You can smell it in the air, can’t you? Blossom in the trees, dew on the meadow grass and the pungent whiff of steamy cowpats. Spring, and the world has come out of hibernation. And God, isn’t this a good place to be in the bright early morning? Just you and Bonzo and Nature. Christ knows, you needed to get away from everything in the City right now. Away from all that fakery and bullshit. This is the real deal.
You turn around and look back down the hill towards the cottage. Serena will be getting up now and trying to rouse Mimi, and Mimi will be complaining that it’s not fair because she’s on holiday, and Serena will be trying to tell her that she’ll miss out on all the holiday stuff if she lies in bed all day. And then she’ll give up and start to get breakfast ready.
And then you see the first one. Bouncing across the field with its little fluffy white scut flashing in the sun. Mimi used to keep a houserabbit back in Notting Hill. Little bastard spent all its time chewing the curtains and severing phone cables, until you gave her the ultimatum and it finished its days in the garage. Still, at least you never got pestered about a pet again.
Now there’s a whole stream of them scampering hither and thither in and out of the yellow cowslips, so you shoulder your Purdey, lean into the stock and pick one to track. Aim slightly ahead of it and fire the first barrel. Re-sight and pick up its chum with the second. Go, Bonzo! A minute or so later he’s back with two plump little bunnies in his mouth. Good lad. You take them from him, feel the soft fur in your hands, watch the blood congealing. Then you tuck them into your belt, and you begin to feel like a real countryman, not some weekend city boy. This is where you should have been all your life, living on nature’s banquet.
You reload, take aim and pick off a couple more. You tap Bonzo again, and he starts off towards them, but halfway there he stops. His ears prick up and he sniffs the wind. You call to him but he ignores you and sets off at ninety degrees to his current path, towards the woods. You call after him again, but he’s positively bounding away now and you realise that you’re going to have to go after him. So you start to run towards the woods, but as you near them you lose sight of Bonzo. You stop and listen, and then you convince yourself that you can hear something crashing about ahead of you, so you start to run again, into the woods.
You’ve been running for some time now, and you’re beginning to get a little out of breath. You joined a gym at the start of the year and you had every intention of going along to try to lose that spare tyre of yours, but you just didn’t have the time. Lunch hours? You’re kidding. Not when everyone’s scared of the axe falling on them next time around, and you’re all too aware that your area isn’t exactly pulling in a load of cash at the moment.
So you sit down on a log for a moment and try to gather your thoughts. The light’s poor here, but you can still see the dial on your Rolex. Is that really the time? No wonder you’re feeling hungry. Well, maybe Bonzo’ll come home when he’s good and ready. So you decide to make your own way back. But the trouble is you have no idea where you are. OK, so you were running in a straight line, but how straight exactly? And in any case, which way did you come from? When you look around you, it all looks the same in this half-light.
And for the first time today, you regret leaving your Blackberry back at the cottage. Serena complains every time it goes off, and this morning you thought to yourself, you know, she’s right? And you left it there on the kitchen table, just so she could see that you’d done it. Time for some work – life balance. But you could really do with the bloody thing right now.
So you make a decision. You’re going to tackle this like any other management problem. You’re going to pick a direction and start walking in it as straight and true as you possibly can. Sure, you’ll come across the odd tree in your path from time to time, but you’ll be careful to resume the exact route once you’ve gone past. You have your strategy and you’ve anticipated the pitfalls. You can’t lose. The woods can’t go on forever, can they?
An hour later and you’re no nearer the open air. In fact, you’re pretty convinced that the trees are more densely packed together here, and the canopy has closed over you. It’s getting colder, too. And, Christ, you’re not only hungry, but thirsty too. There are large animal footprints on the floor of the forest, and some of them are filled with rainwater, but you have a feeling that you’re not supposed to drink out of them. You think you hear a sound of snuffling behind you and for the first time you begin to feel a little scared. You turn around and see nothing.
But you pull yourself together. It’s not the strategy that has failed: it’s the implementation. You simply need to refine it and work a bit smarter. So you find the straightest stick you can and hold it out in front of you so that you can follow that line all the time.
Another hour goes by and you find yourself in a clearing that you’ve never seen before. By Christ, you are so thirsty now that you really will drink anything. And then you see him. Good old Bonzo. You start towards him, but you stop very quickly, because there, stepping out into the clearing next to him is an old woman swathed in a shawl. Her face is in shadow. She pats Bonzo on the head, who responds by looking up at her as if she’s always been his owner. Here, boy, you call. But he stays stock still by her side. Then she crooks a bony finger at you and beckons you to follow.
It doesn’t feel quite right, but you haven’t any choice. She leads the way back through the forest with Bonzo trotting happily by her side until they reach a little hut. She opens the door and the pair of them go in. You wonder whether to follow, but it’s the only option, so you duck your head and enter. There’s a kitchen through the door, and the old woman is busy with a kettle on the stove. You try to ask her who she is and where you are, but all you get is a kind of whispering, muttering sound that doesn’t sound like any language you’ve ever heard, and all the time Bonzo is giving you an odd, suspicious look. You reach to pat him, and he growls at you, so you back off.
The old woman, head still bowed, offers you the drink she’s just made. You wonder if you should take it but you really are so thirsty that nothing on earth would make you refuse. It tastes of bitter herbs, but you drain every last drop because you really are so bloody parched and then you hand the mug back to her and look for somewhere to sit down because you’re beginning to feel light-headed. You stumble through into the parlour, which is painted bright pink and it’s full of rows and rows of little tables with children’s sewing machines on them and you begin to wonder what on earth is going on here and then you think maybe you’re hallucinating or something and then it hits you that the bitch has drugged you, she’s sodding drugged you and she’s going to hold you for ransom or something or God knows what and you stagger back into the kitchen and grab hold of her by the shoulders and say to her, what in God’s name is happening to me?
And she turns to look up at you and you catch your first glimpse of her face, and it’s a horrible, distorted parody of a human face, held together with red, raw, deep scars and empty holes where the eye sockets should be. You gasp in horror, let go of her and stumble out into the forest and try to run away as fast as you can manage.
But your legs won’t obey you and you think if only you knew what it was she’d poisoned you with then maybe you could do something about it but there’s so many different herbs that you can find in a place like this you could be dead before you worked out which one it was and then Bonzo has caught up with you and his jaws are clamped tight around your ankle and he’s drawing blood and you try to take a swipe at him and you miss by a long way and the momentum carries through and you topple over in an awkward heap onto the forest floor.
Then there’s that whistling again from behind you and Bonzo releases his grip. The old woman comes up and she kneels down next to you and that revolting face comes in close. You try to turn yourself away from it, but something grabs your head so you can’t move. Then you watch as her cheeks starts to bulge on both sides as if something’s moving around in there, and then with a wet slapping noise, she begins to split open along the scar lines. The tearing carries on until her whole body is ripped apart along its seam from the inside and then dozens of angry little rabbits pour out of the carcass and swarm over you.
And for a moment you think to yourself, well at least they’re herbivores, and then you remember the curtains in your nice mews house back in Notting Hill and you realise that they’re not that bothered whether they eat you or just shred you, and you think of Serena and Mimi and all the times you spent together, and the last thing that goes through your mind would make you laugh if the pain weren’t so excruciating: why grandma, what big teeth you’ve got!
'Nature's Banquet' © Jonathan Pinnock 2009 will be published by Earlyworks Press later this year, in our myth and legend anthology 'Old Magic in a New Age'. Watch our Publications Page for details.