The Tree and the Butterfly

Once there was a tree who loved being a tree. She loved to curl her toes in the earth and feel the sun on her leaves. She loved making oxygen. She loved being a home for birds and animals and insects. She loved the tickle of squirrels’ feet along her branches, and the excitement every spring when the chicks began to fledge.

Then, one day, there came a man with a flint axe. Blow by blow, the axe cut into her, until her body broke in two, and she fell.

When a tree falls, there is always a sound that no human hears: the sound of voiceless crying. The tree cried as the man cut off her branches, and stripped her bark, and hollowed out her trunk. She cried as he dragged her to the river, and set her afloat, and climbed into the hollowed husk of her body. Hardest of all she cried when she saw her reflection in the water. She was no longer herself. An unrecognisable thing looked back at her. You could hardly tell that it had once been a tree.

A butterfly flew past, and settled on her as she floated down the river. He was so small that he could hear her silent crying. ‘Beautiful boat,’ he said, ‘why are you crying?’

‘What’s a boat?’ she sobbed. ‘I’m not a boat. I’m a tree. At least, I was a tree, but now I’m dead.’

‘It was like death for me, too,’ he said, ‘when I changed. I was a caterpillar once. Then one day I woke up in a body I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t me. I couldn’t wriggle any more. I had to learn to fly. I had to learn to drink nectar instead of eating leaves. I cried and cried. But after a while, I realised that flying is fun, and nectar tastes better than leaves, and -’

‘And you’re beautiful,’ she said.

He fluttered shyly. ‘Thank you. So are you. Look at the way you curve, like a willow-leaf in the water. Look at the way you glide, and how the river foams in your wake. Doesn’t it feel good to be able to float? The sun’s shining on the ripples, and the fish are dancing all around you. Isn’t it exciting to be a boat?’

‘Oh, butterfly,’ she said. ‘If only I could be as brave as you.’

‘Give it time,’ he said, and he flew away.

And so the boat gave it time. She learned to love the sun on the ripples, and the fish and birds and animals of the river. She learned to love the feeling of speed and the splash of water as she raced through the rapids. She learned to love the quiet hours when she floated at her moorings, feeling the river flowing by. She even learned to love the man who rowed her, the way the moving strength of his body and the still strength of hers worked together.

Then, one day, the boat struck a rock in the river. Her body splintered and broke apart. Cursing in the water, the man dragged the broken boat to the shore, and cut her up for firewood. The man’s whole family came and carried off what was left of her, piece by piece. In their cave, they piled up pieces of her body with tinder and dry grass, and struck a spark from flint, and set her alight. And in a whispering, crackling voice, the fire cried.

The butterfly fluttered in and settled on the cave wall. ‘Beautiful fire,’ he said, ‘why are you crying?’

‘What’s a fire?’ she wept. ‘I’m not a fire. I’m a boat. At least, I was a boat, but now I’m dead.’

‘You’re so warm,’ said the butterfly. ‘You’re so bright. Look at the golden light you cast around you. Look at how you make the shadows dance. Look at how the humans stretch out their hands to you, and how you make their eyes shine. Doesn’t it feel good to be so loved? Dusk is falling, and the stars are coming out, and the old men and women are gathering the children around you to tell them stories. Isn’t it exciting to be a fire?’

‘Oh, butterfly,’ she said. ‘If only I could be as brave as you.’

‘Give it time,’ he said, and he flew away.

And so the fire gave it time. There was plenty of good wood to keep her alive for many nights. She learned to love dancing, and leaping, and scattering sparks. She learned to love the fierce heat that blazed up inside her, and the contentment of settling down in her soft ashes to sleep away the day. She learned to love cooking, and keeping people warm, and making pictures in her flames for the children. She learned to love the family, and the home whose heart she had become.

Then, one day, the last piece of wood burned down to its last ember, and the fire went out. The charred remains of her turned cold and black on the cave floor. A woman came and piled what was left of her into a clay dish, and mixed her with deer fat, and used her to paint the walls. Once a tree, once a boat, once a fire, now she was nothing but a smear of black dirt on stone. And she cried.

And for the third time, the butterfly heard her. His wings were tattered now, and he flew weakly, buffeted by the cold wind that whistled through the cave. ‘Beautiful painting,’ he said, ‘why are you crying?’

‘What’s a painting?’ she sniffed. ‘I’m not a painting. I’m a fire. At least, I was a fire, but now I’m dead.’

