SWITCH CATS AND LAUGHING CROWS
“Do you regret it?”
Clayton Johnathan didn’t have to turn around to know that Sophia Lucinda had followed him out to the Division. He could smell the tangy musk of her hand-rolled cigarette before she even spoke. The Division was one of his favorite places to think; the place where the never-ending fields melded into pastures of grain. He had left in the darkness of dawn. Now, the sun was high and the shadows were short.
“Regret what?” he said turning to face her. The golden sea of emmer wheat and switchgrass swayed in the breeze that ruffled her boyishly short hair.
Sophia Lucinda stood a few feet away, sizing him up with her lavender eyes. “Regret running away? Regret meeting me?”
“Oh that…” he tapped his chin feigning thought. “Course I regret running into you.”
Sophia’s thin lips pulled into the smirk he knew so well, still gripping the cigarette between her teeth. Clayton’s stomach fluttered as she closed the gap between them. She took a drag and then offered it to him. Her nails were stained yellow from rolling tobacco.
“I quit,” he said. Balancing the cigarette between his slender fingers, he lifted it up to his pale round face. He had met Sophia when he was twelve, eight years ago, and she often teased him that he hadn’t aged a day since. As he breathed in, the smoke burned deep in his chest. His head felt light and dizzy. Trying to stifle a cough, he handed it back to her.
“Me too,” she winked as a switch cat leaped out of its hiding spot in the tall switchgrass. Sophia flinched, grabbing Clayton’s elbow. She didn’t let go as they watched the creature catch a wind current. It’s six webbed spinal extensions protracted from between its shoulders. It floated for a moment before it landed in the tall grass. Only the tuft of fur atop its tail, like a dandelion after bloom, could be seen dancing in the air.
“Switch cats are the worst,” Sophia said stamping out the cigarette butt. Her black boots made her skinny legs appear even smaller.
“I like ‘em,” he shrugged scanning the horizon of the Division with his pale blue eyes.
“You are so from Plentifield,” she reached up to mess with his stick-straight blonde hair, but he swatted her hand away, laughing through his nose. She grabbed hold of him instead and started steering him back towards camp, their fingers interlaced.
“Didn’t that friend of yours have one as a pet?” she asked.
She shook her head, “That is so unnatural! Would you have a laughing crow as a pet? Or a sparkling sprite? They’re wild creatures. Plus, their venom is poisonous.”
“No worse than stinging nettle, besides, Puddle was trained.” He remembered how Puddle would curl up in his lap and purr softly when he scratched under his wings. Puddle never gave him the pitying look the other adults used to give him.
“Trained,” Sophia rolled her eyes as a laughing crow swooped low in front of them letting out its mocking laugh. She shooed it away with a gangly arm. Laughing crows were constantly sniggering and jeering across the skies. It was a sound that all the Entertainers were familiar with, like the sound of the wind, or the nearby river running. They were the sounds of home.
“You’ve been going out to the Division a lot these days,” she said. “and by a lot, I mean every day. It’s almost like you’re looking for something. Or someone…”
He averted his eyes. “I like watching switch cats.”
“Clay, we both know that’s coal’s speech.”
Clayton shrugged. He could see the tents of base camp growing nearer. The thick mess of wheat and grasses were gradually being replaced with stubby witch alder shrubs. Their footsteps broke the brittle branches, releasing the aroma of dark licorice. As they walked through the bramble, their boots crunched and scattered the wilting maroon petals to the ground.
“You know what I think?” she said, “I think you should ask Mama Ta if you can go on the next caravan!”
“Nah,” he said shaking his head. “I never go on the caravans.”
“Well, why not start now? You’re a better musician than anyone at camp and you memorize just about everything you read.”
“Charlie needs me at The Tavern.”
“He could manage.”
Clayton imagined being gone for weeks on end with the Entertainers’ most talented and ambitious members. The ones Mama Ta specially selected once a year to represent her troop. How could he explain to fearless Sophie that a caravan was not his idea of an exciting exploit, but rather, his idea of an undesirable tribulation? At base camp, he was in control.
