Black Locust Letters Excerpt

This tale starts, and perhaps ends, with letters made of fluff from cottonwood trees pressed with spider silk, with words written in grasshopper spit and tree sap, and scented with the white flowers of the black locust. They came to a woman—a human—living in Sunny Glenn within the humming barbed wire confines of a city so secret, the only Commander-in-Chief to know of its existence was the one who named it Sanctuary.

These are the opening lines I have been debating for some time. Black Locust Letters was one of those difficult projects because it presented itself with a singsongy, lyrical narrative voice which not only surprised me—I had no idea what to do with it. I’m used to writing in either the first person, or very close third. The distant, lofty voice was utterly foreign to me. I struggled with it. Now, did I struggle with the story? Some. Originally it was a short story, one I submitted to a magazine. Thank goodness it was rejected, because I was lost with what to do with it at the time and the person who read it gave me some good, brief comments upon it. It always had been a love story tangled with intrigue, and I eventually found further inspiration for it by rummaging through enough charity shops.

I’ve thought a lot about dropping off the first page or two, but the story loses a lot by it and I think it makes the narrator’s voice intrusive if I were to cut it out. I wrote a lot of this during November NaNoWriMo, and have been trying to put it into order since then. At this point, I have yet to do timeline edits and add in a few scenes. In the meanwhile, now this means I have an abridged version. I’m wondering if I can post the abridged version for free, and the non-abridged for paid. Thoughts?

Anyway. The rest of the story.

Chapter One.

