The room was square. Six sat, two against each of three walls. Quentin sat facing the fourth blank wall in the middle of the room, hands on her lap. There was a long pause and then the meeting began.
“Quentin,” said a loud voice immediately behind her. “I believe that you have long suspected that there was something, let us for purposes of expediency call it ‘x’ which you lack.”
“Of course, we wouldn’t have taken an interest in you if you had not been of that conviction,” continued the voice, “and you must admit that we have taken an interest.”
“Perhaps an undue interest,” squeaked a high voice on Quentin’s right.”
“We do not think so,” retorted the first speaker, offended by the shrill interruption.
After a long silence a grey moth began flapping against the bare light bulb above Quentin’s head.
“Quentin,” it was the loud voice behind her right ear, “You have had a long wait, haven’t you?”
“Your faith has not been in vain. We have decided to give you what you want.”
“Want without knowing,” piped up the high voice.
“Yes, Quentin, this is the end for you. A happy ending, I trust.”
“Yes, very happy.”
“Of course, we shall not present it to you in physical manifestation. That would be overwhelming and you would gain nothing but an accumulation of atoms. Nor shall we present it through the media of air, a highly unreliable communication vehicle. Instead, we have decided to give it recorded on a section of thin paper, written by a hand in indelible ink.
“Now for your instructions. The paper will be placed before you. When we leave, which we will do immediately, you will take it and put it in your pocket. It is already folded. Of course, you will not read it, as once read it will become useless but you will keep it in your pocket. When you have journeyed to the place and at the right time, and you must trust yourself to recognize the place and time, when you have arrived you will take out the paper and it will direct you.”
“Or will not,” piped the voice from the right.
“That is obvious, sir,” snapped the loud voice. “Do you have any questions, Quentin?”
“No, your honor.”
The six stood and shuffled quietly out of the room.
Quentin could hardly believe her good fortune. She sat transfixed, her eyes riveted to the small folded paper suspended in front of her. She heard the door click shut. When the last faded shuffle of feet had sounded, Quentin put out her hand, plucked the paper from the air, and standing, placed it near her heart in her breast pocket. She put her hand on her chest and felt the crisp paper there. Folded.
She walked confidently forward through the fourth wall unto the street, untied her white horse from the hitching post and walked a few paces beside it. The horse was as restless, anxious to go as she was. Quentin put her foot in the stirrup, mounted in a flourish, and they galloped off into the moonless night.
She was in too much of a daze to recognize the hours; they flew by unnamed and made her giddy. When daylight came, she was riding along head down, eyes on the ground. When she lifted her head, there was neither horizon nor clouds. Nothing separated road from non-road from sky. Nature had no distinctive features, only a sensation of pale yellow. She couldn’t tell if the horse was moving ahead or jogging on one spot. It was most important that they move ahead. She took a hunk of bread from her saddlebag and broke off a piece, dropping it to the ground below. It disappeared. She looked back. It was behind her and then too distant to see. They were moving forward.
Quentin’s veins surged with excitement. She felt free. The challenge of her forthcoming conquest made her head giddy. Here she was still in the prime of life, a life, which until then, had been a difficult struggle, but one which suddenly was exploding with opportunity. Dreams burst through her brain like firecrackers.
There was still not sign of movement or environment only a pale yellow space and a raging sun: hot but unseen. Suddenly, the horse bolted, the reins tightened on Quentin’s wrists. She frantically grabbed at the saddle-horn to save herself from falling off. She looked to see a large signpost.
“Good old Gertie,” she smiled affectionately, patting the horse on its moist back. “It’s alright, old girl, just our first event.” Comforting the horse, Quentin calmed herself. She patted the horse gently and touched her pocket reassured her instruction were still there It was not the time nor place to open them but what way should she go?
If the sign had indicated only one direction, she would have suspected a plot and guided Gertie the other way. But the sign had two arrows, one pointing down a long narrow road to the right, the other to a long narrow road to the left.
“Well now,” Quentin said, surprised at the hollow sound of her voice. “We have to make a decision.”
She wondered if there were a map in the saddlebag but remembered that the elders had often advised that maps were misleading.
The decision was too difficult, too full of hidden implications to make herself so she pulled Gertie back, circled around and with a ‘Hi-Ho Silver’ they galloped forward. Quentin closed her eyes. She remembered flying high on her swing as a child. Mother standing on the back stoop, hands in her apron pockets, calling her to come into bed. And stars.
