There is a problem with free will.
The sun had gone almost completely down, and the inside of that miserable shack was nearly pitch-black. Luckily my eyes needed little light to see by. Unluckily, all there was to see was that great big golem hunched over in front of me.
It had certainly changed since the first time I’d seen it- it was no longer so runny and wet. But it was not solid, either. My fingers had sunk into the surface of it when I touched it. It was soft and malleable.
Perhaps in mind as well as body. But that was to my advantage.
“Let’s go now,” I said, reaching one hand back to smooth over my bare hip. It had not occurred to me to be modest in front of this golem- not that I could have brought clothing anyway- but I had also not expected it to be nearly this cognizant. Now I was feeling a bit of the chill.
The golem said, “We must wait until my bats come back.”
“Pardon?” I was not entirely sure I’d heard that right. “Your… bats?”
The golem inclined its big, heavy head. I could still see the red smear where I’d anointed it with my blood; my sore finger twinged in recognition.
“I have bats that like to sleep inside my body. I do not want to leave and take away their home.”
“Kezia,” I said, “if they are bats, they’ll come back around dawn.”
“Yes,” said the golem.
“By dawn, won’t your mother or her cat be coming back around?”
The golem took another one of its long pauses. It was unnerving how it could stand there completely still, without even the minute animation that a real living thing had; a couple times I’d thought it had gone back to being deanimated again.
“Noroc might come,” it conceded. “But I do not want to leave without the bats.”
Free will, I thought to myself. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation with a lump of clay. “They’ll probably find you again if you leave. They’re clever animals. We should go now.”
“Maybe,” said the golem. “But it would be rude.”
I took a slow breath. I need it, I need it, I need it. “I don’t think bats care very much about manners.”
Another pause. “But I do.”
Free will! “Listen, it’s admirable that you care so much, but if your mother or that cat finds me, I don’t think that they’ll be happy to see me. Or you with that free will. It would be better to slip away without them noticing, don’t you think?”
“After the bats come back,” said the golem.
“But what if I end up getting in trouble because of that?” I wheedled. “That mean cat has attacked me before.”
“Yes, him, he scratched and bit me all up. It hurt!”
The golem’s hollow eyes did not blink, and it was very unnerving when it just went quiet and stared at me like that.
“I am sorry that he did that to you.”
“I am too,” I said. “So-”
“Can you turn into a bat?”
“I saw you change from a bat into a human,” explained the golem. “Can you change from a human into a bat as well?”
“Oh. Well, yes, I suppose…”
“If you turn into a bat and hide inside my shoulder, I do not think Noroc will be able to harm you,” said the golem. “Then we can wait together for my bats, and then leave. I think they will get back before he comes here.”
“I…” I hesitated. “You just came up with that on your own?”
“Yes,” said the golem. There was very little emotion in its voice, and its downturned mouth almost made the phrase seem sarcastic. Though I didn’t think it was actually capable of sarcasm. Then again, I had not bargained on it being capable of coming up with its own ideas… I swallowed.
“I suppose that would work.” I needed to get the damn thing to move, anyway. Once it was a safe distance from the witch, I’d be able to get better control of it. “Very well, then. But I’m warning you, I don’t like to travel very much during the day.”
I could feel myself starting to get a mild headache. “I’m not partial to sunlight, that’s all.”
“Oh,” said the golem. It moved its head slightly, bumping it against some rafters. A little dust fell down on its shoulders. It didn’t seem to notice.
“If you do not mind, what are you?” it asked.
I laid a hand on my breast, widening my eyes.
“I am sorry,” said the golem, bowing its head. I had to laugh at the big thing’s meekness.
“I suppose I will tell you, since we will be traveling together,” I said. It obviously liked that, for its head came back up rather fast. I smiled. “I am a strigoi.”
“What is a strigoi? I have not met one before.”
“A dead thing,” I told it. “A dead thing that did not want to stay buried in the earth. That’s all.”
“Dead?” said the golem. “Does that mean that you were once an alive thing?”
“That’s right, my dear Kezia.”
“What kind of alive thing?”
“That’s a personal question,” I said.
“Yes,” said the golem, and after a beat, “Does that mean you will not answer it?”
“Oh.” That big head drooped again. But not for long. “Does it feel good to fly?”
“No, it feels exhausting. I suppose you don’t get tired.”
“I do not get tired. But if it rains or is very misty sometimes I sag.”
“We all have our own problems, I suppose.” I scratched the side of my head. “Well, I’d better get some sleep.”
“Oh,” said the golem, again.
“The entry point is- umm- through the eye, is that right?” I looked nervously up at the golem’s face. I wasn’t keen on going through the mouth, even though it probably all led to the same hollow interior, but even the golem couldn’t enjoy having bats crawling through its eyes.
“Yes,” said the golem. “Can you still talk while you are a bat?”
“No, I cannot, though I can sing a very fetching song at an octave you couldn’t possibly hear.” I laughed, but the golem didn’t join me. It had slumped again, the picture of such obvious dejection that it made me feel a trifle guilty.
“If I don’t get some sleep tonight, I will be even crosser in the morning. I’m already going to be cross because I’ll have to be up in the daytime. Creatures like me aren’t made for that.”
“Because I am dead and irascible.”
“Who made you?”
I hesitated, then stopped myself from snapping out another bit of sarcasm. “I made myself, I suppose. You know, with free will, you can make yourself as well.”
“Yes, that’s another one of the key bits-”
“How?” The golem took a lumbering step forward, looming over me in the darkness. My poor dead hearts started beating rapidly. “How do I make myself?”
It had probably been a bad idea to use metaphors. The thought was belated. When I didn’t answer right away, the golem turned its head down and looked at its big, three-fingered hands.
“Everyone else has more fingers than I do,” it said.
