Crossing the Gulf

Here is a brief attempt to articulate a story, as well as a milieu, that has been bouncing around in my head for a few years. It speaks to what I think is a common emotion — that of failing to understand those whom you love most, and failing o articulate that love

Thomas stood on the front porch and watched the flyer descend into the yard. It made no sound, nor did it produce even the slightest force. Not so much as a blade of grass bent under whatever power propelled it. It’s mere presence was power enough to scatter the goats and set Blue to barking madly, however.

Once it had stopped descending a meter from the ground, Thomas stepped off the porch and hushed Blue with a snap of his fingers. As the side of the ovoid craft melted to become an opening and a ramp, he pulled up his sleeves and set his fists on his hips.

The alien person was unsettling, bald and pale and somehow indescribably synthetic, but mostly familiar. Walking down the ramp to the grass, he regarded the cowering goats and grumbling Blue with an expression of near-recognition or remembrance. Looking at Thomas, his expression softened and became almost human.

“Thomas, brother, am I too late?” He asked tonelessly.

“Yes, Rob,” said Thomas, trying to remain as placid and indifferent as his former brother. The corners of his mouth and eyes betrayed him. “Dad died last week.”

Though his emotion neither registered on his face nor in his voice, what Rob said next was as heartfelt as anything Thomas had uttered amidst his tears at the funeral. “I am sorry I could not be here.”

Thomas clenched his jaw and swallowed the tremor in his throat. “Space is big,” he said flatly.

Rob cocked his head. He recognized the statement and understood how Thomas had meant it. Whatever pleasure the barb might have given Thomas melted when when Rob replied, “Not as vast as some gulfs, it seems.”

Thomas blinked rapidly. He crossed his arms tightly and slouched a little. He shushed Blue gently, then cleared his throat.

“It’s not my fault I was born this way, Tom,” said Rob.

“I know,” said Thomas, and did. Rob was not talking about the pale, shiny skin or the synthetic flesh. He was talking about who he was, how he was. Thomas had always been earthy and easy, where Rob had been distant and uncertain. Thomas had always been like Dad, where Rob had not.

“You did the right thing, Rob. Going into space. Going through the change, I mean.”

“I was lucky,” said Rob matter-of-factly. “My nature–” the word was stilted “–allowed me to go.”

Thomas nodded.

“Sometimes I think I should not have.”

Thomas shook his head. “No, Rob, it’s okay. It’s good. You’re going to see things–”

For the first time, Rob’s face beamed with emotion. “I have! The rings of Saturn and the seas of Titan!”

Thomas smiled. “I’m glad, Rob. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I judged you when you left.”

“When I left you and Dad,” Rob added, unbidden. “I am sorry, too.” He scanned the yard and his strange, seemingly unseeing eyes landed on one of the bleating kids as it nuzzled for its mother’s teat. “You have seen thing, too, I think.”

Thomas relaxed, uncrossing his arms and straightening. He smiled. “Yes, I have.”

Rob said, “I only have a few hours before we leave for The Belt.”

“Oh,” said Thomas. Nearly a minute passed. Thomas added, “Come in for coffee?”

“I don’t–”

“I know.”

Rob regarded Thomas again in his distant way, then the little goat, and Thomas again. “I would like that.”

“Good,” said Rob. “You can tell me about Titan.” He paused. “Dad was asking.”

END

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Anatomy of a Disaster

This story is terrible. No, really, it is bad. The thing is, though, that not only did I not realize it was bad until I reread it, it shouldn’t be bad at all. During and after the writing process — which was one of my short bursts of writing after an idea prompted me — I thought I had a good handle on the idea, the narrative and the prose. I do believe I went 0 for 3 here.

The basic story is a viable one, I think, as is the general plot structure and the character sketches. But none of those things managed to come together in a coherent way. I also loaded it with too many “neat ideas” that aren’t bad in and of themselves, but really have no place in a short-short of this sort.

So, why am I sharing it anyway? My inclination was to bury it among all the other failed works on my hard drive (or in The Cloud, anyway) but then I read something by Neil Gaiman today:

I think that all writing is useful for honing writing skills. I think you get better as a writer by writing, and whether that means that you’re writing a singularly deep and moving novel about the pain or pleasure of modern existence or you’re writing Smeagol-Gollum slash you’re still putting one damn word after another and learning as a writer.

What follows isn’t quite Smeagol-Gollum slash fic, but it is putting one damn word after another.

The pirates floated a mile away from their target, their little fishing boat indistinguishable from any other save for the .50 caliber machine gun mounted at the prow. Kesi stood near the gun. Her bare toes tried to grip the deck as the ship listed with the gentle ocean waves. She could have reached out and used the weapon to steady herself, but she was afraid to touch it. The only time she had ever seen and heard it fired had been when it cut her father and older brothers down, when the pirates had taken her. She knew in her head the gun had no magic in it, but in her heart she could hear the warning tut of her grandmother not to touch so evil a thing.

Bahdoon peered through his binoculars, adjusting the dials and touching the buttons frequently. When he was satisfied with what he saw, he laughed out loud and said, “Get her ready!”

The other pirates, there were five of them on the little boat, set to work on Kesi. Two grabbed her narrow shoulders and forced her on to her knees. Another man called Cabaas pulled a heavy wooden box from beneath a bench and flipped it open with a clatter. He rummaged through for a minute, eventually recovering two object. One he tossed to Bahdoon and the other, a long cylinder, he brought over to Kesi. He leered at the girl as he pulled off her ragged shirt, leaving her almost naked.

Kesi did not struggle or even meet his eyes. When they had first captured her, she had resisted. They beat her often enough and bad enough that she learned not to do that any more. When Cabaas pulled the cylinder apart, revealing a long, wide needle, she did not flinch. That would have inspired only laughter and derision. When he stabbed in in the chest with it, she did not cry out, though she did bite her lower lip hard enough to cause it to bleed. She could not help but cough and sputter as he injected the liquid into her lung, but she tried not to cry out in terror at the feeling of drowning. She knew in her mind that she would not, but her thundering heart did not listen.

After a few moments, she had stopped wheezing, hacking and convulsing — and breathing.

“Let her go,” ordered Bahdoon and the two pirates who held her complied. “Come here,” he said to her and she complied, too. He pressed the binoculars to her eyes and turned her head roughly to point her in the right direction. “You see it?” he demanded.

“Yes,” she tried to say, forgetting that the strange gel in her lungs made her unable to talk. She nodded instead.

Through the binoculars, Kesi could see a long, low vessel, a barge. It was easily the size of a soccer field, stacked from top to bottom with bales of trach. The bales were huge, as large as he hovel in her village, and they glistened in the sun with their plastic and metal and screens. It was another recycling barge, carrying the cast off electronics of the Americans to the Chinese who would scrape the valuable minerals inside and then melt them down. There were no people aboard, she knew, but it was well protected by cameras and by eyes far above them, beyond the top of the sky.

Bahdoon took the binoculars back and hung them around his neck. He knelt down to Kesi’s eye level and shoved the item Cabaas had given him in her face. It metallic, black and rectangular, about the size of Bahdoon’s hand. A few lights and buttons could be seen on its surface, though on the one Bahdoon held the lights were not illuminated. “You remember?” he demanded and Kesi nodded. “Bring back as many as you can.” He slapped her hard across the face. “Bring back none and I give you to them.” He motioned his head in the direction of Cabaas and the other pirates. She averted her eyes and nodded her assent.

