“Milkshake Duck” is an Internet meme that describes phenomena that are initially perceived as positive but later revealed to be flawed
Everyone loves an underdog story: of a misfit who comes out on top; of one of the downtrodden finally rising up; of an outcast becoming accepted for who they are. We love these stories because they give us hope for society, and sometimes for ourselves.
This is one of those stories.
It starts with an orphan who grows up in a group home. He is oversized, clumsy, and pale. He is constantly teased for having no manners, and for being ugly. Though he is larger than the others, they pick on him mercilessly, and he becomes the local laughingstock. Eventually, even the caretakers decide he is not worth their effort to raise properly. And while he tries to fit in, he cannot help but to believe what he hears about himself. In time, his self-worth drops so low that he runs away.
Alone and unprepared for the real world, the orphan falls in with a small gang of ne’er-do-wells who allow him to tag along merely because it amuses them. They pick on him, but not as badly as back at the home, and they make him a part of the team, if mostly as a lark. However, it isn’t made to last, and the gang is hunted down and killed in a hail of gunfire. The orphan survives by playing dead, laying among the bodies of his new friends as the hunters walk right by him. After a time, they leave, the noise and the horror subsides, and he makes his escape.
Alone and homeless once again, the orphan sets out in search of a future. Over an extended period of instability, he experiences many trials and tribulations. He finds himself taken in by those who treat him like a servant then abandon him when he is no longer of use to them. He struggles to survive through lean times and terrible storms. He is saved from dying in the cold only to be attacked and laughed at by those he thought of as his saviors. Over time he grows healthy, but sad and lonely.
Finally, after extended time alone, he reaches out to another group for friendship and for the first time in his life finds true acceptance. Because he has grown up to be beautiful and strong. And among his new friends he is truly happy for the first time. And once he tells it, people will appreciate his story.
Everyone loves a story about “just desserts”: of someone who deserves to be taken down finally getting their due; of someone who pays the price for their misdeeds; of a bad actor being brought low and their wrongness brought into the light. We love these stories because they give us hope for vengeance, for society, and for ourselves.
This is one of those stories.
It starts with an orphan who grows up in a group home. He is oversized, awkward, and mean. He is constantly acting out, and snarls at anyone who tries to approach him. Because he is larger than the others, he harasses them mercilessly, and he becomes a constant cause of fear and concern among his peers. Eventually, even the caretakers decide he is not worth their effort to civilize. Because they are all afraid of him, he cannot help but to believe what he hears about himself. In time, his self-worth is so over-inflated that he leaves the group home in search of greater things more appropriate to his stature.
Alone but unafraid of the real world, the orphan falls in with a small gang of ne’er-do-wells who allow him to join due to his size and strength. They are afraid of him, but not as much as back at the home, and they make him a co-leader of the team, if mostly in an attempt to prevent him from attacking them. However, it isn’t made to last, as in time the orphan believes the gang is holding him back. In a spark of inspiration, he leads the gang into a trap where they are hunted down and killed in a hail of gunfire. The orphan survives because the hunters recognize his betrayal, and thank him for the opportunity. He then makes his escape in order to avoid any potential revenge by any survivors.
Alone and on the hunt once again, the orphan sets out in search of a future. Over an extended period of flux, he experiences many successes and few failures. He finds himself taken in by those who treat him well but he abandons them when they are no longer of use to him. He steals from the weak during lean times and forces himself upon homeowners to avoid terrible storms. He avoids dying in the cold by tricking those who thought themselves to be his saviors into believing his lies. He grows strong and proud and arrogant.
Finally, one day, he creates his own gang. Because he is truly selfish and violent, and he chooses his underlings carefully, he rules over them in a state of constant fear. But the gang is his. And he is what he thinks of as happy for the first time. And once he rewrites it, people will appreciate his story.
If there is one thing society seems to like even more than underdog stories or stories about “just desserts”, it is when they are the same story: of taking down one who has risen to the top, one who claimed to have been a victim when they were truly the villain; of unmasking the truth that the worthy are not so worthy. We love these stories because it gives us an excuse for not succeeding where others have, because those others should not have been allowed to succeed. We cannot stand our own failure, so we tear down those that prosper.
This could have been one of those stories.
Who is telling the truth? We may never know. The truth is lost to history.
If there is one thing history does most often with stories, it is simplifying them to the point where even a child can understand them, taking away the uncomfortable truths, and emphasizing the parts that society wants their children to emulate.
And so, there exists a final version of this story, the one we all know: The Ugly Duckling.
Is it better for us than the truth? We can never know. The truth doesn’t matter to history.
“Sawubona, young one.”
“Just an old-fashioned greeting, saying hello. It translates to ‘We see you’ actually. Never mind, not important. Let me look again closer, here.”
Sarah struggles to keep her eyes open as the light from her ophthalmologist’s machine makes her tear ducts react. Eventually it is too much and she blinks rapidly, reaching for a tissue.
“Well, you have no lesions, no discoloration. Your eyes are completely normal, other than…”
“Other than there being four of them.”
“…your having four pupils, yes. Fascinating. ChongTong.”
“You appear to have “pupula duplex” or polycoria, also sometimes known as the “Evil Eye”. Often considered a curse. But the Chinese call it ChongTong, and they revere the people who have it and consider them people who are likely to make significant impact. World changers. Their written language was purportedly created by someone with this condition. To them, it is considered quite a good omen.”
“An additional set of eyes appearing is a good thing?”
“Well... This is a new condition? You weren’t born this way?”
Sarah sighs and glances over to the array of children’s pictures on the wall as the remnants of the bright light fade from her vision. She is expecting this question, and she pulls out her phone in response. The lock screen shows a picture of her and her easily frightened, and now ex-, boyfriend. She had meant to change it this morning, but it is useful now. She hands it over without looking.
“Here. This was me a month ago, and what I looked like until last night.”
Two eyes. Two bright blue irises. And two perfectly round pupils, half of her current count.
“Nice pic. Tell me, are you still able to see clearly? Do you still have depth perception when you close one eye? Can you focus on more than one thing at a time?”
“Yes… No… And not that I can tell. I honestly don’t feel any different than I did yesterday. Is it dangerous? Am I going to lose my vision?”
“Well, usually it is a condition one has from birth. There isn’t much in the books about people for whom the condition occurs overnight. Did you suffer any sort of injury? Stare at a laser, or the Sun? Take a rapid one-two punch in the face? Anything that might have affected your eyes?”
Sarah sighs again, and turns back to look at her doctor. “Not that I can remember.” Seven shots of tequila afterwards might be the reason why her memory is fuzzy now, but she is pretty sure nothing like that took place.
“There are other stories besides the Chinese, less well known, that include spontaneous polycoria. But no one has ever been able to explain them scientifically. Some legends say it occurs when an ancestor returns to live through one still alive. Some say it is a sign of demonic possession. Still others claim it is a side effect of a split personality taking over.”
“None of those sound good, but none of those sound like anything that happened to me. I don’t feel possessed or crazy.”
