Spelling It Out For Them
Episode: Wry Counsel
Interlude: Calling Each Other Names
Episode: The Poor Feeding the Poor
Episode: Left Unaddressed
Interlude: Home Is Where The Hearth Is
Episode: Saddled and Spurred
Episode: The Gift That Better Keep On Giving
Final Episode: Stars of Print and Press
Denouement: Professional Expertise
Bonus: Mauzi Taken Out
A child was playing with some wooden letter-blocks in her living room. Being too young to pursue a student career at school, her days occasionally featured leisure activities of an informally educational nature; she was arranging the blocks into various configurations and wondering whether any actual words were being spelled, or if the letters were perhaps sideways, upside-down, or in an exotic alphabet.
This round of speculation was interrupted by a few little noises which came down through the chimney and out of the ashy, dormant fireplace. It was first a bristling and a scuffling, and then a scratching and a coughing, and then an intelligible grumbling and complaining:
"Ugh!" came the voice. "Disgraceful! The worst in town!"
The little girl quite forgot about her letter-blocks and was now practically jumping up and down, unable to contain her excitement.
Down from the chimney and into the inactive yet messy fireplace came a cat, landing with a trail of soot following from above and a cloud of ash bursting out upon impact below. This cat was entirely gray of fur, and regarded the joyful child without even the slightest hint that the feeling was mutual.
"Well," the cat grumbled through fits of coughing, "you could at least lay out the welcome-mat."
"Oh!" the child exclaimed. "I'm sorry, Mauzi!"
This youthful resident then indeed retrieved a woolen rug from beside the fireplace and laid it out in front of the cat, who then stepped onto it and spent a minute in marring it with as much soot and ash as possible, until this grouchy visitor's paws were clean enough to not leave marks on the floor proper; the cat's fur and demeanor, however, remained as gray and sullen as before.
During this operation, the girl had run into the kitchen, exclaiming: "They're here! May I open the door? May I?"
A couple of affirmative-sounding yet actually wordless noises from the parents therein were all the reply that the child needed. She then ran to the front door and opened it, exclaiming: "Sootwork!"
There was a boy wearing a threadbare, soot-black outfit and standing on the sidewalk in front of the house. Hearing his own name called out to him, he shifted his gaze away from the rooftop and toward the little resident who was conspicuously excited to greet him. The boy picked up his wickerwork quiver from its resting place on the sidewalk; this repurposed piece of archery gear was filled with various brushes and other tools, and had a few hessian sacks and a sturdy iron dustpan hanging from it.
"Hello, little one!" Sootwork chimed, as if he were quite a bit older than he actually appeared to be. "A good Ash Wednesday to you!"
He approached the doorstep and gently shook hands with the little girl. She maintained her grasp on his hand, bringing him inside the house.
"Here is Mauzi, waiting for you," she said to the boy, upon reaching the living room. "I was taking good care of her by myself."
Hearing this remark, the cat made a choking noise.
"Would you like some water?" the girl asked the suddenly distressed feline.
"No," Mauzi replied, returning to normal with suspicious ease. "I felt something trying to come up, rather than go down."
The happy girl had every intention of continuing to admire and dote over the gray cat, but after some wordless moments of being gazed upon, Mauzi simply closed her eyes and thenceforth ignored the child.
Sootwork remarked to his feline friend: "You must forgive children for being star-struck when meeting you, Mauzi; it is not every day that you deign to descend from on high."
"There are quite enough Wednesdays per week, as it is," the cat muttered.
It was soon thereafter, following a few pleasantries with the resident family, that Sootwork set about his business of cleaning the fireplace and flue (hence his name). As he expertly performed this task, the girl dutifully remained in attendance, just in case she were needed for assistance or conversation. Mauzi the cat, meanwhile, had already performed her own initial scouting portion of the job at hand, and was simply waiting for the boy to complete the laborious cleaning process.
