At dusk, the lamplighter emerged onto the village streets, bundled under a heavy cloak, his lantern held aloft in his left hand. He mostly went unnoticed – the kind of public servant whose work is only seen once accomplished – and that suited him well. Between his cloak, the evening shadows, and the careful way he moved, if the lamplighter had his way, he would have been invisible.
He was severely misformed. Body twisted, limbs and fingers gnarled, back hunched, and much of his skin knotted into angry swirls, there was only one little part of him – the left side of his face – that appeared in any way normal. Human. Beautiful, even, if beheld alone. It was as if Aphrodite herself had reached out to him at the time of his forming, and her hand could only cover so much space. So he carried his lantern in his left hand, hoping that if anyone were to notice him in the evening, illuminated in this positioned glow, they would see him as they expected him to be.
Still, he preferred to remain invisible. To all of the village, save one.
Miss Arabella Trilling served tea at the Wildflower Cafe in the center of town, and after locking up went home for the day near dusk, just as the lamplighter was emerging from his attic apartment. Night after night, he had noticed her – her delicate features, the vibrancy in her youthful face, the elegance of her dress. And he had watched her, keeping up with her street by street at a distance. Though later in the night, he would light the lamps outside her own home, the route she took paralleled his own, one block south; had she taken his street, he would have altered his route by a block.
It was not her beauty alone that had captured his attention. It was the downcast way that she moved, that she existed. Eyes on the ground, head bowed though her posture was perfect. If sadness could exist within such radiant beauty, he thought, then perhaps beauty could emerge from sadness. Perhaps beauty with its smudge of sadness could match his darkness with its single point of light.
His evening routine, the lamplighter has planned out in such a way that he circles back to Miss Trilling’s street after dark, at the end of his route, where he can slow down and wait a few minutes before retiring home. Each night, he pauses on the street just across from her windows and watches for her, hoping that a light will come on, that she will appear there in the window, look out, and see him; if she does, she will see that handprint of beauty on his face, alone, illuminated. Perhaps then he would be noticed; perhaps in that way he could be loved.
Tonight as he waits, watches, her front room lights blink on, her silhouette shadows the window curtains, and his late-night meal of bread and cheese catches in his throat. The lantern is in place, hung beside him on its pole as he sits with his supper; he can feel the light’s heat against the smooth normalcy of his left-hand face. Watching with held breath as Miss Trilling reaches up to draw the curtain aside, the lamplighter turns the whole of his face into the light, briefly to blow out the flame, and is comforted again in darkness.
And she, beautiful and sad even in silhouette, withdraws from the window, and a moment later that light, too, is gone.
“Guess again!” demanded Harrakti, placing a limb in her friend Charlotte’s lap.
“Is it a hand?” asked Charlotte.
“Nope!” Harrakti shrieked in glee. “It’s a foot.”
Charlotte opened her top three eyes. “It should be a fifty fifty chance, but I keep getting it wrong. Are you cheating?”
“No!” Harrakti batted her eyes. “No. I just… how would I cheat?”
“Maybe you have mind control,” suggested Charlotte. “I mean, you could have special powers I don’t know about.”
Harrakti considered. “Maybe I do…”
For the next two weeks, Harrakti tried to find ways to use her powers. She tried tricking the servers at the legion into giving her drinks for free. She tried getting extra free popsicles from the dentist. She tried stealing a neighbour’s dog.
Harrakti came to the natural conclusion that she had no powers and her friend Charlotte was just exceptionally stupid.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?” Harrakti asked her mother.
“No dear.” She put down the hockey stick she was taping. “Why would you ask that?”
“Because somehow I have the stupidest friend in town. How did that happen? How come none of the smart kids wanted to be my friend?” Harrakti’s mother was very confused. She decided to proceed cautiously. “You think Charlotte’s… I mean you think the other kids…” Harrakti’s mother felt stuck.
