Episode 85: Patterns by Susan Oke (Part 2)


Patterns

by Susan Oke

Kate

There’s no stopping Mikey in this mood. He grins at me, blue eyes bright in the moonlight, and a surge of excitement snatches at my breath. He always does this to me; it’s one of the things that I love about him. Blake and Hari stride ahead –– the Hulk and Spiderman –– full of restless energy. Mikey grabs my hand and together we run to catch up.

The fence is no problem; Hari flourishes his dad’s wire cutters, stolen for the occasion. Mikey holds back the heavy netting while I step through, his knuckles white against the wire. The ground is ridged with the aftershock of JCB-violation; lumpy shadows hint at equipment scattered around the excavation site. It’s cold and damp, and I can feel my hair starting to frizz.

I pick my way across what used to be the school’s sports field, and try to picture the site during the day: the thump and rumble of men-at-work, flashes of yellow, digger and men both, humped earth waiting to landslide, and that black lick of a wound in the ground, growing wider and deeper every day. But my snapshot glances taken on the way to the Science Block refuse to coalesce into a solid image. The shadows keep their secrets.

A single arc lamp burns at the centre of the site; bright slits of light escape between the hastily erected screens that surround the Pit.

The boys move ahead –– eager.

‘Wait,’ I hiss. ‘Somebody might still be working down there.’

‘Nah, they packed up ‘bout seven,’ Hari says. ‘Three geeks and one professor type.’ He counts them off on his fingers.

‘MI5 more like.’ Blake towers over the other two boys; a genius on the rugby pitch, but that’s about it.

‘The Prof’s got an American accent,’ Hari says. ‘Heard him shouting ‘n’ swearing at the other geeks. Real nasty.’ He drawls the last two words and laughs.

‘Must be CIA,’ Mikey says, grinning behind Blake’s back. Blake just grunts and puts a shoulder to one of the heavy metal screens, and heaves a gap wide enough for us all to push through.

Raindrop glints of refracted light outline the cab of the JCB digger abandoned on the edge of the Pit. A dank, mouldy smell hangs in the air despite the earlier rain; the edges of the pit are churned up like a post-match rugby pitch. I watch the boys play most Sundays, shouting from the touchline, urging them on. Mikey always looks for his dad in the crowd. It scares me, the way everything about him turns hard and sharp when he realizes his dad’s not there –– again. It’s been three months since his dad walked out. Nobody knows where he is.

‘I’m not walking through that,’ I jut my chin at the mud. Blake and Hari snigger. Mikey treats them to his signature glare and that shuts them up. I watch him stride off towards the Pit, shoulders stiff; he doesn’t look back. Crap. I scowl at the mud, at my brand new Converse, at the backs of the boys as they leave me behind, and then begin to squelch my way through the mire. It’s all right for Mikey, his mam gave up asking questions when he turned sixteen. But how the frig am I going to explain all this mud?

Mikey puts his arm around my shoulders and I lean into him; together we look down into the Pit. It’s deeper than I expected. Rough blocks of grey-black stone mark a ‘T’ shape across the bottom. The shadows looked solid.

‘Is this what you dragged me out here to see?’ Rain mists into my face and I rake my jacket hood up. ‘A few old stones?’

Mikey places one hand on his chest and imitates the stuck-up accent of the headmaster.

‘This is a significant archeological find. The remains of the original monastery built on this site in the early fifteenth century –-‘

I start to giggle. He grins, clears his throat dramatically, and continues.

‘As you know, my family was one of the founders of this village. I can trace my lineage back to ––‘

I can hardly breathe for laughing. Mikey has a real talent; he could be on the telly.

‘Guess we won’t get our swimming pool by Christmas,’ I say, dabbing at my eyes.

Mikey snorts in disgust and moves closer to the edge of the Pit, his feet slipping in the mud.

‘Mikey, don’t!’ He looks back, a slow grin spreading across his face.

‘You’re scared.’ There’s a taunting edge in his voice, almost mean.

My stomach twists and forces the words out. ‘Just don’t, all right.’

A rhythmic thumping makes us both look back. Blake is jumping up and down on the top of the JCB cab –– a stomping, punching dance to whatever track is pounding through his headphones. Hari is pressed against the cab door, trying to force the lock. Mikey laughs out loud and runs back to clamber up the frame of the hulking machine. He’s been drinking, all three boys have. His malted kiss, just out of sight of my house, had an edge of abandon to it. Just a couple of cans, he’d said, to my unasked question. He kissed me again, harder, and I let him.

I take a deep breath and force my wobbly knees to straighten and lock. The shouts and laughter of the three boys echo across the sports field: the three musketeers, always together, on and off the pitch. Mikey took me to see the film last week and then sulked when I drooled all over Logan Lerman –– back in his bedroom, I didn’t have to try too hard to convince Mikey that he was my handsome D’Artagnan.

I watch, not quite believing, as Mikey shins up the raised arm of the digger and hauls himself up, to stand on the lip of the tilted bucket. Feet wedged between its blunt metal teeth, Mikey raises his arms to the sky: a black outline against the light of the arc lamp. I know he’s got that ‘look at me’ grin on his face. That’s when I glance down: the arms of the JCB extend out, over the edge of the Pit. Every part of me clenches around the words I want to shout.

Shadows shift and suddenly he isn’t there. For a second I’m too scared to look. The harsh white light of the arc lamp picks out every detail: Mikey is lying on his side amongst the stones, his body curled as if asleep, black hair sprawling wet across his face. Fat rain thins the blood welling across his forehead. I bite down on the need to scream. Through my tears I can see that he’s still smiling.


Mikey

The whistle signals the end of rugby practice. I’m pacing the touchline, fighting the itch to be somewhere else. Blake and Hari make a beeline straight for me, faces set. The rest of the guys follow the coach back into the Sports Hall.

‘Wolverine!’

That’s my name now – given in honour of my indestructible skeleton. Kate says Blake and Hari are my friends, so I smile and say ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ I remember the things we did together, but it’s like a story about someone else. I’ve been back at school a whole week and they still don’t get it.

Kate sneaks up behind and tries to put her arms around me; I shrug her off.

‘I can’t believe you’re off the team,’ Hari spits in frustration. ‘We’ve got the match against Hymers next week. They’ve got to let you play.’

‘You’ve got to appeal, or something.’ Blake frowns at me.

I can’t meet their eyes.

‘No contact sports, that’s what the doctors said. And that means no rugby,’ Kate snaps like a pit-bull, her braids swinging, beads clicking.

‘But six weeks… the season will be nearly over by then.’ There’s a pleading edge in Hari’s voice, as if somehow Kate can fix this. But Kate has her don’t-mess-with-me face on.

‘Piss off, both of you. Give us a bit of space.’

She punches Blake in the arm when it looks like he’s going to argue. Blake nods and gives Hari a shove towards the Sports Hall. Kate squeezes my hand, and forces on her see-you-later smile. She’s gone before I can say ‘thanks’.

I watch her walk away: longs legs and a too short uniform skirt, moving like she owns the school. For a second I want to shout for her to wait for me. I’ve touched the web of pale scars on her knees, hidden by day under brightly patterned tights. Hari said she threw herself into the Pit after me. I remember the sound of her voice, close, whispering my name over and over; it gave me something to hold on to.

The hospital was an agony of waiting. I thought: dad has to come now. He didn’t. I don’t know if mam told him what happened. I couldn’t ask.

I woke up to a world filled with unexpected patches of light –– in houses, at church, but especially around the school. I guess it’s a sort of freaky x-ray vision. There’s a pattern in the light, a green-gold dance that gets inside my head if I stare too long. I haven’t figured out what it means yet, but I will.

I can’t keep still, the itch sets me walking, around the building to the back of the Sports Hall. At least it’s quiet here. I can feel my headache beginning to fade, the tension easing out of my shoulders. I hold my breath and wait. There it is: that faint humming note that always comes with the light. A shoaling roll of patterns ripple across the grass –– a green-gold symmetry that calls to me. I walk out into the light; I can’t stop myself grinning as my whole body begins to buzz.

The corner of the building snags the breeze, and the howl of hundreds of kids at play roars across the field. Lifting my head I realise, too late, where I am: the Pit. Suddenly my heart’s hammering so hard it hurts. I back away from the fence, straight into the arms of half-a-dozen girls. They crowd around me, jostling and giggling; one waves something yellow in my face.

‘C’mon Wolverine, let’s see you in these.’

It’s a pair of gold spandex leggings. I know these girls; they start to circle, eyes and teeth bright. The words I need won’t come. Bodies press close, hands fumble at my belt buckle, pull at my shirt.

‘Your poor face. Let me kiss it better.’

An arm locks around my neck, wetness on my cheek. I stumble under the weight of them. A turbine whine vibrates through my skull; pain cracks across my forehead, sinks into my jaw, into the roots of my teeth. I think I’m going to be sick.

‘Go on, Sharon.’ The words echo around the pack, louder and louder.

Suddenly my trousers are around my knees. Hands and touching and heat. The turbine cuts off and colours explode into the silence. A flash of crimson leaves me blind. I squeeze my eyes shut but the colours keep coming, searing bright:

gold,

crimson, gold,

gold, silver,

crimson, gold, silver

silver,

silver,

silver,

silver.

And then Kate’s here. She shoves her way to my side, shouting and swearing. I open my eyes to the storm of her: silver rages across her coffee skin. The pack scatters. A couple of the girls shout, ‘Selfish bitch!’ But they’ve had their fun, and regroup for a fresh hunt. The colours in my head splutter and fade, and Kate’s just Kate again.

Kate’s stare is full of violence. It’s me she wants to shout at, me she wants to punch and kick. But she just says, ‘Let’s get you cleaned up.’


Footsteps echo around me, silver-blue, bitter in the back of my throat. I’m alone. A crimson heartbeat pulses through the walls. Hurry. I start to run. A multitude of hollow sounds batter at me, challenging the hard thud in my chest. Hurry. Hurry. Ruby light saturates the air, its salt-sting sharp in my eyes, my nose, my mouth. Hurry. I strain against an invisible membrane, legs and blood pumping, forcing it to stretch, to belly out. Walls curve, draw close, condense the air to solid heat. I can’t… I can’t… Hurry! My hands stretch out, elongated, thinned to air, reaching, reaching for that crack of incandescent silver. I have it! My fingers push and prise – opening the way. A sudden inhalation, light sucked to black. Fingers, snapped back to solid, crack and pop.

I wake myself up, shouting and thrashing. Mam is standing in the doorway, a lumpy figure against the wash of light from the landing.

‘You all right, love?’ She’s trying to sound calm.

I work up a bit of spit in my mouth and fling the duvet back, t-shirt sweat-welded to my skin.

‘Yeah, just a dream.’ The same one every night.

Mam fidgets on the threshold. In or out: that’s what dad would say. I rub at my throat and rasp, ‘Water.’ She rushes off, glad to have something useful to do. I meet her at the door, say thanks and let her stretch up and kiss me on the forehead. Anything to get her to leave me alone.


Kate’s walking the path with me today. I know the shape of it now, where it turns at right angles, the short and long stretches that etch-a-sketch across the sports field. The pattern shimmers through the grass, dancing blade to tip, an arrow-straight line wide enough for us to walk along, side by side. From the corner of my eye I catch the twitch of her fingers: she wants to hold my hand.

As we near the fence around the Pit the pattern brightens, it tugs hard at the pit of my stomach. Our feet slow in unison, the tips of her fingers find mine. A sudden nagging itch spikes in between my shoulder blades, getting sharper with each step. I twist to face the School House as my stomach and shoulders begin to cramp.

‘Hello.’

The word is a hard tackle that slams the breath out of me. Kate grabs my arm and the world swings upright. There’s a man on the other side of the fence: heavy-built with close-cropped grey hair, hands shoved in the pockets of his yellow waterproof jacket, ‘UniSyk’ printed across its front.

‘Did you know that the foundations of the monastery exit the site right here, where you’re standing?’ His voice is a nasal American twang. I look down at his muddy boots, at the sodden bottoms of his jeans, and see that we’re standing on dull, lifeless grass –– the pattern has vanished.

‘We believe this part of the monastery extends right across the sports field, roughly where you were walking.’

I shuffle and try to rotate the pain out of my shoulders, but it won’t shift. The tug in my stomach turns into an ache. I feel like I’ve swallowed a stone.

‘What do you mean “this part”?’ Kate asks.

‘There’s evidence that this,’ the man waves his hand to include the Pit and the field, ‘housed the cells where the monks worked and studied. Over there,’ he turns and points towards the old School House, ‘is the most likely place for the chapel.’ He laughs and adds, ‘But I don’t think your headmaster is going to let us dig up his office to find out.’

‘You can’t anyway.’ Kate faces him squarely, chin up. ‘That’s a protected building. It’s hundreds of years old.’

The School House is the headmaster’s passion; he’s always pounding on about history and heritage. St. Gabriel’s is the oldest school in the whole of Yorkshire; that’s something to be proud of, something to shove in the faces of kids from lesser schools.

The Prof –– it has to be him –– narrows his eyes and then smiles again, only this time I can see it’s an effort.

‘That,’ he glances over at the School House, ‘was the original grammar school, built by reusing stone from the monastery itself. You’ll find that many of the older houses in the village have something from the monastery incorporated into their walls or foundations.’

The Prof takes a step forward and peers through the fence at the scars, tight and shiny, down one side of my face.

‘You’re the boy who took a swan dive into the Pit. That’s what you kids call it, right?’

I feel stuck, like I’ve sunk up to my knees in the mud.

‘We’ve got to get to class,’ Kate says. She takes my hand and I stumble after her.

‘I’m Adam,’ he shouts, ‘If you want to talk… I’m at the B&B in Crossover Street.’


Kate

I’m curled up on Mikey’s bed, watching him. Pencil and ink portraits of rugby players snarl at etchings of cyborgs and cybermen; his creations –– scattered across every wall ––stare down at both of us.

Mikey is sitting cross-legged on the floor, sketchpad resting on his knees, head bowed in concentration. There’s an intensity about him, a crackling energy gathered in the creases around his eyes, in the line of his lips pressed tight, in the urgent strokes of pencil on paper. His spiked hair dangles in his eyes, limp with sweat.

I lick my lips. I remember the taste of his sweat, the feel of his hands and breath, hot on my skin.

Mikey’s hand falls away from the page, the pencil held loosely in slack fingers. He arches his back and then slowly brings his focus back to the drawing.

‘What is it?’ I ask.

Mikey ignores me; he does that a lot now.

Before I’d been allowed to come up to Mikey’s room his mother had insisted on ‘a few words’. She’d rambled on about how much she appreciated the way I’d stuck by Mikey, twisting her hands when she admitted that, since Christmas, his other friends had stopped coming by. As if I didn’t already know that. No one wanted to be associated with a retard. Mikey was different after the accident, we could all see that: D’Artagnan was gone, in his place stalked the Dark Knight, silent behind his mask. But it was the special needs teacher who’d marked Mikey as a pariah. I wanted to slap his mother for making such a fuss and forcing the headmaster’s hand. So what if Mikey didn’t talk much now; the teachers used to complain that they couldn’t shut him up. And let’s face it, Mikey never did pay much attention in class.

I move to sit next to Mikey and he turns the sketchpad so that I can see. The paper is covered in a mass of random, shaded blocks, all hatchings and smudges and fuzzed lines. There’s something compelling about it; shapes swim in my peripheral vision, but vanish each time I turn to look. I growl in frustration. Mikey surprises me by taking my hand and smiling.

‘Look again.’

I stare hard and the blocks begin to blur together. A pyramid rises slowly from the centre of the page, swelling until I can see the grainy striations in its rocky face. I blink, and it vanishes.

‘I knew you’d be able to see it,’ Mikey says. An echo of his old grin flashes across his face.

‘What is it Mikey? How did you do that?’

‘I’ll show you.’ This time Mikey’s smile is feral.

He stands and pulls me to my feet. We take the stairs two at a time, the front door slamming shut behind us before his mam has time to shout.


Mikey

They’ve fixed the fence, but they can’t keep me out. I’m wanted there. I tighten my grip on Kate’s hand. The Pit is the last place she wants to be. There! A patch of green-gold blazes under a narrow section of the fence. I pull Kate into a jog and she gasps when we stumble into a sudden depression in the ground. The fence stretches impotently across empty air; underneath there’s just enough space to crawl through.

‘Son of a bitch,’ Kate mutters between clenched teeth as she follows me through the gap on her hands and knees.

‘How did you ––?’ she stops and hisses a sigh through her teeth. I glare right back at her. Green-gold energy surges up through my body; it makes me want to shout. Kate shifts uneasily. I step close, and take both her hands in mine.

‘It’s all right. Let me show you.’

The muscles in Kate’s shoulders relax a little and I resist the siren call of the Pit long enough to hug her to me.

Just before Christmas, the discovery of an underground chamber caused a surge of fresh interest in the dig. The local paper devoted its front page to speculation about why the monastery had been razed to the ground, and whether all the monks had been to put to death or just defrocked. Kate insisted on reading it to me. As far as I could make out the monks claimed to have a direct line to God, or maybe it was the devil. Whatever –– lots of people got really pissed off and the usual happened. And then she said it was all a load of rubbish, that the whole thing was just part of Henry VIII’s master plan to get rid of all the monasteries. It was too much –– the hum in the back of my mind cycled up into a shriek. The next time I looked up she was gone.

I could’ve told her that what was down in the Pit had nothing to do with gods or devils or kings. But Kate’s not great at listening, especially when she’s got a point to make.

I force myself to slow down; Kate’s struggling with the ladder, muddy feet slipping on the metal rungs. The call is stronger in the Pit, and I have to fight the urge to jump. I picture the geek-team on the ladder, mud-slicked and sweating in their heavy boots and bulky fluorescent jackets. It helps.

‘Not much further,’ I whisper back to her. She nods and follows me down the second, shorter ladder into the icy black of the unearthed cell. The air tastes damp. Our heads brush against the ceiling; my fingers dislodge tiny avalanches of grit as I grope my way along the wall.

‘It’s here. I can feel it.’

Stumbling forwards, hands outstretched, my feet catch against raised stone. Golden light surges across the faces of a stone pyramid. It stands in the center of the square cell, its summit level with my chest, its base taking up two thirds of the floor space. I push myself up, hands pressed against its rough surface, embarrassed by my undignified sprawl. The light flares, sun-bright, forcing me to squeeze my eyes shut.

‘Mikey!‘ Kate sounds scared.

A deep note vibrates through the stone, like distant boulders grinding together. The palms of my hands buzz with it. The sound resonates in my chest –– its growl translated into the never-ending draw of a cello bow –– tuning every bone in my body to its song. I clench my jaw against the spreading ache in my skull. I can’t move.

Kate’s fingers dig into my arms as the song flows through me, infinitely slow and infinitely dense. I see my mother shaking with silent sobs as she listens to ‘The Protecting Veil’ –– she listens to that one a lot –– not realizing that I’m hunched in a ball outside her bedroom, waiting, hoping that she’ll open the door and let me in. I hear the slam of the front door as my dad walks away for the last time. He left me here. Trapped. Isolated. Alone.

Part of me knows that I need to breathe, and part of me never wants to breathe again.

I cry out as Kate jerks my hands off the pyramid; it feels like part of me has been ripped away. Kate drags me across the threshold of the cell and into black silence. I pull in a huge ragged breath. Kate holds me as I cough and sob; she holds me until I stop shaking.


Kate

Mikey is pushing ahead of me like a dog on the scent of fresh rabbit, the red of his fleece a splatter of colour disappearing amongst the undergrowth. I told him that the local paper had reported a ‘new find’ in the woods skirting the school grounds; his excited grin made me feel sick inside.

I’ve tried to talk to Mikey about what happened at the pyramid, but he won’t listen. I remember his eyes: deep pools of gold that slowly faded back to blue as I dragged him away. And I remember the way he looked at me –– like a stranger. I want Mikey back the way he was before; I want my D’Artagnan.

It hurts, the way he curls in on himself when I touch him. His white-boy skin feels rough and dry, the corners of his mouth are cracked and sore, black circles shadow his eyes. Mikey the zombie. I push that thought away. I’ve managed to convince his mam not to call the doctor, but now I’m not sure. Maybe he does need that kind of help.

Mikey said not to, that he didn’t trust the Prof or anyone from UniSyk, but I had to do something. I found Adam at the B&B and told him everything: the accident, the patterns, the way the pyramid lit up when Mikey touched it. Adam confided that the grounds of the monastery were more extensive than their original estimate, and that his team had located a second pyramid in the woodland just beyond the school perimeter. He asked me to bring Mikey to ‘look at’ the second pyramid, an experiment he said, that would help further their research. And, he promised, help Mikey.

‘There’ll be a team of experts on stand-by, Mikey will be perfectly safe.’ Another promise.

So why do I feel so guilty?

I reach the edge of the clearing in time to see Mikey disappearing down a ladder.

‘Mikey, w–– ‘

Someone grabs me from behind. I stagger forward under the weight, punching back with my balled fist into his groin: again and again and again until the weight is gone and my attacker is curled groaning on the floor. I turn and kick him in the head –– once, twice, three times –– glad of my Docs. My heart is thunder in my chest. I run for the ladder.


Mikey

A handful of bulbs spotlight the pyramid, staining the top half a sickly yellow. Box shapes bulk along one wall, some flashing with tiny points of green. I hesitate just outside the circle of light, and listen.

This one’s different. There’s a sense of resignation in its song. It makes my chest ache. It feels like… like the time I went to visit Aunty Doreen in hospital: I remember her tired smile, and the shadow lurking behind her eyes. I wanted to turn and run, but instead I sat and stared at her clasped hands, all paper-thin skin and bobbly blue veins, while she chatted with mam, their voices low and conspiratorial.

I bow my head, a silent witness to the pyramid’s long song of grief.

‘What are you waiting for?’ The words slap at me. A bulky figure moves out of the shadows behind the pyramid and I stumble back. Strong hands grab my shoulders and push me forwards into the circle of light. I struggle to regain my balance and catch sight of one of the professor’s geeks moving to block the low doorway.

‘Place your hands on the pyramid, there’s a good boy.’ The Prof smiles at my surprise. ‘Don’t worry, Kate told me everything. She’s very concerned about your welfare.’

‘Kate.’ The word squeezes out of my throat. I look for her, panic snapping my head left and right.

‘She’s waiting outside. You can see her as soon as we’ve finished here. Now, do exactly what you did before, and this time we’ll record the results.’

I look back at the door to the cell and try to sense Kate’s presence, but all I can feel is the muted thrum of the pyramid’s lament. Did Kate really tell this man everything? I take a deep breath. There’s one thing I know for sure: Kate wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.

‘Last time I tripped over my feet and fell onto the pyramid.’

‘Yes, yes.’ The Prof waves an impatient hand at me. ‘Physical contact, that’s the key.’

Flecks of silver trace the symbols chiselled into the pyramid’s sides; a gentle but insistent force pushes at my chest. I frown and take a half-step back.

‘It doesn’t want me to touch it.’

‘Look, Mikey.’ The Prof runs the fingers of one hand through the grey stubble of his hair. ‘How can I explain this?’ He softens his tone, speaks slowly. ‘We believe that these pyramids are receptacles, containers, for a very special type of energy. See those markings’ – he points at the rows of symbols covering the pyramid ‘it’s a form of mathematics. Pete here’ – he nods at the man behind me – ‘is our mathematician, he’s been working on deciphering these equations. But we need some hard data. We need to record what happens when you touch it.’

I shake my head slowly, mouth dry, as the dance of silver light brightens across the pyramid.

‘Our scans have shown significant differences in the nature of the energy stored in the two pyramids.’ His tone sharpens. ‘Mikey, this is important. We need to understand the mechanism for capturing and tapping this energy.’

‘Leave them alone! I won’t let you hurt them!’ The underground boom of my voice takes me by surprise. A wave of heat rolls through my body. I lick the tang of salt from the corner of my mouth. The Prof clears his throat; it’s his turn to take a step away.

‘Your eyes ––‘

The sound of shouting makes us both turn. Pete ducks through the door and then reappears with another, much fatter man. Between them something is kicking and swearing.

‘Christ!’ Pete jumps back, shaking a bleeding hand. The fat one grunts, both hands clutching at his stomach. The whirlwind that is Kate lunges at me, hands outstretched.

‘Don’t ––‘ she gasps.

Pete grabs at her, catching her shoulder and knocking her off-balance. Kate twists and falls backwards, even as I catch hold of her hand. The thump of her head against the edge of the pyramid is clear in the snatched-breath silence.

Silver strobes the cell, pinning each one of us in place, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Cold argent blazes from Kate’s eyes, flows across her body and engulfs our clasped hands. Bitter salt burns the back of my throat. All I can see is Kate. Our bodies stretch away into impossible distance; I can feel myself beginning to shred. And then we’re rushing towards each other, streaks of raging light: silver to gold, gold to silver.

A heavy weight slams into me, breaking my hold on Kate. Shadows flood the room.

‘Are you all right?’ It’s the Prof: we’re tangled together on the floor. Kate, Kate, Kate. I want to shout her name but all I can manage is a strangled croak. The Prof pins my arms to my sides as I buck and kick.

‘Calm down, Mikey, calm down.’ He crushes the breath out of me and I sag, on the point of retching.

‘We’ve got to get you both out of here.’

Pete scoops Kate up in his arms: she isn’t fighting anymore. In the dim light from the bulbs I see that her eyes are closed; one of her arms slips and hangs loose as Pete ducks through the doorway.


Kate

The sounds pluck at me, unruly, random notes, with no real rhythm or melody. I try to slip back into the flow of the song, silver-sweet, but it’s faded beyond my reach, its promise a dim memory, something about unity… about being together. Mikey. His face leaps into my mind –– eyes bright, lips curved into that ferocious smile –– and drags me back into the world.

‘… should have listened to Andy. He argued that the translation read “and life flowed into the tri-fold hands of god”, but I insisted that the true meaning was “energy”. It made more sense, the flow and capture of energy within a linked storage system. I’m sorry. The alternative was just too ––‘

‘Star Gate, yeah, I know.’

That’s Mikey’s voice. I open my eyes and groan as a sharp pain throbs through the back of my head. Arms hold me in a tight embrace. I breathe in sour sweat, and tense. This isn’t Mikey.

‘Kate, you OK?’ Mikey’s voice comes from somewhere in front. He sounds worried. I struggle weakly and then cry out as I’m bumped and jostled.

‘Sorry about that.’ Another voice, the Prof’s. ‘This road’s all ruts and pot-holes.’

‘It’s all right Kate,’ Mikey says, ‘we’re taking you to the hospital. You and that guy you dropped in the woods.’

I want to reach out to him but the arms hold me tight.

‘Remember,’ the Prof says, ‘it’s important that you and Kate don’t touch each other, at least until we get her head wound checked out. We just don’t know what were dealing with here. It could be dangerous for you both.’

Trees lumber past the window as the car bounces along the woodland track skirting the school grounds. It’s dark and stuffy in the car; I feel hot and sick and all squashed up. The sudden glare of headlights blind me. I squint, fighting back a roll of nausea as the car jerks to a stop.


Mikey

The headmaster is staring at me, lips pressed into a hard line. I stand at attention, eyes fixed on the school logo –– the black outline of the old School House –– on his tie and wait. Kate is propped up in a high-backed leather chair, one of two in the headmaster’s study, a distant look on her face. The Prof and his geeks were bundled away by a posse of teachers, the words ‘police’ and ‘assault’ surfacing amidst raised voices.

‘You should have come to me with this,’ the headmaster says.

‘Yes, sir.’ My gaze drops to his brogues and I can’t help tracing the neat criss-cross pattern of the laces. The thick burgundy carpet around the headmaster’s feet begins to ripple with crimson light; it snakes up his legs, around his chest.

‘We’ve been waiting for someone like you for a very long time,’ he says.

I’m caught by his eyes: steel grey flecked with crimson. I’m hot. Too hot. And then he smiles. I can feel my body rocking to the pounding beat of my heart.

‘You hear the song. I know you do,’ he says.

‘Yes.’ It comes out as a hoarse whisper.

I feel the bass note vibrate in the pit of my belly, and then wind its way up my spine. I try to fight it, breath hissing between clenched teeth. The headmaster offers Kate his hand.

‘No. Not Kate. She’s not ––‘

Something cracks inside me –– green-gold energy surges through, washing away my words. He brings Kate to stand beside me. The bass note strengthens, humming through my skull.

‘You are bound together by love and life. Without Kate there would be no renewal.’ He speaks as if every muscle in his body is clenched against an impossible pain. ‘Look at her.’

Silver ebbs and flows across her skin, a tide matched in my own body. I raise my hands and stare at the runnels of gold flowing beneath my skin. A deeper thrumming strikes up through my feet. The tri-fold hands of god. I can feel it, the third pyramid, directly beneath us. An image forms in my mind: the basement aglow with reflected ruby light, the headmaster kneeling before the pyramid, eyes closed, hands pressed against the fiery symbols.

I shake my head and hide my hands behind my back. The headmaster scowls.

