“What do you mean, she’s different now?” asked Emily.
I sighed, this wasn’t how I wanted our coffee date to go. It was supposed to be a light catch-up, so we could talk about our jobs and our kids and just about anything but this.
But she’d asked me if I was planning on traveling anywhere, and it just came out.
“It’s hard to say. A lot of little things that maybe don’t add up to much,” I said, fiddling with the swizzle stick in my macchiato.
“She had a group of friends that would go to the movies every week, she barely goes now. She came to the family get-together two weeks ago, but she only stayed for about half an hour. She’s gotten into gardening and clean eating.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t sound like much.”
“I know, but she acts different, too. More reserved. I don’t know.”
An errant lock of hair had somehow escaped my messy bun, and the wind blew it into my face. I brushed it aside and tucked it behind my ear. Emily and I both felt more comfortable in the coffee shop’s outdoor area.
“Do you think you’ll go?” Emily took a sip of her chai latte.
“My branch of the family tree pretty much never does. My cousin was the first in a while. But Echart really wants me to come visit.”
“And Echart is your…dad’s cousin, right?”
“Second cousin, I think.”
“Well I’d say go if you want to,” Emily said. “The Interior is beautiful this time of year. I’d be worried if it seemed like your cousin joined a cult, but otherwise…”
I shook my head. “No, it’s nothing like that.”
“Have you asked your cousin what happened when she went to visit?”
“She just said if I wanted to know, I had to go there myself.”
“Well I’m not going,” I said. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”
My husband, Chris, handed me a plate to dry. It was part of a set we’d been given as a wedding present, an ugly grey print with some sort of animal on it. Rabbits or squirrels, I couldn’t tell. I’d hoped by now we would have broken enough of them to justify buying new plates, but they had proven annoyingly resilient.
“I mean, I can’t take an extra month off work,” I said.
“True,” said Chris. “Unless we didn’t go camping this year.”
“Then there’s the kids. Lily has track meets, and twins have their archery tournament. I can’t miss those.”
“Yup, we’re pretty busy. Except for the last weeks of June, and the first weeks of July.”
I threw my towel at him. “Do you want me to go?”
“No, of course not.” He planted a kiss on my forehead. “Unless that’s what you want.”
He handed me my towel back and we got on with the dishes. It wasn’t a prestigious task, but it did give us a chance to talk without the kids clamoring for our attention, since they all scattered after dinner lest they be roped into dish washing duty. We’d done dishes by hand by necessity after our dishwasher broke, and it had done so much for our communication we decided not to replace it.
“Do you think I should go?” I said.
“At this time, we can neither confirm nor deny…”
“I think if you really didn’t want to go we wouldn’t still be talking about it,” said Chris.
I sighed. What did it mean to want something?
I didn’t think I’d like visiting Echart and the others much. I remembered visiting with my parents as a child. It was awkward, the food was questionable, and their house smelled strange. It would be different as an adult, sure, but that didn’t mean it would be worth passing up our yearly camping trips.
I had always been something of a historian. Not in any kind of official or professional way, academia didn’t offer the kind of job security I was looking for back when I was making those sorts of decisions. But the origins of things fascinated me. Especially with the rise of reality TV shows about people’s ancestors.
My father’s side of the family were steadfastly uninterested in that sort of thing, so I’d never gotten far in my attempts at inter-generational sleuthing.
“Well, all right then. I’m going,” I said. “Now come here and kiss me properly.”
Echart’s town was tiny, and ridiculously out of the way. Just finding it was a challenge. After the turn off from the highway, I had to rely on the map he’d emailed to me. Inniswale literally was not on any map I could find, and even Google Earth apparently had never heard of it. In this day, and age, I found it hard to understand how that could happen, unless it was intentional.
The further I got from the highway, the more narrow and winding the road became, making my journey considerably longer than I anticipated. In this day of cars and airplanes whizzing around at hyperspeed, it’s hard to grasp the scale of places. But here it seemed, distance had begun to reassert itself, and I had the sensation of going back in time. Back to a time when the only relevant things that existed were me and the expanse of rolling hills and sagebrush around me, because whatever else existed couldn’t come save me if I needed it.
I was on my own in this strange knobby place, and if I couldn’t make it out here it would swallow me up without even really noticing I’d ever been there at all. So as the gas meter on my car began to run a bit low, I was rather relieved to start seeing signs of civilization. Including, eventually, a gas station.
It was a nowhere place, on the way to nowhere else, and so didn’t bother making the amenities accessible to anyone except the locals who already knew where everything was. I had to poke around a bit to find the gas station, and eventually came across it near what looked a like a hiking trailhead. In this case the convenience store seemed more like an inconvenience store, and I decided against going in.
