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The Wayfinder & His Sister
by Maria Haskins
Mama always said that the best stories are true and needful, even if they’re not real. I know that’s heresy, punishable by lashes or prison if you’re caught, but I don’t think mama has ever been much for following rules and orders, anyway.
She also used to say, that if you tell yourself the right story about who you are, and what you want to do, you can achieve pretty much anything. Last time she told me that was the night before she left. She was in her workshop; crystal goggles strapped to her face, curly hair tightly braided, bent over her workbench in her oil-stained overalls, wielding her tools as she assembled and tested the latest iteration of her metallic creatures, fitting together gleaming gears and polished alloys, tempered glass and minute atom-spirit engines.
I believed her. I believed her, even after she left for Old Vancouver with papa, even as Titus and I toiled on the farm every day without them, even as they did not come back after two or even three weeks. I believed her even as Titus and I set off on this desperate journey to find her and papa, but today, as an almighty storm breaks on top of me and Rex and Titus, turning the bruised-black sky into a writhing snake pit of lightning, I feel as though I’m losing my faith in mama’s words for the first time in my life.
The clouds burn and flicker as the rain pours down, soaking through our oiled jackets and breeches, changing the hard-packed road to mud and puddles. We hustle through the downpour with our heavy packs, Rex trotting keen and sleek behind us, Titus leading the way at every fork and crossroad since he’s the wayfinder. “Best darn wayfinder you’ll ever lay eyes on,” papa always said, though I’ve had my doubts. After all, Titus only came this way once before, and it was years ago, but so far, he’s steered us right.
We find an empty farm house – front-door hanging off its hinges – and we’re already in the kitchen looking through the cupboards for something to eat, when I see the dead man out back: feet and legs crooked and awry. I don’t go any closer, I just grab some cans off the pantry-shelves and drag Titus with me before he sees them, before anyone sees us. There are no signs to show who did the deed: whether it’s the Authority’s roving bands of mercenaries on the run, or the Resistance fighters advancing in their wake. I don’t much care who is to blame.
We take shelter in a barn in the out-fields with nothing but a thin corrugated roof between us and the wrathful sky. Rex eats the dried fish we found yesterday, while Titus and I gorge on the canned peaches from the farm, faces and hands dripping with juice.
Ever since we left home ten days ago, I’ve told myself that everything will be all right in the end, just like any story worth telling. We won’t get lost on our way to Old Vancouver, we won’t starve to death, we won’t die of exposure, and when we finally get there, mama and papa will be alive. We will navigate all obstacles like the characters in Titus’s favourite book, the one about the yellow road and the girl and her dog.
That book is in my backpack right now, even though I know it might cost us dearly if we’re detained by the Authority.
The thunderstorm settles in above us, and in the bleak glow of the storm-lantern, Rex whimpers while Titus clings to me so tight I’m afraid he’ll bruise my arm. And me? I’m just ragged and spent, worn down to the bone.
Everything’s gone wrong. It’s been over a month since her and papa took the gyropter to salvage what they could from the ruins of the library in Old Vancouver, leaving me and Titus behind on the farm because it was safer that way.
Safer, until the day our neighbours were robbed and beaten by a band of raiding soldiers, and all wireless communications went down. That’s when I told Titus we had to leave. Even then, everything might have worked out fine, if only I hadn’t driven our steam-cart into that frost-heave and broken the axle, two days out from the farm.
Too late to turn back, too far to go on foot, but we kept going anyway.
“Read to me, Lizzie.”
Sitting there, soaked to the skin by rain and despair, I almost feel inclined to agree with the Authority: that this book, like most others, is fit only for burning and banning: pointless, useless, godless, a detrimental waste of time and resources.
But Titus doesn’t care about any of that, and it’s not his fault that he can’t read the book himself, even though he’s two years older than me at sixteen. It’s just the way it is with Titus.
So, just like I’ve done every night since mama and papa left, I start reading.
I read about the yellow road and the lion and the forest, and I try not to cry because Titus will complain about the sniveling.
