Steve and Rhyssa write
|[Introduction] Let's start out with "what if" and wander from there.|
|Imagine with me for a moment, a room—just as large or as tiny as is needed to be comfortable, with paints and props hidden away in a closet for when change is needful. Today, it smells of fresh wood and exotic spices and old books. The walls are lined with books and doodads and trinkets gathered from the seven corners of the world. The ceiling is vaulted, and dominated by the shelf which currently is the resting place of my muse, who has taken the form of a large black dragon with green eyes named Geoffrey for the occasion of this first meeting. He rather likes that shape; it reminds me how powerful a story can be. The floor has a thick maroon carpet, because as long as it’s an imaginary room, I want to leave my shoes at the door (they don’t let me run around barefoot in real life anymore). There are chairs and a few standing lamps to provide the lighting.|
One big maroon chair is pulled up in front of the fireplace. That’s where I’m planning to sit, for now, with my feet pulled up under me and my hands full of a book or a cross-stitch or my pen. I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Rhyssa (at least while I’m here) which is a name with a story behind it. My hair is short and wavy brown, my eyes are blue, and I tend to wear long dangly earrings. I paint my toes, but never my fingers, because I hate looking down and seeing something that catches my eye (I hate it when I have a cut on my hand, too) and makes me stop and think what it is before I can go on. I have an odd, very verbal sense of humor and I very rarely laugh at jokes. After all, life is too funny to waste laughter on inanity.
And now, even though you haven’t added your own furniture, yet, or found your own place in the room, or made a dramatic scene change (should we go to a cave? or spend some time under the stars? or perhaps a laboratory full of glass tubes and oddly dripping smells?), Geoffrey is getting restless. He breathes the fire started. I stare at it for a moment, trying to think of where to start.
Maybe I should think of when I first met Geoffrey. It was years and years ago, when I was about eight (I’m thirty-four—my how the time flees) and my teacher assigned us to write a story. I was already a great reader, but I had never tried to write before, except journals and assignments. But she needed a story, and I had just read a great one (Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown, if you’re interested), and I decided I wanted to write something like that.
Geoffrey was only small then, more like a garter snake than a great wyrm. But he pushed me into starting. By the time I was done, I had 40 pages worth of handwritten fan fiction to hand in to my teacher. And I knew. I wanted to write.
There has never been anything else.
Until three years ago. Since the hospital, I’ve been tired and unfocused. I even thought, for a while, that Geoffrey must have abandoned me. I certainly wasn’t hearing him roar at me, or felt him chasing me through the stars and back again.
But last year, at about this time, I started hearing him again. I started writing. Little things at first—some poems, a thousand words here, three hundred there. I applied for school again—I’ll be starting work on my MFA in the fall. But could I still write? Geoffrey seems convinced that I can, I am convinced I can, but whenever I sit down and try, I stare at the lack of words for a long while and then slip back into nonsense or poetry.
So, what if . . . we sat for a while and told stories together. Pull up a chair, settle in, add your own homey touches to our room. What do you see that I’m still blind to? Who is lurking in the fire? Ask me about it—or tell me about it and I’ll see if I can find a story fit to return.
Thank you. I am a little bit put out that I must create my own chair. I would think a good hostess would have a few chairs available for guests. But I only say that to warn you that I can be grumpy. I'm perfectly capable of crafting a chair for myself.
In fact, I'm tempted to show off by using an expensive ebony wood intricately carved and inlaid with intricate designs of silver, designs that seem to have a mysterious meaning, perhaps they even tell an ancient story from the days before real words, from the days of symbols, but I will keep my chair simple. I'll just use this old cane-bottomed ladderback I picked up at the thrift shop for $5.
Telling stories together is my idea of a fun evening. Together doesn't mean we can say the same thing at the same time, although that would be true togetherness, wouldn't it? I wonder if even twins can achieve that feat? But we can alternate the telling of a single story and amuse ourselves by how much of a mess we make of it.
I will start but I have to give you another warning. (I'm sorry that I seem to be so dangerous.) The second warning is that I am also mischievous as well as occasionally grumpy.
To be fair you have also warned me. Your warning is that you sometimes sit staring at your keyboard with glassy eyes and have no idea what to write next. I'm not sure what the right word for that is? Ennui? Apathy? Lethargy? Lassitude? Tell me a word! Unfortunately, faced with that situation, and acting in my capacity as a grumpy mischievous person, my tendency would most likely be to prank you, maybe even to pop a paper bag behind your head to scare you after which I would yell "Write!"
I'll start a story that I believe will be either very difficult or very easy to write. It's called
Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road
Once upon a time there was a chicken who was walking along to no particular place when she came to a road. Seeing the road she came to a full stop. "Should I cross this road?" she muttered. (She liked to think out loud.) "It might be dangerous and it's possible that when, or if, I get to the other side then I might not be able to get back again."
This chicken's name was Carol McCluck (of the Kentucky McClucks) and like most chickens she had more than her share of indecisiveness. Sometimes she wasn't even sure whether she wanted to get up in the morning or not, but then some rooster would scare the sleepiness out of her with his dawn wake-up call and she would groan and say, "There's no way I can ever get back to sleep now so I might as well get up."
Carol paced back and forth on the edge of the highway and while she was trying to make up her mind whether to cross or not a big truck came roaring by so fast that the wind from it ruffled her feathers. "My!" she said. "That certainly proves it could be dangerous! This requires careful thought."
|Fortunately for our heroine, Carol was brighter than most chickens, who, as anyone who has kept or babysat chickens can tell you, are not generally the most careful thinkers. Then there came the thought. “What would the Matilda do?” |
Matilda Leghorn was the tall, vicious bird who ran their flock. Carol had been trying to increase her own standing in the coop for nearly a month now (which is an eternity for someone with the attention span of a chicken) but even Anna, a bantam who was broody seventy-eight percent of the time, was higher on the pecking order than Carol.
It was mainly because Carol was unusually thoughtful bird (for a chicken). Matilda did not approve of thought. It got in the way of important things like laying eggs and eating. Carol was a young bird and was likely to take too long in the box thinking about her place in the universe, getting on the nerves of the brooders who regarded the nesting boxes as their own personal thrones.
Yes, if there was one thing Matilda could not stand, it was a thoughtful chicken. And she wasn’t too fond of cowardly chickens either. Matilda met her challenges front on, beak sharp and claws raised. Last week she’d managed to drive off a raccoon in the night—but not before the flock had lost Geraldine, who had been the low chicken . . . and the last of Carol’s brood mates.
Matilda would not like being left out of the loop—she might get downright peckish. But, for the one who found, new greener grass and fatter bugs . . .
Carol raced back to the flock as fast as her stubby legs and short low flights could take her. Once there, she stopped just out of Matilda’s reach. “Matilda! I found a hole in the fence and a road, and who knows what’s over there!” She was practically bouncing with excitement, looking something like a little white fluffball.
Matilda preened her feathers back. A few of the more adventurous chickens were already heading toward the hole, and she knew if she didn’t take the lead back, someone else would get to the new food source before her. Matilda was not given to much thought, but it seemed obvious.
With a few quick orders which were sure to be ignored as soon as she was out of sight, Matilda left most of the flock behind to finish laying eggs and to watch for raccoons. Taking only Carol and a few of the bravest chickens, Matilda went to investigate.
At the road, Carol stopped. “I haven’t been over there. There was a thunder and wind that shook my feathers out of place, and I thought it was too dangerous for me.”
Matilda pecked at her for being such a cowardly chicken, then, not even looking both ways, Matilda stepped into the road. Her lieutenants followed, leaving Carol huddled by the side of the road.
Carol just watched. All five birds managed to get to the other side. They were nearly hidden by the tall green grass. Carol heard Matilda cackle her glee at the many fine bugs she found there. But Carol stayed where she was. Soon, the sun was nearly set, which is the time when all good chickens seek their roosts.
Matilda strutted to the edge of the road and stepped out. It was trembling a bit, and there was a thundering from the south, getting louder. In the middle of the road, Matilda turned and faced this unknown enemy, beak sharp, claws bared, feathers so fluffed out that she looked almost the size of a goose.
That night in the coop, Carol cackled softly as she preened and thought of the tragic tale of Matilda McRoadkill.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be a bad hostess—it’s just that I didn’t know your tastes yet. My chair is soft and I know that soft chairs aren’t for everyone. My father prefers a straight back rocker, which is hard to curl up in. My mother prefers her white recliner that feels like it’s swallowing me when I try to sit in it.
I have a feeling you’re going to get along rather too well with Geoffrey. He can be mischievous, too—today he’s decided to be a black rooster, and I have to say, I disliked the 3am wakeup call. Ah well.
So, I suppose now it’s time for me to start the next tale.
The Wandering Prince
Once upon a time, just long enough ago that King Arthur was still told in history books and locomotives weren’t yet in the dreams of their inventors, there was a prince whose kingdom was so poor that it was thought best to send him off to make his fortune when he turned fourteen.
The prince, whose name was Jeremiah Archibald Fitzwilliam Nathaniel the Seventh, (Prince Nate to his friends) was excited, probably because he had never been out of the castle before except on supervised play-dates with the princess of the next kingdom over (who he cordially disliked because, after all, she was a girl) and so he took his horse Malachite, his best friend, and his trusty sword that was nearly as big as he was and headed off.
|Prince Nate knew exactly where he was going, to the Mountain of the Red Dragon. All his short life he had heard tales about the treasure buried there and the fire-breathing dragon that protected it so well that no treasure-seeker had ever returned. Lesser princes might take that as a reliable indicator of great danger. Prince Nate saw it as a lucky break for him since now HE could be the first to conquer the Red Dragon.|
All day his horse Malachite carried him westward toward the great mountain until finally he dismounted under a huge tree whose gnarled limbs spread wide. There was green grass for Malachite to eat and a clear stream for both of them to drink. Prince Nate unrolled the bread and cheese he had carefully tied in his handkerchief and gazed westward as he ate. After the sun set the distant sky showed a distinct red glow from the dragon's mountain.
On the third day Prince Nate rode up a hill and saw that he was only hours away from the mountain. He was hungry because all his bread and cheese was gone, but he was too close now to turn around. The mighty cone of the dragon's mountain reached high in the sky. Malachite would have to be left behind to eat grass and wait for him to come down again. He strapped his trusty sword to his back and began to climb.
All afternoon he climbed, feeling the air become warmer and warmer, until finally he was at the top and could look over the rim into a valley of fire. The crater in the top of the mountain was filled with cracks and fissures from which issued steam and smoke and occasionally even flames. The dragon was nowhere to be seen.
Prince Nate coughed because the air was foul so he ducked back down behind the rim of the volcano and wondered what to do. Perhaps the dragon didn't live here anymore. Or perhaps the dragon was out hunting for food or doing whatever it was that it did. Prince Nate's understanding had always been that the dragon guarded its treasure. It didn't seem to be doing a very good job of guarding. Maybe now was the time to steal the treasure, while the dragon was shirking its guard duties.
Nate took several deep breaths and then held his breath and leaped into the crater and ran to the closest fissure. He stuck his sword into it's glowing interior until the blade of his sword was red hot. Seeing that his sword was on fire, Nate plunged the sword into a pool of water so that it hissed and steamed. Then he jumped back out of the crater and gasped for breath.
"Golly!" he said. "I almost burned up my sword! If there is a treaure in there I'll never find it. It's just too darn hot! And I am hungry!"
Prince Nate scrambled back down the mountain, mounted Malachite, and headed back to the castle.
His return was celebrated by a big festival. In fact, they called it The Return of Prince Nate Festival and he liked that a lot. Even though he had only been gone a week, everybody was really glad to see him again. Some of his friends razzed him about not finding any treasure. In fact, they implied maybe he never went to the Mountain of the Red Dragon at all because how could he be the only treasure-seeker who ever returned? They even laughed at his story of the red-hot sword.
It wasn't until the second day of the festival, when the boys had their pretend sword fights, that doubt became belief. Because Nate, who wasn't a very clever sword swinger, but a fairly strong one, found himself slicing his opponent's blades in half. Now everyone gathered around in wonder to admire his mighty sword which had been quenched in the fire of the dragon and from that day forward it was known as the Red Dragon Sword.
There are more tales of the Wandering Prince, but I think that's enough for now.
