I’m back! I’ve decided, in the midst of holiday spirit and cheer, to grace my blog with a longer post. The following is one of my longer pieces, one which I am considering expanding into a novel, and as such is not finished (though, really, is any work ever really finished in an artist’s eyes?). I hope you enjoy it and any comments you have are welcome, and if you have any questions about the world I’ve created I would be happy to explain them. So, without further ado, I give you… After.
She scraped at the mud, her nails digging into the soft clay, ignoring the wet dirt that stained her arms and clothing. Her tears mixed with the rain in an endless deluge, running tracks through the mud that tarnished her face.
Raven strode down the road that led into the town of After, her long gait confident and strong, her back anchor-rod straight, and her hands idly tossing a stray rock back and forth as she stared into the middle distance. Her hair was pulled into a braid that reached the middle of her back and her clothing roughly made: a long sleeved shirt, a vest, and pants with boots, all of which were covered in a fine layer of dust. Even so, she walked as if her body was clothed in the finest silks, no hint of the destitution represented by her clothing carried into her demeanor. She carried nothing with her, only a pouch belted to her waist. She was not allowed to carry anything on a compass quest beyond her clothing and her totem.
The compass quest was a custom unique to her town that very few people had the fortitude and strength of heart to undertake. Compass quests were not for the light hearted; to be alone with only one’s thoughts for so long tried the soul. Those who sought spiritual enlightenment, forgiveness, or acceptance traveled to each compass point until they found their totem and then returned before setting out on another. It was common for a traveler to leave After for years before finishing, and yet it was uncommon for anyone to actually take part in the tradition.
Raven rubbed the area over her heart where her compass star tattoo was emblazoned upon her skin. Every initiated infant of After was given a tattoo so that if their fortunes lay elsewhere, they could always find their way back. She didn’t often get to find her way back on her quest.
Raven had not returned home for quite some time, not since she achieved her last compass point, but After seemed just as obliviously content as before. The alleyways refused the darkness, the courtyard invited travelers, and the people laughed jovially. The town’s circle structure caused the roads to lead in a spiral to the main courtyard, with eight roads that ran along the eight compass points piercing through the spiral to the middle. The town’s crest, the four-pointed compass star that was stamped in the center of the main crossroads, had faded, but she could still remember the mayor’s pride when the paving finished in her early childhood. He had insisted it would put After on the map.
On the north side of the square, she saw Jeremiah Thorsson pounding a piece of metal with his hammer. Jeremiah’s face and bald head were pockmarked with burns, and his white beard was ratty and uneven. His muscles, refined through years of blacksmithing, rippled as he worked, straining against the confines of his skin. Raven often speculated that one good flex would rip his shirt, which contributed to the way he tended to scare children with just a glance.
Jeremiah barely contained his boisterous soul, with his deep, abiding love for stories of all kinds only being hindered by his extreme shyness in the face of newcomers. When Raven was a child, she mustered up her courage and faced the fearsome giant. He tried to shoo her away, but she marched right up to him and stuck her hands deep into his beard. He had yanked his head back, bewildered, and loudly bellowed, “What do ye think yer doin’?”
Raven, refusing to back down, planted her hands on her hips, and returned his yell with her own statement. “I’m lookin’ for a bird. My momma’s always tellin’ my daddy that if he grows his beard too much, birds are gonna nest in it. Your beard’s the longest I’ve ever seen, mister, so I was lookin’ for birds.”
That had been her introduction to Jeremiah Thorsson, and her induction into his smithy. He would allow her to sit on a stump in the corner and, sometimes, would tell her stories about the town and its people. By the age of fifteen, Jeremiah had told her all the stories he knew about the town, most of them multiple times, and was forced to resort to telling her the little he knew of countries and kings far away since he refused to tell her anything about where he came from. She learned of the civil war that plagued those who lived to the north and the peace those to the east improbably enjoyed under a dictator, which Jeremiah insisted was highly dubious and he did not believe one bit. She had soaked it all up and then insisted he tell her more. He once told her that if she wanted to know about so much, she should just go find out on her own. He didn’t know enough people who traveled to the places she asked of.
