Seedling Sapling Tree: a Story in a Few Parts

Seedling, Sapling, Tree: a Story in a Few Parts

By Beth Hopkins

For my friends

Part One: Seedling

Seedling was somewhere dark and damp.  She had been there for quite a while when she felt something brush past her.

“Hello!” she called out “Who is there?”

“I am Worm,” came the voice from somewhere very near Seedling. She nearly yelped in surprise, but contained herself.

“I see,” she began, “Well, to be precise, I understand. I don’t see you a bit. It is difficult to see much of anything around here.”

“That it is, Miss,” Worm answered.

“I am Seedling Sapling Tree,” she said. She was a bit embarrassed she had forgotten to introduce herself, “Can you tell me where exactly we find ourselves?” Seedling asked Worm about this with as much politeness as she could. She was rather uncomfortable in the dark, but very grateful to have someone to talk to in such a place.

“We are Underground, Miss,” replied Worm matter-of-factly.

“Oh,” Seedling tried to sound satisfied with Worm’s answer. But she was no more enlightened than before their conversation began.

“You sure have got a lot of names, if you don’t mind my saying so, Miss,” Worm observed.

“I do indeed have a lot of names,” Seedling replied, “And I do not mind you saying so. I have wondered about it myself.”

“Well,” said Worm thoughtfully, “Perhaps you were meant to be several different things.”

Seedling laughed aloud, “Forgive me, Worm. I do not mean to laugh. But whoever heard of being more than one thing at once?”

“I’ve heard tell of it,” Worm said.

Seedling did not know what to make of this.

“Will we stay here forever, Worm?” she asked, more than a little worried about this prospect.

Worm chuckled, “Certainly not, Miss. You won’t, anyway. I’ll wager you’ll be on your way Outside before you know it.”

“Outside?” Seedling’s small voice quivered, “I’ve only just heard of Underground. I am not sure I will be ready for this Outside when it comes.”

“You will be,” Worm assured her, “You’ll be there only when you are ready, and not a day before.”

“You have a very odd way of speaking, Worm,” Seedling told him, “I have never met anyone like you.”

“And I have never met anyone with three names,” said Worm kindly.

Seedling thought for a while as Worm rustled around in what Seedling now understood to be something called Dirt. Worm had explained this to her, and he would occasionally munch on bits of the stuff as they spoke.

“Worm,” Seedling asked after a few moments, “have you been Outside?”

“Every now and again, I venture Out; when it Rains,” he said proudly.

Seedling wondered at him in silence. Worm coughed.

“Tell me about Outside, “ she asked Worm, “Tell me everything there is to know about it, if you please. I must be ready.”

“Oh, dear,” Worm replied, “I could not possibly do that.”

“And why not?” Seedling was all at once incredulous and a bit hurt.

“I am afraid no one can tell you everything there is to know,” Worm continued calmly.

“This is terrible news,” Seedling declared.

“It is not terrible, or awful, or any such word,” Worm said, in an attempt to comfort her, “It would only be terrible if everyone else except you knew everything about it there is to know. But no one seems to know very much about anything at all, from what I can tell.”

Seedling began to feel a bit better about the whole thing, and she thanked Worm.  He busied himself with Dirt for several minutes as Seedling lost herself in thought.

Suddenly, something large and wet burst right on top of her. Seedling cried out, horrified. She hoped it wouldn’t happen again. But then came another of the bursts, and another, and another.

“Worm!” Seedling shouted “Help! Worm! What is going on?”

“Calm yourself, Seedling,” Worm was gliding around her with great speed. Seedling could feel him moving the Dirt, and she knew he had not left her.

“It is just a bit of Rain,” Worm said, “I think you will find it beneficial.”

“How do you know that?” Seedling shrieked as more of the droplets burst around her, “How do you know this-this rain-won’t kill me?”

“I sincerely doubt that it will,” said Worm, “In fact, you might find you like it if you relax a bit. It might help you.”

Seedling, infuriated that she was getting soaked in what seemed to be a series of very unpredictable explosions, wanted to protest this notion with all her might. She began to doubt very much that Worm had ever been correct about anything. But she could not seem to move herself from where she sat, and Worm was so busy he had no time for chatter. Seedling had no choice but to sit, and to wait, and to die in the Rain.

But she did no such thing. She instead became used to the feel of the droplets, and how they made the Dirt soft. Seedling stilled her mind and, before she knew it, she began to reach. She reached and reached and reached, until she felt she would burst. Dirt was moving around her, and she felt the very tip top of her begin to push back against it.

“Bravo, Seedling!” she heard Worm shout, as he slid through a clod of wet Dirt before coming to a stop next to her.

“What is happening, Worm?” the frightened Seedling asked, “What have I done?”

“You are growing!” exclaimed Worm, positively delighted, “Somehow I knew that Rain would do the trick.”

“I’m beginning to think you know more than you let on,” Seedling said.

“I know some of what I see, a bit of what I hear, and a little of what I feel,” Worm replied, “And that about covers it.”

“You are a fascinating creature, Worm,” Seedling declared.

“Aren’t we all?” Worm answered.

Seedling was so content in the Dirt with Worm, she wasn’t sure Outside could be much better. Out of nowhere, an unwelcome thought began to steal away her joy until she finally gave it voice, sadly.

“Worm, whatever will I do Outside, without you to comfort me?”

Very gently, Worm stretched himself around Seedling.

“We will have one another nearby in stories and thoughts,” he told her.

Worm uncurled then, and Seedling said, “If that is so, I must have plenty more of your stories before I go.”

“But of course,” Worm said.

In the weeks that followed, Worm told Seedling of Rain, of Light and Sun, and the buzzing of Bees. All the while, Seedling spread out and grew and reached up through the Dirt.

