Dudley opened his eyes. The air had an early morning crispness to it, but a slash of sunlight warmed his face. He was on his back, looking up at a blue sky. He lay still, listening. The last thing he remembered was holding Flossie’s hand and jumping into a black hole. It wasn’t what he would have chosen to do, but the others seemed to think it was a good idea. And Flossie was with him.
He turned his head from one side to the other. Just grass in both directions. It tickled his ears.
“Ah... hello?” he said quietly. He didn’t know where he was or who was about, but he had learned to be cautious at all times, especially when he was in the middle of nowhere. Bad idea to draw attention to oneself.
He slowly sat up. He was in a clearing with trees not too far away. He couldn’t see anyone else. He couldn’t see Flossie. He was suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that the others had made it home, and for some inexplicable reason, he had been left behind. Cast into the wild waters of the universe to be washed up he didn’t know where.
The unfairness of it all brought stinging tears to his eyes. That wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all. No point giving into the wobbles while there was still hope. They could be close by, waiting for him.
The sound of splashing water behind him made him freeze, his eyes sliding as far to the left without moving his head. He couldn’t see anything, or anyone.
More splashing, and then a very quiet, almost giggly, “Wa hooo.”
Dudley threw himself back into a horizontal position. He rolled onto his front and peered through the grass.
On the far side of the clearing was a pool of water. It was large, like a lake. In the middle was a small island, but that wasn’t the only think in the water. An ogre.
Was he back in Flatland? If he had been returned to this place, then at least he had some idea of what to expect and where to go. But he also knew how dangerous it was. There were many wild beasts that could kill him, and ogres were high on that list.
It hadn’t seen him. As far as he could tell, it was bathing. Splashing water over itself while crooning, “wa hoo,” over and over.
It was big, although, if memory served, not as big as some of the ogres he’d encountered before. Big enough, though. It had a thick mat of reddish-brown hair all over its body that glistened as water poured over it, reminding him oddly of Flossie and he felt a sharp pang of loss.
It quickly transformed into concern. If she was around here, he had to get to her before she ran into one of these creatures.
His resolve was stiffened by the thought of Flossie in peril; he began shuffling backwards on his stomach. If he could get to the trees without being seen, he might be able to avoid any unpleasantness. It was slow going and his breath was already becoming laboured. His skin was covered in a film of sweat and the grass was itchy. He desperately wanted to sneeze.
The ogre didn’t seem interested in his part of the clearing. It had its back to him which gave him the confidence to get up onto all fours and rapidly crawl toward the treeline.
He was almost there when he saw them. Dozens of eyes watching him from the shaded woods. Rabbits. Rabbits with horns.
They were still as statues, some up on their haunches, others crouched like they were preparing to pounce. None of them were moving as much as a whisker. All had their beady eyes on him.
Dudley matched their stillness. He could back up and try to make it to the other side, assuming they didn’t decide to launch an offensive. They could easily outflank him and with the ogre blocking off his only other escape route, it would be a worse massacre than Hannibal’s slaughter of the Romans at Cannae.
Sweat was now dripping from his nose. He ever so slowly shifted one leg backwards and then stopped, his leg cocked like one of his father’s hounds about to relieve itself. The splashing had gotten louder and more intense. He glanced in that direction and saw the ogre getting out of the pool, water falling from its fur in cascades.
There was no choice now. He scuttled forward, into the ring of bunnicorns.
The horned rodents scampered away from him. He made it to a tree and sat down with his back to the trunk. He held his breath. There was the sound of the ogre moving around, making various grunting noises, but he had got away without being seen. Not by the ogre.
The bunnicorns had retreated into the trees a little, then stopped and edged closer. Their horns looked sharp and unfriendly.
Dudley slowly let out his breath. He didn’t know what to do. He peeked over his shoulder and darted his head back behind the tree. The ogre had been facing in his direction, but he was fairly sure he hadn’t been spotted.
This ogre didn’t look like the others he’d seen. Squatter, fatter, bigger eyes, a smaller nose. Could this be a youngster? Perhaps one not fully versed in the art of killing? It was something to hang his hopes on.
The bunnicorns were closing in now. They sniffed and snuffled as they got closer.
Dudley considered jumping up and running pell-mell into the woods. He remembered the last time he and the others had run through a forest, chased by bunnicorns. It was not a happy memory. Then, they had escaped by jumping into a body of water. Here, the water was the one direction he couldn’t run in. Who knew what was ahead of him? More trees, probably.
What would Colin do? Probably come up with a completely unfeasible stratagem, and then somehow make it a success. How he wished he had a little of that boy’s acumen.
He risked another peek around the tree trunk. The ogre was sitting by the edge of the water. If it went away about its business, he might have a chance, but it seemed to be sunning itself.
