed as though it were a matter of life and death. “How are we going to do it, Jane, she’s terrified of us, we can’t just saunter in there and take it, whatever this thing is that you want.”
“She likes you. You can get close to her. You’ve got big eyes, Nids love big eyes and fluffy fur and wet noses. Flatter her, the Nids love flattery.” Maki sighed. His luck was sure to run out without warning one day, but Jane looked at him with feverish desperation. She ducked her head and pushed out her bottom lip. Her shoulders slumped as though she’d been struck by some mortal blow. A leopard coughed below on the forest floor. Maki looked over the side of the nest and watched the beast sniff the base of the tree. “Aren’t you scared all alone by yourself?” Jane whispered. “A little,” Maki stuttered, watching the leopard saunter over to the next tree which she sniffed thoroughly before moving off into the darkness. “I’ll just curl up here in the corner of your nest, alright,” Jane said, “I don’t fancy being leopard chew this evening either.” XXX “Can you believe it, the kid’s still not walking,” said Pajama. “It’s nearly winter, what, are they going to carry her around for the next year?” “Get them out on the rocks and catching their own dassies as soon as possible is what I say,” Dingding remarked. “She looks just like a monkey,” said Maki. “Does not,” said the monkeys. “She looks rather delicious if you ask me,” said Dingding, “a nice, soft and tender mouthful. You’d hardly have to chew at all.” “We don’t eat Nids,” Uncle Lemon remarked. Although the baby could not walk, she was adept in escaping from the house at every opportunity and getting herself across the grass with a
combination of crawling on all fours, rolling over, and pulling herself along like a crab with one arm and one leg. She fell over frequently, waving her limbs in the air like a stricken beetle. She would roll over onto her side, crawl a few steps, then tumble over again. sideshow. Eventually she was able to stand up without tumbling over onto her face, and staggered everywhere, over carefully hidden nests, through intricate cobwebs. One day, before anyone could stop her, she fell into a rhino midden and had to be hurried into the house and washed all over. She was quite unable to protect herself and was constantly stung and bitten for putting her hands in inappropriate places. One day Jane was at her usual spot scoping out the Nid house. She’d become quite obsessed with the procurement of the teddy bear, she knew it would require a sophisticated operation, in which nothing could go wrong. Planning was key, and patience. After all she had nothing but time. Maki joined her in the bush and they watched the baby toddling across the grass in full blissful view of eagles and possibly lions. The baby didn’t seem to smell them because she continued on to the path that led to the river, and climbed over a large rock that tumbled into the river rushing below. Maki leapt out of the bush and hopped towards her, chirping in alarm. The baby looked around, saw him and giggled, stretching out her hands. Maki scurried up the rock and caught her just as she was about to fall over and crack her soft little head. He took her hand and guided her away from the cliff and back onto the grass. It became the animals’ favourite comic
“Thank goodness,” the blue budgie said, fluttering towards them. “She wandered off. We were just going to send out a search party.” “I wasn’t lost,” said the baby, “I was just ‘sploring.” “You’ve got to be careful, there dangers in the bush,” said Maki. “You can’t even walk yet. How come you’re so slow? Our babies run around
almost the same day they’re born.” “I only really walk properly when I’m two years old,” the baby said. “Two years,” breathed Maki. “And then I start destroying my parents house, then I go to school for twenty years, then I go to the office for forty years, then I go to the old age home until I die.” Jane inched closer. The Nid was totally soft and helpless, she could rush into the house and grab the teddy bear and be gone before she even turned around, and yet caution was vital. She would have to bide her time. “How old are you when you leave the house and get your own place?” Maki asked. “About eighteen,” the baby said. “But then sometimes I go back and stay they kick me out at about age 45.” “Forty five!” It seemed impossibly old. “How old are you when you start catching your own food?” “It’s mashed peas and bananas for me until I’m about two, then my mom trades little paper things for food for me until I’m old enough to go to the office and come home with my own little bits of paper and then I buy my own food.”
“See, I told everyone about those papers and nobody would believe me,” said Jane sourly. “And boys, how old are you when … you get interested in girls.” “I don’t know that part yet,” said the baby. “Something about birds and bees that only happens when I’m sixteen.” “Sixteen,” Maki said in astonishment. “How did you get out of your cage?” “That’s a bed, it’s not a cage, it’s so I don’t roll off the side while I sleep.” “Why don’t you sleep on the floor?” “Because it’s dirty,” said the baby. “Dirty?” Maki and Jane said in unison. “It’s got germs. We’re afraid of germs, they’re small and invisible and they fly into your house through the windows and make you sick.” “But if you can’t see them, how do you know where they are?” “Germs are everywhere, they’re on everything, the trees and grass and ground. Nature is dirty. After we’ve been outside we wash ourselves all over. “How can cats be dirty, they clean themselves all day?” “They’re still dirty.” “Elephants?” “Filthy dirty and don’t even start with the warthogs or anything that rolls around on the ground a lot.” “Birds?” “You don’t touch birds, or reptiles, or insects of any sort.” “Water?”
“Dirty, unless it comes out of the tap.” “The sky?” “Clean over here, but not in some places.” “Dirt everywhere, I’m probably dirty too,” said Maki, looking down at his dirty body. “You can come and have a bath at my place if you like,” she chirped. Maki and Jane looked at each other in horror. Ablutions were
rudimentary in the primate world and nobody had ever complained, or even suggested a remedy as horrific as full immersion in a Nid water hole and being rubbed all over with the vile stuff they called soap. The Nids seemed to have an inordinate horror of the world outside their abodes, nature in particular. No wonder they walked with their shoulders slumped as though tired of their lives. Jane had heard of Nids who killed themselves, a mind boggling concept to her. As far as she was concerned, keeping alive was the sum total of the game. “Taya” a voice called. “That’s my mom,” said the baby. “I’ve got to go, bye.” The Nid mother stood on the grass and in her hands was the object, the teddy bear, the thing Jane desired so much she felt sick to her stomach. She held out the teddy to the baby, bouncing it up and down. The baby gurgled and staggered towards her, shoulders hunched, squealing, Jane
could wait no longer, she ran past her and up to the mother, snatching the teddy from her hands and running as fast as she could. The baby let out a stricken howl and the mother screamed, but Jane didn’t look back. She crashed into the forest and swung herself up in the
trees with her precious cargo tucked securely under one arm. She thought she’d handled that well, was smirking with pride at herself when she was confronted by a furious Maki. “What are we eating today?” she asked casually, trying to hide the teddy behind her back. “Give it back,” said Maki. “I’m not giving it back, it’s mine now.” “You’re giving it back or you’re not sleeping in my nest.” “Fine, sleep by yourself, see if the leopards leave you alone.” “Is this what you wanted all this time?” Maki asked. “A Nid stuffed toy, it doesn’t look like any animal I know, I’ve never seen a bear, let alone a teddy one. What’s so important about a stupid toy?” “It’s not a stupid toy,” Jane snapped, thumping Maki on the arm. Maki thumped back and Jane staggered back, steadied herself and charged at Maki until they were rolling over and over in the leaves, pummeling each other. “Hey, hey, hey,” said Uncle Chameleon, who saw them on his walk from his Cousin Basil’s place downstream. “What’s going on here?” “Jane stole from the Nids,” Maki said before Jane put her elbow into his middle, doubling him over in pain. “Is this true” said Uncle Chameleon. “Did you steal something from the Nids?” Jane gave Maki a filthy look and produced the bear, putting it on the ground in front of Uncle Lemon.
