Rag and Bone and Paw and Star
by Rebecca Harrison
I took my boots off at the nebula’s door. If I forgot again, Gran would kill me. Last week, I walked a trail of golden clouds through our home, and it still smelled of the skies of Umtara. Just cos your town’s made of junk doesn’t mean you don’t keep it clean, Gran always said.
There was a lot of keeping clean when your town was in a nebula. Star moss grew on everything. On the pillars of Pompeii and the Wispa wrappers, on the face of Big Ben and the Coca Cola cans. You’ve been sitting too much – you’re getting a sheen of star moss, Gran always said if she thought I wasn’t pulling my weight. But I pulled my weight across galaxies. On Ariundra, the planet that grew from a crystal seed, and on Miatamaky, the wind world where the clouds are purple-flowering meadows, and on and on. In all those places, I called out the words our family carried from Earth: Rag and bone. Bring out your rag and bone. The same words Old Arthur said long ago as his horse pulled his cart along the streets of Winchester.
The door opened enough for a hand to thrust a cloth at me. Gran said, “Give it a going-over, Beatrice.”
I shook out the cloth and began to wipe the ancient wood. Star moss had grown in the crevices and on the lion and unicorn plaque. Our door was once the priory gate. But when Saint Swithun woke up, they took it off to let out the floods. So Old Arthur hoicked it onto his cart. I rubbed the plaque. My hand ached. You might think my folk were daft setting up here. But you missed a lot when you didn’t live in a junk town in a nebula. There was a forever on every corner. We fell asleep to the lullaby of birthing stars.
“Ain’t you finished, yet?” Gran yelled.
I went inside. Ramshackle, our aged sesala, sprawled between a Stradivarius and a Care Bear. He woke at my steps, but he didn’t flipper-flop about until I knelt and stroked his grey head. You haven’t seen sadness until you’ve looked into the eyes of a sesala who’s lost his human. Dad rescued him from a float berg past Kolia’s purple moon before I was born. And Ramshackle still waited for him at the priory gate. The three of us plonked onto the sofa and Gran had reminiscence in her smile. You might think we’d rattle around having a whole town to ourselves, but we could barely squeeze in beside the memories. Even though we were the only ones left, we talked about the others so much, it was like they were here twice over. I went to bed, but I carried on remembering while Ramshackle snored. And if I got tears on his fur, he didn’t seem to mind.
The next day, I was out early across the galaxies hunting for Gran’s present. It would be her first birthday since we lost Dad. The stars dizzied. Comets fizzed. And then I was zooming onto a planet I didn’t know – down through turquoise swirls and silver winds, over wave-shaped cities and white woods. There were no flocks or herds or crowds, only a song that tugged my heart. A song like always and never.
A song like dusting star moss with Mum and Dad while Gran pointed to pillar tops and nagged. I blinked tears. Something rumbled below the song, over and over, shivering the white woods. I landed by the foot of a statue of a flute-playing girl and walked through turquoise mists, following the song. I saw no one. The city rose and fell in waves. And no one was there but the song, and beneath it, the grumble. And then I was at a temple, and there she was. I had never seen anyone from a statue before, so I didn’t know what to say. But she lowered her flute.
“I can’t stop for long. He’ll wake and eat the stars.”
“Who? There’s no one but us. I flew over the whole world, and I didn’t even see a sparrow. It’s empty.”
“It was empty when I started playing. It was just me. But then time came and in it were whirls and woods and birdlings and peoples.” She lifted her flute. The song washed me. “But there was too much time. And time started to take them away. All I could do was keep him asleeping. And then they were all gone. And it was just me.”
“Most of my peoples have gone, too. It’s just me and Gran. We keep busy to stop being lonely. But it doesn’t aways work.” My throat was lumpy. I pictured Mum doing that silly Charleston to Big Ben’s ticking and Dad nodding off under the 1993 Christmas Radio Times. “You can’t stay here on your own. We’ve got loads of room. Gran’ll let you pay your rent in cleaning.”
“He’ll wake and eat the stars.”
“Sarlingakov. This world is a wolf. That’s him snoring. The gods made me and put me here to keep him asleeping.”
“Gran would have a few things to say about the gods. And they wouldn’t be very polite.” I grabbed her sleeve. “I’m not leaving you here.” But she didn’t budge. She looked round at where time had been and gone, and her eyes were sad jewels. There was a shine in them like a goodbye.
And then we were running through the wave city and the turquoise mists. The rumbles deepened into snorts. The ground shook. The city cracked and fell behind us. And we were in my ship, up through the silver winds and swirls.
“Play the song backwards,” I said. And she did. It sounded like tomorrow. There were stars and dark and a planet uncurling into a wolf. A wolf fat and fluffy. “He’s just a pup. No wonder he’s hungry. I’d be hungry too if I slept so long a world grew on my back.”
There was a smile in her playing and her eyes. The wolfling followed the song across the galaxy. Clumsy-pawed, he barrelled through meteors and moons. But they were minor moons, and no one would miss them. We led him to the nebula. He sat and yawned, star moss in his whiskers.
“There’s a wolf eating my nebula,” Gran shouted as we went inside.
“It’s not your nebula, Gran.”
“Is this your doing, Beatrice Nutmeg?” Her hands were on her hips. “And who’s this?”
“They called me the Piper.”
“Well then, Piper, you any good with a broom?” she said. Ramshackle flopped over for hellos. Piper stroked his grey head.
“That wolf’s going to eat the whole nebula. You’d better put a stop to it, Beatrice Nutmeg.” But he was gobbling and growing and gobbling and growing. Then a curious shimmer rippled through his fur, and he brightened in points but faded between them. And then he was a constellation. A wolf constellation. Soaring and far.
Gran nodded. “Let that be a lesson to you girls to not be too gluttonous.” Before we’d time to finish looking, she’d pressed cloths and brooms into our hands.
But I was too full of gawping to clean. We leaned against Big Ben, star moss gathering in our hair, as the wolf stars shone newly in the dark.
About the Author
Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count. She was chosen for the WoMentoring Project by Kirsty Logan and long listed for Wigleaf’s top fifty. Her gothic novella, The White Horse, will be published by Spooky House Press in 2023.