Courier

by Miriam Oudin


Most days were the same but one day was very bad. There was much more water than before, and also there were noises much bigger than the noises that the people usually made, and there was no new path that she could find, nowhere there wasn’t water and booming and yelling, and the people were running everywhere with their huge feet, and everything was salted with the smell of blood and burning powder. Even inside the walls there was sometimes water, which meant she had to hurl herself forward and hold her breath and pump her strong legs through the lurching tunnels, feeling the waterlogged wood against the muscles in her sides as she half-bounced half-swam heavily forward.

No matter how high up she went on that bad day, even if she tiptoed on the ropes toward where the sun used to be, up up up, there was water and noise.  She found a little room in a very high place where there was nowhere higher to go, and she could wedge herself into a corner where she hid until all the smoke and screaming stopped, which took a long time, and she was very wet and cold.

It was after the bad day that everything changed with one of the people.  She had to cross the floor more often than she’d used to since so many of her favourite paths were still flooded and there were new dead ends where there hadn’t been any before. She could hold her breath a long time but not forever, and sometimes it was scary when she had to turn around and swim all the way back without being able to surface anywhere in between.

In a sudden wide room a big person surprised her and she thought maybe he would try to hit her like they so often did.  She broke into a run, heading for what she hoped was a dry tunnel that she hadn’t tried lately.

“Hey, wait,” said the person.

Against her better instincts she slowed down and looked back over her shoulder.  The person was crouching, holding out his giant pale hand.  It did not seem to have any weapon in it.

“Listen, could you do me a favour?” said the person.

She blinked a couple of times, unsure what to do.  She had heard the people talk to each other like this, with their voices low and rumbly and sweet.  But whenever they addressed her it was always in yelling.

“Do you know the captain?” he said.  ”I have something for him.”

She did not smell fear or rage on the person, but she did not trust her judgement as much as she used to since the very bad day washed away so many of the familiar scents that helped her find things and avoid danger.   She swept her whiskers in a wide arc as she calculated her exits.

“It… it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to give it to him myself.  But maybe you could?  Do you understand me?  You always seemed pretty smart.”

The person stood up again, and started rummaging through a box on a high table.  She made a move to walk toward the hole she’d chosen, but the man made a little hissy-clicky sound that she interpreted to mean that he wanted her to wait some more.  So she waited. Her tail lashed, tasting all the directions she could go if she needed to escape.

The person returned to a crouch, holding a piece of cheese out in that broad hand, nodding his head repetitively as she watched him.  The smell of the cheese cut cleanly through the damp soot and salt that had overwhelmed everything since the bad day, bringing a thrill of pleasure to her taut body.  She could have gone into a barrel and gotten some cheese herself, of course, but that was a lot of work and she risked being seen. Having it offered to her like this felt like a special gift.  There didn’t seem to be a trick in the person’s gesture; she smelled no poison in the food, saw no metal flash in his sleeve. She took a cautious step forward.

“That’s right.  I won’t hurt you.  I just want to talk.  Listen to me.  Things have been… different since the attack.  I’m sure you’ve noticed it too.”

She was close enough to his hand now to touch the very tip of her nose to the ends of his greasy fingers.  She knew from experience that none of the people could move fast enough to catch her, so even if he tried closing his hand quickly she would be able to get away. Another glance backward, remembering each step from cheese to wall. She could do it. Even if he was hiding a weapon somewhere, or trying to mislead her in some other way. Sixteen steps, or seven bounds. She had time.

“I realized that there are some things I don’t want to die without saying.  But I can’t say them out loud. I mean, I suppose I can say them to you, until I figure out a better way to say them to him.”

She coiled, tensing the muscles in her legs. He wasn’t looking at her; his face was pointed at a wall that did not have any of her chosen holes in it, and his eyes were bright and unfocused.

“This is insane. I’m talking to rats now. Is this what I’ve—”

She leapt.  The person started with a little cry, dropping the cheese in his surprise.  She snatched the treasure up in her teeth and made a break for the wall.

“Come back,” said the person, but he didn’t move from his crouch.  As she scurried into the hole, she heard him say, “Come back later and I’ll have something else for you.”