“Is this all? Is this what you stole? This stupid little thing? For this stupid thing you risk the safety of the valley?” he chortled softly and looked at Jane in amazement. “Towel will take it back and deposit it near the Nid’s house, and don’t ever ever do that again.” Jane trembled, her face stricken with shame. Maki felt sorry for telling on her, guilty, embarrassed, he wished he hadn’t said anything, but it was too late. “You listen to me little boy, “Jane said, she waved her arm and poked her finger at him as she spoke. ”Don’t go imprinting on human beings,
because you will end up like me, fixated on an object instead of a mate. And don’t go selling out your fellow creatures for a Nid. You don’t know what they’re like. They want you for a pet, but as soon as you grow into your big big eyes, they lose interest. So, traitor, see you in the bush, and it’s every man for himself.” Maki was so startled by her vehemence, the bitterness of her tone, he couldn’t even stutter a rebuttal or an apology. It was such a small thing, a trifling little Nid object, and he’d broken a friendship for that. Jane turned on her heel and stalked away, at intervals turning and giving him an evil look before running off into the trees. XXX A few days later, Maki was foraging in the vicinity of the hill that overlooked the Nid’s house, and every now and then he looked across to see if the baby was coming out. Jane sat a short distance away doing the same thing, looking out across the expanse of green to the house beyond. Noises came from the house, some sort of strange Nid sounds, lots of giggling and
fun, and brightly coloured round things hung in the sky trailing vines. The baby had a bright blue hat on her head and her father stood at a fire and poked at something that looked like the ribs of an animal, while the mother walked in and out of the house. She paused to extract something from the baby’s mouth or poke something else in, then bustled back into the house to emerge with a basket of fruit that made Maki’s mouth water. The Nids sat down to begin their meal and bizarrely enough, they picked up a stick in each hand and cut and poked the food and lifted tiny morsels to their mouths without touching it with their hands. It was all quite pitiful and pointless when they had those marvelous opposable thumbs and could have torn into the food in a much more efficient way. Maki caught Jane sneaking a look at him, but as soon as she saw that he saw, she turned away. The baby noticed the two animals lurking in the bushes and she put a warning finger against her lip. The food combined with the heat of the sun seemed to have a familiar effect on the Nids, the frantic activity slowed and they rested their arms on the table, their heads drooping lower and lower. They stole glances at the baby, but she pretended to be fast asleep. When the coast was clear, she climbed out her chain and staggered across the lawn. In her arms were a number of brightly coloured misshapen objects. “It’s my birthday,” she said. “What’s a birthday?” “It’s the anniversary of the day you were born. You get presents. Don’t you get presents on your birthday?” “Nope,” said Maki, “Don’t even know what day it is.”
“Me neither,” said Jane, sidling closer. “Well I’ve got lots, so I’ve giving you some of mine.” She handed each of them a package. Jane turned it over in her hands. “What is it?” “You need to take off the peel.” “It’s a bit hard without thumbs. Why do Nids wrap everything in peel,” Maki asked, giving up and biting it open. “If we didn’t, it would get dirty,” said the baby, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Maki found himself holding the brown teddy bear, Jane’s desire, the object over a perfectly good inter-species friendship had been ruined. “I’ve got a new toy, see,” she said, picking up some sort of small Nid machine that made terrible beeping noises and flashed with lights in a way that made Maki and Jane shield their eyes and plug their ears. Jane looked at the contents of her wrapped in puzzlement, she had no idea what it was. “It’s a Ninja turtle,” said the baby. It did indeed look a bit like a turtle, it had a shell, but the other bits and pieces weren’t recognizable at all. It felt hard, but it was light, he bit into it, but it was clearly not worth eating. Jane looked across at Maki who looked
across at Jane and he walked across the expanse between them and put the teddy bear on the ground in front of her. “Swap with me please, I always wanted one of, um, those.” Jane picked up the teddy bear and held it against her chest, it had the familiar synthetic smell of her earliest years, and when she put her cheek
against its fur, it tickled her nose. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes and a sob of happiness rose in her throat. XXX Maki lay in his nest watching the sunset, readying himself for another exciting night of grasshopper catching and flinging himself through the trees, and of course, rescuing if the opportunity presented itself. He would begin to look for a mate the very next day. Jane was right, stick with your own kind. Just then, he felt Jeannie slide into his nest and curl up against him, followed by Old Abner and one of the twins. “Your father snores,” Old Abner said, lying half in and half out the nest as usual. At some point during the night, one or two little cousins joined in and as the sun set in the scarlet west, they all woke up in Maki’s supposed bachelor nest and the tickling, tackling and leaf fights resumed as if they’d never stopped.
Chapter Nine The rains were late. Spring had been sprung for ages and all over the savannah, optimistic green shoots poked into the parched air and promptly curled up, crisp and brown, blasted by the face of a pitiless sun. The sky that had once been such a delightful, warm blue was a relentlessly evil turquoise. The river slowed, meandering sluggishly between drooping fronds and gurgling lethargically into the water hole. The water hole had some water, far below the point of the last drought, according to those animals that were that old enough to remember the last time the riverbeds were cracked and bleached bones scattered the veld. The winter rains had been paltry. They were preceded by great angry violent storms with vicious winds, and torrents that lasted about a second and a half. There were earth-shattering hail storms and lightning which set the trees ablaze and great torches of flame billowing through the grass. Plenty of drama, but not much lovely strong soaking rain. The animals scanned the horizon for clouds, sniffed the air for the musky scent of raindrops, but the sun they’d once longed for now stared remorselessly back at them. It was so hot that fights broke out about favourite trees. Some of the animals reminisced fondly about the time it had snowed, the sky took on a bruised purple hue, and tufts and pillocks of icy white drifted down, dissolving mysteriously into the ground. The animals instinctively prepared for the worst and began to conserve what they had. The elephants slurping rights were restricted, and the hippos had to forego their usual enthusiastic wallowing. Everybody cut back in some small way, even the mice. It made a difference if they all pulled together.
The less territorial animals moved downstream to the wetlands where ever there, the waterfowl picked through muddy ponds and stalk legged birds poked empty crevasses. The animals that had nests and colonies and
favourite trees were reluctant to surrender them and decided to take an optimistic approach. They waited and watched, sure that at any moment the Great Egg, or the Planet of the Bright Light, or whoever, would pour down the blessing. Their necks became stiff from keeping one eye on the sky, the other on the matter of lunch. “You’re all soft,” said Gucky the crocodile, “why I remember the
drought of twenty summers back or was it twenty two, now that was hot.” From his own point of view, he was rather pleased the level of the river was down and the animals had to trudge through sticky, churned up sludge to get a mouthful of dank, muddy water. It made the pickings easier, but it was hard to drag them into the depths of the water, as crocodiles do, when there were no depths to be had. It wasn’t just the heat and lack of water that made tensions rise inexorably as the animals moved on with their various Plan B’s. Animals that had been used to nuts now tried grass and bits of bark and occasionally fruit to survive. This didn’t thrill the squirrels or baboons and predictably there was sniping and snapping over who was taking up more than his fair share of a slice of shade. A good rousing storm would clean the air and calm all the ruffled fur, feathers and scales. Nothing was as thrilling as watching the heavens crash into the earth, nothing was felt as intensely as that first splat on the ground, pitter patter, faster, and a thunderous deluge, all from the safety of a warm
nest or burrow, of course. It broke the endless routine. With the sun beating relentlessly, each day had a sameness tinged with anxiety. thousands of eyes scanned the horizon in hope and desperation. XXX One day the animals saw the Nid’s tortoise coming down the hill, and while they usually ignored its pungent smell and ear-tingling noise, they looked up because it seemed to be dragging an enormous box containing a powerfully angry animal. “It’s a ruminant, a deer of some sort,” mused Uncle Lemon. “ “Why would they bring more ruminants, they’re everywhere?” Jane replied, “it’s got to be a cow, that’s a Nid animal, it’s like a really calm and docile buffalo, if you can imagine that.” “What would they do with a buffalo?” “When the Nid mother stops suckling the baby, they pull the milk out of the cow and give it to the baby in a little udder thing.” Uncle Lemon looked carefully at her face to see if she was making fun of him, but apparently not. She sat on a branch intent on getting every last seed out of a dessicated pomegranate. “I don’t think a buffalo would make such a song and dance about being put in a box,” said Uncle Lemon. “That scream, there’s long nostrils involved.” As the tortoise slowed to turn into the lodge, the creature became eerily quiet. The Nidess came out of the house and joined the Nid at the back of the box. The doors were opened and instantly the creature began to shriek and kick, hissing and baring his teeth. They jumped back as the creature Each day
exploded out of the box and landed heavily on the ground, tugged back by a
rope tied to a harness over his nose. The creature scrambled to his feet and reared up, pulling against the rope, his hooves pounding up bits of minced grass. He looked mostly zebra-shaped, but black all over, with a wicked splodge of white over one eye. His legs were longer than the average zebra, the body small and compact, but terribly thin, his ribs were etched against dull flanks that were bald in patches. “It’s a horse,” said Jane, “Nids ride on top of them.” Uncle Lemon gave her a funny look. “It’s true, they put one leg on either side and the horse goes forward, because Nids can’t run very far without dying. They eat horses, sometimes, with a red wine and rosemary sauce. They have races with them, and they put pieces of sliced tree on which horse is going to win, and sometimes they get their bits of paper back plus some extra ones, and they’re happy and sometimes they don’t get their paper back and they’re get very thirsty.” Uncle Lemon cast a sideways look at Jane. He wondered sometimes if she was completely all there. Her experiences with the Nids had obviously been traumatic, but couldn’t her analysis of the situation be clouded by the fact that she and the Nids were related? “What’s the significance of the pieces of paper, are they magic?” “They’re called money. They give them to other Nids and in return get something in exchange. It’s called buying, or shopping.” “Can you buy anything with the paper, an elephant?” “Yes.” “A Nid.”
