Tag Archives: stealing souls

Reflections on Posting My Story

For the past few months I have been publishing a novel, Stealing Souls, in installments here on the blog. I had a vision of the book taking a form analogous to a TV show. I would publish weekly or bi-weekly chapters, like episodes, and take season breaks to work on the next installments. Every year I would publish somewhere between 9 and 12 installments, which would complete some subplot, sequence or act, as well as leaving threads open that would spill over to the next season.

I hoped to pick up a following and eventually move the story to its own site. Unfortunately, as I kept an eye on the stats, I didn’t see the chapters gaining much attention. They lag far behind my other posts in both views and likes. Like most writers, I struggle with a lot of anxiety about my own writing, and it didn’t take much for me to get discouraged.

Before I get into that, I would like to post some positives about this whole experience. There genuinely were quite a few.

  • The posting schedule kept me working. If I was frustrated with a chapter, I couldn’t bail on it. I had to tinker with it and make it work, because I had promises to keep. I have found this often; forcing myself to meet a particular deadline spurs productivity and leaves my negative self-talk little space to work in.
  • I did not have time to filter my work through close friends who could tell me whether the story was good or not. This forced me to practice relying more on my own judgment. It’s a skill I’m still working on, and this was good for that.
  • The absence of accolades did, in and of itself, force me to let go of that need for praise to keep going. I had to learn to see the posting itself as an end goal, and any positive attention as a bonus.
  • The tight schedule made me develop new tricks for keeping myself writing, no matter what else was going on in my life.

So, on the whole, it was not a bad experience, disappointments aside. And perhaps the real issue was that my hopes were too high in the first place. I might have expected more attention than was realistic. Right now, though, I can see three possibilities.

Number one; my story is not good. It’s tough for me to say whether that’s the issue or not. While I feel pretty confidant in my judgment of books or movies that other people made, my experience of stories I’m creating is so different, I can’t even compare the two. As I said, I’m working on developing that creator’s self-awareness, but it still seems that for everything I write, I have the same experience. I love some parts of it, I hate others.

Number two; my story is good, but my publishing plan was terrible. Prose just doesn’t work like TV, and putting it into installments like this will never be satisfying enough to sustain a readership. I need to finish the story and publish it all as one piece.

Number three; my plan was good, my story is good, my patience is lacking. I just need time to build up an audience.

What I’ve decided I really need to do is wait for a bit. If you’ve read my story, in part or in whole, please leave your thoughts in the comments. Positive and negative opinions are both welcome, subjective and objective. In the meantime, I’m going to give this project some distance, and, hopefully after I’ve gotten a little more feedback, I’ll decide what to do.

As always, thanks for reading.

Stealing Souls Chapter Nine; Merlin

This is the final chapter of my ongoing novel, before I take a break. Plans on further posting to be announced. See full archives here.

Most of the Metropiads who kept dogs liked to specialize. If they wanted to trade fur to the spinners, they bred long-haired dogs with solid coats. If they wanted to hunt, they bred terriers or greyhounds who could take down an animal on their own (hunting was a loophole around the injunction against killing, but only if the hound did the killing personally). A few took molossers to patrol the edges of the Potomac river that marked Metropiad territory.

Then there were packs like Merlin’s. He was a fixer. When a puppy was proving particularly difficult to train, or a stray had been found by someone who wanted to incorporate it into their pack, its keeper came to him for help. When their dogs were sick or injured, he kept them safe while they healed. His permanent pack consisted of the bad dogs; the useless mutts everyone else needed to discard, the ones too unruly for anyone else to handle and the ones too old to keep up with their own packs.

Despite the bleached, elderly feel of his name, he was a lithe, fresh-faced man. Some Asian ancestors had gifted him with glossy black hair and the ability to pass for twenty even though he was a closer to forty. He was tall, with most of his length in his arms and legs. When he rose from sitting, usually with one knee drawn easily toward his chest or both legs crossed, he seemed to unfold, in a smooth yet complex motion, like an umbrella opening.

He liked people, but spent much of his time alone by choice. His style of loving was an easy, detached one, but no less warm for it. He would treat a dog as his own for as long as he had it, but there would be no hesitation when it was time to give it back. He missed every dog he had surrendered, and greeted them gladly if he ever saw them again, but he knew the farewells were for the best. Besides, their passing made space and time for new troublesome puppies.

Currently, he was sitting on a large rock, fishing with Fifty-Seven. It was forbidden to give dogs human names, so some keepers, like Fifty-Seven’s former master, simply numbered them. Merlin didn’t like this practice, but he also felt guilty any time he renamed a dog. Names should stick once they were given, so Fifty-Seven stayed Fifty-Seven. He was a blind orange and cream bulldog. Ordinarily he stuck close to Merlin, so it was worth taking notice when Fifty-Seven stood up and waddled, as quickly as his cautious feet ever did, into a field of green ferns.

Merlin watched as the dog stopped in the middle, and a little brown hand reached up and patted his snout. A child’s head poked up, just long enough for Merlin to see the big black eyes and leaves stuck in her hair before she popped back down under the leaves.

“Interesting,” Merlin muttered.

He watched the rustling ferns for a moment, then called Fifty-Seven to him. He saw the trail of shaking ferns, signaling the dog’s approach. The dog emerged alone, trotting to Merlin’s arms for a rub on the head. Merlin lay down to see under the broad leaves. The girl had followed the dog partway through the foliage, but had frozen in place before where the shadows of the ferns were interrupted by sunlit dirt path. She crouched, staring back at him; a dark shadow surrounded by the green light that filtered through the foliage. She did not shrink away from his stare, but he could see that didn’t mean she was not afraid. It was paralyzed stillness, with focused, calculating eyes.

His heart stopped, then came to life again, in a rapid pounding. Thudthudthudthudthud. The desire to help her was so strong, it did not even feel generous. It felt like selfishness, because if that hungry, miserable thing disappeared into the underbrush part of him would die.

This feeling, powerful though it was, did not disorient him. He felt it every time someone brought a new dog to him. The only novelty was that he was feeling it for his own kind. He did what he always did; waited quietly until it settled, formed it in to a tight, silent little ball inside of him, and began to strategize.

Merlin rummaged through his rucksack until he found his packet of dried apple rings. He put one on his hand and held it out to her. He remained like that, waiting, but unfortunately his arm began to ache from being outstretched before she budged. The apple was returned to the packet, and he rubbed Fifty-Seven’s head while he thought. One option was to put the packet on the ground and walk away. Surely she would sneak out and steal it. However, as he considered that from her perspective, it seemed unsatisfying. She might not be able to distinguish between a gift he was offering and a forgotten thing she had stolen from him. She would be fed for today, and that would be good, but then she might run away, and that would be worse.

Fifty-Seven rolled over on his side, and Merlin scratched his belly. For a moment he saw her smile. She feared him, but liked his dog. That gave him an idea. He took the strings off the packet, but wrapped the waxed paper around it securely. He put the packet in Fifty-Seven’s mouth and sent it to her. She greeted the dog with happy, tickling fingers and giggled out loud when he dropped the present in front of her. Soon her cheeks were bulging with the fruit.

Casually, Merlin rolled onto his back, laced his hands behind his heads, and watched the pattern of leaves against the sky for a while. After a few moments, he glanced back at the child, smiled at her, then looked back up again. Everything about his body language said, “I see you, but I don’t really care what you’re doing. The sky is much more interesting.”

Fifty-Seven returned and sniffed around his face. Merlin patted his flanks and scratched under his jaw. Another glance back at the ferns, and he failed to find the girl. There was a moment of panic, and he wriggled slowly on his belly to get a closer look without startling her. A few feet and he saw her curled up, breathing softly. A full belly and an adventurous afternoon had made for a sleeping girl. This was good.