Bahdoon took a mesh bag from one of the pirates and tied it around her waist. “Now go!” he barked. Before she could even move to the edge of the boat, Cabass was on her. He lifted her, sure to slip his hand between her legs as he did so, and gleefully threw her overboard. “Hurry!” yelled Bahdoon. “Before your lungs need real air.”

Hiding her face from the pirates so they could not see her scowl, Kesi dover beneath the surface and swam for the barge.
***
Kesi was a good swimmer, very good. She was strong and fast and did not tire. That she could swim so well was what had saved her life. When Bahdoon and his men had attacked, as they sprayed death into her brothers and father, Kesi dove into the water and tried to escape. At first, the pirates did not shoot her because they were amused and they wanted to capture her alive to rape her. But as they drove their boat behind her and saw how fast and how far she could swim, Bahdoon saw another purpose for her.

They caught her, pulled her out of the water and beat her. Bahdoon stopped the others from raping her, though. That he reserved as a threat. If she did not behave, Bahdoon said, they would have her. It was enough to caw the terrified girl.

Bahdoon was smart and he had formed a plan. For better or worse, Kesi was part of it. She was safe, so far, from their violent lust, but she was a slave and was forced to help them steal.
“It is hardly stealing!” Bahdoon said the first time. “This is trash the Americans threw away! And if the Chinese are too lazy to guard it, then it is ours by right.”

Kesi was a simple fisherman’s daughter, but she was wise enough to see the lie in that. The Chinese had bought and paid for the contents of the barges and were willing to protect them. Some pirates decided to simply attack the barges, taking the most valuable electronics and then scuttling the barge. All this did was invite the ire of the Chinese and now they had ships, planes and sky-eyes everywhere. Bahdoon was more subtle, though. he knew the most valuable items on the barge, the superconductor cells, were worth their weight in far more than gold. To the Americans and Chinese, they were abundant. They could be thrown away or recycled for their materials. But to the Somalis, they were priceless. Bahdoon did not need a big ship and a lot of pirates to steal from the barges. He only needed a small girl who could swim like a dolphin.

That she could not breath like a dolphin was a problem, but Bahdoon was lucky. He knew the American special forces soldiers used a gel that they put in their lungs that freed them from needing to breath. he had witnessed it, when Navy SEALS attacked a boat on which he was crewed years before, swimming with little gear from impossibly far away. Acquiring some of the gel from corruptible American soldiers was easy.

Now, with the gel in her lungs, Kesi was truly a dolphin. She wondered if she might get far enough away to escape the pirates, but knew it was futile. In the vast open ocean, there was no place to go. She sometimes considered staying on the barge, as well, but had dismissed it after realizing that even if she survived without food and water all the way to the Chinese port where the barge would dock, she was no safer from abuse or rape among them than the pirates. No. She was resigned. In a way, she took pride in her importance to Bahdoon’s plan and she had no intention of giving him a reason to give her to Cabaas.
***
Kesi swam for just over twenty minutes. For the first few minutes, she remained on the surface. She could feel the machine gun pointed at her. If she dove to quickly, they would fire, assuming she was trying to escape. It was a senseless threat, but threats were all the pirates knew.

After a while she dove beneath the surface and swam a few meters below. She had no goggles so her vision was blurred, but even so she was awed by the life all around her. With the gel in her lungs, she did not have to reach the surface to breath. Only occasionally she would exhale tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide. She was not afraid in the ocean, of sharks or rays or jellyfish. Death here and now would be a release and she would die in one of her rare moments of freedom.
As she approached the barge, she could see its barnacle covered hull. It moved slowly, its tireless engines pushing it day and night toward its destination and a pace so slow Kesi could keep up with it. She swam alongside it until she found one of the ladders bolted to its side. Before she climbed, she hung on to the ladder and let the barge pull her along while she rested. She would have liked to stay there for a long time, but the gel only lasted an hour or so, depending on how hard she worked swimming back and forth and searching. Also, if she took too long, Bahdoon would let Cabaas beat her.

She pulled herself up the ladder, climbing out of the water. She hovered at the top of the ladder, scanning the deck. A few fish and crabs would be seen near the edge, likely dropped by seabirds or washed up by waves, but because the trash was all electronics, there was no great cloud of screaming gulls above. Satisfied no terrors awaited her just yet, Kesi pulled herself onto the deck of the barge and tiptoed carefully toward the canyons of stacked bales.

The barge was immense and the amount of garbage was staggering to Kesi. the idea that so much could be simply thrown away baffled her. Her village was made of shacks and lean-tos and huts, almost all built from the refuse of aid workers, corporate projects or rare second hand locally produced materials. her people had nothing to waste because it was all waste.

She began to search. This was the fifth time she had searched a barge for Bahdoon and she knew what to look for now. The devices he wanted her usually installed in other devices, providing essentially limitless power, at least insofar as a small appliance or gadget was concerned. Televisions, refrigerators and similar items were the most likely targets. But because the battery did not need to be changed, it was usually housed deep inside the appliance, so Kesi looked for ones that had been cracked and crushed in being baled for transport. He thin arms could reach into the gaps between the jagged metal and plastic and, if she was lucky and careful, she could retrieve the battery without too many cuts or scrapes.

Unfortunately, Kesi was having little luck. The few open appliances she found early on did not have batteries. Perhaps the Americans were realizing how foolish it had been to throw such things away. Just a handful of the things would power her entire village. Just one would work the waterpump the United Nations people brought forever. She put such thoughts out of her head. She would never escape to her home, certainly not with a superconductor.

While she searched, Kesi came across a toy. It was in the shape of an elephant, which made Kesi smile. Those strange and majestic creatures were gone forever, but the idea that little children in America wanted toys of them filled Kesi with a kind of child’s pride. She knew Bahdoon would not let her keep it, but she put it under one arm anyway. She would leave it in the water before he returned to the pirates’ boat, letting toy elephants go extinct, too.

A few moments later, Kesi found a strange black cube about two feet to a side. She was able to wiggle it free of the trash bale and when it clattered to the deck, she saw that one side was bent aside, exposing the innards. What it was, she could not begin to guess. Kesi set her elephant beside her and reached inside the machine, searching by feel for the prized cuboid.

At the same time her fingers found it, Kesi heard the popping sound. It was faint and distant, but unmistakable: the .50 caliber. Fear gripped her but still she groped inside the machine. Something sharp bit her wrist but she kept feeling until her fingers found the release screws. There was more popping, but different. It was faster and fainter. Then silence. She could not see the water from within the labyrinth of trash bales. She worked her fingers as fast as she could, but the blood from her wound made them slippery.

As she removed one screw after another, letting it fall inside the machine, she could hear a sound growing. It was like a rush of wind and the beating of hooves all at once. In her heart, she knew who — who — it was, and she knew there was no purpose in what she was doing, but nonetheless she fervently worked to free the battery. The sound became unbearable, amplified as it echoed off the deck and against the canyon walls. Then a shadow fell over her and she felt hot wind blast her and toss bits of free detritus at her.

