In a role reversal to Ideomancer’s September interview, Featured Author Greg van Eekhout answers a few questions from fellow writer Tim Pratt.
Tim Pratt: You’ve just taken the great leap into full-time writing, at least on a trial basis. Do you have any specific goals for the next six months, either artistically or practically? Or, to make it a bit less lofty: what are you planning to work on?
Greg van Eekhout: Well, primarily I hope not to turn into Elvis or Howard Hughes over the next several months. I basically have about a six-month window of opportunity in which I get to be a full-time writer, and at the end of it, I need to have a novel written and a handful of short stories. I’m a bit skittish about discussing the projects in much more detail than that, but I will say that the novel is a contemporary fantasy that’s been gnawing at me for a long time, and it’s got valkyries and zombies and big, scary dogs.
TP: There’s a lot of talk online, at conventions, and in magazines about various perceived movements in current SF — the New Space Opera, The New Weird, Interstitialism, and so on. Do you identify with any of these movements, or have any comments about such movements in general?
GvE: Back in the 70’s there was a line of Mattel action figures, Big Jim’s P.A.C.K. There was Warpath, who was a kind of scout or tracker guy; and Dr. Steel, a strongman with a steel hand; and The Whip, who was the weapons guy; and Big Jim himself, the brains of the outfit. I always thought that kind of categorization was a bit forced. Why couldn’t The Whip use Warpath’s stunner arrows? Why couldn’t Dr. Steel toss The Whip’s boomerangs? And why was Big Jim the only guy with a radio? What if he got separated from the rest of the P.A.C.K.? It was just a crazy way for men of action to organize themselves.
That’s kind of how I feel about these movements.
TP: Let’s hear a little about your writing habits. Any special places, personal rituals, habitual oddities, or strong preferences? Where and how do you do your best work?
GvE: Well, basically I spend $1.70 every time I write, because I like to write in cafés, and it’s no fun without a big-ass mug of strong black coffee. And by mug, I mean something made of ceramic with a handle. Something with some satisfying heft. None of these paper cups for me.
I get most of my writing done in the morning, which is really important for me. That way, no matter what else happens during the day — bad time at the office, traffic ticket, bee sting, a monkey steals my sack lunch — at least I started the day off doing what I love doing. There have been so many times when being able to think back on that little bit of space carved out for writing has gotten me through a bad day at work. Day Job crap could be flying all around me, and I’d close my eyes and remind myself that I started the day off writing, and that means the day was a success.
TP: Tell us a bit about your influences, literary and otherwise.
GvE: Wow, I’d love to say Borges and Coletrane, because I think that’d make me look classy and smart, but I’d be fibbing. In no particular order, some of the creative people who’ve most directly influenced my work would be Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Stephen King, Jim Henson, Bill Watterson, Tim Powers, Dan Simmons, Rod Serling, and whoever was doing Mad Magazine when I was 8 or 9 years old. I think a screen adaptation of IT done with Muppets would absolutely kick ass.
TP: Do you ever attend writing workshops? Do you like working with other writers in that kind of setting, or do you prefer working in isolation?
GvE: I went to Viable Paradise in 1999, a week-long workshop held every year on Martha’s Vineyard and a great option for people who can’t take six weeks off to do a Clarion-type thing. And this past August I went to the Strange Horizons workshop at Rockaway Beach, Oregon. The key to a good workshop is proximity to the ocean, really. In both circumstances, I got helpful feedback on my submitted pieces, but even more valuable than that was the opportunity simply to hang out with other writers. There’s the stereotype of the writer as some twitchy, poorly socialized, unbathed misanthrope, but that doesn’t map to my experience. The writers I’ve met at workshops have been hilarious fun. Smart, interesting, warm and generous people.
Writers certainly can work in complete isolation if they wish, but I don’t know why anyone would want to when instead you can walk down a beach with half a dozen people who share your passion for Moleskine notebooks. So, yeah, I like workshops and hope to attend more of them. But I do admit I go to socialize as much as I do to get my work critiqued.
TP: You’ve written a number of well-received short stories, and you’ve mentioned a desire to write a novel soon — are there any other forms you’re interested in trying, or that you have tried? Poetry, comics, screenplays, opera librettos, Iron Chef slash fanfic, etc.?
GvE: Hey, who told you about my Iron Chef thing? That’s messed up, man.
Like many writers, I want to try my hand at everything. Comics in particular have been a lifelong love of mine, and I’d love to collaborate with a talented, like-minded artist some day. That said, I do have to face the fact that my talents are probably not suited to every medium. For a time I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I thought greeting cards might be a good outlet for me. I even met with a guy who owned a printing press and wanted to give Hallmark a run for its money. He took one look at my samples and said, “Okay, these are actually disturbing. Your stuff is actually creeping me out.” So, you know, I’m going to focus on short stories and novels for a while before branching out too far afield.
Ideomancer Featured Author Tim Pratt answers a few questions from fellow writer Greg van Eekhout.
Greg van Eekhout : You wear a bunch of different hats related to the creation of fantastic literature. How about giving us a quick rundown of your various endeavors?
Tim Pratt : Where to begin? Fiction writing, of course, is supposed to be first and foremost, though in practice it often gets shoved aside in favor of other endeavors that have deadlines attached. I also write poetry, though not as much as I used to — I’m trying to concentrate on fiction since it’s at least possible (if not likely) to make a bit of money doing that. For my day job I work for Locus as an Assistant Editor, which means I sweep, clean out the gutters, carry heavy boxes, etc. (all true!) — in terms of actual work on the magazine, I do a lot of the layout, some of the news stories, many of the obituaries. I’ve been there for two years now, and I’ve been getting more and more writing responsibilities. I also review books for Locus; mostly horror, sometimes poetry collections, occasionally first novels, sometimes books with genre elements that aren’t marketed as genre. I try to catch the stuff that might otherwise slip through the cracks. Every once in a while I write reviews for other publications, like Strange Horizons, usually when there’s a book I want to spend more than 500 words talking about. I edit Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, which comes out 6 times a year — that’s great fun, and keeps me involved in the poetry world. My fiancée Heather Shaw and I just started a slipstream ‘zine called Flytrap, which should debut this fall. We’re taking turns on the editing. For issue one, she chose the fiction, and I chose the poetry (though we consulted with one another a bit, naturally). For issue two we’ll switch roles, and so on from there. Oh, and Heather and I do a holiday chapbook every winter, with a collaboration and some original work from each of us. We send them to friends and family as gifts, and sell the ones we have left after that. That’s about it, I think, and I’ve made myself a solemn promise not to take on any more responsibilities for a while! Though if some really fun opportunity came along…. I guess that wasn’t a quick rundown, but it was comprehensive!
GV : You’ve described yourself as a writer of mythic fiction. What do you mean by that? Is mythic fiction something different from the commercial genre we call fantasy?
TP : I say that I write “mythic fiction” because I’m not above stealing from my betters. Charles de Lint coined the term (as far as I know, anyway) to describe his own work, which has variously been called “contemporary fantasy,” “urban fantasy,” “North American magic realism,” etc. The problem is this: if you tell an average person that you write fantasy, in all likelihood they think elves, quests, kitchen-boys-with-destinies, magic rings, a faux-medieval setting, all that Big Fat Fantasy, secondary world stuff. I’ve read and enjoyed some of that sort of thing, but it’s not what I write.
