Red Matty

By Nisi Shawl

Part 1 of 2

The rabbits' village extended far out from its former boundaries: north under the zoo's camel rides and south to the edge of the pond called Bird Lake. When Betty wasn't busy helping the humans in her pack, she hunted there. All Fairmount Park smelled of wild game, but the rabbits across the river were Betty's favorite—and rabbits were pests, according to the Collective. They damaged and ate crops. Their brains were too small for modding, so unlike Betty, they couldn't talk.

A thin, cold coating of snow lay on the ground, already melting. The slush chilled Betty's nose and paw pads. She didn't mind; it covered old scent trails, but made fresh ones stand out. Her tail wagged at medium speed as she tracked the rabbits' smells: grass and flowers nicely fermented, and blood racing through juicy veins. She passed up the more pungent charms of the park's bears, rich with fish fat, since one beagle alone couldn't hope to kill such a large animal. Likewise she'd trained herself to ignore Fairmount's herds of deer unless accompanied by Gray Hawk, Walter, Amy, Deucie, or Jerry—and even then to say nothing unless one of these humans carried a gun. Mostly the pack ate just fine on the small amounts of meat Betty brought home by herself.

Like rabbits. But suddenly she smelled the most amazing dung, loaded with unfamiliar essences. Before Betty knew what she was doing she swerved to find it.

A short ways south, a steaming heap of digested plant matter warmed the air above the main path. It was bigger than Betty's head. On either side lay a line of enormous prints like bed baskets. The beast was walking east, toward the water.

Betty took a sample from one side of the pile. The taste was wonderfully complex: nutty, musty, salty, sweet. From deep within welled the urge to roll on her back in this dark new scent, but awareness of her antenna prevented that. If she crumpled the white cowl rising from her collar, Betty might compromise its ability to broadcast her thoughts as speech.

Instead she trotted faster toward Bird Lake. A moment later she lifted her nose and looked up, and there by the echoing water loomed the dung's source.

"Hey?" Best not to startle someone this huge. Betty kept walking, but slowly now, following in the enormous round paw prints. "Kin you talk?"

Closer, and she saw no sign of an antenna. So the answer was no. But more of that inviting aroma wafted Betty's way as the animal turned her head and shifted to face her. An alpha?

Betty was near enough now for contact sniffing. The animal's skin felt dry to her muzzle, almost hairless, rough and shivering. The long nose looped down politely to meet her own, touched briefly at her collar and antenna, then whuffled softly along Betty's back.

 


 

Betty brought Gray Hawk to the old exhibit house. Gray Hawk brought Baby Boo, carrying him; he had healed enough to walk but he didn't like ice or snow or slush or anything wet and cold. Most cats didn't.

Gray Hawk pulled a bunch of thick candles from Betty's rucksack and lit them in a circle on the house's concrete floor. The three packmates huddled into the small flames' warmth on one side of the circle; the new beast—called an elephant—took up all of the other side.

"What makes you think this thing's modded?" Gray Hawk asked. Gray Hawk was the alpha, so Betty did her best to answer.

"How she touchin me real wise." That didn't sound like much. What would? "And a look she have in her eyes." Humans paid more attention to what they saw than what they felt.

"But Betty, do you have any idea how much a full course of modfeed for her would cost? It's expensive enough for animals your size—only rich people can afford to—And besides, why? Why would anyone pay to modify an elephant? And then abandon—"

The house's doors slid apart and two more humans walked in. Not members of Betty's and Gray Hawk's pack, but part of the Collective. Betty smelled that they were Kira and Dantay.

"Hi, Gray Hawk. Betty, Baby Boo." Dantay was the brother of their packmate Deucie, and careful to always treat the modded animals like everyone else.

"How's your block?" asked Kira. "Your winter greens are all planted okay?"

"Why wouldn't they be?"asked Baby Boo right back.

"Well, we can't figure out any other reason for you to be interested in a plow animal."

"Plow animal? That's all this is?" Gray Hawk pointed at the elephant. "How'd you figure that out?"

Dantay shrugged. "Sometime they be trained for construction, sure, but that's mostly the Asian elephants. An we—"

Kira interrupted him. "Pittsburgh dumped it on us with no keeper. Not a lot of records, either, except to prove ten years ago it belonged to the Philadelphia Zoo. Now their zoo is shutting down they decided to send it back, saddle us with their biggest problem." She kicked a damp wall. "Not even much use till the spring, but we have to feed and take care of the thing till then, I guess."

The floor gritted under the elephant's feet as she turned in a tight circle. Would she lie down now and sleep? No. She stood still again, breathing fast.

"Good guess," said Baby Boo.

