Dust bath

“No, major, he’s not up yet. No, after the way he looked when he came in, I’m not waking him up.” Helene Morgan turned the bacon savagely as she listened to the phone. “That may be well be, but I’m not in your chain of command. We have this discussion every couple of weeks, and apparently—” She trailed off as the bedroom door opened a crack. Her husband, Adam Morgan, shuffled out into the kitchen and made straight for his dust bath. “Well, major, he’s up, but he’s still a chinchilla. I don’t know what you put him through yesterday, but you can call back this afternoon.” She ignored the protests on the other end and hung up.

Her daughters, Nina and Lisa, looked over from the kitchen table. “Mommy, did daddy just fall asleep in the dust bath?”

He had indeed. As they watched, he woke, make a few strokes in the dust, half turned over in it, then slumped, apparently asleep again. They watched this repeat for a minute or so, then Helene set about slicing chard and carrots. “Nina, come here and put sunflower seeds on this. Daddy’s going to have breakfast on your lap.”

“Why can’t he have breakfast on my lap?” Lisa asked.

“You got him last time he was a chinchilla at mealtime,” Helene told her. She spooned scrambled eggs and bacon onto plates for those in the family who were human at the moment, then went to fetch her husband from the dust bath. Adam was lying on his back, legs sticking straight up in the air. “Adam,” she said softly. His whiskers twitched. “Adam, time for breakfast.” Another twitch, but no other response, so she scooped him out of the dust bath. He opened one eye to give her a reproving look as she dusted him off, then deposited him on Nina’s lap, legs still sticking up in the air.

“Hi, daddy,” his daughter said, and dangled a piece of carrot near his nose. He twitched his whiskers again, waved his paws, then rolled slowly over to take the carrot and chew slowly on it. Helene looked on, arms akimbo. He had been straightforward with her when they got together, explaining that a mission gone wrong had left him a werechinchilla. She had been equally straightforward: he was welcome to be a chinchilla when he needed to—and his career often left him no other refuge—but no animals on the table.

After breakfast the girls manhandled him into the living room and wrapped him in a pink blanket decorated with bunnies. Helene found them there playing a board game with Adam, or rather, they rolled the dice, moved, made the decisions, and their father twitched his whiskers, which were the only part of him visible beyond the bunny blanket, in a gesture that could mean anything.

The base called again at lunchtime. “No, major,” she said, peering into the living room. “Yes, he is still a chinchilla.” A pause. “I’m sure he’ll call when he’s feeling up to being human again.” She hung up while the voice on the other end was still speaking.

The phone rang again that afternoon. “Major, I told you—oh, Betty, how are you?” She looked out the kitchen window to where the girls were playing in the yard, and Adam was sitting on the porch steps in the sun. He was sitting up rather than sprawling, an improvement on the morning. “No, Adam hasn’t changed back to human yet. Yes, Major Ledoc has been calling all morning. Has Eddy said anything yet? No? He’s still hanging from a tree branch? Good heavens, what did they do yesterday? No, of course we’re not supposed to know, of course it’s top secret, but the generals don’t live with a chinchilla and a fruitbat.”

When she called her family in for dinner, Adam was looking better. He hopped in by himself, and paused to rub against her leg. There were few things, she reflected, more cuddly than an affectionate chinchilla. “Go along, love,” she told him. “I’ve got some dandelions for you.” His grandfather had always eaten dandelions, and they reminded him of summers spent with the old man out in Alberta. He looked up at her, twitching his whiskers, then hopped over to sit beside her chair. Their daughters got him for breakfast and lunch, but when he was a chinchilla, he ate dinner on her lap, as he had when they were newlyweds. She sat down, set her napkin in her lap, and lifted him up onto it.

After dinner, the girls built a couch fort while he burrowed through it. Finally Helene called them for bed. Adam nuzzled each of them, then hopped out his cat door. Long experience had taught them that the presence of a chinchilla did not encourage their daughters to sleep.

She paused after the girls were asleep to look out on the porch. He was sitting motionless on the porch, looking up at the moon, and she didn’t disturb him. She was in bed, half asleep in the dark, when the quiet scrabbling on the floor told her he had come in. The noise crossed to the bathroom, and she heard the scraping of another dust bath, then a long pause, then water running in the sink. The bathroom door opened and a man’s silhouette appeared on the threshold before the light went out.

“Feeling better?” she asked as the bed creaked under his weight.

“Much,” came his voice, deep and rumbling in the dark. She smiled and nestled into the arms that slipped around her.