One day, after the passing of a great storm,  Seedling felt warmth. She discovered she could look and see bits of colors and shapes; and she began to discern the Worm and the Dirt and the Underground. She started to realize that-almost without her deciding to do so- she was moving faster and faster above worm through the Underground.

“It is time, Dear Seedling!” Worm exclaimed “Time for the Outside! Farewell!”

“Goodbye, Worm! My first and dearest friend! I will hold tight to your stories!” she shouted as loud as she could, full of fear and promise and uncertainty.

In a single moment, Seedling burst from the dark. Once again, she could see nothing: she was blinded this time by light, but only for a moment.

“Good gracious!” she heard someone say, “It couldn’t be! A real live Sapling!”

At that, she blinked and flailed and gasped. All the while, she was waiting for the World to come into focus.

a letter from professor lewis

Christmas is a joyous time for me, and a retrospective time. When I am thinking back, there is inevitably lingering guilt and regret. One of my biggest woes is how “unplugged” I have often felt from my spiritual and emotional experiences during this year.

Due to my flaws, distractions, and emotional struggles, I have often experienced a sense of disconnect from G*d and the things he offers me [such as prayer or Bible study] as a means of becoming closer to him. I have let other things, feelings, and other relationships get in the way, time and time again stealing away my attentions and affections from where they should be placed first  and foremost.

I am sharing that confession, and the excerpts from the following letter with you,  because through it, Professor Clive Staples Lewis has comforted and calmed my anxious heart.

Professor Lewis

CS Lewis often corresponded with his readers, and – as expected- he had some of his most remarkable exchanges with children. This page chronicles the correspondence of Lewis with the Krieg family, namely a boy called Laurence and his mother.  Laurence’s mother wrote her first letter to Lewis on behalf of her son, who was nine at the time Over the next several years, Lewis graciously answered questions and share bits of his life with the Krieg family, including in one of his letters a signed copy of The Last Battle.

[It will take a few minutes, but it is well worth reading all the letters- they are a fantastic reminder of how well people can be connected simply as brothers and sisters in faith.]

AslanI found the letters between Lewis and the Krieg family while trying to assuage my curiosity about the “correct order” in which to read the Narnia series, which I just received from my grandparents for a Christmas gift.

Laurence Krieg had been concerned by his honest feelings of loving Aslan more than he loved Jesus. He was worried that he had started worshipping Aslan as an idol. In a letter dated 5 August 1955, CS Lewis answered Laurence’s concerns in a response (via a letter to his mother):

Tell Laurence from me, with my love:

Even if he was loving Aslan more than Jesus (I’ll explain in a moment why he can’t really be doing this) he would not be an idol-worshipper. If he was an idol worshipper he’d be doing it on purpose, whereas he’s now doing it because he can’t help doing it, and trying hard not to do it. But God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.

But Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has that Jesus has not – I mean, the body of a lion. (But remember, if there are other worlds and they need to be saved and Christ were to save them – as He would – He may really have taken all sorts of bodies in them which we don’t know about.) Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it. So he needn’t bother.

If I were Laurence I’d just say in my prayers something like this: “Dear God, if the things I’ve been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don’t like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love You more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imaginations, by doing what You want and growing more like You.” That is the sort of thing I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added, “And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.”

Will this help? I am terribly sorry to have caused such trouble, and would take it as a great favor if you would write again and tell me how Laurence goes on. I shall of course have him daily in my prayers. He must be a corker of a boy: I hope you are prepared for the possibility he might turn out a saint. I daresay the saints’ mothers have, in some ways, a rough time!

Yours sincerely,

C. S. Lewis

What a powerful, yet gentle reminder of the grace of G*d: He knows we are trying to love him the best we can, and He will help us.  Don’t get me wrong, I love intellectual pursuits and lofty language as much as the next writer. But it refreshes me to be reminded that before G*d, we are all children.

Lewis was also trying to help Laurence – and me, apparently- to understand that G*d is there for us as we need him, and that he is and can be “everywhere present and fill all things” as one of the Orthodox prayers goes. Whether we love G*d in the strength of Aslan, or in the beauty of a flower, He is being loved all the same.

And the prayer that Lewis suggests Laurence should pray- I can admit I was floored. For those of us who go about “trying to please G*d”: How much more at peace would we be if we asked Him even once a day for His help in such a way? I would do well to commit parts of that prayer to memory, and I’m sure the Lord Himself will have it memorized on my account after a while.

Forgive me [again] for being longwinded- but I wanted to share the gift of those words with you. Hopefully they will bring you the same peace and joy they impart to me, during this time of reflection, as we rest for a moment on the cusp of a new year.

Thank you, Professor. Keep me in your prayers, if you don’t mind.

Sincerely,

the Messengers: Chapter 9

For a full listing of all chapters, and a brief description of the story, click here.

Please enjoy the ninth chapter- more are in the works now.

Nine

The Guard Liem, and the girl who was once his prisoner, had finally stopped falling. They landed abruptly on a large heap of something. They could hear the grunting of beasts nearby. It was quite dark; no doubt they were far below the main floors of the castle. Both of them had to allow a moment for their eyes to adjust, to get their bearings. Liem spoke first.

“Miss, are you all right?” he said, just above a whisper.

“Yes, Liem,” she answered him. Liem noticed the girl was still timid; no doubt, after so many years of punishment, she knew not where the next threat might come from.

“That was quite the fall. I do apologize,” Liem smiled at the girl as he helped her to sit upright. Remarkably, neither of them had not been hurt or killed after such a long fall. They had landed on something brittle, but soft. Liem looked at the piece of parchment for direction, but none new had been revealed.

