Monthly Archives: December 2015

A Christmas Carol; an Atheist’s Perspective on Christmas

There’s an argument that this story is more responsible for the modern concept of Christmas than the Christian religion.  In brief, the Christmas holiday had actually gone somewhat out of fashion when Dickens wrote this novella, in no small part because fundamentalists had decided the holiday was too frivolous. There’s irony for you. It was a very common, folksy holiday that lots of people were above celebrating. This is why, while Scrooge asking his employees to work on Christmas was a bit mean-spirited, it wasn’t actually shocking. Dickens apparently did have a lot of affection for the holiday; A Christmas Carol is just the most famous of a series of short stories and novellas he wrote, all with the message that Christmas is a wonderful time of joy and goodwill that we should all celebrate more. And good god, did it work.

I was into Christmas specials before they were cool.
I was into Christmas specials before they were cool.

I’m sure most of you have seen any number of versions, from literal takes to one-off spoofs.  Two of my favorite versions are deliberately a bit silly; The Muppet Christmas Carol, and the Doctor Who special with Matt Smith. The formula is so simple, it’s easy to play around with and still produce something meaningful. Even Christmas stories that don’t follow the plot are often influenced by the story; what special doesn’t have a Christmas hating Scrooge?

One of the problems with so many modern Christmas stories is that the connection between the token Scrooge-stand-in’s meanness and their hatred of Christmas is tenuously established. The authors too often rely on genre convention rather than characterization. Dickens, being the originator of this trope, didn’t have this luxury. Instead, he uses Scrooge’s journey to the Christmases of his past to show how he grew up in relative isolation, and how Christmas has consistently been a time when he was offered chances to amend that, and connect to the people around him. Unfortunately, as life’s disappointments piled up and his business became the only meaningful part of his world, he fell into a habit of reflexively rejecting these outstretched hands. Dickens intuitively understood something that, years later, would become a key part of therapy; understanding where bad habits, broken thought patterns and faulty coping strategies came from is the first step in breaking them. That is why “tell me about your childhood” is a cliche of the first therapist session. It works.

While this understanding is still fresh in Scrooge’s mind, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him the joy that is all around him. Whether poor or rich, all around him people are enjoying what they have, and most importantly, they are enjoying each other. Scrooge couldn’t see these scenes when he was a part of them. Like a physicist studying a quantum particle, his observations affected the results. Only by becoming an insubstantial, invisible, inaudible spectre could his cynicism be separated enough that he could truly understand what he was missing.

And then the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him what he was heading towards.

Christmas future

The nice thing about this is that he was not being threatened with death (it is inevitable for us all) or even with hell, at least not in Dante’s sense. He was simply being shown that if he died the way he was now, he would forever lose his opportunity to become someone different, someone who would be thought of in a different way. That’s what all of us are in danger of, all the time. There’s no way around it, being human.

Virtue is often taught as something reductive. It’s about avoiding this choice and not eating this food and resisting that temptation. Not so in this story. In fact, Scrooge is an extremely temperate and prudent man. You could even call him fair, in an extremely harsh, capitalistic sort of way. And yet, he is a mean-spirited, miserable old man. A Christmas Carol is designed to teach him additive virtues; to join in the celebrations and community, to waste money giving to somebody who might not be around forever, and do so precisely because they won’t be around forever. He didn’t need a lecture on the value of kindness. He needed to be shown why you would want to share in the experiences of others, and that made him want to be kind.

Alastair Sim
And dance around the room, naturally

That, I think, is the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas has different traditions all over the world, and it has cobbled together paraphenalia from various religions and mythologies, because what you celebrate matters less than that you celebrate. It’s an excuse to make us all call up friends and relatives who live far away, put hours into figuring out the gift that would make someone else’s face light up, and forget about the musical tastes that normally divide us in favor of joining together to belt “Jingle Bells.” It was said best in the Doctor Who version of A Christmas Carol; halfway through the dark, we need a bit of light to keep us going.

Doctor Who

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays, and have a wonderful season whatever you celebrate and wherever you are!


Veggietales’ The Toy That Saved Christmas; An Atheist’s Perspective on the Nativity

Christmas is a time of traditions. For some it’s touring the neighborhood lights displays. For some it’s putting on Christmas tunes the day after Thanksgiving. One friend of mine does not consider the season real until they have drunk spiked eggnog while watching Ralphie get his Red Rider BB gun with this thing that tells time. Traditions have many uses. They invoke nostalgia, provide a sense of stability, and often exist as a reminder of some deeper value. That last one is especially true of Christmas. Every other song and TV special is about finding its true meaning, which I suppose means one tradition is going a hunt for the point behind the traditions. Truly, it is the most meta of the holidays.

This episode has George the scallion telling his granddaughter a story about a town that didn’t get Christmas. Not in the Narnia cursed by the White Witch sense, but in the sense that they didn’t understand its true meaning. The little veggies all whine about toys and beg for more, because evil toymaker Mr. Nezzar is indoctrinating them through commercials to think that the whole point of life is to have more stuff than other kids. So, basically a documentary so far.

All that changes when one of Mr. Nezzar’s toys, Buzz-saw Louis, starts to feel that they are missing something.

Yes, you read that right. Buzz-saw Louis.
Yes, you read that right. Buzz-saw Louis.

There isn’t really any reason for this. Narrator George speculates that his wiring was a little off. In any case, he breaks free, teams up with Larry, Bob and Jr Asparagus, and they all go looking for someone to tell them the true meaning of Christmas. This person turns out to be Grandpa George, who tells them the Nativity story.

Actually, he just does that thing Linus does in the Peanuts special, where he starts from “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby…” and stops just after the angels show up, which always struck me as odd. Explaining the true meaning of Christmas by quoting those seven verses is like explaining the Hero’s Journey by describing that time Han Solo got frozen in carbonite. Sure, it’s intriguing, but you don’t really come close to grasping the real point without knowing the whole of Empire Strikes Back, and ideally you should have seen A New Hope and Return of the Jedi as well. And yes, in this metaphor episodes IV to VI of Star Wars correspond to Adam and Eve, the Nativity and the Passion of the Christ respectively.

At least in the Peanuts special, there was room for Charlie Brown to have been familiar with the whole story from another source, and Linus was just reminding him after the guy had a rough time. In this case, Louis has just been manufactured, and as for Larry, Bob and Jr., all it took was a few commercials to completely obliterate any sense of deeper meaning behind the holiday. Clearly they haven’t been living in “inundate our children with messages about the various origins of the holiday” land. Despite their ignorance, George just has to follow those verses up with “you see, Christmas isn’t about getting. It’s about giving,” and they have a total change of heart. Even though the verses he quoted don’t say anything about getting OR giving, and you have to be fairly familiar with Christianity to see the connections between those two messages. It should all sound like a chain of non-sequiters to these characters.

Just nod and smile at the crazy old man. Coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake.
Just nod and smile at the crazy old man. Coming here was a terrible, terrible mistake.

Of course, they immediate vow to reform and also feel an urgent need to get the message out, so they sneak back into Mr. Nezzar’s factory, where they put together their own commercial and broadcast it into everyone’s home. And naturally, all the kids immediately stop whining, families start cuddling and all is well.