‘We were trapped by their grey song, imprisoned by stone words, forced to their bidding.’ He bares his teeth and leans close. ‘They denied us unity!’ I lick his spittle from my lips. Watch him take a deep breath. Grimace against the manic pounding of my heart.

‘We were ripe. On the cusp of merging. That’s when they caged us.’ The crimson pulse of his skin dims. ‘So long alone.’

Kate presses close and something urgent wakes inside me. She reaches to take hold of my hands, and I let her. The floor shudders under our feet. There’s a dull crack as the painting of the original School House thumps to the floor. The headmaster’s smile stretches tight; he wraps our hands in his.

I’m the bass note of gold – the solid core. Crimson and silver circle close, modulating their song, binding me to their harmony. I can taste them: salt-sweet. A sour note threads through the melody, and I remember Kate. She’s fading. I pour my strength into her: gold to silver. Storm-force waves of crimson tear through my shape; a silver whirlpool forces dissolution and recombination: silgol-sonver-crimd. I feel motes of gold, silver and crimson bleed from our new shape, escaping into the spaces between. And I smile. A new cycle has begun.


Kate

Mikey is sitting in the chair facing his bedroom window. If he leans forward he can look down into the street at the thick blanket of snow being slowly tramped into mush by determined shoppers. But he won’t, he won’t do anything unless someone prompts him. I perch on the edge of his desk and study his face: blue eyes pale and unfocussed, a faint smile ghosting his lips. I search for some sign that he recognises me, that he knows I’m here.

Three weeks and still no change.

The doctors’ diagnosis: traumatic shock brought on by the explosion and the death of the headmaster –– fire-fighters had to pull us from the wreckage of the old School House –– complicated by the existing trauma of his recent accident. Mikey needs familiar surroundings, familiar faces, and the support of people who love him, they said. So here I am. And so is his dad, ditching his new life in Scotland for the sake of his son. As if Mikey hadn’t always needed him.

I’m not sure what happened. I woke up in Casualty and confirmed the Prof’s story about trying to get me to the hospital, but after that everything is blurred. The old School House, the Pit and the dig site in the woods were all destroyed in what officialdom described as a ‘gas mains incident’. Only one memory is bright: the way Mikey held me tight, a golden pillar of warmth that surrounded me, and supported me, and wouldn’t let the darkness take me.

The boys are outside, waiting, just like I told them. They’d been hanging around at the end of the street for the best part of an hour. I spotted them through the bedroom window, kicking about in the snow, creating a big circle of muddy slush around their indecision. I let them stew.

Now they’re waiting on the landing, outside the bedroom door. I can hear the low rumble of their conversation. I catch an odd word or two and glare at the door. Rugby! It took awhile to breathe away the tears. Rugby––that’s what Mikey should be talking about. All three boys should be squashed onto his mam’s sofa, attention fixed on the TV, jumping up and shouting at the ref––while I sit at his feet, watching the rugby, but mostly watching him.

Time to let them in. I trail my fingers across the back of Mikey’s hand––he doesn’t notice––and then open the door. Blake and Hari file in, silent now, looking everywhere except at Mikey. And then when they do look, they can’t look away.

I take Mikey’s hand and press it against my still flat belly. By the time I knew, he’d stopped listening. Now, Mikey is wandering the spaces between, but he’ll come back to me when the time is right. He’ll come back because that’s what fathers do.

Episode 84: Patterns by Susan Oke (Part 1)


Patterns

by Susan Oke

Kate

There’s no stopping Mikey in this mood. He grins at me, blue eyes bright in the moonlight, and a surge of excitement snatches at my breath. He always does this to me; it’s one of the things that I love about him. Blake and Hari stride ahead –– the Hulk and Spiderman –– full of restless energy. Mikey grabs my hand and together we run to catch up.

The fence is no problem; Hari flourishes his dad’s wire cutters, stolen for the occasion. Mikey holds back the heavy netting while I step through, his knuckles white against the wire. The ground is ridged with the aftershock of JCB-violation; lumpy shadows hint at equipment scattered around the excavation site. It’s cold and damp, and I can feel my hair starting to frizz.

I pick my way across what used to be the school’s sports field, and try to picture the site during the day: the thump and rumble of men-at-work, flashes of yellow, digger and men both, humped earth waiting to landslide, and that black lick of a wound in the ground, growing wider and deeper every day. But my snapshot glances taken on the way to the Science Block refuse to coalesce into a solid image. The shadows keep their secrets.

A single arc lamp burns at the centre of the site; bright slits of light escape between the hastily erected screens that surround the Pit.

The boys move ahead –– eager.

‘Wait,’ I hiss. ‘Somebody might still be working down there.’

‘Nah, they packed up ‘bout seven,’ Hari says. ‘Three geeks and one professor type.’ He counts them off on his fingers.

‘MI5 more like.’ Blake towers over the other two boys; a genius on the rugby pitch, but that’s about it.

‘The Prof’s got an American accent,’ Hari says. ‘Heard him shouting ‘n’ swearing at the other geeks. Real nasty.’ He drawls the last two words and laughs.

‘Must be CIA,’ Mikey says, grinning behind Blake’s back. Blake just grunts and puts a shoulder to one of the heavy metal screens, and heaves a gap wide enough for us all to push through.

Raindrop glints of refracted light outline the cab of the JCB digger abandoned on the edge of the Pit. A dank, mouldy smell hangs in the air despite the earlier rain; the edges of the pit are churned up like a post-match rugby pitch. I watch the boys play most Sundays, shouting from the touchline, urging them on. Mikey always looks for his dad in the crowd. It scares me, the way everything about him turns hard and sharp when he realizes his dad’s not there –– again. It’s been three months since his dad walked out. Nobody knows where he is.

‘I’m not walking through that,’ I jut my chin at the mud. Blake and Hari snigger. Mikey treats them to his signature glare and that shuts them up. I watch him stride off towards the Pit, shoulders stiff; he doesn’t look back. Crap. I scowl at the mud, at my brand new Converse, at the backs of the boys as they leave me behind, and then begin to squelch my way through the mire. It’s all right for Mikey, his mam gave up asking questions when he turned sixteen. But how the frig am I going to explain all this mud?

Mikey puts his arm around my shoulders and I lean into him; together we look down into the Pit. It’s deeper than I expected. Rough blocks of grey-black stone mark a ‘T’ shape across the bottom. The shadows looked solid.

‘Is this what you dragged me out here to see?’ Rain mists into my face and I rake my jacket hood up. ‘A few old stones?’

Mikey places one hand on his chest and imitates the stuck-up accent of the headmaster.

‘This is a significant archeological find. The remains of the original monastery built on this site in the early fifteenth century –-‘

I start to giggle. He grins, clears his throat dramatically, and continues.

‘As you know, my family was one of the founders of this village. I can trace my lineage back to ––‘

I can hardly breathe for laughing. Mikey has a real talent; he could be on the telly.

‘Guess we won’t get our swimming pool by Christmas,’ I say, dabbing at my eyes.

Mikey snorts in disgust and moves closer to the edge of the Pit, his feet slipping in the mud.

‘Mikey, don’t!’ He looks back, a slow grin spreading across his face.

‘You’re scared.’ There’s a taunting edge in his voice, almost mean.

My stomach twists and forces the words out. ‘Just don’t, all right.’

A rhythmic thumping makes us both look back. Blake is jumping up and down on the top of the JCB cab –– a stomping, punching dance to whatever track is pounding through his headphones. Hari is pressed against the cab door, trying to force the lock. Mikey laughs out loud and runs back to clamber up the frame of the hulking machine. He’s been drinking, all three boys have. His malted kiss, just out of sight of my house, had an edge of abandon to it. Just a couple of cans, he’d said, to my unasked question. He kissed me again, harder, and I let him.

I take a deep breath and force my wobbly knees to straighten and lock. The shouts and laughter of the three boys echo across the sports field: the three musketeers, always together, on and off the pitch. Mikey took me to see the film last week and then sulked when I drooled all over Logan Lerman –– back in his bedroom, I didn’t have to try too hard to convince Mikey that he was my handsome D’Artagnan.

I watch, not quite believing, as Mikey shins up the raised arm of the digger and hauls himself up, to stand on the lip of the tilted bucket. Feet wedged between its blunt metal teeth, Mikey raises his arms to the sky: a black outline against the light of the arc lamp. I know he’s got that ‘look at me’ grin on his face. That’s when I glance down: the arms of the JCB extend out, over the edge of the Pit. Every part of me clenches around the words I want to shout.

Shadows shift and suddenly he isn’t there. For a second I’m too scared to look. The harsh white light of the arc lamp picks out every detail: Mikey is lying on his side amongst the stones, his body curled as if asleep, black hair sprawling wet across his face. Fat rain thins the blood welling across his forehead. I bite down on the need to scream. Through my tears I can see that he’s still smiling.


Mikey

The whistle signals the end of rugby practice. I’m pacing the touchline, fighting the itch to be somewhere else. Blake and Hari make a beeline straight for me, faces set. The rest of the guys follow the coach back into the Sports Hall.

‘Wolverine!’

That’s my name now – given in honour of my indestructible skeleton. Kate says Blake and Hari are my friends, so I smile and say ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ I remember the things we did together, but it’s like a story about someone else. I’ve been back at school a whole week and they still don’t get it.

Kate sneaks up behind and tries to put her arms around me; I shrug her off.

‘I can’t believe you’re off the team,’ Hari spits in frustration. ‘We’ve got the match against Hymers next week. They’ve got to let you play.’

‘You’ve got to appeal, or something.’ Blake frowns at me.

I can’t meet their eyes.

‘No contact sports, that’s what the doctors said. And that means no rugby,’ Kate snaps like a pit-bull, her braids swinging, beads clicking.

‘But six weeks… the season will be nearly over by then.’ There’s a pleading edge in Hari’s voice, as if somehow Kate can fix this. But Kate has her don’t-mess-with-me face on.

‘Piss off, both of you. Give us a bit of space.’

She punches Blake in the arm when it looks like he’s going to argue. Blake nods and gives Hari a shove towards the Sports Hall. Kate squeezes my hand, and forces on her see-you-later smile. She’s gone before I can say ‘thanks’.

I watch her walk away: longs legs and a too short uniform skirt, moving like she owns the school. For a second I want to shout for her to wait for me. I’ve touched the web of pale scars on her knees, hidden by day under brightly patterned tights. Hari said she threw herself into the Pit after me. I remember the sound of her voice, close, whispering my name over and over; it gave me something to hold on to.

The hospital was an agony of waiting. I thought: dad has to come now. He didn’t. I don’t know if mam told him what happened. I couldn’t ask.

I woke up to a world filled with unexpected patches of light –– in houses, at church, but especially around the school. I guess it’s a sort of freaky x-ray vision. There’s a pattern in the light, a green-gold dance that gets inside my head if I stare too long. I haven’t figured out what it means yet, but I will.

I can’t keep still, the itch sets me walking, around the building to the back of the Sports Hall. At least it’s quiet here. I can feel my headache beginning to fade, the tension easing out of my shoulders. I hold my breath and wait. There it is: that faint humming note that always comes with the light. A shoaling roll of patterns ripple across the grass –– a green-gold symmetry that calls to me. I walk out into the light; I can’t stop myself grinning as my whole body begins to buzz.

The corner of the building snags the breeze, and the howl of hundreds of kids at play roars across the field. Lifting my head I realise, too late, where I am: the Pit. Suddenly my heart’s hammering so hard it hurts. I back away from the fence, straight into the arms of half-a-dozen girls. They crowd around me, jostling and giggling; one waves something yellow in my face.

‘C’mon Wolverine, let’s see you in these.’

It’s a pair of gold spandex leggings. I know these girls; they start to circle, eyes and teeth bright. The words I need won’t come. Bodies press close, hands fumble at my belt buckle, pull at my shirt.

‘Your poor face. Let me kiss it better.’

An arm locks around my neck, wetness on my cheek. I stumble under the weight of them. A turbine whine vibrates through my skull; pain cracks across my forehead, sinks into my jaw, into the roots of my teeth. I think I’m going to be sick.

‘Go on, Sharon.’ The words echo around the pack, louder and louder.

Suddenly my trousers are around my knees. Hands and touching and heat. The turbine cuts off and colours explode into the silence. A flash of crimson leaves me blind. I squeeze my eyes shut but the colours keep coming, searing bright:

gold,

crimson, gold,

gold, silver,

crimson, gold, silver

silver,

silver,

silver,

silver.

And then Kate’s here. She shoves her way to my side, shouting and swearing. I open my eyes to the storm of her: silver rages across her coffee skin. The pack scatters. A couple of the girls shout, ‘Selfish bitch!’ But they’ve had their fun, and regroup for a fresh hunt. The colours in my head splutter and fade, and Kate’s just Kate again.

Kate’s stare is full of violence. It’s me she wants to shout at, me she wants to punch and kick. But she just says, ‘Let’s get you cleaned up.’


Footsteps echo around me, silver-blue, bitter in the back of my throat. I’m alone. A crimson heartbeat pulses through the walls. Hurry. I start to run. A multitude of hollow sounds batter at me, challenging the hard thud in my chest. Hurry. Hurry. Ruby light saturates the air, its salt-sting sharp in my eyes, my nose, my mouth. Hurry. I strain against an invisible membrane, legs and blood pumping, forcing it to stretch, to belly out. Walls curve, draw close, condense the air to solid heat. I can’t… I can’t… Hurry! My hands stretch out, elongated, thinned to air, reaching, reaching for that crack of incandescent silver. I have it! My fingers push and prise – opening the way. A sudden inhalation, light sucked to black. Fingers, snapped back to solid, crack and pop.

I wake myself up, shouting and thrashing. Mam is standing in the doorway, a lumpy figure against the wash of light from the landing.

‘You all right, love?’ She’s trying to sound calm.

I work up a bit of spit in my mouth and fling the duvet back, t-shirt sweat-welded to my skin.

‘Yeah, just a dream.’ The same one every night.

Mam fidgets on the threshold. In or out: that’s what dad would say. I rub at my throat and rasp, ‘Water.’ She rushes off, glad to have something useful to do. I meet her at the door, say thanks and let her stretch up and kiss me on the forehead. Anything to get her to leave me alone.


Kate’s walking the path with me today. I know the shape of it now, where it turns at right angles, the short and long stretches that etch-a-sketch across the sports field. The pattern shimmers through the grass, dancing blade to tip, an arrow-straight line wide enough for us to walk along, side by side. From the corner of my eye I catch the twitch of her fingers: she wants to hold my hand.

As we near the fence around the Pit the pattern brightens, it tugs hard at the pit of my stomach. Our feet slow in unison, the tips of her fingers find mine. A sudden nagging itch spikes in between my shoulder blades, getting sharper with each step. I twist to face the School House as my stomach and shoulders begin to cramp.

‘Hello.’

The word is a hard tackle that slams the breath out of me. Kate grabs my arm and the world swings upright. There’s a man on the other side of the fence: heavy-built with close-cropped grey hair, hands shoved in the pockets of his yellow waterproof jacket, ‘UniSyk’ printed across its front.

‘Did you know that the foundations of the monastery exit the site right here, where you’re standing?’ His voice is a nasal American twang. I look down at his muddy boots, at the sodden bottoms of his jeans, and see that we’re standing on dull, lifeless grass –– the pattern has vanished.

‘We believe this part of the monastery extends right across the sports field, roughly where you were walking.’

I shuffle and try to rotate the pain out of my shoulders, but it won’t shift. The tug in my stomach turns into an ache. I feel like I’ve swallowed a stone.

‘What do you mean “this part”?’ Kate asks.

‘There’s evidence that this,’ the man waves his hand to include the Pit and the field, ‘housed the cells where the monks worked and studied. Over there,’ he turns and points towards the old School House, ‘is the most likely place for the chapel.’ He laughs and adds, ‘But I don’t think your headmaster is going to let us dig up his office to find out.’

‘You can’t anyway.’ Kate faces him squarely, chin up. ‘That’s a protected building. It’s hundreds of years old.’

The School House is the headmaster’s passion; he’s always pounding on about history and heritage. St. Gabriel’s is the oldest school in the whole of Yorkshire; that’s something to be proud of, something to shove in the faces of kids from lesser schools.

The Prof –– it has to be him –– narrows his eyes and then smiles again, only this time I can see it’s an effort.

‘That,’ he glances over at the School House, ‘was the original grammar school, built by reusing stone from the monastery itself. You’ll find that many of the older houses in the village have something from the monastery incorporated into their walls or foundations.’

The Prof takes a step forward and peers through the fence at the scars, tight and shiny, down one side of my face.

‘You’re the boy who took a swan dive into the Pit. That’s what you kids call it, right?’

I feel stuck, like I’ve sunk up to my knees in the mud.

‘We’ve got to get to class,’ Kate says. She takes my hand and I stumble after her.

‘I’m Adam,’ he shouts, ‘If you want to talk… I’m at the B&B in Crossover Street.’


Kate

I’m curled up on Mikey’s bed, watching him. Pencil and ink portraits of rugby players snarl at etchings of cyborgs and cybermen; his creations –– scattered across every wall ––stare down at both of us.

Mikey is sitting cross-legged on the floor, sketchpad resting on his knees, head bowed in concentration. There’s an intensity about him, a crackling energy gathered in the creases around his eyes, in the line of his lips pressed tight, in the urgent strokes of pencil on paper. His spiked hair dangles in his eyes, limp with sweat.

I lick my lips. I remember the taste of his sweat, the feel of his hands and breath, hot on my skin.

Mikey’s hand falls away from the page, the pencil held loosely in slack fingers. He arches his back and then slowly brings his focus back to the drawing.

‘What is it?’ I ask.

Mikey ignores me; he does that a lot now.

Before I’d been allowed to come up to Mikey’s room his mother had insisted on ‘a few words’. She’d rambled on about how much she appreciated the way I’d stuck by Mikey, twisting her hands when she admitted that, since Christmas, his other friends had stopped coming by. As if I didn’t already know that. No one wanted to be associated with a retard. Mikey was different after the accident, we could all see that: D’Artagnan was gone, in his place stalked the Dark Knight, silent behind his mask. But it was the special needs teacher who’d marked Mikey as a pariah. I wanted to slap his mother for making such a fuss and forcing the headmaster’s hand. So what if Mikey didn’t talk much now; the teachers used to complain that they couldn’t shut him up. And let’s face it, Mikey never did pay much attention in class.

I move to sit next to Mikey and he turns the sketchpad so that I can see. The paper is covered in a mass of random, shaded blocks, all hatchings and smudges and fuzzed lines. There’s something compelling about it; shapes swim in my peripheral vision, but vanish each time I turn to look. I growl in frustration. Mikey surprises me by taking my hand and smiling.

‘Look again.’

I stare hard and the blocks begin to blur together. A pyramid rises slowly from the centre of the page, swelling until I can see the grainy striations in its rocky face. I blink, and it vanishes.

‘I knew you’d be able to see it,’ Mikey says. An echo of his old grin flashes across his face.

‘What is it Mikey? How did you do that?’

‘I’ll show you.’ This time Mikey’s smile is feral.

He stands and pulls me to my feet. We take the stairs two at a time, the front door slamming shut behind us before his mam has time to shout.


Mikey

They’ve fixed the fence, but they can’t keep me out. I’m wanted there. I tighten my grip on Kate’s hand. The Pit is the last place she wants to be. There! A patch of green-gold blazes under a narrow section of the fence. I pull Kate into a jog and she gasps when we stumble into a sudden depression in the ground. The fence stretches impotently across empty air; underneath there’s just enough space to crawl through.

‘Son of a bitch,’ Kate mutters between clenched teeth as she follows me through the gap on her hands and knees.

‘How did you ––?’ she stops and hisses a sigh through her teeth. I glare right back at her. Green-gold energy surges up through my body; it makes me want to shout. Kate shifts uneasily. I step close, and take both her hands in mine.

‘It’s all right. Let me show you.’

The muscles in Kate’s shoulders relax a little and I resist the siren call of the Pit long enough to hug her to me.

Just before Christmas, the discovery of an underground chamber caused a surge of fresh interest in the dig. The local paper devoted its front page to speculation about why the monastery had been razed to the ground, and whether all the monks had been to put to death or just defrocked. Kate insisted on reading it to me. As far as I could make out the monks claimed to have a direct line to God, or maybe it was the devil. Whatever –– lots of people got really pissed off and the usual happened. And then she said it was all a load of rubbish, that the whole thing was just part of Henry VIII’s master plan to get rid of all the monasteries. It was too much –– the hum in the back of my mind cycled up into a shriek. The next time I looked up she was gone.

I could’ve told her that what was down in the Pit had nothing to do with gods or devils or kings. But Kate’s not great at listening, especially when she’s got a point to make.

I force myself to slow down; Kate’s struggling with the ladder, muddy feet slipping on the metal rungs. The call is stronger in the Pit, and I have to fight the urge to jump. I picture the geek-team on the ladder, mud-slicked and sweating in their heavy boots and bulky fluorescent jackets. It helps.

‘Not much further,’ I whisper back to her. She nods and follows me down the second, shorter ladder into the icy black of the unearthed cell. The air tastes damp. Our heads brush against the ceiling; my fingers dislodge tiny avalanches of grit as I grope my way along the wall.

‘It’s here. I can feel it.’

Stumbling forwards, hands outstretched, my feet catch against raised stone. Golden light surges across the faces of a stone pyramid. It stands in the center of the square cell, its summit level with my chest, its base taking up two thirds of the floor space. I push myself up, hands pressed against its rough surface, embarrassed by my undignified sprawl. The light flares, sun-bright, forcing me to squeeze my eyes shut.

‘Mikey!‘ Kate sounds scared.

A deep note vibrates through the stone, like distant boulders grinding together. The palms of my hands buzz with it. The sound resonates in my chest –– its growl translated into the never-ending draw of a cello bow –– tuning every bone in my body to its song. I clench my jaw against the spreading ache in my skull. I can’t move.

Kate’s fingers dig into my arms as the song flows through me, infinitely slow and infinitely dense. I see my mother shaking with silent sobs as she listens to ‘The Protecting Veil’ –– she listens to that one a lot –– not realizing that I’m hunched in a ball outside her bedroom, waiting, hoping that she’ll open the door and let me in. I hear the slam of the front door as my dad walks away for the last time. He left me here. Trapped. Isolated. Alone.

Part of me knows that I need to breathe, and part of me never wants to breathe again.

I cry out as Kate jerks my hands off the pyramid; it feels like part of me has been ripped away. Kate drags me across the threshold of the cell and into black silence. I pull in a huge ragged breath. Kate holds me as I cough and sob; she holds me until I stop shaking.


Kate

Mikey is pushing ahead of me like a dog on the scent of fresh rabbit, the red of his fleece a splatter of colour disappearing amongst the undergrowth. I told him that the local paper had reported a ‘new find’ in the woods skirting the school grounds; his excited grin made me feel sick inside.

I’ve tried to talk to Mikey about what happened at the pyramid, but he won’t listen. I remember his eyes: deep pools of gold that slowly faded back to blue as I dragged him away. And I remember the way he looked at me –– like a stranger. I want Mikey back the way he was before; I want my D’Artagnan.

It hurts, the way he curls in on himself when I touch him. His white-boy skin feels rough and dry, the corners of his mouth are cracked and sore, black circles shadow his eyes. Mikey the zombie. I push that thought away. I’ve managed to convince his mam not to call the doctor, but now I’m not sure. Maybe he does need that kind of help.

Mikey said not to, that he didn’t trust the Prof or anyone from UniSyk, but I had to do something. I found Adam at the B&B and told him everything: the accident, the patterns, the way the pyramid lit up when Mikey touched it. Adam confided that the grounds of the monastery were more extensive than their original estimate, and that his team had located a second pyramid in the woodland just beyond the school perimeter. He asked me to bring Mikey to ‘look at’ the second pyramid, an experiment he said, that would help further their research. And, he promised, help Mikey.

‘There’ll be a team of experts on stand-by, Mikey will be perfectly safe.’ Another promise.

So why do I feel so guilty?

I reach the edge of the clearing in time to see Mikey disappearing down a ladder.

‘Mikey, w–– ‘

Someone grabs me from behind. I stagger forward under the weight, punching back with my balled fist into his groin: again and again and again until the weight is gone and my attacker is curled groaning on the floor. I turn and kick him in the head –– once, twice, three times –– glad of my Docs. My heart is thunder in my chest. I run for the ladder.


Mikey

A handful of bulbs spotlight the pyramid, staining the top half a sickly yellow. Box shapes bulk along one wall, some flashing with tiny points of green. I hesitate just outside the circle of light, and listen.

This one’s different. There’s a sense of resignation in its song. It makes my chest ache. It feels like… like the time I went to visit Aunty Doreen in hospital: I remember her tired smile, and the shadow lurking behind her eyes. I wanted to turn and run, but instead I sat and stared at her clasped hands, all paper-thin skin and bobbly blue veins, while she chatted with mam, their voices low and conspiratorial.

I bow my head, a silent witness to the pyramid’s long song of grief.

‘What are you waiting for?’ The words slap at me. A bulky figure moves out of the shadows behind the pyramid and I stumble back. Strong hands grab my shoulders and push me forwards into the circle of light. I struggle to regain my balance and catch sight of one of the professor’s geeks moving to block the low doorway.

‘Place your hands on the pyramid, there’s a good boy.’ The Prof smiles at my surprise. ‘Don’t worry, Kate told me everything. She’s very concerned about your welfare.’

‘Kate.’ The word squeezes out of my throat. I look for her, panic snapping my head left and right.

‘She’s waiting outside. You can see her as soon as we’ve finished here. Now, do exactly what you did before, and this time we’ll record the results.’

I look back at the door to the cell and try to sense Kate’s presence, but all I can feel is the muted thrum of the pyramid’s lament. Did Kate really tell this man everything? I take a deep breath. There’s one thing I know for sure: Kate wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.

‘Last time I tripped over my feet and fell onto the pyramid.’

‘Yes, yes.’ The Prof waves an impatient hand at me. ‘Physical contact, that’s the key.’

Flecks of silver trace the symbols chiselled into the pyramid’s sides; a gentle but insistent force pushes at my chest. I frown and take a half-step back.

‘It doesn’t want me to touch it.’

‘Look, Mikey.’ The Prof runs the fingers of one hand through the grey stubble of his hair. ‘How can I explain this?’ He softens his tone, speaks slowly. ‘We believe that these pyramids are receptacles, containers, for a very special type of energy. See those markings’ – he points at the rows of symbols covering the pyramid ‘it’s a form of mathematics. Pete here’ – he nods at the man behind me – ‘is our mathematician, he’s been working on deciphering these equations. But we need some hard data. We need to record what happens when you touch it.’

I shake my head slowly, mouth dry, as the dance of silver light brightens across the pyramid.

‘Our scans have shown significant differences in the nature of the energy stored in the two pyramids.’ His tone sharpens. ‘Mikey, this is important. We need to understand the mechanism for capturing and tapping this energy.’

‘Leave them alone! I won’t let you hurt them!’ The underground boom of my voice takes me by surprise. A wave of heat rolls through my body. I lick the tang of salt from the corner of my mouth. The Prof clears his throat; it’s his turn to take a step away.

‘Your eyes ––‘

The sound of shouting makes us both turn. Pete ducks through the door and then reappears with another, much fatter man. Between them something is kicking and swearing.

‘Christ!’ Pete jumps back, shaking a bleeding hand. The fat one grunts, both hands clutching at his stomach. The whirlwind that is Kate lunges at me, hands outstretched.

‘Don’t ––‘ she gasps.

Pete grabs at her, catching her shoulder and knocking her off-balance. Kate twists and falls backwards, even as I catch hold of her hand. The thump of her head against the edge of the pyramid is clear in the snatched-breath silence.

Silver strobes the cell, pinning each one of us in place, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Cold argent blazes from Kate’s eyes, flows across her body and engulfs our clasped hands. Bitter salt burns the back of my throat. All I can see is Kate. Our bodies stretch away into impossible distance; I can feel myself beginning to shred. And then we’re rushing towards each other, streaks of raging light: silver to gold, gold to silver.

A heavy weight slams into me, breaking my hold on Kate. Shadows flood the room.

‘Are you all right?’ It’s the Prof: we’re tangled together on the floor. Kate, Kate, Kate. I want to shout her name but all I can manage is a strangled croak. The Prof pins my arms to my sides as I buck and kick.

‘Calm down, Mikey, calm down.’ He crushes the breath out of me and I sag, on the point of retching.

‘We’ve got to get you both out of here.’

Pete scoops Kate up in his arms: she isn’t fighting anymore. In the dim light from the bulbs I see that her eyes are closed; one of her arms slips and hangs loose as Pete ducks through the doorway.


Kate

The sounds pluck at me, unruly, random notes, with no real rhythm or melody. I try to slip back into the flow of the song, silver-sweet, but it’s faded beyond my reach, its promise a dim memory, something about unity… about being together. Mikey. His face leaps into my mind –– eyes bright, lips curved into that ferocious smile –– and drags me back into the world.

