It’s been an experience writing each day, and just posting it. I talked to a friend today who brought up the subject of ‘bravery’ in terms of this, but I feel surprisingly un-brave in having done so.
Maybe it’s just the freedom to accept and let myself write ‘badly’, and still love my own passion and ideas, or maybe it’s just perspective as I have much bigger scary things in my life right now, I’m really not sure.
Either way, it’s been quite fun just putting some words out there, for better or for worse.
On the topic of my words, I found myself naturally following the story on today, and finding my tone with it to be a lot more ‘final’, which will certainly show in Fickle’s language today.
The story was always meant to be a short and fun thing to do this November, and I think that honoring that is more important than trying to drag the story out to a full 50,000 words when I currently feel like it is going to fall short of that mark.
I don’t have an issue with this – just a wizard is never early nor late, nor should a story be any length other than the duration it is best intended to be. ‘Fickle’ is liable to come in well under the 50k bar but hopefully will have been a simple and fun read for its duration. Nothing wrong with short stories, after all!
So, with that said, let’s launch into today’s sortie into Fickle’s messed up world!
‘Fickle’ Part 8
“What,” I demanded, in the most scathing tone I could muster, “is this?”
“Don’t act daft, you know its a press, and if you have nothing more useful to do than ask stupid questions, I have a ton of work I could use a hand with. Here, hold this.”
The book press seemed to smirk as Gemma dumped a stack of papers into my arms.
Well, I say papers, they weren’t nearly so thin or uniform as those in the books I’d salvaged, and I realized two things at once.
One, the papers were newly made and by hand, and two… there was a horrible smell lingering just faintly on the air.
“What smells like dead skunk?”
“Making paper isn’t a clean business. It’ll dissipate, or you can burn what I haven’t buried or composted yet if you want it gone quicker.” She didn’t bother to look at me or anything as she answered, instead disappearing under the machinery with a spanner. Where’d she even get a spanner? part of me asked myself, but another part of me was focused on greater mysteries.
“When in the name of me did you find time to make your own paper mill?! I only left you alone for a couple of days!”
“Oh, I’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks, you’ve just been busy. Here, lay that top sheet down, let’s see if this ink works…”
I mutely obliged out of a genuine confusion as to how matters had gotten to this point. Gemma busied herself making bits of her contraption move and slathering some kind of rich-smelling ink over the lower surface, so I had time to put down the bundle she had given me where she could reach it, and head outside to check my island.
In my head, I had a terrible vision of all my carefully planted trees and cultivated landscapes in ruins after she cut it all down to make paper, but the reality was far more kind.
Palms swayed in the light breeze as they always had, the sea lapped at the beach without any new debris floating in it, and the shoreline of trees remained resolute beyond where the sands ended. My home had not been denuded, which beggared a different question.
I subconsciously shifted to a more human form, though I ended up with four arms. Perhaps it was the visit to India which influenced my shape, but truthfully, it was more so I could scathingly fold two sets of arms instead of one, and look even more cross and grumpy. I went back inside with a scowl.
“Where did you get the paper from? Paper needs plants, and I don’t seem to be missing any trees.”
“Oh for goodness sake, do try to be sensible. Can you really see me cutting down a tree? With these arms?”
She flexed her arms at me, clearly indicating her small stature was no match for a full grown tree. Looking back on it now, I can’t help but be amused by how incorrectly she viewed herself.
The day she arrived on my shores, screaming and belligerent, she’d been underweight, borderline sick from lack of vitamins, covered in mud, scrawny and with hair like a barely brushed haystack. Now though…
Now she had not only cleaned up and tanned enough to have a very lovely shade of copper to her skin and a pleasantly trimmed and luxurious head of hair, but she had also filled out her skeleton to what nature originally intended, and built lean muscles over most of it from working all the time.
The same homely freckled face sat atop it all, but she was night and day different to the woman I had first met. Of course she could have cut down some of my trees if she had tried.
“…yes. Though more likely, you’d have nagged it into compliance,” I grumbled. “I’m not joking Gemma, how is this happening, and why didn’t you ask?”
“You complain constantly about people asking you for things, and I agree that humanity should stand on its own two feet,” she sniffed, putting down her wrench to give me one of her horribly serious looks. “So I got on with it. Stop pouting, you look like an old man when you do.”
“I have a snout!”