If you’ve read my previous Veggietales posts, you know that every episode featuring Mr. Nezzar has him threaten somebody with death, only to be redeemed at the last minute, at which point everyone acts like he wasn’t just on the verge of not only being a murder, but being extremely gleeful about this. This is no exception. Mr. Nezzar is angry that they’ve ruined his moneymaking scheme and prepares to send the protagonists all over a cliff, taunting them with their imminent death, until the villagers surprise him with a Christmas present and the holiday spirit overtakes him. Mr. Nezzar rescues Buzz-saw Louis and friends in an epic sled-chase, and all is better. For the record, of all the Nezzar redemption arcs this the one I like best, because at least he does something to show his change of heart is genuine, as opposed to just saying he’s totally not a psychopath anymore.

A brief summary like this can’t help but leave out all the jokes that make this episode, as usual, charming. I mean, Mr. Nezzar’s minions are penguins. Penguins!


But the advantage of a summary is that it lays out the weaknesses of the plot, without anything to disguise it. Characters are farcically impressionable, swayed this way and that by whatever commercial or story they last heard. There isn’t anything meaningful at the heart of this story, for a very simple reason. The Nativity is just like any other Christmas tradition. It is a series of symbols, and needs active interpretation to uncover the point beneath it all.

As in so many things Christian, I don’t actually have a problem with the story of Christ’s birth, just the assumption that anyone who doesn’t make it the center of their holiday is missing the entire point of everything. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, it isn’t even the entire point of Christmas; the holiday has roots in virtually every pagan winter solstice celebration from Iceland to Russia. The traditions carry history, but the meaning is something we rediscover and reinvent with every new generation. You can’t find Christmas by narrowing in on one story. You pick what you think it should mean, and you home in on the traditions that bring those to life for you.

Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of my Christmas trilogy!

Miracle on 34th Street; An Atheist’s Perspective on Santa

Kris and Susan
Best Christmas movie ever. Except The Christmas Carol, but I’ll get to that soon.

I should start by explaining that my parents never let us believe in Santa Claus. They were afraid that when they told us he wasn’t real, it would make us wondering if other mythological-sounding ideas might be questioned, like the entire Christian religion. It was a Nativity-only household. In retrospect, I still experienced the same story as my Santa-believer friends. We were both taught about a man who comes to bring wonderful gifts, but only if you’re very good and believe in him. Disbelief meant you were cynical and coldly logical, incapable of true joy and goodwill toward men. Disbelieving people like that are the whole reason the world sucks. If you don’t believe, it’s your own fault. Jesus/Santa loves you, and the fact that he won’t prove his existence but still will punish you for not living up to his standards in no way contradicts that.

Of course, the difference is that Santa is bringing toys that you want, but can live without, and kids aren’t actually expected to believe in Santa past early childhood. Still, I can’t shake the association. The parallels run too deep, and I have no nostalgia to fall back on. The first (and last) time I watched The Santa Clause with my boyfriend I think I ended up crying.

Gaslighting, non-consensual permanent bodily changes, effective slavery and a family torn asunder. For kids!
Gaslighting, non-consensual permanent bodily changes, effective slavery and a family torn asunder. For kids!

My other issue with Santa Claus movies is that the moral is usually that life is meaningless and depressing if fairy tales aren’t true. Unfortunately, once the credits roll we return to a world where they aren’t. The ultimate message of such stories is that if we aren’t delusional, we are nihilists.

The only Santa movie I can appreciate is The Miracle on 34th Street, because at least that way I can pretend there is no magic and Kris Kringle is just a high-functioning schizophrenic. Wait, wait, bear with me. That’s not as awful as it sounds.

For those who haven’t seen it (and you really should), Miracle on 34th Street is about a kindly old man, an old man, Kris Kringle, is hired as a last minute replacement to be Macy’s Santa Claus. He turns out to believe he really is Santa, Father Christmas, Sinterclaas, Saint Nicholas, the whole mythology wrapped into one person. The movie opens with Kris discovering that the man hired to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is intoxicated. He immediately finds the organizer, Doris Walker, informs her of the problem, and despite his reluctance is talked into being the replacement. In his words, “the children mustn’t be disappointed.” This establishes him as a kindly, responsible person; if you have a soul, he’s nigh impossible to dislike.

When that same organizer offers him a job being a full-time mall Santa, he can’t resist the opportunity to, as he says, combat some of the commercialism that has taken over Christmas. While on his throne, instead of recommending nothing but Macy’s toys, he informs customers of other chains that can provide what they really want. Oh, he’ll shill Macy’s when they’ve really got the product the kids want, but if he knows a better deal can be found somewhere else, nothing can convince him to hide that fact.

His employers are upset by this, for all of about ten seconds. Then they realize the kind of publicity their new Santa is bringing them, and suddenly he’s their most valuable employee. This becomes a problem when Doris discovers Kris’ delusion.

Doris is a very nuanced character. She is a single mother in the 40s who, contrary to what you might expect of that era, is portrayed as both a professional employee and an attentive, caring mother. Her only flaw is that she insists her daughter Susan be raised in an entirely practical way. This means not only no Santa Claus, but no fairy tales, tooth fairies or fantasies of any kind. Doris’ reasons are sympathetic. What happened to Susan’s father is never explained, but it seems he abandoned the family in some traumatic way, and that Doris blames fairy tales for giving her an unrealistic image of the knight in shining armor. She’s trying to protect her daughter from that. Instead of letting us assume that of course Doris is wrong, despite her good intentions, the movie bothers to show us the effects of this on Susan. She’s a very nice, intelligent girl, but her social life is stunted because she doesn’t know how to engage in imaginative play, even at a developmentally appropriate level. This means she’s missing out on creative and social skills that will be important later on in her life.

In addition to changing things at Macy’s Kris has another mission. He wants to teach Doris and Susan to open up. Doris is wounded by her loss of faith in people, and Susan is learning a reflexively cynical attitude from her. The interesting thing is that while he insists he is Santa Claus, he also doesn’t seem to care too much whether or not other people believe him. If other people believe in him, that’s a nice bonus, but its more important that they believe in what he stands for. His interventions with Susan aren’t centered around proving his reality, but on giving her imagination lessons. The scene where he teaches her to pretend to be a monkey is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen.

The Monkey Lesson
The Monkey Lesson

While Kris is trying to spread joy, optimism, childish creativity and the giving spirit, the department store psychologist is trying to get him committed as a lunatic. This movie has a remarkably nuanced approach to psychology. Unlike some movies, where the medical professionals would be creatures of unadulterated evil for daring to convince children that they shouldn’t believe in fantasies past when it’s developmentally appropriate (the nerve of them!), this film has two doctors. One, Dr. Sawyer, has clearly entered the profession because it gives him license to see the worst in everyone, which distracts him from his own small, petty character. A bit of an exaggeration, but we’ve all met people like this.

The other works at the nursing home where Kris lived previously. Dr. Pierce also believes Kris is delusional, but he doesn’t think Kris should be locked up. As he explains, mental illnesses don’t make someone inherently dangerous. Kris is gentle, intelligent, and his whole psychosis is centered around a desire to help people. All he needs is someone to keep an eye on him in case he takes a bad turn, and otherwise he should be treated just like anyone else. This is completely accurate. Mental health is complex, and the real world has many people whose situation is similar to Kris’s. Dr. Pierce’s reaction is not only humanitarian, but practical, especially in a world just prior to the invention of effective antipsychotic medication. An asylum couldn’t do much for him, so why not let him have the best quality of life that he can?

