PART 38 - LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING
Marta sat on the beach with her arms propped up on her knees, staring out at the vast ocean as the surf washed up the packed sand and flowed around her toes. The afternoon sun was warm on her silvery fur, a colorful light cotton sarong covering her quite adequately but leaving her feeling as if she'd been turned-out-of-doors with nothing on but her shift. The breeze tickled at the worn patch of fur around her neck where her collar had been.
She was finally alone with her thoughts, trying to make sense of what had happened to her in the last several days and pondering what the future held for her as she stared out at the horizon. The same vast expanse where the bright-blue seaplane had carried the four Sylvanians along with that little golden-furred female who had spoken of freedom as if it were the easiest thing in the world to understand.
Zoltan had, after considerable coaxing, been convinced to go and rest, as even an implacable titan like her former fellow thrall was beginning to look weary after staying awake all night and spending the morning working like a dog. With no master to command otherwise, why not go lie down? That at least was easy to figure out.
But that was hardly satisfying to Marta. Why not go lie down forever? Why get up again? Let someone come along and shovel sand on you until you're nicely out of the way. What else was there to do?
She felt uncharacteristically useless. There were plenty of hands to do what little work remained after the plane had been sent on its way. Several of the tan-furred rabbit does had taken the launch to check up on the crew of ruffians chained up in the steerage of the freighter. Marta had been unable to count the rabbits accurately in all the hustle and bustle and they seemed to appear and disappear as soon as she looked away. She did watch one of them walking hand in hand down the beach with the graceful, white- and-black-furred doe who seemed to be the only rabbit on the tiny atoll that wasn't a perfect duplicate of all the others. The red-furred vixen had gone into the lush forests on the islets on some errand, and the otter had gone to lie down in the sleeping hut as well.
So there she sat, feeling quite cast adrift. For all of his casual cruelty, at least under her late master she felt as if she had somewhere she belonged. She had been trained since puppyhood to obey. Now no one was there to give her orders. What was she going to do now?
Heywood tentatively cleared his throat and spoke to her in her native language. "<Excuse me, Miss Marta, but Kaleia here found out that I spoke Steppesprecht, and has asked me to help her thank you properly for protecting her while she was being held captive.>"
After a moment's sinking in, Marta clambered to her feet, brushing the sand off of her bottom and looking at them both in puzzlement.
The otter nodded to the young vixen at his side, and she stepped forward and laid the sweet-scented garland around the silver-furred canine's neck, kissing her on both cheeks. Kaleia then took Marta's hands in her own and spoke several sentences in the lyrical language of the Spontoon Islands, gazing at her with an earnest expression on her face.
The otter gave a brief smile and translated. "<Kaleia daughter of Kamamela says that you are a dear friend and protector, and that you will forever be welcome to sit at the cook-fire of her home and the homes of her children and grandchildren, and that all of her clan and family will welcome you at their cook-fires as well. She invokes the gods' blessings of health, happiness, and long life upon you.>"
He gave her a wry grin. "<And I'll admit, I'm inclined to wish you much the same, in spite of the fact that part of your protecting her was beating the stuffing out of me.>"
Marta blushed and turned to give him a series of abject bows. "<If you please, sir, I'm so sorry about that. If I had known you vere there to rescue her and not to... vell... I'm very, very sorry.>"
The otter chuckled and waved it away. "<What say you and I call it even for that ducking I gave you off the pier on Casino Island.>"
Marta hung her head, turning away from them, her hands clutching at the soft petals of the blossoms around her throat. "<There are many other things I have done that a simple dunking in the vater vill not vash avay, If you please, sir. I've hurt others, I've killed. Now that I understand that I could have raised eyes and said no at any time... I... I don't...>"
She began to tear up, her shoulders shaking. She covered her face in her hands, letting out a choked sob, and found herself embraced by the young vixen.
The otter laid his webbed hand on her shoulder and leaned in, shushing her and speaking softly into her laid back ear. "<Now-now, my dear. You know as well as I what happens to a dog who disobeys the wolves. Where would Kaleia be if you'd not been there to protect her?>"
At the sound of her name, the vixen squeezed Marta tighter, burying her face in the canine's side with a softly spoken phrase in Spontoonie.
