The Colored Lens #2 – Winter 2012
Speculative Fiction Magazine
Winter 2012 – Issue #2
Featuring works by Daryl Parker, Eliza Hirsch, Sylvia Hiven, Rachel Kolar, Greg Leunig, James Beamon, and Gary Cuba. Art and photography by Eleanor Bennett and Karim Heatherington.
Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Published by Light Spring LLC
Fort Worth, Texas
© Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
- The Songs of Eridani – Part 2 by Gary Cuba
- The Homeless Man of Greater Zimbabwe by James Beamon
- Custom Made by Sylvia Hiven
- Daryl Parker: An Exclusive Interview with the Author of Sacrifice of the Season by Daniel Scott
- The Death Of More by Daryl Parker
- The Purifier by Greg Leunig
- 99-Cent Dreams by Rachel Kolar
- The Nightmare Eater by Eliza Hirsch
The Songs of Eridani – Part 2
by Gary Cuba
We pushed into the jungle above S’uval the next morning, my mind focusing on that special inner spot that had always centered me: I’m nothing but a man who tracks other men for pay; that is what I am, it’s what I do, and nothing else. I seek men who don’t want to be found–whether for reasons of crime, sin, personal disgrace, or some sort of queer, unknown psychological imbalance. Men who have slipped off the net, and have to be netted again so as to answer to others. That is all I am, that is all I need to be.
And I’d dealt with all those types, all those reasons. Yet never had I engaged in a commission as flaky or as suspicious as the one I now pursued. And why did I accept it? I certainly didn’t need the money,
not at this point in my career. For all I cared, Dr. Kline could have fallen down a rat-hole and been eaten by Eridani maggot-analogs.
And yet, I pictured those maggots as wearing the faces of the Directors of the Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption. There was something else going on here, and I was determined to wrench it to the surface.
I removed my field cap and swiped the sweat off my scalp with my hand, turned and waited for Laura and Pete to catch up.
"Hold up a minute, T’aylang! You hanging in there, Pete?"
Pete was panting, trying to catch his breath in the steamy air. "Is the . . . pope . . . a bear?"
"Time for a break, folks," I said.
I was suddenly aware of T’aylang by my side, studying Pete. "This man is not well-adapted to the environment or to the task at hand," he said. "Will we be required to carry him for the balance of the journey?"
"No, just give us a few minutes to rest here, Big Guy. Pete’ll be all right."
I looked sternly at Pete when I said that, hoping to drive that veiled admonition into him.
The Eridani raised his head to an erect vertical position. "This is not a safe place to stop. We are traversing a pyloc’s game trail. Similar to what you refer to in your language as a ‘big cat.’"
"So, are you seeing any?" I unclipped the holster of my firearm.
T’aylang pointed to one of the porters and barked a short command. The other Eridani began to sing, a strange polyphonous song whose ultrasonic overtones made me wince in pain.
"We will persuade any nearby ones to take an afternoon nap. But only a short one. It would be best if your colleague gets his breath back soon, so that we may continue on our way."
Pete gasped and nodded, apparently agreeing in principle with T’aylang.
Pete and Laura lay in their tents, fever racking their bodies and dysentery draining their lives away. The course of my own fever was not far behind theirs. We’d not gotten two days into the jungle before being laid low by one of the more vicious of Eridani predators, one that was too tiny to be seen by the naked eye. In the midst of my hallucinations I could see the irony of the situation, rendered as a wee, red imp wielding a tiny pitchfork.
From time to time, I gained enough momentary presence of mind to sense T’aylang’s huge head hovering above me, to hear him singing softly to me, to feel his appendages gently attending to my bodily needs.
If there is a god that controls our lives, I thanked him later for the blessing of forgetfulness of most of what I experienced during that awful time. I remembered little of the wild ravings and feverish nightmares that wracked me over the next three days. We narrowly survived the ordeal that the alien protozoa had wreaked upon our bowels. The donnies had ministered to us, cleaning up our diarrheic excretions and keeping us hydrated until the tiny spark of vitality that marked us as living human beings was again able to reclaim us.
I clung to Laura, sitting in front of her tent. Pete ambled slowly around the campsite in endless circuits, as if impersonating a zombie. The fever had burned up quite a bit of his fat, and, surprising as it seemed to me, he actually looked pretty fit now.
"That was too close, Bishop," Laura said. "I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all worth it."
"This doesn’t sound like the Laura I know. What happened to the tenacious, career-driven, egocentric girl of my dreams?"
Laura laid her head weakly against my shoulder. "Maybe this kind of an experience changes a person. After all, what’s at the end of it? We produce some vapid entertainment, then no one remembers anything of us when we’re gone."
"Sounds pretty philosophical, gal. But speak for yourself. I only represent the raw content of your media productions. I hunt men down. That’s what drives me. Not the entertainment value–although that part of it does pay a lot of bills."
"But why keep doing it? Surely by now you’ve amassed enough wealth to keep you comfortable for the rest of your life. Why not retire to a villa somewhere on some warm Mediterranean island, with a glass of ouzo at your side?"
I rubbed a cloth over the stubble on top of my head. The tropical foliage drooped near to us, moisture descending in periodic droplets from its broad leaves. "It’s hard to explain, Laura. I learn something from every assignment, something meaningful. Something deeper about the nature of men–but more than that. Pieces of a puzzle, I guess you could say. And the last piece is still missing. I want to find it."
Laura grunted and pulled herself away from me. She crawled back into her tent to sleep.
Pete, completing his latest ambulation around the camp, bent over and studied me from the other side of his perennially live headset.
"A parrot’s death is a terrible thing to behold, Bishop," he said.
"Good dog," I said. The man had not quite yet come back to the planet. "Fetch!" I tossed a pebble into the margin of the jungle and Pete dutifully went off to search for it. I crawled back into my own tent to sleep some more.
We set out again the next morning, T’aylang in the lead. Our pace was slow and we rested frequently, but over the next few days our full strength slowly returned to us.
T’aylang refused to use a machete to blaze a trail; instead, he navigated a circuitous, meandering path that avoided the densest of the vegetation. He followed game trails where they were available, and where they were not, he invented his own lowest-perturbation solutions.
"T’aylang, I don’t mean to question your guidance," I said. "But the way we’re moving, we’ll easily triple the distance–and the time–we have to travel. I’m starting to worry about our how our supplies will play out. Can’t we take a slightly more direct route?"
The tall Eridani stopped and pivoted to face me. "The path is the life, Bishop. It is rarely straightforward." He turned away and made his looping way around yet another overhanging vine.
I grunted and followed him. I was getting tired of hearing his vague, spiritual platitudes in response to every question I asked him.
In the late afternoon, we came upon a wide stream that sluiced through the dense vegetation, a water runoff from the highlands that lay ahead of us.
"We will rest here," the Eridani said. "Soon, the travel will become easier." As if it were on greased gimbals, his cylindrical head pivoted around one hundred eighty degrees to face me. "And your path will then become clearer."
He began to fold his body into a sitting position, and I again marveled at the complex geometrical transforms that were involved in that simple act.
The highlands would be easier to traverse, but no less dangerous. We’d somehow avoided the jungle pseudocats that had surely stalked us up until now. Their reticence to attack was surely due to the sonic influence of the Eridanis–but the uplands were ruled by other predators, more horrific ones.
The jungle thinned out, giving way to an expansive savanna. Mountains lined the far horizon, a band of faint purple in the distance. Closer to us, a herd of gazelle-like animals grazed near a wide, meandering river. Large white ibis analogs waded in its shallows, occasionally thrusting their long, toothed beaks into the water. One of the birds suddenly disappeared beneath the surface, pulled to its death by some lunging, unidentifiable form that showed itself for only an instant. The other members of its flock barely reacted to their loss.
I glanced down at my boot and saw a large iridescent beetle climbing onto it, perhaps thinking to purchase there a better view of any nearby prey. Or maybe I was its intended prey. I shook it off and trotted forward, catching up to T’aylang.
"You were called to lead this mission. But I’m guessing you wouldn’t have volunteered for it, not if it had been your own choice. Could you not have simply declined it? What’s in it for you, T’aylang?"
The Eridani slowed to a stop and tilted his head down. "I miss my wife, Mr. Bishop. And I miss my children, both of them. A girl, ten years old, and a boy, not quite five. They all depend on me. They are my life."
While he spoke, one of his upper appendages fumbled in the pouch he carried. It held his personal effects, and was similar to the pouches that all Eridanis carried around their waists. I suspected that he fondled some icons inside it that represented his family members.
"And it is true," he said. "I would not have elected to leave them. Not of my own volition." He raised his head and the high sun played off his eye-hoop, producing marvelous swirls of colors. "But there comes a time when prophecy must be fulfilled, and all of us become slaves to it."
"We’re only here to find Dr. Kline," I said. "Not to fulfill any kind of prophecy."
"You know not what part you may play in God’s continuing Creation, Mr. Bishop."
The Eridani’s mandibles gnashed for a moment, then he stalked on across the savanna, leaving me standing there.
Later that afternoon, I glimpsed a shadow in the gaps between the tall clumps of grass to the left of us. I saw it only for a second, but soon I saw another flash of movement, this one to my right. It had a wolf-like shape, but with a few too many legs, each articulated in a strange way.
"T’aylang!" I shouted. "It seems we have some company. Should we be concerned about this?"
The striding Eridani kept his head pointed forward as he answered me. "Grellings. A pack of six. They’ve been paralleling us for the last two hours. You humans must smell especially delicious to them. They’re confused, though, by our presence. Seeing Eridanis and humans traveling together is beyond their experience. Nevertheless, we should try to reach that rocky outcrop ahead of us before their hunger overrides their caution. It’s doubtful they’ll try to attack us up there; they’d be too exposed."
"Can’t you just sing to them? Convince them to go away and come back another day, like you did with the pseudohippos and the pylocs?"
T’aylang made a sharp, breathy sound that I had learned was the Eridani equivalent of a chuckle. "Unfortunately, Mr. Bishop, I must ask for your forgiveness here: Neither I nor any of the bearers happen to know the melody or lyrics of their particular song."
"Great. That’s just great," Laura said, unsnapping the restraining strap on her sidearm’s holster.
I did the same, and withdrew my weapon. "Well, I hope you’ll forgive us if we have to take some typically rash human action to keep from getting eaten alive, Big Guy."
T’aylang quickened our pace, and got no objections from anyone. Pete turned in continuous circles as he skipped forward, like a dervish in the throes of panic. Sweat poured from his brow. I found myself pitying Laura when she’d get around to editing this section of his video record; I didn’t see how it could be done in a way that wouldn’t make a viewer feel downright queasy. But maybe that would best match the way we all felt at the moment. We trotted toward the rise that, impossibly, seemed to always remain a half-kilometer away.
A grelling suddenly hurtled out of the tall grass toward Pete, making for his exposed neck. The cameraman shrieked as the beast hit his chest, knocking him to the ground. I swiveled and fired point-blank at it, and a half-second later I heard another shot from Laura’s gun. The mortally wounded grelling rolled off Pete, bellowing in anger and pain.
Pete scrabbled away from the dying animal like a frightened crab, somehow managed to find his feet, then took off at a run with the rest of us for the outcrop. We heard the other grellings behind us, snarling and bickering over the first feeding rights of their disabled packmate. They had indeed been very hungry.
We finally reached the outcrop, although its protection now seemed unnecessary, inasmuch as the grellings were preoccupied with their cannibalistic meal far behind us. It was then when I noticed that the Eridani porters had discarded our food supplies during our mad dash to safety. All we had were our personal tents, bedrolls, lamps and a few cooking utensils, the articles that Laura, Pete and I had carried ourselves.
T’aylang looked ahead over the rolling hills, obviously searching for our best and safest route forward. I watched him confer with another Eridani. Eventually, the tall guide glided over to me.
"The sun will set soon. We will head for the mesa to our left, and try to find a defensible campsite there."
"But what of our food supplies, T’aylang?" I said. "We’ll starve without our Earth rations! We have to go back and retrieve them."
"The loss of your food will not a major problem, Mr. Bishop. We can forage native foods and prepare them in a way that your bodies will be able to tolerate. Trust me on this," the Eridani said.
I had no choice but to trust him. I realized it would be too dangerous for us to backtrack into the veldt, and most of the food contents in the packs would likely have been carried off by now.
An hour later, we collapsed inside the safety of a horseshoe-shaped formation of boulders on high ground that overlooked the savanna. I was exhausted from the hard pace we’d driven to get here, and from the terror we’d all experienced that afternoon. Laura and Pete were equally spent, and even the Eridanis seemed languid. We forwent erecting our tents and collapsed onto the rocky ground, trusting to T’aylang to organize a watch schedule for the night. None of us were much interested in eating.
"We must be getting close now, T’aylang," I said. I approached the Eridani, who’d stopped to inspect the terrain ahead of us. "My reckoning puts us near the point of Kline’s last transmitted messages."
"Close indeed, Mr. Bishop," the Eridani said. "Another day’s travel, and we should be entering his compound."
We’d clung to the high ground, wending our way northward for the last two weeks. To this point I felt less a professional man-tracker than a simple tourist on a game hunt. What special skills had I brought to bear on the mission? None. I’d merely followed the lead of the Eridanis. Had I not held such personal disdain for the Church of Holy Psychological Redemption, I might have even felt guilty for taking their money for this assignment.
As T’aylang had promised, the Eridanis prepared foraged vegetation–roots, leaves, berries and nuts–that we were able to digest. The natives had begun to sing songs whenever we ate, and I’d asked our guide why they were doing this.
"It is part of the preparation process, to make the food safe for you. To let Eridani enter and nourish your bodies without poisoning you," T’aylang had replied.
It sounded like hogwash, I thought, but if they chose to believe it, more power to them–and to us. If it came down to a matter of our survival, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
"Have you ever personally met Kline?" I asked. "Seen him in the flesh?"
T’aylang suddenly drew himself tall, his complicated joints stretching in a way that I’d not previously seen.
"Had your Christian apostle Paul ever met Christ in the flesh?" he answered. "And did that in any way hinder his ability to witness to the reality of his faith?"
"So, I gather you’ve read the Christian New Testament."
The Eridani made a breathy sound, and swiveled his huge head to face me.
"I have read all your human religious material, Mr. Bishop. From my earliest childhood in the Catholic mission school, before it was abandoned, and from short stints in other missionary schools. I was one of a few Eridanis chosen to study your culture, language and religions closely. Your sacred books contain significant wisdom. But they fail to accurately describe you as a species. Much of the material seems . . . false in that regard. False, with respect to what I have seen of you. If I may speak boldly, you don’t seem deserving of God’s grace–nor do you appear to think much about your ultimate redemption, except in times of extreme duress when you are suddenly forced to face the fact of your mortality."
"I’m not a religious man, T’aylang. I haven’t the temperament for it, myself. You’ll not get a strong reaction from me, regardless of your stated beliefs or feelings. But if it matters, I do agree with your point: most of us don’t usually act on our better, higher instincts. The human spirit may be willing, but our flesh is far too weak. Hell, to be honest, most times our spirit is too weak."
I sat down on a nearby rock, took off my field cap and rubbed the lengthening hair on my head. "And I don’t profess to understand Kline’s Church’s tenets, either–it just seems like a bunch of psychological mumbo-jumbo to me."
The Eridani knelt next to me. "Kline no longer preaches those tenets, Mr. Bishop. He created a newer testament, one that abrogates the false beliefs that he was originally sent here to teach. One that recognizes how we can all live at peace with ourselves and our environment."
"You’re saying that he became an apostate? He denied his Church’s dogma?"
"Yes, that is precisely what I am saying."
I considered this. Had the Church directors known of Kline’s heretical transformation? Had his last messages betrayed him in this regard? I wondered if that had been the Church’s primary motivation to hire me: to track him down and retract him before he could do any more harm to their cause. It had to be so! All that business about Kline’s "important discoveries" was bullshit, a misdirection. The directors had played me for a fool.
It didn’t come as a complete surprise to me. Even so, I felt there was something more, something that I still needed to discover.
We camped in the scree below a cliff. A harsh chill descended upon us soon after the sun moved behind the mountain that towered immediately to our westward side. The day before, a large puma analog had taken one of our now-unladen bearers, the trailing one in our company. We couldn’t react in time to save him. The beast attacked and soundlessly lugged the Eridani’s body off into the maze of boulders surrounding us before we even realized what had happened.
Laura, Pete and I ate our suppers inside my tiny tent, huddled together for warmth. The Eridanis knelt in a close circle outside, eating their own foraged meals, taking turns singing for our benefit.
"My great-freakin’-great-granddaddy used to work for Walt Disney," Pete said. "He was one of them animatronics guys. He did some fantastic parrots. Very faithful to the originals. He did make ’em talk, oh, yes he did."
We’d worried about Pete ever since he recovered from the jungle fever, and even more so after his close encounter with the grellings. He hadn’t seemed quite normal after those experiences–but then again, neither of us knew exactly what was normal for Pete.
"And my great-one-less-freakin’-great granddaddy was, like, a pirate. He inherited one of his father’s mechanical parrots, and the thing went kind of bonkers after a while–pecked out one of great-Gramps’ eyeballs, and so he had to wear a patch after that. Then the thing chewed his hand off one night while he slept, and so he had to wear a hook. And then there was the leg. And those parrots, they live an awfully long time, y’know?"
"Jesus, Pete," Laura said. "Is there ever an actual punch line to any of your cockamamie stories? Why don’t you go take some nice ambient shots of the inside of your own tent?"
"That’s a cool idea, Laura," Pete replied. He grinned and crawled out into the twilight.
Laura and I fell onto my sleeping bag and held each other.
"I’m afraid he’s totally lost it," I said.
Laura sighed. "Well, there’s no help for him until we get him back to Earth. He’ll be better off when we can have his chip embeds cleared. His Union will take care of him if he can’t work again."
I kissed her forehead and studied her face.
"The climax comes tomorrow. We’ll reach Kline, then figure out what part we’re all playing in this grand drama."
"You haven’t gone off the deep end yourself, have you, Bishop?" she asked.
I lay there quietly and looked for an answer. I couldn’t come up with one that would sound convincing. Laura forgave me for that, and we descended into each other, sinking into the time, the place, the lonely circumstance of far epsilon Eridani III.
We entered Kline’s compound in the late morning of the next day. It lay in a narrow canyon crowned by a tall waterfall at its head. Large conifer analogs lined a fast-moving stream that coursed through the ravine, twisting between the canyon’s sheer cliff walls. Near the falls, nestled within a copse of trees, stood a large, arched wooden structure with several smaller ones flanking it.
At least two dozen Eridanis had arrayed themselves alongside the wide pathway into the canyon, as if they had been telegraphed of our arrival. T’aylang raised one appendage, and we heard a cacophonous sound issue from the surrounding Eridanis. I decided it must have been a greeting, or perhaps a cheer.
One of the Eridanis strode forward and conversed with T’aylang. The guide turned and addressed us.
"No weapons are permitted in the camp. You’ll have to give them up here. They’ll be kept safe."
We reluctantly surrendered our firearms and moved onward, winding along the trail that crept toward the heart of the canyon.
A diminutive man met us at the door of the larger arched structure. He sported a graying goatee and mustache, and he wore a simple white tunic and baggy black pants. Sandals encircled his feet, and a straw Panama-style hat covered his head. He supported himself with the help of a crude wooden cane.
"Dr. Kline, I presume?" I said, extending my hand.
"Yes," he replied, taking it. "And what is your name, sir?"
"Bishop, sent by the Church. These are my colleagues, Pete Horvack and Laura Denning. And our guide, Mr. T’aylang."
"Bishop, indeed." Kline laughed. "How very fitting! Come inside."
I turned and saw T’aylang bowing low. He took a small half-step backward as if hesitant to enter with us.
"You too, T’aylang," Kline said. "And your bearers. Come inside. You’re all still very much a part of this."
The Eridani motioned to the porters. They followed us slowly into the building.
Once inside, I pivoted in a full circle to look at the large, single room curving around me. I noted that the structure was composed solely of well-crafted native materials, most of their surfaces carved in intricate, asymmetric patterns. The largest portion of the room appeared to be a meeting area, a wide, flat space unencumbered by any furniture, with woven grass mats laid out in concentric circles around its center. Windows pierced the full circumference of the building, each covered with latticework. To one side of the room, I saw a rustically hewn table with benches, and behind it a low bed frame supporting a thin feather mattress. A bookshelf sat next to the bed, containing a few hardback paper books. On a smaller table nearby lay a dusty, folded-up EPR datacenter.
Kline motioned to the large table. I could hear the sound of the canyon’s waterfall penetrating the lattice shutters; a cool, moist breeze wafted through them. The doctor brought unadorned clay cups for us and filled them with water from a pitcher. We sat down on the benches, and our Eridanis knelt on mats spread nearby.
"First things first, Mr. Bishop. I assume the Church gave you an article addressed to me. Perhaps a databulb, or some other small device?"
I pulled the lanyard over the top my head with the databulb attached to it, and suspended it in front of me.
"As you said. But I’m not sure it’d be wise for me to give it to you. I don’t know why I think that, but I do."
"You are correct in your intuition, sir. It’s quite dangerous. It contains either an explosive device or a virulent nanopackage, rigged to activate when it recognizes my unique genetic signature by direct contact with my flesh."
I heard Laura’s breath catch. Pete grunted and mumbled, "Damned parrots! Can’t ever trust ’em."
Kline took a sip of water from his cup. "And beyond that, I have no doubt that it also contains a ‘snuff’ software routine that would induce a fatal epileptic seizure in anyone who would view its encrypted message on a standard EPR terminal. That would be for insurance. Oh, yes. Quite a dangerous object, indeed."
He smiled and turned toward T’aylang, uttered a series of gutteral barking sounds, then turned back to me. "I asked him to take it into his possession, and to protect it. It will provide important evidence, later on."
I handed the lanyard to the Eridani, which he squeezed over his more massive head, working with some difficulty to get it past the protruding ridge above his eye-hoop. I realized that at some point I’d stopped referring to the Eridanis as "donnies" in my mind. I had come to the conclusion that the word represented the worst kind of racial slur, one that didn’t befit them.
"You were sent here to assassinate me, Mr. Bishop," Kline continued. "I expect you didn’t realize that at the beginning, but you must have put some pieces together during your journey here."
"The Church directors only told me that you’d discovered something important, and gave me the task of finding you and bringing you home," I said. "Later, I learned from T’aylang that you’d gone . . . in your own direction. Things didn’t quite add up, so I began to consider alternate possibilities."
"Indeed, I did stray from their tenets, sir. My sponsors are not only spiritually bereft, but they’ve reacted to my mental evolution with a plan that will be difficult for them to carry out, owing to its inherent complexity. For example, they’ve likely made parallel arrangements to assassinate their assassins–necessarily so, for people as media-connected as you are. Obviously, they can’t have the documented story of their scandalous criminal conspiracy splashed on the networks for everyone to see. So I’m afraid my heretical course has ended up complicating not only their lives, but your own as well. For the latter, I sincerely apologize; it is ultimately my sin to bear. It’s not the first time in the last year that they’ve attempted to kill me."
Another surprising revelation. I removed my field cap, laid it down on the table, and stared at it for a moment. "But something still doesn’t add up, Dr. Kline. If you were convinced we were sent to assassinate you, why did you let us get this far? Why not have the Eridanis under your influence ‘conveniently’ lose us in the jungle? Or let us lose ourselves there? We owe our lives to them, as it is. We’d be dead, were it not for their help. It seems strange, to aid and abet your potential killers as you’ve done."
"Several reasons," Kline said. "First, the Eridanis are not murderers; they are healers at heart–more particularly, healers of the spirit. I could never ask any of them to consciously lead you into peril, only to abandon you to certain death in the midst of it. Would that act not itself constitute a type of murder?"
Kline’s gaze shifted to Laura and Pete. "Second, after its several failures to this point, I knew that the Church eventually had to take on a new strategy, one of subterfuge rather than brute force. Simply hiring more contract killers that keep perishing in the jungle was obviously never going to work. They needed the most talented tracker available, not simply another hired assassin who fancied himself skilled in the tracking arts. And the best trackers are not murderers, after all. They are people who can adapt to any situation they encounter, and find a way to use local resources to achieve their goals."