Canvas peaks grew in frequency as they approached the tent district of base camp. The worn dirt path that had been barely visible in the Division fifteen minutes before was now well defined. The foot-trodden path grew wider until it was legitimate a road. As they walked, the canvas tents were replaced by semi-permanent structures. The shared walls of the haphazard buildings leaned and swayed like the tall grasses around them. Structures were defined by their roofs, which reached and peaked in different heights, shapes, and directions. The multi-color buildings were adorned with red, yellow, and blue pennants hung over the road, strung between windows and rooftops. A mountain of red and white canvas was visible even from the southernmost point of camp. The shadow of the Main Tent christened the road as property of the Entertainers, and by default, Mama Ta.
“Tell me… what were you thinking about out there?”
Clayton locked eyes with Sophia. She chewed on her bottom lip as she tried to read him. He smirked. He didn’t have many talents to pride himself on, but the fact that he could remain private brought him a certain amount of pleasure.
“I guess… sometimes I feel like I gave up too quickly…?”
“You can’t live in the past,” she said. “You needed the Entertainers…”
“I know, I know, it’s just…”
She rolled her eyes. With her free hand, the other still interlaced in Clayton’s, she stuck a fresh cigarette between her lips. With her silver orb lighter, she lit it and offered him the first drag.
“I just wonder, is all,” he said, breathing in. The pleasant sensation rushed to his head again. “I know I got lucky finding the Entertainers, but…”
“But what?” she said taking the cigarette back.
“What if it was different?”
“Life?” she asked, looking at him for confirmation. He nodded. “I won’t lie,” she said, “I think about that sometimes too. I’ve been thinking about that more and more lately.”
“I find that hard to believe. You belong here. Mama Ta always sends you out because you’re a natural!”
“So are you,” she said raising a thick eyebrow at him.
“Well…” he said looking away from her heart-shaped face, his belly fluttering again, “it’s lucky for you I stick around. You’d be a mess without me.” He said it as an ill-disguised joke.
“Yeah right! I saved you, Clayton Johnathan.” She took a defiant drag.
“I like that,” he laughed, squeezing her hand.
“It’s true. You were a scared, stick-thin, blue-eyed little boy when I found you.” She poked him in the ribs which were far too easy to find. “You may be taller and a bit more handsome now, but I bet you weigh the same as you did then, and if it wasn’t for me you mighta been lost forever in those never-ending fields.”
“Sophie, you were just a kid back then too! You’re only three years older than me.”
“Three years and six months,” she corrected him. “And I’ve been a part of this caravan since I was six.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. We’re both lucky we got Mama Ta, aren’t we?”
She shrugged as she polished off the cigarette; the red ring of embers ate up the paper as she inhaled. They walked the rest of the way in silence. When they reached The Tavern, they pulled their hands apart. The warm breeze felt cold on his sweaty palm. He rubbed it against his thick cotton pants that were held up by black leather suspenders.
“Working with Charlie today?” she asked.
“’Course. What else would I do?”
She shrugged. “Who knows, maybe your name will be on the Call?” she turned and started making her way towards the apothecary without a backwards glance.
“What do you mean, maybe? What did you do?” he called after her seeking reassurance as anxiety weaved its way into his belly. When she didn’t answer he turned his gaze to The Tavern’s wooden sign. The gold leaf letters were peeling away from the weathered wood, and Clayton felt as hopeful about his future as the sign looked.
CHAPTER TWO Excerpt
THE BREWERS ASSISTANT
The note Clayton and Sophia had ended on left a sour taste in his mouth, or maybe it was just stale tobacco? He swallowed at the lump in his throat and turned his thoughts to work, trying to push the Call from his mind.
The Tavern’s double doors swung open. They continued to swing and creak filling the one-room bar with an eerie sound if it wasn’t so familiar. Clayton wove his way through the maze of mismatched tables. The chairs stood tall and regal atop them, waiting patiently for the barkeep Manfri to set them onto the floor. Clayton was hours too early, but he liked The Tavern this time of day. Soft yellow light trickled through the small windows catching dust in midair. The stale smell of bread and ale hung heavy in the room, making it feel warmer.
