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SHADOW KNIGHTS Of Smuggling and Fish and Woods BRUINSKI'S STORY
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He sat in the dark in the grease in the grime, the ship’s engines pounding in his ears. The “comfortable place” he had found for himself, where no one came, not even the maintenance people, until they came into dock. By then he’d be off the ship to make his contact. As he felt the restlessness in his belly, he knew he’d eventually have to go to some of the upper decks to scrounge for food, now that he ran out of his own stores that he brought. He hated doing that. Almost as much as going hungry. Being hungry made him sleepy, though, and he had to resist the temptation to slip into Winter’s Sleep as he sat in the cold and the dark.
He didn’t care so much for the grease smell, either. At least it kept his mind off of food. The grease smell was everywhere, even on the people. So he had to immerse himself in the grease in order to smell like the others, too. The other smell that was heavy on this ship with the metal, the rust. Bruinski could taste it on his tongue all the time. It made him sick sometimes. Grease or rusted metal. None of it was like the woods, the smell of earth, the taste of berries.
Occasionally he’d go down to the bottom of the ship in order to lap up some of the bilge water. That’s when things were the worst. It tasted like greasy rusty metallic water. And worse. Other things he didn’t know what they were, but knew he didn’t like. Sometimes he imagined dying of thirst as a better alternative. Or the Winter Sleep. But if he went to sleep, they’d find him, and that would not be good. He could not be found. Or found out, to put a finer point to it. Money Man wouldn’t be pleased with him if he got caught.
He had walked among them often enough in his forays for food. . Humans scared him. He had learned to look like one, to act like one, to talk like one, to dress like one, but he was fearful of them. And so he learned the secrets of how not to be noticed, how to make humans ignore you, and how to make them forget of you. In this way he could move about the ship, get what he needed to eat from the den of the man who smelled like food, and then move on without causing suspicion. He took a chance every time he did, and Money Man wouldn’t be pleased with him if he got caught.
He thought about Money Man. He thought about The Package. He was told never to open it, or Money Man would be mad, and not give Bruinski his Fish Money. It didn’t mean he couldn’t look at it, he had to look at it on occasion. Bruinski lifted up his grimy shirt and put a hand to his belly and thought about The Package. He could feel it inside him, part of him, broken up into tiny, tiny bits, all over his body. But now to look at The Package, he began to tense up, contracting his muscles, scrunching himself together as tight as he could. The Package began to take shape just outside his belly, and Bruinski started to tug lightly at it. He didn’t feel so much as pain, but rather a feeling like part of himself was being drawn through a funnel, a very uncomfortable feeling.
Finally, he held it in his hands, wrapped tightly in plastic, it had no smell but the plastic. It was tightly packed, but he was told it was ‘fragile’ a word Bruinski didn’t know, but he was told it was not to be dropped or handled roughly. It was large and heavy, he had to hold it in both hands. About the size of -- two salmons, Bruinski figured. He licked his lips at the though of salmon. Job Man told Bruinski that Money Man would give him Fish Money, so he could get all the fish he wanted, whenever he wanted, and not have to work hard in the streams, or fight other males for fish. Bruinski hugged the package to himself and imagined he had two salmons, and smacked his chops as he began his drift into sleep. The grease would be fish oil, and he would smell like fish instead of greasy rust, and he could sleep under the sky again, instead of the dark loud “comfortable place” that was noisy and cold.
Slowly, slowly, The Package seeped back into his body, breaking up into tiny, tiny, pieces, spreading out all over his body, until there was nothing left.
* * * * *
Bruinski walked along the green grass, stopping now and again to curl his toes up in its softness. He took a deep breath and smelled on the wind the grass, the trees, the earth. No berries, though. It wouldn’t be berry season until later. He had followed a bee for a long time but he was never able to find its home. His stomach growled again, and he was probably about as hungry as he was on the ship, but at least he was surrounded by smells he liked, and that made all the difference.
