It certainly has been a while since I last made a post. I had many good intentions, but was very swiftly overwhelmed with everything I wanted to do and it inevitably led me to a downward spiral in which almost nothing got done.
But life is a series of falling down and getting back up again and here I am, getting back up.
And to begin, here is a small update of what I have been working on.
Most of last year was dedicated to Sculpture. Primarily, I was making bonsai pots out of concrete, some more artistically leaning than others. I set up an Etsy shop and even sold a few, but it was a venture that came with a few problems that I’ve found hard to reconcile. Concrete is heavy. It’s also pretty fragile. The weight makes for really high shipping fees and when you have a product that needs to ship all the way from Australia, well, it gets expensive.
I did also experience breakages on items that I thought were really well wrapped. I seriously underestimated the amount of cushioning my delicate, chunky, babies would need. Luckily, those were sent to my parents and I didn’t have any unfortunate customer care situations to manage. It did however show me how easily I could end up with an unfortunate mishap.
I do love sculpture and I thoroughly enjoy mixing it up with bonsai and other plants, but after giving it a year, I think its safe to say that it’s an activity best left as a hobby for now.
So where does that leave me and my Fine Arts degree? Spiralling in self doubt and existential dread. I did a lot of that. It seriously messed with my productivity. It took a stern pep talk from myself, and a really long time, to pull myself out of that mess and come up with a plan. A project. Something.
Enter my saviour: Alice in Wonderland.
I decided to choose a book, any book, and make a cover illustration for it. No pressure. No time limit. Just me and the art and however long it takes. I am so glad that I chose Alice.
This painting has giving me my confidence back. It’s bright and colourful and it makes me happy. When I look at it, it reminds me that yes I can do this. I do make good art.
And thanks to Alice I have a sudden wealth of new ideas just waiting to be painted. Of course, I need to finish her still. She has a good couple of hours left to go, but they’re hours I’m excited to get to.
I haven’t taken a tonne of progress shots, but I will be sharing what I have in a future post.
Last year I attempted to do another round of 12 short stories in 12 months. I got 6 stories into it before I realised it was taking too much of my time and seriously impacting the progress on my current novel WIP. It was a really tough call to make, but I made the decision to quit the challenge half way and save what was left of my crumbling sanity.
With the short stories no longer a priority I threw myself into Draft Two. It took a lot of self bribery (in the way of chocolate and clothes) but I got. It. Done.
Unfortunately, it still wasn’t done done.
I am currently deep into edits of draft three and have made it to 50000 words. It is going slower than I had hoped and with the current state of the world, I am finding it increasingly difficult to get much done. Not to mention that I have suddenly become a quarantine-Home-school mom and what time I did have has suddenly shrunk to almost nothing.
But the book is coming along. I am making progress. I even have an excerpt to prove it. 😉
“What does it do?” Autumn heard herself ask. She could not look away from the candle. She couldn’t stop the gaping pit of dread that grew inside of her.
She knew what the candle did. Of course she did. This was a gift like all the other gifts, made to fix her. Only, Zanele had never given her a gift before. Zanele had never even hinted that she cared about Autumn’s lack of manifestation. Zanele was a safe witch.
But not anymore. Just like the rest of them, Zanele was here presenting a gift. Like the rest of them, Zanele wanted her to change.
Zanele began to explain the magic and the more she spoke, the more the pit of dread grew.
“At it’s core, it’s a spell of waking, but there’s a lot more to it. It has threads for breaking barriers and some others to uncover hidden things. And the last bit, the really tricky one, is a thread of life giving. It took me months to work out the intricacies, otherwise I might have gotten this to you sooner.”
This was complicated magic. Difficult magic. Not entirely sanctioned magic. Waking? Life giving? Autumn swallowed.
“I can’t take this.”
Autumn reached out and pushed the candle away from herself. Just the brief touch made her feel like she might throw up.
“Of course you can.” Zanele pushed the candle back. “I’m giving it to you.”
Autumn’s eyes shot up to Zanele’s. She stared, wide eyed. “Is this even… legal?”
“I might be treading some fine lines but, “ Zanele shrugged. “This is for your Affinity, I don’t think anyone would object.” She leaned in close then, a spark of laughter back in her eyes. “Just don’t light it in a graveyard. You might wake up the inhabitants and then we will be in trouble.”
Autumn’s eyes went wide. “It can do that?”
Zanele pushed away from the counter, she laughed. “Not without a very elaborate spell, it can’t.”
Autumn was not convinced. She stared at the candle, horror plain on her face. Zanele spoke softly.
“It’s fine, Autumn. Light it, focus on your core. The only thing that will awaken is your Affinity. I promise you that.” She pressed her shirt straight. “But I do need to get going. Message me if you need to talk more, okay?”
Lucy woke slowly. Sleep clung to her mind like warm toffee. She pulled at her consciousness and watched as it came toward her. It was a reluctant thing, kind of Lucy-shaped, and it was knee deep in a thick, slow moving stream. The Lucy-shaped-thing moved against the flow. It wasn’t making much ground. The sticky sweetness curled and hugged and pulled. It would be easy, so easy, to let go and drift away on that gooey warmth.
A soft “prrp” sounded in Lucy’s ear. Her eyes fluttered, but remained closed. The little “prrp” sounded again, this time followed by a fluffy head butt. Lucy rolled over onto her side and reached out with her fingers. She found fur and a string of frantic purrs followed. The cat was not content with head scratches, however, and kept pacing a small circle, tail, head and sides taking turns to buffer Lucy in the face. She crinkled her nose against the onslaught and pushed herself up.
“Mkay, Mags.. I’m… up… I’m…”
Lucy blinked her eyes. It was still dark. Very dark. Yawning, she reached over to the side table and picked up her phone. The screen lit up and Lucy was momentarily blinded by the light, but then fuzzy outlines became crisp digits and Lucy frowned.
“2:13? You woke me up at 2:13?”
The fluff ball responded by pressing himself tight against Lucy’s side. Her fingers reached into fur again. Little purrs reverberated fast against her skin, but beneath that and between those rhythmic rolls was a slight tremor. A stuttered shiver that didn’t belong.
A dull thump sounded from somewhere beyond the bedroom. Lucy’s eyes shot toward the door. Not that she could make out anything beyond vague shapes. Her brain was still fogged with sleep and her eyes had not adjusted to the dark, not with her glowing phone still in hand.
“Blue?” Lucy’s voice was little more than a whisper. A second cat jumped up onto the bed. Blue stayed near the edge, crouched low and staring into the shadows.
The cat spoke to Lucy as clear as if it were a normal conversation, except Lucy was the only one who could hear it. That revelation had come as a shock. She’d assumed everyone could talk to cats and her parents had assumed she was just a kid with a vivid imagination. It had only been later that Lucy had realised her relationship with cats was more than a little strange. And later still when she realised that the world was a lot more than a little strange.
Another thump came from outside and then the tinny thrum of a pot lid clattering to the floor.
Maggie pressed tighter still. Lucy looked to Blue. “Do you know what it is?”
An Unnatural. In her apartment. At this time of morning? Great. Just absolutely, bloody, great. Lucy weighed her options. She could turn the bedside lamp on, but not only would that momentarily blind her and the cats, it would also alert whatever that thing rummaging through her kitchen was to her sudden change of consciousness. If she knew what it was, she may be willing to take that risk, but Unnatural was a broad term and Blue did not use it lightly. The Unnatural could be anything. Lucy cradled Maggie to her chest and directed her attention back to Blue.
