Nora woke to the sun streaming in the little dormer window in the attic bedroom. She stretched under the feather quilt and her feet encountered the cool air, an intoxicating contrast to the snug warmth of the bed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept so well and was reluctant to awaken fully and confront the day. She felt peaceful and rested, and oddly, at home.
Unfortunately that thought roused her to sit and frown, and look around the room. The dust was dancing in the sunbeams and rivulets of condensation trickled down the window panes. A small statue of an owl was silhouetted on the sill, and a pitcher of dried herbs or flowers, strands of spider webs sparkled like silver thread between the desiccated buds.
An old whicker chair in the corner was piled with folded blankets and bed linens, and the bookshelf behind it ~ Nora threw back the covers and padded over to the books. Why were they all facing the wall? The spines were at the back, with just the pages showing. Intrigued, Nora extracted a book to see what it was, just as a gentle knock sounded on the door.
Yes? she said, turning, placing the book on top of the pile of bedclothes on the chair, her thoughts now on the events of the previous night.
“I expect you’re ready for some coffee!” Will called brightly. Nora opened the door, smiling. What a nice man he was, making her so welcome, and such a pleasant evening they’d spent, drinking sweet home made wine and sharing stories. It had been late, very late, when he’d shown her to her room. Nora has been tempted to invite him in with her (very tempted if the truth be known) and wasn’t quite sure why she hadn’t.
“I slept so well!” she said, thanking him as he handed her the mug. “It looks like a lovely day today,” she added brightly, and then frowned a little. She didn’t really want to leave. She was supposed to continue her journey, of course she knew that. But she really wanted to stay a little bit longer.
“I’ve got a surprise planned for lunch,” he said, “and something I’d like to show you this morning. No rush!” he added with a twinkly smile.
Nora beamed at him and promptly ditched any thoughts of continuing her trip today.
“No rush” she repeated softly.
Clara couldn’t sleep. Alienor’s message asking if she knew anyone in the little village was playing on her mind. She knew she knew someone there, but couldn’t remember who it was. The more she tried to remember, the more frustrated she became. It wasn’t that her mind was blank: it was a tense conglomeration of out of focus wisps, if a wisp could be described as tense.
Clara glanced at the time ~ almost half past three. Grandpa would be up in a few hours. She climbed out of bed and padded over to her suitcase, half unpacked on the floor under the window, and extracted the book from the jumble of garments.
A stranger had handed her a book in the petrol station forecourt, a woman in a stylish black hat and a long coat. Wait! What is it? Clara called, but the woman was already inside the back seat of a long sleek car, soundlessly closing the door. Obliged to attend to her transaction, the car slipped away behind Clara’s back. Thank you, she whispered into the distance of the dark night in the direction the woman had gone. When she opened her car door, the interior light shone on the book and the word Albina caught her eye. She put the book on the passenger seat and started the car. Her thoughts returned to her journey, and she thought no more about it.
Returning to her bed and propping her pillows up behind her head, Clara started to read.
This Chrysoprase was a real gargoyle; he even did not need to be described. I just could not understand how he moved if he was made of stone, not to mention how he was able to speak. He was like the Stone Guest from the story Don Juan, though the Stone Guest was a giant statue, and Chrysoprase was only about a meter tall.
Chrysoprase said: But we want to pay you honor and Gerard is very hungry.
“Most important is wine, don’t forget wine!” – Gerard jumped up.
“I’ll call the kitchen” – here the creature named Chrysoprase gets from the depth of his pocket an Iphone and calls.
I was absolutely shocked. The Iphone! The latest model! It was not just the latest model, it was a model of the future, which was in the hands of this creature. I said that he was made of stone, no, now he was made of flesh and he was already dressed in wide striped trousers. What is going on? Is it a dream? Only in dreams such metamorphosis can happen.
He was made of stone, now he is made of flesh. He was in his natural form, that is, he was not dressed, and now he is wearing designer’s trousers. A phrase came to my mind: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky house.”
Contrary to Clara’s expectations ~ reading in bed invariably sent her to sleep after a few paragraphs ~ she found she was wide awake and sitting bolt upright.
Of course! Now she remembered who lived in that little village!
“It’s Thursday today,” remarked Star.
“Special subject the bloody obvious?” Tara replied rudely. “You should be on Mastermind.”
“Well, we were wondering what we were going to do to pass the time until Thursday, and here we are. It’s Thursday!”
