Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Play It Again

In which my friend gets into a car wreck as I drive behind her, and in which I suspect I have some kind of OCD. 


A strange day, today.
The moment of impact replays in my head like a GIF. White car appears as if by magic, an explosion of parts and sound, tiny red car spins like a boomerang, watching from my window. Only later do I realize the miracle that my own car wasn’t hit – by all accounts, it should have been. Maybe there really was some kind of magic in the air.
Said to myself clearly: Okay. My friend has been in a car accident twenty feet from me. What do I do now? Pull over carefully. Turn on blinkers – check. Get out phone. Dial 911. Dialed, didn’t press call. Too busy.
Other woman had gotten out of the white car, standing on the sidewalk. I asked, Are you hurt? No, she said, shaken, dazed, sad in the face.
Good. Sit down.
I ran to the red car, in pieces. Nothing visible through the windows except airbags and smoke. Smoke from the airbags? I think so.
Never asked myself, What will I see? Just had to get the door open.
Opened the door. Called her name. She moved a little, made some noise. I crouched down, lifted the airbag. Are you okay? Stupid question. She mumbled something incoherent. She said, I didn’t even see her.
Another woman on the phone already with police, doing a better job than I. Glad she was here. A man stopped, not a runner, but looked like one. Helpful. Some people care.
Stayed with her, crouched down, hand on her arm. Not sure if comforting, but had to do something. Told her paramedics were coming, not to worry. Told her who I was. Not sure if she knew who I was.
It was barely raining. I wanted it to be the other woman’s fault, but it was neither, and both. She was so sad, shocked on the sidewalk in her skirt and heels, on her way to work. Shiny white car, quarter panel blown in. Black plastic parts and diamond headlights sparkling along the road. License plate and black honeycomb grill in the grass, like a joke. White car leaking brown fluid into the road. Looks like cocoa.
They’re coming. They’re on their way. Airbags smoking, car stank of smoke.
They came quickly. Cut her out of her seatbelt. Cut the airbags away. Ambulance wailing.
Told the officers what happened. They were polite, professional, let us go. I could do nothing more for her, so I went. I was only six minutes late for work. The other woman mumbled Sorry as we went, as though she was inconveniencing us. I felt sorry for her, but had nothing for her.
I feared for my friend, but more than that, I kept thinking – that would have been me. That should have been me. She took my place. She took my place.
When I was younger, lightning struck the house next door during a bad thunderstorm. We ran outside to see flames licking across the roof. Flames in the rain. The same storm flooded our basement. I kept picturing the lightning arcing towards out house and at the last minute changing its mind, leaping to the gables next door. It should have been us. They took our place.
Makes a girl feel like she’s bad luck or something.
Over and over it plays, smash, smash, smash. It wasn’t my accident, for some reason. But I remember. I remember everything. If I forget, something bad might happen. To me, to someone I love.
Play it again. Maybe it will make some sense.
Later on I try to normalize the day. It wasn’t, after all, my accident. Angry cats became loving, gazing up at me with the slow-blink of understanding. Angry dogs submitted to being held. Boss brought doughnuts to try and lighten the mood. Smooth the wrinkles, stifle the tears. It wasn’t, after all, your accident.
Text my husband to be careful on the road with our son. The usual post-traumatic appreciation of the briefness and fragility of life. He never responded. Probably for the best.
I was so upset I almost prayed.
I will not fear; fear is the mind-killer.
Play it again, I can’t forget this. It’s my job to remember.
All these women I idolize – my heroes from games, from books and stories – would they have been so upset by a simple car wreck? What would they have done? What Would Hawke Do? What Would Shepherd Do?
They are no help to me now. I want to be somewhere imagined… not recalled.
It plays on, and it’s time to let it go. Or rather, relegate to long-term storage, because forgetting doesn’t happen to me.

I failed. I couldn’t normalize anything. I couldn’t help. I could only watch, dumb, mute, hands wringing themselves. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

One Score and Ten

Do you feel old yet?

Every year. Every damn year, on my birthday, without fail.

Well, let's see. Do I feel more exhausted? Sure. Fatter? Oh yeah. Increasingly disconnected with those around me? Definitely. Less inclined to fight back when pushed? Unfortunately, yes. If those things contribute to the aging process, then yes, of course I feel old. I've felt old since... well, is it possible to be born old?

In a way, it's a little unfair, this being born old. Young people are so fresh, so vivacious, so hungry... even when I was young in years, I was always looking for the calm place, the still place. I don't like surprises, or being shaken up overmuch. No adventure for me... though it looks beautiful from a distance. A friend once asked me at a sleepover what I wanted to be when I got older. After staring at her ceiling in the semi-dark for a minute, I answered with complete seriousness that I wanted to be a pirate. She gasped and said disapprovingly that pirates were godless. I was speechless. I had never thought about it that way. I mumbled something about "fun," I think, and changed the subject. It was impossible for me, at that moment, to describe that I didn't care one sterling shite about the relative godliness of pirates; it was the sheer lack of tether, the freedom of being on the ocean, of being part of a like-minded crew, the idea of wanting something and taking it, if you were able... those were the things that appealed to me. Pirates had their own gods, filthy and vengeful gods, and I didn't care about them. I could taste the salt on my lips and feel the boat rock beneath my feet.

Of course, it was a childish thing to say, and anyone who knows me knows I could never be a pirate, or anything vaguely pirate-ish. I have a hard time taking money from customers whose pets I have helped. But I don't regret what I said. Though I will always find the calm, the still, the safe, my mind will always long for the open ocean, where no man has rule. That, more than anything, makes me feel old.

I think most people feel this, at least sometimes. Terry Pratchett has written about it in his Tiffany Aching series: there's the first voice, which yammers all the time, and can say some damned stupid stuff; and the second voice, which hears what the first voice says and quietly critiques. The second voice is the one that keeps us awake at night repeating everything we've done wrong. Then there is the third voice, which is the hardest to hear - it's the voice that looks at everything and brings it all into focus, as long as we're looking properly. My first voice is transparently awful, and causes me to take root like a mountain; my second voice begs to be let go, to burn like fire; my third voice, as far as I can tell, knows I'm full of it and that I'm the only one holding me back. My third voice knows I'm old at heart, and has no problem with that.

I turned thirty last Friday. Three decades on this earth, not having been killed or severely maimed. I have a son, a few dogs, a lot of nasty scars, an often-decent relationship with my immediate family, a few tattoos, a hundred stories brewing inside me, a first voice that cries and whispers and keeps me still and safe, a second voice that screams and bites and berates the first, and a third voice that can't quite remember how to laugh right now, though everything is funny.

