Pen Howell

Pen hasn’t much money. That was part of the decision to stay out here, after Tree died. Only part. Pen was thinking of his girlfriend, Estelle, a lot. Estelle isn’t good with people.
The kids, Marcie and Davenport, baby girl and miracle boy, are homeschooling, some with Estelle, mainly with Pen and Botchan. Marcie these days is all about the harp. Pen thought that would hurt him; when he lost Tree, Marcie’s mom, it hurt whenever the harp had to be moved, whenever the strings sounded. Having Marcie working on those strings so avidly, baby girl, seems to be doing something to his heart, healwise.
The house is fairly a wreck. Tree’s artistry all over the place; but wood rots, and wallpaper is ruined, and humidity turns plank floors into sculpture. The kids don’t seem to mind or even notice. Estelle doesn’t notice either, but there’s a little bit of something sick about her when she sits at the big table, a bit of entropy. The kids are different. Dav has been running windchimes all through the house, his sounding apparatus, he called it, sounding very steampunk and smart. Pen doesn’t mind ducking his head through doorways and getting jangled occasionally. Marcie does laugh, she squeaked with laughter when he bounced through the nursery door a little too quick, set something swinging and got a set of tiny tubular bells in the nose, on the return arc.
Truth is, there is a sounding apparatus, that would be Pen’s alarm system, singing security, Tree called it. There’s sound traps, too, out there in the woods, early warnings to let Pen know early in the approach what might be coming. And of course the entrance is strictly hidden. The kids have been good about that. The others, too, mostly. Sometimes some big lug of a sheep dog, recently inoculated and out of its mind with gratitude and relief, will blunder a straight line toward home after a day roaming. There’s work to do, then, resetting sound traps and digging back in what the poor crazy dogboy dug out.

bright colorful textiles on trunk of mossy tree
Warning Trees

It was for us, Pen was thinking, but problem is the “us” has gotten bigger. Pen can’t turn them away; Pen remembers not much well, but sure if he remembers the Cell. He takes a grim kind of pleasure in making his own music on the instrument the company gave him.
Pen’s house, then, has no landmarks, no angle of approach, hardly looks like a house from the outside.
===

Coming Soon: more on the layout of Pen’s house, the inner yard, and where the wild things are.

Malachi

Mom’s waiting for me, Lucas thinks, better hurry!

He thunders down the back stairs and into the wild back yard, clutching a tattered and faded green book. She is waiting for him, and he throws himself into her lap, making her grunt. Oops, got her with an elbow! When he poked Mary Jane Weiler with his elbow last summer when they were watching a softball game, it had made her cry. “Sorry,” he says.

“It’s ok, honey,” Mom says, and he feels better. Mom really likes to snuggle.

He plops the book into her hands. It’s really old, maybe older than Mom, and it looks sad and beat up. Once Mom had turned a page and it fell out, and it made her cry. It had been her book before she gave it to him; she said her momma had read it to her when she was a little girl. She didn’t have anything else left from when she was a kid, so this book was special.

It was also the best book he had ever read. Maybe it was Mom’s favorite, too, even though she read lots and lots of books. Most of them didn’t even have pictures, and most of the ones that did were dumb. Pictures of rats in mazes, or rows and rows of green plants that all looked the same, not pictures of witches and mermaids and two little girls named Amy and Clarissa.

“Read the part about Malachi, Mom,” Lucas says, “that’s where we left off.” Lucas bets he’s read this book a million times, and it’s still cool!

Mom reads really good, with voices and everything, so the wild back yard starts to turn into Old Witch’s gloomy house on top of a glass mountain. Old Witch is very wicked and knows lots of bad spells and stuff, but she’s kind of dumb. She gets caught being wicked by two little girls and they banish her to the top of a glass mountain where she could never, ever get down, even if she tried for a hundred years. She has to stay there until she learns to be good.

pencil drawing of bumblebee on flower
bumblebee pencil sketch

Amy and Clarissa are friends with a magical bumblebee, and he ends up on the glass mountain with Old Witch. Old Witch looks and looks and looks for him, so that she can send him back to the two little girls! Why? Why not just make friends with him? It would be soo cool to have a magical bumblebee as a friend! Lucas had wished for a friend like Malachi every year on his birthday when he blew his candles out. Those sorts of wishes are supposed to come true, weren’t they? He also wished for a snake and a gerbil and a pony, but never, ever on his birthday.