“Are you losing your marbles?”
“Actually it’s you losing your memory,” Star sighed. “Remember the case?”
“The case we were working on!”
“Oh, that case! Well you can hardly expect me to remember that when it’s been such a strange week!” Tara was starting to get tearful and agitated.
“Look, Tara, the tests came back negative. You can stop worrying about it now. We can go back to normal now and carry on. And just in time for the rendezvous at the cafe on Main Street.” Star patted Tara’s arm encouragingly. “And what timing! If the results hadn’t come back yet, or we’d tested positive, we wouldn’t have been able to go to the cafe.”
“Well we could have gone and just not said anything about the tests,” sniffed Tara. “Everyone else seems to be doing what they want regardless.”
“Yes, but we’re not as morally bankrupt as them,” retorted Star.
Tara giggled. “But we used to work for Madame Limonella.”
“Is it a fancy dress party? I could wear my plague doctor outfit.”
Star rolled her eyes. “No! We have to dress appropriately, something subtle and serious. A dark suit perhaps.”
“Oh like my Ace of Spades T shirt?”
This is going nowhere fast, Star thought, but then had a revelation. A moment later, she had forgotten what the revelation was when the door burst open.
“Ta Da!” shouted Rosamund, entering the office with two middle aged ladies in tow. “I nabbed them both, they were lurking in the queue for the food bank! And I single handedly brought then back. Can we talk about my bonus now?”
One of the ladies piped up, “She said you’d be taking us out for afternoon tea at a nice cafe!”
The other one added, “We haven’t eaten for days, we’re starving!”
The first middle aged lady said, “Oh no dear, it’s September. I’m quite sure of that.”
“It’s funny,” he said, squinting his eyes. “Looks like the maze kind of fades out.”
“Oh yeah, that happens all the time. People lose interest you see, then it all but vanishes from their experience. Quaint, I know.”
Kahurangi, nicknamed Kahu, was trying hard to get interested, see if the structure would come back into focus. But there were more fun things around. He asked again to the guy who was selling pop corn at the entrance.
“T’is normal that people wander around with… well, pets? Look at this guy, with a piglet on a leash. It’s cute, don’t get me wrong, and probably more useful when you’re looking for truffles…”
“Pretty normal. Seems animal have a sense around this thing, or so it’s believed. Many will bring one and try again. Look, I buried my snake not long ago, it was getting tired I think. Not sure they make the best animals to cover ground there.” He continued “Are you buying me something or what?”
“Oh sure, give me that, and a bottle of water.”
He handed a crumpled bill of 5 and thanked.
“A word of unsollicited advice?”
Kahu noded “Sure.”
“See those piles of rocks over there, along the way?”
“Looks like inukshuks, are they? Strange place to find them though.”
“Yeah, you’ll tend to see more as you get along. People started to build them to pinpoint places they’d been, but over time, they became encampments, and people lost the will to move on.”
“Don’t stay too long around them.”
Kahu shrugged and moved along. The maze was starting to get in focus again, there was not a minute to spare.
The latex rompers were shaping her old body in a way she quite enjoyed. It was like being back in her… she counted on her fingers to be sure. To be even surer she counted twice. Yes! It was like being back in the sixties, especially with the choice of colours that had been made by whomever had made the rompers. Her silhouette looked gorgeous, if you didn’t pay too much attention to the bingo wings and the pelican throat. She laughed. It was like seeing a superposition of a younger and an older self. She would have loved the face of Ricardo if he saw her like that. And the beehive haircut, it certainly was a good idea. She wondered if she was still under LSD. But the walls and the beehive hair seemed too solid for that.
A sliding door that she had not noticed before opened.
“Good to see you’re settling in,” said the woman who entered with a puff of bacon smell. “I’m Barbara.” She was holding a tray with a steaming plate of sweet peas and carrots. Sophie always had a sharp eye but couldn’t see any real bacon among the peas and the carrots. She smiled to the newcomer anyway. Barbara had the same latex rompers with the same colours. And she had a beehive haircut.
“Hello! Barbara,” said Sophie. “I like that name. I knew a man once… well not that you’re a man. Are you? Anyway I see you have a beehive haircut too. Am I back in the sixties?” She realised she was a bit confused, not able to finish one sentence or follow a single narrative. But the smell of bacon was so unnerving.
Barbara put the tray on the table.
