One Tiny Leaf

Short stories and poems

Dear Readers,
I don't know whether or not to continue posting stories here. At one time, this seemed like an ideal place to meet other writers and storytellers and to share stories with readers who might be interested in the kind of writing I do. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way. Maybe I didn't engage enough with other sites or network enough to make this happen. In any case, I am considering pulling all of my work from the site and shutting it down because I really can't see any reason to keep it going.
I'm not sure if the page views I see in my stats are actual readers or if they are just people who got lost on the internet and landed here by mistake. Maybe most of those views are not real people, and maybe my blog has been incorporated into a botnet designed to take larger websites down. There is no way to know unless I hear from you.
So what do you think?
If you'd like to see more writing here or if you'd prefer me to leave the blog active, please comment on this post. I'll leave this post up awhile before I do anything, and we'll see what happens. If you're out there, I'd love to hear from you.

In the past two years, I have written at least three alternate future/post-apocalyptic stories. I'm not sure why I occasionally circle back to that topic, but this one is the most tame of them.

On the nights we face home with our surface totally exposed to neighbors, friends, family, and pets, the observation deck is always full of people. We stand beside each other and quietly murmur about the minutiae of our lives before Bravo Colony, and we smile knowing that on nights like these, all those we’ve left behind can see us clearly almost without the help of a telescope. In the pristine compartments of the colony, not an inch of space was spared for anything as indulgent and potentially hazardous as a window. The observation deck was the ICAP design team’s great concession to the artists in the colony. No one regrets this decision now, as it is the only place where the fuss and rumble of daily living pauses, and we can be lonely together.

On nights like these, an oblivious young couple may meet under the vast limbs of genetically modified maple trees, fingers entwined, eyes and lips locked in blissful acknowledgement of only the present. When eventually they pause to see the people gathered around them, they would smile at each other in brief recognition that tonight we are full. On nights of waxing or waning, the couple would have had plenty of privacy, but on a full night, no one can bear to miss the sight of a continent drifting by or the Atlantic with a swirling storm moving unobstructed from the African shores.

It may be a broken place now, full of filth, disease, and chaos, but we don’t speak of what we don’t know. The saccharine smell of the maple sap and blooming honey suckle on the walls offers a sweet incense that only magnifies our memories of home. Under the enormous transparent dome, we quietly wonder if the daffodils have bloomed in our gardens yet, if the neighbors have ever bothered to repair their side of the fence, if the children have started using our front yard for impromptu soccer tournaments. We think about apple pie from the farmer’s market or the tart taste of the earliest picked strawberries. A vigorous debate hatches over which of our favorite monuments is the best, but no one asks which is likely to remain standing without intentional care.

Ten years ago, we gathered on a full night after the last transmission from home, and we clung to each other in silence only broken by heavy breathing and the throaty gulps of withheld sobs. Even the livestock workers who were still covered in the grime of the day had a hand to hold. We witnessed the surface North America disappear under a glowing haze. After the initial gasps and murmurs faded into aching quiet, a pregnant musician dropped her guitar, and the discordant twang of the strings hitting the tile floor filled the room with fragile, breaking echoes. She stood instinctively holding her protruding belly next to the Colony Surgeon General, who fell to his knees peering through his fingers at the eastern seaboard. A normally stoic man with a frigidity that inspired unquestioning obedience, he shook with visceral heaves, and none of us moved. The newly planted maples were lost in the crowd, and everyone stayed until each smoking continent had passed. We were onlookers of a great funeral procession except that we didn’t know for sure that our loved ones were dead.

In the months preceding that night, the Prime Minister had always called our attention back from staring at earth to the work at hand, survival, sustenance, and the project. During the weeks following his election, he had starting giving cryptic inspirational speeches that hinted at some new progressive goal. Formerly a nuclear physicist, he’d only been elected by a narrow margin against the very popular Chief of Food Distribution. In the end it was the physicist’s promises of an attainable goal in the near future, an all-encompassing project that would benefit all of humanity, if we could only trust him with our labor, resources, and time, that won the day. The majority saw a man who could provide for tomorrow versus the food distributor whose primary concern was the present and the status quo.

The new president encouraged us to lay aside the marginal duties of our original goal of making a future home for surplus populations from Earth and devote our spare time to the new project. We had each been hand selected by our respective governments for our abilities, cultural value, and genetics in order to build a sustainable proto-colony as a model for future endeavors. With the president’s promises of impending hope and peace, we readily quit our pet projects and focused on the task at hand.

The coming months were laden with surplus hours of work on the Bastien Project, as it became known. Named after the engineer who birthed the idea after weeks of calculation and labor, it caught like fire, and soon every department was engaged in the details and bringing it to fruition. The project first targeted the areas of the Earth most harmed by the earthquake that caused the later power vacuum in the United States. We agreed that the damage from the quake trumped the political fallout from the ensuing war because surely some sort of stalemate would follow as a natural result of our plan. The Prime Minister even hinted that we might be able to broker a lasting peace agreement between all of the opposing sides.

Of course breathable air would be an issue, since the tectonic shifting from the earth quake caused a volcanic eruption and consequential ash cloud. However, the atmospheric regulation team had already been working on a way to chemically engineer the molecules of our own enhanced breathing air, and they felt certain that with some tweaking, it could be applied planet wide. They were joined in this venture by the Terrain Development team who proposed population shifting and soil redirection as possible solutions to finding livable ground.

As the plans continued to develop, we exchanged smiles and high fives in passing. We became more familiar with our coworkers and more jovial with our friends. A sudden spike in pregnancies elated us further, and we felt confident that our children would one day feel wind and rain, see waves hitting golden shores, smell fresh cut grass, and all the simple joys of earthly existence. We began telling the young ones stories of seasons and change, mountains and sky, and they returned our stories with empty stares that we knew would one day be filled with all the beauty of a home they’d never known.

When the plans were nearly complete, we began our attempts to communicate them with the leaders of our respective countries. The Bravo Colony had never been able to communicate with the surface. It had been part of the sacrifice of choosing a stable location. When the Alpha Colony’s atmospheric regulators had been hit by a small meteor, we immediately moved Bravo to a sheltered valley beneath the crest of a crater. The ridge did not allow our signal to reach the satellite with clarity, and after the wars on earth, we had never received much communication from home anyway. So we continued our work of maintaining a sustainable lunar colony and assumed they’d contact us if anything changed.

