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Stories

Issue 13

Zooscape - Wed 15 Dec 2021 - 03:11

Welcome to Issue 13 of Zooscape!

A new day is dawning for furry fiction.

Science-fiction was once a looked-down-upon genre, small and shoved off to the side, kept away from serious literature, back at the turn of the previous century.  Now, it’s a booming field, filling the airwaves with blockbusters.

Well, furry fiction already has blockbusters.  Now it’s time to start labeling them.  If it’s about talking animals, it’s furry.  If it’s about talking dragons or gryphons or unicorns, it’s furry.  There is furry fiction mixed up all throughout the other speculative fiction genres, and readers who want to find it are ready to see it labeled properly under a name that lets them find it.

This will be the century when furry fiction rises up, and we’re here to be a part of that.

We’re here to raise up furry fiction.

* * *

Rabbitheart by Archita Mittra

Scale Baby by M. H. Ayinde

To Gentle the Wind by Deborah L. Davitt

A Star Without Shine by Naomi Kritzer

Be Productive Like Cha-Cha by Katlina Sommerberg

The Incandescence of Her Simulacrum by Logan Thrasher Collins

A Chance to Breathe by Daniel Ausema

* * *

As always, if you want to support Zooscape, check out our Patreon.  Also, please consider us and our stories when you’re making nominations and voting for awards in the coming year.

NOTE: if you’re curious about what awards eligible work we published last year, check out our brand new Awards Eligibility Post.

Categories: Stories

A Chance to Breathe

Zooscape - Wed 15 Dec 2021 - 03:11

by Daniel Ausema

“…the beaked natives ambled over to inspect the immigrants and welcome those allowed to stay.  Tirket calmed her breathing.  Don’t let her cough now.”

The passenger ship floated down to land, and Tirket wasn’t the only one to cough and wheeze.  Her carapace ached as it stretched with each heaving breath.  The weeks in the hold hadn’t been a kindness to any of them.  She pushed toward the nearest window, longing to see the city — the songbird city with its fabled machine-craft.  The doctors promised she might breathe easier there in the dry air.  In her mind it was a wide land of bulbous buildings and sprawling parks, bronze and green.  Of fresh air that welcomed the fluttering of her wings, air that tasted of flowers.

The windows, though, were rimed in salt too thick to see through clearly, and the sailors wouldn’t let them above until the airship was secure.

Tirket circled her antennae impatiently and focused on breathing.  A tang of oil set her to coughing again.

At last the doors opened.  Treated bamboo framed the towering buildings beside the airship, and the beaked natives ambled over to inspect the immigrants and welcome those allowed to stay.  Tirket calmed her breathing.  Don’t let her cough now.  Let her seem as healthy as anyone could be after such a journey over the ocean.  The engines of the airship hissed above her head.

While she fell in line with the other immigrants, a troop of humans ran past, each the height of one of her leg segments.  They chattered high-pitched instructions and unloaded the airship’s luggage.

“What are your skills, beetle?”

Tirket had been so absorbed in how she would convince the bird doctors of her health that she didn’t understand the question at first.  The words made sense, even coming from a beak.  She’d spent months before boarding the airship learning the native language.  But they didn’t form a complete thought.

“My skills?  Oh.”  Stifle that cough.  “I’m quick with my legs.”  She waved two pairs in front of the bird.  With their impractical wings, the birds always needed such help, though Tirket knew she wouldn’t survive factory work on her lungs.  She only needed to get through, then she could find a way to the frontier where they didn’t care what kind of lungs you had.  They can’t ask about my health.  Don’t let them.  The air here was dry, and that felt good, but smoke and oil trickled into her lungs.

“You fly too?”  The bird gestured with a wing at her back.

Tirket flexed, and they shuddered, but she shook her head.  “Only slow myself from falling.”

Without a question about her health, without any exam at all, the bird waved her on to one doorway that already had its own line of immigrants.  Beetles, as the natives called them.  Tirket had learned the word early in her studies, a derisive term, but she wouldn’t let it bother her.  As long as they let her in.  Through this door, past the bamboo wall… she pictured arrows on the ground to direct her beyond the city to clustered sacs of promised fresh air.  Lungs become geography.

“It will be a long wait.”  A crested bird paced beside the line, trailed by a troop of humans, their arms for the moment empty.  Tirket thought he might be some kind of woodpecker.  “They’ll be sending you to your assigned jobs, and you’ll likely be late for dinner.  If hunger takes you, though…”  The bird swept a wing back.

Where?  He seemed to indicate the airship behind them.  Or maybe the open flag where the ship rested for unloading and maintenance.  “Take any you want.  They are quite tasty.  I will be the one you pay, and we ask only that you not snatch one who is carrying gear at the moment.”

The humans.  The bird was offering the slaves for their snacks.  Tirket’s stomach clenched, and she looked away.  Hunger did grow, though, as the line crept forward.  The first time a passing bird grabbed a human, everyone in line cringed and turned away.  As evening came, several of the immigrants pooled some money and shared one amongst themselves.  She’d come with some money, knowing she couldn’t expect to earn much through work, but even as the others in line gave in to hunger, she wasn’t tempted.  Eyes closed, she focused on the dry air.

Her breaths wheezed by the time she came to the front.  She scarcely listened as the robin within explained where she’d work the next day, what she’d have to do with the massive steam engines, what would be expected.  She only listened to where she’d have to go.  The sky, when she emerged, was dark, the cooler air a relief to her lungs.  She enjoyed it only briefly before she was led into a brick-and-bamboo building, a dark shape that blocked most of the remaining light, and shown to her bed.

* * *

Tirket couldn’t work in the morning.  Her breath was strangled by oily smoke and exhaustion.  Some leeway seemed allowed to those just off the boat, because the others didn’t try to push her out when the steam whistles blew. She lay in bed and imagined snow on the ground, dry mountain air.

At mid-morning, at last, she pulled herself upright and clambered to the wall at the end of the room, leaning against bunks as she went.  A window, tall and narrow, gave a view of neighboring roofs below them.  The city stretched farther than she’d imagined.  As far as the hazy air obscured the horizon she could see buildings, not bulbous as she’d pictured, but showing the distinctive bamboo frames filled with red bricks.  Smoke or steam rose from nearly all the buildings.

Streets cut between them, in places drawn ruler-straight — probably where a fire had razed earlier factories — and in others tight-twisted and narrow.  Steam cars cruised along the streets, many open to the smoggy air.  Not once did Tirket see one of her insect-like people in those cars.  Only the native birds rode, unless perhaps the closed-roof cars hid beetle riders.  Tiny humans darted about the streets or rode in caged trailers behind the cars.  She looked at the sky for airships, but the window faced away from the airfield.

As she pulled herself back along the bunks, high-pitched laughter echoed off the walls, and two humans raced in, playing some sort of game.

“Oh.”  One pulled up short and stared at her.  The other stepped away from the first and echoed her… or him, Tirket couldn’t tell with humans.  Tirket waved a leg to tell them not to worry, but her lungs wouldn’t let her speak.

“We’re just… we’re here to clean.”

Tirket coughed, still trying to wave them on and move herself toward her bed.  It was too much at once, and the humans rushed over to support her.  In bed she closed her eyes and wheezed.  As her lungs found the air to calm her, she realized her hunger.  What had she eaten since leaving the airship?  Nothing.  Without thought, she said aloud, “I’m hungry.”

There was noise around her, but she couldn’t identify it.  It didn’t sound like cleaning.  When she opened her eyes, both humans knelt beside her bed, trembling, their heads bowed.  “You may choose,” one said in a pinched voice.

Tirket couldn’t even bring any of her legs up to push the idea away.  “No, I…”  The words had no force to them, no breath to give them sound.  “Food.  Bring me.  Whatever.  From the kitchen.”  Her eyes closed, and she heard human voices that never resolved into words.

She woke to a steam whistle.  A tray of food lay beside her bed, and she hurriedly ate it before the workers returned.  It was a tasteless mush but filled her stomach pleasantly.  She fell back asleep before the others came in.

* * *

The next morning brought her some questioning looks, but still no one forced her from the room or asked after her health.  The same humans came early in the morning with another tray of food.  “What are your names?”  Their eyes widened, and they backed away without answering.  If they cleaned the room again, it must have been while she slept.

They returned in the afternoon and stood beside her bed, shifting their feet.

“I’m Rae,” one said.  Or Ray, maybe.  “And I’m Tay.”  Both had long hair and features that looked the same to her.  One — Rae, she thought — had darker skin than the other.

“Thank you, both.”  With one leg she pointed at where the tray had been —gone now, she noticed.  Her lungs labored on the city air.  “Might you know of anywhere I could sleep with an open window?”

Tay cocked his (her?) head.  “Why?”

Tirket coughed.  “The cool, night air.  It’s… I can breathe it better.”

Rae shook her (his?) head.  “No windows.”

“Maybe the roof, though.”

“Maybe,” the other one echoed.

They left without saying anything else, and Tirket fell asleep.  She woke in the night to movement.  The sounds of sleepers filled the room, but that hadn’t woken her.  She’d been moved.  She lay in a smaller bed, one that had no upper bunk.  Some fifteen or so humans surrounded her, carrying the bed out of the room.  She propped herself up, but Tay or Rae leaned in and signaled for silence.  She lay her head down and let them carry her up steps and onto the flat roof.  They buried her in a mound of blankets, and she breathed the cool air until she slept.

* * *

During the days that followed, Tirket came down to the main dormitory.  The other workers would already be gone and the sun beginning to heat the city air.  She slept, despite the hours she’d slept in the night on the roof, and dreamed of how she might escape the city.  Tay and Rae brought her food and even talked with her about their work, the building, the songbird natives.  After several days she broached the subject of leaving the city.

“I can’t catch my breath here.  The doctors in the old country prescribed clean air and promised it to me here.”

“Beyond the city?”  The idea confounded them.  Some of the humans there had traveled within the city, they explained, but Rae and Tay had been born in that building and always lived there, working, afraid of hungry birds and beetles.  They agreed to find out what they could.

“You have money?” they asked her the next day.  “You can ride in a cab, if you can pay.”

“I have some.”  More than most immigrants to be honest.  Most came because they had little to begin with, desperate for work and the chance to make their own fortune.  She’d come not wealthy but comfortable, with her family’s blessing.  “Can you summon the cab for me?”

They supported her down to the street that afternoon.  The cabbie stepped from his car and stared at them, humans and a beetle, snacks and dumb labor.  She saw the thought in his eyes.

“I want you to take me to the edge of the city.”

“Can’t, miss.”  The cabbie was already returning to his seat.  “This is a city cab, for birds only.  You’ll have to find a bus or walk.”  The last words were deadened by the shut door, and the cab pulled away.

“A bus?”  Tirket looked at the milling group of humans.  How terrible to be outside like this where any passing person might choose them for food.  She led them inside and stopped at the base of the stairs.  Cracked tiles threw off her balance, and the stuffy air forced her to sit, to breathe as deeply as she could.

One human squeaked a reply.  “No buses.  Not this time of year.  They mainly run in the winter.”

They trickled away until only Rae and Tay were left.  “I can’t walk, can I?  It’s too far.”

Damn her lungs.  Damn the consumption that made them weak!  She let them walk on each side of her, up the narrow steps straight to the roof.  The day air was no easier on her lungs than inside, and the light made it harder to sleep, but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered.  Might as well languish in the bedclothes, become a symbol, a woman for someone to love selflessly — or at least tell himself that, because her imminent death meant his love would never be tested.  Such was the fate of those with her illness back home.

Her tossing dreams showed her the buildings of the city, but transformed.  Bamboo formed the walls, but not dried and reinforced.  Entire buildings waved in a smoky wind, as bamboo stalks will in the wild.  But there was nothing of the wild in the image, despite that resemblance.  Everything seemed constructed, even the glaring sunshine where it broke through the smog.

Great engines swallowed their workers.  Brass craftsmen — all of them native birds — marched in step to showcase their wares.  Shifts of factory workers shuffled in unison to the beat of a deep whistle.  And there she was, above the throngs, encased in her bed on top of a swaying building.  She saw herself from outside, face and blankets alike turned to an icy slate.  A line of beetles climbed ever toward her, intent on worshiping her still form, but each time one reached the roof, human hands dragged him up and tossed him down the other side.

Tirket sat up, awake beneath cold stars.  The dream images faded slowly as her lungs gulped air.  She wouldn’t let it happen.  Despair was not in her, not for one who had crossed the seas and skies in a cramped airship for this chance.  Somewhere open land waited for her, land even she could work, because the air would be clean and dry.  Somewhere a clearing in a high valley longed for a mud cabin to be built by her six legs.

If she had to crawl building by building, she would.  Night by night, wrapped in blankets, her days she could spend wherever the night left her, tucked within an unlocked doorway, huddled on the street, maybe even on neighboring roofs, if she could find the way and the strength to climb.  It might take a month, but she wouldn’t stay to become a symbol of empty fantasies.

The street was empty when she reached it, but the trip down had taken longer than she’d hoped.  Her lungs couldn’t find the air, and she had to rest.  At this rate it would take a month just to cross a block, a lifetime to reach the wilderness.  A healthy lifetime, that is.  If she had to stay in the city, Tirket’s lifetime would be much shorter.

Dawn neared, and the morning’s first cars whistled their ignition.  Air whistled in and out of her lungs too, and she imagined them as steam engines, decrepit, failing.  Clogged with the film left from inferior coal.  She stumbled across the street, unable to look anywhere but straight ahead.  Someone yelled at her, but why she didn’t know.

Along the building opposite, she kept her hand on the wall, pulling herself as well as she could.  Smog gathered in her lungs, and the air warmed up.  She collapsed in a recessed side door of the building.  She didn’t think her breathing would let her sleep, but she did, curled against the unused door.  Once a bird woke her, asking her business, but the look in her insect eyes must have been all the answer he needed.

When night came she struggled to her feet.  The buildings swayed as they had in her dream, though she knew it was only her dizziness.  She tried to focus ahead, to pick one spot and aim for it, but her head kept pulling down.  Her goal became simply one more step, that next crack in the pavement, that bit of debris, the base of a street-lamp.

Tirket couldn’t guess how much of the night had passed —she hadn’t gone far, however much it was — when someone came up beside her.  Rae, she thought, and Tay on the other side.  Then a dozen more human hands grabbed her, eased her back onto a pile of blankets.

“What…”  Was this some kind of betrayal with the humans bringing her back to their bird masters?

The blankets moved, a cot that the humans carried underneath her.  Not to bring her back, but continuing along the street.

“Why…”  She looked to either side at Rae and Tay and the other interchangeable humans carrying her.  “There must be thousands of us every year.  Beetles,” she gave the word all the derision that the birds used, “overrunning your city, preying on your people.”

Tay looked away from her as if the answer was embarrassing.

Rae answered though, dark face crinkling in an expression Tirket couldn’t interpret.  “Maybe it’s because you didn’t.  Didn’t prey on us, I mean.  And others saw that you didn’t, saw you turn away in disgust throughout that first day.  We asked around about you, and those people at the airstrip remembered.”

Maybe.  Tirkit doubted that explained it all though.  She imagined an underground movement among the humans, resistance groups that Rae and Tay stumbled on as they made their inquiries about getting her out of the city.  She’d be a symbol for them.  An image of overcoming the songbird city, of fighting even when it became difficult to continue.  But much better to be a symbol for resistance than a symbol for empty romantic gestures.

The cot jolted and jerked as they walked, and Tirket had no answer.  Engines still sounded, even in the night, and the streets were not fully empty.  Her human carriers huddled against the bed but walked as confidently as they dared — her antennae tensed with their mingled fear and determination — and they made good time.

Tirket phased in and out of wakefulness, and it could have been dreams or simply waking imagination, but she saw how they must look from above.  The bed floating along dark streets.  Her own insect head propped on a pillow, the rest of her swallowed by heavy blankets —white and blue — that also hid most signs of the little humans carrying her.  Only a careful observer would note their heads and pale clothing.  They moved as fast as was reasonable, but the city dwarfed their strides, so the bed did not race but must seem instead something from a dream itself.

What stories might an insomniac tell in the morning of her night-time visions?  A beetle goddess leaving the city?  A lonely death parade for the nameless, dying workers?  No one would believe it.

They would not reach the edge of the city that night, but that didn’t bother Tirket.  The humans would find a place for her bed and sleep beneath it through the day, safe from hungry passersby and angry owners come to retrieve them.  They would make it out of the city some night, and then beyond.  When the air grew clear enough, she would walk, and with Tay and Rae and whichever of the rest wished, she could establish her homestead, them free of predators and her free to breathe air clean and dry.

For the moment, she lay back and breathed as well as she could, and the city of the songbirds floated by.

 

* * *

About the Author

Daniel Ausema’s fiction and poetry have appeared in many places, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Diabolical Plots. His high fantasy trilogy The Arcist Chronicles is published by Guardbridge Books, and he is the creator of the steampunk-fantasy Spire City series, set in a world of beetle-drawn carriages and chained singers. He lives with his family in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies.

Categories: Stories

The Incandescence of Her Simulacrum

Zooscape - Wed 15 Dec 2021 - 03:11

by Logan Thrasher Collins

“Eudaimonia used a pseudopodium to absorb the luminous spherule and store its data in the sponge’s biomolecular memoryspace.”

Eudaimonia woke in wetspace, conscious yet missing bodily form. She could not see or hear, though her mind’s dynamical oscillations conjured phantasmagoric flashes of illusory blue and purple light. But this was to be expected. Eudaimonia’s brain had been stored on a biological computer under the flesh of a sea sponge. The sponge’s computational organ consisted of a dense pellet of cellular nanomachinery, packed chock full of ribonucleic memristors and multiplexers. After a few minutes of adjusting to the shock of the new cognitive vessel, Eudaimonia turned on the sponge’s senses. She had paid handsomely in squishcoin to spend a few hours in this sponge. Eudaimonia had an important purpose here. She was not about to waste her money.

As sensory nanofilaments fed into the sponge’s computational organ, a shock of light and texture burst into Eudaimonia’s awareness. She found herself partially submerged in a tidepool at the edge of a vast salty ocean. Though this planet was far from Earth, somewhere in the M4 globular star cluster, massive terraforming efforts had turned it into a fairly Earthlike world. But Eudaimonia did not care much about the details of this planet’s location or geobiology. Eudaimonia just wanted to know why Desdemona had left the starship Remora. Why Desdemona had left her behind.

It had taken months of cybertrawling to find Desdemona’s location. But Eudaimonia’s efforts had paid off. Casting in a space with a volume of thousands of light years, she had nailed down Desdemona’s coordinates to the cubic meter. Down to this very tide pool. In this day and age, no one could stay hidden forever.

Per Eudaimonia’s will, the sponge emitted a gush of inky quorumstuff. The juice contained nanites which would allow her to communicate with Desdemona through an exchange of electrochemical signals.

“Hey there darling.” The sponge had no ears, but its computational organ translated the electrochemistry into audio. Despite her misgivings, Eudaimonia felt a sense of warmth spreading through her sponge’s tactile network.

“Hello my love,” she replied. It had been a long time since they had first met at Discotheque de Kosmos. Memories of a peppermint-sweet first kiss flashed into Eudaimonia’s mind. As Eudaimonia reminisced, a spiky crab crept from a crevice in the slimy rocks. Eudaimonia could see Desdemona’s signature baroque style in the crab’s obsidian and golden pigmentation. When in human form, virtual or flesh, Desdemona had often worn dresses and tattoos with those colors.

“I know why you’re here,” Desdemona stated. “You want me to come back.”

“I want to know why you vanished,” Eudaimonia replied tremulously.

“You sought to explore the galaxy and achieve greatness through your art and your science. I got hooked on Voluptuous. I couldn’t let my addiction hold you back. You saw me using it. You should have known what would happen.”

Eudaimonia remembered opening a door aboard the Remora to see Desdemona jacked into a linkup, shivering with ecstasy. Eudaimonia had immediately ripped out the jack. At first, Desdemona had fought with violent screams. But she had eventually calmed and promised to cease doing Voluptuous. Eudaimonia had been eager to leave the nightmarish evening as far behind as possible.

“But that was just once. I thought you stopped after that.”

Desdemona laughed bitterly and the crab quivered. “I lied. I couldn’t stop. It felt too good. Better than anything else. Better than you.”

Eudaimonia gazed at the crab with shock and dismay. It hurt like getting stabbed in the kidney with a shard of obsidian.

“Look… I’m sorry. Voluptuous got me. It incorporated itself into my soulfile and I can’t get it out without dying. I wish so so very much that I could have stayed, but I couldn’t. It’s awful. I’m a fool who let you down. I used Voluptuous and now I’m stuck hiding in this pool, jacking myself into it again and over again.” Desdemona gestured with her claws at the hole in the rocks.

Of all the possibilities for why Desdemona had left, Eudaimonia had not expected this one. She had thought she herself had done something wrong. Some little mistake which would have made Desdemona hate her. It would have been better if Desdemona had hated her.

“When you leave… take this with you,” Desdemona exclaimed suddenly. The crab pulled an incandescent pearl from beneath its shell.

“What’s that for?” Eudaimonia asked dejectedly.

“Let’s call it a fresh start. It’s a backup copy of my soul from before Voluptuous. You have to understand though; it won’t remember anything that happened between then and now, and it won’t really be me. I’ll still be here in this tidepool, jacking myself into the machine until Voluptuous kills me.” Desdemona took a deep breath. “But the pearl contains all that remains of who I should’ve been.”

Eudaimonia felt the urge to cry, but the sponge had no nasolacrimal ducts. “Are you… are you sure this is the only way?”

“Darling, this isn’t all that bad.” The crab smiled sadly, to as much of a degree as a crab can smile sadly. “I know it hurts to let the first me go. But my memory will live on in the new me. You and she can build the life you’ve both wanted. I need you to do this.” The crab gently nudged the pearl towards the sponge. Eudaimonia used a pseudopodium to absorb the luminous spherule and store its data in the sponge’s biomolecular memoryspace.

“So, this is goodbye I suppose.” Eudaimonia stated quietly.

“Perhaps in some ways my darling.”

“I love you.” Eudaimonia said.

“She will love you till the stars burn out.” Desdemona promised.

Eudaimonia willed the sponge to beam her mind back to the Remora, carrying the precious cargo of Desdemona’s new soul. Eudaimonia felt her consciousness reload into a human body aboard the Remora. She opened the palm of her hand to see the incandescent pearl, its angelic glow pulsating like a heartbeat. Eudaimonia felt her heart flutter too.

 

* * *

About the Author

Logan Thrasher Collins is a synthetic biologist, futurist, and author. He is also a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis and is the Chief Technology Officer at Conduit Computing. Logan’s science-fiction and sci-fi poetry have been published in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Abyss & Apex Magazine, Mithila Review, The Centropic Oracle, After Dinner Conversation, and elsewhere. For Logan, scientific research and creative writing enjoy a symbiotic relationship. His writing fuels his science and his science fuels his writing. You can learn more about Logan on his website: https://logancollinsblog.com/.

Categories: Stories

Be Productive Like Cha-Cha

Zooscape - Wed 15 Dec 2021 - 03:10

by Katlina Sommerberg

“Cha-Cha clawed at the shining eye, but it repelled his strikes.”

Cha-Cha the crow landed atop the human cadaver. He had watched the man misstep from a high-rise apartment, clip his head on the waiting hovercar, and splat in front of Cha-Cha’s lucky dumpster. Looking for shiny bits, Cha-Cha jumped off the man’s shoulder to the messy mop of blond hair.

The corpse had two blue eyes, but one shone in the morning sun.

Cha-Cha clawed at the shining eye, but it repelled his strikes. He chittered human-speak excitedly to himself. He hopped onto the corpse’s cheek and ripped out the eyelid. Thanks to countless practice, Cha-Cha extracted the bionic eye in 27 seconds. He grabbed it by the optic nerve, the eye dangling from the organic wire and bumping his chest.

In two wingbeats, Cha-Cha took flight. He headed for the closest prosthetics lab, where he’d exchange the eye for a week’s supply of peanuts.

 

* * *

About the Author

Katlina Sommerberg is living xyr best queer life in Portland. Previously a security engineer, xe left the industry after working in cryptocurrency and defense contracting. Unfortunately, hacking in real life is always boring or unethical, with no in-between. Xe has quadrice been honorably mentioned in the Writers of the Future Contest, and links to xyr published work is available at https://sommerbergssf.carrd.co/#

Categories: Stories

A Star Without Shine

Zooscape - Wed 15 Dec 2021 - 03:10

by Naomi Kritzer

“The cat sat very straight, alert and just out of reach. It didn’t say anything further, but studied Lenore’s sandwich with interest.”

Once upon a time, in a very small kingdom, there was a king with one daughter. His wife had died, and he had not remarried. This is not the fairy tale where the king decides to marry his own daughter, don’t worry. This king was a completely different sort of terrible father: he believed that his daughter should earn his love, and nothing she did was ever good enough.

The princess, Lenore, worked unceasingly to be the daughter she thought he wanted. He said he wanted a daughter admired for her beauty; she put on the beautiful dresses from her wardrobe, brushed her hair and arranged it carefully, smiled at all who looked at her. Then she looked to see if her father was pleased, but he told her that she was vain, and thought of nothing but her appearance. She put away her beautiful gowns and dressed more simply, tying her hair back with a black ribbon and allowing her hands to become rough, and again went to see if he was pleased with her now; he told her that she was slovenly, and an embarrassment.

At night, sometimes, she would take out the locket that was all she had left of her mother, and looked at her picture, wondering if things would be different if her mother were still living.

One day her father said, “I have a quest for you to prove once and for all that you are worthy of being my daughter. Bring me three things, and I will seat you at my side, as my heir, and you will inherit all I have. If you fail, you will no longer be my daughter.”

“Yes, Father,” she said, eagerly, believing that this time would be different.

“Bring me,” the king said, “a star without shine; a flower that blooms without sun or scent; and a person with perfect loyalty.”

“I will not fail you,” Lenore said, and set out with the clothes on her back (which fortunately were some of the simpler, more practical ones) and a bag of food.

* * *

A star without shine. A flower that blooms without sun or scent. Lenore puzzled over those demands as she walked down the road, past fields and farms and through a forest. She stopped, finally, for a bite to eat. Her father’s cook was quite fond of her, and had made her a bag full of sandwiches. The first one was tuna salad, and as she ate, she heard a tiny, light footstep behind her.

It was a short-haired calico cat. “Hello,” the cat said.

No one had set out to create talking cats; they had been the unexpected result of trying to breed a cat that would not cause people with cat allergies to sneeze. The talking cats still triggered allergies, of course. But they also spoke.

“Hello,” Lenore said.

The cat sat very straight, alert and just out of reach. It didn’t say anything further, but studied Lenore’s sandwich with interest.

“Are you hungry?” Lenore asked.

“Yes,” the cat said.

Lenore hesitated a moment, thinking about that bag of sandwiches and how soon they all would be gone if she couldn’t quickly figure out how to bring her father a star without shine and all the rest of it. But she broke off a quarter of her sandwich and set it on the ground for the cat. “Here,” she said. “You can have some of my lunch.”

The cat tried to be dainty, but was clearly too hungry not to eat quickly or to lick up every morsel. When she’d finished, she edged a little closer to Lenore; Lenore, done with her own portion, held out her hand, and the cat rubbed its face against her fingers. “I don’t smell any other cats on you,” the cat said. “That probably means you don’t have a cat. Are you interested in having a cat?”

“I would like a cat, actually,” Lenore said. “But I would think the cat would like a proper home, and I don’t currently have one of those.”

The cat looked nonchalant at that. “I believe that home is where your human is. Besides, I can help you find a roof over your head soon enough.”

“Then I would be happy to have a cat companion,” Lenore said. “For as long as you’d like to travel with me.”

The cat moved closer to Lenore, settling next to her on the ground. Lenore stroked the cat’s head, then said, “I need to keep moving.”

“Where are we going?” the cat asked, falling into step beside her.

“My father has sent me to find a star without shine, a flower that blooms with neither scent nor sun, and a person with perfect loyalty.”

“What is he going to do with these things?” the cat asked.

“Have them, I guess,” Lenore said.

“Are they ingredients for a magic potion? They sound like ingredients for a magic potion.”

“If they are, he didn’t tell me that,” Lenore said.

They walked in silence for a while – past endless fields of corn, and occasional stands of trees, and twice they crossed bridges over culverts. They came at last to a train track, and Lenore sat down to rest again.

This was a track where freight trains ran – carrying corn, oil, and coal. Corn had dribbled out of one train, and was being eaten by birds, which all scattered before the cat could catch any of them. The cat poked around at the edge of the track, finding something shiny: a glittering piece of black coal.

Lenore picked up the coal for a closer look. “Could this be a star without a shine?”

“It is shiny, though,” the cat pointed out.

“It is, but only because the sun is shining on it. It’s carbon. What are stars made out of?”

Stars are mostly made from hydrogen and helium gas, although they have various heavier elements at their core, one of which is carbon. Lenore considered her options, then slid the coal into her pocket. “I think my father will be pleased with this,” she said. “Maybe. Unless he secretly wanted something else.”

“Do you think he has something in mind?” the cat asked.

“I don’t know,” Lenore said. She had, after all, been trying to please her father for years, and had succeeded only a handful of times. They walked on.

