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May 16, 2012 / Daniel

All I Ever Wanted

[4571 words, rated PG]

There are, in fact, islands in the black powder seas. Islands of all sizes; islands abandoned, islands razed, islands jungled, one that’s a pile of human skulls, one covered with violently violet flowers most of its days, and at least one larger one with a village of people.

Gray people, in gray clothing, living in gray wooden homes, waking to gray dawns.

Jeremy pulled his suspenders over each shoulder and stood, shaking his pants into place. Coranelle was already dressed and shuffling about in the kitchen as he walked to the room, looking around for his breakfast.

“Here you are dear,” she said, setting a plate onto the table. She sat in the adjacent chair, and waiting for him to sit.

They sat and they ate.

“Happy Birthday, Cora,” Jeremy said at last.

“What’s that dear? Oh, go on. It’s just another day,” she pulled her face into a smile.

“No, Cora, it’s not, it’s a special day.”

“Okay dear.”

“Don’t you want a present or something?”

“No, there’s nothing I need.”

“I’m going out today.”

“Oh? Wherever to?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“Well good luck with that. There’s very little surprising here on the island, you know.”

“I suppose.”

They sat for awhile. Cora, complacent, sipped tepid water from a stoneware mug. Jeremy did the same.

Jeremy hated this island more than he could understand. He’d hated it that way longer than he could remember. He remembered eventually giving up on and simply letting the hate collapse upon itself, where it burned like a star within the empty blackness inside him.

“I’M GOING TO KILL SOMEONE TODAY WITH MY BARE HANDS!” he shouted, leaping from his chair and crouching in a menacing stance, “AND THEN I’M GOING TO TEAR OFF HIS LEFT EAR AND WEAR IT ON MY FACE LIKE AN EAR-SHAPED WART! AND TAKE A LUMPY DUMP ON HIS KITTEN!”

“That’s nice, dear,” She looked at him, “but if you come back covered in blood, you’re washing your own underpants.”

He sat back down. “Is nothing exciting anymore?” She used to care, to fight, to hope. Now, she just sits there, being pleasant. What had happened to his Cora? Did she have that same star burning inside, or had it snuffed itself?

“I wouldn’t say that,” she sipped at her water, “Life is special and amazing.”

He stared at his mug, “Cora, what do you want?”

“Nothing, I have all I ever wanted.”

“I don’t think that’s true. I think we all have things we want.”

“Well, here, in this place, there are only so many things we can have.”

“Yes, right, but, if there were anything, anything at all…”

“Hmmm,” she thought, “Color? Maybe? Things are a bit drab, most of the year. Remember when we had that one springtime? That was nice,” she sipped.

Jeremy went out, just as he said he would.

He walked down the side of the road toward the central village. Crisp brown leaves flaked apart under his steps. Seemed like it was always fall now, all year long. Bare branches, gray tree trunks, crispy leaves underfoot.

He looked for color, for Cora’s birthday gift. There was nothing vibrant. Anywhere.

Lots of browns and grays, some tans. Nothing astounding. That’s the only thing good enough; something that will astound her, something vivid.

The shops proved the expected disappointment. Clothing; dull, drab, itchy. Household goods; earthenware, wooden, hammered metal. Electrics; all antiques, all modified with sustainable hand-cranks and pulley/lever actions for charging: mostly worthless, though. When you’re on an island in the middle of the powder seas, you get no visitors, and there’s really no where to go, nothing to do.

Jeremy passed by the edge of the central square where a dozen or so others had gathered. It was quiet, though; no conversations, no music, no games. People tended to stand around and appear to wait.

Down the rise, and around the south fence, though, was a shop of sundries. Jeremy went inside to look around.

It wasn’t possible to decide exactly what the shop sold in specialty, judging by the contents. Broken shovels, dinner plates, re-made weapons, salt shakers… piles and piles, towers of containers and boxes.

“Hello, sir!” said the shopkeeper.

“Hello, there.”

“Can I help you find anything?”