Our first several hundred attempts failed, but the blinking transmitter lights from the observation deck and the visible but garbled response from the satellite told us we were not far from the answer. Six months passed from the first attempt, and the other departments began testing for their roles in the salvation of our neighbors. It was Christmas time when the first complete signal reached us from the satellite. We were still unable to call out to home, but we were able to see the recording our administrative contacts had sent. In his excitement, the Prime Minister decided that we should air the feed in the dining hall as inspiration for the final push on the Bastien Project.

When the first feed was projected on the wall, we turned from our table talk and familial chatter with bated breath. It was our first sight of home since our arrival in Bravo. The general commotion dimmed as a battered blonde scientist in a lab coat flickered on the eastern wall. She was standing at the fault line covered in sweat, dirt, and bruises. She gave her name and rank in the International Colonial Aerospace Project, and then she directed the camera to pan the landscape. It was pockmarked with smoking craters. The air was yellow and hazy. When the camera returned to her face, she said:

“This is not the epicenter. This is not even ground zero. This is just one of hundreds of ruined places here. The wars have not stopped. We have been bombing each other for years now, and intel reports state that the nukes are equally spread between all the sides here. From what we understand, the President intends to fire ours next week in the hopes that it will end the war. I’m sending you this message because we at ICAP do not believe in the success of a nuclear war. We believe that if he stays the course with this plan, there will be nothing left here.”

Here she paused to wipe away the rivulets of sweat pouring down her brow. She swallowed audibly and shook her head as she continued, “ Bravo, you are now officially on your own. We charge you with survival, with peace, with prosperity, with freedom. Use the technology that you have to find new resources elsewhere, but you cannot come back here unless you only wish to die with us. You are officially released from ICAP authority. It was a pleasure working with you all.”

“My God,” the Prime Minister said. “That transmission was dated five days ago.”

We rushed to the observation deck with panic that would not yield to any rationalization that there was nothing we could do. Not now, not months after trying to save them; we could not give up hope yet. It was the full night we have never escaped, and North America’s scarred face was partially hidden under clusters of smoke laden with radioactive debris and pieces of what some of us once called home. The guitar crashed to the ground, the Surgeon General fell to his knees and covered his face, the Prime Minister aged one hundred years with tears magnifying his wrinkles, and the rest of us could hardly look at each other. We could only stand together in communal agony and stare at the vanquished world we had hoped to save.

Ten years and two prime ministers later, we have expanded the colonial housing units to accommodate the next generation of adults. We have developed our technology and transport carriers to take us further faster in search of alternate fuel and food sources. While we know that we can never go home, we have never stopped telling our children stories about rain and wind, blue skies and wet grass, colorful birds, and all the terrestrial beauty forever out of their reach. Though we hardly speak of it, our most vivid dreams are haunted with lost senses, smells, sights, sounds and tastes that, upon waking, leave a residue of longing that carries us each full night to the observation deck.

This is a story I wrote quickly and discarded it just as quickly. Later I rediscovered it and touched it up a bit. I'm not sure if I'll add to it or not in the future, but here it is in its present form.

This is a beforeshock. The foretaste, a glimpse of an unknown truth on the horizon.

He leans forward and pushes his index finger into the space between his brows. She is talking about something mundane, her paycheck. Her boss must have shorted her again. The pain rotates to a place deep behind his eye, a place just above his ear. If he touches the place, it will look weird. Afterall, they are at a restaurant. The throbbing intensifies until it is a solid stream, no pulses, no pauses, just unbroken pain streaming to his right eye.

The beforeshock begins.

His left eye sees Angela talking, her bright red lips moving quickly. His right eye sees a rainforest from a bird’s eye view. The emerald canopy stretches out beneath him like a rugged carpet. Mists rise from the blurry horizon. The vision slowly focuses on a smaller section of trees, and he feels as though he is zooming in on something. The pain intensifies the closer he gets. Angela has disappeared from his left eye, and nothing is registering on that side. On the right, he can make out details of the trees, the shape of their leaves. Shadows move beneath the sprawling branches, but everything is still too blurry to see their shapes. Angela’s touch hits him like a wave, and the vision is gone. The pain is reduced to throbbing again.

“Adam? Can you hear me?” Angela’s voice quivers, and her blue eyes are huge as she whispers, “My God, what is happening to you?”

The obese blonde family at the table across from them are staring with their mouths open, and a pasty faced boy covered in bits of smeared food shouts, “Eew! He’s bleeding!”

Sure enough, his nose had bled onto his white dress shirt, and tiny scarlet drops rested ontop of his rice pilaf like shiny beads.

“I swear if you don’t call Dr. Nelson this week, I’m going to,” Angela’s voice disappears into the hum of the restaurant, and everything seems to be spinning around him.

“Ok, ok,” he mumbles, taking a guess at what she said. “I will. I’ll go see him, and we’ll figure it out.”

Angela insists on driving home after the horrified waitress clears their food and accepts a much higher tip than she deser ved. The headlights of oncoming cars swallow him and spit him back out after they pass. Adam covers his eyes and reclines the seat, trying to retain the image of the rainforest. Something important was happening there. That is how beforeshocks work, he figures. You see an important image of something that hasn’t happened yet, but the shock of it tears up your body.

Two weeks ago, Adam thought they were migraine induced hallucinations, but then he started reading blogs and web studies about other people who had experienced the same symptoms as him. Everyone described a similar pain followed by visions. One woman had seen her son’s death happen only three days before his fatal car crash, and she credited the beforeshock for enabling her to say goodbye. Another man saw a cottage by a familiar bend in a local river. He drove up and down the highway for days looking for it, and when he finally found it, a twin he never knew he had was cutting the grass on the front lawn. There were dozens of similar stories. No explanations, no acknoweldgement from creditable scientific institutions, not even any religious musings were offered, just story after story of excrutiating pain followed by haunting images.

The mechanical rumble of the garage door pulls Adam out of his musings. Angela pats his leg, which is still shaking involuntarily.

“Ok, we’re back. Why don’t you leave your shirt on the washer and go to bed?” she says as if talking to a sick child. “I’ll take Duke out and work on the bloodstain.”

