Cast of Wonders 324: The Sound of Her Voice (Banned Books Week)

The Sound of Her Voice

by Jennifer Hykes

I saw her van as I turned the corner by the convenience store.  It was exactly as I remembered it: the coat of green paint cracked and faded now, but the logo unmistakable.  It was burned into my memory like a brand.

I moved before I even realized my old instincts were kicking in, pressing myself against the brick wall and slowing my breathing so the sound would not give me away.

Every nerve in my body tingled.  I watched. I waited.

I still remember her voice.  I remember other things, too: rain and mud, the ring of steel on steel, the sharp smell of sweat and fear.  Flames and fangs and a city of crystal. Blood on my hand where the dragon’s shining, scaled jaws had bitten deep.  All of it bracketed by a roomful of rapt children, the silence threaded through by her voice. Her soft, enchanting voice.

Now she was here, back in my life after seven long years, and I had no idea what I should do about it.

She had parked her van in the lot of a Holiday Inn, no doubt with plans for the elementary school a couple of blocks away.  The side facing me was covered with the familiar mural, an innocuous hand-painted image of children reading books together under rainbows and shooting stars.  My fingers itched for the weight of my sword, Lethunial. The weapon of queens. But it was long gone.

The hotel’s automatic doors slid open with a thin, breathy sigh.  A woman stepped out into the warm night and crossed the lot towards the van, her purple sandals slapping on the pavement.  It was her. She paused, glanced around, then opened the van’s back door and stepped inside.

I have never seen the inside of it; I had let that opportunity slip seven years ago.  But not this time. This time, I will face her.

I crept from my position and approached the van as silently as I could.  No noise came from inside. Did she know I was here? I inhaled and let the breath out slowly till my hands steadied.  I knocked on the door.

“Ms. Bookwell,” I said.  I had half-expected my old tone of authority to come through.  What came out instead was the deferential sound of a shy girl addressing her schoolteacher.  I frowned.

“Come in,” she said.

I hesitated.  She hadn’t even looked through the rainbow curtains to see who was calling her from a dark parking lot.  Was she that sure of herself?

Of course.  I reminded myself that she had every reason to be confident.  She was one of them, after all. She was a gate-keeper. And I was unarmed.

I opened the door.

The entire back of the van was lined with bookshelves.  A few potted plants and a pair of bean bag chairs in bright primary colors filled it out.  Seated on one of them, her legs folded beneath her, was Ms. Bookwell.

She looked smaller than I remembered.  She was younger than I’d imagined, too–probably only in her mid-thirties.  And she had a soft, pleasant, slightly-bewildered look about her as she looked me up and down.  She reminded me of a rabbit.

She smiled.  “Can I help you?”

I took a deep breath, and stepped inside.  Memories from our last meeting filled my head, drowned and dazzled me, and for a heartbeat I couldn’t speak.  She waited.

“I know you,” I blurted out.  And cursed myself a thousand times.  What was it about her presence that reduced me to an awkward child again?

She cocked her head a little to the side.  “Yes?”

I gathered myself, remembering my pride.  “Seven years ago. You did a reading for Mrs. Yashinsky’s class at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School.”

She was quiet for a moment, her head tilted to one side.  Her face was softly lit by a bemused smile. “I’ve substituted at a lot of schools,” she said, “and I’ve visited even more.  But the name does sound familiar. That was in Ohio, right?”

I nodded.  “You read a story.  To her class. I was there.”

Her smile faded.  She looked at me soberly.  “The Princess of Swords?”

“You do remember.”  My jaw was set so tight it ached, and the words had to squeeze out through my teeth.

She sighed, and waved a hand toward the other bean bag chair, inviting me to sit.  I stood where I was.

“I don’t remember you in particular.  But I recognize your eyes,” she said. “I don’t read that story very often, but every time I do, I get a very clear image of the look in the Princess’s eyes at the very end.  So proud and strong, and alone. You have that look.”

My throat tightened, but I forced myself to continue.  “You made me the Princess. You sent me into the story.  I don’t know how you did it, but you did, and–” And everything.  Rain and blood and magic, and a crown on my head at the very end.

I’ve seen this kind of thing in movies.  They make it out like it’s some cute adventure, some kids get sucked through a book into a fantasy world and it’s all fun and dancing with puppets, and maybe they swing a sword and have to dodge a few magic spells cast by some moustache-twirling sorcerer.

But they don’t know.  They don’t know what it’s like to become the hero that some spectacular kingdom depends on.  They don’t know the bone-aching weariness of traveling by foot up some craggy mountain of volcanic glass, or the terror of racing against the clock to undo traps and solve riddles and make sure the right jewel gets put in the right slot before the giant flaming dog gets loose and devours you.  They don’t know what it’s like to crawl down the tunnel dragging a sword almost as tall as you are, hoping you’ll kill the dragon before it kills you.

They don’t know what it’s like to see beauty and wonder so intense you think your chest will burst with longing.  And they don’t tell you what really happens in the months and years after the kid-hero comes back.

