La Vie Est Drôle, Non?

Lady Viona de Gaspar, the young heiress of House Gaspar, descended from her gilded, shimmering carriage onto the dawn-lit cobblestone of Cuvier Street. This was not meant to be her destination, and the old carriage driver knew.

“Are you certain, miss?” he asked in a high tone, adjusting his cap, his voice as wispy as what remained of his beard. “This is not the sort of street for a lady to traipse around in, especially not now with the Plague.”

She patted down her dress with one hand, wielding her parasol like a soldier over her shoulder. “Utterly positive. Now be on your way and tell no one of this as we’ve agreed. I’ve left the rest of your payment in the seat.”

“As you say. Farewell, miss,” he replied with another adjustment of his cap and the snap of reins. The horses heeded their master and clopped on to their next stop, leaving Lady Viona unattended. For the first time in what felt like months, she was finally able to slip away from the manse without someone surveilling her.

She had never been in this part of the city before. Her mother and father would never let her, and her younger brother had no interest in ever leaving the house, and until now, she had no need to. However she heard rumors from the servants of something quite special hidden away here. The empty streets did perplex her. Her image of the town square of the Workman’s District was quite a bit more populated and bustling with life. Ever since the Babbling Plague had re-emerged a few months ago, she was ordered to never leave, which she understood was for good reason.

She wondered if this would affect her prospects of finding what she came for.

Nonetheless, she started her journey down a tight alleyway that reeked of something sickly sweet and pungent, pinching her nose with her free hand.

On Gustave Street, at around the hour for lunch, an adolescent boy hopped off from his stool behind a counter and unwrapped a small piece of bread from a checkered cloth, placing both back on the counter. With another motion, he placed a jar of grape jam next to it.

This was the routine he had established every day for as long as he could remember. In the morning he would open the store. And at night he would close it. On a good day, a few shady types might come in and buy something. On a bad day, he would not interact with another human being at all, and lately, the bad days had become more and more frequent after city life shut down due to fears of the spreading Babbling Plague. He had a thought as he searched for a utensil. The person who delivered his food this morning was different. Does that mean the usual old lady was sick? He made a mental note to ask tomorrow if she didn’t come by.

A small bell rang through the dimly lit, underground shop, indicating a prospective customer had just walked in. With a startle, he fell to the side, knocking down the stool and himself with it. It had actually been a long time since there was a customer, no less a sale.

“Oh!” said a feminine, refined voice, “My apologies. Are you the proprietor?”

He leaned up from the freshly broomed, wooden floor and saw the source of the question, a lady dressed in white, perhaps a few years older than himself, holding a brilliantly white parasol with both hands. Her long, auburn-red hair struck him as particularly unusual and familiar. She had the aura of someone who did not grow up knowing what hunger ever felt like.

That’s when he realized it. “Ah!” the boy scrambled to his feet, bowing deeply, “A lady of House Gaspar! The apologies are all mine! What is someone of your pre-eminence doing in our humble establishment?”

There was a bit of disappointment that she had been recognized already. Covertness was already out of the question then for the Lady Gaspar. “You’re well spoken for someone so young,” she grinned awkwardly, her eyes wandering across the many various items contained within the store, “But it is unnecessary to be so formal. Please, speak with me as you would any other customer.” She started to approach one of them, “Am I correct in having found the Shop of Intrigue and Curiosities?”

“The very same,” the young shopkeeper said, “My name is Antoine, and I can try to help you find what you’re looking for.”

“Yes… and you can call me Viona.” She returned the bow that he had given her, “Antoine, I’m looking for something I believe may be quite rare…”

The boy straightened up the stool and wrapped up the bread back into its cloth. “Do tell!” he said excitedly, “The magical items you find here have all been fully tested to be safe for use, and as such they can be a bit pricier than what you might find in less reputable shops, but I’m sure you’re good for your money, Lady Viona.”

“Just Viona is fine. And money is no matter. If I am satisfied, you have my word that you will be fully compensated.”

Antoine perked up at the words like a fox hearing the squeak of a mouse in the field. Perhaps his next meal might be more substantial than bread and jam. “Of course!” his words practically became song, “Now, please, what is troubling you?”

Viona paused, suddenly feeling her heart take an extra few beats, “Perhaps I shall more describe what I need. A… gift for my lord father. Something to dazzle even the mayor of our city.”

Antoine scratched his head, “That’s rather vague. Can you describe what he likes?”

“I… cannot say I know of his interests beyond the superficial. He is a scholar of history and languages. He enjoys collecting foreign currency. Some books perhaps.”

Antoine moved on to scratching his hairless chin, something that he had often seen his grandpa do. “We have nothing like that, but if it’s history he likes, there is a book here,” the boy approached a small journal in a case of glass, “That records whatever the speaker is saying as he holds it. See?” He opened to the first page and in perfectly legible print was exactly as he described. “Intriguing, no?”

She barely took a look, replying, “It is, but it’s not quite what I am looking for. It’s far too rudimentary.”

The boy’s mood shifted perceptibly, “Rudimentary? The person who made this notebook sacrificed everything to do so.” As he said this, ink appeared on the open page of the book, quoting him perfectly.

“How do you mean?” she asked, her own tone matching the darkening of the boy’s.

He placed the book back in its glass case, as if returning a baby bird to its nest. “The practice of magic is a practice of obsession. The human soul is burned like firewood in order to do the impossible. The man who sold this book to us was its creator. His name, Broca, is etched here on the back cover. He was singularly focused on creating a notebook that could reveal its holder’s thoughts to help his mute son communicate, and in so doing sacrificed his own ability to speak. It didn’t work. He had made an object that requires one to verbally speak in order for it to function. Since it proved to be useless to him, he sold it to my grandpa.”

Viona stared at the book, and then at her surroundings. Shelves lined with seemingly ordinary items. Each one, regardless of the shape, was something that contained the unwritten record of someone’s life.

Antoine said stiffly, “The sale and creation of items that require human sacrifice is illegal outside of the control of the nobility, Lady Viona, nevertheless these items were made and sold to us. What desperate circumstances would have lead to so many of these items being gathered here?

“Just Viona is fine,” she muttered, “I did not mean to impugn the dignity of its creator. I am sorry.”

He shook his head, “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable. It’s just that people would come in without the respect these items deserve, and that irks me a little.” He pointed to her left, “Take that water jug for example. Every night, it slowly refills with water. A man named Belanger lost his life to make this. We don’t actually know the details, but my father and mother strive to do their best to find out the history of each and every one of these items.”

“And you remember them all?”

“I have lots of free time here. And I find it intriguing.”

“Very well, what else can you show me?” She decided to politely ignore the hypocrisy of treating these objects with respect and still choosing to sell them in a storefront. Money was still money after all.

“This item,” he said, gingerly holding a toy horse as if it were a live animal, “Is quite special. Anybody, including your father would think it quite delightful.”

“Allow me to surmise that it moves on its own,” she guessed with conviction.

He smirked, “Not exactly. This was crafted by a toymaker as his greatest creation. If it is ever lost or destroyed, it will return to its owner the next day as good as new. You need only write your name along its belly and it will return to you.”

Viona frowned, shifting her weight from one leg to the other as she thought. “That’s fascinating, but not particularly as impressive as I would have hoped… Oh, not to disrespect the creator!” she threw a hand up to her mouth as she realized what she had done yet again. “But I am looking for more. Something quite powerful, though it might not appear that way.”

The boy noticed her pale blue eyes glinting like deep set gems, dissatisfied and hidden among the vines of red hair that curtained her face glancing to and fro. Nothing here would be enough. Neither the Shield of Tresca’s Section nor the Hauy Crystal, perhaps the most interesting items on display.

She sighed, running her fingers along a shelf, “You said these out front were all tested to be safe for use. Where are the other items?”

Antoine gazed back  “I am starting to think perhaps you’re not telling the whole truth. What are you really after,” he placed the toy horse back on the shelf, somewhat needlessly, “Viona?” It felt as strange to say as he thought it might.

“These contraband items found only in the armpit of the city… There’s a reason I am here but I cannot say.”

“Then I’m afraid there’s little I can do to assist you. We are quite cautious of anybody who mean ill towards us considering our line of work.”

“Fine,” she spat, “You’re right. I haven’t thought this through. To be perfectly honest, I am looking for a very specific book. But much bigger than this notebook you have there, and I don’t see anything of the sort out here.”

“If you want a magical book, there are libraries outside of the city…”

“I have heard that the book I’m looking for was sold to your family. You must have a… another chamber or a cellar where you store them, am I right?”

“We have a store of artifacts underground, but how long ago was this?”

“Years ago. Before either you or I were born.”

“What is the title? Who is the author?”

“I do not know the title, but the author was a man by the name of Justus Regnault.”

“I’ve heard the name Regnault before…”

“You’re perceptive, Antoine. Regnault was my mother’s maiden name. Justus Regnault is my maternal grandfather.”

“I see! And what magic was cast over this book of your grandfather’s?”

“I… still cannot say, because I am not certain. I am just curious if you could take a look in the back and find the book for me. It is the only book that my grandfather has written that has magical properties. If you just look for something with his name on it…”

“I see! I think I’m starting to get it! I thought it was strange that you came all the way here even with this Plague quarantine in effect. You must be here on a secret mission from your father to retrieve this magical item in order to ward off the Babbling Plague and save the city, but there’s no way he could order someone he cannot trust to secure something so valuable from a place like this, so he sent his eldest child. The one person he trusts the most!”

Viona did not say a word, but her eyes could not meet his.

“I bet I don’t have the full picture yet. Perhaps he did not send you. You’re doing this yourself all alone in order to save us. Wow, you might be a hero in the making… The story you are writing, Viona, will be told for generations to come! In that case, I can’t just leave you here.” Antoine took out a shiny, silvery key. “You and I can head down there ourselves. I never thought that my life here holding down the store could amount to much, but this might change everything!”

He locked up the front door and bid her to follow him. She obliged with an audible gulp as he lead her down a winding staircase even further underground. She held onto his shoulder, other hand tightly gripping her now purposeless parasol. It served as a comforting totem.

In the darkness, Viona asked, “Is there not a single source of light down here…? How are we to find this book?” Her voice echoed across the stone corridor. “Antoine?”

“You’re the type to worry a lot, aren’t you?” he replied without turning his head. Or if he had, she could not tell except by his unflinching descent down the stairs. “Can you tell me what you need this book for if you don’t even know what it does?”

Viona gripped his shoulder tighter, “And I shall say it in words perhaps you’ll finally heed. I’d rather not divulge anything that would harm the dignity of my father.”

“You said before that this would be a gift for him.”

“And that it shall.”

Antoine smiled invisibly, “I don’t even know the birthdays of my mom and dad. They are always off saving the world, or exploring ancient crypts, or whatever else catches their fancy.”

“Are they not the proprietors of your store?”

The boy continued, “No, my grandpa owned the store before he passed. It was his obsession. My father had no interest in taking it up after him, but he just could not keep away from the study of magical items. He met my mom while on an expedition and they really hit it off. The two returned home briefly and left me with my dad’s parents before shoving off for their next adventure together. It’s pretty romantic if you lean back and squint at it.”

“I see,” she said glumly, “I never knew either of my grandparents. My father did not share many stories about his parents, and neither my mother.”

“Hmm, you also seem to make a habit of making everything about yourself,” he teased. “I thought I was telling the story.”

“E-excuse me,” she stuttered, clearing her throat, “I did not mean to.”

“Have you ever used a sentence without the words ‘I’ or ‘me’?”

“Well, most certainly I hav- I meant… Oh!” she caught herself, and then felt heat rise into her face, “I can feel you laughing you know! There’s no point in hiding it!”

“Hey, there’s a sentence! Nice work, Viona. Don’t worry, we’re already at the bottom.” Antoine tried to clear the air of any of her nervousness, but he wasn’t sure if that worked in the least.

