Sunday, February 26, 2012


This strange little thing undoubtedly reveals more about me than I intended, but... oh, well.  


I have never been afraid of snakes. Not even when they started going in and out of the walls.
It’s not as though there’s even a chink for them to get in and out of. They just come and go as though they own the fucking place.
I say “them” because there’s more than one, although the final count remains a mystery. Maybe there’s one that is two at the same time – I get that impression. Of one inhabiting the body of two. Of ripples in a still pond that from one angle appear to be separate, but from another reveal themselves to be just parts of one never-ending wave.
I never even understood people’s fear of snakes. Spiders? Sure, creepy little bastards. Bats? Okay. Rats? Scratchy claw hands. But snakes? Just a long tube of muscle with teeth at one end; it would sooner slither away than be caught dead by you. They eat mice very slowly and become sluggish in the cold. They can hardly be considered sentient beings.
These snakes don’t slither away. In and out they go, just as though they own the goddamn place.
The day I first saw one I was alone in the house, although there’s nothing so unusual about that anymore. I was standing in the middle of the dusty front room on the south side of the house, also optimistically called the music room, though no music had been played there in years and ages, since my sister had abandoned her harp to design costumes and write post-by-post Star Trek fanfics. The only sound was the ringing of silence, and then I heard it: a sigh, a long-drawn whisper, a susurrus, as of a soft cotton sheet being drawn over the edge of a table. And there it was – a long streak of mottled brown, moving effortlessly over the dentine, like a pinstriping brush. It flowed over the white woodwork in open defiance to gravity, never once pausing to look at or acknowledge me, then plunged its head into the paint and burrowed smoothly into the space behind the crown molding, leaving no scar behind it.
I stared, then walked out of the room. If I could only get away from the room, I reasoned, it will never have happened.
The next time, I was in the kitchen, alone, making dinner. The skillet was cold and empty, and I couldn’t remember what I was about to do with the wad of mustard greens in my right hand, when I heard it again: like the death rattle of the space inside a seashell. Above the sink, above the horrible gingerbread wood panel that we always swore we would change when we got the chance and never did, a colorless snake dripped from the ceiling to the counter like a blob of paint. It was an albino thing, eyes pink as rubies, like pomegranate seeds, scales translucently white, so pale that I could almost make out the pulsing arteries and veins along its length. It flicked a baby-pink tongue in my direction, then crawled into the sink, insinuating itself rather obscenely into the black hole of the drain.
I looked into the disposal, expecting to see a snake curled there – there was a rush of movement, but weather it was the snake or the disposal itself, I couldn’t tell. I put my left hand out to touch the switch for the disposal – the hand not holding the greens – but I couldn’t find it in myself to flip the switch.
My foot moved of its own accord, and I glanced down. The albino snake had appeared from the base of the cabinets, muscling his way along the terrible gray and pink vinyl floor, tasting his way through the air, with no apparent goal in mind. (Not sure why I’m calling it “he;” this one always seemed like a male to me.) He found the large pantry cabinet, newer than the other cabinets but not by much, and slid inside, passing through the wood with no apparent difficulty.
Suddenly my appetite was gone, and did not return. I haven’t opened the pantry since, though I know I won’t see the albino snake in there. It’s alright – I needed to lose weight anyway, right?
After the snakes came, I tried to leave the house to visit other people – family, mostly, like Grandma. I try to fill up the days, her voice rasps over the phone, thick with sixty years’ worth of tears – I try to fill up the days but they’re just so long. She hadn’t been the same since the doctors in the ICU split her in half over a ten-day period. She always blamed herself for not understanding sooner. When that other half died, she could still feel it, feel the death of it sucking at her, feel it trying to speak to her, but she couldn’t listen, wasn’t strong enough to. I try to fill up my days, she said again and again, but the day is so. Long.
She’s never been alone, not in her whole life, but she’s alone now. More than alone. I can see it, but I can’t touch it.
So I try to visit her, to chase away the alone, but the house turns and turns and keeps me from finding the door. Just like Baba Yaga’s chickenfoot cottage in the blackpine woods, this ill-placed suburban pre-fab keeps the world and I apart. Even when I get a good hold on the knob, round it spins and I look down and in my hand I hold a balled-up snake.