Do I feel old yet? I've never felt young, so I don't know for sure, but I think - I hope - it's possible to feel old first, then young later. I'll tell you when I find the open ocean, and the mountains sink into the sea, when the roots are burned away, and the third voice remembers what laughing is like. If it takes a lifetime, I know I'll get there.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In the Bleak Midwinter

This is the coldest winter we've had in a long time. It’s old fashioned. It’s angry.

I step outside and ice assaults me, insinuating itself into my nostrils and ears and behind my teeth. I have to take turns breathing through my nose and my mouth, to prevent either from freezing too fast.

Freeze, frozen, frost, ice, snow. Whoever said it was right: Hell is not fire, it’s ice. Ice never changes, and it hurts. Cuts like glass, hits like a hammer.  

The lake is frozen over. My son asked me where all the ducks went when the lake froze. I told him they went to the Caribbean on a duck cruise. I don't know where they are. In my mind’s eye, they’re just beneath the surface of the ice, wings and little orange feet all tucked up tight, eyes open, waiting, waiting. They’re all belly-up, and facing the same direction.

And, like an afterthought to the cold, my grandmother died last week, after a long and painful battle with dementia and a mob of other health problems.

I want to be honest. For me, she died a long time ago.


The song that runs in circles in my head these days is Holst’s version of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which seems appropriate, but I wish it wouldn't, simply because the melody is delicate and beautiful, and it’s not for you.

You were a stranger to me, though whenever I look in the mirror I see two things: your face, and the face of my father, your son. I should know these parts, these familiar parts – the story behind them should be our story ­- but instead, I am a copy. Yours is a story I will never hear, and mine is a story you were never interested in hearing.

This should not be about me, and I recognize this. At the same time, though, when has death been for anyone but the living?

Your life was hard. Harder than I’ll ever know: young marriage, childbirth, poverty, drunkenness, and a certain stubborn hatefulness that you always seemed to carry on your chest like a talisman. I’d like to think you were a kind woman, in the story I’ll never know – I’d like to think you were bright and impulsive and brave, instead of vindictive and angry. You must have laughed – you must have smiled and been content in the story I will never know. I want to remember the woman who might have been, instead of the woman who was.

I wrote this five years ago after visiting you:
She said they had moved her to a different house while she slept. She thought she might have been sick – she didn’t hurt, she said, but she slept all day. And when she woke, she was in a different house. And she wanted to go home.
She couldn’t understand why her daughters kept insisting she was already home. She asked my father to give her a straight answer – he didn’t. She asked him, filling the room with awkwardness, and he made light, said as long as you’re comfortable and can find the bathroom. She gave him a Look. She hasn’t lost that.
She’s lived in that house for over forty years now. What house is she living in now?          

The repetitive young pastor said you were a determined, strong lady for living so far beyond the doctors’ predictions. They gave you four, five months; you lasted four years past that. Four incomprehensible, frightened, bed-bound, terminally ill years. You knew no one, anymore – not your own children, your own sisters and brothers, not your beloved Siamese cats, not even yourself. The Black Dog sat at your heels and beside your bed for four long years, as much as you tried to ignore him.

That’s not determination, Patricia. It’s fear. You were afraid to let go.

I know, because I would be afraid, too, deathly afraid. You claimed that you weren't, used words of faith like little shields to deflect the questions, but Patricia, I am your granddaughter. I am one-quarter you. I know parts of your story without ever hearing it. We don’t like fear, but we hold it close, almost as close as we hold our rage, and we deny that it exists.

I’m happy – so happy – that you let go at last.


She would have liked the way she looked in the casket – serene, well-dressed in a pretty pink nightgown, not gaudy or overdone. She would not have liked being put into ground that was frozen beyond solid, but she had no say in the matter.

The lake is frozen over. The whole world is frozen over, and nothing moves, nothing changes. The air outside hits our lungs like a hammer, cuts our flesh smoothly, like glass. This Hell will pass, and when spring comes, you will have always been dead.

When I hear windchimes, I will think of you. When I say hateful words to my son, I will hear your voice within mine. When I see the grainy picture of the fifteen-year-old you, smiling on your wedding day, I will believe that you were brave and brash, the way I always wanted to be, and leave it at that.

Goodbye, Patricia. Goodbye, Grandma. Go home, now. May peace find you, and may you hold it close when it does.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Stone at River's Bend

A story set in Thedas - a rich and rewarding sandbox to explore. Even if you don't know the universe, appreciate the story for what it is: a young woman saying goodbye, and leaving home to become something more than herself. All are welcome to r/r. 


