The Badger’s Digestion; or The First First-Hand Description...

of Deneskan Beastcraft by an Aouwan Researcher

Written by Malka Older

Illustration by Gutti Barrios

Length 7570 Words

Highlight to read content warnings:


The sight of land on the horizon was marvelous indeed, the mountains as we approached grew ever more impressive, but none of it to me was as amazing as our greeting, at the mouth of the Kassel harbor, by a sea serpent of the Denesk Bestiary, arranged to guide us into the berth.

It would have been an impressive Beast even were it not my first glimpse of what I had traveled so far to study: enormous, though difficult to measure exactly as parts of it were always underwater; shimmering of scale in many colors, and with jaws that opened extremely wide to display long curving fangs. I was able to get a good view of these when it sank them into our bow to draw us over or around some of the more treacherous sandbanks. I have heard that it was the complexity of this harbor that first inspired Deneskans to align themselves into Beasts in order to make sea transport possible, but then, I have heard many other stories for the origin of the Bestiary as well.

Once the serpent had settled our ship most of the passengers, recognizably weary from our long sea-journey, hurried to prepare their goods and themselves to disembark, but I remained at the rail, hoping to see the serpent separate into its parts. However, it merely ducked into the water with rapidity. I had some doubt then as to whether it was, in fact, one of the renowned Beasts, but I did see, as I walked back the length of the ship, another vessel entering the harbor which it presumably had to succor as well, and in addition, I have never seen or heard of such a serpent before. Nonetheless, I have to confess that there is an assumption here and I did not observe its composition or decomposition.

As I made my way ashore I was struck by other wonders. Did I disparage the mountains? They now arrested my attention, looming over me higher and higher than seemed possible, as though they were about to topple, overbalanced; not toppling, they seemed surely to float in the air. Unreasonably, I peered at their peaks one by one, wondering if I might spy the crown of the great kraken among them, though I knew we must be too far from the capital, and the kraken, though enormous for its kind, far too small to stand out among mountains.

With a superstitious shudder, I returned my gaze to the nearer heights. It was a generous demonstration of the keystone importance of personal experience, for I immediately understood why Deneskans carve height into their confusing maps, for the painted cartography I had studied before I came gave no sense of these great masses. And yet, I also missed my paints, for the colors! I could not say whether it was the contrast with the great gray masses above that made the viridian of the plant life seem so brilliant and deep, or whether there was some trick to the light, perhaps hitting horizontally against the rocky face? Or perhaps the colors themselves were, truly, brighter and more beautiful.

And yet the Deneskans themselves rarely paint, or at least there are no acknowledged masters of that art from their land. The buildings I saw were all in the uncolored state of their raw materials, wood and stone, except the glass was occasionally colored with a fringe of transparent red or blue. No, Deneskans put their colors into their weaving, another fact which I knew before leaving and yet was surprised again by when I arrived at the guesthouse which had been arranged for me by the embassy.

(I gloss over here the unimportant logistical details of that arrival. Fortunately there was a surfeit of donkey carts. I had packed with parsimony, anticipating difficult travel and uncertain conditions, but even so my bags were awkward and the walk to my destination long. I did wonder whether the white-ankled donkey pulling my cart might be, perhaps, a conglomeration, and peered anxiously at its travails on the narrow streets, but it was a small animal and on the whole it seemed unlikely).

The guesthouse was a narrow, white-fronted house on a quiet street. I passed through the short hall from the entrance and found myself once again in the uncovered air: a large courtyard, paved with neat gray stones. Despite the opening to the sky — bordered, true, with an arm’s length of overhang — the walls were hung with carpets and weaving of the most vibrant colors and extraordinary patterns. I could not help stepping in slow mesmerized dance around to look at each one in turn, while my hostess, a slender woman of uncertain age, waited patiently by the lounges in the center of the space.

“Most remarkable,” I told her, trying both to express my admiration and to explain my strange behavior. “Extraordinary pieces.”

“Well,” she said, eyelids fluttering with what seemed to be pleasure at the praise, but then she continued, “and isn’t your Denesk well-spoken!”

I can’t deny being pleased to hear that myself, having worked so hard on it during my years at the Academy, and with this foundation of mutual appreciation we took tea and ate small, star-shaped cakes that she informed me were referred to as little brilliances. I was feeling very content indeed with the way the words formed themselves into sentences and danced off my tongue, the gentle rhythm of the conversation, the sense that I was speaking Denesk, and in the midst of that there was a whooshing noise of displaced air. We both looked up, although I was the only one who cowered. The courtyard permitted only a portion of visible sky, and as the noise grew louder what I saw was a flash of brown and barred gray that my mind reconstituted into the feather-tip of an enormous wing.

“Was that —” I wasn’t sure how to finish the question.

“A kestrel, yes.” Dame Zilun’s voice included a note of pride, perhaps even smugness. “Messages from the Duchy, most likely. That kestrel often passes over us as it wings in from the mountains.”

And it’s real? I wanted to ask, or How is it possible? But I could feel that to speak my astonishment would put me apart from her, collapsing the artifice I had built up with my near-fluent Denesk. I put myself in mind of Vered’s axiom: Question small and answerable, ask questions that they know how to answer and that are close to their ground. I scavenged for such a query, and came up with: “How many people…” I wasn't sure of the verb. “How many people is it?”

“If it’s the kestrel out of the Duchy, nine.” That same well-contented tone. “Some kestrels are fewer, you know, but the Duchy wouldn’t spare the expense.”

My heart was quickening with the sense of discovery. “And how do they choose them?”

I saw immediately in her face that I had asked something too obvious. “Well, the people volunteer, of course!” She was staring at me as though I had revealed myself a child, because it was a thing a child might have asked. “Naturally, not everyone who wants to finds a place, they will sometimes trial two or three combinations before they find the most apt.”