“Well, no,” she said to Sophie. “It’s just a haircut that I like and it’s very practical for all sort of things.” She reached into hers and got out a pen and a notebook. Sophie lifted her hand to her haircut.
“Do I have?..”
“No dear. But, I need your sign here… just a formality.” Barbara smiled and handed the notebook to Sophie along with the pen. Then she crossed her arms waiting. Her fingers were drumming on her soft pale skin and Sophie couldn’t help but notice that Barbara had six fingers on one of her hands.
“Where am I?” she asked.
“Mmm, it might be a hit. Sophie’s remote viewing has been right on spot even if odder and odder. I guess it fits with the intent of our… I mean your newspaper, doesn’t it?”
Ricardo looked surprised. Was it the recognition he was waiting for all these past months working hard behind the scenes. Not a promotion yet but… Or maybe, just because the usual writers Connie & Hilda weren’t around, off to somewhere only they had the secret.
“Still, you must admit, investigating an alcohol made of rillettes does sound rather ludicrous, even for this newspaper, or even for Sweet Sophie.”
“There might be more to cover, a tree hiding a forest. Besides, she was right about the reptiles falling in Miami during the cold snap! We missed that story… If only we’d jumped on it right away!”
“What else you need? I told you to get on with it, chop chop!”
“Maybe a promotion?…” he added tentatively.
“You’re already staff writer by default dear…”
“A raise then?”
“Don’t push you luck. And you’ll book those tickets to Chickasaw, Alabama in charter. We’re not rolling in the dough, like the Yanks say.”
“Cartwright and Wrexham Private Investigators, can I help you?”
“Do you do missing persons?” Vince asked, getting straight to the point. “Good, well then can I speak to a detective; it’s a very confidential matter.”
“My uncle Basil, he’s gone. He got in with that cult, and now he’s gone. They’ve seduced him with all that mumbo jumbo and hype and parlour tricks, I could see it coming, I tell you, I knew they’d take him.” Vince was becoming emotional. “And now he’s left me.”
“Well if it’s your uncle, he must be, how old? So what if he wants to join a cult?” said Star, wondering why he was being so melodramatic. “What?” she whispered to Tara who was pulling faces and shaking her head. “Oh, right!” she replied, getting the message.
“Now then Mr French, I’m confident that we can find your uncle. We have some experience with cults and know how they operate. If you’d like to make an appointment with our secretary to pop in to the office as soon as possible..”
“I’m a senior partner, not a secretary!” Tara hissed, taking the phone. Her anger subsided when she heard his voice. Where had she heard that voice before?
“Who can that be now!” exclaimed May as she made her way to the back door. A flustered looking woman in odd looking mismatched clothes was standing on the door step.
“I ’ave come to ’elp Finnley wiz ze bedding!” she said by way of introduction, “But I ‘ave lost my baby, ’ave you seen ’er? My name is Fanella. I ’ave come to ’elp Finnley wiz ze bedding, but I must find my daughter first!”
“You’d better come in,” replied May, wondering what to do. Until the right baby turned up, she could hardly give this woman her daughter back. But the poor woman was distraught, and May wanted to ease her distress. She would have to try to delay her somehow.
“There is no need to worry, er, Fanella, as it happens there is an unexpected baby girl visiting with the bosses son, but they are both fast asleep. They are quite safe, but I am not in a position to disturb them yet. Do sit down, you look exhausted. Let me get you a drink.”
May handed her a glass of wine. “How on earth did you manage to lose your daughter?”
“I was just about to ring ze bell but I was so nervous I ’ad to pee so I ran quickly be’ind ze bushes. And when I ’ad finished, my baby was gone!” Fanella started to weep.
“And you brought your baby with you?” aghast, May wondered what to do next. Maybe this woman shouldn’t be given the child back after all. It had been a long night, with far too many babies.
I don’t know how I restrained myself from throttling Finly when she finally handed me the letter from Corrie. A whole week she’d had it, and wouldn’t share it until she’d cleaned every last window. Some peoples priorities, I ask you! The funny thing was that even when I had it in my hand I didn’t open it right away. Even with Mater and Bert breathing down my neck.