Jeremiah had introduced her to her wanderlust. Whenever she left After, she really only missed him.
Her face was buried into Jeremiah’s chest and his strong hug could barely contain her shudders, though she wasn’t sure if she shook from the cold rain that had soaked through her clothing and streaked into the crevices of her body or from what had happened. “Tis, alright, lass. Twasn’t yer fault. Twas simply an accident.” He kept repeating it over and over, and she noticed that his voice shook just as much as her body. But that was all right. For the moment, she would believe him and would allow his voice to drown out the panic that surrounded their huddled forms.
Raven walked up to him and bowed with her right hand twisted over her heart as she recited After’s ritualistic greeting. “May the stars lead you ever homeward.”
Jeremiah looked up from his work at her with a broad grin, and then returned her bow and greeting. “And may yer compass guide ye when the stars are cloudy.”
They stood straight and Jeremiah seized her up into a fierce hug. “Raven, m’girl, ‘tis good to see ye! ‘Tis been far too long since ye returned to After.”
She pulled back and grinned fiercely into his face as she repeated the town’s unofficial adage. “Well, it is the place you only think of after you leave.”
He guffawed loudly as he set her back on her feet and slapped her on the back, causing her to rock forward onto her toes in an effort to keep her balance. “Indeed ‘tis, lass. Did ye come to tell me some of yer stories?”
“I’m only in town for the day to pay my respects to my parents and return my totem. The stories will have to wait for when I return.”
“Yer leavin’ again?” Jeremiah scowled at her as he leaned back on his anvil and crossed his arms, his muscles bulging with the motion. “Tis not good to travel so much, lass. Ye should come home and settle down a bit. One day ye’ll return and not feel like ‘tis home anymore.”
“Don’t be silly, Jeremiah! How can After not feel like home as long as I have you to scold me whenever I return?” He scowled and she laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll stop soon. I’ve gone to all of the compass points but south, and a compass quest cannot end until all points have been acquired. I’ll stop once I know what it’s like there.”
“Hmph. See that ye do.” Jeremiah hesitated for moment, and then quietly questioned, “Lass, have ye found what yer looking for?”
Raven jumped and her smile fell. It was rare for anyone to ask anything directly about a compass quest; general practice dictated that no one addressed the issue except in ceremony. She looked down at her boots for a moment and then softly answered. “Jeremiah, I’ve traveled to seven of the compass points. I’ve seen things that your stories could never have prepared me for, experienced hardships that no amount of preparation would make me able to face. Mountains, rivers, lakes, even a bit of ocean have not been able to stop my quest, and yet every time I return to After I feel like not a day has passed since it happened.”
Jeremiah’s face saddened and he ran a scarred hand over his face before looking straight at her. “Twasn’t yer fault, lass. They wouldn’t’ve wanted ye to do this to yerself. Don’t forget that yer already a part of this town. Ye don’t need to earn yer right to be here.”
He pulled her into a gentle hug and she allowed herself to press her face into his chest for a moment, sucking in his smoky scent that always carried an unexplainable hint of apples and ignoring the scratch of his beard on the side of her face, before pulling back. She didn’t deserve comfort. “I’d best be going.” He nodded and she could feel his eyes watching her as she retreated to the other side of the square, where Humphrey Humbertson’s bakery resided. She was always happy to see Jeremiah, but his concern for her combined with being home always poisoned that happiness.
Humphrey Humbertson was a sour man. Personally, she thought it was because his parents didn’t have any original naming sense. That, or it could be that he was the only outsider who resided in After. As a result, he lacked the tattoo that proclaimed him as part of the town and dealt with the discrimination from the residents. He, and his ancestors, would be denied the tattoo until they resided in After for five generations and, at some point in those five generations, at least one member of the family must participate in the compass quest as Raven was currently doing.
