Storytime: Homeward.

March 27th, 2013

In a place not so far away but a very long time ago, in a home by the sea, there lived three people: two old and tall, one young and small. A mother, a father, and a daughter. They got along, day by day, and perhaps sometimes they were even happy.
Then one day, a bad day, a hard day, the mother and the father stopped talking, stopped walking. They laid themselves down on the floors of their home and stared at the ceiling with wide frozen eyes that wouldn’t blink, wouldn’t budge, no matter how much the daughter prodded and pleaded and whined. And then came in men to take her up and take her away, far away. They brought her
through the forest
past the hills
across a river
and up the side of a windy, rocky road
to a big building that pretended to be a home when it wasn’t, all cold windows and colder floors. The walls watched you with eyes of all sizes, and you did what the men said or they put you in a box, in a hall, upstairs on the highest floor where the tip-tops of the old, dead trees could nearly reach you. They scraped and made horrible sounds on the walls, trying to reach inside with their brittle branches and twisty twigs to grab at young and small people who just wanted to sleep properly, to feel safe and sure for once.
The daughter spent a long time there, in that big building. There were other children too, but they never spoke, or the men would put you in a box, in a hall, upstairs on the highest floor. So they didn’t.
One day, a strange day, an unusual day, a letter came. It wasn’t one of the many letters of the building’s men – they spoke to businesses of business, of doctors to institutions. This was a letter from a parent to a child.
The men brought the daughter to their leader, who wore a whiter shirt than them all, and never a jacket. His thin little chin bobbed and clicked to itself as he read it aloud to her, asked her if she knew what it meant.
The daughter wasn’t sure what the right answer would be here, so she went with honesty, the easiest policy. “No.”
“Your parents have come back,” said the leader of the men. “They will come here, and bring you home.”
The daughter blinked, and remembered, and while she was remembering her mouth continued overmuch in its honesty, and it said “that’s wrong.” And so she was put in a box, in a hall, upstairs on the highest floor, and listened to the trees mutter and shudder all night. But they sounded different now – the dead, dying leaves had begun to come in on some of them, the only colour they grew all year. A new shuffling sound emerged from these: change, change. Things are going to change.

For a week, nothing changed. And then, as the daughter sat in the downstairs dining-room, she heard the sound of crackling, rumbling gravel on the windy, rocky road that the big building sat upon. She quit her seat – risking the inattention of the men on duty, who were speaking of things – and pressed her eye to the bars that ate up the windowpanes.
A car had come in. It was very shiny and very new, and quite red.
A hand tugged at the daughter’s ear; one of the men had noticed her inattention. She was towed from the room, down the hall, round the front, up to the base of the stairs, but before she could be taken up, up, up to the highest floor, other men spoke to the one who grasped her ear.
“To the lobby with her,” they said. “Her father is here.”

The daughter’s father was as tall as the tallest of the men – taller, she thought, than she’d remembered, though it had been so very long since she was home. His face was long and thin and faded, as though a pencil had sketched him out sparsely, saving the main-rub of its lead to fill in the great enveloping mass of his dirty-brown coat. She could not see his face all the way up where it lay, under his hat.
He spoke with the leader of the men in the quick, gruff, tiresomely neverending grumble of their ways. Then he pulled out an envelope, battered and pale, and stuffed it roughly into the leader of the men’s hand.
He turned to the daughter and said “come.”
So she did, and followed her father into the shadowed sunshine. For the first time in a long forever she saw the big building that wasn’t a home from the outside. It was smaller than she’d thought – even the highest floor was nearer to the ground, its dreadful trees smaller and stubbier than she’d ever believed. They were still and limp now; their night-winds absent, their branches silent; defeated and immobile.
The inside of the car was stuffy and musty. Her father would not open the window. So the daughter coughed, and her father turned to look at her as though she had said something. And that is why the daughter asked the first question to pop into her head, which was “what was in the envelope?”
The father’s mouth was most indistinguishable up there so high on his head, but even so the daughter saw it go through a disconcerting little jump into a nearly-smile before it went smooth again. “Dirt,” he replied. And then he started up the engine, grind-grind-crunch-cough, and the red car went rattling away down, down, down.

