Sweating like a plough horse, coated with flour and sneezing, soon I flung open the heavy shutters. Laughing in the sunshine, farmers hurried by on the path beside the river, all of them headed for the show. Pawla was in trouble again, and nobody cared but me.
Leaving my work I rushed outside, not even stopping for a bite of bread, and ran all the way to Harmon village. From Sunflower Hill the tidy streets looked deserted. A hubbub rose from the village green, though. That's where everybody had flocked: villagers and farmers, young and old, crowded around the spreading laurel we call the tree of judgment.
"Here comes the mill boy, looking like a ghost," cried a peddler with a basket of apples.
As I pushed through the crowd, a plump maiden complained, "You're soiling my gown," so I clambered into the nearest tree, shaking down flour like snow. How small Pawla looked, curled up on a stool in the open-air court, the tip of her bushy, red tail twitching. No, my furry friend does not like crowds. She doesn't like Trogg--the heavy-set butcher who happens to be our mayor and judge--and she doesn't like skinny Sheriff Spindle, who does whatever Trogg commands. Pawla faced her worst enemies across the black-painted table.
"Now we have heard the evidence," the sour-faced sheriff announced, and straightened the plume on his three-cornered hat. "We have heard how this creature came slinking in the night, to poach Farmer Nubbin's hens."
"And what would you have me do?" growled Pawla.
"Why, it can talk," an old woman sang out. "Beast never said a word till now."
"Hush, let her talk," I yelled from my tree, and Pawla reared up on her hind legs, chained to the heavy stool (this time she couldn't scamper away). Her bright eyes swept the crowd for me, and waving I almost fell out.
"In my great-grandmother's day," she began, "Greenwood mantled the river Livvy and spread all the way to the Sapphire Mountains." She pointed at their distant, cloud-capped rise. "Now you have felled our trees for your fields, and the wild animals are retreating. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to eat?"
"Not by thieving from us." When Trogg shook his finger at her his three chins wobbled like a turkey's wattles. "To live in peace with us you must work for your bread, like everybody."
"But I am not everybody," Pawla said with dignity. "And I do not eat bread."
"Mayor Trogg," the sheriff cut in. "It is almost time for lunch. I say we should hang this creature from the judgment tree."
Pawla snorted and sat down abruptly, curling her bushy tail around her.
"Wait," I yelled, and waved my floury cap.
"Yon youth in the pine," the mayor called out. "What do you want?"
"I am Shawn, the miller's apprentice. I want to speak a word for Pawla. That is my right, for she's my friend." A bright smile broke over Pawla's muzzle, and she jumped up again and waved to me. People laughed and swore, and slapped my back, and told me I was crazy as I pushed my way towards the judgment tree.
"Do you swear to tell the truth?" the sheriff demanded, "by our river Livvy and her churning waterwheel?"
"I do." I glanced down at Pawla, who winked.
"If he doesn't, I'll grind him flat as a pancake," roared my master Sledge. "I'll sell him in the market for a penny." He shook his ham-sized fist.
"So what have you to say, apprentice?" the mayor asked.
"I just want you to know that Pawla of Greenwood has a heart of gold."
"What are you saying?" whined the sheriff. "This creature is a notorious thief. She steals meat pies from kitchens, and rabbits from hutches, and lifts so many sausages from the market she could open a shop--"
"People don't understand her," I pleaded. "People don't know her like I do. When I was a boy, before the miller took me in and gave me work, I had to scrounge and scrabble for my food."
"Had you no family?"
"I don't remember. I used to pick wild berries and mushrooms, to trade with the farmers for bowls of oatmeal. And then one day, deep in Greenwood, I stumbled into an old pit trap, and there I would have starved to death if Pawla hadn't rescued me. She went running out on an oak tree branch, bending it way down with her weight so I could reach up and climb out of the hole. Pawla had pity on me then. Have pity on her now."
The mayor looked her over as if checking her for fleas. Pawla glared back defiantly, her green eyes slits.
He frowned. "One good deed can't erase the chronicle of crimes committed by this creature. Hanging would be too good for her. Just last Tuesday she ran off with a trout my wife hung up in our smoke-house."
