It was not Kurt’s first time traveling inside a bag. There was no use in struggling. Kurt knew that from long experience with Ub. The monster was just too strong. You could sometimes get a lick in, but it just meant the furry brute would clamp down harder once he got a hold of you. So Kurt lay in a ball inside his own shirt and bumped against the monster’s back as it ran. There was really nothing else to do.
After what seemed like a long while, but time takes its time when you’re traveling by sack, Kurt felt himself swung out and around and braced himself as best he could. He still couldn’t see anything but he felt the bag of his own shirt being opened and heard the beast’s snorty breath above him.
“Canst thou be civil?” Ub growled.
“Canst thou?” Kurt retorted. This was met by silence. Prolonged, dark, snorty silence. Finally Kurt relented, “yes.” Instantly he was set on his wobbly feet, the shirt was arranged on him properly if a bit stretched out and a rough paw took his hand and began leading him through an inky blackness no less complete than the inside of his shirt. Even with the guiding paw, Kurt found walking without seeing difficult and painful to his shins. The cavern was not particularly smooth in the neighborhoods around their house. The ground rolled and pitched and no one had really taken an interest in removing the boulders and rocks from the paths. “How can you see where you’re going?” he asked for he never heard Ub smack his shin on a rock.
“Thou assumeth much.”
“You mean you can’t see either? How do you know where you’re going then?”
“What’s that mean?”
“T’is means this be not my feet’s first venture to the Gathering. Nor thine. A proper inquiry shouldst be, not why of me but why not of thee?
Kurt puzzled out the riddle of Ub’s question. He always felt like he was talking to someone who spoke backwards when he talked to Ub and he had to translate everything in his head. Not for the first time did he wonder if it would help if he wrote it down and then held it to a mirror? “So you think, just because I’ve gone somewhere a couple of times, I should be able to find it in the dark?”
“Aye, t’is much to assume upon my part.”
“Wait, that would mean you could only go places you’ve already been.”
“Nay, with confidence doth I arrive to the familiar only. Novelty t’is found in the interim.”
“So you like traveling in the dark?”
“Apparently t’is be the Feast of Assumption. Thou wilt be full before breakfast.”
“So you don’t like traveling in the dark?”
“I travel. T’is dark.”
“Why don’t you use a lantern then?”
Ub didn’t answer right away. It took him a few moments to say, “I have no wish to offend my neighbors.” Kurt wanted to ask, “Who in the world would be offended by a little light?” And he almost did ask. Which probably wouldn’t have got him an answer so much as another accusation of not thinking hard enough. The problem wasn’t that he didn’t think enough, he thought plenty, probably too much. The problem was that his mouth was faster than his brain. Who would be offended by a little light? Nearly every inhabitant of Holetown, that’s who. They acted like it hurt them. There were only three places that Kurt could remember being that were lit nearly all the time: their house; the Lightship, as the name would imply and the Puparia, well, mostly. A lot of the tenders in the Puparia didn’t like lights either and didn’t bother to have any lit anymore.
They traveled on the rest of the way in silence and darkness until they came to the Dreatre where the Lightship was. Opening the door to the Dreatre was like opening the door to their stove at home. A waft of heat and fragrant smoke washed over them. And light! The meal was just starting, Kurt could hear singing around the table. And all the other family members’ candles lit up the flexible dome roof of the Lightship from inside. It was truly one of the most beautiful things Kurt ever got to see. Kurt didn’t like coming here that much, for all its beauty, it was staggeringly dull but the candles almost made it worth it. They were tiny little things that barely lasted the entire meal but to Kurt’s mind they were wonderful. And fun! When the talk at table got especially boring he could sit and play with the melted wax, letting it run all over his fingers and cool into a hard shell. Then pick it off. He could identify all the colors in the flame itself and watch how it reacted to his breath or his spit. He eagerly took one from the smiling monster at the hatch of the Lightship, a slippery serpentine looking lady that gave him the shivers and ran to the central fire to light it.
The central fire was in a big iron stove on the bottom deck, not unlike their stove at home, only with a lot more pipes and hoses and gauges coming out of it and a few more boxes and tanks behind it. Kurt ignored all of those in order to carefully reach his candle into the heat and watch the wick ignite. He liked to do it as slow as possible, only pushing the candle in far enough to make it smolder for a few seconds before it ‘popped’ to life a flame. They being late today, Ub wasn’t having it. He stood over Kurt and made an impatient noise through his snout and Kurt dropped the wick in to catch right away. Then they went up a deck and into the meal.