The Princess and the Crocodile
East of the kingdom where Prince Nate was born lay the Kingdom of Shiroz and there in a beautiful palace of glass lived a princess called Bethany. Princess Beth received many gifts from her uncles and cousins because she was very beautiful and very charming and because her family loved to give gifts to each other.
Her Uncle Bin Jivo was a spice trader who traveled in caravans and brought Princess Beth many wonderful gifts. On one visit to the glass palace he brought a baby crocodile. Princess Beth was both repulsed and entranced by the little reptile. She ordered that a small pool be constructed in her private courtyard, the one that her bed chamber opened to where she had planted exotic plants and placed some of the statuary given her.
The tiny crocodile seemed right at home in the shallow pool. Beth enjoyed watching her servant feed it crickets and toads and small fish. The crocodile's tiny teeth seemed so sharp and ferocious as it snapped up its food.
|Princess Beth became ever more fascinated with her crocodile. She rarely touched the young reptile, because it would snap, nearly taking a finger off at least once. Her Uncle Bin Jivo heard about that on one of his visits, and gave her a muzzle to keep its jaws shut. Although the skin was bumpy, it felt smooth under her fingers.|
The princess’s tutors soon caught on to the new obsession, and her lessons became full of questions about crocodile habitat and social behavior that she then reported after an extensive library search. Unfortunately, Wikipedia had not been invented yet (nor the rest of the internet, not that her teachers would consider Wikipedia an acceptable source for a research paper) so she was forced to learn other, less esoteric facts (like the length of the Nile and the collected wisdom of Aristotle) along her search.
Her conversation at state dinners was quite unique. More than one foreign diplomat (and his wife) were put off his food by her bright, eleven year old voice reciting enthusiastic details of crocodile eating habits. Her father’s Minister of State made it a point to excuse himself from the table whenever he heard her high, carrying voice say: “Did you know . . .”
Her younger brother, Crown Prince Gabe, was soon as fascinated by the young crocodile as his sister. After all, there is nothing more compelling to an eight year old boy than potential blood and gore. The two spent long hours watching the crocodile.
Which was growing at a rapid pace. Soon, it was so big that a larger pool had to be dug for it. Beth, now more confident in what her crocodile needed, directed that it be significantly deeper and open to the sunlight. When it was explained to her that her courtyard was actually two stories up and had a room that no, she was not allowed to turn into a skylight, she ordered that the main courtyard be dug up.
It was then that the King put his foot down. No amount of whining or carefully constructed arguments would convince him that he needed to turn the queen’s garden into a crocodile shrine. “Besides, you are about to have a baby brother or sister, and your mother is worried that the crocodile is just big enough to be dangerous, particularly to an infant.”
There was no rebuttal that Beth or Gabe could give. It was true that the crocodile was large enough to eat an infant. In fact, given its current diet, it would soon be big enough that more than her fingers would be in danger.
And then there were the dreams that both Beth and Gabe had been having, recently. Crocodiles, as either of them could tell you if they were here, are rather devoted parents (for reptiles), helping their young to hatch.
In their dreams, a thirty-two foot crocodile had captured their uncle (who was in fact, missing, not that any of the adults were worried—Bin Jivo was in the habit of wandering off without telling anyone until he turned up with some random new adventure to tell) and was asking questions about its little baby boy.
"Did you have the dream again?" Gabe asked.
Beth sighed. "Yes. This time the giant crocodile told me it's name - Krokula."
"Krokula!" Gabe said, turning the name over in his mind. "King Krokula the Magnificent!"
Gabe used a stick to make a drawing in the sand of the giant dream crocodile. "Which crown does he wear? The Blue Crown of the Upper Lands or the Red Crown of the Lower Lands?"
Beth thought for a moment. "The Blue Crown! And he shall be the king that unites the two kingdoms!"
"Yaayyy!" Gabe said. Although he knew Krokula was a dream crocodile, it had a certain reality for him in the way that such things do for young children.
There was splash from the nearby pool and Beth said, "I think Akoo heard you cheer." Akoo was the name Beth had given the tiny baby crocodile that her uncle had presented her. At least he had been tiny then. Now he as large as Beth. But she had no fear of him. "Be quiet, Akoo!"
Beth and Gabe sat in the shade of the palm trees that surrounded the pool where Akoo now lived. Her father had finally decided to move Akoo into the old south reflecting pool. Akoo was too big for Beth's courtyard and the queen definitely did not want a crocodile in HER courtyard. The south reflecting pool had been clogged with sand since the great water shortage of ten years before, but now water was bubbling up from the springs again and the king had the pool cleaned and planted with water lilies and other plants.
Akoo loved his pool. It was wet and everyday he was fed. What more could a crocodile want?
Several days later a caravan passed through the oasis with word of Uncle Bin Jivo. He had been captured by bandits and was being held for ransom. Would the king pay for the release of his brother?
"You have to, Daddy!" Beth pleaded. "Uncle Bin would save you if he had to! You must save him!"
"You don't understand, Beth," he King said. "These bandits are not honorable men. They would take my money and kill Uncle Bin anyway. He may already be dead."
"Don't say that!" Beth screamed and beat his chest with her fists.
He grabbed her wrists. "Here! Here! I'll decide what to do. Don't let yourself get so upset about something you don't understand."
Beth ran from him and collapsed by the side of Akoo's pool, tears streaming down her cheeks.
|Beth cried until she was drained and exhausted and fell asleep beside the pool. This was not as foolish as it sounds, because the pool had been enclosed in a sturdy fence when the King had realized just how big a crocodile Akoo was growing to be. It is never wise to allow a crocodile to creep up on one.|
As she slept, she dreamed that Krokula stood above her uncle (who was chained to the post of the bandit tent) wearing the Blue Crown of the Upper Lands and laughed. “You are dead.”
And for the first time, Beth found a voice in her dream. “Uncle Bin! Where are you? You aren’t dead—Father is wrong. Don’t give up—I’ll save you.”
Krokula turned away from Uncle Bin and spoke to Beth.
“Your father is correct. Bin Jivo is already dead. He forfeited his life when he stole my only son to be a child’s plaything.” She knew it was a dream, but still, Krokula’s voice was so deep it made her shake with the depth of it.
“But what can I do? I love Akoo, but Uncle Bin is precious to me.”
Krokula smiled his crocodile smile, which was way too full of teeth. “You must return Akoo to me—only by sacrificing something you love will my need for revenge be satiated.” His eyes flashed red. “But consider well. Bin Jivo knew what he did when he stole my child. And what loyal brother would introduce a predator into the household of a king? Bin Javo is not worth your loyalty. Your father knows this and that is why he will not save your uncle.”
“What do you mean?”
Krokula just faded into nothing.
Beth knew then that Uncle Bin was not a prisoner of the bandits. Krokula had him. And Beth had to bring Akoo back or else Uncle Bin would die. That would be tragic. He was her favorite uncle, always ready to bring her presents and answer her questions. This was the realm of magic. Father couldn’t help—he was too kingly to bow to the demands of robbers.
There was only one thing for her to do. She would have to rescue Uncle Bin herself.
She headed back up to her room and gathered a pack of clothes and her favorite teddy bear and left over cakes from last night’s dinner. She didn’t leave a note or say goodbye because Gabe would just want to go with her and her father would lock her in her room. Her mother would probably cry, but that was to be expected, because she was pregnant and rather hormonal.
She went back down to the pond and let Akoo out. Akoo smiled a big toothy smile and slithered out of the pool with the ease of long practice. Side by side, the princess and the crocodile set forth, out of the city to rescue Bin Jivo.
Several hours later, Gabe, who had been looking all over for his sister, finally headed down to Akoo’s pond. He found her there, still asleep, burned red and dry from the sun. He shouted for help, and she was brought inside, where the healers tried to revive her by the traditional methods of leeches and cold baths.
But she didn’t wake—she was lost in dreaming.
All night Gabe sat beside his sister's bed as she lay in her coma. Finally he fell asleep himself and began to dream...
"Gabe!" Beth was calling. "Gabe!"
Gabe ran in the direction of her voice and found her. She had Akoo on a leash. "Thank goodness you found me," Beth said. "I am going to rescue Uncle Bin Jivo from the bandits."
"But why do you have Akoo with you?" Gabe asked.
"Because Krokula is king of the bandits! He is not King of the Upper Lands as we thought. Akoo is Krokula's son. When Akoo was a baby our Uncle Bin Jivo stole him from Krokula and killed Krokula's wife, Akoo's mother."
"That's awful!" Gabe said. "Uncle Bin Jivo wouldn't do that!"
"I'm sure he didn't mean to, but it happened. Now I am taking Akoo back to Krokula. When he gets Akoo then he will release Uncle Bin. He says because I took such good care of Akoo he will forgive what happened, but Uncle Bin must never come near Krokula's kingdom again."
Gabe woke up with a start. The dream was clear in his head and he knew what he must do. Even though it was still dark, he ran to Akoo's pool and managed to fasten a leash to Akoo's neck. "We are going to see your father," Gabe said. "Be very good and do not bite me."
The crocodile set off at a run and Gabe had to hold tight to the leash for he was pulled along across the sand. By the time the morning sun rose, Gabe and Akoo were far away from the glass palace.
As the morning sun rose, Beth's fever broke and she sat up and was given water. "Gabe will save Uncle Bin," Beth said. They thought she was still raving a bit from the fever until a servant rushed in with the news that Gabe was missing. Then Beth's father, King Agamon, questioned her closely. "What's this you said about Gabe? Where has he gone?"
"To take Akoo back to his father," Beth said. "Akoo's father is a mighty king like you, father, and his name is Krokula."
King Agamon didn't know what to believe. Then a servant rushed in with the news that Gabe's tracks had been located and apparently he had the crocodile Akoo with him.
"Ready my chariots!" said King Agamon. He selected five of his strongest guards to accompany him. The sun was rising toward noon when six chariots, each pulled by two horses, clattered away from the glass palace to follow the trail of Akoo and Gabe through the sands.
"They are headed for the Siwadi Oasis," said one of the guards.
"Are there crocodiles there?" asked King Agamon.
"That I don't know, but it's a likely hideout for bandits!"
|Akoo moved at a steady pace and Gabe matched it in an easy lope that ate up the distance to the oasis, with Beth occasionally joining them as Gabe slipped in and out of his runner’s trance. She warned them when the king set off after them. The news made Akoo move even faster.|
The oasis was not far as the crocodile runs, but for a small boy, it was difficult. But Gabe ran on, keeping his throat wet and his mouth closed. From time to time the voice of Krokula came to them, calling Ben Jivo evil and a traitor, but Gabe closed his ears, and Akoo sped faster.
Finally, Akoo slowed, and circled around the oasis so that they could get a good look at the terrain before attempting the rescue. Beth offered to scout, but Akoo signaled that this was not the plan. Instead, Akoo and Gabe hid themselves in the scanty vegetation to the north. They could see a group of twenty or so bandits with horses and piles of loot that they were fighting over, but they could not see Uncle Bin. The bandit chief was the largest of them all.
Akoo insisted that Gabe and Beth remain hidden while he slid, nearly soundlessly, into the muddy puddle that was the oasis after twenty horses had drunk their fill.
Just as Akoo disappeared into the water, the bandit chief shouted a loud shout and waved his sword three times. The rest of the bandits stopped squabbling and turned to hear. “My men, this day has been good, and much treasure lines our pockets and makes our saddlebags heavy, but tomorrow will be better.”
The bandits cheered. Gabe reached out and held Beth’s hand tight.
“Best of all, the king will welcome me home with open arms.” The bandit king threw back his hood, and the children were horrified to see the face of their uncle, Bin Jivo. “And I will welcome you through the gates. In the dead of night into the palace we will destroy the king and his heirs and the queen shall be my concubine and his treasures shall be your playthings.”
Gabe bit his thumb so that he didn’t make a sound. Back in the palace, Beth’s nursemaid didn’t know why the sleeping princess had screamed so. A shadow fell over them, and large, crocodile hands covered their mouths. “Quiet, my pets,” Krocula’s voice shuddered through them, “it is time for my son to become the heir to my kingdom.”
The children relaxed as well as they could with the shadow of the crocodile over them. Back in the palace, the princess whimpered in her sleep.
A bandit who was the lookout suddenly shouted. “Horses and men come across the desert. I see the banner of the king.”