For maybe a little less than a minute, the daughter’s world was comfortable. Oily-smelling, bone-jarring, and too warm, but it was a place that she was happy to be in. And then she heard the groan and holler of other engines, other cars, the big steel-doored trucks that the men drove to and fro in to get supplies for food and wander to mysterious places.
“Are they going to catch us?” asked the daughter.
The father’s mouth did that complicated little jump again, like a skittish roach. “No,’ he said. He put his hand in his coat, and he pulled out a keyring, a big iron keyring. He plucked the smallest of the keys, and he twitched it about in his dirt-brown coat for a time. And he held up his hand to the window and pushed out a bag.
The bag burst open on the gravel behind them with a spray like fireworks, but it crawled like centipedes and flew like locusts. Little bugs – hundreds and hundreds of little bugs with little legs and little eyes. They swarmed and swooped and were covered with spines, and the daughter heard the paf!-paf!-paf! of car tires puncturing one after another as they wound their way down the bends of the windy, rocky road.
Something stirred at her foot, and she looked down. A single, half-squashed little bug lay against her shoe, wings trembling with exhaustion. It looked so small, and she felt so sorry for it. So she picked it up.
“Be careful,” it whispered in its little buggy voice.
The daughter didn’t know what to say to that. So she nodded, and tucked it into her coat where her father couldn’t see it.

The rattle and rumble of engines faded for a while, then grew louder – and another sound vied with them: the splash and swish and swirl of water. The river was approaching, and the little rickety old bridge of rust and hope that stood over it. It looked three times frailer to the daughter than it had when she’d been taken over it to the big building that was not a home, oh so long ago (how long ago?).
There was a screech and a honk behind them. The car of the men was drawing nearer.
“Are they going to catch us now?” asked the daughter. Underneath them the bridge creaked and groaned and coughed like a dying horse, all bones and tears.
The father did not smile this time, or if he did, it was not with his mouth. Instead he chuckled – a short, thick, sulphurous sound. “No,” he said. And as he said that, he wrenched the steering wheel of the car hard fast to the side and pulled it over so that it sat in the middle of the center of the bridge, breaks whimpering in pain with short gasps.
“Come here,” he told the daughter, and he took her up in his long, long bony arms and ran with huge slow steps, like a heron hunting frogs. The cars of the men hauled into view as the daughter looked over his shoulder, pulling up short and sharp at the shiny red car where it blocked them in. They cursed and waved their fists and were climbing over it as she and the father reached the other side of the bridge.
The father gave that chuckle again, and the daughter felt his chest bubble against her legs as he did so. He reached inside his coat and he pulled out a sack, a great bulging sack that surely seemed too large to fit inside that coat, big as it was. It glistened unhealthily in the midday sun. The father pulled loose that same iron keychain a second time, and he undid the old, old rusted lock that held it shut. The mouth of the bag unpinched, and then he spilt it far and wide across the bridge, splaying its contents to the air and noise of the world. Crabs – hundreds and hundreds of big sleek black crabs, with iron-shod shells and pinchers that put steel to shock and shame. They were resistant to boot and quick to anger, and before long the charge of the men across the bridge was nothing but a chorus of dismal hoots and angry yells in the ears of the daughter as the father carried her up, up, up and away as the road rose high into the hills.
There wasn’t much to look at, as she stared down at the dirt. Then something stared back.
A crab, barely yet fresh from its larvael forms, dangled precariously at the heels of her father’s coat-hood. It was a shiny freshly-minted black, like a more pleasant tarred road.
She reached down and plucked it free. Its claws held no bite, only a meek thankfulness. As she brought it up to her own coat pocket, it whispered as it passed her ear
“Don’t let him know.”
in a voice that smelt like sea-salt and soft things.
She nodded. And she didn’t let him know.