It looked like the kind of place you would find pine needles on the floor, and strange insects buzzing around the windows. Anyway, more coffee would only add to my nerves.
At least it seemed there was a cell tower around somewhere, as my phone finally showed a few bars. So I was able to call Chris and confirm that I hadn’t managed to drive off the face of the earth yet.
“Traffic wasn’t bad at all. I’m just filling up, I think I should get there in about two hours or so,” I said.
“Okay, call me when you get there. I’ve got to go before the twins start a reenactment of the Lord of the Flies.” Chris’s voice came to me muffled and staticky through the lousy connection.
I laughed. “Alright, talk to you soon.”
I turned to walk back to my car and saw that a small elderly lady in a paisley cardigan had snuck up behind me. I nearly jumped out of my skin but managed a “hello” that didn’t quite sound like I’d swallowed my tongue.
“Are you lost, dear?” she said.
“No, just passing through.”
Her brow furrowed. “Oh? Where you headed?”
I gave her the name of the town and her eyebrows nearly reached her receding hairline.
“Oh. I see.” She turned and began to shuffle away.
“This is the right way to go for Inniswale, right?”
She glanced at me over her shoulder. “Yes, if Inniswale is where you’re trying to get to.” She turned away, and mumbled the next words to herself. “Whether that’s the right way to go is another matter entirely.”
I decided I would go into the convenience store and get a coffee. It would be my third that day, but I felt a little more fortification was necessary.
The coffee was a mistake. They didn’t have half-caf, but I felt like I should at least get some credit for having asked. Nevertheless, I was fully wired and in no way able to cope with what I found when I finally arrived in Inniswale. At first I thought I had gone the wrong way, that it was some kind of mistake.
A metal gate stretched across the road, bearing the sign “no motorized vehicles beyond this point.” Clearly, I had wandered onto the access road for a park, or private property. But no, another sign stood to the side of the road, next to the metal gate. A squat obelisk built of stones proudly bore a large copper sign that said “Welcome to Inniswale.”
I stared from one sign to the other. They couldn’t both be correct, could they? It didn’t seem possible, and yet they had both clearly been there for a long time, and couldn’t have been placed by accident.
A dirt road broke off to the right, and I wondered if maybe there was some way around this odd edict. But no, as my car crawled closer, I saw an array of parked cars through the thick tree canopy and underbrush. Some, judging by the quantity of dirt and forest debris collected on them, had evidently been there for a long time.
I was stuck. On the one hand, I had driven many miles to be here, and there were people expecting me. On the other, parking my car and continuing on foot was too bizarre to be the correct response. The sound of a horse-drawn buggy clip-clopping down the road interrupted my musing, though the quandary wasn’t resolved until I saw Echart lean out of the buggy’s cab and waved at me.
I waved back, and went to park my car, trying to normalize the situation in my mind. Inniswale is not an Amish or Mennonite town, or anything like that. But I had heard that quite a few people there preferred a low-tech lifestyle. Had this segment of the population managed to make bylaws enforcing their preferences?
Echart hadn’t said anything about it, but then I didn’t hear from him that often. Though one would think he’d have mentioned it after I said I would come visit.
After I parked, I lugged my suitcases towards the metal gate separating Inniswale from the rest of the world. Echart greeted me warmly and threw my bags in the back of the buggy. He was a tall beanpole of a man with a wizened face, and a strength that belied his years. The sparse mop of grey on his head was always slightly disheveled, and the white stubble on his chin made it look like he’d dipped the lower half of his face in sugar.
“Is this a new bylaw? This no cars thing,” I said.
“Oh no,” he said. “We do this every year. Sort of a tradition.”
“How long does it last?”
“It’ll last the month.”
“Is there something special about this month?”
“Yes.” A conspiratorial grin crossed his face. “Oh yes. But we’ll get to that later.”
We exchanged small talked as the buggy rattled into town. He asked how the drive had been. Long, but not bad. I asked what the horse’s name was. Bitterberry. Which I thought was odd, but didn’t say so. Aren’t bitter berries usually poisonous?
We drew to a stop at maybe the second drive way we’d come to. I wondered if we’d arrived already.
“Hold on,” Echart said. “I won’t be a minute.”
As he walked up the drive I noticed a rabbit in a small cage, just beside the mailbox. Echart retrieved the cage, and put it in the back of the buggy on top of my bags.
“What’s that about?” I asked.
“Some of the townspeople like to keep up the old ways,” he said.
I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t.
We picked up three more rabbits before the end.
“So, what happens to the rabbits?” I asked.
“The same thing that happens to all of us,” he said cheerfully.
Now unsettled on many levels, I held my hands in my lap and fiddled with my wedding ring. The coffee was most definitely a mistake. I had to pee so bad. I hoped indoor plumbing wasn’t verboten this month as well as cars.