It was something to savour, the feeling of having an unopened letter in ones hand. Not that this looked like the letters we used to get years ago, all crisp and slim on white paper, addressed in fine blue ink. This was a bundle tied with a bit of wool pulled out of an old jumper by the look of it, all squiggly, holding together several layers of yellowed thin cardboard and written on with a beetroot colour dye and a makeshift brush by the look of it. The kind of thing that used to be considered natural and artistic, long ago, when such things were the fashion. I suppose the fashion now, in such places where fashion still exists, is for retro plastic. They said plastic litter wouldn’t decompose for hundreds of years, how wrong they were! I’d give my right arm now for a cupboard full of tupperware with lids. Or even without lids. Plastic bottles and shopping bags ~ when I think back to how we used to hate them, and they’re like gold now. Better than gold, nobody has any interest in gold nowadays, but people would sell their soul for a plastic bucket.
I waited until the sun was going down, and sat on the porch with the golden rays of the lowering sun slanting across the yard. I clasped the bundle to my heart and squinted into the sun and sighed with joyful anticipation.
“For the love of god, will you get on with it!” said Bert, rudely interrupting the moment.
Gently I pulled the faded red woolen string, and stopped for a moment, imaging the old cardigan that it might have been.
I didn’t have to look at Mater to know what the expression on her face was, but I wasn’t going to be rushed. The string fell into my lap and I turned the first piece of card over.
There was a washed out picture of a rooster on it and a big fancy K.
“Cornflakes!” I started to weep. “Look, cornflakes!”
“You always hated cornflakes,” Mater said, missing the point as usual. “You never liked packet cereal.”
The look I gave her was withering, although she didn’t seem to wither, not one bit.
“I used to like rice krispies,” Bert said.
By the time we’d finished discussing cereal, the sun had gone down and it was too dark to read the letter.
May took the brat down to the kitchen and gave him the pot of cold spinach to play with while she slipped outside to send a coded message to her fiance, Marduk. Barron happily commenced smearing globs of green mush all over his face, mimicking his fathers applications of orange skin colouring paste.
“We have a window of opportunity tonight,” May wrote. Actually she said “hu mana sid neffa longo tonga bafti foo chong“, which meant the same thing. “Slopi sala ding wat forg ooli ama“, which she knew Marduk would read as: “The kid will be in a big pot of spinach by the gate at midnight.”
“Forg ooli ama? keni suba?” he replied. With an impatient sigh May texted back “Sagi poo! And bring a spare set of clothes and a wash cloth!”
Now all she had to do was pack her suitcase, and keep the kid occupied for the next couple of hours. What she wasn’t expecting was a visit from Norma, who plonked herself down at the kitchen table, and started a long story about how underpaid and underappreciated she was.
May tried to hurry her along with the story, but there was no rushing Norma. She was firmly planted at the table for the duration of the evening. May did some quick thinking, and slipped a couple of fast acting laxative pills into the glass of wine that she handed to the maid, frustrated that no sleeping pills were easily found. They usually worked within a couple of hours, and with a bit of luck May could coincide her exit with Norma’s inevitable rush to the lavatory.
“امیدوارم که مؤثر باشد” May said to herself, and seated herself at the table to endure Norma’s long winded complaints. One hour and 43 minutes to go.
Lucinda handed in her assignment to Helper Effy with a satisfied smile. The first major confrontation, action, or dramatic event that came to her mind had surprised her. She had no idea where it came from, and only a vague idea about who the characters were, or indeed, where they were. But she felt the apple cart and bicycle scene was rather thrilling and had potential.
Barbara’s office was dead silent apart from the regular bips of the machines. The whiteness of the painted walls made it feel like a psych ward. She shivered away the memories that were trying to catch her attention.
It’s been two hours since the Doctor had locked himself up in his rage-release room, a spacious soundproofed room with padded walls. Not even a small window to look inside and check if his anger had subsided. Barbara clearly preferred the trauma of the shouts and cries and the broken plates that were hidden here and there for him to use when he needed most. But when he started his therapy with the AI psych module, the damn bot suggested he built that room in order to release his rage in a more intimate framework.
Now the plates collected dust and the sessions in the room tended to last longer and longer.
Today’s burst of rage had been triggered by the unexpected gathering of the guests at the Inn. The Doctor was drinking his columbian cocoa, a blend of melted dark chocolate with cheddar cheese, when the old hag in that bloody gabardine started her speech. The camera hidden in the eye of the fish by their agent, gave them a fisheye view of the room. It was very practical and they could see everything. The AI engineer module could recreate a 3D view of the room and anticipate the moves of all the attendees.
When that girl with the fishnet handed out the keys for all to see and the other girl got the doll out, the Doctor had his attention hyper-focused. He wanted to see it all.