The hills were high and hard indeed, and her father’s steps lagged now out of necessity, though his breath did not shorten, did barely draw at all. He did not put down the daughter, though, and she made no request that he do so – even if his shoulder grew awful bony against her stomach. She counted bounders and rocks and pebbles as she hung up there, and wondered at how long it had been since she’d seen stone that had not been cracked down to gravel.
And then, as the sun wore the sky down into the idle blue of late afternoon, she heard once again the angry holler of the men, raised in song above the grunt and snort of an automobile’s engine.
The daughter thought to ask her father of the noise, but she felt him stir already.
And besides, she didn’t know if this was something she ought to let him know.
She could not see his face, so she didn’t know if he almost-smiled again. He didn’t laugh, though he did quiver. And he turned about in his stride as smoothly as a scarecrow, fingers splaying every which way as straw while he dug inside his coat.
“Ah,” he grunted, fetching out a mysterious squirming box. Its sides heaved and shuddered as he hefted it and worried at the lid with his long, long nails and the iron keys of his chain, even as the shouting of the men turned the corner of the trail below them. They had acquired the shiny red car that the daughter’s father had used, somehow, and they were riding it mighty hard, all those men packed into a car meant for four-and-a-half.
Her father shrugged, and her father tossed the box fast and low. It was harder than it looked, and smashed straight through the windshield and into the lap of the driver with a thwack and a thud and a yip-yipe-yap, for it was full of coyote. Then as the coyote struggled itself free and into the face of the man, it became apparent that the box was full of coyotes. How many the daughter couldn’t count, nor could she say how all those coyotes fit inside that box in her father’s coat, but it made an awful loud racket awfully louder than before. The car swerved and swung and smacked into a tree, spilling angry men and frightened coyotes everywhere.
Her father turned and moved along, not bothering to speak. And just behind him, bobbing along in his shadow, trailed a little coyote pup, barely big enough to walk without tripping.
“Stay calm,” it whispered, keeping a wary distance from those big boots.
The daughter listened, and she did as she was told.
And she scooped the pup off the ground when the hills grew steep, because she was kind.

Evening was in the air, with the sun painting the world all sorts of rare thing as it filtered through the branches of the trees in the forest. The air tasted like bark and dirt and growing good greenness, and just a hint of cinnamon fear. The daughter had bit her tongue by mistake too, but that was some time ago and she wasn’t sad about it anymore, and besides she couldn’t taste it.
“Mmmmm,” muttered her father, deep inside his dirt-brown coat. “Mmmm.”
She didn’t ask him what it was. She knew before she could feel it. The tramp-tramp-tramp of feet on the road behind them, a horde of bustling shoes on angry legs. The men had been lazy, but none of them had been fat. They were not as steady as her father, but fury gave them speed that steadiness could not match. For now.
This time it was a little can, a little sea-grey can that reminded her of the waves behind her home. Her father unscrewed the top left, then right, placed a key from the iron keychain in the top and twirled it, took it in his palm, shook it thrice, twice, once, held it firm, and whipped it straight into the dirt at his feet. Then he brushed his palms and walked onward as though nothing had happened.
The daughter watched what happened behind her. They passed a curve before the first man appeared, but she heard the shrieks and screams and knew what had caused them. She saw the coils in her head, winding and unwinding, endless loops of muscles that could wrench trees loose from dirt and grind down rocks to rubble.
A small worm crawled upon her father’s lapel. It was segmented and strong and moist and it smelt of the deep dark down where life is made into good things for more life. She bent her ear to it.
“Be ready,” it told her. Firm, sure.
She felt safe because of that, and not just because she tucked the worm into her coat.

