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PEACE AND QUIET
“Lola, please stop asking so many questions.” Arthur Budge, a dark-brown wombat, pulled a parsley sprig from the ground, then frowned at his daughter. “You’re giving me indigestion.”
“Questions can wait,” he said. “We have all the time in the world.”
Alice Budge, a light-brown wombat, handed Lola a clump of freshly dug snow grass and whispered, “Do try to have patience. You know how much your father enjoys the peace and quiet.”
Lola sighed. She sat next to her father, close enough that she could smell the parsley’s sharp notes as he bit through its stem. Despite his reprimand, Lola didn’t want to stop asking questions. On this night she’d already asked thirteen, from “Why do our teeth keep growing?” to “Why are our rumps so hard?” But the answers were often some variation of “Because that’s just the way it is.” Or “Because that’s how it’s always been done.” Lola flicked a worm from the snow grass clump, then sank her teeth into the succulent green blades.
It was a lovely night in Tassie Island’s Northern Forest. Lola and her parents were foraging in their favorite clearing, where wild grasses and herbs grew in abundance. Every wombat family kept a tidy garden patch next to its burrow, growing radishes, tomatoes, and lettuce for meals, but foraging was good exercise and provided “important nutrients,” as Alice often said. Lola chewed and looked up. A new moon shone through giant gum trees that seemed to reach as high as the distant mountains. No songs drifted down, for the birds were all in bed. Except for the wombat family’s quiet chewing sounds, the forest was swaddled in silence.
There were few things more valued among the bare-nosed wombats of the Northern Forest. Singing and whistling were frowned upon, except on the queen’s birthday. Reading, with its soft sounds of page turning, was the favored hobby. Wood carving, with its delicate sounds of chipping, was the vocation of choice. If quiet had been something tradable, like bowls or spoons, wombats would have hoarded it with dragon-like avarice.
Except for Lola, who knew she was a bit of an oddball because she loved talking. And she loved telling stories to the forest mice. But storytelling had to be done while her parents slept, for they would be ashamed if they discovered their daughter’s unwombat-like activities.
With the grass eaten, Lola wandered over to a log and started munching on some moss. It was one of her favorite flavors of green and quite the thirst quencher. But though she was enjoying the meal, she sighed loudly. It was proving to be another quiet night, following another quiet day in her, as ever, quiet life. This sameness never seemed to bother her mother or father. Arthur and Alice relished the predictability of their wombat existence, but Lola was always on the lookout for someone to talk to and if she found someone, be it a bird or a mouse, she talked. At length. Maybe that was why Lola’s parents looked more haggard than other wombat parents, and why her father’s stomach was prone to episodes of upset. Parsley, known for its stomach-settling qualities, was his herb of choice.
“What’s that?” Lola dropped her pawful of moss, scrambled atop the log, and peered down at the stream. First came the squelch of steps along the muddy bank. Then she caught sight of a dark shape that was clearly wombatish in nature. “Hellooo!” Lola called.
Arthur gasped. “Lola, no, not again.”
“It’s our neighbor, Mister Squat. I’m being friendly. Don’t you want me to be friendly? Hello! Hello!” Lola stretched her short arm as far as she could in a wave, hoping to get the old wombat’s attention.
It worked. He stopped in his tracks, then glanced up at the log through his thick spectacles.
“Mister Squat! It’s me, Lola! Lola Budge! Are you having a nice night of foraging? Did you find some watercress?”
Mister Squat grumbled something under his breath and turned around so his prodigious rump blocked Lola’s view. Then he began digging in the streambed for roots.
“Maybe he didn’t hear me.” Lola took a deep breath, cupped her paws around her mouth, and bellowed, “MISTER SQUAAAAAT!” His fur bristled and his ears scrunched up in sudden displeasure.
“Oh, hooly dooly.” Alice hurried to Lola’s side and clamped a paw over Lola’s mouth, her own ears partially clamped shut as well. “Please stop hollering. You’ll wake the daytimers.”
Lola squirmed free. “But Mum,” she pleaded. “I’m just trying to be neighborly.”
Alice shook her head in a worried way, which she tended to do around her only joey. “Sweetie, how many times must I remind you that talking to our neighbor without invitation is bad manners?”
“Yes, I know,” Lola grumbled. “I’m disturbing his ‘peace and quiet.’”
“Why isn’t she shy like the rest of us?” Arthur asked his wife.
“Because she isn’t,” was Alice’s answer—the same answer she gave each time he asked that question.
