Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Life Is Beautiful

This story was published in Shadows in Snow in 2004.


The flickering of the fluorescent lights as they switched off awoke him. The old raccoon blinked in the dim morning light and looked for Petra immediately. The cub was curled in a little ball beside him, ringed tail covering his muzzle and keeping it warm in the bitter cold. Here in the city, winter wasn’t as bad as out in the residential compounds, and that was why they were here. Handouts were much harder to come by in the city, but at least they wouldn’t freeze to death.

In the semi-darkness, it was hard to make out the cub’s form, but Carlo didn’t reach out and touch him. He might wake him, and Petra needed all the sleep he could get. He watched the slow rise and fall of the cub’s sides, assured that he was still alive, and plotted out the course of the day.

When Petra turned over and yawned, revealing the glossy black of one sleepy eye through barely parted lids, Carlo was ready. He met the cub with a broad smile. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”

“Good morning, Da,” Petra murmured sleepily. He looked up at the walls of the alley, and the sky above them, and then shook the snow from his muzzle. “I like the city,” he announced. “It’s warm and there’s always people.”

“I like the city, too,” Carlo said, and felt the truth of the words that would have been a lie a minute ago. He liked the city now, because Petra liked it.

“I hafta make water,” Petra said shyly.

“Over there.” Carlo pointed him to a stack of rotting boxes, feeling the same urges inside him. “I won’t look, I promise.”

When the cub was finished, Carlo went to the same place. He had long since lost the shame he felt at urinating in public; it was necessary and unavoidable. When he had a bathroom to use, he did, but the public ones at the parks didn’t open until later, half of them were out of order, and the ones that weren’t were so filthy that he didn’t like Petra to use them.

“What a beautiful day,” he said when he had finished. He pulled his coat around himself and tightened Petra’s coat, too. “Look at the wind. We might get a glimpse of the sun before the day is out!” He pointed up. “And the clouds are glowing, the snow is fresh on the ground. Truly we are blessed to be here witnessing this.” His paws kicked at the grayish slush as he walked down the alley with Petra. “Think of all those poor people locked in those buildings, missing the glories of nature. Look! There’s Mount Arken.”

They had emerged onto a street, and to the right, the grey shape of Mount Arken rose. People walked quickly past them, bundled up against the weather. A lynx shouldered past Carlo, nearly knocking Petra over. “Watch where you’re going!” Carlo called after him. “Look where you’re stepping!” But the lynx went on, ignoring him.

“You’ll never be rude like that, will you, Petra?” The cub shook his head. “Good boy. Come, let’s play a game.”

“I’m hungry,” Petra said. “Can we play the food game?”

“We can and will. Ready? Stop and sniff. Which way do we go?”

The cub lifted his nose to the wind, sought about for a few seconds, then pointed assuredly towards the mountain. “There.”

Carlo followed the cub to the next corner and to the right. “Remember, you only get ten minutes, then it’s my turn.”

“I know, Da. This way.” He padded assuredly down the street.

Carlo smiled to himself. The cub knew the way to the market from anywhere now, even without the scent cues. It was almost impossible to separate the scent of fish from the scent of industrial waste; even in the city, where people worked and there was some effort to control the rancid chemical odors, they permeated everything. Or maybe it was just his old nose, tired from a lifetime of breathing it in.

They made two more turns, and the small city market lay before them, a ramshackle one-story building that was mostly frequented by daily workers buying the dinner they’d forgotten to get from their local market. The roof was crumbling, but a cursory attempt to shore it up in one corner had resulted in the whole corner falling in, so apparently further repairs would not be forthcoming until the situation worsened.

The quality of goods here was far from the best available on the planet. Though Carlo was sure the rich people had their own market, a well-roofed warm place where the fish was only two days old and the sauces were plentiful. Perhaps the vegetables were not frozen, and maybe there were other foods he could only dream about. Someday, he wanted Petra to be able to taste those other foods.

“Now, time me,” he said, settling the cub into a shadowy space in the corner of two buildings within sight of the market. “I bet I can do better than that time last week.” The cub nodded enthusiastically, and his bright eyes put strength into Carlo’s tired limbs and dexterity into his fingers. He straightened, fixed his coat, and walked into the market.