Adam watches the English bulldog waddle out the door after Angela, and leaving the bloody shirt, he falls into the bed with his shoes still on and passed into a deep, empty sleep. The next seven days are uneventful, but as the sun rises during his Friday commute, Adam fearfully experiences the slow clench of the tightness that will later become a beforeshock. His sick days are gone. His supervisor, Tracy, eyes him with managerial suspicion as Adam walks to his desk rubbing his right temple. She will later drop a loaded hint about his lack of sick time, insinuating of course that he must stay at his desk or lose his job.

It happens as he is reconciling the second quarter Accounts Receivable revenues. The dull pain spikes. His fingers lose all feeling, and his stomach convulses. He is cold and can no longer contain the shakes. Tiny silver comets reign across his right line of vision. Tracy’s dark outline has faded into an approaching sea of treetops veined with tiny grey rivers. The computer screen is too bright for his left eye, and he closes it just as the blood drips from his right nostril onto the key board. Murmuring voices whisper his name, and someone’s hand rests on his shoulder as the forest draws nearer. Black smoke is rising between the densely gathered branches. Adam focuses on the smoke, trying to follow the whisping trail to its source, but a paramedic forces his eye open and the vision evaporates into an excruciating white flashlight beam.

After a series of medical imaging tests on his head, the doctors conclude that intense migraines are applying pressure to areas of his brain that trigger the release of visual memories that are too deeply stored to have any conscious meaning to his short term memory.

“What you are likely seeing,” says Dr. Roberts, the leading neurologist at St. Mary’s, “is the visual memory of something that impressed you as a child or adolescent. Perhaps a place you visited or wanted to visit or simply something your memory catalogued and stored. In any case, it is being brought to your attention now because of the chemical imbalance caused by your migraines. It’s the same every time because your brain now associates this image with the migraine.”

The explanation continues, but Adam has stopped listening. Dr. Roberts had immediately dismissed the beforeshock theory as urban legend on par with gators in the sewer system and alien designed crop circles. Adam knows the forest is a place he’s never seen before, that it is not important as an image but because something is happening there. He accepts Dr. Roberts prescription without question or complaint, and he fills it to placate Angela. The following morning, he drops the first pill down the disposal in the kitchen sink. Maybe it would help the pain, and maybe it would dissipate the visions. But then, Adam would never know the significance of the forest and the smoke.

“Maybe it’s stress,” Angela says on Tuesday. “We should get away, somewhere tropical and beachy. You still owe me a honeymoon anyway.”

It had been almost a year since their tiny wedding in a mountain chapel. Neither of them had accrued enough vacation time to go anywhere special, so they spent a weekend in the city and returned to work Monday in the hope of taking a real honeymoon in a year or so.

He smiles at her. “You’re probably right, on both counts. Let’s take the Belize trip you found a couple of months ago.”

Seven days in a resort on a paradisical coastline with Angela sounds restorative, and suddenly he wants to leave the dreary midwest winter immediately.

“Let’s go soon,” he shouts up the stairs as she searches for her planner in the office.

Sunrise on Friday brings the pain again. This time the beforeshock comes late. After Angela has retired for the evening, Adam’s head is too tender to even touch a pillow, but rather than saying anything to Angela. He turns the television on and selects an action film that she is sure to hate.

“I’m not sleepy yet,” he says hoping that he isn’t overacting while he tries to contain the pain.

They exchange goodnight kisses, and after she is gone, he removes his shirt and wraps a navy towl around his neck. No tell-tale bloodstains this time. He has just returned to the couch when it starts. The familiar stab behind his eye, the slow revolution of the room, the silver rips across reality and the vision opens to him.

The trees approach more quickly this time, and the branches reach up to embrace him as the descent continues. He is following the smoke trail, it’s undulating black path uncoiling before him. As Adam strains to see through the thick foilage to the source of the smoke, he can feel a warm trickle of blood making it’s way down his face like thick tears. He can feel the tremors in his legs, but the pain has dissolved into emerald beauty all around him. This is as close as he has ever been to the trees. The descent has slowed enough for him to spot jewel colored birds perching in the branches and broad petaled pink and orange blossoms drooping from dark curling branches that part as he passes. The forest floor is alive with movement, and though the images on the ground are still blurred, Adam thinks he can see the outline of people moving quickly in various directions.

A heavy weight on his chest and slurping in his ears awaken him, and Adam opens his eyes just in time for a full face encounter with Duke. After the shakes subside, Adam goes to bed beside an unconscious Angela.

Ten uneventful days later, they board a plane bound for Belize. Angela is wearing a crimson sundress with a white cardigan, and she is the image of a dark haired American beauty on a tropical vacation. As they take their seats, Adam’s right temple throbs. She has generously given him the window seat, and she clenches his hand as they take off, leaving snow laden pines far beneath them.

The first two legs of the trip and subsequent layovers occur without incident. The further south they travel, the more intensely Adam’s head hurts. By the time their third and final flight takes off, she has had a few drinks and is too relaxed to notice the pain he can barely conceal. They are twenty minutes from their destination when Adam glances out the window and sees it. The forest, his forest. The rivers and trees align perfectly with the vision, and the beforeshock begins.

He sees it with both eyes this time. The silver comets swirl surround him tearing away the cabin of the plane one tiny illuminated streak at a time. He glances at Angela’s dozing face and holds her hand. Behind the rips, a new vision opens, and the pain in his head reaches a new apex. He hears his own scream joining a chorus of other voices, and it is too loud to tell if they are screaming or singing. New colors emerge around him blurry and whirling into each other in frenzied motion. The shapes reform into silouttes of partnered dancers hurrying on a coiled black surface. Lights flash all around him, and the pain never dulls. But Adam does not lose focus. The chorus, the dancers, the lights all pulse to the same rhythm. One, two, one, two they synchronize like a heartbeat, like his heart beat. His breathing matches the pace.

The blossoms and colorful birds have passed, and he knows there only moments before he finally sees the end of the smoke trail. The dancers gather around him, and silver swirls above. He feels the undulation of the trail matching the rhythm of his heart. The branches finally part, and he sees jagged silver pebbles nestled in a bright green carpet. The smoke rises thickest here, and just past it, past the rocks and the carpet, beneath them in the glistening sunlight, an ocean with a pure white shore stretches endlessly to the horizon. The coastline under that emerald carpet and smoke beckons to Adam with longing more intense than the pain. People are waiting for him on the shore. He mustn’t look back or they’ll disappear. The silver pebbles grow into boulders and then buildings. Adam can feel the warm water on his neck and arms, smell the salt heavy breeze. The people call his name, and he thinks Angela is with them, smiling and waving. One final burst of pain thrusts him into the warm white sand where he was always supposed to be.