“Hmm well, I’m looking for a gift.”

“Sorry, sir, I sell things here.”

“No, no, I’m willing to buy. I’m looking to buy a gift for someone.”

“Ah, well then! You’ve come to the right place.”

“I hope so. Do you have anything colorful?”

“Colorful. With color?”

“That’s it exactly.”

“I’m afraid… I don’t, really…” the shopkeeper said, looking around, “oh wait, perhaps…” he shoved his way through a cluttered aisle, tall piles of containers teetering behind him as he went.

Jeremy followed in gaze only, staying safely back.

“I have a thing, which you will, at first, find most not colorful whatsoever.”

“Nope, not for me, then.”

“Ah yes, but just wait, just wait!” he finally emerged from a dark corner, holding a small bundle wrapped in tattered leather. “Here. This thing.”

The shopkeeper flipped the corners of leather aside revealing the item.

“A glass ball?” said Jeremy.

“Metal, in fact.”

“Looks glass, I can see through it.”

“Metal. It’s from the old country, before the Event.”

“Before the Event? How did you get it…”

“I get things!” the shopkeeper beamed proudly. “This is metal, I assure you,” he held it up at eye-level for them both to inspect more closely. Light bent through it, curving everything, refracting shapes of objects as he rotated it around.

“Still looks glass to me,” said Jeremy.

“Oh, it’s quite metal. It’s a nanogin mesh. Millions upon millions of tiny machines built to mesh together, and programmed to bend light. This, sir, is a nanogin lens. It can reshape tiny portions of light from great distances.”

“Looks like a glass ball to me, shopkeeper,” said Jeremy, beginning to lose his patience with the sales pitch.

“The flaw here, is that I lack the harness, the stand, the …contraption… that it was built to function with. So, it doesn’t work properly without being mounted properly. Hold it in a shaky hand and you get shaky light. Here, watch.” The shopkeeper took the lens over to the window, and raked aside umbrellas and axe-handles to clear the way. Finding a nearby jar, he unscrewed the lid, which he placed on the windowsill, and then carefully set the lens into the ring with his fingertips. “Now,” he said, “crouch here, look through…”

Jeremy crouched by the window, and gazed through the lens. After some squinting and head tilting, Jeremy was amazed by what he saw. He looked back at the shopkeeper, shocked.

“Yes! YES! You see, don’t you. You see. Galaxies, rainbows Godlike, the most ancient stars, themselves, yes?!”

“How much do you want for this. I have little.”

“For you, sir, it is free. I have no use for it, haven’t sold it in years, and you said it’s a gift, yes?”

“For my wife.”

“She’ll be thrilled. Please, take it.”

Jeremy rummaged around in his pockets and shoved all the money he had into the shopkeepers’ hands, “Please, it’s only fair.”

The shopkeeper nodded graciously.

Jeremy wrapped the lens again, and picked up the jar lid, “May I?”

“Of course.”

Jeremy left the shop, and he ran. His heart raced, and he felt as if the elixir of excitement bleed from his pores. Cora will love this, so, so much.

Cora sat outside, in front of their small home, on a gray chair made from sapling logs lashed together. Her legs and her shoulders and elbows fit into the darkly polished spots that had developed over the years of sitting in the same position and sipping warm water from a mug. She watched as Jeremy approached.

“Cora!” he panted, “Cora! I found something wonderful!”

“That’s nice, dear,” she sipped.

“Wonderful! It’s wonderful, and I think you’ll think so too, once you see.”

“It sounds lovely.”

Jeremy rushed inside, leaving the door open. Cora could see him fidgeting around the window getting it open, and setting up the ring on the windowsill, “Come inside, Cora, so you can see!”

“Mercy me,” she said, lifting herself from the chair and walking in. She shut the door behind her, and put her mug gently into the sink.

“Over here, over here,” he made flapping beckonings with his hands.

“What is it, Jeremy, are you feeling ill? This isn’t like you.”

“Just look, look. Crouch down, and look through this…” he motioned at the nanogin lens, sitting in the jar lid on the windowsill.

