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3 December 2005
BY WALTER D. REIMER
The Woodcarver's Son
© 2005 by Walter D. Reimer
October 24, 1936:
A paw reached up and felt along the shelf of rock for a stable hold. Once found, the paw gripped fast and was joined by another. Tendons strained as a lithe canine wearing nothing but his carefully oiled and brushed fur and a loincloth hauled himself up and over onto the ledge. The wirehair terrier rolled over onto his back, chest heaving as he caught his breath.
He glanced up, then rolled into a seated position facing east as the sun started to clear the horizon of the broad Nimitz Sea. His eyes closed as the dawn washed him in light and he began to chant a soft prayer. With his devotions done and the daylight steadily increasing, the young man started his search.
There it was; a small, smooth stone carved with his name in the native language. He scooped it up in his paw and looked out again at the sea, now admiring the view from this shelf so close to the peak of the mountain, the easternmost on Main Island. He smiled as he recalled his instructions to climb the mountain, find the stone and return to his starting point before the sun reached its zenith. He had to hurry, as clouds were already starting to gather over his shoulder to the northwest. The weather was always unpredictable at this time of the year.
Going down the mountain was far trickier than going up, as he had to be surer of his footing and a brief rain shower guaranteed that the stones and tufts of grass would be as slick as if they had been greased. He tried to be careful, but managed to slip and slide nearly twenty feet along one draw, painfully scraping his knees and palms before he could stop himself. Finally he reached the base of the mountain and started to jog along a meticulously disguised path to a base camp a mile away.
The path had numerous detours, all leading to one dead end after another. As he ran, his eyes scanned the undergrowth, looking for telltale signs that he was going in the right direction. Only once did he pause to study a broken twig, and smiled as he realized that his instructor was trying to distract him by deliberately altering the pattern. He disregarded the false sign, looked about for the right path, and started running again.
An older fur looked up from her seated position in a small clearing as the terrier loped to a halt, placing his paws on his knees and breathing slowly but deeply to catch his wind. She glanced up at the sky and noted that the sun was perhaps an hour away from its highest point in the sky. “You are back on time, Ranua,” she said, “but where is the stone?”
The terrier smiled and turned away from her. His back hunched over and he retched into his paw, then turned back to show her the carved token she had left on the mountain the previous day. The female, an otter with the markings of an acolyte in the Spontoon religion, smiled sourly. “I suppose that’s better than hiding it in another orifice,” she remarked. “Suppose it had been all sharp edges?”
Ranua Milikonu grinned. “I wouldn’t have swallowed it then, Melli.”
She chuckled. “True.” She stood up and brushed leaves from her fur as she said, “The others will probably be finishing their tests soon, then coming back here. You do not need to stay, or you can stay here and keep me company.”
The terrier nodded, then looked around the clearing and headed towards a dense bit of underbrush. “I’ll be over at the shrine,” he said over his shoulder as he walked off.
The otter watched him go. Ranua was an excellent graduate of the Guide School, and always seemed to know where one might find the hidden byways that led to certain shrines. He was deeply religious, something that Melli had allowed him to cultivate. It bound him more firmly to the land he had sworn to protect and defend.
She waited and gradually, either singly or in small groups, the others in her class arrived. One sported some scrapes, like Ranua; another limped on a sprained ankle. “So, we are all here now,” she said briskly, “and on time as well. Tamu, were you and Miki seen?”
“No, Melli,” the feline replied. “We managed to get right alongside the hull of the fishing boat without anyone noticing.”
“Excellent.” A rustling in the undergrowth caused her to turn slightly as Ranua emerged from the forest. “Now that we are all back, I am pleased with your level of training. I am dismissing you all, until this time next week.” The group of furs split up, taking different paths into the forest. Melli watched Ranua go, and put a paw to her chin as she thought.
Tapuharo’s General Store was one of several on Casino Island, offering food and various other items such as cloth to the Euro population as well as those native Spontoonies who lived on the island. The owner of the store looked up and grinned as his son walked in. “Ranua, back so soon?” he asked. “It’s not sunset.”
