Away in a Manger

by Wen Spencer

It was so cold in the tower when Jack woke, his breath turned to smoke as he breathed out. From the windows of the overlook, dawn's pale light revealed no telling glitter of frost on the asphalt below. Nor was there any on the patches of green among the tall buildings that they'd deemed pasture and hay field. The wind carried the scent of autumn leaves but nothing of grass sheared by the cold.

"So we have at least one more day?" Renard yawned, showing off his mouth full of sharp teeth and then stretched lazily.

"How could you tell?"

"Your tail."

Jack glanced at his backside and saw that the white stub of his tail was indeed wagging. "Traitor."

The cat laughed as he strutted toward the nearest window and thumbed the latch. "Honestly you're as easy to read as a book with big bold font and little bitty words. That little tail is shouting 'yay, yay, let's make hay.'"

"What are you doing?"

"I'm going to catch my breakfast."

"Don't let the cold in." Jack trotted to the opening. "And make sure you don't catch anything that can talk."

"If it can talk, I'll thank it kindly for its brave sacrifice."

Jack huffed out a cloud that wisped away on the bitter cold wind. He hated the idea of eating anything you could argue morality with, but the simple truth was that they were losing the luxury every moment as the world turned colder. Last winter they barely survived. "Go on, let me shut the window. The cold is going to get to the bird."

Renard glanced across the room at the jury—rigged nest. "Too late."

"What?" Jack's tail stopped wagging.

"I told you it was too little, too late in the year."

Jack bound to the nest and peered into it. The tiny featherless bird inside lay on its side, smelling of death. Despite the heat lamp and curtain to keep out wind, the chick had been dead for hours. "Damn."

"Not your fault; they always die."

Which was nicer than what Renard usually said. Jack realized that the cat was still staring intently at the body.

"Fine! Take it."

The cat picked the dead chick up in its mouth and slunk away.

Alfie was asleep in the small room off the garage. Jack could never understand how the pony slept standing up. The little hairdressing robot was fussing with Alfie's long silky black tail that contrasted sharply with his gleaming golden hide. The robot had brushed out all the dirt and matted knots and was currently tying bits of bright colored ribbons into it.

Jack had learned to keep a safe distance from the sleeping pony. "Yo, Alfie! Alfie! Time to make hay!"

A flick of the ear was the only warning that the pony was waking up. His rear hoof lashed out, caught the hairdresser square on and kicked it across the room.

Jack winced, torn between the knowledge it could have been him that gotten kicked and the fact he would have to fix the robot if Alfie had broken it. "Hey, watch it now. That's the last one. I won't be the one pulling briars out of your tail if you broke this one too."

Jack righted the hairdresser. "You all right?"

"All right." The robot stated but it still sounded a little whoozy.

"Alfie, look what you did." Jack pointed to a hoof—shaped dent in the hairdresser's chassis.

Alfie snorted. "Serves it right; it's an annoying little fucker." He flicked his tail in irritation. "Stupid little bows."

Jack shook his head. "Come on, let's get cracking. Got to get this hay and stored before the frost hits."

They had been working most of the year toward surviving the next winter. The last one had been the first for all of them to experience, so it had taken them off guard. Jack and Renard pulled through thanks to the fact they could eat everything from bugs to mice, but Alfie was skin and bones by the time the grass started to grow again. It had taken all summer for him regain all his weight. He didn't have the fat to survive another brutal winter.

Renard researched ponies and learned about hay. They'd found a field with the correct mix of grasses. They'd watched over it all summer, watching it grow tall and lush. But when they went to cut it, their plans fell apart. The starter battery on the forklift was dead. Some idiot had designed the forklift to disconnect from the broadcast power grid while not in use. The only way to reconnect it was through a start procedure that needed a minimum charge in the starter battery. Jack couldn't understand why anyone would think it was a good idea, but there it was, blocking all their plans. Worse, it was a design flaw common on every semi—manual vehicle they could track down. The only thing operational was the fully automated systems but they all had a mind of their own. It'd taken half the autumn to build a battery charger once they discovered how screwed they were. With Alfie plodding in a tight circle as he powered the generator, Jack finished the modifications to the controls.

