Archive for July, 2011

Storytime: Graveyard Shift.

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

The first sensation of awareness is always touch. Nerveless, but there. A root’s-eye-view of my being, of every headstone, corpse, coffin, and iron bar. Spreading outwards from the yew tree. That is always the way.
And always, always, always when this happens, there is the moment where something-is-not. A cavity in my being, mind and body both. The self-that-sleeps, wakes.
This is something that must be sorted.
A body is made. Bones from roots, flesh from soil. The eyes are damp pebbles from deep underground, the veins sluggish worms, pulsing soft and slow. The heart is a knotted piece of wood from the yew, gnarled over and over into something harder than matter and narrower than mind. To inhabit it is… strange. Barely conscious of it though I am, I know what I am. To be in this shape, this not-I, is limiting. For some time I stand there, on myself, in my new-self, watching the sun set, feeling the world breath. Its breath is fouler than the last time I was needed.
Dark comes, and I leave. There are priorities. The station across the road is still there, strange as it is, odd as these streets are, filled with noisy metal things and strange lights. People stare at me, dressed in odd clothes. They are currently irrelevant.
I enter the lawman-station, passing men in uniforms I do not recognize. But the badge is the same, the emblem is right, and I know what I may ask here as I walk to the desk with the sergeant at it. His eyebrows are jumping around as he watches me, his lip quirking as he puzzles something out – from head to toe, he resembles a plucked string that has never stopped vibrating, even his clothes tucked to breaking point with tension. But he does not reach for his weapon, as his constables did; he knows what I am, even if they have forgotten.
He is familiar, and I do not know or care why.
“Lawman Sergeant,” I say. My new voice is weak, breathy, a death rattle made from old gravel and knucklebones.
He nods. “Sergeant Mulroney. Your, uh, nameplace?”
“Saint Martin’s at Crescent-and-Ash.”
“Good. That’s right. It’s been some time since you showed yourself, is it, uh, a hundred?..”
“One hundred forty six years. Lawman Sergeant Mulroney, I require transport to find a thief. A good carriage, and a competent Lawman Constable to drive it.”
“Right. Right. Beckworth’ll do. Something to get her off her ass and busy. Jackson, get the car and the constable ready five minutes ago – you do NOT keep this sort of business waiting.” He looked at me again. “Just put a, uh, tarp on the back seat or something first.”

The constable is female. That is new. She also manages to keep her hand from swooping to her gun on sighting me. That is also new among her rank, and pleasing.
“Where to?” she asks me as I climb into the strange metal box. Bits of my superstructure grind and mash against its walls, and I see her wince at the scraping of paint.
“Drive north, Lawman Constable. I will correct our course to match the thief’s as needed.”
“Right. Right. Look, what do you want me to call you?”
“I am Saint Martin’s at Crescent-and-Ash.”
“No other name?”
“That is my name. I am Saint Martin’s at Crescent-and-Ash. This body is a temporary tool.”
“Okay. So you’re the cemetery.”
“Yes.”
“This is a little strange. Look, the last time anything like this happened was, uh…”
“One hundred forty six years ago, Lawman Constable. Your Sergeant Mulroney’s great-great-great grandfather aided me in that investigation.”
“Yeah? Figures.” She stopped at a red light, then moved at a green light. Why was not evident. “What I’m getting at is that this is all pretty new to us – to me. What exactly are you again?”
“I am that little-known?”
“Buddy, if you’d made one move that seemed sketchy in the station half of us would’ve shot you no questions asked. You’re lucky you got Mulroney on desk that night; he’s a real history freak, even if he is an asshole. Probably knew your name on sight – he’s into anything occult like a cat-on-cream. Goes up and chats with some of the gargoyles on city hall on his offdays now and then. Wanted to get into the Occult division proper, got turned down – must’ve wanted to be like his great-upteen-grandaddy, if you’re saying he was neck deep in your business.”
“Turn west.”
Beckworth swore and wrenched at the controls of her machine, spinning us around halfway through an intersection. Strange bleating wails echoed from the vehicles around us.
“CAN IT!” she yelled out the window, then rolled it shut with a few unrecognizable curses. “What I’m getting at here is what the hell are you? You a ghost? I’m not on Occult duty, but I’ve dealt with – talked with – a few ghosts. Nothing that could shift this much matter, though.”
“I am not a ghost. I am a cemetery. Conscious ground.”
“I thought that didn’t happen to man-made spots, you needed an unspoiled spring or a really old tree or something, right? Like Everest. Genus loci.”
“Death is the great naturalizer. Your headstones are sufficiently primitive in terms of desire to avoid contamination. So much concentrated decay acts as a natural stimulant to my presence.”
“Right. So, is this common?”
“Yes.”
“How common are we talking?”
“The chances of consciousness arising in any cemetery more than a century old are almost one hundred percent, Lawman Constable. Directly correlated to local death rates.”
“So almost every cemetery in the country.”
“The world.”
“Jesus.”
“Turn north, Lawman Constable.”
“Next intersection. If you guys are so common, how come nobody pays attention? Most genus loci are pretty talky.”
“We awaken for defense of selves. Unspoilt ground necessitates defense, or we weaken and die. Our soulpoints require defense, or we die. Sometimes defense through speech, sometimes force. Cemeteries are not frequently harassed, so we sleep longer there. Turn north.”
“Right, right, I’m on it… don’t you ever have to deal with vandalism? The kids around here are pretty bad.”
“Low threat. The level of consciousness required is barely above passive sleep. Erasure of markings, ejection of intruders, both take minimal energy on myself. Full consciousness is required to form an independent body to locate a thief.”
“Pretty big deal then.”
“Yes. To be separated from myself is weakness.”
“You’re eight foot three and your arms are bigger around than my torso.”
“I am several hundred square yards and extended over two dozen feet underground.”
“Okay, good point. What’d this guy steal from you? A headstone? Like I said, some of the kids around here…”
“A body. We are here.”
The building was some sort of home in a neighborhood that seemed wealthy; there was scarcely any refuse in the streets- but then, I hadn’t seen much so far. Perhaps they’d stopped doing that.
“Right. Let me do the talking. And no violence unless they start it, okay? And keep it nonlethal.”
“Your nonlethal is not mine, and I do know what has changed. Will silver kill them, as I? Physical harm alone, as before? A child’s curse, as a faerie? The touch of living wood, as -”
“No yes no no. Just don’t tear, punch, throw, or choke anyone. Can you do that?”
“Yes. Answers only come from live bodies, Lawman Constable. Even for me.”
She knocked.
Silence.
Knock-knock-knock. “Police.”
Silence.
“He is dead.”
“Pardon?”
“I feel it. He is dead, upstairs.”
She bit her lip. “I think that falls under reasonable evidence for Occult. And assisting a genus loci allows for some pretty loose behaviour anyways, so… what the hell.” She tried the knob. “Locked.”
“I will open the door,” I said, and put my arm to it. One, two, three pushes to test, then a fourth to smash it open, lock spraying apart.
“Nice.” Beckworth pulled out her gun, checked some of its smaller parts. “Upstairs. The bedroom?”
“It is likely.”