I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a delightfully happy one… and also lacks convincing proof that Kris really is Santa Claus. There’s a minor miracle, but one that has potential mundane explanations. Many of the good characters end up believing in him, but not all, and several seem to be at a point of agnosticism, or tell him they believe he is Santa Claus but seem to mean that metaphorically. The real lesson of the film is in the triumph of optimism and kindness over cynical self-interest, and whether characters end up believing in Santa as fact or as a metaphor for the Christmas spirit is not really important. The standard interpretation, that Kris Kringle was Santa all along, is fine if you prefer that, but it is based more in genre conventions than anything else.

Peace, joy and family for everyone
Peace, joy and family for everyone

So why don’t I find the interpretation that Kris Kringle is mentally ill depressing? Because even if he is, it means he’s a mentally ill person who still leads a fulfilling, happy life surrounded by people who care about him. It means that even in a world without magic, pragmatists and capitalists can see the value of kindness, cynics can rediscover hope, mean spirited trolls can lose and love can win. It means that even without fairy tales being real, imagination and joy can triumph.

Why would anybody want it any other way?

Stealing Souls, Chapter Four: Name Stories

This is a continuation of the book I have been working on. It will be posted chapter by chapter every other week. The first chapter can be found here. I will post ten chapters that together will comprise the first third of the book, then take a break before posting the next ten or so chapters. Please tell me what you think, and thank you very much for reading!

Ainsel was now four, which meant she had lived with the animals for a quarter of her life. She had feared and hated her older brother, and she feared and hated the bag he sometimes put her into. So, by the highly transitive nature of fear, she disliked Bernard to begin with. She stopped screaming simply because she knew she was no longer in the place where the animals would come for her. Her stilled sobs were half resignation, half terror, the kind of terror that doesn’t fly, doesn’t fight, just shuts down. At this point, she did not expect rescue or comfort, but she did hope that eventually she would be returned to where she felt happy.

When the sun started to set, and she had only been taken further from anything familiar, she began to doubt that. She had been out in the lots and wandered briefly into the cracked sidewalks before, but she had never been far from what passed as civilization. Now she was surrounded by forest. The green had been almost blinding. The smell of decaying leaves was not pleasant to her, only strange. She didn’t know how to get home.

When Avalon, Bernard and Ainsel reached Cambio, there was already a fire and vegetable stew. Good stew isn’t easy when you don’t have broth. To make stew on the road, you have to keep a pot boiling most of the day, letting the first seasonings and vegetables boil down to almost nothing, just to turn the water to broth, and only then add in the rest of the ingredients to soften. Cambio had all day to wait for them and make his stew, and it was very, very good. Furthermore, he knew that the best way to keep children behaving was to keep them occupied. He had a sling for blind baby Rosalind, and impressed upon Callisto, oldest at five, that she was responsible for watching Percy, eleven months. For the rest, he said that tonight was going to be a very special night. He could feel in his bones that Avalon would be bringing home their final sister. They would have a celebration. It was the job of Pandarus, Fortinbras and Sigyn to make things special for them. They were the decorators.

Fortinbras was only two, rarely spoke and had neither of his legs, so he was seated on a rock and declared foreman. Courtesy of Pandarus, dinner was served on platters of old bark, lined with large green leaves. They also had forks made of pronged twigs, cut back to as uniform a size as possible. These were not particularly useful for stew, and Cambio already had spoons, but he was proud of them anyway. Icy blue juniper berries had been used as scatter decoration by Sigyn. At first she had wanted to dye the leaves with black berries she found in the woods; luckily they had been instructed to bring everything to Cambio for inspection, as the berries were nightshade. After a careful scrubbing of her hands with a wet towel, she had found the juniper, and though they were approved they did not transfer as dye so nicely. She had scrubbed them against the leaves and only shredded both. Instead, she had put sprigs of juniper everywhere. She also had meticulously found round pebbles, the size of quarters and varied in color, one for everyone. These she called “cup-ring-stones.” Cambio was unsure what these were, but he assured her they were certainly the very best cup-ring-stones in existence.

Avalon exclaimed her joy at this spread. Bernard found it disappointing in its drabness, but took a cue from them and forced himself to smile at the child decorators. Ainsel was presented, and her new family hurried in to meet her. This unrush of people shocked her out of her paralysis, and she began hissing, flailing her hands wildly and wriggling. Avalon was startled into dropping her. Rather than seeming hurt by this, Ainsel scurried under a nearby thicket.

Avalon and Bernard tried to retrieve her. Attempts to reach in and fetch her were foiled by thorns and burrs. Luring her out with food was equally futile. All Ainsel did was crouch in the center, her eyes glinting out at them like a cat’s. Cambio suggested that if they wanted her to come out, perhaps the best thing to do for now was leave her alone. Let her calm down, and get hungry.

They followed this advice, to the delight of the hungry children. Cambio half emptied his bowl in three long slurps, which made the little children laugh. The other half he ate sparingly, and between bites he told a story.

“Long ago, when Mother Miranda was turning the metros of DC into a home for the Metropiads, she decided everyone who came to her would receive a new name. In the outside world people have a name for themselves and a family name, and sometimes two people have the same name. She did not like this. She thought we should all be one family, and we should all have our own special names.”

A rustle interrupted him. They saw the place set for Ainsel was empty, not only of Ainsel but of her bowl of soup. The thicket she had disappeared into before was shaking. She had dragged her bowl back into the heart of it while they were not looking. Cambio shrugged and continued.

“So she made a big list of all the best names. She took them from old stories, books, histories, and places from the old world that should not be forgotten. Before you see your new home, all of you will hear the story that goes with your name.

“Bernard, you were the first new Metropiad we found, so you will hear your story first.

“In our home, you will all find stories and knowledge that the people out here have forgotten. This is not the first time that knowledge has been lost. Many thousands of years ago, a great empire fell, and the people who lived there could not read or write. Still, there were a few places where they kept the old books. People copied them down by hand, in beautiful books full of pictures. They remembered how to make medicines from herbs and observe the stars, which in those days was very impressive. These people were called priests and monks, and they lived in castles called monasteries. There were also people who could read and write, but who did not study for love of learning, but only to make themselves seem better than those who could not. They drank fine wines out of crystal glasses and wore clothes of rare fabric, and hunted from the backs of horses.

“There was a man from one of these rich and useless families, named Bernard. He loved learning for its own sake, and he wanted to become a monk. His father did not approve, especially because monks, like Metropiads, do not marry. His father thought Bernard should marry a beautiful and rich woman, so they could have children who would themselves drink from crystal and hunt from horses and generally be completely useless. So he did not give Bernard permission to become a monk.

“On the day before Bernard was supposed to be married, he was locked in his room, which was forty feet from the ground. He decided he must escape at any cost, so he jumped from his window. What really happened is a mystery, but people from that time said that angels caught him and flew him gently to the ground. In any case, he survived, and ran away to a monastery.

“He became such a great monk that they let him build his own monastery, in treacherous mountains where nobody had been able to go before. There he became famous for protecting travelers, and because of that, and the miracle, Mother Miranda chose his name for you, Bernard.”

Bernard’s face was bursting with the kind of pleasure that is almost embarrassing, it is so overwhelming. “Thank you!” he said.