This tale starts, and perhaps ends, with letters made of fluff from cottonwood trees pressed with spider silk, with words written in grasshopper spit and tree sap, and scented with the white flowers of the black locust. They came to a woman—a human—living in Sunny Glenn within the humming barbed wire confines of a city so secret, the only Commander-in-Chief to know of its existence was the one who named it Sanctuary.
At one point, Sanctuary had been known as Area-71, even then a place of beauty upon the razorlike teeth of jagged mountains and glacier lakes, with forests all around and a night sky so pristine it seemed you could pluck the stars out of their velvet cushion and drink the moonbeams and sleep on a cloud of apple blossoms.
At one time, the houses of Sanctuary were made of stone or brick or wood or perhaps concrete, with gray slate roofs and close cut lawns with carefully edged sidewalks and a steel car fresh from the factory parked out front. The streets were paved with asphalt, the dirt roads neatly surfaced with crushed gravel.
They say that all roads lead to Rome, but that was not exactly the case with Headquarters, as Area 71—as it was then known—happened to have been laid out on a grid system despite the less than accommodating terrain. However, in the central building of the central block of all the paved roads of Area 71, stood Headquarters. They say it was a fine building, constructed of concrete with layers of blast doors, no windows, a perfect rectangle situated so all the walls were equidistant to the opening of the Rift the entire base had been built around. They say that Headquarters was the accumulated intellectual wealth of thirty-two geniuses and it cost a quarter of a million to build. They say that its completion was heralded as the means to end every war on earth.
They say a lot of things about Headquarters but we can’t confirm a word of it, because on the very same day that work on it was finished, it imploded into the rift.
And with the loss of thirty-two geniuses and their accumulated wealth of knowledge, the layers of blast doors, cubic miles of concrete, and the quarter of a million dollars, came the gain of all the things that never were.
And things have never been the same since.
The inhabitants of Area 71 found themselves that mid afternoon—and every mid afternoon, evening, night, morning, and mid-afternoon again—in a city of structured chaos. In the place of every metal post grew an aspen which quaked in the wind. Slate became draping curtains of wild hops, bricks crumbled to ivy, wood turned to woven willows, pipes became hollowed roots, the porcelain throne remained porcelain and the cast iron ranges remained cast iron with enamel freckles. Furnishings kept their forms, as did all personal affects—except soup spoons which became bogies which took up residence in the walls and soured milk if not placated with a small meal laid out for them in the center of the kitchen floor every night.
The inhabitants of what used to be Area 71 also found their number had doubled: One half of them was as always had been and always would be, as square and solid as Headquarters had been; and the other half as playful and terrifying as the world when the sun closed his eyes for the night and the moon squinted at the world below, half-awake and cranky.
Some of the new inhabitants were huge with teeth like the outline of the mountains silhouetted against the sunset, some were small as a mouse and spread luck good or ill, some sang mournfully upon the shores of the glacier lakes, some would tip a hat and say, “Good day, my dear.” But then there were the others, the ones who would seek the price of your soul, and buy it.
At first, the residents of Area 71 tried to subdue the strangers, but it is said that was ineffectual. Likewise ineffective were their attempts to drive the strangers away or confine them by another method. The newcomers had no rulership, no sense of greater being beyond their territories and the pecking order within their own personal boundaries. The strangers had their own tailors and cobblers and bakers and mailmen—they required nothing of humans and humans required nothing of them. Only the bogies, which had once been soup spoons, demanded anything of their humans and they proved useful for those who treated them well and knew how to ask.
So it was that the obvious conclusion came about: The Things that Never Were ignored the humans, and the humans pretended the Never-Weres still never were.
But as an ecosystem adjusts to new elements, so does society to its members. Lucy graced the rabbit ears of new Technicolor television sets, Donald taught GIs to put rubbers on their gun barrels, and the bald eagle raced nose to nose with the mother bear to kiss astronaut toes upon the surface of the moon. New geniuses learned the power of atoms and tested it, and the aerial drift of toxins from the salty flats miles away brought the divided community of Area 71 together during a slightly radioactive winter.
Aside from the radioactivity, the residents of Area 71 knew none of what was happening outside the humming fence of their community. Tucked away in the jaws of the mountain ridge as they were, they received no televisions—as the first television sets brought on base had immediately changed into poisonous chimeras. And even if they had one which had remained cathode ray tube and glass and wood, it would have been useless because there was, and still is, no television signal.
With a new level of security stemming from the space race came a new leadership, and Area 71 was re-filed instead as code name Sanctuary, and Sanctuary began to enforce the draft amongst the Never-Were’s. As many of them possessed inherently violent natures, they did not mind a greater purpose for their primal bloodlust. The Sanctuary units proved impressive and were often employed during times of non-war.
But, on the day we join Miss Betty Crachet, there was no such employment and no prospect of anything but peace and boredom for the thrill-seeking Never-Were’s.
The clock in Sunny Glenn market still read II:X, but it was nearer to III o’ clock, and so Betty sat upon her favorite willow bench to watch the gremlins scurry up the tower with their wrenches to change the hands for tea time. Betty had boring blue eyes and somewhat brown hair and her father’s military jaw. She was not whiskey in a teacup, nor was she bubbly sweet soda, she was more akin to a cup of hot milk or perhaps spiced eggnog on the days she really had her wits about her. In short, she was best had alone, right before bed, in place of any dessert. Long had she accepted her solitary station in life, but that made it no easier to swallow, and it could not make her home any warmer.
Betty settled her wool on the slender leaves forming living armrests, and dug into her bag for a crochet hook. Black locust perfume wafted from the opening. Betty inhaled and lingered there, eyes closed. It was her favorite smell, but the only ones who would know were the trees themselves when she stood beneath them and pried loose a bunch of white flowers.
Her fingers brushed thick paper. An envelope. She took it carefully out of her bag, holding it by her thumb and forefinger as though it were a bit of rubbish the alley cat had dug out of the garbage chest in front of her house right before the bogeymen came to collect it immediately after dark.
Then she flipped over the letter, tied across the middle with red baling twine, and read the fine scrawl addressing the front, the ink glossy in the afternoon sun.
Her Elegance
Residing at the Blue Door
with the Pot of Towering Sunflowers
on the Steps of the Porch with a Red Swing

