(estimated reading time: 1 hour, 22 minutes)
When the Year is not Kept
And a Shave is Stolen while the Darkness is Borrowed
Robbed of her sight, Beret Chamberhand did her best to keep her words and her breath to herself. It didn’t feel like much of a robbery, as they were kept from her much of the time anyway by her marmoset masters, and she’d grown accustomed to having her view be nothing but white cloth, the only variety ever being the color of the trim.
Her surname was foreign to Compassleaf, as only tiny beities with enough wealth to own humans ever had need of her services. Marmosets were melodramatic and emotional creatures, and sometimes in their interactions they wished for the immediate architecture to reflect their emotional states.
So when the small monkeys were having gatherings there was often a Chamberhand standing over them, veiled, using only their skilled sense of hearing and their familiarity with their masters’ social mores to judge when and where to act.
If there was an argument, and someone immediately wanted space, a hand came between them to create a wall. When groups needed to be separated, perhaps for a competition, a forearm would divide the floor completely. The greatest skill was needed when two lovers needed an enclave all to themselves, and cupped hands had to carefully and seamlessly surround them without bumping into the romance.
For the latter task the softer and smaller hands of women were preferable, so Beret had been heavily trained for such precision and intuition. She had overseen more unions than she’d ever been allowed in her own servitude; the most closeness she’d been afforded was her arm sliding along that of another Chamberhand during joint sessions.
So while she did not feel robbed of her eyes, she did of her arms. At that moment, and for a painful amount of time now, they had been used as nothing but handles to hold her off the ground and keep her out of reach of her new owner: Lady Butterfur.
“Drop her this instant!” the bear shouted up into the branches. The cluster of beities was near the entrance to the Scion’s retreat, but not near enough that the bear could accuse the handful of baboons of trespassing. One of the larger decorative trees marking the edge of the grounds had been turned against her, and she just now realized there wasn’t a single branch low enough to be within her reach, even when a human was dangled off the side like a wet washcloth. “She’s my property and she’s brand new! You’re getting her dirty!”
“She’s already dirty,” one of them claimed with a sneer. “We have multiple reports of slang in this one’s mouth. It needs washing out.” Hocmursus, never one to attempt jumping until after the disappearance of her most valuable human, hopped as high as she could on her massive haunches. Beret was still out of her reach, but the baboon heaved and tossed her to another of the troop in a different branch.
“If you drop and break her my uncle will sit on your head! There’ll be lightning in your spit for the rest of your life!”
“Your uncle’s not here is he?” the first baboon said, able to mock her with a shrug now that he wasn’t holding Beret.
“He’s off chasing fish,” another laughed, with the others joining in. It was quelled when Mojopap appeared from behind a veil of leaves and cleared his throat. Gingerly he strolled along a branch, pretending to check the posture of his soldiers until he pretended to notice the blonde bear for the first time.
“We of course know that the duties of the Scion go above and beyond the stewardship of Compassleaf,” the troop leader said pompously. “We would never dream of disrespecting Krakodosus. Though it is a shame that the glut in the river has called him away from the most pressing state of affairs here.”
Beret was tossed again, Lady Butterfur waddling on her hind legs and reaching out to try and catch her, unsuccessfully.
“There’s nothing pressing at all!” she insisted, refusing to drop back to all fours. “If Loric and Hygenis were still in the city they would’ve been found by now. They’ve escaped. So everything here is back to normal, which is why, I suppose, you lot are harassing me!”
“Actually we’re protecting you,” Mojopap corrected, clicking his tongue so his subordinate would toss the slave to him, “from this ill-advised purchase of yours.” He lifted the human by her arm pits and smelled her, sticking his tongue out in disgust. “Imagine my surprise when I heard that, even though the delegation from Weaviranch had taken offense and left after opening their hunt, one of their humans was left behind, one that also happened to be present at the storyteller’s escape attempt.”
“I bought her precisely because they took offense,” the bear lied, which every baboon and even every bug on the tree was able to detect. “Now, should any other marmosets visit, we have a Chamberhand available to make them feel more at home. It’s called diplomacy, and you wouldn’t know the first thing about it if it bit you between the legs!”
“There’s no need to get testy,” Mojopap said in a tone of velvet. “I was just thinking that you had a different reason. I thought you might want to interrogate this human, learn something about the whereabouts of your dear storyteller in furtherance of your uncle’s hunt.”
“If I did it would be none of your business.”
“Afraid it becomes of concern when that human is overheard using a new and highly infectious slang arising from the incident at the gate.”
“And what slang is that?”
“Swearit,” the baboon swore, spitting out the word when he was done with it. Beret tensed in his hands, which he felt as immense vindication. “The word Loric tried to use as a password at the gate. She recognizes it; I can feel it in her limbs. There’s creeping talk among the humans that this new word can open doors for them… or rather a bloody set of jaws.”
“Do you have any proof that she has said it?”
“Words don’t leave stains,” the head baboon countered. “We’ve seen to that. I am within my rights to hold this one in custody until such time that I can prove she’s been sucking a Forbidden Thumb.”
“You just want to interrogate her yourself! You’re trying to undermine a hunt that is rightfully the Scion’s and no one else’s!”
“Seeing as they’ve almost certainly left the city, and that the marmosets have opened a parallel one, there’s-” Mojopap adjusted his grip as he noticed the reverse tiger Grinjipan stalk in from the sidelines. The cat stared up with a slightly amused expression, as if she’d stumbled across two lovebirds fighting in their nest. “What is it that you want?”
“I want you to drop what belongs to me. I’m about to return to Bagogreen, and I need to gather my things.”
“I don’t have anything of yours.”
“On the contrary,” the tiger purred, “as Lady Butterfur was kind enough to sell that slave to me even though she’d just taken possession, all because of an admiring comment I made.” The baboon was about to call her a liar when he remembered his position. Hocmursus wielded her uncle as a cudgel much less effectively when he wasn’t around, and she was a pushover no matter how determined she was. The tiger was more of an unknown.
“Yes, yes I have done that,” Hocmursus interjected. “Except, actually, it was a gift! To make up for how things went awry at the show. Really, it’s the least we could do. And now here you are Mojopap! Ruining even this for her! All of Bagogreen is going to hate us when she reports back to them.”
For a moment the baboon couldn’t think of anything to say. Outright accusing either of them of lying would’ve been nearly enough to bring Krakodosus thundering back. It might’ve been better if it was enough, for as it stood his rage would be stewing the entire time he was in Plunderoe, building up his strength with the richness of the salmon, only to bring it back and all to bear upon the Babeloons.
He dropped Beret in the hopes that she would strike the ground hard enough to break both ankles, but Grinjipan was there to catch her. Instinctively the slave reached out and held onto the fur of the beity’s nape, only then certain that the creature she now rode was a cat.
“Far be it from me to cause a diplomatic incident,” Mojopap commented before turning and disappearing into the branches. His troop followed and left the other beities to chat while Beret kept perfectly still. Best not to move until she was told.
“Thank you for intervening,” the lady offered Grinjipan. “You’ll have to take little Beret there with you, to keep up appearances. I hope that isn’t a burden.”
“Not at all. There’s always room in my collection for one more.”
“You will… you will take care of her yes?” the bear asked, remembering the intricate scars across the humans that escorted the tiger into Compassleaf. The tiger assured her she would live a long life, but the lady couldn’t leave it at that. She had to take a stab at her original purpose. “I was hoping to ask Beret if she knew where Loric was.”
“I don’t,” the human finally offered through her veil, able to feel the disappointment radiate off the bear without seeing her face drain.
“Uncle will go mad if he doesn’t find out what happened to Sportarct in the end of that story,” the bear said sullenly. “It’ll kill that spark of artistry I finally managed to kindle in him. Oh, what a dark cloud this is that’s come over my house. First pulchritude, and now swearit. Where do you suppose he’s been getting all these naughty words?”
“Who knows where they got any of them in the first place?” the tiger offered with a shrug, but not enough of one to knock Beret from her seat. “I do wish you all the best Hocmursus, but I do actually have to be going.”
“Yes, of course, thank you again Grinjipan. Goodbye little Beret.”
“Goodbye,” the human squeaked in despair. There went her cushy position in the house of Hocmursus, gone before she had a chance to rest her head on the famous pillow trove. Not only that, but she would be leaving Namstamp, where she’d spent her entire life, for Bagogreen, the reputation of which more than suggested that they found humans no less interesting and useful, but certainly less valuable.
The slave sensed something else. With a veil blinding her much of the time she had developed a strong sense of positioning. Walls were mute but she still managed to find them by the way they asserted themselves on the air. While only in Compassleaf for a short time, she already had an idea of where the outer walls were, and when the tiger took her leave of the bear she wasn’t heading for the nearest wall. Not yet anyway.
“Where are we going?” Beret dared ask after glancing straight down and seeing her new master’s atypical colors, which the human found off-putting, like seeing a tree in an ocean of darkness casting bright shade.
“You’ll see. Won’t it be nice to see something for a change?”
“What will I see?”
The birds had treated Mojopap with both disrespect and skepticism, which did not sit well just after he’d been robbed of an opportunity to interrogate Beret. But to think they would actually laugh and honk at something so serious as the opening of a hunt.