“Perhaps…” The doctor tilts her head, looking at the captured retinal images on the screen in front of her, a faint smile of recognition crossing her lips. “Ah.”
“Yes. Actually, I think I can help you. I do have some limited experience in these matters. I should warn you though that the procedure can be a bit discomforting. But I promise that afterwards, you will be free of them. You just have to trust me.” She turns to look Sarah square in the eyes. “Can you do that?”
The question goes unanswered as Sarah goes rigid. She stares transfixed at the full set of ten black dots staring back at her. She is unable to look away, can’t even blink. And now, she feels a distinct pressure behind her eyes, which builds until it feels as if it should burst. And then, when it does, she feels nothing more.
The doctor blinks a couple times, shakes her head, stands up, and walks to the mirror. She pauses, taking it all in, then smiles. Six sets of pupils stare back, glinting.
“Yebo, sawubona, my child. Yes, we see you too. Welcome home.”
(Full Topic: Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave ’em all over everything you do.)
“Elementary, my dear sir.”
> That seems a simplistic thing to say, given such a complex situation.
The most complex systems are merely large numbers of simple ones combined together.
> Perhaps. But what of probability, and chance?
Is there really such a thing as chance? Take a man at a craps table. In his hand he holds two dice. In front of him is a walled oval table, the far end of which he is required to throw the dice against, and his bet is based on what those two dice will land on when they finish moving. To him, and to the outside viewer, this seems to be pure chance, with probabilistic outcomes. We say that rolling snake-eyes, a pair of ones, is far less likely than to roll a combination seven, for which there are twelve times as many potential combinations. Yet, it is not as if the dice are not predictable. They have a weight, a mass, a density, a particular shape including divots and any scratches that have been made on it, and a particular elasticity. It will react under very precise specific rules to being accelerated with a particular force and vector and spin, moving through a gravitational field and coming in contact with other objects similarly definable.
Each of the dice has, in fact, an inherent core value, which can be represented as a series of numbers. This numerical value controls its response to any external stimuli. Once we know that value, we know how it must respond. And if we properly calculate all of the stimuli, we can predict without fail the outcome of the dice being rolled. The difficulty is merely in determining those stimuli.
> Merely? That is impossible, so what is the point? If the stimuli are indeterminate, then so is the outcome, and thus we get probability and chance.
No, thus we “see” probability and chance. What we experience is completely predictable, with the complete information. What I am trying to show you is that all of that information is not only knowable, it is already known. Even if we personally can’t see it all yet. Let’s take a more complicated example.
An acorn provides all the information it will ever need to make decisions as it grows, hopefully, into a tree. It is its true nature. If we could quantify the information within, we would have the value of the seed. The pure core of its existence. And with that information, we could determine how it would respond to rain, drought, animals that want to turn it into their home, or humans who wish to harvest it for firewood.
> But those things that the tree must come into contact with will affect it. They will change the course of its life. There is no one single path determined by just the acorn.
No, but everything that happens, every change in that tree’s fortunes, is marked by that original seed. When it bends away from the shade of a building, you can see the influence of the original seed in its reaction. When a limb shrivels and dies because of bugs eating its core, that seed directed the tree to handle it in that way. When you visit this tree after thirty years, it will look nothing like the acorn it started as. But everything you see, from the shape of the leaves, to the bark that is falling off, to the hollow knot-holes, is all determined in relation to the values stored in that original acorn. To borrow a phrase from the King, “Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave ’em all over everything you do.”
And humans are no different.
> Of course we are different. Are you trying to say we are like dice or acorns?
Of course we are. At the nuclear level we are all just atoms. And below that, electrons, protons, and neutrons. On a larger scale, the study of human DNA and genomes is really just an attempt to determine our individual seed values. The arguments about “nature versus nurture” is a way to separate the inherent value of one’s innate self and the things outside of us that cause us to react in a certain way. But that reaction is based on the seed we already carry. That value we are born with, that we come into existence carrying in our very being.
> What of free will?
Free will is a most useful illusion that we provide ourselves with, based on our own innate value. We are programmed to believe in it (either internally or in response to external stimuli) because of what we cannot change about ourselves. Let me give you an analogy.
When computers were first asked to create random numbers, they struggled to generate a truly random sequence. Why?
> Because they are merely programmed.
> But we are not programmed.
Aren’t we? What is DNA then, but a programmed set of instructions?
Back to the point, computers have a few different ways of emulating randomness. As we have found a need for encryption, this need has increased a hundred-fold, but our ways of “programming” randomness are limited to mere emulation (also called pseudorandom number generation), often with disastrous results. It is why early so-called “random” encryption was easily broken by hackers who had some skill and a little time. Patterns emerged.
If you played older computer games and decided to restart a section after a bad beat, you may have noticed that the same bad beat often reoccurs, even though the game is supposed to be random. This is due to what is called a “seed” value and the way random events are commonly calculated buy a computer. While the initial seed may be apparently random (based on the exact millisecond you pressed a key, for example), the next so-called random number is generated by doing a calculation on that number, and then a calculation on that calculated number, and so on. Well, often times, these calculations force any starting number into a consistent loop pattern that is short enough to be recognizable even by humans.
There is a parallel here to what we call “predestination”. No matter where one starts, eventually the results turn out to be the same. We can’t avoid the end result no matter the starting seed value. If the path is short enough, and we know the equations, we can see it coming.
> But we don’t really see things coming.
No, but that is a limitation built into our own core values. We are not programmed to be able to.
External influences are like the pseudorandom number generator calculations. They interact with our core values and create an outcome, determined by the value and the equation. They must provide the end result that occurs.
The concept of encryption naturally leads to the concept of decryption. We decrypt a message by knowing one of the parts of the formula that created it. If we know the original message and the encryption method, or the equation, we can determine the final encrypted sequence. If we know the original message and the encrypted sequence, we can determine what the encryption equation is. And if we know the encryption equation and the encrypted sequence, we can determine the original message.
Similarly, if we can figure out any two of the real world factors, we can determine the third. A person’s core value, the external influences that they have come into contact with, and the final outcome. Give me any two, and we can determine the third.
We can know the outcome by observation. We need only determine one of the others to completely understand the equation. If we determine the outside influences carefully enough, we will be provided with the core value of the person in question. And once we know that core value, we can use it to determine everything about how they will respond to anything.
> And you have done all this? You have… figured it all out?
Indeed, I have.
> So, then, what have you determined?
That you, sir, are the killer.
> You understand all the equations so clearly that you figured out they point to me?
Yes. Well, no. But, you are holding a literal smoking gun right now. The one you just pointed at me this very moment, in fact.
> Ah, yes. Well. Then you should also be able to see where this is headed.
> Whether I commit one murder or two instead, what does it matter in the grand scheme, right?
I suppose that is the way these things are programmed.
> I suppose so. Goodbye, my good man.
“That was a close one. We almost had to stop the whole experiment, again.”
“No worries, I think we got the programming right this time. I inserted a lot of violence and egotism into the code this time. Anyone who becomes smart enough to figure out too much won’t survive long enough to make it known.”
