Archive for December, 2011

The Life of Small-five (Part 9).

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

It was the edge of summer’s dawning and the reefcolony was a swarm of activity, with every lifeform that lived within its bounds trying to outeat, outswim, and outlive the competition, failing more often than not. Ooliku swelled and grew, moving from their hapless infancy to their sturdier and quicker yet substantially more delicious subadulthood. Blunt, brutal, always-hungry Stairrow took advantage of this, and if their guard sunk low, they too became food, torn to shreds by hungry Raskljen or stripped to the bone and beyond by a starving school of Verrineeach. Now and then, at least on the outskirts, a Gloudulite plodded by, tower-shell breaking the surface in its old age, its surface a-swarm with its own young, tended to by the Kleeistrojatch cleaners and their slim, bright-shining carapaces.
It was beautiful, and it was incredible, and it was full of memories. But someone had shrunk it since Small-five had last seen it.
She cruised along, just high enough above the reefcolony to get a good view, just close enough to see the details, and she thought about size. Size meant that a Stairrow was now a decent enough meal for her. Size meant that a Verrineeach school gave her a certain wary respect. Size meant that her first thought on looking at something was “do I want to eat this?” as opposed to “will this eat me?” This was still less than ideal, of course, because for the past dozen days Small-five had been trying to bend her first-response thoughts to anything she saw into “what is the natural function of this in the ecosystem?” Old instincts, even when made obsolete, were proving surprisingly stubborn to get rid of.
At least she knew things now, more than she’d ever dreamed of when she was a subadult. She knew the largest size she could ever feasibly expect to see a Stairrow reach (less than one-fifth of her body weight, and overcompensating for it), she knew the most common colour of Ooliku (a firm blue, for camouflage, with iridescent red streaks along the jaws, to show that the individual was so impressive that it could live without camouflage), and she could shine off the average number of individuals in a Verrineeach school without so much as a thought (roughly thirty-three to forty-one in ninety-two-percent of cases). And she still didn’t know anywhere near enough because every other conversation with faint-marks-unclear ended in a slurry of questions from Small-five, more than any conceivable amount of time could fill. Also, every other day, she learned of something that could try to kill her that she hadn’t even known existed.
Don’t touch that, Five-bright-flashes had told her yesterday, as she’d approached a curiously large shell, glowing yellow in colour.
Why? asked Small-five.
The Safety warden’s scarred sides gleamed with something that could’ve been amusement or annoyance. Or both. It’s a Djakk, she said. A carnivore. They don’t usually eat things your size, not unless they’ve had a few centuries to really get big, but they don’t have enough brains to know what they can and can’t take. And it’d take a good strip out of you before you got away.
Five-bright-flashes neatly plucked an immature Ooliku from the water – a slow growth of its generation – and flipped it towards the yellow shell. There was a flash of movement, a glimpse of the shell gaping wide and something strong and twisted and made of muscle and pumping power within, and then the Ooliku was gone, with no trace of motion remaining but the disturbed sediment.
I thought that all reefcolony shells were filter-feeders, said Small-five, trying not to think about how much closer she would’ve drifted if she hadn’t been warned. Inches? Feet? Right up in front of it, to prod it with her proboscis?
Some of them like to make their own food particles, said Five-bright-flashes. Djakk can’t consume every scrap of their meals, and the leftovers they leak are good eating for the prey of their little sisters. The bits that don’t attract more prey to come looking for scraps, anyways.
In all fairness, that had been days ago. Small-five was much less naive now, a good deal more paranoid, and currently on her own. The Populist expedition had dispersed the morning before last after anchoring the collapsible, dome-shaped research habitat above a shallow-water and relatively safe portion of the reefcolony, each member on the lookout for anything that might be remotely new information. A disease, a new prey species, a form of hunting or scavenging unseen by any,
you are here to hunt, faint-marks-unclear had told them, but not for food. this will be enforced. you will return to our habitat at day’s end and present any findings to any who show interest, then eat. our business here requires your attention and focus. we cannot swim all day looking for food with one eye and information with the other.
search for new things, she stressed. whether they are new to all is of no account for now, only that they are new to you. you must learn on your own.
The Populists, experienced or not, had emphasized dispersal and solitary investigation. To be alone was necessary, faint-marks had stressed, at least as far as her soft glowshine could manage. Two could distract themselves in conversation, two could collaborate and exchange opinions and reinforce one another’s thoughts. Two could produce many things, much of which were useful, but they’d all had most of their lives to do that sort of thing and now it was important, according to faint-marks, that they go and get to know the insides of their own heads a little. Small-five was slightly more familiar with this than most, even if this didn’t give her many comforting memories.
The Safety wardens remained, but at a distance, if never too far. The emergency flasher that Small-five and every other Populist carried clipped onto their backs would be visible for miles if triggered, and response times were promised to be under two minutes, which would maybe probably be fast enough she hoped. Possibly.
Something bigger than an Ooliku, smaller than a stairrow stirred in the waters. Small-five flashed a curious pulse of glowshine at it, and watched as an infant darted away, glowshine jittering with mindless fright. Her five sisters fled alongside her; with such a large company of siblings, the infants must only be a few days old. The quiet, endless charts in Far-away-light said that by one month from birth, most infant groups were pared down to an average of two to three. Small-five’s survival as a lone infant, even if temporary, had been a substantial statistical anomaly and she had been entered into the records very quickly once she’d made her odd upbringing known.
She wondered if it was more or less terrible, to lose one of your siblings or all at once. A small loss might sting all the harder, where more could numb. She pulsed irritably, shining away the morbidity. Useless thoughts, distracting, swirling around your head like silt clouds (years in the open ocean and in the clean environment of Far-away-light had led her to forget just how infuriating those were; the grittiness in your gills felt like it would last forever) and distracting you from what’s important, like
A large shape slipping into Small-five’s peripheral vision, freezing into immobility as her light touches it, then eeling over on itself and rocketing away.
that.
There was only a second’s-worth of hesitation on Small-five’s part before she pursued. Whatever it was, it was afraid of her enough to flee on sight, and that was assurance enough of harmlessness for her liking. And it was slower than her, although not by much. Even with a head start, a few moments of effort and a fierce forward shine had it in her sights once more: a strange, slender, ropy thing, all lean whippiness and fearful trills. It was noisy, very noisy; a strange squealing scream erupted from its mouth as it dodged and juked between the ridges of the reef.
Small-five put on more speed. It was suddenly very, very important to her that she catch this thing, and she couldn’t have put why into words. It just needed to be done, and there was nothing more to be said. In any case, saying things was becoming impossible just now. Words, sentences, the entire concept of language was sliding right out of her grasp as her glowshine focused itself into a searing searchlight aimed right at the fleeing tail in front of her, taunting her, just out of her reach why was it just out of her reach so close almost there almost there ALMOST THERE.
Small-five’s proboscis strained, stretched, stabbed… and swished through nothing but water as the creature doubled over on itself, corkscrewing backwards and underneath her. Before she could twist herself into a turn, it had already vanished among the reefcolony’s debris.
What is it? gleamed Five-bright-flashes. The Safety warden had appeared from nowhere and was floating silently less than half a body-length from Small-five.
The words didn’t make any sense. Small-five struggled to get her thoughts in order, and succeeded in communicating nothing much at all. Her lights bobbed and glimmered like a subadult’s.
You were lighting up full blast on the emergency flasher, said the warden, but you look all right. Shine clearer, won’t you…oh. Oh. A tiny flurry of amusement rippled over Five-bright’s body, displaced immediately by sympathy. It was a male, wasn’t it?
Don’t-know, said Small-five, taking refuge in the embarrassing but thankfully comprehensible simplicity of sistertalk. Don’t-know-just-wanted. But why-did-I want?
Your first time then, wasn’t it? You know the mechanics of it, you’d have studied mating habits of a dozen different species before you even left the city, and if you’ll give your brain a few minutes to wring the hormones out of itself you’ll remember what you know about your own reproductive system. Just relax.
Small-five twitched in the water.
That’s an order from a Safety warden.
Small-five relaxed. More out of firmness of glowshine than reason, but it was what it was, and it was also what she needed. The fog was already starting to lift from her mind, letting her know that she’d stretched a few important muscles and that swimming was going to hurt for the next few days. Her proboscis was sore, and her rear fins were tingling in a very odd way.
Oh.
Right.
Male.
Small-five’s lights dimmed down to nothing in an unconscious attempt to make herself invisible.
Don’t be that way, soothed Five-bright, gently bumping her snout. Not a glimmer of laughter marked her now. It was your first time. It’s always that way, nobody keeps their brain in their skull on their first chase. The hormones were piloting you, not your mind.
What if I find…him… again? asked Small-five, feeling miserable and worthless and quite sorry for herself. The pronoun felt strange to the shine as she said it. I’m supposed to be researching!
You’ll know what he is, and you’ll know what the feelings mean when they start to happen, said Five-bright. Now, if you want a promise that you won’t go charging after him again, well, I can’t give you that. You’re young, and this sort of thing happens. But you won’t be confused, and you’ll have half a chance to head it off before it goes anywhere. And you’d better get comfortable with the chance of seeing more males, because the year-before-last’s generation is just hitting maturity.
Small-five twitched again.
You’ll get used to it very quickly, said Five-bright. Now stop dimming yourself and smarten up. I’ve got a patrol to keep up, and the longer I’m sitting here, the longer I’m not out there making sure nothing big and ugly is going to get too close to you and anyone else on the reef. In any event, you’re not in anywhere near as much bad shape as you’d like to think you are. Don’t worry so much.
Sorry. You’re right. Small-five hesitated, then decided to deal with the awkwardness by charging through it. Thank you.
Don’t worry, repeated Five-bright, and then she was gone, off and into the blue blank of the distance with that same startling, silent speed.