Whether from his parents’ abysmal naming sense or not, Humphrey’s acidic personality would have driven off all of his customers long ago if not for the fact that he baked the best bread in all of town. People ignored his permanently crossed, bushy eyebrows, his angry sighs, his piercing glares, and his angry haggling in return for his sweet breads, and sweet bread was precisely what Raven was seeking. Her parents had loved sweet bread and it only seemed right that she bring it to them as a present after being gone so long, even if it meant that she must deal with Humphrey.
Humphrey’s back was turned when she walked into his shop, so she managed to steal a moment to pick out her sweet bread before he noticed her presence, enjoying the soft smell of freshly baked bread that wafted out of the oven he was working at. He hummed something softly to himself, a slow melody that she could not quite make out as he set aside the freshly baked bread and slid a new batch in, then stopped abruptly at the sound of her clothing rustling as she walked up to the counter.
He kept his back to her as she set the bread on the counter and bowed with her hand twisted over her heart. “May the stars lead you ever homeward.”
Humphrey harrumphed, finally turning to face her with a scowl, and ignored her greeting to demand suspiciously, “What, you’re back already? Doesn’t seem like this quest of yours is very difficult after all. Not that it matters, really. No amount of traveling and contemplation will exonerate what you did.
Raven smiled at him, ignoring her urge fight with him, and simply slid the money across the counter to him. She’d rather pay his ridiculous price than haggle today. No amount of money saved would be worth his poison. “I’m afraid my trial has yet to end. I’ll buy this sweet bread, so if you’ll excuse me, I have more errands to tend to.”
She strode out and, as the door closed behind her, she heard him comment sadistically, “I don’t know why you bother buying that bread every time you come back. It’s not like they’ll enjoy it anyway.”
“Serves them right. Only idiots would go out into a storm like that. And you, blacksmith, don’t coddle her!” She flinched further into Jeremiah’s chest, burying her face into his beard in an attempt to avoid the words Humphrey sneered through her back and into her heart, each word chiseling a splinter of guilt into her sorrow. “She needs to realize what she has done! Do you think they would have gone outside if she had simply stayed put? There is a limit to being foolish!”
She sighed and headed north, into the outskirts of town. Her adventures as a child led her here just as often as the smithy, because here stood After’s library.
An unassuming building, squat on the outside with closed hinges that guarded against the sunlight, the library had stood as Raven’s haven when Jeremiah ran out of stories to tell, and had been the first place she ran to when the fuss of everyone in the town had finally made them forget about her that night. The gargoyles still stood guard on the steps, one of them missing a wing and the other a horn, their garish gloominess a stark contrast to the bright sunshine that reflected off of the white houses on either side. She used to sit beside these lonesome guardians and finger their ridged wings while reading her newest book, losing herself in the protagonist’s adventure and wishing for one of her own.
She reached out and patted one head as she climbed the steps, then dusted off the flakes of granite that clung to her hand as she quietly padded into the dingy darkness of the library.
The first floor did not hold her attention; it never had. It held municipal records and other trivial matters that were important to the governance of the town. A thick cover of dust covered the untouched older books, their contents all but forgotten in the wake of new records. The real treasures were cloistered secretively for any knowledge seeker, and only those born into the village and given their compass tattoo were shown the truth of the building.
She headed to the back corner and pushed in a specific swirl in the design of the bookcase. The shelf pushed out and she pulled it laboriously forward so that she could slip through the opening. She lit the torch at the top of the stairs before closing the bookcase behind her, and then set forth down the steps.
She passed by the first two landings without stopping. These doors held the books that she ravenously read as a child, rooms full of so many books that she used to place stacks of them around her in order of what she would read and curl up in a corner from day to day as she made her way through them. Now, the adventures she had once loved held little of her attention that she never ventured lower. She hadn’t gone any lower before that night and now it was the only reason she visited the town at all. There hadn’t been a need to go lower, before.
