Light on Shattered Water
Part the 1
On that unseasonably hot autumn afternoon the sun was riding high in an endless blue vault, coaxing heat-shimmers from stone and earth. And I was as lost as I've ever been.
My boots raised small clouds of dust from the ground as I followed the rutted and rocky little goat-trail up the hillside. Unseen insects chirped and swarmed through the sunwarmed grasses and undergrowth, the razzing of cicadas a continuous chorus in the summer air. That and the occasional cry of a distant animal were the only sounds I'd heard for a long while. The heat and humidity sucked the perspiration out of me as I worked my way around a pile of bleached sandstone rocks upon which a stunted little conifer had taken root and was putting up a valiant struggle against the elements. I wiped the sweat away and slogged on up the trail that climbed the summer-shocked hillside toward the treeline. Something in my pack was digging into my back.
In the welcome shade of the trees, among pine trunks and a carpet of fallen needles, I stopped and took the opportunity to catch my breath; and fiddle with my pack until the load was seated more comfortably. Then I looked back at the path I'd come and forward at the path still to travel and sighed. It was a trail I was following, I was pretty sure of that. It was overgrown and eroded and more suited to mountain goats in places, but it was a trail. Perhaps it'd take me somewhere that had a phone I could use.
I'd been lost while hiking before, but never like this. I mean, there'd been times when I wasn't exactly sure where I was, but there'd always been the inevitable signpost or landmark or town where I could ask directions. Now, I'd been walking for days and I hadn't even seen so much as a road. The cell link in my laptop didn't work, but there was always a chance I was outside the coverage. I had my compass and maps, paper and digital, but nothing made sense. My maps - paper and digital - neither made sense. They didn't jive with the Vermont I was walking around in, the landscape simply didn't match up: When I thought I'd matched a hill to one depicted on my map, a river turned up that shouldn't be there or a road that should've been there was missing. I hadn't seen anyone, not a person or a building or even a contrail from a plane, not after that... whatever it was that'd happened to me. Not a sign of civilization anywhere, but there were still odder things.
On my second afternoon after waking on that hillside without the faintest idea where I was, I'd been following a ridgeline overlooking a steep little valley with a stream at the bottom. There was a family of bears down there, a large one with several cubs in tow splashing through the water. I went the other way; quickly. Later that day, I realised what I'd taken to be a black cloud was moving south, against the wind. Birds, a flock of birds. Millions upon uncountable millions of them flying south. I stripped off my sunglasses and just stood and stared slack-jawed at that unbelievable spectacle until the amorphous mass was lost into the red-streaked dusk sky.
I was starting to feel more than a little bit nervous.
It was my third day of fruitless wandering before I'd stumbled across this dirt track. It might have just been an animal track, probably was: I couldn't see any traces of footprints in the dried mud, but of hoof and pawprints there were plenty. Maybe I'd wandered into a private reserve somewhere, even though there weren't any of those marked on my map and I hadn't seen any signs or fences. I'd been following that track for hours and it still didn't seem to be getting me anywhere, but at least it was something; I was already a day overdue. Jackie would be trying to call, she'd be getting worried. How long before she did something like call the Ranger service? The worse thing about being hauled out by chopper would be the embarrassment.
Now the path was climbing the side of yet another hill. Further down it'd described a snakelike route through thick undergrowth and trees. Tough going: Rain had eroded it in places. Elsewhere I had to climb over exposed roots and rocks and fallen branches, push through bushes that scratched my arms and ripped my t-shirt. I could've worn my jacket, it was quite thornproof, but in that heat it just wasn't worth unrolling it. Anyway, toward the ridge the going got easier as the undergrowth thinned out, making way for the scrubs' larger coniferous cousins. The trail crested the hill at a place where a granite outcropping of huge, weatherworn boulders denied the trees a place to grow. A lookout across the broad valley below. And when I clambered up and stood there and saw what lay on the other side of the mountain my spirits soared.
Farmland. There were farms down there. At last some sign of civilisation, however pastoral it might be. My fatigue evaporated into the bright sunlight and I gladly shrugged out of the pack then dropped down beside it and took my canteen from its clip, raising it in salute to the world before drinking. For a while I rested, just sitting there enjoying the scenery.
