I take a left at the end of my street and turn down a barely used laneway. I’m trying to avoid people, trying to maintain social distance, or physical distance, or whatever the latest pandemic catchphrase is. Hardly anyone comes down this way. I know this from walking the dogs. In the daytime, the odd dog-walker ventures down this lane, but at dusk it’s just me and the homeless folks rifling through rubbish or stolen goods dumped by reprobate youth fleeing from shadows and whispers of police sirens.
I don’t have the dogs with me now. I had to get out on my own, needed to escape the constant noise, the constant overwhelm of 24/7 lockdown with my newly working-from-home family. I have become discombobulated, uncertain of my purpose, uncertain of my worth. I needed silence, and to breathe.
I stop and breathe; slowly, purposefully, feeling the air rushing through my nostrils, filling my lungs. I close my eyes, savour the stretch and tug as my chest expands. My spine lengthens and realigns, my shoulders drop. I feel the muscles between my shoulder blades loosen and unravel, freeing the stiff knots that had gathered there.
There’s a scrabble of pebbles at the other end of the laneway, the scuff of a shoe sliding unsteadily. I stiffen, open my eyes, peer into gloam trying to make out the hazy figure in the distance. It’s bent over, plodding and shuffling, reminding me of the urRu from the Dark Crystal. The figure ambles towards me, forms an outline. I strain to make out what it is, why it’s so familiar.
“Liquorice!” I yell, alarmed and delighted to see my old guinea pig — surprised at his existence, and his new size. Liquorice, now the size of my 86-year-old mother, materialises like a wizened oracle, his front paws in constant motion, rolling over each other in a repetitive preen.
“I— I thought you were dead. How did you— How are you so big?”
He holds up a paw and I fall quiet. Three breaths pass before he clears his throat.
“You have questions,” he says in a gravelly voice. “I understand.”
I’m not sure whether I’m more surprised by his ability to speak, or that his voice is so much deeper and more resonant than I had expected of a guinea pig.
“I tried to resuscitate you,” I say feebly. I want him to know that I gave him mouth-to-mouth, that my child clung to my leg, wailing as I tried to revive the limp body of his pet.
“I know,” Liquorice says gently, his face softening.
I want to tell him I’m sorry, to offer him comfort, to offer him– something. I want to tell him about my kid, how he grew up, what he’s doing. I want to tell him about my family, the family that he knew ever so briefly. I want to invite him to come home with me, to break bread, to share sanctuary. Visions of a feast at our dining table dance in my head. I imagine passing him lettuce and carrot, and the celery that he so loved and I still hate.
He raises his paw again, silencing my dreams this time.
“I’ve come to warn you. This disease, this virus, it is only the beginning. There are greater trials to come. You will need community. Gather your people, be ready.”
He searches my face for understanding. I nod. We stand together in silence, this guinea pig and I.
Slowly, deliberately, he lifts his paw, touches my cheek. Is this allowed? I wonder. Is a spectral guinea pig exempt from the new distancing laws? But I say nothing, lean my face into his paw, relish the warmth of his fingers against my skin.
“I have to go,” he says, his voice dropping to a whisper, filling with tenderness.
“Please stay. Please come home with me.” I search his face for a sign of concession. The sadness in his eyes slips into the downward turn of his mouth.
“I have to go,” he says again.
He turns to leave, pauses, twists his head back towards me. “There are greater trials. Be ready.”
As the last notes of his warning ring out, he disappears.
“Liquorice,” I call softly. The silence swallows my voice.
I take a deep breath, nod to myself, or the memory of Liquorice, or the task I’ve been set, turn on my heels and head homeward. I have a purpose, a promise to keep.