Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Woodland Creatures, Come and Play by Elizabeth Barron

A lonely college student lives with two very eccentric roommates and a secret collection of talking animals; by Elizabeth Barron.

I still don't know how they got into my room. No one ever believed me, but it's true. I never even left the window open.

My roommate, the blonde one with the pigtails and squeaky voice, made it very clear that she had poor circulation in her feet, so under no circumstances were the windows to be left opened. My other roommate - redhead, samurai sword - must have opened one after Pigtails and I went to bed. When I woke up that morning, my room was empty. I swear it. Everything was normal for a minute or so.

"I just can't stand having any windows open," said Pigtails.

Her fluffy pink slippers burned holes in the floor as she paced around our common room, while Samurai sat cross-legged on the floor, sharpening her knives and arranging them in a neat oval around her. "And I can't have the doors making noise when you close them, I can't have music playing, and I can't have anyone touching my things at all. If you both would just listen to me and do what I say -"

Samurai held a jagged-edge Bowie knife up to the morning light.

"Just a little sharper," she grinned.

It was only the second week of college, so this was going to be my typical morning for the foreseeable future. I went back to my bedroom, trying not to make any noise as I shut the door, and there they were, waiting for me.

"Good morning, Princess!" chirped a bluebird, waving its wing.

The bluebird was perched on my plastic floor lamp, the one I'd bought on sale. A yellow-eyed owl had wrapped its talons around the back of my desk chair, and grey and brown mice were scampering up and down the faded blue carpet. A flock of robins and sparrows were building nests in my bookshelf, and a grey squirrel and a fluffy white bunny were huddled together in my beanbag chair.

My mom had warned me that a first-floor dorm room would have some drawbacks. I'd pictured the occasional spider, not a petting zoo.

A spotted fawn trotted up to me and bowed its head, as all the creatures chimed in unison, "Good morning, Princess! Won't you play with us?"

"Um - no," was all I could think of to say.

"Your stepsister seems awful mad," said the bunny, looking warily towards the door.

"She's not making you clean, is she, Princess?" said the squirrel.

"What? No, she's not my stepsister - you need to go back to where you came from," I said. "Outside - out!"

The fawn nuzzled my hand with its head. "Will you sing us a song, Princess?"

"Oh no, no singing," I said. "Just leave!"

I ran to open the window, tripping over the mice, who squeaked, "Excuse us, Princess, so sorry Princess!"

"See? It's nice outside, good day to be in the forest," I said. "Now get out!"

The animals stared at me, tilting their heads innocently and blinking their huge eyes. "She clearly needs our help," said the owl. "We do apologize for being late!"

"I hopped as fast as I could," said the bunny.

"What strange hair you have, Princess!" said the bluebird, hovering in front of my face. "Such strange hair!" chirped the birds, diving in swooping circles around my head. "So thick and curly!"

"It's - high-maintenance," I said, batting at them. "I slept on it funny again. Go away!"



I guess I was having the typical college freshman's adjustment issues even before the talking animals showed up. I'd hoped a school in the middle of the woods would be good for me, after the pressure cooker that was my high school in the city. When I first got to college, and saw the big fall trees circling my dorm, like giant protective arms, ancient and peaceful, I assumed the people would be equally welcoming.

Then I met my roommates.

Pigtails' crying jags on the hour - and tantrums on the half-hour - paired with Samurai's sideways smile whenever she pulled out her throwing knives were not exactly conducive to a calming environment. And try as I might, and I did try, really, I hadn't made any friends yet when the animals came, so there really wasn't much for me to look forward to after class and work except for going into my bedroom, shutting the door - as quietly as possible, of course, especially if it was near the half-hour - and watching old Disney movies, my default comfort food when I'm lonely.

Maybe that summoned them or something, I don't know, I was afraid to ask.



"Shall we dress you, Princess?" said the squirrel. "Where's your armoire?"

"We could make you a new dress!" squeaked the mice. "These rags aren't fit for a princess!"

"Hey, these jeans are only - a few years old," I said. "Back off!"

"Now, dark-haired princesses look good in green," said the bluebird, raising his wing to his beak like a human hairdresser. "It should be made of - silk! No, taffeta!"

