Combustion Hour by Yoon Ha Lee is a story about the eschatology of shadow puppets.
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About the Author
Yoon Ha Lee is an American science fiction writer born on January 26, 1979 in Houston, Texas. Her first published story, "The Hundredth Question," appeared in Fantasy&Science Fiction in 1999; since then, over two dozen further stories have appeared. She lives in Pasadena, California.
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The Walking-stick Forest
By Anna Tambour, Karla Ortiz
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Anna Tambour
All rights reserved.
It started like this. When the blackthorn trees were bare, Athol Farquar would pollard them — sawing them down to their gubbins, pruning them almost to the ground, just low enough so that, once the raw winter passed, a great number of new branches would shoot up quick, in a vertical panic of desperation while the sap ran strong. Come spring, there Athol would be in the thicket that was the forest, tying up (with soft woollen twist) the short young fresh-fleshed pinkies to the rods, and from that moment on they could push up all they liked, but every movement was caught and bent to measure.
Every day Athol would come, his woollen bonds stuffed in a pocket of a vest he'd made from his ancient khaki jacket; a girdle of wires loosely wrapped around his waist, and ready in his left fist, an ingenious set of grips he'd forged to shape the discipliners themselves, be they wire, iron, or his sculptured cages of beaten tin. Often he was bare-chested, his hands and arms hardened from years of smithing, so the thorns that could kill with a scratch were nothing to fear. Or maybe they were, but he didn't pay them any more heed than he did the feisty rapier-sharp branch tips everywhere that he hadn't pruned, which could have flicked his cheeks or eyes open. It was almost as if he enchanted the blackthorn. Thorns were his caressers. Branches bent to his will. And he loved bringing up his creations so much that many a moonlit night he spent bending, moulding, tending, admiring and listening, hearing and smelling the night breath of the forest.
The fact is, the pure air suited him. The sloes that the unpruned branches grew, purple and sour as a preacher's face, suited him too; so every autumn, after the first frost, he'd fill a few sheepskins with the firm fresh plums and eat his fill before their skins lost their face-powder bloom. He macerated the rest of his pickings patiently till his sloe gin was devilishly smooth. He'd start his day with a drop of it in his mug of tarry tea, drunk surrounded by his forest.
The young trunks couldn't help but grow, yet every day their own wills were subjugated more, till they were no longer something you'd think should have thorns and leaves but something leaping, roaring, splashing, slithering, dancing, moaning. Nothing so mundane as a tree, let alone a many-trunked bush. When a blackthorn walking-stick-to-be grew to this stage in life, he cut it. Farquar did almost no finishing after that. Even his seasoning and colouring was done without what he considered cosmetic abhorrences — painting, staining, shellacking, gluing pieces on. The only additions he ever made were: to the tip, he fitted a metal cap, robust but finely made as any goldsmith's ring; and occasionally — to finish snakes, women, that sort of thing — he would inset eyes he made of the whisky-coloured cairngorm stone that only he knew underlaid the walking-stick forest.
Yet for all his ability to propagate treasures more unique than a Fabergé egg (which any master goldsmith can duplicate) he wasn't vain about his gift, but moved, and ever more secretive. On a fateful day in the hell of 1915, he'd seen a chair made of contorted tree limbs; and in the ruins of a church found a pearl shaped like a sheep, and a shard of an ivory saint, its halo still proud. From them grew his plans to make walking sticks that looked alive, if he survived. He had prodigious skill and ingenuity, but had set out with modest aims, little imagining how the forest that he loved and protected bristled with life in ways he could never fathom. Take two of his masterpieces: a man petting a dog, and two playful lovers. Natural development? Bah! There was something preternatural going on. The blackthorn that grew at his guidance into such impossibilities trembled at his touch like a filly eager to be bridled.
Athol Farquar called no man master, and certainly didn't bow to any god. He made his quietly famous sticks to order — never setting his discipliners on a shoot he didn't know the future master of, and the shape this little innocent would grow up to be. He demanded to be paid first, and what he charged was so outrageous, he was heavily sought after. But he would only accept a client and an order if they met his unpredictable criteria. He made his considerable fortune on a few men and women who had everything, so they couldn't get enough of his sticks.
These were collectors such as Mr. L____, who'd made his boodle in khaki dyes. His baronic front hall bristled with walking sticks, whangees, pikestaffs, shoot sticks that folded out into stools; tippling and sword canes; and though his taste ran to music hall, an opera cane whose head glittered with diamonds.
He was particularly proud of two vicious knot-ended clubs, "A shillelah and knopkierie," he was fond of explaining. "See this shillelah with its head, like an Irishman's, filled with lead? The effect of this, like its simple African cousin here: Indistinguishable! Tap a man's head and you can scoop his brains out with a spoon."