Bin Jivo, the bandit king roared his joy for here was a chance to beat the king’s forces in combat, and prove that Bin was the rightful ruler. But in his elation, he moved a step too close to the waters of the oasis. From behind him, Akoo’s pointed snout caught hold of his thigh and dragged him down into the puddle. It happened so fast that Bin Jivo did not even have time to draw his sword. A few bubbles rose to the top of the water, but the bandit king was gone down into the lair of the crocodile.
As their leader disappeared, the other bandits groaned their fear, for they were not nearly as formidable a force without the strength of Bin Jivo to give them purpose and courage. The king’s forces made short work of them, and soon the shore of the oasis was dark and bloody.
But Krokula covered Gabe’s ears and shadowed his eyes because Gabe had brought Akoo back, strong and worthy to be the heir to the Upper Lands. When the slaughter was over, the king found Gabe sleeping peacefully under a shrub on the north side of the oasis.
But Beth did not see the bandits die or her father pick up her brother and carry him back to the glass palace. She only could see the crystal clear water where Akoo and Bin Jivo had vanished together. “He was evil and he was a traitor to my father and the kingdom, but he was my favorite uncle. And now, Akoo will depart to be heir to the Upper Lands and I will be all alone without my crocodile.”
She grieved and could not be comforted. She knelt at the edge of the water and trailed her dream fingers in it. Krocula stood behind her, silently. Her tears were so plentiful that when the king’s men sought to water their horses before they left, they were surprised that the once pure water now tasted of torment.
And then Akoo lifted his long head out of the water and touched her hand. He spoke, and his voice was as gentle as the spring winds. “My princess, do not grieve. I will always be yours. I have much to learn of the ways of my people. And when the time comes, I will find you and make you queen of the Upper and Lower Lands.”
And with that promise, Beth awoke and Gabe was there and they laughed together and were glad for their first adventure was done. But their father and mother saw them and wondered.
I take a long drink of water, and scratch Geoffrey’s head. He makes a lovely crocodile. I look around. The story has taken possession of my imagination so strongly that the ceiling in our room has turned to glass. The fire is gone, and in its place is a small pool with a fountain bubbling up from its center. And the floor is now white sand. But my chair is the same, and I have a fan in case it gets too hot.
And I find myself wondering where we will head next.
|There are wonderful stories in the sands.|
The Sand Fairy
One evening Beth and Gabe were sitting by the pool where Akoo once played and a spark of light fell out of the sky and into the pool. It didn't make a sound.
"Did you see that?" Beth said.
Gabe was already kneeling by the pool, trying to see into its depths. "Yes! Look! There it is!"
They could see the little spark of light sitting on the bottom of the pool.
"It's a Sand Fairy!" Beth said.
Gabe's mouth fell open. "What's that?"
"They grant wishes. But you have to be careful what you wish for. They are very tricky and if they can then they will turn your wish into a trick on you."
"What do you mean?" Gabe asked. "I don't understand."
"For instance, let's say you wished you were the most beautiful person in the land. Then they might leave you just as you are and make everyone else ugly."
"But that wouldn't be fair to everyone else, would it?"
Beth laughed. ""Everyone else would not really be any different but to you now they would seem uglier than you are. Really nothing would change but how you saw things."
"Oh," Gabe said. "I'm still not sure I understand. Are you saying the Sand Fairy doesn't really grant your wishes, it just makes you think it has granted your wishes?"
"Sometimes it seems that way, but it's more complicated than that because sometimes it does grant your wish if it can't think of a way to trick you."
Gabe frowned. "How do you know so much about Sand Fairies?"
|Beth paused to collect her thoughts. For her, life had been strange since Akoo left her, full of exotic visitors and strange dreams. But Gabe had lost the gift of dreaming in the oasis when Krokula cast his shadow over his eyes and ears, and now he relied on Beth to remember for him.|
“Did you know why our new Logan and Lily couldn’t see us for their first weeks of life? They would stare around at nothing, ignoring our faces and the strange noises that the grown-ups insist on making to infants.”
Gabe shook his head. He was staring at Beth, and she was staring at the water.
“They were too busy being greeted by fairies to pay attention to mortals. Compared to beings of light, we are slow and dull. The fairies dance for them and give them kisses and sing stories of starlight and fairy magic.
“That’s why I stayed so long, watching them. Because some of their stories were dark and terrible and I was afraid that the twins would be troubled and seek to leave us before mother could catch their eyes and bind them with love.
“Fairies live everywhere, of course, in the hearts of trees and in the smallest blade of grass, in a drop of water and in a speck of dust. Here, in the glass palace, most fairies are found in the sand.”
Gabe nodded, for that made sense. Sand was a constant part of life in the glass palace, forever trying to reclaim the walls and floors for the desert.
“Although fairies are flighty creatures, seldom finishing a story or lingering more than a moment in one place, one fairy remained with the twins—in fact, he is with them now, or was when I last saw them. His name is long and musical and I don’t have the right kind of voice to sing it for you, but he told me to call him Whisper.
“It was he who told me something of fairy lore. You see, every time a child is born, a fairy breathes light to fill that child with life. But the weight of a body soon changes that fairy, and it can no longer see the flow of light or hear the dance of the spheres.
“That is why fairies are fascinated with children—they know that this is one of their playfellows who they might have known forever, who is now lost to them for a space. And that is why fairies play tricks—they are amused at how many truths we have forgotten, and want to help us remember. After all, when we are done with mortality, we can rejoin them—although many fairies are not content with one sojourn in mortality.
“Fairies generally only have small magics. It is always easier to change a person’s eyes than to alter the matter of our beings.
“Whisper tells me that once he had five friends who were closer than brothers and sisters. I was the first to leave him for mortality, and he was disappointed in me. He thought that I would have been better served to remain a speck on energy living in a grain of sand than to clothe myself in bones and blood.
“When I was born, his oldest brother was fascinated by my new existence. The rest of the family knew that it wouldn’t be long before you decided to join me. And now Logan and Lily have joined us, and he feels the pull of curiosity drawing him in to our lives.”
Gabe waited, but it seemed as though Beth was done talking. “But what about the fifth friend?”
Beth pointed at the pool where the little spark of light flickered and danced. Gabe's mouth fell open. "Really? That's him?"
"Or her," Beth said.
So it was no surprise to either Beth or Gabe when the next morning their father and mother announced they had something important to tell the children. Beth and Gabe exchanged a quick glance with each other then Gabe said, "I hope it's a boy so he can play with me."
* * *
The Sand Pirate's Parrot
While Nate, the Wandering Prince, was still in his early youth, he decided to travel with the spice caravan on it's journey from the Eastern Sea to the Ice Mountains.
"Don't go," his mother said. "You will be away from me for a year. I will miss you. And there is the danger that you might never return."
"I shall return," Nate said. "My Red Dragon Sword will keep and protect me."
His father gave Nate letters of introduction to the several friends of the family that lived in the lands of the Ice Mountains. And his mother gave him a warm cloak and a pair of fine leather boots suitable for tramping through snow and ice. Nate had never seen snow but he was assured that it was a lot like sand, only much colder and much whiter.
Nate's friends and family waved good-bye as the caravan continued on it's annual journey taking Nate with it. Nate's home had been only one stop along the way and not a very important one because few people lived nearby. However, after seven days more travel the caravan entered the large city of Harmon el Hiaz where many thousands lived.
Besides the caravan master and Nate, there were several men of distinction traveling with the caravan, but they were religious men and chose to stay at the temple while the caravan was stopped in Harmon el Hiaz for a couple of days. Nate took a room at the Inn of the Cheerful Few.
"Who are the Cheerful Few?" Nate asked the innkeeper who replied that he didn't know who they were but they didn't seem to stay at his inn.
"Then why have you named the inn that?" Nate asked.
"To encourage them to return. Why do you ask so many questions?"
Nate grinned. "This is my first time in the city and I have much to learn. Why do so many people live here?"
"Everyone must live somewhere."
"But why here?" Nate persisted. "It doesn't seem to be any different from anywhere else."
"Ah, but it is. Here there are lots of people. Elsewhere there are none."
Nate touched his chin, "So you say people come here because there are a lot of people here and there are a lot of people here because people come here?"
"That's exactly what I say."
"I think people in the city think in strange ways."
The innkeeper turned his palms up. "That is why so few are cheerful."
|Nate knew at once that he would never be a city dweller. He was too inherently cheerful to think in this strange new way. But the city was an interesting place, and before the caravan went on, he knew he must explore further.|
The city of Harmon el Hiaz was built where the Little River, which had its origin in Nate's father's kingdom, met the Great River. As both rivers were rather prone to flooding in the season, no houses were built between the rivers. This left a huge expanse of ground where the caravans gathered in the summer and the winter to open the Bazaar.
The king, who lived in a huge palace filled with gold and gardens on the hill above the town. To keep the peace, he built walls around the bazaar and set guards which had the added benefit that the caravans remembered to pay his tariffs as they entered and his taxes as they left.
Close to the king's palace were the only slightly less huge palaces of the nobles and merchants. And the houses grew less impressive until the banks of the river, where the huts were small indeed, and washed away every spring with the floods.
Nate left the inn (which was not the best in the city, nor the worst) with his sword bound in cords to show that he was not going to pick fights, and his pack on his back because his friends in the caravan had told him that it was not wise to trust city locks to protect his possessions.
He passed the guards into the Bazaar, which was crowded and smelled of spices and people. He passed beggars with bandages over their eyes and musicians with beautiful sounds that could only barely be heard and even a street preacher who hadn't bathed in quite some time. There were places which sold wine and food and negotiable affection.
The sellers set up booths to display their wares. He paused for a moment at the sword seller, but there was no sword greater than his Red Dragon Sword. At another booth, he considered whether he should buy a silk scarf that reminded him of his mother, but he knew that he should not. There were many weeks to go before he would be at the Ice Mountains, and he did not have a deep purse.
There were strange noises coming from the next booth. Nate paused, and realized that this merchant was selling animals. There were monkeys and snakes and a cage full of kittens, but the animal which was making the most noise was a brightly colored parrot that had escaped its cage and was perched above the head of the merchant.
The merchant was not paying close attention to the laughing crowd, because he was trying to chase the parrot back into its cage with a broom. The merchant's robes were stained by evidence of the parrot's fright and distaste.
Nate knew enough about parrots to know that the broom was making the situation more difficult. He chirped softly, taking out the loaf of bread he was saving for his lunch. The parrot heard him or smelled the food, and suddenly it had flown down to land on Nate's shoulder. Nate offered it a piece of the bread, which it considered for a moment before taking.
The merchant was astonished at the unruly birds now docile behavior. “Truly you are a magician to calm it so.”
Nate shrugged with one shoulder, careful not to move the other under the parrot. “My father taught me that offering a treat will bring one closer, but punishment will drive one away.” He didn't add that the lecture on carrots and sticks had been in reference to leading men. Nate offered his finger as a perch. The parrot stepped on it, and Nate slowly brought it closer to the merchant. “Here is your parrot.”
The merchant reached out to take the bird, but jumped back a it hissed and snapped with its strong beak. “I think that the bird has found a new master.”
Nate shook his head. “I am without funds. I could not buy it from you.”
The merchant paused, for he liked a profit.
Nate could see that the merchant was making a mental calculation. Then the merchhant spoke. "There is a certain man who lives in the sands between here and the ice mountains. I assume you are with the caravan. Is that correct?"
"Yes," Nate said, not sure what the merchant was getting at.
"I wish that man to have this parrot. You say you are short of funds. I believe you would be able to handle this parrot quite well. How would you like to take the parrot to the man in exchange for an ounce of gold?"
"I would very much like to do that," Nate said. An ounce of gold had a substantial value. It would pay for several months in a good inn including all meals. "I am surprised you would trust me to deliver the bird after you give me the gold."
The merchant smiled wryly. "I wouldn't trust you. You get the gold after you deliver the parrot."
Nate's face fell. "Oh. But what if this man decides that an ounce of gold is too high a price? What if he decides to give me nothing?"
"Then the parrot is yours. Sell the parrrot."
Nate thought about it. It was true the parrot would have a value. Not the value of an ounce of gold, but he need not give the man the parrot unless they settled on a fair price. Nate was sure he would end up with something of value. And it would be fun to have the parrot to make the long days of the journey a little less boring.
"Alright," Nate said. "I'll do it. What's the parrot's name?"
"Alexander the Great."
On hearing it's name the parrot lifted its wings and squawked, "Alexander the Great!"