"It should have a train, and a tiara," said the squirrel. "Made of silver!"

"I have class. I have roommates. You have to leave," I said. "And I don't want a dress, I have a hoodie, I washed it a couple weeks ago, I'm fine, just go!"

I slumped down on my bed and pulled on my sneakers. The squirrel tried to tie the laces for me and I stared him down. He bowed his head and said, "Excuse me, Princess," and ran back to the beanbag chair.

"Princess? Why are you so sad?" said the bunny, hopping onto my knee.

The other creatures chorused, "Yes, what's wrong, Princess?"

"I'm freaked out," I said. "I'm not sad."

"Oh, but we can see when our Princess is sad," said the owl. "You will tell us what's wrong, won't you?"

"Please tell us, tell us!" squeaked the creatures.

"I'm going to lunch before my classes," I said. "And when I come back, you'll be gone, okay?"

I pulled on my ratty red hoodie and shut them in my bedroom without waiting for an answer. Samurai was leaving too, with her sword sticking out of her backpack. Pigtails was gearing up for her eleven o'clock sobbing jag, with a box of tissues primed and ready in her hand.

"Well, if you two are going to lunch," she said, "I guess I'll go too, I'm sure plenty of my friends are already at the dining hall, even though none of them invited me. I'll just have to find out what their deal is..."

I made my way to the dining hall with my hood up and my shoes untied - I had gotten so wrapped up in my staredown with the squirrel that I'd forgotten to tie them. I had to wait for a long time to get my card swiped. Everyone had a friend or a group to chat with in the line except me. I stared at the bulletin board advertising clubs and teams I could never imagine myself joining: "College Cheerleading?" "Oboe Appreciation?"

My mom told me that college was the place where you met the people who would come to your wedding and your funeral. It was the place where lifelong friends go to find each other - but I had no idea where to look for them, and I was positive that no one was searching for me.

"Princess?" whispered a tiny voice, right in my ear.

"Oh no," I said. The squirrel had stowed away in my hood - I hadn't even felt him, my hair's so thick and heavy. He crawled onto my shoulder and said, "Perhaps I could be of assistance to you, Princess."

"Stop talking, just stay hidden," I said. The squirrel wedged himself back into my hood right as I got to the end of the line. His tail might have been sticking out a little, but the card-swiper didn't notice. He said "Just you?" with the same bored expression he'd had for everyone else.

I wandered around the dining hall for a while, looking for somewhere to sit. I wasn't the only one alone - plenty of people had music players in their pockets, or a magazine sticking out of their bag, and I felt a little better. I wasn't that different after all, just another kid with their hood up and something secret tucked away for company - something with a tail, but still.

Pigtails had beaten me to the dining hall - she was sitting at a crowded table in the center of the room, where she was deploying the reserves of her eleven o'clock tears on a group of girls dressed in pink from their hair ties to their flip-flops.

"I called you twice, but you didn't answer," said one girl, drizzling pink salad dressing over all her French fries. "We figured you'd meet up with us, it's no big deal."

"Well, still," sobbed Pigtails. "I'm starting to think nobody cares about my feelings!"

Metal sliced through the air behind me, followed by the roar of cheering boys. Samurai was standing in the middle of a table, surrounded by fellow sword enthusiasts all dressed in black. They were taking turns throwing oranges at her like softball pitchers, and the whole table cheered as she spun around and halved each orange in midair. From the remains on the ground, it looked like she'd already dispatched a whole tree's worth.

One guy shouted, "Now try it blindfolded!"

"Do I smell oranges?" said the squirrel.

In the far corner of the dining hall, a couple of girls were sitting at a smaller table, reading quietly to themselves. They looked like they could be my kind of people.

"I'm going in," I said.

"Courage, Princess!"

"Shut up."

I went over to the table and said, "Hi, is anyone sitting here?"

One of the girls kind of looked like a librarian, with tortoiseshell glasses and bobbed brown hair. She narrowed her eyes at me but said "Hi" back, so I sat down with my tray, hoping no one was allergic to pet dander.

The other girl didn't look up from her book, but Librarian snapped hers shut and said, "So, you have a subculture yet?"

"Uh, what do you mean?" I said. She sighed like I had just told her I was illiterate.

