This is a story that will never end. I work on it when I have time, which isn't often
In the heart of the hills far north of a northwestern city, an old woman sat playing dice on a slab of ancient granite before a crackling fire. Her home was a warm and inviting place where many had paid long and eventful visits. From this World and Others, many of the locals were heard to say over a few beers at the Clear Lake Tavern.
Winter walked in large steps across the World. Snow outside her garden window was already covering the last of the purple morning glory and the petunias. Summer had tarried through autumn, now Old Man Winter arrived with a full army trained for battle in the trenches. October was still a young month and warm days and crisp nights were the norm this time of the season, though the last few of the ponies her brother had raised now stood huddled close in the cold in the ever whitening pasture, and that couldn’t be denied. Ruthy had filled their feed bags as the first flakes fell, and spread fresh straw in the pony shed.
A kettle sang from the stove. Before rising to silence the scream, she tossed the last two of six dice across the granite slab. The first four had fallen single dotted on the barren stone. These two fell the same. Six lidless eyes stared back silently at her.
Ruthy-Ru sighed, pulling long gray hair back from her wrinkled face, fastening it with a tortoise shell comb. Foreboding clenched her gut like swimming cramps.
She pulled the pot from the wood stove and made a cup of her own mix from the herbs of her garden. The room lit with summer for a brief instant as the aroma lifted.
Her cat, Captain Stubbs, so named because of his short tail and air of importance, yawned long and stretched short across the purple afghan. He rubbed hard against Ruthy before returning to his kingly repose.
Ruthy-Ru had rolled the dice one hundred times since the rising of the sun on this unexpected winter morning. A hundred times, six dice had equaled six. Never in the history of the dice had this happened. Ruthy-Ru felt the storm and the snow as it came, avoiding the radio and television with its updates and meteorological predictions. Forecasts were guesswork at best, she figured, even with all the great technology.
Mother Nature was a mighty woman, someone Ruthy never questioned. If She wanted clematis to bloom in January when they should be fast asleep, so be it. A blizzard in the first week of October, all right.
But Ruthy-Ru knew. This was no ordinary early storm. This little snow was only a warning.
She looked out the window as the snow continued to fall in and about the Mid-Hills. She rose on arthritic legs to stoke the wood stove. The house, built by her brother John, had all the moderns of electric and piped water, but Ruthy needed the excuse of feeding the fire to keep her from getting stiff; especially when the seasons rolled into the cold.
Ruthy-Ru was alone in the house. She lived alone in the house with a mouse that lived in the couch. There was also, of course, Captain Stubbs. It was one of the children, Sammy Thorn from over the river that brought the Captain. He was a smash-faced, one-eyed, bob-tailed wreck.
She had no name for the mouse, just Mouse. It had been there for years, growing old with her and the house. She figured that little gray rodent must be at least thirty years old by now, which of course wasn’t possible.
She considered this revelation, lighting her old wooden pipe at the stove. She drew long and held, exhaled, and settled back in her chair. The day was young with much to happen yet. The dice said “one” thing. Her heart felt another.
Ruthy-Ru had been alone in the house with the mouse for many years. The Captain was a recent addition. Visited often, though still alone, Ruthy was an enigma across the valley. She entertained and was social with all, yet none knew her well. Children called her Witch, though it was a term of adventure and intrigue, instead of fear. They would come to her through the paths in the woods, and down the track from the main road, to listen to her stories, or wander in her garden eating fresh raspberries and cherries falling ripe from above.
Her garden was renowned, as had been her brothers ponies. When her sister-in-law Naomi was still living, the people in the valley were always after her secrets for blueberry pies. Naomi won every contest she entered. They were a family of green thumbs and artists.
Ruthy-Ru was young still, she thought to herself. Only seventy-two. Her face was fairly lined, with care and thought, as she had lived.
