There were a hundred men in the tavern, but you could have heard a pin drop if it weren’t for the sound of one-eyed Angsfarn, the best ratter hound in the bay, who was lying on Karl’s table, munching his way through a whole bowl of nuts.
“Well? What happened next?” Theodulf asked. The greybeard had barely touched a drop of his mead. His horn would get dusty if he didn’t move soon.
Karl kept them waiting a moment longer, just to let the anticipation build. “I’d like to say I stood my ground and slew it there and then. You all know I’m no coward, but given a choice between fighting a monster like that and surviving, I’d sooner flee and live to fight another day.”
Little Ongar squealed with excitement, and his mother hushed him.
Karl drained the dregs from his tankard and held it out for the wench to refill, again. “I slipped through a narrow doorway, certain a beast big as an ox wouldn’t be able to follow. But it was sinuous, as silent as an owl, and as fleet as a falcon. I never got more than a few feet away from the great hairy beast.”
He sighed and stared into his tankard, beery reflection gazing back at him. “I glanced back and saw its soulless eyes staring at me. Filled with hate they were, and numbered more than I could count.”
I am free, I am happy. I am free, I am happy.
Akiowa repeated the words over and over as she walked along the ravine floor. She’d fallen into the habit to stop herself fretting about what being the Storyteller would mean – how could she live another person’s life? But a small treacherous voice wondered if it was also to convince herself it was entirely true.
Free she certainly was. Five days had passed since the old Storyteller had died; five days in which Akiowa had walked the land guided by the spear, meeting no one, free as any cottontail or prairie dog. Surely the very definition of happiness after years of slavery.
“I am free! I am happy!” she called. The rock walls threw back the words, but though “free” echoed joyfully, “happy” returned in mournful tones.
At the ravine’s end, a pool shone like a silver mirror. Akiowa set the spear down, took a breath to steady herself, then knelt to drink. The old woman’s face reflected in the water still upset her, but she no longer jerked away in horrified confusion. Only in the first moments of waking, when she saw gnarled hands and wrinkled skin, did the terror and shock of the transformation overwhelm her again.
“Old story, new story; tall story, true story…”
The words echoed around the canyon, piercing as an eagle’s cry, thrilling as a coyote’s call. Akiowa’s heart leapt. The Storyteller!
Hands trembling with excitement, she hurried to round up the goats, hoping to pen them quickly so she could rush down to the village in time to sit close to the spear. Once, when she was small, in the happier times before she was seized by the tribeless men and sold to slavers, she’d sat with her father only an arm’s length from the spear. Magic had purled from it as the Storyteller wove her tales. Magic that glittered like sparks from a fire, but fell as soft as snowflakes on her skin, with scents of honey and woodsmoke, earth and stream. Oh, to be so close again.
But the goats refused to come at her call, and her broken leg had mended badly, slowing her further. By the time she’d herded the flock into their pen and fastened the gate, then limped her way to the village, the whole tribe was gathered before the headman’s tent, abuzz with expectation. No room near the spear, where the headman, clothed in mountain lion skins, sat with his shaman wife in her cloak of condor feathers, smouldering bark cloying the air around them. No room anywhere save at the edge of the crowd, and three times Akiowa was pushed away before she found a place she was allowed to sit.
The coastal road between Southport and Ainsdale is edged by sand dunes, covered in long rough grasses that look like hair. Cars rush past at sixty miles an hour, headlights glaring, stereos blaring.
I walk home on the seaward side of the road, traversing the dunes as clocks tick past midnight. It feels like I am walking on the spine of a massive sleeping dog that’s waiting out the years until humanity disappears.
The journey is long, and I’m wearing a short black dress and denim jacket – more suitable for dancing than walking in below-zero temperatures. I really should’ve waited for a cab instead of thinking I could get home on foot. This route was not meant for pedestrians. I blame the wine I drank and the water I didn’t. At least I chose flat shoes over heels.
Aside from the cold, I like walking under this black-gold sky. I get caught up watching the stars instead of where I’m going. I’ve never seen anyone on this side of the coast road before, and I begin to wonder why.
Then the ground starts moving.
* Winner of the 2018 Story of the Year Award *
When was your first? That is always what we ask one another. When and what? When in your life was that moment, the time that revealed the world to you and sent you scurrying under the bed sheets? When I think back, the thing I always remember is the house. Not the inside, where the shadows gathered and hid. Those memories came later. I remember the front, the black and white Tudor facade with roses growing around the door, and the crunch of a gravel driveway under car tyres. God only knows how my father afforded such a place, although I suspect the Devil might have a better idea. Not a grand house, but beautiful and caught in my memory in a moment of eternal summer. Memory can be an ironic little bastard when it wants to be.
We moved there when I was about eight. I don’t remember much before that, which is odd as eight is old enough. I know some people who claim to have memories of their time as babies, of flashes of food upon their tongue, the smile of a mother’s face. I don’t have any of that. Mother never really smiled much in any case; she never seemed up to the challenge. Father laughed all the time, a laugh which echoed around that house and bounced from basement to rafter. The days there were full of laughter, though I didn’t join in.
