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HEDGEHOG


On her way home from a party in Prague's Lesser Quarter, walking along Karmelitska Street on a night dense with fog, under a full moon that shone soggily like a flashlight underwater, Ellen saw her first hedgehog. Though there are none in New Jersey, she recognized the small, shy animal by the bristling spines along its back, without which she would have mistaken it for a rat and quickly walked on. The hedgehog had wandered into a doorway and seemed unable to decide to come back out into the street; it just made ineffectual burrowing motions against the scarred wooden door in front of it. Ellen decided that if she could carry the hedgehog up onto Petrin Hill a little ways, it would be safe from marauding dogs, and because she was wearing gloves, she reached down and touched it tentatively. It curled relexively into a spiny and uneven sphere. Grasping it, she stood and began to walk through the fog toward the dark shape of the hill that rose nearby.

After a few minutes a woman came out of one of the other doorways along the street and fell into step beside Ellen; she began to crane her neck to look at the hedgehog. Ellen walked faster and held the hedgehog closer to herself, feeling the pressure of its spines despite her gloves. The woman half-turned and, without breaking her stride, tried to wrest the hedgehog from Ellen's hands. Ellen walked more quickly, held on more fiercely, but did not speak a word.

Suddenly the woman succeeded in pulling the small animal away and, in her hands, it became a large, many-branched yellow crystal with myriad facets that caught even the watery light of the fog-bound moon and began to glow; but quickly and deftly, Ellen grasped the crystal by one of its branching protrusions and pulled it to herself again and found herself grappling with a massive battle helmet with several large, sharp spikes and a coat-of-arms crest that showed a horned animal rampant on a field whose color the moon was too dim to show; and then the woman tore this helmet from her hands and held a pin cushion, large and plump and made of pink satin with hundreds of straight pins neatly impaling it; and, glad she was wearing gloves, Ellen circled around to seize the cushion which, in her hands, became a pineapple with spiny leaves and hard, pointed outgrowths along its curved sides, which smelled sharply, pungently and sweetly of its own very ripe self; but the woman hurried forward, turned quickly and, gracefully as a dancer, pulled the pineapple from Ellen's hands, and it became an antique hand grenade with hard knobs and corruscations along its sides and a black, evil gleam that even the fog and moonlight could not soften, and Ellen did not want to grasp this ugly thing and was not sure that it might not explode and destroy them all, and she hovered and feinted for a minute; but then she thought about the hedgehog and its need to find safe haven, and she grabbed the harsh piece of metal -- after which she found the warm inert mass of the hedgehog lying in her hands again.

The woman said something in Czech and drifted off into the fog. Only after she had found a spot between two trees and behind a moss-covered boulder on Petrin and had released the hedgehog there did Ellen realize that the woman had said, "A good game, well-played."

(aw)


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