Burrows — For Jim Arnold (Papa)
Of course, it all began with the darkness. I cannot speak exactly of the moment I became aware everything was pitch black—for when your whole world is cloaked in an unnatural night, there are no days, no markings of time passing. The only thing I was sure of was there was no controlling it. Yes, the darkness came first.
Here, there was no feeling at first. Then with no notice, I could suddenly feel a pain in my waist. Then it moved to hips, to my thighs and finally, an acute discomfort in my right foot. Then both feet hurt. I couldn't for some reason open my eyes to observe the cause of the pain in my feet. I just knew it was there. A dull scrape. And then another, and then another.
It seemed to go on forever, my feet seemed so swollen and grazed. I was wondering how long this horrible sensation would endure when it suddenly, but thankfully, ceased. I became aware that I was laying on my side. The pain slowly subsided, and I could begin to make some distinctions about the muffled noises around me. One voice, followed by another. An exchange of sorts, and then there was an agreement. English breakfast it was.
And then before I knew it, I was lifted from my resting position and the same scraping continued. Only this time, it was in a different place and much more sensitive. Before it was in my feet, my back legs. Now, the pain had moved forward in my body but the actions causing it were all the same: purposeful, practised. This did not feel like someone's first attempt at whatever was going on. Peal, after peal, after peal. It felt like I would soon be skinned down to the bone. And the curiosity that burned in my mind was on par with the sensation in my legs: What I would give to be able to open my eyes!
I could feel the heat of another's touch holding me but the object that was causing the pain was cool and metallic. Inhuman. The scrapes began to move across all four of my limbs. They were slower now too. More refined. And at last, they subsided. The metal object was replaced by a second hand, and I felt myself being turned over between the two. The hands felt much larger than my body, and although I was small and vulnerable by comparison, I felt safe.
So it was to nothing less than my horror when they lowered me down and placed me on a surface. My feet, which had been subjugated to the most inhumane treatment, felt like they were had been set ablaze as they came into contact with some kind of platform. And oh, how they burned. The rawness of it all was almost too much, and I felt I might pass out from the pain. But, with time, the coolness of the surface calmed the fire in my feet, and with time, I was able to relax.
So, what was to happen next? Time crept by, slowly but surely. Had it been an hour, two, ten? I stood there, unsure as ever. In this time, I was able to turn over question after question. Who was to blame for my pain? When was it to return? For some reason, I was sure it was not over. I could feel parts of my body, but others in their sensations felt less refined. And as time bore on, the silence around me seemed to grow with the stillness of the space.
And although I was not sure what exactly it was that I waited for, I waited all the same.
Finally, there came noises in the distance. Objects moved here and there, and again, the two voices I had come to recognise. Conversation. It was casual and relaxed in a way that made me truly question where I was.
Time pressed on, until their conversations and general clamouring around ceased. Then, I became aware that the owner of one of the voices was coming towards me.
To my dismay, the scraping continued. Now it seemed like my whole back was being torn apart. And when my back was finished, it was my face. I don't know how I made it through the whole ordeal, but finally, the metal scraper was replaced with a cloth and my whole body was covered in some kind of soothing fluid, probably something of a remedy for all that I had endured.
It was quite a relief, feeling it wash over me. And in the calmness that followed, I was able to note some differences. Where before I had no sense of smell, I could suddenly take in the room around me through my nose. Yes, I was sure it was a room, for the walls kept the air at a stillness that I knew to be different from nature, and the wooden smell around me was that of trees of old rather than those whose roots remained planted.
And there was another difference too. My mouth felt relaxed, whereas before I had an inescapable sensation of being choked. My inhales and exhales flowed back and forth and the grace of breathing was not lost on me.
Yet there was something missing, and as the darkness around me continued to press in from all sides, I knew I was yet to open my eyes. But just as the fear that I would never see began to consume me, I felt something hot press against my face above my cheeks. Once to my left, and then again to my right.
The same hands that had scraped me pressed on my face for a number of minutes, and when at last, they pulled away... everything was different.
It took a few moments, but soon, it all came into focus. The first thing I saw was that this whole time, I had been perched on a wooden table. As my surroundings slowly came into focus, so too did the man sitting before me.
