Norah’s Skin, Page 2

Norah’s Skin, Page 2

Page 2
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Over the next few days, the thieves returned, sneaking quietly onto her property around sundown to snatch a few eggs before scuttling off again.  Jupita normally watched from her window, finding it a decent distraction from Ricard’s decision to sell Norah.  Imagining the lives of these scrawny, homeless children was also a fair diversion, but it alighted a number of concerns—where were these boys living?  Did they not have families?  Were they managing to get any work in town?

It was a relief to always see them together, knowing that they at least had each other, but after spying on them for three days, she began to feel that she should be able to do something for them.  On the fourth evening, she left out what remained of a loaf of stale bread and some cucumbers that were beginning to mold, setting the offering near the roosting boxes as though it was for the birds.  The thieves arrived only minutes after she had set out the treat, and most of the quails had been off to rest when she left the food there, so it was untouched when the young boys found it.

Norah had grown used to the little thieves in the days that they visited—she must have noticed that Jupita raised no alarm over their presence and that children of that size posed little threat to an elephant.  She grew curious about the boys, even, Jupita began to notice.  During their brief visits, Norah would approach the bars of her pen and reach through to sniff the ground just outside.  Her focus on the patch of ground that she examined seemed to intensify if one of the boys glanced her way, as though she were pretending to be inspecting something very interesting in an effort to lure the children over to her.  Neither appeared all that interested in a patch of dirt, but Jupita could see that they held a certain amount of curiosity toward Norah herself.

The fifth evening the boys came by, they didn’t even go directly to the quail boxes.

Jupita had spent all day scrubbing down Norah—only to have the silly girl throw a hefty dusting of dirt over her back immediately afterward—and laid out her favorite treat in her trough, a pile of banana leaves.  There had been extras, but Jupita set them aside in a barrel for later.  It wasn’t as though Norah needed to stuff herself on banana leaves, and those were considerably pricier to obtain than ordinary hay.  The elephant was fussing about the hidden leftovers when the thieves arrived, reaching between the bars of her pen with her trunk in the general direction of the barrels stacked against the north side of Jupita’s house.

“What’s wrong with her?” Dmitri asked upon witnessing the sight.  He didn’t bother to lower his voice as he spoke—Jupita knew the boys were getting cozy with the idea that they hadn’t yet been caught by the farm’s Human occupant, and each day their guard was more lax.  She wondered why—as it was apparent that someone did live on the farm—they appeared not to question why that was.  Still, they showed restraint and moderation for poor, thieving children, and so long as they respected her property enough to leave enough food each day for her to make ends meet, she wasn’t about to chase them off or alert the constabulary.  They provided some entertainment for her, anyway.

“She’s pointing to those barrels there,” Ian noted, moving over to inspect them.  He pried the lid off one and peeked inside.  “Huh, it’s… oh, these are leaves.”  Reaching in to his shoulder, Ian grabbed one of the leaves, about twice the size of his palm.  “I get it.  She’s hungry.”

“If I were that big, I imagine I’d be hungry all the time,” Dmitri said, then shrugged.  “Well, I suppose even with my size, I already am.”

Ian stepped near Norah, showing no sign of fear or wariness.  “Is this what you wanted?”  He stretched out his arm to offer the leave, and Norah snatched it up in her trunk, crinkling it and causing a few small, dry pieces of it to flake off, and shoved it in  her mouth.  Chewing, she reached out again with her trunk, but not to beg for more.

Instead, she began inspecting Ian with her nose, sniffing up his torso until the tip of her trunk reached his face and traced around his jawline.  She didn’t quite come skin-to-skin with him, but Ian laughed nervously at the tickle of air blown through her snout and gently tried to push her trunk away.  Norah flapped her ears once in response and turned her attention to Dmitri.  He was still in the reach of her trunk, but she had to stretch it out to reach him.

“Hey!”  Dmitri seemed less inclined to tolerate Norah’s affections, but neither did he move away from her when her nose bumped up against his shirt, inspecting the dirty, torn thing with great gusto.  “I’m not hiding any food in there, if that’s what you think.”

“Give her leaf, Dmitri.”

As Jupita watched Dmitri move to the barrel and fish out another treat for Norah, she recalled her own childhood, so many turns of the sun past, when her father had instructed her in similar ways on bonding with the elephants.  They needed to feel close to their caretakers, and not just so they would know not to bite the hands that fed them, but so the elephants would know that they could trust their keepers, too.  Norah, seeing that young Ian and Dmitri caused no apparent damage (she was likely indifferent to the missing quail eggs) and offered her tasty treats, was coming to trust them.  It warmed Jupita to see Norah so sociable with these children who were clearly lacking for homes and families beyond each other, but her peaceful observation turned sour when she remembered Ricard’s plan.