Suddenly, she crashed through a cylinder of tissue paper. The horse stopped short. Quentin jerked forward and her eyes flew open. The ground had become pavement. She lifted her head slowly. To her right appeared a slim red convertible. Top down. A young straw haired man blond sitting in the passenger’s seat beckoned her to join him. Struggling dismounted and strode to the car, wrenched open the metal door, and seated herself in the driver’s seat. She heard a long whinny and saw Gertie gallop towards the horizon and disintegrate into dust.
“Let’s go,” the impatient young man muttered. Quentin nodded; she must act. She turned the key and, with a jerk, they were on their way. A single car speeding along the open highway.
Towards evening, Quentin spotted a prickle of lights in the distance. Confidently, she followed the road towards them. In the middle of town she stopped the car. “Thanks,” the man said as he jumped out. Quentin followed his lead. The streets were deserted. The man hurriedly folded the car up and put the small package in his bag.
“I know a hotel,” he said invitingly.
“No,” she replied. “I have business.”
The man shrugged. “I’ll be at the Herald Hotel,” he nodded, turning and wandering off down the street.
Quentin watched him as he stopped occasionally to glance in a window. She wanted to call after him but she didn’t know his name. That was strange, drive along with someone for hours and not ask his name. That was a stupid way to behave. Rude and careless. A name might prove important.
Quentin surveyed the scene. There was a short straight empty main street like in High Noon. At intervals, street lamps flooded warm circles of light. A dim glow reflected from a few grey windows. I will go and find someone of importance, Quentin thought.
She wandered along near the storefronts looking for an official sign. Her stomach rumbled reminding her that she hadn’t eaten all day. There was a restaurant under a street lamp across the road. She crossed to it, ran her fingers through her wind blown hair then took the doorknob and turned. The door swung open. Before her was a field overgrown with weeds. She shut the door quickly; then stood brow wrinkled, head on one side. She grabbed the doorknob again, and threw it open. A field.
Quentin turned and ran across the street to what looked like a grocery store. She flung open the door. A field. She raced along the street stopping to throw open the doors and behind one as behind another, nothing. Open fields.
Finally she stopped short and tried to gather her thoughts. She absent-mindedly hit a nearby stonewall. It trembled. She struck it again, harder. It shook. It was made of cardboard. Quentin walked to the middle of the street. There was a silent breeze. Along the street, the doors groaned as they swung on their hinges. An old newspaper blew along the sidewalk.
Why hadn’t the young stranger warned her? She sunk down on the edge of the wooden sidewalk with her head in her hands. She sound of a bird floated through her tired mind. A few soft notes sweetly repeated. It was odd to hear a songbird at night.
The from across the road, “Quentin?” The bird stopped mid-song. “Quentin, are you coming?”
She stood up and walked toward the young man standing in front of the Herald Hotel. He took her had and pulled her inside. Behind the door there was a quilt-covered bed, a card table, two chairs and a tall ornate lamp: all sitting comfortably in an open field. “I don’t get it,” Quentin said.
“Come to bed, it’s late,” the man said pointing to a large clock in the corner. The clock struck ten, paused and struck ten again. “Twenty,” he smiled. Quentin grinned.
Later Quentin wondered what the man’s name was. “A bit late to ask but what is your name?”
He propped himself up on his elbow, ran his fingers along her beaded upper lip. “My name is John.” She was pleased and lay back. They slept under the starless sky.
When Quentin woke the next morning, John was sitting at the card table staring into a small hand mirror, combing his hair. “It’s early isn’t it?” Quentin said surveying the strange space with renewed surprise. “Better to start early and avoid the traffic,” the young man replied.
“Do you know what road I’m taking?” She couldn’t have told him, she didn’t know herself.
“I only know what is obvious,” the man said. “Information included in my instructions.”
When they passed through the door unto the street, Quentin was heartened by the sunny morning. The storefronts glistened. Bird sang.
John pulled the car out of his bag and unfolded it, smoothing a dent in the front fender. “Shall we go?”
They got in and drove out of town. “Is it far?” she ventured. “No, not far, whenever you’re tired.”
Six-thirty. Sun still hot. Wind steady. Quentin yawned. Space became form: the form of a town squatting neatly in the middle of the hot desert. As they approached, they saw figures scurrying about the street and children playing near the houses. Quentin was relieved; she couldn’t have faced another ghost town.
“Stop here,” the man instructed. She did. “Well, I guess this is it,” he smiled sadly. “I have lots to do, and I am sure you have business to attend to.”
