This story first appeared in Weird Tales (Issue 342)
The Fey that were, are no more.
The Urbäna that are, were not once.
Nails, bolts, girders—cold iron—poison
Bones and sinew of man’s cities.
Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, Dryad
Rat, Shatter, Skitter, losers and winners.
—The UrbänaJack stared out the museum’s window, watching the snow melt. It was mid-March, Minnesota’s ugliest season, when the winds slithered across the remaining masses of gritty gray snow, sucking out the cold and gifting it to anyone foolish or unlucky enough to be on the streets. One of these dirt-encrusted snowbanks held the object of his observation. At some point in the course of the winter, a plastic Calvin’s Convenience bag had been entombed in the snow. But with the melt it had almost worked itself loose, trapped now only by a bit of ice pinning one corner. With each puff of the early spring wind, the bag inflated and fluttered wildly as though trying to break free. Then the wind would shift or die, and the bag would settle back, hiding the bright green and purple blaze of its logo. The process had repeated itself for hours, and Jack had become totally fascinated.
Jack had started watching because he had nothing better to do, and because the Science Museum was a warm place open to all. As he watched the bag’s antics, he rolled a tiny sculpture over and over in his hands, a bronze of three elephants supporting a globe on their backs. His mother had given it to him as a going away gift when he left Minot, North Dakota.
It was a classic emblem of their relationship: expensive, ugly, and heavy, at least in an emotional sense. But it was also a talisman that represented home, and he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away, not now. As he was tucking it back into his bag, a balding security guard passed him for the third time in as many minutes, looking more disapproving on each pass. Jack grabbed his heavy green mountain pack and walked over to stare unhappily at the clock again. He hoped the guards would think he was waiting for someone. Afterward, he found a seat under the hanging stairs, where he was less visible. It was the fifth time he’d moved, and he didn’t think they would let him get away with a sixth.
He had just decided to find another public building when he noticed the rag-clad girl. She could have been as young as twelve or as old as fifteen. It was hard to guess, as thin as she was, and as dirty. She stood about five feet tall and was wrapped from ankle to neck in a wild motley of plastic and cloth rags in every shade of the rainbow, though they were all faded and washed out as if they’d spent too much time in the sun. He couldn’t see any seams holding it all together or any way of putting it on or taking it off. The rags seemed to have just curled themselves around her and decided to stay in place.
After all the dark looks security had directed his way, Jack couldn’t imagine how the ragged girl had gotten in. Jack was at least still presentable, since he’d only ducked out on his rent that morning. He was still relatively well fed, and he’d started his day with a shower though it was cold because his electricity had been turned off.
He watched in disbelief as the girl walked blithely past the same guard who had been giving Jack the nastiest looks without so much as drawing a raised eyebrow. He was even more amazed when she slid into the alcove where the pay phones and vending machines lurked. Her hand darted quickly from a fold in the rags that clothed her to the coin-return box of the first phone in line. Then she took a step to her left and repeated the process, pausing only when she was wracked by a brief series of coughs. He couldn’t believe she was checking the machines for coins in broad daylight. He felt a brief stab of jealousy. Her transgression was going unpunished.
Then the guard started coming his way again and Jack knew he had to move on. He didn’t feel homeless, or jobless, but that didn’t change facts. As he left the building he passed the bag trapped by the ice. Feeling a sudden irrational sympathy for its imprisonment, he pulled it loose and tossed it into the air, willing it to find its freedom. A sudden gust caught it and whirled it toward a tree where other bits of wind-blown debris had snagged on limbs and been captured. For no sane reason he held his breath as the rag of plastic went straight in amongst the grasping branches. Several times as it ran this gauntlet, the bag seemed to have been hooked and he winced.
