Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tales From the Trunk: "Heartless"


Not every unpublished story made it into Irregular Verbs, and there's a good reason for that. "Tales From the Trunk" looks at those stories that didn't quite make it: today it's "Heartless."

Though I've said that one of the things I like about this collection is how different the stories are from each other, there are also a lot of connections between them. Many of the stories share common settings, even if those are only alluded to: "Lagos" and "The Last Islander" are in the same future (as is "The Ninth Part of Desire," which was left out of the book) and all of the time travel/time alteration stories have a rough connection to each other. Most of the secondary-world fantasy stories also take place in the same world, though quite different parts of it: there's one textual connection between "Closing Time" and "Irregular Verbs," while the Dead Men in "The Dragon's Lesson" are called that because there's no H sound in the language spoken by the people in "The Wise Foolish Son." (Long story.)

Aside from "Public Safety" and "Au Coeur des Ombres," "Heartless" is the story I've written that has the nearest connection to another one: it's actually set in the same part of the same world as "The Wise Foolish Son" and, like that story, involves two characters from the same two different cultures. While I think it's a modestly moving little story, I decided to leave it out because, unlike "The Wise Foolish Son," it doesn't really connect to anything bigger than itself.

But hey, what do I know? Judge for yourself.

HEARTLESS

  Welcome to you all, my brothers. It is an honour to have you all here, where I might show you those workings of which I am most proud; a rare honour, indeed, since we who make study of the Lord of Lightning and his substance are not, as a general rule, sociable in nature. I well remember the fear and suspicion that had to be overcome to organize our first meeting -- and the treachery and theft that nearly made the second the last. We guard our secrets jealously, as craftsmen will, but still we have pride, and a wish to show our workings to those that can appreciate them. And so here we are.
It is on that very matter -- our solitary nature -- that I mean to speak to your today. For all that I agreed to host this meeting, I am not immune to the suspicion of which I spoke. Rightly so: for while you have all been, I hope, impressed by the workings I have shown you -- I am particularly proud of the bottomless chalice of wine I passed around earlier, though I fear Atan may have drained it -- nevertheless I will tell you today that I once nearly lost something more precious than any of those, indeed my very greatest treasure.
This story begins on a winter afternoon, in a wood between Kaman and the civilized lands. I had heard, some bells earlier, the cry of a she-bear giving birth -- if you have never heard it, it is a sort of rONNNk! -- and had gone in search of it. It is a widely known fact, of no great value, that the young of bears are grown unformed, and do not take their shape until the she-bear licks them into it. The she-bear, after giving birth, is very thirsty, and must go in search of water to lick its young into shape. If a boltforge can acquire the mass while the she-bear is absent, it can be shaped instead into a little servant, most clever with both domestic tasks and duties of enchantment; Kuyurken, who was passing the chalice earlier, is one such, whom I crafted much later.
On that day, however, I was unsuccessful, and the she-bear returned to her cub before I could find it. As I made my way back to my home, though, I heard another sound, not unlike the she-bear's cry but much quieter. Curious, I followed it; in a clearing I saw the dead bodies of a man and a woman. Each was clad in Kamanai skins and jackets and their throats were torn out, their blood staining the snow for poles around. The only question was where the sound was coming from. I had no doubt this was its source, but could not see what was making it. I had left my ghost-seeing eye at home, not expecting to need it, and so was momentarily perplexed; after a moment I saw, hidden under snow in a small cave made by a deep tree root, a girl. She was crying.
My curiosity satisfied, I turned back towards home, but called out. "Help me, please," she said.
This was a surprise. I had been wearing, for protection from the she-bear, a bronze mask of my own devising, shaped with the eyes of a hawk, the ears of a cat and the nose of a dog; this was meant to hide me from all sight, hearing and smell, and it had done so successfully earlier. How then did she know I was there? Clearly she could not, and I took another step away.
"I can see your footsteps," she said. "Please, whoever or whatever you are, help me."
A-ha; of course I still left traces, in the snow -- something a bear might miss, but a child would not. I turned back towards her, removed the mask. She betrayed no surprise when I appeared in front of her, but squirmed out of the space under the tree. Clearly she was the child of the dead man and woman: she had on the same clothing, and was tall and thin, with bright red hair that fell straight to her shoulders. She was, to my eyes, rather tall to be a child, but her slim frame and unlined face, as well as her voice, showed that she was. "Is that your bear?" she asked.
I frowned. "My bear?"
"Did you send it to kill us? You look like a spirit-man." She spat at my feet. "Did you come to kill me too?"
"Why did you call out to me, if you thought I would kill you?"
