By way of a leaf-strewn country path, I accompanied Fall home. At least, we had begun as companions traveling the same way. But now he sagged against me and I hauled him along as best I could. Golden days had turned sharp and brittle, crunchy leaves growing damp and moldy underfoot. Low gray clouds raced overhead.
“I waited too long,” he muttered, again and again. His glorious crown of golden leaves, sheaves of wheat, rosy apples, orange gourds, and brittle twigs lay somewhere far behind. Discarded when the weight grew too heavy. His cheeks sunken. His gaze hollow, distant.
We arrived at a house nestled on a rise between trees whose leaves only just clung to their branches. Frost glittered along window sills and bloomed in bursts over glass panes. At the foot of the stairs, Fall waved me off and straightened up, taking the stone stairs one labored step at a time.
A shuffle happened just within the doorway as he collapsed inside and a woman exited. She paused on the front step, breathing in a huge breath, the frost abandoning the house to cling to her lashes and her fingertips. The door swung shut with a blast of frigid air.
I wrapped my arms around myself at the sudden chill. When she caught sight of me, Winter smiled in a hungry way, revealing gleaming, sharp teeth.
As she descended the steps, I backed away to let her pass. She headed back the way I had come, a blanket of frost spreading over the ground at her feet. In her absence, on the window sills of the house, pink blossoms began to bloom, readying for the emergence of spring.
Pulling my coat from my pack with shivering hands, I decided not to accompany Winter home when the time came.
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As I trekked down a back alley, the memory of rained dripped from the sky in the wake of a thunderstorm, plopping into big puddles filling up numerous potholes. I splashed through these, heedless of the water soaking my socks, as I had no way to avoid the many of them.
Yet I pulled up short as a pair of shoes walked out in front of me. Patterned with flames and lacking a wearer. They stopped in the puddle just before me. When the water calmed, the reflection of a boy wearing a yellow jacket appeared, feet matching the soles of the empty shoes.
His voice came through watery, as if he spoke through a mouthful of liquid. “Watch out for this puddle,” he said. “It’ll take you.”
Peering down at his murky shape, I said, “Did it take you?”
The boy’s reflection nodded. I couldn’t make out his shadowy expression. “I watch over it now. So no one falls in, like me.”
Frowning, I glanced around. Not much foot traffic through this back way, but a warning should be set up here. “You can’t get back?”
A shrug. “Haven’t figured out how. But…” he glanced off into some unseen distance. “I have time. I’m not aging here.”
I wondered if he would ever get the chance to age, but I kept that to myself. “What do you need?”
“Well…” He turned his chin into his shoulder in thought. “If I didn’t have to guard this puddle, I could search for another one to bring me back.”
I straightened. “Say no more.”
A local sign shop received a peculiar commission from me. An A-frame sign to be set out next to a specific puddle on rainy days and to read:
I had the rain to thank for my recent growth. Days and days of cool moisture, seeping through the roof and the walls. Water stains spreading outward the way I spread my fuzzy gray-green tendrils along the ceiling corner I called home.
Not ready to send my spores spiraling throughout the house. My children to seek new homes in bathrooms, in closets, in the attic where raindrops echoed. Not yet. But soon.
I was born in the load of damp laundry left in the washing machine. Left for so long that I and my siblings dried out into dusty spores, ready to explode into the air the second the lid opened. The old man coughed his usual, rattling cough when he shook out his forgotten pants, shook us loose, breathed in my siblings. Restarted the wash when he smelled the must. Forgot his laundry again.
I myself drifted to my corner of the ceiling. One little spore latched onto crumbling plaster, farthest from the windows. Farthest from sunlight. Closest to a single leaky shingle.
After the rain stopped, I grew flaky. Dusty. My spores drifted downward in twos and threes, gentle and graceful. Below, the old man sat at a peeling dining table, coffee mug within reach. A handful of my children landed in his drink. He took a sip. Sighed.
Soon after, the old man died. No one found him for a long time, and when they took him away, his body carried a few of us as passengers. Expatriates to a new country. Colonists.
No longer oppressed with cleaning solutions — not that we were much to begin with — we spread. Grew. Overtook every damp corner and dark crevice. Made the leaky house our own. I remained near the ceiling, bloated, oversized. Satisfied with my place and position.
Until two women entered the house.
One looked a little like the old man, just younger. Scraggly hair. Short. Clean. To the other woman, she pointed out my siblings, my children, their homes. Me.
The second woman wore a white jumpsuit that covered her from head to toe. Blue latex gloves on her hands. An industrial mask dangling around her neck. To the first woman she said, “It’ll be several days before anyone can come in here. I’ll let you know when I’m done.”
The scraggly-haired woman dismissed, jumpsuit woman donned her mask, large filter disc on the front, straps gripping her head. She hefted a heavy, blue plastic jug from the floor. In her other hand, she wielded a long metal rod at the end of a rubber hose attached to the jug. A squeeze of the trigger and harsh chemicals sprayed across my family clustered beneath the ancient dishwasher. Their screams curled my edges.