Sky above, ground beneath his toes. He had lost track of his shoes while following the bee. He’d have to find them again when he went back to the settlements. If he went back to the settlements. Life was so much better in the wilds, and humans were so dangerous. But he wasn’t in Vladivostok anymore, or its surrounding countryside. These woods smelled strange, and he had a hard time discerning what would be good to eat and when. He’d have to go to the settlements, he’d have to learn their human tongue, and he’d have to learn how to scrounge in the forests of Man. Overcome by a heaviness, Bruinski dropped to the ground.
“Ook.” He said quietly to himself.
He didn’t fit into either world. To the animals, he smelled too much like human, and they avoided him, and the squirrels chattered at him. Stupid squirrels. And there were the wolves. He hated wolves, all wolves. He was pretty sure he hadn’t smelled wolf at all in these woods, but he hadn’t smelled much at all. It wasn’t populated very much.
But the humans, he didn’t fit in with them much at all, either. Too many things to remember, how to act like them, mimic them, things not to do, get strange crinkly faces when he does something wrong. They chatter at him, too, like the stupid squirrels. Chatter and chatter. And their smells weren’t natural, they were deceiving.
He never went to see Money Man. As soon as he crept off the ship, he could smell fish, it hung heavy in the air, and was all around, he couldn’t locate it. He loved these settlements by the shore, so much fish brought in from the ocean. Everywhere. His stomach would not stop churning until finally he found a hidden corner and purged The Package from his body. Then there was room. Then there was room for fish.
For a while he was able to live on the docks, walking around, finding a fish where there were busy people, then absorb a fish into himself, steal away, and purge it whole again. Bruinski ate a lot of fish. He was able to hide in the crowds, in plain view, people looked away from him, or didn’t notice him, or forgot him after they did. He was a nobody in the throng that is the fish market. It was the best hunting and scrounging he had done in a long time. One time, though, he was caught by an unblinking eye that didn’t look away, that never forgot, and always remembered. It wasn’t a man’s eye. It has seen his taking of a fish, and while they were never able to prove he had it, it became a frightening place, knowing those unblinking eyes were everywhere.
A lot of people noticed him, people laid hands upon him, people chattered at him like the squirrels. In a panic he ran, and they chased him. He had to use all his tactics, not to be noticed, to be forgotten, find a hiding place, disappear. He disappeared for a long time. Hoping they couldn’t find him by scent, or used dogs. Sometimes they use dogs. Bruinski hates dogs. All dogs. They are like wolves, trained by Humans.
And so he left the settlements with fish, and walked long and long until the human forests that smelled like stone and smoke were out of sight, and he found a woods where he could burrow out a hole and sleep. But now, he had to go back. He didn’t belong in these woods as much as he didn’t belong in the woods of Man, but there was food in those woods. And packs of people, too. Just as dangerous and deadly as wolves.
He hated wolves. Wolves of all kinds.
It was a long, long walk back to the woods of Man, and they would give him crinkly faces if he came without his shoes, so he better get to finding them. He’d have to smell for the shoes to find them, and he couldn’t do that as well looking like a man. So he went back to his hole in the ground, guarded by a small thicket, and he took off all of his Man clothes and tucked them neatly in the hole.
Then he started to think fur, and his arms grew brown and shaggy, and his back and chest until he was covered thick and soft and warm. He thought of smelling and his nose grew longer, wider, bigger, and he though of his hands and feet, and they broadened out, large and thick, and soon Bruinski was flexing the soft turf with the curved claws at the end of his paws. He squeezed out of the hole in the ground and blinked at the sky above. He breathed in the air that had no grease or smoke, but no fish. Then he thought of the smell of his shoes, snuffled his nose into the wind. He remembered the bee and where he was when he chased after it on two legs, that strange upright walk that seemed so alien and clumsy to him now. He snuffled into the wind, and then lumbered off after his Man-shoes.
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