“Oh I’ll try, but I’m getting too old for crawling around on the floor,” she bent down and peered through the lens.

Jeremy held his breath, waiting for the sudden wash of excitement to flood over her, waiting for her to look up at him wide-eyed in wonderment, so he could yell to her, “Happy Birthday, love!”

Cora smiled, straightened herself again, with her hand on her hip as she stood, “Really quite lovely, dear, thank you.”

Jeremy exhaled. “Did you see it? The galaxies? The light of the stars?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes, quite interesting how the light bends through the glass. Very pretty.”

“I don’t think you saw what I saw. What I saw was amazing; galaxies, novas, fingerprints of the gods!”

“I don’t think I saw any of those things. But it’s lovely, thank you for my gift, Jeremy,” Cora walked back over to the sink to retrieve her mug, refilled it with water, and sat again at the table.

Jeremy drifted over to the empty chair, and also sat.

They sipped water during the afternoon, and eventually, Cora carried her mug to the sink where she emptied it, rinsed it with fresh water, dried it with a towel, and placed back it in the cupboard.

“Thank you for the wonderful and thoughtful birthday, Jeremy. I’m off to bed.”

He followed her, and they slept.

“JEREMY. JEREMY!”

He woke suddenly, confused, fell out of bed, and ran into the front room, where there was dim light and Cora, screaming for him.

“Wha… what is it…”

“Jeremy! Look!” She was awake, and had been for some time, it seems, curled up by the front windowsill, with the window slid fully open. On the windowsill sat Cora’s empty mug, holding the nanogin lens steady, perched on top.

“Yes? The lens?”

“It’s… AMAZING…” she whispered, as if fearful to nudge it improperly.

“Yes, it is!”

“Look, look, look. Look inside, just here.”

He stooped and peered in, at the angle she indicated. Inside, he focused in and saw the image of a candle on a small table. “The candle there?”

“Yes! The candle! That’s in Merryth’s father’s workshop, Jeremy!”

“Quite amazing.”

“More than amazing! It’s miles and miles away, Jeremy! It’s a full afternoon’s walk to that part of the island, and I can see it!”

“Yes, I know; Have you tried the night sky? The stars?”

“No, but just think… I can see entirely into Merryth’s father’s workshop!”

Jeremy smiled. She did love the gift, after all. “Happy Birthday, Cora.”

She hugged him tightly, fully enthusiastically.

A tear fell from his cheek, but she didn’t notice; she was curled up again by the window, like a small child, waiting for the first snowflakes of the year, “So, amazing…” she whispered.

Jeremy went back to bed.

Dawn came as boldly as ever on the island; mostly in the form of bright glow behind a wet fog. Jeremy woke, and was alone. He dressed and went into the front room.

Cora was still there. She had dragged the sapling chair in from the yard, and was lying awkwardly in it, so that her vision was aligned with the lens just so.

“I’ve been looking at this in different ways, in all kinds of directions,” she whispered, excitedly, “and I think I really have this thing figured out!”

The lens itself was no longer in her mug. On the floor were bits of rusty clipped wires and wood shavings, and a handful of discarded tools. Around the lens, Cora had fashioned a two-part cage, of sorts; a lattice of small straight lengths of branches bound together with twists of rusty wire. Underneath this, she had gouged tiny marks into the windowsill, surrounding the lens cage by a notched circle. With one hand, she was rotating the upper portion of the cage, letting it click from notch to notch, while she looked through the lens.

“I’d say you did, at that. What’s all this?”

“Every notch,” she said quietly, “is someone’s home,” she clicked from one to another, “The Winmar’s,” click, “The Stroggdil’s,” click, “The village square, of course,” click, “I’ve got them all right there.” she smiled a deep and genuine smile.

Jeremy looked in the cupboard and removed both of their mugs. Filling them both, he brought hers to her and set it on the windowsill. He sat at the table and sipped.

