Justin Gold ǀ Copywriter ǀ Storyteller

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A Towel over the Cage

Winner of Gamespot’s “Dishonored Tales" Short Story Contest

 

A Towel Over the Cage

Justin Gold (writer) Bryan Brown (illustrator)

Vera’s eyes had settled for several minutes, perhaps even an hour, on the pregnant swells of the sea. Beyond the lamplight of the market row and the night sway of the dune-grass, high tide inhaled the shoreline. Black water caught the sparks of a dozen passing floodlights — whaling ships, iron and harsh-cut, steered into port. Inch by salt inch, the ships dragged under the weight of monsters hanged dorsal up, torn down their centers. A seldom few ships held no catch at all, unfulfilled and barren. It was the empty ships that Vera followed, just as she had done the night before, and the night before that. She had even stood on the same broken ply and, under the drone of Stuart’s snores, handed herself to the calm of the whaling ships, or the ocean, or the moonlight, or the traders who had stumbled down the market row, without apparent aim or purpose, on a continent where time, like all civilized sensibilities, was nothing more than a cumbersome abstraction. Now Vera watched the last sliver of sunfall of her last day on Pandyssia.

A scurry turned her gaze to the window’s reflection. Though Stuart’s body hunched at his desk — a tasteless chunk of wild oak imported from Serkonos — his mind stalled in the same dark recess to which it had disappeared all afternoon. He peered into a small iron cage within another cage, locked three-fold, that sat on the desk. A pile of bristles curled at its back, black-furred and sewer-stained. It wasn’t until Vera saw the rise and fall of Stuart’s beard that she realized he was talking — whether it was to the street rat or to her, she was entirely unaware.

“It’s only prudent to observe that Dunwall is on the verge of martial law.” Stuart’s voice was guttural, tired, half-drunk on research, the other half on Morley ale. By candle glow, Vera could trace the gaunt edges of his face, its indentations deep and pooled in shadow. His desk was a scatter of Academy tomes and field manuals, beakers and vials, and the iron bramble of the cage. “The City Watch — you probably didn’t know this — they’re going to start curtailing us under some schoolchild’s curfew.” He carried on with the same flat recitation as a loudspeaker announcement. He glared at the rat. “And the whale oil taxes? You couldn’t imagine how expensive even the most basic of research supplies have become…” Next to the near-dry ale bottle, a burning Cullero blew clouds up to the ceiling. Stuart raised the Cullero and turned it, as if seeing it for the first time in admiration. One of the last on the Isles, a coin of fifty couldn’t buy its ash. “But Pandyssia,” he said, a tempered half-whisper. He let the name hang in the air to rise like candle smoke, as if Vera was supposed to observe it there the way he observed his fine cigar. “What is Pandyssia if not some incredible entwinement of ecologic vibrancy and cultural propensity?” 

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Vera said.

“No, it takes a natural philosopher to think that way.” Stuart took a quick swig of ale. “The interesting thing is…”

There was a chirp from the corner alcove. Vera turned to the birdcage that lay in quietude, draped in towels. She lifted a towel. Her three Alexin meadowlarks circled their seed bar. Even in sparse sunfall, their bellies glistened in yellow and black streaks. Vera had named the female meadowlark Jessamine, after Emperor Kaldwin’s newborn daughter. The lone female of the flock, Jessamine lacked the eagerness of her royal namesake, waiting in a still quietude at the seed bar, patient for just a peck.

“I had a nightmare last night,” Vera said.

“…and even the river krusts here produce pearls that — ” There was a glass clink of vials, a shuffling of tools. “A nightmare.” Stuart eventually found the inkpot. Into it he dipped the Kingsparrow quill he’d plucked in a Tyvian aviary. “It was probably those birds waking you up,” he said.

“I dreamed of the Outsider again.”

“You don’t sleep well.”

“I slept well afterward.”

