Joshua sat by the path in the moonlight. The only sounds were the leaves rustling when he shifted his weight. The body lay only a few feet away. He could run. He could say it was an accident; he hadn’t meant to kill the man. But the counsel would work out that he had meant to kill someone and that would be enough. His Mom had told him tales: horrible things that befell those who ran from their duty. At 23, Josh didn’t believe in fairytales anymore, but he had a deep respect for karma, though he wouldn’t have known that term.
The half moon was high and enough pale light fell through the bare trees to show the dark heap laying on the path, a darker puddle spreading beside it. It would be light in a couple hours. He didn’t think he had time to hide the body anywhere. Damn it, he’d picked this place because he wanted the body to be found. They would think that he had only intended to rob someone, even though the penalty would still cost him his life. But this wasn’t the body he’d meant to be found with. He had no idea who this poor fellow was or why he was headed out to Samuel’s place so late at night.
He sat there a long time before he finally had the nerve to turn the body over. When he did, his heart sank to depths he didn’t know it had. He touched the beard lightly, reverently, then returned to sit by the path and weep. He was still weeping there an hour later when the first farmer on his way to market found him.
Burke, Joshua’s lawyer, sat across the heavy oak table from him and smiled. “It’s a pretty cut and dried case. You were found by the body. You confessed to the first person who found you. Your parents evicted you eight months ago. And you last worked two months ago. Long enough for you to become desperate for food and jump someone for money. And everyone agrees you are stupid enough to jump the only person in the town with no money and inept enough to accidently kill him in the process.”
Josh bristled at that, but didn’t lose his temper. In the bigger cities the judge would have an actuarial table that estimated how long the victim would have lived. Killing an old man might only net you 5 years of service. He muttered this to his lawyer.
“Quit whining. Perhaps you’d rather have sentence passed by the northerners?” In the Northern Provence a death was paid for with an execution. Josh wondered if maybe that wasn’t more humane after all.
“The judge will see you in about an hour,” Burke squinted at his notes. “You’ll meet Thomas, your guide, this afternoon. Sean was a busy man, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.”
Joshua couldn’t think of anything to ask. This sort of thing was common enough. If you killed someone, accident or not, you had to take on their responsibilities, see to their business, family, property. And someone would be watching to make sure you did it well. Not necessarily just as the deceased would have done, but as best you could. And heaven help you if you screwed up. A farm or business Joshua could have handled: his father had taught him plenty about both before he’d died. But he never had time for religion, or told Josh much beyond ‘try not to get into too much trouble.’
“So why the hell did I have to go and kill a priest,” Josh sighed.
Josh squinted up through the afternoon sun at the twin spires of the sanctuary. He had never been inside the place and he wasn’t sure what to expect. Images of chanting figures in dark robes, fancy windows, statues, rich artwork and gold hidden in secret cellars flitted through his mind as he followed Thomas across the threshold. Thomas was young, about Josh’s age if that. He wore a thin beard that barely hid his chin and tended to walk fast, throwing his long legs ahead of him in a loping gait. Josh had trouble keeping up with him. The young priest was civil, but condescending. Josh couldn’t blame him, Sean had been his boss. He had no idea if they were close or not.
Inside the door Joshua paused. The inside was huge! Despite the echo of Thomas’ footsteps ahead of him, the space was eerily quiet. Everything was ornate: covered with carefully carved figures of people, animals, grain, fruit and things he couldn’t identify. The light passing through the multi-colored glass cast strange muted shadows. He ran his rough hand over the back of the nearest bench. One of Josh’s uncles carved wood for a living, these carvings were exquisite. The benches were padded with a richly woven cloth. He looked more closely. Rich cloth, but badly worn. The wood was worn too. His dad would have replaced this long before it got this rough looking. He looked around more carefully now. The whole room showed signs of expensive work, well cared for, but long overdue for repair.
“Come on you!” Thomas growled at him from the front, “You’d think you’d never been in a sanctuary!”
Josh followed slowly, taking in what detail he could. Thomas led him to a small cluttered room at the end of a narrow hallway. He had never seen so many books before. They were stacked ten and twelve and fifteen high in every corner of the room. There were stacks of papers nested between, and sometimes within, the piles of books. He bent over to look at a stack. Half the titles were in alphabets he’d never seen before. ‘Is God Dead?’ read one old cover. “This book here is the one you need to read,” Thomas was saying.
It was a large book, with a cover that had also once been richly decorated. The embossed letters said simply, “The Book.” Josh opened it carefully. He could see where the cover had been taped back onto the spine. The script was simple print, which surprised him. He had expected something fancier. Neat notes in a crabbed hand had been penned in the wide margins and in between the lines. “What’s in this?” he asked, not looking up from the first page.
“Everything. Everything about everything,” Thomas said. “I’ll call you when it’s time for dinner.”
Josh sat in the office and stared at the mound of books. The law was harsh, he felt, to sentence him to this: another man’s life and interests. Of course he’d deprived the man of his chance to pursue them.
Dinner was a meager meal: bread, thin soup, some vegetables. Josh, who was not the best of hunters, had been eating better in the forest. If this place had any riches, they weren’t spending it on the cuisine. Or the flatware, Josh noticed, bending his tines of his fork into alignment. He laughed nervously, “no beer?”
To his surprise, Thomas looked absolutely shocked, then burst out laughing.
“Yes, actually,” he left and returned a few minutes later with two small bottles. “Not much, but damn, I could use one of these. Sorry it’s not something stronger.”
Josh took a long swig from his bottle. It was damn strong stuff compared to what he was used to getting in the tavern, but he didn’t say so. Instead he took a good look at Thomas and made a decision.
“Thomas, I’d . . . I’m not sure . . . I’m sorry. I . . .” Thomas held up his hand.
“I know you didn’t mean to do it. I watched the trial. I know it was an accident and a stupid one at that. I also believe in Providence. Do you know what that is?” Josh shook his head, no, though he thought he probably did know.
“Fate, Destiny, well, sort of,” he paused, “It’s the idea that nothing happens completely by chance, even bad things work into some kind of overall plan.”
If there were a divine plan Josh didn’t think much of how it was being executed and said so.
“Well, we can talk about that another time. I just want you to know I don’t hate you for what you’ve done. It just creates, um, problems for me, you know. Here I am training you and I was still in training myself.” Josh hadn’t known that.
“You aren’t a real priest?”
Thomas laughed again, “Yes! Fully ordained, but not much time on the job, I’m afraid. I would have worked under Sean for another four or five years before I’d of been somewhere on my own, if then.” He downed the rest of his bottle. “Need another?”
“I’m good,” Josh lied. Thomas returned with two more bottles anyway and downed half of his in a single gulp.
