by Camilla Grudova
There was a crack in the stone base of the monument, which we crawled in. A copper man on a beast above our heads. The woos beginning. The creatures were waking up. It was dusk.
We couldn’t fit all our stuff in the crack with us so we put it in front of the opening, hoping it wouldn’t be torn open.
• • •
“We could’ve made it across just before evening,” Susan said, “but we don’t know what awaits us there, it’s best to wait till early afternoon tomorrow when the creatures are deep in sleep.”
We quickly ate some Ovaltine powder — with our fingers to make less noise — then settled in, silent as we could be, for the night.
Unlike other nights, we knew where we wanted to go. Across the park was a red brick building with very small windows. The small windows was why Susan wanted us to move there, the creatures couldn’t get in through the windows. She had seen a photo of it in an old city guide. It was part of an old university, all the building fronts facing the round park where we hid in a monument. Some of the buildings had large, broken windows as big as small houses. They roosted in those buildings, there could be no doubt. The trees of the park were all scratched and covered in white splatters. The creatures made splatters and pellets.
• • •
In the morning, we found a pellet nearby us. It was still a bit wet, a large dark gray cone.
She slit the pellet open with a knife, wearing gloves. The pellet was mostly made out of hair and fur, so they were easy to open. She wouldn’t let me touch it, said it was full of poisons, but bits of fur ended up all over our clothes and in our mouths and eyes. She poked through it with a stick, pulling out a bit of string with a rock tied to the end of it which she examined then threw aside. She found a shard of white porcelain with a blue design on it. “I wonder if we’ll find the whole piece of whatever it was in here,” she said. Sometimes you didn’t.
She also found some coins, more porcelain, and a doll’s arm which she put in one of her plastic bags. The doll’s arm we found was swallowed because it looked like a child’s arm, and creatures couldn’t tell the difference.
Some of our bags had been torn in the night, pecked through, but not much was taken as all of it was the inedible parts from pellets, well wrapped in plastic and string so they didn’t look like anything edible.
• • •
The best way to get things, anything, was through the pellets of creatures. Everything they can’t digest is thrown up in a gray or black pod. Things that could be digested: blood, flesh, semen, milk, phlegm, feces, urine, paper, plants. Things that couldn’t: hair, bone, gristle, nail, horn, porcelain, glass, metals, stones. When we found a place to spend the night, if there was space, she would light a fire and boil the things found in pellets in a kettle, to clean them, then wrap them up with a label. She wanted to establish a museum, and the building with small windows would be it.
It was red brick, with a fancy roof.
The door of our building was shut, so Susan made me crawl through one of the windows: I was a small boy. There was still glass, she smashed it with a stick. I wore enough layers to not get cut.
In the entrance hall were frames on the walls, full of small egg-shaped photographs of women. Graduating class of 1972, 73 … 1992 … 1997… I noticed them before I noticed the door:
There was a board over the door.
“Let me in, are you okay?” said Susan. I had to rip off the board to let her in. She came in holding her skillet high with one hand, and took my hand with the other.
The building was full of small rooms. Each had a fireplace and spare furniture — a bed frame, an armchair. We chose one not too high up, with its small window still intact. Susan made a fire using one of the framed graduation photos from downstairs, and boiled the things we found in the pellet that morning, as well as some Ovaltine, using the same water. Our foodstuffs were a jar of Ovaltine, paper boxes full of cocoa, baking soda, sugar, a gold and metal tin that said OATS but now contained a brown powder not as tasty as the cocoa, and a green bottle with water in it. Susan kept the boxes and tins in her knapsack, with a few spoons held together with an elastic, and Maud’s jumper.
She took Maud’s jumper out of her knapsack to air it out. It was a pink jumper with little baubles on it that looked like nipples.
Maud was before my time: All that remained of Maud was the jumper. The main thing she looked for in pellets was Maud. She planned to put Maud back together, I think — the bones, the teeth, the cloth, the gristle, the hair, the sweater, minus the blood, the flesh, the phlegm — and put her as the main display in her museum.
Susan took the doll’s arm and bits of porcelain out of the pot. She put the porcelain pieces together. “Look,” she said. “Fish.” There was a pattern of blue fish.
She always took pottery fragments when she found them in pellets. We stuck the larger fragments in our clothes using tape glue or string to protect against the talons.
But the noise! I had said
They can hear us regardless, she had replied. We packed the fragments so tightly in the linings of our coats they didn’t make much sound.
Once we found a whole suit of armor in a pellet. We couldn’t wear it to protect us from talons, as it was much too small, even for me, though I was a little boy.
“Humans were smaller once and so were creatures,” Susan said.
Small enough to be swallowed whole.
We wore layers and layers of jumpers and coats to protect us from the talons. I had a tartan coat and Maud a dark green one.
We practiced taking all the layers off.
You had to do it fast before the creature flew too high and dropped you.
She grabbed the back of my jumpers with her hands and held on tight while I tried to slip out of it as quickly as possible.
