Garibaldi, Sylvia and her squirrels arrive for another weekend at The Principality. The test flight proves the zeppelin to be seaworthy, or maybe airtight, or whatever, because they are up there, checking out the scenery. Wait, what’s that?
This part features the actual zeppelin, for you sceptics who didn’t think there was really going to be one. If you just joined us, I recommend you backtrack a bit to start at the beginning. Scroll down for a moderately helpful chart that lists the actors. Recommended snack: Let’s hold off this time. Soundtrack: Alligator
Gari organized squirrels, Sylvia reorganized them, and Dobby led them to the zeppelin launch pad. Bianca met them at the door with matching aviator helmets and a choice of pastel colored silk scarves. The little squirrels received souvenir wings, in addition to safety cards and walkie talkies. They scrambled into the vehicle and explored everything before arguing over seating arrangements.
Newt, the amphibious vehicle, was now crowned with an immense and rather chubby flying fish. Exterior cables, gears, and pulleys were color coded so that a moment’s perusal of each system was enough to allow a novice to operate it. Levers were conveniently clustered to allow operation by only two crew members in view of the driver below. So many naked mole rats had volunteered for duty that a couple dozen extras had found places to ride upon the airship. Their multicolored pastel overalls matched the scale shaped solar tiles, the carpets, the sofas, the cargo net, and newt’s shimmery citrine paint job.
Annabelle owned the driver’s seat and observed the fracas with a steely stare.
“Sylvia,” said Annabelle, “Would you please come on in and ride shotgun? Garibaldi has offered to ride herd on the youngsters. Are you confident that he can do that?”
“Oh, yes! He manages them very efficiently,” she said. She came up the steps and stood aside so that Dobby and Gari could enter. “What is Dobby going to do?”
Annabelle looked uncomfortable for a moment and then turned to the spectacle at the door. “Let’s get him loaded, first.”
Sylvia looked confused until she also turned back to the door and saw what was happening below. Dobby was wedged in the stairway sideways, and it wasn’t apparent whether he was coming or going. Yet, Gari was below him, pushing upward with all his might. There was a fair amount of heated muttering wafting up from that general direction.
“Dobby,” said Sylvia, “what’s going on?”
At the sound of her voice, Dobby stopped struggling. As he relaxed, he became unwedged from the stairway and fell down toward his friend in slow motion. With the full weight of the prince upon him, Gari faltered and stepped backward. Rodney had walked up behind them and now he rushed forward to reinforce Gari’s effort. Vincent the tiny vole ran forward with a sturdy contingent of naked mole rats, and together they managed to push the prince back up the steps into the vehicle.
“My goodness, Dobby,” said Sylvia. “Always the dramatic entrance with you, is it?”
Dobby straightened himself up and shook himself pouffy. Gari entered and became a bit pouffy himself. He grinned at Sylvia and turned to face Rodney, Vincent and the naked mole rats.
“Splendid team effort,” said Prince Dobalob. “What’s everybody waiting for? Let’s get this show on the road!”
Gari caught Sylvia’s eye and winked as the vole and several more naked mole rats scampered up the steps and found places aboard the zeppelin. Bianca distributed the last helmets and goggles and Sali decided what color scarves the adults should wear. As she brought a pink one over to Gari, he took her aside and whispered something in her ear. Surprise crossed her face, then she became very serious and finally smug. She took up a position on the cargo net near The Prince and nodded at Gari. Conchita strutted past and sat down by Bianca, near the front of the car. Annabelle stood up from the driver’s seat and looked over the passengers.
“I think we’re almost ready for liftoff! Conchita will go over the safety cards Bianca gave you. Please follow along, and feel free to ask questions if you don’t understand the evacuation procedure. The flight crew has practiced this several times, but we need everyone on board to understand it.” Annabelle was looking directly at the prince as she made her announcement but he was already looking uncomfortable. In fact, all three hens were staring at the prince, and Gari was trying not to laugh at him. Only Sali looked at the portly capybara with confidence.
“You’re late,” said Annabelle, as Bond landed on the dashboard. He flew over to her shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Okay then, I guess we are finally ready,” she said.
Newt’s engines hummed and whirred as Annabelle drove down the driveway to a clearing where they could easily rise out of the palace grounds above the forest. The Prince suppressed a moan and Sali moved closer to him as Gari nodded his approval. At the clearing, some of the crew of naked mole rats took position near the levers that operated the steering fins. A few more went to the back by the rudder tail. A couple joined Annabelle at the dashboard where they turned some knobs and a whooshing sound caused the passengers to look around anxiously.
