29# The Sled

Image by Blamethechicken, Freedigitalphotos.net

aurora

We live in West, in the realm of ice, Banneran and I, and the wolf-dog woman Orkoosh. I have no memory of being born, unlike them. I used to think I was their child but Banneran said, no, I had come to them from across one of the ice plains to the East. One of the old women had put me on a sled and sent me cascading across the plain wrapped in coats of pelts. He said the sled bounded and danced – Orkoosh saw it coming as she was out hunting and came running to him saying, look, a wonder! There is a child in the sled Banne!

I had asked, but how did you know it was an old woman?

Orkoosh had said that it was because she remembers. I don’t understand it but that was all she said about it. Except that the East was a land basked in Sunshine, where we had only the Moon. Sunshine was a different kind of light, she said, which was much brighter than ours, but that, as we had the beautiful stars and the emerald light, we had nothing to complain about.

I mentioned to you just now about not remembering being born. Apparently that’s a gift that the people of the West have, they remember being born just as the people of the East remember dying. I have lived a long time now in the snow of the West and I don’t remember being born and I don’t remember dying. This has led Orkoosh to wonder if I am from the East at all. What memories do you have? She asks me all the time. I answer her, only of you and Banneran. Then she laughs as if it has all been a joke, and pats my head and will say, of course.

She then motions to the sled I was brought on. Go and play, she says. In an instant she will turn from me and slink gracefully into her wolf-dog form and I will harness her to the sled and we will race about the snow plains under the purple-black sky covered with emerald lights- the lights that come from some other place, and know us, and watch over us as we play. Sometimes when we stop for breath I will ask Orkoosh to turn back into a woman and ask her questions. I ask her how long I have been with them, and she will say, don’t you remember? You have been here for one hundred and eleven years. I will question her,  how does she know this? and she will say it’s because all shape-shifters know the passage of days.

When you talk of the old woman, what do you mean? I say to her, and she replies Old age is something that happens elsewhere, and I say to her, what happens elsewhere? She will shake her head as if she thinks I’m silly, and then off she goes again -ZIP!- slinking back into a wolf and we fly across the ice back to the hut, and to Banneran who loves us. Then Orkoosh will change and they will always greet each other as if they been apart for a long time, and don’t quite know each other. He will ask her if she would like to sit down, for example, and then we will all eat. After dinner, Orkoosh and Banneran will seem to remember that they know each other, and will sit in the warmth of the hut and comb each other’s hair. This will take a long time because Orkoosh’s  long, unruly locks will have gathered many tangles from the ice wind. Banneran will nod over to me and say, well, where is your comb young man? Then I will put my hand in my pocket and there it is, the comb made of wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Orkoosh says that the old woman gave it to me. I begin to comb my hair too, because Orkoosh says fondly that the old woman would want me to look my best.

Then I will listen as Orkoosh tells Banneran stories.

It is tradition that Orkoosh tells him stories each time that we return. I don’t know where she gets them from, they are always fantastical. My stories are about little fish that I see, glinting in the ice pools, or bears in the distance, or the moon rising. Orkoosh, however, always has stories about princes and magicians and priestesses and treasure and great ships that roam the sky, flying along on the vapours left by the burning emerald lights. Banneran responds to Orkoosh’s stories. He says playfully, no no Koos, you have told that one before I think, even when she hasn’t. Or, akakaka, (he clicks his tongue) Koos I don’t like this story, the prince is too arrogant, the priestess would never grant him an entire kingdom for rescuing just one golden key. Be serious!

When I ask Banneran how long he has loved Orkoosh he smiles and says he doesn’t know. When I ask Orkoosh she laughs and says, almost forever, and that she knows this because she remembers being born. Then, after the stories are told, they say goodnight to me, and I creep through the pelt curtain on the East-hand side of the hut and am in my own den. Banneran has lit a fire in there for me with his magic, and from my bed I look up to the space in the roof where one brick is made of glass, because I asked Banneran to put it there. I asked him to make a glass brick, so that I could see out and watch the emerald lights fade, and the clouds race across the stars. The fire crackles with blue and lilac flames, Banneran’s magic will keep it burning while I sleep.

*
Sometimes I wonder, as I look up through the glass brick to the sky, what we are, and why we live apart from others. I wonder how Orkoosh came to be a wolf-dog woman, or how Banneran came to have magic. Or who I am, and why I will never grow old, or remember being born, or remember dying. Orkoosh smiles at Banneran, rolling her eyes, when I ask her these questions, and says only Because we are in paradise.

When I ask her what that means, Banneran answers. He says that sometimes the people in the East have dreams they don’t wake up from, and that we live in one of those dreams. That somewhere, a boy exactly like me grew up, lived his life, and then died, and in that final dream he imagined that he was a little boy again, and that his grandmother wrapped him in pelts and sent him across the ice on a sled to the West, where the people remember being born. When I say I don’t understand, Orkoosh answers, you said you only remember me and Banneran, is that true? I nod. Then you are from the East after all. She says, and smiles. I crawl to my den and sleep, and when I wake, I wonder why it is that I never remember my dreams.