He returned his gaze to me, and continued. "If you were, in fact, innocent pawns, ignorant of your true mission, then would it also not be a type of murder to refuse you help, when I might otherwise render it? Especially when your journey was undertaken in my name."
Kline paused, and he too studied my field cap, still resting on the table. "But beyond that dilemma, I decided it was time to confront my destiny head-on. If my path is truly the correct one, then I must send a potent message to my erstwhile sponsors: that they can never succeed, no matter what evil strategy they try. They must come to realize that they have fallen from God’s sight, completely and irrevocably."
"And so I should send my own message back to them now," I said.
Kline nodded solemnly.
I began to do that, mouthing the text aloud as I kinesthetically arranged the spin values of the entangled electrons in my wrist embed that made up the coded letters of each word: "Arrived at Kline’s camp. Elected not to deliver the databulb, for obvious reasons. You’ll have to find someone else to play your fool."
There was no return acknowledgement, nor did I expect to receive one. But something still bothered me about the whole setup. If the Church’s plan had hinged on Kline taking the databulb in hand, it seemed to be too much of a long shot, too much that could go wrong with it. Surely the Church knew that Kline would be suspicious of anything they sent his way. Paranoiacs know each other too bloody well, I thought.
We ate then, after Eridani disciples brought in local food for us and laid it on the table. It was a simple meal whose main course consisted of some kind of mashed, grayish root served in small terracotta bowls, with cut stalks of a raw, asparagus-like vegetable served in a larger communal bowl. The Eridanis lay prostrate on their mats and ate, their meals composed of a different foodstuff–one that was no more recognizable to me than ours was. Outside, we heard the multiflorous tones of an Eridani singing while we ate.
"Pete, you’re the key, now," Laura said. "We have to get you back to Earth and get your chips downloaded."
The cameraman held a spoonful of root-mush up and inspected it closely. "Yeah, that’ll sure take a load off my mind, too. Y’know, this stuff isn’t half-bad–for something that looks like bird poo."
"This will be a powerful story, Dr. Kline," I said. "You’ll likely become quite famous–for at least the few days that it stays on Page One. But that shouldn’t matter to you. You’re totally unreachable, untouchable by civilization here."
"Oh, but I fully intend to return with you," the man answered cheerily.
We all looked up from our meals, and the sounds of our chewing stopped. I finally swallowed my mouthful. "Surely that would be too dangerous! You’ll be at risk until we manage to bring the Church’s directors to justice. Let us handle that. Returning now would be foolhardy on your part, wouldn’t it? And what will become of your mission?"
He chuckled. "A man who has chosen my path will always be at risk. Most of my Eridani disciples believe that I am, in fact, fated to perish in some sort of unspecified sacrifice to my new-found faith. Perhaps they’re right; it would certainly follow the standard religious hagiographies. Indeed, maybe that’s the only thing that will ensure my mission’s survival here. But the Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption was correct in one thing: I have discovered something important during my time with the Eridanis, and I need to spread it to other humans on our home world. They must come to know the treasure that they’ve stumbled onto at this far planet. I can only bear witness to that in person. I have a song of healing that men must hear, and it may save us all from perdition."
It was at that point I decided Kline had gone mad, secluded as he had been for so long in this harsh land. And I began to wonder also if the Eridanis had been manipulating him for their own purposes, like a puppet in some alien morality play.
We gathered the next morning to set off for S’uval; a dozen other Eridanis and Kline joined T’aylang and what remained of our original bearers. At least we’d have a fuller repertoire of songs at our disposal to help protect us from Eridani’s more determined predators, I thought.
We all watched as Kline performed some sort of final sacrament for the group of Eridanis that reposed in the copse outside the main building, those who would remain behind. Dusty beams of early morning sun sliced through the canyon’s opening as he moved along the line of their kneeling forms, sequentially placing his hand on top of each of their huge, bowed heads and uttering something that we couldn’t pick up from where we stood waiting.
When at last he rejoined us, all the Eridanis behind him began to sing. I had up to this time only heard individual natives sing, and on those occasions their single voices sounded to me like a whole chorus. To hear dozens of their polyphonous voices singing at once was a thing beyond my experience.
I turned and saw Pete staring toward the singers, capturing the images and the sounds, tears streaming down his cheeks. I found myself hoping that his audio buffers didn’t overflow, as I wiped tears from my own eyes.
"What do the words mean, T’aylang?" I whispered hoarsely, choked with emotion.
"It is difficult to translate," he said. "Partly a farewell, partly a lament–but also a hymn glorifying a hopeful future, about a time beyond what is allotted to any of us here. A time when all prophecy is finally fulfilled, and we all join with the Creator in glory."
We moved across the terrain slower than I’d have liked, in deference to Kline’s presence; the man was not as young as the rest of us, and he was, physiologically, a weak specimen. He walked awkwardly with the aid of two wooden canes, grimacing as if each step was shot through with pain. But he refused to be carried; it was as if his agony was an integral part of his imagined destiny. I wondered more than once how this puny man had managed to reach so far into the interior of this unforgiving land.
We made up for our slow pace by taking a more direct route through the highlands and savanna. The songs of the Eridanis were effective at diverting the menacing predators that prowled the veldt. After three more weeks, we finally pulled up to encamp at the edge of the jungle that marked the last leg of our overland journey. In another week we’d reach S’uval, but even so, we’d already missed Moynahan’s boat–assuming he kept to his word about not waiting for us. Regardless, we could contact M’bassa from the S’uval stationhouse and arrange for another craft to come upriver to fetch us.
We ate our supper in a quiet group, arrayed in a circle around a low campfire. When he finished his meal, Kline rose, muttered a few words in Eridani to his nearby disciples, and walked out into the night alone, likely to meditate for a while.
I crawled over to T’aylang and asked, "Will he be okay out there by himself?"
The reposing Eridani issued a breathy noise, and paused in his meal. "We have another name for Kline, Mr. Bishop, an Eridani title: B’digh Grimadj. Roughly translated, it means ‘Master of Serpents.’ It speaks to an event that occurred in S’uval, at the time Kline embarked on his mission."
I listened intently as the Eridani continued.
"It is said that when Kline set out from S’uval, he came upon a small Eridani child playing alone at the edge of the jungle there. The man spotted a large snake poised to strike at the youth–I think it was an Eridani analog of what you know as a cobra, except much more aggressive and poisonous. He interceded, thrusting himself between the snake and the child, and took the serpent’s venom into his own flesh. The young Eridani ran safely home and told his parents what had happened. They returned to the site of the incident, and found Kline sitting there, unharmed, talking to the raised serpent as if preaching to it. News of this marvel spread quickly, and soon all the Eridanis in the village assembled to watch the strange scene."
"If true, I can only assume that something in Kline’s human physiology made him immune to the snake’s venom," I said.
"Perhaps," T’aylang replied. "Regardless, it was a wonderment to the people there, and several of them followed Kline into the jungle to see what other marvels of faith he might reveal. It marked the beginning of his ministry."
"An incredible tale, T’aylang. But surely Kline was not immune to every poison in this world, was he?"
The Eridani finished his meal and laid his massive head down in a sleeping position. "Surely not. But he didn’t know that, and his honorable act made it incumbent upon the Eridanis to do what they could to protect him from ensuing dangers that would otherwise have killed him. Nevertheless, we obey B’digh Grimadj’s occasional requests to be alone, exposed to the world, trusting that his faith will protect him. When he goes off to be with himself, we say that he is ‘talking to the serpent.’"
It was difficult to know when an Eridani slept, since their eye-hoops had no lids. I assumed that the termination of T’aylang’s conversation marked his entry into that phase.
I rose from the campfire, as did Laura, and we both walked toward my tent to sleep; she’d forgone erecting her own since we’d set out for the return trip to M’bassa. We watched Pete circumnavigate the camp once before he disappeared into his own tent.
"There’s something wrong, Bishop," Laura said. "I feel it, but I can’t explain it."
"I know what you mean. Something’s not right."
We crawled in through the flap of my tent and sat on the bedroll inside. I adjusted the lantern, which had begun to run very low on power. It wouldn’t last another night before its light would be too feeble to be of any further use. "It’s all been too easy so far. I feel like something’s hovering over us, ready to strike."
We stared at each other for a few minutes, then we both crawled back out of the tent in an unspoken, mutual urge to check on Dr. Kline.
"Not in the head, Bishop! Not if you can help it," Laura whispered to me harshly. "Our meat and potatoes are inside there."
We stood a half-dozen yards from the kneeling figure of Kline, and watched helplessly as the weak light of the low-hanging Eridani moon glinted off the blade that Pete Horvack held against the missionary’s throat. I heard Eridanis gathering behind us, chittering amongst themselves. I had drawn my firearm, but I couldn’t come to believethat its bullets would stop Pete from bringing the razor-sharp blade deep into Kline’s jugular veins. Even if I hit Pete squarely, his body’s backlash would complete his conscious intent and drain the life out of the little missionary.
"You catching this, Pete?" I called out. "All of it? It’s not you who’s doing this. You’re not a murderer, man–find yourself and fight it! Drop the knife, before it’s too late. We can work this all out somehow."
Pete looked over at me and laughed. "Silly goose," he said. "You have no idea what’s going on. And why should you? I’m the one here who’s most skilled at observing things–that’s what I do! You’ll soon know why Klein has to die, when the parrots come to fly us all away to heaven." He giggled hysterically and drew the knife tighter against Kline’s throat. In the dim moonlight, I saw a trickle of blood start to descend from it. I heard the doctor gasp.
"God forgive me," I whispered, and shot the crazed A/V man once in the center of his chest. As I feared would happen, his body jerked back violently from the round’s impact, causing his knife to drag deeply across Kline’s throat as he crashed onto the ground. Eridanis rushed forward; I saw T’aylang lift and cradle the missionary’s small form in his four arms. In the weak moonlight, the huge guide looked like a Madonna figure, holding the little man to his bosom. Dim purple and blue hues swept across T’aylang’s eye-hoop as he shook his head slowly.
I too rushed forward, and heard Kline issue a final, gurgling pronouncement: "The prophecy is met. It is done." He coughed, and T’aylang uselessly held one of his hands against the gash in Kline’s throat, foamy blood spurting between his fingers. A minute passed as we stared in helpless shock, then the doctor’s form stilled.
T’aylang lifted his head to the starry sky and issued a long, plaintive cry, sounding like a whole pack of wolves howling at once; it was plumbed to its ineffable depths with overtones of anguish and despair. I wept in its echo out of sheer frustration.
Dr. Manfred Kline was dead.
In the morning, six of the Eridanis prepared to transport Kline’s body back to his upland compound to be buried there. T’aylang approached me, bowed deeply, and handed me the doctor’s complete datalog, which had been attached to a tether around the man’s neck.
"We do not know how Kline’s litany will play out from this point," he said. "But we have faith that you will seek to understand it, and to complete it. You have a special role in God’s continuing plan, Mr. Bishop. Of that, we Eridanis are of a single mind."
I stared at the guide, incredulous. "You and your people are deluded, T’aylang. I’m merely a seeker of men for profit. That’s all I am, all I ever was."
"That is your outward nature. But inwardly, you seek something deeper. You wish to find the ultimate knowledge of what it means to be a man–and more recently, what it means to be an Eridani. We have read your soul and we know this to be true."
I took the log from him humbly. Over the following week, as we made our slow way through the jungle north of S’uval, I read Kline’s records using my portable data terminal.
I hardly needed to. I’d already learned the crux of his story, when the Eridanis had stripped the clothes off Kline’s dead body to wash it, exposing the pair of vestigial limbs that had begun to sprout from his abdomen, below his human arms. And the new joints that had started to form in his legs, making walking extraordinarily difficult for him. And the ridge of light-sensitive tissue that had begun to grow around his scalp, underneath his straw hat. The doctor had indeed gone native in the most essential way; he had allowed the world of Eridani to penetrate him to the genetic root of his being. That had been his true sacrifice.
Kline’s log spoke of his physical change, but the earlier entries consisted of nothing more than a record of his progressive mental derangement. In it were descriptions of strange visions that became more and more infected by meaningless psycho-babble and utopian pipedreams, fanciful tales of men and Eridanis living together in mutual, peaceful respect of all life around them; he envisioned this far environment as a new Garden of Eden. Other journal sections were laced with frightening, revelatory nightmares filled with impossibly complex symbolism and imaginary beasts. Yet other portions revealed inflated, psychotic dreams of grandeur, soaring at times into complete megalomania. In all, it portrayed the vivid, pathetic tale of Kline’s descent into madness.
During the first two years of his mission, the doctor had painstakingly peeled away the layers of his own inner world while preaching to the Eridanis, and he had found nothing there but endless guilt for sins which, to my eyes, seemed very tame–or even, in many cases, totally imaginary. Klein had come to the slow realization that his guilt was rooted in his very being–something that the Creator had hardwired into the brain of every human. No man could ever hope to fully absolve himself for his own sins; guilt was too intimately connected with what it meant to be a human being.
His spiritual frustration was clear enough to fathom. And at some point he was no longer ministering to the Eridanis; they had begun ministering to him. Curing him by inducing the world of Eridani to slowly adapt Kline to itself. They had him ingest certain foodstuffs, minerals, biological agents–each of them sonically activated by selected songs. To the Eridanis, healers at heart, the man had to become an Eridani to be saved, one who was blameless and–like them–perfectly attuned to the ecology of the world.
And as he accepted the inevitability of this slow, physically painful transmogrification, Klein had started to become sane again.
It was no longer a surprise to me why Kline’s Church, who must have learned of his conversion in his last messages, wanted so much to eliminate what had become, to them, an abomination of nature and a perverse confutation of man’s unique position in the universe. But the Eridanis saw through Kline’s tortured soul to the more sublime parts of it–and this, in a living man? They had never encountered it before.
For all Kline’s failings, his mission had been a partial success. Though he could not forgive himself for his imagined sins, to the Eridanis he represented the most open, the most innocent man they had ever encountered. They began to wonder: Might every man have something noble buried within him that made him worth healing? Something that overrode the Eridanis’ inherent distaste of our outwardly aggressive, destructive natures?
Late the next morning, I heard the faint, oddly surrealistic sounds of a banjo tinkling lightly through the jungle. It was one of Edgar Percy’s children, unwittingly guiding us on our final approach into S’uval. We broke out into the clearing at the edge of town and walked toward the stationhouse.
From a hundred yards away, I spied Moynahan’s boat tied to the pier. It was unexpected and, frankly, mystifying to me that the man would have waited this long for our return. I saw him sitting at the head end of the dock, his feet dangling over the edge of it, with a half-dozen young Eridani children clustered around him.
As I approached more closely, it appeared that they were in the midst of playing a game, rolling a handful of crude dice on the rough wooden planks. I saw one of the Eridani youths pick them up and cast them, then heard the pilot’s riotous human laughter amid the chitterings of the young natives, and all of them fell over backwards in glee. Moynahan shoved at one of the Eridani youths playfully, and his laughter roared again through the air. I could scarcely believe my eyes. I had witnessed the result of a small miracle. It was a tiny glint of Kline’s vision of utopia come true: the lion, lying down in peace beside the lambs.
I stopped in mid-stride and considered the precise shape of what I was seeing in front of me: It was, in fact, the missing piece, the piece that I had sought for so many years, the lost part of the puzzle that rolled across the breeze to me in the waves of Moynahan’s rollicking laughter. The part that told me there was yet hope for mankind.
I trudged forward until I was within hailing distance of the man. "Moynahan!" I called. "Couldn’t stay away, I see."
The grizzled boatman pivoted around to face my approaching form. "Hardly, Mr. Bishop. There’s lots of songs to learn up here. I’ve picked up a couple of good ones over the last few weeks." Moynahan laughed again and grabbed at one of the children in mock threat; the child squealed back at him in mock horror as the pilot’s wiry beard descended and tickled the child’s naked abdomen.
I smiled at the vignette, wondering which varieties of native food Moynahan had eaten during his stay in S’uval and what kinds of activating songs the children had sung while he did so. Perhaps the man’s adaptation had started much earlier, during our outward leg; for all I knew, T’aylang may have thrown an extra verse or two into his pseudohippo-song, earmarked sonically to the locally grown chewing tobacco that Moynahan was partial to. I had the feeling that the Eridanis would soon deign to expose more and more humans to their transformative singing as time went by.
It was unfortunate that Pete couldn’t have been here to capture the scene. But the cameraman’s bloody, decapitated head now lay inside a sack carried by one of our porters, carefully packaged and preserved for its eventual journey back on Earth. Thankfully, the captured data from Pete’s basic A/V circuit function would have remained intact, since everything there was hard-wired. I wondered if we’d find evidence of Church nanoagents inside Pete’s brain when we had a chance to analyze it later, or if the cameraman had invented his own role in the awful events that had played out.
We’d left the rest of Pete’s corpse to be carried off by his dream parrots, as he’d wished–although, to my eyes, the carrion birds that came for him looked more like large, multicolored pterodactyls.
We had to evade two additional Church assassins before we boarded the skip-ship back to Lagrange-2. Those agents had lingered behind in M’bassa, patiently awaiting our return there; our new Eridani friends helped us divert them. After that, we had to deal with yet another assassin on Earth before we finally arrived at a network facility, where we downloaded the data from the chips embedded inside Pete’s rotting cranium. These, along with the deadly nanoagents found in the databulb, brought the damning evidence of the Church’s bumbling, murderous conspiracy to light.
Laura edited the exposé in a tasteful and professional fashion, and within the space of two weeks, the Church of the Psychological Redemption was no more. We divulged nothing about Kline’s physical mutation, nor the details of how he had died–nor anything about the uniquely transformative power of the Eridani songs. It was not yet the moment for people to learn of those things. The Eridanis needed time to fully unwrap themselves, and we couldn’t think of a reason not to give it to them.
We found no nanoagents or psychotropic drugs inside Pete’s brain; he’d either acted on his own, or as a pawn in a larger game that the Eridanis were playing. I couldn’t bring myself to believe the latter theory. The memory of T’aylang’s heartfelt wail of grief as he held Kline’s dead body belied that notion. And yet, I found that I couldn’t rule it out entirely, based on Kline’s own speculations about his destiny. Perhaps T’aylang’s wail was simply one of remorse for having been forced to play his key role in their alien passion play.
Laura’s media production won all the available awards in its class, and its profits were immense. None could threaten us now. But the villa on the Mediterranean, and the glass of ouzo that went along with it, did not come to pass. Laura and I were both plagued by our memories of Kline’s visions–along with those of our own, gained in the wake of his passing. They spoke of Eridanis and humans joining together to seek their final redemption–if not in a veritable Garden of Eden, then in a world close enough to it.
We fought against our blood-compulsion to return to the highlands of Eridani, to hear once again the songs that would let us better understand the true meaning of our journey. In the end, it was a losing struggle.
The songs of Eridani were too powerful to resist.
Gary Cuba’s stories have appeared in Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways and more than two dozen other speculative fiction publications. He lives in South Carolina with his wife and way too many cats and dogs.
The Homeless Man of Greater Zimbabwe
by James Beamon
The fish were made of silver. So were the terns. The fish swam in the clear blue sky, leaving little ripples as they weaved a course through the heavens. Beside the school of fish, the gleaming birds flapped in formation. All of them moved with singular purpose to a silver half moon that was bright despite the day, a moon that matched the creatures’ ethereal gleam.
Smack! The fish, the terns, the moon, it all unraveled.
Mums was in the shop, rubbing the back of his woolly head, his daydream supplanted by dull pain. Fat Man was giving him that stern look, pointing at him with a long ebony finger.
“You’ll be sixteen in a week, a man by any nation’s measure. You must stop these flights of fancy; those things are for boys and liars.”
Stupid Fat Man, Mums thought. He nodded.
“Keep your eyes about the shop. If someone as much as steals a sausage, you’ll find food missing from your plate tonight.”
There was no one even in the shop. He could argue that but it would likely earn him another smack to the head and a stern lecture about due diligence. So he nodded again.
This was the worst time for diligence and the best time for his mind to wander. It was right after midday, so very few shoppers came into the store looking for dinner meats until later.
Fat Man’s shop was a typical zimba, larger than most but still built of the mortarless granite stones that gave the city of Dzimba-dza-mabwe its name. And while Fat Man had painted the granite walls and ceiling of his zimba with festive blues, yellows and greens “to pull the customer’s eye,” as he put it, it did little to make Mums feel festive. He was not a customer; and any joy he had once gotten from the design was long gone after spending most of his childhood in here looking after rows of various meats.
Mums put his elbows on the counter and propped his face into his brown fists, getting comfortable while he watched over the gazelle steaks that were advertised on sale.
“No no no, boy,” Fat Man said. “That’s how I found you when you earned that smack. Now earn your board and daily bread. Check the temperatures.”
Mums grumbled but did as he was told.
Fat Man did not have rows of meat lying out just to spoil in the heat of the day. That would have been costly and Fat Man did not get to where he was by being wasteful. The rows were divided into sections which had different cuts of meat lying on bronze trays. Underneath the bronze trays, hidden from spying eyes by cabinet doors, was the expensive, imported cooling array that had propelled Fat Man’s Meats and Delicacies into one of the most convenient shops of the West End.
It was a combination of Hittite materials, Minoan alchemy, and Qin engineering. Tubes of grayish metal ran along the entire row on the underside of the bronze trays. The tubes then ran into a contraption of metal works with bins spaced evenly along the device.
Mums did not know how it worked, Fat Man never told anyone. But Fat Man did train him on what to check for. He opened up a metal bin. Inside was what the Minoans called “Boreas’ Breath”, something they described as ice that never got wet. Mums had never seen the wet variety of ice but the dry kind, this Boreas’ Breath, was always shrouded in smoke and fog.
Mums went from bin to bin, checking that smoky fog was in each one. He was underneath the last row checking the bins when he heard Ngoni call out to him.
“Mums! Come and see what I have.”
Ngoni stood in the doorway of the shop flashing a triumphant smile of perfect teeth. He had an impala draped across his broad shoulders.
He dumped the impala on the floor.
“You should have seen it, little brother. This one was clever, but I stalked it relentlessly all morning. Brother Lion would have been proud.”
“I should have known this is what you’ve been up to,” Fat Man said coming from the back room. “You slip away before the sun is finished sleeping to hunt game. We don’t need meat; I own whole herds of beef cows. What is one impala to that?”
“I have Ziwa blood coursing through my body, father. It tells me to hunt. And that is your blood too. I do not see what keeps you from coming with me. Little brother is not even Ziwa, but he enjoys the hunt more than you. Tell father what fun we had last time, little brother.”
“Yy…yyye…ye…ye…yes, it ww…wwa…wa…”
Fat Man cut him off. “Two boys’ talk of fun does not equal one man’s talk of business. I am trying to teach you to hunt bigger game, Ngoni; the elusive quarry of coins in the pockets of men all around you.”
Fat Man chastised with his words. Ngoni was far from a boy. He was three years past the Ziwa Ritual of Manhood; his powerful muscles seemed chiseled into his black skin. But Ngoni nodded and hung his head at Fat Man’s words.
“Esteemed Fat Man,” a girl’s voice said in the doorway, “I hope I am not intruding.”
Mums recognized her voice before he even saw Fenami. And seeing her made his heart pump a little quicker. She was wearing a voluminous yellow dress made of the soft fabrics that were the fashion of the Midian people. Silver bracelets adorned her honey brown arms. Her hair, black as panther fur, fell across her shoulders. She glanced at Mums with twinkling eyes before turning her attention back to Fat Man.
“I have a message from my father. He had urgent matters to attend at the port in Sofala. He wanted me to tell you that he has agreed with your business proposal and will finalize it when he gets back to the city.”
“Ah, great news,” Fat Man smiled. Then his face straightened. “Did he tell you what our proposal was?”
It was slight, but Mums saw a hint of her frown.