Lola chewed another mouthful of moss, her gaze fixed on Mister Squat, who shone silver in the moonlight. As he sat, feasting upon a root he’d pulled from the mud, Lola’s mind filled with questions. How old was he? Could he see without his spectacles? Did he like carving spoons and bowls? She certainly didn’t.
As Lola flicked a piece of moss from her white whiskers, Mister Squat stopped eating, turned around quickly, and faced the stream. He adjusted his spectacles. He shook his head. He shrugged. He shook his head again. Lola took a quick breath. Wait. What was happening? Was something happening?
She scrambled along the log, trying to get a better view. Mister Squat was clearly looking at something in the distance. He shrugged again. Lola could barely contain her excitement. She reached the end of the log and stood on the tips of her toes, her long claws prickling the bark. Why was he shrugging? Was he talking to someone? Yes, he was talking to someone. But Mister Squat never talked to anyone. She’d never heard his voice.
But then he turned abruptly, abandoned the root, and hurried up the trail that led back to the burrows.
She wanted to call after him but wrinkled her nose, remembering her mother’s words. Bad manners? Lola narrowed her eyes. No one else thought it was bad manners to say goodbye. Why did wombats have to be so antisocial? The only time the community got together was on Queen Myra’s birthday, to feast and sing songs in her honor. Though Lola had never met the queen, she’d been raised to love and admire her, as had all the wombats of the Northern Forest. Queen Myra’s birthday was considered the most important day of the year. But during the rest of the year, there was no need for group gatherings. The wombats let each other know that all was well by displaying their cubic droppings on rocks. While out foraging, Lola’s mom might say, “Oh look, there’s Mister Pudge’s dropping. He appears to be doing just fine.” Or, “Oh look, there’s Missus Portly’s dropping. She seems healthier than ever.”
Lola was aching to find out who Mister Squat had been talking to. She slid off the log. “May I—”
A sharp look and gnashing of teeth from her father answered the question.
With Mister Squat gone and nothing interesting to watch, Lola finished her moss. Then she patted her belly rhythmically with her hind paw—a wombat sign that the meal had been satisfying and that the belly was contentedly full. Arthur and Alice also patted their bellies. Then the Budge family began to waddle along the forest path, climbing over fallen branches and ducking beneath tangled vines. But Lola had one more question on her mind, and it was one of the best questions she’d ever thought of, so it was worth risking another reprimand.
“Mum, Dad, if you were both shy, how did you meet?” Lola made sure that her voice was very hushed when she asked the question. But if her father didn’t answer, she was prepared to ask it again. And again.
To her surprise, he chuckled. “We grew up a few burrows apart. I was impressed because your mum’s droppings were always perfect cubes.”
“Thank you, my dear.”
“You’re welcome. Of course, I was too shy to talk to her, so I left her a letter. And she wrote back. After thirteen letters, I finally worked up the courage to forage with her.”
This was the most talking her father had done in weeks and it was thrilling. Lola was about to ask another question, but a serious look from her mother reminded her not to push things.
Upon reaching the burrow, Arthur opened the door. Then Lola and her parents waddled downward, following a tunnel beneath the roots of a celery-top pine until it branched into a series of rooms. Each room had been dug by paw, then fortified with wooden beams. Skylights were set into the tops of the rooms, allowing moonlight to trickle in. Though Lola and her parents could see well in the dark, this extra light was helpful for activities such as reading and carving. And during the day, when they slept, curtains were drawn across the skylights to block the sun.
The largest room was their main living area. It had a river-stone table to carve upon, circled by three chairs. Specialty carving tools, such as chisels and gouges, hung from a tool rack. Wall shelves held some of the lovely bowls that Arthur and Alice had made. A broom stood in the corner, for sweeping up wood chips. But the central focus of the room was the looming grandfather clock. Carved by Arthur’s father, it was a prized family heirloom and ticktocked with quiet perfection.
Two passageways split off from the main chamber. One led to a storeroom where the Budge family kept their winter food. The other led to the bedrooms, with their straw mattresses and moss-filled pillows. When she was much younger, Lola’s parents often had to replace the moss in Lola’s pillow because of Lola’s midday snacking. Wardrobes contained extra blankets, needed during the deep freeze of winter, and traveling cloaks, though Lola’s was unused, as she’d yet to travel anywhere. All in all it was a tidy and simple dwelling.
“Lola, are you going to work on your bowl?” Arthur asked. He picked up a piece of soft pine and began to hollow it. As he worked he would alternate using claws, chisels, and even his teeth.
