A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

August 10, 2007

26. Companions

They travelled east, through human lands much like those of the Kingdom of Madness; clusters of relatively small buildings divided at regular intervals by wasteland strips, with clumps of larger buildings here and there. The sky-road had three levels, two high strands of thin wires, and a lower layer of thick wires intertwined into a cable as broad and strong as a moderate-sized tree branch. Zelina was small enough that she found it easy to climb to the sky-road and follow Patch along even its thinnest wires.

"I don't object to all this climbing of posts and wires," she said, "it has a certain acrobatic appeal, and the views beneath are undeniably striking, but I do wonder, what is your objection to simply walking along the highways?"

"The what?"

She indicated the wasteland strip beneath them. "The highways."

"We can't walk on those! Those aren't roads. Not for us. Even humans don't walk on them. There are death machines."

"Automobiles," Zelina said.

"Excuse me?"

"They aren't death machines. There's nothing deathly about an automobile. In fact they're extremely pleasant. My attendants have taken me on highway automobile journeys on any number of occasions."

"Attendants?" Patch said, even more confused.

"The humans who care for me."

"The what who what?"

"Please do remember, I am the Queen of All Cats," Zelina said. "I have a human attendant who lives in my home to feed me and entertain me, and on certain occasions, such as automobile journeys, teams of other humans assist her."

"You mean cats live with humans? Like dogs?"

"By the light of the moon, Patch, not like dogs," Zelina said scathingly. "Humans serve cats as dogs serve humans. And sometimes, I fear, as ineptly."

Her invocation of the moon made Patch uneasy. But he was still curious. "You lived with humans? In a human building?"

"I lived so high above the Great Avenue that if the window was open, and I went out to the metal stairs and looked down, the automobiles below looked no bigger than ants."

"Where is the Great Avenue?"

"Quite near your Center Kingdom, I believe," Zelina said. "I never paid a royal visit to your King myself, having been constantly deluged with affairs of state, but that was the impression I received from the other cats who sometimes visited me on the stairs."

"Did you ever meet squirrels there?"

"No. The only squirrels I ever previously encountered were on automobile journeys. But our words grow distant from the point I seek to make, Patch son of Silver, which is that I think it would be faster to simply walk along the highway."

"I'm staying on the sky-road. You can do what you like."

He kept walking. Zelina slowed for a little while, but she kept following.

"Where do you intend to sleep?" she asked.

"I'll find a tree."

"I can't sleep in a tree."

"You can sleep anywhere you want," Patch said impatiently.

"Why don't we find our way into a house?"

Patch wished she would stop using strange words. "A what?"

"One of those little buildings. A human home."

"I'm not going into a human building."

"Why not?" she asked, annoyed.

"I'm just not," Patch said. "Humans are dangerous."

He expected her to laugh at this and explain again how humans served her; but she only sighed, and said after a few moments, "You are more right than you know."

Patch didn't understand, but at least she left him in peace for some time after that. They made good time for the rest of the day, and in the afternoon the sky-road happened to lead right past a maple tree. He gorged on so many of its sweet buds that his belly felt a little unbalanced afterwards and he had to be careful not to fall from the sky-road.

Eventually, when the sun was so low that long shadows spilled over the landscape below them, Patch decided it was time to find a drey for the night. He scrambled down the sky-road onto a patch of green surrounded by several of the buildings Zelina called "houses." This greenery was subdivided into a dozen little plots by tall fences, for which Patch was very grateful, for two of these little plots contained dogs. The dogs did not notice the squirrel and cat, for they were upwind and distracted by what passed for conversation among dogs:

"I'm here! I'm here!"

"I'm here too! I'm here too!"

"This is my territory! Mine and my master's!"

"This territory is mine! I guard it for my master!"

"You can't come in here!"

"You can't come in here either!"

Patch climbed a wooden fence, leaped from it onto a tree, and found a bowl-shaped hollow at the top of its trunk. It was full of recent squirrel-smells. Patch considered a moment, then followed the most recent smells higher up the tree, until he came to a drey carved by a woodpecker. There was a squirrel within. Patch thought nervously of the squirrels of the Kingdom of Madness.

"Who's there?" the squirrel inside asked.

"I am Patch son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe, of the Center Kingdom," Patch said. "Who are you that asks?"

"I am Waterwatcher daughter of Shine, of the Runner clan, of the City tribe, of the Ocean Kingdom."

"Would it be all right to sleep in your tree tonight?"

"Of course. My goodness, are you really from the Center Kingdom?"

Waterwatcher emerged from her drey and looked at Patch. She was beautiful. Her fur shone and her eyes were bright and inquisitive. Patch was suddenly acutely aware of his own scarred, salt-stained, travel-worn, clumpy-furred appearance.

"Yes," he said. "It's been a hard journey."

Then Zelina, from below, cried out, alarmed: "Patch! Help!"

Her cry was followed by two sharp intakes of canine breath. Then the dogs began to yammer:

"Cat! Cat! Cat! Cat!"

"Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!"

"Did that cat call your name?" Waterwatcher asked.

"Yes," Patch admitted, embarrassed. He considered abandoning Zelina to her fate. Then he sighed and said, "Just a moment."

The dimming red light made it difficult to see what was going on, to Patch ran back down for a closer look. He saw Zelina standing on top of the wooden fence that ran immediately beneath the sky-road, and divided the plot of land on which Waterwatcher's tree stood from the plot with one of the barking dogs.

"What's wrong?" Patch asked, over the din of the dogs. "Just climb down."

"I can't climb down a wall!" Zelina reeked of terror.

Patch remembered that cats couldn't downclimb. "Then jump to the tree."

"I can't!"

After a moment Patch understood. Zelina could go along the wooden fence, in the same way that she had moved along the sky-road all day; but unlike a squirrel, she was not nimble enough to turn, balance on top, and jump away from it. She could go along the wall to its end – but there was nothing at its end, it was the highest fence there.

"I'm sorry," Patch said. "There's nothing I can do."

"Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!" the dog on the other side of the fence screamed, and Patch could tell it was charging as it howled. It threw its massive body against the wooden fence and Zelina began to rock back and forth like a branch in the breeze. Her claws lost their purchase on the fence, and she fell.

Fortunately for Zelina, she fell on Patch's side of the fence, rather than the dog's side. Her fall had been clumsy but she landed very elegantly on all four feet. Before Patch could say anything to dissuade her she had climbed the oak tree and stood beside him.

"I nearly died," she said angrily. "I could have died. I could have been killed and eaten. By a dog."

"That's life," Patch said.

She looked around the oak tree. "Is this where you intend for us to sleep?"

"I was going to sleep here. But feel free to…"

"To think I am reduced to this. The Queen of All Cats reduced to sleeping in a tree, like a wild animal, like a common beast!"

Waterwatcher said from above, in a voice full of puzzled hostility, "Patch, is this cat here with you?"

Patch looked up at the beautiful squirrel and tried to think of an excuse.

"This squirrel is guiding me back to my home," Zelina said, "and if he serves well and faithfully he will be justly rewarded."

A few moments passed that were silent except for the yapping of the dogs.

Then Waterwatcher said coldly, "In the Ocean Kingdom, stranger, we do not consort with cats. You may stay here tonight. But only tonight. And don't eat anything."

She disappeared into her drey. Patch turned and looked angrily at Zelina.

"I'm very tired," she said. "I'll see you in the morning."


Anonymous Steve Tiano said...

It's the same across all species, I guess. When a guy's trying to make time with a doll, and a second doll who just happens to be along for the ride puts the kibosh on the guy's chances, well ... that's how guys get into moods.

September 2, 2007 at 3:43 PM  

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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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