Unfortunately, it left the pony too much time to think.

"I still don't understand why we can't just use the lawnmower down by the river. We took the blade off it. Can't we move it to the hay field and put the blade back on it?"

Jack sighed from deep inside the forklift's motor housing. He tried to explain this before to Alfie. The pony was heaped high with common sense but was completely thickheaded when it came to machines. "The lawnmower knows where it's supposed to be and what it's supposed to do and what it's not supposed to do. It's supposed to cut the grass in the afternoon when it's reached a certain height, avoid all obstacles whether stationary or mobile while doing so..."

"So it could cut the grass in the hay field."

"No, it would just map its way back to the park and cut grass there."

"But why?"

"I don't know!" Jack cried and then swore as the bolt he'd been trying to coax into place slipped through his fingers and tumbled into the engine's guts. He peered through the machinery, searching for the bolt. "It just will and I can't change that. It's not the simple lever and gears and belts and hydraulics that I know how to fiddle with. It's the thinking part."

Jack spotted the bolt deep inside the housing, but his stubby fingers couldn't quite reach it. He squirmed, growling, trying to wedge himself closer.

"Jack?" Renard called from the forklift's bench seat. He'd returned an hour ago licking his lips and presented Jack with a frog as a peace offering. (The gift would have been more impressive if he hadn't obviously found the frog in one of Jack's frog traps and then complained that it had peed in his mouth.) "You okay?"

"Dropped the fucking bolt!" Jack barked out a series of words he knew were curses and some words he only suspected were curses.

"That last word does not mean what you think it means," Renard said with annoying calmness. "And it's impossible for bolts to fuck, at least in the sexual manner."

"Just shut up!" Jack snarled. He needed the bolt. It was aluminum, so using a magnet on a string wouldn't help. Could he reach it from underneath? He eyed all four of the access holes at the bottom of the housing, trying to judge if he stuck his hand up thru one of them, he'd be able to reach the bolt.

Something dark moved through the shadows under the forklift and his nose told him that it was a mouse. Sometimes the mice would fetch things for him if he asked nicely, but if he called to the mouse, he'd attract Renard's attention. Besides, he didn't actually "talk" to mice so much as "pantomime."

"And you can't fix the mower on the hayfield?" Alfie clip—clopped around the idea of what they were trying to do.

Jack brushed his right thumb and forefinger together in a whisper of a snap to attract the mouse.

Renard didn't seem to notice the sound, snickering at the conversation. The cat understood the machines only marginally better than the pony but he recognized the circular nature of their conversation.

As Jack waited to see if the mouse realized he was asking for help, Jack stared at his outstretched hand. There were times it seemed horribly wrong. It wasn't much different from Renard's but still the fingers seemed too short or the thumb seemed too long or both or neither.

No mouse appeared.

Jack answered Alfie's question to cover a second quiet snap. "We had to fry the brain on that mower which is why we need to tow it with the forklift to make hay." They'd discussed simply having Alfie tow the mower but the hay field was on a fairly steep hillside (which was probably why there were no buildings on it.) There was a chance that the mower would simply knock the pony down and run him over. Alfie would also work off any little fat that he had, rendering the whole process a negative gain.

"Before we can do that, we need to change over this forklift's controls because..." Which required the dropped bolt. Which was out of reach from the access hole in the bottom of the housing. Maybe if he used a bent wire…

A mouse popped up through the far right access hole.

So far for Jack communication hadn't hit the level of exchanging real names. He'd given nicknames to a dozen that he could recognize by sight and smell. This mouse was black with a torn ear and a surprisingly large set of gonads. Jack had named it Notch.

The mouse waved in greeting but didn't call out, probably because he understood that Renard was in ear shot.

Jack pointed at the bolt. Notch scanned the housing, spotted the bolt, and scurried to it. Picking it up with his mouth, Notch climbed up through the motor to drop it into Jack’s outstretched palm. Unfortunately, there was no way to thank the mouse. Jack would have to owe Notch a treat.

"Because?" Renard prompted.

Jack frowned, screwing the retrieved bolt into place. What had he been talking about? "Because – because whoever built this world clearly did not have me in mind."

"God," Renard said.