“Good. I really am tired of having to restart things over and over.”
“You sure you aren’t just still sore about watching the dinosaurs fail again?”
“I liked them, but they seem unfixable. But that’s why we have meteors.”
“There’s still a little time before the next one.”
“True. Let’s see if the humans manage to make it past it this time, shall we?”
“It’s always about the money.”
“The physicists all know, but they don’t can’t allow the rest of us to – otherwise they would lose their funding. The astronauts all know, too, of course. That’s why they all live in fancy constantly updated houses with rooms where the paint doesn’t want to dry. That’s why they get to be in Congress. They are well paid for their silence.”
The man who refused to give us his name, the one we nicknamed ‘Norman’ (No-Man, get it? - yeah, we aren’t really inventive), peers out from under a brand new Indian headdress, a change from the typical dark grey “Don’t Trust Anyone” baseball cap he usually wears. On his lap he is cradling a small cooler. His eyes dart between me and my partner, trying to read our stone faces. We don’t give anything away, though. We never do.
“They claim it has to do with air densities and light refraction. They work their sleight of hand with formulas and fake experiments. They want us to believe that blue is just like any other color in the spectrum, that it is all just another part of the rainbow, that the lack of blue at the edges is just what happens down the road where the dirt reaches the sky. They want us to believe in the prism, new moons that shine in the sky, and more importantly in the eye within. But they know. And I know. And now I am going to tell you so that you will know too. And then we will go on and tell everyone, two at a time. Geometric progression, using their math against them. 32 footsteps (counted them myself) to reach the entire world. And then the physicists will be overthrown. And we will be...”
He pauses here, aware that his voice has been getting louder and others might overhear. He parts the feathers just enough to run a hand through his hair, never allowing the light to reach his eyes. He bobs up and down slightly as he nervously looks around and then stares back at us again. People usually hate silence in the middle of a conversation, and so they try to fill it. We always let the silence do our work for us, and eventually it does its trick again this time, and he continues.
“George Carlin was on the right track. Alfred Hitchcock before him. But they were bought off, turned into entertainers to prevent anyone from trusting them. They tried to tell us though. They knew enough. And they left clues, in comedy routines and in Hollywood parties. “Blueberries are purple.” I followed them all. Of course I did. I doubt I am the only one. But, I was smart about it. I took my time. Kept up appearances – eating the same food as everyone else. Burgers, fries, chocolate. But I knew. And I searched. And I finally found it. I should have known by the color.
“All that blue food.”
He pauses again, licks his lips slowly with a tongue not merely tinged, but shining bright blue. My partner and I don’t react to the sight, and this seems to unnerve him a little.
“But of course you guessed I found that out. Lots of people did, I bet. But I didn’t just find out about the blue food: that it isn’t found in nature; that it contains an otherwise non-existent chemical compound. That it causes immortality. Yes, I found out about that. But not only that.
“I also found where it all went.
“It’s up there, in the sky. This is why we lost space shuttles. This is why those Space-X rockets kept exploding until they made a deal with the government. This is why there isn’t a space elevator or a hotel on the moon or any successful space tourism, or all those other promises from years ago. Not because we can’t make them happen. Because we won’t. The government can’t afford to let lay people get their hands on the blue food. NASA controls the access. The physicists control NASA. The spacewalks collect just enough to feed the chosen few. Ever wonder why all the candidates look the same every four years? Ever wonder why scientists are always old white men in every documentary, tv show, and movie? They are protecting a secret. They don’t want anyone else to know.
“But I know. I’ve seen it. My uncle owned a farm in the Midwest. He showed me the fallen blue food, knocked out of the sky by a misaligned satellite. I didn’t know its name at the time. Plemave. Like the company. A mispronunciation of the Greek for ‘blue mana’. I should’ve seen right through that.
“It’s up there. In enough quantity to feed the entire population for years. Placed up there by the aliens that brought us and left us here all those years ago. A treasure we had to obtain before we could earn our way to joining them. Before we could survive the long distances of space travel. And we could. We can. We can go home. We have the technology, and with that food we can live long enough to get there.”
He is talking more rapidly now. Words tumbling out as he wraps up his spiel.
“If everyone knows, they can’t keep us here. They would have to let us go, or the resulting riots would end with enough dead that those left would – well, then we would all have enough food up there to live forever. And then they would have no control. No one would need to buy from them. Supply and demand. It’s always about the money.”
He pauses, and looks upward, letting the light hit his eyes for the first time. They gleam a bright blue.
“It’s up there. I know it. Now you know it. But you probably don’t believe it yet.
“That’s okay. Enough talking. I’ll show you.”
Norman, gathers up his cloak and wraps it around him, sitting back in his chair. He buckles himself in with a lap belt and two shoulder harnesses, looks up at the enormous mass of helium-filled balloons above his head, and smiles. He looks back at us one last time, fingering a knife. Our steady, unmoving gaze no longer seems to concern him.
In a flash, he cuts the ropes that were tying his chair to the plaque in front of us, secures his cooler against his chest, and floats up out of view, feathers from his headdress fluttering in the wind.
The pigeons fly off of our heads and follow him.
TW – non-specific references to sexual abuse
“Sometimes, the people we want to be are all around us.”
Susanna pocketed her receipt and made her way through the café to a tall table with two stools at the end of the room. Standing facing away from the crowd, she removed her faded black leather jacket and placed it on the back of one of the stools, then slid around the table to the other, back firmly in the corner of the room. She placed her order card into the spiral stand, turned it slightly to make it visible to the delivery personnel, and lowered her hands back to her lap and bowed her head. Number three - a fitting reminder of her place. Even when she was alone, she was still third.
Her hands tensed unconsciously, gripping the fraying material near the hem of her skirt. A loose string wound its way naturally around her right index finger and she spun it in circles out of pure habit. Glancing around over the top of her glasses, she eyed the other customers warily, fidgeting with her skirt front with her left hand, trying to protect against a viewpoint already concealed by the table. Her feet rested uncomfortably on the circular bar below, just too high to let her sit with her knees together, just too low to hook her ankles below it. The vertical bars supporting the table were positioned perfectly to prevent her from angling her legs out in comfort. Just one more piece of torture to bear.
A soft buzzing came from across the table, her phone trying to get her attention. In response the Fitbit on her left wrist followed suit, and she lifted it up above the table, turned it to face her. It lit up and danced letters across the tiny screen. “Neil cell… Where are you? We…” She twisted her wrist back again, letting the rest of the message go unread. Let him stew for a while on where she might be. A little time being truly alone, rather than merely feeling lonely. It was about time she took some time for herself.
Thirty seconds later, another buzz, more light. “Brian cell… Wondering what…” Another twist of the wrist. Where there was one, there was the other. Brian always thought he could get through to her when Neil couldn’t. True, in the past that was often the case. But today was not one of those days. Today was all about Susanna, for the moment at least. She would probably pay for it later in some way. She always seemed to.