She missed her family that had given her the lines, and of course still thought of them, wherever they had wandered. They would return when they would, or could, if something held them away, or not, she guessed, if they just plain didn’t want too. They had all left, or fled, or died, or disappeared; Ruthy-Ru alone remained. She knew, or so she often thought, what it was they were trying to escape, though nothing in the dice ever revealed the true nature of things.
The tumble of the six dotted cubes guided her, a comfort unlike the Tarot and other mediums she queried over the years. The long vacant rolls of the past were lost in the pepper of the dice on the snow -white virgin morning.
Six hundred dots. Or footprints, but who did they belong to, she wondered?
Ruthy-Ru returned to the granite slab. She felt the dice in her stiffening hands, now sweaty with anticipation, and knew, or thought she knew, but not really, how they wouldn’t fall. They dropped from her hand, aimless and random, not a single eye looked back to mock her.
So, she thought, smiling inward in repressed glee, six hundred. Six hundred steps in the snow from the edge of the Forest on the other side of the pony pasture to the front porch. Not six hundred and one, or five hundred and ninety-nine. Her feet had mapped Old Cherry Farm since she was a child, and she knew the count of its entirety.
Six hundred steps. Ruthy-Ru checked the liquor cabinet and found it lacking; her pipe stuffed with the weed she grew in the garden satisfied her. She rummaged through ancient, dusty decanters, and found unopened in the back the treasure she sought. She couldn’t stomach the stuff, and the worm floating inside the golden liquid made her a little squeamish.
Someone was coming to visit, and Ruthy-Ru wanted to make him welcome.
Tom the Troll
Tom the Troll pulled his stained wool cap from his head, and spat thickly on the sidewalk. His head was bald, shiny, and scattered with liver spots and scars. His beard, however, a graying red, was quite full. He looked to have just crawled from underneath some back alley dumpster.
Tom didn’t care. He could smell the white jasmine spilling like water over the brick wall, purple and yellow lavender filling oversized gray planters. A green lawn, fresh mowed, stretched out before him.
He could smell the salt air, standing as he was in a high park above a salty sea called the Sound. He sat alone on a brick wall that edged the thick grass. The park was small and kept, and one of Tom’s favorites. And it suited his Purpose better than most. He could cast out, and gather back, when the stars lit the right corner of the sky, or the moon had risen, or fallen, just the perfect degree above the horizon.
Anything could make it the right time; Tom simply never knew when that time was. So he kept on Searching.
The Search had been going on for years uncounted, fruitless, yet not without Purpose. Tom was still trying to figure out just what that Purpose might be. He did know he would know when he should know. It was all very complicated, he decided on a daily basis, and it made his brain hurt to think about it too much.
Today he looked to the sea, listening to the crying gulls below him. He loved the smell, strong with fish and ships, but loathed the news it often brought. The sea, like the air, touched everything across the world. But the sea was a part of the ocean, deeper and darker with secrets, and stranger ponderings, hidden millennia. It carried in its depths the soul of the world. He always heeded the warnings brought from the Deep. Today it sang of long years misused, and children missing.
“Look Mom, it’s a troll,” a little boy shouted, snot running from his nose, “He looks just like the statue under the bridge, and he stinks, too.”
“My name is Tom,” said the bearded man, “ And I am not a troll,” he told the boy. “But you are a rude little boy.”
Tom turned and grinned with yellowed teeth. The little boy screamed.
Hips swaying wildly, breast heaving, the snot-nosed boys mother came running to the rescue.
“You leave my boy alone, you stinking old pervert,” she screamed. “Or I’ll call the police.”
“Call the police,” Tom replied quietly, not in the least disturbed by the ample woman’s threats, “I don’t really care. By the time they get here, I’ll have eaten your snot-nosed little boy’s fingertips as an afternoon snack.”
The mother’s jaw started to hang, and her eyes went wide.
“Then I’ll pluck out your eyes,” he continued, “and use them as olives in a very dry martini. And I do not stink. I bathed in the fountain at the park only this morning.”
