Traveling Buddies

The last snow of Winter melted, and with its passing, arose spring and the first wave of tender, pale green stems erupting from the thawed earth. Cubone and Psyduck emerged from the rock shelter to the bright morning light of a crisp, blue day. Eyes squinting, pupils mere pinpricks, their thin frames wavered in the chilly mountain breeze as it cut across the damp, stony land. Their stomachs felt tight. They needed food but could not identify hunger in of itself, as both bodies were lean after they had survived winter through hibernation and only infrequent feedings from nut and dried fruit stores kept inside with them. Water was more pressing. Cubone led the way. Stumbling on loose scree, they skidded a dozen feet down the hillside.

Instead of fighting to get up again, Psyduck and Cubone used a new tool they had developed in the past autumn: the power of massage. Psyduck rubbed their own feet, and could feel the weak blood flow gain strength in their appendages. Cubone took special care around their knees, which felt dead and cold, having been bent for a month and weakened by lack of use. Soon enough, limbs were wrested from the depths of sloth, soon to be rescued from the lair of malnourishment.

Taking more cautious steps this time, the two friends made their way down to the stream. It felt as though it were liquid ice, and it ripped away any remaining warmth from their paws and lips and throats. It tasted pure from the snowmelt bloating the waters, and they both appreciated the particular way it refreshed their bodies. Cubone could feel their thoughts opening wider as the firm grip of hibernation’s smother was coaxed aside. Psyduck noticed their head felt clearer than it had in a long time, and that was a little frightening, but also distantly familiar.

Psyduck decided to follow this sensation as far as it would allow them. Memories of last Autumn trickled in. Days collecting food and preparing the cave with mosses and rushes as thick as they could manage. The smell of dry leaves for bedding. The particular singeing, woodsy odor of that fire smoke they could smell drifting up from the valley below, where human dwellings lay in rows.

Memories from before, from the summer time when Psyduck had friends who were not Cubone. Of chasing Butterfree and laughing with Bulbasaur. Eating river-chilled summer vegetables and playing games in the golden dusk.

Psyduck remembered something else. A face that was close but blurred. Golden brown, with orange hints. It faded even faster than it came and left behind it an image of a road. Dirt, lined with stones, and with grass growing on the ditches to either side of it, opening up to a wide and gently sloping hillside. Psyduck suddenly felt more alone than they had thought imaginable, and they knew something important was missing. Then everything caved in on itself and a turgid electrical storm filled its place. Crackling bolts firing painfully and forcing seemingly randomized connections between events and times and things. The whirlwind without order overpowered everything and Psyduck collapsed onto the ground clutching their head, and pulling out runs of downy feathers.

Cubone knelt down and scratched out pawfuls of mud to pack onto Psyduck’s head in a thick layer. Cubone tried to keep muck out of Psyduck’s eyes, but it ran and dripped anyway, dribbling down their arms and sides. Tears fell and washed away the mud in salty streaks. Psyduck was crying.

They stayed there by the stream, managing the migraine as best they could with cool mud and intentional massage along the neck and spinal column. Eventually the pain was reduced enough that they could walk back up the hill carefully and Cubone left Psyduck in the cave while they went out alone to hunt or gather something for two.

Gripping their club of bone, Cubone decided on a whim to travel West for food today. There were some unusual rock formations that way, which offered shelter and cover if needed. In the past it also held some more tenacious plants, which hopefully had taken to spring’s warmth, and grown.

Cubone picked their way between low scrub and the increasingly large stones, boulders, and monoliths. The earth gave way to sand and grit and rock. It looked almost unchanged from when Cubone had traversed through here last autumn. There were no deciduous trees betraying the season. Mostly canyon walls, wind-swept plateaus, and various prickly things clinging viciously to life by driving toughened roots deep into the rock walls.

They listened intently and caught the ringing of the rocks, which seemed immortal and immovable, but they frequently clattered in chips and breaks onto the canyon floor. Water was winning against stone. Teeny fissures years in the making, held together in winter by ice that was simultaneously expanding and cracking the pieces apart, the degenerative process aided by plant roots gripping and growing and pushing. Come spring, the ice melted back into water and no longer held the fragments together, leaving them to the whims of gravity.