Almost all my fiction is set in a recognizably real contemporary world into which magic intrudes, or in which magic exists hidden from the majority of the population. Is it “urban fantasy”? Well, not the ones that are set in rural North Carolina. Is it “contemporary fantasy”? Sure, but that’s a bit unwieldy and certainly inelegant. I prefer “mythic fiction” — I think there’s some poetry to the term, and it has enough assonance to sound like a contrast to “literary fiction” (which it is). And I do draw on the old myths (and folklore, and legends — those terms aren’t synonymous! They’re three different things!), and try to find elements that resonate with my contemporary characters. Like most “literary fiction” my stories are predominantly concerned with human relationships, and with Faulkner’s famous “human heart in conflict with itself.” The magical elements exist in order to highlight certain aspects of those characters or their situations. The magical elements also exist because I think they’re cool, and I’d rather read a story about an aging, pot-bellied, self-loathing deity having an affair with a young nymph than read a story about an aging, pot-bellied, self-loathing English professor having an affair with a young student, even if both stories are about roughly the same themes.
Of course, if I tell people I write “mythic fiction” they just look at me blankly, but at least they don’t come into the conversation with a lot of preconceptions.
GV : You recently attended the Rio Hondo writers’ workshop. Talk to us a little about what Rio Hondo is and what you took from your experiences there.
TP : Rio Hondo is a week-long professional writing workshop, not unlike fabled Sycamore Hill — though Rio Hondo has fewer participants, more naps, and better food, or so I’m told. Walter Jon Williams and Leslie What run it, and they kindly invited me to attend this year. The workshop takes place in June, in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, about 10,000 feet about sea level. Each of the twelve participants brought a story, and each morning we critiqued two, the usual go-around-the-table-and-comment sort of style. Afternoons were for naps (which are necessary when you’re up that high!) and hiking and writing and reading and whatnot. Every evening we had a gourmet meal, prepared by various particpants. I didn’t cook, but I did act as sou-chef one night, and minced garlic and so forth. The most striking image of the workshop was seeing Walter Jon Williams tenderize a leg of lamb by beating it vigorously with a full bottle of wine. After dinner each night we drank, played cards, chatted, watched bizarre movies (Crazy Safari! Mr. Vampire!), and argued about writing, probability theory, free will vs. determinism — the usual.
It was a rather remarkable experience, actually, sitting around a table with writers I’ve been reading for years, people I consider brilliant – Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Ray Vukcevich, Maureen McHugh, and on and on, and being included among bright new lights like Daniel Abraham, Ken Wharton, and Susan Fry. I had many wonderful conversations, got marvelous feedback on a new story, made some friends, and ate more fine meals in a week than I’d had in the year previous. I hope I can go again sometime. Best workshop ever, since there was no doubt whatsoever that each participant had the chops to back up their criticisms.
GV : Okay, let’s talk about your proclivities and idiosyncrasies. When you sit down to write, do you have to wear a special hat? Begin with seventeen push-ups? Wait for the chimes of midnight? Eat a soft-boiled egg? Where, when, and how do you do your best writing?
TP : See, here’s where I’m boring. I’ve always had a certain admiration for writers who bring a little sympathetic or contagious magic into the writing process, but I’m not one of them. I write wherever — on subway trains, in coffee shops, at the kitchen table, at the keyboard, on the deck at work during my lunch breaks. I don’t use fancy notebooks or special pens. I pretty much just sit down, try not to succumb to the many shiny distractions in my life, and start writing.
That said, I probably do my best work early in the morning. When I can get into a good routine of rising early and writing a few pages every day, I’m very productive. Of course, life sometimes intervenes to make that impossible, in which case I just squeeze writing time in wherever possible.
I enjoy writing in coffee shops, because there are lots of yummy things to drink, I don’t have to wash dishes, and there is often pie.
GV : Do you remember the first story you wrote?
TP : For years I always told people I wrote my first story in fourth grade. It was called “The Weirdo Zone” and I thought it was a novel, though it was only about 25 pages in a bright yellow wide-ruled notebook, along with various crude illustrations (“crude” being the height of my artistic talents to this day), mostly of bipedal alligators and a human head with spider legs. The plot was stolen in equal measure from Judy Blume’s Superfudge and from an episode of The Muppet Babies. I actually remember working on that story, sort of, and I still have the notebook. It was about a bratty little kid who gets abducted into an alternate dimension, and his long-suffering older brother who goes to save him, with Hilarious Results.
Then, a couple of years ago, my mother showed me a story I’d written when I was 8 years old, in third grade, that had actually been “published” in a county-school creative writing competition. It was called “A Day in the Life of a Spider.” It was about a pet spider that escapes from his terrarium and has Wacky Adventures. From textual evidence, I’d say I stole most of the plot from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t remember writing it at all, but there it is. Anything earlier has disappeared into the mental mists of antiquity.
GV : Okay, when you’re a hale and hearty man in his late nineties and you look back over a successful career, what have you accomplished?
TP : I’ve crushed my enemies, seen them driven before me, heard the lamentation of their women….
Okay, really, in a perfect dream world, I’ll have a big bookshelf of 70 or 80 published books and filing cabinet full of ‘zines I’ve edited and chapbooks I’ve put together. That’s it, really. Jonathan Carroll has a nice quote, about “writing for the shelf.” Basically, writing isn’t about winning awards, or about book tours, or conventions, or fans, or any of that, because that stuff isn’t going on every time you sit down to write. The important thing, day to day, is the writing itself. Ultimately, you write for the shelf, and whatever else happens, you have that shelf, and the things you wrote, lined up on it. That’s all I need. That’s more than enough.
GV : What’s the latest news on Little Gods, your upcoming short story collection?
TP : Ah, the first book, all my own, for the aforementioned shelf! It’s being published by Prime Books, and should be available at World Fantasy Con, with the official release date in November. I got a look at the finished cover for the hardcover edition recently, and it’s beautiful. The trade paperback will be released simultaneously. The collection has 15 stories and 4 poems, and it’s the best work I’ve done, including a Nebula-nominated story, a story that was in a couple of Year’s Best anthologies last year, and a never-before-published novelette called “Pale Dog,” which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever written. Michaela Roessner provided a wonderful introduction, and I wrote an only-slightly-self-indulgent Afterword/Story Notes thing, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. I’m immensely proud of this book, and grateful to Sean Wallace at Prime for publishing it. My first book. It stuns me. I just hope it’s the first of many.
Cory found a note on his refrigerator, written in a dead woman’s hand.
The refrigerator was stainless steel, restaurant-grade, as was the stove, and all the kitchen fixtures. He’d redone the whole kitchen when he took up permanent residence in the beach house, and he spent more time here than in any other room in the house. It was his haven, his artist’s workshop, his favorite space. Now he stood, looking at his blurred and ghostly reflection in the polished refrigerator door, staring at the note.
It was written in dark green ink on an irregular scrap of pink-purple handmade paper with pressed flowers embedded. A seagull-shaped magnet held the note to the door. Cory had never seen the magnet before; he didn’t have any magnets or menus or phone numbers attached to the door, preferring his kitchen to be clean and uncluttered.
He touched the paper, read the words. They were lines from the William Carlos Williams poem about plums in the icebox, so sweet, so cold; what Cory’s wife Linda had called the coolest, cruelest poem ever written.
Cory opened the refrigerator, thinking that he had no plums for anyone to eat.
The refrigerator was totally bare, metal shelves gleaming. The six-packs of imported beer he’d bought yesterday, the two bottles of white wine put in to chill, the cheese and olives, the fish and meat, all gone, stolen. All the ingredients for the love-feast he’d planned for Sara, the woman he’d met on the beach last week. Cory had been out walking, picking up seashells and tossing them into the sea, and Sarah had been walking her huge black dog, and they’d started talking. Cory didn’t like the dog, but oh, he liked Sarah.
Cory took the seagull magnet and flung it into the trash. He crumpled the scrap of paper into his fist.
His wife’s handwriting. On hand-made paper, which his wife had loved.
His dead wife. His dead, jealous wife.