The merchant grinned. "You and Alexander will get along fine. Now listen carefully as I tell you how to find Alexander's owner."
The instructions were long and complicated. "Why does he make himself so difficult to locate?" Nate asked.
"I am sure you will know the answer to that when you meet him. Have a good trip. Goodbye, Alexander."
The parrot squawked, "Goodbye! Goodbye!"
|The caravan towards the Ice Mountains went much faster with the addition of a parrot. Most of Nate’s time was taken up in teaching Alexander new phrases to astonish his friends. His original repertoire included such phrases as “your money or your life” and “throw down your weapons” but soon expanded to such witticisms as “it’s party time” and “I’m bored” both of which came almost without Nate’s even trying, and of course “Alex is a pretty boy,” which took several dedicated weeks of training.|
Life in the caravan was not as exciting as Nate had thought when he left home. There were very few people Nate’s age—and most of them had jobs that kept them busy most of the time. The only other passenger was a mysterious lady who rode in a litter on a camel’s back and never peeked out her head unless the leader wanted to talk to her.
So, his only friend to talk to was Alexander. While the parrot was not the most stimulating conversationalist, Nate was continually aware that the bird did not belong to him.
The way to find Alexander’s owner involved an intricate series of light signals into the desert every day at noon. On the fifth week out of Harmon el Hiaz, Nate was to take Alexander on a camel ride through the desert at night, six miles east and two north until he came to a hidden oasis. There they were to stay until Alexander’s owner came for them, which would be within the next three days.
If Alexander’s owner did not show, Nate was to retrace his steps to the caravan route. A single camel would move much faster than the caravan, and so he would catch them up within three days.
All proceeded on schedule. Nate faithfully gave the light signals, which even the caravan guards did not notice. Noon was a busy time for the caravan, which broke camp before dawn and halted soon after noon so that they would not overtax the animals during the heat of the day.
That night he headed out on his camel. He was pretty confident that he knew his directions because the stars were bright. Alexander was asleep on the saddle in front of him. He found the oasis with no trouble at all. Once he was still and quiet, he heard muffled sounds from the direction of the caravan, but it was probably his imagination or maybe the movement of the animals across the desert. The caravan was never truly silent—there were too many people and animals moving and breathing.
Nate had not been so alone since the day he returned from the Red Dragon’s lair. As he laid out his bedroll and settled in for the night he realized that he had missed the solitude. This was what he had hoped for when he left for the Ice Mountains—just him against the world, no guards, no slow plodding camels and wagons full of silk and spice. Maybe, if Alexander’s owner didn’t show, he wouldn’t try to catch up with the caravan after all.
When he awoke, he was surrounded by swords.
Nate sat up quickly and reached for his sword, but it was not there.
"Looking for this?" one of the men said. He had Nate's Red Dragon Sword in his hand.
"I have nothing worth stealing," Nate said. "Surely you do not want that old rusty sword? It would break in two if you tried to use it."
"Then why do you carry it young master?" The man that spoke had a scar from one corner of his face to the other.
"You can see I am a boy," Nate said. "Perhaps I should have tossed my playthings away but for sentimental reasons I still carry the old sword my grandfather gave me to play with."
Scarface looked at the other men and laughed. "If he is as fast with his sword as he is with his words he would be a formidable opponent."
"Duel!" one of the men said and the cry was taken up: Duel! Duel! Duel!
Scarface raised his hand. "You are right. That would be a much more gentlemanly way to kill him. You are a gentleman, aren't you?"
"I am Prince Jeremiah Archibald Fitzwilliam Nathaniel the Seventh, known as Prince Nate the Wandering Prince."
The men laughed. "What kind of name is that? You have wandered too far, have you not?"
The Red Dragon Sword was tossed at Prince Nate's feet. "Pick it up!" challenged Scarface and drew his own sword, a beautiful blade of silver engraved with a magical device from the tip to the hilt. In contrast, the Red Dragon Sword was a dull maroon of a plain design. Of course, no sword fight was ever won solely on the basis of the beauty of a sword.
Nate rose to his feet and assumed the stance that fighters from his original homeland used. Again there was laughter from the men. "He fights like a beserker!" and Nate realized the word was meant to insult.
"I am proud of my homeland!"
More laughter, and Nate leaped forward to attack. Scarface stepped nimbly aside and the ease with which he whisked his blade past Nate's face told Nate he was being toyed with, that this man could have wounded him then but did not want to end the fight too soon. Instantly Nate was more cautious and more alert and chiding himself for acting like a restless kid. He needed to be calm and cool, not impulsive and reckless.
Alexander the Great sat up in a tree above the fight scene, nervously preening his feathers. The presence of so many loud and active men made him quiet and sullen. Whether he had any idea what was going on is debatable, but he certainly recognized his friend Nate.
Nate and Scarface circled warily, then Scarface dealt a devastating series of thrusts and parries that had Nate backing up and stumbling over his own feet. Scarface stood for a moment poised to plunge his sword into Nate's chest, then turned his back and walked away a few steps and turned around to face Nate again. "Well?" he said. "Are you exhausted, little sand worm?"
Nate's face burned with shame at his poor performance. That was twice now that the sand pirate could have easily killed him. For Nate realized that's what these men were, sand pirates. They preyed on caravans, often killing everyone and then stealing the pack animals and all the goods they held. Nate wondered if they were planning to attack the caravan he was traveling with.
Nate stood up and calmly brushed off his clothes. "The only thing lower than a sand worm is a sand pirate. You will die here today."
Scarface grinned and his men chuckled. "Finish him," someone said. As Scarface approached him, Nate strode forward to meet him. Their blades met in a brief flurry of clangs, then they were momentarily locked blade to blade. Nate stared into the hard eyes of the pirate. At that moment Alexander the Great called from above them: Throw down your weapons! I'm bored!
The distraction gave Nate the opportunity he needed and he seized it, knocking Scarface's sword out of his hands and quickly putting the tip of the Red Dragon Sword's blade to the pirate's neck. The pirate's men made as if to do something but Nate shouted, "Tell them to stand back or it's my sword through your throat!"
"What do you want in exchange for my life?" rasped Scarface, for that was the custom in those parts.
"An ounce of gold," Nate said.
"I'm worth more than that!" the pirate said, then grinned. "But you shall be paid."
Nate kept his sword at the pirate's throat while a coin of the appropriate size was fished out of the gang's money bag. After he pocketed the coin, Nate made the pirate's men retreat to a distance, then he mounted his camel and waved a salute to the sand pirate. Alexander the Great flew down and landed on the saddle behind Nate.
The sand pirate watched them go. He frowned and said, "I'll bet he was delivering the damn parrot I bought from that merchant in Harmon el Hiaz."
* * *
The candle burns low. The rocking chair squeaks. Oh no, is Rhyssa asleep? I wonder if I should wake her up and tell her it's her turn to begin a story?
|What? Oh, sorry. I wasn’t asleep, just distracted by events outside these four walls. Chicken sitting for my sister, dealing with the chicken who died, seeing pictures of my brother’s new baby girl (she’s three days old today), avoiding cleaning my bedroom, and now, Geoffrey’s gotten demanding. Pushy dragon.|
Ah well. It’s better to have a pushy muse than a complacent one.
But while I’m here, real life needs to fade away, so I can concentrate on our stories. I’m sorry.
I think it’s time for a change in scenery. The walls of books are gone, and we are surrounded by trees. The floor is a carpet of pine needles. I’m curled up in my chair in front of a clearing that contains a stone circle. It’s dark, but the moon shines down into the circle. I’m cold, so I wrap up in a fuzzy blanket. Geoffrey is flying—I can see him in a dragon’s shadow over the moon.
The Stone Circle
Once upon a time in a land where the edges of Faerie blur and fade, there lived a forester called Aidan in a cottage in the middle of the woods. He had been well taught in nature lore, and knew the wood and her inhabitants better than any but the forest spirits. He got along well with all his neighbors, who were all more or less than human. And he might have lived there until his death, protecting the wood and her secrets without heir or human lover . . .
But outside the wood, the kingdom was ravaged by war. The king had died, and his brother, who was loved of all the people, feared the rule of Prince Daffyd. So, instead of pledging his allegiance to the prince, Lord Maddoc rose in rebellion and so the land was ravaged by civil war.
Now, Lord Maddoc had only one child, Bridgid, who was the cause of Maddoc’s campaign against Daffyd. And although the people loved Lord Maddoc, Daffyd paid for the army’s loyalty.
There seemed to be no swift or easy end for this war.
Maddoc’s lands were on the edge of the wood, but (like most of the people in the kingdom) he did not dare to walk its paths, because those that did so without taking the proper precautions were doomed to madness. Or to be hunted and slain by those who were more or less than human. That wasn’t entirely accurate, but the stories told by generations of nursemaids often bear greater weight than the truth.
And so it was that while Maddoc and his forces battled the prince’s army, Daffyd had crept away in the night, accompanied by his magicians (who were nearly as degenerate as he was), so that he could sneak into Maddoc’s castle and act upon his unnatural affection for his cousin, Bridgid.
That night, Bridgid (who had been taught to break enchantments by her mother) found herself sitting upright in bed. She wasn’t sure what had startled her out of sleep, but something felt wrong. She slipped out of bed and to the window. There were shadows creeping towards the castle—shadows that had no source.
Without hesitating, Bridgid shook her handmaid. “We need to hide.”
But her handmaid could not be woken. Bridgid knew that it must be her cousin’s magicians. Without lighting a lamp (which would have shown that someone was awake despite the enchanted sleep that had been cast over the castle), she slipped through the castle, gathering some clothes, food, her bow, her dagger, and her lute.
Then, just as Daffyd snuck through the kitchen gate (which was the smallest, and least guarded), Bridgid slipped behind the tapestry in her chamber and into the secret passageway that would lead her into the wood.
At the other end of the passageway, where it surfaced just within the wood, was a hollow tree. Bridgid had used the secret passageway before when she wanted to be by herself, but never at night. As she stood in the hollow tree and listened to the night sounds, she decided to wait for the sun to rise. She wasn't afraid of the wood in the daytime but it seemed to her to be a different place at night.
While she waited she listened to the various night sounds, the singing of the animals and spirits of the wood, and noticed one song among the others that she found especially appealing. It sounded very much like a young man singing, although she knew that in the wood you could never be sure. It might well be an imitation of man, a mimic creature or a demon. But it was lovely singing.
She caught herself just as she was about to step out into the moonlight. "How could I let its song entrance me like that?" She stuck her fingers in her ears and waited for morning.
Although Aidan had lived alone in his cottage in the wood for many years, he still appeared to be a young man of thirty years. Such was the enchanting power of the wood. Aidan had not entered the wood seeking long life, but only because he was a lover of all that was natural and felt an extreme dislike for human civilization. He was very sensitive to any change in the wood, so when he awoke he knew insatntly that someone had entered the forest. He pulled on his soft boots, tied his tunic tight, and went forth to investigate.
When the first rays of the sun penetrated the leaves, Bridgid left her tree and entered the familiar clearing. There was a bubbling spring with good water to drink and soft moss to sit upon with a fallen log to lean against. But of course she couldn't stay there forever. She was sure that Daffyd would never follow her into the wood. And she was also sure that if she returned to the castle she would find it under Daffyd's control. Her plan was to cross through the wood and attempt to rejoin her father.
She hurried through the wood, for she wasn't sure exactly how big it was. If night fell before she crossed it, then she would once again face the problem of being alone in the wood at night, only this time with no place to hide. She almost collided with the man who stepped out in front of her.
"Oh!" she said. "I was going so fast I didn't see you."
"Do you know that you are in the enchanted wood?" Aidan asked.
"Yes, of course I know. I am Bridgid, the daughter of Lord Maddoc, and I can enter any wood I please."
Aidan bowed. "Pardon, my Lady. I am Aidan the Forester. I thought you might be lost."
|Bridgid looked around—she had come into the forest on the east side—to reach her father, she needed to head south. Although the trees were much too dense in most places to get a good view of the sky, she had a sense that she was going the right way. “I’m not lost. I need to find my father. Can you help me?” |
Aidan shook his head. “The wood is a treacherous place—that is not the way to the edge.”
“I don’t want to go to the nearest edge—I have to get away.” A sudden thought had her pulling away, gathering herself together so she could bolt if necessary. “Whose side are you on? Do you follow Daffyd?” Maybe she had headed straight into a trap—but he hadn’t felt slimy the way anyone connected to Daffyd did.