She threw her head back, no doubt trying to look defiant. "I'm dead when night comes anyway, in this cold. Maybe if I face you I can kill you and take your magic, like in the stories." She balled her small hands into fists, stood ready to strike.
I smiled, looking at the bundle of bone and skin that faced me. "I'm afraid I am not one of your wild spirit-men, child, nor did I control that animal. Your parents simply ran afoul of a she-bear protecting her young."
"Oh," she said, looking deflated, and her hands relaxed. "But how did you keep me from seeing you?"
"It is my craft to do such things." I put the mask back on, was rewarded with a gasp as I disappeared, then took it off again. "I am a boltforge; my craft is that of Tivakar of old, and it is the blood of the Lord of Lightning that powers my workings." A bit overstated, I admit, but it is rare enough in my life of solitary study that I get to enjoy the awe I create in others.
"Are you going to save me, then?" she asked.
"Save you?"
"If you're not going to kill me, are you going to save me? In the stories, if a girl meets someone in the woods they either try to kill them or save them."
"This is not a story, child," I said. "Go home."
"I don't have a home," she said, her eyes moistening. "We were on our way to our spring camp. Baba and Papi were all I had."
I looked at her, unnerved as she began to cry.
"I'll freeze out here tonight," she said. "Can't I stay with you, just for one night?"
Frowning, I looked her over again; thin to the point of starving, but clean enough for a Kamanai, and she did not seem louse-ridden. "How old are you? What is your name?" I asked.
She paused for a moment, no doubt counting in her head. "This is my fifteenth winter," she sniffed. "My name is Vasilyusha."
"I can't say that," I said, "It's not a proper name. My name is Erkekan, and I will call you Tikasai."
"What does it mean?"
"It means this," I said, turning the mask around to show her the amber stone set into the forehead. "That is what I came to this land to find, so that is what I will call you."
We soon arrived at my home, which at that time was within the trunk of a hollow oak; she was properly impressed when the space within opened up to us, and she found herself in the anteroom. There were some blankets there which I often used to warm myself up after I had been outside, and I gave her those to make her bed. Then I called upon the door that led further in and retired to my chamber.
I found her awake in the morning, and led her to the kitchen so she could have a small breakfast before going. The appearance of a door in the formerly smooth wall startled her, and I admit to some pleasure at that.
"You may have another helping, if you wish," I said after she had finished a deep bowl of porridge. "I cannot promise you will find any food on your journey."
She looked up at me, porridge still on her lips. "I thought -- you said --"
"I said you could stay here for a night, and you did. Now you must go."
"No," she said, crossing her thin arms. "I've got nowhere to go to. If you let me stay, I'll -- I'll do your cleaning, your cooking."
"I have no need of that," I said.
She frowned at me. "I can tell just by looking at you, you don't know how to cook."
"Nor do I care for cleaning. But it gets done; look at your bowl."
"Why?" she asked, then near to jumped from her chair; six of my ai gimerkai, tiny bronze men just a finger high, were turning the bowl over and cleaning it with wire bristles on their hands. Her surprise gave way to wonder, and she reached out to touch one.
"So you see," I said, smiling, "I have no need for housekeeping. There is --" I stopped. Now it was my turn to be startled: one of the gimerkai, which should have been cleaning the bowl, had instead climbed onto the finger she had reached out with. It stood in her palm, holding itself still for her to look at it. "What did you do?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "I just wanted to see it better, and I touched it -- then it climbed up with its bristles. They sort of tickle..."
"You made it come to you," I said. "Perhaps -- perhaps you have a place here after all. I made the ai gimerkai to be sensitive to command by one with the touch... here." I picked up the gimerkai, drew the tiny chip of amber out of its lone eye with my fingertip. It fell still, lifeless once more.
"What did you do to it?" she asked.
"This is the power in it," I said, holding the stone out to her. "It will revive once I've replaced it. But right now I'd like you to hold this, concentrate on it."
"Concentrate?"
"Close your eyes. Imagine a little fire inside the stone."
I watched carefully as her eyes closed, wondering if the gimerkai's action might have been a fluke. Shortly, though, the chip flashed with a tiny light. "What was that?" she asked.
"Your future," I said. For I had, after all, been looking to make a servant to help me with my workings; by the Lady's grace it seemed I had.
I taught her the door charm first, so she could get into the kitchen; when I thought she was ready for another working I made her a room and showed her how to call a door to it. When she had done so I taught her to call the door to my outermost workroom, and she began to assist me with my less difficult workings. If I had doubted at first that she had the Lord of Lightning's touch, I surely did not now. She advanced quickly in her skill and knowledge, and as the years passed she learned much of my art, and learned to call on more of the doors in my house. In that time she showed no interest in leaving, being fully absorbed in her studies. I raised the matter once or twice more, but before long I thought her help invaluable to my work.