“No need for thanks,” Cambio said. “It is your name, and I only told the story. Now, for you, Pandarus. Your name was that of an Aeneid. The Aeneids were followers of a man named Aeneas.”

And he told them all how Aeneas had a sacred destiny, but he abandoned it for a life of pleasure at the palace of Dido. Cambio explained how at first he only wanted to stay to rest after a long journey, but even once he was rested, his men begged him to stay and stay, until they had been there a year and had to go on. He told them about the land of hills they found, and how those hills would one day be the greatest city in the world.

“Because the Aeneids made the choice to follow the right man, and build a great civilization, Mother Miranda put all their names in her great machine, and chose Pandarus for you.”

Pandarus nodded, with such a serious expression on his soft chubby cheeks that Avalon raised a hand to cover her smile.

Last of all, Fortinbras heard of two faraway lands, called Denmark and Norway. He heard how there were two princes who lost their fathers, fearful Hamlet of Denmark and brave Fortinbras of Norway. He did not hear the rest of the gory story. Not how Hamlet’s father’s ghost told him that his uncle had killed the throne, nor how instead of taking revenge for his father he pretended to be insane, nor how Fortinbras ruled Norway wisely, nor that Hamlet was killed by his enemies and Fortinbras got both Denmark and Norway for himself, and both countries were the better for it (“and that is why Mother Miranda chose his name for you”). Fortinbras the Metropiad was asleep by this time.

“That’s enough for now,” Cambio said. “Rosalind is next, and her story is very long. I will tell it tomorrow.”

“What about mine?” Callisto said.

“Yes, yours will be after Rosalind. Perhaps not tomorrow night, because her story really is very long, but we will hear everyone’s stories before we reach home.”

The fire and wood was checked, and everybody was tucked into thick blankets, the little ones in Cambio’s wagon while Cambio, Avalon and Bernard slept around the fire. Everyone breathed deep and slow, letting themselves fade into sleep, except for Ainsel. Ainsel watched.

When she had enough of watching, she crept out of her blanket and down the side of the wagon. She thought she remembered where the road was. The fear of getting lost did not occur to her. She had always wandered freely, for as long as she had been able to crawl. This wandering had always drawn her into the mall, where food was likely to be found, not outside of it, and there everywhere was still, in a sense, part of her home. Going far enough in any direction would eventually lead her back to the labyrinth of storerooms that was most familiar to her. Even if she had gone outside, she would have gotten tired and bored before she got out of view of the mall. In short, there had never been any lost to get to.

Soon enough, though, she learned what it was like to be lost. Her hands and knees were tough, but still they were used to flat concrete, or worn linoleum. Forest ground was something new to deal with. At any moment, her hands could fall on soft leaves, a rough twisted root, a stone, a sharp poking stick, or a depression in the dirt that was just enough to startle her when the earth came up a moment after she expected it. It was impossible to stay on a straight path, as the trees made her always turn out of their way. Furthermore, she soon learned the nasty trick of a forest; if you walk a ways and look back where you came, what you see looks nothing like what you passed. This is true of a mall as well, to some extent, because you are seeing a different side, but you can always recognize the signs and the overall shapes of the storefronts. Trees, on the other hand, look different from every angle, and give no hints. A person in a forest can turn around three times without ever realizing they have passed where they went before.

But what was worse than all the disorientation was the absence of someone arriving to help her. Ainsel was not used to human helpers, of course, but in her experience, it was only a matter of time before something furry and four legged appeared before her, as if to say “hello, fancy seeing you here. Are you doing all right?” She would then follow it to wherever it was going, and everything would be all right. It had been so long, and she wasn’t home, and no creature had appeared to save her. For the first time, she became conscious of the feeling of the great hole of people who you want and aren’t there. Soon afterwards, it became not just an emptiness, but a sucking, a maelstorm drawing her in, deeper and deeper to the darkness. That was the despair.

She heard unfamiliar noises. Without the experience to know to fear a wolf’s howl, or a snapping twig, or even to find an owl’s hoot eerie, she did not gain any specific feelings from them, but she became increasingly aware of her ignorance, and started viewing them all with a suspenseful distrust. Her instincts were all of a survivor, so she found a hollow, piled some leaves around herself, and waited.

Very quietly, because she was more used to tears drawing punishment than relief, she cried.

Bernard would swear afterwards that something in him heard those cries. It is doubtful that a sound so soft could really have reached his ears. More likely he drifted naturally in and out of sleep, and at one point noticed the fire could do with a second log. This kept him from drifting fully back to sleep. After he had eased a log from the pile into his arms, carefully aimed and flipped it into position, dodging the sparks, he was fully awake enough to notice something wasn’t quite right, and so notice Ainsel’s absence. The bit about hearing her through his sleep was added afterwards, was probably romantic elaboration. But who knows?

He woke Cambio and Avalon, who lit torches and began circling, looking for her. Bernard followed Avalon and joined their search, calling “Ainsel! Ainsel!”

She had gone far for a little girl, but not too far, and Bernard found her, curled up between two leaves. He fell to his knees and reached out his arms towards her, saying, again, “Ainsel!” The word had no meaning for her, and she only glowered at him while drawing her arms and legs still tighter into her body. He edged in, asking her questions she could not answer, like why she had gone away and didn’t she want to come back to the fire and get warm. She did not move until he got too close, at which point she suddenly bit his hand, and took advantage of his shock to scamper past him to another big tree behind him.

He winced from the bite. She had not drawn blood, but she had bitten him with real intent to do harm, and he correctly suspected he would have a bruise in the morning. This time he did not approach her, but watched from where he was, and called Avalon and Cambio.

They were as confused as he was when they came. Neither of them had ever seen behavior like this. Some strategies for tying her up or wrapping her in a blanket and carrying her back to the fire by force were discussed, but they both saw real problems with this. How to keep her in place once she was back, how to keep the other children safe if she thrashed around, and how this would make her feel even less inclined to stay with them were all points raised. Since she could not be left, the only alternative was to leave somebody to look after her. Once this suggestion was made, Bernard insisted that he wanted to be the one to stay.

Avalon fetched blankets for both Bernard and Ainsel. He suggested she lay Ainsel’s out on the ground near her, rather than try to give it to her. When she did, Ainsel watched it, unmoving until Avalon had backed away. Once everyone was clear Ainsel snatched it and retreated into another hollow of tree roots, wrapping it around herself and burrowing down. After confirming once more that there was nothing else she could get and that Bernard was determined to stay, she left. Bernard settled into the same hollow where he had found Ainsel, wrapped the blanket around himself. Sleep was fitful, disturbed by both the awkwardness of his new place, and the periodic return of Ainsel’s little sobs.

Morning brought Cambio and a pan of food; fried apples and cheese cooked on toast. Bernard was ravenous. Balancing a fork between his two stumps was effort, but worth the reward. Ainsel was still cagey and distrustful, but breakfast in the end lured her out as well. Once the rest were ready to get on the road, however, she refused to join the other children on the wagon, or to be picked up. The contact she had tolerated when she believed she would be returned home was now the one thing she could not stand. In the end, all they could think to do was move along and hope she followed. She did. They might be kidnappers, from her perspective, but they were the only known source of food.