“It’s that Prince Kallisarr drivel you read before bed. It infects your sleep patterns.” Stuart held the quill in the inkpot, staring at it as if in bored consideration. “And stop listening to street urchins. They mention the Outsider to peddle their incantations.” He lifted the quill and continued to scratch more notes into the parchment. It had the coarseness of incisions, of blade into writhe. Stuart stopped. He took a deep breath, and then continued. “The river krust pearls here price beyond compare, of course, assuming we can…”

Vera turned her gaze back to the whaling ships that headed into port. She could now see the slicers and gut-men on their decks, waving and cutting, shouting, it seemed, into the battery of the wind. They were donned head to toe in industrial-strength leather. Even on the ships empty of catch, the men stood tall against the dying sun, as if their failure as men of the hunt was an honor in the name of industrial progress. Their backs were arched in prominence, their shoulders rounded by the forge of constant seafaring.

“My man at the Academy sent word that they want me to study here another month,” Stuart said. He grabbed the Morley ale bottle and drained it to half-full. Soon he’d ask her to buy more — another coin of ten lifted from their funds. Vera stared at his shoulders as he drank. They were bone-thin and sharp-angled, hunched and frail from years of study. “It’s probably a political slight against the Abbey.”

“Oh,” Vera found herself saying.

“And the Abbey will take it.” Stuart opened a desk drawer. He removed a pair of thick gloves and put them on. Back into the drawer, he removed a pair of forceps and an object wrapped in gauze. He placed the gauze on the desk. It made a squish. In the center of the candle’s glow, dark splotches on the gauze became visible.

“Six dead now in Dunwall,” Stuart said. “There is word today of another.” He unwrapped the gauze to reveal a blackish chunk of meat. It had the dank smell of decay. Stuart lifted the meat and turned his head from the smell, moving the chunk closer to the cage. The rat shifted its weight, its thick hairs standing, its frame filling out, its eyes at rapt attention. When the meat was close enough, the rat leaped forward and scraped its claws on the bars. It squeaked and it hissed and it did everything it had done at this same time, every day, for the last week.

Stuart wrapped the flesh back in gauze. The rat shrunk into a bristle pile.

“What were you expecting this time?” Vera said.

“For you to ask me what I was expecting. You can ask me every day for the next month, if you like.” Stuart opened another drawer and pulled out thin slices of cheese. “This must be done, and it must be done every day, at this time. It will continue. I will continue. And, I will find it.” He tossed the cheese into the cage with disinterest. “A plague is coming, my dear. With the Academy funding another month, I’ll draw closer to its cure.”

Cure. The word was a tiredness that weighed deep in Vera’s bones. She was tired before he’d even uttered it. The last few hours were a rushing blur — packing her books for the morrow’s leave, steaming her gowns for upcoming dinner parties, and, when her stomach issued reminder, boiling the blue hagfish eggs and blood sausage that now cooled in the dark of Stuart’s desk. “Your dinner is getting cold,” Vera said. 

“Another month on Pandyssia. Imagine. What a noblewoman’s adventure you’ve had already. Dining on exotic foods and shopping in the far-flung corners of the Isles!” Stuart’s hand roamed over vials and instruments, eventually landing on a Gristol cider bottle. Vera watched him handle the cider bottle—his gentle manner, the respect he paid to the artisanal beauty of its design, the curve of its neck. Once filled with the pine flower blossoms and lotus leaves Vera had picked, the bottle now bubbled with the blood-muck of science and progress.

“You’re already wondering how jealous the Carmine ladies will be of your extended vacation,” he said. 

Vera was wondering how long she’d been standing by the window. She was wondering how long Stuart had been talking. The sea rolled, glistened, ever-changing, but Vera was wondering, how long had it been there?

“You’re wondering what exquisite new Pandyssian dishes you’ll learn from the natives.”

She was wondering how, on all the afternoons she’d wandered the market row, she’d never seen a timepiece. She knew it was the Month of Seeds — but beyond that, what? She was wondering how, in the midst of the blissful ignorance of dates and calendars, one number continued to grow in burden: three years, seventeen days.

“You’re wondering — ”

Vera closed her eyes and reached into her coat pocket. She thumbed the smooth chunk of whalebone she’d found that afternoon. Much like the sight of the rose-red cliffs and the tucked away crystal cave — a discovery that was hers and hers only for the exploring — the whalebone instilled in her a sense of vigor and clear-mindedness.

She turned to her birdcage and lifted a towel. Jessamine still waited her turn at the seed bar. The meadowlark turned her head, and in those blackish eyes Vera saw need. It was the need for Vera’s care, not only in this moment, but always: to add new seed bars to the cage, to change the water, to place the towels over the cage, to keep this bird and her brothers alive and warm and chirping. Vera reached in and shooed the larger birds away, a shuffling ruckus of feathered chirps. She lowered the towel back into place.