"God made the world." Renard expanded, marking his place in his reader with a flick of his paw. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Yadayadayada, I don't remember it all. Just the cool parts. Darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that the light was good…" Renard trailed off as Jack cocked his head in confusion. "Do you not read anything?"

"I read the instruction manual for this thing." Jack disappeared back into the motor housing of the forklift again. "I know how this is suppose to work." He came bounding out, tail wagging with excitement despite his irritation. He jumped up onto the seat beside Renard and posed with his paws on the steering wheel and then looked meaningfully at the foot pedals down in the darkness. "And this world wasn't built with me in mind."

"Nor me." Alfie muttered clopping through his paces in the endless circle of the power generator.

"More you than me." Jack called to the pony, and muttered lowly. "If you had hands and a more flexible spine."

Hay was cut and with a great deal of fiddling and swearing, eventually stacked to dry in the vast garage as planned. Of course, the heating system refused to acknowledge that temperatures were now low enough to kick on, and thus aid in the drying process.

Jack was deep in the heat ducts trying to trace the thermostat leads when he next saw Notch.

The black mouse appeared in front of him and waved. "Ohayougozaimasu!"

"Hi Notch! Thanks for the help with the bolt. I owe you."

"Tasukete! Akachan no seigyo ga dame desu! Kite onegaishimasu!" The mouse gestured back the way Jack had come.

"I don't understand," Jack said.

Notch fell silent a moment and then started again, this time with acting. Mouse pantomime was very entertaining although not very informative. "Akachan!" Notch squeaked and put his paws over his head and then stomped around in circle, roaring. Or at least, that's what it looked like he was attempting to do but what was coming out was ear—piercing squeaks.

"Okay, okay, okay." Anything to stop the squeaks. Obviously something larger than a mouse was terrorizing the rodent tribe. "I do owe you. I'll come and help."

Just about anything was bigger than a mouse, but it might be even bigger than Jack. Backup would be a wise idea.

Alfie was grazing in the meadow by the river, stoically trying to ignore the sabotaged mower that continued to march across the field. Wheel tracks marked the mowers frustrated attempts at its assigned task.

"This is not a pasture for livestock!" The mower complained. It had not taken well to losing its cutting blades. "This is a public recreational facility. We have laws against the likes of you." It avoided a pile of Alfie's manure. "And we have scooper rules! And you! You're supposed to be on a leash."

This was directed at Jack.

"I'm on a leash." Jack pointed out. They'd learned that the mower could summon animal control if they broke certain laws and he never wanted to go through that again.

The mower paused to eye him with a telescoping camera. It took in the collar, the piece of thread, and the mouse in the carry basket, holding onto the end of the "leash."

"Ohayougozaimasu, robotto no kamisama!" Notch squeaked.

There was a long, long silence, and finally, the mower whirled and rolled away, muttering, "It still isn't a pasture for livestock."

"I don't understand how this is our problem." Alfie complained as they worked their way through the city.

"Where would you be if I hadn't come looking to see what was making that god—awful noise?"

"Stupid machines." Alfie muttered. "Damn milk dispenser dried up and then the stable door broke. I couldn't get back in."

This part of the story Jack had never heard before. It sounded similar to his first memories. He'd been raised in a place warm and snug with machines catering to his every need and then suddenly he found himself in the barren empty city. "How’d you end up in that the pit?"

"Got lost. Fell."

Jack had heard Alfie from half a mile away, as the pony gave loud wordless cries of terror. It had taken two hours to calm him down and three whole days to get the much larger animal out of the hole. It required a great deal of cable, pulleys, a sling, and a well—timed roping of a street sweeper's bumper. Renard had helped but only under protest as he was sure the pony would eat them once they freed him. They'd had to stop and actually look up Alfie's species before Renard was pacified.

Renard would call Jack stupid for helping the mice since the cat viewed the mice as food. It seemed only right though to help the mice out since they had fetched nuts and bolts for Jack that fallen out of reach.

"I want to see what got the mice upset. There aren't many others around. There are us, the mice, and the birds."

"And the birds are god awful stupid."

True. They did kill themselves with great regularly by running into windows. If birds could talk, they chose never to speak to Jack, even after several peacemaking attempts. At least the birds put the mice farther down the possible dinner list.