“True,” I acknowledged, still trying to compose myself. It couldn’t have any idea of how intimidating it looked.
The golem did something strange then- it took one hand and touched its large, round belly. Its fingers seemed to merge with the clay, and then, with a nasty squashing sound, vanished entirely.
“What are you doing?” I gasped. The golem’s arm had fully merged with its stomach!
“I am getting my blade,” said the golem, and indeed, a moment later it withdrew its hand holding what looked like a sharp-edged piece of rock.
“My goodness,” I said, swallowing. “What else have you got knocking around inside of you? Anything or anyone I should know about?”
The golem paused.
“I have three rocks and a flower right now,” it said. “I could get them-”
“No, no, leave them where they are. What exactly are you going to do with that?”
“I am going to make myself,” said the golem, and suddenly- with surprising swiftness- turned the sharp edge onto its own hand.
It moved so rapidly that I hardly had time to register what was happening before it was done. The golem had sliced through two of its three fingers lengthwise, so that now the clay flopped apart weakly.
The golem dropped the blade and took its other, uncut hand to manipulate its ruined fingers while I watched, aghast. It seemed to be trying to mold them, though it was not very good at it, and kept just mashing the clay into unrecognizable shapes.
“There,” it said, drawing its other hand back. “I made myself more fingers.”
“So… so you did.” I stared at its lumpy new hand. The golem leaned forward to pick up the blade from the ground with its misshapen fingers, but they skated right over it. I noticed that all five of them were moving, just not always in the same direction.
“Why don’t I…” I coughed. “Do you mind if I help you a little with that?”
The golem looked at me in what I interpreted as a blank stare. Well, blanker. I stepped forward and delicately took the mangled hand in my own. It had to be as large as my head, and when I took the weight of it, felt just as heavy.
The golem stared down at me, completely still again. I was unnerved, but I did need a golem with working hands. The clay felt like real clay, cold and lifeless against my fingers as I smoothed it down.
“Your hands are very small,” the golem observed suddenly, making me jump.
“In comparison to yours,” I snapped. Well, it was true that I did have small hands. I molded a little more forcefully, squashing the clay to my will; the golem seemed unconcerned about it.
“There, I think that should work better.” I took a step back and eyed the new hand critically. It was at least hand-shaped now, with five fingers that curved the right direction.
The golem flexed them slowly.
“It does work better,” it said. I thought that it might not have sounded entirely happy about it.
“You did most of the work,” I said. “I just finished it off. Look, are you going to do the other one? I want to go to sleep.”
“All right,” said the golem, somehow managing to make that hulking mass of a body seem meek.
We worked on the second hand together. The finished product was not exactly identical to the other, but the golem seemed satisfied, in its own quiet way. I yawned.
“Well, goodnight Kezia. You’d better tap on your chest or something when your dratted bats come back.”
“I will,” said the golem. I yawned again, shrugging my shoulders a few times, then put my hand on its big, cold chest. The golem looked slowly down at it, but I was already changing, hooking my new thumb claw into the clay as I did. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to take off from the ground as a bat- suffice it to say that it was better to start up high.
As a bat, I crawled up the golem’s vast chest- now much, much vaster than before- and onto its neck. It didn’t seem to feel my claws pricking into the clay. Of course, it also hadn’t felt it when its fingers got sliced apart, so why was I surprised? I waggled my little bat ears and went up the golem’s chin. Up close its eye looked much less like an eye and much more like a hole, which was a comfort to my little bat heart. I crawled inside.
At once I noticed a change in the air, as if I had stepped through some kind of bubble. All my fur stood on end as I hung there, just inside the eye hole. My ears trembled.
It was not the clay that was animated, it was this- whatever filled this hollow space. It was invisible, scentless, and made no sound, but there was most definitely a something inside that golem.
For a petrified moment I was afraid that it was the witch- that it had been the witch driving this automaton all along, and I had just crawled into a trap. But the air felt… it was hard to describe. There was no malice to it, no urgency, just a gentle pressure.
I took a tiny bat breath, squeezing my wings against my sides. It was very dark within the golem, and I could barely make anything out, but that was no obstacle to a bat. I let out a shrill chirrup and in moments knew that the space was vast, hollow, and had tunnels leading off of it. Likely the golem’s limbs.
I could smell that other bats had been in here- they had done some of their own bat business. I supposed that the golem didn’t care, although if it intended to keep them for very long… I trundled my way to hang upside down from the opposite shoulder that the smell had come from.
It was still quite hard to sleep. I had never exactly been in a situation like this before, being inside a golem; and I was nervous about what daybreak might bring, and hungry, too. And I had let my guard down a great deal more than I had intended with the golem, although it was hard not to with such a big, squashily innocent thing. I fluttered my wings as a sudden thought struck me- was I going to be spending the next few days being hit with an endless barrage of questions? It seemed frighteningly likely.
But there was little I could do. I had not the strength for the task, and my time was running short. This grim thought hovered at the forefront of my mind, and it took me some time to banish it away long enough to fall asleep.
I was woken by two great, resounding thuds that made the walls shudder, and I lost my grip and flapped and battered around in the hollow space in complete panic, bumping downwards until I hit solid ground.
It took me a moment to get my bearings, trembling as I was, and it took a force of will to stop myself from reverting back to my natural shape. That would have ended badly. No, I had to calm down and remember; I was inside the golem.
I heard chirrups and tilted my head upwards. Two bats had crawled inside the golem’s face, and they could certainly smell me, from the sounds of their squeaks. Well, that was their issue to grapple with. I crawled around for a moment to get my bearings- it seemed I had landed on the rounded inside of the golem’s big belly. I bumped into something hard and discovered it was a rock. There was also a flower- a large, slightly sweet-smelling one. The petals still felt crisp and fresh when I put my nose against them.
In the next moment the ground vibrated, and I gripped the clay with all twelve claws.
