Cleo Egnal was featured at Bard College, reading the following story. Listen to the episode here.
She would later say that it was quite an ordinary day and leave it at that, closing the shutters on all their questions and doubts. Inspiration was entirely common then, after all, so why should hers be any point of discussion or scrutiny? Mainly, they likely would not believe her. They’d laugh her off, strip her of her publication and fame. So she would, after the course of events, dismiss her experiences as some nonsensical daydream that sparked something within her, prompting her to jot down her remarkable journey and dilute it into a simple imaginative children’s book. She knew better. There would be more than one book, of course, and she could never thank whom she truly needed to—a little country rabbit named Peter.
The sun was warm—not too warm. A slight breeze ruffled his greyish brown fur as he settled into the tall grass, dozing but not asleep, dreaming while awake. It had been a long day of scavenging through gardens and avoiding gardeners—those he knew to be the tall, looming men that chased after him with their shaking fists and their gardening tools. His mother always warned him to stay away from humans, but he liked the adventure that peppered his otherwise dull afternoons.
His haunches twitched as he drifted closer and closer to sleep. He could hear the chatter of squirrels and the flutter of birds’ wings. He supposed he could chase some insects or clean himself to pass the time before supper, but he was quite content to lie in the sun and ruminate on his interactions with one particularly rude fellow, a gardener no less, towards whom the little creature possessed much hatred and simultaneous curiosity.
He heard his mother’s familiar call, and reluctantly drew himself up from the soft ground. He would go home, but he was determined to stop for at least one more rest along the way, for the day was too nice to waste indoors with his silly younger siblings. He took notice of three things upon rising: the dent he left in the small patch of grass, the way the sky could have been either blue with small white clouds or white with large blue clouds and that someone should explain that to him later, and the inexplicable feeling that something exciting was about to happen. He shook off these thoughts easily, remembering how his mother always told him he had a penchant for thinking too deeply and too often, and hopped drowsily back home. After all, everyone knew rabbits had too many thoughts for their own good.
Beatrix woke with a start. The first thing she became aware of was the dull throbbing at her temples, which caused her to keep her eyes shut hard against the pain. The second thing that caught her attention was that when she reached up a hand to massage the spot to perhaps lessen the soreness, her limbs met the action with quite a great deal of resistance. Thirdly, there slowly washed over her a uniform and overwhelming feeling that she was not herself, and in fact had left her own body entirely.
Her pink nose twitched—which surprised her, as she did not know she was capable of twitching her nose. As she inhaled deeper, she was greeted by the strong scent of fresh grass and a vague citrus, the latter seeming somehow to be coming from very far off. Again Beatrix attempted to lift an arm, and again she failed, so she decided upon an investigation and promptly opened her eyes and shifted her gaze downwards.
It took Beatrix approximately fifty-two seconds to realize she had somehow become a rabbit. The fact should have startled her, but the soft breeze and warm sun calmed her greatly. She felt contentedly drowsy, albeit entirely confused, and determined to wake up from what was surely a very silly dream—but not before she enjoyed herself a bit first, of course!
Meanwhile, Peter was in a state of much less calm and much more intrigue. He had awoken underneath linens, which he never knew the texture of until that moment but had seen a handful of times through garden windows. Hands. He had hands! Upon feeling an itch at either side of his head, where his large floppy ears no longer were, he instinctively went to scratch with his hind leg but instead found fingers grazing his skin. Skin, free from fur…
It was a pleasant sensation but startling nonetheless. He began to think about his mother—she would be worried. Peter knew he was nowhere near home, he couldn’t smell the orange groves. Peter’s next thought was that if he was here, underneath linens with hands and therefore most likely somehow in a human body, perhaps somewhere there some human was hopping around in his! The thought irked him, and he was gripped by a wave of possessiveness. Peter must get back to his body, there was no doubt about it, but the linens were so comfortable, it felt quite different from the bare sun but different in a good way, so maybe he should continue to lie in this human body for a little while longer. His mother would not want him to squander opportunity, after all, and Peter was such a great fan of adventure.