“Um, not any more. You used to be able to, but only those of a certain colour. In some places you still can buy the small ones.” The horse whinnied and danced as the Nids tried persuade the horse to keep all four feet on the ground at one time. He lunged for the Nidess, showing rows of yellow teeth, and she leapt back with a yelp. He turned to bite into the rope that confined him, she darted forward and grabbed the harness over his nose, holding onto him as he reared and tugged. Although she was small, she managed, with a combination of running and tugging to get the horse around the side of the house. When he reached the gate, he balked, and they had to coax him through with a series of ropes and pulleys. The Nid almost got bitten trying to take the rope off the creature’s head, and as soon as he knew was free, he shook his head, whirled around and tore away across the field as though bees were after him. It did him no good, he was in field, with high sides made of Nid string, which looked see-through, but which were in reality a really big cage for a really big, active animal. The Nidess walked along the outside of the field, calling softly, singing, but he stayed as far away from her as he could, snorting through his nose and trembling all over. “Are you telling me the Nid is going to sit on that wild horse and ride it?” “Well, clearly no, not yet at least.” “Not ever by the looks of it,” said Uncle Lemon. When the Nids had gone, the creature seemed to calm down and notice he was standing in piles of luscious green grass. He stared at it as though he’d never seen such a thing before. He sniffed once, twice, and to
the curious stares of the animals, he plunged his long nose into the grass and began to fill his tragically concave belly. Uncle Lemon felt a sense of foreboding looking at the creature browsing. Strange animals in the wilds were never a good idea, especially a nervous Nid creature who for some reason seemed more than a little angry. XXX It wasn’t that he was bad looking exactly, Pajama thought, but he was, in her view, definitely lacking in a crucial feature for attractiveness, that being the all important stripe which she had in such perfect abundance. He was completely black with a silly splodge of white, which made the rim of his eye look a rheumy pink. He was horribly skinny and she wondered how stupid he would have to be to get into that state, since all an ungulate had to do was walk a few steps to eat some grass. approached the fence. “Hello stripeless stranger,” she said, “Why the long face?” The creature snorted and resumed twirling his tongue around stalks of grass and pulling them into his mouth. “Get it, the long face, it’s a joke, you’re supposed pull back your lips and go hee hee,” said Pajama. The horse didn’t pause in his steady chewing. “What’s the matter with you pal.” “I’m not your pal, mate,” the horse snapped. “Excuse me, mate, you need to cool the aggression, be a bit more friendly. Not to hyena and lions you understand, but I’m an equine like you. We’re all related, you know, even though your Nids seem to have found a way He eyed her out balefully as she
to get rid of the stripes. Not a smart move really, how are you going to hypnotise a stalking leopard if you can’t move through the trees with your stripy herd?” “I’m not hypnotizing anybody. Nobody asked me if I wanted to come here,” the horse said bitterly. “I was taken from one box and shoved into another box like so much meat.” “Wow, we’ve got issues,” said Pajama. “Put them in the past, you’re
here now, you’ve got all this food, and look at this beautiful view from your field, you can see right down to the water hole.” The horse did not look up, he continued to grumble in between mouthfuls of grass. “They haven’t beaten me yet, I suppose that’s an improvement, although there’s always tomorrow. There’s too much pollen here, and no stable door to kick in. The grass isn’t bad, but you never know what it’s going to do to my stomach, could blow me right up, I could go on.” “Well, why not look on the bright side,” said Pajama fluttering her eyelashes. “this lovely view ….” “Bright side, what bright side?” roared the creature, striking at the fence with his hooves. “I’m sick and sore all over, my bones are giving way, my shins ache.” “Talk to Doctor Duck, he’ll fix you right up.” “A duck? I’m not taking medical advice from a duck. I need injections, maybe a massage.” The Nids themselves seemed to have no luck with the creature. Several times a day, the the Nidess and her baby walked along the fence,
calling to the horse, but he ignored the treats they offered him and stayed in the far corner by himself, chewing steadily. The animals carried on in their normal way, casting their eyes to the sky in case of rain, frolicking when the heat of the day seeped out of the rocks, and generally getting on with things. From time to time they caught sight of the solitary creature in the Nid’s field, so unmoved by his surroundings, so lost in his own private misery. XXX “Well, well, and what do we have here,” said Doctor Duck walking around the horse, taking care to stay well away from the perilous back hooves. He’d recently patched up one of the hyenas who’d burrowed under the fence, and discovered that horse feet were lined with metal. “What kind of doctor is a duck?” sniffed the horse. “You’re zebra shaped, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen another one of you before.” “Well that’s reassuming, a duck who’s never met a horse.” “Eh, well, I’m more of a wild animals expert, but you look alike.” “I’m not like a zebra,” the horse huffed, “I’m not even like other horses, I’m a racehorse, I’m a special breed built for speed, for racing.” “I can see that,” said Doctor Duck, peering at the creature’s knees, “What can you see,” snapped the horse. “Don’t get me wrong, your structure is beautiful and I’m sure you can run fast, but your ankles are too thin for the size of your body, that’s what makes your legs sore. Your joints are swollen, your feet are not used to this ground, you’re depressed and you think you’re going to die.”
“Lucky guess,” said the horse with a shrug. “Racing, I’ve heard of that. You run as fast as you can even though you’re not being chased?” “It was my job. Anyway, I always hated being in the back, you know, I had to be out in front, Sometimes my rider would pull me back, but I won anyway. I had a padded box with heating for travelling, I got special food, I had my own pool and someone to massage my legs,” He sighed and his eyes were moist with longing. “But when your legs start to hurt, they stick needles in and you feel as though you can run to the moon. Then they stop sticking the needles in, and you don’t run so well and then you stop caring if you’re in the front of the back. Then they get cross and put you in a box, that’s not heated, and send you away. Those that look half decent get sold and the rest …,” he shuddered, “I’ve heard they feed us to their cats.” “Why are you so thin,” Doctor Duck asked. “I got sold to an old man with a farm, me, winner of the Derby, the Winners Cup and the Super Cup in one year. There I was pulling a cart full of human children round and round in circles and letting them put their sticky hands all over my face.” Doctor Duck had seen as much as he needed, although the legs were in a terrible state, it was not hopeless. He merely needed rest and good food, mild exercise and minimal stress. As for his mental state, Doctor Duck felt certain the valley would work its magic on him. It had never failed in the past. “For the legs I recommend that you lie on your back and kick your heels in the air at least twice a day,” he declared. “Be serious, Doc,” the horse cried, ”I’m in pain here.”