She never wore Maud’s jumper, it didn’t fit. Susan was very large. Her hair was black and cut short. We both wore two or three knitted caps most of the time.
• • •
The sharp things we found in pellets were terrifying. They made us feel defenseless, the creatures invincible. Horns, claws, fangs, scissors, knives, wire, brooches. “A gold brooch shaped like a creature: they’d even eat a small version of themselves,” Susan said. It had large jewel eyes. I hadn’t seen a creature up close.
• • •
Susan believed she was one of the only persons left interested in cutting and collecting from pellets. She told me, “There used to be a woman … she was all covered in jewels she collected from the pellets, said she would never have them otherwise and so she was quite happy with the way things ended up. Well, I ended up finding all the jewels she wore and her bones in a pellet one day. Most people only care about potatoes, and cabbages, and being safe, they don’t care about things, or what’s gone.”
There were shops, the one we knew was open two hours per day. There were grates over the windows and doors and you had to ring a bell to get in. It was high-ceilinged but stuffy and smelly inside, the smell of potatoes, cabbages. They sold Ovaltine, vegetables, books and other papers, and gum — the smell of which was supposed to ward off creatures, but Susan knew it didn’t as she often found it in pellets. Creatures didn’t like to eat vegetables, unless they were desperate, so there were many, Susan told me. Susan did not like potatoes, but she did not mind potato flakes, she said. Sometimes you could buy potato in a tin all flaked and dry like oatmeal. It was in that shop that Susan bought a soft-covered book with photos of all the different buildings and decided upon the one to build her museum. It used to be a dormitory for female students, the book said. “Look at all the tiny windows. Creatures couldn’t fly through those.”
• • •
Besides pellets, we once found a nest, large white eggs sitting in a pile of feathers, string, dead mice. I grabbed one of the mice and put it in my coat pocket.
One of the eggs moved. Susan gasped and covered my eyes with one of her hands, and pulled me backward. “I do not want you to see that,” she said.
• • •
And we found a food cache, I remember. Creatures made caches of food when they had more then they could eat. There were lots of mice, rats, a baby raccoon, a small child who didn’t look right — its limbs were very thin, its head very long and large, and it had dark bruises under its bulbous eyelids and its phallus was purple. Looking at the mice made me feel hungry and I wanted to grab a few but Susan said no, not those ones, I’ll catch you some myself, those ones you ought not to eat.
There was nothing we could take to eat — and just looking at it made Susan ill — but Susan grabbed all the pellets there and put them in a garbage bag she kept for carrying them. It was no good slitting them near the cache.
Susan had her own caches of things that were too large to carry with us. She would pick them up later when we were settled. Dinosaur bones. An atlas. They were wrapped in plastic and buried in the ground, with some sort of marking.
• • •
The walls of the building, our future museum, were noisy: mice and rats.
“I should have known there were already those hiding from the creatures here,” Susan sighed when we settled down to bed. “We’ll just have to live with them. I want to stay here.”
My stomach rumbled: I thought of eating them, the mice.
I found a dead one in our room, in the drawer of a chest that had been left. I stuffed it into my mouth and chewed quickly, I couldn’t wait to boil it.
I usually liked to slice them open and eat all around the bones and fur.
“That’s not healthful, eating solid things,” Susan muttered, seeing me eat it. “Besides the creatures can hear your crunches when you do.”
The mice and rats crawled around everywhere, all around our things, they weren’t afraid. The next morning we looked through the building to plan out our museum.
She kept a notebook in which she labeled everything found in each pellet, though sometimes she didn’t have time. We memorized each pellet number and wrote it down later:
That’s how she would label things in her museum, she said, in which pellet it was found, and on what date, and what it was found with.
• • •
In one of the rooms we found a dying-looking creature sitting in an armchair.
He wore a maroon sweatshirt and was missing many feathers. The armchair he sat in was covered in dark gunk, like a pellet, as was the front of his sweatshirt. He was glued to the chair by his pellet mess.
He wore huge plastic glasses that were so dirty we couldn’t see his eyes, and luckily, he could not see us but he could hear us and let out a feeble “hoo.”
We moved a piece of furniture in front of the door of the room he was in just in case.
“How did he get inside?” I asked Susan.
“He must have hatched in here,” she said.
His wings looked all crumpled and broken in the shirt; it was too small for him.
“How did he get in, the windows are small, Susan,” I trembled and tried to clutch Susan but she pushed me away.
“Maybe someone brought the egg in. Maybe they were going to eat the egg and it hatched, or they planned on raising the creature thinking it would be their friend, but the creature ate them, in the end,” she said.
• • •
“What are we going to do Susan,” I cried.
She said, “I’ll do something.”
I went back to our room and read Jane Eyre which Susan had given me.