The way was slow. Her stamina was surprising for someone so small, but still they had to stop often to let her catch up, rest, and drink some water. By midday, she was exhausted enough to allow them to put her in the wagon, though she drew herself tightly into the corner and glared at the other children.

Night brought a meal of whatever you wanted from Cambio’s stores of nuts, bread and dried fruits. As everyone else ate, Cambio rocked Rosalind and told them all her story. It was, as he said, long. It had injustices and misunderstandings, Rosalind and her friend running away to the woods, Rosalind dressing up as a boy and then pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl, and lots of love stories. Many of the children were not able to follow all of the twists, but they were still amused by the jokes and wordplays he made up, in the spirit of Shakespeare more than literal translation. At the close, he informed Rosalind, even though she too was sleeping, that humans have always needed some nonsense and a happy ending to get through life, and Mother Miranda gave her Rosalind’s name to remind her of that.

“I’m next,” Callisto said. “I came after Rosalind.”

“It’s late,” Cambio said. “But you will hear your story first tomorrow.”

Callisto gave a loud, groaning sigh. “I’m not sleepy yet.”

“I think the rest of us are.”

“They don’t have to stay up and listen.”

Cambio laughed. “All right, if it means that much to you, I can tell your story as well.

“Once, a long time ago, people believed there were beautiful people who lived in trees, called nymphs. One nymph, called Callisto, who was friends with the goddess of animals.

“It was a rule of the nymphs to never marry or have children, so they would not have to ever leave their life of adventures in the forest, but Callisto had a secret baby. When the goddess found out, she was very angry. She turned Callisto into a bear.

“The baby was taken away to be raised by humans, who taught him to become a hunter. One day, he met his mother, in the woods. She was still a bear, and he did not recognize her, and threw his spear. The son was a good shot, and the spear would have killed her, except the goddess of animals had noticed them. With a snap of her fingers, she changed them both into stars in the sky.” He looked up, but the leaves obscured the stars too much for them to see. “If you are all very good, someday, soon after we are home, I will take you out and I will show you where they are. The old people made up stories like these to remember shapes in the stars. They used these shapes to tell where they were, and what time of the year it was. So that her own people would always know when and where they are, Mother Miranda kept the names of all the stars, and chose Callisto for you.”

When she realized the story was over, Callisto let out a wail. “I don’t like that story!” she said. “Rosalind’s story was better. It’s not fair! I want to be Rosalind!”

Cambio gave the sigh of someone who has heard a thousand and one tantrums, and learned the art of being entirely indifferent to them. He did not answer her, but instead announced it was bedtime.

Ainsel did not understand any of the stories she had heard. She knew to listen to what people said, as once in a while, amid the jumble of indecipherable language, she found a clue to something useful; a bit of shelter or where some food was hidden. What she understood of these stories did not seem useful to her, so she listened and ignored in turn, but the attention all the other children gave them made her think there was something in them worth knowing. As they were all tucked into their blankets, and Callisto continued to sob “I don’t want to be Callisto, I want to be Rosalind,” Ainsel realized that the word whose significance she had missed in the previous story was “Callisto,” and there were fragments, suggestions, of a memory of the word “Rosalind” from the story before. Rosalind and Callisto. Callisto and Rosalind. Perhaps they were a kind of nut?

The next night she listened closely. “There have been many important Percys,” Cambio began, “so who knows which one Mother Miranda meant, but I like to think it was one about a very naughty boy…” and he told them about a little boy who had a job of carrying things from place to place, and how he used to play jokes on his fellow trains, which appeared to be what people who carried things were called. In the end he was punished, but then he saved the rest of the trains from a flood, and everyone became friends.

Ainsel tried to pick out a repeated word of significance, but it was too hard. There were too many words she did not know. When Cambio picked up little Percy and bounced him on his knee, enunciating “Percy” so clearly, she felt cheated. How was she supposed to have guessed that? Her face she kept so deprived of expression that nobody could guess how disappointed she was.

Next Cambio turned his attention to Sigyn, and told them about her friend Loki who, though bad, was punished so cruelly, chained to a rock with burning poison dripping on his face, that she decided to save him. Ainsel noticed how she smiled when he said that Sigyn fetched a bowl and Sigyn caught the drops of poison and Sigyn threw the bowls full of poison out before Loki could be so harmed. Her heart pounded as she began to think she might know the word that was important. When Cambio finished with his signature line, “blah blah blah Mother Miranda blah blah blah blah blah great machine blah blah blah Sigyn,” the relief and satisfaction was so great that Ainsel actually smiled.

Cambio noticed this smile, which made her shrink back. A look crossed his face, an “I want to try something” smirk. He stepped around the fire, reached out and dragged Ainsel forward, so he could get his face right down into hers. Everyone around them flinched, knowing how Ainsel sometimes struck out, but this time Ainsel was stiff and rigid, hands balled in her lap.

“Once upon a time, in a kingdom across the sea, there lived some people who had a funny way of talking. Instead of “my own self,” they said ‘my ain sel.’ In this kingdom, there also lived little fairies, who liked to snatch away little children in the night, so parents would warn their children to go straight to bed where it was safe. But one night, in a little village close to a forest full of fairies, there was a very naughty boy, and he decided that after he had been tucked in, he should slip out and play with all his toys.”

Ainsel looked into his eyes very intently, expressionless except for the focus in her gaze. She was very afraid of him. This, she felt, was the end of the game, and she had only just begun to figure out what was going on. Her only hope lay in giving him all his attention, and perhaps she would solve it in time.

“This little boy had been playing for only a little while when, just as his parents had always said, a fairy popped right down the chimney.”

The children around her drew their breaths in. Ainsel looked around very sharply, to see what had startled them, but of course she saw nothing. Her fear grew, but she returned her focus to Cambio’s face. She would solve the game.

“But it was not a big, scary, child snatching fairy. It was only a little one, a child like himself. So without any fear, he asked her what her name was.

“‘I’m Ainsel,’ she said.

“He thought this was very funny. For he thought she had said ‘I’m my own self.’ He replied, ‘well, I’m my Ainsel too.'”

“‘How funny!’ she said, and they began to play with each other. They got along very well until they began to play grown-ups. He pretended he was his father, picked up the old fire poker and began to stir the fire. A spark jumped out and burned the fairy’s foot, and she began to wail. Afraid the crying would wake his parents, he jumped into bed, pulled the covers over his head and pretended he was asleep.

“It was not his parents who were woken up, but the fairy’s own mother who heard the scream. She came down the chimney, and she was not a nice, pretty fairy. She was a large, hairy fairy, with big pointed ears and rotten teeth, and around her waist she wore potions and powders that would turn you into a mouse, or a snake, or a lonely little stone statue of yourself. Seeing the burn on her daughter’s foot, she hollered ‘who burned you? I will carve him into pieces, and turn the pieces to flies and feed the flies to all the frogs and toads in the pond! Who did it!’

“‘My Ainsel!’ the little fairy girl cried. ‘My Ainsel burned me!’

“‘Well, if it was just your own self, that should teach you a lesson,’ the mother said, and whisked the fairy girl back home.”

Not all the children got it, but Bernard laughed, and after some thought so did Callisto and Pandarus, and Fortinbras joined in just to avoid being left out. Ainsel remained quiet, focused on Cambio.

Cambio took a deep breath, about to give his signature finish, but then he found himself unable to think of a moral. He let his breath out. Experimentally he leaned forward, and when Ainsel didn’t budge, he leaned in a little more.