It was a broad shallow valley; very picturesque, cupped between ranges of low forested hills on either side. What was either a small river or large stream sparkled and wound its way along the valley floor. Patchwork sections of farmland were dotted along its banks, sandwiched between the river and forest that butted right up against their flanks. And along with the fields there were buildings down there. Further up the valley lay a small town or village: a cluster of a few dozen buildings visible through the trees. I couldn't see any cars anywhere, or paved roads come to that, or phone lines, power lines. It was calm and peaceful. A number of the structures in the village flanked a packed-dirt Main Street while others were scattered along the periphery. I could see some of the larger buildings along the street done in that Tudor style: whitewashed walls with black beams visible across the plaster. Other places were smaller and looked like they were made of unpainted wooden clapboard. Roofs... quite a few thatched roofs. I scratched my head. That's illegal; firetraps like that are against building regulations in most states. Elsewhere across the valley were other isolated pockets of buildings tucked away in copses and in among sheltered hedgerows. Farms, by the rings of fields and pastures that surrounded them. It was an odd way of arranging a community, but I guessed they valued their privacy.
Nevertheless, the more I looked the more discrepancies I noticed. But there were people down there. Smoke was rising from chimneys and I could see a few distant stick-figures: walking, working in the fields... driving a team of animals pulling a wagon?
I shook my head in bewilderment, stood and stretched, then gathered up my pack. I'd find out what was going on when I got down there. Perhaps it was an Amish settlement, or one of those self-sufficient cadres I'd heard about; something like a kibbutz or ejido, or one of those back-to-nature societies who decide that 'nature' still necessitates building houses and farming and felling trees for polluting wood-burning fires. I'd heard there were some Quaker settlements in this region of Vermont, maybe I'd stumbled onto one of those. Perhaps it was a medieval role-playing festival: society for creative anachronisms, something of a similar ilk. Whatever, they could at least set me on the path back to civilisation.
With a bit more purpose in life I set off down the path. That damned mystery object in my pack was digging into my back again.
The 'trail' curved down to emerge from the treeline, dropping down an eroded bank at the edge of an outlying field. The field was furrowed, ploughed, but nothing was growing, not at this time of year. Carefully I climbed over the rickety fence, just wooden poles slung between uprights. No nails that I could see; cheap and simple. The wood looked like someone had gone to a lot of trouble cutting and treating it by hand, axe marks were quite visible where branches had been trimmed. A gaggle of farm buildings nestled among a dense grove of low trees of some kind not too far off, so I headed toward it.
A brilliant day. A few clouds in the vault of the sky, the air uncharacteristically hot for the time of year. The deciduous trees were already a riot of color, turning the hills rusty-gold in patches while the evergreens formed their own enclaves. Winter was lurking just over the horizon. Further along there was another fence, this one with an unsecured gate opening onto a rutted track leading to the farm buildings. I turned up it.
Quiet though; unusually so. No sounds of animals, no engines. Even when I approached the buildings. Several different structures were arranged around a small dusty courtyard littered with animal droppings, the farmhouse itself: thick thatched roof, wooden weatherboard walls, tiny windows, small door, heavy wooden shutters and a stone chimney with a trickle of smoke showing there was someone home. There were no lights, no phone or power lines, no vehicles or old trucks or the usual debris you find around farms, not even a cigarette butt or recognisable piece of trash. A small rickety-looking building might have been a toolshed and another was probably a barn: larger than the house with big doors hanging ajar. No chickens or dogs. Why wasn't there at least a dog barking?
"Hello?" I called, nervously. Something wasn't quite right... Hell, something was way out of wack. "Hello? Anyone here?"
There was a pause before the barn doors pushed open. What stepped out wasn't a person.
It took a second to register. I just blinked moronically at what was standing in the door, at first thinking costume, then for the first time in my life I knew what it feels like to have your heart miss a beat: realising it couldn't be a costume, realising it was too goddamn REAL and then not believing what my own eyes were showing me: a monstrous jigsaw that refused to resolve. Catlike, but standing on two legs... a mishappen and distorted human with a cat head, clothing. No, not human. The way the muscles moved... it wasn't human. An organic patchwork, Frankenstein's creature. I remember... parts of it. Like a David Hockney work, a jumble of needle-sharp detail joined to make a whole: A feline head with wide copper eyes locked on me, a distorted furry hand with a chunky green stone bracelet dangling at the wrist holding the door, a stocky fawn-furred torso, baggy grey pants with flashes of gold, a twitching tail and inhuman, twisted legs and wide-splayed shaggy feet.
Then it opened its mouth and snarled... something. The way the noises flowed together, they didn't sound like the noises an animal would make. Loudly. And several others appeared in the doorway behind it: multicoloured fur, green and amber eyes, one holding something long and wooden that terminated in several sharp spikes. It snarled, then shifted its hold on the implement, pointing the tines toward me, others raised blunter instruments that were more familiar, stubby fingers cocking hammers.
I took several steps back, then turned and ran. Even with a twenty-odd kilo pack on my back I ran. Howls sounded behind me. Another creature appeared in the farmhouse door wearing something I had the insane impression was an apron. It squalled and dived back inside, slamming the door. I picked up speed, making for the trees, vaulting a fence, catching my foot and falling flat on my face with a jolt that knocked the wind out of me. I scrambled to my feet and risked a look behind me. One of the things was raising something to its shoulder. A dense puff of white smoke rose, followed by a dull flat-sounding crack and something whirred past. I automatically ducked, then ran again. Another bang and what could only be a bullet whipped past with a peculiar thhrrpping sound.
