The Tunnel Merchants – Steve Carr

Staring at the flitling, Koona Mau winced as the light from it burned through the thin white tissue that covered his large eyeballs. He had his elongated yellow fingers wrapped around the bubble she was encased in, grasping it lovingly. His loud sighs of contentment echoed in his burrow. He laid back on his bed of pigeon feathers and put the paws at the end of his stubby, spindly legs up on a plastic inflated seahorse practically covered in duct tape to seal the leaks and gazed at her dreamily.

“What a trade you’ll bring me with that old witch Moopt Hah,” he said to her in a syrupy tone.

He put her back in the golden cage that hung from the ceiling and watched as the bubble dissolved around her.

She stretched her two pale blue gossamer wings and said, “Shurr Tuk won’t like you trading me in exchange for a pile of used vacuum cleaner bags or a box of blown out light bulbs.”

“What I do with you is none of Shurr Tuk’s business,” he said. “Now, keep quiet Esramara or I’ll put salt on your wings.”

Annoyed, she sat down on the overturned thimble and kicked at the peanut shells that carpeted the floor of the cage.

Koona Mau looked around his burrow that was cluttered with old sewing machines, dented pots, broken eyeglasses, piles of broken whistles and socks with holes in them, along with an assortment of other odds and ends. “I’ll have to be clever in trading with Moopt Hah,” he said aloud.

As he started to leave the burrow, Esramara said, “My kind will not take lightly my being kidnapped.”

“Flitlings don’t worry me in the least,”  he said as he went out.

Streams of other merchants flowed in both directions in the crowded tunnel. Most were carrying their wares in their arms or held perched on top of their head. The din from their paws plodding along on the hard ground as well as the squeakiness of their voices as they called out what items they had for trade reverberated throughout the tunnel.

“Care to trade something for a broken toaster?” Lipsa Joo said as she passed by him, holding the toaster out to him so that he could see it had no inner parts.

“Not today,” Koona Mau said.

“Need a flat bicycle tire?” Droop Tau said as he stopped and held out an arm ringed with flattened tires.

“Doesn’t interest me,” Koona Mau said. “Have you seen Moopt Hah today?”

As other merchants brushed past them, one of them hitting Droop Tau in the head with a box of shoes, none of them pairs, he said, “The old witch was having the phosphorous in her burrow’s ceiling buffed when I came in from the scavenging. I didn’t think you and she got along.”

“We don’t,” Koona Mau said as he turned and started down the tunnel.

At an intersection of tunnels, Koona Mau was suddenly stuck in a crowded jam of merchants.  Merchants never smelled good, but packed together their combined odor made Koona Mau feel woozy.

“I have some piano keys for sale today,” a merchant next to him who he didn’t know, said.

“Are they ivory?” Koona Mau said.

“No, they’re plastic,” the merchant said as he shook the box he had sitting on the top of his head making the keys rattle. “I have both black and white ones.”

“Not interested,” Koona Mau said.

Suddenly finding himself free of the knot of other merchants, Koona Mau took a right turn and began down a slope leading to a lower level of tunnels. Looking into the burrows as he walked by he wondered how the merchants were able to live in them. The floors were all slanted at the same downward angle and their wares were piled against one tilted wall. At the bottom of the slope where the floor was again level, amidst another throng of merchants going to and fro, he was stopped by Jenko Moo.

With his curled fingernail pushed into Koona Mau’s large bulbous nose, Jenko Moo said, “Shurr Tuk has been looking for you.”

“Why?” Koona Mau said, feeling sweat breaking out beneath his vest made of woven red hair.

“He wants that flitling back you stole from him,” Jenko Moo said.

“I didn’t steal Esramara,” Koona Mau said. “I won her fair and square in a game of diggers.”

“No one beats Shurr Tuk at diggers,” Jenko Moo said. “If you played him and won you must have cheated.”

Koona Mau laughed nervously. “How can someone cheat at digging a hole?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jenko Moo said. “Shurr Tuk wants the flitling back and what Shurr Tuk wants, Shurr Tuk gets.” He jabbed Koona Mau’s nose with his fingernail, then turned and followed behind a merchant carrying the legs of a mannequin.  

At the opening to Moopt Hah’s burrow Koona Mau was momentarily blinded by the new sheen of the green phosphorescent rock that lined her burrow.

“What do you want?” she asked derisively. She was seated in a ragged baby buggy with her legs hanging over its torn front. Her bright orange hair stuck out of her head like cones.

“I have acquired something that may be of great interest to you if you are in the mood to barter,” he said.

