She picked the object up idly,
without curiosity. She was insensitive to the shrine's atmosphere,
but her companions felt the aura of a Presence, one with power.
Not necessarily evil, but the kind of power that's beyond
considerations of good and evil, power that might destroy
in order to remake.
She was a tall, thin woman,
aging without grace or wisdom, rooted deep in acquisitiveness.
Her platinum hair didn't quite reach to her jaw. Except for
the color, her hair was like it had been since her childhood,
when her mother had dressed her in sailor dresses on Sundays,
white in the summer, navy in the winter. She lacked the imagination
to change it. Her face was lined vertically, like downward
flowing runnels. No upward curving lines from a laughing life.
The remarkable thing was her
lack of furtiveness. She was unashamed of her theft; perhaps
she was unaware of it. It was her habit to see, want and acquire
in one fluid movement. The object disappeared into her backpack.
Her companions saw but didn't
speak. They were uncomfortable with the shrine's Presence,
except for the ones who in their discomfort denied there was
anything there at all. They were afraid to raise their voices.
Perhaps they were intruding. Perhaps it would be best to move
The shrine was obviously an
old one. The stolen object was a bowl, which had been held
securely by a profusion of tree roots, the bowl sitting before
a statue made of weathered stone, its sex indeterminate, protected
from the worst ravages of the weather by a slight overhang
of the bluff behind it. The statue stood just to the right
of the mouth of a cave, with a spring running beside it. Fresh
flowers in a marble vasesomeone
Not a job I'd like, especially
alone on a gloomy day like today, her son Bobby thought. His
dark hair was cut with a straight bang, too, but trimmed shorter
around his ears. His eyes were dark, his face as yet unlined.
A dark shadow on his upper lip. He was wondering if she would
let him buy a razor next Market Day.
She slipped the bowl quickly
into her backpack, dropping it into the remains of her lunch.
She looked around for something else to desire. An urn looked
interesting to her, but slightly too big to carry comfortably.
She thought of asking Bobby to carry it, but as soon as the
thought formed, it was gone.
* * *
Annie loved Market Day. Market
nomads brought bright color to a drab day; the colors were
like music to Annie's eyes. They'd pitched their tents at
the edge of the market, not the big ones, but small, easily
portable tents in which to spend a few nights, to be ready
to open up first thing on Market Day. By this time tomorrow
the town square would be deserted again. Some of the tents
had two peaks, like the ears of some whimsical animal, dyed
with strange desert plants, brighter than the henna painted
on the hands of the women. The women wore veils; their costumes
had evolved through the millennia to protect skin from sun
and blowing sand. Since the climate had changed, they kept
to the old ways; the coverings protected them from the cold
and the damp.
The weather had been bad for
so long, it was beginning to look like another year without
summer. If the crops failed again, there'd be famine. The
years of good harvests had filled the silos with grain, enough
for people to have bread with their beans.
Hard times brought more vendors
out. People were selling their possessions, hoping to make
a little money to buy a fresh-caught fish to fill their bellies
at supper. They would be beggars soon; the more agile ones
would be picking pockets at the next Market.
Annie bought milk. A woman
with a little girl clinging to her skirt poured it into the
jug Annie had brought with her. Annie always looked closely
at children, searching their features, hoping to see a face
similar to hers, or rather to her sister's. Cass had been
missing for close to twenty years; her child had disappeared
She bought fresh cheese, and
a loaf of good breadthe
kind twisted by hand into a rough loaf, a little bit sour.
The loaf would be tough to pull apart, as though it resisted
her hands, but the bread inside the crust would be tender
and moist. She bought a spread made from edamame and oil to
go on the tortillas she would make herself, patting them thin
with her hands before cooking them on a griddle. A bag of
dried beans and a small bunch of cress, gathered that morning
from a stream, some salt, and her shopping was done.
Annie passed a sign reading
"Orange Alert. Power may be used for essential purposes
only. Private use of the grid prohibited until further notice."