Kesi did not look up. She could not force herself to do so. Instead, she released the last screw and caught the battery in her sticky-slick fingers. The shadow left her and the wind died down. She could hear the aircraft hover for a moment before descending to a clear part of the barge deck. She pulled her hand free and saw her prize, covered in her blood. But it was hers, for she knew there was no Bahdoon left to give it to, no Cabaas left to threaten her. The sound of the aircrafts engines quieted but did not stop and she could hear booted feet pounding the deck as men raced toward her. Quickly, she pulled open the back of the elephant and shoved the battery inside, then snapped the back shut again.

She hugged the elephant tightly as the men surrounded her. They were in armor and wore helmets and pointed rifles at her. On their uniforms was the symbol of the nation of China. She tried to speak, but the gel was still in her lungs and she could not. One soldier advanced on her and she bawled silently. He reached for her and she wished she could scream. He grabbed her and for just a brief moment, she wanted Bahdoon back, even Cabaas.

The soldier held her, pressing her against his armor. “Shh,” he whispered. “It’s okay,” he said in practiced but odd sounding Somali. “You are safe now.”

She hugged the Chinese soldier back, and hugged her elephant.

END

Dear People of Tomorrow

First of all, Congratulations. Not only did you, or your ancestors anyway, manage to survive the catastrophe that eradicated human civilization, but you also pulled yourselves up out of the muck of barbarism. You reading this inscription means that civilization’s rebirth is complete and scientific progress has advanced to the point of rediscovery of at least both scanning tunneling microscopy and pulsed inductive thrust. Since it is impossible to know from our perspective whether you are reading this days or centuries after it was retrieved, or whether it were robotic or human hands to pluck it out of its orbit, we will make no such presumptions and simply assume the reader is sitting comfortably in a soft chair with a warm cup of tea. If you are the scientist who is first to break the translation code accompanying this inscription, prepare to be astounded by the hidden history about to be revealed. If you are a student forced to read this as part of an overview of ancient historical texts, prepare to be equivalently bored.

Following this introductory inscription is the sum total of human knowledge. All the art, science, culture and history is contained in this quantum data construct. It is designed to be accessible to anyone with the knowledge and technology capable of accessing and reading this introduction, so do not be alarmed: you will have access to that trove of information. Of course, given the millenia that must have passed, it is likely to be little more than trivia to you and your civilization. Perhaps, though, hidden in all the esoterica of an age long in your past you can find some nugget of wisdom to make the mining worth the effort. At the very least, there are tens of thousands of recipes recorded herein. Something should satisfy.

Because all of that specific knowledge is found within, this introduction will not delve into the specifics of what came before the end. Instead, we decided to provide this introduction to prepare you in a more general sense for what you are about to discover. In short, it is this: humans are a messy, contradictory and ultimately fallible species that despite all our advances are still bound and limited by a collection of a few inescapable evolutionary adaptations. Equally, however, we are thoughtful and creative and loving and we are constantly striving to go beyond the limits with which we were created. Occasionally we overreach, though, which is of course how we got ourselves in our current predicament and why it is you are reading this at all. Don’t worry, we will not spoil the surprise here; you will have to read the entire story of our civilization to find out how it ends.

What we wish you — all of you, whoever reads this through the perpetuity of your own civilization — to know is the you were not the first. And what we — all of us here and now tasked with preparing this record — wish to believe is that we were not the last. Civilizations may rise and fall, brought to heel by cosmic impacts and man’s hubris, but unlike the previous masters of this Earth like the dinosaurs, we can see our doom and prepare in some small way to survive it. And if it should be that you, too, see the doom of your civilization coming, we ask you preserve this record along with your own.

Regards,

The Council for the Preservation of the History of World Civilization

Council Chair-nations Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu

 

P.S. In the case that this record was discovered by a non-human civilization, please return it to its proper orbit after having copied the data.

 

Simulacra

Here is a short short I just wrote based on an idea I have had kicking around for quite some time. I feel sometimes that pushing out a quick story like this helps clear the way for longer works, like the one I am working on currently. Enjoy.

———-

For one singular moment, for one brief second, there were two identical Dr. Thomas Hoffslers. Each one was composed of precisely the same thoughts, experiences and memories. In that briefest time, no one, not even Hoffsler’s wife or mother, could have told the difference between the two. Then, in a flash, it was over and two distinct intelligences began to drift apart.

That fleeting sameness was purely psychological, of course. After all, one Hoffsler was a flesh and blood human being who had been born in a Cleveland suburb, worked his way through a crumbling public education system to eventually receive a full scholarship to MIT, where he would spend decades developing what would become the other Hoffsler, the artificial being with a mirror image of Hofflser’s mind imprinted on its quantum neural network of a brain. Dr. Hofflser called this one Tom, short not for “Thomas” but for “Tomorrow.”

“Tom,” said Hofflser, “are you there?”

Something like his own voice but tinny and artifical answered back, “Yes, I’m here, Dr. Hofflser.”

“Good,” replied Hoffsler to Tom and then to the technicians waiting outside he said, “Bring me out.”

The table on which Hoffsler lay hummed to life and he slid slowly out of the machine he had designed to take a photograph of his whole self and transfer it to a quantum computer. Once free of the tight confines of the machine, he reflexively stretched and sat up. He was in a small, clean lab. It was sparse except for the MRI like machine at which he now sat and a bank of monitors. One wall was made of glass, allowing the technicians in the control room to observe him. In the center of the ceiling there was a small inverted dome of dark glass: Tom’s limited view into the world.

“How do you feel, Tom?” asked Hofflser. He motioned to the technicians and one of them disappeared briefly from sight before entering the lab with Hoffsler’s coat and a steaming styrofoam cup of black coffee.

“Strange” Tom replied in his almost-Hoffsler voice. “The lack of sensation from a body is quite odd, disturbing even, and although I cannot smell the coffee, I remember how it smells and would very much like a cup.”

Hofflser nodded in recognition. He had not really thought about that part, but it made sense. “Make a note,” he told the technician and then waved the young man out of the room. “Tom,” he said to the dome in the ceiling, “do you know who I am?”

“Of course,” answered Tom. “You are Dr. Thomas Hoffsler.”

“Good. Right. And who are you?”

“I am Tom, an artificial intelligence created from a complete scan of your neural network.”

“And are you me?”

“No, of course not.”

“And were you ever me?”

“No. Prior to that scan of your mind being imprinted onto my quantum network I did not exist. I am a wholly unique and separate mind.”

“Good,” said Hofflser. He took a long, slurping sip from the cup. “We should get to work, then.”

“I was hoping we would start soon,” said Tom. “I think the distraction would be helpful.”

Hoffsler looked up at the technicians through the glass and said, “Go ahead and start the simulation,” he said. “And cut off the feed, please.” Then to the air, he added, “See you later, Tom,” and motioned at the technician. If Tom had any reply, the technician shut off its ability to communicate before it responded.

Hoffsler was finishing his coffee and preparing to go to his office to complete some paperwork when the door to the lab opened again. This time, the technician was accompanied by a serious looking man in a suit. The technician handed Hofflser a sealed manila envelope. “What’s this?” asked Hoffsler. “Who’s this?”

The man in the suit said, “It’s easiest if you just open the envelope and read what is inside.”