“Even if you had something of interest I might want, which would be highly unlikely, I don’t barter with grub stealing thieves like you,” she said, then spat a wad of chewed beetles onto a chipped porcelain dish on the floor next to her.

“I have a flitling,” Koona Mau said.

Her large white eyes suddenly bulged. “You do? Where would a ferret like you get a flitling?”

“I won her from Shurr Tuk in a game of diggers,” he said.

“Impossible,” she said. “No one beats Shurr Tuk at anything.”

“Nevertheless, I have a flitling, and she’s yours for the right trade,” he said.

Moopt Hah scratched one of her long, flapping earlobes with a long curled fingernail.  “Fliltlings are unusual creatures. They fly unseen with the moths in the light of lampposts in the beings’ city. One of them alone has no power other than what they provide to a potion when ground up but in swarms can be very powerful and do great magic.” She dipped a fingernail into ear wax dripping from her ear then licked it off with her long, pointed green tongue. “Does the flitling come with a cage?”

Koona Mau nodded.

She waved him to her. “The tunnels have ears. Come nearer and we can talk.”

Because she reeked, Koona Mau held his nostrils closed as he stepped up to her and whispered in her wax filled ear, “What would you give me in exchange for it?”

She grabbed him by his scrawny shoulder and pulled him to her and hissed in his ear. “I’ll make you rich,” she said. “Give me your hand and we’ll shake on it to make the transaction official.”

He reached out his hand and winced in pain as his skin began to feel as if it was on fire when she took his hand in hers.

“If I don’t get the flitling you’ll be made to suffer,” she said.

He pulled his hand away and blew on the blisters that had formed in his palm. “Believe me, you’ll get the flitling,” he said.

                                                                   * * *

As Koona Mau unwound the piece of wire that held held Esramara’s cage to a rusty bent nail hammered in the ceiling of his burrow, she fluttered around inside the cage, crying out, “Evil deeds, evil deeds.”

“Quiet you,” he said to her. “There’s nothing evil going on, you’re just part of a transaction.”

Grasping onto one of the bars and flicking her long, golden curly hair back from her fiery red cheeks she said, “Have you no mercy? The old witch will eat me or use me to make a potion.”

“That’s no concern of mine,” he said. “The law of the tunnels is that a merchant can do anything he or she wants with any piece of merchandise they get in a transaction, and you’re a piece of merchandise.”

“If Shurr Tuk finds out who you’ve given me to, he’s going to be very angry,” she said.

Having removed the cage from the nail, Koona Mau lifted the cage to his face and peered through the bars. “He’s already angry so it won’t make any difference.”

Droop Tau stuck his head into the burrow. “Koona Mau, would you consent to being my scavenging partner tonight?” he said.

Koona Mau sat the cage down on a stack of water damaged books and sat down next to it on an overturned rotted bamboo waste basket.  He lifted his left paw and nibbled off the jagged end of a toenail and looked around his burrow. “I do need to bring in some new wares to trade,” he said. “One can never have enough.”

Esramara suddenly shook her cage. “Evil deeds,” she cried out.

“What’s wrong with the flitling?” Droop Tau said.

“I’ve traded her to Moopt Hah and she’s not happy about it,” Koona Mau said.

“I don’t blame the flitling,” Droop Tau. “I heard Moopt Hah likes to pull their wings off just for the fun of it.”

Esramara let out a shriek, then fainted on the peanut shells.

Koona Mau lifted the cage and placed it on his head, and once satisfied it was stable, he started toward the entrance to the burrow. “I’m going to Moopt Hah’s burrow now if you want to come along.”

“No thank you,” Droop Tau said, “Kooka Yuk brought in a plastic bag full of used toilet paper rolls from last night’s scavenging and I’d like to get one before she trades them all away.” He backed away from the opening and melded into the flow of merchants.

Esramara raised up from the peanut shells and activated the bubble around her and sat on the thimble angrily mumbling.

Leaving his burrow, Koona Mau looked both ways watching for Jenko Moo or any other of Shurr Tuk’s cohorts, and seeing none, stepped out. Walking among the other merchants, he heard many exclamations of surprise and murmurings of “He has Shurr Tuk’s flitling.”

He stopped abruptly at the top of the slope leading to Moopt Hah’s burrow. Shurr Tuk was standing mid-way down the tunnel and appeared to be haggling with another merchant. When Shurr Tuk hit the other merchant on the head with one of his meaty fists and grabbed the bent saw from the other merchant, Koona Mau turned and followed a line of merchants going into another tunnel.  

The phosphorous in the rock in the ceiling had not been buffed for some time. In the dimness of the tunnel he shuffled along with everyone else until he was at the entrance of Lipsa Joo’s burrow. Looking in he saw her sitting with her head bowed on a pile of partially dismantled small kitchen appliances.

