“Milk and Glass Make Steel” The Light Echo #3 (Feb 2013)

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February 2, 2013 • Latest, The Light Echo • Views: 1687

It is a strange thing to learn that your entire view of the world is not just backwards but actually entirely upside down and inverted. That is where we left our friendly young Flutes, Thalia and Lingnan and Horace and Olof. For a short spell there we might have been worried Lingnan and Thalia would remain unfriendly forever. But friends have a way of becoming friendly again and after a long, partially rope-less climb up the spire, two of our Flutes made several discoveries. Thalia finally finished the song she had been spending her entire life trying to master. Lingnan found himself books that proposed some wild theories to answer the riddles dogging his brain and both of them together discovered a particular demon in the sky, an eight legged scaly creature their long lost friend Dactyl had called a Dracon, or a Meson, or many of the other outlandish names Flutes had given this terrible creature. Enough time has passed that word has spread of this creature. The small isolated land the Flutes had enjoyed has suddenly become populated with new, unsavory strangers…

Preliminary sketch.

Preliminary sketch.

When Olof Gosta looked in the mirror he didn’t see much. His face was round, his sides spilled over his breaches. He had inherited his mother’s pigeon toes and so could never run more than three or four steps before tripping. It wasn’t that he didn’t see much; he saw too much. And he didn’t care for any of it.

He had a bowl of boiled milk beside him and he was smearing globs of it on his face. His cheeks were bruised and cut and his right eye was purple and black. As he tended to his face he kept repeating numbers that had been running through his head of late.

“One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13. One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13.”

His mom, Algy, climbed up through their bottom hatch and he quickly threw a quilt back over the full length mirror.

“Talking to yourself again?” she said.

“Hey, Mom.”

“I should stop, really, I should stop working, Olof. At least as much as I do. There’s no reason for me to keep doing this. It’s not going anywhere and we’re still stuck here. In this place. I’m sorry I’m not here.”

“You’re here now.”

“You know what I mean. Are you leaving for school already? I need to sleep. I can’t take you. I can’t walk you today. I need to sleep. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said.

“What were you doing with the mirror?”

“I didn’t want anyone to see.”

“See what?” She came to him and tugged off the quilt. His bruised and cut face reflected back at her in the mirror. “Oh, Olof. Again? Here let me do it.”

She wiped off the milk he’d spread all over and applied a small amount herself.

“You need to stand up to them,” she said.

“I don’t know how.”

“‘I don’t know how’ won’t stop them, Olof. You need to stand up to them.”

“I’ve tried.”

“You just need to find out what they’re afraid of.”

“They’re bigger than me.”

“Everyone’s bigger than you. I’m not saying beat them up. I’m not that bad of a mother. Bullies are all afraid of something though. You just have to find out what.”

“Couldn’t you just walk me from school?”

“No. Not now. I can’t do that now. And not every day. You know this. You’re six.”

“I’m almost seven!”

“Yeah, and in another couple of seasons you won’t want me around anymore.”

“That’s crazy talk, Mom.”

“You’ll see. You’ll be embarrassed. It’s how things work. So you’ve got to learn to be alone.”

“It feels like I always am. Like I’m always alone.”

“That’s cause you’re like me. Sometimes that doesn’t change. Even with friends around. Probably the hardest skill you’ll learn.”

“They don’t teach it in school.”

“Not in any class I’ve had.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Sure thing,” she said. “But, Olof, I need you to stop messing with the mirror.”

“I wasn’t touching it.”

“You were standing in front of it looking at it.”

“I wasn’t touching it.”

“You could crack this glass with a scowl. Just leave it be, like I told you. The one expensive thing we have. What are you supposed to study in school today?”

“Customs.”

“What sorts of customs?”

“Not customs, really.”

“Then what?”

“The Flutes who check up on us. The monitors. Hadars. Have you ever seen one?”

“Before you were born. That was the last time we had trouble around here. Seemed everyone back then was breaking some sort of custom. Big or small it didn’t matter. Hadars came and cleaned things up. But we don’t want things to get to that point again do we, Olof?”

“No.”

“It’s why we start with the small decisions. It’s why–and I know you want to tell me all those crazy stories you hear–it’s why I don’t allow it. You start with the small decisions and the big ones follow. You got me?”

“I got you.”

“Go ahead and look at yourself.” She had done a good job. The black and blue bruise on his eye was only now slightly discolored and the cuts on his face looked like old forgotten scars. “Just don’t tell anyone you put this on your face or you’ll never hear the end of it. Now go off to school so momma can sleep. Listen to your teachers and come back quick.”

His class was a level below them and far enough away that a second encounter with the bullies who had been hounding him was a reasonable fear. He lucked out, however, and found his seat in class beside Horace and two seats in front of Biddel, who took the most delight in tormenting him.

Their class was set in a great hall with semi-open chambers that subdivided the entire area. Olof sat in class and watched another class a hundred meters away though he couldn’t hear a word.

“One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13,” Olof muttered. “One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13.”

“What are you doing?” Horace whispered as their teacher, Ms. Velorum, stood in front of the class and lectured.

“Nothing,” Olof said.

“You’re making funny movements with your fingers.”

“They’re not funny.”

“They are. I might not be laughing but they’re still funny.”

“Numbers,” Olof said.

“What?”

“I’m drawing numbers. At least I think that’s what they are. Funny numbers if you must know. One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13. Funny. See?”

“It’s less funny when you explain it.”

“You’re weird.”

“Olof Gosta!” Ms. Velorum shouted.

“Ma’am,” Olof said.

“Olof Gosta, is it possible you could recount anything I’ve said to you in the last five minutes?”

“Ma’am?”

“Five minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Biddel chucked a hunk of gravel at Olof. “Ms. Velorum I think he should have to do it front of the whole class. Make him stand up.”