There was no reason to glance at the sign, its orange color
faded from seasons of cold and damp. The grid had been restricted
for as long as Annie could remember.
She broke her fast at the
coffee shop. A roll filled with blueberries and soft sweet
cheese, with sugared nuts on top, warm from the oven. She
sat unnoticed, just as she wished, a small woman in drab clothes,
with close-cropped auburn hair and blue eyes in a serene face.
She seemed self-contained, as though wrapped in a bubble.
She smiled as the barista told a story, with much laughter,
about a snake. One of the story's characters said something
in Spanish, the barista dropping her voice and growling like
a cartoon bandito.
Annie took pleasure in browsing
the stalls, now that her shopping was finished and her belly
full. She stopped at a stall with goods from Before the End,
before they'd run out of oil due to bone-headed political
decisions made by her country's leadership.
She looked for a compass.
She was fascinated by them, imagining that eventually one
would point toward her old true north, her sister Cass. The
antiques stall had no compasses today, but interesting oddities
nonetheless. Her eye, or rather her hand, was drawn to a small
bowl, not perfectly formed, its shape a little irregular;
hand made, not factory produced; white inside, glazed blue
on the outside. She picked it up, liking the way it balanced
in her hand; the feel of the bowl sparked vague memories from
her childhood. "Now this is a funny little thing,"
she said, her thoughtful eyes on the vendor. "Where'd
you get it?"
"I picked it up at a
sale," he said. "An old woman died; she was quite
a collector. Her son was getting rid of all her things. I
only bought what I could carry in my trunks." He had
three foot lockers sitting end to end on the ground, with
his goods spread out on them. He was sitting on his hand cart,
the trunks' mode of transportation.
She wanted the bowl for the
feeling of nostalgia it sparked. Perhaps she'd keep it close
to her on her bedside chest or the kitchen windowsill to glow
in subdued light.
"How much?" she
he said. Little enough for an object suddenly become precious
Annie took her purchases home,
a small flat up a flight of stairs. She had two rooms, plus
kitchen and bath. The fireplace was an advantage; her laundry
was hanging in front of it today. She'd been told that, Before
the End, warm air had poured from the vents in each room.
She'd also been told that there had been machines in every
home to dry the wet laundry.
Not that she didn't believe.
She knew that the world was full of miracles and unknowns
and surprises, and she had evidence that things had once been
very different. She'd seen photographs of her ancestors, obese,
unhappy-looking people. The people of Annie's time were thinner,
from moving about on foot and eating lean rations.
The cat Blackie greeted her
with gentle head butts against her shins. He observed as she
knelt next to the low chest beside her futon; she placed the
bowl next to a funny little compass. It seemed to have a will
of its own; it never pointed true.
Over the next ten days, the
bowl worried her, nagged at her. She went about her days as
usual, teaching, marking essays, reading. Monday mornings
with her friend Mary at the coffee shop. The pub on Thursday
evenings, candle lit while on Orange Alert. Her routine was
comforting; everything in her life was as she wished it, except
for the absence of people dear to her, her sister Cass and
Cass's child, Annora.
Sometimes she dreamed that
she opened her eyes at night to see Cass sitting beside her,
gazing into the bowl. Sometimes Annie held the bowl in her
hand, remembering something she'd seen Cass do. So finally,
one wakeful night, she filled the bowl with clear water, ground
fresh ink using her ink stone and stick, saturated a brush
with darkness and dripped three drops of ink into the bowl.
Which quickly dispersed, turning the water pale gray.
Annie didn't know what she'd
expected. Cass was the one with the gift for scrying; she
would fill the bowl with clear water, add three delicate drops
of ink, and see. They'd called her a witch; they'd called
her a liar; they'd said she did it for money, a whore. Their
hatred for Cass had made Annie fearful, turned her inward,
but not inward like Cass was. Annie was self-contained, but
Cass's interior life had been rich and subtle. For her, the
ink would have formed an image, perhaps of a rambling rose,
rooty precursors and rambling consequences, the trunk consisting
of a single pivot action; or a picture, as clear as a painting
hung in a museum, of a visitor approaching, bringing curses
or blessings. Her visions always told true. Cass saw it all:
complexity, complicity, innocence, guilt.