It makes me wish I had one of mama’s birds, with its crystalline voice and iridescent wings to keep us company. Or even one of her mice, steely grey with luminous eyes and a voice as small and soft as breath and murmurs, snuggled in my pocket to bring out when the darkness comes.
But mama needed all of them for the library. “I’ll bring you back new books and stories,” she said. “That library has been out of reach so long there’s no guessing how much is left inside, but with the Authority retreating, I’ll at least try to recover some of it.”
That’s why every metallic bird and mouse was packed and stowed on the gyropter. Mama at the helm as they set off that morning, Titus and Rex clamoring for them to stay.
I read to Titus while the rain pounds on the corrugated roof. I read until Dorothy gets to the green city, a city that isn’t green at all; it’s just that everyone wears coloured glasses so they believe it’s green even though it isn’t.
That always makes Titus laugh, because it’s funny that people would go along with something so transparently false. I laugh too, but my laughter hitches on the fear still lodged in my throat, thinking about mama and papa, thinking about me and Titus, thinking of the distance in between us.
Above, an almighty clap of thunder slits the darkness open with a stab of lightning. Titus yelps, Rex tucks his head into my lap, and I hate the thunder, I hate the rain, and I especially hate the library in Vancouver, luring mama away from us.
I try to imagine what it’s like, a building full of books, surrounded by a city ripped apart by quakes and the war that swept across the world two decades ago, the war that still sparks death and mayhem here in Free Cascadia.
Mama and papa used to be in the war. Papa was a sniper, and mama worked in a hospital I think, though she doesn’t talk about it much. They left the fighting behind before Titus and I were born, and long as I can remember, mama’s been on a mission to gather books. Most people are eager to get rid of any printed material, fearing retribution from the Authority. She’ll take whatever she can find, wherever it’s available: abandoned houses and shops, libraries gone to rot and ruin, attics and basements.
Hoarding, papa calls it when he wants to needle her. Keeping the flame of civilization burning, mama calls it when she’s at her most serious.
Mama shares her books, even though she knows the penalties and dangers. That’s why she built her mice and birds, that’s why she’d take old paperbacks and hardcovers apart and fit the stories inside non-fiction covers. Myths and poetry inside “Farming strategies for the Northern Reach”. Magic and romance inside “Mining tool-use and care – an illustrated guide”. Dorothy and Toto between the covers of “Methods for Food Preservation and Canning”.
I put away Titus’s book and douse the lantern. We listen to the storm roaming back and forth between the mountainsides. Rex falls asleep between us, but Titus and I can barely close our eyes until the storm moves off just before dawn.
When we awake, Rex is barking at the flash-gun pointed at us, and that’s when I know for certain that no story, true or real or otherwise, can help us anymore.
Kaytee was bleeding heavily when she crawled through the heavy, carved wooden door into the library, the bright yellow “CONDEMNED” sign already ripped off and tossed aside.
Two flash-gun wounds, maybe more. Several blasts had whizzed by as she crouched and ran through the alleys, most of them striking the pavement and the walls rather than her flesh. She pushed the door shut behind her and leaned on the wall, peeling back the ripped battle-mesh on her left arm, trying to see how bad it was.
Blood, and whatever other fluids the intricate machinery inside her arm contained, was leaking through the torn muscle and the perforated skin – the tang of burnt blood and oil stinging her nostrils.
In here, the sound of flash-gun fire and armored vehicles was distant, almost inaudible. She listened for approaching footsteps and shouting. Nothing. Not yet. Somewhere in the mad scramble for shelter, she had lost her medi-kit, but at least she still had the satchel with the fire-blasters. All she needed to do was to plant them, light them, and get out.
Kaytee pressed her right hand over the wounds, but blood and fluid kept seeping between her fingers. It gave her a queasy, sick feeling. Without the reinforced structure of her arm, she guessed that she’d be dead or unconscious by now.
She looked around. Most of the building was in shadow, though wan morning sunlight shone through the broken windows placed high around the upper reaches of the central nave, just beneath the domed ceiling. Shards of stained glass that must once have formed ornate patterns in those windows, lay everywhere on the marble floor, her arm dripping on the jagged fragments of translucent green and blue and yellow.
