Ten o’clock is a carmine that has a mind of its own, eleven o’clock an aquamarine that I never quite mix enough of, twelve o’clock is a delicate pink with an unsuspectingly tenacious stain on my palette.
Daylight momentarily resists, then crumbles under pressure and feathers the bottom of a milky jar. Time pours into a stained yoghurt tub, pours out, pours in, pours out.
There is barely a moment spared for eating, cleaning, or rolling sore shoulders: every second needs to be channelled into pigment.
When the last of daylight has been scraped from the jar, the colours begin to warp.
The colours of the night like to deceive. Ten o’clock is a deep purple that looks black under the electric lights, I know eleven o’clock to be a light limey green but I can only see yellow, twelve o’clock refuses to blend smoothly, chunks of burnt orange floating in a tangerine base.
The canvas sits and waits for time to dry upon its surface. I scrub minutes from my fingers, seconds from beneath my nails, and an unruly moment from its attempted escape onto my shirt.
I discharge time from its monotonous polytone task, and release it to transform into other things.
Guppy’s feet hurt. It turned out no-one had bothered to cobble the world outside (to be fair she could see why, it was the least interesting thing her eyeballs had ever bled over). Instead, it was full of mud and puddles and grit and rocks and miles and miles of emptiness.
The first day, she’d actually tried to pay attention to the journey so she could find her way back on the off-chance that they could escape. This proved to be doubly pointless: there was about as much differentiation as you’d find between the undersides of two slime covered paving slabs, and Grey’s knife never wavered from view.
By day two, she was envisioning herself being carried along in a golden palanquin so her shredded leather soles floated above that bloody miserable surface.
By day four, she’d decided that if she were king, she would command that the entire land be covered in paving slabs with lots of fruit vendors dotted around the place. And her subjects would be ordered to mill along making lots of noise so there wasn’t this head-exploding silence.
It turned out that Nate was even more miserable than she was (she felt a bit bad that this cheered her up). Grey kept him to heel through the entire march, and had been forcing him to tell the tiniest of lies over and over again.
This had resulted in his rag-doll body getting repeatedly spattered with vomit, though Grey somehow always managed to stay out of the splash zone.
Shame, thought Guppy.
She supposed that it was possible there might have been a little less vomit exiting Nate’s mouth than there had been at the beginning, so maybe his tolerance was getting better. Or maybe he was just a whole lot emptier.
Grey was looking grimmer, and Guppy suspected her threat to dump Nate was getting more likely by the day.
Time to take action.
They’d set up for camp in a small copse that offered some shelter from the constant drift of rain that spiderwebbed their clothing. As ever, they ate in silence, jaws working over leathered strips of meat and small pats of nut-tack. Grey had taken to stalking a few more strides away to sleep, though she made sure her blades were still all too visible in the grey light.
‘Nate!’ Guppy hissed at the huddled figure curled up at the foot of a wide oak. She kept one eye on Grey, who lay completely still across the small clearing.
The boy stirred and rolled slowly over to look at her.
‘What do you want, Guppy?’ He sounded completely exhausted, voice emptied of every trace of fear. She scrambled forward over the squishy ground.
‘You gotta figure this thing out, else she’s gonna boot you. And you don’t want to end up with another slaver again.’
He shook his head, voice rising. ‘I’ve tried! I’ve been trying for days! I’m just not like you.’
Guppy paused, chewing her lip. ‘See the thing is, Nate, I reckon that lying is all about what you think is the truth. If I know something’s a lie, then it tastes like a lie. But if I say something I think is the truth, then it never tastes bad even if I find out later I was wrong. So I don’t get hung up on truth, it’s all just what I think at the time. And maybe that’s why it don’t taste so bad when I lie, part of me knows it could be the truth, somewhere, for someone.’
Nate’s pale face wrinkled, ‘So you’re saying truth doesn’t exist?’
Guppy shrugged, ‘I’m saying I’ve never found it all that reliable. Maybe that could help you.’
He sighed, ‘I’ll try. But I don’t see how going with Grey is any better than being with a slaver anyway.’
