NOTE: this chapter is really long, so i will do everyone a favor by putting most of it under the cut
Getting hit by a taxi feels like having the wind knocked out of you, but the main thing that sucks about it is the part when your head collides with the asphalt. I could hear a faint scream in the back of my mind just as everything went black. It was almost as though someone was forcing me to go to sleep and I really had no say in the matter whatsoever.
In my dreams I thought back to Naomi and how pretty she looked in that summer dress when we went on our first date. Her long brown hair swaying in the breeze as we walked through central park eating ice cream cones and learning about each other with such eagerness.
I so badly wanted to curl up in that memory, to live there forever and never wake up again, but just as I had convinced myself to stay, central park faded away and I was transported to my home in Connecticut. My parents sat on the couch reading while I lay on my stomach in front of the TV, doodling on a spare piece of paper with a set of cheap crayons that had been given to me as a birthday present. The house was thick with the smell of a pot roast that was cooking in the oven.
Even though I recognized these moments as memories, there was a heightened reality about all of them. The colors popped with vibrancy and everything seemed to have a surreal look to it. Just as I was getting settled in my childhood home, the scenery changed once more.
This time, however, I couldn’t put my finger on where exactly I was. Evidently, I had been dropped in a field full of tall grass. I was having a hard time recalling ever being in a field that looked as secluded as this one, especially since I grew up in Connecticut and then moved to New York City, famous for its lack of abandoned fields.
I got to my feet and looked around for any clues of where I could be, hoping that the scenery would change for a fourth time. There was a warm and gentle breeze pulsing through the tall grass, almost as if it were breathing. After ten minutes of waiting for my surroundings to change, I gave up and began walking to what I thought would be north. I was thankful to be dressed in a jeans and a t-shirt, especially once the sun crept out from behind the clouds and thought it would be nice to warm everything up.
The tall grass began to thin out considerably as I walked along, and eventually I came up to what looked like a pathway. Following the path, it wasn’t long until I noticed more signs that I was headed in the right direction. I noticed a small fence made of fallen logs just along the edge of the woods to my left.
Soon enough, the path brought me to an intersection. As I looked both ways to try to come to a decision as to which way I ought to go, I had a considerably difficult time trying to decide which path looked better or worse. From the left, I heard the sound of hooves followed by what I thought might be a cart trailing behind it.
A short distance away, my suspicions were confirmed as a horse-drawn carriage pulled up to the intersection. A woman held the reins in one hand as she shaded her vision to get a good look at me.
“Ya need a lift into town?” She asked warmly, the wisps of her dull, brown hair fluttered in the breeze. I was hesitant to accept the woman’s kindness, but when I considered the fact that I had no idea where I was, let alone which direction I ought to walk in to get to town, I found myself nodding and hoisting myself into the seat next to her.
The back of the carriage was crammed with wooden crates filled to the brim with peaches and what I could only assume were apricots or some other brightly colored fruit. The woman waited until I was situated next to her before she set the carriage in motion.
“What’s your name, boy?” She asked, looking over at me curiously.
I cleared my throat, “My name’s Henry.”
“That’s a nice name. I like a man with a good namesake.” She smiled widely and I could see the remnants of her youth playing out in the lines of her grin. “I’m Aude.”
As the horse pulled the carriage along the dirt path, Aude told me about the fruit stand she ran in the market in the center of town. She explained that whenever she had to step out and get more fruit for the stand, her eldest daughter, Eloise, would take over.
Aude was a humble woman with three daughters and a yard full of chickens to tend to on a daily basis. Eloise, Madeleine, and Sophia could be quite troublesome at times, but Eloise usually managed to keep them all in check. Aude mentioned that I looked about her age, too, and gave me a slight nudge with her elbow.
I asked polite questions as it seemed appropriate to the conversation until the carriage began rolling over cobblestoned streets. From that point forward, I was no longer paying any attention to Aude as she talked happily about her vegetable garden and the family’s sleepy cat named Ralph that was always too lazy to catch any field mice that had made homes in the woodwork of the house.
Instead, my eyes were drawn to the people walking alongside us on the street, carrying baskets of bread and vegetables under their arms and chatting pleasantly with one another. A group of young women clad in thick, beaded jewelry sat under an awning as they crafted bracelets from deep purple thread. My senses were overwhelmed by the thick, warm smell of cooked meat and spices wafting through the air before finding a place to call home in my nostrils. It wasn’t until I smelled food that I realized I was actually quite hungry and my stomach began to rumble rather loudly.
Aude took notice shortly after, “Reach back there and grab yourself a peach, boy.” I did as I was instructed, choosing one so large it barely fit in the palms of my hands. I bit into it, juice spilling onto my cheeks and dripping from my chin, the flesh of the fruit so tender and sweet.
