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.

 

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27# The Lovers

Photo: Sira Anamwong. Freedigitalphotos.net

mermaid

“If you come any closer I’ll drown you,” she said from the rocks.

“If I pull you out of the water you’ll die,” he said, reciting the line as he always did when he came too close to her.

The man and the woman from their separate vantage points stood sadly surveying each other from a distance, as they had done, year after year. The man had kept a weekly vigil by the lake for so long now, that people had stopped asking him when he would settle down and take a wife. Now the local people avoided him because they had watched him grow into someone strange. “Handsome, but witch-touched,” the old women would say about him as he walked alone down the street.

Tonight, a lilac moon hung over the heads of the lovers; the last pink of day mingling with the black of night over the dark waters and the sloping pines to the east. The man’s back was to the pine forest, he faced the water’s edge and felt in the pocket of his woollen coat for the gift he had brought.

“I have something for you,” he said, producing a wooden box. It was small, made of dark wood like mahogany, and criss-crossed with a lattice filigree of darting silver lines. It glinted in the moonlight as he held it out to the woman in the water.

“What is it?” She asked.

“Would you like to see it?” He stepped closer, somewhat timidly holding it out towards her. Seeing her reaction he cried,

“No don’t go back, you won’t hurt me!” but she was afraid. “My family will be watching,” she said, and made as if to swim away, but then he opened the box with a click, and laid it on the ground between them.

“What do you wish, more than anything?” He asked.

She looked up at him, blinking her wide iridescent eyes, then answered plainly, “for us to never be apart.”

The man smiled, and a light caught like a spark inside the box. It soon became a glow which spread into the air like smoke, and was sweet smelling, and made a noise like chimes as it floated above them.

“You can drown me now,” he said, and held out his arms.

“You have made magic!” She cried, feeling the smoke tingle as it settled upon her skin, each contact blazing like a star.

“Love makes even ordinary men magicians,” he said, as she gave in at last to her nature, leaning in to grasp him with soft, wet, ivory arms.

At last embracing, with a kiss they froze, and became two stone lovers. The box which had lain between them closed with a click. The waters lapped ferociously at the rocks, and cries filled the air like bleating gulls. A dark hand grasped out to grab the box, and pull it beneath the waves.

Years passed, but no one came back to the lake. It seemed as if the Lovers had been forgotten.

* * * * *

Centuries later, a young couple wandered down to the lakeside. The man was a stranger, but he held the hand of a local girl.

“That’s a funny sort of bridge isn’t it?” he said, pointing to a misshapen stone edifice by the rocks.

“Oh,” the girl shrugged. “Those are the Lovers.” Seeing his blank look she continued with a playful glance back at him. “A man, and a mermaid, it’s an old folktale – oh never mind.” They were quiet for a moment, and both stood surveying the huddle of weatherworn stone which now resembled a little bridge from the land to the water.

“My Grandfather thought there were really mermaids in the lake, so he would never let me come here.” She said. “I once had a joke with him – said that mermaids only drown boys, but he insisted that the mer-people had been very angry about their daughter getting seduced and turned to stone, and that they would likely try to do me a mischief anyway.”

She picked up a stone and hurled it towards the lake. It hit the surface, then seemed to hang right on the edge for a moment, before slowly sinking below the waters. The girl rubbed her eyes, there were ripples spreading all over the surface of the lake like a shudder.

“Let’s go,” she grabbed the boys’ hand and pulled him away from the water, but he said “wait a moment,” and dashed off towards the rocks. He had darted down towards the stone bridge snatching something up from the water’s edge, it was a box. The couple set off back the way they had come, as behind them, a green hand slunk back down below the water.

“Where did you find that?” The girl’s voice could be heard to say.

“I saw it just sitting there, on the rocks.”

“That’s funny, I don’t remember seeing it. What’s inside do you think?”

“Don’t know, I can’t open it.”

“Wait until we get back, we can use my brother’s tools.”

“But I don’t want to break it,”

“Then take it to the Friday market,” Her voice was barely audible now,

“There’s an old man I’ve seen down there who sells things like that…”

Soon they were gone, and the forest had swallowed up the sound of their voices. In time a light rain began to fall, washing over the faces, hands and bodies of the stone lovers, now merged together, indistinguishable from each other, half in, and half out of the water.

25# The Egg Lord

Image Tuomas_Lehtinen. Freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100113575

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!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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)

23# The Building.

Image by gubgib, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100138707

I was so proud to work there. Every morning as I rounded that final corner I would catch a glimpse of the building basking in rising sun. It dominates the skyline from every direction, you can’t escape it. As a feat of architecture it’s not only functional but aesthetically captivating, it has a terrible beauty about it which makes even the locals stop, and stare when they come near it.