The voice came from inside the space, and for a moment I thought one of the bats was speaking. But no, of course not; I was inside the golem, and that was also where the golem’s voice would come from.
“Gabi, are you all right?”
It floated up out of the darkness, out of nothingness; entirely eerie. I suppressed a little bat shudder, and then began crawling up the inside of the golem’s stomach.
The other bats gave me a wide berth as I passed, huddling to one side of the golem’s throat, seeming quite suspicious. I paid them little mind and popped my head and ears out of the golem’s eye.
“Oh, there you are, Gabi.”
It was still unnerving to hear the voice coming from behind me. I took a look around the golem’s empty house. The sun was coming up, sending beams of light between the loose boards on the walls and lighting up every little speck of dust in the air. I sneezed.
“Should we go now?” asked the golem. “I think that Noroc will come here soon to fetch me. Do you think I should say good-bye to him?”
I let out an angry little chitter, then pulled the rest of myself out and fluttered to the center of the room.
When I changed back to my normal self and landed on the dirt floor, the golem drew its head back a little.
“Good morning,” it said.
I flinched and rubbed my arms as the sunlight glanced off them, and scowled.
“No such thing. And no, we won’t be greeting your cat. We’ll be going right now, since you have your dratted bats.”
“All right,” said the golem, lowering its head slightly, but I wasn’t in the mood to be empathetic. I went to the door and pushed it open, shading my eyes with one hand. The light still hit them like daggers, and my skin flared with soreness. I curled my fingers and hissed.
“Are you all right?” asked the golem, from behind me. “Is it hurting you?”
“Be quiet,” I muttered. I was starting to feel sick and hazy. Drat this light! Of course it wouldn’t be overcast, and of course I hadn’t fed the night before; I’d been hoping to be well away with the stupid clay lump long before now!
I heard it thump-thumping closer to me, and felt a little brush of panic. No; I had to stay calm, and keep rational. All we needed to do was get out of the witch’s territory.
“I am going to turn into a fox, and you will follow,” I snapped. “You’d better keep up!”
“You really are cross in the morning,” observed the golem.
“Didn’t I tell you to be quiet?”
I snorted, passing a hand over my eyes, and tried to concentrate. Fox… fox… Ugh, I felt so sick! It was a struggle to force myself down into the change, and that was never a good sign. But I only had to last until we got out of the woods. And now I was shrinking… smaller, smaller…
When I was done, I looked up at the vast, looming darkness that was the golem.
“You are not a fox,” it observed. “You look more like a squirrel.”
I responded with an irritated chatter. Fox had been too hard, too large, so I had settled for something else; but there wasn’t time to explain that. Hopefully the damned thing would still follow me, otherwise it might not be worth all the damned trouble I was going through to get it.
My new, furry self was at least far less bothered by the sunlight than my true self would have been, and I was beginning to get some of my head back. I sprang lightly to the doorway, and looked back with a twitch of my luxuriant tail.
“Are you always red animals?” asked the golem.
I ground my molars and sprang forward, into the bare patch of earth in front of the golem’s house, and then up onto a pile of firewood. The forest was still damp with dew, leaves sparkling and dripping in the sunlight, and the birds were beginning to get hellishly noisy. But at least I saw neither witch nor cat.
The golem lumbered up beside me, and I jumped. It is easy to get startled when you are a squirrel.
“Where are we going?” it asked, as if we were simply going for a Sunday stroll. I ignored it and sprang back down from the woodpile, heading towards the low fence around the compound. I’d feel much better when I was in those trees.
I heard the golem’s footsteps suddenly stop, and I paused in the dirt, turning my head to look back, and that was when it hit me.
Like knives, going into my sides; those were the cat’s teeth, and then the force of his jaw driving down knocked the breath out of me. I could only give a straining twitch, but I was caught, caught; I was a squirrel in a cat’s jaws, and I had no marten litheness to help me now.
Where had the cat come from? I was on bare open dirt, and I had neither seen nor heard his approach. Ah, I could feel his teeth drawing blood now; that was not good.
There were a series of ground-shaking thuds. I only had time to blearily realize that it was the golem approaching before the cat and I both suddenly flew up into the air.
I twisted my head around and realized that the golem was holding the cat up by his scruff, letting him dangle with me still in his mouth.
“Let her go, Noroc,” said the golem.
I think that the cat was as surprised as I was, from the way he was hanging with all four limbs stiffened. But he growled, low in his throat; I saw the scented petals of his eye-flower quiver.
“Let her go right now,” said the golem. There was no particular emotion evident in its voice, only a hint of steel. “If I have to force your jaw open, I am afraid I might hurt you. I would rather you let her go.”
The cat growled again, twisting, but there was obviously no escaping that grip. I gave a little squirrel cry as his jaws tightened. The golem said, “Stop!” and swung its other hand towards us.
I felt the cat’s jaw slacken, and the golem stopped moving, its hand hovering just in front of the cat’s face.
“That is good, Noroc. Now all the way.”
His jaw got even looser, and I felt a sudden spurt of energy. Suddenly I was a whipping, thrashing snake, and I lurched forward and buried my fangs into his flower, feeling a vicious satisfaction as the petals tore yet again. The cat screamed, and the golem dropped us both. I changed back into a squirrel in midair and landed on all fours, just in time to see the cat streaking off into the trees.
“You hurt him!” cried the golem.
I tried to sit up on my hind legs, and fumbled. Spots of my blood were darkening the dirt. He’d cut me good.
The golem seemed startled when I changed back into a human, for it took a step back. I was crouching on the ground, and cried out when the sun raked my naked back.
“You are hurt!” said the golem. It turned its head in the direction that the cat had gone in, then back to me. It seemed confused.
