Category Archives: 1.02
The boy kicked as hard as he could, indiscriminately aiming at the shadowed silhouette under the blankets. His free hand scrambled for something to use as a weapon, anything at all, but found nothing.
He saw red. The boy bounced off the rolls of cloth, his head pounding from the impact as the silhouette pulled back a fist for another swing.
The boy scrambled out of the way, but he could not avoid the other hand that grabbed him by the collar and hauled him to his feet. The boy hammered his tiny fists on the hand that held him, but its grip was iron.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Another sharp crack, and the boy could hardly see anything but red and white. His head rolled on his shoulders, dazed. “You gonna give me an answer?”
Gasping for breath, the boy coughed and opened his mouth.
And sunk his teeth as deep as possible into the hand that held him.
There was a harsh scream, but he could barely hear anything over his own strangled chokes as the grip tightened around his throat. The boy sucked in air through his nostrils even as he bit down harder.
There was another sharp jolt. The two of them tumbled forward as the cart came to a sharp halt, although still the boy could not struggle free. His combatant seemed unperturbed, not even short of breath.
Both of them jumped when the cart began to tip over, though. All of its contents tumbled to the side, but even amid the scraping and banging the boy could register the bass bellow of the camelopard outside.
Canvas split, and then the boy was blinking in the sunlight, gasping for air. His shirt had torn clean in two in the fall, but neck red, chest bare, at least the boy could breathe.
“Good work, big guy,” the boy gasped. He looked around. “Big guy?”
The camelopard fell like timber snapping, a long, slow, but inevitable descent to the earth. The winter ox tossed its head, frost steaming in the air from its nostrils, hooves pawing the ground as it prepared to charge again.
“No!” The boy scrambled to his feet, not knowing what he was doing, but knowing he had to do something. A hand caught his tangled, grubby hair, and he yelled as it pulled at his head.
“Dumb kid,” the woman from the caravan snorted, tossing him on the ground. She wiped blood from a scratch on her face. “You’re going to fucking fight an ox, that’s what you going to do?”
“No, no, stop!” screamed the boy, flailing wildly as he tried to reach his friend. He rose to run to the camelopard’s side, but a heavy boot stopped him from getting up. “Let me go, let me go!”
“Relax, would you?” The woman whistled. “Deppash, back up.”
The winter ox snorted, but did not move. It kept its horns trained on the camelopard while he struggled to find his feet. With a contemptuous kick, the woman lifted her boot off the boy’s chest and turned to survey the damage.
“By the Ladies Summer and Fall, you broke my fucking tarp.” The woman ran a hand through her hair. She looked travel-worn, haggard, but clean. Far cleaner than him, anyway. “Come on, kid, get my carpets before they get any dirtier.”
The boy sat sullenly, glaring at the woman.
“Get my fucking carpets or your buddy’s insides are gonna turn into his fucking outsides, you hear me?”
The boy climbed to his feet and edged a little closer to the woman.
“And help me flip this thing back up, we got your buddy to thank for that, too.” The woman walked around to the front, untying the harnesses. “Deppash, over here, you pull and we push.” The winter ox strolled over languidly, giving the boy a dismissive flick of the ear.
The boy made eye contact with the camelopard, and took a step backward…
“If you so much as try to run away, I will hunt you down, reach down your throat, and rip out your stomach,” said the woman without looking up, as she re-tied the harnesses to the side of the cart.
The boy gave it consideration anyway, if only for a brief moment. He had never had his stomach torn out before and was sure that he could put it back given enough time, but it sounded painful.
He edged around the cart, eying the woman carefully. Finally, though, he bent down and dug his fingers under the cart, trying to get a good grip. The woman likewise moved around to the other end, glowering.
There was a moment’s pause, and without sound the woman and the ox began to force the cart up. The boy struggled to join, his heels digging into the ground, but his contribution seemed paltry.
Nevertheless, the woman gave him a satisfied nod when the cart at last landed flat, rocking from the impact. She brushed her hands on her hips and took one of the dirty carpets up on her shoulder, holding it with only one arm.
The boy glared at her. He had barely been able to drag the thing an inch inside the cart, and here she was flipping a box full of them and picking them up like they were grass stalks between her fingertips.
“Carpets aren’t going to pick themselves up,” grunted the woman. “Butterbugs are going to get in them if you don’t hurry up.”
The boy dragged his feet as he walked, and gave the closest carpet a non-committal tug. Only two or three had fallen out of the tear in the canvas; the rest had simply piled up on one side and had rolled back when they tipped the cart back up.
“By the Lady Summer and Fall, it’s a mess in there,” snorted the woman, as she pulled back the covering.