“That’s the bellows filling the airship with heated air. We’ll start to rise up slowly,” said Annabelle. “I may have to ask some of you to change seats. We’ve been adjusting the ballast so we don’t tip like we did on the first few flights.”
At this remark a low rumbling sound emanated from The Prince, who was now hunkered down between two overstuffed couches. Sali moved to the closest couch where she leaned over The Prince and started singing a quiet squirrel song. Sylvia looked backwards at the scene with concern. Gari concealed a chuckle. Conchita picked up a microphone and made an announcement.
“We are about to ascend more rapidly. Please stay seated until we reach altitude, at which time we’ll adjust the ballast, if necessary. This is a test flight, but The Prince has provided refreshments, to be served later. Please don’t leave your seats if you need anything. There are attendant call buttons along the lower edge of the windows, all around.” At this, she waved her wing dramatically to indicate the location of the buttons. “In addition, there are folding rope escape ladders at the front,” another wave, “and in the back.” A final wave, and she looked about the cabin with satisfaction. She took a second look at The Prince, eyes closed and looking more comfortable, the little squirrel still softly crooning in his ear. Conchita gave Sali a thumbs up and nodded to Gari in gratitude for his foresight.
As the zeppelin ascended, naked mole rats emerged from every nook and cranny possible, and distributed themselves at various control centers. With their abominable eyesight, they might seem to be a poor choice for topside duty, but in fact, it’s easy to be fearless if you can barely see past your whiskers. What tasks can be performed on the ground can just as easily be executed above the treetops, if it all looks the same. As for the ballast, Gari and The Prince were the two largest deadweights and Gari selected a seat opposite the prince as instructed. It was all working out per plan.
Annabelle and Sylvia discussed the flight path, while Bianca took notes.
“We weren’t sure what to expect, so we have a couple alternatives,” said Annabelle. “It looks like we aren’t quite up for a long flight.” She stole a glance at the prostate prince. “But we won’t abandon our plan entirely. Gari wanted to fly over Caplin’s cottage. He told you about that, right? Okay, I thought so. We won’t go as far as the Schist Castle, though. We’ll have to take our chances with a landing area tomorrow, but the entire property is a desert, there ought to be a decent parking area at the entrance. Queen Bonnie and King Clyde visit all the time, and she is very particular, so it ought to be fine. And The Prince particularly wanted you to have an overview of the principality because we might not have time for that tomorrow. So if that sounds good to you, we’ll do an overhead tour and then a drive-by cottage tour, and then get this bad boy home.” She glanced back at The Prince, still flaked out on the deep pile carpet, but without his petite serenade. Sali had bounced back up to be with her brothers in the cargo net above.
They were drifting above the palace, now. The hedges and corridors created a greenery maze, and the various areas were punctuated by canvas umbrellas, dramatic fruit trees like persimmon and grapefruit, flowering vines, and novelties like monkey puzzle trees and Harry Lauder’s walking stick. They passed over the dining room, the kitchen, and the breakfast room, with its waterfalls. They turned toward the entry drive and stopped for a moment over the koi pond and watched a synchronized swimming exhibition.
“Oh, my,” said Sylvia. “Dobby will be sorry he missed this! I’m sure they have been practicing all week!” She looked at her kids, hanging from above, watching the spectacle with ooohs and aaahs.
They floated past the deserted workshops and then headed out over the fields. Yesterday, Charlie and Hamish picked flowers all day for decorating the palace. Today they were catching up on the vegetable harvest for the special meals the prince had requested for his weekend guests. The sheep and wagons looked tiny from above, but the naked mole rats picking the smaller vegetables were invisible from this altitude. The wagons appeared to be loading themselves, and the stacks of peas and strawberries grew like magic in the baskets.
Annabelle guided the zeppelin past the fields, over the forest and to the river where last week’s test run took place. As she steered the wheel, naked mole rats above finessed the maneuvers by pulling levers to create drag on the fins, or streamline them to accelerate. As they followed the river, the zeppelin seemed to fly itself with little help from anyone. The crew and passengers relaxed. The prince sensed the calm and sat up. He seemed surprised to find himself on the floor and quietly eased himself up to the nearest empty sofa. He slowly turned his head toward the window and found himself face to face with an upside down squirrel.
“Hi, Dobby,” said Sali. “You had a nice nap. We’re over the river, now. A lot of your fields are brown and empty. Why? What happened to that forest? It looks like someone ate a chunk out of it and left the crusts.”
“That’s exactly what happened. Somebody ate the middle. It’s a meadow of birdseed, now,” said Dobby. “Charlie thinks if we plant trees again, it will mend the forest, and our fields will grow again. The magic is all broken there now. What do you think?”