Blue gave the softest of prrps and then dropped from the bed. She crept from the room on silent paws. Seconds passed, the kind that felt like hours, and then Lucy’s mind was filled with Blue again, only this time it wasn’t words, but imagery. It was odd to see through the eyes of a cat, like a kind of grainy black and white film. It always took a moment for Lucy’s brain to catch up and begin translating the reels that the felines shared. Lucy was still adjusting to the vertigo of being so low to the ground when Blue peered around a corner and the Unnatural came into view. It was small, maybe around knee height and most certainly humanoid. It waddled on stubby legs, fat feet pattering against cold tiles. Long, monkey arms reached into a cupboard and rummaged through a mismatched collection of plastic containers. The body was covered in a haphazard spattering of bristle like hair. Blue edged closer and Lucy leaned forward with the motion. The bed creaked. The creature spun. And Lucy got a full view of crinkled white skin, glowing orb eyes and a mouth that split into a wide, toothy grin. It could only be one thing.
The creature laughed, a gut wrenching cackle.
Lucy broke contact with Blue. She threw her feet out of bed and flicked on the light. Maggie yelped as Lucy plopped him on the floor and then he secured himself to her ankles as only a cat can. It would have been a problem if Lucy hadn’t made a point of learning how to move with a terrified fluff ball attached to her feet. She grabbed a pair of short sticks from beside her bed and stormed from the room, flicking lights on as she went.
Blue was on the kitchen counter, back bent and hackles raised. She was spitting viciously. The Unnatural danced beneath her. It hissed and spit and blew raspberries. All of his actions a mockery of Blue. All of it followed by that spine grating cackle.
Lucy raised her sticks and banged them together. The Tokoloshe turned to face her. He stuck out his tongue and then laughed.
“Silly cat lady!” He looked at Maggie. “Scaredy cat lady!”
Then he turned back to Blue and threw something. Blue shrieked and bolted from the counter. She came to stand beside Lucy, hackles still raised and eyes shining with murder. Lucy held out one of her sticks and advanced on the devil. “Visiting hours are over, little man.”
The Tokoloshe smiled. It was a horrid, gap toothed thing filled with bleeding gums and rotted teeth. “I’m not done here,” he said.
Lucy bared her teeth and poked out with her stick. The Tokoloshe jumped back. “Haai man! Voetsek with that stick!”
Lucy advanced again. This time the Tokoloshe backed away. He had no real power here and he knew it, but still, that ugly grin remained plastered to his face.
“You want to stick around and see?”
Lucy flicked her eyes down to Maggie and the Tokoloshe followed her gaze. Maggie was puffed to twice his size, and managed a small spit, but for all of that, he still looked like a terrified kitten and not at all like the threat Lucy dangled in the air. But the Tokoloshe understood. They had all heard about the cat, Magma. They knew what could happen if Lucy dared unleash him.
The Tokoloshe looked back at Lucy. This time the smile could not hide the fear creeping into his eyes.
The Tokoloshe grinned. He shrugged. “Maybe another time, heh?” With a click of his fingers, he erupted into a cloud of dust and was gone.
Lucy’s arms sunk to her side and she let out a slow breath. Her eyes panned the one bedroom apartment. The kitchen was an absolute wreck. Most of the cupboards had been opened and the contents spilled across the floor. Bags of meal and rice and sugar had split open. Broken glass lay amongst the wreck. At least the Tokoloshe had not made it to her fridge. It was enough of a nightmare job to clean this without adding food to the mix. Lucy turned. Her living area was even worse. It wasn’t so much a living room as it was her workspace. One side had her day job, easels and canvas and paint and the other held her workbench and all of the tools necessary for her after hours engagements. The canvases had been thrown over. Pages from her sketchbooks torn out and littered across the floor. The abhorrent creature had even tossed her paint tubes to the floor and then proceeded to step on them. Splatters of paint and wildly colourful footprints tracked across the whole floor. And then the other side of it. Books and texts and vials of herbs and tinctures. How on earth had Lucy slept through all of this destruction?
She walked the few steps to her workbench and sank into the single chair in the space. Maggie hopped up onto her lap and Lucy’s fingers went to his ears. Her eyes glazed over and she shook her head.
“What in the hell was that?”
A Tokoloshe? In her apartment? No Unnatural had ever been so bold as to come at her in her own space. Heck, they hadn’t even been brave enough to face her in broad daylight. Not before those fairies last week, at any rate. And things had been ramping up, hadn’t they? Work in the Supernatural had been picking up dramatically, in volume and strangeness. Spirits following living relatives to work. That shared dream between an entire residential block. And now a Tokoloshe ramshacking her apartment, looking for something. For what?
Lucy had no clue. All she knew was that something was wrong. Something was horribly wrong.
She scratched behind Maggie’s ears. “Any idea’s boy?”
Maggie mewled and pushed his head deeper into her fingers. Blue did the cat equivalent of rolling her eyes.
He could have helped.
He could have helped better.
Lucy shook her head. It was no use arguing with Blue about what Maggie did and didn’t do. The threat of him had been enough. Forcing the poor boy to erupt into a ball of fiery vengeance wouldn’t have made any difference. He hated doing it. Better to spare him the anguish. Lucy ignored Blue and went back to the problem at hand.
“I don’t suppose you know what’s going on?”
Something is wrong
“Yes, Blue. I think we all know that. The point is, what?”
The balance is off.
Lucy knew that too. She was just about to voice those thoughts when a shadow coalesced on the workbench before her. A midnight black Maine Coon formed from the billowing mass. He stepped forward, fully intent on a quick nose-kiss, but then he saw the mess and paused.
Hades sat down. His tail flicked.
It’s true then. I had hoped they were just rumours.
It was taken from the Underworld and brought here. Someone has opened the box.
Lucy swallowed. “What box?” But Lucy already knew what box. She didn’t need to ask. She didn’t need to hear Hades’ answer, because Lucy already knew.
Men and women stood in a line. It stretched across barren land and ended, quite abruptly, at a white tent. No birds flew overhead. No creatures scuttled for undergrowth. There was no undergrowth. Only the dirt. Only the harsh glare of the sun.
Gabriella shuffled forward. The man in front of her disappeared into the tent. Soon, it would be her turn. She waited three breathes and then Gabriella stepped out of the harsh light and into the dim interior.
Before Gabriella could prepare herself, a syringe plunged deep into the tissue of her upper arm. Gabriella sucked in a breath. Dark green liquid left the vial and seeped into her veins. The syringe wielding woman ushered her forward.
Another woman waited. She pressed a rapid succession of devices to Gabriella’s person and then, satisfied that everything was as it should be, she nodded.
“Fully synthesised. Please move forward.”
A shattered cry echoed from behind and Gabriella clenched her eyes shut. Sometimes the body rejected the serum, but that was only the first of a list of things that could go wrong. Gabriella moved toward the next station. A man waited for her.
“Arms forward. Palms up.”
Gabriella complied. A needle jabbed into her thumb. Pain jolted and something new awoke. A tiny lick of flame spurted from her hands. The man recoiled, but Gabriella stared in wonder.
A Firesage then. The military was not what Gabriella had intended, but it would do. Firesages were granted asylum.
The man gestured her forward. “Gate seven. Report to Commandant Alyssa on arrival.”
The portal was a mass of swirling darkness. Gabriella shuddered at the thought of stepping through, but there was nothing left for her here. She shed one last tear for her dying world and then, Gabriella stepped into her future.
Babalwa pushed her fingers into the pile of clothing that lay on her bed. She grabbed fabric, scrunched tight and then threw the unsuspecting garment into a large canvas bag. Her hand reached out again and repeated the process. Back and forth she went, grabbing at a shirt, or a skirt, or a pair of pants, balling the clothes up and then smashing them into the bag. The clothing didn’t deserve this kind of treatment. Babalwa liked her clothes, but she had been holding her rage back for what felt like an eternity and now that she was finally able to let go, to feel everything she was feeling without risk of hurting anyone, Babalwa could not make herself stop. The bag was half full already, a wrinkled sea of colours no more organised than the jumbled pile beside it. This was no way to pack a bag. She was going to run out of space. She knew this. She was going to have to start over.