She reached the end of the staircase and stopped to stare down the hallway at the eight doors.
“Are you sure, my dear? This is not something to be done lightly. A compass quest will consume years of your life and… you truly are not at fault, child.” The mayor, an elderly pudgy man with a floppy toupee who considered himself the father of all the residents of After, looked at her with worry as they stood at the end of the hallway, but she was resolute.
“I will atone for what I have done.”
Raven shook her head, then set off down the hallway to the seventh door, naming each door as she passed by. “Southwest, West, Northwest, North, Northeast, East, Southeast.” She stood in front of the second to last door and placed her hand on the compass on its face, where a stylized SE on the bottom right corner was the only clue for which compass point it belonged to. She gently pushed the door open to reveal the glittering contents within.
The people who lived in the southeast were greatly fascinated with gold and fashioned everything out of it. Cups, pots, bowls, jewelry, even bits of their clothing. As such, any townsman of After who took upon themselves the compass quest brought back something with a type of gold, the amount depending upon the extravagance of the item, and the room glimmered like reflected sunlight as the torchlight bounced off of the pieces. Each offering was specific to the person, unique, as each sought something different in their quest. When they left the town, the mayor assigned them a totem to seek and, until they found the item, they must continue to travel in each compass direction.
Raven reached into her pouch and pulled out a stylized dove. Its entire body was a shell of golden vines that twisted and turned in such a way that no beginning or end could be found. Its eyes were roses, its feet gripped a brass branch, and its beak formed a thorn that she accidentally stabbed herself on more than once in her journey home. Its wings were leaves that were lifted in the moment before flight, stretching forth to catch drafts of imaginary air, useless since it would forever remain grounded. Entranced by the bird the moment she had laid eyes upon it in the market place, she was fortunate that the token she sought was a dove or she never would have been able to spend so much time examining it.
It took her a year to find this compass point, the longest of all of them so far. Even North only took her half a year.
She walked along the right wall until she found space on a shelf and placed the dove between a golden shield and a sword with a golden hilt. Its reflected glimmers joined the myriad of others in the room, its luminescence blending with the others until its individual beams were lost.
“Your totem on your journey shall be a dove. Seek it at each point of the compass and then return to After. Until all eight points have been visited and you understand the significance of your totem, you will no longer be considered a resident of After. Meditate for now and I will return to send you on your way.” The mayor turned and left as she sank down upon the soft heather and cried into her hands, the tears slipping between the cracks of her fingers to run down her arms.
Just one compass point left, then. Raven turned and left, closing the door softly behind her. She glanced at the South door for a moment before heading back up the stairs and out of the library. She did not have the right to enter that room yet.
That left only one more stop before she headed out of town once again. She followed the roads back into the courtyard, this time not stopping to greet anyone, and turned onto the road that led south to the very edge of the village, where the graveyard resided.
She opened the rusted gate and picked her way along the path to reach the graves near the back edge. They stood side by side, the granite weathered but still fresh looking since the incident ten years ago. She kneeled between them and solemnly broke the sweet bread in two before placing a piece on each respective grave. Then she closed her eyes and meditated, as she had before every new compass point.
“What do you mean, you’re sending me away? They aren’t my parents, you are! And how could you have hidden this from me? Didn’t you think I had a right to know the truth about my beginnings? Just… I can’t face you right now. I won’t!” Raven turned and ran outside into the rain, ignoring the shouts of her parents as they called her back. She had to think and their excuses would only clutter her thoughts.
She ran into the woods as the rain fell until soon a storm surrounded her and she couldn’t see anything in front of her. She huddled against a tree and cried as the storm wept with her. Her howls blended into the wind, her tears joining the river that fell across her face, and she curled into a tighter ball with each sob that wracked her body, pressing herself into the bark of the tree until she could feel the individual grooves pave their way across her skin.
“Raven! Thank goodness, yer safe.” She jumped and looked up as Jeremiah emerged from the storm and hugged her tightly. “We were sure ye were lost.”
