A tin teapot fell from the workbench and tinkled onto the floor. Poupée shot after it, climbing down the chair like one of the jungle lizards. She recovered it from between the rotting wooden boles that made up the floor of the hut and hugged it to her chest.
“You big oaf!” she yelled.
“Sorry.” Even his voice was huge, a rumbling boom that seemed to shake the building to its core.
It wouldn’t take much to bring the old hut down, she reflected. If Harold gave it another couple of bumps like the one that had dislodged the teapot, it would likely collapse around them and she would be crushed.
Harold probably wouldn’t even notice –he’d been too big to live inside the house ever since he’d been born, hatched or whatever one called the process in which the late, lamented doctor had created the oversized lizard.
Poupée, on the other hand, needed the safety of the walls. The larger animals in the jungle around them tended to avoid the place because it still smelled of human – and animals in this little corner of the world had learned long ago that being too close to a human would mean a quick end. Even the larger predators stayed well clear.
Of course, nothing smarter than an insect would approach when Harold was around. She had no idea what Dr. Philippe had been planning when he designed the creature. He’d once told her that the dragons had been hatched small, and should have taken thirty years or more to grow into their full size.
Whether that meant that Philippe’s calculations were wrong or whether it meant that Harold would grow to become the size of one of the buildings she’d seen in the pictures in the books on the shelves, she didn’t know or care.
But she did know that she needed to find a new and more solid shelter right away, or, one night, she wouldn’t be there when Harold returned from his hunt.
“Come on, Harold, I need you to take me somewhere.”
“Where?” he asked.
“I’m not sure yet. We need to look around. And we need to take my people.”
The huge head turned to look at her. Harold knew what this meant.
“Are we leaving? For good, I mean?”
The question had weight. Harold had been living in the swamp, among the mangroves and wildlife, but Poupée was different. She’d stayed in or around the safety of the hut since Philippe had brought her from Paris. To a creature of her dimensions, the swamp was a dark, dangerous place.
“Yes,” she said. “We’ll need to bring my people.”
She picked up a small dark-brown bear, the one possession Philippe had thought to bring for her when they’d escaped down the servant’s stairs of his old apartment. He’d brought nothing for himself. “You’ll need to carry Roger.”
Roger was a huge stuffed rabbit, half-again as big as she was. Harold would only be able to carry him in his mouth… and he’d be soaked and torn by the time they arrived wherever they were going, but she wouldn’t leave him behind. The enormous reptile obediently popped his head into the hut and emerged with the rabbit held gingerly in his teeth.
“It might be better if we tied him to your neck,” she said.
This operation complete, she mounted behind the bunny and told Harold to set off into the swamp.
Poupée wanted to look forward, not glance back at the small shack where she’d lived and where she’d decided to murder her creator.
The jungle went quiet when they passed. Poupée could hear the sounds of birds, insects and even the occasional tree-dwelling monkeys off in the distance, but none of the sounds originated nearby. The dwellers of this forest were well aware of Harold, it seemed. And it was no wonder: his tail trailed behind them, several times the length of a human and much larger than anything in the swamp. It was a tail that corresponded perfectly with Harold’s teeth.
Within an hour, the swamp gave way to a muddy river, just deep enough for them to navigate, but with a definite current. Harold’s tail went from being a useless, dragged-along appendage, to a navigational aid as he moved it from side to side to propel himself forward.
“Wait,” Poupée said. “Stop here.”
“Why? What happened?” the dragon rumbled.
“Look there. A snare. That means that there are people nearby.”
They sat silently, listening as only two creatures brought up in a jungle could. Birds and insects chirped happily in the distance, but not nearby. It was clear that something had disturbed the natural rhythm of the jungle – but Poupée couldn’t quite figure out what had done so.
There! A ripple, small and subtle but completely out of place, drifted in from a slight inlet where the shallows were obscured by mangrove growth.
Harold, following his instincts, turned toward the movement. All thoughts of stealth were forgotten as he advanced toward the origin of the rogue wave.
A small scurried between the mangroves, emerged from another inlet and ran across the shallows, in the direction from which they’d come. Poupée realized it was a small girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, dressed in the typical hodgepodge attire of the Gabonese villagers – in her case a pair of faced pink shorts and a t-shirt that may have once been white.
“Quick, after her! We can’t let her get back to the village!”
Harold didn’t wait for further instructions and leapt into motion.
