Footprints round my doorstone, when I came home. A strong woman, I am, and if someone has slunk unasked into my cottage they should be the fearful one.
My intruder I found bedraggled in a chair before the fire. How had the child inveigled her way in here? The only open window was high and small.
“You were out and it was raining,” the child said.
“Wear a coat, then. Don’t turn burglar.” I didn’t sit.
A settler child. Ten years old, maybe? Skinny drowned-animal-looking child, hair like a cawl.
“Have you brought me a problem, now?” Please, let it not be settler business. I could see the scruffy settlement buildings from my window, four miles from town, down in the valley. I oversaw trade with the settlers, and made it fair, rigorous fair. I was the Alderman. So my other job, the job with no payment, was to keep the peace with them.
I do not have overmuch peace in me.
“We need help.” She spoke my language better than her Pa did, but something was sealing her lips. I wished Arka was home, she would know what to say. She liked kids. But she’d be out Devi way, looking for food and hoping for the rain to lift. “Can you explain it?” the girl said, lifting back her waterweed hair.
Her question was not to me.
A lump spasmed under the slick fabric of the girl’s shirt. A dark snout appeared by her collar, then a whole black rat wriggled out.
It shivered itself from nose to tail, then fixed me with button eyes.
“Hello,” it said. “Glad to meet you.”
I sat, to save myself from falling.
A talking rat. A mockery. A monstrosity.
The furry parody waved its muzzle as it spoke. “It’s a bit of a tricky problem.” I watched his furred mouth form words, whistling a bit on some syllables because of his split top lip.
I said to the child, “Get it out of here.”
Thorny, she was, in an instant with fury: you can’t make me and it’s not fair. If anything showed that she didn’t know what she’d done, it was her childish whining.
“We’ll talk,” I said, “Us two, but not until it’s out of here.”
A small voice of reason: “Maybe it would be easier . . .” The rat—the rat—was seeing the sense of it. So of course, she scooped it up and cradled it close-wise and cosy. Darling vermin, sweetest grotesquery.
“It’s raining,” she said. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Easy it was to grab the animal up, but then it was squirming velvet and I could hardly hold it. I shouldered the door open, kicked it shut behind me.
“Wait,” said the rat. “Please. It’s not safe!”
I looked up. Red kites over the cottage. Death to all small things, soaring in circles.
“Shut up!” Now I, a grown woman, was shouting at a rodent.
Hearing the girl crying indoors. Feeling the rat desperately shove with its rump, this way then that way, against my palms. I grabbed its tail and held it away from me, dangling and chittering. I could swing it out over the valley, let it go, never have to look on it again.
A familiar shadow passed over my head. I dithered. And the rat dived neatly into my jacket sleeve.
Arak was gliding in circles over the cottage. Her flight feathers fanned like flicks of ink drawn with a fine brush. My wonder, my marvel, come home to this chaos.
“What, love?” Her croaks were so different from the rat’s lisp. “Are you catching a rat?”
“That’s my job,” she called down.
“It’s rabbits you eat, love.”
“Has it bitten you?”
The rat hadn’t bit me. Why not? I felt it shivering, down around my elbow.
“Come out,” I said. I held my palm flat and waited but it didn’t emerge. Cowardly vermin, scale-tailed lily-livered thing. I wouldn’t have actually thrown it.
I opened the door for Arak. She swooped in past me. The wind from her wings smelled of rain and blood. Do I smell, to her, of earth and turnips? And yet she loved me.
Arak flew straight to her fireside perch. Which put the fear of God, of course, into the girl. I shook the rat out into the child’s hands, and she clutched it, and after a while calmed enough to fuss and nuzzle it, but hardly took her eyes off my love.
“Why are you here, child?” Arak asked. Even with her rasp, she sounded kinder than when I did it.
“I came to ask Annest for help. It’s her job to help, but she won’t,” said the ingrate child.
“My job is to make for fair trade,” I said. “Is it that you want to sell the talking vermin?”
The girl stroked the rat along its backbone. “It’s your job. Pa said.”
“Do you know what your Pa is?” I said. “He’s a thumb on the scales. He’s the scum of the earth. I don’t have to help you.”