She nodded, glancing back at the long lean shadow that lurked behind her. ‘I’m not sticking with her, we’ll run as soon as we can. But if you can’t lie, you’ll get dumped off somewhere.’
‘Why do you even care?’
Guppy scowled. ‘I bloody well nearly burnt my tongue off last time I dropped you in it. I don’t fancy trying that again.’
He snorted softly, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’
‘Again.’ Grey’s voice pulled Guppy awake. Grey and Nate were standing a few paces away, their faces turned away.
‘I’m from Casta.’ Nate’s voice wobbled slightly, but there was no heave to his shoulders, not a single retch.
Guppy sat up, eyes widening.
‘You’re a servant from Casta.’ Grey’s voice was as bored as it had been the day before.
‘I’m a servant from Casta.’
‘Good, you need to keep your face from screwing up, it’s still easy to see you’re uncomfortable. Again.’
Guppy flopped back with a wild grin. He’d finally done it.
It was another three days before Casta came into view. Nate had only had four more vomiting incidents and was slowly getting better at keeping his face from scrunching.
The capital city rose from the landscape in stocky steep pillars of dark grey. Walls made of blocks bigger than Guppy herself soared far ahead and curved around as far as her eyes could see. But with the looming grey came a new scent that flared her nostrils, had her sticking her tongue out to taste. Salt, like an exaggerated tale with the barest hint of truth, but a subtle sting rather than an eye-watering punch.
‘Guppy! Pay attention.’ Grey’s fingers gripped her shoulder in a fierce pinch. ‘We need to get to the palace without anyone paying any attention to you. This isn’t going to happen if you keep gawping around. Get your head down.’
Guppy rolled her eyes and mouthed a silent imitation of her captor, but kept her head down as Grey walked them toward the heavily guarded gate in the wall.
At the very edge of her vision, she watched the city pass by. It smelt more or less the same as home, apart from the salt that hung in the air – bread and uncleaned drains and brew and sweat. She nodded to herself. This she could deal with.
And then she saw the palace.
There was no helping the gawp. She pulled to a halt to stare, barely noticing Nate run into her from behind.
The palace streaked straight up from the edge of the city, surrounded by ordered groves of ancient looking trees that were weighed down by heavily scented blooms. It was made of the same grey stone as the rest of the city, but the blocks were much smaller, allowing for an almost delicate construction that was bigger than any building Guppy had ever imagined, let alone seen.
Grey looked back over her shoulder, impatient frown ever present.
‘What did I tell you about gawping?’
Guppy shook the startled expression from her face, and trotted toward the perfumed grove.
I crawled into my first shell in childhood, a tiny whorl of cream that settled a comforting weight around my shoulders.
Likes reading, more slapdash than her brother, bit of a temper, proud, lies really well, perfectionist.
I outgrew that first shell in my teenage years and found myself a larger one, a cone splattered with brown.
Thoughtful, doesn’t like getting things wrong, good at big picture stuff, hates trying new things unless she knows she’ll be good at them. Good with other people but doesn’t always have the confidence to speak up.
When I headed to university, I moved into a long pale spiral that gleamed inside.
Works well with others but needs her own space, will step up to lead if given a shove. Picks things up quickly, sees too many sides to successfully argue just one angle.
And so I moved as I changed, finding new homes whenever I outgrew the last.
I’ve been in my current shell for the last few years. It’s a gorgeous mottled green, fading to yellow at the tip. It fitted well, holding all that I am, all that I enjoy, and all that I was capable of.
But now it hangs loose about me.
The person who chose this home saw the world differently, had different expectations, and had assumptions that can no longer come to pass.
It is time to choose another shell.
There is a sadness in leaving one behind: I’m losing the familiar and the loyal, and moving into the unknown. But with change comes potential and possibility.
This new shell will contain my new self as it moves along a perpendicular path. It will be a shelter to life’s tides, a safe place to regroup and regrow.
Guppy’s eyes slid their way along all five inches of a slick steel blade, past a fine boned ivory hand, and up to the hardened eyes of a woman she’d never seen before.