I was sure he was a human man, just as sure as I was that I was a male wombat. There was no mistaking his species: their characteristic lack of fur everywhere on their face, apart from two, seemingly random, clusters above their eyes—and in this man's case, there was a bizarre clump of hair above his mouth. I was not sure of its purpose, but it seemed to offer little warmth so the only safe deduction I could make was that it was to disguise his mouth from potential pray: like some kind of a trap.
He was observing me with a very thoughtful gaze. I could only assume I must have been regarding him in an incredibly similar fashion. He was checking me over everywhere. Yet there came a point where he seemed to be satisfied with what he had seen. Some mental list that seemed to be checked off. And although I had less knowledge of the situation, I felt a similar conviction. I had decided I was not in danger, and so my survival instincts that had threatened to kick in quelled. There was something about this human that gave me no feelings of unease and his pensive nature about me allowed for a sense of trust.
And so, I was able to make further observations about the room I found myself in. Indeed, we were not alone. First, I noted, there was a large duck to my right. Though he was as majestic as any drake, I couldn't help be taken aback by the sandstone glimmer of his coat, unlike any feathers I had ever seen before. And as my gaze moved around the room, from wallaby to rabbit, to frog, it dawned on me the nature of my comrades.
Every single animal around me was made entirely of wood.
Panic began to set it. What was going on? Where in the world was I? My natural instincts began to set me into overdrive and I tried to look out for an escape. Across the room there seemed to be some kind of portal—and yes! I saw trees! Greenery! All I had to do was wait for the man before me to leave and I could make my escape. But just as I became sure of my plan, the owner of the second voice I had heard before appeared.
This was no doubt a female human. The colour of her eyes shocked me, bright, piercing—so blue! And the way she looked at me made me forget all the fear that had, for a moment, completely taken over.
"Oh, Jim! Yes, that's the one."
"Well, it only took me three or four tries," said the man. Three or four? What on earth?
"Well, he seems very charming indeed. His back legs look much better than the last ones."
Here, the man made a sound of agreement, and the two left the room altogether, closing the door behind them.
Now was my time.
"Okay," I said. "Time to get out of here."
"HA!" squawked the drake to my right. "That's what all the newbies say."
"Ignore him," said the wallaby over on another desk in the room. "He seems to think he's above us all because of his height... even though he only came around a few Christmas's ago. My name is Edward," said the wallaby. "How do you do?"
"Oh come off it!" cried a frog in the corner. "Your name isn't Edward!"
"Yes, it very well is!" quipped back the wallaby.
"No, frog is quite right," called the drake. "You've just heard the name Edward said before by Jim so many times that you've decided it's your own! If you're Edward then you had better start calling me Roger!"
For some reason quite unknown to me, this earned a chorus of laughter from the animals in the room.
"Well," I said, the moment it died down. "Names aside, would any of you be so kind as to explain why on earth I can't move my legs!"
A bird perched atop a bookcase made a cooing sound. "Oh, of course. Where are our manners? This is the Arnold's house. Well, one of their houses. Some of us have been around since a place much different from this, but the owners are just the same. Jim, whom you've met, has quite a talent in making all of us. Yes, that's right, he makes us with his own two hands. We all felt terrible watching your legs get done... that seemed to go on forever! Regardless, he makes us, polishes us from time to time and then we all sit here together... day in and day out."
There was a long pause, in which it was unclear if they were waiting for me to speak or if they were just giving me time to digest. Carved? From wood? For... for what? To sit around in some room... of a complete stranger!
It was a lot to process, especially when it did not feel possible at all. "But how can I be made of wood! I can feel it in my bones, that I am a living, breathing wombat!"
"Of courrrse you feel that way," purred a cat to my left. "Jim is no amateurrr. We are all based off real animals, and we have those animals in our core. But the reality, no matter which way you look at it, is that we are made of wood."
"But why?" the cat asked. "You want to know why we were chopped and sliced into existence?"
"Yes!" I cried, making no attempt to hide the desperation in my voice.
"Well... I've been around for years. I have lots of time to turn that question over and over in my mind. But the end of the day, your guess is as good as mine."
In the wake of our conversation, it seemed I was left with more questions than answers. But as the light in the room slowly faded and night set in, it seemed no matter how much I willed my legs to move, their words were true. Though I could feel the fur coat on my back, it didn't change the reality that I was made of wood.
