And Winter Thaws Us All
H e finds her by the river, and tells her its okay.
He approaches carefully, cautiously, hunched over and hand trailing over the dewy grass on the bank. He's whispering the entire way forward to her, and from where she cowers, she thinks this is a lot of effort if he just meant to hurt her. She lets out a soft, questioning chirrup, and watches him approach. She steps back further, so her feet are right where the river touches mud, so she can take off, into air or water, if she needs to, if he becomes a threat.
He has kind eyes, though. Big, black eyes, an exact reflection of her own. They make her feel safer.
"Hey there, little buddy," he whispers when he reaches her. He knees squelch into the icy mud as he kneels in front of her. Flecks of mud spring up to splash against his fur as he does so, but he doesn't seem to pay it any mind. He is more interested in her, never taking his eyes off of her, watching, it seems, for a cue.
He slides his hand forward, making a sound in the wet mud like waves slapping, and stops short of where she sits. She puts a wing over her face, and then looks over it at him. She knows what he is, she just can't remember. Tall, black furred creature with a streak of white fur that runs down his back. She tries to remember. Are they one of the good pets? Or are they the ones she was warned off - like the ones who destroyed her home, with big, gnashing jaws that tore wings apart -- she doesn't want to think about it. He doesn't look like one of them, anyway.
"Don't worry, I'll keep you safe," he says, gently wiggling his fingers. "It's too cold to be out here on your own."
On this, he's right. It's winter now, and even the river has begun to ice over. Down here on the bank though, the wind can't reach her, and it hasn't been so bad. She wanted to pretend she was clever, choosing this spot, where she could see anything coming from any direction, but she knew once the river had frozen over, she would have to find somewhere else.
There's a sadness every time she thinks of it, thinks of what winter was like last year, with a family around her and small, warm fires in their caves, hidden from predators that might have passed by in the night. And when they reached the very depth of the winter, a week after the shortest day of the year - the winter solstice, her mother said - they would celebrate Yuletide with a feast of baked berries, roast chestnuts stuffed into yams they dug out from the ground. They would exchange gifts, small trinkets they'd found that pets had carelessly forgotten in their travels through the woods.
"My name is Hameed," he tells her quietly, and she hears an accent in his throat this time, as if he was trying to push it down but failing. All the while, his fingers still move slowly. "And if you come with me, I'll take you to my home - it isn't far. You look weak, little one, and hungry. You can't stay out here on your own."
She takes a few tentative steps towards his hand, and then one back. He waits, and whispers, for whole minutes until she has settled into the centre of his palm. It is warm there, calloused but warm. He picks her up, and she feels like she's flying.
She hasn't flown since it happened, and now she feels dizzy, curls up into a ball in his hand so she doesn't fall to the cold ground, covered as it is in a light blanket of snow.
He takes her home, and feeds her hot potato soup from an old metal thimble. He tells her it was his wife's thimble, once upon a time.
The next day, when she wakes up in the morning, she cannot find him in the house.
She chirrups every few footsteps, putting her head into each doorway to try and find him. She is too scared to enter any of the rooms, in case that is the wrong thing to do. So she peers into the study, the living room, the spare bedroom, all lit by the white winter morning sun. The only room she allows herself in is the kitchen, because that's where they had sat together last night.
He had made a bed for her at the end of his bed the night before, made of an old jumper and a woman's soft silk dress. She had slept badly, but that wasn't surprising. She was still expecting disaster and despair to come out of the darkness for her.
The kitchen is empty, only the little thimble sitting atop the counter, having been cleaned. There is no note to indicate his whereabouts, but she never got the chance to learn to read anyway. She only knows the words out loud, even if he will not understand hers. Her mother taught her. Her mother taught her a lot things, just in case.
One of the drawers underneath a countertop has been left open, and she climbs to see what's inside. It is full of tablecloths. She settles into it, facing the doorway. The house is too big to feel safe in the open.
She falls asleep.
Heavy boots in the hallway make her jump awake, almost falling from her makeshift nest. He walks into the kitchen and slams his knapsack down on the table. He sees her and smiles.
"Hey there," he says, and bends down to be level with her. With a single finger, he gentle strokes her wing. She likes the feeling. "Sorry I didn't warn you I wouldn't be here - you were asleep when I was leaving. I didn't want to wake you."
He holds out his hand, and she gingerly makes her way up and on to it. He sets her down on the kitchen table, and opens his bag. From it, he pulls a huge book, with a peeling cover and a broken spine. There are strange shapes on it, below which are pictures of small pets - petpets, like herself, she realises.
"I went to the library," he says, and takes a seat. He opens the book to where he has left a bookmark. "And look! I found out what you are, little one."
She steps over his hand, and onto the crisp, strong smelling pages of the book. There, on the page, is an image so familiar to her, but alien too. It is like her, but it is brown, with yellow stomach and swirls across it's wings, a tail between its legs like her own, and a single swirl of an antennae on its head.
