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May 13, 2024

The Aser Stories 37: Dumb Animals

By Sand Pilarski

Sometimes you need to ask first before you try to fix a baboon's problems ...

The hillside barn behind an inn was the perfect place for an entourage like ours, which now included two talking baboons, two talking raccoons (the female of which pair was pregnant), a wizard, and two shamans, one of whom had the misfortune of also being an apprentice to said wizard.

My friend and relative Dan Ur-Jennan was still bitching about her apprenticeship and arguments with Cloudraft the Great. "I was only going back to Oceanwind Castle to take the animals to him. Now that he's here, the jerk, he can deal with their being magicked, and I can go my own way." She scratched at the bandage on her wounded leg until I kicked her. "Besides, I left my horse at your village."

Danner is the most impetuous, hot-headed shaman I know. But I'm her elder. "And the apprenticeship? You want to stop learning how to control your gift? Off you travel, and what if you sneeze wrong someday and accidentally conjure a djinn?"

"I'd name him Snott and order him to bring me toasted cheese sandwiches."

The Ur-Jennans are known for being a bit smart-assed, but I'd had about enough. "Danner, as your superior in the clan, I tell you that you must continue your training." I shook my staff to emphasize I was not kidding.

She looked sulky. "Maybe I'll put on one of those fancy-ass dresses that termagant Lady Seaguard keeps nagging me to wear and go see that other wizard, Fellmount, that Cloudy keeps quacking about."

"'Termagant?' And where did you pick up that word?" Danner was more likely to pick up new obscenities than functional vocabulary.

"Narsai," she said, referring to the larger of the baboons. "He said that it was more efficient than saying 'stuck-up, strident, overbearing, nosy, bossy...'"

"You know, I wouldn't have expected a baboon to be quite so eloquent as he is," I puzzled.

"Narsai told me he found a dictionary in Rocklift's house. Not only did that mage-hag's apprentice magic them the gift of speech, they can read, too."

"We've got raccoons that can read?" I roared.

Danner nodded. "I caught him scratching 'Fisher loves Marjorie' into one of the beams."

I sat down on one of the bales of hay. "That damn Rocklift. All she was interested in was money. She didn't care about the animals at all."

With a swish of blue and gold robes, Cloudraft the Great rounded the stack of hay bales. "How is she?" he asked me.

Danner replied, "Aren't you supposed to ask me how I am?"

"She's improving," I answered him. "No fever; if we stay here a couple more days, she'll be fit to travel."

"Why the hell are you talking over my head?" Danner roared.

Cloudraft turned to her primly. "You're not speaking to me, have you forgotten that item on your agenda?"

Teeth clenched, Danner glared at him. "Thanks for reminding me!" She flipped her blanket over her head and leaned back against the stack of hay.

I shook my head. "Cloudraft, have you come to any conclusions about our talking animal friends?"

He sat down on a nearby bale. "I've been pondering the structure of this magic. If it were a simple imposition curse, the creature would be changed as to the particular imposition, but remain intact as to intellectual capabilities. However, in this case, the spell seems to have affected these animals on a deeper level, as witness their self-awareness, taking names to themselves -- even to the point of modifying their own condition, for example, the raccoons choosing to wear symbolic clothing."

A simple yes or no would have been welcome.

Narsai came forward to join the conversation in the dim light of the barn. "I remember the land from which I was taken," he said with an eager tone of voice, "and the members of my troop. We did indeed use names, given to each other, and they seemed adequate to me then: 'Limps', 'Smells-of-Fungus', 'Boss', 'Ready-she'. But I admit that those names were interchangeable as circumstances accommodated."

Cloudraft hooched forward until he was sitting on the edge of a bale. He raised a finger to indicate an important question. "Narsai, do you recall the first instant that you comprehended speech? What did you perceive?"

Narsai opened his mouth to display his fangs and ruffled the heavy fur of his shoulders and neck. "When my troop would chase away the leopard with barks and sticks and great posturings, at a certain time we would sense a change when the leopard in shame and anger would turn away, seeking other main courses. Then we all understood each other clearly, though not before, and not after. Esteemed Beard, the day we learned to speak was like that. At once, we knew that the young Sir was conveying his directions and that all things in the world had names and meanings."