Small-five hung there in the water for a while, figuring out which part of her body hurt the most. In the end she settled for her light tubes, which sent small, startlingly sharp twinges of pain through her entire body whenever she shone too brightly. Although initially annoying, she appreciated it two days later, when she nearly bumped snout-to-snout into another male while he was distracted by a meal of decaying Mtuilk. He turned tail and fled, and she barely made it two bodylengths after him before the intense pain from her overflaring glowshine brought her to a crawling stop.
After that, self-control was a good deal easier, and she kept a firm grip on her instinct to chase when she saw the males. Five-bright was right; all you had to do was get used to it. And being too sore to move above an idle slosh didn’t hurt your self-control either.
More practically, it was good for her exploration. Swimming so slowly, she noticed things that she would’ve scudded right past without a glance, and in the dimmed light of her glowshine, she looked more carefully and saw greater detail. Enforced or not, it was an interesting change.
It made monitoring the infants much easier. Fast movements were spotted easily and immediately by their wandering eyes, but slow, deliberate motion slipped through their haste, and they were quick to distract one another with their primitive and enthusiastic chatter of barely-sparkling glowshine, the ancestor of sistertalk that varied and wobbled and always ended up as a thousand barely-comprehensible dialects that could just scrape by as cousins. faint-marks had told them that there was quite a lot of study involved in discovering just why that was so, and why subadults didn’t end up either all speaking very nearly the exact same thing or millions of totally different languages. There was a lot of complicated discussion on brain structure involved.
Whatever their babble was, Small-five found watching them oddly heartbreaking. Her own memories of her infancy were very sharp – unusually so, according to the library – and she wished there was something she could do for them besides watch from a distance and discreetly ward away any of the larger Stairrow that blundered too close. But they were nonsapient, their brains still locked into their childhood cortexes, their minds and bodies yet untouched by the nutrients that bubbled up from under the poles. Until they too made the great migration over the open seas, hunted through the winter nights, and rode the melting bergways towards home, she would have as little in common with them as with a fiskupid.
She wondered if any of the infants she was watching would survive that long, would somehow manage to cheat and twist and escape from death in all its endless forms at every stage of the path towards sapient adulthood, avoiding starvation, predation, sickness, and the worst and yet the most simple of all, bad luck. And it was then she knew, she really knew, that even if they did, she likely would never have a way to know. For all she could tell, these infants could cease to exist the moment they left her sight.
What she did next took Small-five a bit by surprise.
She triggered her emergency flasher, but on warning rather than alarm. Five-bright appeared some minutes later with a corresponding lack of urgency.
Please watch them for a minute, asked Small-five. Just a minute. I’ll be back soon, I promise.
If you’re thinking of making pets, said Five-bright, eyeing the little ones, it’s been done. It doesn’t work well. Infants can’t handle captivity.
No, not that. Just please, watch them. I don’t want to lose them.
The research habitat was maybe five minute’s swim, but Small-five made it in three, aching muscles or no. faint-marks was the only one present as usual, with Safety out on patrol and the rest of the Populist expedition out on fieldwork.
I need a tag, said Small-five.
Mild surprise rippled on the chief of Populism; the tracking tags were some of the more expensive equipment the expedition possessed, and use of them was carefully noted. for what purpose?
It’s important.
faint-marks looked at her carefully, her always-unsteady glowshine eddying just a bit more than usual. we have surveyed the young of this reefcolony before. we know of their migration patterns.
There is room for one more study, isn’t there? For thoroughness’ sake? You can never be too thorough, and we’re meant to use all the tags anyways, and we’ll never catch enough Verrineeach schools to use them all before the trip’s done, even if we want to track all the major bloodlines like you said we had to.
faint-marks said nothing.
Please? asked Small-five.
all that is needed, said faint-marks, and she plucked a container from a net with her proboscis. Inside, tiny sparks of othershine glimmered.

You know that you are just tracking one of five, commented Five-bright, as she pinned the flaring, squirming infant to the reefcolony with her proboscis. What if she dies?
Then I have wasted a little bit of time and resources. If she doesn’t, she knows that she is cared for, said Small-five, pinning the tag to the notch behind the infant’s dorsal fin, where it would have minimal drag.
Sentimental. Not everyone’s childhood was as fearful as yours. And we care for them when they come to us, starving from the poles.
Maybe so, said Small-five, as they watched the little sister flee over the reefs, tail a blur of glimmering motion, but now she knows that someone loved her, even before she had a mind.

Storytime: Snowfall.

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

In the first hour, Tammy and Benjamin did put on their snow outfits, and were made to shovel the driveway by the MOM. And the MOM’s word was obeyed, albeit grudgingly, and the driveway was snowed in no more, although it was still snowed upon.
In the second hour, Tammy and Benjamin did think of their fresh snow, and they did consider it beautiful, or at least really pretty, and so they did love it, or at least feel great affection and warmth towards it, and they began to fashion it into small spheres, the shape of worlds and eyes. Which they did hurl at each other.
In the third hour, Tammy and Benjamin did tire from their exertions, and they began to think of other things to do. And they took the spheres and rolled them across the snow, and it was snow no more but part of the sphere, and this was good. So they did it a lot more, and before long they had two greater spheres. And with much effort and struggle the lesser of the greater spheres was rolled upon the top of the greater of the greater spheres, and it was a body, and this was good.
And in the fourth hour Tammy and Benjamin did craft a smaller sphere of hardest-packed snow and ice, and a stick was jammed in it, and pebbles of varying sizes, so that a face was made. And this head was placed upon the peak of the body, and the body was fitted with arms of greater sticks, and this was also good.

