by Patricia Russo
Mother Roughcoat lived in a one-room shack in the center of the city. She wasn’t, and never had been, anybody’s mother, but because she was older than the municipal hall, or looked it–in truth, she looked older than the Foundation Fountain, and that thing was crumbling to sand–people called her Mother out of an old-fashioned sort of politeness. The Roughcoat part came from her attire, a formidable piece of old tech that nobody really believed could possibly work anymore, a personal protection device of great gray and bristly ugliness that covered her from neck to knees. The chances of there being any poison left in those spines, or any charge remaining in the stun-spikes, was infinitesimal, but folks gave Mother Roughcoat her space. Just in case.
Aunt Far Away lived a considerable distance from town, out in the sticks in the back of the boonies, miles and leagues and long muddy stretches from where the streetcar route ended. Not that she ever took the streetcar. Aunt Far Away walked everywhere, slowly and steadily, with a rucksack on her back and a pouch tied around her middle. People could always tell when she was coming, because Aunt Far Away liked to sing. Loudly. The fact that her singing sounded very much like cracked shrieks stitched together by gasps never stopped her. Folks put up with the singing. She was family, or family to someone they knew. Over the years, Aunt Far Away had accumulated many, many brothers and sisters (of the chosen kin sort), and therefore many, many brothers-and-sisters-in-law, and consequently many, many nieces and nephews. And grandnieces and grandnephews. You had to be polite to your relatives, if you didn’t want people to think you were a total asshole. Folks also put up with the singing for another reason. Since Aunt Far Away walked everywhere, she saw many things and heard a lot of news, and once you got her to take her rucksack off, sit down, and have a cup of tea or three, she was always happy to kick off a story-telling session, and Aunt Far Away was a good storyteller. She always made sure that everybody was clear about when she was recounting something she had seen herself, and when she was passing along a tale, or anecdote, or bit of rumor or gossip, that she had been told. People looked forward to her visits.
Now all of this takes place after the gods who made nice things for the city had taken themselves off somewhere else, so there was a lot of grumbling and muttering and yearning for the old days. Mother Roughcoat, even though she never removed her personal security suit (people figured she slept in it, and as for washing, it was clear as soon as you got within a couple of meters that Mother Roughcoat didn’t), wouldn’t hold with such talk. The old days are gone, she said. The old stories don’t do anybody any good. People have to live in the here and now, and if they don’t like it, the least they could do was keep their mouths shut and not spread the misery around. Mother Roughcoat’s suit might not have had any juice in it any longer, but if she wanted to she could make the spines quiver and the spikes spring up (bioelectrics, that was, said folks in the know, or who claimed to be in the know, powered by a tiny charge drawn from her own skin), and when she did that, cheap trick or not, folks took to nodding fast and agreeing quick.
Aunt Far Away had nothing against a good grumble. She was a cheerful sort herself, but she never begrudged anyone else having a bit of a moan. She would sit and sip her tea (if there was any tea to be had), and listen. People did seem to feel better once they’d told their stories, and cried a little, and smashed an old framed photograph, or thrown a plate against a wall, or punched a dead com screen.
On most sunny and not too chilly days, when the sky was a tranquil hue and no uproar beyond the usual was going on (no new building fallen over, no blight suddenly appearing on the greenstuff in the roof gardens, no reports of decades-old roads dissolving into muck and crumbs of tar), Mother Roughcoat would sit outside her shack, on a three-legged stool, with her hands folded her in lap and a little smile on her star-burned face. Everybody knew that this was Mother Roughcoat’s way of signifying that she wanted company. Mother Roughcoat was a neighbor it was important to keep on the good side of, so folks would gather behind a shed or inside a courtyard and draw lots. Or play rock-paper-scissors. Or simply argue until someone gave in and sighed, “All right, all right, already. I’ll do it.” Everybody else would also sigh, in relief. “Brave fellow.” “Good woman.” “Better you than me.”
Aunt Far Away walked to the center of the city sometimes. Every pair of months or so, one of her meandering routes would circle around this and about that and cut through that other stretch, and end up in the middle. The people there were as eager for news as those in any other district or region, and they smiled more than most, so Aunt Far Away was always sorry when she had distressing information to impart.