But each time it worked itself free again, until a final outflung twig speared the handle, and Jack knew the game was over. Groaning with a grief he hadn’t expected, he turned away. But he’d gone less than thirty feet when the wind’s tone changed from a light snake’s hiss to a screaming banshee wail. Sudden hope filled him and he turned and looked back. His heart lifted as the handle parted and the bag broke loose, tumbling away toward the river.
“I’ll cut you. Don’t be stupid!”
The speaker wore filthy clothes that looked as though they had been salvaged from a dumpster. He was also much smaller than Jack’s own farm-fed six feet and he looked malnourished. But the anger in his eyes and the steady way he held the knife convinced Jack not to argue. There was nothing in his backpack worth dying for, though he knew he’d miss the mummy-bag that night. Slipping the pack off his shoulders, he held it out.
“Drop it. Now the wallet.”
That was easy to part with as well. The only things in it were a maxed-out credit card and a driver’s license with the worst picture he’d ever had. His twenty remaining dollars were tucked into the left heel of his battered black Reeboks. His fingers brushed against the little bronze in the breast pocket of his worn leather bomber as he pulled the torn nylon wallet out. Jack had moved the sculpture from pack to jacket a day earlier, for reasons he couldn’t fully articulate, reasons having to do with home and family and failure and growing up. He tossed his wallet down beside the pack.
“Turn around. All right. Maybe you’re not such a dumb Swede after all. Maybe you get to live. Maybe. If you… Run!”
Jack bolted like the high-school sprinter he’d once been. At least he tried to. He was used to Norwegian farm cooking with lots of family-raised beef and potatoes. But he’d been on the streets for almost a week now with meals few and far between and, for the month before that, he’d been living on ramen noodles and white rice. He started to feel weak and sweaty before he’d covered twenty feet. After going a block without hearing any pursuit, he allowed himself to slow. There weren’t any showers or laundromats in his near future, so the less he exerted himself, the better.
Another block put him at the door of the Greyhound station. He ducked inside and dropped into a cracked yellow vinyl seat. A speaker announced a bus leaving for Grand Forks. He felt a twinge in his chest as though an alley cat had taken a swipe at his heart. That was more than halfway home. Instinctively, his hand felt for the statue in his pocket. Still there.
He remembered the morning of his departure. For several years he’d wanted to head out to Minneapolis. He’d been there twice with his high school for one-act-play regionals. They’d done well, though they hadn’t won, and both times he’d gotten a separate award for best actor. When he’d told his drama teacher of his plans to look for a theater job, she’d encouraged him, telling him he had what it took. But when Jack said he wanted to go to New York or Hollywood she’d shaken her head.
“Start smaller,” she’d said. “You need seasoning first, toughening. Try Minneapolis, it’s big enough for a beginning.”
Jack had nodded. That would be all right: he’d fallen in love with Minneapolis on his first visit. The constant background hum of a million people in conversation was the perfect antidote for the desolate sounds of the wind blowing across a hundred thousand acres of empty prairie grass. He was entranced by the view from the Guthrie Theater’s pedestrian bridge, the way the taillights of the cars at rush hour formed a giant red snake. It would sit coiled and still for minutes at a time, waiting for the traffic signal to blink green. Then the great electric asp would snap forward, striking at the newer buildings of Uptown. He delighted in being able to walk around any corner and meet a dozen people he hadn’t known his whole life; in the twenty-four hour a day pulse of the city, the lights, the sounds, and, especially, in the glamour of the theater. Nothing could be further from Minot.
So Jack had finally made up his mind to leave. He’d bought a bus ticket and told his parents. They argued of course, Mom weeping and Dad speaking slowly and carefully in his North Dakotan accent, but never raising his voice. Jack had never in his entire life heard his dad’s tone vary from that same flat delivery, whether he was telling a joke or talking about a failed wheat harvest.
The argument ended when Jack showed them his ticket and told them the bus left that afternoon. He’d paid good money for it, and staying would have wasted that. If there was one principle his family held absolutely, it was waste not, want not. His father had shaken his head and Jack’s hand with an equal sadness and gone to get the pickup ready for the drive into town. His mother had looked around for a parting gift and finally snatched up the elephant sculpture.
