Eggy Former and the Speaker of Glyphs

Glyphs flitted in the air like a swarm of gnats, dragonflies, and hummingbirds. Some glyphs small to see, others too fast to catch, but the fetch otter named Eggy Former snatched a gnat. He turned and held out his cupped hands to the group of animals. They stared up at him, mouths open, eyes expecting a trick.
“Watch what happens,” he said, and then closed his eyes as he twisted his paws sideways and back. The pebbles he’d picked up before snagging the glyph tumbled over in his palm and then molded around the symbol, enclosing it into one stone resembling a quail egg, though lopsided. That’s how he got his name, forming egg shaped stones around glyphs. It wasn’t a compliment.
Tattlewink, a sparky mink kit, lit up. “I got it,” she said. “I can do it.” She squatted, plucked a handful of rocks, and darted into the glyph cloud, chasing one of the dragonfly-sized clusters of symbols.
Eggy shook his head and started to call after her, but bit his tongue.
After Tattlewink leaped and grabbed the glyph, she landed with her paws cupped together, just like Eggy had shown the group, only with grace. And she’d caught one of the dragonflies. Sweat beaded on Eggy’s cheek. Or was that a tear? He wiped it away before anyone saw.
Her eyes glinting, Tattlewink brought back the egg to the group and modeled it for them, as if it were a diamond necklace around her throat. Against her fur, the egg shined like mother of pearl with golden inlay and was three times the size of the clump that Eggy had formed. It was perfectly smooth and tapered from tip to bottom like a dream.
Whispersnit, one of the enclave elders, pawed Eggy’s shoulder. “Better than you, I see,” the bobcat said. “How many this month?”
“Five,” Eggy said, his head dropping. Five of the animal pups had out shined him at his own game, his own one-trick game.
“And you’ve created no other tricks in the last year. Look, I’m sorry, but we’re going to let Tattlewink take over for you. You showed promise early on, but I think we’ve done all we can. What do you say?”
Eggy’s heart plopped out of his chest and rolled on the ground where a preying mantis chopped it in two, ate one half and then cut up the other into minute chunks to feed her young. At least that’s what it felt like. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked. “You’re kicking me out? I’ve got nowhere to go.”
“Remain in the den until we decide where to send you next. We’ll find a suitable place for you.”
Eggy shivered at her words. Suitable? What did that mean? Did they mean to put him down? He slunk to the enclave den and fell onto his pallet. He turned to the wall and fought back tears. He knew the day of reckoning was coming, he’d just hoped it wouldn’t be so soon. Why now?
For five days, he slept late and lounged in the den. He stared out the view hole across the way to the dwelling where glyph speakers, the dragons, lived. Most days, the yard was empty since it was still cold an the dragons were ancient. They needed more sun before speaking in the yard. They had a fire going in the dwelling and smoke drifted out of the stack.
Other pups trained outside the den. No elder came to rouse Eggy. No one seemed to care that he was starving.
At week’s end, Eggy woke as the den brightened from midmorning sun, though that didn’t clear the growing sense of abandonment. The longer he went without an assignment, the more likely he’d wind up in a bad place. He checked out the view hole to see that a covered raft had pulled up to the lake’s edge in front of the glyph speaker dwelling. A raft? Bringing someone or taking someone away? Had his time come?
Then Whispersnit burst into the den, startling Eggy, “Hey, there you are,” she said, pointing to the fetch otter. “Come with me. They brought one of the speakers back and they need some help taking him in. The old dragon.”
Eggy froze as an image struck him. He remembered a dream that boiled nausea in his gut. In the dream, he struggled with a dark monster, a thing lacking arms and legs, but with one long tongue, as if the beast were a hole in night and the tongue were wound around a spool behind the great wall of nothingness. The tongue was long enough to wrap around him a dozen times and he felt cuts on his arms as if it had grabbed him with razor sharp claws. That’s what its papillae were, sharp claws. He could not fight though he struggled. He could not break the tongue’s hold though he wrenched and turned.
And then each claw took a plug out of his flesh. The tongue claws held him down such that he could not escape and then they ate him. They cut chunks out of his chest and legs until he was a bloody mess, with just a head remaining. Head with eyes wide, and awareness of a supernova of pain bursting inside his skull. In the dream, he looked up, searching for the monster’s face. And there it was, blank eyes inside a vacuous skull. He’d seen that face one other time.
The face was his dream’s central image in the midst of trapped and oppressive feelings that enveloped him, though it faded into the darkness before he could grasp it as his mind ran out of space to fill. He was left troubled without knowing why a vacuous, blank-eyed face wanted to devour him.
“What was that?” Eggy asked, feeling woozy.
“They’ve had the old dragon in convalescence,” Whispersnit said. “Now he’s back. Come on, they need us.”
“Wait. Why us? Me?” Burning shadows rooted into his cheeks. “Don’t they have people for that, servants, underlings?”
