The Dream Twister - September 2003
Ashes - Alia Sheikh
Blank - Anon.
(page 5/14)


Ashes

Alia Sheikh

By the time I complete Channa's letter it is dark. The forest has done its usual trick of reorganising time - letting it rush past with barely a whisper then concentrating it into dark still pools that seem to sink everything in a slow peaceful fog. Or maybe it is just that I'm finding sending reports back tiresome, when I know that all too soon it wont be a carefully folded parchment that returns, but myself - just another student attending what will be, one way or another, my final exam.

Still, I can hear Channa's dry voice in my head calmly listing the virtues of keeping ones tutors informed. So I make sure to tell her about the fair last week, the wooden stands and the stallholders in black cotton tails and stovepipe hats. How I'd had the devil of a time with the language which, as far as I could make out, had neither a past or future tense and how a small girl had, during a moment of carelessness, seen my eyes, unshaded and undisguised. I'd stayed in there a week and my last memory of it was watching the townspeople file out of the central hall at dusk, the women in white linen dresses enthusiastically flapping at the still air with prayer books and bone handled fans.

It's too quiet, I've only been here two nights but I'm already beginning to recognize patterns. Since I set foot in the forest I've been able to detect some sort of low level awareness, something which knows I'm here and tolerates my presence. As, I suppose it tolerates the people who live here - they're strange, even to me and that really is saying something. Sun set long ago but the trees are silhouetted against red - they've begun to light the fires. It seems the tribe is having some kind of a shindig and tonight I'll find out if I've really learned enough about them. Changing at least will be simple, they've lived in the forest so long that they've adapted - I just need to do the same.

Around me there's an improbable assortment of plants. Oak tree, willow tree, pine tree, ash - this place didn't grow, it was designed, I'm sure of it. Another thing to ask Channa about. I've always liked pine trees. Find a nice one and lean against it, watching my skin mottle and shift to match, feeling colour and texture creeping in tendrils around my shoulders and over my face. Look at the backs of my hands critically and brush the nails over rocks till they harden. Have to be careful not to mimic too well, the camouflage these people have developed is not as perfect as mine can be. Peer at my face in a still pool. As always, my eyes give me away - reflective blue ice with silver flecks and I press my thumbs gently against the lids, letting the irises take on the same deep brown. It isn't quiet anymore - sort of a low hum in the air, drums and laughter and I find myself following.

Even if there had been no music the bonfire would have been hard to miss, some wood, mostly just a puddle of burning oil. It's a good ten feet high and twice as wide, but then I've never seen them be particularly careful with fire. Once my eyes adjust I begin to grasp the sheer number of people in the clearing, the flames pick out their shapes into the distance until I can't distinguish them from the trees and I realize with some relief that they're all speaking Common. I'd mistakenly believed the tribe to be dwindling, even some of my teachers dismiss its existence as mere speculation and I bite back a smile, thinking of the retraction Channa will have to make. An old man smiles toothlessly at me, offering a cup of some sweet greenish liquid and that is the last time I think of home tonight.

This is the first time I've heard any of them speak - a few clusters of elders, impassive as oak and obviously involved in some kind of council but many more voices raised in loud friendly argument or aimless chatter. It's obvious that most of them have only just met, and I wonder if the purpose of tonight is simply to form new alliances and renew old. Looking up I realize that even the trees are full, drummers on the branches lazily shouting down requests for drink and its like the rest of the forest has been shocked into silence, the only things that are real are the sounds of the party and the warmth of the flames and its all to easy to lose myself in the crowd.

I'm careful not to drink much but even so I almost trip over a girl leaning against a low branch. Light metallic skin covered with short horizontal marks, pale hair and eyes glinting in the firelight. A silver ash. She blinks at me curiously and brushes her fingertips over my mouth. I've been letting it take on the colour of the stuff I've been drinking and muttering some excuse, I back away. I notice that the drumming's stopped.

Actually all the noise has stopped and they're all gathered close around the fire. One of them closer than the rest, and as far as I can judge ages here he seems young. The drumming starts up again but this time as more of an uneasy throb and looking at the crowd I'm reminded uncomfortably of a wall. They're all looking at the boy as he looks around once then screws his eyes up and my stomach lurches sickeningly as I realize what he's about to do. He walks straight into the heart of the fire and as his hair shrivels and his clothes burn away I step forward to shout, scream at them to help him. But a hand clamps onto my wrist, pulling me back and I see the silverhaired girl shake her head at me a fraction. I look back into the flames more closely this time and realize that the boy isn't screaming, after a little while he walks back out grinning in relief and blackened from head to toe. About twenty more girls and boys follow suit, and as the last of them steps out of the flames the wall breaks into people again, laughing delightedly and hugging the soot-covered children.

I slump onto the nearest log and blink quietly at the girl. "Thank you."

She looks at me carefully "You won't be safe if they realize what you are. They might kill you for what you just saw."

I nod, "They might, you won't."

She smiles at that, "What gave me away?"

"Your eyes. How long have you been here?"

She sits next to me wrapping her arms around her knees and leans her chin on them, "Since last winter. The first night I was here I tried to build a fire - it doesn't work, nothing burns. They learn it from the trees somehow."

The party flickers around us and we talk through the night, I trade stories about the world for those of the time she spent here. Find myself wondering if I could give up a year of my life to immerse myself in one place and one people the way she has. It's strange, it's been a year since I met another traveller and this is the first time I've let myself admit I've missed this. Just to be able to talk to somebody without a mask. She's taking the exam this year as well and we agree to travel back together. Toward sunrise everyone drifts away, as silently as they'd gathered. We're the last to leave, and we walk over the blackened circle left by the fire. Stepping over the logs at the heart of it, I notice that there aren't even any ashes.



Blank

Anon.

I lie here writing,
The words flowing with ease.
The shape they form
Becoming more solid with each moment.
And soon, too soon, it is finished,
There is no more to write of it,
Except those few words of power.
Magic to make the translucent form clear,
But it is finished, there is no more words to be written.
So I have to leave it "Blank".