Caleb had never considered himself a particularly good storyteller. He could remember most tales he’d ever heard, true, and he’d a fair gift for mimicry of tone, but he wasn’t particularly educated, or particularly good at keeping rhythm, or particularly… well, anything, really. But the Captain’d asked him for a story, so he’d told one.
And then another.
And then another, and another, and another, letting the tales lead naturally one into the other through character and place and theme. And even when he’d stumbled, or been wrong in the details, or forgotten the thread of the narrative, his listeners had followed him through, brushing off any attempts to apologise with laughter and half-joking pleas for the continuation of the tale.
An hour or so into the telling Kitten had emerged from the shadows which hid Talan’s wagon, hovering quiet and unsure on the edge of the circle of firelight until Alak noticed her and waved her over. Her face was wet from crying, eyelids puffy and eyes red and sore, but she managed a small shaky smile at the assembled older members of the company and, once she’d been soundly hugged and tousled and nose-booped by the twins and given a mug of warm apple and a place by Caleb’s knee to sit and listen to the stories, she was almost back to her usual animated self.
In fact, by a tale or so in, she was so comfortable that she started to add her own contributions to the narrative – fast, fluid hand-gestures halfway between sign and acting out the story Caleb was telling. He was fairly certain he missed most of the jokes, given the way the twins were falling about laughing, but the pieces he did catch were generally enough to distract him even more, which meant his own interpretation of the stories got odder, which meant her acting became more outlandish, and eventually the whole thing dissolved into a mess of laughter and incoherent exclamations before the storyteller and his accidental accomplice calmed down enough to continue the narrative.
Eventually the twins drifted away from the circle, heading out to patrol the perimeter of the camp (and, they assured Caleb in no uncertain terms, definitely not to go hunting in the woods or play hide-and-go-seek in the eminently climbable trees). The Captain ‘left’ not long after, exhausted by the effort of focusing her attention and consciousness on one place for so long, which left Kitten and Caleb sitting comfortably side by side by the embers of the dying fire and wondering whether there was much point continuing telling stories when their audience had disappeared.
After a brief moment, Kitten tugged on Caleb’s sleeve, and, once she was completely certain his attention was on her, signed something short and rapid.
He frowned, trying to make sense of the movements and coming up short. “I’m sorry, Kitten. I don’t understand.”
She sighed, in what he was almost certain was an unconscious imitation of her father’s general expression of exasperation, and pointed at the embers.
“You want me to look at the fire?” he hazarded.
Kitten sighed again, rolled her eyes, and made a single sign, both hands in front of her as though she were about to pray, fingers wiggling in an imitation of flames.
“Oh!” He held his own hands up, mimicked the gesture. “That’s the sign for fire – that’s what you wanted to show me?”
She nodded, solemn expression melting away into a bright, fierce grin, and pointed upwards towards the bright circle of the full moon, hanging low over the camp.
Another nod, and another sign, left hand clenched into a fist, right encircling it, both held directly in front of her forehead.
Again, he mimicked the gesture, and was again rewarded by a grin, this time accompanied by excited flapping. From then on, they were flying – gesture and word, back and forth, until between them they’d named almost everything within their line of sight and more than a few things that weren’t (animal impressions being a fairly universal language). Her language was almost nothing like the signs he’d learned from his cousin, which was hampering things a little, but once he managed to let go of that existing knowledge and start working from the assumption that he didn’t understand anything, he found that the words simply slipped into his head, settling there as though they’d always been there. They’d not yet managed anything like sentences or more complex ideas, but from a baseline of not understanding any of her signs, Caleb was beginning to think he was doing rather well.
Kitten, he suspected, didn’t entirely share his assessment, though she seemed to be pleased with the amount of progress he’d made. She’d been flapping happily for most of the latter half of the lesson, and, by the time they stopped (due to having run out of words which were easy to point to or mime) she was rocking back and forth in time with the flaps, grinning as she did so.
“Thank you,” he said, once it was clear that she’d no more signs to teach him at the moment. “For the lesson, I mean.”
She nodded, briefly breaking off flapping to sign a short set of gestures, slowed down enough for him to be able to see each individual one in turn.
“Do you- that is to say, would you be happy to keep teaching me?”
“It might make it easier if you wrote down the words, if you want to teach me sentences.”
Nod. Small frown.
“It’s alright if you don’t want to-” he started, but Kitten was already moving – she’d stopped rocking and flapping, and was now on her knees, leaning closer to the embers and scratching something into one of the flatter patches of ash with an unburned twig she’d picked up from nearby. The tip of her tongue was sticking out of the corner of her mouth, and her brows were drawn down in concentration as she sketched.
He leaned forward, trying to see what she was writing, but she waved him back impatiently, the meaning clear in her gesture. ‘Wait until I’ve finished!’
A few more lines, and then she sat back on her heels, pointing down at the etchings in the dirt with the twig.
He looked. He blinked. He looked harder. And then he suddenly realised exactly why this wasn’t going to work. “Um. I’m afraid I can’t read that.”
There were undoubtedly words there, and they almost certainly said something. The problem was, they weren’t in any language he recognised – which was to say, they weren’t in the only language he could actually speak. This was going to be something of a problem.
He winced, rubbing the back of his neck. “If we’re going to do it that way, I think you might have to teach me your language as well.”
Kitten stuck her tongue out at him. Then she turned, face going pale, as Talan stuck their head out of the door of their wagon and looked across towards the fire.
“Kitten, Caleb – could we borrow you for a slight while?”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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