“Did you find a buyer or get a trade on that toaster you showed me?” he asked.

She looked up and gave him a toothless grin. “Yes, I traded it for a fine egg timer that doesn’t have a dial.” Glancing up at the weeping Esramara, she said, “Isn’t that Shurr Tuk’s flitling?”

Koona Mau stepped into her burrow. “She used to be.” He scratched his pointed chin. “Lipsa Joo, I have a hand mixer that doesn’t have any beaters that I’ll trade you for a favor.”

Her white eyes opened wide with interest. “What’s the favor?” she said.

“I would like to leave Esramara with you for a short time,” he said.

“Why?” she said.

Crossing his fingers behind his back, he said, “I want to go see a sick friend and he’s allergic to flitlings.”

“Oh my,” she said. “Leave her here and go see your friend, but be sure to come back with the mixer.”

Koona Mau lowered the cage from his head and peered at Esramara between the bars. He whispered, “Say nothing or I’ll ask Moopt Hah to grind you into a fine powder for one of her potions.”

“Evil deeds,” she hissed.

He placed the cage on top of a pile of ragged kitchen mitts. “Take good care of her,” he said to Lipsa Joo.

“Don’t worry,” she said.

Koona Mau left her burrow and stepped in behind a merchant carrying a broken fishing pole until he was back at his burrow where Droop Tau was waiting.

“Did you give the flitling to Moopt Hah?” Droop Tau said as he tried to push the stuffing back into the pad of a bicycle seat.

“I would have run into Shurr Tuk so for now Esramara is in the reliable hands of Lipsa Joo,” Koona Mau said. “I’ll get her after tonight’s scavenging.”

                                                                   * * *

Pouring out of a hole in the ground, the hundreds of merchants made a dash across the open field toward the lights of the city. Their paws smacking on the dirt made no more sound than butterflies landing on cotton balls. Those on the periphery kept lookout for the creatures and beings that lived on top. Defenseless against anything and everything, their only recourse in the event of being chased was to run, which they did very well. The group split up just before entering the city, with most of them heading toward the dump. Those who preferred to scavenge in the trash cans, dumpsters and in abandoned houses separated into pairs and trios and went their separate ways.

Going down an alleyway liked by Koona Mau because it usually offered a fine array of tradeable junk, he and Droop Tau stopped running and flattened themselves against a wall where they were hidden in complete darkness.

“I’m glad you’ve come on top tonight,” Droop Tau said. “I was getting bored with stuff I got from the dumpster behind the bicycle store but it’s the only place Nappa Las wants to go.”

“That’s why he has nothing of value in his burrow,” Koona Mau said.

“It makes me feel bad for how stupid beings are,” Droop Tau said. “They toss out their most valuable stuff.”

“I think it’s because they spend too much time in the light,” Koona Mau said. “Its affected their brains. Have you ever seen a being?”

Droop Tau rubbed the thin blue whiskers on his chin. “Like everyone else, not up close, but I’ve seen them from a distance while I was scavenging. They’re frightening to look at and they can be very dangerous.”

When a lid fell from a trashcan onto the ground at the end of the alley, its loud tinny crash reverberating down the alleyway, Droop Tau grabbed onto Koona Mau’s arm. “Everything is much louder and scarier on top also.”

Koona Mau peeled Droop Tau’s fingers from his arm. “I have to find a mixer for Lipsa Joo.”

“Why?” Droop Tau said.

“It’s what I’m giving her in trade for watching Esramara,” Koona Mau said. “In hindsight I should have offered something easier to find.”

With the alley quiet again the two merchants slunk along the wall until they were standing across from a metal dumpster with a raised top. Sticking out of it was an ironing board and a large cracked mirror.

“Jackpot,” Koona Mau said.

“Those things won’t fit in the tunnels,” Droop Tau said.

“Of course not,” Koona Mau said, “but if such valuables as those are in there, just imagine what’s in there that we can’t see.”

Koona Mau stepped away from the wall and into the dim light cast by a streetlight at the entrance to the alley.

“Now I got you, you weasel.”

It was Shurr Tuk and he was standing in the light with four of his entourage, including Jenko Moo.

“What do you want?” Koona Mau said, his voice quivering.

“I went to your burrow to find you and get my flitling back, but you and she were gone,” Shurr Tuk said. “What did you do with her?”

As a glow spread over Shurr Tuk and his henchmen, Koona Mau slowly lifted his head, his gaze encompassing the large number of flitlings in their bubbles and shining brightly that suddenly appeared above Shurr Tuk and his pals’ heads. The angry, twisted expressions on the flitlings faces contradicted the beauty of their looks.