“Let’s hear it,” she said.

“Make him stand! Show us the makeup job on his face.”

“That’s enough, Biddel.”

“Um, okay,” Olof said. “You began with the last known sighting of a Hadar in these parts. The last recognized sighting was seven seasons ago during a clearing of what you described as a music party near a pub down around the Blue River. Customs broken during the music party were as followed: the processing and employment of musical instruments; the verbal recitation of books both fictional and historically fictional; the ignition of preconstituted milk curds for the purposes of inhalation; public displays of body gyration–dancing, right?–and the distribution of numbers and their operations, combinations, and abstractions with intent to measure and articulate the configuration of any and all known spatial properties and elements. I didn’t know what that last part meant.”

“Mathematics, dear boy,” Ms. Velorum said.

“Estimated sacrifices to the Light Echo–”

“–I’ve got it, Olof,” she said. “You can talk with your friend and listen at the same time. An impressive talent. Please let’s just focus on the listening and save the talking for later, yes?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Memorizing lectures,” Horace whispered. “And I’m the weird one.”

They were out of class and wandering the halls just below the surface. Biddel and his friend Nettles appeared and stepped in line behind them, keeping pace inches from each young Flute.

“Leave us alone,” Horace said.

Olof knew it was coming. A punch to the gut, a kick to his heels, or maybe nothing so harsh. The simple persistent aggression was enough to drive him to tears. It was the one thing against which he had no defense.

“Leave who alone, Horace?” Biddel said. “We’re just walking.”

“Yeah,” Nettles said, “Just walking.”

“You’re trying to tell me where I can and cannot walk?”

“You’re walking right behind us,” Olof said.

“Oh, so it’s Olof who gets to decide where we can and cannot walk?”

“I’m not deciding anything.”

“It seems you just did.”

“Just leave us alone!” Olof said.

“Your face looks pretty, Olof,” Biddel said. He reached and swiped finger across his cheek where his mother had applied the milk.

“Pretty, yeah,” Nettles said.

“Just keep walking,” Horace said.

“That’s what I’m doing,” Olof said. Biddel and Nettles didn’t stop. They were so close Olof could smell their breath when they spoke.

“I said your face looks pretty, Olof. You don’t think so? I’ve never known a Flute to heal that fast from a black eye.”

“Special and pretty,” Nettles said.

“What was that special filth you were spouting in class? Remind me, Olof.”

“It was nothing.”

Biddel clipped Olof’s heel and he tripped and almost fell over.

“Nothing,” Biddel said. “Right. What was it?”

“I just repeated what Ms. Velorum said back to us.”

“Not that,” he said. “The filth. What was it?”

“It was numbers, that’s all.”

Biddel clipped his heels again and again Olof tripped.

“Numbers. I should send you up to the Light Echo for that. You heard what Ms. Velorum said.”

“He thinks he’s better than us,” Nettles said.

“Not us,” Olof said. “Just you.”

Biddel swung him around and reared back his fist and Olof waited for the other side of his face to turn black and blue. But the strike didn’t come. Lingnan and Thalia popped from another hall and Biddel stopped. Lingnan didn’t appear to notice what was going on. Thalia stepped right between Biddel and Nettles.

“We found another one, little man.” Lingnan swung an arm over Olof’s shoulder.

“You mind letting us finish our conversation with your rude little pal here, Lingnan?”

“He does mind,” Thalia said. She flicked Biddel’s hands off Olof.

“Rudeness breaks some sort of custom doesn’t it, Biddel?” Lingnan said. “Olof does his best to be a good and proper custom-following Flute, doesn’t he, Olof? Not even when his good friends bribe him.”

Biddel and Thalia, in agreed dismissal of Lingnan, stared each other down.

“You can’t tell us what to do,” Biddel said to her.

“I didn’t tell you to do anything. I removed your hands from my friend who is half your size. Maybe you’d rather take on a girl instead?”

“Lose twenty stone and chop off your nappy hair and we’ll call it a fair fight.”

She kicked him in the shin just as Ms. Velorum appeared and yelled at them all to stop fooling about. The four of them left. Horace turned around and stuck his tongue out at the two Flutes as Ms. Velorum began to lecture them about being nicer to classmates who were less fortunate than they.

***

The air above the Rift was cool and crisp with a consistent haze that looked like dust sprinkled over a chalk board. Underneath the surface milk bubbled from the walls and lit up most burrows and rooms with a solid glow so strong few Flutes ever found any trouble seeing. Above, the land was darker. Milk rarely bubbled to the surface. The only light came from the Airglow, which ribboned over the sky like trails of oil in a pool of water. On different days the light might be green or orange or red or blue or sometimes every color at once, but whatever it was there was enough to light up the land with diffuse rays that allowed even the most nearsighted Flute to see a good distance.

“We found another one,” Lingnan said when they reached the surface.

“Another one what?” Olof said.

“Another burrow. Up on a spire. Different spire, different burrow.”

“There’s other ones we could check out, right? Other burrows that aren’t so…high?”

“No doubt. But what would be the fun in that?”

“Me surviving, Lingnan. I think that would be a blast.”

They punched through the same hatch they had always used, from a burrow two hours outside of the hub. Lingnan seemed to know exactly where they were going, taking an unseen path east along the Rift.

“Can you at least slow down?” Olof said.

“Try walking faster.”

“I can’t.”

“You can’t walk fast?”

“You guys have longer legs. I have shorter legs.”

“Can you run?”

“I’m not going to run just to keep up. Don’t walk so fast.”

“Olof, if you can’t keep up now how do you expect to keep up with us on the climb?”

“By not climbing at all. I told you I’m not going.”