The place seemed empty except for the fluttering of wings around the upper floors, as if a flock of birds sheltered up there. Her shouted “Hello?” disappeared between the jumble of broken shelves and scattered heaps of books. Indistinct shapes, small and quick, scuttled away from her across the floor and paper.
Mice, she thought and shuddered. Rats, vermin.
There were signs of fire on the walls, charred shadows left behind in some old blaze that miraculously didn’t take. I’ll do a better job than that, she thought and inhaled the familiar smell of old ink and paper, mould and dust, ashes and flames.
After years of burning towns and schools and libraries across the Free West for the Authority, Kaytee was used to that mix of scents, but it still rippled through her with a mix of anticipation and anxiety. She moved further in, readying her flash gun as best she could in her right hand. Her movements felt clumsy and sluggish, and she wondered how long she could keep going.
She thought of her unit – dying, bleeding, screaming – all of them scattered throughout this useless city that they’d fought over for so long it seemed her entire life had been spent either attacking or defending it.
Something skittered across her feet. Something else swooped out of the shadows and flapped against her face. In the gloom, she struggled to make sense of what she saw. Mice and birds? But the sounds were mechanical: whirring metal, the hum of gears and wheels.
Get on with it, Kaytee, she thought. Burn this place to the ground, like you were told to do. Burn out the godless, wasteful lies of what came before. Leave only clean bones behind, wash it all in fire.
Several scuttling shapes ran past, skirting her booted feet, disappearing into the farther recesses of the building. High above, a flurry of iridescent wings fluttered in the pallid light. Kaytee stumbled, caught herself on an overturned shelf. There were books everywhere – she felt the brittle, highly flammable covers, their dry and fragile pages within, soon to be nothing more than kindling.
She unslung her pack to get the fire-blasters out, but her hands were slippery with blood and fluids. It was everywhere, dripping down her sleeve, soaking through the torn armor.
“Drop the bag, and turn around slowly, or I’ll blast your head off.”
The voice was soft and deep. Kaytee turned slowly. The scuttling and fluttering seemed to be all around her now, moving with an intent and purpose beyond her ken.
A man with two old-fashioned, silvered flash-guns was aiming both muzzles at her. Kaytee felt the world rising like a tide around her, books and blood, ink and dust, mice and birds, submerging her.
“Who are you?” she asked, trying to stay upright, trying not to fall to her knees and vomit.
“I’m the one holding the guns. You’re the one leaking all over the floor. Who are you?”
“I am Kaytee. I…” As she swooned, another figure loomed out of the darkness, a halo of iridescent wings flickering around its head, a woman’s voice fading as the darkness engulfed her.
“Get me the tool bag, James. Looks like I’ve got a clock to fix.”
“Call off the dog.”
The woman’s flash-gun is whirring, fully charged, the face behind it stern and scarred. Her hair is short, her chest and legs wrapped in battle-mesh, and she carries a massive blast rifle slung across her chest. Most of her left arm is covered in a soiled bandage, but the right arm doesn’t even tremble as it points the muzzle at Rex’s head.
I put my hand on Rex’s collar.
His growl subsides, but his hackles are still raised, teeth bared.
I do, and I try to pull Titus with me, try to get him moving, but he’s slow and reluctant.
They’re a ragtag group of soldiers, if that’s what they are. Twenty of them, maybe. Most of them seem no older than I am, and they look haggard, as if they’ve been sleeping rough and starving. Most are dressed in flannels and home-weave like me and Titus, but a couple are wrapped in the remnants of Authority-issued battle-mesh.
At least the book is in my pack, but I’m already wondering what they’ll do if they find it. In my armpit, close against my skin, almost forgotten, I feel papa’s gun. The one he handed to me before they left, handle made of walnut and mother-of-pearl, small and light, tucked into a soft holster that straps around your chest.
“Don’t fire it,” papa said and held my gaze as if to make sure I understood. I nodded. I knew what he meant. I knew what he didn’t say.
They hustle us out of the barn into the bleak sunlight, the sky a washed-clean blue after the storm. Titus chews his fingers as he does when he’s nervous. I look at the woman with the gun, trying to read her face, trying not to stare at the blast-rifle.