“Leave me alone, Jeremiah. I just want to think a little before facing my parents.” She pulled herself away from him but he tightened his grip, holding her fast.
“Raven, when ye ran away yer parents came into town to get help and as we entered the forest, they led the way into the storm.”
“They shouldn’t have done that. I just need some time to think.” Raven tried to yank away again but Jeremiah’s arms were like a vise. That’s when she noticed that he was shaking, as if he didn’t know how to control himself. “Jeremiah? What’s wrong? You’re shaking.”
“Twas hard to see, lass, and there twasn’t anyway to avoid it.”
“Avoid what?” Raven stared up at Jeremiah, unable to grasp what he was saying.
“Yer parents…” Jeremiah looking down at her and she noticed that it wasn’t just rain that streamed down his face. “Ye have to understand, lass, that ‘tis not yer fault. This freak storm is to blame.”
“Jeremiah, what happened?” Raven grabbed his shirt into her fists and stared at him, fear clouding her mind. Why should she feel guilty unless something horrible had happened?
“Yer parents were checking to see if ye had climbed the mountain a ways and… well, twas a lot of rain lass and the mud was loose… by the time we got there, twas too late.”
“You’re wrong! Show me where they are. Show me now, Jeremiah! My parents aren’t dead, they can’t be.” Raven pushed Jeremiah back the way he had come until he sighed, wrapped his hand around hers, and led her through the storm’s wrath to the mudslide where everyone was gathered. On the edge her mother’s hand was stretched out of the mud, her wedding ring covered with dirt, her fair skin marred and smudged. Her mother’s perfect hand, the one that had brushed Raven’s hair and knitted Raven’s scarves and deftly moved chess pieces, lying there limply as the rain slowly streaked through the mud and left tracks across her skin. She couldn’t see her father anywhere. She surged forward, pulling her hand out of Jeremiah’s grasp to help dig them out only to realize that no one was doing anything. The town stood around her parents, talking quietly as if unsure of what to do.
“Why haven’t you saved them?” Raven burst out, running forward and beginning to dig. “We can still save them!” Behind her, no one spoke as she started to frantically dig with her hands. She pulled the mud away in clumps as she slowly uncovered her mother’s arm. “Help me. Help Me!” The scream tore from her throat as she desperately scraped at the clay that covered her parents. She saw the edge of her father’s boot and dug faster, ignoring the mud and rain that covered her body. It pushed itself up her arms, a stain that spread more and more as she burrowed farther along their bodylines. She started to cry, the tears coursing down her face as she weakly scraped at the mud, until Jeremiah gathered her into his arms and pulled her away. She fought at first, pounding his chest and screaming uselessly, no words just noises of desperation, but he simply held on until she gave in and cried into his shirt.
Raven quickly wiped away a tear that trickled down her cheek and then leaned forward. She reached out with both hands and touched her parents’ gravestones, running her hands over their engraved names. She shuffled forward slowly on her knees until she sat between the two headstones, then leaned over and kissed them each.
“Mom, Dad… I love you. You will always be my parents. I promise that I will never forget you.”
She pushed herself backwards to her original position and bowed low with her hand twisted over her heart. “May the stars lead you ever homeward and may your compass guide you when the stars are cloudy.” Then Raven got up, turned South, and started walking.
When Raven reached the edge of town, she heard clothes rustle and looked over her shoulder to see Jeremiah bowing with his right hand over his heart on the road behind her, his figure saluted against the backdrop of After. “May the stars lead ye ever homeward and may yer compass guide ye when the stars are cloudy.” He raised only his head and looked up into her eyes, his mouth a grim line before he spoke again. “Be sure to come back home, Lass. Ye do belong here, whether ye still believe it or not, and ye won’t find what yer lookin’ for out there.”
Raven gave him a small smile before she turned her back and kept walking. After did not hold what she sought. It hadn’t for a long time.