They trekked on for another half hour until they arrived at a second spire a short walk from the Rift. Thalia ran off in search of a burrow or two they could use to escape to when the Light Echo came.

Lingnan heaved down all his gear. “You ready for this, Horace?”

“I’ve been practicing,” Horace said.

“It’s just like walking,” Lingnan said.

“Except not at all,” Olof said.

“One step in front of the other,” Lingnan said. “Don’t move on until you’re settled. Foot, fingers, hands. The spire is pretty rough. Feel it. The textures. It’s not really anymore difficult than climbing a ladder and you both do that everyday.”

Thalia came back. “Found one. About forty yards away. Empty burrow. Unlocked throughout. Looks good.”

***

Despite Lingnan’s assurances it would be an easy climb, Olof found himself flat on his rear end over and over. Within minutes he was already a good 20 meters behind everyone else. He tried dropping all his weight–mainly his backpack which had the books Lingnan had loaned him and a few small bags of food–but it didn’t help. He had trouble gripping the holds, he had trouble standing on his toes, he had trouble anytime he looked down even though down wasn’t more than a few meters below him.

“It’s not a ladder,” he finally said, crossing his arms. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle.”

“You’re just going to sit around?” Lingnan said to him from up high.

“I’ve got the books.”

“You can’t read.”

“I’m getting better.”

“Fine. But keep on eye on us, will ya?” He flicked down his monoscope. Olof dropped it. “Just don’t lose it, okay? I don’t even think you could break it. Just don’t lose it.”

Horace and Thalia and Lingnan climbed and when they were so high up their voices drifted into the wind Olof was at long last alone. On previous trips occasional heads popped up from hatches to check out the surface before they dropped down to the safety of their burrows. Lately, they had seen more Flutes actually climbing out of hatches and walking around. Strange outlandish Flutes from far off places who spoke languages none of them understood or who, if they came close at all, greeted them with nothing more than a grunt and a quick stride away.

The books were vast in their breadth. Olof had already dogeared 20 to 30 pages from the book of maps. He couldn’t read the names of the cities or the names of the regions–he couldn’t read anything because he couldn’t read–but he knew what the map was telling him. His home was at the foot of the world–the literal foot, the big toe. The regions around the foot had few words and so, Olof imagined, few settlements. The farther north he followed the maps the more words and dots and circles appeared. The entire face and chest was lit up with words. It was all sort of laughable. He had to admit that. And no matter what Lingnan and Thalia had told him of what they’d seen on the spire, he still didn’t believe it. Nevertheless, he ran his fingers over the page and marveled at the possible vastness of the world.

A second book was filled with numbers and equations. “Mathematics, dear boy,” Ms. Velorum had said. The third book was filled with sketches that seemed to detail instructions on how to build instruments: monoscopes and boilers and rope and guitars and drums, nothing he was ever really allowed or supposed to use and address. He checked the horizon again for visitors before he dove into the books. He came to a page of sketches detailing the construction of a monoscope. It wasn’t small like the one Lingnan had dropped down to him. This looked almost as big as he was, with a trunk as wide as any Flute.

“How far could you see with this?” he said out loud.

The wind came up hard and cold and blew back the pages of the book. He took his belongings and pressed himself against the other side of the spire. The wind cut off but the dust didn’t fall. He pulled a handkerchief from his pack and wrapped it around his face. His back was to the Rift and he looked out and saw, far off, at the edge of his vision, a small figure rustling across the plain. He glassed him with Lingnan’s monoscope. He was a long, lean Flute with a face too weathered and dark to make out an age. In class Ms. Velorum had warned against any trips to the surface. Too many trips and too long under the airglow and your face’ll get all cracked and worn like a crusty towel. That’s how she had phrased it. Olof had never seen a Flute who matched that description until now. The figure took out a monoscope of his own and glassed the horizon. When he spotted Olof he tucked his supplies back into his pack and headed his way.

Olof never got up. He sat on the ground against the spire, sipping water from his canteen. The man arrived and dropped his pack and sucked the final few droplets of water from his canteen before he tucked it away. He didn’t smile or look at Olof too hard and Olof was grateful for it.

“Milk or water?” the figure asked, nodding to Olof’s canteen.

“Water,” Olof said.

“You mind?”

Olof offered his canteen. The figure took it and stood beside Olof, his back against the spire, his eyes on the plain.

“You watched me come up the whole way. Good not to get walked up on. Smart. You keeping guard for your friends?”

“No,” Olof said.

“Just reading then?”

“I can’t climb. So reading is all I have.”

“What they fixin’ to do?” the figure asked. He just kept right on drinking.

“There’s a burrow up there.”

“There’s burrows lots of places.”

“But it’s up there. At least that’s what Lingnan said.”

“Being up there and being down here, it don’t make no difference. Burrows a burrow. Thank you for the water.”

“You’re welcome. Did you come with all the rest?” Olof asked.

“All the rest is who?”

“All sorts of Flutes have been coming around lately. Different looking ones. From all around. Wanting different things.”

“I didn’t come with no one.”

“But you’re not from around here?”

“Nah, I ain’t from around here.”

“Then why are you here?” Olof asked.

The figure took one more swig of water and handed it back to Olof. “What are you reading?” he asked.

“I’m just looking at the pictures.”

“Picture’ll say more in one sketch than some smart guy can say in a whole book. Can you read?”

“No, sir,” Olof said.

“But you wear make-up?”

Olof covered the wound on his face his mom had covered with the curdled milk.

“I had some bruises,” he said.

The figure pulled out a handkerchief and tossed it to Olof. “Wipe it off. Start hiding your wounds so young you’ll trap yourself down with ’em. Never climb out. A damned fool thing to outlaw though.”

“Damned fool thing to outlaw?” He wiped off the milk and handed back the handkerchief.

