My head’s buzzing. Crumbs, it hurts. I’m thirsty. Headache, thirsty. What else. Shoulder hurts, leg muscles are burning. Spine? Pinched nerve, but okay. Yeah, I slept on it wrong. That’s fine, I started with that.
But as I lie here, smelling sweet linen instead of freshly mown grass, I know that something has gone awry.
I should only know the radiant green of cut grass or growing leaves. I’m more than familiar with the thriving musk of healthy loam and wet soil and gravel. I associate adventure and potential with the pale saltiness of dry sticks, running through the underbrush, hiding in shrubs and natural greenery. Something is very wrong now. None of that is nearby, not that I can detect.
I’m out of touch with the ground. My nostrils are filled with the powdery sweet scent of clean linen. I know, because it was hanging out one day last year. The Bigs left it alone for a long time, so I had to go out and smell it. We have to know everything in our environment: the leftover bones from the dog, the large plastic toys from the children. I know the smell of linen, but now there is nothing else. It swathes everything else, just as the sheets stretch in all directions around me. I lie very still, waiting, terrified. Something has gone very, very wrong. Where was I?
Foraging, like we always do. Filberts was last week. That’s tedious, just roaming around and collecting all the filberts your sled can carry. There’s nothing to it. It’s relaxing, if you’re into that. Some people prefer filbert duty, for how easy it is. I’m young enough that I need something more than the guaranteed haul. Berries, that’s more my speed: watch out for the birds, avoid the snakes, grab some nice, juicy berries. Come back to the warren, showing off the big, fat berries you managed to snag. Glowing like jewels, fat and heavy with water, waiting to stain tiny hands and faces, bursting to share citric acid and vitamins. You really feel like you got away with something, bringing a big, fat berry back to the warren. You never get that sense of victory, no matter how many filberts you haul back to storage.
Filberts aren’t a conquest. Berries are a struggle, and they’re beautiful. Filberts are amazingly boring. “Oh, here’s another large round nut I found for you, just like the hundred-karking-thousand others we’ve been subsisting on because we’re scared and lazy.” No, berries are a real prize. I love showing off the nicest berries.
That’s when they got me, though. Crummy wildlife. We’re all competing for the same resources, and I wasn’t looking.
There was a hard tap on my shoulder. Maybe I heard the flutter of wings before it, or maybe I’m filling that in as an excuse for my inattention. But something hard and solid and quick bopped me in my shoulder, and my arm and leg went numb. I was going after a large, dark raspberry, the perfect karking berry, glowing in a slender ray of sunlight through the thick leaves of the brambles, and some idiot bird wanted it too, after I worked so hard to get it. I had it in my hands, I was working at the stem, and then that beak came down on my shoulder and my body wholly capitulated.
I was so pissed. That’s the last thing I remember. I was just about to sever the stem, and my body went limp and brightened with pain, and that stupid, inflexible beak went into the raspberry as I fell into the brambles and passed out. So unfair. So karking unfair. It was mine, and we need so little.
Linens. These are the property of the Bigs. They set them out to dry, which is the only time I have exposure to them, except now. The Bigs are less than charmed with our existence. They blame us for ridiculous things, from crop blight to livestock diseases. They’ve come after us with dogs, huge snapping jaws and clumsy digging claws. Tearing up the earth to get at our tunnels, tearing us open with their teeth and gobbling us down in thoughtless haste. It’s a game to them: they set their children upon us, with large plastic shovels, rewarding them with pieces of chocolate or dollar bills. “Bring us the horrid tiny pests,” they say, and the children stumble out with less grace than dogs, tearing the earth open in their stupidity, sickly delighted with our terror and cries for mercy. Kids are the worst.
But kids didn’t get me. The bird didn’t get me. I don’t think there were actually any snakes in the area. I just blacked out and now I’m surrounded by linen. This worries me. I shouldn’t be here. None of this is familiar.
There’s a woman. There’s a woman, and she’s huge. Crumbs, I have to get out of here, there’s a huge woman and she’s getting closer. She sees me, crumbs, of course she sees me in the middle of all this linen, nowhere to hide trapped where do I go she’s getting closer
I blacked out. I don’t know for how long.
But now I’m awake and there’s a strawberry next to me.
The woman is gone. I know what strawberries are. I’ve hunted them before. They’re harder to find than raspberries and blackberries, and the good ones are heavier to haul around, leaving you vulnerable for a longer stretch of time, but they’re more rewarding. The women in the warren really go for strawberries. I don’t understand it, but I don’t question it. You bring back a couple strawberries, and everyone’s getting laid that night. I’ve had strawberry before, I like it. It doesn’t drive me crazy or anything, but it’s awfully hard to resist right now. I resist it, because where did it come from? The giant woman. The Bigs have only ruined everything in our world. They’ve ruined it because it’s fun for them, and they’ve ruined it because they’re stupid and mean. But now I’m trapped in a field of sweet linen and lying next to a big fat strawberry, and I know there’s got to be a trap somewhere. I try feeling all my injuries again.