It is the bedroom. And the body is not old. A man in his thirties, dead for a few hours from a slit throat, named a man’s name that Beckworth found from his wallet. It does not matter.
“So, he’s the one that did it. Where’s your body?”
“Not here, Lawman Constable. The trail changes.”
“Takes two to graverob, huh?”
“This time, yes.”
“Whose body was this anyways?”
I shrug. “I do not know. It is not theirs any longer. It is mine.”
The constable sighed. “We still don’t have a motive. The stupid-college-kid theory is sunk, and we’ve got someone else running around who-knows-where who values this body of yours enough to murder his accomplice to cover his tracks. If we know whose it is, we might start to find out why.”
“Any of myself has power; the older, the moreso. We can ask for specifics later. There is a fresh trail now.”
“I’ll call Mulroney while we follow it. How do you track these guys anyways?”
“Guilt.”
“Gross. Was it this bad last time?”
“Took longer. Elder Lawman Mulroney had only a carriage, and the city was more tangled. We killed six men to reach the thief.”
“Jesus.”

The constable’s machine that talked over distances was not working.
“This is common?”
“The phone? Yeah. The phone not working? No. Shit luck, that’s all – I thought we weeded out this kind of crap last year. How fresh is this trail?”
“Within the hour, Lawman Constable.”
“Then we’ll go now and sort out the details later. I don’t think you’d wait if I asked you to, would you?”
“No.”
“Take the law into your own…uh… roots, huh?”
“Your law helps me, Lawman Constable, so I use it. Beyond that I do not care.”
“Y’know, that’s the kind of forthright honesty that really makes this job so goddamned fun. Also, would you quit saying ‘lawman’? I’m constable Beckworth.”
“Lawman Constable Beckworth.”
“Fine.”

The trail leads to a tavern, guilt smelling strong underneath the weaker haze of alcohol.
“Here.”
“Whack a guy and then straight to a bar, huh? Pretty confident. He must’ve thought we’d take a few days to find the body. Let me go in first, you wait out here.”
“No.”
Constable Beckworth sighs. “Fine. Not like I can stop you. Same rules as before; don’t start anything. Hell, who am I kidding, just walking in there’s going to start something.”
She reached for the door just as it opened. A very large man with vomit on his shirt blinked in the half-broken streetlight glow and muttered something obscene at the world.
I picked him up and placed him in the middle of the sidewalk. He fell over.
“That was unnecessary.”
“He was blocking the entrance.”
Men yell things inside. There is a crash, and the sound of running feet.
“That’s him,” I say, and begin to run.
Constable Beckworth outpaces me almost instantly; I had built my body for strength over speed, and even if I had, roots and earth are no match for bone and sinew in speed. I wade through the air, rumbling through tiny corridors and doorframes that scrape and twist against my shoulders. Men, sweaty, angry, and drunk, rise in my path – disturbed by the constable’s wake – and fall again, paling and screaming. One, too blind or angry to back down, I run over, his crushed nose gushing fluids into the sole of my foot.
The constable is in an alley at the building’s back, a knee planted in a man’s spine as she attaches metal locks to his hands. His resistance is feeble, and blood is trickling from new bruises on his face.
“I’m guessing this is him,” she tells me. Her bleeding cheek and a knife lying on the ground nearby told her story for her. “And if it isn’t, hey, assaulting an officer’s enough charge for one.”
“It is him.” I pick the man up and stare at him, watching his eyes roll around me, attempting to make me go away. “Where is my body?”
“Right to remain silent,” he mumbles out, saying the words quickly.
“Occult investigation,” said constable Beckworth. “We’re playing by rules that weren’t made by humans tonight. So why don’t you tell the nice graveyard where you put his body? We can handle the murder charges later, after you’ve had a nap or three.”
The man groans and spits. I take his head in my free hand and position his face against mine.
“Where have you taken my body?” I repeat, as the sweat on his face runs slicker.
“Was a job. Gave it to the guy with the money. Paid me extra to do the other guy. Look I needed the money real bad I have to leave the country and-”
“Who was the man with the money?”
“I don’t know I got the number looking for work and he just used the phone please don’t-”
I turn away from him, blotting out the rest. “I have the trail now, Lawman Constable Beckworth. We must go.”
“We’re bringing him with us. There’s enough room in the back for both of you.”
“Yes.”
We march back to the car through the place of alcohol, and not a single face is to be seen.

Constable Beckworth’s phone still isn’t working.
“I don’t get it. All the really shitty ones were supposed to be gone by now; half the force were complaining last year until we replaced them.”
“It is irrelevant. I have the trail. We leave now, Lawman Constable Beckworth. South.”
“You know, you’re a real pain in the ass.”
“South.”
The ride in the metal thing that the constable calls a car is quiet. She broods, I give directions (East. South.), and the thief curls himself away from me and flinches whenever I move or speak.
“East.”
“You know, we’re on Crescent.”
“Don’t you know anything about city geography?”
“No. I do not care about the city.”
“The point, jackass, is that we’re headed straight for, well, you. What do you think that means?”
The world feels very cold to me now. “It makes no sense.”
“Yes. Which is very, very bad and makes me think we’re walking facefirst into something nasty. We’re stopping off at the station first, okay? This guy can’t be more than an hour ahead of us by now, and he won’t be expecti -”
“No. The thief will not cause more harm. I do not require aid beyond transport.”
“Thank you oh-so-much for openly referring to me as your chauffeur, Your Royal Grimeness. If I wasn’t here you wouldn’t have caught that pal of yours sharing the seat with you. If I wasn’t here you’d be walking down Ash in broad daylight by now, looking for a thug that’d caught a nice jet to Timbuktu. And you don’t even know what the hell a jet is, do you?”
“No.”
“Great. If you can’t show an inch of respect for me, at least you’re honest about it. Just one ‘thank you,’ that’s all I ask, not one thing more.”
“I am sorry. As an apology, we will stop at the station.”
The car swerves alarmingly for a moment. “Well. That’s a good start.”
“He is on me. I can feel it from here. If he runs, we will catch him.”
“Right. Good.”