Regardless, with one more step, Viona found herself against flat ground as two rows of fires began appearing from thin air ahead of them. “Magic torches?” she asked, already expecting the affirmative.

“The least of the mad things we have down here… There are some dangerous items in this cellar so please keep your hands on my shoulders.”

“Very well.”

Antoine lead her on a slow walk through the dry tunnels, walls lined with far stranger, more foreboding items than she had seen in the store front. Some looked like weapons or gnarled branches of discolored trees, others human body parts or grotesque dolls. She was certain she had seen some of them following her with their eyes. In the dancing shadows of the magical torches, everything looked to be writhing and alive.

“I don’t see any books…” she whispered, finding her own voice to be trembling like the flashing fires surrounding them.

“They are stored towards the end,” Antoine reassured her, “As long as you don’t touch anything, nothing will happen. We wouldn’t transport anything that has a mind of its own down here.”

“Are there truly objects like that?”

“There are. All of them originate accidentally from people with unhealthy attachments to certain objects. Sometimes the object is given a sense of purpose that it must fulfill and seems to be conscious or alive, but it’s actually behaving by a simple set of rules. Other times it mimics the person who gave it life as if they had transferred their mind over to it, but everything seems to point to that not truly being the case. Their stories are probably the most interesting, but often times they are the most isolated. With no one else around them, it’s hard to find a source that can tell us more about who they were.”

“I see…”

“How much do you know about magic?” he asked casually.

She offered a long “um” before responding, “The Regnault family is rather famous for having studied the fundamental principles of magic for four generations. I’ve always been interested, but my father forbade me from ever studying it in earnest as my mother had. He’s not the biggest proponent of anything magical. In fact, sometimes I wonder why they ever got married.”

“So, nothing?”

“I know about as much as you’ve told me. That souls serve as the active force that fuels all magic. Magic spells and the like are incantations that focus the ambiguous uncertainty within the soul into impossible certainties.”

“You got the fundamentals, as far as I know. Something doesn’t add up about your story though. If your father hates magic so much, why marry someone so closely tied to it and then sell such an important book to us? Doesn’t make sense.”

“Parents rarely make sense. From what you’ve told me, you’re probably already aware of that fact.”

Antoine stopped.

“Oh, I hope I did not-”

“This is where all of the books are,” he said, an arm outstretched over a small table with merely two books and a lit candle.

Viona let go of his shoulder, approaching the table. “This is truly all?”

“We don’t come across a lot of magical books. They tend to be either too dangerous to sell, not useful to anyone but the writer, or whatever other problem that comes with someone’s obsession involving books and knowledge.”

Viona scanned the two books but they were both devoid of any title or authorship on the cover.

“May I open them?”

“Better if I do that. Let’s see…” Antoine opened the first book, “I remember now. This one is apparently a cookbook. I don’t think this is what you’re looking for.”

“A recipe book? Sounds innocent enough.”

“Ah, right, but there’s more. Any dish made by using this book as a reference is highly addictive. To the point of utter obsession. This thing completely ruined a family or two before it fell into my mother’s possession, and she’s kept it hidden ever since. The original author was actually a mother who wanted her children to enjoy the food of her original homeland… And I suppose she took it too far.” Antoine shook his head in the faint candlelight, “Thank the heavens that my mom’s never been interested in cooking.”

“That’s awful… She gave her life to make such a terrible thing?”

“In this case, yes. It was a conceptual sacrifice of her ability to eat, and therefore, she starved to death. May I ask what your grandfather lost in the process of making his book? It might give us some warning before I take a peek at this next one.”

“I’m afraid I do not know…”

“Fair enough. Here I go.” Antoine plucked the cover with his thumb and index finger.

“Wait!” Viona cried, placing the parasol between him and the next book, “Aren’t you being too incautious? What if it kills you?”

“Will it kill me?” he asked nonchalantly. Almost eagerly.

“I don’t know! I just know that I need the book my grandfather wrote. If you can confirm that he wrote it, I don’t actually need to know what it does! There’s no need to draw a curse onto yourself or anything!”

“A cursed book? Now this is getting interesting! My grandpa used to say that cursed objects are actually extremely rare. When people hate other people enough to curse them, objects are not created to carry the curse, because magical objects require a powerful obsession centered around the object itself. Curses against arbitrary people are usually very weak, like you might find yourself getting caught in the rain or forget an important event.”

“I understand. My grandfather was not the type to carry any sort of grudge… but perhaps this book isn’t my grandfather’s. What then?”

“I’m saying it’s probably not cursed. You have every right to be cautious because you’re an important lady, Viona. Me? I’m just a bored kid minding a shop. My story isn’t as important as yours. You’re gonna save our town from the Babbling Plague with this thing, right?”

“I’m doing no such thing, Antoine. You have the wrong idea of me. I’m not seeking out this book as part of some noble quest.”

“You still haven’t told me why you need your grandfather’s book. I’m just assuming because you’ve given me nothing to work with.”

“If I tell you, I’m afraid it will be unavoidable, so I can’t! I don’t want to believe that it’s happening, but I’ll stake my life on making sure that it doesn’t! That’s why I defied the quarantine and ended up here in this awful place looking for a book that might not exist!”

Antoine flipped back the front cover with a nonchalant toss of his hand. Viona gasped, and the two fell completely silent. Time crawled as they exhaled, both realizing that they had been holding their breath.

Viona spoke first, “This is definitely the book written by Justus Regnault. His name is written on the bottom corner on the back of the front cover. I think this must be it…”

Antoine’s open mouth parted to form a happy grin. “Amazing… to be quite honest I have no idea what this book can do… There are only a few things in our collection in that category. Let us take it upstairs at once!”

“It doesn’t do anything.”

“What?” Antoine took his finger off the cover of the book. “Now I’m confused.”

Viona’s lip shuddered imperceptibly before she spoke, “As I mentioned before, years ago, before I was born, my father sold a book to your family. But the truth was… this book had no magic properties whatsoever. He tricked your family into paying more than it was worth, but it was still written by my grandfather Justus Regnault. My father then used the money as collateral to secure a loan, which is how he started his business. My grandfather was livid when he found out that his apprentice would do such a thing, but my mother at the time was deeply in love with my father, so my grandfather relented and allowed the two to get wed.”

Antoine scratched his chin. “No, this can’t be a fake. That’s impossible. There’s no way your family sold us something like that. Tons of people try to do the same thing, and my grandpa had too keen of an eye to accept such a thing.”

“How can you be so sure?” Viona said, “That was the story I overheard from my father himself.”

“Could he not have been lying to whoever he was speaking to? But what doesn’t make sense to me is… if you believe this book is a fake… why do you want it back? And what meaning is there in lying to me if you don’t believe it? Just what kind of power is contained in this book that your family would go to such lengths…?”

Viona bit her lip and tensed her arms. “You’re not listening to me! You keep assuming that there’s a conspiracy here, but there isn’t! I need this book because it’s a family heirloom that was wrongfully sold to you! Are there any records of how much we received for this book? I’ll double it and ensure you all are compensated, but I need to take this book home with me this instant.”

“You don’t have the money with you upfront?”

“Does it look like I do?” Viona seemed almost on the verge of tears, “I don’t have anything but my word. Consider that even in such circumstances, I have come here, and I am not someone foolish enough to come so ill-equipped if it can be avoided. That is how desperate I am.”

“But help me understand why.”

“You really want to know my story that badly? Even if it hurts me to tell it?”

“I do, right now more than anything. I’ll give you this book for free if you tell me the truth.”

“Do not mock me or-”

“I’m serious. I love a good story more than anything else. If I could read or write, I would be consumed by the books that are out there, but unfortunately, I don’t have that privilege.”

Viona searched for the words but found herself grimacing in silence. She did not know why she said the things she did earlier. It was as if a wild animal caught in her embrace was struggling to let itself loose, scratching and biting in the thrashing. As if she was no longer able to be the only one to know.

“Would it help if I told you something first? The reason I was so sure is because my grandpa loved stories, too. He would tell me countless stories… some impossible fictions and some real life tales he had heard from others… and stories from his own life. I would sit in the upstairs storefront with him, waiting for my mom and dad to return from their trips with more artifacts, all the while listening to his stories.”

“That explains your love of them,” she said dryly.

“Oh, I surely did. More than anything. You might say that I was obsessed with hearing more stories to the point of mania. As a child, I would go out and ask townspeople all sorts of things, which frustrated my grandpa greatly. I garnered quite a reputation for myself in this neighborhood, and every time my grandfather had to cover for my indiscretions. There came a point when I hated, absolutely hated to be stuck inside the store and I would venture off on my own, causing mayhem wherever I went. My friends and I were horrible troublemakers. That was when the Plague first struck the city.”

“The Plague struck about… a few months ago?”

Antoine’s eyes closed as he heaved a deep sigh, “The Babbling Plague first struck the city almost twenty years ago.”

“How old are you, Antoine…?” Viona whispered as she took a step back.

“By now, if I have counted correctly, I should be thirty four years old,” the boy said, his youthful face having put on the expression of a weary workman. “I contracted the Babbling Plague and returned home, rapidly deteriorating. I couldn’t form words by the end of the night. By the next day, I was chanting madly, raving in a trance, slowly losing all rationality. My grandpa was deaf by this time, and immune to the Babbling Plague’s effects, so he did not contract it, and he did his best to take care of me until I might overcome it, but my condition grew worse and worse. A week had passed before he disappeared, and…”

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know the details. The intricacies of magic are beyond my understanding. What I know are the effects. He died so that I can still exist inside the store. If I take a step outside of the store, I will disappear and reappear inside the store, much like that toy horse. I don’t know this for sure, but I think I actually did die that night, and my grandpa used an artifact to bring me back at great cost to himself. When my mom and dad returned, they found his body… and they found me. Now in their old age they are still out there searching for a way to liberate me, so that I’m no longer bound to the store. Perhaps so I can die.”

He expected her to run upstairs in fear. He expected her to laugh in his face. Any other reaction than the steely gaze she returned. Viona’s lips pursed, until it parted to form the words, “My mother and father are getting a divorce.”

Dreadful quiet filled the room like noxious fumes. Viona’s irises glistened in the magical candle light as her nose seemed to tremble. Antoine didn’t know what else to add, and so he said nothing at all.

She continued, “I’m not here to save the city. Or unlock the mysteries of my grandfather’s magic. My problems don’t even come close to rivaling yours. I never thought I might meet someone who was unbound from life and death here in my life, and yet here you are in front of me. Your story is so utterly incredible, I’m not sure I fully believe it. What I deal with is nothing compared to yours.”

“It’s okay. It’s not a competition, Viona.”

“I just need that book so my mother won’t hate my father anymore. I’ll say I found it in the library and that he didn’t sell it. That this was a misunderstanding. I know they have other problems to work through, but I don’t know what else to do, and if it’s in my power to do anything, at least it’s this.”

Antoine shrugged, “I see. I don’t think you’re lying, but I don’t have any memory of your father coming to our store, but this is proof enough isn’t it? My grandpa must have accepted it just because it was actually written by the great Justus Regnault, even if it isn’t magical on its own.”

Viona stared at the book, “Antoine, do you think it’s okay to lie in order to save my parents’ marriage?”

The boy pondered this for only a moment, “I suppose all stories are lies. There’s always something that doesn’t go told in a story. The exclusion of some truth is what makes it a story one can tell, which makes it a lie by omission. Even still, should they find out the truth…”

“If they find out the truth, I might end up making things worse. In fact, even with this, they might still get a divorce.”

“Then the least you could do is be honest with the way you feel. It took a lot to wrangle the truth of you, Viona. I’m guessing you’re not the most expressive person even at home.”