“Have you read yet what The Book says about hating someone?” Josh wasn’t sure he had. “It says if you hate someone you’re as guilty as if you murdered them.” Josh decided it was best to say quiet, he wasn’t sure where this was going. “So,” Thomas took another long swig, “I’m no less guilty than you.” Josh had no idea what to say and sat looking at his shoes. It took him a few moments, then he looked up at Thomas in surprise, “Oh,” there still wasn’t anything he could think to say. He was too shocked.
“It makes some things easier you see,” Thomas went on, “but I’m not sure I feel good about that. And it complicates some things considerably. Considerably.” He sat looking at the floor awhile, then went on, “Look. I’m sorry. It’ll be a busy day tomorrow. I’ve a lot to show you. Better get some rest.” He downed the rest of his bottle and showed Josh to his room.
As he drifted off to sleep in the unfamiliar bed, Josh thought about what Thomas had said. Just as guilty. What a strange man, Josh thought.
The next several days were spent reading, observing services, watching while Thomas led worship, counseled people, gave a lot of food and money away and generally wore himself out doing little things for nearly everyone in town who needed a handout. Josh had no idea a priest did so much. Much of it seemed kind of futile.
For example, Josh knew many of the people receiving handouts from the church. About half were widows and cripples and others who had no income or family to help. The other half Josh knew darn well were living it up on what they could steal or borrow. He kept his mouth shut, though. His dad had taught him that the way to learn was to shut up and keep his eyes open. He didn’t understand much, but he was still learning. There would be time for questions later.
Surprisingly few people seemed to realize that there was a new priest. Thomas said they had a tendency to look at the robe and not the face. People were constantly stopping him to ask advice, unburden themselves, ask for sympathy or discuss some point of theology he couldn’t begin to follow. They also apologized a lot. They would swear and say, “Oh I’m sorry Father.” or apologize for having a drink in their hand, or for not being in service recently and all sorts of things he did himself all the time. It got on his nerves. He tried to ignore it and watch how Thomas handled them. Mostly by smiling a lot and nodding, Josh observed.
Meanwhile he read what he could, confusing though it was. Josh had always loved to read, but his previous life had not given him much opportunity. He remembered most of what he took in, his mind had been starving for ideas, though he didn’t know it till now. He read history and law and literature, but mostly he read The Book, which actually seemed to be a lot of books rolled up into one.
He had no idea what to make of all the long lists of laws. Half of them forbid things he’d never even heard of and the other half forbid things he did every day. He asked Thomas, whose opinion he was coming to take with a grain of salt, about them. “Ignore that for now, look at the newer writings for advice.” Josh decided not to ask what ‘newer’ meant when all of it had been written over three millennia ago, and went for the more salient point. “So the older stuff doesn’t apply?”
“Sure it does.”
“Then it can’t be ignored can it? I mean there seems to be a number of thunderbolts and plagues and wars in there for not doing some of that stuff.”
“Ok, but the new stuff . . . hmmm . . . you know how Einsteinian mechanics superceded Newtonian Mechanics so that Newtonian remained as a special case of Quantum Theory?” He gauged Josh’s blank look and changed tactics. “Okay, did your Dad have a Mark IV Thresher/Bailer?”
“Yeah!” He was on firmer ground here.
“And it replaced, what, maybe three other machines?”
“Yeah, the Mark II Thresher, the #718 Bailer and our old wagon.”
“Okay, did you use the new manual for the new machine, or the manuals for the old machines?”
“But sometimes you could find ways to tweak the machine in the old manuals that weren’t in the new manual right? ‘Cuz stuff was automated in the new, so it didn’t think you needed to know the details.”
“Yeah,” Josh mulled this over. “So the sanctuary is the new machine?”
“That’ll work for now. The people who attend are actually. But think about this: did your dad teach you all sorts of stuff that wasn’t in the manual about caring for the machine, how often to check the oil, toying with the clutch in cold weather and maintenance schedules?”
“Yeah, and how to get the wheels unstuck or avoid ...”
“Okay!” Thomas held up his hand, “A lot of the stuff we do in the service, the stuff that isn’t in the books, is THAT kind of stuff. You don’t have to have it, you change it if it isn’t helping, but it gives you a routine to keep things running smooth.”
“Oh.” That put things in a different light. “You weren’t raised on a farm. How’d you know all that?”
Thomas sighed, “listening to Sean. He was an old farm boy. I didn’t realize how much of him had rubbed off on me.”
Josh didn’t know what to do except nod sadly. He still didn’t follow Thomas and Sean’s relationship. They seemed to have been friends, yet Thomas had clearly disliked some things about him, enough to hate him perhaps. Yet he respected him somehow. Watch, listen, wait.
“Confession? I thought that was something you did to the magistrate.”
Thomas tried to explain the concept of forgiveness to Josh, then contrition, then substitutionary atonement. He gave up. “Ok, if you do something wrong you have to pay for it, right?”
“I am!” Josh was indignant.
“So you are,” Thomas proceeded warily. He was finding it difficult to explain some things to Josh. Not because he was stupid, but because he was way too bright. “And who do you owe that to?
“The victim, legally, even if they’re dead. You owe them the things they could have done. And you owe their family, or employer.”
“You’ve read up on that, good.” He was amazed at how much Josh retained of what he read.
“So why do you tell the Magistrate about it then?”
Thomas thought a moment, “So he can be a witness for both sides, victim and accused, and help decide what is fair to pay, or if you have to pay anything.”
“Correct. Now if the Magistrate is out of town, who do you tell.”
Josh had seen this done last week; the priest sat in on the town council meetings, “His assistant, or the Sheriff, whichever the Judge appoints.”
“Correct. Now think of the priest as God’s assistant. He hears confessions, he’s a witness, and helps the person decide what is a good way to repay the debt, if he owes one.”
That was harder than it seemed, Josh thought later, after hearing several confessions. People felt guilty about the oddest things, but they wouldn’t confess to things he KNEW they did. He did his best to give them penance that seemed to fit the sin, but he was sure nearly everyone was somehow shocked by the things he asked them to do for repayment. It seemed obvious that if you’d lied to someone the thing to do was go back and tell them the truth and pay back whatever you got from them by lying. Men and women would ask to be forgiven their adulteries, but obviously had no intention of breaking off their affairs. But there was something worse bothering him at the end of it all. “Thomas, who do I confess to?”
The young priest looked at him solemnly. “Well, the Bishop, if he’s around, which he won’t be for some months, or... well, another priest.”
“You mean you?”
“Uh, in a pinch, yes.”
So he told it all — for the first time — to anyone.
“Let me get it straight then,” Thomas said afterward. “You’re in love with this Miriam, and you think she loves you, but she’s married. And you thought it was worth killing her husband to get his position, and maybe her.”