“No, thank you,” she replied. “You know I don’t like carving.”
“How will you buy the essentials of life if you don’t have anything to trade in return? Woven fabrics and glass panes are expensive and have to be shipped from Dore.” Arthur shook his head sadly. “Plus, you need to wear out your teeth somehow. You don’t want to end up with them sticking in the ground like that Biggun Longtooth from the old stories, do you?”
Lola picked up her bowl and began gnawing at it, oozing boredom.
“Maybe she will be good at something else,” Alice said hopefully.
“But what could that be? She’s a wombat, and wombats carve.”
“I’m good at talking,” Lola almost said, but she knew a statement like that would bring a frown to her father’s furry face.
While Arthur and Alice sat at the table and worked on their bowls, Lola tossed hers aside and tucked herself into the corner to read her favorite book, The Tales of Tassie Island, though perhaps she would skip over Longtooth’s story today. Each story began in the same way: “Gather ye round and prick your ears, for a tale is about to be told.” She knew all the stories by heart, but that didn’t matter. How she loved the thrilling high-sea adventure of “The Penguin Pirates” and the heartbreaking romance of “The Quoll Princess and the Beast.” Each story was usually a quick read, but on this night Lola was having trouble concentrating, her whiskers twitching uncontrollably. She couldn’t stop thinking about Mister Squat. He’d ignored her hellos, but he’d obviously talked to someone else. Who had been able to get Mister Squat’s attention? And why? She’d only finished two paragraphs when her mother patted her on the head. “The sun is rising.”
Lola kissed her parents on their furry cheeks, then shuffled to her room and climbed into her bed for the day’s sleep. Alice and Arthur retired to their own room and soon, the sounds of their deep breathing filled the burrow. Lola closed her eyes. She curled on her left side. Then curled on her right side. She rolled onto her back, opened her eyes, and stared at the dirt ceiling. The night’s events tapped at her mind like raindrops onto the ground.
Mister Squat never spoke to his wombat neighbors, so did that mean he’d encountered someone who wasn’t a neighbor? Someone who didn’t usually live in the burrows? Were there clues left behind? There was only one way to find out.
Lola slipped out of her bed and tiptoed from her room. She stopped outside her parents’ door, listening to make sure they were still in a deep sleep. Then, ever so quietly, Lola Budge made her way outside.
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
When Lola emerged from the burrow, she took great care to look around, her eyes blinking against the brightness. As she waddled on, her vision slowly adjusted. Even though she’d done this before, daylight always mesmerized her. The morning forest was covered in a small layer of water droplets that sparkled in the sunlight, much like the stars at night. The ruffled leaves of the tanglefoot trees blazed a brilliant dark green.
“G’day, Lola.” Lola paused and looked up. A forest mouse peered down from her little cottage, built into a hollow stump. “Sneaking out again, are ya?”
“Yes,” Lola whispered. If she woke the wombat neighbors, they’d surely complain to her parents and she’d get in trouble for wandering outside the burrow, no matter what her reason.
“Gonna tell us a story?” a young mouse asked, sticking his head out of the nest. “How about the one where the pelican turns into a glossy ibis. What’s that one called?”
“‘The Ugly Hatchling,’” Lola replied.
“We love that story, we do. Tell us that story.” The mice sat on the edge of their porch, kicking their feet as they eagerly awaited their morning entertainment.
It was a lovely request, and normally Lola would be thrilled to indulge. “I’d like to, but I’ve got something to do,” she told them.
“Well, don’t you go mucking about for too long,” the mama mouse advised with a wink. “Your mum and dad will throw a wobbly, they will, if they find ya gone again. Just like I would if mine was to sneak out.” Her eyes shifted to look down at her youngster with a heavily raised eyebrow.
“I’ll be quick,” Lola assured them. Then she made her way down to the stream, following the path that had been worn into the forest floor over the years by dozens of wombat paws. Things looked so different in sunlight. The water glistened and shone, allowing Lola to see the smooth rocks below and the thin silver fish that darted about. She’d always loved this stream. She and her parents had waded through it many times, crossing to the other side where the watercress grew thick. Lola had asked her mother where the stream went and she’d said it emptied into the Fairwater River. But a rushing river was too dangerous for wombats, so Lola always swam in the quiet pools of the stream.
Lola found the exact spot where Mister Squat had been sitting, his paw imprints still visible on the muddy bank. She looked up and down, but there were no other paw prints that might reveal what sort of critter he’d been talking to. Maybe he’d been talking to himself? Lola did that sometimes.