“That’s the third hunt in as many days!” one of them had squawked. “And on the same man too! Did you all forget you were looking for him? Lie down for a nap, get up, freshen up with a steamy morning story, but it’s not at your bedside! Woe again! The sun didn’t bring Loric back, better open up another hunt.”
“Better go bother the birds again!”
“Not like they’ve anything better to do!”
In the end though, they could not refuse him, and a third hunt was opened in the name of the Babeloons. Mojopap’s funds didn’t allow him to offer more than the marmosets as reward, but he didn’t want anyone else catching his prey anyway. Making the hunt official served only to cover his tail with the powers that be, though Krakodosus wouldn’t take kindly to it no matter how official.
As long as he was captured in the wilderness it wouldn’t matter. There was no law out there, and with the hunt opened his position at home remained relatively secure. But with all that done, there was still the matter of actually catching the storyteller and his pet dentist.
A human escape from Compassleaf with any amount of planning behind it only had one realistic option. Most directions would see their scent tracked before getting quickly run down without ever crossing a body of water large enough to guarantee their trail was gone. Not to the east however.
Those were the Shedlands, the quarantined prairie where both animals and plants were thinly spread and diseased, like pox upon an expanse of skin. The condition was called the Shed. Beities did not care for the medical knowledge of the humans. If it couldn’t be cured by a salve squeezed from a leaf then it couldn’t be cured. Gone was the understanding that diseases could have all sorts of different causes: bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi…
So they didn’t know why any mammalian beity that entered that range wound up suffering as they did, quickly losing all of their fur and becoming a pathetic naked wretch. Worse, after taking their coats the condition remained, warping the hide unevenly with redness and inflammation.
After that, some of the time, came death, but many sufferers remained alive and became deranged instead. Whether this was entirely due to the condition or was greatly worsened by the isolation of living in the Shedlands was unknown, but nothing naked was permitted to leave, except for humans of course.
They alone had hair sparse enough to go untainted, thus opening up the prairie as a fugitive’s road and refuge. Luckily for the rulers of the current Earth, the Shedlands had not expanded for many generations, no matter how many creatures were fed to them. To the beities it was just the way of things, but inquisitive humans still holding the reins of the Tame would’ve eventually discovered the answer.
The Shed was a fungus that took hold in follicles, needing both high temperatures and high levels of moisture to flourish. The Shedlands were hot enough, but only a follicle was wet enough. With the rest of Namstamp being too cold, and the river cutting it off on three sides, the pathogen wasn’t going anywhere for another geologic era or so.
Mojopap’s hunt was pointless if he couldn’t pursue quickly, before they got so far into the forbidden territory that one random change in heading meant they were lost forever. The troop leader could’ve hired another beity in his stead, a bird or reptile without any fur to lose, but then the honor was gone.
No mercenary had taken the oath that he had. I am diction’s death, he had swore, eater of words. All of recorded history was his bedding, and from sleeping in it he knew it would spread if not intimidated by his heavy breath directly over it. It caught like flame, much worse than the Shed, and the more it spread the more the world would know that it was Mojopap who had failed.
Literacy was a disease that carried around a list of those it had defeated, and the thought that the list might be all that was left of him turned Mojopap into a trembling nodule of rage. He needed to leave the city, if only to keep himself from tearing loose the shackles of authority and attacking a creature far above his station.
Only one possibility stuck out, a sore thumb indeed. The edges of the Shedlands had been worked out over countless seasons by wildly irresponsible experiments, but occasionally there was a fascinating result that did not end in naked derangement or death.
Some cats, retaining a hairless trait from their distant past, could pass through unscathed, and a few creatures with very short dense coats managed to shake off mild cases of the Shed. Mojopap knew of a boar who had, with that knowledge, had his human slaves use tools to shave him bare. He then passed through the Shedlands without contracting so much as the sniffles.
This was due to there being nothing to catch the windborne spores and feed them into the follicles, but Mojopap knew only that it could work. The problem was the tools required. Shaving with stones would take too long and be too imprecise. Having a swarm of ants snip off each and every hair at the base required a degree of trust in the insects that he did not possess.
Human hands were not necessary, those of his troop were plenty dexterous, but metal blades were vital. Every forged piece of metal, silver, iron, copper, and bronze, in Compassleaf was in the possession of dental professionals. They were supervised at all times by eight different eyes, all on a single head: Misugot the spider. The baboon weighed his options: burst into an appointment and take one from right out of a beity’s mouth or attempt to requisition one from the stalwart spider.
Mojopap himself wasn’t sure which one he would select until he marched into the medical facilities and was suddenly right at the threshold of the dental armory. Its location was the extent of his knowledge of it, as he’d never had cause to visit before, but that meant he was unaware of the line of silk across the floor that alerted the metal custodian to his presence the moment his sole touched it.
Easy to miss it was, as the floor looked bare of the stuff compared to the walls and ceiling. In fact the boundaries of the ceiling could not be discerned, obscured as they were by mounds of overlapping silk pouches holding all the tools needed to enable the forging of metals, interspersed with human bones picked so clean they glowed against the black threads swaddling them.
The tools of the teeth were similarly held aloft, lined up on the wall by thin tight loops, arranged according to size, function, and composition: Scrapers, pokers, mirrors, buffers, pressers, squeezers, and, most relevantly to Mojopap, slicers.
Among the giant scalpels was the one he deemed most ideal in size and edge, perfect for shearing an entire troop of baboons in less than a day. It would need to be brought along on the journey of course, as they might spend weeks in the Shedlands, and the hair could not be allowed to grow for more than a few days without a remedying trim.
Misugot knew when and where Mojopap took his first step, his second, his third, but the minor beity was very distracted by the contents of his most recent cocoon. There was a human stood near the back of the chamber, underneath a gleaming knife that hung by a single strand. If it snapped the blade would fall just far enough, gain just enough energy, to ignore the skull and separate the two halves of its meaty interior.
If the human was aware of that threat they must’ve been aware earlier, for now their eyes, and their everything else, were wrapped up tight as an anxious mummy. Legs bound into one. Arms bound straight down to their sides. Head unable to turn in any direction, nose squished against the face. The piece over their mouth moved worryingly little as they struggled to breathe, the expansion of their lungs audibly straining the ten thousand bindings about their chest. Their life was a rope about to snap, in more ways than one, a perfect snare of applied pressure, all ruined by the interruption of the bumbling baboon.
The beity of the higher name didn’t see it as an intrusion, especially since he would’ve been more than happy to simply claim his sword and go, which was exactly what he tried to do. By the time he reached for it on the wall the rigid white spider, carapace as smooth as moon milk, skittered over it and blocked him. His human prisoner sensed that the jailer was no longer crawling along his back, and began to wriggle more actively.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever had the pleasure of a formal introduction,” the primate said with a yellow-fanged grin, an unsightly color against the arachnid’s white carapace and shining ornaments. “But I’m well aware that you are Misugot, master of metals, just as you are aware that I am Mojopap, page burner.” The spider’s blank eyes gave him nothing. “Word wounder?” Somehow, even more nothing. “Best of the Babeloons?”
The imprisoned human hopped forward experimentally, out from under the knife, managing to stay upright. Misugot turned, tugged on a line attached to them, which stalled their struggle for a moment.
“You’re also involved in the training of the dentists,” Mojopap said to flatter further, though flattering a lower name already felt so far beneath him that his toes twitched as if something was sandwiched between them. “This must be one of your apprentices, and I take it they’ve misbehaved. Did you catch them bloodying their own mouth instead of one of ours?”
Misugot turned. Perhaps he’d taken offense, or let something slip. It was impossible to tell which.
“Oh your secret is safe with me,” the baboon assured, though he had dropped his smile and was now prowling back and forth under the scalpel like he was waiting for a wildebeest to take its last breath and lay down its horns. “Of course your humans are getting rowdy now that the Bloody Mouth was invoked under your watch. That might arouse speculation that your loose silk has led to loose lips. I wonder… swearit!”
The human jerked. They started hopping again, toward the exit. Misugot scurried to the floor behind them and tugged on the line, causing them to slam onto their face and whine. It turned into a body-scrunching scream as Misugot dragged them back by the thread alone, despite only being a third his prisoner’s size.
“This is exactly why I need to borrow one of your tools. Remember that Forbidden Thumbs are for humans, not technically for us. There’s no risk that I’ll go mad and produce ten thousand more simply because I can. My blood runs far from that thin, which you should respect since, technically, it isn’t even blood running through your kind, is it?
This slicer will be used to shave, to enable passage through the Shedlands, and that’s all. As soon as the errand is complete, which will correct your sin of letting Hygenis escape with tools by the by, it will be returned, along with the two that I will reclaim from her. I’ll be saving your face.”
The baboon looked at said face in another futile attempt to read its reaction, and saw that the prisoner had somehow gotten to their feet again, perhaps pulled up by Misugot like he was pitching a tent. The spider was perched on their shoulders, fangs arranged about the back of their neck like a pair of scissors.