Time, as we here all know, passes swiftly when one is at work; the space of ten years was nothing then, and before I knew it Tikasai was a skilled boltforge in her own right. She had grown, too, into a woman. Though she had always a slender frame, a steady diet helped to fill her out so she no longer looked to be on the edge of starvation, and for the first time in many years I wondered if she might be better to leave. She had not learned enough of my craft to give away any of my true secrets, and I knew -- or remembered, from my youth -- that by her age most women were married, and often had borne children. One night at supper, therefore, I asked her if she wished to return to her people, or journey south to civilized lands.
"Why?" she asked. "Are you unhappy with me?"
"No, no," I said. "But this is a lonely life -- I wished only to know you had a choice, now that you are grown."
"I don’t find it lonely," she said. "Besides, why would I want the life I would have had? Married young, children at my breast, moving from camp to camp with the tent on my back -- no, thank you."
I smiled. "There are more doors open to you now. Not all boltforges live as I do, in study; many serve captains and princes, or even themselves, and many of those are very rich. It might be a wise thing to do, before you get too much older."
"Do boltforges grow older?" she asked, laughing. "I was starting to think we didn't. You don't look a day older now than you did the day you found me."
"That's none of your business," I said -- a bit fiercely, I realized by the look on her face.
"I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "I didn't mean to..."
I felt sorry for having snapped at her. "Forgive me," I said. "You're right; I do not age, and though I feel pain and cold, neither can kill me. You must swear, now, on the Lord of Lightning, that you will tell no-one what I am going to tell you."
"I swear," she said.
"I have done a thing greater than even Tivakar himself ever crafted. Each of us has, within us, a death. I drew my death out of me, and hid it, so that so long as its vessel is intact I will live."
"Could I do that?"
I shook my head. "It took me a lifetime of study to learn it. It is my greatest working."
She smiled. "Then," she said, "I suppose I had better get to work."
Her words inspired me. In the years since I had accomplished that working, my studies had become arcane and obscure. Now, in her company, I again became ambitious. Endless hours we worked, struggling to recreate the great legendary workings and to break new ground of our own. Her learning progressed quickly, the charms to the various doors in my home serving as benchmarks; when she learned to open each one she was permitted to work in that room. So it was that she saw more and more of my workings, learned more and more of my secrets, as the doors opened to her. Finally came the day she surprised even me -- or rather, the night; for it followed the day we recreated Teken's Atomile Tempest, a working thought lost to time. It was a triumph for us both, and on that night she showed she had learned the charm to my door.
Oh, it was never a great passion, I suppose. Not the stuff of ballads or legends, certainly. But we cared for one another -- or at least, I found I cared for her, and believed she cared for me. Our work continued, more and more now as equals (or nearly so) than as master and student. Many and happy were the years that followed, and many were the great workings we made.
Love, though, is no bar to time; it is a thing of mortals, not the Powers, and has no force outside the heart. So it was that I, ageless through my art, did not notice the days that were laid upon her one by one, until finally they weighed so heavily she could not even leave our bed.
"My time is almost up," Tikasai said to me as I sat by her side. "But my life has been full of wonders. I think sometimes perhaps I am still in the snow, and all this has been a dream of my last moments."
"If so, then I am dreaming too," I said.
"If all the things I have seen and done were real," she said, "let me see one more. Teach me the charm to that last door that is unopened."
She meant, of course, the door to my innermost room, the door where lay my greatest working -- that with which I had drawn out my death. At that moment I could not bear the thought of seeing her die, so I taught her the charm, which she mastered easily. That door then opened for us, and I carried her into the workroom.
There it sat: still my greatest working, even after all we had done together, untouched for years past counting. I cannot tell you how it works, of course, but suffice to say that at its core was a suit, close like a stocking, stitched of copper thread, which was to cover the whole body, and though Tikasai could barely stand I fitted it onto her. Her life was clearly ebbing, and I began to teach her the charm that would call the working into life.
As I did I began to reflect that when I taught her this, I would have no more secrets from her. She would know all that I had ever known. Nothing but her love would keep her from leaving, teaching those secrets to others; and love, like all mortal things, dies in time. But she would never die.
"What's the matter?" she asked when I hesitated. I saw on her face, with eyes clear for the first time in scores of years, the look of a thief about to escape. "Erkekan?" her fading voice called. "Why are you stopping?"
All of you here know how precious are our greatest treasures; I am amazed, still, when I think of how close I came to losing that which was mine...