Except there had been a glitch and images of granola cookies superimposed on the items.
“Send the magpies to retrieve the items,” he said, nervousness making his voice louder.
“Ahem,” had answered Barbara.
“What?” The Doctor turned towards her. His eye twitched when he expected the worst, and it had been twitching fast.
She had been trying to hide the fact that the magpies had been distracted lately, as she had clearly been herself since she had found that goldminer game on facebush.
No need to delay the inevitable, she had thought. “The magpies are not in the immediate vicinity of the Inn.” In fact, just as their imprinting mother was busy digging digital gold during her work time, the magpies had found a new vein of gold while going to the Inn and Barbara had thought it could be a nice addition to her meager salary… to make ends meet at the end of the month.
It obviously wasn’t the right time to do so. And she was worried about the Doctor now.
To trump her anxiety, she was surfing the internet. Too guilty to play the gold miner, she was looking around for solutions to her boss’s stress. The variety and abundance of advertisement was deafening her eyes, and somewhere in a gold mine she was sure the magpies were going berserk too. She had to find a solution quickly.
Barbara hesitated to ask the AI. But there were obviously too many solutions to choose from. Her phone buzzed. It was her mother.
“I finally found the white jade masks. Bought one for you 2. It helps chase the mental stress away. You clearly need it.” Her mother had joined a picture of her wearing the mask on top of a beauty mask which gave her the look of a mummy. Her mother was too much into the woowoo stuffs and Barbara was about to send her a polite but firm no she didn’t want the mask. But the door of the rage-room opened and the Doctor went out. He had such a blissful look on his face. It was unnatural. Barbara had been suspecting the AI to brainwash the Doctor with subliminal messages during those therapy sessions. Maybe it also happened in the rage-room. The AI was using tech to control the Doctor. Barbara would use some other means to win him back.
OK. SEND IT TO ME QUICK. she sent to her mother.
“Could you pass me the butter?” asked a strange fellow seated on Shawn Paul’s left. The man was odd, a bit looking like Captain Sparrow with his black jabot lavaliere shirt and golden earrings.
Shawn Paul felt awkward, the kind of awkwardness cultivated for many years with shyness and fear of social interactions. No wonder I wanted to be a writer, he thought. Nonetheless he handed the butter to the stranger. Could he be daring for a change and talk like his grandma always pushed him to do? The best remedy to shyness is to talk. Start by saying your name Shasha!
“My name is Shawn Paul,” he said, feeling the heat rise to his face. He gulped, unsure of what to do next. Should he talk about the morning weather?
“My name is Sanso,” said the man. “At your service,” he added waving his puffy sleeves. “Have you read the last article on _whateveralready_?
The cat behind them snorted. Shawn Paul looked at it. It looked grumpy and ready to talk.
“Don’t send Mandrake any food,” said one of the other guests, a woman wearing an indian looking outfit with a scarf hiding her hair. Something moved under the head scarf and a strand of red hair ventured timidly outside, soon followed by a lizard’s head. The woman pushed it back under her hood and emitted a disgusted grunt when she saw the meat dish brought by the maid.
“I’m not a maid,” muttered Finly to whomever could hear/read her, or to the writer. “It’s good liz… chicken,” she said. No need for the long faces.”
“But it’s dead, dear,” said the woman with the veil.
“The Godfrey silently prayed under the third moon,” was saying Sanso who didn’t seem to mind that Shawn Paul was not listening to him. “And he entered late inside the lake wearing a funny blue toge. Sanso realised Finly was looking at him her mouth reduced to a tight line. “And I followed with opened hope,” he finished before gulping a spoonful of butter.
“Do you happen to have a lock in your bedroom?” asked Sanso. The woman in the scarf looked at him with dark eyes. The lizard, seizing the opportunity to be free, jumped from under her scarf and landed into the gaspacho, splashing all the guests with a bit of red.
Fourty four hours and 3 stopovers later, Maeve was glad to have arrived at Alice Springs airport. It was fun to see that the further she went, the smallest the aircraft became. Until it wasn’t too funny, and got almost downright scary with the last small propeller plane, that shook so much it seemed out of an old Indiana Jones movie, sans flying chicken.
The airport was quaint and small, the way she liked, with a passageway shaded by large swathes of fabric reminiscent of Seville’s streets. The air was surprisingly fresh, and she wondered if she’d been too optimistic about the weather and her choice of clothes, considering it was still winter down here.