“Who?” His honest befuddlement was reassuring to her, although she wondered that anyone could be so ignorant of a civil war that had raged for nearly two years. No one outside the wood could escape it.
“Daffyd is the old king’s son. Last night, I escaped from Daffyd’s magicians, but I fear that my home is lost to me until I warn my father and we take back the castle.” Aidan nodded with a far off look to his face as though her words were foreign to him and there was some sound in the distance that was more interesting. “I need to find my father. He’s in the south . . . and that’s . . .” she pointed in the obvious direction, but he just shook his head.
“The wood moves to snare those who come within her borders. When I met you, you were walking directly towards the heart of the wood.” He gestured in the same direction Bridgid just had. “I do not think you really wanted to go that way. No one passes through the heart unchanged.”
“But how am I going to find my father if the wood itself is against me? I can’t spend the rest of my life . . .”
Bridgid found herself unable to speak. In the sudden silence, she listened intently, but could not even hear the melodies that had so disturbed her sleep the night before. He turned around and held up his hand just in time for an enormous owl light. He stared at the bird for a minute, and then launched it back into the air. It flew the way she had come on silent wings.
He turned back to Bridgid. “You were followed.”
She looked around, slightly panicked. “Where? Who? It must be Daffyd’s men—I can’t let them find me.”
“Do not worry. Their greeter will not have the same . . . empathy . . . for humanity that I have. I would be surprised if they do not turn back as soon as they realize where they are.” He sighed and turned in a direction Bridgid would never have considered. “Come with me.”
Almost without thinking, Bridgid followed Aidan through the wood.
Because she had only to follow Aidan through the wood and because Aidan had no more to say, Bridgid was free to worry as they walked along. At first she worried about her father and whether he was safe but after hours of walking she began to worry about herself and why she was trusting this woodman Aidan.
"Stop," she said. "Let's rest for a moment. Are you really helping me? Or are you leading me to my doom?"
Aidan's calm green eyes looked directly into her innocent blue ones. "I would never lead someone as beautiful as you to her doom."
Bridgid flushed a little and looked down then up at him. "I believe you. But haven't we been walking for an awfully long time?"
"Yes. But I fear the edges of the wood where we could exit are blocked by soldiers. I am still looking for a clear way out."
"Some of those soldiers might be my father's men!" Bridgid said. "We would be safe with them."
"Would your father's men stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the men of the man you fear?"
"Daffyd? No, the two armies would fight I am sure."
"And yet there has been no gap through which we could pass and so all the men out there must be united in their purpose."
"But Daffyd cannot have enough men to surround the entire wood! It's too big."
Aidan made a circular gesture with his hand. "One cannot freely enter and exit the wood everywhere. Along one side there is a cliff that blocks all passage other than perhaps secret tunnel ways known only to the nether beings. With enough men it's possible to control the obvious ways in and out of the wood. But those men cannot stay there forever. You could outlast them."
Bridgid frowned. "You mean... remain in the wood for days? But it's too dangerous."
"Not if you stayed at my cottage."
Bridgid flushed again. "I could not do that!"
"Even to save your life?"
At that moment Bridgid smelled something burning. Aidan said, "They have lit fires! They intend to smoke you out."
"Will the enchanted wood burn?"
"No, I don't think so, but if they make enough smoke then it will drift in here and make us miserable. Let's go to my cottage for now and eat and drink and rest and think about what to do next."
"I guess we have to," Bridgid said. "Daffyd is insanely determined. Perhaps even now my father is making ready to attack Daffyd's men."
"Perhaps," Aidan said. "But you must make plans based on what you know and not on what you hope."
|Aidan was moving faster now that they had a clear destination. In the quiet, Bridgid could hear the singing that she had so resolutely ignored the night before getting louder. Curious, she focused on their back trail, and heard a clamor like her father’s men as they practiced arms and a hissing and roar like fire. |
She stopped moving so that she could hear better.
Aidan turned around. “We don’t have time for that. Your feet are not at the edge of the wood. Your mind shouldn’t be there either.”
“What am I hearing?”
“Follow me.” Aidan hurried off, fast and quiet through the wood, almost as though he were a spirit, not really there.
Bridgid felt like a lumbering fool as she followed because she somehow managed to step on every leaf rustle every branch that she passed. She didn’t have the same grace that she was accustomed to having, in her father’s castle or the court of the king. Instead she was like a swan waddling along a shore.
Suddenly, without any prior indication, Aidan stopped and motioned for her to come along beside him. “We’re here.” Through a gap in the trees, Bridgid saw a tiny cottage covered in vines and shadowed by trees. At first glance, it didn’t look very promising. She found herself wondering if there was more than one bed, and if not, where she would end up sleeping.
He motioned her forward. “I need to set wards up.”
She walked forward, but as she reached the door, she was surprised by the sound of bright chimes, ringing once and then falling silent. She looked behind her. Aidan was striding across to the door.
“Enter and be welcome.”
With a final look around, Bridgid opened the door and stepped inside.
Her first thought was that this was not what she had expected. Although she hadn’t seen windows from the outside, and the trees around the cottage would seem to provide shade even on the brightest of days, the room was bright and airy. Several large windows stood open and breezes blew through the room. In fact, she couldn’t see a way for them to close.
This was much different from the castle, where all the windows were small and defensible.
There were several large chairs, a table, a small kitchen area which smelled of dinner, and a steep stair across the back of the room. Everything was in its place, which bespoke an orderly existence that Bridgid was unused to finding in a bachelor. As Aidan stepped through the door, he snapped his fingers, and the fire roared into life.
“There are three doors upstairs. The first is my room. The second you can use to freshen up. And the third is a guest room. Please be careful where you put things, because the brownies put things away if they are left lying about. I still haven’t convinced them to give my favorite shoes back.”
He looked around, clearly unused to guests. Bridgid found herself wondering why exactly he had a guest room if he didn’t entertain.
“Ah, and the food is warm—so feel free to freshen up and put your things away where you would like them kept.” He looked around as if trying to think how he could put the next bit. “There is a chamber pot upstairs in the necessary room. And soap and fresh water in the basin. If you need more water, pour it out into the pot, and the sprites will refill the basin. If you ever feel unsafe, barring the door will set up personal wards for the guest room.”
Upstairs was much as he had said. It felt bigger than the first floor, but that was clearly impossible—or improbable without the intervention of magic. The guest room was cozy, with no windows and books lining every wall. The bed looked comfortable, but she was still too hungry to sleep. Placing all of her belongings carefully at the bottom of the wardrobe, Bridgid went back downstairs for the meal.
"I don't eat animal flesh," Aidan said. "I hope you will find this tasty." He gestured at a platter of vegetables and fruits in the center of the table. "We also have bread and soup, but no cheese or butter. I suppose it's different from what you are accustomed to."
"Yes," she said as she sat down. She recognized many of the items on the platter but others she did not. "What are those?" she asked.
He shrugged. "You know, I have never bothered to give anything names. The brownies prepare the meal and it all comes from the wood. I grow the vegetables myself. I'm sure the other things are the nuts and fruits of the forest."
She looked around. "Where are the... brownies?"
He chuckled. "You will not see them. They are very shy. But maybe you will surprise one since you will be staying here for awhile. I have to warn you that they scare easily. If you see one then he or she will shriek and run away. It's very startling the first time it happens, so be prepared."
"Alright," she said. She picked up one of the items on the plate he had identified as being "nuts and fruits of the enchanted wood". It was sweet and tart at the same time and quite juicy. She tasted the soup -- potato. And the bread was the same hearty brown loaf she had always eaten.
They ate for awhile in silence, then Aidan said, "If you have a sweet tooth the brownies have made a cake for you."
"Really? Just for me?"
"Yes. I don't eat sweets myself but I know that as a royal princess you must like them."
She did like them but something made her say, "Oh, not so much. Sweets are fine, but I can take them or leave them. These vegetables are delicious!"
"Thanks!" He had a warm grin for her and she was glad to get it. He wasn't nearly as dour as she had first thought. Probably living in the wood alone was not always pleasant. It wouldn't be for her. She couldn't imagine being alone for any length of time.
"Do you never have any company?" she asked.
"I wouldn't say that. You know many of the spirits of the wood can talk. Some of them talk more than you would want to hear. And the nether people are always bringing me news from outside."
"Who are the nether people?"
"They build passageways that connect the magical to the real. You can find them everywhere. They always have news if you are friendly with them. if you treat them unkindly they become invisible."
"I see," Bridgid said. The thought crossed her mind that perhaps living by yourself in the woods for many years would not necessarily make you more sane than the average person. It might make you less.
"Have you ever heard of The Stone Circle?" Aidan asked.
|Bridgid thought for a moment, but even her mother, who was a wise woman and had taught her many things that were rather esoteric for a princess to know, had never told her anything about a stone circle. “No.”|
Aidan winced. “The Stone Circle is the heart of the wood. There, the veils between worlds are very thin, and for one such as you, who can hear the magics in the wood but are untrained, it is very dangerous.”
He frowned for a moment, and then seemed to come to a decision. “When I first came to the wood, it was many years ago, and I was not as I am now. I had ties of life and love to the human world. But the moment I stepped into the wood, she called to me. And I followed her voice into the stone circle, avoiding her danger by her design and not by any skill of my own.
“In the stone circle, she taught me her ways, and shared her needs, and they were so much greater than the needs of my old life, that I broke the threads that tied me to my brother and my mother, and I became the guardian of the wood.”
Bridgid lay her spoon down beside her empty bowl. “Why are you telling me this? The wood will not call me. I have duties outside in the real world. I can’t give my life to the wood.”
Aidan shook his head. “You say that now, but you’ve already heard the voice of the wood, seducing you away from your father. I don’t know why she wants you. But please. If you don’t want to remain here always, please keep your door shut at night. Do not heed the voices of the wood. Do not try to find your way home without a guide. Then, maybe you will manage to leave the wood.”
Bridgid nodded, but she made no promises. This man had no idea of the messy political situation that her absence would cause. Her father would not know whether Daffyd had stolen her away, and his focus would be her rescue, not knowing that she was safe. She couldn’t spend a long time hidden away from the world, even if that meant she had to find her way back home alone.
He looked at her, and frowned. “I’m serious. You say you need to find your father. The wood wants you—you have something that she needs. If the wood takes you, you won’t want to go home. The future you fear will be the only reality—and you will never even think about it until it is too late to change.”
Bridgid nodded, but she was still unconvinced.
He sighed. “I wish you would listen. Please, close your door and your ears tonight. I will scout the border tomorrow, and try to take you to your father. Goodnight.” Leaving Bridgid sitting at the table, he disappeared up the stairs.
Bridgid stared for a long moment at the fire. She could leave right now. But she didn’t know the way and in the dark under the trees, she would have even less of a sense of direction. And she was exhausted—last night she had slept poorly, and then she had walked through the wood all day. No, she would wait until morning. But tomorrow, she would leave, even if she had to leave without his blessing.
She headed up to her room, noting that the bed had been turned down but that her belongings were still safely stowed away. She shut and barred the door and slipped into the bed. As she drifted into dreaming, she heard a distant singing that was muffled by her tiredness and the lack of windows. In her dream she reached for it, pulled it to her so that she could feel it better.
It was springtime and laughter and the smell of fresh bread and crushed leaves. It made her want to dance.
She never noticed when dreaming faded into the warmth of the room, the wooden floor warm under her bare feet, the bar easily lifted, for the song led her dancing into the night.
As she skipped away from the forester's cottage and ventured deeper into the enchanted wood, Bridgid wondered why she had ever feared being in the wood at night. It was warm and peaceful. Fireflies lit her way. She sensed all manner of friendly beings around her.
Once again she heard the young man singing. It was a song of love and longing, a beautiful song that spoke directly to her heart. If she could only find that man...
The fireflies clustered before her and wherever they lit a path she followed. Soon she came to a large clearing in the woods. Giant stones taller than her were arranged in a circle. The singing came from inside the circle. As she stepped between the stones she saw a handsome man with his arms outstretched. He stopped singing and said, "I hoped you would come."
She fell into his arms and they seemed to melt together. Finally she said, "Are you really as old as you claim?"
He smiled. "Even older. Does it bother you?"
