When meemee became blind and sick, Whisper’s ma began to cry over small things. There was a figurine, for instance, on a stump in the front hall of their burrow, sculpted from mud like most goblin art and shaped like a cat. The pugnacious expression on the cat’s face was directed toward the burrow’s tunnel to greet any visiting goblins. During the last few days of meemee’s stay in the healer’s den, ma couldn’t look at this cat without weeping.
Whisper was enchanted by ma’s tears. She cried as freely as though she’d never feel anything again. Her hooked nose, long and elegant by a goblin’s standards, dripped with yellow mucus. Her normally golden eyes couldn’t be seen through swollen lids. A wail escaped her beak, punctuated by hiccups like her lungs had to remind her to breathe, hic hic, oooohh, hic hic. In these moments Whisper thought her ma looked her most goblin. It was after the mourning process was complete that she thought it appropriate to say so. “Why do you try so hard to look human when you’re at home, ma? It’s not like a human will ever visit our burrow.”
Ma scoffed and rolled her big golden eyes. Her back was straight, her long nose picked clean by her claws. She remained the same even when it was her turn to visit the healer’s den. She requested extra pillows so she could sit up, and extra handkerchiefs to keep her nostrils clear. In the presence of the sorceress she refused to show pain on her face, although her claws clenched the blankets until her knuckles turned white.
Whisper had conflicting feelings about this side of ma, admiring her tenacity but scorning the notion that this human impersonation could be mistaken for dignity. Whisper only tried to mimic this behavior once, and it was during ma’s last few days in the healing den. Whisper wasn’t sure why she was doing it, but she was reminded of something Shebor said.
“When someone is dying, the rest of us do weird things.” Shebor told her this following a funeral they were forced to attend of Headmistress Lemeesa, who died slowly over three weeks due to a cursed crystal she accidentally touched while browsing the Chamber of Objects of Magical Significance. Headmistress Lemeesa had a reputation for being clumsy, so the tragedy was of no surprise. But while the crystal slowly peeled her flesh from her bones, the rest of the university staff was in an uproar. Two of the witches came forward with complaints about unfair wages, and a professor was accused of eating wolf meat in front of werewolf students, prompting a swarm of apologies from staff. It seemed Headmistress Lemeesa’s passing had turned a page to a new chapter in the university’s book, although Whisper knew she’d be lucky if it benefited a goblin.
Shebor didn’t miss this either, and since he wasn’t as afraid of touchy subjects as other humans he didn’t avoid it. “Bet they’ll never apologize for their neglect for goblins.” He was always an advocate of Whisper’s, since her first day at the university when he accidentally tripped over her rather large feet and offered to carry her books to make up for it. It was a relief to meet him. That day Whisper felt wildly out of place among all the tall, straight-backed, clean-nosed humans and human-variations, and she was for the first time in her life fully aware of her age. She was twelve human years old, but as goblins age she was thirty-two.
“Why are you bothering with that school?” Sprout asked Whisper the night before she left home. He was two human months her senior, so in goblin culture he demanded respect. “Some of the wizards stay in school for a hundred human years. You’ll be dead before you can finish one class!” He was drunk on fungus juice and newly married to the beautiful Fuzz, of the neighboring burrow in Goblintown. Ma was very proud of him.
Whisper had no answer to his question, a question she’d been asking herself for many human months and goblin years. She was aware that she would not live long enough to receive a degree in a school that refused to expedite programs for a goblin. For this reason, many of the rare goblins that attended the university did so in symbolic protest. But their honorable objections were doomed to be forgotten as they were carted off to the healer’s den back in Goblintown after only a few human years.
Whisper wasn’t one of them. She’d loved learning from an early age, hoarding scrolls in her pocket of earth in the burrow to the point that she had to give them up so the pocket wouldn’t collapse under their weight. Shebor was impressed with her memory whenever they discussed their shared love of scrolls over tea. “You should write,” he said one day. “All the good writers say that one day they realized they’d read everything and had to start writing.”
“That’s a wizard thing to say,” Whisper retorted. “And they probably do read everything, they live so long!” But the idea lingered. After ma passed, she tried writing a poem in her honor that she intended to read at her funeral. But the nonsense that came out of her quill was so trivial she crumpled up the scroll and tossed it into the river of Goblintown.
She was glad she’d done this when the goblin overseeing ma’s funeral asked if “anyone would like to say a few words” and no one said a thing. This was common at a goblin funeral, where speaking too much was considered a rude attempt at attention, a distraction from the dead goblin being honored.
Human funerals were the opposite. They were crowded, noisy affairs, with one human trying to outdo the other with stories of the deceased. Shebor’s funeral astounded Whisper, who’d never been to a human’s funeral before. She drifted as subtly as she could from human to human, listening to every story, mostly humorous little moments that may or may not have happened but were vague enough to relate to Shebor’s character. When the man overseeing his funeral asked if “anyone would like to say a few words”, one by one Shebor’s friends and relatives came forward to talk beside the pale, stiff body on the pyre. They’d occasionally glance, red-cheeked and teary eyed, at his face, as if half-expecting him to smile back at them.
Caught up in the moment, Whisper came forward and boldly faced the crowd. They stared kindly back at her. She told the story of when she and Shebor first met, how he was so sorry to have stepped on her big feet, how he didn’t take no for an answer when he offered to carry her books. There were gentle chuckles and nods, and many blowings of noses into fancy handkerchiefs.
