Overclassification (part 1)

Posted in fiction, serials, overclassification on 03 Sep 2017

113 paragraphs • 3754 words

Full story

“Some would say that the primary goal of folkloristics is one of anthropology, of understanding a culture’s view of itself. I, naturally, disagree.” Professor Haswell’s voice droned on even in sleep, even these many years later. Dani hated it, hated these dreams. “Folkloristics works from the other direction. It constructs a semiotic niche out of so many umwelten…”

How damning was it to have such boring dreams?

Dani would write this one down on a fresh page in the morning, as she always did. The entry would be noted in the book’s index. It would be given a series of tags. “School”, “Haswell”, “NNND” — that boring category of “neither nightmare nor desire” — and probably “work”. Should she put “work”? Was the dream even worth it?

Perhaps, one of these days, she would build her own folkloristic taxonomy of dreams. Tonight, I’ll dream 002.010.001 (work, current job, nonspecific), 004.011.001 (school, past, nonspecific), and 035.103.002 (person, school professor (own), important but no overt pressure), she would think, and that would be it.

Maybe if she reduced her dreams to a simple list, she could skip the actual process of dreaming them and wake up well-rested. An otter, sleek by design in all possible ways.

By the time she had actually woken up, written her dream journal entry, and stretched her way out of bed, she was left with only the grumpiness. Coffee was the first order of business, and then grooming. Neither of those were dreams, both could be easily taken care of.

The otter’s apartment was small and, surprising no one, quite orderly. It wasn’t neat, per se. It wasn’t pretty or aesthetically pleasing, but there was some unnatural level of order to it that was immediately noticeable. Where many homes would slowly settle into a comfortable sort of entropy, into that “I know it’s messy, but I know where everything is”-ness, Dani’s seemed resistant to that particular form of entropy, in some intangible way.

The kitchen was tight, and the plates stacked as one might stack plates, but in such a way as to not permit bowls in their proximity. The DVDs stacked on the shelf were of all sorts of genres, but one would be hard pressed to return one out of alphabetical order. Something about the vanity in the bathroom disinvited one from placing anything on its surface.

It wasn’t the apartment, of course, it was Dani. Even that was obvious: one could no more place that blame on the apartment than one could place a dirty dish on the counter rather than in the sink.

It wasn’t OCD, her therapist had explained — and she had explained to an ex-girlfriend — so much as an aspect of personality.

This was back in her undergrad, and she’d initially been hesitant to accept that. Surely an ICD10 code would help. A bold F42 — Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. If only she could stack all her problems up into a banker’s box and scrawl F42 across the top in permanent marker. This felt like an indictment that she wasn’t fixable, just weird.

In grad school, she had met a vixen with OCD in one of the classes she TA’d, and she’d immediately dropped an pretenses of F42-dom for herself. She lacked the raw, primal anxiety that went along with such a thing.

She was just weird.

“Maybe not,” her ex had said, at her explanation. “But that doesn’t make you any less crazy.”

Ah well, ‘ex’ was just another shelf onto which one could put a relationship.

By the time she was coffeed and groomed, all dressed in the usual natty slacks-and-shirt-and-bowtie-and-peacoat, the otter was quite thoroughly sick of this glum mood. There was no reason to expect that work would change that, nor that Friday would bring any relief. None of the others had.

When Dani was younger, she got caught stealing a pack of blank cards that were used for the card catalog at the Sawtooth Library. That was the only time anyone had ever pulled her tail, too, before it’d gotten too unwieldy to pull. The librarian had caught her under the catalog desk with a pencil in hand and a fresh pack of cards half-opened, and had yanked her out.

When her mom had hauled her out to the car, tail still aching, she had argued that the library didn’t even use the card catalog anymore and the books weren’t even in order anyway and why did Miss Weaver have to pull so hard?

“It’s still stealing, Danielle,” her mother had sighed. “And I’ll have a talk with Miss Weaver. Why were you even stealing cards? We’ve got lots of paper at home.”

Dani had sulked and grumbled something about wanting to organize things.

The incident had been forgotten for years until a nineteen year old Dani announced that she would be adding a library sciences minor to her anthropology degree. Her mother had laughed so hard she’d had to hang up and call back only when she could talk once more. She still had the pack of catalog cards (which Miss Weaver had grudgingly let young Dani keep) and would mail them soon.

The discovery of the utility of categorizing, sorting, and cataloging things — an act which previously had felt so pointless — had been validating in a way she could never explain to her mother. There were boxes. Things were put into them. Sometimes you had to work out which box to use, or if there were actually two boxes the thing went into.

