Rough Beasts (2008)
Written for our writing group The Quota in 2008. The title was literally pulled out of a hat.
“Mutt! Is I Rattus! You must come, come now. Carry me! They have come, they are here, is Chrissymus!”
Freezing fog cloaked the land of the jenimals and Mutt want nothing more than to stay in his hutch. He’d made it from one of the broken pods that lay outside the centre, dragging it as far as the sea. The jagged edges of it he’d buried in sand, and dug a burrow up and under to come within. He’d dragged blankets and foam from inside the derelict centre and knotted them with clumsy fingers into a mattress that was almost comfortable. On the floor was the remains of wooden goods pallet, studded with bent nails he’d hammered in with a rock when he’d fashioned it into a bed. His body thus held from the freezing floor, Mutt was warm and drowsy. He had a covered pit for his toilet in the farthest corner from his bed, and stacks of food packets close to hand. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go while winter chilled the jenimals’ mean domain, but Mutt did not care. He slept. He woke to eat, he woke to expel his waste. He resented the soft light of the day that strained through the plastic walls, but he knew it would be gone almost as soon as it came. So he waited patiently for the warm times when there would be live food and flowers, as he had waited for them every one of the past five winters. But now, now this racket.
Rattus’ feeble claws scrabbled on the plastic, his voice was shrill, his blurred shadow huge on the opaque walls. Mutt tried to ignore him, but Rattus’ pleas became ever desperate. “Please Mutt, please! Is Chrissymuss” Annoyed, Mutt dragged himself from the warmth of the bed, and went down his burrow. He felt the cold of the frozen ground as he wriggled round the U shape of the tunnel, even that was poor preparation for outside.
He popped out of the entrance, hidden cunning-wise among heaps of garbage, and felt the hairs freeze in his nose. He had a covering of thick fur as he was born, now horribly matted. He held a ragged blanket with a hole chewed in it to make a poncho. This he slipped into quickly, before the shivers set it.
“Rattus, Rattus, what do you want? Why do you come to scrape and bang on my walls like this? Is it the warm time? No, it is not.”
“No! No!” squeaked the tiny Rattus. He hopped from one misformed foot to another with irrepressible excitement, and held a crumpled sheet of paper in his hand. “No, is not warm time. Is better time, is Chrissymus!”
“And what,” asked Mutt wearily, “is Chrissymuss?”
“Is this!” said Rattus, and unrolled the tattered paper. “Is light and warmth and nicenesses and joy! Look! Look!”
“What is that?” asked Mutt.
“Why, is Chrissymuss! See!” Rattus jabbed a crippled finger at the picture on the page. “This – tree! These things, these – children! They are happy and warm. Chrissymuss is happy and warm. Bedgore tell me all about it, ‘fore he die. He say, in old days the peoples in the centre they have Chrissymuss every cold time. He tell me ’bout it. I no believe him, like you. Rattus think it stupid story. But here, see! Picture! Look, special tree and shiny boxes with treasures inside, just like Bedgore say!” Rattus was talking faster and faster. It was all Mutt could do to follow his squeaking.
“It’s just a picture, Rattus,” said Mutt gently. His friend was forever getting excited about all kinds of things. Mutt sat down on the ground, his tail carefully curled between his bottom and the cold. “It’s just a picture.” The ‘children’, strange smooth, nearly hairless things in brightly coloured cloaks looked pink and warm. He was briefly jealous.
“Yes, yes! But is more, is more!” Rattus scrambled onto Mutt’s knee. A few months ago he would have jumped, quick as you like. Not now, his litheness was gone. “I not stupid! I know what Mutt think! But there is more. Bedgore tell me, that at Chrissymuss angels come, come like lights in sky, then soon after them nice-man Jeevus, and he love everybody, and he bring treasures!” Rattus clapped.
“That’s nice Rattus, that’s really nice. But there have been no nice-men here for a very long time.”
“No, no, no!” said Rattus angrily. “This not stupid story! Jeevus even better than nice-men, is special! Bedgore tell me, ‘fore Bedgore die. You stop listen stories, you think you so smart. You see, you see…!” Rattus was momentarily too excited to speak.
“What Rattus, what?” Mutt ran his hand up and down his tiny friend’s back, and this seemed to calm him. He suppressed a deep shiver from the cold, lest Rattus think he recoiled from the hard tumours beneath his fur.