But it made no difference. Her hand flew out again. She found fabric and clenched tight, but instead of the familiar feel of soft compliance, Babalwa felt little dots of resistance digging into her fingers and all along the fleshy cushioning of her palm. She paused. She swallowed hard and then, ever so slowly, Babalwa opened her fist. Bright orange fabric cascaded from her open hand. It was adorned with thousands of tiny beads. Black and yellow, they danced in thick lines and bold circles along the length and breadth of the skirt. Babalwa fought back tears. Most of her wardrobe was of a more modern style, but she had chosen traditional dress for her graduation. She had been so happy wearing the Umbhaco. She had felt so proud.
But that was before the final results had come through. Before she saw the class rankings. She had not ranked first. She had not even ranked second. Babalwa had come third. And third was not good enough. Third would not take her to Mushengo.
Babalwa laid the skirt down and began flattening it out. Her body shuddered as the first tears trickled silently down her cheeks.
How had it gone so wrong?
It had been her and Trish trading places for first and second. Always the two of them egging each other on to be better, go further. Always them planning and dreaming and stretching toward Mushengo. They were the best. They had always been the best. None of the other students had ever come close.
But now, when it had mattered most, Richard (Richard of all people!) had taken first place and the Royal internship that came with it. Second got an internship too, but not third. There was no prize for coming in third.
Babalwa rubbed her eyes and looked across to Trish’s bed. A pastel bedspread dotted with soft pink roses, and curving wreaths of lavender lay smooth and quiet against the mattress. Posters and photos still lined the walls and trinkets full of memories waited on the bedside table. Trish had not started packing yet. She was probably waiting for Babalwa to leave and Babalwa couldn’t blame her for it. If their places had been traded, if Babalwa had been the one going and Trish the one to stay behind, would she have been able to face her roommate?
A sob heaved through Babalwa and shattered against her lips.
It was supposed to be the both of them! Today was supposed to be happy!
And Babalwa should be happy. She had a Masters in Draconic Sciences! She should be proud. Her parents were proud. But Babalwa hadn’t spent the last six years of study pushing herself so that she could return to her home village. She wasn’t meant to tend to pocket dragons, to mere house pets. Her future was in the Royal Stables. Her future was Battle Dragons and working beasts!
Her future had collapsed under the smirk of an entitled boy.
Babalwa closed her eyes. Her final practical played vividly in her mind. She had been given a young Giwe dragon. The golden scales, interspersed with deep, black rosetta’s, had shuddered at her touch. Her task was to give the dragon a check-up and to remove a large thorn that had embedded itself in the youngling’s soft underbelly. Babalwa had been so intent on securing the swishing tail and removing the danger of the lethal, barbed tip, that she had forgotten to consider the Dragon’s front end. Young Giwe dragons had a strong, playful streak and it took months of training to rid them of their propensity to nip. When Babalwa had realised her mistake, she had acted swiftly to muzzle the beast, but not before teeth had sunk into flesh. It was a minor wound, but still deep enough to cause lingering pain whenever Babalwa moved her arm, a sharp reminder of a mistake that had cost her fifteen points. It wasn’t enough to unseat Richard, his final thesis had been near perfect, but it was enough to put Trish ahead.
Babalwa cursed herself for even having the thought. It had been Richard who had stolen her spot. Not Trish. She couldn’t let herself think badly of Trish.
As if summoned, Trish burst into the room. Her body swung around the door frame. Leather soles squeaked against well polished floor boards. She swung her arms wide and grabbed Babalwa into a fierce, gorilla armed hug.
Babalwa hadn’t had a chance to ready herself for the attack. Her arms were squished tight and straight against her sides, he face pressed awkwardly into Trish’s shoulder. And Trish was bouncing and wriggling and laughing.
“Trish, what…” Babalwa tried to choke out the question, but Trish’s voice thundered over hers.
“We did it Bubbles! We did it!”
Babalwa shook her head. “No Trish. Not me. Just you.” Babalwa tried to extract herself from the death grip, but Trish was strong. How did she have any right to be this strong? Trish laughed. She grabbed Babalwa by the shoulders and pushed her so that a small pocket of space opened between them. Trish’s eyes were sparkling. She looked deeply at Babalwa.
“We’re going. The both of us. Richard’s been expelled!”
Then Trish was pulling Babalwa into another embrace. Babalwa’s cheek smashed into Trish’s chest and she felt herself being rocked violently from side to side. Babalwa pushed herself away from Trish and this time, Trish let her go. Straightening herself up, she tried to sort through the jumbled mess in her brain.
“Yes! The moron cheated! He used his daddy’s money and paid someone else to write it! And as much as he’s had good marks, they were never quite that good. It was suspicious enough that the university decided to investigate it. And investigate it they did!”
Trish gesticulated wildly as she talked, but now she put her arms by her side. She grinned at her friend. “This is it, Bubbles. We’re living the dream. Are you ready to become a Royal. Friggen. Dragon keeper?!”
Babalwa couldn’t help the shriek that spilled from her lips. She couldn’t help the bounce that formed in her legs. She threw herself toward Trish and the girls embraced again. This time they both hugged and they both squealed. Because this time they were both going. Mushengo was waiting.
The caravan arrived in Mushengo early in the afternoon, plenty of time, Babawla had thought, to get cleaned up and start at the Royal stables. But their escort had insisted that they rest up. The trek to the capital was four days of flat grasslands, dirt roads and not much else. They were most certainly tired and in dire need of a long bath and a warm meal. Work, their escort had said, could wait another day. Babalwa disagreed. She felt like she had spent the last six years waiting. She couldn’t wait any longer. It was the same for Trish. They tried to relax, to soak their dust coated bodies in the expansive bathhouse, but soon, both women were scrubbing vigorously just to have an excuse to move. And what Babawla was sure must have been one of the best meals she had ever tasted was simply sustenance, Her mind too full to concern itself with something as mundane as flavour. When night came and Babalwa let her travel-weary muscles rest atop the sheets, her eyes refused to close. She and Trish willed the night away putting words to the dreams that floated just out of reach.
“I want to see a Dlovu in full battle armour!”
“I can’t wait to meet the Elder Keeper Nonhle!”
Eventually the room quieted and sleep came. In the morning, they rose with the sun.
“This is the tack room for all the basic housekeeping tools. If you need something for a job, you will most likely find it in here.”
Babalwa let her eyes roam the massive room. It was filled with everything, from the most basic items, like feed buckets and shovels, right down to the most expansive claw-clipper collection she had ever seen. It was going to take a while to learn where everything in this store room belonged. It was going to take her a while to learn where anything in the entire stables belonged. Babalwa had known it would be big, but the sheer size of the grounds overwhelmed her. There were over one hundred individual stalls, thirty massive arenas for training and as if that weren’t enough, a massive, man-built cliff face towered far above them. It served as a rookery for breeding pairs and a refuge for retired dragons.
A dragon keeper by the name of Akhona had been showing them around for the past three hours. Her mannerisms were short and clipped and she left very little room for casual conversation. As much as the tour had been fascinating, Babalwa was eager to part ways with Akhona. She was ready to begin the real work.
She turned from her inspection of the clippers and heard Trish ask, “Will we be meeting the Elder Keeper soon?”
“Elder Nonhle does not concern herself with apprentices. For the duration your internship you will be reporting to and working under me. Now…”
Akhona grabbed two shovels from a nearby wall. “Stalls thirteen through twenty need to be mucked out. Find me at Arena Three when you’re done.”
Hours later and ankle deep in muck, Trish started laughing.
“What’s so funny about being drenched in dragon poop?” Babalwa wrinkled her nose. Trish grinned.
“It’s the dream, Bubs! Six years of gruelling study, finally being put to good use!”
Trish made a face at the state of her hair and then she started laughing once more. Babalwa couldn’t help but join in.
The crowd was a restless beast. Feet pounded on floorboards. Last minute bets rang out. Tension oozed down the walls and through the air. An oily serpent gathering every heckle and cry to itself, pulsing and growing and filling what space the jostling bodies could not occupy.