The station is dark, and the door is locked.
“The HELL is going on here?”
“This is unusual?”
“This is impossible.”
“No.” I turn and cross the road, the constable three steps behind me and already with her hand on her gun.
“You know what I mean, damnit!”
“No. Lawman Constable Beckworth, the thief is on my soil at this moment, and I am going to him. I will have my body back.”
“If you’d like it, you’re welcome to it. I already took the important bits anyways.”
The voice is male. It is lazily happy. It is also recognizable, in more ways than one.
“Lawman Sergeant Mulroney.”
“Yes, that’s me,” said the sergeant. He is leaning against the gates to myself. His badge, I notice, is missing. In its place is a tarnished, nearly-illegible copy “Well, sort of. Just plain Justin Mulroney, if you, uh, please. I’ve left the force. As has my staff.”
Beckworth has her gun out. “What the hell are you doing? You took everyone else with you? Where are they?”
“Well, they, uh, sort of didn’t plan on it. But when I left, well, they didn’t take it kindly.” Mulroney shrugs. It draws attention to the stains on his shirt, which is no longer tucked in. “Suits me fine. I’ll be out of the country by, uh, morning.”
“Was hoping you’d get done for in the chase, constable. But you’ve always been a big, well, pain-in-the-ass. Too much to hope for that the hired knife’d know how to use it, I, uh, guess. The plan can adapt.”
“Where is my body?” I ask.
“Chucked it back in the grave,” he says with a big, beaming smile. “Minus the badge. Dear ol’ great-great-great granddad Mulroney, lifetime hero, family aspiration, the great damned hero of the Occult investigations teams. All he needed to do his job were a few trinkets, and I needed one or two of ‘em that he just couldn’t bear to part with. eBay only goes, uh, so far, you know?”
Beckworth fires three times, and the air around Mulroney ripples in a heartbeat pulse, spreading softly from the old, old badge on his chest. He grins, pulls out a worn old gun made more of rust than steel, and fires once. She drops.
“Still works,” he said with a grin. “Gargoyles said it killed one of their bulls with one shot, eh?”
I rush forwards, arms raised, legs in full sprint – clods are falling with every step; this is not a sustainable movement, it is a killing charge. Mulroney’s eyes are so very large as I close with him – his squeal echoes through my knot-wood heart as he tumbles over backwards. Up come my fists and down I tumble, feet burned away to the knees so suddenly that there isn’t even time for confusion. My soilflesh is burning, being scalded away wherever it meets dirt.
“This isn’t yours anymore,” hisses Mulroney, scrambled away on his knees and elbows, crablike. “Not anymore! Warded up the entrance good and tight, you overgrown hummock! Good and tight! You gave me your name freely, arrogant cadaver’s-bastard! Me, descendant of the Occult department’s golden boy! Did you really think we were that weak and stupid now? To back down and let you do what you want?”
I am in too much pain to reply.
Mulroney is pulling something shiny and silver from his pocket, thin and deadly. “Just one little cut, and it’s all over, uh, all over. Take heart, haha, that’s all there is to it. No ritual, no suffering, just one little cut. Like a needle. One little cut, and that’s all I need. Forever. Give me forever.”
The blade needles at my side, and is in. Whole chunks of my body go dead, sloughing away into the hostile soil beneath me.
Mulroney is humming, what I’m not quite sure, a tune out of patience and out of mind, in time with the digging numbness. And there, right at the root, I feel the tickling prod of something nudging my heart of yew.
“Beautiful,” breathes Mulroney. And he fell over with a bang, fingers slipping from the knife’s hilt even as it dropped from my side.
I lay there, unmoving, as a scuffing sound and a careful hand scrubbed away the hidden runes laid across the arch to Saint Martin’s cemetery, removing the bane from the soul, the venom from my skin.
“Lawman Constable Beckworth?” I ask. As I slide upright, an ache seizes me. I shake myself, and a sliver of heartwood drops from the gash in my body. It will regrow, in time.
“Yeah?”
“Are you injured?”
“A bit.” A cough. “Nicked me – no, got me – real good. But the idiot didn’t put two and two together. If you use the gun of a famous Occult officer, you use it on Occult problems.”
“Lawman Constable?”
“My nonlethal isn’t your lethal. The thing was loaded with yew splinters.”
“Lawman Constable?”
“Wonder what the idiot was going to do with the heart anyways? Get away and live forever in Jamaica somewhere?”
“Beckworth?”
“Oh, yes?”
I lean over and carefully place the yew splinter in her hand. “Thank you.”
And as I sink into the ground, back into the myself that is larger, the self-that-sleeps, I hear her laughing.

 

“Graveyard Shift,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

The Life of Small-five (Part 4).

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011
(It’s been a long time since we last saw this, hasn’t it?  I shouldn’t be leaving things unfinished.  If you need a refresher, I’ve made a new sub-tag for this series, and the first segment is located here)

 

Small-five-point-burst of light learned much over the next few months, beginning with how to talk.
She had lost her sisters at a crucial point in her social development, and it was sheer luck that her unusual pre-juvenile years had opened her to flexibility rather than scarring her into rigidness. She memorized the glowshine patterns of her new family, ones she’d never imagined, learned to flicker and flash and sheen with subtlety and speed beyond anything she’d thought possible, and watched, watched, watched with all her heart and mind, shining little, observing much.
The breakthrough came unexpectedly, and in a manner that ensured she never forgot it.
She and All-fin were flitting around a particularly dense knot of Fiskupids, spooking them together while the slightly larger Dim-glow (the name still brought haunting memories of her first sister) and Nine-point dove in and out of the mass, each lunge skewing three or more of the little swarming creatures. Small-five and her new sisters would probably eat no more than a third of them, a third of an infinitely small fraction of the school as a whole – a cell in a body of impossible size. The incessant, unceasing predation had still failed to so much as decimate the Fiskupids, and after half a year swimming with them, Small-five had grown comfortable with a world which was almost exclusively alive. Part of her mind was still that of a reef-dwelling infant, and the replacement of the reefcolony’s shelled walls and pillars with mazes of flesh was a comfort against the bottomless blue that surrounded her – the Fiskupids spread for miles around, but never ventured deeper than a few hundred metres, and it was seldom that she went for a day or more without glimpsing the great depths; always earning a shudder before she swam away, eyes averted. Perhaps it was a relic of her more fearful past, or her youthful exploration of the canyons between reefcolonies, but she could never resist the impulse to glance down into those awful pits in her world that her new sisters’ eyes skated over.
It was precisely because of this that Small-five noticed the gap in the Fiskupids first, directly beneath them. This was typical, and not worthy of note. But there was movement in it, abstract, slow, at great distance but infinitely large and impossible to ignore.
The reproachful glowshine of All-fin flittered into the corner of Small-five’s view; she was now balling the entire swarm by herself, and it was already fraying at the seems without Small-five’s assistance. Dim-glow and Nine-point would be less than pleased if it ceased early, besides the two smaller sisters likely missing out on their own turn.
The moment where Small-five spoke for the first time – really spoke, not just broadcast emotions, intent, other immediate concepts, was here. Torn between expressing embarrassment, panic, apology, and warning, her glowshine flickered, wobbled, and sputtered into life, having settled on explanation: Sisters-there-is-a-big-thing-down-there-what-is-it?
Small-five’s question very nearly went ignored as her new-sisters burst in a torrent of overlapping exclamations of surprise and delight at her speech, but All-fin, already annoyed enough to forgo praise for the moment, looked down.
Run! she shone. Run! Flee! Away! Out and up!
The sisters scattered, Small-five keeping one eye aimed below, watching the darkness. The Fiskupids had sensed it as well; they were thinning upwards at great speed; the swarm compacting itself tight to the surface in an effort to move away from something that seemed to cover the entire ocean beneath them.
Small-five would’ve liked to ask what it was, but her new-sisters had no names to give her, and besides, her question was already answered by her instincts. There was only one creature that this thing below them could be, the shape so large that it covered half of her visible world right now as she strove for the surface: a Godfish.