‘You and your friend are going to keep your mouths shut and come with me. Nod to show you understand.’ The woman’s voice was a hushed rasp in the darkness. Guppy nodded, elbowing the boy behind her to do the same. She was painfully aware that any movement she made could press her throat against that skinny blade.
‘Good. We’re heading to the granary. If you try to run, you’ll get a knife in your back.’ The tone was brutally matter-of-fact. She gave Guppy a sharp shove after her knife slid away into the dark. ‘Move.’
They set off again, the sharp clicks of the woman’s heels punctuating their journey through narrow streets to the southern-most outskirts of the town. Here the cobbles turned to dirt, and the warm lights of houses fell away to leave them coated in murk. The boy’s gasps almost sounded shrill.
The granary loomed up from the darkness, blocky shapes afloat heavy stone blocks. The woman stalked to the store at the very rear, and reached up to open the wooden door. She beckoned to the children.
Guppy held the boy behind her, shoulders back and mouth set in a defiant line. The woman rolled her eyes and before Guppy could move, that blade was back in those fine white fingers, loosely held in lazy threat.
Guppy scrambled forward and gave the boy a boost up to the doorway, shooting a scowl at the woman before hoiking herself up behind him. The store was mostly empty, save for scatterings of grain underfoot. There was a scraping behind them, and then pitch darkness as the woman closed the door.
After a moment, there was a faint scrape followed by a soft hum, and a warm yellow glow burned through the black, emitted by the gleaming glass tube the woman placed by her thigh.
She sat leaning back against one wall, long legs between Guppy and the doorway. She was dressed in greys, head to toe, including a heavy woollen cloak stained with mud around its hem. Her face was all angles, the light catching planes and casting shadows so it appeared one half of her was made of darkness. Even her eyes were grey. The eye in the light was fixed on Guppy’s face.
‘So. It seems you two managed to get yourselves into an impressive amount of trouble. That slaver you cheated is rampaging all over town. Names?’
The boy beside Guppy hitched in a breath, then said, ‘Nate, I don’t know hers, she can’t talk.’
‘Is that so?’ The woman’s shadow eyebrow rose. Guppy stuck out her tongue yet again, feeling aggrieved that today of all days she couldn’t donate a piece of her mind to all the people she’d met. The woman leaned forward, inspecting. One hand slid to a pocket on the inside of her cloak. Guppy stiffened, but the hand emerged holding a small brown glass pot, rather than a blade.
‘Take a fingerful of this and rub it over your tongue. It’ll help the swelling go down.’
Guppy snorted. As if she was going to chomp something a crazy knife kidnapper waved at her. Before the snort was over, said kidnapper was waving said knife in her other hand.
‘This isn’t a suggestion, girl. It’s an order.’
Guppy leaned forward and dipped a finger into the ruddy goop in the pot. She took a suspicious sniff. It smelled kinda lemony. Tentatively she swiped it over the tip of her tongue and then as the cooling sensation spread, she eased her finger over the rest of the swollen mass. Abruptly it became easier to breathe, as her tongue began to deflate. And the stuff even tasted nice. Neat.
The woman waited for a minute, then put the pot away.
‘Tongue?’ Guppy stuck it out again. The woman gave a sharp nod. ‘Right, let’s try that again. Name?’
‘Guppy. What’s yours?’ It came out with a bit of a sticky slur but at least didn’t hurt anymore.
‘You’ve got no need for my name, girl.’
‘Guppy, not girl.’
The woman stared at her. An eyeball thrashing had never had any effect on Guppy in the past, it wasn’t about to bother her now.
‘You can call me Grey. You’re in up to your necks. You’ve pissed off a major slaver and he’s got a good enough description of you that you’re finished in this town and probably the whole region. I’m going to do you a favour.’
Guppy raised her eyebrow in turn. ‘Does the favour involve your knife? That seemed real friendly back there.’
‘Silence.’ The woman snarled the word, moving her knife hand with gut watering speed and slamming it into the boards an inch from Guppy’s left foot.