Tammy and Benjamin looked at their snowman. The snowman looked back, but without any real enthusiasm.
Tammy frowned and tweaked the angle of his smile, which seemed to fix this.
“He needs a friend,” said Benjamin.
“A cat then,” said Tammy.
“A dog,” said Benjamin.
“Dogs are boring. He’ll have a cat.”
“No he won’t.”
They wandered off, arguing.

And in the fifth hour, Tammy and Benjamin departed to fashion a companion for their human of snow, who was left alone in the world. And it was a bit lost and very surprised, because it had no name, but this was all right, because there were many other things around him that also had no names. So it picked up one of them, which had a handle and a broad blade, and its arm did come off, shocking it so greatly that it almost froze to the spot.

“His arm came off,” said Tammy.
“Your fault,” said Benjamin. “You put it in.” He dumped the armful of fresh branches and sticks at the snowman’s feet.
“It’s your fault,” said Tammy. “This is the side of him that you were pushing, and it’s all soft and unpacked. Because you have skinny little chicken legs for arms.”
“Do not,” said Benjamin, selecting some of the smaller twigs.
“Do so,” said Tammy, briskly rolling up a crude cylinder of snow, preventing it from fragmentation with firm yet brutal love.
“Nu-uhhhh,” enunciated Benjamin, sculpting a skull and jabbing twig-whiskers into it at scientifically determined angles.
“Nope,” rebutted Tammy, fashioning some stubby little snow-legs.
“Whatever,” decided Benjamin.
“Duh,” said Tammy.
They admired their handiwork: a deliberately species-ambiguous probably-domesticated companion for their snowman.
“She needs a name,” said Tammy.
“I think he should name it,” said Benjamin. “It’s HIS dog.”
“It’s a cat,” said Tammy. “And I mean the snowman. She needs a name.”
“It says snowman right in the name, he’s a man,” said Benjamin. “And it can’t be a girl because it doesn’t have long hair.”
“I don’t have long hair.”
“You don’t count.”
A chase was undertaken.

And so in the sixth hour, the snowman learned from the wise and noble creators that it was a girl unless it was a boy. It wasn’t sure, but it loved its creators unconditionally so that was okay. And it looked upon its Companion and was also not sure, because it didn’t seem particularly impressed by the snowman.
It also looked lonely, and the snowman was troubled by this.
And so the snowman did labour, and labour with speed and strength, for it knew much of the ways of cold things. And its labour was undertaken with skill learned from watching those that made it, and so it was done with grace, and care, and finesse, and a love most firm yet subtly brutal. The labour was completed, and it was another Companion, similar in most every way, and they did regard each other with fondness. And the snowman felt a strange stirring in its hard-packed and stout innermost layers, and it knew that this feeling meant that it was good.
The snowman watched as its Companions regarded each other fondly, and it did look upon its creation fondly as well, and the creation of its creators also. It bid them farewell and wished them happiness, and then it knew not what to do and waited there as the first day ended.

On the dawning of the second day, just after breakfast, Tammy and Benjamin did war with snowballs against Rob and Susan. A mighty fortress was erected on either side of the front yard of Benjamin’s house, with Susan and Rob crafting walls from blocks pressed from a garbage-can, unwieldy and foul-smelling. Tammy and Benjamin did laugh at this display, and they did craft their walls from rolled snow as time dictated, and although their victory seemed assured because of Rob being a wimp, they found themselves hard pressed in time, as their own walls crumbled under the stone-cored slushballs of their foes. And in time they did fall to ruin, and were pelted under the open sky with not a scrap of cover to defend themselves.

“This sucks,” said Tammy, spitting out grey snow. “Let’s go have hot chocolate.”

And they did this, and so ended the first hour of the second day. And lo, the snowman did awaken once more, stirred by the sounds of battle and tumult, and it inspected the ruins of the war. Anger stirred within its chilly heart at the sight of the undaunted, blighted walls of the enemies of its creators, and it fell upon the garbage-can, and the slushball-stockpile, and the battlements, and tore them asunder in their names, but it could not destroy the foul-smelling-walls, for they were made of near-ice and of strength beyond all.
Its job half-done and the second hour of the second day gone behind it, the snowman did turn itself upon the fortress of the creators, and it did see where imperfection had been allowed to lair within it. And the wrath faded from its heart and was replaced with industry, and so it did pile up all the snow that was to be found within the front yard and mounded it high about the shattered walls of the fortress of the creators, packed it firmly, and it did this, which it knew was good, until the fourth hour had elapsed, at which point it staggered away to its rest, filled with exhaustion.

“A teenager did it,” suggested Tammy.
“Then who built yours up?” asked Susan.
“Dunno,” said Tammy. “A teenager did it?”
“They don’t fix things,” said Susan. “You did it.”
“We were inside.”
“You asked someone else to do it.”
“Who?”
“Someone!”
“I’ve got an idea for a game,” said Benjamin.

And so the fifth hour was spent in demolition of the new fortress, with much entertainment had by all, and the ramparts were thrown down, and the pack-battlements used as projectiles, and much strife and sport was taken betwixt and between the two enemies, until they all had to go home for dinner.

On the dawning of the third day, in the first hour, the snowman came back to the front yard and beheld the ruin of its labours, and it knew a new thing: that this was not good. A great wrath waxed in its heart for the wickedness of the persons who had made its frame and yet so carelessly and callously thrown asunder its gifts, and it was filled with the desire for vengeance and just punishment. And so it did seize the frost from the air and scrawled symbols of rebuke and regret upon every window in the person’s home, without regard for pity or mercy. Mercy would blunt the necessary force of the message, the weight of its import.

“It got REALLY cold last night,” said Susan.
“Yeah,” said Tammy. She was poking her sheet of math problems to see if it would do anything. It hadn’t the last ninety-eight times, but she had learned earlier that day that Thomas Edison had believed in innovation being ninety-nine percent perspiration, and was testing the hypothesis.
“Really cold,” agreed Rob, in a transparent effort not to be forgotten.
“I got frost all over my windows,” said Benjamin, ignoring this.
“What’d you draw?”
“Dinosaurs. And butts.”
“Dinosaur butts?”
“Yeah, those too.”
“Gross.”
Emily poked her math sheet again. “Bullshit,” she said a little too loudly, and then had to explain herself to the teacher.

And the snowmen did spend the second through sixth hours of the third day in a swoon, paralyzed by the effrontery of those that it had once counted as family, the filth that had undoubtedly malformed its pure essence into the depraved and fumbling thing that it inhabited, for none as foul as they could have created it as it was. It grieved most thoroughly that it had witnessed such defilement, and on the seventh hour it did pray for guidance and move much snow. If blame would not turn the heads of the senseless, perhaps guilt would bind their hearts. And then it saw the way to enlightenment, and it laboured all through the eighth hour of the third day.