Much later, Small-five would know many words and much more of the world itself, the Gruskomish Godfish included. She would know of the exact dimensions of the Gruskomish, a size so staggering that no more than a few dozen roamed the planet at any one time, each taxing any food supply it found to its limit. She could recite their life history: a rare egg, laid once every few centuries, which sinks to the bottom of the world and incubates alone in purest dark, before hatching into an infant that must feed its way from a size only a little bigger than Small-five the juvenile to a bulk large enough to ignore any obstacle as insignificant, a process of almost a millennium. Only when the infant Gruskomish grew its fins – twice the size of its unbelievably large body – did it leave the muck of the seafloor, ready to spend the next hundred years feeding and dodging its larger peers, who would happily reduce the competition a younger cousin might cause.
None of this was known to Small-five right then, of course. She just knew that unless she and her new-sisters swam faster than they ever had before, they would be killed by something that wasn’t even aware that they existed.

The water was humming. The Fiskupid school had long been a noisy place, even to the reefcolony-trained ears of Small-five; alive with the constant uproar of billions of beings on the move. But this new noise rubbed any of its peers into nothing, a long, smooth drone that was shifting upwards in pitch imperceptibly slowly. It made Small-five’s proboscis twitch and her membranes flutter, slipping over and off her eyes in an unusual sort of blink that made her vision slosh, adding to the disorientation of the growing blur of speed that the Fiskupids around her were becoming.
The whole world was the school, and the whole world was fleeing. But not fast enough.
Details were starting to swim into shape beneath her, the unseeable dark transforming into rough patches and skin, each tiniest of scales bigger than Small-five and her new-sisters put together, all coating a skull as big as a reefcolony. It was so large that it was impossible to guess its speed until it was right beneath them and Small-five was staring into an eye of impossible size, dyed a deep, startling murky green.
It looked right through her without acknowledgement, without notice, even as she bounced off its hardened lens – transparent, but sterner than stone. And as she thrashed in a desperate effort to remain stable, sliding uncontrollably upwards on the Godfish’s head, she felt air touch her for the first time. The light was harsh and cruel, and dryness all around her as the sun scattered its rays cruelly on the exposed skin of millions – the Godfish had raised perhaps an eighth of the entire school out of the water on the vast, inward-sloping valley of its skull. The rumbling hum of its voice was overpowering, a sensation that made Small-five’s skin vibrate and ruptured the innards of the Fiskupids all around her.
Small-five and her new-sisters were fortunate; stranded as they were on the very rim of the Gruskomish, they were able to witness what happened next as spectators, not victims. All moving in that same, slow-yet-fast speed that the Godfish did everything in, the valley rifted, a toothless chasm slowly unveiling itself down the center of its head. Down, down, down – deeper than they’d ever swum – spun the flopping, dying bodies of almost half a billion Fiskupids, into a digestive system that dwarfed caverns. The jaws shut again with a hollow thud that rattled Small-five’s bones, and then the Gruskomish was sinking again, dropping the thousands of uneaten, stranded beings atop the edges of its skull back into the water, unnoticed, uncaring.
They lay there for a while in the water, all four of them; dazed and injured, sorting out up from down and letting the newfound sensation of burning-dry wash away at the touch of currents they’d never appreciated so much as at that moment. Already far away in the distance, they watched the Godfish lift its head above the water again and swallow another part of the world. Its endless hum was fading already, but still overpoweringly strong .
It-didn’t-care, said Small-five, without thinking. Somewhere in the whirl of the last three minutes, communication had become the least puzzling thing in the world to her. Also, she now knew that these were her sisters. If they hadn’t been, she would’ve been a good deal less afraid to see them all caught on the edge of a Godfish’s maw.
No, agreed Nine-point. She shook herself briskly and ran through her glowshine in a staccato pattern, a wake-up call. Eat-rest. School-goes-nowhere.

Nine-point was right in more ways than one. By the time the Gruskomish Godfish had departed, fully half the Fiskupid school had been consumed; more losses in an hour than it had sustained over the entire rest of the journey. Four huge mouthfuls in all had been taken, cutting the school almost precisely in half down the centre, and for three days the two did nothing but attempt to reassemble themselves; their ceaseless journey of half a year brought to a full stop for the first time. Small-five and her sisters ate and healed and rested, shying well away from sunlight and watching the depths with a wary eye, obvious though it was that no two Gruskomish would ever mingle so close unless mating – and then, food would be the last thing on their minds.
After three days, the Fiskupids resumed their travel, and the greater accuracy of Nine-point’s statement was revealed less than a week later: at long last, their destination was in sight. Here in the colder waters of the south, a new sight came to their eyes, something bizarre in a way that none of them understood.
Very-white-what-is-it? asked Small-five, who’d gone from being the most withdrawn of their group to the most talkative with the acquisition of working language.
Not-known-find-out-All-fin, said Nine-point. All-fin cautiously moved up to the surface where the thing was lurking and poked it with her proboscis. It bobbed.
Floats-not-alive-very-hard-hurts-tastes-like-water-VERY-cold-not-dangerous, she flashed back.
Ice.
After no more than two days more travelling- very quickly, the Fiskupids were rushing now, knowing their travels were near an end – they were at the edge of the polar ice mass, surrounded by mountains and valleys of floating ice. The world was a maze again like the reefcolonies of Small-five’s youth, only one that hung down from above the surface rather than rising up from the depths.
For a time there was only wonder and exploration – and occasional surprise, such as when Dim-glow was nearly squashed by an overturning iceberg, or when Small-five tried to eat a small, scuttling thing with too many legs lairing in a great undersea icicle, which tried to pluck out her eye with a pair of claws almost five feet long.
But all around them, changes were happening; the last traces of home they had left vanishing. The Fiskupids were slowing down all around them, breaking up – the school only so recently reunited with so much confusion fragmenting naturally, splitting into a thousand thousand groups that swam to the edges of hundreds of bergs. The world made of life was gone, flowing into ice, where each tiny sliver-like individual burrowed and chipped and hummed its way into a tiny coffin, sealing itself alive.
Crazy-things, opined All-fin.
Make-us-hungry, said Nine-point. Find-new-foods-learn-new-hunts. Stay-close-no-knowing-what-hunts-here.
The sisters agreed on that, and they stayed close. It saved their lives more than a dozen times over those first few ignorant days; swimming nearly fin-to-fin, glowshines flashing in nervous chatter, the four sisters – none of whom could hope to hide in this strange world – passed as one bulky entity given a moment’s grace and poor eyesight, something that many of the polar predators possessed.
The food was strange here. Straggler Fiskupids kept them fed for the first few weeks, but soon none were left, every single one buried in ice or eaten by the mouthful. Instead, they searched for the markings of the Gible; long, gelatinous creatures that burrowed just beneath the surface of the icepack, fishing out tiny organisms from its crevices and pits, and returned the favour with their proboscises. They ate the flat, darkened, shapeless masses that were Eurenu, the floaters in the night-time that soaked up nutrients from the depths and drifted aimlessly in the currents, jetting away in a squirt of nauseating slime if you weren’t quick to catch them (but not too quick – a careless jab would puncture the sac that secreted those nauseating fluids into your mouth, where a more careful strike would excise it from the body, leaving an empty-tasting but filling mass). They even fed upon a small family-school of Raskljen – those strange, smaller migrants of the southern seas that were now barely half Small-five’s length at best, and she the shortest and most compact of her sisters. No amount of water-pounding with their strange eight-paired fins could let them outrun the dazzling flares of the sisters’ lights, and a particular strobing pattern that All-fin discovered seemed to send them into abrupt spasms if used head-on, making kills guaranteed whenever they managed to flush a school into an ambush. The flesh was sweet, made sweeter by the satisfaction of killing a close cousin to those predators that had haunted them so on the reefcolonies.
Such moments kept them sane, lights to remember in the dark night of the polar seas, when the world grew teeth bigger than you were.
The biggest surprise were the Nolohk. Wrapped in sheets and sheets of grown and re-grown armour, glitteringly opaque, the best way to tell them apart from any other icicle was to burst glowshine at them. A Nolohk’s glitter was only as deep as its first layer, and the sparkle didn’t reflect nearly as firmly. The other way was to get too close, and wait for the web of long, razor-sharp legs to snatch you out of midwater, where they would tear you to pieces small enough to fit inside its hundreds of tiny mouths. Dim-glow lost a third of one of her fins to the first they encountered, and with that reminder held close it was difficult to forget the risk.
The Crhheeh were more visible, less inclined to make you jump at shadows, but much more dangerous. They were eyeless, and no amount of bluffing with close-swimming glowshine would fool them into seeing anything less than four small meals: three for the Crheeh and one for its mother, who clung tightly to its back with fins merged into arteries, now both an extra maw and the resonance chamber that let the Crheeh sing its quiet, impossibly-high songs that made your ears ache and your eyes twitch. Of course, by the time that was happening, it was already charging at you, two slender mouths of slender teeth.
And of course, there were the Jarekindj. Far relatives of the wanderers of the deep tropics – fatter, less ferocious than her memory recalled – but still unmistakably close to the creature that had taken the lives of Small-five’s first sisters. Finless, a body that was one giant muscle, pulling their way through the water with brute force and strange sinuousness, with more teeth than were countable, studded from down their throats to across their heads, weapon, warning, and boast all at once. They were sluggish things, but they were not harmless, and Small-five fled at the nearest sight of them, often before her sisters had even glimpsed the first gleam of glowshine-on-fang.
The night was long, and it was dark. The world was more frightening than ever – full of teeth, scarce of food, with ice hemming you in at all sides and a bottomless chasm forever open beneath your fins. But Small-five was learning things, even when she wasn’t learning things – all unknowing, all by eating. As a youth, she had been nearly a creature of instinct. As a juvenile now, she knew thought, if mostly immediate. Her mind had grown steadily up ’till the present, slowly.
But now, eating her scarce new prey, fed upon strange things rising up from the deep polar trenches, which fed upon stranger things that brewed down below at the end of the earth, Small-five’s mind was blossoming, as were her sisters’. A tiny patch of glowing, growing brightness in the longest night in the world.