The bobcat’s eyes stabbed Eggy with sunny reflections so sharp that his stomach turned to ash.
“Oh, oh,” Eggy said, choking on an acid burp. “Underling. That’s me.”
As they headed out of the den, Eggy’s mind tracked back to when he first arrived at the enclave, when he was a promising pup, a spark like Tattlewink. He’d climbed off the raft at the lake’s edge and marveled at the speaker’s dwelling, heart full of hope.
“That’s not your den,” an elder snapped and then pointed to the ramshackle series of holes in the hillside next door. “Go there. Don’t bother the dragons. Let them do what they do.”
An ancient dragon stood out in the speaker’s yard, scowl on his face. He glowered at Eggy and if he’d had a bow and arrow he would have skewered the otter’s feet. But since the old dragon didn’t, his eyes and scowl burned holes in Eggy’s heart.
“And never mind the old dragon,” the elder said, pulling away the fetch otter. “He just thinks you’re another of the whippersnappers who’s going to tweak his nerves.”
That’s what pups did. They tweaked the old dragon’s nerves when he strolled the paths behind the enclave. One day Eggy was sneaking around with a few other students, a rat troll name Pick and a stoat named Whim. Smoke was drifting out of the stack and wafting around the back path. Strange air current swept around the lakeside hills to pull the smoke to the ground.
The group of pups spied the old dragon out back taking his meditative walk, the scales of his tail cracking as it slide back and forth, smoke parting around his head.
One of the pups picked up a rock and threw it at the dragon, tapping him in the back of his head. The dragon called out and grabbed his ear where the chipped rock had drawn blood between two scales.
He turned, and when the smoke cleared, Eggy was standing there in full view, his heart beating like cricket chirps. Pick and Whim had scattered, leaving Eggy to take the blame. Well, if they’d told him the plan he could have hidden too, but it seemed as if they’d set him up to take the fall.
That face, that scowl, that was the face from the dream, the face that had cut up Eggy’s body and had eaten it, except that the old dragon, the eldest of the speakers, was impotent. He could do nothing but speak glyphs that students learned to catch, order, record in journals to make sense of, or form into eggs to scatter about the world. Was he humiliated by having pups as his enemies?
Eggy wondered if the old dragon hated the students, or if he just hated that the world was that way pitting one generation of animal against the next.
Whispersnit tugged Eggy out into the courtyard, and as they trotted across the front yard toward the speaker dwelling, she said, “The old dragon had convalesced for about a week and they just decided to let him come home. He doesn’t have much time left. You understand? Maybe you should ask forgiveness.”
“What happened to him?” Eggy had not kept up on the situation and did not even know that the speakers had taken the old dragon away.
“He hasn’t been doing well for years now, which is probably why you haven’t seen him. He started sleeping for long times so they took him to the quacks to see if they could sense wrongness.” Whispersnit was apprehensive. She seemed upset about the old dragon.
“Did they find anything wrong with him?” Eggy asked.
Whispersnit hesitated to scratch behind her ear, and then answered, “The same thing that happens to us all, just took him longer than it does others. You climb up the age ladder high enough and people forget you’re mortal, start thinking there’s something special about you.”
Eggy did not know how old the speaker was, but the thought of age reminded him of the only time that he had talked to the old dragon, after he’d taken on the job of teaching incoming pups how to form eggs around gnat glyphs. That was when he was a child of promise. He was practicing his egg trick when the old dragon waddled into the courtyard and glanced through the gate to the schoolyard. He then raised his claws to his mouth and spoke dragonfly glyphs into the wind. They scattered.
“Hello, Speaker of Glyphs,” Eggy started, “May I ask you as question?”
“What do you want?” the old one asked. “You’re that pup.”
“Sir, I’m sorry. I wasn’t the one throwing the rock.”
“Liar. Don’t lie to me. They said you had promise. The way you handle glyphs, you might have become a speaker one day. Long as I’m speaker, you won’t pass through these gates. You understand.”
Eggy lowered his head. The old dragon remembered him. He was the pup who threw the rock and would never be anything else.
“I’ll tell you a story, you twit,” the old dragon said, giving Eggy a skewed eye. “A century ago, I was where you are now. I was a four-hind leg flying ferret living in that den, wondering about the old dragons in the speaker’s house. I saw them form glyphs with their tongues and I decided to study them. I was so good at it that they took me out of the student den and gave me to the speakers to learn from them. I ate the bird glyph and grew wings. Then the snake glyph and these scales multiplied over my body. I ate the glyph for dragons and then became what I am now, but no more. They told me I’d become a lesser god, that I could speak worlds into being if I wanted. But you know what? I didn’t. I hit a wall. I never got beyond speaking dragonflies, as if my life choked on them in that moment.” He paused and looked back at the gate. Then he said with a quivering voice and clenched claws, “I never made anything of myself. And neither will you.”