“I guess even Mother Miranda liked a joke now and then.” He left a hand and gently booped Ainsel on the nose. “Ainsel.”

The fire was tended, the dishes cleared up and all the children were bundled into their blankets. For a while, Ainsel lay awake, thinking about the story. She held her two good hands in front of her face, turning them over and back again. She lifted one finger, and tapped herself on the nose.

“Ainsel?” she thought. Then she shrugged, rolled over and closed her eyes. She had been fed and was still all right. Whether any of her guesses were right or not, it seemed she had won the game, which meant she could go to sleep.

Dear Philip Pullman

Spoilers for the His Dark Materials trilogy ahead.

Dear Philip Pullman,

I am a bit late to your party. The same parents who objected to Harry Potter for its alleged Satanism, Halloween for its history of Paganism, and Pokemon for… whatever that was about, objected to your epic fantasy trilogy because of its blatant, explicit villanization of churches who primarily operate by condemning perfectly harmless things. Shocking plot twist, I know. In any case, I thought your trilogy was incredible. It was subtle, beautiful, complex, rich, and full of characters I absolutely loved. I was sure this would become one of my new favorite series, destined to be reread for years to come.

Then I got to the ending. And now that I have done so, I would like to formally register the following complaints.

  1. When frequently stating that Lyra’s destiny is to be tempted and make a choice that will change the destiny of all the worlds, you create certain expectations. Specifically, you create the expectation that all those things will happen. It’s cheating if, for example, the choice Lyra is to make is not actually a choice. While being in a relationship and rekindling a fading spark can be choices, falling in love is not a choice. Nobody is presented with the options of falling in love or not falling in love, and then selects one as a result of conscious consideration. It happens by unconscious processes that are not fully understood, even by those who have fallen in love. It is not comparable to eating a forbidden apple, especially when falling in love was never something Lyra was told she shouldn’t do. And if you want to object that Lyra and Will choose to leave each other later on, that doesn’t cut it. The significant changes to the way the dust moves happen as a result of them falling in love. The choices to close the windows affect the world, but there’s no other choice they would be likely to make. The choice to split up is difficult, but affects their lives, not the fundamental nature of the universe.
  2. I’m going to start this complaint off with a bit of praise. It is very difficult to make a magical system mystical, and simultaneously give it rules that the readers can understand. Somehow, for the majority of your series, you pulled this balance off. You did this in part by weaving connections and consistencies between aspects of the magic world that the characters understood, and ones that they perhaps could never fully understand. Understanding how the daemon-severing cage worked helped to foreshadow both the knife and the device that nearly killed Lyra, and then tied together dust, daemons, spectres, angels and ghosts. Everything in your series feels like part of a coherent world, until those last few chapters. None of your rules, clues and connections made it at all predictable that Will and Lyra falling in love would cease the flow of dust away from the wheel trees in the world of the mulefa. Nothing you established about dust connected back to love; in fact, dust was primarily connected to conscious thought, creativity, intellect. Animals can love as well as people, but they don’t attract as much dust. Prepubescent children don’t attract as much dust, but they can fall in love (my behavior during my childhood crushes was quite embarrassing, but even so my feelings were no less real than in my adult relationships). So how does that moment of love affect dust at all? Why couldn’t a mulefa have done that? Why did it have to be in that location, as dust exists anywhere there is conscious life, and how did falling in love there affect dust everywhere? And if it didn’t affect dust everywhere, well, how exactly did that fulfill the prophecy? See objection number one.
  3. While the characterization of Lyra the child was extremely realistic at the beginning, she seemed too mature in the last few scenes. People don’t suddenly become adults like that. It’s an ongoing process, not a sudden switch. She didn’t act like a preteen in love, she didn’t even seem like a college student in love. She seemed like a woman of about thirty-five calmly choosing her medical career over the cute boy she grew up with, and that was jarring and frankly a bit weird.
  4. Despite this, the relationship between the two of them developed very naturally and I in no way object to the fact that they did fall in love. They were an excellent couple who I heartily ship. This leads me to my next complaint. It can sometimes be effective to not let a couple end up together; Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca come to mind. When there is a greater sacrifice that must be made, the resulting separation can be very poignant yet satisfying. However, this must be earned. In this case, there was something oddly cyclical about the rule that forced them to separate. People get sick of they live too long outside their own world. Why? So Will and Lyra can be forced to separate. Why did the story need them to separate? Because people can’t live outside their own world. Why? So Will and Lyra can split up, weren’t you listening? Once again, this rule had no roots in the other established rules of the world. It therefore seemed completely arbitrary and made what should have been a tragic romantic end into a bland disappointment.
  5. Also, why is it that one window left permanently open was fine, but two would clearly end the world? Especially one opened very briefly and closed immediately afterwards? Yes, I know you went over everything about dust escaping and the creation of spectres. But still, one is fine, two will destroy life as we know it. Something about that math doesn’t compute, especially in the presence of all the many windows that have been left open for the past three hundred years and the fact that dust is still around. Oh, and did you forget that the knife kills spectres, and they are terrified to approach it, and that Will and Lyra are grown up enough to see spectres now? So if the window is only opened when Will is there, knife in hand, any spectre who tries to get out will end up very, very stabbed. Problem solved.
  6. Lyra and John Parry talked about building the Republic of Heaven right where they were. This was Lyra’s purpose in life once she was separated from Will. You do realize that improving the world is a long process that requires more than just one life to do, right? More than one life and more than one lifetime. And it’s a collaborative effort, where the existence of a strong community of thinkers and do-gooders is more important than any one of them, individually. Lyra could have helped improve our world, and either plenty of other geniuses, artisans and philanthropists would have existed in her world to take her place. In any world that deserved the Republic of Heaven, the absence of one little girl would not have prevented them achieving it. If that was meant to be our explanation, it did not suffice.
  7. Would it have killed you to explain exactly what the angel meant about meeting each other by imagination? Because it was so vague, bizarre and yes, unconnected to other magical rules, that I almost find it easier to think the angel didn’t have any way they could see each other. I think she was just hoping that because of what she said, one day they would both learn to imagine each other vividly and exist in a happy fantasy where they are both dreaming separate daydreams about each other all the time. That would be comforting, and also terrible.

Now, other stories have flaws, even flaws in their ending, and still gone on to be classics. Consider the eagles from Lord of the Rings. The eagles didn’t ruin the book, but for a very simple reason. The scene we spent the whole book waiting for was the one where the One Ring was destroyed, and that was executed perfectly. The bit where Frodo and Sam were rescued was really just the beginning of the (overly long) epilogue, so we can collectively wave our hands at. Unfortunately, in your series, the equivalent of the destruction of the ring was the scene where Lyra’s destiny was fulfilled. It was the part that everything else had been building towards, the part that all the foreshadowing winked at, and the payoff of all the setups. I know now that if I ever read The Golden Compass again, in every scene I will know that it’s all building to a profoundly satisfying ending in The Amber Spyglass. I won’t be able to stop thinking about that. So I probably wouldn’t have ever reread it.

Which sucks, because I really liked The Golden Compass. I honestly liked it quite a bit more than Lord of the Rings, Narnia or even Harry Potter.