One morning, weeks later, the woman came into the room and picked me up. I was turned over in her small hands. Being in her presence always washed me in calmness, her peculiar nature was unlike anything I had known. After regarding me for a few moments, brushing off dust here and there, she carried me from the room for my first glimpse at what the other animals had told me was "the house."
I was placed beside a cluster of eggs in a striking array of colours. A sky blue egg, in particular, caught my eye, for I hadn't the slightest inclination as to its owner species! But that was not the only bizarre arrangement around me. Everything in the space was so foreign I had no idea how to process it all. But, as the days bore on, it became clear I had more than enough time to wrap my head around it. Morning came, and with it, cups of tea, newspapers, quiz questions. Books were picked up and put down. Together, Molly and Jim would stare at moving pictures on a giant portal, Jim wearing some obscure headgear that covered his ears.
And though I had no idea why I was brought into this world, what my purpose was, I became content being a silent observer of their comings and goings. I loved being admired by others who entered the room, who would see me for the first time, pick me up, and remark that I was indeed a wombat!
There was something alienating about being unable to act on my natural instincts and burrow myself away as I knew I would have elsewhere, given I had some grass and the movement that felt natural to me. But there was some solace in being a wombat in a new setting. In having my keen sense of smell but being exposed to a whole new pallet of scents. The food they ate, it was so different to the grass I craved! It all became so amusing to me, as the cat in office had assured me weeks ago.
"After all my years here, I can tell you, it does grow on you, being able to see the lives of these humans."
And though I had been highly sceptical of this at the time, it was true that their lives and mine had seemed—to me at least—come into something of a harmony. Day or night, I was there, and happily so.
"Thanks very much, I'll see you in two weeks, Dad?"
Jim nodded in agreement, then added, "and don't forget the wombat for Manue."
"Oh of course," said the black-haired man, David, as he made his way over to me. Before I knew it, his hand closed over me, and I was stowed into the pocket of his jacket, swallowed entirely by the darkness once more.
Since the day I was made, a number of years had passed. I had watched birthday presents be opened, grandchildren come and go for lunches, Christmas dinners be planned, and more library books be brought home than seemed humanly possible. But never in all my years had I imagined this life I so took for granted be snubbed out in seconds. Movement, doors opened and closed, and suddenly I was removed from David's pocket, and he shuffled around cups until I was placed in a weird plastic ditch in what I knew from prior conversations could only be described as a "car".
The car roared to life and I could just see out the window, Molly and Jim waving goodbye. As David waved, I felt cheated as their goodbye had seemed to be for me. How could they?
Where I had once long ago felt resentment for Jim, as I identified his as the cause of my pain at the beginning of my life, the bitterness had grown to great admiration after watching him bring to life so many other wooden animals. His craft was not an easy one, and it took time, consideration, planning, trial and error. I learned that I was not the first wombat he had attempted, and my life marked some kind of sense of success; I was the chosen one. I was brought into this world, of all of the others who could have been in my place, it was me! And now, here I was, with his youngest son, seated beside a steel take away coffee cup. I could not make sense of it.
At least for once, I had time to observe this man. His nose reminded me somewhat of Molly's, with the slight hook at its end. But the shape of his head and ears struck me as Jim through and thorough, that it was as though I was looking through a portal in time. He was a heavy breather, and his brown eyes behind his glasses seemed kind enough. We sat in silence at first, before his mobile communicator began to buzz and a conversation took place in the car with someone who wasn't there.
"Hey, Reldi Peldi!" David called.
"Hey dad, how are you?" asked a somewhat familiar voice.
"I'm gooo-ooo-ood," he sung in reply. "Just on my way home from Nanna and Papa's."
"Oh cool, how are they?" replied the person.
"Yes, they're good. Just had an appointment to go to with Papa, and he's given me a small animal to pass onto you."
"Ah, no way—that's so cool!" Something about the overuse of the word "cool" gave me the inclination that David was speaking to one of the grandchildren of Molly and Jim. "I can't wait to see it! And I need to see you soon to dad, I've been feeling so all over the place."
"Oh, what's going on?"
"I had Mona's funeral just the other week. I'm really glad I've had it because, you know, her parents were just so amazing... and the speeches were really beautiful to hear and I guess there is a sense of closure but... I don't know I just feel like I'm waiting for someone to stop everything and say it was all just some kind of joke and that Mona's actually okay and I just want... I want everything to go back to normal."