The otter smiled fondly down at her and looked back at Marta. "<She probably wouldn't be here telling you not to cry like she just did.>"
The silver-furred canine wiped her eyes on her arm and sniffled,
looking at them both with a helpless look on her face. "<But... but
vhat about the rabbit boat driver I nearly throttled to death? Or the
one-eyed fox who I poisoned vith drugs in the hospital?>"
Marta gave the otter a puzzled look. "<Vhat... vhat does that matter?>"
He took a step back, crossing his arms in front of him and gazing at her levelly. "<Just please answer the question, ma'am.>"
Taken slightly aback, the canine shook her head. "<I think he vas a Sylvanian, or maybe a Freedonian. He sold illegal drugs on Casino Island and vas part of his excellency's operational cell in the Spontoons.>"
Heywood scratched the side of his broad, bruised nose pensively, glancing down at the uncomprehending Kaleia. "<Hmm. In that case perhaps my understanding of Steppesprecht may have lapsed a bit while you were speaking just now.>"
He cocked an eyebrow at her. "<If I had understood what you'd just
told me, I'd probably advise you not to repeat it to anyone else>" He
nodded out toward the lagoon. "<Especially not to any of the
gentlemen aboard that destroyer approaching from the east. Do you
She looked fondly down at the vixen. "<I understand.>"
Heywood nodded, as he turned and started to head back toward the huts, beckoning over his shoulder as he went. "<Good, now come on. We should tell the others that the navy's arriving.>"
He was a middle-aged male feline, reddish-brown tabby with grey at his muzzle and temples. White peaked-cap with a brass emblem pinned to the front in the form of a stylized dugout canoe topped by a compass and crossed oars. Beige cotton shirt rolled up to the elbows, neatly pressed khaki pants and hobnail boots, sturdy leather suspenders with a pair of thin chains leading from one of the buttons at his broad waist.
In his shirt pocket he carried a hand-carved mahogany pipe shaped like a classical dolphin, its gaping mouth charred and blackened with much use, along with a small waterproof tin of tobacco with a Westinglish navy stamp and a bundle of blue-tip matches. In his trouser pocket, hanging from the chains, a pocket watch and a pocket compass, both of which bore dented and scuffed cases from jostling together all the time. In his back pocket, a worn leather wallet with a few foreign bank notes and a stack of photos of what Dorothy presumed were the burly sea captain's wife and daughters. The wife seemed to be of native Spontoonie stock, a proud, exotic beauty in the fullness of middle-aged motherhood, while his daughters were all mix breed beauties in full blossom.
In deference to the smiling females in the photographs Dorothy demurred from peering any deeper at his physical body, choosing to gaze at his aura. Herriman was an honest cat, solid and dependable, who viewed his crew as surrogate sons and commanded them with a stern but fair hand. He reminded her of her own father in many ways, who ran his Noreaston publishing concerns in much the same fashion as captaining a ship.
She was shaken out of her nostalgia by the owner of the aura she was studying speaking to her directly.
She hastily refocused her eyes and smiled apologetically as she accepted his proffered hand. "I... I'm sorry, what was that you said Captain?"
The ruddy furred cat pursed his lips. "I said it's a pleasure to meet you, Missus Pearl." He gave her a searching look with his apple-green eyes. " Are you feeling quite all right, my dear?"
She nodded sheepishly. "Yes, thank you. I'm fine. Just a bit overcome by all the excitement."
The captain nodded gravely. "Indeed. And what part did you play in that incredible display of daring my crew and I were privileged to have witnessed?"
She smiled evasively, glancing at Jane who returned her look with a curt nod. "Oh, my companion Miss Early and I were merely observers." Her ice blue eyes glittered as she met his gaze. "In fact, when you make your official report of all this, I'd think we'd hardly be worth mentioning at all."
Gwen turned to her with a shocked expression on her face. "What are you talking about Dorothy? You were..."
She cut off with a squeak as she felt a strong hand clamp onto the base of her tail and give a sharp tug. Jane leaned in and whispered to her through clenched, buck teeth. "IXnay."
The vixen gave the rabbit doe a sidelong glance and stammered out the rest of her reply. "...uh... were g-great to have along for... uh... moral support! ... moral support."
As both Jane and Loretta rolled their eyes Dorothy broke eye contact with Captain Herriman. The burly sea captain blinked distractedly as his eyes snapped back into focus. He smiled warmly at them all. "Well, any guest of the brave pilots who saved us from a trip to the bottom is a guest of ours as well. Now if you'll excuse me, there's a lot to be done. I'll have my lads haul your plane up onto the foredeck with our crane and make it fast so you won't have to worry about it drifting away. Then we can..."
