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Today's Story by Rebecca L. Brown

On the morning of the twenty third of June, perched upon its head was a small, perfect replica of a Norse helmet.

The Stuffed Red Squirrel of Case Twenty Four

In the National Museum in Cardiff, there is the skeleton of a whale. They have suspended it from the ceiling as if, in death, it has transcended its living realm. Shed your flesh, they might have told it, and you will be able to fly. And so it did. Perhaps they forgot to tell it about the hooks and wires which fix it in place and the ceiling which limits the heights to which it is permitted to soar.

I forget what kind of whale it is. Perhaps it would tell me if I asked it, although I doubt it would know – or care for – the definition humanity has given it. Barrmuuu, it might tell me, as if to illuminate me on its name, type and place in the world. Therefore I will call it Barrmuuu, since that is as good a name as any other – perhaps better than some, in fact.

The whale is not, in itself, important. It has been a witness to a crime – perhaps more – but is not in itself a criminal. Not any more, at least. I am afraid that the crimes of a whale and of whale-kind in general are far beyond my limited comprehension. Suffice to say that, by my own human standards, it has not committed a crime of any kind in at least the past fifty years.

It is the stuffed squirrel in case twenty four which I would like to bring to your attention – a red squirrel which was captured and stuffed by some unknown Scottish hand some twenty years ago. It is the one with the small bald patch to the left of its tail and a slightly crooked right ear. The one which is holding the facsimile of a hazelnut cast out of plaster and skilfully painted. It has black glass eyes – sometimes, when the light catches them just right, it seems to wink at you – and over-long, acrylic whiskers.

On the morning of the twenty third of June, perched upon its head was a small, perfect replica of a Norse helmet.

Upon noticing this, I immediately brought it to the attention of the nearest museum curator.

“I assume,” I told him, “that this is some kind of joke on your part.”

“Madam, I assure you that it isn’t.” I permitted myself to be madam-ed, although the gentleman was certainly no more than three years my junior.

“A little publicity stunt for some Scandinavian exhibition of yours in the near future, perhaps?”

“No Madam. I assure you…” We continued that way for a short while, me offering him a medley of finely crafted excuses which he denied one after the other as if they had been merely run of the mill explanations – an excuse, as I’m sure you will agree, is far superior, not least because it has a beginning, a middle and an end. An explanation is merely one step up from the truth and somehow never quite as enjoyable to hear.

The curator, on removing the helmet from the case, permitted me to examine the craftsmanship. It appeared to have been hammered out of thin sheets of bronze and riveted together along the joins. It did not have horns or any matter of horned appendage. Do not, please, mention to me the misconception which has given us so much ‘horned helmet’ imagery of late. The Norse were warriors and farmers, not unicorns and cattle…

But I digress – as it is my tendency to do.

I would, perhaps, have thought little more about the tiny helmet if I had not happened to pass case twenty four exactly one week later to find a small but perfectly formed gladius clutched in the squirrel’s paw.

Again, I fetched the nearest curator – who, by some stroke of chance was the same gentleman as before.

“Some Roman weapons display or other you have planned for the museum?” I asked him.

“Madam, I assure you that this was not our doing.”

Again, the sword was perfectly made despite its size. The blade was sharp enough to nick my finger open and perhaps would be enough to decapitate a rival grey squirrel in the right paws.

I must admit that, one week later, I was almost excited to see what would come next. This time, the curator was waiting for me by the case when I arrived.

“Again, Madam, this was not our doing…”

Around his neck, the squirrel wore a strip of leather on which had been suspended a number of crudely made clay beads. Patterns of lines and dots had been inscribed onto their surface before the clay had dried and they appeared to have been dipped into some deep red dye or other.

The squirrel, I feel I should point out, had made no attempt to hold onto his belongings when they were taken from him, nor had he deviated from his usual upright position – tail and paws extended, nose raised as if to enjoy some tantalising concoction or other of pastry, nuts and fruit.

“No jewelry exhibition planned?” I asked. “No ancient pottery exhibition?”

The curator shook his head.

“Not to my knowledge, Madam…”

I will not explain how I procured the keys to case twenty four. Instead I will excuse myself on account of my insatiable curiosity. I refuse to be bamboozled by a stuffed squirrel – or, in fact, by any fruit of a taxidermist’s labouring. Moreover, I am less inclined towards following any code of conduct laid out by gentlemen who Madam at me consistently over a three week period.

It is suffice to say that, when I arrived at case number twenty four, I was able to unlock the glass front and slide it aside so that I might join the assembled collection of Frankenstein’s woodland menagerie on the plinth of the display.

A young woman dressed almost entirely in frivolry and poise paused by the case to read the plaque – a short introduction to the creatures of British woodlands, from the red fox to the lesser known horse shrew. She peered up at me for a moment and then read the plaque again, presumably trying to decide which woodland creature I was supposed to represent. I assume that she came to a conclusion, since she moved on to the next case and examined it with equal disinterest.

“Madam, you must get down from there!” It was the same curator as before. Perhaps he too had been drawn here by curiosity to see how the stuffed squirrel was obtaining its miniature adornments. It was the how, you see, which piqued my interest, since I had come to my own conclusions regarding the why and the what. The squirrel, I had surmised was a time travelling thief, a purloiner of artefacts and purveyor of the past. How he had managed to obtain such scaled down objects I did not know – an alternate reality or some shifting of shape. Either way, it is impossible for me to be certain.

I believed that, by joining him in his case at the appropriate time, I would either be able to accompany him on his travels – become, if you will, his companion – or prevent them entirely.

“Do not Madam me.” I told the curator. A small crowd had gathered now that it had become obvious that I was not an intended part of the woodland exhibition. “I will come out when I choose.”

“Madam – ”

“I said do not!” I told him.

Perhaps it was only then that he noticed the absence of the key to case twenty four on his belt. He patted frantically at his uniform as if to put out some fierce and invisible fire.

“Madam! I must insist – ”

“Not until – ”

I must admit that it was only then that I happened to glance down and notice that the squirrel had vanished. Since it seemed apparent that my plans had been thwarted, I allowed myself to be removed from the case and taken temporarily into a different kind of custody.

They have contacted me several times to ask for the return of their small stuffed squirrel.

“If he was in my possession,” I told them, “I would surely return him to you…” But he is not. I assume that he had tired of having his ill-gotten gains taken from him – that or my intrusion in case twenty four somehow prevented him from returning. Either way, I fear that this will forever remain an unsolved mystery.

Unless, perhaps, we are able to ask Barrmuuu. I am sure that he knows more than he is able to tell us. One day, I may ask him – if, of course, the museum are kind enough to rescind their ban…


Rebecca L. Brown is a British writer. She specialises in horror, SF, humour, surreal and experimental fiction, although her writing often wanders off into other genres and gets horribly lost.

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