I live on a farm in England with my two brothers who are half aardvark. Just kidding. They’re regular brothers. I hope you’re not imagining I have a British accent, because I don’t. Even though I was born here. My dad is a soldier and my mom does laundry and reads all day. Apparently, neither of them is paid enough. I’m gonna be sure to get paid enough when I’m grown. My name is Bianca. It doesn’t matter what my brothers’ names are.
There are horses and sheep outside my bedroom window. Lambing time just ended and I loved seeing the tiny skinny things laying down near the gate where they could walk right under but didn’t because their mother was too fluffy to fit so they had no reason to go. They’ve moved all the mamas and babies to the farthest paddock, all the way at the tree line. The horses are between me and the sheep.
There’s this one mama sheep who goes rogue almost every day. Just wanders through the horses’ paddocks like she owns the place, her two babies following after her. The horses don’t mind.
I draw or play with the aardvarks when I’m not in school. We’re only allowed to play video games on the weekend. Even then, we have to earn it with good behavior. Like prisoners. Or dogs. But we’re usually good enough.
Just not today. Today we’re stuck outside in the yard everyone calls a garden. It’s got a huge tree and a hedge we climb through to give the old horse apples. There’s lots of small trees and a gigantic holly bush that stabs you if you try to hide in it. We have a base behind that one. Mom doesn’t know it, but my brother hid his pocket knife out here. He could cut somebody wide open.
We’re pretty bored.
“We’re bored,” I tell my mom through the kitchen door she won’t open.
“Go play! It’s gonna be ultra crappy all week and this is the only sunny day, so get out there!” she says through the glass.
I give her a mean look. She waves at me.
“Let’s play Babyland,” my brother says.
Babyland is a game my mom played with her brothers. Her way sounded pretty stupid so we’ve changed it. Her Babyland had no technology, because when she was a kid, they didn’t have anything cool. So, our Babyland had to evolve. My littlest brother, when interlacing his fingers across his head and then opening them, can shoot missiles from his forehead. The other one controls drones with heat seeking tech for hunting from his iPad. None of us has a real iPad. I bet even prisoners have iPads. By the way, I’m a dragon.
I’m always a dragon.
We have sidekicks, of course. Larry, Susie, and Freddie. They’re bunnies.
I go inside and my mom gets excited when I tell her what we’re playing, but I remind her that it’s different. Our Babyland is different.
“I know,” she says. Which irritates me. “It’s different for me now too.”
I don’t care what she means by that, so I collect up the cups and plastic containers we need for our battle station command center and don’t close the door behind me.
Once upon a time we were small and brilliant. We woke up pink, raw, and smelling like grass. The day was large. Full of new names and unfamiliar landscapes, we stood before great expanses of sand and ocean.
My sons run to the sea. My daughters flee to the forests. I am alone.
I, Sylvanian, draw in the ashes of my faith, in the cinders of my love, knowing you’ll never see. Hoping you never find me.
I hate homework. I bet math is one of the things they make you do in jail.
“What was your name in Babyland?” I ask.
My mom looks up from loading the dishwasher. “I had a few. I was Sylvanian, The Great Boudini, and Miss Neosporin.”
“You mean Houdini?”
I pretend to do some math problems but I’m actually writing these names down. I’m a bad speller.
“Who were your brothers?”
“Passway Johnson, Ram Sub, The Bad Punkin Man — ”
“Nevermind. Ram Sub was a Pillow Person with a giant switch blade.”
I watch her gather her thoughts as she fits dirty plates into the dishwasher slots. I try to figure out if she’s making this up as she goes. I can’t decide if I like that idea better.
“There were tribes. Pillow People, Turtle Faces, Baby Hunters…” She trails off for a moment before looking at me. “The mayor always died.”
“Your Babyland sounds messed up.”
“Should I be worried that you say that with a face-wide smile?”
“No,” I say, writing kill the mayor on my page. After I finish a few real math problems and my mom is making tea, I ask, “Why Neosporin?”
“When we played Hide and Seek, my brother would say it in a silly voice to make me laugh and reveal where I was hiding. It really only worked once, but it became my name.”
“I thought maybe you were the Healer of the group. Like in D&D.”
“Huh,” she says, putting a hand on her hip. “That would have been good.”
I’m guessing lots of citizens just laid around dying in her Babyland. I don’t know if that’s lame or amazing.
“The field!” his sister cried, pointing back at the mist, ice crackling in its wake.
The boy ran through fires everywhere — the roads, their hill, the tops of trees. He wasn’t fast. He wouldn’t be in time. The ground spit flames in the shape of him as he moved.
She screamed something after him before her voice burned into silence. The Hunters were fast. He had to get to the swamp.