“Uh, yeah,” Luke had been more roundabout in his explanation.
“Idiot!” Thomas wasn’t his usual diplomatic self. “You must know that Samuel would have some sort of unpleasant duty set aside as insurance against his death. Or someone hired to revenge him if he was killed.”
“He did. That’s where I thought I had him, see. I was his avenger.”
Miriam was the most beautiful woman Josh had ever seen, though admittedly that was a pretty small sampling. She had long brown hair that she kept pulled back in a bright red ribbon. Her green eyes curved slightly at the corners, like a cat’s. She tended to wear her long dresses a little tight.
He’d been away from home for two months and his already slim frame was considerably thinner from living off what he could find in the woods. Working in Samuel’s fields had seemed like a good idea, even if the work was only temporary. Three months and the harvest was over. Three months of back breaking work, but it was steady meals and a roof and a little cash to hold back for emergencies. And it was time enough to fall for Miriam.
She rarely came out to the fields, but she was around often enough in the evenings, when the men would gather around a small fire to sing and swap stories. It took him a whole week to get up the courage to speak to her. She had a sweet, soft voice and piercing eyes and laughed at Josh’s jokes. She made a point, after the first night they talked, to sit where he could talk to her. He’d never had any woman pay so much attention to him. One evening Miriam motioned him away from the group and they walked through the orchard behind the house. In the fading light, Josh noticed that Miriam was crying.
What else could he do? He’d put an arm around her shoulder and she buried her head in his chest while he held her. She was young, Samuel was an older man. Her parents had arranged the marriage. She was desperate for attention, she said. And Josh fell, hard.
When the job had run its course, Josh thought about persuading her to leave with him. What did he have to offer though? He was planning on living in the woods or wintering up in the mountains. Miriam deserved rich surroundings and comfort. No, he’d need to find a way to make some money, then maybe he could free her from this prison. The last day of work, as Josh collected his final pay, Samuel had motioned him aside. Josh’s thoughts raced. He considered running. How much did the old man know? Samuel, however, wanted to offer him more work.
Talking to him up close for the first time, Josh realized suddenly that Samuel wasn’t really as old as he thought. His hair was thinning a little, his mustache had a few gray hairs, but he couldn’t have been over thirty-five. He was a quiet and thoughtful man and surprisingly gentle. He had a reputation for being tough. He was on the Merchants council, a group of businessmen who controlled all the local trade. A lot of the men were afraid him. Josh would have liked him if Miriam hadn’t told him how nasty he could be.
“Josh, would you be interested in doing a small job for me?” Josh replied he probably would. Working for one of the richest men in the area had to have advantages, he thought. Though the biggest advantage was he’d be near Miriam still.
He almost didn’t take the job for just that reason. Most rich men kept someone on retainer as insurance. The laws about assuming responsibilities were usually a deterrent, but there could be advantages to assuming a rich man’s place that offset any problems. That was why most of the wealthy kept a few unpleasant responsibilities in reserve. Unfulfilled promises, quests, or pilgrimages could all be legally enforceable means of keeping a killer from enjoying your wealth. And, if all else failed, it helped to have an avenger on retainer. If there was any hint that the killing was deliberate, the killer wouldn’t enjoy his new position for long. But an avenger had to be a secret position, know one could know who might be after them. It meant Josh would receive a regular stipend, but he had to stay away from the farm. Away from Miriam, that meant. Then he thought of a plan.
It was the next week, in the confessional, that he saw her. She came in the front, nervous and uncertain, and headed straight for the confessional. “Father, I must confess again,” she said once inside.
“Go ahead, Mir..my daughter,” Joshua was getting the lingo down. He yearned to let her know it was him, but he waited. “I have sinned ... um many times since my last confession. I . . . have committed adultery, I have lied to my husband, I have stolen from him.” Joshua listened open mouthed as she poured forth, in embarrassing detail, a list of infidelities and lies that would have made his uncle, the one who was a smuggler, blush.
“Well, Father?” He realized she had stopped talking. There was a space under the grate that a hand as small as hers could reach through. She reached through and touched his thigh. “The usual penance, Father?”
Joshua fell backwards. “Father?” there was alarm in her voice.
“Go,” he managed to get out finally. She moved back slightly, confused. “Get out!” he thundered, “Get out and don’t come back!”
He was still screaming after her long after she had disappeared out the doors.
He told Thomas about it later, reluctantly, since he knew of his regard for Sean. “That makes sense of some things, then,” was all he said as he turned away.
The next week was the worst. Samuel came in to confess. In the four months since Josh had taken Sean’s place, Samuel was the first person to realize immediately who he was. “Father, I need to talk to you.”
“Sir,” Josh was nervous, “are you sure Father Thomas . . .”
“No, I need to tell this to you. You were someone I always felt I could trust. Honestly, I can’t think of anyone who is better suited to take that imbecile’s place.”
“Look, you did me a big favor. I knew Miriam was seeing someone, but I didn’t know who for sure until I found out Sean was on his way to my place that night. You have no idea how hard it has been, she sneaks money out of my accounts. Probably thinks I don’t know.” He sighed heavily, “And always flirting. So many young men hanging around our place. I don’t know what to do. I guess I should have realized, a young girl like her flirting with an old man like me. If I’d realized. . .” He paused, “Look, that isn’t the main thing I came to talk about. I know you’re a good man. People know something has changed the last month or so here, but they don’t know what yet, they just know its good.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I wasn’t sure how I was doing,” Josh began.
“They will kill you.”
“Look, some people don’t LIKE good. You seem to be fair, you know what it’s like to be poor. You favor the real poor people in the food distribution. That doesn’t go over well with certain elements in town.”
“I don’t follow.”
“ You helped me, I’m going to help you,” and Samuel began to talk. And Josh listened.
The economy of the city was, in theory, based on official coin, backed by the crown. In practice, though, barter was a more effective means of getting what you wanted. Food, especially, could be effective leverage in getting something you needed. And a peasant might bend their conscience considerably for a sack of potatoes if they were hungry enough. Worse, food that was ostensibly destined for the poor seemed to find its way back to the rich. Samuel hadn’t been able to give him names, but it was easy enough to work out who was in charge of what when you had a thousand secret confessions to use as clues. Thomas had used the term ‘Machiavellian’ to describe Josh’s plans.
“You’re sure this will work?” Thomas was fidgeting nervously.
Josh was finding that priests had a subtle influence on people. Just walking into a room changed the tenor of conversations. Everyone would become slightly more formal, topics and phrasing would shift in subtle ways. Walking into a Merchant’s Council meeting had an almost electric effect. He had chosen to present his proposal at a meeting open to the towns people. There weren’t as many present as he’d hoped actually, but enough. He wanted witnesses.