“Yes mom,” said Harrakti. “Charlotte’s so stupid she doesn’t know if my feet are hands or my hands are feet.”
“Oh,” said Harrakti’s mother in confusion. “I don’t think I see the problem. Does it matter if she knows? She’s not the one walking on them.”
“Not yet,” said Harrakti, “but what if somehow our brains got switched and then Charlotte’s stupid brain was in my body and she couldn’t figure out how to walk?”
“How would that happen?”
“Nobody has super powers,” said Harrakti’s mom. “I told you that when you stole the neighbour’s dog.”
“Oh,” said Harrakti.
She tried to think of a counter-argument, but she was stumped. She couldn’t prove that she had super powers, so maybe her mom was right. Maybe nobody did. And if nobody had super powers maybe it didn’t matter if Charlotte was stupid.
“Mom, I’m confused,” said Harrakti.
“Honey,” said Harrakti’s mother. “The whole world is confused.” She continued taping her hockey stick.
Virginia wasn’t from the Town. She had simply arrived there; wafted in on a spring breeze last year. Nobody knew much about her. She kept to herself, mostly—reading books in the gabled windows of her father’s home, taking strolls along the riverbanks at dusk, crooning softly to herself—a haunting tune that spoke of other places but was also, if you listened long enough, about the Town itself, and somehow, everyone in it. Every so often a young man followed her on these walks at a distance, peering around the trunks of trees, as she passed through light and dappled shadow. They never seemed quite the same after. One or two disappeared altogether.
It was a surprise, then, when she arrived at the midsummer fair, dressed in an elegant off-the-shoulder gown that showcased her perfect collarbones, her impossibly small waist. They certainly didn’t sell anything like that in Town, the women gossiped. She must have had it sent in from the City. Or tailor-made. Or even ordered from Abroad, beyond the seas.
The gentlemen did not stop to wonder where her dress had come from. They stopped their conversations when she passed close by, and stood up a little straighter, smoothing their tusks and tipping their hats.
The Committee had outdone itself this year for the Midsummer Fair. A creaking wooden Ferris wheel rose into the sunny skies. Lady Spore poured fresh glasses of iced dandelion wine for everyone who passed by. Joe and Shae ran underfoot, shrieking and kicking up dust, all fears of Harrakti forgotten. Under a purple velvet canopy near the fringes of the fairgrounds, Zinn was foretelling the futures of curious townsfolk in her deep, gravelly voice. And onlookers cheered as Ivan whacked the high striker to its apex, ringing the bell.
The bustle of the day didn’t seem to reach Virginia. She strolled silently up and down the rows of stalls, a lace parasol in hand to shade her alabaster shoulders. Somehow, her dress maintained its perfect champagne hue as it trailed behind her.
As the evening wore on, the band struck up a cheerful tune in the marquee tent, and folk and beasts alike were drawn in to whirl under the festooned canopy. The twinkling lights swayed overhead, and the sounds of the fair still echoed outside—the whirring engines, the calls of the hawkers.
Virginia stood at the edge of the dance floor, looking perfectly comfortable and perfectly unapproachable. But then, as the band slid into a slightly mournful waltz, a close observer would have noticed her hips begin to sway almost imperceptibly.
Madame Oiseaux was dancing with General Ruzo, and Giulia was laughing as she capered around the floor with Cedric—he was shaking hands with everyone they passed while still keeping a firm grip around her waist. Celia was glancing subtly over at Rafe and then back at her feet, but he was watching Virginia with hunger in his eyes. He wanted to hold the small of her back and kiss each vertebra. He wanted to run a finger along her glistening lamellae and whisper into her auditory canals. There was something about her that called him closer, but also made him faintly afraid.
Palms sweating, he edged towards her, and managed to pull her gently into a dance. The lights of the tent shivered and swam around him as they turned; the rhythm pounding behind his ribcage—one, two, three; one, two, three. Virginia gave a quiet approving roar, and he felt it prickle all the way down his spine.