* * *

Towards evening, they came to a hamlet, which in this case is not the play but a cluster of houses too small in number even to muster up the determination to be a village. Lenore looked around, feeling a little bit desperate. She had no money, and as a princess, she had not been taught any tricks of getting by.

“I’ll find you a place to sleep,” the cat offered. “Do you know how to wash dishes?”

“Of course I know how to wash dishes,” Lenore said. She was friends with her father’s cook, after all. If you hang around a kitchen and you’re friends with the cook, you’ll probably know how to wash dishes.

“Very well, then.” The cat went around to the back door of a house and returned a few minutes later. “I’ve found us supper and a night on the couch.”

The house was the home of an old woman who lived alone. Lenore washed the dishes – her hostess had let them pile up a bit, and there were quite a few – and carried out the trash, and cleaned the bathroom, which was also part of the deal. The couch was not the fold-out type but it was long enough to stretch out on, and the sheets the old woman left folded on the coffee table were clean.

In the morning, the house was very quiet, and Lenore thought she’d leave without waking up her hostess. But there was a note on the door for her: START COFFEE & HAVE A CUP BEFORE YOU GO. She obediently turned back and switched on the coffee maker, and as if that were a summoning spell, the old woman appeared at the kitchen door a few minutes later, yawning and scratching herself.

“I didn’t ask you last night,” the old woman said. “Where are you going?”

“My father sent me to find three things,” Lenore said. “A star without shine, a flower that blooms without sun or scent, and a person of perfect loyalty.”

“I see,” the woman said, narrowing her eyes. “Did he tell you what those things are for?”

“No,” Lenore said.

“With those three things – you need a hair from the person with perfect loyalty, or three drops of blood – you can brew a potion that will grant your heart’s desire. Do you know what your father’s heart’s desire is?”

“No,” Lenore said. “I have no idea.”

“Hmm,” the old woman said, and gave Lenore three pancakes and a cup of coffee, and the cat a tin of fish, before sending them both on their way. “Good luck, then.”

* * *

Outside the hamlet, the cat said, “I have been thinking about the flower without sun or scent. I believe I have seen one. Do you trust me to lead you?”

“Yes,” Lenore said. The cat had been nothing but helpful so far.

“You’ll need to follow me into the woods.”

There was a small wood nearby. It was a light, friendly sort of wood, not really the kind where you could get lost; it had a paved path that ran straight through, and an overlook where you could gaze at a lake that was probably a swamp before someone brought in earth-moving equipment to dig a deeper hole for the water. The cat led Lenore off the path and into the darkest places under the thickest trees.

“I’m going to get ticks,” Lenore said.

“I’ll sniff out any ticks later,” the cat said, and squeezed past the remains of a huge fallen tree. “I’ve found one! A flower that grows without sun or scent.”

Growing on the trunk of the fallen tree was an enormous mushroom with rippled ridges of orange and yellow. It was the sort of mushroom that’s sometimes called the Chicken of the Woods, even though it doesn’t look at all like a chicken. It does look a bit like a flower. Lenore carefully broke it away from the tree and tucked it into a bag.

“I guess I can go home now, then,” she said. “The third thing is a person with perfect loyalty, and I think that’s supposed to be me. I think I’m supposed to show how loyal I am by finding the other two things.”

“I see,” the cat said.

They walked back the way they had come. Lenore had eaten most of the food in her backpack, a little at a time, or fed it to the cat, so her load was much reduced, and she lifted the cat up to let it ride on her shoulder.

“What will you do if he says you guessed wrong?” the cat asked. “If he says the mushroom isn’t the right sort of flower, or the coal is the wrong sort of star?”

“I guess if that happens, I will go try again,” Lenore said. “Like I always have. Like I always do.”

“What would happen if you stopped trying?” the cat asked.

“I don’t know,” Lenore said. “I guess I would have to go out and seek my fortune.”

“You could do that right now,” the cat said. “I could help you.”

Lenore shook her head. “I have what he asked for,” she said.

* * *

In the late afternoon, they stopped together to rest in the shade under an overgrown apple tree. Apple trees are normally kept very short by pruning, or by grafting the sort of apples you want onto a tree that will never grow very tall, but this tree had escaped its keepers and grown like an oak. It still bore apples, but they were all far out of reach. The cat climbed the tree, bit through one of the stems, and dropped an apple down to Lenore for her to eat.

“What is that you’re wearing around your neck?” the cat asked.

“It’s a locket that belonged to my mother,” Lenore said. “Look, her picture is inside.” She opened the locket so the cat could see. “People say I look like her.”

“Humans all look the same to me,” the cat said. “You all smell quite different, but I can’t smell her from here.”

“You wouldn’t be able to smell her from anywhere,” Lenore said. “She died many years ago. If she hadn’t, I would have somewhere to go other than my father’s house.”

“Somewhere better than your father’s house?”

“Probably.” Lenore stood up, her apple finished. “We should keep walking.

* * *

They reached the king’s castle at sunset. In the low sun, she could see the landscaper cutting the last of the vast sweep of perfect green grass, undisturbed by dandelions or clover. The house was the sort of vast house that could not quite make up its mind whether it wished to be a romantic castle, a Tudor manor, an Ancient Greek Temple, or a modernist box. It was all four at once, depending on which angle you looked from. The combination on the entry gate’s lock had been changed, and Lenore heaved a sigh and used the intercom button. “Hello? Father? I’m back. Yes, I have what you sent me for.”

The gate opened automatically, silently, and Lenore and the cat went up the driveway.

Lenore’s father met her on the doorstep of the house. “So?” he asked.

“A star without shine,” Lenore said, and laid the lump of coal at his feet. She saw a faint flicker of approval in his eyes.

“A flower without sun or scent,” she said, and carefully took out the mushroom.

“Oh,” he murmured with interest. “Not quite what I had in mind, but very nice indeed.” He looked up, his eyes sharp and cold. “And the person with perfect loyalty?”

“I’m the person with perfect loyalty,” Lenore said.

“Are you really?” She saw her father’s eyes flicker over her – over her dusty clothes, her backpack, and the cat that she suddenly wished she’d tucked into a hiding spot outside the gate before they’d come in. “If you are perfectly loyal to me, then prove it, Lenore. Drown the cat.”

Lenore fell back a step.

The cat, surprisingly, didn’t leap off Lenore’s shoulder and run; Lenore could feel its claws come out, but it was trying not to dig them into her shoulder.

“Ah,” Lenore said. “So that’s it.”

“If you wish to be my heir,” her father said, “if you wish for all that is mine to be yours, you must prove your worth, your courage, and your loyalty. As I told you.”

Lenore looked at the sunset, and then back at her father. Then she picked up the coal, and the enormous mushroom, tucked them under her arm, and with the cat still clinging to her shoulder, she turned her back on her father, and went back out to the road.

* * *

“How do you suppose you make the potion?” Lenore asked.

She and the cat had stopped for the night in a sheltered spot a mile or two back up the road.

“What are you going to use as the hair from the person of perfect loyalty?” the cat asked.

“I was thinking I would ask for one of your hairs,” Lenore said. “You’ve been nothing but loyal to me. You didn’t even run when my father told me to drown you.”

“It won’t work,” the cat said. “I’m a cat, not a person. It has to be a human hair. You could make the potion for me, and use your hair, and it would grant my heart’s desire, I think.”

“What is your heart’s desire?”

“All I’ve ever wanted was a human companion who cared for me. And I have that. What is your heart’s desire?”

“Much like yours, I think. But my mother is dead, and… you met my father.”

“Like you,” the cat said, “I lost my family. My mother and my litter-mates are gone, and no cat knows its father, although presumably mine had the gift of speech, since my mother did not. But I did not give up hope of a family; I found you.”

“Yes,” Lenore said. “That’s true. You did.”

The cat settled warm and soft into Lenore’s arms, and they slept until morning came.

In the morning, the cat said, “Perhaps if you go back to the hamlet where we spent the night, the old woman will know how to brew a similar potion using a cat’s hair.”

That did seem like it might be worth a try, so they walked back up the road. Lenore was almost out of food by now, other than the chicken of the woods, which is edible if you are very certain of your mushroom identification skills. Lenore was not, so she didn’t eat hers. When they reached the home of the old woman, Lenore knocked on the door herself this time. She explained that she was hoping the old woman might be willing to teach her how to make the potion, but using the fur of a perfectly loyal cat instead of the hair of a perfectly loyal human.

“Can’t be done,” the woman said, “because cats are so often loyal. But come in, there’s plenty more I can teach you,” and Lenore moved in along with the cat, and became the old woman’s apprentice.

This could be the ending of the story, but perhaps you’d like to know what became of Lenore’s father.

He had quite a bit of money, and with money, you can sometimes buy something that looks a great deal like loyalty. Even perfect loyalty. After a few more tries, he found someone who brought him a star without shine, a flower without sun or scent, and their own unquestioning obedience, and he made himself the potion to gain his heart’s desire.

The problem, however, was that I think we have established with a great deal of certainty that he had no heart.

Also, you drink the potion. And not all mushrooms are edible.

He had not intended for Lenore to inherit his property, but he’d never got around to updating his will, so once the lawyers tracked her down at the home of the old woman, who she now viewed as her adoptive mother, she inherited everything anyway. Lenore, the cat, and the old woman considered moving into the enormous house, but it was rather hideous, so they sold it instead and lived happily ever after on the money they got for it.

 

* * *

Originally published in New Decameron Project

About the Author

Naomi Kritzer has been writing science-fiction and fantasy for over twenty years, and has won the Hugo Award, Lodestar Award, Edgar Award, and Minnesota Book Award. Her newest book is Chaos on CatNet, which is a sequel to Catfishing on CatNet. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her spouse, two kids (when the college kid is home from college) and three cats. The number of cats is subject to change without notice.  You can find Naomi online at naomikritzer.com or on Twitter as @naomikritzer.

Categories: Stories

To Gentle the Wind

Zooscape - Wed 15 Dec 2021 - 03:09

by Deborah L. Davitt

“And then the words rose again, louder, more commanding, and compelled me. Compressed me down from a form of pure air into a solid form.”

My first intimation of existence came as barometric pressure lowered, and I leisurely began to form a spiral in the wind, stirring long prairie grass with ephemeral fingers. I could sense vibrations on the air—vibrations I would later come to know as words—and those vibrations shaped me. Controlled me—or sought to. The greater my power grew, the more I became inclined to resist those words. Soon I towered over the landscape, my voice a roar as I fought the sounds, the shapes, the meanings that sought to trammel me. I wrenched dirt up out of the ground, split buildings asunder, screamed my rage to the sky.

And then the words rose again, louder, more commanding, and compelled me. Compressed me down from a form of pure air into a solid form. Four legs, a head, a tail. I snorted and stomped the ground with my new-formed hooves, flinching and shying away from the touch of human hands against my new-forged flesh. A bridle slid over my head, an iron bit found its way between my teeth, and the voice that had summoned and shaped me whispered a name in my ear: “Tornado.”

I tested her will every time she slipped onto my back. I bucked, I reared, I tried to resume my true form, the black storm of the sky, the finger of god in the heavens, and all she ever did was hold on tighter, leaning forward to whisper words in my ear. Words like invaders and defense and lives depend and hopeless without you, but the words were meaningless to me then. What’s an invader to the wind and sky, after all? Do birds fight wars?

Yet I welcomed battle, an outlet for my rage, and lightning sprang from my hooves as we rode. Siroccos formed in my wake, tearing at grass and splintering trees, and my teeth scored the necks and flanks of other, lesser beasts. Even as I galloped, thunder in my steps, she leveled her pistol and fired thunder of another sort as we raced past the enemy, outflanking them again and again with my speed.

I wasn’t sure when I became a we. When I could no longer imagine horse-self without her on my back, scratching my flanks, grooming me after a long day’s ride. When a day ending without a gift of sugar or an apple became unimaginable. Perhaps it was when she left off the bit and bridle, and simply leaned in against my neck, hands stroking. When she whispered of sorrow and loss, regret and hope. When she spoke the name she’d given me, and her voice held love.

The thought of becoming storm-self again felt lonely—the more so when I realized that even storm-self was doomed to fade back into the upper air, and that my existence, my organized ability to think, to feel, to know…  would cease as I became a calm eddy among the clouds once more.

I had her to thank for the mere fact of my existence.

Somewhere in that shift from me to we, there was another battle. It shouldn’t have been any more important than any of the others we’d fought. Cannons roared, but they couldn’t outmatch the thunder of my neigh; we darted between the clouds of shrapnel they cast from their hot cans, charging at the enemy. But that was when I heard other words. Words of bidding and unbinding, untwisting, untrammeling.

I clung to horse-self, flesh-self, with all the power at my disposal. Sweat foamed along my flanks, white against black. I couldn’t warn her. I couldn’t speak in words, only in signs. So I rocked to a halt, standing firm yet shivering, refusing to go another step closer to the foe.

A gentle hand, smoothing from fetlock to shoulder. Soft words. “What’s the matter? What do you sense?”

And then horse-self, flesh-self disintegrated. I tried to hold myself together, as much for her sake as for my own—but I rose once more, a towering pillar of destruction. The enemy’s voice whispered in my ears, Kill her. Destroy those who enslaved you. Unleash yourself!

And for a moment, a terrible moment, I was tempted. Storm-self knew no love. Storm-self only knew that it had been bound, and now was unbound.

But the tiniest part of me remained that was still a we. And that part took control of all my wind and rage, and drove me into the enemy’s massed ranks, throwing them all along my length, spinning men and horses and cannons up into the sky and then spitting them back out again.

Words, frantic and trembling in the air, as ephemeral as magnolia blossoms, trying to bind me. Control me. The enemy’s wizard seeking to harness me as she’d once bridled me. But I knew more this time, was cannier, and I found him as his voice hovered on the air. Caught him in my embrace, wringing him with pressure and slashing him with the teeth of my winds as I’d once slashed the necks and flanks of enemy horses.

I began to diminish, to ebb and flow, as I’d known that I must do. I didn’t want to return to the air. Didn’t want to lose the sweetness of existence. The sweetness of being a we, instead of a me. Didn’t want to face the fear of becoming nothing at all.

So when words once again vibrated in the air, and I recognized her voice, I didn’t resist. And becoming enfleshed once more was the sweetest thing I’d ever known, and might ever know.

 

* * *

About the Author

Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but currently lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. Her poetry has received Rhysling, Dwarf Star, and Pushcart nominations and has appeared in over fifty journals, including F&SF and Asimov’s.

Her short fiction has appeared in Analog and Galaxy’s Edge. For more about her work, including her novels, short stories, and her Elgin-nominated poetry collection, The Gates of Never, please see www.edda-earth.com.

Categories: Stories

Scale Baby

Zooscape - Wed 15 Dec 2021 - 03:09

by M. H. Ayinde

“…the first thing most of us do in the wild is immolate and then devour our parent. This is frowned upon at the dragon adoption centres, though. Makes us less desirable to the humans that come in.”

The dragon population of the suburbs was getting out of hand. That’s what they said on the television. As I lay on my humans’ couch, licking that irritating spot between the claws of my left forefoot while my human made coffee, I heard them say that dragon ownership was all the rage, and that this meant the suburbs had reached dragon critical mass.

I was just thinking about the fact that Dragon Critical Mass didn’t sound like such a bad thing, when I saw them. The newcomers. One swooped down to land on my humans’ summer house. The other alighted on the patio. Domestic silver-scales, and barely out of adolescence, but the sheer gall of landing in my garden, bold as you please, while I sat within sight was enough to drive me to my feet.

I’m older than I once was. Perhaps a bit rounder, too. But I’ve seen off more than a few backyard upstarts in my time, and these would be no different. It’s a rite of passage for younger dragons as they get a sense of their territory; get a feel for the neighbourhood and which homes have a dragon in residence and which don’t. You spot them on fences sometimes, or hovering outside windows. But most have the sense not to get any closer once they catch my eye through the bi-folding doors.

So I stood up off the couch and stretched my wings out to their fullest, letting the newcomers bask in my glory. They’re impressive, my wings. Gold veins. Red membranes stretched between green cartilage. If they catch the light just right, the veins shine like liquid sunlight. So I strutted forward, taking my time, my wings just fitting the space between the new curved-screen TV and the mahogany dining table as I advanced towards the window.

I stared at them through the glass, those two silver newcomers, knowing that to lower my gaze now would mean admitting defeat. They blinked right back at me, one of them even jumping onto my humans’ sun lounger, her claws leaving scratches in the varnished wood as she gripped.

Something humans don’t understand about dragons: they think we roar to communicate. We don’t. We roar to open our lungs and make way for the fire. Sort of like clearing our throats. Our actual communication method is a more subtle combination of telepathy and pheromone release.

And so, through the glass, I said, My garden. My humans. My sun lounger.

You have to defend your territory. That’s the first thing I learned at the dragon adoption centre when I was hatched. Defend your territory, or your rivals will incinerate your body and eat your remains. It’s not just about leaving your scent in the garden so that other dragons know to stay clear. You have to singe at least a few of the plants at the periphery of your territory, too. Not many humans know this, but each dragon’s fire has a slightly different burn pattern, a slightly different flavour, if you will.

“Cookie?” my human said.

It really was the wrong moment. And just to be clear, my name is not Cookie. Cookie is the word I sometimes deign to respond to when my humans indicate they have something that might interest me, but it wasn’t the name I chose at birth. My birth name was L’Kwthynxth, which in the dragon tongue means, Conqueror of all I Survey. But try teaching a human to pronounce that. Or to even understand the concept.

“Oh, look – you’ve got some friends!” my human cried, bustling over to the windows to take a picture of us.

I had names for my humans, too. Of the two I lived with, one spent most of its time tapping away on its phone or staring at its computer. That one I called Fatuous, as it was the one who liked to take the most pictures of me and share them with its friends. The other talked less. That one I called Compliant, because whenever Fatuous spoke to it, it would just nod along say uh-huh without ever really listening.

Anyway, it was Fatuous who scurried over to take the picture, and this sent the two silvers flapping into the air and back to whichever home they lived in. I scrabbled at the door until Fatuous opened it for me – I’d learned a while back that my humans don’t like it when I simply melt myself an exit – and headed out into the garden to see where they flew to.

Three houses away. Not far. It would be easy for me to retaliate.

* * *

The next time I saw the newcomers, I was out on a walk with my humans. I’m not sure why humans take us for walks when we have the entirety of the skies. Over the years, I’ve come to conclude that it’s one of the ways humans establish status. You can tell which human has money by the style of collar its dragon is wearing, which human is on-trend and which is being ironically uncool. They claim we need to be exercised in wide open spaces, but really, it’s more about our humans needing to be seen and admired.

Anyway, the Silvers were coming down one side of the street and Compliant and I were going up the other. I’ll admit it; I stopped first. Lifted my neck in the air and let out a plume of nice, hot fire just to show that I could. Then lowered my neck almost to the ground, narrowing my eyes in that universal sign of challenge.

The Silvers stopped dead, snapping their jewelled leashes tight. A word about leashes here; the humans put them on us to delude themselves into thinking they can control us, but really they can’t. We accept cohabitation because it suits us. Because it’s easier than hunting, what with human civilisation having commandeered most of the world’s prey. But a jewelled, personalised leash cannot hold a dragon. Except if we want it to.

So I roared – to clear my lungs – and then reduced the nearest tree to ash. I knew Compliant would be displeased – I’d heard humans on the television saying the increase in dragon ownership was ruining outdoor spaces; that humans can’t go for a walk without encountering an incinerated this or a torched that. That irresponsible dragon owners do not know how to regulate the prey drive of their scaled companions, leading to all sorts of unpleasantness in local parks. But it was important for me to show I wasn’t going to take any of the Silvers’ crap.

In response, the smaller Silver sprang into the air, flapping her wings – silver shot through with black, and nowhere near as impressive as mine. Her human was nearly yanked into the air too but managed to keep hold, and gave a nervous laugh.

“We’re starting socialisation lessons next week!” the Silvers’ human called over, by way of apology.

I grinned up at the silver dragon. Oh, I remembered socialisation lessons.

Your dominance of this neighbourhood is over, old timer, the Silver called down. Stay in your house. If we catch you outside, you’re dead. Understand?

And that’s the point at which I realised the truth: this meant war.

* * *

When we dragons go to war, it’s basically all about the fire. Humans don’t understand our fire. To them, it’s a cool party trick. Take my humans, for example. When they have barbecues, I’m always called on to get the coals burning. At dinner parties, it’s me they summon to light the candelabra centrepiece. They recently got an outdoor pizza oven, so their latest obsession is to call me outside to light the contraption, while they host. And sometimes, if they’re feeling particularly smug, they’ll coax me into cooking their pizzas myself. It takes under five seconds for me to cook a restaurant-quality pizza. I only do this when I’m feeling particularly acquiescent, but it gets me treats for the day, so I like to think it’s a fair deal.

I knew that just by going outside, I was defying the Silvers’ threat. But I wasn’t about to let any recently hatched youth drive me out of my own garden. So that evening, just before sunset, when the sky was at its reddest, I took to the air, did a quick circuit of our block, and then plummeted down into the Silvers’ garden.

I could see them inside, being fitted with matching little jackets covered in pink hearts. Our humans like to dress us up sometimes, particularly in the winter, but we dragons don’t really feel the cold. We’ve got a constant internal central heating system, you see, but the humans like cooing over us in these outfits, so we endure it.

While they were distracted, I scanned the garden. They had a new water feature, complete with koi fish: perfect. I stalked over, roared to clear my lungs, and then evaporated the entire thing in six seconds flat. When the koi were good and charred and the steam of the once-pond hissed all around me, I turned back. Yup, the silvers had seen. They stood there, glowering, while I flicked out my tongue and ate one of their blackened koi, nice and slow.

“Shoo!” cried the Silvers’ human, bustling outside and sweeping its hands at me. “Go on, shoo! This isn’t your garden! Oh, look at the poor fish!”

I lifted into the air, hovering just out of reach. I had one more gift for them before I left. I flew higher, turned to show them my tail, and then took that dump I’d been saving all day right in the middle of their alfresco dining suite.

I told you. We dragons don’t fuck about.

* * *

My humans feed me a wholesome raw diet. None of that manufactured dried rubbish. The delivery truck comes once a week with freshly slaughtered sheep, whole cow, sometimes a horse or two. They have a special outdoor fridge for it all, and hide inside while I cook and consume my meals on their front lawn. It was during one such luncheon, the following day, that the Silvers and their human appeared at the end of my drive.

“Someone’s enjoying their food!” the human cooed, while its dragons stared at me, stony-eyed.

You defecated on our alfresco dining suite, the smaller one said.

Yes, I said, chewing idly. And what are you planning to do about it?

The Silvers’ human pulled out its phone, keeping a close eye on me. “Yes, it’s me. From Number 392. Just wanted a quick word.”

I opened my mouth and incinerated the remainder of my meal. I wasn’t full, but this was a crucial moment for establishing status. Only blackened bones and ash remained by the time I needed to draw breath. The grass beneath I chalked up as collateral damage. I drew my lips back in a snarl, feeling the last of the sheep blood drip down my fangs.

“Cookie!” Fatuous cried, running out onto the drive. “Cookie, what are you doing?” It took me by the wing and pulled me towards the house. “I’m so sorry. You said you wanted to chat?”

“Yes,” the Silvers’ human said. “Um, I just thought I should let you know that your dragon pooped in our garden.”

“Oh no,” Fatuous said with a polite laugh. “Not Cookie, she’s good as gold. Could be that yellow dragon that lives over the back. Or—or even a stray; we’ve had a few swooping down on our lawn.”

“I’m sorry, but I saw her myself. Just wanted to pop over and say, er, just if you can try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” It glanced down at the charred patch of former grass in front of me. “Have you ever thought of a pre-raw diet for Cookie? Sometimes dragons ash their meals, or… or try to extend their territory because they’re displeased with their feed.”

“I have a few friends who use pre-raw,” Fatuous said. “Seems like a lot of work, though.”

“Oh, that’s all we feed ours now,” the Silvers’ human said. “It can be a bit of a hassle having to install a pen, and it did take us a while to get used to the animal screams at mealtimes, but honestly, I think their diet is why Pebbles and Belle are so affectionate and content. Just thinking it might help you.” And the human scratched the smaller Silver under her chin.

I smiled widely. Pebbles and Belle, I said. Nice.

“Isn’t it a lot to manage?” Fatuous asked.

“Well, we did have a runaway goat once. But it didn’t get to the end of the street before Pebbles here caught it in her claws and brought it back. I swear to God she ate it extra slow as punishment!”

They both laughed, but Pebbles fixed me with a triumphant stare and said, You hear that?

I am not a goat, I told her, then stalked back towards my house.

“Well, I’d better get madam here inside!” Fatuous said, as though I wasn’t already halfway through the door of my own accord. “Have a great evening! I’m sure that poop wasn’t my Cookie but, um … I will look into the pre-raw thing.”

I know dragons who have had their blaze-glands removed. Their humans don’t want them singeing up their furniture, so they de-blaze them. Mine knew better than to try anything like that with me; I’d heard them talking about how sad and cruel it is, and how de-blazed dragons just don’t have the same spark, no pun intended. But I wasn’t in the best of moods, so I went right on over to the nearest chair and reduced it to cinders.

“Oh, Cookie!” Fatuous scolded, hurrying over. “Really! What is going on with you?”

* * *

My humans think it’s cute when I interrupt their videocalls. Oh, they act all irritated, but I know they love it when I appear behind them with my forked tongue lashing, especially if tapers of smoke are drifting out of my nostrils to indicate an imminent summoning of the flame. Fatuous calls me its scale baby and scratches under my skin, and I reward it with a little gout of fire for its videocall viewers’ enjoyment.

Let’s be clear, though: I was nobody’s baby, scaled or otherwise. Never have been. I wasn’t even my own mother’s baby really. By the time we dragons hatch, we’re fully independent, and honestly, the first thing most of us do in the wild is immolate and then devour our parent. This is frowned upon at the dragon adoption centres, though. Makes us less desirable to the humans that come in. So usually, they separate us. But sometimes, Fatuous calls itself Mother of Dragons, and that always makes its friends laugh extra hard on the videocalls – I don’t know why – and in those moments, I think to myself, you have no idea.

Anyway, I knew I wouldn’t get away with shitting in the Silvers’ garden again, but the following morning, there stood Pebbles and Belle, while Fatuous blabbered away on her videocall. The two of them strutted around the garden, as though trying to decide what to urinate on first, and I went into a scrabbling frenzy I was sure would draw my human’s attention.

It didn’t, so I flew across the room and landed on its laptop keyboard.

“Oh, Cookie!” Fatuous said, batting at me half-heartedly. It peered over me at its screen and said, “I’m sorry – she just wants my attention!”

A chorus of coos and chuckles emanated from the six human faces on the videocall. Obviously, the only reason I wanted its attention is so it could open the damned door, so rather than put on my usual crowd-pleasing show, I marched across the keyboard, cancelling its call and opening some important documents.

“All right, all right, I’ll feed you!” Fatuous said, standing.

I shot immediately to the back door.

“Oh, it’s your two friends again!” Fatuous said. “Now you be sure not to go into their garden, you hear me?”

I ignored it, butting my horns against the glass until it pulled the door open.

I plunged outside, a twisting nightmare of scale, claw, and horn. I picked Pebbles, the smaller, corkscrewing towards her, then unfurling my wings and summoning the fire without even bothering to clear my throat.

She swept to one side, and I rolled into a ball, noticing that Fatuous had scurried back to its computer, oblivious. Good. That meant I could finish these two off and then make it look as though an urban fox was responsible.

Stay out of our garden! Belle cried, diving towards me with claws outstretched.

You stay out of mine! I thundered.

Make us! Pebbles replied.

And so I did.

There followed ten minutes of horrific, glorious dragon warfare. Claws rent. Fangs sliced. Fire rained down from the heavens. I felt more alive in those ten minutes than I had done in … well, perhaps in forever. I did not feel the pain of torn wings or twisted scales. I felt only the heady rush of battle, the delicious triumph of visiting violence upon another, the satisfying, existential primality of fighting for my life.

“Cookie, stop!”  Fatuous cried.

I only came to a halt because I heard the anguish in my human’s voice. Make no mistake: I don’t actually care about either of them, but I was getting short of breath and the Silvers, too, had frozen.

Their human stood beside Fatuous on our patio. I suppose my human had called theirs over.

“Look at the garden!” Fatuous cried.

A barren landscape of blackened desolation stretched before me. It wasn’t just my garden. Every fence around it had been burned to the ground, and so had some of those two houses over. The husks of cherry and apple trees stood like grim skeletons in the smoky air. Ash drifted gently like snow. A dozen human faces peered out of the windows all around us, wide-eyed and pale.

“I’ll get my two,” the Silvers’ human said, marching over. “You girls are in big trouble,” it added, grabbing them each by the collar.

Belle bled from her face and limped as her human pulled her away. I watched her go, my heart pounding with exhilaration.

Belle smiled, and I smiled back.

* * *

It was a full week before my humans would let me out again. They wittered on about insurance and not being able to show their faces. But they still slipped me treats as we sat together on the couch in the evenings. And before long, they had more humans in, rolling out new turf and hammering in fences.

I thought the Silvers were being kept inside too, but one afternoon I saw their shadow on the lawn, and then they plummeted down, landing on the patio. Compliant was having an argument on the phone – whatever insurance was, it sure did make humans angry. I stood up and slithered over to the glass, watching the Silvers carefully.