Amid a pile of bills to “The Current Resident of 246-O Work One Road”, the letter made her smile and added a charmed touch of color to her cheeks. It made her feel so…so…
Special.
Reality slapped her in the face.
It went against everything she’d ever known. She’d been risking it by living on the edge of Sunny Glenn and Brimstone.
She looked in vain for a place to dispose of the letter. The market didn’t have trash bins or chests; they were banned on account of inciting too many fights. For an instant she considered just abandoning the letter on the bench. Footsteps pattered on cobblestones while Betty tamed her heart and she dropped her purse over the letter and told herself that no secret policeman would make his rounds in this part of Sanctuary, and even if he did chance to be here, he wouldn’t check her belongings for sign of devils.
Curiousity restored, Betty flipped it from one side to the other and considered that the paper devils used was flesh taken from those who owed them.
Thus preoccupied, she did not notice the market was too empty for III o’ clock, a time when it should have bustled, should have been filled with the songs of birds, with the fragrance of chicken grease and pine cones; she did not notice that the things that never-were weren’t taunting one another and testing territories for fresh fruit and mates.
Sunny Glen was made of factories and bank buildings long abandoned and overgrown by honeysuckle and old man’s beard. Not too long ago, some say, back when weeds could be cut down and automobiles clogged the streets, humans worked there. A very long time ago, there might have been a glen in the forest with a creek cutting through larkspur and mallow.
Now it was habitat for the things that never were. And Betty had forgotten this at a most inconvenient time.
She looked around and finally saw the crows gathered in a circle. They surrounded a solitary crow in the center. As she watched, he cocked his head first one way then the next. He bowed to those around him, then his black feathers caught tendrils of light cutting through clouds as he puffed up his chest.
He began his soliloquy.
Betty knew a murder when she saw one, but couldn’t look away. Couldn’t plug her ears. And she certainly couldn’t leave, although she should have.
It held her in a trance, that cawing explanation, keeping her hanging on every hop, every nod to the other crows, every cluck and swoop giving weight to his argument; Betty could not step away, from the very beginning to the very last caw. To her credit, it is often impossible to step away from such things. Not only is it in human nature to observe those things which we really ought not, but it is in never-were nature to further seduce and sway a person from doing as they had originally planned to do. It was why the kelpies regularly drowned drunks despite the public notice sign by the river and the frequent reminder in the newspapers. It was why even now the fairies stole husbands and wives. There was simply nothing that Betty could have done to leave that circle of crows or to have not heard the victim’s final appeal.
The crow in the center swayed, his feathers ruffled. His last words had been said, and he, like those all too still trees and shrubs and streets, waited in silence for the verdict.
Those in the circle looked to one another, turned their beaks this way and that, as though they were holding a conversation with no noises. Betty wondered if the crow might go free. She was blind to his alleged crimes, blind to everything beyond being the one against the many, and she bit her lip while his peers made their silent debate. There was some dissension. Then they settled. Decision made.
Wings unfolded as black capes and they leapt from the ground with a single beat of feathers upon moss-laced mosaic, and as one they descended upon the defendant. Screeches and screams rang through hollow streets as a flurry of feathers gave way to all too human cries of pain and fury.
Only then, with the beating of wings upon the ground and the thumps and grunts of murder in her ears, was Betty able to yank herself away and run. Betty ran until her lungs burned and her ankle ached. Still she pressed on. She ran, and she ran, not knowing if she was followed yet presuming that she was and that she ran for her life, until she ran weak-kneed and gasping into a man in a gray-brown suit.
He grunted and caught her by her elbows, which was good, otherwise she would have slid to the ground and soiled her skirt. Betty swiped her eyes with her sleeve and was too breathless to form an apology, too lost in panic to think to check to whom she was speaking.
“Are you well?” The stranger’s light city accent broke through Betty’s disoriented consciousness, and he looked down a chiseled nose into her eyes.
Betty’s first thought was to try to run more, but that was impossible. Then she wondered at his concern, wondered why he was not angry. She heard the slowing drone of footsteps, coming to a stop behind her.

 