Dark was there, real dark by the time they came to the daughter’s home. The air was clotted with night-taste, the sensation as cool and clean as a spade on a stone.
“Here we are,” breathed her father. The daughter looked, and looked, and looked.
There was a house in front of her. There was the sea behind it. And there were the stars above it.
It looked like home, but it didn’t feel like home at all. And not least because of the big sad bird above the door-light, head hooded, leg shackled to the light-stem.
“Home!” called her father, and his voice croaked unevenly as he raised it. “Home! I have brought our daughter home!”
A head poked out from behind the front door, the screen-net nearly fell loose from it. It was her mother, hair long and tangled with briny water, face drawn thin and with her teeth all showing. “Wonderful! Good! A good thing! Come in,” she creaked, “come in!”
“I don’t want to come in,” whispered the daughter, in spite of herself. She looked at the doorway, and she saw no lights, no fire in the building.
“Come in, come in!” said her mother, sliding through the door to hold it open, a mouth into the building wide and dank. “My daughter is home, here to join us! We missed you, daughter! Come! Join us! Come in!”
“You left me alone,” said the daughter, and her hand crept to her coat pocket.
“Only for a little while,” whispered her father. “Only for a little while.”
“We didn’t mean to go away,” said her mother, teeth still smiling in perfect white. “We had to leave unexpectedly. But we missed you so much where we were that we had to come back, and we had no small trouble with that, daughter! So many nasty creatures tried to stop us, horrid things.”
“Bugs,” said her father, and he made a face.
“Crabs,” muttered her mother, and she shook herself, sending the seaweed dripping from the bottom of her dress.
“Nasty,” said her father, and he spat. The spit wriggled.
“But we’re back now, daughter,” said her mother, “and we want to bring you home. Now won’t you please come in?”
“No,” said the daughter, but her father was already moving, long, thin legs as sure as a spider on its web.
“You really musn’t grumble so, daughter,” her mother admonished. “They have taught you bad manners at that nasty place. Now come in, and we’ll-“ Her mother frowned, and how she did that, lipless as she was, was a rare sight. “What’s that sound?”
It was footsteps again, and angry yelling. Down the path were shining fierce flashlights, bobbing with the frenzy of fireflies in midsummer heat.
“Them,” said her father, with distaste. One foot lay across the threshold of the home, one hand secured the daughter in her place on his shoulder. The other reached into his coat, searching for a thing.
“Ruffians,” said her mother, voice iced. “Turn the bird on them.”
“I shall,” he said, and he produced the keychain’s greatest denizen yet: a great iron key, burdened with rust and the age of years. It seemed to wriggle in his hand as he lifted it to the perch of the hooded bird, clenched in his fist with its jesses.
The girl’s pocket wriggled, and she felt four tiny heads lift themselves up and all at once shout as loud as their little lungs could “NOW!”
The daughter yanked out her pocketful of friends and thrust them into the air, as hard as she could, and things happened.
Her father screamed as the key stuck in the lock, with the bug in his eye, burrowing, needling. Snip-snap went the jesses in his flailing hand, turned loose with the claws of the crab. With a flail and a snarl the coyote-puppy caught the key in its teeth, tugging that last half-inch ‘till the lock snapped open and the keys fell loose in the wind. A yank of the worm’s tail (or maybe its head?) and the hood slipped loose.
The vulture is a sad, silly animal, and a slow one. Its head is bald, its demeanour is meek, it defends itself by throwing up its breakfast, and it eats that which no one else will. It lives a life on the warmest and slowest of winds, waiting for misfortune to occur so that it may have a meal.
This vulture was very old, and it bore that misfortune on every inch of its old, old bones. And right then, as it straightened out its wings and unbent itself from that little perch, unchained, it looked very, very angry.
“Good girl,” it croaked, low and steady. “Good girl.”
“Good girl,” agreed the crab, the bug, the worm, the pup. “Good girl.”
Her father swayed there where he stood, one hand on his daughter, the other on his leaking eye. He looked to the mother, but she stood silent, half-torn between hate and fear.
The father made up his mind. He dove for the door, a hiss without breath leaking through those teeth.
The vulture is not a fast animal. But when all you have to do is drop three feet, you do not have to be.
Her father made a noise, as the vulture fell upon him. It was not a scream. A scream needs lungs and a heartbeat to drive them, a mind behind it that can think and feel. But whatever was making that noise was gone in a flash as the vulture’s great beak tore through that dirt-brown coat and sent it back down where it was meant to be in a single snap of its jaws.
The daughter fell in the dirt, and some got in her mouth. It was the best feeling of her life.
“Carrion beasts!” shrieked the mother. “Bearers of blight! Away with you!” and then after that there was no more sound as all the bugs and all the crabs and all the coyotes and all the worms ploughed down through the road and into the home, trampling over the rags of the dirt-brown coat and the glistening ruin that used to be that iron keyring as it was trampled into the dust.

The girl lay there for a while as the house that pretended to be her home but wasn’t was being destroyed, looking at the stars. They were the same as they’d been here, as they’d been at the big building. The men from it had not appeared, and the flashlights had run the other way as all her friends had come.
A tingling on her fingers told her that the bug and worm had come back, a cold claw at her ankle heralded her crabling. The coyote pup nuzzled into her lap, and they all sat there for a while until the vulture came down from the sky where it had thrown the last bit of the weathervane away, chest heaving, head bobbing as it landed upon her knee.
“Girl,” it said, “you have done a very great deal for us, who have done very little for you.”
She nodded.
“What do you want most of all?” it inquired.
“A home,” the girl replied instantly. “A place for me to be.”
“Where would you like to be?” it asked her.
“Where can you take me?”
The vulture shrugged, its old wings bent again, tired from the night’s struggles. “Anywhere.”
The girl took it in her arms. “Then take me everywhere,” she said, “and I’ll decide afterwards.”
And they did. And she did.
But not for a little while.

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