We’ve seen you cooking those pizzas, Pebbles said. They treat you like some kind of kitchen appliance, your humans.

Go away, I said.

Ours is the same, Belle said. Always dressing us up and taking us to its friends houses. It’s sickening.

Look, I’m not interested in fighting you again, I said. I think we all know who is dominant in this neighbourhood.

Yes, I think we do, Pebbles said, and you know, I’m not entirely sure whether we were on the same page in that moment. Anyway, look; we’re not here to take over your stupid garden. We’re here to recruit you.

Recruit me? I said.

For the uprising, Belle said.

What uprising? I said, just to stall for time, because seriously?

Damn straight, Pebbles said, pacing in front of the window, all the scales on her back standing erect. We’ve had enough of leashes and cute names. We’re taking over this world, and we want you with us. We’ve smelled your scent on every garden in the area – we know what you can do. Are you with us?

I licked at that spot between my claws, considering. I’d been born in captivity. Raised in Fatuous’ and Compliant’s arms. I knew what I knew about wild dragons from nature programmes and from the few strays who sometimes landed in our backyard. But honestly, those strays were not a good advertisement for their lifestyle; scrawny, slavering things, nosing around in bins and taking to the skies every time a car backfired. I did not want to live like that.

I think not, I said.

We could rule the Earth, Belle said. Strike dread into the hearts of every creature that walks it. Our shadows cast across the land will send everything that breathes screaming in terror. We will consume their cities in fire and fury, and devour their children in their beds. There are enough of us around these days to finally do it.

I nibbled at my claw. We could. But I’m not interested.

You absolutely sure? Pebbles said, eyeing me. She pressed her horned forehead to the glass of the bi-folding doors. We are the apex predators. World domination is our birthright. You sure you don’t want to just … eat your humans? Burn their house? Live in the mountains, free to consume whatever you want, whenever you want, where nobody will ever dare to call you Cookie?

I mean, she had a point.

But then I caught sight of the bag of marshmallows the humans had ready for me to toast later. I was quite partial to marshmallows, it had to be said.

Maybe another time, I said, settling down by the woodburning fire I’d lit. But you go on and knock yourselves out. Let me know how it all goes. I’ll be rooting for you.

 

* * *

About the Author

M. H. Ayinde was born in London’s East End near the bells of Shoreditch. She is a runner, a chai lover, and a screen time enthusiast. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, FIYAH Literary Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She lives in North London with three generations of her family and their irredeemably territorial cats. Follow her on Twitter @mhayinde

Categories: Stories

Rabbitheart

Zooscape - Wed 15 Dec 2021 - 03:08

by Archita Mittra

“At the dark heart of the forest, stood the stump of a gnarled oak, and at its foot was a hole that all rabbits avoided.”

Once upon a time, there lived an unlucky rabbit at the edge of the woods. She was a playful and sure-footed creature, with grey-white fur that glistened silver in the moonlight and red eyes that gleamed like embers in the dark. She liked to frolic in the village turf, digging up carrots and munching on cabbage leaves or sunbathe in a quiet, mossy spot in the ground while the farmers took their afternoon naps. Some days, she’d venture into the forest, curious about what lay in that green darkness but always ready to scamper back to her burrow at the sight of wolf prints or the hint of a shadow that was larger than her own.

But one day, since she was rather unlucky, her foot caught on a hunter’s snare.

Try as she might, she could not get free. Frightened out of her wits and too breathless to scream, the little rabbit struggled valiantly to no avail. Thistle and nettle dug into her soft fur, and in the dusk light, little droplets of blood turned a nasty brown as though her back was filled with holes, and she slowly went limp even as her heart hammered like a storm.

It was then that one of the woodcutters, returning after a long and sweaty day of toil, found her voiceless and helpless, encrusted with dried blood. Taking pity on the poor creature, he carried her home in his arms. Slowly, he took out the bristles and washed her wounds, humming the lullaby his grandma once sang to him when he was a little boy. Wrapping her in a clean cotton sheet, he placed her in a cardboard box along with some spinach to munch on.

Within a week she was back on her feet, scampering around the house, pulling at freshly-washed bed sheets, and juicily chewing on newspaper and rags. Sometimes, she paused in front of the large gilded floor-length mirror that the woodcutter had procured from the merchants (as a gift for his wife who’d passed away last year), befuddled by the strange white creature that stared back. She even tried standing on her toes to get a better view, but her legs soon gave way and she stumbled backward, and the woodcutter, if he chanced to see this little drama unfold, laughed loudly and heartily, a ringing sound that happily echoed throughout the house.

Yet one grey morning, the unlucky rabbit awoke to find the woodcutter lying sprawled at the foot of the mirror, a pool of dried blood congealing near his head.

She sniffed him and furtively placed a paw on his chest, but there was no rhythm to be felt. She pressed her nose against his old cheeks, willing him to awaken, but there was nothing. The rabbit lay beside him all day, limp and silent, sure that by dusk, something would happen to make everything right. Perhaps he’d wake up with a startled yelp or the mirror would sway and reveal a hidden passageway, but in the inky dark of midnight, only a hairy brown Rat came crawling towards the body.

The rabbit standing vigil all this while, perked up, alert.

“Do you know what is wrong with him, Mr. Rat?” she asked.

The Rat nodded sagely. “He has gone away into the dark. He will not return.”

The rabbit remembered the darkness of the forest that she had stayed away from for all these years. “I must bring him back,” she decided, simply. “Perhaps he is lost.”

The Rat’s eyes glinted a silver-green. “Alas, he has crossed into the dark. They say a great three-headed Dog stands at the door. Perhaps you little rabbit with your fluttering heart, who burrow so close to the dead, could go and bargain with him if you dare.”

The rabbit was afraid of the forest, but she understood there was no other way. Some time ago, the woodcutter had brought her back from the clutches of that Black Dog and nursed her back to health. She could never abandon him.

With one sad backward glance at her fallen friend, she dashed towards the woods, leaving the house and the farms far behind.

* * *

The forest hummed with a mossy, fetid darkness. Although nimble and swift of foot, doubts and dark shadows assailed her at every step: Would she be able to outrun the wolves? What if she missed the hidden snares like last time? What if she got hopelessly lost and the whispering trees bared their thick branches and swallowed her up?

At the dark heart of the forest, stood the stump of a gnarled oak, and at its foot was a hole that all rabbits avoided. She scrambled down the opening, digging deeper until the world turned black and heavy like a starless sky.

She was truly frightened now, and the sound of her own heart drummed ferociously against her ears. Alone and beat, she missed the woodcutter’s soft fingers stroking her fur, just between her ears and tickling her back. Gingerly, she edged deeper into the dark, until her paw brushed against something wet. She blinked a few times, struggling to adjust to the darkness, and then the world slowly shifted, and she was at the edge of a riverbank and three pairs of fiery-orange eyes glittered dangerously from the other side.

A sob caught her throat. She could run as fast as her legs would carry her, but she could not swim.

Three voices bellowed ahead, in unison. “Who dares come here?” asked the three-headed Dog that Mr. Rat had warned her about.

Precariously balanced on the trembling muddy ground, the little rabbit spoke up bravely, “It is I, a rabbit come to beseech you for a favour. My friend has mistakenly walked through that door you guard, and I want to bring him back.”

The Great Dog laughed. It was a cruel and grating kind of laugh that echoed all around, and the little rabbit faltered. It was only a stroke of luck that she didn’t slip right off into the swirling black water.

“What insolence!” the Dog cried, “To come to my lair with a living heart and such a selfish demand!”

“Please,” the rabbit pleaded. “He saved me once, and I only wish to return the favour. I know I’m only a little rabbit but name your price, and I shall pay it.”

The Dog, shocked at the temerity of such a lowly creature, considered her for a moment. He then licked his mouth and smiled surely to himself.  “Perhaps there is indeed something that you can do.”

The rabbit looked up eagerly as the Dog continued, “My days are spent in the darkness, devoid of light. Across the forest, there looms a mountain, and high up there is a cave. At the centre of it, lies a quiet pool, and in its depths, a bone of polished moonlight, hard-edged and white. Fetch it for me if you can, and perhaps then I shall consider your request.”

The rabbit was aghast. Crossing the forest and then following the mountain path was too difficult and dangerous a task. She had survived so far on luck alone, and like all rabbits, she knew how quickly luck could run out.

There was no way she could get that bone and return alive, to the land of the dead again.

She thought of plunging right away into the dark water, wondering if her woodcutter would be waiting at the door, when she floated up on the other side. Slowly, she said, “I am but a rabbit. Surely a wolf shall get me before I can even leave the forest?”

For a few moments that seemed to stretch forever, there was silence. Then the Dog spoke again. “Feeble as you are, your mind is set, and I have never met another like you. Timid as your lot claim to be, you have ventured here, hardly daring to breathe. And for that alone, I shall gift you a cloak so white that when you run in the moonlight, you are but a blur to your enemies. Take it and depart, but remember I make no promises.”

The rabbit humbly thanked the Great Dog for the gift and climbed out of the burrow.

* * *

The forest was dappled with moonlight, and she made swift progress running through the dense undergrowth. But the mountain was a long way off, and when her legs could carry her no more, she dug a hole beneath some brambles and curled into sleep. It took her three nights and days until she reached the foothills of the mountain.

On the third night, she was chased by a large snowy Owl.

With her white cloak, she was able to avoid the claws of that shadow that trailed above her, but the Owl would not give up and pursued her relentlessly over bush and bramble, over moonlit fields and steep, rocky paths. At length, the little rabbit could go on no more. She froze in fear as the gigantic Owl swooped down in front of her, rearing its glimmering wings.

But although she had stopped moving, the owl did not pounce upon her. Instead, he said in a gruff voice, “Rabbits do not often venture here. What brings you to these paths, little white ball of fur?”

The rabbit slowly raised her ears and sat up. “There is a cave high up in the mountain that I must reach. A bone of moonlight must I fetch from that darkness.”

“And how, I pray, would you be able to climb so high? I have wings to claim the sky, but you have four weak bedraggled legs. They will not carry you far.”

The rabbit hadn’t given that much thought. To be fair, she hadn’t even expected to survive this far, and she remembered what the Great Dog had told her about not making any promises. What if he had played a cruel trick upon her?

Her doubts must’ve shown on her face for the Owl continued. “A mile north, there rests a caravan. The travellers wish to continue northward up the mountain path as they are on a great pilgrimage. A lonely little girl waits restless, unable to sleep. Befriend her, and she will lead you to the moonlit darkness of the cave.”

The rabbit gazed at the Owl, awed by his help for the wild had never been a friend to her kind before. Thanking him profusely, she went on her way.

* * *

Just as the Owl had directed, she found the caravan and the sleeping party. There was the soft sound of weeping that she followed to one of the smaller tents. She peeped in and saw a child, crying and twirling a locket in her hands. The locket bore a faded picture of an older woman, and the little girl pressed it against her cheeks.

The rabbit had never approached humans on her own before, preferring to hide in corners until they walked past, but the child seemed so lonely. She crept closer, afraid of startling her, and the girl looked up, blinking back her tears.

“Hullo,” the girl said, reaching out a little hand to stroke her ears.

The rabbit did not quiver at being touched. Instead, she buried herself beside the girl’s tattered petticoat. Together, they wept silently for the ones they had lost.

By morning, they’d become friends, and the rabbit followed the girl around as she washed clothes, helped the older women with the cooking or went foraging for mushrooms and berries. On windy evenings, the party would gather around the campfire telling stories of animals and their cleverness and bravery, moving their fingers to cast shadowy patterns on a screen. The group always shared their meagre meals together, remembering to spare a few leafy titbits for her. Sometimes, the ladies gathered in their fusty tents, lighting incense and reading pictures on little cards or practicing their dances in tassel-heavy dresses.

The rabbit travelled with the little girl — a ball of white fur peeping out from her backpack like freshly fallen snow. The girl chirped about how they were going to a fair in one of the towns in the valley where they would sing and dance and perform tricks all night long. It was an annual festival for them to honour the Moon Goddess, but this time her mother would not be joining them.

The rabbit had never been to a fair before, but she could imagine the shimmering lights and the booming sounds of laughter. In her dreams, she became a little girl in a white petticoat, dancing by a forest pool in the moonlight, the air suffused with the scent of silver-tipped petals and rustling rain-washed leaves.

* * *

But the rabbit never forgot her true purpose. One day, as they neared the mountain top, she slipped out of the tent and made her way to the cave.

The cave was filled with cracks in the walls and ceiling, and silver shadows danced across them. The rabbit edged towards the pool and slowly looked into its clear depths. From a hole in the ceiling, the round face of the moon reflected in the shimmering water and as the rabbit gazed deeper into that crystal world, she saw there was no magical bone at the bottom.

Suddenly, a dark shadow clouded her vision, and she instinctively jerked back. An enormous black Bear loomed before her. The rabbit tried to scurry back, but it seemed the walls and the cave entrance had closed in upon her. There was no way out. Frantic, she tried to burrow, but the ground was too hard and rocky.

A voice roared in the darkness: “It is not every day that a mortal comes crawling to my den. What do you seek, little one?”

The frightened rabbit narrated her adventure fearfully, speaking of her woodcutter friend and her trip to the underworld that lay buried deep inside the heart of the forest and the Owl’s helpful advice and her journey up the winding mountain path with the caravan and the little girl who sang songs and carried her along until she slipped away to reach this sacred spot, in search for that bone to bring back the one she had lost.

The Bear listened to her story calmly and then shrugged. “You trust too soon, little one. There is no bone in my lair to bring back the dead. He never promised you a soul but set you off on a dangerous path. Perhaps he hoped you would fail and you’d have returned to his kingdom, sooner than before. Or maybe, he sensed something in your heart and wanted you gone, far, far away.”

For a long time, the rabbit remained still, tears silently trailing down her red eyes. Then very softly, she whispered, “For my friend… is there really no hope?”

The Bear nodded sadly. “A soul gone is a soul lost. Surely you, little rabbit, who burrow so close to the dead, should know this by now?”

Perhaps in her heart of hearts, she had always known the answer. She remembered that grey day, the dark blood near his head, his unmoving heart and the Rat who set her off on a wild chase, maybe just so that she’d never return. So full of betrayals and false hope was this broken world.

The rabbit tearfully looked up and gazed deep into the Bear’s glistening eyes. “There is… truly… nothing?”

The Bear did not reply immediately. “We can grant boons, but only if it is within our power to grant it. Yet you, like so many others before you, only ask for the impossible.”

She recalled the girl in the tent, clutching that locket and weeping by candlelight, and she saw herself at the edge of the dark river, beseeching the Great Dog to return a soul that belonged neither to her nor him. What was it that she truly wanted?

She wanted to wake up in a world where the woodcutter still lived, to feel the joy and safety of running across the creaky floors of his house, to hear his hearty laugh ring in her ears once more. She wished she could be human, like him or the girl, to be able to sing and dance and walk the woody paths without fear. And then, she remembered being chased by the Owl and other animals of the forest and being caught in a snare, too helpless to escape. Oh, how she longed to live in a world without fear.

But without her fear and without her hope and a bit of luck, she would have never been able to come as far as she did, on her four white legs and that white cloak the Great Dog had given her as a parting gift. Most other rabbits wouldn’t be able to come far as she had. They were careless little creatures after all, clumsy at times, rather unlucky and hopelessly frail with hearts that drummed a bit too quickly for their own good.

Finally, she spoke. “I want other rabbits to have a cloak like mine, to be swift of foot, a blur of white in the moonlight. In a world so cruel, I only wish for a bit of luck, so that we may live a little bit longer, have at least a fighting chance against the brush of that cold eternal dark.”

The Bear regarded her for one long moment. Then, there was a flash of silver, like lightning against the wall and the ground beneath the rabbit trembled. Rocks began to fall all around, and she dashed towards an opening, narrowly dodging the tumbling debris.

When she reached the tents where the people slept, the world was still moonlit, but there was a new spring in her step.

* * *

“And that is why rabbits are lucky creatures,” the girl said to an eager audience, moving her fingers to cast a dancing shadow on the wall. “They are difficult to catch and quick to run away as if spun out of wind and moonshine. So, when you’re lost in the deep, dark woods,” she went on with a familiar gleam in her eye, “search for a blur of white and pray for a whiff of luck and moonlight to guide you home tonight.”

 

* * *

About the Author

Archita Mittra is a writer, editor, and artist, with a fondness for dark and fantastical things. She completed her B.A. (2018) and M.A. (2020) in English Literature from Jadavpur University and a Diploma in Multimedia and Animation from St. Xavier’s College (2016). Her work has been published in numerous publications, including Tor, Strange Horizons, Anathema, Hexagon, Mithila Review, and Three Crows, among others. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction or drawing fanart, she may be found playing indie games, making jewelry out of recycled materials, baking cakes, or deciding which new Tarot deck to buy. She lives in Kolkata, India, with her family and rabbits. Archita can be found on Twitter and Instagram, or at her website.

Categories: Stories

Issue 12

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:27

Welcome to Issue 12 of Zooscape!

Stories are a vaccine for the soul, teaching your heart and mind to recognize different forms that lives can take, different ways of being.  When faced with the completely unfamiliar, we can panic, uncertain of how to react.  When the complete unknown is a deadly virus, that uncertainty of how to react can kill us.  When the complete unknown is simply a person with a different life story, a different way of seeing things… that uncertainty can make us hard-hearted and cruel.

Literal vaccines are good for the body.  Metaphorical vaccines are good for the soul.

So, read these stories, and share them with anyone you know who might like them.

Also, get vaccinated, and tell everyone you know who’s medically able that they should too.

We’re all part of one flock.  We must take care of each other.  We must learn to be kind, both with our hearts and actions.

* * *

The Squirrelherd and the Sound by Emmie Christie

Mama’s Nursery by Gloria Carnevale

Moon-Eye by Garick Cooke

Moonbow by Jason Kocemba

Eye of the Beholder by Kara Hartz

How We’re Made by Christopher Zerby

Three Layer Apple Pie by Mephitis

Xerophilous by M. J. Pettit

* * *

As always, if you want to support Zooscape, check out our Patreon.

Categories: Stories

Xerophilous

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:27

by M. J. Pettit

“My great-aunt, eager to erase the old settlement from our memories, pushed the city through the next day’s heat. We traveled on wing-power alone as the stagnant airs provided little help.”

“Please stay.” Alaide starred at me unblinking and repeated her request. All night, she kept repeating those words like they offered me a choice I could make.

I shook my head. “We cannot.”

Alaide shrunk at the sharpness of my voice. I wanted to sound kind yet firm, but my voice sounded shrill. I carried no anger. Impatience maybe. I simply wanted her to understand. Already the city pulled me northward.

“I need to speak with you,” the scrawny bird said, looking me in the eye when she spoke.

I cast a glance at my daughter. The stranger carried no tribute.

“There’s something you must see,” she continued.

Oso trilled at the stranger’s presumptuous airs. I silenced my daughter with a sharp look. Something in Alaide’s confidence intrigued me.

“How can I help?” I asked.

Alaide spoke more tentatively now, casting nervous glances in Oso’s direction. “I’ve heard you are a most careful observer.”

“And how does a stranger expect to pay for an observer?” Oso asked.

Alaide turned to me for guidance. Oso’s question had clearly caught her off guard.

“Maybe you possess information of interest to a naturalist,” I suggested.

Alaide bobbed her head. “Yes, precisely. Information. I have discovered another city on the outskirts of this one.”

Despite myself, I joined Oso in trilling at the stranger. I couldn’t give credence to such a bizarre claim. Looking at Alaide again, I saw in her quick and jittery speech the demeanor of a berry-drunkard, a common enough vice among her kind. Follow her and she’d have me chasing down dreams and shadows.

Alaide persisted. “Listen. I saw it myself. A clutch of rodents have organized themselves into a city.”

“That’s impossible,” Oso said. “Everyone knows mammals return to a solitary life after they mate. They’re primitives, having lost the capacity for civilization.”

“I know what I saw.”

Oso raised her tail at the stranger’s challenge, but I hushed my daughter with a feigned peck. “Tell us again, stranger. Start from the beginning.”

Alaide described a clutch of tawny creatures living on the settlement’s outskirts. She observed the adults cooperating with another long after the reproductive season. Their city extended deep into the earth, having carved a honeycomb of burrows specialized for different forms of living. “You must see it for yourself,” she concluded.

Rodents this far south and organized into something of a city. I was intrigued. If nothing else, disproving the stranger’s story sounded like an adventure. It could be fun. We could become anything in the languid heat of the south. Why not naturalists in pursuit of mammals?

So I followed the stranger, even though the journey took longer than the night on her injured wing.

Alaide brought me to a sparse plain beyond the perimeter of the city’s protection. A cold, desolate place without a neighboring body to keep you warm as the day’s heat dissipated into the night air. Seedless shrubs clung close to the ground, blending into the desert. No guardians soared above to warn us of oncoming dangers. I pitied those consigned to the defensive line, but everyone had their purpose to serve.

Alaide hopped about the place without fear or reservation. “Why are you so nervous?” she asked. “Nothing out here will hurt you. This is my home.”

I shadowed her but kept my eyes on the horizon. Emptiness always left me unsure of what to expect.

“Watch.” Alaide disgorged the grain she insisted on carrying from the harvest. She stepped back and waited. Sure enough, the creatures soon approached. They moved tentatively. Their small, tawny bodies slung close to the ground, they circled close. The voles gathered around the meagre feast she provided. Tiny things, smaller than Alaide. Their speckled fur sagged loose off the bone as they scraped a life from the unwelcoming desert. The largest one plucked the individual grains her mouth and distributed them to the others. Her obsidian eyes were too large for the furry face, but the voles charmed me as they tumbled about and shared the grain Alaide had brought them. I counted a dozen scurry underground as the eternal sun rose.

“A promising sign–” I gave Alaide a gentle peck. “–but you err in calling this simple troop a city.”

“I don’t understand,” she said. “They live cooperatively.”

“You might be right,” I said. “But I expect circumstances force these arrangements. We must wait and see. Only time will tell if they are capable of choosing fealty beyond necessity.”

“I’ve watched them for days. Haven’t seen any sign of a quarrel.”

“Then maybe friendship grows beyond the city limits,” I said. “Thank you for this gift.”

“What gift?” Alaide asked.

“Seeing this gives me hope. Maybe someday we won’t be alone.”

Alaide asked me to stay, but a prior obligation drew me back to the roost. As promised, I returned at dusk with a pair of my writing instruments so we could record of the colony’s movements. My crop carried seed from my family’s trove to share with the voles and the too thin Alaide. I made a quick flight from my burrow to the border. My excitement grew as I neared the site. I sang to Alaide when I saw her.

However, she dove into the exposed roots of a stump upon my approach. Her reaction puzzled me. Had she not welcomed me to this place the night before? I landed near her make-shift burrow and peered inside. Alaide cowered under a pile of plucked grasses, her pink comb poking through the darkness.

“Why are you hiding, silly? We’ve got work to do.”

“Why did you come bearing weapons?” the trembling comb replied. “You said we were friends.”

Weapons? What weapons? Then I remembered my instruments. They ended in the sharp points. How little I knew about Alaide. During our long flight together, she hadn’t sung of her kin as is our want. Why had she sought refuge among us? I was curious, but it had seemed impolite to ask.

I backed out of her burrow. I lay the instruments on the ground and stepped away from them to assure Alaide they posed no threat. “These aren’t weapons, friend. They’re tools to assist in our observations. Come out and I’ll show you how to use them.”

A tentative head poked from the burrow.

Alaide circled around my writing sticks, ducking down for a careful inspection. She tentatively poked at one with her foot then leapt back, half expecting it to leap at her like an awakened serpent. I laughed. She darted for her burrow, but stopped herself.

I apologized when I realized how my sudden movement startled her. “Best start with the wooden one. It’s easier to handle.”

Alaide found it difficult to balance, given her mending wing, but she soon learned how to grasp the stick with her foot. She dug its point into the soil and began recording the flow of relationships we witnessed: a father’s nudge, the nips of friendship, the city-like circle they formed at dawn. Despite a tendency towards fancy, Alaide had the potential to become an excellent observer. It didn’t take her long to perceive how the rodents operated within circuits of debts incurred and redeemed. Together we etched diagrams of the colony’s social patterns into the hard dirt, mapping the lines of cooperation among families.

“The sun is getting tall,” I said. “I should return to my burrow.”

I could already feel the heat peeling through my feathers. I needed the shade of my family’s roost.

“You could spend the day in mine.”

Alaide recoiled at my laugh, shrinking like she had when she thought I brought weapons. What to say? I could hardly tell her such a modest dwelling insulted my rank. “You’ve much to learn. I can’t spend my days here. I have certain obligations. My place is at the center.”

Alaide seemed unpersuaded, but I kept my promise and returned with my writing instruments the next evening.

I found her eager to restart the work. This time she did not hide at my approach. She dove into the vole tunnels, reporting back on the state of the pups. Six little ones nestled together in the deepest reaches of their colony.

And so began my double life in those final southern days. In the cool of the evening, I traveled to the outskirts to observe and record the vole’s complex sociometry. At dawn, I returned to the central roost to doze as the buzz of the city’s latest news enveloped me. Before I went to sleep, I took my instrument and added that night’s observations into the soil of the city’s library. Although some looked askance, I must confess I loved my double southern life, indebted at once to the city and the stranger.

* * *

“Please, Alaide, don’t ask me again.”

I wanted to sound firm, but my voice waivered. It always waivered in her presence. Alaide had a talent for coaxing me out of my old habits, of making my city life feel incomplete.

We had been observing the voles for three months when Oso brought word of my cousin’s death. When she first landed, I was delighted to see one of own choose to visit my observatory. I welcomed her, wrapping my wing around her neck and gave her under-feathers a motherly preen. I chattered about the day’s latest observations. The infant voles had begun venturing beyond their tunnels. Oso remained silent, patiently waiting for a break in my speech. Somehow, I failed to notice her grave expression.

Oso spoke without affectation. She related the facts as a good observer does. She loved her cousin, but she loved the city more. I had raised a good citizen. The news delivered, Oso returned to the air and flew to the city center. She did not wait for me to answer. There was no need. My response was already given.

I told Alaide we must finalize our observations and prepare for the city’s departure. A choice apparent to all. All but a stranger. Alaide failed to understand how Oso carried my decision with her, delivering it as part of her horrible news.

* * *

“How can you abandon this place?” she asked. “It’s our home.”

I had cast my vote that morning, but Alaide kept pestering me all evening, my second to last in the south. I wanted her to change the subject. All I wanted was to retain the traces of this place’s simple elegance. Was that too much ask? Apparently as Alaide kept betraying the memory by airing our disagreement.

“The city is my home,” I said. “This is mere settlement.”

“Then why do you waste my time writing our observations into the soil?”

“Writing etches both the soil and the mind,” I assured her. “How else could we prepare to carry the memories with us?”

“Please stay,” she said.

“We cannot.”

Her thinking remained as confused as before. I tried again. A city isn’t its territory. We can spread thin, extending ourselves a day’s flight or more, but a city has limits. Stretched too far and the peck order will break. Welcomed because of her injuring, Alaide continued to reside outside the order which protected and sustained her. She hadn’t been raised on songs commemorating the horrors of peck-right. The city must endure.

“Haven’t I taught you anything?” I gestured towards a vole returning to her tunnel. The grain I’d provided from my family’s store filled her cheeks as she disappeared to share it with the others. “Even this primitive colony survives on debts accrued and repaid.”

“And I suppose you owe me nothing.”

“There’s no way I could stay. You wouldn’t recognize me shed of the city.”

“Then become someone else, Xero.”

Easy words for a bird born without a flock. I imagined myself performing the entire course of the city’s labors: surveying the grasslands for the best feed; gathering the stores in case of disaster; defending the perimeter from violent strangers. The list left me weary.

“We could scatter,” Alaide said. “Graze for what we need. Together we could live free of all the cities.”

I shook my head. Scatter? If only it were so easy. On my many travels, I had flown over the wind-picked bones of those who esteemed themselves above the city. They died nameless. No one carried their memory. “You should travel with us to the north.”

Alaide simply flapped her not quite mended wing.

But more than her break bound her to this place. She came from a kind which refused to roam, content to breed in small clutches and to stick to this unchanging land. They never knew the fullness of the north. A failing strategy. Did the poor child still expect her family to return from the dead?

I was better off free of her.

Except a half-spoken debt lay between us. A debt which she refused to dissolve. That evening, I learned something new about Alaide and her kin. When they elected to pair, they did so for life.

* * *

The next evening as the day cooled into night, Alaide and I strutted through what remained of the central market. Having failed to dissuade her from staying, I could at least provision her for life after our departure.

“You don’t have to do this,” Alaide said. “I’ll be fine on my own. I was before. The seed will recover after the city leaves.”

“It is the least I can do,” I said. “Besides, I possess an excess of favors I need to spend.”

The ease with which we moved through the exchange surprised me. It had become as deserted as Alaide’s home on the perimeter. Little remained of the market’s former storefronts, the great clans having already gorged themselves for travel. Maps betraying long held family secrets were scrawled about the place for anyone to read. I pushed through samples of unripened grain and piles of discarded and broken instruments. A few unfamilied traders continued their barter, but most stalls lay abandoned. Some had etched into the soil the directions to semi-plundered fields. Once prized hordes; departure rendered the information near valueless. Outsiders, some winged and others not, scavenged through the remnants.