On the morn of the final day, the person Benjamin was ordered outside to Clean Up That Mess You Made, and he did see that the Companion that he had crafted for the snowman out back had been relocated to the front stoop of his house, along with another of its kind. He waxed irritated, and did shovel them.
And Benjamin did blame it upon Rob’s older brother Jake, and a resolve filled him to pretend to be nicer to Rob at school lest Jake take his pranking farther, and Rob did enjoy the increased niceness of Benjamin with a bit of surprise but figured it was okay.

“How’s your brother?” asked Benjamin, as innocently as possible. He had shared a small bag of sour cream and onion chips with Rob, to keep the conversation as friendly and inoffensive as possible.
“A little weird,” said Rob.
“Yeah?”
“Um. More than usual, yeah. He stayed out too late last night again, and he wouldn’t say why. Mom got mad.”
“Uh,” said Benjamin, and he thought about Jake’s absolutely terrifying and startlingly realistic werewolf mask. Then he bought Rob a chocolate bar and gave him two thirds of it.

And on the stoop of Benjamin’s home the snowman regarded the rubble of its Companions with anguish, and it wept bitterly or would’ve if its eyes weren’t pebbles and the ambient air temperature were not sufficient to keep the vast majority of its body frozen in a solid state. So be it, as rebuke failed it. so too did guilt fail it. How could you shame that which knew no shame? How could it still attempt to make the blind see? It only lowered itself in the effort – the grey slush of their boot-treads had dirtied the snowman up to its near midsection. Their flaws were truly irredeemable, and their mere existence sullied it beyond hope of salvation, and yet it had to try. It had to try.
And so the snowman did, on the final hour of the eighth day, with its heart filled with pity overflowing, melt itself for the sins of its creators. And it was good, and also surprisingly nice-feeling.

“Your brother is really weird,” said Benjamin.
Rob nodded. Tammy and Susan agreed similarly silently. The ex-snowman had been propped up against the laundry exhaust pipe, where it had been slowly liquified from the cranium down.
“Yeah,” said Rob. “So. Uh. So.”
“Let’s make a bigger one.”

And lo, as there were four of them, they were able to make a bigger one. And in the end, as they came in, the MOM told them that the driveway needed shovelling again. And so it was, and so it would be.

“Snowfall,” copyright Jamie Proctor 2011.

Storytime: On the Sill.

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Oh man, oh well, here we go again. Look at you. Just look at you. It’s goddamned precious. I don’t remember the last time I saw anything this hilarious, and I don’t even remember forgetting.
What d’you mean “what?” Your outfit there? Those little brass buckles, those blue-and-green-patches? That’s Matagant wear. That’s almost a thousand miles away, and your cute little trains will only take you half of that before you have to get out and ride. And then the mountains get in your way and you have to walk.
You’ve walked at least a hundred miles to get here, Mata-boy. That’s what’s so damned adorable. And I bet you even think it was a hard trip, because it took the shine right off those brass buttons.
Hey. Hey. Don’t walk away now, Mata-boy. Don’t walk away and leave an old snowcrawler here high and dry. I’ve got what you want. Spend a few dollars to rinse the dust out of my throat, and I’ll tell you everything about the Window you ever wanted to know.
Of course you want to know about the Window. You’re here, aren’t you? Oh man, oh Mata-boy, here we go again.

First thing: you want to know about the Window, you got to know about the Sill. If you don’t want to hear about it, well tough shit Mata-boy, they’re as tied up as tied up can ever be. The man that found the Window founded the Sill two hours later, that’s how close they are. Two hours. We know that ’cause we know the times.
The Window was found eighty-one years ago exactly, to the day, at three-thirty-three in the afternoon. Sillas Bradley hauled himself over that ridge ten feet behind some poor bastard securing the ropes no one remembers, looked down a two-thousand-foot drop, and looked up into a sky that wasn’t quite real.
Two hours later, he puts down a flag and tells everyone to start building something better than tents. Bam. That was that. Old bastard doomed the lot of us right then and there. “Let’s build our homes on the edge of a cliff.” Two hours.
Yeah, of course it was temporary! Of course it was temporary! Christ, it was a bunch of tents and piled-up rocks and they had no food, not so much as a goddamned twig to build with. Of course it was just a friggin’ stopgap. Didn’t stop them from coming back six months later with more stuff, did it? All ready to build pretty little houses and carrying packs chock-full of tasty salted meat and just as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as lovable little shitfaced squirrels, right?
Yeah, I’d say it was at least three or four dozen deaths in the first few weeks of building up Sill. Overwork, underfed, couldn’t handle the thin air, couldn’t handle the noise the Window makes….
No, you don’t get used to it. Not really. You get better at ignoring it, but whenever you don’t, it just slides back in. Like someone sticking their finger in your nose, except it fills up your whole head.
No, I damned well don’t wonder how they felt when they went through the Window for the first time. I don’t wonder because everyone feels the same way. Everybody’s first time might as well be the first time ever, because you never really know it ’till you’ve tried it.
You sort of… freeze up. You walk up those fifty-six steps until you’re forty feet farther over the edge of the cliff than you’d ever wanted to be, with nothing but some greasy old timbers that groan like grandmother’s bra between you and two thousand and forty feet of empty air. You’re trying not to look at the Window, but that just leaves looking down and you don’t want to do that either. And you can’t shut your eyes.
So you look at the Window, and it hurts your eyes like hell. Like someone put salt in them, and the salt wants to lick the backside of your head by going right through the middle. Shut up, I know it doesn’t make any goddamned sense. Just listen. Listen.
While you’re looking at the window and trying not to pay attention to it, your legs are still moving because they know if you stop, so will the guy behind you, and so will the guy behind him, and then the whole lot of you’ll be just sitting there on top of the fifty-six steps, all of you. Standing there, not moving, on top of that creaking staircase from hell. Which is starting to groan a little louder every second. And you’re stuck right at the end of it farthest from solid ground.
I’ve got to finish this cup. Hold up.

Okay, that’s better.