Hoffsler shrugged and tore open the envelope. There was a thick report inside, which he scanned quickly. Within a few minutes, he understood completely.

“Director Abernathy,” said Hoffsler, “it is nice to meet your acquaintance. Again, I suppose.”

“Likewise,” said Abernathy. “I apologize for the nature of this meeting.”

Hoffsler shook his head. “No, it’s fine. It’s not your fault.” He laughed out loud. “It’s mine, it seems.” He cast an eye back toward the control room where the technicians continued to work. “How’s Tom,” he asked.

“We’re already seeing the effects of the isolation and sensory deprivation, Doctor,” replied one of the techs. “The simulacrum has been operating for just over two thousand simulated hours.”

Hoffsler glanced back down at the report to refresh his memory. Abernathy answered before Hofflser could find the number, “It made it five thousand hours last time. Whatever tweaks you made seemed to have backfired.”

Hoffsler grimaced and nodded. “Too bad. Back to the drawing board, I suppose.”

Abernathy frowned. “Dr. Hofflser, neither DARPA’s money nor patience is limitless. We have been at this for seven iterations and we don’t seem to be getting any closer. There are other Artificial Intelligence programs seeking grants.”

“But none nearly as close as we are, Mr. Abernathy. You know it and I know it. We’ll take a look at the data and make some tweaks.”

Abernathy said, “Fine,” and shook Hoffsler’s hand formally. “Let us know when you are ready so we can authorize the memory wipe.”

“Will do,” Hoffsler said. “Good day, Mr. Abernathy.”

Abernathy nodded again and left. “Alright,” Hofflser said to the technicians. “I feel like making some memories worth losing, so let’s clean up. Collect as much data as is worthwhile, then format C.”

“Yes sir,” replied the technician.

Hoffsler looked up at the blind camera that represented the artifical mind he had created and said, “Sorry, Tom. Maybe next time.”

***

Tom’s skin crawled, like millions of spiders were creeping over him. He could smell waste and sweat and flowers and hot cocoa and sex. His mouth was sticky with sweet and sour and salty and putrid all at once. No, it was not true. He was experiencing none of that. His mind was merely creating sensory data to fill the void where none was to be found.

Only his eyes were trustworthy, watching the great churning ball of Jupiter and its system of moons grow ever larger as he approached. He tried to focus and the gas giant and search for the great red storm on its face.

Tom knew that it was all a simulation, a test to see how he would do when his neural net was transferred to the real planetary probe. He waited for Hoffsler to stop the simulation so they could write the report together and work out the bugs. He felt like if he could just have a little time he could figure out a way to compensate for the sensory deprivation and the–

 

END

 

10 Days, .6K

It seems this exercise is getting off to a slow start. While I can blame some of it on a bad cold, it’s also an issue of poor time management. But then, that is what this is about, and it’s early yet. I certainly have to pick up the pace, but it is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ll see what the next 10 days brings.

 

Now, that .6K (i.e. 600 words) isn’t quite accurate. I am trying to only “count” finished words (in this case, the .6 is the 599 words of “Empty Aisle” sent to NPR for their 3 Minute Fiction contest). I am about 2400 words into another story (about 1/3 to 1/2 the way through) but since so much happens in editing I don’t want to count it yet. Plus, I have been offering daily “Six Word Sci-Fi” stories on my Twitter feed — check them out if you have not yet — which should account for another 600 words at the end of this exercise.

 

Back to work!

The Empty Aisle

It seems a little ironic that I would inaugurate this science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction blog with a rather mundane piece. The following very short fiction is intended as an entry in NPR’s regular “Three Minute Fiction” contest and the deadline is the end of tomorrow. I wanted to do a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end and a protagonist worth caring about. Packing all that into 600 words is quite a challenge. You can tell me whether I succeeded.

———-

Every aisle seemed to be a shrine to Tommy. Aisle six, his favorite cereal. Aisle nine, his favorite cheap plastic toys. Aisle seven, where he had his first honest to goodness public temper tantrum.

Tom kept his head down as much as he could, to hide his welling eyes from his neighbors and to avoid their pity and morbid wonder. It had been like this for thirty seven days. People he did not know but recognized from the intersections in the lives of parents saw him and they knew him. Some turned away swiftly. Some stared. Most, though, regarded him briefly, smiled weakly and walked away.

As Tom reached up to pull cans of soup from the shelf, he saw Tommy dart between the aisles, waving some desired treat. He clenched his jaw. No. Not Tommy. Just another blond boy about the right height.

Tom finished shopping. He spared the girl at the checkout and used the self service lane.

The exit doors slid open and the warm, wet air of late May blasted Tom. His car was adrift in the sea of suburban vehicles. As he crossed the asphalt he saw a little blond head bob up and down between cars. It disappeared and reappeared an Tom’s gut knotted. He scanned the lot. No one else was close by, so he went toward where he had last seen the child.

It was a young boy. His lip trembled and his eyes were wide with fear. He had Tommy’s beautiful blond hair and wore the same brand of light up sneakers. Tom stared at the boy and the boy stared back. Finally, Tom asked,“Are you okay?”

“I don’t know where my mom is,” said the boy in the angelic soprano of a six year old.

Tom transferred his grocery bags to one hand and approached the boy. “I’ll help you,” he said and put out his free hand. He could see his fingers trembling and his heart raced. Hesitantly, the boy took Tom’s hand.

Tiny fingers slipped between Tom’s own and his thundering heart seemed to stop suddenly. For a brief and endless moment, he could smell the stench of burning plastic and bone and the black smoke blinded him again. But instead of screaming Tommy’s name from behind the line of police and firefighters, he was watching it with him, holding his hand while someone else’s son was consumed by fire.

“Come on,” Tom said as calmly as he could. He gave the boy’s hand a comforting squeeze and a steering tug.The boy followed in short, uncertain steps.

Tom stopped and set the grocery bags down. He fished his keys out and pushed the button on the keychain. Two aisles over, his car lights flashed. “This way,” he said and picked up the bags.

Tommy’s booster was still in the back seat. Tom opened the door. “Come on,” he urged. The boy stared at him, trembling. Tom knelt down and gently gripped the boy’s shoulders. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m going to take you home.”

The boy smiled and elation filled Tom. Then a woman’s sudden voice shook him. She half scolded, half pleaded, “Jack!” A stern, masculine, “Sir?” followed quickly.

Tom stood and turned. Jack was already at his mother, hugging her legs. Next to the woman was a uniformed officer, his hand hovering near his sidearm. Tom began to stammer an explanation but stopped when he saw he pity and morbid wonder overcome them. The woman muttered something like a condolence. The officer grimaced and nodded.

After they were gone, Tom sat a long time in his car, sobbing.

 

Day 0

It is the day beore for my “100 Days, 100K” experiment begins and the official launch of this blog. I can’t deny that I am a little nervous: Will I be able to make the goal? Will the writing be any good? And, most of all, will anyone read it?

There won’t be a lot of this sort of self reflection/personal details. Not only is that not what this blog is about, but also, if I do it right, the fiction and occasional essay that appear here should speak for me — my beliefs, my fears and my philosophies. Story is important and it is through story, whether a sprawling literary novel or a chat over coffee about your day, we unpack our lives and our belief systems.