The settlers had come sniffing here a few years ago, sent sharp-eyed charmers into the hills to trade trinkets for local treasures. What did they think to find? We were poets and dreamers; maybe we’d sell them the gold gods on our well-heads, and they’d leave within two years, rich cackling villains.
But the people who lived hereabouts had been forewarned. They’d sold the settlers next to nothing, and haggled hard.
I was not the least of the hagglers. I was not Alderman then, but I grew into it.
They did build a trade route, of the low-key ordinary sort: cheese and wool, and some lead, passed out of the hill towns and down to the cities. It was enough for the settlers to stay, but not enough to make them rich. They grudgingly grew food—vegetables from their home, which rotted in the ground. They bought our seeds and planted again. They didn’t settle here as much as linger.
“What’s your name?” Arak croaked.
Did Lydia know her history? Or did she see her parents struggling, and blame the malice of the town? Settler children littered the hills, dressed wrong for every season. They knew nothing. Not from a lack of curiosity—they’d turn up, moon-eyed, at a shearing or a shoeing, even crept into the back of chapel. But their parents dragged them away. You don’t need to know that. We won’t be staying here long.
This girl must be one of the oldest of the lingering children.
I ran my mind deliberately over my calming things: clouds like mackerel skin over the sea cliffs at Gogarth, the Winter river in headlong spate near Pennal. I sat down opposite the child.
“How long have you been with this fellow?” Arak asked.
“Charlie? Half a year.” Lydia smiled. She liked to talk about her talking rat.
“Busy few months,” Charlie said. He clambered back onto Lydia’s lap. “Super busy!”
He was a plain black rat, like the ones who live in groups under barns. But better fed and glossier. I knew talking animals. Horses, wolves. My mother’s eagle. Even a fish who could more or less get her point across. But not a talking rodent. This child didn’t understand the weight of what she’d done.
And I’d have to tell her. As my fury boiled away, fear flooded in to replace it.
“Lydia, how did you do this?” I asked.
“Terric showed us how.”
Terric was a hill kid, showing off to the settler kids. Dangerous little idiot.
“But there weren’t any problems until Will got a mouse.”
“One of the kids has got a mouse. Needs someone to take a look at it. Acting a bit funny.” Charlie nodded to me: we’re both grown-ups, the kid’s upset, how can we fix this? I was being patronised by a rat.
“I’ll fetch a blanket for you,” I said, and stood, to buy myself time. A talking mouse. What would you say to a talking mouse? What could you learn from a pissing, nibbling, mite-riddled mouse?
Arak flew ahead of me into the bedroom, perched on the bedpost where she slept most nights.
“You can leave, if you want,” I told her.
“Certainly not. You’re much too angry.”
She watched me take the blanket down from the big wood press and shake it out. “I don’t like talking to the vermin while you’re here,” I admitted.
“Why ever not?”
“If I’m taking him seriously, I’m insulting you.”
“A rat can’t diminish me.” She swept up onto my shoulder, let me rest my cheek against her warm breast-feathers, and had me carry her back to the fireplace.
“How many of you children have animals?” Arak asked Lydia. “Not just pets.”
“Oh, yes. Talking animals,” I said. That phrase told me a lot. It shrunk down the whole bond to its least significant part. I threw the blanket at the child.
Arak tightened her claws on my shoulder. Meaning: don’t sneer, or the kid will shut up like a trap.
I thought of wind on the top of Tarrenhendre.
“Maybe six of us. Is that bad?”
I reached up and gently ruffled Arka’s head-feathers. Lydia scooped Charlie up and set him on her shoulder. We four faced one another.
“What other kind of animals do you and your friends have?” I asked.
Rabbits. Did rabbits even have brains? Do you need brains to turn grass into pellets of shit, all day?
“And do your parents know about it?”
“They don’t know how to do it.” She paused and Charlie pushed his dark muzzle against her cheek. Some of them think all the animals round here talk. But that they only talk to hill-people and children.”
“Ha!” Children and hill-people, and they probably used a worse word.
“I can give you an answer,” I offered. “It isn’t nice. Do you want to hear all of it?”
Lydia nodded. Charlie pushed his way under her fidgeting fingers.
“When you join with an animal . . .” I tailed off. It rankled to speak to the rat, but it would be simpler. “Rat.”