Taggart sat below all of this. He was in a dimly lit room, the only source of light was a bulb dangling on a length of electric chord. It jerked and shuddered with every footfall. Light flickered against the bare walls. Bits of dirt jostled free from the wooden slats above and danced around Taggart like some poor man’s confetti. His eyes were closed and he sat on a concrete bench. It was nothing more than a cold, grey slab. The chill pressed against his naked skin and into his muscles and bones. His feet rested on hard packed earth. Distantly, Taggart could hear his name weaving through the crowd. Distantly, he could feel fingers squeezing his shoulders, but Taggart was in a far off place and he wasn’t ready to come back. Not yet.
“Tag, come on boy.”
The voice floated down to Taggart. It plucked at him, an echo getting louder, digging into him and pulling, pulling.
Taggart let out a slow breath. He opened his eyes. Dull eyes, like the cracked surface of a dried riverbed. Or a potter’s clay still waiting to be glazed. But they would change soon. Just like the rest of him.
The fingers kept digging into Taggart’s flesh, a rhythmic and urgent motion. Taggart rolled his shoulders back. It was his way of letting his Keeper, Kabeer, know that he had surfaced. Taggart didn’t want to talk. The words would cut through his focus. They would shatter the fragile calm that he had constructed over the last hour.
Kabeer released his hold on Taggart. There was a loud clap as the Keeper’s hands came together. Taggart let the noise roll over his body.
“Ah! There’s my boy!”
Kabeer stepped around and leaned his face into Taggart’s.
Kabeer’s was an old face. A grizzled face, lined and pock marked. Grey stubble covered his cheeks and a thick scar ran against the line of his jaw. There was a slight stoop to his body where age had taken his strength and gravity was pulling him down, but Kabeer fought back. You could see it in the clench of his jaw and in the spark of his eyes. His body may be falling to the ravages of time, but his mind would not. He stared at Taggart. Burning blue eyes piercing into flat brown.
“Are you ready, boy?”
Taggart nodded. It was the only acceptable answer.
Kabeer’s lips stretched and parted to reveal yellowed teeth. A side effect from the almost constant use of tobacco. Taggart could smell it on the old man’s hair and clothes. A stale cloud formed when Kabeer exhaled. It was a wonder the pipe wasn’t currently stuck between his lips. As if sensing the thought, Kabeer stepped back and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a dark, red pipe along with a bag of dried leaves. His fingers danced a familiar routine across the worn wood and into the folds of the little packet. His eyes did not leave Taggart.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get at it, boy. It’s time to let the Beastie out.”
Taggart stared at his keeper for just a moment longer. He watched pipe meet lips and smoke curdle into the room. And then Taggart let go.
It started in his eyes. Always his eyes. The mud cracked and a burning amber flooded into the open space, pushing and drowning the brown away. His pupils shuddered. Some unseen force pulled and pushed till the black spheres became diamonds. The shift rippled down his spine and Taggart folded into himself. He dropped from the bench. Joints popped. Muscles tore. Heat seared across his skin.
Taggart was silent through it all. It hurt. Oh gods it hurt. He was ripped apart and sewn back together again and again. Of course it hurt.But it was a familiar pain. A constant in his life. Not like the first time. Never like the first time. Taggart took the pain. He gave into the shift. He let himself become.
A shiver rippled across Taggart’s new skin. It was thick and grey and covered in hard, bristle-like hairs. He had a tail now, barbed and deadly. The tip glistened with the promise of the poison inside. A ruff of a mane started between pointed ears and travelled toward a dip in his back. He stood on all fours, much bigger than he had been only moments before. Kabeer stood beside him, barely at a height with Taggart’s shoulders, but even still, Taggart was small for a Beastie. He didn’t see it as a flaw.
Taggart raised his snout and sniffed at the air. Thick gobs of drool hung from a row of razor teeth. He shook his head and flexed his paws. Kabeer smacked Taggart’s side. Taggart growled softly. He needed a moment, just a moment, to get used to this form. Kabeer was always impatient.
“We don’t have all day, boy.”
If it was strange for Kabeer to call a grown man, boy, it was even stranger for the old man to say it to a Beastie that could rip him to shreds in mere seconds. Taggart didn’t dwell on the thought. He didn’t have space for petty concerns. He had a job to do and he would do it well.
With a final shake of his head, Taggart strode into the tunnel and emerged onto the arena floor.
The crowd erupted.
Taggart gave them no heed. The people that came to watch these fights were nothing more than bloodthirsty scum too scared to get their own hands dirty. They’d sit up there, protected by money and status. And they’d look down at Taggart and at whatever other Beastie had been sent into the pit and they’d watch them tear each other apart. They didn’t deserve his attention and if not for the debts he owed, Taggart would not be their entertainment.
The ground shook. Taggart fixed his eyes to the tunnel opposite his. Growls and thuds echoed from the darkness beyond. A hush descended on the crowd. It was a new fighter, at least, new to Taggart. He did not recognise the name, but whoever and whatever was coming to face Taggart, it was colossal.
It seemed for a moment that the entire space held it’s breath. Only the pounding of those massive feet against the dirt and the roars of that thing filled the space. And then the Beastie exploded onto the sand.
Dirt scattered into the air. The Beastie blasted a circuit around the arena. It growled. It roared. It stood up on it’s hind legs and pounded at it’s chest. The crowd was a mess of shrill delirium. The Beastie was giving them exactly what they wanted. Exactly what Taggart refused to give. It was a sore point for Kabeer that Taggart refused to show boat. That the crowd so often threw their support at his opposition. But Kabeer had no room to complain. Not when Taggart kept his purse full. It was the win that mattered. Not the spectacle.
Taggart kept silent watch as his opponent continued the wild performance.
While Taggart’s Beastie looked like something crossed between a boar and a hound, this Beastie was a Gorilla through and through. A massive, hairy primate that could crush Taggart in one hand. Wicked fangs descended from it’s jaws and muscles bulged from every limb. Deadly, for sure, but if this pre-fight performance told Taggart anything it was that this fighter was erratic.
A deafening buzz sounded across the arena and the crowd fell silent. The Gorilla turned to face Taggart and without warning, it stormed at him. The fight had begun.
Taggart sidestepped the first charge easily. The gorilla turned with him and charged again. This time, Taggart moved toward his opponent. He ducked beneath one meaty arm and sliced his claws against the other Beasties ankle. It was a small strike. A graze, really, but the Gorilla shrieked with uncontrolled rage. Taggart dropped back and surveyed his opponent. For all it’s size, this Beastie was rash and undisciplined. A hand came smashing down. Taggart skirted out of harms way. He ducked around the Gorilla and then struck from behind. His teeth sank into the Gorilla’s exposed flesh. Copper flooded his mouth. Taggart let go and darted out of range.
Taggart spun, muscles bunched and ears alert, ready for the next attack. But it didn’t come. The Gorilla was standing in the centre of the arena, staring down at it’s side. At the blood oozing out of a row of puncture wounds. A minor injury for the arena, and yet, it had caused this Beastie to loose all focus. Taggart watched those hairy arms shudder. His ears pricked at a quiet whimper. The Gorilla looked up and Taggart met it’s eyes. The only thing that glistened in those deep, green pools was fear.
This wasn’t an undisciplined fighter. Not some brute used to winning on size alone. This Beastie was inexperienced. New to the ring and the pain and the bloodshed. Taggart growled again. The organisers should know better than to match fresh fighters against him, no matter their size.
Taggart paced a circle around the Gorilla. It had one giant hand pressed against it’s side. Blood pooled between sausage fingers. It eyed him warily. It was afraid to charge. It was afraid to be struck again. But the match wouldn’t end until one of them crashed into the dirt. Until one of them stopped getting up.
Taggart moved in. He would make it quick. It was the only gift he could give this rookie and maybe it would serve as a lesson in remembering to keep your guard up.