Merlin remained in that area, making a campfire as the day went on and calling his dogs back to him. Cloud, alpha of the pack when Merlin was not present, brought them in. He was small, with white tufted fur. He had been the runt from a litter of spinner’s dogs; too small to be of much use to them. The same was true of Sorrel, a lazy, yippy ball of perpetually burr-ridden orange fluff. Winter, a blue eyed merle, had a similar origin. Her body was larger, but her fur was too short and varigated. His two most recent acquisitions were Twigs and Buttercup. Twigs was like a greyhound shrunk to the size of a shoe. His keeper had hoped that if his temperament improved, he would be a good one to chase small, quick creatures like squirrels; Merlin intended to advise him to leave the dog alone. Twigs’ attitude had improved significantly, but his nervousness came from an intuitive understanding that his little bones were fragile, and he did not belong in the world of working dogs. His mutation was a practical dead end, but Merlin would be happy to keep him. Buttercup had been a yellow retriever who had turned skittish after an injury that took one of her ears. She was doing well, and he suspected that she had returned late because she had been running around for the sheer joy of it. He would return her to her keeper soon. Last came Saturday and Sunday, elderly former guardians who had been retired now that their gaits were slow and they slept most of the day. They were brother and sister, and resembled a mix of Great Dane and wolfhound.

Merlin’s plans to fish for dinner, as he usually did, had been disrupted by the little girl’s appearance. This was no worry of his. No doubt many of them had hunted a bit, and he broke into a few jars of preserved scraps for any who were hungry. They knew to wait until he distributed it among old clay bowls, and he praised them for their patience. For himself, there were walnuts and another packet of dried apples.

When he was finished, he looked below the ferns once again. The girl was still asleep. Could he pick her up, carry her to his camp, where there were blankets and a fire to keep her warm?

As soon as he began to crawl into the bed of ferns, she stirred. Her eyes slowly half opened, then snapped open all the way. She rolled onto her stomach and scrambled on all fours deep into the bed. Merlin rose to his feet and tried to chase after her, then stopped himself. His heart pounded and begged him to catch the girl, but experience reminded him that anyone being chased was likely to keep running.

He dropped back down, sat cross-legged, and began picking at the ferns. It was an old trick with skittish puppies. Chasing created fear, which drove humans and animals alike away, but minding one’s own business while doing something odd created curiosity, the best lure for any intelligent creature.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her. She reached the edge of the ferns, and he worried that his change had come too late. If she did not look back until she was deep into the forest, he might lose her completely. Luckily, a few feet into the forest was a young pine tree. She ducked under its branches and began to climb. When she ran out of branches that would support her, she stopped to watched him.

Another standoff. But he couldn’t afford to slowly bring her down this time. The sun was already setting.

While he plucked the ferns, he imagined the world from where she was perched.

The pine needles were pricking her skin from one side, the evening air from the other. The breeze was swaying her, gently like a cradle. He could see that from here. The air smelled cool and quiet and lovely, but there was no safety in it. She clung to the branches and stayed as still as possible to keep her perch. She was small. She needed to sleep, but not enough to come down.

He felt the answer without thinking it. He rose to his feet and returned to his camp, where he retrieved his blanket. It was soft, woven in stripes of black, white, and brown fur. He took it to her pine tree, spread it underneath the branches, and walked away. It would be a cold night, but not too cold, and he would have smelled rain if it was coming. The dogs would keep him warm enough.

With them for company, he watched the sunset, and tried not to watch the tree. When he looked, he looked out of the corner of his eyes. The thick southern branches obscured her, but he felt he could keep track of the right tree. He did not let the fact that she was hard to see tempt him into turning his head. It would be so much easier for her to see him through the needles than vice versa. After a while, when he had not seen her climb down in his glances, he began to doubt his ability to keep track of the correct tree. Maybe he should have been eyeing the tree just behind it. She couldn’t have climbed all the way down without him noticing. Or had she climbed down too stealthfully? Or maybe she had shimmied down while his back was turned, when he was returning to his own camp.

He did not sleep well. Every few hours, he woke up, wondering if the girl was still in her tree, or curled in the blanket, or had run away to some other hiding place where he would never find her. The urge to go check pulled at him, but he resisted. The worst thing he could do now was frighten her again.

Then, when the stars were high in the sky, he turned over and nearly jumped. Right across from him was the little girl, her cheek pressed against Fifty-Seven’s flank. She was so close that even in the moonlight, he could see the individual ringlets of her hair, dark and pussywillow soft. The blanket had been dragged along. It had dried leaves stuck to its surface, especially at the edges, where they clung like a bedraggled fringe. With one fist, she had it clutched under her chin, one corner drawn into a knot while the rest spread over her shoulders and back. Her nose twitched, and she sneezed, opening her eyes briefly. Their eyes met, and she blinked slowly at him. He expected to see her gather the blanket up again and run away, but instead she gave him a nonchalant, lazy look, as if she was seeing his surprise and thinking, “what? Isn’t this what you were hoping for? Silly man.”

Then she tucked her head back down and fell asleep again.

Merlin watched her for a while before returning to sleep himself. Inside the core of his chest, he felt that little knot of caring open up again. It had been latent all day, like a rosebud hiding in his core. Now it spilled out and unfolded, becoming bigger and more complex the more it opened. Like petal upon petal spilling out, each one somehow making space for still more to come out, like there was an abundant supply of love inside himself and each bit of love just made room for more.

Stealing Souls, Chapter Eight: The Odds of Escape

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in March. The story is a work in progress and posting will resume in the fall. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

Metropiads were not wasteful. When they had first discovered this vast parking lots abandoned under the city, they had seen treasures of metal, plastic and glass, of pre-made pistons and sockets ready to be scavaged. They had all done their best to protect them from rust, mice and the general forces of entropy. Secured deep underground, they had at least the advantage of stable temperature. Still, entropy would have its way. In Ainsel’s car, the engine had been removed decades ago, leaving a hollow space, and rust had slowly grown a hole between it and the driver’s seat. It only took some aimless plucking of the upholstery to reveal it. The hole was just Ainsel sized. The moment that she exposed it, she gingerly lowered herself past the jagged orange-brown edges, and dropped to the ground.

So far, Ainsel had not done anything unusual.

The Metropiads had done their best to secure the cars, but their inmates had always found ways to escape. An overlooked emergency release button in the trunk might be triggered, or the cord that had once run from the trunk to the button in the driver’s seat might be uncovered and tugged. Those larger and stronger than Ainsel occasionally broke windows. Their captors did not worry too much about these gaps in their security, for a very simple reason. There were more ways out of the cars than out of the garage.

Specifically, there were two real ways out, and one false way.

The false way out was the ramp to the surface, the one that the cars had once driven up. A boy called Abhorsen had gone that way two months ago. One of the handles on his car door had broken off, meaning that the chain locking it closed was useless, and he had wandered out. Abhorsen was not even thinking of escape. He had been locked up in the dark too long to remember that there was an outside to escape to. The Metropiad priests who attended to him believed he was happy, because he did not scream and sometimes, while working with the tiles, he smiled at them. They did not notice all the times he didn’t smile.

Abhorsen’s had wandered through the rows of cars, peeking in at first. Some of the faces he had seen were blank or sleeping, some absorbed in tearing up their surroundings or plucking their hair. But some had seen him, and lunged, slapping their windows, pleading with their eyes to be let out. He not only did not know how to do this, he did not quite understand what they wanted. He was not good at understanding facial expressions. Just because he didn’t understand them, though, did not mean he didn’t feel them. They pinched at his stomach, and drove him to run for the big empty space he saw.