I hit the treeline and kept going, ducking and pushing my way through the undergrowth, clawing myself back up the hill I'd only just descended and down the other side. I kept going, running blindly through forest and scrub until a stitch cramped me up and I couldn't take another step. I doubled over, then collapsed between the roots of a tree, sucking in lungfuls of air.
It wasn't possible, the voice in my head kept repeating. It's not possible. It can't be possible... No.
But I'd seen it; I'd heard it; The buildings were there, the creatures were there. They shot at me. I looked back the way I'd come. There was no sign of them, but if they wanted to follow I'd left a trail like an epileptic rhino. I didn't want to be here, not while they were still so close. Still shaking, I gathered up my gear and made my way further back into the hills, away from the town, this time taking care to cover my tracks.
That night I sat outside my two-person igloo, listened to the creek gurgling, swatted at bugs, and stared at the crescent of moon riding low over a distant hilltop. The moon. It was still there; it'd always been there. Eternal and unchanging. But now I stared at it and the longer I stared the more differences emerged. The shapes of the seas were wrong. Where were Tycho and Copernicus? Tranquillity? It was a moon, but it wasn't the one I'd grown up with. The hollow feeling inside grew and the more I searched for answers, the more befuddled I became.
What had happened to me? Was I cracking up? Loosing my grip? Was it something else?
I preferred to think it was something else.
A government project or experiment? I've seen internet files on some of the cutting edge in genetic engineering, and what I'd seen... we were nowhere near that.
The Rip Van Winkle syndrome: I'd fallen asleep under a tree for a hundred years and things had changed?
Alien invasion? Then why the crude architecture, why the lack of vehicles or any sign of industry? and that weapon had sounded like a musket. Surely they'd have something more advanced. Energy weapons, or at least automatic weapons.
I picked up my small butane lamp and took out my zippo. Ready to light the wick before I realised what might see it. I snapped the lighter shut and set it aside, suffered the evening darkness while I munched morosely on a sack of Trail Mix. Somewhere else. That accident at those high tension power lines when that isolator came down, that flash of light. It would explain why when I woke up the lines had vanished. I'd thought I'd been knocked on the head and wandered away from the site. I hadn't wandered, but I'd gone further than I'd ever suspected. Or maybe I'd died and this was a weirder purgatory than Dante had ever dreamed of.
Now I was here, wherever here was, and whatever those things down in the town were, they weren't human. I shuddered. How was I going to get away from here, how was I going to get home. Could I get home?
I looked back in the direction of the town, two insulating hills away. What if they came after me? What could I do? Run, I guess. Fight? I had some plastic cutlery and my leatherman, nothing of much use against guns or even farm tools. Would they come after me?
Perhaps I should find out just what those things were, what they were doing there. It might help me find out where I was and just how I was supposed to find my way back home.
And just how should I go about that?
As carefully as I possibly could. If I ever got my hands on you, Elliott. You and your fucking holidays.
The town rose with the sun. I was there early, while the sun was just a suggestion on the eastern horizon and a morning mist hugged the valley floor. Already there were figures bustling in the streets. I settled down on the rocky outcropping I'd chosen as my position and set up my monocular, a decent 15x Leica. If I'd used it the other day it might have saved me a lot of trouble.
Cats, that's what they looked like, walking and running on two legs with a peculiar fluid gait. They were wearing clothes: things like short kilts, baggy trousers, long shirt-like affairs that hung down past the waist, even things that looked like the baggy shorts surfies favour. Different colors, some bright, almost garishly so, others subdued and earthy.
And they went to work. I saw farmers labouring in their fields, some hoeing and weeding and gathering crops, others working with livestock: goats and deer and bison and turkeys. In the town there were buildings that could have been stores, with barrels and baled goods outside and signs written in some indecipherable script that looked like spastic chicken scratchings. Periodically a harsh, rythmic sound reached up to me from down in the valley: a clash of metal on metal from somewhere in the town. Shorter versions of the creatures that could have been children scurried around the streets and fields, rolling in the dust. A small group wandered down to a spot on the river that looked like the local swimming hole where they romped around, diving and splashing and fishing.
It looked so much like small-town America, a mis-framed Norman Rockwell painting, but for those things... Norman Rockwell on acid.
