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

August 22, 2007

36. City of Clans

Patch woke with the sun. Leaving Zelina to sleep, he slowly climbed up to the top of the metal stairs, and onto the roof to which they opened. The roof was flat and white, and dotted with protruding metal things the size of humans. Patch leaped up to the short brick wall on the roof's perimeter and looked around. His heart swelled. For he saw the enormous mountains that surrounded the Center Kingdom, so near that they blotted out a sizable arc of the western sky. He had feared that the humans taken him far away from his home; instead, they had taken him much closer. Patch compared what he saw to that long-ago sky-view from Karmerruk's claws, and thought he was only a day's journey distant from the river that ran down the eastern shore of the Center Kingdom's island. He didn't know how he would traverse that river, but having already crossed the great waters and a bridge, he felt confident he would find a way.

The area around him was an amazing three-dimensional labyrinth of human chaos and construction. There were other buildings, wide and flat and low, like the one on which he stood. There were countless wire fences topped by barbed strands. There were scores of sleeping automobiles. There were highways and plots of pitted, cracked concrete, and in places the highways crossed atop one another, forming spans and tunnels of concrete. Even the walls of a narrow, muddy river in the middle distance were concrete. A huge metal bridge crossed that river. There were sky-roads of posts and wires, but they were sparse and disconnected, isolated spurs that ran between buildings or along highways for only some distance, rather than covering all the human territory like a vast spiderweb in the way of the sky-roads of the Ocean Kingdom. In the distance, across the narrow river, the biggest machine Patch had ever seen passed by. It looked like a dozen solid-walled metal cages linked together, and it groaned and shrieked and howled as it moved, and lights as bright as the sun flickered from where its wheeled feet met the metal rails on which it rode.

"Moon in the heavens!" Zelina cried out from behind him. "Your tail!"

Startled, Patch ran back to the metal stairs. Zelina was awake, and not alone. There was a strange squirrel on the metal stairs with her. Zelina had inadvertently cornered the squirrel, who she was examining carefully. Fully a third of the squirrel's tail was missing.

Patch had seen this before, of course. Squirrels are capable, when seized by a predator or perhaps trapped by a falling tree, of detaching part of their tails in order to escape. This is not done lightly; a squirrel's tail, aside from acting as rudder and sun-shade and blanket, is its crowning glory of beauty and vanity.

"Go away!" the squirrel said, frightened; Zelina was no larger than a squirrel, but she was still a predator.

"What have you done with Patch?" she demanded.

"I'm right here," Patch said from the top of the stairs, and then to the squirrel. "I'm sorry, don't worry, it's all right, she's a friend."

The squirrel looked suspiciously at Zelina, and even more suspiciously at Patch, and demanded, "Who are you?"

"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 Wriggler son of Downclimber, of the Seeker clan, of the Hidden Kingdom."

Patch looked at him quizzically. "Of what tribe?"

"We have no tribes in the Hidden Kingdom. Only clans."

"You say you are of the Seeker clan?"

"You say you are of the Seeker clan?"

The squirrels looked at another, amazed. Squirrels inherit their clan from their father and their tribe from their mother, so there were members of the Seeker clan among all four of the Center Kingdom's tribes. But Patch had never imagined that he might have clan-brothers and clan-sisters outside of the Center Kingdom.

"Why do you have no tribes?" Patch asked.

"The Hidden Kingdom isn't like the Center Kingdom or the Hill Kingdom. We have no great forest. We are too scattered to have tribes."

"If you have no forest, then where do you live?"

"We live here," Wriggler said. "We live in what you see."

"But there are no trees! Where do you sleep? What do you eat?"

"Come and I will show you."

Wriggler leapt up to the roof of the building, and along the wall that was its edge. Patch followed, intrigued, and Zelina followed him.

"Must the cat come along?" Wriggler asked.

Outraged, Zelina answered, "I will have you know that I am the Queen of All Cats!"

Wriggler sighed but did not protest further. He led them along a tendril of sky-road to a row of connected buildings with sloping roofs. There were a few cherry trees that grew from the highway before these buildings, but they were like the trees in the mountains, scrawny and disconnected, with only a tiny square of dirt around their trunks. Still, they were beginning to blossom, and Patch's mouth watered; cherry blossoms weren't filling, but they were tasty.

"Can we stop and eat?" he asked.

"I'll bring you to real food," Wriggler assured him. "You see up at the top of this building? My drey is there."

"Your drey is in a human building?" Patch asked, amazed.

"Come and see."

The roof of the building was built of human-made tiles, and at its very peak, a few tiles had fallen away, revealing a wooden-walled hollow within. Wriggler's drey was lined with leaves and papers and looked very warm and comfortable.

"I have two clan-brothers on this street as well," Wriggler said, "we're all Seeker Clan around here. I'll introduce you if I see them. Would you like to eat?"

"Oh, yes, please," Patch said.

"Follow me."

They took the sky-road across the highway to a big building with a flat roof. The air here was warm and smelled wonderfully of food. Wriggler and Patch downclimbed a sky-road pole to a narrow concrete strip between buildings. Zelina, as usual, had to find her own slow way down to the surface, with many teetering hops from building to sky-road to wire fence to a massive, foul-smelling rusted metal box on the ground between the buildings. She was still ungainly but Patch thought she was actually getting better at descents now, with practice.

"There's usually good food here," Wriggler said. He led them to a heap of wrinkled, shining black seed-pods, sniffed around, selected one, tore open a squirrel-sized hole with his sharp teeth, and disappeared inside. The seed-pod writhed and shook as Wriggler squirmed into it, and then emerged.

"Moldy multigrain bagel!" he said happily, "Delicious!"

Patch followed Wriggler into the seed-pod, and while something else inside smelled terrible, the chunks of food he found were indeed wonderful. When he came out Wriggler was looking very suspicious at Zelina and the dead sparrow she was eating.

"She only eats little birds and mice," Patch assured him.

"My mother always told me, never trust a predator," Wriggler said darkly.

"How did you lose your tail?"

Wriggler sighed. "A dog in a park. I was burying a nut, it was stupid of me, we have enough food here without nuts even in winter, but I couldn't help myself. It was downwind, and there were so many human noises around…"

Patch winced in sympathy.

"Some of the females don't care," Wriggler said, looking sadly at his much-reduced tail. "Or that's what they say. But when I chase them they don't let me catch them. I suppose you don't have any troubles with chasing."

Patch didn't want to talk about women. "I need to get home to the Center Kingdom. Do you know how we can cross the river into the mountains?"

Wriggler considered. "There are bridges. But they're for humans. And falcons live on the bridge towers. I've never heard of a squirrel going across."

Patch was not dissuaded by this news. Since leaving the Center Kingdom he had done many things nobody had ever heard of a squirrel doing. The prospect of one more did not particularly perturb him.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice chapter! i had no idea squirrels could detach bits of their tails, this really is edutainment at its most edutaining. :D

August 23, 2007 at 1:09 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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