***

The cheese had tasted so much better than any of the stuff she had ever fished out of a barrel. She did not remember many meals but she remembered that one, and thought about it even when she was eating other things. The bad day had mostly faded from her mind but occasionally she found reminders of it: crooked lines where there used to be straight ones, jagged edges that were once smooth. Everything still wet. Black marks. Bloodstains. Lurches at deeper angles than before, forcing her to push harder than ever as she swam through the walls and tunnelled from room to room.

She considered going back to the place where the talking person was. Maybe he would give her another present. He seemed intent on telling her things in that low friendly voice, which made her curious about what other qualities he had.

Some days passed. None of them were worse than any of the others.

***

She went back one night when he was asleep on his cot. His room smelled very strongly of him, like he had been rubbing himself against the walls. It was not unpleasant; in fact, she liked searching for traces of him. She tested every corner, sniffing excitedly. It was not often that she could be so close to a person without having things thrown at her. She climbed into every box but none of them had food in them.

After her investigation, she leapt up next to the person’s ear. He awoke with a gasp.

“Jesus Christ,” he hissed, reaching for a sharp-edged tube of metal on a chest nearby. “Get off of me, you godda—oh!

It sounded like he was going to start yelling at her, making him the same as all the other people after all. Disappointed, she jumped down to the floor. Maybe that first piece of cheese was going to be her only gift from him. Maybe more kindness from the person—or from any person—was too much to hope for.

“Oh! Oh, it’s you! You came!” said the person hurriedly. He dropped the weapon with a clatter, then put his massive feet on the floor nearby. “Sorry! Sorry! Don’t go! I remembered my promise. You just scared me a little, is all.”

Once again she hesitated. He sank into another crouch like before, the wide pinkish landscape of his hand stretched toward her. He was still very big, but he was trying to make himself as small as he could, like when she squiggled into jagged cracks in the walls. She tried to calculate how small a tunnel he could squeeze himself into. Big enough for her to live in.

“I’m sorry! I wasn’t expecting… I thought… I thought you forgot. Come back?”

The rise in pitch comforted her. When people intended violence toward her the voices always pitched downward even as the volume rose like the water outside. She faced him and rose onto her haunches.

He reached into the pile of blankets in which he had so recently been wrapped. Buried within them was a scrap of cloth different from the rest. She appreciated his instinct to collect different kinds of soft things to make a bed, and chirped her approval. He chirped back, surprised and pleased.

The cloth covered one palm; with the other hand he beckoned her to approach.

“This belongs to the captain. I was hoping you could… maybe you could use it to find him.”

She took the cloth and stuffed it into her mouth. It smelled like a different person. Did this person take it from that person to make his nest? Why was he giving it to her? She moved the thing around in her paws, pricking her teeth along its edges, which were strangely smooth and folded over neatly on themselves. The cloth was slick, the threads almost too fine to discern—not at all like the scratchy woven fabrics that she sometimes tore out of the people’s clothes and blankets for her own purposes. It filled her mouth in a satisfying way, wicking the wetness away from her tongue. It was nice, but it wasn’t edible and it wasn’t even really his. Did he think this was a good gift?

He watched her patiently, looking more for a moment like one of her family than one of his own as he squatted with his hands hanging loosely between his knees.

“Do you think you can find him?” he said. “If you do, I think… I think you can help me, and, er. Look. I don’t know how long we’ve got. Things have gotten really bad. I just… I can’t talk to him. But I have to tell him, because. Because we might all die tomorrow. I know it’s crazy.”

She chewed the cloth thoughtfully as he spoke.

“I could give you things you like. What do you like? Food, I suppose? The stories say you like jewels and shiny things, and I have a few of those to share. I’ve been saving. Saving up. For the future. I don’t know if there’ll be a future, now.”

She was glad he was not angry with her like he’d seemed to be when she first visited his cot, and the sound of his voice in the room pleased her. But she did not like this gift as much as the first one. Maybe later she would shred it and put it in one of her nests, or perhaps—this was a good idea! she could divide it into two or three and line some different nests with it. She had been thinking about how nice it would be to have a second home.

