“Other Side of the Fence” – Fiction by Anna Tizard

Chat au Clair de Lune - Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, circa 1900
Chat au Clair de Lune – Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, circa 1900

 Anna Tizard‘s “Other Side of the Fence,” from our Summer 2014 issue, shows us the world through the eyes of a feline figure with a curious past who traverses the boundaries between the mundane and the magically macabre.

{ X }

“I SWEAR IT WAS ONE OF ‘EM, I SWEAR.”

“Nick. It’s a misty night. Come on.”

“Nah, nah – it was her mist. I saw it rise. She’s a shape-shifter, I’m telling you.”

“Yeah. Just like that frog the other night from the pond at number six. Right idiot you made of us, getting caught in that hedge! I’m still picking thorns out of my sweater…”

The voices faded, muffled by the mist as I eased through a gap in the fence and shuddered the woody grit off my fur. Fences: most human folk just see barriers, separating devices. Opportunities, gaps, hidden places, perhaps a high viewing post; these are the fences held in the eyes of cats, immortals, and perhaps those two chasers back there, human by the look of it, their eyes widened by a preternatural curiosity.

If there was still a trace of my own mist clinging to my back legs, I wouldn’t have known it. I was too distracted by the sponginess of the grass beneath my paws, the newness of it all. The lowness of the twilight sky, a blanket of slate-grey with just a glimmer of blue and pink in it, swallowing everything into itself. To sniff the air was to have those colours wash through me, the scent of rain one and the same thing as my anticipation, and that first pinch of hunger.

At the tremor of those clumsy footsteps behind me I scattered up a tree, startled by my own agility, until those booming voices moved off, still bickering. For the first few hours of my life as a cat I didn’t test out my new dexterity but sat tensed as a watchman over those rows of rectangular gardens as the shadows unfolded themselves like some ancient leather-bound book falling open over everything.

This is the way I have learned to remember it, running a claw over the past. At the time I didn’t have enough experience of old books, blankets, or even humans to see it quite that way. But age and experience can help you piece together what was violent, fragmented, nothing more than imprints in the mud quickly filling up with rainwater.

What little I did know at that time spun back to me soon enough, though, shivering the very dew off my back as I dug my nerves deep into the branch beneath me.

Only moments ago, the shriek of my mother – was she my mother? – had run its electric current through me and set me shivering low against the bedroom carpet. It was bad enough that my forepaws had just flung out in front of me where my hands had just been, right before that sneezing fit. There was nothing to do but stare up at their open mouths, my dad flapping his hands about noiselessly as though someone had cut his sound off. Those madcap hands of his took on a life of their own as if to say this is what you should have on the ends of your arms and this is what they can do, if you just try. Try to be human.

I crushed myself against the skirting board as he staggered towards me, and that’s when I became aware of the centre of balance pinned at the end of my back, a kind of poled verticality at odds to my now horizontal manner of standing – which made perfect sense to me, keeping me parallel to the floor. As fear gathered like bile into a hiss I felt that dependable tick-tock swaying from this flexible aerial I came to know later as my tail.

My first clear thought in my cat form, besides panic: this tick-tock didn’t follow any rhythm except my own. I lived on my own time, now. Whatever had just happened, I no longer belonged here.

“The window!” The mother-woman cried, clutching the words as they flew from her mouth.

He stumbled forward, being that bit closer to the window than her, but not quick enough. I leapt onto the windowsill, slick as a thought, and oozed out under the gap like toothpaste from a tube.

That was the last time I ever saw them, up close. But that didn’t stop me from finding a way to make them happy.

For nights I hooked mice from kerbsides, tugged chicken bones and pizza crusts from bins, until my real shape quivered back to me along with the horror of the memory. It trespassed over me through the lull of sleep, closing around me like cold, deep water.