“So? Haven’t you seen the Chinese dragons in some of your books? Put a mustache on any of them, and they look like grumpy old men too. They could be your spirit animal.”
“I am a spirit animal.”
“Right. So be a cute one instead.”
She picked the wrench back up and tightened another bolt on her machine, then spun a lever down until the whole thing began to creak.
“The paper, Gemma…” I sighed, determined to get an answer one way or another.
“Hmm? Oh. Papyrus. We brought some shoots back from Egypt, and you had a different species growing here anyway. Much easier to handle than a whole tree, and you had a book with a child’s craft on how to make it. I looked up a more adult technique and got to work. With whatever it is that lets this island be a bit weird, the stuff has been growing even faster than the books said it should, so I’ve had plenty to work with, and in a week, you’ll barely know where I was harvesting from.”
“Papyrus?” I queried, more out of general fatigue from dealing with my single-minded companion than an actual desire to know more.
“Yes. Likes the warm and the damp, so the island is perfect for it, and it likes a bit of shade. The banks of the blood river where it comes out of the tree line is perfect.”
“Are you… are you telling me you managed to make my fearsome, creature riddled blood river into a good and useful member of society?” All I could think about was the plethora of nasty animals I had introduced to my island, from cone snails to bull sharks and giant mutated catfish, and Gemma somehow skipping among them like a horrifically cheerful flower fairy. “How did you not get eaten?!”
“Oh, your beasties know I live here and just needed some attention. I took Bertha a morning snack each day, and she was quite happy to keep the other little buggers out of my way until I was done. She’s a very smart fish.”
“Suit yourself. Here, you’ve got four arms, lower the press again, would you? Thank you for the helpful form.”
“I didn’t… this isn’t… fine.”
I had changed in order to look more annoyed, and as usual, Gemma found a way to not only overlook my efforts and find my current shape perfectly normal, but also a way to use it to her advantage.
A three-day nap would not, it turns out, be enough to let me stay refreshed now we had a book press in the living room. Like generations of men before me who have married capable women… I seemed to have lost control of my home and its contents and gained more than my fair share of practicality. At least she hadn’t adopted a pet, I suppose.
“So… what is this we’re doing?” I asked the question a few hours later after various tinkering and tightening had the press running to Gemma’s desires.
We were now at the point where I was no longer needed, as she was busy placing sheet after sheet of paper onto the press surface, along with wipes of a sticky ink so the carved stones in the bottom marked up the pages, which she then laid out to dry in the sun. So far, I had not had a chance to actually read what we were printing.
“Huh? Isn’t it obvious?”
“No. I have no idea what you’re printing onto this paper of yours or what’s going on. I went for a nap, I didn’t expect to come home and find you’d turned my lair into a workshop!”
“You are such a grump, John,” she said with a roll of her eyes, and a warm smile. “We’re making some new books. Well, leaflets really. I don’t have time to learn how to bind full books right now, nor the inclination to learn leatherworking just yet.”
“Books on what?” I asked, ignoring the horrific idea of her taking up leather work too. I knew about cleaning hides.
“How to read, and a few other basic skills. This first batch will be the largest, and in English, but I’ll need your help to carve new blocks to print the same stuff in other languages, please.”
“Why? I thought we were going to establish a library or two?” I asked the question with enough genuine confusion that she stopped in the middle of her work and sat down next to me, resting her hand on my knee. As usual, it was warm compared to my own body temperature and made me listen to what she meant, as well as what she said.
“Which is all well and good, but even if we build six libraries in key places, not everyone will be able to get them even still. Just doing the basics to survive takes up most of the people’s time, and only leaves the evening, in their own homes, for anything bigger than that.”
“So, I want to take these books to people. At the moment, there are still people around who remember how to read and write. We need them to keep teaching their children, and to have the tools to do so.”
“I’m sure they’ll teach their kids anyway if they can,” I said. After all, humanity figured out reading and writing in the first place because passing on information is a useful survival tactic, and while the world might have broken into nonsensical parts (less nonsensical since Gemma turned up and snowballed events into me fixing so many places, mind), I had no doubt such core skills would continue in their own way. Gemma nodded and bit her lip, a sure sign she had been thinking deeply about something, and I was about to be proved wrong.
“The problem is, though, they’ll teach what they most need to know to survive, and people will start simplifying and diversifying their language. Give it two hundred years, and some of the books we have in the libraries won’t make any sense to people anymore, because they’ve changed their language and writing. It’ll be like ancient hieroglyphs all over again. Or like the Mayans, if people decide books they can’t read are better as bonfire fuel.”