“I could make you something. I can whittle a little bit. A house? Would you like a house? I don’t even know what a rat house would look like. Or whether the captain would have me keelhauled for making a rat welcome here when we spend so much time trying to get rid of you.”

With a mouthful of cloth, she loped leisurely toward one of the holes. She was not sure whether she would be back.

“But he might keelhaul me anyway,” he murmured as she shrank into the wall.

***

One day on her rounds she found some more squares of cloth like the one that the man had given her, folded neatly into a soft pile only slightly larger than she was. There were no people in the room at the time, so she spent a little while investigating. The squares gave off a strong smell of that second person, the one that the man wanted to bring into his nest: alcohol and leather and sweat, almost too much for her inhalations to contain. She joyfully rumpled the pile as she compared the textures of each scrap. More of that slickness, those fine threads that invited her tongue to skate across them like a paw on oiled metal. If she concentrated she could detect some differences in the woven surfaces and, if she tilted her head and brought her face right up close, some colours too.

She briefly considered claiming the whole pile for her own, but heavy feet moved around on the other side of the wall, mere inches from her trembling flank, bringing with them the threat of discovery and weapons and yelling. This could not be a home, not even for a short time. So instead she would take a square to the man: he would know what to do with it. She did not quite understand his instructions but she knew it had something to do with this room and these pieces of cloth and the man who had left his scent on them, and she knew she was the only creature in the whole rocking and swaying world who could carry out those instructions.

After a great deal of thought, she selected a cloth the same colour as the man’s hand, whose border was lined with tiny triangles that she found pleasing to the touch. Satisfied with her decision, she carried her prize to the man’s room, clicking quietly to herself as she ran.

***

“It’s his! It’s really his!” The man was so excited that his room was suddenly flushed with his musk. He smelled like the deepest parts of the world, coal and oil burning thickly in the dark. “I knew you could do it! Listen, I’ve written a letter. Do you think you could carry it to the captain?”

She was learning how to tell when he expected an answer from her: his voice rose slightly in a way that seemed to indicate that it was her turn to speak. She squeaked her assent.

“I hope that was a yes. Or else I’ll feel even stupider than I already do. Here.”

The third gift was almost as long as she was, rolled into a tight cylinder and wrapped in tough canvas. His smell was stronger on this thing than on anything else in the room. Whiskers twitching, she traced the imprints of his fingers on the surface of the canvas, which remained even after he let it go.

“I tried to roll it as tightly as I could. Can you carry it?”

She couldn’t get her mouth around it, so she snagged the folded edge in her teeth, as if she were gripping a peel that had not fully been torn from its fruit. The object was not too heavy, but holding it this way was unsatisfactory; she could only drag it backward. She could smell the man’s mounting frustration as her feet scrabbled for purchase on the floor of his room.

“Damn it. Damn it. Here, let me try another way.” The cylinder soared out of sight and he flattened it between his palms. Then he reached inside his clothes to pull out a string of coir. He fussed with the two objects, twisting them together with his fingers moving too fast for her to follow.

“Please do this one thing for me,” he was saying, his voice unsteady, creaking like the timbers talking to themselves when all the people were asleep. He leaned down toward her, the bulk of his body blocking out the light as it filled her horizon. She flinched instinctively, but then held still as he stroked her fur with the back of two fingers. He was repeating slight variations of the same phrase over and over again: “Please do this thing. This one thing. Please do this thing for me.”

And then he was running the string between her belly and the floor, looping it up out of sight over her back, and making another quick series of movements to secure it there. She felt the weight of the canvas press against her back and the tightness of the thread against her skin: not heavy, but unfamiliar and a little uncomfortable. She shifted under the weight, trying to judge whether it would slow her movement. But before she was finished stretching all her limbs he had another surprise for her: a bit of food, a nut of some sort, which he had produced out of his sleeve while she was testing the harness and which was in her mouth before she knew it.

“Please do this for me,” he said one more time, and he stood up so quickly that the light from the lamp on his table reappeared all at once. She had to close her eyes to get her bearings.

“Please.”

The nut was delicious, but the gift on her back was not meant for her. She knew where she would have to take it.