His ballroom looked like a museum — rows of glass cases filled with walking sticks made of precious metals, woods, and jewels. One find, he'd moved to his safe because he was not sure of it anymore after some nasty tittering by other collectors. The seller, a drinking buddy on that cruise ship to New York in 1920, had sworn: "It's fair dinkum or strike me dead. Bavarian unicorn horn."
All of Farquar's customers had huge collections. Each begged to see him as soon as they found out about him, as if he had a cure for the incurable. He dealt with their fevers calmly but firmly, just as he did the most willful shoot or thickest trunk in his blackthorn thicket. When collectors yearned for Farquar, they wanted something as different as when the engorged gourmet wants, at long last, simply a drink of water.
Athol Farquar's sticks were prized, like the holy grail, for their purity. Made only of the blackthorn, a wood as humble as the Saviour's cup and crown. And no matter how elaborate the design, a Farquar walking stick was never whittled. If it looked as if its head were a ram's horn, or a running dog, or a woman, that was purely a delusion caused by the natural development of the blackthorn when taken into hand by their maker.
There were some sticks Farquar made that he didn't sell. These were working sticks — crooks he gave to the shepherds in the hills surrounding his little forest. For McAlister, he made a double-handed crook so that the old man could lean on it. Athol Farquar bent the length of this stick to complement the bow-shape of McAlister's bandy legs, the result being that if you saw him at work peering out along the slopes, you'd think, Now, what a fine specimen of a man. They grow them well in these wild parts. Grayson liked to snag a sheep from the belly so as not to break a leg, so his stick had one great scoop atop, wide as an unshorn ram. Young Stephenson would want something sharp and fancy to twirl in the village on a Saturday night. Athol Farquar didn't ask any of the shepherds first. He just thought he knew and made the sticks without consulting. Then he gave them out — and to each shepherd, something happened once the first touch of hand to wood was made. Somehow it became a part of him, as necessary as his legs.
These weren't sentimental gifts. The shepherds and Farquar had a relationship that each wanted to maintain. Sheep in the blackthorn would be a danger to themselves, even without his disciplining rods and wires making the forest into a nest of traps. And sheep eating the tender shoots of blackthorn would cut each walking stick in the bud. So he maintained a fence against the sheep, a combination of hedge and sharp banks, so that they'd stay on the grassy slopes and not venture into the forest. The triangle of the forest formed a V, the broad part at the top rising up to the rounded mound where McAlister tramped in every weather. The two sides of the V were valleys. Stephenson roamed the slope on the other side of the valley to the right, and over that hill. Grayson's land was on the left, his rise levelling out to become the closest thing to a plain in these contoured hills. The nearest village wasn't much to talk about. A day's drive by ass-cart, a brisk morning's tramp for Farquar. There was also a scatter of haughty houses within view of the slopes, not that the shepherds nor Farquar had anything to do with the foreigners who tended to rent them, Londoners and such, the villagers said. Neither the shepherds nor Farquar nor anyone in the village had one of those motorized contraptions, though it was already 1924. Young Stephenson wanted one with all his heart but the only way he'd get out of being a shepherd was if he wanted to 'herd' wild cattle. Some Laird out Auchencruive way who thought to turn rubbish into gold was offering mad amounts of money to skilled shepherds to civilise them, for the cattle were not only stupidly ferocious but used their horns like bayonets. He fancied his looks, but no matter how hard he scrubbed himself, he smelled of sheep, and therefore, failure — whereas a man with engine muck under his fingernails wafted the City, adventure, romance, escape.
"The daevil is ut made that," McAlister would say, laying on the brogue whenever he saw a vehicle, though there were precious few that made their way up to these parts, the roads being what they were, and the reasons, fewer. It wasn't the contraptions he objected to. They'd not bothered him in the War. More, the people who swanned around in the beasts. And everyone here agreed.
Not one of the people who craved Farquar's canes put a thought to where he lived, nor imagined his precious forest any more than a one of them had ever put a thought to, say, some tree that provided ebony, or the men who cut it. All correspondence was through the postmaster at Blair Atholl, a man who might as well have been a priest when it came to confidences. Farquar was so strict about meeting his clients in various remote inns and waysides he designated, that one tin-can magnate broke a leg leaping from a train and a moving-picture actress came down with quite useless hysteria.
Farquar's wealth grew as great and discreetly as his fame. He had, however, the habit of thrift. So in every hole he made by pulling up a lump of cairngorm stone from his hidden warren of mines under the blackthorn roots, he stuck a dumpling of soil filled with the old-fashioned dosh he demanded: pre-1917 gold sovereigns.
No one local thought of him as anything more than a poverty-stricken craftsman, actually someone even poorer — because he had not even one rough Highland sheep — than the crofters who spent their winters weaving hoary lichen-dyed tweeds that were prized by Lairds, Lords, and those who with war fortunes, were paving their way to obtaining a Title. The crofter-weavers never knew what power they had, if only they'd learned worth, but the middlemen-buyers who made the rounds of cottages were fierce as wolves, and always bought with their lips curled.