Taggart was a bolt of lightning. He moved in and out, landing quick blows and small strikes. The gorilla howled and spun and tried to keep up, but Taggart was fast and his movements dizzying. In a matter of seconds, Taggart saw his opening. His tail flicked out and the barb struck the Gorilla deep in the chest. Taggart held it there for only a moment, a quick pump of poison into the Gorilla’s veins and then he pulled back and retreated to the other side of the arena. The Gorilla looked down at it’s chest. It looked at Taggart and for a moment, it seemed like the Gorilla would charge, but then it’s body began to sway.
The poison took hold fast. It wasn’t enough to kill the fighter, but it would result in a burning fever that lasted for days. Unpleasant, but the fastest way to get both of them out of this pit. Taggart watched the Beastie twist and sway and then the colossal thing crashed to the ground. The arena shook. A hushed silence descended over the crowd. There was no cheering. There was no sport to this match. Taggart had been too efficient. It had happened too quickly for any of the audience to follow the fight. And Taggart would pay for it. The audience had not got their money’s worth. The organisers would take it from the winnings and Kabeer, in turn, would only increase the debts that Taggart owed. It was a high price to pay for a small act of mercy. A high price for a match that should never have been fought.
Taggart turned, ready to leave, but a flicker of movement caught his eye. He turned back to the arena. The Gorilla was shifting. They weren’t supposed to do that. Not in the arena. Not in front of the audience. Taggart watched, at first in fascination and then in horror. The body kept getting smaller. And smaller.
Taggart ran. He shifted into human as he went, exchanging four legs for two and the cover of his animal hide for fragile human skin. He didn’t care. Damn the rules and damn this place. That fighter was too small. Taggart skidded to a halt beside the body. He dropped to his knees.
A boy. It was just a boy. Taggart cradled one hand beneath the boy’s head and another around his shoulders. He pulled the unconscious form onto his lap. Taggart felt like a giant. His hands were too big, his fingers too clumsy.
This boy too small.
Taggart had been ten the first time his Beastie had surfaced. He remembered the fear. The pain. He remembered the confusion. This boy was barely past his first shift. How was he in the arena?
Taggart looked at the tiny body and at the wounds he had inflicted. At the torn flesh and at the blood. How was there so much blood?
The wounds would have been nothing on an adult, but a child? Taggart looked at the chest wound. The poisoned wound. Already it was red and angry. Already the inflammation spread. Taggart could feel the heat of the fever gathering. The boy’s eyes flickered below his eyelids. He moaned softly.
“I’m sorry,” Taggart whispered. “Oh gods, I’m sorry.”
Taggart adjusted his hold on the boy. He stood. Match officials were hurrying into the arena. Kabeer approached from the left and from the right, the boys Keeper, Elena. It didn’t surprise Taggart. She was a hard lady. Perhaps the most cutthroat of the Keepers. She had to be. She was a woman competing at a man’s game. Taggart understood her why, but it didn’t mean he had to like her. He pulled the boy closer.
“Tag, put the boy down.” Kabeer spoke cautiously.
The Beastie simmered behind Taggart’s eyes.
“He needs medical attention.”
“And I’m sure he will get it.”
“Now Kab! I gave him an adult dose!”
The panic rose in Taggart’s voice. A growl lingered in his throat. Kabeer stepped back. He motioned to Elena. “I am sure his keeper will see to his medical needs.”
Elena stepped close. She looked at the boy and then she motioned to one of her henchmen, “Boyd, take him to the cells. Give him comfort. If he makes it, he makes it, but honestly dear, healers are expensive and I don’t think he’s worth the investment.”
The last was directed at Taggart. A game. Elena knew that Taggart would take the bait. Of course he would. Elena was soulless. She would leave this boy to die.
“I’ll take him.”
Elena arched a brow. “And will darling Kabeer cover the transfer fees?”
Kabeer shook his head. Taggart glared at the both of them. “I’ll take him.”
“You understand the transfer and the healer’s fees will come out of your pay? All future needs, come from you?”
Taggart nodded. He could survive the arena. He could live the pit. The boy didn’t need to.
“I’ll take him.”
It was almost a kiss. Moonlight had dappled against their skin; a kaleidescope of shadow and light filtering through the oak canopy. The chirrup of night bugs had filled the air and Fiona’s eyes had fluttered closed. Her body had moved closer on instinct. She had felt his breath, felt his lips brushing against hers.
But then Ashely had dropped from the tree above them.
Reverberations slammed through the earth and Fiona jerked back. She was only half aware of Dane scrambling to his feet. Her eyes were on Ashley and then onto Sonja who was circling in from behind. Fiona cast her eyes around until she found the third, Jules, materialising out of the mist.
Where had the mist come from?
Fiona didn’t have time to figure that out. Her heart was a fluttering mess. She was in trouble. A lot of trouble.
“Fiona Harding. Breaking the rules. You know, I almost didn’t believe it when Madame briefed us, but… here you are. Even the mighty fall.”
That was Jules, cool voice and cool stride, her eyes dead set on Fiona. Ashley chuckled. “Oh give her a break Jules, she was just having a bit of fun.”
Jules’ attention shot toward Ashley. “We are not here for fun. And Madame wouldn’t see fit to give her a break.”
Ashley’s eyes glittered, cheeky retort no doubt ready, but Dane’s voice cut into the night.
“Ladies! If you’ll excuse me.” He made a sweeping bow and shot a quick wink at Fiona. Fiona’s cheeks warmed. She couldn’t help the grin that split across her face. Dane matched her grin and then he backed away, melting into the darkness as quickly and quietly as the girls had materialised out of it.
“Well you are in a lot of trouble Fiona. I’d try not to grin like an idiot if I were you.”
Fiona’s face went blank. She turned to look at her best friend, but for all of her words, Ashley was grinning like a Cheshire cat. Fiona’s lips twitched up again, but then Jules spoke and Fiona rolled her eyes.
“Shall we get this over with?” Bored. Serious.
Fiona sighed, got to her feet and dusted leaf litter from her butt. With a quick stretch and rolling of her neck, Fiona started back toward school. The other girls formed a tight triangle around her. Ashely and Sonja taking either side at the front and Jules following behind. It was all a bit much. Sure, Fiona had snuck out and sure, she had gone to meet a boy, but she wasn’t about to make a run for it. Where would she go?
A few short minutes later and the wrought iron gates loomed. The girls paused. Sonja stepped up to work the intercom and while they waited, Fiona found herself staring at the metal plaque adorning the red-brick wall. Big, curling letters proclaimed:
Madame Gresham’s Finishing School for Ambitious Young Ladies
And then the school motto in a slightly smaller font, but just as bold and daring:
Bring your own Knives
It had been that line that had made Fiona choose this school. Out of all of the schools that had promised to transform young girls into new versions of themselves, better versions of themselves, only Madame Gresham’s had said anything about the finer arts. Fiona was certain some of the other schools would teach the arts, but they were shoehorned into overcrowded curricula and lacked any real importance. Madame Gresham, on the other hand, had structured her entire curriculum around the arts. Madame Gresham was forward thinking. She was bold.
And she was incredibly hard on all of her girls.
The gate swung open and Fiona swallowed a lump of fear. She and the other girls moved onto the school grounds. Her gut tightened with each step. Beads of sweat glistened along her arms.
Oh Fiona, what were you thinking?
She hadn’t been thinking. Not really. With Dane it had been all butterflies and adrenaline. Not how Fiona should be. Not what Fiona had been taught. Too soon, they were at the school buildings. Too soon they were moving through doors and along carpet lined hallways. Too soon, they stopped in front of Madame Gresham’s office. Sonja stepped up and tapped her knuckles against the wood.
“In,” came Madame Gresham’s voice. Dulled by the walls it had to travel through, but still strong. Solid. The hairs on Fiona’s arms stood to attention. She breathed deeply.
Calm. Poise. Strength.
The door swung open. Fiona let out the breath. The procession proceeded into the office. Madame Gresham did not look at the girls. She was busy looking over a file, my file, Fiona realised, and while her eyes did not stray from the pages, she spoke.
“Good work girls. Now off with you. Fiona and I need to have a little chat.”
