Just a little bit of gray tinged with light blues and yellows at the periphery. A small sense of swirling motions, too, like trace currents in a muddled ocean.
Cace leaned into that notion. Though he had no physical presence in the Ether he imagined his eyes closing and fists clenching as he tried to stir the ocean around him by sheer force of will.
And something changed!
It wasn’t in the ocean, though, it was in Cace himself. He suddenly became aware of a ripple thumping through the area, a cord that pulled through him at regular intervals.
He focused on that wave, tried to lean into it every time it passed through him. It wasn’t very pleasant, its friction agitated him, but as he did so he noticed that the gray nothingness began to shimmer and take form. As he let each ripple pulse deeper and longer the picture before him became clearer. Now the gray revealed itself to actually be all colors intermingled. Now they were grouped up in shapes. Now they went from flat shapes to bodies and volumes that surrounded him.
The throbbing was nearly unbearable now. It pressured him in a painful way, tugged at him so hard that he was afraid something might tear. But even that was good, for the more it discomforted him the closer it meant he was to having a proper form in that place. Leaning further into that cadence was going to hurt, but Cace knew it would only be worse to remain in limbo.
Cace gathered his nerve, the same as if he were about to dive into a cold lake. Then, gritting his will he pushed deeper and winced as a terrible shock ripped through him. But it lasted only a moment and then, at last, he had the sense of breaking free from his tether, of spiraling downward, and of fully entering the Ether.
Cace was not in any pain anymore, but he did feel very unnatural, like he didn’t know his own body. He tried to open his eyes but nothing responded to the command. He tried to lift his hand but his hand did not raise. Something else shifted, though. Some long, gray limb that he did not recognize.
Then he understood. He was still trying to move his normal body back in the conscious world. But here, he did not have that body. He had…something else…a long, gray limb it would seem.
Cace tried to settle his mind into this new form, to be aware of his new reality. It was hard, like his body was was feeling itself through a thin glove.
Translating he thought to himself. Not direct.
Cace tried to speak, but no words came out, only a strange vibration pulsating around him. Or…maybe he had spoken…but just didn’t have any ears to make sense of those vibrations?
Cace tried to open his eyes again and this time it worked…sort of. It wasn’t really vision as he was used to it, but there was a general awareness, a heightened, inexplicable knowledge of his surroundings. No forms and shapes, but an understanding of movements and shifts.
Then the eyes shut, all of their own will and not of his. Cace tried to open them again but they did not respond. So he moved his attention to the long, gray limb again.
Wait, how did I know it was a long, gray limb if I haven’t even seen it properly? he wondered to himself. He couldn’t answer that, but somehow he had just known that that’s what it was when he moved it.
In any case, the limb did move again. It had a joint in the middle that was raised up high, almost folded in two. Cace tried to extend the limb, to stretch out the joint. It slowly flexed outwards but then halted, obstructed by something else it had run into. Obstructed by something that Cace could not perceive as being part of his body.
Wait…actually yes…yes Cace could perceive it now. It was like that part of him had been asleep, but now it was awake, stirred by the brush of the limb. And it felt like that other piece of him was now available for use. And…it had eyes as well. Cace could tell somehow. So Cace tried to open his eyes once more and they opened. Though as before, it wasn’t like vision as he knew it, but also it wasn’t like the prior sort of “seeing” either.
There still wasn’t any color or shape, but now he was simply cognizant of all the different entities about them. He could sense forms even without having a visual, he could perceive beginnings and endings. He was aware of the long, gray limb, of many others just like it, of a floor that pulsated like a heartbeat, of an essence flowing beneath the surface.
Not only these, but Cace found that he could look “harder” at these forms and pick out their relationships to one another. He could tell where one began and another ended, and what conduits linked the separate pieces together. And as he turned his focus from one form to the next he observed how all of it was interconnected to each other in a most massive network.
Or rather…almost all of it was interconnected. For now that he was focusing on the great, interconnected mass as a whole he was also able to perceive breaches in it, areas where no member of the body existed. Places where something else existed instead, something that he did not have direct understanding of, something that he could only understand indirectly, by observing the gaps it made in the mass.
And one of those foreign elements was starting to agitate, to quiver violently, to disrupt the connections in the body! And that discomforted Cace. For “the body” was his body. It was his own members and connections that this shaking entity was severing apart! And that entity was thrashing more wildly now, was growing bigger and shaking harder, was coming nearer and nearer, closer and closer to his core! It would be here any moment and then…
“Hnnnnnnnngh!” Cace sat bolt upright on his cot and nearly smacked Aylme in the face ! A cold sweat covered his body and tears were splashed across his cheeks.
“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in–” Simon stopped speaking abruptly and turned to look about the room. He was the only one here. He was speaking to…no one.
What had he been talking about? Who had he thought he was saying it to?… He honestly couldn’t even remember. Perhaps he had been sleeping. He didn’t think he had been, but perhaps.
