And then there were four . . .
<Photo courtesy Eastman Kodak Co.
Chapter Eleven: Bath
The last lingering rays of the summer sun were fast fading in the west when the bedraggled rodent slowly awoke from her state of insensibility and peered about, unsure for a time where she was or what was happening. Gradually the harrowing events of the morning returned to her and she began to shiver uncontrollably as an autonomic reaction seized her in its grip.
When the shakes passed and she felt more like herself again, she inspected herself minutely for any sign of damage that she may have suffered, feeling as if she had been dragged through an endless patch of brambles. Her nerves and muscles ached interminably despite the lengthy period that she had spent recuperating. Her beautiful silver fur, she saw, had finally dried, but she was dismayed to see that it was thickly matted with reeking river mud and in spots stood out in spiky splendor. Realizing that grooming alone could not remedy this sad state of affairs, she considered returning to the stream to give her clotted fur a thorough cleansing. She parted the stalks of her sanctuary, seeking for signs of danger on every side. Observing nothing that might offer a threat, she made her way slowly back to the riverside, moving warily from shrub to root to sheltering boulder, looking for a water-filled depression in which she could bathe her aching body.
She finally located a suitable spot a short distance away from the edge of the water, a small, shallow impression in the soft earth, like a dimple amidst the wrinkles and whiskers of the craggy countenance of the land, that held an adequate quantity of comparatively clear liquid. She waded in and luxuriated in a pleasantly lengthy bath, paying particular attention to the pale ivory fur that covered her belly, of which she was inordinately proud.
Splashing languidly about in the small pool, forgetting for a time the omnipresent threat of possible predators, she almost missed the movement of a large tawny creature, its fur of flame and jet filigreed with complex patterns of sun and shadow, stalking slowly toward the riverbank with the intention of slaking its thirst. The tiny mouse froze, too far from a safe haven to make a desperate break for cover, as the sleekly muscled jaguar glided majestically to the water, lowered its formidable muzzle, and took several deep draughts of the cool, refreshing liquid. At last, having satisfied its craving, the jaguar raised its head, staring with regal regard all around at the river, the surrounding woodland and the sky above before turning about and prowling back along the faint track which wound among the cyclopean giants of the forest. The little rodent heaved a great sigh of relief, saying a prayer of thanks to her Creator for allowing her to remain unnoticed and unmolested in the face of such an enormous threat. She clambered out of the water and shook herself vigorously to remove the excess fluid which drenched her fur, then trotted over to a nearby branch which provided a modicum of privacy and proceeded to indulge in an exceedingly thorough grooming and preening routine.
By the time she had finished and was completely satisfied with her appearance, full dusk had fallen, draping the colossal shapes of the trees in cerements of charcoal. Her belly began to growl complainingly at her, reminding her that she hadn't eaten anything since early the previous night (if, of course, you discounted the unfortunate bits of mushroom) and she started cautiously back toward the trees, in hopes that, notwithstanding the exceptionally long distance that the stream had carried her, there were delectable morsels to be discovered by the diligent seeker after comestibles.
Chapter Twelve: Intruder
Near the edge of the riverbank, the trees were thinned out to a degree, allowing the shining rays of the newly-risen full moon greater access to the lower regions of the rainforest and giving the already fantastic flowers a further veneer of unreality. Patches of moonlight shimmered on the forest floor like glistening pools of mercury. Shrill squawks and screeches echoed through the deep, dimly lit corridors of the equatorial jungle, and the curling mists carried with them the scents of the multitudinous growths that bloomed in wanton profusion.
The tiny rodent absorbed all of these sensations as she wended her way through the forest in search of something good to eat. She had rested for a couple of hours after her pleasant and soothing bath, easing her sore muscles and regaining her depleted strength. Now she felt ready to resume her quest for a new home and a new life in this strange land (or, at any rate, she would after she had quieted the griping in her belly.)
It was difficult for her to sort out the abundance of alien aromas that constantly teased her quivering nose and whiskers, but she finally detected an odor that seemed to hold out the promise of a tasty tidbit or two. She quickly followed the scent to a scattering of large, oblong, green-skinned pods which, to her surprise, resembled the fruit that the monkey had devoured. She began to chew avidly at the thick skin, eventually breaking through into the center of the vessel from whence emanated the delectable scent of the contents that she craved. Momentarily bemused, she discovered not the sweet flesh of a succulent fruit but tender, chewy nutmeats which were more substantial and hence more filling, allowing her to spend less time eating and more time exploring. She set to with a vengeance, gnawing her way through the first of the nuts with alacrity, ignoring the fact that it was not yet completely ripe.
Muted rustling reached her ears and she swivelled them about, straining to catch the direction from which the sound had come. It appeared to be coming from the other side of the large pod upon which she had been dining. She backed out of the hole that she had created and started cautiously toward one end of the enormous nut case, just as two other mice rounded the other end and froze, glowering at her. She spun around, glaring at them and sniffing the air frantically, attempting to catch their scent. She realized that these would be no friends, but rivals with their own territory to defend. She was the enemy here, and they would do their best to harry her and drive her off. She watched them closely, observing that their coloration was completely different from hers, much darker, reddish-brown near the belly and bleeding into a deeper coffee shade on the back.
The larger of the two, having satisfied itself that the silver rodent was an interloper, suddenly sprang at her and landed upon her back, clutching at her fur with its tiny toes and convulsively snapping at her while the smaller one huddled excitedly by the pod, eagerly awaiting the outcome of the battle. The two small combatants rolled over and over, maintaining a tight grip upon each other and frenziedly nipping and biting at each other in an attempt to gain the upper paw. Neither was notably successful, their sallies ferocious but largely ineffective, considering that their reaction times were appreciably slowed by virtue of having recently dined upon the savory chestnuts.
Their concentration upon the battle prevented them from hearing the nearly silent approach of another intruder, and the first warning they received that something was amiss was the sibilant hiss of a fer-de-lance, an ebony, ash and copper-colored engine of death, awakened by the commotion and delighted to discover such abundant and easy prey. The mice speedily separated and stared in the direction of the rapidly advancing reptile. The triangular pattern of its shining scales shimmered hypnotically in the moonlight, and its glittering golden orbs shone with gluttonous greed.
The three tiny rodents froze for a long, drawn-out moment, almost petrified by the fearsome, dripping fangs and the wide, glistening orbs of the ravenous reptile. They huddled close to the ground, as if by their smallness they might appear to be a negligible part of the landscape, not worthy of the notice of this terrible apparition. Notwithstanding their fervent hopes, the fer-de-lance glided to within a foot of them, reveling in its total mastery over them, certain that a tasty meal was just moments away.
The supremely confident snake considered the shivering rodents, gauging which was the plumpest and most appealing, which should earn the honor of being selected as the first course, when the two woodland mice precipitously bunched their hind legs and sprang away, dashing to opposite points of the compass, momentarily throwing the reptile into a state of confusion as it attempted to look in three directions at once. It watched as the two little mice reached the bole of a nearby tree and speedily swarmed in among its gnarled roots, expeditiously vanishing from view down a small hole. Abruptly the reptile's flattened, wedge-shaped head whipped viciously about, its vile, luminous eyes once more focusing intently upon the small, shivering silver mouse.
Full circle. It's late (well, early), Mariah is asleep and I'm for bed too. Good night and pleasant dreams. Peace.