Norah would be slain, the farm sold and Jupita moved into town, and likely less tolerant owners would be placed on the property, willing to turn in or shoot thieves, no matter how petty.

Watching Dmitri hold out a banana leaf to Norah’s roving, playful trunk, Jupita was smacked with the realization of how much was a stake.

Her life was waning.  Not so much that she was ready to give up—her old joints still had some spark in them—but she was ready to accept that her time on the farm was coming to its end, and her life would cycle into a new phase, one less active and preferably with more time for casual leatherworking.  Norah was young, though.  Those thieving boys were young.  That vibrancy and joy of youth could very well be brought to an end by heartless rules and cold economics, and it wasn’t fair.

The wheels in Jupita’s mind turned as she tried to fathom a way to exit her farmer’s life with a bang, and maybe spare the free spirits of those youths outside her window in the process.

Jupita was both sorry and a bit sadistically thrilled to tease Norah with treats in the following few days.  Every evening, before the thieves arrived at their regular time, Jupita would finish off her chores by allowing Norah a taste of some treat she preferred—more banana leaves, but additional and rarer sweets like fruits and chewy roots—and then “forgetting” the leftovers in some place that was easy to find—beside tools, resting against stacks of hay, “dropped” in the middle of path to the house—making sure that Norah saw exactly where it was placed.  Norah would then make a fuss about it when the thieves arrived, pleading with them to retrieve the snacks for her, to which they always obliged.

Jupita chuckled in the silence of her heart at how uncomplicated it was to manipulate both Norah and the thieves to match her intentions.  Her mother had always told her that trickery and manipulation were for criminals and con-artists, but figuring that her goals were noble ones and her means harmless, she saw no reason not to revel in the simple fun of it.  As a result, over the course of another four days, Norah and the thieves, unbeknownst to any of them, formed a bond of trust and friendship under Jupita’s careful planning.

One day, though, her string-pulling was interrupted by a visit from Ricard, who arrived two hours before the thieves’ usual hour.  Too busy speaking with her nephew, Jupita passed on the trickery for the day, and although she knew that the thieves would likely find some time to socialize with Norah once Ricard left, she discovered a taste of bitter disappointment in being denied the chance to orchestrate such an interaction.

Perhaps it was best that she come down from her playful power-trip, she thought as she served tea to Ricard in her little house, as it was good to keep perspective and remember that she did not have control over every situation in her life.

“I’ve come to a final negotiation with the tanners,” he told her.  Although this was no surprise to her, just as with his desire to sell the farm, the harsh reminder of reality lashed at her.  She kept her suffering quiet, though, sipping her tea uncomplaining but  without any effort to put on a brave face.  “The final price is a desirable one, better than I thought I’d get, and they said they could pay upon delivery.  They’ll be coming to pick Norah up the day after tomorrow.”

“Some time to say goodbye, then,” Jupita said.

“Yes.  Again, I’m sorry, Aunt, but this is the best option for us.”  In all her years as an elephant breeder, Jupita had gotten used to mentions of “us” including the animals.  She would have to adapt to that particular change, along with many others.

She said little to Ricard about his decision—she had little to say—and once he left, she hovered around her window, waiting for the young thieves to declare the area clear and appear to steal their daily eggs and play with Norah.  There were no treats left out that day, but the boys were happy enough to linger by the bars of her pen, reaching out to pat her on the trunk when she stomped over to greet them.  Norah seemed pleased to see them each day, flapping her ears and eagerly sniffing their clothes to identify them and covertly search for the possibility of hidden snacks.  Jupita realized, watching the simple joy that Norah expressed at their visitation, that she may have been mistaken in believing that Norah was content with her lonely life.  The young elephant rarely displayed such gentle jubilation over anything but the company of these scrappy lads who shared treats with her and piled such affection on her.

She deserved a better life, Jupita knew, more so than Jupita deserved the life that Ricard was trying to obtain for her.  She had already known, when she began her designs to fool the thieves into bonding with Norah, what she must do, and now the time had come to enact the final few stages of that plan.

Jupita moved away from her window and went to her bed, pulling from underneath it a woven basket and removing its lid.  Sitting within was a copper statue of  man dressed in loose, long robes.  The statue stood about as high as her hand was long from wrist to fingertips, and it served little purpose but to look out at its surroundings, the arms of the man spread wide in a grandiose gesture.

Her father had been given the statue as a gift once.  He said it came from a friend who had travelled through the unknown lands to the east, beyond the Ether Border of the Common World, and it represented some sort of priest or saint of the peoples there and could be used to ward off wicked witches.  Her father seemed to believe that—or at least humor the story behind the statue somewhat—but Jupita had always dismissed it as hogwash.  The people of the Common World did not know for certain if any cultures or societies existed on the other side of the Ether Border, and witches needn’t be warded away, as there was no such thing as magic for them to wield.  At most, the statue was a trinket crafted by alleged witch-hunters as a con-scheme.