‘… should have listened to Andy. He argued that the translation read “and life flowed into the tri-fold hands of god”, but I insisted that the true meaning was “energy”. It made more sense, the flow and capture of energy within a linked storage system. I’m sorry. The alternative was just too ––‘

‘Star Gate, yeah, I know.’

That’s Mikey’s voice. I open my eyes and groan as a sharp pain throbs through the back of my head. Arms hold me in a tight embrace. I breathe in sour sweat, and tense. This isn’t Mikey.

‘Kate, you OK?’ Mikey’s voice comes from somewhere in front. He sounds worried. I struggle weakly and then cry out as I’m bumped and jostled.

‘Sorry about that.’ Another voice, the Prof’s. ‘This road’s all ruts and pot-holes.’

‘It’s all right Kate,’ Mikey says, ‘we’re taking you to the hospital. You and that guy you dropped in the woods.’

I want to reach out to him but the arms hold me tight.

‘Remember,’ the Prof says, ‘it’s important that you and Kate don’t touch each other, at least until we get her head wound checked out. We just don’t know what were dealing with here. It could be dangerous for you both.’

Trees lumber past the window as the car bounces along the woodland track skirting the school grounds. It’s dark and stuffy in the car; I feel hot and sick and all squashed up. The sudden glare of headlights blind me. I squint, fighting back a roll of nausea as the car jerks to a stop.


Mikey

The headmaster is staring at me, lips pressed into a hard line. I stand at attention, eyes fixed on the school logo –– the black outline of the old School House –– on his tie and wait. Kate is propped up in a high-backed leather chair, one of two in the headmaster’s study, a distant look on her face. The Prof and his geeks were bundled away by a posse of teachers, the words ‘police’ and ‘assault’ surfacing amidst raised voices.

‘You should have come to me with this,’ the headmaster says.

‘Yes, sir.’ My gaze drops to his brogues and I can’t help tracing the neat criss-cross pattern of the laces. The thick burgundy carpet around the headmaster’s feet begins to ripple with crimson light; it snakes up his legs, around his chest.

‘We’ve been waiting for someone like you for a very long time,’ he says.

I’m caught by his eyes: steel grey flecked with crimson. I’m hot. Too hot. And then he smiles. I can feel my body rocking to the pounding beat of my heart.

‘You hear the song. I know you do,’ he says.

‘Yes.’ It comes out as a hoarse whisper.

I feel the bass note vibrate in the pit of my belly, and then wind its way up my spine. I try to fight it, breath hissing between clenched teeth. The headmaster offers Kate his hand.

‘No. Not Kate. She’s not ––‘

Something cracks inside me –– green-gold energy surges through, washing away my words. He brings Kate to stand beside me. The bass note strengthens, humming through my skull.

‘You are bound together by love and life. Without Kate there would be no renewal.’ He speaks as if every muscle in his body is clenched against an impossible pain. ‘Look at her.’

Silver ebbs and flows across her skin, a tide matched in my own body. I raise my hands and stare at the runnels of gold flowing beneath my skin. A deeper thrumming strikes up through my feet. The tri-fold hands of god. I can feel it, the third pyramid, directly beneath us. An image forms in my mind: the basement aglow with reflected ruby light, the headmaster kneeling before the pyramid, eyes closed, hands pressed against the fiery symbols.

I shake my head and hide my hands behind my back. The headmaster scowls.

‘We were trapped by their grey song, imprisoned by stone words, forced to their bidding.’ He bares his teeth and leans close. ‘They denied us unity!’ I lick his spittle from my lips. Watch him take a deep breath. Grimace against the manic pounding of my heart.

‘We were ripe. On the cusp of merging. That’s when they caged us.’ The crimson pulse of his skin dims. ‘So long alone.’

Kate presses close and something urgent wakes inside me. She reaches to take hold of my hands, and I let her. The floor shudders under our feet. There’s a dull crack as the painting of the original School House thumps to the floor. The headmaster’s smile stretches tight; he wraps our hands in his.

I’m the bass note of gold – the solid core. Crimson and silver circle close, modulating their song, binding me to their harmony. I can taste them: salt-sweet. A sour note threads through the melody, and I remember Kate. She’s fading. I pour my strength into her: gold to silver. Storm-force waves of crimson tear through my shape; a silver whirlpool forces dissolution and recombination: silgol-sonver-crimd. I feel motes of gold, silver and crimson bleed from our new shape, escaping into the spaces between. And I smile. A new cycle has begun.


Kate

Mikey is sitting in the chair facing his bedroom window. If he leans forward he can look down into the street at the thick blanket of snow being slowly tramped into mush by determined shoppers. But he won’t, he won’t do anything unless someone prompts him. I perch on the edge of his desk and study his face: blue eyes pale and unfocussed, a faint smile ghosting his lips. I search for some sign that he recognises me, that he knows I’m here.

Three weeks and still no change.

The doctors’ diagnosis: traumatic shock brought on by the explosion and the death of the headmaster –– fire-fighters had to pull us from the wreckage of the old School House –– complicated by the existing trauma of his recent accident. Mikey needs familiar surroundings, familiar faces, and the support of people who love him, they said. So here I am. And so is his dad, ditching his new life in Scotland for the sake of his son. As if Mikey hadn’t always needed him.

I’m not sure what happened. I woke up in Casualty and confirmed the Prof’s story about trying to get me to the hospital, but after that everything is blurred. The old School House, the Pit and the dig site in the woods were all destroyed in what officialdom described as a ‘gas mains incident’. Only one memory is bright: the way Mikey held me tight, a golden pillar of warmth that surrounded me, and supported me, and wouldn’t let the darkness take me.

The boys are outside, waiting, just like I told them. They’d been hanging around at the end of the street for the best part of an hour. I spotted them through the bedroom window, kicking about in the snow, creating a big circle of muddy slush around their indecision. I let them stew.

Now they’re waiting on the landing, outside the bedroom door. I can hear the low rumble of their conversation. I catch an odd word or two and glare at the door. Rugby! It took awhile to breathe away the tears. Rugby––that’s what Mikey should be talking about. All three boys should be squashed onto his mam’s sofa, attention fixed on the TV, jumping up and shouting at the ref––while I sit at his feet, watching the rugby, but mostly watching him.

Time to let them in. I trail my fingers across the back of Mikey’s hand––he doesn’t notice––and then open the door. Blake and Hari file in, silent now, looking everywhere except at Mikey. And then when they do look, they can’t look away.

I take Mikey’s hand and press it against my still flat belly. By the time I knew, he’d stopped listening. Now, Mikey is wandering the spaces between, but he’ll come back to me when the time is right. He’ll come back because that’s what fathers do.

Episode 83: The Dictionary’s Apprentice

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


The Dictionary’s Apprentice

by Sandra M. Odell

The narrow streets of Gretchentown echoed with barking dogs and late evening front stoop conversations as Johnny-J made his way to the rally grounds. He circled twice to be certain no one saw him before hurrying to the burn piles. The air was bitter with sulfur and char. He breathed in through his mouth.

So little remained of the day. He hadn’t been allowed to stand with the adults in the front row at the purity rally, but had seen enough of the burn selection as it was brought in to regret looking. Johnny-J salvaged what he could of the Lessonkeepers’ fervor: a woman’s startled profile; a sooty hand clutching a rifle; a bouquet of once pink roses. Tucking the pieces inside his shirt, Johnny-J hurried back the way he came, avoiding the stern bulk of the Elder Hall on his way to the tarpaper-roofed shack beyond the west cistern. Breath came easier away from the killing grounds.

The shack hunched still in the night, its single window dark, the rope door handle pulled in for the night. Johnny-J knocked softly on the plank door, looking back the way he came, certain that he’d been followed, if not this time then the next. He knocked again. “Friedrick?”

Shuffled steps sounded within. “Go away.” Gruff words, filled with suspicion. “It’s almost curfew.”

“Open up, Friedrick. It’s me.” Johnny-J shifted nervously from foot to foot. “T’was brillig, and the slithy toves.”

The door opened wide enough to reveal a head crowned with tufts of pale hair. Shadows tangled in the wrinkles around the nose and mouth. “Get inside, boy,” Friedrick Mullhouse said as he peered into the night. “Quickly now.”

“I can’t. I have to get back before curfew or Papae will beat me good. Here.” Johnny-J pulled the singed remnants of covers and pages from under his shirt and pushed them at the old man. “I gotta go.”

Friedrick dared a look at the treasure in his hands. “Good boy. Get off home, then.”

A bucket of water pulled from the cistern to wash his face and hands, and Johnny-J was home abed as the tolling of the curfew bell declared the official start of night, Papae none the wiser. He curled on his side as he scoured the memory of brittle paper from his hands with the hem of his nightshirt, hoping sleep would scrub away the memory of the burn piles.


“Eighty-three books. Can you believe that?” Mamae tsked her disapproval as she brought a bowl of steaming porridge to the table. “Carol June said the Elders are calling for Henry Kitcham to pay a twenty dollar fine, maybe even recant in public.” She settled herself on the bench beside her husband, tucking her skirt and apron under her legs.

“Mmm.” Papae did not lift his shaved head from his plate, shoveling spoonfuls of sausage hash into his mouth. He swallowed, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his field shirt, and spooned the cereal into his bowl, crumbling a thick slice of bacon on top.

“Serves him right.” Mamae served up her own porridge and hash. “Henry always did have too much sense, an’ none of it good. A man like that is nothin’ but trouble. Dangerous.”

Across the table, Johnny-J gobbled hash until his cheeks bulged. “Muh ah buh. . .” He managed a few sips of water to ease the swallow. “May I be excused?”

“People should know better, is what I say. Sure you don’t want a biscuit, John Junior?”

Johnny-J finished his water and licked the back of his spoon. “I’m full.”

“All right, then,” Mamae said. “You’re excused. Put your things in the bucket.”

Johnny-J scraped his plate and dropped his eatingware in the soap bucket when Papae looked up from his plate. “You come straight back from the lessonhouse, you hear me?”

Johnny-J hooked his thumbs around his suspenders. “Yessir.”

“Get on, then.” Papae went back to eating.

“Don’t forget your lunch biscuit, John Junior,” Mamae added.

“Yes’m.” Johnny-J paused long enough to stuff the paper wrapped biscuit into his pants pocket and not a moment more, eager to be finished with his lessons so he could spend time with Friedrick.


“Can you save them?” Johnny-J absently rocked back and forth on the uneven stool. Tock-thump, tock-thump, tock-thump.

Outside, sensible folk chopped wood, took in the wash, stacked and set bricks. The distant rumble of the mill curled beneath the muted insistence of dogs herding sheep, and geese challenging passers-by. Inside, Friedrick carefully wedged a sliver of wood between fused pages. “Sadly, no,” he said, and sighed. “The Lessonkeepers are not so thorough as they might think, but certainly more than thorough enough for my tastes.”

The back room of Friedrick’s shack kept to itself, a dictionary’s haven with no windows to invite prying eyes, a single door closing it away from the homey clutter of the front room. Here, everything had its place: neatly folded blankets at the foot of the cot; the comb and razor by the basin on the washstand; the worktable an antique with collapsible legs rescued from a scrap pile years ago and touched up with gray paint. Johnny-J liked the backroom though it frightened him some days, not the room itself he supposed, but what might happen if the sensible folk of Gretchentown caught them in the act of salvage.

He propped his elbows on the table and leaned in for a closer look at the orphan pages. “What were they about?”

“Are, boy, are. The words still exist, so the stories live on even if we’ve no idea what they are. Never forget that.”

“Sorry.”

The old man picked up the cover remnant with a woman in a kerchief looking nervously over her shoulder, and a smudged $1.95 US/$2 in the bottom left corner. “This one appears to be a romance.”

Johnny-J squinted at the picture in the dim light. “She looks frightened.”

Friedrick carefully sorted through the pages. “I read something about an uncle and an inheritance, but I can’t recall what page. Bother. Anyway, this one may be a book of poetry.” He motioned to the singed bouquet. “You remember what poetry is, right?”

Johnny-J nodded. “Rhyming verse, like songs you don’t sing.”

Friedrick smiled. “Very good, but remember not every poem rhymes. And this one is a story of a war in the stars.”

Johnny-J touched the third ruined cover, smearing the soot over the rifle. “It sorta looks like one of the Lessonkeepers’ guns.”

“I suppose, although this one was never used to shoot a dissenter.”

“What’s a dis-center?”

“Someone with the gall to think for themselves. Here now, Johnny-J, help me catalogue the pages so we can put ’em in the stock.”

Together they arranged the remnants, stopping now and again to read a stray passage and wonder what came next. Johnny-J used the stub of an art stick sharpened to a point with his pocketknife to record the first and last line of every page in a hand-stitched butcher paper book.

Friedrick carefully tied each remnant bundle with a strand of twine. “Check out front to make certain the coast is clear,” he said as Johnny-J slipped his finger from the final knot.

Johnny-J went to the front room, and peered out the window for a full sixty count before signaling all clear. Together they stepped outside and headed to the root cellar at the back of the shack. Johnny-J slid the weathered peg out of the brace, shouldered open the door. Friedrick stepped down first, passing the fragile bundles up to better manage the five narrow rungs of the ladder and taking them back at the bottom. Johnny-J followed.

The earthy cool of the cellar traced pinprick kisses over his cheeks. Arranged in low bins against the walls, potatoes, turnips, and cabbages promised plenty for the coming winter.

Friedrick set the books on the corner of the cabbage bin. “Help me with this.”

Johnny-J propped the cellar door open with the peg before scooting to the old man’s side. With a grunt and a bit of muscle, they pushed the bin out of the way to reveal a rabbit hole shored up with discolored planks. Friedrick wriggled through feet first; moments later light shone from below. Johnny-J looked down at Friedrick looking up at him. The yellow light of a crank lantern made a halo of the dictionary’s white hair. “Come along, we don’t have all afternoon.”

Only after securing the cellar door from within did Johnny-J follow Friedrick down the rabbit hole. Wattle and daub fortified the walls of the room at the bottom, as long as the shack was wide, and as wide as three men lying head to toe. Wooden shelves crafted with love rather than skill overflowed with contraband: thick or thin; paper, cardboard, or scuffed leather covers; fact or fiction. A sanctuary of the printed word.

Johnny-J stepped carefully as he threaded his way through the room arranged without an inch of wasted space. What couldn’t be fit on end on a shelf was stuffed into the spare inches between book top and the shelf above. Other selections were sorted into stacks precisely spaced to allow a careful body to walk between them. Two wooden crates at the far end of the room served as the final resting place of tomes that had suffered at the hands of the Lessonkeepers and other like-minded, sensible folk.

Johnny-J could look at the books and not help wondering about the people who braved history to write them. Did George Orwell like braised cabbage? Were Harlan Ellison and J. T. Ellison family? Did George Eliot’s wife read his stories? Did Elma Patrick have a book in Queen Alexandria’s library? Did any of them know how to milk a cow?

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, savoring the smell of paper, age, and earth, imagining his name embossed in gold on the leather spine of a book, his book. He opened his eyes to lantern light and the forbidden. Friedrick often said it was easy to dream, but the sleeper must awaken to make it real.

They laid the bundles to rest, cushioned by woodchips and curls of red cedar. Friedrick sealed the crate and settled himself on the lid. “Three more saved from the fires of Hell, kinda like the old time revivals only we don’t dare praise the glory.”

Johnny-J pulled his favorite book from the press of the shelfe, opened it to the first page of the story. “My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire;” – He gave every syllable his full attention as his finger traced his progress. – “I was the Third of five Sons.”

“Aren’t they delicious, boy?” Friedrick said. “Jonathan Swift was a genius back in the day when the word was not criminal.”

Johnny-J flipped slowly through the pages, taking care not to tear or crease the yellowed paper. “I don’t understand all of it, but I like it.”

“You will in time, boy. Why, you couldn’t even read when you first started coming ’round, remember?”

Johnny-J ducked his head. “Yeah. I couldn’t write neither. I was kind of stupid, huh?”

“Tch. You’d never had the opportunity, boy. Stupidity is thinking you shouldn’t read or write in the first place.”

“I like writing. It feels someways good to see the words I want to say.” Johnny-J wedged the book back into place and continued to peruse the shelves, brushing his fingers against the spines, saying hello to his secret friends. “I wish I could’ve saved more of Henry Kitcham’s books. I bet he had some you didn’t even have, huh?”

“Probably, but I doubt he took the time to read them.”

Johnny-J tried to imagine the dour grocer following Gulliver’s adventures or learning how to groom cocker spaniels, and couldn’t. “I would’ve read them if they were mine. Maybe even written a couple, too.”

Friedrick chewed on the ends of his mustache. “Henry doesn’t have a dictionary’s love of books. He doesn’t care about preserving books so others might read ’em someday. To him, they’re trophies, something to covet because the Lessonkeepers say they’re forbidden. He once offered me two hams, a case of sardines, and ten pounds of flour for twenty magazines or five books.”

Johnny-J’s gut clenched at the thought of Jonathan Swift put to the torch. “And you said no, right?”

“Of course I did.” Friedrick spread his arms wide. “These are my fosterlings, my children. How could I part with even one of them?”

“The written word is a beautiful thing,” the old man continued, leaning into the subject, “and powerful, very powerful. Two men can read the same passage and interpret it as they like, but the words are the same. The Lessonkeepers, well, they don’t like that. Words aren’t for imagining, or debating. Words are for saying over and over so you keep the right lessons in mind.”

Johnny-J took his time with the familiar challenge, trying to catch Friedrick by surprise. “But you don’t always gotta agree with what’s said. You can call a person out.”

“Answer me this.” Friedrick gave a tight-lipped smile. “When’s the last time you heard someone call out a Lessonkeeper, hmmm?”

Johnny-J dropped his gaze. “Oh.”

“The Lessonkeepers have told folks right from wrong for so long, folks think it’s the only way of being. It’s been that way for a sad, long time. My grampae told me secret stories of what it was like in his grampae’s day, when safe didn’t mean one way of thinking. You and me, we’re not like everyone else, Johnny-J, because we aren’t afraid to make our own choices. I’m proud of it. Proud of you, boy.”

Friedrick tapped the side of his nose with a knobby finger. “That’s why we need the written word. You don’t agree with what was said, that’s your business. If you think what he’s said should be heard by others, whether you agree or not, you put the fellow’s words in writing and give them to someone else. They can choose their own mind about what was said and what they think was meant even if they weren’t there to hear the words spoke.”

Johnny-J scrunched up his face as he chased a question. “What’s to keep you from writing something that isn’t true?”

“Writing something not true is fiction. People never wrote anything untrue about life because they’d be called out for a fool if they were found out.”

Friedrick scooted to the edge of the crate and stood, rubbing his knees as he did. “That’s the magic of the written word, not that the words themselves are bad, but what they represent to folks. Remember that, boy.”

Johnny-J nodded. “Yessir.”

Together they secured the hide-away, moved up to the root cellar, and after a cautious look about, returned to the world where book was a four-letter word. Johnny-J never understood why Friedrick said it, but he smiled all the same.

“You told your mae you were out picking ‘shrooms for the afternoon?”

“Yessir.”

“I think I have some pine ‘shrooms and hedgehogs for your basket so you don’t go back empty handed. C’mon inside.”

Johnny-J stood by the front door, full basket in hand, waiting for Friedrick to give the clear, when he caught another question by the tail. “Why would I write down what someone says when most folks don’t know how to read anymore?”

By the window, Friedrick dropped his head with the hem of the curtain. Johnny-J was about to repeat the question when the old man turned to him with a smile and eyes teary bright. “So someday your apprentice won’t have reason to ask the same thing. Get along now before your mae starts to worry, Johnny-J.”


“The foreman’s cat is a clumsy cat.”

“The foreman’s cat is a terrible cat.”

“The foreman’s cat is a schrödinger cat.”

Patsy Henridge stopped mid-step on the log, teetered, and caught herself before falling into the stream. “What’s shrow-dinger?”

Johnny-J squatted to pick up a rock in an attempt to hide the color coming to his cheeks. “I dunno. A word.”

“Well, what kind of word?” Patsy skipped the last two steps across the log and joined him by the creek’s edge.

Johnny-J didn’t pay attention to her brown curls, her blue dress, her eyes the prettiest green he had ever seen. He threw the rock under the log, wishing he could turn back the conversation as easily as turned a page. “I think it means bird eating.”

“Oh.” Patsy daintily chose her own rock. “I’ve never heard Papae use it.”

He certainly didn’t want to talk about Patsy’s father. Gerald Henridge was known far and wide for keeping his lessons well. He lightly slapped her shoulder – “Tag! You’re it.” – and sprinted up the hill.

“What? Hey!”

Johnny-J ran from Patsy and the conversation, perhaps the conversation the most because he liked having Patsy around. If he were 13-years-old he would ask for permission to court her, but today he was 12 and wanted nothing more than to lead Patsy on a merry chase, hoping she forgot all about cats, schrödingers, and anything else that may have slipped his tongue. Chase and tag and laugh past the east cistern and around the washhouse with its steamy ash and lye breath.

And it came to an end as they rounded the back of the mill to find a work crew clearing ash from the rally grounds.

Four men shoveled sooty remnants into wheelbarrows, their sleeves rolled up in hearty disregard of the afternoon chill. Nearby, a young Lessonkeeper watched and talked and laughed with them.

Johnny-J slowed and stopped at the crusty black edge of the rally grounds. “They’re cleaning up.” Thick, sour feelings snuck up the back of his throat. He swallowed as best he could.

Patsy moved to his side. “Yeah. Hey, Roger,” she called out, waving to the men. “Are we fixing to have a town gather or another purity rally?”

The Lessonkeeper looked her way with a wave and a smile of his own, his face young and bright above the severe cut of his dark coat. “Can’t say for certain. All I know is your pae said to clear things out.”

“Neaties.” Patsy did a little dance, twirling in one spot until her dress blossomed around her stem-thin legs. “Maybe Earl’ll put up his peanut stand again.”

“I guess,” Johnny-J said.

“Let’s help push the wheelbarrows.”

Johnny-J scuffed at the charnel earth. “Nah. I need to be getting home. I, um, I don’t feel so good.”

Patsy stopped dancing and set her hands on her hips. “Hmm. You do look kind of peaked. C’mon, I’ll go with you.”

Unable to hurry without looking like he hurried, Johnny-J kept his head down and his hands in his pockets as he followed Patsy home. Thoughts he’d rather not think kept pace.

Day and night nodded in passing by the time Johnny-J spied his parents chatting on the front step with a tall drink of water in a Lessonkeeper long coat.

“Papae!” Patsy rushed ahead, and was swept up in the big man’s embrace. “I saw the rally grounds. Are we having another rally? Can I get a bag of peanuts to myself?”

Lessonkeeper Henridge kissed his daughter’s forehead. “Rallies aren’t all about peanuts, Patsy Mae.”

Patsy squirmed until he set her on the ground. “Well, yeah.” She rifled through his pockets. “Where’s my treat?”

Johnny-J sidled up to his mother.

“You wash out all your color in the crick, Johnny-J?” she said with a quick hug and a kiss.

“He’s not feelin’ good,” Patsy said. “I learned a new word today, Papae. Shrow-dinger.”

Johnny-J’s stomach dropped into his boots. He smelled wood smoke and heard the eager crackle of flames.

“Really?” her father said. “What’s a shrow-dinger?”

“It means bird eating. Johnny-J said so.”

“Did he now.” Lessonkeeper Henridge looked to Johnny-J with a sensible smile. “Where’d you come by that, Johnny-J?”

“Heard it somewhere I guess, sir,” Johnny-J said, hoping his voice didn’t shake too much. “I can’t really remember where.”

“Shrow-dinger, huh?” Papae spit a stream of tobacco juice over the side of the step. “I’ve never heard it before.”

“Neither have I.” The Lessonkeeper looked down his long nose at Johnny-J in the crook of his mother’s arm. “That’s some vocabulary you have there, son.”

Johnny-J mumbled something near to a thank-you, and did not raise his eyes.


Certain Lessonkeeper Henridge waited just outside his window with a torch and a switch, Johnny-J kept home the next two nights. He wasn’t chicken, but afraid all the same.

He spent the next two days working shoulder to shoulder with the folk of Gretchentown to bale the last of the season’s bedding hay before the rains rolled in from the Olympia Mountains in earnest. Johnny-J worried his hands to blisters at the rake, and endured his mother’s gentle pestering as she drained the fluid and bound them with bandages each night. Lessonkeeper Henridge did not join them. The rally grounds were very clean.

Afraid the rains wouldn’t come soon enough to extinguish his fears, Johnny-J snuck out well after curfew on the third night, avoiding the post lights where he could, moving quickly where he couldn’t. He dreaded the empty expanse between the west cistern and the shack, but made it across without incident. He pounded on the plank door. “Friedrick? Slithy toves, Friedrick. Please.”

Only the faintest light dared the gaping slats in the shutters. There came a muffled bump and crash and then quick steps inside. The door opened, and a bony hand took Johnny-J by the shoulder and pulled him inside.

An oil lamp on a table by a pile of torn blankets cast the room in a sickly light. The bite of kerosene and cedar shavings made Johnny-J’s nose run.

Friedrick smiled, thin-lipped and hurried. “I was hoping to see you again. You have your coat. Good. We don’t have much time.”

He led Johnny-J into the backroom. The worktable lay in a jumble of pieces at the foot of the cot. A scattering of paper and twin extended from the cloth pile in the front room to the wood scrap in back. Set on top of a the feathered remains of a pillow, books spilled out of a black oilcloth satchel in the center of the cot.

Johnny-J’s palms began to sweat. “What happened in here?”

“Never you mind.” Friedrick hurried to the cot where he continued to pack the satchel. “Now, you listen and you listen good, Johnny-J. This has most everything you’ll need –”

“Need for what? I think Lessonkeeper Henridge knows, Friedrick. I accidentally told Patsy about the schrödinger cat, and I’m sorry, and –”

“That as may be, boy, but I’m thinking it wasn’t entirely your fault. I wager it was Henry Kitcham that set them on my trail to keep from being fined. Henry never could bear to part with a dollar.” Friedrick crammed the last book inside and flipped the top closed. “Lessonkeeper Henridge came by earlier this evening, but he won’t be put off for long. I expect they’ll be coming to call any time now. Help me with the ties.”

Johnny-J managed the ties with shaking hands while Friedrick held the satchel closed. “He did? What are we gonna do?”

“We aren’t going to do a thing. You are going to do as I say.” Friedrick hoisted the satchel over Johnny-J’s neck and settled the weight on the young man’s shoulders. “I want you to run as far as you can. East and then south, you hear me?”

“But –”

“No buts. You keep running and don’t look back. Your mae and pae will be fine once you’re away, I wager. I packed jerky and cheese and some tack. It will have to do you.” He pushed Johnny-J out of the backroom as he spoke, keeping the door open behind them. “You’re a smart boy. You’ll get by. Here, take my hat.”

The unknown loomed dark and terrible, but the certainty settled cold in Johnny-J’s bones. “But the books –”

Friedrick stopped by the oil lamp. “I packed the ones in real need of saving, Johnny-J. The rest, well, I’ve done what I can.” He coughed and wiped his eyes. “You’ll find tinkertowns on past the Columbus River. Mind your P’s and Q’s and they should take you in if it turns too cold. After that, there should be a man far south in the town of Redville, William Plummery. You find him, tell him I sent you, and he’ll put you up. He’s a good sort, a dictionary with an honest love of books. If he’s not there, you turn east and head for the old Colorado. You should be able to find –”

A knock sounded at the door and a pleasant, sensible voice. “Friedrick Mullhouse.”

Johnny-J jumped at the sound.

“Now, boy, we’ll have none of that.” Friedrick closed his eyes and took Johnny-J by the hand. He murmured something under his breath, tremulously, tenderly, the final words: “. . .mortis nostrae. Amen.”

Johnny-J opened his mouth to ask what the words meant, and found he had no voice.

Friedrick opened his eyes and looked at him. “I’m proud of you, boy,” the dictionary said. He walked to the door and opened it to the night. “Come in, Lessonkeeper.”

Lessonkeeper Henridge removed his hat and stooped to cross the threshold. “Evening, Friedrick. Johnny-J.” Two Lessonkeepers with guns and crank lanterns stood outside the door.

Johnny-J swallowed twice before he managed: “Sir.”

“What brings you to call this late, Gerald?”

“Nothing in particular, Friedrick. I thought I’d stay on a bit and maybe you could show me around.”

Johnny-J wondered at the exchange. Friedrick sounded almost happy, Lessonkeeper Henridge genial and calm.

Friedrick chuckled as he moved back to the oil lamp. “Now, Gerald, you know I can’t do that.”

The Lessonkeeper sighed. “Sure you can, Friedrick. Think of it as being neighborly.”

“I wish I could, Gerald, but there hasn’t been a neighborly bone in your body since they fit your first jacket.”

Lessonkeeper Henridge frowned and ran a hand through his thin brown hair. “You know it’s what’s best for everyone. We can’t have books and the like cluttering up people’s thoughts like they did before the crumble.”

Friedrick straightened and put his chin up. “I’m sure Mister Swift would not ken to your version of neighborly.”