I stayed there for hours, watching them. Was this an isolated community, perhaps the only one? No, there was a road leading off down the valley. Around about midday a wagon plodded into town, pulled by things that looked like mutated llamas: oversized and overmuscled. Obviously it was expected and welcomed because creatures from all around dropped what they were doing and came running when it arrived. Barrels and crates and sacks were unloaded. Mail, I realised. Freight and goods. It had to have come from somewhere.
The wagon was loaded again with stuff carried out from several stores. Trade. It left a few hours later, rattling off in a pale cloud of dust with cubs trailing it to the outskirts of town. So, there were other settlements. Within a few hours travel too; unless that cart had travelled all night.
The next day was pretty much the same and I realised that I wasn't going to learn much sitting up on a hill watching them, but what else was I supposed to do? Last time they'd seen me they'd shot first and not even bothered to ask questions. So I kept watching from a distance.
Days passed and I watched them. Once I ventured down.
As darkness fell I crept down to another farm on the edge of town. The late evening: a time when they all disappeared inside their homes and there was nothing moving on the streets.
There were lights burning in the small windows, a warm glow. I crept closer, keeping outside the pool of light illuminating the dust outside. It was a small room with a low ceiling, a fire burned in what looked like a cast-iron stove. The felids were eating. The locals gathered around a table engaged in a raucous evening meal complete with bowls and utensils. Two adults, if one was male and the other female I couldn't see any difference. Two young ones bouncing around, obviously being berated by their elders. At the time I thought of them as a family, but now - more familiar with their social structure - I know better. I could hear the noises of their language from outside and hesitantly tried mimicking a few... words. Difficult; they made my throat itch.
Food. I was going to have to worry about that. I had enough stuff with me to last maybe another two weeks if I rationed it, then I'd be on my own. I'd have to set a few snares to catch something. My laptop's encyclopedia probably had something on that. Perhaps I could 'borrow' some food: There were things I thought were smoke houses around that weren't guarded.
Meal over and the room bustled as they cleared the table, bodies moving to and fro in front of the window throwing changing shadows outside. I moved back a bit, just as one looked my way and froze and stared, then pointed and howled.
Shit, and I'd thought they wouldn't be able to see me in the dark. Cat's eyes.
Halfway out across a field there was a yowling noise from the house. I paused and looked back; the door was open, a felid silhouetted in the opening with something in its hands, raised it to shoulder height and I immediately ducked. There was no gunshot, but something hit the dirt nearby. I ran again, only daring to turn on my flashlight when I was well within the cover of the trees.
A week went by and I started to worry about food. I started setting snares and catching smaller animals: rabbits, birds and the such. I've always hated the cleaning and gutting that follows, but it was something I had to learn to put up with. Properly prepared, one rabbit was enough to feed me for a couple of days, provided I mixed it with a few plants and other wildlife. I found it was possible to starve to death on an exclusive rabbit diet; missing trace elements or something. I even set up a small smoking process: it helped preserve the meat and hid the scents of a fresh kill from any larger animals that might have been sniffing around.
And I wasn't any closer to finding what had happened. I'd trekked back the way I thought I'd come and there was nothing there. There was that dirt road leading out of town and that was the way the other things had come in. There wasn't anything else. I spent nights lying awake wondering what was going on back home. Were they looking for me? Christ, where would they start? And what hope would they have of finding me?
They were long nights.
And it was about that time I started noticing something new down in the town. There was a house down in the valley below my lookout point that had appeared to be deserted since I'd first seen it: run down with birds nesting in the patchy thatching, shutters and door closed, never any sign of life. Now I'd been seeing a felid around the place: throwing open the doors and windows, cleaning the place up. It had got several others in to help fix the roof and cart some furniture in.
"Someone else new in town," I surmised, giggled a little to myself. It was too easy to believe none of this was real.
It spent several days working on the farm, but not actually farming. A lot of time was spent in the barn, sweeping it out, hauling stuff from inside and dumping it around the back, cleaning it out. I watched the proceedings with interest and curiosity. Late one night, after the inhabitants were indoors and the last of the lights had gone out, I had a poke around. Inside, the barn was a single large space with double doors at each end. The place had been cleaned out, the packed dirt floor covered with a layer of straw. A small stove was set over by the wall, a makeshift flue poking out through the boards. Oddest of all were the benches and tables, four of each arranged in rows facing a desk at the far end. Behind that desk several large flat pieces of black slate were hung from the doors. I walked around in the moonlit interior, sitting on a bench and looking around. What was this? A bingo hall? church?
A few days later I was watching the town waking up as sunlight flowed into the valley, the farmers off to work, but this time the cubs began flocking toward this end of the town, a rollicking crowd of furry little bodies rolling and squabbling in the dust around the barn. Different sizes and ages mixed together, running around, throwing balls and chasing after them. About twenty of them I guessed. The felid who lived in the house came out with a satchel slung over its shoulder and began gathering the cubs together. It was so... Walton-ish that when I realised what they were doing I had to laugh. "School's in."