“Much more frolicking is required, most definitely, a concerted frolicking plan must be undertaken right now. It will hurt in the beginning, but you must persist and the muscles will strengthen.” “That’s silly,” he spluttered, “I’m not going to do that,” “Also prancing. You walk like a stiff old giraffe, you need to prance a bit, get those knees up.” “I’m not going to prance,” said the horse. ponies.” “Cavorting is another thing, once or twice in the evening will do you the world of good. Gambolling isn’t a bad idea, and you might even flounce and of course, don’t forget to sashay in between capers.” “As if I’m going to cavort,” the horse scoffed, but as soon as the duck had waddled out of sight, he skipped and flicked his legs out, just to see if he could do it. It didn’t feel too bad after all, perhaps he could survive these latest circumstances with minimal pain and boredom. The food was good, the water plentiful, the stripy horses were friendly, the doctor was a duck, and now that he had finally noticed it, he had to admit the view was spectacular. XXX Every day the animals saw the Nidess and the baby go up to the fence and talk to the horse, and from time to time, they would sing and he would prick up his ears. He even went so far as to allow them to stroke him through the fence if he happened to be grazing next to it. Once they were astonished to see him take something out of the little girl’s hand with his lips. Most of the time he stared off into the distance, caught up in a different world, from time to “Prancing is for show
time pawing the ground angrily, and springing backwards as though he’d remembered something. One day while Maki was foraging, he saw the baby standing next to the horse’s fence, and the Nidess nowhere in sight. The horse was on the far side of the field, and the baby seemed to be trying to squeeze herself through the wires and into the field. Maki hopped as fast as he could down the hill, through the river, up the other side and across the grass. By the time he reached the horse’s field, he was too late, the baby toddled up to the horse which towered over her. “Stop,” chirped Maki, but the baby seemed not to hear. She reached up and touched the horse’s nose. The horse snorted and pulled back his head, his eyes wide, but the baby giggled and reached out again. Maki held his breath, he might just have enough time to climb through the fence and dash through the field, distract the horse and grab the baby. The horse
dropped his head and sniffed the little girl’s hair, Maki thought he was about to bite her ear off, but the little girl rubbed his chin and ran her fingers over the white splodge around his eye. Maki was aghast. It didn’t seem as though the horse was about to attack her. On the contrary, they seemed to be bonding in some strange way. The horse walked towards the fence, with the baby tottering alongside and he nudged her gently back through to the other side. The baby’s mother came running out of the house, calling frantically, but when she saw them, she bared her teeth and make the sound Nids made when they were happy. She picked up the baby and put her hand out to the horse. Once again he shied away from her and ran for the far corner of the field.
XXX It was another day with no rain. The forest was tinder-dry, trees rustled and leaves drifted crisp to the forest floor. A wisp of smoke trailed into the
valley carried by a playful wind. The animals stopped whatever they were doing and sniffed. The meerkat popped their heads out of their burrows and sniffed, the aardvark slurped and sniffed. A ripple of anxiety trilled around the valley. “Fire,” cried Cluck the guineafowl, bouncing up and down through the long grass. “It’s a fire, a fire, run for your lives.” The fire was not close enough to cause a full-scale stampede. There was a chance it would burn itself out, the wind might turn and send it back upon itself. If they reacted to the tiniest threats of danger, they would spend their lives running. Some had faith that the long awaited rains would appear, and continued with their everyday sleeping and eating activities, keeping a careful eye on the plume rising in the sky. The smaller animals decided to avoid a trampling when the rout began, and soon the ground seethed with lizards and chameleon, gerbils and hares, grasshoppers and spiders. Birds darted hither and thither snapping up the bounty, but they too were worried about the future of their eggs in the path of the inferno.. Maki and Jane glared at each other across the nest. Jane wouldn’t leave without her teddy bear. Maki thought she should rather carry and save an actual live animal, instead of a dead Nid thing. There was also a time factor, the smoke was becoming more and more pungent. The forest was particularly at risk of catching alight with a bad coincidence of wind, it was knee deep to an aardvark in dry leaves and desiccated branches. There was
no time to lose, a decision had to be made right away.
They could not
encumber themselves with the baggage of a settled life or count on the fact that predators might have other priorities while they staggered along the ground with a Nid object weighing them down. There was risk and no time, sentiment had to go. “I can’t leave her behind,” said Jane, defiantly. “Her?” Maki squeaked, “it’s a collection of Nid-made fibres.” Jane pouted and turned her back to him, looking over her shoulder, “it’s a big panic all for nothing. It’s going to rain, look, there’s a cloud.” “If you want to stay here and get burnt to a crisp for a stupid Nid object, that’s none of my business,” said Maki. He flounced away and jumped down onto a lower branch, turning back to see if Jane was coming, but she sat next to her bear with her arms folded, staring up at the horizon with her nose in the air. Maki swung through the trees, wondering where he would go if his nest was burnt to a crisp. He passed his old childhood nest, but mom, dad and the others had made an early start. He wondered if their tree would even be there when they got back, if indeed they got back. One thing was certain about fires, many creatures would not survive. He looped and swung through the trees above a bustling throng of creatures all sniffing the air for a change in the wind. As he swung past the lodge, Maki wondered if the Nids would know that fire was coming, that they would be advised to pack their tortoise and get out of the way. Their sense of smell seemed to have atrophied with the
increased dexterity of their opposable thumbs and they simply couldn’t sense
danger the way that animals could. The blue budgie could simply fly away, but the baby? He didn’t want to think about it. He would have to warn them, there wasn’t a moment to lose. He hopped recklessly across the short grass to the structure hoping the eagles would be more preoccupied with flying away, than feeding their bellies. He understood at last that the Nids kept the grass short for just such an eventuality as an out of control fire. It would retard the progress of the inferno and he just might have enough time to warn them before it was too late. He stumbled over the steps to the verandah and collapsed under the budgie cage. “I’ve missed you my dear friend, how is everybody?” said the blue budgie cheerfully. “We’re not good,” Maki panted. “There’s a big fire coming, you’ve got to warn the Nids. It’s coming this way, all the animals are moving
downstream. You’ve got to get that baby, and the Nids of course, they’ve got to get in their tortoise and go.” “A fire? We have all these trees around, we’re sitting pigeons. Alas I cannot do as you say, the Nids do not understand me, the accent, I’ve tried all of them, even that baby. Of course, the Nids don’t understand what the baby says either, it all sounds like burble burble burble to them.” “If they don’t understand you, and they don’t understand the baby, we’ll have to create a diversion, get their attention some other way, can you get me inside the house again do you think?” “Impossible, the Nidess is sick, poor lady, the Nid has gone for the doctor, it is locked up tighter than a goose’s grip on a frog.”
“We’ve got to do something“, said Maki. “Either I’ve got to go in, or she’s got to come out.” Just then, Jane came up behind them with her teddy bear in her arms. She panted heavily, her shoulders heaving with the exertion and settled the bear under a tree, giving it one last affectionate pat. “You going in the house?” she asked, “can I go, huh, can I go?” “We can’t,” said Maki, “it’s all locked up. Can’t even break a window, since they put that stuff on that makes it bounce back. She’s got to come out here.” He hopped onto the window ledge and tapped on the window. He could see the baby’s cage covered in the white froth of a mosquito cloth. He tapped again. The blue budgie pecked, Jane banged until finally they heard a whimper and her little face peeping at them over the bars of her cage. She
climbed over effortlessly and dropped to the floor, toddling to the window and climbing up. The window swung open. “What a nice surprise,” she cried, clapping her hands. “We can’t stop for a chat,” Maki said. “There’s a fire coming, and we’re all in danger, you’ve got to warn your mother and father. You have to get in your tortoise and run.” “Can’t do that,” said the baby, “my mom’s sick, my dad’s gone to get the doctor.” “Oh no,” said Maki, “you better start running then.” “I can’t run yet,” said the baby ruefully, “and my mom doesn’t understand what I say, and I don’t think she can run anywhere right now. The weatherman said it’s going to rain tonight, maybe that will put the fire out.”