Ping. Clack clack clack.

Pitter patter pitter patter ptt ptt pt.

It sounded like a percussive orchestra number using acoustic instruments to recreate the more rounded sounds of a light rain with heavy drops.

CRACK. boom.

A much larger piece of rock, roughly the size of Cubone, plummeted from way up high in the canyon wall and landed explosively in the bottom, shattering into a hundred shards that whizzed past Cubone’s head. A fragment pitted their helmet and bounced off, another cut into their arm just enough to produce a drop of blood. Clutching the boney club tighter, Cubone edged on deeper into the canyon, now keenly aware of the dangers and so keeping to the walls and looking for tunnels and overhangs for protection.

Along the way, Cubone kept an eye out for a particular plant. It was known for its nutritious tubers, and had helped Cubone make it through the canyon the first time. After a time, one of these plants was spotted. Unfortunately, it was up high, growing out of a ledge, and Cubone would need to climb in order to collect the tubers.

Gritting their teeth, they began their ascent. Paw over paw, club clenched in mouth, Cubone closed the distance to the food. Breathing heavily, they hoisted their bedraggled, frail form up onto the ledge and sat, pausing to regain some strength. Cubone remembered having so much endurance available before hibernation stole any toned fitness away. The discrepancy was unsettling and literally a pain, since their muscles were already aching. The plant itself had several thick, strong blades with substantial points at the end. It lay in a bed of soil, perhaps three inches deep, that had collected in a pocket on the ledge.

When the burning in Cubone’s ribs died down enough, they took their bone and began to dig at the plant’s base, hoping to uncover the biggest tubers possible and to come home with food enough for two full bellies. Scraping, tugging, panting and waiting for the last bits of strength to come forth, and ultimately uncovering a few great big roots, each one a couple of inches in diameter. The tubers protruded deep, deep into the rock face, it seemed. Not knowing of any reasonable way to retrieve the full tubers, Cubone was content enough to start jabbing at the roots as far down as they could with the pointy end of the bone club. Slicing and hacking, Cubone hadn’t made it through the first tuber before a great, angular, grey face sidled up next to the ledge.

Onix opened her mouth and a sheet of pebbles fell and jingled down the canyon wall and pooled on the stone floor. She leaned in on Cubone’s ledge and tore a great big chunk from it. The ledge came loose, already weakened by weatherization and the very plant Cubone was gathering. Cubone tumbled to the hard ground, clutching the top of the plant in one claw and their club in the other.

Cubone, whirled around to face the Onix–and, in trying to find distance and cover and watch the behemoth’s moves all at the same time, failed to notice the hairline fracture running along the length of their beloved bone, a badge from the impact moments before.

Cubone spied a cavity a few dozen feet to the right, and realized they would have to skitter almost completely around Onix, with only a minimally covered circumnavigatory route to get there. Onix, who had finished nibbling the ledge, leaving behind a craterous pockmark, moved on to another outcropping. Her tail flicked carelessly behind her and as it swooshed, Cubone lifted their bone club in preparation for a beating, but Onix’s tail missed completely. The roiling body of the Onix did scrape against the walls of the canyon, unleashing a cascade of jagged fragments and dust.

Cubone’s club was still poised, and Cubone finally nearly to the shelter. Ten feet, five feet, almost inside… and a shard, perhaps the size of Cubone’s fist, fell down from the canyon wall and dropped onto Onix’s spinning body. The speedy rotation amplified the velocity and redirected the trajectory of this not-terribly exciting, though admittedly very sharp, rock. It whizzed off of Onix’s body, Onix herself still happily munching bits of plateau and sand sculpture, and, just as Cubone crossed the threshold into the safe pocket, this nondescript stone clipped the end of the bone such that the club shattered along the fracture and then split into a dozen needles.