Shoulder’s very tender. No bones broken, I don’t think, but feels like they may as well be. When I palpate my jaw, that’s when I notice the other thing gone wrong. There’s no dirt on my face, there’s no swirls of carefully mixed mud daubed on my pale skin to hide me in the sunlight. And after all the attention to my shoulder, it took me way too long to realize my shirt was missing. And, yep, my pants too. I’m lying naked and exposed in a vast field of linen, all my clothes missing, nowhere in sight, and I’ve been scrubbed clean. The woman, the Big. She took my clothes and washed me while I was passed out.
The heat in my body bleeds into the sheet below me. My head fills with images of my limp, helpless body, dead for all anyone knew, being tossed around and dumped between those huge, clumsy mitts. My fine, fragile arms slipping between thick, brutal fingers. My ribs, standing out above my exposed belly, as I lie in some leathery palm…
Is that what the strawberry means? Was she going to pop me in her mouth, like a dog with a scrap of meat? She’s telling me I look like nothing more than a snack. Here I am on presentation for her, nothing around me in this deathly white void but the glowing red bulb that converted the sun’s radiance into a swelling sack of feminine arousal.
Nothing about this is good. Looking at the berry makes me ill and frightened, and the expanse of featureless white weighs upon me with dread. I could run, if I were in better shape, but that’s what she wants. If I were running through the shrubs, she’d have no chance. The Big woman wants to see me scrambling across the barren plain, to laugh at me, to taunt me with letting me get close to the edge, but I can’t reach any direction before she pounces on me. Slamming those puffy, sweltering paws upon me, stuffing me into her slavering maw like a strawberry.
My stomach revolts. My muscles shiver and my skin crawls. The scent of the berry makes me nauseated. It smelled so good a minute ago, but now I want to get away. I’m looking around: however far the sides of this huge white field are, it’s even further below my feet. Hopeless, absolutely hopeless.
Except the pillows. There’s a row of enormous, fluffy pillows behind me. They can’t be for me, I can’t use them, but they’re here. They’re enormous, but they have crevices all around them. I could… I don’t know what’s behind them, but I could hide in them. Maybe buy some time, get some time to figure something out.
Crumbs, that hurt. My whole side, that bird, that greedy, unthinking bird. I can’t even crawl around! Even if it were safe and clear, I couldn’t pick myself up and hobble away, not like this. What am I supposed to do? Just languish here until the Big woman comes back, until she gets done taunting me?
I start to weep, frustrated beyond endurance, when I hear the distant thunder. Rhythmic, deliberate, one after the other, slowly growing louder. She’s coming back. I twist my head around to look at the pillows, for anything to grab onto if I can, but my shoulder screams in pain and my eyes go red and the thunder gets louder and louder, and then it stops and I’m in the wrong position, I’m not lying where she left me, she’ll know I’m awake
Blacked out again.
This time I’m lying very still when I come to. I’m not moving my arms or legs, I’m tracking exactly where they are now. They’re not where I left them, with my head cranked backward, but she put me into position again. This one position, lying very stiff and straight, arms by my sides. Is this a ritual? Do I resemble something that means something to her, in this position?
Is that how she likes her little men, this predatory ogress going after the helpless and injured? This sick kark. Maybe she sees herself as a cleaner, a filter, a purger.
Oh, crumbs. She’s right here. She’s right here next to me. She’s hiding behind the edge of the broad field, just the top half of her huge head poking up like a sunrise. She’s just sitting there, staring at me with huge, hungry eyes. Don’t pass out again don’t pass out again not now not with her right there
I’m okay. I just have to hold my breath when I start to freak out.
But she’s just sitting there, staring at me. Nope, she’s rising, there’s her nose and her mouth. She stops. Her lips are thick and red, her skin is browner than mine, and her hair is longer than I’ve ever seen in my life. She’s showing me her teeth, just sitting there, showing her teeth at me. Teeth closed, lips pulled back and quivering, teeth glinting like the wide field of white all around me.
She’s not moving. She’s just sitting there, showing her face at me, showing me her teeth. She doesn’t blink. Well, I won’t either.
She’s moving! She’s… moving away. She’s backing up slightly, but I can still see her whole face. She’s putting her teeth away and opening her mouth and breathing and…
I don’t know this song. Is it a funeral song? Is it what she sings before dinner? It’s low and quiet, and I’m starting to pick up on the pattern of it. It’s got to mean something. Her head sways as she sings, and sometimes her eyes blink slowly. Her lips are very full and red, shaping the words she sends over the sheets to me. How long is this song?
Slowly, carefully, I look over at the strawberry, where it was beside me. Now it’s on a little plate, a shiny, transparent little plate. It’s all sliced up into tiny blocks. I could easily take one up in my hand, in just one hand, and I could eat it without any effort.
I look back at the Big woman. She’s still singing at me.
What does it all mean?
Based on a story prompt by Undersquid.