"Well, everyone's chosen their subculture by now, haven't they? Are you a theater nerd, a slacker, vegan, jock? Etcetera, etcetera."

"She's a princess!" hissed the squirrel.

I spoke too quickly, trying to keep anyone from hearing him. "I don't know, I like, uh, reading and, you know, going outside, and watching movies. I've been watching a lot of Disney movies lately, the older ones -"

Librarian rolled her eyes and sniffed just like a librarian would, "Ugh. Disney gives little girls such unrealistic expectations of men."

"Disney gave me unrealistic expectations about my hair," I said.

The silent girl laughed, but Librarian did not, although the corners of her mouth rose just a little, once she studied me for a second, and saw that my hair just doesn't work. If the bluebird could figure it out, surely a reader could.

"That's funny," said Librarian.

I felt a wave of relief for the first time since I'd arrived at school. I'd found a friend, maybe. I wondered when it would be appropriate to start trading books and secrets and hair-styling tips. How much time would have to pass before it was appropriate to ask if I could be her roommate instead?

"What's your name?" Librarian started to say - just as she saw the squirrel in my hood. He had smelled the cookies on my tray. The look of horror on her face rivaled that of any Disney witch.



I left without saying a word, and speed-walked to class as fast as I could. The squirrel didn't even realize I was angry - he clutched the side of my hood and said, "Faster, faster!"

At regular intervals during the lecture, the squirrel crawled onto my shoulder and whispered, "Might I trouble you for another cookie, Princess?" Luckily, it was a psychology lecture during which half the class slept and the other half checked text messages, so no one saw me hissing, "No, I don't have any more, shut up."

When I got back to the dorm, the creatures had cleaned my bedroom. I guess I should have expected that.

All of the clothes I'd left strewn on my bed were neatly folded and put away, my desk and the open windowsill had been dusted, the holes in my jeans were all patched and sewn - they'd even plumped up my beanbag chair.

"Hey, you found my rubber band ball," I said. "Thanks."

The squirrel crawled up onto my desk and studied the rubber band ball, bouncing it back and forth with his tail. "What an unusual contraption!" he said.

"Princess, your stepsister with the yellow hair is very strange," said the owl.

"Don't let her see you," I said. "Just be quiet. Wow, you even folded my socks -"

"She talks about you, Princess, I can hear her real good," said the bunny, wiggling his ears. "I don't think she likes you."

"I took this from her bedchamber when she wasn't looking," said the fawn, who had something soft and fuzzy in his mouth.

He dropped the teddy bear at my feet, and all of the creatures screamed.

The birds flapped their wings in fear, knocking books and papers off my desk. The mice ran under my bed, while the bunny whimpered and dove under my blankets, and the squirrel covered his eyes with his tail.

"A compatriot of ours, that she has killed and stuffed as a trophy," said the owl. "And only an infant bear, at that. She must truly be an evil witch. You are in great danger, Princess."

"This is a toy," I said.

The owl shook his head, "Be wary, for she will drink your blood and steal your breath, she will wait until you are asleep -"

"And then she'll cut you up into little pieces," said the bunny, peeking out from under the blanket, "and she'll put you into soup and eat you up!"

"Eat you up!" squeaked the mice.

"Make a gown for the ball out of your skin!" said the squirrel.

"Oh my god." I sat on the floor and slumped against my bed.

"I'm sorry, Princess, I couldn't get a token of the stepsister with the red hair," said the fawn, as he snuggled into my lap like a cat. "Her bedchamber was locked."

"Hey, she has a sword. Don't mess with her stuff," I said. "Don't mess with anyone's stuff, just stay in here."

"A sword? Is she a knight?" said the bunny.

"Um, no."

"A prince charming?" squeaked the mice.

"Definitely not."

The fawn looked up at me with giant eyes. "She's not a hunter, is she?"

"I don't think so," I said. "She just likes knives."

"Do you know any wizards or friendly fairies who could help you?" said the owl. "Preferably someone well-versed in combat."

"Or who's real, real big," said the bunny. "Like a giant."

"Nope, no friendly anything," I said. "I'm all alone here. I really am."

The fawn tilted his head up at me, and big fat tears rolled from his eyes.