Those clean noses. Whisper wondered how humans kept up with them. When ma was dying and Whisper was—for no apparent reason—acting like a human just like ma did, she found the picking of her nose the most aggravating part of the charade. Her claws scraped the skin of her nostrils raw, to the point that her blue goblin blood dribbled down into her beak. She was relieved to give the act up and allow her mucus to crust comfortably around her hooked nose, like an average goblin.
When she returned to the university after ma’s funeral, she was still walking with her back very straight. Shebor didn’t let her get away with this. “Goblins are supposed to be hunched!” he cried. “You’re going to hurt yourself, all straight like that!” He was breaking in his shiny new armor that day, like the other knights in his order. He only had a few days to go before he left for his first quest.
“Why do you have to go?” Whisper asked him, flicking a metal plate of his shin guard—ding!
“Men here cannot graduate otherwise. It’s only one dragon, I’ll return safely.” He didn’t seem eager to leave, but he looked so proud in his armor. Whisper remembered his face many human years later, flushed with excitement, his black eyes glued to his reflection in the mirror. She was glad she’d gotten back to school in time to see him before he left. But Sprout was unhappy with her for leaving Goblintown before the proper amount of time for mourning their ma.
Sprout brought this up later, noting that she stayed by Shebor’s side for many human months while he was dying. “You leave home before ma’s mourning is over, but you stay with a human when they’re not even dead yet?” He could hardly be heard over his four sons, screeching as they played with the tetherball attached to the tree outside the burrow.
“I didn’t know he was going to die,” Whisper said. That wasn’t entirely true. When Shebor and the only other surviving knight from his order returned to the kingdom from their first quest, and Shebor’s intestines were hanging out, Whisper logically assumed Shebor would die. The sorceress saved his life, briefly, at the expense of his sanity. Whisper thought later it would’ve been better to just let Shebor die of lack of intestines, rather than let his mind slowly fade in the healer’s den.
Every day that she visited him Shebor’s language became less tangible. Eventually he only spoke in broken nonsense, random words strung together, “Hope joke ghost burnt Whisper lost pie.” He said it like he expected Whisper to understand, so she pretended to. At least he remembered her name, and he would add it here and there in his sentences, “Loose bun red first Whisper world Whisper.”
One day all he could say was “Lemon.” Over and over. One of the nurses was incredibly kind and he ran to buy a lemon for Shebor from the market. Shebor took one look at it and threw it hard across the room, where it bounced against the wall. “Lemon,” he said impatiently, glaring at the offending fruit that rolled to a halt against the room’s other bed. “Lemon, lemon, lemon. Whisper! Lemon.”
“Right,” Whisper replied. “I know.” She really didn’t.
That night a messenger came to her door in the university, holding a lantern, his cheeks pinched red by the cold. “The sorceress thought to alert you that Knight Shebor’s condition is regressing, and advises you return to the healer’s den this evening.”
She hurried back with the messenger to see Shebor struggling to breathe. His hand was cupped at his side, and when he saw Whisper he mumbled, “Lemon.”
The nurse shrugged at Whisper and handed her the lemon that he’d placed on the nightstand. Whisper tried setting the lemon in Shebor’s open palm, but he shook his head weakly. “Lemon,” he said, and he held the lemon stubbornly out to Whisper. She took it back, and Shebor stared at her expectantly.
Whisper looked Shebor right in the eye and ate the lemon whole.
The nurse closest to her cringed as her beak crunched through the bitter fruit, but she paid him no attention, nor did she mind the sourness, or the juices that dribbled down her pointed chin and drenched her collar.
“When someone is dying, the rest of us do weird things,” he’d said, ages ago in goblin years. “But when someone is dead, everything we do stops being weird and starts making sense. We find the meaning in little things.”
Like a figurine of a cat, Whisper thought, something silly that you can connect to, so someone can linger a little after they’re gone like a bitter taste in your mouth.
When Whisper was sixty in goblin years, the goblin community won a great victory as the university agreed to expedite programs for goblin students. She proudly accepted her degree in Minor Studies in Magical Literature and hung the certificate in her new burrow in Goblintown. Sprout was so bent with age that he couldn’t make it down the tunnel, but he sent his sons to look at the certificate for him and tell him about it later.
He sighed contentedly over a mug of hot tea, he and Whisper bent over the stump in ma’s old burrow, all the rooms of which were filled by Sprout’s sons and their wives. “They said it’s in a mahogany frame and covered with glass,” he croaked. He was blind, but his golden eyes glittered like he could see it. He wore a lovely silk shirt, just like humans wore. “Now why hang a pretty thing like that in an old muddy burrow like yours, Whisper?”
Whisper smirked. “Why wear a nice silk shirt like that on your old green body, Sprout?”
He cackled and gently slapped her hand.
That evening Whisper thought of Shebor for the first time in a while, and she took a walk by the chamber of the university where they’d met. She was startled when out of nowhere there was a pain in her foot. It was such a strong sensation that she thought she’d run into someone who’d stepped on her foot, although she was completely alone. She shook her head, and the pain went away. “Must’ve imagined it,” she said. But she lingered in place for a while, just to be sure.