When the recovery crew finds Adam, his fingers are still locked tightly around Angela’s, her wedding ring embedded in his palm. But his face is still looking longingly out the window.

I didn't disappear! I just took a little break. Currently, a large percentage of my fiction is being surgically altered. When that painful but necessary proess bears some fruit, I will post another story. In the meantime, enjoy some new poetry!

**This is a sneak peak of the story I will expand and revise for my final project of my writing degree. By the end of April, it will be at least 50 pages long and very polished. In the meantime, I am offering this preview because I'm not sure that this part of the story will appear in the final version (at least not in this form). Enjoy!

No one ventures into the Taiga. No one. A deep forest of firs who whisper on winter nights, it stretches far beyond our lands, some say through the whole world. Its mists and fire are inaccessible to us, and if we wander too deeply into the forest, its mysteries consume us. It is a ruled dominion of course, and it has boundaries and populations that do not mingle with ours. We have treaties with the Taiga Queen that govern against it. The Taiga Queen keeps or kills anyone who goes too far into her house. We kill the pests that enter into our house, the cockroaches, spiders, ants, and mice. Why shouldn’t she kill us when we go into hers? Some areas are neutral, like the fir wall, the very edge of the Taiga. But if you go more than one hundred paces into the forest, she will catch you, and then you are hers. Just last summer, our own cousin, Lim, heard the river daughters singing at the foot of the mountain where the trees block the sun, and he tried to find them. He never came out again, and we knew what happened.
The summer is a dangerous time. The Taiga Queen’s lover, Boreal, is gone hunting Elk kings all summer, and she will not see him again until the first snow. She grows lonely in the warm evening air and walks about disguised as a white mountain lion or a great brown she-bear looking for stray children. During the day, she shows the children glimpses of wild beasts, colorful birds, and strange animals, and she lures them with wild berries which grow just inside her borders. If they take the forbidden berries, the poor children are goners. At night, she throws her magic net into the sky, fishing for stars. You can see its long plumes grazing the treetops very late when the stars are brightest. Her pink and blue net waves in the sky, and if she catches enough stars, she weaves a necklace or a coronet to crown her dark head. She is deep in the forest when she casts it, and the youngest children believe if they find where the hem of it falls, they will find berries and honey and stars to bring their mothers. We lost the tailor’s daughter, Miska, that way.
My youngest brother, Kye, likes to wander ninety-nine paces into the forest and reach out his hand into the hundredth. My mother weeps whenever he does this and sobs, “You’re already hers.” I should have watched him closer. I should have kept him with me, but no declaration of “ought” will bring him back. In early October, we lost Kye. It was my fault.
The day Kye vanished, Boreal’s chariot was racing through the cedar trees, and their pointy heads were bowing beneath the rush of his return. My two sisters and I stepped ninety-nine paces into her house and walked the perimeter of our land calling out his name. Mother paced closer to home, wringing her hands and wailing with the neighbor women. Most of the others from the village came to help us, and soon everyone was involved in the familiar process. East and West for miles we searched, and we could not find him. Finally everyone gave up the search and declared him gone. This came as no surprise to me. How many other times had I given up on someone else’s brother? But those were not my fault.
“I knew he would go,” Mama sobbed. “He wanted her—she had him—from the start. If only there was some way to save him, somehow to get him back.”
I lay in my bed all night hearing her weep in my father’s arms. He feebly tried to console her and convince her to accept Kye’s fate.
“We could consult the Elders. We could ask for a brave --"
“It would be too late by then. He’s gone.”
My father is a weak man. His youngest son—his only son—is gone and surely not dead yet! How could he give up so easily? Someone should do something! I made my decision then. I had earned the consequence.
At dawn, I ran to the council where the Elders meet, and only Gisa the Wise was there so early. Gisa had known me since birth and had given me the sign of our people on my shoulder. I used to play with his wild dappled beard as he told me stories of our people’s long history of valor and triumph. His words were always honeyed with pride and love for our land and our people. The stories are grafted into my being, and because of them, I never feel alone.
“Well, Nanya, why are you here so early? Did your little Kye show up?”
“No, Grandfather Gisa,” I panted, the sharp morning air burning my lungs. “I must enter Taiga’s house to find him. If I go quickly enough, I may find him before it’s too late. Give me a blessing before I go!”
“I see,” he replied, stroking his long, wild beard. “Why would you do something so dangerous, Nanya? You know the danger of her house. You may never return if you go. Hasn’t your mother lost enough with Kye’s disappearance? You are but fifteen and newly a woman. What could you do to get Kye back? You should go back home and comfort your mother.” His earthy voice filled the house with warmth and security. I needed him, if only him, to understand.
“No, Grandfather Gisa, I can’t! It’s, it’s my fault,” I blurted, exposing the horrible secret I had sworn to bury that day. I started to cry as I continued. “I was supposed to be watching him, but our cistern was empty. I should have taken him to the well with me, but I left him playing behind the house. When I returned, he was gone. Oh, Grandfather Gisa, I know it’s not too late for Kye. He couldn’t have gone far in the space of one night. I have to find him! I have to go into the Taiga Queen’s house and get Kye back from her! If you bless my search for him, and I know I will find him.”
He looked at me deeply through his long white eyebrows. He sighed a long, ancient breath and drew an amulet from his neck. It was deep golden and covered in carvings, and in the center of it, an amber stone glittered in the light of the council fire. He hung it heavily around my neck, his eyes clouding with tears.
“Granddaughter, I see that nothing will deter you from this hell-bent pursuit. So take this token with you. Hopefully, it will keep you safe for awhile. I do not know much about it, but I have worn it since my childhood and never felt unsafe. My great-grandmother was a river daughter, you know. She gave this to my grandfather when he was a boy, and now I give it to you. May it be a help to you in her dangerous mansion. But remember this, if nothing else: you must return before the first snow, or you will be lost too. Now, go with my blessing.”
He kissed my forehead and promised to tell my family my message. So I entered Taiga’s house while the ice crystals turned to dew in the cold morning sun. I counted my steps slowly through the misty forest, entering from the point where I last saw Kye. When I reached the ninety-ninth, the rolling mists had thinned, and I saw an elk not thirty paces before me. He lifted his head, the crown of his antlers crashing with the low-hanging pine branches, and he lumbered back into the mist heading east. I held my breath, clutched Gisa’s amulet, and took the one hundredth step. I paused lingering on the thick carpet of needles. Silence surrounded me with throbbing intensity. The songbirds high in the branches cocked their heads and stared at me with curiosity. They knew I did not belong here. I heard noises behind me.
“Naaaanya! Naaaaanya!”My two younger sisters’ voices cried. Mother must have sent them after me. Their tearstained faces begging me to stay would mean the undoing of my quest, so I pressed ahead with reverent fear of the Taiga Queen tingling in my veins.
For an hour, I headed due north from our house, and in the entire hour, no one other than birds greeted me. I proceeded in silence and care, avoiding loose twigs and branches, always glancing around like a grazing doe. Finally, I stopped for rest in valley bogged with limbs and tree stumps. The last of the golden wildflowers lingered defiantly around the stumps, and I found a smooth one where I could take my rest.
As I sat, a gray wolf emerged from the trees to look at me. His yellow eyes stared into my hazel ones looking for a sign of submission. Frozen in fear, I did not move, not even to bow my head to him. I was an intruder, violating my people’s treaty with the Queen, and he would have been within his rights to tear me apart. When he saw that I was not going to move, he showed his teeth, growling a deep warning. Without knowing why I did it, I held out the amulet, and as the amber stone glittered in the sunlight, it grew warm in my hand. The wolf howled, his message echoing through the lonely trees, and retreated with his head lowered and his tail tucked. I still could not decipher any meaning from the amulet, nor could I understand my impulse to show it to the wolf. After he left, I wondered if Kye had met him too.
