After their peculiar encounter with the Dowager Duchess D’Nunzio, Karen and Cecilia make their way across town on foot. They walk to where Cecilia will make her delivery of new-born kittens, and where Karen will rest for the night…
Cecilia had doubly good reason to hurry, as she was well aware. The journey was not too far as the stork flies, but negotiating the streets of this part of town was like navigating a maze. Cecilia needed no directions, but their zigs and zags would demand many an extra step to compensate for indirectness. They would need to make haste to arrive before the beginning of the 9 o’clock curfew. Not only that, but the kittens in her box needed their mother, and their mother would be anxious to greet her little ones. Cecilia walked quickly, and Karen followed close behind, but the pace discouraged neither of them from making conversation. Karen had many questions to ask. The first of these related to the very possibility of conversing with a stork.
Cecilia could speak without needing to open or close her bill, which was fortunate, as it held the hammock which in turn held the precious cargo of newborns. But Cecilia’s linguistic abilities left Karen rather baffled. “How can you talk?” she asked simply.
“What do you mean,” answered Cecilia, not really knowing what to think of Karen’s question.
“I thought storks were mute,” mused Karen.
“Oh, it’s true that we can’t call or sing like other birds,” agreed Cecilia, “but we can clap our bills very well, which I’d demonstrate if wasn’t carrying the mites in this box.”
“But you can talk.”
“If I couldn’t talk, this wouldn’t be much of a conversation.”
“What I mean to say is,” and here Karen paused, as she tried to determine exactly what she meant to say, “is that whilst animals might grunt or bark or otherwise call to each other, they don’t generally speak English. And, if you don’t mind me saying, you talk without needing to move your bill.”
“I can’t comment on the languages spoken by animals elsewhere, but in this country we speak Inglish and not much else, and that’s fine by me.”
“But where I come from, animals don’t speak any language.”
“Oh, I’m sure you must be wrong. They probably just speak a language you don’t recognize, like Mergan, or Tudch, or Chrenf, or Hicnese.”
“I’ve never heard of that language,” and to be fair to Cecilia, nobody else had.
“But animals don’t talk to people,” said Karen.
“Why not?” enquired Cecilia, “are animals in your homeland so haughty that won’t talk to a human?”
“That’s not the reason,” and Karen was quite frustrated that she was not making herself understood.
Cecilia’s pace quickened a little, and she looked about her a little bit more, as if she was disconcerted by some of Karen’s questions. After a long pause when neither spoke, Cecilia finally said: “we animals think that humans are strange, as they need to open their mouths to communicate. They are rather like young’uns reading a book, unable to do so without moving their lips.”
This really was not an answer, but Karen put up with it. It seemed Cecilia might not be able to explain how a stork talks, any more than Karen could explain how she talked.
All of Lundern’s streets were poorly lit. There was no moon, though the night sky was clear and starry. The shadows on the street sometimes obscured a wonky or missing cobble, and Karen would take a false step more often than she liked. She was very aware of how much she was depending on Cecilia, though they had only just met. Lundern’s labyrinthine avenues weaved in and out of each other like a tangle of string in a cat’s cradle gone wrong, which was apt, as cats were the most common creature to be found. Their eyes reflected the streetlights, as they slinked around corners or stealthed atop walls. Without Cecilia, Karen would be quite lost. In fact, Karen was quite lost either way, and there were precious few signs or landmarks. Some of Lundern’s human denizens were guided around by boys carrying burning torches. Cecilia explained they the torch-bearers were called ‘link-boys’.
“The link is the name of the wick they use in the torch. Don’t they use torches where you come from?”
“Yes, although the torches have batteries in them.” Try as she might, Karen could not explain to Cecilia about electricity, or the things it could power. Judging by the gas lanterns and Cecilia’s reaction, electricity was as unfamiliar in Lundern as talking animals would be in London. This was a strange place indeed, but not in every respect.
Sometimes people told Karen that she talked too loudly. She could get very animated. When there was a pause in their conversation, Cecilia encouraged Karen to keep talking, as if to ward off the dark recesses around them, or whatever might be lurking within them. Karen sometimes glimpsed animals or people peering from the shadows, looking strangely at her, but she was unsure of herself. Those faces might have been come from the depths of her imagination. Whatever she saw, when she saw something scary, Karen just talked a little more loudly afterward, not letting the fear get the better of her. The pair turned a corner, as they often did, and Karen wondered aloud how Cecilia knew her way around. Karen would have been lost long ago. In fact, she was lost, without even the slightest instinct about which way was the station, or which was North, South, East or West.
As the two tramped down the street, they noticed a rustling coming from the darkened entrance to a fishmonger’s shop. Beneath a pile of newspapers, a figure stirred. A shaft of light framed the vagrant’s head. The face was wizened; the hair was straggly. They belonged to a man of indeterminate years. He might have been in his thirties, but aged prematurely. Cecilia, who had set an unrelenting pace since the incident with the Duchess, now faltered momentarily. Cecilia spoke to the stranger in the doorway. “I don’t know what time it is,” she said, “but I know curfew starts soon. You’d better get inside.”
“I might, if I knew of an inside that I’d be let inside,” responded the figure in the shadows. He coughed, but the voice was strong.