“S’ry,” mumbled the boy.
“What you just say, kid?”
“Sorry I broke your box.”
The boy stared at the ground, but after several seconds of silence he looked up. The woman was staring at him, and suddenly he felt very self-conscious about his skinny chest, his ragged clothes (or what was left of them), and the dirt on his face and hands.
He avoided eye contact with the carpet woman, but when he did look at her face he saw that her features had softened slightly.
It lasted only a moment. “Stupid kid,” she said. “It’s a wagon. A caravan. A fucking coach to the city for all I care, but it’s not a box.”
The boy turned away, his face twisted in anger. He had tried to apologize, hadn’t he? Dimly, he felt like that was the right thing to do.
A warm, moist snout nuzzled him in the side. The camelopard pulled back its long neck, hobbling slightly as he stood, and met the boy’s eyes.
Shoulders slumped, the boy gave the carpet another ineffectual tug, even as the woman began to pick up a second one. “Sorry I broke your wag-on.”
“It’s pronounced w- hrmph, never mind.”
The woman stomped away, as the boy dragged the carpet in the dirt behind her. In all probability he was getting it dirtier trying to help; he didn’t know why the woman insisted on his assistance.
“You’re a dumb kid,” the woman said, for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Don’t know anything at all. Don’t know a fucking thing.”
“I know some things.” The boy stopped to lean on his knees, breathing heavily.
There was no answer.
He looked up, annoyed. “I know some things!” he shouted, trying to get her attention.
The boy paused. “I know about grass.”
The woman didn’t laugh, but there was something like a wheezy snicker from the ox at the front of the cart. “What about grass?” the woman said, rolling her eyes.
“I know about…” The boy pursed his lips, as he set to pulling on the carpet again. “Long grass, short grass, tall grass, brown grass, green grass, white grass, blue grass, grass with bulbs, grass with seeds, grass with bits, grass that sticks, grass that bites, grass that cuts…”
“I get it.”
“Grass that only grows in the rain, grass that only grows in the summer, grass that only grows in the dark, grass you can weave, grass you can eat, grass you can’t eat, grass that makes you sick, grass that makes nice beds, grass that don’t make nice beds, sweet grass, fat grass, underground grass…”
“I fucking get it.”
Somewhere in his list the boy had managed to drag the carpet back to the wagon. With one short, sharp heave, the carpet merchant hauled the load into the caravan. She put her hands on her hips, surveying her work, looking to double-check if anything else had fallen out of the cart. The boy turned to look, too. Nothing had.
When he turned back, it was to a fist swinging into his face.
The boy had lost count of the number of times he had been hit in the head in the last hour. He skid on the ground and groaned, blinking the stars from his eyes.
“That’s for trying to steal my shit, stupid kid,” growled the merchant. She hopped onto the back rim of the wagon, bouncing as the caravan jostled away. “Don’t steal. Or, hell, be a better thief.”
The boy rubbed his bruised cheek, watching the cart go. The wagon, caravan, coach to the city.
Cities meant people. Despite the fact that his injuries, his wounds, and his bruised ego were all the result of people, the boy climbed onto the camelopard’s back and urged him to follow the person.
The boy made no attempt to hide this time. His fingers brushed his belt. The three disks were tucked safely away, his ragged pants were still hanging on, and his now ruined shirt was wrapped as a kind of pseudo-turban around his forehead. Without the shirt to buffer them, the disks scratched hard and cool against his skin. There wasn’t very much he could do about it.
All his worldly possessions prepared, the boy rode away.
“It’s because they’ve got stuff, yeah? People got stuff,” said the boy, wrapping his legs around the camelopard’s neck. “You should have seen her stuff, big guy. Should have felt it. It was nice. I bet they got stuff a hundred times better in the city, yeah?”
The camelopard’s head hung low. He made a tired groan, flicking his ears in a vain effort to fan his face.
“And water. I bet they get a lot of water in the city.”
The camelopard snarled, not satisfied.
“I bet she got water, too. With all that nice stuff like that, I bet she got water.” The boy looked around the camelopard’s neck. He could see the wagon clearly, rolling away. He could even see the carpet merchant sitting at the end of the cart, dangling her legs in the shade cast by the tarp. It wasn’t stretched as tightly now, with a tear in the middle.
The woman turned her head and met the boy’s eyes directly. “Look, it’s the dumb grass kid. What the fuck do you want? If you’re begging I don’t have anything to give you.”
The boy coughed, his throat dry. He talked often and frequently to his companion, true, but for some reason it was different with the woman. The difference wasn’t even in the fact that she could respond; the big guy responded just as often and frequently. It wasn’t the judgment, either. The camelopard’s baleful eyes had given the boy plenty of time to feel shame and rethink his life.