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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Spoiler Space: "The Wise Foolish Son"

This is a story about how history becomes legend. It's also, like a lot of the stories in this book, about what happens when cultures collide. It's not hard to guess that this story is inspired by Russian folktales, but it was also inspired by Russian, or rather pre-Russian history, in particular the fact that the earliest Russian cities were actually trading posts set up by Norse traders (known to the Slavs and Greeks as Varangians; the Byzantine Emperors, who were not overly fussy about distinguishing between hairy northerners, had a Varangian Guard that at times included Anglo-Saxon refugees from the Norman Conquest.) What's fascinating about this is that within just a few generations there was practically no trace of Norse culture: as F. Donald Logan put it in The Vikings in History, "in 839, the Rus were Swedes. In 1043, the Rus were Slavs."

As much as cultures get diluted, assimilated and even annihilated, they resist too: the Chinese under the Manchus, the Tibetans under the Chinese, even the English under the Normans, but I don't know any other cases where the founding dynasty of a nation was completely absorbed into the culture of the subject people. So this is a story about someone who tries to bring his culture (though it hasn't done him any favours) to a "savage" people and, though they're changed as a result, winds up one of them in memory.

It's also a story about growing up in Canada, and in Ottawa in particular. Like a lot of cities on rivers, Ottawa has a twin across the water, Hull (now technically part of the amalgamated city of Gatineau) but the division is greater than in most such cases because the two cities literally speak different languages. Though like most Ottawans of my generation I learned French growing up, Hull always seemed like a foreign country -- something only exacerbated by the fact that I my early childhood was spent during the leadup to the Quebec separation referendum of 1980. The landscape that Dasatan moves through is also very much like the country I spent my summers exploring in the Gatineau region of Quebec. In some ways this story is a twin to "The Coldest War": while that one is about surviving winter, this one is about how "summer pays for all."  


Sources: I'd been in love with Ivan Bilibin's Russian Fairy Tales for years before I wrote this story, and both the text and the images were a huge influence on it. I've also always been a fan of those big Time-Life Great Ages of Man books -- I wouldn't necessarily recommend them as history but they're great for writers since they're crammed with visual material and fascinating little details: I mostly used the Barbarian Europe and Rise of Russia volumes for this story.

The material about how you find amber is all true, but I don't remember where I found it. Sorry!



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Friday, July 25, 2014

A couple of lit'ry lads

When I mentioned my Dad in yesterday's blog post I forgot to mention that he has a new book out too. Here's the two books together:


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spoiler Space: "When We Have Time"

Last night my wife was saying how lucky it was that her mother was able to find a birthday present for us to give to my grandmother. This led me to say that where the last generation borrowed money from their parents, we borrow time.*

I am not completely talking out of my ass when I say that people around my age view time differently than previous generations have: look at the trends in when people get married, for example, and (especially) when they have kids. My Dad, who was forty when I was born, was practically a generation older than most of my friends' dads; my older son was born when I was 36 and not a lot of his peers' parents are younger than me.

That's probably why, while some of the time travel stories I've written use the familiar SF trope of people moving through time, I've also written a bunch that focus on time as a commodity: something that can be manipulated, hoarded, bought and sold. "When We Have Time" is a story where, to paraphrase Giles on Buffy, the subtext is rapidly approaching being text: it was written at a time when we were living in a place we didn't want to live, when I had a job that I would come a hair's-breadth from losing every five months, and when we both knew that this definitely wasn't the time to have kids. Now I live in a place I like, have a job I love, have wonderful kids -- and think, as I'm rushing to pick them up and then make dinner every night, how much I would give to have just a little more time. Plus ├ža change...


The one Canadian reference in this story is pretty obvious, the Canadian Tire one-speed bike pictured above. I had one, and so did you.






* (I'm aware that lots of people in my generation borrow money, too. Shut up, I'm making a point here.)