As the final notes of the waltz transitioned into a lively two-step and the Townsfolk cheered, Rafe and Virginia slipped from the tent and towards the boardwalk. Away from the raucous sounds of the Fair, he was suddenly aware of the shivering sound her dress made as it trailed behind her, and the subtle lapping of the river as it wound southward. The stars above seemed especially bright. He spotted the constellation of the Visitor to the north, the only one he could ever remember.
As they walked, Rafe could think of nothing at all to say. Thoughts rose and then died before reaching his lips, none feeling quite sufficient. Normally, this would have made him uncomfortable, but silence felt natural tonight. There was nothing they needed to say.
They kicked off their shoes and sat side by side on the boardwalk, feet dangling in the deliciously cool water. He held her hand in his lap, caressing each silken fingertip. As the moon rose over the blackened trees on the opposite bank, they turned toward each other, faces shining silver. Virginia reached a slender arm around his back, spread her oral cavity wide, and devoured him whole.
She stood up, smoothing her dress over her hips. A graceful gesture from her small bare foot cast his vacant shoes into the current below, where they landed with a splash and sank out of sight. And she continued her slow promenade, crooning to herself.
Darby sucked fermented nectar through a glass straw and clacked his glistening mouthparts contently, then daubed stray droplets of the iridescent liqueur from his mandibles with a handkerchief of spotted silk. Sprawled in a leather armchair beside him, scales glinting in the sallow lamplight of the Purpureus Room, Pescal struck a match to light the cigar clenched between his icthic lips and rolled bulbous yellow eyes towards the door, at which had appeared the svelte form of Mr. Conrad, resplendent in a suit of tweed and toad-skin. The squamous gentleman began masticating his cigar with his innumerable white teeth and puffed in distaste, sending a tendril of vapour to join the bluish haze that clung to the ceiling of the Purpureus Room in pungent perpetuity. Pescal’s unblinking gaze followed Mr. Conrad across the club, the cigar growing increasingly tattered.
“You seem somewhat vexed, dear Pescal,” Darby observed, setting down his nectar-flute and gesturing for one of the club’s delicately tattooed servers to refill the elegant glass, blown into the semblance of a pitcher-plant in vitreous mimicry of the arabesque designs that flowed in baroque profusion across the painted wooden walls. He reached out with one chitinous claw and scooped out a handful of candied chrysalises from a bowl on the table before him, crunching the glazed pupae. “What ails you? Another canker of the gills, perhaps? Or does the taste of your cigar disappoint you?”
“Neither,” Pescal answered after another rancorous puff. He said nothing further, but crossed and uncrossed his long, thin legs. Above the two of them stretched a painting of the famed Battle of Fenwrae, Admiral Illex standing triumphantly at the prow of the HMS Architeuthis amidst a confusion of cannon-smoke and splintered wood, the ships of the Town’s enemies burning and breaking on every side.
“Come, come,” Darby continued, sipping from his refreshed flute of nectar. “You are too stoic, my toothy chum – far too stoic indeed! Have we not known one another since I was a pale-bellied grub and you a plump young guppy? You can trust me with your woes.” By the hearth, Guillaume guffawed at one of Bertram’s jests, brandy sloshing in his glass. Darby rasped his mouthparts irritably at the sound.
“I do not wish to tire you,” Pescal persisted. “And besides, it would unbecoming for a gentleman to give voice to the matter.”
“Ah – I take it that the issue is pecuniary. We shall speak no more of it.”
“Your guess is mistaken – at least, the issue is not principally pecuniary.”
“Then I am perplexed! Now you have piqued my curiosity. Was not the Purpureus Room designed for Founders and other men of distinction to socialize in confidence, away from the gossip-hungry ears and other listening-orifices of ill-bred folk? You say it would be ungentlemanly to name whatever preys on your mind – but would it not also be ungentlemanly to deny your good and loyal friend Darby the chance to remedy whatever wound has so irked you?”