Memories of the Burrow rattled their cart wheels through my dreams until I blinked, sore eyed, onto a bright green square of lawn cast with daylight. I didn’t belong here. Darkness was where I came from. I sat up, twitching back into my cat-form. What a perfect, instinctual choice of bodily mask this was, or perhaps it was good luck: As a cat I could live loosely at this world’s borders without drawing much attention to myself. I could hide, I could slink around the anonymous corners and gaps under rosebushes. I could nestle down into the smooth cloth of shadow until my nightmares would subside.

But I couldn’t cower forever. I had to face what I was.

I was a botched spell, a mis-uttered vowel, a glance flung at the cavern’s wheezing door just as the rhythm of the chant unwound its spool to the very end.

An urden, offspring of an urd, which is just about the lowest creature in that faery realm; which, by the way, in our underground taverns and tunnels and burrowed-out holes we – they – call homes, is pronounced fiery. This way you know it means bad faery, faery-up-to-no-good. And because they rarely have cause to write things down, having so many secrets to cuddle to their stringy, usually green, chests, there’s hardly any concern about needing to spell it differently. (But if you have to refer to them in longhand, a flat stroke of the pen over the a will do just fine, thank you.)

Within this network of burrows squats an ugly jumble of shops, really just storerooms fronted by leering, putty-faced hagglers, looking to make a lucrative exchange for anything from lost umbrellas (humans’), socks severed from their twin (again, humans’), dropped change (you get the idea), as well as potions and secret words and things conjured in their own world that have their own power and appeal.

But there’s one alcove you don’t want to explore. The Changeling Brewery.

It’s only a brewery because she that lives there happens to be fond of making cider and root liquor and biting, acrid moss-gin, and if you knock after four p.m. she will let you in, strike up a conversation, and happily sell a jar of her nastiest for more than is decent but less than what will make you roll your eyes and walk out again. She makes more of the concoctions than she’d ever need for her own uses, and you might find yourself wondering whether these yellowing, rag-labelled jars have had a few words muttered over them to make them glow in that faintly alluring way. What else would draw your hand into your pocket at the sight of those well-thumbed containers? It’s the way they catch the quivering candle light and seem to throw it back at you in a sneer. And how do they manage not to slide off those shelves hammered askew against her kitchen-bar wall?

Come on a Thursday if you dare to part the throng and the gusts of oakleaf smoke. The local gossip is varied and laced with exaggerations too bolshy for your mouth, but what’s in the eyes of every storymonger, even when he’s chuckling over his own jokes, perhaps a little too hard, is what she does with the babies.

Her own babies, mind. Did I mention she’s an urd? Left to brood and mutter on her own in her cavern, she will self-propagate quick as weeds and twice as twisted. The brewery would be packed and jungled with stems and clawing, groping fingers and toes like roots – strange, shrieking things that would twirl and wind their way into the upper forests to scare human walkers and probably fāery ones too – if she didn’t do what she did next, regular as moontide.

A sign goes up on the door when it’s time, and the rest of the fāery tunnels become distracted from that corner and overly interested in their own business. Only a select few are ever party to what goes on behind that gnarled wooden door. A week’s worth of basting, laying out to dry, stretching and rolling out means these plant-beasts are ready for the most dastardly magic.

Don’t wrinkle your nose at them. I am one.

The spell she casts is for change. For this she uses the plain-looking jar at the very back behind the others, the one with the steam-curl of purple in it that you can see only if you squint, although most of the spell that makes a thing like me is bound to its power by words. With the blunt-edged, guttural cries criss-crossing into an invisible tapestry over the squirming urdens, each of these creatures is given the capacity to alter itself and keep that new form just as long as is required. Even so, the shape she chooses for them is always the same – the most profitable: a pudgy, happy-looking human baby.

Later than anyone else cares to stay awake, her agents will manifest at her door: Bony, hooded, long-fingered men that emerge from the dank underground air like slices of night. They come with their crates and their drawstrings of gold nuggets to barter and take the pretend-children away. It goes without saying that the human babies for which they will be swapped will collect a higher price than any that falls from that knotted crone’s mouth.