While she was waiting at the luggage belt, she discreetly observed the other waiting people.
Uncle Fergus always said she had to be observant. Besides, she had a natural eye for details.
Apart from the few Crocodile Dundees that screamed tourists who were waiting for their oversized luggage, she could spot a few out-of-place people. One in particular, that seemed to have followed the very same route since the first layover in Vancouver. Too strange a coincidence, and the fellow was too unassuming too.
“Maeve! MAH-EH-VEH” She jumped at the sounds. Almost didn’t recognized her own name, if she hadn’t recognized her neighbour’s voice first, and his peculiar way to pronounce it like she was a precious wahine.
“Shawn-Paul?! What on earth are you doing here?” She frowned at him “Have you been stalking me?”
“No, no! It’s not like that! I’ve received those funny-looking coupons, you see…”
“What? You too?”
Now, a second person following on her tracks even through a different combination of flights was more than a coincidence. It meant danger was afoot.
“Shouldn’t we carpool? I looked up the trail to the inn, it’s a long drive and by the looks of it, not at all too safe for a lone woman travelling.”
Maeve shrugged. That may keep the other creep off her trail. “I don’t mind, but if you insist on being so chivalrous, you’re paying for the taxi.”
Before he could say anything, she handed him her piece of luggage to carry.
The day had started uneventful, the perfect kind of day for Shawn Paul to write his novel. He had been quite productive concerning the numbers of characters written in total, but after a few erasing and correcting only one paragraph of a few lines remained. But he was very satisfied with what he had written.
Perfection will kill me, he thought. Looking at the piles of documents on his table, he felt tired. He looked at the unremarkable clock on his wall. It was eleven in the morning. Time for a tea. He got up from his desk carefully. He missed a step and inadvertently hit the wrong key combination on his keyboard. It closed his writing app without saving his work. Shawn Paul started panicking when the bell rang. Déjà vu.
This time it was the mailman.
“You’re a lucky winner. I need a sign.”
Shawn Paul signed and was handed a big envelop written “LUCKY WINNER!” all over it. There was barely enough room for his address. The young writer, almost author, feared to open it. It was reeking of distraction potential and it could put his novel in danger when it needed loving care… and a lot of discipline.
“Look,” said the mailman. “I have another one for your neighbour.” the man knocked at Maeve’s door and gave her the envelop in exchange for a signature. The young woman had no qualm about it and tore open the envelop. It was hard to read her expression when she got a plane ticket out and read the short accompanying note. She almost looked asian poker face at that moment. Her eyes went to the envelop in Shawn Paul’s hands, and he understood the question she hadn’t formulated.
He felt forced to open his own envelop and it was as agonising as tearing apart the last chance to write his unborn novel.
“What’s inside?” asked the mailman who was a curious fellow.
“A plane to Australia, and a voucher to the Flying Fish Inn.”
“Oh! I know that place, it was all over the news a few months back,” said the man. “I don’t need to envy you then,” he dropped before leaving Shawn Paul and Maeve in the corridor.
Her cat showed up and meowed. It was clear to the young man there was an interrogation point in its voice.
Before Mandrake jumped in the cold stream, he heard the dragon say “There, she’s here again. I can feel a steady pulse, at least once a day!”
“Quantity over audacity… Pray she keeps the pace and we’ll get this over quick” Mandrake handed the nearly empty bottle of Nhum to Albie who was fitted with a spare scuba diving gear, ready to take on a journey to find in which story Arona was… pulsing.
Fox had been out hunting wild geese for their diner.
He came back after sunset with three of them, golden. Glynis was sweeping the autumn leaves from the new terrace under the light of fireflies, an endless task. Fox handed her the golden geese.
“They look so beautiful, and so peaceful,” she said, “look at those golden feathers.”
“They are dead,” said Fox with a hint of bitterness. “I’m not plucking them”, he added with a frown.
“I know”, said Glynis. She looked at him with a puzzled look. “Come closer into the light,” she asked him. The fireflies also came closer as if they obeyed her. He came, trying to keep his head down. She touched the bruises on his forehead and tsked. He shivered with pain. “You’ve been fighting again.”
He said nothing. Instead he looked at the patio. The little rainbows were playing around Gorrash’s statue. Despite the sun being set, it was rock still. It had been broken during an attack by Leroway’s men. The shaman had tried to glue the pieces together and Fox had believed she could revive him. But it had remained still for months.