Beatrix felt a bit timid in exploring her dream. She had never possessed the ability to engage with her unconscious mind before, and she was unsure of what to do or what the results would be. Using her new limbs did not pose as much of a challenge as she’d expected; in fact, she moved as gracefully as if she had been born in this small body. Beatrix was one of those lucky (or perhaps unlucky, depending on your view of it) dozers who frequently remembered her dreams upon waking. Because of this, she was very aware that her senses were more heightened in this dream than they ever were before—the colors were more vibrant, the scent of grass and oranges and a million other things she didn’t recognize were strong, the warmth of the sun and all the various new sensations she had never experienced before (such as the wind in her fur—fur!) seemed incredibly, well, real. There was a brief moment, while she rose and began hopping about as naturally as if she were walking to retrieve the post, when Beatrix doubted whether or not this was truly a dream. She panicked slightly at the thought—if this were really happening, how could she ever get home? Her moment of worry was short-lived, however, for just as she began to recognize her situation, she heard a voice call out.
“Peter! Peter, where are you?” The voice soothed her instantly. Perhaps in the back of her mind she realized this was in fact not English—not even a human voice for that matter—but it didn’t cross the front of her brain. “Peter, there you are!” The voice—the noise—came from behind. Beatrix maneuvered to turn to the sound, which she discovered came from another rabbit.
“Am I Peter?” Beatrix mused aloud, still mostly unaware she was not communicating in any familiar language.
“Don’t play games, brother. Mama wanted you home over an hour ago. She sent me to fetch you, supper’s getting cold. Please, Peter, I’m hungry!” The mention of food made Beatrix’s stomach rumble.
“Of course. You lead the way.” She decided to play along, it would be much more interesting than being alone.
“Fine, but don’t wander off! The others are hungry too.”
“I won’t,” Beatrix-as-Peter promised as she hopped alongside who could only be Peter’s sister. Peter seems like the kind of rabbit to dabble in mischief, if there is such a kind, Beatrix thought. He has a Mama and a sister he’s left worried and hungry! She was irked with Peter in that moment, not remembering that in a way she herself was Peter, and that perhaps she was simply a mischievous rabbit in her own right. And the ‘others’…perhaps it is an entire family! Beatrix allowed herself to ruminate silently on this rather than return to her nervous thoughts from earlier that maybe, in fact, this wasn’t a dream at all.
A sound from not too far off startled Peter out of his daydream. He was imagining walking up to the gardener’s cabbages and ripping them from the soil with his new strong hands. The gardener would be furious, of course, as always. This time, though, Peter wouldn’t be afraid. He wouldn’t run away. He’d stand tall on his human feet and say in his human voice,
“Mr. McGregor, pardon me, I will take your cabbages now, good day.” He would be polite and articulate, and would leave the gardener agape and speechless rather than red-faced and screaming. Peter was just in the middle of imagining bringing the cabbages back to Mama when a sharp sort of ringing sound made him jump. He somehow knew it came from the front door of the house he was currently in. Without having to try terribly hard Peter was able to stand from the bed, steady as anything.
What was a doorbell? Peter felt a sort of battle going on in his brain between the things he shouldn’t know or be able to do and somehow being able to know and do these things, these strange human things. Words and ideas flooded his mind, which usually had enough room in it for individual thoughts to float around and knock into each other but was now crowded and close to bursting. He was able to realize that he did not usually think in words or phrases the way he was beginning to. His mind’s eye was usually filled with images, textures, smells; reactions instead of memories, sporadic thoughts rather than a consistent stream of them. He started to feel overwhelmed and nervous, as though Mr. McGregor finally caught him and stuffed him in a thick brown sack.
Peter decided not to answer it. He was still, after all, a rabbit at heart and slightly wary of humans despite himself presently being one. He was more concerned with getting all those words out of his head so he could climb back in bed and enjoy the sheets and try to clear his mind so he could figure out how to get home. He walked to the door to perhaps leave the bedroom, but when he put a hand on the doorknob he became suddenly timid and afraid to open it. He turned around instead, faced the room, and took in his surroundings. The tall bed with its white sheets and four posts in the center of the square room, pushed against a pink-papered wall. A small table on either side of the bed, the one to the right supporting a hefty stack of books. He had never seen books before…and to the left, against the wall with the large windows and gauzy curtains a dark mahogany desk covered in clean paper and ink. He walked over to the bedside table and took a book in his hands, feeling the feathery-light weight of each individual page as he flicked a thumb over the edges of the pages as if this was something he frequently did. He felt the heavy black leather cover and the engraved letters on the spine. He took the book over to the desk, sat in the chair, and somehow—an action beyond his comprehension that he decided not to think too hard about—began to read.