"I think you ought to let us take her over to our block, see if we can get her doing any kind of work," said Gray Hawk. "We've got a couple bales of hay left from mulching the collards; that'll feed her till you arrange something more permanent."

A powerful alpha got her way even outside her pack. Dantay dug up the rope halter the elephant had arrived with and Gray Hawk led her off. According to the papers Pittsburgh had sent, her name was Matilda.

Betty went first. Matilda, wider than the sidewalks, took to the streets, long nose waving high overhead; beside her Gray Hawk held the end of the slack rope. Baby Boo brought up the rear, sinuously avoiding puddles and slushy ice. Betty trusted the cat's nose to pick up any hint of trouble. There had been no violence since those three humans tried to drown him last spring, but something odd was definitely in the air. Something more than the typical faint and spotty dislike of talking animals: the humans they passed moved more jerkily than usual and sweated scareder. Betty heard them remark how big the elephant was. Could that be causing their nervousness? Gray Hawk ignored them, so Betty and Baby Boo did the same.

Otherwise everything was normal. Stalls and storefronts offered scavenged bottles filled with fresh, yeasty beer, and strings of gutted birds hung across shop windows like tantalizing curtains. Some humans pretended not to be bothered by Matilda; they shouted and laughed with each other, promising to exchange braids, tobacco, exorcisms, lessons, medicines, massages, memorization—the sorts of sharing managed for the pack by Walter and Amy, deals made inside and outside the Collective.

Walking with the elephant felt peculiarly comfortable. As if her soft, heavy footfalls had always set Betty's pace.

The doors of the houses on the pack's block were too narrow to let Matilda in. Gray Hawk pointed at one empty building. "This can be your new place, Matty," she told the elephant. "Your first job is to create an entrance big enough you can use it."

The elephant strode over to stand with one leg on the building's top step. Her long nose fumbled with its door's handle, then pulled it off. The odors of ants and mice dribbled through the small hole left behind. The end of Matty's coiling trunk snaked in, pulling to no avail, so she leaned back, lifted her front foot and pushed. Hard. The door banged loudly down on the floor inside and more smells flooded out. Betty found she'd come closer without realizing.

"Well?" Jerry, their omega, had come out to greet them and hear what Gray Hawk wanted. He thumped against the doorframe. "Boom! Get rid of this stuff. Right?" he asked, seeking confirmation from the alpha.

Gray Hawk bent forward and Baby Boo hopped into her arms. "Right."

It wasn't straightforward defiance, but Matty lingered on the building's threshold instead of entering at the alpha's command. Rust filled the air as she cleared away the remains of an iron railing and got both feet on the low cement steps. She poked only her head through, and only for a moment, then quickly backed down again to the sidewalk.

Deucie came around the corner, the sweetest smelling of the pack Betty had so recently joined. "Whoa! Demetra told me Dantay said you were bringing home a surprise guest, but an elephant? Really?"

"I was thinking how smart she seemed," said Gray Hawk. Baby Boo freed himself from her arms, landing lightly on the driest part of the pavement. He gave one thrash of his tail stump and padded in the direction of his private entrance.

"If she won't go in, it might be because she is smart," said Deucie. She tilted her head. "You're sure those boards are gonna hold her up? She must weigh, what, a ton? Probably more."

The humans talked a while. Deucie said that the building where she taught had a big room, a gymnasium, resting flat on the ground. Its floor could hold up anything. Amy and Walter came home together from their shift at the Collective's sewage treatment station, then left again to walk Deucie and the elephant to the school. Gray Hawk and Jerry unlocked a house door. Betty trotted inside with them and back out to the gardens at the block's center.

She found the cat there, lying on the warm, shiny bottom of an upturned wheelbarrow. Baby Boo was the first modded animal Betty had made friends with. "I got a feelin," Betty announced. "That Matty one of us."

Since nearly getting murdered for knowing how to talk, Baby Boo said more when he and Betty were by themselves. "You're right. It isn't much like a cat's, but I do detect some kind of intelligence hiding inside that elephant's thick skull."

"How you know it thick?"

"The real question is who took her antenna and box. No, why they took them. No, where they took them. Once we find her box and antenna and set them up, the elephant can tell us the rest of her story herself. Which I really want to know." Baby Boo licked his front left paw, the one the attackers had broken. Betty wondered if it hurt anymore. She had asked him before. He hadn't answered.

"Do it have to be the same antenna? Cain't we get her another? Less trouble—"

"Of course!" The cat lifted his head swiftly, then held it utterly still. "For a dog, you're a brilliant thinker! Whoever took Matty's antenna may also have destroyed it—just like those idiots tore apart my wings. But we can set her up with any antenna." The replacement for Baby Boo's wings was a disk-shaped antenna attached to a wire band that tilted under his damaged ear. "Provided the thing is large enough . . . hmmm." Another paw lick. "Could we use a horse's? Might do, and they were common enough. . . . Who would know where to find that sort of equipment these days? Who could we convince to give it to us?"