“What’s a weatherman?” Maki asked. “He tells us the weather on the television,” she said. “But the Big Bushbaby in the Sky makes the weather,” said Maki. “Impossible,” said the blue budgie, it’s the Grand Parrot that decides if it will rain or shine.” “The Grand Master of the Planet of the Bright Light gives us the weather,” Jane said grandly, but the baby shook her head. “No, the weatherman works it out with science, and numbers and synoptic charts,” said the baby. “There’s a high pressure system feeding in cold air, which means rain for sure.” It sounded like magic of some arcane sort, but there was no time for the weatherman to bring relief, and no time for the Grand Parrot or the Big Meerkat to save them. The fire charged up the hills, and nibbled along the edges of the river, when an unruly wind whipped it up into the branches. The canopy blazed, the dry stalks of creeping mosses shriveled to a crisp. The flames stalled in places where the vegetation was particularly dense, and nibbled it’s way along, circling and getting caught in the willows next to the river where it skipped across the bank and into the lush yellow grass. A brisk wind came up and it charged unhindered across a swath of the veld incinerating everything in its path. A tree caught alight, and the sky was filled with bright orange light as seedpods exploded and branches came crashing to the ground. “You and your mother have to get out of here,” Maki cried. “You’ve got to do something to get her attention.”
The baby looked thoughtful. “Cover your ears,” she said. She took a deep breath and let out her famous ear-shattering shriek, and before long, the harried mother appeared. She tried to pick up the baby, but the little girl squirmed out of her grasp and frantically pointed at the window. The mother seemed puzzled, but finally she caught sight of Maki’s enormous eyes staring at them and behind him, the glow of the fire. She swung the baby onto her back, tying her in place with a blanket. The fire was all around the edges of the Nid’s short grass, there would be only one way to escape and that was along the river and up to the road. Maki was not sure how fast Nids could run, he’d heard that some of them could run very fast for miles, that they had races, but it seemed as a rule, they didn’t run very much at all. Nevertheless, the Nidess ran out of the house and across the verandah with the blue budgie fluttering around her head, and to his horror, he saw her run in the opposite direction to the river. She ran around the back of the house, towards the field where the horse, inhaling a lungful of smoke stood trembling and stamping his feet. The horse shrank back as she opened the gate, and she stopped and untied the baby, put her on the ground. The little girl toddled across the dry grass to where the horse was standing. “Please sir, my mommy asks if we can ride you?” she said. “There’s a fire coming, my daddy is gone to town with the car. If we ride you, we can get away from the fire.” “Nobody rides me,” said the horse, pretending he wasn’t worried about the fire by nonchalantly chomping on a tussock. “You have to, you owe my mummy a favour, she saved your life. You have to pay back a favour, it’s a rule over here.”
“She saved my life for what, I don’t have a useful function, I can hardly walk, let alone run a race. My life has been nothing but sorrow and pain with the odd sugar cube thrown in.” “It doesn’t matter, you’d be cat food now if it wasn’t for her, you’ve got to help.” Just then, Pajama ran past with some of the young mares. She slowed when she saw the horse and trotted up to the fence. “Hey big fancy racehorse, let’s see you race now, let’s see if you can run faster than a fire, or even as fast as we can.” The horse ground his teeth as the zebra pranced mockingly in front of him. The Nidess came up behind his head with the harness and slipped it over his head. He whinnied as the familiar metal bit his tongue. The zebra gamboled in the dust, rolling over and leaping to their feet, nibbling at each other’s necks and snickering at him. With one last mocking look, they set off down the road at a leisurely trot. The horse felt the familiar weight of the saddle on his back, the girth clinching his waist. The Nidess held him steady and climbed onto his back, taking the child from the blanket and resting her on the horse’s back. He trembled, and she began to sing. She nudged his ribs with her heels and urged him through the gate. He set off in an ungainly trot along the road far behind the taunting rumps of the zebra. He hardly felt the weight of the Nidess and her child, and as he moved, the clumsiness in his stride fell away and joy entered his angry, shriveled heart. He gritted his teeth against the pain he still felt in his knees, and plunged into a gallop. Before long, he had caught up with the zebra, and
since they were cocky and overconfident, they did not notice he had sneaked up until he was almost upon them. Soon he was in amongst the stripes, and becoming mesmerized by the shifting black on white. It was hard to see how many animals there really were and impossible to know who was winning the race. IT felt good to be part of a herd, he thought, but only for an instant. He was a race horse, and champions always won. The zebra were forced to eat his dust as he charged forward, pounding into the distance. XXX The crash that sounded was so loud that everyone jumped and huddled if not under their mothers, at least in the nearest bush. With a blinding flash, the sky split in two and before long the first pitter was heard, then a patter and soon afterwards water beat into the earth like the footsteps of the gods. The fire fizzled, flickered once or twice then died, and the soaked black forest glistened and dripped. The river began to flow with increasing urgency, splashing over parched rocks, swirling and eddying into pools, and the animals began to frolic for the sheer joy of being cool and wet. Jane dropped the teddy bear she had retrieved and leapt out to join in the fun. The buffalo rolled over and over on the ticklish grass, the hippos stamped and splashed and the elephant squirted each other with glee. Frogs popped out of every hole, courting and spawning, and even old Gucky the crocodile heaved himself up from the dry river bed and waddled through the rain. “Yippee,” said Maki running through the raindrops. “Here I come,” said Jane, holding her nose and leaping into the rapidly filling water hole.
“Weatherman indeed,” Uncle Lemon scoffed, “ah well, whatever does the trick.” Down the road came the Nid’s tortoise, and inside they could see the Nidess driving, with the baby in her own chair in the back, and behind them was the Nid sitting on top of the horse. It was an impressive sight, a union of animals, if indeed Nids were animals. question had ever been settled XXX “Tell me about the time you won the Super Cup,” said Pajama. A few of the young zebra colts were pressed up against the fence staring wide eyed at the incredibly fast horse with no stripes and a funny splodge over the eye. “Well, it happened right before the Derby and just after the Winners Cup …” said the horse. Nobody could remember if that
Chapter Ten Kitiki had made herself quite comfortable in the squirrel’s old burrow. From time to time she saw her old burrow mates, but they avoided each other assiduously. It was better that way for both parties. The squirrels kept her up to date with the latest sordid intrigue in her old colony. One of the aunts had killed her sister’s pups and put her own in their place, a ruse which was discovered and punished with an almost fatal pummeling. Uncle Bro had ascended to the top position for a brief and dizzying week or so before he succumbed to a leopard with a limp and a deceptively slow manner. It went on and on, and as the days went by she felt her exile less keenly and began to appreciate her new life. She managed to catch enough to feed herself and treat the little squirrels who loved to listen to stories of her adventure in the land of the Nids. She knew it was futile to think of returning to the colony, she was no longer one of them. Her smell had changed, and they would kill her like any stranger. She had not yet had any little ones, which was a small worry in the back of her mind, like a flea in an unreachable spot. She had yet to smear her particular perfume on any tree and it wasn’t that she didn’t want to have babies of her own. She’d been putting it off, despite spotting several good prospects during her nightly foraging. She was planning to do it, but was
busy getting used to her new surroundings, getting rid of that last fond hope that something … something would happen and she would be able to go back home. Suddenly there was a terrible commotion outside, she heard groaning and a frantic voice.
