Authors: Piers Anthony
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic
Canute raced ahead as John skirted the overgrown pasture. The grass was waist high and ready for cutting. There were perpetual rustles within it, leading the dog a happy chase.
"One man went to mow," John sang, slightly off-key, "went to mow the meadow. One man and his dog went to mow the meadow."
Canute, thinking he was being called, returned to peer at his master inquiringly. His brow was wrinkled vertically, one ear was inside out, and there was a bit of dirt on his nose.
"Two men went to mow, went to mow the meadow," John continued, patting the dog affectionately. "Two men, one man, and his dog went to mow the meadow."
Canute heard something and shot away into the grass again, tail wagging.
"Three men went to mow...."
John was up to twelve men—and a dog—by the time he reached the spruce grove. Canute rejoined him, sniffing this new ground as avidly as ever. The layered needles were spongy, the air abruptly still. John reflected that he must have been here a thousand times, and the dog a hundred, yet there was always something to intrigue the human mind and the canine nose.
been something. John realized that today he was bored with it and had in fact been bored for some time without being aware of it. Everything in the township was overfamiliar. He knew every house, every yard, every tree of the surrounding countryside. He stopped beside the largest tree. Most of its lower branches had been broken off, leaving dead spokes or sappy wounds in the trunk. He would get filthy if he climbed it.
So he climbed it, hoisting himself by hand and foot. Canute paced worriedly beneath, his spotty forehead wrinkling again. The dog did not like to be left alone, even for a few seconds. Though sleek and hefty, he was at six months still a puppy. He demanded a lot of attention and usually got it. He could howl soulfully and with considerable volume when neglected.
John paused to peer down. Canute was standing against the trunk, his paws against the lowest spoke, head tilted back appealingly. One black spot impinged on an eye, making him seem lopsided, and his open mouth showed pink and black. He began to whine.
"Well, come on up!" John called.
Canute watched him, tail wagging hopefully.
"Up! Up the tree, mutt," John said, smiling.
The dog fidgeted, making his spots ripple. He whined louder and added a yip. Then suddenly he curved his front paws around the spoke, scrambled with his hind legs, and pulled himself up.
"You can do it!" John cried. "Keep climbing, boy!"
Canute struggled upward. As he ascended, he gained proficiency, until he was making fair progress.
John resumed his own journey. "I'll race you, pooch!" he called.
At first he outdistanced the dog. Then, as the narrowing trunk and thicker foliage inhibited him, the gap between them shortened. By the time there was visibility above the small forest they were almost together. John noted with interest that Canute's paws no longer wrapped around the branches. Instead, his claws dug into the main trunk, retracting when he let go to find higher purchase. No wonder he could climb faster!
The tree swayed. "We'd better stop," John gasped. "Top might snap off." He didn't really believe that, of course... then another gust of wind touched them, and he
They stopped, clinging to opposite sides of the slender trunk. From this vantage, with head and tail out of sight, Canute looked very much like a leopard. John wondered fleetingly whether Dalmatians had any leopard blood. No—leopards were basically cats, he was sure; they couldn't interbreed with dogs.
"I didn't know dogs could climb," he said as an afterthought. "Well, let's go down before we're late for supper."
Canute, always ready for food, needed no coaxing. He backed down, those marvelous claws operating smoothly. John had to hurry to keep the pace. It bothered him, though. He
known that dogs could climb trees.
They dusted themselves off at the bottom and trotted on toward home. Mom was cooking supper. Green beans and chicken, the smell announced before they entered. Every second Tuesday, the same. He had memorized the schedule long ago.
It occurred to him to ask Mom about the tree-climbing ability of dogs, but he reconsidered immediately. Three years ago, when he was thirteen, he had had a kitten. The little cat had had a prehensile tail. John hadn't realized that this was remarkable until he researched cats in the encyclopedia and found no reference to this characteristic in felines. He had mentioned this to Mom, just as a matter of passing curiosity, but she had been quite upset. Next morning the cat was gone, never to return, and questions about its fate were turned aside. John had become more cautious about his remarks thereafter.
No—he would keep silent about Canute's talent. He liked the big dog too well to have him disappear abruptly.
He went up to his room and started to clean it while Canute chewed contentedly on an old shoe. John was not addicted to neatness, as the entrenched mess attested; he just needed time to think things over.
Canute's ability, John realized as he poked the broom under the bed and stirred up curly dust mice, followed a pattern of sorts—a pattern of little inconsistencies. The Smiths were an ordinary family, Newton was an ordinary town, and the United States was America. But:
Item: That kitten's tail had been prehensile—the way a monkey's tail was supposed to be, not a cat's.
Item: Canute could climb a tree—catlike.
Item: John had never been out of the township.
Item: Some of his schoolmates had skin that could peel off, like furniture varnish. Underneath it was tan. John's skin would not peel; it became tan in summer but faded to a pale color in winter.
Item: His parents didn't like him to remark on such things.
That was enough for a start. Five items—was there a consistent framework for these things? A common explanation? A ripple of goose pimples went up his arms and across his shoulders and on into the back of his head. He was not cold; that was the way he reacted to discovery. Five items—and suddenly he was certain they
linked! The connection was really fundamental, affecting his entire outlook, maybe his life.