 


 

Walter and Amy had belonged to the Dunnetts. That was Betty's second pack, the one whose humans modded her. Then the two had moved to Philadelphia and joined Gray Hawk's pack. Which was part of the Collective. Which was sort of like a super pack, but not like the color super packs that Betty still barely understood. The Collective wasn't black or white or red or yellow or brown. It was only the Collective. It wanted all the city's packs to run together. It kept track of who owed who help and how much and what kind, and it also worked on projects too big for any single pack to take care of by itself. Like making sure every block somebody lived on had clean water and no shit.

The Collective used the same building for planning how to use water pipes and for keeping straight when the packs worked with each other. Getting there was a nice walk, but in the opposite direction from the rabbits. Betty went with Walter and Amy for their next afternoon shift.

Monitors and memories made the room a little warmer than the halls and stairways they had come through. Walter took off his hat as he sat down in front of a screen tank. It showed flashing pictures Betty didn't care about.

Amy went past Walter. Dantay leaned against a wall on the room's other side, looking out of a window. A crack let in the air, but this was too high up for good smells.

"Any better news from the neighborhood associations?" Amy asked Dantay. "I guess you'd be smiling."

"No. Yeah. Jus Diamond Street signed up yesterday. 4100 hours every week. Bare minimum."

"Ten hours a person?"

"Countin only adults." Dantay always talked like Betty did. Deucie only sounded that way sometimes. They were littermates, brother and sister—so they must both be black, like her first pack, the Fraziers. "I caint make em see how strenthenin the Collective is to their immediate advantage."

"Why does it need to be about them and their advantage? They should join because the Collective is such a cool idea." Amy leaned over and took the dinners out of Betty's bags. Duck fat and noodles steamed warmth and richness into the room.

"They did. I mean they belong. But it ain't—Look, I can show you." Dantay and Amy sat at the set-up next to Walter. "Here my model. Hours and involvement gotta keep goin up for a whiles before our economy stabilize. We gonna hafta offer more an more services. For now we okay; there be money comin in, plus other kindsa stimulus from outside the city like, like—"

"Like Matty," Betty interrupted.

"Hunh? Sure. The elephant?" Maybe Dantay had forgotten Betty was there.

But she had a mission. Betty had been talking to the elephant and wanted to hear what her new friend had to say back. "Matty come from outside, another city, dint she? Me too. But she don't got no box and no antenna. Fine her those things an she be a excellent example of why we needs the Collective."

Walter said, "Sorry, Betty, but I've been trying to locate records of scavenged mod equipment since we walked in here. Since you mentioned it on the way. Sorry. No luck."

Only a couple of stores with Philadelphia warehouses had sold what Betty and Baby Boo were hunting. As far as the Collective could tell, either the rich people had taken all that sort of stuff with them when they left the city, or it was being used by the few modded animals still living there. Or it was destroyed. Gone. Might as well never have existed.

The one positive discovery out of Betty's visit to the Collective's headquarters was an archived 2016 ad for the Pittsburgh Zoo's talking elephant Matilda. Proof she'd been modded, and an explanation of why. To increase attendance. To make Pittsburgh money.

So why had they gotten rid of her?

 


 

Matty could definitely eat more than two bales of hay in a day. Walter found out from an old site that an elephant might need seven or eight times as much as that. Gray Hawk made up for her mistake by taking Matty to eat weeds and seedling trees off of places where the Collective wanted to grow crops. Deucie's students gathered food for Matty too, from somewhere.

When not eating or working, the elephant stayed in the school's gymnasium.

Neither of the pack's modded animals liked leaving the block without a human packmate. Betty dug a bunch of late parsnips out of the block's gardens, and Baby Boo talked Jerry into going along with them to make the delivery.

Deucie's school taught African things—lessons from where Matilda might have been born. Children and adults belonging to different packs ran with each other there. It mixed Betty up.

Jerry entered the main school building to look for Deucie. Betty and Baby Boo headed for the gymnasium. Betty pushed high up on the door with her paws, and it opened.

Inside, new and old paint smells mingled with Matty's special, spicy aroma. A ring of unusually quiet children sat around the walls, watching the elephant's trunk dip a brush in a bucket, pull it out, pause with it dripping in the air, then swish it along the surface at her feet. The door clunked shut behind them, and then something close to silence filled the skylighted room. For several moments, only the soft sound of the wet brush bruised it.

Betty's nails clicked as she walked across the floor. She sniffed Matilda fore and aft and courteously offered the elephant her anus.