Why are you doing this? I ask that question all the time, and never get an answer. The house was born mute, and never learned to speak, except in sighs, creakings, scratchings and drips. Just like you, it could never make a scene, just a pastiche. No great failure; just a series of small ones.
The snakes come and go, just the way you think they would. Once I watched one flatten itself to no thicker than a razor blade’s width and stroke itself between the cherry floorboards, disappearing after only a minute or two of inhaling and exhaling. I never much cared for the cherrywood floors the way you did, but they don’t deserve that.
I would love to tell you about this, but the majority of you has been gone for a long, long time now. There are times, and I’ll be honest here, when I feel like crying, but then I remember how much you hated it when I cried, and I’m able to stop myself. You’d be proud.
I think the snakes have eaten the dogs. I’m sure they’ve eaten the cats. They were fleabags anyway – the cats, not the dogs – always begging for milk and ham when we opened the fridge, always mincing around as though they didn’t have tiny white tapeworm segments clinging to the fur of their haunches. Dead, but a sign of what was misplaced inside. The dogs, though… I do miss having them around, in spite of their barking. I remember how they made you so mad you’d have to stomp into the garage to stop yourself from kicking them.
Shut them up! Quiet! Shut them up!
They were sweet, in their way. They would curl up on me, beside me when I used to sleep, all bony elbows and pointy little feet, fishy breath, black eyes and black noses, watching. I think the house spins more now that they’re gone.
Yes, I’m certain they must have been eaten.
My palms ache now, thinking about them. That’s where my heartache goes, into my palms, and into my throat, but it never goes out. I keep it in. You taught me that well. You’d be proud.
I stopped laying down to sleep because I was sure the snakes were crawling into one ear and out the other, laughing as they crept down my throat and out through the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet; finally, I stopped sleeping altogether, which seems to have made the world a bright and crystalline place. The darkness at the edge of my eyesight is easy to ignore.
I remember – and that seems to be all I do anymore – the black snake that haunted the campground at your brother’s trailer by the little pay lake. It always seemed to be in different spots, without having moved.
I remember the snake that curled itself around the metal pole in the garage in the desert, and froze there – how you prodded it into a box and left it on a hill of dirt in the Wayback, as we called the no-man’s-land of sagebrush and cattle skeletons beyond our backyard. It warmed to life there, and wriggled away without thanks, and then we realized we didn’t know if the snake was poisonous or not. Was it red and yellow, friendly fellow? Or kill a fellow? Red and black… well, the snake was gone now. Maybe we should have killed it while it was frozen.
The windows don’t open in this house anymore. I can’t even see out of them. Maybe the windows are just a memory.
Baba Yaga had a magic lamp, didn’t she? It illuminated all that was unknown. I find myself searching for this lamp in all the closets, shifting the towels and the ancient shampoo bottles and the dusty-smelling curlers in rose-printed cosmetics cases (my hair has never been long enough to hold curlers). Once we locked a cat in the linen closet for half a day – her maiowing led us to her when she was hungry enough, and though we were guilty she never forgave us.
What was I looking for, again?
I look down to find my legs have become two snakes, thick like pythons or boa constrictors, disappearing into the ugly cherry flooring like a mangrove into the still coffee surface of a swamp.
I remember the dead green snake on the side of the road, its pink and orange guts squirted out through its genitals. You laughed at me when I pointed it out. It was rolled pale side up, belly to the sky, ready to backstroke down into the storm drain, and only doing so when the rain washed it down with the leaves.
I look up at strands of my hair growing upwards into the ceiling – long brown snakes, hanging down, waiting to catch a bird. As though there were birds living here.
I remember what you said when I mentioned I wanted to visit New Orleans – It’s filthy, you said, greasy and filthy. As though the air was oil and the people made of mud, like reverse snowmen. I never did go.
The house spins. I wasn’t even trying to find the door. I stopped trying a long time ago.
Why are you doing this? I ask. The words flow from my mouth like tiny, thin snakelings, dropping to the floor, scattering like newborns, like earthworms towards the shade.
I remember how the dogs used to love hunting snakes. They were never afraid of anything.
In my hand, a balled-up snake. No – my hand, a balled-up snake.