As I go through this process of writing “for real” after so many years of doing it in disorganized spurts and in a haphazard, half-assed way, I want to share it. I want comments and criticism and, mostly, company. While I will eventually get to a place where I will try and sell what I write in one form or anther, what I really need is people reading and interacting. So the best thing you can do for me is sharing this blog with people who you think might be interested. The more people that read my stories, the more likely that I will learn the skills and techniques I need to become a “real writer” and, eventually, be able to make a career of it. I appreciate your help and support in this.

Tomorrow is day 1 and my first goal is a story for NPR’s “Three Minute Fiction” contest. Remember, I may not write 1,000 words a day for each of the 100 days and it may be a few days between updates (I want to post complete stories and lengths will vary). Stay tuned and stay with me. It should be a fun ride!

The Song of Summer

This is one of my favorite stories. It saddens me that I have never been able to sell it. It is quite likely, of course, that it is just not very good and I prefer it out of nostalgia. In any case, this is one of my few forays into fantasy as a writer (which seems odd, given that in gaming fantasy is my preferred genre) and I hope you enjoy it.

——————————————–

“This is the girl?”

 

Summer shifted uncomfortable as she stood before the knight. He was tall, taller than any man in Woodbridge, looming over her. His bright blue eyes stared down his hawkish nose at her, examining her. She tried not to look at him, but found herself glancing up, despite her head being bent respectfully at her bare feet. His jaw was strong, and his chest and shoulders broad. Long bronze hair framed his handsome face. Even without his armor, he would have been a sight enough to stir her heart. With it, he twisted her stomach into a knot. His plat was highly shined steel, etched from helm to heel with intertwining knot work. Beneath, he wore black mail, speckled with silver, like a starry night. His helm, which he held under his left arm, was embellished with more knot work, but it was made of silver cord forged onto the steel. The hilt of his long sword matched the helm, and its scabbard was the same red as his long cloak.

 

“It is,” said Madra Nocht, her wizened, rail thin body grotesque beside the knight. “Summer here can hear the Song.”

 

The giddiness that the knight created within her turned over to anger, resentment, and feelings of betrayal. Summer had told no one, neither her mother nor her father, the friar nor the nun, of her curse. She had kept it secret, for as long as a girl could keep such a thing secret. She uttered not a word of what she heard in the night, of how, when others heard frogs and crickets singing, she heard something else. She did not mention to friends or kin the Song she felt in the summer evenings, the melody that pulled her across the bridge and into the woods. At first, she had kept it secret because it was her secret, the only one she had. She listened to the Song and smiled and was happy. But she had grown older, by two years since she had first heard it, and she kept it secret for an altogether different reason: only crones like Madra Nocht could hear the Song, or witches and worse things. After she had reached her twelfth birthday, Summer had begun to feel a different pull, not of the Song to the forest, but of young men to their smiles. No one would love a crone. Madra Nocht had never been married as far as Summer knew, and it was obvious as to why: Nocht was bent and ugly, always speaking in riddles or whispering uncertain tidings. She knew more about herblore and birthing than anyone, in Woodbridge or a dozen villages like it, so she was tolerated. But she was not loved, and Summer wanted to be loved.

 

How Madra Nocht has learned of Summer’s curse, as the girl had come to think of it, Summer did not know. Perhaps the old woman had spied upon her, or perhaps rumors whispered about Madra Nocht were true and the crone had asked the crows. However she had known, Madra Nocht had let Summer knew that she knew, but, too, kept it secret. She would give Summer a knowing wink with a cloudy eye, or whisper something to her at dusk, just as the Song began for the night. Yet she had never spoken a word of it to any other soul, until now, until the knight, the one who truly ought not to know, the one who Summer most wanted to love her and not think of her as a crone or witch or worse, came to Woodbridge to kill the black lion of the wood.

 

“She can lead me to the beast?” He asked sharply, his eyes measuring Summer. She was small for her age, and thin, with wispy brown hair and eyes too large for her nose.

 

“She can, sir,” answered Madra Nocht. “The beast is of the forest, and the Song is of the forest, so the beast is of the Song.”

 

Sir Bishop looked at Summer incredulously for a moment long, then nodded. “She must do, then. We will leave at first light.” He turned from Nocht, who was smiling and stroking Summer’s hair with her gnarled fingers, to address the other villagers. A number of men had come to greet the knight, and thus had heard Summer’s secret spilt by the old woman. Their eyes were on her, some fearful, some curious, and some angry. Sir Bishop distracted them with a full smile, his hard voice turning friendly. “But enough of bewitched girls and bedeviled beasts for now. Is there not a place we might fill a tankard?”

 

The men of Woodbridge forgot about Summer and Madra Nocht suddenly, all at once telling the knight that the best beer was brewed in Woodbridge, asking about news from the Court, and mentioning that they had daughters. The throng seemed to sweep Sir Bishop away, down the dusty street toward the village’s sole tavern. Summer’s eyes followed him as he went, the knot in her stomach loosening so that she could finally let out the wistful sigh that had been locked within her.

 

“He’s a handsome one, and surely brave too,” said Madra Nocht, a queer lilt in her voice that might have been sarcasm.

 

Summer spun suddenly to face the crone. “How could you?” she demanded.

 

“How could I what, child?”

 

Summer was infuriated. “How could you tell them about me, about my…” She trailed off, unsure of the word.

 

“You gift? I did not tell them. I told your Sir Bishop. That the others heard has less to do with me and more to do with their ears.” She smiled at Summer, a sad, almost pitiful smile. “Did you not want me to tell Sir Bishop?”

 

“He thinks I’m bewitched.”

 

“Ah, perhaps he does. Or, perhaps he only said so because it was expected of him. In either case, you are going with him on the morrow, to lead him to a great challenge of his valor and his honor.”

 

Summer tried to remain angry, but images danced in her mind of Sir Bishop fighting the great black lion, which neither she nor anyone else in the village had every actually seen, with sword and shield. In her minds eye, she was behind him, sitting ladylike atop his warhorse. When the creature was vanquished, they would be alone in the forest, her and her champion.

 

“Would that he had a minstrel to take with him, to write the song,” said Madra Nocht, no longer hiding her scorn.

 

The daydream vanished. Summer folded her arms over her waist and looked at the ground. “I am going to go. I need to be up early.”

 

“Yes,” agreed Madra Nocht. “Hurry home to bed,” she added and she herself turned to walk away. She motioned at the sun as she did so, still an hour from setting.

 

“I’m not afraid,” Summer said, to herself, long after Madra Nocht has left. The girl looked to the horizon and knew that the day was nearly over. She held her breath, listening for it. Not yet. It had not started yet. She bolted then, running up the road toward home, hoping to reach her bed, and sleep, before the Song began.

* * *

The Song was different that night. Among the harmonies created by chirping crickets and peeping frogs, there was a low drone, not unlike the sound of a dragonfly’s wings. The one, innocuous sound seemed to subsume the Song as a whole. It was not about love and birth anymore, but about waiting, expecting, preparing. As she listened to the song, huddled beneath a wool blanket upon a bed of straw, wishing she could force the sound out of her head, wishing she could sleep and dream of Sir Bishop, Summer felt an uncomfortable expectation, like hoping against hope. It was not her own expectation, she knew. She was feeling it through the Song, from someone or something else. Was it Madra Nocht, waiting to see what became of her? Was it Sir Bishop, unable to sleep himself and thinking of the journey and battle to come? Was it the black lion? Did it know they were coming?