“Do you want to stay or go?” I said. My voice was thin, a rasp. I was fading, I had been a fool. “If you want to stay, then I have got to leave, and you’ll stay here forever. If you go, you’ll-”
Black spots were clouding my vision. I blinked and coughed, whatever pretty words I’d been formulating falling out of my head. My skin burned, and I curled forward, shielding my face with my hands.
A large, cool shadow fell over me, and quite suddenly I was up in the air again. The golem had lifted me up into its arms, and held me against its chest.
“Which way should I go?” it asked.
“I…” I was hazy, fading, disoriented. “Where your mother can’t follow. Some place with lots of people nearby. But not in…”
When I trailed off, the golem prompted, “But not in…?”
“But not in sight. Can’t see us.” My head lolled back over the golem’s massive arm.
“I understand,” said the golem. It held me tighter against itself, which felt surprisingly nice, as the cold clay pressed against my aching skin. I took a moment to wonder whether or not it really did understand. Then I believe I passed out.
I knew a place where my mother could not follow us, and where there were lots of people nearby. I had gone there just before, to meet the man and the woman: the meadow by the river.
It did not take me long to walk there, but I still felt urgent, and tried to be swift. Gabi had gone silent in my arms. Her eyes were closed. I felt a very strong feeling of fear. I did not think that she was dead, but she did not seem well, either.
It was strange to see her so still, and to feel how light she was. I do not know why it was strange. When she was awake, she was not any bigger, yet when she spoke and moved she seemed so different.
I carried her to the meadow, and then hesitated at the forest’s edge. I did not think that it would be good to bring her out into the sunlight, although it looked as though it would be a beautiful day. The sky was bright blue, with just a few puffs of cloud, and the flowers in the meadow waved on their stalks as though they were inviting me.
I stepped along the treeline until I came to a large, shady oak. I put Gabi carefully over one shoulder and piled leaves at the base, then laid her on top of them, on her back. Then I looked at her, and did not know what to do.
She was breathing very softly, which was good, and her mouth was open. I could see her eyelashes over her cheeks. Her thick red hair already had leaves in it. I tried to pull one out, but my fingers were thick and her hair seemed very stubborn.
I drew back my hand, afraid that I might hurt her, and then remembered her wound. How could I have been so foolish? If her wound got better, so would she. That was why she was not waking up.
I carefully lifted up one of her arms. The wound was on her side, where Noroc had bitten her: I could see several large puncture marks. They were much too large to have been made by a cat’s teeth. They must have grown with the rest of her body when she changed back from being a squirrel.
There was mud in some of the puncture marks. It must have come from when I pressed her against myself- there were more muddy smears all over her bare skin. I felt guilty. I had made her dirty. I tried to gently wipe away some of the mud, but that only made her dirtier.
I could not do much about her wound. I did not know anything about healing wounds. At least it was not bleeding anymore; I knew that was good. But I did not know anything else. Fretfully I placed one of her limp hands over her chest, then put the other one there too, for symmetry. I could not think of what to do. It occurred to me that this was a problem with free will. Maybe I was better off having someone always tell me what to do.
Gabi’s face twitched, and I leaned forward hurriedly, putting my face close to hers. She did not open her eyes. Was she in pain? Was she cold? Perhaps she was cold. Perhaps the sun was still hurting her skin even in the shade. I turned around and gathered more leaves in my arms to cover her with.
I dropped the leaves and turned back at once. Gabi had opened her eyes and was looking at me from where she was lying on the ground.
“Yes?” I said, because I could not think of anything else to say. I was very relieved.
“What are you doing?” asked Gabi, scrunching down her brow.
“I am not sure,” I said, which was true. “Are you very badly hurt?”
Gabi rolled her eyes up and to the side. “Where are we? How far away is your mother?” She moved one hand off her chest to try and push herself up. Her movement was weak and she did not get far. I moved quickly to hunch beside her and she shrank down into the leaves.
“You do not have to get up,” I said. “My mother cannot come here. Neither can Noroc. The village is close by.”
“The village?” said Gabi. Her eyelids fluttered. “Ah, I see…”
For a moment she lay there and did not say anything. Hesitantly I asked, “Are you in pain?”
“Unimaginably so,” said Gabi, but her voice was very dry. I felt that she was probably exaggerating. That was good.
“How can you cure wounds?” I asked. “I will do it.”
“You will, will you?” Gabi snorted, and flopped the back of one hand against her forehead. “Don’t bother. I’m a good healer all by myself. Just let me rest until nightfall.”
“And then you will be healed?”
“I’ll be in a much better mood, at the very least.”
“That is good,” I said, and she made her eyes go thin.
“You’re sure that cat can’t come here?”
“I do not think he can,” I said. I had never seen Noroc leave the forest. If someone had to go outside, Mother always sent me. Then again, Noroc did not have hands, so maybe that was why. “If he does come back I will not let him hurt you again.”
For some reason Gabi frowned, and then looked away from me.
“Well. See that you do that, then. I’m certainly not going anywhere for a few hours.”
“I am sorry I made you wait for my bats,” I said, feeling guiltier than ever. I could feel them huddled in my shoulder, no longer such a comfort. If I had listened to Gabi and gone during the night, she would not be hurt and neither would Noroc.
“You know,” said Gabi, “I think he would have caught us either way. He must be lurking around your house all the time, the way he popped out like that.”
“Do you think so?” I had not considered that. Noroc was good at hiding, even from me.
“I would’ve been better off at night still,” said Gabi. “Just so you’re aware.”
“I am sorry.”
“At least I got his stupid flower again, though.”
“Oh, you did,” I said, since she seemed pleased about it, then paused. “Why did you do that? I think it hurt him.”
“He was hurting me, in case you forgot! And I thought it would keep him off of our backs a little. Seems terribly vain about that flower.”
“It is a lovely flower,” I said. “He was in a bad mood last time until it grew back.”