I think of papa, of his face as he boarded the gyropter, dressed in his old gunslinger duds – his flash-guns holstered, hat perched on top of his dark hair. “Not all of us are as brave as your mama,” he said when he saw me looking at the guns. “I’ve got to wear my courage on my hips.” He smiled, but there was a glint in his eyes as if he was trying not to let his fear show.
I wonder if that’s what my face looks like, now.
“Who are you?” the woman asks, gun pointed at my head now. “Where are you going?”
I begin to answer but Titus interrupts, grabbing hold of my hand.
“I want breakfast, Lizzie. When’s breakfast?”
“Soon,” I say, and grasp hold of his hand – to reassure him, to reassure myself.
“What’s wrong with your brother?”
My cheeks blush as if she’s slapped me.
“Nothing’s wrong with him.” My voice is belligerent, and I know it, but I can see how they all look at Titus, the way they react to the careful way he shapes and holds the words in his mouth, these people who don’t know him.
“I’m a wayfinder,” Titus says, surprising both me and them. And then, just like papa would have, he adds: “Best damn wayfinder in Free Cascadia.”
“Is that so?” the woman says while the others laugh.
“He can find his way anywhere, through snow or nightfall or dust storms, long as he’s seen the route once,” I snap, anger making my voice tremble. “He’s got better skills than a clock like you, I’d wager.”
I regret the words soon as they are spoken, but at least it pulls her attention off Titus.
“I’m no clock, girl.”
I look away, still angry, still scared, with papa’s gun burning against my ribs. Twenty of them, one of me. Not a good idea.
“Whatever you say.” I bite down hard on my anger, but I’ve learned enough of clock-making in mama’s workshop, and in books I’ve read, to see what she is. I see the carefully hidden seams at the shoulder, the way her muscles and skin have been pulled tight over what’s beneath. A retro-fit for a lost limb. A soldier brought back with gears and circuits to keep her going in service of the Authority.
“We’re going to mama and papa,” Titus says and I squeeze his hand, willing him to say no more, wondering how quick I could get the gun out should I need it. “We follow the road, that’s all we need to do.”
A quick smile slips across his face, then, and I realize that despite everything – hunger and dread, rain and thunder, death and gunfire – Titus is still holding on to his story, and every step is another word and paragraph, even this, even here, even now. He doesn’t understand that there is no story, that there is only us, alone and helpless in the world.
“And where’s your mama and papa?”
“Old Vancouver,” Titus blurts out before I can stop him.
“That’s where we’ve just came from with Kaytee,” a boy pipes up in the back.
The woman grimaces, snapping at him with a terse, “Shut up, Brock!” before turning back to me and Titus. “What’s your mama and papa doing in Old Vancouver?”
I clamp my hand around Titus’s wrist, willing him not to mention anything about libraries or books.
“They’re traders,” I say. “They go wherever. We’re supposed to meet them and head up to the goldfields in Barkerville.”
“And you’re traveling on foot?”
She sounds more than a little incredulous.
“Our steam cart broke down. We…”
And then I lose my words, lose my voice, lose my footing. Because when the woman adjusts the strap holding the blast-rifle across her chest, I see something in the pocket of her grey-green army vest: an iridescent wing, thin and translucent. I’d know that wing, that craft, anywhere: it’s one of mama’s birds, trapped and flightless. The woman sees me staring, and I do not know what she reads in my expression.
“You won’t like what you find in Old Vancouver, if you get there,” a girl says. “It’s probably still be burning.”
“Burning?” my voice is more breath than words.
“They torched it. I mean, we did. Kaytee and them. Us. The Authority.”
I watch the wing of mama’s bird, and I think of mama and papa, I think of iridescent wings and gyropters, books and hands singed by fire, blistered and burning in the flames, and I know we’re lost forever.
Waking, she thought for a moment that she was back in the hospital after the blast in the trenches, that time when she lost her arm. The room smelled of blood and fire, just like it did then. And just like then, there was a woman wearing crystal goggles bent over her. Even the touch was the same – strong hands, firm and knowledgeable as she stitched together flesh and skin with thin, flexible wire. The voice soft and reassuring.
