Mushroom Ninjas

Once there was a young wombat named Benson, who lived in a comfortable, tidy wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.

Benson’s mother took him to the new adventure playground. There was a giant trampoline shaped like a pillow, and a water park with gates and taps and dams that you could move, and best of all, a tunnel maze.

Benson had been dreaming about the tunnel maze for weeks, imagining a whole lot of tunnels that joined up and separated and went up and around and everywhere, full of surprises and dead ends and doors where you didn’t expect them and dead ends where you expected doors to be. It sounded like heaven to Benson. He couldn’t think of anything better.

As soon as they got to the playground, he went straight to the tunnel maze. He got lost seventeen times before he finally found his way out again. As soon as he got out, he went straight back to the beginning and started again. It was great.

He got lost again nearly straight away, but he didn’t mind because that meant he was in a different part of the maze that he hadn’t been in before. He was looking for another way out when suddenly something came out of the dark and hit him on the head, pok! pok!

“Hey! What…?” he started to say, then something else came up behind him and hit him on his back, pok! pok! pok!

He twisted around and saw two small creatures, all dressed in black, with little black masks over their pointy little faces. All he could see was their shiny black eyes. They looked a lot like rats, standing on their back legs. They had little sticks in their front paws, and while he was looking at them, they sprang up in the air, bounced off the roof and landed on his head, and started to hit him again, pok, pok! Pok, pok, pok!

“Stop that!” he said. It didn’t actually hurt, because they were just tiny little sticks, but it’s annoying to have someone keep pokking you on the nose. “Stop doing that,” he said, brushing the sticks away. The animals jumped up, bounced off the walls and charged in again.

“Hee-yah!” they shouted, in little squeaky voices. One of them landed between Benson’s eyes and started wapping his ears, wap! wap! Its little tail hung down and brushed Benson’s nose. He sneezed so hard that he fell over backwards.

“Ha! We’ve got you now!” the little bouncing rats shouted. “You are our prisoner!”

They jumped up and down on his tummy until he was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.

“You will never get your hands on our treasure!” one of the animals squeaked.

The other animal said, “You know we’re not supposed to say anything about the treasure, Parsley!”

Benson said, “What treasure?”

Parsley said, “See? I knew he was after the treasure, Sage. Why else was he searching everywhere?”

“I wasn’t searching,” Benson said, “I was lost. This is a maze, right?”

“You can’t fool us,” Parsley said. “We have sworn to protect the treasure against evil giants like you!”

Benson said, “I’m not an evil giant. I’m a medium-sized wombat. I just look bigger to little rats like you.”

“We’re not rats!” Sage said. “We’re bettongs.” She pokked him on the nose.

“Ow,” Benson said. “I’ve never met a bettong before. You look a lot like tiny little kangaroos. Are you from around here?”

“We live over in the next valley,” Parsley said, “but we get around a lot, looking for – “

Sage clapped her hand over her sister’s mouth. “I told you not to say anything about the you-know-what!” she hissed.

Just then another bettong came down the tunnel, dragging a heavy bag behind him with his tail.

“What are you girls doing?” he said. “Stop playing with that old wombat and give me a hand.”

Benson said, “Have you got the treasure in that bag?”

“Who told you about the treasure?” the bettong said angrily. “Girls! They’re hopeless!”

“It wasn’t me, Pickle,” Sage said. “It was Parsley.”

“You were supposed to keep watch, and keep the other treasure-hunters away,” Pickle said.

“We did!” Parsley said, “except for this one. He overpowered Sage, but I fought bravely and defeated him despite his vastly superior size and weight.”

“You did not!” Sage said. “I was the one who overcame him, using the element of surprise and skilful deployment of weaponry!”

Benson said, “I’m not a treasure-hunter, I was just exploring the maze. What sort of treasure is it, anyway? Gold? Silver? Oranges?”

“It’s way better than that,” Parsley said. “It’s truffles.”

“Truffles?” Benson said. “What’s that?”

“It’s a kind of fungus,” Pickle said. “You know, like mushrooms, but a million times better.” He opened the bag and showed Benson. It was full of dirty, dark brown lumps.

Benson backed away. The truffles smelled like wet dirt. “What kind of treasure is that?” he asked.

“The best kind!” Parsley said. “They’re delicious!” She rolled her eyes and rubbed her tummy.

“You eat them?” Benson said.

Sages said, “Of course you eat them! What else would you do with them?”

Parsley said dreamily, “Or you can make truffle salt, or truffle oil, or truffle honey.”

Benson thought it would be a terrible waste of honey to mix it up with some mouldy fungus. He said, “Oh well, it was nice meeting you. I have to go now.”

“Oh no, you don’t!” Sage said. “Now that you know the secret of the truffles, we cannot let you go. Get him, Parsley! Hee-yah!”

They picked up their little sticks and pokked Benson everywhere they could reach, jumping on his back and bouncing off the roof and the floor and the walls.

Pickle shouted, “Cut it out, you idiots! Wombats don’t eat truffles!”

The other two stopped, completely shocked. “Why not?” Sage said.

Pickle shrugged. “Not smart enough, I suppose,” he said. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“Wait!” said Sage. She said to Benson, “Will you keep our secret?”

Benson thought about it. “Okay,” he said.

The bettongs grabbed the bag of truffles and disappeared down the passage.

At dinner that night, Benson asked his mother, “Why don’t we eat truffles?”

“Probably because they’re very rare, and difficult to find,” she said.

“Why do you want to know?” Aunt Lillibet asked. Then she sniffed. “What’s that smell?” she said. “Like damp, mouldy earth.” She looked hard at Benson. “It’s not truffles, is it?” she said.

Benson thought about the bettongs, and their treasure. “If it were, I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “It’s not my secret to tell.”

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