Johnny-J gripped the satchel strap, his heart pounding in his chest. The Lessonkeepers outside spoke softly to one another, shaking their heads.

“It’s thoughts like those that tore us down, and owning up to it which lifts us up again.” Lessonkeeper Henridge nodded towards Johnny-J. “Be reasonable, Friedrick, for the boy’s sake if nothing else. Let’s set a good example.”

At that Friedrick laughed full and low in his belly, laughed and shook his head and looked Johnny-J in the eye. “Of course. For the boy.” He grabbed the oil lamp and threw it against the wall. “Run!” The word exploded with the glass.

Too fast, the oil scorched a blue trail down the wall to the pile of scrap remnants; the soaked cloth drank up the flame and spit it out again hot and hungry, and Johnny-J ran. Lessonkeeper Henridge called for him to stop. The Lessonkeepers outside the door reached for him. He ducked under their arms and dashed around the house.

The night air burned with every breath, burned like the fire in the tiny shack with the tarpaper roof. Johnny-J heard the crack of a shot fired in the night and a voice ordering men to hold their fire. He ran faster than the footsteps chasing him in the dark, never once looking back no matter how bright the night became.


The rains came in the early morning hours. Johnny-J huddled beneath his sodden sanctuary of leaves and cedar boughs for as long as he could before crawling out to do his business.

Bird calls and the scratch and scavenge of small animals in the brush accented the forest quiet. A strip of jerky and half a piece of tack made for a lean breakfast. Johnny-J sat with his back to a tree and tried not to think about the night before as he worked crumbs of tack against the roof of his mouth to soften them up. He licked water from the cedar to wet his mouth.

When he couldn’t not think about it any longer, he brought the satchel around and opened it. He had his butcher paper book, four small art sticks, and a paper-wrapped packet of food. He said hello to Jonathan Swift, Herman Melville, Dr. Seuss, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Plato, Robert Heinlein, Danielle Steel and others from the rabbit hole library. Ray Bradbury waited for him at the bottom, the first one Friedrick had packed away. Johnny-J put that one back without opening it.

His life now fit into a single satchel. He thought about Mae and Pae, and Patsy. He thought about Friedrick, and fire. Instead of crying, he sharpened one of the art sticks with his pocketknife and found a clean page in his book.

He searched the sky through the drooping branches overhead before daring to make a mark on the page. Finally, in a blocky, precise script he wrote Call me

Johnny-J considered the third word, wrote it in, scratched it out. After a moment’s thought, the young dictionary tore out the page and stuffed it in his coat pocket before starting once again on a clean sheet.

Call me Johnny-J.

Episode 82: Mr. Scampers War by J. S. Bell


Mr. Scampers’ War

by J. S. Bell

An explosion of leaves, a swirl of dust and the fierce jungle cat leaps from the verdant forest and is on the gazelle in one bound. Claws rend and jaws clamp shut. The gazelle dies with a bleat of terror.

“Aw, Scampers, you’re such a cute kitty!” A baby-talking voice rattles the jungle cat, causing him to freeze. “Killing your toy mousy like that. Izzat a fun game?”

The small Lap Servant’s speech impediment continues, thinks the mighty predator. Perhaps it’s a sign of a significant mental defect. Doesn’t she know, this is no game. Life is balanced on a razor’s edge between the ready and the dead.

Mr. Scampers cleans a paw, slightly mussed by the trek through the jungle under the sofa, and considers how best to respond to the Lap Servant. He chooses his default action:  Ignore the human.

Scampers leaves Mousy, drifts into the kitchen and bounds onto the Forbidden Zone, prowling for a tasty morsel, perhaps a bit of bacon, or a small chunk of cheese left unguarded by the Food People. Hmmm. Smells like tuna.

“Mr. Scampers,” Food Woman snaps. She is mixing something in a bowl near the sink. “What are you doing up here?”

He looks at her. Is this a trick question?

“Melissa,” Food Woman shouts. “Come get your cat off the counter!”

Before he can follow up on the tantalizing odor, the small Lap Servant plucks him up and carries him back into the den.

“Naughty, Mr. Scampers,” Melissa scolds. She is ten years old and has tried to dress him in doll clothes before. Scampers is wary of her attention. “You know you’re not supposed to be up there.”

“Why?  Is it a dog burial ground?”

“It’s no good you meowing at me.” Lap Servant sits down with him in the Good Chair and starts rubbing under his chin. “Howl all you want, but you’re not to be on the counter. Mommy says you’ll Leave Germs.”

“Group hug!” barks a deep, bass voice.

A boisterous, moronic, splay-footed nightmare of a Black Lab, known as Big Jake by the Food People, rampages into the den and leaps for the chair. The obvious stupidity of a forty pound dog jumping into a chair already occupied by a Lap Servant and a dangerous jungle cat just never seems to occur to the fool.

“Jake!” the Lap Servant squeals and pushes the dog off, tumbling Scampers to the floor at the same time.

“Idiot!” Scampers howls. “I’m going to rip your lungs out through your wet, drippy nostrils. You are a brain-dead refugee from the swampy end of the gene pool!”

“Aw, man,” Jake woofs. “Don’t be such a hater.”

Scampers stalks from the room, heading for his Special Place on the upstairs bedroom windowsill, shooting Jake ‘the tail’ as he goes.

“Hey, are we On Duty again tonight?” the Idiot asks. “That’s a really boring game, you know, not doin’ nothin’ all night. Just watching.”

Stupid dog. Life or death on the line, and he calls it a game. He needs to go chase a car. And catch it!


Nighttime.

The Food People have fulfilled their purpose and have curled up together in the Big Bed. The Lap Servant also sleeps, in the Small Bed, her breathing scratchy with a trace of congestion. Other tiny sounds, detectable to only the keenest hearing, whisper through the Domain, which is never completely silent to the survival-bred instincts of the fierce jungle cat. The beautiful green eyes of the sleek feline scan the territory, ever vigilant, ever watchful.

Mr. Scampers owns the night.

“Dude! Dude!” The shocking bark blasts Mr. Scampers straight up into the air. He springs up as if shot from a bow and lands, feet splayed, poised for battle, ears back, fur up, ready to kill or be killed….

Enemy?  Enemy? Where?  Mr. Scampers sees a black dog face pasted in the window. Oh, it’s the Idiot.

“C’mere, you gotta see this!” The Idiot bounds around the patio, a rubber bouncy ball covered in fur.

“How can I see anything, Idiot,” Scampers points out. “There’s dog slobber all over the window.”

“The window?” The dog cocks his head, looking puzzled, then brightens. “Oh, you mean the Force Field. But, hey, lookit-lookit-lookit!”

Jake faces the darkness of the yard and hunkers down, butt up, floppy tail wagging in the air. “I think it wants to play!  Do you think it wants to play? Do you think it knows Stick, or Ball or Pee on the Fence?”

“Pee on the Fence isn’t a game, moron.”

“Maybe not to you,” Jake glances over his shoulder, then returns to staring out at the blackness of the yard. Something moves beyond and around the pools of light, trickling through the trees, jittering with a motion unlike any prey Scampers has ever seen. The shape flits from shadow to shadow, somehow avoiding the puddles of light, or countering them with a liquid black intensity so dark the moonbeams bend around it. As if individual photons fear the creature and move to avoid contact, slinking away as Scampers does when he is not in the mood for stroking.

A deep, atavistic fear brings Mr. Scampers to his feet and a low growl starts in the pit of his stomach, powers up through his chest and erupts in a howl of pure rage. The shape freezes. Scampers senses the creature’s gaze fix upon him with eyes that, though unseen, contain all the loathing and hatred of an enmity born in Hell’s darkest cavern. The feeling of a thousand fleas tracks across Scampers skin when the full weight of the shadow’s attention fixates upon him.

“Wake the Food People, Idiot,” Scampers hisses. “Use the danger signal.”

“Danger signal?  What’s a danger signal?”

“Like when you see a squirrel, you bonehead!”

When the Food People said that the Idiot came from a litter, they must have meant ‘litter box’.

Scampers bows up sideways, his short, tabby coat puffed out in an impressive display of feline martial skill, more than a match for any skulking creature of the night. Get any closer, Spawn of Hell, and I will open a fuzzy can of whup ass and pour it all over you.

“What’s wrong?” Jake looks confused.

“That thing, if it’s what I think it is…” Scampers howls another challenge in a low moan that scales up in volume to ear-splitting intensity.

“That thing is pure Evil,” Scampers spits.

“Evil?” Jake is now concerned, looking back and forth between Scampers and the creature in the yard. “Is that something you eat or play with?  I know! I could pee on it!”

“No! Don’t go near it, Jake.”

“But what is it?” Jake asks.

Scampers stares at the darkness, a spot of black so deep it defeats even his highly evolved eyesight. Fading, like the blurry images imprinted on his eyes after the Food People take a Cute Picture, the spot of blackness where the creature stood only seconds before starts to blend in with the surroundings. In moments, the deeper blackness is gone, as if it never was. The back yard seems to take a breath, and the sounds of normal life fill in the silence. Insect Prey chirps, Rodent Prey skitters through the leaves and Non Prey noises trickle back into his consciousness.

No matter how normal the night sounds now, Scampers knows that his life will not be normal again anytime soon. A war whose beginnings are lost to history, a war waged for so long that the enmity was part of feline DNA, a war fought to the death, has come to his Domain.

The Ancient Enemy is here, threatening Scampers territory and those under his protection.

“Go get a bowl of crunchies, Jake.” Scampers tells the cowering pup. “Sit. Stay.  And get ready. You’re about to see one hell of a fight.”


Humans have many names for the Ancient Enemy, or so his mother related to Mr. Scampers and his siblings. Gremlins, hobgoblins, fairies, the Little People. Even demons. Many words to describe essentially the same being. Some of these creatures are relatively benign, doing no more than prankish mischief, like moving a human’s keys, or stealing a single sock from the laundry. These jokesters are easily appeased with offerings of food or drink, and run from battle, refusing to engage in combat with the noble cat protector of the house. They are more an annoyance than a threat.

Others, however, were made from more sinister cloth.

The Ancient Enemy prefers the sweet tang of a sleeping child’s dying breath to that of any other sensation on earth. The Enemy cannot penetrate the walls without an access point. A raised window, a door left ajar, a chimney damper not closed, all of these make for convenient entries. An opening is almost always required, though some of the more devious Enemy can operate simple tools and take apart human devices. They especially enjoy toying with brake lines and aircraft engines.

Scampers drifts to sleep, thinking he really needs to get his rest. He will need all his strength, wits and cunning for the coming battle.


That night, when the servants eat supper, the Idiot begs more than a little. Scampers shows complete disdain for the way the Idiot slavishly attends every mouthful the people swallow.

“Can’t you show a little dignity, Idiot?”

The Idiot’s tongue lolls out of the side of his mouth as his head cocks to one side. He whimpers when Food Man puts a bite of beef in his mouth.

“That’s it,” Scampers says. “I am now calling you Super Idiot from now on.”

“Cool. Do I get to wear a cape?”

After dinner, the servant family gathers in the den, staring at the TV. The Idiot naps and farts on the rug in the middle of the room. Food Woman leaves for a time and Scampers tracks her sonically, noting that she enters the Bath Room in the hallway.

Scampers avoids this room. He finds it intimidating when the servants activate the Shower.

He has bad memories of the Shower.

He hears the toilet flush and the woman returns to the den.

“Honey,” she says to Food Man, “did you leave the bathroom window open?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” he answers. “Why?”

“Well, the screen has a tear in it. Bugs can get in.”

“Hmmph.”

“Well, will you fix it this weekend?”

“Huh?  Yeah, sure…fix it. Got it.”

“Thanks.”

Scampers heart has gone cold. He trots to the small room and his worst fears are confirmed. The window is open, and there’s a hole in the screen, just as Food Woman says.

Did the Enemy already penetrate the Domain?  Was it hiding somewhere, waiting to come out and take the small Lap Servant’s life?  Mr. Scampers has to assume so and act accordingly.

Time for the jungle cat to go on the prowl.

After a complete circuit of the house, Scamper’s concludes that the open window is a false alarm. He senses nothing out of the ordinary in any part of the house. He finishes scouting the girl’s room and enters the upstairs hallway.

He stops.

Something is laying in the hallway. A small body, ripped to shreds. It was not there moments ago. Scampers crouches and his pupils expand as he slips forward to inspect the tattered body on the floor.

It’s Mousy. Gutted and laying in a pool of its own stuffing.

The Ancient Enemy is in the house.


Scampers is woken from a sound sleep by a cold, wet nose poking into his belly.

“Dude,” the Idiot snuffles, “wake up. Something’s wrong.”

The tabby, curled nose-to-tail on the Lap Servant’s bed, glares murder at the Idiot. He has a warm nest burrowed between her feet and is loathe to leave it, regardless of the dog’s anxious expression.

Wait a minute. It’s after midnight. What’s the dog doing in the house?

“What’s wrong?” Scampers’ ruff tingles and the hair rises along his spine. He springs up, quivering with tension.

“I don’t know,” the Idiot says. “The Food People are like, you know, not moving. They haven’t put me out, and I have to pee real bad.”

“Not moving?” This doesn’t sound good. “Where?”

“In the flashing box room.”

“Stay here,” the cat orders. “Guard the child.”

Scampers flashes downstairs, alarms ringing in the back of his mind. An uneasy and unfamiliar bubble of fear forms in his stomach when he enters the den and sees the TV still on, the laugh track mocking him with its gaiety. Both Food People are unmoving on the sofa, heads lolled back and mouths open.

The tabby leaps onto the sofa and sees that they’re still breathing. Good. Maybe they just fell asleep watching TV. If that’s the case, I can rouse them very quickly. He pats faces, walks on bladders, sticks his nose in ears, but nothing works. The humans slumber on.

This is so not good.

Scampers treads across the humans and onto the side table nearest the man. A glass of wine is there, half empty. Scampers freezes when he catches a whiff of the contents. He smells the stench of the Enemy, over-powering in its intensity, a mixture of cinnamon, pepper and lemon. Somehow, the Enemy has dosed the human’s wine, rendering them even more unconscious than usual.

They’ve been drugged. They will be no help at all in protecting…

Melissa!

Scampers bounds from the end table and pelts up the stairs and into the Lap Servant’s room, leaping past the scattering of toys, dirty clothes and cookie crumbs. In a flash, he’s on the bed, confronting a nightmare.

“Just back the heck off, bucko,” Scampers growls.

The Ancient Enemy crouches next to the sleeping girl, actually standing on her hair as it trails across the pillow. Clawed hands are poised over the girl’s face, razors suspended over her delicate skin. Slitted pupils gleam faintly, fired internally by the torment of a hundred innocent souls. Vaguely monkey-shaped, the Enemy stands erect on two barbed feet. With leathery skin the color of bread mold, the creature stands no taller than the girl’s dolls. Hobgoblin ears and a sharp, narrow jaw frame its triangular face. Nose slits flare at the sight of Scampers, and a feral grin reveals the tiny points of glistening fangs.

“Leave now,” Scampers commands, “and you will live.”

“And if I don’t?” The creature’s voice rustles like dead snake skin on dry leaves. It is the king of mischief and pain. The hobgoblin loves tormenting the weak and helpless.

“If you don’t, you’ll be facing one angry pussycat, my friend.”

“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement here. The girl for the adults, perhaps?” The crouched figure straightens slightly and turns to face Scampers. The Enemy loves to bargain for lives, but never with honor and never fairly. “What if we make a deal?”

“Would you take the dog, instead,” Scampers says aloud, then regrets it. He is shamed the thought even crosses his mind.

“Forget it, gremlin,” Scampers snarls. “I deal in claws, friend.”

“Okay,” the nightmare shrugs. “That works, too.”

The Enemy leaps. Wicked sharp claws are bared, teeth gleam in the moonlight. A flash of motion and it’s in the air going for Scamper’s throat.

Forty pounds of black Lab crashes into the room, leaping for the bed.

“I’ll save you!  Cowabunga!” the dog cries, flying through the air.

“Idiot!” Scampers screams. “No, I’ve got this…”

Too late. The clumsy mutt plows face-first into Scampers, tumbling them both over the girl’s legs. The creature from Hell leaps over the dog-and-cat pile and. A scrambling sound and the Ancient Enemy is running from the room.

“Get off!” Scampers rakes with bared claws, struggling in the tangle of black legs. “If it gets away, we’ll never find it.”

Scampers bolts after the creature as it makes for the stairs case. It’s already on the landing, making a right turn at the landing. Scampers hurdles the top flight of stairs and lands on the hobgoblin’s back, sending them both crashing into the wall. The Enemy screams in anger and frustration and swipes a clawed hand at Scampers. Ears back, the tabby hisses and boxes with the little devil. Both fighters draw blood in a flurry of blows.

Scampers slashes his claws across the little goblin’s eyes, temporarily blinding it. For a second, the creature is vulnerable. Scampers coils his muscles, preparing to leap into the Enemy and latch onto its throat, killing it in one decisive blow.

A thundering, black juggernaut hits Scampers from behind and bowls him into the creature, taking both of them into a tornado of whirling fur as they tumble down the stairs.

“Look out, Scampers,” the Idiot pants as he tumbles. The big dog thuds against the front door, jumps to his feet and shakes his head, ears flapping madly. “You could get hurt fighting that thing. Better let me handle it.”

“The only thing hurting me is you!  Now, move!”

The Enemy scrambles away and Scampers chases him into the kitchen. The hobgoblin leaps onto the counter, grabs a hanging pot and flings it at Scampers, who skitters on the tile floor, claws seeking traction. The metal pot bongs on the floor and clatters across the room, a near miss.

Scampers is forced to dodge as pans, skillets, plates and other kitchen devices are hurled at him by the Enemy. The creature cackles a warty, raspy little laugh, giggling and tossing spoons and spatulas, platters and pasta strainers. The Idiot watches from near the refrigerator, eyes wide, clearly stunned. This amount of destruction goes beyond even his ability to comprehend.

“Dude,” he whimpers, “we’re gonna be in sooooo much trouble.”

Scampers dodges a saucer, which shatters, sending jagged shards across the floor. “We’re gonna be dead if we don’t catch this little rat-bag and kill it.”

The Enemy runs out of ready ammunition and hurls instead a chilling caterwaul of hatred at Scampers. Bounding from the counter, it races for the den. The cat’s claws scrabble over the tiled floor, hit maximum traction and propel him after the creature.

In the den, Scampers is momentarily confounded by the Enemy, perched in the open china cabinet, holding a Waterford vase like a major league pitcher. Going into a wind-up, the goblin shrieks and fires the vase at Scampers, narrowly missing him. The tabby dodges right, then jukes back left, working closer.

But the Idiot has overcome his shock and bounds directly at the enemy, slamming into the china cabinet at maximum Black Dog Velocity. A splintering crash rocks the cabinet, which teeters away from the wall as the dog bounces off, missing the beast who has leaped to the top of the piece of furniture.

Cackling with glee, the goblin braces his legs and pushes the china cabinet further away from the wall, tilting past it’s balance point. The Idiot runs for cover as the tall cabinet, full of collectibles and glassware, goes over, face-first.

The explosion of shattering glass doesn’t even cause the drugged humans, just feet away, to twitch. The creature leaps over the sofa between the Food People and races for the dining room.

Scampers screams a war cry and pursues.

Into the dining room, the living room and back through the kitchen and den, the creature runs a circuit around the lower floor, destroying furniture and bric-a-brac. Along with a mad cackle, the gremlin leaves behind a trail of destruction.

Scampers, like all cats, is a great sprinter, but lacks stamina for long races. Soon he is winded and panting, lagging behind the cavorting hobgoblin. The Idiot crashes around, barking and woofing, but accomplishing little.

Until.

Through more chance than good planning, the beast is trapped between the dog at one end of the hall and Scampers at the other. It takes the one avenue open to it, the open bathroom door, no doubt intending to escape through the torn screen. A cry of dismay rings out and Scampers smiles when he sees the closed bathroom window. Cornered, the Enemy turns to face the cat and dog, now both blocking the door. The slit-pupils of the creatures eyes expand and it crouches in a fighting stance.

“Dude,” the Idiot pants, trailing drool. “This isn’t fun any more. I think I want to just watch while you kick that thing’s scrawny, green butt back to Hell. ‘K?”

“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said in…forever.”

Jake woofs with pride.

The ancient battle cry of the Tomcat has frozen the blood of prey and enemies alike since the days before Scampers’ ancestors adopted the Egyptians. Screaming his war cry, Scampers rushes at the monster.

They collide in a blizzard of flashing claws and razor-sharp fangs, a howling melee of no quarters battle.

Scampers locks his jaws on the Enemy’s throat and spurs it with his hind legs. Likewise, the Enemy rips and tears at Scampers, seeking the killing blow.

There is a crunch of bone.

Stillness…


The jungle cat drags its dead prey to a safe place in which to consume the tasty bits. Muscular jaws working, the king of beasts cracks through bone and gristle to nibble here and there, eating until sated and then napping for a while. He curls his strong, battle-scarred body between the Food People and closes his eyes. He decides to leave the remainder of the Enemy’s carcass at their feet as an offering.

“Won’t they be thrilled,” the mighty cat says, “when they wake up and find what I have left them.”

Episode 81: Little Tear by Philip Meeks


Little Tear

by Philip Meeks

A war had ravaged the city where Little Tear danced for strangers.

In her gilt cage at night she’d hear the sounds of sirens, crumbling stone and worse. Feel the shudder and cracking of timbers beneath the shelf where she was stored. The fall of dust like kisses from the dead followed by a silence so deep and terrifying you could almost hear it.

Some nights, after raid time, Little Tear would hear one of her many sisters sob. Squilly with the sewn on beak perhaps. Zarilla with the purple plumes. Or Moya, the one with the missing arm. Little Tear’s three special favourites. The most damaged. Tucked away in their own cages elsewhere on the shelf they’d shed their sorrows whilst shivering from their fears and there was nothing Little Tear could do to comfort them but call out a soothing word or few, or coo. But mostly she chose not to. And she never cried. Not even when buildings nearby succumbed to the sky bird’s heinous deliveries.

Instead she chose to clasp her eyes and concentrated on her thinkings. Those that would lull her to a shallow slumber. The ones she only ever dared remember when she was betwixt the world of awake and not.

Her thinkings at the moment largely concerned dancing for the boy with the half lip. The boy who kept coming back to see her and only her. Who told her through his glances that he would return to help her. Take her away. Make her free. Sometimes she believed this so much her tiny toy heart became fit to unstitch itself.

Worse than the sobbing of her sisters on these dreaded nights however, far worse, where the times Bucola shifted herself from her nest at the heart of the house. Shuffled, crawled and grunted her way to where her cherubs were kept. There she’d hush the sobbing as kindly as she could and set about singing them back to sleep, in an ugly clacking language unheard for centuries the songs of the long forgotten. A mournful sound meant to comfort, but which could only ever disturb. And after Bucola’s rattling noise stopped echoing around the cage chamber her past midnight unwashed odour lingered until the first hiss of dawn.

Little Tear hated Bucola.

In times now forgotten there would have been a word for Bucola. A word uttered at night to keep children from straying off the path to pick up windfalls. From wandering unwittingly into harm’s way. A word whispered in the light of an open flame. Muttered in hushed tones when the cattle went ill or their udders dried and the crops rent bad in the ground or wouldn’t grow. Witch.

But witches didn’t exist. They never had.

Bucola was far worse than anything ever described as a witch. She was one of the last of her kind. An ancient cursed breed who siphoned souls in times of strife to feed and survive. She was a massive beast struggling in the face of her girth and oozing masses, to hold on to something resembling femininity.

At all times she was clad in exotic furs belonging to varieties of mammal, many long extinct. The curls on her monstrous head, a variety of shades of red and gold, were rank with distemper, fashioned with wax made from human blubber and fused to her skull. Her skin, gnarled and knotted was smeared in glowing grease rendered from wild boars and coloured by the blood of dung beetles and petals plucked from poisoned blooms. The layers of this were never removed but simply applied on top of each other. At least they hid the scars of the smallpox and the rot.

Bucola’s one appealing feature was her shimmering right blue eye. The left was a blackened socket she used to cover with a glistening patch made of eel scales. The right blue eye was false. Unnatural. But it saw everything. Little Tear and her sisters would chatter about it before lights out. Tell the tale of how it came to be. How Bucola found an alchemist at the dawn of time to fashion it for out of crystals plundered from centre of the earth.

At night Bucola took her eye out. Kept it safe in the music box by the side of the vast plinth she used for a bed. Little Tear dreamed of the time when she’d have the eye in her grasp. To do with what she would. For she and her sisters felt without it Bucola would be powerless. And she could be free.

Dawn was stirring. The start of another day. The customers would soon start finding their way to Bucola’s house down its grim little alley in a part of the city considered dangerous long before the bombs started falling. They found it through hearsay. Hand drawn maps. Rumour, code and whisper. But find it they did. For the dancing delights within were hard to resist in such dark days.

Little Tear and her sisters were what Bucola called puppetoons. Tiny living dolls, pretty and precious, who once wound up, for a hefty price, would leave their cages and dance to tunes filled with sorrow. For an extra shilling or two they would blow a kiss in your direction. But never more than one.

Since we know she never cried, Little Tear was named because of the oval emerald embedded into her porcelain cheek. Sometimes when she danced her golden locks would cover it. Customers always paid more waiting for it to be revealed. She danced in a dress made of rare Arabic silk that had been stitched onto her body by Bucola herself. The monstrous creature was capable of creating surprisingly delicate treasures.

Today there was something in the air. As she stretched and prepared in the confines of her dwelling Little Tear heard her sister’s chatter and chunter.

“I awoke early and heard Bucola declare it” cried Trildy the puppetoon who lived closest to the door. “The Sky Birds will stay away. The war is done.”

This caused worry amongst the pretty beings. If the war ended Bucola would move. There wouldn’t be enough to feed her. None of the puppetoons quite remembered the last move. But they were all certain it wasn’t a joyous experience. Squilly began to sob and rattled the bars of the cage with her beak until she was covered in gold flakes.

Little Tear took no notice of the noisy panic and refrained, as was her way, of joining in. She finished her last stretch and the great double doors to their chamber creaked opened. Bucola shuffled forth rasping and giving vent to the putrid wind stored by her bulging body during a long night.

“My pretties. Sing for me,” she cried and cackled as the puppetoons chirruped obediently, many with love in their souls.

Bucola then grabbed Little Tear and Squilly’s cages. Squilly cheeped as she was swept out into the candle lit hallway.

Bucola entertained her guests in her quarters. The pair of puppetoons waited behind a curtain near the dancing table. Bucola had gone to fetch the first customer. And Little Tear knew. The half lipped boy was back. Back for her. This was the day she’d be free. Somehow.

She could smell him the instant Bucola showed him into her room. His honesty. The odour of it could be detected even underneath Bucola’s suffocating all pervading musk. She ladled this on in vast quantities to disguise the stench of her festering body and its maggoty folds.

“Today’s a day of celebration I hear. For some.” Bucola griped. “Who can blame a boy wanting a dose of prettiness to enhance his cheer?”

The boy never spoke. Little Tear heard a clink. Clink, clink. An exchange of coinage.

“I understand your shyness boy,” Bucola’s voice had become conspiratorial. “Hard as it may seem to believe but beneath my glamour, I too have my physical deficiencies. Some from birth. Like your poor young tender lips.”

Little Tear cringed as she imagined Bucola getting close to her boy. Trying to kiss what wasn’t there.

“An extra shilling.” A stammered breathless lispy sound. The boy spoke.

Another clink.

“Enough for a double dance and a glass of glug.” Spluttered Bucola.

“Two” said the boy. “I’d like you to join me.”

“I can’t dance twice” squeaked Squilly. “I’m too tired. The sky birds keeped me up.”

Little Tear hushed her. She heard a gasp of steam. The slurping of the hot glug into Bucola’s beakers for best.

“To happier times” crowed Bucola not even remotely meaning it.

Then her hand shot behind the curtain grabbing Squilly’s cage so clumsily she toppled from her perch.

“I selected something new for you today. Took the liberty since you’re a regular. This precious puppetoon dances with such vigour, such vivacity you almost see her fly.”

Silence. A long silence filled only by the ruffling of Squilly’s feathers.

“Little Tear.” Said the boy defiantly. “I want Little Tear.”

“What is it about her?” a tone of danger trickled into Bucola’s voice. “What’s your fascination with her?”

Another silence.

“She makes me cry inside,” he said.

And of course nothing made Bucola more gleeful than even a whiff of some other living things misery. So once again Little Tear would dance for her beloved.

“I brung her down too,” snorted Bucola. “Just in case.”

As Little Tear stepped from her cage she was at her most graceful. She could feel Squilly watching her jealously. The silk of her tresses started to sway to the music cranked out through Bucola’s gramophone and as she took her first simple steps she looked into her boy’s face.

He was very young. But she was too, wasn’t she? His eyes were almond-shaped and velvety brown. His straw blond hair cropped but covering his brow. His round ruddy cheeks aglow at the sight of Little Tear, her locks pulled back, her emerald on show. Only the boy’s mouth was startling. Where his perfectly formed nose ended his gums began. Red and angry above his yellowed teeth exposed in a permanent jagged grin. But to Little Tear it was a smile that made her stuffed heart quiver and melt.

