Plugs

I had just returned from three months Down Under. And being back I yearned for all those musical Aussie accents and watching the fruits bats high in the evening Queensland sky. Was it my friends I missed most or the sense of living in a city that had not completely steamrolled nature in order to exist?

These were my thoughts this Saturday afternoon. Autumn had just changed the leaves of my cherry tree to orange but I had the pleasure of taking my god-daughter to the annual Pet expo.

“Be a good girl and hold my hand.” I said to Marti. “They have giant mountain gorillas there, so don’t get lost,”

“Nuh-uh,” Marti said, dismissing the notion as one of my frequent teases.

“B’sides. Grillas are il-leeegal,” she said, one-upping me, as was our way.

We strolled through aisles lined with booths peddling kittens in cages, greyhounds on leashes, and every pet supply I could image. One booth, for a local sanctuary for injured and abandoned birds, was teeming with rather well behaved parrots.

In a cage quietly sat a squat bird, with a large black kingfisher’s bill, its white feathers dusted with gray and black.

“See Marti, that’s a Kookuburra.”

She liked the name, but the bird did not capture her attention.

“She’s from Australia,” said an old woman. The way she had so smoothly emerged from the bustling crowd of strollers and families it seemed she had come from nowhere.

I couldn’t get Marti’s attention away from the parrots. The crowd’s almost angry buzz was wearing on me. More than anything, I wanted to be on the bridge overlooking the Brisbane river.

“So go back,” the woman said, as if my thoughts were being broadcast. “Maybe you could find a way to bring me.”

“I should. And I’d love to,” I said, this time certain I had spoken aloud.

“Who are you talking to, Uncle Dovyd?” Marti asked.

“The nice old woman,” I said.

Marti gave me a look that said, not another silly tease.

I turned to point, but the woman was gone.

The Kookaburra laughed. The gurgling bellow, wholly alien, seemed to stop time.

“Wow, what was that?” Marti asked.

Pungent eucalyptus and tropical humidity filled the expo center and for the most ephemeral instant, all was silent before the din of the crowd returned.

“Two for After Serenity, please,” said William, a linebacker-sized guy with a Beatle haircut. Tucked up against him was a short, copper-haired woman with the face of a Greek goddess. She was looking around Robbie’s modest living room with an air of complete disbelief.

“That’ll be twelve hundred dollars,” Robbie said.

“And a large popcorn.”

“Four dollars. Do you want butter?”

“Is it real butter?”

“It’s an amazing, fat-free, butter-like food from the future. People eat this stuff and have orgasms.”

“Really?”

“No, actually it’s real butter.”

William grinned as he handed over the cash. Robbie made change, locked the front door, and followed William and his date down into the basement.

Several of the patrons milling around in the recently-remodeled basement called out Robbie’s name. Some were settled in the big, faux-leather movie chairs, sipping soda or peering at the DVD case. Others watched Robbie’s 65″ flatscreen TV expectantly. Robbie popped in the DVD and took a seat in the back row, next to the copper-haired woman. She bent over as the preview began, until her lips were almost touching his ear.

“When is this movie supposed to be from?” she whispered.

“It comes out eight years from now.”

“And you got it how?”

“Time machine.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You will after you see a few of these movies.”

“At these prices?”

“A guy’s gotta make a living.”

“If you can time travel, why don’t you just play the lottery? Or buy stocks?”

“I’m numerically dyslexic.”

“You’re a big, fat liar.”

“Well, I’ve been trying to lose weight.”

The movie started then, and the copper-haired woman stopped to watch it. It wasn’t as good as its predecessor, but it didn’t have to be. Everyone in the room, Robbie knew, was keenly aware that they were seeing something nobody else would see for years.

Animated conversation broke out over the credits. When the disc was done, Robbie took out the DVD and held it up in one hand. In the other, he lifted a hammer. As the others watched, he dropped the DVD into a steel bowl and smashed it with the hammer. Everyone cheered. Robbie took out a bottle of 12-year-old scotch.

The copper-haired woman peered into the bowl and shook her head while William poured them both doubles. “This is a hell of a way to make a living,” she said.

“Yes,” said Robbie, grinning. “Yes it is.”

