Sunday Short: Close Enough, Part VI

If my life were a story, like the ones I used to sneak from Mother’s personal library and read when everyone else was snoring in bed, everything would have changed after Vinia’s visit. Sami would have become the model apprentice, quick to mend her ways, eager to learn everything she could, and a pleasure to have in one’s company. Alas, my life was not a story any more than Silas was a reliable companion.

The week after Vinia’s visit, Sami was better than she had been, but that was not saying much. A flock of pigeons would have been a better apprentice than she was through sheer chance. After a week, the threat of a teacher who wanted her to leave and the fear that I had hoped would make her wise had faded like water from the storm.

Her belligerence I could deal with, I held court with a talking cat so stubbornness did not trouble me as much as her lack of fear. That would get her killed.

I finished scouring the kitchen as Sami had left the counters still speckled with signs of cooking and the floors with tracks of now damp dust. At least she had the decency to be in a hurry to get to her lessons in the greenhouse. Perhaps today she would finally learn lesson three.

It was a beautiful day for working with living things. Plants always felt fresh in the morning, like people. Perhaps it would be a good day for talking, for listening, for learning.

I walked into the greenhouse and yelled before I was half-conscious of why I was yelling. Everything froze in place, even Sami. Blood rushed to my cheeks and through my ears, a roar like the ocean, and I smelled some acrid and rotting sweet. A breath of it, enough to panic.

But I would not let him win so easily.

I grabbed the candle, its flame unmoving yet burning, from Sami’s grasp. Her confusion behind her eyes did not match her languid motions, like a person in a dream. I paid her no more mind as I licked my fingers and snuffed out the flame. I pried the knife from her left hand and threw it so it stuck deep into the wooden beam by the door. Then I swept my arm across the bench and the drawings in chalk with their manic curling lines blurred like sand on the tideline.

I looked around my greenhouse for signs of taint, but saw none and whispered the words that let everything move and breathe again. The plants sighed and Sami fell forward at the bench, gulping for air.

If I were Mother, I could be gentle in my wrath and find the lesson in every moment. I am not Mother.

I swung around and grabbed Sami’s chin with one hand. “You have no idea what you have done!”

She slapped my hand away and pushed herself back from me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know.” I looked away towards the north and saw a dark line forming on the horizon. “And for that you may well die.”

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part V

“You want to get rid of me?” Sami slammed the hallway door shaking its frame.

“I see you’ve been listening.” I began wiping down the counter of useless, wetted flour and moved to the much smaller space by the stove to resume kneading the dough.

“What? I….”

The silence would not last. But it was nice for the moment as Sami puzzled her way through which subject was of most importance to her. I knew what would win, in the end, but focused on kneading until she did, too.

Down and back, pushing and pulling the lump of dough as the surface tightened and began to hold, pulling away from the counter to cling to itself. It never failed to amaze me how simple flour and water could turn into something so much more than the sum of its parts.

“That’s not important!”

Ah, the silence was over. And no sign of Silas. Sometimes, not infrequently, I envied that cat.

“And what is? Clearly not your studies.” I placed the ball of dough in the bowl and covered it with a towel before I turned to Sami who had an expression on her face I did not expect.

“You want to get rid of me?” she repeated in a hush.

“You have made it clear you are not interested in what I have to teach you. You chafe against everything I have you do. Would you not be happier with another mentor?”

“I….” she trailed off as the first tears began rolling down her cheeks.

Tears, like rain, too often came without warning. Perhaps I was a fool.

“Sit down.” I motioned to seat that Vinia had vacated in a huff. Sami collapsed in it and stared at her hands. I poured her a fresh mug of tea and one for myself as I sat down beside her, already wishing it were time for bed.

“I don’t want to go. Please don’t make me.” She hadn’t touched her tea. She sniffled and wiped her face against her sleeve. I gave her my handkerchief, which she knotted in her hand.

“It appears you are stuck with me and I with you.”

“Really?”

“So declares the Sisterhood.” I sipped my tea and felt the burn against the roof of my mouth. “But tell me, why would you want to stay?”

“I have nowhere else to go. And…” She looked away, out the window at the rainclouds roiling by.

“And?”

“And I’m afraid.”

“Ah. At last, we have something in common.”

And we finished our tea in silence as we waited for the sun.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part IV

Some people like surprises. They like the unexpected. They revel in the entropy of life.