Notch squeaked something, tugging lightly on Jack's leash. The black mouse pointed excitedly at the building that they were about to pass. There were words etched into the heavy glass of the doors.

"What does that say?" Alfie couldn't read. He contended it was because he didn't have hands. Jack wasn't sure if this were true or not; he'd been trying to teach Alfie but the pony seemed unable to grasp the difference between letters. Jack had always been able to read, just as he had always been able to talk.

"Mayflower." Jack read the first word. It was plastered all over the place as if it meant "the." He didn't know the second word. He tried to sound out the syllables for Alfie. "K—re—ch—e. Maybe. Kre—cheh. Kreesh."

"What does it mean?" Alfie asked.

"I'm not sure."

"Mayflower Hoikuen." Notch squeaked climbing down out of the carry basket. He scurried up the ramped edge of the staircase to one of the small round portals that the mice used to enter buildings. There was an invisible barrier that kept Jack's paw from passing through the hole but the mice popped through it without slowing down.

Notch appeared on the other side of the glass doors and waved at them.

Automatic doors never worked for Jack. He apparently was too small to activate them, but they recognized Alfie bulk and movement. They slid open as the pony plodded up to them and into the building.

"And so it begins." Alfie grumbled.

Notch led them through several doors, moving deep into the building. The air inside was twenty degrees warmer than outside; the heating was working in the building. The last door opened to a vast dim room, filled with odd pieces of equipment, and a rank smell of excrement. Something fairly large was alive in the room.

"Ohayou!" Notch squeaked.

There was squeal in reply, too loud to be a mouse, but just as ear—piercing.

"Nigeru! Nigeru!" A swarm of mice squeaked as they came charging toward Jack.

With a patter of feet, the pursuing creature rounded the corner, running on its back legs, front legs raised over its head. It stood at least two feet taller than Jack. It was mostly white with a long black mane. It stopped as it came in view and stood a moment, blinking in surprise at the dog and pony.

Then it gave this odd gurgling laugh, which ended with another loud, ear—piercing shriek, and charged.

Alfie snorted loudly and took off running the other way.

"Hey!" Jack dodged an attack and raced after the fleeing pony. "Why are you running from it?"

"Because it's chasing me!"

"You're bigger than it!"

"It apparently knows something I don't!"

They outdistanced it easily as the creature wasn’t very stable on its back legs. It flailed its forelegs, laughing and shrieking and occasionally falling flat on its face.

"What is it?" Alfie snorted and pranced.

"I don't know!" For some strange reason, every time it fell, Jack had the overwhelming urge to run back to it and make sure it wasn't hurt. The weird instinct was warring with the knowledge that it was twice his size and obviously fearless.

The soft uneven patter of feet marked the approaching animal.

"Here it comes." Jack scanned room. The area was full of odd plastic equipment of unknown function in bright primary colors. "We need some kind of a plan to catch…. Oh crap!" This was because Alfie had bolted again, leaving him alone as the creature rounded the corner. It spotted Jack and squealed. Jack scrambled desperately after the pony. "Alfie, this is getting us no where!"

"It's getting us away from it!"

"We're running in loops!"

Alfie dodged right. "Now we aren't!"

The right had been a mistake. It led them into a virtual maze of the brightly dyed plastic equipment. There were ramps and slides and inexplicable pits filled with multi—colored balls.

Alfie suddenly jerked to a halt, his feet splayed wide, his eyes wide with fear. "Jack," the pony whimpered. "I think it's on my back."

It was definitely on sprawled across Alfie's back having leapt from one of the pieces of equipment. It had two paws clenching tight to Alfie's mane.

"Get it off!" Alfie wailed.

"Hold on a minute."

Not exactly what Jack had in mind of "catching" the creature, but far as he could tell, it wasn't actually hurting the pony. The back feet seemed to be lacking in claws and the front feet seemed more like Jack's than Renard's.

"Jack, I'm scared."

"Nothing to be scared of." Jack lied.

"But – but – but what if it falls?"

Jack cocked his head in confusion. "You – you don't want it to fall?"