The longer she hopped along the less aware Beatrix became of the things she usually thought about. The words in her head began to jumble and her memories grew hazy. Yet this mental shift did not concern her. Rather, she felt more free somehow, unburdened and careless. Moreover, she began to forget her human self entirely—she was, in a way, becoming Peter. She felt concretely natural hopping behind this stranger rabbit that did not feel like a stranger. Peter’s sister no longer felt like a different species to Beatrix, no longer seemed outsider. Beatrix’s concept that this was all a dream was slowly slipping away. She had flashes now and then of her life before this bizarre event; her big front door, the light from the sun as it set in front of her desk as she drew, tea and biscuits. Yet these things came to her more in images than anything else, and they had a fuzzy gloss over them as if she were looking at them through old, smudged glass.
“Finally,” the sister sighed, stopping so abruptly Beatrix almost slammed into her from behind.
“We’re here,” Beatrix said slowly, making an effort to eliminate the question from her tone. She didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that she was not who this rabbit thought her to be, but she was confused and was having trouble containing it. All she could see was grass and trees and boulders—she realized that she didn’t know where or how rabbits lived.
“Of course we’re here, silly. Come on, then.”
“You’re acting perfectly strange today, Peter,” the sister said, still with her back to Beatrix so that her expression was unreadable. Beatrix was unsure if she could even read a rabbit’s expression, despite her further immersion in the rabbit experience with each passing moment. A picture of her house slipped into her mind just then, and Beatrix was struck with a sudden panic—the sort that grips one when one cannot sort out who exactly one is. Had she always been a rabbit? Was she Peter, or was she Beatrix? Why couldn’t she piece together anything concrete from before she woke up in that field, in this body?
“Come ON, Peter!” Beatrix shook the fear from her mind and looked up to see the sister drop down suddenly into the ground behind a large boulder. Her curiosity was stronger than her fear or confusion in that moment, so Beatrix went over to the spot and saw a small round hole dug into a mound of dirt on the side of the boulder. The sister was nowhere to be seen. Beatrix heard an echoed cry of Peter lurch up at her from the hole, and she figured that the sister had made her way into that very hole. Beatrix swallowed her hesitation and followed suit, crawling through the dirt opening. She found herself suddenly entrenched in darkness, but realized that somehow her body knew where to move without needing to see the path. She thought of it as being the same as her ability to wander to the kitchen late at night with no candle to grab a handful of crackers to curb a midnight hunger. Beatrix allowed her new body to guide her through the tunnel that seemed to slope slightly downwards, as if she were treading on a small decline. As suddenly as she was plunged into the darkness she was bathed in light; she had come to a large opening in the tunnel, what she could find no other words for but sitting room or parlor. There was a fireplace on the left, a long wooden table situated on top of a dark red carpet in the center of the room, and a full stovetop kitchen on the right. Pots and pans hung on the wall above the little stove, where something that smelled familiar was boiling. A coat hanger stood next to the fireplace, with three little red coats strewn carelessly on its hooks. Beatrix should have found this entirely strange, but as she was still convincing herself she was dreaming she pushed aside her wariness and embraced that fact that whoever these rabbits were, they lived quite similarly to herself.
“Oh, Peter darling, there you are. We were all very worried. And you forgot your coat!” This was not the sister, but another female rabbit, older, with gentle eyes and a nose that seemed to twitch in concern.
“I’m sorry,” Beatrix replied, staring at this new rabbit with curiosity. She instantly felt washed over with a sort of calm and drowsiness. Could this be—
“Mama, I practically had to drag him here,” the sister complained.