Somebody was fucking with him. But who? Two years ago Cory had left everything behind, his whole life in Seattle, and moved to the coast of North Carolina. Now he lived in Kitty Hawk, near the graveyard of the Atlantic, where ships had smashed themselves to splinters for centuries against the outer banks. Cory had left friends, family, and job behind, come to start a new life of peace in early retirement. So who knew him, knew Linda, could fake her handwriting?
The answer was: no one. Which left him with few alternative explanations.
Cory locked his doors and windows, then took the car into town to get more food and wine.
Cory carried bags of groceries in from the dusk, heaping his purchases on the counter. Sara wouldn’t arrive until 8, so he still had plenty of time to prepare a good meal, a seductive meal.
He opened the refrigerator to put his groceries away.
A single pomegranate rested on the top shelf, split open, juice dribbling. The seeds had been scooped out, leaving only a reddish, messy pulp, like the inside of a wound.
“Fuck,” Cory said, and slammed the refrigerator door closed. He shivered, thinking of moss growing on a white icebox; of his wife Linda eating pomegranate seeds on a picnic in Big Sur; of openings to the land of the dead, and how you shouldn’t eat what they fed you there.
“Linda?” he said aloud, feeling like a madman, but compelled to speak. “Are you here?”
No one answered. Outside, a gull cried. Cory took a breath, opened the fridge, and picked up the pomegranate. He went outside onto the beach, the fruit dripping in his hand, and hurled the pomegranate into the sea.
Back inside, Cory began preparing food, slowly and methodically, concentrating on the task at hand. He chopped a lobster for bisque, and began marinating steaks; they wouldn’t be as good, with only two hours to soak, but he’d lost the steaks he’d left marinating in the fridge last night. The rhythms of cooking soothed him. Cooking had been his hobby for a long time, even during his marriage, though that had been rough going; his wife had been allergic to almost everything: shellfish, butter, mushrooms, eggs. She was lactose intolerant, too, and even mild spices gave her stomach trouble. She’d subsisted almost entirely on salads and fresh fruit. She couldn’t even share in Cory’s favorite pastime, so was it any wonder he’d seen other women, sometimes? Like he told her the first time she confronted him: he’d cheated for the meals as much as the sex. But Linda was delicately beautiful, and she’d stayed with him through the hard times when he was in law school, so he’d remained with her despite his growing lack of interest, despite the aloofness and superiority she wore like armor.
He’d stayed with her until she died. Gone missing, officially. But she’d died.
Sara came, and she brought her dog, to Cory’s irritation. The dog padded around his living room, a monstrous black mongrel unleashed, and began to sniff at his furniture as if looking for a place to piss. The room instantly took on the faint odor of briny-wet dog.
“Sara,” Cory said, and kissed her cheek; she smelled of lemons and chill ocean air.
“Thanks for inviting me,” she said, her voice like sea-smoothed stones clicking together. She wore a loose yellow sundress, and Cory thought she looked like a piece of dawn made human. “It’s always nice to meet another year-round resident. The tourists around here are worse than the hurricanes.”
Cory laughed. “Have a seat. I’ll get you a glass of wine.” He went through the swinging door into the kitchen.
There was a note on the refrigerator door, on pale ivory paper, coarse and heavy. Cory leaned forward to read the note, gritting his teeth.
“Along the melancholy shore of Acheron,” it said, in brown ink. That line was from Dante, he thought. Linda had loved Dante. She’d studied literature, the classics, and history, for no reason; just to feed her mind. She’d always enjoyed making Cory feel inadequate, uneducated. Sure, he was a lawyer, but he had no finer sensibilities; or so she always said. His love for gourmet cooking didn’t count, though she’d assured him he’d end up suffering in Dante’s third circle of Hell, the one reserved for gluttons. Cory had spent his days defending bad men in good suits, while she read, studied, refined herself. In their arguments, she would quote philosophers he’d never heard of…God, he got pissed just thinking about it.
He crumpled the note and threw it away, along with magnet that held it to the door, a lump of rough onyx backed by lodestone. This nonsense was meant to rattle him, and he wouldn’t let it. Whether someone was fucking with him, or if this was…something else (his mind skittered away from that prospect), he could deal with it. He’d get a security system installed next week.
He filled two wine glasses, checked the steaks, and went back into the dining room.
Sara was sitting at the table…and so was her dog. It sat in Cory’s chair, in his preferred place at the table, and stared at him with empty, obsidian eyes.
“We’re just making ourselves cozy,” Sara said. She patted the chair next to hers, across from the dog. “I hope you don’t mind Barry.” She nodded toward the dog. “He gets jealous when he can’t sit at the table.”
“Sure, it’s fine,” Cory said, laughing, unconvincingly even to his own ears. “Should I get him some wine, too?”
“He’d like that,” Sara said seriously.
Cory hesitated a moment, until he saw she wasn’t kidding. He put the glasses down and retreated back into the kitchen. He glanced worriedly at the fridge, but there was no note.
“That bitch loves her dog,” he muttered, then laughed. Bitch. Dog. Funny. Or he was shaken enough to think it was funny.
He opened a cabinet to get a bowl for the dog’s wine. His hand dropped from the cabinet door, and he took a step back. His heavy stoneware dishes were gone, replaced by sea-foam-green plates and bowls.
The dishes from the house by the lake, in Washington state, his and Linda’s house. But he’d sold those dishes, just as he’d sold the house and everything in it, after Linda died.
He closed the cabinet and opened another, taking down a cheap plastic bowl. He took that into the dining room, set it before Barry, and half-filled it with the cheaper of the two white wines. “Does monsieur approve?” he asked, in a snooty French accent. Sara didn’t laugh. Barry put his snout into the dish and lapped at the wine.
“Sit down, Cory,” Sara said, patting her chair.
He sat, smiling at her. She really was lovely. Maybe…maybe these were just hallucinations, brought on by repression, guilt; certainly he wasn’t happy about the way things had happened with Linda. And now, pursuing a woman for the first time after Linda’s death, all that nastiness was bubbling up. That had to be it. He could deal with it; get over it; move on.
“Tell me about your wife,” Sara said, leaning toward him.
Cory blinked, his brief sense of peace undone. “Ah. I’m not married.”
“I assumed you weren’t, anymore. But the other day you made a comment, on the beach — your wife didn’t like to swim, you said? She’d sit on the beach, but never go into the water?”
Cory didn’t remember saying that, but he must have; it was true, and how else would Sara have known? “Yes, I was married, for nearly ten years. Her name was Linda. She…disappeared, two summers ago. We were at our house on the lake in Washington state. She went out hiking one day….” He shrugged. “She never came back, and she was never found.”
Sara touched his hand. “Oh, Cory, that’s terrible.”
The dog lapped noisily at the wine.
“Well. I try to cope. I should get the bisque.”
In the kitchen, there was another note;,on red paper, in silver ink. “A strange, vicious beast, with three throats barking, doglike”. That was Dante, too, about Cerberus, the three-headed dog, tormenting the gluttonous in Hell with the ceaseless sound of his howling. The magnet was dog-shaped, a jaunty black Jack Russell terrier.
“Fuck this,” he said. “This is bullshit. I am so over this.” He filled two bowls — sea-foam-green, from the lake house, fuck it, so what? — with lobster bisque, and went into the dining room again. “My specialty,” he said, and set a bowl before Sara.
She pushed the bowl toward the dog. “I’m allergic to lobster. Didn’t I mention? I’ll wait for the main course.” The dog dipped its snout into the bisque. Cory stared at the animal as it fed, filled with a cold sort of horror. The dog lifted its head and stared at him, reddish bisque dripping from its chops.
Cory sat down heavily. “My wife was allergic to lobster, too.”
