𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗣𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝗥𝗮𝘁𝘀
𝘣𝘺 𝘙𝘰𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘵 𝘗𝘰𝘱𝘦
Though driving with the top down made my eyes water, I liked the way it ruffled my facial fur. I pointed my nose into the wind and took the hairpin curves of the mountain highway as fast as I dared with the tape deck blasting whatever was in there when I got the car the day before. It came with a fuzz buster, so I didn’t have to worry about cops. In the badly faded photographs, I wear a green T-shirt, blue jacket, jeans, and scuffed orange work boots. The jacket had been in the trunk when I got the car, and I liked it for that reason
And, of course, I had on the driving gloves I always wear on the road.
In those cool and shady environs, trucks pulling double trailers bearing the weight of the long redwood logs or trunks careened past at death-defying speeds. If those brakes failed, if those drivers lost control on a wild curve, those trucks would become unguided missiles plowing into whatever cars were unlucky enough to be in their path or plummeting off the edge of the steep declivity. Exciting, is what I thought. What heroes. Where were they taking the forest away to? Who wanted it down so much they set all this in motion?
It was getting dark when I turned off what passed for a highway up there and spun onto a tree-shrouded road where I found the young couple with backpacks holding out their thumbs, both of them in khaki shorts and shirts like they were on safari. Some would have called them white rats, but they looked like mice to me.
I turned the music down as they climbed in back with their equipment, which included one of those Polaroid cameras you wave the pictures in the air before the colors come out. I noticed this because he took a picture of the car before getting in. Once they settled in back, the guy began waving the photo he had taken. It had gotten dark so quickly the female expressed relief and gratitude that I had stopped for them. He was too involved in the process of putting new film in the camera to say anything at all. All business, that one. She noticed me adjusting the rear-view mirror to see her better and gave a big smile. Cute little round nose she had and sparkling black eyes. I hit the gas and pulled back onto the road with a squeal.
“So,” I said, “what brings you to the mountains with no means of transportation?”
“Jake is a film student. He’s collecting images for his thesis project. I’m just along for the adventure.”
“Well,” I said, “let’s see if I can’t spice things up for Jake.”
He still said nothing, looking into the big trees on his side of the car, but when my headlamps flashed on a sign with the silhouette of a leaping buck, he shouted for me to pull over, so he could take a picture. I got a look at him in the headlamps when I did, about what you’d expect in those granny glasses. She said her name was Jane, her boyfriend’s name was Jake. In her sing-song voice, I half-expected her to finish the jingle with, “We come from Jakarta, and we sell Jacks.” I saw the light bulb flash in my peripheral vision, and he got back in, waving the photo to make the image appear. He flipped it over and wrote something on the back of the picture.
“What’s he writing?” I asked her. She leaned over the photo and squinted to read the back.
“Too dark,” she said.
“I wrote, ‘The plot thickens’,” he said. He had an authoritative voice that set my nerves on edge. “I’ve been taking photos all along our trip. When I get back, I’ll lay them out and see where they lead me.”
I had been heading for a little logging town I hadn’t seen for maybe a year. There was an old hotel where I could get a room cheap.
“He lets the story grow out of the images,” Jane was saying.
“I get it,” I said. “Free association. I am something of a film maker myself,” I informed them, prepared to spin a story of my own making.
“I am of the ‘let the shape emerge from the stone’ school,” he intoned.
I wanted to laugh but kept it under control.
“He got the idea from a filmmaker who visited campus,” she said. I wanted to sound interested, so I asked if he would be storyboarding scenes before filming, like the great horror filmmaker.
“I’m going for something more organic,” he explained while I adjusted the rear-view mirror to see him better now. He looked away, out the side of the car, to avoid my eyes, but I saw the smirk. I really wanted to kill him, but I said, “Mr. Natural. Keep on trucking.”
“Something like that,” he mumbled.
The car purred along nicely, tires squeaking on the curves.
“For goodness sake,” he said, “slow down. You’ll kill us all,”
“Get a picture from the back,” I said. “So you see my hands on the wheel.”