“Now Flopsy, I’m sure your brother did not mean to hold up dinner, did you, Peter?”
“No…Mama…I’m sorry,” Beatrix stumbled. She realized she could read rabbits’ expressions, for she noticed a look of concern and question on both of their countenances. She was not blending in as Peter, it would be much more difficult in front of Mama. She had to do a better job if she had any chance of a warm meal and safe place to sleep that night.
“Dinner smells good,” Flopsy, the sister, said, breaking the silence. “Can we eat now?”
“Yes, dear, just call Mopsy and Cotton-tail to the table.” Flopsy hopped off down another long corridor that extended from the far end of the room. Mama and Beatrix were left alone.
“You do not seem yourself, Peter. Is everything all right?” Mama’s sweet voice made Beatrix want to crumble into a ball and cry. It quickly occurred to her that she was very nervous, and desperately wanted to be home.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I tried to explain,” she said softly.
“Come, sit by the fire with me.” They went over to the fireplace and lowered themselves in front of the heat, Beatrix avoiding eye contact for fear she would begin to cry, if rabbits could even do so. The thought of not being able to cry saddened her further, for some reason, and she let out a small whimper.
“Peter never whimpers,” Mama said gently. “Now, I am not sure what has happened, but I am sure that you are not Peter.” She did not sound accusing or harsh, but rather understanding and worried, which made Beatrix feel safe.
“No, I am not Peter,” Beatrix replied. “My name is Beatrix and—well—I am—or was once—I don’t know how I got here, in this body, in this place. I am just a bit frightened, I’ve realized. I have been telling myself it is all a strange, strange dream.”
“One often convinces oneself of things when afraid,” Mama replied kindly.
“Yes. Well, all I know is I fell asleep in my bed at home and woke up in a field, as a rabbit!”
“That is quite peculiar,” Mama said. “And if you are here, having woken up in Peter’s body, that must mean—”
“Peter the rabbit is awake in mine,” Beatrix replied.
“And what body would that be? Are you a cat? Heavens, are you a fox?”
“I am a human,” Beatrix said hesitatingly, unsure of what rabbits thought of humans, if they thought anything of them at all.
“My, my, a human,” Mama mused carefully. Beatrix could not gauge exactly what it was that Mama was thinking, but it did not seem all together pleasant. “It makes sense, somewhat. Peter has a dreadful habit of getting himself into mischief with humans. One in particular. I could be certain that he was off on one of his adventures this afternoon and lost his coat on the excursion. That, of course, explains the missing coat but not the change in, well—”
“Yes.” Beatrix did not quite know what to call the situation either. She noticed, however, that the more she conversed with Mama the less confused she felt and the more clearly she was able to process the thoughts that earlier circled her head without direction or purpose. Her memory, however, still seemed filtered through a foggy lens, and she had trouble remembering exactly what her life was like with the exception that she knew she was human, and that she was Beatrix, and she knew now she was certainly not dreaming. The clearer her mind became the clearer it was to her that her experiences were utterly real, despite the nonsensical nature of them. As Beatrix came to the conclusion that she truly was somehow trapped in a rabbit’s body, she became increasingly nervous and homesick, although she could not put her finger—or paw, now—on what home quite was.
“Do not be afraid,” Mama said, interrupting Beatrix’s racing thoughts as though she could read them. “You will have a hot meal and a good night’s sleep, and we will get this all sorted out in the morning.”
Beatrix nodded, or something of the sort, and tried to swallow her fears. She wanted to return to that blissful place of earlier, when the sun was warm on her back and her mind was free of concern or understanding. Yet she knew to return to that would somehow be counterproductive to getting herself home, and oh, how desperately she wanted to be home!
“Ready for supper, Mama.” Flopsy had returned with two other rabbits, quite young from the look of them. Bunnies, perhaps.
“Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, I must tell you something, and you must pay close attention, my darlings,” Mama said. Once the three rabbits gathered around Mama and Beatrix, Mama made introductions.
“Children, this is Beatrix, and she is a human. Now, shall we have supper?”
