Alison had spent much of the morning cleaning and preparing their meditation room for the interview. She was still arranging the last of the floor cushions in what she could remember of the pattern that the feng-shui consultant had stipulated, when she heard the chiming of the front door bell.
Gentle and melodious as they were, the chimes could not actually be heard in much of the house, so she could not rely on Dominic to answer, even though he was downstairs. Alison dashed, less mindfully than she would have liked, to the front door.
He had arrived exactly at the time of their appointment. He wore an elaborately pocketed denim jacket and a patchwork cap, over cords and a brightly striped collarless shirt. Shaven headed – unless he affected some sort of topknot under the cap – his face was etched with deep lines, yet somehow his skin did not appear aged. There was an old, scuffed rucksack across his shoulder.
“Hello,” she said, “You must be Phlon.”
“I must be.” His eyes seemed to ripple with amusement. “And you’re Alison. And, ah, Dominic, yes?”
She hadn’t heard him, but became aware that Dom was standing behind her. She ushered Phlon up to the meditation room, while Dom returned to the kitchen to fetch the mate he’d been preparing. She gestured to the cushions. “Have a seat.” Phlon made straight for the one cushion she had not yet positioned, and sat himself down in the lotus position, with an ease she had to admire.
Ali sat cross-legged, trying to keep her back as straight as Phlon’s, while Dom arrived with the pot and the cups. Phlon sniffed appreciatively. “Mm… It’ll take a few minutes to brew. Shall we get going?” His voice was cultured, pronunciation careful and precise.
“Good. The interview has just finished, by the way. I hate interviews, don’t you?”
Bewildered, Alison looked at Dom. He was smiling, apparently un-phased. “Well, that one passed painlessly,” he said.
“I work intuitively,” said Phlon, directing his words primarily at the still confused Alison. “Your manner, your environment and your auras tell me all I need to know. So now we can just relax, get to know each other a bit, drink the mate, and I’ll tell you how you will be united with your Parapet…”
“Oh!” said Alison, in a burst of relief, “Then you consider us suitable!”
“Eminently!” Phlon laughed. “You’re just the kind of people we’re looking for. So, once we’ve dealt with one or two rather tedious financial matters, you can prepare yourselves for a life-affirming symbiosis.”
Billed as a ‘ritual’ by the Parapet People, it took on the trappings of a fine old party. Dom and Ali were told to invite as many of their friends as they pleased, whilst Phlon brought half a dozen of his colleagues. Everyone provided food and drink, musicians played and two of the Parapet People, in dazzling harlequin costumes, performed their finest juggling routine, as a prelude to the main event.
At last, everyone gathered in the meditation room, huddled around the space at the centre. There Phlon sat on the same cushion he’d selected before, apparently in a trance, his rucksack beside him. A murmur of talk stopped instantly, as Phlon opened his eyes, peered all around him and smiled. From his rucksack he pulled a stick of dried green herbs, wrapped in some material, to one end of which he applied a lighter until the herbs were smouldering. He waved it slowly around and passed it to the nearest hand. Then, as he spoke, each person in the room took the stick in turn, and the pungent smell of the herb smoke wafted throughout the candlelit room.
“Friends, we are about to evoke. Now there’s a word! Evoke! Call up! Manifest a spirit creature, not of this world but… not out of this world either. And of this creature we will make a request. We will request that it forms a bond, a lifetime bond of support and companionship with our hosts, our seekers, our good friends Dominic and Alison…”
In the early hours, when they finally got to bed, Alison clutched Dominic tightly and looked into his deep, steady eyes. “I wasn’t expecting anything quite so… big. I mean, I was thinking some kind of little bird, or a dog, or a little monkey, or… you know, a pet.”
“Well, to be fair, they’ve always told us that this would be a lot more than a pet,” he said, “But yeah. I wasn’t expecting a lynx, either.”
From somewhere outside the bedroom, they heard creaking floorboards. Alison wasn’t sure, but were there also soft, padding footfalls? She drew herself closer to Dom.
“Don’t be afraid, Ali. Remember what Phlon said, it’s here to give us protection and guidance.”
“Yes, yes… That’s why we wanted a Parapet, isn’t it? Our familiar. Our spirit beast companion. But now it’s here, it, uh… it’s going to take some getting used to.”
The next morning they cleared up what was left of the party debris.
Mundane activity, it made the evocation ritual and manifestation of their Parapet seem dreamlike and distant. At the height of the chanting, had there really been a concentration of mist around Phlon, at the centre? And when Phlon could no longer be seen, had the appearance of the lynx, with its tufted ears, chin ruff and broad paws, been some kind of collective hallucination? Had it truly prowled the centre space, returning steadily the awed gaze of every onlooker, until it found the garlanded Alison and Dominic, lifted its head and growled a greeting?
In the light of day, there seemed to be no hint of the creature’s presence. It was easy to believe that it had all been smoke and mirrors. The only thing they could be sure of was the substantial amount of money that had passed from their bank account to that of the Parapet People. This thought crossed both their minds, but remained unspoken.
Tasks completed, Alison took her usual morning retreat in the meditation room, anxious to find perspective on her thoughts. She went to her own customary cushion, but the one at the centre of the room, where Phlon had sat last night, caught her eye and she settled there. Attempting a lotus, she hastily decided the pain in her legs was too distracting, so sat cross-legged, closing her eyes and attempting to maintain a focus on the process of breathing alone. Bouncing, irrepressible thought and encroaching lower back pain soon began to plague her.