‘You’re a story,’ he said. ‘A story told in pictures. You’re figures of men with spears in their hands, and wolves running at their heels. You’re deer and bison galloping across the plains. You’re a wild chase, and a desperate throw. You’re meat for a hungry family. You’re hunters dancing in triumph. And you’re forever and ever. Long after the hunters are dead, they’ll be dancing here in you. Isn’t it exciting to be a painting?’

‘Oh, butterfly,’ she said. ‘I understand now. Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome,’ he said, and he fluttered to the floor.

‘Butterfly, what’s wrong with you?’

‘Nothing,’ he whispered, almost too quiet to hear. ‘Nothing is wrong. I’m just becoming something else. I wonder what I’m going to be next…’

‘I love you,’ said the painting to the butterfly; but the butterfly never spoke again.

The painting is still telling her story today; you can go to the cave, and she’ll tell it to you. She loves being a painting. But as for what the butterfly became, well, you’ll just have to wonder…

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Imaginary Boyfriend

She still believes in me. I mean, she still knows I’m here. She just pretends she doesn’t.

Just once in a while, sitting in the armchair where our bodies used to curl together every evening, in front of the television, she’ll remember the feeling of me, holding her on my lap, or back-to-belly spooned against her. And in that moment, I’m there. I’m touching her. I can feel the warmth inside her chest as she lets herself melt again for just a moment. Then she’ll shift position, turn her head as if to toss me out of her mind, and it’s over.

It’s over for days or weeks or months. I don’t exist until she notices me again. When I say I’m nothing without her, when I say she’s my life, I don’t mean it the way humans mean it. I mean it literally.

But times come when she’s alone, and wishing someone understood, and I’m there. I always understand. I’ll stand behind her, wrap my arms around her, and she pretends she doesn’t notice; but for just a second, I feel her lean into me. ‘I love you,’ I whisper, close to her ear, and I know she hears me.

‘I’m not hearing anything,’ she’ll say, in the silence of her head, ‘and I’m certainly not talking to any imaginary people.’

But she is talking to me. I can hear the smile in her voice, her old smile for me.

‘And you love me. You don’t have to say anything. I know you do.’

And she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t deny it. Her silence is enough.

It’s enough. Really.

It’s enough.

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Under the Ground

Appia had her eyes squeezed shut, but was it enough? Could you see ghosts through your eyelids? She buried her face in her sister’s sleeve.

‘Stop pulling me,’ said Gaia.

Appia shivered. It was cold under the ground. She could smell wet stone, and dark water, and the smoke from her sister’s torch.

‘Can you see the dead yet?’ she said, and then, ‘Don’t tell me.’

Gaia was silent. Their footsteps echoed in the dripping tunnels. Did dead feet make a sound?

‘Okay, do tell me if you can’t see them, but don’t tell me if you can.’

‘I can’t. Are you sure you’re okay to come with me? Do you want me to take you back up?’

‘No! I’m coming. He’s my brother too.’ Appia felt for the charm around her neck, the bulla that had hung against Aulus’ heart since they were nine days old. She wrapped her fingers around it, twin instinct still clinging on.

Gaia screamed. Gaia the fearless screamed in the dark, and Appia screamed with her, clinging to her, hiding in her cloak. ‘What? What is it, tell me what it is!

‘A d-dog… a really big dog…’

Appia opened her eyes.

She saw a pale shape in the torchlight, bigger than a horse, bigger than a bull, lifting a wolflike head from its paws to gaze at her with bright intelligent eyes. And then a second head, a third! Was it three dogs or one? One bushy tail thumping softly on the stones. One broad neck collared with a heavy chain, clanking as it moved.

‘Dog!’ cried Appia, running forward.

‘Don’t, it’ll eat you! It’s Cerberus! Come back!’

‘Dog, dog!’ Appia held out her arms, and the great dog lumbered to its feet, filling the tunnel. Three heads bowed to sniff her. ‘I love you, I love you!’ said Appia, and a huge pink tongue slapped warmly against her cheek.

‘Living child,’ three voices rumbled, deep as the earth, ‘you are the first to say those words to me, and I am as old as death.’

‘You – you can talk,’ said Appia. Her voice sounded very small and quiet by comparison.

‘I am a god.’

‘But you’re in chains!’ She ran her hands through the dog’s thick fur, and tears came into her eyes. ‘You’re a god and they keep you in chains!’

The dog just looked at her with his old, old eyes, full of mysteries and sorrow.

‘Gaia, let’s help him!’

‘I’m scared,’ said Gaia, with her back against the tunnel wall.

‘It’s all right. Look, it’s just a big choke chain. Let’s both pull.’