“We are in the stables,” said the girl, rubbing a piece of hay between her fingers. “Is there a way out of the castle grounds from here?”

“Regrettably, I do not know much about the stables. I have spent all my time in only barracks, training grounds, or the halls of the prison since coming to the castle. I am afraid my habit, and Dorian’s commands, have made me a poor navigator.”

The girl nodded in understanding, “How long have you been here? You cannot be very old.”

They had been resting a few moments, but began to carefully amble down the massive haystack. Liem answered the girl as the two of them reached the bottom.

“I have been here half my life, miss,” he observed darkly, “Dorian brought me here to be a soldier when I was twelve. After. . .,” Liem said nothing else, casting his gaze to the floor.

“Dorian is the man with the green eyes?” asked the girl. Her own eyes watched Liem carefully. He nodded, looking a bit ashamed at the thought of allying himself with a man like Dorian for so long.

“Of course, I remember him being the one putting me into the prison,” the girl said, “It was shortly after the King’s death. The last I can remember of my old life is Dorian asking me ‘Where are they?’, and my refusing to answer him. He became angry. He lost control; beat me very badly.”

“Is that why you can’t remember who you are?” Liem asked carefully.

“It must be. The next few days Dorian beat me all the worse. He thought I was keeping something from him on purpose. I suppose he still thinks this. Or refuses to accept otherwise, anyway.”

She pushed the gate open carefully.

“I promise to help you,” said Liem, taking her hand.

She flinched, but smiled at him. She gently slid her hand from his, to smooth her hair.

The stable was a vast, wide room. There were a number of rows of stalls. Many held horses, cattle, sheep, or donkeys, although some were empty. There were larger stalls, such as the one with the haystack, to hold food, water and supplies for the animals.

They had barely noticed a little, old woman who had emerged from one of the stalls.  She came charging toward them holding a torch in one hand, and a bucket of milk in the other. She spoke to Liem suddenly.

“Young man! What are you doing down here with that girl?” she looked a bit confused as to how two strangers could have entered the stables without her noticing.

“Forgive us for alarming you, ma’am,” Liem said. “The girl is under my charge, by Lord Dorian’s orders.  She is ill, and Lord Dorian has asked me to remove her from the prisons as quickly as possible . . . so as not to infect any of the guards, or any of the other prisoners. We require a horse,” his voice stiffened.

The old woman’s eyes were wide. “Go on, then! Get out of here, the pair of you. Don’t let her rot spread to the horses, neither!” she spat, as if the horses were her own children.

“Of course not, madam,” Liem glanced to the girl, who had replaced her hood and was standing in her familiar posture: upright, head down, hands folded in front of her, “The animals will remain unharmed. But I advise you: leave until we have departed, for your own safety,” he said with seriousness.

“Very well, be gone with you both!” snapped the old woman. She hurried out of sight, clutching her light and her milk bucket.

The girl beamed at Liem. Seeing the glint of mischief in his eye, she said, “That was brilliant, but I’m not sure I deserved a plague.”

He smiled at her and opened a gate. Inside was a beautiful, black horse. He was very tall, however. This made him very difficult for Liem to saddle, but he managed to do so.

“If only he would kneel for you to mount him,” said the girl lightly.

“Kneel? How on earth do I get him to–?” Liem stopped.

The both looked, shocked, at the horse, who had all but laid on the floor of his stall. Liem glanced with uncertainty from the girl to the horse, and back to the girl. He mounted cautiously; the horse slowly beginning to stand beneath him.

The girl laughed at the spectacle and said, playfully, “Wait for me!”

The horse’s head nodded, and he resumed his prior position, nearly letting the tip of his long nose brush the floor, in order for the girl to mount. She and Liem exchanged a bewildered look. The girl placed her arms around Liem, steadying herself in the saddle. Liem had all but forgotten about the amulet on his neck in all the confusion. It was unmistakably glowing, radiating green light and warmth. Liem swallowed and cleared his throat.

“Let’s get to somewhere far away from here,” the girl began, “somewhere Dorian won’t think to look right away.”

No sooner had she said this than the horse began to gallop. The girl cried out, half surprised, half delighted; she was free. Liem had freed her. Her hood flew back in the wind, her fire-red hair whipping about her face as they sailed over the low fence encircling the pasture.

“This is some horse,” Liem practically had to shout over the rushing of wind and the pounding of hooves. The noon sun was bright in the sky. The three of them were headed west.

Duskish: a Biting Parody

Once upon a time, there were two teenagers.

They lived in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll call them Eddie and Izzie. Eddie and Izzie were madly in love, and knew they were meant to be together. They knew this because they found one another attractive and liked to kiss each other a lot. They would kiss each other at parties,  in front of family and friends , while camping, and in huge fields of pretty flowers. When they weren’t kissing each other, they would read one another poetry and talk about all the things they loved about one  another. They never talked about “liking” each other. Who needs to like someone when you’re so in love, anyway?  Everything was looking great for the teenagers. Those crazy kids.

Now, every relationship has its problems. And theirs was no exception. See, Izzie was a little young for Eddie. A few centuries her senior, Eddie ran into a spot of bother somewhere back in Victorian times. His blood was forcibly removed; leaving him a bit cold natured, nutrient deprived, and perpetually adolescent. Ever since then, he has had to roam the earth, replacing his blood supply every night by depriving other living things of theirs. It’s only fair.

Eddie had always been fashionable, and he kept with the times. So in Izzie’s  era, he looked like some kind of Nouveau Hipster. With bushy eyebrows and what can only be characterized as a severe Vitamin D deficiency. Sometimes he sparkled. We’ll attribute that to his charm, his compulsion to be honorable, and his love for Izzie, all of which also refused to die.