Cubone nestled down into the cavity, but it was not much bigger than they were. They looked out through the opening, and could see the Onix moving away little by little, until eventually she bored an enormous hole through the canyon wall and left behind a cave that would take a traveller into the heart of the plateau. It was after the Onix has disappeared in a cloud of dust when Cubone noticed that their club was not much more than a handle.

It did not register. It was there, or, more precisely, it wasn’t–but it still would not compute. Cubone had kept this bone for years, even since they were small and had gone on their first journey to find their mother. Cubone had been wearing the helmet for as long as they could remember. They had a run in with some rougher wild creatures on their way to a local graveyard and mausoleum complex. It made sense to grab whatever was a hand, and it so happened, it was a foot. And rest of leg. Cubone only kept the thighbone in the end. It had felt so stout, so naturally sized for Cubone’s not very large paw and gripping claws.

To see an important feature of their maturing years in such disrepair as to make it unusable; it was simply heartbreaking. A close ally was lost. Things could be similar to, but never the same as it had been. Like holding a picture of yourself with the friends you had while getting your photo taken with the friends you have.

Cubone, finally remembering that the Onix was gone, shakily clambered out of their hole, still holding the handle of their bone. The hollow hunger they felt echoed their overall numbness, but managed to just remind Cubone that the tubers were needed. Cubone stumbled to the nearest one and, paw shaking, they picked it up. The pattern repeated until Cubone’s arms were full, one hand still holding the bone bit, the other a dusty tuber.

It was evening by the time Cubone made it back home. Psyduck had managed their migraine by moving as little as possible and by drinking many cupped hand-fulls of fresh water from the stream. Cubone set the tubers, which would last for several days, on the floor and gently placed the broken club on a flat, clean stone near the door.

“I can mush it for you,” Cubone said blankly, grabbing a tuber from the pile and rubbing the dirt off of it with little conviction. Psyduck had hardly any choice except to have the root vegetable mashed, and since they couldn’t manage such strenuous labor in the moment, they nodded.

Cubone took two stones they kept inside the cave, one for holding food matter, and one for crushing it while it was held. They took the veg and crushed it, over and over, until it formed a rough paste, and then Cubone left the lower stone for Psyduck to eat from. The pre-macerated foodstuffs made it easier to manage headache. Less concentration and effort was required, while still getting vital nutrient. Otherwise, Psyduck had tendency to simply not eat, which was not an option if they had plans to recover and recuperate from the end of hibernation season’s fast.

Cubone tried eating their own, unmashed tuber, but the usually satisfying crunch and pale sweetness held no interest when their hunger was metaphorical and overpowering the literal. It was a hunger that currently could not be sated. Dropping the untouched meal to the ground, Cubone stared out the mouth of the cave and felt nothing.

Psyduck, ravenous in their own right, gulped down half of the mush before noticing Cubone hadn’t even started eating. “What’s wrong?”

Cubone sighed. They gestured to the remainder of the bone. Psyduck looked but did not see. “What is that?”

“My bone. It exploded.” A single tear trickled down Cubone’s cheek: emotion distillate.

“What happened?”

“Onix. Explosion.”

Clearly Cubone wasn’t going to offer more details so Psyduck tentatively continued eating the last few mouthfuls of tuber mash.

That evening was spent in silent reflection and mourning for Cubone, and in quiet respect and distance for Psyduck. A fitful night gave way to a bleary and unkempt wake as soon as the first piercing beams of light etched Cubone’s eyelids. A dreary breakfast, bleached out by the sun, of mash for Psyduck and a few nibbles of tuber for Cubone, was followed by a trip to the stream for drink. At the water’s edge, Cubone announced “I think I need to travel again. I need another club. Once I get my club I will resume my search for my mother.”

Psyduck looked up, sipping the last of the water cupped in their hand. “I figured you might need time to wander. Your feet were running all night in starts and stops. I’m surprised you had enough energy to prepare my meal. Thanks, by the way, for that…” Psyduck looked into the ripples of the stream and watched a few leaves from last Autumn, withered and black, shoot down the current, then get caught in the occasional pool created by taller stones which jutted in the way and habitually caught other debris. A powerful gush of snowmelt pushed the debris around the blocks and cleared the way once more. Cubone had their push, and now needed to travel in a new way in order to grow. “Will you wait another few days? Long enough for the passes to clear so you can walk the roads clearly and safely?”