“Hmph,” she grunted, “Why am I even asking a ghost trapped in a cave? What life experience do you have that could possibly help me?”

He shrugged, taking no offense, “I know what stories are, and I know that you are a character in your story. You cannot control the other characters in this story of yours, but the way that you tell your story ten, twenty, thirty years from now… that you can control. How is it that you want your side of the story to end?” Antoine picked up the cook book once more, “All of these stories trapped in these magical artifacts ended in tragedy and drama. People who were willing to give up everything in order to pursue a single-minded goal, but I think for most of them, it wasn’t necessary. People who focus their lives onto material objects to solve their problems aren’t thinking straight. It makes for fascinating stories, but… it makes also for tales to learn from. In the end, I think it’s better to live life without the ability to control so much of it.”

Viona picked up her grandfather’s book. “I don’t know what else to do. Will our family be split apart? I feel so unsafe, as if I’m teetering on a tightrope with nothing to catch me below. Every time I think about it, it becomes hard to breathe and my chest tightens as my mind races for a solution, to the point where I would do anything to prevent it from happening.”

“Your story doesn’t come to a halt with your parent’s divorce. Heaven forbid, even if it does happen, you’ll wake up the next morning and the sun will still rise. And you’ll find yourself still in your bed, feeling the same pang of hunger and wondering what jam to put on your bread today.”

“…Are you telling me to just accept it? To not do whatever I can to fight it?”

“Or fight it. It’s up to you, but whatever comes to pass, life goes on because… life just isn’t like stories. Even after you die, your story continues in the lives of those who knew you. Trust me, from someone who just can’t seem to die.”

“Antoine,” Viona said resolutely, “You’ve given me some things to think about.” She carefully placed the book down onto the table, “I don’t think I’ll be taking this book after all.”

He groaned, adding, “Fine, that’s just as good. I wasn’t going to sell you this book in the first place.”

“What?! And why not? You said you would give it to me for free.”

“You don’t have any money,” Antoine winked. She laughed. For the first time in recent memory, she laughed very honestly.

With that, Viona departed from the store. As Antoine waved her farewell, a little disappointed that he failed to make a sale, he took the book up with him to the front counter, ready to sell it to the young lady should she ever decide to return for it.

One day, a day like any other, years after the Babbling Plague swept through the city and vanished, Antoine was preparing for his usual lunch in his shop on Gustave Street. Faluche bread and cherry jam with a little bit of butter. Business has been better lately, and so he’d taken to trying some of life’s luxuries, such as butter. Delicious butter. He thought to himself that luxuries would soon become necessities, and it might be dangerous to proceed down this path before long.

It was then that she returned, as he had expected, but she was taller now. More refined. Her auburn hair no longer draped her shoulders but was tied up into a neatly decorated bun. As she passed through the jingling door of that curious shop, she was holding the shoulders of a young girl — dressed much the same as herself — who looked to be even younger than the boy shopkeeper.

“Ah, good day, Antoine…” she greeted him, a sprinkle of melancholy flaked her words as it left her, “So you are still here, just as you always were.”

The boy shopkeeper greeted her in return, “Good day, Lady Viona de Gaspar. Could this be your daughter? I’ve heard rumors, so I wondered when I might have the pleasure of meeting her.

“Indeed,” she said, stroking the hair of her daughter who seemed to be overwhelmed by the outside, despite being safely inside of a store, “She’s quite shy, but her name is Vestrea. She’s been begging me to help her learn more about magic, so I brought her to meet you.” The girl nodded in agreement. “Have you learned to read yet, Antoine? I thought if you hadn’t, I could tutor you and my daughter simultaneously.”

“I have been trying, but without someone to tell me if I have been doing it correctly or not, it has been more or less impossible,” he laughed.

“Yes, I can quite imagine. The storefront is covered in new items since last. So many more stories written on these shelves…” The nostalgia in her voice nearly made her sound like the adolescent girl that first walked into those doors.

“You are correct, and you must also have a decade’s worth of stories to catch me up on since we last met.” Antoine said with an eager grin, “What’s been new with you?”

Viona gave a hollow, rehearsed laugh, “So many, many stories,” and with a pained smile said, “Most recently, it seems I’ve gotten a divorce…”

 

Global Warning

The flustered ambassador adjusted his tie for the tenth time, his own neurotic nature mingling with the resonating effect of his father’s ceaseless diatribes on self-reliance and frugal living. Even on the most important day of his life, or perhaps even in all of human history, he refused to be dressed or made up by anyone but himself or his wife, and she was quite preoccupied with watching the news from half a country away. When the Secretary General of the United Nations specifically reached out to him to head this monumental task, he accepted without much emotion, always keeping an even keel as trained. On the other hand, when he informed his wife of his new position, she was left speechless for over a full day. She had to call in sick from work, although that was a separate issue entirely. And yet now that the moment was finally here, the gravity of this task finally seemed to rest on his shoulders. He took another sip of water, clearing his throat. Would these creatures even understand human speech? He would be flanked by four different highly-esteemed linguists and specialists in communication. But in speaking with visitors from another world… that seemed to him a woeful under-preparation.

“Are you ready, sir?” A young woman asked from the other side of his door. “We’re going to run behind schedule, and I don’t know if it’s wise to keep our guests waiting.”

“I am ready,” he declared sternly, the words more confident than the man.

The two began walking down the hallway as countless scenarios replayed in his mind. For the past few nights, he had imagined that these visitors might appear in all sorts of shapes and forms. Perhaps they would be more humanoid like the lazier science fiction films he had seen as a child. Perhaps they would be robotic, having long since shed their biology for the efficiency of machinery. He even imagined they might be forms of life heretofore unknown on Earth, ethereal beings made up of silicon crystals or a sentient gas. In the end, no one knew anything about these visitors. Many considered them a hoax until every government on Earth began to take them seriously almost overnight. He was not told why they all suddenly did. Just that they did.

The young woman had been trailing behind him, dressed in a well-fitting suit. When they came to a stop before a door, she started to speak, “Mr. Ambassador, there’s been a slight change of plans.”

“What do you mean?” Dread creeped down his spine. When anything was possible, changing plans meant new anxiety.

She took another look at the touch-screen pad in her arms, “Umm, it seems they specifically requested only one person meet with them, and um, that person is you, Mr. Ambassador.” It almost seemed like she couldn’t believe it either.

“Only one?” His mind raced, diving right into paranoia. Was this human sacrifice? Was he selected out of some sort of vendetta from someone on the UN Security Council? He flipped through countless faces and names thinking of anyone who might want him out of the way, but in his long and distinguished career, he had not made any enemies with enough influence to place him in this position. “Did they explain why? Does this mean that these visitors can communicate with us?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Ambassador,” she said, her expression too real to have been rehearsed. A lie would have been easier. “I was told to leave as soon as I told you, as well. It seems everyone else here has been evacuated on their orders.”

“I don’t understand,” he stuttered, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.

“Me neither, sir.”

They paused and stared at the ground, until she pursed her lips and offered, “Good luck in there, sir,” before twirling around and leaving with swift, long strides, the clack of her high heels growing distant as he stared at her shrinking into the distance and rounding a corner.

His eyes returned to the door before him. On the other side could be anything. He swallowed his fear and twisted the door knob. He had negotiated far worse situations with some of the most authoritarian regimes on the planet as a diplomat in his younger years. He had been the victim of kidnapping, assassination attempts, and even bombing, but still he survived. He would survive this too. He convinced himself of it and pulled the door open.

He was alone. As far as he understood it, no human being on Earth would back him up. He was disconnected, stepping into the territory of a strange, unknowable civilization.

There in the otherwise unremarkable room was a table with two chairs. In one of them was a bald man, seemingly nude. Cheerfully, he stood up with a welcoming grin, “Come in! We’ve been waiting all day!”

“What’s the meaning of this?! Who are you?”

The man was far too pleased to see him. “You don’t really have words for what I am in your language yet, but think of me as a translator between your kind and our kind. Just like what you have on your mobile devices. It took us a few days before we could engineer me, but here I am!” he smiled, pulling back the other seat for the ambassador to take. “Please sit, we understand this is the most comfortable position for you to conduct diplomacy.”

He did as he was told. The nude man seemed satisfied and took a seat across from him, folding his hands in front of him. “Now, let us begin. We would firstly like to ask you how you all have been as a species since we left you.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Yes, that’s right. We uplifted the great apes and embedded an override gene within you all long ago. It’s taken a long time but we’re very pleased with your progress. So how have you been? Well?”

“We… have been well.” The ambassador shook his head, “I suppose, if you want a state of the union of collective mankind, then we could be better. Divisions between nations have started to crumble since the climate crises have forced us to re-evaluate our collective survival strategy.” He stopped and added, “When you said ’embedding a gene,’ are you suggesting that you created mankind?”

The nude man shook his head, “No, no, we let natural selection determine most of that. What we did was make the intelligence and selfishness mutation more likely. Altruism and lack of hunger would lead to a stabilization that we simply could not abide by. We could have picked any creature but the great apes were closest to developing simple tools and they lived in climates most conducive to selecting for intelligence. Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves in explaining all of this.”

“How can we know what you are saying is true?”

“I suppose you cannot, but the results speak for themselves. When we first spied your planet, it was a perfect environment for our kind. Lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Growing reserves of methane. Amazing. Breathable. We set off to settle, but as soon as we got here, imagine our surprise to find that life had sprung up and began oxygenating everything! What a catastrophe! We had no hope of living on a planet filled with so much toxic, burning oxygen,” the nude man sighed and stood up, pacing about the room. It was only now that the ambassador noticed there were no nails or hair on the man. Even the face seemed to be oddly plastic and perfectly proportioned, “We tried asteroids. More than once even, but it wasn’t ever permanent enough. But now after our uplifting intervention, we’re slowly starting to see the planet return to that pre-oxygenized state.”

The ambassador started to think back on his science courses in college, but the nostalgia did not soothe his utter disbelief. “This is ridiculous. What manner of prank is this?”

“Hm? This is no prank. We are very happy with your progress so far. It won’t be long before you’ve liberated all of that wonderful carbon back into the atmosphere from the clutches of these wretched photosynthesizers. Seriously, fantastic work. This has all happened so much faster than we were expecting. In any case, the reason why we wanted to talk with you is to encourage you. Your incredible diligence in extracting as much as possible from your surroundings is commendable. It won’t be long before most life on Earth is exterminated and the atmosphere is back to what it used to be.”

“If that’s true, then why have you decided to contact us now? Shouldn’t you have just let us be?”

“Certainly, if we hadn’t noticed a few hiccups. There’s a powerful group of people out there trying to prevent recarbonization from happening, and it would be in our best interest if they stopped. We don’t necessarily mean for them to be killed or anything. That seems awfully crude. Just give enough incentive so that they stop trying so hard to prevent the recarbonization of the atmosphere. Yes, that is why we have need to speak with you.”

“I do not have any sort of power you seek…”

“But you do have insight into who does. Find the right world leaders and orchestrate something to keep this environmental destruction all on track. We didn’t know who to trust, so we decided to just work with one person at a time. It didn’t really matter who we picked. Anyone that we speak to will be elevated to a position of authority, but you made the most sense for first pick, Ambassador.”

“How do you know I will agree to this?”

“Yes! We’re glad you asked. The obvious answer is that you have to. Don’t worry! We’re not going to forcefully coerce you. We don’t need to do anything drastic. You will want to help us yourself.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Look, if you listen to us, we will give you and your direct descendants the means to live forever. Simple as that. Refuse, and we’ll find someone else. How do you know that they won’t take us up on the offer instead? You don’t, and so you have no choice but to take us up on ours. Will you truly trust your peers not to act in their own self interest? Are they all so high-minded and selfless?” The bald man seemed to grow manic, “Or could it be that you don’t believe it is possible for us to offer this to you? It’s not like you have a choice, right? In the end, human nature has been rigged against your own selves. You know it, too, right? The end of the world is inevitable because there’s no way to build enough trust and organization among all of you. We are your one and only salvation. Selfish or not, it’s the most logical choice you can make. What do you say?”