 

26# Ghost Train

Image by ponsulak, Freedigitalphotos.net 

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By the light of our lanterns we gazed at the train, Mandy, Amelia, Roberta and me.

Part of the driver’s cab and a lone carriage was all that was left, hanging out of the bushes in bits and pieces as if it had made a break for it. There were no tracks in sight, just a trail of debris around the carriage that disappeared off into the darkness behind the trees.

It began to rain. We huddled a little more closely together and Mandy and Amelia began whispering to one another so Roberta turned to me.

“There was nothing here before,” she said. “The trains haven’t run here for like, years.”

“How do you know?”

Roberta shrugged. “My brother Cam did a project on it, all about how the trains stopped coming here, and how they closed the tracks and got rid of the old railway bridge.”

“Why?” I asked, as we followed the others towards the carriage in the lashing rain.

“Oh,” Roberta’s face took on a sort of knowing look, her mouth forming a dramatic oval.

“Well, people kept throwing themselves off the bridge,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “I think they hung themselves.”

I shuddered and she nodded with that same knowing look in her eyes.

“And they had to shut down the train tracks because of the accident.”

“What accident?”

“Oh a big crash or something, no one talks about it anymore but lots of people died. It was a really long time ago though.” Roberta said, growing disinterested in the conversation as we approached the train.

It was in a real mess, all broken bits of wood and twisted metal just lying there with the rain bouncing off it. It gave me the creeps but I stood there with the others, just staring at it until my arm got tired holding the lantern.

“Let’s go home.”

Amelia shot me a look. “Are you kidding? This is cool. We’re not going yet, I want to look inside.”

Shivers passed over me as the storm beat heavier on our backs, but I didn’t say anything because Amelia was the boss. We all moved forward, swinging the meager light from our cheap, battery-powered Halloween lanterns at the wreck.

“It must be really old,” said Mandy, uncertain. “It looks like an old steam train, like it’s been here forever but I don’t remember it.”

“That’s because it wasn’t here.” Roberta repeated, hanging back a little, but Amelia shot her a look like murder, and so she trod forward.

“Somebody must have cleared the trees around here, it must have been hidden before that’s all. Don’t be such a baby.”

We got up to the cab and Amelia said for us all to hold our lanterns up so she could see inside. Mandy’s lantern went out with a POP; the vampire face with the plastic fangs suddenly vanishing from view.

“There’s nothing in there anyway,” Amelia said, banging the side of the cab. We all followed her in silence as she moved further back towards the carriage section.

“Gimme that,” Mandy said, snatching at my pumpkin lantern.

“Get lost!” I snatched it back, but it made me stumble and feel stupid. Mandy was older than me, so was Amelia. I didn’t want to go along with it but I was afraid to look like a coward.

“Give her the lantern and stop being such a child.” Amelia said, but again I shook my head, I was tired and cold, and just then I thought about my parents and how late it was.

“I’m going.” I said, and practically ran off because I didn’t want to hear them making fun of me, and I didn’t want them to try and make me stay.

“Pathetic!” I heard Mandy shout after me. I turned after I’d crossed the street and saw Roberta standing a little way behind the other two, looking back at me. I felt bad then for leaving her, because she wasn’t as bad as the others. From where I was standing at the crossroads I could now see Roberta join Amelia and Mandy, her skeleton lantern bobbing along until it joined Amelia’s werewolf. They were trying to get into the carriage, I could hear their voices but not what they were saying.

I was about to give up and head home then when I heard a noise. It was like a door creaking in the wind, and there was a rattling sound too, it was so strange that it made me stop where I was. A light appeared in the wreck, it lit up Amelia’s face and showed her shock. She raised her hand up to cover her eyes as Roberta grabbed for Mandy and pulled her away from the carriage. I heard steam hiss and a whistle blow and suddenly the carriage was moving; the cab reared up in front like a dancing cobra, pulling the carriage back underneath it. Fallen, rusted metal rods leaped up from their place on the grass and reached out like grasping fingers, sweeping the girls off their feet with a roaring whooosh as their bodies disappeared into the darkness inside of the carriage. Their screams lasted only a second before cutting off dead.

I was frozen to the spot, watching speechless as the light within the train-thing flickered on and off in the lashing rain. It stood up tall, big metal arms hanging limp at its sides now somehow attached to the body of the train-thing.

It watched me for a while, and I suppose it was thinking. I couldn’t do anything I was so afraid. In the corner of my eye I could see Roberta’s skeleton lantern fizzle out and die by the roadside. That changed things. It made me want to move as fast as I could to get away from there, and I’ve never run so hard in my life. I ran so hard that I tripped and fell, skidding on the wet concrete and cutting my jeans open. I cried out in pain and looked back because I was convinced the train-thing was closing in on me.

But it was gone. I was all alone in the street.

 

25# The Egg Lord

Image Tuomas_Lehtinen. Freedigitalphotos.net

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Olthar waited at the lip of the cavern and contemplated its interior. Opalescent shafts of pearly light bounced off the lake’s surface, illuminating all the many nooks and dark corners of the cave but it was surprisingly empty, except of course for the Egg.