Storytime: Small Trees.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Teresa Aoki leaving the bonsai to her estranged daughter was no surprise, not even the bit in her will where its delivery was to take priority over checking her pulse or contacting her other, less isolated relatives. It had been her most prized possession, and her mother’s, and her great-uncle’s before her.
It wasn’t the most elegant bonsai (a bit too squat, a bit too unkempt – several of its largest branches had sprouted in odd directions centuries before pruning for beauty had been suggested), but it gave whatever home it sat in an air of quiet, pine-scented authority that was most pleasant. Particularly on the southern wall. Teresa’s great-grandfather had raised it from seed himself using a small packet he’d brought with him to America (and then later brought it to Canada), and in the good old days before Mary shaved her head (well, good old days for Teresa; Mary didn’t miss them much), she’d told her daughter long stories about how hard he’d had to work, teaching himself bonsai as he went out of half-memories from his grandmother and careful, nervous application of shears. Mary had enjoyed those stories, and Teresa had enjoyed telling them.
It was just such a pity that she’d gone and died (a quick aneurysm, not at all unpleasant as deaths go, if a bit of a shock) before she’d told her the ones that weren’t lies.

And so it was that on the twenty-third birthday of Mary Aoki, daughter of Teresa Aoki, daughter of so-on-and-so-forth, she received a Fedex box slathered with more DELICATE PARCEL and THIS SIDE UP labels than its surface could support before she was even through putting down the phone from Uncle Jerry’s call wishing her happy birthday oh and your mother, my sister, is dead. Sorry.
Mary opened the box, stared at the heavily-wrapped contents like some people stare at live snakes, tore it open, put it on the table against the north wall of her apartment, and stared at it for five minutes with indecisive and angry eyebrows.
It was then that the bonsai stretched itself and sighed.
Mary was a sensible woman. She checked to see if she’d left a window open for a breeze, and she examined the doors for any trace of a draft. She put her ears to the walls and listened for any hint of her next-door neighbours having inconspicuous, quasi-muffled sex.
The tree interrupted this by coughing politely.
Mary was a sensible woman. She pulled up a chair opposite the table, leaned forwards, counted to ten, and asked: “What the fuck is going on here?”
And so the pine tree, who had a voice that strongly reminded Mary of a stuffy grandmother despite being gender-neutral, began to tell her what her mother hadn’t had a chance to.

“This is not an old story,” said the pine tree. “But it has an old start.”
A man stood near a riverbank one day, watching the very last bits of heat escape a little firepit he’d dug. A short distance from the shack-thing that was his home, there was clay.
There was less of it than there had been five minutes ago.
The man brushed away the cooled ashes from the pit-kiln, stomping briskly on a few dejected coals, and looked at the thing that he’d made. It was just a little bit too big to be a proper bowl for a human, but just right for a spirit of the powerful sort, and he left it in front of the big pine tree where it lived a little ways up the forest trails on the hillside slopes, and said some very respectful things with care.
“A bowl, your wish delivered,” he said. And other pretty things. “Your protection, please grant it,” he said. And other polite things.
The pine sighed in the wind, grudgingly satisfied. It considered its options, then decided. A seed dropped into the bowl.
The man bowed at the pine’s feet, retreated with his gift, and had a long discussion with his wife that night about what he was meant to do with this. She took some dirt, he took some water, and together they planted that seed right where it fell. The next day, a freak wildfire burned down the big pine tree, the forest, and everything else that wasn’t within a perfect circle centered on the seed in its clay-baked bowl, which just barely contained the couple’s hovel.
They took very good care of it after that; and so it grew up, but not far. And then, one year after the fire, it started talking. The words were slow and grinding at first, the struggle of adapting a tree’s perspective to a human’s noises, but it pulled through, and it made its point: I will protect you.

A small tree in a pot was odder than it seemed, in those days, to say nothing of one that could speak. The couple kept it hidden away, and when they died, so did their children. And so did their children. One thousand years later, contemporaries started to appear, and the family could relax and put it on a nice shelf somewhere where it looked pretty. It wasn’t the most elegant bonsai (a bit too squat, a bit too unkempt – several of its largest branches had sprouted in odd directions centuries before pruning for beauty had been suggested), but it gave whatever home it sat in an air of quiet, pine-scented authority that was most pleasant. Particularly on the southern wall.
And of course, there were the adventures…

“I’m sorry,” said Mary at this point, “the what?”
The adventures, said the pine tree, rattling its needles irritably.