The monster murdered most of my family living in the kitchen and dining room before she reached me.
As she stretched the rod to reach me, the dark nozzle tip filled up my vision. I shrank back, quivering. This was it, only… I stretched as well, peeling myself from the ceiling and the walls in one swift motion. Leaping downward, I wrapped my fuzzy, misshapen tendrils around the nozzle, squirming past the end just as the spray released.
A muffled noise of surprise sounded behind the mask. The rod swing and shook beneath me as I scrambled down its length, bringing myself within jumping distance of her face. She dropped the rod just as I launched myself.
A scream to match those of my family tore from the woman. I had my feathery tendrils dug into her filter, but this held me at bay. She wrapped both hands around me, rubbery latex scraping at my mass, as I snagged the edge of her mask. Pushing against the soft skin of her cheek, I wriggled behind her defenses. Her fingertips clawed away a chunk of me just as I vanished from sight.
More muffled screaming. Rolling around on the dining room carpet. The woman tore off her mask, gasping for air, but by then I had already crawled into her mouth. Down her throat. She got up onto hands and knees, hacking and coughing, clutching her neck where I writhed around inside. Getting comfortable.
With a long, unraveling rip, the carpet beneath her split open. My family living beneath stretched for the woman above. She slumped over, gasping. Unresistant. Spongy clumps of mold hooked into her jumpsuit, dragging her down. Beneath the carpet. Into the damp wooden floor. Below even that to the rotting foundation.
The disturbed carpet flopped back into place. Beside the inexplicable gash lay the dropped chemical container. No other trace of the woman remained.
Now no one enters the house. Abandoned to the vagaries of nature, it belongs to us and we flourish here. I nestle in the throat of a corpse, pleased with my new location in this deep, damp darkness. Ready to grow.
Old boards creaked beneath my boots as I meandered across a rotting footbridge. In the entrenchment it crossed lay the mere memory of running water in the layer of mud at the bottom. Leaf loam littered the ground beneath wide-spaced trees. I had my gaze upward, regarding the rustling branches above, when a hand grasped my ankle and yanked.
Pain shot through my hip as I slammed into the damp wood. My full length slithered over the edge, beneath the handrail that I couldn’t reach, despite my outstretched hands. Flung forward, the muddy creek bottom rose up to meet me. I landed with a squelch, muck packing into my nose and mouth and eyes as I flew backward.
I vanished beneath the dark overhang.
At my first attempt to sit up, I smacked my head against the spongy underside of the bridge. Feeling around revealed brittle twigs, damp leaves, goopy ground. A bumpy hand holding my ankle.
I sucked in a sharp breath.
At the same time, a voice full of gravel said, “You must pay the price to cross.”
My eyes adjusting to the darkness revealed the outline of a hulking figure. Hair sticking out everywhere. Knobby ears. Stooped posture. Lengthy arms.
My voice shook. “With what?”
A creaking, as of stretching skin. Rancid meat smell wafted over me. “One skill. The ability to forage.”
My jaw clenched. I carried little food with me, surviving on edible plants. So if I gave up this skill now, I could starve.
The grip on my ankle tightened. “That, or I eat you.”
When later I scrambled from beneath the bridge, I found every plant looked the same. While the bridge troll safely chowed down on berries, I would have to pick up a foraging guidebook to relearn all over again.
Rather, I’m getting better at making pancakes the way I like them, which is, of course, the point. Buttery golden brown, soft in the middle, with a rim of good, light crunch around the edge.
Weekend mornings of my childhood featured light smoke drifting from the kitchen into the living room, dancing within sunbeams that glanced in through wide-open windows. The heavy scent of frying batter and sizzling butter. Usually my dad but sometimes my mom in the kitchen, making the perfect pancakes.
Weekday mornings of my adulthood are comprised of the harried rush to arrive at work on time. I have a hypothesis that every person has a low-level curse and this is mine: always late. No matter how early I wake up. No matter how many grooming ritual corners I cut. I wonder what I did to receive this curse as the stress slowly eats me away.
So, no pancakes. Just precooked turkey sausage browning in a skillet over medium-low heat while I scrape myself together for another day. Darkness outside my window. Cereal to round out my breakfast.
My parents taught me to make pancakes once, a long time ago. But the measurements were approximations and by then we had started using Splenda instead of sugar, so these pancakes were no longer prefect. My brain has deleted the instructions, perhaps out of defiance. But several months ago, I took a shot at making a recipe I found on Pinterest. Pancakes for one. They came out thick and chewy and awful.
Restaurants present tasty pancakes, but not the ones I want. Online recipes strive to recreate these restaurant pancakes, instructions leading to a place I already know I do not wish to go. Just the same, books present tasty stories, but not the ones that fill the gnawing hunger within me. Tips and advice for writers describe recipes for recreating stories already published. Still not right. Never-ending cycles of popular consumption.
I just have to make them myself.
The weekend arrives and I try again for the perfect pancakes. For good stories. The kind I like to eat.