He wandered up the smooth, curving ramp, skipping all the exits to more little prisons, until he came to the top. The Metropiads had discovered the simplest possible means to prevent escape. Their ancestors had a long, slatted descending door of metal, to keep people out when the garage was closed. The Metropiads had lowered it.

While it had no weaknesses that had promised escape, it did have cracks, holes, places that were bent. These let in a golden afternoon light that caught particles of dust and turned them into speck sized fairies. Along the bottom, blades of emerald glass poked through from outside. A coral ladybug had crawled through one opening a moment before Abhorsen’s arrival, and was flying around, trying to remember where the exit was. Abhorsen raised a finger, and the ladybug landed. He stood, transfixed and utterly sated by all the beauty in front of him. He stayed there, silently absorbing the perfection of the insect, until his captors found him and lead him back downstairs.

A week later, his heart stopped beating while he slept. He joined all those who had died of neglect and misery, and took with him the secret, beautiful moment.

So that was the deceptive exit. The first real one was the old gray door that lead to the stairs directly to the sidewalk above. It was next to the ramp, and the last person to take it was a girl named Piala. She was seven and angry. The Metropiads did not pretend that they loved her, like they did Abhorsen. They merely believed that she was a mean little thing, and thus impossible to love. She felt much the same about them.

Her mind was too active for its cage. It was too active for the world outside, and lead her to run around madly at anything that caught her attention. This, combined with an odd habit of staring at her hands and sing-songy speech that was hard to understand, had landed her in the garage at three. It then lead her to make her destruction more focused than Ainsel’s. Her car had avoided developing any structural weaknesses over the last century, but she made up for lost time. She kicked, clawed, tested every inch of the car methodically for weaknesses, until the cobweb scratches on the windows made them weak enough that she could shatter one.

She had ran for the door and charged up the stairs, only to meet a Metropiad guard. He had been startled and wrestled with her briefly, and knocked her down six flights of concrete steps. By the time her body reached the bottom, her neck had been broken.

The final way out was the door the Metropiads regularly took the children through. There wasn’t a single guard behind that one. There was no need, because behind it there was a long hallway with no hiding places and too many Metropiads for a scared, disoriented, conspicuous child to slip past.

Ainsel tried the ramp first. When she discovered the dead end, she doubled back and tried that second door. If she stretched her hands all the way up and jumped, her fingers could feel a brief tingle as the came in contact with the cold metal doorknob.

For the past year of her job, she had only had one job; to find ways to open doors for her pawed caretakers. She knew she could get through this door. For a moment she stood and looked, studying the door and its immediate surroundings, then she returned to her old prison of a car.

Once there, she began rooting through her own wreckage. She had previously played around with the organization of the debris, first scattering them across the floor and then sorting through the mess. Pieces of foam got chucked over the back seat into the hatchback’s trunk. They had settled like yellow-brown snow. Then pieces of plastic got stuck into the soft rubbery padding around the glass. It gave them nice jagged frames. The threads she had pulled out of the seats were deposited on top of the dashboard. She laid them all out lengthwise, because they were slightly silver tinted and if they were somewhat straight they all caught bits of light together. The effect was just shy of shiny.

She took a large handful of these long threads, and draped them around her neck before she went back down her hole. Once there, instead of heading for the door, she went to a large brown jeep that was parked next to a pillar.

She climbed from the floor to the rear bumper, the bumper to the tailgate, and from there she began to shimmy up, between the pillar and the supports for the now-absent canvas roof. From there, she had a jungle gym of pipes, joists and latticed supports. It was pure joy for her to maneuver through them, all the way to the doors. Ainsel got herself directly over the closed door. She waited a long time. The door swung open, and with careful timing, Ainsel dropped her handful of strings. Light, and soundless, they drifted to the closing door, where they draped like a towel or a bit of tinsel on a branch. There was just enough, just close enough to the hinge, to keep the door a crack open, barely enough to be noticed but perhaps, just enough for little fingers to reach in and push. Now she only had to crawl back down the way she came. Or so she thought. For all her cleverness, she still had a child’s mind, unable to notice calculate every variable. If she had been a little older, she would have thought about the fact that the door had only opened because a leather clad Metropiad had just come through.

At the same time Ainsel crawled overhead, the figure walked beneath her. Under the thick armor was a woman, a nurse named Nevada, carrying a little boy so emaciated he resembled a monkey. He was sleeping in her arms. She deposited him gently into the green Escapade that was his home, straightened up, and looked around to make sure all was well. As she turned, scanning, her eyes finally fell on the door, wedged open by silver cords.

As unique as the trick with the ceiling and the strings sounded, someone else had tried it before, with the slightest of variations. A slightly older boy named Othello had been able to strip away all the bits of rubber from the windows of his car. In this way he was able to maneuver the glass out as well, and smash it on the cement.

As he left, he had taken the rubber strips, tied into a long rope. He had also picked up a large shard of glass, for his own defense. The rest of his story went exactly as Ainsel’s had, except instead of crawling back, he had dropped directly from the ceiling to the floor, and run through. Sheer speed and determination had gotten him past many grasping hands, and when a hand finally caught hold of him, he began to use the glass shiv.

The Metropiad had that thick, hot leather armor on, but had taken the head covering off for comfort. That was where Othello had aimed; the face, the eyes, the nose. With every stab, the glass drove back into Othello’s hand as well as into the skin of his opponent. Soon it was too slippery to old; even so, he struggled so much that he returned with a broken rib. Both Othello and his captor had died of infection.

The woman had heard the story. Everyone heard it. It was The Cautionary Tale every new physician in this experiment needed to know. It was the ghost story that marked their initiation.

Under the leather and the sweat it had drenched her in, she turned pale. She had decide quickly whether the one who had done this was still here in the lot, or had already gone ahead.

She looked to the left, to the right, and saw no one. Then she raced ahead, grabbing every adult in sight. Did you see a child come this way? No, I was just with an Empty. I was just fetching some tiles. I needed some tea. If each one had taken the time to carefully compare their stories, they would realize that at no point had the long hall been empty, as it never was. Someone was always there. But, in their panic, each could think of a time in the last two or three minutes when they had not been looking. They assumed that all their gaps in attention had overlapped, and someone had already gotten past, out into the old lobby of a former hotel, where there were hiding places on the way to the great and sunny outdoors.

All who were not occupied with a child in the old restroom ran out to find this ghost, and so, when Ainsel made it to the hall, she stumbled along uninterrupted. She hid in the hiding places they had already checked, she inched forwards as they ran still further on, until she pushed open the grimy glass door that was the only remaining barrier between her and sunlight.

Stealing Souls, Chapter Six: The Voiceless Girl

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in April. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

During the journey from Vienna to Ballston, Avalon watched Ainsel. She was beginning to think of Ainsel as having two modes. One was quiet, expressionless and intensely observant. The other was the toothed, clawed fighter, almost daring people to come at her. Even as she wished it gone, there was something admirable about that side of her. Ainsel was so tiny, even compared to the other children her side, and she would take on any number of them at once.

When they emerged into Ballston, Avalon saw a new side. She saw Ainsel smile. The trigger was a pack of dogs. There were six, all with the thick, pure white fur that every handler envied. Their elderly handler was haggling with a spinner, and all of them were sitting or lying in the shade, panting a light and friendly rhythm, blinking patiently. Ainsel slipped in among them. Avalon did not know how else to describe it. She did not charge them, but nor did she move in her usual cautious, testing way. Avalon noted Ainsel’s smile, and then in the space of time it took to look away, locate the source of the smile, and look back, Ainsel was no longer by her side, but was settling in next to the nearest dog, holding her hands up for it to sniff and then nuzzling against its chest. She moved from dog to dog, greeting them with no fear, and they happily submitted to her gentle petting. Avalon stayed where she was and studied this new phenomenon.