Gail ran her finger along the edge of the huge tooth she’d found. It was serrated, very sharp, and somewhat flattened. A drop of blood welled up. She absently sucked her finger as she walked. When she got to school it was almost time for the bell. While taking the steps two at a time she thought she saw bones under a privet bush. Big bones.

Gail tried to focus on math, but her hand kept slipping into her pocket to stroke the giant tooth. She imagined a saber tooth tiger prowling around the building, growling softly when it saw students misbehaving.

“Gail!” From the tone of Ms. Horton’s voice, this must be at least the second time she had tried to get Gail’s attention.

“Yes ma’am,” Gail said.

“The problem on the board, young lady, has proven intractable. Why don’t you show us your solution.”

Gail had no clue. What would a saber tooth tiger do? She bared her teeth and stroked the tooth in her pocket. She stumbled through the problem until Ms. Horton finally let her sit down. Saber tooths are ambush predators. They bide their time and strike when they are ready.

All day she saw images of cats: taped to the wall, projected on screens, in patterns of cracks in the tiles. Finally, school let out. Outside, she looked under the privet, but didn’t see any bones. Joselle Simpson looked at her funny.

“What you got under there?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Lame. A sabertooth would have twitched its tail and yawned, showing its huge teeth. Joselle would have wet her pants.

“What you smiling at? I ain’t funny!”

Gail just smiled again, and headed home. On the way, she had this feeling. A feeling that something was following her. Not a creepy guy in a dirty raincoat. More like a saber tooth, padding with silent deliberation. She didn’t see anything, but you wouldn’t, would you?

When she got to her block, she looked warily for Butch. He was a pit bull-something-or-other mix and he was mean. Mr. Logan had promised to keep the dog chained up, but he forgot about half the time. Sure enough, there was Butch, trotting straight towards her. She was too far from her house. Gail stood still, hands wrapped around her chest. Then she put one in her pocket. She grasped the tooth, felt it draw blood. She glared at Butch, who skidded to a stop, yipped like he’d been kicked, and ran back home. Gail smiled, showing all her teeth.

End

Today’s story continues last week’s The Tale of the Astrolabe.


“Why am I learning all this?” asked Saan after his first day on the shore of the subterranean ocean.

The scorpion-man was the one who finally answered. “Study a year and a day, and you’ll know.”

“You’ll tell me?”

He didn’t answer, and if his carapace-skin hadn’t been translucent, Saan wouldn’t have seen his smile.

Beyond the sea-light’s shimmer, everything was unchanging darkness. Saan had no idea when days began or ended. He doubted he’d have much more sense of a year.

First thing after waking, he cleaned and repaired owl towers. Rather than keeping mice out of fields like their counterparts above, these owls kept lungfish from overrunning the delicate gardens of land-coral. Before sleep, Saan polished the astrolabes they hung to scare off the fish the owls didn’t get.

Between, he had lessons.

The troglodyte women taught about the world below. Irzell taught history and her sister Zirell, geography. Some days, he was sure they switched, but the subjects blurred anyway–listing Aldressorian battle-griots led naturally into recounting the shifting borders of their telling-lands down the years of the memory wars.

The baboon doffed his filigree robes for long strips of cloth like mummy wrappings to teach combat, hand and blade. He had to repeat every move a hundred times before Saan could make his far less flexible body imitate the vaguest shadow of the motion.

Saan sat with the scorpion-man for hours, rehearsing protocol, which was even more elusive than the other subjects. If you were given a snail, the proper thing was to praise the sky over the land of the snail-giver’s birth. Unless you were in the south of Uil, where saying anything before eating the snail was a mortal offense. Unless this was during the festival of Noltu, and the snail was spiced. Then you needed to feign sneezing, and remember that loudness counted for sincerity among the Uilish…

Saan had gone from wondering why he was learning these things to wondering if he was learning anything.

Irzell sensed his uncertainty. “There are patterns to everything. All knowledge is written in stars above us.”

“We’re in a cave,” said Saan, but, looking up, he saw faint glints on the far-off cave ceiling.

“The knowledge of a dozen lost libraries is there, encoded.”

“But how do you decode…” he said, and remembered the garden’s astrolabes.

A year and a day didn’t seem quite as long.

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