Her degree had turned into one focused on folkloristics, a field she desperately loved, but, unless she went hunting, dominated by the tireless Doctor Haswell. She’d declared a master’s degree to be Enough and moved, full circle, to working in the campus library’s archive department.

It was fulfilling work, but, as predicted, did little to lift her mood. It was fulfilling without being good. Comfortable without being pleasant.

She made it through the day, categorizing high-resolution scans of glass-plate negatives, and drove home to another night of plain dinner and a movie she’d seen dozens of times already.

Her movie habit had started out of necessity for her degree, classifying the stories that she saw and how they were presented. Many of the movies that had wound up on her shelf had done so not out of enjoyment, so much as part of one assignment or another.

She would be hard pressed to tell why she kept watching them, though. She’d park herself on her beanbag, rudder canted off to one side while she poked her way through a plate of pasta. The DVD would be set to play and she would…well, she didn’t watch the movies.

She didn’t watch the movies, she didn’t taste the food, she didn’t think about whether or not she was comfortable. It was something more than a habit, but less than participation.

Meditation, perhaps? The voices that she heard offered no companionship, but did so companionably. She could hear voices on the TV and know that other people existed in the world. Rather than making her feel lonely, perhaps the movies made her feel alright to be alone. One didn’t talk during a movie, so if she didn’t have anyone to talk to, that was okay.

As she cleaned up her plate and put the rest of the pasta away for tomorrow, she found herself in a cloud of glass-plate negatives, of catalogs and movie dialog. The static of her day was louder than the closing credits of the DVD.

No amount of sound could drown out that sheer lack of feeling. No voices could add to Dani’s life. The drunken slur of a fox in film, the sharp retort of his wife, none of those were more than unimportant variations in that thick static.

The otter washed her paws, and stood at the sink a while longer, toying with the stream of cold water, brushing it up along her forearms, and watching the way it beaded atop her fur.

Her mother used to get her soap in the shape of crayons when she was only a kit. It give her a bright-red way to scrawl across the bathroom that was easy to wash off, and which — theoretically — got her clean in the process.

Her mother had been furious when all Dani had done was draw that point of soap along the lines of grout between the tiles in the bathroom. It had turned the walls (and part of the floor) into a pleasing red grid. When pressed, her mom had grumbled about the grout being more difficult to clean than the tile itself.

Dani had always wondered at that. Sometimes, she would stand in the shower, water beading along far more of her than just her forearms, and draw along the grout with a bar of soap she bought for such purposes. She never used the stuff, hated the very texture of it in her paws, but she did spend shower after shower seeing how well it rinsed out of the grout.

The dishes were finished, her paws were plenty clean, and still she stood, trying to figure out if she could draw lines in the sink.

Life within a comfortable grid.
Parallel lines
    Interrupting narrowing circles
    of birds in flight.

A snippet of poetry tugged at memory, some bit of drivel she’d written in her undergrad. Something to try and put into words just how her life was organized, how she made sense out of chaos.

Travel in straight lines.
Turn at right angles.
Trace the roof of your mouth
    With wet tongue.

She did that now, finding comfort in the ridges of her palate, each describing a successive concentric arc.

She turned the TV off and wafted into her bedroom, driven by some part of her she couldn’t quite access for all that static. 002.010.001 she thought. I’ll dream of (work, current job, nonspecific). A small mantra, or maybe a supplication to the Oneiroi: may I dream less and rest more.

There’s something tinny about the smell of oncoming snow. Something metallic.

Some days, it would stick around for a day or so, maybe a day and a night, right before a snow storm. It would be the herald of six or eight soft inches of perfectly dry, unpackable snow. The weather would be too cold to admit any of the moisture that was required in building a snowball.

Some days, it would give one a scant hour to prepare for the oncoming weather. A cold front would move across the land in a swift gallop to the Rockies. Two quick inches of drive-by snow.

Dani had read that the scent of snow was actually the lack of scent, of an air too cold and dry for the nose to pick out anything in particular. The opposite of petrichor. She wasn’t sure that she’d believed it. That study had all been canines, and had focused specifically on temperature.

Today, there was none of the expectancy that came with the scent of snow. It was just a lingering miasma around town, that non-scent that spread on the breeze. There would be no snow, at least not yet. There would just be cold.

