Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Lost Pet

I spent most of today walking a path on the plains. There aren't exactly roads here. Instead, there are paths through the grass, beaten trails of varying width and solidity. The biggest ones are almost what would be called a dirt road in other parts of Hamjamser. The smallest are fit only for field mice. This one was somewhere between the two - antelope-sized, perhaps. It also happened to be leading me in circles.

The paths of the Scalp (some call them "parts") are one of the less predictable forms of transportation in the world. They rarely follow the same route or lead to the same place twice. Some take you to towns or landmarks. Some lead back to where they started. Some peter out and vanish in the middle of nowhere. Some take travelers out into the featureless plains and lead them in circles for days on end, until the sun works its way into their brains and they return to civilization half-delirious from heat, babbling of visions that they can never quite explain to anyone, visions that fade - like dreams - with the sunstroke.

People don't travel much on the plains unless they're nomads. The chances of finding your way to any place you've been before are nearly nonexistent. The chances of finding your way to any place at all, in fact, are less than certain. Travelers on the plains get used to this sooner or later.

I was starting to suspect that the path I was on was one of the circular ones. Landmarks are scarce on the plains, but the last six bushes I'd passed had looked suspiciously similar. Luckily for me, the heat was - for once - not a problem. Back in late April, my skin developed a coat of brilliant silver-white scales and a dimetrodon-like frill along the back of my neck. It makes wearing shirts somewhat difficult, but keeping cool is easy. I wasn't worried about the heat. I was more worried about boredom. I'd been walking all morning without seeing so much as a shed, and the endless lumps of grass were starting to get monotonous. I amused myself by singing for several hours. By noon, the air was so dry that I was doing more coughing than singing, so I stopped in the almost-shade of identical bush number seven to have lunch.

Meat on the Scalp tends to become shoe leather by the time it's about eight hours old. I'd been chewing on the same piece of bacon since breakfast the day before. The bread I'd bought back in KhniLiPraNa* was still good, though, if rather stale, and I had plenty of water. If you travel on the Scalp, you expect to get lost every so often. A smart traveler carries enough food for a week or two.

I was just about to bite into a sandwich that bore a striking resemblance to a stack of boards when there was a scuffling noise from underfoot. "Hey," said a voice from ground level. "Hey you." **

I looked down to see a hole in the ground. For a second, I was sure that one of the hills had opened its mouth to talk to me - this is the sort of thing one starts thinking after a day of walking over the Scalps - but then I caught a glimpse of a dark shape moving around inside. There was someone talking to me from under the ground.

"Yes, down here," the voice continued. "Sorry to interrupt your lunch, but I'm sure your teeth will thank me. Have you seen a centipede nearby?"

I had, in fact, seen several centipedes that morning. There are a lot of them on the Scalps, twining through the grass like elegant head lice with fangs. One of the larger ones had been eating a woodchuck.

"What size centipede?" I asked.

"Oh, just a little one, about six feet long or so. She has spots and a blue collar."

The largest centipede I'd seen was barely two feet long - the one with the woodchuck - and that one had surprised me. I said as much. The voice muttered a word I didn't know, which might have been a good thing.

"Could you look around for her? She can't have gone far. She has the attention span of a drunken hummingbird."

Stalking a distractable six-foot centipede through the tall grass was not exactly an appealing prospect. "Is there any way you could-"

"I can't come out," the voice snapped. "Have you seen what the sunlight's like out there?"

This was like asking a fish if it had seen the ocean. "Yes," I said.

"I've lived in caves my whole life. If I come out, I'll sunburn so badly, my teeth will be peeling. Don't worry, she won't bite you - she's tame."

As I was walking out into the grass, I thought I heard the voice add, "mostly."

If you've never searched blindly for a venomous predator as long as yourself in a place where you can't see your feet, you're probably lucky.*** I'm rather proud of myself for not yelling when the fangs burst out of the grass a foot from my left knee.

The centipede was every bit of six feet long, and she did indeed have spots and a blue collar. There were frogs embroidered on it. Her front legs held the dried-out shell of a large riddler crab; she clutched it tightly, staring at me with a pair of beady black eyes.

We stayed that way for a few seconds. Then, apparently, she decided I was boring and turned her attention back to the crab, wiggling its legs around like some sort of hollow crustacean doll.

I tried everything I could think of to get her to follow me. I beckoned; I whistled; I coaxed and pleaded with increasingly desperate cheerfulness. I tried baiting her with meat, though its resemblance to dry tree bark may have made it slightly less than appealing. Nothing worked. All she did was sit there, playing with her dead crab and giving me the occasional amused glance. Oh, you're funny, her shovel-shaped face seemed to say. Go on. Do something else.

Eventually, it was obvious what I was going to have to do.

When I picked her up, the centipede unfolded a pair of poison fangs as thick as my thumb. I was sure for a moment that I was going to die. She refrained from biting me, though; instead, she draped herself over my shoulders and spent the entire trip back to the hole buttoning and unbuttoning the collar of my shirt. She seemed fascinated by the concept of buttons. The crab fell into the grass somewhere on the way, no longer the most entertaining thing in reach.

It's amazing how heavy a six-foot centipede is. Her legs hooked over my shoulders and arms with the wiry, surprising strength of a bird's talons. I could hear some sort of rhythm through the leathery armor of her body - breathing, perhaps, or the beating of her heart. Maybe several hearts. I don't know. I'm not particularly familiar with the anatomy of ordinary centipedes, much less giant ones.

"Marta!" said the voice when I returned to the hole. "Where have you been? What have I told you about wandering off through holes? Someday, you're going to come up through someone's drain and give them nightmares!"

The centipede - Marta - hung her head and looked sheepish.

"Thank the nice lizard thing and come back in here," the voice barked. "Now."

Marta somehow managed to give me an embarrassed look with a face made of armor plate. She crept slowly off of my shoulder, her head hanging - and then, with one flick of her fangs, she snipped one of the buttons off of my shirt and scurried into the hole with it.

I didn't object. She'll probably have much more fun with the button than I would, at least until something more interesting comes along, and I'd had enough of arguing with giant centipedes for one day.

Besides, I don't really know how I would have stopped her.

* All the towns on the Scalp have names like this. They get offended if you don't capitalize every syllable. More about that later.

** Actually, it said, "hni paka," but this conversation will probably be much more interesting to most of you if I translate it out of the language of the Scalp.

*** Also, you've obviously never played hide and seek with the viper squid in Kennyrubin. I'm still fairly certain they let me win. But that's another story.

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