“It sounds like you aren’t coming with me. Would you accompany me if I asked it of you?”

Psyduck hadn’t considered that a real option. “My headaches. They’re so inconvenient, and then you would need to find food and water for both of us… I would slow you down too much. I won’t go, for your sake.”

Cubone leveled their gaze directly into Psyduck’s golden eyes. “I would rather go with you than without. I’ve gotten used to caring for you. Leaving you alone at the cave would be far more upsetting to me than any situation I could imagining happening to us on the road. You are my preferred companion, especially to my shadow.” Cubone reached out a paw and took Psyduck’s fingers in their own. Psyduck didn’t pull back and thought for a bit.

“Did I tell you about my remembory? Yesterday?” Cubone shook their head.” “There was a lot of stuff I hadn’t been able to think about in months. Old friends. Laughter. Then I had a vision of a road, empty and with something missing. I don’t know if I’m going to lose you if we travel together, and I don’t know what I would do if I did.”

Cubone wiped away a tear rolling down Psyduck’s cheek, and caressed them. “I have no intention of leaving you. And if, for some reason, we get separated, let’s promise to meet back here when we can. There’s water, food, and a beautiful mountain to live on and with until we see each other again. All I know is that this journey needs to happen, and I hope you choose to come with me and help me walk it boldly.”

Psyduck nodded, and sniffled. “I don’t want you to resent me. Promise me you will go on without me if I am dragging you down. We can meet here after, okay?”

“Okay. Promise.” Cubone kissed Psyduck’s head and held them in tight arms, then let go. They walked up the hill, back to the cave, and didn’t talk any more about the impending travel. Instead, Psyduck gathered more moss and re-lined the cave floor. Cubone went in search of more food that they could eat here, while saving the more durable and hard-won tubers for their travels.

Slowbro: the Tale of a Fisherman’s Assistant

It was the usual bustle of the wharf. Shipping crates swinging in on ropes and pulleys from ships that smelled of exotic spices and men’s sweat blending with the salty spray of the sea. A few first mates were overseeing their crew’s activity; ensuring essential productivity and that no one scartered off while work was to be done, especially with the lure of the local unsavoury female population so near at hand. Amongst the shouted commands and the noise of wood clunking and scraping along the planks, a calm, pink figure swayed down the middle of the docks.

The docksfolk knew him as Chum. Some of the friendlier street food vendors would offer dango or the occasional ball of sticky rice when Chum’s gentle, if vacant, face lumbered by their stall. With arm extended, holding a treat, the restaurateur could expect to wait up to half a minute for his tan muzzle to finish twitching and for an excited, though sluggish, claw to reach over to receive the small offering. Chum acted as mascot for a more comfortably paced life to the busy and buzzing workers on the docks. They weren’t bitter about it, as there was no smugness or laziness about Chum. He quite simply looked like a walking piece of pink saltwater taffy, pulled into a rotund, pleasant shape.

On this particular day, Chum had, indeed, acquired a small, double paper cup of steaming miso soup, briny and full of umami flavor. Somewhat mindlessly, the slowpoke tipped the container into his wide mouth and sipped at the broth and drank down the tofu cubes and delicate vegetable slices. It was hot. Too hot. But by the time Chum’s tongue and throat had burned and had been recognized as such, the miso was gone. His eyes watered a little and the next few swallows felt tender.

In the time it took for Chum to make it back to his owner’s stall, the pangs had ebbed away. A gruff and old fishmonger, arthritic in hands and knees–Chum’s owner–was almost as well known up and down the docks as Chum himself.