When the handler was finished and returned to her pack, Ainsel lost her smile. She re-entered the frozen, expressionless, tense mode, and huddled down against the fur of one of the dogs, as if she hoped she could hide in it. Suddenly Avalon became afraid of what would happen if the handler approached her, and she went up to talk to him. At her approach, Ainsel fled up a tree.

Avalon was disappointed, but instead of showing it she smiled at the handler and explained the situation.

The handler nodded. “Must be an Empty then,” she said, through old cracked teeth.

“I do not think so,” Avalon said, tightly.

The handler shrugged. “Not the worst thing if she is. I hear they’ve got a new use for them, down at the library.”

“Yes, I know all about that. But I do not think she is Empty. I think she’s just afraid.”

“I’ve seen lots of afraid, but I’ve never seen anything like that.” The handler nodded up at the tree. Avalon thanked her for her opinion and said goodbye.

She waited until Ainsel was hungry enough to be coaxed down the tree, and they began to wander together. As they passed other dogs, Ainsel ran away to visit them as well. Avalon noted that she had a very sweet face when she smiled, and it sparked a painful hope in her. There had to be a way, she thought, to transfer that trust and love of animals to humans. Ainsel could be a wonderful handler, if only that wall of silence and fear could be broken through.

Before she solved that question, Petruchio came. Avalon did not exactly find Petruchio intimidating. Not many people had that affect on her. However, she was aware that he intimidated other people, and she was aware that there was power in that. She was intimidated by that power more than the individual himself.

Officially, all placements were the decisions of high priests, but for the most part their approval of the selections made by the children and physicians themselves was a formality. Petruchio went through the physicians one by one, for the most part approving of the placements they made and advising those who had an undecided. Avalon, to her embarrassment, was the only one with two children unplaced; Bernard and Ainsel. After making some observations, he took her on a walk through the woods to discuss things.

“Bernard seems quite intelligent,” Avalon began. “He has been very diligent in studying his reading, and shows a great interest in the our philosophy.”

Petruchio nodded. “I will interview him for the priesthood. And the other one?”

Avalon hesitated, trying to find the right words. Why hadn’t Mother Miranda given her more time? “I think her potential is still an open question.”

An eyebrow went up. Petruchio was already forming an opinion, and Avalon did not like it.

“Isn’t it correct that the child does not speak?”

“I don’t think she’s incapable of it. She makes sounds, and she seems alert. Conscious. She does seem to be listening when other people talk. I think she’s afraid to talk.”

“Afraid to talk?”

Avalon knew from the way he repeated her phrasing that nothing she could say would convince him she was right. She decided to try, nonetheless.

“Her initial environment showed significant neglect. I believe she is currently recovering from some great trauma. She has shown some interest in animals, and I think that if she were given more time to recover, she might be willing to become a handler.”

“Is she not willing at present?”

“Not exactly. She runs away from most people.”

“Does she make any effort to communicate?”

“No.”

“Does she demonstrate any other skill that would be typical of, how old did you say?”

“My best guess is that she is three or four.”

“Well?”

Avalon sighed. She had lost. “No. She really isn’t an ordinary three year old, in any way.”

“Well then, it’s clear you had an Empty.” He patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. That isn’t the failure these days that it was in the past.”

Avalon ended her conversation as hastily as she could without seeming rude, and decided the only thing to do was find a place to feel miserable. She came across a brook that seemed like an appropriate place for the kind of thing, with a nice flat rock to sit on. The actual tears did not last long, her tears never did, but the feeling of melancholy lingered for a while. It was Bernard who found her.

“Avalon!” he said. “They’re taking Ainsel away!”

“I know,” she said.

“She’s screaming. Will she be all right?”

Avalon breathed in slowly, through her nose, gathering enough steadiness within herself to talk without trembling. “I’m not sure she’s the sort of person who was ever going to be all right.”

“Because she’s an Empty?”

“Yes.”

“I heard someone call her that. What does it mean?”

“People are meant to be full of all sorts of things. Intellect, creativity, compassion, emotions, logic, hope… all kinds of things. But just like you can be born without a limb, or lose one from trauma, some people don’t have everything in their heads that a person is supposed to have. That’s an Empty. We can solve all kinds of things. We can’t fix an Empty.”

“So what’s going to happen to her?”

“Well, you know the nanonerves in your hand? They copy nerves in your body that carry information. Your brain is just a mess of nerves. Nanonerves can’t copy brain nerves well enough to fix an Empty, but they can store some information. Ainsel is going to be part of an experiment to make a biomechanical library. Understand?”

“They’re going to put books in her head?”

“Yes. Or, they’re going to try.”

Bernard suddenly smiled. “That’s wonderful. That means she’ll have a purpose after all.”

“Yes, I suppose it does.”

“Petruchio says purposes are very important. He’s a nice man, don’t you think?”

“He’s very popular.”

“He said he wanted to talk to me later today. What do you think he’s going to say?”

Avalon contemplated keeping it a secret, and decided there was no point. “Bernard, do you want to be a priest?”

At the mere mention of the word, he was delighted and speechless. Avalon could recognize the answer in his face. “He is considering inviting you to join the priesthood. If you show him you are eager to learn and listen well, I am sure he will accept you.”

Bernard wrapped his arms around her neck and squeezed. “Thank you! Thank you thank you!”

She patted his back. “Better run off. He will want to be able to find you easily.”

He ran off, all fears relieved. She sat on her rock until the sunset, a rotten feeling growing in her stomach. Her explanation of what Ainsel was comforting to him, but she only felt worse about it for having had to say it aloud.

Stealing Souls Chapter Five: The Homeless Boy

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in April. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

Over breakfast, Avalon explained what would happen over the next few days. First, they would go to a place called Vienna. In Vienna, they would be separated from each other for a time. They would be examined by doctors, and given whatever they needed to become whole, and then be watched until the doctors were certain they were all healthy. Next they would be taken to a place called Ballston, where they would all be claimed by the Metropiads who would apprentice and raise them. It would be like an adoption fair, with everyone leaving with a family, sooner or later.

Vienna itself was a terrible disappointment to Bernard. He had anticipated the first great underground city. The elegant way that name danced on the tongue belied the simple starkness of the place itself. It was a box of cement and glass, covered in ivy and straddling two pairs of metal rails. Nothing more, except for a lot of tents. Little, white canvas tents, interspersed through thick trees, one for each of them, plus dozens of other children that other adult Metropiads had brought home. The bed inside his was a few inches too short, and his feet had to hang over the edge. It was a reminder that he was not quite what they had gone looking for.

All that was forgotten soon. His pre-quarantine examination had him declared “maximally healthy” and he was given the minimum confinement of one week. While he was in the middle of this week, it felt like eons, but when it ended, it disappeared with the slippery amnesia of a dream.

Before his quarantine, the stumps at the end of his arms had been cut and something silvery injected deep into them. He was told they were called nanonerves; a sort of living machine that had been made by the people who came before him. The details of how they worked had been lost, but as long as they were provided with bits of scrap metal they could reproduce each other, and when they were immersed in human flesh they bound with the nerves and would live off of his own electricity. He was advised to spend his quarantine imagining that he already had hands, and to flex his arms as though he was moving them. These thoughts would somehow prime the nanonerves to grow in the right ways. Avalon had taken detailed measurements of his arms, and promised him that when he came out, they would have new hands ready for him.