When I first started there I was on top of the world about it. I mean you would be wouldn’t you? Starting at a firm like that. My decision to re-train, at my age, was such a gamble. I really thought it had paid off. It wasn’t the firm, not at first, I mean it was, but it was the building. I know you won’t understand until I explain it all, but the people were a delight to start off with. Most of them were very nice, and very sociable people, you know, always inviting me to their houses, and barbeques and all that. I never went of course, being me, I sort of wish I had now because maybe then I would have sensed something from them. But then, I still don’t know who knew about it, about the building.

It really started one day when I was in at the weekend, on my own. I remember waking up that day and thinking that I could do a thousand things with my time, that I was on top of all my work and so could spend the day doing anything, or nothing, and yet, suddenly there I was, on the way to work. I just needed to be there. Suddenly I felt as if not being there was a waste of my time.

Here’s a picture I took. You can see how the surface of the copper on that side catches the sunlight so beautifully. It’s a sculpture really isn’t it. All those layers, those jutting edges. Yes, that part does look like a face doesn’t it? You could almost believe it was watching you. I have so many photos like that, all from different angles. Even in the rain it looks majestic. Perhaps, especially in the rain.

I have no idea who built it. I tried to find out but it isn’t even on the net anywhere. The design is always credited to the firm and what they call the C.C.C, “Collective Creative Cooperative” which is a kind of employee program I suppose you could call it. It was brought up in meetings but I never seemed to be able to find out much about it either. Some sort of extracurricular artistic collaboration I thought it was. You know modern businesses are so hellbent on teamwork and bonding and expressing yourself, all that gumpf.

Where was I? Yes, the day I went in for no reason.

I stayed there all day, I worked on a project, idly. I remember thinking, as I ate my lunch, I should feel lonely here. But I didn’t. I was almost glad to be alone. To have that space to myself. I remember looking at the walls and marveling at how I thought there were must have been paintings up, but there were none at all. Just the wall, but it in itself was fascinating. The way it seemed have that natural flow, like water, like a river. It was part stone, part metal, it seemed to shift with the eye.

It got late and I suddenly realised that I hadn’t typed anything or read anything, or even thought about anything in at least half an hour. It was so peaceful, like being in a womb. Because at night the lights would go dim naturally, and the huge windows would let the soft sunset in. The sunsets up on my floor were spectacular, it was like bathing in a watercolour, every night.

It became a habit. I couldn’t stop going back there on the weekends, and during the week I’d stay late. Sometimes others would stay too, but we kept to ourselves. It was as if no one wanted to disturb the atmosphere, that strange, calm movement the place had, like sitting in a giant rocking chair.

One night I thought I could make out voices. Whispers. There was no one in the office, and I had to check my phone to make sure I hadn’t called anyone by accident, I hadn’t. The whispers were coming from all around me. I thought I had been dreaming, but In a few minutes of getting up, standing very still and listening, I realised where the sound was emanating from. It was coming from the walls. I lent my ear up against one and heard it. The voices all whispering. I think there were actually speaking loudly, maybe they were even shouting, but all that material was blocking the sound, trapped it in stone and iron.

Don’t even bother to look at me like that until you’ve heard the rest of it.

Yes it dawned on me that they must be piping sound in through the walls somehow. It could have been one of those arty ideas, to make the building a talking installation or something. They do that in art galleries sometimes don’t they? And the building is a work of art, or rather it’s even more than that.

One day I was invited to join the C.C.C. My manager showed me a leaflet with lots of vague statements on it about “giving back” and “rewarding loyal employees”, “personal enrichment” that sort of thing. I glanced at it and said I would love to be a part of it, at once, without even asking what it was.

By this stage I was in work all the time, and I had begun to notice how quickly people came and went in that job. Many faces remained to treat me kindly or to give me increasingly unsettling stares in the corridor, but there was also a high turn-over of nobodies. I guessed they were just part-timers. I never really made an effort to get to know anybody who I didn’t have to directly work with. Every so often one of the managers would talk about the “dispatchables”, and I soon realised that they meant those come-and-go staffers whom no one really knew but who seemed to fulfill their roles and then quietly fade into obscurity. I remember my own manager, the man who had given me the leaflet, say,

“Jim, you’re special. You’re an indispensible. A future custodian, It’s people like you who eventually maintain us all.”

The business was ludicrously successful. When he said that, I pondered my future at the company, and it wasn’t even about a promotion or the money, it was about what he had said, about maintaining. I wanted to be a custodian, of that building. It had become my whole world.