“Oh? It could kill me,” Sara said, brightly. “Though it might take a while for me to die.”
Cory nodded, hardly listening. Two years before he’d chopped up some lobster meat, very fine, and put it into a tomato sauce he was making. He’d seasoned the sauce with basil, oregano, and garlic, until he could barely taste the lobster…and Linda had a cold at the time. She didn’t taste the lobster at all, and she ate a whole plate of pasta and red sauce, one of the few non-salad meals she could stomach.
After she’d cleaned her plate, the allergic reaction had started, her throat swelling closed, and she’d suffocated there on the dining room floor. Cory hadn’t meant to kill her, only to make her sick, get back at her for some cruel thing she’d said, punish her with a night of puking. He had no idea her allergy was so severe; how could he have known?
But she’d died, while he watched. It took almost ten minutes for her to stop choking and clawing at her throat. They were in the middle of nowhere; he couldn’t have gotten her to a hospital in time anyway, not that he’d tried. And after, not willing to deal with the questions, the hassle, the accusations, he cleaned out their old white refrigerator and put Linda’s body into it, and wrapped the fridge tightly with chains. Then he wrestled the refrigerator out to the little pier on a hand-truck, the one he used to haul firewood. He shoved the fridge into the murky lake, into the green-black depths where he’d gone swimming a thousand times without ever managing to touch the bottom. He watched the water until the ripples disappeared
The next day he called in the missing persons report, invented the story about Linda going hiking alone. He went with the search parties, and talked to the police, and no one thought it strange that he had only a few coolers and a mini-fridge at the house. It was a vacation house, after all; why would he need a full-sized, coffin-sized fridge?
“I’d like more wine, Cory,” Sara said, and the dog growled, as if in agreement.
Cory nodded and stumbled into the kitchen..
His stainless-steel refrigerator was gone. A white fridge stood in its place; at least, it had been white, once upon a time. Now it was mud-streaked, moss-covered, and the chains wound around it were flecked with rust. Dirty water oozed from the bottom of the door, and it stank of rotting meat and lake-bottom. Cory gagged.
This time there was no paper, no magnet; the words were spray-painted, black, on the refrigerator door: “Through me find entrance into the city of suffering”.
Dante again. From the inscription above the gates of Hell.
Written right above “All hope abandon, you who enter here”.
The kitchen door creaked open behind him, and Cory turned. Sara stood there, Barry at her right hand, growling. And on Sara’s left, another woman stood, her hair moss, her face river-mud, her dress a sodden tatter. All three gazed at him.
The three began to howl, and it was not doglike at all, really; but that was the closest comparison Cory could think of, too, so perhaps Dante was not so far wrong. He covered his ears and whimpered.
Then the howling stopped.
“Open the door,” one of them said. Was it Sara, or the other one, the drowned woman?
“Open the door and enter,” one of them said, and the chains fell away from the refrigerator, startling Cory. He lowered his hands and looked back at the refrigerator door. Now the inscriptions read “Through me the way that winds among the lost.”
The three began howling again, as one. And because he could not go back, Cory reached for the refrigerator door and pulled it open, even knowing as he did what must lay beyond.
A is for Annabelle, who turned ten today. She is on a birthday picnic with her parents, wearing what her mother calls her Alice-in-Wonderland dress, and the warm air smells of summer. Annabelle hears chimes in the wind, but her parents, arguing on a blanket, don’t seem to notice. Annabelle might follow the music, later, through the yellow and blue field of wildflowers, into the woods. The chimes seem to call her name, three syllables: “Ann – a – belle.” She laughs and claps her hands. Her parents murmur.
B is for Butterflies. Annabelle sees one now, yellow wings fluttering through the long grass over the hills. She chases it until it lands, then leans over to watch it resting on a blossom. Annabelle thinks it might be looking at her, but she isn’t sure if butterflies have eyes.
Her father collects butterflies, pins them down and seals them under glass. She’s seen him in the garage, where he keeps his collection, looking at them. Sometimes, when he doesn’t know she’s there, he rips off their wings, and that frightens her.
Annabelle shivers and waves her hand at the butterfly. “Go on,” she whispers. “Fly away.” It does.
C is for Cages. Once at another girl’s birthday party Annabelle saw parakeets, yellow and blue, singing in a cage. She looked at them for a minute and decided to set them free. She tugged at the cage door, but a broad soft woman in a flowered dress stopped her. “No, dear,” she said. “Don’t let them out.”
“I want them to fly,” Annabelle said, her eyes suddenly hot and full of tears.
“No,” the woman repeated, leading Annabelle back to cake and ice cream. “Their wings are clipped. They couldn’t fly anyway.”
“Do their wings ever grow back?” Annabelle asked, but the woman didn’t answer.
D is for Dreams, of course. Annabelle dreams of green places, and she often dreams of flying, soaring over woods and water, singing as she goes. One morning, when she was five years old, she said “I flied, Mommy, last night I flied!” Her mother’s eyes went wide and she made a squeaking noise, as if choking on her eggs.
“In her dreams,” her father said sharply, looking up from his paper. “She means in her dreams. Everyone has that dream.”
Annabelle’s mother nodded and looked down at her plate.
Anabelle remembers that, even five years later. She has a very good memory, but far enough back it turns to mist and shadows and pine trees.
E is for Earthworms. Annabelle’s father is a weekend fisherman, and there’s a patch of black dirt behind the house where he digs for worms. Once, young and dirty-kneed, Annabelle watched him dig.
“Catypillars,” she said when he pulled up a long worm, wiggling, and dropped it in the bucket.
“Not caterpillars,” her father said. “Worms.”
“Worms?” Annabelle said, scrunching up her face.
“Yes. Caterpillars are fuzzy, and they turn into butterflies. Worms are slimy, and they don’t turn into anything. But.” He raised his finger in front of Annabelle’s wide gold-flecked eyes. “If you cut a worm in half, both halves go on living.” He took out his pocketknife, laid a worm on a shattered piece of cinderblock, and sliced it neatly in half. There was no blood, and both halves wriggled wildly. “See?”
Annabelle looked for a moment, solemn, and then said “Put it back together, Daddy.”
He frowned, picking up the two wiggling half-worms and dropping them in his bucket. “I can’t, Annabelle. There’s no way to put them together again.”
“Oh,” she said in a quiet voice. But she wondered.
F is for Fairies. Annabelle’s mother is religious, and there are pictures and statues of angels all over the house, with their white wings and pale, pretty faces. When Annabelle was younger, she called them fairies. “No,” her mother said sternly. “They’re angels.”
“But they got wings,” Annabelle said.
Her mother embraced her in freckled arms. “I know, darling, but they’re angels. I promise. And you’re my little angel.”
“I don’t got wings,” Annabelle said scornfully.
G is for Garden. Annabelle’s mother has one, with roses and posies and tulips and other blossoms, and in the summer they buzz with bees. Once Annabelle was sent to pull weeds, but instead she took up flowers and wove them into her red hair, and made chains for her wrists. Her mother squawked and shouted when she saw, but Annabelle was serene, sitting on the lawn with her skirts spread around her. She was a flower.
H is for Hair, sunset-red on Annabelle’s head. Her father’s hair is sandy blonde and short, her mother’s is flat brown and cut in a bob. Annabelle’s hair falls in curly waves, nearly to her knees. It has never been cut.
When Annabelle’s mother brushes her daughter’s hair, as she does every morning, it never snags or tangles. Her mother tells herself it must be the shampoo she uses, but it certainly doesn’t do that for her own hair. She chooses not to think about it. Annabelle’s mother chooses not to think about a great many things.