“You have been reading a lot,” I stated, wondering when she had found time to sleep lately. “You intend to preserve the knowledge, over just the books themselves.”
“Yes. I don’t… I don’t want the old world to have existed for nothing.” She cast her gaze down to the floor and toyed with her ink-stained fingers. Her tone changed, to the one she used on the occasions, she recognized that she and I were not, in fact, the same species. “We broke it once, how do you expect us to avoid it again if no one remembers? We have to learn from our mistakes Fickle.”
“That would mean no more gods,” I said, ignoring her choice of name for me.
“I am a god. So it means… no more me.” I kept my tone neutral, and just watched her.
“Yes,” she said, without looking up.
I went outside and gathered up a sack full of river rocks. After all, the Chinese and Japanese alphabets weren’t going to carve themselves, and there always seemed so much work to do, there wasn’t time to think. At least, that’s what I told myself.
We built the first library in Egypt. I insisted.
The Great Library of Alexandria, the original one, had been one of the greatest bastions of human learning in its day, to the point there had been people in the old world just before the Fall who still mourned the fact it had burned down, generations before they were even born.
It had been an institute about all of human learning, not just local traditions and heritage, so we rebuilt it first.
The area that had last been known as Alexandria was still extant in the form of shattered ruins surrounding a more functional core, as people tore down the old to build the new, but it was somewhat heartbreaking to see computers and wiring from the time when all human knowledge was beamed all around the world in an instant being used as cat beds and decoration. Then again, that knowledge was mostly about cats, so maybe there was some solace in it, too.
“This library will be the first step to recreating all that,” Gemma said when I mentioned it to her. Maybe she’s right.
Either way, thus began a long and tiring project to build something from the rubble. After talking to the local head of state, as it were, we claimed a section of the city on the coast that was just too ruined and poisoned to live in and began our clean up.
From the mess, I used steel and stone day after day to make a library worthy of the name, while Gemma went full naturalist on me and devised a whole series of garden beds and plants around the outside.
“This way, some people can live here on the food that will grow, and look after the books as their job,” she explained when I asked about it. A terribly practical woman, as I’ve said.
By the time I had finished the building work, she had planted a courtyard with herb and vegetable beds, seeded from my island, while the outside was now a spray of saplings and shrubs with irrigation to provide shade and places to sit. Obviously, she had somehow conned the locals into helping her, despite the language barrier, until one morning in early August, we had a human chain of people stretching into the dawn mists, to ferry the books by hand into their new home. At my end, I reluctantly passed the treasures of my lair into waiting hands to return to the outside world, while at the other end, Gemma organized them into piles by topic, to be put on the shelves by herself and the hand-picked future librarians in the coming week.
It was the most beautiful thing in the known world when it was done, and Gemma was rightly intensely proud. I even managed to keep up a smile until we had both gone to bed for the night, and I could nurture my unease in peace.
We argued a lot about the locations for the other libraries Gemma wanted to build after that.
Many of the old sites that once housed the longest running libraries in the world, a large portion of which were buried in the rubble of the old world and might have books still in them, were religious sites. Categorically, I refused to rebuild such places, but at the same time, I wasn’t up for destroying them. Religion, such as it was before the Fall, had caused many of the problems that led us here, and I was adamant about humanity solving that issue itself.
We also argued about locations for population density. Gemma naturally wanted a library in her home country of England, because of her own heritage, but I was less eager, seeing as central Europe would have made more sense for more people to reach.
In the end, we compromised based on our census. There were enough people still in England with its helpful crop-climate to warrant restoring the old grammar school library at Guildford, though I did make a mental note to melt a few more glaciers and disconnect the UK from France once more. The last thing I wanted was a library I spent weeks working on to get burned down before I could build another library in Italy.
After those two, we also agreed on sites along America’s east coast, in Columbia, central Russia, South Africa, and the southeast coast of Australia.
In China and Japan, my work was made easier as there were very sturdy repositories still buried under old rubble that I merely had to dig up and restore, in place. We then made a commitment to work on one last repository for the remaining books in northern India… and then it was finally done.
I felt like years had added themselves to my wing joints by the time we finally went home, though it felt a bit less like home by now.