"That's so sad, Princess," he blubbered. "Don't you miss your mother?"

"Have you considered leaving?" said the owl. "Flying for friendlier skies?"

"I'm on scholarship," I said. "The best one I could get, and I thought being in the woods might be nice..."

"Oh, but the woods are very dangerous, the most dangerous place of all," said the owl. "But a princess can't be expected to know that."



Every night, I made sure my window was shut tight and locked, but almost every morning, there were more of them. Extra mice and birds arrived, then chipmunks and raccoons, a family of beavers, even a skunk - the squirrel blamed the bluebird for letting him in. A turtle arrived who spoke only Spanish, he called me Princesa and gnawed on my books, and then something big and smelly nested under my bed. I wasn't exactly sure what it was, but it growled when I tried to investigate.

I was starting to get frustrated. Midterms were upon me and it was hard enough balancing school and work with hiding the increasing number of talking animals from my roommates. It helped that they weren't really animals - they required none of the clean-up of real animals, anyway.

Luckily, Samurai was usually out having fun with her sword-loving friends, while Pigtails liked to invite all of her friends over, each one bringing a new box of tissues, and then lock her bedroom door behind them.

One late night, I'd finally had enough. I think it was the beavers trying to eat my bedframe that set me off - either that, or the skunk deciding to nest in my sock drawer.

"What is wrong with you?" I screamed. "Why won't you just leave? And you - those books are expensive!"

The turtle hung his head. "Lo siento, Princesa."

"I. AM NOT. A PRINCESS!" I screamed. The creatures scattered to the corners of my room and hid without responding. I turned off the lights and went to sleep.



When I woke up in the morning, my hair had been straightened and combed and a new green hoodie was waiting for me in my closet. They must have done it while I slept.

"She's awake, she's awake!" cried the creatures. The bunny hopped up and down and the bluebird waved its wing. The owl flew over to me with a mirror in its talons.

"Wow," I said. "The hoodie fits perfectly."

"Well, of course," said the bluebird. "We are professionals!"

"Look what else we made you, Princess!" said the squirrel.

He held up a tiara made out of paper clips and silver gum wrappers, and the birds flew it up and settled it on my head.

I was so touched that I took the squirrel with me to the dining hall again.

Librarian and her silent friend were in line at the salad bar. I got in line behind them, hoping that Librarian might notice my hair or my new hoodie, and we could start a conversation and then a lifelong friendship based entirely on the incredible abilities of my woodland creatures. In ten years, I would be the maid of honor at her wedding, and my animals could take care of all the arrangements.

I waved at her, and she did that little librarian sniff in my direction and spun away - but her silent friend stopped and said, "Nice headband. Very do-it-yourself," before trotting after her.

"I knew it should be silver," said the squirrel.



I went back to my room after class, optimistic even in defeat, and started handing out extra cookies to all the creatures - until I heard Pigtails stomping across the common room, bellowing, "WHERE'S MY HAIR STRAIGHTENER!"

"The witch, the witch!" cried the creatures.

All the animals tried to hide under the bed, but whatever was nesting there growled, and they shrieked in unison and ran under the desk.

I tried to lock the door, but it was too late - Pigtails barged into the room, her hair flying in all directions, like she'd just licked an electrical socket.

"You took it, didn't you?" she said. "I knew it -"

"Engage!" cried the owl, and the woodland creatures attacked.

The birds dove at her hair while the bunny kicked at her ankles, the raccoons clawed at her legs, and whatever was under the bed emerged just far enough to bite her fuzzy slippers. The squirrel threw the rubber band ball, and the skunk - well, the skunk did not to hesitate to defend me in the best way he knew.

"Fight for the Princess!" cried the creatures. "Claw her, bite her! Gouge out her eyes!"

Pigtails shrieked at the same pitch as a smoke detector, holding her nose with one hand and swatting at the birds with the other.

"Stop, stop - you're going to hurt her!" I said. The creatures grudgingly obeyed.

Pigtails blew some feathers out of her face and noticed something sticking out from behind the bed.

"You stole my BEAR?"

"Uh, they took it," I said. "I'm not sure which one, but it definitely wasn't me."

"What are they even doing here?" she said. "Are you pre-vet?"

