02 – First Calling
Things were pointedly different after that. I was moved out of their bedroom and in with the twins. I became an invasion of their place and privacy on too many fronts. Being moved into their space was bad enough under the circumstances, and I was not surprised how their initial curiosity turned hateful. That Laurel came in so often unannounced was a further breech to be directly blamed upon me, and that was a pattern that stuck, even after I needed no nightly checks.
That Laurel continued to do such worried me for quite some time. She was never so open with me as that first season, and she would only look me in the eye when she scolded. Still, I could at least talk to her, and look toward her to fill the role of mother. No matter how close it seemed that the ‘other shoe would fall’, things never got so bad that she would refuse to deal with me. Through all my faults, I never became ‘somebody else’s problem’ while I called the Sominest house my home.
But if Laurel found me difficult to handle, Rush found it impossible. He dealt with Lily and Mira less, for which I took the blame. And I was all but ignored. There was no more story time, no goodnight kisses... the twins still had their time to run around with him at the park, and of that I was completely shut out. It was a hurt of a different kind, which taught me some self-reliance. I suppose it my first lesson in how a good male behaves.
Since I could no longer be left alone with Rush I began going along with Laurel to her volunteer work. It provided me greater incentive to work on my therapy, since being pushed about in a wheel chair was embarrassing. It also allowed the doctors to see me on a regular basis once more.
Life in the Sominest household could have been much worse. As long as I had no escape from them I was doomed to be miserable. Until I could walk freely, I would be all but tied to Laurel. But with the walking would come Den School, and the ability to escape into free time, to go places outside of the home.
If this wasn’t an incentive to work at walking, I don’t know what was. But I was to have something better to work toward and a reward as well. I cannot place much anger on Laurel, for there was no real reason for her to go so far out of her way. That she could not stand to see me so unhappy, despite my attempted betrayal of her interests never ceased to amaze me.
When we first went to the White Paw carnival I was still unable to stand on my own for very long. Initially I suppose we went for the twin’s benefit; they had repeated good marks in Den School and were well behaved with me, if not really nice. The carnival had just opened for their spring season and there was not yet a lot to do. Still, it was a complete change of scenery for me, and suddenly I had something on which to focus.
I felt sorry for Rush, because he had to carry me where they could not push the wheel chair. To give him breaks Laurel would sit with me. A very relieved Rush would then take the twins around the booths. It might seem cruel, but I couldn’t play the games anyway, and since Laurel no longer felt like incessantly chattering it gave me a chance to watch the gypsies perform their shows.
The carnival was a riot of sound and color like I had never seen, and I could not see enough. I knew that all too soon I would be taken back to my drab world of Laurel’s care, and though I had what I needed there was little enough to excite me. I had thought that would be my penance for my crime against her family. But Laurel had more heart than I gave her credit, and though she watched me closely she made no move to keep me from investigating whatever I took interest in.
Laurel wasn’t the only one who watched me that day. Gypsies have a code of honor quite peculiar to the more settled furrs. I must have looked quite sorry to them, clutching the edges of booths, legs spread for a shaky balance, foot and tail dragging wherever I went. I spent more time holding onto things resting than running about. Everywhere we went they turned from their tasks to watch me carefully. Callers kept pace with me, booth tenders broke away from active sales to see if I wanted for anything, and by the time we reached the end of a tent row it was impossible even for me not to know I was drawing way more attention than any cub should.
Yet at no time did I feel in danger. I had not yet heard the tales of cubs abducted, stolen from parents whose attention wandered. I have always thought such stories to be outright lies, but even if there is some truth to them, Clan White Paw never engaged in such activity as long as I knew them. Maybe a roving troupe might entice a runaway to join them, but White Paw’s base outside of Arbegraven was a permanent one. Much of the camp would go south for winters, but Arbegraven was their summer home. A cub stolen would be all too easy to find.
Only once during that first visit did anyone attempt to go beyond polite boundary with me. While Laurel did not intrude upon my explorations, she did not let me get very far from her either. At the time I wasn’t even aware of what happened; I only knew that as I hobbled from one tent to another, a young silk-swathed tigress came from between them and stopped as though she had nearly run into me.
“Oh dear, I’m sorry; I didn’t see you there. Are you okay?”
I suppose I was surprised at her sudden appearance and had grabbed onto the nearest tent pole. My purpose was to stay steady; to avoid being knocked down if she had been in such a hurry. Yet from what she said to me I would have sworn she honestly believed that she had hit me. Many cubs that age would have been shy, if not frightened after all the scrutiny from predator after predator. But I was used enough to such questions. I told her I was fine.