That day, she found that she didn’t have the heart for singing.
It took folks a while to notice.
The center of the city was the most densely populated area. It was the place where the old gods who made nice things had bestowed many of their gifts: shade trees that bore fruit three seasons of the year, self-repairing bricks, kind bees, and a park that once provided endless hours of entertainment for both children and adults. Ever since the fountain had crumbled, the park wasn’t used very much, but it was still as green as ever, and that was something. The residents of the city’s central neighborhood counted their blessings.
Mother Roughcoat was an anomaly. How she had come to live there, nobody knew. And where that shack had come from, built of scraps of this and scrag-ends of that, with no windows and one door that had once obviously belonged to a garden shed, was a mystery. The walls were plywood and tarpaper, and the roof was planks tacked down haphazardly, covered with plastic sheeting tied down with twine. And the interior – reported the neighbors who had accepted Mother Roughcoat’s occasional offers of refreshment and conversation – was tacked all over with plastic as well. More intriguingly, the shack was crammed with wooden chests and metal caskets and boxes of all sorts. Mother Roughcoat was clearly rich. She might not have been born in this neighborhood, and she certainly had an abrasive personality, but nobody ever dared to treat her with anything other than respect, at least to her face.
Now, for years Aunt Far Away had tried to be friendly toward Mother Roughcoat, waving whenever she walked by her shack. Mother Roughcoat never waved back. In fact, Aunt Far Away was sure that the bristly-suited woman sitting in front of her lashed-together hut sneered at her every time she waved. Glowered. Scowled. Even, once, Aunt Far Away would swear, stuck out her tongue.
Mother Roughcoat’s attitude presented an obstacle, because today Aunt Far Away needed to speak to her urgently.
Even though Aunt Far Away did not sing as she made her way toward Mother Roughcoat’s shack, and didn’t walk with her usual jaunty air, eventually folks did spot her and begin to call out greetings. They expected her to smile; they expected her to shout back cheerfully, to toss out a teaser or two for the tales that were to come, to joke that there had better be plenty of tea on hand, and biscuits, too, if they wanted to hear her first-rate stuff. Aunt Far Away tried to smile, but she had never been very good at dissembling. People glanced at each other. Some began to follow her, slowly, keeping their distance, their faces anxious. Parents sent their children inside. Others, the bravest ones, or the most eager, called, “Is it bad news? Aunt Far Away, is it very bad?”
There were always some who were keen to hear the grimmest reports. Aunt Far Away found it hard not to chide them, particularly when they giggled. She did not think anybody would laugh this time. She did not bring rumors of a fresh bloodfeud between the six-fingered lot that had taken to what was left of the woods (or what was returning to woods) and their usual trading partners downstream, who were still doing their damnedest to levy tolls on anybody traveling on what they considered to be their section of the river. (She had heard such a rumor, complete with claims that a six-fingers had been drowned, and a child of the river country had had her eyes torn out in revenge, but that was not the tale Aunt Far Away meant to tell today.) She did not carry a story of huge and terrible worms chewing and writhing in the red clay far beneath the foundations of the city, growing larger and stronger and hungrier with each passing month, until the time came when they would rise to the surface and devour them all. Aunt Far Away had told that story to great effect at a housewarming party just the other week, taking care to ensure that everyone present, drunk or sober, was clear about the fact that it was only a tale, an invented entertainment. She was not going to be giving that tale today, either.
The people following Aunt Far Away began to guess where she was heading, and she heard a susurrus of curiosity and concern swell up behind her. She took a quick glance over her shoulder. Twenty or so folks were trailing her, still at a cautious distance. Twenty was a good number to sit and hear stories, to drink tea and laugh and exclaim, to relax and exchange news of their own. Twenty, she thought, might also be a good number to witness what she had come to tell Mother Roughcoat. She doubted the presence of an audience would make the bristly old creature behave herself, but sticks and stones, as the old saying went. The important thing was that witnesses would ensure that what passed between them could not be kept secret. There were times for secrets, but this was not one of them.