Twenty rowdy cubs were herded into the barn. I shook my head. If it thinks it can keep order in there, good luck. Then I stared at the barn, thinking.
Night time again. The moonlight coming in through the barn door not quite bright enough to see by. I flicked on my flashlight, the halogen beam throwing a white disc around the walls, up toward the roof. Yep, like I remembered: right above the door there was a loft or some kind of storage area. It had been boarded off, making a tiny attic space less than a quarter the length of the barn. There was a door up there: small, with a huge rusting bolt, set in a corner of the loft close up against the outside wall. I circled around underneath, shining the light around while I tried to figure out a way up there. No ladder, but if I jumped I could grab hold of one of the diagonal supports under the loft, directly below the door, and haul myself up, perching in the narrow triangle. I pushed my flashlight into a shirt pocket, pointing up, now I could reach up and grab the bolt.
Jammed or rusted solid.
Shit. I yanked hard on it and one of the nails holding the latches to the door pulled loose with a loud squeal. "Shit!" I yelped as I fell backwards. The other nail held and I was hanging precariously from my perch by a bit of rusty metal, my heart pounding. If something had heard me...
I caught my handhold again and pulled myself back, pushed the door open, scrambling into the loft: a tiny triangle of a space hard up against the roof. I clicked the flashlight off and pressed against the wall and listened.
Wind. Insects. Otherwise silence.
I was too far away from the house for anyone to have heard me, hopefully. After a while I turned the light on again, shining it around. Junk mainly. There were a couple of scraggly piles of hay and fragments of straw scattered around the place, some remains of sacking. A split axe handle was propped in a corner along with a few rusting bits of metal that might have been nails. Not much else. I guess this wasn't a throw-away society. I'd been hoping there might be a knothole on the inside wall that would give me a view down over the classroom. No such luck. I opened my leatherman and used the awl to bore a small hole. Then I made sure the door was shut, settled down against a bale, munched a bit of smoked rabbit washed down with a swig from my canteen, switched my light off and settled down to sleep.
I dreamed. I dreamt I was lost in a maze, running through countless corridors. A final turn and there was a door, guarded by a knight in armour. I hesitated and the knight stepped forward, a sword leaving its sheath. I backed away and the knight raised his visor and a cat's face grinned at me. Snarling something.
Noises woke me with a jolt, blinking at roof joists a couple of arms-lengths from me and wondering where I was. I rolled over, seeing sunlight filtering through cracks in the walls. I pressed my eye against one; the cubs were outside, engaged in their usual chaotic games. A louder voice broke over theirs: the teacher. I heard the door below open and the cubs spilled inside. I moved over to the small hole I'd carved, laying out my notepad and pen while they scrambled for benches. Huh, seemed the back of the class was the most popular place here too. The teacher moved up to the desk at the front.
The first time I'd been able to examine one up close and undisturbed. Not as stocky as the others I'd seen, with tawny fur and cinnamon stripes around the ribs. It walked with a stalking grace that reminded me of a big cat, perhaps a Lynx, especially with those tufted ears and cheeks, and the furry ruff around the neck. The legs were odd... the broad toes touched the ground, splaying out with every graceful step, while the ankle was raised high, giving the illusion the leg had another joint: similar to a dog on its hind legs, but this looked more... I don't know... natural. It was wearing a pair of faded red shorts with a pouch slung at the hips. A slender, furry tail protruding from the shorts twitched like a metronome. Perhaps it was the way those hips moved, or perhaps it was the twin rows of black teats visible in the fur down its front that had me peg it as a 'she'. It was as good a label as any, so until I could find out for sure I stuck with it.
She laid her satchel on the desk and pulled out several books: big things of leather and yellowish paper, also a small case that she opened and pulled out some small glass things. Spectacles. I almost laughed as she perched them on her broad muzzle and set the twisted earpieces in place. A schoolmarm. Of course they'd have to wear glasses. I stifled another fit of the giggles.
With the glasses in place and a book open to a certain page she turned to her charges and snarled something. They shut up and she began.
That talking... it was like a steam boiler leaking, a tesla coil snapping, sandpaper on sharkskin, a catfight and other noises. Words were growled, sibilants extended. I listened, trying to make some sense of it. Very few palatal consonants, sounds like 'el', 'double ew', 'dee'... try to speak with your tongue pressed against the bottom of your mouth and you get a vague idea of what I mean. All the sounds were from the throat and vocal chords or sharp plosives from the lips.
She started scratching on the pieces of slate with a piece of chalk. Scratching up those cuneiform figures, then she pointed at one and made a noise, the class echoed and I tried saying it with them, under my breath, jotting the figure down in my notebook with a phonetic key alongside.