Cass had earned her living
by scrying, wandering from fair to fair. She would send letters,
passed hand to hand by traveling vendors, until they reached
Annie, and Annie would send letters back to Cass. One day,
one of Annie's letters came back to her, tattered and stained,
passed along until it had come full circle. She asked someone
who traveled widely to check at various towns for letters
she'd sent to Cass, to see if they'd been picked up, and after
a great while he brought back a packet of Annie's letters.
Eventually, Annie came to believe that Cass was dead; it was
crazy-making, not knowing what had happened to Cass or her
Next Market Day, Annie found
the vendor with his three foot lockers and push cart. She
said, "Remember that bowl I bought from you?"
"The small blue one.
You said you bought it at an estate sale."
"Oh yeah, what about
it? I don't give refunds."
"No, it's just that I
wonder where you got it."
"Well, it's funny; I
wonder what it's made of, how old it is, where it came from."
The last question was the key one.
An old woman paused and moved
closer. Annie assumed she would be the vendor's next customer,
and so did he. He turned from Annie. "Can I help you?"
he asked, suddenly polite.
Annie moved on to the coffee
shop, figuring she'd only aggravate the vendor with further
questions. As she tipped her cup up and her head back to get
at the warm honey at the bottom of her mug, the old woman,
the one Annie'd seen talking to the antiques vendor, sat down
beside her at the counter. She greeted Annie with a "good
morning." There was something charming about her. Not
in her appearance; she was dressed as drably as Annie was.
Short gray hair like a cap, cut close to her head, and blue
eyes. Leather boots on her feet, a much older and well-worn
version of Annie's. Something about her was odd, disturbing,
but in an intriguing way. She was a conundrum, something Annie
couldn't quite put her finger on.
The old woman said to Annie,
"I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I overheard you asking
about an odd bowl." Annie liked the laugh lines around
her eyes and her humorous mouth. Tidy and small, she had a
self-contained air, as though surrounded by a bubble of calm.
She looked Annie in the eye, smiling. Annie was distracted,
trying to figure out how it was she knew her.
She extended her hand. "My
The old woman shook Annie's
hand. "And mine's Anna," she said. "The questions
you asked the vendor, about the bowl, well, it's just that
they reminded me of an odd story going around."
"I'll buy you a cup of
coffee if you'll tell me."
"I'll be happy to trade
my tale for a cup of coffee. It's a true story," she
said, "although it might not have happened yet. Once
upon a time..." At this point, Annie laughed.
She smiled and began again.
"The story begins with a casual theft. The theft of an
object small enough to be slipped into a backpack. It was
stolen from a shrine, a shrine under the protection of a deity,
no one knows what kind, but it was believed to be very old
and very powerful. The object itself, a bowl, was also old,
and had a long history of serving a useful purpose. The bowl
had been a tool, an instrument, and the last person who cherished
it had died violently. The man who found the bowl put it away
as a keepsake, a remembrance of the death of a powerful seer,
one who read the subtle weavings of time.
"Here's the second part
of the story. The seer was a mother; her death left a child
orphaned, a child left to fend for itself."
Annie's head snapped up; her
startled eyes jerked away from the coffee dregs she'd been
studying to focus on Anna's face.
"This is speculation
on my part," Anna continued, "but I wonder if perhaps
the bowl was given to the deity to protect in the hope that
the child would make use of it, that she would have her mother's
"And here's another piece
to the story, or else another story entirely, I don't know
which. A young woman had a small bowl, not perfectly formed,
its shape a little irregular, white inside but glazed blue
on the outside. From the moment she first saw the bowl, it
seemed familiar to her. When she was little, she'd often watched
her big sister gaze into one like it. One day, the young woman
looked into the bowl and saw an image, a vision of a grave,
an image of burnt bones in a brown pottery urn, a bone jar.