A piece of cloth lay on the polished cement. Marks covered most of it. Matilda brushed on another mark as Baby Boo came to sit silently on his haunches next to Betty. Betty sat, too. The children craned forward. A final series of strokes and Matty let the brush fall into the bucket. She swung her nose high and the children crowded out of their seats. Betty ended up standing in front of two small boys, beneath the elephant's belly. Baby Boo tilted his head consideringly. If his tail had still been long enough, it would have curled above his back as he gazed down at the painted symbols.

"Lunchtime!" Deucie's voice came clear and plain through the gymnasium's closed doors. "Who wants food? Fresh milk!" She entered. "Are you done with the lesson, Matty? Good. Thanks." The children streamed out between the doors along with the warmth. Baby Boo stalked to the entrance and looked after them.

"Lesson?" Betty realized she was leaning against one of the elephant's forelegs, cuddled to it by that marvelously flexible trunk.

"Nsibidi. Matty knows how to draw them."

Strong and supple, the trunk smoothed Betty's ears back, tugging them ever so slightly. She tried to concentrate on what Deucie was saying. "I don't know what that spell. N-c-b-d?"

"It's another language, not letters. Nsibidi. African, from the Igbo people in Nigeria. It's a writing system."

"And that writin what Matty be learnin?"

"No, Betty. Matty already knows nsibidi. She's teaching it."

"Yeah?" Betty lifted her head into the trunk's downward pressure. "And you understan all about what it is? What it mean?" Maybe Matty could tell Deucie where her antenna was by using this nsibidi. And Deucie could tell Betty and Baby Boo.

"Well, I have a good grasp of its principles, and I help pick the sentences she spells out. But I'm learning, too—Matty, aren't you hungry?" With a light pat Matty removed her trunk from Betty's head. Before she could leave, Kira and another human walked in.

"Great! Found it!" Betty had never met this man before. He smelled as strange as Matty. Not as good, though. "Hi! Tom Van Avery." He held his hand out—up high, to Deucie, not low so Betty could sniff it.

"I'm Auntie Deucie. This here's Betty. And Baby—where that cat gone?" Not far; his scent was still fresh and thick. "Well. Probably in the kitchen eatin. And this Matty."

"Matty? Oh, yes! Matilda. The elephant; he's why I'm here."

"She."

"She. Of course, of course. Doesn't matter, though, does it? Not like I'm going to have sex with an elephant."

"Mr. Van Avery—"

"Tom, I insist!"

"Mr. Van Avery drove here from Pittsburgh to take pictures of how Matilda is settling into her new home." Bitterness drifted into the air over Kira's skin as she spoke. She and Amy and Walter were always saying how Pittsburgh wanted to buy Philadelphia from the Collective. But they couldn't. By the charter that the Collective had, that would mean most of the people left in the city allowing Pittsburgh to take it over.

Mr. Van Avery had a camera like from a set-up, only with larger wings. It always sounded on. He pointed it at Matty while she ate off of leafy-smelling piles in the school's back yard. Betty remembered the parsnips and Kira untied the rucksack for her. Matty must have liked them. She ate them all and poked around with her nose in the bag for more.

They split up. Jerry headed home, and Kira went with him because the block would be on her way to the treatment plant. Deucie offered to escort Mr. Van Avery to where he'd left his car, back by the old zoo. He didn't seem to want her to come, but it sort of happened anyway. And he didn't notice—or else he didn't care—that Betty went along too.

Baby Boo was silent, and conspicuously out of sight. But not out of Betty's mind. Even the rabbits' scents didn't distract her from that of her elusive friend.

Getting to the car shouldn't have taken much time, but Mr. Van Avery acted interested in odd, boring things. He made a point of detouring to record a place where Matty had torn up trees and gotten rid of garbage so the Collective could put in plants. He sent his camera into the exhibit house where there was nothing and no one since Gray Hawk made the Collective move Matty. Even he must have known there was no reason to do that, since he didn't go in himself. While he was waiting he rearranged the cartons and bags in his car, putting them on the wet ground and then on the car's seat and then on its floor.

Betty smelled the cat come closer. He was under a bush. When Mr. Van Avery went into the exhibit house to retrieve his camera she heard Baby Boo telling her what to do. "Tip over one of the boxes on this side," said the cat. "A box of soft things."


Read part 2

This story has been published as part of our 2013 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.


Nisi Shawl’s Filter House was a winner of the 2009 Tiptree.  Her work has recently been published in The Other Half of the Sky. She co-edited Strange Matings: Octavia E. Butler, Science Fiction, Feminism, and African American Voices, cofounded the Carl Brandon Society, and serves on Clarion West’s board of directors. Her website is www.nisishawl.com.

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