He was interrupted as a fresh-faced young male raccoon in a cloth cap
and relatively clean denim work clothes came rushing up with a torn off
sheet of paper in his dark- furred hands. "Captain! I just got
confirmation that the Sylvanian destroyer USS Angler and the Westinglish cruiser HMS Cestus are within an hour's sail of us and will be making a course for our location. A Rain Island patrol cruiser, the RNS Bindlestiff,
Captain Herriman gave him a curt nod. "Good lad, Sparks. Keep me posted on any further developments."
As the young sailor turned to leave, he caught sight of Loretta and stopped. His blue eyes widened in the dark fur mask on his face and he gave a long whistle and muttered under his breath. "Oh brother! What a tomato..."
A blush spread across the female raccoon's features as she self-consciously pushed her bisected tail behind her, fidgeting under his admiring gaze.
The Captain's brow furrowed in annoyance and he reached up, smacking the young sailor in the back of his head. "Mind your manners, Mister Rackham. We haven't been to sea for THAT long."
The crewman snapped out of his reverie and doffed his cloth cap, clutching it with the crumpled paper to his chest with an abject look to his captain. "Sorry, Cap'n."
He turned to Loretta with a halting bow. "Sorry ma'am. No offense intended."
She reached up and absently smoothed back a lock of her dark hair, then extended a hand. "Oh... uh... none taken Mister... Rackam?"
He wiped off a hand on his trousers and took hers with an earnest smile. "Yeah. Ross Rackam. The lads all call me Sparks, on account of me bein' the radio operator here."
Her blush deepened. "Oh... so it was you I was talking to on the radio before then? I... I'm sorry I called you a blockhead and an idiot, Mister Rackham."
The young male's smile wavered a bit, but he nodded pleasantly. "No offense taken on my end, either. You can call me whatever you like, Miss..."
She returned his smile. "Pike. Loretta Pike. Or Lori, if you like."
The fresh-faced male gave her a grin. "Heh. That rhymes."
At this, Captain Herriman crossed his beefy arms and pointedly cleared his throat, at which the young raccoon gave him a nervous glance and turned back to Loretta. "I gotta go. It was a nice to meet you, Miss Lori."
With that he turned and scurried away under the ruddy-furred tabby's stern glare.
The captain turned back to his guests with a wry smile. "Well, I can't have you lovely females up on deck distracting my crew, so if you'd kindly follow my second mate Mister O'Connor, he'll lead you below to our passenger cabins where you can make yourselves at home."
With a curt nod, an iron-grey-furred terrier with long tufted whiskers stepped forward and beckoned them to follow him.
Gwen clasped her hands behind her back, looking impishly away and replying in a singsong voice. "Miss Loretta Pike, or Lori if you like." She looked back with a twinkle in her eye. "Wouldn't you know it, Lori's fallen for a poet."
The raccoon tsked and tossed her head. "Oh puh-leeze. He's not a poet, he IS a blockhead. Calling a radio operator 'sparks' is like calling a pilot 'crash' or an engineer 'malfunction'."
Her partner nudged her. "Well maybe wiring isn't the only thing he can make sparks with. He did have AWFULLY pretty eyes, don't you think?"
Loretta drew herself up primly. "I didn't notice."
The vixen chuckled. "How could you not?" Her wicked grin widened. "They were all over you."
At this a blush spread across the young raccoon female's features that lasted for the rest of the walk to their cabin door.
Vanya had been an immense help in settling them in, translating for the Palomino Bay's helpful crew and gleefully cutting the collars of any dog willing to allow it with the Alpine knife that Jane had given her. At first, only the bravest of them dared to take such a step, declaring proudly that they would obey the wolves no longer, but as more and more of them cast off their collars soon it became unanimous, with the drab furred canines clamoring for a place in line to allow the golden furred girl to cut away the hated symbol of their servitude.
After a particularly long, and sometimes rancorous persuasion, Vanya took her former fellow galley thralls, the grizzled Olga and the dark-furred Katya, into the privacy of the officers' shower room with the first mate's permission, and later emerged grinning with a bundle of cut leather straps clenched in her raised fist like she'd killed a nest of serpents. The other canine females followed her, freshly scrubbed faces showing a mixture of awe, elation, and disbelief as she led them up on deck and over to the rail facing the warships and the captured sub. With an exultant laugh, she threw the severed bonds at Jormungandr, sending them twirling through the air to splash down in the surging waves below.