I want to open my mouth wide and let out the snake in my heart, but I keep it inside. You would be so proud of me. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Horses, and the Smell of Snow

For those interested, this is my Dragon Age: Asunder Creative Writing Challenge entry - placed in the top five, yay! I was a bit reticent to post it prior to Bioware announcing the winners, but here it is. All are welcome to enjoy, comment, tear to bits. 


Horses, thought Martin suddenly. Horses, and the smell of snow.
He stared at the book before him, frowning, black eyes running over the same sentence again and again, snared in a memory. Around him, the Library bustled with the processes of teaching and learning, the rules of silence kept really more as guidelines; apprentices muttered to themselves, jotting down notes with one hand, turning pages with the other; groups of mages argued and bickered round and round about the minutiae of magic, never ultimately seeming to achieve anything other than mild laryngitis.
It had been… Maker, it had been over twenty years now, since he had even been around a horse, or seen snow. Snow never came to this part of the Free Marches – too close to the ocean, and on the wrong side of the mountains for anything but clouds and constant rain. And horses were no good here: if you wanted to commit suicide in Kirkwall, they said, ride a horse: if the fall down the cliffs didn’t kill you, the horse landing on top of you certainly would.
Twenty years, and still he could smell the sweat of the beasts, feel the shifting heat of them under his hand, against his cheek, see the breath of them fountaining into the frozen winter air. He glared through the page, at the unwelcome memories, breathed deeply, and shut the book sharply.
Martin was a Ferelden in the Free Marches, but more than that, he was a mage. At age five he had been sent not to the Ferelden Circle of Magi at Lake Calenhad, but to Kirkwall, across the sea, for reasons unbeknownst to him. He suspected dryly that his family simply wanted as much distance between them as farmer’s money could buy. He no longer remembered his surname, like so many others in the Circle, and had long passed the point of caring. The Gallows was his home now, his fellow mages his siblings, the Chantry his mother and the Templars his ever-present father.
Self-invention, that’s what mattered here. You could become anything you wanted. Almost anything.
So why did he feel so bloody hollow?
A flutter of turquoise movement across from him brought his attention back to the present. Faelta.
Martin needed Faelta for everything she did, for the patience she showed him, for the judgment she never passed on him, for the innocence that she miraculously never seemed to lose… and he hated her for what she was.
“Why do you wear your hair that way?” he muttered, glaring at her long, sharp ears jutting through her pale blonde hair.
“I like it back,” she said breezily, seating herself diagonally from him. “Hello to you, too.” Faelta had grown up in the Alienage here in the city, though she never spoke of it. She was beautiful, but he couldn’t stop himself from thinking how much more beautiful she would be if her blue eyes were not quite so large, if her pretty nose was not quite so high-bridged, if her chin was not quite so daintily pointed. Her beauty was animal, alien, but he saw the looks she drew from other men, and felt a smug, fierce sense of protectiveness that was the closest thing to love he felt towards another creature. She was the most valuable thing in Martin’s life.
Faelta gently laid an armful of antique scrolls across the table. “There’s been word from Ferelden that a Blight has begun,” she said with an edge of caution.
Martin shrugged. “Let the whole place burn,” he said distractedly. “May every one of them be slaughtered.”
The elf cocked her head, frowned, but said nothing. An escalating argument a few tables away concerning the differences between inversal and oversal repulsion hexes highlighted the solid silence between them.
Martin shifted in his seat, leaned forward, looking down at the pointless book between his hands; his dark hair fell across his troubled face. “Do you believe the Maker punishes you for your sins?”
She stared at the table, then sighed.
He persisted. “Do you?”
“Of course… I suppose. Doesn’t it say so, you know, in the Canticle?”
“The Chantry says a lot of things,” he said guardedly. “It all seems like driftwood, after a while.”
Faelta looked away. “Sometimes driftwood is all you have to keep you afloat, and there’s nothing so bad about that,” she said, her voice softened by sadness.
Martin, enthralled with his own crisis, failed to notice. “I know. I know. I just can’t bring myself to cling to it. It’s just prolonging the inevitable. I think I’m being punished.”
“What for?”
He answered without hesitation. “For being a mage.”
The elf’s long hands began to pick through the yellowed scrolls. “You’re talking nonsense.”
He shook his head in rising frustration. “If you don’t understand, I won’t be able to explain. It’s as though I’m tied to a thousand lead weights. It’s like I’m deep, deep under water. It’s like being wrapped in wool, stifled. I don’t know how to get out of this. It’s killing me, but I can’t leave.”