The dog laughed softly, and shook his three heads; but he let them try.

Gaia propped the torch against the wall, where it threw ghostly shadows on their faces. There was nowhere near enough light, and the chain links buried in the dog’s warm fur were as thick and strong as serpents, and as cold. The smell of rusted iron got into their lungs and under their nails. Appia screwed up her face and groaned urrrrr to make herself pull harder.

And the chain fell, with a clang that struck sparks from the stones and sent both girls skittering out of the way. Cerberus lifted his three heads, noble and free. ‘My thanks,’ he said solemnly. And then he shook himself as joyfully as a puppy by the sea, and the flapflapflap of his six ears echoed in the tunnel. Appia grabbed her sister’s hands and jumped up and down.

‘Gaia,’ said Cerberus, startling them both, ‘you know my name, but do you know what I guard?’

‘The – the gate of the dead…’

‘Take up your torch, and follow me.’

Around the corner, the tunnel opened out into a cavern, tall as a temple, where a grey light shone behind a towering gate of black wood barred with iron.

‘Freedom for freedom,’ said Cerberus, ‘your brother’s for mine.’ He lay down before them. ‘Climb on my back.’

Appia scrambled on at once, wrapping her arms around the great dog’s neck, hugging him with all four limbs and burying her cheek in his fur. Gaia, nervous and hesitant, crept on behind her.

‘Hold tight.’ Appia felt the dog’s voice rumble against her chest. She felt his muscles coil to spring, and then the ground dropped away, and the bottom dropped out of her stomach. He was going to leap over the gate.

She almost fell off backwards, then she almost fell off forwards, and then the ground came thudding back, and the shock almost knocked her off straight upwards.

There was light overhead, like a shadowy sky, and it dawned on her where she was. The world of the dead. Fear squeezed her stomach and she covered her eyes again.

‘Gaia? Is it scary?’

‘It’s all right. Just people sleeping.’

Appia peeped between her fingers. It was a grey world, with grass the colour of ashes. All around them, pale people dressed in mist were stirring in their sleep. Some sat up and blinked at them, yawned and rubbed their eyes. There were millions of them, filling the landscape like white flowers in the grass, out to the stalagmite mountains that faded into clouds.

‘There’s too many,’ said Appia. ‘How do we find him?’

‘Have you anything that belonged to him?’ said Cerberus.

‘This.’ Appia lifted the bulla from around her neck. Even holding it out at arm’s length felt too far. One of the three heads twisted back to sniff it, then all three dropped their noses to the ground. She heard the swoosh of his tail behind her as he caught the scent and began to track. She leaned down over his neck, straining as far forward as she could, hoping to see her brother a second sooner.

Cerberus nudged the body of a sleeping child. ‘Not him,’ said Appia. This one was too small to be Aulus, and too pale.

‘Yes it is,’ said Gaia behind her. Appia felt suddenly freezing cold.

The great dog lay down carefully to let the girls dismount. Gaia was already tumbling into the grass and running to their brother, Appia trailing clumsily in her wake. Their feet sounded loud in the silent world. Aulus didn’t stir. He lay curled over on his side, one hand under his cheek, thumb in his mouth. His lips were white, like wax.

Gaia dropped to her knees beside him and caught him up in her arms. His head tipped back, lifeless as a doll’s, and she cradled it. Appia hung back, biting her knuckles; then she saw him move. ‘Mmm?’ he murmured, husky with sleep. His eyes fluttered open, blinked up at Gaia, trying to focus on her face. Then he gasped. He threw his arms around her neck and clung to her, starting to cry. Appia burst into tears too.

She flung herself at him, skinning her knees in the grass, and then the two of them were crying together in a tangle of limbs, a babble of twin-words even Gaia couldn’t understand, while their big sister held them both and rocked them. His skin felt like ice against hers.

‘You’re so cold,’ said Gaia, rubbing his arms.

‘Cold?’ he said blankly. Appia looked at him.

‘Aulus? You haven’t got any tears.’ She touched his cheek. ‘Your face isn’t wet.’

Gaia suddenly went very brisk. ‘Right, well, let’s not worry about that now. Let’s just get you home.’ She hustled him to his feet and wrapped her cloak around him. Then he caught sight of Cerberus.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Dog!’

As they helped him onto Cerberus’s back, they saw a flicker of light behind them. Appia, now riding at the back, twisted to look over her shoulder. Huge clouds were billowing up on the horizon, dark as a bruise. Thunder roared, and she saw two mouths opening in the clouds, two angry faces towering higher and higher. She screamed and clutched her brother.