Katya cringed as they hit, as if she expected some sort of retribution
to fall upon her from out of nowhere, but was startled out of her
fearful reverie as her senior Olga let out a chuckle, that grew in fits
and gouts into a full, deep torrent of joyous laughter. She gathered
Vanya to her bosom, tousling the breathlessly laughing canine girl's
bronze hair as tears streamed down all three females' cheeks, and Katya
joined them, her docked tail wagging rapidly as she started to giggle
He looked over his shoulder at his first mate, a lost and hopeless expression on his face. "<What's going to happen to poor us, Mister Phung? What's going to happen to me?>"
The dark-faced, angular feline sighed. His awareness and free will had returned to him in the morning and at the moment he dearly wished that it hadn't. Not in the least from the hostile glares his former crew mates now gave him and the other felines. His creaking voice faltered a bit as he replied. "< If our ancestors smile upon us, we will all be spending the next fifty years in a work camp breaking coral with hammers. If we are unlucky, we will all be hung and then fed to the crabs.>"
A scowl crossed his face, causing him to narrow his slightly crossed eyes as he glared at the heavyset sun-bear. "<I have a feeling that the crabs' luck will be much better than ours. I'm sure they will rejoice to their honored ancestors when your bloated carcass floats down to the reefs.>"
He cast a helpless glance at the heavens. "<Why did I ever listen to you?>"
He fell into a sullen silence as one of the Rain Islanders nudged him along with the butt of his rifle.
With a rueful look on her face, she reached up and stroked Junko's jaw. "I'm powerful sorry, darlin'. I searched that tub from stem t' stern but this was all I could turn up worth bringin' back t' y'all."
She reached into a pocket and pulled out the tiny carved ivory figure of a grinning neko fisherman. Junko let out a gasp and took it, cradling it to her breast, before wrapping her arms around Jane's neck and pulling her into a grateful hug.
When they disengaged, the graceful usagi looked the tan furred doe in the eyes. "Is good! No sorry! Is my good ruck! Is... Is all I have before. Now I is have you and it."
Jane returned her smile, and the pair rubbed noses as Heywood splashed down into the surf beside them. He gave them a grin as he met the tan-furred doe's gaze. "Don't worry, Miss Early. With regards to Miss Junko's papers I'll have everything sorted as soon as we get back to the Spontoons."
The Sylvanian rabbit nodded. "Okay, darlin'. I'll trust y'all t' handle thangs."
The otter and both rabbit doe's turned their heads as a call of "Aloha oi!" sounded from down the beach.
A long outrigger canoe crewed by a pair of sleek female otters drifted to a stop as its occupants laid aside their oars and leapt into the water with the barest of splashes, knifing through the water and popping up beside them. After taking a moment to shake the excess water off of their gleaming pelts and smooth back their dripping tresses, the taller of the two looked incredulously at Jane as the rabbit doe turned to face them, her arm draped around Junko's waist.
The sleek female glanced over her shoulder at the Hei Long and the RINS Bindlestiff. "What happened here has, honored Jane Early? From where do all these ships come?"
The rabbit gave her a shrug. "I reckon this is jest a popular tourist spot, Malakeli. What brings y'all back?" She gave the otter girl a searching look. "I kinda thought y'all were sorta... well... scared o' me."
The dark-furred female rolled her eyes. "Not as frightened as of mother and aunt we are. After two days of nagging, happy to face strange spirits we are. At least the housework for yourselves you do."
She turned to cast a glance at Nolakeli, and saw she was looking raptly at Heywood, who blushed as both females turned their attention toward him, with eager smiles lighting up their faces and soft blushes of their own coming to their cheeks. Jane stepped back with a bemused grin on her face, as the two otter girls crowded the bruised but handsome male, introducing themselves in their lyrical language and fawning over his stammered replies. As the conversation went on, Malakeli and Nolakeli began to jostle one another, pressing their sinuous bodies closer and closer to Cord as he backed against the launch, overwhelmed.
Jane chuckled and gave Junko a squeeze, turning to walk away down the beach. The tan-furred doe glanced merrily over her shoulder at the otter male's call. Heywood sounded a bit out of sorts. "Um... Miss... Miss Early? If... If I could just... If you could... Uh... Help?"
Jane shook her head as she and the elegant usagi sauntered through the breaking surf. "No can do, darlin'. That's native business if ever I seen it, and I know y'all don't really want no interference from a foreigner."
She shared a grin with Junko as a sound of a yelp and a splash sounded out behind them.
The vixen looked over at her partner and reached out to squeeze her hand. "She did us proud, didn't she?"
Loretta looked over at her with her grey eyes gleaming. "Yeah. and I think we lived up to her as well."
Gwen threw her arm around her best friend's shoulder with a fond smile.