Mother pulled snot boy by the elbow and fled in terror. Tom chuckled. He was usually invisible to the general public. Almost everyone looked right through him, except for children, they were much more perceptive. When children saw him, parents saw him, and that sometimes led to trouble. They saw him as a vagrant; he was homeless, less than human. That suited Tom’s Purpose.
The sweet flowers filled his nose, even as the autumn leaves fell about his feet. Tom loved this time of year, Nature’s deep breath before its long sleep of winter. And Tom planned on sleeping right along with it, if at all possible. Tom also knew that it probably wasn’t possible to hibernate, even if he tried really hard. The Search wouldn’t allow it, nor would Purpose.
Hints and rumors of promises and change came always to him without result. “Purpose,” he yelled aloud in disgust, causing a passersby to look at him quickly, and then just as suddenly forget he was there.
Ah, yes! Purpose. It kept him in check and ordered his life, patterned the day and propelled him through the night to continue the Search. The Search consumed him, gnawing at him like an old troll on a shinbone. Tasting the winds, smelling the Earth, and walking the streets of the city, Searching. Tom wished the hell he knew what he was searching for.
“I think, I think, I think, I think I need a drink!” said Tom the Troll to the sky.
Charles snacked briefly on bits of a coconut and chocolate candy bar, knowing perfectly well it would give him the screaming shits. A small price to pay for chocolate, he thought.
The small pocket in Tom’s coat became an earthquake to Charles as Tom rummaged about himself, searching, not Searching, for the pint of gold stowed away for moments like these. Charles held on and finished up the chocolate, well used to the peculiarities of his chosen mode of transport. The Tom Taxi was free, and provided interesting snacks; turbulence and unexpected detours were expected and common.
Charles didn’t mind being called a hitchhiker, but freeloader was out of line; he figured he provided Tom with a little bit of housekeeping. Stowaway suited him better. He was after all, a mouse, taking up very little room in the endless pockets of Tom’s coat.
Tremors having subsided, he nestled in for a sleep, first cleaning the last of the chocolate from his whiskers.
Tom had found his gold, tequila, sweet burning nectar and would be occupied for quite a while draining the better part of the pint. White, gold, worm or not, tequila was Tom’s crutch, and his window into the World.
Three hours later Charles crawled away from Tom, who was fast asleep behind a dumpster in a downtown alley, and dropped through the first mouse sized crack in the pavement he could find and went underground.
“Places to be,” Charles muttered to Tom as he dropped out of sight.
Sary dreamed of Forest, deep and green. In the Forest she danced along streams clear and fast, among tall trees of gigantic size. She came here often in her dreams, of which she had many, sleeping as she did whenever it was possible.
Dance and then sleep, sleep and dream, and dance in her dreams, then dream of sleeping in her dreams when she was dancing in her dreams. The Forest was safe most of the time, yet there were many dark paths she had not yet danced.
Sary had not known for quite some time when she was sleeping or dreaming, or wide-awake in the real World. She wasn’t even altogether sure which World was her World, but hoped it was the one with that little bit of control that everyone likes to have over their World. Only one dark life gave her that; the rest, she was only a part of some movie in which she couldn’t change the story line.
She was dancing along the stream thinking of the life with choice, the one with people. She wanted them to be real, but couldn’t be sure if they were. The other worlds, like this one she danced in were easier for her. She was part of something she couldn’t control, only exist in as a player, watching and acting, moving through without affecting anything.
Willows wept low across her path, flashing leaves dropped pearls of ice water into her hair. It was cold, and suddenly she was terrified. Feeling cold, feeling anything, was scary.
Sary woke with a start, into the world she felt most was real. Peeking from beneath the mountain of blankets she had been hibernating in for the last couple of days, she felt the cold, and longed to fall back into slumber.
She was late, she knew, because tea was at three, and it was well past that. The others would wait for her she hoped.