“The lights! Lights in the night and in the sky and everything! Angels come, angels come here. I have seen the lights. Lights! So soon there will be Jeevus too, don’t you see? Now is Mutt stupid, not Rattus! Is Chrissymus!”
“That’s nice Rattus,” said Mutt. It was something he found himself saying often. “But I think I might go back to bed now. It is cold and I am tired and it is a long ways until the warm times come again.”
“Nooooooo!” squeaked Rattus. And “Pleeeeease.” The tiny creature grabbed at Mutt’s poncho with both hands. “Rattus want to see the lights, to see the angels, to meet the Jeevus. But it too far. You Rattus’ friend. Please, you come see the lights. You carry Rattus. Mutt, please!”
Mutt sighed. His broken pod, dragged from outside the centre with so much effort and made nice and warm with more, beckoned to him. He wanted to sleep, to wait out the cold time. But Rattus looked at him pleadingly. The little creature shivered, its oversized head bobbing on its neck pathetically. “Oh, alright then,” he said. He put Rattus down, and stood.
“Hooray!” shouted Rattus, and danced a frenetic little jig. “Hooray! Now you come too and see the lights and the angels and be loved by Jeevus just like Rattus!” Rattus’ one good eye shone like a diamond from behind the bandages on his face. The bandages were cracked and stiff. Mutt resolved to change them as soon as he could. Rattus had never been very good at looking after himself, and had become somewhat less skilled in recent months.
“Very well! Be calm, Rattus, be calm.” Mutt tied a piece of string about his waist, to stop his poncho dragging while they travelled, then he dropped to all fours and placed Rattus on his back.
“You good friend, Mutt,” said Rattus, and patted Mutt lightly between the shoulders. “You very good friend!”
“The lights, the lights they are over the centre,” and Rattus’ voice went a little quiet, and his excitement burned a little lower. Most of the jenimals did not like to go near the centre, did not like to go near it at all. Most of them, but not Mutt. He was not frightened of it. Well, maybe a little.
“Sure,” said Mutt.
Rattus coughed then. His tiny body shook and heaved with the effort so hard that Mutt feared he would fall. Mutt lifted his head and looked backwards over his shoulder.
“Are you alright Rattus?” asked Mutt. “Why do you not come into my house where it is nice and warm. We can go tomorrow, when the light time comes again.”
Rattus’ breathing was ragged, he swallowed hard. “No, no, Rattus is fine. He shuddered. “We go now, today.”
“Then lie down on my back under my poncho, and keep warm, little friend, and sleep.”
“Yes,” said Rattus weakly and sniffled. “Yes.”
When Rattus was settled, Mutt set off at a gentle trot toward the centre, taking care not to jostle his friend.
Mutt thought the land of the jenimals to be an island, but not in the sense of land surrounded by sea. What he knew of such things were that islands were long ways away from everywhere else, and hard to leave. To the south was the sea, a crust of ice along its shore and floating white fangs beyond. The west was the big blue lake, which never froze no matter how cold it became, and from which all the jenimals knew not to drink. North were hills, low but hard to climb. Mutt had climbed them once in the warm, and seen a carpet of brown, low plants and crescents of white nestling in the shade even at the height of the endless sun. In the plants nested strange birds with heavy feet and accusing eyes. A long way off, he had seen the shine of more sea. East was a scrubby forest of dwarf pines. They looked like the special tree in the picture, but not so perfect. Any jenimal that went that way never came back. Mutt had a dim realisation that there was probably more to the world than the small, bare place at the centre of these things, but for him that was all he knew; life on an island.
Mutt’s house was near the sea to the south, about as far as a jenimal could go from the centre. Mutt said it was because he liked to watch the ice teeth in the cold and chase the birds in the warm. What he did not say that it was far away from the other jenimals, and that he liked to be alone. Rattus lived close by, the only one that did, and only because Mutt was his friend. The centre was too far for his hobbled feet, and would have been were it only over the next dune.
Mutt’s fingers and pads were nearly numb when they reached the centre, for he had no gloves for his hands as he had shoes for his feet. He was glad to take them off the ground and go upright once more. Rattus climbed up to Mutt’s shoulder as his bigger friend stood, and together they took in the centre and its new addition.
