“Hurry up everyone,” Bun hops madly in circles over the soft mat of leaves and pine needles, thumping his feet, a call that vibrates throughout the forest. Bun is the sergeant-at-arms for the federation and one of his duties is gathering the members. They arrive filling the air with chirps, clicks, rivets, and grinds. The scent of cedar and pine floats through the air.
Bun says, “Quiet down, quiet down. Tuft is on his way. Oh, god here he comes now.”
Tuft is a shapeshifter and a tiny trickster, the closest one to human, therefore considered to be the smartest. Bun disagrees, but keeps it to himself. Someday things will change and he’ll be ready.
Lilacs release their flowery perfume, as Tuft bounds over the blooms, his white hair flying, so light that it seems as if it would keep on going, right off his head like dandelion parachutes. He climbs onto the old tree stump above the group, making sure Bun would have to look up to him. Nose to nose, they are the same height.
“I’ll keep this brief,” Tuft says, hands on hips, back straight. “VIPs will be here this afternoon.”
Complaints bubble through the crowd of ravens, canaries, robins, crows, crickets, frogs, foxes, and one rattlesnake.
Bun says, “Ah, give me a break. One hour to get ready?”
“Too bad. That’s what we have. Don’t blame me. I just found out. Asja said it was a last-minute decision. What can you do? It is what it is.” The forest is cool but the sun will soon warm the canopy of trees.
Bun’s long ears drop against his brown fur. “Ach. That blasted crow. She’s going to be replaced if she doesn’t tighten it up. I have greens to harvest. I can help out in a few days, but you’re going to be on your own this time. Sorry, bud.”
The noise erupts once more.
Tuft crosses his arms and spreads his legs. His trickster face is lined and his eyebrows sit in a permanent scowl.
“Perhaps you don’t understand,” he says. “The last visitors reported their stay was very quiet, which means boring, which means we’ve been lazy. Our reputation was built on the unexplainable. We give them stories to take back.” The crowd isn’t paying attention, instead the birds preen, the crickets rub their legs, and the frogs hop. Tuft fills his lungs and curves his hands around his mouth. “Listen up! Investors have bought the cottage and forest. Rumor has it, they plan to put up a high rise and parking lot. The cottage will be leveled along with the forest. We’ll all be toast.”
A collective gasp pulls at the forest air until the ferns and trillium bend under the draw.
Bun wiggles his behind. “Wait just a gosh darned minute. ‘Rumor has it.’ ‘They plan’. So, this is not a sure thing. Do I have that right? “
“Exactly right. The dozers aren’t here yet. But the visitors are the deciders. We have three days to convince them that our place is priceless. We gotta get down to business, critters. Now, are you with me or not?”
Bun’s ears fall, limp beside his cheeks. “Since you put it that way,” Bun says taking a few nervous jumps in a circle, “I’m in. Whatever you want. Let’s go crew.” His ears straighten up and he faces the group. “We have work to do. Tuft, you make the schedule and I’ll get it out to everyone.”
The rented Porsche rumbles into the clearing and shuts down at the end of the stone walkway. The car sits there for the longest time until Tuft wonders if the car has driven itself. He’d pulled a camouflaged hat low over his fly-away hair and smeared his face with dark paint. Above him, on the apple tree branch, the warbler belts out a song, clear and strong, well-practiced for days like this. The car doors open and two women struggle to lift themselves from the low seats. These aren’t spring chickens. Tuft isn’t used to older women. They might not be as easily impressed as the young ones.
“Margaret, will you look at this place?” one says. “I wonder who tends to these flowers. Those hyacinths, the colors, my goodness.” Her face reminds Tuft of a retired movie star, still big eyed and model features, but sagging on the neck.
Margaret says, “That’s a cute little cottage with a circle-top door and windows to match; thatch roof and, uh-oh. Black mold all over that white stucco. Mold’s bound to grow in a place surrounded by woodlands. Who would put white stucco in a forest?”
Tuft takes note. Get rid of mold.
“Ellen, remember that playhouse in the woods?”
“Sure do. This place reminds me of that. My favorite memories are in that forest,” the pretty one says.
“Remember sis. We’re here just to see the place. Like, make sure there’s no bear cubs that’ll be mowed over, ha ha. We agreed this will be our retirement money.”
“Sure. I know. It’s just that…” Ellen looks around.
“Yes, now stop thinking about it. After it’s over you won’t remember any of this. Besides, with the money we’ll make, we can buy twenty of these.”
Tuft wiggles in his spot. No amount of money can replace what we have here.
“Well, let’s get our things inside, and go for a walk. I need to stretch my legs.”
The sun slumps toward the horizon, making the sky into a powdery blue dome with a pink glow around the edges. Tuft falls asleep behind the old fir tree and wakes up with a start as the women leave the house. They move with the slowness of buffalo meandering after a meal.
