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25 November 2007


By Simon Barber

Shell Game

A Red Dorm diversion by Simon Barber
Wo Shin © Walter Reimer, used with permission

A Spring morning, 1937
Songmark Aeronautical School for Young Ladies.

It was Sunday morning at Songmark Aeronautical Boarding School for Young Ladies. The alarm clock rang at its usual unwelcome hour in Red Dorm, with four bleary-eyed Young Ladies (even though that might have been stretching the usual meaning of the phrase) regretting having celebrated quite so heavily the night before.
    Tatiana groaned. “Capitalist pineapple brandy. In future will save it for cleaning engines.”
    Shin rubbed a tousled mop of head-fur. “It’s not compulsory to finish the bottle, you know.” She looked around, and gave Brigit’s bed a shake. “Rise and shine, party girl! We’ve fifteen minutes to get down to breakfast, even if it is Sunday.”
    Brigit Mulvaney grunted, her long red ears lying out on the pillow like a pair of banners. “Ah, away wi’ ye, Shin. I’ll catch ye all up in the showers.” As the rest slipped on their fatigue jackets and shorts, Brigit slowly prepared to start the new day.
    Suddenly she stopped, her ears going up in alarm. Reaching down, she felt the sheets decidedly damp. “No.” She told herself. “It can’t be. I’ve nivver did that since I was a pup. And I’d not had such a skinful – ‘twould be a disgrace.” She blinked. “And ‘tis not my time o’ month, either.”
    She frowned, reaching down under the blankets to explore the extent of the problem. Then her paw touched something else that should definitely not be there.