She sighed. Even though the mystery had not been solved, perhaps the morning wasn’t a total loss. She could return to the hollow stump and tell the mice a story. Then she could hurry back to her burrow with plenty of time to sleep the rest of the day away, her parents none the wiser. That seemed a good plan. But when she turned to head up the path, a splash drew her attention. On the other side of the stream, a dark shape was swimming in one of the deep pools. It couldn’t be a wombat because all the other wombats were still tucked into their burrows. She guessed it was a forest rat but noticed that the tail was wide and paddle-shaped. The critter swam in a circle, then disappeared underwater. Lola’s whiskers bristled with curiosity. She had to find out what it was.
She splashed across the stream, her claws gripping the slippery rocks, then plopped herself onto a boulder at the edge of the pool. How could the critter stay underwater for so long? “Hellooo!” She reached one paw into the pool and waved underwater.
“Oi! Stop doin’ that!”
The critter had popped out of the water. A pair of swimming goggles covered his eyes and he had a funny flat bill instead of a nose. He pushed the goggles up his forehead and glared at her with his tiny black eyes. Lola found herself looking at a small, irate platypus.
“Stop doing what?” she asked.
“Stop churnin’ up the water! How’m I gonna catch me brekkie if yer splashin’ about, interruptin’ me electroreception?”
Lola lifted her arm from the water. “Sorry.” She frowned. “What’s electro—?”
“Electroreception,” he said snippily. “Ya don’t know about electroreception?” She shook her head. “Well I don’t have time to explain it to ya ’cause I’m far too busy.” Lola wondered why he was so cranky. Maybe he was hungry. Lola watched as he dove again, somehow not disturbing the water. A few moments later, he emerged with a blue yabby in his mouth, which he quickly ate. Then he climbed out onto the rocks. With his webbed paws, he reached for a green bag that was slung around his body. That’s when Lola noticed the spur.
How could she have forgotten? Her mother had warned her to never anger a platypus. Their hind legs hid a toe-like spur, filled with deadly venom.
“Oh, hooly dooly.” Lola scooted backwards. “I’d better go.” But the platypus spun around and pointed at her.
“Wha’d ya say?” Even though he’d eaten, he sounded grumpier than before.
She couldn’t take her eyes off that spur. She knew the tales. Once injected, the poison would travel through her veins and cause extreme pain, then paralysis. “I—I said I’d better go. I’m not supposed to be outside the burrow during the day.”
“No, the other thing.” He waddled across the rocks until he stood in front of her. His fur was sleek with water and his bill was shiny in the sunlight. “What’s the other thing ya said?”
Lola kept scooting until she slipped off her rock and was standing in the stream. She had no idea how fast a platypus could run, so she needed to keep her distance. She took a step backward, then another. “I don’t think I said anything else. But I do talk a lot. It’s bad manners to talk so much. I’m supposed to be quieter. I’m not supposed to ask so many questions. That’s what my mum and dad tell me.” He wasn’t coming any closer, so she stopped. Something else had caught her attention. “How come your bag has the word messenger on it?”
“’Cause that’s what I am.” He straightened to full height and his paw flew to the side of his head in a salute. “Bale Blackwater, Platypus Delivery Service, Northern Streams and Rivers Division,” he said in an official manner. “Best in the business. I’ve won the Golden Platy Award three years in a row.”
That sounded very impressive. “Congratulations,” Lola said.
He stopped saluting. “It’s very rude of ya to keep me waitin’. Don’t ya know I’ve got other deliveries to make? How’m I gonna win another Golden Platy if I get deductions for tardiness? Huh? How?”
Lola had never heard of the Golden Platy Award, so she had no idea how to answer his question. But something else didn’t make sense. “Did you say I kept you waiting?” She scratched her cheek. “But how could I keep you waiting if I didn’t know you were here?”
He narrowed his eyes again. “Oh, so yer gonna play that game, are ya? Look, ya can pretend all ya want that ya didn’t know I was here, but I know ya knew, and you know ya knew, so it all comes down to the fact that ya kept me waitin’, plain and simple! I asked that old bloke where ya were and ya know what he said?”
“Yeah, last night.”
“Oh, you mean Mister Squat.” She had been right. Mister Squat had been talking to someone. “Did he tell you to stop interrupting his peace and quiet?”
“Yep. Can ya believe that?” He began to rifle through the contents of his bag. “No respect for me profession. Now, where is it?”