***

She returned immediately to the room where she’d found the pile of coloured cloths, and waited. Time passed. People passed too, loud steps clomping on the other side of the wall, but nobody came in. She was getting hungry, but she didn’t know how to forage with this thing on her back, so she waited.

Different footsteps on the other side of the wall now, deliberate in a way that passersby were not. They paused on the far side of the doorway. There was a grinding metallic sound and then a new person came into the room.

She recognized the scent of this person from the second gift and let out an involuntary squeak of delight. Too late she wondered if maybe the new person might not have been expecting her, might not be as happy to see her as the man had been—

What in the name of Leviathan is this vermin doing in here?

Yelling. It was like the bad day, and all the days before the bad day. She had gotten too used to the friendly man’s gentleness, too willing to believe that people might have gifts for her rather than weapons and poison and hate. Cowering, she tried to map her way to a safe exit as she had done so many times before. But her mind was scrambled—she hadn’t accounted for the weight on her back and couldn’t count her steps correctly. She twitched in what seemed like four or five directions at once, each wall vanishing into impossible distances as she criscrossed the floor in a panic. The canvas on her back grew heavier with every step, the knotted string distractingly chafing under her front legs. The constant swaying of the world turned into a brutal pitch and roll that threatened to take her feet out from beneath her. All she could smell was the man’s anger at the violation of his nest, overpowering even the blood and ash that had soaked the world since the bad day.

“I swear to God I am going to kill whatever scullery boy left the trail of garbage that led you here, you miserable pest,” the person bellowed, reaching for a wooden weapon the length of his leg. Not metal, at least. The rat bounded toward an exit, but the arcs of her leaps were flattened by the extra weight and her movement was slower than she’d hoped.

“I thought the only good thing about that damnable fire and the damnable carnage it caused was that it flushed you filth off my sh—”

All of a sudden, the man stopped shouting, and there was a sharp intake of breath that seemed to pull all the air out of the room and into his body. “What now?” he said, much more quietly. “What is this, a joke?”

But her senses were still flooded with panic and she barely registered the change in the person’s mood. She was racing along the edges of the walls, frantically seeking a tunnel that would take her somewhere else, anywhere else. Everything was all wrong—the holes were not where she expected them to be, and the weight on her back made it feel like she was swimming rather than running, and the room was airless and terrifying. She considered wriggling out of her harness so that she could get her old speed back, but the man had tied the package very tightly to her body. She pressed her nose into her side, trying to find a weak spot in the coir that would allow her to cut herself loose.

“Hey, wait.”

The same words that the kind man had used. She stopped instinctively, but only for an instant, tilting her nose up just long enough to taste the new man’s voice on the air before returning to her project.

“I’ll still kill you, don’t get me wrong, and the scullery boy too, but let me see what you’ve got there first.”

Triumph! The coir was no match for her teeth, and after twisting her neck at a taillike angle for a few seconds she was able to lock her jaw under it and saw through the rope. Her bundle fell noisily to the ground; quick as a hawk, the man crossed the room to snatch it up. Free of her burden, the rat renewed her search for a hole in the wall, dodging the giant boots that had suddenly appeared all around her. She had compensated for the extra weight while she was wearing it, it turned out, since now she overshot her first leap and winged the wall clumsily with her shoulder.

There was a rustling noise, retreating feet, and the creak of furniture. The danger was receding.

“‘Captain,’” said the person. This was another familiar word, one that always filled the friendly man’s voice with a gentle power when he spoke it. This man said it differently; his voice sounded like it was coming from behind him rather than inside him. “‘I know it’s not appropate’—appropate—oh, I think it’s supposed to say appropriate. ‘I know it’s not appropriate to write to you like this but I had to tell you how I feel.’”

At last she found the tunnel that she’d used to enter this place, and she wriggled into it as relief cooled her like a shadow. But now that her immediate panic had subsided, curiosity took over: what was it that was supposed to happen between these two people? Now that the package was in the hands of the new person, what was the next thing? Most importantly, where was her gift?

“‘Ever since the attack, I’m afraid that we might not have much time left,’” the person continued softly. “‘After Gretch-Boy died, and Henrietta lost her wits, and then we lost Pilla-Pilla and Wishbone too, I thought it’s time to tell you that I want to spend all my remaining days with you.’”