It was perched right in the middle of all that water, on its ceremonial pedestal. It looked exactly as it had been described to him as a child, just as it appeared in all wall paintings and parchments, even on the skin of the Egg Guardian who carried the roughly inked glory of the egg on his back; now a wrinkled tableau which upon his death would be re-applied to his successor in the same position and fashion as was tradition. The Egg Guardian was dead now of course, and so his novice would shortly have to take his place, unless there was no longer a need for a new Guardian, that is, if he, Olthar, chose to be the new Egg Lord, and right now there was not a lot to stop him.

He wiped sweat off his forehead, his glance never falling away from the latticed crystal orb at the cavern’s heart, and Olthar mused how pathetic his people had become because no one had mustered the courage in a thousand years to pursue the Egg Dream. They believed that the legend was sacred, and that the Egg was sacred for the hard lessons it had taught them, but that times had moved on, and that it was better to be ruled by the Egg, than to rule by it. It was better, the law said, that adventurous individuals stay away from such quests rather than risk bringing misery to everyone: a return to the immorality which had plagued their society for eons before the last Egg Lord died and the Guardians were formed.

Olthar was not a conformist, and in truth, he had often wondered if the Egg legend was just a load of nonsense which adults told to children in order to teach them not to go wandering off, or not to disobey orders. Now here he was, and nothing all that terrible had happened, not to him, at least. Sacrifices had been made, the Egg Guardian was dead, but he had been very old. Olthar consoled himself with this thought as he began finally to wade into the cool blue waters of the lake.

As he waded, he recalled all the stories he had been told about the egg:

That it was light as a feather to lift (but only to the evil, the pure of heart would never be able to lift it’s burden).

That it was blindingly bright, (and only those with dark purposes in front of them could bear to look upon it).

That to possess the Egg would instantly confer upon the bearer the title of Egg Lord (and bring with it the promise of immortality, unless stabbed through the heart with a golden arrow at sunrise on the first day of the new year).

That to be the Egg Lord was to posses superhuman strength and senses, (skills which had allowed previous Lords to maintain their empires).

Fiinally, that the Egg came with a price which no one knew and which was different for everyone. It was widely believed, however, that this price was insanity, as most Egg Lords spoken about in legends had allegedly met their ends by their own hands. Even when devoted followers had hidden all the golden arrows, in all the stories, always one would remain to be the instrument of the Egg Lord’s death at the dawn.

Olthar wasn’t particularly interested in these stories however. He didn’t believe in mystical promises of strength and power. The Egg was a merely to him, a valuable commodity, and now that foreign traders had been coming to the islands and trade relationships had been established, the time had come to place faith in more earthly assets than the magic of one crystal egg. As he ascended the platform upon which the Egg was placed, Olthar was caught for a second by its extraordinary beauty, the way it absorbed and refracted the light so smoothly as if alive and pulsing. He wondered what gave the Egg its marvelous phosphorescence, and how much it might be worth to the foreign men of his science who desired to know the answer to such questions.

His fingers reached out for the Egg; he heard it singing to him, a ringing resonance which made the tiny hairs arms of his arms stand on end. He remembered errant snippets, the last words of the Egg Guardian as he had tried to persuade Olthar to turn back:

…there are new safeguards, we knew the old stories wouldn’t be enough to keep people away anymore, times have changed, – listen, if you try to take the Egg now…

But Olthar had gotten impatient, the old man had not been allowed to finish his sentence, and the people of the Egg had become swiftly and brutally reaquainted with the act of murder.

Now these thoughts ebbed and flowed within Olthar as he picked up the singing Egg and held it aloft. He felt its beauty surging through him, all its light and wisdom and strength, and he laughed out loud joyfully, only turning at the sound of stone grinding behind him. He was forced to watch helplessly as a giant wall of rock descended on the only entrance and exit to the cavern, cutting him off from the outside world.

Then there was silence.

The light from the Egg continued to reflect its rainbows across the gentle lapping waters of the lake, a rich scene which Olthar, devoid of golden arrows, would be at liberty to enjoy forever.

24# The Exhibit

DFQMND

This short story is my entry into @ruanna3 ‘s latest fiction competition, The Dark Fairy Queen’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Writing Contest. I’ve chosen the theme ‘fairytales.’ Hope you enjoy, and please click on the blue ‘froggy’ link at the bottom of the story to check out other competition entries. Thanks!

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Lights flashing on outside the museum appeared to be like the echo of the lights dimming within. I remember them that night because of the exhibit, the sealed box which held all the magic the children came to see in such large numbers. It had been so long since such a place had existed in the real world.

During long summer evenings I would often stay to walk among the exhibits alone. I know that other employees found the experience “creepy.” They were afraid of the paintings with their corpse-like eyes, placid and unfathomable. I never had those thoughts because I wasn’t afraid of death as they were. Mine, and the generations before me crafted stories to cope with the passing of life, but now that transfer from biological, entropying bodies to replaceable mechanical models was possible, death had become unthinkable, so that even these paintings of the dead were horrifying to them.