For instance, the great-grandchildren of that first couple had been harassed somewhat thoroughly by an ogre. It could smell the delicious spirit-smell in the air around their house, and first it ate their dog, then their home, and finally it was about to eat them before it realized the smell was coming from the pine tree.
Luckily enough, the pine tree had given them some advice after their dog went missing. As it raised the pine tree to its lips, they
“Stabbed it in the back while it was busy?”
No, they
“Why not? It makes sense.”
They were less than peasants. Where would they get a blade sharp enough to kill an ogre?
“A pointy stick would’ve done it – hell, you can kill elephants with pointy sticks if you hit the right spot. Besides, they’d had enough time to hatch a plan, they had enough time to find a pointy stick.”
They didn’t find a pointy stick. They called its mother many insulting names, and when it turned around to kill them the pine tree dropped itself on its skull and killed it.
“That’s weirdly sensible. How did you do that?”
The pine tree was a spirit’s-scion wrapped in a blanket of clay passed down a family line for generations; it had opportunity to soak up plenty of power.

“How vague. If you’re so powerful why do you need me?”
I was getting to that.

Anyways, that sort of thing was always happening to the family, and not always just because the tree was there, either. In the 700s, one of the tree’s possessors
“‘Owners’ would be too touchy?”
One of the tree’s possessors had come into contact with an extremely angry and volatile young warlord in a way that had caused offence, leading to a long journey to retrieve his archenemy’s sword from a locked vault, during which the tree had provided counsel each night as he slept. The theft was successful; accomplished by dint of looking so much like an ordinary peasant that there was no possible chance of anyone suspecting him of burglary of the most secure estate in the land.
And a small, perfectly alert, unnoticeable lookout temporarily embedded in a garden. Though there had been a hairy moment or three when one of the gardeners grew suspicious, and it had to persuade him that he was imagining things from too much drink.
There were many others, of course. The defeat in a duel of an angry dragon in front of a whole city of witnesses, the burning of the most wicked castle in the world to avenge a murdered wife, the flight across the ocean from an angry magician…
“Does a single one of these ‘adventures’ have a basis that isn’t horribly stressful and nerve-wracking? If you’re such a good-luck-charm, I’m not sure why Grandma didn’t just chuck you in a dumpster. She was a practical lady.”
… the destruction of a witch that had been riding ghosts and chaining souls since longer than the span of a man’s life added to all his grandmothers’, the freeing of the lost little boy who lived up in their attic, and the weeding-out of the flood of spirits that had infested their lawn.
“Hang on, was that the time Mom said she used pesticides and the grass smelled like sauerkraut and firecrackers for a month?”
Yes.
“I should’ve known something was up.”
And so down on and down on the line went, without much change, until it reached Teresa Aoki and her daughter; Mary.

Who hadn’t been let in on this, apparently.

“There are so many ways this is stupid that I can’t even begin to count them all,” she said. “I’m going to take you to a greenhouse or a garden care professional or someone else who can prune you into a reasonable shape and not forget to water you, and who can tolerate all the stupid adventures they can handle until their arms get chopped off and eaten by a demon or something.”
“You can not do that,” said the tree.
“Yes I can. Watch.”
“No, I mean you can not. This bowl is a heirloom of your family, and it is filled with two thousand years of memories of being nothing but that. If you give me away in it, it will return to you as sure as your wandering mind does. And I have been in it since the day it was molded; it is mine as much as yours, and will not be parted from my person. I am as much a part of your family as your mother; as it lives, so do I.”
“Shit,” said Mary sullenly. She drummed her fingers on the table in syncopation, thinking various ugly thoughts.
“You should answer that,” said the tree.
“What?” said Mary, then heard the door. Thunk thunk thunk thunk thunk, the constant, incessant rapping of a five-year-old wanting to know if you were home, or a very excitable Jehovah’s Witness.
“Don’t you say a word,” she told the pine as she rattled at the needlessly elaborate lock on her door. “The baldness is enough of a conversation starter; I don’t need anyone talking to my trees too.”
The tree said nothing. Satisfied by this, Mary opened the door and was face to face with someone’s belt buckle. It had a skull on it, she noticed. Then a hand closed gently around her head and lifted her into the air, and she corrected herself: it was a skull. It and its accompanying belt were also the only clothing her visitor was wearing.
The face that invaded her personal space was strange: flat as a board except for a very protruding nose and two extremely large things that were either fangs or tusks or maybe both good lord that was bad breath he (definitely he) smelled like rotting meat and
Crunch.
The thing’s eyes went unfocused and Mary was dropped to the floor, where she immediately rolled out of the way of a quarter-ton of tumbling…
“That is an ogre,” said the pine. It was sitting on the floor from where it had tumbled, from atop the ogre’s skull. Much of which was now a reddened crater.
“Wonderful,” she said. “What did you do?”
“I came back to you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Near you. It takes quite a lot of effort; I would rather not have to do it again anytime soon or I would not be able to talk for some days. Movement is not natural for a tree.”
“And how did you do that?” The bone that was visible through the ogre’s matted blood and hair looked to be three inches or more thick.
“I am very heavy,” it said mildly.
“Then how did I pick you up and put you on the table?”
“I let you.”
“Why didn’t the bowl break?”
“It is very old magic. The only thing that can break magic is still older magic. This ogre was not very old.”
Mary gave up and slumped in her chair, defeated. The floor was going to be a bastard to clean, she thought.
“It appears we are on another adventure,” said the pine.
“Wonderful,” said Mary. “How do I get off?”
“Ogres are simple creatures, and not at all anxious to seek out fights unless there is obvious gain for themselves,” said the pine. “You find whoever sent the ogre.”
“And ask him to stop?”
“No, you defeat him.”
“How? Call the cops? Stab him and bury him in Nevada?”
“Eternal imprisonment would also do the trick,” said the pine. “I recall an angry typhoon that was sealed in a bottle and buried in a hole in desert.”
“That’s not eternal, that’s one idiot and his shovel shy of a disaster.”
“There are many deserts, and many holes.”
“I don’t know how much TV mom let you watch, but there are many idiots. And many shovels too, probably.” Mary sighed. “So, how do we find this guy?”
“I suggest a walk,” said the pine.

They went on a walk. Well, Mary walked. The pine rode in an old baby-carrier that her mother had fobbed off on her ‘just in case.’
“Take a deep breath,” said the pine, “and let it out.”
Mary took a deep breath, let it out, and rolled her eyes.
“Shake your head three times and roll your eyes twice more.”
Mary shook her head three times and rolled her eyes twice more. And once again, for good measure.
“Now sneeze,” said the pine, and Mary sneezed involuntarily. And yelped, because it felt like someone had stuffed her nose with peppers.
“Too many rollings,” said the pine. “Still, the extra potency is appreciated. Can you smell that?”
Mary could smell that. Although maybe ‘smell’ wasn’t the right word. It was more like hearing with a bit of taste, transmitted through her nose. It made the hair on her spine tingle.
“That is magic,” said the pine. “A broad trail, left by an over-eager amateur at most, I suspect. Follow the spell of the one who sent the ogre.”