“Martin, you sound like you’re depressed.”
He laughed scornfully, explosively. “That may be the least helpful comment I’ve ever heard in my life, ever. Of course I’m depressed, you stupid, useless idiot. This is fact. It’s not something I have proven able to deal with on my own. And if you can’t help me, then leave, or find me someone who can.”
“There’s no reason to get hostile!” Faelta whispered sharply.
“There is! Do you know why? Because anger and discontent are the only emotions I can still actually feel! Because this hot, sinking sensation is better than the numbness I feel most of the time! Being pointlessly angry is a thousand times better than the knowledge that in order to function outside of my own skull I have to encase myself in a shell of, of…” He stopped, faltering, stumbling over the weight of his own emotions.
She stared, being, he felt, purposefully obtuse.
Martin pushed on, as though the thoughts were poison that needed to be purged. “We were born wrong, you and I. They tell us that we were born wrong. Why? How can power be wrong? I’ll tell you Faelta – power can only be wrong when it’s in the wrong hands. You and me – we are the wrong hands. When mothers tell stories to their children, we can never be the heroes. We were built wrong.”
The elf closed her eyes, then opened them a crack, staring at the ancient scrolls in her hands.
“You feel the pain of it, don’t you? The ache? The pain has… it’s alchemized me into a numb being. I’m a shadow! I can touch nothing, anymore. I give nothing meaning. I’m a slave to my birth, a shadow of a man.” He paused. He halfway wanted to cry, but no tears came. “Barren land,” he whispered. “A shadow over barren land.”
Faelta shook her head ever so slightly. “I didn’t come here to have this kind of conversation with you.”
“No. But you’ll stay, and you’ll listen, because you’re you.”
“You’re very self-centered, you know that?” Faelta’s nostrils flared, though she continued to stare at the scrolls before her.
“I would rather be dead, than what I am right now,” he muttered, and meant it.
“So why not kill yourself, like all the others?”
“I’m afraid to.”
“Then stop complaining.”
“I don’t know any other way to ask for help.” Martin could scarcely believe the words that were pouring from his mouth in fits and starts, recognized them as near nonsense, but they were the truth, and as such he could only be mildly ashamed of them.
Faelta stood, her turquoise robes fluttering. She tried to gather the scrolls into her arms again, dropped several, tried again. “You… you’re… you have no idea what you’re asking,” she murmured, not looking at him. “You wouldn’t know help if, if it grabbed your arse and kissed you hello. Shut up, Martin. Kirkwall’s different since Guylian was hanged, since the Viscount was replaced, and if you’re wise you’ll shut up.”
“Don’t leave,” he hissed, threatening. “Don’t you dare!”
But she was gone, the silence solid between them.

News arrived that evening of his mother’s death. Laughter rose in his throat, but he swallowed it, barely keeping it down. The Templar who had brought him the letter watched him carefully. “Are you alright? Do you need a moment?”
Martin stared blankly at a point just above the Templar’s left ear.
The Templar seemed nonplussed. “You may petition the Knight-Commander for permission to attend the funeral, if you wish,” he said, almost encouragingly.
The mage smiled suddenly, a flash of light in a dark room. “No, I don’t think I shall, Ser Sullivan,” he said politely. “But thank you.”
When the Templar had left, Martin read the letter again. Death by water buffalo. This time the laughter could not be stifled, and he buried his face in his pillow, his mad guffawing sounding almost like sobs.

Ser Sullivan was losing at Diamondback, but drunk enough that it didn’t bother him much.
“Firault, you bastard! I’d swear you’re cheating!” he chuckled, throwing down his paltry hand with the others as the Knight opposite him raked in his winnings.
“Cheating!” exclaimed Ser Firault, his swarthy face split with a winner’s grin. “Watch what you say around here, Sullivan, you never know who might be listening.” The table’s other two occupants snickered in agreement.
Sullivan finished off the dregs of his ale. “Be careful what you hear, as well, I say. Listening can make you as guilty as speaking these days.”
Firault sat back, counting coins and shaking his head quietly in the manner of one who agrees but doesn’t necessarily want to be seen agreeing. “Indeed. Only yesterday I was on duty in the library and overheard a rather unfortunate conversation between that dark-eyed Ferelden fellow, apprentice, what’s his name? Face like an underdone egg. Always a bit mopey.”