“Thank you, Jeremy, for the gift,” she said, rotating the lens cage bit by bit, “I think I may have been a little under-enthusiastic when you brought it to me, and I’m sorry.”

“You’re welcome, Cora. I’m happy you’re happy.”

“This… is… amazing…” she whispered, adjusting the lens.

“The man at the shop says it’s not actually glas-”

Cora suddenly jumped up from her reclined nest, looking franticly into the lens.

“Whoah there…” he said.

“It’s outside the stables. There’s a fight.”

“Fight?”

“Looks like Mithron Jabes and another man, fighting over something. Shoving and punching. Oh, it’s Chriss, from the stables… he’s not faring well at all.”

“Cora, I…”

“Oh, there’s blood now.”

“Cora.”

“Ohhh, oh my. The fight’s over. Mithron put him down pretty hard. Swung a chair across his face.”

“Cora. I’m not so sure this is the best way…”

“I know, I know, none of our business; these things probably happen every day, all day long without us knowing.”

“Exactly.”

“Okay, so what’s the harm is seeing, then? It affects nothing. The outcome, either way, is set, since we’re not there, to influence any action in any direction.”

“Except that we do see, and we don’t act.”

“But we can’t act. So knowing doesn’t change what can be done. Besides, isn’t it amazing! Is it not …enthralling!” she hugged him again, then straightened the sapling chair and crawled back in. Click. Click. Click.

“Clearly,” he said, watching her.

“Hmm these people are sitting down to breakfast, but I don’t know them. They don’t look familiar. But, then, they wouldn’t, since they live in the far village. We haven’t been there in ages, no family there, or reason to go.”

“Certainly.”

And so, the days went on. Cora, quite excited with her new gift, and Jeremy, observant.

“JEREMY!”

Once again, he was stirred from his sleep in the early hours. Cora had been awake late again, possibly, or up early, although he did not recall her retiring the previous evening. He stumbled into the front room, still in a sleepy haze, to respond to the summons. “Yes, Cora, what is it?”

Cora was wide-eyed and enthralled, pointing at the lens. “You didn’t tell me!”

“Tell you what?”

“That I could see so far!”

He was glad to see her finally excited about things, awake to the world. “Well, yes, that’s what made me want to get it for you at the shop. I could see the colorful swirls in the stars, the shapes of galaxies…”

“No, no no, Jeremy. I mean, here. I can see, across the black seas.”

“Oh, yes, I’m quite sure you can.”

“Jeremy. We’re not alone in the world. There are people, across the seas, other land, populated!”

He deflated a bit. “Yes, well, I’ve always felt as much, but. You know.”

“How can you, Jeremy. How can you just… not care?”

“Cora. Love, we can do, nothing. The sea…”

“So that’s just it? No use in even trying?”

“Men, died, Cora, only stepping into the powder to the ankle. Dozens of them over the years. Good men, and women, and little ones; all adventurous and all wanting more than what we have, right here, right now.”

“Men that wanted off the island just to get off the island. Men not knowing what was beyond; men guessing. No one has ever known, truly known, that there was, in actual fact, somewhere to go, something to reach for. Look, Jeremy, look. We’re not alone, we have real hope now.”

“I’m not sure certain death is worth the hope.”

Cora shook her head, “Jeremy, knowing what we know, now, how can you be so… complacent?”

His heart sank as he looked over at the lens; a glass ball on a windowsill, in a shabby gray house, in the middle of the night. There used to be crickets, years ago, that kept the nights from aching so empty.

He placed his hand on her shoulder, “Cora, come on, get some sleep.”

She went with him to their bedroom where they lay, and covered themselves. She folded her hands across her stomach in the dark, and was soon deeply asleep. He lay on his side, listened to her breathe, and imagined it was the rolling sound the black powder waves, if the sea ever churned, which it did not.

Jeremy eased the blanket aside, and he quietly left the bedroom.