Finally, they took me aside and said that they would explain the CCC to me. They said that I had shown enough dedication and had been there long enough to enjoy its benefits. It was in a meeting at 6pm on a Friday, when everyone else had gone home. I remember watching the last rays of light glide down onto the table, and looking around at the faces of the others who had fallen into shadows. I was suffering from exhaustion. The voices in the walls were now everywhere and when I left that building I couldn’t sleep because I missed them. I felt disconnected without their chatter.

The managers led me away from the conference room. One of them explained the architecture of the building to me in terms of  flows of energy, like in Feng Shui. As we passed room after room, down flights and along more corridors her voice mingled with the wall whispers and her hands pointed out this feature and that. She imparted the wisdom of the structure to me, how it caught all the positive energy like a trap, reached out and grasped energy from its surroundings, and from us. But people like me benefited from this. We were wrapped in this flow, our energies becoming one with all the others; streams and eddies of opportunity, of luck, of wisdom, all caught up in the building’s every living breath.

“Imagine that this building is a beast, that every twist and turn you see is a coil of its body. That we are all existing inside it, protected and nurtured by the air its breathing circulates.”

I didn’t really think much about the validity of what she was saying as we walked. Of course it sounds ridiculous, but I just listened. Everything made perfect sense to me then because my work was my life. Whenever I entered that building I came alive, and when I left I was emptied of it.

We ended up at a small door down in the basement. It was dark and hot down there, like a boiler room. They opened the door and we all stepped inside. You wouldn’t believe what I saw in there, how majestic that room was for all its inauspicious appearance from the corridor. The walls were like gold with glints of copper, bronze, I don’t know what. They whispered and writhed. The floor was a dark red, like a resin, like a very deep amber, and in it floated shapes, seemingly borne along by a current.

In front of me I saw two men and a woman. They stood before a patch of wall marked like a doorway without a door. They all had their backs to me. The man was limp, as though drunk or asleep, held up by the man and the woman.

My manager turned to me and said, “I wish I could have my first time, again. Just watch.” He smiled wistfully.

Then the man and the woman woke the slumped man. They said some things to him which seemed to distress him, before leading him forward. They propped him up against the wall and everyone waited.

Nothing happened for a few minutes, then I saw his eyes widen, and swivel. He moved, he was being pulled backwards, sucked. His shoulder went first and he struggled, but fingertips appeared to grasp him, and pull him further in. A foot appeared, more limbs, it was as if a struggle was going on between those behind the wall and the man in front of it. I saw a palm go up on the golden wall, beating against the material, but it couldn’t break the surface. The man was now pinned, both his arms behind him, screaming at us.

The last I saw of his face was his gaping mouth as the wall consumed him. Then it was all over, as if nothing at all had happened.

The woman who had given me the tour quietly said,

“I almost envy the Dispatchables.” Then we all left.

After that day I started to notice, more and more, the missing faces in the office, in contrast to the voices, to the sudden shapes that I would imagine I could see in the walls. I say imagine, but really I knew what I was seeing.

“They have to be alive.” My manager had said to me after we left the golden room. “We need their energy.”

I gave three people to the wall. Not that many, not as many as the others. I knew their names because I had to research them first. They couldn’t be sick, mentally or physically. That would affected us all.

But one day I got sick. I nearly died. Something I picked up from a late night meal on the way home. I was in hospital for weeks.

At first not being near to the building was unbearable. But as I grew in strength I started to forget about it, it lost its hold on me. I mean I still knew that I was guilty of hideous things, but somehow even my guilt was tied up with the building. It wasn’t a part of me, because when I was there I wasn’t myself. Strangely enough, it was only when I passed the building on the bus that it hit me. All of what it was. A living, breathing thing. Hungry, insatiable. And I had fed my colleagues to it. I looked out at the building from the bus window, and something looked back at me. We were both remembering.

I never went back. The firm never even contacted me, except once. They sent me a chatty letter, reminding me that the C.C.C was “the future of corporate business”, and that I was always welcome, should I wish to return. It mentioned they were planning on expanding.

A branch in every town by 2020, the slogan read.

 

21: The Swan Man

Image anankkml, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-10032367

I know this way into the woods.

I heard the blacksmith’s daughter say that he lives here still, even after we all thought he had gone long ago. She had seen him once, the Swan Man, picking up wood for to make a fire.

“For why else would you need wood?” She asked, “and if there’s a fire there’s a hearth, and if there’s a hearth then he isn’t gone at all.”

When I was a child I thought about the stories told about him. Late at night when we were bold and wouldn’t sleep, and cried out to be up and running again, not laying in our beds, that’s when my grandmother would tell us these tales.

Afterwords I would still lie awake but pretend to be sleeping. I would stare at the ceiling and imagine him.

“The Swan Man is a sorcerer,” grandmother would say. “He got his powers from the dark one. He steals the girls and leaves the boys and no one knows what he does with them.”

“But when does he come?”