I am not one of those people.

I went to the sink to wash the rest of the flour off of my hands and the dough that was sticking to the underside of my nails. There was nothing to be done in the time it would take a rider to reach my front door about flour in my hair or apron.

Silas had made himself scarce as had Sami. The one time the girl did not want to be first to the door. A peal of thunder shook the sky. I took a deep breath that turned into a sigh.

The rider pulled the reigns of her horse sharply and the horse skittered to a stop. Mud sprayed and caught the hem of the rider’s traveling cloak. Somehow, that was going to be my fault. Everything with Vinia was always my fault and had been since we were both apprentices.

She daintily hopped between the puddles forming on the path to the front door. Sami had complained it was not stone or brick, but merely packed dirt. It seemed, in this instance, she had a point. Another part of me hoped Vinia would fall and cover her enter backside with mud. That was a part of me that I did not voice.

I opened the door before she could knock. She almost rapped my nose instead and cut me off before I could speak.

“I suppose this is your doing.”

“You know as well as I that no one controls the weather.”

She huffed. “Are you going to make me catch cold on your doorstep as well?”

I gestured for her to come in and she flounced by me, not bothering to remove her shoes. I ground my teeth and held back a curse while lightening crashed over my neighbor’s field.

She had seated herself without asking, folding her hands carefully on the table. Her riding gloves in a pile, pooling water on the flour making it useless. Great Mother, why did you always send me such trials?

I pulled the kettle from the stove and poured to mugs of tea, waiting for her to start talking. Vinia hated being rushed and would only be longer if I showed any signs of impatience. So I waited, feeling Sami’s eyes on my back, as she thought I did not know about the knothole in the door to the back hallway.

”I had to come all this way, through this horrible storm, because you were complaining about your apprentice…again.” She tried to fluff her hem. “Why do you keep causing problems for me?”

I blew on my tea. “I simply believe she would be better served with a more compatible mentor. Do not we all want what is best for the Sisterhood?”

“Of course, but do you dare to think you know what’s best?”

“Only when it comes to mentoring apprentices.”

Her face clouded at my words. Of course she would find slight where none was meant.

“You will do what the Sisterhood asks of you and you will ensure your apprentice is ready by the next cycle of testing.” She stood up and grabbed her gloves, spraying droplets across the table and into my tea. “Do not bother Mother with your complaints again.”

In my younger years, I would have had a retort. Now, I was glad she would be going so soon.

Vinia stomped to the door and yanked it open. She turned and hissed at me, “Don’t think about trying to go around me. Focus on getting that apprentice ready or…”

“Or what?” I leaned closer. “What more could you possibly do or want from me?”

She glared and turned away without answering.

When she had mounted her horse, I called. “Vinia, what is my apprentice’s name?”

She opened her mouth, but if she spoke, it was lost to the wind and rain as she kicked her horse into a trot.

I smiled and when I closed the door, it stopped raining.

Close Enough: Part III

If Sami’s mood could have influenced the weather, there would have been a hurricane, tsunami, and an earthquake the next morning. But only a Sister could do that. Thankfully. And I was not in the mood to converse with the weather gods. Sunshine was fine with me. Sami’s sulking, however, was not. A bird had brought word this morning that the weather around the Sisterhood’s compound was not nearly so balmy and that one was riding out towards my homestead this morning.

Thankfully the bird had only seen the colors of the forest trees and stream on the bridle of the horse and coat of the rider.

Mother was not coming, not yet.

Even still a visit, an unplanned visit, usually did not go in my favor. But I would not let Sami see that as she stabbed her broom at the dust rather than sweeping and continued to mutter under her breath.

“You will have to do much better in your studies than that to curse me,” I said without looking up from kneading the dough on the counter.

She started. It was unmistakable even in peripheral vision. She, like others, assumed failing hearing was simply an inevitability with age.

“The dust has had enough. Move on to your lessons.”

“But I haven’t even had breakfast!”

“And whose fault is that?” I stopped kneading to look at her. I wished my face would stay impassive, but I knew it didn’t by Sami’s deepening scowl.

“Yours! You locked me out. I couldn’t get in all night. I still have grass in my hair!”

“And what in the name of the Sisterhood does that have to do with not eating breakfast?”

“I…assumed that would be part of my…punishment?”