“Emergency,” Maki cried, “Help, you have to help.” He stood at the entrance to the burrow his holding up a meerkat that had definitely seen better days. His arm was looped around Maki’s neck and his legs dragged on the ground. He had scars on his head, scars on his hands, a bleeding scar over his nose, and was clearly not as young as he once was. When he saw Kitiki, he grinned broadly, showing stubbly, wellworn teeth. “Well hello little lady,” he said, standing up as straight as he could, balancing on his tail, which was criss-crossed with the marks of an unceremonious drag through a thorn bush. “This is Butch, he escaped from the zoo, had a terrible time, he needs food and water and probably a good sleep,” said Maki. Kitiki felt a sudden surge of panic. She wasn’t sure she wanted this ruffian in her nice clean burrow. He was not unappealing in a rugged, beatenup, scarred way, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to take care of an adult. Especially one who was bound to have issues. “I didn’t know who else to ask,” Maki explained, “Everyone in your old colony is so aggressive because of the troubles.” “He can’t just come in here … What about you? You take him.” “Now that the aunts have moved in, my nest is full,” Maki said. You’re the only one, he’s a meerkat, you’re a meerkat. Besides, I only do the
rescuing bit, what comes after is up to someone else, and that’s you.” The meerkat called Butch looked up at Kitiki through his eyelashes. “Thank you kindly, sweetheart,” he said. “I don’t mean to be a burden at all, I just need a tiny corner and some starter food. I’m very resourceful. I
wasn’t always a prisoner in the zoo, grew up right here in the wild. It’ll all come back to me, you’ll see. You never forget how to catch a scorpion with your bare hands.” Just then, an eagle flew overhead. Butch grabbed Kitiki and pulled her back into a bush, shielding her with his body as he eyed the eagle’s rhythmic circular movements. For a moment, she stood against his strong, scarred chest, and her heart began to beat faster. It was a strange feeling, one she had never experienced before, the jitters, frightening, but not in a bad way. The eagle twirled once or twice and disappeared. immediately let her go. “That was close,” he whispered in her ear, and Kitiki felt a tingle ripple through her body. “I suppose you better come in,” she said, “I’ve got a few grubs, and I can always send out for a lizard toe.” When his eyes adjusted to the gloom of the burrow, he saw the three squirrels curled up and sleeping. “Yours?” he asked. “No, silly, they’re squirrels, can’t you see?” said Kitiki, and she caught herself drooping and simpering in a ridiculous way. She opened her mouth to say something sharp, but she saw a ripple of pain cross his face, and busied herself fluffing up his bedding. After he had munched down a good helping of grubs, she patched him up as best she could with dinka berries and an elixir made of the bark of the butter tree. Despite his scars he wasn’t in bad shape, fit and healthy if The meerkat did not
somewhat battered. His eyelids drooped and soon he was asleep, his chest
rising and falling rhythmically. When she returned to the nest with several eggs and a handful of kooboo berries, he was still fast asleep, and he seemed to be smiling in his sleep. A thought came over her, but she pushed it away and bustled around the burrow setting out the food. The mother of the squirrels appeared at the door, looking for her errant offspring. “I don’t believe it,” she cried, staring at the sleeping meerkat. Butch, we heard Big Willie had him for breakfast.” Butch sat up and rubbed his eyes. Soon the animals were crowding their heads into the burrow to get a look. “I did make the acquaintance of one Big Willie?” Butch scoffed, “but he’s the one with the cut on the nose, not me.” The entrance to the burrow was too small to accommodate Handbag and some of the bigger aardvark, so they all moved outside, crowding around, slapping him on the back and laughing and reminiscing about the old days. Carol brought him another snack, and they all pulled up their own versions of comfortable chairs, and they settled down, eager to hear the story of his escape from the dreaded Nid prison. “Is it as bad as they say?” asked Uncle Lemon. “It’s more boring than cruel,” said Jane, whose nose was out of joint at being supplanted as Nid expert. “Nothing to do but just sit and chew off your arm.” “We had to make our own amusements. For example, we had a game we liked to play with the Yiks.” “Yiks?” said the animals. “It’s
“Yiks, two legs two arms, opposable thumbs.” “We call them Nids.” “Yiks Nids, they come and make faces at us, and we make faces back and they think it’s so cute. We kill ourselves laughing about it. When the big fat ones come, we puff out our cheeks and walk around like this.” He curved his arms and stomped around. Some of the animals were in hysterics, Magog rolled on the ground with laughter, Towel hooted, Pajama kicked up her heels and snorted. Kitiki noticed that despite his scars, he had a fine pair of strong legs and what’s more, she noticed one or two of the other meerkat females were giving him the eye. She felt a strange surge of
jealousy. What was wrong with her? She was acting like a fool. “Then when the skinny ones come, we suck in our cheeks and put our arms against our sides and bob up and down like this.” He widened his eyes, sucked in his cheeks and bobbed his head, which sent the animals off in fresh gales of laughter. “Oh please stop,” said Pisi, her belly hurt and it wasn’t just the jackal berries she’d eaten. ”Or else we hypnotize them.” “Works like a charm,” the snakes said. “We bob up and down. This is how it works. I go up, Charlie goes down, the twins stay up, Auntie Pimple goes down, then I go down, Cousin Sneep goes up, the twins go down, Auntie Pimple back up. You should see their heads. Five minutes of this, and we’re rolling on the floor with laughter, they just can’t help themselves. You’ve got to play, or else you’ll go crazy.” The animals murmured their assent.
“The monkeys have the best time; they look so much like them …” “Do not,” sniffed the monkeys. “They taunt them all day long. There’s not much else to do if you don’t have to catch your own food. That’s what we’re meant to do all day isn’t it, look for food, and suddenly you get everything handed on a plate. It makes you soft, I tell you. Any of you want to trade regular food for living like that, I say you’re welcome to it.” The animals nodded in unison. “They try and pretend they’re not monkeys, but you only have to look at their children. They think they own you and they trade you and sell you and they take your babies and sell those, for little pieces of paper.” “I told you about the little pieces of paper,” Jane sniffed, looking around at the others in triumph. “But worst of all, you’re stuck there all day and all night and the next day, and everything comes when you expect it, there are no happy accidents, no starving for a day and then gorging on grasshoppers. No highs, no lows, just the same thing day after day. Time goes quickly when you do the same thing over and over again, it all meshes into one and you’re living the same day for the rest of your life.” “Silly you for getting caught in the first place,” said Handbag. Butch grinned. “I did go a little far out of range the last time, I was hoping to make the blue mountains before the cold came. Be home by spring, but what I thought was the desert turned out to be something they call the beach, full of sand, there were Nids everywhere with their clothes off. It’s the strangest sight,
there they are and it looks as though they are worshipping the sun, but I was told that they do it so their skin pink to red and they like it that way.” The animals looked at each other in puzzlement, really there was no end to the ludicrous things Nid felt they absolutely had to do. “Some wretched dog grabbed hold of me,” Butch continued,”and just as I was about to say goodbye cruel world, some dratted little kid rescued me, I say rescued with sarcasm because I was put in a cage from where I launched a series of assaults, biting one or two people on average a day until I was given to the zoo and put in with the other meerkats. From day one I began to plan my escape. The others thought I was crazy, you’ll end up as dog food, they said. Two meals a day, a temperate temperature and a warm, dry nest are not to be sneezed at, they said. I knew I had to be free or die. Time hangs heavy when you’ve trashed your enclosure and terrified the zoo keeper. You’re always looking out for a gap, an angle, an opportunity.” “Hooooo,” breathed the animals. “I tried the old play dead trick, but they brought the doctor and he poked me in the stomach, which made me cough and gave that game away. I climbed into the Nid’s pocket once, almost made it to the gate, but at the last minute, he stuck his fingers in my eye, and flung me out and I was busted.” “Shame,” cried the animals. “Well, one day it was very cold, and the man who cleaned out our bedroom was wearing a very thick coat, he looked like a bubble man. I threw pebbles at him, the way I always did, and he didn’t even feel them, his jacket was so thick. So, when he turned his back, I jumped on and held on tight with my claws. He put away the brushes and wheelbarrow with me hanging on his
back. The others were in hysterics, but he didn’t notice and when he locked the cage and went outside, I could jump off and hide in a dustbin.” “Wow,” breathed the animals. “Someone threw a cool drink tin at my head and I passed out and when I woke up, it was dark, which was perfect because getting out of the cage was just half of the problem, I still had to get out of the actual zoo. I looked around carefully, crept out of the dustbin and started the long journey to the exit. The impala showed me an easy way through the low fences, and some rats I met showed me how to burrow under the gate. In a jiffy I was free. Well almost. All I had to do was get out of the city and find my way home.” Kitiki pushed a bowl of millipedes closer to him, just in case he was still hungry. “Suddenly I saw these two huge owl eyes coming at me”, he said “Well, it wasn’t an owl after all, it was one of those tortoises the Yiks, or Nids as you call them, race around in. They light up at night, who knew?” The little owls’ eyes were the size of saucers. “I’d seen what those things could do to a squishy little body like mine, so I threw myself into a nearby bush. Then came another and another and I had to dodge and dive between them, running as fast as I could, feeling my legs, which hadn’t had much exercise since my incarceration, become stronger, and my lungs bulging. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was determined to get as far away as possible.” “Shoo,” breathed the animals. “Suddenly this creature was standing in front of me, it was horrible I tell you, huge, with muscles like this,” he bunched up the muscles in his neck and
arms. Kitiki felt a strange feeling pass through her looking at him, and at that moment, his eyes met hers. . “It was horrible, white all over with one black eye, and teeth, like a crocodile, great tongue slobbering.” “What did you do?” Maki asked, wondering what strategy he would use to rescue someone in that situation. He realized he knew very little about the outside world, the world beyond the valley. He felt an aching urge for a
perilous adventure he could relate in retrospect from the comfort of a leaf cushion. “I jumped up onto a wall, I only just made it, but it wasn’t high enough, the creature’s teeth were snapping just inches from my tail. Please don’t eat me, I cried. I don’t taste good at all, I’ve been in prison, been eating junk food all day long and no exercise, I’m flabby and bad tasting, but the creature didn’t listen, he continued to snap at me in a terrifying fashion.” “Oh no,” breathed the animals. “He was almost on me, and suddenly I remembered a trick my granny taught me.” “What was the trick?” the animals cried. “I kicked sand in his face and ran for my life,” Butch said with satisfaction. “Obviously,” said the animals nodding to each other. “Then he was really mad, his jaws were snapping inches from my face, but he couldn’t see me, and I got up the next wall and that led to a higher wall, and finally I ran all the way out of the city along the walls.” “That was close,” Kitiki breathed.