The old dragon looked at Eggy, and the fetch otter saw something in the old one’s face. His face was no longer unfamiliar, no longer a face with pent up anger, no longer a face that perpetually scowled. The lines in the old dragon’s scales were not lines of age. They were ruts that pain had worn into his life.
Eggy felt affinity with the old dragon for the first time, but at the same time felt sorry. He was ashamed that he’d never known the speaker, that he had never cared for him before, that he’d never loved the old one. He would remain the pup that threw the rock, even though he hadn’t thrown the rock.
Whispersnit and Eggy trotted through the gate toward the lake’s edge, where another elder speaker, a feeble old dragon, was stooping next to the pier tying off the rope. The old dragon was resting on a pallet. The other speaker had done her best to pull him from the raft, but she couldn’t tote him across the yard to the dwelling. And none of the other speakers could either. They were too old and had no one to take care of them.
The old dragon looked bad. His face was drawn. His mouth was gaping and he blankly stared. His face did not seem to have the lines it had before. That seemed strange to Eggy. This was the face of an animal beaten senseless, someone who did not feel anymore, not even the deeply entrenched hurt that Eggy knew was there. He did not appear to recognize Eggy or anything else.
“Here,” Whispersnit said. “You grab that side and we’ll drag him up the yard.” So the elder and the failed student picked the pallet up and dragged the old one into the speaker dwelling.
The other speaker held the door. “Drop him in front of the fireplace,” she said.
Whispersnit and Eggy set down the old one, and the dragon stared into the cold fireplace, empty of warmth, but full of ash.
Before turning away, Eggy looked at the old dragon once more to see if he would at least give an indication that he knew the fetch otter, that he knew anything. Maybe at last the old one would accept Eggy’s apology, even though he wasn’t the one that threw the rock, but the old dragon did not recognize his own life, much less that of any other.
And then ancient speaker burped and a dragonfly flitted out of his mouth along with an acid stench. The glyph danced about the air in front of the group and then landed on Eggy’s outstretched paw. He hadn’t tried to catch it, but it had come to him, as if summoned, as if spoken to, as if it were a memory, a glint of a future lost, a future that he would never know.
“Oh,” said the other speaker, holding her hand over her nose. “I’m sorry. Since he lost his continence, he started burping the dragonfly glyphs.”
Whispersnit’s eyes narrowed and Eggy glanced up to the bobcat. “What is she talking about?”
Whispersnit turned aside and said to Eggy, “Come. We have no place here.”
Eggy took once last glance at the blank old dragon and then released the dragonfly so that it again fluttered into the room. Wind sucked up the glyph into the flue. No one would capture it. No one would form it into a shiny egg. It would forever flit about the world, lost as the old man’s soul was. And then the speaker burped again, releasing a stream of dragonflies.
When Whispersnit and Eggy passed through the gate, the fetch otter turned to the bobcat and asked, “He never knew how to speak glyphs, did he? It was just reflux. They made a mistake when they made him a dragon, didn’t they?”
Whispersnit bared her sharp teeth as her jaw pulled back. “He never belonged there. Kind of like you.”
Eggy now felt relieved that the old dragon hadn’t recognized who he was, the pup with lost potential. The student with one trick. The pup unworthy even to scrape the excrement from splattered floors of a speaker’s dwelling.
“Tell me what you’ve learned,” Whispersnit said to the fetch otter.
Eggy thought a moment and then said, “I think the best life is the one where you can forget keys and rocks and breath and it doesn’t matter. And where other souls can forget you and that doesn’t matter either. Why do so many souls worry over so much, things they own, stations where they have to remain top of their game? There’re too many games. I don’t want anything to matter any more, including who I am.”
“You’ve never learned the right life lessons, have you?”
Enough to know you’re all liars, Eggy thought, as he hurried back to the den. Pack up and run, that’s what he needed to do.
He found Tattlewink in the sleeping quarters, slinking in the door. She was about a foot shorter than he was, though half as young. She was smirking.
“They say the raft’s here to take you away,” she said. “They’re going to put you down, otherwise you’d let the secret out.”
“You can’t believe everything you hear, Tattlewink.”
“Oh really?”
“Somebody said you had promise. You believe that? Why? Because you can form eggs? Guess what? That’s what they told me, but what if some day they took you aside and said you’ve failed to live up. Would you believe or would you start to question their motives?”
Tattlewink huffed and scurried away.
No bags, no nothing, Eggy thought. Can’t let them think I’ve run, just that I’ve tripped into wind.
He slipped out the back of the den and cut around the path that wound behind the speaker dwelling. Out of the smokestack, he spotted the stream of glyphs, all easy enough to identify. They were the burps coming out of the old dragon’s mouth. They were dragonflies.
Eggy crouched behind the wall and waited until one of the dragonfly glyphs flitted to the rocks above him. It lit on the wall and Eggy leaped to grab it. When he glanced into his cupped paws, he thought, We’ll, they don’t call me a fetch otter for nothing. And then he ate the glyph, swallowing with one big gulp.
The den never saw him again.