Confident of her safety now that she was in her tunnel, she ventured a peek back into the room. She couldn’t see much from this far away, but she could tell that the person was sitting down on his cot, the canvas package now unrolled and laid upon his knees. The scent of the room had become unrecognizable in the few moments since she had fled. None of the person’s fury remained. Something else had replaced it, something less violent but still dangerous, deep and urgent like the steam that pushed the world forward on its rocking path. The person’s attention was not on her, so she took the risk of a single step toward him, her tail still tracing the edges of the safehole.

The person had fallen silent. Even his breathing had stopped. It stayed that way for a while—long enough for the rat to remember how hungry she was. She was free now, and could forage if she wanted. But it seemed like something important was about to happen and she wanted to see what it was. Besides, it’s not like she hadn’t gone days without food before.

At long last the person spoke again, his voice nearly inaudible over the heaving of the world. “‘If there’s any way for us to live through this trial, you’ll find it, my captain. But I am so frightened and want so badly to be near you. If the brought this letter—’”

The man’s tone changed yet again as he suddenly addressed her. “Courier?” he called out into the room. ‘does she mean you, vermin? Where are you?”

She ventured forward another step. Those last few words, rising in pitch in the expectation of an answer from her, contained no malice. But this man was stormy, his voice and even his scent changing every few moments. She welcomed the sun that warmed and straightened the ground, but she did not know when the next squall would come. Other people might change once, from the person who had not yet seen her to the person who has just seen her, bland indifference transforming instantly to anger. But this man was shifting swiftly through moods that she had never witnessed at all; she wasn’t even completely sure that he was only one person.

“Ah, there you are.” He had not stood up, but he did catch sight of her, and leaned forward. In a move echoing the one that the friendly man had made when they first met, he held out a hand. It was a different colour than the other man’s, much darker, and covered with more complicated spicy smells. But he withdrew it before she could approach.

He flapped the paper once and went back to talking. “‘If the courier brought this letter dreck’—dreck? oh, direct, ‘directly to you, then you’re reading this at most a week before the pirates catch up to us. Sometimes she doesn’t come right away, so there might be even less time.’”

Without warning, the man burst into laughter. It was not a noise she heard up close very often; it only happened when there were people together in a room, eating and drinking, and it always stopped as soon as they discovered her presence. She liked the sound, so whenever she heard it, she would hide and wait and enjoy the good cheer it brought with it. Now that this man was sharing it with her, she felt confident taking yet another step toward him, toes spread experimentally, shoulders raised.

“She trained you!” he roared, the loudness merry and not at all threatening this time. “Whoever wrote this trained you! Who on my crew would have the wits and the patience to train a rat? Davenport? Adelaide? Westgrove? Wits and patience, even when the world is supposedly ending! Training rats and watching the horizon and fearing for the engine, all at once! Blackwall? Singh? I hire too many brilliant, passionate women to be able to narrow this list down any further. And men, too, I suppose, though none of them would send me a love letter.”

She squeaked a question, but he ignored her.

“Though maybe they should, eh? I’d kiss any one of my crew. I wouldn’t hire anyone I wouldn’t kiss, and I haven’t been kissed in a long, long while. You! Stay here a minute.”

She’d scarcely noticed that she’d taken a few more curious steps toward him, and was now standing just out of range of the wooden weapon that he had since laid by his feet. She hadn’t thought about either food or escape for a while; concern rippled through her body briefly but then disappeared as she watched him.

“A week, she says. Hah! A week! I’ll give her her week, whoever she is, but she might be surprised to find herself stuck with me for a lot longer than that. I’m not giving up on this ship so soon. I suppose I ought to read the rest of this.”

He settled back on the cot, the heat of his attention elsewhere for now. “Live through this trial… come right away… ah, here we are. ‘I do not fear the pirates or the engine failing as much as I fear dying without settling my accounts. So I write to you of love, my captain. You might think you know who I am, but I reckon I’m not what you’re expecting. If you’re willing to be surprised’—look, she wrote ‘very very’ in tiny letters above ‘surprised’—‘then send the rat back with a message. You should probably feed her something too. She seems to like cheese.’”

