Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Cat's Radishes

Today, after almost a week of walking, I finally reached a village. Its name is Twokk. There was something on fire in the middle of town, but no one seemed particularly concerned about it, so I assumed it was normal. I'll take a closer look tomorrow.

It was dark when I arrived, and my feet were sore, so I stopped at the first inn I came to (the only one, as I discovered later). It's called the Moons and Magpie.* It's a cozy place, comfortably settled into its space on the street. The inn somehow manages to lean on the buildings to either side and slouch to the rear at the same time. It looks as if it's relaxing in an old armchair.

The locust stew was quite good; the meat was tender, the shells still crunchy. I've heard that's a hard combination to achieve. As so often happens, I had been there hardly ten minutes before someone sat down across the table and started talking. He was reptilian - mostly, anyway - with gray-green scales and whiskers. A thin mane of gray hair ran down the back of his neck, twisted into a tangle of braids and fastened with blue glass beads. His face had more folds than an origami alligator.

"You look like a traveler," he said. "Got that windswept look. You got a name?"

I introduced myself, and he nodded.

"Nigel, eh? I had a cousin named Nigel once. He could play the accordion like nobody else. Got so good that a dragon came and took him away to be its personal musician. Or maybe it ate him. I dunno. I'm Brexical Cheezerbaum, expatriate carter and merchant, but you can call me Cheese. You ever been to the High Fields?"

My single visit to the High Fields had, in fact, been a rather memorable one - I might write about it someday - but I settled for a simple nod.

"Well, there's something you oughta know if you ever go back. Pretty sure it saved my life once. Care to hear the story?"

I almost never say no to this sort of question. It always leads somewhere interesting, and I've found that most people don't particularly care if you say no anyway. I nodded again.

"Well, it was up on the terrace road," he began. "Highest of the High Fields, up near Pelfry and Farcastle, where there's more cliff than ground and weather's something you look down at. I'd stopped to repair a wheel on my cart - roads are terrible up there, see, 'cause the pothole crabs keep digging 'em up. Can't take horses on those roads at all. I had my cart-lizard. Good eating, though, pothole crabs, if you know how to catch 'em…

"Anyways, there I was, putting my wheel back on, when a steeplecat climbs down the cliff above me. You ever seen a steeplecat?"

I hadn't.

"Well, a steeplecat is like a tiger, see, except green instead of orange and with spines all over like an iguana. Sticky feet, too - it climbed down that cliff face like it was walking on the ground. A giant of a steepler, big as a horse, and all muscle under that green fur.

"Well, my poor cart-lizard completely lost his head - can't blame him, I suppose, since the steepler could have eaten him in two bites. First the silly thing tried to hide in a crab-hole in the road, then he realized that wouldn't work and practically turned himself inside-out trying to hide under the cart he was pulling. Me, I just stood there with nothing but the hammer I'd been using to fix my wheel - about as long as one of the steepler's teeth, it was - and the stupid hope that maybe if I stayed still, it wouldn't see me. I wasn't thinking too clearly, you understand.

"Well, as it turned out, the steeplecat wasn't interested in me or my lizard. She went straight to the cart - I could tell she was a female, cause the males have horns when they're full-grown, and this one was more full-grown than most - and she started pawing through the bags and boxes inside. Didn't break anything, just kept digging till she found a box she liked. I was so terrified I couldn't even remember what was in it. She picked at it for a while, scratching at the lid - even tried biting it open, as if it was a nut the size of my head. That gave me the shivers, I can tell you. Looked like she'd done it before.

"Well, the box was one of those little iron-bound chests, the kind you use when you're delivering china by dropping it off an airship and don't want it chipped. Even the steepler's teeth couldn't get through that. She sat there growling at it for a while, while my lizard about had a fit under the cart. Then she picked the box up in those big teeth and walked over - her paws were bigger than my head, and they didn't make a sound - and dropped the box right in front of me. Sat there and looked at me, waiting, till I realized she wanted me to open it.

"Well, I wasn't about to argue with that. I picked up the box - nearly fell over doing it - and opened the lid, though my hands were shaking so bad I nearly dropped it twice. Found it was full of radishes. I'd picked 'em up in Sickle, where they grow 'em in buckle tortoise shells, so they last for months and glow when you put 'em in water. The cat had her whiskery nose in the box soon as I opened it, so I put it down quick and backed off. She plucked those radishes out of the box with a claw and ate them, one by one, dainty as a lady eating chocolates. Didn't stop till the whole box was empty.

"When she'd eaten all the radishes - half a Geint, those cost me, but she could have eaten me instead, so I'm not complaining - she walked over to my cart, climbed up on top, and went to sleep. Right there on my luggage! Softer than rocks, I suppose, which is all there was nearby. I still couldn't quite believe it till she started snoring. My lizard got out from under that cart so fast, I was picking splinters out of his tail for a week.

"I figured eventually we might as well keep moving, since the steepler didn't show any sign of waking up, and she could eat us just as well someplace else if she wanted. My lizard was happy enough to get moving, though he spooked every time the cart went over a bump. In the High Fields, that's practically every two steps. We got another few miles before the cat woke up. She yawned - hope I never see a sight like that again - jumped down from the cart, and gave my lizard a big, friendly lick, like a dog. Poor thing fainted clear away on the spot. I was afraid she'd do the same to me, but she didn't even look at me - just turned and poured herself over the nearest cliff. I looked down and saw her climbing down the rock, faster than I can walk. Still not a sound. My lizard didn't wake up for another hour, but when he did, he was so eager to get out of there, we reached Farcastle by nightfall.

"And if you don't believe me, look at this."

He pulled a wooden box out from under the table. It was scratched and dented all over, both the wood and the metal bands around it; the marks could have come from a pickaxe, except that I've never seen a pickaxe that sharp. A few of the gouges had what looked like grass caught in them. On closer inspection, this turned out to be strands of long green fur. He opened the box to show that it was full of radishes.

"I've never made a trip since without a box of these," he said. "Far as I know, they're the only reason me and my lizard didn't end our trip as lunch. And I'd advise you to do the same."

I bought half a dozen. After a story like that, how could I have done otherwise?

It's entirely possible, of course, that the whole story was an elaborate plot to get me to buy his radishes. (I later overheard him telling a rapt pair of rabbit-eared Mattergovian monks how he had outsmarted a band of pirates with these, yes, these very sea-pickles.) It doesn't really matter. True or not, the story was worth at least the price of a half dozen vegetables.

Besides, I like radishes.

* Or, in Hmakk, Hmika mi Kikimey. I think the name comes from a story from the Scalps.

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