“Father says women’s ears aren’t meant to hear business.”
“Ah, I see. Well, thank you for delivering his news.” Fat Man looked to his son. “See young Fenami home.”
Ngoni looked down at his impala. “Little brother can do it. I need to butcher my game. Besides, he has been trapped in this shop all morning taking care of you. He needs the fresh air more than I. Isn’t that right, little brother?”
Mums grabbed Fenami’s hand and sped out before Fat Man could protest.
When they had gone a couple of blocks from the shop, Mums stopped in the middle of the avenue. Fenami went a step and then turned and looked at him.
“What?” she asked.
He beckoned to her with his finger.
“No, not this time. Mama expects me back.”
His lopsided grin grew wicked. And still his finger coaxed her.
“I thought you cared. You must want to see me get into trouble.”
His smile did not budge. He backed away from her, one slow small step followed by another. His finger slowed to a mesmerizing crawl, teasing her to follow.
She smiled and her defense was broken.
He brought her to the hill overlooking the promenade. They sat upon a stone outcropping and looked below at the various vendors and performers in the street. Mums pointed to the Cat Man from Sheba, who had new cats doing tricks at his command. Fenami’s eyes grew big and her mouth went slack as she looked on amazed by the new tricks.
Reflected sunlight caught Mums’ eye. He looked down at her ankle bracelet. Silver charms in the shapes of fish, terns and half moons used the sun’s rays to wink at him as they danced around her ankle.
She elbowed him.
“Maybe you’re from Sheba. If the Cat Man was lighter, he’d look a bit like you.”
Mums tilted his head, considered the Cat Man and nodded approvingly. Then he reached into his small leather pouch and produced two dried yam treats that he had bought from a vendor earlier. It had cost him a day’s wages, but wages were meant for such things. He offered Fenami one, which she took eagerly.
“I often wonder what you are,” Fenami said as she chewed her yam treat. “Your skin is brown like mine but yet your hair is wooly like the Ziwa.”
Mums had never known himself. He gave her a sheepish smile and shrugged.
She smiled. “A simple answer to throw me off the scent. Maybe you’re a son of Baal, a divine prince here to live with us mortals.”
Mums stuck his chest out and beamed a triumphant grin.
“Ha ha! I doubt, you’d tell me even if I guessed right. Still, there’s something more about you. I intend to figure it out.”
I will gladly tell you, Mums thought, if I could only find you.
They watched the cats and the other performers for awhile. At length, Fenami started to rise. Mums held his hand out.
He hated his awkward tongue even more around Fenami. He often wished he had Ngoni’s gift of speech and diction. But he stumbled and staggered his way through the small word because it was his way of letting her know how much he wanted her company.
If she was ever annoyed by his stuttering, she never showed it. She smiled. “All right, but only for a little while.”
Late that night, Mums floated in dreamform above the figment city of Dzimba-dza-mabwe. He knew the real city quite well, but the figment city was a far cry from that. The figment city, his Greater Zimbabwe, stretched from one end of the horizon to the other. This was the Dzimba-dza-mabwe that its inhabitants dreamed of and in; it was always changing, reshaping and rebuilding itself based on the dreams of the people.
Years ago, he had given up on mapping this fickle city that always changed its clothes each night. Instead, he had taken his dreamform and quested for distant lands. He joined red men in their hunt for shaggy coated bulls, watched battles between pale men and giants in a strange land where the sand was white flakes that fell from the sky and into their yellow and red beards. He laughed as brown beardless men dreamt of being pampered on carriages they sat upon Brother Elephant.
He missed those distant dreams of distant people. But for two years now his desire lay here, in Greater Zimbabwe. He started exploring.
His anchor was the southern glut of zimbas, the tiny homes of the slumdwellers. That looked the same in the figment city as it did in the waking world and never changed. He did not know if the people dreaming there could not imagine more than their slum or if they just did not know how.
From there it was trial and error. One by one, he flew into neighboring zimbas, looking at the people in them and their dreams. He darted from zimba to zimba, some as small as a single room, some as opulent as palaces, each time searching for the dreamer. He kept careful mental note of his bearing in relation to the slums. Sometimes new zimbas appeared behind him and he had to backtrack as new dreamers added to Greater Zimbabwe. And sometimes zimbas crumbled and collapsed as a person awoke.
A man dreamt of buying another wife. A woman dreamt of sewing her husband’s mouth shut. Miners dreamt of tunnels collapsing. A sailor dreamt of the open sea. Children dreamt of pastries and sweets. Lost souls dreamt of finding lost causes.
Mums’ disappointment grew with each zimba searched, until he was close to resigning another night as fruitless. He floated into the next one, a humble zimba with a soft green light emanating from the window. He stopped, breathless.
She was teaching cats to do tricks. Two emerald green cats lay on their backs batting a ball to and fro with their paws as she clapped with glee. She noticed him approaching and took a frightened step back.
“Who are you?”
“Do not fear. I am a friend.”
“What is your name?”
“Names matter little here. The time we spend is all that matters, and I would like very much to spend it with you.”
He could not speak his name. Her mind would try to recall who he was in the real world and the effort would wake her. She must come to know who he was without his help.
“Do you like cat tricks?” she asked.
“They are my favorite. May I watch your cats with you?”
She nodded and went back to instructing the cats.
Mums had an idea. While Fenami was distracted with her pets, he snuck out of the window and gathered some items he had seen in the dreams of a few others.
When he returned the cats stood on their hind legs batting the ball with their front paws. His finger traced a circle and the ball was replaced by the full moon. The cats batted the moon back and forth without a pause.
Fenami looked at him. “How did you do this?”
“It is the power of dreams. Look at your cats.”
She looked back and the green cats were regal as kings. They wore gold headdresses and royal skirts. Beautiful necklaces hung from their necks. Now they purred contentedly as they batted the moon.
She gasped in delight. Mums smiled broadly. He ran a finger down the backs of both cats and the white wings of doves sprouted. The cats flew in the air, doing somersaults as they batted the moon, meowing with delight.
And Fenami was breathless. Mums was content watching her eyes sparkle as she looked on enraptured.
They remained like that for some time, watching the cats perform their aerial maneuvers. Then Mums noticed a zimba stone fall from the roof.
“You are waking up soon. Did you enjoy our time together?”
“I can’t remember when I’ve had such fun.”
The bricks fell faster. She was trying to actually remember a better time and it was causing restlessness. He had to hurry.
“If you like, I can come see you again. But you must give me something that belongs to you.”
“Please come again. I can’t think of what I should give you, but you’re welcome to most anything.”
The roof and walls fell away, revealing the moonlit city of Greater Zimbabwe. The floor gave out. Fenami disappeared as dust. His chance was disintegrating.
His two hands reached out and grabbed the only thing in reach as her dream zimba disappeared entirely. Mums was left floating in the air gripping two winged green cats by the scruffs of their necks. Together, they looked at him and yawned.
“You two are my key back to her,” he told the cats. “Go and play and do not make too much mischief.”
He let them go. They flapped their wings up to the giant moon above Greater Zimbabwe, perhaps to try batting that around.
Mums awoke happier than he could ever remember being. Now that he had found Fenami and had totems that knew the way back to her, he could visit her every night. The more time he spent the more she would recognize him in his dreamform. Soon she would come to know how he felt about her, without his pathetic stumbling and struggling with every word.
Mums bustled around the shop that morning full of life and energy, to the uproarious laughter of Ngoni. Just when he thought nothing could ruin his day, Fat Man delivered disaster.
“I have great news to announce,” he said. “I have secured an agreement with the city’s most influential merchant seaman, the immigrant Murat. He will carry my beef cows on his ships to ports all over the world.”
“Excellent news, Father. And no easy feat, I bet. How did you sweet talk him?”
“Talk of blood ties here. And a hefty dowry for his daughter. She will make a fine wife for you, son.”
Mums and Ngoni flashed the same look of dismay.
Murat’s daughter is Fenami, Mums thought.
“She is not Ziwa,” Ngoni said.
“Your next wife can be Ziwa. This deal stands to put our meat on the plates of people all over the world.”
“It is not tradition, Father. She should be Ziwa.”
“Tradition will keep you poor like many of the Ziwa that follow it.”
“There must be a better way than to marry off your son.”
“You are well into manhood, high time you were married. You have seen Fenami. Is she not beautiful?”
“She is, but…”
“There are no buts. I have secured for you a beautiful wife and secured your future prosperity at the same time. That hardly ever comes hand in hand.”
“Son, tradition is there to enhance your life, not to make you a slave to it. When the world changes you must change with it.” Fat Man pounded his hand into his fist. “You would not be the first to break with the old customs. Look at Mtume and his Ethiop wife. Or Karinga. Or even me; according to tradition I should have twelve wives sucking the life from my coffers.”
Ngoni smiled and nodded. “You are right, Father. I see the wisdom in what you have done. And she is beautiful. I will enjoy…”
The two men turned to stare at Mums.
“I ww…wwa…wa…wa…want h…hhh…h…her.”
Fat Man laughed heedless of the anger it etched on Mums’ face.
“You?! Stop playing games. You are old enough to know that some things are beyond you.”
Mums glared at Fat Man. He repeated himself, this time the effort taking longer because of his anger.
Now Fat Man spoke bereft of mirth. “Just as soon pluck the stars from the night sky and offer them as jewels for her dowry! You have nothing. You are an orphan boy, lucky enough to be my shop assistant. And yet you dare to rage against me?”
Ngoni stepped in. “Father, do you not see? Little brother cares for her.”
“It is not his place to care for her. Neither is it my place to entertain his impossible wishes. We may care for him like family, but he is not my son. He is no one’s son. To offer Murat my orphan shop minder in your stead would bring dishonor to both our houses. There would be no deal. And no one would have gained anything.”
“Deals, business, bah!” Ngoni waved dismissively. “What are such things when two hearts are entwined?”
“Two hearts together beat a mighty rhythm,” Fat Man quoted the old Ziwa saying. “But right now we have one heart skipping beats. It is a rhythm only a fool could dance to.”
Ngoni looked at Mums. “Father speaks truth yet again. Has Fenami spoken her heart to you?”
Mums wished it were so. He shook his head.
Ngoni’s slow nod signaled his contemplation. After many long moments he spoke again. “Then we must see. If Fenami’s heart beats for you, then there are not enough deals in the world to cause me to step in and break that dual rhythm. If it does not, then we must embrace the practicality of father’s hand, little brother.”
Mums nodded his approval. Fat Man spoke his disapproval.
“His heart, her heart, they do nothing for my deal. There is still a matter of honor between two houses.”
Ngoni looked at Fat Man. “Murat will see the honor in his daughter’s soaring heart. Any holes left in his honor after that can be filled in with gold, even if you have to double or triple your original dowry.”
Fat Man tried to protest but Ngoni’s stern gaze let him know there was no changing his mind. He relented and addressed Mums.
“Fine. You have until Murat returns from Sofala, which normally takes four days. She must speak her heart before we announce their marriage to the world.”
Mums nodded. Murat left yesterday. He had three days to get Fenami to fall in love with him.
He hoped it was enough time.
First, Mums collected a few things from dreamers here and there. Then he ascended high above the city. He whistled and it resounded through the world. After a moment he spied green dots emerge from the city below. They made their way toward him with the lazy flap of their wings.
They had shed their royal headdresses, jewelry and skirts. One was a mess; silvery white powder dusted its fur in random spots that defied Mums’ attempts to brush off. The other was clean, it groomed itself even now as they all listed high above the city.
“I do not know what mischief you two have gotten yourselves into, but I hope you have missed your creator as much as I have. Shall we go and see her?”
The cats descended with Mums in tow. They reached Fenami’s zimba in short time.
“My kitties!” she cried as she saw her cats enter her window. “And my friend!” she exclaimed as she saw Mums.
“Ha ha, it is good to see you as well. I have brought your pets back to you.”
“I wouldn’t call them my pets. They are my friends.”
“What are their names?”
“I have not given them names. We can do that now! You name one and I’ll name the other.”
“A wonderful idea. This one here, with the dust smattering his green fur, let’s call him Patches. Now what shall we call the other one?”
Fenami looked at the cat. “Oh, I don’t know…Scrat Chins?”
“What? It’s Midian for Green Tail.”
Mums clawed at the air in front of her.
“It’s not funny!” she elbowed him.
They both laughed.
Mums looked around at her simple zimba. “I think it is time your home reflects who you are inside. May I?”
Fenami had a quixotic look on her face, but she nodded assent.
Using the things he had gathered earlier, he transformed her zimba. He pushed up with his hands and great archways and high ceilings formed. He added rooms and expansive domes that the eye got lost in. Then he placed colorful tiles on the walls and in the center he made a courtyard that opened up to the vault of heaven. In the center of the courtyard he placed a majestic fountain that sprayed sparkling water.
She grabbed his hand and took him with her as she went from room to room, exploring all that he had done. At last she arrived in the courtyard, where she stood mesmerized by the sparkling fountain and the host of heaven.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
“I am glad you like it. And I am almost done.” Lastly, he reached his hands up to the night and pulled stars one by one from the sky and set them in the blackness of her hair to sparkle. “All of this,” he said, “it is but a reflection of what I see in you.”
“It is a grand gesture from a wonderful friend. If your zimba is a reflection of you as well, I’m sure it is much more beautiful than this, something I can scarcely imagine.”
“I was born into the world a homeless orphan. I have no zimba.”
She looked at him with saddened eyes. “Well, now you do. Your home is here, with me. You will always be welcome.”
He smiled at her. She smiled back. And then she became as dust and with her, the whole of her magnificent zimba.
A short distance away, Patches and Scratchins flapped toward him. They presumably got distracted in play in one of the rooms of the zimba and now that it was gone they seemed to look at Mums in an accusatory manner.
“My friends, I am just as upset as you are. I am afraid you two must conduct your antics elsewhere tonight. We will see her again tomorrow.”
The cats took his apology and flew off to explore the city.
Dismayed that their time was so short last night, Mums went to see Fenami the next morning. Ngoni agreed to watch the shop, eager to help. “Let nothing stop your heart’s rhythm, little brother,” he said.
He was going to be a stuttery, awkward mess. But he needed the time, as much time as he could get.
Fenami’s mother stopped him cold. “She has no time to fuss about with you,” she told him, before closing her door. “You know as well as I do, we have a wedding to prepare for.”
Grrrrr… Fat Man! Mums yelled in his head. You told her! What of all your talk of secrecy until Murat returned?
Fat Man answered his question when he returned to the shop. “It is still secret, no one knows but the family, and that is how it will stay until Murat returns. But the mother and daughter need time to make ready.”
He had two days left. And Fat Man had robbed those days of their waking hours. He would have to wait for nightfall.
Patches and Scratchins were waiting for him when he arrived in Greater Zimbabwe. They took off without ceremony to see Fenami.
Her magnificent zimba shuddered and shook. She was restless, troubled in sleep.
“Dear friend, I have been longing to see you,” she said as he came to her in the courtyard. “Something is troubling me deeply, I know it. But I can’t remember what it is.”
The zimba groaned and shook loudly. He put up his hands to calm her quickly.
“You have no troubles here. Be at peace, Fenami. Here I shield you from problem and woe.”
The zimba’s shaking subsided into small tremors. “Are you sure?” Fenami asked.
“Please, think no more of it. Let us, instead, enjoy our time together.”
“All right.” She nodded. “What shall we do then?”
But the small tremors did not entirely go away. Mums knew they would only grow as time went by. He risked losing her to restlessness if they stayed here.
Taking her from her zimba was also a gamble. He had never tried such a thing with a dreamer.
His desire to share this world with her made the decision for him. “Would you like to see the land of dreams?”
“I believe so. But first, we need means for our journey.” He whistled and from another corner of the house the cats bounded to him on their paws, their wings neatly tucked behind their backs.
Mums placed his hands together. He increased the distance between his hands and as he did so Scratchins grew. Then he did the same for Patches. When he was done they were larger than lions. The cats unfurled their wings and stretched.
Mums helped Fenami mount Scratchins. He mounted Patches and together they flew from the trembling zimba.
“Oh!” Fenami looked in awe down at the city of Greater Zimbabwe, with its majestic zimbas, colossal towers, lakes, and lights that never burned out. It stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction, and she turned her head every which way to take it all in.
After a long while they passed the city and there was naught but darkness below.
“What is down there?” she asked Mums.
“Nothing. No one is there to dream in the dark space, so it sits empty.”
“That seems lonely to me for some reason.”
“Maybe it is a solemn concept. But it does not stay empty. When we encounter a dreamer they will fill in as much empty space as they desire with their dream and they will bring life to the darkness.”
She saw that it was just so. They saw a solitary goatherd watching over his flock on the plains. They saw a king being carried on a throne of gold through a parade of cheering people in the jungle. And lovers singing songs and playing instruments for one another in a desert dominated by colossal shining pyramids.
They toured these exotic lands of foreign dreams until Mums led the cats to land at a place that was familiar to them both.
“Why, this is Midian!” Fenami exclaimed.
Mums laughed. “So it is.”
The landscape was barren and tough, but the spirit of the people was in full bloom. They laughed and played around campfires, singing and dancing as the mood struck them.
“Thank you for bringing me here. I have not seen home in years.” She turned to look out over the fires but she stopped short and looked back at Mums.
“I just noticed. You have woolly hair. Has it always been so?”
“Ha ha. Yes.” Hope warmed his heart. Maybe she would recognize him before this night was out. “What are they doing over there?” he asked pointing.
A group of women in colorful flowing dresses were holding up curtains of fabric, shielding someone behind it. They were leading the person behind the fabric to a campfire, where a group of men were standing, waiting for them.
Fenami looked and disappeared, as dust on the wind.
Mums watched the scene alone until he realized what it was for himself. It was a Midian wedding ceremony.
“It seems I am still an idiot, even when my tongue is straightened,” he told the cats. He shrunk them back to their original size. Then he grabbed the moon with two hands and cast it across the barren ground. He and the cats stepped and fell through it like a hole. And they came to rest floating above the sprawl of Greater Zimbabwe with the moon high overhead.
One day left.
The next morning was proof to Mums that the gods played cruel games.
Fat Man paced furiously in the shop. Ngoni looked worried. The wood of the front door stood splintered around a broken lock.
“Scoundrels! I’ve no doubt they came in the dead of night for my cooling array. My business, saved by the good fortune of a town sentry on patrol,” Fat Man said. “They want the secret of Boreas’ Breath, the secret I paid a small fortune for.”
“What will you do, Father?”
Fat Man paced in thought, then stopped and looked at Mums. “I’m going to do you a big favor, though it’s against my better judgment. Have the day off, go see Fenami. Maybe you can win her heart this morning. Be back shortly after midday for some sleep. You will guard the shop tonight. This will give me time to get stronger locks made and installed.”
No no no no. Mums shook his head wildly.
Fat Man looked at him puzzled. “Why would you refuse such a generous gift? Ah, I know!” he said pointing at Mums. “It is fear that grips you. It is the last day for Fenami to speak her heart and you are afraid that she will remain silent.”
“N…nnn…nnn…” Mums started, his head still shaking.
“Of course that’s what it is. But I say to you, the days where you are able to cower as a boy are at an end. You must face your fear. She will likely spurn you, but you will have faced it like a man. And when you come back we will be here for you.”
He ushered Mums out the door and down the street. “Be brave. And more importantly, be back here, shortly after midday!”
Mums stood in the middle of the street. Stupid Fat Man. What was he going to do, smooth talk Fenami’s mother into letting him see her? Or better still, wait for a moment where he could steal Fenami’s attention and then quickly ask her if she loved him? That one question would take all morning.
Besides, how could she love him as she knew him? He was a beggar, a boy with a broken tongue. It would be different if he had status or physique like Ngoni. No, she needed to see him in his dreamform, where he had the power to give her anything she wanted and the words to say how he felt. He’d tell her that he’d give her the world, day and night. Then she’d understand.
But his last night was being stolen.
Well, Fat Man couldn’t stay up all night. He’d have to go to sleep sometime, and when he did…
But how much time would he lose waiting for Fat Man to tire?
Sporadic slaps to the head gave him his answer that night. Every little creak and strong gust woke Fat Man up in a panic. That panic translated into a smack to Mums’ head whenever Fat Man peeked out to check on the store and caught him drifting. They did this dance for hours.
Mums looked at the barred and barricaded door longing to escape, praying that Fat Man would just stay asleep.
Sometime in that long night, Ngoni came into the storefront, his tired eyes red.
“I do not know what it is you dream at night, little brother, but I saw earlier today how important it is for you. I root for you. May her heart beat in time with yours. Go. I will watch the store.”
In no time at all Mums was asleep and racing with the cats to Fenami’s zimba. It shuddered and quaked on its foundation.
“You’ve come home at last! I thought you abandoned me. I remembered what troubles me.”
“You do not need to be troubled. That is why I am here.”
The zimba stopped shaking. She looked at him as if he was new to her.
“You are clearer now to me. I think I am seeing who you are.”
Please, see me. I need you to see me.
Her eyes widened. “You?!”
Mums exhaled in relief and smiled at his beloved. “Yes, it is I. I have come all these nights to show you that we should be together.”
She embraced him, burying her head into his chest. “I am so relieved. Now that I see you for who you are, my spirit will no longer war with you. To think, you’ve been my friend this whole time. You always seemed a kind man, but there was something else I hungered for. I no longer desire anything else. I see now that you are truly handsome, inside and out.”
Mums’ smile slowly faded. Handsome. It did not feel right. No one had ever called him that. In a rush, he flew from the zimba to the skies above Greater Zimbabwe, looking for the giant lake that citizens often dreamed of.
Once at the lake he gasped. The water reflected his dreamform from the light of the silvery moon. Strong, handsome, flawless…his dreamform was everything he had ever wished he was.
His dreamform was the image of Ngoni.
Panic surged through him in waves. He still had time. He could change this, make everything right.
Be yourself. Be yourself. Be yourself.
Over and over he told himself this, until he calmed enough for his dreamform to change. When he finally had his true image, he darted back to Fenami.
Her zimba crumbled to nothing as he approached it. She was gone.
He stayed there for an endless expanse, willing with everything in him for her to come back to sleep. Her zimba did not return. When that failed he flew as fast as he had ever flown all over Greater Zimbabwe, from horizon to horizon, checking into every new zimba that sprouted for signs of her until…
“Up up!” Fat Man’s voice came as his hands shook Mums to the waking world. “I do not know what deal you made with Ngoni, but you’ve managed to sleep away most of the day. Come to the front. Murat is here with Fenami to make the announcement official.”
Mums raced out to the shop. He was out of time but he didn’t care. He would protest this. He’d tell Fenami how he felt if it took a whole week.
He stopped short when he got to the front. He saw Murat smiling, Ngoni and Fenami.
Mums had been ready to dismantle Dzimba-dza-mabwe, brick by brick for her. But when he saw the way Fenami looked up at Ngoni, her eyes full of sparkle and magic, he knew nothing in his power could change it. Her heart had grown roots.
He stood silently, looking at the couple. He put his hands over his heart, then spread his arms out to them. I give you both my love. Then he held up one finger. I will return in a moment.
But he never did.
There was nothing to come back to. He had already given Ngoni the greatest wedding present a man could give. Perhaps in time Ngoni would come to know what he had and treasure it.
Mums walked. Standing felt like falling, forever falling into something black and bottomless. So he walked, first out of the West End and then out of the city altogether.
And he kept going, well past the point where his calves burned and civilization had given way to the lush grasses of the countryside. He finally stopped at the top of a hill to catch his breath. Looking back, he saw the city in the distance, the granite of its zimbas and towers shining dully in the afternoon sun.
Mums faced forward. The distant lands of people he had seen in dreams lay before him. He took a step in that direction, without another glance behind, making a promise to himself to think no more of Dzimba-dza-mabwe.
Perhaps it was because promises made in the waking world cannot hold form in sleep, or maybe it was because of the incessant nudges and caterwauls of two winged green cats that came to him on occasion, but from time to time his dreamform would drift to Greater Zimbabwe, where he would bring sweet dreams into the hearth of the only home he ever had.