No one, not even a never-were, wanted a witness.
Betty turned to face the young crow who had chased her, an ashen-faced youth with a malicious smile and sprightly swing to his arms. Feathers dangled in his hair when he swept dreadlocks back from his face.
“Murder?” Guessed the man standing beside her.
Betty flinched.
The crow flashed her a grin. Betty’s legs turned to gelatin. Then the crow said to the man, “He will not break the code again.”
The man in the gray-brown suit dipped his head, then said, “And your interest in this one?”
“Just a chase. All a bit of fun.”
The man stared at him.
“If you do not mind…?” The crow jerked his head.
Betty wondered if she could use her shoe’s heel as a weapon, but then the man pulled her into his chest and made a quick motion.
The crow hesitated, and the man responded with a stare.
The crow shrugged and walked back the direction he came.
“Fun, indeed,” said the man and let Betty stand on her own again. She swayed.
It started to rain. He opened up an umbrella, and held out his arm, which Betty took out of habit rather than by conscience choice of will. Just then, she started shivering.
“You must take care. You need a warm drink and a dry roof.” The man looked to the sky as rain started hitting the mossy path they stood on. His eyes gleamed and he tilted his head. “Come, come. There’s a diner around the corner. They’ll see you’re tended-to.”
Betty’s legs felt weak from shock and stiff from running, and her teeth chattered. A guilty part of her purred to be given such undivided attention as they hustled down Vandermeer Lane while rain came heavier and heavier.
None too soon, they squashed together into a section of a rotating glass door and entered Sammy’s Diner. They sat in the booth with the furnace blowing hot air out from under the seat, and a teenaged girl with bad cases of freckles and giggles alike came to take their orders, then left again. Betty’s savior looked less like the dashing heroes in the penny shows and more like a scarecrow, with his gangly long legs and arms and expressive hands. Quick, bright eyes the same copper-flecked hue as the amber stone admired Betty with a message whose meaning she couldn’t fathom, just was entranced by.
He wasn’t handsome in the classical sense, nor in the artistic-angst-sort of way, not even in the stout, bad-boy Gemmy manner. His chin was too fine, fit for a lady rather than a man, his cheek bones tolerable if little else, his nose an ungainly hook too refined to be Eastern European, and his brow swept back rather than strong. There should have been nothing found desirable and everything to be desired; yet, for some inexplicable reason, the exact opposite was true.
The waitress brought peach pie a la mode and a hot chocolate, and a crumble coffee cake with blackberry tea. Betty sank her fork through the crisp golden crust and mingled a peach slice with the melted vanilla ice cream. Within three bites, her mood turned jovial and she said with a blush, “Thank you for your kindness.”
The man across from her smiled. “It was my pleasure to meet you. Clarkin Hannah, at your service.”
Betty tried not to cough at the never-were greeting. What sort of demon had saved her from the crows? She reached for her cocoa, drank too fast, and scorched her tongue. Clarkin didn’t notice, he was too busy watching her with that steady gaze. Who else was in the diner? An old woman with her knitting needles and a young couple. No one had noticed her odd companion.
Betty ate her pie, glad that Clarkin’s gaze wandered over the red vinyl bar stools and bright chrome rods accenting the lips of tables. Sammy’s Diner was new, trending, and a man in striped overalls was in the corner installing a jukebox. Every now and then, music poured across stainless steel tables and black and white floor tiles, and Clarkin would stop eating and listen to it.
“Some people don’t like machines playing music,” she said. Demons in particular didn’t like machines. Brownies hated anything new, even if it was a blouse. Gremlins itched to grab tools and dig in to dissect and perfect whatever moving parts it could have.
Clarkin smiled. “So long as sweet melodies are made, I cannot help but adore the things which make it.”
Betty didn’t know what to make of that response, so she ate the last of her pie.
Clarkin motioned to the door by tipping his head. “Shall we go?”
While Betty stood and pulled on her coat, Clarkin dropped a five on the table and nestled it under a plate. Betty started to object, but reasoned that her smallest bill was a five, as well, and so she dropped a few quarters down as a tip. Clarkin helped her with her scarf, lifting her walnut locks over the silk collar of her coat. At five foot five inches, Betty considered herself neither tall nor short, but as he began to tie her scarf, she realized that he wasn’t quite six foot, which surprised her as his proportions implied a tall man. His finger brushed her cheek, on accident or purpose she couldn’t tell, and it set her to blushing.
“Thank you, but you’ve helped me quite enough.” She pulled away with a nervous laugh.
Clarkin cocked his head for an instant, contemplating, then he grinned and motioned for her to enter the rotating doors first. Betty paused beneath the eaves, realizing with despair that it was raining cats and dogs, and she hadn’t brought an umbrella. She would be soaked within ten feet.
There came the snap of spokes as Clarkin opened a big brown umbrella.
“I never caught your name,” Clarkin said as they stepped into the night where mists obscured the slippery sidewalk.