As I headed straight for the Organic Exhibits room I thought about the stories my father told me when I was a child. I vaguely remember one about children being lost in a place where trees thrived, where a bad woman lived who ate children, or was that another tale? The stories had given me nightmares so my father had stopped telling them. Now I approached the museum’s new attraction with a feeling, wonder, I think it was. I heaved its lid open and gazed down.

The first thing I remember, standing over the encapsulated paradise, was the smell. Fresh and woody, the musty scent assaulted my nostrils and almost made me stumble. In that box lay synthesized the last bastion of poets and dreamers: a dell of miniature trees, their trunks entwined with ivy, their roots adorned with bluebells – a pioneering effort all created artificially, but so real they seemed to me, who had never seen a forest, or a flower. For a moment I experienced calm, until I heard a voice in the woods.

“Is someone there?”

It was like a child’s voice.

I dropped the lid back down, stepped away, but then faltered, and lifted the lid again. There were no other workers in the museum, but still I whispered to the voice:

“Stay hidden!”

Speeding homeward on the fetid monorail, I wondered what on earth had been created in that box, and what I might have to risk in order to protect it.

(400 words)

A Most Enduring Enchantment: Magic Realism Blog Hop.

blog hop 2015 dates

This is my third post for the wonderful annual magic realism blog hop organised by Zoe Brooks, you can see my entries from the previous two years here and here. Check out the links at the bottom of this page for other great blogs by fantastic authors on the hop.

To me, magic realism is the most natural and most wonderful (in the truest sense of the word) form of fiction there is. Of course as an M.R reader, and occasional author, I am fairly biased, but then to me, books are inherently magical things. That they should contain stories about magic seems prudent, considering the seemingly magical powers books have to sweep us up in their words and carry us off to new vistas like magic carpets (ones that can conveniently fit into our palms).

By its very nature the genre expresses the magic in everyday things (like books) and so the process appears to (one might even say magically) mirror itself. The reader reads of an ordinary situation made extraordinary by some – perhaps taken for granted – magical means, without being aware necessarily of the enchantment being woven around them by the book or the story. It is thus the transformative power our favourite books have, which weaves a spell over us, ensnaring our imaginations, potentially altering our perceptions of both the grand and the prosaic elements of our own lives as we follow the exploits of the narrative’s characters on their adventures.

In the past, the magic of books, or more specifically, words, was taken far more literally. People used books, such as religious texts as atropopaic charms. Ink was washed off sacred pages for devotees to drink, words were ingested physically when pages were eaten to absorb their perceived magical or divine power, or as a way of rooting out evil doers, poisoning the guilty, or the unfortunate through written curses. The magic of magical books could thus also be subversive. Many texts which appeared to ensnare (or empower) the layman were burnt – obliterated. People have been tortured and killed because of the books they possessed. The hold the written word has and has had over humanity is thus something as intangible and powerful as a sort of sorcery itself. Words on a page can be destroyed, but the memory of their message once read, requires a lot more coercion to erase.

To my mind, then, magic realism matters so much because it reminds us that magic is real. It exists in our hearts and our imaginations, and every author who writes becomes a magician, and every reader, the subject of a most enduring enchantment.

If you’d like to know more about the history of magical texts please see this wonderful, eye opening book Grimories: A History of Magic Books, by Owen Davies, which I used as research for this post.

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Also, if you’re a podcaster check out Stuff to Blow Your Mind’s excellent show on grimoires, (which also references Owen’s book throughout).

Finally, don’t forget to check out the other blogs!

 “About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the button below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.”

19: Daedalus

Image by Winnond, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100283191

Someone once made the mistake of telling my Grandfather that, being the greatest shipwright the province over, he could build a boat out of anything. I remember him laughing at the man, grabbing his chest, his white beard quivering, but his eyes were starting to mist over. Something then, gripped him, and never let go.

First it was a boat made of hair. He sent my sister and I throughout the town, and then the neighbouring town, and on and on down the roads to collect all the strands. I remember standing there in the sweltering heat, holding the bucket as the old women went round shaving heads, their deft old hands working so quickly as to become a blur before our eyes. Those with the strongest, darkest hair took our money, and we gathered up the hair newly fallen from now glistening heads. We took the buckets back to our Grandfather who hugged us in excitement when he saw how much we had collected. He would comment lovingly on the good quality of the hair, what a great job we had done. He would reward us with biscuits from an old tin adorned with a smiling lady holding a bursting cornucopia. Later, when we were afloat in that other boat, I would think of her, and wonder where she had gathered such wondrous fruit, and if we would ever see land again.

The boat made of hair was not seaworthy. It pained us all to see my Grandfather abandon it, but everyone knew it was a fool’s errand. Suddenly where once we had a house full of laughter and industrious excitement, now even the walls radiated with silence. My Grandfather was thinking, he was grieving for his dream, surrounded by all the swathes of dark hair left here and there in every room that seemed to become entwined in everything. But he did not give up.