Clayton moved behind the thick oak counter towards a narrow doorway. He stooped through it and was transported to the back of the house; a high-ceilinged room full of barrels, bottles, and machinery. The ceiling was crowned with a large circular skylight. He blinked twice adjusting to the noon light that poured in from above. He breathed in the sour smell of hops and headed towards the small desk in the back to wait for Charlie.
The desk and chair were made of imported Nuurian wood. Clayton settled into the well-worn chair and faced the desk. Items were scattered across the table, all of it covered in a thin layer of dust. He picked up Charlie’s broken flutter mechanic: a small motorized hummingbird with bulbous eyes used to send voice messages across Delkhii. With the pad of his thumb, Clayton stroked its belly clockwise but the hinged beak hung slack and its eyes stayed dark. He set it down next to a many-geared clock partially buried beneath a scroll of parchment. Lifting the paper, he checked the time. Charlie and Manfri wouldn’t come for several hours. Clayton debated going back to his tent, but there was nothing there aside from dirty dishes and clothes in need of washing. He thought about walking back to the Division but decided against it. The Division held nothing more than switch cats, laughing crows, and memories.
Clayton opened the top desk drawer. It was empty except for scraps of paper, old sap gum, and the pocket watch he thought he’d lost. He wound it up, snapped the lid shut, and tucked it into his vest pocket. He closed the drawer and thought back to three years ago when he had taken this job seriously. On his first day, Charlie had brought him to the desk and emptied the contents from the first drawer into the third saying, “This one’s yours.” It had been simple and uneventful, but to Clayton, it had felt like an initiation. A neat stack of quills and parchment used to fill the drawer, but his photographic memory allowed him to remember anything Charlie taught without ever needing to write it down, making his supplies, useless.
The bottom desk drawer opened with some difficulty; it was full to the brim with hordes of notes, a rare book titled A Brief History of Grain in Delkhii, and half a loaf of bread that was turning blue-green in the corners. Clayton debated thumbing through the book, but didn’t want to disrupt anything that could be lurking underneath the mess. The bottom drawer closed with a puff of dust tickling Clayton's nose. Resisting a sneeze, he noticed a small mark on the middle drawer. “This one’s jammed,” he remembered Charlie saying years ago.
Looking closer now, his round nose inches away, he could smell the sweet mustiness of old wood. Pressing the tip of his finger against it, he felt the wood grain ripple in tiny hard waves where it had been stamped with a hot iron. The brand looked like a small flame inside a circle resting upon a set of hands.
Clayton’s heart quickened ever so slightly. The thought of a secret clue on a secret drawer was too good to be true. He felt like he was suddenly plunged into a story; he had to open the middle drawer to discover what this symbol was.
He tried the handle but his newfound desire didn’t give him any leeway. He took a black feather quill and tried to jam it in the small space between the drawer and desk. The quill broke inside the small gap, and he proceeded to break the following three in desperation. The more he tried, the more invested he felt. He lifted the desk up, gripping both sides, and began violently shaking it. Plumes of dust and paper cascaded onto the floor.
His hand slipped and the desk fell on his foot with a heavy wham that echoed across the high-ceilinged room. He cursed under his breath and was shaking his foot as if he could shake the pain away when he saw that the middle drawer had wedged out. The pain in his foot evaporated as he rushed to pull it open. The wood had warped, and he could only move it a few inches, but it was enough to reach his hand inside. It was empty except for a piece of paper, neatly folded into a perfect square. Clayton placed it in his palm, it was no bigger than a witch adler bloom. The intricate folds were meticulous geometric triangles folded in on one another. It was too beautiful to open, like a wedding cake too pretty to cut. Instead, Clayton slipped the secret note into his pocket watch. Trying to close the drawer proved just as difficult as opening it and he was kicking it closed when Charlie walked in.
