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.

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