I guess the education system here ain't quite what it was at home, not that that's much to crow about these days. School was let out about midday. The teacher shut her books and there was a general scramble for the door as a tide of furry bodies spilled outside. As eager as kids anywhere to get back to the outside world. The teacher packed away her books and glasses, then spent a while cleaning the slates she'd used for chalkboards. I closed my notebook and watched her.
I'd learned a lot that day. The cubs called her 'Chihirae'. I couldn't determine whether that was her name or if it just meant 'teacher'. There were a few phrases I'd picked up: something that meant something like 'I need help' and 'I do not understand'. Also 'I have to go to the bathroom' and 'sit down and shut up'. She'd also covered something like basic arithmetic: addition and subtraction using some rocks and numerals scratched up on the board. I was surprised at how like Roman numerals they were, also glad they were using base ten decimal and not some variant like base-eight, hex or binary.
So I waited until she'd left before climbing out of my hidy-hole. It was a simple matter of letting myself out the back doors and skulking across a field to the trees, keeping the barn between me and the farmhouse all the way.
I went back to the class as often as I could, for weeks. As the weather grew colder and the trees put on their autumn coats, gradually turning the hills to a landscape of gold-kissed red, I split my time between trying to learn more about the felids and squirreling away food for the coming winter. As September passed by I smoked meat and used 'borrowed' sacks and rope to string it safely out of the way up in trees. Strange, but back home I'd spend eight hours a day slaving away in front of a workstation to make a living. Here, I'd spend a couple of hours a day catching and preparing food that would last me several days, the rest of the time was my own. I was almost beginning to enjoy myself, until I was a little lax about purifying my drinking water.
I was sick for the best part of a week with a screaming case of the shits. I spent days and nights huddling in the ArcTek igloo. Stomach cramps and hot flushes weren't the worst of it: sometimes I'd only just make it out of the campsite before having to relieve myself. I gave up on wasting my toilet tissue, just went and plonked myself butt-naked down in the stream. Cold, but more effective.
Eventually the morning came when I woke to find the gastric turmoils had subsided. It was a glorious feeling to be able to stretch without having to make an impromptu sprint for the nearest latrine. I unzipped the tent flap, poked my head out and got something freezing cold pouring down the back of my neck. When I'd finished my little war dance I was standing in front of my tent ankle deep in snow while flakes continued to drift down.
White. Everything was white and still as the grave. The hills around were lost behind a stippled mist. The nearby creek burbled along its way, although ice crystals were congregating along its banks and everything else was still, shrouded in a white like cold cotton.
Winter had rolled around.
I huddled in the warmth of my Trailblazer jacket and several layers of clothing, watching the town below.
Quiet. Farmers still tended their stock, forking out wagonloads of hay to feed the deer and farm animals, and cubs played in the snowdrifts, but there wasn't the activity in the streets that there'd been during the autumn months. That three-times a week wagon had stopped coming also. Periodically there might be a single rider coming into town with panniers on his llama, but that was about the extent of the traffic.
School continued. Longer classes now there was little else for the cubs to do. Chihirae kept the little fire stocked and roaring, taking some of the chill off the building, but it couldn't heat the whole place. With their fur I guess it didn't bother them so much, but I'd taken to writing while wearing a spare pair of socks wrapped around my hands. Awkward, but it stopped my fingers from going numb. I'd considered using my laptop, but the clicking of keys would've been a sure giveaway. Anyway, I was using some characters I'd made up to accent parts of speech: characters that didn't exist in any fonts I had and wouldn't until I cobbled together a few new ones.
It wasn't easy trying to pick everything up from scratch, at a distance and without help. I could observe, but I couldn't ask questions, have things explained, ask her to slow down. Their numerical system was easy enough: a blessing that it was base ten and I could follow that all right, but their language had evolved for different shaped mouths and brains. Their equivalent of an alphabet was similar to a Japanese syllabary, where each symbol stood for a syllable in their tongue. As in English the characters were combined to make words, but there were a lot more of them than in the English alphabet. I had fifty-seven listed in my notebook. There were also a range of modifiers, adding expression or amount or tense. It didn't seem too complicated, but I couldn't pronounce some of the words and it was so damn frustrating just eavesdropping. I wished I could ask questions, maybe get my hands on one of her books: perhaps that might provide some answers. I could at least set my own pace.
Still, I was learning. When she spoke slowly and clearly I could follow her. When she told a student to write a phrase on the board I'd do the same in my notebook and sometimes I got it right. I could understand the chatter of some of the cubs: one called Feher was making a new sled, Schi - I think that was a nickname that translated as baby-fur - had to leave early to help gather firewood. I could recognise individuals now, there were tell-tale differences in height and stance and especially in the fur colouring. I listened to them telling tales of fishing on the frozen river, hunting, working on the farms. Sometimes Chihirae read to them from the books, other stories. I tried to follow but the gaps in my language were too great. I was lost on even the simplest. Despite that, I found it peaceful; listening to the susurrus of her voice as she read to her charges, the class gathered in a semi-circle around the fire like a scene from Danté.