In the outer room, he cleaned and tidied, swept up the bits of wood shavings and rusty wire clippings with his hands, and took the mess outside, dusting his hands together. He replaced the sapling chair back into the yard. Inside, he removed the nanogin lens from its contraption, and re-wrapped it with its leather swatch. He peeked into the bedroom, listened for Cora’s breathing, which seemed steady and unchanged, and he quietly left the house.

He carried the lens down into the village, moving slowly in the darkness. The moon was partially illuminated, but the fog cover dampened the brightness.

Eventually, he made it to the shop, and he knocked loudly, to wake the proprietor.

After a few rounds of pounding on the door, a lamplight stirred within, and approached the door, which opened.

“Sir, I’ve come to return this.”

The lamp lifted, revealing a woman’s face, sleepy and squinting, “What’s that, who’s there?”

“Ah, miss, forgive me. I’m here to see the proprietor and to return this which I purchased from him.”

“It’s not a shop. There’s no shop here.”

Jeremy took a step back, surveyed the front of the building again, now in the orange cast of the lamp she held.

“I live here, there’s no shop.”

“Where’s he gone?”

“How should I know. Just moved in. If there’s nothing else?”

“He was like this, and silver hair…” Jeremy indicated with his hand an approximate height of the man.

“Meh! I live here.” she shuffled back inside, and the lamplight bobbed around shadows until it vanished again within the building.

Jeremy felt the weight of the lens in his hand, the coarseness of the leather wrap around it, and wondered what to do. He fully meant to rid himself of it, and, in the process, hopefully the problems he’d created with Cora. Returning it was no longer an option. Hiding it didn’t seem like a solution, with no secret places suitable for tucking things completely away from others. He walked and thought through the foggy darkness, and he hoped.

He soon found himself standing at the edge of the black powder sea. The bedrock shore that remained after the stuff had eaten or dissolved everything else away held the stuff there, silently, and the black powder sea stared, unmoving.

Jeremy kicked a stone out into the stuff; farther than he could see in the darkness. A roaring splintering sound rushed around in front of him, like a thousand icicle needles piercing steel balloons, then it skittered again into silence around where the stone would have landed.

“This should do the trick.”

He flipped the corners of the leather around and caught them between the fingers of his right hand, just so, all but the fourth, which he held between thumb and forefinger. The nanogin lens fell heavy into the pocket, and he swung it back and fourth, getting the feel for the weight, and readied himself to slingshot the thing out of range of his frustrations.

He rocked it in an arc until it had enough swing to it, and then arced back, in rhythm, into a full throw. Midway through, one of the leather corners slipped from its place, and the throw lost most of its heave.

The lens didn’t fly far, but far enough, beyond reach.

The leather he dropped into the stuff at his feet. The black powder folded over itself to get at the leather, churned and kneaded around it, and the leather dissolved into nothing. The powder there fell silent.

Further out, where the lens had landed, the stuff boiled around and churned violently. Some reaction of some greater design was taking place there, something more complex than what happened with the stone or the leather. Jeremy listened into the blackness.

The shard-storm noise fell into itself like musically tuned glass needles caressing each other, chorusing an otherworldly hum. Eventually, it settled back and went silent too.

Jeremy walked back home.

He quietly opened the door, and slipped off his shoes.

“What’d you do with it,” Cora was sitting there, in the dark, at the table.

Jeremy squinted to see her in the dark, “You’re awake.”

“What’d you do with it. The lens.”

“I got rid of it. It’s no good. Not good for you.”

“You give and then you take away. Do you hate me? Is the jealousy that strong? Can you not bear to see me happy, Jeremy, is that it? I find ONE thing that makes me happy, and you cannot allow that to be.”

“Cora, I found it because I wanted to make you happy, to make you awake, to make you do… something other that sit here and half smile at me while drinking hot water all day.”

“I don’t think that’s it. I think you want me where and how and when you want me. And I think we could have so much more than we do, but you won’t allow that either.”

“What are you saying, it’s my fault somehow we’re here?”

“Is it not, even if by inaction? You know there’s other places to be, you know there’s more than this, and yet you’re doing everything within your power to keep me from having that.”