Right. You go through the Window, right through the part of the air where the air is different and sparkles like ground glass, and you’re not right side up, upside down, or sideways. You’re just sort of there. In the air. Floating free as a friggin’ fairy, you and the guy behind and the guy in front of you and every single one of the whole expedition, at least twelve and at most a hundred and nineteen.
That only happened once, yeah, and it nearly broke the fifty-six steps. Next biggest was eighty or something I don’t know, just listen. You didn’t come this far to hear yourself talk, did you Mata-boy?
When you’re floating there, everyone looks helpless as babies for the first few moments. After that the veterans start to remember, and the new floaters just go rigid. Too scared to move. But they have to, so it’s everyone else’s job to shove ‘em into shape. Push them, yell at them, drag ‘em along if you need to do it. They usually unfreeze in the first few hours. If they don’t, well, you just tie them on a lead and drag ‘em around. It’s stupid, but sometimes there’s one or two that just end up like that. No point in complaining too loud once you know it, because there’s no way to fix it. Just do the bitching inside your head, it’s a real comfort.
It also takes your mind off what you’re seeing now, because you’re seeing a lot of things past the Window that you don’t want to. There’s colours that I’m sure as shit don’t really exist, that’s the big part. Looking at anything makes you queasy, especially things that should look right but don’t. You go in wearing blue socks, you come out wearing blue socks, but while you’re past the Window you don’t want to check what colour those socks are, because whatever they are it won’t be right.
The sound’s not as bad, no. It’s so loud you can’t hear it anymore. Or feel it. Kinda relaxing, really. Everything in there is all muffled and shit, like your ears are full of mud. No complaints there, Mata-boy. Don’t fret your pretty little head about scary noises.
Yeah, yeah, I’m getting there, I’m getting there. Let me tell you about what you’re seeing in there that’s so scary.
You won’t see the Ta right away, I can tell you that. They never hang around the Window. Must give them the creeps as much as it does us, if they can feel that way. I’ve got no idea, let some priest babble on about their mindset or their souls or whatever, I just know trying to read them is like trying to chew water, but they don’t come near the Window. Not unless they have a reason. Like us.
Hold up. Last gulp.
Good stuff. You trying to soften me up, Mata-boy? Hah, sweet of you, but you’re too young for me.
The first thing you see isn’t the Ta, it’s probably a broken up kala-husk. The big bastards never die easy, either something cracks them open and eats them like a fox with a hen’s egg or they overswell their shells and explode from the inside out when they hit old age – whatever the husks are made of, it may look like wool and feel like wood, but it’s harder than iron. Helluva way to go, but it’s supposed to take a few hundred years for them to get big enough. There’s one big husk that’s usually floating without a few miles of the Window’s other side, Huge Halger. He’s your best friend – floats around so slowly and you can see him from so far away that there’s no beating him as a direction. Good as a compass heading. “Go towards Halger’s biggest crag on the left side. We’re not that near, head a little bit farther away from Halger. Be careful, there’s a swirl of particular angles near Halger’s far side.”
Particular angles you usually don’t get near the Window either. It’s a pretty dead quiet zone, they like to hunt live, lively prey. That doesn’t mix well.
Swirl’s the word, yeah. You can’t count them, and you can’t tell one big angle from a thousand little ones. No one can. So they’re a swirl of particular angles. Just the way it works, Mata-boy, and it doesn’t make too much difference at all. One little angle in the wrong spot’s worse than a million ones each the size of this pub, if they’re a safe ways away. Of course, the safest place to be when it comes to them is this side of the Window. I saw a little wee swirl of angles once – couldn’t have been bigger than my right tit – and I saw it boil right up through the man next to me’s ribcage. Closest I’ve ever been, and I’m just happy they were filled right up after that because they could’ve had me for dessert without even trying.
What d’you mean, what do they eat? Hah! You look to be the reading kind, Mata-boy, you telling me you didn’t even try to learn this stuff at home before you walked a hundred miles into the asshole of the ass-end of the world? What’re you, a writer? Spit and shit, boy, think you’ll be the first to write a book that’s the reading, what an ego you’ve got! But hah, there you go and fill my cup again, so I’m not going to stop talking.
Particular angles eat lines, and they’re picky eaters, so they prefer big ones, and the straighter the better. Which is good because otherwise they’d probably eat everything. Instead, they’ll just take most of your arteries, or the spaces between your teeth, or every single stitch in your clothing, it’s all luck as to what they end up going for. I saw a body once, the angles had taken every last hair on his head and not a single damned thing anywhere else. Died of fright, poor bastard. Some people can even lose when they win.
Particular angles aren’t the only problem in there. Big problem is the stinks. You see this mask here? See the big bulb over the nose? That hollow’s meant to be filled with the nastiest-smelling shit you can imagine. I don’t know what the apothecaries make it out of, but you put a good wad of that under your whiffer and you don’t have to worry about the stinks. There’s these little spores that make smells out there, that’re so sharp and funked that they’ll send you into coughing fits that can dislocate your jaw, and they hit hard enough that after a few minutes of that you can’t keep breathing.
Well, after you die, the spores fill your carcass and breed in it. Circle of goddamned life. Isn’t it a gorgeous little bitch?
But I’d say the worst problem – the worst problem that’s a straight-up threat – is the noisy thoughts. The stinks? You just wear your mask all the time. Even when you need to eat. Better sick than dead. Particular angles, you just keep an eye out and keep a bunch more near you. But the noisy thoughts? You can’t do anything about those. Anything at all. And almost nobody toughs them out.
See, when they first get their hooks into you, you think it’s you. It’s a tune, or an idea, or something you think someone might’ve mentioned. The tip of your brain’s tongue, you know what I mean? And you let it sit there. Biding its time. You’re waiting for it to go away, because if you just wait things like this ALWAYS go away, but it won’t. It just gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger.
And the bastard of this is that up until right near the very end, most people think that a noisy thought is just something they can’t get out of their head. What’s really funny there, Mata-boy? They’re sort of right. But not quite.
Now, the bit at the end where even the dimwits get that something’s wrong, that’s when their other thoughts start getting crowded out. It starts out soft – you’re so busy humming along with the little song that you lose track of the knot you’re tying, or you stop walking for a moment for no good reason. Then before you know it you’re losing sentences halfway through and forgetting people’s names. By the end? You can’t even think enough to move. The whole brain shuts down bit by bit.
And the real kicker of all this, Mata-boy? There’s nobody that knows what the hell the noisy thoughts even get out of this. They come. They hollow you out. And then they go. You can count the survivors on the fingers of a blind butcher’s hand, and there’s only one still living. If you can call it living. Look up Dead-Head Lizzie, eh? She’ll tell you.
I need another drink. Double it up this time.

