Cromdor the Calderian, thrice-cursed, thrice-condemned, (I’ve forgotten the rest, but believe you me, there is thrice-more) had nearly finished his tale when the traveler slipped in. As he had for the last ten days and ten before that, Cromdor had a packed house. ’Course, “packed house” is relative—last winter a mudslide tore away half the common room, and Yargin had been rebuilding when he fell through the thatch and died on that floor.
Once upon a time, there was a man who was born, who lived, and who died. We could leave the whole story at that, except that it would be misleading to write the sentence only once. He was born, he lived, and he died, was born, lived, died, bornliveddied. The first few words of a story are a promise. We will have this kind of experience, not that one. Here is a genre, here is a setting, here is a conflict, here is a character. We don’t know what is coming next, but we do know what is coming next.
The reality I was born in ceased to exist when I was three years old. So Mama and I moved to a different reality. We moved a lot, actually. “We can’t stay more than a few years,” Mama would say as she unzipped the fabric of the space-time continuum and scanned the flickering images inside. There were so many, I got motion sick if I looked too long. But Mama always knew which one to pick.
A woman from the street came in laughing from the cold. It was funny to see her with her black hair blowing all about her face. Her face was red. Red from the cold, red from the laughing, red from the rage that fueled that laughter. There are funnier things than a woman like that, but, well, she was the only one we got to look at that afternoon. Her name was some kind of long. It was Magnifica Angelica something at the end.
My story has a strange shape to it. It has a beginning and middle and, of course, I need not tell you that it has an end because it is the nature of all things to end, especially stories. But this story . . . well, it bunches up in places and twists upon itself in ways that no good story should. The sharpness of its arcs flare and wane in unexpected places because it is a story made of other stories.
I hadn’t heard from Miles for several months, when he wrote if I wanted to get together for lunch. Of course I did, and several days later I met him at a noisy, cheerful restaurant at South Bank. It was early February, London still somewhat dazed by the heavy snowfall that had recently paralyzed the city. The Thames seemed a river of lead. A black skim of ice made the sidewalks treacherous.
Mist flowed through the Tulgey Wood like treacle, slow and thick and unyielding. Squeaks and muffled chitters came from the underbrush as rabbits, foxes, and adolescent toves that hadn’t sensed the weather changing were caught and drowned in the gray-white mire. It would clear by noon, burnt off by the sun, and then the scavengers would come, making a feast of the small mist-struck creatures.
Sigmund came back to himself after a gray interval of unknown time, hunched in the yellow vinyl booth of an appallingly bright diner, his head aching from the night’s exertions. His partner Carlsbad sat across from him, drawing no attention at all, which struck Sigmund as strange even in his exhausted state. Carlsbad was a human-shaped figure, but he was unclothed, his face was entirely featureless, and he was composed of a viscous-looking black substance instead of flesh.
Rudolfo’s Gypsy Scouts found the metal man sobbing in an impact crater deep in the roiling smoke and glowing ruins of Windwir. He crouched over a pile of blackened bones, his shoulders chugging and his bellows wheezing, his helmet-like head shaking in his large metal hands. They approached him silently, ghosts in a city of ghosts, but the metal man still heard and looked up.
My name’s Irit Ziv. I have a low-rent apartment in the East Village that I used to share with my girlfriend, Shirley Chen. It’s April now, and Shirley died four months ago. Ever since then, I’ve been visiting Ma and Pa’s flat in Brooklyn Heights a lot. An awesome spot, with a full view of lower Manhattan. The trees by the river are turning green. I’m a grad student at NYU, trying to finish a PhD thesis in the physics department. Physics was probably a bad choice for me, but it’s too late to change.