“I wasn’t lyin’ when I said I had the best peaches ‘round these parts,” She laughed, guiding the carriage over next to a man standing behind a counter packed with poultry. He waved to Aude as she hopped down from the carriage and began hoisting crates of peaches over to the adjacent booth.
A young girl appeared behind the counter, her hair in two long pigtails tied with purple ribbon at the bottom. She eyed me curiously as I sat in the carriage, finishing off the delectable peach and then discarding the pit on the ground. I slid down from the front of the carriage and went to help Aude unload the cart. The crates were fairly heavy, and I wasn’t exactly used to lifting things that weighed more than my cat, Doris. As I lifted one of the crates carefully and walked over to the counter, I nearly dropped it on my way, but caught myself just as I was able to set it down safely. The girl behind the counter looked as though she was holding back a laugh before she grabbed a peach from the top and bit into it before disappearing down below the counter.
I returned to the back of the cart to grab another crate of peaches and I saw a tall girl with bright ginger hair walking toward me, her arms full with a crate that looked like it was almost heavier than her. I moved to the side so that she wouldn’t run into me and she shot me a look that I took to be less than heartwarming. Shit. I probably should have offered to help her carry the crate of peaches, shouldn’t I? I mean, I may not be the strongest guy around, certainly not compared to the large man selling poultry a few feet away, but the polite thing to do would have been to at least offer my services!
Embarrassed, I continued unloading the cart in silence as Aude chatted away with the poultry man. It wasn’t long before all of the crates were stacked on the counter and created a wall of delicious, ripe, and juicy fruit. Aude finished off her conversation with the man in the booth next to hers and came over, a satisfied grin on her face.
“Haulin’ fruit is a lot harder than it looks, huh?” She asked, clapping me on the back. I grimaced as I felt my limbs already becoming sore from the manual labor.
The girl with the ginger hair walked out from behind the wall of fruit, followed by the younger girl with the blonde pigtails, and then by an even younger girl with dark brown ringlets spilling from the crown of her head. Aude introduced them as Eloise, Madeleine, and Sophia. The two youngest of the three girls waved and smiled as Eloise crossed her arms over her chest and gave a rather curt nod that showed that she at least acknowledged my presence.
“Eloise, dear, why don’t you show him around a bit? If I remember correctly, Henry’s not from around these parts, so it’d be awful kind of you to stick with him for a while.” She smiled and nudged her eldest daughter closer to me, ignoring the look of annoyance painted on her face.
Begrudgingly, Eloise lead me through the center of town past vendors selling cakes and bread and street performers juggling obscure household items.
“So if you’re not from around here, where exactly are you from?” She asked, running her fingers over a set of scarves lying on a table we passed by.
Of course I knew where I was from, but I still wasn’t sure where I was. The last thing I remember was hitting my head on the concrete as I was trying to cross the street, but that all felt so long ago. Wherever I was must’ve been deep in my conscience, tucked away behind all of my memories and thoughts. I thought for a moment before answering her question.
“I’m not exactly sure. Where exactly is ‘here’, anyway?” I asked, glancing around at the tall buildings that were incredibly top heavy and looked as though they were about to topple over at any second.
We approached what I could only assume was the town square, based on the large and majestic fountain spouting water twenty feet high in the air. Eloise and I sat on the edge of the fountain and I watched as she removed her worn leather boots to dip her toes in the cool water.
“Well right now you’re in the town of Vellum, which is about a two day trip by horse to the city of Doctrine. Basically, Vellum is more of a farm town than anything else – here, we grow produce and we trade goods, like peaches, for services, like plumbing. It’s not that exciting or anything, but it’s home, you know?” I could tell that the edge in her voice was thinning. “Over in Doctrine they do things a little different. Everyone there has to dress a certain way and greet one another in a particular manner, otherwise the King throws a hissy fit.”
“Oh, yeah, I should probably give you the run down on the way things work around these parts. Basically, King Malin has the final say over anything and everything that goes on. If there is a land issue, he decides how to split things up. Same thing goes for domestic disputes, too. He acts like he’s fighting for the underdog, but he’s really a total dick.”
I was almost alarmed at her crude choice of words, but then again I didn’t know what to expect from anyone anymore. “Why’s he so bad?”
Eloise shook her head, her bright ginger hair falling from behind her ears to obscure her fair. She reached a hand up to tuck the escaped hair back to its rightful place before speaking, “He just is. You’ll see what I mean.”
Suddenly, the blaring sound of trumpets filled the air and it seemed as though every person in Vellum’s town square dropped whatever it was they were doing and gathered around the fountain. Eloise pulled her feet from the water and hastily slid on her boots before dragging me onto my feet next to her. She and I backed up into the crowd until we were standing against the side of one of the buildings surrounding the town square. I looked around, confused and trying to make sense of the sudden call to attention before I noticed that Eloise was busy tying her hair into a ponytail and checking her pockets for something. It wasn’t long before she pulled out what looked like a quill with a sharp bright blue feather extruding from the end of it.
