Wednesday, June 22, 2011


They came up over the Edge this morning. It was cloudier than usual; this close to the Edge, there are occasional full-sized clouds, not just the little puffs of white that usually float over the Scalps.* The sun was a bright blur through the gray. At first, there was just the mist, drifting up from the cliff as usual - until it formed itself into shapes and came out into the geographers' camp.

They were gray and silent shapes, great beasts of cloud that drifted through the camp on misty paws. It was hard to tell where one ended and the next began. They were a pack and a cloud-bank all at once, a blur of paws and tails and hunched backs. Pale eyes and teeth gleamed in the mist. They flowed around and through the camp, passing through tripods and tent-poles as if they weren't even there, only occasionally pausing to glance at us. Mist-wolves aren't interested in solid things.

Most creatures in the world are solid - made from earth, as the elemental philosophers would say - but a surprising number are not. There are sea-horses that run in foaming herds across the waves near Kennyrubin, born in the froth of their crests. Fire-dancers hold wild, leaping gatherings over forest fires in the Railway Regions. Most parts of the world have creatures of fire and water such as these. Mist-wolves are creatures of air.

On the plains, they only come out at night or in the early morning. It's too dry during the day. I don't know where they go then; perhaps they sink into the ground or simply become so thin that we can't see them. That's what they do in the Winter. In January, mist-wolves are only visible on the most humid days, spread so thin in the cold, dry air that they can step over houses. These ones were smaller and denser; it's humid near the Edge. They were barely twice the size of solid wolves.

They left dewy paw-prints in the grass.

It was the first time I'd heard the jazz birds in the wagon fall completely silent. Normally, even when the rest of them are asleep, there's at least one still noodling to itself (tu-WHEET-a-deedle-deedle awk awk awk), but when the mist-wolves arrived, all they did was watch. Everyone did. The normal mathematical bustle of the geographers' camp gave way to complete stillness. I found myself holding my breath, half-afraid that the wolves would melt away if I disturbed the air. The only thing that broke the silence was a cup of coffee boiling over on a camp stove. No one moved to take it off.

One of the wolves padded over and sniffed at the steam rising from the coffee. It licked its muzzle with a pale white tongue, as if considering the flavor, then sneezed silently and flowed away. The others grinned at it as it rejoined the pack. I could see tents and wet grass through them. With the graceful unity of a cloud, the whole pack turned and padded out across the plains. A moment later, the sun came out and broke the spell. the mist-wolves vanished instantly, as though they'd never existed. They'd been transparent even under the clouds; in full sunlight, they were completely invisible. If we hadn't all seen them, I'd probably suspect that I'd dreamt the whole thing.

Later in the evening, the geographer with the echo-frogs showed me the reading from his sonograph. (Like a seismograph, it draws a line on a roll of paper.) For just an inch or two, early in the morning, there was a faint zigzag - a rhythm as soft as a whisper. One of the mist-wolves had passed around the sonograph, and the instrument had picked up its heartbeat.

* Some people, if they're used to bigger clouds, refer to the ones over the Scalps as "dandruff."

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