Chapter 22: then there were stars in the mountains. And also a space-time-continuum-sized case of astigmatism
The medium-sized girl was having difficulty with her eyes. It wasn’t that everything was too bright—though it was that, too—so much as everything was too many things. For instance, this tree she was sitting under. It was what it was. Squat, grasping branches, papery reddish-brown bark flaking off every time the wind blew. But it was also what it had been. A smaller tree. Then, a little sprouted thing, peaking up and out of the earth. A seed in the ground. A seed in the wind, and then, a smaller bit of another tree. The tree was also what it would be; a saturated, souring thing, rotting with water, shriveling into itself. And then nothing. And then dirt again. The tree was all these things, and all at once. Everything was. And it was too much for the medium-sized girl to see. She was used to trees that stayed in place, and pools that didn’t grow or shrink, and mothers with only one face.
“Just focus,” she told Rain. They were sitting on the ground under the shifting tree, facing each other. A pebble lay between them.
“What am I focusing on?” Rain asked, staring at the stone.
“The stone, probably,” the medium-sized girl said. “But also probably everything else. You need to find the Butterfly’s song, which is everywhere. I think.” She frowned at that, wondering if this was actually a good idea. Her current vision problems hadn’t begun until after she had found the song. Back when the medium-sized girl was stuck on the rooftop with OTC, when that woman had fallen under the water. The medium-sized girl had jumped in after her and had used the Butterfly’s song to push her back to the surface. It had been wonderful to find the song, in this place. It was a lovely thing, and had turned the world back to a nice, quiet grey.
“What is the Butterfly’s song?” Rain asked, his eyes not leaving the stone.
“It’s a song. Or a sound. I don’t know. It’s not like the lullaby, I don’t think. Mother couldn’t have sung it.” After that first incident, the song had become easier to find. And easier still, the more the medium-sized girl looked for it. And she was always looking for it. She wanted its silvery silence almost as badly as she wanted her mother. But the more time she spent in the Butterfly’s song, the more everything outside of the Butterfly’s song went fuzzy. The hard lines of this bright world blurred, and everything was everything, all at once.
Rain wasn’t blurry, though. He was a rather stable individual. The medium-sized girl had decided that this stability was his most admirable quality.
“I don’t think you’re very good at teaching,” Rain said. The medium-sized girl shrugged.
“I don’t know what that is,” she said, “so I wouldn’t think I’d be very good at it.” Rain nodded.
“Anyway. Why am I looking for the Butterfly’s song?” Rain asked.
“Because we were taking a break from walking, and you wanted to know how I made the bauble.”
“Oh, so you were paying attention?”
Rain rolled his eyes.
“I asked you how you made the bauble two days ago. And you said nothing. And indicated in no way that you’d heard me, or intended to answer the question.”
“Huh.” She could’ve sworn he had only just asked. “Well, I did hear you. And this is how I did it. So pay attention.”
“Okay.” A beat passed between them. “So, just to be clear, I’m supposed to be staring really hard at the rock.”
“And listening for the song. Yes.”
“Okay.” Rain did so.
“Can you hear it?” The medium-sized girl asked. She could, after all. She had reached out yet again and taken hold of the song. The world had receded to a calm, clear, silvery silence.
“It’s the one that sounds like memory. Like the silence between spaces.”
“I’m supposed to be listening for something that sounds like silence?” Rain asked. Not incredulously, mind you. It made as much sense to him as anything else had, in this place.
“It sounds more like stitching, today,” the medium-sized girl corrected. “Anyway. It sounds different here. It was quite a bit louder in the woods.”
Rain frowned, glancing up from the stone. His silver eyes looked out from his silver face, confused.
“You had this in the woods as well?” He asked. She nodded. He sat back, sighing.
“Did you not?” She asked.
“Nope. We didn’t have anything like what you’re describing in the garden. Certainly hadn’t been taught to listen for it.”
“Huh,” the medium-sized girl said, sitting back as well. She let go of the song. The world rushed in, bright and blurry. “I thought you would have. We both had the lullaby.”