Sali looked thoughtful for about four and a half seconds. “I think Charlie is exactly right. The magic leaked out of the forest through that hole. You need forest and fields, but that forest has a sickness and needs to heal. Is that river yours, too?”
“The Forest is in my care, but the rivers belong to everyone. That’s the same river that flows past your treehouse. Someday maybe we will fly again and follow it all the way to the sea. But not today.” Feeling less woozy, now, The Prince dared to look out the window again. He could see the Schist Castle in the distance. It was more bleak than he remembered, but there wouldn’t be any problem landing by the castle. The land was flat as a pancake, no trees or shrubs for miles. The distant ground looked pock marked by charred fissures. What were those, fire swamps? He shook his head and looked again. There were no fire swamps in the kingdom, or hadn’t been when he was young and explored there with Caplin instead of playing insipid birthday games with the princesses. And yet, he was looking down at burnt dirt, in an area that used to be meadows.
“You’re looking alive again,” said Gari. He was spreadeagle on the sofa directly opposite The Prince. “This is a pretty nice zeppelin. I’m impressed.”
Dobby pouffed a little as he regained his dignity. He turned and stared at his friend. “What do you mean by that statement? Of course it’s nice. It’s better than nice. Isn’t it Sylvia?”
Sylvia was still in the front passenger seat, staring intently forward. She had decided not to get involved.
“Let’s just say it’s working out better than the blimp,” said Gari. “Having Sylvia team up with Rodney was a good idea.”
“Yes, well of course, but I was instrumental in many of the design features,” said Dobby. “Wait, what did you mean about the blimp? I never told you the story about the blimp!”
“Oh, that’s right,” said Gari. “Why don’t you tell me about it now, then?”
Annabelle spoke briefly to Conchita, who hollered behind her. “We’re coming right up on Caplin’s cottage, now.”
Both capybaras rearranged themselves on their couches, Dobby looking out the left and Gari looking out the right. Gari looked out over the large road and the smaller path from the fields to the outbuildings. Dobby’s view was of the outbuildings, the forest edge, and the river. The bleakness of the Schist property sprawled beyond. He could now see smoldering earth near the largest fissures in the fire swamp.
“Do you remember fire swamps being so close to the river behind Caplin’s place?”
Gari laughed. “Fire swamps? There’s no such thing. Not around here, anyway. Maybe down south. Nothing interesting on my side, it looks the same. Caplin’s Jeep is still parked on the front pathway, doesn’t look like it’s moved. Vegetable garden’s cleaned out, of course. You’re joking about the fire swamps, right?”
Dobby wasn’t listening. He was staring intently below at what appeared to be big bumpy logs, or maybe something more menacing. He kept blinking his eyes and refocusing on the terrible spectacle below. He slowly turned to look for the squirrel kidlets. They were up in front by their mother, looking down on Gari’s side at the sloppily parked Jeep. Dobby tried to get Gari’s attention without alerting the rest of the passengers.
“Pssst, dude. Come over here and look at this.”
Gari answered in a much too loud voice. “It’s not fire swamps.”
“Okay, it’s not fire swamps. Come over here, now.”
Conchita glared at Dobby and shook her head, but Gari got off his couch, rolling his eyes at Conchita. He saw that Dobby was pointing straight down, and so did Conchita. Gari moved to the window and looked down.
“Holy cannoli! Alli—,” said Gari before catching himself “Fire swamp, you’re right!” Gari leaned further out the window at the same time Dobby leaned out to look, and the zeppelin wobbled and tipped to the left. In fact, Conchita had become alarmed and was now perched on the window, also looking down. As the zeppelin tilted, she nearly toppled out, but she had seen the alligators. Dozens of them, basking along the dry hot side of the river. While the naked mole rats quickly adjusted ballast, she spoke with quiet alarm to Annabelle, who turned the aircraft as sharply away from the spectacle as possible. This caused even more tipping and more scurrying.
Bianca looked in all directions, confused. “My goodness! Sit down everybody! Gari, what are you doing?”
Gari made his way back to his couch while Dobby sat down. This changed the weight dynamics once more, and resulted in even more scurrying. Bianca was still unaware of cause of the excitement, but Sylvia had caught on and was busy making sure her squirrels didn’t look out and become traumatized by the sight of the alligators. Dobby was looking green about the gills, again. Sylvia looked desperately at Gari.
“It’s snack time,” said Gari. “Who wants ice cream?”
To be continued . . .
The inevitable Cast of Characters:
This story needs a lot more illustrations! Select an event from this story (how about the alligators?), 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. Do know what spreadeagle means?