Next there was the boat made of heavily salted butter, but you know how that turned out. I think pretty much everyone heard about that one. There was not enough salt in all the land to make that ship sail, and you know it’s funny because the sea is full of salt, but there it is. My Grandfather abandoned that too, and everyone we knew said (by that stage) that it was a good thing my Grandmother was not alive to see it. It would have cut her two, they said, to watch him turn his hand to all these follies.

It was only one day, when I was sitting under the willow, that I heard my Grandfather shout from out of a window somewhere, and I knew he had done it at last. It was the most unlikely design, but it was beautiful.

“A boat made from paper! But of course! So simple, even a child could make one!”

He was leaning out of the side of the house like that, clear out of the window into the sun. I can still see him now, and yes I think he really was half in and half out of life. Each day and each new design brought him a little further away from reality.

But the boat made from paper was the greatest of all his successes. That’s what everyone said. Grandfather was so proud, he stood at the docks and beamed at it, and beamed at us and now when I remember what it was like to look upon that ship it fills me with wonder still. She had the tallest sails, ivory white, and her sides were tinged with blue. The cabin walls were smooth as glass and the bunks so soft to lie upon, I’ll never really know how he did it.

“It was all in the folds,” he told me as if that were the secret. “I folded all my dreams into every plank, into the mast; as I shaped the body of the figurehead, I thought about what it would be like to have made the ship that no one could make – and I have done it!”

We set sail one quiet autumn day and half the province came to wave us off. They all brought picnics and there was singing and dancing and fires burning all along the wharf as we drifted away like a feather on the wind. I remember having some misgivings. I was sorry to leave so many of my things behind but Grandfather said I would be able to buy new things, once we got to some new place. My sister grew dark as she heard him say this, her face became stuck, pained. She asked him how he knew where we would go and what we would do there and he just said that the boat would decide. He actually laughed at our concerns.

“I built this boat, and this boat will not fail me.”

But my sister whispered into my ear one night,

“Doesn’t Grandfather realise that this boat is made of paper?”

“Of course he does,” I said, “don’t be silly.”

She sighed, her hair glinted where the moonlight cut across it to make a path out of the darkness.

“A paper boat would sink with all of us in it. Only magic is holding this boat up in the water, and magic comes at a price.”

I thought about what she said, the thought had never once crossed my mind.

“What price?” I asked. But she never answered. Still I could hear her thinking in the dark all night.

It took a few days but soon I saw it. The change in her,

I found her down below, in the belly of the ship. She was sobbing. My Grandfather was up on deck singing, oblivious. But when I came to my sister to see what was wrong, I found she was bent over a sheet of paper, she had a pen in her hand. It may as well have been a knife. A pen. On a magical boat made of paper.

“I can’t stop.” She had, by way of an excuse. She had been writing.

“What is that?” I asked her, I felt my hands shaking, something strange was happening to us.

“It’s a page from the galley table.” She said. “But it’s just a page, it won’t be missed.”

That was what she said then. That night I heard her scribbling away again.

“What are you writing?” I asked her. But she could not reply. I found some of her notes and began hoarding them in case Grandfather might see. I tried to read them but they made no sense to me at all. They were just strings of words, some weren’t even spelt correctly. Soon her bed was gone. She had ripped it up to write a book of nonsense verse in a language she had invented. My Grandfather, who slept on deck, was still none the wiser until she started attacking the very helm. She tore the great wheel apart in her madness for paper to write upon.

When my Grandfather saw what had happened to her he fell down upon his knees and wept. Carelessly he tore a sheet from the deck to use as a tissue to blow his great nose in. He knew then that all magic comes at a price. He had been willing to pay any deficit for our sakes, he said, but no one had come asking, the magic had just taken the thing it wanted most, or what was most easily taken.

My sister went raving mad when we took the pen away and so we had to lock her in the brig. Still she ripped at the sides of her cell and so we had to restrain her. Lying awake at night I could hear her screams and I even took the pen and hurled it into the ocean but it did no good. My Grandfather and I both beseeched the ship to leave my sister be, and to torment us instead, but to no avail. You cannot unchoose a choice made by magic.

“Sink it.” He said to me one night in a storm. “Sink it and we’ll try and swim away.” The storm raged so loud that night we were almost grateful because it drowned out the cries of my poor mad sister. Every cloud has a silver lining they say.

“To the bottom of the ocean with her.” Grandfather cried, and he downed the last of the whiskey, and crushed the soggy bottle with one hand. In his ship, even the bottles were made of paper. We had run out of food by that stage, and as my Grandfather said, we could not eat the paper.

“How are we to do it though? How do we sink her?” I asked.

“Magic.” Was all he said.

The next morning I woke to the sound of seagulls and a face full of sand. I turned my head to my right and saw my sister, lying on the beach, her hair extended in beautiful honey tendrils. For a moment I felt like I was only dreaming, and I wanted only to put my hand out to touch those soft strands, to feel them under my fingers, something safe and familiar and beautiful. But I knew in my heart I was awake. It was then I saw my Grandfather waving goodbye to us, I watched him sink below the waves and rubbed my eyes because it seemed impossible. How had we come to be there? Could it really be my Grandfather sinking away into the water, leaving us? The reality hit me like the waves, full in the face, stinging and blinding and relentless.I screamed and screamed but he came no nearer to us, in one moment he was gone, swallowed by a wave, his boat of dreams, obliterated in an instant.

