Rodney and the naked mole rats make remarkable progress on the zeppelin. Dobby gives Sylvia a driving tour of the Principality. They observe the barren fields and view the formidable Schist Castle in the distance.
You’ve missed enough of the story to be thoroughly confused if you start reading now. Here’s a link if you decide to start reading at the beginning. There’s a ridiculous chart below to help you sort out the rodents. Recommended snack: Animal Crackers.
After breakfast the following day, Sylvia followed the hens and her kidlets out to the picnic grounds. Rabbits brought picnic baskets out to Dobby’s roadster and stashed them in the trunk. The duck maid stacked another basket into the narrow space behind the seats and added a satchel with binoculars, a camera, umbrellas, and some small snacks. Dobby dropped a laptop, notebooks, and a pencil box into the satchel, and tucked in two baguettes beside it. He grabbed a bag of animal crackers, stepped into the workshop and grinned.
Rodney stood gazing upward at the fully assembled framework. Large roof panels had opened up to accommodate the enormous airship, and big barn doors stood open at the far end of the workshop. Naked mole rats scrambled over the frame, riveting clips to the inside edges at regular intervals. Another group of naked mole rats stretched a gigantic knit air cell into position under the framework. Still more threaded cables through a reinforcement casing and tossed the ends up to dozens of nimble naked mole rats distributed along the frame. Several others busied themselves inspecting the felting over the knit cell.
Newt looked a bit neglected until you noticed that miscellaneous parts no longer cluttered the floor. A couple of naked mole rats stood at the open hood, gazing down, pointing at this and that. The smaller workrooms were buzzing with activity, and peahens could be seen at a large fabric covered table, holding contrasting upholstery samples up for comparison. The buzzing noise came from saws and hammers in the furniture shop beyond. Tiny voles drove field mouse sized dump trucks loaded with spools of wire, crystal prisms, and colorful wire nuts.
“Dobby? Are you here?” Dwarfed by the zeppelin, a miniature Sylvia peered around the big barn door into the busy workshop. Dobby spun around at his name, nearly annihilating a tiny truck stacked high with tassels. The driver swerved in time, nearly colliding with a smaller truck full of fabric covered buttons. Dobby carefully stepped around the furious drivers, casually dropping a couple animal crackers into each truck bed.
“I was all excited about the butterflies at the picnic area, but this, this zeppelin is, well, it’s almost finished! I’m flabbergasted! Oh, and look at Newt!” She scurried over to the amphibious vehicle and struck up a conversation with the naked mole rats balanced on the edge of the open hood.
Rodney winked at Dobby and turned back to his workbench. Dobby joined him and realized they were looking at license plates cut to a variety of sizes and shapes. Pretending to busy himself with fitting pieces together, Rodney lowered his head and whispered to Dobby.
“She’s alright, you know. Did you just find her in town last week, or what? Does she know Gari?”
“I drove my car off an embankment, nearly into the river on the way down. Really dodgy magic down there once you get off the main road. She put on a new oil pan. She’s the mechanic at the auto shop down there. Keeps Gari’s Segways running. Plus she’s adopted those three little monsters, I mean kids, and on top of that she’s working on a masters degree in mechanical engineering. Underachiever.”
“She a keeper, you think?”
“You taking her to your mother’s shindig next week? That could send her packing, you might want to put off having her meet the family.”
“She wants to be here for the test flight next weekend, but I warned her about mother. And the Princesses. My dad. Sheesh. It’s pretty grim, isn’t it? At least Caplin isn’t coming.”
Dobby looked sadder as he turned and walked carefully over to the amphibious vehicle. Sylvia had her head way under the hood, arm outstretched toward a wrench a naked mole rat was handing up to her. From Dobby’s location, it looked like Newt had bit her head off and he was chuckling by the time he reached her.
Dobby took the wrench from the little rat and handed it to Sylvia. “You about ready to go?”
“Any time. Your crew is pretty slick. Newt’s engine looks practically brand new.“
The miniature back seat of Dobby’s convertible roadster was heaped with blankets, baskets, and brown paper bags. Sylvia raised her eyebrows and cocked her head toward the portly capybara.
“How long are we going to be away? Should I have brought my toothbrush and jammies?”