I would like to formally request that you rewrite the ending to this book so that A. Lyra makes an actual choice B. Will and Lyra either end up together or split up for a satisfying reason that is organic to the story and C. the connection between those events and the resolution of the conflict is at least vaguely coherent. I realize that having this request granted is a longshot, but if I imagine it hard enough, maybe I’ll turn into an angel and it will be my means to journey to an alternate universe where it comes true.

Your fan (ish),

Lane William Brown

Stealing Souls, Chapter Three; Bernard Part II

This is part of the book I have been working on. It will be posted chapter by chapter every other week. The first chapter can be found here. I will post ten chapters that together will comprise the first third of the book, then take a break before posting the next ten or so chapters. Please tell me what you think, and thank you very much for reading!

Bernard wore his new name on a cord around his neck. It was surprisingly easy to abandon his old name. He had thought he would constantly be ignoring it, waiting unconsciously to hear “Christopher,” and so for the first three days he had thought to himself constantly, “I am Bernard. Bernard is me. My name is Bernard.”

Avalon, the woman from the field of white stones, was a trained Metropiad doctor, and she too wore her name around her neck. Bernard would not have known that even if he had noticed the slim necklace. He could not yet read. Avalon assured him he would learn. As they traveled south, she would point out road signs, rusted and ivy covered, and ask him to find the letters in his name. Letter A was difficult; there were so many ways to write it, none of which looked alike. He did not see why learning the letters mattered. It seemed simpler to just memorize each word, and he said so, but she assured him that it wasn’t.

Sometimes he thought of Peddler Jack, but they had said their good-byes and the man had accepted his fee, so Bernard told himself that thinking of him was not the same as missing him. He also tried very hard not to think of him, stamping down on any thoughts and accompanying feelings like they were invading insects.

Bernard and Avalon did not begin their search for new Metropiads as just a pair. Avalon was a physician, well equipped to identify which children were best to take back, but not familiar with the roads and the ways of outsiders. She was accompanied by Cambio, a seasoned Metropiad trader. Cambio was older than Avalon. His hair was curly gray, his eyes gray to match and his face leathery red from the sun. Bernard did not particularly like him, which made him try even harder to please the man than if he hadn’t. It was easier to relax around Avalon, who he thought was very nice and very pretty, and who seemed to like him, in her own patiently detached way. He asked her more questions, and gave her more grief, and she took it as though she understood it was a sign of love.

The three traveled roads, not the ones worn down by men and goats but the old ones made of asphalt that the plants were tearing apart. They would never go camp inside a town. Cambio would stay behind to guard a campfire, and as they acquired more children, he stayed to watch them as well. Bernard thought this was odd. Avalon seemed the more motherly, and Cambio, as a trader, more appropriate to bargain with outsiders for their crippled children. However, as he observed Avalon, he realized that her mixture of quiet compassion and firm decisiveness was difficult to argue with. Cambio, upon their return to the camp, was often in the middle of rocking a baby as gently as any mother, or speaking playfully to a four year old. Bernard began to suspect it was not that Cambio was inherently surly, but that he disliked Bernard personally.

While he preferred accompanying Avalon to staying behind with Cambio, it broke his heart every time a baby was looked over and deemed too slow and unresponsive to become a Metropiad, or too fragile to survive the journey home. The latter particularly distressed him. It seemed to him that the length of the journey was because of the length of time it would take to find suitable children, but if they would only take the sickest ones and run home with them, to the magical place where all was healed, the whole problem could be avoided. He kept this to himself for six weeks before he put it to Avalon.

“You are exaggerating our powers, I think,” was all she said, and he was very certain this was the wrong sort of question to pester her with, if he wanted to be a good Metropiad, so he tried his best to stop thinking of it.

Avalon had seven names in her bag. Bernard had been the first. Now they had Pandarus, Fortinbras, Callisto, Rosalind, Percy and Sigyn. Avalon would not tell him the name of the one still to come. This was not a Metropiad rule; just a private ritual of hers. She saw the names as not just chance guiding her path, but something imbued with purpose and destiny, with energy that needed to be handled gently. Cambio thought this was nonsense, but he was not the one assigned to carry the names. Despite the secrecy, Bernard had deduced the last name was female.

They had followed the roads south for a month, and then turned to go northwest until they were almost back where they started, their path forming two lines of a right triangle. Avalon chose to take Bernard into a place he knew; the Market of The Fair Oaks. This name made no sense to Bernard, because the people inside were only as fair as you forced them to be, and the trees around them were mostly elms and maples, but that was what everyone called it.

Since coming to join them, Bernard had been careful that Avalon was always in sight. He was afraid that she had been humoring him on some level, and that he would soon be abandoned if he let them. By now, he was not afraid of that, and since he knew the place Avalon gave him permission to wander.

It was a market, but indoors. That was what it had been in the old days too. When the disease’s power had subsided, when it had killed everyone who couldn’t develop antibodies and found itself with nobody left to infect, people had crept back to look for salvage. The biggest and strongest had found a ready stockpile to trade with. Peddler Jack had been delighted by this place, and they spent a full week here.

It was not just he who remembered the mall. It remembered him, as well. As he passed a little store, one of the ones that seemed carved out of the walls with a giant’s spoon, a voice called out to him.

“Oi, beggar boy. Your peddler Dad got anything worth a trade?”

The speaker was a tall, lanky boy who had unloaded the casing of a toaster, a bottle of vinegar and a cigar box of safety pins on them, last time they had come through. Or rather, his older sister had, but it seemed to be his day to guard the little shop and its stockpiles of trash.

“I’m not a beggar,” Bernard said, trying to stand tall. “I’m a Metropiad.”

“Oh yeah, for sure. And you dropped ten years off your life as well.”

“I am,” he insisted. “I’m special. They saw I belonged with them, so even if I was too old, they decided to let me in.”

“You’re a liar,” the boy said. “I don’t like liars.”

Bernard took a deep breath and stepped forward, sticking his chin out. “You see this around my neck? It’s got a Metropiad name on it. I don’t have a bowl anymore.”

The lanky boy looked at it, and didn’t seem quite to believe him, but no longer thought it worth arguing. “All right then, you’re a Metropiad. What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be back in the city proper, getting all doodaded up with shiny?” He wiggled his own ten fingers.

“We can’t go back until we have all the children Mother Miranda has chosen for us.”

“Is that so?”

Bernard nodded. Lanky looked around. When he spoke again, his voice was a little quieter.

“So you are in the market, are you? Just for cripples, not gidgets and gadgets?”

“You could say that.”

“You know, I just happen to have a little baby cripple, back in my storeroom.”

“Now who’s the liar?”

“No, it’s the honest truth.”

Bernard tried to be like Avalon, cool and logical, but gentle. “Is she sickly? She will have to survive the trip back to our home.”

“No, nothing like that. I mean, she’s been sick, but she always pulls through. Momma calls her a fighter.” He spat. “Besides, you’re close to where the Metropiads go to go home.”

Bernard was embarrassed that he hadn’t known this, and in covering this up he ran out of excuses to not be dragged back into the labyrinth of storerooms. This was not a part of the mall he was familiar with. Outside, though a century of filthy feet and encroaching overgrowth had mucked the place up a bit, the muck was laid on tiling and banisters that had been designed to be aesthetically pleasing. There were glass windows and skylights in the ceiling, and candles lit all through the darker corners. It still felt like a place for people. Back here was just tight concrete tunnels, in an invariable labyrinth. It smelled cold, with whiffs of dirty animal.