He leaned down to study her, his dark face filling her field of vision, the thick rope of his hair brushing the floor near her feet. She tensed, but stayed put, inhaling that leathery smell that she had enjoyed so much when she was exploring his belongings. She thought she caught a glimpse of one of the coloured cloths from the pile, buried among the layers of clothes that covered his chest.

Slowly he reached past her to grasp the abandoned harness. “Very well, then,” he said. “If that’ll solve the mystery, I’ll feed the vermin. It’s not like you can do more damage than those goddamned cannons did.”

***

She was getting used to carrying the packages, and the friendly man was always so happy to see her that the discomfort was worth it. He always had a little bit of food for her: sometimes a nut, sometimes a piece of bread, cheese when she was very lucky. He made a brand-new harness out of cotton rope that did not chafe so much, and which fit snugly under her arms.

The dark man sometimes forgot to give her a gift, but he laughed more. Sometimes he would make her wait for hours while he scratched a paper with a feather or burned a tiny pot of sweet-smelling tobacco, but he never stopped talking, and his rolling, thundery voice brought her much pleasure. She now understood that they were talking about her whenever they said “courier,” and they seemed to like it when she clicked in response to hearing the word.

Some days passed. Each one was a little better than the one before it.

***

One day she arrived at the stormy man’s nest expecting him to put the harness on her again, since it was his turn to give her a package. But she was surprised to discover that both men were already in the room. She had become so used to the idea that they lived in their own faraway nests that it had never occurred to her that one would go visit the other. She thought she was the only creature who could.

She smelled them before she saw them; their scents blended and roiled so thickly that she could barely move through the churning air. It reminded her a little of the very bad day, because everything was smoky and sweaty and maybe just a little bloody—but instead of fear and pain beneath it there was something else, something delicious and exciting. She heard them, too, both talking at the same time, but the sound was muffled and did not seem to have words in it.

The scent was so overpowering that she actually had trouble figuring out where in the room they were: it was like they were everywhere, it was like there were ten of them, lying on the cots and sitting on the chairs and leaning against the walls all at once. She traced a cautious path against the edges of the room, growing lightheaded with the sheer presence of her people friends, until at last she came across four giant feet planted in front of her in a confusing array.

The friendly man was up against one wall, and the stormy man was wrapped around him, and they were making quiet, rumbling noises that reminded her more of her own conversation than the sounds that people usually made. A jacket of stiff serge lay on the floor nearby, tangled up with some other pieces of clothing that she could not identify either by sight or scent but which looked to make a very comfortable nest.

She was not sure what to make of the scene. They were meeting without her, so maybe the meeting was about her. Was it time for one of them to give the other a harness? Was it a person’s turn to travel to her nest and bring her a package? Could they even fit in her home? She was pretty sure that neither of them could. Her home was nice and big, but not big enough for a person.

She chirruped to get their attention, but the sound was lost in the noises they were making and the hum of the world beneath the floor. She would come back later, when they weren’t so busy.

***

Some time later she went to see the friendly man at his nest. At first she thought the two people were together again, since the scent of the darker man’s oiled leather and sweet rum marked every inch of the space. But the friendly man was alone, and he seemed to be expecting her.

He didn’t speak. Instead, he scooped her up in his big pinkish hands and suddenly she was soaring through the air, arcing at an impossible speed toward his huge rough face. Before she could complain, though, the journey was over, and he was holding her tightly against the short, wiry fur on his chin.

“I’m going to build you a house,” he murmured, “a great big house of good strong wood, and I’m going to fill it with jewels for you to arrange however you like, and soft cloth from India to make into a pile as big as you want, and you can have fresh cheese every day, a whole wheel just for you, and if any of the crew complain that you’re getting more cheese than they are, I’ll box their ears.”

She didn’t know any of the words that he’d just said except “cheese,” but she liked that one, so she ground her teeth happily.

“Would you like some cheese now?” he asked, setting her gently down on the table. “I don’t have a whole wheel for you yet, I’m afraid. But as soon as we get to port, I promise I’ll buy you one. I’ve been saving up. For the future.”

That word again! He said “cheese” three times. That meant a gift was coming. This was going to be a good day. This was going to be the best day of all.