Dobby grinned and chuckled. “I need to make a survey of some of the furthest boundaries of the principality and there aren’t any services out there. This is lunch for two.” He looked around, not seeing what he was looking for. “Bond was going to join us, but I don’t see him. Maybe he’ll catch up with us. He doesn’t eat much anyway, there will be enough. You ready to go?”
Sylvia hesitated, looked over toward the picnic area. The chatter and squeals of dozens of little squirrels, chipmunks and naked mole rats wafted toward the shop. “They’ll be fine. They’ve already made lots of friends. I suppose Annabelle will call if things get out of hand.”
She slid into the front seat, still looking over at the picnic area.
“So, tell me about that blimp. It looks kind of new, except for that funky hole in the basket. Did you ever use it or did you get it specifically for the playground?”
“Have you been talking to Gari?” said Dobby.
Sylvia squirmed a little. “Why do you ask?”
“You have, haven’t you? He was bugging me about that last week. He’s never even seen it.”
“So it is new, then. I thought so.”
Dobby took his eyes off the road to glance at her. She was proving to be a bit more astute than was convenient. She was looking right back at him, jaw set, eyes like two blazing charcoal briquettes, ready to burn through his thick skull to get at the answer. He turned his attention back to the road, continuing to dodge the larger bumps and divots, hoping to buy some time. This was one of his farm roads, unlike the paved main roads, but he was now regretting not properly paving it. On the other hand, this was the road his parents usually took, instead of the beautiful entry drive Sylvia came in on. A nice paved road would only encourage them to continue to sneak in the back way, not that they had ever escaped the notice of Moneypenny. He caught a fluttering out of the corner of his eye. Bond, with his usual impeccable timing, alighted atop the windshield. Hijacking the conversation he started chattering about the fields beyond the orchards they were now passing.
“It’s like night and day where the magic ends out here. Healthy greenery, actively growing crops, and then nothing, zip, nada. Pale, dusty dirt. That wouldn’t be worrisome except that the dirt is winning, and we’re gradually losing valuable crop area.”
Sylvia looked at him, interested, now. “I don’t see it, everything looks pretty good to me. Though I don’t know beans about farming. Is all of this yours?”
“As far as you can see from here. When we get to the edge, I’ll point out the neighboring lands. Caplin has a cottage out this way, and further out is the Schist’s castle. The other direction takes you out to the main road, the one you came in on. You passed my parent’s palace on the way to my house. It’s off the main road a bit but it’s hard to miss, even so.”
Sylvia started to chuckle and then checked herself. He might be offended if she told him how crazy the kids thought it was, like a video game palace gone rococo, turrets and gingerbread and curlicues and topped with dozens of fanciful weather vanes. She had thought it must be the entry to an amusement park. Dobby caught her eye and grinned.
“So you saw it, then. Ridiculous monstrosity, isn’t it? It’s even worse inside, if you can imagine. I dread going to visit, always afraid I’ll accidentally destroy some bric-a-brac. I was there yesterday, of course. It’s enough to give you nightmares. I’d still rather go there for her birthday party, like we usually do. The Schist castle is grim, like a creepy old fairy tale fort. All it’s missing is the gun emplacements. We’ll catch a glimpse of that today, most likely.”
He turned his attention back to the budgie, who had moved down to the dashboard, out of the dust and wind. Bond was looking at the shiny earrings dangling from Sylvia’s quills. He was trying to look nonchalant, but Sylvia was onto him. She reached out to him, smiling, and he hopped onto her finger.
“You want to sit on my shoulder and check out my earrings, don’t you?”
She gently set him on her shoulder, and he started to quietly chatter and purr.
“You shouldn’t encourage him, you know. So, anyway, I need to investigate this soil infertility problem and I thought it would be a good time to give you a tour. You can see in the distance, now where the fields are barren. Charlie has some test plots out there but nothing will even germinate. It’s as if it’s winter and the ground is too chilly, but we don’t really have that kind of winter here.”
They motored on in silence for a bit. Well, not quite silence, because Bond was singing his heart out, bonking Sylvia’s earrings around and changing positions from time to time to get a better reflection off of the shiny ornaments. She reached out to him with her finger and he frowned but obediently hopped on to be set back onto the dashboard. He let rip with a few final choice refrains and quieted down.
“Oh, dear,” said Sylvia under her breath. She was looking ahead into the distance. “I see what you mean. It’s fine near the road and the orchards look healthy but something is not right out there.”