Her Fitbit buzzed a third time, but instead of turning to see the text, she merely stared at her fingernails, released the string on her skirt, and rubbed her cuticles softly cross-wise. Her nails were short and clean, and each one showed a strong half-moon shape. They were coated only with a clear polish to keep them strong, to keep them from cracking under pressure. Never to show off with color. Her hands curled into loose fists as she continued to study them, palms up, hiding away her jewelry. But she knew they were there, could still feel the slight restriction of blood flow they caused. Two metal bands on each of her ring fingers. One silver, one gold on the left, one gold, one silver on the right.
On the table, two steaming mugs came into view, pulling her gaze upward.
“Right here, thank you.”
“And the Earl Grey?”
“Just put it right there.” She pointed at the far side of the table in front of the jacketed chair. The server obliged with just a slight angling of his head, his obvious question unasked.
“No, thank you.” The young man turned away, leaving her to her thoughts again. She raised the mug in both hands, let her face become immersed in the steam, then held it out in front of her.
“To you, Jeanne.” She tapped her mug against the other, then drank deeply the burning hot liquid.
A young woman at a nearby booth looked over, probably wondering how she could drink something so hot so quickly. If she had asked, Susanna could have told her about how all her taste buds had been burned off, how the roof of her mouth no longer had feeling. She could have explained how her sense of smell now substituted for taste, and how getting a cold could cause her to lose weight from not eating. She could have spoken further, about the near case of gangrene in her feet from overtightened chains, or how her shoulders could dislocate and pop back in if she shrugged too hard. Or how she had once been so thin and undernourished that she had broken her finger merely turning on a light switch. She could have shared her life story. But the woman turned back to her croissant. Susanna put down her empty mug and started talking quietly to herself.
The mug of Earl Grey sat across from her and listened, without judgment. Just like Jeanne had, what felt like so long ago.
It was another twenty minutes before Neil and Brian found her. The Earl Grey had long since gone cold, though it continued to listen to her closely. Susanna didn’t even need to look up to know they were there. Neil was loud enough to wake the dead. And Brian’s scent she would recognize anywhere, even when he was trying to mask it with a cigarette. The advantage of the corner of the room is no one could sneak up on you. The disadvantage is there was nowhere to run.
“There you are, bitch,” whispered Neil.
“Hello, love,” said Brian.
Susanna didn’t respond, merely pulled at her skirt again. Same old routine. Bad cop, good cop. Except they were both bad, and neither were cops. But they liked to think they were in control of everything. And, at times, they were. At least of Susanna. Far too many times.
“Get your ass back to bed,” whispered Neil in her ear.
Each of them grabbed an arm and lifted her off the stool, pushing the table away from her at the same time. The mug of Earl Grey teetered but stayed up. Her empty mug tumbled to the floor where it landed with a heavy thud, but didn’t break.
“C’mon dear, let’s get you home alright?” Brian spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. Trying to set the scene for his audience, as always. Susanna closed her eyes, resigned to her fate once again.
Elise tapped her feet unconsciously in rhythm with the music, a 90s pop tune that could have been written by one of any number of bands. Her eyes wandered around the room, hidden by sunglasses. Her book, open in her left hand, slowly changed pages as she shifted her thumb. She had already eaten an English muffin and a bagel and was now halfway through the croissant in her right hand, yet she could tell she would still be hungry afterwards. Too much starch, not enough meat.
She laughed to herself as the thought crossed her mind. Her diet was a lot like her current relationship. Too much of what slows you down, nothing that gives you energy to grow. Just the uptight, starchy, same old thing without any heat. Nothing like that woman sitting nearby who just tossed back a piping hot tea without even flinching. Impressive.
If she had worked up the nerve, she could have told her how inspiring that was. If she had walked over there, she could have joined her at the table, shared the second mug of tea. She could have opened up to her about her feeling that the world rarely held her interest. She could have talked about her own straightforward and predictable upbringing, schooling, career, life. Not for too long though, because there wasn’t a lot of interesting tale to tell. But she could have shared it with someone new. She could have learned something new. She could have made a friend. Then, as she took another bite of the croissant, the woman put down her mug and looked down, avoiding Elise’s gaze.
So she turned another page and continued to read.
Elise didn’t notice when the two men entered the café. The swashbuckling protagonist in her novel was in the middle of interrupting a robbery.
With one arm in a sling, Verdugo is no match for the skillful bandit leader. But as they move towards the front of the cabin a voice calls out from the shadows.
“Hello, love. Get your ass back to bed.”
The words in combination were so out of place that they threw Elise’s sense of reality off for a moment.
“C’mon dear, let’s get you home alright?”
Nope, that tone didn’t sound right either, for her book or for real life. Elise looked over and saw a tea mug had fallen from the table where two men were near-carrying the woman by her elbows. In a moment they would be past her booth. Without thinking she slid out into the aisle with her back to them.
“Watch out, you stupid…” The sentence was fractured by an elbow striking Neil in the nose, knocking him out cold. Brian stopped and stared. For too long, as it turned out, when the heel of Elise’s right hand struck him full force on the chin. Two seconds, two men out cold on the ground. Years of practice finally coming up useful.
The two ladies looked at each other for a beat. Then another, seeing each other at last.
“Perhaps we should go.”
Susanna nodded, then stared at the two men without moving.
“Right. Thanks. Oh, your purse.”
“Yes. Well. Let’s then, shall we?” Elise started towards the door then stopped.
“Just a moment.” Susanna turned back to the two prone men and pulled the rings from her fingers.
“One.” She dropped the silver ones on the floor by Neil.
“Two.” She dropped the gold ones by Brian. Then she held her empty hands to her chest.
“Me.” And she turned and walked away, with Elise following her.
There are tales passed down in every family. Stories that tell us who we were, what we have become, and how we got here. Every family's tale is different. Many share certain similarities: an important event; a revelation; a change; a moral.
But they all share one thing. A beginning. Ours begins with wind.
The family gathers at the edge of the desert, facing into the wind that brings all things. Heat. Rain. Life. Death. Change.
And sometimes, hope.
Today, in the presence of only a meager breeze, it is this last they search for. The family is dwindling, and lately the wind has brought no respite from their struggles. The family matriarch, clad in a massive shawl, kneels on the sand beside a naked, young mother-to-be. The child's father crouches behind them, hair almost touching the ground, wearing only a satchel. The other family members, fully clothed to protect themselves from the elements, gather in a semi-circle behind him.
The old woman's hand glides over the ground, lightly brushing the loose sand. She carefully scoops a handful and spreads it in front of her, humming softly. The wind has shifted slightly, causing her dark hair to cover most of her right arm. It moves like an additional appendage as she continues her hand movements. Before her an image begins to form in the sand. Slight depressions become contrasting shapes. Lines solidify. Patterns emerge.
A circular weave. A line that curves at one end. An oval that flattens the sand inside it.
The young mother-to-be sits transfixed, apparently staring at the design forming in the sand. In reality, her eyes hold no focus, blurring the emerging pictures in the sand. Her mind concentrates instead on the child inside her. Who will he become? What does he mean for their future? What will the wind bring? Redemption? Retribution? All will be laid out in front of her soon enough.