Izzie was an average high school girl: brooding, impulsive, and never without heavy makeup and  a closet full of American Apparel outfits. She was about to graduate high school, and had an endless number of possibilities before her after she received her diploma. So of course she planned to choose the most logical and liberating option: voluntarily becoming undead and having to separate herself from all her friends and family, and any semblance of  a normal life. She just loved that Eddie so much. Which she always told him. All the time. Like, seriously, she never talked about anything else but Eddie.

Her Concerned Over-Protective (COP) father was worried that Izzie’s obsession with Eddie was borderline clinical. So he suggested she spend time with other people. Enter Jake, Izzie’s best friend.  COP father was happy when Jake came around more often, since he was unaware that Jake had the power to turn into a freakishly large, flesh-eating wolf, an ability Jake happened to share with all his relatives. You know what they say: the family that morphs into gigantic nocturnal beasts together stays together. Coincidentally, so does the family that steals the lives of anything with a heartbeat; all of Eddie’s family happened to share his taste for plasma and platelets.

Jake never wore shirts, which was not at all hygienic; but it seemed to work fine for him, and it complimented his inexhaustible supply of jorts. He was not only incredibly jealous of Eddie and prone to uppity fights with him; he was also in love with Izzie. (I know, who saw that coming?) He spent half of his time bitter and whiny, and the other half hitting on Izzie and trying to convince her that Eddie was all wrong for her. But what do best friends know? Izzie wasn’t buying it.

It’s a good thing all these kids had their looks to console them, because love triangles are never any fun otherwise. For a while, Izzie decided to spend some time indulging her inner monologue, with each of the guys who fancied her competing for her attention with trinkets, shouting, and talking about how weird the other guy’s family was. Eddie had a little bit of an edge, not only because Izzie liked- I’m sorry, loved-  him best, but because he was good at mind games. Really good. He and his whole family had a way of reading people that you could only call visionary.

But all of their happy, drama-free, totally relatable lives came to a halt when a lady with interests similar to Eddie and his family decided she wanted to kill Izzie. She had some serious emotional baggage, and she figured that the best way to cope with the fact that Eddie happened to have killed her one true love was to go after his–with an army of ruthless, ravenous blood-sucking minions at her disposal.

What to do, what to do?

Eddie realized a time of uncertainty, fear, and emotional turmoil was the perfect time for a marriage proposal. Ever the clear head and rational thinker, Izzie accepted. Smart girl. No complication there.

In addition to relying on the strength of the Bonds of True Love, the boys decided to ally themselves with one another against the crazies, to save Izzie. And they graciously invited their families to join the fun. Jake, his impeccable abs, and the rest of his family were a little reluctant to participate. But in the end, they were all united by their love for Izzie, and their desire to rip apart some folks. They did some play fighting in the woods to get ready for the big day. And they come up with a totally original plan: form a trap using decoys, and lead the people they’re fighting against into it. It was mind-blowing. Everyone was immediately on board.

After everyone stood around in formations and gazed at one another for a while, the day of the showdown finally arrived. Eddie and Izzie stayed behind, hiding in their tent. Eddie probably would have been useful fighting for Izzie in a literal sense, but he decided it made much more practical sense to lurk around and dote on her. This was totally out of character for Eddie, but stories need to be a little unpredictable. After Jake stole a kiss from Izzie- which she gave him partly because she loved him, and partly as an alternative to his suicide- he charged into the fray on all fours.

The battle began. There was lots of leaping, lots of super fast running, and limbs and bodies were flying everywhere. Eddie and Izzie were having a lovely time at the campsite keeping the heck out of dodge. But wait, the leader of the enemy army figured out that Eddie and Izzie would probably be in the same place! She was just that intuitive. Her crony came with her. It was about to get real. Luckily, one of the wolves conveniently appeared out of nowhere and chomped down the crony. This made it much easier for Eddie to use his craft and cunning to exploit the deepest pain of Army Leader Lady and provoke her into fighting him to avenge her true love. They were neck and neck for a while, just long enough to give the irony of that phrase time to set in. Then Eddie, with the class and restraint he was so known for, broke the lady’s head clean off her body.

Some more of Eddie’s fold showed up: these cats were large and in charge, except for their leader, who was not large at all. She was a petite little blonde with a voice far too young for her regal airs, but that seemed intimidating enough for everyone. Besides,  she and everyone with her had cloaks and creepy red eyes, hallmarks of authority in circles like Eddie’s. They made foreboding remarks about some things, were generally mean and unhelpful, and left everyone in the clearing looking pensive and solemn.

The trap was successful. For whatever reason, the psycho-villains  hadn’t been expecting gargantuan mutant attack wolves to crush their brittle bodies. Go figure. But Eddie and Izzie weren’t out of the woods yet. In fact they were still in that very locale when they discovered Jake had sustained some bumps and bruises- and shattered bones- as a result of his valiant effort. Luckily, one of Eddie’s relatives had medical training, and agreed to help Jake on his way to recovery with an excruciating procedure. Problem solved.

With the battle over, Izzie  left Jake’s house bearing the knowledge of his denial-driven, clingy devotion. With Jake’s sweaty awkwardness out of the way, Izzie was already feeling much better.

As we all know, nothing cheers one up  after a terrifying face-off in the forest like a hokey graduation speech. Which was lucky, because- as soon as everyone changed out of battle gear and into robes and hats- it was time for Eddie and Izzie to finish high school and prepare for the time-honored rite of passage into adulthood: marriage and raising a family, in utter isolation and devoid of true life for all eternity. A little time smooching in their favorite field served to put things into proper perspective. Hearts bursting with love and all doubts assuaged, they strolled , full of romantic bliss, into the sunset.