The room was dark; the windows were covered with tapestries and blankets to keep out the light; the sun had not smiled into this room in over a year. One door, heavy and old, opened on a garden fresh with herbs and poppy flowers, sweet pea and lavender, and the muffled sounds of city. Another opened on a hallway long and dark in a building short and light. It was a strange little building, built in the hill and on top of the hill; it was part of the hill, yet still above it all. The hall led to a front stair, which in turn led to a middle room, curtained with many colored plastic beads from the front of the store, Woo’s Tea, Herb and Apothecary.
Sary lived in the garden room above the back of the store. It was called the garden room for obvious reasons; its only window looked out on the orderly jungle, painstakingly maintained by Old Woo, Yung Woo’s father. Yung Woo and his family owned and operated the shop on the hill, lived in it, and prospered. Sary occupied the garden room for a minimum of rent, and would have been amazed to know that her room was twice the size of the family quarters of the Woo family of four; Yung Woo, middle-age, short, fat, and happy, his wife Suni, shorter, fatter, and if possible, happier, and their seven year old son Yu. And of course, Old Woo.
Sary dressed as fast as she could, after tinkling quickly in the tiny bathroom with its broken door, and went through the dark way to the front of the store. Yung Woo bowed as he did every day in greeting, something Sary accepted and returned but never understood, and offered her a fortune cookie on her frantic dash out the front door. She took it as a matter of course, the cookie sugar for her dream depleted body, and the tiny strip of paper with its noncommittal message a thoughtful moment for her day.
She ate the cookie, and without glancing at the fortune, shoved it into her coat pocket.
Old Woo sat in the afternoon autumn sun smoking clove cigarettes and drinking green tea. Sary wouldn’t have noticed him except for the strong smell as she dashed for the metro that would take her downtown.
Sary loved Old Woo, but didn’t have time for one of his lessons just then. Old Woo was old, how old Sary didn’t really know; he was Yung Woo’s father, who was at least forty or so, old as far as Sary was concerned.
Old Woo seemed to take it upon himself to be Sary’s teacher and conscience, and would not let a day pass without imparting some obscure piece of wisdom to Sary, his surrogate daughter. It was Old Woo who had put Sary into the garden room in the first place, after he found her dancing barefoot in the street in the throes of a spring snow on the first of April.
She was untouched by the cold, kicking up white powder, letting the snow land on her pink tongue. Old Woo knew the storm was late, and unnatural, though it was only a dusting. He saw Sary untouched, light and evanescent; her footprints mere butterfly kisses.
Her hair was June strawberries, her eyes were the color of spring, and Old Woo knew she was. He asked her in for warmth, and she looked at him laughing in question. He laughed with her, knowing she didn’t know why, because she didn’t feel the cold like an old man.
For that moment Old Woo didn’t feel the cold either, and felt glad; he was watching a sprite, or at least, the closest thing to it in his World. There was no snow in her hair, and she was sleeveless and dry; only the hem of her long skirt was wet. She had lived in the garden room ever since, a part of the family apart. And the garden of Old Woo had been vibrant and productive since her arrival.
Old Woo was not entirely selfless; he knew a good omen when it danced on his front porch, and Sary had proven to be a blessing odder than any Old Woo could have imagined.
“Well girl, where are you off to today?” he began, “And what of your fortune?”
She stopped and looked at his cataract clouded eyes, the color of winter; she knew he could still see, though barely, like seeing the world through frosted bathroom glass. Sary also knew, Old Woo, had vision.
“My fortune,” Sary whispered to Woo, “Is mine and mine alone.” She kissed his forehead, and he grabbed her hand. It was cold when it should be warm. He felt her longing to be back in the cavern of her room, buried under the mountain of her blankets, hidden. Hidden from what, he couldn’t yet see.
She pulled her hand from his, and rushed away to the metro, which was just then pulling to the curb with a screech and a hiss. She looked out the rear window of the bus, as it pulled away, and waved through the dirty glass.
Old Woo pondered the girl while he finished his tea, closing his eyes and seeing that she was headed for danger. They all were, and he knew there was little any of them could do about it, even if they knew what was coming.