“Your logic would seem irrefutable,” Pescal sighed, smoke issuing from his gills. “I relent before this onslaught of rationality. You are aware that there was once an ancient enmity between my family and that of Mr. Conrad?” He nodded his head vaguely in the direction of the avian man, who had now settled near to Bertram and Guillaume.
Darby nodded his black, horned head. “Who could forget that legendary feud? I cannot claim to be conversant in every particular – but none in this town will soon forget the day when Mr. Conrad’s sire threw down his glove – nor could any claiming knowledge of matters historical fail to recall your own father’s most stalwart and dignified answer to that challenge. But I thought the whole affaire d’honneur quite settled!”
“So did I,” Pescal confessed. “But recent events have decidedly unsettled it once more. The old grudge is very much alive.”
“Good heavens!” Darby answered. “What manner of slight could be sufficiently repugnant to revivify such a vendetta?”
“Darby, you know me passably well. What would you say is my greatest joy?”
Darby thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, swirling the nectar in his glass. “I know you to cultivate a garden of surpassing beauty. Your Venus flytraps have won first prize seven years running at the local shows…”
“Indeed they have, but the insult was not horticultural in nature.”
“Hmm. You also possess a remarkable library, full of rare tomes and beautiful illuminated books, the envy of many a collector…”
“Indeed I do, but the insult was not antiquarian in nature.”
“There is also the matter of your cellar, three levels deep and well-stocked with wines of exquisite quality…”
“Indeed there is, but the insult was not vineal or oenelogical in nature.”
“These possibilities eliminated, I would have to say that your greatest joy is undoubtedly your champion hairless show-cats, creatures with skin softer than any silk, eyes more enigmatic than the most alluring of women, and meows more sonorous than any songbird’s – cats of such meticulous breeding, of such rarefied bloodline, of such refined pedigree, that they have conquered every cat-show in the Town and beyond for generations.”
“Your guess is correct.” Pescal fumed, his cigar now a sizzling butt, its red smoulder giving his face a hellish glow. “I treasure my cats as others treasure their own offspring. They are my passion. They are my joy. They are allowed nothing but the finest meat, they are exercised rigorously, are they kept alert and stimulated through a carefully designed training regimen. And, of course, I take the utmost care in mating them, selecting only those cats of sound hereditary stock, sometimes travelling many miles for the occasion.”
“Yes, of course. One cannot be too precise in such matters!”
“No one cannot! And once one of my precious cats becomes pregnant, I spare no effort or expense in her care. I purchase nutritional supplements, vitamins, and nourishing tinctures to encourage the growth of a healthy litter. I bring in the finest veterinary specialists money can buy. I spend hours by the fireside, petting those of my dears in the family way and reciting poetry to their unborn kittens. Fine oils imported at no little cost are rubbed on the skin of the mother-to-be, soothing aromatics to ensure relaxation and contentment. The birthing itself is a time of joy, a miracle to be celebrated. I await the arrival of each new litter with the utmost eagerness.”
“You can imagine, then, how excited I was when my dear Beatrice – herself the champion of many a tournament – showed the familiar signs indicating that her latest rendezvous had been fruitful. Her paramour had been a prince among felines, a creature of magnificent beauty and unsurpassed sophistication, as perfectly hairless as Beatrice. It was to be her first litter.”
“I fear some dreadful calamity is imminent. Did the birthing go poorly? Was there a miscarriage or some similarly morbid disaster?”
“Nothing like that. The birthing was painless, and all the kittens were perfectly healthy – and perfectly hairy. Each and every one of them was covered from tip to tail in hideous dappled fuzz!”
“The horror!” Darby exclaimed, clutching at his chest with a black claw. “How could this come to be?!”
“Obviously, Beatrice had been ravished by some brutish common malkin. But it was only later that I learned the full and terrible extent of the truth.”