“It’s decided then,” the baboon tried to finalize, reaching for the scalpel-spear again. He managed to lift it out of its loops and turn toward the portal before he felt a certain someone scuttle across his back, over his shoulder and onto the blade’s handle. All eight legs wrapped around it tightly, practically becoming a part of it: a set of decorative ridges and eight inlaid onyx jewels.
“Aw-aw! How dare you touch me, as if your name could possibly get any lower. It should be under a rock with all the oth- Oh look, they’re getting away.” Hopping madly, and with impressive balance that suggested they had suffered Misugot’s cocoon many times before, the slave powered past them on the right side. This forced the spider to make a decision over which theft was more egregious, and he chose the property with a heartbeat.
Quick as he’d come, the light creature silently leapt off Mojopap and to the wall, attaching another line of silk to his prisoner as he went by them. One tug knocked them over, against the wall of weaponry. In seconds their legs were off the floor and their whole body was spinning, fresh sheets of silk spilling out of Misugot’s backside like all the nasty things he could’ve said to Mojopap.
Once they were finally and properly immobilized, practically disappeared into the substance of the wall, Misugot rushed to the edge of the portal and looked beyond. The baboon was gone with his prize. What a madhouse Compassleaf had become, and how disgustingly shabby and tattered it had left the spider’s web.
Eventually the creature would work up the nerve to emerge from his shadowy hole and investigate the whereabouts of his charges, but by then the Babeloons would be marching into the Shedlands.
The greatest delay was not in shaving them, but in getting them to sit still long enough to suffer the indignity. Disgusted their leader was, returning to the tower triumphantly only to find his troop cowering from him, biting their nails over the prospect of feeling unfiltered sunlight on their skin.
If they hadn’t been shuffling about so nervously, dodging his gaze so as not to be the first one ordained as volunteer, they might not have disturbed the trail of already-shuffled papers left by their prey on their way down into the flu-riddled throat of the Earth.
One monkey was brave enough to voice her reservations, plainly stating that taking such measures over two humans and two metal sticks was overkill. They would become the laughingstock of Namstamp if anything as thick-blooded as a bird so much as glimpsed them from the sky.
“Curious blighted beak will look down, see a line of pink nuggets, and dive just to get a laugh that we can hear Mojopap!” Her commander didn’t answer immediately, instead searching the tower’s interior for the perfect spot to sit himself down, with enough room for those in need of a haircut to sit in front of him like they were going to engage in the much more common behavior of picking fleas out of each other’s coats.
“Two humans and two metal sticks you say?” Mojopap muttered as he found the spot, putting his back against a massive roll of paper recovered from a printing press that was found back when Compassleaf was still being dug out from between the roots of the mountain-stumps. It had a peculiar smell, like alcohol, likely some chemical treatment that kept it from ever yellowing or decaying.
The roll’s edge became a rug under him, hanging off a lip of clay like a giant piece of toilet tissue ready to be ripped away. Its pristine surface would perfectly show exactly how big the mound of fur he was about to claim was.
“You forget your own specialty,” Mojopap went on, testing the edge of the scalpel-spear by using it to cut strips from the paper underneath. Incredible. It took no effort at all, like cutting through sunbeams. “Loric Shelvtale got many of his words from a book, and we’ve found nothing in his things, so he has taken it with him.
We are not after him, or his companion, or their sticks as much as we are after that book. It has the power to create a thousand Lorics. Do you not remember that the pen is mightier than the sword? The pen is the greatest distortion of the Tame. Its false truths are the thin venom that runs in the veins of the humans.
We will gladly suffer a little nakedness to do our holy work. We will obey our troop leader, who has the will to bury more knowledge than was ever committed to the page. We will do this or we will suffer banishment from the troop, and we will remember that monkeys have few friends beyond their own kind.
You take your cut and your duty, or you go and live in Weaviranch as a freakish giant.”
He snapped his fingers and pointed at the blank page in front of him. She who had dared to object had apparently just volunteered, and needed to take her seat immediately. Every moment they delayed was that much more time that had to be spent naked in the Shedlands, chasing after a legged book.
Perhaps baboon hands were dexterous enough to provide a clean shave, but not without practice, and not without a finesse that Mojopap lacked in all things. She was cut several times in the process, and the paper would have turned red before the scalpel reached her neck if its coating wasn’t disturbingly hydrophobic. The droplets of blood rolled away as they fell, trickling over the edge and into the depths.
When he was done with her she went to weep in a corner and lick her cuts, staring at the inside of her eyelids rather than the mound of beautiful fur her leader had collected. He snapped his fingers again, and a real volunteer came forth. At least Mojopap hadn’t cut his teeth on the rest of them.
The veil was lifted, and it took several moments for Beret’s eyes to adjust to the light despite its weakness. A few shafts of sun came through a crack in the earth directly above her, and they were warm, but the underground chamber countered that sensation with a chilling aura from its dark half, awash in what she swore was unnatural shadow. She could almost see patterns swirling in it, the spiraling exhalations of something hidden.
The great velvet head of Grinjipan the tiger rose up to block her view of the dark half. Her thin orange stripes ignited in the sunlight, feeding power to the slits in her eyes. The cat sat on her haunches and placed one paw across the top of both Beret’s thighs.
Chamberhand had been forced to take a seat on a pedestal of rock, a lone, jagged, chalky tooth in a place that was otherwise empty, unless there was an army hidden in the shadowy portion. She kept her arms at her sides, hands shaking as the beity experimentally extended her claws and poked at soft flesh.
“Do you know what goose pulling was?” her new master asked. Beret shook her head, fighting back tears. “It was a blood sport, back in the world run by you and yours. You were jealous of the thickness of our blood, and so you sought ways to draw it out of us dramatically, sickly.
In goose pulling a live goose was affixed upside down in the middle of an arch, its neck greased and slippery. A human on horseback, another gross forced participation, would ride under the arch at full speed and attempt to rip the goose’s head from its body.”
She demonstrated the sensation by pulling one claw down the length of Beret’s thigh. Blood trickled down the side, but its warmth couldn’t match the sun’s, so it felt only wet, almost like she’d emptied her bladder in fear. The wound was not deep, not yet, it only felt that way.
“Have I done something wrong!?” Beret whimpered, fully aware she couldn’t slip out from the weight of the paw even if she tried.
“Shhh, I haven’t finished the story yet. Goose pulling was far from the only cruelty of its kind. There was also fox tossing. You see one would be placed in the middle of a long bouncing cloth, with a human on either end, and with all their might they would pull, throwing the animal as high into the air as they could. It would exist, in nothing but fear, completely unaware of its self, only the potential loss of the self, until it reached the ground and the loss occurred.
This monstrous behavior is fun to you. You enjoy it.” Grinjipan took to the other thigh, used three claws this time, let them go a little deeper, draw a little more, like she was digging for a bottomless well of blood that would come gushing out as soon as she found just the right spot. Beret groaned through gritted teeth.
“I know what you’re holding back,” the tiger insisted. “You’re accusing me of enjoying the same thing. And, in this moment, I will forgive your confusion. I like to put my claws in living things because it feels good on them, and I like for weaker things to know they are weaker, but I do not derive pleasure directly from suffering.
Now, Augustus II the strong, he certainly did. His lowest name was still good enough to be called king, back in the time of goose pulling and fox tossing. He once held a giant party, inviting all his friends and subjects, doubling that guest list by corralling hundreds of terrified animals to the grounds as well.
Then he showed off his incredible strength by holding up his end of the bouncing cloth with a single finger. Then, toss, toss, toss. All dead, all for entertainment. I doubt all of the scavage escaped waste that day.”
Grinjipan stooped down and licked the blood from her slave’s scratches, savoring it with a purr that made the shadows in the back ripple. There was anticipation in the darkness, and Beret would’ve sensed it if she wasn’t lost in panicked thought like a child abandoned to moonlit woods.
“Swearit,” she squeaked.
“What was that?”
“Swearit. Swearit. Swearit!” The young woman looked around, but nothing had changed.
“Oh that new word,” Grinjipan said. “You think perhaps it’s an incantation? That your fellow humans can all hear it and they will come rushing to your aid, every mouth bloodied like a proper predator even though I’ve just explained to you how the blood was always on your hands.
That’s the difference I’m trying to communicate to you. We animals create death; you humans machine it. You make it excessive, a process, a system. You set forth quotas of death. All because you couldn’t find a better use for the Tame. As a kind you killed yourselves because you couldn’t handle its responsibilities.”
“Swearit!” Beret tried again, for she had heard many things about the word in the short time betwixt its first utterance and her purchase by Compassleaf. Indeed, it had been said that it was even more powerful than the fabled Bloody Mouth. Some were whispering that a revolution was imminent, that this one word could bring down the city and raise it again under a human banner, becoming a second Staircase.
“Look at you, so afraid, even though I’ve made it clear I would never pull you like a goose or toss you like a fox. It’s been said, that at the party, the wildcats made for particularly poor sport, clinging to the bounce cloths for their dear lives, viciously attacking any human that came near. We’re such historic ruiners of good times.
So I’m happy to ruin yours now. Swearit means nothing at all. That poor baboon has been blowing his blood vessels, running around to put the lid on all these new swearing jars. He doesn’t know that I’m the source of most of the whispers.”