At one point, the child of the house did think of trying to pet Mauzi, for humans do tend to have a bizarre compulsion to stroke the fur of animals, but the unblinking glare and the subtle shaking of the cat's head succeeded in indicating that such an affectionate gesture would be a bad idea.
Not very many minutes were required for the boy to complete his task; the fireplace leavings were now securely collected inside one of the hessian sacks, to be removed from the dwelling. There was now a final matter remaining for the boy and the cat to sort out, so they confided together, but made no effort to quiet their voices; the little girl listened with rapt attention and careful silence.
"Well, what do you say, Mauzi?" the boy asked, opening the debate with his companion.
The cat's reply: "Charge 'em."
"But there is a welcome-mat laid out for you."
"Only after I reminded the kid of it."
At this, the girl gasped, but otherwise did not interrupt the negotiation.
Sootwork continued to Mauzi: "And the mat does appear to be... well-used."
"Half-price, then," was the feline's reply.
"And was not the little one afterward considerate to you, by her own volition?"
"I'm already conceding a hefty discount," the cat muttered. "Don't abuse my generosity."
"And did you not deny the child the simple joy of petting you? You know how humans are."
"Their strangeness is no fault of mine."
The cat simply scowled, knowing that she didn't have a paw to stand on in this matter.
This discourse had worried the girl, in regard to what the final pronouncement would be. Sootwork gave her a pleasant countenance, as a sign that all was well.
"I see that you have some letter-blocks," the boy remarked. "Do you think we could do some spelling together?"
Mauzi rolled her eyes and groaned at the spectacle which then played out before her: the boy and the girl, as playmates, sorted through the wooden blocks, soon organizing a row of them. The girl then carefully held this configuration together and carried it to her parents, who were still in the kitchen. The entire family then arrived in the living room, to bid farewell and to offer their thanks.
But both the boy and the cat were already gone.
And sitting upon the kitchen table, the row of blocks bore the letters F, R, E, E.
The night outside was cold and dark; the stars in the sky, hidden behind the rising smoke of chimneys, could hardly be seen through the townspeople's windows.
Inside the little den which was the home of Sootwork and Mauzi, conditions were quite warm and comforting. There was, however, no fire or lamp which caused this atmosphere; Sootwork's skin glowed faintly orange, as does a lit candle half-way down, and Mauzi's eyes glinted hot of hue, when she bothered to keep them open.
The cat in question was lying on a pillow. Though she owned only a few possessions in total, her own portion of the dwelling extended over the majority of the single-room. Sootwork, meanwhile, had such a collection of dog-eared books and other various objects and wares, that these items were stacked from floor to ceiling in the fraction of the room-space which was his personal allotment.
He was writing inside a book of otherwise blank pages, and was so experienced at this task of penmanship, that he had no need of averting his gaze from the tome while making use of the inkwell. After some time, he set the pen down, closed the vessel of ink, and laid out the book with the fresh pages still exposed.
This was when Mauzi chose to speak up:
"I can't imagine what there was to record about to-day. In black ink, that is. Proper accountants employ red for losses and debts, in their ledgers."
"I haven't yet closed the book," Sootwork simply replied.
"Yes, Sooty, but you have placed it over there," the cat said, "whereas I am over here."
Understanding that Mauzi was in no mood to rise from her comfortable spot, the boy instead obliged his housemate by moving the journal-book and propping it up in front of her; there was already a bookstand conveniently placed nearby, for this very purpose.
The cat sighed:
"I would have to open my eyes, though."
"I was writing about you," the boy simply said.
Mauzi, of course, then gave the pages her earnest attention.
"Hmm!" the cat remarked after a few moments. "I'm not sure you've quoted me quite verbatim, here."
"The single-quotes," Sootwork explained, "indicate substitutions for your remarks aloud which I prefer not to immortalize on paper."
"You're going to remember me all wrong," was the cat's response.
And after a few moments, she amended:
"So to speak."