Gabi snickered, rustling in the leaves. “Good. Little fleabiter.”
“He is not always so aggressive,” I said, feeling that I should defend poor Noroc. “I do not know why he attacked you like that. Usually he just meows and glares at things.”
“He’s jealous of my good looks, I think,” said Gabi. “That flower doesn’t hold a candle to me.”
“That is true, but you were a squirrel when he attacked you.”
“Are you saying I don’t make a handsome squirrel?”
“I do not know. I have never thought about a squirrel that way.”
“Hmph,” said Gabi, sinking further into the leaves. She blinked a few times. “Drat this sunlight. Can’t you block it out?”
“I can cover you with more leaves,” I said.
“Do that. And then be quiet for a while. I’m going to have a nap, and then when I wake up I am going to eat, and then we can finally get to the dratted errands.”
“What does dratted mean?”
“It means stop asking me dratted questions and cover me up.”
I felt that this was not true, but I stood back up to do as she said. Gabi closed her eyes and crossed her arms back over her chest, frowning. For some reason the image made me want to laugh. She looked like she was… what did she look like?
It was a fuzzy thought, undefined. I stooped to gather leaves, and decided to ignore it. I was happy that she would recover. I was a little bit worried about Noroc, but I knew that his flower would grow back. As for Mother…
I did feel bad for leaving without saying anything to Mother. But she would not have wanted me to go. Maybe she would not wanted me to go for a good reason. I turned my head slightly to look at Gabi, who was still lying with her eyes closed. She had already caused a lot of trouble.
But I could talk to her. And I did not have to stay alone in my house. And anytime I wanted to, I could go back to Mother and have my free will taken away.
I think that that thought was the most comforting of all. I did not know what lay ahead, but I could always go back.
I dropped a cascade of orange and brown leaves on Gabi. She sneezed and wrinkled her nose, then wriggled, making it all crinkle.
Without opening her eyes she said, “How quiet can you be?”
I was not sure I understood the question. “When I stand still, I am very quiet.”
“No, because you never quit talking,” said Gabi, which I thought was very unfair as she was the one who had started the conversation. “I mean when moving around. Have you ever snuck up on anybody?”
“I have never tried to do that.”
“Try it now. Sneak around in these leaves without making a sound.”
I looked dubiously down at the carpet of dried leaves, and raised one leg. Immediately there was a lot of noise.
“Oh, it’s hopeless, nevermind,” said Gabi, scrunching up her face. She still hadn’t opened her eyes. “I’ll just have to go myself.”
“Go where?” I asked, with my leg still raised.
“To the village. If I’m to get better, I’ve got to get something.” She was scowling now, and wriggled in the leaves again. “Oh, what a pain!”
“I can get it for you,” I said. “If you tell me what it is.”
“Not with those big clumsy feet you can’t. You’ll be too loud.”
I pondered this for a moment. “Why does it matter if I am loud?”
“Because you’ll wake people up and then they will probably try to stab you and there will be a whole great ruckus over it, that’s why.”
I put my leg down, finally. “I do not see why people would stab me.”
“Kezia, my friend, we have got to get you a mirror.”
I did not say anything for a moment, because her words felt a little painful. Gabi opened her eyes.
“Well, perhaps there is merit to the fact that you won’t be bothered by a stabbing either way. Will you?”
“I do not think so.”
“Then this may be an opportunity for a trial run of your usefulness. What do you think?”
I said nothing again. But Gabi did not seem to notice my silence. She was rustling around in the leaves, her brow furrowed as she thought.
“After sundown,” she said, “most of the village will be asleep. I will task you to fetch me two things. One is a set of clothes, because I’m curst tired of being naked. The second is a person.”
I had to break my silence. “A person?”
“Yes, a person, and I would rather you bring me someone who is still sleeping. And that you didn’t bring a mob with pitchforks behind you, either.”
“Why do you need a person?” I asked. I understood about the clothes.
“Everybody needs people,” Gabi said, her tone cryptic. “I happen to need them every few nights.”
I did not understand, but I got the feeling that her answers would not get any clearer if I asked more questions.
“All right,” I said. “That is what I will do.” Although I did not feel so happy anymore. Gabi closed her eyes again, only her face peeking out from the leaves.
“Well, good morning to you then. I am going to sleep.”
“Good morning,” I said.
The wind ruffled the leaves in the oak tree above us, and ruffled the tall grass in the meadow. A sparrow chirped.
Gabi opened her eyes again.
“Have you really got to just stand there?”
I was a little bit surprised by the question. “I thought that you were going to sleep.”
“It’s a little hard to sleep with a great big slab of clay hovering over you, you know.”
I shifted my feet experimentally in the leaves; they did not make very much noise this time. “Does this mean you are not going to sleep?”
“No, it means that you should go off and- I don’t know- do something for the next few hours. You’ve got free will, for goodness’ sake. Go and use it.”
I hesitated. “Use it for what?”
“Whatever you want! I suppose you’ll say you don’t want anything next.”
That was not wholly true, though it was true that I did not know how to put what it was that I wanted into words. Or even know what it was. But I was certain that there was something that I did want.
Gabi took my thoughtful silence as agreement. “Anyway, go and enjoy yourself. Just don’t get seen by anybody, and be back when it gets dark.”
“All right,” I said, though I was still confused, and began to shuffle off through the leaves. Then I stopped and looked back.
“How should I enjoy myself?”
Gabi only grunted in response, and there was much rustling of the leaves. I turned back and resumed my shuffling progress. Only this time I tried to practice being quiet again. Though it did not go very well.
I thought that I should not go too far from Gabi, because I had told her I would stop Noroc if he came back, and because I was still a little bit worried about her wound. She did not seem to have the strength to get up. Though she had a lot of it when it came to speaking. And wriggling.