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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Starred review from Quill & Quire

Here's a great review of Irregular Verbs in Quill & Quire, Canada's magazine of book news and reviews: "This is, indeed, a writer who fearlessly invents and innovates. That said, readers expecting to find a consistent theme or singular, overarching style won’t easily be able to pin Johnson down. His ability to flit between voices, styles, and perspectives – from pulp-fiction gumshoe to historical fantasy to paranoiac storytelling – results in a collection that spans a remarkable range of characters and ideas. Johnson’s strength resides in his willingness to adapt and explore [...] Johnson [...] has created a new mythology – new lore that feels as familiar as it is daring and fresh."


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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Spoiler Space: "What You Couldn't Leave Behind"

This is probably the story that travelled the shortest distance between the original idea and the final story. I actually remember the moment when I thought of the idea of a detective who only takes your case after you die, and it was a fairly short road to figure out that he wouldn't be investigating murders but the things in your life that led to your death. What was missing, though, was what would make it more than just another case for that detective, so the story lay fallow for awhile until I had the "tape echo" idea, which led to the Buddhist elements that give the story a bit more depth. (I mixed elements of both the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead together because, being a huge nerd, I thought it was funny. I still do.)

The original title of this story was "Kill Me Again," but James Maddox -- who bought this for the never-published anthology Concrete Overcoat -- rightly pointed out that it sounded like a generic horror movie, so we switched to the new title, which I don't like either but at least isn't egregiously bad. I hate coming up with titles.

Just one Canadian in-joke this time, the reference to Juno Beach, the beach that Canadian forces were responsible for on D-Day. They got further inland than any of the other landing forces.

Sources:

Pretty much all Wikipedia this time, mostly getting the details right on canopic jars and the four sons of Horus. I reread Chandler's The Big Sleep to get the tone right, though I limited myself to just a couple of Chandlerian similes.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tales From the Trunk: "Chrono de Se"

Not every unpublished story made it into Irregular Verbs, and there's a good reason for that. "Tales From the Trunk" looks at those stories that didn't quite make it: today it's "Chrono de Se."

I picked "Chrono de Se" to go with "Beyond the Fields You Know" because they're both the closest I've ever come to writing horror (on purpose, anyway.) I decided not to include it because while it has some nice imagery and a modestly clever idea, a SFnal twist on a contemporary phenomenon that I haven't seen done elsewhere, it didn't quite manage to walk the fine line between being too obvious and too obscure. There's also not a lot of character here, which may be less of a problem for a short horror piece than it would be otherwise but still led to me deciding to leave it in the trunk.

But hey, what do I know? Judge for yourself.

(By the way, for those who care about such things, this is a sort-of prequel to "Outside Chance.")


"Chrono de Se"