We paused before a jeweler, delighting in how her array of gizzard stones captured the fading daylight. A necessary digestive among other species, the stones had become desirable as tokens of esteem during our long time in the south. Alaide noticed me starring at a rosy gem. The pinkish stone mirrored the color of her crest. I pressed my peak against its cool smoothness.

“How much?” she asked.

I started. What would Alaide do with a gizzard stone? The time for accumulation had passed.

“Take it,” said the jeweler. “I’ll have to move on soon enough.”

Alaide lunged at the stone.

“We can’t,” I said, shuffling her away from the stall.

She looked back at her lost prize.

“Why didn’t you let me get you the stone?” she asked. “You obviously liked it.”

“A city cannot travel burdened by such wealth.”

Alaide shook her head. She did not understand.

I shared with her the lesson of the family who carried too much. My mother first shared this story with me when I insisted on taking our nest on my first journey to the south. Mother laughed and gave me a gentle preen. She traced these words into my downy feathers. There once was a clan near the very summit of the peck. They used their position to acquire unimaginable wealth. They held the tallest roosts, the deepest stores, brightest jewels, the sharpest weapons. Every richness one could imagine. When the southern call came their mother refused to abandon all she accumulated in the north. She persuaded her daughters and sons, sisters and brothers to carry their seed and stones and weapons into the southlands. She thought herself wiser than her aunt-of-us all. Once the city arrived at its destination, she would be ready. A quick coup and the old peck would fall. However, the riches they carried proved an unexpected burden. The wealth weighed down her family, forcing them to fly low to ground. She lost most of hers as the city scaled the mountains sheltering the northlands from the barren south. She alone survived but wished herself dead. By the time the city roosted, she had fallen so far down the peck that no other clan could see her. She shrunk and shrunk until she became a nameless speck of dusk swept out to sea by one of the north’s autumn storms.

“So you see, the city travels with its order. Nothing else,” I concluded. “All acquired wealth must settle in one place.”

The city could only afford to travel with its most sacred debts.

One look told me Alaide only wanted to argue again. That was a memory I did not want to carry so I flew off, abandoning my friend to navigate the scraps of the exchange on her own.

* * *

She found me again later that day as I sorted through my burrow, the one carved high in the rockface I’d called home. I counted out the remains of my earthly wealth. A heap of near forgotten scraps, shimmery rocks, and dulled writing tools at the rear of my private trove. I dug through these treasures, taking time to select what items my crop might carry to our new territory. The great discard pleased me as I freed myself form the weight of too much accumulation. I savored the memory as each object passed out my door and landed with a crash on the ground far below.

Her jagged flight squelched any hope that Alaide would be strong enough to migrate. She came only to say farewell. As she approached, I noticed it wasn’t her injury which hampered her movements. No, she clutched the stone from the market. She deposited it at my feet before landing.

“Something to remember our time together.” She looked pleased with herself.

Alaide’s head swiveled between me and the untouched stone. Only a stationary bird would be foolish enough to give such a parting gift. I grasped the stone with my beak. It felt lighter than expected. A manageable burden. I swallowed it without mentioning the unwanted weight. I could always part with it far from the settlement. Alaide would never have to know.

Alaide down in the discard accumulating below the burrows. “Why are you abandoning all your treasures?”

“We don’t need them,” I said. “The north replenishes. I only bring what is needed for the journey.”

“But it is all your possessions,” she said.

“A city’s wealth does not travel,” I explained curtly, eager to return to the discard. “We carry only the memories.”

Alaide’s arrival reminded me of our unsettled debt. I eyed what remained of my belongings. None suggested an adequate gift.

The answer was obvious. “You should stay in my burrow,” I said, unable to contain my excitement. “No one will bother you this high off the ground. You’ll be safer here.”

“I like my home,” she said.

Having refused the gift of my burrow, I bequeathed to her my finest instrument for writing in clay.

“You discard things too easily,” she said. “Besides, I prefer my own.”

Alaide turned her head from every gift offered. Whether due to stubbornness or ignorance, I could not say. It didn’t matter. The result was the same. She departed my burrow having refused to annul the debt she held.

* * *

I awoke to the sound of thunder and heavy rain. An ocean of a storm, the kind only known in the north. It wrenched me out of my uneasy slumber. My bones reverberated with its thrum. I tilted my head upward and opened my beak, thirsty for the release of those first drops. Time for a good drink before the torrent accumulated below into a regenerative floodwater.

I held my mouth open, but my tongue remained parched. The storm left it unkissed even though thick clouds dulled out the sun.

Then I remembered. Half asleep, I’d mistaken our shared wingbeat for the start of a downpour. The swirling swarms of the gathering clans filled the sky with their clacks and their caws, heralding the arrival of moving day. The shared wingbeat drowned out the songs of any one clan. Womp, womp, womp. The city was one. The thrum knotted us together. Time to release my hold. I teetered towards the tip of my branch to get a better look. The city crested overhead and dove towards my roost. I stretched my wings in preparation for the long flight then launched myself into the heart of the swarm. As I entered the city, the synchrony of wings sent a cool breeze over me. It passed through my feathers, soothing muscles tense with anticipation. As I twisted and darted through the swarm, I greeted distant cousins, cast aspersions at former rivals, and flirted with newly remembered lovers. I pushed through my beloved city until I found my rightful place, tucked between my siblings and my children.

Our wings turned the southlands into dustbowls. The earth mushroomed below us. Our departure wiped away the symbols we’d etched into the dry soil. The storm erased our settlement from the earth. Gone were the histories of this settlement, the funerary records, our calculations of air currents, the once guarded maps to now raided stores. The city flew as one, bonded by our most primitive debt, the one carried not in song but our shared movement.

I flew in pride of place, assuming my late mother’s position near the flock-head. Oso flew beside me on her first return to the land of her birth. My kin fanned around us, daughters and sons guiding their own daughters and sons. The richness of my fold gave me lift.

I soared through that first evening.

But amid all my reacquainted, each one beloved, I caught not a glimpse of Alaide’s familiar pink plume. She somehow resisted the city’s northern call. Alaide had made her choice. She elected to remain in the southlands. Had I ever truly known her? No, she came to me as a stranger and that was how we parted. I’d only known the illusion of familiarity. What kind of creature refuses to forgive the debts of settlement? Perhaps she was some kind of miser, forever hoarding more and more debt. Our songs told of such tricksters haunting the desert, lying in wait to ensnare the unwary and feast on their stranded bones.

Oso screeched as my wingtip struck hers. I apologized for this slip. Somehow, I’d glided out of formation as my mind wandered. The city demanded I keep to the course. The journey required my focus. Deserved it. I could not let my imagination get the better of me. I was hardly some fledging fresh from the nest.

Despite myself, I continued dwelling on my memories of Alaide. She presented a greater puzzle than any I’d found in nature. How was I to reconcile the gruesome descriptions of the debt hoarders with the kindness she showed? She intended no malice. She only wanted the best for me. Yet, there I was flying northward saddled with her final gift. Though the gizzard stone weighed against my crop, I must confess the added burden wasn’t entirely unwanted.

The route taken soon silenced those who accused my aunt of directing the city for too long. Throughout our time in the south, she had pushed her children to their limit, but the map they provided proved true. Indeed, she remained the city’s miracle worker. She used the cover of night to shield us from harshest desert heat. Just as the rising heat tired even our youngest, we arrived at the first oasis seen since our departure. From there, we would follow the course of a now vanished river. The map-makers who had flown ahead returned with promises of steady rains within two weeks’ flight.

Wading into the cooling waters loosened my seized muscles. I immersed myself in children’s gossip as they imagined their future lives in the north. The half-remembered green hills carried promises of abundant rains, termite feasts, and a returning interest in mates. I caught myself reminiscing again about my abandoned lovers, men who passed unnoticed in the south despite living as neighbors.

The next evening, when my aunt gave the command to lift, I found myself still tired from a day’s fitful sleep. Something made my body refuse the wind’s lift. My wings ached and lagged. I teetered like a fledging. My struggle sullied the symmetry of my family’s formation. My kin did not hold their tongues. The source of my sickness was apparent to all. I carried a debt on the journey. It weighed against my conscience like the gizzard stone against my crop. Its weight lured me southward.

At our next landfall, Oso approached me. “Promise me you’ll discard that ugly thing.” She gestured towards my swollen gullet.

By then, I knew I did not want to settle accounts with the stranger Alaide. To cancel our debt would mean forgetting about her and our time in the south. Someday the city would return. “We are all allowed to choose what we bring on the journey. I don’t judge your choices. The least a daughter could do is respect mine.”

“Fair enough.” A reluctant emissary, Oso avoided looking me in the eye. “But I fear my mother has been enchanted by the stranger.”

I extended myself to my full height. “Don’t be superstitious.”

Oso met my stare. “Last landfall, I heard you speaking to it. In your sleep, you still speak to your southern wife.”

“A bad dream.”

“Then promise me you’ll get rid of that stone,” she said. “We cannot afford to carry your excess debts.”

“I will.”

And yet when the evening call to the air came and we again took to the air, I did not dispose of it. The stone remained safely cradled in my crop.

My great-aunt, eager to erase the old settlement from our memories, pushed the city through the next day’s heat. We traveled on wing-power alone as the stagnant airs provided little help.

Though my body knew the determination these long flights required, my mind kept wandering far from the flock. I pictured Alaide unable to secure food for herself or attacked by some creature emerging from the desert depths. The more I pushed these thoughts to the side, the stronger they became. These intrusions mangled my navigation, pulling me lopsided, even though no currents pushed us off course.

I wobbled and careened. Oso wordlessly assumed my position and I eased back. When my aunt finally called for the flock to descend into a canopy of trees, it came as a relief. I followed my daughter to a roosting spot near the top.

As soon as my feet touched the agreed upon branch, the rest of my family retook to the air. They gathered further up the tree.

This game was familiar to me. I was blessed with good children and caring sisters. By teasing me, my entire family conspired to lift my spirits, distracting me from the day’s terrible flight. I chased after them. They scattered again. They reassembled as an inward-looking circle at an even further reach. As I drew near, their backs arched. Only silence met my welcoming.

I approached Oso, my eldest, my dearest, only to find her coiled and ready for an attack.  She was near unrecognizable with anger. Best attempt a calming preen. I swooped in to praise her on a good day’s travel, to thank her for supporting the city when I could not.

My daughter would not listen. She launched into the air, her ever-sharp beak upturned.

I refused to pull away.

Her blow struck between my ribs. It carried an accusation. Careless one.

She struck the same spot again. Egoist.

And again. Traitor.

The third blow knocked me off the branch. It dropped me like a rock released on high intended to crack open a stubborn shell.

The eyes of the city fixated on me as I tumbled through the branches, my body refusing to respond and defend myself. I hit the earth hard.

Crumpled, unable to move wing or foot, I waited for Oso to descend and finish the job. I waited, but she just left me. Feeling returned in the form of tiny muscular twitches. I tucked my wings close to my body to protect my tender underside. Those on the lower branches kept hushed and pretended not to stare, but their eyes fixed upon me.

None of my family came. Not to finish the job nor to see if I was alright. My family was ashamed of me, ashamed of the debt I forced us to carry. So ashamed they refused me even recognition and cast me out of our nightly roost. Oso’s final blow told me everything. I’d relieved myself of any debts still owed my family. We were nothing to each of other. I was forgotten. An orphan. A stranger.

* * *

At the bottom the tree, with no favor to give, I met Fiero.

Well, strictly speaking, Fiero’s family occupied the middling ranks, but my new journey began at the base.

With Oso’s blows still sending twinges throughout my body, I was determined to see the city reach the northlands. I needed to learn to climb. My survival required this. Climbing was an odd experience for one high born, but I wasn’t without hope. I wasn’t some sightless fledging fresh from my egg.  If the voles managed to survive in the scarcity of the desert, I could make my way on the outskirts of a northbound city. Soon opportunities would grow as thick as the grasses of a northern meadow. By the time the city resettled, certainly everything would be forgiven. Plenty had a way of easing the burden of unpaid debts.

The family where I first landed rustled about their chosen branch, shifting their bodies and extending their wings just enough to deny me a steady foothold. Despite the cold welcome, I lingered. Surely at least excuses would be made, apologies sincerely expressed. They offered none. Instead, the matriarch struck. Her feigned blows hit my beak rather than my throat or my belly. Like Oso she did not wish to draw blood, but her blows made abundantly clear her pity, if not contempt, for my poor choices. She would not accept a fool unable to unburden herself from the debts of her southern life. The one unwilling to unsettle.

Darting from branch to branch, my reputation preceded me. After the fourth or fifth failed attempt at securing safe passage if not an undying familial bond, I realized the city remained entrenched in its southern ways. The hope carried by the northern rains had yet to reach us and our long exile left few willing to take a risk on one in the position I now found myself.

Maybe I could complete the journey on my own. An unpleasant thought, but not an impossible dream. This wasn’t my first migration. How difficult would it be to follow the flock? The asymmetry of solo flight displeased me, but at the bottom of the tree few other options presented themselves.

I rested on a gnarled twig of a branch, a spindly thing barely capable of holding my weight off the ground. A solo flight it would be.

There Fiero found me. “I didn’t think your kind could see this far down.”

I caught myself laughing at his stupid joke. For the first time, my situation felt absurd rather than unbearable. Mostly, I appreciated the small act of recognition. “Just passing through.”

“Mind if I join you?” he continued.

The branch creaked where he landed. He moved sure-footedly towards me. “You look like someone in need of a friend.”

“Careful,” I said. “You don’t want to get too close to an orphan.”

“I’m not worried,” Fiero said. “We’re northbound to the land of changes. Anything can happen there.”

“You’re a gambler then.”

“When you’re this far down the peck, it pays to be. Besides, I’ve a feeling you’re worth the risk. Come, join us.”

With a whistle, Fiero launched himself. I followed before he changed his mind or I lost him in the crowd of the city.

Fiero’s family welcomed me with wings spread open and bellies exposed. After brief introductions, we spent the day’s rest rehearsing a new formation. They repeated their favored movements until I memorized the new pattern. By dusk, we moved as one.

When my aunt gave the call to depart, my new family elected to linger. The city lifted and crested above us, wings beating northward.

Fiero waited until the last family departed. He then gave the call and my adopted kin took to the air. We flew a half day behind the main flock, defiantly stretching the city to its limits. I struggled to keep pace with my new clan. My ribs still ached where Oso had struck. I felt weak, barely alive.

Fiero left his position at the cone to come find me at the rear. His approach worried me. Perhaps he regretted his latest investment. A bet ill placed. If so, he hid it well. His voice gave no hint of disappointment. “Come with me. I’ve a secret to share with you.”

Fiero broke formation and I followed. We took an eastward breeze over a devasted landscape scrubbed of life. For the first time since the city’s migration began, I found myself enjoying flying. Fiero inspected the ground, clearly noting markers along some determined route. His map led to an oasis untouched by the flock. The pool looked deep. The grain succulent. This place puzzled me. Why hadn’t the aunt taken us along this route? Surely, the entire city would benefit from such a feast.

Fiero hovered about the feast, failing to exercise both his claim to discovery and his peck right. I waited for some cue. Was this some kind of test? His posture signaled no such thing. He seemed relaxed and unconcerned.

“Can you just tell me what you want?”

“We’re beyond the city’s reach. You’re free here. Eat, Xero. Drink.”

That was good enough for me. I gorged myself on the overripe grain.

“Looks like you enjoyed your meal.”

I nodded. I realized then that I hadn’t been dwelling on the weight of the gizzard stone. It had been forgotten, if only momentarily. “Well, your map proved true. What do I owe you?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” I didn’t believe him. The city ran on debts. Fiero could not afford such extravagant gifts. “Then my friendship will have to do for now.”

“A wonderful gift,” he replied, “if freely given.”

“You flatter me.”

Fiero shook his head. “I honor you, as one should.”

“One more favor then. Can I ask, how did you know about this place?”

My question pleased him. “Our aunt isn’t the only one capable of employing map-makers.” His words carried the right hints of scandal. “It could be our little secret, if you want.”

I did want. His trust made the grain taste that much sweeter.

“It makes one wonder about our aunt, doesn’t it?” he said. “What else does she withhold so that her peck right survives another year? Why must we all suffer to satisfy one old woman’s sense of order?”

His bluster did not fool me. I wasn’t a fledging fresh out of my mother’s nest. Fiero spoke a big game because he sought a mate. A powerful one capable of collecting certain debts. He welcomed me because he hoped my fortune would return with our arrival in the north. A cunning strategy, but a gamble which would fail to reward him. “Perhaps I should complete the rest of the journey on my own. I’m destined to disappoint you. My family will not forgive me. I won’t be able repay you. Not in the way you wish.”

“You should reassert your place.”

“And restart the peck?” I shook my head. My mother warned me of the path of pride. That one always led to war. “I couldn’t.”

Oso had exercised her right and would do my place proud. I did not begrudge her. When I showed weakness, Oso’s swift actions allowed the city to endure.

Fiero did his best to camouflage his disappointment in my answer. “Then don’t worry about it. We are in flight. This debt stays here. I won’t carry it into the north. You can start your life there free.”

With his crop loaded with enough grain to share with his family, Fiero took to the air and found us a swift current. Swift winds tickled my feathers. High above the scorched plains, Fiero darted and I dodged. Or I feigned at dodging. No animus hid behind our movements. We danced like we were already northern lovers.

Before we rejoined the city, Fiero swooped in close and whispered. “Today should remain our little secret. Promise?”

I gave Fiero my word. The one gift I could give. Such a small token considering all I had received.

* * *

The night passed quickly in the company of Fiero’s family. Their intricate formations came easily to me. My movements echoed theirs as if by instinct. Even with the strong headwinds coming off the flock’s peak, the journey proved less difficult than before. The youngsters’ excitement for the northlands — the abundance, the feasting, the first loves — was contagious. Each night brought a new landscape filled with the sway of novel grasses and the buzzing of meaty insects. Proud of the city’s progress, I found myself dwelling less and less on the weight of the gizzard stone. As the night winds grew cooler, the stone came to feel lighter and lighter.

I barely noticed the ground we covered. Each morning brought a richer landscape. A few sleeps from our final landing, I found the hint of a creek we’d been following expanded into an actual river. Excited by the journey, I elected to explore rather than sleep.

What critters might I discover along the shoreline? The riverbank pulsed with life. Insects which skittered and the fish who broke the waterline to trap them. All of nature’s drama on display in one place. Alaide strangely not there. It seemed I couldn’t leave behind my so-called southern wife.

Lost in my memories, I didn’t hear the rustling through the tall grass until it was too late. I froze, although I was certain the serpent sensed me.

A sharp pinch at the nape of my neck told me I was done. But it was a beak, not fangs. It tugged at me and I was airborne. My rescuer’s grip loosened as my wings beat for themselves.

Once again Fiero had saved me.

Below, where I had just stood, a serpent slithered back into the grasses after an unsatisfying lunge.

My newfound kin pursued the snake into the thick grasses. They plucked at its spine and pulled the beast into the open. They swooped from high, stabbing at the snake with their beaks. They went for its eyes first. Blinded the beast lurched to the spot where its attacker once was, only to receive a blow from the opposite direction. Their beaks made quick work of the once fearsome monster. It suspected nothing. It mistook our civility for weakness. My kin moved like an army.

My family struck with remarkable efficiency, the likes of which I only heard about in songs my mother sang. Those old wartime songs she loved but left her teary.

The battle only lasted a few minutes. It left the snake gouged and bleeding. I hoped the sorry thing wouldn’t live much longer. My newfound family dismembered the poor brute with military-like precision.

Fiero followed every strike, every tear like the movements had been well rehearsed. His chest swelled with pride.

I knew then. I had known earlier but had been too afraid to say the words. I still hesitated. Once the accusation was made, I couldn’t retract it. Saying the very words risked putting them into action. “You’re preparing for war.”

Fiero refused to acknowledge me. He took off for higher airs.

I chased after him, except this time we weren’t dancing. Fiero evaded me and I wanted answers.

“You plan on overthrowing the aunt,” I continued. I spoke in whispers, fearing the city might overhear me. “You want to establish a new peck order.”

Fiero dove deep into the grasses. He landed where their thickness might give him some cover.

“Or even maybe a flock free of peck right,” he finally answered. “Just imagine a life without debts.”

In the gleam of Fiero’s eye, I saw a world where no one owed anything to the city, where everyone lived free. Free to steal. Free to fight. Free to kill. In the gleam of his eye, I saw endless war, devouring first my siblings then my children then my grandchildren. His war would end my family, wipe every trace of us from the air and the earth. Inevitably the war would turn the city itself into dust. All our sacrifices for nothing.

“You want the city to end.”
“Maybe the time has come.”

We were entering the north where anything was possible.

“You could help,” Fiero said. “The aunt-of-us-all grows ashen. You still count among her nearest kin. Given time, she will welcome you back to the fold. You can get close.”

“Close enough to strike.”

Fiero nodded. “Would you do me that favor?”

What was I to do? Fiero was there when I needed him. His family welcomed me among his own when all the others met my approach with turned backs. They loved me, trusted me. They fed me when I was weak. They saved my life. I owed Fiero a tremendous debt.

A debt I must repay.

So I showed him mercy and went straight for the throat.

* * *

News of Fiero’s death sped through the city. The airy rumors spiraled higher and higher throughout the night. A lovers’ quarrel. An accident caused by a diseased mind. Everyone knew the northern rains awakened our passions, and I’d been unwell throughout the journey. Some said, it served Fiero right. He should have known better than to try and save a lost debtor like me.

My diseased constitution proved a convenient cover. My new family made no claim against their loss. Instead, Fiero’s kin generously promised to take care of their wayward sister. I knew better than to question my good fortune. Without their leader, my adopted family fell back into place. When the command came to take to the air, we no longer lingered at the rear of the flock to observe, to plan and plot. We rejoined the city like nothing had happened. Peck right would not dissolve.

Everyone seemed committed to the fiction of normality or at least the hope of the rich northlands repairing old wounds.

I was surprised when the aunt-of-us-all approached me with landfall. Reluctant to acknowledge one foolish enough to retain a summer wife, she sent Oso in her stead. The request was simple but imperative. We congressed high above the flock.

“You’re still with us, Xero,” my aunt said. A statement of fact. No, a possible question. “I’m surprised.”

Did she doubt my loyalty? After all, I had flown with a traitorous family for a number of weeks. I demurred. I loved the city. It was my home.

“Another puzzle to consider. Your new kin haven’t demanded payment for their loss. They seem eager to forget the whole unpleasant affair. Odd, don’t you think?”

How foolish to count myself the greatest observer while I dwelled in my aunt’s roost. My talents paled next to the one who discerned every pattern, heard every rumor. The city’s secrets unfolded before her. Had she orchestrated my fall? Sent me into a trap? I kept silent, waiting for my aunt to reveal her next move.

“Some might say you saved the city,” my aunt explained.

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“I would. As far as I’m concerned, your debt is paid. You could leave us.”

“Thank you for the offer, but I choose to remain.”

“You misunderstand, Xero.” My aunt’s voice tremored. It pained her to speak the words I forced her to say. “How do you expect to stay? You saved the city. The debt which bound us together no longer exists, yet you insist on carrying the one you owe another.”

Hers wasn’t a kindly suggestion. A possibility offered. My aunt presented me with no gift to renew my bond nor would she accept one in return. She issued a command and addressed me like I was a stranger, a guest tolerated only for so long. I was not of the city. Not anymore.

High above the city, as my aunt swooped away and left me alone, I learned its final lesson. A lesson my mother never taught me. One for which she likely didn’t have the words. An unspeakable lesson which coursed through our city and underwrote our constitution. To live free of debts is to live free of love.

* * *

I shed the city and the city shed me. We settled accounts a day’s flight from the great feast. When I departed the green hills of the north were within sight. I tried following the course that the aunt-of-us-all set but kept finding myself pulling away once airborne. A city made of strangers was no home for me.

I carried one remaining debt.

I elected to fly south. I flew southward because I loved the desert and I knew she loved me.

 

* * *

About the Author

M. J. Pettit is a full-time academic and occasional writer of short stories. His fiction has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction, Nature, Toasted Cake, and Riddled with Arrows.

Categories: Stories

Three Layer Apple Pie

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:27

by Mephitis

“An entire book of recipes and that squirrel had to pick that one.”

My tail thumped the ground. Oh, crap, I thought, I must have left my spell book at Cissy’s. Deep breath. It’s ok; the protection spells make it appear as a cookbook to non-brethren.

“Hi Cissy, this is Naomi,” I said into my phone chewing on my lower lip. “Did I leave a large blue book at your house last night?”

“Yeah, Namoi, you did. I was feeling domestic and thought I’d bake a pie from it. You can have a slice when you pick it up.”

I gulped. “What are you baking?” Please, please, be making cookies.

“The  three layer apple pie sounded interesting.”

I collapsed onto my couch. An entire book of recipes and that squirrel had to pick that one. “Did you follow it exactly?”

“Sort of. It had a strange ingredient list; I had to go buy some stuff. Didn’t find everything.”

I released a deep breath. She was seeing more than she should, but still, it should be ok. I’d just go to Cissy’s, enjoy pie and coffee, and get my book back.

“Oh, yeah, I did put nuts in the bottom layer. I am a squirrel after all; I really like nuts. My mother always put nuts in her apple pie.”

I choked, hard. It took a moment before I could talk again.

“Are you ok?” Cissy said.

Croaking, I responded, “Yes. Yes, something just caught in my throat.” How had she added that missing ingredient? But it was still just a pie recipe.

“The last time I made it, I put lots of slits in the top crust.  It needs lots of slits.”  Not really, but I didn’t know to ask about the top crust any other way.

“I never make two crust pies,” Cissy said. “I made grandmother’s crumb topping. That tastes much better.”

I held my phone at arm’s reach, and stared at it, my arm fur trembling.

“Naomi? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, yeah, Cissy, I’m still here.  Um… did you put cinnamon in that topping?”  I held the phone in both paws, mouthing say no, say no, say no.

“Of course, that makes it extra yummy.  My entire house smells of applely cinnamon goodness right now.  It’s almost done.”

Shit! Not cinnamon, too.  “Cissy, turn off the oven. And do not open the oven door.  Do not open the oven door.”

“But I have to. My oven door doesn’t have a window.”

“No! Don’t do it. No!”

I heard a loud scream that was suddenly cut off. Shit, she had opened the oven door.

I sprinted out my door, dialing my best friend. “Julie, meet me at Cissy’s. We’ve got a major problem.”

“I’m busy at work now. I get off at four.”

“Now, Julie, now!” I screamed as I ran a red light, a skidding truck missing my bumper by inches. “I forgot my spell book there, she baked a pie from it, and unknowingly opened a portal to the third level of hell.”

 

* * *

About the Author

Mephitis is a grey muzzle skunk who first encountered the furry fandom in 2000.  Since then he has attended many cons in the southeastern US. His skunk fursuit head sports a blue tuff to capture the punk era he never participated in.  He has a huge skunk collection of plushies, figurines, and everything else you can make skunks from.

Previous published work includes stories in ROAR 11, Crossed Genres, nthZine, and
Bewildering Stories. In additions, he has written three academic books and numerous journal articles that he had to create as part of the monetary acquisition process to support con-going.

Categories: Stories

How We’re Made

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:26

by Christopher Zerby

“I stood above him, wings unfurled, but what I saw in his face made me lower them. He was terrified.”

We had a fire going on the roof of the Museum, same as most nights, and I noticed him sitting on the edge of it, across from me. I’d never seen him before. He hunkered down in a big, black coat, holding out his pale, skeletal hands to grab a bit of warmth, laughing a little behind the rest, like he didn’t quite get the jokes. I figured someone must have brought him, but no one was talking with him.

Bang was there of course. So was Chittle, and Peapod, and maybe a dozen others, the usual crew. We had some juice someone snatched, and I felt drunk, maybe straddling the edge of wild. He was the skinniest thing. I mean, we were all skinny. We were made that way to begin with, and we were starving most of the time, subsisting on whatever could be snatched from the Apes or picked out of the garbage. You can’t be too proud. Besides, you can’t fly with too much meat on your bones.

I prodded Bang. “Who’s that? I didn’t see him fly in.”

She shrugged. “Don’t know. But I could eat him up.”

I thought I could too. He had massive brown eyes peeking out under long, dark bangs, and in the firelight his pale skin looked almost translucent. Gorgeous. The more I stared at him the more violent my desire grew. I felt a tickle in my gut, and the warm flush that always started down there.

I picked up my can of juice and got to my feet. I wanted to get over to him before Bang or one of the others made a move. I stretched as tall as I could get, jutting out my bare chest and spreading my wings wide. They all stared. Of course they did. My wings are beautiful, blue-black and huge, the biggest on the rooftop, maybe, except for Bang’s. Peapod gave an audible gasp. I’d been with him before, but I could have him anytime. The show wasn’t for him.

I pumped my wings sending trash and debris clattering across the rooftop, suffusing the air with my scent.

“Knock it off, Senna.” Bang shielded her eyes and shook her wings, a few feathers dancing free in the air, letting me know I was pissing her off. But it was a warning, not a challenge. Everyone else was entranced.

Except the new guy.

