© Lee Williams
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We slept as bats that night, hanging plump from the jungle canopy, hiding within our wings. It galled me, once so proud, not to turn back and fight, but they were greater than us in number now, and our only choice was to flee. The next day we began to move cautiously north again, changing every hour or so to disguise our scents, making for the great river where it runs down into the trees from the foothills. Our plan was to swim up it until we came to the falls, then head north into the mountains.
Our young fared better than we might have hoped. They had not yet seen the enemy and we had been careful not to tell them more than they needed to know. When their silence was needed, we made a game of it. My own children had perished at the ford, more than a month before, when the covenant was first broken by the hungry ones. Not a day passed when I did not think of them, but at the same time I felt almost relieved that they would not have to share in the hardships ahead of us, and the relief would itself bring feelings of guilt.
At about midday we became aware that something was wrong with the count. I confided to the other elders and we surreptitiously made our own tallies. Nothing matched. There should have been twenty-nine of us, but the count was skewed. Somehow one of them was already amongst us.
We secretly agreed that I should attempt to lead this hidden enemy away from the rest of the group, so as the light faded I feigned weakness and begged the others to continue without me. I claimed aloud that the wounds I had sustained at the ford had worsened and that I would only be a burden to them. We trusted that the enemy would consider me an easy target, that its hunger would betray it and it would stay behind to finish me off.
Perhaps, I could delay it for long enough to allow the others to escape.
After the group departed, I lay propped against the trunk of a rotten tree, my form that of an old stag, although I had allowed the hooves and antlers to degenerate a little, as if I were too weak to hold myself together. I took shallow breaths, listened, and waited.
Before long it approached me. There was a rustle in the undergrowth, then a pair of eyes appeared, watching me closely. A single enemy, in the shape of a tiger.
Slowly, it entered the clearing, moving with sadistic luxury, its eyes fixed on me. It could not mask its scent well enough to conceal its identity, and I recognised it at once, knew its happiness as if it were my own.
It looked upon the slayer of its family, and bared its teeth in expectation of a feast.
I kicked at the ground once or twice, feigned as if I wanted to escape but hadn’t the strength, allowed the sorry nubs of wings to pop from my back as if I were trying to change. The enemy took the bait immediately and pounced, claws forward, a wet rasp of joy escaping from its throat. It truly believed that victory was within its grasp.
At the last moment I arched my back and retreated to my spine, pulling myself in along its line and changing to a snake, a wicked fat constrictor. It had no time to realise why its teeth met in air, or its claws ploughed furrows in the dry earth, before I was around it, looped in vicious knots about the neck and belly, forcing the air from it in one huge contraction.
I wrung a sound like a great sigh from its depths before it changed, slipping from me in the shape of an arrow-backed toad and springing away, but I knew I had weakened it. I pulled myself into a coil and fattened to the form of a wild boar, kicked the ground away from me and gave chase.
We fought for less time than is fitting for a battle which was, in hindsight, one of the most important in the history of our race. Each of us went through a dozen or so changes, but it was my fight from the start. The enemy stuck too rigidly to the prescribed forms, hardly straying from the twelve primary beasts even when it was foolish not to do so.
I was old even then, and I knew a hundred ways to break any creature. I knew where they separated, the points at which to cut, snap, pull and rend. I didn’t toy with it for long.
In its last moments it screeched at me from where it lay on the ground, a half-formed beak snapping and warping around a red maw, teeth wriggling like fingers under the gums. It screamed all its rage and shame at me. Even as I quartered and dissected it beneath my claws, broke it into limbs, then flesh, then a mess of dead matter, I heard it scream.
I returned to the others, caught up with them as they crossed the grasslands north of the river. They were pleased to see me but I noted something else in their attitudes for the first time – a fear. They looked to me for protection but at the same time they feared my strength.
We travelled for many days, moving farther and farther from the reach of the hungry ones, closer to the sanctuary of the mountains. We began to spend our nights as mammals, curled together for warmth on the ground, but I would often sit aside to think, and my thoughts were a burden to me.