“Ladies preserve me! I must steady my nerves.” Darby drained his glass once more, and again gestured to the server for more nectar.
“Some time after the birth, I discovered the bestial father grooming his misbegotten brood, Beatrice twining herself around his wild and hideously hairy form, purring like a harlot! There was no doubting that he was the litter’s foul progenitor, for he too was monstrously mottled with a pattern much the same as his grotesque spawn. In a rage I flew at him, but the beast hissed and fled. I followed the demon-cat through the house and out through an open window in the servant’s quarters, doubtless the very aperture the evil thing had used to violate my home. Launching myself after the abomination, I chased it through my estate – and onto that of Mr. Conrad!”
“Yes! The vile creature was no stray, no vagabond beast! The nightmare-feline belongs to none other than Mr. Conrad himself!”
“He denies having set that infernal tom loose, of course, but I see through his lies! He contrived the whole incident to embarrass me, and to defile what has been a proud and unbroken lineage with the bastard offspring of that unholy, mottle-furred devil!” Pescal flung the ragged butt of his cigar into a porcelain tray with a shudder of disgust.
“I now understand your reluctance to divulge this tale of sorrow!” Darby said. “Has Mr. Conrad made any attempt to make amends? Any effort at recompense?”
“None.” Pescal fumed, extracting a second cigar from a lacquer box and wedging it between his glinting teeth. “He would not even accept the tainted kittens.”
“Then there is only one course of action you may take, Pescal! As a gentleman, you must challenge him to a duel!”
“Do you believe so?” Pescal asked, lighting the second cigar, his scaled hands shaking with rage. “I nearly challenged him on the spot, I admit. But you know that I am a peaceable fellow.” He seemed to shrink in his clothes. “I am not given to brutish exertions.”
“Nor am I,” Darby said. “But there are some occasions that require us to do unpleasant things in the name of honour. You must live up to your father’s legacy, Pescal!”
“Yes!” He puffed, sending up another plume of smoke.
“You must defend the name of your family!”
“Yes!” He puffed again, wreathing his face in smoke.
“You must repay this disgrace with blood!”
“Yes! And you, Darby, must be my second!”
Darby accepted another glass of nectar from the server only to drain it in a single gulp. “I accept the duty gladly!”
Flinging down his half-smoked second cigar, Pescal rose from his chair, Darby close behind. The two crossed the Purpureus Room with bravado towards Conrad, who eyed the pair from behind a polished monocle. At the bar, Monsieur Aigle twittered in anticipation of the impending confrontation, his own feathers bristling. Professor Wellington Walrus, hunched over his latest manuscript, looked up from his furtive scribblings at the incipient commotion and tapped his tusks.
“Sir!” Pescal spat at Conrad, eyes bulging hugely. “Your actions are an affront to all standards of decency and moral conduct. The furred blasphemy you have visited upon me will not stand. I demand satisfaction!”
Conrad clucked. He swelled. His wattle engorged hugely with blood, so that he peered out from an excrescence of incarnadine carnosities with black and terrible eyes. There was a moment of pregnant silence.
“I accept,” he said at last, his beak clicking. “As the challenged party, I believe it is my right to choose the field of honour and the weapon of the duel.”
Pescal looked to Darby, who clicked his mandibles in concession. “He is correct.”
“Very well,” Conrad declared. “We shall settle our dispute one thousand feet above the town, using hot air balloons. I can lend you one if you lack a balloon yourself.”
“You insult me once again, sir,” Pescal retorted. “As a man of fashion, of course I possess a balloon. Name your weapon.”
Conrad eyed Pescal’s fluttering gills. “Harpoons,” he declared. “The first to parachute from their balloon forfeits the duel. Agreed?”
“Agreed! Will dawn tomorrow suit you?”
“Perfectly. Meet me at Coaltree Common – we shall take off from there, and settle this absurdity once and for all!”