His parents had brought it back from their one and only trip outside North Dakota. They’d found it at a little shop in Honolulu and just loved it. He must have heard the story of that trip a thousand times growing up.
“Here,” she’d said, thrusting it into his hands. “For luck.” Then she’d given him a hug and checked through his luggage to make sure he’d packed sensibly.
A furtive movement drew Jack’s attention back to the present. It was the girl from the Museum. Once again she was at the pay phones, putting her hand into a fold of her clothes and then into the coin return slot. It wasn’t until she’d left that he realized the sequence was wrong. Both times he’d seen her, she’d reached into her clothes first. He got up and walked to the phones. Glancing left and right, he reached into one of the coin slots. The quarter was still warm from her touch. He found a dime next. Too broke for pride, he went down the line, collecting a dollar thirty.
For several long minutes he stared at the change and considered making a call home. His parents would wire him money for a bus ticket, but… He imagined how it would be like to go home to a place where everyone knew his name, and where they would all know he hadn’t been able to make it in the city. He thought about trying to fit himself into the small town life, forcing dreams that had grown to encompass the whole city back into the cramped psychic space of Minot. He shook his head. It would feel like amputating bits of his soul. He wasn’t that hungry. Not yet.
Jack was sweating and shaking as he leaned against the sun-warmed brick of the pawnshop. The man had offered him ten dollars for the little sculpture, had even opened the register and pulled out a bill. That was when Jack snatched up his elephants and ran out. He wasn’t willing to let go of the city yet, but neither was he ready to surrender his old home. The last of his money — the change left by the rag girl — had gone for a two-for-one deal at a taco shop. That had been early yesterday, and he hadn’t eaten since. It was the hunger that sent him into the downtown pawnbroker’s.
But he’d found he wasn’t hungry enough. He held his mother’s gift up to the light. Three bronze elephants stood facing outward, tails entwined. Balanced in the hollow formed by their down-sloping backs was a copper globe, easily big enough to hold any of the elephants inside it.
It was exactly as it had always been, an ugly reminder of home. Yet, he found it precious too. As a small child he’d seen it as a magic talisman of places far away and mysterious, places that weren’t North Dakota. He had often lifted it down from the mantle and rubbed the ball like Aladdin’s lamp. Each time, his mother had taken it from him and put it back in its place of honor, scolding him. But then, each time, she had taken him on her lap and told him about the trip to distant Hawaii. How they’d kept it on their bedside table in the hotel, and how it had watched over them when he was first “dreamed up.” Of course she never mentioned any details. Good Scandinavian Lutherans didn’t discuss such things.
Smiling, he slid the sculpture back into his jacket pocket. When he looked up again he saw the girl for the third time. She was just stepping out of a phone booth a third of a block away on his right. His first thought was to walk down and grab the change. The impulse brought him to his feet. But once he reached the booth he thought to wonder why she had put it there. So he hastily snatched the change, then hurried after the girl. Though she didn’t seem to be walking very quickly, she still covered a lot of ground, and what started as a half-block lead quickly grew to a block. He jogged to keep from losing her.
March had faded into April, taking the snow with it, though a late storm was still possible. Jack found himself growing quite warm as he trotted after the girl. Wabasha Street tumbled down through the heart of downtown, from the capitol building to the Mississippi, like an asphalt tributary. The girl followed, crossing from under the shadows of the concrete pinnacles out onto the cracked sidewalks of the Wabasha Bridge. Midway across the span, between the warehouse district on the low end and the office towers on the high, a stairway led down to Pig’s Eye Island. The girl turned off here, and Jack stopped at the stairhead, maintaining his distance so he wouldn’t startle her. He watched her descend and pick her way through the dry brush and around the back of the now closed garbage incinerator, disappearing into the abandoned dump. A moment later, he descended after her.