So one day she set off on a journey, on a quest to find her
"But what about the child?"
"If the details of the
story are true, the child remains near her mother's grave.
"Where? Where's the grave?"
"Oh, well, that I can't
Annie sat for a long time
after Anna left. The barista asked pointedly if she'd like
something else, and began to wipe with a damp rag around Annie's
empty coffee cup. Annie lifted her elbows, to allow the rag
to pass underneath, but still she sat, until her thoughts
formed a clear, straight progression. If the bowl were Cass's,
then Cass was dead, which she had long suspected. If the bowl
were Cass's and Cass was dead, and if Anna's tale was true,
then Cass's child lived. Annora. Her niece, her only family.
Cass had been gone a long time; Annie added up the years in
her head. Annora would be a young woman now.
Find the grave, find Annora.
A thought slowly formed: she'd
try the scrying bowl again. This time she had a question to
ask it; maybe that was the key, to have a real need, a deep
desire, and not some formless wish.
When she got home, Annie filled
bowl and ink stone with clear water; took up the ink stick
and ground fresh ink on the stone; saturated the brush; and
carefully let three drops of blackest ink fall into the clear
water. And this time she saw: a child sits at a crossroads,
crying, tears and snot on her face. A shadow falls over her,
shading her from the hot sun, and she looks up. A man bends
and lifts her up, awkwardly, because she struggles, she fights
and wails. Crossroads, signpost, man and child form a bright
image against the darkness of the ink, but Annie can't quite
read what the signpost says.
Annie told herself she must
wait until morning to set off to find Annora. For one thing,
she didn't know where to begin, how to map out her journey.
She didn't know her destination, only that she'd recognize
the place when she found it by the presence of Annora, her
family, her heart's home.
She took up the compass, the
one that was never really accurate, and decided to travel
in the direction it pointed her, trusting that it had a truth
of its own.
* * *
The trains Annie rode got
progressively older and smaller, and so did the train stations.
The last train was pre-War rolling stock, from a hundred years
Before the End. Tired from sitting up on trains, she'd slept
last night on the floor of a station. She'd ridden there with
children in school uniforms on their way home.
Early the next morning, after
a broken night's sleep, Annie delicately dropped ink into
the bowl and asked for guidance. This time the vision was
unclear: violence and agitation, rough hands and terror. The
only thing Annie could see clearly was a signpost with the
name of a town. Pryor.
* * *
Annie walked along a country
road toward Pryor, in the direction the station master had
pointed. A gentle mist had turned into a subdued snowfall;
the snow had been heavy for the past hour. Annie was tired
She thought this journey would
have been easier in early summer. She imagined an evening
in June, a long sweet-scented evening, cicadas singing, sawing
away in peach-scented mimosas. She turned to look behind her,
half expecting to see the sun setting in an apricot haze.
Instead she saw that the snow was craftily masking her footprints.
An owl, huge and menacing, swooped from the woods, across
the road, adding terror to Annie's coldness. She needed shelter
for the night.
She saw a farmhouse through
the snow, about a hundred yards ahead. She feared that it
was an apparition, a mirage. The house stood tall behind an
unpainted picket fence. The house was unpainted, too, weathered,
with a broad front porch running entirely around it. Sanctuary.
No light from the windows, no smoke from the stone chimney.
Annie climbed the three steps up to the porch, walking softly,
warily. The front door stood propped open with a rock.
From the door, Annie saw that
the front room was empty, a thin layer of dust on the floor.
No footprints in the dust, no cobwebs shrouding the windows.
A pine plank floor polished by feet and scrubbing. The place
had the aura of a home recently abandoned, Annie thought.