Beret didn’t speak the word again. Instead she swallowed it, waited for it to hit the bottom of her stomach like a stone tossed down a well, but it never did. She’d just doomed herself, but why had the reverse tiger done this if not out of cruelty? It had to be cruel, judging by the fear running through her every muscle, wriggling in her streaming tears, and beating down the door of her heart.
“I spread the word swearit,” the tiger explained, anticipating the little human’s every thought the same way she would the zigs and zags of an escaping rodent. “It was a good seed of hope, and there is no fear without hope. Treasures replace courage, and the other way around. With swearit you thought you had something, and were very afraid to lose it.
Now there are dozens of humans in Compassleaf, all holding that jagged little hope, taking its damage even as they make desperate moves to hold onto it, like your little outburst just now. You are afraid, yes? More than you’ve ever been?”
“Yes,” Beret admitted. “W-what good is m-my fear to you?”
“Yours was the most convenient is all,” Grinjipan said, blasting breath out her nostrils, nearly knocking the veil off her head. The big cat strolled behind her, but the girl didn’t dare turn, as she was now face to face with the black half of the chamber. Could it even be called a chamber anymore? She felt the space past her vision expand, to a plain, a continent, a world.
“We have our own Augustus,” the beity growled in her ear, whiskers poking at her cheek like metal-tipped mosquitoes looking for the best drilling site. “He has taken as many lives, but not because he is cruel. He is Phobopan the fear-full lion of the Wild Trinity. Fear-full because his belly is full of the fearful.
Beret squealed. There was nowhere to run. Closing her eyes would just send her to a greater darkness. Never had she considered that she would come face to face with one of the Wild Trinity, the ultimate beities who had reigned since their bloodshed made the mount of power too slippery for any other animals to attain.
“He doesn’t appear lightly,” Grinjipan added, having somehow gotten closer. Was she inside Beret’s ear now, or was that something else? “Each Trinitarian has a way of keeping humans in line.
Vissovis the golden fleece dulls them with comfort, excess, and luxury. Never will they desire to claw back the Tame if they are drowning in his grape juice, lounging in his wool, and dreaming to his count.
Assaulquus the Trojan Horse, the hooves of war, crushes those who attempt to throw off their shackles with her standing army. She is direct, she does not negotiate, and no orders in this world have less wiggle room than hers.
Phobopan, the fear-full lion, suppresses them with fear. He’s the one who crushes rebellions before they begin, before Assaulquus has to be bothered to move her entire army across the lands.
The situation here was not so dire as to require his attention, but I am in need of his help if I am to get what I want, so I planted the swearit seed. He will have taken note, but in order for him to be summoned to this place a being must experience tremendous fear in the company of darkness. Then, when he smells it, he emerges from that darkness, just as big as it.
And would you look at that pile of shadow before you little Beret Chamberhand? It’s gargantuan! If the fear-full lion strolls out of that he’ll be tall as a giraffe. He could eat you in one bite, but for the crime of swearing out loud he will make it many.”
Beret was breathing louder than she ever spoke. Grinjipan’s whiskers were on her right cheek, so she tried to lunge to the left, but somehow the tiger’s shoulder blocked her when she did. Even with her life on the thinnest of lines the beity was still so much faster. In a futile effort to ensconce herself in the sort of chamber she’d built for the marmosets countless times she threw up her hands as walls, only for a great black paw to gently lower them.
This was her fear, and she had to feel it. No others could possibly be responsible, she realized. It was her mind that seized upon its possibility, her heart the pumping bellows that stoked it. Of course it was all her, and of course she could expect the world to react to such a shameful display of wanton dread.
“That’s it,” Grinjipan encouraged her flickering spirit, “here he comes.” The air in front of the darkness stirred with a new breath. A wave of dust rolled out from what was likely a single pawstep. “He’s coiling for a pounce. I can feel it. And here he-”
Beret screamed. All from herself, all from emotion, as she hadn’t seen anything to warrant it. Now she saw even less, for the moment she opened her mouth Grinjipan had delicately grabbed the veil in her fangs and pulled it back over the slave’s face. There was no reason for the familiar sight to calm her, for the world was exactly the same beyond the veil, but it did so regardless. Phobopan could’ve been right there, should’ve been if everything Grinjipan said was true, but if so he wasn’t eating anyone just yet.
Grinjipan was the close one, whiskers pressed against her shoulder. Except, now that the veil had fallen in the way, they couldn’t have been hers. Beret tensed again, though it felt like the next one might cause her to collapse into a pile of sand.
The whiskers were walking across her shoulder, back and forth, their ends sharpened. There was a growl under the veil, small but deep, prowling her countenance as if it belonged not to the human. As a final proof that it wasn’t Grinjipan, the tiger grabbed the edge of the veil and lifted it back once more.
“And there you are,” she purred, Beret’s presence no longer of any consequence since she had already served as Phobopan’s tunnel. He was everything every legend claimed him to be, but all concentrated to the size of a walnut as the black lion with the ashen mane prowled across the slave’s shoulder.
“Swapping out the shadow of this place with the shadow under the veil at the last moment,” the lion noted, voice like a carnivorous canyon relaxing and picking its rocky teeth after gorging on time itself, “in order for me to take the least intimidating size in my passage. Clever, but you’re not the first to think of it. Do you think me weak as an insect now? Think it your chance to squish one of the Wild Trinity and ascend to my position?”
The little lion flashed his teeth, which were not bone but quicksilver. His double-thick blood expressed itself that way, allowing those he was about to devour to see their own reflection in his fangs, screaming mouths warped larger so they assumed they had never been anything but fear disguising itself as a genuine fulfilling life.
“I mean no disrespect,” Grinjipan clarified, bowing her head as she stretched her front legs: the salute of the cats. “I wanted only your attention, and I thought if I looked bigger to you I could be spared a few additional moments of your time.”
“What for?” the beity asked, flopping onto his side, tail flicking lazily. He began idly cleaning his claws with his teeth, steadying himself when needed by digging into Beret’s flesh. It hurt, but she kept as still as she could, praying a bead of sweat wouldn’t splash onto the little monster and disturb him.
She wasn’t there. As with the marmosets, she wasn’t there. Instead there was just architecture, made in the human style, brought to life only in its attention to detail. Beret Chamberhand was but a stowaway in a beity’s property, so she retreated into its recesses like a spider finding the corner of an attic that hadn’t seen cleaning across the most springs. She became small and distant within herself so the gods could talk uninterrupted.
“I would love a collaboration,” the reverse tiger claimed enthusiastically, which perked up the supreme beity’s ears. Few were so brazen. “There is a treasure I wish to claim, but it’s all caught up in politics. Working with you would cut through that netting, as you cannot be questioned.”
“No I cannot,” he agreed. “And what would this collaboration get me?”
“Conclusion to a matter that would, I believe, eventually require your time and attention anyway. It would save you a great deal of effort in the long run, and provide the two of us an opportunity to get to know each other.”
“I don’t take mates. You’d be long gone before I remembered I missed our second date.”
“Our blood may run at different speeds, but I see us as peers,” Grinjipan asserted herself. “I am perfectly content without mates as well, but I like stories. The best storyteller I’ve ever encountered is on the run from Compassleaf, having fallen into a book it seems.”
“They are literate? Then there is nothing to be done. Solid words are one of the more egregious thumbs.”
“Yes, but there’s no evidence he has made any of them solid, only interacted with someone else’s offense. It is my hope that, once I take custody, I can nibble off his thumbs and we can all move along. He will return to Bagogreen with me and be kept out of all light but that of my private stage. By hoarding him I will ensure that he spreads no more trouble.”
“You’ve glossed over where this saves my time.”
“That lies in how I got you here,” she elaborated. “A few rumors in a few ears was all it took, based on a single word made up by this storyteller. Tell me, was this human’s fear not of a particular flavor? The one with the scent that draws you?”
“It was. There is no panic like that induced by opportunities to climb or slip down the social ladder.”
“Exactly. My storyteller is out there, spilling such words hither and thither. He’ll have you popping up from under rocks in every human enclave on the continent if not reigned in soon. Multiple hunts have been opened on his name, but I suspect rules will be broken in pursuit of him as well. There’s a baboon here who wouldn’t know respect even if his mind was greatly expanded by the licking of a toxic toad.
He confuses it with fear, a sentiment I imagine most offensive to one such as you. It would be good for all beities if he did not win this hunt.”
“So you contend that you respect me properly, and do not fear me?” Phobopan asked his fellow cat. She nodded once without breaking eye contact. “If I were to suddenly break this little spell of yours, be here in a more typical size, you would not cower as I step toward you through the tatters of your snare?”
“Let’s find out,” the tiger challenged, knowing not how he could do such a thing but not doubting the ability. This was the fear-full lion; only a fool would think themselves capable of taking anything more than a brief sideways glance from him.
“Let’s, seeing as I am not in fact trapped in miniature. There is always darkness.” With that Phobopan got to his feet and leapt what, on his scale, was a great distance up the side of Beret’s neck and to her ear. He clung on the lobe with his claws like a heavy earring, but Beret kept still. After finding purchase he found the tunnel leading into her skull, as dark as anything Loric and Hygenis had seen in the bowels of the Tower of Babel.