The young terrier smiled. “Well, Melli decided to let us go. We’d all finished our training for the weekend.” He had cleaned most of the oil from his fur and combed out the clan and family status markings on his arms and legs. He had changed from his scanty loincloth to a pair of dark blue trousers and a light blue shirt. “Do you need help with anything, Father?” he asked.
“No, I’ll be closing up in another hour or so,” his father replied. “That’s the great thing about the offseason – you get to choose when you’re open. Go get cleaned up for supper, and help your mother get things ready.”
“Yes, Father.” Tama Milikonu watched his son go through the door in the rear of the shop and again felt a surge of pride. Not just for his son, but for how far he himself had come.
Thomas Milliken had come to Spontoon as a merchant seaman in 1916. Liking what he saw of the place and guessing he could do better than swabbing decks for a living while dodging German torpedoes, he had jumped ship at the first opportunity and managed to stay hidden until the ship had left the area. He had managed to find work at odd jobs until he landed a job as a clerk at the general store.
Old Tapuharo was a canine like himself, and as the terrier worked he was accepted more and more into the family. He learned Spontoonie in order to deal with the natives, and found that he had been given the nickname ‘Woodcarver.’ It still made him chuckle (after all, a clerk wrote on paper, which was made of wood). He also picked up a smattering of other languages in order to speak with the tourists and sailors who came into the store. Although a Methodist, he had expressed an interest in the native faith, and it was at a festival one night in 1917 that he had caught the eye of Tapuharo’s oldest daughter Imana. They had sought her father’s blessing and were married later in the year, and their first son Ranua was born somewhat less than nine months later.
Tama, as he now called himself, inherited the store when Imana’s father died in 1929 and he had made it a successful business as tourism started to fill the hotels that seemed to spring up out of the ground on Casino and South Islands. He hoped to give the store to Ranua when he retired, or to Ranua’s younger brother Tamuharo, but there was plenty of time to make that decision.
Ranua stepped into the kitchen and paused, sniffing and smiling in delight at the various smells coming from the stove. His mother looked over her shoulder and said, “Ranua, you’re back early. Did everything go all right?”
“Just fine, Mother,” he said, giving her a kiss on the cheek before turning to wash his paws. “We managed to finish early.”
“That’s good. I recall my own Guide training – there were times I thought I’d never get the task done,” Imana said as she stirred the pot of stew. “Still, it’s useful to make sure that the Euros don’t trample everything or get their snouts into places we don’t want them being.”
“Well, we do other things too, Mother,” Ranua said pointedly, and his mother nodded. Spontoon had suffered in the Gunboat Wars over twenty years before, and although the Althing had a mutual defense agreement with Rain Island it still fell to an armed militia to defend hearth and home from invaders.
“True,” Imana said. “Now go get the table set, and fetch your brother,” and she shooed him out of the room.
In a windowless room on Meeting Island Melli sat behind a desk and faced a trio of furs. The three had come at her summons, and had listened patiently as she explained what she had thought about. Finally one of the three, an elderly vixen, said, “I don’t know, Melli. It seems – well, it’s not something we do.”
“I know it’s not usual,” Melli said, “but don’t you think we could benefit from having some bright and able young people getting advanced training?”
“Well, there’s –“ a feline said, but Melli cut her off. “That’s not an acceptable outlet, and you know it,” she said. “Think of it – where else can we send people to get the type of training we know they’ll need? We all know that a war is coming, sooner or later makes no difference. The question is do we harm ourselves?”
“Suppose they do not want to come back to us?” the third fur, a bear, asked.
Melli smiled. “The candidates I have in mind would want to come back,” she said flatly. “Their hearts are here, and will stay here.” Her tone had a certainty to it, and the others looked at each other as she spoke.
The vixen grumbled and shifted in her seat as she eased the stress on the base of her tail. “You know this will have to be approved, and not just by the Althing, Melli.”
“I know that,” the otter said in a gentler tone. “But this is something I think is right, and I think that as the clouds grow darker we need to have more people able to lead our people out of danger.”
The others fell silent at that. Melli was still only an acolyte, true, and might remain one all her life. But she had excellent skills in teaching the Guides and observing which of her charges were promising candidates for other tasks. “Then we will speak to the ones who must make the public decisions,” the bear said as he stood.