They were made of bronze pipes, already slightly browned with age so they resembled his reddish brown hair. Between them and his hands came a small drawstring cloth bag, with five little electromagnets woven into it, one for each metallic phalanx. He was about to ask how he should move it, but the moment he thought of it he felt his fingers twitch spasmodically, clicking against each other. He jumped, and the doctors clustered around him laughed. One handed him a little rubber ball and told him to practice squeezing it to learn control.

He found his feelings impossible to express. The bronze hands felt simultaneously like an impossible miracle about to be revealed as an illusion, and, oddly, something that had been there all along, like invisible hands had been lurking at the ends of his arms all along and only now chosen to reveal themselves, like a friend popping out from behind a curtain saying “boo.” He was happy, but the sort of happiness he felt was so excessive it could not be directly expressed. It felt like if he thanked them with his loudest voice, it would still be inadequate, and his feelings would burst through him like water destroying a dam. So, instead, he stared in silent awe. Over the next few days he found his happiness seeped out in other ways, as though his mind was letting his joy out through a carefully controlled valve, before it made him explode. The meal that night he declared the most delicious of his life (it was only rice with beans and mushrooms). The next morning, when he was asked how well he had slept, he declared it wonderful (a bug bite had woken him in the middle of the night, but otherwise it had been tolerable). He had no difficulty enthusiastically praising the crushed flower necklace Sigyn had made for herself, when ordinarily he struggled to make his approval for anything childlike sound genuine.

Once that jubilation had worn off, he began to notice disappointments once again. The primary one was that he had no family, as of yet. Avalon, he learned, was there to bring him into the fold, not to adopt him, and all his attachment to her felt like a lie. The same was true for everyone else, from Cambio to the doctors who had examined him to all the other children. In his heart, he felt a flicker of regret for leaving Peddler Jack, but he quickly squashed it. It was too late to go back, and the man had never been his father.

He knew he was going to be assigned as an apprentice to some clan of Metropiads, and that would be his family, and that he should be patient. He tried, unsuccessfully. The best he could do was look forward to a chance for a family that would come sooner. Ainsel would emerge from her own quarantine.

Ainsel’s time in isolation had to be longer, because of the extent of the surgery required to remove her extra limbs. In the meantime, the children told stories about her. The waiting kids were used to missing limbs, but deformities like hers were still unusual. Combined with the way she behaved, it was easy for them to turn her into a boogeymen. In a situation where they were all displaced from diverse homes and might have little in common, she was a common enemy with the potential to unite them. Bernard, for his part, refused to take part in this. He was already too old to be their friend, and he felt a special attachment to Ainsel, because he had found her, so a moral stand against demonizing her was easy. At least, it was before she came out.

Ainsel was no stranger to the game the other children wanted to play, with her as a spook. She knew there could be real danger in it for her, as to them she was not quite a person, and rocks could be thrown with no hint of guilt. Old strategies were resumed. She lingered on the outskirts of the encampment, up trees or under bushes, where she was close enough to steal food but hard for others to find. If she could not escape, she would back herself up against a rock or two split tree roots, bare her teeth and prepare to fight. Normally some adult chased the children off before they could hurt her, so these conflicts never came to anything. Bernard found something gratifying in her defensive reaction at first, because he was sure that when he approached, she would remember him as her savior. That would make him special; the only one who could handle little Ainsel. She would be his beautiful little sister.

Things did not quite work out that way. When he first tried to approach her, she ran away, just as she did from everyone else. The same was true for the second, third and fourth times he tried. On his fifth he managed to catch her ankle and drag her back towards him. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. All he had was a vague sense that if he could trap her with him for a few moments, she would realize who he was and come to love him. Instead, she scratched his face.

This betrayal convinced him to leave her alone, and he sulked until the rest of the Metropiads came.

As they passed through the encampment, Bernard began to grasp how Metropiad society really functioned. There were the weavers, who spun wool into yarn or matted it into felt, dyed it and made it the soft, durable fabric that Metropiads were known for. The secret of the cloth was not in the weaving, but in the dog handlers. They did not herd anything; rather, the dogs themselves were the source of the wool. While some were lean, muscled creatures, used for hunting and patrolling the borderlands, the vast majority were luxuriously long-furred, kept in the heart of the city and groomed regularly, and the shed underfur was collected, cleaned and traded to the weavers. Then there were the glassblowers, who kept the secrets of glassmaking and exquisite pottery that the outside world found so valuable. Traders took these, along with any extra cloth, and got anything else the community needed. Each group also contributed to communal food stores. Weavers grew potatoes and soybeans. Glassblowers tended apple orchards and brewed cider. Dog handlers smoked game their dogs caught. Anything else was either gathered or procured by the traders.

The vast majority of Metropiads fell into one of those four groups. The sophisticated scholars who Bernard had heard of were only a small sliver; the priests. These too were divided. There were the physicians, like Avalon, the librarians, who maintained the stores of lost knowledge from before the plague, and the high priests, who made laws and heard complaints from the rest of the people. Bernard waited and waited, but no priests passed through the encampment looking for apprentices, and he did his best to look for a future home in the other four.

None were anything but a disappointment.

It was soon apparent that Metropiads were not the unified community that he had expected, but rather a conglomeration of allied states, or perhaps an ecosystem of symbiotic organisms. The four types of working class Metropiads were so distinct that Bernard could quickly distinguish them by their speech and mannerisms. The glassblowers were terse and meticulous. Their speech was direct and to the point, and they were quite comfortable with others of their own kind, less so with anyone else. The weavers could scarcely stop talking. They traveled in cliques, and spoke with a slow drawl that, despite their deliberation, was so full of inside jokes it was nearly incomprehensible. Dog handlers were nearly as sociable as spinners, but their speech was crisp, clipped and commanding. They were leaner and more athletic as well, while the weavers’ constant sitting gave them fairly soft bodies. The traders were the most diverse group, but there was a distinctive feel to them. Bernard could identify them with consistent accuracy within a few days. They had a thorniness, yet they were gregarious. They were the sort content to be solitary for long periods, so you hardly saw them wandering in groups of more than two or three, but they were good at handling people. It was this contradiction that marked them like a fingerprint. Bernard sensed immediately that he would not fit in with any of these people, even if he could get past the dissonance between his lofty expectations and the mundane reality.

Eventually, it occurred to him that priests must adopt new children like anyone else, but that they must come looking more rarely. After this thought occurred to him, it made more sense upon each reflection. Naturally, people as elegant and refined as Avalon would cast all the common workers in a dull light, and the society would become bloated, with all children begging to become priests and none willing to take the necessary work. They would bide their time, and only look for those who were truly motivated to join the priesthood. So Bernard waited, keeping his hopes to himself in case someone would think it was vain of him.

Finally, Petruchio came. Petruchio was a high priest. He was not tall, but had a way of carrying himself that made everyone misremember him as a giant, and it was only when he was standing next to someone six foot two that people realized he was average in size. A few hours later, they would forget again. He wore his head entirely shaved, and wore a thick, rounded, pure piece of amber glass around his neck.

Unfortunately, he seemed more interested in Ainsel.

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.

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?”

“Ainsel.”

Stealing Souls, Chapter Two; Bernard, Part I

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!

His name at first was Christopher, and he had no family. Like most people without a family, chosen or biological, he thought mostly about what it would be like when he had one.