After a brief grumble, the flash went off, the photo whirred, and he waved it.
“What’s your name,” he said, “so I can write it on the back.”
“My name is Russell,” I said, “Prince of the rodents.”
“Prince of the… I’ll just write Russell.”
“That’ll do,” I told him.
In the next moment, a huge buck with an enormous rack of antlers appeared in the circle of light from my headlamps, front legs extended in a leap across the road. When it crashed into the front of the car, the windshield shattered. We stopped dead in our tracks while the tape kept playing softly. I clicked it off, and the silence closed in around us.
We got out unharmed, looking at one another in the dark of night in the middle of the mountain forest. The shape of the buck had been molded into the engine block. As I leaned down to study the hair and blood and teeth implanted in the caved-in grill, I heard a click and saw the flash from behind. I stood slowly. Jake flapped the photograph in his fingers. His glasses glinted in the light of the one remaining headlamp. I set my hands on my hips.
“This must seem a fortuitous event for your project, wouldn’t you say?”
He didn’t respond but did stop waving the photograph. “Sorry about your car.”
“Oh, well, that’s life in the fast lane,” I said. “We have more important business.”
The glasses became circles of light. “Is that right?”
“That’s correct.” I clapped my hands, muffled by the gloves. The world around the headlamp beam seemed darker and more silent than ever. “What are the things of this world when we have our lives?”
“That’s a great attitude, Russell,” Jane said. I heard the back door on the driver’s side open and close. Jake’s arms drifted down to his sides. His head turned to look at Jane then came back to me, the glasses circles of light once more.
“Maybe you’d like a picture of me in front of this wreck,” I said. “Hold on, I have a better idea.” I didn’t wait for a response before I went back to the passenger side of the car and reached into the glove compartment, where I had stowed the thirty-eight with which I purchased the car back at sea level.
“All right,” I said, “you two get over there in front of the grill. I’ll move around here, so my back is to the dark. Can you hear me clearly? Sound does soak into the trees, doesn’t it?”
Once situated as directed, I said, “Go ahead. Point the camera at me, partner. I’ll strike a threatening pose, pointing the pistol at you in the midst of a dark forest, with no one around for miles.”
“Um, Mister,” he said, and then he remembered my name. “Russell, sir.”
When Jane appeared at his side, he put an arm around her, looking frightened now.
“What’s going on,” she said.
I lowered the pistol. “Oh, come on. All in good fun. Get the picture. For the film.”
He released his grip on Jane and raised the camera. When the flash came, he dropped it and rushed me, a move I had anticipated. I got a shot off, louder than expected. I hit him dead center of his chest. He fell back and did not get up.
The way his arms spread like a cross gave me a chuckle.
When I looked up, Jane fled into the trees. I followed until I heard her yelp as she fell over what turned out to be the carcass of that big buck, where it had been flung when I hit it. She backed against a tree, her mouth in what is known in the business as a paroxysm of fear.
I went through the pictures in the light of the headlamp, tossing them until I got the ones I wanted, starting with a photo of both of them. The plot did thicken, as Jake said it did, when I got to the photo of the sign with the silhouette of the buck. I stuck the bunch in the pocket of my jacket, broke the headlamp with the butt of the pistol and stuck it under my belt in the back.
I headed down the mountain to the highway and hitched a ride with a trucker. Once on the road he glared at me. “Who are you,” he demanded, “and what’s your business on the road?”
Now that I looked right at him, he was a big, ugly hare with speckled fur and huge yellow teeth in front. And, frankly, he smelled like a garbage truck. I tried not to stutter as I reached for an answer that might satisfy him. Finally, I said I was a filmmaker.
“Filmmaker, is that your story? What films have you made? Would I know any?” His voice sounded like he smelled, with gravel tossed in for tone.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know the answer to that,” I said, stalling for time. It occurred to me I would show him the photographs. I took the bunch from my pocket and held them up, as if they might act as proof. “For a film in progress,” I exclaimed.