They finished story time by chanting the magical incantation for about the zillionth time, by heart:

Oh, Malachi,
Oh, Malachi,
You are a magic
bumblebee.
If in trouble
e’er I be,
Then mumble,
bumble,
here to me.*

Mom closes the book carefully. Story time is over. Now it’s monster-roaring time! The long grass is awesome to roll in. He’s a horse — no, a dinosaur! An allosaurus! They used to roll on their backs when their backs itched, didn’t they? They must have. He starts to giggle when he thinks about an allosaurus reaching up with his puny arms and scratching his own back.

Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, art by Peter Schouten
Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, art by Peter Schouten

Oops! Mom!

He pops his head up over the tall grass. Oh, jeez, Mom’s watching him. Better mind his manners. He grins and tries to pick the dead leaves and twigs out of his hair, but he gives up after a second. It hurt! Mom’ll pull them out later, but she’ll laugh at him. He can’t help it, it’s like his hair is a weird magnet for all kinds of stuff. She calls it a bird’s nest, but he never found any eggs in it. Anyway…

“Thanks for reading to me, Mom. We’ll do more tomorrow, okay?” She smiles at him and nods, and he takes off running, whistling something by that silly laughing guy, Mozart, back toward the creek, to look for tadpoles and fish in the mud.

But the creek is a mud hole, no rain this week. Icky. He didn’t even want to wade in the gooey stuff, it’s too hard to see through, and he’d die if he got bit by a cottonmouth. He slumps in disappointment. Darn, there were tadpoles down in there somewhere. Nice, big, fat, slimy tadpoles that must turn into giant toads that eat mosquitoes. Just have to wait until there was more rain and the water didn’t look so creepy. He scratches one of the gazillion little bumps that the skeeters left from sucking his blood. Bloodsucking bugs were pretty cool, but Lucas wished they’d suck someone else’s and leave his alone. They itch! Mozart wouldn’t laugh at this. Boooring.

Well, until he sees some little tiny tracks printed in the mud. What made those? Okay, birds, yeah, and that’s a squirrel–he knows the way their toes splay out–and that looks like one of the barn cats, the one with the crooked hind leg who’s missing a toe– and awesome, a tiny little hoof print! A dee-, no, a fawn! Where was its mama?

There’s a path beat down along the bank of the creek, one that he’s never seen before. Why not follow it? It might lead to pirate treasure, or a meadow with flying unicorns living in it. Hey, he could catch one and fly up into the clouds! Or maybe there’s a wizard like Merlin, that would teach him spells like the one that calls Malachi. That would be good, too.

The path leads away from the creek and winds through some baby trees that shiver in the wind. Lucas knows that he’s too far away from the house now, Mom will yell if she finds out. She always seems to yell whenever he does anything really interesting. The meadow waves at him, making him want to walk farther into the grass. Something strange stands out in the sunshine, something haystack yellow and shaped like a big, upside-down basket. Who knows what was inside?

Lucas stands in the sunshine and listens. Above and around the leaves rustling, and a dog barking, there was a strange humming. It seems almost, kinda familiar.

Then a honeybee flies around his head twice, like he’s checking him out, and lands on his arm. He doesn’t sting — no, wait, this bee was a girl bee, not a boy bee like Malachi — she just crawls around a little bit and flies away. It feels way different from when a fly or a mosquito crawls on him. Like soft or fuzzy, maybe. Huh. Lucas wonders what her name is, and if she’s magical or not. Maybe not, maybe the magical ones are the bumblebees. But maybe all bees are magic. Maybe bumblebees knew spells, and honeybees knew Aikido, like Mary Jane Weiler’s mom did. Then they’d be awesome fighting bees! Now that makes him giggle. Commander Lucas of the Fighting Bee Squadron, reporting for duty!

