Written By Ivan Overmoyer
Illustration by Anna Overmoyer
Copyright (c) 2014, All Rights Reserved
You could fit a baby carrot comfortably in each of their two nostrils, which stared out the front of their head like a second set of eyes, which they also had two of, farther back, large round searching eyes staring forward into the black of the night. Two ears wide and pointed threw every which way on top of their heads or folded back along the long furry necks before a long furry body before a long furry tail and their long claws turned down to the ground.
Two. They padded down the alley with claws a-click-clacking as they slunk through metal cans and lighted posts and boxes melting in the damp. One with dark stripe marks under his eyes swung his head to and fro with great puffs of air through his carrot holes. The other had a dark mask painted in fur, his eyes flicked nervous about.
We ought not to be here, Monk. Someone’ll see us, someone’ll know. Someone’ll end us, Monk.
We’ll see them first, Mung, and then we can hide. Now be quiet, Mung, I’m smelling.
Mung shook his head earitably. I don’t like this. Not one bit. But his brother continued smelling, pawing through the loosey detritus littering the ground.
I smell it, Mung. It’s close, I can taste its words.
Mung’s tongue flicked over his nose. Worth coming this far to get it?
Monk rounded suddenly, his teeth bare. Cool it, will you! We’ll not get seen. We… we are the stuff dreams are made of.
Mung drew back. You’ve been spending too much time with the Star Chaser you have.
Monk turned back round. You ought not call her that.
They padded through the dark angled walls, the night sky above them through hexagonal grate. Mung, paused to look up and saw the stars. He would bring the memory back for her. She would like that.
Oh, I smell… Monk whuffed a mighty whuff and lifted his head. His tail swished side to side. His back arched and shivered. This we’ll bring back, like a moss pig to an ant hive! Little by little by little!
And not all at once. Mung looked where Monk did, saw the boxes. The smell was undeniable just breathing. They were full of books. They smell old.
Discarded, yes, but still good. None here will miss them.
Would that you had told me this much. Mung shuffled past Monk and hooked claw over claw to the top of the heap. These are large, Monk. What shall we do?
Pick, choose, tear apart, take what you can, leave the rest for later. We’ll have much time for reclaiming, none come here. Monk lifted his claws and tore the side from a damping box while Mung whuffed about the top.
I smell spoilage, Monk. Some of these may be no good.
She may reconstruct those ruined, Monk replied. We take them all.
Mung shook his head again and his ears flapped back and forth. Deciding his brother was right, he scratched open a box flap and pulled at a book spine with his foreteeth. It freed and he held it with his claws, shuffling it back, down into his belly pouch. Monk pulled at the books down below, shifting them out of position. As he shuffled them into his pouch, the others at the bottom of the pile slumped and fell about.
Monk looked up at his brother, who scrabbled in panic as the great stack fell beneath him. Under! Monk flattened, curled around the books in his pouch as the aging boxes and books fell about and above him. As the pile slumped in on itself, Mung rode it down, shaking from panic as it settled. Clunking ended and Mung waited for any sign from his brother.
Then he heard it.
Scraping, clawing, dragging, coming from beyond the hexagonal grate. Mung froze in fear a moment – this was what he had been afraid of from the beginning. His panic rose and he dug at the books and rotted cardboard, thrusting his head in between. The noises were getting louder. He dug desperately, wiggling his long, bendy body through the compressed paper until he could push at them with his feet, burying himself almost completely. His tail slid through the spaces and he shook himself, letting the books settle over him. He could still see through the spaces between them, but if he held still that would be enough.
Soon he could see dark shapes through the grating, indistinct shadows with four uneven legs, or hands, it was hard to tell, and he couldn’t make out a head. But he could hear them breathing, deep and hungry.
Close your eyes, you fool!
Monk knew him all too well. Mung let his eyes slide shut as the things closed over the pile from beyond the grate. He could hear them grunting. The inside of his eyelids turned red as a search light swept over them.
Still, unmoving, unthinking, unblinking, unbreathing, unalive… not here…
It was almost like being a sleep. He opened his eyes and the shapes were gone, but still he waited for his brother’s thoughts. He blinked. Only the stars through the grating met his eyes, and he stared at them, saving the memory for her. It was the closest he’d ever been, she would like that.
Mung felt his brother moving about below him. Take all you can carry, Mung, then we leave.