“Charlie,” she said.
“Rat. Do you remember before you were Lydia’s—friend?”
“Food wasn’t as good. I don’t remember much—but then, I wasn’t very old!”
“Did you know words for things? Rat words?”
Charlie pulled a paw quickly over one ear, flattening it and letting it pop back. Nervous. “No? I knew smells, and noises, and movements . . .”
“Animals cannot talk,” I said. “Not like we do. So when you join an animal, he has to take on your way of thinking. You give some of your mind to him.”
“And vice versa,” said my love.
“Very much vice versa. Then you have a companion who is part animal and part you.” I didn’t sing songs about it. I didn’t say that every day was both the struggle and the reward. I did not speak of the awe, the startling combination of difference and proximity. I stuck to the practicalities. “And you are partly them. Now, most people join a bird, or a horse, or a wolf.”
“A wolf?” Lydia gave a quick grin. I shouldn’t have bloody mentioned the wolves.
“And those animals live a long time. And nobody takes on a companion before they’re properly grown, see? I was twice your age before I met Arak. Because you have to be careful. Because when your companion dies, you do not get that part of yourself—the part you gave them—back.”
Lydia sat very still. “What does that mean?”
“It means everything after your companion dies is much harder.”
My stupid mind suddenly conjured it all up for me, until my eyes were stinging: Arak would be stiff on the floor one morning. I would lever up the grey slate doorstone and dig there, so that going out and in, I would think of her.
My love took pity and finished my speech for me. “So a companion should not be taken on lightly.”
To be one of two utterly unalike things, who nevertheless become one another’s better halves. That was worth the devastation of parting.
Missed the point by a mile, the child did. “You mean children aren’t allowed to do it.” She was scared, now, and turning angry to hide it. I knew the feeling. “But I did it perfectly well. It worked fine!”
I bellowed right back at her. “Gods, you don’t get it!” Arka took off and shot up to the rafters. The scratches she drew on my shoulder just made me louder. “It’s not about what you’ve done now, you fool. It’s about later, when that bloody rat of yours dies. How long has he got? Two years, a year?”
Rain drummed on the slate roof. I’d shouted her into dumbness. But it was the pain in the eyes of the rat that stopped me.
How do you apologise to vermin?
I lowered my voice. “Nobody should have such a short-lived companion. Because . . .” Because it was an abominable waste. But Charlie was right there, mouth hanging open, and he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Because you want as much time as you can get together.”
Charlie turned around on himself a few times, embarrassed. “So what about the mouse?”
They both looked at me, expectant.
I thought: would the mind of a mouse not snap like a twig? “We’ll come and talk to the mouse.”
On the path downhill to the settlement, Lydia asked, “Would you go on ahead for a bit, Charlie?”
His head quested back and forth, sniffing the air. “Why?”
“I want to talk to Annest about something private.”
It was a daft request—the wind was low, he’d have to go miles away to take himself out of earshot.
“Why can’t I listen?” asked Charlie.
Now Lydia was the lecturing parent, and he was the defiant child. It amused me.
“It’s just about me. I promise.”
Lydia set him down on the path and he dawdled off across the slate chips and grass tufts. He’d learned spiky pride from her. Another reason to wait to join until you were older. The man is father to the beast, and vice versa.
“Will I be broken when Charlie dies?” asked Lydia.
I didn’t want to lie. I didn’t know for certain. I thought of my mother, after she’d lost her eagle. Less supple of mind, she had been, certainly. But she’d also been ground down by age, and ordinary misery.
“You’ll still be growing,” I said. “You might grow round the loss. And a rat!” I watched Charlie hopping ahead of us and pushed some enthusiasm into my voice. “You can learn a lot from a rat.”
“I know. It’s amazing.”
Of course—Charlie had helped Lydia to wriggle in through my window. She’d made him stroppy, he’d made her twitchy and nosy. What mutual bounty. Absolutely worth the bloody risk.
“There you go,” I said. “You’ll keep that, you’ll keep whatever you get from your companion.”
“So it’s not all bad?”
She was still looking for a way to be right. I didn’t answer. Lydia ran on ahead to be reunited with Charlie.