For the rest of the buggy ride, I avoided looking at the rabbits in their little cages. What old ways, exactly, were the townspeople following? And why did they all ban cars for a whole month?
Not a proper month, really. The last two weeks of June and the first of July, because that’s when I said I could come visit. A chill came over me.
No it couldn’t be. Surely, they did this every June. It had nothing to do with me.
Instead of the rabbits, I focused on the rear end of the horse pulling the buggy. It was round and speckled white, and as pleasant as could be expected. It was also puzzling. Nobody said anything about this before I came here. I mean, we all knew Echart’s side of the family was weird. They don’t like technology. They spend too much time in the woods. Blah blah blah.
To me, all this seemed beyond the pale, and probably something I should have been told about before coming here. For this, and I still didn’t know what “this” was, I’d given up my full yearly allotment of vacation time. I decided I was far too much of a people pleaser, and really needed to learn to say no.
The front yard of Echart’s home was as large as most lots in my neighborhood, and a plethora of my distant relations milled about under the great umbrellas of trees. Packs of children ran around the shrubberies.
As we meandered up the drive towards the house, they were drawn to us as if by magnetic attraction. Older children fetched the rabbits from the back seat of the buggy, cooing and exclaiming over them. Others grabbed my bags. Me carrying them myself was out of the question.
A crowd of cousins of various kinds escorted me to the front door, our procession led by an eager older lady puffing under the weight of my bags. Voices gabbled around me as I was introduced to more names and faces than I could possibly remember.
The house was sprawling and old. The hardwood floors protested with the weight of feet upon it, but thankfully people had started to drift away from the procession, and back to whatever they were doing as the novelty of my arrival lost its luster.
Once we arrived at my room everyone cleared out and left me alone for a bit so I could freshen up and what not. I didn’t stay up there long. Everything was poufy and flower-print, and I felt if I stayed there too long the vines on the wallpaper would come to life and strangle me.
I went downstairs, and then out into the backyard where everyone seemed to be hanging out. Echart’s wife, Maria, found me a chair in the shade and plied me with sugar cookies and lemonade.
Large rabbit hutches were stacked up against the house, which at least solved the mystery of where the rabbits had gone for the time being. The hutches were decorated with ribbons and the children fed the rabbits flowers through the wire mesh.
A petite woman with a shoulder-length bob sat down in the wicker chair next to me. “Hi, I’m Anna,” she said. “I’m one of the other…visitors.”
“Oh. So this is a thing, then,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure everything is a thing.” Anna giggled.
“But you know what I mean. An event. It’s not just me visiting, for reasons.”
“Yeah. I think there’s about five of us.”
“So are you on Echart’s side of the family, or…”
“I’m not. Actually I think maybe one of my uncle’s married Echart’s cousin. But no, I’m from one of the other Innswale ‘old families’.”
“Oh, okay. I guess this is more of a thing than I thought.”
“I know, right? The secrecy is crazy. I tell you though, if we’re being inducted into a cult or something, I’m out of here.”
“Yup, I’ll be right behind you.” I took a sip of my lemonade. “Hey, do you know what’s with the rabbits?”
“No. There’s something with the rabbits?”
“People just left them by their mailboxes for us to pick up.”
Anna had opted for the pink lemonade, spiked with raspberry cordial.
“The car thing is a pain, though,” she said.
“Oh yeah. Do they do that every June?”
“Different times. Depending on when it works for people to come.”
“It’s for us? It can’t be for us. That’s crazy.”
“It is, but it’s true.”
Anna shrugged and nibbled on a sugar cookie. “I guess we’ll find out.”
I never sleep well the first night in a new environment, and this place seemed designed to enhance that unfortunate situation.
The sounds outside were all wrong. Since it was summer, the sun was out until late, and so the children all felt the need to be running around screaming until the last vestiges of daylight were well and truly gone. When they did, however, it got way too quiet.
Apparently the sounds of the children playing had been scaring away various forest creatures who then came out and began making ungodly noises, particularly just as I was about to fall asleep. Not loudly, you understand, and not quietly enough to go unnoticed. Just the right sound level that forced me to listen for them in case they ended up being as threatening as they sounded.
The floral wallpaper and other poufy accents did not look any less overpowering and sinister in the dark, but I had my sleeping mask on so this didn’t bother me too much. The bed, however, was another matter.
It was incredibly soft, which I liked at first, and burrowed into the pillowy mattress. After a while, though, I started to feel as though I would sink into it and be lost forever if I didn’t lie stiffly still.