"I was scared," said Guillaume, the younger baboon. He walked forward on all fours to look at Danner's blanketed face. He picked up a corner and peeked at her beneath it, then sat down against her side and replaced the blanket over both their faces. I saw Danner's arm cuddle him comfortingly.

"For us, it was like finding wonderful shiny things and tasty treats everywhere all of a sudden," said Fisher the raccoon, waddling forward on two legs. He had his bowler hat in his paws, "but we didn't understand all the rules. We still don't. But we can see that our rules aren't the same as all your rules. You know, like not pulling things out of the garbage. That's a stupid rule. Raccoons have to eat -- we can't just walk into a diner and say, 'Gimme some fries and a shake', now can we?"

"Oh, now you had to go and mention food," came Marjorie's voice from near the top of the stacks of baled hay. "I was about to take a nap and now I'm starved."

Fisher turned to us, paws outstretched in a shrug. "What can I do? I must provide for my beautiful hungry wife. I can hunt, and take all night to bring her food, or I can visit the Inn-Bin, and bring her some bread and gravy in ten minutes. Which would you do?"

"Just try to be really quiet about it," I told him, and handed him a little metal dish from my pack. "Be silent and fill this no more than three times tonight." He took the dish with a little bow but stopped and turned to listen again. "Is there a solution?" I asked Cloudraft.

He turned to the big baboon again. "Were you witness to any of the other animal changes? Can you remember anything that the young Sir said?"

Narsai made a 'pfff' sound with his lips. "We went from naming Creation to washing dishes and scrubbing laundry. I remember that the talking dogs got very overbearing, and that the horses were more inclined to kick when we cleaned their stable. But we did not see them change."

"How many animals in all?" asked the wizard.

"The two raccoons were before our time," the baboon told him. "Nor do I know of others. The two horses were after us, as were the two dogs."

"There were two little geckos," offered Fisher. "They would have been good eating but we couldn't catch them worth a damn."

"Two and two and two," said Cloudraft, "the sign of a simplistic mind. To read and to write, to speak and to understand. Two eyes, two hands, two feet ... yes, I believe that I can break this one fairly easily." He pulled a thin, sticklike wand from an inner pocket of his robes.

"Wait!" cried Narsai in alarm, "Venerable Hat, what are you doing?"

"I'm just going to change you back to how you were when you were with your troop," Cloudraft told him kindly. "I promise that it won't hurt."

"All of us?" asked Fisher the raccoon. "Now?"

"Yes, now, and then you and Marjorie can hunt and find a fine den and never have to worry about people-rules anymore. Narsai and Guillaume I believe I can send back to their native land, although," he said apologetically, "I doubt that I can place you back with your original troop."

Fisher dropped the little dish I'd given him, picked it up again, turned it around in his paws, and then handed it back to me. He tugged at the front of his little jacket, looked up at the top of the bales where his mate was, and said in a small voice, "But then I won't know her name is Marjorie, will I?"

"No, Fisher, but you won't mind."

The raccoon swayed back and forth as though seeking a way out of a trap. "Shamans, wizard, this is too sudden, like a frog falling out of a tree!" He scurried forward on his hind legs and grasped Cloudraft's robe. His teeth showed in distress as he said, "Please, don't turn us out in the dark not knowing who we are! Just one more night -- let me have one more night with my Marjorie before I have to forget who she is, please!"

Cloudraft looked at the creature, and then at Danner, who had uncovered her eyes. Guillaume, with his head pressed against Danner's shoulder, looked at his brother Narsai with eyes full of fear.

"One night," the wizard agreed. "Tomorrow morning, I shall perform the incantation, and you will be at peace."

Fisher began climbing the bales of hay, and presently, low murmurings like weeping drifted down to us.

"I most certainly do not wish this change-back!" said Narsai emphatically whispering. "No books, no conversations, just picking for fleas and scratching one's ass among strangers? What kind of life will that be?"

"A natural one," said the wizard. "You don't want your brother to grow up all alone and frightened in the world of humans, now do you?"

"In my mother's land," Guillaume piped, "I had always to be afraid of lions and leopards, hyenas and snakes. And my mother told me never to try to play with those who were not of our troop, for they might kill me."

"This is true," said his older brother. "Guillaume is too old to be accepted as a child in a troop, and too young to make a place in a new troop by force. If we are bereft of the wits we have been given, I will not know to protect him. He will likely die. I do not wish my brother to suffer, O Beard. This is not better than the Lazy Woman Mage's command to make us floor-scrubbers."