I walked a little ways through the meadow, but not very far. With every step I ended up leaving a trail of flattened grass behind myself, crushed under my heavy feet. I did not like trampling the flowers like that. They seemed very forlorn when they were squashed against the ground.
Bees buzzed in the thistle around me as I slowly sat down. The sun was warming my skin; I felt it hardening. My stomach felt unusually warm. When I looked down I realized that there were red streaks on it. Gabi’s blood.
I touched one of them. It was already dry, a dark stripe on my belly. I rubbed it, and the brown clay obscured it away.
I took my hands away from my belly and flexed them. Five fingers. I had made them for myself. Perhaps I could make quieter feet as well. I looked down over my belly at my feet. They were like solid pegs, or two vast tree stumps- hardly very useful for sneaking.
A few hours later, the sun began to go down, and my bats crawled out of my eyes and left for the night. I got up and tottered unsteadily back to where Gabi was sleeping underneath the oak tree.
At first I did not see her at all, and I began to feel worried. Then I realized that she was still there, only that her face was buried too. She was a lump of leaves.
I was not sure whether or not I should wake her or not, so I stood there for a few minutes, motionless. The sun dipped lower. Finally I said, “Gabi.”
She sat up in an abrupt whirl of leaves, looking around wildly, and started again when she saw me.
“You-! God in heaven, it’s only you. You have really got to stop…”
She trailed off, her jaw working, as her eyes moved down to my legs.
“Is it just me, or has something gone horribly wrong with your feet?”
“Nothing has gone wrong,” I said. “I decided to make them better for sneaking.”
Gabi rubbed her eyes a moment, then said, “Kezia, come here a moment.”
Obediently I staggered over. One leg had ended up longer than the other, and was bent a little strangely, but it still worked.
When I stopped at her side Gabi reached over and put a hand on my foot, scowling.
“What are these things supposed to be?”
“Toes,” I explained. “Five of them.”
“These are most certainly not toes,” said Gabi, her fingers already working- shaping, smoothing. I felt it in a very dull way. “You don’t even need toes, for goodness’ sake.”
“I want toes,” I said.
Gabi made a noise that I was not sure how to interpret. She patted up and down my leg, then started work on the other one.
I felt compelled to ask. “Are you taking away my toes?”
“First it’s bats, now it’s toes,” she grumbled, which did not really answer the question. When she leaned away again, I saw that she had made my leg more like it had been before- like a peg. But it had a knee. And very small, stubby toes.
“I’m already worn out now,” said Gabi, lifting her red hair away from her neck. “You’d better hurry up and finish your errand.”
“Yes,” I agreed, though I took a moment to look her over. She did seem to have more strength than before, but she was- I was not sure how to describe it- faded. I felt bad that I would be leaving her all by herself.
“Are you sure your wound is all right?”
Gabi turned sideways, exposing her hip over the leaves to show me her side. There were only very faint gray marks there now.
“As you can see, it’s fine. Hurry up now, Kezia, and make sure no one sees you.”
“Yes,” I said, as though I had to be obedient again. Though I sort of did.
I stumped my way through the meadow again, this time in the last pale light of the day. Grasshoppers sprang to get out of my way, but at least now I did not leave such a big crushed trail behind me. My new legs were slightly longer and thinner, and I could move with a little bit more dexterity.
It made me feel light and graceful. And happy. I liked being able to shape myself. I wondered what I could change next. Maybe going into the village would give me ideas. I was sure I would see some interesting things there, even if I had to be sneaky.
But first I had to ford the river. I had forgotten that it lay between me and my destination. I hesitated a little on the sandy bank. I did not want my new legs to get soft and shapeless. But I had a job to do.
Reluctantly I stepped into the murky water. My legs held.
It took a long time to cross the river, because even though the ford never got deeper than my chest, it is hard to move such a big, rounded body through flowing water. By the time I got to the other side, the sun had completely set, and the sky was beginning to turn deep blue.
I stepped carefully onto the far bank, my feet spreading a little on the dry sand. I squashed and dripped for a few meters until most of the water fell off of me. Some of it stayed. It seemed like I would be a little squashy for the rest of the night, without the sun to help firm me up.
I had to work with it. Slowly and carefully I squelched my way towards the village.
The houses were larger than I thought they would be. They were much larger than mine, and made of a different kind of dark wood. The roofs were very tall and steep. Some of them were made with a material that looked like straw.
But those were just the houses at the very edge of the village. There was a dirt path leading into it, and then that changed into a stone path weaving through a grassy knoll. The houses further beyond were white, and had even taller reddish roofs.
No one was walking around that I could see, which was good, because then they would also have seen me standing there in the open. But I could hear a distant banging, like someone was hammering. Sometimes it would be a heavy thud and sometimes a light metallic tink, tink.
I hunched forward and put my big fists on the ground, moving slowly on all fours down the dirt road.
I passed by an open stable where there were two animals with their heads in troughs. Horses, my mind told me. One looked up and stared at me. I did not think that Gabi meant horses when she said that I should not be seen by anybody, but I moved past quickly anyway. The horse kept on staring at me until I was out of sight.
I moved around one of the dark-paneled houses, near where all the hammering was coming from, and leaned to peer around the corner. In the last bit of daylight, I could see that there was a man hunched over a tall anvil. He raised a big hammer and struck hard at something that gave off yellow sparks.
I watched him, unable to help myself. He moved in a way that made me think he had a lot of practice, manipulating and hammering a hot piece of metal into a thin, curving shape.
I heard a creak, and turned just in time to see a door opening beside me in the front of the house. A girl with a candle stepped out, shielding the little flame with one hand.
I froze. I was against the wall, but very nearly right beside the girl.
But she did not seem to notice me. Or maybe my big shape blended in with the house. Either way she looked around for a moment, then called out, “Father!”
