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

August 28, 2007

41. Humans

In the middle of the night the city's human walkways were largely, but not entirely, deserted. Some humans reeled past stinking of fermentation, their feet falling so randomly that they were dangerous to be near, and Patch marvelled at their uncanny ability to walk on two legs. Some walked quietly, looking ahead of them, seemingly ignorant of all the world around them. Some – usually lone humans, or pairs – crouched to gawk at the spectacle of eight cats and a squirrel journeying through the night. Some slumped on the walkway, lying wrapped in woven covers like caterpillars in a cocoon, or sitting with their backs against mountain walls.

Late in the night they passed one of these sitting humans, a hairy-faced male dimly illuminated by a hanging globe of light. He smelled of filth. He seemed asleep, but as they passed, this human's eyes opened, and fixed on Patch: and the human said, in bad and broken but comprehensible Mammal, "Hello, squirrel."

Patch froze, utterly amazed, and Zelina and her seven cats halted as well.

"Hello, squirrel," the human repeated. The phrase required no pheromones, only noise, the dipping motion of a head, and a scrabbling motion of forelegs. The human's sounds and actions were imperfect but unmistakable.

"Hello, squirrel," it said again.

"Hello," Patch replied after a moment. He was ready to run.

"Hello, squirrel."

"Hello, human." Patch had not thought he would ever speak those words.

"Squirrel eat food?"

After a moment Patch said, "I am a little hungry."

The human seemed confused – and indeed he was, for hunger was a concept communicated with pheromones, and humans have long ago lost that part of animal speech.

"Squirrel eat food?" the human repeated.

Patch decided to answer in kind. "Squirrel eat food."

The human reached into its ragged coverings, and Patch tensed, but when the hand emerged it held a paper bag that smelled like heaven. The human dipped a hand into the bag and let fall a heap of little seeds onto the walkway.

"Be careful," Zelina warned Patch. "It could be a trap. It could be poison."

"Good food," the human assured Patch, and began to eat from the bag itself.

Patch stared incredulously at the human. Had the human actually understood Zelina's warning? And the way it was eating – why, this human was eating like a squirrel did, with rapid, twitching, repetitive motions, stopping between bites to look quickly back and forth. This human moved and even smelled a little like an animal, like a creature of instinct, not a creature of thought.

Patch began to eat the seeds. Then he began to devour them. He did not think he had ever tasted anything so wonderful in all his life.

"Try it! Eat!" he told Zelina.

She took a mouthful, crunched, and shrugged; to her it was nothing special. But to Patch it was the finest food he had ever encountered. When he had finished he looked hopefully up to the human, and the human let fall another handful of seeds, and Patch ate until his belly had no room for more.

"Good squirrel," the human said. "You stay, good squirrel? You stay?"

"No, I'm sorry," Patch said, with genuine regret. "I must go home."

Home was a pheromone concept too.

The human's face wrinkled. "Me no stay," it said. "Me always go. Me go, me go, me go again. Me always go. You come back, good squirrel. I see you more."

"I see you more," Patch agreed.

Almost immediately after they left the strange human behind, Patch was barely able to believe that the encounter had really happened.

"I didn't think humans could speak to animals at all," he said to Zelina.

Zelina said, "I have lived with humans almost all my life, and I have never heard of it happening before."

Patch thought of Siva the tiger and the 'human brother' Siva had spoken of. He reminded himself, when he returned to the Center Kingdom, to find Daffa the pigeon, and find some way to deliver a ball of glass to Siva's human brother.

The sky above them began to slowly brighten, almost imperceptibly, with the first glimmerings of impending dawn. Patch realized how tired he was. Zelina and the largest cat, who was named Alabast, held a brief conference.

"Alabast says we will soon reach a square of trees and grass," Zelina said to Patch. "We can sleep there. If we run all through the night that follows, we can reach the Great Avenue before dawn, and your Center Kingdom is only a little beyond."

Patch did not reply. Instead he sat back on his hindlegs, his eyes suddenly wide and alert, and sniffed the air.

"Patch?" Zelina asked. "Patch, did you hear me?"

"He's here," Patch said. "By the full moon, he's here right now. I can smell him." He ran a little ways along the walkway, his nose to the ground, towards a set of tiled steps that descended into the underground. "His scent is fresh, he went down there just now!"

"Who was here?" Zelina asked, bemused. "Who are you talking about?"

Patch said, his voice quiet but passionate: "Sniffer."

Then he pursued his enemy's scent down the steps into the underworld.


Blogger Phayona said...

I knew there wa sa kind human in this story somewhere, albeit a mad one lol...

November 3, 2009 at 12:06 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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