Her gentle steps became more intricate, frenetic and rigorous as she began to spin and turn. Every fabric particle yearned to please and strove to do more than dance to the music. To become part of it. Get inside of it. She danced so hard she felt that her feet were bleeding. But of course they weren’t. She had no blood.

Suddenly a loud sharp scratch ricocheted round the walls of Bucola’s room. The gramophone had stuck. One note of solemn music echoed and repeated. A single twang of violin. Little Tear halted her movements as her captor heaved her buttocks up and set about dealing with the delay.

In that instant Little Tear saw her boy slip a glass phial from his shirt sleeve and tip the powder it contained into Bucola’s glug. It sizzled for a second. Then the music resumed and Little Tear’s dancing became filled with more joy than she’d ever known. Her senses hadn’t lied. The boy was here for her.

A few seconds after draining her glug Bucola started to fail.

“What’s come over me?” She stifled a large yawn. “Dance on my pretty. He’s paid for two. I must…”

It was all she could do to stagger to her repugnant pit. The bed in the corner hidden by a screen. But before giving up to the sleeping draught Little Tear heard an audible suck and the crack of a wooden lid. Bucola never forgot to take out her eye and store it away.

“What’s he done, what’s he done! Ma-ma Ma-ma…” Squilly cried with all her might.

“She’s sleeping that’s all, I’d never hurt a thing,” the boy explained. And from behind the screen Bucola’s throaty snores concurred.

But Squilly got hysterical as puppetoons are wont to do and despite Little Tear’s warnings would not calm down. There was no other choice. Little Tear reached into Squilly’s cage and snapped off her beak.

“And now you’re mine all mine Little Tear,” the boy lisped loud and proud.

“I can’t be. Not while Bucola has her powers”

With a hop she leapt onto the boy’s open palm. Soaked in his smell. Relished his warmth and the sound of his chuckle as her feet tickled him. But there was time for joy later. She instructed her half-lipped loved one to venture with her behind the screen to the most sacred part of Bucola’s lair. There they located the music box and opened it.

Little Tear looked at the eye as the music box started to play its eerie jingle. But worse than that. From its lid sprang the tiniest puppetoon imaginable. A little ballerina up on point and bleating a warning.

“Bucola, Bucola. Awaken Bucola”

Bucola stirred despite the severity of the drug she’d been given. The boy put his hand on the sticky glass eye and the guardian of the music box was upon him. Despite her size the ballerina had razor sharp teeth made of metal shards. They gnawed away through flesh and bone as the boy screamed.

And that was it. Bucola was fully awake and enraged. She let out an anguished yell. Despite being blind she knew what was happening.

Little Tear had wasted no time. She’d taken the eye from its case and was rolling it near the edge of the dressing table.

“Be warned Little Tear. Be warned! No!” Bucola was quaking. “You do not know what you are doing.”

And then she gasped. The eye tumbled over the edge, fell heavily to the ground and shattered. The echoes of tinkling crystal chimed out. The whole house shook and elsewhere, in their chamber Little Tear could hear the puppetoons cry and rattle their cages.

“I’ve done it sisters. We are free!” Little Tear wanted to dance again. But she didn’t. In fact if she so wished she never had to dance again.

She turned to see her boy who was white with shock but had managed to throw the murderous little puppetoon to the ground and stamp her to fluff.

“We can be together now my beautiful half lip.” Little Tear stopped. She’d spoken. But not in her own voice. It was deep, gruff. Raddled with phlegm.

Then she felt a tremor ripping through her and a sharp pain across her face. Her porcelain. It was cracking. As the pieces fell away she felt her stitching rupture. Somehow she was growing. She looked in desperation at her boy who was looking back in terror.

“No my boy, no. It’s me!”

Now the boy was cowering in a corner hiding his face with his hands screaming and crying for his mother as Little Tear grew and grew and grew.

When the shaking stopped she looked in the mirror. Looked hard and long as her heart, which now thumped heavily in her chest, broke. She was tall and broad and hunched. As ugly as sin. Her skin old and parched, her scalp bald, scabby and red with running sores. Her hands contorted into meaty claws. Her feet grizzled stumps.

“I protected you my Little Tear,” Bucola’s voice was filled with sorrow. “My little girl. I stayed like this so you could be beautiful.”

And for the first time in centuries Little Tear cried.

Episode 80: Small Magics by Alethea Kontis


Small Magics

by Alethea Kontis

Minna tried to stand still in front of the mirror, but it wasn’t working. Effie jerked Minna’s hips from side to side, trying to adjust the bustle of her sateen French cream walking dress. Minna stared at the print of the Luck etching she held, then closed her eyes and pressed it to her breast, wishing with all her might for the magic she had given it to seep back into her.

  “Would you like some glue?” Minna’s eyes snapped open as her friend’s voice sounded in her ear, dark and exotic as the Greek gypsy girl herself.

  “See, now,” said Minna, pointing at their reflections, “your head looks better on this dress than mine does.” Minna folded the Luck etching and tucked it inside her sleeve, desperate for its closeness.

  Effie noticed. “Luck doesn’t always mean the good kind.”

  “Yes, but Lady Luck is my favorite. At the very least, she’ll make life interesting. And if I’m lucky,” Minna wrinkled her nose, “it’ll all be good.”

  “Silly,” said Effie. “You can’t fool me with that brave act. You’re scared to death, admit it.”

  Minna sighed and wove her fingers together. “It is true. I am a little scared. Who wouldn’t be? This interview with Lord Astor is so important…”

  Effie turned Minna back to the mirror and started pinning up her hair.  “I’m still not certain it’s a good idea. This Society of Natural Scientists could be a bunch of fools for all you know. They are men, after all.”

  Minna tried to look up at Effie, but her friend forced her head back down and mercilessly drove home another bobby pin. “I need an Alchemist, Effie. A true magic user. I need someone to guide me. My powers have already outgrown anything our mothers can teach.”

  “Yes, but you’re a woman,” said Effie. She bent down so that her chin rested atop Minna’s coiffed head. Her thick, wavy locks fell to Minna’s shoulders. “And they are men. So they cannot be trusted.” She gave Minna a playful wink before stepping back a pace and putting her hands on her hips. Minna stopped worrying her hands together and dropped them to her sides.

“Perfection. All you lack now are gloves.”

  Minna looked at her hands. The skin of her fingertips was stained with etcher’s ink, their pads callused from acid. Her father’s legacy. Daddy’s little girl.

Jack Willows had been a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. He had taught his daughter how to handle the cutting tools and the acid, so that Minna might make etchings of her own. He had taught his wife as well—and well enough that a number of Mother’s etchings had even appeared in the newspapers. Minna learned the art from her father, but she learned the magic from her mother. Few people had ever noticed the simple magics Mother had taught her to add to the etchings. Even her father had not known.

Mother had counseled Minna to hold her tongue, to never mention to her father the meanings of the tiny symbols hidden in the details. It was woman’s magic, her mother had whispered to her. Small magic. Old magic. Tales and superstitions handed down through the years. Her father never would have held with such nonsense.

But it wasn’t nonsense. The symbols they etched into the pictures did mean something. They could evoke emotions and protections. Minna had the knack for incorporating patterns of symbols and creating new ones. So her mother had made sure that Minna learned as much as she could from her father.

After his death, the Society had invited her mother to take her husband’s seat and join the ranks of the elite Lady Etchers. Now Minna helped her mother, and continued to learn herself, but at the price of the smooth skin on her hands. Her vanity hated her for it, and her heart broke a little every time she looked at her ruined skin and remembered her father. He had been ignorant of her gift, but still always so proud of her.

Effie’s throaty laugh derailed Minna’s train of thought, and a pair of black kid six-button gloves was thrust into her hands.  “Stop looking so serious. You’re not going to a funeral.”

  “It will be a funeral if Mother catches me. My funeral.”

  “Auntie Charlotte is too busy back at your house scolding some chambermaid for letting mice into the attic.”

Minna could tell Effie was quite pleased with herself over that little prank. She still wasn’t sure how exactly Effie had managed to get them all there. Her magic came from a darker place. It was gypsy magic—ancient, quiet magic that was more felt than seen. Minna’s only jealousy was that it didn’t have to be confined to printed art. But it was nothing compared to what Minna could do if given half a chance. She was sure of it.

“Even if she does catch you,” Effie went on, “you simply tell her that you are paying a professional visit.”

  “Mother does not consider the Society of Natural Sciences to be professional.”

  “Only because they are not as willing to let women into their ranks as the Painter-Etchers or the Artists are. That makes me question their intelligence—I will agree with her on that. But if Science is what you want, Dearest, than you shall have it. Don’t let anything step in your way, man or mother. Lord Aster will see that you are a bright, intelligent woman, and if he is any man at all he will give you a chance to prove yourself.” She glanced up at the clock. “And if you are late, that will not make a good impression at all.”

  “I wish you could come with me,” Minna pleaded.

“Beatrice will be with you.”

“A chaperone hardly counts.”

“Certainly she does. Come now. And you mustn’t forget your book,” Effie said, thrusting the slim black volume into Minna’s hands. “If I didn’t have to help Mama with her séance tonight, I would be fast to your side.”

  “I know.” Minna followed Effie down the stairs.

Effie halted at the door, poked her head around, and then motioned for Minna to come. They tiptoed through the parlor, Minna’s smart boots making tiny clicks and clacks against the wooden floor.  She was grateful she had Effie to follow through the dark room. A few small gas lamps were lit here and there, only shedding enough light to cast large, wavering shadows on the wall. She caught the faint, warm scent of incense. Effie’s mother was busy preparing the back room for her evening guests and would not trouble them, but they didn’t want to risk drawing attention.

  They met stout and silent Beatrice at the back door, where the hired carriage was waiting.

Effie turned to her once more. “Penny in your shoe?”

Minna nodded.

“Evil eye?”

Minna nodded again, placing a hand on her breast where the small blue charm was pinned beneath her bodice.

“Then you are all set, Dearest.” Effie hugged her tightly. She kissed Minna on either cheek, turned her head to the right and made a spitting sound towards the floor. More luck. “One look at your little book, and Lord Aster will throw himself at your feet, begging you to be his personal apprentice.”

“Well, I don’t know about all that,” said Minna.

“Bah,” said Effie.  “You will be marvelous.”

“Only because you say so,” said Minna.

“Extol my virtues later.” Effie turned Minna around and pushed her out the door.  “Now go! Go quickly so you can come back and tell me everything!”

Minna dashed into the carriage before she could think up another reason to dally.

The ride to the headquarters of the Royal Society of Natural Scientists was too long and at the same time too short. Beatrice’s silence gave Minna too much time to think about what she was about to do. Outside looking in, it all made perfectly good sense. She was a talented artist, and could etch magic into metal better than her mother. It was only natural that the next step be to study with a true Alchemist, someone who could shape her abilities and steer her beyond her mother’s limitations.

Minna needed to believe that she was meant for greater things than granting luck or easing birth pains. Not that she wanted to stop doing these things, but she wanted to learn a more economical way of doing them. One that didn’t require hours on end spent with knives and acid. She wanted to learn about the world, how it worked, and more importantly how to see it working. She wanted to learn about the stars, what was in them, how to read them. She wanted to learn about people, how to cure them completely and not just stop a cough or break a fever. So she was going to meet with Lord Aster, head of the Society, and plead her case for apprenticeship. She flipped through her small book of illustrations, some of which had already been etched, others that were just waiting for the time to be right. It was a respectable enough sample of her work to impress him. She did not want to leave herself looking like a fool.

She shivered at the thought. Impress Lord Aster? Much easier said than done. Look like a fool? Well that was an unfortunately easy feat to achieve. Lord Aster, Edmond Chamberlain by name, was terrifying even from a distance; a fact Minna had garnered from a few rare glimpses of him at social gatherings. He was uncommonly tall and his shoulders were eternally stooped from bending over to speak to smaller people and reading notes from a podium. His hair was a shock of silver. Grayness befit most men his age, but Lord Aster’s shining silver-white was unsettling. And he was gaunt, a thinness that made his eyes appear shadowed and sunken. He was the very spectre of a man, and looked as though at any moment he could slip into death without giving anyone cause to notice.

Minna had been surprised that he had responded to her request for an appointment—he was well known for his gruff and rather disagreeable nature. Her mother certainly did not care for him, and was quick to voice her opinion to anyone who stood still long enough to listen. But Minna still believed, deep down in her heart, that Lord Aster would see how talented she was and as a result would not be able to turn her away.

She took the glove off one hand and reached into her sleeve to feel the smooth paper of the Luck etching again. She could not feel the ink, but she knew by heart what symbols were hidden in the delicate lines of the portrait. She needed the reassuring touch of the paper against her skin. It was the first print from Minna’s Lady Luck etching; the older the print and the closer to the body, the stronger the magic it offered.

But she knew luck alone would not see her through this interview. Perseverance had gotten her here. She had to rely on her talent now in order to succeed.

The carriage came to a halt, and Minna frantically pulled her gloves back on. Beatrice followed her to the front door, where an equally stout butler led her to a sitting room.

“Miss Willows, Sir.”

“Thank you, Harrison.” His voice was rich and deep. Minna steeled herself and stepped through the doorway. In front of her stood a dashing young man in a dark suit. The white of his cravat matched the unnatural white of his hair, yet he was very evidently not Lord Aster. He snapped a small bow to her. Minna had the presence of mind to bend her knees, but she did not tip her head. Her mind raced. What was going on here?

“Miss Willows, please. First let me apologize. You have been played false, but with all good intention. I intercepted your missive to my uncle and answered it in his stead. I am intrigued by your interest, and wish to discuss it with you. I assure you, had he even deigned to open your letter, he most certainly would not have made this appointment. As it is, we must consider ourselves fortunate that I managed to save it from the fireplace.”

Lord Aster had not even read her letter? He did not even know she was here? All her careful planning and intrigue was for naught, all the nerves unwarranted. She was not on her way to becoming a scientist. She could see it now. Her head swam. She would become a laughingstock. She was a woman! Who was she to think that she could simply be accepted into the most exclusively male Society of them all?

The man must have noticed her floundering, because he offered her a chair. “I apologize again, I did not mean to distress you. Please, sit. Harrison?” he called over his shoulder, “can you please have Mrs. Whitebridge send up a tray?”

The butler stepped out. Minna sat on the couch and looked down at her gloves. The man took a chair opposite her. Her eyes went again to his hair, and the rest of what he had said began to sink in.

“You are Lord Aster’s nephew?”

“More apologies, I am afraid. I seem destined to apologize to you until the end of days. Gabriel Chamberlain, at your service. My father is Lord Aster’s considerably younger half-brother. He decided I was in desperate need of some city refinement, so I have been banished from our country estates until after Christmas.” There was a twinkle in his eye, as though he expected Minna to comment or laugh, but she remained quiet. “I think it’s more a punishment for my uncle than it is for me. Personally, I’ve been enjoying the amusements provided by his little Society.”

Minna couldn’t help but smile.

“You should do that more often,” said Gabriel.

“Do what?”

“Smile. If I may make so bold, it is quite becoming.” He straightened. “But exploring such a topic will have you calling me a rogue no doubt, so we will not dwell upon it. You must tell me about the aspirations you expressed in your letter. I would like to know how a bright, beautiful and no doubt talented woman such as yourself comes to have an interest in the Natural Sciences.”

Minna recognized that he was being amusing and charming to put her ease, and despite her disappoint at the way the meeting had turned out, she found herself appreciating his efforts. At the very least, she would have a wonderful story to tell Effie when she returned. Harrison brought the tray, and a moment later Beatrice came forward to serve the tea.

“Are you familiar with my family’s work?” Minna asked him.

“Yes, indeed,” Gabriel said, his large hands dwarfing the fragile teacup.  “I have seen the works of both Mr. and Mrs. Jack Willows printed in the Times, and samples grace the walls of many an affluent household. Do you etch as well?”

Minna knew that now was hardly the time for modesty. “Yes, and I believe I am quite talented.”

“As any Willows progeny would be,” said Gabriel. “Might you have a sample of your work with you now?”

She thought he’d never ask. Minna opened her volume to the first page, an illustrated copy of the Luck etching she had secreted in her bodice, and handed him the book. He set down his tea and took a moment to examine the portrait. He excused himself, and stepped over to the lamp to have more light. “You are very talented. The detail on this is fascinating. You must have the patience of Job to fashion it so precisely. Who is the woman?”

“No one,” Minna replied offhandedly. “Just someone I made up. I call her Lady Luck.”

He moved to sit again. “Why do you call her that?”

“Because it’s for a Luck etching.” Had he not noticed? Her father had missed it, of course, but her father had not been an Alchemist.

“A what?” Gabriel asked.

Surely her talents were not as insignificant as all that.  Maybe he was testing her. “An etching for Luck. I have the original print here.” She unfolded the paper and traded him for the book. “Look there,” she pointed to the woman’s collar. “Do you not see the symbols?”

Gabriel held the small paper a few inches from his face and angled it to better catch the light. “Why you’re right. My heavens, what precision. If I ever had doubts about your skill as an artist, I certainly don’t now. Remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.”

“I know it’s small magic,” she added quickly, “and you are used to things on a much grander scale. That’s why I’ve come. I believe that I have learned all I can in this area, and I’d like to move on. I was hoping to apprentice myself to one of your Alchemists or perhaps…” she trailed off.

Gabriel stared at her; his dark eyes fixed, his brows furrowed. Oh, no. She had let her mouth run away with her again. When would she ever learn to stop? Silence was called golden for a reason. Gabriel probably had the same ideas as his uncle about women overstepping their bounds and was shocked at what she was suggesting. Well, it was too late now. The words were out, and there was no net that could catch them and bring them back.

Desperate, Minna smiled and attempted to make light of the conversation. “Should I be the one apologizing now?”

Gabriel snapped out of whatever trance he was in, and grinned. “I’m afraid I mistook your words for a moment, Miss Willows. I am sure what you meant to say was that this was a luck charm, like any other superstitious fancy.” He held up the paper. “There is no magic here.”

Minna leapt to her feet, and Gabriel stumbled to do so as well. “Now see here,” she said. “You must admit that the womanly arts have less available to them, more limitations, tighter boundaries inside which they must remain. You may be much better at it than a girl of seventeen, but your lifestyle has afforded you the opportunity to study it at great length. I believe that I am proficient at enough magic to know what it is I’m doing. Since I do not have the freedom of quantity, I practice quality. It may be small, but you cannot deny that it is perfect.”

“My good woman,” Gabriel replied rather condescendingly, “It is neither you nor your talents I doubt, but the existence of magic itself.”

“I am not a child, Mister Chamberlain. You do not have to feign ignorance on my behalf. You are a scientist yourself. If you are involved in your uncle’s Society, I cannot believe that you do not know about this simple force of Nature.”

“I can honestly say I have never experienced it.”

No experience? Well, she could certainly remedy that. Minna opened the book in her hand to a page near the middle, a picture of a house by a stream. The illustration did not hold as much magic as the original etching itself but the symbols were still there, echoes of the promise of magic. She held it out to him.

“I have already told you,” he said, leaning in, “your work is breathtaking, my dear.” He stepped closer. “Fantastic. Charming. Quite the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” He reached out to snatch the book away. “Do you have a print of this etching? I must have it. No, I must have the master itself. It is so simple and yet so… haunting. I must have it. I will give you absolutely anything your heart desires to have it.”

“Turn the page,” she said with confidence.

He flipped to the next page, revealing a simple pastoral setting with a church. A mother and a daughter were on their way inside. The calmness of the image belied the true intent of the hidden symbol.

“This is horrible,” he spat. “Tragic. Sad.” His face contorted with disgust. “You are a despicable woman. Vile. What a wretched woman you are for showing me such a thing. And what a nosy busybody you are for coming here in the first place. You may be able to draw passably well, but your nose is far too large and your insolence…”

Minna had heard enough from that one. She reached out and turned the page herself this time. The illustration here was of a vee of ducks, passing over a stream at sunset.

Gabriel looked at her, his dark eyes pleading. She watched him mouth shape the words: I am so sorry, but no sound escaped. He lifted a hand to his throat. His next silent words were something along the lines of What the Devil…

And in that silence, Minna heard the hammering of a determined fist on the front door.

“My daughter is in there, and I demand to see her at once!”

The bark of her mother’s voice down the hallway snapped Minna to attention. She was caught. Her heart raced as her mother’s voice drew closer, grumbling down the hall and overshadowing the pleas of the butler trailing in her furious wake. Minna winced as the door flew open.

Her mother swept past her in a flurry of rose skirts and snatched the book from Gabriel’s hands. She gave him a withering look, causing the young man to falter before he snapped a bow to her. Finding his voice, he barely managed to croak, “Gabriel Chamberlain.”

“I gathered that from your shining head, young man. God did not choose that color for many of his servants, and it’s a blessed good thing.” She turned to Minna. “Miss Willows does not realize that this cloud has no silver lining. It would have been decent of you to have informed her of that immediately and sent her on her way instead of leading her a merry dance. Such behavior is unbecoming.”

“You are correct, Mrs. Willows,” Gabriel stammered. “I… Please forgive me.”

“Forgiven, and I trust never to be repeated. Good night, Mister Chamberlain.”

“Good night, Mrs. Willows. Miss Willows.” He bowed again, meeting Minna’s eyes for a heartbeat. “It was…illuminating.” Minna was not allowed the luxury of time to bid her farewell before her mother ushered her out of the door.

The ride home was silent. Not merely silent, cold. The longer her mother was quiet, the stronger her voice was when she decided to use it. Minna removed her gloves and picked at the rough spots on her fingertips. She risked a glance at Beatrice. Beatrice met it knowingly. Minna pursed her lips. No need to investigate who had betrayed her.

When the carriage came to a halt, Minna was surprised to find herself not at home, but back at the steps of Effie’s house. Her mother strode up to and through the door determinedly. As luck would have it, someone was there to open it for her. Had there not been, Minna was sure she would have seen the door torn from its hinges as her mother passed.

There was no other carriage in sight, so the séance must have been “successful” and therefore brief. The house was still eerily dark, however, the incense much stronger than it had been when she had left.

Minna’s mother stormed through the house, through the entrance hall and into the kitchen where Effie’s mother was boiling water for coffee in a copper pan on the stove.

“Theodosia, they have gone too far.” Mother did not speak loudly when addressing Effie’s mother by her full name, but her tone roared through Minna’s ears. She tossed the black book on the table. Its slight clatter was akin to the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil.

Effie came down the stairs to investigate the commotion, and without misplacing a single step on the stairway performed a perfect pirouette and headed straight back up them.

“Oh no you don’t. Come back down here at once young lady.” Effie stopped mid-step and turned, wincing. “Come along with you, girl.”

Effie trudged back down the stairs, exchanging worried looks with Minna as the pair of them were ushered into the kitchen.

Sit,” Minna’s mother ordered.

Minna drew up a dining chair and Effie took her time crossing the room to sit beside her. Thea Theda—“Aunt” Theda, as Minna referred to her friend’s mother—was still concentrating on the water. She added four spoonfuls of coffee, and matched them with four more of sugar. She watched it boil up once, twice, then a third time.

Minna felt Effie’s hand searching for hers under the table. She reached out and held it tightly.

Thea Theda poured the coffee into four small cups and handed them out. Minna leaned over her cup and breathed in the dark heady aroma. The addictive smell was deceiving. She didn’t really enjoy the vile brew, sugar or not. But if she could make it down to the mud, Thea Theda would spin it and read the grinds for her. The séances may have been just for show, but there was most assuredly more to her gypsy friends than candles and incense. They were nothing more than tricks to gull the naive.

Minna watched her mother crack open the book and thumb through the pages until she found the second picture she had shown Gabriel, the one with the cottage he was desperate to possess. Thea Theda made a small circle in the air with her finger above the picture, protecting herself from the effect of the illustration before moving in closer to examine it more thoroughly.

“Desire,” Thea Theda muttered, her accent as thick as the coffee.

Mother turned the page.

“Hate,” The H was gutteral, scraping down Minna’s already frayed nerves.

The next.

“Silence.” She stuck a bit of her tongue between her teeth and took a sip of her coffee. “You are very talented, pedi.”

“Don’t encourage her, Theda!” Mother closed the book. “Did you teach her this?”

“No.” Thea Theda took another silent sip and stared across the table at Effie. Old chocolate brown eyes met young ones. Effie’s hand squeezed Minna’s painfully.

“You said I could learn the magic. You never said I couldn’t read the books!” Effie cried.

Thea Theda’s voice was deadly calm. “Neh, pethimou, but you should have asked me first.”

“Why? You didn’t ask your mother how to have visions, did you?” Effie spat.

“No,” Thea Theda said curtly. “But I did ask her about it when I had them.”

“Listen to me, girls,” Mother laid her hand on the cover of the book, “there are rules to this kind of thing. Limits. There have to be. Otherwise, it gets out of hand.”

Minna had heard this argument one too many times. If Effie could be passionate, so could she. “I know there are limits! But I want to go beyond them! Don’t you understand? I am better than that! I have the talent! I’m old enough to know!”

Mother’s jaw clenched as she lowered her voice as much as Minna had raised hers. The difference was frightening. “You never did listen did you? You heard, but you never did listen. There is no limit to what you can do. The limits are those you must impose on yourself. Mark me, girls, pay heed for once in your short lives. Those limitations are to keep you from becoming dangerous. You are old enough to see the power only, and naturally you crave that power. What you need to do now is be mature enough to realize that it is the small magics that make the biggest difference.”

Minna let out an exasperated breath and threw her free hand in the air. “How am I going to grow by etching ‘Luck’ and ‘Fertility’?”

Mother turned to the page for Silence and spun it around to Minna. “If you can stop a voice, who is to say that you cannot stop a breath? Answer me that, girl! Where does it end?”

Minna leaned in beside Effie to look at the ducks, idly flying to the south before winter approached. The almost indistinguishable symbols ran along the ripples in the water they flew over, and along the blades of grass that bent in the wind. And there, at the tip of a cattail, was the symbol for speech. Change a line here, a curve there, cross it… her breath caught in her throat as the implications of what she was hearing, what she saw, hit their mark.

She felt Effie’s hand tremble in her own, and could not bring herself to let go. She realized she was crying. It didn’t matter.

Mother closed the book again, and stretched a hand out to her daughter. Their ink-stained fingers intertwined. “You must only put good things out into the world, for whatever you put out into the world comes back to you.”

“Three times,” added Thea Theda.

“Some people believe that, yes,” her mother said to Thea Theda. “Personally, I think that saying was simply made up so that you would be sure to judge the consequences of your actions.”

Thea Theda threw a hand in the air, as if waving that nonsense away.

“This is one of the reasons why the ways of these magics have been passed down from mother to daughter. Long ago, when men had the gift and could harness their power, and as a result caused great devastation. So God withdrew his gift and took the power away from them.”

Minna drew in a breath and held it. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. She always thought they had kept the magic a secret from Father because women were not permitted to practice it. She never would have imagined that Father had not known how to do it. That he had never known. That no man knew.

“No help,” said Thea Theda. “They make their machines and destroy the world anyway.”

Mother stood slowly. “You may stay here with Effie for the night, though I need to see the carriage home. Good night, everyone.” And with that, her mother left the kitchen.

“Come on,” Effie said. “It has been a long night. Let us get some sleep.” Minna nodded and started to follow her out of the kitchen.

“No fortune?” Thea Theda called, waving at Minna’s untouched cup. Even at this point, Minna would always swallow the lukewarm drink like medicine so that she might have a glimpse of things that had happened long ago, or that hadn’t happened yet. Better than the fortune, she liked the stories Thea Theda saw there.

But not tonight.

She had had enough of small magics for tonight.

“No thank you,” Minna replied. “I don’t think I want to know.” She left both cup and book behind and trudged wearily up the stairs.

  Even as she stepped into the bedroom Effie started pulling at Minna’s clothes. “Start talking, leave nothing out until you’re done and start with Gabriel.” She sang his name teasingly.

Minna began and retold the story over and over until Effie fell asleep in the bed beside her.

Minna reached over and drew a symbol on her friend’s olive skin with her finger. Sweet dreams. She could have done more, added a swirl, have Effie going off on a ship to be a pirate. Intersect that line with another, and she could have given her flowers and rainbows and love and happiness. But they would not be Effie’s own thoughts and dreams; they would be ones of Minna’s making.

No.

She laid her hands over the invisible lines she had drawn. Sweet dreams. That was enough. She drew the symbol on the back of her own hand, turned her head into the soft pillow, and slept.

Episode 79: Loma’ai by Jessie Bishop Powell


Loma’ai

by Jessie Bishop Powell

When people asked about Johnna’s dark skin and hair and her grey-violet eyes, her mother Manda said, “She was my surprise baby.” Those traits, especially the eyes, belonged to the Auric tribe, whose standing with the ruling council was never stable. So the askers usually pretended to think Johnna was descended from her stepfather, even though she looked nothing like him or her younger siblings on that side.