The still hour before dawn’s light, when the whole world seems to be elsewhere – no lowing or bleating of animals in the barn, no children squealing from the house, no farmers shouting in the fields, no Sisters chanting in the square – was called the Spirit’s Hour, at least in Thea’s mind.
She lay in the dark in her nightgown, her face cold but her body warm beneath the blankets. The small figure in the narrow bed beside her stirred, whimpered, sleep-sighed – a bad dream. She put her hand out, gently, stroked the small form back into restful slumber. She kept her eyes open, staring at the ceiling beams, or at least at the suggestion of them in the pitch darkness.
The Spirit’s Hour. It had a smooth, heavy feel to it, like the stones in the Chantry floor. It felt as though the world was always this way, beneath all the business and bustle of the day, and the thought was an odd one: a ground state, a kind of nakedness. Thea supposed the world needed some private time, just like anyone else. She felt a little guilty for witnessing it, but there was no sleeping for her, not anymore.
Today was the day. They were coming.
The Sprit’s Hour slid into dawn like a smooth stone into a pond. The cock crowed in the yard, with gusto, and the world began to turn once more. Thea sighed deeply in the cold morning air and slid from bed, shivering; she dressed herself in the dark and stopped herself from checking the pack she’d already checked at least a dozen times, leaving it on the floor by the window where it had sat for days already. She tucked the blankets snugly around the small figure still sleeping in the bed and eased herself out of the room, tiptoeing down the narrow stairway.
Her mother sat on her stool in front of the hearth in the main room, stirring a black pot with a wooden spoon. The Spirit’s Hour had always been her mother’s, too, and Thea kept silent out of respect for that, but her mother turned, smiled, wiping her nose with a hanky.
“Morning, Fee,” she said. “Exciting day, isn’t it?”
Thea smiled, but turned away. She could not face her mother’s tears, not yet.
They went about their morning business as usual. It seemed the best way to go about things. After a chilly visit to the outhouse, Thea stopped by the pump and washed one body part at a time with a wet rag, the way she had been taught. Too much wet body at once meant illness. Back inside, she was greeted by the snap and aroma of frying bacon. A special day, indeed, for meat to come out in the morning – the thought almost made her mouth stop watering. Almost.
She went to the wooden chest by the wall and pulled out an ivory comb. A single bone-white tine was missing, gone in her grandmother’s time. She handed the comb to her mother, who took it wordlessly; Thea sat on the stool while her mother combed her long light-brown hair, over and over, following hand over comb, until the tangles of the night’s restless turning had been worked free. As the bacon sizzled, her mother divided her hair and braided it into two tight plaits – Thea kept her eyes closed as her mother finished by winding the two braids around her head, pinning them into place. It was the first time she had ever worn her hair up. Soon she would cut it off completely.
“Smells good in here,” said a small, sleepy voice from the stairwell.
Thea turned, feeling the unfamiliar weight of the hair wound about her head. She smiled. “Hello, Robin.”
The skinny little boy’s sleep-creased face became serious. “It’s Robert, Feeya.” He relented slightly. “But you can call me Robin today. Just you. No one else.”
Thea laughed. “I’ll pass on the warning.”
“And you must call me Robert in front of the Templars today.”
Their mother tapped off the wooden spoon sharply on the edge of the pot.
“I will,” promised Thea.
Suddenly the small blonde boy was lifted high into the air, squealing; a tall man in working clothes spun him around twice, then plopped him onto his shoulders. “Daddy!” shrieked the boy. “I dropped Argus!”
“Well, goodness, we can’t have that! Save him, quickly!” thundered the man, and held tight to the boy’s legs as he bent over, causing Robert to squeal with delight again as he reached down and grabbed the ragged stuffed dog off the floorboards. “Have you got him? Have you got him? Hold on tight…” and he spun him sharply in one direction, then the other, until the little boy was laughing so hard he was turning purple, both arms wrapped around his father’s head.  
“Now Jor, you’re going to make him throw up. Let the poor boy down!” chided Mother.
It made Thea’s heart glad to see her family laughing as though nothing was wrong, as though it was just another morning. She wanted to remember these things, but the desire to remember it made it easier to forget, somehow, and by the time breakfast was done the only thing saw in her mind’s eye was the mangy mabari doll sitting all akimbo on the floor, waiting to be scooped up.

“I can’t believe you’re actually doing this,” said a familiar sarcastic voice. Thea looked up, breathing hard, resting the end of the axe on the ground. They didn’t actually need much firewood, but it was a good distraction, so she had been doing it for almost an hour.
A head of dark, curly hair was watching her, a lanky body leaning against the fence.
“And I can’t believe you actually feel purple is your color, Finn,” she shot back, pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes.
The young man smiled a half-smile. “Please. The ladies love it.”
Thea put a hand on her hip. “Maker help us all.”
“Worked on you, didn’t it?” The half-smile grew wider.
The axe buried itself in the block. “So did you come down here to chat me up, or try to talk me out of it, or what? Because none of it is working,” said Thea, frowning through her blush.
“Come on,” said Finn. “Let’s take a walk.”
Thea laughed a little darkly. “That’s how you got me the last time.”
“Believe me, I remember. But this time, just a walk. I promise. We won’t be able to do it again.”
After a moment, Thea nodded, pulling off her leather gloves and tossing them onto the block beside the axe. The two started down the dirt road towards the woods.
They walked in silence for a time, falling into step beside each other, their feet finding the old, well-worn path.
“Your hair looks nice,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied.
“I’m going to miss you,” said Finn.
“Meh. Only because I’m the only girl in the village stupid enough to keep falling for your cheap lines,” Thea shrugged, watching tiny brown birds flit through the branches above.
The young man’s gray eyes sparkled as he laughed. “Rubbish. You’re the only one I use the cheap lines on, anymore.”
Thea laughed again. “Glad to hear you’re settling. Unfortunately it’s not to be.”
Finn picked up a thin branch from beside the path, whipped the low-hanging leaves absently. “I wasn’t settling.”
Thea glanced at him, then back to the trees. After a time she said, “It’s not meant to be.”
“You don’t have to do this,” said Finn. His smile had gone. He was only a few months older than her, but he looked much older when he wasn’t smiling.
