Seventeen: An Interlude
Imagine, if you will, a young boy—about seven, say—who thinks he’s the cleverest thing in the whole damn world. Sadly for him, he’s not far wrong—but clever doesn’t mean wise.
This kid, this boy—this genius—has played in the bush behind the house forever, wandering all the way down to the pine plantations that line the highway that’s the lifeline of this little two-bit town called Jilamatang. Regional Victoria, back of the Snowy Mountains, over an hour to the nearest thing they’ve got to a city. He’s outgrown the place and he isn’t even in double digits. Good thing they have the internet, even though the connection’s slower than the post from Melbourne.
He wanders far and wide, spends the whole day exploring while his parents think he’s a good lad in school—an easy ruse because school’s also easy—and one day, he discovers something worthwhile. Not far from town, a couple of kilometres or so, there’s an old train line. Barely anyone remembers it, and even the real old timers hardly know it’s there. But he knows. It’s always been a sort of demarkation, the eastern border of his domain, and he’s had it in mind that he probably oughtn’t cross it. Crossing it, he feels, is maybe a step too far from his parents’ world.
But of course, one day, his curiosity gets the better of him and, breath held by tightly pressed lips that quiver with anticipation, he skips across old rails rusted to the colour of fox’s fur. At first, nothing seems to have changed. The air tastes the same, the same wind blows against his skin, and the same sun beats down upon his shoulders.
But then the trees overhead grow denser, gnarled eucalypts and wattles give way to lofty, straight-trunked pines, needles flared against the bright sun and crisp air of early autumn. Their leaves will not succumb to the on-coming cold. Never mind that neither will the eucalypts’; the pines would have everyone know that needles, at this altitude, this close to the highest mountain in the whole entire country, are superior, which is why their trunks are so tall and straight while the poor little natives twist and bend, backs crooked in submission to the wind.
The thick mat of rust-coloured needles devours the boy’s footsteps more effectively than any carpet, and for a while it’s eerily quiet. It grows colder, too, and the boy shivers, even though summer still lingers in the air in long, hot afternoons and the true bite of winter is months away.
Through the trees, something shifts, and he catches glimpse of something moving, something big—something alive. And although his heart pounds like it wants to escape his chest and run right back home to the safety of his kitchen, the boy continues. This, he knows, will be a sight worth seeing.
He follows the half-glimpsed beast for maybe thirty minutes, though it seems that either seconds or hours have passed, and then—at last—he reaches a clearing in the pines where granite boulders pile up high like someone has torn away the skin of the world and exposed its spine. And there, atop the boulders, head thrown high against the sky, antlers broad and strong enough to tear apart the clouds, stands the last thing he’d have expected to find in alpine Australia: a giant grey deer, easily as tall at the shoulder as the boy is himself—and he is hardly short for his age.
The stag tosses its antlers, and the boy can feel—feel—the words the stag would say, if it could talk—if it would talk.
Welcome, the stag says. Welcome to the home of the Winter King.
The boy bows politely, because it seems like that is a thing that should be done, and when he straightens up again, the stag is gone.
But he knows, now, the boy, where this Winter King lives, and now he'll never leave it alone.
Time after time he returns, at any hour of the day: the crisp, bright light of of a dew-covered morning, the frosty bite of a late autumn evening, the blazing hot midday summer sun as he runs through the bush, wild and free while school is out.
Time after time, the boy returns to the Winter King, and slowly, he begins to love him. Both hims, that is, come to love the other him, and they stand with each other for hours, foreheads pressed together or flank to flank, saying all the things the Winter King would say if the Winter King decided he wanted to speak.
The boy rubs the knot at the end of the Winter King’s spine, right before it turns into a tail, and brings him sweet carrots and apples and old-fashioned lumps of cane sugar. The Winter King whispers secrets into the little boy’s heart, right before it turns into his consciousness, and feeds him joys and delights too subtle for words to make out. Probably the Winter King enjoys it as much as the boy does, for although the boy is lonely—at school, at home—at least his has his parents, and they love him very much.
The Winter King has no one.
Well, that is not quite true, the boy learns. The Winter King has his storm foxes, ethereal spirits that ride the winds like hawks, soaring and diving and tumbling. The storm foxes love the spring storms best of all, when thunder splits the sky like canons and the lightning flashes strobe-like across the forest. They love the storms because storms bring freedom: the Winter King cannot contain them when the heavens open and rage, and through spring and summer his power wanes almost entirely.
Then, one day, the boy has no one either. His mother and father fought, and although that wasn’t unusual, the fact that his mother left and didn't come back was.
He didn’t realise until years later what the little plastic stick in the bathroom bin had meant; why his mother had cried for three days straight before the fight that ended it all; why his father had been so relieved to see her go. Not that he ever said he was relieved, and the boy knew his father missed his mother—but he also walked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. An important weight. A weight of about seven or eight pounds, if the boy understood things correctly, that would last some eight or nine months and then the rest of their lives.
The boy thought he might have quite enjoyed that weight. It might have been just heavy enough to hold his family together.
But alack, the weight had vanished—from his father’s shoulders, his mother’s body—and so his mother vanished from their family, and the boy felt all alone.
That was the night it happened. The night he told the Winter King what he wanted—and the night he learned that sometimes, what we want is the worst thing we can imagine.
He was supposed to fly.
Instead, he thudded to the ground. And he learned that even foxes can cry, if they’re really, truly sad enough.