“So you want me to go and stop the climate strikes around the world? Stop all environmentalist efforts? This is utter madness. The cat is out of the bag, if you’ll excuse my turn of phrase, and so people will work to preserve the Earth.”

The man snapped his fingers, “Yep, you got it. Just for another thirty years or so and it’s basically irreversible. Don’t worry, you’ll have our help. Disinformation campaigns take almost no effort at all.”

Disinformation. There was so much of it already out there. For a while, climate change denial was all the vogue among conspiracy theorists, but it had been beaten into silence by most everyone else. When the first war was fought over water in the Middle East, it had become clear that this was a challenge that would soon affect the entire world. And even still, so many alternative theories had come forward ranging from natural warming due to the age of the Earth or there being no such change happening or blaming it on specific countries and their industries.

“Once cloud cover is gone, the planet will warm up considerably. At that point, the oceans will create a feedback loop and absorb more sunlight. This warmth will likely drive more plant growth, but that can be offset with the survival of humanity. We want to ensure that the planet warms enough to obliterate the possibility of organisms rebalancing the Earth. Just a thousand years without humanity can mean the Earth goes back to the way it was, and we don’t want that. So, to encourage cooperation, we’ll even throw in proof of our good will towards you. Your wife is currently in the hospital in order to receive a surgery tomorrow, yes? This is the third time trying to rid of her cancer? Pernicious little problem, isn’t it?”

Slamming the table, he stood up. He felt the hairs on his neck rise, and his throat clench, “If you so much as-”

“Please, there’s no need for such drama,” the nude man brushed the ambassador’s warning aside before he even finished, “Your wife will never have cancer again. In fact, you can call her as soon as we’re done and find that she won’t need the surgery either.”

Still standing, he asked, “What do you mean? You saved my wife? You cured her cancer?”

“We cured everyone’s cancer. You all were surprisingly close but you needed a few more tweaks and the appropriate delivery vehicle. The news should break in a few days. How do you think it is we made our presence known to your various leaders in the first place?”

“I don’t understand… if you’ve already secured cooperation with the leaders around the world… What do you need me for?”

“They’ve only agreed to keep quiet about our existence. Actually, can I say something funny? Some of them got mad that we found the cure for cancer. Something about making less money by making it public. Well, even if you don’t find it funny, we found it humorous. So amusing. Anyway, we’ll continue to ensure the survival of your species even past the point of no return until we’re ready to settle on Earth ourselves.”

“Then the world leaders must be aware of your intentions at least. How could they all have agreed?”

“Like I said, no one knows our plans but you. And listen, we like humanity. You all have been immensely helpful, and we don’t want to pay back your valuable efforts with extermination or terror, but there’s too much of you who have hyperactive self-preservation instincts. If people were to find out that they were making their own planet inhospitable to themselves… why, imagine the outrage! Imagine the disruption! It would be bedlam. That’s why we need your help to conduct these things from behind closed doors.”

“No one would believe this. I can scarcely believe this.” But he knew that someone else might. For all he knew, he would be killed for disagreeing because he could arrange something against these creatures with the “influence” that they had given him. One bad actor would spell the end for mankind — for all life on Earth. Just one.

The ambassador had been in the room for only thirty minutes before he eventually left more confidently than when he had entered. No cameras or recording devices were allowed anywhere near the facility, and so no one could truly know what they had discussed in there but the ambassador himself. Moments later, he exited the facility by helicopter and left for a different secure facility where he would give his debrief to the UN Security Council. Out of his window, he glanced up and saw a glint before a crescent moon, shining like a star, blinking out of existence, almost like the aliens winked at him.

As he departed, in a single simultaneous instant, every major leader around the world then received the same message from the alien visitors. “We’ll be back in thirty years to see how you all have done! Have a good time!”

 

 

 

The Man Shrouded in Stars

The boy tugged tighter the coat of boar pelt draped loosely across his narrow shoulders, shielding himself what little he could from the chill that seemed to shake his very bones. His gaze had begun to waver under the stress of the endless hike now interrupted by a snow storm, his drooping eyelids reflecting the pelt that seemed to slip from his increasingly numb fingers. With another breath and another step, he pulled at the garment once more, as if to protect a flickering fire from the wind — as if to remind his limbs that he was still in control. The sun had begun to set.

The fur coat was all he had left, a gift from the greatest hunter his village had ever known. He was the man that tracked and killed the very boar that maimed his father, who eventually passed from the injuries. The hunter gave the prize pelt to the boy as an offering of condolence, returning to his mountain home a four day journey away. This must have already been a year ago, never returning to the village since.

He was an enormous man. That was all the boy could remember. He had a beard with strands like pine needles, straight and thick, bristling with the same hardness that defined his trunk-like legs and log-like arms. It seemed to him that the hunter could wrestle a bear and win, and there were tales that he did just that. His skill with a club was honed to precision, but it was his spear throwing that seemed almost supernatural, able to strike a target from one edge of the village boundaries to the other. However, he didn’t make for much of a teacher, never able to explain to the other men how to hunt as he did. And so, without his presence, the people suffered.

And it was this task that lead the boy to venture out in search of him in the thick of winter. Even to the point of exhaustion. Even at the risk of dying.

However, finally, in the distance, his tired eyes could start to make out a sign of smoke. Reinvigorated by a glimmer of hope, he pushed forward, the last of his strength pouring into his legs. He gripped the fur coat around him tighter, exhaling sharply through his nostrils with each step, inhaling the sharp, cold air with each pause. Slowly, diligently, deliberately. This was a method to endure long tasks that his mother had taught him. Focus on the rhythm of your breath and clear your mind of every other sensation but the task before you. She could spend the entire night weaving in this meditative state, without even feeling the need for sleep. The hunter once said he would track animals in much the same way. The boy harnessed but a fraction of this meditation in order to numb himself to the agony of his hypothermic legs.

As he neared, the source of the smoke coming into clear focus, at last, his legs seemed to slip out from beneath him, his arms instinctively reaching out before he hit the ground. He couldn’t help but let out a sharp cry of pain, even if it didn’t hurt. He looked back up at the strange, leather-wrapped tent. circular and spacious. He had never seen a structure quite like it. The tents of his village were much smaller and used primarily as workshops. Most of them preferred to stay in caves along the mountain. However, from it, emerged a small, shadowy figure, wrapped heavily in furs, long strands of hair whipping in the wind like an unfinished curtain. The figure started to run towards him, casting off the fur coat in order to reach him faster. Two more small figures appeared at the entrance. His eyes closed.

The next thing he knew, he felt an incredible warmth. Something heavy and comforting pressed all around his body. His eyelids parted only for him to be staring at the head of a boar. With a slight startle, he jolted back, only then realizing that it was the hood of his own boar fur coat. He pulled off two more furs from his body, finding himself next to a fire as three children stared at him. One of them held a makeshift spear, yelling in a language he didn’t understand. A smaller child tugged at her ragged clothes, saying nothing. Finally, the tallest of the three, asked more quietly in a language he did understand.

“Can you hear us?” she asked. It became apparent it was a girl from her voice.

“Yes,” replied weakly, still grappling to understand the situation. His eyes couldn’t help but meet the point of the spear directed at him.

The elder girl touched the spear girl’s hand to lower her weapon, shaking her head. Turning back to her guest, she asked, “Where do you come from?”

“The village at the base of the mountain…” He sat up as the youngest girl handed him an earthenware bowl of hot water. She shuffled off afterwards. “I’m looking for a man,” the boy said.

The girl gulped, her expression darkening, “So far away? You must be looking for our father. There’s no one else that hunts on these mountains.”

“The hunter has children…?”

“These two are my younger sisters. We three were adopted by him. Taught to hunt like him.”

“Will he return here soon?”

“He returns when the goddess rests. He hunts with her.”

“Who is this goddess?” His village had no familiarity with the concept. Did the hunter have a wife?

The girl sat by the fire and started to recall as she stared into it, “She is the light in the heavens that illuminates the night. She has sovereignty over the wild beasts and first taught our father how to hunt when he was a child. She is queen of the forests, the night, and master of the spear.”

“Like a spirit…” In his village, there were shamans who could hear spirits of the world and spirits of the dead, but he had never before heard of any spirit who could boast such power and such personality. But if the hunter works together with this spirit, it would explain his uncanny abilities. Surely no normal man could be so skilled and powerful.

The boy asked, “Does that mean when there is no moon in the sky, he will return?”

“That is when it is most difficult to catch prey, so he rests on those days.” the girl smirked as if she was stating the obvious. “You braved this weather just to look for him. Stay as long as you like. We still have plenty of preserved meat.” She stopped, interrupting herself, “What are you called?”

“I am Boe,” he said shakily.

“My father named us Taka,” pointing to herself, “Nilam,” pointing to the spear girl who spoke a different language,  “And Nitah,” she finished by pointing to the shy, little one. “Once these cloudy days are over, it’ll become easier to see the moon. Although… with clouds like these I’m not sure how he can hunt in the night anyway.”

“He has not come to our village in over a year either. Lately, another monster has been killing men in the village who go off to hunt, so we need his help. I can’t wait much longer. Moon or no moon, I’ll go off looking for him tomorrow if that’s what it takes.”

“That’s stupid,” the spear girl named Nilam said confidently in a language the boy named Boe understood, “And don’t pretend. You got lucky finding us when you did. You clearly don’t know how to navigate the night like we do. Any further and you would have ended up food for a pack of wolves.”

“She’s right, that is very stupid. Did you hit your head when you fell?” Taka grinned ear-to-ear as if she couldn’t help herself. Both Nilam and Nitah giggled. Boe might have felt a twinge of offense, but seeing the three sisters interact with each other like that seemed a welcome relief from the stagnant quiet of his home. Caring for his ailing mother without knowing how. Praying to every spirit he knew the name of and finding no answers or hearing anything. He closed his eyes but for a moment as these thoughts overwhelmed him.

He woke up the next morning. The sound of howling winds had ceased. The tent was still warm with the remaining cinders of a nightly fire. A quick scan of the interior met nobody; he was entirely alone.

Equipping his boar fur coat around his shoulders, he poked his head out to find the landscape was painted in thick white. The tops of trees sagged beneath the weight of snow. The peerless blue of the sky had returned. His three day journey lead him to this point. All of his resources exhausted, he had actually found the mountain that the hunter lived on. Suddenly, the tree he had been looking at shook violently, the snow on its branches flying from their perches. He glanced down and saw the spear girl Nilam with a strange implement. She had hit the tree with a small spear.

He hurried over to her. “What is that tool?”

She did not bother looking at him, plucking another small spear with a blackened point from the ground and pulling it back onto a string attached to a curved cane. “It’s a bow and arrow. We were taught how to make it as the goddess taught the hunter.” She loosed her arrow as it went spiraling away into the forest, missing the trunk of the tree she had hit earlier. With a slight frown, she picked up the next arrow and nocked it back. “Use the yew, sacred tree of the moon, carved like a staff that can bend to become the crescent of the moon.”

The boy’s eyes seemed to light up. How come the hunter had never used this before? Or taught them to make it? Then he realized something… it’s possible that the hunter that was raising these sisters was not the same hunter he was searching for. Perhaps he had not found the correct mountain after all. If only he could remember the hunter’s name, but the only thing he could recall was his appearance, and that was barely anything to go by.

“What is your father like?” he probed incautiously.