The boy ignored the pebbles and charred bits of wood pressing into his bare feet. Their village sloped to the east and a welcomed breeze of unclouded air pushed over him. The swamp sank beneath the road and he threw himself to the right, relishing the cool grass on his little round heels.
The trees changed from giant, squat, broad-leafed palms, to tall, reaching, and stark with dripping vines and dangling branches too wet to rise. The boy slowed to pick through the suck and sludge of marsh along the swamp edge. The flames of his heels snuffed and smoldered to a dull glow. A long, low whistle hovered in the air above the deep. He stopped. He didn’t like it here.
A dragging ripple along the mud headed toward him. The thick wall of reeds, brown and yellow and entirely unappealing, blocked his view.
A voice croaked from below, “What is it?”
The boy crouched, moving the reeds at the marshy mud base where it bled to water. “The Hunters have come.”
A rounded shape rose from the mud and moved the reeds further apart. The creature’s own face was covered by a turtle’s skin, eye holes widened, mouth intact.
“We’ve smelled the ice. It’s so soon,” it said.
“I don’t know where to go.” The boy dug his small fingers deep into the mud, diffusing the molten ache.
The Turtle Face sniffed the air and the whites of its eyes behind the skin went black.
“Run, child.” With a gurgle, it slunk back beneath the swamp just as the crackle of freezing mud reached the boy. He ignited from within until there was no concealing his position. The mud hardened to glass beneath his feet and encased his fingers in the ground as effective as any chain. The world glowed gold and scarlet until everything faded to white.
One of my brothers is scared of the dark. Which sucks for him because England is almost always dark. In the winter, it’s dark when we eat breakfast at 7:00 and then at 3:45 just after we get home from school. He never wants to be alone. Won’t even go up to the playroom to get me my notebook, or to his own room to get dressed. Sometimes my mom has to stand outside the bathroom door while he pees. This is the one who shoots missiles from his forehead. It makes no sense.
They’re digging up the fields near our house. They have to check for buried cities or graves or historical markers before they can build houses all over it. We won’t be here when that happens but I’m interested just the same. The diggers make random trenches. I guess they know what they’re looking for, but my parents say the same thing every time we drive down our road: They’re digging in the wrong place! So now I’m thinking the same. What if the ancient city wall is a little to the left? It stresses me out, so I try not to think about it.
We have one more year here before we move somewhere else. I hope the next place is near the beach. A real beach — with soft sand, and not cold. Mom says if I’m a dragon I’ve got fire enough in me to make the beaches here warm, so maybe I should share more. I haven’t thought of a good come back yet. She says stuff like that every now and then, stuff about me having fire in my belly. Like her hero Charlotte Bronte. My mom is really bad at inspiring speeches. Charlotte and her brother and sisters had a Babyland too, she says.
The boy woke slowly, his small body stiff with cold. The roof above him swirled with the rusty green patina of weathered copper. Four angles met at a point in the middle. The walls were glass. His belly glowed and the warmth flooded his legs, arms, up his throat; the fear went straight to his eyes and blazed white.
He was in a Lantern.
Beyond the glass twinkled more lights — across an endless chasm, up to the sky, below to another level he had no wish to know. He threw himself against the glass into his terrible reflection. Steam rose from the metal joints in the locking mechanism — the door would never open in his lifetime. He would light and heat the North Tower, and when he burned out, he would be replaced. His own ridiculous instinct to calm himself, slow the burn, extend his life, insulted him. There was no point.
“It’s not really a game,” I say. “Because it’s super dark.”
“Would they make prisoners play it?”
“Of course not.”
She nods. “Because it’s fun.”
“Then it’s a game.”
“But there’s a lot of death.”
“He was first.”
She nods in approval. “Want spaghetti tonight?”
“Give the mayor a moment of silence at least.”
She raises her face to the ceiling.
“Can we have pizza instead?”
Dad will say yes. Dad always says yes to pizza because it’s like going to a restaurant but he won’t have to actually go anywhere. He used to like going out, I’m told. I was really little then, and they’d have to get a high chair for me. He only goes to certain restaurants here, and only on the weekends because he can’t go walking around in his uniform off post. Someone got kidnapped when I was a baby here, got his head cut off by terrorists. So that was the end of work day pub lunches. At school, there are only two kids in my class whose dads are deployed. They get to go to a special lunch every few weeks. With free cookies. Which I think is unfair.
My dad is older than lots of my friends’ dads. Mine went to the war more times I think. He says he has a dark sense of humor but it seems pretty much like mine.
“What makes it dark?” I ask.
“When you live through something tragic or scary or hard, you have to find ways to laugh at it or you go crazy.”