“Can we help you Father?” A tall, gray haired man at the head of the long table asked him. That would be the Senior Council, Josh thought. He had been elected last year on promises to reform the council. So ar he had not accomplished much. There were fifteen other men at the table, including Samuel, who was eyeing him as warily as the others. Josh had asked his advice about what he would do, but had not told him the details of what he would do.
“Well, gentlemen,” Josh stood at the end of the table opposite the Senior. The table was as ornate as anything in the church, Josh noticed, but in considerably better repair. “It’s come to my attention that there are a number of inequities in our food distribution program and I wished to advise you of some changes I am making in the system.” He slid a paper across the table, members glanced at it as it was passed to the other end. “Because of recent drops in donations I am forced to reduce the amount of food available to certain parties. It was a hard decision who to drop from the distribution, I hate to leave out anyone who might be in need.” A few faces paled as they looked over the list. It contained the names of over 40 men and women who were routing their food ration back to the rich, or using it to fund various activities on their behalf. The Senior Council looked it over and frowned thoughtfully. He rarely attended services, but his wife frequently confessed. Josh was fairly certain that he was not directly involved in any of the improprieties, but he was at least aware of them and didn’t approve. He was counting on that.
“I understand that a new priest wishes to, um, make his mark on the community,” the Senior began. “Are you sure you have considered this carefully enough?”
“Yes, Sir, though it has been tempting to implement some of the things I’ve learned as soon as I learn of them. Did you know the penance law for adultery is almost as stiff as the murder penalty? An adulterer is required to take on the responsibilities of two marriages. Owes public restitution to all parties offended. It gets pretty complicated.” Several council members looked visibly ill. “Of course,” he added hastily, “I’ve seen no need to re-institute that at present. But did you know the penalty for stealing from a widow is to provide for her AND her children for life? I’m amazed at how strict the laws can be.”
The Senior Council actually looked amused. “I’m sure if the need arose you’d do the right thing.”
Josh thought they’d reached an understanding. “I’d do my best, Sir.”
“Well, thank you for advising us of your, ah, changes. I’m sure my colleges will do their best to support you. Perhaps we can pass a resolution to help with those low donations.” Josh noted the evil glares under some of the smiles of assent. He hoped he wasn’t causing more trouble than he could manage.
“Thank you, Sirs,” he said. Nodding to the Senior Council, “perhaps we can speak again sometime in less formal circumstances.”
The Council smiled, “perhaps.”
Next Sabbath was much like the last. A couple council members seemed to be absent. The Senior Council was there for a change. Thomas stood beside him as they prepared to precess to the front of the sanctuary.
“Thomas,” Josh paused a long time. Thomas waited quietly. “Thomas, if God were dead — if we killed him — we’d all have to take over his job, wouldn’t we?”
“I believe you already have.”
Koranger: a story
The most remarkable thing about Korangar-depending on who is defining "remarkable"-is how it began. It did not begin with a song. It did not begin with a word, either, or with a person. Korangar began with a feeling-and it has stayed that way ever since. Feelings, as anyone who has experienced them can attest, are tricky things. They change; they morph; they alter. They are overpowering, and subtle-tremendously useful, they are also a great weakness. Not to mention occasional pain in the-well, the heart.
But what feelings are most, are real. Many things, people, places and other phenomena claim realness these days. Some of these claims may even be true. But none of them are quite as real as feelings. As the number of philosophies, religions, and Facts at large today may suggest, there are many ways of looking at the world. the best of these point of views are, at their core, made of the same stuff, despite how different they may appear on the surface.
What holds them together-and is, in fact, the source of any Truth they may contain-is also what feelings are made of. And this is a way of looking at the world so Real, so obvious and immediate and right, very few people are ever aware it Is at all. It's simply so us we can't identify with it-it's like trying to squint down your nose to your own mouth, or twirl about so fast you see the back of your own head.
So we come at it indirectly-through these different world views-and we bridge the gap with Feelings, which are both of That Which Is and have enough "objectivity" and world view-ness we can examine them consciously. And so it is appropriate that Feelings should be the beginning of Korangar, because Korangar is, like feelings, partly part of That Which Is, and part of the objectivity of self-examining world views. This also gives Korangar the unique prospect of a whole knew kind of power-derived from the power of dual nature of Feelings themselves.
Once upon a time there was a tiny kingdom called Korangar. Korangar was bordered on one side by the Sea, and mostly divided by a deep canyon. A great river crossed the country from end to end, giving life to the jungle, and the forest, and the wide plains, watering the very roots of the Rising Mountains. Somewhere in the heart of the land, no one could be exactly sure where, where the people were the truest and the earth itself seemed nearly alive enough to speak, there was a small castle with four great towers and three great wooden doors.
This castle was where the Princess lived. The Princess lived there all by herself, except when her friends came to call. The Jester came to make her laugh, and the sweet tempered, bashful woodsman delivered her firewood in the winter and helped her garden cooling, refreshing plants in the hot, blue sky summers. At night, she opened the window in her favorite tower, where she slept in a broad, four poster bed, and the beautiful sky sang her to sleep with wind lullabies and moonlight. But the Castle of Four Towers was a mystery to everyone--including the Princess.
During the days sometimes when there was nothing else to do, or she wanted a long moment alone in the shady coolness of the internal stone hallways, she wandered from room to room containing unfinished tapestries and half woven blankets, intricate designs left off in mid weave. No one knew where they came from, or why they were there, or how some sometimes vanished, and others would take their places.
One day the Princess was out for a walk in the forest. She did not stay on the path, or take any care where she was going; she never needed to. The Castle would always be there for her. But this time, as darkness began to descend, earlier than normal as the thick leaves and branches of the trees blocked out most of the sun from the dry, brown leaf covered forest ground, as the tired and thirsty Princess cast about for a place to rest, someone new and altogether entirely strange suddenly appeared before her. For all she could tell, he might have melted out of the very air.
"Good evening, Princess," were the strange man's first words. "And welcome--to Korangar."
The Castle of Four Towers, sitting for many crumbling ages in the land of Korangar, had no moat. Instead, it sat in deepest forest, surrounded, as far as the eye could see-which wasn't very far-and much farther than that, by giant, twisty trees, some with raised, gnarled roots, and some with branches that tangled like knots around other trees, and all with bark that was sharp, and musty, and seem to absorb all the light. There were pathways through the Tangled Maze, as the forest blockade was known, but where they might be or who had trespassed there and lived to spread the tale, none could say.