Despite all this, I could possibly have drifted off into an uneasy sleep, if I hadn’t gotten hungry. It wasn’t the hunger itself, so much as the internal debate it inspired. Before I retired to bed for the night, Maria told me that there were plenty of cookies left, and cherry cobbler in the fridge, and I was encouraged to avail myself of these provisions should I get peckish in the night.
Despite this invitation, obviously it was impossible for me to do so. Creeping around in the dark in a near stranger’s house for the purpose of poking around in their kitchen was rude and out of the question, notwithstanding the fact that I’d been told to do exactly that if it suited me.
But I really wanted some cherry cobbler, and I’d been told I could get some. Wasn’t this the Truth? Wasn’t my reluctance to go downstairs a product of my overly timid nature? And wasn’t it this very timidity that led me to accept Echart’s invitation and got me stuck out here in the first place?
True, I’d been curious as well, but now that I was here, curiosity didn’t seem like a valid reason to have come. And it was certainly politeness, if not timidity, that kept me from hauling my butt back home at the earliest opportunity.
I decided I had to go get some cherry cobbler. It might be a very small step toward regaining control of my life, but it was a step nonetheless.
When the first step I took out of my room and into the hall produced an enormous squeak, I realized obtaining cherry cobbler was going to be even more fraught than I imagined, and almost turned back. But I pressed on, determined not to be put off by talkative floorboards.
As I picked my way down the hall, and then the stairs, I noticed something odd about the wallpaper. The main pattern was a black floral print on a silvery background, and in the moonlight streaming in from the windows, I noticed the negative space between the floral motifs resembled a rabbit. Maybe two rabbits. Or one rabbit with wings.
Why all the rabbits? I shook my head and continued down the stairs.
The kitchen, I believed, was to my left. I knew it was next to the dining room, through which one traveled to get to the sliding patio door. But I knew this less because I remembered where I’d gone earlier, and more because the sounds of snoring clearly indicated that the first-floor spare bedrooms were located to my right.
The first floor was mercifully carpeted, and allowed me to pad stealthily towards the kitchen. Rationally, of course, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world if someone heard me getting a night-time snack, but I have never claimed to be rational. Besides, if it really would have been the end of the world I wouldn’t have attempted getting a snack in the first place.
Just as I was about to enter the kitchen, I caught a flicker of movement in the corner of my eye, from within the dining room. My instincts suggested it might be a lashing tail, or a particularly athletic snake, but my rational mind countered with the possibility of a tree branch being blown around on the other side of the patio doors. I turned to glance into the dining room and resolve the issue.
Two glowing eyes stared back at me.
I scooted into the kitchen and ducked behind the slightly protruding refrigerator. In a moment or two, I calmed down enough to decide that I had probably just seen a reflection off the glass vase on the dining table or something else equally innocuous. I was far too jumpy.
But hadn’t those eyes been attached to a dark figure? No, that was just my mind reinterpreting ordinary shadows to lend context to what I thought I’d seen. And no, I was not going to check. The probability of an actual menacing form with glowing eyes standing in the dining room was far too low to justify delaying the consumption of cherry cobbler, and besides, in the unlikely event there was something in the dining room, going to look at it would only hasten my inevitable demise.
I quietly pried the refrigerator door open, and spotted a mostly-empty pan of cobbler. What was left could have been cut into two smallish pieces, or it could be a single quite large piece. I decided on the latter, to avoid having to search out a plate. This way, I only had to find a fork.
Plus, as I picked at the cobbler with the fork in one hand, while hefting the pan with another, the heavy ceramic pan would do quite well to stun an intruder if necessary.
Light blinded my eyes as someone flicked the kitchen light switch.
I started and immediately choked on the bite of cobbler in my mouth.
Maria hurried over to me and swiftly produced a glass of water with which to wash down the offending dessert.
“So sorry, my dear. I didn’t mean to startled you,” she said.
“That’s alright,” I croaked.
“Would you like some ice cream on that?” she asked.
I nodded, feeling rather childish.
When I woke up I could already smell breakfast cooking and hear the clamor of my hosts, the four other house guests, and what turned out to be another half-dozen people who’d just dropped by for breakfast.
I got lost in the shuffle, and nobody mentioned the cherry cobbler incident, or anything that came with it. I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed about this or not. Part of me would have liked to discuss it, but I wasn’t really sure it would help. What was there to discuss, really?
I was halfway through a strawberry waffle when Anna mostly-politely shoved aside one of my second cousins and plopped down on the bench beside me.
“Hey,” she said. “Apparently something’s going on this evening that requires a metric butt-ton of ribbons. Want to go into town with me to get them?”
“Sure,” I said.
Despite the warning about the quantity of ribbons required, I was nevertheless surprised when Anna showed up with a wheelbarrow. Or something like it. It was less awkward than a wheelbarrow, perhaps one could call it a handcart.