Peter closed the book gently. The world seemed a bit brighter and duller at the same time, a sensation he could not understand but did not entirely dislike. He realized he was a bit hungry, but wanted to—or had to—sit and absorb the experience he just had rather than try to scavenge for something to eat. Knowing he could read did wonders for his confidence in what he could accomplish in this body, but he still felt a twinge of concern at thinking about exiting the bedroom. No, he would sit for a while longer, and think about Wonderland.
Alice, the young girl at the center of the story, reminded him much of himself. It surprised him that he did not identify more with the character of the White Rabbit, for obvious reasons, but his personality was much more suited to Alice. The White Rabbit was always in such a rush, always so nervous and, as Peter imagined him, with a small twitch in the corner of one eye. Alice, however, was adventurous, bold, prone to tears on occasion but overall brave and open-minded. Yes, Peter and Alice were certainly cut from the same cloth as far as he was concerned. Peter never had compared himself to another before, especially not to a human, and the action caught him off guard. He did not like the feeling of inadequacy, that perhaps Alice was better than him, for she had real adventures, whereas Peter simply slinked along in forbidden gardens for sport. However, Peter thought, being here, in this body, was almost like entering Wonderland and having grand adventures like Alice. He realized that it was not very adventurous to simply be sitting here and reading—the very activity that caused Alice to want to escape in the first place—and in fact was rather quite dull. Peter knew what he had to do, of course, the answer was staring him in the face. He had to leave the bedroom.
The first thing he noticed after opening the door was the sheer length of the hallway. It didn’t seem to end, and perhaps it was similar in length to those he was used to in the burrow, yet those corridors were dark and he could not see how vastly they stretched on. Light poured in from two large windows that lined the walls on one side, so Peter could clearly see just how far he had to venture to reach the staircase. He knew that there was a staircase, for he could see the drop at the end of the hall, but did not know how he knew what a staircase was. He had never encountered one before, but he could not be afraid of it, he had to be like Alice. He made his way towards the looming drop, telling himself the fact that he could not see the end result of where he was going was just like crawling through the burrow. He had a brief thought about the human that was possibly in his body, and wondered if it also was afraid, if it was afraid of the burrow. But no, of course, it would be with Mama, and no one could be afraid when with Mama.
He passed a faded yellow armchair that sat against the wall with no windows, almost as though it was meant for a room and someone had forgotten it, and on the armchair sat a small animal, a rabbit! Peter hurried over to the figure, and began to converse.
“Hallo, Benjamin, is it you?” The animal looked immensely like Peter’s younger cousin, Benjamin Bunny, but when Peter spoke to him the rabbit did not respond. Peter took a closer look and realized the rabbit was a fake. Stuffed animal. Toy. Not real. Peter at this point had stopped questioning the words that floated around his mind, words he was not supposed to know but that came to him when he did not know how to explain something. Disappointed, Peter ventured on. He passed precisely two doors, the one he came from and another one that came after the armchair, both on the side of the wall with windows, in between them, the armchair being exactly across from the two windows. Peter wondered for a moment at the things he was noticing in that hallway, things he did not usually pay attention to. The windows made him realize the lack of light inside the burrow, and he couldn’t decide in that moment which he preferred. However, the thought was fleeting, and Peter took notice of the second door. It was slightly ajar and Peter peeked in, his curiosity always bubbling regardless, apparently, of the situation. He saw a handful of contraptions he did not recognize, and could have sworn he smelled the fresh scent of water. His nose at the moment, however, was nothing like it was back in his true body, so he was not certain. Peter lost interest in this strange second room, and so he continued on, but as he continued he realized that he did not have any further to go. He had reached the staircase. It took him no time at all to walk along the seemingly endless stretch. Of course, Peter thought, chastising himself, I am much bigger now. He allowed himself a moment to look down at the steps before trying to muster the courage to descend them. What if he fell, and injured himself? There was no Mama here to tend to his wounds. Truth be told, most of his wounds were a result of his adventures, so Peter figured this was not much different. Just as he thought about turning around and retreating back to the bedroom, Peter heard it again. That startling, brassy sound. Doorbell. Peter thought again of Alice, and knew she would not run away. Determined, Peter placed a foot on the first step, took a deep breath, and went down his first staircase.