These things did happen to him from time-to-time. He couldn’t remember exactly when they started. Not until recently…he believed. And each time they occurred he felt his heart skip a beat. It was like jolting awake from the sensation of falling. Only it wasn’t his body falling, it was his mind, and he didn’t know how far it would have gone if he hadn’t woken in time to catch it.
A little shake of the head and Simon Bowie pushed himself up and out of the chair. He shuffled out of the room. He wanted to get away from the moment, to distract himself with something. He lumbered down the hall, eyes downwards to see that he planted his cane tip firmly into the carpet with each deliberate step. As he did so, he found himself face-to-face with a small girl smiling up at him, her hands clasped behind her back.
“Daddy, have you seen where my necklace got to?”
“No, Suzie. I don’t think I have.”
“Oh I know! It must have fallen off while I was swimming. I’ll go get it!” Without another word she bounded away with a youthful skip to her step.
“No wait,” he called out, suddenly concerned. “Suzie don’t go! It isn’t safe.”
He began hobbling after her. Something was wrong about this, he wasn’t sure what, but he remembered that it didn’t go well. “Please Suzie, don’t go so fast!” He reached the top of the staircase and paused. Though he needed to hurry he was afraid, and he took the steps slowly, clinging to the handrail with both hands for support. It was a spiral staircase, and he kept his eyes looking down the center to the floor below, trying to see Suzie and catch her before she went outside.
“Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!” he called feebly. “It’s been raining and it’s all slippery.”
“It’s rain,” a cold voice said. “That’s what it does.”
Simon cocked his head to look behind his shoulder. It was…her. What was her name? It had been too long, he couldn’t remember. She looked pretty, in a haughty, superior sort of way. A teenage girl with a face blanked by malice.
“I don’t like it,” he heard himself say, but the voice was that of a small boy.
“If you don’t like it, then get Mother to buy you an umbrella.”
“That’s right she won’t. She doesn’t have to put up with you, does she?”
Simon shook his head.
“And why is that, Bowie?” she strained the last name like it was a disgusting creature. It wasn’t really his last name, it had been the other woman’s.
“Because I’m a half-breed,” he said dejectedly, reciting his assigned title.
“Good, glad you’ve been listening.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Simon shuddered at the memory of cold rainwater trickling down his spine.
“You didn’t have to be so mean to me, Margaret,” he said with a tear in his eye.
“What’s this? Tears?” It was yet another voice this time. A tender one. He knew at once to whom it belonged.
“Joyce,” he breathed in awe. She still looked so beautiful. How had she not aged as he had?
“Darling, I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling him close and burying his face in her shoulder. “I didn’t want to go.”
That was why. Because she left.
He tried to suppress his sobs, but that just made his whole body shake so that he might as well have let them out.
“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say between gulps. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t cry.”
Joyce lifted his head to look into her eyes. “Darling, you can cry! It’s okay. Why shouldn’t you?”
“I don’t want you to see me so broken-hearted.”
“It’s alright, you can be broken-hearted.”
Simon was at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t remember getting here. He was looking across the hall towards the door. What was it he had been doing before Joyce and that other one came? It was important. He needed to remember, he needed to fix it, but it just kept slipping from him.
“Did you want to help me look for my necklace, Daddy?”
Oh that was it.
“Suzie, something’s wrong. I can’t remember what–”
“I’m going to go look for my necklace in the swimming pool. I’m going to slip in and drown.”
“No,” Simon shook his head. “That wasn’t how it happened. I was afraid of that, I think, but that’s not how it happened with you.” He screwed his eyes shut and pressed his fists against his temples. What was it? Why couldn’t he remember?
“Why?” Suzie asked with a frown. “Why do you say it was different?”
“Well…I just know that it was…you didn’t die here. Other things happened. Like–” he winced, unable to recall. For a moment he felt a dread, as if forgetting would mean that the other things never did happen. “Like you grew up and got married, remember?”
She paused, then smiled and nodded. Cool relief swept over Simon.
“Yes I did, didn’t I? I’d forgotten about that. Thank you.”
“Of course darling.” She vanished from his view. “Anything for you, darling.”
He paused and closed his eyes. He could not hold onto the present moment even if he wanted to. He just started to drift absently. It felt less like he was standing and more like he was floating on the top of a wave. He opened his eyes again. Had he been sleeping? Or was he sleeping now? Joyce was here again.
“You’re looking better,” she said kindly.
“I think I was able to help Suzie, I think she’ll be alright now.”
Joyce nodded. “I miss her.”
“I haven’t forgotten everything you know.”
“Not everything? What are some of the things that you remember?”
“I remembered the promise you made me make before you went.”
“Don’t lose your heart.”
“How is it going with that?”
Simon sighed long and hard. “I don’t know, Joyce. I really don’t… I try. But some days–these last days particularly–it’s been very hard.”
“What makes it so hard?”
“I feel so bad for getting to stay here when you had to leave. I feel guilty that I got to.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
A coldness took him and he pulled himself in tightly, as if to let it pass him by. But it didn’t. Even beneath his lids he could see her. She looked so beautiful. So haughty and cruel.