Though it was not a particularly fine day, the sky overcast and with more than a hint of wet in the air, Mother Roughcoat was sitting outside on her three-legged stool. The expression on her face was not welcoming. Aunt Far Away had heard of Mother Roughcoat’s periodic longings for company; she found such a desire perfectly natural, though she felt sorry so many folks considered it a chore that must be performed in order to keep Mother Roughcoat pacified. “What does she talk about?” Aunt Far Away had asked a group of news-listeners once, when one of them complained that he’d had to sit with Mother Roughcoat and drink her hooch for hours the day before, and had a hell of a headache weighing on him in consequence. “The old days,” people said.
“About the gods that made nice things for the city?”
“No. About how she used to be rich and had lots of nice things for herself.”
Then, of course, somebody asked, as someone always did whenever the gods that made nice things were mentioned, if Aunt Far Away thought they would ever come back. No, she said, as she always did. New things would come, though. Why, look around yourselves, she said. Hadn’t dozens, hundreds, of new things already come into the world?
“But they aren’t nice things.”
“It’s all a matter of how you look at it. The sky sculptures the pigeons create in the spring, they’re very pretty, aren’t they? And what about this tea, right here? We never had this sort of tea before. I don’t think any of you are old enough to remember that when that little blue-leafed bush started growing, here, there, and everywhere, people didn’t know what to think. They were afraid it was a weed that would run wild, invade their gardens, choke their crops. They were even afraid it was poisonous. Oh yes, they were. And see?” Aunt Far Away took a sip from her cup. “Perfectly nice.”
She felt it was her duty to say those sorts of things, when people got depressed or angry about the old days being gone, especially young folks who had no knowledge of what the old days had really been like. A pernicious nostalgia was worse than religion, in Aunt Far Away’s opinion.
As Aunt Far Away approached, Mother Roughcoat’s expression, which had started as a scowl, deepened into a glare. All the spines and spikes and needles of her suit were twitching. She looked like a great angry porcupine, Aunt Far Away thought, if porcupines wore boots and smelled of decades of dirt and liquor. Aunt Far Away checked again to see how many folks were trailing her. Not so many as before, not twenty or so. Perhaps ten or twelve. Aunt Far Away hoped that no more would melt away.
“What do you want?”
It was good that Mother Roughcoat had spoken first. Aunt Far Away smiled, and inclined her head. She felt very little desire to smile, but the forms of friendliness were her own suit, her second skin between her and the world. “I bring news.”
“Go take it somewhere else.”
“It is grave news.”
“I don’t want any.”
Behind her, Aunt Far Away heard the murmurs rise again. Grave news, grave news.
“On Hinson Street, there is a tree,” Aunt Far Away said.
Mother Roughcoat’s suit bristled. She looked away, then said, mockingly, “Once upon a time, there were three little princesses who lived in a red house on a hill.”
“The tree cracked, and a bird flew out.”
Mother Roughcoat jerked her chin dismissively.
“The bird flew away, but the crack is still there. The tree is gone, but the crack is still there. The crack grows larger by the hour.”
“Aunt Far Away, Aunt Far Away!” The people who had followed her to Mother Roughcoat’s shack had not moved closer. They stayed a good ten meters back. Some of them, she saw, were holding hands. “Is that a true news?”
“Yes. I would say you may go to Hinson Street to see for yourselves, but I think it is best for everyone to keep away from there. The crack is very wide now, and stretches up to the clouds.”
“I suppose swarms of monsters are clambering through this crack, eating babies and slaughtering the chickens?”
“No monsters.” Aunt Far Away looked back at the people listening. “This I saw myself. This is not a tale I was told. There are no monsters coming through the crack.”
“Not yet,” Mother Roughcoat muttered.
“And you wonder why people find it such a chore to visit with you.”
“I don’t.” Mother Roughcoat’s lips twitched. “Wonder.”
“A bird flew out,” Aunt Far Away said. “It was a small bird, with gray feathers. It circled the crack where the tree had been, and circled it again. When it flew behind the crack, it disappeared from sight. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“Not a word.”
“It landed on my shoulder, and whispered in my ear.” Aunt Far Away turned, so that the people behind her could see her face. “The bird said that a great storm had shaken and quaked its world, a storm without rain or thunder or wind, and a thousand cracks had broken the earth and the sky, and now, in its world, there was almost no air left to breathe. To save themselves, the people had settled themselves into sleep, underground.”