Bedgore was the only one any of the jenimals had ever known that had seen the centre when it was alive. While he was above the ground, he had regaled them all with stories of how once the centre had been filled with light and the nice-men who had cared for the jenimals in the warm inside, so warm, even in the long cold. The young pups had sat entranced by Bedgore’s tales. But Mutt was wise enough to know that they weren’t all true. A giant fly that held nice-men in its gut and filled the air with a roar as it flew in the sky? Growling beasts that sat silently when the nice-men did not ride them, but when they did shot shouting across the snow on one long foot? Nonsense! Bedgore had become annoyed by Mutt’s refutations and shown Mutt some of the things he said had borne the nice-men. Mutt was the only jenimal pup brave enough to go with him into the shadows of the walls. But all Mutt saw was rust and wrack and broken garbage as that which cluttered the rest of the jenimals’ island.
One day, according to Begore, when he himself was a pup the nice-men had upped and gone and the jenimals saw them no more, and now no-one went in the centre. Only Begore’s stories reminded the jenimals of those who had been so good to them, and then only Bedgore’s stories told those who came after what had been. And then Bedgore was gone. When he had died, the jenimals became fearful of the centre. They reminded each other that the nice-men had gone, and pointed to the dark streaks above the windows where Bedgore had once said the nice-men had set fires. Why had they set fires? asked the jenimals, and shook, saying the centre could eat fire, and would eat them too. It was a badplace, just like the blue lake.
Fearless Mutt had not cared what the others whispered, and when he was full-grown he had gone within. He wandered here and there, through never-ending halls with no windows that nevertheless glowed bright, and he had become puzzled. Why had the nice-men gone? It made no sense, all was good. There were many shining things of great beauty and mysterious purpose, there were the lights, and things that were warm besides but not fire, just like Bedgor had told. Best of all were the stocks of food, lots of food that Mutt fetched from inside in its shiny packets to give to the jenimals to eat. He had even slept there, next to the warm things.
Then one day, two warm times ago, he had gone deep within and down, far deeper than usual, so that the scents changed from air and wind and tundra to the oily powder of carved rock. He found a place with strange tables and many cages that stank of ancient terrors; of pens that smelt of things that were like jenimals but not; of cases and boxes and shiny metal tanks. On all was a strange symbol: a yellow triangle full of thorns. It loomed huge on doors that would not close, glowered from rusting barrels, hid inside sealed glass boxes. It was so quiet, so cold and dark there, that Mutt could hear nothing but the thudding of his heart. There were shadows and things in jars and he had panicked. He had found himself running out, faster and faster, careening from tables on wheels and trays and chairs. He had not told the others about this, how he had finally found fear. He had not ventured so far inside again, nor did he ever slept there. He had known then for sure that some of Bedgor’s tales about the marvellous nice-men who fed and cared were true, and some were most certainly not.
From the outside now, in the gathering long night of the cold time, Mutt found the centre sad rather than frightening. It was old and cracked, walls breaking slowly in the face of frost and gale, windows the same. Every year it looked a little greyer and a little less white, every year more of its long, long fence turned deep red, every year more of the smaller hutches about the main part fell in. The lights in the windows and on the fence became fewer every month, until now only a handful twinkled. But there was something shiny and new there tonight. By the complex was a tall hutch on long stilts like legs. It sat high up against the luminous evening sky, black and clever with big bright lights that stopped you looking at it for too long.
Nearby, there was a fire, and around the fire sat five jenimals. Three were bigger than Rattus, one of these even bigger than Mutt and he was accounted one of the largest of all jenimals. Two of them were the same as Rattus, and both of these bore signs of the disease that ravaged Mutt’s poor friend.
“Ho, Squeaker! Ho Gnawer! Ho Littleman, Spot and Ladylad!” greeted Rattus. The other jenimals returned his salutation.
“Whassup Rattus?” said Squeaker, one like him. “Are you here to see the angels too? Do you want to meet the Jeevus? He has treasures, like Bedgore said! Like in the centre!”
“See Mutt, see! They know it is Chrissymuss too! Do you believe me now? Do you? Say yes Mutt, says yes!” said Rattus, once more full of his old energy.