“Really?” I said. “We couldn’t just carry them in bags or something?”
“Oh, we’ll do that too. We need all the ribbons,” Anna said. “I mean literally, all of them. The general store made a special bulk order just for us.”
“Wow,” I said.
We trundled the handcart down the street in companionable silence for a while. I noticed Anna’s multitude of charm bracelets, which reminded me of the ones popular girls usually wore at my high school. Somehow this got me off on a mental tangent about the differences between younger and older millennials and wondering whether or not Anna saw me as one of her own generation or essentially a younger version of her parents.
I mean, it wasn’t like because I was older and had kids I was suddenly a member of a different species. And then, I suppose I didn’t really know whether or not Anna did have children, but she was undeniably younger and certainly had that irresponsible, unencumbered “single” air about her.
“Did you notice anything…weird…last night?” said Anna.
“What? Oh,” I said. “Did you?”
I hadn’t actually answered her question, but then I wasn’t sure what the answer should be. Strictly speaking, the answer was yes, but I wasn’t sure what I’d seen was actually significant. But if we started discussing it, I knew it could start to seem significant whether it really was or not.
“Yes,” she said. “I think so. My great-aunt’s house doesn’t have indoor plumbing, lucky me-“
“You’d think there would be building code violations along with that.”
“Right? Personally, I think she pays protection against inspectors to the family of hedgehogs that live under the porch. Those things are ornery,” she said. “Anyway, I had to go outside last night and I saw something. I mean, it could have been a deer or a coyote, but I swear it was walking on two legs.”
“What did it look like?”
“Well I saw a kind of upright silhouette, and the glowing eyes with reflective light like pets have in camera flash.”
I inwardly cringed. “And a long tail?”
“Maybe. That or it waved at me, and I don’t know which concerns me more.”
I nodded and looked down at the handcart.
“So, did you see something?” Anna said.
“Possibly. I got up to get a snack last night. I thought I saw shining eyes and a long waving tail when I glanced into the dining room, but it could have just been something shiny and a tree branch waving outside.”
“Wait, what you saw was inside the dining room?”
“Or outside on the porch, maybe. If I saw anything at all. I mean, it’s so easy to get carried away with these things. Just think about all the people who’ve seen bigfoot.”
“Oh totally. Especially since this place actually is weird. But who knows.”
“I guess we’ll have to keep our eyes open.”
The trip into town to get the ribbons was…interesting, to say the least. We got a lot of stares and people whispered to each other, and otherwise acted weird. But it wasn’t the sort of attention you’d expect to get wheeling an ungodly amount of black, yellow, and red ribbons in a handcart down Main Street.
People seemed excited to see the preparations, for what I didn’t know yet. A few even came up to us and asked to touch the ribbons. We said yes; I couldn’t what harm that would do. Some even tried to inconspicuously follow us for a while, pretending they happened to be on their own errands in the same direction we were headed. Thankfully, they gave up on that once we turned onto a residential road.
“So, what do you think are the options of where this could be going?” said Anna. “Say this was a movie, what would you expect would happen?”
“Oh boy, nowhere good.” I said. “There’s definitely a monster in the forest.”
“For sure. And this event tonight doesn’t bode well.”
“No, not at all. I usually don’t watch movies with culty things in them.”
“You’re thinking about Midsommar, aren’t you?”
“Trying not to,” I said. “But regardless of the ribbons, we know this really isn’t a cult. Even though if it was a movie it totally would be anyway. And we know that the participants don’t die. They don’t even warn other people against going. At least not the ones I’ve talked to.”
“They could be imposters.”
“Yeah, but in a movie though. I don’t think that’s what really happened.”
“That would be a little far-fetched.”
“Another thing, though. When I asked about the rabbits, Echart said that what happens to them happens to all of us. But I don’t think that means death, because we know the participants in this don’t die.”
“Unless he meant all of us, eventually.”
“Maybe, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what they’re for. I don’t think the adults would encourage the kids to be playing with them and getting attached to them if that was the case.”
“Then what does it mean?”
“I have no idea.”
We trundled along in silence for a while, and I stared at the ribbons. This conversation had not made me feel any better about what was going on.
“Well, what if it wasn’t a horror movie?”
I shrugged. “Then it’s a weird artsy flick and we’re going to get married to the thing in the forest. Or the rabbits.”
Despite my misgivings I found myself enjoying the festivities that evening. Anna and I, as well as several others, made sure the entire backyard was strewn, festooned, bedizened, decked, and otherwise decorated with the ribbons. I found that several of my distant relations, at the least the ones who had shown up to help with decorating, were lively and interesting people. We were well-supplied with lemonade and cookies, which didn’t hurt either.