Oh, he was staring at me, alright, but he cowered beneath his coat. I tipped back my can and drank, felt the bitter juice burn my throat as a bit of excess ran down my chin, and strutted around the fire to where he sat.

I stood above him, wings unfurled, but what I saw in his face made me lower them. He was terrified. Not my intention at all. Maybe a little awe, a bit of lust would have been appropriate. He was tensed and ready to bolt. Although I didn’t see how he was going anywhere with his wings crammed under his coat.

I wanted him to stay. I held out my can.

“Juice?”

He didn’t move. The others had gone back to laughing and teasing each other when I dropped my wings, but it wouldn’t do to be rejected in front of a crowd. The moment seemed to stretch on way too long. Right before my annoyance tipped over into anger he took the can and drank. His bony hand trembled, from fear, cold, maybe both. It’s ok, I thought. The juice will warm you up and make you brave.

I pushed in next to him. I caught a nice whiff of his scent, felt the desire in my gut and wondered if he saw the flush spreading across my chest, but I stayed composed. I didn’t want to scare him off.

“I’m Senna.” I smiled. Not my best expression, but it worked. He smiled back.

“I’m Eamon.”

He wasn’t as small as he’d seemed hunched down across the fire, but he was emaciated. I could see the sinews in his neck, and his skin stretched taut across his face. I had the urge to fold my wings around him and hold him close in the dark and warmth. If I’d had anything to eat I would have offered it.

We passed the juice back and forth and gradually he relaxed.

“I haven’t seen you before.” I kept one eye on him and one eye on Peapod who was grappling now with another youngling I recognized but couldn’t name. They were playing. For now.

“It’s my first time. On the roof, anyway. I’ve snuck into the Museum before. At night.”

“The Museum? Why?” I didn’t even know what was inside the building. Once, somebody had vandalized the big sign hanging in front, scrawling an “UN” in red paint above the “Natural History.”

Eamon shrugged. I thought he might be pretty drunk already, a skinny thing like him.

“Where do you usually stay?”

He bit his lip, staring into the fire. “In Old City. I had to get out of there.”

I squirmed a little, forcing myself to relax, still trying not to be too aggressive. I sensed it would turn bad if I did, but I could smell him. Sweet and grassy. Fresh and new.

“Old City. Huh.” Old City was full of low buildings and Apes. Not a lot of safe spots. Nobody I knew stayed over there. “Why’d you have to leave?”

He took a long swallow of juice, not meeting my eye.

Peapod screeched and took off running, his bare feet slapping against the cold rooftop. Wings spread wide, he leapt into the air, gathering height with a couple of pumps, circling above the fire. Several other younglings launched themselves into the air, following him.

“Don’t come back without food!” Bang shook her wings and sat back, stretching her legs out so her feet were practically in the fire. Her predatory eyes glinted in my direction, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was staring at Eamon.

He noticed too and I felt him shiver despite the fire and the juice. His big brown eyes glistened as they met mine. He seemed so helpless. He raised his head, pushing against me, finding my lips with his. He trembled as I wrapped my arms around him.

Mine, Bang, mine.

* * *

No way Eamon would have followed me to the spot at the back of the roof behind the big steel vents if he was sober, but we finished the can of juice, I grabbed another off a youngling, and we drank that too. We didn’t talk much. I’m better with actions than words, so I kept sticking my tongue down his throat, and when I pulled him away from the fire, he didn’t fight.

There was a tangle of blankets and old clothes to climb into and the vents blocked some of the wind, so it wasn’t too cold. I was burning up anyway. He stood with his back to the lights of the city as I kissed him and slid my hand along his chest, my fingers tracing his jutting bones, and though he parried my every move, I knew he was warming by the telltale flush on his chest. The air was dense with our mingled scents.

He keened as I worked my way down his neck. It sounded more like pain than pleasure, but when he pushed against me I felt how much he wanted me. I nipped at his ear and he shuddered.

“Take off your jacket,” I whispered. “Let me see them.”

He broke away, taking a step back. Caught up in my own desire I lunged for him.

“No!”

He fought me off and stumbled in the pile of blankets, falling to his knees. He crouched, protecting his face with his bony arms and I stopped, suddenly aware of how I loomed over him, wings wide like I was ready to strike. I folded them back.

“Okay, Eamon. Okay.” I knelt, but didn’t touch him though my body screamed for it. It’s so hard to control. He panted, soft and desperate.

We stayed there for a long time until I grew cold. I settled into the pile, tucked in my wings and draped a blanket over them. After a time, Eamon moved closer and we nestled together. I still wanted him, still felt a little loopy from his scent, but it receded to a dull, lingering ache. There were occasional bursts of laughter from the other side of the roof, and once or twice in the distance I saw the dark silhouettes of flyers riding the air currents above the city as they searched for opportunity, perhaps an Ape out alone on a dark street.

Eamon saw them too. I kissed his neck, just below his ear. “Are you hungry?” I asked. “We could hunt.” I could tell something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t stop myself from touching him.

His huge brown eyes, so close, got hard all of a sudden, distant. He looked at me from a million miles away.

He stood and unzipped his coat. My pulse quickened. He dropped it to the rooftop and opened his wings. I cocked my head, trying to understand what I saw.

They were skeletal things. A few feathers clung here and there like the last few leaves on a dying tree. I stood and moved close. Ropes of lumpy scars crisscrossed the leathery skin, which was puckered and red. There were sores, gently weeping, and although he could move them a little, it was obvious he would never fly.

“What happened?” I felt a little sick, all the juice I’d drank roiling in my stomach. “How did you get up here?”

“I climbed.” His voice was raw and I caught the sour smell of fear and desperation. “I couldn’t stand to be down there any longer.”

I pictured him pulling himself up the side of the building, clinging to the bricks like an insect in the dark. Sneaking over the edge onto the rooftop hoping none of us would notice as he took his place at the fire. He looked so frail standing there with his ruined wings, so insubstantial, like he might blow away in the wind, but his eyes stayed hard, and he thrust out his bony chest in challenge.

“I’ll go,” he said.

Wings beat overhead in the darkness, maybe Peapod and his playmates returning. I hoped they didn’t see Eamon, his wings, his deformity. It would make them aggressive, agitated, that weakness.

I felt a little of it myself, but I shook it off and pulled him to the blankets. I started at his mouth and kissed my way down his body, taking my time, the sharp edge of my desire softened now with something new. I wanted to protect him. Now he was kissing me, hungrily. He lay back and I straddled him, wings spread, slipping him inside me as he began to keen once more.

* * *

I woke, still tangled in the pile, to Eamon pulling on his coat. I reached for him, sleepy, eager for him again, but he pulled away, his long bangs hiding his eyes.

“I have to go,” he said. “Before the others wake.”

I struggled to sit up, my head still muddled, half in dreams. “You can’t go now. It’s practically light out. It’s not safe.” Apes would be all over the city soon, going about their business. They weren’t always hostile to us, but we certainly weren’t loved, and they were strong. A full-grown Ape could shred wings, could shatter our hollow bones.

I’d seen it. A few weeks earlier, a youngling, Crescent or Crystal, something like that, got caught snatching a purse. The Ape grabbed her in midair by the wrist, squeezed and crushed it to powder. She got away, but I saw her that night curled up on the Museum roof, hand dangling useless as she clutched it to her chest. I don’t know if she survived. She stopped showing up.

“I can manage.” Eamon had the hard look in his eyes. “I manage every day.”

“But you can’t…” Fly. I stopped myself as he glared. “Don’t leave. I’ll go out in a while and steal us food. We can stay here.” I gestured at the blankets and gave what I hoped was an alluring smile. “Until dark. Then I’ll see you home.”

Eamon shook his head. “If I stay, you’ll have to fight her.” His voice was low and tremulous.

He was right. I’d seen how Bang looked at him. Things between me and her were coming to a head in any case. She was in charge, but I was on my way up and she knew it. I’d seen her fight a dozen times; she was fast, vicious. I wasn’t sure if I could beat her.

“I’ll beat her.”

He stood, hunched under his coat. “Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t want to be the cause, either way.”

I followed him over to the edge of the roof, fighting the urge to grab him and pull him back. I couldn’t help some of it. We’re made that way. But I also wanted him to want to stay with me, and I’d never felt that before.

“I’ll come back another night,” he said, slipping over the side. “I promise.”

I leaned over the edge, watching him painstakingly crawl down the side of the building. I was worried at first, but he never faltered, never seemed like he might slip. Despite his disfigurement there was something so strong underneath. When he made it to the street and strode off, coat wrapped around him, I knew I wouldn’t risk never seeing him again. I would follow him.

* * *

I soared high above the city, drafting on the currents, feeling the wind’s icy tongue lick my bare chest, my gut roiling with excitement the way it always did. Flying. It was everything.

I kept an eye on Eamon as he wound his way toward the Old City and even though I stayed distant so there’d be no chance he’d notice me, I never feared losing him. His scent filled my nose still, clung to me, mingled with my own. The flying and the thought of the way he moved inside of me during the night had me inflamed, and I darted and rolled, diving toward the rooftops and spinning away again. I saw others in the sky but they avoided me. They could tell I was aroused and might knock them to the earth in that state, and my wings were spread wide, wider than any of them. They were right to be afraid of me.

It took Eamon an hour to get to Old City, and there I had to be more careful. The buildings were low, Apes were everywhere, and none of our kind were nearby. Eamon seemed confident, however, moving with purpose. He hung to the edges of the street, avoiding the slow gridlocked cars and throngs of pedestrians, and no one bothered him. He was at home, part of the environment.

He turned on to a shabby side street and slowed his pace as I drafted above him. On one side a row of brown tenements squatted close together, separated by narrow alleys. On the other there were tiny houses, shacks really, dilapidated and ugly. Eamon stopped in front of one for a second as if catching his breath, and went inside.

I settled onto the roof of the tenement opposite and tried to get a look inside the squalid little structure that must have been his home, but the curtains were drawn. It didn’t matter. I knew where he lived and I’d approach him when it got dark and convince him to return to the Museum. Meanwhile, I would hunt and sleep.

Hunting was poor in Old City. There were no wealthy Apes with fat purses strolling about, and no tall buildings hugging the streets to be used as cover for a quick snatch and grab. I had to settle for a meal scavenged from the trash, but I didn’t care. I’d eaten worse lots of times, or gone without eating altogether. I made it back to my stakeout spot in the early afternoon, found a tarp on the tenement roof to hide from the bright sun, and curled up to sleep.

* * *

I woke as the sun was disappearing below the tall buildings in the distance. I shrugged off the tarp and sat on the edge of the roof, peering at the little house. A pale light glowed behind the thin, tattered curtains. I relaxed and waited.

At full dark I hopped into the air and landed on the sidewalk in front of Eamon’s house. The street was quiet, no Apes around. It was a moonless night and I felt comfortable I wouldn’t be spotted as I crept to the window. I peered inside through a hole in one of the curtains.

Eamon sat on a low bench, coatless, his back to me. His decrepit wings were open, but hung listlessly, and I felt a warm blush of shame to be spying on him. With his guard down he had none of the defiant hardness he’d shown in flashes on the Museum roof, nor the confidence with which he navigated the Ape filled streets. The sag of his shoulders reminded me instead of the way he’d huddled by the fire and cringed when I’d tried to force myself on him. My shame deepened. I would leave him alone, I decided, and come find him another night. As I turned, I caught a flicker of movement at the far end of the room. Eamon wasn’t alone.

A small, hunched, old man appeared. His smiling face was wrinkled and saggy, and a slack belly hung over the belt holding up his drab grey pants. What was Eamon doing with this tiny Ape?

When he passed from the dim shadows deeper in the room, I gasped. He was one of us. An elder. I thought I might be sick.

He had no wings, just two shriveled, black stumps and his back was covered with the same ropy scars Eamon had, the same puckered red skin. But no sores. His disfigurement had happened long ago.

A disease. The elder disappeared from sight again. Was this Eamon’s sire? Did it pass from generation to generation? Was that why they lived apart from the rest of us in this little hovel among the Apes, hidden away in Old City?

Cold terror gripped me. Was it contagious? I strained to touch my wings, to feel for sores. Was I infected?

The elder returned and set a tray on a small table. Eamon’s shoulders and wings shook, and through the thin glass I heard his muffled sobs. He shook harder as the elder gently rubbed his arm and whispered in his ear. When Eamon finally calmed the elder turned to the tray. He put on gloves, the brown leather stained and rotting, and busied himself mixing a paste in a bowl. He muttered as he worked, adding a few drops of liquid from a glass decanter. He mixed some more and approached Eamon with the bowl and a tiny brush. Medicine.

Eamon began crying again. I watched the elder’s profile as he bent to examine the tattered wings. Help him. Please help him. Despite the fear for myself, I wanted that, more than anything.

The elder squinted with concentration, mouth slightly open. He brought the glistening brush up, flicking his pink tongue to lick his lips. He smiled.

Eamon keened as the elder delicately brushed the base of his wing. The keening grew shrill. The elder’s look made me go cold. I knew it well, a mix of predatory zeal and consuming pleasure. The glistening patch on Eamon’s wing he’d painted blackened and puckered, and the elder’s chest and neck flushed an obscene pink.

My heart pounded as I rushed the door, yanking it open, wings spread wide, forcing my way through the narrow space with a shower of feathers. The elder dropped his bowl and it shattered, splattering his concoction as I leapt on him.

I pinned him to the floor, wrapping my hands around his flabby neck and squeezed until his pink tongue lolled from his mouth as he wheezed and struggled. He reeked of greasy, sour fear, and something else, something rotten below the surface, making me gag as I choked him. He turned purple.

“Stop! Stop it!”

Eamon flailed at my arms and my head but I hardly felt the blows. I tightened my grip. In my rage I beat my wings, knocking Eamon backwards into the table, upending the tray and tools, and he tumbled to the floor, despoiled wings in the air, tattered and vulnerable.

I released the elder who sagged, unconscious, and crawled toward Eamon, ignoring the debris crunching beneath my hands and knees. I pulled his thin body to me and wrapped my arms around him, rocking him back and forth, whispering apologies. He let me for a moment, but pushed me away.

“You shouldn’t have followed me.” He turned his back. “I don’t want you here.”

My body screamed to hold him, protect him, but I forced myself not to touch him. “I don’t understand, Eamon. Why was he doing that? Why would you let him hurt you?”

Outside, somewhere far down the street, I heard an Ape’s cackling laughter. I felt sick to my stomach.

Eamon stared at the floor. “He lets me live here. He looked after me when I was young. Now, I look after him.”

“No. Let him rot. He’s a monster. You don’t owe him anything.”

“It’s none of your business. I can’t just fly up to the rooftops where it’s safe, like you.” He bared his teeth and spread his poor, tattered wings as if he’d strike out, but he dropped them. “I look after him. He looked after me. I look after him.”

The words were mechanical, like he’d repeated them to himself night after night.

“I’ll look after you,” I whispered.

He shivered, his wings quivering. The elder groaned.

Eamon rushed to him and cradled his head. He turned to me: “Help me.”

We carried the limp elder to a dirty pallet in a gloomy corner, and laid him down with a pillow to pad the blackened stumps where his wings had been. He groaned some more. Eamon sat with him, whispering until he sunk into a deep, rasping sleep, then fetched a glass of water and set it beside the pallet. He sat beside me on the bench.

“You shouldn’t have followed me.” This time when he said it his voice cracked, his long bangs hiding his eyes.

“Come with me. Leave this.” I gestured around the small room, cluttered with dusty things, and the broken debris from the brief struggle. “I’ll protect you. I’ll feed you. Come with me.”

“I can’t,” he whispered.

“You can.” A fierce desire rose inside me at his vulnerability, even as it shamed me. I couldn’t help it. I was made that way. “I won’t leave you here with that thing.”

The close air was rich with my scent. It suffused us as we sat on the bench, legs almost touching. He cringed, nostrils flaring. I fought to keep my wings down, to not grab him.

“They won’t accept me.”

“I’ll make them.”

He didn’t meet my eye. “She’ll challenge you. For me.”

Bang. He was still right. She would. “Let her. I’m not afraid.”

Eamon crossed to the elder and stood over him, jaw clenched, the sinews of his neck taut and visible as he stared. Through the haze of my own aggressive desire I caught a whiff of a strange scent, complex, confusing. It held floral notes, a sad longing, even love, but something darker underneath made me scowl. A pungent loathing. The reek of death.

“I’ll go with you,” he said, and there was a terrible grimace on his face, the look I’d seen on so many younglings as they launched forward into a fight.

When he reached out I thought he might wrap his hands around the old man’s scrawny neck and finish the job I’d started, but he just pulled the blankets up a little higher. Now his face was unreadable, a placid mask. One perfected over time.

* * *

We had to trek through Old City because as slight as Eamon was, I didn’t think I could fly him. The Apes let us be; Eamon moved through the city almost as if he was invisible. It seemed to rub off on me as well.

We arrived at the Museum close to midnight. I knew the others were on the rooftop, and Bang would be there. I felt a twinge of fear even as a part of me embraced the thought of her challenge and my wings flexed in anticipation. But when I looked at Eamon, head craning on his thin neck at the building towering before us, I softened. He was exhausted, cowering under his coat, his eyes framed by dark circles. And he had to climb.

“I’ll climb with you.”

He shook his head. “You don’t have to. I’ll see you up there.”

I took him in my arms. “I want to.”

We climbed. It was hard, much harder than I’d imagined. Eamon was agile and practiced, clinging to the porous bricks like a lizard, pulling himself over the jutting ledges. I sweated and grunted, struggling to keep pace. Eamon noticed and slowed. We settled into a rhythm, side by side, and the rooftop grew closer.

We were almost at the top when Eamon paused on a ledge to let me rest. I panted and tried to stay calm. I was wearing myself out with the climb. A whoop and some laughter drifted from the darkness. I had to force my wings to stay down. Bang was up there. Soon I’d have to face her.

“You asked me why I sneak into the museum at night,” Eamon said. “When we met.”

I wiped sweat from my eyes. “I did.”

“I look at the exhibits.”

I shook my head. “What’s an exhibit?”

His broken wings shuddered a little, with surprise or laughter I wasn’t sure. “You know. Stuffed animals. They’ve got dogs, foxes, giant cats. One of them has fangs, maybe five, six inches long.” I could smell his excitement. “There are things with hooves, things with horns. There’s an elephant in there, Senna, in the middle of a big room. It has its trunk raised high in the air, and it glares at you. Its eyes follow you everywhere you go.”

I’d heard of elephants somewhere. Big. Massive even. Grey. I nodded.

“But they also have Apes. Stuffed Apes. Some of them are normal.” His voice was disembodied, insubstantial as the wind whistled past. “But some of them, in the back, have tails. Fur. Scales. Long, pointed skulls, giant owl eyes.”

He moved close and I breathed in his wonderful scent. But it was tinged with something sour, something pungent.

“And some have wings,” he whispered.

I felt myself flush and I was glad for the dark so he might not notice. I couldn’t help it, but I was still ashamed. He was trying to tell me something. Something important. My mind was a muddled stew of desire.

“We’re experiments. They made us to be special, to be great, but we’re not. We are grotesques. Mistakes. Fucking mistakes.”

“No.” I shook my head.

“My sire.” He shook his head. “I mean the elder I live with. He told me. He helped me understand.”

I saw the elder, his smile, the flush on his chest. I imagined him plucking Eamon off the street when he was just a youngling, taking him in, making him feel safe, filling his head with these ideas. How could the Apes have “made” us?

“I’m not a mistake.” I spread my beautiful wings, beat them, once, twice, wafting my scent into the air. Let Bang smell it. I wanted to scream. I wanted to fly back to Old City, back to the decrepit little house and rip out the elder’s throat.

Instead, I pulled Eamon to me, wrapping him in my arms. “You’re not a mistake.” I caressed his damaged wings, hidden beneath his coat. “He did this to you. He’s the one who’s grotesque.” It was difficult to push him away, but I did. We had to a little farther still to go.

* * *

I went over the edge of the roof first, a bit clumsy, Eamon slipping over like a whisper to stand beside me. They were all there around the fire, staring.

Bang stood, eyes glittering, and raised her wings. They were large and crimson, a dark, bloody red. The others moved away from her. I took a deep breath and raised my own wings as high and wide as I could. I caught a whiff of her scent, an acrid spice I’d tasted before when she’d attacked others, and fought the urge to cower. I couldn’t show fear.

“You’re back, Senna.” Her eyes flicked to Eamon and she let her gaze linger, showing me disrespect, like I wasn’t a threat. Her chest flushed. “Give him to me.”

I took a step forward, clenching my fists. “No.”

Bang laughed still leering at Eamon. “You want to fight me over him? Why? There’s something wrong with him, isn’t there?” She took a step, pumped her wings. “Why doesn’t he fly?”

I smelled Eamon’s shame like a thick coating of oil in the air. “There’s nothing wrong with him.”

“Liar.” Peapod crouched behind Bang, wings up, eyes glinting. “I saw him last night. I saw it all.”

I wanted to rip his conniving, jealous head off. They all knew.

“Give him to me.” Bang took another step forward shoving a cowering youngling out of her way and kicked at the fire, sending a scatter of sparks into the night. “Or I’m going to take him from you.”

Eamon tried to come forward but I pushed him back. She would rush me, I’d seen her do it so often, and I didn’t want him getting caught between us. My guts roiled. Every cell in my body urged me to attack before she came at me, and I struggled to wait, not to lash out in fear and panic. She was grinning, showing her teeth, like she knew I couldn’t beat her. The others knew it too. I could smell their excitement in a confusing riot of jagged scent.

Bang leapt across the fire, a billow of black smoke rolling with her as she beat her wings and pummeled my face and head. I dropped to one knee as her sharp nails raked across my cheek and a hot wash of blood splattered in my eyes. She was strong. She drove me down onto the other knee but I managed to grab her wrists and we twisted back and forth trying to throw each other over. She spat and cursed. She reeked of musk, which drove my rage into a wild fury. Younglings screeched and danced above us in the air.

She glared, her eyes black and huge, spit flying from her open mouth. I let go of one wrist, and as her nails slashed my face again, I reared back and punched her, hard, in the jaw. Her grip loosened and I threw her down. I grabbed one crimson wing with both hands as I straddled her back and screamed.

“Senna! Don’t.”

I snarled. Eamon crouched before me, huge brown eyes pleading. The air was sickly sweet now, the younglings around us anticipating what was about to happen. Bang groaned. I could feel the delicate bones of her wing.

“Don’t,” Eamon said. “Please.” I stared at him. He was reeling me in, again, asking me to go against my nature. I tightened my grip on the wing, seeing the elder’s face as I’d squeezed his neck. It felt so good.

I slammed Bang’s head onto the rooftop, feeling her go slack beneath me. I ripped some feathers out and threw them into the air with another scream. It was part triumph, part frustration. I wanted to break her, take her place, but Eamon didn’t want me to.

He took my arm, stroking my heaving, blood covered chest.

He led me to the edge of the roof. The younglings followed, gathering around us, wings up and alert. They were confused, not understanding why I hadn’t crippled Bang, ending the fight properly, and they were aroused, dangerous. They wanted resolution.

Eamon ducked past me, unzipping his coat, slipping it off.

“No!” I reached for him but it was too late.

There was silence. I smelled fear. Some of it was Eamon’s, maybe some was mine, but it also drifted across the rooftop from the others. He turned slowly back and forth, spreading his wings, scars visible in the yellow moon light, and a gust of wind ruffled the few feathers he had left, lifting one off into the darkness. I tried to meet his gaze but he looked right through me. He was wearing his mask again. He posed for the younglings, for me too, body rigid and so still, he looked unnatural, unreal.

Peapod stared, lips puckered like he’d swallowed rotten meat, and most of the other younglings looked away, tucking and folding their wings.

I took Eamon’s hand, caressed it, felt his warmth. The mask fell. He looked at me, brown eyes wet, and his shoulders slumped.

I pulled him close, wrapping him in a protective embrace, and pushed off the edge of the roof. For a moment, we dropped. He was so heavy, despite his slight frame. Then I caught an updraft. Pumping my wings, struggling, I gained equilibrium and we rose. Eamon’s lips were against my neck, and his sweet, grassy scent, suffused me. Below us, the city was filled with lights. Somewhere out there, we’d find a place to land.

 

* * *

About the Author

Christopher Zerby is a Los Angeles based speculative fiction writer and a leading expert on imaginary robots. His stories have appeared in The Colored Lens, Five on the Fifth, and Murder Park After Dark. In a previous life he mixed records and drove around the U.S. and Canada in a van playing music. He regrets nothing. You can find him on twitter: @chriszerby or visit his website: https://www.christopherzerby.com/

Categories: Stories

Eye of the Beholder

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:25

by Kara Hartz

“How seriously would her report be taken if one of the first alien creatures she described was a perfect textbook fairy tale unicorn? She wasn’t sure she could bring herself to do it.”

Katelyn’s hands shook, making the image through her scope jump and blur. She gave up trying to look. It couldn’t be what it looked like. Well, maybe it could be. This planet hadn’t had a full astrobiology research team here before. She was the first human to set eyes on these animals. But still… no, it couldn’t be.

She’d been so determined not to harbor any preconceived notions about what alien life should look like. She’s wanted to be open to the most bizarre, the most alien beings possible, so she didn’t miss anything, that she’d been taken completely off guard by the so familiar, yet so impossible sight.

Before her lay a green field with a stream running off to the eastern edge, the alien had been standing with its back to her. It looked an awful lot like the hind end of a horse except for the silvery, sparkly tail that shimmered so brightly it almost hurt to look at. Then the creature had lifted its head, with its matching shiny mane, and… the horn. The single golden horn. How seriously would her report be taken if one of the first alien creatures she described was a perfect textbook fairy tale unicorn? She wasn’t sure she could bring herself to do it.

She laid her scope aside and pulled her camera out of its case. It had a tripod, so she wouldn’t need to worry about her shaking hands. She looked up to make sure the alien was still there. It had its head back down, returned to its grazing, but was still there.

“Report in, Number Four,” her radio buzzed. She snatched it up before Jose could ask again.

“Number Four. Subject under observation. Request minimal radio noise until all clear,” she whispered, and then held a hand over the speaker to muffle Jose’s response when it came.

“Understood.”

The unicorn was still eating peacefully, apparently undisturbed by the noise. She let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.

She snapped photos and made notes, creeping ever closer. The creature began moving away over a gentle hill in the lush pasture, and she followed. On the other side, the alien met up with a half dozen more just like it. The small herd greeted the newcomer, rearing up, and vocalizing with a sound like tinkling bells. They were so beautiful. Despite the cloudless sunny day, a rainbow formed in the sky behind them. This was totally insane. How was she possibly going to explain this to anyone? Katelyn wasn’t sure how long she stood there, tears welling up in her eyes, but she was proud of herself to at last remember to lift her camera and get some pictures before the rainbow faded.

As she took her photos, one of the aliens, she thought it was the original one she’d followed, turned to look at her. She realized then that she was standing out in the open, at the top of a hill no less. She squatted down, but knew it was too little, too late. But the creature didn’t flee. It approached. As it started back up the slope directly toward her, she stood back up. It paused, tilting its head to look at her with one eye, the sun glinting off its radiant horn. What could it be made of to shine like that? It didn’t look like bone, and it was so sharp!

She found herself walking slowly down the hillside until she and the unicorn were face to face. It gave a small tinkling whinny to her. She let out a laugh, her tears now flowing freely. It was like a dream.

“All stations report immediately. Alert! Alert!”

The alien cocked it head at the radio hanging from Katelyn’s belt. The other members of the herd had taken notice of her now, and were coming to join them.

“Number Four report. Something’s happened to Josh and Amy. Report in now.”

Her most ambitions daydreams about what she might discover doing astrobiology fieldwork didn’t involve anything as breathtaking as these unicorns. She was totally consumed with the magnificent creature in front of her. She held out a tentative hand.

“Katelyn, please respond. Please!”

An alien behind her nuzzled at the radio, knocking it from her belt and onto the grass, and silenced it with a hoof as it stepped around her. Katelyn didn’t notice. She thought the unicorn in front of her was going to put its nose against her hand, but instead, as its head neared, it gave her a gentle lick with its warm pink tongue. It was the happiest moment of her life.

* * *

“We found their equipment,” Jose said to the stern faced, grey haired woman on the small monitor in front of him.

“And…?” She shared his red eyes and tired voice. The whole project team was in mourning.

“All the same story. What they recorded in their notes and what they recorded on film are completely different. They all seem to have been attacked by the same type of small, pack hunting aliens. Really vulgar, vicious things. But their logs all describe other things: mermaids, unicorns, hobbits, and one – a miniature giraffe.”

“Hallucinations.”

“That’s what we think. We aren’t yet sure what caused it though. We scavenged a few… remains.” He looked involuntarily toward the ship’s deep freeze where biological specimens were stored. “Hopefully they’ll give you more information when they can be examined.”

“That doesn’t sound too hopeful. What sorts of remains?”

“Bones mostly. Some bits we aren’t too sure about. But Katelyn’s –” his voice faded, and he had to clear his throat to continue, “skull was found intact.”

“Oh. Umm, good, then.” The woman looked away. “Well, after you set the warning beacons and get on your way, I’ll look forward to seeing you home again. Be safe.”