I took a deep breath before replying. Dear Sisters, give me strength. “You assumed. Do not assume. It could get you killed or, in this case, almost miss breakfast. There is still some on the stove.”

Sami dropped the broom at once and practically dove for the pot still simmering on the stovetop. I resisted both the urge to scold her and to grab the broom with my flour-drenched hands. She was quiet and I could focus on finishing the bread in peace. The morning was looking up, then Silas jumped up into the open kitchen window.

“Are you expecting visitors today?” he asked as he smoothed a patch of fur on his head.

“No.”

“Then perhaps you should. There’s a rider coming up the lane. She looks like she’s eaten a chokeberry.”

And, of course, it began to rain.

Saturday Short: Close Enough, Part II

I did not see Sami for the rest of the day. Her chores were left unfinished and I found the rosebush laying in a pile of dirt on the floor of the greenhouse. Its pot shattered around it and its petals scattered like forgotten confetti. I repotted it with deliberate care as I considered and rejected various forms of torture as punishment for such ignoble behavior.

The Sisterhood was fortunate I was so loyal as to not throw Sami out without another word.

Sami was fortunate I had renounced physical violence after the last war. Other forms of violence had always been off-limits, not for my lack of skill but because my stomach could not handle the devastation my words and magic could rain down like a well-honed scythe.

Instead, I wrote a note to the current Mother of the Sisterhood and sent it by way of fox. Again, I reiterated my case on why Sami should be expelled as an apprentice and my concern over the lax standards of recruitment. It read like a letter from an old woman and I had to consider the possibility that I was one.

It did not bother me.

The rest of my time was spent preparing for the coming winter with jars filled and boiled with the harvest of the day. It was hot, delicate work and it was perfect for ignoring my problems.

“It’s a shame there is no fish for canning,” Silas said as he pushed the screened door open on his way into the kitchen.

“Fish does not agree with your stomach,” I replied without taking my eyes off the strawberry jam about to burst into a boil.

He huffed and coiled himself back to jump.

“Stay off the counter and I will get you cream.”

“Fine.” He then ignored me and began cleaning himself, which was fine with me.

He had his cream and I had my jam cooling on the counter before the sun lowered itself enough to begin calling the time evening.

There was still no sign of Sami when Silas stretched and left the kitchen to begin whatever rounds he made at night. I never asked. It would have been impolite.

I washed up and retired to my room after securing the house. I no longer trusted my memory nor the house, if I were honest, to make sure it was locked tight when the sun went down. There were portents that only the oblivious would not see. I had been called many things over the years, but that was not one of them.

I dosed my light and fell asleep to the sounds of the breeze across the meadows. I did not dream.

I awoke with a start, my hear racing as the house shuddered. Someone was trying to break in. I grabbed the crowbar I kept under my bed and was about to race downstairs when I heard the person swear.

I placed the crowbar back under my bed and climbed back under the covers. The banging and swearing continued, though the house shook it off as it came to the same realization I had. It would do Sami some good to sleep outside tonight. After all, fresh air was healthy and it would not hurt her though she might be sore in the morning from bedding down in the barn. But that was not my concern. I smiled as I closed my eyes and returned to sleep.

Saturday Short: Close Enough

“It’s close enough,” Sami said. She crossed her arms in the all-too-familiar way, daring me to challenge her.

It wasn’t much of a dare.

“No, it is not.” I fought back the urge to sigh.

Why the Sisterhood had gifted me with such a stubborn apprentice, I would never understand. Was I not faithful? Had I not already taught over a dozen new Sisters? Had I not suffered enough?

Such questions were not mine to answer, even if they were mine to ask.

Sami huffed. It sounded like the tomcat who sulked around the back porch when he didn’t like the scraps I left outside before going to bed. I imagined her with whiskers and a tail, meowing instead of whining.

“What? Why are you smiling?”

“No reason.” I schooled my face again. “But it is not close enough. There is right and there is wrong. There is no grey area.”

“Yes, it is.”

I pointed at the rosebush in front of Sami. “Then make it grow.”

“Rosa woodea crecea brilla.” Her face turned as red as the rose’s petals, but nothing happened with the rose. She glared at it, as if that would make a difference.

“The rose is obviously defective.” She pushed herself back from the table.