“The forest looks fine, beyond, but that is a different kind of system. As long as you leave them alone, the forests have an inter-dependency among the different trees and shrubs that keep everything healthy. Those dead looking fields with the grey dirt are cultivated and farmers have to constantly supply nutrients to replace what the crops suck out of the soil. We compost everything back into the soil, but out here it doesn’t seem to replenish the soil any more, so we leave them fallow. But this is where we used to grow the birdseed. And for some reason, we can’t get birdseed to germinate anywhere at all. Charlie has tried everything. We even tried having the kids sing to the seeds, but nothing. Bond is right, though, there are even more dead fields now. I can see up ahead that it extends all the way to this road and that’s new. That bigger road marks the end of my property just beyond, anyway. Caplin’s place is out there, across the trunk road, but it’s all forest so it should be the same as always. He left when I was a pup, and never showed any interest in farming, or even coming home, but our parents set aside a nice piece next to the river for him, anyway. That’s the same river that runs behind your shop, you know. And in fact, Caplin has a nice cabin but he never stays there. I suppose I ought to check on it for him while we’re out here.”
Dobby slowed down as they approached the barren soil because the roadster was kicking up a furious dust cloud. He pulled over and stopped the car and the dust roiled past them and settled back onto the farm road.
“It’s quiet out here, but it’s kind of an eerie quiet. No birds singing, no breeze to tickle the leafy crops that aren’t here. Not even any insects. It looks like the Schist castle grounds, now that I think of it. They have never farmed their land, but they sold the forests for timber ages ago and never bothered to replant. My parents used to drag me out there on play dates and it was okay when Gari came, too, but his family moved away and I refused to go after that. Useless dull princesses and not a blade of grass to be seen. The Schists never seem to do anything and yet they survive, somehow, but I’ve always thought they must be secretly destitute. They cling to the good life by hanging out with my parents, and my mother seems to think I ought to marry one of those tedious daughters. And now I have to go to a party out there. That’s why I need to build this zeppelin, so I can make a spectacular entrance and a quick getaway.”
“Well, okay then,” said Sylvia, “I guess we’ve got to build you a zeppelin this week. Right after we check out this dead soil craziness. Let’s get a move on.”
Dobby slowly drove down the dusty farm road, and barren fields abruptly changed to forest. Birdsong greeted them and the sandy road was solid and damp. Bond flew from the dusty dashboard up to the windshield and preened, uselessly, as the breeze from Dobby’s acceleration threatened to blow him from his precarious post. A few minutes later they arrived at the paved public road.
“It’s all forest here. Straight ahead is Caplin’s parcel, we’ll check that out after lunch. Turn right and we head out to the main road you came in on, and Caplin’s driveway is that direction, too. We’re going to turn left and drive along my south border, more forest and a nice picnic area. On the south side of the road is the Schist land, more like the Gobi Desert, and you will see the castle in the distance. That’s where I plan to land the zeppelin on the day of the party. Their entire “garden” is compact sand and gravel big enough to make a u-turn in a Mack truck, so the amphibious aspect of newt’s talents will be wasted this weekend. Might come in handy if I fly down to Gari’s, miss the driveway, land in the ocean.”
He looked over at Sylvia to see if she was listening. She was rolling her eyes, so he supposed she was. He turned onto the paved road and drove along for a while, forest on both sides of the road. On the right, the forest thinned and then petered out altogether, maybe not technically a desert, but certainly barren and devoid of anything resembling topsoil. A neolithic prison-like edifice in the distance was the only vertical punctuation to the landscape, save for a few stone walls and low rock outcrops strewn throughout the gently rolling topography.
“Nice, isn’t it, a real thing of beauty. It’s dead flat dirt right up next to the castle, except for the moat, of course. It’s gotta have steep sides to keep the alligators in.”
Dobby glanced over at Sylvia again. This time she was chuckling and shaking her head, earrings dancing in the dappled sunlight. He slowed down and turned off the road onto a narrow dirt road.
To be continued . . .
The notorious Cast of Characters:
This story needs a lot more illustrations! Select an event from this story (how about a picnic basket?), draw a picture of it, and send me an email. I’ll reply so that you can attach a digital copy of your masterpiece to it. I’ll add it to the story!
Or, if you’d rather help with the glossary, send me the list of words you had to look up (or should have looked up, but didn’t!). Someday, I will start putting together the glossary.