"No, your song awakened something in me that I can't explain. It's beyond age and appearance. Do you understand?"
"Yes. I feel the same way but it's beyond words. The wood found us and we found each other. The three of us are one."
"But what about my father?" Bridgid said. "I must tell him. He must not think I have just disappeared."
"We can go to him now. I had to be sure about you. Sometimes when the call is heard the listener is not strong enough to act on it, or only goes halfway and tries to turn back."
"There will be no turning back for me," Bridgid said. "I am with you always. But... will I never be able to leave the wood?"
Aidan laughed. "Yes, of course you will be able to. The stricture only applies to me. If I left the wood I would..."
"Tell me. I can take the knowledge."
"I would instantly turn to dust. That's how strong the magic of the wood is."
Bridgid hugged him tighter. "You weren't kidding when you said you were very old. Can we have children?"
"Lots of them if you like, but they will be children of the wood forever and ever and instead of growing into human adults they will become the spirits of the wood, sometimes friendly and sometimes frightening."
Bridgid leaned against him. "It will be a strange life but already I am in love with it."
* * *
Pick one of these titles or name ten titles yourself and make me pick one.
The Case of the Cross-eyed Cat
Seven Shivering Salamanders
Why Betty Bought A Cake
A Quick Trip To Sneezeville
Blue Moon, Orange Sun
Take A Taco To Tommy
When The Fog Lifts
My Favorite Dream
|Well, I have to say that it took longer than I thought to come to a resolution. Sometimes I think in novel ideas. But we finally reached the circle and all is well with that world. For the moment.|
It doesn’t help that the outside world is calling more strongly now. Soon, school will start and I will be even more distracted. But I think I can promise to meet here in our room once or twice a week. The scene is shifting, now. I can hear the crash of waves. Above us, a light warns passing ships of the rocks below.
But we can barely see the light. The still air holds a blanket of fog hanging over the scene. Occasionally it parts and we can see glimpses of the world around us, but for the most part it is hidden. Geoffrey is out there somewhere. Lurking.
When the Fog Lifts
There are times when the weather makes agoraphobics of us all. In August, the weatherman on Channel 5 News spent hours repeating dire warnings about the dangers of heat stroke and talks of record highs and red letter pollution; in January, it was record lows and ice and exploding trees. But now it was April.
Sandra stared out at the grey. It had been nearly a week since the fog rolled in off the sea. Yesterday, she had been so tired of the four walls of her apartment that she had ignored the constant voice of the weatherman and stepped outside. She took two steps out into the fog. Just two steps. Then she turned around and realized she could no longer see her door.
And so she headed back inside and turned the television on.
Regular programming was suspended for continuous weather coverage. The weatherman stood in front of the map pointing over and over at the worst hit areas. “I repeat, visibility is so bad that it is unsafe to be on the roads. Emergency vehicles cannot see to get to your house, so if you have a medical emergency, call 911 and stay on the line.”
Sandra wondered if the emergency operator could talk you through the emergency—she could just imagine a person calling 911 and bleeding to death while they were still on the line. But at least the operator would be another voice, proof that the world was still there.
“This is officially the longest and thickest fog that we’ve seen in at least fifty years. Stay tuned to Channel 5 to hear more on this developing story.” Sandra would have shut it off, but then the silence grew. And that was worse. At least the television was an illusion of company. Without the weatherman she would be stuck, alone, with only the fog to talk with.
“I repeat, if you are just joining is, this is Action News 5 coverage of the Fog of the Century. As you can see, we are sitting in the middle of a stationary front. There should be no real movement for the next twelve hours. But there’s hope . . .”
There was a pop and a crash and the power went out.
Sandra stumbled through her apartment until she found her flashlight. Of course, the batteries were dead. She tossed it aside and sat down to think. Candles. Did she have any candles? At first she thought not, but then she remembered there was a pack of birthday cake candles somewhere in the kitchen. They would be small but better than nothing.
It wasn't so much that she was afraid of the dark, but it was odd the house felt so chilly now that the lights were out. She didn't think the heat had been running. It was cool outside but not cold. Then she remembered the pop and the crash. Could that have been a window?
She found the window back in her bedroom. There was a jagged hole in one of the panes.She wasn't sure why. Did somebody throw a rock at it? She needed a candle to see because it was almost total darkness in the room.
She carefully felt her way back down the hall to the kitchen, running her hand along the damp cool walls of her apartment. Too damp, she thought. The fog seemed to be everywhere.
She fumbled around in the kitchen drawers until she finally located both the box of candles and a box of matches. She lit a candle, then gasped. A smokey quality filled the kitchen. Surely there was no fire and it didn't smell like smoke. The fog?
She went back to her bedroom, holding the candle high like she was the Statue of Liberty with her torch. The fog was seeping in through the hole in her bedroom window. Never had she seen fog like that, so thick and billowy. It was almost like grey cotton candy, dirty grey cotton candy. What sick bastard would give a kid dirty grey cotton candy?
She shook herself back into reasonableness. She knew she had a tendency to drift off into absurd daydreams when faced with situations she couldn't handle. But I can handle this! she thought. It was just fog, for goodness sakes. Fog! Water vapor. Or was it many tiny droplets of water? It must be the droplets. If it was a gas then it would have to be hot like steam, wouldn't it? She wished she had paid more attention in science class. Didn't they say a fog was the same thing as a cloud, just lower to the ground?
Her face was getting wet from being in the fog. Jeez! She should close up that hole in the window instead of just staring at it.
She lit another candle, carefully stuck it to a small plate so it would stand upright, and set about cutting a patch from a cereal box. She covered the patch with aluminum foil, then taped the sandwich of foil and cardboard to the window. Very neat. Tight and waterproof.
Still no power. Maybe she should just try to get some sleep. She didn't take her clothes off, just her shoes. Then she lay on top of her bed with her hands behind her head. Without a battery-powered radio she had no way to keep up with what was happening outside. She could knock on the door of another apartment, but she didn't really know anybody well enough to do that.
Would she do it if the apartment building was on fire? Of course. But this wasn't that level of emergency, was it? I mean, it was just the power off and a foggy night. She tried to relax her mind and sleep, but she kept thinking about the hole in her window, and about how damp her walls and face had become, and about how thick the fog had looked pouring into her room like an animal made of cloud.
|She lay there with her eyes open but there was nothing to see. Just the cool, damp darkness of her bedroom. No sounds. She couldn’t remember a time when the noise of traffic hadn’t been a constant whisper. She found herself listening intently. Was there anyone out there? She had never had any problem before hearing the neighbors upstairs, but they must have gone out of town or were staying with friends.|
Silence. Dark. She didn’t even have a battery operated alarm clock—which would at least have glowed the time. As it was, she wasn’t even sure it was night time.
She turned her head. There was a faint glow from the window—not bright enough to show that the streetlights were still lit, but an eerie light as though the fog itself was luminescent. She shivered. Without power, her house was becoming cooler, damper.
There was no one else in the apartment, was there? Surely the hole in the window hadn’t been large enough to let anyone in. No, and the edges had been jagged. She was all alone. The air beeped.
She sat up. Was that her cell phone? She checked, but there was no service—and her battery was very low and beeping its last. She made a note of the time—only eight pm—and turned it off with a sigh. Slowly she pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. Sleep would make the time go by faster.
The next morning the power was still out. The glow from the fog was brighter. She sat in the window looking out into the grey, trying to imagine where the sun was. Could it be that slightly brighter glow near the horizon or was her time sense totally messed around. It was too dark to read, and she couldn’t waste any more of her little box of birthday candles.
She managed to figure out a cold breakfast—the food in her fridge was probably going to spoil before this was over. Luckily she lived alone, and never bought much. But there were all the microwave meals that were useless without power. But she still had bread and peanut butter. And tunafish—in unopenable cans. If this fog ever lifted, she was going to buy a non-electric can opener.
The world had gone away. There was nothing left but fog. It was laughing at her. It had eaten the world, and now the only thing left was her in her little, dark, chilly, damp apartment. She could feel it in cold breezes against her face, icy fingers at the back of her neck.
No, she was a rational being. It was a draft—probably from the broken window. Cardboard and tape were not stronger than the wind. Just because she was all alone was no reason to abandon logic and reason. She didn’t believe in the supernatural . . . but the fog brought back a childhood prayer about ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties. . .
Something went bump in the night.
That was the way it began. What was the rest?
Something went bump in the night, Dear Lord
And gave me quite a fright, Dear Lord
But she couldn't think of the rest of the prayer. Maybe it wasn't a prayer. Maybe it was a poem she read.
Something went bump in the night
And gave me quite a fright
I got out of bed
Was it all in my head?
I turned on my bedroom light.
It sat in my favorite chair
A monster covered with hair
It was fat, it was ugly,
And yet, also snuggly
But I wanted it not to be there.
"Good evening," it said with a grin
"You are wondering how I let myself in.
There is no need to shout
I will let myself out.
I find you to be a bit thin."
"Do you know where a fat kid might live?
A child with nutrition to give?
A skinny brat like you
Would be gone in one chew.
Do you know where a fat kid might live?"
Sandra sat up quickly. She did know where a fat kid might live. The man on the floor below, the one who always said hello to her if she happened to pass him on the stairs. She always just mumbled a reply. Once he had asked her something and she just kept on walking without answering him. But she knew he would not turn her away if she knocked on his door. She was desperate to see another human being and she really didn't know anybody else in the building. It would take too much effort and risk to knock on the door of a complete stranger. At least she knew what the fat man looked like, but she wished she also knew his name.
Sandra put on a rain jacket so she wouldn't get wet from the fog which was as thick as ever and now seemed to have a mist of rain in it as well. She made her way down the stairs, which were covered over but otherwise exposed to the weather, onto the landing below hers and found the fat man's doorway. The door was standing open a few inches.
She knocked, waited, knocked again, then called through the gap between the door and the frame, "Hello? Is anyone home?"
She thought she heard a moan from inside. Maybe she should call 911. But her cellphone was dead. Maybe there was a usable phone in the fat man's apartment. But what would she tell 911? She had to go inside and see, didn't she?
She pushed the door open enough to permit her entrance. 'Hello?" She didn't hear a moan or anything else. His living room didn't look ransacked or anything. It looked very neat. The fog in the room made the furniture and walls appear surreal, like a stage setting, a room in the mist.
Repeating, "Hello? Is anyone in here?" she slowly walked toward the back of the apartment. The layout was identical to her own apartment with a front door opening into a living room, kitchen and dining room, then a short hallway to the bathroom and bedroom.
The bathroom door was open and the bathroom was empty. The bedroom door was also standing open. Sandra took a deep breath and peered into the bedroom.
|The bedroom was filled with fog, so much so that she could not see the bed. “Hello? Anybody?” She called a bit louder, but at this point, she wasn’t really expecting an answer. Something had to be wrong. No one left their door unlocked, even if everyone was shut in because of the fog.|
She felt her way through the room, feeling her way through the fog. It was so think she could feel it soaking her hair and whispering across her face. Where could he be? Was he outside? Why would he leave the door open? Had she left her own door open? It was so foggy in here—had he opened a window?
The various questions running through her mind so she was paying less attention to the grey of the room around her. It actually surprised her when she stumbled into something soft on the floor. It moaned. She dropped down beside whoever it was. It wasn’t the fat kid—it was a complete stranger. A man in the same grey as the fog. Which was why it was so hard to see him.
He wasn’t injured as far as she could see. In fact, if he hadn’t been on the floor, she would have assumed that he was just asleep. But the fact that she had kicked him (accidentally) and he was still laying there with his eyes closed . . . something was wrong.
She knelt beside him, trying to feel for what was wrong. No lumps on his head. No suspicious holes or puddles of blood. Rather attractive features, to tell the truth—and soft hair—which was strange to think about when she was scared and uncertain.
She stood back up and stepped over him. Was there anything else in the room? She was near the window now, and could see that it was completely open.
The fog was so thick. It was hard to breathe because the air was wet and her hair was damp down her back.
Why was his hair so soft? Shouldn’t it have been damp?
She turned back around to see bright red eyes glaring out of the fog.
The next morning, the fog was gone.
When the fog lifted, it took nearly a week for everything to get back to normal. No one noticed that Sandra was missing at first. But soon family, friends, and co-workers were making frantic calls to one another, trying to determine just where she was.