“I’ve stopped the bleeding and the fluid-leak from the gear-work. I also adjusted your settings to allow the tissue to heal. Once the morphine wears off, it might hurt a bit, but nothing you can’t handle.”
In the half-light behind the woman, the man loomed, his old guns still cocked and aimed. Kaytee struggled to sit up. A strange glow permeated everything, and she thought there was something wrong with her eyes until she realized it was the ruddy glow of fire coming through the library’s remaining stained glass windows.
The city was burning. What time was it? Kaytee reached for her satchel and felt something small scuttle across her knuckles, but her bag was there – empty.
“You can have your bag, but we took your pyro-gear,” the man growled. “Besides, the whole city is already burning without your help.” He tossed her the satchel. Kaytee grabbed it, held it close. “I know you’re pretty doped up on what she gave you for the pain right now, but if you try anything I’ll put some holes in you that Katherine can’t fix. Understood?”
The woman, Katherine, pulled off her gloves and goggles, rubbing her eyes. Kaytee wondered how long she’d been knocked out, how long this woman had worked on her unconscious body. She tried to feel anger, hatred, but all she felt was numb.
“Enough chit-chat, ladies and gents. Could you see a way out from the roof, James?”
I was dying, and she saved me. Why?
“No, no safe route. Not with the fire spreading and the snipers still out there. The gyropter is our only chance.” He turned to Kaytee. “Nice of you and yours to burn everything.”
“They…you are resisting the democratically elected…”
“Spare me the propaganda,” the woman snapped. “I don’t need a zealot preaching at me today.”
Kaytee felt her temper stir beneath the numbness.
“You don’t know me. Don’t presume…”
“Don’t I know you? I just opened you up. I know what’s inside you. Nice work, almost as nice as my own. And yes, I used to fix up clocks like you all the time. Used to think I saved people. That was the story I told myself in those days.”
Kaytee struggled to her feet. The arm was still numb, an immovable object rather than a limb. Katherine was talking to James again.
“Let’s get up on the roof. The mice and birds can finish up on their own. They’ll find their own way out.”
In the orange glow above their heads, there was buzz of whirring wings. What seemed like a flock of sparrows circled high overhead and then flew out through a broken window. Kaytee looked down, at a stack of books toppled over on the floor, and saw a small mouse-like creature perched atop the exposed pages, its tiny eyes aglow with blue light. She couldn’t stop looking at the mouse, at the other shapes rustling over the floor, over the shelves, over the debris. They were everywhere, dozens, maybe hundreds.
“What are they?”
The woman picked up the mouse, stroking it gently as if it were alive.
“Book mice.” She smiled and looked up at the flocks of sparrows overhead. “And book sparrows. Scraps of neuro-circuitry, atomic spirit shards, and steel. They scan any book in seconds, without even opening it, and each can hold about ten books each. Once they’re full, they fly or run back to home-base. Beautiful, aren’t they?”
She stroked the mouse again, and to Kaytee’s astonishment it spoke – a small, soft, synthesised voice, “Sing, O goddess, the destructive wrath of Achilles son of Peleus…“ Another touch and it fell silent as she released it on the floor.
“I built them as toys for my kids at first. Then I realized I could use them to save books. People can keep them if they want, they can write the story down, or just pass it on. Like a fragmented, mobile library.”
“Why bother? No one reads anymore.”
The woman laughed.
“If that were true, you and the Authority would not be so intent on destroying books and burning this building. We need stories. Other stories, better stories, than the ones the Authority has been telling us.”
Kaytee saw another flight of birds escape through the window above, disappearing into the smoke-streaked sky. She imagined cracks and crevices where the mice would pour out, right now, absconding with banned, forbidden words hidden inside.
“We need to go, Katherine.” The man slung a bag across his chest. “Now.”
The woman nodded, then turned to Kaytee.
“Do you want to come with us? Or do you want to stay and burn with the books?”
They burn the book. Of course they burn the book.
They find it that night after forcing us to march with them all day. A whole day, walking in the wrong direction, much to Titus’s displeasure. It took all my ingenuity to convince him to follow them without fighting or trying to run away.