“Maybe,” said Mutt. He sat by the fire on a flat rock, awkwardly arranging a form only just suited to bipedalism. The pleasure he gained from the fire’s warmth was almost unbearable, and he allowed himself a luxurious shiver. “What do you know of what is in the centre, Squeaker? You are all too scared to go in. Only I know. Only I am brave enough to go inside.”
“Mutt say,” said Squeaker sullenly. “Mutt tell of treasures.”
“And how do you know they are treasures?” asked Mutt.
“Is true, Mutt,” said Ladylad, the biggest of the jenimals. “Is true there are angels, Squeaker is sorry for his excitement, he listen to too many of Bedgore’s stories when he a pup, he think too much. I am sorry, for Squeaker’s sake. But angels, I will say no Mutt, no! Listen! We have seen them with our own eyes; two legs, two arms, no tails. They have flat silver faces, and bodies made of metal that is not red, but shines!” Ladylad’s eyes shone too, bright as the angels he described.
“Really?” said Mutt. “Have you seen this too, have you Gnawer, Littleman,and Spot?” The other jenimals nodded enthusiastically.
“They came last night,” said Gnawer.
“They came and they took four jenimals into their hutch!” said Spot. “They touched them and they fell asleep and then they went into hutch into the air with them with the lights.”
“To m-m-m-meet Jeevus in the stable, just like Bedgor said!” said Gnawer.
“You too have heard of Chrissymus too then?” asked Mutt. “I had not myself before my friend Rattus told me.”
“Bedgore not tell you,” said Squeaker angrily. “Because you stopped listen by then.”
“I did,” said Mutt.
“Do not be a-a-a-a-angry!” said Gnawer. “Wait w-w-w-w-with us. We wait where the o-o-o-others waited. Spot saw.”
Spot nodded. “It was here the angels came and took the others, to the stable up there,” he pointed to the hutch. “To see the Jeevus.”
Mutt looked hard at the hutch in the sky. It looked like a hutch, looked like the same shape as his broken pod, only bigger and whole. “No,” he said eventually. “No, we will not wait here. We will go and wait somewhere else. But we will watch.”
Ladylad shrugged and poked at the fire. He looked at Spot and nudged him. “Stay here,” said Spot, “stay with us Rattus. Mutt will see. He can come and meet the Jeevus later. He will see.”
“No,” said Rattus. He pulled a sad face and looked at the floor. “I will go with Mutt, because he is my friend. He always look after Rattus.”
Rattus and Mutt walked away from the camp, Rattus casting longing glances backwards. The other jenimals shouted after them, asked them to stay. Squeaker cried. Spot growled. But Mutt had made up his mind, and they found a camp elsewhere. Mutt, being clever did not light a fire, but dug a hole in a snow bank, snug as you like. He wrapped Rattus in his poncho and they fell asleep.
Night fell, the stars shone out bright and hard. Above the ribbons of light that the jenimals thought were their fathers and mothers gone under the ground rippled across the sky, back and forth, back and forth, like waves stroking the beach. Mutt was outside. Mutt was cold, but Mutt had to see. Rattus he left in the snow burrow, his breathing rattled and his chest rose and fell unevenly. Mutt did not want to wake him. He would go out and check and see the Jeevus and then he would get Rattus if it was indeed Chrissymuss.
He did not.
There had been no nice-men at the centre nor anywhere else on the jenimals’ island since before Mutt was born. He had little idea what they had looked like. He only knew that they were tall, and that they had arms and legs and no tails like some of the jenimals. He knew this from the tall doors and the strange clothes he had found on his trips to the centre, three times too big for him. There were fragments of pictures in the piles of burnt things that could be found everywhere in the rooms of many-chairs-and-tables, but none showed a complete nice-man, nor one’s face.
He was sure what he looked at now was a nice-man’s face.
The nice-men-angels walked the night, and they were not nice. They held in their hands stabbing spears of flame. Slowly they turned to face a something, then ‘whoosh!’ out spat a tongue of fire from their hands, and all before them was ashes. The sky was orange, the centre burned.
He had watched them as they had thrown something, a stone that smoked, into the circle of fire. He had heard the jenimals, Spot, Ladylad, Squeaker and the others shout with happiness, and call out. Then they coughed, and they fell, and the not-angels came out of the night and picked up the jenimals’ small bodies in their huge hands and put them in barrels. From his hiding place in the big rocks, Mutt could see, the barrels had the symbol on them, the one from the centre, a yellow triangle with a tangle of thorns within.
