"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat"- The Dormouse
His whiskers twitched. The smell of fresh baked tarts wafted through the air. He popped his head through the hollowed tree opening and his nose found the direction from whence it came. Early morning had come, he hadn't fallen asleep yet. Without the protective covering of the tree or the security of his newfound nest, Randall could feel the chill in the air. The days were getting shorter and he would have to consider stocking up food, soon, for the coming winter months.
For now, he ran his paws along his face to brush away the hazelnut crumbs and scurried down the tree to search for the sweetened treat. Randall was thankful he hadn't yet removed his hat. His head remained warm but his ears curled with resistance to the cool breeze. He cursed the tiny slits in the brim. He loathed the thought of having to stuff his ears through them but hated even more that they didn't provide any warmth.
He remembered, when he was just a wee little tyke, his mother tugging his ears through his first outdoor hat. Six to nine days, the tag read. Randall squeaked and squirmed until he felt the familiar pinch of her teeth on his neck. Pressure point. His body crumbled like a rag doll. She stuffed his arms into the bulky, woolen coat and he protested again when she pulled it tight to fasten the wooden buttons. Two more weeks, his mother told him, and he should have enough fur to wear a lighter jacket. He remembered hoping it had smaller fasteners that wouldn't catch on the rocks when he ran. His buttons tripped him so often, he ate more dirt than berries and his face was dirtier than his feet.
There were five of them all together: their mother, Ramona, and the children, Randall, Roger, Reginald, and Mark. They went out every evening, just as the sun was setting, to gather food for the night. They all did very well and Ramona was pleased until the first night she allowed Randall and Reginald to go out on their own. She gave explicit instructions to gather enough for all of them and cautioned them not to eat until they got back home. Randall, being as he was, didn't listen well. He convinced Reginald to break the rules and they gorged themselves on the plump, purple berries they had passed by several times.
The fine, white fur surrounding their whiskers was stained a dusty sangria. Their stomachs began to ache and bright, colorful lights exploded before their eyes. The ground began to bubble, the bushes started to bend. Leaves grew and shrank in coordinated dance, flowers whispered to them to come near. Randall and Reginald called to each other but no sound escaped over the parched, sticky landscape of their tongues. Randall turned and the earth stood still, he stopped and the world spun around him.
He heard a voice call out his name, far off in the distance, familiar yet he couldn't place it. It grew nearer and darker and the word tip toed up his spine, growing heavier with each vertebrae it touched. He cringed when it reached his neck and screamed as it sent vibrations through his ears. Play dead. Play dead. He flipped onto his back, kicked his feet straight up, let his head fall to the side. Pebbles and sand began to bite at his skin, he was being pulled. He felt the force in his tail, his hindquarters were lifted slightly in the air. He chanced opening one eye. He recognized Reginald being dragged beside him, he was playing dead as well. Randall watched his body bounce as he was dragged over a rock next to him and he closed his eye again. Better to stay playing dead, he recognized the back of his mother's coat, saw how rigid her body was. Reginald was going to have a lot of explaining to do once they were back in the tree.
Bobbleberries, he heard his mother whisper. His head was filled with heavy clouds. She didn't ask for an explanation when they got home. She carried them individually up the tree and laid them on a bed of fig leaves and a pillow constructed from satin milkweed. She placed a small patch of moss on their foreheads and tips of their noses. Refreshing at first, a welcome chill to the heat expanding under Randall's skin, soon replaced by a fine layer of crystals, icicles formed around lone strands of fur, his blood burned as bits of ice circulated through his veins. He watched his mother reach out, through tunnel vision she seemed miles away, to rest her hand on his belly. She rubbed back and forth breaking up the rock that had formed in the pit of his stomach. Heavy, with jagged edges, knife blades ripping his flesh from within.
He groaned in pain, interspersed with brief moments of relief. In the narrow beam of moonlight, his mind registered small leaves sprouting from his mother's arm. The limb lengthened, took on a glowing green hue, and wrapped itself around his ribs, tightening as it grew. He recognized the vine. He and his brothers had taken to scurrying up and down the climbing plants in a game of track and tug where one would chase the others to try and pull their tail. The vines, for Randall, were often a sure route of escape, but now presented as a means of torture as his capacity for air intake was limited. He reached forward, sliced at the appendage where it began to narrow, and heard his mother whimper. Part of the vine recoiled and moved out of reach, the other half loosened its grip and Randall took a deep, audible breath.
The night hours passed at a slow, excruciating rate. Randall tried to fall asleep but his brain felt heavy, his heart rate much too high to relax. He tried to get comfortable, stretched out his body and limbs. Each time he straightened his tail, he would hear the voice calling, somewhere high in the tree hollow, off with his tail, and he'd curl it back around himself. The visions and transformations slowly diminished as the hours pressed on, the clouds in his head began to lift.
Bobbleberries, he heard his mother whisper again. They make you see and feel things that aren't really there. Imaginations go wild.
Randall would never forget that night. He and Reginald didn't get in trouble, the effects were punishment enough. Now, as an adult, at 1.4 years old, he had taken to only eating two bobbleberries per day. Enough to heighten his senses for hunting but not play tricks on his mind. He still had nightmares about his first experience and often woke with that phrase echoing in his skull. Off with his tail, his tail, his tail. He'd pull it up, protectively, and tuck it under his face.