After many weeks we came to the mountains and there, in a fertile valley amidst the towering peaks, I came to a realisation. We had been changing for so long that no-one could now recall our first forms, the shapes we had known in that time, back beyond our deepest rememberings, when we had first seen the world. Now, I decided, it was time to stop moving, to settle not only in one place, but in one form. The next generation would not know how to change, or how to renew themselves, if we did not show them; so we would not show them. They would keep the shape we held when we birthed them, and would know no other. We would walk amongst them until we decayed and died, and leave future generations to a life of peace, free from flux and war.
It was time, I decided, for a new form, one nobler than all the other beasts.
THE TAILOR'S SUIT
The bells were ringing out over the town on an afternoon so fresh, so crisp and blue, that it might have been yesterday. Their forthright voices, like those of elderly drunkards, were swelled and echoed by the narrow, crooked streets into a magnificent confusion, but if you stood in the centre of the town square, you would hear them as a single voice, lifted in praise.
Against the ancient stone walls which encircled the town, high narrow houses had gathered in drifts and on the top floor of one of these, in a tiny room jammed in amongst other tiny rooms, Jacek the tailor sat and stared glumly at his sleeping wife. He fumbled nervously with a sheet of paper, upon which was written these words:
‘The Suit in Law of Jacek, Tailor of the Old Quarter, is to be heard on the Fifteenth Day of the Second Moon, at the Stroke of the Third Bell.’
Below this was the elaborate seal of the town elders, a great brown bear strangling a rooster in each paw.
‘Humph,’ said his wife, opening her eyes slowly and staring at Jacek, for a moment as if he were a stranger. ‘Are you still there, old man?’
Jacek didn’t answer, electing instead to run a dirty hand through his beard with a soft crackling noise, staring all the while at his boots. He sniffed, smacked his lips together twice, looked as if he were about to speak, then said nothing.
‘What’s that bit of paper?’ asked his wife.
‘It’s my suit,’ said Jacek. ‘They’ve said they’ll see me on the fifteenth.’
‘Oh. Are you still going on about that? I thought you’d given up years ago.’
She rolled over in one heavy movement and turned her face to the wall. Jacek sat while the day faded slowly outside the window, and the light in the room became grainy and soft. Then he walked to the sill and gazed out.
Below him, an oxcart made its way laboriously through the streets, the beast straining and breathing in low gruff barks. From a hundred windows and doorways came and went snatches of conversation, cooking odours, cats, the tinkle of laughter.
On the morning of the fifteenth Jacek dressed solemnly in his only good suit of clothes and pulled on his long green coat, despite the warmth of the day. Last of all, he tied his shoes with blue ribbons and ran a comb through his long hair and beard. Then he moved to the bed where his wife still slept. He kissed her on the cheek and left, closing the door softly behind him.
The streets were bustling and it took him some time to arrive at the town square. As he climbed the long flight of steps to the council chamber, passing knots of hawkers, loafers and off-duty pickpockets, he kept count under his breath.
’Seventy-seven,’ he said, reaching the top. He knew this would be the case, but to state it was comforting nonetheless.
He showed his letter to the guards and was allowed to enter. His first feeling was one of unconditional awe. For citizens who spent most of their lives in cramped rooms, shuffling their feet across wooden floorboards and threadbare rugs, the council chamber had a religious force. The great cool expanse of air which passed echoed conversations from wall to wall, the ancient stone slabs which sounded each footstep as if it were worthy of note: this was the great hollow heart of the town.
Jacek shuffled slowly through the chamber, clutching his precious letter to his chest. He arrived at the door leading to the courtroom just as the bell was striking two – he still had an hour to wait.
‘Sit there,’ a guard told him, gesturing to a stone bench, but Jacek was too nervous to sit. He stood awkwardly and unobtrusively beside the door until it was his time to go in.
If he felt out of place in the outer chamber, it was as nothing compared to the feelings he had upon entering the courtroom. The town elders sat in tiers to either side of him, seventy-seven of them in total, all clad in brightly dyed furs and silks. Above and before him, raised on a dais of black marble, sat the three High Judges.
A small wooden chair stood alone in the middle of the room. Jacek sat meekly upon it and turned his gaze to the floor.