The word funeral stood out to me because I had heard it in conversation before, and I knew it to be a human ceremony when someone passes away. But the idea of one of the grandchildren having a funeral to go to seemed so strange! Especially when it sounded like it was one for one of their own, young friends.
My life seems to follow a pattern of resentment turning to appreciation, but I have to say, the animosity I was feeling towards David for hauling me away from the life I so adored completely evaporated when I heard the way he counselled the person. When they hung up, their voice sounded so much more assured, and the way they said thank you on the phone spoke volumes on their relationship, that there was some kind of support that was woven into their words that a mere one-time-eavesdropper could not grasp.
Darkness again. In the pocket of David, I felt quite at home, like I was in a burrow of my own. Voices, one, and then two. Conversation. Laughter, a hug and then David, "Oh, here he is!"
I was grabbed and placed in the palms of someone I knew to be Manue.
"Oh! Yes! I love this guy so much, yay!"
"Just make sure you remember to say thank you to Papa."
I was walked into a room unlike anything I had known before, and placed on a shelf that wrapped around a wooden lamp. From the shape, the smell and the style, I knew this lamp immediately to be a Jim Arnold original.
And so, from my home of other wooden animals and ceramic eggs, I found myself in a new place, of new smells. There were other animals on a bookcase, but they were plush and soft looking, the colours of their fur all wrong. Then, to my delight, I noticed a family of deer, nestled atop a dresser!
"Hello!" I called over.
"Well hello there," replied the doe.
"Welcome indeed!" called the stag and the small fawn curled up hollered as well.
"We always wondered if we would see anyone else from Jim's place over here," added the doe.
"Well you have no idea how happy I am to see you," I replied. "I had had no clue what to expect, and this place definitely doesn't match anything in my imagination."
They laughed knowingly. "Of course," said the stag. "This is Manue's room, they're the third child of David. We've been living with them ever since they were little!"
The room around me was not that of a child's though. I could see three bookcases lined up, overflowing with books of all shapes and sizes. There was a tub of records besides a record player, a huge stack of journals, and a very modern and small looking computer on the desk. So I settled in, finally unafraid of my future. For, after all, I was with family.
The coming weeks were very eye-opening for me—and this is coming from someone who has their eyes open constantly.
I had often wondered, in my seemingly endless hours, what my purpose was. Sitting in Jim's house, atop desks, dressers and tables, I had felt robbed at times of my ability to act on instinct and burrow away. So I had assumed my purpose had been something to do with being a wombat that was visible. Something to do with being seen, as a way to bring animals into the lives of Jim and Molly without actually having to have a wombat fussing about their house.
Yet the time I spent with Manue shifted my perspective entirely. It started on the second day I was there. They picked me up and turned me around in their hands, and I could feel them admiring—as human's so often did—the smoothness of my back. Although they were slightly different shades, their eyes reminded me of Molly's for their blueness, and I felt myself relax under their gaze. But suddenly, I was taken from the room and walked through the house, to be placed in the hands of strangers. Three of them, seated on a couch.
"Oh my god!" cried a redhead girl. "He's so sweet!"
"No way," said a young man with black hair. "Did your grandad really make him?"
"Yeah!" Replied Manue, their voice ripe with enthusiasm to counter his disbelief. "He has so many other's at his place and he makes them all based on pictures and stuff. I literally have no idea how he does it but it's just so cool!"
All three of the strangers at this point agreed that it was, indeed, "so cool."
And that was just the beginning. Over the next few weeks, whenever Manue had anyone over to visit, I knew it was only a matter of time before I was showed off in this fashion. Here, it felt like my purpose was finally understood.
From the pride in their voice owing to the fact that their grandfather had moulded me from scratch, to the excitement in their eyes every time they looked at me, I finally saw that I was a part of something much bigger and complex than myself. For there I was, in a room so far from the place I was born, with people I'd barely known, being admired and passed between hands with the utmost respect. It was in these moments that I felt like the wood of my body was more akin to gold. For in their hands, I was a small treasure. Simply by my nature, having been crafted by Jim, brought smiles to all who laid eyes on me.
I wasn't sure how long my life was to be, but I just knew that this was the kind of life worth living.