My room overlooked the garden, such as it was, fenced in on all sides by the encroaching houses of modernity. I liked to watch the moon shining on that small patch of grass. But soon I couldn’t see out the window. There were too many handprints on it. Father got very angry about those. He said I was being naughty, that I shouldn’t make such a mess, and didn’t I know how much it cost to clean windows? Then he would laugh and raise his fist. I said nothing, through the tears. I hadn’t touched the glass. The hands had just appeared.
As the clock struck midnight, Feng-jing shifted in his chair. He was having a small snack, just a bite of sticky rice cake, when the wooden chair lifted up and he soared out the window. His sweater sleeve snagged on a branch, but he barely felt the rip. He dropped his half-eaten cake. “Hey,” he heard from below, as the pastry hit the helmet of a motorcyclist. His heart palpitated as the breeze whipped his black locks.
“Dad!” he yelled. No response.
The chair dodged Taipei’s various glowing signs and street lamps. As Feng-jing passed above lanterns held by a single string at the temple front, he remembered that thin thread of bracelet on the fortune teller’s wrist. Years ago, Mom took him to the night market, like she did every Friday. She had her fortune read and, on that day, made him do it too. She ushered him into the crammed booth. All he wanted was a scallion pancake, but as he looked at the fortune teller’s gaunt face, he shivered and forgot about that flaky treat. He wrote his name for her, at her request, in his messy elementary scrawl: 馮敬 Feng-jing. The fortune teller stared at it, her lips unmoving.
She looked at him with luminous eyes, “Twelve/twelve,” she said finally, tracing the strokes, counting them aloud. “Your twelfth year, when the hours are even – twelve/twelve – you will realize what you long suspected.”
I don’t have magic. And I don’t smell either. Well, not smell in the sense of pee, or BO. In fact, if Mum didn’t insist all her phoney potions need a drop of jasmine or sandalwood, I wouldn’t smell of anything other than lavender shower gel.
I’m reminding myself, so that when I see Miss Snippy-tits – sorry, Miss Snippleton, the headmistress who makes Hades look like fun – I have my story straight.
God, I hate to be called by my full name. I get to my feet and face the secretary and make myself breathe calmly.
“Yes, Miss.” They’re all Miss. It’s the only way I remember them.
“You can go in now.” She manages to make it sound like a favour.
I went there to kill myself, not to solve the mystery.
I kind of hoped it was true, that there really were ghosts in the old railroad warehouse. Maybe they would grab my soul and keep it there, and I could hang around and see if anyone missed me. Then again, leaving was the point. Nothing good would ever happen in this shit town.
The stories had been going around for weeks, bigger every time because people here did nothing but talk. Odd flashing lights. Noises – rattling, a dog barking, a baby crying. They said the ghosts of the old railroad’s dead had come back to ride the warehouse down into hell.
I said this town was hell, and it was just trying to get away like the rest of us. Besides, the reservoir was its destination; the river had eroded lower and lower into the canyon over the decades, leaving the warehouse perched on the edge of its seat, waiting for something to happen. One of these days, the warehouse would escape. Tonight it was my turn.
Victor sat on the edge of the bed, surrounded by underwear and socks and ladies’ things that he wasn’t quite sure what they were or where they were meant to go exactly. He frowned and blinked once, slowly. He tore his gaze away from the chest of drawers and wondered if he should call his wife…
…Elsa lost socks. Not purposely – it was just something that happened, something that happened to everybody, so she didn’t mind or take any particular notice. Except when she had to buy new socks, or worse, when socks she’d just bought went missing. There was nothing worse than being mildly inconvenienced. Elsa lost other things too, on occasion, but Victor always remarked upon the missing socks. There were supposed to be two socks after all, a pair, so one sock on its own was not right.
“Connor, put that down, poppet, there’s a good boy,” Elsa said, looking away from her washing basket for long enough to stop her grandson swallowing one of her Wade Whimsies. It was the owl one too, her favourite. She would hate for him to swallow that one.
She cleaned toddler drool from the porcelain owl and set it back on her Welsh dresser before lifting Connor from his chair and placing him on the kitchen floor. He gurgled happily, said, “Na na na,” and then proceeded to pull dirty laundry from the basket.
The muttering and murmuring of a thousand angelic voices filled the stark white space. Seleniel smiled at the newbie and patted the chair beside her. “Come, sit down.” She picked up her headset and switched on her computer. “Our shift starts in a minute. It’s 5 a.m. on the US East Coast. That’s our region. What was your name again?”
“Amiel.” The newbie sat, adjusting her bright new halo self-consciously.
“Welcome to comms central,” Seleniel said warmly. “So, did they explain the job?”
“We… warn people of things?” Amiel answered hesitantly. “The mortals, we pass them messages?”
“That’s right. We catch them when they’re in that in-between state, not quite asleep, not quite awake. That’s why they call us the Dawn Chorus. It’s remarkably effective. The mortals never listen when they’re conscious, and they always seem to forget their dreams. But at the awakening… It’s perfect.”