My lair was hollow and empty with all the books gone, and while Gemma had gone out of her way to hang and display my paintings in the vacant spaces, I still had a deep melancholy loitering in what passed for my bowels that made being positive about anything we had done somewhat difficult.
Worse still, the rocks of the Spire were noticeably lower now, some of them even scraping together as gravity tried to reassert itself. The central pillar in my bedroom wasn’t quite as warm, and everything felt like it had an air of finality and unfamiliarity lingering around it.
“We can make our own books now,” Gemma told me the next evening as she brought me a cup of tea. “Fill the space with anything you want, John.” I appreciated the attempt to cheer me up, and she was right, but I guess I was more tired than anything else. And so was she.
“You know, you didn’t have to do any of that,” I said, stating my thoughts aloud. “There’s enough food here for the rest of your life, warm sun, beach to lounge on and sea to swim in, books to read until your dotage, and we could have visited anywhere in the world… but you look as exhausted as I am.”
“Are you asking why I chose to work instead of relaxing? Or about my choice of work?” she asked.
“Neither. Just pointing it out. I know there are members of your species who wouldn’t have done what you did.”
“Everyone is different, John. Even you, compared to the people you came from.” She leaned on the rock edge of the balcony and sipped her tea, looking up at the night sky while we talked. “I did what I thought was right because it gave me purpose and fulfillment. Really, it was selfish. But so is most altruistic work humans do.”
“I don’t get it.”
“We do good things for other people, because it might make good things for ourselves, or at the least, good for the next generation. We’re just animals at the end of the day, like any other.”
“You don’t have kids.” I pointed out the obvious, in part because it was true, and in part, because I think I wanted to know whether she was planning to return to her own people, now her passion project was done. I had already come to my own peace with the idea that if she left, I would miss her. A lot.
“Not yet, no,” she said, oblivious to my own deep thoughts. “Maybe never. But wouldn’t it have been sad if our whole race just died? If it was all for nothing? True, we might not be worth it in ourselves, I don’t know how to judge that considering, but we wrote down everything we saw. About the animals and plants and fungus down here with us, and about the unfeeling stars and planets above us. We made it real, even if it went away. I think that’s important.”
“Important? To who?”
“I don’t think that matters. It was important to me.”
“So you did all this, chose to be good and helpful, just because you think you should?”
“Yes. Just like you, but without the hiding behind faux evil and selfish intentions.” She turned around and gave me a mischievous smile.
For once, I didn’t return it or let it degenerate into the usual half-hearted joke argument. I kept my tone serious.
“Faux? Hardly. I just wanted to be left alone.”
“Then why not just eat everyone who turned up, and ignore their requests? You always grant whatever you are asked, even when you choose to do it in a very unhelpful manner.”
“I do not.”
“Yes, you do. And for the good of the most amount of people at any given time. I do watch you, you know.”
I knew that she did. In total, it must have been about three years we’d been around each other by the time this conversation came up, and I had certainly lost count of the number of times I saw her watching me sidelong, or lurking in the background as I dealt with the acolyte of the day. And she certainly had an unusual perception about her.
“I think you’re pasting your own ideals onto me.”
“You aren’t a bad person, John. Give it up already.” Usually, this would be the point where I would get jokingly huffy, perhaps toss her into the ocean for an evening swim and wash away the last of the days’ dirt. But she too knew something was up tonight, and just looked at me as she said it, questioning.
“Well for one, I’m not a person. And for two… well. For two, I can prove it.”
“Look, have you decided on your wish?” I ran a hand through my hair quills, not at all happy to be in the mood I was in, or to have matters feeling so… final… at last.
“Actually, I’ve known it for a while, I just haven’t been ready to use it yet.”
“Is it a good one? One you really really feel passionate about?”
“Yes, yes it is. And now I’ve done all I can for people, maybe it’s almost time to use it.”
“Then tomorrow… tomorrow I’ll explain everything to you. And see if you still want to make it, once you know the truth.”
“Truth? What truth? Have you… have you been hiding things from me?”
“Just make sure you know where you want to go back to, once this is done.”
I stomped out of the room, not wanting to talk about it anymore. But can you really blame me for wanting one more night with company before I was alone again? Just one more breakfast with my difficult, reticent concubine? One more sleep with her soft snoring in the next room? And then… well, I fully expected that ‘and then’ would mean ‘no more gods’.
And no more me.
Word Count: 22,733, 50,000