Dani bundled up to take her usual walk. As otters went, she was bog standard. Lithe enough, a bit soft without being fat, with short, oily fur. None of that did anything to protect against the cold.

A walk was a walk, though.

She lived two blocks or so from the 13th street plaza, and every weekend, at least twice, she’d take a walk down to the plaza and, at the very least, walk it’s length. Some days, she’d grab a coffee from the bookstore-cum-coffeehouse that anchored the far end of it.

It was only three blocks long, with a fountain set, just outside the courthouse, in the middle of the middle block. Not really an arduous hike, but it was enough to get out of the apartment for a bit and stretch her legs, disengage from the monotony of a screen held at a fixed distance in front of her. In summer, she’d dangle her bare paws in the fountain, watching the streamers of water as she sat facing it.

The fountain was off now, of course. Nigh on February, and it was too cold to be running water through pipes outside.

Sawtooth liked to talk about its homelessness statistics. It was a strange thing to be proud of, these folks living without a place to call their own, but here the council was saying that only about a hundred and fifty were homeless out of sixty thousand.

In the winter, this maxed out the homeless shelters in town and taxed the soup kitchens. Those who made it in were provided the barest of necessities, doubled up in the Open Door Mission and offered approximately fifteen hundred calories per day.

In the summer, it seemed as though all hundred and fifty were out in front of the courthouse, making the benches their own, using the fountain for covert sponge baths.

Dani talked with them. She readily admitted that she worked at a campus library and made less than she probably needed herself, so she had little to give, but she would talk.

It was strange, when she thought about it, how few of them she knew. She’d talk, even wind up spending an hour or so talking with one person, and then seemingly never meet them again.

“You folks always go away,” one had said, when she brought it up. “Talk’s all well and good, but we can’t ever expect to see you again. Y’all are, pardon, full of shit.”

Still, she kept at it. Or, perhaps, that was the wrong way to word it. She kept coming back. There was no conversion to be made, no minds to change, just a tacit agreement that it was best for both parties to talk to someone. No strings attached, just engagement.

The scent of the oncoming snow had chased everyone indoors. Dani clutched at a mediocre coffee and wandered back to the beginning of the plaza, thinking of non-scents. Her eyes tracing the herringbone pattern of the walkway, she marveled at the dryness of it all. Maybe that’s what the scientists had thought. The scent was the recognition of just how cold and dry the world was, not of anything so grand as snow.

She made her way through a few cluttered shops, browsing the windows of the mod parlor and thinking of a movie she might pick up at the Discount Video at the corner near her apartment building.

She was sick of documentaries. She needed something false.

Sunday was cold. Way cold.

The weather had turned into a full-on cold snap. It was too dry for frost to form, but one didn’t need to see that fine latticework on the windows to know that it was nearly thirty below outside. It was cold enough that one could walk past a window and pass into a brightly-lit shadow in the warmth of a room.

Dani spent the day holed up within her apartment, curled on the couch with a movie playing. To keep herself from getting too bored, she set one running in a language other than her own, meaning her eyes had to track the subtitles. It kept her from wallowing into nothingness with the voices registering on some subconscious level.

The glum adherence to ridged lines had lessened, at least. She found herself wishing she had done more with herself, instead of wishing she could chart life on a sheet of graph paper.

All the same, a movie alone wasn’t enough to keep her satisfied. There was no way that she knew to achieve such a feat.

Still, once the movie started to bore her, the otter had stood up in a huff, donning her jacket and gloves — gotta keep the webs warm, they vent so much heat — so that she could head out on a walk.

No sense languishing at home, she thought. Well, no sense in anything, but at least I’ll be moving.

By the time she made it to the plaza, Dani was pretty sure the walk was a mistake. The dryness of the cold air burned at the inside of her nostrils until she was sniffly, and at her eyes, until she teared up. Her paws were warm enough, and her peacoat helped her plenty, but her legs were more exposed, and the cold seemed intent on pulling warmth down through them. An eager cold. A hungry cold.

Just think of the coffeehouse at the end.

By the time she’d made it to the fountain, the otter wasn’t sure she’d make it even that far. She promised herself she’d soldier on, but was caught up short by a bundle on the far side of the fountain.

At first, it looked like a backpack someone had left there. One of the camping types, with a frame. On top of the backpack, a puffy anorak had been cinched down.

Cold as it was, Dani detoured around the fountain a ways to at least get a better look.

“F-fuck you want?” the bundle growled.

Dani skipped back a pace at the sudden expletive.