Winter brought it's problems: the cold, difficulty finding food, the wind and snow. It also made it trickier to get to the barn. I had to make sure I kept my tracks across the fields hidden. Even if it was snowing enough to cover my prints, the next time the sun came out there would be a staggered line of depressions across an otherwise smooth expanse of snow and anyone with half a wit would be able to tell someone had been there. Still, nobody seemed to go out that way, and the Heath-Robinson broom I made cleared the prints well enough so none of the inhabitants discovered the tracks.
It was well into winter and there was really little else for me to do but go to the classes. Get up before the sun and make my way through the white landscape, among black skeletons of trees and bushes waiting away the winter, sneak in through the back doors of the barn and get myself settled into my cubbyhole. Class always started at 7:45, almost bang on the dot every day. There were a couple of days when no one turned up. Perhaps it was a holiday, perhaps Chihirae was ill, I never found out, but after that it was back to usual.
It was on a normal day, after the cubs had spilled out into a steady snowfall. Chihirae was in a hurry. She didn't clean the boards off as was usual, she just picked up her satchel and hurried out. Late for a date? I watched her bounding through the snow towards her house, then a few minutes later head off toward town. I climbed down from the loft, then saw the leather-bound volume sitting on one of the benches where she'd forgotten it. A book! She'd left a book.
I didn't think. I just grabbed it and ran before she came back.
It was a grammatical text, a godsend. Heavy due to the bulky binding and the thick pages. For two days I skipped classes and devoured that book, scribbling down notes, realising mistakes I'd been making. There were primer notes in it, basic sentences. I spent hours referring to my previous notes, matching words up and trying to make the scratchings SAY something. I found a section with a chart listing all the characters in the alphabet and I found I'd missed a few. I copied everything I could, filling up my notebook and moving on to my sketch pad. Of course a lot of it was gibberish to me, but the bits I could understand I devoured and that let me understand a little more, which provided the key to open a few more doors.
But I didn't dare keep it more than two days.
I left the book lying on her desk and waited in my hiding place. She saw it as soon as she came in. Bright sunlight from the opening doors falling across her desk and she was across the room, grabbing it like it was a long lost child and immediately leafing through the pages. I winced: of course she'd have missed it, books were probably worth their weight in gold here. There was a silence down there, the cubs watching her, then she carefully set it down and turned her amber eyes on the class. I could see her pupils were dilated, her ears down and tail thrashing. "Who [did] this [deed]?"
The cubs looked at each other, waiting to see who owned up. Of course no one did.
"I am [going to] talk to your [parent[s]?] see who [left, departed] [something]."
I couldn't follow it then. Was she going to punish them? I shifted away from the opening. Well, if I was feeling particularly suicidal I could own up and say it was me. All the others had shot at me, what would she do? Especially with all the cubs to protect. I moved back to the peephole.
She'd stopped shouting at them and was staring into the sunlight streaming in through the open doors below me. What was out there? I moved to peek out through the cracks between the boards in the wall: nothing I could see. Back in the classroom she'd settled down, seeming very subdued as she carried the students through their recitations of the two's times tables. I forgot about whatever it was that had distracted her and returned to following the day's lessons.
In retrospect I suppose I should've guessed what happened. Well I'm not psychic, so I didn't. The next day the lessons were more grammar and I was able to lose myself in these, trying to make my mouth say words it was never built to say. But whispering isn't quite the same as speaking out loud and I never dared raise my voice. I wasn't sure how good their hearing was, but with ears like those it had to be better than mine.
Tenses today. He ran, he runs, he will run. That's a transliteration: their language has a couple of ways of adding tenses, as well as adverbs and adjectives: with a modified version of the verb run such as Khiscai[ran], Khiscice[run], Kisceiri[running], or by adding a modifier, which is used as a sort of slang: Khisc'ch [will run, run fast, run more] Khisc'e [ran, run slow]. They used the same modifiers in their mathematics: ch [+], e [-].
I worked hard as they went through their lessons, trying to add to my vocabulary. The day passed quickly for me, but the cubs were obviously anxious to get out of the schoolroom and into the bright day. Still, with a bottomless blue sky and sun to take some of the chill off.
Two o'clock and the cubs were out of there. Snowballs and tackling and tails held high as they scurried off toward their homes. Chihirae cleared up, packing her stuff away, then followed them.