Beside the dais, the court attendant began to crank the handle of the saying machine and the great wax cylinder rotated. There was a soft crackling noise, then the chamber was filled with the voice of a man dead for seven hundred years, the First Judge, as he laid down the right for every citizen to state his case before the Council. Jacek trembled at this voice from beyond death, with its strange distortions and almost incomprehensible accent.
When the Saying was over, the Court Attendant spoke.
‘You are Jacek, a tailor of the Fourth Quarter?’ he asked.
‘I am,’ said Jacek, his voice a dry whisper.
‘Your suit is this. Fifty-six years ago, in the eight hundred and sixth year of our town’s founding, a citizen called Witold, Butcher of the Fourth Quarter, did insult your wife in the street, naming her ugly and suggesting that you were the only man who would take her to wife. Is this correct?’
‘And this is the eleventh time you have presented this suit to the Council?’
‘Yes, although, if it please my masters, it has never yet been heard in the chamber,’ said Jacek.
‘There may be a reason for that,’ said the attendant, and a dusty laugh ran through the ranks of elders. The attendant sat down, and the High Judges leaned forward and peered down at Jacek from the dais.
‘The suit has not previously been heard because it does not fall within our jurisdiction,’ said the right-hand Judge. ‘It is a matter for the discretion of individual citizens to resolve. What do you hope to gain from bringing it before us?’
Jacek forced himself to raise his head and look the Judge in the eye.
‘I wish it to be judged that my wife is beautiful,’ he said.
The judge smiled softly at him. ‘That is not a matter upon which we can rule’, he replied, ‘but rather it is for each man to judge for himself.’
Jacek drew a deep breath and felt the pressure build inside his head, as if his ears were about to catch fire. He wanted desperately to say what he felt, but he couldn’t. He did not know the words, did not know if the words even existed, and so he sat and said nothing.
Another of the Judges spoke. ‘We have consented to see you today because we have taken pity on your old bones. Our records show that you have ever been an honest and lawful man, an upstanding citizen. Usually, we would not look at such a suit.’
Still Jacek could say nothing.
The third of the judges spoke, his voice soft and measured. ‘If we write it in the records of our town, old man, that your wife is beautiful, will that be an end to it?’
‘And what is your wife’s name?’
‘Ana,’ he said.
There was a scraping of chairs as the High Judges rose to their feet, then the middle of them proclaimed judgement in a voice curiously modulated to call to mind the tones of the First Judge.
‘Let the records show that on the fifteenth day of the second moon, in the eight hundred and sixty-second year of the founding, Ana, wife to Jacek, tailor of the Fourth Quarter, was judged by this council to be beautiful.’
As these words resounded within the great room, Jacek waited for the burden which had troubled him all these years to lift. Dimly imagining it to be the beginning of this process, he felt a prickling at the roots of his hair.
A guard touched him on the shoulder and led him from the chamber.
Later that evening, Jacek sat beside his wife in their room, perched on the bed as he lifted spoonfuls of soup to her mouth. It had been almost a year now since she had been able to do this for herself. As he fed her, he let his memories play back over the lifetime they had shared, curled together in this bed like field mice in a nest. Now he slept in the chair so she would not panic in the night if she woke and imagined herself a young girl again.
‘It’s done, Ana,’ he said gently.
‘’What’s done, old fool?’ she asked.
‘My suit,’ he said. ‘They ruled in my favour.’
She tilted her head away from the spoon and looked at him carefully, then she smiled. Jacek lived for these moments, when it seemed as if she were coming back to him, visiting from a distant time.
‘Will it make you happy now?’ she asked him.
‘It may, a little. That was never the reason, Ana. It is not just about you and I, and our own happiness. We are a part of a great town, maybe one of the greatest in the land. The records must be correct, and we all have a duty in this.’
As he spoke he could feel the bristles of his beard begin to separate, and his scalp once again started tingling. Tears welled in his eyes and he did not know why this should be.
Ana smiled at him. She reached up slowly to lay a hand on his cheek, and he closed his eyes. Outside the window, the bells were ringing out across the town, singing to one another across the rooftops, calling the townsfolk home.