Experimentation and regular practice help. At its basic essence, a pancake is a pancake is a pancake, requiring at least the usual ingredients. The spin you put on those ingredients makes the completed project yours. A little extra water? A splash of vanilla? Cooking spray instead of butter? Nope, definitely not cooking spray. Same with writing story. Basic recipe, with a personal take. A little extra diverse representation? A splash of magical wonder? Gritty realism? No, no grittiness for me.
Endless weekends to keep trying.
This morning’s attempt at the perfect pancakes got very close. Just a little too crunchy on the bottom. Perhaps the story I write this week will turn out similar – close but crunchy. Or maybe not. Each batch presents new challenges, but every weekend, I’m getting better at making pancakes.
Moon must learn to go from lost and alone to part of a community of his own people that he does not understand at all. At the same time, enemies of the Raksura come bearing down on his newfound colony in his wake.
Martha Wells, of 2018-2019 Murderbot fame, weaves a tale of social complexity in The Cloud Roads. Following Moon, an orphan Raksuran, the narrative details his experiences of finding a colony at last and attempting to integrate through politics and social expectations he knows nothing about. With an outsider’s perspective, he begins to codify the deteriorate and extinction which the colony faces as he uncovers the mystery of the enemy that seems to have pursued him to his new home. I loved the depictions of social complexity, of divergent relationship roles, and the acceptance of individuals with difficult behaviors as just part of colony life.
Moon has spent his life hiding what he is — a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself… someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community. What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power… that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival… and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save himself… and his newfound kin.
The beginning of The Cloud Roads gives little indication of the surprises, twists, and turns in store for Moon. He must learn to go from lost and alone to part of a community of his own people that he does not understand at all. At the same time, enemies of the Raksura come bearing down on his newfound colony in his wake, awakening suspicions in all and demanding action from the most powerful down to the most diminutive members of the colony. Success rides on the ability of everyone to work together, as well as both a sundering and an embracing of traditions.
I couldn’t agree more. Moon spends his time arguing with others of the Indigo Cloud Court with whom he wants to join up, while the entire colony endures a crisis of potential extinction. All of them argue back, a whole mess of distinct, intriguing characters driving the plot forward with both actions and opinions.
As someone walking around with a low level of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, I enjoyed this representation of socializing. The freedom to express one’s opinion or have a moody moment and not get immediately ejected from the social circle had me wishing I could curl up in a Raksuran nest with a few cuddly bat-lizard companions.
The Cloud Roads features a slew of complex characters, all bound together by one colony or an ancient animosity. Throughout the depiction of character relations, Wells demonstrates a powerful ability to represent diversity, polyamorous relationships, opposing world views, and social structures.
Most of all, I loved the depiction of strength and submission in both females and males of the colony, most revealed in the love triangle between Moon, the sister queen Jade, and Charm. Moon switches between domination and submission, while Jade embodies all power, all strength. Charm struggles with his identity of changing from one caste to another out of nowhere and acts more soft around Moon.
An outsider’s perspective. With his ignorance from growing up as an orphan outside of a Raksuran court, Moon brings fresh eyes to the situation facing Indigo Cloud Court as the colony deteriorates with no explanation. While he becomes embroiled in Raksuran politics, their struggles, and his place among them, through empathy and a desire to understand others, he begins to recognize the enemies they face as more than just brutes bent on Raksuran destruction.
While the beginning ofThe Cloud Roads hinted not at all about the direction the narrative would take, by the end, the events that unfold seem inevitable. As if this story could have ended no other way. A testament to Wells’s skill.
Question marks surrounded me. Big, pale, spray painted on every trunk as far as I could see. Glowing in the gloom beneath the spreading branches of enormous pines. All facing me, like the disapproving gaze of a fussy uncle.
Just a moment ago, the forest had appeared as any other cluster of trees. Embarrassment overtook me as I realized I had just stepped uninvited into someone’s home. No direction looked like a safe retreat, so I huddled in on myself. A single crow squawked overhead.
Nothing happened. Except, every time I blinked, the question-marked trees jumped closer. Soon, they crowded around me, no space between their trunks, bark creaking against bark. Looming over me. Punctuation marks demanding answers. Yet I had none, for I knew not the question.
“Um,” I said at last. “I sense you don’t want me here. How can I leave?”
The base of every single trunk bowed sideways. Each curved in the same direction. Each question mark now flipped upside down.
By my feet, a carpet of yellowed pine needles rustled. A matted layer of them rose up into the shape of a mouth. Pine cones lined the lips like nubby teeth.
Smug as inexorable, tunneling roots, a voice drawled, “How indeed?”
At that, the forest swallowed me up in one gulp.
Sometime later, it spat me out again. I clawed my way past twisting roots and through a smelly layer of rotten loam. When my fingers broke free, I dug myself out, spitting up pine needles and dead leaves.
Once upright, I pawed muck from my eyes. A quick turn revealed the forest had dumped me at its edge, on the side from which I had entered. As I coughed up the last granules of dirt, I determined to take the long way back around.