‘The King and Queen are rising!’ Cerberus cried, and he began to run, to gallop. Rain came down like spears. He soared over the gate and landed running in the dark tunnel. The forgotten torch lay flickering by the wall.

‘The light!’ yelled Gaia.

‘I need no light,’ said Cerberus, and they tore into the dark. Behind, the thunder followed them, and flashes of lightning etched their shadows on the rocks.

Something was glowing green in the tunnel ahead of them. They were caught between it and the thunder. Appia shrank in fear as it loomed closer, brighter; and then it was almost on them, and she saw that it was daylight on green grass, the end of the tunnel, and they were through into a world so bright it hurt.

Cerberus flopped to the ground, panting. Appia could feel his sides heaving. ‘Safe,’ he gasped. ‘They will not follow.’ Under the rocks, the thunder raged.

As they climbed down, Appia looked at her brother. Out here in the light, he looked terrible. His face was ashen. She took his cold hand in hers, white against her pink skin. ‘We should be the same colour,’ she said.

Gaia held his wrist for a moment, looked scared, put her hand to the side of his throat. The colour drained from her own cheeks.

‘Gaia? Is my heart not beating?’

‘It’s going to be all right, baby,’ Gaia said. ‘We’ll g – we’ll get you to a doctor. He’ll know what to do. Just don’t panic. Just don’t -’

‘I forgot,’ said Appia. ‘You need this.’ She took off Aulus’ bulla and gently hung it back around his neck.

‘Ow!’ Aulus crumpled, holding on to Gaia.

‘What‘s wrong?’ Appia wrapped her arms around him, keeping him safe between herself and her sister. He was shivering violently and she could feel his heart pounding.

‘I’m cold,’ he moaned. ‘I’m really, really cold.’ He started to cry again, and his tears were wet. Cerberus licked them away with his warm tongue.

‘Welcome back to life, little one,’ he said. And Gaia the brave finally cried.

‘Thank you, Cerberus!’ Appia kissed the wolflike muzzle. ‘Thank you, thank you!’

‘The score is even between us. Your brother’s freedom for mine.’

‘Come home with us! Our parents will love you!’

The great dog chuckled. ‘Thank you, child. But I shall return to my dead.’

‘But – we set you free!’

‘I am the watchdog of the dead,’ he said. ‘I am the guardian of their sleep. I let no evil thing come near them, no mortal cares disturb them. Bond or free, I am still their dog.’ He bowed his three heads to the three children, and kissed each of them. ‘Goodbye. I shall remember you.’

‘Oh, dog,’ said Appia. ‘Will I ever see you again?’

Cerberus’ tail thumped softly in the grass. ‘Of course.’

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Apparently, when I have writer’s block, I need to do a comic.

I don’t know if it’s because a change is as good as a rest, or because I don’t expect to be any good at comics so I just chill out and have fun, but this is the second time this has worked for me.

Disclaimer: Luke belongs to Lucasfilm, Joker belongs to DC Comics, Mark Hamill belongs to Mark Hamill, Wikipedia belongs to Wikimedia (I think.)

Also! MANY thanks to Kit/Rathenar for the LARGE donation! This really cheered me up! 3% of the way there, folks…

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The Silver Dragon

They said that if you came down the mountain alive, you’d be a great warrior. 

I wondered how long I was supposed to stay up here. Was something supposed to happen? Would courage and skill just seep into me from the rocks and the turf and the closeness of the sky?

Something twisted in the air, something silver, like an eel. It flashed bright in the sun. Like a child, I jumped up to catch at it.

‘Catch me if you can,’ it said. It was a dragon. A dragon no longer than my arm, with blood-red eyes and claws of steel.

I ran after it as it ducked and wove through the air, doubling over, tying me in knots. My foot caught and I fell hard on my hands and knees on the jagged rocks. I swore in pain. The dragon laughed.

I wanted it so badly, I was up and running again without even looking to see how much I was bleeding. I ran till I tasted blood in my mouth. The dragon led me waist-deep into a freezing bog and jeered as it looped around me, ducking low to taunt me.

I made a frantic grab for it. The dragon breathed fire. I flinched back, feeling the scorched air frizzling my hair. 

‘Can’t stand the heat?’ sang the dragon. It swooped over my head, just out of reach, and opened its red mouth for another blast. 

I tried to run and fell face-down in the icy bog. The cold knocked the breath out of my body. I struggled up, streaming water and trailing sphagnum moss. The dragon crowed with laughter. ‘Look around you, warrior!’