“A rose cannot be defective. It is what it is. Your pronunciation is wrong. If it cannot hear its name, it will not follow your instructions.”

Another huff and glaring out the window.

“Rosa woodii crecia briya.” I enunciated each word more slowly and deliberately than was necessary, for her benefit. The rosebush could hear just fine.

The rosebuds opened into full bloom and new shoots appeared on the main stems. More buds appeared and opened, like all of summer season happening in an afternoon.

“Paren rosa.”

It shook once as if there was a strong gust of wind then was quiet. A quiet rosebush again.

I walked over the greenhouse door and turned back to Sami. “There is no close enough. There is only right or there is wrong.”

She glared at me again. “Fine.” The word was spat like a bitter seed to the ground.

“You need to attend to what I tell you. There are more serious matters than roses in your future.”

I shut the door before she could reply. There was only so much one could take in a day and Sami was walking closer to the edge of my temper than she knew. Close enough could get her killed.

Saturday Short: Life Starts Now

banner that says Saturday Short: Life Starts Now

There must be more to life than this.

How many times, by how many people, in how many languages and places had said this?

Too many too count…

How many had thought it during another unending discussion in a windowless conference room about a policy that no one cared about and no one would remember three months from now?

Too many for a focus group…

How many had screamed it into the silence of their darkened apartments after a dozen hours of thankless work for faceless entities that couldn’t even be bothered to learn their names?

Too many to ignore…

How many had whispered it before a smile crept over their faces and they walked away from everything they thought they were told they needed, wanted, had to have?

Too few…

…but one fewer, Maggie thought to herself as she raised a hand to her mouth to cover her grin. No one grinned at the droning tone which her manager reported the quarter budget numbers. She circled tomorrow’s date in her planner. One more day. A lifetime, a blink, a promise, a goal that had nothing to do with reallocating budget lines and increasing the ROI for the SEO of yet another product that no one needed.

There must be more to life than this…

…and a feeling, tingling, different from the low-grade dread and anxiety that sat like sludge in her belly each day appeared. At first, she was worried, but then Maggie had to cough to cover the laugh that threatened to interrupt the meeting.

There must be more to life than this…

yes, there is, she yelled triumphant in her head.

And her soul whispered back…

Life starts now.    

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part X

“Move!” the assassin brushed passed the tea mistress who was wailing and shoved the knife back into its hiding place.

The boy lay unmoving in front of them, his face dusky pale. He didn’t respond when the assassin shook him. She felt for his pulse it was weak and there was no breath. The Path around him was fraying. There was no time.

“His hands are sticky,” the assassin said as the tea mistress looked at her with inconsolable sorrow and incomprehension.

The assassin picked him up as if he were a sack of rice and thrust her fist into his stomach as she held him.

Once, again. Nothing happened.

The tea mistress stood up and began slapping the assassin. Yelling at her to stop desecrating his body.

The assassin ignored her as she thrust her fist into the boy’s stomach again. And with this came a soft plop and a mochi ball sailed out of his mouth onto the floor.

He gasped and his mother froze, hand halfway back to strike the assassin. And into the silence she cried again. This time in joy.

The assassin lowered the boy gently so he could sit. The color returned to his cheeks, like the spring cherry blossoms, and his breathing became regular. The Path around him stitched itself back together, although only the assassin noticed. Neither the tea mistress nor her son noticed the soft glow that radiated from under the assassin’s hand as she steadied the boy until his breathing returned to normal. It was probably a trick of the light.

The tea mistress flung her arms around her son. She sobbed and the assassin left them alone. She watched the sun begin to lighten the horizon as she finished the last of her tea. Then she hoisted her pack and slipped out of the tea room. She scuffed the symbols she’d carved in the ground with the sole of her boot. They were no longer needed as she resumed walking down the road.

She had not yet gone passed the crossroad signpost when she heard the tea mistress running towards her and yelling, “Wait!”

So she did.

“What is your name?” the tea mistress asked.

“Assassins have no names.”

The tea mistress shook her head. “Everyone has a name. Mine is Asako.”

The assassin bowed. It was an honor to be told a person’s name, even more rare to be accorded the honor of hearing a person’s familiar name apart from one’s clan. But even then, the assassin only replied, “Then call me what you will.”

The tea mistress nodded, unsurprised. “Then I will remember you as the North Wind, assassin, for you blew three troubles away me and mine.”