The trees were calm that night, and I was further into the forest than anyone had ever told in our village. If I made it back, I’d be the first to tell about it. I debated about building a fire. On the one hand, it would be a beacon to the Queen’s spies, but on the other hand, it was cold enough for me to be chilled beneath my furs. So I built the fire and hoped that nothing evil would find me. As it crackled and sparked, I leaned back against a fallen log and stared into the sky. The Queen’s net was spread wide above me, and stars glowed faintly behind its pink and green boundary.
A feathery rustle startled me out of my imaginings, and I clutched the amulet as I turned to see what had arrived. A white owl landed on the log beside me, and its cry almost sounded human. It alternated between staring at me and looking around the forest. After several minutes of this, the owl transformed into a girl before my eyes, and I was petrified in shock. I knew her; it was Miska, the tailor’s long lost daughter.
“Nanya, why are you here?” Miska asked. “Go home while you can, before she catches you.”
She was a pale shadow of the girl she I had known two years ago. Deep, black caverns had appeared under her eyes, and she was so thin that I thought my embrace would break her.
“Miska, I thought I’d never see you again. She turned you into an owl?”
“The day she caught me in her house and found out why I came, the Queen told me that if I gather and bring her the stars from the hem of her net, then I could go home. During the day, she makes me weave her robes with gold and silver thread, but at night she gives me the form of an owl to fly in search of her net’s end. Every time I reach one of the borders of the net, I see stars glittering in its tangles, and I am so close to them. But then the sunrise starts, and I must fly back to her before the sunlight touches my wingtips. All I want is to go home and hug my parents and sleep in my bed, but I am so tired.”
“Why don’t you just fly free of her and return home?”
“If I fly beyond her borders as an owl, I’ll stay an owl forever, and the wolves keep us from leaving by day.”
“Miska, this is terrible news. If I find the Queen, I’ll ask for your release too, but I came here looking for Kye. Have you seen him?”
“Oh, no! Your little brother is here?” she asked, her cavernous eyes filling with tears. She had often visited him with little molasses candies. “He was so little and curious when I used to come see him,” she sighed and shook her head. “If he is this far into Taiga’s house, he’s likely hers now. There’s nothing you can do for him. Just get out while you can, and be glad she didn’t find you. If I ever see him in daylight, I’ll look out for him as best I can. Now, I have to go. The night is getting late, but I may still have time to find the end of her net. It was good to see you, Nanya. If you make it out, please tell my parents about me.”
With that, Miska flew away, a white spot against the pink and green sky. As I turned back to the fire from watching her, a pair of unblinking yellow eyes stared at me from the other side of the fire. It was the great wolf from the afternoon. How long had he been there? As he sat down by the fire and curled up to sleep, I wondered if I would ever find Kye.
The next morning, the wolf herded me deeper into the forest, nudging me and forcing me to take his path, but he no longer bared his teeth or growled. Hours and hours we walked, over streams and rivers, through glades and dells, and finally up a steep mountainside. As the sun began to set and the pink strands of the Queen’s net appeared once again, I settled to camp on the open mountainside. The wolf circled me whining and nudging me to continue, but it would have been too dangerous to climb the rocky path in the dark.
I barely slept that night. During the long, cold hours various animals came to see what was by the fire on the mountain. Their shapes passed as dark shadows outside of the perimeter of the firelight, and occasionally the wolf would emit a low growl, keeping them at bay. I stared at the hazy net wafting through the sky and thought of Miska and Kye and all the others we lost and wished I could save them all.
By dawn, the fire had been cold ash for hours, and as I rose, so did the wolf. We continued our path up the mountain, and when we reached about half its height, the wolf led me to the far side of the mountain. As we approached northeast side, I heard the rushing roar of water. It was no whispering stream or babbling brook but a great convergence of rivers meeting in one ultimate plunge off of the precipice into a deep misty valley whose floor I couldn’t see from that height. A sprawling mansion had been carved into the face of the mountain, spanning either side of the waterfall as far as I could see. As the wolf prodded me forward, I knew we had arrived at the Queen’s royal palace.
The waterfall was too loud for me to hear the roar I could see escaping the mouths of the mountain lions guarding the entryway. The wolf preceded me, and the mountain lions sat obediently as he passed them. Their yellow eyes glared at me with dammed ferocity and barely restrained hunger. We entered her mansion, and I instinctively rubbed my thumb over the amulet. The wolf led me into a cavernous room with an enormous chair that stretched from the floor to the ceiling on the wall opposite the waterfall.
I stood immobile when I saw her in the chair. Her gold and silver robes rippled like water as she stood, and I was horrified to see that her height was several heads taller than any man I had ever seen. A coronet of stars was embedded in her black curling hair that fell untamed down the length of her back. Her skin was deathly white, and her obsidian eyes glinted at me from her enormous height. The wolf left me facing her with the falls at my back, and he sat like a noble statue by her side, watching my every shiver under her austere gaze. Yet somehow, I retained my composure and remained on my feet. I still don’t know how, for I was more terrified at that moment than ever before.
“Worm, you are in the presence of a queen,” she said, her rich voice drowning the waterfall’s roar. “You have come here to beg something of me, and you are not even kneeling. You must believe yourself to be very brave.”
The amulet in my hand grew hot, and the warmth seeped through my veins until I felt engulfed by it.
“I have never learned to kneel,” I replied, my small voice mingling with the water, “to neither a queen nor anyone else.”
“You are a fool,” she replied without changing her expression, “to enter my house unbidden so that you may beg from me and not even give the slightest gesture of obeisance or respect. So name your quest; what was worth breaking the promise your people swore to me?”
The amulet in my hand grew hotter.
“Where is Kye?” I demanded more confidently than I felt.
Her menacing laugh echoed off the rocky walls, surrounding me with her disdain.
“Pretty little Nanya, is he why you came? For a little boy too stupid to follow the decree? Your people didn’t care enough to keep him out of my house, so why did you risk your life to beg him back? He’s mine, mine, and you’ll never see him again,” she regarded me pensively for a moment and then continued. “No, I know what you really came for. You’re after my treasures, my silver and gold. Perhaps you even want to kill me and become queen yourself. Why do you think I called him and not you? I can see through this guise to your true desires. Your brother only wants to serve me, but you, you want to usurp me. Don’t you know how powerless you are against me? Why do you think your people made the treaty in the first place? An army of them couldn’t defeat me! The wolf said he was bringing me a warrior, but now I see that you are just a thoughtless child. You have nothing to offer me and are too stupid to know how to honor a queen. But I will teach you to fear me.”
As she stepped towards me, the amulet became unbearably hot, and I released it, exposing the glowing amber to the queen. She had stolen my brother and enslaved my friends, and anger at her boiled inside me as the amber cast orange light towards the queen. She doubled over and retreated back to her chair.
“I see I was right,” she gasped in short, choking breaths. “You want to kill me. Well, braver warriors than you have tried, little worm. My power is even more vast than my riches, and I will crush you before you ever learn to use Giza’s little trinket. And when you are dead, I will spread your bones beyond each horizon so that your people have nothing left of you for the burial grounds.”
The anger boiled over me, and I reacted from somewhere deep in my stomach.
“You hag,” I screamed, rousing the wolf and mountain lions who approached in bristled readiness. “You will not keep him. I will find him and bring him back, and then I’ll return for your head.”
With that, I ran straight into the waterfall, its icy rush cooling my rage and thrusting me down towards the mists.