“Reading. Actin’ like reading’s gonna cause all sorts of turmoil. They’re just words. Which one you like the most?”

“The one with the sketches, I think.”

“You think?”

“The numbers one too, but I don’t know what they mean.”

“Don’t know what they mean,” he said.

“One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13.”

“What’s that?”

“One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13. Numbers. I can’t stop saying them.”

“You get them from the book?”

Olof shook his head. “They just seem like interesting numbers.”

“Do you know what they mean?”

“Numbers do about as much for me as words do.”

“But can you read them?” Olof liked the Flute. He dropped his guard, unfolded his hands and stretched out his legs. He probably should have stood up and met him face to face but something about the way the figure was standing against the spire, guarding himself against any unseen calamities, told Olof that the man was comfortable having him on the ground, despite what courtesies suffered.

“I could tell you which one is which,” the stranger said. “But I can’t throw them together in a line and tell you what they mean. Numbers can’t help me with nothing my hands can’t do. I break enough customs. Don’t need to start breaking ones I don’t understand none. See now, check this out. You got this book here. This book here has got a diagram. Diagram to show you how to make yourself a scope. You could follow the diagram and make yourself some scope that’ll let you see a hundred yards away pretty good. Better than I can see with my eye at least. And this book has got all sorts of numbers for you to follow and rules to live by. Hell, numbers and math, they just full of more customs that you ain’t supposed to break. Open a book and you dive into a world no different than this one. My daddy before he died had himself a scope. He didn’t pass it on to me. He wanted that thing to go with him when the Light Echo took him. He was selfish like that. But he let me get one. And he showed me what his daddy showed him and his daddy showed him all the way down before we was all ever around in the first place.”

“Showed you what?”

“Take out that monoscope I saw you spying me with.”

“It’s not mine.”

“Go on, take it out. I’m going to show you something.”

To Olof the apparatus was a simple cylinder: a single shaft with two frames of glass at either end. With a single flick of his wrists Aitken twisted apart the monoscope and cracked it open to reveal its hollow insides. He adjusted each lense, moving the larger one a bit farther out and the small one about the same. It seemed an important move, far too important to change on a whim. Olof remained quiet. The drifter did not seem a Flute to be trifled with.

“Look through it now,” the Flute said after he finished putting the monoscope back together. “You see?”

When he looked through the scope before, he could gather a fairly clear enough image of Lingnan and Olof and Thalia on the spire that he could imitate their movements. Looking through the scope now he could read their lips.

“They’re not happy with Horace,” Olof said.

“What?”

“He’s not as good a climber as they thought. You did that just by adjusting the glass?”

“Lenses. They’re called lenses. In places like this where nobody’s allowed to have them, people tuck the lens in, hoping when people see it they’ll think it’s just a stick or a shaft, not a tool.”

“And you did that just by moving the glass–I mean, the lense over that much?”

“Magnification. Light gathering. Every little bit helps. I’ll show you again.”

“No, I’ve got it,” Olof said.

The figure leaned back against the spire and took off his hat and ran his fingers through his straight black hair. He took in Olof’s image again and Olof felt as though the Flute had adjusted the lenses in his own eyes and made more of him than he really was.

“My name’s Aitken,” he said.

“Olof. Olof Gosta. We shake hands here when we meet people.”

Aitken smiled. “We stand up and meet face to face where I’m from.”

Olof Gosta smiled and moved to stand up.

“You’ve got company,” Aitken said.

“What?”

“Sit down. Stay down.”

He dropped his hand to the scope at his waist. Two flutes had climbed from a hatch a dozen or so yards away.

“So this is where you’ve been running off to after class, Olof.” It was Biddel and Nettles. “Friends too far away to help you now. What is all this junk you’ve got here? Stuff Ms. Velorum was talking about? I knew you were a custom breaker. You know what we could do to you for reading? For–what is this?”

Biddel snatched the monoscope from Olof’s hands.

“Shaman totem,” Nettles said. “Shaman slang.”

“Give that back!” Olof said. “It’s not mine.”

“You don’t tell me to give you anything,” Biddel said. “Just touching this thing makes me feel filthy. You’re filthy for keeping it. And there’s really only one thing to do with filthy Flutes.”

Biddel stepped over Olof and pressed his dirt covered foot on the opened page of Olof’s picture book. Aitken stepped forward.

“I think you should give it back,” he said. Both Flutes stood against each other with Olof on the ground between them.

“You mind translating for your red faced friend, Olof?” Biddel said. “Looks too much like Thalia and I don’t speak half-breed.”

“You guys leave him alone. Please. We’re just–”

Olof stopped. Nettles who for once had been quiet had begun to back up. He had seen something in Aitken’s eyes that he hadn’t seen from far off. Biddel saw it too. They both had been hit, though Olof had never seen a punch thrown.

“I think you guys should leave,” Olof said.

“I’m going to keep this,” Biddel said to them both. “Show everyone. I don’t care who your half-breed friend is. Just be glad we don’t have Hadars, Olof, or I’d throw you to the Light Echo.”

It was Biddel’s small victory. When he turned to leave, Olof could see him smiling.

“I think you should give it back,” Aitken said.

He stepped over Olof and was two paces away from Biddel now. Biddel sized him up but never looked him in the eyes.

“Take your stupid shaman totem. Don’t think I’ll forget you, half-breed.”

Biddel dropped the scope. Olof scooped it into his lap and dusted off the dirt and checked the lenses to make sure they were clean and clear.

“Sometimes you gotta push back more than they think you can,” Aitken said.

“Bullies,” Olof said.

“There’ll always be bullies. They’ll come for you again. Be ready for it.”

Lingnan, Thalia and Horace dropped from the spire, the three of them midway through some talk they’d been having for awhile now.