Decorating transitioned into the festival itself without any noticeable increase in creepiness; the last of those who showed up to help decorate became the first proper attendees as we finished putting up the ribbons, and somebody started playing lively guitar music near a giant stack of wood that would later become a bonfire.
The folk music they played a bit quirky, but I liked it. Anna and I attempted to do some of the folk dances the older people were performing. The results were at least entertaining, if not very graceful.
We had dinner afterward, which mostly consisted of hearty salads and mashed root vegetables, but I didn’t mind. It was good and there was lots of it. During dinner the sun went down and somebody lit the bonfire. The music continued, with more subdued tempos more suited to eating.
After dessert (which was not carrot cake, mind you; it was some kind of cream tart with rose petal jam on top. I thought it tasted a bit like soap) all of the out-of-town people gathered in front of the bonfire to receive an overnight pack, containing a lantern, a tent, a sleeping bag, and some snacks. And a rabbit.
“What’s the rabbit for?” I asked my great-aunt Marie.
She smiled as she handed me the little hutch. The rabbit inside was a peachy-tan color with a white underbelly and white socks on its front feet.
“A little companion for your overnight stay in the forest. You’ll have a party together.”
“It’ll become clear at the time.”
I wandered off to stand next to the two participants who’d already gotten their packs and their rabbits. Anna was next in line and she scooted next to me to wait for the last three.
“So,” she said. “Do you think this was what your uncle Echart meant? About what happens to the rabbits?”
“That we all go on a sleepover in the woods? Maybe.”
“But there’s more than six rabbits in the hutch.”
“Maybe some of the rabbits just live here, and don’t go on the sleepovers.”
Anna’s rabbit was mostly black with white patches on its face and ears. The rabbits had ribbons tied around their necks, the same black, orange, and yellow ribbons me and Anna had brought from the store earlier that day. The black ribbon nearly blended in with the rabbit’s fur but the others stood out like fire. The peachy fur of my rabbit didn’t match the ribbons nearly so well, but I thought it was cuter anyway.
When we’d all received our rabbits, Marie and Echart beamed at the us, the light from the lanterns they carried illuminating their faces. They didn’t look scary, exactly, but it was a fairly eerie effect.
“Well then. Let’s be off.”
With that, they set off down the ribbon-lined path into the forest, with the six of us in tow. I tried not to wonder how many of us would be returning in the morning.
I woke up at sunrise the next day in a disoriented muddle. Not only because I’d awoken in a tiny tent in the middle of the woods, but because I didn’t remember setting up the tent. Well, I guess in a sense I did, but only in the strange dream I’d had.
My rabbit sat on its haunches at the mouth of my tent, watching me. It had gotten out of its hutch. Which was really just as well, since it was now twice its original size, so the hutch would be a bit cramped now. I knew that should have seemed odd to me, but it didn’t. Not only was the rabbit larger, but it was leaner now, less bunny-shaped. It’s limbs were longer too, its front paws proportionally larger, and there was something different about its wrists. They seemed more mobile, like those on an animal that used its front paws to manipulate objects rather than only for locomotion.
I sat up, scooched forward, and gathered my rabbit into my lap. Her fur was warm and soft under my fingers.
Why didn’t this seem strange? I did remember why my rabbit looked like this, really, in the same way I remembered set up the tent after Marie left: in a dream. But that didn’t seem reasonable. Did I care what was reasonable? No, not really.
I tried to sort out the events in my head. Marie, my great-aunt, had left me in a small clearing with my tent, my pack and the rabbit. It was dark by then. Not too dark to pitch the tent, but dark enough that I felt highly motivated to be inside the tent before it got much darker. Thanks to my pack, I was equipped with both flashlight and lantern, so that helped, but only so much.
I immediately began to set up the tent, only to quickly realize I had drunk far too much lemonade, and urgently needed to use the facilities. However, my survival instincts were telling me that striking out along the path to the outhouse, flashlight notwithstanding, was a terrible idea and would almost certainly get me eaten by monsters or murdered by strange townspeople. Clearly, the best course of action was to pitch the tent, and then quickly fall asleep so I wouldn’t realize how badly I had to pee before sunrise.
It was sunrise now. Did I still have to pee? I did not. Not as much as last night anyway.
Ultimately, I had wasted a ridiculous amount of time alternating between trying to pitch the tent, and standing still thinking about how much more pleasant things would be if I quickly popped out to the outhouse and scurried back again. By the time I finally made up my mind, it was almost totally dark and the tent was barely half-finished. But in the end, I had to go.
I left the lantern, lit, at my campsite so I could find it again, and set off down the path with the flashlight. And the rabbit. I didn’t want to leave it behind in case a bobcat or wolf visited the campsite for a bedtime snack in my absence.