James Beamon’s most recent publishing credits include Parsec Ink’s Triangulation Anthology series, the September issue of OG’s Speculative Fiction, and Daily Science Fiction.
Follow him at his website “fictigristle“
by Sylvia Hiven
The first time it happened was with a button.
It was gold and shaped like an acorn, and snapped loose from a man’s overcoat as he bumped into Valenka on the street. Clattering into the gutter, it came to a stop against her scuffed boot.
Valenka hadn’t experienced much magic in her life—only gray days spent tugging at sleeves for coins. Still she understood that something special happened when she picked up the button. All the walls of her mind fell away, and into her head, accompanied by the chilly Prague breeze, swept the man’s past.
That man is good, she thought, holding the button in her little fist. He has a wife and two daughters whom he kisses goodnight each day. He kissed another woman once, but only once, and he regrets it still. He gives coins to a lame man in Petrin Hill Park on Sundays. And he loves God. Yes, the owner of this button is a good man
After that, it happened more frequently. People’s pasts came to her uncalled as she brushed against shoulders in the market, or when she picked up someone’s forgotten glove in an eatery. When she was seventeen and found employment as a seamstress in Dvorak’s Tailor Shop, it became an unavoidable part of her life. Each piece of silk had a story to tell, and each strip of macrame whispered a past. Valenka learned about grief through black funeral gowns, and understood the meaning of passion as she mended ripped lace blouses. Lives, although she did not live them, passed before her eyes.
Mostly, experiencing memories was effortless and her ability showed her everything there was to know. Other times, the past only seeped into her mind in elusive glimpses. But never had Valenka seen someone’s future.
Not until she touched the hem of a murderer.
The couple came into the tailor’s shop on a spring afternoon. The man was tall, with bright blue eyes and a natural wave in his wheat-golden hair. The girl on his arm was petite and pretty like a china-doll, wrapped in a mink coat despite the pleasant weather outside.
Valenka enjoyed guessing things about her customers when they walked in. After all, once she had touched their clothes, she’d know everything about them.
Aristocrats, she thought. He tried to impress her by gifting her that coat, and she is too in love to tell him it’s too hot to wear it. Not yet married, I reckon.
Master Dvorak, a squat man with wild tufts of hair above his ears, met the couple with a wide smile. “May I help you, sir?”
“Yes,” said the man. “Do you make custom wedding gowns?”
“Of course, sir,” said Dvorak. “With the finest Chinese silks, and the best velvets from Cairo. Handmade pearl embroidery is our specialty, too, which is much in fashion at the moment.”
The girl’s eyes widened, and she squeezed the man’s arm just slightly harder.
“Pearls,” she said. “I would love pearls.”
The man glanced at her and smiled with satisfaction. “And you can design a groom’s suit as well, I assume?” he continued, turning back to Dvorak. “I hear you are the best tailor in all of Prague, and we’ll need the gown and suit in a fortnight.”
“Sir, I assure you,” said Dvorak, “my team of artisans can make the finest wedding clothes in all of the country, if not all of Europe. If you let me take measurements today, we can have the garments ready in a week.”
Valenka, who overheard the conversation from the rear counter, resisted the urge to roll her eyes. There was no team of artisans—there was just her. Her master often made ambitious promises to the aristocracy and expected her to fulfill the commitments. Fortunately, she didn’t ever have to think or plan or design—one graze against her customer’s hand, or one touch of their coat sleeve, and she knew what they wanted. She didn’t even have to think about it; the flourish of her needles created the exact garment the customer desired. It wasn’t difficult work, and while Dvorak stole the praise more often than not, he never failed to pay her—and he never asked questions. It was a fair arrangement.
“A week,” said the man. “That would be very impressive.”
“The fitting salons are this way,” said Dvorak, gesturing towards the rear rooms. “Valenka, will you escort the young lady and take her measurements, and I shall tend the gentleman?”
The young girl was barely older than Valenka. She was undeniably pretty with skin like milk and eyes the color of chestnuts; still, she displayed an unpolished gawkiness as she stepped up on the fitting dais on skinny legs. As Valenka took the measuring band and slid her arms around the girl’s narrow hips, bursts of a simple life blinked in her mind.
When she was little, she played in a rose garden behind a white cottage. Deeply pious. She visits her mother’s grave every week. Still a virgin, in body and spirit. It delighted her to sense such a pleasant soul. Her name is Milena. She is a good girl.
“He is handsome, your friend,” Valenka said, standing up and slipping the measuring band around Milena’s waist.
“Vaklav Nuvotny?” said Milena. “Yes, very handsome. He and his brothers are the finest young gentlemen in all of Prague. The Novotnys are from a most noble family.”
“You’re marrying well. And your wedding is merely a fortnight away.” Valenka raised an eyebrow. “That’s not a lot of time.”
Milena sighed. “You imply the engagement is too short. That there is scandal afoot.”
“I imply no such thing, miss.”
“Well, it is fast, and there are rumors. People are cynical when customs aren’t followed.” Milena’s voice sounded injured. “But I am in love, that’s all.”
Valenka knew the girl spoke the truth—love saturated every inch of her slip, her silk stockings, and even the satin ribbon in her dark hair. Valenka saw an accidental meeting in a park, and a first kiss so passionate she almost felt the brush of a man’s lips against her own.
“You want the cream-colored silk,” Valenka said as she made notes of Milena’s measurements. “And the pearl embroidery, I suspect. How about a pattern of roses on the bodice?”
“I love roses. You must be a mind-reader.”
“And lace sleeves? It’s old fashioned, I know, but—”
“My mother had lace sleeves when she married my father.” Tears gathered in Milena’s brown eyes. “That would be the gown I’ve dreamed of.”
Valenka finished her task, told Milena to get dressed, and then moved to the other fitting salon. Master Dvorak was busy making idle conversation about wedding customs and the tedious obligations of Vaklav’s brothers, and he had made little progress on the measurements.
“Can I help?” asked Valenka.
“Yes, yes, take the inseam length,” said Dvorak. “I fear Lord Nuvotny has been entertaining me with tales of his family history, and I have not measured a centimeter yet. Did you know his older brother is on the City Council? And that the wedding ceremony will be in Saint Vitus Cathedral? How grand!”
Dvorak chattered on, and Valenka thought it best to take the measuring band from him.
As Valenka kneeled before Lord Nuvotny and brushed against his pant leg, she prepared to see a past of careless play on emerald lawns, hunting parties and frivolous balls. But what flowed into her was a shadow, dark and cold. She pulled her hand away to cut off the visions, but it was too late. They had already weaved into her mind, and no shears in the world could cut the connection.
He killed two kittens when he was six, and a Labrador puppy when he was ten. The sights of the butchered animals made her nauseous. He cut a prostitute in an alley when he was eighteen because she would not relinquish payment. She was the first, not the last, and he is not done. She shuddered. He wants to kill someone innocent. He is a bad man. No, an evil man.
Valenka released a breath, waiting for the world to return, the impressions didn’t stop in the present. Instead her mind raced forth, skipping into events that hadn’t yet come to pass. There was a wedding in white and cream, and it smelled of roses. There was a swirling wedding dance, and then a rush into a darkened wedding chamber.
And there was a bed with Milena’s body spilled over it, her throat sliced open and her dark-red blood staining satin sheets.
“Valenka, what is the matter with you?”
Dvorak, usually a gentle man, turned toward Valenka as the couple left the store. His eyebrows were shoved together in a deep scowl of disapproval. Valenka couldn’t blame him for his anger. She’d nearly fainted at the foot of the fitting dais, and as Lord Novotny had tried to help her to her feet, she’d screamed, for his touch had been like daggers into her mind.
“I’m sorry,” she said, sinking down on her stool behind the counter. “I felt ill, that’s all.”
Dvorak’s eyes narrowed further. “Ill? You are not in the way, are you?”
Valenka sighed. “Of course not.”
“Good. And keep it that way.” Dvorak shook his head, the contempt flaring in his eyes. “That pretty little thing got herself in the way on purpose, that is for sure, and now they must marry, as the aristocratic custom demands. It’s disgusting how some take advantage of traditions for their own gain.”
“You don’t know her intent,” replied Valenka. “She’s just an innocent girl.”
Dvorak’s tone took on an inflection of contempt. “You may know what dress a girl likes to wear, and what coat a gentleman prefers, Valenka. But you know nothing about the hearts of people. You be mindful of your place. Now, get to work. They return tomorrow afternoon and we should have the muslin pattern and sketches ready by then. We must work well into the night if we are to be ready. ”
Dvorak left the shop to go to the weaver at the edge of town, leaving Valenka alone as the darkness lowered outside. She sat by the light of her oil lamps well into the night, cutting the patterns. She didn’t bother with a sketch—she knew she didn’t have to. The couple would love her designs, just like everybody always adored the garments Valenka created.
As she worked, she tried to concentrate on her shears and needles, but she couldn’t stop the visions of Milena’s lifeless body, the bodice of her dress ripped and the pearls strewn across the floor. The scene replayed before Valenka’s eyes with such ferocity, she almost smelled the blood that soaked the bed. Eventually, the visions colored everything a maddening red—the flickering light of the lamp, the skin on her hands, the fabric of the muslin. Frustrated, Valenka tossed the needles aside and buried her face in her hands.
How can I possibly do this? she thought. How can I just ignore this warning? How can I let that girl walk into the arms of someone who means to murder her?
The answer was simple. She couldn’t. It was true that Valenka knew nothing of nobility customs or traditions of the wealthy; however, the one thing Valenka knew better than anybody were hearts—and it was time for her to follow her own.
Valenka didn’t often go to the riverbank. The port district was a dark place where people with unsavory needs met to strike deals with those that could fulfill them. Criminals exchanged information for coins, and harlots gave pleasure to drunk sailors in the shadows of the dilapidated buildings. Valenka averted her gaze from all that she met, and she tried to not be noticed.
When Valenka arrived to the water’s edge, she found herself blessedly alone. She lifted her skirt and waded out into the black water. Her boots sank into the muddy riverbed, and it stirred a stench of rot and decay. She didn’t care—it was what she had come for, after all. After wrapping her hands in her wool scarf, she reached into the chilly water, grasping at what grew beneath the surface. When she pulled plants up, and looked at the glistening leaves of water hemlock in the moonlight, she felt relief.
I’ll lace the fibers into the cuffs and the waistband. If I weave it into the undershirt too, it should take no more than a few hours for the poison to find his heart. He should fall down dead before the final dance on their wedding.
As she walked back to the shop, the bundles of plants hidden in her scarf, she felt a certain excitement. Someone had given her this task—given her mysterious ability a purpose, finally, beyond creating perfect dresses and coats. She was unraveling a fate, undoing it with her needle, and she was about to save a life. Though she was about to do so by taking another, she felt no fear—only the steadfast beating of her heart.
The couple returned the next day. As expected, they found Valenka’s patterns most agreeable. While the gentleman and Dvorak settled the payment at the counter, Milena leaned over the fabric samples for the groom’s suit lining.
“Blue, I think,” she said. “It will match his eyes. And I’m using bluebells in the wedding bouquet.”
Vaklav leaned in over Milena’s shoulder, wrinking his nose at the sample she had chosen. “Blue?” he said. “I abhor blue.”
Milena slapped him on his arm. “I am the bride, and I like it,” she said. “Who cares what you think?”
Her gesture was playful, and so was her tone, yet Valenka saw a shadow of discontentment flow over Vaklav’s face, and his smile stiffened just a moment. He grasped Milena’s shoulder. “We should go,” he said. “Jiri is waiting with the chef at the mansion. You know how busy he is.”
Valenka’s eyes lingered upon his fingers clasping the girl’s shoulder. She knew if she had been touched by Vaklav in the same manner, the horror that had rotted his heart would assault her senses, warn her, remind her of the danger he posed and the ill deeds he had committed. But Milena just laughed at the man, and straightened her back.
“Let us go, then,” she said. “A nobleman should not be kept waiting.”
When they walked out of the shop, Valenka saw a ribbon of darkness flow behind them. It was a ribbon of damnation and death, tying them together in a dark fate—one that she was meant to undo.
She worked well into the night on the silk fabric of the undershirt. Wearing silk gloves, she peeled out the fibers of the water hemlock, twisting them into threads, and sewed them into the seams carefully. The green color shimmered against the blue fabric—an elegant swirled embellishment, inconspicuous in its lethality.
When the first rays of dawn crept along the floorboards, and she finally dropped the needle from her thimbled fingers, she was finished. The shirt lay before her, each seam perfectly straight, with delicate embroideries around the cuffs and collar. It was her best garment yet, and she knew Lord Nuvotny would not be able to resist its beauty—nor the poison that hid within it.
The day that the gown and the suits were picked up, Valenka stayed in the back of the shop. She didn’t want to look at the evil man again, and she didn’t want to see the face of the pretty bride, knowing the danger that loomed over her. In truth, perhaps she was also afraid that she would change her mind—that she would lose the courage, tear the shirt from Nuvotny’s hands and let Milena face her fate, despite its horror. After all, Valenka was punishing a man for a crime he had yet to commit.
She did not have to face that decision, however. When she returned from her midday break, Dvorak met her with a disgruntled look.
“Where have you been?” he said. “The Nuvotnys were here, and I had to fit them on my own.”
“They loved their garments, did they not?” said Valenka.
Dvorak fumed. “Yes,” he said, seemingly pleased and angry at the same time. “And I thank you each time a satisfied customer walks out the door, without asking questions. But whatever skill it is that you possess, it can easily go to your head, Valenka. You are a seamstress, not a magician.”
“I’m sorry,” said Valenka. “It won’t happen again.”
As she sat down to mend a few frayed dress hems, she prayed it truly wouldn’t happen again—not the visions of the future, not the knowledge of treacherous hearts.
Three days later, a grieving Lady Milena returned to the shop.
She looked like a different girl as she stepped through the doorway. Her hair was pulled taut in a modest bun, and she wore a somber gown of black lace. Valenka, her heart pounding, didn’t have to touch the girl to know that she’d just experienced a loss.
“Lady Milena,” Valenka said, getting to her feet. “It is good to see you again.”
It was a stupid thing to say, but they were the only words that came over her lips. Milena did not seem to notice the clumsiness of her words, in any case. Her face was pale like that of a corpse, and her eyes flat and without sparkle.
“I have come for a burial suit,” she said. “For my late husband.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Valenka.
“Thank you.” Milena took off her gloves, revealing a pair of delicate, white hands. Valenka noticed that there still sat a diamond engagement ring upon her finger, and it glittered in the sunlight.
“You kept the ring,” said Valenka.
Milena looked down at her hand. She laughed the most pitiful laugh, and shook her head. “Oh. Well, Vaklav would not approve of waste.”
Master Dvorak stepped out from the back room. “Ah, Lady Milena,” he said. “I received your message, and I’m having the suit sketch drawn. Would you like to see it?”
Milena shook her head. “I trust you,” she said. “You did such a wonderful garment the last time, and you have our measurements already. Jiri will look so handsome in the casket, I am sure.”
Dvorak and Milena spoke for another few minutes, about patterns and colors and fabrics, but Valenka was too confused to follow their conversation. As Milena stepped out on the street again, Valenka looked at Dvorak with bewilderment.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “She spoke of Jiri. She is getting a burial suit for her husband’s brother, too?”
“No, Valenka,” said Dvorak. “Jiri was Lady Milena’s fiance, who fell dead to the floor as soon as they left the church.”
Valenka shook her head. “I thought we fitted Vaklav Nuvotny for the groom’s suit.”
“We did. The eldest brother of a lord is lucky to have a twin brother to dispatch for simple duties, like suit fittings.”
Dvorak stared at Lady Milena’s carriage outside. Valenka followed his gaze, and her heart raced as she saw Vaklav Nuvotny help Milena into the carriage. He was alive and well, that much was certain, and his hand curled around Milena’s arm in a possessive manner. As the carriage pulled away, Valenka caught a glimpse of satisfaction in Vaklav’s face.
“I hope Vaklav takes his brother’s place in a marriage as easily as in a suit,” continued Dvorak.
“Vaklav will marry Milena?”
Dvorak rolled his eyes. “I’ve told you that you do not understand nobility, Valenka. Affinity customs demand that a nobleman must marry his brother’s wife if the marriage wasn’t consummated. Vaklav and Milena marry this afternoon.” The old tailor shook his head. “Right after she lost Jiri. It’s a tragedy. Milena will take no pleasure in her wedding night, I am sure.”
Dvorak let out a sigh, and then returned to the counter to prepare Milena’s order.
Valenka remained standing by the window, staring at the carriage, her heart frozen. As the carriage driver snapped his reins, it felt to Valenka as the seams of the very world unraveled and fell apart.
Sylvia Hiven’s work has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, PseudoPod, EscapePod, Bards & Sages Quarterly, along with many other publications.
Daryl Parker: An Exclusive Interview with the Author of Sacrifice of the Season
by Daniel Scott
Daryl: Yeah, but you know, growing up I had a lot of interest in books. I read all the time. The fantasy-fiction genre was what I mainly read. Tolkein was one of the very first fantasy trilogies that I read. It was just my kind of thing. I’ve always been interested in being a writer.
Daniel: Sacrifice of the Season is your first novel?
Daryl: It’s the first book that I’ve written, yes. It’s actually the first in a planned series of four.
Daniel: If you had to categorize it, what genre would you say Sacrifice of the Season falls into? To me, it seems to be a bit of a mix of Slipstream and Fantasy.
Daryl: Yeah, I think that’s the best fit for it. It’s a period novel set in the 1880s, but it’s a little bit Harry Potter meets Tom Sawyer.
Daniel: So maybe just a little bit of Alternative History thrown in there, just for good measure.
Daryl: Just slightly.
Daniel: Give us an overview of the main characters in your story, without giving too much away to our readers who haven’t had the chance to pick it up and take a look at it yet. We’ve got Jack, who is one of the main characters, and we’ve got these vague, shadowy figures, the Ba’ath.
Daryl: Jack is, of course, the hero of the book. He’s about twelve years old, but he has a lot of help in, what I call a co-hero, his friend Lucius. Lucius is an old former slave who helps Jack through his difficulties in the book.
Basically it’s about a rich family who moves from Philadelphia to this mining town in West Virginia, but this mining town has a problem with children disappearing. This generally seems to happen during a certain season, hence the title of the book, “Sacrifice of the Season.”
Daniel: Without giving too much away, what are these creatures? We know they’ve been around since pretty much the beginning of mankind. They at times seem goblin or fey-like, and at others they appear almost demonic.
Daryl: What I really tried to show, what they really are, is all of our fantasies and mythologies kind of wrapped up all in one.
You know, everything starts with a seed of truth. In our mythology, in a Christian mythology, we have angels and demons. In other mythologies you have other creatures and mythical beings, and maybe they’re all one thing. Maybe there is one kind of being and all of these myths and creations from different societies and different civilizations are all based on the same beings.
Really, the magical characters in my book are all of those.
Daniel: Interesting. They are then an archetype of our boogey-men and gods all wrapped up into one.
Daniel: Did you have any background in sociology or anthropology that you drew upon when creating this mythos? Your book really does incorporate many of these items from popular mythos into it, and makes this world that you’ve created quite engaging.
Daryl: No, I don’t have an educational background in any of those subjects, but I was in the US Marines for 21 years and during my time in the Marines I traveled to a lot of different areas and was exposed to many different cultures. I have a lot of experience with the way different cultures see things, their folk tales and that sort of thing, so I put some of that into the book.
Daniel: You’ve mentioned that this is a four-part series. What kind of adventures and story lines can we look forward to seeing in the upcoming books?
Daryl: First, you can expect to see the story from “Sacrifice of the Season.” Where we left off we’ll pick it right back up. There’s more work for Jack to do, and you can expect Jack to do some traveling in the future.
Daniel: So we’re not going to be stuck in the back woods of West Virginia for very long then.
Daryl: No. Cobbs, West Virginia, the scene where all of this takes place in book one, is just a starting point. That is where Jack as a young boy is introduced to these characters. The other three books are his journey in discovering what they are, where they came from, what they want, and what he can do about it.
Daniel: Moving on to a slightly different topic: a lot of our readers are aspiring authors themselves. Many of them are looking for ways to get started in writing in general, and speculative fiction including sci-fi and fantasy in particular. Do you have any advice for budding writers, for someone who is seeking to just jump right in and write their first novel?
Daryl: Yeah. I guess my advice would be: Don’t do that.
Daniel: Don’t follow your example then.
Daryl: No, don’t do that. The reason I say that is, you know, the thing that I had in my corner was that I had appeared on the show Top Shot, which is very popular and all of a sudden there were three million people who knew my name.
I had the forum to be able to do that. I could throw it out there and see what happened. Luckily the quality of my writing has passed the litmus test of the public, and people like the book.
What I would say to a new writer, or someone who wants to get into it, is don’t rush into it. Really really make sure that your writing is good writing, because there is so much bad writing out there, and there is so much marginal writing, that the publishers, the traditional publishing model, are very skeptical of new writers.
You really have to make your work quality stuff.
Daniel: What’s a good way that authors can do that?
Daryl: Well, what makes quality is often subjective. There are a couple of things you can do. For one, get your work professionally edited. I’m pretty good with grammar and punctuation and all that, but you still need a person who does it for a living to professionally edit your work.
Second, get your material, not all of it but pieces of it, into as many hands as you can. Join some book clubs. What they do is they meet once a month or so and they exchange pieces of work.
Daniel: Did you join any writing or critiquing circles?
Daryl: Yes, I did. I actually belong to a couple of them in the Dallas area, and you know it wasn’t so much, “Hey, help me with my writing.” I go there to get feedback on my work. The other side of that is that you’ve got to give other people feedback on their work. It’s a bit of a learning process too. You write something, and then you get someone else’s work and read it too and go, “Wow, this writing is really good. They’ve got a certain way with words,” or, “I really like that phrase they used,” and so you can kind of judge where you are in the pack of writers.
Daniel: At The Colored Lens, we focus on the short story. In some ways, the short story is considered more difficult because you have to take and distill the story down to less than 10,000 words, for example, while still having full characters and a well developed plot. At the same time, we’ve found that it can be easier for new authors to take the smaller bite that is the short story, rather than tackling an entire 150,000 word novel all at once.
Daryl: The benefit, in my mind, to a shorter story, is that you can focus all of your attention on that one project for a short period of time. You can turn out a really high quality piece of work, and you can do that a number of times. If you write enough of those quality short stories, people are going to notice.
The other thing about writing a full length novel is writer’s block. It actually happens, and when you are halfway through your novel and all of the sudden you’ve reached a point where you’re not sure how to go further, it causes problems. Shorter stories eliminate much of that.
I also want to add one thing about self-publishing. There are a lot of authors, established authors, who are now taking the self-publishing route because the traditional publishing model, unless your book is just a runaway success, is not a great way to make a living. It’s just so hard to get your foot in the door with the publishers. You have to have an agent and that sort of thing. It’s just really hard.
Before you go the self-publishing route, you have to be prepared to do a lot of promotion by yourself. You have to be ready and able to go around to book signings, and without that level of promotion, you are giving yourself the kiss of death. After you self-publish, the publishers will not touch your work.
There are few exceptions, but once you self-publish it’s all on you to make that piece of work a success.
Daniel: Well we wish you all the success because you’ve got a fine novel and I can’t wait to see what happens in the upcoming three sequels.
For any of our readers who would like to get their own copy of Sacrifice of the Season, it’s available in paperback and Kindle format from Amazon.com, or you can get your own signed copy of course from Daryl’s website DarylParker.com.
Daryl: Thank you very much. I’m working on book two right now, Journey of Fear, and I hope to have that one finished by the end of February, so look for the release probably in June.
Daniel: Great, we’ll definitely be looking forward to that book. Thanks again for talking with us.
Daryl: It’s been a pleasure.
The Death Of More
by Daryl Parker
Shadows danced around the sparsely furnished cell as his candle guttered in a draft. It was a large room, and thankfully above the worst stink and grime of the lower tower, but a cell nonetheless. The tattered, threadbare robe he had worn for the past fourteen months fluttered about his legs as he shuffled across to the bed.