“You said you could climb,” Lingnan said. “That’s all I’m saying. You said you could climb.”

“I can climb,” Horace said.

“That wasn’t climbing.”

“You’ve gotta be faster than that,” Thalia said.

“That was like baby crawling,” Lingnan said. “Like if a baby could crawl up a spire and climb. That’s what that looked like. Baby crawling.”

“Don’t be stupid, Lingnan,” Thalia said.

“You didn’t give me a shot,” Horace said.

“You had a two hour shot. That’s not a shot, it’s like a–”

“–Lingnan!” She cut him off again. “Olof, who is this?”

Aitken had moved back to the wall of the spire. He never allowed strangers to stand behind him. Thalia sized him up but didn’t step forward. She could see the Flute didn’t welcome their company.

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Olof said. “This is…this is Aitken. He’s my friend. Biddle was causing trouble. Aitken scared them off.”

The stranger balked at the mention of his name. Olof didn’t quite understand vagabond etiquette.

“Scared them off, huh?” Lingnan said.

“They was scared already. Being up here,” Aitken said.

“You have a lot of friends from the North, Olof?” Thalia asked.

“I have all sorts of friends.”

“Does he know how to climb?” Lingnan asked.

“Ask him,” Thalia said.

“Do you know how to climb?”

Thalia looked over to Aitken. “He means to say, could you climb a spire like this? Of course you know how to climb.”

“He knows what I asked him. You don’t need to modify what I say.”

“It was unclear,” Thalia said. “You don’t want to insult the poor Flute.”

“You’re the one calling him poor.”

“How far up you going?” Aitken asked.

“To that burrow up there. You might not be able to see it.

“I can see it,” he said.

“We wanted to–”

“They your friends?” he asked Olof. The boy nodded. “Olof says ya’ll are okay I’ll give you a shot. Looks like a two hour climb there and back if you can keep up. You gonna be all right down here by yourself, Olof?”

“I’ll be here!” Horace said.

“Praise the Light Echo. The boys won’t be back. If they do, you womp ‘em one good with your scope. It’s harder than it looks and’ll leave ‘em hurtin’ too much to keep coming at ya. And don’t read too much. Reading messes with your eyes.” He looked over at Thalia. “The girl coming with us? She looks fit.”

“She’s coming,” Thalia said. She looked right back, not sure what to make of him.

“Then let’s get going. It’s still early but the Light Echo…you don’t know sometimes.”

He didn’t leave his gear. The pack strapped to his back seemed as much a part of his body as his feet or his hands. Olof stood up and refilled his canteen and they shook hands. The three older Flutes shoved off, each with their own bundle of rope to help them slip down to the floor if the Light Echo did come early. Olof plopped back down and returned to his books but closed them when he remembered what Aitken had said.

“Don’t look so glum, Olof,” Horace said. “They’re just climbing. They’ll be back.”

“Shut up, Horace.”

***

They never did come back down. Olof stayed and watched them climb until they reached the hatch. He waited another hour but they never came out and at long last he relented to Horace’s pestering and both boys left. With Lingnan and Thalia they felt like adventurers. Olof had not just seen the surface but explored the surface. He had roomed in far off and long abandoned burrows. He had seen the great hall of the Blue River where travelers arrived and disappeared to and from the remainder of the world. He had read books and built instruments. He had seen and done so much that shocked him and would terrify his mother if she ever found out and yet according to his books all he had done was not yet a trifle. Without Lingnan and Thalia both Flutes returned to being kids, too hesitant to break custom. They soon found themselves back home with nothing much to do but sit and wait until they were old enough to live.

Olof’s mother was asleep in a chair, her head face down on the dining room table where a half eaten plate of food and a near empty bottle of spiced milk sat. The sound of the hatch stirred her awake but she drifted off again. Olof sat beside her and finished off her food and put the dishes and the milk bottle away.

“I can do it. I can do it,” she said to herself. “No. Go. He’s not like you. Not smart. A gimp like me. Can’t make friends unless they push it on him. Only people pushing on him are pushing him over. So leave, go, he’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. Go off on your adventure. Break your customs. It’s a big world. A stupid world. We don’t have room for three. Go off into the wild.”

He brought her a blanket and a pillow and retired to his bed where he laid out in front of him Lingnan’s books and monoscope. He closed the books and cracked open the monoscope the way Aitken had showed him. He returned the lenses to their previous positions and put the scope back together and looked through it. He practiced the movements and studied the mechanics of the scope until he could do it with his eyes closed, muttering to himself the entire time, “One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13. One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13.”

***

He woke to find his mother, head cocked to one side, her eyes sagged from an uneasy sleep, shaking her head at him. She was looking at him as though she just didn’t understand him anymore.

“There’s this Flute at the door. Probably doesn’t even have a last name. Half-Breed by the look of him. Sorry, I don’t know what else to call him. He gave me a name but I forgot it already.”

“What?”

“The mother in me wants to know where you meet these friends. The Flute in me says it’s probably better I don’t know.”

“Aitken?”

“That sounds about right. He’s handsome at least. I don’t think I would have kept the hatch open if he wasn’t handsome.”

“Aitken!”

Aitken was standing beneath the open hatch. He’d taken off his hat but looked as gruff and leathery as he first had.

“Your mom said I could walk you to school. You got them kids still out hunting for you. Maybe I could help out. I don’t know if she heard a word I said.”

All he could do was smile.

Olof skipped beside Aitken like a fawning pet. He never even asked where they were going, although it was clear early on it certainly was not to school.

“I never get walked to school,” he said. “Never. Horace comes with me sometimes but usually his mom is too scared for him to go walking out without her even though she’s completely okay with him coming home alone, or with me, or sometimes not even coming home at all and coming out with us to the surface or to Greely’s or wherever. She doesn’t know we go to the surface.”