Mary hiked through parking lots and up hills and down long, stupid streets with barely any sidewalk and too many idiots driving on them. She walked past fast food that she couldn’t begin to imagine qualify as half its name, and by restaurants where she would’ve had to forfeit her month’s rent to afford an appetizer. She was walking in an underpass when her cellphone rang.
“Hello?” she said. She stopped walking and used the opportunity to adjust the tree’s weight a little; it and the pot were surprisingly light, but their combined bulk stretched the straps of the baby carrier uncomfortably against her.
“Mary Aoki?” said a carefully, professionally calming and neutral voice.
“Yes?” She started walking again.
“This is the Toronto police department.”
Mary glared at her phone. “I told you before, that was self-defense. And I had a witness. And he dared me to do it.”
“It’s not about that. Your sister is missing.”
The rest of the conversation floated by in a haze. Jennifer Aoki (age nineteen), better known as Jenny to her sister, as well as Jenners, Stupid, and Jen-Jenners, was gone. She’d come home, said goodnight to her roommate, gone into her room, and vanished into thin air. No, there were no leads yet, no, no suspects had been determined so far, no, no one else had heard from her, no, no, no, no, no.
If she found any evidence she was to phone and so on.
Click.

Mary stared at an ancient, broken car with an ancient, bitter man in it, who was shouting something profane and inaudible at her past his windshield. At some point she’d stopped walking again, and she noticed that she was in the middle of a road she didn’t recognize.
“Did they get her?” she asked.
“They?”
“Him. Her. Whoever. The ones who sent that thing at me.” She wasn’t ready to start saying the names of these things aloud; that made them too real.
“Probably. Your police are not especially good at magic. They have one man, underpaid, who only half-believes half of the things that he finds. Which he misses half the time.”
“An eighth of a clue,” said Mary. “Should we ask him for help?”
“No. He would slow us down, and probably ask all sorts of questions about me, or try to confiscate me as a dangerous illegal possession.”
“Are you?” asked Mary. The old man was pressing hard on his horn, producing a tremulous, dying wheeze from thousands of his car’s orifices.
“By his laws, yes.”
“Comforting. More or less illegal than my pot?”
“Pot?”
“Marijuana.”
“Ah. Less.”
“Well, then we don’t have anything to worry about,” said Mary. The car was vibrating in place now, practically panting to zip forwards and claim first blood. She pulled out her apartment keys, scraped them slowly and carefully along its hood as she passed, and strolled to the far side of the road.
Suddenly the smell was clean and there, fresh and new.
“He’s here,” she said. Rising up in front of her was a rather elegant condominium. The whole building smelled like roasted habaneros, and her eyes were nearly streaming from it.

The ground floor of the building was saturated with the scent, one big uniform blob with no directions or sense to it at all.
“We should at least narrow it down to a floor,” Mary said as she stood in front of the elevator and vainly tried to tell if any of the buttons was more nostril-clearing than the others.
“It will be four,” said the pine.
“Why?”
“Four is death. To send properly death-dealing foes and vicious curses to you would only be helped by working as closely with four as possible. It will be the forth floor.”
“Hmm,” said Mary. “What was the building number?”
“Four hundred and forty-four.”
She sighed, and noticed she was drumming her fingers again. No pattern this time, just aimless, breathless fluttering. She couldn’t bring herself to stop.
“My sister will be there?”
“I am sure of it.”
“Be more sure.”

The fourth floor was positively incandescent with the smell, and Mary had to plug her nose with a pair of Kleenex walrus-tusks before she could bear to leave the elevator. It left without a sound behind her as she looked around.
“Apartment four?” she asked, thickly. The tree didn’t even bother to answer; the door was making her entire head spin. She took a deep breath and raised her hand to knock.
“Stop.”
“Why?”
“Or you will be set on fire.”
“Why?”
“Because the door is sealed with a vicious curse.”
“Why?”
“Because there is a small, malignant symbol scratched inside just inside the doorframe, above your head.”
“There, was that so hard?” asked Mary. She pulled out her keys, still flaked with the paint of the old car, and swiped them back and forth through the tiny, intricate drawing until all that was left was a wooden pustule.
“It is harder. There is an ogre behind that door. And its two brothers.”
“Shit. Four, right?”
“Of course.”
Mary examined the intimidating one-and-a-half-inch blade of her keys, then pocketed them with a sigh. “Suggestions?”
“They will be extremely wary after feeling the curse dissipate. They will suspect it is either an intruder, or their brother being clumsy with anger as he is returning so much later than planned.”
Mary put one hand into her purse and began to rummage.
“What are you doing?”
“Finding my equalizer.”
“Find it quickly. They are about to open the door.”
“What?” said Mary.
The ogre opened the door.
Standing a few feet away, Mary had a much less confused view of him this time. He was a little over nine feet tall – stooped very low in the doorframe – pot-bellied, rippling with muscles, and not even bothering to wear the skull-belt his brother had, but armed with a big club made from half of a burned tree. His face was different: the squashed-face with its protruding nose were absent in favour of having just one eye planted where his left nostril should’ve been Other than that, he was almost handsome.
The ogre stared at Mary, which gave her the perfect second-and-a-half for her to overcome her shock an instant before him and pull out her can of mace. By the time he was reaching for her, it was too late.
“Up the nose and in the eyes all in one,” she muttered as she ducked away from the flailing body, trying to scream and cough at the same time. “Vicious.”
The next ogre tripped over his flailing brother and inadvertently kicked him, leading to a vicious wrestling match during which each used the other’s burnt club to poke his brother in his eye – which, in the new one’s case, he had three of.
The third grabbed Mary by the head as she was dodging hurtling limbs. He had no eyes whatsoever.
“Not twice,” she said, and grabbed him somewhere important with both hands. Very hard.

“Unusual, but effective,” commented the pine as Mary locked the apartment door behind her. She’d taken the precaution of dropping it on top of the moaning ogre after it doubled over, and it was slowing making a dent in the exquisite floorboards. “Your grandmother would be proud.”
“Nice of you to say so,” said Mary. The magic-scent-charm-thing was wearing off, letting her breath a bit easier but also drawing her attention to the unfortunate smell of the ogres again. It was something between a bull and a wet dog.
“She always feared that her daughter was too kindly to deal with these troubles, and when she was proven wrong there, she worried that you would be raised unprepared, in charitable ignorance.”
“I was. Not that I minded it.”
“It does not appear to have affected your capability.”
“Why thank you oh so much, o fuckin’ wondrous talking ornament,” said Mary. “Now tell me: where is it? Are they. Is he or her. Whatever; where is my sister, damnit?
“In room four,” said the tree.