“Keep eyes closed.”
The urge was to do the opposite. Ali fought it. The voice that spoke to her had the quality of an old door, creaking on its hinges. It was followed by a sound, somewhere between a deep purr and a grunt, then soft but heavy footfalls, until the presence was directly behind her back. A musky smell infused her nostrils. Her shoulders tensed, it was all she could do not to cringe.
“Have not fear,” it said, “Lean you back.”
“You mean until I’m-“
“Speak you not.”
She could feel its weight on the cushion behind her, and warmth from its body that seemed to curl around her. She let herself trust and leaned back until the beast took her weight. There, the slow movement of its breathing rocked her. Her back pain eased. Her thoughts slowed.
“Breathe with me,” it said.
And she did.
Dom held Alison, patiently awaiting some explanation for her mix of laughter and tears. In time she mustered words. “It’s incredible… Oh Dominic, it’s there for both of us. Go up there now. Go up and feel it!”
“Sorry, go up where?”
“The meditation room. And whatever happens, keep your eyes closed.”
“Uh! Right! This is-“
“Fantastic,” said Phlon, “We’ve been buzzing ever since the ritual. A lynx? Wow.” It was the first of his ‘support’ visits. “Male or female?”
“It doesn’t say,” said Dominic, then, turning to Alison. “We talked about that, didn’t we?”
“Yeah,” she said. “We figured, it’ll let us know when it wants to.”
“Well, I’m beginning to understand why you guys were chosen. It’s known as the ‘keeper of secrets’, the lynx. The silent type, yeah? But it doesn’t just guard secrets, it knows them – because it has the power to see through, to penetrate…”
“Hang on,” said Alison. “I don’t know if I understand why we were chosen. Okay, Dominic’s teaches tai chi and meditation, but me, I’m just a beginner, really.”
Phlon grinned, eyes sparkling. “Perhaps it sees your potential.”
She was hungry. When last it was light, she’d stalked and killed a goat, but before she could tear off more than a mouthful or two of its sinewy flesh, she’d heard the wolfpack approaching, and run for her own life. She’d returned to her one surviving cub in the rocky den. The cub was hungry too. Now, she had resumed her hunting, in the dark time.
Rabbits. In a clearing. Unaware of her, as yet. Stealth essential, she advanced by increment, each forepaw poised aloft, before its careful lowering to the ground. Waiting patiently in cover, minute after minute, for one of the long ear beasts to wander close. Calculating by degrees the exact moment at which to launch herself and pounce. Muscles tensed, ready.
Then, faster than thought, she threw herself forward, at maximum acceleration, eyes fixed on her target. The rabbit had barely begun to run, when her teeth reached its neck, sinking deep, her mouth suffusing with the taste of blood.
Alison woke instantly, breaking the dream. Dominic snored softly by her side. She could still taste the blood.
“Ough! I had a rabbit for a pet when I was a kid!”
Dominic looked at her squarely over poised wholemeal toast. “Well now we’ve got a Parapet. It’s a different ballgame, Ali. Okay, it’s kind of a visceral dream, but we have to look at what it’s saying, what it means.”
“I know…” Alison took a sip of her tea. “And I think I know what she’s telling us, in her own sweet way. We always said we’d go for it when we’re ready, didn’t we? Well, I think we’re ready. I think we need… cubs.”
He broke into a broad grin. “Allll-right!!”
Was feng-shui appropriate in the case of floor cushions? Alison had never quite remembered how to distribute them, after the night of the Parapet Ritual.
It seemed to make no difference. The art in her meditation practice was clearer to her now. She would sense the presence of the lynx at times, at other times not, but either way she could feel herself going deeper.
“Enhancement of your hunting powers,” said a visiting Phlon, with a graceful tongue in his cheek, “So native Americans say a lynx dream brings. What do you think you’ll be hunting for, Alison?”
She was thoughtful. “Lost things. I’d like to find lost things and bring them back to this world.”
“Ah,” he said, “I can get you on a training course for that.”
Occasionally the lynx, in its syntax of triplets, gave voice to words. What did it mean when it said, “Bird, friend enemy,” to Alison one day as it rested beside her? Was she still required to honour her general agreement not to speak?
She thought for a while and then spoke slowly: “See it not.”
The lynx drew closer, and in a flicker, licked her ear once with its rough tongue. She felt the brush of its ruff on the back of her neck.
“See you will,” it said.
About the Author: As ‘Dick Foreman’, in the 1990s, wrote comic strips for DC comics – including 21 issues of ‘Black Orchid’ – and sporadically for other comics publishers. Also regularly scripted photo-stories and comic strips for the UK children’s magazine ‘Who Cares’ from 1990 to 2010. More recently has contributed articles to Alan Moore’s ‘Dodgem Logic’ magazine and poems to UK magazine ‘Roundyhouse’ and a Welsh anthology on climate change, ‘And This Global Warming’. Currently completing a collection of 40 - 50 short stories under the working title 'Willful Misunderstandings' - each being based around a fictitiously re-defined word or phrase in the English language. 'Beast' is one of them.
Image: (c) Saleel Velankar