“These people being birds.”
“Different worlds, different people.”
Mother Roughcoat snorted. “Different birds, too. This one didn’t go to sleep, eh? You’re telling us it went on a tour-of-ten-worlds instead.”
“Tour of ten worlds,” Aunt Far Away repeated, softly.
“It’s just an expression.”
“Old stories. Nobody really believed them. Except the same fools who believed in gods that made nice things for the city.” Mother Roughcoat touched the collar of her suit. “It was only ever us, who made the nice things and the cruel things and the useful things and the silly things.”
“There are ten worlds,” Aunt Far Away said to those who were listening, who had not fled, and they nodded eagerly.
“There might be a hundred. There might be a thousand.” Mother Roughcoat stamped her foot, and all the spikes and spines of her suit leapt into warding mode. “Why are you bothering me with this nonsense? If you think I’ve got a load of cryogenic cylinders tucked away in the cellar, you’re more crack-minded than I imagined. I don’t even have a cellar.”
“The bird told me that its people had made the wrong decision by making themselves sleep. The cracks in its world have continued to grow. When they wake, if they wake, it will be to devastation.”
“Quite a chatty little bird.”
“It wanted someone to know, and to remember them, its world, its people. That’s why it flew through the crack. Our crack, the one on Hinson Street. That one was different, it said. It did not suck air from its world. The other cracks lead to nothing, it thinks. The space between the stars, perhaps. Not one of the ten worlds. It plunged into ours, hoping to find friends.”
The listeners had crept a bit closer. “Where is the little gray bird now?” a pinched-faced man asked.
“On my shoulder.”
Mother Roughcoat laughed.
The listeners did not.
“Is it still talking to you?” Mother Roughcoat asked.
“No. Not since I left Hinson Street.”
“May that be a lesson to you. Even imaginary friends will let you down.”
“The bird told me,” Aunt Far Away said, more loudly, “that the crack on Hinson Street may be just the first. It would take masses of people to seal it, and they would have to do that with their own bodies. If the crack is not closed, the air, and light, and life, from our world will seep into it, and though this might take ten seasons, or fifty, in time everything that is in our world will bleed into its, which will not help the people there at all, as none of their cracks has been closed, and so whatever trickles into it rushes out again almost at once.”
“There is no bird on your shoulder.”
“There is,” a thick-necked woman called out. “I can see it. It has a short blue beak, and skinny black toes.”
Mother Roughcoat looked at Aunt Far Away. “See what you’ve done. So, will you lead these fools to Hinson Street, gathering more and more along the way, and cheer them all on as they jump into this crack of yours?”
“It does have a blunt blue beak, and thin, well, toes isn’t the right word. Claws, isn’t it? And it is sitting on my shoulder, on the strap of my rucksack, to be precise, and it is exuding sadness the way a cradlewood tree sweats bitterness. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And no, haven’t I told them all to stay away from Hinson Street?”
Aunt Far Away looked at Mother Roughcoat for a long time. “No,” she said at last. “You will not harm it.”
“It’s your friend now, I suppose.”
“Have you adopted it yet? Oh, no, you don’t do that. You just collect play-siblings.”
“Will you listen to me? We cannot seal the crack. The cost is much too high. And there may be more, the bird says. So we must do another thing.” She turned again to the listeners. “Pay heed, now, pay heed. There is a thing we must do.”
They edged closer. “Yes, Aunt Far Away. Yes. Yes.” The woman who claimed she could see the bird was in the lead now, squeezing hands and patting shoulders.
“You and the bird,” Mother Roughcoat said.
“You and I,” Aunt Far Away replied. “We must begin it.”
“Go away now,” Mother Roughcoat said. “Go away to your Far Away place, and leave me in peace. I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap.”
“We have to build a door.”
“There are carpenters who will do that, for a pot of soup and half a kilo of scrap metal. Or, in your case, maybe even for a story about three little princesses who lived in a red house on top of a hill.”
“You know the sort of door I mean.”
“What sort, Aunt Far Away?” called the pinch-faced man.
“I know,” said the woman who could see the bird. “A door out of this world. Not a crack, but a door.”
