I’ve got me some beautiful corpse clothes; boots that nearly fit, some slightly baggy black trousers, an olive T-Shirt and a faded autumn-orange sweater with only one hole in the belly where the previous owner was impaled on a tree-branch. Tosh even gave me this thin, fern-green hooded coat thing. Good for camouflage. It’s ridiculously oversized, meant to be half-length yet reaches below my knees. The sleeves flop about past my hands but it’s fine if I roll them up. My Tik furs fit over the top like a vest and have turned the exact brown of wilted fern leaves.
I really want a crossbow, I think it would complete my look, but Tosh hasn’t got one.
The Thing, the balm, and my knife are in a leather money belt strapped securely to my torso. My clothes are so baggy you can barely tell it’s there. I drew the line at corpse underwear, though Tosh swore they’d been washed, but I still feel like a different person. The dunking in the river even counts as a bath, I reckon.
I stomp gracelessly out of the small chamber I was dressing in; the boots are heavy.
“What do you think?” I try to give them a twirl like I remember my mother doing for me, however I’m not sure of the technique, stand on my own foot and nearly fall on my face.
“Why, who is this strange forest princess?” Tosh smiles at me with a kind but ghastly rearrangement of his mandibles. “Where has Shoo gone?”
I find myself grinning stupidly at this (normally, if someone compliments me, it’s followed up with “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else”, or they mug me). I go for a princess-ish curtsy and do fall down this time. I get up quickly and try to look dignified.
Tosh, bless him, pretends not to notice.
“Ouch, that was embarrassing,” Carr points out.
Him and his two brothers are sitting on Tosh’s shoulders as Tosh prepares food at a table next to an oven. There’s a huge brass pot on the hob.
“Embarrassing!” pipes up Barr.
“Stop being mean,” Ank chides them, clearly doing an impression of Tosh. “You look, um… very clean and tidy, Shoo. Not like a street girl at all.”
I’ll take it.
My stomach rumbles at the sight of food being made.
“Thanks, Ank. What are you making, Tosh?” I ask, clomping awkwardly over to them. These boots are going to take getting used to.
“Glad you asked, Shoo. It’s a meal fit for a king,” says and waves a dramatic middle arm at the table while his lower two continue chopping something up. “Since we don’t have a king, it’ll have to be fit for me. Haha. I’m dicing some rotten Feel Eel to go in the blender with some prime road dust from outside Mimmereremere abbatoir.” He gestures at a lump of pulsating dark goo. “Here is a head of fresh Clench-lung Algae which has been blanching in some sump water with half a dead rat, bottom half if you have it. That’ll go in the cauldron which already has half a shovel-full of goat dung, some coffin liquor from an obese woman and a shovel and a half of mushroomy top-soil. Now, some people like to get their topsoil from a garden, but a field will do, it’s the mycelium that matters.” He finishes chopping, scrapes the rubbery, rancid eel flesh into the blender and gives it a whizz. It becomes a light brown paste which he dumps into the pot. “I’m going to let that simmer along with…” he unstoppers a glass bottle, sniffs it, and drips some in. “…ah! A touch of Fond Regret. I extracted this from the same bubble you arrived in. Bittersweet, I’m told is a similar culinary concept to sweet ‘n’ sour.” Tosh turns to me expectantly.
I’m standing there with my mouth hanging open.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says.
“You probably don’t.”
“Oh, I do. You’re thinking it’s very fattening. Well, that might be true, you could just scrape some riverbed up and hope for the best, it’s healthy, yes, but nature doesn’t design bed-load with a delicate balance of tastes in mind. You should be able to splurge once in a while.”
“Splurge,” I say. “Is that what it’s called?”
“You know, I haven’t named it yet,” he says, turning thoughtfully to the horror bubbling away in the pot. “Splurge. Splurge, yes, a nonsense sound but it fits. I could call it Shoo’s Splurge in your honour,” he suggests.
“Erm… I’d rather you didn’t,” I say. I think he starts to look hurt, so I quickly add. “Because I haven’t had much input, I mean.”
“Well, I imagine some of the Fond Regret is yours. I typically don’t squeeze so much out of a bubble. You’ve had more input than you think,” he nods decisively. “Yes, I think the dish has a name.”
“Wait, what about, um, Estuary Gumbo instead?” I ask, thinking quickly.
Tosh considers this, “Not bad, but there was no estuary involved. That would be dishonest.”
“The actual silt content is surprisingly low, and-”
“Sludge Gumbo!” I try.
“Sludge Gumbo?” he thinks about. “Yes, I like it. Catchy. Sludge Gumbo it is.”
I breathe a quiet sigh of relief and look at the three little ones who have hopped onto the table from Tosh’s shoulder and are exploring. “Dinner’s nearly up, kids,” I say.
“Oh, it’s not for them,” Tosh says. “They’re only little. They haven’t got the gut length to manage slurry yet. They’ll have some corpse, and maybe a bit of my leg.”
I swallow, feeling a little faint, “Your leg? Your leg? Your leg?”
“Ah yes, humans don’t do have The Rest, do they? Traditionally, once a Chwillion has spawned, they lay down and are devoured by their children,” he looks fondly at his children. They look back hungrily. “It’s known as The Rest, as I mentioned. That way, the young ones ingest the most essential memories and skills for survival, but it is rather hard on the adult. I chose to do something slightly different.”
“Dad’s a freak,” Carr says.
“Freak!” chirps Barr.
“He prefers ‘trail-blazer’,” Ank says disapprovingly.
“I do,” Tosh says. “While most of my fellow Chwillion disapprove of the practice, it does not seem to have had any negative impact on the children’s development. The Rest was rather hard to resist, I still get the urge to lie down and decompose, especially when they’re having a nibble, but there’s a lot I want to do.”
The Chwillion, I decide, are a strange, strange people. But happy. Even with the unpleasant Carr on the scene, they seem like a loving, happy unit. Functional despite their weirdness. Weirdness to me anyway. The only thing that would improve it was a mummy Chwillion to complete things. I have to ask. “So, where’s their mum?”
Tosh smiles his mandibles, “You really haven’t strayed far from Footfall, have you?”
“No,” I admit.
“Oh, she’s around somewhere. Chwillion women are not corporeal, you see. The boys’ mother visits us often in dreams,” he looks at something far away only he can see. “To you, Mrs Banks, Cascade, would resemble the most divine, sinuous rapids, with magnificent antlers. Truly magnificent. She’s happy to wait a little longer for me.”
I don’t say anything. My mouth is hanging open again. I have so many questions. Such as: does this mean the males give birth like seahorses? Do the girl babies then evaporate into the ether? When the fathers have been eaten by their children, are they then united with the mothers? How do they actually-
“You have questions, I know the look,” Tosh says, interrupting my thoughts.
“Maybe a few.”
“I’ll be happy to answer them over dinner,” he says, stirring the gumbo. I get a waft. The smell is indescribable (But I’ll give it a go: aaaaarrrgggh! There, I did it.)
“Um…” I say, wondering how to break it to him gently that his gumbo would poison me in more ways than a Chwillion has mandibles.
“I have a fresh Salmon roasting for you in the oven,” Tosh says. “It should be ready any… second… now.”
A buzzer goes off from a device on the oven. Tosh looks pleased with himself.
“Oh, thank goodness,” I say.