“Where she think you go?”

“She doesn’t always ask. When she does I say we just had a study group and that’s usually enough. She works a lot. Isn’t home much.”

“Tough raising a Flute on our own.”

“I guess.”

“It is. She’s a good woman for it. Do your best not to disappoint her.”

“Sometimes Lingnan or Thalia walk me to school. They’re not in school anymore and they don’t really work. I think they want me to ditch.”

“We’re ain’t going to school.”

“We’re not going?”

“I didn’t like that idea no more.”

“Am I being kidnapped?”

“Voluntary confinement. It don’t even break custom.”

“Where we going?”

“Someplace you can use your hands.”

***

They came to the surface as they so often did, near the Rift and the spire with the high top burrow.

“Your friends don’t know too much,” Aitken said as they began walking. He pointed to the burrow way up there. Olof couldn’t see it. Aitken could. “At their age. That’s all they see. Burrow up there and it’s gotta mean something. Sure it means something. Not what they think though. That’s the trap young Flutes get into, Olof. Putting too much meaning into what ain’t there. You got a couple seasons before you catch up to ‘em so maybe we can teach you a thing or two so you won’t be too full of it when you get there.”

He led them to the spire and dragged his fingers on the base as he stepped around it.

“Full of what?” Olof asked.

“There’s burrows all over, Olof. Some of them high up, way high up on the spires. See this mark here?” He tapped a scratch on the spire. It wasn’t much higher than Olof’s waist. “I made it yesterday. The scratch. Right now it’s about waist high. Yesterday when I done it it weren’t more than a few inches off the ground. Right about my feet.”

Olof felt the scratch. If Aitken was right, the spire has grown at least three feet in the last Shift.

“Spires are always climbing, Olof. Always moving up. That burrow your friends are after? It ain’t that special. Probably hatched up back when it weren’t a few meters up. Just like this scratch here.”

“You think my books are right? The maps, I mean. That the world is just a big old Flute and we’re living on the surface?”

“Just some Flutes way of trying to understand what he don’t understand. Putting too much knowledge on something that’s simple enough already. World’s moving. That’s all you gotta know. Spires growing. Rifts getting bigger. New rifts forming. There’s burrows all over, Olof. In mountains and swamps. Some up in spires, others way down low in rifts like this. Each day more and more and more. But a burrow that come up ain’t nothin but a hole in the ground. It might form today and two shifts from now be gone. Caved in or some sort. Who knows? Burrow don’t become a burrow till you give it a hatch. Hatch as strong as the Light Echo. Come check this out. You got your monoscope?”

“I left it. I left it under my bed.”

“But you got your books here with ya, right? Books break custom. Scopes do too. Keep ‘em together. Less a chance you getting caught for something that don’t matter too much. Take mine. Let’s go.”

Olof wasn’t a fast walker. Even without his pigeon toes he couldn’t imagine he’d ever be able to keep pace with Aitken. The grifter was nice though and walked slowly, though he never made Olof feel slow for doing so. They followed the Rift for a fair distance, maybe ten minutes away, until they came to a cleft in the ridge, where a path hugged the walls of the Rift and descended downward.

“Your friends? They like to climb up. We ain’t gonna climb up, Olof. We’re gonna walk down. We ain’t gonna need rope. You don’t need to know how to climb or be very fast but I might need you to run.”

“To run?”

“How fast can you run?”

“About as fast I can walk.”

“I’m gonna need better than that. Light Echo come up you gotta run up this path. Only burrow down here is the one we’re going to but it ain’t ready. Not ready for us. Not yet. So the Light Echo comes early–and you know it come early sometimes–that happen, you gotta run on up here. This hatch here is open.”

He popped open a hatch near them and had Olof peek his head down to see that it was okay.

“What about you?” Olof asked.

“What about me ain’t something you ever gotta worry about.”

“We’re going to a burrow?”

“Let’s go.”

The path was never more than two paces wide and with Olof’s heavy strides two paces was just enough to keep him from spilling over the edge and tumbling down to the bottom of the gorge. The walk wasn’t long and when they stopped they had arrived to a small inlay against the Rift wall where sat a small round hole about as large around as Olof and Aitken put together.

“You weren’t schoolin’ me yesterday were you?” Aitken said.

“Schooling you?”

“With the scope. You saw me do it and you said you had it down.”

“I don’t know,” Olof said. “I’ve got a good memory.”

“You watch close then. Closer than you did yesterday.”

Aitken flung off his pack and dropped to his knees beside the burrow. How he packed so much into the bag Olof could never guess. He had pouches of milk clay and multiple burners and some sort of circular frame that he stretched to as wide as the entrance to the burrow. What that frame was made from Olof also didn’t want to guess, but he was sure of one thing: it did not follow custom.

“What are you going to do?” Olof asked.

“We’re going to make a hatch,” Aitken said.

Olof had seen Thalia heat and stretch milk into bands that she used for her guitar. Aitken did that and more. He boiled the clay in the circular frame and added minerals which cooled and thickened the clay. He repeated the process over and over and over again, his hands entrenched in the thick goo, folding and molding and folding and molding. He never tired.

“Have to keep your hands moving,” Aitken said. “Until the end.”

The last ingredient sat in a pouch at Aitken’s feet. It was filled with fingernail size shards that were sharp to the touch.

“Grab it,” Aitken said. “It’s broken up glass.”

“My mom has a whole mirror. It’s huge.”

“And expensive,” Aitken said. “On this side of the world I wouldn’t ask her where she got it.”

“She doesn’t let me touch it.”

“Smart lady. Drop the rest of that in now.”