The bell above the door of the Antler Cafe clanged, and, when no one walked through, the manager’s eyes drew downwards.
“Hello Helicht,” he said to the customer, barely a foot tall.
Helicht gave a curt nod, and headed for his usual spot next to the window. There was a good view of the University’s largest auditorium there, its grand doors opening onto a promenade lined with trees. The manager came by, not bothering with a pen and paper.
“What can I get you?”
“A cup of tea, please, and a dirty plate.”
The manager returned to the counter. Helicht settled into his chair, and didn’t move until his tea and the plate came. Moments later, streams of students come out of the auditorium, and walked towards the row of businesses across the street. A few came trickling into the cafe. One passed by the window, and did a double take. He soon came rushing in.
“Oh my god.”
“Hi,” Helicht said calmly, taking a sip of tea.
“Oh my god!”
“How ya doin?”
Bradley stepped back, and looked around the cafe in surprise, as if everyone there should be as excited as he was. The manager kept his eyes on the ground, idly rubbing a clean glass. “God, I’m – I’m so sorry. It’s just that, well, it’s just you, you know?”
“Young man -”
“I mean, you’re Helicht!”
“Wow. Helicht. My god. Can I…can I shake your hand?”
Helicht calmly put his teacup down with a sigh. “Young man, it’s always nice to meet a fan, but in my experience, shaking hands with someone of your size ends badly for me. Also, you don’t have hands.”
Bradley held up his hooves, and bashfully thrust his head back, chuckling to himself. “Aw I’m such an idiot. I’m sorry, I’m just excited. I mean, it’s -”
“Yep. It’s me.”
Bradley stood there nodding, hooves on his hips, grinning to himself over Helicht’s table. Helicht nodded back, smiling kindly, waiting for the conversation to end and for Bradley to move on.
“It’s just -”
“Holy hell,” Helicht said.
“I’m a big fan, you know? I’ve loved your writing for years.”
“Years? How old are you?”
“I’ve loved your writing for months, and it’s just totally changed my life. The way you write about women -”
“ – and about self-reliance in a society of givers and takers-”
“ – and just the debauchery! Wow!”
“Hey! Just…listen, if you’re here, just sit, okay?” Helicht motioned to the chair across from him.
“Oh…no. No, I couldn’t.”
“I insist. Come join me.”
“Well, great! Yes, totally. Absolutely.” Bradley slid into the chair opposite, and reached into his backpack. “You won’t believe this -”
“I bet I will.”
“ – but I have a copy of your book with me. I’m taking a course on contemporary Townsfolk literature, and I chose it because the professor included you in the syllabus and, well, how do you say no to that? We just finished a lesson!” He pointed a hoof towards the auditorium and shook his head, smiling.
“Yes. Would you like me to…”
“Oh, would you?”
“No problem. Where’s the book?”
Bradley pulled out a thick, hardcover copy of A Man and the World. Helicht brought up his own small pen, and signed the cover in large, broad loops, well-practiced at signing objects larger than him.
“Listen,” Helicht said, as he put the cap back on the pen. “I was just finishing up.”
Bradley visibly slumped in his chair. “Oh. Well. You know, that’s okay.”
“Mm hmm. I have a few errands to run and…no, forget about it.”
“No, I couldn’t bother you.”
“What is it?”
“Well, I could use a hand while I go about town today. I’m not as young as I used to be, you know.”
Bradley perked up. “Yeah?”
“And could we talk about your books?”
“Absolutely.” Helicht patted his body, and frowned. “Oh goodness.”
“What is it?”
“It seems I’ve forgotten my wallet at home. Damn!”
“Oh let me.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t -” Helicht raised his hands in protest.
“Please! I’m happy to pay for your tea.”
“Well, you see…it’s just that I had a meal before as well.”
Bradley shook his head and grinned. “Not a problem. I’d be happy to pay.”
“Really? Oh, you’re too kind,” he smiled as Bradley put some money on the table. “Maybe a bit more for a tip? That’s it. Well thank you. This really is very unlike me to forget such a thing.”