I is for Innocence, and today as every day Annabelle is drifting farther from that state. Her father watches her sometimes as she plays, frowning, and sometimes he grins like a jack o’ lantern, but he’s never laid a hand on her, even to punish. Sometimes he seems nervous when he hugs her, and he never touches her back for long. Annabelle’s innocence is still complete, but today she turned ten, and as she grows through double digits that innocence will disappear. For some things, some reconnections, time is growing short.
J is for Joy, and that’s what Annabelle was for her parents, or was meant to be, or could have been. “She’s a gift from God,” Annabelle’s mother said when they got their newfound daughter home, but she was hesitant, trembling. She put her hands across her belly. “We — I wanted a baby so much.”
From the kitchen she heard a rasp and her young husband said “She is. You did. There’s just something to take care of first.” Another rasp, metal on stone, and Annabelle’s mother closed her eyes. “Get it sharp,” she said. “Very sharp, so it doesn’t hurt much. I’ll boil some water.”
Somewhere in the house, far from the green places she’d known, baby Annabelle lay on her stomach and cried.
K is for Knives. Annabelle has dim memories, masquerading as nightmares. Even at ten years old, her father has to cut her food; she can’t stand to touch a knife. She doesn’t like meat anyway, because it reminds her too much of her own muscles, moving under the skin. She has muscles in her back that she can flex, but they don’t move anything at all.
She stares at the wall as her father saws away at the food on her plate. She can’t stand to look at the knife. Or at him, wielding it.
L is for Lost things. Annabelle loses things a lot, but her father almost never does; he’s only once lost anything, that she can remember. Listening from the top of the stairs, Annabelle heard him shout at her mother. “They’re gone! They were wrapped in cloth and locked in the chest and now they’re gone! What did you do with them?”
And her mother: “Nothing. I hated them, the way you… brooded over them, but I wouldn’t touch the things.”
“Well then where did they go?”
Her mother, quietly: “Maybe they flew away.”
M is for Music, and for Mystery, and this is both. Those chimes: “Ann – a – belle”, ringing over the hills from the trees. They aren’t birdsong, and they aren’t bells, and Annabelle’s parents, just a few feet away on the blanket, don’t hear a thing. It is Annabelle’s birthday, and she got a pink bike with a basket and a new kite to fly. The kite is in the grass, forgotten, and her bike is back at home.
Annabelle wonders if she’ll be getting another gift.
N is for Normal, and some things aren’t, and those things need to be cut right out. Annabelle’s father knows that, and so does her mother, though it hurts her more.
Annabelle doesn’t think about it. Normal is what things are, and only things that aren’t what they are can be wrong.
O is for Outside, and that’s Annabelle’s earliest memory, of being outside, tiny in the forest, looking up at stars and pine trees. Lost. Like the baby in the rhyme, that came tumbling down when the bough broke and the cradle fell. Then came voices, and two tall people, scooping her from the forest floor, exclaiming, turning her over. Annabelle doesn’t know what the memory means, but her mother sings lullabies and that’s one of the voices, and her father tells stories in measured tones, and that’s the other.
Sometimes Annabelle sneaks out of the house and lies down in her back yard and looks up at the sky, through the pines.
P is for Picnic, and what a wonderful idea that was. “Annabelle would love a birthday picnic,” her mother said, “and it’s such a pretty day. But where should we go?”
“There’s a field I know, by a nice stretch of woods,” her father said thoughtfully.
They packed the car and took Annabelle, and her new kite, to the field. Neither of her parents seemed to remember this place, though they’d often taken walks in the woods here, when they were younger. A strange cloud covers their memories, filling their heads. They’d last seen this field on a summer night like this one, exactly ten years before. They’d come to watch the butterflies.
This was before he started dipping the butterflies, wings and all, in chloroform. Before he locked them under glass.
Before (but only just before, a matter of minutes, perhaps) they found Annabelle.
Q is for Quiet, and Annabelle is that. Even the soughing of the wind has stopped, and her parents are murmuring, sipping lemonade. She can still hear the chimes if she holds her breath, but they’re fading. Even the beating of her heart is enough to make her miss notes: “Ann- – – belle – – -a – belle.” Yes, the chimes are fading, and if she intends to follow them, she must do so soon.
R is for Ripping, when the knife went dull, when things weren’t quite severed and man hands pulled and blood welled up, R is for the Rasp of the knife on the whetstone, but some things are too attached to be cut neatly, no matter how sharp the blade, and they tear.
S is for Scars. Annabelle has two on her back, shiny and wide, running vertically down her shoulder blades. Her mother told her that she stumbled and fell on a board with nails in it, and that’s where the scars come from. Her father told her she was scratched by a dog when she was a baby, and that’s where she got them. Sometimes her muscles spasm beneath the scars. And often in the morning, after a dream of flying, her shoulders ache.
T is for Time, and Annabelle feels it shortening and shortening as the shadows lengthen and the sun slides west.
U is for Umbilicus, the first connection between mother and daughter, which leaves its mark on the child’s belly forever. But Annabelle has no navel, her stomach is as smooth as the skin of a peach, unmarked and untouched. Annabelle’s mother thinks sometimes of umbilical cords being cut with scissors, of that fundamental severance, which she and Annabelle never had. Instead of scissors, there was a knife, and it wasn’t a cord that was cut, not the connection between mother and daughter that was severed, but a different connection altogether.
And now Annabelle is in the field on her birthday, and it seems that while some connections must remain sundered forever, others can be rejoined.
V is for Vigilant, and Annabelle’s mother is that, she always keeps an eye out for her daughter. She can’t have more children, that thought is always on top of her mind, and she rarely lets Annabelle out of her sight. But now her attention wanders, she even forgets Annabelle for a moment, the thoughts fly out of her head and she’s back in her girlhood, laughing with her new husband. Laughing, before Annabelle, and knives, and grisly silky mementos that mysteriously disappear, just as Annabelle is now disappearing over the hills toward the forest.
W is for Worried, and Annabelle knows her parents will be, but the chiming is louder now, a part of her is calling her and that’s more important than anything, and she runs across the fields into the trees, the song in her head like her own voice, her own song, calling her home, and as she runs she can almost feel herself flying.
X is for Xenophobia, the hate of the stranger, and Annabelle doesn’t know that word, and neither does her mother, and while her father does know it, he would never ascribe it to himself.
Yet his daughter is a stranger, and his wife also in many ways, and himself most of all, and he hates them all, really. When he sits in the basement tearing the wings from butterflies and remembering the night they found Annabelle, hate fills him. You can’t turn something into something it’s not, he thinks at the picnic, looking at the fat clouds float effortlessly by. Flying.
And then his wife says “Where’s Annabelle?” and things happen very fast.
Y is for Yell, which Annabelle’s mother does, she stands on the blanket and shouts her daughter’s name. Her husband stands, frowning, hands clenched on a napkin that he rips in half, and they both shout for their daughter, who is gone, gone, and they look for the flutter of a blue dress, for curly red hair, but there’s nothing, not even in the trees, there’s only
Z is for Zephyr, the gentle west wind, coming up suddenly strong over the field from the trees, blowing into the shouting faces of Annabelle’s mother and father, but only the wind answers them, blowing as though buffeted by a million wings and then, like apple blossoms blowing free, like silk streamers in the air, a hundred thousand sunset red and golden butterflies burst from the trees in the forest, flying.
And after it all Annabelle knows she is not a worm, or an angel, or a flower. She is something else, something of the green, something like a butterfly that lost its wings but, after a time, regained them.
Robin laced his boots and tried to ignore the red sky and the clouds writhing over the forest like things in pain. The air smelled of runny bowels and, faintly, of cinnamon. I am ever caught between gagging and delight, he thought.
Robin stood and placed his hands behind his back, stretching. His spine rattled off a satisfying series of cracks and pops. Robin looked past the trees, over the vast plain, to the black castle. A single dark spire, the color of a bat’s wing, seeming to tower over the distant mountains.