Bun hops ahead of the women, wiggling his cotton tail, leading them into the forest. He stops at the base of a tree, waits until they near, then he pulls up a leaf and begins munching. The women name him Bugsy. “Oh, you wittle sweetie. Come to mama, sugar.”
Bun hops away.
“Imagine him at my house,” Margaret says. She pats her short white hair. “So cute. Of course, Felix might not think so.”
“Felix. That bunny would be quite a feast for your cat,” Ellen chuckles.
Back at the house, Tuft squeezes in through the key-hole. He scouts the loft, taking one shoe and tosses it over the rail onto the living room floor. A missing toothpaste lid is always a good trick. Into the silverware drawer it goes. One more thing. Ah, yes. The TV remote. He hides it behind the box of bran flakes.
Voices are outside. Much sooner than expected. He grabs the shoe but there’s no time to stash it anywhere and instead he throws it out the back window and jumps out after it.
The next morning, the federation convenes to review. Tuft takes his place above the rest. “Friends, that was a stellar performance. I’m proud of us. They will be staying three nights according to Asja. Two nights to go.”
“Hey thanks genius,” Bun munches his words together. “Do you mean three minus one equals two?” The group titters. The air, freshened by an earlier rain shower, is filled with the delicious scent of hyacinths.
Tuft’s cheeks flame up. “It’s a reminder of our schedule, blockhead. Anyway, I think they like the place, but they think there’s loads of cottages just like this. We know different, don’t we?” He holds out both arms and lifts them like a cheerleader until the critters are in a frenzy. “That’s the spirit,” Tuft says. “Ahem. We need volunteers to scrub the black mold off the cottage. It’ll have to be on the down low, so don’t volunteer if you can’t stay out of sight.”
“We’ll do it,” say the raccoons.
“OK then. Asja? Are you here?”
The crow bobs on her branch and chortles.
“You remember your part?” Tuft asks.
Asja bobs again.
“Good. Keep up the great work everyone.”
That evening, the door creaks open after dinner. Tuft is waiting. The women amble to the forest entrance. He leaps across the yard, retrieves the green shoe and climbs inside placing it next to the other one. He bounces onto the ceiling fan and empties glitter from his pockets onto the blades. Next, drain the wine bottle. Using both hands, bending his knees, Tuft raises it, about to dump most of it down the drain when he hears someone outside. The grass swishes and footsteps come close. Tuft panics and squeezes himself into the bottle then jiggles it upright. Ellen opens the door, “Who’s there? You come on out of there,” she yells. “I know you’re in this house somewhere.” Tuft does not move. Inside the dark green bottle, the world seems far away. The forest is all he knows except what he’s seen on TV, city nightmares where buildings replace trees and asphalt hides the green carpet.
From out in the yard Margaret hollers, “Ellie, get out here. You have to see this white egret. An egret! In the forest. I can’t believe it. Hurry up.” Ellen grabs her sweater and closes the door behind her. Tuft is gasping for air as he comes out of the bottle feeling drunk. He tumbles onto the dinner table and falls asleep right there on the placemat.
It’s dark outside when he wakes up and he takes off wobbling through the keyhole.
At the next meeting, Tuft delights in telling the others about hiding in the half-filled wine bottle. Asja reports on her success at leading the women deep into the woods while songbird serenaded them. The ladies followed the path until dark. When they couldn’t see to get back, Asja used crow caws to lead them out.
Tuft says, “Thank you Asja. You saved my life. I don’t know what might have happened if they’d found me asleep, drenched in wine.” His head is pounding and he sips water from the dripping leaf above. “How did things end up?”
“Oh, fine. They were wild for me when they made it to the clearing. Couldn’t say thank you enough. A’course, I played ‘bird’ and flew off so they’d wonder if it was their imagination.”
“Perfect,” Tuft shouts, then holds his head again. “Bun, would you mind taking the rest of today’s meeting? Just give out the agenda. I’ll see you all later.” He gingerly climbs down from the stump and vanishes into the trees.
Bun hears it first. The haunting hoo-hoo-hoo echo. Bun orders everyone to sit still and pay attention.
The old owl is a forest legend. With a great wooh, wooh sound of wings, Winston flies overhead and circles, then lands high in a tree.
“Good evening my friends,” Winston says in his deep baritone. The creatures quiet down. Bun marvels at Winston’s talent for commanding the crowd. “I have heard rumors that our world is in grave danger. Bumbling tricks will not work. You must take higher-level action.”
“Which is?” Bun manages to squeak out. Owls are known to pick up bunnies and carry them off for dinner.
“Pick someone to do the talking. Bigfoot has offered to help. Present your case directly to the decision makers. Take your role seriously.” Winston lifts his majestic wings, and with a grand motion, he disappears into the night.
They have only one day left. Tuft is over his headache when Bun knocks on the tiny door of his hollowed-out tree trunk. An aroma of freshly brewed coffee leaks through the screen and Bun breathes it in.