In each of the four great towers from which the Castle took its name lived a wizard. No one was for sure whether they ran the Castle or were its prisoners, but it was they whom everyone in Castle Country blamed for everything. When the crops failed, it was the Four Wizards fault. When the animals were birthed healthily, it was the Four Wizards fault. When it rained frogs and raindrops jumped from ponds to hop croakily along the ground, it was the Four Wizards fault.
Sometimes the accusations were even correct. But there was someone else who lived in the Castle, someone whom nobody knew about at all, not even in legend. It is with her that the story really begins.
Every cause has an effect, they say, but what is less well known is that not every effect has a cause. The Princess who lived in the Castle of Four Towers was one of these causeless effects, an accident of the love affair between Predictability and the Way Things Really Work, and at the moment, it did not concern her in the least.
Her current problem was geography, which was always a tricky subject at best in Castle Country, and her dilemma was compounded by the glare of her geography tutor, a glare frigid enough to make the dead shiver in their graves and roll over reaching for a blanket. Which is, of course, exactly what it was used for. Except on Mondays, when he taught the Princess geography, and annoyed the both of them into a tired, ill-mannered afternoon mood.
The Four Wizards of Korangar were the subject of many strange legends and eldritch rumor. Some say they are four brothers, locked in their separate towers until the Castle crumbles for misusing magic in an unforgivably horrid and evil manner.
Some say they are all quite mad, from when their magical experiments led them down paths and to places no mortal man was ever meant to see, and locked away to protect the outside world from themselves.
Other stories, the darker, more whispered stories, speak of the Nameless, of the Hunger, which they say was at the root and heart of magic in the old days, in the beginning; these stories claim that the Four, while possibly quite mad, are fulfilling the true function of a wizard-keeping the magic from happening, so the Nameless Hunger does not eat away the land and destroy everything in the world.
But about the Princess of the Castle there were no stories at all . . . . .
The Mushroom of Truth was an odd legend, but then, in Korangar, "odd" could only be measured relatively. With such unexpectedness and unique happenings cropping up every minute, any instrument made to measure oddity directly would most likely be reduced to vapor within minutes-or never manage to be made at all, which had been the case so far.
But however odd it was, it was also, more or less, true.
The mushroom of truth is said to sprout once a year. Each year it arrives in a different season. There is only ever one at a time-unless it is somehow the same one, over and over again-and it always crops up in a different place.
It might be large or small. It might be any variety of colors. It might or might not look like any other number of perfectly normal mushrooms. If any mushroom can be considered to be "normal."
The methods of tapping its powers change annually as well. You might need to stew it or bake it or pickle the stem and toss away the top; perhaps, or maybe not, it should be plucked by a male virgin of twenty two years of age at noon on a Saturday with only the third and fourth fingers of the left hand-but that one, most authorities agreed, was probably made up.
This pleased Tinkivus to no end, because it was he who had started that story, and it happened, for the moment, to be the only completely accurate one about.
The truth, Tinkivus had decided long ago, was a very dangerous thing to have on demand, and so it ought to be as difficult to get at as possible.
And he should know-being, as it were, the Truth Guardian.
Somewhere there is a place where silver-white moonlight touches a deep green sea; where the stars are faded and wise, and with each falling one send messages of goodwill and wisdom to the people below. And it is there, in a rock castle in the middle of the sea, that the Magic dwells-and this is the life of the King.
Elsewhere, in a dark, dirty city surrounded by blackness, someone is stealing the stars, one by one. The thievery leaves the sky barren, a sagging dank blanket thrown over the empty husk of the world.
In a new-where, someone is building with the stolen stars. It is a cage, bright and terrible, made strong by the slavery of the stars. And then, with careful ease and endless malice, someone places the cage of the new-where over the life of somewhere, in the middle of the deep green, moonlight-touched sea. Everywhere, at that moment, something died. And long after, for the life of them, the people of Korangar could not remember what.
The city was dirty. Dark, oily. Moonlight wouldn't touch the place, choosing instead the lesser evil of getting lost in the roiling clouds that charged and skidded across the starless sky. That was the thing about this place.
The part that really got to you. Besides the stink, and the glowering in habitants, more than the dreadful weight of the shadows, and worse than the murky sunlight that filtered down from the cloud-crowded sky during the day-there were never any stars. But no one would say anything. No one looked at the sky here.
The land is lost, and needs a king. Or a queen. Someone. People are dying, and the night is turning fetid. Somewhere, a castle is burning. Brightly, with light and with flame, and it is not consumed. The Queen's Life is in the castle. But who can find the Castle?
Up and down, went the hills. Up and down. Like green waves frozen, the curves and dips, the mountains and valleys, were silent and still in the blue, pre-dawn light.
The giants were asleep.
You could just see the curve of her head, and the long spill of gnarly green trees suggested the elegant twists of long, braided hair. Two ridges, where her two legs curved at the knee, curved around the Rift of Avdan. Her feet seemed buried into the earth, as if it were a pair of slippers, and her arms cradled her head, causing the rising and falling of the land up to the rounded peak of the mountain, the crown of her forehead. She slept, and her breathing was one with the land, so as not to disturb the fragile creatures who walked so precariously in the Green Land, unawares...
“I am aware,” thought the watcher from the window.
But the sun was rising in its usual dazzling, flashy displays of molten gold, and all the mystery, all the life, was sucked from the view once more. There were no giants in the earth. There never had been. Merely the echo of their form, lovingly carved from the willing soil and rock, when the world had been remade in the Long Ago, to honor the fallen dead.
The watcher shook her head, and turned from the view. There were no giants in the earth, no matter how long she might look or how much she might pray. Even in a world of fantasy, the watcher knew, the longing for more, for the unimaginable imagined, ached still.
This is the story, of Koranger, and everything hidden within . . . .
She was nervous as she walked to the edge. Peering over, her heart and mind both reeling. She fought back the urge to turn and refuse. Sure, she thought, she could swim, and, yes, she knew there was nothing to be afraid of really, it was just water after all. But she had never jumped from this high before, or this deep. Especially not this early in the year, not that any of the others had either. . . but still . . . Again she steps closer to the edge, leaning out to grasp the rope. Her heart began racing, along with her mind. Could she do it? Could she possibly jump in the deep end? It was so dark, so deep, so taboo. . . Closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, her fingers curling tighter around the rope, she leans back, testing its strength. Bracing her arms, feeling the smooth cool limestone beneath her toes as she slides back , back against the face of the cliff, the rope pulling taut. Still unsure she can handle this, still unsure she can manage, she takes that one last deep breath, and with that breath of surrender, she glances at the clouds drifting overhead peacefully, she runs, and then leaps. Spinning out over the water she lets go. Dropping. Dropping through the air, dropping off the cliff, almost dropping out of reality it seems. No chance to turn back she realizes as the ropes end slips through her fingers. She lets out a quick scream of exhilaration, as delight and terror mingle becoming one, the cool air rushes against her before she plunges into the dark, deep abyss. As she resurfaces, shivering uncontrollably, she can’t help but laugh. Come on in guys, it's not THAT bad . . .
