Prisoners of Perfection
smart one," he added, and gave her a small pat on her nearly bald little head. Soma grinned and said,
"What do we name him?"
A vote was held later that day, when a sufficient number of Watchers had gathered and submitted
enough nominations to make it interesting. Bombarda's own suggestion was 'Retribution', but none of
the children selected that one. A couple of popular choices were 'Squeak' and 'Smelly', but 'Squeak' was
too close to 'Squee', who objected on the grounds that he didn't think he'd like people confusing him
with a rat. He was all for 'Smelly', or 'Stinky', but in the end it was Soma's own name that carried the
day, and the rat was from then on known as 'Scratch'. The rat itself seemed to approve of the name,
because he swiped out with his claws whenever anyone got close enough and repeated his new name,
drawing a little blood in one instance.
Although no one really bothered to have possessions in the forest, for there were few to be had and no
sense in withholding anything from others, everyone in the group referred to Scratch as Soma's. She
was the one who brought it seeds and grain, and who took it for walks after securing it with a leash of
vine. She let it go this way and that, keeping a lose enough hold on it that the rat could feel he was free
though knowing full well that he wasn't. He wasn't terribly useful at first, foraging only for food or for
nesting materials for which he had no actual use, seeing as he still slept in the cage every night.
Bombarda accompanied the two with sharp anticipation, but after several useless excursions he decided
to remain at home, with Soma promising not to escape without him, should she ever be so fortunate.
Soma was certain that Scratch would show them the way, and she often talked to the rat about just that,
encouraging him to lead her back to where he'd come into their world. She and Squee took him to all
the old places they knew, the ones that they felt were right on the edge. Squee knew all of the t ricks and
the traps. He could place his whole arm just so, leaning off of a branch. that the arm disappeared and a
friend he had placed several miles away later reported that he saw it dangling down from another
distant tree. Much of the forest was illusio n, especially, they believed, around its periphery. Soma and
Squee had it all mapped out in their minds, a jagged polygon of corners and bends where the laws of
motion stopped making sense and instead of going forward you twisted and turned and teleported
halfway across instead. It was an invisible transportation device, a kind of transparent aerial subway
whose carriages operated at warp speed. They took Scratch on tours of all of these sites, but Scratch
merely sniffed his way around as if he might have been anywhere.
But Soma and Squee would never give up. Squee was always a rascal, climbing and leaping and
jumping about. He'd pick the rat up and toss it into the air while Soma protested and reached out to
catch the poor thing as it fell. The rat came to trust her, expecting her always to be there, and soon even
seemed to enjoy Squee's outlandish surprises. The rat would clamber up and rest on Soma's shoulder, or
even on top of her head, claws withdrawn, nose nuzzling into her neck. Soma felt that one day she'd
take it off of its leash and the rat would stay with her and not run away. She was right. When that day
came she tried it, just for a minute, she said to herself, and then just for a while. After that Scratch spent
every night with her, up in the trees where she slept in a hollowed out bit of a trunk.
Scratch spoke to her then in a dream. He asked her if she wanted to see the big world, the bigger one
outside of that place. O h, did she ever, she told him. He promised to take her. Where is it, she asked.
Over by the log bridge where the oak tree has fallen, he whispered. Soma knew just where that was.
The next morning she went to Bombarda, with Scratch on her back peering out from her ear, and told
him it was time to get going.
"Bring all your stuff," she sang out with a laugh.
"What stuff?" he replied, "I don't want anything we've got here."