I waited, then swung down from the cubby, pushing the door shut behind me. I'd done it so often I could probably do it in my sleep. Drop to the floor and head for the back doors...
Another book. She'd dropped a book by the desk.
I should have realised. I should've guessed.
I picked it up, dusting it off. The cover was a supple dark brown leather with an air of age about it. The edges were worn and smooth from untold years of careful handling. I ran my fingers over the binding, feeling the leather and the marks of embossing where faint traces of a gilt foil still adhered: Words, the crosshatching of their language and completely indecipherable to me. The spine creaked softly as I opened it.
Pictures. Hand-drawn, woodcuts, line work. Maps. Felids fighting animals. Pictures of castles, other buildings and felids in suits of armour fighting each other. Weird-looking boats and sailors and cities. A history text?
I breathed out in wonder; this could tell me more about them than eavesdropping on a year's classes. Right there and then I sat down at the teacher's desk and pulled my sketchbook from one of my jacket's pockets. And then and there worked through the book, making notes from captions, page after page. The maps were of towns and cities, a lot of them, rivers and... and...
I stopped, turned the book on its side. It was twisted and changed, but that was the Florida peninsula, the Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes... Cape Cod was missing. Appalachian range, Rockies... I stared. It was America, but not America. Some other version of America and I was...
Light flashed across me as the front door swung open. Startled, I looked up, squinting into the sunlight and for a second Chihirae stared at me in an expression that was purest shock in any species, then the crossbow came up.
"No!" I yelled in English, my hand starting to come up as if to ward her off and her face distorted into a grin of sharp teeth, the string snapping forward, the briefest glimpse of red fletchings and black iron as the quarrel covered the distance between us in a split second and an impact knocked me sprawling off the chair.
Just below the shoulder. I was scrabbling on the dusty floor, trying to regain my feet, sickeningly aware of the stubby arrow now imbedded in my collar. The pain hadn't hit yet. Look up, she was frantically reloading, on my feet with my arm out to ward her off, babbling, "No, please..." in English. Alien words lost in the shock skittered away from my grasp as I tried to recall them and she locked the string back. I bolted for the backdoor, fighting it open then running for my life, the snow staggering me, pain beginning to burn in my shoulder. I stumbled and fell and when I got to my feet again she was in the door, aiming. A blur crossed the distance between us and hit and spun me to the ground again. Agony burned through my side, a hole through my shirt above my hip, rapidly turning red. I screamed in half-fear half-pain and clawed onwards, splashing wildly through the stream before reaching the shelter of the trees. I don't know how I made it up the hill, but the next I remember I was sprawled over the rock I'd first used to watch the town. Pain made the world spin. A freezing wind was blowing straight through me, chilling me to the bone and leaving me shuddering hopelessly. I couldn't move my right arm and something wet and sticky was coating me, my clothes and the rock beneath me, dribbling in a clammy, viscous mess from my wounds.
No idea how long I lay there just trying to breath through the pain.
Howls brought me back to cold and numb awareness. Figures moving across the fields and through the black and white of the trees, following the pink spots in the snow and my terror overcame my pain. I choked on agony as I clambered to my feet, the world blurring when I staggered off again, trying to run. There was a yowl, howling and a distant crack of sound: a tree beside me showered splinters of bark as something thrummed past. I staggered, slipped, fell and kept going as the hillside crumbled, skidding and sliding on snow and ice and mud, bushes tearing at my face and hands as I rolled and something caught and there was more pain ripping through my shoulder. Dropping and lurching and spinning...
Just lying at the bottom of the hillside among mud and rocks and debris, cuts stinging, clammy grip of shock sending the pain away again. I tried to move, gagged and vomited uncontrollably until I was dry-retching, shaking like a leaf, cold. Shrieking yowls rang through the cold trees behind me, unearthly and terrifying, and that fear was all that dragged me to my feet again. With no other choice I turned to the only door, the only thing familiar to me.
She was in the barn, at her desk, leafing through my sketchbook. She looked up when I staggered over the threshold and my shadow stretched across the floor and her eyes went wide and her hand grabbed for the crossbow on the tabletop beside her.
"Chihirae," I croaked and she hesitated, eyes widening.
The room was spinning, the howls pursuing me growing louder. I giddily looked back at where lean predatory shapes were bursting from the woods, dragged my feet that bit further to collapse at a desk; blood soaking under the filth covering my clothes, running down my arm and side and dripping on the wood and pooling under me. I looked at the chalkboards at the front, the alien scrawls there that blurred in and out of focus, nothing made sense. The figure behind the desk was standing, holding a crossbow and a book and I choked on the agony as I told her in her own language, as her cubs had done, "Chihirae. I... I do not understand. Please... help me."
Then the blood loss and pain and shock took me away.
To be continued...
Don't know where, don't know when...