“Betty. Betty Cratchet.”
“The morning show? I thought I recognized your voice. Its a pity that more of its charm isn’t relayed accurately in transmission.”
Betty laughed. “Thank you, I think.”
“It is indeed a compliment, if a bit clumsy.”
“I don’t think you are clumsy,” Betty said before she could stop herself, then thought that it was an appropriate response, as no one wants to insult a demon.
“Could I walk you to a bus stop? I believe there is one in service on the half-hour.”
“No need, I live nearby.”
“The crows are still about and you don’t have a hat. I will walk you to your door.”
Betty did not object a second time. Neighbors would see her with a business man, if they thought to view the street at all, and she did fear the black birds. For the rest of their walk, they were silent, even though Betty noticed every time their strides made their hands brush. As they turned down her street, the rain started to come in larger, harder balls which slid off the umbrella’s rim and turned the ground to slush. Overhead, a couple of flyboys in leather suits and gas-powered jetpacks battled the coming storm, dipping low and narrowly dodging the lamplighters on their ladders.
“Are electric pyros real?” Betty asked, reminded by the lamplighters of the reason Tesla’s spark starter wasn’t used on the streets.
Clarkin’s jovial stride faltered. “Yes.”
Yesterday’s mansion fire had been attributed to pyros in the electric wires from a clothes iron. Betty hadn’t been sure if that was a cover or a real event. Ever since Franklin Smith headed the Secret Forces Police six months ago, some very strange occurrences had happened.
“Here’s my house,” Betty said over the descending echo of the jetpacks’ hissing rush.

They always sounded louder going away, but she didn’t know why. Gremlin tech. Although she intended to leave him at the black metal gate heading her front garden, Clarkin opened it for her and escorted her up her straight concrete path lined on either side with purple pansies and yellow tulips. On her porch the promised swing rocked in a gust of wind, and Betty faced her rescuer. Had he been a man, courtesy would have demanded she invite him to weather out the storm in her parlor, no matter how long it took. Had he been a man.
He removed his fedora and shook out his umbrella while she found her keys.
“Thank you again for all your help,” Betty said, holding out her hand by way of parting. Clarkin didn’t look disappointed, accepting her hand and holding it longer than customary. Waves of warmth trembled through her body, senses suddenly acute and aware of his every movement. Betty withdrew her hand.
Unabashed, Clarkin studied her with amber eyes and asked, “Will you attend Autumn Moon with me in a fortnight?”
She had always dreamed of being asked to go to the festival, but not like this. Not by a never-were. She thought of her job, her family, her career. Being a woman, not to mention the daughter of a General, was hard enough.
“I am sorry,” she said. “I’m afraid I can’t.”
“Then I am sorry, as well.” He sounded as though he spoke from the heart, but did not insist. Betty hastened inside, eager to escape, but after she closed the door, she peered through the curtains, watching him leave with a sprightly step and a whistle on his lips.