So there Athol Farquar was — as there and unnoticeable as his thicket — and as uninteresting, anyone would have told you. What did he look like? A necessary face. His body? It wasn't ailing. Otherwise, what decent person looked at a body?
* * *
She watched him from the point just below the forest, the point of the V, that deep watercressy place where the spring came out to run down between the two long-sided hills. She'd found and followed that spring, up past its calmness, up where it narrowed and rounded over rocks, up, her feet numb from the frigid waters where its banks were too steep to walk beside it, up towards its secret heart; into a region that half-comforted her with its secrecy, its terror. All around, the forest loomed — a tangled blackness that if rendered by an artist, must be something from a madhouse where the food might be rationed but not the ink, black accented with brilliant, dancing white. The moon was a searchlight. A light breeze made the forest sound like mice in a box of chocolates.
She had left home at the first call of the owls when the moon was already full, and now had been crouching, her ballet slipper-shod feet perched precariously in the stream. She was taking a drink of water from her dish of hands when she heard come, a man. He stopped just far enough away that she could see his dun-coloured vest and his bare muscular arms.
She watched him bend forward toward a branch, and just then, a cloud shifted. Moonlight cut them sharply into silhouettes. Her heart jumped. That branch looked like the reared-up head of a dying horse. The man held its neck while he reached down and ... what? Was he pulling something up? He straightened out partly and kicked the ground in the area his hand must have been. Was he kicking something out or pushing something in? She couldn't see. Then he turned away and disappeared into the messy blackness. She could hear him — creak, crackle, snap. He was tightening a wire here, stroking a green shoot there and nipping a leaf between his fingernails, not that she could see. As carefully as when she'd crept down the creaking stairs, she crept up the slippery bank ... and was caught.
The more she struggled, the more thorns found a purchase. First it was her skirt, then the silly flounces in her jacket. Its uselessness annoyed her so much that she'd hated to take it, but as with all her clothes, she had no choice. And now her hair had shaken loose, pins scattering into the branches like so many other spiky shoots. Her unfashionable, wild, waist-length tangle was caught, spreading with each movement to be an ever-larger web.
"Farquar," she called. "Mr. Farquar!" You idiot, she thought. It had to be him. Why did I wait?
She tossed her head and barely missed a thorn in the eye, and now her hair was so trapped that she couldn't move. He was too far away now, the forest too dense. She couldn't hear him at all, only frightening noises in the depths of night. The moonlight and small sounds only made everything look leering. There might be wolves here! Are there any wolves anymore, or are they just in stories? Tears flooded her eyes. Her cheeks mottled like a child's. She wrenched as hard as she could, which only served to tear some hair from its roots. "You ninny!" she yelled, which helped a bit.
Suddenly he was there, in front of her, tsking. "What a muckle you've made." His voice was deep but rough, his fingers gentle but skilled, and soon she was free. "Put up your blasted hair," he said, handing her some twists of worsted. She hesitated and he turned her like a top, grabbed the great soft mass, wrapped it and bound it as expertly as some Roman maid.
But that was just craftsman's luck. Since the War, he'd not been this close to another woman — to trouble.
His confusion soothed her, emboldened her. "You're Mr. Farquar?"
"That I am," he said without thinking. His instant reflex was always the honest response. And after that, he rarely said anything, not that he knew what to say now, with this — this girl up here, in the secret place — in the middle of the night. If 'twr a man ... Farquar being the ex-blacksmith he was, one reason he kept to himself was his temper. In war, it had helped being able to beat a man's brains in with one blow. In his regiment, they'd bet on him, till he stopped their fun and took, instead, to poetry and keeping by himself. Now this girl here.
"My father," she said, ignoring his scowl, "will be up here tomorrow morning. ... This morning."
She was so matter-of-fact, he forgot she was a girl. "How can he?"
"He's hired a detective and I heard them talking."
"What do you want?"
"To warn you." She didn't act like a woman. She spoke simply and her eyes didn't bat at him.
"You don't know who I am."
"I know who my father is. Richard Galveny."
She was so straightforward, yet she bristled with life. He pulled her skirt free of another thorn. Richard Galveny. The name rang no bell.
"My name is Rose, not Cairngorm." "So what does this have to do with the price of cheese?"
"He wanted you to do the Rape of Cairngorm. You refused ... Scratching your head won't help you, but will this?"
She posed, with her head turned away.
"Aye." His gut clenched. Richard Galveny. Richard. The man who had signed in a scrawl, and introduced himself as "Mr. Galveny."
They had met at Garnshiel Bridge, that humpbacked thing along the old military road linking the two historic garrisons of Braemar and Corgarff, a place of Galveny's choosing — "for romance," he'd said in his letter. "Do please indulge me," he'd written. "I'm besotted with history." Farquar had believed him.
Excerpted from The Walking-stick Forest by Anna Tambour, Karla Ortiz. Copyright © 2014 Anna Tambour. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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