They had had many discussions about why Petra must never steal. Carlo did not want him to acquire that habit. Peeing in the alley was one thing; stealing was quite another. The cub’s paws and eyes were quicker than his, he would be the first to admit, but he made himself do the stealing every day anyway. His spirit was old, and had a lifetime of crimes weighing on it. Petra’s was young and unsullied and he would not burden it.

The trick to stealing a piece of fish was to act perfectly normal. The frozen cuts of fish were sitting on the table, and if you chose a busy table, picked up a piece while the merchant was talking to someone else, and turned just at the right moment when he was looking away…zip! the piece goes in your pocket and you pick up another piece so that when the merchant turns back, he sees you still holding a piece. You put it down, make eye contact—that was very important—smile, and walk away.

As he walked away from the second table, he thought he heard someone behind him say, “Hey, that raccoon stole a piece of your fish!” But his technique was so smooth that the merchant didn’t feel confident enough to pursue him, and he walked out of the market and back to the cub unhindered.

“How was that, eh? Your old Da still has quick paws.” He showed two pieces of fish to the cub.

Petra’s tail brushed the snow. “The clock over there moved six spaces,” he said. “Not as good as last week, but better than yesterday.” He looked eagerly at the fish, as did Carlo himself.

They ate it raw, Carlo urging the cub to eat more. His appetite was so meager for a growing cub! But he was healthy and happy, and when he patted his stomach and said he was full, Carlo believed him, though his own stomach was still growling.

They covered the neat pile of bones with snow, and moved on to the park, now that the day was fully beginning.

On the way, they passed TeraMine plaza, quiet and nearly deserted now that the workday had started. There was an odd sculpture in the middle of the plaza that Carlo had never been able to understand, but Petra liked to climb on it. The guard who was supposed to prevent such things was a large wolf about Carlo’s age, and knew them. He smiled tolerantly at Carlo as Petra scampered between the wooden posts and climbed up the green-painted rods, carefully cleaned of snow every morning.

“Lovely day,” Carlo said to the guard.

The wolf nodded. “Bit windy.”

Carlo watched how the wind fluffed Petra’s tail out, how the cub lifted his nose to the wind, and lifted a paw to feel it rush between his chubby fingers. “I like the wind,” he said.

“Then it’s a good day, Mr. Carlo.”

“Let me tell you something. Every day is a good day when you have your family with you.”

The guard’s ears flicked back slightly, and Carlo cursed himself. He was losing his memory in his old age. He’d noticed the look of regret on the wolf whenever he’d talked about Petra, and had resolved not to bring up the wolf’s own sad memories again, whatever they might be. This was a terrible place, and it was all too easy to lose the ones you cared for, and the best kindness he could do for those who were not as lucky as he was would be to leave their memories untouched.

He began to talk instead about TeraMine, a company he knew little about, but the wolf was happy enough to talk about that. Carlo had once worked for a company that had dealings with TeraMine, so he knew one or two of the people there and had nothing but nice things to say about them. The guard, in turn, talked about the security and friendly atmosphere at the company.

Their conversation had petered out when Petra came running back to him, ears perked and eyes bright, panting from the exertion of climbing and playing. “Thank you, Da,” he said.

“Thank the nice wolf,” Carlo said, and Petra did so politely.

The wolf smiled down and touched his cap gently. “See you tomorrow, Mr. Carlo,” he said softly.

“Perhaps, perhaps,” Carlo said. “If the wind blows us here. Good day.”

Petra was laughing and skipping as they entered the park, and Carlo made for the toy stand today. The young vixen who made small wooden toys sometimes paid him to roam around the park and find lost or discarded toys that she could re-sell. She often gave him a whole credit, which he added to the pouch at his waist.

He touched the pouch as they walked through the snowy park with its scraggly bushes. Someday, he promised himself, he would buy a nice house again, and Petra would go to the school. He was saving all his credits for that. Food could be stolen; water lay on the ground all around them. They had thick coats of fur and thick coats of fabric to put overtop of their fur; they could sleep anywhere. But houses had to be bought by credits, and so Carlo saved all he could. If he had a house, they would let him work again. The pouch was heavy at his waist. It would not be long now.