She resisted the urge to call him back, remembering the scented letter in her bag.
Humans weren’t meant to mingle with things that never were. That was more than regulation, more than common sense, it was an order direct from the General.
She’d heard that in other places, life is as it has been for generations. No devils, no evergrowing banana bushes or crying heads in a cabbage patch. Her father said it was true, and that’s the reason for the order. That one day long ago devils existed only in stories. When strange things happened with no reason or explanation, humans just accepted it. Coincidence, they’d call it, and carry on with their lives.
At least, that’s what the library says. Some old folks say, “When I was young, when your keys moved, you forgot where you put them. Now you’ve got a bogey.”
Betty had a bogey. She’d seen it.
The rest was nonsense.
The letter was there, and fragrant.
What if she got another letter, then another, and another, so sweetly scented and kindly written, and she grew to love the sender without having opened a single one?
She must burn it.
She fumbled with Slim’s old lighter and struck it, held the flame to the edge of the envelope.
But at the last second, she opened her hose drawer, threw in the letter, and slammed it closed.
The rattle of the force from slamming the drawer made her dresser wobble, and her radio wriggled—Betty caught it before it could go to the ground, and her finger pressed a button. Crackling came first, and when she put it back in its proper place, it caught the signal and the staticy voice of the Alpha day host, Betty thought her name was Jenny, said through the speakers, “…and that was Bippidy Bee by Yours Truly. We at Aphla Bravo Charlie are with you again from the commercial break, it is time for the weather.”
Betty snorted and left it on, realizing that the sound of another voice helped to take the chill off the room. She needed a distraction. She set about cleaning, did some laundry, and was getting out a broom when she heard, “The Sheriff is asking after an incident which took place in Sunny Glenn earlier this afternoon.”
Betty gripped the dustpan.
“If you saw something, say something. James Legrand is taking inquiries, so please help out and keep our communities safe. Once again, that was an incident at Sunny Glenn this afternoon. If you saw something, ask for James Legrand at the Sheriff’s office. Now, for local news…”
Numb, Betty reached forward with a shaking hand and clicked the radio off. She grabbed for her stool, but her hand missed it, so she let herself sink to the floor. Her ears buzzed, as though she still heard static coming through the radio, but one thing rang through her ears.
Slim was on the case.
She knew she should say what she saw—but what if she did? What had she seen? A ring of crows. Heard crows squawking. Saw them leap onto it. She couldn’t tell their number or what had been said. There was no way to identify them, except perhaps for the man who chased her, but even so, she couldn’t recall his face, just the panic of running. The only thing her information would confirm was that crows were involved. And if you saw something done by crows, you pretended to not to have seen it.
Supposing she did seek out the Sheriff, would she come to regret it by midnight? Betty put a finger to the pulse in her neck, tried to count it as a way to settle her stomach. That was why they had Slim Legrand on the case: To keep informants safe. If it was anyone but him, she might have done it. She might have said what she saw. But she couldn’t say, not if it brought her back into contact with him, and by extension through him, back to her father.
Betty swallowed hard and climbed up off the floor. She wouldn’t do anything differently. She’d pretend that nothing strange had happened. That was just how it would have to be.
But she couldn’t sleep that night. By X:XV, she was in her dressing gown and her teeth were brushed, her hair in plaits so she would have waves in the morning, but she couldn’t sleep, not even when XI found her with a spotless house and bogey angry at her disturbing his nightly romping. She turned the radio back on again, rolling the dials to slide the bar so she could listen to Tango Lima Romeo. Listening to Alpha Bravo Charlie had been a mistake, had brought back memories of the horrors of realizing that what she wrote could get people killed.
Richard Welch’s soothing croak popped against the speakers, making her smile despite herself. “…and remember that when you do interview for a place at the Police, you need to first make an appointment with a street magician. Ask him to teach you to hide doughnuts up those newly-tailored sleeves, and to reveal his secrets of the sly pass. We all know the way to the piggie’s heart is to palm them a well-wrapped bismark.”
Betty snickered. Welch was perhaps the only radio host who could get away with poking fun at the Council and make them laugh while he did it. Well, all but a few curmudgeons, like her father.
“And now for the weather. Clouds will not be present tonight, as the Council did not pay its water bill on time. However, the moon has decided to grace us with her presence to cast some light through the dark. Temperature is mild, without a sign of any frosts on this night, so your poppies will be standing strong come morning.”
Poppies were what they planted on contaminated war fields. Betty wondered if Welch had mentioned them intentionally. She shook her head firmly. Come off it Betty, one surprise encounter, and now you’re seeing wave talkers everywhere.
Her hands shook as she made them work on her crochet again. The repetitive action soothed her nerves, and soon she was settled enough to begin to drop off. As she smothered the last light and reached to turn off Welch, he said, “As we near the witching hour, those of you working the night shift will be taking a drag, eating a snack, or munching on your granna’s sticky caramel walnut buns. Oh you nutters, you only wish you had my lunch. Pity that our sink no longer drips, actually, it means I’ll have to get the handles dirty. They fixed my leaky faucet earlier today, and I have to say, I’m almost missing the silly thing.”
Betty stared into the darkness, waiting for her eyes to adjust. There had not been a leaky faucet at the station. There was only one sink, and the thing scarcely put out enough water to get the hands wet on full blast. She jabbed the radio off so roughly that the button didn’t press, and she heard Welch go prattling off on a commentary about his granna’s secret caramel recipe, which he wouldn’t share, just wanted to make everyone else jealous.
Betty felt her way into bed, arranging the covers to fit against her body. It’s just fictional commentary to make people laugh. Richard is like that. Then she sighed, blinking into the darkness. She tugged a curtain open a bit to let the light in, but outside, there was not even a sliver of the moon. Just the empty, star-prickled night sky, cold and dark and clear.

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