The assassin may have inclined her head. Then, again, it may have been a trick of the wind. “Peace be on your Path.”

“And ten-fold on yours.” The tea mistress bowed deeply and lowered her eyes to the ground. When she looked up, the assassin was gone. The moon smiled down as the clouds passed from its face. It would disappear soon as the sun claimed its place in the sky and the wind brought with it the smell of the sea. The tea mistress shook her head and laughed, and perhaps the assassin heard it and smiled. Perhaps.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part IX

In the darkest stretch of night, when even the earth forgot that there was ever anything but the reign of the moon in the sky, there were only three souls left in the tea house at the crossroads. The man who warned of the yokai and their fire had left after the assassin determined he would travel in the opposite direction of the thieves. Innocent blood spilled was not a wish of any true assassin. This left the assassin, the tea mistress, and the boy.

The boy had been hovering on the edge of sleep for the last several hours. He startled awake every time his chin touched his chest and looked over to see if the assassin noticed. She pretended that she didn’t, that she too was half-asleep. Now and then, he’d sneak a ball of mochi when he thought his mother was not looking. He’d toss it in the air and catch it in his mouth, then savor the chewiness and the belief that the sweetness would help him stay alert.

The assassin watched with what was perhaps a shadow of a smile as she tried not to consider the blessing that would be if the third trouble passed them by. Such good fortune happened to those born under a lucky star.

The stars did not shine the night the assassin was born.

The tea mistress came and sat across from the assassin. A lock of her hair had come loose and she hadn’t bothered to tie it back up, as was proper. But there was only the assassin and her son and neither cared.

“It will be dawn soon,” the tea mistress said.

The assassin nodded.

“Why does trouble come in threes?”

“It simply does,” the assassin replied.

“But why?”

The assassin shrugged. “That is a question for the kami, not for me.”

The tea mistress opened her mouth with another question, but was stopped by the sudden change in the assassin’s attention. She moved like a cat the moment that it spotted prey, going from languid disinterest to singular focus in an instant.

“Where is your son?”

The tea mistress swiveled around to point where he was dozing, but her son was not there. She stood, knees knocking against the table leg, and ran over to where he had been sitting.

The assassin followed the tea mistress, a knife already in her hand. There had been no wind, the symbols in the dirt should have held. The tengu should not have been able to enter. Tracking the boy would be difficult where they tread.

The tea mistress screamed as she fell to her knees.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part VIII

The yokai at the front of the pack appeared to hit an invisible wall before they reached the tea house porch. They were flung backwards, toppling those behind them. The howls morphed into cries and furious chattering. The tengu tried to fly to the tea house, above the others, but they too slammed into a barrier, falling on the pile of bodies below. They turned as one back on the assassin, who looked on, impassive.

“A wall?!”

“That language is not yours to use!”

“How dare you?!”

“It is our due!”

“We hunger!”

“You will pay, human!”

The shouts of the yokai tripped over each other like a nightmare chorus as they came to circle around the assassin. The smell of bogs and soot, mountain breeze and dusty paper, burned wood and ice clashed in the air around her. Most would tremble, even the bravest of warriors who faced death and lived. Still, she was not moved.

“There are other, easier prey on the road tonight,” she said as if commenting on the weather.

The shouting stopped as swiftly as if a kami had taken their voices. What passed for smiles transformed their anger into glee.

“Easier prey, say you? Where?” the oni who was the current leader asked. “They must not be far or easy they are not.”

“Two, on a horse, down that way.” She pointed past the tea house, towards the sea. “Easy.”

“You have a quarrel with them.” It was not a question.

“The humans. Not the horse. Leave the horse unharmed.”

The oni narrowed its eyes at her. “You do not order us.”

“I do.” She leaned forward and smiled. It was not kind. The torchlight reflected off her teeth and the oni reared back as if struck.

“What do we want with a horse? Human prey is sweeter!”

A cheer went up from the gathered yokai and they did not notice the slight tremor in the oni’s voice. They moved off as one, silent now so as to not spook their prey.

The assassin watched until she could no longer see even an afterburn of a torch when she blinked her eyes. Then she returned to the tea house, knocked three times on the door without saying a word, and was let in. She sat down and waited. First for tea, which came quickly. Then for the third trouble, which would come when it did. There was no hurrying either time or trouble.