He broke from the pile and picked out more books, the ones that smelled the nicest. Their words would calm him on the way back down. Monk, I’m full.
As am I. Monk finished shuffling his last book into his pouch. Follow me. They scuttled off the pile and Mung followed his brother back the very way they had come. They made their way slower than they had before, laden as they were and shuffling over the damp walkways. Mung kept his head down, the place had always made him uneasy because he knew what could happen in a place like that. He could still feel his adrenaline- it had not calmed from earlier. He still felt a thrill of fear when he lifted his eyes to the grating above, expecting to see them again.
Monk led him to the giant column in the center of the CitySky, the great monolith that all the troughs and sluices of refuse went to. It was dark and cold, pushing out of the ground and up up up, past the hexagonal grating and into the night beyond. There were lights at the top too, but Mung didn’t want to look that high.
Monk swept his head from side to side, checking for any movement, then hooked his claws around a loose panel in the side of the monolith. It fell with a great clang onto the walkway and Monk scrabbled over it, into the hole it left. Mung followed, reaching down after to try and replace the panel. His claws hooked around the edge of the heavy metal square and he pulled it back up over the hole, letting it lean a little, not properly attached. He knew they would be back.
Inside the monolith it was smelly and there were few things to stand on, the odd dirty grating here and there, little open tubes of ick, loose fluids. Monk and Mung clung to support rods and made their way down through the maze of machinery and wire around the great rod in the center. There was little light, shining out through holes in the center. The light was warm and they passed close to them when they could. Mung hated walking through the CitySky, but he liked this part even less. It was uncomfortable and cramped and otherwise unpleasant.
They passed on through, down, down into the deeper parts of the pillar where the walls fluted out and the rod split into great roots, piercing the bedrock of the world. It was a long, long way to have gone, but they still had farther to go. Hampered by the books they padded over the roots and fallen, crushed bedrock left as the roots had passed through.
Safe now, Mung thought to himself, though he was sure Monk had heard him. Far out to the sides where the walls covered the very edge of the roots as they burrowed far below the surface and met the ground, covering the beneath completely, there was no light, save for the cracks around the panel that they had clawed their way open. They made their way to the very edge of the wall where the panel lay on the sloped wall, and Monk nosed it away out onto the ground beyond the wall to reveal a space barely big enough for one of them. Monk went out, followed by Mung, who again replaced the panel, pushing it back over its space.
Breathe you easier? Monk looked back at his brother, framing his silhouette against the rising sun barely visible over the horizon, under the vast ceiling that the CitySky formed.
It looked a vaguely romantic image to Mung. He saved that one as well. I do. With that, they started their journey edgeward, towards home, over the vast wasteland between.
She sat with her head between her knees on a cushion made of old clothes. She had not meant to stay that way for long, only beginning it as a way to stretch her back, but then found it helped her to ignore the gnawing of her stomach and she could not help but indulge for a little while.
That should be enough. She lifted her head and stretched her legs with a deep breath inward and wrapped her thin arms around her abdomen.
She turned her attention back to the open book in front of her and the empty pages stared back at her in the candlelight. It was a warmer season, but she shivered anyway, drawing around her an old blanket she had traded Old Scruffy a poem for.
The silent shadow
Slips slimy across the floor
I have spilled my ink
She wrote it on the corner of the page, carefully with the pronged pen, letting the letters show clearly. Then she drew thick square lines around the inside, tracing them over and over, until the corner separated, cut by the tip of her pen. She grasped the corner of the poem with thumb and forefinger and lifted it up in the light.
“Senegal,” she whispered. “This one is for you. A snack.”
Out of the surrounding dark the animal crawled, his big carrot holes whuffing at the words of the haiku, his batwing ears wide open. His orange eyes looked at her cautiously.
“Come,” she said as she held it out to him. “Take.”
The tail flicked, but he pushed himself forward as far as he could without actually stepping and nipped the haiku out of her hand. With two snaps it was in and Senegal retreated back into the darkness.
Her stomach spoke, a grumbling whine in a high pitched voice, and she clutched at it again, pushing it inside and leaning forward. Her head found its way again to her knees. “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, stop… please stop…” She whispered desperately, her mouth just inches from her belly. She waited, listening. Her stomach said nothing more and she lifted her head again, taking in a deep breath. Maybe if she could catch some ambient dust…
She put pen to paper again. “Who is next, she whispered. Who is next to be fed, she asked.”