“I found a tunnel, a really big tunnel and I followed it for quite a long time, but suddenly a huge wave came rushing down. I caught onto a branch and got swept, choking and spluttering down the river, until I washed up on a bank, all cold and wet and freezing.” “Brrr,” the bushbabies sympathised. “I didn’t know which way to go. I was starting to feel really really
hungry, it was long past lunchtime and I knew that the others would be having beetles because it was Wednesday, maybe a couple of crickets on the side. But I wasn’t sorry. I was hungry, but I was free. Then I felt a big paw come down on my neck, a paw with really big, sharp claws. Well, hello there, said a voice. It was a cat, a great big ginger cat.” “You can’t eat me, I said, we’re almost related. But he was a very big, fat cat, so I was pretty sure he wasn’t hungry. I’m not going to eat you, he said. I prefer salmon and chicken. In fact, I just had another one of you strange cats coming through here a few weeks ago.” “That was me,” Kitiki cried. “I got trapped in the Nid’s tortoise”. “The cat showed me how to follow the vibrations with my feet, and pointed in the direction you went, and here I am, all thanks to you, pretty lady.” “Yippee,” cried the animals. He got stiffly to his feet, took Kitiki’s paw and bowed. “Yay,” cried Maki. “How sweet,” cried Handbag. “I think I’m going to cry,” sniffed Towel. XXX
After a while, he was almost back to his old self, which meant restless and antsy. He studied the Nid’s shelter as though he had a plan “I’ve got a plan” he said suddenly over his breakfast of pigeon egg and termite tail. “You’ve only just healed up,” Kitiki said. She had other things on her mind. She was beginning to think she was carrying several little beings inside her body. It was just a feeling, something vaguely different about her body. “I can’t be happy knowing all my friends are still in jail,” he said. “It’s easier for those born there, they’ve never known anything else, but if you go from bad to worse, it’s terrible Auntie Pimple, she’s not my real auntie, everyone called her that, she was born in the wild like me, she used to chew her fur out sometimes if there was a rainstorm, or if the wind blew in a certain way. It’s what you’re used to and wild things should not be in cages, it’s cruel.” “But what are you going to do.” “Break them out,” he said triumphantly. “It’s the only thing to do,
rescue them, all of them. Open the cages and set them free” Kitike knew not to try and talk him out of it. Once he had an idea in his head, he could not be persuaded. If she wanted an egg for breakfast, he’d search high and low, not stopping for an instant until he found one. He was the most dogged cat she’d ever met. “Can I help?” she said. It was early days yet, there was enough time for one last adventure before the duties of motherhood would capture her forever. He gave her a look that made her stomach feel warm.
“It won’t be dangerous if we recruit the right operatives. Get a team of experts together, beat them at their own game, because they won’t be expecting it. We’ve got to strike before they have time to think, time to
mobilize. We’ve got to make it short and sharp and get out of there. ” “There’s Maki and Jane, they’ve got extensive Nid experience,” Kitiki said. Butch looked thoughtful, he stroked his chin, looked out across the river to the lodge and the Nid’s house. “I also need to make the acquaintance of that infant Nid,” he said with an expression on his face that meant he had a Plan. XXX Maki was keen to join the mission. Jane also wanted to go in the hope that a chocolate filching opportunity would present itself. Her attendance was vetoed by Uncle Lemon thought the whole thing was a bad idea and said as much, loudly and with frequency, although he did not think for one moment that they would listen to him. The planning simply went underground, the details confided to a few select individuals, on a strictly need to know basis. The baby proved a harder sell. She kept pushing Butch’s nose as though it was some sort of button, and he was forced to give the pink wretch an uncomfortable nip. “The animals like being in the zoo, they just eat and play around all the time,” she said, reaching for his nose again. “No they don’t,” said Butch. there’s nothing to do. Jane nodded her head. “It’s a cage,
You can’t be you an animal because you’re a
possession of the Nids. They stare at you, but you’re not supposed to attack
them, and anyway you can’t because you’re in prison. They’re always looking at you when you’re eating, when you sleep, baring their teeth and making that hyena noise, it’s creepy I tell you.” “But they do research there, to protect the species so that we can always go and see them?” “Well it’s all about you Nids, isn’t it? What about us? How many animals have babies in the zoo, there’s a reason for that. Who wants to bring up an infant in circumstances like that?” “It’s for education,” protested the baby. animals.” “We didn’t do too bad before the Nids came along.,” Butch said with a wry smile. “If you let all those animals go, what will happen to them, it’s the middle of the city, there are cars, and people, they could get hurt. Nids could get hurt.” “OK, I’ll make a deal with you, no predators, we’ll save them for another time, vegetarians only,” said Butch. “At least they get a chance, that’s the important thing.” “Oh alright,” said the baby, fingering her chin. “I’ll help you, but this is going to take careful planning and most especially the right tools.” XXX Everything went exactly as planned, the baby created a diversion while the Nids were fussing in the house with bags and doors. The arm of the Nid tortoise was open and Butch and Maki slipped inside, diving under the baby’s blanket placed strategically on the back seat. “So people will look after
As the Nidess tied the baby into her chair, she paused and sniffed suspiciously. Maki and Butch looked at each other, wondering if perhaps Nid’s smelling senses were not as terrible as they’d always thought. Maki had kept himself scrubbed down and combed out as a rule, but to dirt-obsessed Nids he might have a reasonably pungent odour. The Nidess touched her
lips to the baby’s head, closed the arm of the tortoise and got in the front seat next to the Nid father. The animals braced themselves for the noise as the Nid started the machine. Kitiki had described exactly what it was like, but they were taken aback by the volume, the vibration, that sent their eardrums into a frenzy of jangling. They were flung one way and then the other, bounced up and down and around. Tummies gurgled alarmingly. “See this is fun,” the baby cried, but Maki lay his woozy head down and closed his eyes, which only made things worse. “Did you bring the tool?” Butch whispered to the baby. “Sure,” she said, pulling out and brandishing a shiny pair of bolt cutters. “Found it in my dad’s tool shed, should do the job,” “Did you say something sweetie?” the Nidess said, turning around in her seat. “Urgle,” the baby said, deftly popping the tool back into the folds of the blanket. “What does baby want to do while daddy’s at work,” she cooed. The baby dimpled in an adorable way, “zoo,” she yelled.