“Any chance to spend more time with THE Helicht.”
“Right you are! Okay. Ready to go?”
Bradley nodded, and watched his favourite author scurry up onto his shoulder. As they left the cafe, the patrons could hear Helicht say, almost by rote: “Alright, I have three places to go to. I hope those arms are as strong as they…”
The manager came by the table to pick up the dishes and the money. Returning to the counter, he reduced Helicht’s tab once again.
It was opening day. Phil stopped in for breakfast at Maurice’s steakhouse. Corned beef hash. And coffee, of course. Coffee and whiskey were the only drinks that Maurice served. But he always said that it was important to diversify.
“It’s important to diversify, Phil,” he was saying now. “Steak and eggs. Bacon and eggs. Even tomato and eggs.”
“You know that’s not my style,” said Phil.
Maurice shook his head, wiping at a glass. The same glasses were used for both beverages. “You don’t even like eggs.”
“Can’t stand ‘em,” Phil agreed.
Maurice just kept wiping. “I don’t get you, Phil.”
“But you like me,” Phil said, pushing back his plate.
It was true. Everyone liked Phil. It was why he had so many friends.
“What time are you opening?” Maurice called as Phil walked through the swinging door.
“As soon as the signs are in place,” Phil called back, tapping his nose.
Whistling, he walked along Gristle Road toward the fens. It was a beautiful day. Rays of sun could even be seen through the mist.
“Morning, Phil,” croaked old Mr. Anche, from where he hunched in the doorway, sandwiched between his brothers.
Phil tipped his cap and walked on.
“Big day, Phil,” Judith called, leaning out of her window above the underpass.
Phil just grinned and waved.
Phil was happy to see all his friends, and happy to walk through his town on such a fine morning. But he was happiest of all when he got to the edge of the fens and saw it. Just a dark little hollow between a dry cleaners and a boarded-up strip club. But it was all his, thanks to a few strings pulled by a few friends.
And the signs were in place. Buddies of Hector Robinson’s had made them from driftwood in the night and left them stacked just inside the door. In bright green paint, they read:
PHILS EGG’S Phil loosened his tie and set to work, whistling. He dusted the shelves. He hung the signs from their hooks. He unpacked the crates and crates of eggs.
Phil knew he didn’t need to diversify. Phil’s Eggs was perfect. It didn’t need Easter eggs, or chocolate eggs, or eggs with toys in them, or wooden eggs, or magical eggs, or decorative eggs. Phil’s Eggs was a simple shop, for friends who liked a good, simple meal. Chicken eggs, duck eggs, quail eggs, and cow eggs. That was all he needed.
He’d had the idea about a week ago, and now it was finally opening day. Phil could move fast when he wanted to. He always had friends ready to do a favor for him, just like he was always ready to do a favor for them.
Phil got to the last crate, which was small and damp-looking, and smelled of sea water. When Phil touched the wood, his fingers nearly sank into it.
A rotten batch? Carefully, Phil wrenched the boards off with his claws, one by one.
A single egg sat inside, on a nest of old newspapers. It was black, but not the black of rotten eggs. The black of a movie screen before the picture starts.
Phil took off his hat and leaned close to the egg. It was about the size of his hand, and had a smooth matte texture. “Hello there,” Phil whispered. “What are you?”
Carefully, he laid one finger on the side of the egg. He felt the delicate material of the eggshell, and below it, faint and irregular, a heartbeat.
Morning light nudged its way past light curtains that shifted idly in the breeze. The light brought out a gleam on the silver sugar spoon that only assiduous polishing can achieve and cast lavender shadows on the table cloth as it filtered through the petals of three irises in a china vase. “Mrs. Tealing!” came a thundering voice, “There has been a theft!” The housekeeper rustled her cicada wings against the muslin of her bustle. She blinked rapidly. “A theft, Professor?” she said in her soft reedy voice, “What can you mean by that?” “My manuscript!” he shouted, “It’s disappeared! Someone’s stolen it, by Jove!” Mrs. Tealing’s wings fluttered anxiously. “Are you sure, Professor?”