He lowered himself down onto the straw pallet pushed up against the wall. For most of his life he had lived in palatial homes, and slept on massive four-poster beds with feather mattresses swathed in silk sheets. Servants lit fires to drive away the slightest chill, and the kitchen was always ready to accommodate him. My goodness, he thought, how things have changed. At least it was summertime, and the brutal heat of the day had surrendered to a warm, humid night.
This cell had been the abode of some of the most famous and wealthy prisoners ever to find themselves confined in the tower. The conditions of their stays largely depended upon their ability to curry favor or mercy from the Crown. Many were allowed to furnish the cell as if it were their own home. The most privileged prisoners could walk about the tower grounds, and even host guests with dinners of roasted capons, puddings and wines. Thomas had no illusions about his standing with the King. He had been allowed only the most rudimentary comforts, those which his family could beg, buy or smuggle in to him. A short, three-legged stool, a chest for his small possessions and provisions, and the straw mattress for which he was immensely thankful; it was the only soft thing in the stone chamber.
In the end though, we are all prisoners here, he mused. Fine furnishings did nothing to change that, evidenced by the hundreds of scratched pleadings in the stone walls. They were perhaps the only lasting memorials to the poor souls who had languished out their last days here. Thomas had read them all. Some were simple protestations of innocence, some were whimsical poetry, and still others were fervent pleas for succor or salvation. The sheer desperation of the etchings was enough to destroy the morale of any man. He was not just any man though; Sir Thomas More was a knight of the realm, and until his conviction of high treason, had held the post of Lord Chancellor. One of the most powerful men in England and a favorite of the King himself, and yet now he was sleeping on straw in the Tower of London. That was not the worst of it though. Today was July 5th, the year of our Lord one-thousand-five-hundred-and-thirty-five. On the morrow, he would lose his head.
“Please Sir,” she said in a low voice, as she curled the man’s fingers around the silver coin, “what harm can come of it? One last favor, as you know my father to be a great man. His doom is upon him, and a proper meal will greatly benefit his courage.” Margaret pressed the basket into the guard’s stomach, looking into his eyes with all the pleading innocence she could muster.
“Miss, your father is a fine man, but I’ll not lose my head for him. I cannot do what you ask.” He lifted his chin and looked over her head. It was a familiar tactic, and one Margaret was prepared to answer.
“I confess Sergeant, I do not understand your reluctance, for you have done as much many times before in the past year. Please,” she said, pushing a second silver coin into his hand, “this will likely be my last chance to show love to my poor father.”
The Sergeant quickly slipped the coins into his waist pocket, “Lass, it’s a lucky thing for you that I have a daughter of my own. Give me the basket.” Sergeant Durham flipped back the cloth covering the wicker basket, and rummaged around the contents. There was a crock of potatoes and lamb, an onion, fresh bread and butter, and greens. A short bottle of wine clinked against the crock as well.
“Oh, that looks fine, it does. Alright then, I’ll take it up to him.”
Margaret favored the Sergeant with a sweet smile, “Thank you Sir, I’ll tell my mother of your kindness.”
Thomas lay on his back on the mattress, hands clasped across his chest as he stared at the ceiling. There was no chance he would sleep this evening, and he was growing impatient with waiting. The occasional breeze gusting across the floor helped cool his perspiration, which had slicked his throat and dampened his hair.
One last night, he thought, then I go to meet God. Lord, grant that I complete my task before I depart this life.
Scuffling boots on the stairs alerted him to someone making their way up to his cell. He did not move, but instead closed his eyes and feigned sleep.
“Ay, your Lordship,” said the guard, who Thomas immediately knew to be the ever-present Sergeant Durham. Technically, he was no longer a Lord; his conviction had stripped him of all lands and titles. Thankfully, his wife had been able to retain some of the holdings she had brought to the marriage, and they had a large amount of coin stashed away, outside of the Crown’s eye.
“Here’s a present for you, compliments of your daughter.” Sergeant Durham was a greedy man, but that was to be expected of a tower guard who had spent years keeping watch over condemned nobility. Other than that, he was no more brutal or abusive than he was required to be by his superiors. He was also a little less diligent than he should be, which was why Thomas had picked him. Thomas stirred as if awakening, and sat up.
“Ah, good evening Sergeant, thank you,” he said, as the guard set the basket on the floor at the foot of the bed.
“Yes, m’Lord, always willing to help if I can. Is there anything else before I go? I’ll be relieved at the bells, so…” He clasped his hands behind his back, awaiting Thomas’ answer.
You wretch, trying to wring every last bit of coin from me before I go, aren’t you? Thomas stood and walked over to the chest. Opening the lid, he fished around the contents, locating his purse. The jingle of coin was sadly deficient, being that there were only three remaining. He poured two of them into his hand and turned to the guard.
“Sergeant, for your thoughtfulness.” He dropped the coins into the guard’s outstretched hand, “One last, small thing, I would beg of you. Please allow my wife and daughter to attend me in the morning. A few short moments is all I ask. My family will be forever grateful.” The coins were gold ducats, six months wages for the Sergeant, and his eyes bulged. “There will be two more of those, if my request can be arranged.”
Sergeant Durham choked a little, trying to regain his composure. “M’Lord, it’s a very difficult thing you’re asking, but if it can be done, I’m the man for the job. God be with you tomorrow Sir.” He knuckled his forehead at Thomas, and quickly strode from the room.
Thomas clenched his jaw, Fly, Sergeant, for all my plans depend on your greed. Pulling the basket to him, he sat down on the mattress and took out each item. His appetite was poor, but the meal would give him strength, and he forced himself to eat. He ate what he could and set the rest aside. Now he turned back to the basket, and lifted the cloth which had covered the bottom, revealing his daughter’s true gift; three sheets of parchment. His hands shook as he lifted them from the bottom of the basket and quickly whisked them out of sight under the mattress.
His words had weight and power, and King Henry wanted him silenced. He wanted Thomas dead because Thomas knew his secret. For that reason, and no other, he had been forbidden any means of writing whatsoever. He was determined to bring the king’s dark truth into the light, however, and over the past year he had managed to gain access to both paper and ink. These items had to be smuggled in to him, using the most discreet means. For example, a sealed ink pot suspended in a wine bottle, or a messenger who, once in Thomas’ presence, would reveal sheets of paper hidden about his person. The guards were looking for weapons, not paper. There had been times when Thomas had to make do. For a few weeks, he had been forced to use his meat knife to cut himself, in order to use his own blood for ink. As for a quill, why, a piece of straw, cut at the right angle was almost as good, and easily hidden in a mattress.
Thomas tip-toed back away from the stairwell, confident he would hear anyone opening the door below to approach his tower cell. On the small chest, Thomas had arranged the parchment, ink pot, and a selection of ten or so straw quills, already cut for use. Pulling the stool over, he jammed the thick stub of a candle into the puddle of wax at the corner of the chest, and sat down to write.
These are the last, he thought to himself, contemplating the three pages before him. They are enough, but what is left to write? Who will believe any of it?
Almost two years ago, alone in his library, Thomas had received a visitor. Appearing out of a corner of the room, the intruder strolled across the floor in chainmail, breastplate and greaves. A green cloak was over his shoulders, a golden-hilted sword at his side, and a few other ancient relics and accoutrements on his person. He moved with an unnatural stealth, like a cat made in the shape of a man. His hair waved in golden locks around a perfect face. Thomas took him to be an angel.
“Hello Thomas,” said the angel, “do not be afraid.”
“If you are an angel, I am not afraid.” The angel smiled at his words, which made Thomas smile as well because he wanted to please the angel. Sitting in his cell recalling the long-ago meeting, Thomas knew that the angel had cast an enchantment on him, but the angel had been real enough.
“Are you not the King’s friend?” the angel asked.
Again, the glamour compelled him to answer honestly, without the normal precautions a prudent man would observe when discussing royalty, “No. I am his good servant, but never his friend. He thinks well of me, and solicits my counsel. He visits my home from time to time, unannounced, but he is boorish and unprincipled.” Thomas blinked at his own words. “Are you… Saint Michael?”
Yes, who will believe it? All I can do is write the truth. Thomas bent over the parchment and began writing.
“I took him to be the Archangel Michael, my belief of which he confirmed. However, in the months that followed, Michael spent many hours in my home, speaking to me about the true nature of his people, the Ba’ath, and the other creatures of their realm, the one we know as the faerie. His real name was Micah, and he and his brethren were at war with one another. The histories of our two peoples are intertwined, they, with their glamours and charms, influencing the kings of men to this purpose or that. He was Saint Michael, but he had also been known as Zedek, Atepomarus, and Belobog at various points in history. His words shook me to the very core of my being, desecrating my understanding of the gospels, but he offered numerous proofs, demonstrating magics before my very eyes. There were creatures that served him, which I have described previously in this text, presented to me for inspection. Micah educated me on the various dangers and powers of many of them. The faerie are real, God preserve us.”
Thomas discarded his ruined straw quill and selected another one to continue. He paused for a moment to listen; the tower was as still as a graveyard. Could the guards down below hear his quill scratching as he wrote? Of course not, but he was nervous just the same.
“One evening, while studying the stars from my rooftop, I asked Micah why he had revealed himself to me. ‘In truth,’ he told me, ‘I had intended to lay a compulsion upon you to assassinate your king. However, that would mean your destruction, and having come to know you these past months, I would be loath to cause your death.’ I believe Micah had come to care for me as a friend. It was not a situation with which he had great experience.”
When I asked Micah why he bore King Henry such ill will, his reply was, ‘It is not I who should bear him ill will, but you, and all your countrymen. He will throw your nation into war, which men are wont to do, of course, but now he acts at the behest of one of my brothers, who must be checked.’ His brother, of course, was Saint Gabriel, whom Micah called Bael.”
A tolling bell made Thomas jump, nearly sending the ink pot flying. He quickly dusted the lines he had written, and gently placed the pages underneath his mattress. The bells tolled the ten o’clock hour, when the guard changed. He put the inkpot and straw quills in the chest and, snuffing out the candle, lay down on his mattress. So close to completing the work, he would take no chances. Let the fresh guards make their rounds and settle in, then he would continue.
Lying in the darkness, he was surprised to feel a nervous tremble tickle his chest. He had long ago lost any hope of being reprieved. Resigned to his fate, he awaited the executioner with a peaceful heart. Thomas was no soldier, but he was as brave as any other. King Henry was depraved, a willing slave to malevolent powers. Micah had shown him, had explained the dangers. Even so, had Thomas not seen the proof with his own eyes, it would have been difficult to believe. Yet, each night, waiting for Morpheus, the disturbing images played behind his eyelids…
“I am leaving,” he said to Micah. Normally, he avoided the sycophantic banquets and balls held regularly at the palace, but there was a purpose in his attendance tonight. Henry had never been a great king, but the last few years of his rule had been marked by war, internal struggle against his own government, the unacceptable annulment of his lawful marriage, and a total break with the church of Rome. England was in dire straits. Instead of being Micah’s assassin, Thomas was determined to be the king’s persecutor. If the Crown were corrupted with the influence of faerie glamours and charms, he must be able to give some testimony. He had no idea what sort of evidence he may find, but it was important for him to see the
state of things there.
“I want to give you something,” said Micah. He reached into a small leather bag at his side, and withdrew the most beautiful gemstone Thomas had ever seen. It was an opal the size of a robin’s egg, polished smooth and glinting like the sun. The coloring was different than any opal he had ever seen though. Instead of pink and green glints, this stone was champagne and blue, and so brilliant it almost seemed powered from within.
“This is the God-stone. It will allow you to see beyond the illusions that Bael has woven around the court of your king. His schemes are devious and subtle, however; take care that your purpose is not discovered by his agents. Trust no one. I will not be able to help if Bael finds you out.”
Thomas nodded, taking the stone, “How do I…”
“Place it in your mouth when you want to see the truth. There will be some alarming…changes… in your perception. Until you are accustomed to it, it would be best if you use the stone in the most discreet manner.” Micah clasped his hand and stared into his eyes. “I have placed a ward of protection on you. It is not a strong spell; that would alert Bael to your presence, but it should guard against the lesser imps you shall encounter. Good luck Thomas.”
“Thank you. God willing, I shall return soon.”
The horses clip-clopped their way through London, and delivered him to the palace, where a line of carriages were pulled up to the steps. His status as Lord Chancellor allowed him to move up without waiting, and he stepped out of his carriage to join the throng of socialites flowing into Whitehall.
Together, they made their way down the long marble hallway, with soaring ceilings, fine, gilded furniture, and exquisite paintings. They reached the Great Hall, where servants flanked the doors while a page announced his arrival to a room full of society dames, politicians, and various other hangers-on. A receiving line had formed to the right of the hall where newcomers such as he were being funneled in to greet the king and queen. Even though his position would have allowed him to once again move ahead of the lesser nobility, he waited his turn, taking the chance to study the royal couple. King Henry was fatter than ever, his girth disguising the athletic giant he had once been. Both his nose and cheeks were reddened, so Thomas knew he had already been in his cups. He lounged on the throne, bored and apathetic, only occasionally smiling at some jest. His queen, in contrast, was a magnet. The grosser part of Thomas could see the allure of Anne Boleyn. She was a very comely woman; slim of form, but with generous curves and an erect posture that presented her features in the best way. Her face smoldered with dark hair, dark eyes and a luscious smile that made it difficult to look away.
But he did look away, running his gaze around the Great Hall, alert for anything out of the ordinary. It all seemed familiar and mundane however, footmen came and went, guests mingled and laughed; nothing seemed to be amiss.
Thomas sensed that the tower was at peace for the moment, the guards having taken care of their initial responsibilities. He reset his working area and drew the parchment out again. The images of that evening were still fresh in his mind as he began writing.
“The King and Queen loomed ahead of me, drawing closer as each new set of fawning buffoons completed their curtsies and moved ahead. Suddenly, it was my turn to bow before their majesties.
“Lord More!” King Henry had bellowed, “T’is not often we enjoy the pleasure of your company at the palace, what brings you out?” I was so conscious of the need for discretion, that for a moment I was discomfited by his question.
“Your Majesty, I…I..find I have been neglectful of many social duties of late, and since a man must eat…” I said, with a smile that I hoped was disarming.
King Henry smiled in return, “You see there, my Queen, honest as the day is long.” Henry brought the back of Queen Anne’s hand to his lips and placed a kiss there. I shifted my eyes to this queen who had so transfixed him. She stared into my eyes, with a boldness that felt both sensual and challenging. The cut of her gown revealed the soft, porcelain skin of her throat and chest, stopping just shy of scandalous. She was breathtaking, and my inspection of her found no cause for alarm, except that of temptation.
“Your Highness,” I greeted her, bowing low once more. She nodded without a word, but spoke volumes with her eyes; promises hinting of perfumed skin and sweat-stained sheets. I felt as though I must tear my gaze from her immediately or risk the wrath of the king for the insult of coveting his wife. With a racing heart, I moved away to mingle amongst the other guests. Making my way through the crowd, my senses were all a-tingle. I scrutinized every face I saw for signs of suspicion or treachery, but no one seemed to be paying me any special attention whatsoever. I made a number of small greetings to other colleagues and peers, but there was a dance scheduled after dinner, so the hour for mingling was quickly over.
The bell was rung within only a few moments, and the feasters moved to take their positions at the three-hundred foot long table. Footmen escorted each guest to their assigned places, and mine was a short freckle-faced lad with auburn hair, tied in a tail. He smartly marched me over to a chair at the end of the table only ten spaces from the seats of the King and Queen. Old money, old nobility, and new sycophants filled in the spaces around me, as I took my place.
Once all the guests were seated, a band began playing a piping tune, and a double line of footmen came striding in, carrying large, steaming silver trays loaded with the most succulent dishes imaginable; there was roast boar, with carrots and onions, lamb with leeks, garlic and truffles, and stuffed roasted duck. Tureens with various soups and other delectables were brought in as well. All down the long length of the table, the feast was set.
I confess, by this time, I had seen no sign whatsoever of the faerie. There was some of the normal tomfoolery of course; young noblemen already wearing their ball masks in anticipation of the dance, where they would try their best to charm their way under some rich Madame’s skirts, or the tittering chatter of the numerous ladies of the court. All eyes were on the King however, and silence fell as King Henry stood with his cup to address the guests.
“My friends, noble ladies and gentlemen, I hope you enjoy your dinner this evening. I have the finest chef in all of France,” he said, eliciting chuckles of laughter from the table. With that,
dinner was served.
As the portions were served out, I noticed a gentleman I had never seen before sitting to the left of the queen. I assumed he was a member of the Boleyn family, but he was gray-bearded, and wearing a neat, well-cut ensemble that was somber and understated, as opposed to many of the ridiculous peacocks in the hall. Other than his position next to the queen however, he was completely unremarkable.
I felt for the God-stone in my pocket, and took it out in my closed hand. Other guests were nattering about me, occasionally making a comment or posing a question, which I would briefly answer. I brought my kerchief up as though to muffle a cough, and slipped the stone into my mouth. That is when my nightmare began.
My vision was immediately affected, an amber light coloring everything. A small bright pinprick of the same amber rested on the breast of the feasters, myself included. I reached up to touch it, but my hand simply passed through it. Very odd indeed, but even more peculiar was that everyone in the hall appeared to be moving very slowly, like flies trapped in syrup. The Duke sitting across from me chewed at a glacial pace, moving his lower jaw in slow, exaggerated circles while he masticated. What was he eating? A tuft of hair slid across his lips in slow motion, and I looked down at the dish on the table between us. Lying on the silver platter were the remains of a dog, which had appeared to be roasted without being skinned. Even as he chewed, the Duke was sawing off another piece of the dog’s ear on his plate. Glancing down at my own plate, I saw that I had consumed a portion of the dog’s foreleg, and I recoiled in disgust! I was bewildered; a small, thin-framed lady was crunching up a mouse. Nausea swept over me as she swallowed it down, tail and all.
I can only imagine the expression that must have been on my face as I looked down the table to see a variety of filth being consumed by the flowered nobility of England. The vegetables were blotched white, black or green with rot, and the soups were tepid flotsam, made with cast-offs from the butcher; skin, hooves and the like. The Earl of Effingham slavered as a sheep’s eye exploded within his mouth, but that was of small matter compared to the Baroness seated to my left, who was hacking away at the remains of a human foot!
I spit the God-stone back into my kerchief, in a fit of contrived coughing, and the world returned to normal. I looked around me to find the scene lively, with the same delicious trays set before me. The Baroness’ foot had returned to a juicy slice of beef steak. My dog was again a wonderfully prepared bit of lamb, but it made my stomach turn.
“Lord Chancellor, are you alright?” asked the Duke. I was afraid I was going to become sick at the table, but I steeled myself.
“Yes…yes, excuse me, I’ve not felt well lately, and lamb is a rich dish,” I said.
“That it is Sir, one which I relish,” the Duke said with a smile as he speared another piece and laid it on his plate.
I looked up and down the table, but my actions had thus far raised no suspicion. The king and queen were engaged with the lucky few around them, and I noted again the vibrant allure of Queen Anne.
Taking hold of my resolve, I raised my kerchief once more and took the stone in my mouth. Again, the light turned amber, and the grotesque feast continued. I looked to see if King Henry and his queen were also partaking, when I saw her; the abomination. In place of the beautiful, ever-so-alive queen was a naked, moldering corpse! I watched in fascinated horror while Henry laughed and jabbered like an ape, oblivious to the filthy thing sitting beside him. He was holding her hand, and slime from the ruin of her rotting flesh covered their entwined fingers, soiling the tablecloth.
Twice, I watched him bring her hand to his lips, leaving a smear of grave-dirt and rot in the tangle of his mustache. The flesh of her face had already turned the purplish, green-black of putrefaction, and her skin hung loose on her frame. Her lips, so beautiful and tempting in the illusion, were drawn back in a stretched grimace, displaying a mouthful of broken, jagged teeth. The corpse sat as still as you would expect a dead thing to be, except the eyes were open, staring straight ahead, while a throbbing, sullen blue light glowered in them. I noticed people speaking as if to the queen, gesticulating, laughing, but the ghoul turned neither left nor right.
My pulse raced and pounded in my temple as I contemplated the king’s dead succubus. I was horror-stricken, but I did not know how to proceed. I tore my eyes away from the creature on the throne, to see another standing at the Duke’s elbow. It was a short, fat little goblin, with a black tongue, and warty bumps all over its face and head. It reached long thin fingers up to drop another mouse on the lady’s plate. Further down the table to my right, another of the creatures smeared excrement on the bread of a young knight.
In the shock of seeing this dead queen, I had not noticed her kinsman had been replaced. Sitting in the space where the neat gentleman had been, was a man, striking in face and form, dressed in pieces of silver armor, heavy filigree covering every inch. A thick mane of dark wavy hair lay over a red mantle, with the remaining accoutrements of his gear being all black, even to the hilt of his sword. He reclined in his chair like a lion looking over sheep, and the menace of his gaze was powerful. It was Bael, and he was staring at me!
I quickly averted my eyes, and pretended to respond to the conversation around me. I forced a smile, and turned to the Baroness, who had devoured a fair portion of the foot. I held my queasy stomach at bay, and when I slid my eyes to Bael a few moments later, his gaze had wandered elsewhere. I desperately wanted to flee!
I palmed the God-stone, and the creatures vanished beneath their faerie magic. I surged to my feet, stumbling as I pushed my chair out of the way and stepped away from the table.
“Pray, excuse me,” I said to my fellow guests, “I am not well.” I made a vague genuflection in the king’s direction before turning to hurry from the hall. Upon calmer reflection, I wish that I would have stayed a little longer, in order to gain a more complete catalog of the variety and number of faerie creatures that now roamed the palace.
“Now you understand,” Micah said, once I was safely back home.
“I do not understand! What was the purpose of that disgusting display?”
“Bael has no love for humans, Thomas. He blames them for our fall from grace. Tonight you saw one of the many depravities he has visited upon your people. His intent is to humiliate and debase them, even as he causes their ultimate destruction.”
He was King Henry the VIII, by the Grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith and of the Church of England and also of Ireland in Earth Supreme Head. Heedless of the evening swelter, he sat alone in his solar, an ermine robe draping his shoulders. He stared off across the gardens of Whitehall, lit by lamps and moonlight.
What a fool, he thought. After all the favor and grace I did show him, he had the gall to betray me in such a way! There was a time when Henry had considered Thomas More a great friend. He respected More’s intelligence and wise counsel, and even his principles, although they had irritated Henry on a number of occasions. He had forgiven the numerous small slights to his majesty, either put forth in parliament by More, or supported by him; that was just business. Henry understood politics, and he allowed Thomas to play his part. Even so, it was hard to ignore the stab of disloyalty he felt when More had refused to support his annulment of Catherine of Aragon in favor of his newly beloved queen, Anne Boleyn. Still, Henry had not pressed him on it. He allowed Thomas his share of free will in the matter, for in the end, one man’s opinion one way or the other wouldn’t make a difference. There was such a tremendous scandal about “The King’s Great Matter,” More’s refusal to attend the royal wedding was scarcely noticed.
It was a much more serious matter, however, when More refused to sign either the First Succession Act, which named Anne Boleyn as Queen and her child Elizabeth as heir to the throne, or the Act of Supremacy, which broke ties with the church of Rome, and named Henry as the head of the Church of England. Incredulous, Henry listened to his Prime Minister describe More’s public refusal to sign the documents. Furious at More’s opposition, Henry had raged through the palace, smashing glassware and furniture alike, but even that was not what had landed More in the tower. No, it was their last conversation, and Thomas’ answer that would cost him his head. Henry sipped his wine in the darkness, remembering their exchange…
“Saddle my horse!” he shouted, striding down the Great Hall. Liveried servants raced ahead to open doors and announce the King as he stomped out to the stables, grabbing the reins from a terrified groomsman. He thundered away from the palace, brutally lashing his horse and racing ahead of his bodyguards, scattering peasants as the heavy stallion’s hooves beat down the London streets. The ten-minute ride allowed his temper to cool only slightly before he brought the horse to a skidding halt at the gate to More’s residence. A doorman bowed low as the King swept past him and into the house.