“Oh – Martin, I think.”
“Yes, between him and that pretty elf girl he’s always got at his elbow. Faelta.”
Sullivan began thumbing tobacco into a pipe. “Huh. I took Martin a letter just last night. Turns out his mother’s dead. Trampled by a raging water buffalo.”
Firault shook his head. “Only in Ferelden. If there truly is a Blight, it’s no small wonder they picked that Maker-forsaken place to start.”
Sullivan looked thoughtful. “He is a bit of an odd bird, though, that Martin. He didn’t seem too put off by the news. He almost… seemed like he wanted to laugh, you know?”
Firault shrugged. “Well, that’s not uncommon. Many of them are orphaned or sent away from home at young ages. Why should they have an emotional connection to the people who dumped them like dirty laundry on the Circle’s doorstep?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Sullivan said, running a hand through his red hair. He blew a series of smoke rings at the wooden ceiling beams. “What did he say, out of curiosity?”
“Oh, this and that. Lad needs some guidance, if you ask me. Seems depressed. Talked about,” Firault sighed heavily, “power being in the wrong hands, and all that.”
“Ah. Too bad. Your deal, by the way.”

A heavy hand on his shoulder woke Martin from a deep sleep just before dawn. He sat bolt upright, gasping into the darkness. A man’s voice, kind but businesslike, shushed him.
“Easy, lad. Up with you now. There’s been a decision. This way.”
Without further explanation, the hand took Martin firmly by the upper arm and urged him out of bed. Martin had no choice but to slide from the warmth of his sheets, onto the cool stones, and follow the Templar, shivering in his nightshirt. In the darkened hallway, another Templar fell into step on Martin’s other side, and Martin began to feel panic blooming inside of him, choking his questions.   
He was led through a series of locked doors and unfamiliar hallways, to a large, high room with no windows. Candles flickered at intervals along what may have been the outer edge of a spell circle, though it was impossible to tell in the darkness. The scent of magic put an edge on the air; Martin’s face drained of color as they led him to the center of the circle of candles, and held him there, trembling.  
“Martin Killbourne,” a woman’s voice boomed from a dark balcony above him. Martin realized with a jolt that she had used his family name. “You have been judged by this Order, and the authority vested in it by the Divine Chantry, to be of too weak a nature to undergo the Harrowing, and therefore it is determined that you shall be made Tranquil, as is your right and your duty.”
“Tranquil,” he repeated numbly. No laughter, no tears, no danger, no dreams.
 He became aware of the sound of weeping. There, by the wall, Faelta sat with her knees to her chest, shaking with tears. “I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I just told them the truth. I’m sorry!” A shadowy figure lifted her, led her away, her sobs silenced by the slamming of a door.
Martin noticed suddenly that the Templars on either side of him had backed away, leaving him alone at the center of a growing, brightening beam of white-blue light. “No… there’s been a mistake,” he mumbled, panic making his vision blur. “I’m not weak, I j-just need a little help, I…”
“Yes, Martin. You do need help. We’re helping you.”
“Why?” he managed, his dark eyes wide, staring hard into the shadows. “Why?”
“The weak mage becomes a target for demonic possession. A possessed mage is an abomination, and abominations cannot be allowed to live. By making you Tranquil, you will no longer need to concern yourself with such a fate. You’ll be safe. You know these things, Martin,” the woman’s voice chided gently. “You know you are not strong enough to resist possession. Let us help you.”
His sweaty hands balled themselves into fists; his heart was beating hard at his ribs like a caged animal, desperate.
“Please, don’t struggle. We don’t want to have to take measures, now do we?” The voice was calm, soothing, delicately patronizing, the way he always thought his mother must sound. He found his fists loosening, his muscles relaxing into the steel grip of the strange white light; urine ran down the inside of his leg, dripping from his toes to the floor as the strange magic lifted him, held him, inside the glow.
His final thought, as the white-hot light burned into his wide-open eyes, branding him, filling him, spilling from his fingertips, his nostrils, his gaping mouth, was of horses, steaming and stamping, and the sharp, metallic smell of snow.
Killbourne! a voice screamed in his head. My name is Martin Ki –