Okay, so now you got an idea of some of the risks. That’s just the flashy stuff, mind. I haven’t said jack squat about the things that just drive people nuts or make them wander off and never come back in the night – oh yeah, there’s no night. No day either. Amazing how fast that makes some guys snap.
Now we’re gonna talk about the sweet stuff, the reason anyone wants to go through the damned Window in the first place. We’re going to talk about what Sillas Bradley found when he took fifty-six armed bastards through there for the first time ever, when the fifty-seven steps were still new and didn’t creak so bad.
See, at first the old bastard didn’t find much more than what I told you. No right or left, up or down. Colours all wrong. Huge Halger. Lost a few women and men to particular angles, I think, and the first time anyone saw that would be enough to send most home.
But they were out for money. Nobody wants to come back home with an empty wallet, eh? Makes the bosses unhappy. So they searched in circles, and just when they’d given up, well, there they found something. Floating inside the scraped-out scraps of an old kala-husk, they found some shooms growing.
Funny things, shooms. You ever try some, Mata-boy? A sliver of a scraping’s all I ever could afford, but you bought those brass buttons with somebody’s money, and I’m betting you have more than that.
Never tried? Liar. But such a goddamned polite one. Butter wouldn’t melt in that mouth of yours, would it? Hah. Well then, I’ll be twice as polite and pretend I believe that bullshit, lay it out flat with you: a worm’s-skint-scraping of shoom tastes like sex warmed over by a god and filled to the gills with wine made out of sunbeams.
If you think that isn’t enough reason to send men and women in there to die, Mata-boy, you’re dumber than I thought. But there’s more to it than that. While the taste of that beautiful little parasite is melting apart against the roof of your mouth, you know numbers.
No, I don’t mean that you can do math, no I
Pay attention and shut up. You. Know. Numbers. You don’t add or subtract or any other bullshit, you just know ‘em. While that little scrap of shoom was wasting on my tongue, I could see any number I imagined, and I knew it inside and out. Sillas sent home a bushel or two, and they let the royal mathematician try it out. He sorted every single tax record in the country sound as a bell inside the day. Nearly wore out his wrist with cramping, but it worked. It’s precious stuff, Mata-boy, and there’s two who eat it: royalty, and the advisors of royalty. And the snowcrawlers who bring it back from beyond the Window and are just quiet enough to sneak scraps without getting caught. You get caught once skivving on a trip, you get a punch. Twice, you get a beating. Three times, and they don’t kill you, they don’t kick you out, but nobody’s going to play lookout for you, nobody’s going to help you, nobody’s going to share supplies, and unless you cut losses and make a beeline for the Window you’re probably a dead woman walking. Happened to me twice, and I must’ve run out of all my luck on the way home.
That’s the first bit there, the first sweet bait to lure us all in past the Window. The second’s a bit more obvious: kala-husks. I already told you how tough those things are, you don’t need to hear more. At first they made armour from it, then they found out that they could make it as light and thin as they wanted, then they tried using it to build machines. And if half of what I hear is coming out of the colleges these days is true, Mata-boy – and never more than half, if you say an inch more than half of it is true I’ll eat my boots – then I’m only surprised the prices on the stuff aren’t higher.
The third big thing (and there’s lots of little things I’m not saying right now, Mata-boy – little souvenirs I’m not even going to try to describe, nothing more than trinkets for rich folk and good-luck charms for idiots), we only found five years later. That was when Sillas found the Ta. Walked right into one of their Not-Cities.
Yeah, that’s the word for them.
No, I don’t know how you talk to them. Some people just can. Best not to do it too often, too. The more you do it, the more often you do it, the more you get like them. In the head, not the body, but sometimes I get to wondering. I swear Eightfinger Ulluver’s lips were nearly gone by the end of his life.
Yup. No lips. That’s the Ta. No lips, no eyes. Big ears though. And their legs are like arms, and their arms all look like legs, and they have no teeth. And they don’t live in cities. All the Ta-talkers get really snippy about that. They don’t live in villages, they don’t live in towns, and they REALLY don’t live in cities. Not-Cities is the best word we have, I guess. Stupid as hell if you ask me, but then most of the things the Ta do are stupid as hell. They eat each other and pretty much nothing else, they spend most of their lives asleep, and when they’re awake they do everything at half-again speed before they pass out again. A hundred Ta in one place, you’ll never see more than two or three moving at once. They do things in shifts.
But they know things about the world past the Window that we don’t. They know what to avoid and what to find, they know what’s worth things and what isn’t. We just had to pick out was worth anything to US and we were golden. We traded for how to treat kala-husks and how to find kala-husks and how to find where shooms grew and we found out how to make a Listenstem out of one of their skulls. You take the emptied braincase after they’re done eating one of their own – they do it while the food’s sleeping – and rip off the jaw and sort of push the skull into a bowl. Then you hold that to your ear, and if you know what to think, you think better. That’s all I know because I’m not fool-assed enough to try it. There was a pretty good culling of the colleges when Listenstems started getting out of the Window, before some of the careful ones figured out how to train yourself for it. You do it wrong, and you pretty much turn Ta in the head, and it turns out Ta heads don’t fit inside human brains. Most of ‘em bled out inside their skulls. A couple went crazy, but the useful kind, so they kept them around with force-feedings. Good stuff, eh? And to think, they’ll practically give the things away, which is good because we can’t make them ourselves. Not sure why, but they don’t work.
Now, there’s the big question here, Mata-boy. I can feel it from across the table here, itching away at the tip of your tongue, trying to squirm past those pretty lips of yours, but they’re too polite to open up and spit it out in the drunk old snowcrawler’s face: what do we trade them? What do they want? What are they asking? What are we giving? Because I know, and you know, Mata-boy, that they know how much we want their things. Damned all else we have in common with them, but they get trade. And barter. And payment.
No, it isn’t people. They aren’t interested in us. Just our trade. Don’t get all huffy there.
Go on, guess.
Guess better!
Warmer.
Close!
Hah, give up?
Wrong again, you lose. I’ll tell you anyways because I’m so goddamned nice. They want our thoughts. And I can’t tell you why because in seventy-odd years of us trading them to the buggers, they haven’t seemed like they understand one spitsworth better than before. Maybe they’re just bored and we’re the most hilarious friggin’ thing they’ve ever seen. Whyever they want it, that’s what they’re trading for. The whole team draws straws and the unlucky bastard loses about six months of memories, in exchange for a little over a quarter of the total take. Not a trade most people like. That’s why you’ll find so many snowcrawlers are washed-up scumbags like yours truly, Mata-boy. Nobody who’s had a very nice life would trade it away for any amount of money. Nobody.
I must’ve lost six or seven years. Mostly bad ones. I think I broke even, more’r less. Maybe.
Thanks. Needed that.

So that’s the deal then. You go in. You collect. You barter. You head back to the Window, and you come home. And by the time you come back, you’re a little used to it over there. Not much, never more than a little, because you’re human. But a little. And when you walk back through the door, all of that gets rubbed raw all over, and you spend a few days with twitching eyes and clenching teeth. Me, I get rid of it through drink, same as most. Some of us can’t handle it, keep playing tough for years when they’re soft inside, and then it all spills out whoopsie daisy along with the guts of three or four poor schlubs who were standing a little too near when the sound in the back of your head gets to be all too much and someone says something a little too loud.
Funny thing though, after a few trips in and out of there, you sort of start wanting to hear that noise. Just a little.

How many cups does this one make?
You’re right. Never enough.

You’re all right, boy from Matagan. You’re all right. But I’m getting drunk now, and I’m maudlin as shit when that happens. So I think that’s it for the night.
What? Oh, fine. Last one. But just because you bought me the good stuff, and because me ‘n Dead-Head Lizzie are the only ones left who know this.
See, I never did tell you how Sillas Bradley’s trip ended, did I? Well, he discovered the Window, and he founded the Sill, and he built the fifty-seven steps. And he wandered through the Window and met the Ta, and surprise surprise, he could talk to ‘em. And since we didn’t know much back then, well, he talked a lot. And he asked questions.
Nowadays, we know not to do that.
Sillas was a tough old bastard, and he knew better than to let that sort of shit show in front of his men, but there’s some things you just can’t avoid. His skull was still crowded with Ta-thoughts, and he might’ve even gotten some noisy thoughts in there too. We don’t for sure, but that’s Lizzie’s guess. Pah, what’re guesses worth.
So Sillas set foot outside the Window, fell right back into the real world, and he got the shakes real bad, with a head full of things that were never meant to exist out here, where there’s a sun and a moon and a sky with a wind through it. So he screamed real loud. And he stumbled. And he lashed out and laid out flat the three men nearest to him, poor luckless sods, and when he fell down on top of those three men, well… I hadn’t tied on that last step as well as it could.
Ulluver told me that was his fault. He was a liar, all the time. Those eightfingers worked better than any twenty of anyone else’s.
So that’s why we have fifty-six steps. And when we looked all the way down that mountainside, all two thousand feet of it, we could see the little black marks like crawly bugs on the white snow where Sillas Bradley and three other men had landed. Don’t remember their names. I forgot most of that year and got told it second hand by Lizzie, and her memory’s lousy.
So that was that. And that was us. “Snowcrawlers.” Senses of humour as black as sin from that first trip.

Goddamn.

You’re a good man. You write that book. I need to remember these things. And you finish it fast.
I want to still be able to remember how to read when it’s finished. And I need another trip soon.
Just one more, that’s all. That’ll be plenty.
But just in case, you finish it fast.

 

“On the Sill,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

Storytime: Taste the Rainbow.