The vat of milk was boiling and the bubbles popped and smacked Aitken in the face with the hot mixture. He had gloves on but they only helped to a certain degree and Olof could see he was in pain.

“Drop it in and count down from ten.”

Olof dropped in the glass and the vat burst with sparks and smoke that rose and blinded them both. Aitken stirred the mixture and Olof shouted his numbers. “Ten and nine and eight and seven and six…” When he reached one Aitken yanked out his hands and flung off the gloves in a single gesture. The gloves hit the ground and clanged. They had already stiffened into steel. The smoke cleared and they looked upon a steel hatch, fit with a handle even.

“You can make a hatch from just about anything. I don’t know what ya’ll have down here. My people use glass. Glass and milk. Works pretty good don’t you think?”

Olof knocked on the steel. It hurt his knuckles.

“Harder than the one at home.”

“Harder than most. You think you can remember how we did that?”

“Milk and glass make steel,” Olof said.

He had stubby legs and chunky cheeks and never in his life did he imagine he could climb a spire or work in a Furrow like Thalia and Lingnan. He could remember things. A demonstration, an historical fact; he’d even already begun to pick up the words in all the books Lingnan had given him. Nobody cared about that sort of skill though. He took in so much that his teachers thought him abnormal and, thus, a threat, a possible custom breaker and yet another young Flute who might tempt a return of the Hadars. Aitken cared though. Aitken was a different sort of Flute. Already Olof began to love him.

“Is this where you’re going to live?”

“It’ll do,” Aitken said.

“So you’re going to stay? You’re going to stick around?”

“I ain’t been asked to leave yet and that’s usually how it happens. Here, we still have to hitch it to the ground. Make sure it’s all sealed up.”

Aitken showed him how to seal the hatch, which somehow was less involving than the creation of the hatch. They climbed down inside and sealed it and Olof felt the world above them disappear. They were alone in the empty burrow.

“There’s gonna be more of us, ya know?” Aitken said.

“More of who?”

“Flutes like me. You seen ‘em around already, right? People you ain’t seen before. Different lookin’ Flutes. All over.”

“I wondered if it was because of what we found?”

“Ya’ll didn’t find it. The Meson. Don’t worry, Lingnan told me when we were up on the spire. Ya’ll didn’t find it though. Maybe just the first to spot it. But they been there.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

“Meson? No.”

“Someone told us it’s a sign that the world is ending.”

“I heard that one.”

“You don’t believe it?”

“I don’t believe nothin.”

“But why are you here then?”

“You can’t get any lower than where you are now, Olof. You’re at the foot of the world. And the world is a big place. I been from one end to the other. There’s pretty country and ugly country and there’s Flutes so different you might think they was monsters if you saw them in the halls. They ain’t monsters. None of us really are. I seen it all and I dislike the least of it about as much as anything. So you’re telling me something’s up there that can fly me off someplace else? Well, Olof, that sounds like the best way to get off this rock I ever heard.”

“Best way?”

“I don’t know if this world is living or dying, Olof. That’s too much for me to say. But I know this: we ain’t the only world out there. And if I can get to another one and cross my fingers that it’s better than this one…well you can be sure I’m going to take that bet. You ever figure out what those numbers mean?”

“What?”

“Those numbers you kept spouting.”

“One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13. Not yet.”

“Well if you find out they do any good you let me know, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Olof said.

***

He walked home alone but he was by no means lonely. Paired with the adjustment to the monoscope, Olof had now learned two more things during the last two shifts than he had ever known before. His knowledge of the tangible world has increased from zero to two. A small feat, but not so small for as small a Flute as he. He felt, for once, valuable, and walking through the halls back home he was the king of the castle.

He heard their giggles first before he ever came around the corner. They were standing against the wall. Clumps of glowing milk curdles bubbled behind them and cast orange shadows over their eyes. Olof reached for Lingnan’s monoscope but he knew it wasn’t there. Just clock them in the head and they’ll back away. That’s what Aitken had said. Too late for that now. He was defenseless.

“No shaman totem today, huh, little buddy?”

Biddel was laughing as he talked. Nettles, beside him, wouldn’t stop smiling. Olof had never trusted anyone who smiled so much. This tall, gangly Flute just stood there with his arms crossed, grinning like they were best friends. And right now, trapped in the hall with these two, that grin scared him more than anything had in his life.

He went right on walking. His only hope was that an older Flute might be patrolling nearby. It was a vain hope though. They were far off the grid. Anyone out here was most likely an indifferent vagabond, too strung out to do anything or care. They stepped behind him and walked on his toes and clipped his heels every few feet.

“Wh-what are you doing?” He could barely get out the words he stammered so hard.

“We’re just walking,” Biddel said. “What are you doing?”

“I think he thinks he’s better than us,” Nettles said, still with that grin on his face.

“I think you’re right. What do you say, kiddo, you think you’re better than us?”

“Depends on how you measure.” He couldn’t say where the words came from. He’d never been one to talk back before. When he replayed the voice in his head it sounded like Aitken speaking.

Biddel pushed him in the shoulders and he stumbled forward but didn’t fall down. He kept on and Biddel and Nettles returned to his heels.

“What was that?” Biddel said.

“He thinks he’s smart, see,” Biddel said.

“I said it depends on how you measure,” Olof said again. He was sweating and his heart was racing and his hands were shaking and already before anything had happened he could feel himself beginning to cry. His mouth kept saying things he knew meant trouble

“You little bugger!”

Nettles grabbed him and before Olof could say another word Biddel punched him in the stomach. He missed his solar plexus and Olof was able to stand.

“I don’t like you,” Biddel said. “You’re a jerk. You sit in the front of the class and you raise your hand and when Ms. Velorum tries to teach us the proper way of the world you just go ahead and do improper things. You mock her. You mock all of us. You spout numbers.”