Guppy decided she should probably shut up for now and hear the crazy lady out.
‘I’ve been keeping an eye on you. You seem to think you’re clever, child, when really you’re nothing but a petty thief. Still, a thief with potential.’ Grey frowned, pulling the knife from the board with a sharp tug. ‘You’ve accelerated my timeline a bit with your ridiculous plan – gods know what I’m going to do with him.’ Nate shrunk back from the shadowed glare.
She focussed back on Guppy. ‘Have you heard of the Cerium?’
Guppy shrugged, ‘They tried to bump the old king off afore he went and copped it anyway.’
Grey gave a slow nod. ‘The Cerium failed in their attempts on the former king’s life, but they continue to lay snares for the present king. They were nearly successful not two months ago when the king was at the Spring Palace. Their plots were discovered and the king was made safe. But they will try again.’
Guppy gave another shrug, ‘Don’t mean nothing to me. No king ever made a difference to my life.’
Grey shook her head, ‘So naive. The world as you know it would fall apart if the king fell. He has no heir, no family. The kingdom would fall to civil war, and that would certainly affect your life. And so I ask that you give something to save the king.’
Guppy stared at Grey. ‘Ask? That the kind of asking that involves that there knife you’ve been waving around? Seems to me that isn’t exactly asking.’
‘Ah, let’s say, I strongly suggest that you give something to save the king. You have a talent girl, one that the king would greatly value.’ Her eyes burned into Guppy’s. ‘You have a way with lies.’
Guppy met her eyes with straight out denial, ‘Nope.’ Her mouth flooded with sourness, stinging her still tender tongue.
Grey smiled as though she could taste the lie too. ‘Have you always thought it was just you? One girl in all the kingdom who can speak untruths without consequences? There aren’t many but those who are discovered are trained mercilessly and brought into service.’
Guppy frowned. ‘Trained mercilessly?’
‘It’s the kind of training that involves red hot pins under fingernails, mental torment, and unspeakable tortures, whilst being told to say “I’m fine” repeatedly without cease.’ Bleakness seemed to run over the woman’s features at her words.
Guppy swallowed. ‘Well, that doesn’t really sound like all that much fun, thanks and all that.’
‘You seem to have learned much without formal training, so I think we can proceed to the practical. We need people to act on the kingdom’s behalf against those who are suspected of being members of the Cerium. We need spies, Guppy. And spies need to be able to lie.’
‘And what about Nate here, he can’t lie.’ Guppy turned to the boy, ‘You can’t, can you?’ He shook his head, face pale. ‘Right, he can’t lie so he’s no good as a spy, right? I’m not about to hare off and leave him to the slavers.’
Grey tapped her long fingers against a grey boot. ‘The boy is a bit of an unforeseen problem. Perhaps we can try to teach him the skill. If not, we’ll leave him somewhere far enough away that the slavers won’t recognise him. My word on it.’
‘Riiiight. The word of someone who abducts boys and girls at knifepoint. Real trustworthy, I’m sure.’ Guppy reeled back as a ringing blow hit her left cheekbone. Grey seized her by the neckline and yanked her back the other way until they were nose to nose.
‘You’ve got lip, girl. If you keep using it, I’ll start slicing pieces off. If you try to sneak off, I’ll hack you into fish food. And whatever I do to you, I do to him.’ Grey nodded at the trembling boy at Guppy’s side.
Guppy shoved her furious response down. Time to be smart.
‘Fine. So what’s going to happen to us?’
Grey eased back. ‘Tomorrow we leave this dump and head for Casta. Get your heads down for now.’
She picked up the light tube and the glow winked out with a hiss.
‘And in case you get any ideas, you should know that I sleep with a blade in each hand.’
There’s so much love there. Two people who will literally sandwich me when I’m howling and bathed in eau du vomit. They will hold me fast against the strange forces that wreck my body. They will feed me, comfort me, walk for me, and help me scrape the bottom of the barrel for sticky dregs of laughter.