“Hiding away down here?”
“Leave me alone, Margaret,” his young voice said sourly.
She sneered. “It would be my pleasure, but I’m afraid the adults have left, so it’s my responsibility to see that you are taken care of.”
There is a world of difference between “cared for” and “taken care of.”
“Well I’ll just be down here, so you can leave me be.”
“But I haven’t even told you what today’s rule is though.”
“No more rules, Margaret.”
“Oh no? I think you’ll find this one particularly interesting…”
“I’m not playing.”
She smiled, and there was something triumphant about it. “Suit yourself,” she said softly as she turned away.
Something seemed terribly wrong. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just been duped. He frowned and tried to remember what had happened. It was important. Maybe if he remembered in time he would be able to change it…
“Sootie!” he cried, leaping to his feet in a flash of horror. His eyes opened and he was looking down to the bottom of a swimming pool. His daughter was in a rabbit hutch there. He reached down and pulled her out, but she was already lifeless.
“You should have listened to the rules,” Margaret was tutting behind him. “You might have made it in time if you hadn’t been so busy sulking. But that’s your choice.”
His temples were pulsing and his hands were shaking. He was going to hurt her. But before he could there came a sudden tear at his heart, like it beat too hard and had burst a little.
“Ohh!” he cried, collapsing to the floor. He tried to sit up but his heart rent again and he fell back once more.
“Oh no,” he murmured, “Joyce, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? What do you have to be sorry for?” A gentle hand cradled against his cheek.
“My heart, I haven’t kept it like I was supposed to. One rule, and I broke it. It’s gone!”
“Why do you hold onto all of these things, Simon? Don’t you see how they’re just tormenting you.”
“Well I–I have to–”
“No, you can let them go. Will you let them go, darling? Will you?”
Her hand was over his fist, not prying the fingers open, but inviting them to do so on their own.
“What’s inside of there?” Suzie was asking.
“What?” he asked, shaking his head. “Oh, it’s a surprise. I got it for you, but I haven’t given it to you yet.”
“Is it that necklace?”
“Why…yes it is. It is, in fact. It’s your necklace.”
“Oh thank you! May I have it now?”
“No…I mean I want to, but something happened…”
“Oh not the drowning at the bottom of the pool again.”
“No, I was mistaken, that was something else. But something still happened, and it was too late to give this to you.”
“Well give it to me now and things will be different then, won’t they?”
Simon looked down and tried to open his hand, but he couldn’t. It was locked like a vise, the way it would if he was writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Or the way it would if he were pulling her hair.
“Let go of me!” Margaret shrieked, trying to wriggle out of his grasp but he wouldn’t let her. “I will punish you so badly!”
He didn’t care, it didn’t matter. He had passed that point. He simply tightened his grip, one hand around her hair, the other around her neck.
“Please!” she said, the first time he’d ever heard her use that word towards him. “I didn’t even actually say half the things you remember me saying. Or at least not the way you remember them.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Another throb of his heart and for a moment his vision blacked out to perfect whiteness.
“Why did you name me Suzie, anyway?”
“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in a name.”
“And why do you think I drowned in that car accident, Daddy?”
“Didn’t you? Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!”
“There was an accident, but I didn’t drown.”
“Didn’t you? I’ve dreamt so many times that you did.”
Another throb, and he seemed to feel upside down, his lips were cold.
“Simon listen to me, it’s Joyce. Please let go.”
“I can’t,” he strained. “It’s broken. I never even got to give her your necklace.”
“You did, it’s around her neck now.”
“You’re choking me!” Margaret spluttered.
“No,” he snarled “I’m drowning you. I’m drowning–”
Wait no, he couldn’t breath. He was the one drowning! He opened his mouth but his lungs were deflated and couldn’t draw anything in. He was trying to swim up, but his hands were still in fists.
“Just let go!”
“Daddy, please let go, let me see what’s inside.”
“I can’t,” Simon cried. “I can’t let it go.”
“You’ll regret this!”
A shout was rumbling inside him, unable to break out into the audible world, tormenting him and constricting his throat. It kept growing. Louder and louder, though never heard. A suffocating wave of–
“Simon?” A quiet stillness fell. He seemed to be floating on the top of a wave. It was white all around him.
“Simon, it’s okay. I’m here with you now. I need you to try to focus on my voice.”
There was still a chattering, but it was strangely muted, like it came from far away. He tried to listen to Joyce’s voice, but it was hard.
“Just listen to me. The more you listen to me the more disconnected you’ll be from all the rest, the more you’ll be able to let go.”
“I broke it. I lost it.”
“You only say that because you’re holding onto those moments. There were good ones, too, don’t you remember them?”
“It’s okay, just relax,” her hands were stroking over his fingers, teasing them apart. His heart was stopping.
“I lost them. These others are all I have.”
“They define me.”
“No, you’ll find the rest soon.”
His fingers were unclenching. All his body seemed fuzzy, soft, disconnected.
“It’s alright,” she soothed. She was wiping away the last tears.
“I lost it,” he cried.
