A Breathing Ball of Spikes

breathing ball spikes hedgehog

On a morning with whispering insects and spider webs hanging in the air,

Diane was reading a crime thriller by an author who often appeared on the back of her books complete with gleaming teeth and golden highlights. It was a book that gave her great joy after hours of perusing elusive, deca-syllabic scholarship.

The characters were not three-dimensional but may receive a score of two-and-a-half, on a good day, by a casual reader whose last read was a book by Cecilia Ahern. There was the archetypal short-fused, unfit policeman with marriage and alcohol problems almost as big as his beer belly. Then there was the ambitious, driven female who excelled at everything much to the dismay of her sexist colleagues and a pathologist who, on the surface, seemed cold and clinical (much like the instruments she used on the dead) but underneath had feelings like everybody else.

The plot of faked deaths, serial killers and politics in the workplace was complex enough to be confusing,

with chapters shifting from one scene or character to the next. Its non-linear progression could be read as avant-garde by a generous eye; but most likely it was just bad planning or a result of unbalanced proportions in the deadline/money/quality formula. It was enough to hold Diane’s attention in those drifting minutes between one task and the next.

It was now around half five or so; her dogs would be jumping all over her with dinner reminders soon. In the summer, they didn’t do dinner calls until half six (to be precise) but the short winter days played tricks on their sense of time. They were young and lively border collies who each had their own idiosyncrasies: Leon loved to devour humans with licks and extendable paws or escape through minute gaps in the wire fencing by squishing his body until, if life were a Warner Brothers cartoon, his eyes would pop out. Cookie often fell asleep on handbags and had a taste for mouse-hunting and eating plastic or cardboard.

Diane looked out into the spacious, hilly garden,

scanning round for the dogs, who usually just roamed around or lay down content on the grass. From a distance she could see Leon examining the bracken and shrubbery at the back of the garden. ‘Nothing extraordinary,’ she thought to herself, ‘he’s probably finding a new place to bury his ball.’

She returned to her book, reading about a serial killer named Jean-Baptiste Chardonne with physical deformities and baby-like hair covering his entire body. He was a Frenchman who was obsessed with the stone-faced pathologist. He sent her letters about ripping her clothes off and helping her to reach enlightenment by killing her.

Murder, abuse, nonsensical violence — these were things that Diane could not quite understand. Her feelings were not those of moral disgust or horror; it was more of a genuine lack of comprehension. These actions escaped her grasp, like the most complex philosophies or the laws of physics. Nonetheless, she was intrigued by such atrocities, naively believing that there must be a morsel of good or conscience or at least some kind of guiding device in all human beings. Even Jean-Baptiste felt that it was his spiritual duty to kill:

there was some rationale behind his misguided rapes, tortures and murders —however warped.

After a few more pages, she got up and walked down the long, narrow hallway to get a drink. The kitchen was littered with crumpled up pages and stained coffee cups, and the floor had patches of dog hair scattered here and there in soft cocoons. She renewed her resolve to stop letting the dogs run rampant around the house for the third time that day and walked over to the kettle, flicking on the switch. She was just about to reach in the overhead cupboard for a cup when she heard the frantic barks of Cookie, followed by Leon’s signature wolf-like howl. ‘What the hell…?’ she said out loud, walking briskly and with purpose to the back door.

Before even touching the handle she could see what the commotion was all about through the mud-smeared glass — Leon had his paw on a hedgehog while Cookie looked on, frightened and barking at the alien spiky ball. Diane laughed to herself before going out into the garden. ‘What is it?’ she cooed, ‘What did you find?’ She herself had never seen a hedgehog in the flesh.

It didn’t look the same as she imagined; the way she’d seen it as a child watching The Animals of Farthing Wood.

It was in protective mode, so its black raisin eyes were hidden. Its spikes were not as she imagined; it looked more like a circular prickly plant made of sporadic twigs than a quiet, gentle animal. Diane’s aunt Elizabeth had told her once how hedgehogs liked tinned dog food. ‘Priorities,’ she thought, ‘let’s get this thing out of the way of these over-friendly hounds before I jump ahead and plan adopting it.’

With determination and a certain aura of assumed heroism akin to slogan tee-shirts which tell us to save the trees, she ventured into the mossy garden. The hedgehog was rolled up in a tight, demented circle, expanding and contracting like someone blowing up a balloon and losing power mid-way through. Diane kneeled over the creature, contemplating her next move. There was no way she could lift this thing bare-handed. She would have to protect her hands from the spikes; or were they twigs? Whatever they were, they didn’t look soft to the touch. She looked around for a pair of gardening gloves.

Meanwhile, the dogs were in a furor, arguing with each other over who should be first to roll the ball down the hill. They were afraid; this ball was like no other. It moved by itself. Nonetheless, it looked fun to play with.

Barking hysterically, Leon shoved the ball with his paw and it rolled a few centimetres down the hill,

but was stopped by a haphazard shoot sprouting from the ground. This aggravated the dogs, and they both began roaring and howling over their predicament.

Diane searched in the shed, ablaze with stringy webs and dead spiders. She imagined a quiet green field with trees and an algae-covered pond with hovering dragonflies to keep from screaming. Diane came out beholding the gloves, the items which symbolised the beginning of the end of the adventure. She shook them upside down to make sure there were no spiders or any other moving small animal inside and put them on. Trepidation set in.

Cautiously, she placed her hands on the hedgehog and, gathering all her wits about her, lifted it off the ground. It was much heavier than expected; the weight was straining her wrists, which were already weak enough from years of smoking and not drinking enough milk.

She felt an indescribable sense of happiness at this — what was in her hands was alive and breathing, but hidden. It was in her reach, and yet a complete mystery.

There was some sort of deep joy at this realisation for Diane. It was as if her brain had been emptied; she felt blank, erased, and new. She was holding a creature whose rhythmic steady breathing reminded her of life, and the preservation of it.

Diane snapped back to reality and looked for a sensible spot to carefully place the hedgehog. It would have to be at the other side of the fence or the dogs would torture it again. They meant no harm but could end up injuring the hedgehog and themselves if they continued their ‘ball game’. Diane walked slowly to the rusted iron gate, watching her step, making sure not to trip over any garden hose or the broken leg of a garden chair. The last thing she wanted was to catapult the breathing ball of spikes in the air. She undid the brass lock and placed the hedgehog gently on the grass.

It was over. The hedgehog was safe.

And yet, Diane was mesmerised. She was hoping to see the hedgehog move off into the bushes. She waited in silence, remaining still and barely inhaling, her cheeks flushing with anxious expectation.

Not a movement. Her mind was blank: she was nothing, no one. Minutes, maybe hours, passed. The hedgehog remained in a tight circle, safeguarding itself from humans and dogs alike. Maybe in the restful darkness it would return home, wherever that may be. Daylight had too many risks for this sturdy, yet delicate and slow-paced animal.

Diane bade an internal, silent farewell to the hedgehog, gathering her thoughts and promising herself to change her priorities, life goals and ambitions. She would be more respectful of other living creatures now; make sure litter never fell from her hands; stop smoking; go for long walks and enjoy the country air; paint landscapes and live in a cabin; she would…

…And at that, she reached in her pocket for her lighter and lit a cigarette.