That was one of the nice things about the dragon. Poupée knew that he trusted her implicitly, and would jump at any command she gave. It was the kind of loyalty that was rewarded by safety. Hubert seemed to understand, without being told, that the tiny monkey-like creature would always protect him from dangers the dragon didn’t even know existed.
Hubert’s trust was well placed. Poupée knew that, if the girl made it back to her village with tales of dragons and goblins – or whatever other derogatory moniker Poupée herself would merit – it would bring the townsfolk out in force. And even a creature the size of Hubert wouldn’t last long against armed humans.
The small form weaved between the tangled mass of undergrowth along the riverbank, making it impossible for Hubert to catch her – and Poupée wouldn’t stand a chance, even against a human as small as the girl they were pursuing.
“There, go through that gap in the trees and get onto the shore. We’ll force her back into the river.”
Hubert obeyed, crashing through the opening and into a small trail behind the first line of trees. Poupée thought the trail looked ominously human-made, but she kept quiet. If they did run into someone, it would only make a bad situation worse.
As expected, the little girl shrieked and dove into the water.
“Now! Back in the river!”
But it wasn’t quite so easy. The next gap in the trees was thirty meters ahead, and Poupée could only grind her tiny, mismatched teeth in frustration as the girl swam towards the far bank.
When they were finally able to reach the river, she realized that their prey had reached a small grassy islet in the center of the current, and climbed into the branches of its only tree, high enough that Hubert couldn’t reach her.
They swam lazily to the bank and Hubert placed his head on the shore so Poupée could walk onto dry land without getting her feet wet – ironic considering that, after the splash-filled chase, she was drenched from head to toe.
Poupée looked up at the girl, who was attempting to use the foliage to conceal herself, with pathetically ineffective results. “I can see you, you know,” she said.
Large eyes stared down at her. “Are you a spirit? Are you going to bewitch me so your dragon can eat me?”
Poupée paused. That had hit a little too close to home – being eaten by the dragon was definitely in the girl’s future, if they managed to get her down. “No. I only want to talk to you.”
“You sure look like a spirit to me.”
The girl spoke the local patois, but since it was rooted in French, Poupée had little difficulty understanding her, but still wondered whether she wasn’t misinterpreting the word for “spirit”. She’d read every book that Dr. Philippe had in his library back at the hut, and she had looked at herself in the mirror dozens of times every day. She knew that most of the people in those books would have called her a monster, and been disgusted by her. That was how humans acted to those that were ugly and deformed.
This girl should have been one of the first to call her a monster. After all, she would have no way of knowing that Poupée actually represented a triumph of science over nature – the creation of an intelligent being from printed DNA. She shouldn’t be able to see past the ugliness to ask herself how Poupée had come to be.
“Harold won’t hurt you. Come down.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Harold, please move away from us. Go onto the other side of he river.”
The dragon did as she asked. They both knew that, without trees in the way, Harold could cross the few meters separating them in the blink of en eye – quickly enough to protect Popupée if that became necessary. He could also very easily catch and devour the girl before she had a chance to climb back up. But the girl wouldn’t know that.
“Will you come down now?” Poupée asked.
The girl stared at the dragon, and for some moments it seemed like she wouldn’t move. But then, deciding that she’d be safe, she clambered down with the same agility she’d shown going up.
She stood, her back to the trunk of the tree, staring at Popuée with wonder and more than a little fear visible in her face.
“Are you a spirit of the jungle, or of the river?”
“Neither. I am…” words failed Poupée. How could she explain to a child that she was the product of advanced genetic engineering carried out by a rogue scientist who’d ended up in Gabon after fleeing the French authorities? “My name is Poupée.”
The girl giggled at that. The word “poupée” meant “doll” in Dr. Philippe’s native French, and the name had seemed fitting to his twisted sense of humor. It seemed that that was one of the words that had made it into the local patois. “Yes, the man who created me thought it would be funny to name me after a doll. I am small and ugly after all.”
“You’re not ugly,” the girl said. “But you’re funny.”
Poupée studied the girl and cursed her limited experience with human expressions. Though she’d studied every nuance of Philippe’s facial movements, she’d only caught glimpses of others, usually from concealment that made it as difficult for her to see the people as it did for the people to see her. But even with these limitations, she convinced herself that there was no trace of disgust evident. There was laughter and wonder – and the fear was still present despite the humor – but no disgust.
“What’s your name?”
“Shanel,” the girl replied, uncertainty taking over again.
“Do you live nearby?”
“I live three villages down the river.”