“Yes,” Quentin replied, suddenly excited at the prospect of getting down to results. He didn’t move. “Is this my place to read my instructions,” she dared ask.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” he said.
“Of course, sorry.”
“I must take the car,” he said gently.
“Of course,” she replied. She got out quickly; he slid into the driver’s seat. “Thank you very much, John,” she said, leaning on the door. “Shall I see you again?”
“I doubt it,” he stated flatly. “You know how it is.”
She wanted to admit that no, she didn’t know but they could be watching her every move. Instead, she attempted a smile. The young man waited patiently but there was gone in his face. Quentin gave the door a reassuring pat, stepped back and watched as it sped away.
Once again, she was in the middle of a strange town. I should never have given up Gertie, she thought.
She couldn’t face a brightly lit hotel, walking past a lobby of dozy old men, up some dingy stairs to an empty room: a one-night clean room.
She wandered along the street to the edge of town. There was a grassy field by the road. She leapt over the fence, took off her jacket, sat down and leaned against the wooden fence. It was a soft summer night. There was a thin song of crickets; tiny stars sparkled through the smooth black sky. Quentin fell asleep with her head in her arms, the melancholy call of a whippoorwill in the distance.
When she woke in the morning she remembered the loneliness of its cry and shivered. It was early, the sun wasn’t up; there was only a pale light. It was too early to go into town. She drifted back to sleep and when she woke again the sun had dried the field.
Quentin stood and stretched. Now I must act, she thought. Courage expanded as the hours passed. There was not time to waste she must get to the right place; perhaps it was already the right time. She climbed over the fence and started down the road.
The first person she passed was an elderly gentleman, dressed in grey. Quentin nodded, the man didn’t: not very friendly. Then she came upon some children playing marbles on the sidewalk. She stopped but they didn’t look up. She walked around them.
She wandered down the busy street, munching an apple she had found in her pocket. (She trusted it was not a poison one like they gave to Snow White). The passers-by ignored her but fortunately, unlike in some small towns, they didn’t stare suspiciously.
She spotted her goal on the opposite side of the street with a sign on the door: Mayor, Police Chief, Dog Catcher, and Judge. Evidently packed into one small building, perhaps into one small person. Quentin entered. There was a dim vestibule, a long grey corridor, and then a large room hectic with ringing phones, blinking computers and open filing cabinets. Five animated women chatted vehemently in the far corner. Near them was a door announcing the mayor’s office.
Quentin tried to sneak past the women. Cut the red tape. They didn’t turn around. Once at the door, Quentin knocked. A loud voice shouted, “Hello, hello.” Her cue? She entered.
“Bill this is Mayor Digby,” the voice cried.
In the corner behind an enormous pile of yellowed papers Quentin saw the top of a baldhead. “About those stinking sewers,” the head barked into the phone. Quentin waited tentatively. The shouts continued, “Sewers, I said, they stink, Bill, they stink.”
Quentin stood on one foot, then the other. Suddenly the door burst open and a blond woman flew across the room with an armful of papers. She stacked them on the top of the teetering pile on the desk and sped out of the room. The door clicked shut.
When Quentin turned from the door, the baldhead had disappeared. “Well be damn sure to do it and quick.”
After an appropriate pause, Quentin cleared her throat. No head.
“Excuse me for barging in on you, Sir. I’ve come with instructions.” Still no head. Quentin crept up to the desk and peered over. The head was nodding slightly and clucking.
“Sir,” Quentin hissed, leaning over the clutter of papers.
“Sir,” she repeated loudly. Perhaps the old guy was deaf. She walked to the side of the desk, leaned towards the bent figure and shouted, “Sir.”
He didn’t move. Quentin shook her head. That was one method of discouraging intruders.
Suddenly the head rose higher and higher until it was at Quentin’s shoulder level. Then head and body jerked forward, tongue tsking and with short nervous steps the little man brushed by Quentin and started circling the room. Round he went head tucked into his chest, hands clasped behind his back.
“Mayor Digby, I wouldn’t bother you if this weren’t important.” But, she saw, she bothered no one but herself. She stepped forward and the little mayor brushed by her again, without blinking. He scurried to the window, looked out, and muttered “Those bloody sewers.” He turned abruptly and disappeared behind the desk. Quentin bit her lower lip, and walked out of the room.
She approached the women, still chatting. They represented red tape but at least some communication.
“Excuse me,” she said trying to remain cool. They didn’t turn around. “I’m speaking to you,” she continued in a louder voice, veering in towards one pretty face with a peaceful expression and long eyelashes.