Time stops there. Away from the life I have built for myself, the people I have collected, the places I call my own. There live the ones who knew me first, from knee high upward. There are the ones who taught me, inspired me, keep me in their hearts even now. It is there that childhood memories are unpacked.
Home brings summer flowers and cool rooms, new grown frogs and an old purring lap blanket.
And yet a part of me asks, what then?
Is this forever?
Am I letting go of this life I’ve been building and falling a decade backward? Acceding to whatever it is that tears at my body?
Perhaps home must be given new lines to speak. I must dust it off, wipe away the sepia and see it in the light of the present.
Safe harbour in the midst of this ship-wrecking storm.
Her tongue felt as swollen as a ten day old sausage, and had turned a similar grey-green colour. Guppy poked at it dubiously in her warped tin-kettle reflection. It didn’t pop, which was probably a good sign.
She really hoped it didn’t fall off.
She had made her way out earlier, keenly aware that it might raise suspicions if she wasn’t spotted in her usual haunts. Happily, she never really spoke to anyone anyway (at least when she wasn’t lying), so her silent blistered mouth hadn’t been a problem.
The whole town seemed to be aflutter over yesterday’s incident. The baker’s wife was enjoying the attention, dramatically recounting just how horrifically traumatic it had all been, with one hand pressed to her bouncing bosom. Guppy snorted in disgust, then casually scooped up some particularly moist horse dung and dropped it in the woman’s carelessly unattended basket.
The boy had been taken to the lock-up, according to a man nursing a wobbling tankard. The boy had been wheeled away in the night, according to an over-excited milkmaid. The boy had never existed and it was all a conspiracy designed to make people think that – Guppy didn’t stay to hear the rest of that theory.
The most reliable source, the guards, were thankfully just as chatty as the rest of the townsfolk. The boy had been taken to the guard house overnight, but was now being held at an inn while awaiting collection by a private owner. It took her another hour to figure out which of the inns was housing the boy, and the rest of the afternoon to finish her preparations.
She went for tried and true, and nicked a pinny from the pile of washing on Mother Arbie’s back doorstep. It was unfortunately a pinny for someone with the approximate girth of two large beer barrels, but she figured if she wrapped it around enough times, it’d do. This unfortunately had the effect of turning Guppy into an immobile starched cylinder, and she had to redo the whole affair three times before she was able to walk in it. The multiple attempts had also resulted in considerable muck spreading over the formerly-known-as-white surface, so she was a bit dubious about being allowed anywhere near a kitchen at this point.
Still, she figured people should bloody well be grateful to have an extra pair of hands about. Even if said hands were attempting to steal a small grubby boy.
It was the inn on the north-eastern road, which headed off toward the capital city and the coast. It was a clean enough place, big stable round the back and six or seven rooms upstairs. It was usually frequented by traders (most of whom stayed for as short a time as possible), and the occasional staffer (they didn’t like to be called slavers anymore, something about making it hard to fit into decent company).
Two deep breaths and Guppy headed in, with only a slight pinny-induced waddle. It was mostly quiet in the corridors, all the noise was coming from the kitchen at this time of night. She found herself a basket and swiftly started stuffing it with various towels and cloths. Basket under one arm, she headed upstairs and knocked on the first of the guest doors. Silence. She pressed her finger to the latch and pushed on the heavy wood.
Empty, just a greyish bed in a greyish room.
Rooms two and three were the same, so it clearly wasn’t peak season for the inn. Room four gave a muffled shout to come in, and she popped her head around to see an overstuffed gentleman attempting to pull a brilliant purple coat over his straining arms. He barely glanced at her when she asked for laundry and so, after a quick scan of the room, she left him to his herculean effort.
Room five was silent. She thumbed the latch open and peered in, then immediately felt her heart kick into a faster beat. Gotcha.
The boy didn’t look up. He was tied to the head of the bed by a length of rope that allowed him as far as the chamberpot but no further. His mouth was stuffed with something that looked like it might taste even worse than the flavours she usually encountered. That pinched face was nearly clean, but the raw red eyes suggested it might have been washed with tears rather than pump water.