Chapter Twenty-Eight Excerpt
NUZI TELLS A STORY
“Ai. It’s the secret of where the Nuurian people come from.” Nuzi said as he puffed on his pipe. Cece’s ears waggled happily as her master scratched her head. “The Nuurian people do not come from Delkhii. At least not from Delkhii soil, but from Delkhii water. You see, a long time ago our world was even smaller than it is today. There was no Awakening, no Entertainers, no maps, no trade. The people of Nuur began to dwindle, and they feared their time on this world was ending.
“Then, one day, there were a new people on the beach. People with pale skin, thick black curly hair, and big black eyes. They were stunning. Like the surface of Lake Zalgaas on a stormy day. An’ it helped that they all showed up stark naked.” Nuzi chuckled to himself and inhaled deeply from his pipe. The smell of tobacco reminded Clayton of Sophie for a fleeting moment.
“Now,” Nuzi started again, “the people of Nuur feared these new strangers. Children ran crying to their mas and their pas. Fisherman didn’t go out on their boats that day. The people hid in the pub, for there was only one pub back then and they talked.
“Some rumored that the strangers came from the fire spirit herself. A gift of life. But that hardly made sense because the fire spirit doesn’t give gifts, she takes, and so it surely couldn’t be from her.
“Some rumored that the strangers came from the deepest shadow of the tallest mountain high in the north. For the shadow is rumored to be death itself and though the strangers were ghostly pale, they were very much alive. And so they couldn’t have come from the shadow in the mountain.
“Some people said they came from the trees. The trees gave shade, air, and their roots held the world in its place. But the people decided that the trees, while tall, strong, and full of secrets, were too busy with the forest creatures, and could never have bestowed human life.
“People began to whisper about the water, Zalgaas, for it gave life too. It gave them water to drink. Water that was so pure it healed most ailments. Zalgaas gave water so clean it made the crops grow full every season and kept the soil black and rich. Zalgaas gave them the fish they ate and no matter how much they fished, the lake never ran out. If Zalgaas could do all of that, surely it could bring them new blood.
“‘But how could it do that?’ the skeptics asked. ‘How could the water make mortals?’
There are always skeptics you see.”
Clayton noticed Nuzi raise his eyebrows at Tom as he said this before he continued.
“There was a wise man, who had fished on Zalgaas his whole long life. Everyday since he was a boy, he rowed out in the morning and came back at night. He had seen a secret so very long ago, and now it was finally time to tell it.
‘There are seals in the water,’ the old man said. And he described a creature that had dark slippery skin, huge dark eyes hooded in lashes. ‘The fresh water seals can turn into people.’
“An uproar broke out in the pub. Exclamations of impossibilities and lies. No one could agree and after many hours of fierce debate they took their torches, for it had grown dark while they talked, and they went out to the shore.”
Nuzi paused to smoke again. Smoke curled up into the starry sky above.
“When they got to the shore,” he said leaning forward, “the people were gone.”
“Gone? But what happened to them?” Clayton asked while Tom stoked the fire. A flame caught hold of a fresh branch exposing them for a fleeting burst of light. The fields were completely dark and their faces swam in the yellow light.
“Wait sonny, the story’s not over yet. Now a week later, the old man died. His son, now parentless, rowed his father’s body out onto Zalgaas to give his father a Nuurian fisherman’s burial.
“When the son came back, he was not alone. In his boat he had a woman. A woman with dark hair and huge black eyes.
“You would think the Nuurian’s would have questioned him, but they were too afraid of the woman, and so they let them be. She married the old man’s son, and they bore nine children. All of the children had the look of a Nuurian, strawberry curls and blue eyes, with freckles across their nose and cheeks. All of the children, except one. The ninth.
“She was a selkie, his bride. Part woman and part seal. Her children were all Nuur folk, except the ninth. The boy, with his ma’s same dark hair and eyes was rumored to be a selkie too.
“Brides from the sea started to appear, and husbands too. More children were born with dark hair and eyes. Though the Nuur folk would have died without them, they never got over their fear of them selkies. But saved they were by the seals. Saved by the great water, Zalgaas.”
Nuzi emptied the ashes of his extinguished pipe in the fire.