With me, the change she spelled into my seething stems was made too fluid. It wasn’t the intended form that stuck, but my capacity to change – into any form I knew.

Who would dare walk in to the Changeling Brewery when there was a Closed for Dark Deeds sign on the door? No, it couldn’t have been a fāery. The one that nudged her door open when she was arms-raised, rasp-calling, hand-trembling through the final, knot-tying words was a cat. Her own black cat, nosing for its supper.

I glanced down with my almost-human eyes and saw the sleek way it moved, the question-mark tail feeling for the atmosphere in the room – which immediately bowled into sourness. My mother hurled an emptied potion jar at the floor where a split second ago the cat stood poised, lifted on its delicate feet.

I squealed. Mother Urd flicked back to me, checking me over, unsure. A spike-toothed grimace I took for a smile.

“There you are. All done.”

That’s what she thought.

{ X }

Back in the tree, I sat up and licked my paws, feeling a window of midday sun stroke my fur. It had begun to dawn on me just how free that small mistake had made me. How soon my disguise had become easy, natural, more comfortable than my real leaf-skin. Perhaps later that day there’d be time to really mess around with my power and morph into that bird, this branch, into the air itself. True invisibility! But I wasn’t ready to take risks like that. For now there seemed just one important thing to do.

I wove my way back to that place, keening after the earth-acrid smell, my belly shrinking close to the rain-flattened leaves on the woodland floor. This hollow – no, that hollow – no, that wasn’t right; I found myself going round and round in slow, ground-sniffing circles until I realised that this is how they hide: this is their pathway, at the centre of an invisible labyrinth, accessible only to those who are fāery, or unfortunates who have got themselves bewitched. A gash in a buckled old oak, a warm wind breathing from its mouth. I took one final gulp of fresh, upper-world air and dived in.

The tunnel didn’t like me. It jostled me about, bumped my bones and worried me with sudden bends until I guessed this was its magic, trying to make me turn back. When I wouldn’t turn it tussled with my mind instead, plunging me back into my worst memory, the one I had tried hardest to blot out: the long basket, seeming to hover in mid-air as it was carried by those cloaked figures, one at the front, one at the back. In the muffled silence of the suburban street, I rolled about in a row of other false babies, their faces staring startled into my own.

As my body fell down that tree-hole I felt myself become blind, squeezed in the fist of that memory. But I couldn’t let the blackness take me over. I bit down my own scream and decided to be here and now. Soon the rolling twists of the passageway became clearer, louder somehow and less surprising to my slipping, scattered paws. I managed to take a better hold of which way my paws were pointing – just as the gap widened and spat me out onto a dusty platform.

“Why, Iggie, you naughty little thing! What have you been up to?” A huge, three-fingered hand patted my head roughly but I shot out from under it, the only direction I knew down that underground street. Iggie? It must have been the urd’s cat’s name; it made sense that a neighbour would think I was her. She was the only cat I’d ever come across in my short life so far, so of course my bodily rendition of her would be perfect, untainted by a mental image of any other feline. I scooted tightly against the shop fronts and walls, zig-zagging wherever those clunky grey-green toes swung and lifted. So musty in these underground streets I could hardly breathe. Bad fāeries, you probably wouldn’t be so bad if you had a few more windows to the world above and drank in a little more fresh air now and then.

Thrown sideways by the roar of a carriage drawn by two enormous horses, their hairy feet kicking up dust. Passing the snake-charmer on the corner I had to slow. It dawned on me that that low, worming flute sound must have trickled under every door every day of the week, for it echoed back through tunnels of pain in my head, merged with the first smells and blurred images I could remember as I writhed in birth, a sound to curl its dread around my waiting roots.

My instincts tingled. That door in the corner – it had to be hers. Maybe it was the smell of that place that reached me and made me sure: the dusty rims of jam jars, that low, wet-earth scent that at once meant danger and home. The inward dip of the wood in the buckled door, as though it had already felt the impact of my bursting through.