I turned back to my sister who was waking. She too rubbed her eyes as if emerging from a great sleep.

“Oh it’s beautiful here!” She said, as if she had quite forgotten my Grandfather and the boat made of paper.

People were coming towards us now, tall people with beautiful eyes holding baskets, some held children.

“Mermaids!” Said one.

“No, see they have no tails.” Said another.

“Please help us,” I ran to them. “Our Grandfather will drown, he’s out there now in a boat made of paper.” That’s what I said to them. I pointed out to sea but someone said.

“There’s nothing at all in the waves child.”

And she was right, where my Grandfather’s boat had once been, was now the ocean, and the long horizon.

I felt a last cry gather in my mouth and then stiffle. I saw my sister smiling and chatting to the people on the beach, I saw her take a shell out of her beautiful hair and act as if nothing had happened. I felt utterly at a loss, and so I put my hands in my pockets and it was then that I felt something crumple. It was a sheet of paper. I took it out and opened it up and saw the words my sister had written start to make sense at last.

“I had to give everything up to get anything back.” It started off, the words slanting this way and that, twirling round each other like twine.

“I had to loose everything to gain anything worth having.” Here and there the letters twisted so I had to twist the paper to follow them, like a road into a labyrinth.

“I needed to be empty, in order to be full again.” The words neared the centre.

“I needed to be wiped away, and in order to be written again.”

The words stopped. They had finally run aground. I shook my head and tried to say something to my sister, about the things she had written, and about our Grandfather, and about that emptiness in the centre of the page but she was already moving away. The sun was rising high above our heads, and above the people who led her away up into the trees. Someone was singing, the smell of food was drifting down the beach and catching me up in it.

One woman came and stood beside me for a time as I grieved for my Grandfather and his boat.

“Better that you should live, and that he should go.” She said by way of a kindness to me.

I nodded and screwed up the paper into a ball. I tossed it away from me.

“He was all we had.” I said.

“Are the kinds of dreams one makes out of paper, really worth sailing off in?” She asked me, her head cocked to one side, her eyes large and taking me in as if I were a mirage.

“Yes.” I said. “They got us this far.”

We watched the ocean for a while longer, and then she told me her name and asked if I was hungry. and I thought I may as well follow her to where the trees met the sand, to where all adventurers go eventually.

 

 

 

18: The Land Without Hope

Image Evgeni Dinev, Freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100120506

I woke up in the Land Without Hope, and had almost forgotten that I had been chosen as one of the legion in a long line of demonic sacrifices. For a second I couldn’t fathom where I had landed. It was only when I looked up from the horizon and realised that the black sky was utterly devoid of stars that I knew that I was in that other place, that no one comes back from. Stars, for us, represent hope, a past, a legacy. Without stars you don’t know where you came from, and you can’t go home again. Your soul has no celestial way of navigating, and in this place, no earthly purchase either.

But stars must also be striven for and towards. In that darkness I saw no possibilities at all, and heaven knows I looked.

The Land Without Hope was pockmarked, and strewn with old objects that no one had a use for anymore. As I looked about at the the strands of metal peeking out from under dunes, and the old bones, and the tattered books, and the odd socks, I felt a misery in knowing that here, I belonged at last. Finally they had found a place for me where I would not stand out.

I smiled slightly as I discovered the truth of it. A lot of humour has no hope in it at all. Or rather, as Manthorn would say, joyless laughter is the very sound of hope leaving. You deploy it because there is nothing else to say. That empty laughter filled the foothills of the Land Without Hope. Foothills that held black-hearted vultures at their peaks. They made the laughter ring. Purple-eyed fiends who feed on empty-socketed creatures roaming the tundra.

I surveyed them for a moment and wondered who had rejected them. I was there as a sacrifice, thankfully, I knew that. It made me think that at least I would be swallowed up whole and not left to wander like one of those pathetic creatures which had ceased to be human. You could only see them after a few minutes, their melting bodies blended into the monotony of the yellow scrub, and hid amongst the shapes of trees, casting no shadows. There were strange trees in that land. Their branches were twisted into shapes of suicidal agony. I remember thinking how melodramatic it all was – whoever had fashioned this landscape had wrought pain and anguish into its folds in the most unimaginative fashion. No wonder the vultures are laughing, I thought.

Getting tired of that hellish landscape I sat down, and became maudlin and introspective. I wondered when exactly the Demon King would come for me, when I might be eaten, and what he might look like. Did he speak? Was there any point in negotiating? I looked down at my hands, the palms had healed. There were no blisters now. Nothing to remind me of the hours spent trying to escape from those bonds, from the ropes that bound me, and from the darkness of the cell I had languished in for months; even when it was a fate I had initially chosen for myself, for a while I still fought it. It broke my heart to see those smooth hands, devoid of scars. It made me appreciate the loss of my humanity. They told me once, -and I from my prison cell believed them – that humanity is a thing you can’t win back in the Land Without Hope.