As one, the girls bowed and backed out of the room. Ashley gave Fiona’s hand a quick squeeze as she passed, but nothing more. It was the only support Fiona would receive. The only support anyone could give. Fiona had made this mess on her own and it was hers to clean up.
Fiona waited. Madame perused the file a moment longer, then she placed it on her desk, her slender fingers brushing the pages and she looked up at Fiona.
“Did you have a lovely time, dear?”
“I…” Fiona’s words caught in her throat. It was a trick. Say yes and betray her training. Say no, and Fiona would be a liar.
Madame did not wait for Fiona to respond.
“You are one of my top students, Fiona.” She gestured to the file. “And yet, how easily a quick smile from a handsome boy had you loosing all sense.”
Fiona swallowed. Her voice stuttered. “I did not loose all sense, Madame.”
“My training has prepared me for…”
“Did you think you could trust him?”
Fiona paused. Her spine tingled.
“Where are your knives?” Madame asked. Fiona swallowed. She looked down. Her hands went to her hips. Her fingers brushed leather and buckles, but no hilt nestled into her palm. There was no steel to weigh the scabbards down. Her knives were gone. She looked up at Madame, her eyes now wide from shock.How had she not felt her knives being taken? How had she not felt their absence?
Just then, the door opened. Fiona watched as Dane entered the room. She watched as he walked to the desk. She watched him place her knives on the polished wood and she watched him give Madame Gresham a sweeping bow before leaving the way he had come. He did not look at Fiona even once. Her stomach roiled. Fiona had to fight with everything she had not to be sick.
“Did you think it was love?”
Love, no. But the start of something, maybe…
Madame sighed. “It is a hard lesson, Fiona. Trust is a valuable commodity and not one to give out lightly, especially not by one of Madame Gresham’s girls. I trust you will be more discerning in the future?”
Fiona nodded. Her face was a mask, a stone statue with no emotion, but inside, Fiona was breaking.
The hive was beautiful. A drop of sunlight twisting in lazy loops. It all but glowed with promise and Harry licked his lips in anticipation. He squinted up at the hive and his brain began to whorl. The hive was a good six meters from the ground, but that was hardly the problem. The real problem, the thing that gave Harry pause, was the Gigantus Fungalus.
Gigantus Fungalus were a rare species of giant mushroom and this hive, this beautiful font of sweet treasure, was nestled deeply within the black fronds of one such mushroom. Harry stroked his stubbled chin. Even within the Neglar Marshes, a veritable paradise for fungi, the Fungaluswere rare and Harry’s prime directive was to keep them safe.
Well, his actual job was harvesting honey, but it was his personal belief that one could do so without unnecessarily hurting the environment. The whole thing with the bees was unfortunate, but Harry had heard some interesting stories of keeping bees in boxes, almost like livestock and he was eager to try it out for himself. If all went to plan he would be able to secure the queen from this hive and…
“So can I cut it down yet?”
Barnaby was… well, Barnaby carried enough size and weight to make up at least three extra people. His ego was of a complimentary size. Harry scowled at his partner. Of all the muscle in the village, why had he been paired with such an unconscionable jerk?
“No. You can’t cut it down. Ever. We have to preserve the ecosystem. Now shhh. I’m thinking.”
Harry circled the giant toadstool. It’s trunk was a musky off white, the cap a dull brown. The black fronds fluttered in the wind playing a taunting game of peek-a-boo with the hive. Harry pressed his hands against the trunk. It swayed slightly at his touch. They would never be able to climb it, but Harry already knew that. The giant mushrooms could not support the weight of a man. Yet, some of the other species could.
Harry squinted at the surrounding flora. He spied the telltale yellow of Agricarum Agricarum and hurried toward the outcropping. As was particular to this species, they grew in a kind of radiating spiral, each mushroom an offshoot from the one before it, creating a step-like effect. The tallest barely came to a third of the Gigantus Fungalus, but Agricarum were notorious for their springy quality. Harry clambered up onto the smallest one.
“Oh come on! Just let me hack at it!”
Harry ignored his partner and began a gentle bounce. If he could use the Agricarum as a spring board, perhaps he could launch himself high enough to grab the hive.
“You look like an idiot.”
Harry bounced a little higher. He smiled at how quickly he was gaining height and then he was falling. His feet sunk into yellow cap. Puffs of black spore shot out from under the Agricarum. Harry didn’t get a chance to react. Momentum pushed him into the air once more. When his feet found yellow again, the spore cloud erupted. Harry floundered inside the dark cloud, choking to find breath. Struggling to orient himself. He misjudged his footing, hit the cap side on and crashed roughly to the marsh floor.
Harry crawled into clean airspace and heaved. Barnaby stood a little off to the side, shielding his face with a bandanna. His voice was muffled, but Harry didn’t have any trouble deciphering the words.
“Genius plan, Mastermind.”
Harry stood up, still hacking spore from his lungs. “Eh… I forgot… that… about Agricarum.”
Barnaby rolled his eyes at Harry and then he unhooked the Machete from his belt. “Right, my turn.”
Barnaby paused and for a moment Harry thought that his partner had listened, but then he saw the play of rainbow light against the ground and heard the telltale hum of Anisop Pterras. Harry turned to face the large insectoid. It was hurtling straight toward them. Harry felt his chest tighten. The Pterras was as beautiful as it was deadly. All iridescent wings and gnashing mandibles. Man against beast. It shouldn’t have to be that way…
And it didn’t.
“Wait! Stop! Bandannas up. You don’t have to kill it!”
Harry didn’t wait to see if Barnaby had obeyed. He sprinted toward the yellow mushrooms, hoisting his bandanna over his mouth and nose as he went. He clambered up onto an Agricarumand he began to jump. His feet pounded into yellow and he rose into the air. Clouds of mushroom spore following him up. Black filled the air and soon Harry could not see a thing, but neither could the Pterras.
Lungs burning and body drenched in sweat, Harry finally stopped. He waited for the clouds to clear and then he made his descent. He smiled to himself. The spore clouds had been a great idea for the Pterras, but what of the hive?
Harry found Barnaby black with spore. Only his eyes shone out and they were red with anger.
“Are you done?”
“A thank-you for saving me from the Pterras would be nice.”
Barnaby gave Harry a cold stare. “I don’t need any saving.”
It was then that Harry noticed the machete still in Barnaby’s hands. Barnaby swung the blade with practiced ease.
The Machete sang through the air. There was a dull squelch and suck as it cut deep and severed flesh.
It felt like an eternity as the Gigantus Fungalus crashed to the floor.
Barnaby hoisted the machete over his shoulder and began walking toward the cap, toward the destruction and the prize. Harry followed after him, whimpering along the entire length of the trunk.
Beneath the fronds lay the few shattered remains of what had once been a hive. The honey had made a tasty meal for an undisturbed Anisop Pterras.
“Why,” Barnaby muttered, “Out of all the brains in the village, did I have to get the dumbest one?”
Buhle dipped her oar into the Lagoon. Ripples spread out across the surface, distorting the once prosperous city that lay beneath the water. It had been called Cape Town, but that was before the ocean invaded the land, before the world went mad and before humankind changed. Now it was simply the Lagoon: a place where life flourished above the water and memories twisted in the currents far below. It was those memories Buhle sought. It was those memories that all Salvagers sought. At least, it was that curiosity and desire for something more that first drove them to join the salvaging crews. But time and failure weathered the spirit. Many gave up. They returned to their homes, ready to forget, to become respectable members of society once more. Others simply salvaged for the raw materials their people could use and forgot the dream. They stopped believing that technology could be recovered. It had drowned along with their ancestors.
Water swirled and pressed against the wood of Buhle’s oar. She pulled back, feeling the pressure of the oar’s passage. She felt it through her skin, muscle, bone. She felt it pressing against her spirit, that pushing, suffocating sense that the water had nothing to give. The water could not answer her dreams. It was a terrifying feeling, but the more time she spent below the surface, the more time she spent staring at the strange lines of circuitry, unable to decipher their secrets, unable to bring them back to life, the more it felt like truth. The Lagoon could not answer her dreams.