In another leap he vanished into it, finally getting the slave to flinch. That was the ultimate terror: that the black lion could pursue her even into her soul, track her down by the scent on a trail of memories. Eat her spirit while the heart yet beat. Leave only the unpalatable skin and empty eyes, wandering as a testament to how terror could hollow anything.
But he didn’t. Instead he reappeared out of the dark half of the chamber, tall as a giraffe, just as Grinjipan had threatened. The shadows at the back receded, for he was all but made of the stuff, and since so much of it had stepped out into the open there was only a thin skin of it left.
His eyes were slate discs streaked with chilling rain, pupils a perfect crack down the center of the slab, chasms welling up with the black waters of fear in which living things could not swim, only drown. Phobopan could and had killed with one look.
Grinjipan did not fall victim. Did not need to shore up her resolve. Respect it was. The brilliant creature remembered no miscalculations anywhere in her long life, and planned to continue the pattern so it could go much longer.
“We will hunt then,” Phobopan said to reward her honesty. “For your storyteller, and for all who pursue him out of fear.”
“Fantastic.” The tiger strolled past him, toward the shadows she assumed would now accept her and offer passage. Phobopan turned as well, his greater size allowing his front half to vanish before the tiger’s quite got there. “Oh,” she said as she caught something by the tail that was about to slip her mind, “Beret dear. We’re finished. You may return to Lady Butterfur and tell her I was unable to accommodate you in my travels.
I should take a thumb for swearit, but what good is a Chamberhand with a hole in the wall? You can keep your finger if you promise to remember what Augustus the strong did with his.” Beret exploded back into herself, spattering across her own insides, nodding and weeping with such effort that she nearly fell off the rock.
“Now she will spread caution rather than discontent, excellent technique,” the fear-full lion praised from the darkness.
“Thank you. If we could stop off with the birds quickly before we go, I have something to share with them.” The tiger’s last stripes were sucked down into the blackness like a noodle down a gullet. Beret sat there alone, trying to pull herself together like a wet mound of sand. She waited for the walls to open up and reveal themselves as nothing more than another pair of cupped hands.
When the Year is not Kept
and a Book Falls up a Staircase
Not many things lived in the Shedlands, and even fewer of them retained a form of sanity. A good deal of luck was involved when, having not yet determined a path more specific than moving away from Compassleaf, Hygenis and Loric encountered their first resident of the area.
It rounded an orange rock, lazily even though this was an attempt at ambush. The creature was unsteady on its feet, five trembles for every step. Being a mammal, it was fully under the curse of the Shed, and likely had been for some years with its drooping ears, lips that looked moth-eaten, and warty, red, irritated hide.
A swollen tongue lolled out of its mouth with every breath, the tip of it retaining enough fluid to make it balloon. Swallowing it back down looked impossible. At first it appeared to retain some fur on its tail, but upon closer inspection it was revealed to be nothing more than a clump of sticky buildup, equal parts weed fibers, scabby excretions, dung, and twigs.
The disease had made its breeding utterly indistinct, but the humans sensed that the creature was something of a mongrel in the first place, long divorced from settlements but perhaps not from taboos. Perhaps he was a mutt forged from a great rift, a dog to a bear, a coyote to a stoat, a badger to a wolverine.
The thickness of beity blood occasionally allowed such leaps, though distant hybrids rarely attained any status and often suffered the opposite. His birth may have been enough to get him shunned, all the way into the Shedlands perhaps. Even though he showed himself as a predator, baring what teeth he could, the humans felt only pity at his presence. Better they reason with him, even if his capacity for it was minuscule, than to have either side suffer the pathetic slings of such a fight, where neither side’s lives were respected by the world at large.
“You’ve got arms to lay down,” the mongrel said, his voice as lowly as his demeanor. It was emitted with the mind rather than the throat, so its timbre had nothing to do with his ragged physical health. What they heard was the tensile strength of his sanity, and what they heard could not hold up a spider. He sounded like a lost puppy, but rather than a thicket he was lost in the concept of reason itself, confused by his own soul, whipping around to try and catch sight of it like he was chasing his tail. “So I can finally say lay down your arms. I’ve always wanted to say that.” The sun continued to bake all three of them.
“Well, are you going to say it?” Loric asked, clutching his dental mirror in a fashion as close to Hygenis with her hook as he could manage.
“Didn’t I?” The mongrel’s eyes rolled up into his head in search of the memory, finding a reassuring nothing.
“We will no sooner lay them down than we will the ones we’re attached to,” Hygenis warned him. “We have no quarrel with you. Are you so hungry that you will try and bite into a metal blade?”
“Mmmm… no,” the mongrel moaned, having expended all the energy he had for his ambush. There was a rocky overhang a few steps away, so he ambled under it and collapsed in the shade, swollen tongue bouncing off the ground once. “If you were polite you’d turn your backs and let me get you.”
Having been in much closer scrapes already, both humans had no trouble joining him in the shade, sitting right next to his head with the ears practically melting into the clay pebble soil. Hygenis spoke first, but without words. Her hook did the talking as she brought its head to her own, dragging its inner edge across her scalp and cutting her hair away in large bundles.
“You don’t have to do that,” the mongrel told her, yipping in his throat. “People can’t get the Shed.”
“Better safe than sorry,” was all she said at first, letting a pile build up between the two of them. “And I do it out of respect for you, so that you won’t have to look at it while we’re traveling together.” Loric remained quiet, trusting that she had one of the hundred strategies she’d already employed in his defense at the ready.
“I can’t go anywhere,” the ragged beast said, eyes scanning the distance, nose twitching despite it being much drier than it should have been. “Neither can you. It’s all rocks and thorns. And bones that don’t know they’re bones yet. Wish mine would figure it out.” His flank quivered, prompting him to scratch at a patch wildly. Thin blood was drawn, allowed to leak to the ground.
“I wouldn’t expect you to help us without compensation,” Hygenis offered. She stopped shaving briefly so she could pull out another sliver of metal from the hook’s handle, like the one used to distract Grinjipan’s gums. She held it out in the sun, twisted it back and forth so the light would catch and sparkle.
“It’s pretty, but I can’t eat it.” The mongrel’s eyes disappeared into their lids again, checking to see if he’d ever eaten anything like it. He found nothing, which made him forget he’d ever asked the question and brought about a calming wave of ignorance, a vital tool to make his body forget the intolerable unending itching.
“It makes eating easier,” the dentist claimed. “I’m a medicine woman, and my weapon is just a larger version of this. I take it you’ve never had a visit with one of my kind before?” He looked at her with doleful eyes, which served as answer enough. “Your skin may suffer, but your teeth don’t have to. If you help us I will give this to you.”
“I have fewer hands than I do hairs.”
“You’ll need a friend to help, a small lizard perhaps. Tell them to take up this needle, crawl into your mouth, and chip and scrape at yellow gunk between your teeth. Doing this regularly will protect them and make your mouth healthier. Only the yellow between you understand. Not the yellow on.”
“What happens if my lizard friend scrapes the yellow on?”
“They’ll drill holes in your teeth.”
“Oh… does it come with a lizard friend?”
“No. We’re on the run, didn’t have time to make any friends big or small, until now.” The mongrel looked around for these friends, but couldn’t find them, which wasn’t distressing because he found his inner eyelids again.
Assuming that was the wretch’s version of mulling the offer over, Hygenis returned to her work and finished off her own crop, looking to her companion as soon as she had. Loric sighed and shuffled in front of her, leaning on her chest. Taking away his only hat under such intense sunlight was a recipe for a terrible burn, but he still felt he owed her at least a hundred instances of silent obedience for ripping her out of her old life with much less finesse than when she did the same to a molar.
He watched his hair leave in the mirror, wondered how long it would take to grow back, and where the pair of them would be when it did. It was his responsibility to come up with something. His invocation meant Hygenis had to stay with him until his goal, which had not yet been set, was achieved. She would essentially be forced into servitude if he picked something that would take the rest of his life, or that could not be reasonably achieved.
The idea of such abuse made him shudder, which resulted in a smack against his shoulder: a penalty for risking a cut. Aside he set the mirror, bringing out the bottomless book in its place. A search began in earnest.
“You’ll have to be on the run faster with that,” the mongrel commented, recognizing it only as a machine of some sort. Perhaps it printed lizard friends.
“Does it offend you?” the dentist, almost finished being a barber, asked. Even she did not know what weight a Forbidden Thumb could press with out in the Shedlands. All of the Wild Trinity was clad in fur, but their divine nature might have protected them from all disease. They were not immortal in struggles with other beities, but aside from challenges to their power nothing seemed capable of harming anything other than their pride.
“I don’t think so,” the mongrel said, though it was clear from his fluttering eyelids that the search for the answer was ongoing. “Tensilharp the sharp won’t like it one pillbug, no she won’t.”
“There is still that matter,” Hygenis reminded Loric in her gravest tone.
“But she’s away,” the mongrel added. “Been east she has for a time now.”