She crept upstairs to the second floor, clinging to the wall
of the stairway, senses straining in front of her. The house
was completely empty.
Annie closed the front door,
putting the rock against it on the inside. The air was still
and very cold, but at least it was dry. She leaned against
the wall. Her legs collapsed and she slid down. Squeezing
her shoulders together to loosen the tension in the back pack
straps, she grabbed the end of one strap and dragged it off.
She fell asleep, propped up against the wall.
She was awakened by whimpering.
A small white dog, cocking his ears forward, then back, he
shifted on his front paws, and then backed up. Annie opened
her pack and took out food. She fed herself and the dog. He
whimpered again, working his jaws as though trying to speak.
She unrolled her sleeping bag and got in, plummeting into
sleep again. She awoke once in the night to find the dog snuggled
up to her side
Annie dreamed of a graffiti-covered
bridge, painted not only on the sides, but underneath on the
concrete supports. She walked onto the substructure barefooted,
carefully balancing. She knew that she'd been there before
with a spray can, but this time she had a small bucket, like
a child's sand pail, filled with azure paint, the color of
joy, like a dream of sky, only bluer than sky ever was. She
walked balancing, as on a tightrope. She was barefooted, with
the pail in her left hand and a brush in her right. The water
below wasn't deep, but it was murky with suspended sand and
Sometime well past daylight,
she jerked awake. She placed the sound that had awakened her
as the dog's toenails scrabbling across the floor. Something's
scared him, she thought. She was tangled in the sleeping bag.
She threw herself forward, on her knees, crawling to the window.
She saw a party of hunters on the road, approaching the house.
Seeing them so suddenly, in this lonely place, shocked her
into movement. Questions flowed through her mind so quickly
they were made of fear more than words. Who were they? What
did they want? What would they do to a woman alone?
Adrenaline made her clumsy;
her fingers fumbled. She rolled up the bag, dragged the pack
towards her, and grabbed the handle on top. She was running
with the first step up from her knees. She didn't take time
to look behind her, her self-possession gone. The front yard
seemed vast. She crossed it upright, and then remembered to
crouch, hoping the fence would camouflage her. Through the
gate, across the dirt road.
It occurred to Annie that
she was leaving footprints in the snow. She looked behind
her and saw that the snow had begun melting in the weak sunshine.
Patches of soil and new spring grass were where she thought
her footprints would be. She was trackless, as good as being
invisible in the woods.
A mile or so up the road,
Annie found herself breathing again, walking with a quick,
even gait. The white dog joined her. "Fat lot of help
you were, mighty dog." They shared breakfast by the side
of the road.
She took her cue from the
dog when she heard a cart approaching. He stood up, facing
the way they'd come, as though waiting to hitch a ride. His
tail wagged at the sight of a well-used cart pulled by an
elderly horse driven by an even more elderly farmer.
"Shiro!" he said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"That's Shiro, the McCrary's
dog. He ran off the day they packed up."
"We're heading towards
Pryor. Can you give us a ride?"
"Sure. Hop up."
Shiro already had, so Annie joined him.
"Where'd you find him?"
the driver asked, meaning the dog.
Annie told the driver, whose
name was Quinn, about the night in the farmhouse and about
her fright. She felt sheepish, saying, "They were probably
just what they seemed to be, a party of huntsmen."
"You never can tell.
They might have been huntsmen, true, but it pays to keep a
sharp eye out for highway men."
"Yes. Bandits. We're
guessing there are at least two dozen of them. At first, they
only raided isolated farms, but they've become more brazen
in recent years, raiding villages and now even good-sized
towns. What they do is run off all the livestock, seize any
guns and ammunition they can find, take all the food, and
then take anything else that suits their fancy. They kill
if they're resisted."
"What about the law?"
"They are the law. You
were smart to run," he said.
"What brings you way
out here?" he asked, once they were under way.
"I'm trying to find my
niece. We got separated when she was little; she wouldn't
have known her way home, or maybe even how to say her name."