“Yes, I do. You know that.”
“Don’t you think he needs you here, more?”
Thea didn’t answer. It was an old argument, one she’d had with herself a thousand times.
Finn pressed. “How can you protect him from some fortress a hundred miles away, Fee? He needs you here.”
Morning sunlight on pale blonde hair. “Come see, Feeya, come see what I can do!”
“Sounds like you’re just going to have to trust me, Finn,” she said distantly.
“No, what it sounds like is the least well-thought-out plan since Sister Agatha decided to help a choking man by throwing him into the mill pond,” replied Finn sharply.
“Well, the mill pond was frozen, and he did land so hard that he spat out the prawn, so maybe we give Sister Agatha too little credit,” said Thea reasonably.
She stopped, realizing that he had stopped and was standing a few paces behind her.
“I don’t understand this, Fee. How can you just leave him alone?”
“He won’t be alone, Finn. He’ll have mother, and father, and you, and your father to help him.”
The young man stared at her, any trace of laughter gone. “There’s only so much my father can teach him. What’s going to happen when he grows up, Fee? When he starts becoming a man? My father says that’s when… that’s when they can’t control it any longer.”
“Watch this, Fee!” A tiny ball of flame, swirling like a phoenix feather in the air above a tiny outstretched palm. A cry of surprise as she grabbed his arm.
“I’ll be a Knight by then. I’ll be able to help him.”
“What are you going to do, smuggle books of theory back to him? Hide a tutor under your breastplate? I know you hate the Circle, but there must be a better way of keeping Robin safe.”
“I don’t hate the Circle, Finn. But he can’t go there. Children who go to the Circle might as well be dead. And you… your father did everything he could, but you know how many my mother lost. That my mother has any smiles left in her is a miracle.”
Finn looked at the ground, running a hand through his dark curls. Eleven years and much loss had passed between Thea and her little brother.
“I can’t do that to them,” Thea went on. “He’s the last Westley.”
He smiled a little crookedly. “That’s a little old-fashioned, don’t you think?”
She laughed, sadness running through the sound like ore in stone. “Maybe. But how would you feel if you were the last of your line?”
“I am,” he laughed.
“But you won’t always be. You’ll find a nice young girl who loves cheap pickup lines and the color purple, and you’ll have lots of obnoxiously smart-arsed little babies. You’ll have a summer wedding, and a house with a porch, and two dogs. I can see it. It’s all very idyllic.”
He gave her a dry look. “So they take seers in the Templars, now, do they?”
She went on. “The dogs’ names will be Fidget and Hubert. Fidget will have a housetraining problem, and Hubert won’t stop humping the guests’ legs. Just like his master.”
He laughed, and she was glad to hear the old joy in the sound. They began walking again. “I’m not so sure about that. I was considering joining the Chantry,” he said casually.
“Oh Maker, Finn, you couldn’t keep yourself from women if you wore a spiked chastity belt.”
“I will refrain from reminding you that some women like that kind of thing, and instead insist that I am, in fact, quite strongly considering it. I can do some good. Maybe travel.”
“Doesn’t your father need your help at the clinic?”
Finn nodded. “I can study here under the Revered Mother for a few years. Then we’ll see. One day at a time.”
She shook her head, amused. “And the women?”
“Like I said, one day at a time.”
 They had reached the hawthorn tree by the bend in the river.
Thea smirked. “So that’s your game, is it?”
The dark-haired young man was the picture of innocence. “I have no idea to what the young lady is referring. The tree is simply a lovely place to take in the scenic vista.”
“So the fact that it’s where we –“
“Madam! I have a reputation to uphold!” he said with mock indignity.
“I’m sure you do a lot of upholding around here, you blighter!”
“Blighter! Madam, I am a perfect gentleman!” he roared, and gave chase. She ran from him, laughing wickedly. It was an old game, played for many years, though the overtones had certainly shifted.
“I’m sorry, Feeya, I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you, I just wanted to show you,” he babbled, tears running like two rivers from his blue eyes. She could barely feel her own tears as she stared at her hand, at the blackened flesh still curling up. Through her shock, she was already making up a story – cooking grease, hot iron pots, too close to the fire.
He caught her by the side of the river, hoisted her kicking over his shoulder. “Thou art mine, Ser Theodora, and thou shalt like it!” he boomed over the water. Then, less boomingly, “Ooof… you’ve been chopping too much wood, lately, my lady. Methinks you have put on muscle.” He put her down, rubbing his shoulder, grinning. His right hand lingered on her left, on the scars, or maybe it only felt like it did.
She smiled hugely, breathing hard. “Methinks ‘tis true, for observe, Serrah!” and without warning seized him by the arm and thigh and lifted him easily on her shoulders. He shouted various epithets while she jumped nimbly to a stone in the river, then to another, and another, laughing. Once back on the bank, she dumped him unceremoniously under the hawthorn tree, where he sat trying to catch his breath and failing due to excessive laughter.
“I always did… have a weakness for… women who could haul me about… like a feed sack,” he gasped.
Thea leaned on her knees. “You’re a heavy little blighter,” she laughed.
He drew his knees up to his chest and looked up at her, still grinning from ear to ear. “This is how I will remember you,” he said.
Her smile faded a little, and after a moment she stood up straight. “We should get back,” she said. “I don’t want the Templars to think I’ve run away.”
They followed the path back to the fence where she’d found him. She wished she had a greater sense of drama, because now seemed the moment for something dramatic. Nothing came to her, so to hide her sudden tears she turned to walk away.
Finn reached out and caught her left hand in his right, and squeezed. She squeezed back. It may have been a promise, a declaration, a dramatic move, she wasn’t certain. She had no sense for that sort of thing. But she squeezed back, as hard as she could.
 “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated, and tried to touch her hand. She pulled away slightly, instinctively. His eyes pleaded with her as he looked up from the floor. Without words, they begged: Are you scared of me, Feeya?
She watched him for a few steps, making his way towards the village, staring at the ground as he went, as he often did, his shoulders flexing as he swung the whippy branch back and forth along the hedge. For a moment she lost herself in a thought of what might have been – warm summer nights, weddings, a house with a porch – and then she let it go, a feather in the breeze.

