Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Use your pen to explore a surrealist landscape. Allow your imagination to run free – everything is possible.
Zwerg, Spitz and Maus*
By Connie Phlipot
“I don’t like this name they call us. It’s derogatory on two counts.”
“How so?” asked Spitz.
“Pygmy denotes something inconsequential. And shrew is some nasty bitch in a boring Shakespeare play.”
“Zwerg, stop worrying and eat.”
“I just ate 10 ants and I’m bloated. I must weigh six grams by now.” Zwerg belched and toddled off to rest under a leaf.
Spitz spotted a larva wiggling down into a crack in a felled tree. He, too, felt stuffed but knew he soon would have to eat again. The clock on the poplar tree reminded him it had been nearly 20 minutes since he had ingested the ants. Mom had taught him to read the tree clocks. The angle of the large branches showed the hours, the twigs minutes, the stems of leaves the seconds. ‘You can’t trust your hunger,’ she’d said. Spitz didn’t understand that at the time. As a child, he was always starved, but now at a solid middle age of 8 months, he knew he sometimes got absorbed in listening to the mushrooms talking to the tree roots and before he knew it 10 minutes had gone by and he was feeling faint.
Reminiscing about his mother — she had succumbed to a brook trout last month — he lost sight of the larvae.
“Hey, you, you got my pedestal wet.”
Spitz hadn’t realized he was crying. This is how we shrews waste away, letting our emotions get ahold of us and miss nourishment opportunities.
“Sorry,” he said to the offended bracket mushroom.
“No, problem. Just remember we dissolve in salt water. But listen, look at that grub eating away at the edges of my gills. If you could capture them, we’d both be happy.”
Spitz salivated at the idea of a grub, right there for his taking. “But, I can’t eat a whole grub myself.”
“Mmm, I guess not. OUCH! God those bugs are nasty. Can’t you get your chums to help out? I mean there must be a thousand of you little guys right at the base of the tree.”
Mushrooms did exaggerate. But he was right, there was a good sized pygmy shrew population in this part of the woods. Also bracket mushrooms. They tended to immigrate from the old country to the same locations. How many times had his mother said, ‘Let’s get away from here to a place without so many bracketers despoiling the trees?’. Finally, they left their home in the western part of the forest and spent days journeying to the next clump of trees. Dodging hungry birds and snakes. Once an enormous white and black character with four legs and terrifying whiskers scooped up the whole family they were traveling with. He had been so shaken he could barely swallow a gnat. The new place was nice, though, he had to admit. Mom had found a log with an array of green umbrellas pushing their way through the decaying bark. He loved to rest underneath it after a meal of caterpillar with his siblings. But then, wouldn’t you know it, the mushrooms moved in, dragging their gills, sprinkling spores on the clean bark. Mom threatened to relocate again, but Pop said, ‘No. We’ve just got to learn to live with them.’
The bracket mushroom flapped his shelves. “I can telegraph the tree roots to tremble, that will get your colleagues running here. Then you all can attack the grubs. Win, win, right?”
You’d never think the mushrooms would be so clever, seeing how they grey so stiff and gnarly and smelled so musty. They were really good communicators, though. Spitz readily agreed to the plan. The mushroom started to vibrate, its gills swaying, the edges of the cap undulating. Then he felt a tingling in his feet. The tree roots were responding just as the mushroom said they would.
“What’s going on?” Zwerg was leading the pack of frightened shrews toward him.
Spitz pointed his paw at the base of the mushroom. Zwerg licked his lips at the sight. These grubs were enormous. Three of the shrews would be barely able to subdue a single one.
“Tie him up!” said the mushroom. “And drag him away. And hurry up. I’m beginning to lose feeling in my roots.”
Spitz grabbed a tendril from a wild pea. Spitz, Zwerg and his friend Maus wrapped the grub tightly and began to pull him away. His body got caught on pieces of peeling bark.
“A leaf. Put him on that wide leaf from the Lily of the Valley. She won’t mind.”
Brilliant idea. They pulled one grub over to an umbrella, then, emboldened with their prowess, they bound, then dragged two more insects. The shrews felt weak, the exertion had used up all their reserve fuel. They dove into the insect feast, then satiated, collapsed onto the ground.
The bracket mushroom relaxed his cap and flexed his gills. He felt whole again.
Spitz woke up after five minutes and yawned. He hadn’t slept that long since he’d been weaned. Papa had been right. They could learn to live with the mushrooms.
*The European Pygmy Shrew (Latin – Sorex Minutus, German – Zwergspitzmaus) at an average weight of 4 grams is one of the world’s smallest mammals and has the highest metabolic rate.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.