"That was a fine fish," Pawla said proudly. "I didn't waste a single morsel. Picked those bones as clean as my claws." She examined the razors in her forepaws and then retracted them.
"You all can hear this creature for yourselves," said the mayor gravely. "She thinks she has a right to the fruits of our labor. We can't let her hide out in the woods anymore. I say let's lock her in the workhouse."
"Serves her right," everybody clamored. "Let her work for her bread, like everybody."
"Let her spin wool night and day," Trogg went on while Pawla scowled. "She seems so handy with her paws. Plus she can see in the dark, so I bet she can spin without wasting candles. Let her work, I say, till she pays back Farmer Nubbin and everybody."
"That will take me about a hundred years." Pawla flashed her sharp, white canines. "When I only have about twenty left to feed this hungry belly." She patted it.
"Pawla, I tried my best," I cried as the sheriff pulled a burlap sack down over her, chair and all.
"I know you did, you floury fool--" came muffled from the sack as he dragged her away. "My Greenwood wasn't good enough. You had to have work and your daily bread."
"I am not as wild as you," I shouted after her. "I'm sorry, Pawla."
As the crowd dispersed I slipped away, keeping clear of the miller. I knew he would stop for a beer or three. Maybe I'd finish filling the sacks before he got home to the mill?
My heart felt heavy as a grindstone. Pawla, who loved her green world's freedom, would be a prisoner in the workhouse, just as I was at the mill. At least until I finished working off my contract with the miller.
How different my years in Greenwood with Pawla, though we often suffered hunger and cold. For me she'd scamper high in the trees to pilfer eggs from the birds. She showed me how to roast eggs with hot rocks, and how to weave a raincoat out of branches. In the ice of winter we'd nest in her cave for weeks, right near the Livvy's headwaters. Those were my happiest days, I thought, feeling wild and free. When I fell asleep with Pawla curled under my chin I felt I needed nothing more.
If only I could save her from the stony workhouse, all its windows iron-barred. She'd go running back to the forest. She just wanted to be left alone.
Well no, Pawla also liked stealing, and she was very good at it. What she needed, I thought, in order to be good like anybody, was just a steady supply of meat. Feed a thief, he may learn an honest trade. That's how the miller tamed my will.
On the day of the trial, by the time he got back--reeking of sour beer--I'd loaded all but the last sack with flour. That one cost me my dinner, though.
About a week passed, and I heard strange news from a farmer bringing oats to the mill. His neighbor saw a metal airship land in a pear orchard, just south of Harmon. Slim, grey-skinned creatures with scales emerged. They did not even speak our language.
Should I hike over and see for myself? "Maybe these strangers will be needing flour," I told the miller.
He scowled. "Go, boy, but you better get back here by sundown."
The afternoon sky looked dark already, like a warning of trouble to come. As I jogged down the path beside the river, I heard a steady hissing, like a giant kettle steaming. This grew louder as I neared the village, and reaching the vantage point on Sunflower Hill I stopped and gawked.
What a change in tidy, little Harmon. I rubbed my eyes. Scaly, grey creatures--tall and slender, and bald--were striding around, among teams of silver machines that looked like skeletons, busily building a many-tiered something on top of Harmon: cell after cell of waxy, grey hexagons without a window, like some crazy hive of poison honey; our homes, our trees, our gardens just the foundation for this monstrous lump.
Next to the Livvy it already dwarfed the sailboats tied up at the pier. The hissing sound seemed to come from the river. What were these creatures doing to our Livvy? I couldn't see.
Some villagers were screaming in the streets and pleading, but the invaders just ignored them. Right in front of a rush of machines a mother grabbed up her child and fled. Even as I stood there, gaping like a fool, the waxy, grey walls grew higher still, almost as if they were growing by themselves. When a maze crept towards the long, stone workhouse, I found my feet again; I shot across the street and banged on the door.
"What do you want?" cried the swarthy guard peeking out a narrow window.
"Monsters are invading Harmon! They are destroying it with machines. Let your workers out, let's run for our lives!"