“We’ll have to put the fear into the parents,” I said to Arak. She was running her beak through the hair above my ear. “Or they won’t stop their kids from doing it.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Arak raised her wings to steady herself as the path grew steeper. “Maybe the settlers will do it differently.”
Her wing-feathers tickled my ear. “No. How?”
“Maybe they’ll have mice, as children . . .”
“And lose them.” Shards in my heart at the thought.
“And bear the grief, and meet another animal when they’re grown. Maybe they’ll join with shoals of fish, and flocks of songbirds . . .”
“That is a real child, down there, with a real rat. A ball of mange that’ll agree with everything she says and die in a year. You’re fantasising!”
Her wings sliced the air and made me wince. I’d learned so much from her, but never when to leave an argument.
I’d thought she’d be appalled—a bond squandered on a rat. But then I remembered: she expected to die first. She’d never known a bird lose its companion, while I knew many people who lived on after their animals died.
She hovered back in close, and I thought I was forgiven, but then she called: “Look!”
On the grass a girl was sitting—younger than Lydia. A girl in green, surrounded by brown blobs.
The blobs loped around her and she reached out her hands to them.
Lydia ran back up the slope to me and panted: “That’s Barb. She has rabbits.”
They hopped one by one over the kid’s feet. I heard the child laughing. Rabbits.
“A whole pack of them,” Lydia said, disdainfully. “But they don’t live long, so she has to keep getting more.”
I walked faster, my boot-heels grinding into the mud. Gods, where would it stop? “How many has she had?”
“Maybe a dozen?”
“And they were all her companions.”
“Yeah, they all talked.”
“They all talked . . .”
The child had gathered up three of the bunnies into her arms and was whispering into their soft long ears.
The rabbits spotted us first, to give them credit. They looked up, and cried out.
“No! Run! Nooo!”
The squeaking throng then tried to hide under her skirts.
“The bird won’t hurt you,” I called.
Were the child’s eyes were blank with fear, or a permanent malady? She scrambled to her feet and ran for the settlement. The rabbits ran with her.
“I thought Barb had so many rabbits because she was stupid,” said Lydia. “Do you think she’s stupid because she’s had all those rabbits?”
I watched the pale green fleeing figure, with its low-bobbing honour guard. If a young child lost a part of herself, what would she do? Reach out to things that had soothed her in the past. Get more rabbits. She’d feel unspeakable loss and a little bit of solace, again and again until her mind was gone.
“This is why my family are bird people,” I said. “Not bloody mouse people or half-a-dozen-rabbits people. Go on ahead, find me the mouse.”
When she was gone, I called up to Arak. “What can you even learn from a rabbit?”
“What can you learn from a bird?”
“Patience. As you know, my love.”
“You can’t learn it well, though, clearly.”
“These kids don’t want to learn. They want talking pets.”
“No! They want to be here.”
“They are here. See?”
We’d reached the settlement houses: built from old slate sheep pens, given wood walls, decently thatched. You couldn’t skimp on the roof in this wet part of the world.
“Their parents tell them that this place is temporary. Yes?” Arak shot off again, zooming along the long line of hills, with the sun making the wet grass sparkle. “Imagine living here your whole life, and being told it’s temporary. The children need more than that. When they join an animal, they’re saying they want to stay here. They’re trying to tie themselves to this place.”
“Strange theft, when we lose nothing.”
“I know, I know,” I said, to stop her talking. “I am intolerance incarnate, and I hate all change on principle!”
I hoped Arak was wrong. Because I would tell settlers they should leave. Because they treated every final agreement as an opening bid, and this was too serious to haggle over.
“She is so stubborn,” I said. “And prickly.”
Arak croaked with laughter. “Of course! And of who does she remind me . . .?”
I imagined Charlie the rat wrapped in a handkerchief and laid tenderly in a hole in the ground. Poor Lydia. “She’s tied herself to sorrow.”
“She’ll go far.”
The thatch rustled on the nearest house. Two sleek and pointed heads popped out of the eaves and regarded me. Black rats, who live in groups.
“Charlie talked to us. He said you think we shouldn’t be here,” one of them accused. “Do we have to leave Lydia?”
More rustling told me that others awaited my answer. Of course, that is the first thing anyone would learn from a rat: the more of you, the better.