Frankenstein's monster all over again. Something strange and new is created, and if it doesn't measure up to the original specs, what do you do? Throw it out and start over again? What if it has feelings? What if it knows what has happened to it?

My clan has a story of a king who wanted all his lands and possessions to go on to a son who would be wise and strong and never change the boundaries of the kingdom, or oppress the peasants, or offend the neighboring kingdoms. He chose a perfect bride of good family and manners, unsurpassed in beauty and intellect, but had a mage cast a spell on her, so that she slept through the pregnancy and birth and childhood of four living sons.

While the queen slept, peaceful and beautiful, the four sons grew apace. One was demanding and peevish, and the king did not want to leave his fortune to the boy. The second was timid and retiring, and wanted only to play with his dolls and his cats and hated company. The third was as lazy as a full eel, and cared nothing for lessons or manners. The fourth was wise and strong and keen in justice, even as a small child. The king woke his sleeping bride, and chose the fourth son as his successor. On the boy's sixteenth birthday, with all honor, the king named him heir.

The next night the son visited his father in his chamber. "Where are my mother and my brothers?" asked the new prince.

"Far away," replied the king. "I do not wish them to interfere with your inheritance. You are the image that I have been awaiting, to receive my kingdom after me."

"Then I receive your kingdom after you," said the prince, and hewed off his father's head. To the staring startled dead eyes, he said, "Did you think that I would not miss my peevish brother's sharp observations on weather and weapons and world? Did you suppose that I would not find an emptiness in no longer hearing my timid brother's kindliness at play? Why did you assume that my lazy brother's antics would not make me laugh and help me be at rest? And our mother -- how could you deny her the opportunity to love us all?"

Everyone is different. Some are born that way, some are changed by circumstance to become another way. My clan uses that story to tell why there came to be seven clans, each having unique gifts. The Ur-Jennans are shamans, the Ur-Sidden and Ur-Sutten telepaths and telekinetics, the Ur-Raffen are storm-callers and fire-lighters. To place all your hopes on one gift in the generation to come is foolish, the elders preach. Everybody has a purpose.

Cloudraft shook his head sadly. "There isn't a place in the world for talking baboons. You would be persecuted freaks wherever you went. I'm sorry."

"I don't think they would be," Danner said, deigning to join the conversation. "Narsai, you can read -- can you alphabetize?"

"Of course. And so can my brother, although his written hand is not as fine as it will be one day." The smaller baboon looked up at Danner and nodded agreement.

"Cloudraft, you've been yapping about the disarray of your library for as long as I've been your apprentice. Narsai and Guillaume can sort it all out and keep it in order."

The wizard looked obstinate at the idea that a baboon could make sense of his papers when he could not, and pulled at his moustache vexedly.

"If you let them do that, I'll come back and study hard and keep my mouth shut," Danner said. "Well, try to keep my mouth shut, anyway." Guillaume leaned his head against her shoulder adoringly.

Narsai sensed a change in the decisions, and smiling a big baboon grin, offered his right hand to Cloudraft. "I shall endeavor to be of great assistance to you, sir," he said.

"I'm going to hold you to your word," the wizard warned Danner, who nodded, and then resumed not speaking to him. "But the raccoons must return to their native state."

"Good. You two and the baboons can make it to Oceanwind Castle easily," I announced. "I'll head back to my village in the morning."

Danner looked aggrieved. "You were coming with us!"

"There is business I must deal with first. I'll catch up, don't worry."

"Will you bring along my horse?" asked Danner.

"That's how I'll catch up," I replied, and it being full dark by then, crawled off to my nest made of bales of hay.

In the morning, I was awakened to light and Danner's voice calling Fisher and Marjorie's names -- with no answer. When Narsai and I climbed to the top bales where the raccoons had slept, we found only his jacket, tie, and bowler hat, and her mobcap and apron. They were gone, unwilling to go back to being nameless creatures of the forest.

I set off east and north as the light grew stronger. I figured I could make my way back to the village in two days if I pushed myself hard.

Why bother? Here's why: the Mage Rocklift's talking dog had been a casualty of the Battle of Dragon's Cave, but two and two and two ... there was another talking dog at large ... and with any luck I'd get to it before someone else did.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-11-26
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