Characters: House, Blythe, Oma
Summary: Gregory is five years old, he'll have his own animal soon, and he knows which one he wants. Shame he can't have it. This is a very alternate universe; link to all chapters is here.
A long time ago, on another man's farm, there was a little boy ...
He's just turned five and that means he gets to go to the stock fair, and he's looking at all the animals like he might get to have one, because he might. Five is when you get your own sorel instead of taking from mom and dad's, and that's exciting, but the place is so big and there are so many buildings and people and sounds. He clings to his Mom's hand as they make their way through the open-air barn with its scents of hay and alfalfa, the raw reek of fresh urine and droppings that haven't been swept up yet.
"Mom," he says, but his Mom doesn't hear him at first because she's talking talking talking to his Oma, high above his head.
Mom isn't her real name, of course. Her real name is Blythe, but that's a grown-up name and only grown-ups like his Dad and his Oma can use it. The boy is named Greg, and people already use that all the time. It's a difference the boy won't think about again until he's much older, a grown-up himself, when he'll realize that what people call you doesn't matter as much as what they do to you. But for now, there's only the livestock barn and his mother's hand and an urge that's rapidly becoming irresistible.
"Mom," he says again, this time louder, and finally his Mom looks down. "I have to go."
His mother sighs. "Oh, honey," she says. "Can't it wait?"
"No," Greg says, and it can't. He wouldn't have said anything in the first place if he could have waited.
"It's all right, Blythe, I'll take him," his Oma says, and just like that, the exchange of hands is made.
There's not a lot of light in the corner of the barn where the toilets are, and even less light when Greg shuts the door on his Oma's offer of help. He wishes for a moment he hadn't been so hasty when he sees the piss-chute's set higher than he's used to, but standing on a half-bale of fawn bedding solves that problem. The chute smells, and it's got grubby finger marks on it, so Greg doesn't waste any time peeing into the funnel and then washing his hands. At least the sink is clean.
When he comes out he's facing into the sunlight; Greg blinks and squints, his Oma's hand on his shoulder, until he can see again.
At first he thinks he's seeing it wrong, because the sun is so bright and he's squinting so hard, but his eyes adjust and it doesn't change.
"Black!" he says. He's never seen a black one. It stands like a tall shadow, in a little paddock attached to the outside of the barn. It's beautiful, and it raises its head to look at him while he runs toward its fence.
He thinks he hears Oma behind him, calling, but it doesn't matter, she'll catch up. The black sorel is sticking its long nose through the fence slats, sniffing him. Its fuzzy lips tickle his hands. It's licking his palms and he's laughing and then Oma's shadow falls over him.
"It's black," he says, smiling even though he might be in trouble. "It's different. Can we buy it?"
She laughs, like he just said something funny, and he doesn't know why.
"No, no," she says, in that tone that means it isn't his fault. "Nobody buys the black ones." The sorel pulls its head back into the pen and then sticks it over the fence so it can sniff Oma's hair, but it doesn't touch her. Greg thinks that's interesting. Maybe it likes him better because he's little.
"Why not? What's wrong with them?"
"The sorels, you mean, or the buyers?"
Greg shrugs. Both, maybe? But before he can say it, she rests one hand on his shoulder and pulls him just a little closer.
"It's because of Saharni," she says, like he should know what that means. "It's an old story, sweetheart, but it can wait for another day."
"No," Greg says, instantly intrigued. "I want to hear it now." He gazes up at Oma. "Please?"
"Are you sure?" she says. "It's a long-ago story that might be too old for you, and I was about to take us over to the icee-man."
"I want to hear it." Any other time, he'd want that treat right now, or he'd want to go look at the preening fanfowl or see if there were new baby fen hares, but the black doe is sniffing him again and letting him scratch her ears. Velvety, thin-skinned ears, prettier even than his Oma's dove-grey Jasmine. Besides, Oma's stories are the best, and they don't always have a moral like his Dad's stories do.
Oma tugs on his hand and he follows, looking back at the sorel and ahead where Oma's pointing. There are the big fowl-hutch barns between here and there, she says. It's going to be a long walk. "I'll tell you on the way," she promises, and he believes her because she always does what she says.
He keeps looking back, though, until they're around a corner and he can't see the black sorel anymore.
He can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want it.
"It's a legend," says his Oma, while she walks him toward the one lonely sweets-vendor at the whole little fair. Spring Ices, the sign says. Sweetcane, Western Cherry, Ribbonfruit, and it all looks so good that he forgets there's a story until Oma starts telling it again.
"The name means wandering one, or one who steals sleep," she says. "Everyone who sees it has to have it, because it's the finest, most beautiful sorel there ever was."
"My dad wouldn't care."
"Oh, but he would." She finds a soft patch of grass in the shade of one of the sheds, sits down, and waits for him to settle beside her. "That's the trouble. It matters not a whit how strong or smart you are. Saharni is too powerful. It overcomes the heart of everyone who sees the creature. It's tall, graceful, has a deep brown coat softer than a kitten's ear. And most of all, it smells like it's already yours."
"Is it a doe or a buck?"
"Nobody knows. It can look like either one. And if two people see Saharni at once, they'll fight and maybe even kill each other over the beast. But the stories say that's only happened twice in thousands of years."
Greg hasn't forgotten about the ices, but this is good stuff, people killing each other over a strange, dangerous animal. "Well, what's supposed to happen?"
"Saharni just shows up one evening in the yard behind your house. Or on the trail if you're traveling, or even standing waiting for you in your paddock chamber where your own animal ought to be. And you just don't think twice. It presses up against you, and makes soft little sounds, and it smells so good, so you bite it. They say the taste is better than anything else you could imagine, but no sooner do you drink a bit than it hooks its head over your shoulder and bites you right back."
"Like ... with fangs?"
"With fangs. And the next thing you know, you get dizzy and down you go."
"Huh. Real sorels can't ever do that, can they?"
"There's no such thing as a real sorel with fangs, no," Oma replies, smiling. "And very few of them bite." She plucks a small flower to show him. "Gold spindle," she says, because she knows what everything is, and then she goes on with her story. "Some say Saharni will drink half your blood. Others say its bite fills your head with strange and beautiful dreams. But they all agree that just before dawn you wake up, and you see it one last time, only now it's not brown anymore, it's black as a starless sky. The color it really was all along. And then it turns and runs away, and you chase it. You can't help yourself, once you're bitten. The legend is, if Saharni bites you, you'll chase it until you die and maybe even afterward, in the life to come."
Greg's thinking all kinds of things at once. He's never heard such a strange story. "I want that ice," he says.
"Then ask nicely, sweetheart."
He does, because it's Oma and her rules aren't so bad. They get up and go on toward the food booth, but he can't stop thinking about Saharni. "Why don't people stop chasing it?"
"There are lots of reasons, depending who you ask. My father used to say that while you were asleep, Saharni took a piece of your heart, a piece of your soul, and a piece of your mind for good measure, so you'd chase it just to try to get all your pieces back."
"But you'd die. You can't just take pieces out of people like that."
"That's why it's a legend, son. It's symbols, not real. It's about --"
"Loving something too much to ever let go."
Oma stops walking and looks at him with that look she gets sometimes, the one where he's not sure what it means but it doesn't seem to be bad. "You surprise me, Gregory," she says. "You always do surprise me."
Link to previous chapter
Link to next chapter