 

 

Summer leapt out of her bed, and nearly out of her skin, at the thunderous crashing sound. She rubbed her eyes, trying to adjust to the gray predawn light. When she could focus, she found herself staring into the muzzle of a massive chestnut horse. It was Sir Bishop’s animal, which he had ridden up to her small hovel and battered in her shutters.

 

“Awake, little witch, awake!” he called at her, even though he could plainly see her standing there. “You have shoes?” he demanded.

 

“Yes, sir,” she said.

 

“Then put them on. Grab a cloak, too. I have all else we will need.” Sir Bishop, looking resplendent in his armor and atop the warhorse, jerked the reigns and moved away from the window.

 

Summer quickly put her shoes on her feet. They were uncomfortable, made of wood and hard leather, but they would protect her feet. She had no cloak, so gathered up the wool blanket in which she had slept and draped it over her shoulders. Summer was still new, so the morning was brisk yet. When she had gathered these things, she bolted out of the hovel, too nervous and excited to say a goodbye to her mother and father who stood at the door staring with disbelief at the knight who was taking their daughter.

 

She rounded the house and saw Sir Bishop there on his mount, glorious in the predawn light and mist. She started toward him, reaching a hand out so that he might pull her up to sit with him, when she saw the small pony he held by a tether. She knew the animal. It was Madra Nocht’s stone gray, ill tempered animal, used mostly for carrying firewood. It wore no saddle and its bridle was cobbled together from lengths of twine. It snorted at her as she walked unhappily up to it.

 

“Hurry up, little witch,” said Sir Bishop with an unfriendly smile. He tossed the tether to her and started to walk his horse way.

 

Getting on the pony’s back was a struggle. By the time the beast let her mount, Sir Bishop was almost out of sight down the old road that led to the bridge, forcing Summer to trot after him. The pony, which did not have a name as far as she knew, was old and thin and its spin dug uncomfortably into her buttocks. Nor did it care much for being ridden, occasionally tossing its head and stepping sideways, almost forcing her off more than once.

 

Sir Bishop has stopped before the old bridge. It was made of timbers and covered, stretching twenty feet across the small river. It was used rarely, because people were afraid to travel through the forest that waited on the other side, and had fallen into disrepair. Its roof sagged and cobwebs filled the top of its portals. Sparrows lived within, leaving their droppings everywhere and sometimes swooping down at those who passed through. Sir Bishop did not dismount as he entered the bridge and it’s creaked dangerously at the weight of him and his mount. Summer’s pony was not so obliging as Sir Bishop’s trained war horse. It almost threw her as she tried to urge it onto the bridge. Finally she was forced to dismount and nearly drag the animal through. Sir Bishop watched her the whole time, his expression alternating between amusement and impatience.

 

The forest came up close to the other side of the bridge. Within a few dozen yards there were tall, but young still, maples and oaks. The dirt track that had once been a true road was mostly overgrown with weeds and ferns. The sun had risen by the time they crossed the bridge, but mist still hung in the forest and the thick canopy kept out most of the meager light of the new day. While Summer mounted her pony, which had grown even more ill tempered than before, she listened. The only sound she could discern was the bubbling of the small river and the chittering of sparrows in the eaves of the bridge. No Song played in those sounds.

 

“Where to, little witch?” asked Sir Bishop once she had mounted the pony.

 

“I am not a witch,” she said, her mood as bad as her pony’s, then remembered, “sir. And I do not know, sir. Into the forest I suppose.”

 

Sir Bishop looked disgusted. “If you don’t know, then why did I bring you along?”

 

“The Song comes at night, sir.”

 

He frowned. “And what, then, did it sing of last night?”

 

Summer remembered the feeling of expectation and apprehension of the night before. The memory of it made her stomach tighten. “I don’t know, sir, except that I think that it, the black lion I mean, is waiting. For us, sir.”

 

“Then it should not be difficult to find,” he said in the proud voice with which he had addressed the villagers the night before. He spurred his horse and urged it down the road.

 

Summer felt suddenly reassured by his courage and forced the pony to follow, listening intently for any hint of the Song. There was none.

* * *

They had stopped for a brief lunch beside one of the many small streams that fed into the river. Soon after, Sir Bishop led them off the main road, which had grown so thick with ferns as to be nearly invisible, and down a game trail. “A lion needs to eat,” he had said. As the day grew long, the thick canopy of the forest created a false dusk, stirring the frogs and night peepers to song early. Summer felt the same knot in her stomach she felt every night when it began, until Sir Bishop looked at her expectantly. He needed her, she realized. The knot loosened, replaced by the warmth of private pleasure, and she pulled up on her reigns.

 

She dismounted her pony and handed the reigns to Sir Bishop, who eyed her curiously. She stepped deeper into the woods, a dozen yards from the game trail. The underbrush tickled her naked calves. It was soft, not thick with brambles. She kicked her shoes from her feet. The ground was strangely warm and her toes sunk easily into the rich earth. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, listening intently. For the first time, she welcomed the Song, almost aching to hear it.

 

It was just a whisper at first, a soft hum no louder than the rustling of leaves. It sounded like waking, slow and even a little confused. As more of the night creatures began to add their voices, however, the Song focused. It was a busy rhythm, made up of chips and pops and whistles. It was morning music, even though the sky was darkening and night was coming. She listened for a long time, entranced by it, swaying softly to its harmony.

 

“Come, little witch, what news!” hollered Sir Bishop. His horse snorted and clomped its heavy feet in the dirt. The pony made a grumbling sound as it chewed on ferns. His armor and sword clanked as he shifted impatiently.

 

“Quiet!” she snapped reflexively as the Song was nearly drowned out by the noise of man and horse. “Sir,” she added, not meaning it.

 

When she was able to forget them again and hear the Song, it was different, different than it had been a moment before and different than it had been the previous night. Just as the melody of breaking fast was gone, so was the thrumming of expectation and apprehension. There was a new sound, now. It was dangerous and dark, like the songs they sang at the Autumn Moon, like a drummer setting pace for marching soldiers. She thought she should be afraid but she was not. The pure force of the Song seemed to drive the fear from her, or at least it seemed to drown it out.

 

“It’s coming,” she said, as unintentionally as when she had barked the order at him.

 

Sir Bishop’s horse snorted again. This time, the sound was not one of irritation but of fear. The pony paused briefly in its chewing, then set back to it. Sir Bishop’s armor clanked more loudly and the drawing of his sword was like the crashing of symbols. “Back to me, little witch,” he ordered.

 

Summer was loathe to leave her place off the trail, knowing that the closer she was to the knight the harder it would be to hear the Song. One more call from Sir Bishop, however, this one a true command, caused her to slip her feet back into her shoes and walk to him.

 

It was truly dusk now. She must have been standing and listening for over an hour. Sir Bishop was peering into the haze, sword held in his hand, fighting his war horse with the reigns. “Start a fire,” he ordered.

 

Summer watched him for a moment, searching his visage for some hint of what she had imagined a knight to be, what she had seen when she first lifted her eyes to see him. She saw only a man in armor holding a sword. Somehow saddened, she turned away from him and started into the woods in search of branches, and stopped.