Though Red Dorm were rarely held up as a shining example of team spirit and group solidarity, it took less than ten seconds for the other three to vault up the stairs from the showers, on hearing Brigit’s panicked yell.
    “What the …” Liberty’s eyes went wide at the sight. Brigit was sitting at the head of her bed, knees pulled up to her muzzle and staring down at something a yard away. The blankets had been thrown back and there was a notable damp patch. In the middle of it was a large, reddish egg.
    “Holy mother o’Mary … this can’t happen,” Brigit’s eyes were wide open, and her tail trembled. “It has even my fur colour!”
    For a few seconds four sets of eyes stared down in amazement. Then Wo Shin raised an eyebrow. “Well, I did tell you about your tastes in poultry. It’s meant to be foxes who go through henhouses – though I know it’s not the hens you were dating.”
    Liberty gave a contemptuous sniff. “This is what happens when you let your decadent moral laxity run away with you. I’m going to get Mrs. Oelabe.” Before anyone could think to stop her, she was gone.
    “Brigit,” Tatiana sat down gently on the corner of your bed. “Is a shock, da ? I never heard of this happening before. Is first time for everything, though. But yes or no – is your son or daughter here. You must keep the egg warm.”
    Brigit picked up the egg with trembling paws; it was about the size of a lemon. “It’s still warm, I’ faith ‘tis. How could I have carried that, and not known? And birthed it, besides?”
    “You were nine tenths drunk last night, after a day running round Casino Island,” Shin said bluntly. “I’ve seen furs that drunk throw up all over themselves and not even know about it till the morning after. An hour after you fell asleep, we could have shaved all your fur off and you’d not have woken.”
    Tatiana looked worried. “Our Tutors will not be liking this.” She paused, and scratched her head. “The first week we ever arrived, Mrs Oelabe said Songmark was no place for a girl carrying a pup.” She looked down at the egg. “But right now, you are not – at least not exactly.”
    “She’ll throw me out, certain sure.” For almost the first time in two years, Brigit looked scared. ”T’was only by the Good Lord’s own luck and the skin o’ me teeth I got away from bein’ sent to that Magdalene laundry forever, back home. ’Tis what happens to a girl in such a case, back there. And back there’s where our Tutors will be sendin’ me.” It was written in the Songmark contract that a girl failing or dismissed from their course would be sent back to their home – and if that meant in the custody of a pair of determined third-years tasked with seeing she arrived there, so be it.
    Shin’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Brigit. You’ve been to my Family’s Casino? And met the girls working there?” At the setter’s nod she dropped her voice. “We’ve had avian girls there, of course. Everyone takes what precautions they can, but accidents can happen. When an egg’s newly laid, there’s nothing inside but a tiny speck in the yolk. Now, I’m not saying this has ever happened, but – if you pick it up and shake it hard – that’ll addle it. End of problem. And you can’t tell by looking; nobody will be any the wiser. You just deny all knowledge of the whole thing. Say it’s a curiosity you picked up washed ashore on the beach yesterday. After all, who'd believe it’s anything else?"
    Brigit’s fur bristled. She swore sulphurously in Gaelic. “And d’ye think I’d do such a thing?”
    “Well,” Shin looked casually out of the window. “I can see Liberty and Mrs. Oelabe coming across the compound. We’ve about a minute. So, make your mind up. Motherhood or - fried, scrambled, or over-easy?”
    “I’d be hopin’ ye’d be a bit more o’ help than that, Shin,” Brigit pressed the egg to her chest-fur.
    Shin dipped an ear. “Well, it’s a religious issue. This might be the first time it’s ever happened, a fur and feather cross. I’ve never heard of any. The books say it’s impossible. I know it would be for me – even if I’d married an avian.”
    “Why is that, Shin?” Tatiana asked the red panda curiously. “You are healthy girl, we all are.”
    Shin grinned. “I’m a Confucian, near enough. We don’t have Miracles as part of our religion, and Brigit does!”
    Just then, Liberty and Songmark’s nurse appeared at the door. Mrs. Oelabe generally had her paws quite full enough with fixing the steady run of cuts, bruises and strains that were par for the course at Songmark. Several times a term, she performed a rather more in-depth health investigation of all the students.
    Her eyebrows went right up, taking in the scene. “Well. I’d thought this was just Liberty having hallucinated after too much Nootnops Blue last night. Brigit, I trust you have an explanation for this?”
    Brigit's mouth opened and closed silently for a few seconds. "Mrs Oelabe. 'Tis true I've been seeing some feathered gentlemen."
    "Oh? It looks like you've been doing just slightly more than that." Their Nurse sat down on the bed. "May I?" At Brigit's mute nod she picked up the egg, hefting it gently. A strange expression came over her face, and she returned it. "Well. This isn't the first one I've seen - but it's a first at Songmark."
    "It HAS happened before? That I never heard!" Tatiana's tail bottled out.” Is nothing in books that I ever read!"
    "If it was hushed up, it wouldn't get into the books." Shin pointed out. "Most children around the world aren’t born in hospitals, with medical staff taking notes. I expect it'd be an awful disgrace in most cultures. They used to burn furs as witches for less unnatural goings-on. Maybe it's a one in a million chance, and Brigit just got lucky."
    "What am I to do?" Brigit's voice was small. Her eyes crossed slightly as she looked down at the small, glossy egg. It was small enough to cradle in both her hands, and she did so.
    "That's rather up to you, Brigit," Mrs Oelabe stood up. "As to whether or not you continue in Songmark - we'll reserve judgement awhile. After all, you're not pregnant right now. Missy Kahaloa in your senior year had an arrangement with us, that if she and her approved fiancé had such a happy event, she could defer continuing her course until the year afterwards while her family raised the cub. An arrangement that I may say she has since forfeited." The Spontoonie bear had spent two years boasting about her handsome mink fiance to her classmates, and now was equally loud about his new, richer replacement who would get her a pure-breed cub.  It seemed that unlike her affections, some things were not transferable.
    Brigit nodded, looking down. "'Tis all just such a shock." Her paw brushed her modest bosom. "I thought I'd have ... months of warning, if ever this happened. I've no milk to feed a child!"
    "Avians don't need it," Shin reassured her. "Maybe that's why you didn't start stretching out your shirts. Nature knows best, or so I've heard." She gave a quiet chuckle. "You should have seen my sister-in-law Nailani, when she was carrying my nephew! She had a nice figure already but she really ballooned out a couple of sizes. She could have handled twins, no trouble." Her head cocked to one side. "I've seen double yolked eggs, thinking of that."
    From the terrified expression on the Irish Setter's face, so had she.