“Are you sure, dear? You look ready to fall over.” I laughed and tried to stand a little straighter, assuring once more that I was really okay. That’s when she asked me, “Well, what happened to you, dear?”
I looked down and I know my uncertainty showed clearly. It was the first time I remember anyone asking me where I could give an answer. What could I say? I really did not want to share my life’s woes with a total stranger. Laurel was loath to talk on the subject, and I was already learning how others hoped I would just forget that my abuse had ever happened. I looked up to the tigress and forced a smile. “I got hurt when I was little.”
“Oh that’s terrible, honey. Your parents must have been really upset.” She was so quick and matter of fact with those words, and yet it never occurred to me how rehearsed they were. I don’t know what would have happened if I had become worried or secretive at that moment. I don’t think anyone from White Paw would have caused trouble at the carnival. But surely I was remembered, and maybe even added to a roster of ‘troubled children’.
As it was I surprised them. I told the tigress the truth, that my parents weren’t worried because “they didn’t know me then.” My directness turned out to be whatever answer the tigress was looking for, and she gave me a pat and a smile. “You do be careful,” she told me, and with a swirl of silken skirts she stepped away.
I watched her go and turned to find Laurel shifting position. I did not know it at the time, but while I was busy with the tigress three furrs had stopped to have a chat with her. Neither of us was aware of our deliberate separation. We did not know of our encounter with purpose, but I was warned there would be more. The tigress made a final turning in my sight; I turned back to find her watching me speculatively. She gave me a wide grin and said, “Be seeing you, cub”, before turning the corner between two more tents.
I was left with a vaguely funny feeling, soon forgotten after my return to exploration. The day was too soon over, and I was completely exhausted; Rush had to carry me home. I had no idea at the time, and to think that awkward introduction was the beginning of the best time of my life... it still amazes me, knowing what I was then, and with what little I could do, that I was seen and marked so.
We returned later that turning when the gypsies had the full fair running. As before I was carried in and then left with Laurel. I think she was beginning to think of my future then, for she stayed with me this time. As before I had to see it all, and she saw it with me, patiently following and taking note of that which most interested me. She talked with several of the furrs we encountered, and I know I was the topic of discussion, even though she always waited until I was absorbed in my interests before she started conversation.
And what captured my attention so? What didn’t? At the time I was not looking for my future; I was just taking it all in. Every furr working their craft was a living demonstration. There was very little the gypsies did not do for themselves. The rides and games were full of flashy lights and swirling colors; they were made to catch a cub’s eye and a parent’s coin. Even if I couldn’t play, to the relief of Laurel’s purse, I was as interested in the play of others.
But the thing that I found most enticing was the true entertainment. In every way meet, encampment circle, and nearly every corner there were marked spaces where furrs of every kin played for the crowds and their coin. They ran from strict amateurs to well trained professionals. There were acrobats and jugglers, musicians, artists, tricksters, singers and dancers.
It was toward the evening when the day was beginning to cool, but not yet considered night, so that the carnival was yet in a lull. I was all but spent, and seeking a place I could sit for some time and not yet become bored, we found the gypsies’ main stage. Laurel chose a seat in the bleachers ringing the open theater, close to one edge so I could look directly onto the performance platform, and yet be taken down and away should something such as nature call.
Thus tucked in one place, the Sominests could spend their time together, and be assured I would be safely out of trouble. There was always at least one of them with me. Rush would give his females breaks; the twins sat below me and watched a comedy play. I did not care so much who sat with me, for I felt as safe within the carnival grounds as anywhere. Somehow, I just knew I was looked out for.
But if they looked out for those who needed helping, the gypsies were more inclined to teach the helpless how to help themselves. I cannot believe that Riala was ever helpless, but out of the countless furrs I met in my travels, I know of no other so driven.
Had I been anywhere else I probably wouldn’t have noticed them. But where I was sitting I happened to look down at a glimpse of someone beneath my feet. Everyone in the camp gets jobs to do, and the children are no exception, though their work is hardly backbreaking. One of their tasks is to clean up under the bleachers, and to make it worth their while, they are allowed to claim any ‘lost items’ they happen upon. The bleachers are a natural jungle gym for them, and in the spirit of cooperation they usually work together to finish faster.