Not long later, there were two nice-men come to near his place, and they sat three of their tall, tall body lengths away from him. They had fiddled with something at their necks, and then silver flat faces had come away. Their faces were like those of the children in Rattu’s picture, but heavier, and sterner, and Mutt realised that they too, must be nice men, perhaps of a different breed, like jenimals, as different as he and Rattus, but the same nonetheless. The nice-men watched the centre in its bower of flame as Mutt watched too, unseen, behind them. He was terrified that they would smell him, but they did not. They spoke together. Mutt did not understand much. They talked fast without pauses, and used many words that Mutt did not know, though he was the cleverest of the jenimals. They seemed sad and angry.
‘Howcouldtheydosuchathingisapeveeshunisgainstnature,’ one said. ‘IdunnoIdunno,’ said another. ‘Idunnohowtheygotawaywiththis,’ said the other. ‘Anyriskofcontameenashun?’ said the first. ‘Nono.Firellbrunitallout.’ ‘Iamsorryforthecreechurs,’ said the second. ‘Poorthingsisagainstnature.’ And they gabbled quicker and shook their heads and looked unhappy. Then they put on their silver angel faces, and took their fires and burned the night.
From across the world, Mutt heard jenimal screams.
Mutt was careful. He stayed away from the nice men and out of the bright eyes of the big hutch on long legs. He watched as it came down like a giant kneeling and saw as the nice-men went two at a time inside, each pair carrying a barrel with its tangle of thorns mark between them. There were strange noises from the hutch, and a worrisome smell, and smoke came from the new hutch. None of the jenimals that went into the barrels came out of the hutch again.
Mutt ran south. The nice-men ranged over the jenimal’s territory. He watched them poke their hands into holes and crevices and saw flames lap from hutch and burrow. He saw them go to his half-pod, so laboriously dragged from the centre to be by the sea where he had wanted it. The flames went in, and it lit up like one of the lights in the centre before it sagged and died like ice in the warm time.
Mutt stayed as close to the edge of the jenimal lands as he could. He was very cold, and wanted to sleep, but did not, because he feared the cold death, and because he wanted to see. At one point two nice-men walked towards him, searching, and he thought they could smell him, but they could not. They put things to their faces, and looked across the land as if they watched the ice teeth like Mutt did in the warm time. Mutt stayed behind lumps of rock and ice, and they walked away.
He went back to his snow hole. He was relieved that Rattus was still there. Inside it was dark and he could not see the flames. He was confused, and angry, so he pretended nothing was amiss, and went to sleep.
His dreams were terrible, and for only the second time in his short life did Mutt know fear.
The following day, the nice-men had left and so had their hutch.
“See Rattus,” said Mutt, as he pointed to the wreck of the centre. “All the jenimals have gone.”
Rattus cried, he could smell the burnt fur on the air, the smell of cold meat. “So, so, there is no Chrissymus, there is no nice-man Jeevus? Why would the nice-men come back and hurt, why?”
Mutt put his arm around his friend, and took the picture that Rattus still grasped in his paws, tight as an amulet. “I don’t know, Rattus,” he said, “perhaps there is Chrissymus like in the picture,” he showed the tree and the small nice-men and the treasures to Rattus. “But it is not here.”
Rattus huddled close and hugged Mutt, his tears freezing in Mutt’s fur.
“Do not cry. I promise you. If there is a Chrissymus, come the warm time we will go and find it together.”
“But, but, how where?”
“Through the forest Rattus, east through the trees. We can do it, others that have gone and they have not come back. Maybe they have found it? That will be nice, Rattus, eh?”
Rattus dried his eyes and nodded.
The cold time was long and hard. When the warm time came, Mutt was all alone. He had nearly died, but he had not. He was weak, but he fattened himself up on the birds with the heavy feet and the accusing eyes of the low moor, and ignored their cries of murder.
When he was well and sleek and fat again, and his fur was free of the cold time tangles, he took the bundle that Rattus’ small, dry body rested in, and he went east, into the forest as he had promised his friend.
He never came back to the land of the jenimals. The burnt stones of the centre sat silent through the cold and the rain and the sun and the dark and slowly crumbled away, until there was no sign there had ever been anything there at all.