Robin thought about his dream.
He walked to the nearest tree, a white pine with colorful glass spheres hanging in the high branches. He kicked the tree trunk, and the glass jingled. “Cheshire Cat,” Robin said. “Last night Maid Marion visited me in a dream. She told me to keep faith, for we can still rescue our companions and defeat the king.”
The Cheshire Cat lolled indolently on a low branch, just waking up. His voice contained equal parts laziness and self-satisfaction. “I had a dream as well, of the Duchess. Or was it the Queen of Hearts? She told me much the same.” He licked his paws contentedly. “So of course, I won’t do any such thing.”
Robin kicked dirt over the remains of the campfire, trying to forget the images he’d seen in the flames the night before. His friends, tortured by red-haired apes wielding straight razors. Babies with too-big heads and mouths full of needle teeth, crawling relentlessly forward. Yesterday Robin and the Cat had returned from a scouting expedition and found their campsite deserted, the Merry Men gone. Robin suspected ambush and abduction.
“Come, Cheshire Cat. We’re both Englishmen, and gentlemen besides.”
The cat’s tail faded and disappeared. “I am neither gentle nor man, and only my name is English.” The Cat hopped lightly to the ground, sending up a puff of dandelion fluff. “Since you mention it, do you see England anywhere?” He made a great show of lifting a leaf and peering underneath it.
Robin picked up his leather pouch and hung it from his belt, refusing to rise to the Cat’s bait. Once Robin restored Marion to her rightful place as queen, all would be well. The shifting forest would change into the Sherwood he remembered. His dreams assured him so.
Robin checked his bowstrings. The Cheshire Cat’s tree abruptly sprouted apples, which grew to pumpkin-size and fell, splitting rottenly. Robin wiped the splattered mush off his arm. “Cheshire Cat, we must free the Merry Men. We must defeat the king.”
The Cat sighed. “Must we? Well, if we must, then I suppose we must.”
They marched toward the black tower. The sky lightened to a sickly green, the clouds wispy and yellow. The air smelled sharp, and stung Robin’s nose. When Robin commented on the odor, the Cheshire Cat rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Chlorine,” he said, a word Robin didn’t recognize. The trees thinned out, and Robin and the Cat walked over long, flattened grasses. White steam rose here and there from holes in the ground. The tower remained mockingly distant.
Robin sent the Cat ahead to scout, wanting time to contemplate, and to make plans if he could. First, he must save the Merry Men. They didn’t all come from the Sherwood he remembered, but each had proven himself brave and worthy. Next, he would storm King Torrance’s black castle and overthrow his tyranny. Robin shaded his eyes to look at the tower. It remained unchanged, though the lands behind it had shifted. The mountains were gone, replaced by towering green mushrooms covered in diseased-looking white spots. Far off, something like a gargantuan caterpillar raised its sinuous body, and Robin touched the arrows in the quiver on his back instinctively, a chill of revulsion and fear rushing through him. The monster lowered itself, and a moment later a few rings of gray smoke rose lazily into the air, spreading out and dissolving.
Torrance is a powerful wizard, Robin thought, not for the first time. The world changes at his whim.
The Cat reappeared, materializing in mid-air, floating before Robin’s face. Robin didn’t stop walking, and the Cat sailed along with him. “I found the others,” he said. A meadow of wheat sprang up in the distance, between them and the tower. A man in a black cloak appeared, wielding a scythe to mow down the waving stalks. He raised a hand in greeting, but disappeared before Robin could decide whether to wave back or loose an arrow.
Robin fixed his eyes on the Cat, trying to ignore the changing landscape. “You say you’ve found them?” Robin prompted. “And?”
“Oh, that’s all. Did you want to hear more?”
Robin kept his voice level. “You found all of them?”
“All, or part, or parts of all. Imprisoned, by the way.” The Cat turned lazily in the air, floating upside-down a foot from Robin’s face, his legs waving slowly.
Robin nodded, pleased despite the Cat’s less-than-straightforward reply. The Merry Men lived, and the fight would go on. “Did you try to free them?”
“I did not. I scouted. If you wanted me to do things you didn’t say, you should have said so.”
Robin sighed. “You did well, Cheshire Cat. Lead the way.”
They continued toward the castle. The grasses gave way to reddish dust. Pillars of rock rose from the ground with a great rumble, and Robin ducked, covering his ears against the thunderous noise. The Cat only hovered, a half-smile on his face, his whiskers twitching. The sky became a dusky pink, with great v-shaped birds gliding high on the thermals. When the pillars stopped rising and the noise subsided, Robin uncovered his ears. A ringing sound, like a thousand church bells tolling for the dead, filled his head.
The Cat drifted close and said “See exotic places, eat strange creatures, try not to die. But is there an ocean view?”
Robin stood, ignoring him, and walked on.
The sun, now a white disc hidden behind red dust, remained high in the sky. Robin did not tire or hunger, though it seemed he walked for days. The dry, hot air burned his lungs, and dust coated his tongue. He drank often from his canteen, clearing his mouth and spitting. The cracked earth sucked up the moisture eagerly. The tower grew closer, now looming in the middle distance.
They reached a rocky gash in the desert. A wide ravine, full of metal spikes and looped thorn-vines, stretched as far as they could see in both directions, surrounding the king’s castle like a dry moat. A curious domed enclosure, made of silvery metal, stood just across the chasm.
Robin pointed. “Is that where the Merry Men are being held?”
“Yes,” the Cat said. “Only the dome was crystal before, and I saw the men inside.” He gnawed at a rock, which turned into a frightened mouse and scurried away. The Cat snorted. “They had potatoes there, with pepper. I hate potatoes. With pepper.”
“How did you make it over the ravine?”
“I did not, because the ravine did not exist at the time.” The Cheshire Cat contemplated the pit, his stripes undulating like ripples in a pond. Robin looked away, dizzy. “Throw a rock over,” the Cat suggested.
Robin picked up a fist-sized stone and tossed it over the chasm. It turned into a dove as soon as it left his hand. Lightning streaked. The dove fell, blackened and fluttering, to land among the spikes.
“No sense crossing, then. We’ll wait for the gap to vanish,” said the Cat. “We might eat, in the meantime.”
Robin nodded and strung his bow, waiting. It never took long for something living to appear here. In a few moments a plump doe ran from behind a boulder, and Robin loosed an arrow, aiming for the neck. If he didn’t kill the deer cleanly, it would have time to change. He’d seen too many rabbits turn into shrubs, and cows to offal, as they died.
The deer fell. Robin never missed. His arrows sometimes behaved strangely, bursting into flame or trailing thin wires or exploding, but he always hit his target. He never ran out of arrows, either. Great magic, doubtless a gift of Maid Marion’s. He hurried toward the carcass, pulling a knife from his pouch.
“I hope it tastes like cherries,” the Cheshire Cat said. The last deer had been sickly sweet, a flavor the Cheshire Cat referred to as “white gumdrops.”
Robin drained the deer’s blood. The Cat gnawed the animal’s guts, and looked up, grinning with bloody chops. “Tastes like lobster, my good woodsman.”
Several twisted trees grew along the pit’s edge, leafless and dry to the point of crumbling. Robin stripped them of limbs to build a fire, and they roasted the meat as night fell. Robin did not look at the sky. The alien constellations unnerved him. What land was this, and how far from England? Even the Holy Land had familiar stars.
“Look,” the Cheshire cat said. Robin tilted his head back, and smiled despite himself. Shooting stars filled the sky, blue and red and yellow.