The world has never been particularly good at finding something to do with people who have no family. That’s because all but an infinitesimally small part of it is completely apathetic to families. Luckily, Christopher happened to be small enough to fit into the part of it that was far from apathetic. Not so luckily, that part was so small as to be constantly distracted by other matters, like finding enough food and understanding what the point of it all was. He was so small as to believe they should be up to handling all that and finding him a new home all at once. Compared to him, after all, they were quite large; it would be some time before he realized they were only human-sized.

Now that the poetic has been dispensed with, the facts. Christopher was orphaned at 3. His parents had been rebuilding a house in the ruins of Atlanta. Atlanta was a skeleton town. Most big cities were. When the O’Hare virus hit, the hospitals had gotten flooded, the graves overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses had nothing they could do, and besides many of them died in the first wave. People started dying in beds and streets, and the ones who didn’t die had to run. Not for their lives, because mostly they were going to die anyway, but just from the sight of bones on the sidewalk.

Towns too small for much travel survived, if they figured out to keep all outsiders, with barbed wire fences and guns if need be. Then there were the few whose bodies somehow cracked the code of the virus before it cracked them. Like a twenty year fire, the virus devoured all its fuel, and then died of hunger. The bones in the cities lay quietly for a century as their nieces and nephews and cousins built up little isolated worlds.

Every now and then, some people, like Christopher’s parents, would think about all those houses and skyscrapers, ready built and still standing, and think how much easier it would be to go back and patch them up, instead of relearning the log cabin. They were too far south to realize that would attract Friendlies. They didn’t really know what Friendlies were. All they knew was that sometimes the quiet fluttering silhouettes of birds were sometimes joined by frozen, humming silhouettes of something else with wings. They knew their grandparents said those were airplanes, and that was proof that there was still civilization and technology somewhere. Perhaps someday they would find out where, they thought. Perhaps rebuilding the airports in Atlanta would draw them in, and the world would become an interconnected globe once again.

They were right about the first. For a while planes flew overhead, once a week or so, and then they began to fly every few days. After the settlers had cleared away enough kudzu that they were sure the whole of the airport was visible to those in the sky, they came in a flock. It was not a large one, a mere ten or twelve planes, but that was the first time any of them had seen more than one plane in the sky at once. The settlers came out, hands raised against the sun so they could take in the swarm, many waving to them. Then came the fire.

The people below did not know the meaning of the word napalm. It was not, by and large, one their grandparents had thought worth remembering. All they knew was the fire that clung to their skin like glue, and hurt worse than anything they had felt in their lives. Then they didn’t know anything at all.

Christopher survived because he was sick, and because his parents had claimed as their house a little cafe a ways away from the airport, on the outskirts of what the rest of the settlers had begun to clear out into their new city. They had picked it because his mother liked the faded decorations. It was full of ceramic cats, and little rainbow flags, their colors faded to translucent pastels. Christopher’s father had gone out to look, but his mother had stayed in. From the window, she saw the fire pouring out of the sky, and she did not hesitate before scooping him out and running out with him. At this time, he was only three, and small for his age. It was easy enough to run with him, deep into the thick of the forest.

She had planned to make it to their cautious kin who had stayed in their old town. With no shelter, she held him under her dress, keeping him warm as she shivered. The winter had buried all the food, and she had nothing to hunt with. Furthermore, she caught his fever.

The same kin who she had been seeking had seen the fire and gone seeking survivors and one of their dogs had smelled them. Shortly before they found her, she had already fallen for the last time. The frost bound baby Christopher to her chest, freezing her sweaty coat into a straight jacket, and they had to hack him free. They left much of his frozen fingers behind as well. While he recovered, the stumps of his fingers became gangrenous and his hands had to be amputated back to the wrists. Otherwise he was fine.

When he was stable, and the rest of the scouts had returned with news that there were no more survivors, then came the question of what to do with him. Things would have been simpler if he had one close relative who had remained in the village, or if of a few relatives, one had been clearly better suited to take care of an amputee. They would have been better if his legs had been taken instead of his arms, for the villagers could think of many ways a boy who could not walk could make himself useful, but nobody could think of a task that did not somehow require at least one hand.

Humans like to think that the most important factor in their goodness is their character. This is only true for a small number of people, at distant ends of the bell curve. The real deciding factors can be absurdly small. For example, of all the obstacles to Christopher’s adoption, none was so deciding as the fact that there were no less than twelve families with equal claim on him. Neither of his parents had someone as close as a sibling or parent still living, but he had a dozen uncles, aunts and first cousins. All had large families and few means. All worked every day out of the year, hunting and farming, fishing where possible. As they tried to consider which of them could manage best, in the back of each one’s mind was growing resentment for the other eleven. Discussions that began as a rational, compassionate weighing of the costs and benefits of each home, for both the child and the family, only informed each family of all the reasons the other families might possibly be a decent home, while affirming that their own troubles were far too great to endure one additional burden. The longer they talked, the more each was determined that, of course, if they were the only ones who could take him they would bravely swallow the burden, but they weren’t going to cave to the laziness of the other eleven.

With no arbiter, the only solution they could settle on was to let each family tend him for a day before passing him on to the next, which only made the problem worse. Deprived of any consistency in his upbringing, he became alternately sullen, anxious, demanding and overly eager to please. What got him spanked in one house passed without mention in the other. He was with his family, but never for long enough to understand them, so he was among strangers.

Then a seed peddler offered to take him. He did not see any work the boy could do any more than his family could, but he was accustomed to managing all of his own work anyway. The worst problem he had to contend with was the instinctive mistrust he was met with everywhere he went, and he thought having a little cripple boy in tow would go far. It would establish him as a man of sympathy, both in the sense of having it and being worthy of receiving it for the burden he had taken on. Besides, though he would not admit this as motivation, he was lonely.

After six months of pitying themselves for being imposed on, once every two weeks, by a boy who knew full well how unwanted he was, nobody had any qualms about sending him off. At least, none that weren’t easily overcome.

The peddler’s name had been Ambrosius, but he thought Jack sounded more peddlery, so that’s what he called himself. He had no experience with children, and so decided from the start on this course of action. First, Christopher would be allowed to do and to have whatever he wanted, so long as it was not dangerous, foolish or unattainable. Second, if he attempted to do something or beg for something that fit one of those exclusions, he would be told no and given the appropriate explanation. Third, if he persisted, he would be made to sit under the wagon, with nothing to divert himself, until Peddler Jack told him he could come out. Under this treatment, the moody, petulant and peculiar boy was resolved into a curious, even tempered boy, occasionally naughty but generally good in his intentions.

Peddler Jack and Christopher were fairly happy together, and might have been a family the rest of their lives, except for one mistake. Christopher, like all children, became persistent in his questioning, and soon exhausted Peddler Jack with his constant succession of “but why?” When Peddler Jack ran out of answers, one day he said, “I don’t know, I’m not your father.” Saying this once might have been forgotten, but for some reason, the next time conversation went this route, Peddler Jack gave the same answer. It became his default answer, and as a result, Peddler Jack felt himself distanced from the ultimate outcome of Christopher’s life, unqualified to contemplate who he would eventually become, while in Christopher’s mind, “father” became a word attached to something immortal, omniscient, and absent. A hole that could have been averted was created.

Peddler Jack traveled east to the coast, and when he hit it, he began to meander north. They moved through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and began to wander through the middle of Virginia. The further north they got, the more people had reclaimed the skeleton towns, though to an approaching visitor it did not look like as much. They knew the trick was to keep it from being seen from above. Fields could be plowed with donkeys and harvested by hand without being molested. Everything more than that had to be hidden. Engines, power generators, even primitive smithies and steam powered machinery, all had to be kept under rotting roofs among buildings covered by ivy. If they were turned on, there needed to be a lookout on the highest roof, armed with a whistle and binoculars. If planes were in sight, anything that let out smoke needed to be turned off, and everyone needed to hold their breath and pray. They had learned this lesson from a place called Washington, where the scavengers above had been burned away, while the Metropiads below had survived.