But working so comes with hazards. Careless furrs not only drop trash, they will lose clothing, prizes, souvenirs, gifts, and much coveted paw-marks. The trouble comes not from what a cub finds as much as who wants it. I recall hearing squabbles break out over an eight-mark coin many times. But it isn’t all, ‘the strong keep, the weak weep.’ Cubs learn to band together to take bullies down. They learn cooperation, pooling their spoils together to get special more expensive treats.
That first time though, I didn’t know about any of it; how things worked and what unwritten rules they followed. All that I knew was that the kitten scrambling beneath me had found something special. Holding it tightly in her hands, she made her way out from the bleachers in a rush, only to run into a pack of children intent on claiming her find for their own.
There were three or four older than the others. They crowded around her; one in particular insisted she give up what she had found. She kept telling them no. It was hers she said. She was the one to crawl deepest, and it was hers by right. She was shorter than her tormentor by half, and I was sad thinking how it was unfair that she would lose what she had worked so hard to get. But for all of that, she stood straight and proud. She did not back down in the face of those overpowering bullies.
Still, cornered as she was there was only so much she could do. Hissing, spitting in the face of their laughter, it looked like all was lost. And then, a low cough got their attention. The group turned on their tails so quick they left their spots behind them. I recognized the young tigress I had ‘bumped into’ before. She was dressed much the same, but it did not matter. The youths as one bowed and curtsied and made all pretense of ‘everything is fine here thank you very much.’
How long had she stood watching? Her ‘what’s going on’ look had them shifting and looking about until her eyes narrowed. The older children fell all over themselves to deny that they had been doing anything. A raised chin silenced them. But just as I wondered who would break first the kitten stepped out from behind the group and with head held high said, “I found a full mark.” She held the four-mark coin out for the tigress to see.
Orange eyes flicked up sharply at the older children who stood fidgeting uncomfortably. But before anything further was said the kitten got her attention by pulling at her dress. She looked down and the little female said, “Mistress, they weren’t going to let me out till I showed it to them.” Of course, when asked if that were true, the others readily agreed. The oldest added, “We wasn’t going to take it or nothin.”
“Oh honest Miss Riala, we wouldn’t lie.”
The tigress, Mistress Riala, stood from her crouch and gave a sweet smile that I found scarier than her frown. “Good,” she told the group. “It looks like the fronts have been cleaned up very well. So I think that anyone under this tall can be excused from their duties the rest of the afternoon.” She held her hand at a height that excluded the oldest children. “And if I hear of anymore squabbling you will answer to me.”
With squeals of glee or groans of despair they scattered, leaving behind the smiling tigress. And when I looked back up I found that smile focused on me. I could not help but smile back. She walked over and leaned on the seats, looking me over I suppose, or seeing who was with me. “Hello again,” she said brightly, and then asked if I had been enjoying the show. I told her I had, and I wanted to ask her some questions but did not know what exactly I wanted to say.
She must have known, for she patted my hand and told me we would talk later. She said she ‘mustn’t miss her cue’ and rushed off leaving me with a head full of notions. I was very impressed with the gypsies and Riala in particular. To think that a female was encouraged to stand up for herself; that someone older could have such control and respect... well, these were new ideas to me. Of course Riala was an adult among children and a tiger as well. It was simply hard to imagine them not doing as she wanted them to.
I had thought that would again be the end of it. Riala had mentioned not missing her cue, but I didn’t know what that meant. I was completely surprised then, when the stage cleared and the young tigress stepped out in front of the crowd. She had taken a change of costume; gone were the silken skirts and blouse of everyday gypsy wear. In their place was what I took to be an Eastern tribal costume. It was made from woven wicker and plates shaped into a strange sort of armor. I wondered at the purpose of it, for it offered no protection and the plates were of different brightly colored metals.
Behind her a few musicians took the stage edge and began their tuning before play. A few pipers and a single drummer; I knew the song itself would be simple. It was easy to see Riala would be the center of attention. She donned what I took to be gloves made out of chain. They had an extra long claw guard on the inside fingers of which I did not understand the purpose. But it wasn’t long until I found out the reason for it all.
She took her stance on the floor as a belly dancer will, starting on her toes, belly and chest thrown forward, and her arms loosely raised, claw gloves flashing in the light of the evening sun. There was a brief roll of the drum, and then the pipes began to trill. Riala moved to their music, and I was spellbound. You could have set my tail on fire; I would have simply let it burn. With a grace totally alien to her costume Riala flowed across that wooden stage, sweeping the breath from her audience. And as her hands crossed her body she struck the plates of her costume with those extended claws in time with the music so that it seemed another instrument played with the drum and pipes.