It was a very surprised nurse at the Eastern Island health clinic who found herself facing Red Dorm that morning. Brigit had rigged a sling of cloth to hold the reddish egg close to her fur, concealed from the gate guard and passers-by under her loose oilskins. Judging by the way her ears were burning in embarrassment, she had no lack of skin warmth to share with it.
    "Now, I quite understand," the nurse whose coverall read ‘Mrs. Patoronga’, soothed. "It's not the first time an egg's been brought in by a good friend of the mother. Tell her to come in anonymously when she’s ready, and we'll talk about it. She really needs to be examined, even though with avians it's not such a traumatic event. In the meantime we have an incubator that has the latest heat-ray lamps, we've had very good results with it."
    "'Tis no other's egg but mine. Believe it or not as ye will." Brigit asserted fiercely.
    Just then the telephone rang. Hastily excusing herself, Nurse Patoronga picked it up and there was a brief conversation. A minute later she put the receiver down and looked at Brigit curiously. "That was your matron, Miss Mulvaney. She's confirmed the ...  facts of the case."
    With that, she gently accepted the egg from Brigit and placed it in a soft cloth in the incubator, which was lit with reddish light and thermostatically controlled.
    "How long ... till it hatches?" Brigit asked quietly.
    A strange expression came over Mrs. Patoronga's face. "Well. For pure-blooded avians it can be anything up to two months. In this case - I really can't tell you when to expect a result. Perhaps if you could tell me the father's species?"
    The inside of Brigit's ears blushed to match the rest of her fur. "'Tis true, there's a handsome rooster that I've been walking out with.”  She paused, and considered. “And a fine Eagle, I did take a boat ride with - and then there was that Hawaiian goose..."
    "No grouse, partridges or pheasants? I thought you were a "game" girl?" Shin asked innocently.
    Brigit's hackles rose.
    "Well, there'll be no immediate worry," Nurse Patoronga stepped in smoothly. "Now I know the facts of the case, I'm sure I won't expect this to hatch any time soon. And we'll take as good care of your egg as it can get."
    “I’ll visit every day if I possibly can!” Brigit nodded. “Faith, I know there’ll be little enough to look at, but I’ll be there to see it.” With that she rose awkwardly and left, with many a backward glance.
    Outside, Tatiana winced as she looked at her wristwatch. “Is Sunday, we have to be elsewhere. I must be on Main Island with Mother, and the rest of us to our churches.” She paused. “And Liberty, to the kitchens with a scrubbing-brush.”
    The Trotskyite sniffed. “Honest proletarian labour is a virtue.” She cast a sly look at Brigit. “And someone needs to go to confession.”
    Brigit’s expression was pensive. “D’ye think so? Confession, ‘tis only for sins. What sins there were in the beginning, I confessed at the time. A truly mortal sin it’d have been to have taken Shin’s advice, sure enough.” She paused. “The good Father wouldn’t have soon forgiven me, nor would I have forgiven meself.”
    Shin sniffed. “You must have a word with Mei Ling at the Lucky Dragon sometime.” She did not elaborate.
    “In New Haven, there simply wouldn’t be a problem.” This was Liberty, of course. “We have abolished the aristocratic, class-ridden values of Pedigree. A fur is judged by their contributions to the People, not where they came from or who their ancestors were. Any children without an organic family unit are raised in Youth Cadres, knowing better than anyone that they are children of the Revolution. Citizens are the State’s greatest resource, and no Citizenne has any cause to worry about presenting the State with more. They are all welcomed equally whatever the circumstances.”
    “Ah.  So speaks someone who might be a little bit biased against Pedigrees.” Shin cast an eye over the half-breed coyote.
    “And there speaks someone whose cubs will be just the same,” Liberty retorted smugly. “Or are you planning a corrupt bourgeois “accommodation” with some red panda male to carry on your precious bloodline? Your tiger not good enough to please your revered Ancestors?”
    “At least I do have Ancestors – that I know about,” Shin’s banded tail swished dangerously. Suddenly her ears fell. “Sorry, Brigit – that wasn’t aimed at your … egg.” In the silent movie slapsticks, she reflected, it was generally eggs that were aimed at other furs.
    The foursome broke up, Liberty returning to Songmark while the others scattered across to Main and Casino Island, with Shin taking care to be seen entering the small temple that had sat for fifty years appropriately near the Old China Dock.  Although she always returned scented with fragrant joss sticks, very little religious activity appealed except for a respectful nod to the deities of Wealth and Good Fortune. Even that was immediately practical; she had a weekly Mah-Jong session going there where quite a few shells often changed paws. The Tutors encouraged mental games such as chess and crosswords, and what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Not that Shin had any illusions about how much the Tutors stayed ignorant of. But as with Brigit’s egg – if they disapproved, she was very certain she would find out quite soon enough.
“Miss Morgenstern. Here, if you please.” The voice of Miss Devinski behind her made Liberty stand up instantly from her busywork of scrubbing the food storage room; she turned smartly at attention.
    Catherine Devinski stood in the doorway, the golden Labrador looking Liberty over with a stern expression. A hint of a smile flickered over her features. “We have some questions to ask you.” She gestured, and waved forward Isabella Rodriguez, the first-year star-nosed mole.
    “Miss.” Liberty stood impassive.
    “Miss Morgenstern. What do you know about Brigit’s surprise this morning?” Muss Devinski snapped.
    Liberty’s ears went up slightly. “I know she had a total surprise. None of us knew such a thing was remotely possible. But I know she’s been making assignations that could explain it.”
    “I see.” Miss Devinski looked down at the star-nosed mole, who closed her eyes and concentrated on what her lie-detecting snout tendrils were telling her then nodded. “You had nothing to do with it?”
    Liberty’s eyes bulged. “Miss!” Her voice was a shocked croak. “How on earth could I? It’s biologically improbable as it is! Even if I was male and avian!” Her muzzle crested. “And apart from that neither Brigit or I have any … interest in each other that way.” What New Haven called “Inversion” was a criminal offence there; the idea was so universally reviled that the Council of Nine had even banned bakers from using invert sugar, just on principle.
    Another nod from the mole, and Miss Devinski seemed satisfied. “Remember that you are responsible for each other.”
    Liberty winced. “Being a godmother to the chick? That is a definitely banned idea where I come from, Miss Devinski. Since the People’s revolution.”
    “Very well. But I want this matter resolved. Taken care of by lights-out tonight.” With that their Tutor turned on her heel and was gone, sweeping the first-year mole along with her.
    As it happened, Tatiana was the next of Red Dorm to get back from her Sunday devotions. To judge from her raised tail and ears, she had been having a relaxing and enlightening afternoon, far from the strains and worries of life with Red Dorm and Songmark in general. Her mood did not last long after Liberty recounted her interview in hushed tones.
    “Yobany stos!”  Tatiana swore furiously. “I never did believe our Tutors could order such a thing!” Her teeth exposed in a snarl. “When Ioseph Starling says someone will be “taken care of” they are never seen again. Is the same in New Haven?”
    Liberty nodded. “It might have happened that a public People’s Tribunal could be – inconvenient to the State. On occasions.” She winced. “Imagine if the newspapers or the Ave Argentum get wind of this! Songmark lives or dies by its reputation.”
    The two Reds looked at each other. “Shin was less – sympathetic,” Tatiana said slowly. “I know that where her family works – they have less … values.” The sable’s tail bottled out. “What might she do when Miss Devinski tells her what she told you?” Both of them remembered Shin’s advice first thing that morning.
    “She wouldn’t. She couldn’t.” Liberty’s ears drooped. “But – Miss Devinski did just remind me we’re responsible for each other. If Brigit gets thrown out … we all might. And I don’t think Shin would stand for that either. Whatever it takes.”
    Tatiana looked at her wristwatch. “We can get out through the gates if we go now. Getting back, we worry about later.” As the half-coyote nodded agreement,  she made her mind up. Red Dorm was not famous for taking on missions of rescue – but as they had found out that morning, there was a first time for everything.