The outhouse was an uncomfortably long way from my campsite, but I found it eventually, and soon emerged, much relieved. Several paths led away into the dark woods, each equally unfamiliar. After circling the outhouse a few times, and possibly getting more mixed up than ever, I spotted the light from my campsite and headed towards it.
Or anyway, that’s what I thought it was. Because when I pushed through the trees towards the light, I found Marie standing in front of a pond. The light was her lantern, not mine. Then I realized I must be dreaming, because Marie’s eyes were glowing and a long cougar-like tail descended from her skirt and curled around her ankles.
“You can let the rabbit out of the hutch now,” she said.
“Right,” I said.
The fact that I was dreaming didn’t bother me. I’ve had a few lucid dreams before, but I’m not good at it. Somehow, even though I know I’m dreaming, I can never really make the dream do what I want it to. So I figured I would just go along with whatever bizarre scenario my brain had concocted.
I bent down, lowering the hutch to the ground, and let the rabbit out. The peachy colored bunny hopped out, sniffing the ground with the ritual caution of a domestic prey animal that has never encountered a predator.
Marie leaned down and offered the rabbit a deep purple carrot, the heirloom kind you can get at the supermarket, so I presumed. As the rabbit munched enthusiastically, rustling noises stirred in the bushes near the pond.
I shined my flashlight towards the pond and saw nearly two-dozen rabbits emerging from the bushes. Or at least they were more like rabbits than anything else. They came in many different colors. Some the natural brown to beige tones of wild rabbits, and some the white, black, grey or brown patterns of domestic rabbits. They did look like rabbits, only larger than they should be, and with slightly more human proportions.
Proportions that allowed them to, for instance, stand up on their hind legs and start dancing in a circle around the pond.
My rabbit watched them with interest, and soon hopped over to join them. It was clumsy at first, but soon got the hang of things at its proportions slowly changed to match the others. Since it was a dream, I saw nothing particularly alarming in this.
I was however a bit taken aback when I looked back to Marie and saw that she was holding a piece of carrot cake with dark purple icing.
“Now it’s your turn, dear,” she said. “Do you understand what this means?”
I didn’t. What could a piece of cake mean, in a dream or otherwise? However, I’ve had a number of dreams with cake in them, and I always deeply regret the instances when I don’t get around to eating the cake.
So I nodded and held out my hand.
“Are you sure?” she said.
Was I sure I wanted to eat cake? It wasn’t a particularly fraught question, particularly not in a dream when I didn’t even need to worry about what the excessive sugar would do to my body.
My brow furrowed. “Yes.”
Marie smiled broadly, as if I’d just announced that yes, I was sure I was going to follow in her footsteps into some deeply cherished career path.
The cake tasted unique. Quite floral for a carrot cake, but it was moist, perfectly spiced and the icing had just the right level of sweetness.
After that the dream sort of mixed with the memories I had about the festival earlier that evening. I remember dancing around the pond with the rabbits, and Ann and the others were there too.
Still, even though it had to be a dream, the next morning I still had to deal with the rabbit. She was still too big, and with distinctly bipedal proportions.
“Well,” I said. “I guess I just didn’t notice before, because it was dark.”
The rabbit tilted its head to one side and furrowed its brow.
I sat at the desk in my room. Even after spending a relatively short time in the room, I found the floral wallpaper no longer seemed excessive and cloying. Instead, it seemed abundant, thriving. I liked it.
The rabbit liked it too, I think, though my new furry companion still seemed concerned about me. I wished I could tell it not to bother. The whole thing had been a dream, after all. And if my rabbit was a bit different in the morning, well, for all I knew I was still dreaming.
I was tired though, which was odd, since the part about getting up in the middle of the night and having a party with dancing rabbits had all been a dream. But maybe the dream hadn’t been very restful. Maybe I would have a nap.
I squirmed on my seat. My clothing seemed to be bunching oddly at the base of my spine. In doing so, I turned and caught a glimpse of glowing eyes watching me from the mirror.
Startled, I jumped to my feet, and was no less alarmed when I realized I’d spotted my own reflection. My eyes reflected light back at me, like those of a cat or dog in low light. I tilted my head slowly back and forth.
Paranormal forest creature.
Trying to distract myself from the growing panic rising in my chest, I batted my hand at the base of my shirt, hoping to resolve whatever wardrobe malfunction was going on back there. What I felt was not clothing.
I turned my back to the mirror, lifted my shirt and hiked my pants down a bit. I had a tail.
Short and fluffy, like a bobcat’s.
“Marie?” I tried to keep my voice calm, but it quickly rose to a shriek. “Marie!“
My rabbit furrowed its brow again, and let out a low whistle.
“No, I am not okay,” I said.