“Do you need help finding something?” Lola asked, forgetting all about the spur.
The platypus whipped the bag behind his back and pointed at her. “Keep yer furry paws outta me bag. I got lots of stuff in here. Messages for all sorts of critters that are none of yer business.”
“Sorry,” she said. He was the crankiest critter she’d ever met. “I won’t look in your bag, Mister Blackwater, I promise.”
“Indeed, ya won’t.” He rifled some more. “Where’s that blasted thing? Aha! Found it!” He pulled out a small bottle that had a long string attached. Lola cautiously crept forward so she could get a better look. The bottle contained a rolled piece of paper and was sealed with a cork. Bale Blackwater stared at Lola, looking her up and down as if waiting for something. He tapped his webbed foot. “Well?”
“Ya gotta say the secret password. I can’t give this secret message to ya unless ya say the secret password.”
“I think ya said it before, but I didn’t quite hear ya so ya gotta say it again, to be certain.” He held up the bottle. “The bloke who paid me to deliver this is a real beast, if ya know what I mean. A real bloodthirsty brute.” He shivered.
Lola felt more confused than ever. “I don’t know any bloodthirsty brutes. I’m Lola. Lola Budge. Are you sure you’re talking to the right wombat? Don’t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying our conversation. It’s so rare that I get to talk to a total stranger. But there must be some mistake.”
“Mistake?” He opened his flat bill and gasped, his long tongue curling in surprise.
“Maybe you’re in the wrong place?”
“The … the … the wrong place?” he sputtered. “Bale Blackwater doesn’t swim to the wrong place. This is the Northern Forest, right?” She nodded. “This is the part of the Northern Forest where the bare-nosed wombat burrows are located, right?” She nodded again. “And you,” he pointed, “are a female bare-nosed wombat.” It was true. She nodded. He folded his arms. “Then do us both a favor and give me the secret password so I can be on me way.”
“I’d give you the password if I knew it,” Lola insisted. “I would. But I didn’t come down here for a delivery. I was just trying to figure out who Mister Squat had been talking to and…” The platypus scowled at her. “What I’m trying to say is that I’m not—oh, hooly dooly!”
“Bingo!” He thrust the bottle into her paw.
Lola’s eyes widened as she stared at the bottle and the rolled piece of paper inside. She didn’t know whether she should be excited or nervous. “What does it say?”
“What does it say?” A pained expression passed across the platypus’s face, as if Lola had just told him that someone dear to him had died. He blinked very quickly. “What does it say? Are ya suggestin’ that I read yer message? Yer secret message?” he shrieked, his webbed paws waving wildly in the air. His flat tail slapped against a rock.
Lola shook her head. She hadn’t meant to insult him, but this entire encounter was very confusing. “I … I…” she started to explain. Suddenly, all she could think about was the venomous spur on his foot. Never anger a platypus. “I’m sorry, I—”
“A messenger never reads the messages,” Bale interrupted. “That would be a clear violation of our code of ethics.” He slung his bag over his shoulder. “I swam all the way up here, practically to the middle of Woop Woop, and I waited all night, and do I get a ‘thanks’? No, I don’t. Everyone always blames the messenger but they never thank him.”
“Thank you,” Lola said, clutching the bottle to her chest. Trying her best to smile so as not to displease him more.
The platypus glared at her and grumbled, “Yer welcome.” Then, with a huff, he headed toward the deep section of the stream, his webbed feet gripping the slick rocks as he waddled.
Despite having been on the receiving end of a platypus temper tantrum, Lola burst into a grin. What a morning this was turning out to be! She’d had a long conversation with a stranger and she’d gotten a secret message. But the only way to find out if the message was meant for her was to read it.
She pinched the cork with her claws and was about to pull it free when a sound shot through the air, the likes of which Lola had never heard before. It was a screeching sound and it sent a shiver up her spine. Bale Blackwater whipped around and both he and Lola stared in the sound’s direction.
“Only one sort of critter sounds like that,” Bale said, pulling his goggles over his eyes. “And it’s the wrong sort. Ya’d best get outta here, and fast.” With his messenger bag in place, he slipped into the stream and began swimming away.
“Wait!” Lola called. “What kind of critter?”
But the platypus was making quick time, and just before the stream rounded a bend, he raised his head and hollered, “Platypus Delivery Service guarantees messages get delivered, but we don’t guarantee what happens next!” Then he disappeared below the water.
Leaving Lola alone as another screech rent the air.
Copyright © 2020 by Suzanne Selfors and Walker Ranson