Fortunately, the Eastern Island health centre was a bare quarter mile from Songmark, in the Euro section inland from Superior Engineering. Liberty and Tatiana were there in two minutes; the nurse recognised them from that morning and let them pass. “Your friend’s already in there,” Nurse Patoronga called after them.
    “Brigit – or Shin?” Liberty panted, her eyes wide. They skidded around the corner on the tiled floor,  to the room where they had last seen the egg in the glow of its ward heat lamp. Now the incubator was dark.
    Wo Shin stood there, the incubator open and the reddish egg in her paws. She looked around, surprised.
    “Shin! Put that back! You haven’t already … ?” Tatiana looked on in shock.
    “There’s no point in wasting heat,” Shin said matter-of-factly. “This is never going to hatch.”
    For a few seconds the other two stood looking on in horrified silence.
    Just then, the other door opened and Red Dorm was complete. Brigit joined them, with Mrs. Oelabe walking beside her. Not for the first time that day the Irish Setter looked highly embarrassed. Brigit cast a sharp glance at Shin cradling the egg, but seemed little concerned.
    “Mrs Oelabe!” Tatiana burst out. “We must be keeping the egg warm!  If Brigit wants it or not, is still her egg!”
    Their Matron cast a slightly amused glance at Brigit. “I hope you’ve learned a few lessons here today, young lady.”
    Brigit nodded. She took the precious burden from Shin – and dropped it.
    Two of Red Dorm dived like world-class goalkeepers to save it, but it was too late. With a sharp ping like a ball bearing the egg hit the tiled floor – and bounced.
    “Brigit has learned that to make an egg, amongst other things a girl needs to have shell ducts. I do happen to know what those look like – and she decidedly has none. She could have asked me. She also now knows what a real egg that size ought to weigh – as opposed to a solid unglazed porcelain one. Such as they sell in the market for fifty cowries to encourage domestic fowls to lay.” Mrs. Oelabe’s feline tail swished. “Although some of you will gain marks for acting commendably, some will not.”
    Wo Shin gave an embarrassed grin. “I didn’t think the joke would hold up more than a minute,” she confessed. “It was funny enough to be worth a point or two.”
    “Ah, and I’ve learned me lesson too,” Brigit gave a rueful sigh. “’Tis a foolish girl indeed who doesn’t check her own calendar.”
    “But if you are being with avians only and a mix is really impossible – is that being so important?” Tatiana asked, the Russian sable’s tail swishing.
    “Not that sort of calendar. That one.” Brigit pointed to the calndar on the wall. “Shin, ye’d best be on your toes, me girl – NEXT April the First!”

the end

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