"Which was what?"
"Annora. Her name was
"How along ago did you
"Almost twenty years
"Why are you looking
now? And why here?" he asked.
After several moments of silence,
Quinn said, "Maybe you don't want to tell me."
"No," she said,
"It's just that I don't know where to begin."
"Begin at the beginning,"
"Well, that's the problem."
Where did the story begin? When she bought the bowl? Or when
it was stolen? Perhaps when it was placed at the shrine, under
protection, as a legacy. Or when Cass had stopped answering
"I'd better begin at
the middle. I don't know much about the beginning," Annie
said. "I have this
bowl." She dug around in her backpack until she found
it, wrapped up in a bundle, with ink stone, stick, and brush.
"Oh? Where'd you get
it?" Quinn stopped the horse. Taking the bowl in his
hands, he turned it, examining it.
"I bought it on Market
Day, in Coy."
"Is that your home? Coy?"
"Yeah. Well, I know this
sounds funny. But I bought it because it reminded me of someone.
Someone I knew a long time ago had one like it."
He turned to look at her.
"Who? Who did you know who had such a bowl?"
"My sister. How far is
it to Pryor?"
"Why are you going to
"I met an old woman,
in Coy, who told me a story about a young woman who had a
bowl like mine. She, the young woman in the story, went on
a journey and I think she went in the direction of Pryor."
"This old story teller,
who was she, exactly?"
"I think she was me,
or the me I'll be in about 30 years." She tried to break
eye contact with Quinn; she wanted to look at her hands, at
Shiro, at the horse's rump, anywhere but at Quinn as she voiced
this half-formed idea. She expected an expression of surprise
from him, or disbelief, as though he were dealing with a crazy
woman. Instead, he asked what she expected to find in Pryor.
"I hope to find my heart's
desire, Annora, my family."
A few hours later they bumped
across an old highway, across two lanes of broken pavement.
A sign hanging over the road, faded and wind damaged, marked
the exit ramp to Pryor. Quinn paused on an overgrown median
where a track had been worn through the brush, two wagon ruts
with a path beaten down in the middle by hooves. He spoke
quietly, his eyes turned inward, examining an old memory,
mining it for overlooked details.
"A long time ago, I passed
through here. And I saw evidence of a killing; blood and belongings
and the trappings of a child. A random killing, I figured,
a lone woman and child attacked for whatever she carried in
her pack. I've often wondered what happened here. If it had
been a killing, why was there no body? Perhaps she'd fled
with her child, leaving their things behind. It was a pitiful
sight. I always stop and remember."
Not long after, Quinn dropped
her on the far edge of Pryor, with the suggestion that she
let Shiro lead the way. They walked long past darkness until
they came to an inn called The Running Man.
Coming in from out of the
cold past fogged up windows, Annie and Shiro were greeted
by the smell of beef, potatoes, and carrots, in a stew with
dark beer added; the scent evocative of home, parents and
grandparents; what supper with a family used to smell like.
The people in the dining room,
though, bore no resemblance to any family she remembered.
One sullen group appeared to have staked out their territory
nearest the warmth of the fireplace. To Annie's eyes, they
were an odd assembly. Unkempt men with a variety of weapons
lying close at hand, a pitcher of ale being passed down the
table beneath a smoky haze. Several members of the group turned
towards the door at Annie's and Shiro's entrance.
A few solitary travelers sat,
pointedly minding their own business. She decided to follow
their lead. If she kept her wits about her, she'd be okay.
Annie sat on a bench against
the wall, scarred table before her. A man asked if she was
using the chair across from her; she shook her head no, and
he took it. After supper, she decided it was too early to
go up to bed; besides, the bedroom would be cold.