“I kept it.”
He let go.
I tend to be a very visual thinker, using mental images to represent emotions and experiences. For this story, everything began with me imagining two hands crumpling up a paper from a magazine. That crumpled page could no longer be read normally, but one could still make out individual words and pictures here and there, and could infer the basic meaning of it, such as whether it was an article, advertisement, or fine print.
I wanted to write a story like that. One where the reader didn’t need to understand the details, just the gist. As I suggested on Monday, my intention was to literally wrinkle a story, and by so doing give it the feel of a mind that is fraying.
The validity of all Simon’s memories and feelings are suspect. They blend so constantly into one another that one cannot tell whether he is recalling actual events, extrapolating implied meanings, or living out fantasies and fears.
But while the clear divisions may be impossible to find, I think the character of Simon is still understood. He is lonely, he is regretful, he is holding on to hurt. He has seen beautiful and wonderful things, but he is obsessing over the negative. It is his own grip that is crumpling his page, creasing it so that we (and he) cannot see the wholeness and completeness. His great quest is to relax his vise so that he may accept his full self.
And while Simon’s affliction may seem grim, I think that many of us can relate to it. Far too often we define ourselves from our trauma and regret. The emotions that tie us to our lives, to our very selves, are usually negative. We describe ourselves as “not something enough.”
Because of Simon’s insistence that his life be defined by these elements, it took an entire separation of self from life before he could let go of those parts. While he ended up finding his peace, hopefully each of us will be able to secure our own a bit sooner.
Nestled in the heart of the forest there grew a cluster of Marrowberry bushes, sprung up around the bases of the Elder Trees. The bushes grew directly from the roots of the great trees, sapping all their nutrients from the undiscerning hosts.
Crowning each of the bushes was a cluster of flowers, each such a light shade of purple or pink that they were almost white. They had velvety petals that never fully unfolded, and they always rustled, even when there was no wind. Hidden beneath the layers of petal was the entire plant’s greatest secret: a little community of living anthers, small and bright white beings, each shaped with arms and legs and a head. They were all tethered to their own filament at the navel. Most days the Anther-people lived in a perpetual joy, deriving constant pleasure from the conduit with their nourishing mother. They waved about inside the petals in a carefree manner, bumping into one another and giggling lazily.
They were never fully awake, after all they were still embryos and ever would be. Life was naught but a hazy, blissful dream. Every now and again one would sway into another with a squeal of delight, and the second would dash away to collide with a third, and so continue, chasing one another round and round in a circle, never pausing to wonder what they did, never understanding any of the causes or effects in their life.
One day, in one of the bushes, and in one of its flowers: the anthers were carrying on in just this manner when a passing Wolger happened to hear their play. Not many Wolgers knew the secret of the flowers, and this was one that did not. Even so it paused for a moment, then decided to investigate.
It turned on its stumpy legs, whinnied, lifted its large front hooves onto the Elder Tree, and stood as tall as it could. Then it felt its long snout into the recesses of the flower, and extended a long, flexible tongue to explore what it could not see. It felt about until it touched against one of the anthers, then it seized down and plucked it loose.
The Anther-child cried out in a shocking agony, a sound so harrowing that it was enough to disturb the reveries of its brothers and sisters. With eyes seeing properly for the first time they witnessed in horror as the captive brother was pulled up into the sky. They heard the death shrieks and crunching sounds on the other side of the petal walls, and then worst of all the total silence that followed.
They barely began to look about in confusion before the rushing sap from the flower’s filaments flooded their senses. It suppressed their fears and lull them back to a placid ignorance. That was its function: to numb the senses, still the mind, and invoke a deep and peaceful trance upon them all. One-by-one they flowed back into their swaying euphoria, their playful giggling, their blissful ignorance.
Another shriek broke the trance and a second sibling, this time a sister, was pulled away to her doom. Again they were soothed by their mother-flower, and again they were awoken when a third of their siblings was pulled to her doom. Five more times this occurred, and each time they awoke from their reverie for a longer and longer duration. They began to cry and stare about helplessly, looking for one to save them but finding no hero in their midst.
And so they reached out with hands and feet, grasping one another and pulling themselves into a communal ball, somehow hoping to find protection among their masses. They held one another close and quivered, but in their mutual comfort the trance was able to set in again. One-by-one they slipped into their fitful dreams, let go of one another, and swayed back into their previous positions.
This time there was no more disturbance. The Wolger was satiated for now, and so trundled off through the forest’s thick vegetation.
Although they slept, the Anther-children’s dreams were not so pleasant as they had ever been before. There were sudden stabs of fear and melancholy, nightmares that made their sleeping forms wince and shudder.
It was three days before the Wolger returned, but in their unconscious state it seemed more like an eternity. So much so that when the tongue invaded and plucked away another shrieking child they could hardly recollect that this sequence of events had already transpired before. It felt like trying to recall an event from a different lifetime, not so much remembered as just sensed. This sense that came upon them was in the form of a dread understanding, a knowledge that there was a pattern here, and soon it would be their time to be eaten, too.