However, it was actual copper, and while copper wasn’t worth all that much compared to some metals, a couple of starving, homeless thieves might not so quickly write its off its value.  A cheap statue could easily be a week’s worth of food for the both of them, and Jupita would be willing to offer them more.

If, of course, they could save Norah.

Most of the next day was spent preparing a savory stew.  Jupita didn’t often need elaborate meals, but she sometimes crafted special feasts on holidays—summer solstice and her birthday or Ricard’s.  She had a special stew that required more than six hours of simmering, loaded up with pork and pineapple and garnished with sprigs of mint once it was cooked to soupy perfection.  Ricard adored it, and her parents had been fond of it when she first learned to cook it when she was a teenager.  Most importantly, she had a taste for it, but pineapple was imported at great cost from Shorecuff and only in-season for brief windows of time.  It was a rare and irresistible treat.

She hoped the young thieves agreed.

The scenario she set up was fundamentally the same as the ones from the nights before—she laid something promising within reach of the thieves, something too valuable to resist and innocuous enough to assume that it might not be missed if mislaid or removed entirely.  It had been banana leaves and figs before, but now Jupita laid out delights catered not toward Norah, but the thieves themselves—the copper statue, sitting at the end of a trail left by the promising aroma of sweet pork stew.  All she had to do was lay out the scene and slink into the shadows to watch, as always.  The only difference that evening, though, was that she would need to step in at a certain point and become a player herself.

She did enjoy the meal she had prepared for herself, of course, but once finished, allowed the remainder to sit in the cast-iron over the stove.  That scent would linger around the farm well into the night—hopefully not attracting any jackals, though they tended to shy away from the booming footsteps of Norah and her kin—and any young transients who just happened by might think to follow their noses to the savory bounty carelessly left unguarded by a dotty old farmer.

Jupita cracked her front door ajar and slunk into a shadowy corner to wait for the arrival of the lads.  The statue she had earlier set to stand on a shelf near the stove—not directly over it, of course, as the boys would be suspicious of anything so obvious.  Tucked in the corner with her, though, was a heavy wooden plank.  She supposed if these boys meant her any harm, disaster would have stricken her farm already by their hands, but desperate and starving children could be driven to the harshest cruelties when backed into a corner.

Their voices rang out across the farm from outside at their usual hour—their visits were more reliable than clockwork—and Jupita tried not to accidentally hold her breath the entire time before she heard Dmitri whisper, “Smells good out here.”

“We should be careful—the famer would have had to have been in the house just a while ago to tend to that,” Ian warned his partner.  “She might still be in there.”

“We’ve been swiping from this place for weeks and haven’t seen her once.  You know how old bones are—they totter off to bed three hours before the sun sets every day.  She’s probably been napping every time we’ve been here and is probably napping now.”  It was the first time Jupita had heard either of them express such blatant awareness of her presence.  They knew she was an old woman and the primary caretaker of the property, meaning that it Jupita had not been the only one spying lately.  They still seemed safely ignorant of her—she would show them old bones!—so her scheme looked ready to go through as planned.

“Well, we should—wait.”  Ian’s footsteps neared.  In a panicked hush, he said, “Dmitri, the door is open.”

She could hear the shift of grainy dirt and the swish of rough pant legs brushing up against each other as Dmitri joined the other boy.  “It’s open?  If she were inside, don’t you think she would have heard us and come out by now?”

“I… suppose so.  I probably wouldn’t want teenage drifters poking around my property, after all.”

“Why hasn’t she chased us away, then?”  Jupita could only hear Norah stamping around down at her pen, probably indignant that her young friends had their attention locked onto something other than her.  Ian was silent, though.  “She must not be home.  Maybe she stepped out for something and forgot to check to see that she closed the door all the way.  And whatever she cooked up is currently unattended inside.”  His voice grew in pitch and volume at the final sentence, and even as Ian sputtered to form a cautionary counterargument or warning, Dmitri reached out to the door, pushing it inward slowly, no more than the wind could have blown it.

Jupita struggled to keep her breathing even but quiet as she spotted, between the crack of the door and the doorframe, a sliver of Dmitri’s face.  He was gaunt boy, more than a daily diet of quail eggs could do anything for.  She felt almost guilty for baiting those children with a more substantial meal, but she intended to deliver that and more.  She simply couldn’t risk carrying out her entire plan herself, lest Ricard or his trader friends find out.  If two thieves ran off with a prized possession, of course, Ricard would only pity Jupita, who knew about the thieves but just had no idea that they were capable of snatching up anything larger than a quail egg.  Jupita would be free from suspicion, the farm would be cleared, and, hopefully, Norah would be safe.

If she could get the thieves to cooperate, that was.