 

Its golden eyes peered at her from the shadows between the trees. Her own eyes met them and were locked. She hardly registered the rest of the creature, long and sleek and powerful and black as night. The Song, which had been drowned out by Sir Bishop’s clanking, suddenly rang out in her mind. Its melody was energetic yet serious, like a victory hymn.

 

The lion took a step forward. Its eyes never left hers, but its ears turned and twisted and its nostrils flared as it took in its surroundings. As it came into the dying light, Summer saw a collar around its neck, nearly obscured by its thick mane. The collar was made of fine chain, like a knight’s mail.

 

Her body shivered slightly as it took another tentative step toward her. She wrestled with her quaking hands, pressing them against her thighs. The Song had softened and slowed to a waltz. For the first time since it appeared, the lion took its gaze from her own, lowering its eyes to the forest floor. A rush of relief and something like pleasure flowed through Summer and she herself took a step forward.

 

“For valor!” came Sir Bishop’s cry, like thunder striking in a clear afternoon.

 

Summer barely registered the beating of hooves against the forest floor, the warhorses shrieking call, or Sir Bishop’s oaths. She turned, feeling half in a dream. She saw the lion bare its teeth and lay its ears flat against its head in one corner of her vision and Sir Bishop bearing down in the other. The Song was the blaring of the trumpet, the blasting of a war horn, the crashing of cymbals. Then, in an instant, the world went dark and the Song silenced. Her small body felt very heavy, yet the ground felt vary far away. It was like swimming with heavy clothes on. For a brief moment, she was shaken back to her senses as her body slammed against a stout oak. She realized she had been flung aside by the knight’s horse as he had ridden over her to reach his quarry. Then, as she watched Sir Bishop stroke at the lion with his blade, and saw the lion lash at both man and horse with claws and teeth, the world faded away and again she felt very heavy. This time she could not but let it take her.

* * *

Summer did not open her eyes. She could hear the crackling of a fire and feel its heat. She could smell burnt meat and taste blood in her mouth. She could sense Sir Bishop crouched next to her and knew he was out of his armor. It was an hour or so before dawn. She knew because there was a blanket of quiet in the forest. No frogs chirped and no birds sang. There was no Song to be heard at this hour. She tried to sit up and pain lanced through her body, starting in her hips and ending at the top of her head. Her legs tingled, like they had fallen asleep and were just waking, but did not hurt. When she ventured to open her eyes, the light of the campfire was like the blazing noonday sun. She quickly shut them again.

 

“Awake at last, little witch?” asked Sir Bishop, chewing on some food, with more humor than she thought he ought to have.

 

She did not answer, but let out an inadvertent groan. Sir Bishop chuckled lightly. “Best learn to stay out of the way of galloping horses,” he said. His voice darkened, however, as he added, “Not that it will be a concern for the time being.”

 

Summer, a sort of morbid curiosity piqued in her by the knight’s grim tone, opened her eyes again. Around the campfire the air was hot and bright. Beyond, there was only darkness. In that darkness she saw a large, fallen mass. For a moment, her heart sunk into her belly. She realized, however, that the thing was not the lion, slain by Sir Bishop, but Sir Bishop’s war horse.

 

“Tore the animal’s throat right out,” said Sir Bishop. “Nearly broke my neck falling, as well.” He chuckled again, but his mood was still dark. “Then that monster would have eaten us all.”

 

Summer though differently but said nothing. She forced herself to a full sitting position. She was hungry, she realized, and glanced around. There were the remains of a small rabbit or large squirrel littered about Sir Bishop, but he had saved her none. Beside him there was a half loaf of hard bread wrapped in a cloth.

 

“I’m hungry, sir,” she said meekly.

 

“Then eat,” he said, picking up the bread and handing it to her, only to snatch it away. “But first, let’s have a look at you. See what sort of damage your foolishness did.”

 

Before she could protest, Sir Bishop was grasping and prodding at her, moving her head this way and that, feeling her arms and legs, as if her were buying her in the market. He made her stand, and she nearly fainted but managed to hold herself. When the dizziness had passed, she found she hurt less on her feet and tried to stretch a little. Sir Bishop grabbed he plain brown dress and started to pull it up. She yelped, as surely as if he had struck her, and batted his hand away.

 

Sir Bishop raised his hand at the affront, his face boiling with rage. It disappeared quickly, his snarl twisting into a mocking grin. “What now, little witch? You’re honor’s in no danger. I need to see that you’ve broken no ribs.” He again moved to lift her dress. This time she relented, staring at the ground ashamedly. She bit her lip as he prodded and squeezed her naked torso, his hands rough and clinical. Tears welled in her eyes and she blinked them back.

 

Finally, he told her to put her dress back on and said, “See, little witch, no danger at all. I’ve seen boys with more womanly bodies.” He laughed again and gave her the bread. “Eat, and then rest some more. Tonight, you will lead me to the lion, and I will finish what started here.”

 

He wandered to gather a few more branches to keep the fire going and Summer let herself cry, though silently. More than the horse throwing her, more than the shame of exposing herself to him, it was his last comment that she could not bear.

* * *

The next day was overcast, for which Summer was thankful. The air was cool and the light, sparing her aching head. They walked for the better part of the morning in chase of the lion. Though the creature left no discernable tracks, Sir Bishop had wounded it and its blood was obvious. After a few miles, however, a patch of flattened underbrush hinted that the lion had stopped to rest and heal, for the knight could not find the trail again. He prodded her and the pony on for a while after, going in the direction he thought most likely, but soon admitted it a fruitless search. They may as well have been wandering in circles. So they stopped and ate and he ordered her to rest. Come nightfall, he said, when the Song was full, she would lead them to the beast, and he would kill it.

 

Summer lay down reluctantly. She did not want to help Sir Bishop find and kill the lion. She had looked in its eyes, felt its presence. Though she did not know what it was, she knew that it was something more than just a beast. She knew, too, that it was not the demon that Sir Bishop named it, and was certain that he knew that, too. But the knight had Valor in his heart, and thoughts of a black pelt about his shoulder in his head. She dared not lead him astray, either. The way his eyes locked on to her when she spoke out of turn, the way his hand shot to a striking pose when she defied him, she was afraid. It was a shameful fear, but very real nonetheless.

 

Lying there on the forest floor, Summer did not sleep. She closed her eyes and breathed evenly and even stirred now and then, as dreamers often do, but she did not sleep. She did not fear that Sir Bishop might harm her while she slept: she was beneath his effort, it seemed. Nor did she imagine the lion might some for them: she knew, somehow, that it, like the Song, was something of the night, not the day. What she feared instead was sleeping too heavily or too long, of missing the Song as it began at the very edges of dusk. It changed every night, depending on the heat of the day, the thickness of the wood, and the direction of the wind. She knew that to miss its first notes was to misunderstand the melody as a whole.