They huddled together in their tight ball again, clutching each other as close as possible. In apprehension they watched as the long, gray tongue returned, just as they knew it would. It felt about in confusion, unable to find them at first. They were so tightly bound to one corner of the flower that they might have escaped, if not for their quivering cries. They were too ignorant to know that such sounds could give their position away, and so it was that the monstrous shape bore down on them, gripped their mass, and pulled until limbs broke and bodies split. With a great tearing seven anthers were carried away all at once. Of those that remained, most were broken and torn in one way or another, and so writhed on the ends of their stalks until they stilled forever, slumping lifelessly upon their spear-like filaments.
Only three Anther-children were left unscathed, two males and a female. They felt the numbing flow of the flower’s nutrients beginning to cloud their minds and they squinted their eyes and shook their heads, trying desperately to hold to the clarity of the moment. One of the males reached to his navel and gripped the filament with his thin fingers. He pulled, and as he did so he cried out in an agony. The stalk grew into his very flesh, and he would have to tear himself to pry it loose.
Still, at least the pain gave him a clearer grip on his senses. He dug his fingers into the body of the filament, and pressed outward in a long, consistent push. Slowly its fibers began to stretch and snap, breaking their hold on his body one-at-a-time. His brother and sister stared at him in horror. They made a weak effort to imitate him, but ceased once they tasted the agony that it involved. They looked at him with pitying eyes that slowly grew duller and duller until at last they fell back to sleep.
With a pop the Anther-child wrenched the last of the filament from his body and fell to the bed of the flower. His small body lost some of its luster, turning a dull white that was almost gray. He seized his knees to his chest as an irrepressible trembling and sobbing convulsed his body.
For the first time in his life he was deprived the sweetness of the flower’s nutrients. Above his head, on the tip of the broken filament, great drops of sap were accumulating like tears for the lost child. He had torn himself from his home and there could not be any reattaching. He was alone and naked in a world of fear.
There was a deep rustling sound all about him, and he stared about in confusion. For the first time he saw how it all began, how the petals shook and then how the long, gray tongue pierced into their sanctuary. The whole flower swayed backwards, and with no tether to hold him anymore he tumbled with it, falling against the back petals, tumbling through their folds, and then out into the open air. The last thing he saw of his home was how the tongue felt out his brother and sister and began to twist itself around their writhing figures.
Then a rush of color assaulted his eyes and he clapped his hands to his face. In blindness he hit the ground, bounced a few times, then finally came to a rest on his back amidst the grass. There was a snap and he opened his eyes to see the Wolger drop back to all four hooves in front of him.
Though he had never seen the outside world before, the child immediately understood that this large gray thing with its stubby legs, iron hooves, rounded flanks, watery eyes, and serpentine snout was a being, just as he was a being. And he knew, of course, that this being sought his destruction, though why he could not fathom. It simply seemed to be in its nature.
The Anther-child watched as the Wolger drew its tongue into its mouth and ground its teeth on his brother and sister, forever silencing their cries of pain and fear. He trembled and his fingers shriveled like dried reeds down to his palms.
By seeing his persecutor he also discerned that he might be seen himself, and he shrunk deeper into the tangle of grass he had fallen among. The Wolger did not see him, though, and having eaten its fill it turned about and waddled away through the thick brush of the forest.
The Anther-child sat petrified. Where before he and his siblings had been motionless in their tranquility, now he was made motionless by fear. What sort of world was this that had come and broken his old one?
Though that terrible gray thing was gone he now felt as though something else was present. A writhing and many-legged thing, one that was inside of him and trying to force its way out!
All at once his anguish burst from him in a torrent. His eyes freely streamed their tears, and he howled in an agony. He heaved and retched. Then his body expanded and tightly compressed. Glistening silver drops flushed out of every pore of his body and pooled on the ground. His body shrunk, deflated, went limp, and collapsed to the ground.
And still his body continued to ooze, every drop squeezed out of him in an agony. All that defined him excreted until nothing was left. Then, after all the moisture was out of him, he stopped crying. There simply was nothing within him left to mourn.
His body was dry now, shriveled. He trembled fitfully in the wind, and if a strong gust had struck him in that moment it would have broken his brittle form into pieces. His heart beat slower and slower, and finally came to a stop.
The vacuum was complete, and now he reached a withered hand and pressed it against the blade of the grass he rested on. He knew, instinctively to breath deeply and draw in from that plant. As he did so a new moisture began to flow into him, something greener and sturdier. Where before he had been soft and malleable his body began to form tough fibers. His webbed fingers fully detached, his formless face became more angular. He stood and he found he was a little taller, a little leaner.
His mind was altered, too. He understood this world better. That gray thing had been eating. Eating was common. There would be many that would wish to eat him. He must not let them. Perhaps one day, if he grew still larger and changed his nature, he might be able eat them instead.
Indeed he wanted to eat. And not out of hunger.
The Grass-child’s eyes flicked open, dark pupils set in pale green.