But it had not crushed them.
Buhle’s gaze drifted toward the distant foothills and the flat-top mountain that rose from them. Even from this distance, she could see the pristine white walls stretching across the summit. The people that lived atop the mountain -the Table- had secrets. At night the mountain glowed with yellow dots, like stars dropped from the sky. The lights did not flicker or dance. They remained chained in place, perfectly still and obedient. The lights on the Table did not burn like fire.
The Table did not share its secrets. Because secrets were power.
To leave the Lagoon, to step onto dry land and enter those foothills meant slavery. It meant torture. Death. Children were taught from a young age never to leave the water, but The Table had secrets, and as far as Buhle could see, the Lagoon had only ghosts.
A soft croak pulled Buhle from her thoughts. She gently rested her cheek against the toad perched on her shoulder and smiled faintly.
“Ah Buddy. You’re right of course, one battle at a time.”
They sat like that for a moment, the toad croaking a soft, almost purring melody and Buhle breathing in the contact like it was a drug. Then her village came into view, and the spell broke.
Thick concrete squares pushed up and out of The Lagoon. They were the last surviving remnants of Cape Town: the top-most stories of high-rise buildings standing defiant against the water. Coloured cloth fluttered on balconies, and everywhere was the activity of people. Men and women gutting fish, children running about and playing in the water. Still others pushing off in canoes to go hunt or fish. Floating walkways had been constructed between the buildings, and the rooftops served as common areas for people to gather. The high-rises made for easy homes -many villages such as this one existed across the Lagoon. Buhle took in a deep breath as she steered toward the docks. This visit was a farewell. She couldn’t tell her family that, wouldn’t tell them her plans, but she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving without one last chance to be with them. One more day of laughter with her brothers, one last chance to be wrapped tight within Goggo’s warm embrace…
But they would have to forgive Buhle first.
Buhle looked up and smiled, the tension easing slightly as she marveled at the ridiculous enthusiasm Wezi could muster for waving. Nathi did not show the same outward excitement, but he was smiling broadly.
“Molweni, my brothers!”
Wezi leaned over to grab the canoe, mooring rope already in hand. He spoke as he worked, every action a vibrant release of energy, “Goggo will be so happy to see you! She has been asking, -and when will that little one that makes all the trouble be coming again?- Goggo makes like life is boring with just me and Nathi at home.”
Wezi’s words should have felt soft, a laughter in the breeze, but they burrowed into Buhle’s chest and held fast. She stood up, her muscles feeling as if they had been replaced with solid stone, and heaved herself onto the jetty. Wezi bounded forward, arms wide to hug his little sister, but then he paused. He stared at the toad on Buhle’s shoulder.
“You have been making trouble.”
Buhle curled into herself. Her eyes stung with the promise of tears.
“Yeah… but… I can still get a hug, can’t I?”
Buhle choked on the silence that followed. Out of all of them, she had told herself, at least Wezi would understand. Now she stood before him, broken and exposed, as he contemplated her with a deep intensity he rarely allowed people to see. Buhle turned back toward her canoe.
“If you… If you think I should go…”
“Oh no… no, Boo, of course you can still get a hug. Hey, it’s okay. You’re still my little sister.”
Wezi wrapped his arms around Buhle and pulled her in tight, switching effortlessly from manic playmate to protective big brother. Buhle nestled into his warmth and allowed a few tears to escape. The hug was over too soon, but when Buhle pulled back, she saw Nathi was already on his way to the apartment. A whimper escaped her.
Wezi wrapped an arm around Buhle’s shoulder.
“It will be better if Goggo has a few moments to prepare. This won’t be easy for her.”
And Buhle did know, but it still stung. Nathi didn’t wait to say hello. He didn’t even give her a chance, he just… left.
“C’mon, let me take your bag.”
Buhle handed her belongings to Wezi and started walking. Her muscles were twitching. This was hard. This was so much harder than she had ever imagined it to be.
“Hey,” Wezi said gently. “It’s going to be alright, you’ll see. Goggo will find a way to blame me and Nathi. You know how it is.”
Wezi’s voice suddenly erupted into a terrible imitation of Goggo. “You call yourself big brothers? Hai! You let my granddaughter run off with a Salvaging Crew! My granddaughter! Of course something like this would happen! You are a disgrace as brothers! Disgrace!”
Buhle couldn’t help but let a smile cross her lips, “You let me run away, huh?”
“Of course. You couldn’t possibly do anything without first obtaining our brotherly approval.”
“And do you approve?”
There were several beats of silence. Then Wezi said, “I understand.”
Buhle grabbed onto those words, simple yet layered with so much meaning, and held tight. No matter what happened, Wezi would always be waiting on the other side of it. Wezi would be her beacon in the darkness.
Buhle blinked and found herself barely an arm’s length from Goggo. She wanted to throw her arms around the old woman. She wanted to confess and cry and have all her sins washed away in soothing lullabies, but that look on Goggo’s face…
Goggo stretched her hand out toward Buhle, but jerked it back with a cry. She brought both hands up to her chest, fisting them in her clothing. Tears gathered in her eyes, and her voice broke on a single word,
Buhle looked at her grandmother. There was no pride shining in her eyes, no warmth, no love. Only the hurt and the shock and confusion that Buhle had caused. Buhle didn’t know how to process it. Goggo, her Goggo, in so much pain because of her.
“I… it.. it was an accident. I didn’t mean for…”
Buhle hadn’t meant to lie, but the look in Goggo’s eyes broke her, and the words tumbled out. There was always talk of spontaneous bondings. No one could actually confirm the phenomenon existed, but the first familiar pairs could not have been deliberate, and so the theory remained valid. Her lie was plausible.
Buhle took a deep breath. It had taken months of careful study and planning. She had spent hours talking to the Bonded, finding out the strengths and weaknesses of their familiars. She had been exhaustive in her quest to know how the bond was formed and all the nuances that came with being Bonded. And then she had made her decision and gone out to find her toad. What she hadn’t spent enough time considering was the impact it would have on Goggo. Truth be told, no amount of time spent considering her family would have changed her mind. Even now, standing in the midst of the pain, she knew she would not hesitate to make the same decision. And so Buhle told them a story as close to the truth as she could allow.
“I was salvaging near the marshes. My mind was elsewhere. I wasn’t concentrating on what my hands were doing… I… I touched a toad and it just… it felt warm. I fell into the warmth… I didn’t think to pull back. I hadn’t realised… and then… ”
Goggo was shaking.
“No! I can’t do this. I can’t… Buhle? Buhle! No!”
Goggo turned away from Buhle and stormed into the apartment block. Nathi ran after her. Buhle stumbled back. She stared at the door. Just a few weeks back, that door had offered her sanctuary and a place to belong. Now they were barriers keeping her out. Now she was the one her family needed sanctuary from.
“I’m going to go sit on the roof,” she told Wezi. “Go to Goggo. She needs you.”
“Are you sure, Buhle? I can stay with you.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Wezi nodded once. “I’ll come find you once she’s calmed down.” And then he disappeared behind that now impenetrable barrier.
It was Nathi who found Buhle perched on the edge of the roof. The sun was setting across the Lagoon, and the chorus of night bugs just beginning. He took a seat beside Buhle. The two of them sat there, legs dangling off the side, watching the world turn orange. When he finally spoke, his words misted over with emotion.
“Mom used to have a toad. It was a leopard like yours. She called him Spudge.”
“Mom… mom’s familiar was a leopard toad?”
“Ah Boo, the picture you painted today. You look so much like her and then… and then you have this toad on your shoulder…”
“No wonder Goggo freaked out as much as she did…”
Buhle wiped away a tear. She had been young when their parents had died-barely walking. Goggo had spun fairy tales of their lives, but she had avoided talking about their deaths. Familiars were to blame, that was all Buhle was told.
“How did they die?”