**This story was also an exercise for class. It is still very rough and could use some expansion. It could have novel potential, but for now, I am setting it aside to work on my project for next semester.

Mara was already settled next to her mother in the creaky pews when Zoe entered All Saints Chapel and slouched between them. Zoe’s eyes were red and watery, and she stared at the lily coated casket sniffing loudly. Mara blushed and looked around at the other family members who peered at Zoe with sympathetic smiles. Great Uncle Kevin put his hand on her shoulder and whispered something into her ear, which made her nod and delicately smile. The chapel was nearly full when their grandmother walked down the aisle followed by her sons, Mara and Zoe’s fathers. She was stoic, calmly walking without a shake in her step. Until she reached Zoe, that is. She paused to embrace Zoe, and both of them started crying and trembling in each other’s arms. Mara looked down at her shoes, the black patent leather reflecting her unaffected face. She tried to feel something as she covered her dry eyes with her long brown bangs. Her mother glanced over at her and gave an exasperated sigh. She licked her thumb and index finger and smoothed Zoe’s bangs over to the side where they would stay out of her face. Normally, this would produce a dramatic reaction from Mara, but today the last thing she wanted was a scene. Her mother had not shed a tear, even when Uncle Joe had called to give the news about Mara’s grandpa dying. When Mara’s grandmother finally took her seat in front of the cousins, Zoe turned to Mara and gave her a hug.
“I’m so glad that you’re staying with us this weekend,” she whispered. “I haven’t seen you in ages. You’ve gotten tall and skinny. You must have boys falling all over you.”
Zoe was only ten years older than fifteen year old Mara, but she spoke like a senior citizen. Mara smiled and gave an obligatory laugh, but she didn’t know what else to say. As the priest began the opening prayers and the women around Mara descended to the kneelers, a pendant freed itself from Zoe’s cardigan and began swinging like a pendulum. Mara stared at it, and she forgot to pray, as Zoe’s eyes were shut in fervent reverence. The pendant was a small circle hung on a thick golden chain and had something in another language carved on it. An oblong vial filled with a clear liquid on one end and a dark liquid on the other was dangling from the circle. Mara had never seen anything like it, and by the time, the prayers were over, she was completely mesmerized by it. She wondered where Zoe could have gotten something so unique. Mara’s lips automatically recited the liturgy, and she continued to steal glances at it. The vial sat perfectly between Zoe’s tiny breasts, making it appear that she actually had definable breasts. Mara imagined the necklace accentuating her own blossoming chest. Tony Paruzzo, her attractive lab partner in Mr. Felson’s Chemistry class, would notice her then. She pictured it with a sleek, black prom dress, perfectly complimented by a trailing white orchid corsage, long black gloves, and Tony Paruzzo in a tuxedo. Suddenly, Zoe interrupted her thoughts by hugging her tightly during the Passing of the Peace, and she erupted into tears once more, this time soaking Mara’s shoulder in the display. Mara awkwardly patted Zoe’s back. Even though she wanted to, she could not try to touch the necklace without appearing to make an inappropriate gesture.
At the reception, her great-aunts and great-uncles hovered around her grandmother, and Mara could not find her mother anywhere. Zoe stood in a circle of prunish women, laughing and dabbing tears with an embroidered handkerchief as they exchanged stories about Mara’s grandfather. Zoe was chronicling the family history in a set of books that would include a family tree when she was finished. It was her graduate school project, and Mara couldn’t believe that she was actually paying a school to teach her how to do that. It seemed impractical. Mara wanted to go to nursing school after graduation. Zoe had spent extensive amounts of time with the old people in the family, listening to their stories, reading excerpts from their journals, and recording interviews with them. After circling the room in search of her mother, Mara finally ended up next to Zoe, her gaze wandering between the tiled floor and the pendant.
“I have to ask,” Mara couldn’t resist, “what is that necklace and where did you get it?”
“Oh, Grandpa gave it to me in June for my twenty-fifth birthday. Isn’t it beautiful? It’s been in our family for hundreds of years.”
“Hundreds?” Mara gasped.
She grinned, “Yes, I’m sure you know that we’ve traced our family as far back as one of the members of Ponce de Leon’s expedition team when he came to Florida. The story goes that our ancestor got lost from the rest of the group and was rescued from almost certain death by a group of native women. He fell in love with one of the women, and eventually she led him to the fountain he’d been searching for. Supposedly, this is the water from the fountain.”
“You’re telling me that you’re wearing water that could make you immortal?” Mara was incredulous.
“Come on, Mar, it’s just a story. Who knows what it does? From my research, I know that this water has been enclosed for at least one hundred and fifty years. Would you drink anything that old?”
“Why is it two different colors?” She reached out, not daring to touch it. Zoe didn’t move.
“One side is the water of death, which reconstitutes a wounded body, and one side is the water of life, which reanimates the body. With only the water of death, you can’t bring life back to a body, and with only the water of life, you can’t heal a reanimated body. So our ancestors wisely preserved both.”