A fine door. Maybe even real oak all the way through. Or maple. Or not. Mary wasn’t good with plants, which was what kept sneaking back into her head every time she stopped thinking about finding Jennifer fast.
The pine’s bowl was dripping something black and sticky down the rear of her shirt as it rested in the baby carrier; the ogre’s back had been ground into something that made Mary never want to eat hamburger again.
“Strike boldly,” said the tree as she put her hand on the doorknob. It was warm.
“No ‘be careful’ this time?”
“It has served you very well so far. And I do not think your enemy will have expected you to deal with his ogres so aptly. If at all.”
“Works for me,” said Mary. She twisted the handle (unlocked) and kicked the door so hard that it nearly rebounded into her as she charged through it, nearly tripping over her own feet. Which was a good thing, because it brought her to a stumbling halt before she could run into the sofa that Jennifer was propped up on, fast asleep but not snoring.
That was wrong. Jenny snored louder than backed-up diesel trains; Jenner had driven away three boyfriends one sleepless hour at a time, Jen-Jenners had been teased by Mary for countless hours about it to the point where she’d wondered if she’d been forcing the poor girl into a habit.
In fact, a silent, sleeping Jenny was so otherworldly and bizarre that it completely distracted Mary from the quiet crackling, hissing of the only other person in the room, until it said something, which was “You.”
It was wearing a charcoal-grey suit. That was the most obvious part of its outfit, the bit that really pulled it all together. It had started with that central piece, decided it made a statement, and then repeated it several dozen times over. Its tie was charcoal-grey. Its shirt was charcoal-grey. Its socks, shoes, and buttons were charcoal-grey, and all of this was accentuated nicely by its complexion, which was charcoal-grey with reddish undertones because it was made entirely of still-burning charcoal.
Quite human, though. Apart from the absolute lack of a face. Or a proper head; just a mish-mash lopsided lump like the single shape Mary had ever managed to make at a pottery course.
Mary waited. It didn’t say anything else. She suddenly wasn’t sure whether the awkwardness was heightened or lowered by the fact that one of them wasn’t breathing.
“Yes?” she said.
“A long time,” the charcoal man said. It flickered softly as it spoke, lighting up the walls with beautiful patterns. The shadows made Mary’s eyes cross and teeth hum if she looked at them head-on.
“Never met you before,” she said. “I think I’d remember. Tree, what is this thing?”
The tree didn’t say anything.
Mary heard a hissing, wheezing whistle, so flat and dead that it took her a minute to realize it was coming from the charcoal man; a laugh like a lazy man’s bellows. “Rightfulness,” it said.
“What the hell are you talking about?” said Mary. “And what did you do to Jenny?” Any fear she’d been feeling had been left back at the moment before she’d crushed an ogre’s testicles, and this goddamned thing was too annoying for her to start worrying again. If she hadn’t been wary of burns and confused, she half-thought she’d have started punching it already.
The charcoal man stretched out its hand, a single digit extended towards the pine, and Mary felt warmth spread across her front like a summer bonfire at marshmallow range.
“Spelled the human, in the perfect moment, with no knowing eyes watching, warding. The wise one gone, her daughter gone, nothing left but ignorant you, innocent her. Innocent her: bait for you: bait for it. Its rightful death. Cheater. Coward. Refugee.”
“Life is cheating death, no death is righteous, and all of us are refugees at some time in our lives,” said the pine. “You are in error. And I do not know you.” Its needles were quivering against Mary’s back, and for a moment she had to stifle the urge to giggle.
“Liar,” breathed the charcoal man. “Hider in human shadow. Years promised as mine, years waiting for I to come to burning, scant hours for I to burn and find you gone. Gone to hide in human shadow, human blood. Chased you, haunted you, hounded you, and never you tell them what I am and that you hide. Hide from I.” It laughed again, and Mary felt herself start to sweat.
“What is it talking about, tree?” she asked.
“Nothing. It is a liar.”
“Liar, liar, liar, liarliarliar,” chanted the charcoal man. “You were mine to burn, and caught alone. You knew the rules. I strength against yours, greater. Your fear, strong-smelling, stinking. You demanded human tribute – begged. You hid in man’s vessel, formed from earth, baked with I strength, before I could arise, and stayed shrunken and small. You stole of I infant strength to avoid my doom on you. You dragged I doom with you through centuries, on the backs of men, waiting for I to die. I do not die. Not with you unburned. You are sad. You are stupid. You are the younger magic to I. You are prey. Give I yourself.”
Mary shifted uncomfortably.
“This fucker telling the truth?” she asked the pine.
It didn’t answer.
“That’s an answer,” said Mary. “Mom told me that. Answer me this now: did you piss this thing off into chasing my family for thousands of years just to kill you?”
“yes” said the tree. Very small.
“That’s a better answer,” said Mary grimly. “Not a good one. But better. Some protector.”
“Give I yourself,” repeated the charcoal man. “Give I it.”
Mary thought very hard and very fast and maybe even a bit carefully.
“Sure,” she said. And off came the baby carrier, into her arms with the pot, holding it carefully and with a wary grip. One finger stroked the tree’s base ever-so-slightly and gently.
“Go on,” she said. “Take it.” Her arms strained a little as she held it out.
Charcoal man leaned forwards, hands glowing kiln-hot now for the first time since he was born by a river thousands of years ago. He couldn’t not reach for it. No matter how loud the instincts screamed of a trap, or the mind warned itself of deception, when the reason you exist is right there in front of you, you can’t help but reach for it.
He was quick too. The melting pile of his face was only a few inches away when Mary heaved the bowl into it.
Pottery met charcoal, earth met fire, elder met eld, and the only thing that can break magic… broke magic.
Very loudly.
Shreds of charcoal-grey suit rocketed into Mary’s face in the sudden glare, a quickly blurred image of perfect fabric vaporizing in impossible heat.

When she woke up, it was because Jennifer – Jenners – was snoring again. Very loudly. She sat up, groaning at what felt like the worst sunburn she’d ever had and spitting out a few half-melted threads of silk.
The condo was a wreck. Everything inside it down to the interior walls had burnt down, leaving it a strangely smokeless husk. Not an ounce of colour was left except for the pine; ever she and Jenny were dyed grey by the ashes coating the floor. She considered the very real possibility that she was coated with a small amount of charred ogre, then immediately stopped.
The tree was a sad sight. Its bowl was cracked right down the centre, and every last one of its outermost needles was crisped to a stump, giving it a shrunken, shamed look which it might’ve managed anyways.
“Is it dead?” she asked it.
“Yes.”
“Forever?”
“Yes.”
“Really?”
“… yes.”
“Good.”
Mary got to her feet and dusted herself off. “First things first,” she said, “we’re getting the fuck out of here. And then we’re getting you a new bowl. One that won’t start some sort of bullshit millennium feud. But we’re waiting ten minutes first so Jenners can get a nap, got it?”
“Yes.”
“Good. Then we’re going home and you’re telling me everything my mother forgot, got it?”
“Yes.”
“Great.” She yawned and sat down next to her sister. “Oh, last thing…”
“…yes?”
“No more adventures?”
The tree thought.
“No more adventures,” it decided.
“Pity. We’ll just have to make our own.”

 

“Small Trees,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.