Her father, when Johnna saw him once a year, was more honest. “Pfft. Accident,” he said. “The caravan leader had a fetching daughter, and I had a terminal problem keeping up my drawers.”

Johnna grew up among her mother’s folk, nomadic traders who settled into their mountain valley only in hard winter. Manda polished and mounted gems in cunning settings. She twisted necklaces , bracelets, and rings into life. Johnna took the name Cooper from her stepfather. He soaked wood and banded it into casks. Winters, his shop came alive with the sounds of hammering, and summers, he set up his travelling forge to keep working.

Johnna herself was apprenticed to the bowwright, and she had nimble fingers and patient hands. She chose feathers and wood all summer long as they traveled. She sat with Darric in his wagon in summer and in his shop in the cold months, and he guided her hands as she smoothed the wood to a shine and notched it for stringing . “Every tree has a curve, no matter how slight,” Darric said. “Pay attention to that as you work; make the bow conform to that natural shape.” She used the feathers to fletch arrows, where she also mounted the sharp little tips she whittled down from flint or obsidian.

Increasingly, Johnna’s next oldest sister minded their brothers so their parents could sell the family’s goods. Johnna often went with Darric now. They were watched closely, the sandy haired bachelor and his young apprentice. And they were careful, never alone long, because tongues wagged in their tribe. It wasn’t something they spoke of, but in the summer, if Darric went into the wagon for something, Johnna made a point to sit up front. Or if she needed something in back, he took the reins or tended to the horses in some other way, so that everyone could see they were not alone in the dark. Winters, they sat in his shop, perched on stools, the door open to outside, even though it was cold.

Johnna slighted her friends to hone the craft she loved. It wasn’t just making the bows and arrows, but testing them. Darric taught her how to hunt and shoot true, so she could know her own work’s quality. Then too, she earned a little money, because Darric put her pieces alongside his in every town, only telling which had been made by the prentice when pressed. She kept this cash secreted with her stepfather’s barrels. Her peers might overlook her darker skin and hair and her purple tinted eyes, but none of them had the skill to earn money from their prenticeships yet. They would say Darric favored her, perhaps even that he was courting her, if they knew he gave her money of her own.

She was just now fifteen, the age her mother had been at her own birth. Young by her people’s standards. Still, one of her friends was already betrothed. Sari meant to marry outside the tribe. Her vocation ran more towards growing things, skills that made her ill suited for a nomadic life. She was engaged to a farmer near Derrydown, and if they still liked each other when they met again next summer, her parents would let the wedding go forward. Johnna did not want a husband yet. She was friendly with a number of boys, and she supposed she would go with one of them when the time came. But primarily, she meant to craft bows and hunt.

Then came her father’s letter, sent with a straggler who had to stop and replace a wheel and who barely crossed the passes before the mountain snows isolated the village for winter. “My wife died,” her father wrote. She had been heavy with their third when the caravan wound through Auricstead the previous fall, and Johnna could guess how she passed.

The letter went on, “I have a wet nurse for the babe, and I can manage for the winter. But come Spring, I must built up my hut again and add a room to take a new wife in the fall. I would pay a good wage if you came and watched your sisters until late summer.”

Johnna’s mother laughed when she saw the note. “He was always so direct,” she said.

“He doesn’t make it sound very appealing,” Johnna said.

“He doesn’t at that,” Manda agreed.

“He says he doesn’t want the appearance of an affair,” Johnna told Manda, quoting the letter. “It’s one thing to have loose drawers when you’re a young man, but a widower best be clear he isn’t buttering both sides of his bread.”

Johnna’s mother laughed again. “So direct,” she repeated. “But think about it,” she went on. “There are grandmothers he can hire among the Auric if that’s his reason. It’s a side way in for you he’s offering, if you want to take it.”

“And if I don’t?”

Johnna’s mother shrugged, smiled. “Then you don’t,” she said.

Later, sitting with Darric, both of them sanding bows, Johnna said, “My father wants me to sit with my sisters for two seasons.”

“Oh?” Johnna no more discussed her parentage with Darric than she did the reasons they must always leave the door open when a third party wasn’t in the shop.

“His wife died,” she went on. “Mother says he’s giving me a chance to be an Auric.”

“And do you want that?” Darric set aside his bow and watched her.

Since he had set his work down, Johnna did the same, but that left her nothing to do with her suddenly anxious hands. “No,” she said, gripping the edges of the stool. “But I do want…” it was hard to put into words what she wanted.

“You want them to acknowledge you,” said Darric. “You want them to stop looking around you and pretending you are purely the Cooper’s daughter from the Arom tribe.”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I want.”

Darric picked up his work once more, allowing Johnna lift hers again, as well. He sanded awhile, smooth long strokes that Johnna tried to imitate on her own bow. After a time, Darric said, “You would rejoin us when the caravan came through in fall?”

“Of course. I hadn’t thought of actually going,” Johnna told him. “I don’t like to lose two seasons learning.”

Darric smiled. “You wouldn’t lose a thing if you kept working. And you would have time to gather a fair amount of wood in two seasons.” He didn’t have to tell her that some of the most expensive bows he sold were teak or that the time the Arom spent in the southern woodlands was too short for his liking. But the caravan had to hurry by then, to get back to the northern mountains before the heavy snows and ice came.

Johnna thought of the Auric forests, where Darric had traded some sixteen of his best bows last year for enough wood to make just five more. He expected to sell those for more than every other bow now in the shop, and Johnna was to craft one of them.

“You think they would let me take their wood?”

“I think if we finish three of those,” he pointed to the unstarted wood standing in a corner of the shop, “and you take them with you, they will buy them for a cost and open their forest to us both. They will see the value to themselves in what we sell.”

Johnna put down her work again, this time to cross to the corner where the teak waited. She ran her fingers lightly over her piece. “That would be something,” she said. It wasn’t just that Auric teak was a strong hardwood. It was infused with Auric magic simply from growing where they lived, and sanded and fitted right, those bows shot truer than any in the world. “That would be something,” Johnna repeated.

“Your father would teach you a little of their skill,” Darric went on. “Think about the weapons you could make. There hasn’t been a hunter mage since before my father’s time.”

Johnna looked up sharply. “But Darric,” she said, “I don’t fly! The Auric mages all fly.”

“Yes you do!” he countered. “Or you did anyway. When you were a babe in arms your mother and grandmother tied a little string to your ankle and towed you behind them like a kite.”

“How would I fly, Darric? I don’t have wings!”

“Well I don’t know where they went, but you used to. I wasn’t quite an apprentice myself, but I remember the arrows my father fletched with your feathers were said to never miss their mark.”

Johnna stared at Darric, her mouth slightly open, her hands dangling at her sides. Then she reached behind herself and patted across her shoulder blades, as if she expected wings to have sprouted out of her shirt while they were talking. Forgetting her coat on its nail by the hearth, she turned and walked out of the shop.

In the street, she ran all the way home and burst in as Manda set a piercing green emerald in a delicate lady’s ring. Normally, Johnna would never have disturbed her mother at work, but now, she no more saw the ring than she did the coat left behind in Darric’s shop.

“Johnna, what happened, child?” Manda exclaimed.

“Darric says I used to fly!”

“Well yes, “ her mother said. “Your feathers stopped growing in when you started walking. But your father told me they would come back if you ever wanted them.”

“Well why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“You never seemed very interested in your father’s people.”

“I guess I wasn’t until now,” said Johnna. She sat down on the hearth and watched Manda.

Manda went back to the gem. “You’ve met your baby sisters,” she said. “They could do with a bit of family right now, and you have a good hand with the littles.”

“I suppose so.” Johnna ran her hand across her shoulders again. Her whole back had started itching when Darric first told her she used to fly. “But I’m not Auric!” she burst out.

Now Manda laughed. “Of course you are,” she said. “You’re as Auric as you are Arom, dear.”

“I mean I couldn’t stay with them. What if I got there and they tried to keep me?”

“Their trouble with the ruling council has always been they force people out, not that they keep them in.”

“And father says,” again the hand across her own shoulders, “that if I want to fly, my feathers will come back?”

“Yes. The flight isn’t something external. It’s stored within your body. Find a way to work it out.”

Johnna thought her body was working those feathers out all on its own from just that brush of thought. She felt needles of pain all down her spine, and it was all she could do to keep from tearing her shirt off and running bare-chested into the winter air to cool the stinging.

It was that pain far more than her mother’s words that made her believe Darric. She would not lose ground in two seasons with the Auric. Instead, she would gather wood and knowledge. She would learn to train her bows with Foresight, so a hunter might see, an instant before releasing the string, if the shot would fly true or if it should be held back, the arrow unwasted.

Now her back felt like live embers had sparked onto it from the fire behind her. She lurched to her feet and then she did struggle out of her shirt. It was growing too tight, and she thought the wings would shred it. Manda looked up again from the gem, then set it swiftly aside to help her daughter. Johnna collapsed against her mother, who swayed, but held her upright as blood spilled down the girl’s sides and her back and shoulders erupted into a riot of brightly colored feathers.

After a few minutes, Manda asked “Are you all right?”

Johnna made a little sound then said, “Tender.”

“I should say.” Manda lowered Johnna to her knees. “I’m going to get a robe for you to put on backwards, then I’ll take you down to the springs. We can stop at the apothecary for numbing powder.”

Johnna sank down to rest on her arms, which quaked. She felt top-heavy and off kilter. She thought then that she would go to the Auric, to care for her sisters and to learn what to do with herself. She would not stay more than the two seasons, and even that would be hard for someone so used to travel.

She formed in her mind the fixed image of that teak sitting in Darric’s shop. She felt as though she held it already, smoothing, polishing, and notching the wood. This she would take, along with Darric’s two finished bows, to sell to her father’s tribe. But the next bow she made she meant to keep for herself, to learn to hunt in a whole new way. She barely minded that she would miss Sari’s wedding. She had larger things to do in her fifteenth summer, and in spite of her weakness and her pain, she found herself smiling when Manda came back into the room. 


Sade shifted on her rug and ruffled her shoulder feathers. “Pass me that bowl,” she instructed, her blind eyes focused somewhere over Johnna’s shoulder.

“Which?” Johnna asked. There were three bowls in front of her.

Her grandmother said, “The one you were thinking of.”

“Oh.” Johnna picked up the right-hand bowl and passed it across the low fire.

The old woman nodded and turned it over in her hands, tapping her fingers rapidly around the rim. “This is a good one,” Sade said. “Now tell it to me.”

“Excuse me?” Now, Johnna shifted. But where her grandmother had changed positions to get more comfortable, Johnna moved because there wasn’t any comfortable to be had in this hut. Her shoulders itched, her feathers tingled, and her rump was sore. She had been sitting with her father’s mother for only fifteen minutes. Yet in that time, she had earned three rebukes for her failure to observe tiny and inexplicable things.

Behind the hut, Johnna heard her father and several other men hammering on the frame for the new room. She turned her head to look out the open front door and check on her sisters, playing just outside. Ba’aita, she of three summers and a thousand temper tantrums, was leading poor little Li’ita on a chase. Ba’aita flew just out of Li’ita’s reach, never beyond the circle Johnna had chalked into the dirt, but always just at its perimeter. Li’ita, who had only one summer, flapped along after her sister, calling “Bita! Bita!” and laughing . The new baby was not outside. This youngest sister was with the wet nurse, who would bring her home at sunset.

Sade said, “Tell me the bowl.”

Johnna clammed her mouth shut, not willing to say she still didn’t understand and risk another encounter with the sharp side of her grandmother’s tongue.

Ba’aita burst suddenly through the open door. She flew straight into the flimsy back wall, knocking it down into the construction mess with the force of her impact.

“Not again, Ba’aita!” Johnna said, rising to see if the child was hurt. Although this was the first time Ba’aita had knocked down an entire wall, she had already cracked her wooden bowl in half at breakfast and torn one of Sade’s spell books in impish play. Naptime, Johnna thought, couldn’t come soon enough.

The small offender hovered a little off the ground, gazing down at the fallen wall with wide eyes. Blood ran in a steady stream down one arm. “Sorry,” she whimpered . Only it sounded like “Solly” because she hadn’t learned how to make her r’s yet.

“Why didn’t you stop her?” Sade demanded.

“Well I didn’t know she was going to… Oh. This is something else I should have Seen first,” said Johnna.

Sade sighed and got up herself, their lesson at an end.

Johnna heard her father’s voice. “Well here’s a mess,” Aif said, coming into view. Indicating Ba’aita’s bloodied arm with a pointed finger, he asked, “What got her?”

Sade knew without the benefit of vision. “She hit it at the roofline and scraped a nail.”

“Come down, Ba’aita. Come here,” Johnna said.

Now Ba’aita saw her shoulder and the whimper turned into a wail. “Come on,” said Johnna. “Come to me.” But instead of coming closer, her sister flew up a little higher, her bright blue feathers beating rapidly in alarm. She wanted to come down, Johnna saw, but couldn’t slow her wings.

“You have some of it,” Sade mused to Johnna, “but not the rest. You know why she doesn’t come down, but couldn’t tell she was heading for the wall in time to stop her.”’ Johnna bit back a sharp reply and Sade clucked. It didn’t matter whether or not Johnna said the words, her grandmother heard the thoughts. She didn’t chide this visiting granddaughter further, though. Whether Johnna did or did not carry her people’s magic, she could certainly tend well to her sisters, and that bought her a little space from Sade’s edges.

Sade had doubtless known Ba’aita was headed inside, though Johnna wagered the old woman didn’t expect this level of damage. The lessons weren’t vindictive. If Sade had realized the wall would pop out and little Ba’aita be truly hurt, she would have warned her oldest grandchild to be ready for the younger one.

Johnna flew up to catch Ba’aita, ruing the kick-hop she needed to get off the ground. Her father’s people could liftoff from sitting. Johnna might share their physical features, but she was not one of them. Still, once airborne, she caught Ba’aita easily, sliding her arms in under the girl’s wings and pulling the child close. She stroked Ba’aita’s back, smoothing her feathers until the little wings stilled and the girl slumped into a limp puddle on Johnna’s chest. Johnna held her much in the way she held the baby, who liked to snuggle tummy to tummy.

“It hurts,” Ba’aita sobbed as they landed.

Sade stalked around the wall’s perimeter with Aif, studying it for all the world as if she hadn’t lost her sight. “Tell me the wound,” she instructed Johnna.

It didn’t take the Foresight to answer this. “It needs sewing,” she said.

Ba’aita howled “No!”

“How many stitches?” Sade demanded.

Johnna’s started to say, “I don’t know,” but she stopped after the word ‘I’. “Four,” she said instead. “It needs four stitches.”

Sade grunted. “Good girl,” she said quietly. “Can you do it, or do we need the healer?”

“If I didn’t need to hold her, I could do it,” Johnna answered. “But if I don’t hold her, she’s liable to fight.”

Sade nodded. “Go then. I’ll see to Li’ita.” And she left off pacing about the fallen wall to walk around front to check on Ba’aita’s younger sister.

Over dinner, the main room still open to the newly-built frame behind, Sade said, “I’m beginning to understand how Johnna Sees things.”

“And?” Aif asked.

Sade answered, “She sees with her eyes, not with her soul.”

Aif and Sade sat at the head and foot of the table with Johnna plopped in the middle, one little sister on either side of her. Ba’aita was still subdued, her sewn up shoulder bound in a cloth that she complained hurt. She didn’t want to eat much, so Johnna was chiefly concerned with tearing Li’ita’s food into small enough portions that the little girl wouldn’t choke.

The wet nurse had returned the littlest sister. Baby, Aif explained to Johnna, was too young to have a name. Among his people, a child had to live a full year before its naming day, unless it happened to be particularly swarthy. There was no sense wasting a name on a baby if it didn’t live to see the use of it. And Baby was not swarthy, couldn’t even properly be called healthy. She was still so young that her wings wouldn’t lift her, and she lay quiet most of the time.

Johnna had never known an infant so listless. She suspected that the wet nurse shorted Baby for her own child. Therefore, she made a watery mash to put in Baby’s mouth in the morning before giving her to the nurse, once more as soon as the nurse brought her home, again before they all went to bed, and one more time in the dark hours, when the infant woke hungry, rooting for milk Johnna didn’t have.

Johnna contemplated Baby now, rather than listen to her father and grandmother’s discussion. Baby lay on her back on a quilt, her downy little wings flopped wide open to either side of her body. Johnna tried to decide if the infant looked any stronger since her own arrival. She thought not, and this worried her. If anything, Baby seemed more frail, less likely to live long enough to be named.

It made her glad her own mother was an Arom trader, not an Auric magician. Her people named babies at birth, a layer of protection against the world’s ills. And Johnna had been named even sooner. Since Manda was only fifteen at her daughter’s accidental conception, the tribe named Johnna in the womb, calling her “John”, a strong name that could be used for a boy or a girl.

Johnna missed her mother and stepfather now. She wished spring would turn quickly to summer, then to fall. She wanted to go back to her Arom family, where her sister was turning eleven and her brothers were seven and five. She left for Auricstead when the village began preparing the wagons, and by now, the Arom would be well on their way for another year.

Instead of the slow pace set by her tribe’s sturdy pack animals, Johnna took the stage coach, which covered in a week distances the Arom spent an entire month traversing. When Johnna arrived, Ba’ita and Li’ita flew out to meet her, and Johnna was suddenly glad she had spent the entire cold winter learning to fly, so that she did not seem a novice in comparison to children who were still practically babies.

She enjoyed these siblings. Li’ita was too little to really understand what had happened. She wanted for nothing more than cuddling and playing. If Li’ita got up in the night, it was only to seek out the warmth of Johnna’s bed mat, to snuggle and snore. Ba’aita, on the other hand, remembered her mother, and sometimes woke crying inconsolably, so that Johnna had to sit holding her, stroking her silky hair for an hour or more. Baby only cried out once each night for that little meal Johnna left covered on the table. And Baby was so quiet that Johnna slept with a hand stretched out over the child, fearful that she would otherwise fail to hear her need.

As her father and grandmother moved on to the topic of the room her father was adding to the hut, Johnna went on watching Baby wave one listless arm. Aif was courting three women now, a widow and two who had never before married, one of those not much older than Johnna herself. Aif and Sade mused how best to decorate the room for the new wife after it was finished and whether to bother replacing the makeshift wall that had cut Ba’aita, now that the weather was growing warmer.

Baby lowered one arm and lifted the other, an exercise in holding up a heavy weight. Then something in her posture shifted, and she was no longer holding up her arm. Rather the arm was holding the infant down. “Baby?” said Johnna, bringing to a halt her grandmother’s argument about putting a sleeping hammock in the new room. Johnna half stood, and Baby twisted her head, a violent movement that caused her back to arch. Her face turned blue and in the instant before Johnna could move, the little girl’s body collapsed in on itself and she vanished.

Johnna screamed, “Baby!” and then sat down shaking, because Baby was fine, her little hand still extended to the ceiling, the tiny fist curling and uncurling as she lay on the floor.

“Johnna what happened?” her father asked.

“Nothing!” said Johnna. “I feel foolish.”

“Johnna!” he said sharply, “What did you see? Look at me and tell me what you saw!”

“I didn’t see anything.”

He took her by the shoulders and said, “Then what did you think you saw?”

“I thought… she died.” Johnna indicated Baby with a wave. “She died and disappeared before I could get up out of my chair.”

Aif growled in the back of his throat. Then, “Johnna,” he said, more gently than she had expected, “if you must see with only your eyes, then you must learn to trust them. Now take her quickly to the healer. Come get me if I am needed.”

Johnna stood, and though her legs would hardly hold her body, she crossed and gathered up Baby’s warm, reassuring weight. But small, so small. Outside, instead of walking, as she preferred to do after dark, Johnna flew to the healer’s hut, remembering as she kicked off the ground that he had said, “See you this evening,” when she left with Ba’aita earlier in the day.

Indeed, he was waiting when she landed once more at his door. But when he saw the tiny bundle in her arms, he let out a dismayed whistle. “I thought it would be Ba’aita again,” he remarked, taking Baby. Johnna expected confusion then. She thought he would look at the baby and ask her why she had brought it instead. But he cradled Baby and held two fingers to her tiny throat. He said, “Go for your father.”

As she turned to leave , Johnna thought she heard a rattle as Baby drew breath.

After that, she didn’t know anything. Aif left for the healer’s hut, and Sade and Johnna cleaned up from supper in surreal silence. Johnna wrapped Li’ita and Ba’aita in their sleeping mats, then lit a lantern and sat vigil in the front room. She expected to be alone, but Sade soon joined her at the table.

“What will happen?” she asked her grandmother.

“It depends on what is wrong and what magic they can conjure.”

“Then you can’t See?”

Sade said, “No.”

Forgetting Sade could hear her thoughts, Johnna wished she had understood the depth of Baby’s illness sooner.

“No,” Sade repeated. “Some things simply cannot be Seen.”

“Oh,” said Johnna.

“But I can tell you this,” Sade went on. “If Baby survives, it will be because you saw with your eyes what the rest of us could not see with our souls.”

It was a compliment, but little comfort. Johnna didn’t answer and leaned heavily on the table. Stacked in front of her, waiting for breakfast in the morning, were the three bowls her grandmother had been teaching her to scry with earlier in the day. Johnna picked up the top one and handed it to Sade, who did not need to be told to reach out.

Johnna said, “The bowl is two shades of red, swirled together and spiralling out from the bottom. The darker red is deep as heart’s blood, like it leaned in too close to a volcano and came away scarred by lava. The lighter color is more like clay, or a bird’s feathers, rising up from the earth’s center and lifting the heart’s blood away from the burning heat.”

“Good girl,” said Sade.

Johnna went on, speaking quickly before she lost the thing she had seen at the very bottom of the bowl, balanced between the vermillion and the flame. She said, “And my sister’s name is Earthbound Bird. I do not know the words in your language, but that is how it goes in the common tongue, and she must have it if she is to live.” Johnna was breathing heavily when she finished, shaking as badly as she had been when the vision of Baby’s death overcame her at supper.

Sade turned the bowl over in her hands. “Loma’ai,” she said. “Earthbound Bird. Not small?” Johnna knew enough of the Auric tongue to know that ‘ita’ at the end of a word meant small. Ba’aita translated to ‘Small Firebird’ and ‘Li’ita’ came out ‘Small sky’. They would likely drop the diminutives as they grew, as most of the tribe’s children did.

Johnna shook her head. “Not small,” she said. “Not Loma’aita. Loma’ai. If she grows, she will be ‘Ai’ as my father is “Aif’. ‘Bird’.”

Sade nodded and turned the bowl over twice more before setting it on the table. “It had best be me to tell them, then,” she eventually concluded. “The namer will spend less time arguing about the waste if she does not have to also complain because it was first Seen by an outsider.”

Johnna agreed. She watched her grandmother walk to the hut’s door and lift into the sky, knowing Sade’s magic would guide the old woman as if her eyes had not completely dimmed Johnna watched the door for a long time after Sade left. Then, because nothing else seemed to help at all, Johnna picked up the bowl and stared hard into its center, trying to find things that simply could not be Seen.

Episode 78: The Giant Who Dreamed of Summer by Jess Hyslop


Loma’ai

by Jessie Bishop Powell

When people asked about Johnna’s dark skin and hair and her grey-violet eyes, her mother Manda said, “She was my surprise baby.” Those traits, especially the eyes, belonged to the Auric tribe, whose standing with the ruling council was never stable. So the askers usually pretended to think Johnna was descended from her stepfather, even though she looked nothing like him or her younger siblings on that side.

Her father, when Johnna saw him once a year, was more honest. “Pfft. Accident,” he said. “The caravan leader had a fetching daughter, and I had a terminal problem keeping up my drawers.”

Johnna grew up among her mother’s folk, nomadic traders who settled into their mountain valley only in hard winter. Manda polished and mounted gems in cunning settings. She twisted necklaces , bracelets, and rings into life. Johnna took the name Cooper from her stepfather. He soaked wood and banded it into casks. Winters, his shop came alive with the sounds of hammering, and summers, he set up his travelling forge to keep working.

Johnna herself was apprenticed to the bowwright, and she had nimble fingers and patient hands. She chose feathers and wood all summer long as they traveled. She sat with Darric in his wagon in summer and in his shop in the cold months, and he guided her hands as she smoothed the wood to a shine and notched it for stringing . “Every tree has a curve, no matter how slight,” Darric said. “Pay attention to that as you work; make the bow conform to that natural shape.” She used the feathers to fletch arrows, where she also mounted the sharp little tips she whittled down from flint or obsidian.

Increasingly, Johnna’s next oldest sister minded their brothers so their parents could sell the family’s goods. Johnna often went with Darric now. They were watched closely, the sandy haired bachelor and his young apprentice. And they were careful, never alone long, because tongues wagged in their tribe. It wasn’t something they spoke of, but in the summer, if Darric went into the wagon for something, Johnna made a point to sit up front. Or if she needed something in back, he took the reins or tended to the horses in some other way, so that everyone could see they were not alone in the dark. Winters, they sat in his shop, perched on stools, the door open to outside, even though it was cold.

Johnna slighted her friends to hone the craft she loved. It wasn’t just making the bows and arrows, but testing them. Darric taught her how to hunt and shoot true, so she could know her own work’s quality. Then too, she earned a little money, because Darric put her pieces alongside his in every town, only telling which had been made by the prentice when pressed. She kept this cash secreted with her stepfather’s barrels. Her peers might overlook her darker skin and hair and her purple tinted eyes, but none of them had the skill to earn money from their prenticeships yet. They would say Darric favored her, perhaps even that he was courting her, if they knew he gave her money of her own.

She was just now fifteen, the age her mother had been at her own birth. Young by her people’s standards. Still, one of her friends was already betrothed. Sari meant to marry outside the tribe. Her vocation ran more towards growing things, skills that made her ill suited for a nomadic life. She was engaged to a farmer near Derrydown, and if they still liked each other when they met again next summer, her parents would let the wedding go forward. Johnna did not want a husband yet. She was friendly with a number of boys, and she supposed she would go with one of them when the time came. But primarily, she meant to craft bows and hunt.

Then came her father’s letter, sent with a straggler who had to stop and replace a wheel and who barely crossed the passes before the mountain snows isolated the village for winter. “My wife died,” her father wrote. She had been heavy with their third when the caravan wound through Auricstead the previous fall, and Johnna could guess how she passed.

The letter went on, “I have a wet nurse for the babe, and I can manage for the winter. But come Spring, I must built up my hut again and add a room to take a new wife in the fall. I would pay a good wage if you came and watched your sisters until late summer.”

Johnna’s mother laughed when she saw the note. “He was always so direct,” she said.

“He doesn’t make it sound very appealing,” Johnna said.

“He doesn’t at that,” Manda agreed.

“He says he doesn’t want the appearance of an affair,” Johnna told Manda, quoting the letter. “It’s one thing to have loose drawers when you’re a young man, but a widower best be clear he isn’t buttering both sides of his bread.”

Johnna’s mother laughed again. “So direct,” she repeated. “But think about it,” she went on. “There are grandmothers he can hire among the Auric if that’s his reason. It’s a side way in for you he’s offering, if you want to take it.”

“And if I don’t?”

Johnna’s mother shrugged, smiled. “Then you don’t,” she said.

Later, sitting with Darric, both of them sanding bows, Johnna said, “My father wants me to sit with my sisters for two seasons.”

“Oh?” Johnna no more discussed her parentage with Darric than she did the reasons they must always leave the door open when a third party wasn’t in the shop.

“His wife died,” she went on. “Mother says he’s giving me a chance to be an Auric.”

“And do you want that?” Darric set aside his bow and watched her.

Since he had set his work down, Johnna did the same, but that left her nothing to do with her suddenly anxious hands. “No,” she said, gripping the edges of the stool. “But I do want…” it was hard to put into words what she wanted.

“You want them to acknowledge you,” said Darric. “You want them to stop looking around you and pretending you are purely the Cooper’s daughter from the Arom tribe.”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I want.”

Darric picked up his work once more, allowing Johnna lift hers again, as well. He sanded awhile, smooth long strokes that Johnna tried to imitate on her own bow. After a time, Darric said, “You would rejoin us when the caravan came through in fall?”

“Of course. I hadn’t thought of actually going,” Johnna told him. “I don’t like to lose two seasons learning.”

Darric smiled. “You wouldn’t lose a thing if you kept working. And you would have time to gather a fair amount of wood in two seasons.” He didn’t have to tell her that some of the most expensive bows he sold were teak or that the time the Arom spent in the southern woodlands was too short for his liking. But the caravan had to hurry by then, to get back to the northern mountains before the heavy snows and ice came.

Johnna thought of the Auric forests, where Darric had traded some sixteen of his best bows last year for enough wood to make just five more. He expected to sell those for more than every other bow now in the shop, and Johnna was to craft one of them.

“You think they would let me take their wood?”

“I think if we finish three of those,” he pointed to the unstarted wood standing in a corner of the shop, “and you take them with you, they will buy them for a cost and open their forest to us both. They will see the value to themselves in what we sell.”