The girl stood twirling in the center of what Jack could only think of as a trash devil, a miniature tornado of old newspapers, torn plastic bags, magazine ads, and fast food wrappers. From his hiding place flattened atop a low wall, Jack looked on in open-mouthed wonder. Any number of times since he’d moved here from North Dakota he had seen a piece of light plastic flotsam caught up in one of the standing eddies created by the winds, scurrying through the artificial canyons of downtown, drifting down, looping around and then being thrown high into the air again by a dervish wind to begin the pattern anew. It often seemed as if the burger wrapper or whatever it was had a life of its own. If he’d ever doubted that animating force, he would never do so again.
As he continued to watch, he saw one bit of sky-borne trash after another dip to brush against the girl’s cheeks or momentarily writhe around her ankles, like a crowd of cats welcoming their caregiver home. Where before he had seen only that she was filthy and clad in rags, he could now tell they were made from bits of the wind-tossed trash.
When he thought he could be no more amazed, he noticed a plastic shopping bag, seemingly heavily laden, come drifting down from the bridge top above. One handle was torn, and a familiar purple and green logo marked its side. When it was only a few feet above the girl it twisted in the air and emptied itself, disgorging a twenty dollar bill and a bit of sandwich. She caught the bag out of the air, spun it around once and blew a kiss into it, sending it sailing up and toward Jack. Then she bent down, coughing harshly, and collected her prizes. He rolled onto his back to see what the bag would do next and found it directly above him, turning slow circles like a hawk over a rabbit.
Though it had no eyes, nothing could be clearer than that it watched him. Then, before he could move again, it went spiraling back to waft past the girl’s ear in a whisper of wind. Her head snapped around to focus her gaze squarely on his hiding place and he froze. Around her, the twisting contents of the trash devil rose high in the air and bent toward him, a giant’s fist of wildly colored junk.
Jack felt the vortex pulling the breath from his lungs, and wanted to run, to hide, anything. Rolling over, he slid backward on the wall, dangling his legs over the side.
“Sssstop!” The word came out as a breathy gasp, and Jack didn’t know whether the girl aimed it at him or the cloud of animate garbage.
Either way, he didn’t want to stick around and find out. He dropped onto his feet. But then the Calvin’s bag flitted past his ear, and seemed to whisper to him. “Pleassse ssstay.” It was so soft and sibilant that he couldn’t swear it had even happened. Still, he paused.
After a quick climb, the girl peered down at him from the top of the wall. She was haloed by the whirling trash. Jack flinched, and the girl responded by looking over her shoulder and waving dismissively. The trash devil came apart in a burst of loose debris.
Jack followed the girl down the alley. It was after bar rush and downtown seemed as devoid of life as a fresh-poured parking lot. They were making their way along the back of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press building. A tall chain-link fence separated the paper’s parking lot from the alley. All along the base of this barrier, trapped bits of old newspaper had been caught and turned into a sort of crude papier-mâché wall by water from the melting snow.
Sitha didn’t seem interested in talking. She could, or Jack wouldn’t have known her name, but in the three days he had spent with her, she hadn’t said more than a hundred words. If Jack had come from a more demonstrative background, it might have bothered him, but his Norwegian farm family always treated speech as a necessary evil. Once, when the old family tractor had caught on fire, his father had gotten off and calmly put out the fire with an extinguisher. Then he turned to Jack, who had just run up, and, in his normal flat voice, said “well dat about does it for today den.” After which he’d turned and marched off to the house without another word.
Now, Sitha squatted to run a hand along the rough edges of a bit of the soggy paper and signed for Jack to do the same. Kneeling beside her, he took a piece between thumb and forefinger. With a sense he hadn’t known he possessed a week ago, he could feel a deadness in the scrap, as though it had been drained of potential.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
She pointed at a bit of fluttering plastic higher on the fence. “Skitter.” He knew that name now. She used it to refer to the little animate pieces of trash that slithered and flew through the streets. Next she plucked the wire of the fence so that it hummed a low note. “Boundary.” She spat the word out as though it were the name of her worst enemy. She caught his hand in her own and set it on the place where the plastic rag touched the fence.