Words stuck in his throat, Koona Mau only pointed.

Shurr Tuk and his friends looked up and covered their eyes against the light of the flitlings.

“Run!” Koona Mau yelled. He grabbed Droop Tau’s arm and pulled him away from his frozen position against the wall and down the alley and under the hovering flitlings.

                                                                    * * *

Trying to catch their breath Koona Mau and Droop Tau collapsed amidst the junk on the floor of Koona Mau’s burrow. Outside the burrow the returning hundreds of panicked merchants were yelling and screaming as they pushed and clawed to get to the safety of their burrows. The tunnel was filled with the stench of terror-induced flatulence. Names of those turned into lightning bugs by the swarm of flitlings echoed in the chambers: “Slipp Num, Parst Loo, Jaump Mui, Caunt Kak.”

“What of Shurr Tuk?” Droop Tau said as he sat up and stared wide-eyed at the panic going on in the tunnel outside the burrow.

“His tail is a flickering light now if I’m lucky,” Koona Mau said lying on his back and staring up at the bent nail where Esramara’s cage had hung from.

“Koona Mau, how can you say such a thing about another merchant?” Droop Tau said, truly appalled.

“It’s not as if I was ever friends with Shurr Tuk,” Koona Mau said.

“You played diggers with him,” Droop Tau said.

Koona Mau sat up. “I lied. I didn’t play diggers with Shurr Tuk. I just went into his burrow when he wasn’t there and took Esramara.” Seeing the astonished look on Droop Tau’s face, he said, “It’s still his fault that the flitlings have attacked us. Besides as you know, there’s nothing in our constitution that says we have to be honest, and we’re usually not.”

At that moment Jenko Moo staggered into the burrow. “They let me go to tell you that they have Shurr Tuk,” he said. “Give them back the flitling and they’ll let him go and leave us in peace.”

“I’ve made a deal to give Esramara to Moopt Hah,” Koona Mau said, standing up. “And you know what she can do to merchants who go back on a deal.”

“Where is the flitling now?” Jenko Moo said.

“I have her hidden with someone,” Koona Mau said. “Someone I’ve promised a hand mixer in exchange for watching Esramara.”

“Did you just wake up one morning and decide to make a mockery of being a merchant?” Droop Tau said. “As hard as it may be for you to do, you have to get that flitling back to her kind.”

“I know, but I can’t get through that jammed crowd in the tunnel to get to Moopt Hah’s burrow,” Koona Mau said.

Rolling up the sleeve of his grease stained plastic garbage bag shirt and making a fist, Jenko Moo said, “I’ll get us through.” As he went out in the tunnel and began hitting eyes and noses, a path was quickly cleared, and Koona Mau followed behind.

They stopped outside the witch’s burrow. “She’ll probably remove my ears for this,” Koona Mau said.

“Better that than me removing your head,” Jenko Moo said.

As they stepped into Moopt Hah’s burrow Esramara cried out from inside her bubble, “Evil deeds.” She was sitting in a cracked mortar on a stack of yellowed magazines. Moopt Hah was standing over her, a hand raised holding a chipped pestle.

“Stop,” Koona Mau shouted. “That flitling needs to be returned to her kind or Shurr Tuk will be turned into a firefly.”

Not lowering the pestle, Moopt Hah glared at him. “You tried tricking me by giving this flitling to that half wit Lipsa Joo instead of abiding by our agreement and you’re not going to trick me again.”

“It’s not a trick, Moopt Hah. The flitlings have him and they want this flitling back in exchange,” Koona Mau said. Suddenly it occurred to him to ask, “How did you find out Lipsa Joo had the flitling?”

“She came to see if I had a rusty waffle iron in exchange for the flitling. I turned her into a grub and now the flitling is mine,” Moopt Hah said. “It’s what I should have done to you but male grubs taste awful.”

“Isn’t there anything you would like more than that flitling?” Koona Mau said.

Moopt Hah thoughtfully tapped her chin with the head of the pestle. “Yes, there is.”

                                                                    * * *

As the icy cold turtock hummed melodically while winding its long thin body through his fingers and tickling his palms, Koona Mau laid  back on his new bed of dried popcorn and smiled with satisfaction.

Droop Tau came into the burrow holding a pair of rusty bicycle handlebars on the top of his head. “Where did you get the turtock?” he said. “Those are very rare and only Moopt Hah has any use for them.”

“I won it playing Shurr Tuk a game of tunnel chase,” Koona Mau said.

Droop Tau abruptly turned around to leave. “Here we go again,” he said.

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