"Falling would be bad. Head injuries. Spinal damage. Broken limbs. Falling needs to be avoided at all cost.

There should be a saddle."

"What's a saddle?"

"I don't know! It—it—it goes on my back and I shouldn't blow up my stomach when the girth is tightened."

"The girth?"

"Get it off before it falls!" Alfie wailed. "I don't like this!"

Jack circled the pony, trying to figure out how to get the creature who was twice his size off the pony's back without hurting any of them. "Can you lie down?"

Thus they ended up leaving the crèche with the creature carrying Jack as a very much—relieved Alfie walked ahead of them. Over the creature's shoulder, Jack could see mice appearing on the top step the building, seemingly hundreds of them. There were more than he ever imagined there being.

Notch was easily identifiable by the missing part of his ear. He waved at Jack. "Domo arigatougozaimashita, inu—sama! Kouun! Sayonara!"

"Let me get this straight." Renard was perched on the highest point of the garage after the creature had attempted to pick him up by his tail. "The mice gave you this—this—thing and you brought it home."

"It doesn't seem dangerous." Jack had managed to stay free after they arrived by distracting the creature with his chew toy. For some reason, though, the creature kept flinging it across the room. Jack needed to retrieve it over and over again, but it made the creature laugh every time he dropped the toy at its feet. "It doesn't bite…"

"Yes it does," Renard snapped.

"Very hard," Jack amended.

"I suppose we could keep it as emergency food rations," Renard stated.

"Don't ever say that again." Jack warned with a growl that he was serious.

"What? It doesn't talk. That's your criteria for food, right?"

"Don't!" Jack barked.

"Hm, both of you are acting weird for something that you just found." Renard leapt to a slightly lower perch that gave him access to the door. "I'm going to look it up. Find out what it is."

"It's a human." Renard returned to the perch a short period time later. "Judging by the shape of the eyes, the color and straightness of the mane, its breed is most likely East Asian descent. Male of the species."

"How do you get male?" Jack cocked his head at it.

"It's wearing fabric clothing. The white isn't really part of its skin."

Jack reached out and lifted the front hem. "Oh! Yeah, male."

"Human are omnivores. They eat everything, including ponies, dogs and cats."

"Still don't think he's dangerous."

"It will grow." Renard warned. "It will get bigger just like Alfie. Remember how little he was compared to now?"

"So you're saying it's just a baby now?"

Renard breathed out in disgust. "This is going to be like one of those damn baby birds? They always die, you know."

"If it dies, it dies." Jack said.

Renard slunk away.

He'd learned the trick to keep baby birds alive the longest was to keep them warm. Last winter while desperately foraging for food to keep Alfie alive, he'd found a big plastic bin labeled Non—structured Carbohydrates. They carefully rationed it out to Alfie all winter as they'd learn that he'd eat himself sick if given a chance. Jack rinsed the bin out and pushed it to the most protected corner of Alfie's garage. With the stacks of cut hay, the garage was now much warmer than the overlook.

He set up the heat lamp that he used with the baby birds, trying to nail it solid to the wall since so far the baby had upended almost everything in the garage. The hardest part was getting the baby into the bin and asleep.

"Maybe we should take it back," Alfie whispered when the garage was finally quiet and still.

Jack caught himself growling. "There is no place to take it back to! Don't you see? The proof is all around us. The birds are how it should be. When we were small and helpless, we should have had someone taking care of us. Someone alive. Someone who loved us enough that they wouldn't stop caring for us until they knew we could take care of ourselves. But we had machines just like the lawnmowers and the hairdressers. They knew what they were supposed to do and what they weren't supposed to do. They fed us and kept us warm and cleaned up after us. And like the lawnmower that stops trying to cut the grass at dusk, the machines stopped taking care of us because – because – I don't know – we'd gotten big enough to fly."

"Since when can we fly?" Alfie asked.

"It’s a metaphor," Renard muttered from the doorway. Seeing that the baby was safely asleep, he stalked across the garage, tail twitching with annoyance. "The baby birds leave the nest once they're ready to fly."

"Exactly," Jack said. "I don't think your milk dispenser dried up and the door broke, I think whatever machines were feeding you decided it wasn't supposed to take care of you anymore."