Almost at the instant of contact, he jerked away in revulsion. Like a spider sucking the juices from a trapped fly, some inhabitant of the fence was draining away the vital essence of the trapped Skitter, and he had felt that slow dying through his skin. He shuddered and looked at Sitha. She reached up and carefully, even tenderly, pulled the bit of flotsam loose from the fence, blowing hard on it to start it tumbling away toward the darkened street. The effort generated one of the coughing fits that took her periodically.
It was a circumstance that was becoming familiar to Jack. Sitha was sick, possibly dying, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do for her. When he’d suggested she go to one of the city’s free clinics, she’d growled low in her throat like an angry hound and spat before whispering the words “social services” in the same tone she used on the word “Boundary.”
When she could breathe normally again, she moved on, pausing periodically to free a trapped Skitter. After an hour or so they had finished what Jack took to be Sitha’s Thursday night round. Several times over the course of the evening he had been able to reach some imprisoned scrap of paper or plastic that was too high for Sitha. As they headed back toward the island dump where he had first met her, the Calvin’s bag that seemed to have claimed him rolled up and bumped against his leg. It acted like a dog joining its master. Then a seemingly random current of air lifted it past his ear.
“Folloooow,” it seemed to whisper, though he couldn’t say that hearing was the sense it appealed to. He looked a question at Sitha and she nodded in assent, so when the bag turned aside from their original route, they went after it.
It led them to the dumpster behind Ted’s Diner where it rolled around on the lid. Inside, Jack found a to-go bag with four entrees in it, apparently thrown out when the person who ordered them hadn’t shown up. The food hadn’t even had the time to go completely cold.
As they turned to head back down the alley, Jack saw the man who had stolen his backpack coming toward them. The man smiled in a predatory way when his eyes met Jack’s. But then his gaze slid to the side where Sitha stood, and he suddenly bowed his head slightly before reversing course and walking rapidly back the way he had come. It was only then that Jack realized that the few other homeless people they had seen during the course of their evening had also turned respectfully away at Sitha’s approach, as if she were some sort of gutter royalty.
Later, as he and Sitha finished their feast, sitting in the rusty shell of the Econoline van she lived in, she pulled out a package wrapped in greasy canvas. Inside lay a book with circuit-board covers. “The Urbäna” was spelled out in a nonsensical circuit of gold on the translucent green plastic.
“Urbäna,” she said, lengthening the second syllable so that it sounded like the bahn in autobahn and opening her arms in a gesture that included the whole city around her. “Skitter.” She held up a finger. “Boundary.” Another finger. “Heap.” She pointed at the nearest junk mound. “All Urbäna.” She stopped then, as she had another small coughing fit. “Take this,” she gasped, handing him the book. “Read!” It was an order. She gestured toward the big old hulk of a Chrysler LeBaron that she had ceded to him as a temporary home.
The light from the streetlamps on the road above was dim, and the hand that had written the book was spidery, but Jack still managed to make out the first few pages of the oblique verse before drifting off to sleep.
The book told the story of the rise of a new, urban fey who had moved into the magical vacuum left open by the iron-bred death of their predecessors. He’d already met the Skitters and the Boundaries that preyed on them. Now he also learned something about the Heaps, which ranged from the benign Composts who lived in backyards, feeding on the decay process of waste turning to black dirt, to the terrible Toxics who came in the night, hiding under the earth to poison and kill. He also read a bit about the Packets, little creatures of electricity and thought that nested in cell phones and other electronic devices, when they weren’t flitting back and forth across the city.