“And nobody’s tried it? Or at least sent it to be tested or something?”
“Would you give up potential immortality to a lab? Besides, what would they find? Chemically, it’s just water. It’s the fact that it’s sacred water that gives it power.”
With that, she turned to continue mingling with the elder members of the family. What awesome power, thought Mara. Even just the potential of it was tempting. She could carry the keys of life between her breasts and walk with infinite power. Who’s to say that it isn’t really magical water? Who’s to say that it couldn’t be reproduced in a lab just like anything else?
Zoe went to bed early that night, totally spent from a day of crying and reminiscing about people who died before she was born. Mara stayed up to sulk and read during the languor of the adults’ droning conversation. Fortunately, they were rooming together in Zoe’s old room, and when Mara came to bed at eleven, Zoe’s even breathing signaled Mara’s chance to hold the pendant. She hovered over the bedside table staring at it and holding her breath. Just as she reached for the pendant, Zoe stirred and mumbled “come to bed already, Mar.” Mara exhaled and crawled into bed.
As Mara lay in the darkness, she longed for the pendant. What would she do with all that power? She imagined a future where she was Zoe’s age, working in the cancer ward of a metropolitan hospital. One day she would discover Zach Efron in one of her beds, and even with terminal cancer, he would still be gloriously handsome. She would nurse him with care, and they would gradually fall in love, sneaking kisses in his hospital room. Inevitably he would die in her arms, and she would shed a single tear. And that would be when she would use the vial. The water of death would heal the cancer, and the water of life would bring him back. She fell asleep dreaming about the beautiful children she would have with Zach.
It was six am when Mara heard bright brassy notes of jazz filtering through the room. It was old people music. She groaned and pulled the pillow over her head. Zoe came in singing along and toweling her wet hair. She was already wearing the pendant over a boucle sweater.
“Rise and shine, Mar-mar. Grandma came over for breakfast,” Zoe chirped.
Mara drowsily lay in bed thinking of ways to obtain the necklace.
1. Ask for it. (Zoe would never give up something Grandpa gave her.)
2. Make one that looks like the real thing—a decoy—and switch them when Zoe’s not looking. (She’d probably notice, and that would take too much time.)
3. Steal it. Just take it in the night. (It’s kind of wrong, but why should Zoe have it anyways?)
As Mara tried to maintain consciousness over breakfast, her eyes fixated on the necklace swinging and bobbing on Zoe’s chest. She would get it somehow.
“And Mara, dear,” her grandmother said after Mara returned from her morning primping routine. “I have something special for you today. Come sit with me.”
Her father and uncle had gone fishing, and her mother was cleaning the last of the breakfast dishes. Zoe sat across from the couch where their grandmother sat patting the cushion next to her and blinking expectedly at Mara. She obeyed with affected boredom.
“Sweetie, your Grandpa told me a few weeks ago that he regretted not spending more time with you when he was healthier,” she glanced at Mara’s mom with a mysterious eyebrow lift that only the two of them understood. “Now, don’t feel bad about about that, honey, you can’t help that you live two states away and that you’re busy with your own life. He just wished there had been more time I think. Anyways, I suggested that he write you a letter and explain what he wanted to leave you,” she said even-keeled.
“Leave me?” Mara couldn’t hide her curiosity any more. “I don’t understand. I thought he left me money.”
“He did, but he also left you a few things from the house,” she paused, “and one very important thing.”
“What is it?” Mara asked eagerly.
“Well, before you get too hasty, let me explain. Your Grandpa knew that Zoe was getting a lot of the antiques because she cares about those things, and he knew she’d be a good custodian. But he didn’t want you to think you weren’t worth as much to him. Believe me, he loved you to bits. The official will reading is tomorrow, but I thought you’d want a chance to think this over before you have to decide what to do. Here’s the letter.”
She ripped it open, secretly enjoying Zoe’s wince as the envelope shredded.
Dear Mara,
I hope this letter finds you well. I wish you and I could have gotten to know each other better. It’s been a long time since the Christmas that everyone came out to our house, and I’m sure you’ve changed a lot since then. You were adorable with your doll collection and fluffy pink dresses. Now I guess you’re too old for that stuff.
I wish I had more to leave you. Hopefully they’ve told you by now about the small amount of money I left you. I want you to use it for college, if you can save it that long. If not, at least think of me when you spend it. If you are ever curious about me, if you want to know more about my life, ask your Grandma or Zoe. They could both tell you more about me than I could even think to put in this little letter. However, I didn’t want you to feel like Zoe got everything just because she likes heirlooms.
I want you to take Fortune home with you. He’s too much trouble for your Grandma, and I can’t think of anyone who’ll love that bird more than you. We got him when your mom was about your age, and in your pictures, you look so much like your mom did then that I’m sure he’ll be comfortable with you. She used to tell Fortune her secrets. Maybe when he sees you, he’ll remember some of them. Your Grandma has his paperwork and everything. Take good care of him for me.