"I don't believe you," he drawled. "You have been drinking Widow Sullen's home-brew."
"Come out here and see for yourself."
Just as he cracked open the door Pawla popped out over his shoulder, looking skinny as a fox in winter. Scooping her up I sprinted away, and she twined herself around my neck, digging her claws into me and purring like a famished kitten.
Outside the village I stopped to catch my breath. "It's good to see you," I panted.
"I knew you'd come for me," she said simply. "Let's go hide in the forest, Shawn."
"The miller wants me back before sundown--"
"Sundown indeed, for the world you know. I remember when farmers came stomping into Greenwood, to fell our ancient trees." We gazed back at Harmon, slowly getting covered by the alien hive. "Don't you understand?" she cried. "They want to bury you."
Red in the face, the mayor now was shouting at the invaders, waving his arms. They paid him no attention, though, as if the big man didn't exist.
"Let's get away," Pawla begged.
"Where can we go?"
Feeling caught up in the nightmare, but trusting my friend, I followed as she scampered ahead. Frightened, Pawla can run like the wind. She kept glancing back, though, afraid to lose me. When she leaped from the riverside path into the forest I followed her.
There she chose the faint paths that snake around fallen trees and granite outcroppings, paths free animals trod in the centuries before the farmers came. By nightfall we were creeping through her hidden gates of woven willow. "Home sweet home," Pawla growled, and I thought she wiped away a tear.
A couple of days in her damp, chilly cave (we were afraid to build a fire) and I found myself missing the mill's routine. At least I got food there every day, and stayed both warm and dry... Pawla had some meat jerky and dried berries on hand, but eating like a grownup now I'd soon devour her supplies.
"How old are you, Shawn?" she asked one morning.
"Eighteen by my teeth, the miller says."
"It was easier to fill your belly when you were a scrawny pup." She handed me a rancid egg, and I gobbled it down and thanked her for it. That day I tried to help her hunt squirrels, feeling slow and awkward as an ox. Then I made a fishhook out of a chicken bone I found in a corner of the cave. But the fish in the Livvy wouldn't bite.
Things could not go on this way, I thought, with winter trudging in. Pawla never complained, however. When did I have a kinder friend? I stripped a stout oak branch to make a club, to protect us from our enemies.
One evening the cave grew so shivering cold we had to build a fire. Pawla curled up in my lap, and I scratched her between her eyes.
Suddenly I heard footsteps, and leaping up I seized my club. She shrank into the shadows, green eyes slits and sharp claws glittering.
"Who are you?" I demanded. "I'm warning you, we can defend ourselves." A large man stepped into the circle of firelight, filthy and long-bearded like a beggar. With a shock I recognized our mayor. Trogg's little daughter rode his shoulders, clutching his bush of hair.
"Mayor," I said, "you are welcome with Tina. Sit down and warm yourselves at our fire. We have no food today, I am sorry."
"Thank you, Shawn. We're grateful for the chance to warm our bones." Sitting down he gathered Tina onto his lap. "Thelma, you can come in," he called out. "There is no danger here." A bent woman with matted grey hair came shuffling into the cave, and I recognized Thelma Grimble, who taught the children to spell and count.
"Are you the only survivors?" I asked with a tremble in my voice.
"No," said the mayor firmly. "Some people still are living in their homes, pretending that nothing is happening. Meanwhile, the scaly creatures we call the Vorrs keep building their horrible nest."
"Some people fled into the forest with their families." Thelma rubbed thin hands over the fire. "Some are living in the millhouse with Sledge. Some hope to cross the Sapphire Mountains."
Emerging from the shadows Pawla sat down next to me without a word. There was an awkward silence, and I wrapped my arm around her.
"Pawla," the mayor said at last. "I'm so glad you're not gloating at the downfall of people who punished you for thieving."
"Why should the misery of others please me? The Vorrs threaten my forest too. What's to stop them from building into Greenwood?"
Trogg, who'd lost a load of weight, stared into the smoky fire and stroked his beard.
"Now you and I, we are on the same side?" Pawla asked him, green eyes bright. Nodding he put out his big, hard hand and shook her small and furry paw, and I noticed she kept her claws retracted though once she might have slashed his face.