This was a very interesting piece to write. I conceived of it as I tried to think of a story that would be surreal, deeply rooted in an emotion that was hard to define, and might lodge itself in the reader’s mind for a long while. As I explained on Monday, sometimes emotions are impossible to explain, and better suited to be expressed in a narrative that summons the emotion within the reader. When an author is able to effectively craft this experience, then the reader will forever remember it whenever that emotion arises anew in regular life. The Anther-Child was meant to capture the sensation of lost innocence. The experience of hurt, confusion, and the resultant resentment that follows.
Interestingly, as soon as I finished it I immediately recognized that it actually has a very similar atmosphere and style to a previous piece of mine: Deep Forest. But whereas that piece was meditative and escalated to a moment of euphoria, this one was brooding and escalating to a moment of dark resolve. Both of them were meant as expressions of natural emotions, and both represent true states of mind. There is a natural hurt to this world, but also a natural wonder. It all depends on which one chooses to define themselves by.
Perhaps the character from Deep Forest and this Anther-child would make for a good protagonist and antagonist in a larger work. Really, though, I conceived of each one as a completely separate and individual project.
Another point of interest to me in this story is the nature of the Wolger. In stories we most often see things from a solitary point of view, where the good is good and the evil is evil. But in this story isn’t the Wolger just a creature adhering to its nature? I’d like to take a deeper look at this idea of how some stories cast characters into firm shades of black and white, while others try more nuanced approaches. Come back on Monday to read about that, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
“Are you alright?” the spindly Clockmaker asked as he lowered his slight frame to be level with Kael’s dejected eyes in a single fluid motion .
“I—feel wrong,” Kael said stiffly.
“Oh? How so?”
“I don’t know. How would I know? I’m not very accustomed to feeling anything at all, actually.”
“Well what caused the wrong feeling then?”
“She did. Everything was so orderly until she turned something in me. I had my purpose and I fulfilled it, yet now it seems so hollow.”
“Your purpose? As determined by whom?”
“The parasite, of course.”
“Well perhaps he doesn’t give you very good purposes if they dissatisfy you so.”
“Is there any other to give purposes?”
The Clockmaker smiled knowingly. “It would certainly seem so, given that you have these muddled feelings right now. Tell me, what purpose do you think ‘she’ wanted for you?”
“Hmm—” Kael mused in reflection. “I suppose she didn’t want me to be alone.”
“Oh, so she cared for you?”
“Yes, that’s why I got her heart.”
“Well that’s something good.”
“No, it’s not,” Kael shook his head vigorously. “She cared for me, but she shouldn’t have.”
“Oh? Why not?”
Kael paused, not because he didn’t have an answer but because he found it difficult to voice. “She only cared for me because she was deceived. I enjoyed feeling her care for me, but I didn’t earn it, so it just seems—”
“Hollow? I see… No wonder your divided feelings then. Tell me, how would you change things if you could?”
“I would like to have earned her heart,” Kael affirmed
“Could you yet?”
Kael’s head raised a little at the notion, but his eyes remained perplexed. “I don’t see how.”
“But if there were a way, the idea would at least interest you?”
“Yes,” Kael said, and a small laugh broke across his voicebox which surprised him. “I really do think I would like that. Then I could fulfill both of my purposes!”
The Clockmaker winced a little. “I don’t know about that, it sounds to me like they are opposed to one another.”
Kael froze. “But then—a part of me would always be incomplete.”
“I suppose so, as long as you hold both, but perhaps ones day you can choose just one side to give yourself to.”
“Choose,” Kael repeated slowly, the word harmonizing strangely in his voice.
“Oh yes, choice, you have the capacity for it now. That’s really what she gave you after all.”
It is my spawn, another parasite with its own identity.
“But we have spawned many parasites already,” Kael reminded the voice.
No, we have merely promulgated myself. Each of them is merely a division of me, all an iteration of my one, singular being. This is a different individual and is its own distinct entity. Both of us remain united in purpose though.
“Is that better?”
Yes. Indeed, I would like to spawn many more but having only one heart limits me to local creation on a small scale. Were we to have another I could spawn without limit and that would be better still.
“You want another heart?” Kael asked cautiously, a strange misgiving creeping across him.
The voice hesitated, seeming to sense his apprehension. You have already done your part in this Kael, we will craft a new husk for this other parasite and it will prove itself with the task I give it.
“Yes, but—” Kael’s uneasiness continued to discomfort him.
I have not forgotten our agreement, Kael. Your purpose will be maintained, to delight Ayla, and you will not be asked to deceive her.
“But this other husk will be?”
That is the concern of the other husk, not of you. You will not be an agent of any harm to her, you will be permitted to continue to care and be cared for within the parameers I have set. Surely you see that I am being accommodating of your dual nature and fulfilling both purposes?
Something doubtful still lingered in Kael, but it was far easier to accept the logic of what the voice had said, and so he allowed himself to be soothed.
“How do you want the husk to be composed?”
“Ayla?” Kael approached the wall terminal and awaited expectantly.