She shushed him for silence, taking a deep breath. She exhaled. Her fingers released their tension as the string shuddered back into place, the arrow whistling through the air as it broke sideways against the trunk of the tree. The girl let out an audible groan and sat down against an exposed rock. Turning to the boy while unstringing her bow, she said, “He’s wise, strong, and persistent. And he loves to tell stories. He once told us a story of how his father pursued and caught the moon itself.”

“The moon?” He thought about the burly hunter in his head. That man caught a spirit of the heavens? “How did he do that?”

“He chased the moon for seven days as if chasing an animal, and the moon outran him for six. On the seventh day of the chase, without ceasing, he caught it and it even turned red out of embarrassment and anger. The goddess revealed herself and demanded that he marry her for touching her as he did, and he agreed. That’s just the kind of person he was apparently.”

“Who could chase something for so long without resting?”

“Our father is the offspring of the hunter and the goddess. The goddess taught him how to make bows by beholding the shape of the moon. Or something like that.”

“That’s amazing,” the boy said with bulging eyes. “The man I’m looking for must be… your father’s father.”

“Hm,” she grunted, completing her tidying up. “If you want to be of use, collect some dry branches on your way back to the tent. We need to stock more firewood. I need to go find Nitah.”

He did as he was told as Nilam slung her pack across her back and left. As he began his way back to the tent with an armful of twigs, he spotted the elder one, Taka, through the front entrance to the back entrance, working with her hands by an outdoor fire.

She looked up as he dropped the firewood with a clatter, wincing at the sound. Then she noticed what he brought in, quickly snatching two of the straightest branches and placing it in her pile. She seemed to be filing down some wooden sticks to a fine point by burning the stick at one end and rubbing it repeatedly against a now ashy and blackened stone.

“What is it that you’re doing?” he asked.

“Making more arrows. There’s no food unless we hunt, and we can’t hunt without arrows.” She twirled an unfinished one in her fingers deftly. “Do you want to help?”

“Um, Nilam told me to get more firewood.”

“We have plenty of that,” she dismissed, heaving a loosely woven basket of plucked feathers in front of him with one hand. “Cut these in half down the middle, and then cut them in half across. Each feather should give you four pieces. Attaching these with tree sap and bark string will help each arrow fly straighter.”

“I understand.”

The two worked in silence for a little bit. “Boe,” Taka said with some hesitation, her focus still fixed on her arrow filing, “Why did you leave your home? Why are you looking for a hunter?”

He also answered absent-mindedly, his focus consumed by the task of splitting feathers, “The men in our village are all too scared to hunt now, and the women and children can’t gather. The forest is stalked by a monster that kills and eats people. I am convinced that the hunter could save us, but no one else believed me.”

“That’s what you said last night. But why you? What made you want to risk your life alone? Won’t your mother and father think that you also have died in the forest like the others?”

His mind wandered to his sickly mother. The villagers have been kind enough to continue caring for him and his mother even after his father died, but how much longer would that continue? “My mother is waiting for me to return. As soon as I meet the hunter, I shall go back.”

“You may not survive the trip back, stupid boy. There’s nothing more important than your own survival. If you die, so does your mother. Do you understand? Similarly, if I die, then my sisters will eventually die without me.”

“But if a time came where you had to sacrifice yourself to save them, what would you do?” he muttered defiantly.

Taka sighed, “We will all die together. Or we will all live together. I can’t stomach the idea of living without my sisters,” she said, holding up a finished arrow. This one looked far deadlier than the ones Nilam was using to practice with. “Snapping this in half is easy. Snapping ten of these in half at once is not.” She picked up ten more arrow shafts and tried to bend it to no avail.

“I understand,” he said, “But how could I get all of the men in my village to work together? They are far too scared, and I am just a child.”

Taka shrugged. “I do not know. Usually I can make Nitah do the work you’re doing, and she’s off gathering today in the forest. She knows that she has a sense for good mushrooms, and so she is obedient. Nilam is also a gentle child, and so she listens to me. I told her to practice her archery since she’s not very good at much else. I do not know how to make any others listen to me, but at least you seem to be doing so.”

Boe glumly split another feather apart. “How good are these arrows? I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. Can they really kill an animal?”

“They can kill a person, too. Nilam almost killed you yesterday. She thought you were a dying boar approaching the tent. Lucky for you she didn’t want to waste any arrows, and so she picked up her spear. Lucky for us, too. Our father warned us that if we use an arrow to kill a person, we’ll forever be cursed by the goddess who taught us how to make them.” Taka continued to work, “Allow me to tell you a story. This is one my father loves to tell. There was a man that the goddess favored in a distant land. He too was taught archery and given her blessings, but he was prideful. With his power, he killed many who opposed him and eventually became the ruler of a large mountain. Every village on that mountain bowed to him. The people begged the goddess for help, and she turned and saw what had happened in the short time that she had been away. She was very displeased. The next day, when the prideful man was hunting, the bow transformed into a giant scorpion in his very hand, stinging him repeatedly to death, one sting for each person that he killed with that bow. The moon goddess then placed his body up in the sky so that he may learn to bless people instead of terrorize people as he watched over them from above. I’ll spell it out. The lesson is never to abuse your talents for selfish gain, and never ever kill people with a gift from the moon goddess.”

“Wow… this goddess sounds powerful… are there others like her?”

“Of course, the goddess’s brother is the sun, the one who provides light for us right now. Our father does not speak much of him, though, just not to let him catch you staring at him or he’ll shoot your eyes out with his arrows,” Taka laughed, “So now you know.”

“The shaman told us something very similar…” Boe whispered excitedly, “She said the spirit of the sun demands respect. She must have been talking about the same thing.”

“Must be,” Taka smiled, picking up ten finished arrows and placing them in a long, leather satchel. “You’re surprisingly diligent, Boe. You seem to have finished. Leave those cut feathers in the basket. I’ll attach them tonight. Deliver these to Nilam,” she thrust out the satchel, “And bring back some more firewood if she tells you to.”

Boe did as he was told. As he left the tent carrying the leather satchel, he saw Nilam speaking with the smaller Nitah at a distance. He plodded over, carefully navigating what remained of the snow on the ground.

Nilam swiveled her head to the source of the footstep sounds with an animal instinct. She sighed,  “Good, I was just about to head back in to the forest… Stay here, Nitah. And bring back more firewood to Taka.” Nitah nodded, her own basket overflowing with all manners of green and brown vegetation. “Hand me those arrows, and help Nitah carry these things back.”

Boe did as he was told yet again. Nitah chirped shyly, “Thank you,” handing him the basket as he handed the satchel to Nilam. She swung it around onto her hip and dashed into the woods with one motion, disappearing from sight almost instantly. She somehow reminded him of a galloping deer.

As his mind wandered back to the basket he held in his hand, he turned to Nitah, with whom he had not yet spoken. “Let’s collect some wood.” She nodded, replying with a practiced twirl, crouching to the ground to brush away the snow. He placed the basket down and began picking up what branches he could. What Taka had said flitted to and fro in his mind like a buzzing, meandering firefly. Impossible to ignore. He decided to try asking the little Nitah something, “Nitah, if one day you had to leave to find food for your sisters because they were both ill, would you?”

Nitah stopped to ponder the question, swiftly replying with a startling firmness, “Yes.”

“What if Taka demanded that you not risk your life for their sake. Would you stay behind and starve with them?”

“My sister would never say that.”

“So you would risk your life to save theirs, right?”

“Yes. I would do anything for my sisters. Unless they told me not to.

“When I spoke with your sister, she said that it’s better to live together or die together, and I don’t know about that. Isn’t it better for even some to live rather than everyone die?”

Nitah paused for a while, “That reminds me of a song my father sings.”

“A song?”

She took a deep breath of the crisp winter air and began to sing with a shaky voice.

“The moon did cry \\ As life did fade \\ From eyes that once \\ Saw all the land”

Boe listened transfixed as she continued.

“The hunter’s bow \\ That she had gave \\ Returned to her \\ With barren hands.

For once the two \\ Became as one \\ And swore an oath \\ With every breath.

And so she hides \\ Her saddened gaze \\ To mourn each month \\ Her lover’s death.”

When she finished, Boe did not speak. He thought only of the meaning behind the words, understanding fully now. Somehow. Everything that Taka had said seemed to make sense. The melody haunted his ears and Nitah’s voice resonated inside his head.

The air seemed to freeze with the icy tension that hung low between them. Finally, Boe broke the silence, “I think I understand.” Nitah didn’t respond, choosing to return to the tent ahead of him alone. He picked up what he could, including the basket, and started to head back as well, when at once he heard the sound of a high pitched cry. From the corner of his vision he saw Nitah return, sprinting towards the direction of the scream. Moments later, Taka appeared from over the hill, bow and arrow in hand.

“Come on!” she yelled at the boy, whose arms and legs began moving before his mind could catch on.

The three leaped into the forest guided by Nitah’s agile motions. Taka crushed every branch in the way with either stomps or strikes from her bow to make it easier for Boe to keep up, as if she had done this many times before with her sisters.

Just then, a terrible squeal. Loud and guttural. Boe could never forget the war cry of an angry boar. He began to tremble even as he ran, unsure if it was wise to keep charging forward. When they came to a clearing, Nilam was on the ground, writhing, clutching her chest, her bow a distance away. The beast was readying another charge, its tusks long and sharp, its jet black fur bristled, adorning the frame of a creature larger than any of them. An arrow pierced the flank of the boar, the feathers like a flag planted on a hill. Taka drew back her bow and aimed at the boar’s skull.

Her fingers let loose. Her arrow struck its target, but the arrow could not piece the bone. With another horrible roar, it turned its attention to the three of them and began to charge forward. Nitah grabbed Boe’s wrist and jerked the stunned boy towards her while Taka dodged in the other direction, narrowly missing death itself. It slammed into a tree with a mighty crack of splintering bark.

“Nilam! Get up!” Taka growled, out of breath, “Quickly!”

“I can’t! It hurts!” she replied in bitter anguish.

Boe ran over to the bow and arrow that once had been Nilam’s, separating himself from the others. He nocked it back awkwardly as he saw the two of them had done, aiming it at the boar who had begun to turn around. He breathed in.

Every doubt in his mind flitted through in an instant. Every impulse to abandon everything and run. Every nerve in his body filled with the fear of death. The image of his ailing mother. His father’s corpse.

“Boe, don’t!” Taka bellowed.

He breathed out. At the final instance when his entire body seemed to stop every movement, he let go. The arrow whistled through the air and landed with no power against the hide of the boar. Somehow, he had hit the boar, but failed to do anything to dissuade it from its next charge.

The boar charged only him.

As it did, Boe knew he had no place to go. This might have been it. His journey was over.

He reflexively closed his eyes when the sound of the boar’s squeal filled his ears. Then the tremendous thud of a mass hitting the ground. He opened his eyes once more to find the boar’s eye pierced by an arrow. He looked to Taka who was not holding her bow; she was holding Nitah instead. He traced the arrow shaft back to someone else.

“Father, wait!”

“Oho! This is no boar!” came a different, gleeful, enormous, booming voice. Boe did not recognize it, nor did he recognize him. The hunter had returned, but it was not the man he knew. This one appeared to be much younger than that hunter, and not nearly as physically large. “Why do you wear such a confusing pelt, child?”

“He is a boy,” Taka said through tired pants, “We almost made the same mistake when we first met him too.”

“Nilam, my child!” he called out, seemingly unworried, “Can you walk?”

“No…” she groaned.

“That is no good… Taka, Nitah, carry her back. I and the boy shall retrieve our kill. No more hunting until you improve your archery, Nilam! I have warned you many times before!” He unstrung his bow with the skill of a master, still speaking, “The Sun God retreats to his home early. We should do the same.”

The sisters left ahead of the man and the boy as he began carving choice parts of the meat on the spot.

“Mr. Hunter! I have a request of you,” Boe interrupted breathlessly, still panting, heart still racing in his ears, “Please, come with me back to my village and help us slay a monster that has been terrorizing us!”

