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The first sign Atris had that she was somewhere else was the muttering. It had started out quietly, but now it grew louder and louder. It surrounded her, as though she were in the middle of a crowd, and it was all really, really crazy.
“If turquoise were to turn the corner--” one high voice sighed before it was lost into the mash of crowd sounds.
“But no, the tuba is utterly inevitable. The kitchen counter prophesied--” she heard next.
“Steel doorknobs, they aren’t talkative—“
“Not if the trashcan is dancing again—”
“So I told that old beaver, who do you think you are, just because dishwasher humble magnet?”
“We were not under the influence, hardwood floors just sometimes throw—”
“Clocks. And clocks, and more clocks because clocks clocks clocks—”
“Oh, buttons,” said a more purposeful, clearer voice, and Atris wondered if one of these crazies was going to talk to her. She decided that now would be a good time to open her eyes, and realized that she was in the midst of a crowd. Animals of all sorts – from chipmunks to lions to monkeys to parrots – were lying about on the ground, muttering hazy things about amethyst straws and moths around sewer drains. Atris squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again. Nothing had changed, except for that the louder voice was speaking again. “Naberhies. Never change. No, no, no, they won’t lay off it, not even for a holiday – not even for a visiting day. Nabervague, always, and they won’t stop, and they won’t admit it’s a problem! What about those of us who aren’t addicted to the stuff! I mean, I won’t say I’ve never tried it, but honestly, what if a visitor—” It broke off, this time, Atris felt, truly directed at her. “Oh, buttons,” it said again. “We do have a visitor, right here – dear, have you been to the navigation center yet?”
It waited for a response. Atris shook her head, looking around for the voice’s source.
“Wait – surely you haven’t just arrived?”
“Oh, thimbles and prickery! Dear, you just follow the sound of my voice until we can get away – visitors coming straight into the naberhies, I don’t know what they’re thinking,” the voice mumbled. “Lock ‘em away, I say, for visiting days – every day would also be nice for those of us who cross the feathered and sheared plains every day, but visiting! oh, I can’t see what the use is.” The voice had slowly moved to the right, and Atris followed, continuing to search (in vain) for another human and wondering if she was going crazy.
“Um – excuse me?” she asked, wading through a couple of brawling foxes.
“I mean – you can hear them too? The animals, all making no sense, and – and – and talking?”
“Talking right out of their heads, oh yes, naberhies, never can trust—”
“But they usually do? Talk like this, I mean?” She circumvented two screaming giraffes, almost to the edge of the senseless plain.
“Oh, yes, the naberhies are always out of their minds. Nabervague, we call it.”
“But, I mean, that they –” Atris stopped. She had finally cleared the sea of talking animals, and she could finally see the source of the voice that had led her out.
It was a porcupine.
“Talk?” the porcupine finished for Atris. “Yes, we do. Dear, we really ought to get you to the navigation center.”
Atris closed her eyes one more time and pinched herself, hoping for once that when she opened them her face would be pressed against the glass at the zoo, rough hands gripping her arms and shoving her against the wall, forcing her to watch the snakes slither around, and that she would curse herself for opening her eyes but be so, so glad she was anywhere but here. She pinched herself, hard.
The porcupine was still there, looking at her with porcupiny concern. Oh, buttons, though Atris, and fainted onto the dusty purple grass.