A few of them would have rather just let us go, I could see it in their faces, the way they shuffled to the back and looked away, but there’s enough of them that still think they should follow orders that they drag us along.
Titus didn’t understand, and neither did Rex. But in the end, they followed me.
When we make camp, the ragtags finally think to go through our bags and the first thing they find is the book. The girl who finds it doesn’t even look at it, she just flings it into the campfire and keeps rustling through the provisions and supplies.
Titus howls when the book lands in the flames: a wordless, senseless cry, jagged with pain and agony, cutting through me. It is as though he is burning in the flames, as if his skin is shrivelling to cinder and ash, as if he is the one being devoured by the fire and turned into nothing.
I hold him back, because otherwise he would put his hands into the fire, trying to pull the burning pages out. I wrap my arms around his chest, trying to contain his pain and his despair, but I can feel him breaking. I whisper his name, again and again, to keep him with me, to tether him to me, but when he turns to look at me, he’s crying and I can’t remember the last time I saw Titus cry.
The whole time, Rex is barking, hackles raised and teeth bared at anyone who dares approach us.
“My story,” Titus whispers, voice a thin, cracked sliver.
“I know,” I say, trying to understand the magnitude of what he’s lost.
I’ve loved a hundred different stories in my life, but for Titus, there has only ever been this story, this book. I’ve read it to him ever since mama and papa left, and before that, they read it to him every night, ever since before I was born.
“Why’s he going nuts?” the girl who took the book asks.
“You burned his book,” I say, resisting the urge to hit her, to pull the gun out, to punish her for what she’s done, but I can see in her face that she doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, the last bits of paper and cardboard are consumed, black curls of ash lit by orange sparks soaring into the darkness above the fire.
The woman, Kaytee, is looking at us, the flash-gun lowered, and there’s something in her stern expression just then, in those huge dark eyes, that is almost like compassion, that is almost like shared pain.
“What are you, Kaytee?” Katherine asked when they stood in the stairwell halfway up to the roof, waiting for the man, James, to scout ahead to the gyropter in case there were snipers. “Coming here to burn books, maybe me and James with them as collateral damage. All for a regime that’s already crumbling.”
Kaytee leaned on the wall, held on to the banister to steady herself.
“I’m a soldier. Bought and paid for. You’ve seen my arm. Only soldiers get fixed up like that. If I’d been something else, I’d be dead or crippled.”
“That’s the story you tell yourself. But what if you told yourself another story about who you are? If you tell yourself the right story, you can do almost anything.”
“I don’t know any other stories.”
Katherine seemed on the verge of saying more when James’s footsteps echoed down the steps.
“Harbour’s burning. So’s a lot of other places.” He cocked his head and gave Kaytee a long look before he holstered his guns. “We’ll be lucky if the gyropter doesn’t get singed. More than likely the smoke and heat will wreck the engines, but we might be able to clear the city before it dies.”
On the roof, the black gyropter was almost obscured by smoke drifting off the burning city. Everything was burning, from the harbour to the downtown core. And everywhere around the library, the iridescent wings of Katherine’s birds rose through the smoke, searching for the clear sky above.
Kaytee watched them leave. She could feel the morphine wearing off, her muted thoughts and pain surfacing again, as she thought of her unit, the kids that had joined the last few months, hungry for food and shelter more than fighting, now lost in the blazing streets and alleys.
If I get out, she thought, if I get out I’ll find them and get them away from here.
That was a new thought, a new prayer, but it seemed right, somehow.
Then she felt Katherine’s touch, and the quick sting of a needle slipped into the soft skin beneath her shoulder joint.
“Sorry, Kaytee,” Katherine whispered. “We’ll take you with us, but we can’t risk you giving us away.”
There wasn’t even time to cry out, just a gentle, warm descent into darkness.
No time at all seemed to pass before she awoke on a beach, covered with a blanket. The forest lay dark behind her, and the sun was sinking into the ocean. There was no sign of the gyropter or the city, but far away she could see smoke rising towards the sky.
And in her pocket, there was a bird.
“Let’s go, Lizzie.”