“Ladies,” she cried in despair, pushing past them into the centre of the group. “I want action.” (Did the instructions say to be assertive?)
They continued talking, smiling, interrupting and overlapping each other contentedly. They looked right through her as if she weren’t there. She pinched her arm. What was happening? She pushed a face near her; the body fell back.
“Mary, are you alright?”
“I must have tripped.”
“Not a hangover, is it?” a voice cried gleefully. They all laughed. Then a bell rang and the women went back to their desks.
No, thought Quentin, I won’t ask myself why. (It might be explained in the instructions.) She ran towards the door, threw it open and was on the street. Was this the moment to check the instructions? But no, surely not here on a dusty street. She ran a few steps and stopped. Where now?
Quentin walked towards the edge of town. Always go forward someone had once said, but was that someone a reliable source? The next town, the next year, could be better. It couldn’t be worse. At the end of the street, she turned and hollered, “Hey listen to me, I’m leaving.”
The crowd moved along the sidewalk. “Quentin is leaving town,” she shouted, her face red from exertion. The sound echoed in her ears. A bird called from a rooftop. She looked up but couldn’t see it. At least the birds still sang, she thought.
Quentin trudged off into open space. The road became narrower until it was only a warn path. She walked until she could walk no more. Stumbled a few steps, then collapsed by the side of the path. Black night had fallen. There was a cool breeze.
When the morning sun woke her, Quentin ate some bread and cheese. She was thirsty but had no water. The road had disappeared and there were no cars. She got to her feet and started walking along the path. The only way she could tell what direction to go was by the sun. It had been at her back the evening before so she walked towards it in the morning. The second day was as the first, the third also. When her thirst became unbearable she took a few bites from her apple core, careful not to eat too much. She didn’t know where the next town would be. Forward, she thought to herself, sometimes counting her footsteps, sometimes whistling bravely. But whistling became more difficult as her throat became ever drier.
On the fourth day, her feet ached; her body was filthy from the dusty path and her clothes wrinkled and grimy. It’s got to be soon.
Then it was. For no reason, she lifted her tired head and opened her dry parched eyes, and there in the distance was a magnificent building, its golden domes sparkling in the yellow sun. It rose out of the liquid horizon like some mystic Khubla n. Joy to the Elders, she thought, stumbling forward, I’ll make it today and that obviously is the place.
But as she got closer, the building shrunk, imperceptibly at first. Perhaps she had exaggerated the size; her eyes had deceived her. She walked from noon to sundown, and the dome had become as small as a doll’s house. She fell down in exhaustion. Shall I go closer? She thought or will it disappear completely? Half asleep, shall I go closer?
In the morning, it was still there: a tiny gold dome sparkling in the sun. Small, so very small. She ran towards it panting and choking, her parched throat aching. Her legs game way and she began to crawl frantically. She yards away from it and it was only the size of her fist, feet from it, it had shrunk to the size of her thumb. On it, it was dot. A golden dot.
“No,” Quentin shouted, her dry voice scraping the depths of her aching belly. She dropped her head into her arms and wept furiously. Then she looked again through her hot tears and the golden dot was gone. She lay her head down again and didn’t move.
Finally, she lifted her eyes. Should she go forward? She couldn’t go back. She put her hand on her chest, then into her jacket pocket, feeling for the paper. It was there but what use was it now? She was dying. What could she gain by reading it? She could she lose? She could lose the word. Her body was in cinders, her mind a kaleidoscope of confusion.
Once you read it, it is useless. Useless, but what was it now? She pulled herself to her knees and took out the instructions. Her breath caught. She forgot her thirst. She opened the paper carefully. It had become yellow and cracked. Her heart was beating through her chest. She looked down at the letters and then darkness.
The sun had gone out. Everything was black. Quentin grabbed at her eyes. She felt her hot wet face, her mouth open, her eyelashes flutter. She jumped to her feet and began to run and cry out, fumbling, catching herself and running again. She heard a noise. She turned and froze. Silence. Silence and then, gentle, soft cooing. She listened. She felt the sound. It was warm, it constant. It was from inside her. She opened her arms. It was around her. Warm, soft, she became encircled by the feather breast of the bird. Its heart became hers. Her chest grew. She became lighter. Then she began to lift, to rise gently higher and higher towards the welcome sun. There in the warmth, the heart beat, the constancy. It was the word, it was her. She was the word.
~ Melodie Corrigall
Published in Pure Fantasy and Sci-Fi.