she was creative in a lazy and self critical kind of way. but sometimes the words just had to come. it was a bit of a love-hate relationship. sometimes you just need a lollipop, she thought. a big red one. with the tootsie roll center. sometimes you just need one. if you were a certain kind of person, you would suck on it for a bit, and then when it was all nice and slobbery, chuck it at the nearest person with long pretty hair and make a run for it. if you were a certain different kind of person, you would try to count how many licks it really takes. some people would probably try to get into the Guinness book of world records with the fewest number of licks. or the greatest. there would probably be a time factor in there somewhere, for the truly hardcore. and some people would chew them, like prickly, tasty glass, and utterly ruin their teeth. then others would just eat them... normally. but then again, she thought, watching the people with their suckers all around here, what exactly is normal, again? what kind of average can you possibly get out of every person doing something similar but not the same and then everyone doing something utterly different? do things exist, or is it all in our heads? or is what's in our heads... real and objective, as well? ahh, that ancient split. subjective/objective. my old friend. my old enemy. welcome, welcome. make yourself at home. wipe your feet on the mat. let's talk. have a lollipop...
The child is small and blonde. Her pale face still holds an echo of her laughter, but now she is serious, her attention caught by something new and puzzling. The wind pulls at her wispy hair and the hem of her striped tank top, pulling her back to her laughing friends, the slides, the merry-go-rounds. But she does not move.
She stands up the hill from the playground, watching a bench.
There is an old woman with long brown hair on the bench, sitting cross-legged on its uneven seat, blowing tiny bubbles from a miniature wand. The girl watches the bubbles float towards her, entranced by the sunlight and the grass-sweet smell of the wind; and the strange reflections in the bubbles, the light and the curve of their wall capturing perfect imitations of the trees and clouds, whole little worlds, half the reflection upside down, drifting, drifting—
She reaches out a hesitant finger, and for a small moment, no longer than it takes to blink, her finger holds the bubble, the way a flower holds a butterfly.
With an almost unheard pop the bubble vanished in a tiny spray of soap, and the moment was broken. The girl raised her eyes and—
Gasped. The old woman was looking right at her. Without thinking, she had followed the bubbles right up to the bench.
The old woman and the young girl stared at each guardedly for a time.
"Why are you out here all by yourself?" the little girl inquired suddenly, in a tone of voice that suggested quite clearly that was a very silly thing to do.
The old woman raised one eyebrow, and the look on her face was strange. Then she pursed her lips, sort of smiling, with a little "Hmph."
"Where are your friends?" the little girl inquired again.
The old woman smiled widely, but she did not look very happy. "The bubbles are my friends," she said, gesturing broadly to the few bubbles still floating precariously on the air.
The blonde child wrinkled her nose. "Okay."
The old woman regarded the young girl thoughtfully, absentmindedly blowing more bubbles from the small wand. She blew softly, carefully, her lips a perfect "oo," and the bubbles swirled out in perfect single file, catching the sun and shining like the sea.
"Why don’t you sit by the playground?" the little girl asked after a minute.
The old woman did not smile. "I’m too big for the playground," she said. Another stream of bubbles.
"Why don’t you go back to your friends," the old woman suggested, looking away from her young questioner, examining the bubble bottle. "They’ll be missing you."
Instinctively, the little girl turned her head—sure enough, her friends were shouting to her, barely heard from this distance, dancing about and waving their arms wildly trying to get her attention.
"Yeah. We were playing," she said. But she made no move to leave. She turned back to the old woman. "How old are you?" she wanted to know.
"Do I look that old?"
More bubbles. "Today I am thirty one."
The young girl giggled, and kicked the grass with her shoe, squirming where she stood. "That’s old!"
"Yes," agreed the old woman. "Too old for the playground."
"That’s sad," the young girl announced. She chewed her lip for a moment, looking sideways back down to her friends. Then she announced with confidence, "I’ll never be too big or too old."
The old woman smiled wryly. Her voice was soft: "One can always hope."
The little girl pointed at the old woman’s bubble container. "You’re almost out of friends."
The old woman’s smile faded. "Yes."
"Does that make you sad?"
"Wouldn’t you be sad if your friends left?"
The little girl considered. "Yes. I’d be bored." She looked sharply into the old woman’s face. "But those are bubbles. You can buy more."
The old woman met her gaze with sad grey eyes, and shook her head sadly. "No… no, these are the last."
The little girl looked back uncomprehendingly. "But what about after?"
The old woman blew another stream of bubbles, more slowly than the others, as if she wanted to count each of them at the moment of their creation.
"When the last bubble is gone…"
"MARHSA! Marsha Elizabeth!"
The little girl’s eyes went wide and she stared down the hill at her irate father. "Gotta go!" She took off down the hill, stumbling, and turned to call over her shoulder. "Goodbye!"
The old woman watched the young girl tumble her way down the hill into her father’s arms. She looked down at the almost empty bubble container, and the flimsy plastic wand still in her hand. She started to raise it to her lips, but—with another "hmph" she stuck it back in the bottle and screwed the lit shut tight with one decisive, angry twist.
Time passed. Twilight fell, and the long grey shadows began their usual conquest of the playground. The clouds of the afternoon seemed to just melt away, and that night the naked stars blazed down in all their cool ferocity on the swings and the merry-go-rounds and the benches.
The sun rose the next morning to an equally clear and vivid day, and by late afternoon the heat had mellowed into an idyllic, lazy-June warmth.
The little girl with blonde hair and a striped tank top was the first to jump out of the van, leading the way for the rest of her friends, shrieking with laughter, into the park. Each of them held a tiny bubble container, and they blew furiously, twirling about and waving their arms in the air, until the whole place was filled with dancing bubbles.
Struggling to catch her breath, the little girl, still laughing, ducked out of the center of the bubble storm, sitting for a moment on the warm metal of the merry-go-round. For some reason, she glanced up, over her shoulder—
The bench at the top of the hill was empty. But—she squinted, trying to make sure—just visible, glinting and twirling in the sunlight, a lone bubble floated. She watched until it drifted out of sight.
"TAG! You’re it!"
The little girl squealed jumped up, dropping her bubble bottle in the process. "Not fair! You sneaked up on me!" she shouted, chasing after her friend.
One by one the bubbles drifted away, snagging on swings or trees, as the children raced about in a madcap game of tag, arguing over who was It, and forgetting them.