The owl fluffed his feathers and said, "The princess requires our company in her time of loneliness. Be gone, witch!"

"They're just - company," I said.

The turtle hid inside his shell and the bunny covered his face with his ears.

"Oh, you're lonely?" said Pigtails. "I'm lonelier! I don't have any little animals helping me get dressed every day!"

"I actually don't let them do that - "

"Do you know how long it takes me to get ready in the morning?" she said. "People in this dorm are so inconsiderate, always asking if I really need both sinks - I could use the help more than you! It's hard enough without you stealing my things!"

Samurai entered without making a sound, her sword drawn over her head. The creatures that weren't already hiding screamed and ran for cover.

"Heard yelling," said Samurai. "Oh, animals."

"Excuse me, I'm talking," said Pigtails.

She threw her slipper in frustration, and Samurai sliced the flying fluffy slipper in half without blinking.

The bunny's jaw dropped, as pink fuzzes landed all around him. "Uh-oh!" he said.

"Nice bunny," said Samurai, licking her lips.

"Look, everything's fine now, let's just - go back to our rooms, okay?" I said. "Here's your hair straightener, sorry about that, good night!"

"Oh, whatever," said Pigtails. "Get rid of them!"

Needless to say, people were called, forms were filled out, it turned out my green hoodie had been cut from Samurai's green bedsheets, and I was forced to banish the woodland creatures back to the forest.

They cried and whimpered and begged me not to send them away, and as much as it pained me to hear their cries, I stood my ground. My scholarship depended on it.

"You have to go," I told them. "You don't belong here."

The creatures reverently bowed their heads and sniffled back their tears, except for the squirrel. "Neither do you," he whispered.

As dusk fell, the woodland creatures flew and hopped and climbed out my window, and headed towards the trees. The turtle was the last one out, with a mournful "Adios, Princesa," as he clambered over the sill.

"Come with us, Princess," called the creatures from the grass. "Leave this awful place!"

I shook my head and covered my ears. Pigtails grinned smugly while Samurai wedged the window shut with a machete. I watched the creatures through the glass, distorted and shapeless, as they disappeared into the forest as quickly as they'd arrived.

"Hmph," said Pigtails, flicking away a stray feather. "I hope you're planning to clean all this up."



Every day, I eat alone, and every night, I fall asleep to the sound of the owl hooting, "Sweet dreams, Princess! Won't you come with us tomorrow?"

Every morning, I wake up to birds chirping and a dozen little voices squeaking from the other side of the glass, "Come and play with us, Princess! Please come with us!"

Before classes end, I have to fill out a form for where I want to live next year, with the names of the roommates I want, and the dorm we've picked out. Everyone around me has made friends with the people who will be at their graduation parties, their weddings, their funerals, but I am still alone.

Since the drama of the fall, my roommates have ignored me, and I figure they're going to live with their own friends next year. I haven't seen Librarian or her silent friend in months, and the voices from the other window are starting to quiet down.

I leave the blank form on my desk and put on my green hoodie, pulling the hood up over my tiara. I open the window and climb out over the sill. Even though it's nearly summer, there is a chill in the air, crisp and inviting, and the light of the moon makes a path towards the trees, just for me.

Fireflies buzz around my ears in a welcoming chorus, and tiny voices cheer as I duck under the tree branches and follow the woodland creatures home.

6 comments:

  1. A fey allegory developed coherently and with care,
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. If I had ever wondered why I read FOTW, where else can I read Disney / college blues mash-ups. One hopes that the princess can join her animal friends again.

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  3. OMG this was so fun. I appreciate the laughs

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  4. Fun, sweet and touching. I love it! Thank you, Elizabeth!

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  5. Unexpectedly moving! It needs the length to get the emotions working in the reader...Liked the way the characters were shown; monosyllabic Samurai, pain-in-the-ass Pigtails, soulful turtle, and the unnamed creature under the bed. I was haunted by the repetitive chiming chorus of 'friends who will come to your wedding and funeral.' Oddly enough it brought to mind my own first few days at college which were happier - but considerably less colourful than 'I's! ...But that's not quite the point!
    B r o o k e

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  6. Absolutely charming. The words of this story touch feelings that are beyond words.

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