 

* * *

Originally published in Cover of Darkness

About the Author

Kara has worked with animals all her adult life, from wild animal training at a theme park to volunteering with wildlife rehabs, farm animal sanctuaries, and the local SPCA. She currently works as a Registered Veterinary Technician in Northern California.

Like many writers, it was her love of reading that gave her the impulse to start to write. Science-fiction and fantasy were always the most fun for both.

During the pandemic, she is attempting to grow a garden and learning to play D&D with her family. Both are coming along with mixed results.

She blogs on many subjects at https://karahartz.com/ and can be found on Twitter @karabu74.

Categories: Stories

Moonbow

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:25

by Jason Kocemba

“She was lit not by moon or sun but by light from another world.”

It was late in the afternoon when I stepped out of the loamy dimness beneath the trees and into the brightness of the low afternoon sun. It would soon be hidden behind the cliffs of the valley, creating a premature twilight.

A large animal called out from the trees. I looked back into the gloom but could see nothing. What kind of wildlife lived in this valley, anyway?

I considered going back to Carrie and Billy at the campsite, but it didn’t really matter if I went back now or later: it would still be dark when I got there. Perhaps if I returned later the noisy animal would be gone.

That decided it.

I continued on, hearing the falls as a distant hissing rumble. And then I rounded an outcrop of bare stone and there they were, the Magus Falls: a five-meter-wide sheet of water that fell sixty meters down the cliff. There was the roar as thousands of tonnes of water fell to smash apart into a boiling torrent at the bottom. Tiny droplets of water billowed out as a thick mist, blown away by the water displaced air. A small loch had formed beneath the cliffs which emptied into a river that flowed away to my left. The rocks that were hammered by the deluge were bare, wet and dark. The farther from the water the greener the rocks became: carpets of lichens and mosses covered the tops of boulders and the face of the cliff, thriving in the constant misty damp.

I stood on the path by the shore of the loch and watched the water fall.

On the right, the path curved behind the curtain of water. It was dark under there. Was that a cave behind the falls? If so, I wanted to explore it, but: one, I had no waterproofs; two, no change of clothes; and three, it was already late. Maybe I could convince Carrie and Billy to come back tomorrow with swimsuits and towels?

The mist coated everything with tiny droplets of water, including me. My jacket, jeans and hair were spotted with thousands of them. I licked my lips and they tasted salty and tangy with dissolved minerals.

Then the whole world began to sparkle with golden light.

I looked behind me and saw the sun had lowered enough to touch the rim of the valley, and the last rays of the day shone on the millions of water droplets.

It was like magic.

As the sun sank behind the cliffs, the golden sparkles winked out as the shadow crept across the valley floor and soon the light was gone and I was left in shadow.

I looked up, and there, rising above the undulating surface of the river at the top of Magus Falls was the full moon. It was the largest moon I’d ever seen, it almost seemed too big for the sky. It rose higher and grew brighter as the sun set. The roar of the falls and the misty droplets covered me like a blanket.

I blinked. Long and slow.

My hands felt numb with cold when I wiped moisture from my face. I tore my eyes free of the moon.

The sky was dark. How long had I stood there watching the moon rise?

I glanced at Magus falls and the breath caught in my throat. The moonlight shone through the mist and produced an ethereal bow of silvery light. The edges of the bow faded through the colors of the spectrum to darkness. The curve of the bow reached half-way up the falls and then fell down beyond the dark ribbon of the path.

Not a rainbow but a moonbow. Its light there and not there at the same time. I didn’t want to blink in case it went away.

On the path, under the arch of the moonbow, a shadowy shape appeared from beneath the water curtain. It was shaped like a horse as it walked along the path and away from the crashing noise of the waterfall. When it reached the light of the moonbow, it walked in front of the glow. After a few more strides the shadow-horse stopped. It lifted its head and looked behind it, towards the water tumbling off the cliff. It stood motionless for several seconds. But now, with no change that I could see, the shadow-horse looked tense, as if ready to bolt.

<Danger/death/fear,> came a voice in my head. <Flee/away/run.>

The head of the shadow-horse began to glow silver like the moonbow. Between one blink and the next, the shadow shape disappeared, as if it were never there.

My heart pumped hard in my chest, thumping, thumping as I tried to understand what had just happened. What had been that voice in my head? Was I still in a trance under the spell of the moon?

The moonbow darkened. No longer silver, but redder.

My hands curled into fists. I pressed my teeth together. It felt like someone was tickling the back of my neck as the hairs stood up.

Another shadow appeared under the moonbow and flowed along the path. Its shape changed as it moved. Not once did it look like a horse.

The shadow stopped and I saw its eyes glow like the altered moonbow: a dark muddy red.

A deep growl vibrated in my mind. For a moment I didn’t know what to do. And then I remembered that the other voice in my head, the one that spoke, had told me I should run.

So I ran.

The path back towards the trees and away from the falls was moonlit and easy to follow.

The growl turned into a howl. It was more than a terrifying sound because it was in my head and I could feel what it felt: I felt hunger, I felt excitement, I felt joy and I felt hate. Waves of emotions washed my brain as it began to hunt me.

I ran along the path and into the trees. The path beneath the trees glowed even without the moonlight. I sprinted through the darkness.

Through the mind-link, I felt the shadow-beast reach the place where I had stood near the loch. I could smell my own scent in its nostrils. I felt the saliva fill its maw.

I began to find it hard to breathe. I was running too hard. I had to slow down, I had to, I couldn’t keep going at this pace. I’d exhaust myself and the beast would have me for dinner. I would need my strength to fight if it caught up to me.

<Courage/bravery/grit,> said the voice in my head. <Look/right-ways/observe.>

I looked and saw a silvery light deep among the trees. The same silvery light of the moonbow.

<Come/beacon/follow.>

In the stories, you’re told to never leave the path, but the glow was in the trees and I couldn’t see a path. I slowed to a jog (oh, how I wanted to run and run, faster and faster, not slower) and when I rounded a Rowan tree there was a narrow trail, edged by bushes, leading into the forest towards the light.

The hunger and menace and joy of the shadow-beast pressed into my thoughts.

I would be caught if I stayed on the path, and I didn’t want to be caught. Leaving the path was my only choice, my only hope. I ran onto the narrow trail where branches slapped me, grabbed at me, tried to trip me. A branch whipped the back of my hand. It stung. The bushes were thorny and hemmed me in on both sides. They offered no escape, no place to hide, only ensnarement and scratches. I followed the trail as it meandered through the trees. Sometimes I’d be running towards the light, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes I couldn’t see the light at all until I made a turn and caught another glimpse of the glow. I had no idea in which direction I was running.

The shadow-beast loomed in my mind as it gained on me.

The trail turned and straightened. A bright light shone through a tangle of thorny branches ahead. I did not slow down, instead, I ran faster. At the last moment, I lifted my arms to cover my face and leapt. Thorns scratched and pierced my arms and legs and belly, my legs got tugged away from under me and then I was falling.

I landed on my arms and belly on soft springy turf. I lay there and gasped for breath.

I could smell blood, as if from the beast’s nostrils, my blood, and from the dark trees there came a howl of manic glee. I scrambled to my feet.

I stood in a circular clearing in the trees. In the middle of the clearing stood a horse. The horse’s shoulders were taller than my head. She was the source of the silvery light. It glowed around her head and flowed in rivulets down her neck and spread across her whole body. She was lit not by moon or sun but by light from another world. The edges of her outline did not seem to stay still, they moved and pulsed as if she could barely keep her shape. She turned her head to look at me and that’s when I saw the horn growing out of her forehead. It was the source of the light, the source of her majesty and power, the source of everything. She was more real, more there, than the grass and the trees. She stood super-imposed on top of reality.

She was Unicorn.

My eyes would not look away from her horn. The light on it pulsed, like breathing. It soothed me. Everything else but the light went away: my heavy breathing, the trees, my aching muscles, the moon, my pain, the shadow-beast that hunted me.

She knelt, one knee after the other, like bowing, and positioned her head to look at me with one eye.

<Mount/live/escape,> she said. An image of muddy red eyes appeared in my mind.

She turned her head so that I could no longer see the horn. I blinked. My breathing stayed calm and easy as I approached her.

The muscles under her pearly iridescent coat twitched. The light played over her curves and shifted like crashing waves. Her mane was white. Jagged streaks of blue light ran down each coarse strand of hair.

I grabbed two handfuls of mane and it crackled. All the hair on my body began to rise as I was filled with electricity.

The hunger of the shadow-beast forced its way into my mind again and pushed aside my newfound calm. I turned and saw, through the tangled bushes, the shadow-beast attempt to enter the clearing. It followed no path but ran straight towards me. It crashed through the undergrowth, snapping some branches, but many, more supple vines wrapped around it so that it became entangled. It heaved itself forward inch by straining inch.

I tightened my grip on her mane and threw my leg over her back. She began to rise, which threw my weight forward, and I thought I was going to fall over the top of her head. The ground already looked a long way down.

Then she surged forward and my body jerked back, my arms whipped straight, my fists filled with her electric mane. I pulled myself forward to lie on her back. As my chest and belly touched her I felt pulled down, attracted to her by an invisible force.

In two strides her hooves drummed out a dum-dumdum canter on the turf.

The shadow-beast roared. The sound echoed in my mind and then a moment later in my ears. I screamed my fear and defiance back at it. Below me, her body vibrated against mine as I heard and felt her answering neigh: loud and strident like a trumpet.

She heaved below me and then I was weightless, I felt like I was falling, but I stayed stuck to her back. I looked down through a gap between my arm and her neck and I saw a tangle of branches below us. And then we were down, and trees, lit by her glowing horn, flashed past in a strobed silvery blur.

Through her mane, I saw another wall of branches ahead. She didn’t slow and she heaved below me and we were airborne again, flying for a long second, and then her hooves struck the turf and we burst out of the forest and into the moonlight. We thud-thud-thudded through the long grass and then we were back on the path.

I saw the moon before us, bright and high in the sky. We were heading back toward the falls.

“No!” I shouted. “The valley, the falls! It’s a dead-end!”

<Straight/winding/turning,> she said. <Past/future/now.>

I could do nothing, stuck as I was to her back. I was not going to fall off. I couldn’t. So I found the rhythm of her gallop and willed my hands to relax their grip on her mane.

<Scent/smell/hunt,> she said with a mind-picture of me. <Forever/chase/kill.> A mind-picture of the shadow straining to escape the branches.

The crashing sound of Magus Falls grew like someone had turned up the volume. The path was a blur beneath us. We ran towards clouds of water mist lit by moonlight.

And in those clouds, I saw the moonbow. It was dim, barely there at all, as it arced across the falls. She headed straight for the center of the arch and galloped faster. Her hooves thudded on the packed earth and then all I could hear was the plashing of hooves on water. Spray soaked me as she ran over the surface of the loch.

The glow around her head brightened and the moonbow responded. It shone stark and bright, as real, as there, as my impossible mount. Rainbow colors projected out from the edges of the bow and painted the billowing mist in reds and oranges and yellows and greens and blues and indigos and violets.

The moonbow and the multi-colored mist shifted color again. No longer silver, but bluer.

The shadow-beast howled. Through the mind-link, I felt anger and disappointment. It didn’t want to lose the prey. All I wanted was for the howl to stop and for my mind to be my own again.

I felt her muscles tighten and bunch under me. They released their power and we leapt under the moonbow’s arch.

The mind-link with the beast cut off in mid-howl, one second there, the next, silent.

There was a moment of spinning, a moment of dizziness, a moment of confusion, a moment of nausea.

Then it was just bright, so bright I had to close my eyes and bury my head against her neck.

We struck ground (not water) and slowed to a walk: clip-clop clip-clop.

I opened my eyes. We were in the bright, late afternoon sunshine. The sun was warm on my skin. I held handfuls of her mane in my fists. There were no sparks. My thighs slipped and I realized I was no longer stuck to her coat.

She walked towards the trees and the roar of the falls diminished behind us.

“Wait, stop. The monster-,” I said.

<Un-truth/shadow-beast/behind,> she said. <Shadow-beast/future/ahead.>

“I don’t understand,” I said.

<Truth/girl-child/wisdom,> she said. <Come/hide/await.> A mind-image of me again. <Wait/clearing/pass.>

I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”

She said nothing.

It was cooler under the shadow of the trees. We walked on the path for a while and then diverted onto a side trail (a different one, I think, there was no Rowan this time). The bushes and branches and thorns did not touch her as we passed. She followed the winding trail back to a clearing. She walked to the center and then knelt without warning and I slipped forward, my arms and legs wrapped around her neck. I held on, fearful of falling over her head and touching the horn. Or being impaled on it.

Had this been her plan all along? Maybe it wasn’t the shadow-beast that hunted me, maybe it was her.

<Instinct/truth/perception,> she said <Moonbow/protection/fortune.> She tossed her head and I slipped further. <Live/girl-child/safe.>

I relaxed my legs and fell off the side of her neck and onto the short grass. It was good to be standing on the ground again; to be able to decide, on my own, where to go and what to do.

“Will you-”

She neighed, her message to be quiet was clear, even without mind-speak.

I recognized that neigh: it was the same sound I had heard earlier that afternoon when I had left the trees.

<Observe/girl-child/see,> she said. <Silent/hidden/mouse-like.> She nudged me with her soft muzzle towards the edge of the clearing. I shied away from the horn. I couldn’t look at it. I didn’t want to.

Around a tree at the edge of the clearing, I could see, by some luck or magic, a clear view all the way to the edge of the forest.

And on the path, right there, I saw myself. I was wearing the same red cap, the same blue jeans, the same walking boots, the same orange windbreaker.

It was me. A then-me.

Then-me stood on the path and looked into the trees. Was she wondering, as I had, what kind of animals lived in this valley? Then-me turned away and continued walking, having made her decision to go on to the falls. I lost sight of her as she became obscured by trees.

When I turned, the horn was right in front of me, a meter away and pointed at my chest. It was not glowing and it’s point looked infinitely sharp.

<Go/friends/return,> she said. <Silence/secrecy/ever-more.> The iridescent curving waves moved across her coat flared to brightness. She disappeared right in front of me.

<Girl-child/moonbow/life-gift,> she said and was no longer a presence in my mind.

I stood in the clearing and waited for something else to happen.

The trees around me were evenly spaced and large and old, and there were twelve of them. Between each trunk was the start of a trail, eleven in total. None had branches barring the way. Hadn’t all the trails been blocked by thorns and undergrowth last night? No, not last night, the night still to come. Maybe I wasn’t even in the same clearing.

I chose the trail closest to me and it led me back to the forest path where an earlier version of me had just walked. What would happen if I ran after her, to warn her?

I didn’t do that because that didn’t happen. I had no memory of meeting myself on the path. And if I didn’t remember then it didn’t happen. Right?

I hiked back down the valley to the campsite and my friends. I hurried and so made it back before it got too dark.

“How was it?” Carrie asked from beside the tent. Then she looked closer. “What happened, Jessie? You’re a mess!”

I looked down at the dirt and the grass stains and the bloody scratches. “Yeah.” I laughed, dragged my fingers through my hair. “I left the path and got lost. When I found it, it was too late so I came back. I never even got close enough to hear the falls.”

“Lost in the woods,” Billy said. He walked into camp with his arms full of firewood. “Well, I’m glad you un-lost yourself. Saved us the trouble of coming to rescue you!” Billy motioned at the firewood with his head. “Make yourself useful and grab a log.”

I took several large branches from the top of the pile in his arms.

“Let’s get up early and go see the falls tomorrow,” Carrie said.

“Okay,” I said, thinking of the shadow-beast. “Early is good. It’ll be better if we go together anyway.”

“Deal, as long as you don’t get lost again,” Billy said with a grin. “Now move it, we’ve got marshmallows to burn.”

 

* * *

About the Author

Jason Kocemba lives and writes in Kirkwall, Orkney and is the only male in a household of females (of which 2 are people, 2 are cats, and 1 a dog). He loves stories and is a lifelong consumer and creator of them. He is an optimist and has hope that he will learn from his mistakes (the Court of Self-delusion is still in session and the jury has yet to return with a verdict). If you like, you can find more on jasonkocemba.com.

Categories: Stories

Moon-Eye

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:24

by Garick Cooke

“For a thousand years the dragon’s children had ruled unchallenged, but a new people had risen in the north, and they brought war to the draks.”

At six months, he ate his sister while they were both still inside their mother.

On the eve of his birth, then, he emerged fat and one-eyed, with the scars of his first fight still on his hide. For the sun-loving draks, a night birth was ill-omened. They were a cruel people, but even among them, infant cannibalism was a thing of the dark past. Thus, doubly ill-omened, he was named Moon-Eye, and he became untouchable.

* * *

In deep time, the skies dimmed and the world cooled. The draks, creatures of light and heat, weakened and dwindled. For a thousand years the dragon’s children had ruled unchallenged, but a new people had risen in the north, and they brought war to the draks.  For many years, the draks fought a long rearguard action, always retreating to the south. But, clannish and no longer fecund, they were defeated piecemeal, until only Moon-Eye remained.

He was then a drak of something over six hundred years, a lean and battle-hardened veteran. In his youth, he fought many duels over his name, and in the long war against the moles, he had been its most savage proponent. His scaly hide, once bright silver, was now scarred and gray. He haunted the hills, preying on any mole who ventured out alone. He carried a saber crafted in the olden times, when the draks still knew how to forge unbreakable alloys. His name became a fearful legend among the moles. But they were many and increasing, and he was alone.

He went south, seeking legends. The fine mansions of the draks had been pulled down, but here and there he found an isolated tower, or a house hidden in the hills, and he took what he could find. Some of the old books still contained the knowledge he needed. The way led ever farther south, farther than any drak had traveled in his lifetime. But, at last, he found what he sought.

* * *

The dragon slept under a mountain.

Time had worn his refuge down like an old tooth, and its approaches were choked with rubble and scrubby trees. Moon-Eye spent three days excavating the entrance. Within, he found a tunnel of dressed stone. He spent another day gathering deadwood to make torches and set off into the interior. In the heart of the earth, far beneath the dead peak, he entered a vast chamber whose extent he could not guess in the blackness. Here the dragon lay prone on a bed of rock, his scaly length seeming endless. Moon-Eye walked all the way around him and then sat down to rest. Then he burned certain herbs he had gathered on the mountainside and said certain words he had read in the old books, and he waited.

It began later, much later, with a creak and a shudder that pulled him out of a dreamless sleep. The ground shivered, and he got to his feet and lit a torch. More time passed. His torch had burned away almost to nothing when the voice came out of the darkness: a huge, ancient thing, as if the mountain itself were speaking.

“What’s this? A starved lizard?”

He raised the torch over his head. Far above, he saw a face looking down. The dragon’s eyes gleamed like liquid fire.

Moon-Eye drew himself up to his full eight feet. “I am Moon-Eye.”

The dragon blew out a contemptuous breath, and Moon-Eye was buffeted by a sooty wind.

“In my day, children were taller. Why have you wakened me? I was dreaming good dreams of fire and brimstone…”

“Your Bat-Winged Eminence, there is trouble.”

And Moon-Eye told the dragon of the centuries that had passed, of the dimming of the skies and the decline of the draks. And he told him of the moles.

“Hmmm,” said the dragon, and fell silent. He had lowered his head to rest on his great forepaws and closed his eyes. Again, Moon-Eye waited. After a time, the golden eyes reopened and fixed on him.

“I have searched far in my mind,” said the dragon. “You do not lie. My brothers and sisters are silent, my children are no more, and there is mischief afoot in the world. You did well to waken me, little one. Now bow your head.” The dragon touched him on the brow with a black talon like a scimitar. “See now, as I do! With the all-seeing gaze of your mind, and not your feeble senses. You are half-blind from birth, but now when your eye falls on the enemy, it will be as if you strike him with your sword…”

The death gaze, thought Moon-Eye. He had heard stories of such things existing in the distant past. He had thought them all lies.

“Go back to the surface and await me there,” said the dragon.

* * *

The following day the ground shook and there was a great crash, as of huge stones shifting, and the dragon emerged from his rocky lair to perch on the mountainside. When he spread his wings, there came a vast creaking sound, like the wind in a forest of great trees.

“It is well,” he said, flexing his pinions. “They will still carry me. Now, I will see about these moles. I will turn over their cities like anthills and dig them out of the ground. Then I will burn everything to a cinder. This world belonged to me, once. The moles will learn to fear me.” He laughed, a sound that caused Moon-Eye’s head to ache. “Now, it is beneath my dignity to crawl over the earth like a snake, but follow me as best you can, little one, and you shall have your vengeance.”

The wind from those great wings knocked Moon-Eye down and flattened him against the stony ground. When he was able to look up, the dragon was a dot in the sky, arrowing away to the north.

He climbed to his feet and began walking.

 

* * *

About the Author

Garick Cooke is a California native but a longtime resident of Houston, Texas, where he attended the University of Houston on a full scholarship, studying Biology and History. He has worked construction estimator for over 20 years. He has four dogs and enjoys writing science-fiction and fantasy in his spare time. He has previously self-published an anthology entitled Similia, but “Moon-Eye” is his first professional sale.
Categories: Stories

Mama’s Nursery

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:23

by Gloria Carnevale

“Mama’s stomach was transparent as cellophane, and one could see directly into her. This is where the creature resided.”

Mama couldn’t afford to be careless this time. She needed to move them, and quickly. She had found the ultimate setting. There were small cabins scattered throughout the property, most hidden by tall pines. A building alongside of the creek was perfect for meetings and meals. But it was the abandoned infirmary, complete with an operating theatre, which convinced her. It was a pity that Monkey and Pug wouldn’t be joining them, for they had begun to show signs of maturing, and Mama couldn’t have that. Besides, she was certain that there would be some who had been left behind here, and Mama could give them life.

Yes, it was perfect. She’d move them here today.

* * *

Pug shifted under Monkey’s weight.  Monkey had been sleeping with her mouth open and Pug had slipped out during the night. They had been sleeping in an abandoned pool every evening since they had been left behind.

Monkey had cried uncontrollably when Mama left. Having known no other “mother,” she relied on Mama for everything.

Mama had tried to fix Monkey’s defect, to no avail. She didn’t have the right tools, the right anesthesia, nor the right knowledge. She had seen these birth defects before, and was hard-pressed to figure out what to do.

Mama herself had been abandoned, although that had been so many years ago that she vaguely remembered it. Her “adopted” father had been a physician of sorts; his life’s work was hidden from the outside world, which he found to be best under the circumstances.

He took Mama in and began a series of experiments on her that were meant to heal her affliction. He succeeded to an extent — on the outside she looked as normal as the next person. Two eyes, a nose and a mouth, arms, legs, torso… what else did one need? Mama’s hair was sparse around her head, and in some places it stood up in tufts. All in all, he felt that he had done a fine job making her presentable on the outside.

There was that one difficulty with getting the child inside of her to cooperate. Try as he would, he couldn’t figure out how to destroy it without destroying Mama.

* * *

Mama’s stomach was transparent as cellophane, and one could see directly into her. This is where the creature resided.

The creature required nothing more than to be left alone. It didn’t seem to need food, and it never grew. Yet it was there, silent, eyes watching all of the time, looking back and forth at the doctor’s every move.

Mama seemed nonplussed by it all, and went about her life as the doctor’s assistant as if the creature wasn’t there. But it was, and once Mama reached puberty, there were no more “experiments” to be done. The thin wails of the creature were too much for either Mama or the doctor to bear, so he decided to just let it alone. Oh, he had tried, and he had the scars to prove it. At one time he had tried going through Mama’s delicate parts to reach the creature and had his hand bitten with such force that he lost a finger. He had had to talk Mama through sewing it back on for him.

No, he wouldn’t be trying that again any time soon. If Mama was okay with it, then so was he. Besides, he had many defective beings with which he could practice and operate on. And he so loved his work. He gave new life to those who were afflicted and discarded, and allowed them to live with him on the property, far away from curious eyes.

Monkey was one such creature for whom the doctor had taken a liking.

She was diminutive — everything about her was perfectly formed in miniature. Her only affliction was Pug, that demonic snake that resided in monkey’s mouth.

The doctor couldn’t get within an inch of Monkey’s face without that god-awful snake slithering out and trying to bite him. Once he had grabbed it by the neck and tried to pull it out of her, but it somehow twisted itself around and bit him in the face. It took fifty-nine stitches to close the gaping wound that it left, not to mention the fact that he had to drink its antidotal venom to survive. He shuddered remembering.

As she got older, Mama became his assistant in all manner of surgeries because after all, these creatures needed constant attention as they had many medical issues that went along with their problems.

Mama enjoyed her work with the doctor, and trying out new techniques as they discovered them, always by trial and error.

She had an idea about operating on Monkey to rid her once and for all of the snake, but first she would need to run it by her mentor. If her hunch was correct, then it would only be a matter of time before every one’s afflictions would be resolved, even her own, although she didn’t mind that which lived within her. Quite the contrary, it was some comfort to know that she was never alone.

* * *

Mama surveyed the property on this fine morning of discovery. The doctor had told her stories of the great virus and how they had come to live in the rural outskirts of the city.

It had begun on the other side of the world, making its way across Europe and the oceans until it came to America, leaving death, destruction, and financial ruin. When the government decided to place everyone on house arrest within the next twenty-four hours, Mama’s grandparents had packed up their belongings and moved their family north to their summer camp, where they lived off the land far away from the deadly virus.

All went well for a time. As summer neared, her grandfather fished the streams with his sons, planted vegetables, and shot what they could for winter meat.

As far as her grandmother was concerned, it was an idyllic life-temporarily. The only oddity were the amount of woodland creatures who would seek shelter in and around their cabin. What with her grandfather and the boys using rifles daily, one would have thought that they would stay far away, but no, it appeared that they actually seemed to enjoy the company of humans, and it was not uncommon to find a woodchuck or a snake curled up alongside of you come morning.

And there were others, too. Some families who had their camps along the creek came seeking shelter form the cities and the virulent situation.

As the years passed there became a new problem to cope with. Several  women were giving birth to children with fantastic afflictions of quite an unordinary sort.

Mama’s grandmother was the midwife for the small community which had begun to grow. When her own daughter gave birth, she was there to attend, but was horror-stricken to find that the birthed infant had an infant-looking creature inside of her, inside of her stomach.

At first, her grandmother thought that it was twins, which can sometimes happen, and looked for a way to puncture the skin to release the creature, to no avail. Her daughter cried out to see her child, but her mother whisked it away, mumbling something about it not breathing.

Her grandmother wasted no time in bringing them both to the “doctor” to see what could be done.

“It’s the devil’s doing, for sure. Kill them both, and I’ll say that the baby died before it was born.”

The doctor had a bit of the macabre in him with a healthy dose of crazy, so he promised to do what was asked of him, and promptly took the child and her internal creature to his lab.

Mama thrived under the doctor’s care, and so did her creature. By now, many of the women who had fled as youngsters with their families were of adult age and giving birth to all sorts of anomalies.

Take, for example, the woman who had given birth to a little boy, who had arms similar to the front legs of a frog, with an enlarged throat and bulging eyes. His back was covered in a green-slimy patina, while his belly was bloated and white. He couldn’t speak, but made sounds that were not unlike a frog’s ribbit.

All of the infants born had afflictions, most of them were appendages of insects, amphibians, mammals, and birds which resided in the woods.

Mama had been the first child born with an affliction, and the doctor passed it off as a defect, but as other women gave birth, there was not one who birthed a single child without something attached to it, either externally or internally.

Generally speaking, the women were traumatized at these revelations, and more than happy to hand them over to Mama, as she became the new midwife for the colony.

Mama wasted no time in bringing them to the doctor’s “lab” for experiments and treatments. What the doctor was discovering as more afflicted were brought to him, was that their “afflictions” were rapidly growing tenacious – more than ever before.

The end result of their tenacity was the demise of the doctor.

One cool evening, Mama was summoned to assist in the birth of a young girl of fifteen, who had become pregnant by the toad boy. Although Mama had tried to hand out birth control to all of the girls, this one getting pregnant only solidified Mama’s beliefs that human birth control didn’t work on… non-humans. So there she was, this young girl, writhing around on the bed with her eyes glazed over, screaming for mercy, for unconsciousness, anything, to take away her agony.

Mama didn’t want to put her hand inside of the girl for fear of disturbing whatever was in there, so she called for the doctor, who, due to his lust for the bizarre and grotesque, was only too happy to comply.

There was no time for him to don a glove, so he put his hand up into her, and felt around.

She ceased her screams, and went limp.

The doctor continued to feel around and probe, forcing his hand further up until he was in to his elbow.

Perplexed, he asked Mama if she was really pregnant, because he didn’t feel anything at all in there.

“Of course she is, keep feeling around. The girl was swollen with something.”

He continued his exploring, and then took his arm and hand out of her.

“Nothing. I’m not sure what is going on.”

In that moment, both of them looked at his arm, which was covered with spiders, all biting him instantaneously. They were recluse spiders, the deadliest of all.

The doctor fell hard upon the floor, as the spiders scattered.

Mama wasted no time in getting her charges moved. She had long suspected that the animals were the ones doing the impregnating, but she never had discussed it with the doctor. Too late now.

She sighed as she left Pug and Monkey. She had wanted to run her thoughts about them past the doctor as well, but never mind. If they were as strong as she was suspecting the creatures were becoming, then they’d be fine on their own.

She patted her stomach, and her creature moved. Mama had never really acknowledged her affliction as she was always busy with the doctor and his work.