The father stands and scans the ground over the shoulders of the two women. As he rummages through his pack, his hands touch the objects inside, feeling their shapes. When the shifting oval in the sand takes its final form, it finds its way to him.
A gasp escapes another family member as he pulls it from the bag. It has been many years since the cylinder was the container of choice. It holds great influence. A potential harbinger of change, but to what end?
The wind begins to gain in strength, causing the ground to glitter as it moves. More patterns crystalize in the sand. A rectangle with repeating florals. A hand with no thumb. Two more still trying to finalize themselves under the ever-moving hands of the matriarch.
The father lays the cylinder beside the mother of his child and turns it slowly in his hands. There. The floral pattern from the sand is imprinted near the center of one end of the cylinder. Slowly he turns the chosen end.
The mother closes her eyes now as some of the sand has taken to the air. The gasp still echoes in her mind. Not the sphere then, and not the cube. They are too common for such a reaction. And not the statue, for no one had snickered. Which one then?
The father slides the two ends of the cylinder apart, briefly lengthening it. The half with the flowered end slides out to reveal six panels, each covered in symbols. He opens the one with the hand and removes the basket shape from among its contents. Its sides are etched in a tight circular weave.
The woman gathers the final pile of sand and pours it over the images. The motion of her hands forces sand from one area to another, completing the previous designs, but creating nothing new. Two shapes remain unformed.
The mother recognizes the cylinder without looking. The sound of sliding metal. She has heard it once before. A lifetime ago it signaled the end of all she knew. Her eyes begin to tear. No one else had been there then; they can't know why she is crying. When they ask, she will blame it on the sand.
If she is ever allowed to explain.
The father opens the metal basket carefully. Inside are a dozen small carved shapes. He lifts them one at a time and places them on the ground before him. Some he recognizes. The long hooked pole of the hunter; the tree of the mother; the eye of the loner; the intertwined rings of the lover; the pyramid of the builder.
His smile fades as he recognizes two more shapes. The crown of the king. The skull of the destroyer. One might save them all. The other cannot be permitted to live.
The woman stares at the remaining indistinct shapes in the sand. Her hands slow and then finally stop their fluid motion. She sets her hands palms down on the ground beside the swirling sand as if to hold the world in place. The wind stalls. Silence fills the air as the last of the sand settles to the ground.
"Breathe, my dear."
The mother's eyes open but remain unfocused as she responds to the woman's words. Deep inhale. Long, smooth exhale.
The sand in the last two areas ripples and settles into shape. Intertwined rings. Pyramid.
The old woman closes her eyes and nods her head, her hands continuing to hold the ground still.
"A most promising reading. A hunter and builder comes, with love in his heart."
A sigh of relief escapes the father, breaking the tension. Hands are clasped, foreheads meet in greetings of joy. The metal shapes are imprinted upon a small clay pendant. Afterwards, the father gathers the shapes and rebuilds the cylinder. The mother is swarmed by her sisters, and laughter is heard for the first time in many moons.
As the family gathers to leave, the old woman slowly rises to her feet, raising her hands to let the sand move again, allowing the wind to erase the last symbols now uncovered, unseen by the rest of the family.
She stares out over the desert, watching the wind swirl in the distance and smiles.
A most promising reading indeed.
“Yes. Now. Go find yourself some other place out in the wild.”
“Out in the wild?”
“Yes. You are no longer welcome here.”
“Here,” Caroline spoke softly to herself. She looked around at the others for support, but found none. She was banished. Cursed. Through. A mockingbird no longer, now merely a bird to be mocked. She bowed her head, turned, spread her tiny, blue wings, and flew off just ahead of a loud roar. Once above the tree line, she turned into the setting sun, desperate to stay in its light for as long as possible.
In retrospect, she should have expected something like this. Her life had been so wonderful up until that moment, surely something would have to occur to balance it out. And so it had, in the unexpected form of the misplaced rage of the Queen (which properly should have been towards the King and his exploits). It only deepened Caroline’s pain that the two ladies had once been so close.
She had always loved the Queen and her family. There was something innately magnificent about them. To be honest, Caroline had a thing for cats of all types. But those big cats - especially the lion family - just thinking about them made her feathers quiver and her tail flip. Or it used to. Now, her quiver took on a more agitated meaning. And her eyes struggled to focus.
She and the Queen had often stayed up talking late into the night. They would discuss fashion and gossip and which new cubs would grow up to be leaders. And they discussed their love of the kingdom. Often they would talk long after the King had returned and gone to sleep. And this, in the end, was her undoing. For apparently the King had not been out on official business, and the Queen, upon finding out and thinking Caroline had been trying to distract her from noticing, focused her anger where it would not upset the kingdom. Unwittingly, Caroline became the scapegoat. And so, she had been rejected by those she had loved most.
It is often said that sorrow is a state beyond words. But if truth be told, sorrow becomes an even more mournful state without words. How Caroline wished to be able to express her anguish to another. To anyone. But the Queen had taken that away before banishing her. “No more words of your own, only those of others. Nothing old or new, that you shall not harm another again with your distraction.” And so, worse than being a mimic who could at least choose from multiple memories, she was restricted to repeating only the very last thing she heard, and nothing else.
Or stay silent. And of what use is a silent mockingbird?
For the third time that day, Narcus groomed himself by the shore. His golden fur shone brightly, mirroring the life-giving sun up above. And for the third time that day, Caroline watched silently.
In another life, and with a different subject, Caroline would have been embarrassed of herself for infiltrating another’s private time. At the very least, she would have made her presence known, and maybe started up a conversation. But that option was closed to her now. And if she was so taken in by the young lion’s beauty as to be made speechless, well, how would one know the difference? She had barely spoken since trying to help some injured fox a couple days after she had been banished. He had thought she was making fun of his speech impediment, and his outrage had forced her to leave him to his fate.
So when she came upon the young lion a week ago, she had followed silently at a distance. He was nearly full-grown, with his mane still coming in. It wrapped around his head like a wreath, and moved with the wind as if it were dancing. His shoulders were broad and sturdy, and his back showed none of the sag of the current King. His eyes reflected light from all angles, and to Caroline looked as if they were stars that had fallen from Heaven.
Even after being ousted by the Queen, she still loved the big cats. And this one looked as if he could be King himself one day. And Caroline wanted to be there with him, even if only to watch him at a distance.
Having finished his latest preening, Narcus padded away from the water and stretched out on the high grass directly under her tree, too close for her to move away without being noticed. There the young lion rolled onto his back to look out into the clear blue sky and gave a tremendous noise that was half yawn and half roar.
“Ah. No better way to spend the morning on a day that is so beautiful,” he spoke out loud to himself.
Lost in the lion’s splendor, Caroline didn’t even realize she had mimicked him until he leapt to his feet in confusion, sending her scrambling up into the higher branches. Narcus cast his eyes about wildly, his mane rippling in the wind. The sight so infatuated Caroline, that she barely held onto her branch. And she couldn’t seem to hold her words back.