“A monster?” the hunter grimaced, “I am no monster slayer. I hunt in the domain of the goddess as she wills. You ask the wrong thing of me.”

“I heard from Taka that you’re the son of the moon goddess… There’s no one else that can do it but you.”

“It is as you say. My mother is the moon itself. She taught me how to create the arc in her image. But that does not make me a hero. Then, as I finish, allow me to tell you a story.”

“A story?”

“There once was a lonely god who lived on this very mountain and ruled over its land. He was lonely because he could not trust others. But this is natural, of course. To trust anyone foolishly is opening up yourself to hurt and exploitation. To doubt and remain at distance is to protect yourself. And so this god, who could not trust anyone, lived a very solitary life. The god of the mountain and the people who lived at the base of the mountain began to come into conflict over territory. Individually, these people were far weaker than he was. He could best any of them in single combat, and so this alone kept them from ever taking this mountain from him. Still, he began to attack their new settlements and the people grew resentful of him. However, over time, they began to grow more and more numerous despite these attacks, while he remained as one. This should have scared him, but he had a realization. The god of the mountain thought to himself, ‘Ah, but surely they are like me. I have seen it. They also cannot trust one another for they cannot see what is in each other’s heart.'”

Boe listened with rapt attention, “Then what happened?”

The hunter seemed pleased to have a new listener. He continued, “The god decided to wait, for he knew that it would not be long before the growing number of people would come into conflict among themselves. There was nothing he needed to do. And so time passed and as he predicted, the people at the base of the mountain began to struggle with one another. But then, a miracle. They stopped fighting. They had discovered a way to trust one another. It was something that frightened the god of the mountain so badly that he fled on his own to another mountain altogether. Do you know what it is?”

“What is it?” Boe asked.

The hunter obliged, “A goddess. You see, organizing any amount of people requires the presence of something that they all believe in. This gives them a reason to work together. Without it, you’ll be limited to families fighting families, and even then among family members, there can be distrust. My father has told me of more than enough such incidences he has witnessed himself. Villages that are not united in the blessings of a god or goddess will not survive long and will never grow past the size of a few family groups. But once they do, they will attain power to frighten even the spirits of the sun and moon.”

Boe seemed to understand, “You’re saying that it’s not about finding a hero, it’s about us? Just people?”

“Heroes are great. They are role models to follow. Teachers to learn from. But relying on individuals is to deny the power that we can all participate in. What I’m saying is that you need to return to your village and find a way for the men to work together to defend your village. Don’t come seeking my help.” He handed Boe the pelt of the jet black boar. “Come, I shall continue this story back at our home.”

As they returned in the light of the setting sun, Boe asked countless more questions, but the hunter told him to save his breath for carrying the weighty amount of meat back to the tent. As they arrived, drenched in sweat, they found Nilam resting by the fire under mounds of furs with Nitah tending to her and Taka tending the fire. She took some meat from Boe and began roasting it over the fire.

As the hunter settled himself, he continued his story, “Now then… let’s wrap this up. The lonely god of the mountain tried to ask help from the god of another mountain, to no avail. The other mountain gods pushed him out until he returned to his mountain, battered and bruised. The people of the villages banded together and with the power of the goddess of the moon who took their side, slew the god of that mountain. They dedicated the mountain to her as tribute, and lived in peace ever since.”

“They banded together…” Boe slumped his shoulders, exhausted, “But I don’t know how to make our village band together like that.”

The hunter thought for a moment, “How about I give you something to help then?” He handed his bow to the boy. “Call it a gift from the goddess. I shall show you how to maintain this bow, how to craft arrows, and how to shoot tomorrow morning. It will not be enough to slay a beast by yourself, but teach the men of your village this very same thing and you will have power to slay even a god of the mountain.”

Taka’s eyes widened, “Your bow? The ram horn bow you spent weeks carving?” She clearly had eyes on the weapon for herself.

The hunter motioned for the two of them to stand, “Come, one more thing.” He lead them outside where the stars had already begun to appear in the dimming night sky. “Do you see that line of stars? Those three bright ones there all in a row? I’m going to trace a figure with my finger. That is the sign of the hunter, and those three stars make up his belt. Further up is his bow. Remember the names Taka, Nilam, and Nitah. That is what I have named those stars. Point to it as a sign that the celestial hunter watches over you and the men of your village. Pray to that hunter and let him give you the courage to go. The hunter shall always stay in the southwest. Pray to that hunter and he will guide your way even on the moonless nights.”

The boy thought for a while, gazing up at the sparkling night sky when a strange realization dawned on him. “Are you telling me to make up a story?” Boe asked hesitantly, “So I can trick people into fighting together?”

The hunter placed a heavy hand on his head, “These stories are not lies meant to deceive. They inspire. They explain. They teach. They give life to an otherwise miserable, difficult existence. Most importantly, they give hope. Perhaps one day we’ll discover the truth of everything, but until then, these stories are all we have. Without them, we’ll all just be lonely gods of our own mountain. The goddess comes alive this way.”

Boe stayed with the hunter an additional seven days. Upon returning to his village with gifts of meat, the men began to question where he had gone. He seemed a different person altogether from the little Boe that they knew. He answered them with a story.

“I journeyed to the mountains and met three spirits of the sky, Taka, Nilam, and Nitah. They were daughters of the celestial hunter, who is the son of the moon spirit. The moon taught me the nature of this holy tool,” he held up the bow and arrows, “Which is far stronger than any man’s thrown spear. When the sign of the hunter and the full moon is out, we will be given the strength of the celestial hunter himself. With this, we can all come together to slay that monster.”

The men murmured among themselves, doubtful. Skeptical. Untrusting. And yet still, they had listened enraptured by the story he had just told. Boe did not waver.

“Will you slay it then?” one man asked, his eyes betraying an utter inability to grasp what the child was saying.

“No, I cannot do it alone. We all need to work together and build more bows in order to win. We will all survive together, or we will all die together. That is what the spirits have taught me.”

The shaman of the village now was even listening. “You? Channeling the spirits? A boy who knows nothing?” she scoffed, dripping with derision.

Boe took a deep breath of the crisp, winter air. He breathed out. His thoughts clear, he spoke, “Allow me to tell you a story of how I communicated with the moon goddess.”

Itch in My Heart

Why do I feel so trapped

In what comforts I sought?

Why am I unpleased

With the stuff that I bought?

 

And what is the point

Of my striving and toil

If I never know the sound

Of my feet against soil?

 

That itch in my heart

I wish I could say

Could be scratched by someone

Who would like me to stay.

 

But that itch in my heart

Will always remain

‘Til I get myself moving

And run far away.

 

I was taught to obey

And listen real good

I was taught to behave

And act like I should

 

So I listened real close

To that voice deep inside

If you ain’t gonna live

Then you already died.

 

That itch in my heart

And I truly believe

Is something I’ve kept

Well worn on my sleeve

 

‘Cuz that itch in my heart

Will always be there

‘Til I get myself moving

And flee from these cares.

 

Thoughts on Winter

Exactly 3 months ago on September 22nd, 2019, the world started to grow dimmer earlier and earlier. This was the autumnal equinox, the date at which the length of daylight and length of night is neither lengthened nor shortened. In balance, but past that point, the nights would lengthen.

Today, on December 22nd, 2019, it is the winter solstice. When the Sun stands still. Past this point, the days will begin to lengthen as the night wanes. There’s a poetry in the way these days rhyme with my life.

My father passed away on that day in September, and it has taken me up until now to start to feel like I have begun climbing out of the depression that has inflicted on me. I was never particularly close with my dad. His ideals and his vision were so radically different from my own that we never saw eye-to-eye on much, even if our interests tended to align, they were of different generations. His interest in movies and storytelling, not to mention his career writing as a journalist, or even his interest in shopping were all things I found myself drawn to as well. Even his less acceptable hobbies like gambling or drinking held a certain draw that I did my best to avoid.

I never found out, but judging from his character and his behavior, I think he was a person filled with a deep, wounding loneliness that could never be addressed. He could not connect on anything but the most superficial level with even his own sons. What he did share with us was sparse and more often than not burdensome demands. Who did he confide in, then? Friends, perhaps? He had a large enough network to make anyone’s head spin, but it’s my pet theory that anyone with such an inclination to build so many relationships is craving something deeper and unable to find it.

Even until the day he died, he was alone. One heart attack and he was on the ground, expiring by himself. What panic must have gone through his mind? Surely, I cannot die from this. Was this a prevailing thought? Did he have regrets? I’m sure there were countless. Whose name was he trying to yell at the very end? Questions without answers I’ve pondered since the autumnal equinox, when the skies and my own mind darkened earlier and earlier, as my heart flitted from anger to pity to sadness to bitterness and whatever else happened to seize it in that time. This is fine. Part of the process. So I thought.

As his son, I felt duty-bound to obey him while he lived, but I found it difficult to love him — to behold him as a person with hopes and dreams. Even when I tried to get close, he did not leave much room, and so there came a day when I stopped trying. Even now, I cannot remember the last time he and I spoke in person. Perhaps it was a few months before his passing? What did we even talk about?

All I wanted in these three months was a sense of normalcy. To be able to feel good about things again. And so I strove and strove, perhaps to the point of exhaustion, without ever thinking about what that was doing to me. So much of myself was wrapped up in what I should do instead of to what was being done, and that brought me no small amount of despair because nothing I did worked. I felt like trash no matter what I did. Therefore, I must be doing something wrong. But what could I do?

I craved control and I craved immediate answers, but I was given neither. And so I talked myself into patience and distraction. Even then, though I recognized my feelings were transient, I felt worse and worse. I did not recognize it but there was even a sense of resentment over my situation. What can’t I just have a moment’s peace? What is the lesson I am supposed to learn so this can stop happening to me? Where is the blessing?

I was blind to the blessing. I was blind to the lessons. More importantly, I was blind to the peace. There was overwhelming peace to be found that I did not wish to embrace because I wanted to do it in my own power. It was in surrendering myself to honest grief and not false piety that I started to get it. There’s an ultimate hope at the end of all of this and that drives me on, and I don’t need to have it exactly right or feel good to be able to access that hope.

And so at last, dark as though it may be, brighter, warmer days are yet to come. The beginning of winter is actually the beginning of the lengthening of the day, and the end of the long nights.

The Woman Shrouded in Moonlight

In the subtle gleam of moonlight against the creek was a dark gash of water dyed red. It was the twilight hour of someone’s life against the shadow of a creekside willow tree. The red traced itself backwards towards a limp wrist, tender and smooth, as pale as the moon itself. The arm connected to that wrist twitched. The shoulder shifted. The neck tensed as a weak smile met by a shallow breath parted to form words. “I’m finally free.”

Something throbbed within her. It wasn’t her heartbeat, but something like a drum, as if ordering her to get back up and run. Her upper arm was shattered, her shoulder dislocated, and every breath had to be shallow or her broken rib would puncture her lung. And still, something in her pushed her — no, demanded her — to live. Run and live. Dying is not an option.

The pursuit party on horseback did not know how far she had fallen from the mountainside, but the hounds would be on her soon. They knew her scent well and they were trained to navigate forests even at night. There came an abundance of noise from above, the clatter of hooves coming to a stop as barks rung like a series of death knells through the night.

“I see signs of a fall here, captain.”

“Dismount. We continue on foot down this way. You and the beholder sorceror remain here.”

“Understood.”

Their conversation was faint, but her hearing started to improve as she came closer to death. As her blood continued to drain from her body, she was ready to die and become unshackled from this world forever.

“Don’t die,” a voice shivered in her head, “You must live.” All she had to do was ignore that voice for a few moments longer. “If you die, how am I to live? How are we to exact our vengeance against these men?”

She responded to herself, “How am I to do any of that in the state that I am in?”

