Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "A Keen Eye for Alchemy"

This poem came from the February 7, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from marina_bonomi, ellenmillion, janetmiles, and puffbird.  It belongs to the Steamsmith series, which you can explore further via the Serial Poetry page.  Special thanks to djinni for the new icon of Maryam!

White spotting is indeed a sign of domestication, appearing across many types of animals.

This microfunded poem is being posted one verse at a time, as donations come in to cover them. The rate is $.50 per line, so $5 will reveal 10 new lines, and so forth. There is a permanent donation button on my profile page, or you can contact me for other arrangements. You can also ask me about the number of lines per verse, if you want to fund a certain number of verses.

So far sponsors include: marina_bonomi, tuftearsjanetmiles, westrider

169 lines, Buy It Now = $84.50
Amount donated = $63.50
Verses posted = 23 of 29

Amount remaining to fund fully = $21
Amount needed to fund next verse = $4
Amount needed to fund the verse after that = $3

A Keen Eye for Alchemy

The cheetah arrived in a box
with a note explaining that he had, in fact,
been born out of a box and not a mother cat
and that he was a gift in celebration
of Maryam's acceptance into the Steamsmith Guild.

He came from Maryam's friends Aalim and Taysir,
a pair of Arabian alchemists who studied takwin,
the science of creating life in the laboratory.
While they had yet to produce life from scratch,
they had made other advances such as the exowomb,
helpful in reproducing animals with finicky breeding habits
such as cheetahs and elephants.

Maryam could scarcely imagine
how much harder  it would be to domesticate cheetahs
without the aid of alchemy -- and they were precious creatures,
valued for their ability to sense alchemical energies
which made them favored pets of steamsmiths everywhere.
Indeed, the name of this half-grown kitten was
Farasat, meaning "keen eye" in Arabic.

If at first her neighbors were amazed
to see Maryam with a cat the size of a dog,
they did not make too much of a fuss about it
and soon became accustomed to seeing Farasat
pacing gracefully beside Maryam on a long golden leash.
Perhaps it helped that he had the white "bib"
so common in domestic cheetahs,
unlike the pure black-and-gold of the wild ones.

Maryam could take him to the park with the special fence
where pets might be let off the leash to run.
Farasat particularly enjoyed playing tag
with Mrs. Hunter's greyhound,
which everyone appreciated since nobody else
could keep up with either of the beasts.

Then one day Farasat stopped short
in the middle of chasing Merle,
digging his little claws into the grass.
He stared, apparently at nothing,
the tip of his tail twitching.

Maryam approached warily.
She could hear him grumbling under his breath,
not quite a growl, but oh, unhappy cat.
The hairs on her arms began to lift,
sensitive to the stir of energy.

The steamsmith pulled gadgets from her trousers
and frock coat, trying to get
enough of a reading to figure out
what might be going wrong.
Then she heard a faint, growing fweeee
coming up through the earth.

Maryam grabbed Farasat by his jeweled harness
and hauled the big cat away from the source.
"Clear the park!" she barked at the startled onlookers.
"Everyone out. Run!"

People and dogs scattered like a flock of geese.
Maryam ran too, Farasat pacing her in a easy jog,
but even so she could feel the rising vibrations underfoot.

The ground rumbled and then suddenly
earth geysered up in the middle of the park,
showering clods everywhere as a
column of terrible white fire erupted into the sky
with a shrill, climbing SHREEEEE!

Maryam looked around,
hastily surveying the sidewalks
for possible victims, but no --
everyone seemed safe.
Dogs bayed at the keening energy
and Farasat pressed against her legs,
meowing plaintively.

A filthy young man dashed out of a coal cellar,
plainly expecting to see the worst,
and instead found a ring of uninjured gawkers.
He spotted Maryam and said,
"Thank Gawd nobody's hurt --
we thought it'd be a butcher's pen up here!"
Then he spied Farasat.
"Oi, y'got a cheetah, no wonder then.
Give us a 'and 'ere, guv'nor?"

"Certainly," said Maryam.
"What happened down there?"

"One of the earth-engines overloaded
and took out part of the steam tunnel above it,"
he said grimly.

"I'll seal off the steam tunnel at the nearest juncture,"
Maryam said. "We'll need someone else to seal the far side.
You go back down and deal with the earthworks."
He nodded, then dashed back toward the coal cellar.

Maryam commandeered the nearest several people
and said, "Pass the word about this accident.
Go home and shut off everything you own that
runs on piped energy from steam-power or earth-power.
We need to power down the neighborhood
until this gets fixed."

"Yes, Steamsmith!" they all said,
not hesitating over her dark skin or her gender
but hurrying to do her bidding
even as Maryam turned her attention
toward her own task.
She stretched her long legs
and ran for the steam juncture,
Farasat loping beside her
eager to escape.

As Maryam cranked the great wheels closed,
another steamsmith arrived.
Quickly she summarized the incident
and directed him to seal the juncture
on the far side of the breach.

She checked the map on the wall,
calculating how to reroute the steam-energy
through other tunnels to carry it around the damaged area.
Then she set off with Farasat in tow
to make the necessary changes.

Maryam was up to her elbows in a routing box
when the little earthworker --
who barely came up to her chest --
tracked her down to borrow Farasat's services.

"Gotta find all the stress points,"
he said, "else they'll blow out
somewheres down the line."

So Maryam took her still-grumbling cheetah
down into the tunnels below the city.
"Seek," she commanded,
and they raced through the murk
behind the great golden cat as he
led them to where the energies tangled
and spat and might have
escaped had not the humans
wrestled them back under control.

"Wish them lords 'ud get off their fat arses
and vote up some taxes for maintenance,"
the earthworker muttered. 
"These 'ere earthworks,
they're older'n dirt!" 
Then he laughed at his own joke.
Maryam made a mental note
to address the matter with her father posthaste.

It was long after dark
when Maryam and Farasat emerged
from the tunnels to find
a gaslit London softly glowing in the fog,
unscathed by the tremendous power
held in check below.

The earthworkers bundled them into a hansom
and insisted on paying the cabbie themselves.
Maryam rode home with Farasat on her lap,
boneless with exhaustion and so grimy
that his golden coat looked more like bronze.

A week later, after repairs had been made
and a letter sent to Maryam's father,
and Farasat bathed and smelling of lemon soap,
they accepted the earthworkers' invitation
to the pub.

It was a different world, Maryam mused,
because most of the alchemical sciences
belonged soundly to gentlemen
but the grungy reaches of the earthworks
were commoner turf.
She'd left her fine manners at the door,
using instead what she had learned
from her mother and her friends belowstairs.
The earthworkers grinned at her comfortable jumper
and the brass fittings with which she fastened her hair.

They treated her like one of them,
and everyone wanted to buy her a pint or
treat Farasat to a piece of coney out of the big cookpot.
Maryam laughed at the rude jokes
and lounged lazily on her bench
while the cheetah sprawled in front of the hearth,
tail at rest, dozing in silent proof
that all was well.

Tags: cyberfunded creativity, ethnic studies, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, science fiction, wildlife, writing
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