“Secrets,” whispered Sitha, the last sibilant turning into a cough as she spoke it. She lay on a pallet in the afternoon sun. He had helped her out there and wrapped her in blankets. She should have been plenty warm, but still she shivered and coughed. “Skitters know. Skitters will tell. They must be guarded and guided.” She coughed again. “You must do it.”
She was spending words with a profligacy that, in light of her normal quiet, alarmed Jack. He knelt beside her and felt her forehead. She was on fire. “Damnit. You need a hospital.”
“No!” It came out in a gasp but with steely firmness. She reached up and caught his collar in her left hand, tugging at it. Clearly she wanted to pull him down close to listen to her, but she didn’t have the strength. He leaned close. “Remember.” She pursed her lips and let out a surprisingly strong whistle. It was a trilling sound she often used to call the Skitters, but with more embellishments. The wind started to rise around them.
“I’m not a very good whistler,” he said.
She shook her head. “Make your own call when you take the crown.”
He wanted to tell her that he didn’t want a crown, but he couldn’t find the words. A scrap of fancy notepaper blew into Sitha’s hand.
“Look!” she demanded of him. He glanced at it just to satisfy Sitha’s request, then stopped and took a longer look. A love letter, it was written by a prominent state politician to a man not her husband. “And this.” She passed him a bit of yellow paper, a credit card receipt with all the numbers and information clearly visible. The expiration date had not been reached. “Secrets!” she said again.
This time the coughing fit went on and on till Jack couldn’t bear it any longer. “You are going to a hospital,” he said, sliding his arms under Sitha, half lifting her.
But she produced a straight razor, seemingly from thin air, and placed it against his throat. “No,” she wheezed, and he could feel the edge twitching against his skin as her hand shook with the effort of holding the blade up. “Want to die here, with my family.” Her other hand waved feebly at the dump where a thousand shreds of garbage fluttered and whispered in the wind. “They love me. They need me.”
“Not dead, they don’t,” Jack replied.
“Someone must watch over them, protect them from other powers, from people who would misuse their secrets. They’re too weak to care for themselves.”
“And so are you,” he said. “You’re going to die.”
“No hospitals.” The words came out in a cough, a cough with blood in it. She dropped the straight razor then and groped around for her copy of The Urbäna. He’d brought it to her earlier when she asked for it. “This is yours now.” She pushed the book toward him. “The Skitters know you. They’ll listen to you, help you, love you.” Before he could reply, her eyes closed; she passed out or fell asleep, he couldn’t tell which. Carefully, he set her back down and cleaned the blood off her face and the shoulder of his jacket.
Jack stared at his parents’ elephant statue. In the red and smoky light of the trash fire, it seemed to be bathed in blood. Like my hands, he thought, glancing over his shoulder toward the old Econoline. Then he turned back to face the fire and the city beyond. In the past month he had learned to judge time by looking at the lights of downtown. It was currently somewhere around 4:00 a.m. In a couple more hours he would take the statue, his only remaining possession, and walk to the bus depot. From there he would place two phone calls. One would be to Minot, asking for a ticket. The other would be to 911 to tell them about a very sick girl living in an abandoned van in a dump. At least he hoped she was still only very sick at that point. It was all too likely she’d be dead when they got there.
He knew now that Sitha believed she was dying, had believed it for some time. Probably since before he met her. She wanted him to replace her. He’d built the small fire after sunset when he put her in the van, adding his covers to her own. He wanted the firelight to read by and as a comfort. He’d built it as Sitha had taught him, carefully shielded from any possible watching eyes. For three hours he’d read, forcing his way through The Urbäna’s difficult verses. Then he’d carefully closed the book, set it down, and pulled out the elephants. He’d made his decision.
Sometime around dawn the fire burned itself out. Jack, sitting in a bucket seat torn from an ’85 Cadillac, didn’t bother to add more fuel. He would be leaving shortly. Rush hour would start soon, and with it, the morning witching hour of the Urbäna. Dawn and dusk, midnight and noon were the magic times of an earlier era, one tied to the pulse of the planet, not the life of the city.