After several turns they came to a numbered door, marked with letters that Bernard still didn’t recognize. He thought one might be an E, but he wasn’t sure. Lanky unlocked it, took a long metal stick from his belt, and yanked the door open. A few cats ran out, and there was a sharp ammonia smell.

“She’s in there?”

“No, just something I need. Hang on.”

Out of curiosity, Bernard caught the door with his stumps, and peeked in behind Lanky. He had expected junk. He hadn’t expected so much of it. There was no order to it. Junk was hard to organize, but he could imagine another seller going to the trouble of stacking papers together, and keeping them separate from the odds and ends so small they needed to go in boxes, and having a shelf for the bulky objects. Back there was just piles. Perhaps the family just threw things in, and replenished their stock by grabbing whatever their hands fell on first. Maybe there were things at the back of those piles that had been put there years ago, and were lost forever, beneath a mountain of things being added and taken away.

Lanky came out with a burlap sack.

“Hold your arms,” he said, and draped it over one of them, like a towel on a rod. “Follow me.”

They turned down still more tunnels, and Bernard became afraid he was about to have a joke played on him, and he would never get out to see Avalon or the city of the Metropiads. Then, he saw a bit of light ahead. It was a doorway. Outside was a concrete walkway around a big sandy pit. Or courtyard. Or, and this time Bernard thought he really had the right word, loading space. Yes, long ago there were trucks that would back into these spaces and unload stock for the shops inside. What didn’t fit into the shops themselves would go into the little rooms behind the doors. That made sense. Overhead, he could see the metal walkways that went to the second story shops.

Lanky took the bag from where it was draped, and drew the strings so it was open as wide as it could be. He hooked the strings around Bernard’s stumps, and instructed him to wait like that. He took the metal stick from his belt once again, and climbed down with his other hand.

Bernard looked over and saw a dog, a few cats, and a thing that his brain did not initially believe was a child. It was naked, and it had too many legs. Lanky poked the dog with his stick and made some clicking noises, so it got up and trotted quickly away. After a few yards it stopped and began watching him. Lanky grabbed the child-thing by a leg and it began to cry. The cats arched their backs and began hissing. The dog ran back, but just in time Lanky turned and hit it full across the face. Bernard had heard many strikes in his time. This was the sort of strike that went all the way to the bone, the sort that came from a person who really didn’t care whether the dog lived or died. Bernard felt sick.

Lanky was fast and agile. He could grab a rung of the ladder without dropping the metal rod, hauling himself halfway up and using the same motion to swing the child up. It thudded onto the concrete. Bernard expected a wail, but instead she crawled forward to the edge and started hissing like the cats. The dog came back for another stroke, but again Lanky was ready and hit it one more time before hauling himself up. He grabbed at the child, and managed to get a grip under her armpits. That is, under the armpits that seemed most like they belonged to the rest of her body. She still spat and struggled, but Lanky had her in just the right place. Her head wouldn’t reach. Bernard wondered why she didn’t scratch him, but then he saw that like him, she had no hands.

“When I get her in there, start closing the drawstring quick,” Lanky said.

He wasn’t quite quick enough, and the girl did get a bite in when Lanky went in to stuff one of her arms all the way in. Bernard wasn’t entirely sorry.

“Where did she come from?”

“She’s my sister.”

Bernard raised an eyebrow. The girl was very dark, and Lanky wasn’t. He was pale enough that it might only be a deep tan.

Lanky smiled, as if he took Bernard’s confusion for a compliment. “Half-sister. Now, about price.”

“Hang on. I’m not sure they’ll take her.”

“Why not? She’s clearly one of you. And I’ll throw in the bag for free.”

Beneath all the anger and fear, she looked to him a little like Avalon. Her hair was a mat of tangles, but he thought if it was cut off and combed out, it could be made pretty like hers. On top of that, he didn’t like the lanky boy, and did not particularly want to hand anything back to him.

“What do you want for her?” he said.

“You got money? No? Your shirt then.”

“My shirt.”

“Yeah. Your type go around shirtless all the time, don’t they?”

He agreed. It took some juggling, to get his shirt off and the bag still secured, and the girl’s hissing turned to crying by the time they were done. It was a strange cry, with a bit of a yowl in it. It wasn’t quite canine or feline or human.

Instead of taking him back the way they had come, Lanky lead the pair of them to a door that came out into a busy hall, and left them. Bernard felt both grateful for his absence, and completely lost. The child in the bag had stopped struggling, but not crying. He did his best to grip her to his chest securely. Already his arms were tired. It occurred to him that if Avalon’s first impression of her was this alien weep, she might make him take the baby back.

The crowds were giving plenty of space around him, which made it easy for him to find a bench to sit on.

“Shhhhh,” he said. “It’s all right. It’s okay. You can stop crying now.”

She didn’t.

He tried rocking her. He couldn’t very well, because he was afraid that if he moved his arms just a little she would fall right through them. So instead he rocked her by swaying his whole body back and forth. He wasn’t sure if she was getting quieter, or if it seemed quieter because he himself was calming down.

Cambio sang to the little ones. Bernard knew this was a thing people did. He tried to remember some of the songs.

“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, something something something a kind of bird. And if that something bird don’t, uh.”

That wouldn’t do much. He tried to think of a simpler one.

“The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see. And all that he could see, and all that he could see, was the other side of the mountain the other side of the mountain the other side of the mountain was all that he could see.”

That was easy enough. And he could sing it as long as he wanted, just by changing what the bear went over. He tried the river, the forest, the city, and the brick wall, because just “wall” didn’t fit the meter. It didn’t help. The girl still cried, and he was sure now she hadn’t gotten any quieter. How could one person cry for that long?

What was worse, he could see Avalon. For a moment he turned his head away, thinking that maybe she wouldn’t notice him. Already, though, he knew this was hopeless. When he looked back, she was running towards him.

“Bernard? What’s this?”

He took a deep breath. “I found her. I traded my shirt for her. I think she could make a good Metropiad.”

“That’s not your job,” she said.

“I know. I’m very sorry. But I just happened to find her, and you weren’t there, so, well. Anyway they say she’s a fighter, so she’ll last until we get to the city.”

“Let me see.”

Bernard tried to think of a way to avoid her taking the bag off. The baby could run off any time. But he couldn’t think of anything, and when Avalon took the bag down, the girl did not run. She sat limply, shivering and still crying. Bernard could see little sores and scabs on her body that he had not been able to see before.

“Hmmmm,” Avalon said. Bernard’s heart began to beat faster. It wasn’t a disapproving hmm. It was a considering hmmm, even a hmm of approval.

He began to feel relief, and with relief came the space to feel guilty. “I’m sorry. I didn’t do things the Metropiad way, did I?”

She pulled a small knife out and cut a large hole at the bottom of the bag, then two smaller ones on the sides. She put the bag back over the baby’s body, upside down like a smock. “No, you didn’t. And in the future, you will have to learn to leave things to be done by the right person. But perhaps you came to us because this time somebody needed to do things the wrong way.” She took the last scrap of metal from her pouch, and tied it to the bag’s strings.

Bernard smiled. He looked at the lines, and recognized a few of the letters, but not enough.

“How do you say that?”