Lurking in the shadows, Jupita watched as Dmitri slipped through the door, tiptoeing in and glancing around.  He didn’t think to look behind the halfway open door, of course, and his cursory glance otherwise revealed no residents present in the house.  He turned—to his left, still avoiding an angle that would reveal Jupita—and opened the door further.

“Ian, it’s empty.”

“Really?”  Ian stepped in without waiting for further confirmation, though.

The door obscured most of Jupita’s sight as the young men entered her home, so she listened to their soft, padded footsteps—more delicate for teenagers than Jupita would have expected, even if they were thieves.  She listened as one of them fiddled with the cast-iron lid to the stew pot while the other let out a soft whistle.

“What is it?” Ian asked.

“Look at that.”  Jupita suspected—hoped—that Dmitri was admiring the copper statue.

As sweet and savory steam escape from the pot and drifted about the house, Ian said, “I don’t know if we should tamper with that.  It looks important.  The farmer will probably know if it goes missing.”

“So?  If it goes missing, we probably should, too.”

While the two of them bickered over the statue, both facing away from the entrance, Jupita slowly pushed the door closed, careful not to make enough noise to alert the young men to the goings-on behind them.

“Do we want to leave, though?  Already?  We’ve been doing pretty well at this farm.”

“Sure, but I can’t live off of quail eggs forever.”  Dmitri paused, but before Ian could answer, the shorter boy turned to him.  “Wait, is this about the ele—”  His head had turned enough that, out of the corner of his eye, he became aware of Jupita halfway through his sentence.  He spun fully around and stared at her, his pupils expanding in shock.  “Uh-oh.”

Ian dropped the lid back onto the pot with an ear-grating clang and turned, too.  His eyes fell immediately to the wooden plank in Jupita’s grip and he stepped back reflexively, bumping into the cooking rack on which the pot of stew rested.  As the hot metal burned the seat of his pants and back of his leg, he skipped to the side and did his best to press himself against the wall, as though that would save him from the armed old woman.

Dmitri noticed her makeshift weapon, too, and reached around the back to the back of his belt, probably for some shoddy little weapon of his own.  Jupita didn’t figure that poor boys like this would long hang onto anything powerful enough to truly hurt her—weapons like that went for too much money—but it signified that Dmitri, at least, was willing to fight Jupita if it meant escaping her house.  As soon as he had the dull little knife drawn, Jupita reached out with her plank and smacked him on the hand, causing him to yelp and drop the blade.  Ian, seeing this, somehow managed to press himself even flatter against the wall and hold up his hands in surrender.  Dmitri took a step back, too, holding his injured hand and glaring at Jupita.  He gave no blatant signal of surrender like his partner, but he seemed subdued enough, so Jupita lowered her weapon and dove into an explanation, hoping that would keep them from trying to escape her.

“I need your help.”

Dmitri raised his eyebrows and Ian lowered his hands; no verbal response from either of them.

“I know you two have been swiping my quails eggs for the past few weeks,” she continued.  “And I know that you’ve been spoiling my elephant.  She’s grown fond of you both.”  Dmitri tilted his head, possibly wondering why her words were more calm observations than accusations.

“My farm is going to be sold, soon.  So is Norah, my elephant.  My nephew is selling her to traders for her hide.  He says that they’re going to pay well enough to set me up for an easy life and luxury for the remainder of my years, but I’d rather she live than sacrifice her for my own comfort.  I can’t save her, though.  I’m too old, and since the arrangement has already been made, if I got caught trying to set Norah free, it could ruin my nephew’s relations as a businessperson.  I need someone else to do it for me, and Norah likes the two of you.  She’d follow you.”

Ian peeled himself away from the wall and stepped forward.  “You want us to save your elephant?”

Jupita nodded, but Dmitri crossed his arms, hunching his shoulders to make himself look forlorn and starving—more than he naturally did, that was.  “And what would we get out of this?  We can’t risk getting caught over something this big for nothing.”

The farmer nodded to the simmering stew.  “I know what drew you in here.  You can eat your fill—you’ll need it, to deal with Norah.  And I know what kept you in here.”  Ian glanced over at the copper statue.  “It won’t sell for as much as it looks like it might, but that’ll feed you boys for a good two weeks, at least.  And it’s a silly old trinket, so no traders are likely to question why it is in your possession.  I can offer you a handful of coins, too, but I haven’t got much more than that.”

“How are we supposed to save an elephant, though?” Ian asked.  “You said she’d just follow us?”

“Yes.  All it will take is a few banana leaves and the trust you’ve already built with her.  If you want to hear my plan—if you agree to help me and Norah—then I’ll ladle you up some stew and I can explain while you eat.”  The promise of a hot meal, more than the statue or coins or hope of saving their new pachyderm friend, appeared to motivate both the young thieves to nod their heads.


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Text copyright © 2014 Jasmine Gower
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