Johnna put down her work again, this time to cross to the corner where the teak waited. She ran her fingers lightly over her piece. “That would be something,” she said. It wasn’t just that Auric teak was a strong hardwood. It was infused with Auric magic simply from growing where they lived, and sanded and fitted right, those bows shot truer than any in the world. “That would be something,” Johnna repeated.

“Your father would teach you a little of their skill,” Darric went on. “Think about the weapons you could make. There hasn’t been a hunter mage since before my father’s time.”

Johnna looked up sharply. “But Darric,” she said, “I don’t fly! The Auric mages all fly.”

“Yes you do!” he countered. “Or you did anyway. When you were a babe in arms your mother and grandmother tied a little string to your ankle and towed you behind them like a kite.”

“How would I fly, Darric? I don’t have wings!”

“Well I don’t know where they went, but you used to. I wasn’t quite an apprentice myself, but I remember the arrows my father fletched with your feathers were said to never miss their mark.”

Johnna stared at Darric, her mouth slightly open, her hands dangling at her sides. Then she reached behind herself and patted across her shoulder blades, as if she expected wings to have sprouted out of her shirt while they were talking. Forgetting her coat on its nail by the hearth, she turned and walked out of the shop.

In the street, she ran all the way home and burst in as Manda set a piercing green emerald in a delicate lady’s ring. Normally, Johnna would never have disturbed her mother at work, but now, she no more saw the ring than she did the coat left behind in Darric’s shop.

“Johnna, what happened, child?” Manda exclaimed.

“Darric says I used to fly!”

“Well yes, “ her mother said. “Your feathers stopped growing in when you started walking. But your father told me they would come back if you ever wanted them.”

“Well why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“You never seemed very interested in your father’s people.”

“I guess I wasn’t until now,” said Johnna. She sat down on the hearth and watched Manda.

Manda went back to the gem. “You’ve met your baby sisters,” she said. “They could do with a bit of family right now, and you have a good hand with the littles.”

“I suppose so.” Johnna ran her hand across her shoulders again. Her whole back had started itching when Darric first told her she used to fly. “But I’m not Auric!” she burst out.

Now Manda laughed. “Of course you are,” she said. “You’re as Auric as you are Arom, dear.”

“I mean I couldn’t stay with them. What if I got there and they tried to keep me?”

“Their trouble with the ruling council has always been they force people out, not that they keep them in.”

“And father says,” again the hand across her own shoulders, “that if I want to fly, my feathers will come back?”

“Yes. The flight isn’t something external. It’s stored within your body. Find a way to work it out.”

Johnna thought her body was working those feathers out all on its own from just that brush of thought. She felt needles of pain all down her spine, and it was all she could do to keep from tearing her shirt off and running bare-chested into the winter air to cool the stinging.

It was that pain far more than her mother’s words that made her believe Darric. She would not lose ground in two seasons with the Auric. Instead, she would gather wood and knowledge. She would learn to train her bows with Foresight, so a hunter might see, an instant before releasing the string, if the shot would fly true or if it should be held back, the arrow unwasted.

Now her back felt like live embers had sparked onto it from the fire behind her. She lurched to her feet and then she did struggle out of her shirt. It was growing too tight, and she thought the wings would shred it. Manda looked up again from the gem, then set it swiftly aside to help her daughter. Johnna collapsed against her mother, who swayed, but held her upright as blood spilled down the girl’s sides and her back and shoulders erupted into a riot of brightly colored feathers.

After a few minutes, Manda asked “Are you all right?”

Johnna made a little sound then said, “Tender.”

“I should say.” Manda lowered Johnna to her knees. “I’m going to get a robe for you to put on backwards, then I’ll take you down to the springs. We can stop at the apothecary for numbing powder.”

Johnna sank down to rest on her arms, which quaked. She felt top-heavy and off kilter. She thought then that she would go to the Auric, to care for her sisters and to learn what to do with herself. She would not stay more than the two seasons, and even that would be hard for someone so used to travel.

She formed in her mind the fixed image of that teak sitting in Darric’s shop. She felt as though she held it already, smoothing, polishing, and notching the wood. This she would take, along with Darric’s two finished bows, to sell to her father’s tribe. But the next bow she made she meant to keep for herself, to learn to hunt in a whole new way. She barely minded that she would miss Sari’s wedding. She had larger things to do in her fifteenth summer, and in spite of her weakness and her pain, she found herself smiling when Manda came back into the room. 


Sade shifted on her rug and ruffled her shoulder feathers. “Pass me that bowl,” she instructed, her blind eyes focused somewhere over Johnna’s shoulder.

“Which?” Johnna asked. There were three bowls in front of her.

Her grandmother said, “The one you were thinking of.”

“Oh.” Johnna picked up the right-hand bowl and passed it across the low fire.

The old woman nodded and turned it over in her hands, tapping her fingers rapidly around the rim. “This is a good one,” Sade said. “Now tell it to me.”

“Excuse me?” Now, Johnna shifted. But where her grandmother had changed positions to get more comfortable, Johnna moved because there wasn’t any comfortable to be had in this hut. Her shoulders itched, her feathers tingled, and her rump was sore. She had been sitting with her father’s mother for only fifteen minutes. Yet in that time, she had earned three rebukes for her failure to observe tiny and inexplicable things.

Behind the hut, Johnna heard her father and several other men hammering on the frame for the new room. She turned her head to look out the open front door and check on her sisters, playing just outside. Ba’aita, she of three summers and a thousand temper tantrums, was leading poor little Li’ita on a chase. Ba’aita flew just out of Li’ita’s reach, never beyond the circle Johnna had chalked into the dirt, but always just at its perimeter. Li’ita, who had only one summer, flapped along after her sister, calling “Bita! Bita!” and laughing . The new baby was not outside. This youngest sister was with the wet nurse, who would bring her home at sunset.

Sade said, “Tell me the bowl.”

Johnna clammed her mouth shut, not willing to say she still didn’t understand and risk another encounter with the sharp side of her grandmother’s tongue.

Ba’aita burst suddenly through the open door. She flew straight into the flimsy back wall, knocking it down into the construction mess with the force of her impact.

“Not again, Ba’aita!” Johnna said, rising to see if the child was hurt. Although this was the first time Ba’aita had knocked down an entire wall, she had already cracked her wooden bowl in half at breakfast and torn one of Sade’s spell books in impish play. Naptime, Johnna thought, couldn’t come soon enough.

The small offender hovered a little off the ground, gazing down at the fallen wall with wide eyes. Blood ran in a steady stream down one arm. “Sorry,” she whimpered . Only it sounded like “Solly” because she hadn’t learned how to make her r’s yet.

“Why didn’t you stop her?” Sade demanded.

“Well I didn’t know she was going to… Oh. This is something else I should have Seen first,” said Johnna.

Sade sighed and got up herself, their lesson at an end.

Johnna heard her father’s voice. “Well here’s a mess,” Aif said, coming into view. Indicating Ba’aita’s bloodied arm with a pointed finger, he asked, “What got her?”

Sade knew without the benefit of vision. “She hit it at the roofline and scraped a nail.”

“Come down, Ba’aita. Come here,” Johnna said.

Now Ba’aita saw her shoulder and the whimper turned into a wail. “Come on,” said Johnna. “Come to me.” But instead of coming closer, her sister flew up a little higher, her bright blue feathers beating rapidly in alarm. She wanted to come down, Johnna saw, but couldn’t slow her wings.

“You have some of it,” Sade mused to Johnna, “but not the rest. You know why she doesn’t come down, but couldn’t tell she was heading for the wall in time to stop her.”’ Johnna bit back a sharp reply and Sade clucked. It didn’t matter whether or not Johnna said the words, her grandmother heard the thoughts. She didn’t chide this visiting granddaughter further, though. Whether Johnna did or did not carry her people’s magic, she could certainly tend well to her sisters, and that bought her a little space from Sade’s edges.

Sade had doubtless known Ba’aita was headed inside, though Johnna wagered the old woman didn’t expect this level of damage. The lessons weren’t vindictive. If Sade had realized the wall would pop out and little Ba’aita be truly hurt, she would have warned her oldest grandchild to be ready for the younger one.

Johnna flew up to catch Ba’aita, ruing the kick-hop she needed to get off the ground. Her father’s people could liftoff from sitting. Johnna might share their physical features, but she was not one of them. Still, once airborne, she caught Ba’aita easily, sliding her arms in under the girl’s wings and pulling the child close. She stroked Ba’aita’s back, smoothing her feathers until the little wings stilled and the girl slumped into a limp puddle on Johnna’s chest. Johnna held her much in the way she held the baby, who liked to snuggle tummy to tummy.

“It hurts,” Ba’aita sobbed as they landed.

Sade stalked around the wall’s perimeter with Aif, studying it for all the world as if she hadn’t lost her sight. “Tell me the wound,” she instructed Johnna.

It didn’t take the Foresight to answer this. “It needs sewing,” she said.

Ba’aita howled “No!”

“How many stitches?” Sade demanded.

Johnna’s started to say, “I don’t know,” but she stopped after the word ‘I’. “Four,” she said instead. “It needs four stitches.”

Sade grunted. “Good girl,” she said quietly. “Can you do it, or do we need the healer?”

“If I didn’t need to hold her, I could do it,” Johnna answered. “But if I don’t hold her, she’s liable to fight.”

Sade nodded. “Go then. I’ll see to Li’ita.” And she left off pacing about the fallen wall to walk around front to check on Ba’aita’s younger sister.

Over dinner, the main room still open to the newly-built frame behind, Sade said, “I’m beginning to understand how Johnna Sees things.”

“And?” Aif asked.

Sade answered, “She sees with her eyes, not with her soul.”

Aif and Sade sat at the head and foot of the table with Johnna plopped in the middle, one little sister on either side of her. Ba’aita was still subdued, her sewn up shoulder bound in a cloth that she complained hurt. She didn’t want to eat much, so Johnna was chiefly concerned with tearing Li’ita’s food into small enough portions that the little girl wouldn’t choke.

The wet nurse had returned the littlest sister. Baby, Aif explained to Johnna, was too young to have a name. Among his people, a child had to live a full year before its naming day, unless it happened to be particularly swarthy. There was no sense wasting a name on a baby if it didn’t live to see the use of it. And Baby was not swarthy, couldn’t even properly be called healthy. She was still so young that her wings wouldn’t lift her, and she lay quiet most of the time.

Johnna had never known an infant so listless. She suspected that the wet nurse shorted Baby for her own child. Therefore, she made a watery mash to put in Baby’s mouth in the morning before giving her to the nurse, once more as soon as the nurse brought her home, again before they all went to bed, and one more time in the dark hours, when the infant woke hungry, rooting for milk Johnna didn’t have.

Johnna contemplated Baby now, rather than listen to her father and grandmother’s discussion. Baby lay on her back on a quilt, her downy little wings flopped wide open to either side of her body. Johnna tried to decide if the infant looked any stronger since her own arrival. She thought not, and this worried her. If anything, Baby seemed more frail, less likely to live long enough to be named.

It made her glad her own mother was an Arom trader, not an Auric magician. Her people named babies at birth, a layer of protection against the world’s ills. And Johnna had been named even sooner. Since Manda was only fifteen at her daughter’s accidental conception, the tribe named Johnna in the womb, calling her “John”, a strong name that could be used for a boy or a girl.

Johnna missed her mother and stepfather now. She wished spring would turn quickly to summer, then to fall. She wanted to go back to her Arom family, where her sister was turning eleven and her brothers were seven and five. She left for Auricstead when the village began preparing the wagons, and by now, the Arom would be well on their way for another year.

Instead of the slow pace set by her tribe’s sturdy pack animals, Johnna took the stage coach, which covered in a week distances the Arom spent an entire month traversing. When Johnna arrived, Ba’ita and Li’ita flew out to meet her, and Johnna was suddenly glad she had spent the entire cold winter learning to fly, so that she did not seem a novice in comparison to children who were still practically babies.

She enjoyed these siblings. Li’ita was too little to really understand what had happened. She wanted for nothing more than cuddling and playing. If Li’ita got up in the night, it was only to seek out the warmth of Johnna’s bed mat, to snuggle and snore. Ba’aita, on the other hand, remembered her mother, and sometimes woke crying inconsolably, so that Johnna had to sit holding her, stroking her silky hair for an hour or more. Baby only cried out once each night for that little meal Johnna left covered on the table. And Baby was so quiet that Johnna slept with a hand stretched out over the child, fearful that she would otherwise fail to hear her need.

As her father and grandmother moved on to the topic of the room her father was adding to the hut, Johnna went on watching Baby wave one listless arm. Aif was courting three women now, a widow and two who had never before married, one of those not much older than Johnna herself. Aif and Sade mused how best to decorate the room for the new wife after it was finished and whether to bother replacing the makeshift wall that had cut Ba’aita, now that the weather was growing warmer.

Baby lowered one arm and lifted the other, an exercise in holding up a heavy weight. Then something in her posture shifted, and she was no longer holding up her arm. Rather the arm was holding the infant down. “Baby?” said Johnna, bringing to a halt her grandmother’s argument about putting a sleeping hammock in the new room. Johnna half stood, and Baby twisted her head, a violent movement that caused her back to arch. Her face turned blue and in the instant before Johnna could move, the little girl’s body collapsed in on itself and she vanished.

Johnna screamed, “Baby!” and then sat down shaking, because Baby was fine, her little hand still extended to the ceiling, the tiny fist curling and uncurling as she lay on the floor.

“Johnna what happened?” her father asked.

“Nothing!” said Johnna. “I feel foolish.”

“Johnna!” he said sharply, “What did you see? Look at me and tell me what you saw!”

“I didn’t see anything.”

He took her by the shoulders and said, “Then what did you think you saw?”

“I thought… she died.” Johnna indicated Baby with a wave. “She died and disappeared before I could get up out of my chair.”

Aif growled in the back of his throat. Then, “Johnna,” he said, more gently than she had expected, “if you must see with only your eyes, then you must learn to trust them. Now take her quickly to the healer. Come get me if I am needed.”

Johnna stood, and though her legs would hardly hold her body, she crossed and gathered up Baby’s warm, reassuring weight. But small, so small. Outside, instead of walking, as she preferred to do after dark, Johnna flew to the healer’s hut, remembering as she kicked off the ground that he had said, “See you this evening,” when she left with Ba’aita earlier in the day.

Indeed, he was waiting when she landed once more at his door. But when he saw the tiny bundle in her arms, he let out a dismayed whistle. “I thought it would be Ba’aita again,” he remarked, taking Baby. Johnna expected confusion then. She thought he would look at the baby and ask her why she had brought it instead. But he cradled Baby and held two fingers to her tiny throat. He said, “Go for your father.”

As she turned to leave , Johnna thought she heard a rattle as Baby drew breath.

After that, she didn’t know anything. Aif left for the healer’s hut, and Sade and Johnna cleaned up from supper in surreal silence. Johnna wrapped Li’ita and Ba’aita in their sleeping mats, then lit a lantern and sat vigil in the front room. She expected to be alone, but Sade soon joined her at the table.

“What will happen?” she asked her grandmother.

“It depends on what is wrong and what magic they can conjure.”

“Then you can’t See?”

Sade said, “No.”

Forgetting Sade could hear her thoughts, Johnna wished she had understood the depth of Baby’s illness sooner.

“No,” Sade repeated. “Some things simply cannot be Seen.”

“Oh,” said Johnna.

“But I can tell you this,” Sade went on. “If Baby survives, it will be because you saw with your eyes what the rest of us could not see with our souls.”

It was a compliment, but little comfort. Johnna didn’t answer and leaned heavily on the table. Stacked in front of her, waiting for breakfast in the morning, were the three bowls her grandmother had been teaching her to scry with earlier in the day. Johnna picked up the top one and handed it to Sade, who did not need to be told to reach out.

Johnna said, “The bowl is two shades of red, swirled together and spiralling out from the bottom. The darker red is deep as heart’s blood, like it leaned in too close to a volcano and came away scarred by lava. The lighter color is more like clay, or a bird’s feathers, rising up from the earth’s center and lifting the heart’s blood away from the burning heat.”

“Good girl,” said Sade.

Johnna went on, speaking quickly before she lost the thing she had seen at the very bottom of the bowl, balanced between the vermillion and the flame. She said, “And my sister’s name is Earthbound Bird. I do not know the words in your language, but that is how it goes in the common tongue, and she must have it if she is to live.” Johnna was breathing heavily when she finished, shaking as badly as she had been when the vision of Baby’s death overcame her at supper.

Sade turned the bowl over in her hands. “Loma’ai,” she said. “Earthbound Bird. Not small?” Johnna knew enough of the Auric tongue to know that ‘ita’ at the end of a word meant small. Ba’aita translated to ‘Small Firebird’ and ‘Li’ita’ came out ‘Small sky’. They would likely drop the diminutives as they grew, as most of the tribe’s children did.

Johnna shook her head. “Not small,” she said. “Not Loma’aita. Loma’ai. If she grows, she will be ‘Ai’ as my father is “Aif’. ‘Bird’.”

Sade nodded and turned the bowl over twice more before setting it on the table. “It had best be me to tell them, then,” she eventually concluded. “The namer will spend less time arguing about the waste if she does not have to also complain because it was first Seen by an outsider.”

Johnna agreed. She watched her grandmother walk to the hut’s door and lift into the sky, knowing Sade’s magic would guide the old woman as if her eyes had not completely dimmed Johnna watched the door for a long time after Sade left. Then, because nothing else seemed to help at all, Johnna picked up the bowl and stared hard into its center, trying to find things that simply could not be Seen.

Episode 77: The Long Cut by Tom Howard


The Long Cut

by Tom Howard

“Do you want me to drive for a while?” my mother asked from the front passenger seat.  It was the middle of the night but, unlike my older sister, I couldn’t sleep. The desert streaked by just out of sight of the headlights.  Off in the distance I could occasionally see a cluster of lights. I often wondered if there were kids like me asleep in their beds in little houses.  Kids who didn’t have crazy fathers who insisted on driving everywhere because planes and trains were too expensive and buses were too slow.

“I’m good until Tucson,” said my dad.  He and Mom traded off driving since we never stopped at a hotel because Dad said he’d never pay hard-earned money just for sleeping.  “I could use another cup of that coffee if there’s any left.”

Mom unscrewed the lid from a battered aluminum thermos in a ritual that I’d seen her perform a hundred times.  She’d pour the dark, steaming liquid – rarely spilling a drop – into Dad’s big travel mug. He’d complain about how bad restaurant coffee was.  I didn’t wait for Dad’s expected comment. I just looked out the window. Where the heck were we?

“Dad?” I said.

“Yes, son.  Why aren’t you asleep?” 

Considering that I’d been sitting in a SUV for the last two days since we left Grandma’s house, I answered truthfully, “I guess I’m not very tired.  Dad, what’s that big lake off to our right?”

“A lake?” asked Mom, opening and looking at an atlas more battered than the thermos.  “There’s nothing bigger than a pond for hundreds of miles. What are you seeing?”

She peered out her window into the darkness.  “Stan, he’s right. I can see the full moon reflected on a big lake out there.”

“Maybe we’re lost again,” said Dad.  “Check the map for a reservoir or irrigation canal.”

Dad didn’t like to use the interstate highway in case there were tolls, so we took the back roads whenever we traveled.   Unfortunately, Dad didn’t have much of a sense of direction. If Mom was napping, Dad would explore new, and unnecessary, territory, usually in the exact opposite direction from where we needed to be.  My sister and I called them ‘Dad’s Long Cuts.’

“Well, it’s about time for a potty break anyway,” said Dad.  “I’ll find a place to pull over up ahead.”

“I’d prefer a service station restroom to a bush,” said Mom.  This was another ritual. Dad had a bladder the size of a kiddie pool, and he never pulled over until all the rest of us were squirming and begging.

“Randy!” my sister screamed and punched me.

“Ow!” I said.  “What was that for?”

She made a face and pointed to her window.  “Like that thing would fool anyone.”

I stared at the strange creature pressed against the glass of Trudy’s window.  It looked like a hairless bat if a bat had tentacles with suction cups.

“Dad,” I said slowly and then changed my mind.  “Mom!”

“What is it?” she asked, turning from the map to look at Trudy.

She gasped.  “Stan! There’s something on Trudy’s window.”

“It’s just one of Randy’s plastic toys,” insisted Trudy.  She started to roll down the window.

“Don’t!” I shouted.  “Look! It’s breathing.”

Just then something smacked against the front window.  Dad swerved and cursed. “Did you see that, hon? It looked like an albino bat!”

“Yes, dear.  I think one of them is on Trudy’s window.  Trudy, don’t open that. Randy, if this is one of your practical jokes, you’re going to be grounded for a year.”

“Hang on!” yelled Dad as more of the unusual bats bounced off the windshield.  During the swerving back and forth, Trudy’s bat slid off the glass and flew away into the darkness.

Dad slowed down and nothing else hit the SUV.  “What in the world do you suppose that was?” he asked.

“Maybe a group of albino bats hunting for insects,” said Mom, always the practical one.  “Wasn’t that exciting, kids?”

Trudy looked questioningly at me and I shrugged.  “Yes, Mom,” I said.

“Hey,” said Trudy, looking out her window.  “What’s wrong with the moon?”

Mom looked around.  “Where, dear?”

“Up there,” said Trudy.  “Why are there two of them?”

I bent over and looked out her window.  There did appear to be two full moons in the night sky, one smaller than the other.  Neither had the man in the moon face I was used to. Trudy shoved me back onto my side of the seat.

“Probably just some optical illusion,” said Dad.  “The desert does that sometimes. You know, like a mirage.”

This time Trudy gave me a look that said “the old man is crazy,” but she remained silent as she turned back to the window.

“Hey, I see a station up ahead,” said Dad.  “We’re lucky they’re still open after midnight.”

When we pulled up to the pump, a buzzer went off.  Dad looked down at the hose he’d run over when we got out.  “Wow,” he said, “I haven’t seen one of those in years. You don’t suppose they still have full service out there in the middle of nowhere?”

“I don’t care,” said Mom, “just as long as no one gets between me and the bathroom.  Come on, Trudy.” My sister was still squinting up at the moons.

The station was brightly lit, very clean, and surrounded by water.  I could hear it lapping against the edges of the highway we’d just come in on.  The air was warm, warmer than I expected the desert air to be at night.

“What’ll it be?” asked a little man appearing out of nowhere.  Dad and I both jumped. In the bright lights, he looked faintly Asian or perhaps Eskimo.  His face was lined with enough wrinkles to make him look like he’d been soaking in a tub too long.  He wore a coverall with an unfamiliar logo and wasn’t much taller than I was.

“Uh, fill ‘er up,” said Dad, digging for his wallet.  “You guys take credit cards?”

The old man, busy with the gas pump, looked at Dad for a minute and nodded.  “That will be fine. Where you folks headed for so late?”

“Tucson,” said Dad.  “We hope to be there by morning.  This is the right road, isn’t it?”

Again the old man paused for a moment before speaking.  “No. You’ve got off on the wrong road. You need to go back to the last fork and go north.”

“Dang it!” said Dad, moving out of the old man’s way as he started to wash the SUV windows.

“What town is this?” I asked.  “We didn’t see any big lakes on the map.”

“Town?  No town,” said the old man, taking Dad’s credit card.  Even in the bright lights, the service station attendant’s skin looked gray.  “Go back to the fork in the road,” he repeated.

Something nearby bellowed out on the water.  The loud roar sounded like it was made by something that was a cross between a lion and a train whistle.  Dad and I both jumped and then laughed at our skittishness, but I was glad that it was too dark to see what animal had made that noise.

“You’d better hit the bathroom, son,” said Dad.  “I’m going to see if they can refill our thermos.”

I nodded and headed toward the bright lights of the building.  Mom and Trudy were coming out with an armload of snacks. 

“Their stuff is very reasonable,” said practical Mom.  “Although where they got purple chocolate, I’ll never know.”

“You’d better get in the car and lock the doors,” I warned.  “Dad and I heard something big and loud out on the lake.”

“Yeah,” teased Trudy.  “It was probably a brontosaurus looking for his mate.  Come on, Mom. Look, this National Inquirer has a story about President Presley!  What a hoot.”

I hurried inside and went to the bathroom.  On the way out, I grabbed some blue potato chips and paid for them with change in my pocket.  The pretty blonde behind the counter looked at the silver strangely before she said, “This will do.  Have a good trip back to the fork in the road.”

I nodded at her, noticing that she hadn’t picked up the money.  I don’t think she moved or even blinked while I was in there.

“Dad, I think we better go,” I said as I got in the car and locked my door.  He was already back in the driver’s seat and looking at the map.

“I don’t see a fork in the road,” he complained.  “I don’t know what that old man was talking about.”

“Just go back the way we came, Dad,” I said.  “They probably have tourists lost out here all the time.”

“Okay,” he said, starting the SUV and turning around.  “It’s too bad that we couldn’t see this place in the daylight.  It might be a real tourist attraction.”

I didn’t say anything.  I just stared at the two moons.

“Coffee, dear?” asked Mom, reclaiming the map.  Trudy was busy reading the Interdimensional Inquirer.  Behind the smallest moon, a point of light appeared and streaked toward the service station.  As I turned my head to look back, I really wasn’t surprised to see what looked like a flying saucer float down and hover beside a pump.

I turned back around and closed my eyes, hoping we found the fork in the road before the sun came up.

Episode 76: Dragonomics by Lance Schonberg


Dragonomics

by Lance Schonberg

A tiny echo of breath down one of the small ventilation tunnels pulled Kahruk from sleep. Keeping the cavern from becoming too stuffy in warmer months, the tunnels also had the disadvantage of being large enough to let in anything smaller than two cows walking abreast. But prey didn’t come to him very often so he kept his eyes closed, holding as still as possible. Something itched in the back of his skull.

Soft footsteps joined the breathing near the tunnel’s end. Only one set, but he wished his snack had waited another week.

Kahruk pried open one eye, watching through the tiniest slit he could manage. Something warm stepped into the cavern and took a few careful steps toward him, padding sounds absorbed by the gloom before reaching the dragon’s ears. Then it stopped and stood still for a dozen slow heartbeats before sitting down on the stub of a stalagmite and lowering something to the cavern floor.

Kahruk fought the urge to frown. Usually the only mortals foolish enough to approach so close were brainless young knights trying to make a name for themselves, brainless young thieves looking to get rich quickly, or on rare occasions, brainless young virgins demanding to be sacrificed for the good of their people. The virgins, at least, he was happy to oblige. The knights and thieves, well, he was happy to oblige them in the same way, if not quite how they hoped.

But no one had ever come to stare before. It was almost, well, rude.

Tiny air currents tickled his nostrils with the prey’s scent. Human and probably male. Lying on his side began to put a kink in Kahruk’s neck, so he stretched and rolled onto his stomach. The human’s jump of fright almost made the discomfort worthwhile and he stretched out one leg to try duplicating the reaction.

The third time he moved, the human didn’t jump. Instead, it surprised Kahruk by speaking. “You’re not really asleep, are you?”

He let first one eye and then the other open wide. The small warm body resolved into a more solid figure. “Er, no.” Kahruk raised his head several feet and tilted it to the left, stretching the right side of his neck. Several loud pops rewarded the effort. “What gave it away, if I might ask?” He repeated the action on the left.

The human sighed, slouching a little then straightening again. “You were moving around too much. Restless sleep isn’t unusual in humans but according to all the legends and songs that mention it, dragons sleep ‘a deep and motionless sleep.’ Too much uncontrolled thrashing around could bring the roof down or break a wing, I’d guess.”

He’d never really thought about it before. “Ah. True, I suppose. You see surprisingly well in the dark for a human.”

“I sat about half way up the tunnel for an hour or so to let my eyes adjust. It’s not quite completely dark in here.”

“Ah.” Kahruk arched his back and unfolded his wings. Several vertebrae ground together and the cracks echoed in the cavern. He didn’t feel quite comfortable talking to his food and had exhausted as much mental energy as he cared to for the moment. All things considered, he’d rather go back to sleep. “Well mortal, I suppose I’ll have to eat you now.”

“I’m not.” His snack shook its head.

The dragon blinked and cocked his head to one side. “What?”

“Mortal. I’m not mortal. I’m immortal.”

“Ah. Well, that doesn’t really–”

“And I’d rather you didn’t eat me. I came here to ask a favor of you.” It flinched as if expecting some expression of draconic rage.

Caught with his mouth open, Kahruk closed it again without finding a response. The little human didn’t strike him as a thief, or a knight, or a sacrificial virgin. He understood intellectually that there must be other kinds of humans, but he’d never encountered one at close range before and found himself at a loss for a new category. Each statement the man made seemed to push past the boundaries of Kahruk’s experience. “A favor? Well, um, I suppose I might hear you out as a sort of last request.”

“That’s good of you. Do you mind if I explain a little before I get to the favor itself?”

“Not at all.” Playing for time. Finally something Kahruk understood. Perhaps it would provide some amusement while giving him time to gather his thoughts.