The nest of cables began to shuffle and slide over one another in their familiar retreat as Ayla’s form emerged at their center, bearing that same blank expression she always held while her memory drum finished loading. Recollection finally washed over her face and she smiled at Kael’s return.
“I was just thinking about you, Kael,” she exclaimed happily “and now you’ve come!”
Kael laughed at her enthusiasm. “You make it sound so special.”
“Oh but it is,” she said in earnestness. “Don’t you realize the joy of when a pleasant dream becomes a reality right before your eyes?”
His circuits hummed busily and cheerfully. “I think I know what you mean,” he concluded with a slight bounce.
“Oh Kael,” she sighed wistfully, “you’ll understand so much more when we’re able to get your own heart vessel.”
Kael was uncomfortable for a moment. The parasite had expressly forbidden him to disclose that he already possessed the heart vessel she sought for, and so he always remained silent in these moments. By not speaking he did not have to deceive her, yet of late he had come to wonder if he did not already do so regardless.
“Ayla, what was it you were thinking about us?” he asked, stepping forward and taking her slender fingers in his own, the way she had taught him to do.
She smiled and looked modestly to the ground, then back up to match his eyes with her own. “A little of the past, but mostly of the future.”
“Is the future you see so different from now?”
“In some ways, but in others it is just the natural continuation of now,” she stroked his arm softly.
“You’re being very vague today!” he teased, but rather than elicit a smile from her she frowned lightly and looked downwards. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to offend—”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not that…” she brought her eyes back up and they seemed to be searching his own. “What is it that you want of the future, Kael?”
“Want?” he echoed the word and fell into a deep thoughtfulness. “I don’t want you to go away in the future,” he finally decided and there was a fear to his voice.
“Go away?” she asked in surprise. “What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere!”
“Well I don’t want you to. I want you to just be with me.”
“I could be with you,” she whispered.
“You would…choose to?”
“Yes,” she said breathlessly. “I want to.”
He stared into her for a few long moments. “I want to choose that, too.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Perhaps…when I have a heart,” he felt a twinge at the implied deception. “When I fully have a heart.”
His eyes widened. How had she known?
“You have my heart, Kael,” she explained. “I’m giving it to you.”
“But—how will you live?”
“You could give me yours,” she said as he touched his chest, “when you have it.”
Kael’s heart thumped within him as he understood. “Yes, I would,” he nodded. “I will. When I have it.”
She smiled, then began to slowly walk backwards towards her wall, her eyes locked firmly on him. “Don’t be long,” she pleaded. “I love you, Kael.”
“Ayla?” he asked softly. She was trying to hide her feelings, but at moments her head would involuntarily bow in somber contemplation, only to snap back up a moment later with a false smile.
“Sorry, it’s just been a strange day for me, Kael.”
He nodded and grimaced as if he somehow understood. He couldn’t spend time being sympathetic, though, this was already going to be difficult enough. “Do you have it then, Ayla?”
She paused. “It’s been a long while since you’ve asked for it, Kael. I thought you might not want it anymore.”
“I know. I stopped worrying about it for a time…but now I need it again.”
“Still just so that we can animate the workers?” her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
He winced at the glare. “No, that is not all.”
She paused, waiting for him to continue, but as the seconds slipped by it became evident he had nothing more to say.
“Why aren’t you telling me things?” she asked bluntly with a tremble of emotion.
“They are my choices to make, my actions to do.” He knew it was vague, but if he tried to explain things to her she could never agree. She would try to find another way, she would choose to preserve the parasite for his own sake. After all, she had already made that choice before.
“If you want it, Kael, I will give it to you.”
“I want it.”
She was crestfallen and her face showed it, yet she extended her hand and the individual pieces traveled down the magnetic tracks in her arm to snap in place as determined by the schema. Kael saw the corrupter assemble into the device’s core, seemingly innocuous, yet he recalled it perfectly. He smiled grimly as the device completed in her palm and he reached out to take it.
“I hope you find what you want” she said as the weight of the device lifted from her fingers.
He paused, again lingering on the idea of telling her everything. But if he didn’t move forward now he would never see this through, so instead he merely nodded and turned his back. Then he walked stiffly away as she broke down behind him.
I know what you aredoing the voice hissed. Surely you realize this.
“You know what I intend, but not how I am doing it,” he affirmed calmly as he rounded a corner and entered the Morgatorium. “My memory banks are my own.” He reached the deep green valves and started lifting levers, the entire floor escalating up along the spindly tower at its center. There was no need to do this within sight of Ayla.
Neither is my mind yours.
“Do you have your own secrets, parasite?” an unmistakable taunt in his voice.
A loud clang rattled behind him and he spun just in time to see a strange automaton as it sprung from its perch on a giant boiler, bounded off the floor, barreled into his chest, and threw him to the ground with a crack. He tried to hold onto Ayla’s contraption, but his grip broke and it clattered off to the side. He looked to see where it went, then his attacker stood upright to pace around his fallen form and he turned back to process the thing. It was large and bulky, pure black and with a matte surface that rendered it invisible when it passed through shadows. Its plating was made of thick, round cast iron surfaces clearly intended for bludgeoning. Its head was a low dome set directly on broad shoulders, devoid of any features.