More of them come to take a look at the weird human, like the first girl bee did. They buzz around him like all those old-fashioned planes flew around King Kong’s head, but he doesn’t roar at them and wave his arms. That’d be stupid. They don’t want to hurt him, after all. They want to be his friends! Where did he find all those flowers on his shirt? Must check it out, crawling around. Must find where that dirt came from, and that bit of mud. Yes, got it, ma’am, over this way!

And some of them zoom off, on patrol, gonna go find those wild bean flowers where the garden at the Back Forty used to be, not far from the cellar hole. The beans are kinda strange back there, giant and speckled and the bean pods are a dark purple until they dry out. They look like Martian beans! Maybe that’s where the Pod People come from. On second thought, maybe the bees better not go there, maybe the Pod People will eat them! But it’s too late, they’ve gone already. Well, good luck, bees! Will they come back transformed into Purple People-Eating Martian Bees? Ewwww.

He stands very still and lets them buzz around him, crawl on him even, if they want to. This is crazycool. He wonders if he could take one back to show Mom. She likes Malachi, after all! He reaches out with the place in his throat, unrolls the invisible leash that he uses when he sends out the secret centipede, and clips it onto one of the bees.

He’s not too sure she likes it, it makes her buzz harder in a circle around his head, held by the leash. It works, though!! Can’t hold her too long, she’ll get frightened and fly too hard trying to get away, and get too tired out to get back home. She’s not used to it. It’s like Mom’s friend Sonja working with a puppy, that’s it. But when the puppy figures out how much fun it is, getting to go everywhere, watch out! They’ll have to get used to it first. Maybe he could make enough leashes for all of the bees and hold on very tight to the other ends and they could fly away together, if they work very hard at it. Wonder where they’d take him?

Go bees! Go fly high, find lots of flowers so you’ll be strong! Lucas waves good bye as they go.

He’s gonna have to come back later, maybe tomorrow, and visit his new bee friends again. But now, he can hear his mom calling him, from very far away. It’s gonna take him a while to get back, so he breaks into a run down the worn path.

cartoon illo boy with red umbrella
What If I Blew Away?

Dark splatters and splotches mark the dried mud on the edges. Whoa! He didn’t even see those clouds coming up, and here’s the wind, too! Big ploppy warm drops smack in his face and his hair. He runs harder, skidding, and slides at the line of trees. He’s just getting up, with a rip in his pants knee, when he sees a flash of blue flutter down by his foot.

It’s a big feather, like a jay. It’s very bright. He squints upward against more big plops of rain in his face.

Oh boy, this is gonna take help.

He grabs the feather, and runs harder.

*Exerpt from The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes, copyright 1960. If you haven’t read it, please do. It’s utterly charming.

===

A late evening collaboration between Numaari and Nagasvoice. But the Aikido bees are GreenJudy’s fault. 🙂

Listen To My Rhythm

“Oye como va, mi ritmo…” Grace sings softly, her contralto counterpoint to a sudden glissando of harp from a distant room. The ancient mp3 player is propped against the kitchen window, a set of tiny, tinny speakers perched atop the scratched and beaten machine. Normally, she’d rather listen to the harp. Although it sometimes sounds as disjointed as the wind chimes hanging all over the house, Marcie shows some real talent. In another place or time, she would probably be taking music lessons. But Santana is soothing, and the coming storm was making Grace’s sinuses ache.

black-haired woman leaning on hands, painting by Edwin Holgate
painting by Edwin Holgate, Canadian

Absently, she pushes the ragged sleeve of a borrowed henley up higher, out of the way, and blows a strand of starkly black hair out of her face. It was unbearably hot earlier, but now it seems chilly, even in the kitchen. Storm front?