“I know,” Rain said.
“Well. Hmm. Maybe there’s another way to do it.”
“Or maybe you’re the only one who can hear it. Wouldn’t be the only “only” you’ve got going for yourself.”
“No, I don’t think that’s it. OTC said there were two of us.”
Rain nodded. The medium-sized girl had filled him in on everything OTC had said. About her being a “manifestation of half of all of time,” for starters. About how he thought the world was running out of time. About how OTC seemed to think she would be able to help him find “an old geyser”—his words, not hers, she had no idea what a geyser was—and would help him enforce some sort of “ancient promise.”
“I don’t know. I don’t really feel like half of all of time.”
“Neither do I.” She blinked, trying not to let the triple-vision overwhelm her.
“Anyway, the world’s not too bright for me, and nothing is particularly blurry or loud. And nobody like OTC came to the garden. It just disappeared. Which probably means something.” Rain sighed again. “I wish Hadal were here. She always has ideas and opinions.”
The medium-sized girl nodded, then shrugged.
“Well. If you don’t think you can find the Butterfly’s song, there’s no point in staring at this rock. No offense, Rock. You are very pretty.”
They stood up.
“Off to find some tall flowers, the color of may,” Rain said, holding out his hand. The medium-sized girl took it.
“Ooh, there’s a song in there,” she said, humming to herself and trying not to get distracted by how horribly wrong her arms still were. They began to walk, the clouds beneath them, the sun above. There was a peak not too far away. At least, the medium-sized girl thought it wasn’t too far away. She, of course, had no experience with mountains or distance. It was, in fact, a good two days’ walk from where they were.
“Off to find a flower,” Rain sang to the melody the medium-sized girl was humming, “a flower we shall see,
off to find a mother, we hope to stop the sea.”
“I don’t know,” the medium-sized girl interrupted. “I think Hadal would be sad, if we did that. She seems excited about her new housing prospects.”
“I guess,” Rain said, humming, keeping the song going.
“We won’t quite stop the sea—we’ll see—
we won’t quite let it go, or grow,
but find a flower, quite, quite tall
a color we don’t know, you know
a color we don’t know.”
The medium-sized girl laughed. She found herself skipping. Rain skipped as well, singing on. They skipped up the mountain path, singing along to the made-up song. Pale yellow fell down from the cold sun. It flowed over them, gentle and tired. It flowed over the whole of the mountain, over the sharp bits and the foggy bits, the green, rolling hills and the black, rugged valleys. The tired yellow light even managed to trickle across the grasping, reddish-brown trees that clawed their way out of the hard earth. The medium-sized girl didn’t much care for these trees. It probably had to do with the rotting, rancid end they all had coming.
“If you aren’t the other half of all of time,” the medium-sized girl asked, yet again interrupting their song, “then what are you?” They were wading through waist-high grass now. A rocky outcropping rose up in the distance. It was flat on top, and was growing a few of those trees.
“Who knows?” Rain asked, slowing his skipping, frowning at the flattop. “Does that tree look funny to you?”
“Doesn’t really look like a tree.” Trees didn’t even look like trees, these days.
“Kind of what I was thinking,” Rain agreed, stopping altogether. “Kind of looks like there are two trees, and then a bunch of people standing about, trying to look like a third tree?”
The medium-sized girl shrugged. What did she know?
“It’s quite loud,” she agreed noncommittally.
“But…they’re kind of a little bit…smaller, maybe? Not as big as the other people we’ve seen.”
“Very interesting,” the medium-sized girl said, trying not to sound huffy. But honestly, he kept asking her questions she couldn’t answer. “Let’s go say hello.”
“Okay.” As previously mentioned, they had no sense of mortal danger. And people without any sense of mortal danger certainly can’t be bothered with stranger danger. So they wandered through the waist-high grass towards the people tree.
“I wonder where they came from,” Rain asked, watching the trees.