Annie stretched to reach her
pack, lying on the floor beside the sleeping Shiro. She took
out bowl, ink stone, and brush. With practice her skill was
sharpening, becoming more muscular. She put ink into the bowl,
and saw: Cassie's child, sitting on a path. She has white-blonde
hair, jagged, like it was cut with a knife, not scissors,
and she's dirty, and has tears and snot on her face. She's
looking up. A shadow falls across her, someone's standing
over her. He squats down, to be closer to her level, says
'Well, now, what have we here?" He looks at her, looks
at the figure hanging from a dilapidated highway sign, green
and white, high up over the road, saying exit here for Pryor.
He picks her up. Rebalancing the pack on his back, he carries
her on one hip, awkwardly, because she fights and struggles.
The bowl became full of the
passage of time, the story of their journey told in shadows.
The signpost and the man himself cast a shadow toward the
west. He walks with his shadow before him, the shadow becoming
shorter and then lengthening behind. A full day's walk towards
the west, Annie thinks. And then crossing a plank thrown over
a stream. An ornate door, traces of scarlet and gilding. A
feeling of home. He lights a lantern, lays the sleeping child
on a pallet.
A woman approached her, asking,
"Can you see the future in that thing? Are you a wise
The question jolted Annie
from her vision
"I'll offer you silver
if you'll read my fortune," the woman said.
"Careful, she might read
more than your future. She might see your past, too. Winkle
out your secrets." A woman said this, causing her companions
to laugh. One of the men in their group sat, tossing a bottle,
up and over, catching it by the neck, then tossing it again,
not looking at the bottle, but watching Annie.
So Annie told their fortunes
with good humor, after they solemnly crossed her palm with
silver. She was surprised at how much knowledge she gained
from the bowl; and when the bowl didn't answer her questions,
how willing her listeners were to accept made-up details.
She delayed going to the privy
as long as possible; it was cold and dark, and she knew the
privy would smell bad. Before she went outside, she took her
pack and Shiro upstairs, settling both into her room.
He jumped her on the stairs
as she returned. A small, sinewy man, the one who'd been tossing
the bottle. He'd stood on the landing, smoking. Annie had
a candle in her hand, to light her way to bed; she held it
with her palm and fingers wrapped around the candle stick,
to hold it steady in the shadows. He was at the far reaches
of the candle light, a demon vision.
He lunged while she was still
a few steps below him, launching himself downward. Moving
silently, swiftly, he tried to capture both her hands in one
of his. Twisting around as he dragged her towards her room,
she swung at him with the candle stick, swiping it sideways
and catching him in the windpipe. He staggered, but didn't
loosen his grip, and dragged her along with him, slamming
his shoulder against the door, hard.
She heard Shiro whining from
behind the door. Her mind moved slowly and clearly, while
her body fought. Annie thought about how she shouldn't have
locked the dog inside the room, although the silly thing hadn't
been of much use that morning.
The door didn't give way when
they crashed into it. He hit it again, hard, with his shoulder
and they crashed through, to be greeted by a manic ball consisting
of fur, teeth and gleaming eyes. The man let go, putting his
arms up to protect his face from Shiro.
Annie saw the pistol pushed
into his belt, against the small of his back. She grabbed
it and fired, stunned by the noise and light. She hadn't taken
time to aim. She didn't wait to see if she'd hit him.
Grabbing her pack in one hand
and Shiro by his collar in the other, too frantic to be kind,
she yelled at him, "Come on!" and dragged him through
the door and down the stairs; Shiro kept trying to turn around
and finish his attack.
They bolted downstairs. The
inn was silent, except for the sound of her breath, loud in
Annie's ears. She sensed people behind doors, not sleeping,
A mule train, all bells and
commotion, was preparing to leave the inn's yard. The driver
looked at Annie and nodded. They moved at a steady pace, Annie
and Shiro on foot, the driver and guards riding on mules.