“Yew pile of stinking guts, not even fit ter chum the water fer madgey-carp! Thought yew whurr gonna get better fish fer me to sell at prices to match! But all yew’ve been catchin’ me lately is the scummiest, most barnacle-bitten flotsam I ever seen!” He pointed to slowpoke’s tail, which currently was host to an admittedly puny, brown and slimy sludgefish. Locals already knew the fish was bad, foreigners were still overcharged for it, and long-time sea captains had seen similarly foul creatures show up in the markets of expanding cities the world over. “I cain’t give that away!” he said as he reached out and slapped the sludgefish off of Chum’s tail. Stunned, it unbit and dropped to the rough-hewn floor with a heavy, wet thud. Chum waggled his tail slowly, noticing it felt lighter.

Chum turned in place and bent down to pick up the fallen animal. He scooped it and shuffled over to the fish waste grinder. About to drop the sludgefish into the wide opening at the top, Kajika (鰍), surprisingly agile for his age and condition, swooped in for the fish and dusted it off, further berating Chum for his “unyielding density and lack o’ ingin-yuity,” further saying that “I’ll just rinse it real good and add a few touches of yeller paint on its fins and. It’ll pass for one o’ those fancy ayu. Sell it fer a pretty penny to a landlubber tourist, I tell yer what!” He paused and rubbed his stubbly, graying chin. “A sludgefish turning into a sweetfish! Ha!” Grinning to himself he set to work washing and altering the appearance of the cheap and gritty muckbeast into that of a desirable, if not uncommon, juicy and tasty treat.

Kajika shooed Chum out the door, shouting after him “Now go make yerself useful and catch sumthin with yer fancy tail o’ yers that I ken sell! Fatty tuna! Nothing less!” Chum nodded and plodded back out. Maybe another vendor would have something sweet to counteract the gravelly and bitter taste Kajika’s vitriol left in Chum’s mouth.

It took slowpoke a good ten minutes to find a quiet perch along the pier. A few other fisherfolk were out, seated on stools, with buckets, tackle, and rods in tow. Skin tanned deeply from the full days spent out-of-doors, these professionals were apprentices to the master called Patience. The bitter chill working its way in from the Pacific had everyone wrapped up for warmth, and it was mostly leathery noses and hands poking out today. The younger man to Chum’s left nodded slightly as his new neighbor turned around and dipped his tail into the salty cold drink.

The shorebirds cackled and cawed up high, into the stiff sea breeze. With surprising alacrity, they took turns diving into the cresting waves, plundering schools of fishes who, in response to the hunters, broke apart and regrouped again and again in a never-ending dance of survival by raw numbers.

Staring into the murky deep and fidgeting with his line a touch, tugging now and again to jiggle the lure down below in a hopefully enticing way, the young fisherman sighed. “So, there I was,” he began.

He fixed one keen eye on Chum, a smile suppressed on his lips. “Doing my thing.” A pause. “Sailing on a ship, just doing my thing–there I was.” Chum finally had noticed the recounting was directed at him, with one curly ear perked up turned slightly to better hear him over the breaking surf. The storyteller picked up again with “So there I was, doing my thing, scrubbing vegetables in the kitchen of the big belly of a ship bound for a port not two day’s journey by ship away from this very harbor. As I finished the last of the daikon, and was getting ready to clean the pots and pans from the previous meal’s cooking, what did I happen to see?” After a pause, just long enough to surprise Chum with the silence. He was actually following this tale, perhaps because it allowed slowpoke a chance to catch up before it barreled on into more plot.

“Well, there was a pickle on the floor, something I had not been using that day. Which is saying something, since most of sailor’s fare is made almost entirely of rice, pickle, fish, and beer” He smiled. “Anyway, so there was this vegetable on the floor, rolling around, not there for any discernible reason besides the grace of the gods. I looked around the wooden crocks of pickles and noticed one with its weight removed, meaning that the lid was free to lay askew. I checked inside, and there was a few gouges in the nukadoko, where a hand–probably unwashed!–had reached in to grab a pickle.” The young man visibly grimaced, betraying his upset. “So, I take a clean bowl and scoop out the rice bran that was contaminated, and put the lid back on and weigh it down, making doubly sure to tie everything down as it should be. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a drunken figure, asleep in the empty rice sack pile. It’s the first mate! He’s terribly important, you see, but this guy had just been in an argument with his captain, and was grumpy and sleeping off a night of boozing, remnant of a pickled carrot in his clenched fist.”