“What if you just think it’s funny?”
“Then you’re a psychopath and might need to go to an asylum.”
“That was a jail.”
“For crazy people who think death and pain are fun.”
I don’t think death and pain are fun, but I like pretending I have to fight, that I survive. So that’s different.
My mom’s talking about Charlotte Bronte again because I need to write a one-page report on someone who inspires me. I am not inspired by Charlotte Bronte.
“Mom,” I say, “you can write your report on her. I’m going to do Amelia Earhart.” I hold up the library book. “Besides, a diorama about a writer would be lame.”
“She had two older sisters who died.”
“Dark, but also a bad diorama.”
“Then her brother died.”
“Then her other sister.”
“Then her last sister too.”
“Then when she finally got married, was going to have a baby, and had found some happiness, she died.”
“I know. And she wrote wonderful novels while all that went on. And her brother and sisters wrote and drew and painted and were full of fantastic ideas, feelings, and understanding that we’ll never truly know about.”
“How would I make a diorama of all that?”
“Who cares about the diorama? How would you forget all of that?”
She’s right, but I don’t tell her. I think about Charlotte Bronte and all her dead sisters and brothers and babies all through dinner. Who had to bury all of that? How would I dig that back up?
Time stretched and melted. The boy sat, folded into himself, as a deafening horn moaned and echoed throughout the tower. It was a string pulled straight through him, drawing every nightmare up from the depths until his glass world was a magnificent diamond. The others ignited and the tower was suddenly illuminated. The boy tried to close his sizzling eyes. The Hunters returned.
“More!” their deep silken voices called. “He is cold!”
The Hunter in the middle was raised up on a pallet carried by four others. He was older than trees and gripped a staff topped with a stained-glass orb across his chest. His breath made clouds. His face was stone.
“It isn’t enough! Light them!”
A Hunter wrenched the staff from his failing master and shook it high, the others took him under his massive legs and lifted him higher so that the stained-glass orb flashed sapphire, ruby, topaz, and emerald.
“Children, see your mother! Mother, see your children!”
The colored glass orb glowed. The Lanterns pulsed fear and grief. The tower blazed with warmth and revealed every face.
From within his Lantern, the boy saw his family behind his sizzling white eyelids. Even their mother who had burned out hundreds of years ago. They had been deceived. She was there, burning brightly in the stained-glass orb. Sylvanian lived.
And she was angry. The Lanterns began to hum as if struck with the same tuning fork. Their separation became a city. The glass reflected their story. Not dead. Not gone. The sapphire, ruby, topaz, and emerald facets blazed with heat and flame. The hum grew loud; the burning reached deep.
A collective shatter. A blinding blue flash. The tower’s roof exploded and the sun shone down.
My brothers are upstairs getting equipment for the command center. I’m supposed to be packing the bunnies in separate bags with their own supplies — jetpacks, miniguns, swords, and only four throwing stars because I can’t find the other ones. I stop in the hallway to look out of the big window at the paddocks and our garden yard.
That crazy sheep mama is out there again, leading her babies on a devil may care adventure through the paddocks that aren’t hers. They jump and play and eat grass that doesn’t belong to them. They look as happy as sheep can look. The horses see them coming and sort of step back, ready to give them their fun, or their due, or whatever it is that sheep get. The farmer hasn’t been out here for days.
The black lamb is with them. Not sure whose mama sheep is his. Could be this one he’s following, or not. This mama sheep is definitely the fun one. If I were a lamb, I’d follow this mama and pretend I didn’t know better. It was supposed to rain today but hasn’t yet. The sun shines bright when this mama walks.
I make a list in my notebook about our missions.
- Kill the mayor
- Spy on Mom
- Bury the pocket knife in a different spot
- Give the horse an apple
My brothers finally get to the base with all their equipment. Most of it is unnecessary, but I don’t tell them. I’ve already started digging a new place for the knife and my brother whines it should be him that chooses because it’s his knife. That sounds fair but I still fight him. I tell myself it’s for his own good, like training. He needs more fire in his belly. Everybody he knows is alive. My other brother takes his side of course. But what does he know about the dark? He’s too afraid to stand in it for a second. I’m the only one who knows how to cut the dirt and check what’s under it before we build or bury. They’ll figure that out later.
The children were forbidden to see the end. The Hunters, trapped in the rubble of their own destruction, never saw the Turtle Faces crawl slowly from the marshes. Surrounding the tower ruins, the Turtle Faces made three rings. They turned their backs. They raised their faces. They opened their black mouths to the sky. The rubble and all that was beneath melted into the earth and became the road.
Image artist: Tudor Washington Collins