Poupée thought about that. It would take the girl a couple of hours to reach her village and tell the people there what she’d seen, and that might be enough to keep them safe. On the other hand, she could stop at one of the nearer villages and raise the alarm. Harold was big, but not big enough to fend off an armed mob.
It seemed that there was no choice. The girl had to be silenced. It was for the best, and besides, Harold hadn’t eaten since they’d set out. Poupée gestured and suddenly, before the girl even had time to scream, the dragon had materialized, knocked her to the floor and immobilized her on the ground with one gigantic foot.
“Let me go! Help! I was right, you’re monsters!”
“No one can hear you,” Popuée said. “You took us quite far from the villages. And we’re not monsters.” Poupée felt that she had to explain herself, despite everything the world had done to her – actions that had sealed this girl’s fate. “We just can’t risk you telling anyone about us.”
“I won’t tell anyone, I promise!”
“We can’t take that risk.”
“I wouldn’t lie to a spirit.”
“I’m sorry.” Poupée began to turn away, not wanting to watch, even if it was necessary. Dr. Philippe, after all, had been directly to blame for her condition. This girl was only guilty of being human.
“No, please! Who could I tell? I’m running away.”
“What?” Harold asked, claws already extended to deliver the killing blow, already savoring the morsel in his mind. “Why?”
The girl had fainted when Harold spoke.
“Just stop. I want to ask her something.”
“But she’s already dead. Look. She isn’t moving. Let me eat her now before she gets cold.”
“She’s not dead. Just wait.” Poupée walked to the river and tried to capture some water in her misshapen hands. She threw it over the girls face like they always did in the books.
The girl moaned and opened an eye. Seeing them, she tried to sit up suddenly, but Harold still had her firmly pinned to the grass.
“What are you running away from?”
The girl just looked at them, eyes wide, nearly panicked.
“Answer me, or I will have to let Harold eat you after all.”
“I’m running from my village. From my mother…” she stopped, a sb breaking through. From Louis.”
“Who is Louis? Is he your father?”
“No!” the girl replied vehemently. She spat. “Louis is my mother’s… I’m not sure what he is. He gets drunk and comes to our house sometimes, late at night when I’m asleep. My mother opens the door for him. I think she’s afraid to not have a man. She hasn’t been the same since my father died. Sometimes she begs him to leave, other times she laughs and says she’s been waiting for him. But she always opens the door when he comes. At first I pretended to be asleep, but one day I couldn’t take it and I screamed at him to leave. But he didn’t leave, he just laughed and…” The girl broke down again but tried to go on, tried to keep the flood of words flowing. “And ever since that time, they wake me up and…”
This time she truly couldn’t continue she cried and cried, seemingly forgetting that she was about to die.
Poupée looked around. This was taking much too long. This wasn’t a particularly populous branch of the river, but it couldn’t be long before someone came along. If they had to kill too many humans, discovery pursuit would not be far behind.
She was torn. They had to kill this girl. There was no option. Everyone would respond to them the same way she had: they were monsters to the people of this forest. But she couldn’t give Harold the order for some reason.
And then she knew why. She remembered clearly the girl’s wonder and fear at seeing them, but most of all, she remembered the lack of disgust.
“You will have to come with us,” Poupée told her. “And you can’t talk to any humans.”
“And you won’t kill me?”
“Harold will kill you if you try to run away from us. He will kill you if you scream. He will kill you if you try to talk to anyone. And he’ll kill you right now if you don’t come with us.”
“All right. I’ll go with you.” She got up as Harold removed his foot. “But where are we going?”
“We’re going as deep into the forest as this stream will take us.” She tried to look at the girl kindly, but her face really wasn’t much good at expressions. “You see, we’re running away, too.”
The girl brightened as if they’d suddenly become best friends. “Then it’s good that I’m coming! Who are you running from?”
“Everyone.” For a fleeting second, Poupée wondered if she was making the biggest mistake of her short life… and then wondered if everything wouldn’t end up all right after all. “Come on, we have to move. And come here – if you’re going to be coming with us, I need to introduce you to my people. They aren’t much to look at now, but should clean up OK once they dry out.”
Harold snorted impatiently, but refrained from eating the girl while Poupée introduced the stuffed animals. He even let the girl climb on his back with only a token amount of grumbling.
As they set off down the river, Poupée reflected that such an odd assortment was just the kind of group one would expect to be put together by a half-baked genetic experiment.
It could, she reflected, have been worse.