The bunnicorns were now all around him, close enough to touch. He daren’t move or make a sound. They began nibbling at his clothes. They appeared to like the taste as more joined in.
Not wanting to alert the ogre to his presence, and not wanting to upset the bunnicorns, Dudley took off his jacket and tossed it away. The bunnicorns pounced on the jacket, but before he could leave his post, more bunnicorns encircled him.
The stratagem now appeared straightforward. He removed an item of clothing and tossed it aside. The bunnicorns hopped away eagerly, but every time he tried to get up, more bunnicorns appeared, until finally he was naked with rabbits nibbling at his underwear.
He had no choice, he would have to abandon caution and run for it. There was no shame in it, Dunkirk and all that. It wasn’t retreating, it was advancing in a different direction.
His underpants were dragged from him. He let them go. The fewer bunnicorns free to give chase the better. This was no time to be bashful. A nude man in a forest was nothing out of the ordinary. He used to see them all the time in the woods around the edge of his school. Mr Garrity, the gym master, in particular.
Dudley, naked as the day he was born, sat up into a squat. He scanned the dim interior of the forest, looking for the easiest route through the trees. He felt a deeper shadow fall across his back. He didn’t have to look up to know what was behind him. No time to run, no chance to outdistance an ogre. He fell onto all fours and began hopping.
He snuffled the ground and nudged up against the bunnicorns. He thought bunnicorn thoughts and tried to exude bunnyness through his pores. Ogres, by all accounts, weren’t that smart. If he could just merge with the general population, perhaps—
He felt a large, hairy paw close around his middle and he was plucked off the ground. Another hand was placed under him as he was lifted into the air. He remained firmly in the mindset of a bunnicorn. Immersion was everything. If only he had a horn of some kind to perfect the disguise.
He was twisted around and large, bestial eyes stared at him. The game was up.
If this was how it was to end, so be it. He would accept his fate without a heavy heart. He had loved, and loved well. He regretted not seeing Flossie one last time, but then he would have felt that regret wherever and whenever his end. He closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable.
He was shaken vigorously. His limbs, all closed in, were forced away from his body. He opened his eyes to find himself being examined, thoroughly. There were numerous ‘wa hooos’ at different volumes, provoked by different body parts. It was a mite embarrassing.
The ogre looked down and scattered the bunnicorns with a foot. It bent down, pulling Dudley into its chest as it did so, and picked up his clothes.
Then they were off, walking back into the clearing. Dudley was pinched under arm with no possibility of escape.
He had no idea where he was being taken. To a large cooking pot? That would seem to make taking his clothes somewhat redundant. If he was to be made prisoner, there was still hope. Surely his comrades would be looking for him. If they too had been brought back to this land, of course.
There was an opening in the wall of trees on the other side of the pool of water. It was like a large archway leading into the forest. They continued for a few minutes and Dudley began to hear the distinctive sounds of more ogres. Wa hooos of all varieties. His hope was quickly waning. He was in the hands of fate now.
They came into a large, open area, but still under a green canopy as larger trees touched branches overhead. There were three or four more ogres, it was hard to see from his clamped position, and one very, very large one.
That was who they were headed for. Once they reached what Dudley assumed was the leader, he was thrust forward, like a gift presented.
The large ogre looked confused if anything. Its profoundly ugly features creased together, the folds in the face forming interlocking ridges.
The two ogres, the smaller and the larger, batted ‘wa hooos’ back and forth. They appeared to be conversing. The subtle shifts in tone made him think of Mandarin, a language where tonal changes completely changed meaning. Uncle St. John had been fluent in Mandarin having worked for the British Consulate in Beijing, and had taught young Dudley various swear words.
But even if he could manage to exchange words with them, he only knew how to tell someone their anal sphincter resembled a chrysanthemum, and equally inappropriate phrases.
He was dropped to the ground rather unceremoniously as the two ogres began arguing, or so it seemed to Dudley. The other ogres had come closer, surrounding them, so there was no opportunity for him to get away.
As he watched, it became clear to him, the two ogres were both female. It hadn’t occurred to him before, but the way their bodies sagged and curved, there was a definite feminine quality to them. In fact all the ogres around him were female. It was interesting.
His ruminating was interrupted by a large crack. The larger ogre had slapped the smaller one in the face, knocking her to the ground. She sprang back up, defiantly sticking her head forward. The larger one raised her hand again.
“Stop!” called out Dudley. He didn’t know what possessed him to intervene, other than being unable to stand there allowing a woman to be struck. Even if it was a woman of a different species.
It was what Flossie would expect of him. What he expected of himself.
The large ogre had her hand still raised, but didn’t strike. She was glaring at Dudley. Then she turned her attention back to the smaller ogre and her hand began moving again.