Mom appeared. "Dear, have you written to Betsy yet?"
Someone always interrupted him when he started to
It never failed.
"Not yet, Mom," he said, glancing at her with frustration. She was verging on fifty and getting stout; her hair was inclining toward gray. She had a round affectionate face, and her hands were wrinkled. Would they also peel if scratched?
"Maybe I'd better get started, though," he added quickly. "I was just thinking about her." That was a lie, but he didn't care to admit the true direction of his thoughts.
"That's good, John," she said. "Supper in fifteen minutes. Be sure to wash your hands." She left.
John looked at Betsy's picture, propped on his cluttered desk.
Item: He was going steady with a girl he had never met.
Well, now he was committed to that chore. He would have to write to Betsy Jones. Mom would fret if he didn't.
He brushed aside comics, magazines, and wood carvings to make a space for his typewriter. This was a battered portable with a broken bell and faded ribbon, but it worked well enough. He had taught himself to type by hunting and pecking with gradually increasing facility. He could now type slightly faster than he could write, and that was adequate. His composition was limited more by the speed of his thoughts than of his two fingers. He rolled through a sheet of paper and typed the date:
Then, "Dear Betsy."
About then his mind went blank. What should a sixteen-year-old boy say to a sixteen-year-old girl he had never seen in his life? He had written to her every week for the past six months, but that didn't help. It meant only that he had exhausted the possibilities in routine description and query. In reply he had her weekly letters describing
house (pretty much like his),
family, pet (a parakeet), school studies. She had to be as bored with it all as he. By mutual and unwritten consent they had never discussed romance. This contact had been arranged by their parents, and neither John nor Betsy could work up any enthusiasm for it. Probably the letters were snooped on, anyway.
John touched the keys without depressing them. How about: "Dear Betsy—how many inconsistent items can you count? Do your friends have the same fake white skin mine do?" Sure—if he really wanted to convince her he was crazy!
He picked up the picture, less for inspiration than to justify his failure to get on with the missive. She was a rather pretty girl, brown-haired, brown-eyed, cute curved nose, small mouth. In fact it would have been easy enough to like her had she been
and had she not been forced on him.
John liked to make his own decisions, such as they were. He had precious little opportunity. His school curriculum had been set by others, his homelife was ordered by his parents, and his summer wanderings were circumscribed by the township limits. About the only real freedoms he had were in his mind and heart. Unfortunately he did not have enough information to think really independently and had little interest in girls. That did not affect the principle. Certainly he was not about to get sloppy about Betsy Jones. Now or ever.
"Dear, are you feeling well?" Mom inquired.
He jumped. She was catlike on those stairs—no sound at all! "It's hard to say anything to a girl I've never met," he said lamely.
meet her, John. When you graduate."
"But that's a year off!" He made it sound impatient. Actually he didn't care if it was a century.
"I know it's hard, dear. But it is for the best." She left again.
For the best?
best? Why did it have to be this way? Why these empty motions of remote-control courtship? He glanced at Canute, now snoozing on the rug. It was all part of the mystery—the girl, the dog, the cat, the fake skin, the subtle supervision. How could he unriddle it all, let alone overcome it?
He unfolded Betsy's last letter. She had waxed philosophic, and he had only skimmed it disinterestedly upon receipt a couple of days ago. Did Betsy find this charade as frustrating as he did? Had she expressed her rebellion by writing high-sounding nonsense?
"Dear John," she had written. "Have you ever wondered what you would do if you had just three wishes? Three fairy-tale wishes, I mean, that you could make once and never again, and they could never be changed afterward. And whatever you phrased as a wish would be honored literally, even if it were only 'I wish I didn't have so much homework' or 'I wish you'd shut up.' And you couldn't cheat by wishing for a thousand more wishes or half a wish at one time."
Pointless speculation, but now that he considered her remarks at leisure, they did make some sense. He
dreamed about wishes, deciding what he might do with one wish or a hundred. He had decided that if one wish were used to ask for a thousand wishes, each of those would be only one-thousandth the strength of the first, so nothing could be gained. So he established a standard format of three medium-potent wishes; no more and no fewer could be used. When he was eight, he had settled on a toy store, a candy store, and a pet shop. At twelve it had been a spaceship (he had seen the design in a science-fiction magazine), a billion dollars in gold coin, and a purebred Dalmatian puppy.
Actually, it was high time he updated that list. Like a last will and testament, the latest edition remained in force until superseded. He wasn't at all certain the wishes of a twelve-year-old boy should be binding on a young man. He no longer wanted the spaceship, since his interest in stellar navigation had waned. Gold coin was passé; an unlimited charge account would be better and far easier to carry around. And the Dalmatian he had now.
He returned to Betsy's letter: "At first I thought money or material possessions would make the ideal wish. But before long I realized that I have all of that sort of thing I need. My folks take care of me, clothe me, feed me; I have an allowance to cover other things. A million dollars would not make me happier, and it might make me sadder.
"Then I thought that all I had to wish for, really, was happiness itself. Nothing else means anything without that, and
it I would be independent of the other things. If wealth were a legitimate part of happiness, I would automatically have wealth; if residence in a palace were required, I would have that. Maybe I'd marry a prince. Everything would be taken care of.