“I miss him too,” said Glynis. “But I’m sure he’s still there inside, or the little rainbows would not stay.”
“You know, a few months ago I would have believed you,” he started, “but it’s been months and nothing has changed.” Fox felt suddenly angry, at nothing and at everything. Anger was better than sadness or pain. But he didn’t want to hurt her so he grunted and walked into the house with the geese and without another word.
The maid looked tersely and visibly annoyed at the lanky unkempt guy with the crazy eye.
“Do not bloody psst me, Godfrey! I’m not your run-of-the-mill hostess, for Flove’s sake.”
“Alright, alright. Come here, and don’t make a sound!”
“Don’t sulk, dear. What I’ve found here is nothing short of a breathrough – pardon my typo, I mean of a breakthrough.”
“Oh Good Lord, spit it out already, and I mean it metaphorically. I haven’t got all day, you know,… places to clean, all that.”
“Look at that!”
Godfrey handed her a pile of typed papers.
“Well, what’s about it? It does look a bit too neat and coffee-stain free, but the style is unmistakable. Long nonsensical babble, random words and characters, illogical sentence structure and improbable settings… That’s all you have psst ed me for? Another of some old Liz garbage novels?”
“That’s it! Isn’t it genius?” Godfrey looked at Finnley with an air of sheer madness. “You know Liz hasn’t written in years now, nothing fresh at least. You’ve be one to endlessly complain about that. Something about needing the paper to clean the window glass.”
“Of course I remember.” She paused, considering the enormous improbability that had just been hinted at. “Do you mean it’s not hers?”
“Ahahaha, isn’t it brilliant! This is all written by a clever AI. I’ve called it Fliz 2.0 !”
Godfrey looked pleased at himself “and to think it only took Fliz 44 minutes to spit the entire 888 pages novel!”
In the white silence of the mountains, Rukshan was on his knees on a yakult wool rug pouring blue sand from a small pouch on a tricky part of the mandala that looked like a small person lifting his arms upwards. Rukshan was just in the right state of mind, peaceful and intensely focused, in the moment.
It was more instinct than intellect that guided his hands, and when he felt inside him something click, he stopped pouring the sand. He didn’t take the time to check if it was right, he trusted his guts.
He held the pouch to his right and said: “White”. Olliver took the pouch of blue and replaced it with another. Rukshan resumed pouring and white sand flew in a thin stream on the next part of the mandala.
After a few hours of the same routine, only broken by the occasional refreshments and drinks that Olliver brought him, the mandala was finished and Rukshan stood up to look at the result. He moved his shoulders to help relieve the tensions accumulated during the hard day of labor. He felt like an old man. His throat was dry with thirst but his eyes gleamed with joy at the result of hours of hard concentration.
“It’s beautiful,” said Olliver with awe in his voice.
“It is, isn’t it?” said Rukshan. He accepted a cup of warm and steaming yakult tea that Olliver handed him and looked at the boy. It was the first time that Olliver had spoken during the whole process.
“Thanks, Olli,” said Rukshan, “you’ve been very helpful the whole time. I’m a little bit ashamed to have taken your whole time like that and make you stand in the cold without rest.”
“Oh! Don’t worry,” said the boy, “I enjoyed watching you. Maybe one day you can teach me how to do this.”
Rukshan looked thoughtfully at the boy. The mandala drew its power from the fae’s nature. There could certainly be no danger in showing the technique to the boy. It could be a nice piece of art.
“Sure!” he said. “Once we are back. I promise to show you.”
A smile bloomed on Olliver’s face.
In the white silence of the mountain, Lhamom sat on a thick rug of yakult wool in front of a makeshift fireplace. She had finished packing their belongings, which were now securely loaded on the hellishcarpet, and decided it was cooking time. For that she had enrolled the young lad, Olliver, to keep her company instead of running around and disturbing Rukshan. The poor man… the poor manfae, Lhamom corrected, had such a difficult task that he needed all his concentration and peace of mind.
Lhamom stirred the content of the cauldron in a slow and regular motion. She smiled because she was also proud of her idea of a screen made of yakult wool and bamboo poles, cut from the haunted bamboo forest. It was as much to protect from the wind as it was for the fae’s privacy and peace of mind.
“It smells good,” said Olliver, looking with hungry eyes at what Lhamom was doing.
“I know,” she said with pride. “It’s a specialty I learned during the ice trek.”
“Can you teach me?” ask Olliver.