I reared up, incensed with the idea of it. Figures leapt aside, yelling out. I was a horse, galloping towards the door, ramming it into a small crushed thing with my hoof. Her gasping face was under me as I rose on my hind legs and thumped her down. Despite the mayhem still screaming in the street behind me I heard the air wallop from her lungs. My maker. As she fell I fell, pity drinking my strength. I slunk into my weed-snarled form at the sight of her, clawing the ground with my cowardice.

If you don’t do this, so many more monsters will be made. And so many more will be swapped, sold, made prisoners of the fāeries to do who-knows-what, be their slaves, most likely, in burrows where they’ll never see the sky.

I slithered, limped across the floor. She rolled onto her side, her mouth stretching into a gloat, a promise to get me back for this.

Her own, her own child. I whimpered, softened under the powerful grip of her tentacled fist around me. The walls of the cavern swooped as she lifted me off the ground and for a moment I felt nothing but the blank white shock of recognition. Her hair. The worms of her green-brown hair, oozing, stuttering, stems forked into smaller stems which were lipped with tiny mouths, sucking blindly at the air around her head. She was pregnant again, and this was her next litter. It was the cold touch of terror in that swinging basket; it was the misery and madness of human children yet to come, not to mention their parents…

She squeezed me in the crackling twig-like grasp and I shrank to an artery, little more than one of the foetal hair-stems wriggling, too close. An inch thinner still, and breathlessly I slithered out from her clutch and onto her neck. All I needed was a moment, a memory, and my body sprung into shape again, this time pressing my snake’s teeth into the trunk of her.

She screamed. She collapsed heavily on her side and I was jolted through the air by the impact. I had instinct enough to land on four black paws, knowing without thinking that this was how best to land – and that was how I stayed.

With that last gaseous out-breath, the source of my spell was killed and so the magic that gave me infinite changeability was cut short. In that second of wisdom I became fixed. Cat I was and cat I would remain.

It was a while before I noticed this, my mind a streak of panic as I scrammed out of reach of the grappling hands and the shouts and the stones and glass jars that flew over my head.

I’ve had time to lick my paws again, to know them as my own. In some ways my release and in others, my containment.

But how much freedom should a murderer have?

{ X }

Ask me now and I’ll tell you my name is Fence. I am the narrow gap where the slice of light bores its arrow through the wooden shutters. I am the place where the boundary gives, where it lets things between the two worlds cross over to each other – hopefully, good things. Hopefully, change.

Since that day I have made the best of it. There was nothing I could do to save the other babies that had been swapped with litters before mine, but I broke into that world over and over until I found the one I recognised, the one I was meant to be, and I kept an eye on her. As soon as she could crawl, I led her back to that house where I first changed into a cat, to the cries of those who had mourned her long, but not so long they didn’t know her as their daughter.

It will take longer to do the same for the others, but I am hatching a plan. If I can just get those two portal hunters to take an interest in me again, if they would dare to follow me far enough into the woods… I sit and wait on my favourite branch, stirring my ideas against the bark with a claw. It seems that changelings can’t tolerate the presence of their human counterparts after the first exchange and the confusion causes them to scrunch back into their original form, so all it would take is to return the true babies to their rightful homes again. Thank goodness my own changeling-magic is fixed.

Yowch!

“What now, Rob?”

“Bloody weeds. Look at this thing, have you ever seen anything so tangled?”

There they go again. Fascinating creatures, humans: how your awareness can be so sharp, so keen in your search for openings into other worlds – and then you only manage to get the stuff wrapped around your trainers: that’s them, the withered, obstinate weeds of the once-urdens. They’re exactly where you’d expect to find them; where all the best old stories begin – at the bottom of your garden, by the fence.

{ X }

lr_Anna7ANNA TIZARD writes because reality is not enough; because creating a story is like forging a portal into an alternative world, which other people can then visit if they think it looks like fun. For a slightly longer excursion try her novel, I See What You Want or share your thoughts with her on facebook or on Twitter @AnnaTizard. Go on. You know you want to.

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