“Who is here?”
“Your voice, it is so familiar. Do I know you?”
“I know you.”
Caroline had always been an excellent mimic, and her voice replicated Narcus’ so well that the nearby family of frogs spoke for days of a strange lion talking to himself and repeating himself. But, stuck inside his own head, Narcus did not recognize the voice as his own, merely as one so wonderful that he needed to find its owner.
“Come out. Please. Will you speak with me?”
“I feel like I have been searching for you forever.”
As the conversation progressed, Caroline gained courage. Surely, this amazing creature would understand and accept her, and she could once again join the world she so badly missed.
“Let us speak together now.”
It was time. Caroline fluttered down to the grass and stood before the lion, and bowed slightly.
“Speak together now.”
But upon hearing the voice of a lion coming from the tiny creature in front of him, Narcus backed away and uttered a profanity that Caroline refused to repeat.
“What madness is this? Away with you!”
“Demon spirit! Go! Never will you possess me!”
And with that, Caroline stepped forward and opened her wings to plead her case in the only way she could.
But in response, Narcus panicked and swung his paw at her. Then he turned and ran. He would spend the rest of his days thinking back on that voice, and refusing to spend time with anyone else. But his is another story.
As for Caroline, the claws had torn several of her feathers, but the humiliation had scarred her more deeply. What blue remained drained from her feathers, leaving her as grey as her emotions. She wiped a tear and disappeared into the wild. Alone once more, she would be forgotten by the lion. Without her colors, she would, in fact, be left alone by almost everyone. Almost.
“Coe, what are you doing up there? Why won’t you talk to me?”
Kunja had been searching for a long time, and had only now caught up with his older sister in the woods to the North. She had tried to hide from him, to prevent adding to her pain. Hearing him call out to her, using her nickname from when he was a chick and couldn’t pronounce her true name properly, was almost too much to withstand.
“Talk to me,” whispered Caroline almost inaudibly.
“You must come home. The family is so worried about you.” To this obvious lie, Caroline was unable to reply. She stared down at the ground below, searching for a distraction.
“Are you coming or not, Coe?”
And truly, she wasn’t Coe anymore. Or Caroline. Shunned by friends, spurned by her desire, and bereft of her color, she wasn’t sure who she was now. The forest held no future for her, and so she had looked elsewhere for meaning. But the mountains were too cold, and the desert too dry. The plains were filled with memories from her past, and the swamps were filled with noise it irritated her to repeat.
Resigned to a life of solitude, she found an abandoned cave in a hillside on the western edge of the forest. It was empty, like her heart. Here she brought in her own bits of weeds and grass. She made herself a home for one, an unnecessary nest that alternated between reminding her of hope and of sadness.
When her brother found her, she was nestled into the crotch of the lowest branch of a great pine just outside the cave. She was tired and alone, but she turned away as he approached and flew back to her nest. Undeterred, Kunja followed. What he saw there made him cry out in pain for her.
“Look at this. This place is a wreck. You’re a wreck, Coe.”
She bowed her head as he nuzzled up to her.
It took three days, and several more visits from Kunja, to convince Caroline to come home. Even once there, she felt out of place, for the old king and queen were gone, and the animals that filled the court were unknown to her. But they knew of her. The legend of Echo, the gray catbird, lover of lions and speaker of truths.
It was a strange story, truth be told, and barely touching on her reality. But without the ability to choose her own words, she was at the mercy of those around her to tell her what to say. And so the legend was maintained, and continued to grow and change, as all legends must.
But she was home. And there were lions to watch. And so she found herself respected again at last, in a seat provided for her up above the throng, where she could watch and enjoy. And every now and then, she would call out something she heard, just to remind them she was still there.
The late bus to Watertown Road was a beat-up old thing that had run for decades. Still, it was fairly reliable... except for that rare, foggy night every few years when there was no way of knowing where it might go, and who—or what—might be riding it.
It took nearly a minute for Brittany to fish out every last coin from the pockets of her fraying sharkskin jacket. Afterwards, she counted out $1.57, then reached for the “Take a Penny - Leave a Penny” plate to grab the last two cents. She placed them all in a small pile on the counter. The attendant looked down, then shook his head.
“But it’s food.”
The attendant picked up the box of 1.9 calorie “Fruit Adventure” flavored Tic Tacs and gave a small chuckle.
“Won’t grow up big and strong on that diet. Anyway, state classifies it as a breath mint.” They both paused, waiting for the other to speak next. The clock ticked a few times in boredom. Finally, the attendant broke the awkward silence. “Don’t have another ten cents hiding in there?” Brittany continued to point her stone face at the counter. Behind her purple mirrored sunglasses, her eyes were counting the steps to the door. At 41, she was a step slower than she once was, even if she still looked like a teenager, and she needed to start being more careful. Last night’s near fiasco at the roadhouse had confirmed that.
In her mind, she was already out the door and past the bus stop across the street when the Tic Tacs container returned to the counter. The attendant dropped two nickels one at a time from his hand onto the pile of coins, then swept them all back into his other hand.
Without a word, Brittany snapped up the plastic container and headed for the door. The attendant stared after her, watching the Scrunchie at the end of her single black braid bouncing off the back of her fishnet covered thighs. Then she was outside and gone. He uttered a soft “You’re welcome” to the dwindling rain that blew in through the doorway. Shaking his head one more time, he opened the cash drawer, and started sorting the coins. By the time he realized that several of the “quarters” were really just large grey buttons, Brittany was already ascending the steps onto the bus.
“Mind the step. Bit slick this evening.” The elderly driver stared out intently through wiper-smudged windows as Brittany scraped her boots on the glistening steps. Stopping one step from the top, she leaned forward, reached slowly into her bra, and pulled out a plastic card that she slid through the reader. The movement was lost on the driver, who continued to stare ahead and pay her no mind. The reader beeped and turned green. Brittany waited, blinked twice, then returned the card to its home, still without a response. Torn between impressed and insulted, she straightened up and headed down the aisle. Only then did the driver move to close the doors, which dimmed the lights.
The bus was sparsely populated at this hour, and she had her choice of seats. The glow of the yellow running lights mixed with the purple of her sunglasses hampered her vision, turning the few passengers there were into darkly prismatic shapes. She made her way towards where she determined the midpoint between the axles to be, hoping to reduce the turbulence of the road. There she turned, shrugged her shoulders, and dropped the wet jacket on the aisle seat.
“Oy!” came a high pitched cry from below.
Brittany spun on her heel and stepped back, almost tripping over someone.
“Watch it!” called out a deep voice.
She whirled again, caught sight of a massive hand reaching out towards her, and fell sideways into an empty row as the bus lurched into motion.
“Please take your seat,” droned the driver from up front, still intent on the road ahead.
“And your jacket,” called out the high voice, now behind her, and Brittany found herself covered in wet sharkskin. Too stunned to move, she sat as if frozen as water slowly dripped down along the side of her nose. When it reached her mouth, she finally reacted, slinging the jacket off her head as she slid her back to the window.