He hit him in the cheek this time. Not very hard–he didn’t even close his fist–but it was hard enough to reopen the cut Olof had on his face from the last time they had beat him up.

“One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13. Those numbers?”

“Don’t say them.” He hit him again.

“One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13. What do they mean?” The words came out of his mouth with blood.

“Take your filthy numbers someplace else,” Biddel said. He still had ahold of Olof, but he was craning his head back like he smelled something stinky.

“One to 13 is something. One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13 are something else. What are they?”

“Stop it. Stop it with your broken customs.” He let him go and looked down at his hands as though he’d fallen in mud. Olof dropped his backpack and opened it up and took out one of the books. Biddel stepped away until his back was pressed again the wall. Nettles just stood there, not sure of what to make of this. The smile was gone. Olof would never had admitted it aloud to himself or anyone else, but he thought Nettles looked terrified.

“You’ve seen Thalia. I’ve seen you look at her and make fun of her and try to push her around. She carries a pack with her just like this pack and inside the pack is a guitar and when we go out she unfolds it and plays it. She knows all kinds of tunes but she usually just plays the one.”

Olof hummed the tune. Nettles covered his ears. Biddel reared back to punch Olof but he couldn’t make himself do it.

“And we even dance,” Olof said.

“Stop!”

He opened his book to the page of maps and held it out to the two boys. He recalled the speech the Shaman gave at Greely’s.

“There was a first shift long ago. And there will be a last shift soon. The world is ending because the world is alive.”

Nettles had had enough of this. He knocked down the books and grabbed Olof by the arms.

“And the Light Echo and your precious Hadar?” Olof said. “Nothing. The Light Echo is nothing. Just a fairytale. Throw me up there. I don’t even care.”

Biddel punched him in the gut. This time he didn’t miss. Olof keeled over and fell to his knees. The two boys ran off. The wound on his face wasn’t bad but he was still bleeding and before he could blot the wound with his shirt a few final drops of blood fell onto the page of maps, right on the big toe, his theoretical home. He laughed at this and lay there on the ground for a good long while.

“One and two and three and five and seven and 11 and 13,” he said. “Well, that’s a start.”

***

It was as dark in his burrow as it was on the surface. The light from the corner lamp was faded and orange. She’d cast sheets over the bright glowing spots on the walls. She did this sometimes when she couldn’t sleep and she needed to be up early (or late, depending on the job.) She wasn’t sleeping. She was sitting on the chair beneath the hatch above, twisting her fingers around the thin reed of the lamp stand.

“Mom, mom, mom!” he said. He’d been skipping all the way back home, so eager to tell her what he had done.

“I tolerate a lot of things, Olof,” she said.

He closed the bottom hatch and moved to the couch across from her, his head down, his backpack at his feet.

“You can look up at me when I talk to you. I said I tolerate a lof things, Olof.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

In the walk back the blood had dried onto his face and the streak looked like a colorful splash of the Airglow. She didn’t notice or care to acknowledge it.

“Your teachers ask you to run or to climb or to throw a ball and you ask them if you can learn to write.”

“Mom.”

“Don’t Mom me. Not yet. I tolerate this because I know you’re not the most athletic kid in class. You got that from me and I’m sorry you did but you’re going to have to work on living with it.”

Lingnan’s monoscope was in her other hand.

“I tolerate these desires you have and I let you indulge them. You speak to me about histories we shouldn’t know about, shouldn’t discuss. I know you won’t tell them to others and you won’t tell them in class because you know better. We’re a good family. We don’t break customs, right? Right?”

“Right.”

“I tolerate you running off with that half-breed today, some dirty roguish pilot from half a world away who wears, of all things, a hat. And I allow it because you’re my son and I love you and I know you can’t make friends. The other friends you make are older and I hear from others–others, Olof, not from you–that they spend their spare time on the surface climbing spires and playing music. Save us all if any of them dare reads. I can even tolerate you playing with my mirror because I hope it will make you appreciate the finer things, maybe encourage you to make a name for yourself in this world. All of these infractions I can tolerate, Olof, because you at least kept them from me and hopefully from yourself. You broke a custom or two but they were minor infractions, I know that. Nothing that would bring trouble. I know you’re not climbing spires, look at yourself. But this…”

She presented the monoscope to him.

“It isn’t mine.”

The first chime came just then, the warning that the Light Echo had come.

“Don’t you do that. Don’t you dare do that now,” she said, shaking her head. He could see that she had been crying for a while. Her cheeks were puffy and her eyes were bloodshot. “This is just a disgrace. An embarrassment. You bring this into my home. Risk my own life. You know what could happen to us, Olof? Tell me who this could bring.”

He was shaking, he’d never seen her so upset.

“Mom,” he said.

“Say who could come. Say their name.”

“Hadars,” Olof said, beneath his whimpers.

The second round of chimes began, two long rings one after the other. She stood up from the sofa chair, her hand around the monoscope like it was a knife. She opened the hatch above her. It was so dark in the burrow that the light outside was enough to shine in.

“No, please, no. It isn’t mine. I’ll get in so much trouble. Mom, please!”

“You are already in so much trouble, Olof, can’t you see that?”

She flung up the monoscope and sealed the hatch. The third round began. Three chimes, one after the other. When the third came and went she walked over to him and kissed his eye where the blood had scabbed.

“I’m going to bed,” she said. “I’ll expect you to do the same.”


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The Light Echo, “Milk and Glass Make Steel” © 2013 Christopher Dart

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One Response to “Milk and Glass Make Steel” The Light Echo #3 (Feb 2013)

  1. […] than there are of you? You have to find out where you are stronger, that’s what you do. When last we left our friends, Olof had found his way. He befriended an older vagabond named Aitken who showed […]