Tuft calls, “Bun, it’s open, come on in. You want some coffee?”
“Thanks, but rabbits don’t drink coffee. Get this, Winston was here.”
Tuft freezes in his spot. “Winston? It’s been years. And?”
“He was very serious.”
“Somehow we need to make the decision makers see that we are unique. Winston said to be direct. Present our case. Just one of us.”
Tuft knew this would fall on him. “I suppose they want me to do it.”
Bun’s ears stand tall. He wiggles his nose and sits his butt down spreading his body wide and large. He clears his throat and takes a moment, concentrating on making his voice deep. “Not really. I’m the one they want. I’m going to do it.”
“You? Bun. Seriously. You think you have what it takes to save this enchanted forest? What is your experience? Your training? Credentials?” His hair flew up with agitation. “I’ll tell you the answer. Zippo. Nada. Zilch!”
Bun stands and hops back and forth, leaves a few pellets near the kitchen and returns to Tuft. “I’ve been around. I’ve been the second in command for over a year. I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m not going to fight with you,” Tuft says. “Let’s take it back to the group and revisit this,” he says, fuming at Bun.
“Hold up.” Bun hesitates. “Winston said Bigfoot has offered to do the talking.”
“Bullpucky! Winston’s not thinking straight. That hairy old Bigfoot’ll just scare the daylights out of those ladies.”
“Well, then you are going to tell him. Not me.”
The creatures meet and decide on a joint approach. Raven will make it clear to Bigfoot that his offer is appreciated, but due to his large hairy appearance, this particular job isn’t right for him. Tuft and Bun will go together. The rest of the federation will be in the background.
Tuft whirls in place trying to whip up a plan. He has never been seen by humans. I’ll need to do some shape-shifting for this job. What would they like? Not a flower, that would surely freak them out. Not a plate. Not a pitcher. Tuft dabs at the sweat on his forehead.
“Just be real, be yourself,” Bun says. “Tuft, you’re the best. We can do this. We’ll be together, don’t worry. Here’s what I think we should do.”
Bun’s voice is sincere and Tuft needs him.
“I’ll get them warmed up,” Bun says. “Wait till they’re all gushy and stuff. I might even let them pick me up.”
“Oh, not a good idea, Bun. You know how that gets to you. You’ll probably poop all over them.”
Bun’s whiskers twitch. “You’re right. And there’s not much I can do about that one.”
“Hmm,” Tuft scratches his head. “What’d Winston say again?”
“Present your case. Take this seriously.”
“Okay,” Tuft says. “Then that’s what we’ll do. You get them warmed up. I’ll be on standby. When the time is right, I’ll make some happy sounds. Like laughter or whatever. Then I’ll shape into a puppy and wait till they start loving me up and just talk to them. Crikeys I hope they like puppies.”
“All humans like puppies. Rabbits don’t.”
An old maple tree shades the picnic table where Margaret and Ellen laze with a basket of bread and cheese. Over the few days of their visit, they’ve rested, talked, laughed until they couldn’t speak, and tried to unravel the mysterious happenings.
Margaret turns so that her legs stretch out over the bench as she leans on the table. Glitter sparkles in her hair.
“I can’t remember feeling this relaxed. Or feeling quite this…”
Ellen smiles, “Happy?”
“Yes. Happy. Maybe if I lived here it would wear thin. I don’t know. But it’s had an effect.”
Bun whispers to Tuft. “Now’s as good a time as any.” Twice he crosses in front of the ladies before they notice him.
“There’s Bugsy! Seems like he has a thing for us.”
“Tame is what I’d call it. Maybe we can take him home.” The woman stands and lunges for him.
Jumpin' Jehoshaphat. Take me home? He turns and runs for his life, disappearing into the forest.
Well, there goes that plan Tuft groans. I guess I’m on. He wiggles and stretches and pushes his back this way and that until he takes the shape of a long-eared puppy with white fur and a brown patch on one side of his face. He runs into the sunny yard and sits.
Margaret spies him first. “Well now. Where did you come from? Aren’t you just the cutest little thing on this earth?” She lifts the puppy to her lap.
Suddenly Tuft loses his plan and his breath. He begins panting. This is more than he’s ever taken on. His heart is beating wildly.
Winston’s wings woosh overhead. The critters are at the forest edge. Birds chirp. Crickets’ shrill rhythmic sounds. They are all standing by. Tuft begins to relax. His breathing slows. He whines softly and cries in the lowest sound that he can manage, afraid to speak.
“Here let me hold him,” Ellen says. In her lap, Tuft circles and lays down. He gazes up, into her blue eyes. It is a moment in time, like a spark between two electrical wires, a kinship of living beings. No words are needed. Ellen knows. Not that the creatures are tricking them, but that the property and its forest life are a gift, a tiny piece of our planet and all of its life, the variety and importance of creatures. And magic.