I went to see December Fox
His home is in the pantry box
He hunts the moss pigs in the yard
And he never strays too far.
I went to see him yesterday
To find that he had run away
I will sit and hope and pray
That he will come back home someday
Again she drew her heavy lines on the inside edge of the poem and separated it from the rest of the page. “Mother Critter,” she whispered, “this is yours.”
This time she closed the book, holding the cut out poem in her other hand. She took the candle and stood. “Last in line, mother. Where do you stay?” She stepped carefully along the hard stone floor in her bare feet and the candlelight fell over what little she had in her room. A few old boxes, a broken chair and several books scattered around the floor. Against the corrugated metal walls were leaned old bits of wood and tables, all in different shapes and states of disrepair, almost all covered in scraps of cloth and old clothes. This was where her ilvi lived, curling around each other in nests of discard. She didn’t know why the animals came to her, or why they would bring her books and things, but she didn’t question it. It was all she had and she was unwilling to let it go, so she did what she could to keep them with her.
The light passed over many of them; there was Bango and Terak, curled up inside an old shirt, their white faces sticking out of a fold, comfortable and asleep. Bijou sat upright, watching her as he always did, and Senegal crouched next to him, still munching on the snack she’d given him. Her light finally fell on the one she knew as Mother Critter, curled up in her box around four blind, suckling babies. She lifted up sleepy eyes as the candle approached.
Setting the candle down on the floor, she knelt and held the poem out to Mother Critter, who sniffed at it and then looked back up at her. “I’m sorry,” she said, pulling the poem back. “I forgot, you like them signed.” She glanced around the box and found an old pencil, then wrote at the bottom of the page:
“There you are,” she said, offering the poem again. This time Mother Critter took the page in her mouth and began ripping chunks off, bracing it with her claws.
Emielle stood with candle in hand and looked out the squarish hole near the top of her wall. “Morning will be here soon,” she said, shivering slightly as she drew her arm across her belly. “It’s been a long journey. Oh for it to be ending at last.” She watched the horizon for the light she knew would come and her candle hand trembled for she so loved the sun. Far in the distance the CitySky ceiling drew ever closer to the edge of the world, an external eyelid shutting off her view of an outside she had never really seen or could not remember, she was never sure which. Perhaps it did not matter. But she lived for that moment every morning when the sun peeked up above the edge of the ground before it drifted over the CitySky and filled the eye with warm light and filled her chest with intangible hope. Sometimes she would leave her house, go past the village, and wander in the wasteland toward the edge just to get closer to that light, just to see how far she could get, but it was never very far. It was difficult for her to leave the ilvi and all of her precious books.
When the horizon broke the great red light, it was like a roar in her head spreading from eyes to ears to jaw and it trembled. The light oozed over the ground forming in a great lump and then lifting itself above the aperture, displaying the middle of its sphere to her in all its glory. It hit her eye and warmed her face and she could see the rays jutting out in every direction, spreading beyond horizon, beyond ceiling and filling more space than her humble home had to offer, a brief hello I love you before it disappeared again, leaving her in shadow. But the shadow was not as harsh as the night as the CitySky came to life under the light and let its energy filter through to those below.
She was left there, trembling from the sight with candle still in hand, her stomach empty but her spirit full. She lifted the candle to her lips and puffed it out. The room shrouded in shadow once again, but soon enough it would light with filtered sun filtered again through the white panels of her roof. She went back to her pile of bed and sat slow with legs crossed and eyes shut, waiting.
Emielle was woken with a nose against her toe. It was brothers Monk and Mung hoping for some food. She smiled when she saw them, one behind the other, Monk’s grey face and spots under eyes hanging inches from her foot with Mung hanging back behind, timid as always. There were books piled at her pillow. “You have been hard at work these last days,” she observed, and Monk drew forward, putting his paws up on her crossed legs, stretching his face toward hers. She lifted a hand to stroke him and he braced his head under it, letting it run over his flattened ears, his neck, his back, and playing with his tail. She looked to his brother. “Come here, Mung,” she cooed as she petted, “let me hold you.” Mung stepped forward alongside his brother, but did not put his claws in her lap, basking in her love as his brother did. She offered her hand and he licked it, but shied away when she tried to pat. “So coy and so strange,” she said, pulling her hand back again to push Monk gently away. “Give me space, I must prepare your food.”