His face twisted into an impish grin. “I didn’t like him much, since he usually drank too much anyway and left vomit everywhere that I had to mop up. It reeked. So. I may or may not have been thrown off the ship for what I did next.” He wiggled his eyebrows, then gasped, as a strong tug on the line alerted him to a catch. “Excuse me,” he voiced, then he stood up to pull the fish in. Fighting and wrenching, eventually a magicarp landed on the planks. “Dammit. Always magicarp! They eat all of my best bait!” He unhooked it and considered throwing it back in the sea. Sighing again, he instead dropped the thing into his bucket, which it filled to the point where saltwater spilled out of the top as it flicked its fins.

Reaching into the bait bag, he pulled out a chunk of something and pushed it onto the hook, casting the line out into the sea once more. He checked his other two rods and then sat down on his overturned bucket. Chum checked his tail for a catch, and saw only the beige tip that there always was. He dropped it back over the edge of the pier and let it hang.

“As I was saying,” continued the fisherman, “this stunt virtually ended my career as a kitchen boy. So there I was, standing in the pantry of this enormous ship, looking at the disheveled lump of a filthy man, drunk to his eyes. If I leaned in close enough, I could see a half-chewed bite of pickled carrot stuck to his lower lip. Having been privy to this man’s dietary management and restrictions…” Chum was leaning towards him again, listening intently. “So I knew he was allergic to Krabby, so I pulled a live one out of the stock tank and brought it to his sleeping person. I also knew that he had recently acquired a particularly itchy disease from the previous port, known as “crabs,” though it is actually a kind of lice.” He tapped the side of his nose knowingly, twice. “I simply had to put this Krabby in the most appropriate place, which so happened to be down the front of the first mate’s pants. I had almost made it out of the kitchen when I heard a yell roar from the pantry. As it turned out, the Krabby had clamped a particularly sensitive bit of this man. And so..!” He gestured to himself as he now sat. “A fisherman’s life for me, instead.”

Slowpoke nodded. This man was indeed fishing. Chum had perhaps missed a few parts on the way from A to B, on account of the brain freezes and thaws that continually enveloped his mind in succession. The young man stuck out a hand to Chum, offering a handshake. Chum rested his claw-tipped appendage delicately in the firm grip, which pumped up and down a few times. “My name is Ryoushi (猟師), by the way. I was discharged from my post not four months back and, after a bit of travelling from then to the end of summer, I’ve been here, scratching out a living, catching some fish for myself and selling the better fish to cover three bowls of rice a day and a roof over my head. Not a very big roof, mind, by dry enough.”

Chum gurgled out his own name, and Ryoushi laughed. “Chumbucket? What kind of person names a sweet, doofy thing such as yourself after one of the most foul and grimy pieces of the fisherman’s trade?” Ryoushi leapt up, indignant. “You know what, we’re going to pay your owner a visit and I’m going to tell him off–perhaps viciously!”

Chum jumped a little, emitting a tiny yelp, then slowed in movement to a sluggishness Ryoushi hadn’t believed possible. Lifting his tail out of the water at torpors only bested by certain plants, Chum revealed a roguish Shellder clamping down with malintent. Ryoushi leapt back as soon as Chum lurched a step forward, hunching over, and seemingly emanating an aura. Tissue crackled electrically and new bones creaked into being. Chum’s back appeared to broaden in all directions. Shellder itself morphed from a purple bivalve into a spiny, grey spiraled cone–its eyes moved too, which was terrifying to say the least. Chum groaned as the halo of energy dissipated, slowpoke no more, he was a newly resplendent slowbro.

He stood up to his full height, a good two feet above where it had been. Chum’s eyes, somehow more vacant than before, eventually swung around to Ryoushi, and they met levelly. Ryoushi felt his nausea pass as the last of the chi blast faded, and, sweat beaded on his face and seeping under his coat, reaffirmed: “as I said. Let’s go pay your master a visit.”