“I can’t judge too well, don’t have much time in me. How do the wealthy measure it?” He sighed, which, paradoxically, gave them the sense that the wretched creature had nothing but time and that it all stuck together in an itchy ball like a colony of fire ants rolling across the desert. “She’s been gone so long that there’s some machine trash around here that hasn’t been cleaned up.
She thinks it’s her job here in Baldy Town because no mole has surfaced here as long as I’ve been here. They have fur too. She picks up machine litter and all the scraps of cleverwood too, dumps the stuff where the moles can get to it.”
“That’s good news,” Hygenis told the storyteller, “but she might not be too far to sense that this one is moving now. She’s been after it long enough that it likely has a special place scorched into her rage.”
“Are you two hungry?” the mongrel asked. “Does one of you want to go halvsies with me on the other?”
“What about the offer?” Hygenis asked, already far beyond the ability to fear the pathetic animal.
“Hmmm… something about catching lizards?” he struggled to remember.
“Close. We’ll give you this shard you can clean your teeth with if you guide us through the Shedlands, help us avoid getting eaten or winding up on a path with no water.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“The shard dearest, the shard that cleans your teeth.”
“Oh because I have teeth. After everything I still have something, and it’s teeth.” He wheezed, what was left of his laughter.
“And the shard… if you help us.”
“Right, well you two better stop laying around and building nests out of… whatever that is,” he chastised, pointing his snout at their combined pile of hair. Now it was Loric’s turn to roll his eyes. So much for solidarity as a negotiating tactic. “We’ve got a somewhere else that needs being in.”
The pile of rash and bone stood and stepped out from the shade, balloon-tongue lolling as his head swished back and forth. He asked which direction they wanted to head. Hygenis told him their only heading was away from Compassleaf, as long as he was sure he knew which way that was. She quickly stuffed all the shorn hair into Loric’s pack to help prepare for a journey that still had the potential to bring anything.
Maybe it was tinder for starting a fire somewhere distant and cold, or insulation for their clothing, or material for a facial hair disguise when crossing the paths of beities that instantly confused human females for males as soon as there was a mustache. Maybe they would actually sell it as nesting material to a little songbird that could give them directions.
Loric still didn’t know what its most likely use was, because he still didn’t know where they were going. Even as he stood and followed his dentist, who in turn followed their guide, he kept his face buried in the bottomless book, searching its archives for some sign as to his ultimate goal.
“Do you have a name?” Hygenis asked their leader, not out of curiosity, but out of the sense that the mongrel had to be kept talking to remind him that he both was in the presence of others and had a task at hand.
“Hah!” he wheezed. “What’s lower than a low name? If you called me anything it would be an insult.”
“Fair enough. I am Hygenis, and the walking cataclysm behind me is Loric.” The jab did draw a response, but it wasn’t audible. The storyteller was flicking through records even faster. “I give you these names out of kindness, but I expect you to forget them as soon as we separate. Various parties may come looking for us.”
“That won’t be a problem,” the mongrel assured her with another wheeze. “Once you lizards got to Baldy Town you stopped existing. It can be nice. All those old Tame-jockeys got what they wanted. Nice and dead now that nobody has to remember them. Peaceful as a planet too sunk in the night to see.”
“Oh they’re still around,” Loric finally voiced. “Still saying what they said back then. Still confused about what’s happening, even though it happened eons ago.”
“What’s there to be confused about?” scoffed perhaps the most confused beast in the history of the world. “The old Tame was too much for them. They cracked like eggs and leaked it all over us beities. Now it’s ours. We don’t crack eggs; we know how to sit on them and bring out the future rightly.”
They didn’t contradict him; as far as they knew it was possible there was a platypus somewhere in his lineage and any attempt to sire another generation could result in an egg. The most likely result was that he was infertile, unless propagating madness could count as reproduction.
“Not a one of them knew what the Tame was,” Loric explained, having found a perfect example in the records. He tried to summarize it, but Hygenis stopped him, encouraged him to read the whole thing word for word, thus removing the burden of keeping the mongrel listening and engaged from her shoulders. “Keep in mind this isn’t one of my stories; it’s just what one man wrote in a machine journal. It could use a better title though. Perhaps… ahh…
2034 is the Kept Year
And Limbs are Shed as Shackles
This is the perfect test of this dictation software, and I’ve been needing to lay it all out. Seeing the trajectory of my recent past will give me a guiding path to my future, to all of ours. My name is Hadley. I was a software developer for the Yerhere social media platform, starting in 2027.
Everybody involved knew it was a dumb idea. It actually had to be, as everyone had reached the conclusion that social media itself was a dumb idea, so everything contained within it had to be as well. The big problem with all of it was that it was stuck in the ‘open’ phase.
I’ll explain before I get ahead of myself and the software gets annoyed and interrupts me. The way I see it, all social interaction is broken up into two main phases: open and closed. The open phase is akin to a guy standing on a street corner twirling a sign, except every corner has a guy, and there is no function for most people beyond being that guy.
We’re all selling. It doesn’t have to be a product. It could be a religion, a lie, ourselves, an opinion, but it’s all solicitation. This phase isn’t about anything other than competing noises. It’s screaming cicadas. Loudest wins, whether that’s achieved by numbers or artificial amplification, or just by being the most alarmist.
In regular communication this phase breaks once it works. Two or more people collapse into each other as the floorboards of the illusion give way. You immediately see all the ways in which the person is not the message or methods they were using. This is the closed phase, the intimate phase, the basis for all positive and long-lasting human interaction.
Social media is an artificial environment that doesn’t understand that the goal is the closed phase. Everyone remains physically distant. They are not encouraged by way of the structure to have a smaller and smaller audience every time they interact with the same person. That should happen, so that by the time you’re yelling you’ve been narrowed down to one person that you’re yelling at, a person whose reaction you cannot possibly ignore.
The closed phase tempers most rhetoric, engenders calmer critical thinking as well as more nuanced emotional thinking. The problem is that neither of these things drives engagement, which drives profit. And in our age nobody opens a theater out of the goodness of their own heart.
Anyway, the whole space is a disaster. A crater where the impact/explosion never stops happening. Even basic facts are controversial to someone who has allowed themselves to be converted into that clown on the corner permanently. It’s who they are now, and since they can’t conceive of ever dropping their sign, would actually switch it out for a completely different sign if it meant they could keep spinning it, all their money goes to perpetuating it.
So Yerhere was born as a bad idea that would nonetheless make money. The gimmick was that, in order to make a post, someone had to upload a photo of themselves standing wherever they were at that moment, background visible, timestamped and everything. It wasn’t a site for sharing reflection, instead it was for immediate reactions. Chronicling experiences as they happened.
Of course this meant their location data was revealed in a thousand different ways, including directly, but nobody cared. Every other corporation already knew your location anyway. Our users just assumed we were collating and distributing that location data to our business partners, which we were.
But we had all the necessary toys to make people not care. One of them encouraged them to take pictures that overlapped with existing ones on the platform, so they could then be merged to form a larger image and ‘bring people together’ who hadn’t occupied those spaces at the same time. Mostly it was used to mock people by altering the context of their original post.
Like, a wedding party would upload their picture and then someone would take a picture in the same place but lower, with more of the ground in frame. Then they would make themselves up like a victim of human sacrifice, shirtless, bound, covered in fake blood, and then merge it with the original. Now the party looked ready to dig in. We got a lot of complaints from bridezillas.
Luckily I wasn’t in the complaints department. Like I said I was all software all the time, so I was able to pretend it was just a big puzzle box that definitely wasn’t fueled by pouring raw human emotion into the hopper. Specifically I worked on one of the algorithms, called ‘lonelyspot’.
See we had trucks like the biggest mapping sites, only the cameras on ours weren’t trying to make a meticulous record of the whole damn world. No, ours were looking for out of the way spots, ones where our users hadn’t uploaded any pictures. When one was found it was posted far and wide on Yerhere like a bounty, challenging them to be the first to snap a picture.
These spots were picked out of a hat by lonelyspot, and I tried to optimize the scenic nature of its selections. Long hours were spent feeding it carefully selected images. I say carefully because sometimes the cameras on our trucks screwed up, or rather captured something in a screwed-up fashion.
They took multiple pictures at a time and combined them into wider angles or more three-dimensional representations. If anything moved between the taking of the photos it would result in an incorrect image. If a mailbox fell over you might see it upright and on the ground, as if it had just bested its evil twin in flappy-mouth-door combat.
Such pictures had to be discarded on my end; it was even policy to do so. Except I didn’t always obey policy, because why does it ever matter when we all know, deep down, we’re already participating in a ruinous affair? We’re supposed to wait our turn in line as we all loot the store? All these pictures were technically Yerhere property, but some of them, that would just be deleted otherwise, were genuinely valuable. Namely, those of incorrect/distorted animals.
Not people. The people ones, by far the most common, were just freaky. Animal pictures were good as gold however. Yerhere had a whole task force studying the cute animal sinkhole that had been dodging most analysis for a couple years now, exponentially eating up internet real estate no matter the forum.