At dawn, the train continued north, but Annie and Shiro turned
* * *
Late in the afternoon, Annie
saw a farmhouse at the end of an ascending path. She stopped
at a distance, watched and waited. She saw a low building
with a tile roof, gray on gloomy days like today. The heavy
wooden door was ornate with carving and traces of red paint
and gilding. The door was propped open, light leaking out,
from candles or a lantern Annie guessed, and smoke from burning
There was a stream in front
of the house. Shiro led the way across a board plank that'd
been thrown across. He seemed to know where he was going.
It's like he sees something not visible to human eyes, she
thought, something not apparent in the still gray air. Annie
followed him around the house to a cave, with a shrine just
outside the opening into the earth.
Annie felt a presence, which
she defined as spooky. Apparently the dog felt it, too. He
whined, once, and walked backwards, his hackles rising, although
he seemed unwilling to turn his eyes away from the shrine.
Annie moved in jerky steps, her muscles rigid. She crouched,
bending to examine a weathered statue, and, next to it, a
large pottery urn. Ashes inside, and bits of bone. Annie lost
her center of gravity, somehow. Trying not to fall against
the jar, she fell hard on the ground and scooted back on her
butt, her adrenaline making her clumsy.
She stood up, balancing against
a tree in a patch of melting snow. She could smell food cooking,
some spice she didn't recognize, coming from the house. Shiro,
she noticed, had headed towards the scent of food.
A middle-aged man stood in
the open door, a young woman behind him. Daughter or wife?
Annie wondered. His name was William, he said, and hers was
Jerric. Annie thought it a good name for the young woman with
short white-blond hair and strong features. Jerric had the
Chinese character for life tattooed on her bicep.
"We saw you coming,"
Jerric said. "You and your companion." She bent
to pat Shiro on the head, ruffling his ears. He circled her
like a cat, looking up, hoping for dinner, Annie supposed.
Jerric set another place at
the table and filled a bowl for Shiro while William stood
at the stove, transferring food from pots to bowls. Objects
on a sideboard drew Annie's attention: a milk glass spoon
holder with spoons and chopsticks and a fountain pen; a stack
of leather-bound books; a pot of basil; an oil lamp with a
smoke-marked chimney; a stack of letters, tied with a lavender
ribbon; a small crystal pendulum tangled up with a delicate
silver chain; baby shoes. The objects rested upon a brightly
patterned scarf edged with tiny bells. Annie picked up a small
shoe and cradled it in her palm, while looking at a black
mirror propped against the wall. She felt she knew what use
it was put to.
"Whose is the black mirror?"
"It's mine," Jerric
"Can you see the past
in that thing?" Because that's mostly what Annie could
see in her bowl.
"No, only the future,"
"Is that how you knew
we were coming?"
"Yes," Jerric replied.
Annie knelt to her pack. She
had to remove several layers of soft clothing to get to the
bundle. As she unwrapped the bowl she said, "Do you recognize
this?" Because she had recognized some of the things
on the sideboard. The baby shoes. The scarf. The bundle of
letters in her handwriting.
Jerric didn't recognize it
at first, but William did. "Can you see anything in it?"
"Yes. I'll tell you what
I saw. I saw a child, and a man, and a journey."
And of course William recognized
her vision, because he was in it.
Annie turned to Jerric and
said, "And here's something I know. Not from scrying,
but from remembering. There once was a child named Annora."
Jerric moved to stand behind
William, her arms around his waist, her head against his shoulder
William suggested that they
open a bottle of wine. They ate and drank in the glow of fire
light. Between them, they knew most of the story. Not precisely
why Cass was killed, but where and when. And how her tool
had made its way to Annie, and that the gift shared by Cass
and Annie had been inherited by Annora.
Annie helped with the dishes
after supper. When the kitchen was clean, she spread her bag
out and fell asleep with Shiro at her side.
She didn't awaken the next
morning when William got up, or when Annora brewed coffee
and fried eggs, or even when William left the house, accompanied
by Shiro, his toenails clicking on the tile floor. She didn't
awaken at the sound of birdsong. But she did awaken when the
spring sunshine crept across her face, dazzling her eyes with
the promise of summer.