Christopher was nearly eight when he first heard of the Metropiads. He was enthralled. In their city under the bigger city, they had everything they needed. They ate no meat, but lived on nuts and berries, and what preserves they could buy from outsiders. They never died of illness, because they remembered all the cures of the people who came before. Great machines powered lights so underground was as bright as day. Every now and then they came out to perform shows of extraordinary magic, and to trade their glass and wool. The rest of the world had managed pottery and could crudely refire and modify some glass, but nothing like the exquisitely colored and delicately spired glass the Metropiads produced. Their wool was warmer than that of goats or sheep, and they produced the most beautiful dyes as well. And this was the best thing about them; they bought children who had no families. Even if that child was like him.

“They can make you an arm or leg out of old metal, from the people before,” said the old woman who first told him about them. “It’ll move as well as any limb, and all you need to make it work is your mind. They’ll take blind and deaf children as well. Sometimes they’ll take one that’s sickly or mute, but they do want the head mostly all right. They can’t fix head stuff, but they can cure anything else.”

She saw how big his eyes got at this, and thought it was his desire to have hands, but she was only partly right. True, the idea of having ten fingers to grasp things was appealing. Still, he could do more than people thought with his toes, teeth and stumps. What grabbed hold of him was the idea of a whole city full of people like him, of being actively sought and wanted by people who did not consider him strange.

His ability to hope was tested almost immediately afterwards, when everyone he met agreed that they did not take children as old as eight. Their preference was for babies and toddlers. A few people knew they had accepted children at four or five, but older than that and they tended to refuse. He asked “why?” again and again, and mostly he heard “I’m not a Metropiad, so I wouldn’t know.”

But one person said, “One told me he wouldn’t take a paralyzed girl of seven because she was too accustomed to our ways.”

Then another said, “One said there was too much to being a Metropiad, so you’ve got to start small to learn it all.”

A third laughed and said, “I think they’re afraid a kid that big won’t give up meat.”

And putting these three answers together, Christopher decided what he should do to become one of them. He needed to prove he was willing to change anything they wanted, so they would let him in. He already knew that they never ate meat, so he would only eat the vegetables Peddler Jack cooked. He had to know more.

Luckily, he was now often sent away from the main cart to beg, and this gave him plenty of opportunities to question passersby about what they knew. They had been founded by a woman named Mother Miranda, one person said, and they worshiped her as a goddess. Others told him that Miranda was not exactly worshiped, but she was revered, and she founded something of a religion. One teenaged boy explained to him that a Metropiad had told him they don’t believe in gods, but they believed in principles and right ways of thinking. Oh, and also that they had some sort of afterlife, because their technology could record your brain after you died. Or maybe just before it? He wasn’t sure.

It was good, but not enough. He began trying to elicit more specific information. What did they wear? Not very much, it seemed. They kept cloaks and things for bad weather, but mostly they came out in warm weather. Sometimes their clothes came with holes, but not the kind that comes by accident. They would deliberately tear their clothing into patterns. Men often wore nothing but a harness for tools across their chests. Women bared midriffs and backs. Christopher had little choice in what he wore, and he would get in trouble if he ever ripped up something Peddler Jack gave him. But at least this might help him recognize them.

How did they speak? People said they never swore, so Christopher purged his language of every one of Peddler Jack’s profanities.

This was all a good start, but he needed more. He asked for anything else peculiar that they did, and people thought this was a funny question, because everything they did was peculiar, and truth be told any one was different from another. Then a toothless old man told him how once he had asked a Metropiad how they pick the children the need.

“Before we are sent out,” the Metropiad had said, “we are given a selection of names, male and female. We keep these names in a bag that we take with us. When we find a child who seems to be a candidate, we give them a name appropriate to their sex, and when we run out of names, we go home.”

The man had asked if they wouldn’t be better off going through town, meeting several children and only choosing once they could compare all of them.

“No,” the Metropiad said. “Much of what makes a good Metropiad is invisible from the outside. Mother Miranda taught us that, once human reason is exhausted, fate will take over. Fools try to reason beyond their knowledge. Rational beings know when they have reasoned enough, and they know wondering any further is just another kind of taking a chance. It is better to let chance become the arbiter, and accept its judgment.”

Christopher heard this, and thought it was strange, but it was what the Metropiads did, so he should as well. He could find a way to pinch a coin between his stumps and fling it, thus flipping it, but this sounded awkward, and Peddler Jack would not have any of it. The risk of the coin being lost was too great, and that was foolish. Instead, he taught himself to make decisions by the chances that were happening every day, all around him. Would he turn left or right to find a begging space? He would not decide, only follow the boy with the red cap. Would he go home or wait another few minutes for more coins? It all depended on whether the pigeon in on the wall took flight or hopped down to the ground.

Sometimes these bets turned out well, and sometimes they didn’t. However they turned out, though, Christopher told himself he was pleased, because he was learning to become a good Metropiad. In fact, as he wondered when he would have learned enough, he realized this too was being decided by random process. He had no way of knowing when he had learned enough to be accepted by them, so it was a matter of fate. When he met one of them, he would have learned all he was going to know.

His moment came when he was twelve, in a field of white stones, hidden under tall grass. The stones were uniform little rectangles, rounded at the top, their color obscured by moss and lichen. Christopher had come out because it was dawn in a new place, and he wanted to see it. He wanted to learn the terrain, and perhaps meet somebody who could tell him something new about Metropiads. His begging bowl was with him, strung from a braided cord around his neck. This part of the world was so crowded, compared to what he was used to. He might see ten new people a day, if he wandered. This field, when he had first approached it, seemed very empty, but after he had walked a ways in, he saw a woman stand up.

She was young, perhaps late twenties, with dark skin and black hair, knotted into whisper-thin locks that were tied behind her in a simple ponytail. She wore a long piece of cloth, tied at her waist, for a skirt, and as she turned, he saw daylight shining through her right arm. It was made of metal rods, three from shoulder to elbow and two from elbow to wrist.

Christopher began running, his bowl banging against the bones of his chest. When he stopped in front of her, his insides felt like they were still running. He could not speak, and as he waited to regain his self-control, he watched the way she was watching him. She had a very intelligent look, kind and gentle but without emotion. It was as though she knew exactly what he was about to do, but was not about to betray how she would react before it was time.

Christopher had thought about this moment, imagined it again and again. Now that it was here, it felt surreal. Although he knew he was awake, part of his mind refused to accept that it was real. This did not feel like something that really happened in the outside world. It was something that happened within his own head.

“I wish,” he said, when he was no longer willing to wait for his breath to return. “I wish to follow the teachings of Mother Miranda.” That was an important start, he had decided long ago. He only had so much time to impress upon them that he was not simply a child begging for a cure, that his desire to be one of them was true. Her eyebrows lightly moved up and down. Though her face remained serene, she was not expecting this. This was a good sign.

“I have no attachments to this outside world,” he said. “Only a peddler who found me and would be glad to give me up for a price. I eat no meat. I, I am not too old to learn new ways. Please, take me.”

“This is not the usual way of things,” she said.

He ignored her, as he had just noticed the little bag hanging from a thin strap around her shoulder.

“Is that where the names are kept?” he said.

She did not answer.
“Are you here to trade, or are you here to find children?”

“I am here for children.”

