Among Others

May 26, 2011

For a moment Isidore could not see through the smoke and the flurry of wings. He heard the kits shriek and scatter, and then lunged as swift as a swordsbeast for one of them, an otter.

He threw himself over his wriggling, squeaking quarry. A score of burning stings lanced through Isidore’s shirt, but finally the panicked swarm streamed past him and away from the fire. The pain would stop if he ignored it.

Isidore dragged the shrieking babe upright and cuffed his ear. “They’ve gone now— no, don’t you run too—” and he dug his claws into the cub’s scruff “— tell me your name.”

“Ripple, sir.”

“Ripple, you’ll have it for this.” Isidore reached for a withy branch and peeled it from its tree.

“I didn’t do it,” the otter bawled. “It’s their fault—”

Isidore flourished the rod. He bent Ripple over his knee and made a heavy stroke over the back of the otter’s legs. He delivered another smack, then another and another all in quick succession. Ripple squalled. He beat his fists against Isidore, he wriggled and spat, but the rat drew back only briefly. He had often whipped beasts for petty thefts and for speaking out of turn, as he had been whipped when he was young. It was never so dreadful as one feared; feeling the smart did a babe good.

“Ooh, I’ll tell my Dad,” said Ripple. “Lemme go, lemme go…”

Isidore whisked the hateful branch over the otter’s tail.

But the cub finally wriggled and tumbled from his grasp. He landed with a sob, and he tottered away in little half-hops. Isidore gave chase, huffing after him; with each pawfall, his mass shook and bowled forward.

They ran out of the orchard and onto the lawn, into the midst of the campball teams. He shook the withe at Ripple. The cub dove behind an older otter, a beast Isidore recognized as the Skipper.

Isidore (doubled over, panting) threw down his branch. “That kit’s done me wrong.”

The cub clung to the Skipper’s leg. The older otter hoisted him up. “Rip?”

“He’s whipped me, sir!”

“He knocked over a hive — might’ve stung him to death —”

“You thought you had the right? My son?”

” — and they’ve swarmed. I had the right,” said Isidore. “You look, he’s hardly sorry at all.”

“By Martin, he’s bleedin’.” Skipper set down the cub, who howled like a beast dealt a death-blow. “I’ll thrash you harder’n anything.”

The campball crowd had gathered round. Isidore saw the weasel Noel, his sometimes-pupil. Together they would spend their evenings in the orchard. They would blow smoke rings and watch Brother Aloysius swoop overhead, snapping gnats from the air. Isidore downed sticky mugs of beer and lemonade; he spoke abstractedly of the honor of hard work while stacking bricks or sanding wood. Noel would listen attentively and say nothing.

But there-and-then, the weasel wrinkled his brow, shrugged and hunched away from the fight.

A different beast approached and shouldered through the throng: a regal otter, Abbot Carter, his paws held aloft. “Stop this now,” said Carter, “hold, all of you. Skip?”

“Aye, Father.”

Isidore frowned. “Sir.”

“I’ll take the rat. Stop peeping, you lot— take the cub to the infirmary.” He took up Isidore’s paw. “Show me the bees. We must talk.”

They walked to the orchard, strolled for a quiet moment under festoons of sweet blossoms. The Abbot snapped a pawful of apple florets from a branch and sniffed them. He crumpled the flowers in his paw and let them scatter on a breeze. At last, he spoke: “You’re Miss Selendra’s project?”

“I am.”

“I remember her Dibbunhood. Sel was a good, strong beast even then. We might’ve used her in the Long Patrol. But she likes stitching, and dipping candles, and scrubbing floors. All the little arts of peace. You too, I think.”

Isidore hesitated. “I do.”

“Your actions suggest otherwise.”

He remembered Noel’s disinclination to watch the fight. He thought of Selendra polishing candlesticks to a mirrorlike surface and peering at herself in their convexities, and the way she might dance so her skirts fluttered at the next Nameday feast.

Isidore inclined his head and held out his paws in supplication. “Father, please. Forgive me…”

“I will.” The otter tapped him on the shoulder.

They came to the collection of hives at the center of the orchard. The fire that lulled the bees to sleep crackled merrily in its shallow pit; it had consumed most of the wicker skep, and gave off black smoke as it burned the wax inside. The cloud smelled of scorched sugar. Isidore took the shovel he kept at the fireside, and he scattered dirt over the fire until it died.

“Martin bless me if they haven’t all flown. Excuse me, Father.”

“Of course. But let’s talk; I should like to know you well as anyone in Redwall.” The Abbot sat on a pile of bricks. He motioned at Isidore’s scars. “You must’ve earned these in a fight.”

“Did someone say?”

“Say what?”

“Ah… hordebeast. I was a hordebeast.” He looked at his footpaws. “I’m finished with that.”

Carter smiled. “Well. You always know a military fellow. My commanders thumped me and everyone else, just the same as you thrashed that cub.”

“Aye.”

Isidore hunched by the fire and picked the burnt carcass of a bee from the embers. He had lost the hive for good. Like as not they had swarmed outside the abbey and would build a new home there. A sickly contrition had seized him; the paw that had swung the withe felt heavy.

The Abbot knelt beside him. “There is always room for a beast like you in my Abbey,” the otter said. “But there are things you must understand. Give me your paw.”

Isidore offered, and the Abbot gripped it tightly.

“Here… the Abbey is like this. We stand together, always, or we aren’t Redwallers. Goodbeast or vermin, you live here. So our paws are lashed together in whatever we do.”

“I understand.”

“All or none.” He smiled at Isidore. “Then if I asked you to fight for me, would you?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Whatever, however you’re tested, you will?”

“I will.”

“Then let me test you,” said Carter. “What I’m about to do… understand it as penance. And it’ll prove you.”

Carter thrust his paw and Isidore’s into the coals.

Isidore did not shout and he did not pull away; he grimaced, but he submitted to the Abbot. The otter finally relented.

Carter’s smile sparkled. “Then we’ll call you Brother. You’ll take the habit.”

The habit: he saw himself in habit, tending the bees. Green draped with white veils, and scattered with straw… He felt invigorated as he might with a pint of shandy in his belly. They left the orchard. He saw young Noel demonstrate a strange shimmying kick to the campballers, and he waved. Noel frowned, but he did wave back.

At their parting, he bowed. “Father.”

“Brother Isidore— go. Apologize to Skipper. And show that cub some mercy.”

The Abbey’s grounds brimmed with sunlight and seemed to shine from within, almost like stained glass.

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