It was her face.
The boy did not remember any faces. He wasn’t even sure of what his own face looked like. There had only been one face in his life for four years, and that had been on the other side of the disk. Having more than one face in his life made it confusing and not entirely pleasant.
“We go to the city!” the boy shouted.
“The fuck we are,” said the woman. “You and your freak horse are going to attract every bandit for miles!”
Four years and two bandits didn’t seem like such a bad record, but the boy wasn’t sure how to say that. Instinctively, he looked away, but forced himself to meet the woman’s eyes as he spoke. “Not we we. Big guy and me. We go to the city.” The boy waved his hands in the air, suddenly ineloquent. “Separate.”
“We’re not separate if I can still see you,” said the woman, sliding as the ox clambered over a set of particularly large rocks.
“We go to the city,” repeated the boy, his features resolute. “This is the way to the city, yeah?”
“This is one way,” said the carpet merchant. “This is my way.”
“Now this is our way.” The boy folded his arms. “You try to make me go away and I reach down your throat and pull out your stomachs.”
The woman looked like she was about to swear again, but before she could speak she had broken down laughing, burying her face in her hands. “Oh, burn it all, Lady Summer. You got a name, kid?”
The boy shook his head.
“I should call you Grass or something, dumb kid. What do you call the freak horse?”
“The big guy don’t have a name. He don’t remember it. It’s in camelopard,” said the boy. The heat was not so noticeable, now, but his mouth was still dry with thirst. Perhaps there was a watering hole or a river on the path.
“The fuck is a camelopard? The long necked freak horse?”
The boy brushed the camelopard’s mane, and pursed his lips. “His neck is normal size, yeah?”
“Camelopard.” The woman had a similar expression of consternation on her face. “There’re camelbeavers in Da’atoa, camelturkeys in Hak Mat Do, and camel-fucking-hamsters in the Seat of the King. But camelopard? I don’t see it.”
“I remember it,” repeated the boy, insistently. “Camelopard.” Where the name came from and why it was there were unknown, but the boy hoarded memories like they were gold and loathed for anyone to say that they were false.
“Have you ever heard anyone else call it that?”
There’s been no one else. The boy didn’t say that. It seemed strange to say it out loud, like he would acknowledge some ugly truth. “I don’t need anyone else to say anything to know it’s true.”
“The electors at the Libraries would die of horror if they heard that,” said the woman. “They think truth is a democracy. How else do you know if you’re right?”
“I know a lot of things no one ever told me,” insisted the boy. “I know that the sun is hot and that water is cold. I know you should never let a prairie vole see you before you kill it, but that if you follow it back to its burrow there’s more inside and they got nowhere to run. I know that the big guy is my friend and he never told me that. I know I’m me.”
The caravan rolled away slowly, and the big guy followed at a leisurely pace. The woman did not say a word; she just put her elbow on her knees and her chin on her hand.
The boy hopped up and down on the camelopard’s back. His feet wiggled with anticipation. “Is the city a long way away?” the boy shouted, scratching the back of his neck. “Why you aren’t you going fast?”
“Moving slow, saving energy. It’s a long walk.”
“Oh.” That sounded familiar.
“Look, what the hell are you still doing here, kid?” The woman stood up, balancing without care on the edge of the rickety cart as it bumped and rolled along. “Get out, leave this place.”
“That’s what I try to do.” The boy squirmed. “But I get lost, yeah? So I go this way. Our way, your way.”
The sun was high and hot, but the woman did not move inside. She seemed torn, fingers drumming a pattern on her arms as she glared at the boy.
“How old are you? How long you been out here, huh?”
The boy sniffed. He remembered, but didn’t want to admit his age to the woman. Someone who was eight years old should have had more inside his head.
The woman massaged the bridge of her nose. “Yeah. Long enough.” She didn’t say anything else, just looked to the sky with her brow furrowed and her jaw set.
The boy traced the third disk in his belt, sighing. He hoped the girl wasn’t like the woman. There wasn’t anything wrong with the woman, it was just…the boy had imagined the girl whose face he had in his pocket differently.
They marched on and on, through grass gold-brown, waving ever so slightly. That woman’s face bothered him. There were deep lines in it, white hairs starting to grow around her forehead.
And yet, despite her age, when the boy looked into her face he felt like he was looking into his own.
The boy shifted, trying to interpret her silence. Maybe the fact that she wasn’t talking meant she didn’t mind him following her. “So I go with you to the city now, yeah?”
“No, fuck off.”
And the two walked on, arguing, not quite as alone as they had been an hour ago.