Stuart talked. He was talking. The sound of his voice was there, until Vera closed her eyes and decided it wasn’t.

She arched her neck and felt her spine click in upright alignment. She put her hands back in her coat pockets. The whalebone felt warm. Once a part of Pandyssia, it was now hers to keep. In the flashes of her mind, Vera saw knives sinking into the writhing slime-skin of a whale calf, its blood draining into a pratchett eel can, her own hands squeezing the calf’s beating heart while another beat inside her belly.

“I was pregnant,” Vera said. She threw it into the spokes of a rant on Pandyssia’s low-cost living or its excess of local educators or its freely driven government and freely granted study permits — whatever shovel Stuart had been using to dig at the same point he’d unearthed a thousand times before: Dunwall is no place for a child. 

“In my nightmare, I was pregnant.” Vera opened her eyes. She started to turn around, but her body stiffened, as if any movement toward him was irreversible self-betrayal. She faced the window. The reflection was a sleep of shadows, a glint of eyes. The blood-muck in the cider bottle still settled, it and the candle flame were the only stirrings of life.  

“Ah, of course.” Stuart put back the ale bottle and drained it dry. He let it hang, let them hang, the bottle and his arms, dead at his sides. “This is another of your pleas.”

“I’m telling you about my nightmares.”

“We’ll go to Golvani again when we return,” Stuart said. His arms went back to work, and he regained his composure, dipping the quill into the inkpot, tapping it gently on the rim. “We’ll go as many times as it takes to fix it.”

“We’ve been trying for a year and — ”

“Then we’ll try another year.” Stuart dropped the quill onto the floorboards. “And another year after that.” He scrambled for the quill, unable to see the floorboards that had been plunged into darkness since he’d stolen all the flat’s candles to light his desk. “We do pay the dear Doctor Golvani for something, don’t we?”

The question trailed into the ether of cigar smoke and damp candlelight, but the “we” remained, emboldened, ringing in Vera’s ears, a “yes” forcing its way from the back of her throat.

“Golvani told you he needs to do more tests, did he not?” Stuart coughed. It was heavy with burning smoke and drowned in ale. He cleared his throat, sat up straight, and arched his back. His chest widened with a full breath, and then he let it out, a calm stillness once again overcoming his composure. “Then it’s more tests he’ll do.”

“More tests?” Vera said. “More tests.”

On the street below, a thin lank of a boy wandered, hat in hand. His hair was a tamed curl of sagebrush, his clothes the tailored fit of dignitary garb. He looked neither up nor down, only straight ahead. Vera wanted to open the window and call to him, to invite him up, to start the fireplace and warm him while she boiled water for tea. Stifled by inaction, she closed her eyes as if by doing so the choice to open the window and the world that presented it would be gone, if only for a moment.  

She thought about her last visit with Dr. Golvani. She felt the frostbite of his metal tools. She smelled the pinch of his aftershave. She heard the clicking and the clamping and the mechanical measures of prying her open. More tests were what Stuart wanted. Golvani had done all the tests possible. There would be no more tests. There was no reason for more tests. The diagnosis was ripe with absolution.  

Vera opened her eyes. She reached one hand into her coat pocket to hold the whalebone while the other hand slowly cracked open the window. She smelled the salt-breath of the ocean. She heard the whining cull of the whalers. She felt the cool liberation of the breeze. A waft of fruit carried on the ocean air. Vera couldn’t place it — was it a native Pandyssian fruit? That one she could never pronounce? A stray thought latched onto apricot. Apricot tartlet. Vera could almost taste it. And then, stricken by the thought, she remembered that she had been eating apricot tartlet in their living room, in their flat back on Clavering Boulevard, on the day when Stuart, Stuart Meath, the young scientist whom she had first seen playing harpsichord in a summer play — and a fantastic play at that, but what was its name?—had entered their front door carrying a hand-crafted birdcage filled with three Alexin meadowlarks, her favorite breed of bird, as gifts for her, Vera Moray, his fiancé, his wife-to-be, until the soil take them.

 

*The above writing sample is the introductory portion of a much larger story. I am currently seeking publication.