Like the baby, Jack had been locked in a kennel with toys and running water but no food. Starving and nearly driven mad by the silence, he'd managed to climb up and use a piece of wire to short the lock to get out of his cage. This baby, though, wasn't as capable as he had been when he was abandoned by the system.

"It seems to me a stupid way of doing things," Alfie said. "Even birds know better. They might be stupid as shit, but they take care of their chicks, day and night, until they're ready to be on their own. This randomly spit out babies and hoping someone takes care of them; sheer stupidity."

"Whoever came up with the design didn't think everything through," Jack said. "Like the forklift starter battery. Obviously they thought the battery wouldn't go dead because it wouldn't if someone was using it day in and day out."

"The designer is an idiot then." Renard snorted with disgust. "Because only an idiot thinks that things will always work out the way he images. He plans for the good but not the bad, or the horrible nor the utter disasters."

"Something has gone very wrong. And if we don't take care of…" Jack paused as he realized that they couldn't keep calling the baby simply "it." "If we don't take care of whatever we name the baby, he will die."

"So what do we call it?" Alfie asked.

They considered the sleeping baby curled inside the blue food bin.

Renard suddenly snickered.

"What?" Jack and Alfie both asked.

"You put it in a manger?" the cat laughed.

"What's a manger?" Jack asked.

"Something that holds food for ponies." Renard glanced up at the heat lamp. "Nice and warm here." He climbed into the bin to tuck himself against the baby's back.

"What are you doing?" Jack hissed, not wanting to wake the baby. "You don't like it."

"I can't help myself." Renard looked away, embarrassed, as he started to purr. "It's like this is home. This is where I'm meant to be and it kind of pisses me off even as I can't help wanting it. There's this little voice that I don’t think is actually mine, whispering how wonderful it would be to both read a book together and then sit discussing the story."

"We'll have to name him." Jack said.

Renard snorted. "His name is Jesus."


"And this shall be a sign unto you." Renard quoted something. "You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

Place Your Own Footnotes

1. Jack is a Jack Russell Terrier. Renard named him. Jack doesn't realize his name is a joke.

2. Renard misread his breed the only time he looked it up. Instead of Persian, he read it as Parisian. He believes he's French, hence his name. He chose the name of a popular French fairytale character known for being clever. Unfortunately he did not realize the character was named for its species, which was 'Fox.'

3. Alfie's full name is Alfalfa Hay Eater. Renard can be cruel. He's always careful, however, only to use it when he's out of kicking and biting range.

4. Alfie is genetic mishmash that is part Shetland pony crossed with the Akhal—Teke, a breed of horses from Turkmenistan. They are famous for the natural metallic shimmer of their coats.

5. Renard complained about the frog peeing in his mouth not only because he found it disgustingly uncivilized but also he'd had the overwhelming urge to meow "Look I'm a mighty hunter" until Jack took ownership of the frog's body.

6. Let it be noted that all rodents have large gonads in proportion to their overall body—size.

7. Ohayougozaimasu is a greeting in Japanese.

8. Tasukete! Akachan no seigyo ga dame desu! Kite onegaishimasu! Help! The toddler is out of control. Come!

8. Birds are swallows, not pigeons, but this doesn't seem to eliminate window collisions

9. Hoikuen means crèche

10. A force field over the barrier only drops to allow the mice to enter.

11. Nigeru means 'Run away!'

12. Domo arigatougozaimashita, inu—sama! Kouun! Sayonara– Notch is saying "Thank you very much, much obliged, Sir Dog. Good luck. Goodbye!"

Copyright © 2012 by Wen Spencer

John W. Campbell Award Winner Wen Spencer is the creator of the Elfhome series, including Sapphire Award recipient, Tinker, and latest entry, Elfhome. Spencer resides in paradise in Hilo, Hawaii with two volcanoes overlooking her home. Spencer says that she often wakes up and exclaims "Oh my god, I live on an island in the middle of the Pacific!" This, says Spencer, is a far cry from her twenty years of living in land-locked Pittsburgh. According to Spencer, she lives with "my Dali Llama-like husband, my autistic teenage son, and two cats (one of which is recovering from mental illness.) All of which makes for very odd home life at times."