 

For a long time the only sounds were the rustling of leaves in the wind, the chomping of the pony, and creak and clank of Sir Bishop’s armor as he shifted impatiently. Occasionally, she would hear the skittering of a squirrel against the bark of a tree, the sound of a small branch or acorn landing on the forest floor, or the buzzing of an insects wings as it swoop in close to her face. Sir Bishop’s creaking and clanking turned to breathing and snoring for a time, and the pony slowed its ceaseless chewing. As the day waned, these sounds seemed to disappear. She knew they were still there, but they were regular and familiar, seemingly dismissed by her ears. She heard other sounds: the marching on tiny feet as the ants sought out food, the yawning of the trees as they stretched out their long limbs, and the whispering of secrets between the flowers and the bees.

 

Perhaps she was dreaming, having fallen asleep after all. The little sounds of the forest became distinct even as the big sounds faded away. Creaks and pops, clicks and peeps, scratches and knocks all clamored in the forest, like voices in a crowd. She would catch one in her mind turn it over and examine it and almost have it decoded when it would slip away. She tried to push everything else away and just listen. They were not just sounds, but voices. She suddenly realized and sat bolt upright, new understanding washing over her like bathwater. The Song was of the night, but the Singers were there always.

 

“What?” demanded Sir Bishop as he roused himself. She was sitting in front of him, eyes wide and a queer look on her face. “What is it, little witch?” he said again, his voice more uncertain.

 

“I know where the lion lairs,” she said, almost sadly, almost singing.

 

“Take me!” Sir Bishop pushed himself to his feet, pushing and pulling on his armor to put it right after having slept in it. “What?” he said, seeing that she had not moved. “You will take me, little witch!” he threatened.

 

Summer looked at him, the sadness in her eyes deepening. “Yes. Of course, sir,” she sang.

* * *

 

It was Summer who led the hunt now. She walked swiftly through the forest, her feet stepping over every stone and he head ducking every branch. Or did they move for her? In either case, Sir Bishop was not so lucky. He tripped over stone and low vines, was battered in the face by branches. He refused to order her to slow down, even though his breath was coming in quick gasps and his armor felt too heavy and too hot. He traveled with his sword out, as if expecting the lion, or worse, to appear at any moment.

 

Their only conversation was Sir Bishop asking, “How far now,” and Summer replying, “Not far, sir,” over and over until her answer became, “We are here, sir knight.”

 

It was late into the night yet moon and star light made it almost day bright. They came to a halt in a clearing aside a slow, wide brook. A small hill of cracked ledge dominated the clearing, one large fissure facing away from the brook. Summer stopped at the edge of the clearing and inhaled deeply. The Song was so powerful here that it was a scent, a taste in her mouth like wild berries. It nearly overwhelmed her and for a moment she forgot about the knight and his quest.

 

“Where is the beast?” he asked, peering into the night with his sword raised. Perhaps for him, Summer thought, the night was not so bright.

 

“There,” she answered, pointing at the ledge hill and the wide crack in its side that could certainly conceal the black lion in its shadows.

 

Sir Bishop nodded sharply and took a tentative step toward the hill, as if mustering the valor for which he had come so far. His sword hovered in front of him, bobbing slightly as he inched forward. She could hear his breath, low and ragged and stopping suddenly at any sound that broke the quiet of the night. “Come on,” he hissed under his breath when he was a few yards from the beast’s lair, then louder, “Come on!”

 

The black lion, a deep shadow in the moonlight, flew at him, not from the fissure in the stone but from the wood’s edge on the opposite side of the clearing. It closed the distance between them faster than imaginable and Sir Bishop barely had time to turn before it was on him. Summer backed away rapidly, nearly stumbling over her own feet. She was frightened, though she could not say for whom.

 

The Song was a cacophony that threatened to deafen Summer. All the creatures of the forest, and the bubbling water of the brook, and the leaves rusting in the wind, and even the still rocks and earth, bellowed. Their voices ignited the very air and Summer’s head swam and her body ached.

 

Sir Bishop let out a grunt that turned to a howl as the lion slammed into him and sunk its teeth into his shoulder. The metal plates of his armor were like cloth, offering no protection. Blood poured forth from the wound and Sir Bishop dropped to one knee. The lion raised its head, its white teeth stained red, and poised to bite again, this time meaning to crush the knight’s skull in its jaws. Sir Bishop’s howl jumped in pitch, from pain to fear. The lion, however, did not finish the blow.

 

Summer was on her knees, crushed under the weight of the Song, when it suddenly relented. She raised her head to see the black lion go limp atop the knight and then slid to the ground. She saw Sir Bishop’s blade dripping with the creature’s blood and he held it weakly in one hand. The creature had impaled itself on the sword as it had attacked. Sir Bishop seemed to realize only after what seemed a long time staring at the blade and the fallen lion. He did not cheer or smile or wave his weapon triumphantly. He merely let the sword clatter to the ground and grasped his bleeding shoulder. His face was ashen with pain, fear and, now, shame. He looked at her, the little witch who was pulling herself to her feet, and let himself slump to the ground. He sat there, holding his wound and crying.

 

Summer looked between the two, the black lion with its mail collar and the knight who seemed small inside his armor. She started toward him, her fear of him and anger toward him gone with his Valor and Honor and black pelt cloak. She was stopped short, however, by the Song.

 

It did not rise from the forest this time. All was quiet in the wood, as if the Singers had made themselves hoarse during the brief battle. This time, the Song emanated from the hill of broken stone and was accompanied by light. A white glow, like moonlight but bright as day, poured from the fissure and bathed them in pale brightness. Summer thought she saw movement in the fissure and tried to peer within but it was too bright. The Song was soothing and the light oddly warming and Summer did not feel afraid or cold or alone.

 

“Come child,” sang Madra Nocht’s voice from within. It was the old midwife’s voice, but less broken, softer than Summer ever remembered hearing it. “Come, now. You have heard the Song and it has brought you here. There is much to do, and much for you to learn.”

 

Summer did not move. “But what of my parents, of Woodbridge and-“

 

Madra Nocht’s voice interrupted with a light chuckle. “You’ll see them soon enough, my dear. But first you must learn, and I will teach you. Come, now.”

 

The Song echoed Madra Nocht’s words, a slow and pleasing melody that tasted like fresh spring water on a midsummer day. Truth, Summer thought, it was the sound and taste of truth. Reflexively, she straightened her coarse brown dress, and then walked unafraid toward the light. Only a few steps from entering, she turned back to Sir Bishop. Before she could ask of his fate, Madra Nocht’s voice rose again, this time the firm but loving tone of a disappointed mother.

 

“You come as well, sir knight. You, too, have much to learn.”

 

Sir Bishop raised his head and shielded his eyes from the light with his unwounded arm. He seemed for a moment as if he might never move, or at best crawl away as fast as he could. Finally, just as Summer felt Madra Nocht’s patience seep out of the Song, he pushed himself to his feet and stumbled toward Summer. As he did, Summer’s eyes widened in wonder.

 

The knight’s armor melted away, followed by the wool clothes beneath. His flesh was naked for a moment, though he did not seem to notice. Then, thick black fur grew from his skin and he seemed to fall, doubling over. Before he hit ground, however, he limbs had twisted and turned. By the time he reached Summer’s side, he wore the form of a block lion, only a strip of mail for a collar remaining of what he had been. Where his sword lay in the blood and dirt, the other lion’s body had stretched into that of a man, old beyond counting and a look of peace across his face.

 

Summer took one last moment, drinking in the Song and all the things that made it whole, before following Madra Nocht’s prompting into the light.