The bundle un-bundled itself enough to become recognizable. There was a small…Dani guessed a young woman, by her voice, buried within the jacket. She’d tucked her knees up and pulled the jacket down over them. It looked like her tail had done similar, curled into her lap underneath the jacket.

“Holy shit, are you okay? It’s cold as hell.”

“Y-y-you’re te-telling me.” A snout poked out from beneath the hood of the coat, pointy and tan and masked. “Ch-change for c-coffee?”

Dani shook her head vigorously. “Screw change, come on. I’ll buy you a coffee.” She pinned her ears back and added, murmuring, “And another layer of clothes.”

The laugh from within the coat was pained, desperate. “N-normally, I’d tell you to f-fuck off, but alright. I th-think I need it.”

The stammering speech seemed to be getting worse, and the shape shook awkwardly as it stretched out. The frame of the ‘pack’ under the form’s anorak was a bundled up sleeping pad, a simple school backpack beneath that.

The young woman stood up, shaking violently. A banded tail bristled out from beneath the coat, curling as best as it could around tattered-jeans-covered legs.

Dani reached out to help, then rushed in at the sight of the shaking. She wrapped her arms around the ringtail, rubbing her gloved paws briskly over the form’s sides, unsure if that was actually helping. “Come on,” she tutted. “Coffeeshop’s only a block, then we can figure things out from there.”

It was hard to tell with the shivering, but she was fairly sure bundled-up form nodded.

Still clutching the lumpy and shaking form close, Dani guided them both down the street to the café.

The baristas in The Book and the Bean were good folks.

There was a sort of unspoken rule that the homeless in Sawtooth were welcome in for about an hour at a time before they were ushered on their way. Still, they offered what they could. They even had a community “coffee pool”, where those with a bit of extra cash could pay into it a coffee at a time, and those without could ‘withdraw’ from it.

The frowsy badger behind the bar got one look at Dani and the still-indistinct form under the jacket, and leaped into action.

Dani and the ringtail were guided to a table and made to sit down. The barista disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a mug for the bundled-up bassarisk.

“Here you go, dear,” she’d said, voice flush with concern. “Lemon and ginger and honey. Just tap warm for now. We’ll get you a proper hot drink soon, don’t want to shock the system.” The jumbled speech trailed off as the badger padded back to the bar to start prepping the properly-hot drinks.

Dani tugged off her gloves and tucked them into the pockets of her coat, the better to help guide the ringtail’s paws around the warm mug. It smelled spicy and citrusy, and Dani wanted to breathe that scent for hours to soothe her nose.

Those tan paws had a hard time holding the mug still, shaking as hard as they were. The otter kept her own paws nearby in case of spills as the young woman sipped at the drink.

“Fuck. C-cold.”

The badger bustled back up with two steaming mugs. Both of them were stronger versions of that same lemon-ginger-honey tea. “Cold? Freezing. Nineteen below, out there. Surprised you’re not frozen solid. Don’t drink this yet.”

Dani took a selfish moment to breathe in that steam, sating that craving and soothing her poor, dried out nose.

“Y-yeah, sorry.” The shivering seemed to be picking up, and the ringtail was having a hard time saying more than a word at a time.

“Just hold onto your cup,” the badger said, helping the ringtail out of her coat and pulling up a chair to sit with them at the table. “Gonna get worse before it gets better. Switch to the hot one once you can hold your hands still.”

The three sat in unsteady silence. Both Dani and Malina, the badger, tucked themselves in against either side of the shaking form, adding to the warmth. As Malina said, the shuddering turned into a ragged jerking before settling back into what one might call a ‘shiver’.

Dani made a mental note to look up stages of shivering when she got home.

“Thank you both for helping. I thought if I bundled up and stayed still, I’d be okay.”

Malina shook her head, “You’d freeze no matter what, dear. What’s your name?”

The preparation of a lie showed in the moment’s hesitation before the ringtail mumbled, “Anne.”

Dani nodded. “Do you have a place around here?”

Anne shook her head.

“What about the mission?” Malina asked.

“Full.” The ringtail looked uncomfortable as she added, “Or at least it looked full.”

Dani could sense Malina shutting down. She knew the badger was endlessly kind, but she also knew how fiercely protective she could be of the coffeeshop.

The otter spoke up, “Well, either way, you’re not fit to stay out there. Let’s get you to my place and we can start calling around and see what’s out there.”

Neither Anne nor Malina seemed overly happy with this, but neither brought up any objections.

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