It was slow going for a bit, but once he reached the first landing he had no trouble turning the small corner and flying down two at a time to reach the bottom. The doorbell sounded again. Rather than looking around as he was planning earlier, Peter rushed to the door the moment he spotted it. He barely avoided crashing in to the small circular table cluttered with papers that stood in the center of the—the—foyer. He was excited, now, a true adventure so close, not on the pages of a book but right in front of him! Peter put a hand on the doorknob, the large golden thing that stood in between him and Wonderland. With what he could only imagine to be muscle memory, Peter swung open the door. He found himself face to face with another human, one with gentle features and a broad smile. She, for it was certainly a she, wore a large hat adorned with silly ruffles and flowers—Peter thought Flopsy would quite like to wear something of the sort—and a dress that to Peter looked quite uncomfortable. It was nothing like the loose cotton dress and apron Mama liked to wear when she cooked. Peter wondered if this human felt about her dress the way he felt about his little blue coat—that is was restricting, cumbersome, and pointless.
“Beatrix Potter! There you are. I came by earlier but you did not answer the door. I suppose you were doing some of your marvelous illustrations. No matter, I am just in time for tea. May I come in? Beatrix?”
“Certainly, please.” Peter spoke without thought; the words came to him as naturally as hopping, and slipped out of his mouth smoothly and, he hoped, sounding normal. He supposed this Beatrix was the human whose body he was in.
“It certainly seems you were not expecting company this late in the afternoon,” the human said with a tone Peter did not quite like. “Perhaps you had forgotten our plans for both our earlier outing and tea!” When Peter said nothing, she continued, “I mean, of course, just the way you are dressed, dear. No harm.”
“No, no harm indeed.” Peter felt offended but he was not sure why. He saw nothing wrong, when he looked down at himself, at the white cotton shift and pink silk dressing robe he had woken up in. He found the materials pretty and comfortable, unlike what the other human was adorned in.
“May I take your hat,” Peter inquired. The woman nodded curtly and handed the large thing to Peter, who instinctively placed it on the round table on top of all the papers.
“My, Beatrix, are those some of your illustrations? I would love to take a look at them over tea.” She indicated to the papers Peter had just disturbed—a few of them had fallen to the floor, and their content seemed to have caught the human’s attention. Peter picked up the papers, noticing that they were illustrations mostly of mushrooms but some of frogs and other things. He tucked them under his arm and motioned for the other human to go first, for that was the polite thing according to whatever gear in his brain kept turning and telling him what to do. Peter was grateful for it, for he was sure he would have simply no idea how to conduct himself and would thusly confuse the other human and perhaps ruin the reputation and social standing of the human whose body he inhabited. He, of course, had no idea what reputation and social standing were, but something told him they were very, very important things to maintain. The other human walked—sauntered—forward, and Peter followed, suddenly less eager for his adventure and feeling much more burdened by it.
After they had all finished supper, and Flopsy begrudgingly cleaned up, Mama announced to her children, and Beatrix, all drowsily gathered around the fire, that it was time for bed. Beatrix had no sense of the time; she was not even sure if that wonderful afternoon sun had set yet. They were underground and guarded, and besides Beatrix did not know the sleeping habit of rabbits so she could not gage the time based on this, and thus could not exhibit surprise at the seemingly earliness of it all. It struck her, though, that regardless of the hour she felt quite tired.
“Oh but Mama,” Cotton-tail whined, in a way that reminded Beatrix of something familiar. “Must we?” Mama merely smiled knowingly, and Beatrix sensed this was a ritual the little family went through nightly. She briefly wondered about Peter and his role in the bedtime resistance; would he complain, be dismissive, lead the charge? Beatrix stayed silent, unsure of the part she felt somehow she would be meant to play if her identity had not been revealed.
“Yes, my love. Now—”
“But Mama!” Cotton-tail interrupted, her whine increasing in volume. Mama seemed to be deep in thought then, mostly likely about how to avoid a debacle she probably knew all too well. Flopsy and Mopsy looked between their mother and sister expectantly, waiting to see what would happen next. They all seemed to forget about Beatrix, until Mama said,
“Beatrix, I’m sure they would all love for you to tell them a story, wouldn’t you, my loves?” All at once the three siblings hopped up and gathered around Beatrix.