“It’s beautiful,” Robin said. “I think it’s an omen, heralding Torrance’s fall —”
The full moon, impossibly large on the horizon, cracked. Black lines zigzagged down its center, and a thick substance, red as arterial blood, dripped from the crevices. Robin swallowed and looked away, back to the ravine, which stubbornly refused to vanish. Robin threw a rock into it. The rock didn’t change, but lightning still flashed it to a cinder.
“Damn this pit,” Robin said. “Nothing ever stays unchanged so long.”
“We have remained unchanged much longer than the ravine,” the Cat said, stretching in the dust.
Robin looked moodily into the fire. “We’re not like everything else.”
“Really. I wonder what we’re like, then?”
Robin chose not to think about that. “We may as well sleep. Will you take first watch?”
“For what am I watching?” The cat’s tail bobbed about, detached from his body, doing a dance in the sand.
“For anything out of the ordinary.”
“Everything is out of the ordinary, and therefore ordinary. I may as well go to sleep.”
“Just wake me if we’re attacked or if the ravine disappears,” Robin snapped.
“Very well. Since dinner was lobster and not gumdrops, I agree.”
Robin rolled over, his face turned toward the ravine, and slept.
Robin dreamed the usual dream. He sat in the receiving room of a great castle. Dust and cobwebs filled the corners. Faded tapestries covered the walls, depicting great battles and cavalries clashing. Torrance’s black tower, huge and upthrusting, loomed in every tapestry’s background.
Marion sat beside him, her dark hair in braids, her hands restlessly smoothing her dress. “Robin,” she said, “You are the greatest bowman who ever lived.”
Robin nodded. She spoke simple truth.
“I have given you magic arrows, to better serve me.” Her dark eyes roved across his face, and she blinked often.
“You will defeat King Torrance?”
Robin took her delicate white hand. “Lady, I will personally deliver him to your justice, and your pleasure will be my reward.”
She shook her head, and her face changed. Her eyes shifted from brown to cloudy blue and her hair lengthened, becoming blonde and oily. This strange sad woman spoke in Marion’s voice. “Just kill him, Robin. Use your magic arrows, and kill him. He murders my sleep.” Her face melted into a shapeless mass, and Robin pulled his hand away, revolted and afraid. Marion shouldn’t shift like the things in Torrance’s kingdom. Surely the king’s power couldn’t touch her? The woman’s features became Marion’s again, but he did not reach for her.
“It is murder you speak of, Lady,” he said at last.
“It is an execution.” Her voice refused argument, and Robin nodded, reassured by her confidence, though her orders disturbed him. Her face flickered, as if viewed by firelight. Robin remembered the Cheshire Cat’s dream of the Queen of Hearts. Who did the Merry Men dream of? Surely they saw Marion, as he did, and only the Cat’s madness made him see otherwise.
The sitting room vanished suddenly, and Robin gasped, startled. His dreams never went beyond the sitting room and Marion’s orders. Robin walked, against his will, through a dark city. Slick brick walls rose on all sides. He smelled rain, smoke, and garbage. Robin tried to breathe through his mouth, but couldn’t exercise any control over his body. Mist hung in the alleyways. His eyes moved down, and he saw a pale white dress and a woman’s bosom. I’ve become Marion, he realized, surprised, and that realization seemed to give him control of the body. He stumbled in the strange shoes, almost falling. He paused by a trash can, wiping sweat from his forehead. Only a dream, he thought. I’ll wake soon, and —
Rough hands seized Robin and shoved him against the wall. His head bounced on the bricks, and black spots swarmed into his vision. A slug-white face appeared before him, bald and yellow-eyed. Robin struggled, but his head hurt, and his arms didn’t respond properly. The pale man pressed a silver knife to Robin’s throat. “Don’t scream. Terry’s going to have a little fun. You’ll have fun, too.” He fumbled at Robin’s dress, tearing it open. Robin tried to scream, but couldn’t draw breath with the man’s weight on his chest. As Terry snatched aside his clothes, Robin’s limbs lost all power, and he woke from the dream long after the grunting and tearing became unbearable.
Robin sat up, sweating in the cool air, his shirt and tights soaked. He felt like the victim of a killing fever. He wrapped his arms around his body, shivering. Only a dream, he thought. Of a strange place, and an evil man. It means nothing.
The first traceries of dawn lit the sky.
Robin stood suddenly, reeling on his heels. His head still throbbed. The Cheshire Cat lay in the dust, batting his detached tail back and forth. “Cat! I told you to wake me if the ravine vanished!” He couldn’t keep the fury out of his voice.
The cat replied, bored, “Look behind you.”
Robin turned. The ugly gap scarred the earth behind them now, cutting them off from retreat.
“It didn’t vanish,” said the Cat. “It only moved.”
Robin strung his bow, forgetting his dream in his eagerness to fight on. “Now, Cat, we free the Merry Men and bring King Torrance to justice!”
“I remember the Queen’s justice. It involved severed heads, as I recall.” The Cat licked his chops.
Robin flushed, reminded of Marion’s order. To kill Torrance, not just capture him. Surely such a tyrant deserves death, Robin thought uneasily.
He hurried toward the domed enclosure. The Cat trailed behind, still without his tail. Robin pounded on the dome’s wall, but heard no response from inside. He went to the heavy door, but it had no latch to turn or lock to pick. “Cat, can you open the door?”
“Most likely.” The Cat crouched before the door and stared.
Robin shifted impatiently from foot to foot. After some moments he said “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for the door to turn into a mouse,” the Cat said, “which it seems quite likely to do. Then I will eat it, and we will go inside.”
Robin resisted an urge to kick the Cat. He took a deep breath. “Can you materialize inside, and see how the men are doing?”
The Cat blinked. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He faded from sight, his stripes going last. A few seconds later the Cheshire Cat’s head appeared, bobbing like a tethered balloon.
“Are they all right?” Robin asked anxiously.
The Cat frowned. “One wonders. The door latches on the inside, you know.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Why don’t they free themselves?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” the Cat said.
Robin gripped his bow. “Open it.”
The Cat vanished, and the door swung open. Robin ducked his head and stepped inside. The Cat hovered near the top of the dome. The Merry Men leaned against the wall or sprawled on the floor, unmoving.
Fear tightened Robin’s chest. “Little John!” he cried, approaching his longtime friend. “Are you all right?”
The big man shrugged, leaning against the wall with his staff across his legs. His blunt-featured face showed no expression.
Robin did a head count and frowned. John and Friar Tuck were there, and Mr. Holmes the detective, and Sinbad, but no others. “Where’s Will Scarlet? And Galahad? And Bruce, the bat-man?”
“All gone,” Tuck said, rubbing his bare head. “Faded like the Cheshire Cat, only they never came back.”
Robin glanced at the Cat, who still had no tail. “That is sad news indeed,” Robin said, thinking of Will Scarlet’s laughter, and Galahad’s bravery. Bruce of Wayne kept to himself, but he’d been a stalwart fighter. “We will storm the castle and defeat Torrance in their names.”
Little John shook his head. “We’re done in. Holmes sniffed too much of his white powder and he won’t speak anymore, and Sinbad can’t see. Something wrong with his eyes.” John wiped his hand across his mouth. “I think they disappeared.”
“Then you and Tuck,” Robin said, forcing himself to sound confident. Men needed a strong leader.
Tuck raised his hand. His fingers flickered, vanishing and reappearing. “We’re fading, Robin.”
“My feet are gone already,” said Little John. “These are just empty boots.”
Robin looked at the remaining men, Holmes lying on his back with blood crusted around his nostrils, Sinbad curled and whimpering on the floor. He could find no words to rally them.
“If they were mice, they’d be worth a farthing,” said the Cheshire Cat, not unkindly.
“I have to go,” Robin said, squatting next to Little John. “For Marion’s sake.”
