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

August 17, 2007

31. Cages

The human grasped Patch with a hand wrapped in thick material that smelled faintly of dead animal skin. Patch was too weak and delirious to struggle. He only trembled as his trapped paw was released from the snare and he was thrust into a small wire cage. Zelina and Talis were treated similarly. The humans, there were three of them, took extra care with Talis, and spoke to one another for a little while after caging Zelina.

Patch's cage was large enough for three or four squirrels. It was made of a fine mesh of strong wire. The wall that had opened to allow him entry had afterwards been clamped shut by some small human device made of metal, but it rattled a little as Patch was passed over the wire fence to another human, who in turn put Patch into the back of a sleeping death machine. The interior stank of animal pain and fear.

The cages were stacked, Zelina on top of Patch on top of Talis. After some time the death machine stirred and began to move. Patch curled around his wounded leg and licked the blood from his paw. He couldn't think, his mind felt trapped in mud, he had no sense of time or place, only of terror. A little sensation began to seep back into his paw, but that sensation was agony.

At some point the death machine stopped, its back was opened, and humans took a dozen empty cages from it. Shortly afterwards the cages were returned. Most now contained rabbits, but there were two squirrels, and one imprisoned a dog so small it was hardly more than a baby. The dog whined and bleated for the rest of their journey. The other animals remained silent.

Patch didn't so much fall asleep as fall away from the world. When he next became aware of his surroundings, he was no longer in a death machine. He was inside a huge, dim space that smelled overpoweringly of blood. There was no sky above, only metal and brick. There were dogs in the shadowy distance; their voices were terrible but he could not make out what they were saying. Patch's cage was part of a wall built three or four cages high and he did not know how long. All the cages were occupied by small animals – mostly rabbits, but amid the thick miasma of blood and pain and fear-smells, he made out the scents of at least half a dozen other squirrels. Zelina was now below him, and Talis above.

"What happened?" he whispered to Zelina. "Where are we?"

"I don't know," she whispered back. "Oh, my leg hurts so much I can't even stand."

Patch tried to stand and discovered that he could – but the pain of doing so was so excruciating that he quickly slumped back down onto his belly. He began to lick the blood from his paw and leg, trying to clean the wound.

Something moved near the cages. A rat. A big rat, and for a moment Patch stiffened, but it was not Snout.

"Soon we will sup on your blood too," the rat said to the animals in the cages, and chittered loudly with laughter.

Other rats, dozens of them, emerged from holes in the walls behind the wall of cages, and scuttled around the wall and towards the center of the room, towards the strongest blood-smells.

"What is this place?" Patch asked weakly. "What happened to the sky?"

"We're inside a building," Zelina said. "I've never been in a room this big before."

Patch gasped as he understood. He was actually inside a human mountain. Like being in a drey inside a tree. Humans had captured them, caged them, and taken them into a mountain. But why?

The answer was not long in coming. Bright lights winked on across the ceiling, lights that flickered so fast that they soon gave Patch a headache. The rats fled into the darkness, out of the immense space revealed by the sudden illumination, a hollow so big that it could have encompassed several large trees – if they had fallen, that is, for while the length and width of the room were very great, the ceiling was lower than the height of a small tree. The nearness of this wall between Patch and the sky made him even more unnerved and frightened.

There were more cages far away on the opposite side of the room. But these cages were much larger, and they contained snarling, slavering dogs, except for one that held … something else, something very large. In the middle of the room, rows of benches surrounded a circular wire fence. This fence in turn enclosed an open space from which the blood-smell rose. The blood was actually visible, smeared in dark patches on the ground.

Humans began to enter, many of them, until the benches were full. Two of them went to the dog-cages and brought out two of the dogs, holding them with leashes made of solid metal. The dogs snarled at each other as they were led to the middle of the room:

"Beg! Whimper! Bleed! Die!"

"Taste your flesh! Eat your heart! Drink your blood! Gnaw your bones!"

Once released inside the fence the dogs fought each other until one was badly hurt and the other almost dead. During the battle the humans jumped about, shouted to one another, and cried with exultation. Finally humans separated the combatants and dragged them back into cages.

Another dog was brought forth from the cages. This one was the largest dog that Patch had ever seen, as big as the two humans that conducted it into the killing space. It strutted confidently among the bloodstains, shouting, "I kill! I kill! I kill! I kill!"

And then suddenly the big dog went silent. The two humans had opened another cage door, the one that led to the strange thing that was not a dog. It was, incredibly, a cat. Patch had never dreamed that there were cats so immense in this world. The biggest animals he had ever seen were the horses that sometimes pulled humans through the Center Kingdom; this cat looked nearly as large. Its teeth were as big as Patch's head. Its fur was orange and black. As it stalked across the room with musical grace, its scent wafted through the air, a burning, feverish scent of wild rage. It was utterly unlike anything else Patch had ever smelled – except, possibly, the scent of that strange dog-thing in the Center Kingdom, on the day he had travelled into the mountains.

"Oh my goodness," Zelina breathed, below him. She was standing in her cage to see better, the pain in her leg forgotten. "Oh, he's beautiful as the moon!"

When the cat-thing entered the killing space, the huge dog whimpered and cowered onto the ground. A human touched a stick to the huge dog, and there was a crackling sound and the smell of lightning. The dog leaped to its feet, screaming with pain and rage, and the battle began. The shouts and exultations of the humans did not last long. The cat-thing tore the huge dog's throat out, settled down in the killing space, and began to eat. The humans watched this as intently as they had watched the battle.

Eventually most of the humans filed out of the room. The two that remained walked over towards the small cages, and many of the animals inside began to howl and thrash with terror, and all the cages trembled with their desperate fear. The humans took many of the cages, maybe a fifth of them, and carried them across the room, and as Patch watched with speechless horror, the smaller animals were deposited into the dog-cages. Most of the dogs wasted no time killing and eating their rabbits and squirrels, but several seemed to have learned to enjoy tormenting their victims, and drew out their deaths for some time.

The humans caught the cat-thing with steel leashes and led it back to its cage. Then they divided up the bloodsoaked rags of flesh that were all that was left of the cat-thing's adversary, and fed those remains too to the caged dogs. After they left the room the lights went out. Patch was alone in his cage, in the dark, surrounded by the terrified whimpers of the animals around him, and the distant growls of dogs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

best... chapter... ever!! :D

August 20, 2007 at 1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


August 20, 2007 at 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, after the whole Michael Vick mess—that's not quite the right word—this chapter is particularly powerful.

September 2, 2007 at 4:27 PM  
Blogger Phayona said...

Very grim, I'm pretty friendly towards squirrel's but Patch is yet to meet one kind human. but I guess with all of them being so mean so far its a set up for him to eventually meet a kind one. However, he may not be able to see the kindness after all his bad experiences...

November 2, 2009 at 9:51 AM  

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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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