Titus wakes me in the middle of the night, rustling me out of my sleeping bag. Rex is trembling at his side, eager and watchful. I look around the camp. The campfire burns low and everyone seems to be sleeping, even the two boys set to guard us.
But Titus is already on the move, walking off into the dark as if he knows where he’s going. I scramble after him, grabbing my bag.
“To the road,” Titus says. “This is the wrong way. We need to follow the road.”
I think of Kaytee’s flash gun, and her blast-rifle. I think of the broken bird in her pocket. But Titus is not waiting for me to make up my mind, so I follow. What else can I do? We get farther than I thought we would before Kaytee catches up, the dawn-light slipping its fingers through the trees.
“You won’t make it,” she says, barely even winded though she’s been running. I think of pulling out papa’s gun but her hands are empty, so I leave mine empty, too.
I think of arguing with her, but instead all I say is, “Where did you get that bird?”, nodding at her vest.
Gingerly, she brings it out of her pocket. It is one of mama’s blue birds alright, last year’s iteration, made from scrap-steel tinted indigo.
“Someone gave it to me.”
“Mama’s bird,” Titus whispers, reaching out, but Kaytee snatches it away.
I see him looking, see the longing in his face.
“Who gave it to you?” I ask, voice trembling.
“A woman. In Old Vancouver. She was with a man who looked a lot like you.”
“Have you listened to it?”
“Not yet.” She caresses the flexible, lustrous wings, her face inscrutable in the dusk. “Do you want it?”
I look at Titus, but his eyes are on the road now, watching Rex who is waiting for us ahead.
“If it’s true that mama gave it to you, you should keep it.”
Then I follow Titus and I don’t look back.
For a while, I expect to hear shots, shouts, pursuit, but it never comes. We walk all day, Titus happy as a lark to be moving in the right direction, Rex’s tail high and joyful.
That night, when I am spent and we are sitting by the fire, I think of Titus’s book. I know he’ll ask me to read it, and I know I don’t have anything to read to him. Strange. All those times I cursed that book, wishing I never had to read it again, and here I am, missing it already.
The sky is dark when Titus begins to speak, and it takes me a while to realize he’s reciting the book to me from memory. I listen, dumbstruck, as the words fill up the emptiness inside me, the hopeless spaces of despair and homesickness and longing. Like one of mama’s birds, he’s kept the story inside all this time, and now he’s sharing it with me.
Every day we walk. And every night, Titus recites to me from memory, pouring his words, his true and needful story, into the silence and the darkness between us. I do nothing. I only listen. And when the final night comes, the night when we hear the drone of an approaching engine; the night when I pull the gun because I’m too tired and hungry to run away or hide anymore, that night, when I hear papa’s voice and think I am hallucinating, that night when he sees the gun and tells me “Don’t use it, Lizzie,” that night when I see Rex jumping all over mama in the gyropter, that’s when I know for sure that Titus’s story saved our lives.
Some day I’ll try to tell mama what Titus taught me on that journey. That we don’t always need to tell ourselves the right story. Sometimes, we can just be silent and listen to someone else’s story until we find our own words, and our own story, once again.
About the Author
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and poetry, and debuted as a writer in Sweden in the far-off era known as the 1980s. Since 1992 she lives in Canada, and is currently located just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog.
Her most recently published book is DARK FLASH, a collection of flash fiction stories. Her stories have appeared in (or are forthcoming) in Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, Gamut, Capricious, and elsewhere.
About the Narrators
Christiana Ellis is a writer and podcaster living in Massachusetts. She is the creator of the fantasy novel “Nina Kimberly the Merciless” as well as the award-winning Scifi Audiodrama “Space Casey”. She always has something in the works and everything posts at Christianaellis.com. Follow her on Twitter.
Leigh Wallace is an Ottawa writer, artist and narrator who works for the Canadian federal government. Her fiction is available in Tesseracts 19, PodCastle and Urban Fantasist. Her art can be found at Tea Princess Chronicles and in the Sunvault anthology, and she’s narrated previously for Glittership. She is a graduate of the 2013 Viable Paradise workshop. Follow her online and on Twitter.