I looked. I saw the black, twisted branches of dead trees in the mire, and then I realised. They were charred bones.

‘Say your prayers!’ The dragon dived on me for a third time. This time, I was desperate. Life or death. As it dived, as my body screamed at me to cringe away, I reached up and grabbed it by the throat. 

Half-choked, it coughed a sputter of flame that seared up to my shoulder and caught my cloak alight. I didn’t let go. I fell with the dragon into the icy water. I held on with both hands while it thrashed and clawed at me. And then, it went still.

Gasping in shock and pain, I stared at what I held in my hand. A dragon-hilted sword with ruby eyes. A blade that shone like silver in the sun.

‘Warrior,’ whispered the dragon’s voice in my mind. 

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In a World With One Difference

It was the screaming that wore you down. Some of us just lay quietly, but most of us screamed, every day, even when our voices were gone.

Row upon row of cages full of human beings cowering on concrete floors. Centuries of breeding had altered us until we no longer looked like one species. Some were musclebound giants, bred to work; some had faces and bodies distorted for amusement; some almost noseless, some squat, some grotesquely elongated, some whose skins were a patchwork of different colours. Some were as tiny as children. Some were children.

When the great wolves came padding softly between the cages, those of us who had been most abused would cower or shout obscenities; but the rest of us tried to make eye contact, to plead, to make ourselves lovable. Each of us hoped that one day it would be our turn.

The cage would open; a wolf, a kind wolf, would pick us up softly by the scruff of the neck and carry us out of this place; and we would at last no longer be strays, but pets.    

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Passing in the Night

They were perfect for each other, but they never met.

All through her childhood she gazed at the stars and dreamed of a boy like him, wondering if he was out there. He was, and he was thinking of her too.

All through her young womanhood she waited for him. He looked for her in faces in the crowd.

She gave up when she was thirty, and married the best man available. He never married.

In her fantasies, it was always him. In his, it was always her.

Her marriage failed, and late in life, she went travelling alone. He threw himself into his career. He worked for NASA, sending a probe into space with information about humans.

Light-years away among the stars, her spaceship picked it up before she died.

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The Boys and the Piano

(Warning: as slashy as it can get without any actual touching.)

I leaned on the music-room door, listening to Jim’s piano playing. The ripples of his music wrapped around me, and I closed my eyes.

When the song ended, I peeked round the door. Jim looked up, not startled or defensive the way I would have been, just easy and smiling. ‘Want to come for a stroll?’ I said.

‘Got to practice, sorry.’ My heart dropped. ‘Come and listen?’ And it rose again.

The only chair was broken. Did I dare to sit next to him on the piano stool? Not quite. I bounced up and sat on the grand piano.

‘God, you are such a non-musician,’ said Jim.

‘What? Do people not sit on pianos?’

‘Well, evidently you do. It’s all right. Stay there now.’ That easy smile again. Tall, sporty, musical, beautiful. Why did he even talk to me?

I watched his hands as he started to play again. His dexterity, his golden skin on the ivory keys. The flow of music through his body, down through his arms, his shoulders. The way his expressions changed with the music, frowning intensely, softening as the music softened, sensual expressions, pain and bliss. I pressed the palms of my hands to the piano, feeling the notes against my skin.

I couldn’t fathom what it must be like, to be able to create such beautiful sounds, to express so much. To take the tangle of emotions in my chest and spin it out in a golden thread of music instead of blubbing it out in the loos. I couldn’t fathom why someone like him would let someone like me hang around him, with my awkwardness and my puny body and my stupid hair and my ignorance of whether people sat on pianos.

As he played the last chord he looked up and caught my eyes. Flustered, I started clapping.

‘Needs a bit of polish, huh?’ he said.

‘No, it was good. Really good. Great.’

He chuckled. ‘Want to hear another? I always think of you when I play this piece.’ And his head was down and into the music before I had time to blush. He thought of me? He thought of me while he was making music?

I listened, trying to recognise myself in the sound. It was a fast piece, beginning playful and capricious then soaring off on wild flights of joy, twisting and turning, full of laughter. Me?

I hugged my legs with delight. I lay down on the grand piano, smelling dark wood and beeswax, my ear to the music, my chest to the music, feeling the strings of the great heart thrilling underneath me, echoing through my bones. I spread out my arms. It was me. I could hear myself how he heard me, mirrored in his music as I was mirrored in the polished wood. He was telling me in music things he could never have told me in words, things I would never have believed if I hadn’t felt them running through my whole body. Through our bodies, mine and his.

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