They never figured out why people kept turning to these images more and more as escapism, therapy, etc… but it’s obviously a classic case of overanalysis. Missing the forest for the squirrels so to speak. They made people feel good in a world that we kept making worse. That’s all.
Anyway, the cute animal sinkhole meant that any funny or cute images of critters created by lonelyspot’s errors could be sold to other sites, or even to private collectors that I promise you were a thing, for a sum that I would have gauged as higher than the price of my own soul at the time.
You might think that such a market would be quickly undercut by artificial efforts, namely some guy in a basement only half as nice as mine minting three-headed dogs and cows with floppy bunny ears in their photo editing suite. Somehow that wasn’t happening. For lack of a better term the ‘market’ was able to suss out what images were the result of genuine opportunity and happenstance and which ones were cash-ins.
Enter me with a sack full of lonelyspot rejects. When I started making sales even the ones with insects sitting on the lenses netted thousands. The cuter the better though. 17 K for a turtle that was spinning in a lake while the truck went by, resulting in it looking like it rotated faster than a drag race tire. 56 K for a horse that was laying down in the middle of its photo session, giving it legs only as high as coffee cans in the final image. That one bought me a greenhouse and a hot tub.
It got to the point where I was barely doing my job and spent most of my time poring through the pictures in search of animals. I wrote another secret algorithm just to spot potential eyes and tails lurking subtly in the corners.
One evening I was sitting in the greenhouse my skulduggery had earned, with deep gray clouds overhead and fat raindrops splashing against the glass, perusing the latest batch. Yerhere served the entire globe with our non-service, and these latest images came from Bhutan, a place I’m now ashamed to admit I never knew much about.
If you asked me to name as many countries as I could I probably wouldn’t have found that name in my head, even after looking at tons of maps for my work. It’s an interesting place to be sure, but here its only relevant quality is that it contains animals and briefly contained one of our vehicles.
Idly scrolling through the pictures on my tablet, with my greenhouse’s system projecting enlarged versions onto one of the glass walls, I found one that got a snort out of me. A snort had to be worth at least five thousand. Plus it was furry, so that doubled it. Goofy face. The numbers just kept going up.
Now the reason this picture got flagged wasn’t an uncommon one, and I could tell what happened with ease. The little guy had backed up two steps between one picture and the next. The end result was that his front limbs got cut off and his neck glued directly to his haunches, turning him into some kind of fuzzy chicken.
His tail had swished to the other side too, but maintained its limp tip, so on my end he appeared to have a heart-shaped tail that wasn’t filled in, perfect for dipping in soap and blowing bubbles. If I remember correctly, which I do, I whistled out loud. A heart-shaped tail. People were going to eat that up, and I mean it literally. Some of the private collectors that I considered wackos were definitely printing these pictures off, tearing them up, and consuming them to make them part of their lives forever.
In this first glimpse I did not know what the animal was despite being able to determine the ‘errors’. A quick reverse-image search gave me an ID: the binturong. Also known as the Asian bearcat, it’s an arboreal mammal that doesn’t have any particularly close relatives.
If it was a person it would look like someone who wasn’t close with their relatives, as it’s kind of… dumpy. It looks like a loner who knows what bathing is, but has had several fundamental misconceptions about how it works all their life. There aren’t too many kind ways to sum up its appearance. Like a raccoon dyed black in a dumpster bath. Like someone tried to draw a cat with an elbow covered in shoe polish.
They have small round vacant eyes like tarnished brass buttons. Their ears are weighed down by drooping fur, tails stuck in an even worse hair day. Sad and silly. They look the way too much hair gel feels, but at the time even an aesthetically unpleasant animal had its inner beauty seen.
All of god’s creatures were perfect in their own way, but this one had some imperfections thrown in by man that somehow made it so much better. The monetary possibilities blinded me, but only briefly. Then something took hold. Setting my tablet aside, I stood and approached where it was projected on the wall, careful not to block the light.
He stared directly into the camera, and I remember being bothered by the fact that he wasn’t staring directly at me. Putting myself in his gaze would block the projection, so I couldn’t, but it still tore me up. I was angry, with no idea where it was coming from. Up to then I hadn’t fallen down the cute animal sinkhole myself, even with all my free time spent digging them out of a digital dump.
Hours spiraled away in examination. When the light of dawn reached the greenhouse, ruined the projection, I had to go back to the smaller screen, and I wept because it wasn’t good enough. Nothing was ever going to be good enough, and I knew the reason. It was just a picture.
Really there wasn’t much effort to go back to my normal life after that night. Not one day went by where I fulfilled all of my Yerhere obligations. As false as they felt before, they now felt like the most catastrophic misfires in human history: a rocket-propelled arrow loosed in the opposite direction from the bullseye. We were so far from our humanity, and from any kind of legitimate purpose, that we would have to encircle the entire globe to return to that target.
Looking at the Bintuwrong (that’s what I started calling him) taught me that. Don’t ask how. It wasn’t a classroom lesson, it wasn’t a tape of subliminal sounds while I was napping, it just was. Learned the way I learned to talk. It was consuming knowledge, meaning it enveloped me and I became a part of it rather than the other way around.
Man, how sorry I felt for the people who were shredding and eating pictures of animals. They had the yearning, but they couldn’t find the path that was shown me through that heart-shaped hole.
None of us had to sit back and take it from our superiors. We didn’t have to let everything continue its downward spiral. The climate crisis was still my fault even though I was small. Some guy plundering a poorer country’s water for his bottling plant was still my fault even though I was small.
Above all that, Yerhere was my fault, so I quit right before they were going to fire me. Corporate sent an investigator around to my place; he wanted to scan all my electronics for any proprietary pictures and code. I told him to go to hell, and I made sure a gif of a giant middle finger unfurling was playing on my greenhouse wall as he walked by it.
Anybody who tried to take Bintuwrong away would have to kill me first. I made thousands of copies of the image, but didn’t distribute them, not yet. There was still so much to learn before I confidently threw it out to the world, and I was learning some of it every time I opened my wallet to a pasted-in copy of him.
You can’t get it, because it was a moment in time that has passed. Like the picture itself. The binturong’s actions in those moments, and the camera’s, made something that was over in a flash but recorded for all posterity. And I was the only one who had seen it. If there were living things at the time of the Big Bang, and all but one of them were turned away, would the others believe the one who had seen it? Or would they be so captured in the tide of space-time that they automatically forgot the realm before it?
The one who saw it wouldn’t, and I was the one who saw it. The old world and the new. All us and post us. We’re still there, in the tide and wake, but we’re not the very substance anymore. We’re weathered pottery shards in the riverbed.
Software’s telling me I’m getting ahead of myself again, disjointing this poor narrative. I’ll take its word for it, since the goal here is to put it in terms you people stuck in the past are still using.
My photos were of a real living thing, and I needed to find him. Everything he taught would be amplified if we were face to face, even though I knew he had four legs in real life and a regular feather duster of a tail instead of the heart-shaped one my id was so fascinated with.
In theory the hard part was already over since I already knew where Bintuwrong lived. Down to the latitude and longitude. Down to the nearest human signage. So most of the money I’d made from selling other lesser incorrect-imals was pooled into a general expedition fund. Once I’d taken a flight into Bhutan I would not be leaving until I had my meeting, even if the locals tried to force me out, even if I stayed longer than an Asian bearcat’s typical lifespan.
The country has a wide variety of climates thanks to some pretty wild shifts in elevation. There’s permanent snow in the higher places, but it’s sub-tropical in the lower, with a fifth season shoved into their year called monsoon. I was going low, where the bearcats liked it.
First I had to stand right where the truck was, confirm I had the right spot. After that I would set up remote cameras in trees, moving outward in a spiral, trying to cover as much of the territory as possible until I spotted him again in the footage. There was the concern that I wouldn’t recognize him against any other random binturong, but that was only a concern for people like you, who haven’t seen him, who don’t know that there’s no mistaking him.
Programs of my own design would scan all the footage faster than my eyes could ever hope to, and with a much lower margin of error thanks to all my damn blinking. When I set out from my hotel I had a backpack chock full of the cameras, each with a waterproof battery pack that would keep them running for more than two weeks straight.
There was another camera in my hat, and I made no attempt to hide the lens, so I’m sure I looked the world’s stupidest tourist: a man who needed to record everything because he couldn’t recall it five minutes after it happened. In reality the opposite was true. My entirety was a recollection, a memory burned into my soul. I was the very ashes of the phoenix… just wearing a stupid hat is all.
The GPS in my phone got me to the rough area, and my eyes got the me the rest of the way. It was a dirt road overlooking a deep ditch filled with bushy-topped skinny trees. There was a wet smell in the air, like an animal burrow filled with rain. Only five weeks had passed since the original screwy photo.
Five weeks was still plenty of time for footprints to wash away or grow over. While the bearcat normally hung out in the branches, my bearcat was snapped strolling across the ground, so I made an effort to look for his traces anyway. To my surprise I found the traces of something much larger.
Tire tracks in the mud. Deep and wide, they weren’t from a small vehicle like a bike, even though the road was remote enough that it probably only saw motors come through a handful of times each week. Instead of veering briefly off the road, the tracks curved straight into the ditch, which I noticed just before noticing the bald spots in the bark of a tree cluster.