Eddie and Izzie had but one more happy task between them and picking out floral arrangements. They had to tell Izzie’s hereto oblivious  COP father  the good news: his only daughter would be marrying that guy he had reservations about and going to live with him, never to see her dad- or anyone else she loved- ever again.  All seemed right, functional and relationally healthy.

And they Not-Quite-Lived happily ever after.

the Messengers: Chapters 4-5

Author’s Note:

Not unlike the doting mother who supports their  gawky son or daughter at an American Idol audition, several of you have been following my blog for a while. I very grateful for this, and I am here to report that your fortitude has been rewarded- assuming you consider my continuing to write more rewarding than punitive.

Sometime last fall, I began a story called the Messengers. In short, it is a contemporary fantasy about two ordinary neighbors who receive strange, identical letters. Upon reading them, they find themselves in an altogether different world, on a mysterious mission. The story also profiles other characters from within this new world, who are heroes and villains in their own right.

After writing the first chapter, it became clear that the Messengers would be longer than what myself- and those who support me- are accustomed to. So, it took the form of a serial.

After a long dormition, it is high time to revisit this little adventure in hopes that more will join me, and that I will be able to follow it through to completion. I wanted to include the links to the previous chapters along with this brief explanation, so you could get caught up.

Chapters One and Two

Chapter Three

I would suggest reading the chapters in order, as this is the way stories usually work. Plus, I tend to jump from one character to another when the chapters change, so reading them out of sequence might mean you miss out on an entire character, not to mention having a considerably harder time following the storyline.

Please note this is a story for adults. I hope you find it worth the extra time it may take to read; may you stick around along with me to see what happens next.

Without further ado,  here are Chapters 4 and 5. I do hope you enjoy. You may safely expect more to come soonish.

*

Four

There were only a few things Liem could remember about the day things fell apart. He remembered being twelve years old. He remembered his mother had been making a stew in the kitchen. And he remembered being in the garden.

He loved the garden. It was shabby and wilted. It always wanted water, but it was his. Liem was strong for his age and had no problem plowing and digging, but his greatest pleasure was in the planting itself. He relished the feel of the soft, cool earth between his fingers. He would place a seed gently in the ground, and move dirt over it with his hands. To watch him, you would think he was afraid to wake it.

Liem spent countless hours scrutinizing the tiny green leaves when they first peeked out at him through the thick, black dirt; he never tired of it. He marveled at the new life each time it emerged from the soil, bursting without fear into the great beyond.

He was daydreaming when he first realized the scream he heard was his mother. He didn’t even take time to set down the shovel. Charging into the house, he saw her on the floor, cowering in the corner. Her skirts were raised and she was surrounded by a group of men, armed and vicious. They were forcing themselves on her, one after the other, and beating her with their fists. And Liem realized he could no longer hear her screaming.

He felt frozen, as if his very blood was turning to ice. His eyes were in the same moment void of feeling and completely furious. His stomach seemed to flip over and he wanted to wretch.

“Leave her be!” he shouted, trembling.

All the eyes in the room turned to him.

“Get the little brat,” came a voice from somewhere in the calamity.

Liem didn’t even realize his arms were moving until he heard the dull thud of the shovel across the head of one of the thugs, who fell to the ground in a heap. He gripped the handle tighter. He swung harder, in every direction. One swing for each thing he had loved about his mother. One by one they fell. He felt something warm on his hands

I had just wanted, he thought, to plant her some flowers.

Liem said aloud, “Mother”, and was no longer brave.

He fell to his knees. The shovel clattered to the floor

He reached for his mother. She was all too still. That’s when he saw something green and glowing, resting in her open hand. It was small and round, dangling from a chain of gold. He took it and put it on. The light dimmed.

It felt like hours, but it was really only a moment before a figure darkened the doorway. Liem looked up, into his piercing green eyes. The stranger surveyed the room: he followed the trail of blood, mingled with hate and anguish, to the boy with the strong hands and the tear-stained face.

“Take him with us,” said the stranger, “he may be useful”.

Liem opened his eyes. Ten years had passed, but the nightmares came now more than ever. He wiped the cold sweat from his brow and slid out of bed. Carefully, he crossed the halls and moved about the stairwells; descending until the moonlight vanished. He found a torch and continued through a narrow hallway. They were quiet now, most of them sleeping; the heavy sleep of the confined. From a few of the cells he passed he heard sobs, from others prayers.

From one, a song.

He had discovered her songs pacing the prison halls one sleepless night, and he found himself returning to hear them nearly every night, after the terrors of his past woke him. Something in her gentle refrains quieted his soul. He thought of how weak she had been in his arms when she fell. He thought of her fearful eyes, and wondered how they were still so bright and blue.

The amulet around his neck glowed a deep, emerald green.

His hands rested on the latch that kept her in darkness.

“Morning will come,” he whispered.

It was all at once a fact and a promise.

Five

There was no storm. There was no city. They were alone, in the middle of a forest clearing. Sarah looked at her bare feet, remembering her shoes were on the floor of John’s apartment, a world away.

“Do you think this is a dream?” he asked her.

“I sure hope so,” she said.

“Sorry about your shoes,” John said. He looked at his own feet. His sneakers were a little big for Sarah’s feet, but he slipped them off and handed them to her.

“It’s the least I can do for being partially responsible for your being sucked into some kind of alternate dimension.”

Sarah laughed and thanked him for the sneakers. Tying them, she looked up at John. He was pacing the clearing and avoiding eye contact.

She walked over to him. Placing her hand on his shoulder, she said, “This isn’t your fault. It isn’t yours or mine or anyone’s. We just took a chance and now we’re here.”