Mara put the letter down, slightly confused. She had only vague memories of Fortune the African Gray Parrot. Mara could remember her mother saying that they lived about 80 years and that they had the intelligence of a two year old child, which was just enough to make them a handful. Mara’s mother was standing in the doorway, holding the dishtowel limp by her side. Any thoughts of the pendant had vanished from Mara’s mind completely, and before she realized what she was doing, she hugged her Grandma, her eyes wet with tears.
“Thank you, Grandma,” she whispered. “Thank you so much.”
Two weeks later, Mara was getting ready for school, and she had brought the bird into her bedroom. Fortune perched on the vanity, hovering over Mara’s mirror.
“Good grief, look at you,” he squawked. “You look like a streetwalker.”
Mara glanced in the mirror at her jeans and v-neck blouse. It seemed normal enough to her.
“Why did you say that, Fortune?” she asked, mistakenly believing that the bird could reason with her.
“Are you going to school or to a bordello?”
After that, no matter what Mara said to Fortune, his reply was “whore” or “slut” which he would apply to her interchangeably. Finally, Mara gave a short laugh, and put him back in his cage.
As she was locking the door, he said, “Well, fine, Carly, if you want to look like a whore, fine, but you better expect you’ll be treated like one.”
Mara left for the day with Fortune’s words ringing in her ears. The bird had called her Carly, her mother’s nickname in high school. Now she went by Carolyn. Had her mother dressed inappropriately as a teenager, or was her Grandpa just so ornery that the bird picked it up?
Later that night, Mara and her parents sat at the dinner table eating quietly, and suddenly, Fortune chimed in, “For Pete’s sake, cross your ankles. Everyone can see your business.”
Mara’s mother jerked visibly when he said that, and Mara’s father gave her a quizzical look.
“Children, were you born in a barn? Get your elbows off of the table. Sit up straight. Finish your vegetables,” he continued.
As Mara’s mother did the dishes, and Mara sat at the kitchen table reading, the bird landed on Carloyn’s shoulder and said loudly, “Do you want to know a secret?”
He waited expectantly for her “Yes,” and as soon as she said it, he continued, “Someday I’m gonna leave here and never see you or Daddy or Momma ever again.”
As Fortune flew back to his cage, Mara realized why they lived two states away from the rest of the family and why it was so rare for them to go back. She wondered if Fortune would ever favor them.

**This was an exercise for one of my writing classes. The assignment was to write a very brief story (or part of a story) from a second person point of view. The exercise was supposed to follow a how-to format using a Wiki instructional article, but it was also supposed to tell a story about something other than the how-to. My randomly assigned how-to was skydiving.

Close your eyes and try to inhale as your face breaks the air at 120 miles per hour. As you fall, forget about everything that came before this moment, and linger in the blasting euphoria of floating over everything. The months of searching for just the right place with the right instructors and the right weather are behind you. Perhaps you were a bit too zealous in your research, or perhaps you were scared. Either way, right now you are joined at the hip with a stranger who’s screaming “isn’t this great?” But you can barely hear him because of the rush of the sky parting for your passage.
Why haven’t you done this sooner, you wonder. What stopped you all those years? You glance over at your son, Jake, his tanned, skinny arms clutching the instructor for dear life, and you see his hand move slightly to give you a thumbs up. He scared out of his mind, but he’s loving this. You are finally able to give him something he’ll never forget. Last week, you may have been forcibly removed from your home by your wife, and you may have seen Jake flushed and staring at the ground as he tried not to cry. But right now, in this moment of boundless freedom, you are creating an immortal presence in his psyche. The ground is slowly getting closer, but you don’t care. You are nearly 5000 feet over farmland 200 miles from her and your old life, and next week your new life begins on the other side of the country. But today you have him, and you have this.
You glance at Jake again and give a confident grin, much like the one you gave him as you both stood on the threshold between the plane and the sky. His apple red parachute is fully open now, and he and his instructor dangle above you and yours. You remember him making fun of your rainbow parachute, nervously shifting in his harness before the jump. The wind currents play with your feet, and you feel as though you are surfing down towards a green plate of broccoli. Tiny ants stand still in a rolling green meadow beneath you, and you hear the instructor mention “avoiding the cows.”
Jake is laughing loudly and shouting “wooo” just like he did when you took him to his first NFL game before things got ugly with Melinda. This was before she started drinking, before you met Lisa, and before Jake had to leave his expensive private school for public junior high. You thought he’d never forgive you for that, but you had to pay the mortgage somehow after Melinda lost everything that night at Harrah’s. You remember Lisa telling you to cut the cord, and you laugh a little at the irony of that statement at this moment. Lisa had Hollywood connections, and you thought you’d struck gold when she found an agent for you. She’s not your type though, bossy and demanding. You like a hands off woman, but Lisa got you a ticket away from your nightmare with Melinda.
It was so important at the time, and a week ago there was nothing else to life but escaping somehow. Now floating over everything, you seem small in the grand scheme of things. So does Melinda, so does Jake, and so does Lisa. Why even bother with any of it, you wonder. This is where freedom is, over everything. You look behind behind you and see a growing white van tracking the parachutes as the field looms larger beneath you. You experience a brief glimmer of loss and sad expectancy as you realize that landing means leaving Jake and everything you know. That van will transport you from Jake’s dad of the present to Jake’s dad of the past. You think of the football games, the graduations, the everyday accomplishments of his growing up that you will miss because of this exodus that was so tantamount a week ago. If only there was a way for everyone to win, you think, as the cows grow larger and the broccoli looks more like trees. If only there was something here for you. But as the smell of bovine reality, grass and manure, cuts into your nostrils, you know you could never be happy here. You could never really escape her on this side of the Rockies, and there is no place in your Hollywood dream for a child. As the instructor guides the swaying parachute to a safe landing point, you glace up at Jake and shout “how ‘bout it, buddy?” and cringe under his adoring grin. Next year, you will take him surfing and star spotting in L.A. But as your feet hit the damp grass, you know that he will hate you by then.

About One Tiny Leaf

I see my writing as one tiny leaf on a great big tree of budding authors. While I hope to one day publish professionally and find a community of writers and readers, for the present this blog allows me the space to put my work to the test. I welcome any constructive comments and feedback.