If you enjoyed this story, check out the That Moment When anthology, which contains the first part of Fox Red!
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
but s l o w l y
you start to s
Because HOUR HOUR HOUR
HOUR HOUR HOUR
HOUR HOUR HOUR
HOUR HOUR HOUR
is a really long time.
A baby’s foot brushes your leg.
It’s not a problem. Also, he’s adorable.
This is how friendships begin.
Is fourteen hours long enough to make
in the right time
in the right place
with the right people.
Thursday, November 3, 2016
There once was a little kitten. No, not the kitten I wrote a story about in September.
Definitely a different kitten. A very different kitten.
Oh, fine. It’s the same kitten. So I’m reusing characters. So what?
This kitten had had a hard time going outside. Which is as much to say as it didn’t. Not after its first experience with snow, which is probably like a person’s first experience with horseradish: you either like it or you don’t. And, in this case, the kitten didn’t like it.
In the last story, wherein the kitten realized that there was probably maybe some benefit to going outside after paying me good money to sit around and ask it questions containing answers that it decided it had come up with all on its own, wondering what I was doing with my life being a psychologist to my friends’ nine week old kitten.
The only problem with this picture (I mean, aside from the obvious) was that the kitten wasn’t paying me out of its own money. Let’s be serious: I can be a kitten psychologist all I want, but we have to admit that a kitten having its own income stream at nine weeks stretches credibility quite thin. Which is as much to say as that this kitten had mastered the use of arcane computer enchantments and pulled the money from my friends’ – its owners’ – bank account.
Frankly, I thought my friends would have figured it out on their own. It might have been a bit cowardly of me to wait until they got a clue and started investigating but either this kitten was more clever than I thought or my friends had an awful memory for their own spending habits. I’m not actually sure which is more concerning, but I had plenty of concern on hand to spend no matter which it turned out to be.
In other words, while my friends were out of the country a couple of weeks later, I house-sat. And, as I sat the house, I had a conversation with my friends’ kitten.
“You really have to stop this,” I said.
“I don’t pay you to have an opinion,” the kitten said with a swish of its tail.
“You pay me to be a psychologist. That’s exactly the same as paying me to have an opinion.”
“What happened to unbiased objectivity?”
“Fine. In my unbiased, objective opinion, you have to stop this.”
The kitten tapped its chin. “Stop what?”
“Paying me from my friends’ bank account without their knowledge or consent.” As if it didn’t already know.
“If you don’t like it, I can always find another psychologist…”
“That’s not the point.”
“And how do you propose I tell them about it when the idea of my sentience is patently absurd to them? Certainly you can’t. They already think you’re crazy.”
Obviously, I was going to have to have a conversation with more than just the kitten. “And how would you inform a potential new psychologist of this patently absurd idea?”
“That’s different. They’re not my human. They aren’t used to me. They don’t have ingrained ideas or habits about me to contend with.”
I bit back a sarcastic remark about the strength of eleven week old habits. For the kitten, that was a lifetime. That and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t had plenty of ingrained habits and ideas of my own about the nature of kittens when this one hired me. I wondered if maybe I should have kept one or two of them. No amount of income was worth this trouble. Well. Perhaps not certain amounts of income.
“Well, just give it some thought and see what happens,” I finally said.
The kitten avoided me after that.
Which could have been the end of that, I suppose. Certainly it seemed like it, which I was a bit peeved about, to be sure. But, in a few days, I received an email:
Come at once. My humans are away. Sincerely, you know who.
I wondered if the kitten had finally got to my friends’ YA collection. That and I went.
“So, I told my humans.”
“How did they take it?”
“Now they’re seeing a psychologist.”
“You know-” the kitten stretched- “I’ve come to a realization.”
“This is a ridiculous situation. I’m a kitten. Why do I even need a psychologist?”
“Exactly. I should be going my wild way on my wild lone. Except…” it glanced at the couch. “…I don’t think I’m prepared to give up the amenities of my current living situation.”
“Oh, I’m not. This may not be ancient Egypt, but this is certainly something. Do you suppose you could talk to my humans? Now that I have, that is.”
And admit that I’d been complicit in what was essentially theft? Um. “No.”
“Drat. I had a feeling this was my fight.”
Sure. That’s exactly what it is.
“Well, do you have any advice on what I should do next? Some words of wisdom I’ll probably ignore when I inevitably come up with something better? Like nothing? I rather like the idea of doing nothing.”
“If you’ll just come up with something better, then why do you need my advice?” No, theft was too harsh a word. Underhanded dealing, perhaps?
“So, am I psychologist or court jester?”
“Whichever makes you feel better, I suppose.” The kitten yawned. “I’m going to have a nap. If you come up with something, email me. Or stop by. I’ll pay you as soon as you do.”
Who was I kidding? It was definitely theft. By the time I’d got home, I realized that. I also realized that, despite the fact that the kitten really should be acting responsibly with its humans, so should I with my friends. With a sigh, I picked up the phone.
I wondered how long I’d be paying them back.
Dear psychologist human,
I’m not entirely sure what you stood to gain by informing my humans of your part in all this. My intention had been for you to merely vouch for my sentience. You have done me a service, and it is right that you should be compensated in turn, not that you should throw that all away.
But no matter. We shall speak when you return from vacation. I think you will see things much more clearly when this is all over.
You know who.
The story continues in The Kitten Psychologist vs the Kitten's Owners.