Cinder Road by Patricia Russo

The beasts were of every sort, with deep fur and shy tongues, shimmery feathers and speeding hearts, soft skin and timid feet. All of them gave heat. Even the snakes were warm, their bunching muscles slow and easy under my hand. My fingers fell in love first, then my palms, then the insides of my wrists. I did not choose them; they chose me. They came because I could take care of them, and because I could, I did.

They were not my babies, they were not my friends, they were not mine. But I touched them and they touched back, fur sleek against skin, feathers ticklish, scales brash. Some I carried, some rode upon me, and some followed, pretending indifference with pricked ears. The food and shelter for them, the water and comfort, were all sweated and scratched for by me, the first time in my life I had done hard work joyfully. I chose the work, once the animals chose me. I remember the click as the heart opened. Fear arrived at that moment as well, as I thought it likely the beasts would leave me one day, and knew also it was possible my love would wear down under the toil and worry and fatigue, and that with another, similar, click, the heart would close again. Such things happen every day.

Through streets and paths, hedges and fences, rains and sunbursts we passed, and each day was wonderful and difficult. There was blood and shit, and the pain of goodbyes. I almost left them all, to spare myself more grief. Each time one died, I thought: this is it, then, I have reached my limit; no more tears. Then on the side of the road, one road among millions, all the animals around me, on me, over me, with me, I came across a pair of shoes, my own shoes, that I had lost a long time ago. The temptation to put them on swept me, and I sat down right there in the dirt and lifted the shoes into my lap, taken by the yearning to slip again into an old, familiar bed, the desire to sit once more in the well-known, designated chair; the current was strong, and the river rushed me backward.

The shoes looked the same as I remembered, felt the same, smooth and shiny as glass, but as I went to draw the first one on, I saw that my feet were not the same; they had decided to change. Slowly, my left foot sprouted feathers, gray as clouds, and downy; the right foot contented itself with a few dull green scales and five small claws of a deep, lustrous black. The animals crowded around, cooing and rustling, murmuring and mooing, hissing and clicking, purring and bleating; I tossed the shoes away from me, far into the scrub brush growing beside the road, threw back my head, and laughed.

Patricia Russo’s stories have appeared in City Slab #8, Surreal #4, Corpse Blossoms, Fantasy #2 and Best of Not One of Us.

Image © Michael “Warble” Finucane, The Mouse of Fae