John nodded. He sighed. After a moment, he looked at Sarah and said, “Do you still have the letter?”

On the ground rested one of the letters, face down. The other letter was nowhere in sight. It had been lost somewhere between Life as They Knew It and Now.

Sarah turned the paper over in her hand.

“It’s gone,” she said.

“What’s gone?” John turned toward her.

“The message we read at first. There is a new one now, “ she said.

“What does it say?” he said, with more than a little hesitation.

Sarah read a single word aloud:

Proceed

In that instant, the ground rumbled and shook. The brush and branches before them parted; it was as if the very foliage was giving them permission to pass. They exchanged a bewildered glance.

“Can’t argue with that,” Sarah said.

Laughing, her neighbor shrugged his shoulders and pulled half his mouth into a smile. He stepped carefully onto the path, wondering to himself about the durability of his socks. Though he thought he would look odd strolling through the woods in green argyles, he was not adventurous enough for bare feet.

At a given moment, the path stretched no more than a few yards in front of them. Before they could step off the end of the path, the ground and grass would sputter and shift, keeping them on course.

“I wonder how far we’re supposed to go,” he said.

Sarah shook her head. Answers, words, and understanding were all eluding her. John didn’t seem to mind, or notice. They proceeded in an awkward, heavy silence for a while.

John was the first to speak, “Do you think we will ever get back home?”

“God knows,” Sarah said, “I don’t know what I’ll do if we do get back.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, my job, for one,” she said, “My boss has no patience for me missing work.”

John felt a pang of guilt and attempted to nod knowingly.

“No job, no money, no rent,” she trailed off.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “If I hadn’t pushed you to open your letter—“

“I wouldn’t be here,” she watched his eyes avert before she continued, “I would be sitting in a cubicle alone, answering phones, living a perfectly predictable life.”

John smiled; he could feel his cheeks flush. Sarah patted him on the back.

They almost strolled through the unfamiliar woods. Either they had forgotten the oddity of the path, or they were resigned to trusting that it knew where to take them.

“And what would you be doing?” she asked him, lightly, “If we weren’t on this little expedition.”

“Skipping work, smoking too many cigarettes, painting. “

“Painting?”

“Yeah,” he said, feeling sheepish, “I work in an office, pushing paper. I don’t even really know what I do, honestly. And every few weeks, when I feel myself drowning in that stuff, I call in sick. And I stay home and paint.”

Sarah’s eyes lit up. “That’s amazing. I hope to see them someday—your paintings, I mean.”

“Of course,” John said, a bit embarrassed. He had never shown his paintings to anyone before, but he wanted her to see them, too.

He looked over at her and felt at ease for the first time since sipping his morning coffee. He wasn’t even sure how long ago that had been. He sighed, closing his eyes for a moment, hoping he would open them and be looking at his dirty kitchen floor. They snapped open when Sarah yelped. He turned to find her on the ground, clutching her foot.

“The path ran out,” she said, “I wasn’t looking. I stepped on something.”

John knelt down beside her, gently lifting her right foot. Something sharp and metallic had pierced his flimsy canvas shoe. It was roughly the shape of a nail, but broader, with a square base. John looked at Sarah apologetically. She was wincing from the pain.

“You may hate me for a moment, but I’m going to have to pull it out,” John said.

Sarah nodded. She closed her eyes and held her breath.

John closed his hand around the base of the strange object and pulled, hard and straight. It slid back through the shoe, with some abruptness. Sarah cried out, as much in pain as in relief that John was able to remove it on the first try.

“Sorry,” he said, “Here, let me help you.”

“Thank you,” she smiled at him, wiping some stray tears.

John carefully removed the shoe. Unbuttoning his over shirt, he took it off and wrapped it around Sarah’s foot. When the makeshift bandage was secure, he asked her, “Do you want to keep going? If you need to, we can rest here a moment.”

“No, that’s alright. Something tells me we should keep on,” Sarah looked gingerly at the pointed metal shard in her hand,  “What shall we do with this? Keep it is a memento?”

“I suppose so,” John said, “Here, I have pockets.” He wrapped it in a handkerchief and placed it in his back pocket. Then removed the letter, which he had put there at the start of the path.

“What do we do now? What does it say?”

John took a deep breath and read:

Part

Their eyes met, afraid for one another. The thick grasses, bushes, and brambles cleared away around them. And there where they stood, the path divided.

the Messengers: Chapter 3

Three

Sarah looked at her neighbor. John was staring at his hands, his eyes were open wide. She had passed him countless times in the hall, at the mailbox, in front of the building, seeing him multiple times a day. Turns out you could see someone a lot before you took the trouble to look at him. He said nothing. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since they looked at the second envelope. Finally, he spoke up.

The thunder seemed to rock the building

“Better grab the flashlights, the power goes out if you sneeze in this place,” he smirked, and his features seemed to ease a little. He left the living room for a moment and returned with two flashlights, putting them on the table next to the envelopes with care, as if he was going to wake one of them from its slumber.

He cleared his throat, “You should take off your shoes, at least. The rate we’re going, we could be here a while.”

Sarah thanked him with a half smile and slipped off her shoes.  Setting them carefully by the door, she said,”What should we do?”

“I’d open it,” he said, “if it was just me.”

“How can you be sure that something awful wouldn’t happen?”

“You can’t. Then again, you can’t be sure something awful won’t happen when you get in a cab or go to work, or whatever.”

“But I don’t like it. Something about it feels wrong; scary.”

“Yeah,” he had to agree with her there, “Yeah it is scary”.

John continued, his voice rising and quickening with his pulse, “The thing is, how did we both get the same envelope? And how did you just ‘know’ to come to me? I mean, how can you explain that?”