I had hoped that things would have been different, Kael, but it was always evident that your dual nature was going to be a risk. No matter, I’ll simply have to take your heart vessel out and place it in a vat with no higher functions. Same for Cee when he obtains his.
Kael had been trying to stand, but his entire outer lattice was broken in pieces and the shards of it were jamming into his motors. His hand fumbled for a switch on his side, and the lattice unclasped from him. Most of his internal joints were still working and with a shake and a spring he nimbly returned to his feet, faster but less protected.
You should submit to this peacefully, it would be better that way. The dark automaton halted and turned, then leapt forward with great force and bore down on him again. With the agility provided by his lighter weight Kael timed the brute’s approach and vaulted himself over its shoulders in a single, fluid motion and, as his first foot connected with the ground, he pivoted on it to swing his other leg into those of the juggernaut, tumbling it to the ground. The force of the kick wasn’t nearly enough to damage the thing, but its fall was broken by its left shoulder, and the joint cracked loudly.
“I never built this for you,” Kael regarded the mass with a frown as it awkwardly lifted itself back up, its left arm splintered and hanging uselessly at its side.
The others did. It is called Ligo.
“But the other parasites aren’t self-actuating.”
Which you only know because that was what I told you.
“Oh, you are a suspicious one, aren’t you?”
Evidently with good reason.
Ligo charged again, its right arm extended to pull Kael into a fatal crush. Kael knew better than to try vaulting it a second time, so instead he waited until the last instant and then dodged over to its left side where the limp arm couldn’t reach for him. As Ligo cleared past him he dashed back to the floor where Ayla’s device lay and switched it on as he tapped on his chest panel. It didn’t open. Looking down he saw that the panel had been dented in their fight and was now jammed. Prying his fingers at the seam on the panel he tried to pry the metal apart, but no matter how hard he strained it refused to budge.
In his moment of distraction he had forgotten about Ligo, and he received the full frame-shattering impact. This time the brute didn’t fling him to the ground, it cupped its thick fingers around his neck and swung him repeatedly into a nearby wall, breaking off circuits and joints with grim efficiency. In desperation Kael’s hand scrambled into one of the cracks in Ligo’s damaged arm. There he found the release lever and pulled it, the arm falling to the ground and exposing the inner circuitry behind the chestplate. Just stop the voice snarled as the monster flung Kael down to the floor before he could reach into the cavity to do any more damage.
Kael started to lift up, but Ligo brought its knee down on his neck, pinning him back to the ground. Kael swung his hand back up towards the hole in its side, but his movement was weak and it easily caught his hand in its own. Ligo’s fingers closed around Kael’s fist and began to pull on it with increasing force, stretching and straining the arm until finally the whole thing snapped cleanly off. Kael’s other arm was trapped under the weight of the brute, and so he lay there helpless as the thing turned its attention to punching its way through his chestplate. The plate dented, then buckled, then finally smashed apart. A spray of energy from his broken pipes burst out, and as it cleared the glow of his pulsating heart vessel lay exposed. An insect parasite was embedded deep into it with a web of tentacles growing from its thorax and all throughout the heart.
It was never your heart anyway. The insect inside of him hissed.
The automaton reached in and gingerly placed its fingers around the vessel, all the noise and clatter subsiding for a moment of silence as it calmed itself to pull the organ out gently. Or rather, not quite a moment of silence. In the greater quiet Ligo became aware of a strange, low hum, and as it turned its hand over it saw Ayla’s activated device flashing in its palm, having been tucked in there by Kael when it had earlier caught his fist. Of its own accord the device flew out of Ligo’s hand and onto the exposed parasite as if pulled there by a magnet.
“It was never yours, either.”
The corrupter in the device activated and an electric blue power wave coursed through the parasite. Its mouth detached from the heart and gave a small death-cry as its arms and pincers shriveled and fell away, its tentacles blackening and dying within the heart. In that same moment a similar death-cry resonated from within the chest of the dark brute and it and Kael both collapsed lifeless to the ground. Throughout the island all of the parasite’s duplicates perished from the loss of their central host and their automata fell lifeless to the ground.
At last the Morgatorium reached its pinnacle perched atop the great tower, high above in the sky. Here the sound dropped off to nothing but the faint whistle of high wind, and slowly the reddish clouds wafted into the room, hiding the scene in billows of crimson.
On Monday I discussed the importance of a hero being defined by the villain, and in this story my intention was to create a hero that was composed of two halves, one of which was the villain itself. Thus as Kael strives to overcome the villain and become all the things that it is not, he is literally overcoming those same failings in himself. The confidence and surety he exhibits in the final section is meant to illustrate his growth from the nervousness and confusion he holds at the beginning, and it all hinges upon an influence of good driving him to the point of decision. This is not at all a unique template for the literary hero, of course, and as you may have assumed this is the topic I will pursue next week. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.