Ms. Bookwell looked up at me, her hands folded in her lap.

Too many words and too many feelings were caught in my dry throat.  “Why?” I asked. The word came out hoarse, half-choked-on. Inside, I was screaming it.

She said nothing.  She wouldn’t meet my eyes anymore.  She was looking at the books with their well-worn spines, as if they could tell her what to say.  I don’t trust books anymore.

When she spoke at last, her voice was soft but steady.  “I had a feeling that was the story I needed to tell to that class,” she said.  “I didn’t do it knowing the story would choose you in particular, or that you would be the one to follow–”

“The story didn’t choose anything,” I growled.  “I didn’t choose anything.  You were the one who read it!  You could have chosen not to do that!”

“And you wouldn’t have become the Princess of Swords.”

“Yes.  And then I could have–”  I stopped. I wasn’t sure what came next.  ‘I could have been happy’? ‘I could have been normal’?  I wasn’t sure how true those statements were, and I couldn’t speak them if they weren’t true.

I can’t lie to myself, not since I came back from where she sent me.  That’s the cost of having your priorities shifted and brought into painful clarity.  I’ve been through too much, been scraped too raw. I know who and what I am, and I cannot lie to myself.

I took a deep breath and collected my bearings.  “I thought,” I began, “I thought it was some great privilege you’d given me, when I first came back home.  Six months I was in there, and when I came back to the classroom, all I could think of was how amazing the whole adventure had been, and how . . . special I was.  Knowing that I’d been there and saved a kingdom and returned a hero. No one had seen that I’d left. I hadn’t even left my place on the floor–like no time had passed at all.  But I had all these stories I could tell my friends. And I had the scar on my hand to prove it.”

I rubbed it now.  It had healed by the time I’d come out of the story, and over the years it’s faded.  But it’s never gone away.

“My friends said they believed me, and they thought it was amazing, too.”  I frowned. “But they didn’t really believe me. And after a while . . .” A short, sharp laugh escaped me.  Children are expected to give up their make-believe games one day. But that day never came for me. There was only a day when I learned to stop talking about it.

“I had to keep believing it,” I said at last.  “I had no choice. There was the scar, and–” I broke off.

“You brought something back?” she asked.  Her eyes strayed to my left pocket, as if she already knew the answer.

I pulled them out:  five of them total, each one half the size of my palm.  Dragon scales, smooth and a little rounded, sharpening to points at one end.  I used to think they were some kind of brass or gold or some other metal, but the surfaces caught and held the light in a way that no metal ever did.  And they never grew cold, no matter where I put them. I could drop them in snow and they’d just melt through it in time.

I’d never been able to let them go.  Not for seven years now. I took them with me everywhere, if only to remind myself it had all been real.

“Dragon scales,” she said, leaning forward to examine them in my outstretched palm.  Her voice was a gentle sigh of wonder.

I stared at them.  Every time I saw them was like the first time:  a moment of doubt washed away in a flood of certainty, my heart racing at the impossible play of light on the gleaming surfaces, the feel of their warm weight on my skin like an anchor, like a lighthouse flashing I was there, I was there.

Over the beating of my heart, her voice whispered, “They’re beautiful.”

“I know,” I answered, then closed my fingers around them and slipped them back into my pocket.  I pressed my eyes shut and tried to remember all the questions I still had, all the things I wanted to say to her.

“You’ve read stories to others?” I asked.  “You send more kids into that . . . other place?”  As crazy as I sometimes thought I was, my time in the kingdom of Windamere had opened my eyes to the things in this world that most people couldn’t see.  I knew there were others out there, many more of them. Some were like her, gate-keepers who had the power to lift the veil and show people the other side.  And some of them were like me, gate-crossers, the people who had one day unexpectedly turned a corner and had their lives changed forever.

“I only open a door,” she said.  “If they come through, it’s because they were meant to.  Because the story guides them through.”

I made a disgusted noise.  “So I was just a pawn in the story?  And I suppose you’re just a pawn too?”  I began pacing back and forth in the van, wanting to hit something, wanting to draw Lethunial and cut down the dragon again just to vent my anger.  “So you’re telling me I never had a choice?”

Her mouth was pressed tight and her eyebrows pulled together in worry, maybe even fear.  But she took a deep breath and said, “There’s always a choice. We can’t always tell what life is going to give us, but we can choose what we want to do about it–”

“I want my life back!” I screamed.  My voice rang in the tiny space.

She looked up at me.  It was not fear in her eyes.  It was sympathy, only sympathy.  “I can give you that, if that’s what you want.”

I didn’t expect that.

“I can read you another story,” she continued, spreading her hands to display the books all around us.  “I can give you whatever life you’d like. Would you like a life where you never became the Princess of Swords?  Do you want to go to college? Settle down, get a stable job, get married and have children and a two-car garage, and retire at sixty?  I can give you as many years as you’d like in there, as long as I keep telling the story.”

I stared hard at her.  Her tone was frank, perfectly sincere.  I forced myself to think clearly over the sudden wild beating of my heart.  Was there a catch? There had to be. And if there wasn’t . . . if she could really give that to me . . .