“Yes,” said Aunt Far Away. The bird whispered, and automatically she cocked her head. She noticed Mother Roughcoat’s eyes narrow. She knew which shoulder the bird sat on, now. Aunt Far Away whistled softly: take care.
The pinched-faced man said, “Must we leave this world, then? Is that the only way to be safe?”
“The kind of doors this mad old woman is babbling about do not exist,” Mother Roughcoat said. “Never existed.” She paused. “And there is no safety.”
“There were doors, in the old days,” Aunt Far Away said. “That is how it came to be known that there are ten worlds. Ten worlds where people – different worlds, different people – live. That is how the bird knew that this world, our world, is the fourth in the chain. Its world is the ninth. They had doors, too, but the cracks swallowed them all.” She listened again. “The crack in Hinson Street felt to it like a door twisted inside out. It thinks the crack from its world engulfed an old door in this one. We cannot use it, because it would take us only to the ninth world. We must build a new one.”
“To take us – and you are very free with the word us, aren’t you, Far Away? – where? To the third world, which is desert, or the fifth, which is tower upon tower of glass, or the tenth, where the people, if you can call them that, fight war after war, with stone weapons and pointed sticks hardened in flint-struck fires?”
“Those tales are a hundred years old. Many things change in a hundred years. Haven’t many things changed here, in less time than that?”
“But to leave our world,” the pinched-faced man said. “I don’t think I could.”
“Let us build the door,” Aunt Far Away said. “Then each can chose, to stay or go. No one will be forced. But would you deny others the choice?”
“Your bird is talking again,” Mother Roughcoat said, and she was staring directly at it.
“It asks why you are so afraid.”
“It has a shifty look. I suspect it made that crack itself.”
Aunt Far Away did not believe Mother Roughcoat could actually see the bird. “The bird flew a long and arduous way to warn us.”
“Brave bird!” the people cried, and some began to applaud.
“Do not be sad,” said the woman who could see it. “We will be your friends.”
“Enemies may come in innocent guises,” Mother Roughcoat said.
“And the strong in weak ones,” said Aunt Far Away. “And fear in angry ones. Take off your suit. A door has many parts. I will make one. You will make another. Two parts will allow us to fashion a third. And three parts will point us to the fourth.”
“From my suit? Make a door from my suit?”
“A small part. The smallest part, if that is all you can bear.”
Mother Roughcoat stood up from her three-legged stool. “I will kill you now.”
“You will not,” said the woman who could see the bird, and she walked up to Mother Roughcoat and put her arms around her. All the spikes and spines and needles of her suit were raised, but when the woman embraced Mother Roughcoat, she did not cry out, though Mother Roughcoat shoved against her, driving the points into her skin. The woman was broad and strong, and held on tight. Aunt Far Away saw a flash of panic cross Mother Roughcoat’s face.
“No one must be forced,” Aunt Far Away said.
“I am not forcing her. I am hugging her.”
“You will not take my suit!” Mother Roughcoat cried.
“No one will take your suit,” Aunt Far Away said.
“Let go of me!” Mother Roughcoat pushed the woman hard, making her stagger. “Idiocy atop idiocy! Lies stacked on lies!”
“This is no lie,” Aunt Far Away said, and gestured to the woman to move away from Mother Roughcoat. Before she did so, the woman dipped her head down and kissed Mother Roughcoat on the cheek. When she stepped back, her skin was dotted with drops of blood, but she did not wince, or wipe them away, or appear to care about them at all.
“Look,” Aunt Far Away said, coming closer. She held out her hands.
“Look. I’ve already made a start on my part.”
“What’s that? That is nothing. It is a length of dry bone.”
“It is my bone, from my body, and I will shape it into a doorknob.”
“Touch it. Touch it and tell me that I lie.”
Mother Roughcoat did not move. “You are a fool. Doors are exits, but entrances as well. Open one, and you have no way of knowing what will come inside.”
“Both exits and entrances are necessary.”
“You don’t know how to make a doorknob.”
“I will learn.”
“May you use up every bone in your body, and die as a sack of pus and fat.”