"Pawla, we humans have grown too tame." He let go of her paw. "You were always so quick and nimble. Do you have any suggestions for us?"
Snorting she rolled her eyes, and then moistened her lips with her long, pink tongue: "Now that your prison is buried, you are asking a thief how to survive?"
"I want to be sure I turn over every stone," Trogg said with dignity. "That is my duty to Harmon village."
"Harmon? Daddy, when are we going home?" asked Tina sleepily. "Kittikin needs her bowl of milk."
"Baby, go back sleep." He patted his daughter's dirty braids.
"What if the Vorrs build on top of Kittikin?"
"She'll be fine," Pawla soothed. "She'll just jump out your kitchen window and scamper away."
"Oh what can we do now?" I burst out. "We cannot fight these Vorrs alone. They are too many with their machines. What do we have, compared to them?"
"Ourselves and each other," said Mrs. Grimble softly.
"We have the wisdom of the woods," said Pawla. "Look at this like free animals, people. What are the Vorrs eating here? Then we can know why they came to our country."
The mayor looked confused. He stroked his beard. "They're not using our food stocks," Mrs. Grimble said after a pause. "They are just covering over our houses and gardens with their hideous town."
"They must have come for something, though, " I said. "Something here they need."
"Yes, there is something," Trogg said slowly. "To build up their town they are using lakes of water drained from the Livvy. Pumping it out they channel it right into the walls of their weird buildings. That is what makes the hissing sound."
"There, you see," said Pawla smugly, admiring her claws by the light of the fire. "Now what if they couldn't have our water anymore?"
"What are you talking about?" I cried. "We can't steal the river."
"Why not?" She wagged her bushy tail. "Shawn, let me explain. In great-grandmother's day there were furry animals living in the river in colonies. They worked together just like people, and long before you built your mill and its precious waterwheel they were damming up the river Livvy and diverting it. They made houses for themselves and their young, and fishing pools well stocked with trout and carp. I forget their name, though. Before I was born they had all died out or moved away."
"Beavers," said Mrs. Grimble, smiling. "I read about them in a book.
"So what if we do like they did?" asked Pawla. "We can steal the Livvy."
All of us gaped like fish out of water. "And where would we put it?" asked the mayor, a practical man.
"My cave here must be deep enough. It has chambers and galleries and deep wells I never made the torches to explore. Of course then my beloved home will be underwater..."
"We all have lost our homes," Mrs. Grimble said.
"Pawla." Trogg laid his hand on his heart. "If you help us, I promise we will build you a house--the finest house in Harmon. And as I'm a butcher I will keep it stocked with sausages--a life-time supply."
"Men always promise the moon and stars," purred Pawla. "That's what my mother used to say. Your species is prone to exaggeration."
"We have our good qualities," said Mrs. Grimble. "We can work together like beavers when it's a question of survival."
I asked, "How many people are living in the woods these days?"
"There must be a couple dozen families," said Trogg. "Hungry and cold, but hanging on."
"Do they have any tools?"
'"They can fetch some from unburied houses. The Vorrs pay no attention to us."
"They're just waiting for you to die off." Pawla gazed into the smoldering fire, remembering wild creatures driven from Greenwood?
"We won't go without a fight." Trogg stirred up the fire with a stick till it crackled and popped. I suddenly felt the glow of hope.
It took a week to gather our refugees together. Scattered through the woods some huddled in holes, chewing on roots and waiting to die. When we told them how, working together, we'd try to chase away the invaders, our friends smiled incredulously. A few volunteered to help, however, and soon the others came along, and then the people still living near Harmon.
Sturdy farmers who'd dug irrigation ditches (these included some strong-backed women) joined up with the men who'd crossed the Sapphire Mountains to build a canal. We all discussed how to do the work, and divided ourselves up into teams. Catching a few of the milk cows wandering Greenwood we used them to carry burdens.