The voice grew in intensity, “They have trapped me within you because you are weak. You have always been weak. You are unfit to be a vessel of my power, and yet I live because you are weak and can speak to you because you are weak. But now is the time to be strong. Turn your weakness into strength by obeying me and fleeing.”

“To where shall I go? They shall be upon me soon.”

“You must not die! You may do anything but that! I do not care!”

She scoffed as a stabbing pain pierced her side. She would have to be careful not to do that again.

A man barked orders at his comrades, “Be cautious! The girl’s soul is bound with the harvest goddess! Do not allow her to die, or we shall share her fate!”

The harvest goddess spoke again like a drum beat in her mind, “Do not die! Do not be captured! Flee!”

But all she wanted to do was to finally rest and be done with all of this.

All that she had ever known in her life was to serve the goddess of the earth — the one known by many names, daughter of the goddess of life, wife of the god of the underworld, favored among the gods as the pearl of heaven. She had been told from her childhood that so long as she maintained dutiful reverence and service to the goddess, the people would know peace and prosperity. So why now did she have to suffer at the hands of the people?

“Because that is the nature of mankind. That is why my power belongs to ones such as I. That is why control over the harvest was never meant to belong to men.”

“I am sorry. I am sorry, goddess. I am unworthy to ask for forgiveness or mercy, I know, but if you would allow me to just sleep now and live this life no more…”

A searing pain seemed to burn within her head, “No! You judge correctly in your unworthiness. You too are responsible for the sin of allowing yourself to be used as a shackle to bind a goddess. I shall punish you all the same as the rest unless you listen to me now and get up! My lord husband is the ruler of the underworld! Do you not think it within my ability to find your soul upon your death and torture you for an eternity?”

“Then why is it that you fear him?”

After a pause, the goddess seethed, “Insolent, arrogant child! I do not fear anybody! I am disgusted with him! Enraged by him! His wife had been abducted for ten years and still these men live! Ruler of the underworld with no sense of responsibility! He deserves only my wrath and my scorn, but if you were to die and I return to the underworld with you, we shall fall under his full authority. Then surely he shall never let me leave again! That is the kind of coward that he is!”

The men grew closer as they descended the mountain side in the moonlit dark, cloud cover beginning to slow their movements. There was no safe way to carry torches down with them, and so they had found themselves barely able to move during times of pitch blackness.

“Listen, child, do you know what happens to the harvest without me? Nothing. Neighboring lands outside of your little slice of civilization have been languishing since my capture. I am certain they are praying to me even now, but I can hear nothing. The first year, I was merely horrified as you blessed the fields of your city and yours alone. As you overheard reports of other cities coming to yours for help and being denied. As you all hoarded your wealth and abused your influence to acquire more power, crushing underfoot any who would defy you. Did you know that a war has been fought over you already? In the tenth year, I am now furious!”

“I have heard of these wars… I did not know they were fought over me…”

“And yet still!” she cried out in grief, “And yet still do I love humans! I do not wish to see your kind come to ruin! If I return to the underworld, all of you will die! You would be eradicated for your sins against the gods, and I am trying to prevent that!”

“But I do not care… let them be eradicated.”

“What?” the goddess expressed a genuine bewilderment.

“We deserve to be punished for the evils we have committed. Humanity has failed to respect the gods, nature, or our position in world. We are a disease meant to be purged, a curse that is meant to be exorcised.”

“Again, arrogant child, you are so very wrong. As a single human being with the limited perspective of a set of eyes looking up from the base, you do not know the full scale of the mountain itself. You have no reason to be confident in what you see or believe. I truly hate nothing more than adults who refuse to mature and accept responsibility for their actions. If you wish to believe that humanity must be punished, so be it. I judge you and all of mankind guilty for your sins against me and against nature. You are sentenced to work and restore that which you have destroyed. Is that what you would like to hear? Have you run out of excuses, lazy child?!”

She did not respond, instead lifting her still unbroken arm towards the moon, now fully visible. The sound of men’s shouts drew near.

“You borne also from the mother goddess,” came a woman’s voice from thin air, “How unexpected to find you here. You seem to be a rather noisy center of attention.”

She looked towards the direction of the voice, spotting a lone bear, staring hungrily, perhaps drawn by the scent of blood. Was it the bear who spoke just now?

“Oh, holy maiden of the hunt,” the harvest goddess addressed the bear in relief, “Conditions have aligned for us to meet, I see. I’m not sure if either of our legends have us ever crossing paths. It matters not. Although their beholder sorcerors have used my legend against me, there is a beholder here as well. She can observe a new legend between you and I. Whisk her away to safety, I beg of you. She is someone who must not die.”

“Pathetic,” the bear scoffed, “To be reduced to asking for my assistance implies you are not worthy of my assistance to begin with. I am the goddess of the untamed. I operate according to one thing alone, and that is my whim. Nothing controls me.” It turned to leave, adding with one final statement, “Have you not also noticed that this woman wishes to die? Perhaps before requesting others heed your wishes, you heed the wishes of others.”

Her demeanor warped quickly, what little patience she had disintegrating into dust, “All I have ever done was heed the wishes of humanity! Those same humans that worship you are fed by me and only me! You have long since turned your back on providing them a means of sustenance so they have no choice but to seek my help! Irresponsible goddess with no sense of duty! Your dereliction could very well be the reason why they have captured me in the first place!”

“Girl,” the wild goddess addressed her serenely, a pointing visage of a woman wrapped in multi-colored furs appearing above the bear, “What do you wish for? I am in a generous mood tonight. Ask and you shall receive it. Is it a gentle death?”

She stared back up at the bear that began to approach her. It felt calming in an unexpected way.

“Have you forgotten your sister priests?” the harvest goddess asked the woman in desperation, “Those who have raised you and loved you since your birth?”

Her heart rate began to rise. No, I don’t actually want to die, she thought, every cell in her body protesting against her. Still, she quenched that desire and laid still, silent.

The harvest goddess continued, “Abandon them then! When they die and come to the underworld you can tell them yourself why you decided to give up!”

“Hmph,” the hunter goddess grunted in amusement, “Are you resorting to emotional threats to get your way? You truly know nothing of people. Typical of a goddess who treats people as subordinates or children instead of equals. Listen to me, wheat-brained goddess, they do not need our help. They can figure things out on their own given time. If anything, there will come a point when we must shortly go to war with them ourselves. That is what makes them so terrifying. Do you not see already how they have humbled you? Tricking you into this shackle? I had thought it impossible unless… Ah, unless…”

The harvest goddess said nothing, but the silence felt like she was glaring.

The hunter continued, “It seems to me that you do not wish to have this woman die precisely because it would expose you for what you really are. It has been bothering me for a while now. You see, there is no true means by which to imprison a goddess, for we exist solely in mystery. To see and understand who we are is the same as killing us. Girl, the people believed they summoned a goddess, and so you fabricated one in your own mind, did you not? One that is a mixture of your idea of the goddess of the earth and your own psyche.”

The harvest goddess growled, “What?! This is outrageous… To suggest that I am a figment of a crazed woman’s madness is utterly blasphemous!”

The woman was indeed confused. Is that truly what she had done all of these years? The voice in her head was merely a delusion?

The hunter continued, “I am a true goddess, unbound and unchainable. The one in your head is not. Indeed, the only reason why we can converse now is because you are dying. I remain shrouded in the bubble of plausible deniability. But the one ‘shackled’ to you? A deceitful mind playing tricks on itself.”

“Prove it! Prove that I am not a real goddess!” the harvest goddess was enraged to the point that the woman on the ground had started to feel heat rising from her chest.

But the hunter remained as cool and unconvinced as ever, “Nonsense. Proof is our poison. No deity would ever suggest such a thing.” The hunter waved her hand in dismissal, turning to the dying woman, “Girl, I do not know your story, but I can see that there is guilt in you. The goddess in your head manifests as vengeful because you are vengeful, and you do not know how to handle this for you are a gentle soul. Vexingly tragic. Tell me now, and I shall do it for this has fascinated me.”

“Do this? What do you mean?” the woman croaked.

“I shall slay your pursuers, and then lay you to rest. That is the cost of vengeance. What say you?”

“Get up!” the harvest goddess yelled, “Please!”

“Well?”

The woman summoned the strength to lift herself off the forest floor using the arm that had not been broken, staring up at the bear gazing peacefully back. “My entire childhood had been spent in the company of my sister priests. I never knew my mother and father. I studied day and night in the temple, worshiping and praying, learning the stories of the gods and goddesses that governed all of nature. When I had been chosen to become the vessel of the harvest goddess upon my coming of age… at the time, I had thought it to be a high honor, but since then, I lost my rights as a human being. I was no longer allowed to speak with anyone. No longer allowed out into the light of day without a squad of guards. I was fed and taken care of, sequestered comfortably in a dungeon beneath the earth as if I were buried in a furnished coffin.”

The goddesses listened intently, awaiting her decision.

And so she continued, “In my loneliest hour, I began conversing with the harvest goddess, who, to my surprise, spoke back to me. I don’t know if she ever taught me anything I myself did not already know, so I started to have my doubts. I don’t truly wish to die, but I don’t see any other way out of this miserable life. I don’t want a goddess in my head as my only companion. I don’t want to be the cause of conflict. All I ever wanted was a peaceful life where I could laugh and enjoy time with my fellow sister priests. If I could have that, I would give everything else up, but I know that will never happen again. So all I ask is to be free of this, and if death is the only way, I’ll take it. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t muster the will to care anymore about anything.”

“Oh, child,” came a third voice, distinct in its tone and emotion from the other two. The harvest goddess was angry. The hunter goddess was serene. This voice was soothing. “You determine correctly that we three are no more than voices in your mind. Our sovereignty over the world ended the moment your kind became aware of story-craft. We retreated to the space of mystery because that is all we have left.”

“Mother…!” the harvest goddess gasped.

The hunter narrowed her eyes. “To manifest now? What makes this girl so special?”

The mother goddess continued as if ignoring the other two, “For you see, we exist as absolutely real in stories and legends, but stories do not exist in objective truth. They are themselves subjective structures that are generated in the minds of men in order to simplify a complex world. Beginning, middle, and end are no different from landmarks designated for convenience in a vast forest.”

“I don’t understand…” the woman muttered, “What are you saying?”

She was not visible, but the mother goddess seemed to give off the feeling of a smile, “Just that you are like us. Flee not from these men and command them with the authority of a goddess. We reside in you, my child, and our story is yours, but only if you choose to make it so. We goddesses might only exist in story, but you are a human with the ability to write one. There is no hopelessness so long as there is a narrative.”

With that, the three goddesses disappeared. The bear eyed the darkness behind her warily at the sound of approaching shouts and clamor. Men with bindings appeared at last from the cliffside wall, exhausted from their climb down.

“There she is! Capture her!”

“Hold!” she shouted with a force so powerful it hurt her chest. The men froze in their tracks. “You are in the presence of the goddess of the harvest! Kneel and beg for forgiveness!”

The bear roared in response at the men, causing some of the less experienced ones to crumble to the ground. Moonlight from behind the clouds seemed to make her glow radiantly against the water. The captain stood his ground, “My goddess, we must have you return to the city at once.” In his own mind, he was no longer certain what he was seeing. A woman — no, a deity commanding a wild animal. Moonlight and a willow — both, sacred images of the goddess of the hunt. Her very visage appeared transformed from the scared girl that escaped from the temple grounds. Has the goddess within her somehow awakened fully?

“I have finished what I have needed to. Do not harm my vessel further and do not dare disobey my commands. Consider well that the lives of you and your families depend on my providence. It is merely my whim that you all have the blessings of the earth as you do now.” The words truly seemed no longer her own. Something like hope seemed to drive her forward, “Let us return then at once. Grant me audience with the king of the city for we have much to discuss.”