In all of my years of existence, I hadn’t even seen a proper quill right before my very own eyes, so it should come as no shock that I was surprised to see Eloise carrying one around in her pocket, never mind the fact that the feather at the end was bright blue. She touched the tip of the quill to her tongue and knelt down to the ground, marking a series of patterns on the brick beneath our feet. Coincidentally enough, the ink of her pen was just as bright as the feather, which danced around as she continued to scribble.
I looked around the town square and was taken aback by the number of people who now clutching brightly colored quills in one hand and a scrap of paper in the other. Some of the quills danced faster than others, but nearly everyone in the town square had their heads bent in concentration. If there was something I was supposed to be doing, I didn’t have the slightest clue as to what it was. In fact, I kind of just stood there with my jaw slack as I tried to understand why everyone was gathered around the large fountain, writing with such fervor that it was making me grow incredibly anxious.
Then, after a solid five minutes of silence throughout the town square, the trumpets sounded again and all of the townspeople gathered in the square immediately stopped writing. I looked down at Eloise for some hint of an explanation, but she had laid down the quill next to the words she had written on the brick near her foot. She did not look up at me or even make a sound, so I turned my attention to a young boy a few yards away. He was sitting on his knees and I could see his own scrawling on the brick, similar to the ones Eloise had been doing only moments before. I watched him carefully as he set down his small green quill, running his fingers over the words tenderly before the brick absorbed the ink like a sponge.
Amazed, I turned around to see ink vanishing everywhere that it had been written, and when I turned back to look at Eloise’s vanishing ink, there was a small bright blue ink pot sitting before her. A few yards away, a bright orange stuffed bear appeared on the ground in front of the young boy. He was overcome with joy and hugged it tight.
Could this really be happening? Did these people just write about what they wanted and then they got it? Just like that?
I was baffled by this, completely and utterly awestruck by what I could only consider to be magic or sorcery or something that you would only read on an Internet fan fiction website. I couldn’t even form words as Eloise stood up, clasping the ink pot in her left hand and the bright blue quill in her right. She deposited the inkpot in her pocket before she took notice of the alarmed expression on my face.
“Why do you have that look on your face?” She asked, twirling the quill around her fingers.
“You just… I don’t… How did you do that?!” I burst out, gesturing to the inkpot sitting comfortably in her pocket.
Eloise looked confused for a moment before she finally understood why I was so shocked. She laughed loudly, nearly doubling over in the process. I steadied her, still not entirely sure why she found my ignorance so hilarious.
“You seriously don’t have a clue what’s going on, do you?” She laughed, her face tinged with pink. “Oh man, that’s rich!”
“I don’t know! I’m not from here! All of a sudden everyone sort of just stopped what they were doing and got really serious about writing with quills!” I said defensively, my cheeks burning with embarrassment.
She finally stopped laughing and began to explain what I had just witnessed. Apparently, once a month, the people of Vellum and Doctrine are allowed to make one request. In order to make this request, three requirements must be met. The first requirement being that the request is written in ink. She flashed me the quill and then explained that the second requirement was that the request is something that the person needs or doesn’t already have in their possession. For instance, a man who is wealthy cannot ask for gold or currency, but a man who doesn’t have a penny to his name can request either of those items. The final requirement in order to request something is that the person making the request is to remain silent from the moment they begin writing until the moment they receive what they ask for.
She explained that it is important to get the proper quill; otherwise a request might go unnoticed or unprocessed. Eloise handed me her quill to hold in my hand and I noticed it was remarkably flexible and resilient, and not at all heavy in the palm of my hand. I ran the feather between my thumb and forefingers, feeling the soft and silky texture before I returned the quill back to its rightful owner.
“How exactly does one go about getting a proper quill?” I asked as she lead me away from the town square and back toward the market.
“Oh, it’s a long and arduous process.” She looked over at me, her bright green eyes glinting mischievously in the afternoon sunshine. “You have to be a skilled writer, proficient in your craft before you can even begin the process itself.”
“Well, how does one become skilled and proficient in their craft? Is there some sort of program I have to go through?”
She laughed and shook her head, “Wow, you just really don’t know anything, do you?” I rolled my eyes, tired of her mocking me. I couldn’t help it if I was oblivious to the things that were apparently common knowledge in Vellum! “Okay, okay, I’m sorry for poking fun at your expense. Listen; tomorrow I’ll help you get started on procuring a quill, all right? We have to get back to the stand anyway.”
The sun shrank down below the horizon, casting a bright orange and magenta over the once blue sky. The vendors in the town market were finishing up their last sales as they hastily loaded carts and hand trucks with crates full of whatever it was they were selling. The girls and I packed the carriage back up with peaches and I was glad that there were significantly less this time around. Once all of the crates were secured, Eloise and I crammed into the back of the carriage while Madeleine and Sophia sat up front with Aude as she steered the horse back the way we had rode into town earlier.