She turned to the cat, who had followed her in, and said, "This baby was flung at me like a curse. By taking it in, I avert this curse and carve a different channel in fate. Who knows where it may reach? Besides, I have always wanted to raise a child. Was that a snigger, Falance?"
"Not at all. Perhaps a hair ball." The cat jumped up on the table and peered into the basket again. "Charming creature," he observed. "Something like a pig, something like a bat. Aren't babies supposed to be pretty?"
"He will grow out of it," said the woman confidently. "It is a stage they all go through."
The cat gave her a sharp, incredulous look, which the woman did not catch. Instead, she took the baby from his basket and sat down in a comfortable chair, cuddling him in what she imagined was a maternal way. She had no experience with babies at all, having come into her vocation at a very early age and never having been interested in any aspect of what she had regarded as a messy business. How messy she now found out; the baby had not been tended for some time and stank. Nevertheless, she maintained the pose, largely for the benefit of the cat, who was watching the demonstration with a baleful eye.
"You're actually serious about this?" said the cat.
"Yes, I am," she replied. "There is no reason I can't be a mother. After all"
"Be a mother? My lady, you are the Mother"
"Don't be blasphemous, cat!" she shot back. "At my best, I am merely Her shadow on earth."
"I beg your pardon," said the cat with more sincerity than was his wont. "But think, my lady! What about our work? Who will watch the baby when we are away? Who will feed it when it's hungry? Shall we halt our journeying among the worlds because you must change its sopping clothes? And, again, this house is not a safe place, not a domestic place, as you well know. You know how hard it is to guard ourselves. How, then, will we protect a helpless kitten?"
"Baby," said the woman. On her smooth, wide forehead, two deep vertical lines had appeared.
The cat saw this and pressed his case again. "Lady, I have served you all my life, which through your good grace has been longer by far than cats are used to living, and I say: what you will, I will; but, I beg you, think on this!"
The lines on her forehead faded, and her face took on a more determined look with a tight knotting around her jaw. "I have thought, Falance, and my mind is settled. But all that you say is true; it will be hard on us and on our art."
At that moment, as if by way of demonstration, the infant's gurgling became the full cry of a hungry baby.
"It starts," remarked the cat in a low voice.
The woman rose and jiggled the baby absently. She said, "You are right about one thing, cat. It will definitely require a nurse. Now, who shall it be?"
Baby on hip, she strolled out into the garden and lifted her free hand above her head, palm uppermost. A brown sparrow flew down from its perch on the eaves of the house and lighted on her finger. She brought the little bird close to her lips, whispered briefly, and then tossed it into the air.
In less than three minutes, the sound of creaking boughs and snapping twigs broke from the wood, followed soon by the appearance of an immense brown bear. With heavy tread, the animal approached the woman and stared into her face, which was only a little higher than its own.
"You called, my lady?" asked the bear in a voice stranded between a cough and a thundery rumble.
"Yes, Ysul. Thank you for coming so quickly. I have a favor to ask."
From The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, Copyright © 2005 by Michael Gruber. All Rights Reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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