The upper deck of the Lightship was essentially a really long room that bowed upwards at each end with the patchwork quilt dome billowing slightly over it. The furnishings of the room were customized to suit the need. For the weekly gathering it was a table, bent to conform to the deck, as long as the ship itself and zigzag shaped to provide more space along its edges. There were simple candleholders at each place setting and everyone had a small plate and glass for the meal. Though to call it a meal was a cruel joke. There wasn’t enough food to feed a mouse. A little bread they called flesh that wasn’t made from mushrooms and a little juice, wine for the grownups. That was it. No meat. No lichens or moss. Just bread and juice and a whole lot of talking. Unlike some kids, Kurt actually did try to pay attention to the talk. He really wanted to know what the imago monsters thought. Try as he might though, it almost always put him to sleep and the little snippets he could remember never made much sense. All the monsters were one family. They had one Dad who lived somewhere else and one brother who used to live here in the caverns and mines but died or left or both and one ghost who apparently lived here and where ever their dad and brother were at the same time. That was the gist of it from what Kurt could gather.
What Kurt really wanted to know was why? It was the word that preceded nearly every thought he had. Why did some monsters go to the Lightship and have a meal every week and some didn’t? Many folk, including most of his tenders at the Puparia, didn’t believe there was anything outside the caves except more caves. They scoffed at talk of one dad and pointed to all the different kinds of life there were in the world. They said, some creatures just didn’t adjust well to life and so they invented stories to help them cope. Of the folk he talked to that did seem to believe there was a Dad outside the cave, most didn’t think about it all that much. Why was it important? If the Dad lived there, why did they live here? Did the Dad make them live here? How could they all have the same dad? Where was their mom? Did they all have the same mother? He never seemed to be able to find the answers to these kinds of questions. Talking to Ub about it just confused him more usually. Copper was one of those that never seemed to be that interested and had little patience for why questions anyway, usually deflecting them back onto Ub. It was like all life was as dark as Holetown and everyone only knew what they already knew. Without a light, he was never going to find out anything new to know.
Certainly the crew of the Lightship would be no help. Today’s talk was about how they should all try and seek the Dad. Seek for him and you would find, the captain of the lightship said. Kurt thought the obvious question was why did the Dad hide from them in the first place? If he was anything like Ub, he probably didn’t want to be bothered. Maybe the Dad lived far away because he found all of his kids annoying. This made Kurt laugh but Ub would surely cuff him for laughing at the table so he turned the snurky noise he made into a cough and hoped no one noticed. Ub turned one glittering black eye to him, you could only tell where he was looking by the reflections of light. He looked annoyed but didn’t seem inclined to smack him. No harm, no foul. Kurt’s mind wandered after that. It wandered out to wonder what was outside the caves? Anything? Or was that just a myth too or a theory, which as near as Kurt could tell, was a myth that science accepted. He tried to imagine leaving a cave but found he lacked the imagination. What would the roof be made of? Or the walls? He just couldn’t picture a world outside of the dark, familiar confines of Holetown. Maybe it was just a different kind of cave. That he could imagine. A cave made of crystal maybe. So that light bounced, reflected and refracted off of every surface. That would be cool.
The talk ended, the meal had been eaten. Everyone bowed his or her head, which was the signal that someone was talking directly to the Dad now. How could the Dad hear them if he lived somewhere else? Did he have super hearing? Or was it like the whisperworms? What one experienced, the whole species could feel. Then to end the meal, they sang a song together. Kurt didn’t like to sing; he didn’t like the sound of his voice but he loved music. This wasn’t great music in his opinion. The beat was too slow and there was a decided lack of energy to the song but it always interested him the way others experienced it. Looking around the table some appeared to be carried away, like they could close their eyes and see outside the cave. Others just seemed to be mouthing the words and still a few like him sat silent, waiting for the chance to be excused. The gathering was over for some, like Ub, who didn’t linger to chat often. He often seemed to be lost in his own thoughts at the end of a meeting. They went down the ladder, past the stove and out the door. Kurt had managed to keep his candle lit all through the service and down the ladder but as soon as they hit the door of the Dreatre the cold gust of air from outside blew it out.
Kurt’s questions forgotten, they walked home in silence and darkness as he pondered games he wanted to play once they finally got there. They were greeted at the door by Copper, a trash bag in one hand, her crutch in the other. She licked Kurt’s head with her rough tongue and nuzzled noses with Ub. She purred Ub a question. Kurt could tell it was a question from the tone but it just sounded like an extended mewling noise to him. Ub grunted something in response and they had a brief conversation of growls, purrs, clicks and grunts. Kurt couldn’t follow it but he could follow the emotions behind it and it sounded like greetings and small talk. Kurt went to his box and was pulling out his dominos when the conversation changed.
Copper screeched and started pelting anxious barks at them. Ub grabbed two lanterns from the shelf and called Kurt. “What’s going on?” Kurt asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Thy brother is missing!”