Monk knew and withdrew willing, with a patient wait. She pulled her blank book toward her and brandished pen, opening to a fresh page. She glanced at him with a smile. “For you, a landscape,” she said, and put point to page, scratching the ink into its milky skin.
A table of frost blown barren by giant’s breath
Wind piper speaks warnings in my ear, sheilded under hood under awning
A small barren patch
Of unwetted ground beneath the roof of Smith’s storehouse- waiting-
To emerge out from shelter, a needle into a raging sea, and I go
Clutching my prize of supplies to my breast, a child, begging it to stay with me.
I leave marks
Dents in the ground, whipped full as soon as I pass as if
I was never there
To begin with.
Soon enough the supplies will be gone too.
She bent thoughtfully and scratched out the last line, but included it in Monk’s portion. It was a garnish he enjoyed, she knew. Producing the page with a smile. Monk took it slow, caressing it with his teeth and pulling it gently, gratefully away, slunk to his niche beneath a table and placed the poem on the ground where he licked, savoring the words.
“Come here Mung, I want to see you with my hands.” She held out her hand to the reluctant ilvi. He approached, front paw suspended in the air and sniffed, then licking her hand. She did not move, and in time he moved closer, slipping under her fingers and up to her lap. She sat with eyes shut, hand following his tail to her, following its flicking from side to side. Her other hand rested in her lap upturned and into this Mung put his front paws. She lifted, elevating his face to hers and opened her mouth very slightly letting her breath ooze out. He whuffed in, tasting her breath with his face, and when he breathed out she breathed in, drawing his breath musk over her tongue. She stroked his head and back and he relaxed slightly, she kissed his nose and he snuffed again. “What have you brought me tonight?” she whispered.
Mung backed down and circled in her lap, kneading her legs and making a bed for himself, curling into a circle. His comfort flooded over her like a warm bath, her eyes still resting closed, and she saw Monk through the eyes of his brother. Framed against the red sunrise, head turning back to where he’d come with ears alert, one paw raised and ready to run. The image swam in her mind and she let her hand run over the ball of ilvi resting in her crossed legs. She felt the awareness shift, looking toward the sky. Not the CitySky as it would be, but through the hexagonal grate over the ceiling of the dump alleys. High up and close to the sky- the real sky. She saw the stars and her breath thinned and died in her throat, escaping as a gasp and disappearing in the vast emptiness of space. Starlight was on her face like a cool rain and she did not mind that she could not breathe. To die among such beauty…
The memory shifted. Invading her calm was the scraping, rasping breath of an empty, and then another and another. They were crawling above, blocking out the light. She could see them clearly, swarming to her covering her from the sky, their ragged hungry breath consuming what was left of her wind, the lopsided limbs grasping at her hands and feet and body and neck and head and she could not escape. The vacuum pulled at her lungs, one gasp at a time sucking her dry. Struggle as she might. And then the face, or what was left of it, whatever it had become. Hidden by a cage and held in place with metal and wire. Loomed over her, dead eyes staring into her windows and piercing her terror to extract everything else underneath.
Do not look at their faces! You must not look at their faces!
Her gasp pulled her eyes open and she scooped Mung up to her breast, squeezing him desperate and trembling. The light was brighter now, all that she could see with her eyes blurred. Panting, clinging to the ilvi who struggled only slightly, batwing ears rustling against her cheek. It was a long time before she said anything. The world came to focus around her and Monk was sleeping now, having finished his meal some time ago. His ears shook and back trembled, foot twitching in a dream. The others were sleeping, even Bijou though he still sat upright with eyes closed. Only she and Mung were awake.
“But you still came back,” she whispered. “They never found you, no. That was not your memory.” She trembled and tears came to her eyes, again blurring her cleared vision. “No. Not yours. Not yours.” A sob and she squeezed Mung gently, crouching forward and pushing her nose into his fur. He smelled of musk and pumpkins. “You saw them, didn’t you? Clever of you to hide. But please… please…”
Falling to her side, head resting down on pillow, still clutching Mung to her breast. Continuing to sob. Mung wriggles out of her grip and steps forward to lick tears away.
I’m sorry, Star Chaser.