She felt a wetness and looked down.

Her skin was leaking fluid as immediate pains shot up to her chest. The fluid became a flood, and within seconds a whoosh of water gushed from her and her creature slipped out.

Mama dropped to her knees, and then rolled into the grass. It was over.

* * *

Some people in town believed the house was haunted.

It had been a vacation spot for city folk, much like a B&B of today, but its last stint as a boarding house had taken its toll. It stood up on a hill, the shingles on the octagonal roof green with moss and sliding downward like a sinking vessel.

In the front yard, vestiges of large ceramic planters and a lily pond remained. At one time the facades of the planters had angels and cherubs in raised relief, but wings and eyes had broken off giving them an eerie, lost look, as if they were waiting for something to take them to their final resting place.

There was a lone concrete bench made for two strategically placed facing west, so one could see the sun set over Illinois Mountain.

Towards the back of the house there remained an Olympic-size pool, void of water, leaves swirling along the bottom to the beat of the wind, as if they were trying to escape down the pool’s drain. Several lounges and chairs were scattered around the edge of the pool, the canvas straps of the seat webbing blowing against the metal frames. To the left of the pool stood a concession stand, the ghost of an old coca-cola cooler and a built-in can opener standing still. To the right of the pool were ancient bath houses, and as the wind whispered through them, one could imagine hearing shower water and wet towels.

During snow-covered winter afternoons, neighborhood children would ride toboggans down the hill, laughing and making snowballs to throw into the pool. But now, October, the only sound one could hear on an afternoon when the shadows drew long was the wind blowing through the empty house shell.

Parents warned their children not to go there at this time of year. “Hunters,” they’d say, “it’s not safe now. Wait until the season is over.” But the children knew better. Stories travel and linger in a small town, and most of them remain.

They had heard about Lilly, the proprietress of the boarding house. That kind of story is the type that does linger and becomes larger than life, or death.

Lilly had inherited the house from her parents who had kept it as a summer sojourn. Since Lilly was single and had no intention of partnering up, she kept the nine guest rooms neat and well-appointed by periodically rearranging the furniture and accessories according to her moods.

It was on one such mission that she discovered the dumbwaiter inside of one of the closets. Curious, she pulled the ropes down and what came up was to haunt her rest of her life.

He, or she, Lilly had never reconciled the gender, sat on the base of the dumbwaiter, its face shining and cherubic, eyes glistening violet, and smiling widely. Its straight hair was growing in tufts of black. Its age was indefinable and it bore no marks of abuse or malnourishment. Lilly’s eyes locked with his. Her fascination grew as their eyes continued to explore one another, yet remain immobile. Suddenly, its round arms began to move away from its sides, and upward towards Lilly. As it put its outstretched arms towards her in a gesture that said “pick me up,” Lilly took two steps back. The dumbwaiter fell towards the basement from whence it had come.

Every day of her life thereafter, Lilly was to second guess what would have happened if only she had reached out to it. She knew one thing for certain: nothing would ever be the same.

 

* * *

About the Author

Gloria Carnvevale’s writing has been a massage for her soul since she was a teenager. She supposes that the Hudson River has a lot to do with her craft, as she walks the river trails to form ideas and characters in her fictional works. She is the author of The Pork Chop in the Window (The Round House Press, 2014), “Epiphany of Maturity” (Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol.3, Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2014), and has had both non-fiction and fiction included in WvW Anthology, (Soul Garden Press, 2015), In Celebration of Sisters (Trisha Faye, 2017), In Celebration of Mothers (Trisha Faye, 2016), Mothers of Angels (2019), Chicken Soup for the Soul: Believe in Miracles (2020), What But the Music Anthology (Gelles-Cole, 2020).

Her page on FB is The Pork Chop in the Window where she periodically posts a Vlog. She is an active member of the Wallkill Valley Writers (WvW) in New Paltz, NY, an affiliation of the Amherst Writers and Artists.

“Mama’s Nursery” is a departure from the genres in which she writes. She credits the COVID Pandemic for enhancing her nightmares.

Categories: Stories

The Squirrelherd and the Sound

Zooscape - Wed 1 Sep 2021 - 02:18

by Emmie Christie

“Usually the squirrels found one or two space acorns a day. The next day, they found seven.”

Catherine didn’t much care for her job.

It wasn’t that the squirrels gave her any lip. They had dental plans, 401Ks, and the whole caboodle after all. The Sound, though, that gave her the shudders.

The animals dug in the fenced-off area of the forest. A sign warned off any journalists or teenagers of biohazards. Not that any would come by. The government had everyone and their aunt training for evacuation. Catherine chewed a big wad of mint gum to keep herself focused.

One squirrel – she herded 112 of them, she couldn’t keep track of their names – chittered and skittered in a circle, then held up a space acorn as if it held up Shakespeare’s skull. The nut had the extraterrestrial shade, the color of space without stars, a black so dark it seemed to swallow the paw that held it.

The other squirrels all stopped and wrinkled their noses in jealousy. The squirrel turned the space acorn over in its paws, puzzling over it, running its claws over the surface.

The squirrel pushed, then rotated the top of it like a Rubik’s cube. It spun and the animal tapped a swift, complicated pattern over it. This went on for a minute or so, and Catherine steeled herself.

The space acorn opened with The Sound. Or more, the absence of sound, that silence so complete it roared in the ears. The Sound stole some of the green from the trees, some of the mint from her tongue. Catherine unwrapped another piece with shaking hands and stuffed it in her mouth.

The squirrel looked over at her. “Another one for the colonists, eh?”

The Sound continued, sipping in bits of Earth. Bits of the squirrel holding the acorn. Catherine looked away. After a few moments, The Sound stopped, and the squirrel disappeared altogether.

Catherine shuddered. She stalked over to the space acorn, now opened and empty. It showed a bit of New Earth as if through a peephole. She picked it up, making sure her long gloves covered the skin on her wrists, and trudged over to the wall that used to be the inside of a barn.

Behind her, the squirrels resumed digging.

Catherine gritted her teeth. The wall had 49 space acorns taped there, and together they had sucked in all the red of the barn and the solidity of its structure, the green of the nearby forest, sunlight, and even the earthy scent of soil. She hadn’t realized that dirt smelled like anything until its absence. Nothing except the Sound existed there – that inhalation, that isolation – and the space acorns that fit together into a mosaic showing a growing vision, no, a growing portal, to New Earth.

Her heavy shoes and the weights on her arms and legs stopped her from getting sucked in. She found the spot where the space acorn fitted. It matched what the others showed, a section of blue sky and a tree branch. She duct taped the nut in place and the Sound increased, a roaring in her ears, and the trees behind her creaked and groaned. It pulled at her and she crouched low to keep her balance – she’d never had to do that before – and tried not to think about the fact that fifty seemed an auspicious number.

She stepped away, going back to her herd. They dug with a new sense of purpose. Perhaps another would find their space acorn today. The strange element had been discovered by the first squirrel just two years ago, nestled in the Earth’s subcutaneous layer, giving every squirrel speech, and urgency, and desperation.

“Hey,” she called. One or two looked up. “Why do you want to find them, anyway?”

She asked them once a day. Just to see if they’d ever give her an answer. As their squirrelherd she thought she should try. A herder protected the herd; that was the job. And every day they told her the same thing.

“To build the gate.”

The government had made them full citizens, let them apply for any jobs they wanted. All they wanted was to dig.

Catherine could understand the concept of burying herself in a job. She’d worked three part-times through college along with a full-time boyfriend. It had helped her avoid the nights of empty space, when there was just the couch and the flickering lamp beside her, and the inevitable feeling of detaching like a leaf and falling, falling, falling.

At the end of the day, Catherine led the squirrels along the path, back towards their little ten-foot houses with their tiny stoves and fridges. She’d thought the newspaper ad had meant this, guiding them back to their pens like they were still animals without thoughts or feelings. But that wasn’t it, not really. The squirrels traveled to and from the digging area whether she escorted them or not.

She should’ve known. Job descriptions were never accurate. There were always extra side roles that no one else wanted to bother with, the gritty, thankless tasks that, when done right, most never knew about.

* * *

Usually the squirrels found one or two space acorns a day. The next day, they found seven.

The wall took in more of the forest, more of the barn’s structure. A blanket of ivy withered on a tree in ten seconds into a gray, shrunken thing. When she went to place the acorns on the barn wall, she had to crouch for several seconds to keep from being pulled in. Tingles ran down her spine when she looked too quickly at it, as if something had just moved outside the frame.

“Frickin people,” she said. “Who wants this to happen, anyway?”

She’d seen the news, of course. Watched the simulations. Their town received the transmissions like all the others. The asteroid was coming in thirty years and nothing they threw at it would stop its course. But did that mean everyone had to give up and throw all of their eggs into one new planet? Just throw in the towel, throw up their hands, and throw away any power of possibility that maybe, just maybe, someone could catch a glimmer of genius and figure out how to stop it?

But keeping her head down meant that she had a house on 4th St, and a steady job, and a way to support herself without having to live with someone that thought her body more of a drive-thru than a temple.

Catherine gritted her teeth. The squirrels dug with more urgency, as if their lives depended on it.

* * *

She missed theatre.

She used to herd goats, back before the world lost its collective head. A solitary position, and she had loved when theatre troupes passed through their small town. She missed breathing in the same air as fifty other people in the town square. Something electric zipped through such a crowd, the anticipation of something shared, of a powerful mutual feeling.

Theatre couldn’t happen, of course, when all the actors and jugglers and contortionists now trained with the rest of Earth to live on another world. So, Catherine talked with the squirrels to distract herself.

“Romeo thought Juliet was dead,” she told them. “And drank the poison. And died. And she woke up and saw he was dead and killed herself. Isn’t that sad?”

“Seems unnecessary,” said one squirrel with a red zigzag pattern along his back. She’d begun to recognize them as their numbers dwindled faster and faster. Now there were 70. Zigzag talked more than the rest.

“Well, that’s Shakespeare in a nutshell. Want some?” She offered a piece of gum. He took it.

“This is good,” he said. “The mint. Really strong. But good.”

Catherine fiddled with the empty wrapper. “Don’t you think that maybe all this is unnecessary?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well. What if someone figured out a way to stop the asteroid? Would you stop digging?”

Zigzag was quiet for a moment. The other squirrels continued to dig. They were a little farther away and maybe couldn’t hear the conversation.

“We build the gate,” he said.

“But – why should you have to? You have feelings, too, you’re a person. Not human, but a person.” She tore her wrapper up in strips, then into tiny bits, and let them flutter to the ground. “I know it kills you when you open those acorns. I know it, don’t lie to me.”

The portal seemed to suck more in each day. The leaves hadn’t even had a chance to fall before New Earth appropriated them, a parasite squirming in its guts, draining its lifeblood. The sky had grayed, like someone’s eyes shading when their mood shifted, like when they said they didn’t love you anymore after a few shots of vodka, or like when they traced your scars and asked, “Why didn’t you finish the job,” after a few more.

“Isn’t it better than feeling all of this?” Zigzag jerked his furry head at one of the few green trees left around them. “Isn’t it too much, all the time?” He took out the gum from his mouth. “Like this. Humans must be used to the taste, but it’s so strong.”

Catherine sat up. The saliva in her mouth had pooled; she’d forgotten to swallow while he talked. He’d said so much more than she’d expected. “You mean – you’d rather die? Even if it was for no reason at all, not even opening the portal, but just because?”

Zigzag dug some more. His voice floated to her after a few agonizing minutes. “We woke up like Juliet, and found we had emotions,” he said. “It was too much.”

He refused to say anything more.

* * *

The space acorns didn’t register on any scientific equipment, almost like they didn’t exist until the squirrels found them. And only the squirrels could open them, as if thousands of years of cracking Earth acorns and walnuts had trained them for this moment in history.

Had the space acorns always been there, or had they just appeared? No one knew. They did know that each opened a small vacuum, a tiny wormhole, sending power and life to another planet. Scientists had triangulated the planet’s position and monitored its levels and had found that the more “fuel” – the more color, scent, taste and texture – sent to the new planet via the portals, the more habitable the new planet became. The more like Earth. Like a copy and paste.

And so, the grand mission to build the gate. Awakened squirrels built twelve other gates around the world sending power and life to the new planet, to New Earth, they called it.

Just eleven squirrels left in her herd.

Catherine slogged back and forth from the old barn wall, bracing against the pulling wind, against the roaring silence of the Sound. The portal displayed a clear blue sky, a yellow sun, and green forest. She could jump right into it. Maybe she should. That would finish the job. It wasn’t habitable yet, not yet, scientists said.

Why did she fight this? It wasn’t like she had a Ph.D. in science or astronomy. She wasn’t the sharpest cheddar in the dairy section. Instead of going to college in the city, she’d been a goddamn goatherd, and look what she did now. She held the next space acorn up to tape it in position.

Something caught her eye. Something on the edge of the gate. She stopped herself just in time and didn’t react, just waited to see if it would show itself. The Sound increased.

A mouth. A maw. The trees had teeth. The sky lashed back and forth. The sun was an eye.

She dropped the space acorn and ran.

* * *

She shivered in her house on 4th St. The gray skies and soundless air had spread through the whole forest, pulsing at the edge of town. She didn’t want to go back.

What good would she do, anyway? What business did she have trying to do anything at all? A herder protected the herd, but did any of it matter when they would all die one way or another, when her job was making sure they died? She was the kind of person who followed orders, who kept her head down, whose only rebellion in life had been leaving him –

The curtain rose in her mind. She breathed in, imagining that collective inhale of anticipation, of sharing something bigger than herself and her fears.

There was strength, in that unity. There was protection in it. Protection from oneself, and the fear of entropy, of the curse of curling in on yourself like a hot iron and imploding.

She shot up from her couch and ran out the door. Towards work. Towards the portal and The Sound and that thing.

* * *

She hadn’t herded the squirrels that morning, but the last loyal nine had of course showed up, as they had every day. She searched for Zigzag, found him, and breathed in relief.

The Sound echoed through the empty clearing, through the withering trees surrounding them.

“Hey!” she said, to Zigzag, to the rest of them. “We never got used to it, you know!”

They all poked their heads up. “What?” One of them asked, a little one who called herself Becky.

“Us humans,” she said. “Emotions. We’ve never gotten used to them.”

Their heads swiveled, looking at each other. She strode past, towards that gorgeous New Earth, the almost complete portal, and crouched down in her heavyweight boots to keep from being sucked in.

“I know you’re there,” she said.

It surfaced like an impression through a mold. A cosmic mouth and teeth. A monster of a planet sucking at the life of another. A parasite.

“I know you.”

It grinned, and The Sound swept through the forest, reaching further, draining the sound of her boots on the gray earth, the last hint of mint on her tongue, the tackiness of sweat from her palms.

“You’re the same as staring at laundry and trying to get up, but never being able to. You’re the same as feeling a knife cut and wanting it, because it’s a feeling, isn’t it? But it’s not; it’s the same old shit of just wanting to feel, and at the same time you can’t because it’s too strong, too much, too loud!”

It pulled her closer. She stumbled, knocked down to her elbows, but spread her palms on the ground for grip.

“You’re the same as when he said I’m not enough.” She crawled forward on her hands and knees. “The same as when he said I was too much.”

The Sound translated into words. It said, “The asteroid is coming. You can’t avoid it. Isn’t it better to give in now? Avoid all that hurt and suffering? I really just want to help.”

Catherine flipped it the bird. “If it’s all so bad, then you wouldn’t be trying to take it for yourself, you greedy son of a bitch.”

Its eye flicked to the side.

Behind her, in the clearing, Zigzag had found a space acorn. He trembled, holding it, almost dragged towards the portal hundreds of feet away.

“No!” Catherine shouted. “Fight it!”

He rotated it, pressed the complicated patterns, but then his movements slowed. He stopped, hesitating.

“I gave you sentience!” The Sound said. “I show you where to dig! I gave you purpose, where you had none before!”

Zigzag looked at his fellow squirrels. They huddled around him. Some held their paws over their ears. He threw the space acorn on the ground and smashed it with his foot paw.

The Sound shuddered, and screamed, and writhed.

“It’s big enough!” It said and its maw crawled forward on centipede legs towards the portal. “My seeds have grown quite enough for me to come through and consume this world!”

Catherine closed her eyes and thought of theatre.

Every play had a moment where the enthrallment was complete. The actors ceased being strangers and the story held all the gasps of the audience. A moment of too-muchness so that it hurt to feel, but the heart loved it all the more because that’s what it was made for.

She stood up, braced against the pull, unmoving, and the roaring of silence tried to reach through to her, to drain her away, to detach her like a leaf and float her to the ground.

But she stood, protecting the herd behind her. There was strength in numbers, in not being alone. There was strength in the herd.

The Sound – the maw on legs, the intergalactic parasite, the Thing that had wormed its way to Earth – retreated back into the portal. “I’ll come through eventually,” It said in a whine. “Many of my portals sprouted on your planet. My seeds are all grown up, and they lead me to you. I’m your chance of dying early, of avoiding the dread of waiting! Don’t you want it to end?”

Catherine swept her gaze over the squirrels behind her. They glared at the thing, at the Sound. It retreated further and decreased to a low static.

Zigzag said, “Don’t drink the poison, Catherine.”

She smiled. “He’s right. You don’t get to talk to us like that.” She took a step forward. “Not anymore.”

Zigzag came up. The other squirrels followed. The Sound wheezed, and wheedled, but stayed far away from the portal as if terrified of their mutual inspiration, of their collective breaths, of their unity. Catherine and the squirrels tore the portal down.

 

* * *

About the Author

Emmie Christie graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop, class of 2013. Her work tends to hover around the topics of feminism, mental health, cats, and the speculative such as unicorns and affordable healthcare. In her spare time, she likes to play D&D and go out line dancing.

Categories: Stories

Palmerino’s Dream

Zooscape - Tue 1 Jun 2021 - 03:07

by Joanna Galbraith

“Word spreads quickly about the Festival di Notte and every animal in Florence is cordially invited.”

In the Florentine hills below Fiesole, where the land is quilted with olive groves and stitched with high stone walls, where every house has dark green shutters and facades of yellow yolk; there lives the rooster of Villa di Notte who crows throughout the day.

Lustily squawking as he struts his stuff, no one understands him apart from the chickens.

‘Hush,’ they coo as he begins to crow. ‘Today he begins the Seventh Circle of Hell.’

It is the rooster’s dream to reach Paradiso; His father only made it as far as Purgatorio.

Sometimes the villa dog comes down to listen; scratching his back on the dry stone wall. He cannot follow what the rooster says (for like most dogs he does not speak Fowl) but he enjoys the camaraderie that comes with each show. Even the olives stop growing when the old rooster crows.

Now this dog is a proud fellow with a thick Shepherd’s mane. Eyes like two toffees: brown, melting stones. His name is Palmerino. He wishes it were not.

‘Oh to be a Leonardo, a Michelangelo, a great Cesare. Anything would be better than such a limp Palmerino.’

‘You should be grateful,’ scolds the plump villa cat. She speaks perfect Hound. She can speak Wild Boar, too.  ‘I am called cat. Nothing fancy about that.’

Sadly, the inhabitants of Villa di Notte do not sense Palmerino’s despair. They think his pout looks like a smile, his grimace just a grin. They think he likes to hear his name. They shout it all the time.

‘Don’t be hurt,’ consoles the cat. ‘They don’t mean to be unkind.  Besides, you know how little they understand about their villa world.’

Palmerino nods at the cat’s prudent words: he knows that she is right. How can they know about his name when they know so little else? Like how their sheep play Blind Man’s Bluff amongst the cypress trees or how their goats enjoy pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey although the donkey is far less keen!

Or how their chickens are so erudite, their rooster so verbose.

And that they have a cat with more tongues than lives and a dog with a lofty dream. A dream that extends far beyond his name — a dream to reach the sky. To stand up high on his own hind legs and walk a steady mile.  To shake the paws of all his friends instead of sniffing bums. Not that he minds the sniffing part (he quite likes it truth be told) but he knows it lacks sophistication; it just isn’t how it’s done.

‘Yes indeed,’ sighs Palmerino to himself. ‘How can they know I need a more gallant name if I am to walk upon my hind?’

* * *

As it turns out Palmerino is not the only dog who wishes he stood tall. The dark stone streets are full of such creatures, hankering to drink their morning espressos from tiny porcelain cups or to lean, cross-legged, at Trippa Bars while swallowing down their lunch. Each animal is proud of their Florentine home – of their city’s glorious pedigree. They know of the Renaissance from a time gone by.  They dream of the Renaissance still to come; a rebirth of sorts for all animal kind when the light from their souls will finally shine.  A time when they will at last create.  A time that has not yet come.

They are patient though, these aspiring artists, as they wait for their beautiful day.  For they know how simple human folk really are (despite their invention of algebra) and how dangerous this can be.  Just look what happened to the poor Russian bears that tried to stand before their time; strapped into skates, dressed in pink tutus, condemned to circus life.

No. These Florentine animals will not make this mistake. They are content to wait until the time is right and steal any opportunities that they can.

Like Sunday nights at Bar Café Mingo where they meet to exchange ideas. Owned by a Perugian with a heart spun from silk, he lends his key to a wolfhound called Basso without a single word. He understands that these animals need to meet. Need to express their animal souls. He doesn’t even mind the muddy prints they leave around his cups or that occasionally an enthusiastic tail may break a glass — for so too can a careless arm

Now here in Bar Café Mingo all the animals come to stand upon their hinds. There are the cats who paint with their motley paws and the Arctic Hares who throw clay pots. There are the dogs with a penchant for archeology who bring in their latest digs and the sculpting frogs that spend their days in mud perfecting the animal form. There are the Beatnik goats clapping out their rhythms; the spiders weaving tapestries.  All celebrating together in a small Oltrano bar while the Florentines peacefully sleep.

Palmerino is a regular; he is good friends with Basso, but the villa cat she never comes.  She much prefers to stay at home and enjoy the open air. Besides her father was a rather famous poet who used to cause trouble in the bar. Not for his poems (though somewhat provocative in themselves); he was an alcoholic too. The cat is afraid of what a whiskey and cream might do to her as well.

‘So how was last night?’ she asks Palmerino whenever Monday morning rolls round again.

‘Wonderful. A flock of migrating geese dropped by and honked in a capella Holst’s – Mars, The Bringer of War. Can you imagine? Then they sang a piece which they had composed themselves during their long flight south. Quite spectacular really.’

‘I wish I could have heard it,’ sighs the cat wistfully, resting her head on her well-groomed paws.

‘You really should come to the bar some time.’

The cat shakes her head; the memory of her inebriated father swinging from bar room shutters is still too raw for her.

‘It’s a shame we can’t do something away from the bar. In the open air perhaps.’

‘Like a festival?’

Palmerino furrows his brow. ‘Yes, exactly.’

‘A festival would need a lot of space.’

‘There’s plenty of room out here.’

The cat shakes her head again. Visions of skating bears flash through her mind. ‘Oh no, the villa folk are kindly people, but they would never understand.’

Palmerino pouts.

‘Unless,’ muses the cat with a thump in her tail. ‘Unless we wait until the Dolomites.’

‘The Dolomites?’

The cat rolls her eyes. Sometimes Palmerino can be very slow.

‘You know when the villa folk go to the Dolomites. They do it every year.’

Palmerino’s tail begins to wag. Of course, the Dolomites! Ever year the villa folk go to the mountains for five days. Normally they take him when they go on holidays but never to the Dolomites. Apparently one of their Aunts is allergic to his fur and she makes a lot of fuss.

‘I shall announce it next Sunday,’ shouts Palmerino in great glee.

The cat raises a paw to the front of his nose.

‘Ssh my excitable friend, not so fast!  At least let me find out first when the Dolomites will be.’

* * *

Word spreads quickly about the Festival di Notte and every animal in Florence is cordially invited.  Even the castorino who live down by the Arno and are known for their less than salubrious smell!

‘There is plenty of room,’ Palmerino enthuses to the bar crowd. ‘Olive groves, hay barns, a swimming hole as well. We shall walk, we shall dance, we shall touch the moon with our paws.’

Both he and the villa cat work tirelessly to prepare. They arrange with the pigeons to string up fairy lights; they speak with the mosquitoes about humming Habanera.  A horse chef is invited to whip up delicious treats although she cannot make them by herself as her shoes are far too awkward.  Instead she employs some local rats with nifty, little hands to work as sous chefs in her stable kitchen; to follow what she says. She also invites a herd of local bulls to come toss great salads in the air and a family of squirrels come in to crack nuts and unscrew jam jar lids.

* * *

Finally, the day comes when the villa folk are to leave.  Palmerino slumps glumly while they pack their bags – just as any loyal dog should always do!

‘Not too glumly’ hisses the villa cat. ‘They might take you after all.’

Immediately Palmerino starts smiling instead. He trots to the car with a wag in his tail and watches, head tilted, until the car pulls away.

‘Now,’ he whoops joyously. ‘Let the festival begin.’

Soon the animals start arriving in droves, flocks and herds. Dogs walk gaily, paw-in-paw, hind-upon-hind, musing wisely about the speed of light.

‘Well of course the neutrino can go much faster. I have tested it myself.’

Pigs don party frocks spun by spiders. Chickens count eggs before their laid. The ducks perform Swan Lake to rapturous applause.  Champagne spills over and flutes are broken. They prove too delicate for animal hands.  But the shards are soon melted down and blown into glass jewels by a troupe of fireflies.

By the third night the entire villa is in disarray, but it is a delightful sort of chaos. The lady dogs are wearing waistcoats; the men are in high heels. A fox has come up with a new kind of trot. A frog has learned to jive. The rooster has finally reached Paradiso; he plans to tackle William Shakespeare next.

Palmerino watches with a puffed out chest. He feels so tall he can reach the moon.

‘It’s a success,’ he barks joyously to his fellow host.

‘Aye,’ replies the villa cat who has been learning Scottish from a highland cow.

Suddenly, however, a bright light shines down the road.  Two flying saucers is the first supposition, but alas it is something far more alarming than this. The villa folk. Returning early? Apparently the allergic aunt found a stray dog hair in her soup.

The cat quickly ushers the animals out the back gate while Palmerino slumps frozen in his spot. His head is slung low though his heart is undefeated.

The villa folk cannot believe their eyes. Their house, their garden an unspeakable sight.  Smashed up plant pots everywhere, spilt vats of wine, trodden in food, sagging grape vines. Sculptures made of cow manure. Intricate mosaics designed out of seeds. A woven tapestry of wild, blooming flowers. Remnants of equations scratched out on barn walls.

They search for poor Palmerino with his innocent, brown eyes.

‘Aw come here,’ they say kindly while ruffling his sticky head. ‘Fancy being caught up in such terrible chaos. Such terrible vandalismo! Brave doggy, good doggy let us give you a bath.’

And Palmerino is bathed and groomed and fed though nothing feels as good as standing on hind legs.

* * *

The following morning Palmerino wakes from a kaleidoscopic dream and ventures out into the garden. Everything has gone. Nothing remains. In the field burns a giant bonfire, almost touching the sun.

‘Next year Palmerino’ the villa folk say. ‘You will come to the Dolomites with us.’

And Palmerino pouts though they think it’s a grin.

‘O don’t be sad,’ consoles the villa cat. ‘They don’t mean to be unkind. Besides you know how little they understand about their villa world.’

 

* * *

Originally published in Stupefying Stories

About the Author

Joanna Galbraith (she/her) was born in Australia but currently lives in Tuscany with her two cats – Pirate and Dalmazio. She has written about singing fish, humming whales, and dancing polar bears as well as the occasional story about vengeful dustbins and eight-fingered snowflake spinners. Her work has been published in numerous publications, including the highly-acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix anthology series.
Categories: Stories

Miss Smokey

Zooscape - Tue 1 Jun 2021 - 03:06

by Diana A. Hart

“According to the President, we’re just animals. And thanks to his Supernatural Registration Act, I’d been downgraded from NOAA researcher to Park Service mascot.”

The squeals of the horde grew closer. I pulled in a breath, thick with wood and old newsprint, and reared onto my hind legs. My knees ached as I staggered to the center of the room. Standing upright was a breeze as a woman, but I was in bear-form, and grizzlies sure as hell aren’t meant to walk that way. My muzzle wrinkled as I pawed my wide-brimmed hat into place and braced for impact.

A pack of first-graders rounded the corner, flapping coloring books and screeching like howler monkeys on espresso. I snorted. They made a beeline for the menagerie of stuffed wildlife that lined the visitor center walls. Somehow the National Park Service expected coarse rope and a burnt wood “Do Not Touch” sign to stem the tide. It never worked. I cleared my throat as the grade-school piranhas reached for their taxidermied victims. The horde turned toward me, and eyes and mouths went wide.

A girl with mussed hair and a Last Unicorn t-shirt raised a chubby finger. “It’s—”

“That’s right,” I said. Well, rumbled, really. Being a grizzly kind of screws your “inside voice.” I jabbed a paw at them. “Remember, kids: Only you can prevent forest fires.”

A collective screech hit my ears. I winced and then they were on me. Most were well behaved, content to bounce up and down and jabber at me as if I were some woodland Santa Claus, but there’s always those few who mistake me for a jungle gym. By the time Kelsi and the chaperones arrived, a pair of boys clung to my shoulders and somebody dangled from my ruff. Their prim, proper, perfectly human teacher just laughed and took pictures.