Huddled against the biting wind, the vixen still gave him a smile when he approached. “Hello, Carlo,” she said. “Want to work for me today?”

Carlo gave her a warm smile back. “It is hardly work, Miss Mirta. If you have the credit to spare, I will go looking for you. I feel lucky today.” He lifted his nose into the wind. “It is that sort of day.”

“Bring me whatever you find by the time the lights go on.” She indicated the fluorescent street lamp behind her. “That’s when I pack up.”

He bowed. “I will bring back an armful of toys for you!”

She smiled and waved to him. “A credit for each one you find, Carlo!”

“Did you hear that, Petra?” he said as they walked away. “One credit each! You know, I tell you all the time that we are lucky, but Raccoon looks best on those who make their own luck.” The cub’s black mask watched him earnestly. “It is not such a bad thing, finding what is lost and earning money for it. If we did not find things, then they would stay lost forever, eh?”

Petra nodded his head. “Can I look for toys on the ice?”

“Of course you can.” He watched the cub scamper out onto the ice at the center of the park, sliding around on the parts that had been cleared of snow. He himself skirted the edge of the large pond, reaching into snowdrifts and under benches, where experience had taught him the most toys were to be found.

Always he kept an eye out on the cub, though of course he was perfectly safe. In winter the pond was frozen solid, and the only way he could hurt himself would be to slip and fall. And Petra had a raccoon’s agility and grace, for all his young years. Carlo’s heart swelled with pride as he watched the cub play. He would become a handsome, graceful adult with a family, and Carlo was only sad that he would probably not live to see that happen.

The days were short in the winter, and the hours slipped away. Petra came in from the ice and gamboled in the snow while Carlo watched, even getting drawn into a game of tag with the cub, though it was much harder for him to run through the snow. They searched for toys together and played all the games they knew, taking short breaks to curl up together out of the wind when they found a shelter. Carlo massaged the cub’s ears to make sure they stayed warm.

Some time later, when he was feeling the pangs of hunger in his stomach again and knew Petra must be as well, though the cub insisted he felt fine, Carlo was stopped by a raccoon in a long overcoat.

“Hello, Torini,” he said.

“Hello, Carlo,” the other raccoon said. “Cold day.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” Carlo said stoutly.

“That coat keeping you warm enough?”

He nodded. “Yes. Thank you.” He fingered the material. “I shouldn’t have accepted it from you.”

“I was going to throw it away, remember?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Carlo looked over Torini’s shoulder, watching Petra make snowballs out of the park snow.

“Carlo, won’t you come stay with us? We have an extra room, and it would be no trouble.”

Carlo’s ears went back. “You know I cannot accept. I won’t take charity. Petra and I don’t need it.”

“It’s not charity,” Torini insisted. “You’re like family.”

“Like family. But not family.”

“My brother married your daughter. That’s close enough for me.”

Carlo shook his head definitively. “We’re fine. I will buy my own house, and then I would be delighted to have you over for dinner. Petra can play with Duomi, and we will have fish and broth.”

“We’d be much happier if you…and Petra…came to stay with us, just until you can afford your own place. It’s so cold and dangerous, and we’re so worried about you.”

Carlo smiled. “You see a different world than I do. That is why you worry. You see all the bad, all the rottenness. I see light and joy and goodness. The world is a lovely place, and Petra and I have everything we need here.” He spread his arms, and the wind sent the coat flapping over his thin frame.

Torini sighed. “All right. You won’t mind if I come see you every now and then?”

“Of course not. It is a free park. You may come here as you like. And,” he added graciously, “it is good to see you.”

“You too, Carlo. Take care, okay?”

“I will, Torini. Please give my best to Milla and your sons.”

Carlo watched the raccoon trudge away through the snow, under the glare of the fluorescent lights. The lights! He watched Petra for a moment to make sure he was playing safely, then hurried over to the toy stand. The vixen hadn’t started to close down the stand yet; she was helping a better-dressed vixen, and handed her a toy just as Carlo reached the stand.

“Miss Mirta,” he said, panting. “I’m sorry to be late.”