Little John frowned. “I dream of my wife, Robin, and Tuck thinks God sent him. Bruce of Wayne said Torrance killed his parents. I don’t know who we’re fighting for.”
“Marion,” Robin said fiercely, grabbing John’s arm. John closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall.
“Let’s go,” the Cat said, unusually gentle.
Robin rose. “Wait,” Tuck said. “Bruce of Wayne’s strange belt didn’t vanish. It may help you.”
Robin examined the belt, with its unmarked canisters and odd weapons. He took the bat-shaped grappling hook with its coil of thin, strong rope. He clasped Little John’s hand. “Fare well, old friend.” John’s grip had no strength, and he didn’t open his eyes.
Robin and the Cheshire Cat ducked out the door and started for the castle.
“Robin,” the Cat said. “I’m sure it’s not important, but I can’t seem to get my tail back.”
Robin didn’t answer. He trudged on, watching his feet kick up clouds of red dust.
“I’ve been trying to find it for some time now,” the Cat said. A moment later he sighed. “There go my back legs.” Robin looked back. His companion’s entire rear half flickered, then vanished. The Cat rose into the air.
Robin stopped. “Cat. Not you, too.”
“It’s all the same to me,” the Cat said, his forepaws fading. “If I’m neither here nor there, then where?”
Robin watched the cat’s body gradually disappear. One of his ears went, and his nose. His whiskers popped off one at a time. Tears welled in the corners of Robin’s eyes. He resisted the impulse to blink them away, afraid the cat would vanish if he closed his eyes.
The Cat rolled over onto his back. “Good luck, Robin. When you go, leave with a grin, would you?”
Robin nodded as the Cat disappeared entirely. The smiling teeth lasted the longest, hanging like a scythe blade on an invisible string. When they vanished, Robin walked on.
The tower was very close now.
Robin circled the tower’s doorless, windowless base. He touched the stone and found it warm. It pulsed against his fingers like a living thing, and he withdrew his hand, disgusted. A narrow ledge spiraled up the tower, like the whorl of a unicorn’s horn. Robin threw the grappling hook. It caught on the spiraling ledge, and Robin climbed hand-over-hand. When he reached the ledge, he threw the hook and climbed again. He gave no thought to what he’d find at the top, only throwing and climbing, trying to ignore the warm tower’s pulses, as if a great heart beat somewhere within.
He finally reached the top, and hauled himself over the parapet. He flopped to the stones and lay panting for a moment. A man in a black coat leaned on the far wall, his back turned to Robin.
Robin stood, arms and legs quivering with fatigue. “Torrance.” He waited for the king to face him, unwilling to shoot anyone in the back, even Marion’s mortal enemy.
The king turned, and Robin’s weak legs threatened to give way. Torrance had the mushroom-white face of Robin’s dream-rapist.
Torrance looked amused. “Robin Hood. Complete with feathered cap. She always liked the old stories best.”
Remembering the humiliation and pain from the dream, Robin took aim and fired.
The arrow missed Torrance by two feet, sailing over the castle wall. Robin lowered his bow, stunned. He never missed.
“You can’t kill me.” Torrance’s forehead looked as moist and vulnerable as a soft-boiled egg. “I’m a stronger dream than you are.”
“What do you mean?” Robin readied another arrow, determined not to miss again.
“All this.” Torrance waved his hand. “It’s her dream, the one you call Marion. That’s not her real name. She’s not royalty. She isn’t even very pretty.” He smirked. “But she was good enough for an alley romp.”
Robin frowned, remembering Marion’s shifting face. “Liar,” he said, but without much heat.
“Look at her castle,” Torrance said, pointing. Robin looked, and the sight filled his heart with longing. Far off, a white castle gleamed in a pool of sunlight, yellow banners flying from the towers.
“It’s a little gaudy,” Torrance said. “She likes the old romances, which explains why you’re here. I’m surprised you’ve lasted this long. You are just a fiction.”
“I dreamed of you.” Robin could think of nothing else to say.
Torrance’s bland face betrayed a flicker of surprise. He growled. “Impossible. You might receive orders from the woman, but that’s all. Even I don’t dream, and I’m the king of her nightmares, the strongest dream here. All the lesser dreams fade, eventually. Only I remain, to marshal the nightmares, and storm her bright castle every night.” He shook his head. “Every single night.”
“Terry,” Robin said, wondering if a knife could hurt this man. He feared it wouldn’t. “I will kill you.”
“Don’t call me Terry. Terry was a man, probably a stupid man, a rapist. I am Torrance, the master of night terrors. Do not confuse us.”
“Whoever you are, your reign ends now.” He lifted his bow.
“Not that again. She didn’t dream you very smart, did she?”
Robin lowered the bow, at a loss. “I could shove you off the tower.”
Torrance shrugged. “It’s high enough, and empty. That’s about all it’s good for, shoving people off, though you wouldn’t manage it.” He gazed at Mary’s castle. “It’s tiresome, sometimes, living in a giant phallic symbol.” He glanced at Robin. “Still holding that bow? There’s a legend, you know, that just before you died you fired an arrow into the air and asked to be buried where it fell. There won’t be anything to bury, this time. Oh, there goes your ear.” He sounded pleased.
Robin felt a tingling on the side of his head and touched it. He found only smooth skin where his left ear had been. His throat closed with panic, then relaxed. It’s true, he thought. I’m fading.
I’m sorry, Marion.
On impulse, Robin pulled his bowstring back. The arrowhead gleamed, a purple crystal. He loosed, and the arrow arced high, then curved toward the ground far away. “I fire an arrow into the air, and where it lands —”
“I do not care,” Torrance said. “Vanish, bowman.”
“That arrow was for me,” Robin said. He didn’t know where the words came from. Perhaps God, or even the Queen of Hearts. He took another arrow from his quiver. This one shone silver. “This is for Galahad.” He fired, aiming a little to the left of the first arrow. Red lines streaked the next arrowhead. “For Will Scarlet.” Bone-white. “For Holmes.” Brown. “For Little John.” Iridescent. “For Tuck.” He turned in a slow circle, counterclockwise, speaking the names of his fallen companions. A black arrow for Bruce of Wayne, and a blue for Sinbad. “For the Cheshire Cat,” he said, firing an arrow with a single gleaming tooth for a head. He’d turned almost full circle, firing to all the points of the compass.
Robin drew a last arrow. “For Marion.” The arrowhead glowed like burnished gold, the same yellow as Marion’s banners. He loosed.
Torrance watched the last arrow fall, hands in his pockets. “Feel better? You’re a symbolic creature making symbolic gestures. It’s funny, in a way, but I don’t —”
A great sound rose from all sides, like fabric ripping, and Torrance dropped to his knees, looking around fearfully. A fiery pillar sprang from the ground where Robin’s last arrow had landed. Gouts of flame erupted around the tower, one after another, rising from the places where Robin’s arrows had landed.
Robin’s left arm disappeared up to the elbow, and his bow clattered to the stones. Torrance whirled as lines of fire arched and met over the tower. Fiery lace connected the lines, forming a spiderweb-dome of flame. The lines darkened to opacity, changing to wrought iron, a cage completely enclosing the tower.
“A prison,” Robin said, understanding now what he’d done. “Like the one you put my friends in. I can’t kill you, but I can seal you off. You’ll trouble Marion no more.”
Torrance clenched his fists and bared his teeth. “Do you really think repression is the answer?”
“It’s the only answer I can manage. It will have to do.” Robin’s feet vanished and he fell backward, his bones jarring on impact. The vision in his right eye went dark. Torrance beat at the cage with his fists, uselessly.
Robin rested his head on the stones. He tried to grin, feeling his body below the neck disappear. “It’s worth smiling for, Cheshire Cat,” he whispered, and then said no more.