Thea was in the barn saying goodbye to the goats when she noticed Robin standing behind her, moving dirt around with the toe of his shoe. She waited for him to speak, half-turned, her hand still stroking the goat’s cowlick between the horns.
He didn’t speak. After a time, he walked up slowly beside her and leaned against her, putting his head against her hip, turning his face towards her. His arms folded against her leg, one hand against his own cheek, the other picking at the seam in her leggings.
Her right hand lifted, stroked his soft, baby-blond hair.
“I love you so much,” he said, his voice muffled.
For him, she thought to herself as tears flowed from between closed lids. For this.

Three riders approached shortly after the last of the mid-day bells rang out from the village.
There were two Templars, both older men, one dark-bearded, one bald as a squash. Across both of their chests shone the flaming sword insignia of their order. The Revered Mother rode between them on a pony, looking positively overjoyed. She had not had the pleasure of entertaining recruiting Templars in many years, and at age ninety-two, she might not again.
Thea stood by the gate with her mother and father.
“Joran Westley?” said the bearded rider as the mounts slowed to a halt.
Her father saluted.
“A soldier, I see. Thank you for your service to the Free Marches, serah. My father was also in the service.” The Templars dismounted, their light riding armor jangling and gleaming in the sun. “I am Ser Hausman, and this is Ser Gilliam.”
“The gentlemen are Knights of the Starkhaven Circle,” supplied Mother Gertra as Ser Gilliam gamely helped her down from her pony.
The bearded Templar, Ser Hausman, nodded at Thea. “And you must be our potential recruit. What is your full name, girl?”
“Theodora Ilsabetta Westley, ser.”
“A solid enough name, to be sure,” said the Templar.
Mother spoke up. “Please come in, good sers. I have tea almost ready. I’m sure you’re eager to sit on something that doesn’t jostle.”
The bald Templar, Ser Gilliam, laughed heartily. “A wise woman.”
“Thank you, goodwife,” said Ser Hausman seriously. “It will be a good opportunity to begin the questioning.”
They entered the house. “And this is my brother Robert,” said Thea. The small figure by the fire rose and stood to attention.
Ser Gilliam chuckled again. “Two soldiers in this family, I say! And you, the most fearsome of the lot, I’d wager. How old are ye, Messere Robert? Five and twenty? Five and thirty?”
“I’m seven, ser,” answered Robin proudly, his thin little chest puffed out like a pigeon’s. “And I’m not a soldier yet, ser, but maybe one day I will be.”
“A lucky day that will be for Starkhaven’s army, serah,” smiled Ser Gilliam. Thea’s mother smiled gratefully at him.
“Now Robert, it’s time to be a good boy, and run up to your room and play. We must talk,” said Father. The small figure disappeared up the stairs in a flurry of knees and elbows.
Seats were eased into; cups of hot tea were handed around to general murmurs of appreciation. Thea remained standing in the center of the room, feeling like a horse at auction, which, in a way, she was.
“Do you believe in the maker, Theodora?” asked Ser Hausman suddenly.
Thea looked directly into the Knight’s hooded brown eyes. “I do, ser,” she said.
“Who sponsors this young woman?”
“I do, Ser Knight,” said the Revered Mother proudly.
“Has she been confirmed in the Maker’s sight?”
“She has,” supplied Mother Gertra, reveling in her role. “These seven years.”
“Many are those who wander in sin,” began Ser Hausman, his eyes still on Thea.
She continued the verse without hesitation. “Despairing that they are lost forever; but the one who repents, who has faith unshaken by the darkness of the world, and boasts not, nor gloats over the misfortunes of the weak, but takes delight in the Maker's law and creations, she shall know the peace of the Maker's benediction.”
The bearded man laughed, taking a drink of his tea. “Well done. That one’s a bit obscure. But tell me – indulge me, really – recite your favorite verse, if you would.”
Thea clasped her hands together, covering her left hand with her right. She began to speak, words that she had whispered to herself and to her brother in the darkness of many anguished nights. “Though all before me is shadow, yet shall the Maker be my guide. I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Beyond. For there is no darkness, nor death either, in the Maker's Light, and nothing that He has wrought shall ever be lost.”
Ser Gilliam smiled appreciatively. Ser Hausman raised an eyebrow. “The Canticle of Trials. Interesting. Why that particular passage, Theodora?”
Thea took a deep breath. “Because, ser,” she said, keeping her voice as steady as she could, “it’s easy to forget about the light when the darkness closes in. And there is so much darkness. But we must always hope – we must cling to it, ser, and keep the hope close, or the darkness will take us. We must fight for the light. I must always fight.”
“As a Templar, you must give your life to the Chantry and to the service thereof, forever. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ser.”
“As a Templar, you will train hard, and become proficient with weaponry. It is a grueling life. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ser. I have… already a little skill.” She motioned to her father’s old sword and shield, emblazoned with the red and black heraldry of Starkhaven, hanging on the wall above the hearth.
“Does the scarring on your left hand affect your performance?”
“No, ser.”
“As a Templar, you will be expected to take life when necessary. You will witness horrors beyond your imagining. You will be called upon to punish those who misuse magic. You will be forever vigilant to the presence of mages, apostates and maleficar, and you will do everything in your power to do as the Chantry demands. Do you understand?”
“I… I do, ser,” she said, driving the tremor from her voice.
Ser Hausman leaned towards her, steepling his fingers, his dark eyes sharp. “I say again: as a Templar, you must give your life to the Chantry and the service thereof, do you understand?”
The young woman took a deep breath, let her hands drop. “I understand, ser, that I will become one and of the Chantry, and none but the Maker will guide my heart and deeds. Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him; I will exist to serve the Chantry, and the word of the Maker embodied therein. I will hold my faith like a flame against the dark, ser.”
Her mother turned away, towards the fire.
In the depths of Thea’s heart, the thought bloomed: if I repeat these words often enough, I will begin to believe them. I want to believe them. I must believe.
The Templars seemed satisfied. “Very good,” said Ser Hausman, rising. “Now, if there is a private space we might make use of, preferably enclosed…?”
“Oh, er, will the barn do?” supplied Father, still a little caught up in the recent exchange.
Ser Gilliam stood as well, leaving his cup on the arm of his chair. “That will suffice. Theodora, Reverend Mother, if you please. Madame and Messere, please remain here. We will return shortly.”
Leaving her mother and father behind as she led the way to the barn felt strange, but not as strange as Mother Gertra’s thin hand on her shoulder as she whispered loudly, “You’ll make a wonderful Templar, my dear. Such armor!”
Thea hauled open the door, motioned the group inside.
“Yes, this will do,” said Ser Hausman critically.
“Why the barn, ser?” asked Thea.
“We are going to conduct a test, most basically designed, really,” said Ser Gilliam, shifting a wooden wheelbarrow out of the way. “Simply to determine your degree of connection to the Fade.”
Thea nodded.
“Please stand there. Hold still.”
She moved into the open space in the center of the barn, and held still. A goat bleated a half-hearted complaint, watching with one eye.
Ser Hausman glanced at his companion, who nodded slightly. Ser Hausman drew his sword, held it flat before his face. He held very still, took several deep breaths, and lifted his left hand.
Thea felt a wave of heaviness roll over her, a sense of pressure, but nothing more. She barely wavered.
The bearded Templar lowered his hand and his sword, smiling slightly. The Reverend Mother audibly let out a sigh of relief.
“Alright, well, that’s that,” said Ser Gilliam.
Thea looked from one man to the other. “That was the test?”
“Indeed,” said Ser Hausman. “If you were a mage with a strong connection to the Fade, you’d be on the ground screaming for mercy right now.” His smile increased, he winked at her. “One day, if you work at it, you’ll be able to do that, as well.”
She looked at the bearded Templar. “Yes, ser. I will work hard.”
Again, on the way back to the house, Mother Gertra’s voice in her ear: “What a Templar you’ll make, my dear! Blessed Andraste, how exciting for you!  You must promise to write, my dear!”

They had already tied her pack to the back of one of the horses by the time she pulled on her cloak and said goodbye to everyone with kisses and embraces. It was only a show. The real goodbyes had already been said, with eyes and silences. Robin looked as though he wanted to say something, shout something really, but she kissed him into quiet, promising that she would see him again before he knew it. She had no idea if it was true or not. She hoped it was.
Ser Gilliam held out his gloved hand. “Up you go, then,” he said kindly. She allowed herself to be pulled up, swung her leg over the rear of the horse, settled in behind the man, feeling his armor move against her front. She could smell him – leather, armor polish, soap, something vaguely metallic. Not unpleasant by any means, but alien to her.
They did not linger. She glanced behind her only once, and immediately regretted doing so. She buried the image of her family huddling together by the hedge, Robin in her father’s arms, looking the other way down the road, and focused on the gentle jostling of the horse beneath her, the sound of hooves thumping on the packed earth, the tiny dents and scratches in Ser Gilliam’s plate armor. 
“We’ll overnight in the next village,” said Ser Hausman. “Then it’s on to Lesille. We’ve another recruit to pick up there. After that, Starkhaven. Ever been, girl?”
Thea shook her head. “No, ser.”
“A bit full of itself, really,” said Ser Gilliam, thoughtfully. “But you won’t be there for long. You’ll be divided into groups, and sent to training refuges all over the Marches. I hope for your sake you don’t get the one outside Ostwick – Owl’s Roost, they called it. That’s where I was, more years ago than I care to count. The food was terrible.”
“Owl’s Roost burned down ten years ago, Gilliam. Come now, you recall.” Ser Hausman had taken a pipe out of a saddlebag, pulled off a riding glove, and was carefully thumbing dark tobacco into the bowl.
“Oh, that’s right. Well, the food was terrible.”
The sun inched nearer to the treeline, and Thea lost herself in the thump-clump of hooves. The smoke from Ser Hausman’s pipe was dark and bittersweet, with a coppery edge. There is no darkness, nor death either, in the Maker’s light, she repeated to herself. No darkness, nor death either. Nothing that He has wrought will ever be lost.
Thea leaned gently against Ser Gilliam’s armor. Under her cloak, she ran the fingers of her right hand over the time-smoothed scars on her left, saw a glimpse of baby-blonde hair in her mind’s eye, golden in morning sunlight. Tears filling bright blue eyes, overflowing down round cheeks. The smell of burning flesh. I’m sorry, Feeya, I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you, I just wanted to show you…
The Knight glanced over his shoulder at her. “Anxious, girl?”
Are you scared of me, Feeya?
Thea leaned back, stared upwards into the purple sky, at the young stars winking their ciphers at her. It was the secret sister of the Spirit’s Hour, when the world, while still turning, seemed quiet and brimming with something akin to hope, smooth and warm as a stone by a riverbend on a summer’s evening.