“I’m coming,” said the man at the anvil, who had a voice like gravel. I heard a great hissing sound and turned to see that he’d plunged the metal into a vast bucket of water, which gave off billows of steam. He pulled it back out with metal tongs and slung it on top of the anvil before removing his heavy gloves.
Belatedly I realized that the man was going to enter the door- the door that I was standing beside. The girl might not notice me from her stationary position, but the man surely would when he walked around the corner. We would be face to face.
I did not know how to get away, though, because if I moved the girl would notice me. I stood motionless. Maybe they would think I was a statue.
The man scratched his chin with a noise like sandpaper and then took a step forward- then turned around, towards the stable.
“Did you feed the horses?”
“Of course,” said the girl, sticking her nose in the air, and vanished back into the house. The man scratched his chin again, still looking towards the stables. I took the opportunity to lope forward, across the road, hunching low until I reached the shadow of the next house. The man turned back around, frowning, his eyes scanning the road. But I stayed still, and his gaze slipped straight over me.
He looked around a moment longer, then put away his tools and went into the house, shutting the door behind himself.
I stood there in the shadows, feeling breathless, even though I had no breath. Sneaking was quite difficult. But also a little bit exciting.
I moved slowly down the road, trying to keep to the darker places. There were a few more people outside. A man emptying a smelly bucket, singing softly to himself. A child tearing up grass with his fists while voices argued inside the house behind him. A girl following two sheep, yawning, tapping their fluffy rears with a long stick when they stopped to snatch at bushes.
None of them saw me. I think that maybe they did not see as well in the dark as I did, but I think that they also were all very distracted. They all seemed to have things to be doing. It occurred to me that they all must have free will, and they all knew what to do with it without being told. Maybe it was something that came with practice.
I went further down the road, to where it changed from dirt to cobblestones and the houses were painted white. They were closer together here, and there was a building I had not noticed before- a very tall, thin building with a bell at the top.
A church, my mind told me, like it had told me what horses and sheep were.
What is the purpose of a church? I wondered, but my mind did not seem to have an answer for that.
Nobody was outside in this denser part of the village. Maybe the people in the white houses did not like to come out as much. Or maybe it was because it was getting later and darker. The candles that were flickering in windows were starting to go out one by one.
A soft creak got my attention. Someone was coming out of the church. A man with a candle in his hand. He turned and carefully closed the door behind himself.
BONG! BONG! BONG!
My clay skin trembled from the noise, and I reached up to clap my hands over ears I did not have. BONG! the church bell insisted, the noise still echoing inside of me. I could not block it out.
The bell ringing, and the man coming out of the church. For some reason my mind held on to those things, though I did not know why. I just wanted to get out of there. I turned and loped back the way I had come, forgetting about what would happen if I was seen. That BONG! BONG! sound was still rattling my shell.
I moved almost all the way back to the entrance of the village before the sound died down. All the little windows in all the houses were dark. How could they sleep with such a noise happening? I felt very unsettled by it.
I stopped by the stable and looked at the horses. One twitched its ears and snorted at me. I looked at it for a little while and started to feel calmer. And as though I wanted to pet it. But I did not.
Gabi wanted me to get her a person, and I still had not done that. I wanted to get out of the village now, so the time for sneaking and exploring was over.
I went to the door of the nearest house, the house where the man had been pounding on the anvil. I felt a little resistance when I gently pushed at it, but then, with a soft splintering sound, the door yielded to my touch. I caught it before it fell inwards and laid it to one side. Then I pulled my shoulders in tight and ducked inside the house.
It was dark inside, but not too dark for my eyes. I heard the sounds of breathing from somewhere nearby, and saw dim shapes. A chair, another chair, a table. The smell of straw, and two long lumps on a bed that moved like they were breathing.
I moved towards them. The floor creaked, and I froze, but they did not stop their steady breathing. I moved again, and then I saw the ladder. It led up to a high loft. I put a hand on it, and then wondered if it would take my weight. Should I try it? That would probably be a bad idea.
It was the sound of movement from above the ceiling that made me carefully set my feet on the ladder and begin to climb upwards.
It creaked a little bit, and I heard a few splintering noises, but it held. I squeezed carefully into the cramped space above, my sides scraping against the walls. There was a little bit of light filtering in through a small window. The moon had risen. A little girl was sleeping on a straw pallet, her long hair streaming over her pillow. It was the same little girl that had held the candle and called for her father.
For some reason I decided that it was this little girl that I would take to Gabi. I was not sure why. But I was settled on it.
The only problem was how I was going to carry her. It would be difficult to go down the stairs with her in my arms, not to mention trying to ford the river. If she got wet I was certain that she would wake up. That would be no good. Not just because Gabi said I should not, but because I thought it would frighten her to wake up while being carried by me.
But I had the perfect solution, I realized. Though it would be a bit cramped. I gently picked her up, sliding my arms under her shoulders and knees. She did not wake up, though I saw her eyelids flutter.
With great care, I pressed the little girl into my belly. She slid through the clay with a quiet little sigh, and then vanished entirely.
She made my belly feel rather full and heavy, and I put one hand on it. I could feel her pulse beating powerfully. I hoped she did not mind the occasional bat.
Now I had another problem, because I had to go back down the ladder, and I did not think it would like the added weight. I was fairly sure that everyone would wake up if I fell down through it. Luckily I was very large and had long arms. I moved the ladder aside and swung myself carefully down from the loft.
It was a long and uneventful journey back to Gabi, and when I made it back to the oak tree, still dripping from the ford, she was sitting up waiting for me. Her fingers were tap-tapping on her knee.
“You took your time, didn’t you,” she said. “And I see you’re empty-handed.”
Instead of responding, I reached down and pulled the still-sleeping girl out of my belly. It took a few seconds. When I looked up again Gabi had pressed her back up against the tree trunk, her eyes wide.