My head reeled at the possibilities.  I found myself sitting down in the second bean bag chair just to keep from falling over.  I honestly didn’t know what to say.

My fingers reached into my pocket and found the dragon scales, as they always did when I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I pulled one out and stared at its bright surface. I imagined a life where I had never fought the dragon, where I had never had my eyes opened.  A life where I’d never been scoured clean by wonder.

We were both silent for what must have been a long time.  I expected her to start telling me my new story at any moment, but she never did.  She was waiting for my answer. She watched me, and I watched the brilliant play of light on the scale.

Beneath the scale, the ring of scars marked a half-circle around my palm, like a path laid out on a map.  It was exactly as it had looked when I was pulled from the throne room back into this world, and found myself sitting bewildered in Mrs. Yashinsky’s fifth-grade classroom, suddenly a stranger in my own skin.

I’d watched Ms. Bookwell with awe and wonder.  At the end of the school day I’d seen her disappear into her van parked outside the school, and wondered for a long time if I should go and knock and tell her what she had done.  But I never did, and she drove away.

I closed my fingers around the dragon scale and realized, with the implacable force of a cold incoming tide, that I didn’t want to lose it.  I didn’t want to lose what I felt when I held it in my hand. I sighed.

“Are there other Princesses like me?” I asked.  I wasn’t sure where the question had come from, but there it was.

“A few,” said Ms. Bookwell.  “But no one lives the same story in the exact same way.”  Then, as if reading my mind, she added, “That dragon scale is all your own.”

I slipped it back into my pocket with the others.  I didn’t look at her. “I don’t want another story,” I said at last.

She nodded.

“But I still don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do now,” I went on.  I stood and began pacing again. “I mean, look at me! Your story turned me into some medieval warrior.  What am I supposed to do with my life now? I don’t belong here anymore! Not really. I’m not normal.  And you just keep traveling from school to school, making more kids like me?  What the hell is it all for?

My eyes caught it now–sitting there on the shelf, just at eye level.  The Princess of Swords.  In a sudden, impulsive movement I pulled it from the shelf.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it: tear it up so there would be no more like me?  Open it to see what was really inside?

I cannot lie to myself.  I knew exactly what I wanted.  I opened up the book and stuck my hand inside.  It passed through the paper into a space beyond.  I could feel cold rain, the heat of the dragon’s lair, and at last the cool open air of the Great Hall where I once sat as Crown Princess.  My fingers closed on the hilt of Lethunial, which still sat exactly where I had left it on the stand next to the throne. I withdrew my hand, and the sheathed sword emerged with it.  The book dropped to the ground at my feet, its pages fluttering wildly like the wings of a dying bird before it fell still. I pulled the sword from the sheath and looked at it.

The silence receded, and I realized that Ms. Bookwell had been talking behind me in a steady, soft voice, ” . . . and as the book tumbled to the floor, she held in her hands gleaming Lethunial, as bright and sharp as it had been when last she laid eyes on it.”

I whirled on her, Lethunial in my hands.  She stopped talking and waited.

She had opened up the story for me again.  She had given me the sword freely, knowing what I might do with it.  Knowing what I might do to her.

“You say you don’t know what you want to do with your life,” she said, “but I think you already know.  You’re a Princess of Swords, and a Princess of Swords can’t lie to herself.”

I tightened my grip on the sword’s golden hilt.  I took a deep breath, tasting the air, letting it fill me, then letting it out again in a long, drawn-out sigh.  “I’m a fighter, a protector,” I said. “It’s all I know how to do. I want to protect this world, my home, like I protected my kingdom.  But there are no monsters to fight here.”

“There are many ways to protect this world,” said Ms. Bookwell.  “And there are always monsters to fight. If you truly wish for this story, you will find them.  Your eyes are open.”

A sound rose outside the van–a rising wind, ghostly and strange in its moanings.  Through the gaps in the rainbow curtains, shadowy forms skittered through the night.  My skin grew cold. The hair on the back of my neck began to prickle.

I took a long, hard look at Ms. Bookwell, and understood.  This was what she had been pointing me to all along. My kingdom had only been a fanciful exaggeration of what already lay here, unseen by all but a few.

And here there were dragons.

I felt the weight of Lethunial in my hand, natural and familiar as if it had never left my grip.  I allowed myself a smile.

I placed my sword back into its sheath, and turned to leave.  “Thank you,” I said quietly.

As I closed the van door behind me, and the winds rose and monstrous wings unfolded from the shadows before me, I heard her voice again, wondrous and soft as if speaking from a great distance away, “Be brave, Princess.”

About the Author

Jennifer Hykes

Jennifer Hykes lives with her husband and two cats just outside of Pittsburgh. She is fond of books, moonlight, and good yarns, both in the narrative and fiber sense. Her stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex, PodCastle, and Betwixt.

She is fairly certain that the cats are not enchanted princes, but it is sometimes hard to tell with these things.


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About the Narrator

Dani Daly

Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from StoryTime Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.

Find more by Dani Daly