“No, ser,” she said firmly. “I’m not afraid.”

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Thinking Man

A poem, originally titled "Modern Philosopher." Written a while back, but re-read it tonight and made me smile. I was so young and full of hope... *tear*


In his sway, holding tight to the point
Which must be made now at any expense, he grits out his words
And feels them bumping stony down paths of other brains
Landslides, mudslides, pebbles in a field, stationary and irrelevant.
Absently he wonders how many trees he can blow down with his hot breath of apathy,
This hot air of pompitude and attitude of mischarity.
He wonders, among the rumblings, where he picked it up, his habits of
Ignorance and self-loathing. But he knows he’s not stupid, just hateful and
Ruined; he considers the gun, for whom, he’s uncertain, but in the silence the thought
Becomes as foolish and humiliating as a remark out of place, uncalled for, offensive,
And he drops it, hot stones.
Why do these moments always last forever? Don’t they tire of being, and give up,
And leave people like me to the next moment?
But he doesn't really care – his life is a series of these embarrassments,
Punctuated by kind faces he frowned at and kind words he ignored,
This hell is familiar, and in a way he wants it.
Yes, he tells himself with a sigh, it’s all about control, and the control I can’t have,
And the control I must have; I did not ask for this desire, but now that it’s swallowed me
It’s for me to live up to. Simple, really. It’s a matter of things becoming other things,
And People becoming Ideas.                            
The moment luxuriates, and he considers death, a humorous and bloated bully
Which he has observed from a distance, laughing at himself for doing so.
What if, he wonders, these minds should die, and I should be left here to
Dig out their ideas alone?
And if the bones I find hide no gold?
What if everything I've thought and they've thought has been thought before
By some sordid poet or philosopher or garbage man,
And everything that I use to impress myself on the world is an old tool, grossly unoriginal,
And stinking of overuse?
Well? And where would I stand?
Quickly he asks himself to try to be happy; he’s sure other people manage it, and he’s tired
Of trying so hard. Sois content, he reminds himself, comforted by the logic of
Other languages, ones that sit like field pebbles on the tongue. The sound of it
Echoes in the hollows left by other minds crashing downward,
Wax-melty, and stunned by ocean. Anyone pressing an ear to the never-ending moment
Could make out waves, and one man’s raving voice. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Le Passage - Kay Sage, 1956

When it finally happened, all was very still.

I watched the doe run from across the distant road, through the trees, bounding across the grass towards the yard where I stood with the dog on the end of the sliplead. The dog hadn’t seen her; or maybe he had, but didn’t care. He’s fairly inscrutable.

Hooves made a careless thumping sound as she leaped across the twilight field, apparently heading for the University of Phoenix building, perhaps to pursue a certification in phlebotomy. Though I was standing in a wide swathe of light, she hadn’t noticed me, hadn’t noticed the dog, and she moved erratically, like a child entertaining itself. You could practically hear her humming, off-key and unthinking.

When she finally saw us, she was only ten feet away on the other side of the iron fence. She stopped, did her very best impression of a lawn statue, as deer will do, and regarded us with a quivering black eye. I held very still and tried to look non-threatening, because I’m that kind of pathetic person. She seemed less than convinced.

I looked down. The dog glanced up at me, over at the deer, then returned to sniffing some other dog’s feces. Priorities, I suppose.

I looked back up at the deer, or rather, the deer’s white backside, as the deer had turned and fled back the way she’d come, disappearing between the soft pines across the road. That bitch.

This deer obviously has no mythic sensibilities, no romance, I grumbled to myself. I’d have liked a little animal communication moment; a glance that told me she wasn’t afraid, that she knew who I was. As someone who takes care of animals for a living, I felt I was owed at least that much. Didn’t this deer realize who I was? I have a connection, dammit! I was even a Wiccan for, like, two years, which is a really long time for someone with any semblance of sense! I have mad cat-wrangling skills! Do you not know these things, random deer who was taken by surprise by my presence?   

Of course, she never came back, instead choosing to scale the hill and trek across the backyard lawns of houses in the kind of neighborhood where they don’t allow you to put up a fence. Maybe she made her way to the golf course up there, and left her adorable little deer droppings all over the twelfth hole. The one with the dog leg. Hah.

Well, that was a waste, I thought as I took the dog back inside (he’d grown bored of poop-sniffing). That could have been an omen, could have been a sign. Instead it was nothing. Ridiculous nothing.

Even nothing is something, I reasoned.

Except, by definition, it isn’t, I countered. Must everything have a deeper meaning? Can’t some things just be?

By virtue of existing and occurring, all things must mean something. Right? In that sense – nothing is indeed something. But not necessarily a very important something. Do you see?

… Brain, we’re going to have to have a heart-to-heart here very soon.

Night dropped down on me like a cheap chiffon scarf: softly, quietly, with sparkles. The deer was long gone, as were most right-thinking human beings. Crickets creaked. Cicadas hissed at volume, seemingly unaware that their last call had passed long ago. Moths bumped blindly into my face as I closed the door, turned on the alarm, and wandered to my car. The whiff of woodsmoke in the air was bizarrely out of place in this suburban flatland, but it evoked distant memories of mountains and pine forests and clear lakes that may or may not be mythical, and I was grateful for it. 

Grateful for inscrutable dogs, grateful for darkness, grateful for drives home alone along winding roads.

When it finally happens, all becomes very still.