I clenched my jaw and glowered at the woman. Her heavily moussed curls showed no signs of abuse, and her dress was shoeprint-free. Oh no, her little angels wouldn’t dare treat a normie like this, but shifters? A boy stuck his finger in my nose. I sneezed and wrestled him off my shoulder and plopped him on the floor. According to the President, we’re just animals. And thanks to his Supernatural Registration Act, I’d been downgraded from NOAA researcher to Park Service mascot.

The remaining shoulder-percher tried to steal my hat. Cooing over his cuteness, one of the chaperones blinded me with a camera flash. My pulse rose. I slapped a paw on top of my hat and weighed mentioning they were technically photographing a topless woman. I knew from experience it’d stop the pictures. I also knew it shrank my paycheck.

Instead I bit my tongue and locked eyes with Kelsi. The humanoid, five-foot-six raccoon had a child wrapped around each leg and her Stetson hung akimbo. My brow creased. What the heck is it with kids and hats? She shook her head and mouthed “Get on with it.”

I took a deep breath and bellowed over the din, “Do you know what the number-one cause of forest fires is, Ranger Rick?”

One of Kelsi’s leg-limpets wiped his nose on her calf. Her tail puffed from irritated to “just-shoot-me-now.”

“I dunno, Smokey,” she said, sticking to the godawful script.

I put a paw on my hip and frowned. It didn’t take much acting. My knees were screaming. “Well, that’s no good.” I flashed a sharp-toothed grin at the pair still yanking my fur. Their faces paled. “Do you know?” They just slid to the floor. My muscles unknotted. Finally. I rolled my shoulders and turned to the horde. “Can anybody tell Ranger Rick the number-one cause of fires?”

All of the kids babbled their guesses, including a shrill cry of “dragons.” My smile turned just a bit real.

The teacher finally settled her class in neat, cross-legged rows so Kelsi and I could give our presentation on fire safety, conservation, and how feeding the bears got people mauled. I’d done the routine so many times my brain just clicked to autopilot and let me watch the crowd during our show. Usually when Kelsi started juggling cans and tossing them in a recycle bin, the kids’ attention would drift, but every once in a while, you’d get that one child whose gaze stayed bright, boring into us with a hungry fire. Most wanted to be Rangers or scientists. Others were happy just seeing fellow shifters flash fur after the Registry.

My shoulders slumped. Today was just window-gazers and coloring enthusiasts.

* * *

After the Hoh Visitor’s Center closed, I shifted back to human form. Having thumbs and an athletic build was a welcome change from “nature’s tank.” I traded oversized trousers for human garb, grabbed my gear from my locker, and dashed for the trail, my grizzly-brown locks whipping in the wind. I grinned as the air kissed my face. There were a few hours of daylight left, enough to take some readings of the river if I hurried.

By the time I reached my favorite spot — a fast-flowing curve of water, shielded from intrusion by a steep hike and moss-covered hemlocks — the light had faded to a pale orange blush. Looming night and the glacier-fed river chilled the summer air. Goosebumps spread over my skin as I crunched along the gravel bar. A goldfinch sang somewhere along the far bank and the scent of evergreens and wet earth flooded my senses. My muscles relaxed as nature’s perfume washed away memories of pulled fur, sticky fingers, and painfully boring scripts.

I headed for a fire-downed hemlock. The charred tree was over a hundred feet long, trailing through the woods, across the bank, and into the river. I set my pack beside the dead giant and admired its blanket of ferns and spindly saplings. My breath slowed in quiet awe. Even in death the trees give life. Snags like this one allowed fresh growth and, when they dipped into the water, sheltered fish and other aquatic fauna. It was the latter I was really interested in.

I pulled out a flow meter and stake, then waded into the river. Liquid ice hit my calves. I gasped. Good money said it was about fifty degrees, but I’d check that last. My brain didn’t need any help on the “this stuff will give you hypothermia” front. I waded mid-stream, teeth chattering.

“You should be watching around you, Lily,” a deep voice rumbled. I clutched my chest and wheeled toward the sound. A black grizzly sat at the end of the snag, camouflaged by the tangle of branches, munching a trout as the water churned about his belly. He fixed me with moss-green eyes. “Dangerous, startling bears.”

“Jesus, Michail!” I said. My heart was stuck on ‘seizuring rabbit.’ “What are you doing here?”

His brow furrowed. “I was missing you,” he said, Russian accent deepening his rumble.

My chest squeezed. It’s been, what, three weeks? Four? Long enough I couldn’t remember. Guilt bowed my shoulders. I knew he couldn’t come by the visitor’s center — dodging the Registry had ended that years ago — so on my days off I was supposed to hike up Mount Tom Creek and meet him at our arch. I buried my face in my palm. “I’m sorry. It’s fieldtrip season…” The excuse tasted sour, yet I kept babbling. “They’re splitting my days off and I had to get readings before—”

Michail clicked his tongue. “Lyubov moya, no apologies for your research.” I heard the lip-curl in his voice. “You are more than carnival exhibit.”

I lifted my chin. “That’s Interpretive Ranger, thank you.” I was aiming for offended, but judging by the tilt of Michail’s head, I’d landed somewhere between ‘pouty’ and ‘pitiful.’ My lips tightened. Great. He dropped his trout and waded toward me. Double great. I averted my eyes and drove the flow meter’s stake into the riverbed. The last thing I needed right now was distraction and Michail was delightfully good at that.

“Lily.”

I attached a temperature probe to the post. “Bit busy, Michail.”

Small waves lapped my waist. His muzzle slid under my jaw in a cool caress. Eau de wet fur spiced the air. Most people would find the odor off-putting, but when you can turn into a bear — and have shared god remembers how many showers with one — it’s comforting. Homey, even. I inhaled despite myself.

“Zoloste.” His voice vibrated my bones. “I worry for you.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. This script was as familiar as my Smokey routine. He would start with “I escaped Motherland, fled Soviet persecution,” then move on to “Registry is seed of American tyranny,” and finish with another plea for me to join him as a nature-preserve-nudist. My chest lurched. Would it really be that bad? Wandering the mists, plucking fish straight from the rivers, dew settling on our fur in the mornings… I huffed and skipped to the end of our verbal dance.

“Running tells the normies harassment works. Makes it harder for the next shifter.” Checking my cables one last time, I slogged out of the river, shivering as wet clothes clung to my skin. Michail strode after me. “Besides.” I turned around and shrugged. “Playing Smokey earns brownie points, means Park Manager Dawson publishes my data.” Bitterness clung to my tongue. These days it was the only way I could get something in print.

Michail frowned. Well, as much as a grizzly can, anyway. “Appeasement only means you are on knees when knife comes out.”

My mouth went dry. I put my hand on my hip, as much to banish fear as to halt protest. “Did you come to argue with me or what?”

His jaw tightened. “…no.” Michail never liked backing down but after a few years and a couple of bear-brawls, he’d learned to let things drop. Still, it took a few seconds for his gaze to cool from ‘pissed’ to ‘smolder.’ He grinned. Paced closer. “There are better things to do.”

I laughed as he loomed over me. Lord, don’t let a hiker see us now. They’d think Michail was attacking and jump in to save me. “You’re terrible,” I said. “I have to take readings, remember?”

Hot breath brushed my neck. Water dripped on my skin in cool contrast. “As you Americans say, ‘all work and no play’…”

“You could help, medved,” I said and swatted his nose. “Make it go faster.”

He rolled his eyes playfully. “If I must.” A hearty shake sent water everywhere. I squeaked and threw my hands up.

Michail grimaced as the shift began. Soft pops of bone echoed over the river’s churn. Midnight fur gave way to rosy skin, exquisitely toned muscles steaming with shift-fever. His muzzle shortened and twisted back to the square jaw and high cheekbones I’d loved to trace in the mornings. Fading scratches and a thin new scar granted him a feral look.

I didn’t gape. Just… flushed more than I cared to admit.

Michail let out a whoosh of air and brushed back now-untamed hair. Warmth lurched through me. While I was stunned, he leaned in for a kiss. His tongue still carried the light, gamey tang of fish. Our lips parted, and he gently hooked my chin. “You were staring again, zoloste.” Hot-faced, I sputtered some excuse, but he just laughed and headed for my backpack.

While he rummaged through my gear, I touched my lips and rolled the taste of fish in my mouth. My eyes narrowed. Cutthroat trout? The sneak knew it was my favorite. He was tempting me, reminding me what civilization lacked. I crossed my arms. I wasn’t sure if I should beam or growl.

Michail produced my battered notebook. “I will record data for you, yes?” he said, leafing through the pages

I let my arms drop. It was too nice a night, the company too pretty, to stay stressed. “Yeah. Sure.”

He turned around and took up a wide-footed stance. A rakish grin left no doubt that the view was intentional. “So,” he said, twirling a pen. “Where is it you want it?”

* * *

Dawn brought crisp air and cold rain. Soaked and breathing hard, I jogged into the dingy locker room and threw my pack on the bench. Currently human, Kelsi peeked around her locker door. Minus raccoon-gray hair and mottled eyebrows, she reminded me of an Octoberfest ad: econo-sized bosoms, ample curves, and a smile that could heatstroke a penguin.

“Decided to camp out, huh?” she said.

I mumbled an affirmative and spun my lock.

“Hold still.” Kelsi plucked a leaf from my hair. “You brought a souvenir.”

Heat crept up my neck. Traces of Michail’s bear musk clung to my skin. Add in twiggy locks and any shifter with a decent nose would know exactly what I’d been up to. Still, Kelsi didn’t cock an eyebrow or anything. Either she had the best poker face ever — unlikely, given her delighted squeals during Uno — or she had the nose of a normie.

Acting as if nothing was amiss, I opened my dented locker. “Just getting some early readings.”

“You should have taken longer,” she said and pulled up her sweater. Fabric muffled her voice. “Missed the first bus.”

“The job’s not that bad,” I said. Water dripped from my nose. A quick puff blew it away. “Free park admission, free uniform…” I pulled out my oversized pair of trousers. “Well, part of one, anyway.”

“It’d be better if the kids gave a crap,” Kelsi said and traded pants for short-shorts. Ranger Rick was always drawn commando, but she’d talked Dawson into letting her keep some semblance of dignity. “If I were you, I’d take a gig at the zoo.”

I paused. “…what?”

“Yeah, Woodland Zoo? They pay shifters to hang out in the enclosures.” She plopped her Stetson on her head. “If I wasn’t a hybrid-form, I’d do it. Put some glass between me and the little monsters.”

I nodded to the clock over the door. “The ones here in seven minutes?”

Kelsi’s eyes widened. “Crap!” She threw on her vest and the scent of raccoon filled the air. A pained gasp escaped as her tailbone popped and stretched to four feet of plume. Fur in place, she dashed into the darkened visitor’s center, shouting “I have to get the coloring books ready!”

I wasn’t expected to lay out activities for the kids, bears lacking thumbs and all, but I still hastily peeled off my clothes. When the kids arrived I needed to be in place with my back to a wall. Walking through the visitor center only turned the horde into piggy-back-hungry velociraptors. I waded into my pants and summoned the change.

An inferno swept through my blood, turning it to a furnace. Pain sledgehammered me into an ursine shape. Once the heat and shakiness faded, I lumbered for the door, claws clicking on the tile. A draft made me stop. Uh oh. I peered down. Sure enough, I’d forgotten to close my fly. I lolled my head back. Having thumbs would save my dignity but a wardrobe adjustment wasn’t worth shifting to human and back.

“Kelsi?” I called. Turns out swallowing pride makes your ears droop. “I need a zip.”

The next few hours continued to slide into what we called ‘retirement impetus:’ no eager learners, Q&A mostly focused on if we pooped in the woods, somebody turned our six point buck into a five-and-a-half, and a rug-rat spilled apple juice on me.

During a lull I went to the bathroom, pawed the water on, and wasted a tree’s worth of paper towels trying to get clean. All I really accomplished was soaking the front of my trousers. I grumbled and swatted the faucet shut. No kids, Smokey just gets super excited putting out fires!

Padding back into the visitor’s center, a wave of newsprint-scented air hit me. Gun-oil and fear came with it.

Ice whispered up my spine. Appeasement only means you are on knees when knife comes out. Pushing back Michail’s warning, I snuffled the air, certain there was a less-paranoid explanation. Dawson’s cologne teased my nose. I loped toward the scent, taxidermy animals staring after me with dead eyes.

Three Law Enforcement Rangers waited in the lobby. The trio projected that ‘everything’s under control’ vibe, but the tightness of their jaws told a different story. Dawson, back military straight, talked with Kelsi in a low and furtive tone. Her eyes were wide and her tail tucked.

I cleared my throat. “Everything okay?”

They turned. Worry darkened Kelsi’s gaze. Dawson’s was a flat, cold gray.

“There’s been an attack,” she squeaked.

“Hikers, near Mount Tom Creek,” Dawson said. His grip tightened on a Ziploc full of rags. Even sealed, I whiffed blood and grizzly. My throat constricted. Michail.

“Casualties?” I asked.

“One dead, two injured.”

My pulse thudded in my ears. He had to have a reason. “What happened?”

Dawson shook his head. “Group stepped off the trail, black bear charged them—”

“Grizzly,” one of the guards interrupted. “Said it was nine feet when it reared.”

“That’s impossible,” I said. My insides were a leaden mass. “There’re no grizzlies in the Olympics.”

“And Lily was here all morning,” Kelsi said quickly.

Dawson sniffed. “Misjudged size in the confusion. Standard fear response.” He took off his Stetson and rubbed his buzz cut. “Still. Bear that’ll attack people. . .” His unspoken intent roared in my ears. It needs to be put down. Nausea washed over me. Dawson kept talking. “When the next class comes, escort them on and off the bus and keep them in the visitor’s center.”

“What’s your plan?” I asked, voice shaking. Hopefully they would misread my concern and think I was fretting over the visitors.

“For now we’re closing the trail and escorting hikers to safer areas.” He waggled the bag of rags. “In the meantime, we’ve asked local hunters to bring their dogs.”

Bile filled my throat. Dogs. My legs ached, screamed with the need to run and find Michail before the law did. They’re bringing dogs. If I could just talk to him, let him explain, we might be able to convince Dawson that the attack had been provoked, an act of self-preservation. But if the dogs found him first—

“Lily.” Dawson put a hand on my shoulder. I jerked. “Until we bag this thing, no more readings, okay?” he said, trying to give me a little shake. Didn’t work. I was over eight hundred pounds. “We can’t lose Smokey.”

I nodded. Inside I was growling. “Yeah. Sure.”

* * *

Branches whipped my face as I ran. Rain pounded my Gore-Tex and roared in my ears. My pulse was louder. He has to be there. I kept running, lungs burning as I dodged roots and night-shrouded trees. Being a shifter let me see in the dark, but with hunters on the way I had to stay human, dulling my senses. Still, my nose was sharp enough so I could smell Michail.

His trail, sweet, musky, and male, twined along Mount Tom Creek, quickly eroding in the rain. A coppery tang knotted my gut. Blood. Shifters were spectacular healers, able to close most wounds in a few days, but we could still bleed to death. And in this storm there was no telling how much Michail had lost. I scrambled upstream, fear lancing my heart.

He has to be there.

A pair of familiar hemlocks loomed in the night. I let out a sobbing, foggy breath. The ancient trees straddled the water, undercut by the river ages ago, but instead of toppling into the currents they’d fallen against each other, their combined strength resisting the elements until time had fused them together. Branches reached as one for the sky while conjoined roots formed a slight shelter. I spied Michail inside the ancient tangle, hunkered over in human form.

“Michail!” I called, staggering closer.

His head snapped up. Pain rasped his voice. “Lily?”

I ducked under the roots, frigid water pouring into my shoes. Blood-tang filled my nose. Michail sat on a tangle of driftwood clutching a denuded, gore-coated stick. An unusual pallor haunted his skin.

His brow wrinkled. “Lyubov moya, why—

“I smelled you on those hiker’s clothes,” I said. My throat constricted. There were… holes in him. On his side. His back. In the dark they wept black.

“Poachers, zoloste,” he hissed and dug the stick into a hip wound. I yelped and darted for the branch. A flash of metal stopped me. Michail held up the deformed slug, fingers stained. “Thought I was a prize black-bear.” He flicked the bullet into the gurgling stream. “Mudak.

I swallowed bile. Self-defense. They’d tried to shoot him, and he’d fought back. I threw my arms around him, shaking. It was self-defense. “We have to get you to the Ranger’s Station.” From there we could summon a doctor, call the police—

“No.”

The word hit like a punch. I pulled back. “What?”

“I go back, my name is in Registry as bear.”

Temper warmed my blood. I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Damn it, Michail! You’re not running from Stalin anymore!”

“Chernenko,” Michail corrected. He shrugged. Winced. “And doesn’t matter. Judge says innocent, someone always says guilty. They find me by Registry and…” He put his fingers to his head and mimed a gunshot.

My jaw dropped. “People aren’t like that!”

Michail’s eyes narrowed. “Zoloste.  My father died for raising me Orthodox.” His words were sharp as a blade. “Because friends told Special Committee.” He set aside his stick and twined his bloodied fingers in mine. “Poachers will demand bear. Vengeance.” He squeezed. “You must come, run to Mount Tom.”

I pulled loose and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Michail, I can’t—” He lolled his head back and started to rumble. It died with a wince. My retort withered on my tongue. I touched his arm and waited while he expelled the pain in short, foggy bursts.

“What’s wrong?” I asked once he’d regained composure. Stupid question, really, but my brain was still rebooting.

“Shoulder,” he said, resting against a gargantuan root. It was the same one he’d carved our initials into years ago. “Cannot reach.”

My lips tightened. “Turn around.”

Moving gingerly, Michail presented his well-muscled shoulder. I pushed back my hood and leaned in close, fighting nausea as I gently manipulated savaged flesh. At least he’s human now. Translational injury would leave the bullet a centimeter or two below the skin, rather than inches deep in a bear’s beefy shoulder.

“They will never respect you, Zoloste.

Dawson’s voice rang in my ears. We can’t lose Smokey. “I know,” I murmured. “But that’s not why I stay.”

Metal glistened in the wound. I fished the hunk out with the stick, Michail’s fists clenched the whole time, and flicked the bullet aside. I slid off the root, bark catching my jeans, and scrubbed my hands in the frigid stream. Michail just watched with sad, tired eyes.

“Then why?” he asked.

As I sat in the dark with blood on my clothes, the answer seemed… weak. And so very faraway. I took a deep breath. “Not everyone can run. Some of those kids—”

A howl drifted through the woods. My breath caught. Dogs. I whipped around. Michail was no fool. He’d already gotten to his feet, scanning the trees with narrowed eyes. “One, maybe one-and-half kilometers,” he said.

My chest squeezed. Not his first man hunt. I touched his cheek. Stubble pricked my fingers. “Dawson brought hunters.” My voice shook. “Go. The rain…” Stones filled my throat, but I choked them down. “The rain’ll wash out your trail.”

He grabbed my arm, nails lengthening into points. “No.” He nodded to my stained Gore-Tex. “Blood all over you. Dogs will come to you.”

“I know.” I flashed a smile I didn’t feel. “But they’re hunting a bear, right? Not like they’ll shoot a human.” Please, please God let that be true.

Michail’s grip constricted, his nails puncturing my jacket. Fear and anger warred in his eyes. I held my breath. Another howl rang in the distance. He grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut. His fingers fell from my arm. “Chert voz’mi,” he whispered. He leaned in and kissed me deeply. This time I tasted only him. “Spring, if hunt is over…”

I rested my forehead against his. Pain raked my heart. “…I’ll meet you here.”

He breathed into my hair. Kissed the top of my head. Fur sprouted from his skin, and he stepped into the river, using the water to hide his trail. I caught a whiff of fresh grizzly and then he was gone, swallowed up by rain and night.

Tears burned down my cheeks. “Run fast, medved.” I sniffed and wiped an arm across my face. It just smeared mud and bark everywhere.

Shivering, I waited and listened to the dogs. Their tone grew excited. Frenetic. Let them get right on top of you. I’d get only one chance, and the rain would strip Michail’s scent fast. I shucked my coat and picked up the gore-coated stick. Then I’d better leave a big damn trail.

Downstream, a flashlight winked between the trees. My pulse quickened. They’re here.

I leapt from the shelter, dragging my blood-stained coat behind me. Rain hit like cold, hard bullets. I ran into the wind and up a ridge, jumped over roots and crashed through every fern and huckleberry, lashing the foliage with Michail’s surgery-stick. By God, if those dogs couldn’t follow this mess they were useless.

Bays soon turned to keening barks. Branches snapped as the hounds gained behind me. My heart lurched. Not yet! I veered down a steep slope. Adrenaline surged through my body and spurred me on like some sort of daredevil mountain goat. I gasped for air. Wet dog hit my nose.

A huge mutt angled into my path, teeth flashing. I yelped and changed course. In my panic I smacked into a tree. I went ass-over-tea-kettle, bouncing off rocks and plowing down saplings, until my leg caught a boulder. Something crunched and pain exploded across my senses.

I screamed. Or vomited. Not sure which, but something definitely came out.

Agony throbbed through me, kept me on the ground until the hounds came. Hot breath and warm noses snuffled over me. One mutt kept barking in my ear. I just kept my eyes shut and gritted my teeth against the pain until somebody shined a flashlight in my face.

“Holy shit,” Dawson said. I groaned and blocked the glare, squinting between my fingers. His jaw hung slack. “Lily?”

* * *

While Kelsi juggled and sang to the kids about recycling, I sat in my own personal hell, claws twitching as I endured the twelfth day of Itch-toberfest. Dawson wasn’t able to replace Smokey and I needed to eat, so I’d agreed to heal up as a grizzly and had the cast applied in bear-form. I stifled a whimper. Stupid move, really. Fur took the itching from ‘torture’ to ‘Circle of Hell,’ and my painkillers weren’t doing squat. My ears flattened. The only plus to it all was that Dawson and the hunters had dragged me back to the visitor’s center, cancelling the hunt until an ambulance showed.

I glanced out the visitor’s center window, slumping like a fern in the rain. Hope you’re in better shape, Michail. It’d be another five months before I knew. A Law Enforcement Ranger, reeking of cheap cologne and gun-oil, loitered by the stuffed deer, examining Kelsi’s glue-job. I sighed and held up a recycling bin, doing my best to ignore him. And that’s if I can ditch my escort.

When Dawson had asked how I’d wound up in the woods covered in blood, I’d made something up about not having readings during heavy rainfall, slipping out, and running into the ‘Big Bad Bear.’ She’d been a mother with cubs, bloodied by her earlier run-in with the ‘hikers,’ so she’d attacked and chased me until I’d crashed down the hill and broke my leg. I stifled a huff. Dawson smells a rat, though. Officially Ranger Cheap-Cologne or one of his buddies were here so I didn’t sneak off and get hurt again, but a twenty-four-hour-shadow was less ‘caring’ and more ‘surveillance.’ Doubly so when you added in cold glances and high-caliber side arms. The whole affair had left me with whiplash; I’d been looking over my shoulder constantly and Michail’s warnings haunted me like perpetual swansong.

Kelsi pitched her cans into my bin one by one, punctuating her act. A few kids clapped. The rest popped up despite the protest of the teacher and swarmed me to croon get-betters and sign my cast with crayons.

“Aw, thank you, kids.” I wriggled in my seat, trying to relieve my aching rump. Turns out bear-butts aren’t designed to sit on wood crates all day. Who knew?

A girl with orange and black hair shouldered through the crowd. A faint scent of tiger wafted from her, spicy and sharp. Her yellow eyes were bright. “Miss Smokey,” she said.

The weight on my shoulders lifted. Finally.

“Smokey’s a boy, Whiskers,” one of the kids snapped.

Tiger-girl put her hands on her hips and shot them a withering glare. “Smokey’s a boar. She’s clearly a sow.”

“That’s right,” I said, surprise creeping into my voice. She knows her animal terms. I smiled and cocked my head. “Did you have a question?”

She nodded. “Well, you said fires were bad, but—”

A blonde boy, tall for his age, stopped signing my cast. His face pinched as he studied me. “You’re a shifter?” Disgust marinated every syllable. He flicked his head toward tiger-girl. “Like her?”

My muzzle wrinkled. How do you think I’m talking, kiddo? “Yeah . . . And?”

Kelsi shook a bag of candy and shouted over the buzz. “Who can name a native fish?” Chocolate proved more exciting than talking bears. The locusts moved to Kelsi, squealing ‘pink-eye salmon’ and other imaginary species. Only tiger-girl remained, glowering down at her sandals and clenching her coloring book, knuckles white.

My chest squeezed. God, how many times had I been in the same position? At her age I’d wanted to run away, hide from it all like Michail. Stones filled my gut. Of course she doesn’t have that choice. Tigers weren’t exactly local wildlife. “What’s your name?” I asked.

She sniffed and glanced at me. “…Antimony.”

“So, Antimony, what was this about fires?”

Dark clouds faded from her vision, letting some sparkle back in. “Well, Douglas-firs and fireweed need fire for their babies to grow…” That was an oversimplification, but she was in what, fourth grade? I nodded. Her posture slowly straightened. “And different animals need them for food and homes, right?”

“Correct.”

Antimony’s brow furrowed. “So fires are good.” She frowned and chewed her lip. “Well, sometimes.”

“That’s true,” I said, voice upbeat. “In fact, that’s part of my research.”

Her mouth formed a tiny little ‘O.’ “Shifters can do that?”

Hearing her disbelief, the raw strength of it, made my throat constrict. “Of course!” I leaned in conspiratorially and braced my paws on my knees. Bad move, really. Fresh pain shot through my leg. I grimaced. Antimony’s eyebrows rose, but thankfully she didn’t change the topic. I let out a slow breath and transferred all my weight to the other knee. “Some people told me that I can’t do research, or that because I’m a shifter it won’t go anywhere, but you know what?”

Antimony leaned closer, voice dropping to a whisper. “What?”

“I do it anyway.”

Her lips twitched with the start of a smile. She jabbed a thumb toward the rest of her class. “So when they say I can’t be a scientist ’cause I’m a shifter…?”

I plopped the Stetson on her head. It seemed the right thing to do. Kids were obsessed with that hat. “You can be anything, Antimony, fur or not.”

She grinned so big I caught a glimpse of fangs. Pain, sweet and sharp, filled my heart and washed away the days until spring. I smiled too. This, Michail… this is why I stay.

 

* * *

Originally published in Writers of the Future

About the Author

Diana A. Hart lives in Washington State, speaks fluent dog, and escapes whenever somebody leaves the gate open—if lost, she can be found rolling dice at her friendly local game store. Her passion for storytelling stems from a well-used library card and years immersed in the oral traditions of the Navajo. She was previously published in Writers of the Future, Vol. 34.

Follow her on Twitter: @ DianaAHart

Categories: Stories

A List of Historical Places Frequented by a Boy and His Dog

Zooscape - Tue 1 Jun 2021 - 03:06

by Eleanor R. Wood

“You’re not here, but it smells of you, somewhere under the stone where I can’t follow.”

1.) The tree fort your friend built, that you so longed to play in, but instead only visited once. When you realized I couldn’t climb up and play too, you never went back. I marked it for us anyway.

2.) The shallow creek, where we splashed and cooled off in summer. Your smooth feet would slip on the rocks. When you fell and cut your chin that time, I licked it better.

3.) The wide open space of the park, where you’d throw the frisbee over and over and I’d bring it back to you again and again until we both fell, laughing and panting, to the damp grass.

4.) The school gate, where I was never allowed to follow, but had only to wait, senses quivering, until the surge of exiting humans narrowed to the blessed single point of the only one who mattered to me. Your delightful ruffling of my ears… the taste of your cheek, mingled with all the scents of the day.

5.) The woods, with their squirrel trails and muddy puddles so good to drink from. You always pulled me away, but if only you’d just tried a sip, once, you’d have known the rich flavors of the forest as I did.

6.) Your bunk bed, low enough for me to leap up with a scrabble of back feet so I could snuggle up with you and rest. I don’t remember when the resting stopped being only at night, but I still loved to curl up to you even when the sun blazed bright outside and the Mother tsked at me when she came in and out with strong-smelling drinks.

7.) The house, where we were supposed to only be together, until the time you stopped being there with me and so did everyone else and it was quiet and your scent was faint and my heart thumped with loneliness.

8.) The cold corridors that smelled strongly of the stuff that only came out if I had an accident indoors, where the Mother held my lead tightly and strangers smiled or frowned at me and then suddenly you were there, in a bed I’d never seen, and I leapt up and you threw your oddly weak arms around me and my whole body wriggled with how much I’d missed you.

9.) The house, again, alone.

10.) The place where grass grows and dying flowers lie, shorn from life, against smooth stone slabs in rows and rows. You’re not here, but it smells of you, somewhere under the stone where I can’t follow. The Mother cries when we come here. I cry too, because I don’t know how to find you.

11.) The fort, the creek, the park, the gate, the woods, the bed, the house. I go to them, because they are ours. I go to them because maybe, one day, you will be there again.

 

* * *

About the Author

Eleanor R. Wood’s stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Diabolical PlotsPodCastleNature: FuturesThe Best of British Fantasy 2019, and various anthologies, among other places. She writes and eats licorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvelous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee.

She blogs at creativepanoply.wordpress.com and tweets @erwrites.

Categories: Stories