The last of the bubbles from Marsha’s open, dropped bottle spilled out into the dirt, a dark patch of wet. The hot sun soon made sure the mess was gone.
The little red light on the phone was flashing, and she watched it. Her hands fisted together, pressed against full lips. An incoming call. The one they were waiting for. The one that would change everything. But she didn't move. Instead she watched it blink on and off, secretly hoping that it would stop and give her some more time. It did. The flashing ended and she exhaled a soft sigh, ruffling the paperwork piled on her desk.
"They're going to call back." A cool voice floated from behind the chair, next to the darkened windows. It was as familiar to her as her own voice, and she had long ceased being startled at its ability to pop up out of no where.
"And you're going to have to answer it this time." The shadows shifted and the body belonging to the voice stepped into the light. Its black tailored suit a seamless extension of the darkness.
"I know." She replied, leaning back in her chair with a heavier expulsion of breath. "But that doesn't make me want to answer it."
The advisor smirked and the light caught in its eyes, flashing like steel. In that moment the red light started to blink again.
"This is the end of the game, my dear. We've been playing it too long to back out now. It's the bargain you made. Not answering the phone isn't going to change anything."
She looked at the advisor, the comrade, the stain against the darkness, and then back at the phone. It was true, she couldn't change anything now.
Reaching out she plucked the phone up and brought it to her ear with a simple, "Yes?"
It was a field line and crackled with static, but it was clear enough to hear what needed to be heard.
After a few moments she answered a soft "Fine" and put the receiver back into its cradle. Thick silence followed for a moment and then it broke.
"Their final defense fell. Our people broke through and took them. It's over. We won."
A smirk spread slowly across the advisor's face, and she knew that It had known. "You won." It said, and its white teeth glinted in the fire light, sharp and deadly.
"Come now, my dear." The advisor said, reaching for her hand. She let It pull her up from the desk and towards the door. "It's time to reap what you sow."
She walks in circles, damned and alone. Her center point is a rock, the very rock she slides her fingers upon as she walks. The ground beneath her has eroded away, nothing but sand beneath her toes. Nothing but nothing as she would like to say.
It's a desert around her, a land of waste. It once stood strong, once stood proud, but now it's gone. Erased from the very ground she walks upon. The memories of what were are the only things she holds on to, fearful of those memories slipping away. Nothing else matters, nothing else pains her so, just the memories of what use to be.
She walks to forget, to erase the memories and the pains in her heart. She walks in her circle forcing the memories of pain to dissipate. With each lap something is lost, with each step something is gone. It's a never ending cycle, of pain and remorse, as she walks to forget, walks in only one course. She knows the tears are falling, she knows she can not stop them. They hit her cheeks and tumble to the ground, to be lost in the nothingness, like everything else.
The rock has obtained a groove, from her fingers against it's surface. A groove so deep her hand is almost lost. All the pain, all the suffering, it has all gone into the rock. The rock has its own path, one carved into it's side. It matches that of his owner as she walks along side. It knows nothing of her pain and her suffering, only that he's bound to her, and that he's helping her continue on.
The world has lost her in its own pain, forgetting the child it placed upon its surface. She's damned to walk, in that big circle, forgetting the past, forgetting the people. Her family is gone and she is alone, there is nothing for her to do but walk. Walk in circles, walk in dirt. The dirt left from the surrounding world piling in on her. Her tears help, to remove the dust, but it's still piling, burying her alive.
There is no escape from this hell. She knows no way out and truly, she would rather not find one. She's ok with where she is, knowing the world is caving in on her has brought her some kind of peace. It's not hope in her heart, but it's a form of knowing it will be ok. She's not going to live, she's not going to die, but she knows she going to survive this miserable pain for one more day, only to repeat the cycle. Trying to think of the future is lost to her, for she knows if she does it will all be lost, even the memories of what was she holds on to dearly.
Her fingers will hit the center of the rock one day and it's unstable weight will cave in on the ground beneath her. She will collapse, she will die. She will be in pain, and she knows it. It is just another thing that nags at her brain. Everything except for what was, and what she hopes will come is shoved away. There is no room in her heart anymore for her pains and her regrets for she has vowed to let them go. Let them float away and find someone else to cause torment in.
She hopes there are others, people unlike herself. Ones that can steer off of their never ending course to find a better light. She's stuck where she is, and she knows it it because of free will. The idea of walking off has come up but once, shoved away instantly. No reason to abandon what you know, no reason to leave it behind. Why die fighting, when she can forever live in solitude? A solitude that of course causes pain, but what does not?
Her tears fall, soaking her clothing. She finds herself regretting her decisions which is something she vowed never to do. Sighing she glancing at her fingers, at the groove they have caused. A simple movement, that is all that is needed. There is nothing physical holding her to the surface, nothing keeping her there. Her path is pretty deep but she can find her way out, all she has to do is lift her fingers from its surface.
Glancing away and out at the sky she sighs and closes her eyes. If only she was strong enough, if only. Without thinking, without stopping her circle she lifts her fingers from the surface for a moment. The hellish screams in her head are enough to drive a man insane, drive him to his knees. It's a thousand storms ripping apart her insides, it's a million people screaming out their lungs. It's the world complaining about her stopping, it's the world forcing its pain on her. After a brief second of the screaming in her head she caves. Screaming out herself she places her fingers back on the rock as she continues on in her path. The tears flow freely, as she smiles a little.
No escape, no need to try. The world won't let her, forcing her back into the constant path. She is destined to die, and die she will. There is no fighting, there is no escape. She is stuck. Stuck in this hell. Alone. Damned. Broken.
“These words keep running through my head, the things you didn't say and the things I did, don't you remember what we said”
Lullaby was sixteen when I met him,that delicious day in June. Swaggering and deliciously naïve, a just-ripe strawberry of a person. Tanned orange by the sun that shone over the backwoods and horribly color coordinated in boots too big and old overalls. I laughed at him and in my mind called him a child, though I was his junior by eight months and two days.
Mama said I always acted older than I was. Old acting and sad looking, but with nothing in my head but dreams and fluff. The home of a thousand clichés of bad acting and ten-penny writing. But what do I know? Maybe that's how some things are meant to be. But we always want our own world to be the exception to the general condemnation.
I distract myself with these pseudo-philosophy generalizations. A few university courses and I had it all.
That summer, four years later, Sunset came back into my life. We traded our few sweet memories, dug out a few dusty photographs, and he vanished back into the city fog. I watched him go, in his button up shirt and clean jeans and just-the-right-size tennis shoes, and I wondered what I was doing there.