“Show them to me, one at a time.”
“Shouldn’t you keep your eyes on the road,” I suggested.
He glared at me longer than I could withstand. I held out the first one, the lab rats in khakis. He nodded and grunted. “Two main characters, is that it?”
“I’m storyboarding with photographs. A folk horror flick, human characters played by rodents of some kind. Someone like you, say, might be represented by a powerful-looking hare.”
“That’s good,” he said, “I like that.”
I held each photo up for him, beside the steering wheel. He studied it while I watched the road. The cab rocked under the weight of the massive tree trunk it pulled, but no matter how the cab veered one way or the other, he pulled it back at the last moment. “The plot thickens,” I said when I held up the photo of the sign with the buck leaping across the road.
“My word,” he said.
“Mind you, this is only one scene, but a critical scene in the sweep of the film.”
I had to explain the blurred photo of me holding the pistol on the hitchhikers. He wished it had been a bit clearer. I hadn’t been able to wave it in the air adequately, so I thought at the time. But Jake did drop the camera when he came at me, so that could have been the culprit as well.
“I can’t tell if that’s you holding a gun or a bear picking at the bushes for berries.”
I had to agree. If you didn’t know what you were seeing, you might not be able to identify me as the creature in the photo. “Perhaps I can darken it in the editing booth.”
“Brighten it, more likely,” said the hare. “Still, I like the whole idea. I’ve had some thoughts like that myself. Perhaps I can help out, you know, with what comes next.”
“The idea had occurred to me. All right, let’s see how it goes.”
The hare became excited, his eyes even wider than before, his ears twitching.
“Go on, go on,” he said.
“How about this. A rat who happens to be the prince of rodents hitches a ride with a huge hare or jackrabbit, something like the two of us right now.”
“So, maybe the prince lurches at the wheel, wresting control for a moment.”
“The hare is too surprised to react forcibly,” the hare said. “At least right away.”
“Exactly,” I said with some satisfaction.
“But the hare is resourceful. He quickly analyses the situation and regains control of the truck.”
“Only for a moment, because the hitchhiker turned the wheels dangerously off course.”
“It veers back and forth, threatening at one moment to smash into the mountain, at the next to go off the side. A struggle ensues.”
“Too late!” I shouted. “The edge beckons. Neither can resist the pull of gravity opening a Black Hole beneath them. A scream pierces the sky. Inky blackness closes over them like the lips of a mouth that has been waiting since the beginning of time. In another instant, all is forgotten, the truck, the rodents, the redwood, even the Black Hole.”
The hare thought a moment. “You know, we try to pretend we don’t know what death is for most of our lives. Once we understand what we’ve always known about death, we hide from it. When death notices us, it gobbles us up. Never gives us another thought.”
He sighed. “It’s enough to make you give up.”
“True enough,” I said, “except for two things.”
“Yes. The first is meeting a friend, a kindred spirit, on the road.”
The rabbit glanced at me. “You mean that?”
“You bet I do.”
He turned his eyes back to the hairpin curves down the mountain road. I could see he had tears in his eyes. “So, what’s the other thing?” he said.
“At the very last moment, I leap out of the truck and escape unharmed.”
“Humph,” he said. “I’m not sure. Is that believable?”
At that moment, I lurched, seizing control of the steering wheel. Though the hare did in fact regain control, the truck careened this way and that, the immense section of redwood trunk yearning to describe a different trajectory than the cab. I leaped over him, pushed open the door, and hit the ground rolling.
When I sat up on the edge of the Black Hole that opened where the side of the mountain had been, the only thing inside was the rapidly descending truck and trailers, at awkward angles from each other. The redwood trunk broke free of its mooring and claimed identity as a separate missile. I wanted to follow their descent, but the Black Hole wavered and closed slowly, a night-blooming flower in morning light, slurping down the last drops of moon dew. I brushed myself off and started down the mountain, wondering what adventures yet awaited in the lawless world of the Rodent Prince! ✦