She was dressed simply, like all mudders, in plainspun from whatever scraps she could find, windblown, or barter for on Fishday. A brightly colored kerchief, quite ostentatious in both pattern and color, hid her hair. A boy, snot-nosed, begrimed and fidgety, dandled on her knee.
The duo were seated on a crude wooden porch in front of a patchwork ramble of wooden ghetto shacks, all ringed in ramshackle walkways, and the whole lot set upon ten-foot high wooden pillars. A tangled neighborhood on stilts, leaning and crowded, all connected by thick wooden walkways in space, like a flock of drunken housebirds, wings out, all come together to pray for sobriety.
The woman said to her son, “Watch now, Jacab, and you’ll see the alleymen – there, near the Butchery, do you see?”
The boy forgot his sticky fingers, and followed his mother’s finger and saw three ugly old men, filthy and bedraggled, stained and threadbare rags barely covered their dirty, emaciated skin. Two were seated, heads down, backs to the wall, while the other lay prone, along the wall, as if he were a carpet rolled up and thrown out for Shunday.
The boy recoiled and made a face and a gutteral sound of revulsion. He thought they were horrible, sick old men, little better than the dogs that his father kicked when they snuffled at the door of their house.
His mother tchked and bounced him hard, and reproached him. “You know better than that, Jacab! Remember the catechism? Say it for me.”
The boy rolled his eyes and dutifully repeated, droning, “Man of the filth is man of the street. Man of the alley is the city’s heartbeat.”
She nodded. “That’s right, and what else?”
Jacab turned his chin-smudged face up to his mother and said, “They watch us and protect us, that’s what Da said. Is that true, Mama?”
She smiled at him, beaming, “Yes, child, it’s the gift of Wedic’s love for us. His weapon to protect us.”
Jacab grinned, “All of us Mama? All the muddies?”
She frowned. “You know I don’t like that word, Jacab! The outsiders call us that. People of the City, some would call us. The People of the Sewers, too. Neither are the truth. We are the Muckamuck, the People. Just that, Jacab. We are only defined by what we do, not by where we live. You don’t understand that yet, but you will.”
She tchked again, reaching into her pocket, “I’m the fool now, Jacab, I forgot the eyebright! Close your eyes now.”
The boy on her knee shut his eyes in trust, and his mother dipped a finger into a tiny pot of unguent, thick and sticky, and ran a thin smear over each of her son’s eyes.
His eyes flew open. “It’s tingling Mama! It’s tickling me!” He bubbled into laughter.
She laughed with him, and said, “Yes, it’s supposed to, silly boy. Now look at the alleymen. See them for who they really are.”
Jacab turned to look again, hesitant, not wanting to look at them, and when he did his mouth fell open as only a child can do and not look the fool. The alleymen had changed. They were still there, but they weren’t, and three others were in their place. He couldn’t explain it.
Where the one old man lay as an old carpet, he still did, but he didn’t look real anymore. A man, small but powerfully built was sitting in him, through him as if the carpet-man wasn’t there. The powerful man was old too, but he didn’t look sick or dirty.
He was seated, cross-legged, and a rich cloth, embroided with a scrolling motif clothed his body. A large hood was thrown up over his head, gold thread stitched through with organic swirls. This was such a change that Jacab couldn’t believe his still-tingling eyes. What made him cry out was the fact that the man sat perfectly still, hands resting in his lap, and his eyes, wide-open, were shining with a bright blue glow.
He mother leaned over and whispered in his ear, “His name is Map, and he is the wisest of the three, for he talks to the city, and the city talks back, and it shows him things.”
Jacab only stared in silence, and then let himself look at the other two. Both of them were standing in, through, their old, dirty selves, and both were old, but powerful looking men. The robes they wore were also the same rich design, but now Jacab could see what the pattern was, and it looked very complicated to his young mind.
Lines and diagonals crissed-crossed and joined all over the old mens garments. It was hard to follow and made his head swim. His mother tutted, “Don’t stare, Jacab, it’s rude and will make you sick. Tchk! What have we taught you?”
Jacab turned to his mother, his eyelids still jumping and popping with the tickly sensation and said, “Why are we here, Mama?”
She shushed him and turned him to face the alleymen and the wide avenue they were looking down. “We are here to see a very bad man get taught a lesson. Be quiet and don’t make a sound.”
Jacab closed his mouth and settled back against his mother’s tummy. A sticky finger found its way into his mouth once again.
All he knew is that this stupid bitch owed his boss some money and he was gonna get it or someone was gonna get their head fuckin bashed in. It was that simple. He didn’t take shit, he gave it, and no fuckin mudder was gonna stop him.
Every one of his crew pissed their daks when the boss asked for a favor. Pickup the Tribute and bring it back from West Muckamuck. Like that’s gonna fuckin scare him. Big deal. So the place stinks, so what. He didn’t care about alligators and crazy shit like that. Nobody gets in his way. No one that’s still fuckin breathing.
So where the fuck was this place anyway? Whole fuckin place looks the same – like a shithole. The rag he had tied around his face wasn’t doin nothin to keep out the stink of the entire fuckin city’s piss and shit beneath his feet, like ten feet down. The first time he saw it up close was today, when he had to pay that fuckin pek 4 stivvers to pole him across the flooded basin. He puked. He’s not gonna lie. Puked more than once.
