My situation was alarming.
I was harnessed into what seemed to be a giant slingshot suspended a few feet off the ground and facing the ocean. Between me and the waves was a great bonfire built before a very long wall of rocks, roughly three feet high. Gathered on either side of the bonfire were scores of chanting squirrels. They were praying. The group to the left of the bonfire faced me and were chanting “Efree Wee Lee.” The group to the right of the flames faced the ocean and were much more fervent in their chant of “Jay Su Ja Mess Reek Tair.” Perhaps the strangest bit to all of this was that far to my immediate left a quintet of enslaved chipmunks flutists played Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” over and over again.
I had the distinct, unpleasant idea that the squirrels were intending to slingshot me over the stone wall and into the ocean. Clearly my trip to the isle of Vhuvutu had been most disagreeable.
The squirrels were a group of tribal sciuridae—something Fibro, my imaginary pet raccoon, had told me about at length when he was drunk and/or stoned—that had created an elaborate society here on the isle of Vhuvutu, which is located somewhere between North America and Near Nearington. The island was primitive, though the native squirrels had an odd affinity for the films of the 1990s, the only relic of modernity to be seen. That was particularly quizzical to me, as there were no televisions or movie theaters anywhere that I could see. There was no plumbing, no electricity, and nothing more than dirt paths from the beach up to the largest village, Cluthkootu. The squirrels of Vhuvutu wore face paint and feathers and the bones of their enemies. Totem poles stood at the entrance to each village, each about four feet tall and featuring the faces of once-fearsome squirrels, legendary heroes, and chiefs from their respective village. Each totem was inscribed with the phrase tikem roodu, dikem woohu, dikem chukchoo, dikem squiruhl—which roughly translates to “Tell stories, make music, make carvings, make babies.” The totem at Cluthkootu, though, stood a staggering 11 feet, and contained a carving of the face of every one of the Vhuvutu nation’s leaders, spanning over 100 generations. At the top of the mighty totem was the carving of the current leader, Eethippi.
I came to discover, in my brief time on the island, that Eethippi was not only the chieftain of the entire population, but he was also the high priest of the local religion, which seemed to be based on the film Free Willy. Indeed, at the exact center of Vhuvutu, was a large billboard advertising the film. The poster was faded, as if it had been there since 1993 when the movie first debuted. And for all I knew it had been there that long, as nothing in my upbringing ever made me aware of this tiny island. Each night at sundown every squirrel on Vhuvutu would come to their village’s prayer square, face the billboard, and chant “Efree Wee Lee Jay Su Ja Mess Reek Ter” for nearly two hours before stopping and continuing about their nightly routine. Church consisted of a weekly gathering in Cluthkootu (Vhuvutu was tiny enough that no village was more than a one hour journey from Cluthkootu), during which Eethippi would read the script of Free Willy, translated into Vhuvutuan, followed by a sermon in which he promised of a great whale who would one day come to Vhuvutu. His story about this great whale was the faith that the whole society seemed to be built upon: that when the whale came, the squirrels would be charged by their god, Jason James Richter, to release it back into the ocean. As a reward for their service, Jason James Richter would use his divine power to see that the squirrels of Vhuvutu would be plentiful in nuts and free of harm.
Until then, the squirrels of Vhuvutu were doomed to spend an eternity of nutless winters engaged in an endless war with the chipmunks of the nearby island of Cheekogovo—heathens, according to Eethippi, who practiced the false religion of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. In the one and only sermon of Eethippi’s that I witnessed, he animatedly told that the squirrels’ miraculous destiny was about to be fulfilled.
Destiny! The whale had come.
Destiny! It would be returned to the sea.
Destiny! Their winter would be plentiful in nuts.
Destiny! The vile chipmunks of Cheekogovo would be destroyed.
The fulfillment of this destiny, it would seem, is the predicament I found myself in on the beaches of Vhuvutu.
I rather resented being thought of as a whale, if I’m being quite frank. I had been watching my figure in the months leading up to my unfortunate detour in Vhuvutu, and I was rather proud of the 18.6 lbs. I’d lost. I hadn’t eaten a turkey leg that entire time, a fact that almost led me to change my name to No Turkey Legs Jeff. But apparently my attempts to slim down were unnoticed by the squirrels of Vhuvutu, who immediately proclaimed me the sacrificial and divine whale the moment they saw me. This was an annoyance, to be certain, as I was just trying to get home to East Elmhurst when I was shipwrecked on this unfashionable isle of rodents. Getting home was looking less and less likely, though, as my journey with Fibro—who I was mostly sure was dead at this point—had taken me on a convoluted loop through places and situations (like this one) that I would rather forget. And now here I was in a slingshot, helpless in the face of my fate of being flung into the ocean like a rejected fish. As both my feet and hands were tied, I was certain to drown unless some magical dolphins took pity on me and saved me. I didn’t like my chances, considering how my encounter with the dolphins of WowBigHappyFun ended.