Lucas comes crashing in the back door, his auburn hair a messy wind sculpture, his eyes grave and dark. He silently hands Grace a kid-sized handful of summer savory for the stew. The storm door bangs in the wind, but he doesn’t move to latch it. Hopefully that abrupt entrance didn’t mess up any of their benefactor’s elaborate and arcane alarms.

Lucas is much too quiet, much too serious, and Grace reaches out to smooth his hair. “It’s ok, honey, it’s just a storm. Go close the door, now, before it breaks.” Pen is one of the kindest people she has ever met, but his house is a wreck. If he even tried to fix every thing that was trashed, he would have time for nothing else.

Besides, he’s far too busy trying to fix all the broken people to worry much about the broken house. The task he’s taken on is sad, and noble, and difficult. Not hopeless, though. Every step taken in the right direction is the embodiment of hope. It’s not an abstract, not to Grace.

Lucas moves to latch the door, and she washes the herb, crushes the leaves, and throws them in with the potatoes, celery and carrots. There are bits of chicken in the pot, too — somewhere. But it smells pretty good. She doesn’t much care for cooking, but helping Pen cope with his busy life is its own reward. She owes him a lot. She had been at wit’s end when Pen found them at the bus station in town. Not too many people would have taken them in like this.

After Lucas jiggles the door handle, he comes back to stand near the stove instead of going into the parlor to join Pen’s kids. Grace dries her hands and silences Santana in mid-wail. “Lucas. What’s up?” Her voice is sharp, worried. The approaching storm has put everyone on edge.

watercolor, blue feather
blue sheen

His eyes are still huge and dark, a tear trembling on one ginger eyelash. He hands her a single sky blue feather, lightly shaded with black and grey. It’s achingly beautiful.

Grace’s stomach sinks. “Oh, Estelle.”

Birdsong

Grace kneels next to her distraught child. “Well, why don’t you set the table? Dinner should be ready in a little bit.” The silverware door sticks a little as she pulls it open and grabs five sets of utensils. Why not be optimistic? she thinks, and grabs another set for Estelle, in the event that they can actually get her inside and get her to eat something. The whole mess gets dumped on the table where Lucas can reach it. “Be back in a minute,” she promises him. By the time she was out the back door, he was digging under the pan cupboard for the paper napkins and wiping his eyes. Good kid.

The wind is rising outside, spitting little gobbets of rain. It takes Grace a few minutes to spot a flash of brilliant blue in the big tree outside the back door. So very high up.

Bark skins her hands as she begins to climb, and digs in as she climbs higher. A wave of dizziness passes when Grace takes a few deep breaths and makes a conscious effort to loosen her insane grip. Good thing Estelle has chosen the biggest tree to roost in – it could easily have been one of the evergreens that grew in a thicket way in back, and those were nearly impossible to climb. Still, it’s not easy to go that high with the wind beginning to howl and thrash the branches around, and it’s been years and years since Grace has clambered up a tree. It was easier when she was eight.

A gust whips her boy-cut hair into her eyes. It stings badly and makes tears well up, making the climb even harder. Why do bangs grow faster than the rest? Maybe Estelle will give her a trim, if she can ever get her out of this blessed tree.

hair over dark turkey feathers
hair over dark feathers

It seems to take years to reach the nearly catatonic bird woman. The flurry of feather-ripping has left little tufts of down hanging in a lot of the rattling branches. Finally, Grace’s hand touches a fragile wrist and Estelle turns her face toward the other woman.

Estelle hisses her alarm, mouth open, panting. Grace pulls her hand back. She wants to grab Estelle, to keep her from falling, but the bird woman jerked away from her so hard that the whole treetop dipped. Grace is not sure why, but Estelle doesn’t like her. She normally gives Pen’s girlfriend plenty of space, but she can’t just leave her up in this tree. There must be some way to get her down.

Her eyes are depthless, whites seemingly swallowed by the darkness of pupil. “Estelle,” Grace nearly shouts above the clatter of the thrashing leaves, “why are you way up here?” Inwardly, she groans. Lame question.