Her vibrant blue eyes gleamed with recognition as a black-furred silhouette appeared walking up the path toward her, meeting her gaze with gleaming copper and a white smile. A grass skirt softly rustled about the approaching figure's hips, and she was festooned with garlands of bright tropical flowers about her waist and shoulders.
She walked up and took Dorothy's hands in her own. "I have just come from the most wonderful dream, o eternal friend and sister of my hearth, and I have you and Jane to thank for it."
With that, she leaned in to kiss and rub faces with the smaller feline. When they stepped back, still holding hands, the tabby smiled fondly back to her. "It was my vow to do so, but also my pleasure, Huakela. No thanks are needed."
The dark-furred leopardess gave her a sly grin. "It is so with dear friends, but even still, I have managed to arrange a gift for you."
With that she turned, and beckoned to an indistinct figure who seemed to be following her. As Dorothy's hands went to her mouth, He stepped forward, coming into focus with a loving smile on his face, extending a hand to her.
A sad look passed across Huakela's dark features. "Since you are bringing my beloved home to me, I thought it fitting that I bring yours to you, even if it's just for a little while. I wish it could be such that I could do so in the waking world, but that is not the way of things."
Without another word, the leopardess stepped aside as Dorothy fell weeping into his arms, holding him to her, feeling his warmth and solidity, as tears flowed freely down her face. This was more than a fantasy or a memory. This was a presence. He was real. She sobbed a wordless note of joy as she embraced him.
Huakela turned and faded into the lush foliage with the barest rustle, her long, dark tail waving sinuously behind her.
He squeezed her hand. "I know you have, Dorrie. I'm always with you, and your heart is like a gift that is constantly opening to me."
She let out a sigh, looking away with drooping ears. "If that's the case, I'm sorry that so much of the time my heart has been so miserable. I've passed through so much darkness since I lost you."
He leaned in and gave her a soft kiss on her cheek. "Oh, no need to be sorry. You're alive, darling. You can feel joy. You can feel sadness. You can love and you can hate. You can feel pleasure and pain. You can accomplish and you can sit idle. You can succeed and you can fail. You can gain, you can have, and you can lose. By merely existing you create meaning. It's all pretty amazing when you see the whole picture."
The tabby pondered this for a moment, then looked over at him, her blue eyes searching his face. "So if you can see the whole picture, then what do you think about what I've been doing for the past two years? Is Jane right about you being proud of me?"
A wry smile crossed his handsome features. "Thinking's a thing the living do, so's feeling pride. As close a word as I could probably use for what I do now would be 'understanding'. Understanding's what we get in exchange for leaving everything else behind. I understand you, more than you can even conceive, and why you've done what you've done."
She leaned her head on his shoulder, her brow furrowed between the tabby lines. "But is that good or bad?"
He let go of her hand and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, chuckling softly. "That's too subjective for a dead guy, sweetheart. I don't judge, I just understand. Objectively, you've done what you've done, and it's part of you being what you are."
He leaned in, lifting her chin with a finger to look her in the eyes. "But I can tell you're fishing for a hint, and some comfort, so here it is. Just for you, 'cos I understand just how much I loved you when I was such a lucky non-stiff to have you in my life."
He planted a kiss on her lips. "Lots of people, when they come over to my side of the fence and get that understanding, well, there's a lot of gotchas they never counted on."
Dorothy cocked an ear quizzically. "Gotchas?"
He nodded. "Yeah, gotchas. Things that make 'em want to slap their foreheads and say "Boy is my face red." Big gaps in their view of the world that would have made their time here a lot different, and a lot different for everybody around them. Take Klaus Ravenholt, for example. Now he gets what makes everybody tick, every wolf, dog, cat, rabbit, or whatever. Everyone he considered an enemy or a threat. Everyone he saw as mere tools to be used, abused, and discarded as he pleased. The vanishingly small few he might have thought of as friends or loved ones in his way. Metaphorically, he's kicking himself about everything he missed spending his life as a violent sociopath. Well, he understands he'd be kicking himself if the wolf he was had that understanding."
He gave her shoulders a squeeze. "But you, kitten, you're not gonna have a whole lot to be embarrassed about. "
He looked at her expectantly. "Does that help at all? I'm afraid the dead aren't anywhere near as good at giving comfort as the living can be."
She stopped and turned to face him, sliding her arms up around his neck
as she gazed into his faded eyes. "Yeah. I think it does."
She pulled his head forward until their foreheads touched. "I think I understand."
With a sad smile, she whispered into the darkness. "I love you, Edison. Goodbye."
With that, she rolled over onto her side, her dark hair tumbling across
the whiteness of her pillow as her eyes drifted shut again.