“Yes, sure.” She winked. “You need a special blend of spiced roots, and use pootatoes and crabbage. The secret is to make them melt in yakult salted butter for ten minutes before adding the meat and a bucket of fresh snow.”
They continued to cook and talk far all the afternoon, and when dusk came Lhamom heard Rukshan talk behind his screen. He must have finished the mandala, she thought. She smiled at Olliver, and she felt very pleased that she had kept the boy out of the manfae’s way.
Fox listened to the white silence of the mountain during that brief moment, just after the dogs had made it clear, despite all the promises of food, that they would not help the two-leggeds with their plan.
Fox sighed. For an instant, all felt still and quiet, all was perfectly where it ought to be.
The instant was brief, quickly interrupted by a first growl, joined by a second and a third, and soon the entire pack of mountain dogs walked, all teeth out, towards a surrounded Fox. He looked around. There was no escape route. He had no escape plan. His stomach reminded him that instant that he was still sick. He looked at the mad eyes of the dogs. They hadn’t even left the bones from the meat he gave them earlier. He gulped in an attempt to remove the lump of anguish stuck in his throat. There would be no trace of him left either. Just maybe some red on the snow.
He suddenly felt full of resolve and camped himself on his four legs; he would not go without a fight. His only regret was that he couldn’t help his friends go home.
We’ll meet in another life, he thought. Feeling wolfish he howled in defiance to the dogs.
They had stopped and were looking uncertain of what to do next. Fox couldn’t believe he had impressed them.
“Come,” said a voice behind him. Fox turned surprised. On the pile of his clothes stood Olliver.
“How did you,” he yelped before remembering the boy could not understand him.
“Hurry! I can teleport us back to the camp,” said the boy with his arms opened.
Without a second thought Fox jumped in Olliver’s arms and the next thing he knew was that they were back at the camp. But something was off. Fox could see Rukshan busy making his mandala and Olliver was helping him with the sand. Then he could see Lhamom cooking with the help of another Olliver.
Fox thought it might be some case of post teleportation confusion. He looked at the Olliver who helped him escape an imminent death, the fox head slightly tilted on the side, the question obvious in its eyes.
“Please don’t tell them,” said Olliver, his eyes pleading. “It just happened. I felt a little forgotten and wanted so much to be useful.”
Fox turned back into a human, too surprised to feel the bite of the cold air.
“Oh! Your clothes,” said Olliver before he disappeared. Fox didn’t have time to clear his mind before the boy was back with the clothes.
The entrance to the cellar was in the library, just behind a book shelf that had been pushed away. How convenient, Godfrey thought.
“Roberto has been busy,” he said, appreciating the new little wheels under the elm wood bookshelves. He tried it several times and saw that the wheels were perfectly oiled and made no sound.
“Too oily,” said Finnley tutting disapprovingly at the stains on the wooden floor. She was already thinking of buying a new carpet, or maybe a new puppy that would help her dust the floor as it followed along. It would have to be small and energetic. Not too energetic though.
Liz was fascinated by the door. It was an old door, carved certainly in oak wood and painted with oddly hypnotic patterns. She looked at the tonic glass she still had in her hands. “Did you put something in my tonic?” she asked. The glass pigheadedly refused to focus on the bottom of her eye.
“I think it was empty,” said Godfrey. “Or at least it is now.” He took the glass from Liz and came back quickly, not wanting to miss the opening. He handed a pair of pink and shiny scissors to Liz who glanced at them and then at Godfrey with a puzzled look.
“Do you expect me to cut your hair?” Liz asked him. “I think you should have your hair cut,” she added because it seemed to crawl and wave on his head. She looked at Finnley. “Yours too, dear, I’m afraid.”
Finnley’s lips and eyes thinned as she tried her sharp face on Liz who cackled, and Finnley just shrugged and tutted again.
“Well, use them to cut the red ribbon of course.” Godfrey nodded in the direction of the door and Liz saw that there was a fluffy red ribbon sagging between the side shelves and barring the entrance to the cellar. How come she hadn’t seen it before.
She took the scissors and winced when the sound of the cutting resounded like nails on a blackboard, and for a moment she shuddered as the face of Sister Clarissa and her magnifying goggles popped out of the door. A horrendous sight, if you asked her. Liz had always suspected that their only use was to traumatise the students. She had forgotten she went to a catholic school.
The door was finally opened, and Liz hoped what they found downstairs would not bring up more of those memories.
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