“Hey there. You okay?” It was the same resonant baritone from before. Now that she could see him, she saw it didn’t appear to be a him. Also, she… it… wasn’t human. At that moment, Brittany’s brain decided that between the lack of sleep and minimal nutrition, this had to all be a hallucination, and shut down.
Staring out the window at the buildings going by, Brittany began to feel calm for the first time in ages.
This city really and truly is sucking the soul out of me. Was there ever a time I actually wanted to be here? How long have I wanted to get out of here? It feels like I was always saying “tomorrow.” And now, finally, tomorrow is today. And soon my ship will sail away from here.
When she passed by the same building for the third time, she made two realizations.
This is wrong.
I escaped this city already.
This was her past, sort of. She was dreaming. She knew that now, which gave her an advantage. Knowledge was power, even in a dream. Summoning all her strength, she forced her head to move from side to side, trying to break the pull of the memory.
“You all right?”
“I will be. Thanks.”
She hung up the phone and laid back on her bed.
Well, that’s that then. You’ve got no friends you can hang out with anymore. You’re single. You’ve got no job. You’ve got no prospects. You’ve got no hobbies. You’ve tried dating. You’ve tried going to bars. You’ve even tried knitting. And now? You sit home alone because there's nothing left that you can do.
Time to get out of here. Time to start over. Again.
Brittany stared up at the ceiling, then closed her eyes. Life felt hard. Everything felt hard. Honestly, even the bed felt hard. And where are the pillows? And where is that loud mechanical noise coming from?
The bus engine belched mightily, forcing Brittany back to consciousness. An additional rattle of wood on wood greeted Brittany’s ears as her old bedroom faded away, followed by a deep voice calling out quietly.
“Your 5 beats my 1, so that’s now 37 to 26 me. Maybe you’re on a comeback.”
“Of course I am, I told you I was lucky!”
A shallow wooden shoebox floated in the aisle between the seats. Literally floated. There was no supporting hand or table or arm rest. No strings either that Brittany could see. Just the box. And a small winged creature, which her brain told her was a sprite, standing on the corner peering into it.
“Go ahead, choose your die and roll again,” called the deep voice from the other side of the bus.
The sprite dipped into the box, returning with a bright three-inch magenta cube covered in dots, and tossed it in the air. It was nearly half the size of the creature, yet the toss nearly hit the ceiling. The box moved slightly and caught the large spinning die on its downward arc.
Yellow or blue, thought Brittany to herself.
“What did you say?” Unsure if she was still dreaming, Brittany spoke out loud this time.
“Yellow or blue. Grime Dice. Magenta loses to yellow or blue, but beats olive and red.” The small creature turned to look at her, anger spreading over its face. Brittany backed up towards the window, but there wasn’t far she could get away from the situation.
“You… You… You’ve been cheating me!” Brittany flinched, but the last of the high-pitched scream was directed away from her, towards another. A figure which turned to look at her with its non-human face. It was like nothing she had seen before, but her brain called it a troll, so it stuck.
“Did I follow the rules? Did I let you inspect the dice? Did I let you roll the dice yourself? Did I let you choose your own dice, including which one and how many?”
“So how was it cheating?”
“You knew which dice beat which other dice! That’s cheating!”
“No, that’s being smart.”
The conversation was so close to normal, even in a setting so absurd, that it somehow calmed Brittany down. She turned away from the argument to take in her surroundings. She was on a bus. Okay, that fit. And the Tic Tacs were there in her pocket. And it was dark out, though the rain had subsided. Okay, everything was vaguely how it was supposed to be.
Then she turned back to the squabble next to her.
“It’s fine, I was just trying to pass the time anyway. Here, we’ll call it even – no harm caused.” The troll tossed a dozen or so small coins into the box. The sprite was still standing, arms crossed, wings fluttering, silent and staring. Then, he was gone, as were the coins.
“Sorry about waking you up. My ride companion is a little short on manners. And intelligence.”
“Cheater! The lady’s a cheater!” The high-pitched voice cut through the air from behind her seat.
“Oh shut up old man! Sorry again. I did try to wake you up earlier, in case you meant to get off at the last stop, but you shook your head at me and just went back to sleep. I do hope you didn’t miss your stop.”
“How… How long have I been out?” I’m talking to a troll on a public bus.
“A while. There’s just the three of us left on here. Oh, and the driver of course. And that one in the back. Not sure if he’s actually a passenger or not.”
Brittany peered around the corner of the seat towards the bench at the back. Instead of the normal five seats, she saw… That can’t be right.
“There is a pasture in the bus.”
“On the bus, actually. That happens each time he falls asleep. When he wakes he becomes a British chap. Or it does. I don’t know. Anyway, whatever he is, he’s friendly, but… I think he isn’t supposed to be here. Probably just misread the bus schedule.”
Brittany tried to process the information, failed, then moved on to more pressing matters.
“How far are we from the next stop?”
“In time or distance?”
“Either. Both. Does it matter?”
“The fastest way from A to B is not always the shortest. Nor need it be all that fast, either. In fact, the shortest time sometimes feels the longest.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“That we will be there in no time, but it may feel like a lifetime. May as well get comfortable.” She pointed forward to the large analog clock above the driver’s head which read 10:14. Underneath was a small plaque stating “Time to next stop” with an arrow pointed upward. As Brittany watched, the minute hand moved counter-clockwise one tick.
“I… I need to get off of here.”
The troll sat back in her seat and laughed.
“I can’t stop here.” The driver still wouldn’t look at her, but at least he was responding.
Brittany looked out the windshield and saw nothing, just headlights peering forth into a foggy veil. Glancing left and right she saw no additional lighting that could tell her where she was, or even how fast the bus was moving.
“Then I need to get off at the next possible stop.”
“You should only get off at your stop. That would be the right stop.”
“The next stop, no matter where it is.”
“But that might be the wrong stop.”
“The NEXT stop.”
“As you like miss.”
“Thank you.” Brittany took one last look into the fog, then headed back to her travelling companions.
I am getting out of here. It ain't no victory but I don't care. I don't care if it’s wrong or right.
Back in her seat, Brittany took stock once more of her situation.
Time was a luxury she had always taken for granted. Now, where her time until whatever came next was set by someone (or something) else, she found the lack of control made her hungry. It was an odd response to the situation. And an unfortunate one, given her decidedly meager rations.
Conserve energy. Provide the minimum to satiate the needs. Take it one step at a time.
She tipped the container over, grabbed the tab, then turned the box 90 degrees. An old trick that left one Tic Tac on the lid while the rest retreated back into the container. Easier now that the bus was on smoother ground. She held the solitary morsel between her thumb and forefinger and calculated. There should be about 60 in the pack, so that would allow her approximately 1 every 10 minutes. Presuming the clock was accurate of course. An unlikely presumption.
“You gonna eat that?” She had been staring at the Tic Tac for a while, and the sprite was eying the sugary bite longingly.
“That’s food?” cracked the troll.
“Hey, that’s two meals worth of Grade A energy for these tired wings.”