“Where is your master? Fetch him immediately, I am in no mood to wait!”
“Yes, your Majesty,” the man said, as he quickly scooted off down the hallway.
Henry’s temper was still pulsing in his temple a moment later when Sir Thomas More entered the hall. “Your Majesty, you honor my home with your presence,” he said.
“Is that so?” the King spat, “Then why has my Lord Chancellor dishonored me by refusing to sign my Acts?”
More met the King’s glare, but his shoulders sagged, and with a quick glance at the numerous servants standing by with downcast eyes, he said, “Your Highness, may we speak of this privately?” He motioned the King towards the library, and Henry clenched his jaw, but stamped into the room ahead of More.
More closed the door behind him as he entered the room. Henry waited to hear More speak, holding his own temper in check for the moment.
“Sire, I am sorry if my actions have caused the King any embarrassment or distress. That was certainly not my intent.”
“Then why, Thomas? I have extended my hand in friendship to you a thousand times, and yet you are the only one who refuses to sign.” Recalling that moment, Henry knew the next words out of Thomas’s mouth were going to be fateful.
“I cannot, your Majesty. I object to Lady Boleyn…”
“Queen Anne, More, mind your tongue!” Henry barked.
“I object to your queen, and your designation as head of the Church of England.” More’s statement fell like a thunderclap, and left a burning silence in its wake.
Henry gritted his teeth and held tight to his composure, “I don’t give a damn what you object to, Lord Chancellor, you are a high official in service to my government, not some damned priest! Every other lord and priest in this kingdom has signed the Acts, so it is done, whether you object or no. You will sign those Acts and demonstrate your fealty to your King, do you understand?”
Henry glared at him, but More stared right back. A heartbeat passed, when More leaned forward, bringing his face within a foot of Henry’s, “I know what you have done. I have seen them. This must stop, before it is too late. Otherwise, you are damned.”
What he had done? A flicker of uncertainty tickled his heart. Was More babbling about that damned Roman pope again, or…did he know? He was so taken aback, he didn’t even remark on being spoken to with such familiarity. “What the hell are you talking about? Make sense, man!”
More stared cooly back at the King before turning and walking over to a writing desk near the window. He lifted the lid and took out a small book, then turned back to Henry.
“I know about your advisor, Sire. He is not who you think he is.” Henry took the proffered book, and opening it, saw notes and drawings on a fantastic figure. Divine and martial, Henry recognized the countenance of Saint Gabriel. More knows!
Henry had been relieved. More knew! It had been so hard to keep the secret, when all he wanted to do was shout it to everyone; proof of his divine right. The angel had appeared to him three years before, telling Henry his kingship was anointed by God. Gabriel offered counsel and authority to guide his rule, explaining his divine right as King far superseded that of some corrupt Roman priest. How had More had discovered the truth?
“If you know about my ‘advisor,’ then you must realize the truth of the Act of Supremacy. I am ordained to head the church, and my queen was chosen by Saint Gabriel himself.”
“No, your Majesty, you have been tricked. The devil is in your palace.” Henry still shuddered at the memory of those words, shocked at More’s complete misunderstanding.
“Lord More, I fear you have begun to believe everything the papists tell you. My mandate is from God himself, whose angel shields me. Why do you not rejoice at this knowledge?”
“You are beguiled my King. Would an angel suffer an unholy abomination in its presence?” More arched one trembling eyebrow, waiting for his answer.
“What the devil are you talking about?” The blood in his brain was beginning to boil again, his patience near to breaking.
“You have been consorting with the undead. ‘Queen Anne’ is an animation from the grave. She will never bear a child, for her flesh is rotten and corrupt. Any issue from your union would be an imp from the pit itself. I have seen it with my own eyes, Sire. With this knowledge, how could I possibly sign the Acts?”
King Henry recalled the powerful backhanded blow with which he had struck Thomas. His Lord Chancellor fell to the floor, and stayed there looking up at Henry. More had offered neither resistance, nor retraction. Henry looked at his hands. One of his rings had left a bloody furrow across More’s cheek.
“You are mad, Thomas,” he growled, and taking the book, walked out of the house.
What choice did I have at that point? he thought to himself. Rather than being in awe of a corporeal angel, he accused me of consorting with the devil and named my queen a lich! He even wrote a book about it, for God’s sake! Henry had returned within the hour with a troop of soldiers and ordered More’s arrest. Part of him wished that Thomas had taken his family and fled, but his heart knew More would never run. Henry had since read the entire book, and found Thomas had imagined a whole cast of folk-tale creatures; goblins and imps and such. It was very dangerous material indeed, especially coming from such a highly respected man. Even without a shred of proof, that book would have caused an immediate uproar and a challenge to his supremacy. No, More is getting what he deserves. He brought this on himself. One more damned night, and this will all be over.
May God have mercy on his soul.
On the day of his arrest, armed soldiers had stormed Thomas’ house. They were accompanied by the King, who ordered him restrained while the manse was ransacked. Thomas’ wife and daughter protested as tactfully as possible, but Henry cared not a whit. He moved through their home pointing at books or papers, which a thin, black-robed monk would quickly stash in a large bag. This was standard treatment for those accused of treason, of course, but very unusual for the king himself to conduct the search for evidence. But Thomas knew why the king had come; the book had scared him.
Thomas stopped scratching as the stub of his candle guttered and flickered. Wax ran down the side of the chest as he opened it to retrieve another. The three pages were almost covered, with only a small portion remaining. He felt there was one more entry needed to complete this book; a copy of the one King Henry had taken…
“It should be noted that the lich in King Henry’s bed was not the Lady Anne Boleyn, but merely a surrogate, used by Bael to further defile an already debauched and morally repugnant king. I dread to think of what has happened to her. ”
Thomas dusted the page, and blew the excess off, waving it in the air to make sure the ink dried, before laying it atop the other two. With a quick look down the stairwell, he hurried over and lifted the side of the mattress against the wall, to retrieve the other thirty pages of his manuscript. The sketches, notes and details of everything Micah had told him were all there, a convincing piece of work for any man of science or religion. During the months that following that hellish banquet, Micah had helped Thomas construct a compendium of the dark faerie. The creature sitting on the queen’s throne was a Wight, and Micah had even taken him to an old cemetery outside of a decrepit London burrow to show him another of the creatures…
“Oh, my God. This is the Abomination. I have seen the Walking Death with my own eyes. The Wight is the supreme agent of evil, transfigured from a rotting, stinking corpse. I myself fell under its’ gaze and would have been taken but for Micah, who destroyed the creature. With the strength of many men, its’ skin is the purple-black of putrid corruption, terror of the grave. Only complete destruction of the corpse can prevent the relentless attack. A severed hand will continue to grip and choke, or drag itself back to the body to be rejoined through dark magic. Because the flesh is dead, it does not fear the flame as do other mutations, although it shuns the clean light of the sun. It is the Wight who is given the power to cast the spell of transformation. It is this ghoul, who with gross violation, transforms the child into the monster.”
With a sigh, he shuffled the pages back into order, thirty-three pages of the most shocking and damning evidence ever recorded.
It is done. I have told my story, my truth. Now my only hope lies with my wife and daughter. His plan was to give the documents to them in the morning to smuggle out of the tower. He would urge them to place them in the hands of Thomas’ numerous supporters and allies. There were still men of conviction and strength who would feel obliged to act, if confronted with such evidence of devilish possession. There would be dozens, hundreds of copies made, and distributed to the people. Where would it all end? he wondered. Revolution? Regicide?
“No Thomas,” came a voice from behind him, “give it to me.” Thomas whirled with a start to see Micah standing only feet away.
“Micah!” The appearance of the faerie astounded him; he had not seen Micah since his arrest over a year ago, but even in his worst moments of weakness, Thomas could not deny the reality of what had happened, for he had the ultimate proof. There was a small hole in the mortar between stones in the tower wall, which Thomas had enlarged and then covered back over with a paste of albumen and dirt scrapings. Nestled within was the God-stone.
A sense of relief filled him, as well as that of anger. “Where have you been? Why haven’t you visited me in all these months?”
“I am sorry Thomas. I would have, but there are conditions that prevent me from mounting a direct conflict with Bael. You must believe me when I tell you that I have done my very best to shield you.”
“Truthfully? And why are you here now?”
“Your book Thomas. I have shared my knowledge of the creator and his works with you, my friend, but this knowledge is not for everyone.”
Thomas’ jaw dropped open, “I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do Thomas, consider: You have created a valuable weapon, one that will survive the centuries, but it is not for the masses. This information must be used with care, or the results could be as disastrous as anything my brother may devise. As for Bael and King Henry, I have already taken measures to destroy that union.”
Micah placed his hand on Thomas’ shoulder, “Trust me. You will only place your family in danger if you give them this material. They will feel constrained to take action, which can only lead to their destruction, or they will try to hide or destroy it, either of which will negate its purpose.”
Micah was right, Thomas realized. His judgment had been clouded. The loneliness of his imprisonment had made him desperate. It would be a death sentence for his family to be caught with this book. With a heavy
heart, he passed the pages to Micah.
The sun had risen in his cell, but Thomas had been up all night. Soon, he would rest forever. Sergeant Durham had been desperate enough for the three gold ducats, and per his request, Thomas was allowed to embrace his wife and daughter once more. Their reunion was brief, but sweet, Thomas kissing his wife’s hair, and folding his arms around his child, one last time. When the guards came for him, he kissed them each once more, and bid them farewell.
He was placed on a hurdle, and taken to the Tower Green, the place intended for his execution. He was at ease however; there were no jeering crowds, no hateful assaults from the peasantry. Only a somber throng of folk, many of whom seemed to be weeping.
As they came within sight of the green, a scaffold appeared, complete with a gibbet and a brazier. A burning brazier? he wondered, a gibbet? Why is that here? He gulped when he saw the executioner’s other tools; something was terribly wrong.
When the hurdle stopped, the guard pulled him off and turned him toward the scaffold stairs.
“Up there now,” muttered the guard, nudging Thomas toward the steps. Now that the moment had arrived, it seemed surreal. He stepped onto the stairs, and ascended. As he rose to the platform, the executioner came into view. He was tall and hooded, with a long-handled axe standing in front of him. Thomas flinched, but stepped onto the platform.
The Master at Arms began reading his sentence aloud, “…from thence the prisoner shall be taken to the place of execution, where he shall be hanged by the neck until half-dead, then drawn, with his entrails burned before his living eyes, then beheaded and quartered, with his separate parts to be displayed upon the gates of the City of London as a warning to all others of the consequences of Treason.”
There was a collective gasp from the crowd gathered around the platform. Drawing and Quartering was the most heinous execution, generally reserved for the worst brigands. The depth of Thomas’ “treason” was his refusal to sign the Acts. It was expected that he would be offered a gentleman’s death, a quick beheading, but apparently King Henry wanted more suffering from him than that. Thomas blanched, and his knees felt weak.
There were shouts of “No! No!” and “Mercy!” from the crowd as the guard led him over to the gibbet. Thomas had kept his last golden coin to give to the executioner to ensure a quick death, but now he did not know if it would make a difference. The masked man leaned the axe against the gibbet post and walked over to stand in front of him, but when Thomas looked up into the man’s face, there was no mask, and the face was Bael’s.
“Greetings Thomas, I have heard so much about you,” the faerie grinned. “Unfortunately for you, our acquaintance will not last long, nor will you find it a happy one.” He put the noose over Thomas’ head and cinched it tight. With a vicious smile, he turned Thomas back around to face the crowd.
Thomas looked out into the crowd, his heart thumping in his chest, legs threatening to buckle from underneath him. Mournful expressions of pity and sorrow were on every face, except one. Thomas’ eye was drawn to the face, and saw…Micah. The angel/faerie stood in the crowd, smiling a gentle, beatific smile. A warm peace settled over Thomas, quieting his trembling and easing his heart. He let out a huge sigh, pushed his chest out, and stood at his full height. The crowd hushed to hear his words.
In a clear, loud voice, Thomas said, “Always the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Micah flashed a strange series of hand gestures, and at the very moment the rope was drawn tight, gave Thomas the gift of enchanted sleep. Thomas felt nothing of what followed.
In the months and years that followed, Micah would have his revenge on both King Henry and Bael. He had woven his own cleverly devised curse, delivered into the flesh of the King and his lich-queen by the sting of a wasp. Within a few months, the magic animating the Wight was unraveled, and the king was infected with a curse that took his children, spoiled his seed, and tortured him over the next ten years. Micah’s curse swelled him like a pustule until he died in agony with poison coursing through his veins. After Henry’s death, Micah stripped and tanned the skin off his back, using it to cover the bindings of Thomas’ book; The Book of More.
Daryl Parker’s newest short story The Death Of More is a companion piece and prequel to his book, Sacrifice of the Season. Daryl’s next novel Journey of Fear is scheduled for release August 2012. Visit his website at DarylParker.com for more information.
by Greg Leunig
I was one of three foremen who ran the Purifier for the General Secretary before and during the upheaval. Those were dark days for all of us, and anyone who can sit in a rocking chair by the fire, warming his fingers and talking about those times, is lucky. Lucky to be alive, lucky to have his fingers still, lucky to have his tongue. But not everything about those times was evil. Like all times, in all places, I suppose, some bits of light make life worth living, grim as things might get.
The light for us, back before the Upheaval, was the Secretary’s Science and Projects Liaison. Now, I’ve been accused once or twice of being a bit of a dreamer. But understand, everything I have to say about the Liaison is pure truth. Heaven knows how a woman like that ended up with that position. She wasn’t dumb, exactly. In fact, as models go you’d consider her rather intelligent. She was in her mid twenties, and we all recognized her from various men’s interest magazines that were in circulation before the Secretary took full power and the presses were shut down. I guess that put her out of work. Maybe the Secretary hand-picked her for the job, maybe he felt guilty for putting her out of business. You’d think that picking a beautiful woman with no scientific background for Science and Projects Liaison would be a terrible mistake, but really what her job entailed was keeping us workers in line. And that was something she could do with a flick of the wrist and a bat of the eyelashes. She even was able to keep the women workers hard at work with barely any effort at all. It wasn’t just her beauty, she had an aura about her – call it charisma, or leadership, or maybe just confidence. Anyway, we saw her about once a month, which was more than most other facilities and projects could say. The Purifier was very important to the Secretary.
The Purifier was a marvel of human ingenuity and engineering. I wish, now in the twilight of my life, that I could claim I had helped to build or design it. But I didn’t. I just came on after it was finished, with my wrench and my hammer and the rest of my toolkit, and I made sure the other mechanics didn’t screw anything up. Not to say that this wasn’t hard work. A number of my men died or became too sick to work because of leaks in the reactor. The fact that I’m still alive, after all the years I spent at the Purifier, is a testament to something. Probably my great reservoir of dumb luck.
I never used to believe in luck until I got stuck in the elevator with the Liaison. The elevator was on the side of the Stack, which was a fifty story, eighty foot radius chimney stack. This was how the Purifier released the water back into the atmosphere. This was how we made the clouds. The Liaison and I were riding up to check on some repairs that were underway two thirds up the Stack. Most of the deaths were from people being knocked off by gusts of wind, so needless to say, being that high on the Stack, once you got out of the elevator, was dangerous. But the Liaison never shied away from danger. She was utterly fearless in fact.
So part way up, the elevator ground to a stop and shuddered. She looked at me like I was responsible for the elevator being broken, and then she said, “Look, all you’re getting out of me is a kiss. You get your kiss, and then you turn the elevator back on. I’m very busy today, and don’t have time for this.” Just like that, not more than ten seconds after the elevator stopped. I hadn’t even had time to move, or to call the repairs crew.
I was dumbfounded, and just sort of stood there, staring. She had incredible black hair, down to her shoulders. All of her features were sharp, and her skin had more purity than the widest expanses of northern tundra after a blizzard. I, by contrast, was ugly. I was in good shape, I don’t mind saying – always in good shape. The Purifier spans the better part of half a mile, when you factor in the Cables that draw the ground water, and so I was always walking or running from here to there, there to here. And with a foreman required on site at all times, I worked 60 hour weeks. It was hard work, and my muscles were large. But my face was what you’d call “unpleasant.” My ears were too big by a lot, and my face has been describable as “weathered” or “leathery” since I went through puberty. Anyway, it’s not something to recoil from, but certainly not the kind of thing that a woman like the Liaison would be interested in kissing.
So when she rolled her eyes and leaned in to kiss me on the lips, I wasn’t exactly in the kind of mental state to grab her and reciprocate. I mostly just stood there, baffled. At least I had the presence of mind to remember the feeling, to store it away for later use. It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s something I still lie in bed at night and think about. I close my eyes, and instead of envisioning her, I just try my best to recall that kiss. Never in my life have I felt lips so soft. There have been women in brothels, a couple of girlfriends in my youth, and the divorced woman that I nearly married. Compared to the Liaison, kissing those women was like kissing a hedgehog. Also, I’m rather short, and she’s rather tall, so her hair slid forward a bit, and came to rest on my cheeks. All I can say about it is: it was like silk. I know everyone’s heard it a thousand times, but no other description is appropriate. And anyway, are there other women for whom it’s literally true? Not that I’ve felt silk more than once or twice in my life, mind you, but her hair – it was literally the same sensation as touching silk. These days, I’d do unspeakable things to feel that hair pooled on my chest.
She kissed me on the mouth for about two seconds. For those two seconds, the ugliness of my face, all the ugliness of my existence, everything but her – it disappeared. For two seconds I was in a forest from a childhood fairy tale, kissing a princess. And then she stood up, put one hand briefly on my chest, lifted it off and looked at me expectantly, and we were back in the matte gray of the elevator, and I was my ugly self.
It took me a moment to collect myself, and then I buzzed the internal maintenance crew and ordered them to fix the elevator as fast as possible. “The Liaison is on a very tight schedule, so drop everything until this problem is fixed,” I said.
I looked back at her, confident in a way I’d never been before, and never will be again.
“You didn’t arrange this elevator malfunction in advance did you?” she said, and my confidence began to wane.
I shook my head. “No, ma’am. Why would I do something like that?”
“Oh shit,” she said, and then started laughing.
Gradually it dawned on me. I can be a little slow sometimes, but I’m not a moron. “You thought I had them shut the elevator down so that we’d be stuck in here together,” I said, “in hopes that we’d have some moment of forbidden passion.”
She nodded, her hand on her mouth as if to stifle her laughter. That was the first time I’d seen her smile (in person, at least), and I remember thinking how she belonged in magazines, not on industrial sites.
“Sorry,” she said. “It happens to me more often than you might think.”
I shook my head, wanting to say something along the lines of, “Don’t apologize, and if you’d ever like to do it again, please feel welcome to.” But now that I knew what had happened, I could tell that we were both reverting to our normal professional selves. Her smile lingered, and we shared a few more laughs, and then the elevator shook, and resumed its ascent, and it was as though nothing had happened.
Except that the phantom of the sensation of her kiss has never left me for forty years.
Would I feel any better about the death of the Liaison if she hadn’t kissed me? Probably. She was a good woman on top of being such a beauty, but so many good people died in those years, it’s hard to care about any single one of them, unless, for instance, they gave you the most memorable kiss of your life. Anyway, you get to be my age, and there’s so many what-if’s to dwell on, it just becomes pointless to think about any of them. She did kiss me, that’s the reality. I can’t go back in time and take that away so I’ll feel better about what happened to her. And anyway, I’m personally responsible for it, so no matter how hard I try to forget, it’ll never happen. That will always be, for me, one of the worst days in history.
Don’t get me wrong. The Secretary had it coming. His whole tyrannical regime had it coming. But not her. She was different. She never really belonged to that regime. We all knew that, at the Purifier. Still, the hatred builds up in some people, until they can’t distinguish who the real villains are.
That day was one of the earliest days of the Upheaval. We didn’t know it was a revolution yet, at the time there were just some sporadic riots. In fact, that was the very day that scholars now point to and say: The Revolution started on this day. There had been unrest before, but on that day it was as though the entire nation’s fuse was suddenly lit, and everyone just spontaneously rose up.
I remember. It was eight a.m. and at the time I had no idea that things would take such a violent turn. I had gotten my usual five hours of sleep, and was on my way into work. I still recall what I was thinking about: The Liaison was going to be in at nine, because we were having a glitch somewhere between the Furnace, where the water was cooked into vapor, and the Ionizer, where the vapor was condensed into cloud form. She and I were going to spend the entire day troubleshooting the problem. This was five years after the kiss, but she looked younger and more beautiful, if anything. Maybe she just always looked the same, but since I’d spent a lot of nights looking at my own face in the mirror, tracing the new lines that were cropping up, every year noting the continued progress from skin to leather, it always seemed that she was getting prettier while I got uglier.
We shook hands, as per the usual, pleasant with each other but all business. I had heard about a few more riots on the news that morning, but it all seemed so distant. My entire life was the Purifier, you see, and maybe a drink after work or the rare visit to a local brothel.
After our pleasantries, we got right down to work. I didn’t even go to my desk, just dropped my toolbox in my office and the two of us were off. I suspected that the problem was with the Ionizer, for technical reasons that it’s not important to go into. It turned out I was only half right. We got down to the Ionizer, and had a talk with the crew chief for that section. I poked around some of the wiring and the main chassis of the Ionizer itself, and based on what the chief said, and what I saw, I figured out that the problem was actually further up the line, in the Reactor’s output. Basically, the output was faltering. I was pretty sure it could only mean that the Reactor’s on-duty crew chief was letting his responsibilities slide. In hindsight I realize that it would’ve had to be every one of the Reactor’s crew chiefs, and couldn’t have just been the one. Odds are it was probably just faulty wiring that they didn’t know about. But I had a chip on my shoulder about the Reactor crew back then, and I just assumed it was human error. They had every right to be disenfranchised with their lot, but all I cared about was efficiency, the smooth operation of the Purifier, and they tended to be the most lax down in the Reactor. Maybe that’s why it all happened. You accuse someone who’s angry enough of a problem that isn’t really his responsibility, and well…
The first great mistake of the day was letting the Liaison go to the Reactor’s crew chief by herself. I had received an urgent page from a worker on the westernmost fringes of the Cables. A long haul, and the Liaison didn’t want to wait around while I responded to it, so she said she’d go have a talk with the Reactor’s crew chief by herself.
The Cables were like magnificent iron tree roots. It was probably my favorite part of the job, walking down one of the paths beside the Cables, running my hand along them. They were always cold, from the water running constantly through them. Deep groundwater, a lot of the time. Sometimes they were so cold it hurt my fingers. I’d always pretend they were deep tree roots, and I was walking along a forest path. Between the clouds and the towering mass of the Purifier itself, there was seldom any sunlight down there by the Cables, so it wasn’t a difficult thing to pretend. The constant background hum of the various parts of the Purifier became the rustle of trees and the quiet chirping of woodland creatures.
That day, like all days when she was visiting, I was eager to return to the glow of the Liaison, and so I didn’t take the time I normally do to slow down and have my nature fantasy. Instead I hurried down the field of coiled steel to the post from which the page had originated. Turned out, it was just a new guy who’d panicked when one of the Cables stopped pumping. I had to explain to him (where was his crew chief? I didn’t even bother to wonder) that sometimes one of the Cables depletes the ground water in a spot, and shuts down, and when more water seeps into that part of the ground, it’ll start pumping again. That took a few minutes. When I’d gotten him calmed down, I hustled back to the building, and descended to the Reactor level.
I’ve tried to blame that rookie for what happened, but of course it wasn’t his fault. It’s even hard to blame the Reactor’s crew chief. He’s an easy villain, but of course he probably had the most rage of anyone in that place. The Stack’s crew chief had the most fatalities to deal with, of course. But that was just accidental deaths, mostly from gusts of wind or guys not being careful. The Reactor’s crew had the toughest time. When those guys died, it was after weeks of slow, painful radiation poisoning. That wasn’t accidental, that was because the Secretary wouldn’t spend the money to make the Reactor level
safe for employees.