Nathi shuddered. “It was a lake gull. It came out of nowhere and snatched Spudge. Dad had a gull as his familiar, and he sent it after the one that had got Spudge, but something went wrong. They flew into this huge flock, and soon all the gulls where snatching for Spudge. Dad’s gull didn’t stand a chance, but he tried to fight them all. Mom was screaming on the floor and then dad was crashing down beside her and… well… Uncle Themb, he -he always said that was no normal gull, that someone sent a familiar to snatch Spudge… but…”
“Why would someone want mom dead?”
Their deaths had been brutal. No wonder Goggo didn’t want to talk about it. Buhle had come home with a toad and dredged up all of those memories. A toad, just like her mother’s. Goggo had looked at Buhle and seen the ghost of her deceased daughter. Maybe if they had told Buhle… maybe if they had been more open…
No. Buhle would still have chosen to take a familiar. Her parents’ story was not the first she had heard. It was not new information. It happened, it was a risk, but it was rare. And that was the thing about being bonded. It was a two way street. The creature to whom you bonded gave you powers, but in return you gave it your life. You were forever tied and, anything that happened to your familiar happened to you too.
“I’m sorry,” Buhle whispered.
Nathi shook his head. “I always thought that one day you would come home like this. Deep down, I think Goggo has always known too. You’re restless. Always searching for something more. It was always going to happen.”
“Will she forgive me?”
“I don’t know. But she will feed you. Are you ready to go down?”
Buhle nodded. She would eat, and she would sleep, and maybe she would catch a glimpse of light in Goggo’s eyes.
The oar felt heavy in the water now. Buhle let it drag as tears fell freely down her cheeks. The village was behind her, nothing more than a few smudged blocks on the horizon. Before her, a cluster of canoes waited. Buhle felt broken. Broken and stupid and entirely unprepared. One last day to spend with her family, she had thought, one last day to recharge, and then she would be ready. But the day had left her broken. Dinner had been suffocating. Every time Buhle had tried to explain herself or talk about familiars, Goggo would look toward her. Goggo’s eyes would bore into her and tear little pieces of her heart until it felt like only ribbons remained. You hurt me, those eyes said. You knew that this would hurt me, and yet you did it.
Buhle had not been able to sleep. In the morning, she had chosen to pack her canoe and be on her way, forgoing her original plan to stay for lunch. Wezi and Nathi had hugged her fiercely, making sure she promised to stay longer next time. Goggo had watched it all and finally, when it was all done, she had approached her granddaughter. Buhle had stepped forward, she had tried to embrace Goggo, but Goggo had stepped back, her head shaking.
“I will always love you Buhle, but I need time. Your choice brings out my darkest memories, and you lied when I asked you why. I’m sorry, Buhle. I need time.”
The words sunk into Buhle. She was leaving the water, but her ghosts would be coming too.
Donna curled her fingers over the handle bar and pushed, her knuckles white against wrinkled skin. She heaved with all the strength her eighty-three-year-old body could muster. The shopping trolley groaned, but it remained rooted to the sidewalk.
“Oh bugger that!”
Donna kicked at the back wheel lodged in a crack. A crack that was proving itself a worthy opponent in an unsanctioned duel. Donna huffed ,and with hands on bony hips, she scanned her surroundings.
The hazy noise of traffic swam through the air, and everywhere she looked, people moved. This one hurrying to a meeting, his briefcase swinging in a dangerous rhythm. That one talking on her phone as if every word coming from her mouth was the most pressing. All of them milling about like busy ants. All of them the same and none of them willing to stop and help an old lady out.
“Not this old lady.”
Donna surveyed her trolley again. Thick blankets bulged out of the top, her worldly possessions tucked safely beneath them. She had some freshly scavenged groceries in one corner, and an assortment of pots and pans were tied securely to the trolley’s sides. They clanged as she went about her day. Donna liked that. She called it her music. By all accounts it was a lot more pleasant than that drivel people listened to these days. But until Donna could get her trolley free, she would not be listening to her music.
Donna squatted beside the trolley and wrapped her hands around the frame. If she wanted the trolley free, she would have to lift it. The trolley was heavy and Donna old, but she couldn’t see any other way. She, like the people flowing around her, had a very busy and very important day ahead of her. Donna flexed her fingers, tightened her grip and lifted. That is to say, she tried to lift the trolley. There was a brief moment where the wheel hovered above the crack, but then the trolley thunked back down and Donna’s breathe wheezed out.
“Excuse me, ma’am, let me help you with that.”
Donna looked up at one of those “Tech” people. They were easy to spot in a sea of suits and ties. Their casual clothing stood out like one great big middle finger to the status quo. Donna had no idea what they actually did, but the world was changing faster than she could keep up, and they had something to do with it.
The Tech guy shuffled to the front of the trolley, and Donna got out of his way. In a matter of seconds, he had the trolley free and standing on smooth sidewalk once more.
“Thank-you,” Donna said. “I don’t know what I would have done without you. It’s my anniversary today. I’m going to the park to have lunch with my husband.”
The words gushed out of Donna. They always did when someone looked at her like she was a real person. Donna was so used to being glanced over, or stared at like she was some kind of incurable disease, that when someone showed her a thread of dignity, she grappled for a connection. She wanted to feel seen, and she would do anything to hold onto that feeling for just a little bit longer.
“Well congratulations,” the Tech guy said. He reached into his wallet and drew out a five-dollar note. “Here. Its not much, but happy anniversary. Get something good for dessert.”
Donna could feel the tears gathering as she took the money and hugged it close. “Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. John likes those cookies with the jam in the middle. I’ll get some of those.”
“That’s a great choice.” The Tech guy smiled. “Well, enjoy your meal. Your husband is a lucky man.”
Donna smiled, and the Tech guy left. Just like that, she was invisible again, but her heart was lighter than it had been moments before.
Donna got behind her trolley and pushed it down the street. The park John loved best was not far. There were lots of trees and a beautiful pond where people would come to feed the ducks. John liked ducks. Aa messy kind of elegant, he’d say. Not show-offy like the swans or scavenging rats like the pigeons. They got the balance right. They reminded him of Donna. Donna wasn’t so sure she liked being thought of as a duck, but she liked the idea of messy elegance, and so she let John tell her she was like a duck and married him all the same. It wasn’t a fault that John chose such strange ways to compare things. He tried, Donna knew what he meant. That was all that really mattered.
Donna could see the park now, but first, she needed to stop and get the cookies. She turned down a side street and made her way toward a petrol station. Petrol stations were usually more expensive than grocery stores, but they would let Donna buy stuff without hassling her. Grocery store staff got real antsy when she walked in. They would try to usher her out quick as possible, using their bodies as shields to hide her scruffy form from other shoppers. It didn’t matter to them that she had money. She lived a different kind of life, an unacceptable kind of life, and for that she couldn’t be trusted. It was ridiculous. Donna had never stolen or done any sort of dishonest thing in her life. She certainly couldn’t say the same for some of those fancy rich folk that got to do whatever they damn well pleased. Donna shook her head. It was better to pay a little extra for the cookies.
True to form, the petrol station cashier barely gave Donna a second glance. The cookies were bought and paid for, and Donna left the store happy to have been treated like a regular person. She pointed her trolley toward the park and clanged her way down the sidewalk.
Donna had set up her picnic blanket beside the pond. Ducks waddled about the perimeter, their beady little eyes on the meager spread. Donna’s excitable chatter rose above their quacking, “The bread buns are a little stale, but they’re still good. And you have to try the apples. They’re only a little bit bruised, but so very sweet.”
She smiled at her husband. “I met a nice young man today. He helped me when my trolley got stuck. And he gave me money to buy the cookies. They’re the ones with the jam in the middle. He said you’re a very lucky man to have me.”
Donna leaned over. She brushed her fingers against the faded photograph that sat opposite to her. The man in the picture was a much younger John than Donna could truly recall, but when she propped the picture up against a rock like that, it still felt like John was looking at her.
“I think I’m the lucky one,” Donna whispered. “With you by my side, I was never invisible.”