One of the melting walkers approached me. Its limbs dissolving as I looked. There are so many of them. I thought. They were everywhere, the more you looked across the wasteland the more undulating, stumbling corpses revealed themselves. I wondered if this walker would get close to me before it melted away all together. In the corner of my eye I saw another one rise, and another, moaning, their mouths a sticky maw of frustration.

I looked down at my feet, and sought around for something to throw. I like throwing, I had always been good at it. I had the aim of a professional, and more passion than the other girls. I could always throw farther, I never stopped to think about what I looked like when I pitched the stones into the water. When I killed the Priest of Gold it was with a stone. The blow shattered his skull. He died a good death and that was all that mattered. I did what I was told because I didn’t feel then I had any other choice.

“They put you in the path of destiny, and on you blithely go.” Manthorn said to me, when I he saw I had taken on the commission. I had put on the ceremonial robes of an assassin.

“You do know where they will send you, don’t you?” He asked, one eyebrow raised so high as if were looking for a way to float off his old face altogether.

“You do this, and no one is going to think to thank you afterwards. You don’t get a handshake and a pat on the back.” Light was streaming through the slit in the wall onto his gown. It was a pale dying Winter light. I knew there would be no more Summers where I was going.

“One hell is the same as another.”

“No, you see that’s where you are wrong.” He answered. “They could send you to any number of hells for killing a High Priest.”

“Who decides?”

He shrugged. “Who can say? I don’t know the inner workings of these people, these chancellors. I’m just an old magician.”

I shook my head at him and put on the gloves.

“Find me a rock.” I said. “A stone.”

Manthorn’s face grew pale and a thousand years swam about in his eyes.

“There are convicts who could do this job, true believers, I don’t know why you want to do this. Only a fool would volunteer to martyr themselves for no good reason.”

It was my turn to shrug at him. “I have reasons enough.”

Now, standing in that place alone with the walker in front of me, I felt the anger return. When you loose everything over and over again it becomes meaningless, and yet you don’t for a minute learn to stop accumulating things to love. At last I was in place where there was nothing, absolutely nothing to love. I could never loose anything ever again.

“Aah!” I picked up a chewed sandal, bearing the teeth marks of an animal, and I threw it. The walker recoiled from the the blow and stopped in its tracks. I picked up another object, a metal poker this time.

“I have an appointment with the Demon King.” I said to the walker. “You’re going to take me to me or I’ll run you through.”

I knew it didn’t matter what I did to that shape, it couldn’t look anymore monstrous than it did now. Perhaps it knew that. The shape just slunk away. For a while I followed it until its limbs just evaporated into the wind and left a rancid odour that stayed in my nostrils wherever I went. And go I did. I searched up and down for my destroyer, but he never came.

It was only one day – I say day, but there is no time in the Land Without Hope – that I happened to feel a shift in the thick dust of the air. I looked up from the shapes I was drawing in the sand to see a figure materialise.

“Manthorn!” I ran to him, not even looking where I was going, but he vanished.

This went on for a sizeable eternity. This game of cat and mouse with Manthorn’s shade. In the meantime I traced my way through the wasteland avoiding the staggering shapes and the tortured trees and instead seeking out things to keep from amongst the debris. Perhaps it is a human thing, to want to always be hanging on to something. More often than not I lay in the dust and wondered is there really nothing left to loose now? –As I acquired marbles and watch straps, letter openers and combs with broken teeth. I picked them up and left them in piles. I made my mark on the landscape without hope, and slowly but surely, I felt a purpose, growing here and there in the heaps of things that he been thrown away. But I had a use for them.

When Manthorn finally became corporal it was a shock. He appeared behind me while I was stacking some chipped statuettes, one on top of the other to make a tower.

“So this is what you’ve been doing all this time.” He said, his tone caustic, his eyes fading in and out of his head where the magic waxed and waned.

“You’ve come through at last then, that took some effort didn’t it.”

“I thought you would be a bit more pleased to see me.” He folded his arms. I got up and walked right through him, just to be insolent. Just to show him I lived in the Land Without Hope now and didn’t care about his magic.

“Are you are just here to have a look round is that it-” I paced, encircling him like a cat. I heard him sigh.

“I thought this might happen. I told you they’d send you somewhere like this.”

“Enough of that.” I found myself shouting, but away from him, I had turned my back. I was still looking up at the void that was the sky and fighting something that felt like tears but which never manifested. “You may as well make yourself useful – help me find the Demon King and get this over with.”

“The Demon King.” Manthorn just repeated my words back to me. It made me howl in frustration. I felt for a second like one of those walkers with their gaping sorrowful mouths.

“You heard me.” I said. Manthorn nodded. “Let me take you then.” He said. “Follow me.”

I remember thinking what’s the old fool up to. But I followed him anyway. We stalked through the dunes and past the piles of oddities I had collected. Manthorn made a show of examining a fair few of them. He bent over the sad little heaps of broken treasures and hummed and haahed over them. I wanted to hurry him on but I had somehow lost the heart to.