After a couple of hours the chanting ended abruptly when Eethippi motioned for silence. He began a strange series of dance moves—which I eventually realized was the choreography of C+C Music Factory’s “Things that Make You Go Hmmm…” music video—assiduously accentuating each motion with extreme concentration. During this strange dance, I felt myself being pulled slowly backward. This was it. I was about to die.
My life flashed before my eyes: fried chicken, pizza, pork fried rice, egg rolls, ice cream, turkey legs, Fibro. FIBRO! I hoped that damn imaginary raccoon was still alive so that I could kill him with my bare hands the next time I saw him! I closed my eyes and imagined throttling that beady-eyed stoner. This gave me calm as I rested in the remarkably comfortable slingshot of death. I opened my eyes when I felt myself stop moving backwards. Eethippi was doing the moonwalk. He finished with a twirl and screamed out “EEEEEHEEEEE!!!!” He then thrust right hand in the air.
The slingshot was released and I was flung swiftly into the air. I careened over Eethippi and the squirrels of Vhuvutu, at least 50 feet in the air, and out over the ocean. At the same moment a large and magnificent airship swooped in from the right side of my vision and cast a net out below its bilge, into which I safely landed. The net, with me in it, was immediately reeled upwards toward the deck of the flying vessel. From my vantage point, I was able to see the shores of Vhuvutu below me, where a massive battle was taking place around the ceremonial slingshot between the squirrels and what I can safely assume were the chipmunks of Cheekogovo. Eethippi was jumping up and down in extreme anger and shaking his fist in my direction.
It seemed, from my perch, that the squirrels were outnumbered and being cornered between the sea and the mighty battalion of chipmunks. They had failed Jason James Richter, and so it seemed that their doom had come at last. I felt sad for them in that moment; I had quite enjoyed Free Willy as a child and could see how one might re-interpret it into a tribal religion.
I was hoisted up and across to the center of the deck of the airship, a marvelous craft the likes of which I had never seen. The wooden rails around the deck were affixed with golden fastenings, and inlaid with silver. Each of the seven propellers holding the ship up were made of pure gold and hummed nearly silently as they whirled around at a dizzying speed. On the forward end of the deck was a towering red sail. As I looked at it from behind I could tell that there was something embroidered on the front, though what it was I could not say for certain. Perhaps a horn of some sort? Magnificent cannons lined the deck, each made of solid platinum and etched with swirly brass patterns. The flying barge was larger than any cruise ship I had ever seen, and far more grand. I was unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the deck and as I looked up I found myself in the center of a ring of rhinoceroses. They looked like an unpleasant group and I immediately began to wonder if I’d just gone from the frying pan and into the fire.
Looking around the circle, who should I see but that damnable raccoon Fibro. I lunged for the overgrown rat.
“I’m going to kill you!”
“Whoa, dude! Calm down! What the crap, man? I just saved your life!”
His words fell on deaf ears, though, as I chased him around the circle of rhinos (quite aware that they were all laughing at us), snatching at his ever just-out-of-reach tail.
“If it weren’t for you, my life wouldn’t NEED saving!”
“Dude, chill! Chill!”
“ENOUGH!” came a roar from the aft of the deck. The rhinos parted and I saw an enormous rhinoceros stomp toward Fibro and I, just as I had caught the scalawag and had my hands around his throat. This rhinoceros was quite clearly the captain, and obviously female. Her full-length red leather jacket was studded with precious stones, as were her over-the-knee red leather boots.
“Fibro, is this the human?”
“Yes,” he gurgled out.
“Turkey Leg Jeff, welcome to the Golden Camembert. I am Captain Matilda Paddington-Jones and you and the raccoon are my prisoners. Guards!”
And with that, Fibro was yanked from my grasp and both he and I were aggressively hauled to our feet and dragged away from Captain Paddington-Jones.
“We had a deal, Tilly!” Fibro screamed as we were pulled down a staircase into the dark lower decks of the Golden Camembert.