“Oh yes please,” Mopsy said, and Flopsy and Cotton-tail made sounds in agreement. Beatrix snuck a glance at Mama, who seemed pleased with herself and also maybe a bit weary and relieved.
“I—I will have to try and remember one,” Beatrix said slowly. She felt it would take a lot for her to recall an entire story from her life before the burrow.
“All right, well, get into bed. Beatrix will be there shortly, I’m sure her memory will not fail her.” The bunnies obediently hopped off down a corridor, disappearing instantly into the darkness. “I appreciate this, truly,” Mama said to Beatrix. Beatrix nodded, or at least thought she had. Could rabbits nod?
“My pleasure, but I’m afraid I’m having just a bit of trouble remembering a story.”
“I’m certain it will come to you. Here, this way.” Mama headed down the dark corridor, expecting Beatrix to follow. Beatrix shoved aside her nervousness—why couldn’t she remember—and hopped behind. This corridor was shorter than the first she had traveled down, and soon she found herself in a small candle-lit room in which sat four little beds and four little bedside tables. The three bunnies were settled already underneath three red patch quilts, and on the fourth bed a matching blue quilt sat undisturbed. Peter’s bed. Beatrix thought quickly back to the red coats she remembered seeing strewn across the coat rack, and smiled inwardly. The entirety of the burrow was, all in all, incredibly quaint. Beatrix marveled at how the rabbits lived, so similarly to humans in a way that made Beatrix feel as though she were in another world entirely. That’s when she remembered what story she wanted to tell.
“Have you three heard of a girl named Alice?”
The bunnies fell asleep before Beatrix finished her story. When she realized they had dozed off, she turned uncertainly to Mama.
“I don’t know what to do now,” Beatrix admitted. Mama smiled her warm and now familiar smile.
“You told such a wonderful tale, and you must be tired.”
“In fact, I do feel a bit drowsy.”
“Why don’t you get into Peter’s bed? After all, he won’t be using it tonight.” Beatrix detected sadness in Mama’s voice, and suddenly felt very guilty, as if she had stolen something. In a way, she had.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” she said hastily.
“I insist. Every rabbit—or person, I suppose—deserves a warm bed to sleep in. Like I said, we can figure it all out in the morning.” Her tiredness overcoming her manners, Beatrix climbed reluctantly but happily into the small bed. Instantly she felt calm and relaxed, as if nothing wrong has ever or could ever happened.
“You know, I know a few stories myself. Would you like me to tell you a story, to help you sleep?” Beatrix made a noise that seemed to convey ‘yes,’ for Mama began to tell the story of a duck named Jemimah. As Beatrix listened to the story, drifting closer and closer to sleep, she realized she was having some trouble understanding Mama’s words. Right as she fell asleep, Beatrix felt as though she was listening to another language entirely.
After Peter had shut the door behind his unexpected, and eventually unwelcome, guest, he stood silently in the foyer, wondering what to do next. The adventure Peter had in mind when he answered the door did not pan out in an exciting way—rather, it had left him feeling tired, bored, and homesick. He could not imagine how two people could sit around, drinking dreadful concoctions, discussing nothing of true importance. All the woman talked about were Beatrix’s drawings, something about mushrooms and small animals. It was nothing Peter was interested in the least. However, as the sound of the door closing reverberated around him, he was struck by an idea. If he was in this body, the body of someone with a talent for drawing, perhaps he himself could draw with her hands. But what to draw? Another pang of homesickness flooded through him, and he was overcome with the desire to simply draw his family. He remembered the beautiful illustrations from Alice in Wonderland, the incredible renderings that punctuated the story. Maybe Peter could make drawings like those, and he could feel more connected to home. After all, when he was reading, he felt utterly absorbed by both the drawings and the words. Words—Peter had words now. Human words, just like Alice. Maybe he could also use words. With a new determination, Peter raced upstairs to the bay window desk. He gingerly picked up a piece of paper from the stack on his left, and a fountain pen—whatever that was—from the collection in the little glass jar on his right. The first stroke, a mere blob of ink, rather, was truly a disaster. Peter felt immensely frustrated. He was able to answer the doorbell, serve tea, take the obnoxious woman’s hat; yet he couldn’t use a pen properly. Why was this the one thing his new body wouldn’t let him do?