            Jeff swam in nothingness, cradled on all sides by the dark. He reached a hand out and somehow felt soft grass; looking around he saw a double-image of a garden, flowering shrubs and trees. It was not real, he knew, but only the product of his imagination. Here, where nothing existed, he could summon whatever reality he chose, or simply sink into the balm of sweet nothingness, safe beyond all harm.
            He did not know what he had done to deserve this. Had he, after so much searching, achieved some kind of enlightenment? Or was his whole life before -- his parents, his flight from the path they had laid out for him, all his travels -- an illusion that had finally faded to reveal the truth?
            Suddenly the darkness cracked: a fierce light burst in, small at first but expanding to fill the universe. He was cold now, and wet. Something was pulling him towards the light, rough hands laying him coughing and choking out on the grass. The unfamiliar sunlight burned his eyes, and he blinked away the hazy ghosts that filled his vision. After a few moments they resolved themselves into the face of an old man, his long beard white against his dark skin.
            "Rest," the old man said. He was squatting on his heels next to Jeff, holding out a china cup so fine the sunlight glowed amber through it. "Drink this, and rest. You have had a great loss."
            Jeff took the cup carefully, drank the cool tea inside. "Was I dead?" he croaked.
            The old man smiled kindly, shook his head. "The paradise is not to be found there," he said. "What you have tasted is oblivion, true nothingness, and it is not to be reached through death."
            Trying to sit up, Jeff felt his balance shift, and he reached out a hand to stop his fall. His vision had cleared, but his head still felt fuzzy, as though he were in the moments between being asleep and awake. "I -- why did I have to leave it?"
            The old man stood, reached out a hand to help Jeff to his feet. "Because I wished it," he said. "You are not ready to stay there yet -- but I will show you the way."
            Jeff smiled at the warmth of the old man's hand. He could now see he was in a small, simple garden twined through with gravel paths. His mind was still fuzzy, but memory of the void drew him like a buoy at sea. "What do I have to do? What do I have to become?"
            "Nothing," the old man said. "Nothing."
#
            Was it weeks that had passed, or years? Or was it only a handful of days? The sun rose and set, Jeff knew that, but he could not manage to keep track of how many times it did so. Any time he tried to focus his memory to a particular moment he remembered only the hot, sharp sun of noon and the scent of ever-blooming flowers.
            On this day he and the Old Man were walking in the garden. At the moment it seemed like they did that every day, though Jeff could not be sure that was true. Sometimes it seemed as though they spent every day drinking tea together, at other times that they did nothing but share the cool smoke of the water pipe. Always, no matter what they were doing, they would talk, the Old Man patiently answering all of his questions.
            "The paths are here because we tend to them," the Old Man was saying. They were standing at a crossroads in the garden, where one of the paths split off from the one they were on. "The grass would reclaim them if our feet did not tread them, if we did not pull it up when it left its bounds. But if we cut off a path --" He rubbed a line across the branching path with his slippered foot -- "we will no longer tend to it, and over time the grass will return. It will be as though it had never been."
            Jeff nodded. "It goes back to nature. To nothing."
            "All the world is only a garden," the Old Man said, "filled with the paths each of us treads. So long as that path exists we suffer pain. Our enemies. . . "
            He sighed. The Old Man would often refer to their enemies, though Jeff did not know who they might be. For that matter, he did not know who 'we' were, other than himself and the Old Man; he sometimes thought he heard other voices, saw fleeting shadows, but had never seen anyone else within the garden.
            "Our enemies are those who want us to suffer. They use the tools we do, but to preserve the paths, not erase them. They are so certain that their pain is important that they will do anything to maintain it -- and that is why you could not remain in the paradise."
             "Can I -- can we fight them?"
            "Each of us who finds the paradise strikes a blow against them."
            "I'm ready," Jeff said. "Please."
            The Old Man shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "You are not yet ready to sacrifice everything."
            Jeff closed his eyes, was able to summon only the barest shade of the feeling he had had in the void. "I am. I'll die if I have to."
            "I told you, death is not the door. What is your puny life worth? You must give up everything."
            "I'm sorry, I don't understand," Jeff said. A bitter taste was in his throat, and as he looked at the garden the sight of it was thin and watery, as though it was mocking his memory of the paradise. "Every day you explain this to me and I still don't get it. I feel like every day I know less than I did the day before."
            The Old Man smiled. "That," he said, "is a beginning."
#
            After that Jeff stopped trying to count the days, stopped trying to remember whether he was always drinking tea or always walking in the garden. When he saw the shadows or heard the voices he did not look or listen. He did not ask any more questions, but listened only, letting the Old Man's words wash over him, smoothing him into glass, and every night he knew less than he had that morning.
            One morning he awoke to find he had forgotten his name. He ran right away to the Old Man to tell him he was ready.
            "Not yet," the Old Man said. "You have not yet forgotten your name, only the word for your name. I can still see it floating around you like a ghost, waiting to reclaim you."
            "What can I do?"
            "I will give you a new name, to drive that one away. You will be Adam, as Adam was the first and last."
            Adam smiled. The name was good, it fit; it felt vaguely familiar, but he knew not to pursue that memory. "And now?"
            "Now you must forget me," the Old Man said. "Forget everything except the paradise, and the one thing you must do to return there."
            The Old Man sat Adam down on the grass, and whispered to him what he must do. Adam closed his eyes, nodded slowly, and when he opened them again the Old Man was gone. The garden was gone, too, and even the sun; pale light came from somewhere out of sight, dimly illuminating the room in which he now stood. On one wall stood a three-sided box, man-sized, made of metal wire. Forgetting each step as he took it Adam walked over to the box and stepped inside.
            A moment later and he was in another darkened room. He heard the sound of someone breathing, softly, in their sleep. His eyes, dark-adjusted, picked out a bed nearby, a man lying in it face down. Adam stepped over to it. There was a knife in his right hand. It had always been there.
            The man stirred, and Adam kept himself perfectly still. After a moment the man rolled over to face Adam, still asleep. He was a young man, with dark hair and a mustache.
            A memory was nipping at Adam's heels. He had seen that face; not in life but in a photograph, one taken before he had been born. This face did not bear any of the lines that came from fatherhood or responsibility, from the stress of looking after family and country. This was the face of a man without cares.
            The memory found and banished, Adam drew his knife-blade across the man's throat. The knife clattered to the floor; he felt the skeins of his life unravel, until he had never been.

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