Officer Owen Bradley rang the bell and pounded loudly on the door. “Sandra? Ms. Smith?” He tried the knob, than nodded at the manager who was standing there with the master key.
The first thing he noticed was the chill. There was a faintly rotten smell from a half eaten cup of yoghurt on the countertop. Officer Bradley moved through the apartment—which was small. The closet was clear as was the bathroom. Only one door left. He opened the door to the bedroom and shivered. It was like a freezer in there.
She was there, on the bed with her hands crossed on her chest. He stepped over and checked the pulse on her neck, but he already knew. She was dead.
He looked around to read the story.
There was a broken window—with blood on the jagged edge. Glancing out, he could see that it had been broken from the inside, and blood trailed around the room. Without touching the body, he could see the pale, torn edges of a gash on her wrist, one that hadn’t been bandaged. But why was it so clean? There was no trace of blood.
He almost missed the last scrap of evidence on the table next to her bed. On a damp scrap of paper in dried brown letters was written: acceptable sacrifice
This one actually took longer than I thought it would to think of an ending. Geoffrey’s been on strike because I haven’t been sleeping very well. But hopefully that will change in the near future. But, without a change of scenery (unless you feel the need) it’s your turn to start:
The Case of the Cross-eyed Cat
Seven Shivering Salamanders
Why Betty Bought A Cake
A Quick Trip To Sneezeville
Blue Moon, Orange Sun
Take A Taco To Tommy
My Favorite Dream
|Hmmm... not sure I completely understand the ending. Although Acceptable Sacrifice would be a usable story title. What does it mean to you?|
A Quick Trip To Sneezeville
They fired up the old jalopy and the whole family piled in -- Gramps, Aunt Betty, little Tony, Uncle Winston, Jenn-Jenn, Cousin Leroy, even Noomi, the exchange student that they had kidnapped and kept for a household servant. Noomi was wearing her collar and was chained to an inside door handle. As usual she was pleading, "Please, let me go home. I forgive you. No call police. Please let me go."
"Shut up, Noomi," Uncle Winston bellowed. "We get tired of hearing that 24 hours a day. Do you want me to tape your mouth shut?"
"No, I be good. Just please, please let me go."
Winston held up the roll of duct tape in his meaty fist and shook it at her. After that Noomi was quiet.
Jenn-Jenn was bouncing up and down as usual. "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"
Aunt Betty cuffed her in the side of her head. "Gracious, child! Use your eyes! Does it look like we are there?"
Through her tears Jenn-Jenn said, "No," in a small voice. Within seconds she was dry-eyed and bouncing up and down again.
Leroy played with his handheld video game. For a while the beeps and snatches of tinny music from the game were the only sounds in the car other than the road noise. Then Gramps said, "Is anyone thirsty? I reckon I am."
There was a chorus of yays. Even little Tony managed to gurgle a response. It sounded like, "Dwinkee wanky!" but no one could be sure because Tony was born with an enlarged tongue. Aunt Betty intended to get him some tongue reduction surgery as soon as she could afford it but now that she had been laid off at the plant the surgery seemed further away than ever. That was the real purpose of the road trip, to find Aunt Betty a new job. Uncle Winston heard that there were lots of jobs in Sneezeville.
"How about this place?" Gramps said. The jalopy rolled into an old-fashioned country gas station that had somehow survived into the 21st century. When Gramps turned the key the jalopy's motor kept running for a few seconds more, only stopping after a few pops and wheezes.
Leroy was already out of the car and at the coke machine with Jenn-Jenn right behind him. "I want a Pepsi!" Leroy hollered.
Gramps smiled at his brood. "You'll all get what you want."
Uncle Winston pumped gas into the jalopy. Aunt Betty stretched her legs. Tony lay on the back seat and gurgled. Noomi cried silent tears of homesickness.
|Jenn-Jenn frowned at her Dr. Pepper. The machine had been all out of Pepsi, so Leroy had kicked it and gone into the store. Gramps had disappeared into the toilet with a roll of toilet paper (he didn’t trust the toilet paper that the stores provided) and a copy of “Guns and Ammo.” |
There was nothing to do, she thought with an eight-year-old’s lack of patience. She used her toe to scrape a pattern in the gravel beside the convenience store.
She was tired of spending quality time with her family (as Aunt Betty had put it when they started). Everyone was annoying—Uncle Winston was mean and Aunt Betty didn’t care about Jenn-Jenn—she only paid attention to little Tony. Noomi was always whining, and Gramps snored so loudly and smelled of old people and beer. Leroy—well he was twelve. Enough said.
She didn’t even know why they had to go to Sneezeville. Six months ago when the plant had exploded and she’d gone to live with Aunt Betty and Uncle Winston in Littleborough, she’d thought her moving days were up. But then the plant downsized and Aunt Betty was laid off—and she had no idea where she’d spend the third grade.
What kind of name was Sneezeville anyway? Jenn-Jenn sighed and kicked a pebble around the back of the store. Not looking to see if anyone was watching, she followed it.
Leroy grabbed the last Pepsi from the cooler and a packet of Twinkies that he could finish before he got back into the car. Otherwise, he’d have to share, and Uncle Winston always insisted on getting a whole Twinkie for himself. This was so unfair. Why did he have to spend the last week of summer vacation cooped up and heading for the middle of nowhere?
He’d been curious about Sneezeville ever since Uncle Winston brought the place up. So he’d looked it up on the internet. He was actually surprised when it had its own webpage. Sneezeville, population 367, held the record for most allergens present in a single mile square area. The city flower was the goldenrod, and the town hall was infested with rag weed. The only school was a K-12 and only had three teachers for the fifty-seven (soon to be fifty-nine) students—he wouldn’t be able to escape Jenn-Jenn even in September.
It was as though Uncle Winston and Aunt Betty had conspired to make sure he was completely miserable. He stuffed the rest of the Twinkie into his mouth as he paid for his purchase.
Aunt Betty carefully dusted off her seat and straightened the crease in her slacks. This gas station was only five miles outside of Sneezeville and it was never too early to make a good impression. She was small, with a thin face and a talent for frivolous lawsuits, but she could do a full day’s work. She needed to, what with Winston’s back. He hadn’t worked since they were first married, thirty-seven years ago.
Now that the plant was filing for bankruptcy, there was no guarantee that they would still write a check for his disability—even though they had a court order. Where would her family be then?
She never dreamed that her family would have come to such a spot, but first Winston’s nephew’s family had died in that fire, leaving Leroy to come and live with them, then that explosion at the plant, which left Jenn-Jenn parentless and Betty sisterless. And then, Tony being born in her old age . . . and the plant declaring bankruptcy before the suit came through about his tongue.
Life wasn’t fair.
Noomi whimpered faintly as she filed away at the door handle with a nail file she’d found on the floor. Surely the plastic would break soon and she could get away. Then she would worry about her passport.
Tony gurgled. Noomi was getting close—he’d have to tell his Dad soon—but in the mean time, she was so much fun to torment.
Gramps stared at the door and wondered if it was time to add prune juice to his diet.
Uncle Winston didn’t think of much of anything.
They stopped again at the top of the hill leading down into Sneezeville. The town lay nestled in a valley where ragweed was abundant. Aunt Betty started sneezing. "Lordy! I see why they call this place Sneezeville!"
Uncle Winston cast a grim gaze at the ancient brick buildings that comprised the downtown district of Sneezeville. He counted four of them. "I thought you said there was jobs here. This place is a ghost town."
"No," Betty said. "There is always... AH-CHOO!... jobs here because people come and don't... AH-CHOO!... stay."
"Let me guess," Winston said. "They don't like sneezing all day long."
"That's probably about it."
"And what about you, Betty? How many days of sneezing can you endure before we have to move somewhere else?"
"That's a good point, Winston, but since we come all this way, can't we at least take a closer look at the place?"
"No!" Jenn-Jenn said. "I'm tired. I want to go home now."
Leroy had been scanning the dusty streets. "Can I get out and explore?"
"I reckon so," Winston said. "Just be sure you come running when I call you."
Winston parked the jalopy in front of a building bearing the sign Major Bingle's Bead, Baubles, and General Supplies.
"Maybe Major Bingle will hire you," Winston said.
Betty smoothed out her polka-dotted skirt. "Oh, shut up. Somebody's got to bring home the bacon. I hope he's not a fresh one."
"You've got nothing to worry about."
Noomi had sawed all the way through her restraint and was sitting quietly, keeping it a secret until the time was appropriate to make her escape. She had never been so happy in her life. She vowed that if she made it home she would never go anywhere again.
"You're mighty quiet, Noomi," Winston said.
"You tell me shut up, Uncle. I no want to get my mouth taped shut."
Uncle Winston chuckled. "That's a good girl. Is Tony still alive?" It was Winston's secret wish that Tony would accidentally die, but for a kid with a so much against him Tony was proving to be remarkably durable.
|Tony gurgled his assent—yes he was still alive. He just wished it was easier to talk to the fools in front. At this rate, Noomi was going to escape. On the other hand, if they didn’t see, it wasn’t his fault . . .|
Noomi waited for the appropriate moment. The last thing she wanted was for her to be caught again—last time she had run away, they’d kept her locked in the cellar for a week, and she’d nearly choked from the commode. Her only real worry was her passport.
Aunt Betty kept it in her oversized purse. If she could just get her passport, she was going to run and hide. This was the perfect place—with all the ragweed, they’d give up and never find her again. But she just had to wait for the perfect moment. After all, Aunt Betty never brought her purse in with her when she was trying to impress someone . . . Noomi’s time was nearly at hand.
Leroy walked along the Sneezeville street with his hands in his pockets, kicking a stone as he went. The general store was opposite the small building that had the words Town Hall, embedded in the brick over the door. On a hand written sign on the door were the words: Clarence Wilkins. Mayor. Judge. Sheriff.
He wandered around the back of the building and saw a window with bars on it on the second floor with a little round face peering down at him.
Jenn-Jenn was tired of sneezing. If her parents were here, they wouldn’t make her stay in so unhealthy a place. If Aunt Betty got a job here, she hoped that they wouldn’t have to go to school.
Next to the general store, she saw a building that looked like a badly damaged version of a one room schoolhouse with a bell in a toper above the front door and rag weed growing under the swing set.
It was closed for the summer, of course. But that didn’t make it any better. This was clearly not the kind of town that children should live in.
On the other side of the schoolhouse, there was a squat building that had a barber’s pole in front of it. The sign read Dr Bob. General Practice and Barber. Allergy Specialist.
Jenn-Jenn sneered. This was boring. Everything was boring. She was bored, and she was going to make someone pay. Probably Leroy—or maybe Tony. At least he didn’t hit back.
Aunt Betty rang the bell on the counter—how on earth was Mr. Bingle making any profit if he wasn’t even there for a potential customer. He needed her. He just didn’t know it yet.
A young lady who looked no more than twenty came out, smacking her gum wearing a black baby doll t-shirt and hot pink shorts that were shorter than anything Aunt Betty had worn even when she was only twenty.
“Miss? I was wondering if I could speak with Major Bingle?”
The kid smacked her gum and nodded.
Aunt Betty waited. The girl waited. Aunt Betty finally broke down and talked first. “Well?”
The girl shrugged and held out her hand. “I’m Major. What can I do for you?”
"You're Major?" Aunt Betty said. "But you look like a minor. Haha. Just a joke to break the ice, Major Bingle. I'm here about that job."
"What job?" Major said. "We don't do no mining in Sneezeville. The closest mine I know about is the Dole Mountain Coal Mine and that's a hundred miles from here. Only reason I know about it is because I had a cousin got killed in a cave-in."
"I heard there were jobs to be had in Sneezeville."
"There might be," Major said. "I don't keep up with that sort of thing. You should talk to Dr Bob. He's the doctor and the barber here so he knows practically everything about everybody. He could tell you where the jobs are."
"Thank you!" Aunt Betty said. "I'll go talk to him right away. And you have some very nice baubles here, Miss Bingle."
"Nice enough for you to buy one?"
"If I had a job I would. See you again soon, I hope."
Leroy was behind the jailhouse staring up at the second floor where a window with bars held a little round face. "Hello!" Leroy called, and waved vigorously.
"Hello, yerself," came the reply.
"Why are you in jail?" Leroy said.
"Because I killed a curious boy who was asking too many questions."
Leroy thought for a moment. "You're just pulling my leg, aren't you? You didn't kill no curious boy!"