“Well,” she said, and licked her lips. “Well. That’s one way to do it.”
Her voice had dropped to a whisper, and now she drew closer and peered at the girl in my arms.
“A child?” she murmured. “You brought me a child?”
“Should I not have?” I replied back, trying to keep my voice as quiet as hers. “I thought children were people.”
“More or less,” muttered Gabi, and tapped her teeth with a fingernail. “Well, no matter. Lay her down on the leaves.”
I obeyed. The girl’s head rolled to one side, and her breathing quickened a little, but she still did not wake up. It occurred to me that I was not sure what Gabi was planning to do.
Gabi crouched next to the girl, tapping her teeth again as she examined her still face. Abruptly she said, “Did you forget the other task I asked of you? About getting me clothes?”
I reached into my belly again and drew out a set of woman’s clothes. I had taken them from a low nightstand before I left the girl’s house.
Gabi raised her eyebrows, as though she were shocked I could have managed it. “Well, well, you are quite the thief, aren’t you, Kezia?”
“Put them back for now, I’ll just get them dirty,” said Gabi, glancing down again, and I put the clothes back inside my belly. I still felt taken aback by what she had called me. A thief? Was I a thief?
Yes, yes I was. Those clothes did not belong to Gabi or I. I had stolen them. That was what a thief did.
I took the little girl as well. Could you steal people? And- I had not thought of this- what would happen when she woke up? No one could sleep forever.
I did not think she would be happy to wake up so far from her home with Gabi and I looking down at her.
While I was worrying, Gabi had picked up the girl’s hand, turning it so her wrist was arched and exposed. She drew her lips back and ran her tongue along her teeth. Unwittingly my attention was drawn to this. Had her teeth been that sharp before?
I only saw them for a second. Then Gabi bent her neck and bit down onto the little girl’s wrist.
I was so surprised I could not do anything. Gabi’s eyes were bright and shining, and though her lips were sealed around the girl’s wrist I could already see a trickle of blood pooling at the corner of her mouth. Her throat moved.
I could not think of what to say or do. And I did not think that Gabi would have heard me. Her eyes were unfocused, wide and fixed; her body curled and tensed, her fingers digging into the girl’s skin where she held her arm. I had seen owls before, turning their great heads from side to side before they swooped down on some small animal. That was what her face looked like now: the fixed, pitiless gaze of a predator, of an animal.
The little girl did not wake up. I am not sure how, because her expression changed- into one of pain. Her brow lowered and her lips parted, and her eyes scrunched tighter shut. Yet still she slept on. Gabi, drooling blood, continued her mindless feasting.
I did not know what to do, just then. I had free will, so I could try to stop Gabi from hurting the girl. It did look like she was hurting the girl very much. But Gabi said that she needed this. Would stopping it hurt her even more?
I did not know what to do, and so I did nothing, watching foolishly as Gabi drank her fill. It seemed like a very long time later when she finally raised her head. Her mouth was open and I could see the inside slick with syrupy blood, her teeth, her tongue, everything.
Gabi closed her mouth and swallowed, and then pressed one hand over the girl’s wrist. Blood oozed sluggishly around her fingers.
“Kezia,” she said, flicking her eyes up to me. They were such a bright, vivid blue that I was startled. “Hold the wound. I want you to put a little pressure on it, but not too much. Don’t break her arm.”
She handed me the girl’s arm, and I took it silently, crouching down myself. The little girl’s sleeping expression was one of misery now, and her breath came shallowly.
I curled my big fingers around her wrist. So tiny, in my massive hand! I was afraid to put any pressure on it at all. I could snap it like a twig.
Gabi wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, then lapped the blood from the front and back of her palm. She still made me think of an animal, the way she crouched there in the leaves, cleaning herself.
I could still feel the little girl’s pulse in my fingers, but it was much fainter.
“When the bleeding has stopped, you take her back,” said Gabi.
I was surprised at how loudly she spoke. I answered in a whisper. “Take her back to her home?”
“No need to whisper. She won’t wake up now.”
I looked down at the silent girl. “Do you mean that she is going to die?”
“It’s possible,” said Gabi, wiping her mouth again, “but I don’t think so. I prefer it when they don’t die. A dead body rouses more suspicion than a sudden sickness.”
“You mean, you have made her sick?”
“From blood loss,” said Gabi, “but with luck they may not realize it. Open your hand a moment.”
I obeyed, and Gabi inspected the girl’s muddy wrist.
“As I thought. Your mud seals wounds quite well. She is ready to go back now, if you please. And be as quiet as before.”
I gently laid the girl’s arm back onto the leaves. “Gabi, why did you bite her?”
Gabi’s eyes flicked to me again. They were so very bright.
“Hunger, of course.”
“And you are full now?”
“Oh, yes.” Gabi smiled, and I felt that her teeth had got even sharper, her lips redder. Far from being faded, she now seemed flushed, vivid, brightened.
“But you hurt the girl.”
“I certainly did. Why, Kezia, does that bother you?”
Her voice had gotten sweet again, dangerous, and her eyes were so bright I almost did not want to look at them.
“I… do not know.”
“Well,” said Gabi, “you had better think about it, and tell me what you come up with. In the meantime, put that child back to bed. I am refreshed, and when you get back, we shall start moving.”
I picked up the girl in my arms. Somehow, she seemed to have gotten even lighter. I pulled her against my chest, because she was shivering. Gabi reached out and smoothed the girl’s fair hair away from her forehead.
“She’s a pretty child,” she said. “Take care now, Kezia; they always miss the pretty ones.”
I did not understand what that meant, but I did not ask. I was beginning to recognize that when Gabi said something, it was often more to herself than to me.
“I will go,” I said, and I carried the girl back home.
Note: The next chapter of Earthcast will be available January 7, as I take a short break. Happy Holidays!