“Did she say zoo,” the Nidess asked the Nid. “She’s been saying that word all week. I can’t think where she learned it. Alright, Maya, we’ll go to the zoo.” “Good baby,” Butch whispered. The feeling of moving very fast in space left him queasy. He peeped through the window and there were Nids everywhere, and tortoises in all colours and sizes. The din was terrible. Going back into the Nid’s world, even as an undercover operative was a risky move, especially since he’d got away relatively unscathed the first time. He was pushing his luck right out over the cliff. It was not a good idea to think of failure before a mission or the whole enterprise would be doomed but there was a chance he might not see the faces of his babies. He wasn’t a cat, but the nine lives thing applied equally, and he’d had at least eight and a half of those. With a bit of luck, the whole thing might go off perfectly as planned, and he would be home by nightfall with a special scorpion treat for Kitiki. After what seemed like an eternity of jostling, the tortoise slowed and finally came to a stop. The Nid turned around and kissed the Nidess on the lips, patted the baby’s head and got out of the tortoise. The Nidess moved over and took the wheel. The baby tucked Maki and Bruce securely under the blanket as the tortoise began to move, thankfully slower now, with less jostling. Before long, Butch began to smell a familiar aroma of animals in close confinement, bored animals, frightened animals. It was a smell he knew well, and it sent shivers down his spine.
The tortoise came to a stop and the infernal racket went quiet. The animals had only a moment to regain their hearing and equilibrium. The
Nidess was unfolded an elaborate contraption and reached into the tortoise, lifting the baby chair complete with baby, Maki, Bruce, the bolt cutters and the blanket. She rested it on the wheels and pulled up a shade to keep the sun off the baby’s face. “You don’t need this,” she said, taking hold of the blanket, but the baby shrieked so loudly that Maki and Butch’s teeth rattled. “It’s hot, baby, look the sun’s shining? Aren’t you hot?” The baby kept a death grip on the blanket and pulled out one of her most irresistible smiles. “Alright,” the mother said, and pushed them through the gate and into the zoo. Maki and Butch squirmed through the folds of the blanket until their heads were clear, although they were ready to dart underneath if the Nid looked under the hood. Maki was astonished by the unfamiliar shapes of some of the animals. There was a creature that looked like a Nid with very thick strong legs and a long thick tail, which bounced around in a wholly peculiar way. They passed an elephant swaying a leg from one side to the other, and a lackluster flock of flamingos. The animals seemed drowsy and lethargic. They did not run or leap, except for a large monkey like creature that hurled himself at the door of his cage, making a tremendous banging noise that set the hyena howling. The Nidess stopped to look at something, but the baby kept squawking and pointing ahead so they could get to the meerkat’s cage where the
operation was to begin. They passed a gate that held a herd of bemused zebra. The Nidess stopped and turned to look at some very strange black and white bear. The baby decided to get some practice in, she took the bolt cutters and with her magical little opposable thumbs, circled the lock with the sharp end of the tool and deftly snipped the lock. Maki scurried up and
pushed the metal thing that poked out and the door swung wide open. The zebra looked at each other, looked at the animals and their Nid companion. I was all so confusing, so out of the ordinary, they resumed browsing. “Hey,” cried Maki, “see your gate is open, you’re free.” “Eh, free to do what,” asked one of the younger mares with a yawn. “Do what?” said another, “Go where? Might as well just stay here, at least the food is free and we’re safe.” “Better the devil you know,” said an old stallion settling down in the shade for a nap. The antelope were next. They caught on immediately and charged for the exits. The giraffe carried on eating casting a jaundiced eye at the open gate. Although some of the younger ones tiptoed forward to investigate, they knew their size and shape made their escape out of the city implausible. A ginger ape with impossibly long arms took a look at all the commotion, turned his head to the wall and covered it with his arms, rocking backwards and forwards on his haunches. At last they reached the meerkat cage. The Nidess was about to
continue walking, but the baby made such a loud squawk that she turned and went back to where the meerkat were bobbing their heads and pulling silly
faces. When they caught sight of Bruce, they became very excited, surging forward against the mesh of the cage. Bruce put his finger to his lips, and instantly backed up and tried to act normal. Maki helped the baby snip open the lock with the cutters so that Butch could open the gate. Soon he was inside the cool dark cage. The animals swarmed around him. “We thought you escaped,” they cried. “I did, but I couldn’t forgive myself for leaving you all. escaping, come on there’s not a moment to lose.” “Uh,” said one of the meerkat, “It’s almost lunchtime.” “Not me,” said another, “I like a nice, dry bedroom.” Bruce could not believe his ears. They stared at him, and not one of them made a move towards the gate and beckoning freedom. This is what a zoo did, he thought with a flash of anger, it domesticated them, it made them dependent on the largesse of the Nid and crushed out any spark of independence or autonomy. They were afraid, they knew they had little Everyone’s
chance in the wild, no skills and a blunted sense of animal cunning. What astonished him was their passivity, their fear. “I’m coming,” said a voice, it was Auntie Pimple. “So am I,” said her son, who had never been in the wild, but had been fed constant diet of wonderful wild stories. “Some of you will not make it, but do your best,” said Butch. “Go up to the baboon’s cage with Maki, turn left and then right at the snake pit. There’s a hole under the fence, Kitiki will show you how to get to the drain and the rats will show you how to come out just beyond the city. There you will find a monkey, her name is Jane. She’ll escort you the rest of the way.”
Butch darted back to where the Nidess stood, gazing at a rhino with a massive horn that weighed down his head so much, his lips dragged on the ground. He slipped under the blanket the very instant the Nid pulled back the baby’s hood and saw the bolt cutters in her hand. “Oh,” she said. “What’s that? One of daddy’s tools. How in the world did you get hold of one of daddy’s tools?” She tried to take it out of the baby’s hands, but the little girl let out a shriek of blood curdling intensity, and clung with all her might, Butch thought his head was about to explode. “Alright then,” said the Nidess, letting go of the tool with a sigh. “You can keep it, but don’t cut yourself.” “Gaa gaa,” said the baby, smiling up at her adorably. It never failed. The Nid sighed again, gave her a kiss on his head, pulled the hood over her face and walked on. Just then, a zebra ran past. “Uh oh, time to leave,” said Butch. He looked around for Maki, but he was nowhere in sight. He whistled, and at last he hopped around the corner with four or five of his species following. “Good luck,” he called, and headed for the baboon’s cage and the hole under the fence. “OK, that’s all we’ve got time for, let’s go,” said Bruce. The baby began to whimper and squirm in her push chair, rocking back and forth, fussing and sniveling and hiccupping until the Nidess noticed her distress. “Are you tired, my baby,” she asked, “Is your nappy dirty?”
The baby fussed and whimpered, rocking herself back and forth in the most profound misery. “Alright, we’re tired, time to pick up daddy and go home,” she said. Just then, an elephant ran across the road. The Nid looked at it, looked back at the baby. “Wha did you do with daddy’s bolt cutters?” she said. She opened her hands so show they contained no bolt cutters and turned on her adorable smile. She’d left them next to the orange monkey’s cage, just in case he changed his mind. Nids were easy to handle when you knew how, she thought, and since when had she started to think of her own mother as a Nid? XXX “I saw it on the television,” the blue budgie said. “The animals ran helter skelter, higgledy piggledy down the road. It was so funneee, Nids
crying please don’t eat me and jumping into bushes.” The new bushbabies moved into Maki’s nest along with the cousins and aunts and Old Abner, who still seemed to be growing strong. One of the strangers was a comely young female, and Maki was sure she was giving him the eye, although he wasn’t sure how he would recognize it if he saw it. He snuggled down next to her in the cuddle pile in his own grown up bushbaby nest. He only hoped that when the time came, he would know instinctively what to do “I hope they all make it home, wherever that may be,” Butch said, sitting very close to Kitiki. The burrow was becoming crowded, Charlie,
Auntie Pimple and Cousin Sneep were living with them until they excavated
own burrow, and a new set of squirrel babies were imminent. He put his hand on Kitike’s stomach and felt the little kittens kick against his hand, and he knew that he would cease his adventuring and come to rest. He was in exactly the place he was meant to be, and if that wasn’t the most normal thing in the world, he surely didn’t know what was.
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