• • •
Later, I leaned out the window, I was small but it was still very tight, the window was even smaller than the ones on the first floor. The creature was nailed to the door. Its glasses were tied to its face so they wouldn’t fall off and its body was nailed so the wings were spread out, each wing with a nail in it, the body itself, and head was wrapped tightly in cloth. I wondered why she didn’t keep the creature for the museum, to display along with all the objects, why she didn’t slice it open for us to study. I had never seen one up close before, we were always looking and running away from them, skillets held high. I wanted to see what they looked like inside.
• • •
I got used to eating live mice, they were warm and didn’t need to be cooked, I stuck them in my mouth head first, never when Susan was looking, though she told me my poo smelled worse. She liked the help with cleaning. It wasn’t good to have a museum full of mice, they’d eat her objects, and worst of all, Maud’s jumper. The rats were too big, too big for me to eat. When we caught one we threw it out the window, they screamed as they fell and ran back toward the building if they survived.
At night we could hear woohoohoo all around, they could hear the scuttling and scratching of the mice, but couldn’t get in.
• • •
Once you ate a mouse live, it was hard to think of eating them dead again.
Whenever I grabbed one, Susan asked, “Do you want to boil that dirty thing?” before I ate it.
• • •
We went out each day, at noon. We went out another door we found, on the side of the building, which was not as large as the front door with the creature stuck to it by Susan.
• • •
We went by a huge old building with a hole in its side, from which large sticks of metal stuck out. “That’s the old museum,” said Susan. She wanted to explore it, but there were too many creatures who had burrows in there. There were pellets thrown up all around it. We found pieces of amber with very ancient insects in them. We found teeth. We found a whole tin of brown sugar in a pellet, there was a picture of a girl on the tin, which is why they swallowed it whole, but the tin was safe and unopened in the pellet, it tasted fine. We found in one a figure of a man wearing an outfit with a diamond patterned shape on it, in green, black and yellow. He was missing an arm and his head “but most definitely a man,” said Susan. “See again, they try and eat things like this because it’s made to look like a something alive. They’re stupid.”
She spat on a rag and polished it. In another pellet, a ton of string and a human skull. “Is that Maud’s skull?” I asked.
“It’s not Maud’s skull,” said Susan. “I knew Maud’s head very well, it was much larger than this.” Still, she boiled the skull till it was clean in her kettle, then put it on the mantelpiece.
Medical students must have put skulls on the mantelpiece, too, while living here, she said. She liked the skull for company because it was older than me.
• • •
Maud, Maud, Maud, she said in her sleep every night. If she couldn’t sleep, she sat there in the dark saying Maud, Maud, Maud, sometimes in a growl “Maud.”
• • •
I had dreams, too, I dreamt the creatures spoke, the words were very strange I hadn’t heard them before, I tried visualizing them out in my head KORE, GUNAIKA. I asked Susan. “They don’t have a language,” she said, “they just hoowoohoo.”
• • •
There was a large house with a huge golden Σιγμα on it, near our new home, the roof all splattered with white. Susan held up her skillet behind her head. “What is that, Susan?” I asked.
“I don’t know”
I turned the Σ round and round in my head. I felt like a metal tool or trinket of some sort. I kept asking about it until Susan said.
“You will stay at home and clean while I go look for Maud and things to put in my museum. And read your books too.”
We found all sorts of books in our future museum. There were more books left with words than images, because the creatures went after images. Susan taught me to read and made me read quite a lot of books: whatever she could find. I read until Susan came home and took an arm and hand bone out of her bag.
“Is that Maud’s arm?” I asked.
“I would let you know if it was Maud’s, in fact, it would be clear from my behavior if it was Maud’s,” she said.
We ate sugar and cleaned the room next to ours, we cleaned up all the mouse droppings and I ate mice when I grabbed one. I didn’t like to eat the tails, I accumulated them in my pocket then threw them out the window.
Susan gave me her bags of tiny bones to sort through, and a bottle of glue. She wanted to display skeletons of all sorts in our museum. I thought I could kill a mouse to see how to assemble a rodent skeleton, the bones got all mixed up in a pellet, but as soon as Susan went out again, I pushed a chair to the window of our room, and watched the park, instead of reading or cleaning or preparing our museum. I only took breaks to eat mice, swallowing them whole. I kept forgetting to dissect one and see its bones. I was just too hungry. My stomach felt sick, but I kept on grabbing and eating. Once in a while a creature, out in the daytime desperate with hunger, would fly by, white, brown, talons. Sometimes they slept in the park trees, slightly moving now and then, throwing up pellets which fell down from trees with a plump. Susan always stopped to open them.
It was a hungry daytime one that got Susan. She was coming home with a large bag. Susan!
All her things fell — plop, plop, her various bags — as she was carried away. An odd-shaped skull and a kettle rolled out of a dropped bag. Things she must have found in a pellet that day. She wasn’t screaming, but her body was jerking, she was trying to get out of her sweater but she was soon too high to drop safely.
I didn’t want to see the expression on her face. I looked away. I thought: She will find Maud.
Copyright © 2018 by Camilla Grudova