Aunt Far Away felt the bird launch itself from her shoulder. She locked her eyes on those of the woman who could see the bird. With relief, she saw that the woman understood. The woman said, casually, “If Aunt Far Away uses up all her bones, then I offer mine. And you, Mother Roughcoat, no one is asking for your bones, but only a scrap of old tech.”
The bird landed on Mother Roughcoat’s head, and Mother Roughcoat screamed.
“It won’t hurt you!” Aunt Far Away cried. She slid her bone back into the belt-pouch she had taken it from. There were other items in that pouch, as well, some of which the bird had led her to. And in turn, she had led the bird to Mother Roughcoat. There are two of us in this city who can try to do what you advise, she had told it. I am one, and I will take you to the other. And the bird had trusted her, and ridden on her shoulder the whole long way to Mother Roughcoat’s shack.
The courageous, the curious, the people who had followed, and who had stayed through the telling and the showing, did not run. Ten or twelve of them, the best in the city, Aunt Far Away thought. Or the best in the city on that day, on that path she had taken, at that hour of the afternoon. Terrified, magnificent people. Aunt Far Away was very proud of them.
And the bird, which had battled its way here from the ninth world, a world now lost to it, except as a grave, which had every reason in the universe to be brusque or impatient, or burning with fury, or insane with grief, did not scratch with its claws or stab with its beak or flap its strong wings in Mother Roughcoat’s face. It perched on her head lightly, enduring her screams, ignoring the attempts she made to bat it off. Aunt Far Away loved that bird, that stranger, that lost and caring soul, more at that moment than she had ever loved her very, very favorite brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces. She grabbed Mother Roughcoat’s wrists before she could try to hit the bird again.
“All it wants to do is to tell you something.”
“Get it off me! Get it the fuck off me!”
“You can’t see it, can you, but you can feel it. So you can’t deny it’s real.”
“I can deny anything I damn well like!”
“Mother Roughcoat, listen, please. I think you will be able to understand the bird’s words.”
Aunt Far Away nodded to the bird, which bobbed its small gray head in response.
The bird whispered. Mother Roughcoat listened, a sour expression on her face. A young woman tugged at Aunt Far Away’s sleeve. “Is it talking?”
“What is it saying?”
“Shhh!” the others admonished her, and the pinched-faced man pulled her back.
Mother Roughcoat looked like she wanted to spit. Spit acid, if she could have. The bird bobbed its head a final time, and flew to perch again on Aunt Far Away’s shoulder.
And Mother Roughcoat picked up her stool, went inside her shack, and shut the door.
“Aunt Far Away?”
“Come,” she said. “We need to give her time to think. Will one of you put me up for the night?”
“My home is yours.”
“She’s going to sit in there and get drunk, and won’t come out for days,” the woman who could see the bird said.
“If that’s what she does, then that’s what she does. Meanwhile, we can begin our own work.” She laid a hand on her pouch. “I will continue to fashion the knob. And you, you can warn people about Hinson Street, tell them the news – but tell it true and plain – and see if we can get any old engineers or tech collectors to come along and share some tips, or maybe even a tool or five. And dear heaven, what I wouldn’t give for a cup of tea.”
They gave her tea, and they gave her stew, and they gave her the most comfortable armchair any of them possessed (after squabbling a bit over which one that was), and one very young man who was Aunt Far Away’s great-great nephew said, “But what about the bird?”, even though he couldn’t see it himself, and so they set out a cup of water and a plate of bread heels, and Aunt Far Away thanked them for their kindness. She did not tell them that the bird was well content with a few sips of tea from her own frequently refilled cup.
Eight of the folks who had followed and stayed and listened and seen set out to spread the word about Hinson Street. The other three (so there had been eleven who’d stuck with her the whole way, Aunt Far Away thought), the woman who could see the bird, the boy who’d mentioned shyly that he was her great-great nephew, and the pinched-faced man (they’d ended up at his house, as it was the largest) stayed with her. The pinched-faced man (no kin) and the woman who could see the bird (“I think my sister-in-law’s cousin’s father was one of yours”) got busy with slates and styluses, sketching out all manners of doors, and parts and elements and accoutrements of doors. Aunt Far Away let them. It kept them busy and it did no harm. She had a picture of the type of door that was needed in her head, down to the tiniest detail. Her kin-boy stared hard at Aunt Far Away’s shoulder. Trying to see the bird, she knew. She said nothing to him, either. Some could, and some couldn’t, and some others might be able to in time if they kept trying.