“Great Scott, yes I’m sure. I was working on it last night before retiring and left it on my desk. It has disappeared! Stolen during the night!” Mrs. Tealing gaped, overwhelmed by this irrefutable evidence. “Should we call the police in?” she offered hesitantly. “The police!” Professor Walrus looked suddenly uncomfortable. “No, I daresay that won’t be necessary. Probably just that deuced fool Professor Cadwallader trying to steal my research.” “That must be it, sir. Will there be anything else sir?” asked Mrs. Tealing. “No, that’s everything, thank you.” Mrs. Tealing nodded and scuttled off to the kitchen. Professor Walrus sat down heavily in his armchair. His manuscript, gone! It was calamitous. If it was that bloody Cadwallader…He’d never get over the mortification. Walrus poured himself a restorative snifter of brandy and sipped it anxiously. Finally, his mind made up, he rose and went to fetch his hat and his stick. He’d make Cadwallader see sense.
That afternoon, as the sun threw blocks of white light on the wallpaper, Professor Walrus returned and sat down to the tea Mrs. Tealing had left him. Over shrimp salad sandwiches, clams in white wine sauce and sponge cake, he worried. Cadwallader had denied all knowledge of the theft. “Wellington, old man, I wouldn’t steal from you in a thousand years. I’ve got my own research, ticking away quite nicely. I don’t have the slightest interest in pursuing your line of inquiry. Utterly pointless if you ask me.” Professor Walrus scowled as he delicately wiped his whiskers of any remaining sauce. If it hadn’t been Cadwallader, who could it have been? Mrs. Tealing entered with a letter on a tray. “This was left for you sir.” Walrus opened the letter to read:
The world thought him learned,
His wisdom acknowledged,
The Scholar, the Teacher, the Writer, the Sage,
All he’s put down is fluff on the page!
“Mrs. Tealing!” he roared. She fluttered in, wiping floury hands on her apron. “Who sent this? Where did this come from?” “It was left in the flowerbed sir. I found it when I was picking the irises for the table. It was addressed to you so I brought it in. I thought it must have fallen out of the postman’s bag.” “Dash it all!” Walrus crumpled the letter. Someone was having fun at his expense. He was a respected and notable figure in town and not one to be ridiculed! He smoothed out the letter and read it again but couldn’t make any more sense of it the second time. He could go and see the Head of his department at the University – but no, there would be questions. Or Mrs. Tealing’s suggestion of the police… again awkward questions would be asked. Professor Walrus chewed on his moustache as he came to the realization that there was absolutely nothing to be done.
The next morning, taking an early morning constitutional, Wellington Walrus came to a stumbling halt as he entered the town square and saw the statue that held court in the centre. It was a statue Wellington had seen a thousand times, a be-caped figure depicting the town’s founder. What made him stop in shock, whiskers trembling in horror and indignation, was the overnight addition to the statue. The statue was festooned, bedecked, covered in rosettes and streamers of paper. And on all the sheets of paper was the scribbled smudged writing that Walrus knew intimately. The mysterious thief who had stolen his manuscript had torn it apart and pasted it all over the statue in the middle of the town square for anyone to see. Walrus looked around wildly to see if anyone had come into the square or were peeking through the curtains. He hurried to the statue and started plucking at the pages. Perhaps he could get them down, perhaps no one would see, perhaps he could still save himself…
And so it was that as the sun fully rose and the folk of the Town awoke to find the esteemed Professor Walrus scrabbling over the statue covered in paper as sheets drifted past into the streets. And the secret was out: the great manuscript, the essential research work of the eminent professor was, in fact, a novel, a romantic novel in lurid purple prose.