It was obvious to me what strength it took to dance like that. From beginning to end she moved in time, never halting or jerking, always striking her plates with the same force to make precise notes. And once she finished, flowing in return to her starting pose, she hardly seemed to breathe. Seeing her so, I was reminded of the need for air and gasped in the pleasure of adoration.
She took her exit from the stage by jumping directly into the clapping crowd below. I was driven to get up and go to her; afraid somehow that she would vanish into the throng and I would never see her again. After a moment of alarm Laurel got up to help escort me, but I would have made my way without her had I needed to. Maybe Riala knew I was coming. We met up with her close to the stage and I went right to her. She put a hand on my shoulder to steady me and I got a very good look at her ‘war claws’.
Riala asked me if I enjoyed the show, but I went for the throat. “How do you do that?” She was so strong and graceful, respected and admired, and I had found a hero; somebody I wanted to grow up to be like. It’s likely safe to say at that moment I decided my future. I would become a dancer.
It was written across my face for both of them to see. And Laurel appeared indifferent; I am sure she had heard similar declarations from the twins many times over. Certainly she refrained from pointing out the obvious. For no better than I could walk, how could I learn enough to approach Riala’s skill? A child of the camp danced from the time they could walk. But Riala crouched to look me in the eyes.
“Practice, cub. Many hours of practice.” There was no pride in her voice, only honesty and pointed message.
“Will you teach me?” I asked. Her brows rose only slightly and she gave me a wide grin.
“You think you want to learn, do you? I am sorry, cub. It is not for me to teach you dancing.” The set of my jaw was enough to tell her I was not going to be easily dissuaded, so in the same breath she added, “Mistress Shali teaches dance. I am the camp’s defense master, and I teach young cubs how to protect themselves.”
It fit, and I was determined to study with the White Paw gypsies. I had seen more that made sense; more that inspired me in a few hours, than in all my days in Laurel’s home. But such an arrangement could not be made to happen just on the wishes of a star struck cub. And maybe she did not love me anymore, but Laurel still took something of her duties toward me seriously.
“Kilara, that is a big thing to ask. You cannot dance until you can walk properly. It’s too much work for you to master yet...” I heard the word ‘later’ in what she was saying. I did not have the chance to pout though. Riala gave me a smile and stood to talk to Laurel.
“Actually, we could help her with that too.” Laurel’s brows rose questioningly and Riala continued. “The children aren’t taught complicated moves from the start. But they get exercise, and we teach them to stretch, to build stamina and strength. It would be slow, embarrassing to her at first perhaps, but if she is eager to try...”
I was, and they saw it on my face. Laurel asked what it would cost her, what sort of schedule they could make and what was expected on her end. Riala said as long as I showed interest, weekly visits could be arranged. I would be watched over, fed and cared for, worked no longer than a standard school day, and it would not cost them a thing.
It sounded too good to be true, and Laurel was very thorough. I was returned to the bleachers to sit with Rush and watch the stage shows while anxiously waiting. Riala took Laurel to the clan matrons to work out the details of my visitation and training.
Of course I was accepted, and our weekly trip to the carnival became the one thing I lived for. The first season was tedious for me. If I had thought I would be immediately instructed in clan dancing I would surely have been disappointed. But I had no expectations of such and was happy to work at whatever task they set me to.
Much of my time was spent in exercise and repetitive motion. The masters were working on my strength and flexibility, training me for my future practicing without me realizing, and far from anything I thought as ‘work’, everything was enjoyable fun. I got my basic introduction to the rules of gypsy life. I was introduced to the clan children, and though even the smallest could run rings around me none of them were ever really mean.
In fact I would say that from the first there were real differences in their social circles. The cubs of Arbegraven were not so accepting of different breeds. There were for instance, no felines at the twins’ Den School. And no one in town was ever so open to anyone with a handicap as those in Clan White Paw. I suppose to the gypsies it was more important to acknowledge what a furr could do, rather than what they couldn’t.
White Paw broadened my education in ways Laurel never approved. But what I learned from them served me in far better stead than the supposed sanitized education I was to receive in Den School. While I learned my letters and counting, history and the like there, White Paw masters taught me the things I would actually need. The only thing I needed to learn in Den School was the place I was to have, and where I would be among my peers.