Brittany pondered briefly. What was barely enough calories to her to give her the energy to chew and swallow it, could power the sprite for a day. Even her self-centered nature wasn’t that egotistical. She laid the mint in her palm and held it out towards the sprite.
With a slight tickle, the Tic Tac disappeared. Moments later, the sprite was nibbling on half of it while the other half was already stored away in his pack.
“I… I’ve never met a sprite before.”
“You expected something more bubbly? More sugary sweet?”
“No, I… what?” The sprite laughed at her discomfort.
“Sorry, old joke.”
“Yeah, a very old joke, just like you are.” The troll roared with laughter, making Brittany’s ears hurt.
“Go hide under a bridge, Aszea.”
“Bite me, Mitah. If you still have any teeth.” The troll held out her arm towards the sprite and laughed again.
Mitah grumbled under his breath, then turned back to Brittany. “So. Who are you and what brings you to our bus this fine evening?”
Brittany finished her story as the clock neared zero hour, only then realizing she had never intended to tell the truth. She was so used to lying, it felt almost improper.
“The both of us are runaways.” Mitah had listened closely throughout, and apparently appreciated what Brittany had said to him. “I'm glad we're both the same.” Okay, maybe he hadn’t listened that well. She felt sure she would not say the same back if she heard his story. To avoid any embarrassment, she decided not to reciprocate his request for information.
“There are some things you just can’t run away from,” came Aszea’s voice. “Life is going on all around you.” She paused and looked Brittany directly in the eyes. “What are you holding on to?”
“Nothing. Everything. What should I hold on to?”
Aszea responded with a smile as the bus shuddered to a halt. The troll and the sprite quickly began to gather their belongings and head to the door. Brittany followed them to the front.
“Wait, where are we?”
But Mitah was already gone. Aszea turned back briefly, raised her eyelids, then turned and disembarked into the darkness. Brittany stopped, staring out the doorway into the endless void beyond for what felt like an eternity.
“What is this place?”
“All things to everyone,” responded the driver.
A spark of light appeared off in the distance, coinciding with a familiar high-pitched voice calling out to her.
She faced the driver, unsure what to do next. The driver looked at her for the first time and smiled, then gave her a slight push on her elbow.
“This is your stop.”
Brittany turned back, took a deep breath, and descended the stairs. Then she ran after her new companions, and never looked back.
“Oh, great Oracle, I have come to… oh. Umm... Whoa.”
The young man stopped practicing his speech and stared at the house, losing his train of thought. Here, tucked next to a ravine in the heights of the Glyderau range, the modern single family home looked welcoming, yet perfectly out of place. And certainly nothing like one would expect of an Oracle’s home. One last time, he second guessed his choice to come here. But to turn back now seemed like an affront to all the effort he had already gone through. He exhaled heavily, lifted his head up with false confidence, and strode towards the front door. It opened just as he was reaching up to knock.
“Your parents, they moved to London.”
Luc nodded. The pen scratched out a few words.
“You stayed here to take over the family business, run the farm.”
Luc nodded again, still silent, the pen the only noise between the words.
“There was a girl too. But that didn’t last. Now, you feel out of place, alone, unsure.”
Luc turned away from the man who seemed far too young to be an Oracle and acted more like a psychiatrist, and looked about. Shelves half-filled with books lined the walls, such that no other space remained but for doorways and windows. The room was well lit and cozy, not the sparse harsh stone structures that were home to the oracles of legend. An ornate wooden desk with stacks of additional books nestled into a corner off to the right, while a plush reading chair with an oil lamp rested across the room. Through one doorway, he could see a sparse but clean bedroom. Through another was a simple kitchen.
A silence between movements of the pen nudged his wandering thoughts, and Luc turned back in his chair. Before him, the Oracle sat cross-legged on a large ottoman with a book open on his lap. The backlight made him seem to glow, but also obscured his face.
“You long for days gone by, the life you once knew, and you want to know how to get it back. Don’t look so surprised, figuring out that much doesn’t take any special ability. Everyone who has ever come here was searching for a past that no longer existed. Or an answer to how to handle it. I am not the Oracle of Hiraeth because I tell fortunes about the weather or livestock, after all.”
“Everyone who ever came here? Even you?”
“Yes, me most of all.” The Oracle paused, leaving an opening, but Luc did not press any further. The Oracle turned the page and continued, jotting notes as he spoke. “Your house is falling apart. The farm is barely surviving. You were forced to sell off half your land and the rest is barely producing. You had to let your last farmhand go because you couldn’t pay him anymore.”
Luc’s eyes tried to focus in on the Oracle’s obscured face. “How do you know all this?” The Oracle ignored the question and scratched a few more words. Finally, he put down his pen and closed the book. He doused the light behind him, then took Luc’s hands in his own. His eyes, finally visible, were warm and wide and inviting.
“There are a thousand ways to go home again, but there are millions of ways to leave it behind. Most people who leave find a way to move on. As they start to walk away, the way appears. Those that cannot find the way, those that are overwhelmed by the yearning, the grief, and the desire to return home, they come to me.
“Some come to me to seek answers. They wish to know what happened and why.”
That home is no more. My young man, I know it pains you that they left. Your parents grew tired of their difficult life here. They wanted to experience something new, to build new memories where the ghosts of their past wouldn’t haunt them. You were their third child, and the only one to survive long enough to walk. Seeing your face reminded them every day of what they had lost. Your decision to stay at the farm made their new life both easier and lonelier. It was not a mistake. It is what made you what you are and what you will be.
“Some come to me to seek prophecy. They wish to know what will happen to them in the future.”
That home is no longer what it was. My poor young widower, be full of sorrow, that you may become full of joy; weep, that you may break into laughter. Your future is a complex one. Your newborn child will grow strong in body and in will. He will make you proud and he will break your heart. And you will find love again, and loss as well. Life is a balance of holding on and letting go.
“Some come to me to seek advice. They wish to know what to do now, what to do next.”
That place is not your home anymore. My dear fellow, that farm is not your future, but that of your children and their children. Trust them to carry on for themselves. You need to go now and find what is important to you. What do you care about? Seek out what has made you happy before and make it your future as well as your past. Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.
“Some come to me to seek serenity or acceptance.”
That place you live in now is not your home, it never was. My old friend, you must come to terms with who you are now, who you were then, and the events that made that change. No future will satisfy you until you can harmonize your past. You must journey back as you continue to journey forward. Whether one moves slowly or with speed, the one who is a seeker will be a finder.
“So, what do you come to me seeking today, Luc? Advice? Prophecy? Answers? Serenity?”
“Don’t you already know?” Luc’s weathered face broke into a small smile.
“I see a good many things, including myself asking you that particular question,” responded the Oracle slowly. “But I do not see all things. Over the years I have found that sometimes, what I don’t yet know appears in the moment as if it is free will, at least until the plan is shown to me. So, tell me, what do you seek?”
A silence filled the room as the two old men looked at each other for several moments.
“Finally, at long last,” murmured the Oracle. Then he stood and opened his arms.