Anyway, in the end, the Reactor’s chief wasn’t the worst of us, on that day. Not by a long shot.
I got back to the main building pretty quickly, and took the elevator down to the Reactor level. When I got to the chief’s office is when I knew something was not right. The door was locked, for one thing, and I could hear noise through the door. Voices, but not the kind of voices you’d expect to hear during a professional meeting between two colleagues. Fortunately, as foreman, I had a master key to every door in the Purifier. I didn’t hesitate to use it, and when I opened the door, what I saw was: The chief had the Liaison over his desk, his pants around his ankles, and was fumbling with her pants with one hand while trying with his other to hold her down. He was yelling at her to stop moving around, and she was shouting right back at him. He was a big man, and I could see from the blood on her face that he’d already hit her at least twice, but to her credit, she showed no signs of giving up or crying instead
He was a big man, but size isn’t by any means the most important thing in a fight. In fact, my center of gravity was much lower than most guys that picked fights with me, and so I’d say that, most of the fights I’ve been in, my shortness has actually been an asset. It helps that I was in such good shape. I usually win fights, and with the fury I was experiencing just then, I’m not even sure you could call it a fight. I threw the chief off of the Liaison. He cracked his head against the wall of his office, and was slow getting up. While we fought, she slipped out of the room. I heard her say something about my office, but I could barely register anything. That same imagination I like to make use of kicks in of its own accord when I’m really upset or flustered, so rather than noticing or hearing the Liaison, what I was experiencing was a room full of boiling lava. There was fire everywhere, and a white-hot seething noise. This was mistake number two, letting her out of my sight again. I didn’t stop to think why one of my crew chiefs felt safe raping a Liaison to the Secretary. Instead, I just kept hitting him, while she left. He fought back, as best he could, but I put a lot of hurt on him. I counted each broken rib I gave him (five), and when I left him on the floor of his office, I wasn’t sure that he was still breathing. And in fact, things got so crazy that to this day, I don’t know if he lived or died.
Anyway, when I got back to my office, the Liaison was nowhere to be found. One of her shoes was on the floor beside the desk, though, and there was more blood beside it. This was when I started to connect all the dots. Like I said, I can be slow sometimes, but I’m not a moron. These were the dots: the riots that were building up momentum in other parts of the country, the absence of the Cables crew chief, the boldness of the Reactor crew chief, and now something else was apparently happening to the Liaison. As the highest ranked agent of the Secretary’s administration at the Purifier, she was the obvious target. I still, to this day, wonder if what happened next would have happened to me, instead, if she had not come to the Purifier that day. But again, it’s pointless to dwell on these sorts of “what-ifs”.
What I did next was I turned on the Purifier’s PA system, and I tried to keep my cool long enough to deliver my message. “Listen up,” I said. “Someone has taken the Liaison from my office against her will. Some other strange things have been happening around here today. I’d like to remind everybody that we all have jobs to do, and that the Liaison is a very important person, and not to be harmed. Return her to my office, and I’ll do everything I can to mitigate the charges against her abductor.”
It didn’t take long for the new guy to page me again. There wasn’t any kind of two way communications device for that part of the facility, a cost saving mechanism owing to the breadth of the Cables, and so I had to walk it again. Except this time I ran, and so I was able to get there in only a couple of minutes. What he told me, stuttering, was that his crew chief and a bunch of the other guys who worked in different parts of the Purifier, were doing something on the Stack. He was supposed to get all of the guys in his crew and go to the south side of the field of Cables, and look up at the Stack at exactly noon. It was 11:58. I still remember checking my watch, and how those numbers glowed like hot steel. 11:58.
It took me seven minutes exactly to get up to the top of the Stack. When I got to the top, there was nobody. I looked down, and there were a bunch of guys on the walkways two levels down, about ten percent of the way from the top. I couldn’t tell what was happening until I got back in the elevator, and went out on that level. There were men and women from every section milling around and speaking to each other in a low murmur. Most of them were good people I’d known for years. Maybe the closest I’d ever come to friends. A few of them were holding nail guns. Nobody looked me in the eyes, and I walked carefully past them. The walkways were narrow, and though the winds were calm at the time, I didn’t want to bump into anyone up there.
I wound my way around toward the south side of the Stack, expecting all the way along to find that the Liaison had already been thrown to her death. What I found was worse, and is something that haunts me more vividly than anything else in my life, more vividly even than the kiss, which I can recall with amazing clarity of sensation even now. What I found was the Liaison still alive, nailed to the side of the Stack, the crew chief of the Cables and his brother both standing there holding nail guns, waving down at a small crowd, forty five stories below, who could probably not even tell what was happening.
They were shouting something, but I couldn’t tell you what they were saying, any more than the people down on the ground could. My mind had already done its thing again, and brought me somewhere else. I was on the side of a cliff, a narrow rock ledge. Small shrubs poked out of cracks in the mountain, and down below I could see the tiny green florets of a million trees sweeping away towards the horizon. My newly-revolutionary co-workers’ shouting had become the cries of hawks, circling far above me. It was raining in my vision, and when I looked up at the hawks, the rain got into my eyes, partially blinded me.
What I did next was probably not wrong. I was raised in the times when the Secretary had outlawed all religion, so of course I’ve always grown up believing there was no God. What I saw that day, and afterwards, has certainly done nothing but reinforce the belief. Still, I like to believe that if there is a God, He would forgive what I did as an act of mercy, even if I will never be able to forgive myself for my lack of courage.
I was aware, to be sure, that I was the very next rung on the ladder, one step down from the Liaison, and a likely next target for what was clearly a revolt of the Purifier’s workers. Still, what I wanted to do was save the Liaison. Up there on the Stack, two inches from a long fall to my death, I almost went for the chief’s hammer, to pry loose those nails and get her down. She looked at me, her eyes wet from crying. Her mouth had been taped shut. When she saw me, I saw a little bit of hope. Like she thought I might really be able to save her. The men just watched me, unsure, nail guns in hand.
But what would have happened is this: I would have pried her loose, and we both would have been thrown to our deaths. Or maybe they would’ve killed me before I even got her down. She was already dead, or I guess the word is doomed. Destined for death that day, she just hadn’t been finished off yet. So I did it for them. When people recount what I did, they say I had tears in my eyes. I want to tell them it was just the rain, that I have an over-active imagination, but who would understand such a thing? She was in so much pain, and yes, I admit, I wanted to live.
So I took the chief’s nail gun, and I put it to the side of her head, and I put my free hand over her eyes, and I whispered into her ear, and then she was still, and I did it, and then she was really still. There was so much blood. I’d never killed anyone before, and until you kill someone violently like that, you will never truly know how much blood is inside the human body. I gave the gun back to the chief, who took it and just stood there. Nobody was sure what was supposed to come next, so we all just stood there. Eventually, I returned to the elevator, and descended back to the ground level. The rest of the day I spent walking the Cables, my eyes closed, running my hand along their iron lengths.
That day was the real beginning of the Upheaval. Several government buildings were bombed, four major members (not counting the Liaison) of the Secretary’s Cabinet were assassinated. Rioters seized armories in cities across the country and became revolutionaries. It all started that day – so much bloodshed.
And I was hailed as a hero of the revolution. My greatest shame, to this day, is that I went along with it. I allowed myself to become an icon: The foreman of the Purifier, who rose up and killed the lackey to the Secretary, the evil siren who would have done unspeakable things to save her master. I waved at cameras when the free press was restored. I stood and smiled while reporters told how I did what had to be done, but how I rejected the cruelty of my co-revolutionaries. I told how abhorrent the conditions at the Purifier had been under the dictatorship of the Secretary. No mention of the Reactor crew chief ever reached my ears, though surely it must have been obvious to everyone at the Purifier that I was defending the Liaison until the very end. The truth, which is probably obvious by now, is that I’m no hero. I was in love with the Liaison, that’s all. A foolish and futile love that spanned many years, and ultimately was worth nothing to her except an faster death. What I should have done is saved her. A hero, indeed.
Whenever I dream, these days, what I dream is: I’m walking in a dark forest. Giant roots from a mighty tree trace the ground in all directions of the forest. Cicadas call, and wind gently rustles the leaves of lesser trees. Somewhere in this forest, waiting for me, is a beautiful woman with dark hair made of silk, and if I can just see her smile, touch her lips, all the sorrow and pain in my chest will drain away, and I’ll live forever.
What I told the Liaison before I killed her was this. Maybe this isn’t the only life there is. Maybe there’s another life, a beautiful one full of trees. In this life, the wind is kind, and there is no pain. I’ll see you there, one day.
Greg Leunig has an MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. Additional poetry work of his is forthcoming at Strange Horizons.
by Rachel Kolar
After some deliberation, Libby decided to buy the ability to draw. “This one,” she said. “I’ve never been able to manage anything more than stick figures. This would be nice.”
Alfred Corrigan smiled at her. “Yes. Very good.” He coughed before continuing in his high, papery voice. “Let me remind you, however, that this only guarantees the ability to draw recognizable pictures, not the talents of a master artist. These are only–”
“–ninety-nine cent dreams,” she finished along with him. It was the name of the store, and he had given her the patter when she had first come in. Ninety-nine cents could only buy small dreams, not miracles.
“Precisely. That said, your satisfaction is guaranteed. You shouldn’t find yourself reverting to, ah, stick figures. One moment, please.” He shuffled through the door in the back. Libby kept her eyes on the catalog, not wanting to watch the way he moved. He was a young man, clean-cut and broad-shouldered, but his slow, fumbling movements reminded her of her grandfather; the way he’d limped toward her when she first entered the store had almost caused her to mumble an excuse and go outside again.
She flipped through the pages idly, glancing at the glossy stock pictures of laughing, photogenic couples and families. All items just 99¢! Make your partner a dog person! Item 13A. LIMITED TIME ONLY! Maintain weight over the holidays–LOSS NOT GUARANTEED. Item 13B. Have the baby sleep through the night once a week. Item 13C.
That picture was of a sleeping baby, his little mouth relaxed into a faint pout. Libby bit her lip–she’d been doing a lot of that in the past month, and it was starting to taste chapped and bloody–and rested her fingertips on the baby’s face. In the back of her mind, she could hear Sasha screaming, “If you want kids so fucking much, find a man! I’m not your goddamn brood mare!”, could hear the glass bowl shattering against the wall behind her head. Sasha had apologized in tears the next day, of course, and Libby had forgiven her, of course, and they had made desperate love and promised that they would never fight again, just as they always did. But that time it had been true, because now Sasha was gone.
She had to turn the page. Blindly, she flipped to the tab in the back. FREE SAMPLES!
“Here you go.” Corrigan’s dry voice made Libby jump. She turned and saw him holding a cobalt blue bottle about the size of her little finger. “Stir this into a beverage and drink it just before going to bed. I’ve found the flavor complements an English tea wonderfully.”
“Great. Thanks.” She gestured at the page of samples. “What are these?”
Corrigan peered over her shoulder, and she saw his eyes go bright. The eyes were old, too, she thought; it wasn’t just his gait. There was a tired, stretched look around the edges, and she hadn’t even noticed until that eager brightness took it away. “Ah. These are from my new supply. Ninety-nine cent dreams fill a necessary niche, but my current stock is rather, ah, modest. I’m hoping to expand. I haven’t dealt in larger dreams in a long, long time.”
“Can I look?”
She turned the page. This was more what she had expected when Corrigan had explained to her that he didn’t run a fancifully named dollar store, but a shop dealing in dreams themselves. Regain sight for the blind! Item 47A. Recover a missing heirloom! Item 47B.
She turned the page again, and her heart swelled to a huge size in her chest. She couldn’t move. All she could do was stare at the page, hands trembling. It was a generic photo of a man and a woman embracing in front of a sunset. Bring back the affections of a lost love! Item 47C.
Sasha. She could bring Sasha back. Oh, God, if this place was for real. . . . She imagined the faint, spicy smell of Sasha’s shampoo, the way she hummed in the back of her throat when she was falling asleep, the rich alto of her voice as she sang along with Libby’s cello. All the times in the past month with she’d felt frightened and she’d known that having Sasha near her would make her brave, because without Sasha she was just a timid little mouse. All the times she’d seen bridal magazines or women with strollers and thought, That’s not for me, that’ll never be for me; it’s what drove Sasha away, but she’s the only one I’d ever want to have any of it with.
It could have been a thousand dollars and she would have taken it. But a free sample…
“Ms. Morell? Did you find something of interest?”
Libby had almost forgotten that Corrigan was there. She looked up and saw him smiling benignly. “This.” She pointed to the picture. “This is free?”
He glanced down. “An excellent choice. A simple modification of Item 7D, stop your lover’s passing attraction to another. It should run wonderfully.”
“Great. I’d like to buy it also, please.”
Corrigan twiddled his tie between two fingers. “I should warn you, Ms. Morell, that the word ‘free’ is misleading. There’s no monetary cost for these dreams, but . . . well, I have to get my supplies from somewhere, especially if I want to upgrade. It’s a trade. A dream for a dream.”
“So you’d stab out my eyes so a blind person can see?” It would almost be worth it.
“No. A dream, Ms. Morell. You don’t dream of sight. You take it for granted. I’d want a dream from you.”
Libby bit her lip, tasting blood again. Sasha… “Let me–let me try this one and come back if it works.”
“Of course you may. And it will work, I assure you. I sell no monkey’s paws.” He punched a few numbers into the chunky gray cash register, and it thought for several seconds before displaying “$1.05” on its screen. “Tax, you understand.”
“Right.” Libby fished through her purse and placed the money on the counter.
Corrigan smiled blandly, a smile that didn’t touch his old, old eyes, and handed her a receipt. “Thank you, Ms. Morell. Enjoy your dream.”
Sasha had been a coffee drinker, so that was all gone, but the apartment still had tea in abundance. “Black as night, sweet as sin,” Sasha would sometimes say as she dumped what seemed like half a cup of sugar into her mug. Lord, that was pretentiously bohemian. Libby knew it, but it didn’t stop her from loving Sasha for it. Not a little bit.
She brewed herself a cup of tea, then pulled out the bottle, unscrewed the top, and sniffed it. The smell was flowery, as though the bottle were full of incense or perfume.
Libby tipped the bottle over the teacup. Its contents oozed out in thick white globs that dissolved in the tea, more like a salve than a liquid. She wrinkled her nose, but took a tentative sip. It had a sharp, smoky flavor. It was good. Encouraged, she drank more deeply.
This wasn’t going to work. But if it did . . .
I’ll be unselfish for once. That was what Sasha’s note had said. It had been two weeks after their last fight, the fight where Sasha had thrown the bowl at her, and Libby had been doing her best to tread carefully. No more mentioning the ads for the fertility clinic in the newspaper–that would just invite more screams of “brood mare.” No glancing at Sasha whenever there was talk of possible civil unions in Maryland on the news–if she was lucky, Sasha would roll her eyes and change the channel, and if she wasn’t, Sasha would throw down the remote and leave the room. Libby didn’t want to give up. She loved Sasha, dammit, and “girlfriend” or even “partner” was too weak a word. She wanted a wife, and she wanted a family; she wanted to feel life growing in her womb, to coo with Sasha as their baby uttered its first “mama.” So Libby had waited until one final opportunity had fallen into her lap.
As they had finished eating their dinner one night, Libby said, “Oh, I, um . . . I found something online that you might be interested in.” She smiled brightly and pressed a printout into Sasha’s hands. “Check it out! It’s a position for an assistant director of graphic design at an ad firm.”
“Really?” Sasha dropped her fork, and Libby watched her eyes rapidly scan the paper, slow down, scan it again. Finally, Sasha looked up. “It’s in Toronto.”
“I know. But it’s perfect for you, Sasha! How long have we been waiting for an assistant director position to open up at your job? Toronto’s a great city, really great, you should hear my cousin rave about it. And I’ll bet that a big city has more opportunities for a musician than Baltimore, so it’s good for both of us, you know? I can finally get out of that stupid bank. This could be our chance.”
Sasha regarded her for another minute, and Libby kept her smile pasted in place, trying to hide her trembling hands under the table, trying not to glance down to see whether Sasha was going to ball her hands into fists or start reaching for items to throw. After what seemed like forever, Sasha’s face softened, and she opened her arms. “Come here, Libby-Lu.”
A bright hot flash of joy exploded in Libby’s chest, and she ran into Sasha’s arms. Sasha held her, stroking her hair with one hand and kissing her softly on the temple. “I love you, Libby-Lu. I love you so much, you know that?”
“I love you too,” Libby said, and then she couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.
That was the worst part–how happy she’d been. It was almost easier to think about coming home the next day and finding the note. I’d never have the courage to do this to your face, it had said, and I will NEVER be the girl you want, and find yourself a nice girl to marry in Toronto, and I’ll be unselfish for once and stay here.
Unselfish. Like hell. If she were unselfish, she would have stayed. Libby bolted down the last of the tea, which was now starting to grow cold at the bottom of the mug. This had to work. It had to. She hadn’t been herself since that night where she’d curled up next to the woman she loved, feeling Sasha’s hand stroking her hair and hearing that sweet voice whisper “I love you, I love you” over and over again.
She tried to draw a picture later that night, but her hands were awkward, clumsy. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manage anything much better than a stick figure. Still, she tried to encourage herself. Some things took time to work. Why should this be different? She finally put the pencil down around midnight and curled up to sleep, arms around Sasha’s pillow.
The bank was busy the next day. Libby barely had the chance to breathe until her mid-morning break rolled around, when she finally grabbed the pencil and notepad she’d left in her locker and headed for the break room.
She sat down and looked at the pencil for a moment. It seemed so stupid now, the thought that a man could sell her the ability to draw, let alone the ability to win back Sasha. Still, she remembered the rich, smoky taste of the substance in the bottle, the shambling way that Corrigan had moved despite his obvious youth . . .
“Stupid,” she muttered.
But she put the pencil to the paper, and she drew. It was absentminded, a little doodle, really. She had no idea what she was trying to draw, but she let her hand move across the paper, watching as the lines and curves took shape.
Libby looked up. Mark was standing over her, smiling, his hands in his pockets. She forced a smile in return; whenever her breaks coincided with Mark’s, forcing smiles became a common practice. Mark was nice enough, but he still thought that the photo of Sasha in her wallet was a picture of her favorite cousin. “Hey.”
“Can I join you?”
Libby made a show of checking her watch. “Oh, gosh, my break’s almost over. I’m sorry.”
Mark’s face fell, but he shrugged. “Good luck. It’s a jungle out there.” He peered over her shoulder. “Hey, that’s really good. That’s your cousin, right?”
Libby looked down. The lines and curves that she had randomly chosen had come together into a rough sketch of Sasha’s face. She had to take a second look–it was good. Not really good by any stretch of the imagination, but it had depth and shading, and Sasha’s hair was clearly frizzing into a corona of curls the way it did on a humid day. “Yeah, it’s her,” she said, unable to keep the surprise from her voice. “Thanks.”
“I didn’t know you could draw like that.”
Mark gave the picture another look, then grinned at her. “So, hey, you doing anything after work today?”
“Um . . .” Suddenly, nothing Mark said seemed to matter anymore. Libby’s face was hot, and she could hear her blood thrumming in her ears. “Look, I have to get back to my shift.” She stood up so quickly she almost knocked her chair over.
“You okay, Lib?”
“Yeah, I’m great.” She smiled, the first genuine smile she’d had in weeks. “I’m great.”
When Libby arrived at 99¢ Dreams after work, Corrigan was at the desk, adding a new sheet to the catalog.
“Ms. Morell.” He flashed her a smile, his teeth blindingly white, as though he had a mouthful of snow. Libby hadn’t noticed before how white his teeth were.
“Hi. It worked!”
“Of course. It’s been thoroughly tested. Quite foolproof, and quite safe.”
Libby stepped up to the counter and flipped through the catalog to the picture of the man and woman embracing before the sunset–Item 47C. “I came back for this. I want this sample, please.”
Corrigan’s smile didn’t change, but his eyes sharpened. For one uncomfortable moment, she thought he looked hungry. “Are you certain?”
For the first time since she had drawn Sasha’s face, Libby faltered, a knot of fear twisting in her stomach. Corrigan’s face was wolfish, and she could see from this distance that his teeth weren’t white but translucent, almost blue like fine china, lined with tiny fissures. But then she thought of Sasha’s hand stroking her hair. “Yes.”
“Very good. Very good.” He reached behind the counter and pulled out a brass sign that read Back in 15 Minutes. “Will you come with me, please?”
He led her into the back room. Libby hung back for a moment, half-worried that she’d step in and see a bubbling cauldron full of eye of newt. Instead, she saw another desk and two overstuffed chairs. The only unusual thing was the long set of shelves lining the walls, covered in tiny bottles and candles and bundles of incense, each labeled with a number and a letter. “Sit down, please, Ms. Morell,” Corrigan said, taking his place behind the desk. Libby did. “Now. I believe I mentioned that these samples are not entirely free.”
“And you’re willing to make the transaction? A dream for a dream?”
The knot of fear twisted tighter, but she nodded again.
“Very good. Sign your full name here, please.” He pushed a contract covered in tiny print toward her. Libby didn’t look at it. She knew that if she did, she’d change her mind–she’d just go home and cry herself to sleep, alone. Instead, she signed it. “Excellent,” Corrigan said, popping the contract into a desk drawer. “Thank you, Ms. Morell.” He rose and pulled a red candle off the shelf. “Now, burn this–”
“Wait,” she said. “The dream. What dream am I trading? I, um, I sort of had one in mind. See, I’ve always wanted to be a professional musician but I’m not very–”
Corrigan raised a hand to silence her. “Forgive me, Ms. Morell, but your offer won’t be necessary.” His voice was bright and crisp. “The dreams that people offer in exchange tend not to be potent enough–if a dream is strong enough to be of any use to me, it’s too strong to be sold willingly, you understand. But I have your signed contract here. I’ll find something to extract from you.”
Libby blinked. “What?”
“You have willingly consented to trade dream 47C for another dream of equal or greater value, and have given me your true name. I need nothing more from you.” He set the candle down on the desk in front of her. “As I was saying, burn this before sunset in a non-metal holder next to some personal item of hers, or an image of her–creating an image shouldn’t be too hard for you now, hmm?” He smiled, a ghastly smile, translucent blue and full of cracks. “The rest should take care of itself.”
Libby’s mind was in a whirl. “Yeah, I already drew . . . but, I mean, but what if I change my mind?”
“Oh, I doubt that will be an issue, Ms. Morell. I doubt it very much indeed. Never once have I had a return.” He shook her hand briskly. His skin had an earthy smell, like mushrooms, but underneath there was a faint current of rot. “Enjoy your dream. Do come again.”
It was barely noon by the time Libby unlocked the door to her apartment, the candle zipped securely into the inner pocket of her jacket–she had patted the pocket again and again on the way home, though there was no way it could have fallen out. She had the picture, but adding a personal item might make things safer. That wouldn’t be difficult. Sasha had taken most of her things with her, but a few had been forgotten, and Libby had hoarded those–breathing the sweet spicy smell of her from the shirt tucked between the couch cushions, riffling through the loaner copy of The Buddha of Suburbia, stroking the imprint of Sasha’s toes in the sandal with the broken strap.
She went through the pile and ultimately selected a feathered pendant that Sasha had bought during her native art phase. She placed the candle in a little bowl on the dining room table between the pendant and the sketch, then took a deep, shaky breath and lit it. The wick glowed orange, then flamed. It had the same faint, flowery smell as the salve she’d poured into her tea.
Please work, she prayed silently, never taking her eyes off the table, the candle, the pendant, the drawing. Please, please work. She didn’t know who she was praying to. She didn’t care.
In an hour, the candle had burned away. She stared at the bowl and the congealed red mess at the bottom of it, unsure of what to do next. She didn’t want to wash the wax out–that seemed like inviting failure. Even moving the pendant or the picture might ruin something.