Dudley jumped in front of the small ogre, barely coming up to her waist. He held both hands aloft. “Stop. Please.”
The large ogre’s mouth spread into what looked at first like a gruesome smile, but kept going until it had transformed into utter disbelief and then beyond that into something so incredulous it could barely remain on her face.
“There’s no need for violence,” Dudley implored the monster. “Please.”
He was hoisted up from behind, and then embraced. He was being cuddled like a baby. He began to suspect this was the reason he had been brought here. A new toy. A doll to dress up and play with.
Permission was being sought. And denied. The question was, how was he to negotiate his freedom?
He was yanked from the ogres grasp who let him go with a pitiful, “Wa hooooo.”
He was spun around to face the larger ogre who held him with one hand around his waist. She looked into his eyes with her huge orbs, like her gaze was drilling into his brain. He did his best to maintain eye contact, even though he wanted more than anything to turn away.
The ogre stuck out her other hand and pointed at the smaller ogre. “Wa hooo?”
He looked from one to the other. Was he being asked if he wanted to become her pet? What were his other options? Were there any? If he said no, would he be released or eaten?
The smaller ogre reached out and tried to grab him back, and received a sharp clip around the ear, nearly knocking her down again.
“Okay, yes, I agree,” shouted Dudley.
The large ogre pointed at the smaller one again. “Wa hooo?”
Dudley nodded. But the ogre didn’t seem to understand. She pointed again, thrusting her finger insistently. “Wa hooo?”
“Wa hooo?” tried Dudley. This only produced a look of utter bafflement. He was dropped on the ground. Not violently, but it still hurt a little.
The smaller ogre made to pick him up, but a short ,”Wa ho!” Stopped her in her tracks.
The big ogre started muttering under her breath. The other ogres joined in. It was still ‘wa hooo’, of course, but softer and more tuneful. A few moments later, from every direction, bunnicorns appeared. The big ogre bent down, hand outstretched, and closed her palm around the horn of one of them.
She lifted her hands up so the bunnicorn dangled below, and began rubbing her palms. The rabbit spun one way, then the other. Its long ears stuck out to the sides, spinning like helicopter blades. And then the bunnicorn dropped, hornless. It shook its head, a dark bruise the only evidence of something missing, and hopped away.
The ogre held the horn in one hand, and then took a bite out of it. She munched and then swallowed. She held out what was left of the horn for Dudley.
He gingerly took it from her. Was this some kind of peace pipe scenario? Was he expected to take a bite, too? He knew what the horn was. Nature was no stranger to him, but he still felt uncomfortable holding what was basically a penis. He felt even more uncomfortable eating it.
The ogre looked at him expectantly. It was like being presented a local delicacy by a foreign dignitary, he told himself. It would be rude to refuse. It was for Flossie.
None of these made it any easier, but he closed his eyes and bit off a chunk.
It was warm and fleshy. He chewed. It tasted a bit like chicken. It tasted more like a cock. He swallowed. He daren’t ask for something to wash it down with.
“Wa hooo?” asked the ogre.
“Dudley,” said Dudley. He had understood her. She had asked who he was. No, not exactly. More like what he was. It wasn’t so much a translation as connecting a meaning to a gesture. Like seeing someone wave and being able to tell if they were welcoming you or warning you away. It made his head spin. The taste in his mouth wasn’t helping.
“Dudley,” he repeated, pointing at himself.
“Duuuur,” said the big ogre.
“Dur. Dur. Dur,” said the smaller ogre, like she had something stuck in her throat.
“Wa hooo?” said the big ogre, pointing at the smaller one like before.
It was still difficult to understand her meaning, but something like ‘take care of’, or ‘look after’. Stand up for? That seemed closest.
“Yes,” said Dudley. “Wa hooo.”
“Wa hooo,” repeated the big ogre. “Yeeeees.”
They were communicating. Eating the horn had somehow enabled them to understand one another, if only at a very rudimentary level. His spirits lifted. They could come to some kind of compromise.
The large ogre tilted her head back and roared, “WA HOOO!” incredibly loudly. The others joined her.
The meaning was… a party? A celebration? Dudley wasn’t sure. Voices in the distance returned the call from all direction. Not just a celebration, something more. A… wedding?
Dudley understood all at once. He had agreed to marry the leader’s daughter. It was a great honour. There would be a great celebration and then a ceremony. He dropped the bunnicorn horn and looked around for an escape route, but he was picked up and hugged hard, and then passed around to be hugged more. He was naked and alone and there was only penis on the menu.
“Survive,” he muttered to himself. “I must survive for Flossie.”
He had done what he had to, for Flossie’s sake. Now his only hope was she would find him before it was too late. No, he was sure they would come. They had to. He would wait for them, and then never tell them what he’d had to do.
“For you, Flossie, I did it for you.”