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Iris woke up to the sound of a zephyr blowing overhead, blowing through the cracks in the walls of her shack, blowing through the gap where her right canine should be.
It was practically an open invitation.
Snick, snack, snap, open and shut went her wiry, rawbone jaws, chew, pulp, munch, down went half of the zephyr, leaving the other half to run away crying. Swallow, stretch, belch and the walls of the hut shook.
“That’s lucking,” she said, wiping away a shred of uncertain air currents away from her jowls, “that’s gooding. But not besting. Best is the whole thinging”
First things first, such a fortunate moment had to be recorded. Iris hobbled with purpose to the big moldy book that dominated the room, dominated the oaken table it rested on so thoroughly that it almost continually groaned. It was thicker through than the body of a child of ten years, and greater in height from header to footnote, and it was bound in the hide of a thunderhorse, though it was so aged that only the loudest flashs of lights would lead it to rumbling.
Iris heaved it open to the second-to-last page and chewed over her lip without gentleness. It had the consistency of jerky, and was a great comfort between meals, but her mind was elsewhere now. Important work had to be done.

Zephyr, she wrote. Chocolaty, with a hint of a sigh. Soft against the palate but only becomes more tender with each chew, mild as mother’s milk and twice as sweet, but just a hair’s-breadth short of cloying. Succulent raw, would cook using light sautéing with some fresh mushrooms.

Iris stretched her cramping fingers – her writing grew more and more roving and uncertain by the minute, like a drunken dog – and returned to her efforts.

Acquired by happenstance on awakening one early Tuesday morning. Set traps in likely locales and it will cheerfully bumble straight into them. Attempt nonlethal, relatively calming capture to ensure a lack of muscle tension in the meat.

Iris set down her pen with a grunt. It was made from an eagle’s wing, filled with the blackest blood of a stormcloud. Terrible tough, rank eating storms made, but they were useful. You could write pages about all the exciting, dangerous things you could do with their blood and flesh and electrical fields, and Iris had done that, at the cost of four fingers, several cumulative yards of skin, and the ability to control the direction of her right eye, which now did as it wished at all except the gravest moments.
“Almost doning,” she croaked, stroking the freshly inked page. It sparked, but didn’t smear. “So nearing. Just one more, my loveliest. One more, and then the world will know of all that I am knowing. One more.” She pursed her lips. “And what better day is there to go do this thinging, hmm? It is a sign of good luck. I should be off and away while it is lasting. Who knows, maybe it will being flying into my mouthing too, ehh?”
And so Iris prepared herself. She put on her bonnet made from briars, and took up her stone walking stick that could strike a bear dead with one blow, and on her back she slung her trapping-bag, which was woven out of her hair and was stronger than the strongest steel. She smiled, and her teeth shone like angels in the sunlight.
“It is good lucking,” she said. “I will catch a rainbow today.”
And she limped out the door.

Rainbows were harder to catch than they sounded. Things like that usually were.
For one thing, they were rare, rare, rare. If you wanted a chance, you either had to bait them – and they were wary of that, oh so wary – or wait and hope. And Iris was old and impatient.
For another thing, they were too big. Seven stripes! Seven colours! Each was more troublesome and fierce and touch-shy than the last, and if just one of them got away from your grasp the whole thing would wriggle after it no matter how hard you clutched.
Finally, they were as shy and quick to run as cats in a strange house. The first hint of the first sign of anything from anyone and they would be somewhere else before most people had even noticed they were there.
Iris had stalked nine rainbows before. Every time she’d gotten a little bit more frustrated, but today she felt confident. There was luck on her side this time. And luck beats anything.

Iris’s shack stood at the hinge of two mountains, huddled on top of itself in a scree of boulders and broken stone. On one side, a sheer drop. On the other, a soaring wall. Front and back, a small thicket of bitter-thorned shrubs that had been doing slowly for over one hundred years, and then empty space. No living thing had walked up there for as long as Iris could remember. Which suited her fine. She liked her privacy.
Today the west mountain suited her intuition of luck. The zephyr had come from the west, it only stood to reason more might follow. She took her walking stick between her teeth and pulled herself up the cliff hand-over-hand until her house lay below her no bigger than an ant’s and a thin ledge came to her grasp. It was just wide enough for her to shimmy on, greasy hair clawing its way free from her bonnet in thin strands as she wiggled her way to the broader grounds of a little mountain meadow. The air tasted clean and sharp enough to cut taste buds clean out of your mouth.
Iris bit into it four times as she walked, chewing each forty times with her needle-bright teeth. A little snack to whet her appetite properly for when she found the big game. The rumble of her quarry’s home was already loud in her ears.
The waterfall started maybe halfway up the mountain and dropped straight to its base, smashing its face into the cliffs three or four times on the way down. It sounded like the world’s largest bear being woken up from the world’s coziest nap with the world’s pointiest stick, drawn out long. Iris sometimes hummed along with it when she was thinking. It made her floorboards creak and the lantern flicker.
She looked at the spray and roar, then squinted at the sky. “Too early for the misting,” she commented. “Waiting time.”
So grey Iris sat down there, near the top of the waterfall, with her walking stick, and she hummed along to the waterfall as she repaired the small damage that the wind’s careless buffets had done to her bonnet of black briars. She sat there for three days, sustaining herself only on nips and bites of the most faintly eddying breezes, watching and waiting and waiting some more.
On the fourth day, the rainbow came.
It was thin and translucent in the sunlight, a bit uncertain and startled as to its existence. It stretched across the mountain sky with the tentative air of a bird first flapping its featherless winglets.
The rainbow lasted ten minutes, and in that time Iris made no move at all. She was old and experienced; she’d lost her first two rainbows to hastiness and greed. Patience was her watchword now.
“Time loses nothings,” she muttered into her teeth, “and it brings luckings. And luckings beats anything.” And she bedded down for the night with her trapping-bag as a pillow, resting her skull on its unbending coils.
On the fifth day, the rainbow came again in the morning. It was more solid now, more sure. It was a vain creature, as all its kind were, and it flittered most fetchingly in the sun, still wobbly but bolder and more adventurous, testing its limits. It swayed and it shimmered and once it even doubled itself in a fit of pique, though the effort seemed to exhaust it.
Iris hummed in thought, masked by the waterfall’s ever-roar. A double rainbow was twice the catch, but twice the difficulty. Should she wait longer even, hoping for it to properly split itself?
“No, no, noing,” she scolded herself that night. “Greed is a curse. A rainbow is a rainbow is a rainbow, doubled or no, and better one than none, truth be telling.”
On the sixth day, the rainbow was mature. It stood astride the valley of falling waters like a prince newly crowned, with the confidence and beauty of a freshly-greened maple. It held a shimmer in its sides that was the secret envy of every trout and the love affair of countless bad poets, and it knew it and owned it. It made Iris’s mouth water just looking at it.
“Soon, soon, sooning,” she said that night, speaking to her walking stick in a fit of pique that evening. “Sooning.”
On the seventh day, the rainbow innovated some more. Secure in its resplendence, bored in its effortless existence, it shaped itself in strange ways. It reflected from ice particles in some clouds, bending itself into a halo. It shifted its perspective no less than three hundred and sixty times. It even tried to see what was over the mountain top, but grew dizzy before it had grown large enough. And then evening came, and it tucked itself away for the night again.
On the eighth day, the rainbow was confident, determined, and bursting with impatient new ideas. It faded into the visible edge of light with the casual ease of those who belonged there, and was grabbed by fingers so strong and quick that it didn’t even know anything was wrong until a bag of grey iron was spread over its head and it was stuffed straightaways into it.
“Caught! Caught! Caught!” laughed Iris, waving her bonnet overhead in triumph, where its cruel thorns tore at the belly of an innocent breeze. “Caught at last and caught for realings! All one, two, three, four and so on to seven stripes! All of them! All mine!” She laughed so loud that the rocks bleached white with fright everywhere she stepped all the way home down the cliff as she skipped with joy, jostling and bruising the poor rainbow something fierce as it wriggled in her trapping-bag.
“Caught!”