“You know that’s not fair. The sea has us all trapped. It’s more powerful than anything we can do or make or be.”

“And so you give up, give up trying, give up hoping.”

“What I gave up is believing in anything that isn’t right here, right now. This,” he said, waving his hands in a circle in the empty blackness, “here, with you, is all that matters to me. But not you. Not only were you not hoping, you were not believing. You were just here. Breathing.”

Cora was silent there in the dark, suddenly aware of her own breathing.

“I had no way of knowing it would be like this. I only wanted to give you a gift, one with color, like you wanted,” his words flooded the darkness around them, color seemed to flow into the emptiness and fill it up like sap flowing into young spring leaves, “I can’t remember the last time you simply wanted something.”

He stood there as the sound of his voice drained out of the air. Little wisps of cold air circled him.

Cora stood, walked over to Jeremy, and wrapped her arms around him warmly.

Morning found them both standing on the bedrock shore of the black powder sea, where Jeremy had flung the lens.

As the foggy glow dawned, they could see out across the surface of the thick black powder, as smooth as if someone had raked it carefully down, except for where the lens had been flung.

Some distance out was an odd formation, like the sculpture of a splashed wave, frozen in its moment in time. It was silvery clear, like the lens itself, and seemed to resist any damaging effects of the black powder it was surrounded with. In the center of that sculpture hovered the nanogin lens.

All along the edge of the splash sculpture, the black stuff sparkled and burned in a frenzy of activity, reacting to the nanogin shell, as the shell overtook the black powder, little by little, forming itself from the powder, becoming this new material.

Jeremy and Cora watched as the black powder fizzed and formed around the splash made by the lens, watched it being shaped and created for the first time. Until then, they had only ever seen the black powder dissolve, destroy.

They watched it as the day emerged. The edge of the sculpture in contact with the powder crackled and sparked, little spikes erupted and froze, fossilized, formed into the new edge, growing outward from the sculpture, the splash-shaped shell that surrounded the nanogin lens.

Gradually, a shelf of clear glass-like appendage expanded from the center of the sculpture, extending ever closer toward the shore where Jeremy and Cora watched.

“It’s going to come the whole way over,” she said.

“I think you’re right…”

“I hope it… …stops.”

“I think it will.”

The frozen area slowly expanded, and did, eventually, reach the edge, where it stopped.

Jeremy crouched, reached out to touch the edge of it.

“Don’t…” she said, pulling at his arm gently.

He touched it. Nothing happened. He leaned on it with his palm. It didn’t budge. He looked up at her, stood, and stepped out onto the glass shelf of the sculpture.

Cora cupped her hands around her mouth.

Jeremy walked out to the center, plucked the nanogin lens from where it was suspended, and walked back to Cora.

That same sound that Jeremy heard earlier began again behind him. The sound of thousands of ice needles singing, piercing steel balloons erupted from the center of the sculpture. From the safety of shore, he turned to look.

He and Cora watched the sculpture dissolve from the center outward, until the entire structure had erased itself, and the surface of the black powder sea settled back into a smooth unbrokenness.

She hugged him again, and he smiled.

They walked back into the village square where people stood quietly, appearing as if they were waiting.

Jeremy began dragging in cut sapling tree trunks in the square. No one asked what he was doing, although one little boy watched with critical interest, followed their every move. It’s just not done, such is never seen.

Periodically, Jeremy would stop and confer with Cora. She would point, he would look. She would angle her hands and bend her elbows, he would study the angles, the directions. They talked quietly and she cut lengths of rusty wire, stacking neatly. The boy craned his neck, trying to hear.

By the end of the day, they had gathered materials and constructed a larger version of the lens cradle that Cora had built on the windowsill.

Cora gouged out notches in the dirt encircling the structure, and they were done.

“You there,” she motioned to the boy, “Don’t be shy; come and see.”

One Comment

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  1. Ann Ritter / May 22 2012 6:50 pm

    Very interesting.

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