"I'd pull your leg right off if I was down there," the face said. "Then you would have to hop around on one leg."
Leroy laughed. "That ain't no problem." He began hopping around on one foot.
A door creaked open and Sheriff Clarence Wilkins stepped out. He was tall, bald, and had a big moustache. "What are you doing out here in back of my jail, boy? Are you trying to bust somebody loose?"
"No sir!" Leroy said. "I was just playing."
"Well go play somewhere else. We got mean criminals in here."
The face in the window growled, "Yeah!"
"Go on," the Sheriff said. "Git!"
Noomi clutched her passport in her hand. Her ability to move smooth and quiet had played well in operation "get the passport out of Aunt Betty's purse." Now she was crouched behind a Sneezeville building wondering which way to go next.
Leroy came around the corner and saw her right away. "What are you doing her, Noomi?"
"Shhh! I escape!" Noomi counted Leroy as a sympathetic family member. They both shared dreams of escape and adventure. But now Leroy seemed to be letting family loyalty triumph over friendship. "I'm gonna tell!" he said.
"No!" Noomi said. "Please do not! I give you whatever you want!"
"How about a kiss?" Leroy said.
"A kiss? Why you want a kiss? You never want a kiss before."
Leroy grinned. "That's because before you would tell everybody. Now you won't tell because you will be gone."
"Oh. That make sense, I guess. OK. You can have one little kiss." Noomi tilted her face up and closed her eyes. Leroy snatched the passport out of her hand.
Noomi's eyes popped open. "Oh! You bad! Please give back to me!"
|Just as Noomi was puckering up and Leroy was passport snatching, Jenn-Jenn came around the side of the courthouse. She watched with wide eyes, waiting for something to tattle about. Leroy was dancing around, laughing, with a little book that she just knew was that passport thing that Aunt Betty said that Noomi was never under no circumstances ever, ever, see or hold. And now Leroy had it—and he obviously was going to give it to Noomi, and then he was going to be in trouble . . .|
She hadn’t seen the kissing part. If she had, she would have been even more gleeful. “I’m gonna tell!” She sang at him.
Suddenly, Leroy’s attention was fixed on his little cousin, and he only vaguely noticed as Noomi slipped the passport from his hand and took off running into the ragweed fields. If she could just get to the wood, she would be safe. Safely sewn into the inside of her socks were the name and address of Ms. Pattersen, the program administrator for her student exchange. She’d help Noomi get home.
And when her daddy heard how the Americans had treated his little girl . . . let’s just say that Uncle Winston was in for an international incident. Her daddy had connections.
Jenn-Jenn didn’t notice either. Noomi was too boring to care about when she had Leroy’s full and murderous attention. She took off running down the street toward the doctor’s place that she’d seen Aunt Betty enter not five minutes before. Leroy was in hot pursuit, the buds for his iPad flying behind him as he ran.
About half way down the block, Jenn-Jenn flew into the suddenly outstretched arm of Uncle Winston. She flew backwards and landed on her butt. Leroy was on her immediately, twisting her arm and pulling her hair so far back that she couldn’t see for the tears in her eyes.
Leroy whispered too low for Uncle Winston to hear (not that he would necessarily care—he preferred that the brats punish each other than try to get him tangled in their petty little problems),“You didn’t see anything, you hear?”
Jenn-Jenn nodded, completely cowed. Leroy gave one more wrench of her arm before letting go. Jenn-Jenn took off crying down the street in the direction of the playground. Tormenting Leroy wasn’t any fun when he tormented back.
Aunt Betty let herself into the doctor’s office with a diffident knock followed immediately by a integrating sidle through the door. The waiting area had broken down orange chairs that looked as though they were at least forty years old. The magazines were a bizarre mix between hair style glamour and pharmaceutical advertisements.
A man in a white coat was thumbing through one of the hair magazines, but he looked up as she came in.
“I’m looking for Dr. Bob?”
The man nodded at the counter where she could suddenly see a huge sign in red sharpie “Gone Fishing: In case of emergency, contact Clarence Wilkins.”
"Then I guess I'm looking for Mr. Wilkins," Aunt Betty said.
The man in the white coat stared at her through thick, magnifying spectacles. "Are you one of the invaders?"
"I don't think so."
"You look like you might be one of them that come to steal our souls. They assume human form, you know. But I reckon you would have killed me by now. So maybe you are human. I like humans, don't you?"
Betty backed away. "I think I better go look for Clarence Wilkins. Good-bye!"
Sheriff Clarence Wilkins was on the next block peeking around the corner of a building at the delinquent boy he was tracking. Leroy was all too aware he was being tracked but was being careful not to let on that he knew it. He whistled casually as he strolled along until he got to a place where he could make a sudden run between buildings. To the eyes of Clarence Wilkins it looked like the boy vanished.
Meanwhile, Jenn-Jenn had recovered from Leroy's arm twisting and was now contemplating getting revenge so she had wandered back from the playground with it's disappointing collection of a rusty swing set and a teeter-totter that wouldn't teet or tot. Seeing Leroy running she knew he was in trouble again. She yelled at the sheriff, "There he goes!" and jumped up and down while pointing at Leroy's escape route.
Leroy collided with Aunt Betty and they both went down in a tumble. "I'm sorry, ma'am," Sheriff Wilkins said. "This young renegade has been terrifying the town all day. As soon as I find his folks I'll make sure he gets taken care of."
"It's no problem," Betty said. "I'm one of his folks and I'll take him off your hands. Leroy! Get back to the car right now!" Betty turned to the sheriff. "You wouldn't happen to be Sheriff Wilkins, would you?"
"Well, I don't just happen to be, ma'am. I was born him." He laughed, his eyes twinkled, and Betty thought he was right handsome for a small town sheriff.
"I'm looking for a job," she said.
"I have one for you. Come on back to my office with me and see if the position of town clerk appeals to you."
"Town clerk?" Betty said. "Uh... what is that exactly?"
"Mostly just keeping the records straight, answering the phone, doing the mail, lots of little things, none of them that you'll find especially difficult to do."
Leroy had hung around long enough to hear the job offer so he had some juicy news when he flung himself back into the old jalopy where Gramps and Uncle Winston sat with Little Tony. "I think Aunt Betty got a job."
"Good," Winston said. "This ain't a bad little town other than the pollen." He sneezed.
"What's pollen?" Leroy asked.
"You're too young to know. it's sexual."
"Awww! We got taught sexual in school. I know all about it."
The four of them were sitting in the car as though it were traveling somewhere, Gramps and Winston up front, Tony and Leroy in the back. Without turning around, Uncle Winston said, "But you don't know what pollen is, do you?"
Leroy shrugged. "I must have been asleep that day. Just go on and tell me."
"Can't do it," Winston said. "It would curl your hair and make steam come out of you ears.
Leroy ran a hand through his short stiff hair. "Tell me!"
Jenn-Jenn strolled up with a flower in her hand. She had been carefully plucking its petals. "Tell you what? Where Noomi went?"
Gramps and Winston did a doubletake at each other. "Gosh darn!" Gramps said. "She was so quiet I didn't realize she weren't here no more. Where'd she go, Jenn-Jenn?"
"She escaped! And she's never coming back. She said good-bye and maybe we'll all meet again in Heaven one day."
Leroy frowned. "She didn't say that!"
Winston grabbed Leroy's arm. "What do you know about this, mister?"
Leroy shook loose. "Nothing!"
|Uncle Winston got all red and huffy like he usually did when he was about to haul off and wallop someone’s bum. |
Uncle Winston didn’t notice. He was still focused on Leroy, who was sitting with his arms folded in the back seat.
“I saw her behind the courthouse and I tried to get her passport away, but Jenn-Jenn came and distracted me so Noomi got the passport back and ran off.”
Jenn-Jenn sat there with her mouth open. “Liar! He was back there with her, and he handed her the passport before she ran off and Leroy chased me away.”
Uncle Winston, his face even redder and huffier, got out of the car and opened the back door. “Do you know what you’ve done?” He reached in and pulled Leroy out, who looked absurdly small in Uncle Winston’s hand. Grandpa got out of the other door and came around to help so that Leroy wouldn’t get away.
Jenn-Jenn saw which way the wind was blowing, and ran back off towards the school yard with a big grin on her face. That would teach Leroy to twist her arm.
Unnoticed in the car, Tony was having trouble breathing. This was the first time that he had been around ragweed, which he was now discovering that he was allergic to. His nose was getting stuffed. Ignoring the cries of Leroy getting paddled beside the car, Tony concentrated on keeping some part of his nose clear so that he could—he really wasn’t good at all at breathing through his mouth.
Aunt Betty followed Mr. Wilkins into the town hall. He led her up a rickety stair to a small office. It was a bit dusty, but the computer looked almost new. There was only one filing cabinet in a corner, with what looked like years labeled on the drawers.
“These here are the town records.” The sheriff pointed at the filing cabinet. “Nothing much there. Except a few births and deaths and of course the court records. And don’t you mind Harry here. He’s not killed anyone in months.” He gestured to a bar filled door that Betty hadn’t even noticed before then.
On the other side of the bars was a man sitting on a cot staring through the bars at her. He completely ignored the sheriff. Harry was pale and wearing a black and white striped get up, like he was from Elvis’s dancing troupe in Jailhouse Rock, and not in the florescent things they make prisoners wear nowadays. He saw her looking at him looking at her, and he smiled.
“What is he in for?” Betty whispered, always ready to hear the office gossip.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll keep him locked up. You just answer the mail.” He reached behind the desk and brought out a bag full of mail that looked like it had been gathering dust for a while. “If it’s addressed to Harry, just set it aside and I’ll test it for anthrax and such.”
|"But sheriff," Aunt Betty said. "I can't just start working right now. My whole family is sitting out there in the car waiting for me."|
Sheriff Wilkins looked surprised. "Oh. Right. What was I thinking. Of course you need some time to prepare. Can you start work first thing in the morning?"
"I think so, sheriff..." she reached out her hand to shake his, "...and thank you for this opportunity."
"Thank you for taking the job, Miss Betty. I will see you in the morning."
When Aunt Betty reached the car, Gramps and Uncle Winston were sitting in the front seat looking cranky and disgruntled. Leroy was sitting sullenly in the back. Little Tony was gasping for breath. Jenn-Jenn rushed over to grab Betty's hand. "You got the job, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did, honey. We'll be eating chicken and biscuits now."
"Yay!" Jenn-Jenn said. If she had known how plump she would soon become, her enthusiasm would have been dampened.
"And we can get the tongue reduction operation for Tony!" Betty said. Nobody said Yay to that one although Tony would have done so if he could have pulled enough oxygen into his lungs.
"And maybe a new car soon," Betty continued.
Uncle Winston beamed. "That would be nice." Gramps agreed.
Aunt Betty noticed something wasn't right. "Where is Noomi?"
Jenn-Jenn jumped up and down. "Leroy helped her escape!"
Betty looked at the stiff-haired boy. "Did you?"
"I feel sorry for anyone who is stuck with this dumb family! I'm gonna escape too!"
Aunt Betty smiled. "Well, maybe it was for the best. We could have gotten into trouble for holding on to Noomi so long, although she was such a help around the house. Maybe it's best she can go back to her own home now. And Jenn-Jenn is getting big enough to do the housework.
That brought a grin to Leroy's face and now Jenn-Jenn became the sullen one.
Aunt Betty said, "This has been such a wonderfully productive day. We better get back home so I can iron some clothes to wear tomorrow to work. To work! That sounds so good! Home, Gramps!"
"Righto, my Lady!" Gramps quipped and cranked the jalopy. When it was popping and sputtering in a fairly regular rhythm, he let out the clutch and turned it toward home. A stray cloud of ragweed pollen drifted over them and they all sneezed together, then burst into laughter.
"Sneezeville, we'll be back!" Leroy sang out, and the laughter continued as they bounced on down the road.
* * *
What do you think of the idea of planning a story in advance? I like our improvised results, but perhaps we could try out the more normal way of story construction: start from a one-sentence statement of the story, expand it to a short outline, and then write the story. If you would rather keep doing improvisations, here is the revised list of titles...
The Case of the Cross-eyed Cat
Seven Shivering Salamanders
Why Betty Bought A Cake
Blue Moon, Orange Sun
Take A Taco To Tommy
My Favorite Dream
The Reluctant Dragon
Or you might have some ideas of your own.