With all three of my eyes hungering for more, I practically threw myself down there as well, into air so cloying and moist it was like I was being steamed alongside a giant batch of broccoli. Alongside us in the pot was a metal dumpling, torn open from its tumble over the side, a familiar name printed under a coat of mud.
Yerhere. Yes we were. Right there, at the changing of the guard, where the first guard peered over the side of a wet bridge so irresponsibly and was eventually given the tiniest push by the other guard just to get it over with.
My former employer had lost a truck, yet had made no effort to recover it. Now I had my explanation as to why there were no further photos of the area from the set that gave me the Bintuwrong. Taking the picture had somehow caused its wreck, of that I was sure, but I gave it a thorough inspection regardless.
Even with all that had changed inside me, I was not prepared for what I found in the driver’s seat. It’s safe to assume the driver wasn’t prepared for what she suddenly found lacking. Steering a truck would be most challenging without any arms, just as braking without any legs would be. Both afflictions had struck her, leaving behind empty sleeves, leggings, and shoes.
The woman had likely died on impact with the bottom of the ditch, but there were signs she had tried to steer the vehicle with her jaw alone: missing teeth mostly. Leaning down, I picked one of them up like it was just a dropped breath mint. A wave of shame came over me and I dropped it, backing up. The poor woman had just missed it, caught the shrapnel rather than the afterglow.
Her missing limbs meant a hundred things to me, chief among them that everything I’d learned was truer than true. True enough to change things. My animal represented an outlook that was so pure, so direct, and so honest that the physical world changed shape to reflect it.
None of the hundred cameras in my backpack were necessary. Bintuwrong was right there as I backed up, fluffy bottom resting comfortably on the glass dome atop the truck that contained its cameras. He sat on the barrel of one of our greatest weapons against ourselves, like it was nothing, because it was.
He stared at me with none of the curiosity that overflowed out of my eyes and ears just then. Just as in the photograph, he had no front limbs and there was a heart-shaped tail raised behind him like a peacock’s gallant fan. Coincidence was not on the table; he had known I would come. The picture was no accident; it was an act.
I won’t claim to understand the physical side of it, that would be the ultimate hubris from a guy who spent his whole life sculpting the nothing that is data. Suffice to say that Bintuwrong’s intent was the chisel and I was part of the marble.
His distorted shape was not a joke, and the sense of fulfillment it instilled in me was not a result of humor, or innocence, or accidental beauty. By becoming this new shape he was telling all of us exactly how we needed to live our lives if we wanted to move forward with the world, if we wanted to slip out of our failures like a shed skin rather than be dragged down with them in the book-shut that was fast approaching.
Everything I felt from his image struck me anew, with greatly increased intensity. Have you ever felt something so completely, so unflinchingly, that it redefines who you are? Like becoming overwhelmingly dizzy, falling over, and by the time you right yourself you see the shape and character of the land around you has entirely shifted.
There was nothing to do but drop to my knees and pray to this new god. Never a praying man, I borrowed images of groveling from movies and shows, ready to fan him with my outstretched arms before my palms slapped the soil in reverence.
They never got there though. Like a plane into the mist over the Bermuda Triangle, they had vanished in the journey. My fealty was so transforming that an attempt at a gesture representing it was a metamorphosis from frog to tadpole. If bringing my arms low meant subordination, then bringing them lower than the threshold of existence was an eternal vow.
Bintuwrong leapt off the wreck and waddled to me. Every step he took was another fat tear and rope of snot rolling down my face. All in gripping rapturous joy. With compassion unlike any a human could create, he stretched his neck to my bowed head and pressed his moist nose against my forehead in a kiss and blessing, anointing me as his disciple.
I was of the heart-shaped tail; it beat in my chest instead of showing on my back. You could still tell just by looking at me, thanks to the freeing absence of arms. You’re already overrun with dread at the idea of living my half-existence; I know you are. You assume my state is a vacuous prison where you can never take up the tools that help with anything.
On the contrary, I was freed from all shackles. The stresses of human society, the ones felt as constant pressure upon the shoulders and a vice around the lungs and heart, were no more. I could not be expected to labor, for Yerhere or anyone else. Nor was I of value as a conscript in all our false wars. Even the best of friends wouldn’t ask me to help them move.
This was the way mankind existed at its dawn. All obligations were tied to immediate survival. When you were forced to do something it was by an actual force, not stress, not shame, not uncertainty. Every time we used our intellect it was for true discovery, either toying with the building blocks of the scientific method, dabbling in artistic expression, feeling the turning of the Earth in our chests, or drifting in the volatile currents of romance.
Bintuwrong wanted to take us back there, show us that it was the essence of who we are. All modern society was competing edifices of evil, protracted yet still a mortal wound. In order to be rid of it we had to be rid of the ability to create it, for we would never be able to stop ourselves from rebuilding and maintaining it.
So no thumbs to turn the screws on each other. No fingers to type away, programming great snaking scheming chains that bind invisibly. No elbows to shove our fellows away in a crowd. No swinging our arms to balance while running, forcing us to slow down and face what we should.
I haven’t seen Bintuwrong since that day. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing exactly. By now we’re well past the end of his lifespan, but that sort of thing doesn’t matter anymore. I’m still breathing, so he is. If his life ever ends mine will instantly go with it, connected as we are, as I willingly became naught but an extension of him, a beating node of his heart-shaped tail.
When I left Bhutan I couldn’t carry my luggage, nor did I ask for help. Leaving it behind was like shaking off a piece of dandruff. Everyone was offering to help me, assuming I’d suffered a birth defect or a terrible workplace accident. Part of living my new life was not accepting that help. Not out of pride, but to give them the tiniest glimpse of a life without problems.
If there was something I couldn’t do, then I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t to be done. I am of the Earth once more, a roving sunflower, and if I am not destroyed I will bounce off and continue on. This was tested when I reached my own front door, closed and locked. The keys were in my luggage, which was in Bhutan, nothing more than a colorful rock made of odd materials and full of even odder gravel.
With nothing to be done, I waited, resting on my own lawn for a time I didn’t bother to track. Along came a cow, from where I hadn’t the foggiest. I’d never even seen them around there grazing behind fences. The animal, without sparing me a glance, broke down my front door and let itself inside, promptly making itself at home on a couch barely sturdy enough to hold it.
The way was clear, so I thought I might as well. Like a trespassing beast myself I wandered inside, checking for threats around corners. The power was still on, and some dry goods in my pantry were only near their expiration date. Ripping the boxes with my teeth, which required a good deal of dog-like head shaking, I helped myself to some cereal scattered across the counter top.
One tablet was left in Bhutan, but since I was formerly a useless cluster of electronics, there were two more left charging in my house. There was no need to pounce on them, as they no longer contained anything I needed or wanted. The news? The very concept had dissolved before me, as I already had all relevant information. The process of what most would call the ultimate disaster was as clear to me as a filtered aquarium.
The cow wasn’t making any effort to convince me of anything, but I doubted fate would send it crashing through my door just for it to climb on the upholstery or to give me a few nights in a comfortable bed before the rest of nature moved in. Perhaps there was still something that only I could do, for Bintuwrong.
Pecking at my tablet roused it from its slumber. Typing with my nose was time consuming, but I no longer considered it a waste to consume anything. My neck and face were sore by the time I’d managed to open the dictation software and modify some of its code for my purposes.
It’s now been a few weeks of sitting here, talking to it as it records and sends this diary out across the internet. If I was surprised by anything, it’s that the internet still stands, though that definitely will come to an end soon. Everything’s hollowing out, but the shells still hold, so much of my species doesn’t quite see how rough it’s going to be for them when it actually crumbles.
The world over, there are ‘cows coming through doors’, if you catch my meaning. My power still being on despite having not paid for it across a whole personal transformation must be the result of another one, as must the ongoing stability of internet connections. It’s still up to keep the cute animal sinkhole going.
There must be others aside from Bintuwrong, and I imagine they all have their own motives, some not so pure as ours. They will do as they will. My savior has not been lax in his efforts. Several times now I’ve seen people walk by the window, every bit as armless as I am, always with the same serene look in their eyes.
Would you believe Yerhere still exists, despite all this? I’ve walked by the old office a few times and they’re all still running around like termites, chewing on imaginary wood, still selling worthless data to worthless buyers. The husk still stands. I wonder if they’ll expect some kind of reward, a payout, when it finally gives way.
“What? That’s it!?” they’ll scream at the rubble when it doesn’t return on investment. All they’ll have is the location of every single person on the planet, but every last one of them will have no power over anything, as if they spent all that time and effort mapping the freckles on a face. They know where you are, but not where they themselves stand.
So heed my last electric words, readers and listeners. Your world is going to drop out from under you, and you better be following an animal when it does. Fall down the sinkhole. Some pair of reflective eyes will be waiting in the shadows for you. They may not be kind, but they will give unto you purposes closer to your instincts than other people will.
Give up your arms, and mock not those who have, for soon they will be forbidden, and the world will be emptied of the unforgiving and oppressive toys they cobbled. Let hands idle in innocence.
Bintuwrong be with you.
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