by Kay Calkins

A woman journeys to find her heart's desire, Annora, her family.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



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 on.

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 tended it.

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 with her.

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 asked.

"Three coppers," he said. Little enough for an object suddenly become precious to her.

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 child.

Next Market Day, Annie found the vendor with his three foot lockers and push cart. She said, "Remember that bowl I bought from you?"

"What bowl?"

"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 name's Annie."

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 gift.

"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 sister's grave."

"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 say."

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 and cold.

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 slimy rocks.

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?" Annie said.

"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."

"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?" she asked.

"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?" he asked.

"Annora. Her name was Annora."

"How along ago did you get separated?"

"Almost twenty years ago."

"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," he said.

"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 her letters.

"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?" he asked.

"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 Pryor?"

"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 woman?"

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, but waiting.

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 west.

* * *

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 incense, too.

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?" she asked.

"It's mine," Jerric said.

"Can you see the past in that thing?" Because that's mostly what Annie could see in her bowl.

"No, only the future," Jerric said.

"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 blade.

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.




Copyright © 2008 Kay Calkins

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