At one point, the woman who could see the bird asked, “How big a door do you think we’ll need?”
Aunt Far Away was smoothing the length of bone (a lower rib, nothing she couldn’t spare, though her side did ache a bit where it had been removed; the bird had done it with its beak, without much mess at all; the little crimped scar where the bird had pressed the sides of the wound together nip by nip was rather pretty, Aunt Far Away thought) with a pumice stone. A doorknob, she had said, but really it would be more like a handle, a thin curved handle that she hoped would be welcoming to the touch. “Not a very big one, dear,” she replied. “I know you’re thinking about crowds and mobs and panics. But I believe most will go one by one, or in small groups. And some will not go at all. And besides, once we build one door, it shouldn’t be a difficult matter to construct others, in various parts of the city.”
“And outside the city?” said the pinched-faced man.
“Of course, outside the city as well.”
“This will take hundreds of people,” her line-nephew said. “Tons of material.”
“I expect so.”
“Aunt Far Away.”
“Is the bird asleep?”
Tell the boy he may ask what he wishes, the bird whispered.
“No, not yet,” Aunt Far Away said. “Do you want to say something to it?”
“I was just – it’s only that – ” The young man squirmed. “It ran away from its world. Or flew away, I mean. And when it came here, when it battled out of the crack, how did it find you?”
“I was there. I was on Hinson Street. I told you all, this is news I saw myself, not a tale I have carried from other mouths.”
“It told you about the cracks that broke all over its world.”
“And how the crack on Hinson Street is only the first one to appear here, that there will be more and more?”
“Wait,” Aunt Far Away said, sternly. “No, it did not tell me that. Do not elaborate the story. If you want to be a good tale-carrier and news bearer, you must always be very careful about when to embellish and when not to. With news, you do not. And if you are not sure of certain details, then tell your listeners that you are not sure. Do not invent things simply to hold their attention, or to keep the story going. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Aunt Far Away.”
“The bird told me that there may be more cracks coming, not that there will be.”
The bird whispered to her again.
“But that is not what you wanted to know, is it?”
Her line-nephew looked down at his hands. “Whose idea was the door?”
“The bird was very tired after its journey, and very afraid. It grieves, for the friends and kin and world it has lost, but it is not afraid now. It sees that the people here are people like its own – different worlds, different people, but people all the same – and it wants to help us.”
The boy looked up.
Ah, Aunt Far Away thought. We come to the nub of it.
“We thought of it together,” she told him. “The making of doors is old-days knowledge here, written down in books that have long since moldered to mulch, recorded on tech no one can coax a byte of data from anymore. But there are other ways to hold on to knowledge. The bird knew of the doors, and I remembered them. And we thought, yes, this can be done.”
“Why does the bird want to help us? It could fly far away, to the other side of the world, if it wanted, and live out its life in peace, long before all the air in this world is sucked away.” Her kin-boy seemed embarrassed to give voice to the question. He hugged himself, and would not look at anyone.
“It came in the hope of finding friends. We are new friends, that is true. But don’t friends help each other?”
The bird whistled sharply.
They all heard, the pinched-faced man, the woman, the line-nephew.
Aunt Far Away smiled. “Is there any more tea?”
“Certainly,” the pinched-faced man said, rising quickly.
“But Mother Roughcoat,” her line-nephew said. “You went to her, you and the bird, because of knowledge, and not merely memory. Or am I wrong?”
“No. You are correct.”
“But she won’t help.”
“Give her time,” Aunt Far Away said. “She has her own fears to work through, and many of those fears are very old. And she needs a while to think through what the bird told her.”
“What did it tell her?” her nephew asked.
“That is not for me to say.”
“She will not come,” said the woman who could see the bird.
The next day many people came, those who had heard the news of the crack on Hinson Street (some of whom had gone to see it, despite the warnings), those who had heard rumors of the news and wanted to hear Aunt Far Away give the account, those who wanted comfort, those who wanted to help.