The great turning over; the great shedding; the greatest loss. One emerges changed, new, but necessarily lessened; for one can never completely reclaim what was lost. Poets and other malcontents make much of the broken heart, the broken mind, or the broken spirit; just as cutting is the closed eye, or the closed hand, or the turned shoulder.

Inhale; exhale.

Deer in the purple evening light. Moths like ashes in your mouth. The stink of woodfire curling along the asphalt. The burn in your belly of too many arguments, too many dirty looks, too many nights sleeping head to toe, staring at the wall. All omens, all nothing, all greater than the sum of the parts.

Open your eye, your hand, and drive the dark and winding road road; hope for the grace to see the right moment as it approaches, watch as it passes, and recognize it for what it was as it grows smaller in your rearview. An omen, a spirit, nothing at all. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Choice; or, Two Doors Stood in the Desert

Two doors stood in the desert, side by side. Pale sand had drifted and mounded on the thresholds and settled gently on the hinges.

Not doors to anywhere; just doors, plain and of average door height, standing upright in the sand, equal parts bizarre and unassuming.

Harden stood before the two doors, looking from one to the other. Something cicada-like and unseen buzzed in the air. His exhausted body throbbed with the heat inside his armor.

He sighed, wiped the sweat from his forehead with his equally sweaty hand, and muttered to himself, “Really?”

Always riddles. He didn’t join up with the Guild to solve riddles. See, this is why you always travel in a well-balanced group – someone to solve the riddles, someone to slap poultices on wounds, someone to swing a sword, etcetera. Everyone in their place. And Harden’s place was to swing the sword – honest bloody steel. Nothing mystical about a blade, most of the time, anyway.

But things don’t always work out to be ideal.

Lenzo, the silver-tongue with a creepy penchant for sneaking around in the shadows sniping folks with poisoned crossbow bolts, had been incapacitated just two weeks into their journey. Sneaking around in the shadows with no armor on isn’t such a great plan when fighting a pack of werewolves, who, it turns out, can see in the dark, and are, it turns out, immune to most poisons.

The dwarven cleric, hilariously enough, had found a new calling at the White Crane, the best bordello this side of the Winders: “ministering to the young ladies,” he’d said, glassy-eyed. Ministering, indeed. It would have been nice to have Curolo around last week when Harden’s knee had taken a head-butt from a particularly short and nasty goblin. The twinging was almost unbearable when it rained.

Thankfully, the insufferable elven mage had stormed off several days ago, arcane jewelry rattling furiously, insisting she was far, far too talented for this kind of pissant work. Even her – ahem – considerable assets and the fact that she wore only what appeared to be a few carefully-arranged rhinestones were not enough to make up for her godsawful attitude. Also, she had a face you could chop wood with and a mouth like a cat’s bottom.

So now Harden traveled alone. He went carefully, hoarding health poultices and information as he went; every night before he slept, he pulled out a many-folded piece of paper, carefully unfolded it, read his orders a few times, then re-folded the paper and replaced it in his pack. He spoke to innkeepers and merchants, who always seemed to be in the know; he was slowly learning how to suppress his natural awkwardness, and it was amazing how much people told you if you weren’t awkward. He supposed that was what “charisma” was all about. He’d never had to worry about that kind of thing before; a large, sharp weapon had always had its own special kind of charisma.

But charisma couldn’t help you solve riddles, he’d discovered. It may help you solve the one who asked the riddle… but not all riddles were actually asked; some, like the doors, simply were.

The desert had been a welcome respite from dealing with people, but desert creatures were hard to kill, and this journey was really starting to wear.

Keep going for Cass, he would repeat to himself after every exhausting battle, when he was sitting on a rock panting and spitting blood, exploring his wounds with a non-broken finger. Keep going for the baby. It was his thin mantra, the driftwood that buoyed him up just enough. So he’d bind his broken fingers together, swig a foul-tasting tincture, hammer the largest dents out of his armor and check the bodies for anything of value before moving on, on to the next town, the next fight, the next bloody gods-damned riddle.

Knowing what he would see, but unable to stop himself, he looked around to the back of the doors.

Yep. Doors from nowhere to nowhere. That’s lovely.

And where… ah, yes, there it is. The inscription. I hope it doesn’t rhyme. I can’t stand any more bad poetry.

It didn’t rhyme. It read: “Traveler, be it known: choose one door, and only one. What lies beyond the other, you will never know; that alone is the price of passage.”

Harden was rather taken aback. Was that all? Choose one, go through, that’s it? No enormous, angry gelatinous cubes? No pits of spikes and alligators? The only unpleasant thing that could happen to you is that you’d never get to know what was beyond the other door? Wasn’t that what people did every day, essentially, if you wanted to get philosophical about it?

He shrugged, shouldered his pack, and reached for the nearest door’s handle.

He hesitated.

There was nothing in the inscription about certain doom, true, and usually these things made themselves known (why go to the trouble, after all, and not advertise?), but… who was to say what, exactly, was through the doors? He hadn’t gotten this far without being careful.

After a moment’s thought, he pulled out the well-read set of orders and scanned them again. No help there. He frowned, stifled the suspicion that his employer was a creepy sadistic bastard who hadn’t stepped foot out of doors in fifty years, and pushed his blonde hair back off his forehead.

Right, well, let’s see what we can see.

He scanned both of the doors with care, running his hands over every surface, looking for the smallest hint as to what lay beyond. Both were completely, frustratingly smooth wood, carved with decorative squares; the handles were iron or some similar metal, a bit tarnished, but otherwise unremarkable.

There were no keyholes of course, but Harden did get down on his hands and knees and scoop the sand away from the thresholds, trying to get a glimpse underneath. His squinting eyes were met only with darkness.

A little embarrassed, and not sure why, he put his nose to the gap and sniffed. He pulled back, coughing. Just sand. Stings when you breathe it in.

He sat back on his heels, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Nothing.

Let’s think about this.

Say I pick a door. The door on the right, for argument’s sake, and through that door lies, say, a beach that borders a lagoon wherein lives something with lots of rage and too many tentacles for its own good. That’s all fine and good. What if, then, though the other door, there was a path through a pleasant wood leading, after a nice little jog, directly to the tower containing the particular artifact after which his employer was lusting.

But I would never know, having chosen the other door. The one with the tentacle monster.

He wondered if there was some way to cheat the system. Probably not. He could try to open both doors at exactly the same time… nope, of course not. Just too far apart for both handles to be reached by someone standing in the middle and reaching both arms out as far as they could go.

Harden’s arms dropped sheepishly to his sides, discomfited by the silly show they’d just taken part in, and he stood there, sweat dripping into his underpants.