We came at last to mountain of dust and dirt and scree that blocked out anything beyond it. Here the walkers wouldn’t venture, and even those damned trees wouldn’t grow.

“Is this the place then?” I asked Manthorn.

“See for yourself.” He said, and beckoned with one ghostly hand forward.”May I ask what you intend to do?”

“Do?”

“Well yes. When you encounter the Demon King.”

I paused. I looked back and saw in the distance the mounds of broken things and felt a weird pride in them. In my collections, how I had made something out of nothing.

“Manthorn,” I said to him, “find me a stone.”

I took what he gave me, his face still creased in wonderment, and I climbed to the top of that ridge and gazed out. I had pulled at the earth with my hands to get a purchase and I felt the beginnings of pain. It made me stop for a moment and try and remember why that sensation mattered. I looked down at my palms and saw they were blistered. I looked out and down and there, sitting on his own heap of rejected ornaments, was the Demon King.

When I looked he looked too. His eyes were the most truly hopeless thing in the Land Without Hope. In fact, they were the epicentre of all it held. Reflected in his eyes I saw the vultures with their black plumes, and the branches of the strangled trees. I saw the melting walkers and the darkness without stars. I heard the joyless laughter as if it were carried on a whirlwind around that figure sitting squat, and unfathomably huge in the middle of that hoard. His head held eight horns, he had four thick legs, his two arms where constantly moving over the objects under his stump-like feet.

I felt my pulse race, I gripped my rock. I had to ask myself, why doesn’t he rise? Why doesn’t he rush at me with those horns and tear me to pieces. Why is he just watching me with those eyes?

Then he rose, he came slowly towards me. A new realisation came over me. I couldn’t work out what it was.

Throw it

The voice said.

Kill me

I froze. There was an eternity in which I watched the Demon King and he waited. In his eyes then I saw all the sorrows I had ever known, and all the dejections, the bereavements. I let my arm fall slack. I waited for him to make everything right, to fulfill his side of an ancient bargain but he never came at me.

You can destroy me.

The voice said finally, pitifully.

I cursed him then, and put down my rock. I let it just roll away.

The Demon King slunk back. He began to diminish in size until he could burrow under the mountain of broken objects, until he was gone.

Manthorn appeared at my shoulder, suitably smug.

“You didn’t fancy becoming King of the Land Without Hope then?”

“No.” I said. “Now there really isn’t any hope at all, is there. No hope of being devoured I mean. Of leaving here.”

Manthorn wiggled his eyes brows in answer, his arms folded again. I turned my back on the Demon’s hoard and made to walk back down the mountain. But Manthorn called after me.

“The Demon King isn’t gone you know.”

“Oh?” I called back. Utterly disinterested now.

“-But you know now that there is no devouring. You either walk away or you take his place.”

“Fascinating”

“Wait.” I waited. I don’t know why, perhaps Manthorn still had some real magic in him that was not for conjuring illusions.

“When you picked up that rock you meant to kill him. What did you hope to achieve?”

I struggled with the answer.

“To fight back. I suppose. I don’t know. Perhaps I hoped I could change everything by killing him.”

I felt a sudden twinge, I dropped to my knees, winded.

“You hoped did you?” Manthorn said.

I looked up then, my hands round my ribs. The guards had broken them when they threw me down the stairs after I had killed the Priest of Gold. I had forgotten the pain, but it came over me in a relieving wash. As I said, I felt the pain in my ribs but I looked up, I felt my gazed being dragged skywards. Stars were bursting out all over the night, burning through the blanket of darkness like stray coals on a carpet.

“Why is it doing that?” I cried out to Manthorn, but his figure was shimmering and loosing its focus.

“There,” I heard him say, and he pointed out towards an island forming up ahead of us in the night, suspended in the sky. It was a green place, it was bright, I almost thought I saw the twinkle of water gushing out into nothing.

I gasped as I felt my blood surging in my veins, and my eyes now truly watering with tears.

“Only humanity has the capacity to find something to hope for in the Land Without Hope.” Manthorn said from the mountain top.

“I’ll never reach it from here.” I shouted out in disgust at him, the novelty of the pain was wearing off, but he was laughing with joy

“Anything visible, feasible or tangible is surmountable. To enter the Land Full of Hope, all you have to do is hope for it,”

Then, as is characteristic with all magicians, he vanished.

I sat up and having nothing else to look at or for, stared out at that glittering island in the distance. I grasped my ribs with my blistered hands and I stood. Somewhere down below I thought I heard the Demon King howling.

“Come on.” I shouted down to him, painfully motioning him to get off his hoard and follow.

The Demon King looked up at me with curious eyes now.

“We are going on an adventure,” I told him, “now get moving.”

He shuffled to his feet, his horned head bowed, sulking, but compliant.

“And find me a stone.” I said.

How? The voice asked.

I cleaned some sand out of my eyes and thought of Manthorn.

“Try hoping for one.” I told him.

The Demon King looked at me perplexed for a moment, before a memory appeared to surface in his eyes and we set off as somewhere behind us, the eyeless corpses began rooting through the piles of dis-guarded things as if finally seeing them for the first time.