Slowly then, drudging day and night, we excavated a new channel that ran from the cave towards the hollow nearby where the Livvy first springs forth from the earth. Like an army of ants our oldest and youngest--people too weak to wield a shovel--carried off the baskets of loose earth, and poured it on top of the trees we felled, and the stones we rolled in to build ourselves a dam. Everybody tried to pitch in, helping where they could. Even proud Pawla made herself useful, scampering to and fro with messages.
We used the heavy wooden doors from the mill to block up the entrance to the cave. At last the moment came to winch them up, with the strength of two skinny heifers and my hulking master, Sledge. With a sound like thunder, our dear old river burst into its temporary, underground home; and soon we saw only a trickle flowing down the old channel towards Harmon village.
Now who should go sneaking over Sunflower Hill, to spy on the invaders? "Let me go," I volunteered. "I can run fast, I can dodge the machines."
"You've got five years left on our contract," Sledge complained, "and what will I do if those monsters kill you?"
"Harmon village will buy Shawn's freedom," Trogg decided. "Miller, we need him more than you do."
"I'll go with Shawn, I can see in the dark." And Pawla leaped onto my shoulder.
She helped me through the tangled forest then, watching out for brambles, roots and boulders. We made good time, reaching Sunflower Hill as the starlight faded into dawn's grey glow. I noticed the hissing sound had ended. Now and then you heard a creaking or cracking, like icicles breaking off in the spring.
We hid in the bushes on the hill. "Can you see anything?" I whispered to Pawla.
"The building is changing. You'll see at sunrise." Soon the sun edged over the Sapphire Mountains, which glowed a radiant blue.
The hideous hive smothering Harmon had shrunken in size, without losing its layers. Now, as we watched in amazement, it started to shrivel and to crack open...
Suddenly the scaly invaders came pouring out of the many holes, making a sound like widows keening, and followed by teams of the silver machines. In chaos and tumult they all went streaming south, like a muddy river, retreating towards the airship in the orchard south of town.
As the structure hiding Harmon crumbled up and fell--giving off a vile, sweet stink like some giant, rotting corpse--we saw the village's tidy houses and streets remained much as before. The invaders never bothered to destroy them, just built their colony on top. Even the judge's seat and black-painted table remained on the village green. The laurel tree had lost its leaves, but its trunk and branches still looked strong.
When we saw the airship rising with a hiss into the cloudless sky, Pawla stood on my shoulders and roared like a lion.
"Get out of here," I yelled at the fading vapor trail. "Leave us alone, and never come back!" If they do, they'll have to reckon with us Harmonites.
Savoring the silence then, Pawla and I strolled downhill together, down to the gaily-painted sailboats still tied up at the pier. We boarded one, and I couldn't help myself; I stepped from it onto the river's bed, where I kneeled down and kissed the mud while Pawla laughed out loud.
She reached down and peeled up a dead trout: "This would be tasty with wild garlic." Her stomach growled, and she grinned. "I guess I'll gobble it raw."
The mayor kept his promises and paid off Sledge, who granted me a share in the mill. Trogg also had a fine, neat house built right across the street from his own. Pawla's had a fishpond and a smokehouse, and in the front garden a ridge of catnip. When he presented her with the key, she turned right around and handed it to me:
"Shawn, I want you to have this house."
"I don't want to stay here," she said simply. "Here among these people I used to steal from." Was that a patch of white on her forehead? I'd never noticed it before.
"I will take care of you, " I promised. "You will never want for meat or bread."
"No. Thanks, but I'm going to take a little stroll across the Sapphire Mountains. I had a dream there were still a few of my kind left living there. So I need to go and see for myself."
"You will always be welcome in Harmon," said the mayor. "That is, should you choose to return..." He let the words dangle, and cleared his throat. Maybe he felt relief at her choice. How could he trust the famous thief? Pawla, who stole the river Livvy.
"If you come back, I'll take care of you," I vowed, and she winked at me. "I got some dust in my eyes," I muttered. Quickly I rubbed the tears away, and when I looked back she was gone.
© May, 2015 Anna Sykora
Anna Sykora has been an attorney in New York City and teacher of English in Germany. She's placed 137 tales, mostly genre, in the small press and last year one made the finals of Rosebud's Mary Shelley Award. She's also placed 356 poems.