“At night dear, when the moon is hidden behind a wreath of cloud, or there is no moon at all to show him up. He swoops down and pecks at the window pane, tap tap, and you must not get up to let him in! Oh no. For he steals little girls who stay awake.”

“I don’t believe in magic” I told my grandmother one night. I ran outside and I shouted it at her from the gate. She clasped her hands as if in prayer and cried and it was only my sister who convinced me to come back, to apologise, to go without supper and not run off into the woods like the wild thing my grandmother said I was.

I grew up and thought no more about the Swan Man.

People sometimes spoke of him but sure don’t they always talk about those things when night falls and cups are filled and the long walk home needs company and company needs tales to entertain them.

Now here I am at the entrance to the woods. The Swan Man is real, and I know it. I too saw him because I waited, I waited in the spot where the blacksmith’s daughter told me to wait and I saw the thin figure of man flit by. It seemed he was nothing but a long shadow, he came and then was gone, but I know his way.

Now none of the others will so much as glance at me. My sister and her husband are gone and left the cottage gaping, empty.

“Why could you not have married?” My sister had called at me as the gate swung shut. But John pulled her away down the lane and he would not look back.

“Oh why did you have to interfere?” She had said to me when Wedlow’s boy got sick and died.

“He says you cursed his name! How could you be so foolish? Did we not take you in, and were we not kind to you? This is a poor way to repay your only family.”

It was Wedlow’s cottage and I couldn’t sit in it anymore on my own after they had gone. I knew he would come for it. I had been tired of his interfering, of complaining that we didn’t look after the land as we should. I told him what I thought of him and that might have been that, but his hag of a wife saw me. She saw me at the edge of the woods, waiting for the Swan Man. Soon after his boy died, everyone knew where I had been.

I have no option now but to let the Swan Man take me in. I have no money put by, but I am fit and can work. Perhaps he will find a use for me. The journey to the nearest town is too far, and no one will take me. I’ll press on then, and by nightfall I should reach him. I wonder will I know him? Will I see the Swan, or the Man? Or nothing?

The trees are closing in but I can still see a path. Faintly I can trace a way through these grasping branches, though my feet are caught by thorns, and mired in sodden leaves. Creatures scurry past my ankles and I can feel the wind at my back, and the air growing moist, and cold.

I see no light up ahead yet, no dwelling, but he if he needs wood then he must have a hearth…

There, a clearing, a hovel in the rock, a fire. There he is, the thin shape, dark as a shadow; his face is pale like the moon but he is no swan. What a sorrowful face! Such beautiful eyes! Why is he so young, still? He must truly be a magician.

We are watching each other now across the fire. He beckons me over to where the cages are; where he is standing there are many cages, many wings held up over faces. There are furs on the ground, and he has burrs in his hair.

“There are only sleeping,” he says, “I don’t harm them.”

But I don’t look down at the cages. I ask him if he will help me. He agrees.

“I’ll make you like the others,” he says, “if you have no other option.” I don’t know what he means, but I nod my head.

He makes me stand in a circle he has made with stones, and dead bird’s beaks. He goes into the cave and fetches things I cannot see.

“Put your arms up,” he says, “no higher, all the way up.” I comply and as I do, I say:

“They saw me at the edge of the woods,” he shakes his head.

“You should never have come looking for me,” he answers, scattering bones at my feet.

“They think I’m a witch, that I’m just like you.”

He stops what he is doing at this to look at me sideways.

“I thought you didn’t believe in magic?” He asks. He knows!

“I don’t.” I say,

“You’re lying,” he replies, and carries on about his work. “Open your mouth.”

I open my mouth, and in it he places a long, white feather.

“I never came for children,” he says as he stands outside the circle, now motionless, and yet so full of purpose.

“One day I will die, and you must tell them that. You’ll have no master then.” I nod my head again, and wait, afraid.

He was right, perhaps I always have believed in magic.

Now I turn my eyes to creatures in the cages slumbering. For an instant I think I can see faces flash underneath white feathers, but they are just the faces of birds. White swans; big beasts in bigger cages.

He says the words.

For a moment I remember being small and crawling up to see the moon peeking at my window, and hearing a tap tapping on the pane.

The world is ablaze with light and I am floating in white feathers. He must have let the birds out, I think for an instant. Then I am doubled over, the blaze is in my head and limbs. I cry out and extend my arms only to see wings before my eyes, and the voice of a bird calling.

“They’ll never catch you now,” the Swan Man says, as I arch and flap and ache and feel a joy to reach up for the sky.

He throws his hands to the air and I am aloft.

I am going to fly over the village. I’m flying to the old cottage, so I can watch them break down the door and find no one there.

Somewhere in the woods, the Swan Man is building me a new cage.

**************

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.