“That’s all right, Carlo.” The other vixen was pure white, like Mirta, but she wore a purple scarf and her coat didn’t have holes in it. She regarded Carlo with some curiosity and didn’t leave the stand.

“I am sorry. I looked all over and found nothing today. Perhaps tomorrow.”

“Thank you for looking, Carlo,” Mirta said, and held out her paw. “Please take a credit anyway.”

“I couldn’t!” He held a paw to his chest. “I bring you nothing; I must not take anything from you.”

“You worked all day, Carlo. You’ve earned it.”

“No, no!” He shook his head. “I cannot.”

“For Petra, then?” She was looking tenderly at him, and he saw the care in her eyes and in the tilt of her ears. She cared about the cub, too, he realized, and then he saw that it would be ungracious of him to refuse.

“Very well,” he said. “For Petra. I will make sure he comes over and says thank you.”

“Tomorrow, maybe,” she said, and turned away from him. “I’m going to pack up now and I need to go home.”

“Good night, then, Miss Mirta. And thank you.”

“Good night, Carlo.”

He walked back to the bench near where Petra was staying, putting the coin in his pouch as he did so. The cub came running over to him and jumped into his lap when he sat down.

“Is it time to play the sleeping game, Da?”

“Nearly, Petra, nearly.” He cast about in his mind for the best places to sleep, and decided on one. “We’ll look for a place in a minute. Let’s just take time to enjoy the day, yes?”

The cub nodded, bouncing on his knee. “I love you, Da,” he said.

Carlo nuzzled the cub affectionately. “I love you too, Petra. You know, this place isn’t so horrible as long as we have each other. You’re my joy.”

“Life is beautiful, Da!” the cub said happily, echoing one of Carlo’s expressions.

“Yes it is, Petra.” The grey sky and grey snow were just the backdrop to the bouncing cub in front of him. “Very beautiful indeed.”

           * * *

            Mirta knew what the other vixen was going to ask, and avoided her gaze while she packed the toys into the small wheeled cart. Finally, the vixen just cleared her throat and asked it.

“You pay him to retrieve toys for you?”

“Sometimes.” Her breath hung in a cloud. The chill had seeped into her fur, but it wasn’t life-threatening yet. She hated herself for envying the other vixen’s scarf and coat.

“And you pay him even when he doesn’t bring anything in?”

The toys wouldn’t fit into their places properly. She hated that, too, not only because it meant her fingers were fumbling, but because it meant she hadn’t sold enough to leave plenty of room. Most days were like that. “Sometimes.”

“Why?”

Mirta sighed and stood up. “His name’s Carlo. Everyone around here knows him. He lost his wife in childbirth and raised his daughter by himself. She and her husband had an accident, and left him alone with their cub. He lost his job and his house but wouldn’t place the cub with a foster agency. So the guys at the market help him with food, and a couple of us around here give him money when we can.” She bent back down, fitting the last toy into place and closing the cart.

“Petra? That’s the cub?” She nodded. “Where is he?”

The vixen was looking across the snowy park at Carlo. Mirta said softly, “Petra died three years ago.”

Together, they watched the old raccoon on the park bench, bouncing his knee and talking to the empty air. The vixen made a small “oh” sound, accompanied by a tiny puff of white. She bent suddenly to help lift the front of the cart, which had frozen to the ground. It came loose with a crack, and Mirta smiled her thanks before starting to roll the cart away.

The vixen walked with her, one paw holding her purchase, the other resting on the cart. Mirta glanced warily at her, but was met with a smile and turned back without protesting, allowing the vixen to accompany her all the way to the edge of the park. There Mirta set the cart down, waiting for a transport to pass in the street beyond. Her companion turned back to the old raccoon, now wandering in the opposite direction, his paw extended downward as if holding tightly to the upraised paw of a small cub. They traveled back over Mirta’s worn cart and threadbare coat before noticing that Mirta, too, was watching Carlo walk away.

“A whole credit, though?” the vixen said softly. “You can’t afford that, can you?”

“No,” Mirta said softly. Her eyes were filled with tears, and she only got one more emotion-choked word out. “But…”

She brushed the tears from her eyes and shook them into the snow, turning back to the cart. The other vixen put an arm around her and walked with her across the street.

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