Great-aunt Marie burst into the room. “What is it, dear?”
“What’s happening to me?”
“Lower your voice dear, you’re going to scare the other–“
“What is this?”
“Well, it’s coming in very nicely.”
“What did you do to me?”
Marie exchanged a glance with the rabbit, who chirped.
“My dear,” said Marie. “Don’t you remember what happened last night? You saw what the carrot did to…”
“Fritillary,” I said.
That was the rabbit’s name. I didn’t know how I knew that.
“Yes, Fritillary. I offered you the cake. I asked you if you understood what it meant.”
“I thought I was dreaming! How else would there be dancing rabbits?”
“You thought it was a dream?”
“Yes I did. Don’t look at me like that,” I said. “I think it was a perfectly reasonable assumption to make under the circumstances.”
“No one else has,” said Marie
“Well, I did.”
“I did ask you.” Marie wrung her hands a bit.
I sighed. “Would you please explain what’s going on? I’m not going to freak out.”
Or at least, I would resume freaking out at a more convenient time.
“Yes, I think I’d better.” Marie nodded. “We’ll have a cup of tea in the sitting room.”
“What’s in the tea?”
“Just cammomile, and a few herbs from the Old Country. It will help.”
“It won’t give me antlers or anything, will it?”
“Don’t be silly. You’re a lady. Nothing could give you antlers.”
“Right.” I followed Marie out into the hallway and down towards the sitting room.
I squirmed on the floral lazboy as my great-aunt Marie handed me a cup of tea. I still didn’t understand why I was growing a tail at all, never mind how to sit down with one comfortably. The first part, at least, I hoped Marie could help me with.
Marie settled down on the equally soft and floral chair across from me. Hers creaked when she sat down on it. “Well, where shall I start?”
I had so many questions. They flew around my head and blended into one another like the blobs in a hyperactive lava lamp. Why was this town so strange? What was with the rabbits? What was in that stuff Marie gave me, and my rabbit, if it was the same stuff? And perhaps most importantly, what had it done to me?
Finally I decided, we might as well begin at the beginning, or something close to it.
“What are we?” I said.
“Human,” said Marie. “Well, almost entirely human.”
“I see. And the other part?”
Marie picked up a picture frame from the side table. After gazing at it fondly for a few moments, she handed it to me.
The photo was a black-and-white of two solemn-faced women in old-timey plain dresses, with a young girl standing between them.
“As you may know our ancestors came over from Germany during the 1880s. Two of them are what we used to call wolpertingers, but now we usually just call them the ancestors or the elder folk. They are sisters and one of them — Marie-Annika — I was named after her, and she also brought her daughter Hannelore, who was half human.”
Marie reached out and tapped the young girl in the photo, indicating Hannelore.
They did look human. But their eyes were large and too round. Their noses were too small, and their ears were prominent and pointed. All of these fell within the range of normal human features, but taken together they produced something of an uncanny valley effect. Something was different about them.
Or was I just seeing it because I’d been told they weren’t human?
“Wolpertingers?” I said. “I’ve seen those on video games. They looked like squirrels with fangs and wings.”
Marie shrugged. “They are a diverse people. They usually take the form of various forest folk. But they can also take human form if they wish to.”
“Which is how a human and a wolpertinger could…get married.”
“It’s not very common of course. Marie-Annika and her sister are quite unusual in that regard.”
My brow furrowed. “Are unusual? Don’t you mean were?”
“Oh no, they’ve both remarried to humans.”
“They’re still here?”
“Yes. Well, not here. They live much longer than we do, of course. But they live in the Black Forest now, “Marie sighed. “They went back to the Fatherland to help rebuild after the Berlin wall came down.”
“As one does.”
“Things were going so well before this year, some of the townsfolk were wondering if they might come back. They’re revered in this town, as you might expect. But with the way things are going now…well, who knows.”
“So, the festival. What is it, exactly? What happened? You can tell me now, surely.”
“Echart does go a bit overboard with the mystery of it, but he likes. Normally people ask questions, and we explain it all at the pond.” She sighed. “When you didn’t, I thought someone had told you.”
Marie clasped her hands and brought them to her mouth a moment before continuing. “It is a celebration of our past, to put it simply. For one month we bring back the old ways our ancestors knew with the root from the Old Country. It changes us and our companions, so that for a little while we know something of their home.”
“Wiat, so this is temporary?”
“I suppose I should have mentioned that sooner. But what you have experienced is a great gift. I hope you realize that, even if your introduction to it was…unexpected.”
“Sure, it just..took me off guard. A carrot from Germany did all this?”
“No, leibchen. Not the Fatherland, the Old Country.”
“Do I want to know what that is?”
“Perhaps not. At least, not yet.”