Cecilia’s voice was filled with concern: “you know what happens to those that stay outside beyond curfew.”
“I know, but it won’t happen to me. I’m working, don’t ya know? I’m guarding this here fishy shop,” and with this, he banged its door with his fist.
“That’s not much of an excuse.”
“It serves me good enough. My feet are off the street,” which was true, as they rested on the doorstep. “I have a letter from the monger, saying I stop here with his permission. And this entrance way is an alcove, private property, and with a roof overhead, making me inside, not outside, by the law of the land. Most importantly, my friends, the cats, seem to agree with all this.”
Cecilia seemed to shudder. “Have it your way then. I was only giving a word of advice.”
“Then take one too. Hurry along, before you’re caught after curfew.”
Cecilia did hurry along, this time in silence. As she did, she seemed to bend her head a little more forward, as if more protective of the bundle that she carried.
After a few hundred yards, and several more twists and turns around Lundern’s streets, Karen eventually felt brave enough to restart their conversation. “What did he mean when he said ‘his friends, the cats’?”
“I know the mother of these here kittens. I’ll not have anything said against cats in general.” Cecilia was upset; her answer made no sense to Karen. She pressed Cecilia to elaborate. For a long time Cecilia refused, despite Karen’s stubborn line of questioning. Instead Cecilia would answer a question with a question, about Karen’s family, or what London was like, but most often she asked the time. Cecilia had become increasingly agitated as 9pm, the time of curfew, approached.
“What happens if they catch you after curfew?” asked Karen.
“It’s best not to know such things,” replied Cecilia, and her answer was final. After that, they walked along in silence for a long while, except for the frequent occasions when Cecilia asked the time again. Eventually Karen thought to ask Cecilia: “don’t you need your own watch, or how would you avoid being caught by curfew yourself?”
“Oh,” Cecilia gave a kind of chuckle to herself, “you really aren’t familiar with things around here, are you? I’m a bird. Birds in flight aren’t subject to curfew. It would be too difficult and too silly to enforce a curfew on birds. Because of that, they’re not too bothered if they catch you on the ground. You could always take-off again, quick enough. Though, I admit, I don’t tend to come down to street level when curfew is coming up. It’s safer to stick to the rooftops after dark.”
As they walked, the streets had become straighter, but fewer of the buildings stretched above a storey or two. As the pair turned yet another corner, they saw a man, and a dog, walking towards them. “I have a dog, in London,” said Karen.
“Shut up,” said Cecilia.
The dog, an Alsatian, pricked its ears up. It walked alongside the man, who wore a long black coat of wool. There was no lead, nor muzzle. Neither the dog nor the man spoke.
“I only said,” said Karen, but Cecilia stopped her again.
“Shut up,” said Cecilia, in a voice that sounded like she spoke under her breath, except that Cecilia did not need breath to speak.
The Alsatian moved a little ahead of the man. As it came towards the girl and the stork, it spoke to Karen: “have you far to go?”
Karen, unaware of the distance to their destination, turned toward Cecilia. “Not far now,” said Cecilia. “We’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Be sure you are,” said the dog, which now stood and waited for the man to catch up. As he did, Karen saw a badge on the man’s lapel, twinkling in the light from the nearest lantern.
“Hello officer,” said Karen to the man. She correctly surmised he was a policeman.
“Officers,” replied the man.
Cecilia cast a glance at Karen, but Karen did not notice, or could not interpret it.
“Officers,” said the man again. Karen was silent, and then replied, “officers,” without understanding why. Then she hesitated, and said, in a faltering tone: “yes, officers.” She looked to the dog and finally recognized the object hanging from its collar; it was a police badge too, and not the name tag she had first thought. Realizing her mistake, Karen continued, more confidently: “good evening to you both, officers.”
“Don’t mind her speech impediment,” said Cecilia, “she often struggles to say her s’s.” At this, the dog laughed, and the man harrumphed. “Come on sir, these two aren’t worth it,” said the man to the dog.
After the policemen were gone, Cecilia finally allowed her bottled-up emotion to pour out.
“How can you talk like that, about ‘owning’ an animal?”
“All I mean is that our dog lives with us.”
“I know what you meant. Nobody owns animals here, in Lundern. We don’t have slaves anymore. The citizens of our city-state are civiliized, not like those who live elsewhere.”
Karen was silent, feeling ashamed of herself. “You’re right,” she said for want of something better to utter. It had dawned on Karen that here, in Lundern, animals might be equals to people. They might outrank people, like the police dog that outranked the man. They might expect the same courtesy as people. She had better watch her insensitive tongue before it got her into trouble. “You’re right,” repeated Karen, “don’t mind me. I’m just tired, and not thinking straight.”
“Very well,” said Cecilia. The tone of her voice was less angry than before. “I suppose you’ve had a rough day, and you must be missing your parents.”
“My father, yes,” said Karen, and then she stopped herself. “I miss them both.”
“We’re here.” Cecilia nodded at a building as they rounded one more corner.
“Which is it?” asked Karen, unsure which building had been indicated from the long terrace line.
“The tall narrow house in the middle, Cobbler and Cobbler.”
Lit by a draped window from above, Karen could dimly make out a sign. It read: ‘Cobbler & Cobbler’, and they crossed the cobbled streets to its front door.