Peter drew in a breath and attempted again to make a clean, pretty line. He managed to draw a thick, crooked one, but it was a line nonetheless. Feeling proud of himself, and a tad cocky, he threw himself into his task. He finally looked up at the window again after several hours—he had completed his project just as the sun had begun to set. A pink haze had settled over the horizon, a warm fuzz blanketing Peter’s view. He yawned; something about the encroaching darkness left him feeling quite tired. He noticed his hands were covered in black ink, but he shrugged it off. He had gotten into worse messes, after all. His thoughts wandered to forbidden gardens and blue and red quilts and coats.
He yawned again and smelled oranges and fireplaces. His thoughts began to jumble, and he had trouble remembering what he had done that day, or where he was, for that matter. He took a glance down at the stack of papers in front of him, the first one reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The longer he looked at the words the harder it became for him to make out the letters. Eventually, as he flipped through his work, he could only make out the pictures. They left him feeling calm and happy, comforted in a way. Peter pushed away from the desk and walked, not very gracefully, over to the bed. The moment his head hit the pillow he was sound asleep, dreaming of a girl named Alice and large, ridiculous hats.
Beatrix woke with a start. The first thing she became aware of was the pleasant sensation of soft linens against her skin. The second thing that caught her attention was that when she reached up a hand to brush her hair out of her face, she was able to do so with human hands. Thirdly, there slowly washed over her a uniform and overwhelming feeling that she was back to being herself, and in fact had returned to her own body. She sat up quickly, dizzy and disoriented. She took in her room, her beautiful, human room, with great relief and excitement. As a headache began to creep up on her, Beatrix struggled to piece together the events of the past day—or what was most likely a vivid dream. Of course, it was certainly a dream. Whatever it was, she felt an urgent need to put it down on paper. It was all so intense, so bright—the family of rabbits, the burrow, the soft grass and warm sun, Mama…
Beatrix flew out of bed and rushed over to her desk where, to her surprise, she found a stack of papers fully illustrated and littered with words. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix was confused—she had only had the dream that night, and thus could not have possibly written it all down. Unless, of course, she wrote it in her sleep, but her hands were clean of ink, which indicated to the oft-messy illustrator that she in fact had not written these words or drawn these pictures. Yet it was all there, Peter and Flopsy and Mopsy and Cotton-tail and Mama, and the burrow and the soft grass and warm sun. Then, Beatrix had a thought. Peter. Of course, it made sense that if the events were in fact real, that Peter must have been in her body, and how confused he must have been! Beatrix remembered her appointments with her friend, and cringed, hoping Peter made it through appropriately and also without too much pain, as Beatrix knew her friend was quite a handful. It must have been Peter, it had to have been, who wrote and drew on Beatrix’s paper, with Beatrix’s hands, in Beatrix’s body. The though irked her, but after all, she had slept in Peter’s bed, in Peter’s body, and told stories to Peter’s siblings, so she did not want to be hypocritical. She had to admire Peter’s work—the illustrations were stunning, and the story, as she read through it, was concise and sweet. Beatrix had never truly written a story before, nor thought to write one, yet she was enthralled and wondered if she could replicate it. But what to write about? Mama’s story of Jemimah Puddle-duck came to the forefront of Beatrix’s mind, and without a second thought Beatrix sat down to write. The only problem was, she had fallen asleep before Mama finished the story. Oh, Beatrix thought, with a small smile on her face, feeling more mischievous than usual, I suppose I will just have to make it up.
Cleo Egnal is from Los Angeles, California. She is a junior Written Arts major, and focuses on writing historical fiction novels, although she also write short stories, poems, and music. This year she began a series of student-run fiction readings that take place in the Written Arts building, Shafer House, during which all Bard College students, Written Arts majors or not, are welcome to come read their works to their peers.