“Maybe… Maybe I’ll be blown away…” was the answer. Soft, wistful, almost hopeful. Oh, this is bad. She doesn’t even seem surprised that Grace is up here instead of Pen. Maybe she figures that Pen has run out of things to say to tempt her down.

“Please, Estelle. Nobody wants you to blow away. Pen and the kids would be lost without you. Lucas would cry. I wouldn’t have anyone to trim my bangs.” Estelle didn’t answer her wry smile, instead turning her head and leaning her face against the tree trunk. Okay, then. This wasn’t working. She musters up her best commanding tone. What would Master have said if Grace been the one in the tree?

“Estelle. Come down from the tree. We’re waiting for you to come to dinner, and you don’t need to keep Pen waiting. It’s selfish. Do you really think that you’re accomplishing anything up here?”

Estelle sags against the tree, but doesn’t move. “Go away, Grace, and leave me alone.” Her eyes aren’t as hopeless and panicked now. They’re hostile.

Grace wants to cry by the time she’s made her way back down to the ground. Estelle’s unrelenting distrust is hard to take. Pen is relying on her to help take care of his neurotic girlfriend, but no matter how nice Grace is to her, no matter how many times she offers the younger woman friendship and understanding, Estelle just pulls away, stares at her with frightened, angry eyes.

Lucas is waiting for her at the base of the tree, and he throws his arms around her waist, leaning in as Grace combs his messy hair through her fingers. He looks up into her face. “Don’t worry, Mom. I bet I can get her down.”

She doesn’t want him climbing the tree in this wind, but his eyes convince her to let him try. So she gives him a boost and warns him to be careful and hold on tight. She watches him as he clambers up the trunk, holds her breath as he shifts his grip and hauls himself up another limb, close enough so that he doesn’t need to shout over the sounds of nature. Then, to her utter surprise, he begins to sing.

“Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.
Singin, don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right!
Rise up this morning,
Smile with the rising sun,
Three little birds
Perch by my doorstep
Singing sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Saying, this is my message to you-u-u…
Singing, don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.
Singing, don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing is gonna be all right!”

Eventually the song eats away at Estelle’s inertia, and she turns to look at Grace’s son.

“I’ll come down.”

wing of jay or macaw feathers
fanned out

Croix de Guerre

“You bark those orders good, Lieutenant,” says the little voice, sounding amused.

Drin feels a bodiless force push him backwards about three feet. Behind him, someone sucks in a breath.

“Don’t,” he says softly. “Don’t.”

The little girl smiles. She is missing teeth. Her eyes, chestnut brown, pan past him.

“Cute,” she says.

The little girl is wearing a man’s white buttondown shirt. The cuffs hang over her hands, and the shirttails flap against her bare, muddy legs. Pinned to her right shoulder are numerous thin ribbons. The colors on these are hard to look at. Emma, he thinks hazily, would know what they stood for. He recognizes just two, a Croix de Guerre from the First World War, and another one, red and green and black, for service in Afghanistan.

Drin looks down at where her feet should be, sees running water.

When she speaks, Drin hears a buzz, like a harpstring with a burr in it–a ghost of doubled sound.

“El Jefe,” she says, and he hears war, the hum of bees.