The previous night he’d hit a section in “The Urbäna” he hadn’t seen before. It was about the bright-lights, big-city glamour that drew the credulous out of the country. He was smart enough to recognize himself in the passages — Sitha too. Though she hadn’t told him much about herself, he’d discovered that she also came from rural roots. When he finished that portion of the text, he knew he was going home. The city had sucked them both in, and it had killed Sitha. He didn’t want it to do the same to him.
When the noise of the traffic began to increase, Jack rose to check on Sitha. He would be calling her an ambulance soon, and he thought it would be best if he could describe her current condition. Away from the fire, the early morning air was frigid, and the door of the van felt like ice. Sitha lay within, perfectly still. Jack knew then, but he had to find out for certain. Reaching down, he placed a hand on her cheek. She was as cold as the metal walls that surrounded her.
He constructed Sitha a rough pyre of scrap and laid her body out on a sheet of plywood atop it. He knew her hatred of the city’s officialdom, and though he had been willing to deliver her into their hands if it would save her life, giving her up to them in death would be a pointless betrayal.
Jack placed the book of the Urbäna under her right hand and prepared to light the pile. Once that was done, he would go. He struck a match, but a wind sprang up, a tightly-focused circling breeze that lifted the lightest trash into the air and blew out his flame. He fell back away from the pyre as the ragged paper shape of a Skitter spun down to wrap itself tightly around Sitha’s throat. Then another, a sack this time, opened up to swallow her hand. In a process that felt like it took hours, but couldn’t actually have gone on for more than a few minutes, she was completely mummified.
Jack was both fascinated and repulsed. By now he had learned enough of the Skittersto understand that each one who bound itself to her body was committing suicide, ending its aerial life. Like the servants of a great king of old, they were dying to honor their fallen monarch. When they were done, the air went calm and still and he could feel a waiting, hoping pressure in the silence.
Slowly, reluctantly, he approached the body. Reaching into his coat, he pulled out the little elephant statue and held it up, weighing it against Sitha’s request and the Skitters’ need and loyalty beyond life. The sculpture had never seemed more precious than it did right that moment, with all of its promise of the clean open skies of Minot. He stood there and stared down at the rag-wrapped body as the sounds of the city waking up built around him. All through rush hour he remained there, nearly motionless. Sometime, after the frantic stop and go pace of morning traffic slowed into a quiet steady thrum, he heard a crinkling plastic sound in his ear.
“Sssstay?” The Calvin’s bag, his first Skitter, slowly orbited his head. He couldn’t say how long it had been there. “Pleasssse. Sssstay.”
Jack remembered how sad he’d been when he thought it would be trapped in that tree, how good it had felt to pull it free of the ice. And that was before he’d even known it had a soul. He looked down at the statue in his hand, seeing in it the home he now knew he would never return to. Then, kneeling, he set the elephants in Sitha’s tightly wrapped hand, a funeral gift from her heir. In exchange he lifted up the book and, with the wind rising behind him, he walked back to the old Cadillac seat that would be his new throne.
Four years had passed since Jack first took up the garbage crown of the Skitter King. For all that time they had supported him, bringing him money and bits of food as they had the queen who preceded him. In return he filled the coin boxes each spring, interceding on the behalf of his strange people. It was the dying season for them, when they emerged from their long hibernation under the snow and ice only to be caught and killed by the Boundaries, the spirits that lived in fences and hedges; by the trees, who were still nature’s creatures and the implacable enemies of all things Urbäna; and by all the other little powers that fed on their anima.
He knew that someday a dying season would take him as it had taken Sitha and a new ruler would mount the throne. The king is dead. Long live the King.
Copyright © Kelly McCullough 2006. May not be reproduced without the author’s permission.