Mother Roughcoat did not.
“She is in her shack,” a neighbor reported. “Talking to herself. Smashing things.”
“Leave her alone,” Aunt Far Away said. She had almost finished her handle. Two girls who were good weavers sat on the floor at Aunt Far Away’s feet, plaiting slow sunlight. Now that was old tech, and old knowledge, and old skill, and the girls, who were cousins, had learned it from an old man who had learned it from his grandmother. The lengths of light the girls were able to knit had the solidity and consistency of soft glass. It was hard work, and painful, but the girls sang to each other to keep their spirits up.
“That is very useful,” Aunt Far Away said. “Energy! And better than any battery. We’re getting somewhere now.”
The reports from Hinson Street were alarming. The crack continued to expand. Everyone who ventured within a kilometer of the area could feel a constant wind blowing past them, rushing into the crack. The neighborhood had been evacuated. Some people had even fled the city, though Aunt Far Away thought that was a bit premature.
She said nothing about it. She told stories to keep the worried calm and to lighten the strain on the workers. She told the bird the history of the city and its old customs and beliefs, and the bird expressed great fascination. She waited.
Mother Roughcoat came to the pinched-faced man’s house (it had become the de facto base of operations) on the fourth night. She knocked on the door.
“I’ll get it,” Aunt Far Away said, and everybody in the house went silent.
Mother Roughcoat was wearing her suit. Aunt Far Away had expected this.
Mother Roughcoat looked like she wanted to cry. Aunt Far Away had been expecting this, too.
“I’m glad to see you,” she said.
“Shut up,” Mother Roughcoat said. She held out her hand. “Here.”
Aunt Far Away put out her own hand. Mother Roughcoat dropped a small piece of metal into it. She turned away.
“That’s all you’re getting.”
Aunt Far Away examined the object Mother Roughcoat had brought. It was a hinge. It was, in fact, a perfect hinge for the sort of door they were laboring to create. And with this perfect hinge as a model, others would be, not easily, but accurately, fashioned. The bird cooed happily.
“You can tell that bird to shut up, too.”
“Mother Roughcoat,” Aunt Far Away said, “thank you. We all thank you.”
“Mother Roughcoat – ”
“Don’t. I cannot bear it.”
She walked away.
She never came to see the first finished door, nor any of the others. She never went through one, but then many people chose not to, preferring to wait and see if things got worse before making such a major decision. Aunt Far Away did visit her again, about a year later. The bird did not accompany her. It had already gone ahead, to the tenth world.
Mother Roughcoat was sitting on her stool. “You,” she said.
“Where’s the bird?”
“On a trip.”
Mother Roughcoat snorted. “That bird was a piece of work. You know what it told me? Of course you do. You were listening.”
“Yes. It told you the same thing you told us. That there were never any gods who made nice things for the city, that it was only ourselves, making the good and the bad, the helpful and the harmful.”
“Do you believe that?” Mother Roughcoat asked.
Mother Roughcoat nodded.
“The hinge you made was very helpful.”
“Don’t start that shit again.”
“I’m sorry. I won’t. May I sit down?”
“I don’t have another stool. And you are not welcome in my house.”
“The ground is fine,” Aunt Far Away said, and lowered herself to the grassless, lumpy earth before Mother Roughcoat could protest. “I have a favor to ask.”
“You haven’t heard what it is yet.”
Mother Roughcoat clenched her fists. “All right. Fine. What?”
“Tell me a story.”
“I have never liked you, you know.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t tell me a story.”
“What kind of story?”
“Any kind. Whatever sort you like.”
Mother Roughcoat spat.
Aunt Far Away waited.
“How about,” Mother Roughcoat said, “the one that goes, Once upon a time, there were three little princesses who lived in a red house on the top of a hill.”
“That will do splendidly,” Aunt Far Away said. She folded her hands in her lap, and shifted her right leg a bit, to get more comfortable.
Mother Roughcoat grimaced. Then she sighed. “Once upon a time.” She paused. The pause stretched.
Aunt Far Away waited. Patience had always been one of her strengths.
Copyright 2013 Patricia Russo
Patricia Russo’s first collection, Shiny Thing, is available from Papaveria Press.