“There’s really no telling,” the medium-sized girl supplied, picking her feet up a little higher, thinking she almost had it right. The little girl beside her moved in such a funny, dancing way. She rather liked it.
“I came out on top of a place like this,” Rain said. “Another mountain, I guess.” The medium-sized girl took Rain’s hand and squeezed. The taking-of-the-hand was a sincere, I-miss-my-mother-too gesture. The squeezing was an accidental, over-excited I-just-noticed-three-more-little-girls-running-through-the-grass-with-us squeeze.
“Do you think your mother is still somewhere?” Rain asked. “Hadal said she wasn’t.” Rain frowned. “I guess Hadal also told me to not bring it up with you.” He glanced at the medium-sized girl, which was when he realized they’d been having two very different experiences of the past few minutes.
“What—“ but Rain couldn’t come up with a suitable question.
The medium-sized girl had gotten the dance-walk down, and was very happily stalking around with the other smaller girls. The other smaller girls were having a very fun time of it as well, as they’d never met anybody so funny looking as a white-haired, white-eyed child. Though, now that they had also seen Rain, they were torn. His black hair and black eyes made a little more sense, but not by much.
The medium-sized girl followed the laughing smaller-sized girls up the rocky crags. They pulled her and Rain up and onto the plateau, where more smaller-sized girls waited and watched.
The medium-sized girl slipped into the Butterfly’s song, wanting to see the lines of this place better. Everything shifted and stilled. A white sun set behind them, hard and cold. The stone they stood upon caught the last moments of the day’s light. Two trees, squat and stubborn, and a third covered in people. Their frozen faces watched silently on, unblinking, unmoving. The medium-sized girl glanced around at all the people. Their eyes shone like stars. In fact, their skin shone as well. And their clothes. Really, they were just shining, all around. They almost looked like human children. Almost. Their features were a little too off, though. Their noses a little too round, their eyes a little too starry. Their hair seemed ethereal. It didn’t fall around their faces, but floated, silvery and bright.
“I think I’m beginning to understand the song,” Rain said, brow raised, following behind her.
“You can hear it?” She asked, smiling. But he shook his head.
“No, but these people were quite a bit more than stone, a few moments ago. And I feel like the sun is usually a sort of yellowish-pink color.” He looked from her to the people surrounding them.
“Weird,” he said, though the medium-sized girl couldn’t tell if he meant it was weird to be in the song or to be suddenly surrounded by other people after having gone days without seeing another soul.
She let go of the song, satisfied. And even more so when she saw how stable these shining children were. They had only one face each, and they barely blurred at all. Their hair, more light than substance, shone a bright gold. Their skin was golden too, though in a warmer, softer way. It was the gold of an evening sky, a pink sunset, and a rosey horizon. They wore dresses the texture of the red trees and watched the medium-sized girl and Rain with wide, silvered eyes.
“It’s rude to stare,” a voice called from the tree. “And so I apologize on their behalf, and yours as well, as there is, apparently, plenty to see and nothing to say.”
The medium-sized girl looked around for the speaker. She didn’t have to look for too long, as somebody dropped from the tree, stuck the landing, and began to walk towards her and Rain.
“Who are you?” Asked the speaker. She looked the same as the rest of them, silver-and-gold, warm, bright. The medium-sized girl frowned at the the speaker, annoyed by yet another question she didn’t know the answer to.
“Myself, thank you,” the medium-sized girl said.
“Ditto,” Rain agreed. The medium-sized girl smiled. He’d learned that word from Hadal and was visibly pleased with himself for remembering to use it.
The speaker rolled her eyes at them.
“Children,” she muttered, a word and an explanation, all in one.
“Who are you?” Rain asked, staring around the starlit plateau. There were at least two dozen of them.
“Myself,” the speaker said, smiling ever-so-sweetly back at them. The medium-sized girl frowned, thinking maybe she should go back into the song. But then the speaker softened.