What if I open one door, but don’t go through it? Ah… I know. Then the other one will open to show only the sand behind it. That’s how these things go. Putting a hand on the knob and turning it will signify that the choice was made – there can be no opening and closing.

Well then, what the hell does it matter which door I choose? Harden shrugged for his own benefit, and that of his cresting frustration. If there’s no way to know where either door leads, and I can only choose one, why does it bloody matter? I mean, there may as well be only one door. Why does the choice even exist? Simply to drive someone like me completely bonkers? If an obnoxious enchanted riddle door falls in the desert because an angry, tired swordsman has kicked it over, does anyone give a small turd? And does said swordsman still get paid?

It’s not a riddle, it’s a bloody menace, Harden thought to himself darkly, glaring. He crossed his arms, pinched the bridge of his nose, took a deep breath and scoured his memory for anything that may be useful.

His brain settled on a conversation he’d had with his companions at a filthy black-kettle tavern a few weeks ago, shortly before the werewolf incident. He’d just found a new sword, enchanted steel, a definite step up from his Guild-issue butter knife which bent when it was yelled at, and he had bought several rounds to celebrate. Everyone aside from Cat-Bum Axe-Face was well into it. 

“Have you ever thought… that we might be going about this all wrong?” slurred Lenzo from the far side of his mug.

Harden and Curolo had glanced at each other, then at the thief. “What are you even talking about?” giggled the dwarf, his bald head shiny with sweat in the lanternlight.

“Right, I mean, like, right… hang on. I mean. Well, there’s a certain way things are done, isn’t there?” Lenzo said, pushing his greasy black hair out of his eyes and weaving through unfamiliar territory. “I mean, it’s like… someone tells us to do something, and we do it.”

“That’s how the Guild works, you moron,” snapped Cat-Bum, doing her damnedest not to let her skin come into contact with any surfaces, a difficult thing given the amount of skin that was exposed. Her real name was Zalthea Star-Eye or some nonsense, but to Harden she would always be Cat-Bum. “People approach the Guild with a contract, we accept. We get paid.”

“Yes, thank you so much, I did know that, in fact,” retorted Lenzo unsteadily. “I meant… I meant. Ah. I meant that we follow the directions to a letter. Riddle this and outsmart that and battle this and hack-and-slash that. It’s all a bit of a show, isn’t it? I mean. Couldn’t we just ignore all those damned fire-fountains and owlbears and sphynxes and just, you know…”

“… Go get it?” finished Harden thoughtfully.

“Yes! ‘It’ being the prize, the inevitable object at the end of the long and wind-y road. It’s what I call the Third Choice.”

Curolo shook his head, the braids in his beard bristling. “You’ve been thinking about this a lot, then?”

Lenzo shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I, well, yeah. It’s always ‘kill this troll’ or ‘help this troll.’ It’s never ‘swing it wide to the East to avoid the troll completely and incidentally try this great curry place that’s down that way.’ I mean, what are they going to do? Come find us and say we’re not doing it right?”

“The Third Choice. Just get the shit done,” said Harden, with a touch of awe.

“But. But! But then what about the treasure?” insisted Curolo, hugging his stein to his chest, his face creased in inebriated concern.

The thief waved his hand. “Pah! What treasure? It’s all random, anyway. Who can say for sure there will be treasure? I’ll tell you where the treasure is – it’s in the purses of those merchants who travel up and down the safe highways, in the chests in the tax collectors’ offices in the city square, in the fat bags of the innkeepers who… er, well, you know.” He coughed to avoid the sharp glance of the innkeeper, just within earshot.

There was a malty silence as they all digested the thief’s words.

“But what about the glory?” said Harden suddenly. He wasn’t sure what had made him say that – drink, probably.

Lenzo laughed raucously. “Glory! My muscle-bound friend, there is no greater glory than to be alive to tell your employer to kiss your sweaty arse, and that of the horse you rode back on.”

The Third Choice. Harden had scoffed at Lenzo for that. What was the Quest if not a journey, an experience, a chance to hone one’s skills and see the world?

Gods, just a few short weeks ago, and he had been such a boy. If he had known… well, he wouldn’t be here now, that was for certain.

Harden regarded the doors before him, their shadows stretching over him in the dusty and increasingly purple light of the desert. The sun was starting its lazy descent towards the horizon.

A locust fluttered erratically across the sand and settled on his left pauldron, where it rocked back and forth a few times, regarding him with large, fractal eyes and twitchy mandibles. He stared back at it. It defecated on him unceremoniously, then jumped back into the breeze, disappearing over the dunes in a flurry of glassy wings.

“Bugger this for a lark,” Harden muttered, and made the Fourth Choice.

Home was far away, but every step took him closer to Cass, closer to the baby, closer to rainy evenings by the fire, mornings on the farm, closer to the smell of fresh hay and the sound of scythes swishing again and again across the fields… and further away from the desert and its infernal doors, and thus every step became just a tiny, tiny bit lighter.

He passed through the White Crane, where Curolo was minus his trousers in the kitchen and so addled with ruby ale that he didn’t recognize his own hand in front of his face. Harden relieved him of his dusty alchemical supplies, selling them for better boots in the nearby village, though he did leave behind the packets of medicinal salve that he assumed the dwarf would be needing.

 He passed the spot in the woods where they had buried Lenzo, and found the shallow grave no longer occupied. After the initial panic, he reasoned that scavengers were most likely to blame, but jogged out of the woods at a healthy pace just in case, listening hard for anything vaguely wolfish, leaving behind him at the grave seven gold coins: six to settle a debt, and one to help pay the ferryman, the way his Gran had taught him.

He went to the Guild in the capital, where he saw Cat-Bum arguing with another mage about something arcane and no doubt beyond the ken of mortal man while trying to surreptitiously hike up her flimsy jeweled bra. She did not deign to notice him. He marched up the stairs to his contract manager, and asked politely but firmly for an address. He made his way across town to a small, dark house, beat on the door until it cracked open, and thrust the map and directions at the slice of pale, underdone face that appeared, followed by some advice to get a dog, a girlfriend, and a different hobby, preferably one out in the fresh air.

Harden then went home, hung his sword and shield on the wall, and held his wife and daughter for a long time. That’s where his story really begins, he would always tell people, and it was true – Harden had many adventures over his many long years, exactly none of them involving mysterious doors in the desert.  

Because that’s the thing about life: the choices are all around you. You make them, they make you, round and round, passing through door after door… and in the end, may we all be so fortunate as to make the Fourth Choice, and arrive back home in good time, with good boots on our feet and good tales in our mouths, and hang our swords and shields on the wall to gather dust.