Finally, she decided that the safest thing would be to leave them on the table. She’d figure out what to tell Sasha when she came back. When she came back! Libby couldn’t bite back a squeal of joy. She thought about doing something special–making an elaborate dinner, maybe whipping up Sasha’s favorite eggplant roulade recipe–but that would imply that she knew her lover was coming back, and that would be much harder to explain than a pendant and a bowl of melted wax.
She sat down and played through a few pieces on her cello to try and clear her head, but she couldn’t make herself concentrate. Anxiety turned her fingers into sausages on the strings and made the bow shake in her hand. A low but intense cramp was beginning to throb in her belly, and she knew that it was at least a week early for her period. She put her cello away and made herself a cup of tea–Sasha had always said that there was nothing like a good cup of raspberry tea for the curse–and drank it down, barely tasting it. She paced. She waited. Dinnertime rolled around, but by now her stomach felt as though it were being squeezed by some cruel child’s fist and she had no appetite. She curled up on the sofa with an old blanket and a hot water bottle, turned on the news, and fell asleep in the flickering light of the television.
“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” Libby said, nodding to the bassinet in the corner of the hospital room.
“He looks like a constipated old man. All babies do.” Sasha smiled and tousled Libby’s hair, which still felt sweaty from labor even after a bath. “I bet he’ll be beautiful, though. Just like his mom.”
“I want to hold him,” Libby said, holding out her arms.
“Hell yes. I’m milking this mommy thing for all it’s worth.”
Sasha picked up the baby, barely more than a bundle of blankets. As she did, he began to wail, a thin, plaintive sound.
“Shh,” Libby cooed. “Come here, little one.”
Sasha cradled the baby, but did not bring him any closer to Libby’s bed. “He looks good, Libby-Lu. Healthy. Strong. I’m sure someone will take very good care of him.”
Libby’s heart began to pound. “What do you mean?”
Sasha stepped up to the bedside and smiled, her teeth brilliantly white, almost translucent. The baby’s wails were growing louder, turning into rapidly choked-out screams. “This is a good dream, isn’t it?”
Panicking now, Libby snatched at the bundle of blankets in Sasha’s arms. “Let me hold him!”
Still smiling, Sasha placed him in Libby’s arms, and his screams died away.
Libby pulled back the blanket, but there was no baby there, just a bundle of dried leaves that crumbled in her hands…
She awoke to the sound of a key turning in the lock.
It took a moment for Libby to remember where she was, lost in the space between dreams and waking, not quite knowing what she had just dreamed or why her heart was beating so fast. Then she remembered, and immediately clicked off the television. The apartment went dark. She tried to get up and turn on a light, but the fiery agony in her gut laced down to her legs, and she settled back into the couch with a groan.
The door opened, and she saw a figure silhouetted by the streetlights. The light clicked on, and there was Sasha, a suitcase in her hand, tears streaming down her face. “Libby-Lu?”
It was music, hearing her name in Sasha’s mouth again. Libby rose too quickly, winced, and hobbled across the room, hardly able to believe that it was all real. “It’s you,” she said, touching Sasha’s face, her hair, her shoulders, anything she could get her hands on to prove that it was really true.
Sasha clung to her, crying. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry–I couldn’t stay away–I’m selfish–I told you, I’m selfish–” and those were all the words she could say for quite some time.
It wasn’t the passionate reunion Libby had been dreaming of–the cramping in her belly was too intense. Sasha insisted that they call an ambulance, but Libby wanted to go to bed and see if she felt better in the morning. She hadn’t slept beside Sasha in a month. She wasn’t going to lose that.
She lay in their bed, Sasha’s arm wrapped around her, hearing the soft breathing of the woman she loved. It was perfect, wasn’t it? It was everything she had wanted.
And yet, she felt like she was forgetting something, something important. She felt empty, as though the cramp were somehow hollowing her out.
“We can talk later about everything,” Sasha murmured, her voice thick with sleep. “When you’re better . . . about Toronto. . .”
Libby looked at her. “Toronto? What do you mean?”
But Sasha had fallen asleep.
Libby stared up at the ceiling, biting her lower lip, tasting blood. Toronto. They’d had some conversation about Toronto, she was sure of it, but she couldn’t remember what it was, like a dream . . .
There was another twist of pain inside her as her womb continued to unravel like a skein of yarn.
She couldn’t remember. It must not have been important.
For one last night, Libby cried herself to sleep.
Rachel Kolar’s fiction has previously appeared in Tales of the Talisman and While the Morning Stars Sing. She also has a forthcoming short story in the next issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
The Nightmare Eater
by Eliza Hirsch
The dim overhead light intensifies they shadows beneath my eyes until they become like bruises. Little pockets of darkness I carry my nightmares in.
I want to sleep, but I cannot. The few hours a night when my eyes are closed bring me visions of Japan and my last days there. The face of my patron twisted in pain haunts me. The feeling of his blood seeping over my fingers will not leave.
I yearn for rest—for peace.
The war between my country and the United States is over. The war inside me rages on.
There are two men at table three, with dates. They are the only customers in the Good Luck Bar, and I am the only waitress. The girls look at me with narrowed eyes, suspicious. The men have the cocky bearing of sailors, but only one of them seems to undress me as I set down their beers.
“Hey there, Miss Saigon,” the one with the roving eyes says. “My buddy here just got back from the far East. Hey, Jerry, how do you say hello in Nip-speak? Coneychee? That right?”
“You sound like an idiot,” Jerry says.
Baka no hito.
“Konnichiwa,” I say. The first man guffaws, slaps his thigh. His other arm slips around the girl’s shoulders.
“Did you hear that? Say something nice for my girl.” He looks at the girl. “How about it, honey? What do you want her to say?”
“Come on, Pete,” Jerry says, fingering his bottle. “My beers getting warm and my foods getting cold.”
“I’m a paying customer,” Pete says. “Go on, hon. Tell her what to say.”
The girl chews on her lip, leaving flecks of red lipstick on her teeth. “Tell me how pretty I am.”
Pete pulls her closer, laughing. “That’s my babe. Always fishing for compliments.”
“Uma ni niteimasu. Kamiga kusso mitai ni kusai desu.” Sugar drips from my words as I describe the girl’s horsey features and dung scented hair. She giggles. Jerry covers his mouth to hide his own laughter, and my stomach twists. He understood me.
His eyes catch mine; his smile softens and then turns dark. I turn away and hurry back to the bar, feeling exposed.
I tuck my tips into my bra: two dollars and ten cents—half my weekly rent. It still feels strange, paying for my own living. In Japan, when I was young, the geisha house took care of me. Then, my patron—but I do not think of him.
George grunts a goodbye as I walk out of the bar and into the cool night air. I pause for a moment to take a deep breath. Car exhaust, cigarette smoke; it is nothing like home. My heels click on the pavement as I walk.
The cigarette smoke comes from a man leaning against the wall, a few feet from the bar entrance. My heels click faster; my heart begins to flutter. His cigarette glows red as I approach.
“Hey,” he says.
“Bar is still open.” I say, not stopping.
“I’m not looking for the bar.” His fingers brush my sweater. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I turn, and recognize him: Jerry, without his friend or his girl. My heart flutters again, but not in fear.
I realize I’d been hoping to find him, too. He drops his hand away from me, and I follow him down the street.
“I came back after…as soon as the war ended,” he says. We sit on a park bench, surrounded by eucalyptus and gas fumes.
“You miss Japan?” I slip off my shoes and press my toes into the grass. It feels like a hundred cool tongues licking my feet.
“No.” He slides to the ground and takes one of my feet in his hands. I let him, though my instinct is to pull away. His hands are strong, softer than I have guessed. “I went to Japan to defend my country. After Pearl Harbor I was convinced I could kill every last one of… Well, I thought I needed to do my part.”
“To protect your country.”
He nods. “With warheads and shotguns and…I’m not saying what we did was wrong. Or right. I don’t know.”
I can’t help him. My patron never spoke to me about politics. I first learned of the war when my patron moved into the house he’d bought for me, after his wife was killed. That was also when I chose to leave, any way I could.
“Do you think killing a man is ever justified?”
I wince. Jerry stares at me, as if he can see my mind like the ekisha in the market, reading tea leaves to tell my future—or my past.
I do not know how to answer, so I say nothing. Guilt burns in my stomach.
“I don’t know,” he says. He runs his thumb across the arch of my foot, sending a shiver up my thighs. His gaze returns to my face. “Are you cold?”
I shiver again, my heart beating fast. Jerry stands and scoops me into his arms as if I weigh nothing.
“My shoes!” My only pair of heels, left in the dewy grass. He laughs and bends so I can pick them up. Then his lips are on my neck. These, too, are softer than I had imagined.
He takes me to his apartment, carrying me without running out of breath or places to touch. Heat spreads through so that when we reach his home my body is alive with fire, and he is oxygen.
We don’t make it to the bedroom. Our clothing comes off in layers; heavy leaves falling from our bodies.
He is the first man I have been with since my patron, and it is so different. Jerry is young, and strong, where my patron had been elderly and soft—soldier and a bureaucrat. It feels unfair to compare them, but how can I not? When one has only had cold tofu to eat for days and days, is it so strange to enjoy grilled salmon?
I lay sandwiched with Jerry on the narrow cushions, exhausted and sweaty. I dread sleep, fearing the nightmares of my patron with my blade in his hand and a roar on his lips. I know if I am lucky I will wake up thirsty and dazed. If I am not, I will wake up screaming. Eventually, heaviness overcomes me, and I sleep.
I sleep without dreams. Jerry wakes me with a cup of coffee. I am too grateful to question my luck.
His apartment glows with early morning light. I try to cover my nakedness with a pillow and Jerry brings me a blanket.
“Arigotou,” I say, inclining my head. Thank you. I expect to feel ashamed, but his eyes feel too familiar.
We sit together on the sofa, smelling of one another, and drink our coffee in silence. When my cup is empty he takes it to the kitchen.
“How did you sleep?” he asks when he returns.
“I slept well. And you?” I ask, more out of politeness than concern.
“I always do.” He leans close to me and drops his voice to a whisper. “I’ve got a secret.”
He leads me to his bedroom, bottom lip caught between his teeth. A large bed dominates the room, covered with rumpled sheets and a thin blanket. There is a nightstand at the head of the bed, nearer to the door. A single lamp lights the room, casting strange shadows.
The scent of wet earth meets me as I step through the doorway. I take in the sweet intimations of cherry blossom, and rain. My knees buckle and Jerry catches me, lowering me to the edge of the bed. His eyes are wide. His arms tremble.
“I didn’t know… I mean, I thought you might—” He closes his eyes, shakes his head.
I cannot speak. My breath comes fast as I tried to suck up every bit of that scent that smells so much like home, like the hills outside of Sapporo where I’d been allowed to spend the best days of my childhood. How can that smell be here? It shouldn’t be possible.
Jerry crawls across the bed and squats next to a large, covered box I hadn’t noticed. I hear a snuffling sound. His eyes are on me as he tugs at the cloth, revealing a cage made of thin, wooden slats. An animal sits inside, about the size and shape of a wild boar. Its body is white; its legs, belly and head are black. A long snout curves off its face, twitching and searching the air, nostrils flaring. I follow Jerry across the bed, enthralled by the creature.
“You have baku?” I ask, unsure of the English word for the animal. “In your home?”
Jerry nods, his grin nearly spilling off his face.
“I knew you’d understand. I had to tell someone. I’ve been going crazy, keeping him here, but I couldn’t trust anyone else.” He grabs my hand and moves it to the cage.
The baku’s snout brushes over my palm, sending a chill tingling up my arm. Why would anyone keep a wild animal in their home? I remember a cat the geisha house had when I was young, and my patron kept dogs at his estate, but never had I seen something so large and undomesticated caged like a common pet. I look from the man to the beast, and back again.
“For the dreams, of course,” he says, letting go of my hand. I leave it pressed against the cage. As I study the animal, its oddities become clear.
I notice the feet first. Where there should be rough toes, I see paws, like a cat, covered in dull black fur. Its tail, which should have been no longer than my finger, swishes around the cage, nearly a foot in length, tipped with a tuft of silky hair. Stories from my childhood poke me, tease me with words almost forgotten. True understanding settles in my mind, and I jerk my hand away.
Jerry doesn’t keep a wild animal. My night of peace had not been a happy accident.
This is a nightmare eater.
I get dressed quickly. I do not want to be exposed in front of the creature. It has my dreams, my secrets. Already I feel too vulnerable. The smell of home keeps me close, though. We drink our coffee in the bedroom, watching the cage.
“How did you find it?” I ask. The baku twitches; its cage seems too small for it to stretch out.
“I was in Tokyo, getting ready to come home. I couldn’t sleep. Hadn’t slept in weeks, really. I was having nightmares—horrible nightmares that woke me up and wouldn’t let me go. I must have looked like the devil.” He pauses, focused on a memory thousands of miles away. “Even when I wasn’t asleep I would still see…” He shakes his head. “I went walking. I was lost, somewhere near the fishing docks, when a woman called out to me. I figured she was a prostitute, which I thought would be just the ticket. Maybe relax me enough to pass out.”
He looks at me, perhaps to weigh my reaction, but I just nod. How can I care about him wanting to pay for sex when I let myself be purchased by a man I could not love?
“The only thing I really remember about her was her eyes. She looked tired, even more tired than I felt. She took me to this tiny room, told me to lie down and sleep. I argued, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I didn’t have a single nightmare that night. When I woke up—it must’ve been twelve hours later—she was squatting at my feet with a black box.
“She asked me how much I’d give her to get rid of my nightmares, completely. Gave her everything I had on me, which wasn’t much to tell the truth. But my nightmares came back that night on my flight home. You would blush to hear the things I said about that woman.” He leans back and grins. “Sounds crazy, huh?”
I shake my head, knowing I might have done the same thing.
“My first night in this place I pulled out the box and cracked it open. I don’t know what I expected: a puff of smoke, maybe? I got nothing. I went out to get a few drinks in me, help me sleep, and when I came back I found this cage, and that animal inside.” He pauses long enough to give the baku a look almost like love. “And I slept, like a little baby. This kind of deep sleep I hadn’t got any of since I was a kid.” He looks at me, now. “Like you slept last night.”
There is something about the baku I want to figure out, but seems out of reach. Jerry wraps his arms around me, tells me to stay with him. He needs a companion. Not the blonde from the Good Luck, but someone who could really understand this part of his life.
Someone like me.
Jerry is gone for most of the day, working outside of the city. He comes home tired, hungry, and happy to see me. I keep his small apartment clean but that takes little time, even though it is easily three times larger than the room I rented before I met him. I cook, a mixture of dishes from Japan and food from his mother’s old recipe box. After one disastrous meal of tuna casserole—which I made using raw tuna—we spend an evening going over each stained index card until I am sure I will not make any more mistakes.
He is sweet, bringing me flowers or a bit of candy. I have developed a taste for the little caramels and bitter chocolate. I am getting used to American flavors. There is more to eat in this country than the fried fish and tough steaks I served at the Good Luck.
I have not returned to my job. Jerry wants to take care of me, and I let him. I find I’m happier acting as his servant than as George’s.
I sleep, long and empty hours. I have not seen my patron’s face in over a month. A restless kind of peace has settled in my belly. I cannot ignore my past, and I cannot ignore the baku. Its breath seems wet and sick. It begins to press on me, an invisible force that feels like guilt.
I keep bedroom door closed.
Today, the world outside the apartment is covered in rain. It is dark, and though I want to leave, the drops spattering against the windows keep me inside.
I scrub the kitchen counters until my fingers are raw and red and the bleach burns my nose. I dust the photos Jerry has hung in the hallway from the living room. I fluff the pillows on the couch.
I hear it breathe.
I scour the bottom of the bathtub, stripping away most of the black mold that grows around the drain. I wipe the windows clean of grime; the raindrops seem suspended in midair.
I hear it breathe.
I organize the hall closet.
I hear it breathe. I cannot escape it any longer. When Jerry is home he fills the space with his voice and his laughter. Now, our home is empty. I am not big enough.
When I was ten years old, the geisha mother fell ill. She was old and weak, and the winter chill clung to her bones. I sat next to her as she slipped away.
The baku’s breathing sounds like hers.
I push open the door and am again assaulted by the smell of home. There is something darker now beneath the smell; death has taken up residence in the baku’s cage. I crawl across the bed and slide to the floor. My fingers move to rest inside the cage. The baku sniffs me with its strange snout, so cold and damp. Then it lies down and shuts its eyes. I wait, but the baku does not move. I have words now, for what I have known all along.
The baku is dying.
I stay with the baku until I hear Jerry’s key in the lock. I am reluctant to move. It feels like leaving home again.
“Toki?” Jerry sounds worried. This is the first night he’s come home to a dark kitchen and an empty table.
“Okaeri,” I say, emerging from the bedroom. Welcome home. He wraps his big arms around me and presses his lips to my forehead.
“Are you okay?” He says, leaning back to look at me.
He stares at me with those big, blue eyes, all watery with concern. What secrets does my face betray? I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
“So,” he says, moving away from me, into the kitchen. “I was wondering when I’d get the chance to cook for you.” He opens the refrigerator and frowns. “Slim pickins’.”
I peer over the door at the shelves. Carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, a piece of pork belly, a bowl of old rice, milk and cheese and bread; a dozen meals asking to be made. I shove the refrigerator door. It slams closed. Jerry steps back, fists tight.
“I’ll ask you again,” he says with a voice like glass. “Are you okay?”
“I’m…” I drop to my knees, my anger raining out of me. I press my forehead into the floor. “Moushiwake gozaimasen deshita.”
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
After a long moment he presses his hand to my neck and whispers in my ear. “It’s okay. Just talk to me, babe. You can tell me anything.”
I stay pressed to the floor, until he pulls me up, a little rough.
“I know what this is about,” he says. My lips part, as relief cools my stomach. The feeling lasts until he continues. “You’re lonely.” He grins, his slightly crooked front teeth shining in the kitchen light. “I know how it is. If it wasn’t for my squad in Japan I would have gone crazy. Hell, I came pretty close as it was. Only…” He nods toward the bedroom.
“This can’t go on,” I say.
“No. It’s not healthy, you stuck in here all by yourself, all day. You need some friends.” He brushes a lock of hair behind my ear. His touch sends shivers over my skin, but this is not desire I feel.
“I mean the baku.”
He pulls back. “What about it?”
“It is sick… dying. Jerry, the baku gets hurt without its home.” I swallow hard, tasting the truth of my words. It tastes like matcha and ginger.
“That’s crazy,” he says. “That old witch never said anything like that.”
“The majinaishi told you nothing about the baku,” I counter. “The baku needs freedom. It is a spirit, not a tool.”
“No. No, Toki, You’re wrong. If it was a spirit, it could just float away.” He snaps his fingers. “Like that.”
“The cage. There is something in the wood keeping it trapped.” I grab his hand, begging him. “Please, we must release it.”
“We?” He jerks his hand away. “That thing isn’t yours. It’s mine. I bought it fair and square, and there’s no way I’m getting rid of it. Are you kidding? And go back to those…” He shudders. “No. I can’t live like that.”
He is strong, in will and body, but I hear weakness in his words. I bow my head, knowing that I will not convince him—knowing that I, too, will not be swayed.
He leaves for work the next morning, kissing me on the cheek. I hope I have played my role well and he has no suspicions. I don’t know what I would do if he came back too soon.
I lock the door behind him and press my hand to the wood. This will be the last time I see him. The thought makes my fingernails scrape against the door. But there is no time for regret. Not now. No time for goodbyes. I turn and go into Jerry’s bedroom.
The baku lies in its cage, unmoving except for its long snout, which waves through the air like a stalk of bamboo in a gentle breeze. I kneel in front of the cage, wrapping my hands around the corners. The wood pokes my skin, warms under my heat. I close my eyes and hope.
At first, nothing happens. The wood remains solid and unmoving. I concentrate on the scent of the baku, already fading into the smell of Jerry’s clothes, the apartment, Los Angeles. Had I waited any longer, the baku would be lost.
I act on intuition, envisioning home: Mount Fuji on a late summer’s afternoon, its gentle peak always capped with snow; the lake my patron took me to the year he purchased me from the geisha house, quiet and serene; my patron, before the war, his face still kind.
“Onegai…” Please, baku.
Then I feel it. The wood seems to melt under my hands. I open my eyes. A small lacquer box, engraved with the form of a stalking baku, has replaced the cage. I run my hand over the image and whisper my thanks. Beneath my palm, the box seems to pulse; deep inside, a heart beats.
I take what money I have saved and return the way I came: by sea. I lie awake in cramped quarters for days that stretch into weeks, the lacquer box held against my chest, my nightmares a roiling threat keeping me from sleep. I could drink the gin the deckhands offer, but I don’t trust the way they look at me.
The ship takes me to Hakodate, a port town in southern Hokkaido. It is early May when I arrive, and the snow that coats the ground in the winter has melted away. Fresh tsutsuji blossoms paint swatches of pink and orange in every garden. I breathe deep, greedy lungfuls of air and relish the feel of the earth under my feet.
From the port I find passage further into the island. I doze on the train, bursts of rest interrupted by the mad eyes of my patron. I have learned not to scream but my shaking causes other passengers to move away from me. Even in my home I am alone.
My ticket will take me to the northernmost tip of Hokkaido. I ride, waiting for something but not sure what. In Tomakomai, after six hours on the train, I feel it. The box pulls me out of my seat and into the quiet night air. I buy a cup of green tea at the station and begin to walk, eyes half closed. I realize where I am going only after I have left the city behind and entered the countryside. Though my feet are sore, I pick up speed.
When the sun rises I am on the shore of Lake Shikotsu, at the foot of the mountains. Brilliant yellows and oranges reflect off the surface of the lake. Green hills rise up on every side. I am in a bowl made of earth. The water is my broth. I drink deeply, letting the chill fill my chest and belly, then find a tree close to the water and unload my pack.
This is the lake my patron brought me to. On these shores, I became a woman. It is only fitting, I think, that I return.
I pull out the box and, using my pack as a pillow, I sleep.
In the dream I am in my patron’s home, kneeling at his table. I wear the kimono he took from his wife’s closet; red silk, koi embroidered upon the back, a strong black obi tied snug around my waist. My face is heavy with the makeup I wore at the geisha house: thick white cake upon my skin, sticky red paste upon my lips. Pins jab into my scalp, holding my hair atop my head in a sleek, painful knot.
There is a bowl of rice on the table, slimy and cold. I wait for him, limbs trembling. He should have arrived already, and, as is the way of dreams, I know something is terribly wrong. When I hear the noises in the hall, I press my back against the wall.
The door slides open with enough force to splinter the wood frame. My patron stands in the doorway, panting, covered in blood. His eyes are the red of my kimono. In his hand he holds my knife, its point meant for my heart. I raise my arms to ward off the blows as he advances. It is here that I usually come awake. This time, a figure moves behind my patron’s legs.
It raises its pendulous nose in the air, and sits with a heavy thud upon the floor. My patron stands above me, so close I can feel his breath stir my hair. I reach up, touch his hand and slowly get to my feet.
“Yurushite kudasai,” I say. Forgive me.
As the stiletto swings toward my chest I take a quick step to the side, my hand coming out to knock the blade away. In my next step I have ducked under the old man’s arm. I press my face against his chest, clutching him. He shakes against me, and dissolves. I am left with stale air.
The baku stares at me. I kneel, fingers outstretched. The creature steps forward, touches the chilly end of its snout to my palm, and I wake up.
It is nearly dark; a sliver of moon cuts into the deep blue sky. The dream clings to my skin like heavy air. I stretch, muscles stiff from the chill rolling off the lake, and then reach for my bag.
The lacquer box is gone. I feel a momentary flare of anxiety, and I half-rise, eyes flitting around for sign of the thief.
I am alone.
The breeze wafting over me smells of cool water and sweet blossoms. My heart slows.
“Sayonara,” I whisper, and imagine I hear the rustle of an animal, moving through the trees.
The war is over.
I am home.
Eliza Hirsch is a recent graduate of ClarionWest. Her short story “A Dancer for Aonou” is slated for 2012 publication in Kaleidotrope.