“Then that’s the bag. It must be. You’re going to get a child for every name in there, and you will go home. Please, I know you must find the ones, the children who are most likely to adapt to their new life. I know that a child of six or seven might miss its home too much to really become one of you. But my being older does not make that worse. It makes it better. I am old enough to reject my former life, and I will become as true a Metropiad as if I had been taken by you as a baby.”

“I don’t know that.”

He had her. Maybe. “You don’t know that it’s wrong either. This is beyond your ability to reason,” he said. “So why not let fate decide?”

The eyebrows moved again, and the expression she resettled herself was still serenity, but more focused serenity. Serenity that was actively trying not to be something else.

He raised his stump towards her bag. “Pick a name from that. Don’t look. Just take the first one your fingers touch. If it’s a boy’s name, you will take me. If it’s a girl’s name, I have to find a new home.”

Her eyes stayed on him. She raised her metal hand, so delicately jointed it moved just like flesh, and tucked it into the bag. She drew out a flat little band of metal with a hole on the end. It was dull copper, and just for a moment he saw scratches on one side. As she raised it to his eyes, he tried to be confident and prepared for disappointment at the same time. It was impossible. All he could be was afraid.

“Bernard,” she said. “Your new name is Bernard.”

Stealing Souls; Chapter One, The Spider Baby

This is part of the book I have been working on. It will be posted chapter by chapter every other week. 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!

She might have been a twin. Her earliest cells seriously considered being two people. Considerable effort was put into the matter. Whole organs were sculpted, skin and bone, muscle and delicate fingers. Then it was noted that things weren’t coming together quite right. There wasn’t as much room in this womb as they had thought. Two bodies were twice the work of one, with no added reward. They were bored. So they settled for wrapping up the one girl, and called it a day.

As a result, a girl and a half was born, the unused arms and legs of one stuck to the back of the other. The birth was difficult. The cord tangled. The baby lingered, caught between nourishing fluids and light air, in the dark place where nothing was meant to live for long. The midwife panicked, grabbed a pair of silver prongs to reach in and pinch the child’s head, and pulled. Under the soft bones, a bit behind the temple, a bruise formed. Not a large one, just a few little tissues squished like a bug, before the baby popped out.

The midwife saw the unexpected arms, did not know how to break the news, and thought she would buy herself some time. She reassured the mother all was well as she washed the baby and tightly swaddled her. Upon receiving the child, the mother was first delighted. The face was perfect; chubby and brown, ringlet curls and the biggest eyes that would fit. The mother nursed and contemplated names, all the while wondering why this baby felt a little more lumpy than her previous six.

When nursing was done, the mother untucked the wrappings to get a better look. An earthquake ran through her, splitting her heart in two. She loved this child. She hated this monster.

The midwife looked on, terrified and ashamed. She was inexperienced. The mother had nearly double the midwife’s twenty years, and could have delivered the midwife’s baby far better had the situation been reversed. For that reason, the mother pulled herself together, matter-of-factly rewrapped the baby, and said nothing. It was a very pointed nothing.

The midwife fled the room. Word of her mishandling spread quickly; the mother and midwife lived in an old mall, abandoned after the Ordo Virus epidemic then crammed with shivering survivors, and there was no space between people for secrets to hide. She left permanently soon after.

The mother soon forgot the way her soul had shuddered. She got to work forgetting it almost immediately, firmly denying to herself that she had felt anything but a proper and natural motherly love. She denied her shock to everyone who inquired, and soon began to elaborate upon it, upon the power of a mother’s love that could transcend anything. The more she told people of the wonderful universality of a mother’s love, the more she felt she was a special example of it. She particularly liked to proclaim her love with the prop; that baby, pressed to her chest, nursing, wrapped but not so tightly that her audience could not see just one extra hand poking out of the blanket.

Did she love her child? The first moment of delight she felt upon seeing the baby was real. The subsequent moments that came as she tended the baby were all real as well. Warmth and acceptance quickly, utterly eclipsed even the slightest twinges of discomfort. If love is only a feeling, she loved her very deeply.

If love is only choices and actions, the mother didn’t love much of anything for long. Her head was full of chemicals. They were the ones that the brain pumps every mother with, reminding itself to treasure this half-copy of its genes. It is similar to the chemical cocktail that drives true loves together… and false loves, destructive lovers, teen crushes. It is essentially identical to the rush that causes a person to covet a beautiful painting, or new rug. The only difference, chemically speaking, is the dosage. The little girl’s mother loved her in the same way she loved the men who passed through, fathering her various children. She loved her in the same way she loved every kitten, puppy, bird, even pig or goat who passed by, feeding and naming and cooing over them, and claiming them as hers, then forgetting them the moment another animal came along, remembering them only in her count when telling somebody she owned thirty-one, no, thirty-two pets.

Because of this love, the girl was fed and weaned and given love until she could move around fairly well on her own. By that time though, her womb was stitching together another baby from another man. When the child was three, she became last year’s baby, not because of any medical matter, but simply because this was what always happened.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the mother’s neglect was that she did not notice her baby was not speaking. It was easy for her to regard this beloved creature as more object than person, so why should it be any bother if she was mute?

Whether or not the baby’s siblings loved her was a question less ambiguously settled. They knew what their mother was, and knew that each new pregnancy brought a new competitor. They did not resent her for this. As one, they adored her, and the way she barely noticed them only drove the adoration deeper into their bones, into an almost religious hunger and devotion. Each child, once they lost the protection of mother’s passion, entered a hazing period of sorts, in which he or she would have to become their own mother, raiding pantries and wearing whatever could be found. By surviving this tribulation until the next usurper came along, they were admitted into the grudging camaraderie of the larger group. That is, if nothing else happened to prejudice the group against them. Eight limbs was more than enough for a prejudice, and without words to speak her defense she was done for.

Where her older brothers and sisters had only been forced to gather crumbs for themselves, the new baby was driven away from the blankets that served as tables. Her siblings risked the waiting animals to chase her into the next room or farther. Initially, this was driven by a genuine fear of her appearance, but as with anything else that was a constant presence, the children became acclimated to her. The reason for the chase was no longer fear, but sport. As for the little girl, the weight of the added, useless limbs dragged her down, and the extra right leg was placed so as to get in the way of her good one.

In response, she learned to be a trickster. Whatever protected her, she remembered and reused. She learned to climb, to back herself into a corner and defend her back with teeth, nails and rocks. Fear, to her, was less an inhibitor, more a spring to push against so she could be repelled with still more force against her enemies. There was no malevolence in her, but there was no meekness either. She liked being alive, to feel and breathe and discover strange things, like the taste of flour and the way asphalt made the air above it hot. Nobody was going to take that from her easily.

The animals of the house were far more compassionate. Forced to cohabit, dog and cat, goat and chicken altogether, they had no particular preconceptions of what the little girl should look like, and so believed that looking as she did was exactly how she should look. Some might claim that cooperation is a human ability, but those people would be the ones who have made a very shabby observance of animal behavior. It was almost every day that one dog would knock over a trash can to share with a herd of cats, or some similar occurrence, and the girl learned to follow them, and do her share as well, opening cabinet doors when nobody was around and letting all her friends in. When the handle of a door was out of reach, she learned to lurk nearby, often from an overhead perch, until someone else opened it. Then she would lower a stick or drop a thick rope over the open door, wedging open enough for her fingers or an animal’s nose to pry it the rest of the way open. She found the safest places were dark corners, under couches and behind closet doors, and that to curl up with a dog and perhaps a few cats or rabbits was the best sort of bed.

Although she had been given a name, it was quickly lost. Her mother called her precious, honey and baby, as she did all her children. For everyone else, the spider girl was enough. And so it was that family, neighbors, pets and the girl herself all forgot she was human.