badagris

The little girl shifts her stance–Drin still can’t see her feet, can’t look at her feet–and then she smiles at him, a tired, companionable, frighteningly adult smile.
“Let’s take a look at your scrubs, son,” she says. “Inspection time.”
There’s a strangled sound behind him, and Drin turns to see Barret, blundering past Cesar’s gun to come up beside him. Barret is breathing hard, and there’s something gray beneath Cesar’s dark skin.
“Callie?” Barret asks.
The little girl regards him impassively.
“Not really,” she answers finally.
Her eyes flick to Drin. “Keep this one in the back line. He’s got a headful of jam. Don’t let it get cracked open too soon. And for Christ’s sake, don’t let him shoot anything.”
She stretches out a twig-arm–Barret is still gasping like he’s been running hard–and across empty air effortlessly moves Drin aside.
“Let’s see the other guys,” she says.
Drin’s neck aches viciously, and he tastes something bitter and metallic on the roof of his mouth. The little girl has her back to him, now, and she’s walking with casual arrogance towards Cesar and his weapon, towards Emma astonished in front of the Jeep, toward the wavering, half-conscious Dance. There’s a weird rhythm to her walking, as if one hip is riding higher than the other, and it’s this, even more than the smile and the inflection, that makes Drin start to shake.
He knows that walk. He’ll never forget that walk.
Cesar stands completely still as the little girl approaches. She’s tiny, small for her age, small even compared to Dance. But as she lifts her head to squint at Cesar in the stormy light, he lowers the muzzle of his gun, changes its angle just enough to let her in his guard.
She’s talking to Cesar. In Spanish.
Jesus.
Cracking jokes the troops only ever heard from one guy, ever.
He hears Cesar say something in response, hears Aaron’s indrawn breath all the way across the clearing. The little girl is snorting with laughter, and Drin goes cold all over.
She tosses a grin at him over her shoulder.
“I’ll be goddamned, boy, you know what you got here? A coupla dead guys.”
“We’re not dead!” Cesar says, in a tight, muffled voice.
“Yeah,” she says. “I call bullshit. You’re the twice-dead. They killed you in the tanks, and then you got tossed out with some of their cheap targets. They called you in, you don’t show, they assume you failed to revive. Oh no, you just ignored ’em. Now that’s what I call a real zombie. Boy, are you an embarrassment or what? You just walked away! Walked up South America!” She’s laughing again, and breaks up into a wheezing cough that Drin associates, out of long habit, with lung cancer.
She looks across at Emma, then.
“Watson,” she says softly. “Motherfuck. It’s Watson.”
Emma presses her cracked lips together, closes her hands into fists.
“Callie,” Barret says again, helplessly. “Jesus, Callie, what–”
Dance, inexplicably upright, weaving slightly, has materialized beside Barret.
“She’s a mudang,” he says softly. “It’s okay. She’ll be okay.”

born careful

“They caught up with you,” Drin says woodenly.

The little girl tosses tangled hair out of her eyes, a gesture Drin does not recognize, a gesture that feels like it must be habit for her, the girl herself. Dance’s word rings in his ears: mudang.

Emma, he thinks, might know what Dance is talking about.

Emma; and Wojohowitz—General Wojohowitz—called her Watson.

“Damn right, they caught up with me, son,” says the General. “Not too many moons after Watson here did the thing she does so well, and you and your little posse disappeared. Hope you’ve been keeping your big mitts off the ‘Phone, like we talked about before I died.”

Drin takes a startled step backward.

“The ‘Phone’s bad?”

“Of course the ‘Phone’s bad, son. How do you think they put me down?”

“He’s been very careful,” Dance says suddenly, mildly, in a tone Drin is not quite sure he’s ever heard before.

Well, Dance is reasoning with a ghost, he thinks.

“Lieutenant Navarre was born careful, soldier,” says the General. “But something out there trumped his ‘careful,’ so my recommendation,” and this voice is coming out of the little girl, this sound like steel wool riding over scratched and abraded metal, “my recommendation, Corpsman, is that you sit this goddamned conversation out.” The General laughs again; the sound is immediately interrupted by a sharp, barking cough. “Listen up, son. The dead do not customarily take time out to advise the living. Follow me?”

staring girl, photo by Sibylle Bergemann
photo by Sibylle Bergemann

Dance, subdued and none too steady on his feet, just nods.

The little girl’s mouth opens on harsh consonants, almost coughing them out, a lighter higher voice overlaid atop that of the General.

Dance wobbles, clutches with a yelp at his middle, and falls to his knees.

Emma’s mouth opens.

“Who,” she says, voice rising, “the hell are you?”

“Why, Watson,” says the little girl, “you’ve hurt my feelings.”