The fuckin open sewers that these mudders lived above was just about the stupidest fuckin thing he had ever heard of, so he had zero respect for them. Fuckin disgusting is what is.
Where is this place anyway? Boss said look out for the fuckin wisteria, whatever the fuck that is, some plant or some shit, with red flowers. Fuckin flowers. Fuckin mudders.
Woah wait, is that red flowers? Yeah like some kinda fuckin vine or weed or something growing out of the buildings there.
Swarm looked at Gutter and nodded. The thief was coming. Map signalled that the man was alone, no one was waiting for him.
They stayed cloaked in their alleymen forms, it’s better to let the prey fall fully into the trap.
Swarm bowed his head and clasped his hands and reached out with his mind, finding the wisteria nearby. It rejoiced at his touch and accepted his polite introduction. He spoke his True Name and the wisteria responded in kind. He asked a permission, and the wisteria was delighted to grant it, and a friendship was sealed.
Swarm politely thanked the shining light of its being and gently withdrew. He raised his head and softly chanted under his breath.
Across the makeshift street Gutter was doing the same. They were out of the thief’s line-of-sight, tucked into one of the many ruckles and folds of the elevated ghetto.
The man passed them, looking up at the bushy wisteria that grew not fifteen feet from their hiding places. Swarm felt a tug in his mind as the wisteria suddenly burst forth in a rapid tangle of growth and wrapped up the theif’s arms and legs, twining around his waist and growing thicker and more lush with every passing moment.
A riot of blooms nearly obscured the theif who was now screaming in fear and struggling for the gutripper on his belt.
Gutter raised his head and spoke the final invocation. Swarm finished his at the same moment. Then both touched silver rings on their hands and vanished from the visible spectrum.
(Jacab, who was still watching, nearly squirmed out of his mother’s arms when the alleymen turned invisible. He still saw them, of course, but now they were wrapped in dusky shadow, blurring and obscuring them, and for a moment he grew afraid, but his mother clutched him tight and hissed in his ear to keep still.)
Out of the cracks in the rickety walls, from the floorboards, the gutters, the rooftops, from the drains and from everywhere they came.
When the theif saw this, he started struggling and screaming as if he were about to be devoured. Which was a likely possibility.
A swarming tide of rats and cockroaches boiled out of the city and puddled at the screaming man’s feet. They clawed and scuttled up his legs so thickly that he appeared to be standing on vermin. His shrieking was ignored by everyone that was nearby. Most ignored him. Jacab and his mother did not.
Swarm and Gutter were each in the form of a rat, and each now clambered onto his shoulders and each spoke into the theif’s ears. Swarm in the left ear, hissed, “YOU MUST LEEEEEAVE”, and Gutter barked, “THISSSSSS PLACCCCCCE” and then leapt off and suddenly returned to their human forms, drew swords, turned as one and cut the man free from the thick arms of the wisteria that had him pinned.
The man was still bellowing, completely lost in his fear and bolted, batting and stomping his feet, trying to free himself from the vermin that still clung to him. Some of the locals turned to watch his flight. Some smiled to themselves, and most ignored him. He was forgotten in moments.
Map smiled and said, “He’s heading for the gate, I think. I don’t think he’ll have much luck getting past the Spikes, but he doesn’t seem to care. You may have scared him too badly.”
Swarm spat and said, “Should have never let him go to begin with. Scum like that deserve what’s coming to them.” Gutter said nothing, but was attending to the wisteria, in communion with it, thanking it for its sacrifice, and trimming the bush back to its old shape above the doorway to The Eye of the Storm.
Map said, “We had to let him go, remember? How else is that fool’s boss going to know we mean business? We will not pay Tribute to anyone. Ever.”
Swarm half-smiled. “Thought you didn’t talk much. You sure got a lot to say now, don’t you?”
Map said nothing, only returned to his Watch. He saw the city through the city’s eyes. He knew the heartbeat of every pigeon, knew the names of every rat and every roach and every pebble on the street. All had Name, and all were worthy of his awe and his respect. He felt the thief’s pounding steps as he fled down Haymaker Road, towards Spatters and the Gate. He asked a nesting murder of crows to speed his flight, and they gleefully complied, raucously swooping and defecating on him much to the hilarity of most of the people that stopped to laugh and point.
The tingle and heat wore off, and Jacab felt very sleepy. He had had a long day. The man that got chased away had a long day too, he thought. He wondered how he would feel if he were eaten by rats. But that was silly. He ate the rats, not the other way around. His favorite was roasted with honey.
When his Da was working and feeling generous, he would sometimes bring a tiny pot of the sweet amber and Jacab’s mouth would water thinking of the roasted rat meat, warm and savory, mixed with the sparkling bright sweetness of the honey. His tummy rumbled. His mother stood up, pulled him onto her hip and laughed. “Time for lunch, eh? For us both. Come on, your Da should be home soon.”
They pushed open a crooked door and passed inside. The alleymen went back to their watch. The city moved. A terrified man slipped on some bird droppings, tripped and broke his neck.