Sarah’s face was very serious, “I can’t. You can’t. Whatever it is we’ve found ourselves in, it’s bigger than we are.”

Thunder rattled the building. There was a flash, and the lights went out in a blink.

John switched on his flashlight, “You okay? Here’s your light.”

Sarah’s face was illumined by the harsh beam. Her hair fell across her forehead and hid part of her right eye. Her lips were pursed. John could tell she was trying hard not to appear afraid, as he was.

“I’m fine,” she said, with the same automatic ‘fine’ you give a stranger who asks how you are when you have had the worst day you could remember. She forced herself to smile. John smiled as well in an attempt to reassure her. Her shoulders relaxed a little.

“Well,” he said after a moment, “What’s it going to be? Open the creepy letter from who-knows-where or forget about the whole thing and go back to our days off?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah was hesitant, “I mean, it is scary, but there has to be a reason we both have one at the same time, and that they appear to be the same.”

“Yeah,” John said, “Exactly. Besides, odds are this is the most interesting thing that will happen to me today. So I might as well have a look at it. And if it’s not for me, then, just forget about it and go about my business.”

“Right,” she said, “Okay, we’ll open them at the same time.”

“Okay,” John looked her in the eye, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Sarah said.

John propped up one of the flashlights and its light formed a narrow funnel between them, just wide enough for them to read the contents of their envelopes, and just bright enough for each of them to see the features of the other. Sarah had set the other one in front of her on the floor, and it cast its light on the kitchen island.

The room fell silent other than the tearing of paper. The storm, though still a presence outside, seemed to have obliged them. The rain fell in hushed tones; the thunder seemed to rumble from somewhere more distant for the moment.

In each envelope was a single, folded piece of paper. Their eyes met. They couldn’t seem to find words of readiness, so they nodded to one another, watching each other’s fingers unfold the pages they held.

John said, just above a whisper, “Now we’ll read them. Both of us.”

He heard Sarah take a sharp breath in as she nodded. Tears, seeming to form as he watched, magnified her eyes.

“Sarah,” he said, “I’m sorry. We don’t have to do this.”

She blinked and the tears seeped out.

“No,” she answered with resolution, “I’m ready. I’m just afraid.”

“It’s okay, I am, too.” His own admission surprised him.

“Alright,” John said, “Here we go. Now or never.”

He made an attempt to smile at her in a way that might be reassuring. She was not crying anymore. She pulled the corner of her mouth into a smile and said, “Okay”.

John and Sarah felt a crystalline sense of awareness: of the moment, of the dark, still room, of one another. There was a deep breath that seemed to come from both of them, and their eyes shifted down to the pages now facing each of them.

Together they read:

We are the messengers.

We have been silenced.

Give us back our voices.

You alone can hear them.

They are calling to you.

Answer them.

Answer them.

Answer them.

In a single moment, the sky seemed to burst into light and dark and there was no more apartment, no more city, no more day or night. John called Sarah’s name. He heard nothing and felt only earth moving and time bending. In that single second, everything seemed to split and everything came together. He could not be sure whether they were alive or dead. Sarah could see nothing but colors and light. They seemed to be plunging, falling toward nothing that she knew or understood. But her hand was in his.

the Messengers (a not-so-short story) Chapters 1-2

The Messengers

“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?”-
T.S. Elliot

ONE.

Autumn showed up early, and so did the bills. Taking those and some home furnishing coupons in his free hand, and a sip from the coffee mug in his occupied one, John shivered and went back upstairs.

Calling in sick was a good idea, and so was setting the bills aside to thumb through the junk mail, which was doing its best to seduce him with promises of little to no interest. Ironic, he thought. He was about to pour another cup of his favorite blend when he spotted something: the corner of a small, unremarkable envelope, trapped under a pile of loud colors and cellophane. He brushed aside the other mail clamoring for his attention and picked it up. On the outside of the envelope was written:

DO NOT OPEN
“What the—?”
Knock, Knock.
John seemed to be stuck to the armchair. His breathing was shallow and nearly still.
His eyes moved to the envelope. Something compelled him to slip it into his jeans pocket.
Knock, knock, knock.
“John, are you there?” a female voice came from the other side.
He exhaled slowly. What was wrong with him? Did he think his boss had somehow found out he was healthy as a horse and simply hated his job? His better judgment spoke up: Get yourself together, man.
“Yeah,” he fiddled his hair around in his hands, “Sorry, coming.”
He opened the door.
It was Sarah, his neighbor from across the hall. Dressed for work, she would have been crisp and intimidating any other morning. But now, clutching her coffee tumbler, she looked unsettled, smaller somehow.
“Morning,” she tried to shine up her tone, “May I come in?”
“Of course,” he said.
Sarah stepped in and closed the door, locking it behind her.
John looked at her a moment; it was something about her eyes. They looked frightened. He decided to ignore that in favor of courtesy, offering her more coffee.
“No, thanks, I’m good, still have some left,” she smiled nervously, sitting down on the couch.
John returned to the armchair across from her. He felt a pang of shame for the condition of his coffee table and fumbled around, shifting his stack of magazines and mail to another corner.
“Sorry,” he looked to the floor, “It’s awful.”
She smiled, “It’s cool, mine’s no better.”
He made a sound of polite concession, which was followed by the obligatory awkward silence.
“Listen,” she said, “I know we don’t really talk, but for some reason, I felt like I had to tell you about this”.
Reaching into her back pocket, Sarah hesitated a moment and placed what was in her hand on the table in front of her. A small envelope, identical to the one in John’s own pocket: plain other than a single inscription. It was written by the same hand as the words on his envelope, but Sarah’s message was different. It only said this:

OPEN

“Oh God!” she gasped
He started, “What is it?”
Sarah said slowly, as if each syllable was afraid to come out, “When I put it in my pocket to show you, it said ‘Do Not Open’,” the color had drained away from her cheeks, “I swear,” her voice trailed off, and John noticed she was trembling.

