FOURTH PLACE (THE WELKIN WRITING PRIZE 2023)
Where the Hippobbit Swims
by Liz Falkingham
She finds a hippobbit on the garden path. ‘No, but what is it really,’ her friend laughs, ‘because it can’t be a hippo.’
But it can’t be just a baby rabbit either. Not this, with its translucent grey-and-pink skin, and a heart that flutters in the cradle of her hand.
It’s dusty, a mystery, half dead. But still. Maybe. Beads of milk form, swell from the pipette she’s found, then vanish into a waiting mouth. The hippobbit curls in a nest of paper towels, beside the Aga and behind a tea caddy from Wales. Embossed dragons breathe tinny fire over the secret cave of the hippobbit.
‘It will die,’ her sister says. ‘Rabbits are buggers to raise from babies.’ Its blunt nose trembles, its teardrop ears sheeny in the splashback light. ‘Don’t get your hopes up.’
But she does. Hopes are hard to keep down, rising like gas bubbles towards the air.
From wherever she is in the house, the hippobbit calls to her. Sleeping in its cave, eyes sealed shut, limbs paddling against some silent tide.
She goes out, comes back. The hippobbit stretches, squeaks. A fresh lustre sits on the slips and folds of its skin. In the lamplight, the hippobbit settles against the scored surface of her palm, warm as a new-laid bird’s egg.
Her husband says, ‘Are you still messing about with that thing? Going soft in your old age. Can you help me shift those cattle?’
The phone goes and it’s her son, six foot tall and six thousand miles away. She presses the receiver to her ear, bringing him closer.
‘Busy,’ he says, ‘expensive. Can’t talk long.’ There’s splashing in the background, a dog barks. Laughter.
That night she dreams of a river, brown and snaking through a hot land. Beneath the seething surface, creatures swim, dive. Teardrop ears appear as a hippo glides, watching men cradled in the frame of a boat. Then the hippobbit, eyes open, turns to her and speaks; its words slip past but she feels them in her breastbone and her heart beats in response.
The morning light is cold and grey, and lays on the hippobbit’s body like a shroud. She runs the tip of her finger over its cold velvet skin and loss flies out of her like birds from a cage. She cries and cries, but the hippobbit’s eyes are sealed.
Liz Falkingham is a freelance journalist and writer based in East Yorkshire, England. Her work has appeared in the Bath Flash Fiction anthology, The Lobsters Run Free, as well as Ellipsis zine and the MoonPark Review.
This is a piece that grew on me with every single read. Like the river that snakes through the penultimate part of the story, there are hidden depths here, a largeness to the narrative lurking at the edge of what we see on the page. Through the hippobit, the story finds a unique way to explore this woman’s life and the sadness that runs through it. The emotions resonate. I feel connected to this character, this situation. And with each read, those emotions feel ever more powerful.