Guppy snuck in, gently pushed the door closed and set the basket down on the floor. The boy was staring at her. She held a finger to her lips, then pulled the rag out of his mouth. He retched, spat, and began to gnaw at the cord at his wrists. Bonds undone, he stood and glared at her.
‘What are you doing here?’ His tone was not in the slightest bit grateful.
Guppy frowned and shook her head, his glare hardened.
‘You could talk well enough yesterday.’
She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue for inspection. His recoil made her suspect that it hadn’t improved much from its earlier inflated state.
She stuck her thumb behind her at the door, beckoned. He just sat down on the bed, mouth firmed into a belligerent line. Guppy waved her hands frantically in front of him, gave him a none-too-gentle yank.
‘I don’t know who you are, but you weren’t on my side yesterday. There’s no way I’m going anywhere with you.’
He was clearly mentally defective.
She slapped her hands in exasperation against the mottled pinny and stomped around, reaching for the door.
It nearly hit her in the face.
The man behind it quirked a thin gold eyebrow at her. He was slickly dressed in a dark green tailcoat and pale gold trousers, making her think of a particularly skinny tree.
‘And who are you, er,’ his nose wrinkled pointedly, ‘Young lady? Two for one deal is it?’
Guppy scowled and gave him a vicious kick to the shin.
The boy stared in horror as the man crumpled thanks to Guppy’s follow up knee to his delicates. She reached over the man and grabbed the boy’s arm to drag him out the door, scuttling down the narrow steps and out the back entrance. Extremely angry swearing was audible from the open window above.
Guppy lowered her head and pelted faster, boy in tow.
She’d already decided she couldn’t take him to her usual sleeping place, too much risk they’d be seen. But there was a mostly forgotten cellar full of rotten potatoes behind old man Leecher’s house, and she’d spent a night or two there without any hassle before.
She could hear the boy starting to wheeze, and though she gave a scornful huff, she eased up the pace. They couldn’t run through the streets anyway, not without someone seeing and remembering.
They were five streets away from the house when she heard sharp footsteps behind them. She bustled the boy into the shadowed side of the cobbled street and hustled him onward, one ear listening to those footsteps in their wake.
Four streets away.
Three streets away.
Two streets – the footsteps had gone silent. Guppy whirled, pushing the boy behind her.
And found the sharp edge of a blade beneath her chin.
Or if not magic, then convincingly futuristic sounding “medicine”.
Or if not futuristic medicine, then convincingly ancient sounding “medicine”.
This is the gap that bleeds hope.
It exists in our minds alone. The world gives little care for concepts like ‘unfairness’ or ‘undeserving’.
The world just is. And sometimes we cannot trace our patterns of meaning over its contours.
The gap is vulnerable. It wants to be filled. Like a child it reaches for anything that comes into its vicinity.
And there are always those with a shark’s sense for blood.
They will circle when hope cries out, carefully brewed oil of snake or poisoned apple in hand. They wear a mask of utmost sympathy, and speak with the zeal of one with absolute fact at their back.
And what can hope do but reach for a taste?
Charms, crystals, prayers, herbs, mysterious energy reading machines – just a little more, just a little longer, one more day-month-year. The cure lies just around the corner.
‘Lies’ being the operative word.
The gap hungers, whimpers, so tired of the ache of hoping yet never quite fulfilling.
Yet if we let gods, magic, mysticism, or alternative medicines pass us by, what balm can soothe the gap?
I fill my gap with my own absolute insignificance.
With the scale of this planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. With the incredible statistical feat of my existence. With the duration of my life against the age of the Sun. With the breathtaking beauty of a world that will continue to rotate uncaring and unaware of the motes that scatter its surface.
It is here that I find comfort. Meaning in the absolute meaningless of space. For all that humanity builds or destroys, our wars, our discoveries, our loves and joys, those we laud or despise, we are but a blink. Everything we know and discover is incredible, and yet utterly insignificant against all that we do not know.
My gap overflows.
And though this may not find cures or solutions, there is a peace that comes with perspective. Yes, I am insignificant. But how wonderful it is to have the capacity to think that thought.