Sighing, the human ran a hand through his short hair and scratched his nose. Kahruk settled back into the mound of coins and a few rolled almost to the prey’s boots. Surprisingly, it ignored the coins in favour of maintaining eye contact. “I don’t know how extensive your knowledge of humans is, but a very tiny number of us are naturally immortal. One out of every ten million births, or something like that. Most humans have no idea and I don’t know which of the myriad gods is responsible for the joke, but there are times I wish they hadn’t bothered. Immortality is dreadfully dull most of the time.” His own eyes now well awake and adjusted, Kahruk saw the human lift one side of his mouth, but couldn’t quite read it as a smile. “If I might ask, how old are you?”

Gold coins made a satisfying rustle under his chin as he pressed his jaw into the comfortable pile and tilted his ears forward. “Nearly fifteen hundred years have passed since my birth.”

The human nodded. “In your middle years then, assuming any accuracy at all in the legends. Would you believe I’m nearly twice your age?”

“I find that difficult to believe.”

“Two thousand eight hundred and fifty-six, give or take. Every time someone changes the calendar I think I lose a few months. I’ve seen empires rise and fall and new ones crawl from the ashes.” He waved an arm in a wide arc and grinned. “Sorry for the cliché. Getting back to the point, people who live forever eventually run into each other. And we congregate, at least a little. Who else do we really have anything in common with? Boredom loves company.”

Something felt wrong with that statement, but the human didn’t pause long enough for Kahruk to consider what or why.

“Six of us agreed to a decade-long scavenger hunt to amuse ourselves. We each have to find one hundred rare items, or as many as we can, and meet on a certain date to determine the winner. Everyone has a different list and every item on those lists was randomly chosen by lot from a larger list we all helped compile. I have one item left and thirty-two days to return to Shandrahar with it.”

Eyes narrow, a low growl rumbled deep Kahruk’s throat. “I do not think I like where this is going.” He snaked out five feet of forked tongue, tasting the air near his prey.

The human looked around the dim cavern, probably for something large and very, very strong to hide behind, but his eyes came back to Kahruk. “A hair from one of your ear tufts.”

Anger burned through Kahruk’s veins and he reared up on his hind legs, wings spread wide. A few coins rained down, bouncing from rocks and the human fell backwards off his seat, hands splayed out behind him.

“But I have an idea I might trade for it and my life!”

Rearing back to strike, Kahruk opened his jaws wide.

“You see, I think I know how to-”

Kahruk’s snarl echoed through the cavern and his jaws sped down and forward, saliva pooling under his tongue.

“-vastly increase the size of your hoard with really very little effort on your part at all!” The words spilled out into the air so fast Kahruk didn’t know if he heard them all, but his jaws snapped shut just short of the target and he exhaled, blowing hot air across the human. He let his wings drift down into a less aggressive position as his eyes focused on a distant, imagined point.

How long since he’d thought about adding to his hoard? Flying out to wreck a castle or a caravan for its gold was fine for a young dragon, but not long after you had enough to make a comfortable bed you came to realize it wasn’t really worth the effort any more. Getting the arrows out of your scales could take days. His mind drifted across those last few raids half a thousand years ago before coming back to the present. He had no idea how long he’d passed in memory and thought. “Explain.” He spat the word but the human’s flinch did nothing for his residual anger.

The human collapsed onto his back and blew a wisp of air across Kahruk’s snout, a tiny, invisible parody of dragon flame. He took a long moment climb back onto the stalacmite, pushing the shreds of Kahruk’s patience aside.

“Speak.”

Eyes, wide, the human nodded. “Yes, of course.” He took a deep breath and tried to smile. Kahruk only stared, moving his head back just far enough to properly focus his eyes. “Dragons are extremely magical creatures, aren’t they?”

The question wasn’t worth a response. He continued to stare as the human’s eyes flicked to his jaws and back.

“Ah, yes, well then. Dragons are extremely magical creatures. Gradually, over centuries, some of that native magic leaches into the gold and silver and other items that make up the hoard, giving each piece a store of magic potential energy.” He waved an arm at the mound of precious metals underneath and around Kahruk. “That energy can be used by a wizard to fuel spells instead of using his or her own energy.” His gaze flicked to Kahruk’s teeth again. “Well, the point being, um, do you have any idea of the value of Dragon Gold on the open market?”

Kahruk let the last of his anger go in a sigh. Apparently, to have some chance of finding out what the bargain might be, he would have to participate in the conversation. “I do not.” It had never before occurred to him to think about it. He didn’t know what the market was or how it could be opened. Today seemed unfortunately filled with new ideas.

Hand to his forehead, the human rubbed his right temple with the thumb. “It’s a matter of economics. Supply and Demand. There are a limited number of dragons in the world and you breed very slowly. I mean, how often does a she-dragon rise to mate?”

“Every century or so.”

“And how many eggs will she lay?”

“One. Sometimes two.”

“So even though you live for a long time, your numbers don’t increase quickly. Humans, comparatively, breed like flies. In spite of a variety of wars, disasters, and plagues, there are twice as many today as there were five hundred years ago, which means there are twice as many wizards.”

“So?”

“So there are only three ways I can think of for Dragon Gold to reach the market. First, a dragon dies and another dragon doesn’t scoop up its treasure right away. Probably doesn’t happen very often.” He grinned, a brief flash of white.

“Second, some brave young knight gets lucky and actually kills the dragon he’s after so lives to haul away some of its treasure before it gets scooped up by another dragon. I suspect that particular event is in the realm of legend. Collective wishful thinking on the part of bards and heroes.

“Last, a reasonably intelligent thief waits till a dragon is out hunting, runs in, stuffs a small sack, and runs out again without getting caught. Still pretty rare, but I’ll bet it happens a lot more often than you’re willing to admit, eh?” A new grin appeared on the human’s face and didn’t quite go away. “It certainly seems the most likely of the three.”

“Perhaps.” It happened to Kahruk just last month while he’d been out for a few cows.

The human waved one hand, palm open, vaguely in Kahruk’s direction. “So not much Dragon Gold gets to the market for sale and since a single coin can fuel a large number of spells, your average wizard will pay a lot for it. Limited supply. High demand. Every piece of gold in this chamber is worth at least twenty five times its own weight.”

Kahruk looked at the human and said nothing for several seconds. Counting was one thing –- he’d counted his entire hoard on more than one occasion to pass the time –- but anything resembling mathematics had never been necessary in his experience. “That’s a lot then, is it?”

Biting his lower lip, the human reached down and picked up one of the coins Kahruk had disturbed earlier. It seemed to pulse in the tiny fingers and his eyes narrowed, tracking the coin, his coin. Body tense, every instinct screaming at him to eat the thief, Kahruk waited for the human to continue.

“Because of the magic they’ve gained from you, selling about one coin out of twenty, would double the size of your hoard.”

Kahruk’s ears strained forward and his nostrils flared. Sliding his tongue across several teeth, he fixed his eyes on the human, not watching the coin as it dropped back to the cavern floor. “Double?” It skittered across the stone to bump against a claw-tip. Kahruk felt his body relax.

“Plus a little. Although, you’d need a broker.”

A vision clinked into Kahruk’s mind of the most comfortable sleeping mound he possibly imagine, gold enough to wallow in, gold enough to fill the cavern. Then the last word reached into his brain to push the vision a little to the side. He wiggled his massive body, burrowing into a pile of gold that suddenly seemed much smaller. “What is a broker?” Gold coins kept dancing in his head and he found it hard to focus.

The human shrugged, still smiling. “An agent who sells the gold for you, taking a small portion as payment for the transaction, usually three or four percent. Um, three or four coins out of a hundred.” The human held up his hands at Kahruk’s narrowed gaze. “Unless, of course, you plan to go to the market and sell it yourself.”

Kahruk considered for a moment. He couldn’t carry more than a very small part of his hoard and would certainly lose some as he did. While gone, he would leave the greater part vulnerable to thieves. And the inevitable panic his appearance would generate could hardly be conducive to any kind of business. “I suppose a broker would be necessary. The difficulty would be in finding someone I could trust.” The word nearly stuck on his lips.

“Yes, I can see how that could be an issue. Still, there are any number of reputable brokers in every major city. I’d be happy to make a few discreet inquiries for you as part of our exchange.”

“Exchange?”

“Please don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. I’d hate to have to go through it all over again, especially the bit with the teeth.”

“I have not forgotten, but neither have I agreed.”

“I know. Take your time thinking it over. I’m not really in a hurry.” The human cocked his head to one side as if some strange thought had occurred to him and didn’t quite make sense. “It just struck me that there’s something odd about your speech.”

“How so?” Kahruk thought his speech perfectly fine, cultured even, though he had only other dragons to compare to, and not many of those or very often.

“Well, maybe I’ve heard too many legends and sagas, but they all hold dragon speech as very formal and usually archaic, full of thees and thous and so on.”

Kahruk shook his head twice. “Not that I’ve ever noticed. Storytellers like to dress things up a bit, I expect.”

“Probably. They do it with nearly everything else, but it seems universally accepted. Maybe it’s meant to imply great age and wisdom.”

Or flattery, which never hurt, but Kahruk knew a distraction when he heard one. “You claim twice my age. Is that how you speak?”

“No, but I’m not a dragon and I won’t admit to great wisdom, either.” He spread his arms. “I’m here, after all.”

“Hnh. Safer perhaps, if you’d met your immortal companions one item short of your full list?”

One side of the human’s mouth crept up again. “Perhaps.” A tiny rumbling sound came from its stomach. “While you’re thinking, would you mind if I had lunch?”

“Go right ahead.”

“Thank you.” The human picked up his bag and pulled out several small packages. Kahruk identified most by scent: bread, cheese, salted pork and a tiny flask of some sour smelling liquid. “I suppose it’s impolite of me not to offer to share, but I don’t think I have enough food you’d even notice.”

“Enjoy your meal. I fed several days ago so I’m not exactly hungry.” The human took three quick swallows from the flask and Kahruk wondered if the human understood the thought behind the words. He could find space in his stomach if he had to.

While the human ate, Kahruk relaxed on his hoard and considered the proposition. It would be nice to have a little more gold lying around. Middle aged he might be, but his body grew a little longer each decade. He probably had enough gold, but a little more was always nice. And double? Well, double would be very nice. And if he didn’t have quite enough, by the time he had difficulty sleeping, he’d be too old to do anything about it. With every coin turned into two… the more he considered the idea, the more attractive it became. By the time the human finished re-packing the remains of his lunch, Kahruk had reached his decision. Biting down on a yawn, he met the eyes of his former prey. “I think we have a bargain.”

A bright smile blossomed on his face as the human leapt up. “Excellent!”

“Subject, of course, to one condition.”

The human dropped back down onto his stone seat, not quite losing the smile. “And that would be?”

Kahruk turned his head and leaned forward, spearing the wary human with one eye. “You will act as my broker.”

Seeming to shrink a bit, the human licked his lips, perhaps looking for his voice. “Um, me?”

“Who better?” Coins clinked as Kahruk pulled his head back to a more comfortable viewing position. “I do not know the precise qualifications of a broker, but I am certain that trust is important. You approached me openly and honestly. I do not think that trust would be misplaced.” Though it might be difficult. As his eyes began to droop again, Kahruk wondered why the human couldn’t have waited a few more days. Resting his chin on the stone floor, he pulled his lips up in hopes of mimicking a human smile. “Plus, with nearly three thousand years of life, you have certainly had a great deal of practice in bargaining. Valuable experience. Finally, I do not think you will run from me screaming as would the average mortal. You are the logical choice.” He watched the human, trying to gauge his reaction, but this conversation needed to end and soon. The coins around him seemed to be glowing, hardly an illusion produced by an alert mind. Kahruk needed to sleep.

The human sucked on his lower lip. Did an echo of his own thoughts roll through the small head? Money was nice. A little more couldn’t hurt. It stood and gave a sharp nod. “Four percent.”

Kahruk’s drooping eyes popped open. While he had a hard time visualizing a fraction of anything, he did know four was more than three. “You said between three and four percent. Since you are keeping your life, long and boring as it is, you should be willing to settle for the lower figure.”

“Ah, but since you’ll be receiving the benefit of three millennia of experience, you should allow the higher.” The human grinned and shrugged. “Besides, that experience will get you a better deal every time. You’ll make more because I’ll work harder for that extra percent.”

Kahruk exhaled, blowing warm air across his new business associate. His eyes slid closed and a short yawn slipped past his teeth. “Very well. You will earn it, I think.” The hoard warmed his body as sleep reached out for him. “But we can discuss this later.”

“Of course, there’s plenty of time.”

Was there? Plenty of time for what? Sluggish thoughts rolled away from him. He’d been talking to someone. Something about gold. More gold? How odd. He had plenty of gold, didn’t he? More than enough to be comfortable.

“Sleep well, my friend. I’ll see you next month.”

The soothing tune of clinking coins followed Kahruk into his dreams.

 

Learning from his children how to follow his dreams again, Lance Shonberg has long since allowed his writing to tip over the border into obsession, and typically has too many writing projects in progress at any given moment. Some of his stories have even seen publication. In between trips to the word processor, Lance is currently conspiring to commit both a podcast and electronic publication. He can be found lurking on Twitter as WritingDad, on Facebook, and even on his own website (where you can also find several wonderful stories he’s serialized).

Episode 75: The Field Trip by Alex Shvartsman


The Field Trip

by Alex Shvartsman

The obelisk towered over the surrounding ruins, the strange signs carved into its sides gleaming in the afternoon sun. It was mysterious, majestic, and very, very annoying.

I walked over and joined the other students. The group waited in an uncomfortable silence, sizing each other up nervously and trying to guess if any of the others had better luck in figuring out Professor Quilp’s puzzle. The stakes were high. Professor Quilp, one of Milky Way’s most notable scholars of xenoarchaeology, had room for exactly one new intern in his department at the Academy.  We five were his top candidates, and this was the final audition.

Earlier that morning we were ordered to meet Professor Quilp at his office, and to bring whatever equipment we might need on a field trip. No additional details were provided, except that the world we’d be traveling to had an oxygen-based atmosphere, and that we’d be back at the Academy in time for lunch. The former was great news for me as an oxygen breather; it would give me a distinct advantage over Xkinth and Eetal. On the other hand, this implied a brief assignment and I always worked better when given sufficient time to thoroughly analyze the problem.

Professor Quilp was already waiting at the office, even though every single one of us took care to arrive early. Also waiting for us were information packets. The packets were brief, with details so sparse they might have been written by a Phys Ed major.

The planet in question used to be populated by tool-using bipedal mammals who learned to split the atom a little too soon for their own good, a scenario so common in this part of the galaxy that there are entire digital storage units full of examples, and they are all filed under “Boring.” Bipedal mammals account for roughly fifty percent of the intelligent species in the universe. I am one myself. And that’s counting them after almost ninety percent of mammal civilizations manage to destroy themselves somewhere along the slow crawl up the evolutionary tree. It may not be politically correct to say so, but mammal cultures do not tend to create very interesting architecture, either. It’s always “pyramid” this or “castle” that. Not like the sentient crystals on Galco III who literally dream their dwellings into being.

But I digress.

These particular aliens blew themselves up only a few hundred years back. That’s the sweet spot for xenoarchaeologists – the radiation has abated and nuclear winter has passed, but most of the structures were still intact. Mostly there were your typical remnants of industrial civilization – skyscrapers, suburban housing and a lot of fast-food establishments. In this case, however, there was a large area that just did not fit in. It was full of oddly-constructed buildings, with a  big obelisk right in the center. It wasn’t housing. It wasn’t a manufacturing center. Our assignment was to port over to the planet, study the obelisk and its surroundings, and come up with the best hypothesis that could explain its purpose – all in one hour.

The portal delivered us a few steps away from the obelisk, in the blistering heat of a desert afternoon. We scattered almost immediately to pursue our various lines of inquiry. There would be no possibility of cooperation – after all, only a single intern position was up for grabs.

I chose to start with the symbols carved into the sides of the obelisk. I scanned them with a portable translation device. The gadget chewed on the data longer than I’ve ever seen it take before and gave me back nothing. Modern translation machines are incredibly sophisticated, benefiting from having thousands of language structures in their database. If there is any sort of rhyme or reason to a language, the software can figure it out. Amazed, I pointed the device at some of the signage on nearby structures and it was able to translate those well enough. Pointed back at the obelisk, the gadget struggled a few moments longer and gave up once again. I’d swear there was a little embarrassment in the “No Match” beep, but this model was not programmed for emotions. Either the message on the obelisk was encoded by the most sophisticated cipher I’ve ever seen, or it wasn’t language at all, as we know it.

I spent nearly half of the allotted time meddling with various devices, measuring and analyzing the obelisk within the inch of its granite life. I wasn’t having any breakthroughs and, by the looks of them, neither was any of my competitors. At that point I realized that I wasn’t going to find whatever solution or inspiration at the obelisk and decided to port around for some additional perspective. I spent the remaining half hour examining nearby areas. As the deadline approached I was beginning to formulate a theory. I rejoined my fellow students with not a minute to spare; Professor Quilp ported in right on schedule.

“Archaeology,” he said as we gathered in a semi-circle in front of him, “is art as much as science. Any half-decent researcher will respect and study the masterpieces of past civilizations. A good explorer will figure out an occasional mystery like this one, and benefit from this knowledge. But a truly great archaeologist can count on his assistants to reliably do it for him.

“By now all of you have had an opportunity to examine the nearby ruins and see that this structure does not fit in with the rest. The question is why.

“I am now prepared to hear your theories. Eetal, please begin.”

Eetal looked uncomfortable in the bulky suit that allowed a methane breather to move around in a hostile environment. At least she wasn’t getting slowly roasted by the heat. Probably.

“In my estimation,” she began carefully, “this obelisk could not have been built by the same people who erected these other structures. Design style, materials, and even the writing on the obelisk differ from anything else in evidence. My guess is that this is an artifact of a much earlier culture that was either transported to this location as a trophy or predates them and they chose to build a settlement around it.”

I could not believe my luck. Eetal was one of the strongest contenders, and it wasn’t like her to make such a monumental gaffe. Professor Quilp frowned; he was probably thinking the same thing.

“Would any of you care to disprove this theory?” he said neutrally.

“The obelisk was built around the same time as these other structures,” Q’orr rushed to embarrass a rival, “as should be obvious to anyone who bothered to run the decay test.” He brandished the gadget that assessed an age of structures by examining the degree of weathering on their surface. I had one too, and so presumably would the other students.

Eetal looked as though she was ready to just port out of there. “I’m Atrellian,” she stammered.

The blunder made sense now. Atrellian religion claimed that the universe was only about 50,000 years old and its followers weren’t allowed to use carbon and decay dating technologies that could prove otherwise.

“Next hypothesis, please.” Professor Quilp hurried things along, a kindness of redirecting attention away from Eetal, or perhaps he was as eager to get out of the heat as I was.

Nevri, an exchange student from the Orion nebula, could not speak. Instead, it projected three dimensional images and, when absolutely necessary, written text. It showed the obelisk to be a subject of worship by the natives, arguing that its placement in the center of the settlement supports that theory. I got a distinct feeling that he had nothing to go on, and Eetal’s calamity served as inspiration for his half-baked theory.

“This does not quite work for me,” said Professor Quilp. “If such an obelisk was a standard object of worship on this planet, we would find a lot more of them scattered throughout. If, on the other hand, this one was unique, a place of pilgrimage perhaps, the entire settlement would be laid out differently to accommodate the kind of traffic it would draw.”

Next up was Xkinth, whose species are known for their knack for linguistics. If anyone could figure out the markings on the obelisk, it would be him.

“I did my best to translate the writing on the obelisk and came to a conclusion that it is nonsense,” said Xkinth to my relief. “The placing pattern and a lack of repeating characters suggest that the builders were trying to evoke an image of an unfamiliar language rather than using a real one to communicate information. Since the writing is fake, I must assume that the entire object is a work of art, created for purely aesthetic purposes and not practical ones. This would explain both its prominent placement and its singular nature.”

“Not bad,” said Professor Quilp, his expression not betraying whether he agreed with this theory or simply found the explanation plausible. It was my turn next.

“I ported around and found a number of structures that do not fit in with anything else we’ve seen on this planet,” I said. “Most of them lack any obvious utility, yet are clearly designed to look visually impressive. Therefore, I would agree with the art hypothesis but build on it to suggest that this entire area is an outdoor museum or an experimental zone of some sort, where natives would come specifically to view the unusual structures as some form of entertainment.”

“I like that you showed initiative by exploring beyond the immediate area,” nodded Professor Quilp. “What else have we got?”

Q’orr, a gray-feathered member of an avian species, was the odds on favorite. He seemed to excel at every class he took, and was the most dangerous rival by far. He confidently laid out his theory.

“There are many clues here to suggest that these aliens lived in a highly commercialized culture,” he said. “As such, I find it difficult to believe they’d produce such large and expensive works of art for aesthetic reasons alone. Financial gain had to play a major role. I found some images and other small artifacts among the ruins to suggest that these people acted out stories and recorded them for entertainment. My solution to this puzzle is that the obelisk and other outlandish structures are merely props that were used in production of these recordings.”

Both of my hearts sunk as we listened to Q’orr outline in detail the facts supporting his theory. My dream of interning for Quilp was slipping away. Q’orr finished laying out his explanation and triumphantly looked down his beak at the rest of the students.

“Your theory matches the conclusions reached by the xenoarchaeologists who discovered this planet,” said Professor Quilp. “In fact, it matches them a little too precisely.”

Professor Quilp reached into his breast pocket. “You’ve done very well on your tests, Q’orr, and while I’d like nothing better than to attribute that to my superior teaching techniques, I grew somewhat suspicious.” He took out a small device which we instantly recognized to be a telepathy detector. Its indicator was flashing yellow, activated by an illicit mind reading.

“You’ve been fishing out the answers from my thoughts, and the thoughts of other professors. We needed you to use telepathy in an area almost entirely devoid of life to prove it, and setting up this field trip presented a perfect opportunity.”

With a terrified squawk, Q’orr dashed away from the group and disappeared into his own portal. I was pretty sure we would not be seeing him again; reading thoughts isn’t just cheating, it is also a serious crime in our culture.

Professor Quilp watched him go, and then turned to the rest of us. “I apologize for the ruse,” he said, “but the truth is, there is no intern position opening in my department at the moment. I will, however, consider your performance as earning you all extra credit toward your grades this semester.” With those words he was gone, undoubtedly to report his findings to the dean.

One by one, the other students ported back to the academy. I stood there a little while longer, and stared at the obelisk. Although Professor Quilp made it clear that the official explanation of its origins was the one described by Q’orr, I still kind of liked my own theory better. Perhaps I might return to this planet someday and study it in more detail. If I can prove I am right, Professor Quilp will be very impressed.

My tentacles fondled a small metal sign I had picked up while porting around in search for clues. It depicted what must have been a face of a native: large circular ears, a pointy nose, and a big toothy smile. My translation device was able to read its text just fine, and while it did not mean anything to me yet, I thought it might eventually yield some clues.

Someone at the Academy must be able to tell me what a “Disney” was.

Episode 74: Gods of Stone by Jeff Samson


Gods of Stone

by Jeff Samson

What… what’s going on?  Where am I? 

Whoa, take it easy.

Why can’t I move?

Just take it easy.

Where am I, I say!

If you’d just settle down.

Who… who are you… where are you… why can’t I move?

What do you mean, where are you?  I’m standing right in front of you.

Show yourself!

I said, I’m standing… 

I see no one.

…right in front… 

Enough of your games.  There is not but a statue before me.  I say again, show yourself!

But I am showing myself.  That statue’s me, you fool.

What?

That statue’s me.

Hah!  It is you who is the fool if you think I can be taken with your petty trickery. 

I see. 

Statues are not alive.

But of course not.

They cannot talk.

Clearly.

That is truth.

Truth indeed… and yet we live.

Damn you, man!

We talk.

Damn you and your… wait… what do you mean… we? 

My friend, do you not remember?

Remember what?

Give it time… it will come.

I say, remember what?

How can I put this delicately… well… it’s like this… you’re stone. 

What?

Stone!  You’ve been turned to stone!

You lie!

If I lie, then move.  Brandish your sword. Reduce me to rubble.

By the gods, I will… I would… I just… 

What?  Can’t move?

Damn you! Why can’t I move?

I’ve already told you why.

But…how?

Well, let’s see… how might a man become stone?

I don’t know.

Think.

A man cannot become stone.  It is impossible. It is… this is a dream.  That’s what this is. A horrible dream.

Think.

This is… by the gods.  By the gods, I remember.  I remember!

There you are… always takes a few moments for it to return.

I’m in her lair.  We came to her lair.  To take her head… to cut it off and bring it back to Joppa.

And that you have.

I have?

Well, no, not you.  Clearly you didn’t fare so well, you and a few others in your group.  Not that I’m criticizing, as I’m certainly in no position to talk. But that champion you were with, he did indeed leave with her head.

Perseus was triumphant?

In a manner of speaking, yes.

Oh, praise the gods!  Perseus, my friend, I knew it in my heart you would prevail.

Ah, yes, a brave one, that one.

Our bravest!

If a bit rash.

I’m sorry, what was that?

Look, far be it from me to take away a man’s bravery.  You’d have to be pretty damn brave to take on the Gorgon, and a warrior without peer to best her.  And we know that better than most, eh? But… 

But what?

I just think he could have tried a more… civilized approach.  You know? Maybe tried to negotiate with her first.

Civilized?  Negotiate? With the Gorgon!

Hey, you never know.  If his wits were as quick as his blade he might have cut a deal instead.

Cut a deal?  Are you mad?

You’re the one talking to a statue.

She was the Gorgon!  She wasn’t cutting any deals.

You know, she was a lovely young lady once.  Still was from the neck down. Perhaps all she needed was a compliment… a pretty flower… or a flattering verse or two.  Not much. A trifling romantic gesture. But I guess we’ll never know.

You are mad if you think she could be romanced.  And even if she could, what good would that have done us?

Who knows.  Maybe she’d have turned us back.  Set us free. That manner of thing.

What?  She… she had the power to turn us back?

But of course she did.

But… Perseus he… he’s… 

Yes… I know… hence our present dilemma.

Well, can’t she still turn us back… I mean if he brings back her head?

Hrm.  That’s a good question.  Can he reattach it to her body?  Bring her back to life?

Well… no, I would think not.

Then I too would think not.

But that means… 

Ah, indeed.  Now you see why I felt his method to be, what was it I’d said, ah yes… rash.

No.

I’m afraid yes. 

No!

Yes!

But, you don’t understand… I can’t be stone!  I… I have a life. A wife. A family.

Oh now, there’s not much sense fretting about such things.  And you never know… perhaps they’ll find you some day. I’m sure you’d make a lovely addition to their garden.

I’m serious damn you!

I know, I know… I shouldn’t joke. 

How long?

What?

How long am I going to be like this?  How long before it wears off? It does wear off doesn’t it?

Hrm.  I don’t think so.  But I don’t really know.

So you’re not sure?  So it might wear off in time then?

In time?  Perhaps. But some of us have been here for quite a long time.

How long?

Well, it’s awful hard to keep track of time down here, what with never seeing the light of day and all… not with any degree of accuracy.  You have to judge instead by the shape we’re in.

What do you mean?

Well, take a look… oh, ha ha… you can’t take a look, can you.  In fact, you can’t see much at all, can you? You’re in a rather bad spot, my friend.  But if you could take a look behind you, you’d see Calamaties, bright as marble, much like yourself.  So he’s here, give or take, half a year. I, Xanthus, as you can see, have a rather lovely patina about me, albeit marred here and there with some wear, so I’m guessing it’s around a millennium for me.  Longinus has lost his nose and most of his fingers, which puts him near fifteen to sixteen centuries. 

Six… 

As for old Oz… that fallen head over there resting beside that bodiless foot… your guess is as good as mine.

… teen… 

Nice enough guy, though he tends to keep to himself these days.

… centuries.

Well… give or take.

Please, gods, if you can hear me.  I’ll do anything. Anything! Just please set me free!

I’m sorry, my friend.  But I don’t think they’re listening.

But I can’t spend my eternity like this.

Oh come now, it could be worse.  At least she caught you in a flattering pose, chest out, foot forward, sword drawn.  You could have ended up like Theiodamas over there to your right… spending time everlasting prone, ass way up in the air like a dog in heat… ha ha… I must say, it looks as if he’s… 

I can’t do it.  I’ll go mad!

Or Maeandrus all tangled up in the ruin of that footbridge to your left.  Poor soldier’s been suspended upside down for centuries… and he’s afraid of heights!

This is agony.

Ha!  You don’t know agony until you’ve spent four hundred years with a wayward arrow, shaft as wide as a thumb, through your temples.  You can’t begin to know what that feels like!

This is hell.

The slithering bitch only just retrieved it last week. 

By the gods, this is hell!

When the hadal winds blow up from the depths my head howls like a battle horn!

Please, Xanthus… you have to help me end this.  You have to… kill me. Yes… kill me.

I see.  And how would you suggest I do that?

Please, I cannot live like this… I want you to kill me.

Hrm.  Perhaps I could… stone you do death.

Damn you, man, do you not understand?

Oh come on now, that was a good one.

I want to die!

My friend… you say that now.  But wait ‘til you get an itch.