They always say, ‘the rest, as they say, is history.' But history is a myth, created by the backwards-looking people with hindsight glasses, the ones who pick over the battlefield after the vultures and garbage trucks have flapped and rattled away, pretentious fifty dollar ink pens and leather-bound notebooks in hand. The rest isn't history. It's now. It's decisions and judgment calls and anxiety nightmares at two a.m.
And it's a little bar on Third Street called The Pickled Gum.
“She sends me postcards of the songs she's writing
I want to write back, say, baby keep fighting
But pens are hard to hold while driving these roads
Fingers tapping the top of the steering wheel
God this can't be the way to feel
Running away from myself, afraid
of what I'll find inside today
Running from you and what you mean to me
Running from the ones who refuse to see”
The noise was deafening. They called it a bar, but with the jukebox going it and the floor packed, it did a reasonable impersonation of a seedy, low-class club. But the smell-the smell defied classification. The first face-full of secondhand smoke hit me like a scratchy blanket, the borrowed-from-a-friend-of-a-friend kind on mosquito-infested camping trips that make you itch all over and your eyes start to water. Even the lenses in my glasses felt cloudy and contaminated. I more waded than walked in, feeling stuffy-headed and slow and terribly inadequate for the task of dealing with the crowd.
But this was where Roshenka went most Friday nights, and this particular Friday night I was in need of her particular brand of psychological therapy.
“Shenka!” I called, spotting her spiky, orange, neon-green tipped hair in a far corner, surrounded by a dozen dirty looking, and undoubtedly smelly, men. “Shenka!”
Her high pitched, ear-grating squeal of laughter pierced through the cotton walls of the din, and several sharp glances-some amused, some not-shot in her general direction. “Oh, Billy, you're a doll!” she cooed. I turned sideways to squeeze between the fringe members of two separate tightly-packed groups of drinking buddies, sucking in my stomach and rolling my shoulders to avoid touching anyone. This was almost not going to be worth it, this time.
“Sunny!” Shenka shouted then, spotting me edging towards her table. Only she would ever dream of calling me ‘Sunny.' “You are a doll, come meet my new friends! This is Billy, Dave, and-“ she giggled, false and high and above all, drunk, and put on what was probably meant to be a “posh” accent–“Charles the Astronomer. I'm so glad you came!!”
And only Shenka, I thought, could find a third rate astronomer in The Pickled Gum, and lump him in with Redneck # 1 and Wannabe Cool # 3.
“Hi,” I said in a deliberately bored and “not interested, thanks,” voice, and took advantage of the group in the next door booth's sudden urge to dance to stand on the newly empty seat and hop over into Shenka's booth, successfully securing a sitting place without having to crawl over any strange men.
Shenka gave me a depressingly alcoholic-smelling hug, bony arms barely folding around me in that awkward not-really-touching-you position that makes elbows stick out like chicken wings. “So glad you could come!” she trilled again, and turned back to her rapt-or more likely, too booze-dulled-to-turn-away-admirers.
“Lullaby, Lullaby, bring my baby home tonight
Snapshot of a life, lyrics in the spotlight, did you get it right? Gonna sing it all night
Lullaby, Lullaby, bring my baby home tonight
Sunset and Lullaby driving the road, Sunset and Lullaby on their way home
Forget it, forget it, I never should have
Remember me, remember me,
love until the end”
In the middle of nowhere, on the fourth day without Sunset, I began to question the wisdom of my last fifteen decisions. The problem with hiding is that you have to come out eventually.
Lullabye looked down on the photograph in his hand with a fond smile on his face. It was an old picture, its corners torn and the edges roughened by time, as well as from being slid out of his wallet one time too many, only to be fingered for a few minutes and slid back inside. He had a special place for it, right behind his library card, in one of those little pockets made especially for credit cards. It fit perfectly, like a hand in a glove.
If he remembered correctly, and he knew he did, the picture it was taken in late June, in the park down by the lake, on the day of her brother's birthday. He had just bought a new camera. It was one of those big, black ones, with an adjustable lens and film you actually needed to send in to get developed. Not like these new, modern digital cameras, with hard edges and a silver coating. He'd never quite gotten used to the idea of taking hundreds of pictures, only to delete most of them. It felt wrong, somehow. Took some of the charm away from photographing.
The one in his hand was of his earlier work. He vaguely remembered experimenting with a sepia filter, at the time he had not known what he was doing, but it had turned out splendidly, rendering the picture a lovely shade of golden brown. He had to smile and shake his head when he thought back to that day, and the boy he used to be. Tall and lanky, with limbs growing in every direction. He had a pair of steel-wired glasses on his nose, a size too big so he kept having to push them up. And always with a camera around his neck. His mother used to tease him, saying it was a wonder he even took it off to bathe. He must have looked ridiculous, but still Sunset, Sunny as she was fondly known, had smiled at him. It was the first time she had ever really looked at him, that day in June.
"Camera boy!" She'd called, laughing as she walked towards him from where she had been sitting with her family. They'd been having a picnic, in honour of the birthday boy, and Lullabye was only there by chance, having wanted to try his new camera on the beautiful scenery of the lake. Lullabye remembered looking up from where he'd been sitting, unable to comprehend that she was actually talking to him. "Yes, you," she had smiled, her eyes glittering with merriment. She was wearing a thin, white dress, her beautiful red hair pulled back in a loose ponytail by a white ribbon, and her eyes had been filled with light and summer, making them glow a soft brown beneath her freckled brow. She’d taken his breath away. Lullabye suspected she always would.
Lullabye looked down at the photograph again, admiring the way she looked, standing in the middle of the grass, flowers reaching up to frame her summer-tanned legs, and the wind caressing her curls, playfully teasing a few locks out of the neatly tied bow to dance around her face. In the background, he could see her parents sitting neatly on the checkered blanket they had brought with them, talking animatedly about something or another as they watched their two youngest, twins, play catch with a shaggy, brown dog. Further back the birthday boy was flying a kite, with the help of his older brother. It was a moment of pure familial bliss, made only more perfect by the rays of sun that illuminated all of them, and the tranquil backdrop that the lake made.
Smiling, Lullabye looked from the picture and to the wall, where an exact replica of the image smiled back at him. It was larger than the one in his hand, and less worn, but it was still the same picture. Sunny was the one who had asked him to take it, along with several other pictures from that day, so that her family would have something to look back on. She’d offered to pay him, he’d blatantly refused. Little did she know that taking her picture was his biggest fantasy. She was the ultimate model, perfect in every way. Taking pictures of the rest of her family was a price he was only too willing to pay. He’d taken many that day, and gotten them all developed, several copies and in several different sizes. They were all quite good, if he remembered correctly, but the one with Sunny—that one had always been special. Even her family had recognized that; it was the only one of the pictures that ever made its way inside a frame and onto the wall of the family home.