I nodded, keeping in any further questions and comforting myself that I would pack clay over that fracture over the next days, careful again until she could let herself forget my difference. But the stumble reinforced my exhaustion, and a short time later I asked her permission to retire to my room, which proved comfortable, and dine there privately.

I set off for the university the next morning with my anticipation sharpened by the newness of the streets, the shapes of the houses, the odd fashions on the people I passed. I stopped at an open bakery window for two of the fluffy cakes called chaffies, and arrived eager and sweet-breathed.

Nonetheless, the first week was undeniably dusty and frustrating. Professor Laskin, with whom I had corresponded and who had shown his worth and considerateness in the choice of the guesthouse, certainly tried to be helpful, even if he seemed quite surprised that I was a woman. He introduced me to the professors pertaining to my inquiry, and helped me to understand the unfamiliar system of the library.

But my questions were both fundamental and basic, and so very far from the expertise of those Deneskan academics who studied the Bestiary. It was like I was asking how it was possible that trees existed, or how to make my own rocks. For them, Beasts were a fact, and they studied their histories, or tried to puzzle out whether the Beasts mentioned in famous ballads were true or exaggerated. I wanted to understand, or witness. That first day in the guesthouse courtyard I had seen, if it was true, people fly through the air on their own feathered wings. I had to know.

More than that, I had very much hoped for the insight that comes with practical experience, but the professors directed me only to lectures and texts. When I asked about the possibility of joining a Beast, I was met with shock.

“Women are more suited to the Head position,” Professor Laskin told me, “and that requires considerable experience.”

“But how can they gain experience if…”

“By moving from smaller Beasts to larger, by assisting with Beasts, and so on.”

“I’d be happy to start on the smallest Beast you can find,” I assured him, “or to assist without incorporating —”

“Cohering,” he corrected me, but he did not seem any more inclined to help me find a place.

Only when one professor, an elderly man in the department of biology, told me that he didn’t think it was possible for non-Deneskans to cohere into Beasts did I realize that was probably what they were all thinking. “Wouldn’t it make a genial experiment, in that case?” I suggested, but he just laughed.

It was dispiriting. It would certainly be acceptable for me to return home with the same kind of abstract treatise that my few predecessors in such visits had brought back, enlivened with some sketches of the serpent and the kestrel as I could manage. But I had hoped for something more; hoped, perhaps to bring back the secret of these marvelous creatures so that our country too might benefit from their added strength. I rather thought the elegant provosts of the university who had approved my application for this travel hoped so as well, although they had never said so much. If it was impossible…but even worse than learning that would be not learning it, because I couldn’t even find a way to try.

I was on the point of searching for Beast crews and begging to be allowed to assist or observe, with the difficulty that I did not know precisely where to find them.

I had returned to the harbor several times to watch for the serpent, but had not yet been able to discover where it transformed or which of the many workers arriving at the dock in the morning might be a part of it. I did learn, from my readings, that Beast crews had to take time apart, known as isolate, between coherences, to avoid some dire but unspecified consequences of spending too much time cohered. With that knowledge and a small telescope I was able to discern from my seat on one of the lesser-used piers that there were at least two visibly different serpents, presumably taking their turns day to day in their work.

The kestrels were even less accessible, flying directly to the roof of the Duchy House and decohering there, out of sight and quite protected by the bureaucracy that represented the arm of the kraken in Kassel.

I had by this time read enough to be sure that the donkeys pulling their carts were certainly not Beasts in the Deneskan sense, and I was at a bit of a loss as to where to look for more, until by chance one evening there was a fire three streets over from the guesthouse. The alarm went up, voice to voice, and Dame Zilun and I hurried over to see if we could help. The house had ignited strongly, the walls blackening as we watched, heat buffeting us back, and then I realized that it was not only the heat, but a strong wind, and a second later I saw the wings and the swooping neck of —

It was a dragon. Dragons, in Aouwa, do not exist, and I had always believed that to be a universal condition of the species. I had taken reference to dragons in the annals of the Bestiary as figurative or exaggerated, large lizards perhaps.

The dragon before me was blue and copper in the light of the flames and when it roared, the blast of icy air almost knocked us over. It flatted the fire like a firm hand crushing it into the ground. In the sudden darkness, I could just make out the movements of the Beast, snuffing around in the ashes so delicately as not to tip over any remaining upright structure. I heard a gushing sound, presumably a more targeted bit of frigid temperatures to quell any embers. The people around me showed no fear or even awe, crowding in on the dragon immediately with thanks, and a few moments later it launched itself into the air in a great dark glinting movement and I heard the displacement of its wings.

I found myself quite out of breath, and it took me some time to compose myself. Fortunately Dame Zilun suggested hot cream tea to soothe us after all the excitement, and that gave me time to build a Veredian question for her. At first, however, I could muster courage only for a comment. “An impressive Beast,” I managed.

“He is well enough,” she agreed. “The municipality keeps him on full-time, you know? I understand in many places the dragons are only volunteer, but it’s times like these that we appreciate it.”

That alone gave me an entirely new area of research to open up at the library, and I decided to respond instead of sticking to my planned query. “Indeed? Volunteer dragons seem…” I meant to say unwise, but my brain caught up with the phrase volunteer dragons and shut down the whole act of speech for a moment.

“It is foolish, yes!” Dame Zilun seemed tickled that I agreed with her so thoroughly. “Especially on the coasts.” Why especially on the coasts? I wondered, but she clearly thought it obvious. “Lulled into complacency, you know. But even if it were only for the house fires like that one, a solid, well-trained, well-cohered dragon is worth the effort.”

I swallowed. “Do you know any of his