John’s eyes widened and he could feel sweat pricking his brow. Not possible.

Saying nothing, he slowly pulled out his own envelope and placed it next to hers. Keeping it underneath his hand, John kept his eyes closed a moment and inhaled deeply, lifting his fingers from the top of the envelope as if they were now filled with lead. Sarah clasped her hand over her mouth. Everything inside him, even the flow of his blood, seemed to stop,
“Mine changed, too,” were the only words he could seem to get out. The words ‘Do Not’ had vanished completely, and only ‘Open’ remained.

The silence seemed to last forever. Outside the wind jarred the trees, and they cast their leaves to the ground in heaps. The sky darkened and thunder rumbled low and deep in the distance. A storm was coming.

Two

Sun seeped in through the window; the only window. It was many feet above her, and she strained her neck, trying to discern a cloud, trying to read the weather by the solitary beam of light. Taking a sharpened, white rock, she made a hash mark on the brown stone wall. By now she had lost count; it was pure habit. Like everything else in her life for as long as she can remember, her system of timekeeping was consistent, predictable to an unforgiving degree; each repeated motion absolutely hollow, and marked by a longing that was so similar to hunger she could not often discern the difference. It didn’t matter anyway: she ate when it was she was told to eat. She was hungry when she was told to be hungry. She was happy when it was ordered of her.

She heard the huge latch being lifted. That was her cue. She put on the cloak, pulling the hood over her head. The door was swung open and a guard entered. He approached her, but her eyes remained averted as she extended her hands. The guard clasped the irons around her wrists. She then stood and parted her feet, in order that he may add a matching pair to her ankles before turning to lead her out into the hall.

The floor was cold on her bare feet, even though they were calloused and numb. She sighed, exhaling with care. If her sigh was too deep, the guards would often strike her, cursing her for her contempt and ingratitude. She followed the guard, who remained a few paces in front of her. She was repulsed by her own smell and did not wonder why others kept their distance.

She had learned to keep her eyes to the floor unless addressed or otherwise given permission. She was forced to ignore the faint cries of agony and despair coming from the other cells, lest she be labeled a conspirator. She had not ever actually seen the face of another prisoner. Those in charge were very careful to keep them all separate. Human contact was a luxury to which they were not privy.

They had reached the stairwell. Although it didn’t seem possible that they could get further away from the light of day, they descended. The stairs were steep and formed into a spiral; torches mounted on the wall their only light. They were reaching the bottom and her eyes moved to one of the flickering flames. In that moment, it seemed she could hear someone calling her by a name she could not discern or remember; she had not been called by a name for a long time. She could see herself around a table, eating and drinking, a blaze crackling in the fireplace; no one’s plate or goblet was ever empty. In that moment she closed her eyes. And her foot slipped.

She yelped, not knowing how far she would fall, she braced herself as best she could. But she felt no pain. Instead she felt arms around her. She opened her eyes to the guard, who had whipped around and caught her to keep her from smacking her face on the cold, jagged stairs. Her eyes widened.

“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Yes, “ she answered, her voice was shaky and afraid.
They were right at the bottom. She had stumbled on the last step. The guard looked at her, her hood was down and her fiery red hair was wild and disheveled. Her eyes were blue and frightened. They were only comfortable when focused on the sea of stones beneath her feet.

The guard cleared his throat. Stepping back in front of her, he opened the only door in that room. They entered into a much larger room: it was square and dank; the smell of blood mingled with the stench left by countless unwashed prisoners. The guard took his place in the corner, watching with feigned disinterest.

“Do you renounce your crimes?” a male voice, devoid of emotion, addressed her.
“I do not,” she answered, her voice calm.
“Very well,” came the voice.
With one fell swoop, she was knocked to the ground. Whether or not she cried out, she did not know. But she felt the familiar sting and burn of torn skin, and the warmth of blood rising from inside of her as it dripped on the floor. The guard remained silent.

The figure who had been speaking to her stepped from the shadows. Although he was considerably older than the prisoner, his exact age was indeterminable. He had black hair, flecked with grey. His eyes were green and empty. He drew from his side a leather whip and lashed her with all his might five times across the back. Blood began to pool. Though the pain was indescribable, she did her best to let her tears fall in silence.

The man with the whip spat on her. He handed the whip, still warm from his own grasp, to the guard, who he had motioned to join him behind the prisoner.

“Give her ten more, then take her back,” he said.

The guard flicked his gaze down as a gesture of understanding. The man with the green eyes left the room and let the door slam shut. The guard listened for the sound of his footsteps to fade, but there were no footsteps. The guard knew the man with the green eyes was waiting outside to make sure he carried out the order before he left them completely alone.

He drew the whip. She drew her breath in and held it tight, preparing for the searing pain of the next blow. She cried out when she heard the whip crack, but felt nothing. He had missed. Not daring to look up, she remained on her knees, her face downcast. He would not make the same mistake again. She heard him rear back. The whip cracked again, but she felt nothing. Impossible. As the footsteps of the man with the green eyes trailed off, the guard missed his mark 8 more times.

He came around to the other side of her. He knelt down. She winced under the touch of his hands as they helped bring her to her feet. She was covered in blood, it mingled with her tears on her battered face. She tried to stand, but the weight of the irons was too much after the beating. She fainted, but for the second time that day, her fall was broken.

She woke in her cell, without her irons; next to her was a plate of fresh fruit and a cup of cold, clean water.