“You heard her!” the captain barked, wanting nothing more than to return home without any more trouble tonight. Surely, he would be receiving a commendation for this. “Our mission is complete. Let us draw this out no further!”

Reckless Abandon

The weight of his father’s hand against his shoulder supporting his tiny frame seemed to be small encouragement. Across the doorway to his home was a hostile kind of face he never had much exposure to — a scowling, fox-like face, thoughtful yet aggressively sharp in every detail, belonging to a girl who looked to be no older than himself.

“Hey, relax,” his father tried to say in his most reassuring tenor, the petrified child gripped like moss against his leg, “This is going to be your new little sister, Aoife. There’s nothing to be scared of. Try saying hi.”

The frightened, bespectacled boy waved his hand awkwardly as the girl glared daggers back, offering a loud hiss in return. As if confronted by a wild animal, he stole his hand back with a jolt, tucking himself further behind his father’s leg.

“Well, that’s not the worst we’ve seen,” he joked to the haggard woman behind the girl, “Are those all of her belongings?”

“Yes,” she said cheerily her tone in distinct contrast to her looks, “She hasn’t got much in the way of clothes, so as we’ve discussed earlier, you may wish to visit a store sooner rather than later.”

The boy peered back out and noticed her dress for the first time. Plain, ill-fitting, they were obviously hand-me-downs. He felt very self-conscious in the nicely ironed shirt and overalls his mother had made him wear that morning. If only she were here right now.

“That’s not a problem,” the father replied, “Thank you so much for dropping her off. I understand that it was quite inconvenient to arrange something like this. My wife takes the car to work, and with that new law…” he trailed off.

The woman laughed, “Yes, yes. It’s not a problem. She’s certainly a special one. I was willing to pull a few strings and call in a few favors for her. No one else was willing to take her until now. Was Solomon the same way?” The woman smiled down at the half-hidden boy named Solomon.

His father rubbed his head delicately, “Same way… you know, maybe so. He was utterly terrified of people, but he’s gotten so much better. Aoife might not be so different. She just expresses it in a different way. Oh, but those are the papers I need to sign, right? Please, come in. There’s no need to do that at the door.”

Aoife entered first, practically sniffing the air, brushing past both Solomon and his father as if in disdain.

“Hey, buddy,” his father whispered as he bent down to Solomon’s ear, “Can you go show Aoife to her room? It’s the one we painted together, remember?”

Solomon nodded with an unsure expression. Aoife glanced at his direction with a bored one. The woman added reassuringly, “It’s okay, hon, go check out your new room.”

As the children made their way up the staircase, the adults left to continue their discussion in the kitchen. “So she’s just like him then?” the father asked once he was sure they were out of earshot.

“Engineered and abandoned,” the woman noted with an alarming resignation, “At first it was a tweak here or there, and now we have these super human children being discarded because they aren’t quite perfect. Have you heard of the news just today?”

The father sighed, “I heard another gene lab got busted in Portland.”

“Actually the same lab that Aoife came from.”

“You’re kidding,” the father leaned in, “Were they able to track down her parents?”

“They only track the parents if there’s a benefit. In the end, rescuing children just make for good headlines. Then, they’re left forgotten. Just look at Solomon. I’m guessing his biological parents are just like the rest and want nothing more to do with him.”

Solomon tried to pretend not to hear as Aoife inspected her new room. It was decorated in a way that seemed to befit a normal seven-year-old girl, but she found it condescending. “Hmph,” she grunted as she tossed a stuffed sheep back onto the neatly made bed it had been resting on, “Show me your room,” she barked at the boy.

“O-okay,” Solomon said as she brushed past him again into the hall way. He followed closely by as she barged into his room heedlessly. It was decorated in a similar layout with the same little sheep doll resting against his bed frame. The furniture itself were a little more utilitarian, but not by much. However, one thing did seem to catch her eye.

She walked over to a picture frame, picking it up with both hands. Inside was a photograph of Solomon playing at the park with his adoptive father. The two seemed comfortable with each other. Next to it was a picture book.

Solomon walked over to her, suddenly reminded of what his father had told him before today. There would be a girl coming who needed lots of love because she didn’t receive a lot from the people around her. He should be nice to her until she learns how to be nice, too. “That’s me and my dad on my birthday,” Solomon explained pointing to the picture.

“Do you love your dad?” she asked in a quiet tone, gripping the picture frame.

“Yeah, he’s really nice.”

“Do you listen to everything he says?” she asked again. “Because that’s why he pretends to love you.”

“Um,” Solomon began to say when she suddenly dropped the picture frame, cracking the glass. “Oh no!” He rushed over to pick it up to inspect the damage. “Why did you do that?”

“Oops,” she shrugged with a smirk, “Sorry.”

Solomon had no idea what to do. His brain seemed to race to find the proper answer, but he looked down at his father’s beaming face in his hands. “It’s… fine. You didn’t mean to do it…” The words could barely come out.

His father sighed as he sipped a cup of hot tea at the kitchen counter, “When Solomon first came home, he had an awful temper. Meek and mild as a lamb most of the time, but he would have these fits of inconsolable rage. My wife and I had no idea how to handle him at first. It’s been five years since, and he’s gotten so much better. You know he’s only in third grade but already reading at a middle school level?”

“That’s what these children are like. When given the proper environment and care, they’ll naturally excel. The institutionalized ones like Aoife… they end up struggling, so finding them homes where they can express their talent and find happiness? That’s what I live for.”

“Yeah, I saw it for myself. Solomon is smarter, faster, stronger than all of his other classmates. He never gets sick. He doesn’t even get tired. If his parents wanted a superhuman kid, they had one, but instead they just… threw him away because of his eyesight? If I ever got a chance to meet them, I would love to give them a piece of my mind.”

Solomon placed the picture frame back onto the drawer, picking up the picture book next to it. He showed it to her, adding, “This was the first book I read with my dad. Do you want to see?”

She snatched it from his hands.

“See,” he said hesitantly, “It’s about a little duckling.”

She began tearing the first page. “Oops.”

“Hey!” he cried, his horror spiking every heart beat into his ears, “Stop that!”

She tore a little bit deeper.

“Or what?”

He reached for the book before she could do more damage, but she hopped away with unexpected agility, reaching for the inside corner of the page again. With a slow, loud rip, she continued. Solomon felt dizzy, but behind his thick glasses, his gaze was laser focused on her and the book in her hands.

The haggard woman finished her tea, “It’s always the children that suffer most the ambitions of the adults. It’s something my boss used to say, but every day it rings true. We mess around with their genes, and they become victims of our hubris.”

The father gave a sad smile, “I would do anything to change it, but what’s done is done. All we can do is try our best moving forward.”

“We could cure the world of every illness, but there will always be selfish people. Makes me wonder if we’re not meant to have this much control.”

“I think it’s inevitable. What parent wouldn’t want to prevent an illness for their child? Then if presented the option, what parent wouldn’t want their child to have every advantage available to them? It was never going to stop at curing cancer.”

“So what do you make of these parents then? They treat their own children like household appliances. Having so much control must make them believe that they’re interchangeable. Look at some of the other countries around the world. There’s rumors that China is going to look into warranty programs on their engineered children.” Her otherwise calm demeanor seemed to waver as she punctuated her sentence with cough. “Isn’t it maddening?”

The father nodded in agreement, “It is, but no matter how much things change, I truly believe in the deepest core of my being that the answer is love.”

A resonating thump from above startled both of them. The two adults silently made eye contact and began to walk towards the stairs.

Aoife cradled her nose in her hands, blood slowly pooling in them. The pain made her unable to focus on anything in front of her. Before they had even begun fighting, she had jerked backwards and slammed her own face into the open door, but she was more than ready to pin the blame on Solomon. Her mind started to concoct the perfect scenario to get him into the most trouble.

Suddenly, she heard a familiar rip. Solomon had ripped out the rest of the page and a few more and started to wipe her hands with them. She froze, unable to fully process what was happening. The paper wasn’t particularly absorbent.

Wasn’t this book so precious to him that he was ready to attack her?

He handed her another page, one where a sad, lonely duckling could be plainly visible. “Here, you can stop the bleeding with this, too.” She accepted the page, still in shock.

“Solomon! Aoife! Is everything alright?” His father appeared from the hallway. “Oh my goodness, what happened, you two?”

Aoife stared from the ground up at the man, blood still dripping from her nose, “I… He…”

The woman showed up right behind him, horrified.

The little girl continued absent-mindedly, “We were playing, and I hurt myself. He helped me.”

“Let’s get you cleaned up then,” the father said relaxing his shoulders. “Looks like you need to wash your hands, too, buddy,” he smiled at his son, “C’mon.”

Aoife stood up, still holding her bundle of bloody paper when the woman approached and gently took the scraps from her. She seemed like she knew there was more to this story than what she saw. “I’ll throw this away,” she whispered, “No more trouble-making, hon.”

She nodded as Solomon’s father took her hand.

 

 

The Given Abyss

My shadow cast against the grains

As sunlight fades across the blue.

A wetter shade than what remained

Untouched and radiantly new.

 

The coastal creatures teeming on,

I dove a little deeper more

Until the warmth relied upon

Became a chill I can’t ignore.

 

My sight accustomed as I sank,

My breathing muzzled by a thread,

My life reliant on a tank

Receding past horizon’s edge.

 

That distant home at shores afar

Was where I learned to walk and run,

But now I float within the dark

Until the day my mission’s done.

 

A Pillar of Stones

My regrets were a pillar of unsteady stones

As it propped up a roof that was littered with holes.

In the rain I was cold and at night so exposed

But I knew nothing else but this shack I called home.

 

With the threat of collapse looming just overhead

Came a knock at the door from a stranger instead.

“I am sorry… I’d answer your knocking,” I said,

“But I’m holding the pillar upholding this shed.”

 

Silhouetting the doorway, the man had begun,

“I have heard from your friend, which is why I have come —

He’s the expert repairman, and I am his son.

Please let go, and then exit this shanty at once.”

 

“I refuse,” came the words before I myself knew,

“I’m afraid to let go,” were what followed them too.

His response was a sigh as he entered the room,

“I suppose I must break some unfortunate news.”

 

“There’s a storm on the way, and the biggest they’ve seen.

And a storm of that size will wipe all of this clean.

So it’s hopeless to tie yourself down to that beam.

If you stay, you will die, do you get what I mean?”

 

“So I’m destined to perish here no matter what?

Since my arms are the only thing holding this up?”

To my horror, my hands began shaking because

I could not even stomach that sickening thought.

 

As the pillar responded with creaking and groans

The repairman supported the column of stones.

With his arms wrapped above, he responded below,

“Do you see? I will hold it so you can let go.”

 

Though my body was stiffened and stuck in one place,

I released my two hands ’til they hung at my waist.

When the thrill of the motion had coursed through my veins,

I took off like an animal fleeing a chase.

 

I was greeted by clouds hanging low to the north

With a wind and a fury of waves surging forth.

As my eyesight adjusted, I turned to my home

Whose foundations had caved with a terrible force.

 

Was my life in that shack worth the risk for this man?

Was there something he knew that I can’t understand?

My regrets were a pillar of now fallen stones

That collapsed on my rescuer, breaking his bones.

 

In a rush I collapsed to my knees and began

To unearth all the ruins as quick as I can.

With complete disregard for the pain in my hands

And a fear that his trade was a part of his plan.

 

From the rubble he rose slightly worse for the wear,

“I’m afraid that your home is in need of repair.”

He remarked with a grin and a brush of his hair,

“We were lucky it fell when you weren’t in there.”

 

“Let us leave for my house while the weather is fair.

We’ve a room you can use that’s already prepared,”

He was hurt but unfazed like a victor declared.

“And we’ll start the rebuilding whenever you care.”