“We used to be stars, if you must know. But we haven’t been that in… in… well, a very long time, I’d imagine. I don’t know what we’d be, in this place. At least, in any sort of technical sense. We aren’t fairies, I don’t think. We’ve met some of their pods, you know. Fairy pods, that is. They’re funny folk. Take themselves way too seriously.” She winked at them. “But don’t tell them I said so. We’ve been in these mountains for a time, I’d imagine. Haven’t seen humans since before the mountains. And never this close, I don’t think.” She reached forward and poked the medium-sized girl. “No, never this close. You’re a little bonier than I’d thought you’d be.”
The medium-sized girl shrugged. She was a lot bonier than she’d thought she’d be, as well.
“What do you do, up here?” Rain asked. Some of the ex-stars chuckled at the question. The speaker raised an eyebrow.
“What a stupid question,” she said, rolling her eyes. “‘What do we do?’ Honestly. Silly, stupid boy.’
Rain simply stared, at a loss. The medium-sized girl was at less of a loss, and felt a tad annoyed. And then she was doubly annoyed as, yet again, this place was making her feel something unpleasant.
“We’ll be going, then,” she said, the words clipped with irritation. She took Rain’s hand and began to pull him away.
“Wait,” called the speaker, hopping back in front of them. “Just, wait a second.” The other ex-stars gathered around them in what some might call a tightish, don’t-let-the-children-run-away formation.
“No, thank you,” the medium-sized girl said, slipping in and out of the Butterfly’s song. The ex-stars shifted in and out of focus.
“No, no. Sorry, I have no manners. Forgive and excuse, and all that. But please, wait.”
The medium-sized girl had no intention of “but please, wait”ing, but Rain held her back.
“Why?” He asked, curious. “Besides general loneliness, which I can’t imagine you’d experience, seeing as you’re surrounded by people.”
“The sky,” the speaker said, pointing upwards. “It’s changed, and we don’t know why. You’ve come from down, right?” Rain nodded.
“Well then, stay a while. We’ll make a trade, your stories for ours. We want to know what’s happening in the down.”
“We’re busy,” the medium-sized girl said, tugging on Rain’s hand, “and don’t want to hear your stories.”
“Busy? Busy how?” The speaker glanced from left to right. “What could two seeming-children possibly be busy with? Unless you’re busy being lost, which would, actually, make sense.”
“We’re looking for tall flowers, the color of May,” Rain said, holding tight to the medium-sized girl’s hand, trying to keep her in place. “I don’t suppose you know of any?”
The speaker frowned at them, her shining eyes unfocusing for just a moment.
“I haven’t heard that descriptor in… in years,” she murmured.
“Oh?” Rain asked. The medium-sized girl stopped tugging, interested as well. “Have you heard of them? Do you know where we might find them?”
“Child,” she said, “look around. You’re staring right at them.”
The medium-sized girl frowned, looking from shining face to shining face.
“Really?” She asked, doubtful.
“Not at all,” the speaker said, chuckling at her own little joke. “But wouldn’t that have been funny, if you were? Anyway, I think I know what flowers you’re talking about. Or at least, I know how to find them. There’s an old hag, somewhere around here, who’s always picking them. She swings by every August with a basketful. She missed this year, though. But then, a lot of people did. What with the weather going funny. Regardless, she’s got a nice little cottage, up the way. She could tell you where to get your may flowers.”
“Really? Where’s the cottage?” Rain asked. The speaker waggled her eyebrows.
“Like I said, we’ll swap stories. We’ll give you the cottage if you give us news from the down.”
The medium-sized girl looked at Rain, who shrugged.
“Very well,” he said, sitting down. “You should know, we don’t know very much, ourselves, and haven’t much to say. I hope it’s enough.”
“Oh, anything will do,” the speaker said, sitting down beside Rain. The other ex-stars sat down as well. The medium-sized girl looked around at the bobbing heads, silver and gold. She sat down beside Rain and hoped they weren’t lying about the cottage. The thought of them lying made her sad. She didn’t like that she knew about “lying.” “Ditto” was nice enough, but she wished Hadal could have kept some of her lessons to herself.