"Carmariller," he reads to her, using one finger to follow the line of strange symbols on the page. Words, she thinks. "A cheerful, winged petpet that makes a wonderfully loyal companion. Prone to singing, it can be taught a great variety of tunes. They are one of the most intelligent of petpets, after the Snorkle and Snowbunny. In the wild, it lives in wooded areas and in caves, but was originally native to Faerieland before its fall. Its only known predators are Grarrl, who enjoy them as a crispy snack."
She recoils from the book, stumbling off the edge of the pages and landing heavily on the table. He looks surprised, and there is worry in his eyes. She missed that look.
"Oh, don't worry!" he says, softly. "I'll protect you from any Grarrls around here. They can't hurt you."
He doesn't know they already have.
The next evening, he teaches her all the names of the species of pets. He tells her he's a Kyrii, painted Skunk. He says the paintbrush was a gift from his wife one Christmas. That this will be the first without her. He pauses when he talks about his wife, she notices, and won't talk for a long time afterwards.
He brings her a mirror from the bathroom to see herself. She is the colour of a thousand sunsets over the Lost Desert, he says to her, and tells her that is where he is from. The colour of dusk in Sakhmet, before he had to leave that place. He tells her it is the called Eventide, and that she is very beautiful. If she could blush, she would. But she chirrups happily, and curls up on his lap.
They are sitting by the fire as a snow storm blows outside. From his teacup, he pours a splash of sugary borovan into the thimble for her to share with him. It is warm, and so is she.
"I'm going to call you Amina," he tells her one morning at breakfast. On a saucer, she has a small corner of his piece of buttered toast which she nibbles at.
She knows without asking that this was his wife's name. She chirrups, to tell him that she will be Amina. It's a pretty name, and her old one only makes her feel empty and cold. It is winter, and she is cold enough.
He tells her he doesn't work anymore, after he escaped the Lost Desert. Some kind of accident made him leave - but the way he says it makes her think that he is lying. He says one of his arms doesn't work anymore, though she has already seen the way it hangs heavily down by his side.
He asks why she doesn't fly like she is meant to, but, of course, she cannot answer. For the same reason, she imagines, that she hears him as he tosses and turns at night.
Winter rages on outside their windows, and nobody in the neighbourhood leaves their houses for two days. She feels sad for it, for the snow must be lonely.
On the day that he tells her it is Christmas Eve, she realises it is her Yuletide. With drooping wings, she sits by the fire, and he sees that she is sad.
"Come on, little one," he says, scooping her up. "We're not allowed to be sad for ourselves tonight; it's Christmas Eve."
He takes a pair of scissors to the end of his scarf, and cuts a strip off, which he ties around her neck.
"To keep you warm."
He tucks her into his thick jacket's pocket, and, wrapped up as warm as he can manage, they head out. The storm had died out earlier in the week, but it is still cold outside, the ground frozen and slippery. He walks carefully, cautiously along it. She doesn't know where they are going, but she keeps her head out, despite the chilling breeze, until she can't stand it any longer.
With each footstep, she knocks gently against his leg, his coat flying up and back as he goes. He walks for a long time, and when he stops, he takes her out of the pocket with a gloved hand.
She carefully gets to her little feet, curling her tail around her legs to keep them from freezing off. She almost falls off his paw but his fingers form a barrier - it would be a long fall.
In front of her is one of the tallest trees she has ever seen. It is covered in things that twinkle like stars, and glitter like the moon and so many colours and patterns and shapes that she feels dizzy but in the best way. She has never seen so many things, wonderful, pretty things, all in one place, and the already majestic tree is made even more beautiful to her.
She lets out a small chirrup of wonderment, and looks up at Hameed. He is smiling down at her, and then looks to the tree himself. She sees the same beauty reflected in his dark eyes.
"It's called a Christmas tree," he tells her. Around them, many pets of many species wander past. She recognises them by his descriptions, but she is too distracted to really pay attention. "It is the main attraction of Neopia Central at Christmas. It is a gift from Terror Mountain, and they have gifted one to this city every year for almost a century."
In his voice, he cannot hide his own appreciation for what stands before him. She wonders if they had Christmas trees in the Lost Desert. She wishes she could ask, but perhaps it doesn't matter.
"I visited once," he continues. "With Amina - the other Amina, and she begged us to come back to see it every Christmas for years. I told her we would again, one day. But we never did."
She looks expectantly up at him, but he doesn't take his eyes off the dazzling tree.
She climbs up his good arm to sit on his shoulder, and watch with him as tourists and citizens alike walk past, most stopping to look and smile at the spectacle of the Christmas Tree.
After perhaps an hour, when they are both shivering, he takes her home. He lights another fire in the hearth. He tells her he won't have a present for her in the morning, but that they will take a flask of tea down to the Christmas tree, and see it in daylight. He says he will make turkey sandwiches to take with them, for turkey is what they eat at Christmastime, with berry sauce. This makes her happy, and she wants to taste sweet berries again.
They stay up some hours into the night, sitting in front of the fire. He reads from a book to her, a story of a great knight saving a young pet, and it makes her feel safe. For supper, he puts spicy tomato soup in the thimble for her to drink.
They go to bed, and sleep.