A loon called this morning, loud and clear in the cold hours before dawn, but it was not that which woke me from my sleep. As I opened my eyes, the bay and the beach were wrapped in heavy blackness, invisible clouds shutting out any hint of starlight above. For a moment, I lay in my lean-to, breathing heavily under the shaggy bison skin blanket.
In desperation and black hope he had selected himself for the mission, and now he was to die for his impetuosity, drowned in an amber vinegar sea too thin to swim in. This didn’t matter in any large sense; his comrades had seen him off, and would not see him return the very essence of a hero. In a moment his death wouldn’t matter even to himself. Meanwhile, he kept flailing helplessly, ashamed of his willingness to struggle.
Once, a mermaid fell in love with a prince who fell from his ship in a storm; when he had ceased to struggle, the mermaid took his face in her hands, passed her fingertips over the lids of his closed eyes, pressed her mouth against his mouth. Then she delivered him to the surface, where he was safely found.
Perhaps you’ve heard an anecdote about a child named Cresencio who was skipping barefoot between hills of corn when a shallow bowl in the field, long turbulent with mutterings, broke into pieces. Cresencio spied a tongue of smoke, like the mockings of a demon; he bent, staring into the jagged mouth that was about to spatter the nearby trees with sparks and set his childhood on fire.
My feet are scraped and bleeding, my slippers shredded and almost useless. The dress hangs in tatters around me. No longer white, it still bears the pearls along the bodice, and I hope I can keep them close and sell them in whatever town I find myself in. Provided I find a town. Provided I ever leave these woods. I have traveled for two days, surviving on puddle water and berries, hoping that the sounds I hear behind me aren’t my father, Roland, and the dogs.
You’ve heard of bottled cities, no doubt—society writ miniscule and delicate beyond reason: toothpick spired towns, streets no thicker than thread, pin-prick faces of the citizenry peering from office windows smaller than sequins. Hustle, politics, fervor, struggle, capitulation, wrapped in a crystal firmament might reclaim the land, stoppered at the top to keep reality both in and out. Those microscopic lives, striking glass at the edge of things, believed themselves gigantic, their dilemmas universal.
She woke with the words I love you on her tongue, speaking them aloud to an empty room. They tasted of smoke and ash drifting over a far-distant, muddy field. The War that had taken her lover had lost him. She knew he was dead, because she’d never spoken the words aloud before.
For as many years as anyone in the city could remember, Olaf Neddelsohn had been the cambist of the Magdalen Gate postal authority. Every morning, he could be seen making the trek from his rooms in the boarding house on State Street, down past the street vendors with their apples and cheese, and into the bowels of the underground railway, only to emerge at the station across the wide boulevard from Magdalen Gate.
Sheila Halpern got her looks from her Momma, who died pushing her out. Died before, even, but still kept pushing. “You’re the prettiest thing in the whole darn world,” her daddy told her the day he put her on the train for the St. Polycarp’s Home for Happy Wanderers, his age-soft teeth all chipped so everything sounded muffled. She was eight years old, lice riddled, and 90% liar like her daddy.
Cats went in and out of the witch’s house all day long. The windows stayed open, and the doors, and there were other doors, cat-sized and private, in the walls and up in the attic. The cats were large and sleek and silent. No one knew their names, or even if they had names, except for the witch.