“No. You can go to her.” They still hung back. “I swear the bird won’t hurt you. Oh, and can you tell me—how smart is a mouse, compared to a rat?”
“Oh, really stupid.”
They chorused their agreement as they poured out from the bushes and down from the eaves, forming a skein of fur that wound ahead of me, down the path into the settlement.
In a horse shed, in the end, we found them. The horses stamped and stirred, resenting our intrusion. A child stood with its back to us, and he looked hardly large enough to walk, staring down at a dot that zipped to and fro across the straw-strewn floor. I heard words from it, I think: high pitched, half-formed. I had an unworthy wish that Arka would swoop on the dot and make an end of it.
“This is Will,” Lydia whispered, pointing to the wobbling child.
“Can he catch it?” I asked.
“Can he call the creature?” Arka corrected.
Lydia stooped on her knees by Will to coax him. Her court of rats around her waited. She murmured a long time in Will’s ear, and in the end, he piped up: “Come here!”
The dot didn’t stop. It tightened its orbit, it zig-zagged less wildly, but it never stopped jittering. Circled closer and closer until Will grabbed up it and closed his hands around it.
Will faced us and his eyes were like a child in a fever that will kill him. What had he learned from the mouse? Endless hunger, and fear of every damn thing. What had the mouse learned from Will? Knowledge of its own insignificance, the number of its predators. Even the glimpses that Will had of time, and distance, were of such great scope that the mouse could not comprehend them. Now the creature was strained to breaking, and Will was twisted up in its destruction.
“Give me your friend,” I said.
He didn’t trust me, or Arak on my shoulder, but he was too frightened to refuse. I cupped my hands, and he let the mouse drop into them.
It bumped at me feebly, not half as strong as Charlie.
I was holding a rodent. I could crush it, easy as kneading bread.
I was holding Will’s companion. A cracked thing, but a thing still rational. Knowing that, could I destroy it?
I put my mouth to my hands as if praying, and spoke to the splinter of reason wedged in its tiny skull. “Small friend. Leave now, and find peace, and let Will go.”
I counted my own heartbeats, up to nine. I felt Arak leaning in to press against me. The dot stopped struggling against my fingers. When it wasn’t moving, it was almost too light for me to feel it.
As Will shuffled up to claim the limp scrap of fur, I looked into his face. He was heartbroken, of course, but was the rest of him intact? Lydia’s face was stone, and her arms were crossed, and the beasts flowed up and down from her shoulders to her feet, trying to soothe her.
I should have said to her: You know why you chose me, you know why you brought me here. What you couldn’t do, I did, quickly and kindly. Friends, are we, now, or are you my enemy?
But I was uncertain. Maybe the mouse had heeded my words, or maybe died of fear or suffocation. I walked out, and Arak took flight, and I followed my love home.
After I buried Arak under my doorstone, I did not wish to cross it.
After a week, she came. She did not knock, but paced across the room in her long gown with many pockets, and set down fresh bread on my table. “If you don’t come to the market hall soon, they will make me Alderman in your place,” she said.
“Excellent, you would be. How could any trader cozen his neighbour, when you have all your spies?” There were protests from her pockets, so I said it again. “That is what you get from rats. Spying. You have ears all over the town.”
“I don’t deny it. But have you known me to misuse it?” She looked me in the eye while the skirts of her gown twitched and billowed.
“In fairness,” I said, “I have not.”
“And that is not what the rats gave me,” she said.
“No. Fellowship, community.”
She smiled. She was magnificent, always, but she scared me. Too alert, too canny. I wondered, whenever I saw her: was she a spectacular shell, hollowed out, grief by grief? Or had my love been right, with her pretty visions of a child harmlessly companioning a flock of songbirds? And now she was a fine young woman, bright and observant. I couldn’t judge it.
“You can’t make me leave that easily.” She unloaded her bag of every kind of vegetable, oat biscuits and a round of cheese. The girl has done well for herself.
“I don’t want all that.”
“The biscuits are not for you.”
From her pocket, she scooped two balls of fur.
After she left, I said to them: “Your names, then, what are they?”
I sighed. “I am not good company.”
I had never before seen a rat shrug. “We’ll talk amongst ourselves,” said Jenny.
• • •
Copyright © 2017 E. Saxey