Iris’s home had no cage for her prisoners, but she was wily. She pulled the rainbow out of her trapping-bag by the scruff of its neck and stuffed it inside her black briar bonnet. At every wince the rainbow made, a hundred tiny spikes poked its flesh terribly.
“So good, so good, so gooding,” chuckled Iris. “The last one, the lasting! The final page of my booking! The last sampling! Where shall I start, where shall I be starting? Inside or outside? One big bite or three little ones? Shall I eat it raw or cooked, kill it with my sticking or eat it raw and struggling? Choices! Choices!” She poked the rainbow in the heart with her finger, and it nearly doubled up from the pain.
“If you want to eat me,” said the rainbow, “you had better listen to what I have to say. Eat me now, before my colours fade! By four days time they’ll have faded away, and they’ll be deadly poison to an old hag like you.”
Iris squinted at him. “Liar, liar, lying liaring,” she hissed. “You know well what brightness and light do to an old woman’s tummy. You want me to eat you fresh and sparkling, so bright it burnsing! You evil thing! I’ll coop you up for all four days, and eat your rawing! RAW!” She hissed and laughed and spat once and went to bed with a snore that could scrape lichen off rocks.
Cooped up in its prison of black briars, the rainbow smiled so hard that its teeth nearly jumped out of its mouth. Then it sat up as straight as the thorns would allow, cupped its hands to its mouth, and sang in a sweet low voice.

Winds, winds, here I am, here I am. Rainbow, your prince, is all caught up. Attend me! Help me! Winds, winds!

There was a quiet whistle from far away, and in swept the east wind, wet and lush as a steaming river, long as the end of the world. “Trouble, my prince?” it whispered warmly.
“Free me, free me,” said the rainbow, in a hushed voice. “I have three days before I die, if I am not freed.”
“I will do as you ask on this day,” said the west wind, “and then I am needed elsewhere in the wide world.” And the west wind breathed deeply in and out and flooded the dried old briars with damp, nurturing moisture, suffocating their bitter thorns.
“Free!” called the rainbow. “I am free!” And it leapt out of the wilting briars, and straight into the iron-haired trapping-sack of Iris.
“Woke me woke me woke me!” she yelled. “Smells of clean water and warmth? In my home? Unkind thing! Unwelcome fooding!” She beat the rainbow so hard that it nearly went black as well as blue, and all the next day, the second day, as she wrote notes in her old creaking book she gave it the evil eye.
“Watch it carefullying,” she muttered aloud as she wrote, “or it will be most escaping. Pah!” And then she knotted up her trapping-sack and left the rainbow alone for the second night.
The rainbow huddled in a heap, nursing its bruises, and waited until the old woman was fast asleep and louder than ever, then it hitched itself up, put its fingers to its mouth, and whistled high and fast.

Winds, winds, here I am, here I am. Rainbow, your prince, is all caught up. Attend me! Help me! Winds, winds!

There was a low hum from far far away and up came the south wind through the floorboards, dry as a bone’s soul, turbulent and coarse. “You ask for aid, my prince?” it spoke softly.
“Free me, free me,” said the rainbow, begging open-handed. “I have only two days to live if I am not freed.”
“I will do as you ask on this day,” said the south wind, “but then I must soon speed someplace.” And the south wind spoke strange words that made the air jump and billow with dry, fierce heat, and the iron-hard hair of the trapping-sack withered and shrank until it was no more than a tight little collar around the rainbow, which burst it with a quick shake of its head.
“Free!” yelled the rainbow. “Free! I am free!” And it leapt out of the window and was nearly in the air when Iris’s stone walking stick strike it in the back, knocking it prone.
“Woke me!” she snarled as she thrashed the rainbow without mercy. “The sound of sanding? In my stone homing? Thief! Burglaring of my hospitaliting!” She cracked the rainbow across the head so hard that it saw eighteen stars at once, then stabbed it through its middle and right into the dirt with her walking stick. Squirm and cry as hard as the rainbow might, it could not budge itself and for all of the third day she refilled her eagle’s-wing quill with the bright blood of the rainbow. “Proofing,” she said. “Proof of my capturing.” She went to bed laughing and in no time at all she was asleep for the third night.
The rainbow cried for some hours, hurt and alone and growing more dim by the day. It missed the sky so much, and the ground hurt against its back. But still, when the pain had grown dim, it pursed its lips, cleared its aching throat, and hummed strong and angry.

Winds, winds, here I am, here I am. Rainbow, your prince, is all caught up. Attend me! Help me! Winds, winds!

There was a fierce shriek from farther away than ever, and down came the north wind, storming in the chimney and through the fireplace, colder than a corpse’s heart, fierce and hungry. “You need help, my prince?” it rumbled, nails needling on the rainbow’s skin.
“Free me, free me,” said the rainbow, pawing at its feet. “I will die tomorrow if I am not freed.”
“I will do as you ask on this day,” said the north wind, “and then I must fly away to eat.” And the north wind reached down with one clawed hand and tore the walking stick free and cast it to the floor where it shattered into a thousand frozen fragments, leaving the rainbow to struggle quickly to its feet.
“Free!” screamed the rainbow. “Free! Free! I am FREE!” And as it screamed it ran, ran, ran, and it was barely out the doorway before Iris was pelting pell-mell after it, roaring and spitting.
“Fooding!” she shrieked. “Mine, food, mineing! Come and be eaten!” Her feet cracked the rocks between her toes, her breath curled at the nape of the rainbow’s neck, and it nearly fainted from fear. In between the terror, panted between footfalls, too small to hear for any distance at all, the rainbow called “help!”
There was a soft whisper, just a little ways away, and curling up to wrap around the rainbow as it ran came a gentle little zephyr that had been hiding just down the mountain as it mended itself, so close that it could hear even the tiny little cry for help that the rainbow made, as luck would have it. “Are you all right, prince?” it asked with worriment.
“Please,” gasped the rainbow. “Save me. Save me.”
“I am small and half-eaten,” said the zephyr, “but I will do everything I can.” And the small zephyr sped all the way to the waterfall and seized a handful of its precious spray and whisked it back again quicker than anyone could ever run, woman, man, rainbow, or witch, so gently that not a single drop was wasted. “A path, a path!” called the zephyr as it threw the water into the air, and as the rainbow ran straight up the waterdrops back into the sky it burst into full colour for the first time in four days, as brilliant and bright a light as may ever be seen anywhere. It turned night to day, set Iris back on her heels with a squeal, and in Iris’s shack the old thunderbeast-bound book smacked itself shut with a snap and let out a thunder that would’ve made the mightiest storm stand proud.
The earth shook, the sky yelled, and the hinge of the mountains that Iris’s cabin stood upon – the broken rocks, the shaky cliff, the crumbling wall – fell all to pieces at once in a heartbeat, smashing all the way down to the bottom of it all until nothing was left that was bigger than a gentle calm.

“That was a good thing you’ve done, little zephyr,” said the rainbow as it shone in the sky. “A very good thing.”
“Thank you, prince,” said the zephyr.
“You will watch over the west, if the sky will permit,” said the rainbow.
“But I am small,” said the zephyr.
“You are gentle,” said the rainbow. “That is important. And small means nothing. Luck means everything. And you have been good luck to me.”
And that’s the way it was.

 

“Taste the Rainbow,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.