OK, this is not at all my usual style, but there’s a reason. I’ve chosen once again to enter NYC Midnight’s Short Story Contest, wherein I am given restrictions and time limits to write a 2,500-word story. In this first round, I was given 8 days to write a fantasy about a construction worker, with the subject of divorce.
I had also just recently finished reading both Neil Gaiman’s upcoming book “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and “The Cats of Tanglewood Forest” by Charles de Lint and Charles Vess. While the only thing my effort shares with these writers/artists is that we used many of the same words, I think it’s pretty apparent their voices were ringing in my head as I typed. Here’s what I submitted:
The Bridgemaker’s Wife
The secret Ways from the land of the Fae to other worlds must be built quickly while the worlds are still forming, as everyone knows. Why, if the builder waits too long, in barely a few millennia the new world will cool and any gates or pathways or doors to Fairyland would have to be tacked on top. They’d be visible and straightforward, and if there is one thing a Fae cannot abide, it is to be straightforward.
Besides, a door between worlds is no mere gate on a footpath, to be installed in a twinkle with rusty tools and a few nails! There are layers that must be laid at just the right time, in just the right way, worked into the ground and the sea and the wind and the sky and the seasons. This valley must be entered at the hour before sunset, and not a moment before. This pathway will be harmless and bright, unless a person had a willow wand upon her person that had been dipped in the bearer’s blood. This opening in the rock can only be entered in the dead of winter, while the traveler is walking backwards and remembering a summer day, else a mere crack it will remain. These are not bridges that can be made of brick and stone. The infinite details of such a task requires a builder who can balance things most cannot even comprehend.
On this day, there was Aladriel.
“You show promise,” the Queen said when she called him before the court. “Your assistance in laying the paths into the lands of the gods has served us well. When the damned first arrived in Hell they found the place well-traveled by Fae already, to the credit of your team’s work digging into the loam of creation itself. Well done.
“Now I call you to your newest challenge, one you can handle on your own, I think.”
She presented him with a contract, bound in golden ribbon and a single hair from her head. “The world of Men is forming and it may be of some small amusement to us. Make us a Way there, Aladriel.”
Aladriel walked away from the cheers and accolades that very night and began to work. The job seemed simple enough, if larger than he was used to. He inspected the boiling Earth and made his plans for foundations and rafters, pilings and columns. He laid out basic plans for connecting the two worlds in ways permanent but not apparent. And he looked into the future, just enough to get an idea of what he was dealing with.
That glimpse almost stopped him cold.
Such a future! In the past the Fae used the Ways to visit secretly or peer into other worlds for fun and advantage, but this! Humanity’s tale was an infinite tapestry of individual fortune and tragedy. Kings and queens, commoners and wanderers, every single human for untold generations would have her own story and the Fae would be there, helping and hindering as needful. Both worlds would prosper, if Aladriel succeeded.
He should have called for help immediately, he knew that. But the Queen entrusted him, put her faith in him. He couldn’t go crawling back now. Besides, he’d seen how proud his wife Rhosylle had looked when he received the contract. This was his chance to make his name and a life for both of them.
Instead Aladriel threw himself into the task like a maddened beast. He hammered carved pegs directly into the firmament for support and forged connections of sinew and bone, weaving potentiality as fast as he could.
Again and again he narrowly escaped death from the forces he welded together but he gave them no heed, cutting and sewing and joining until his hands were raw and bleeding and his blood, too, became part of the Way. He spun and built and worked without stopping for food or rest, never missing a step or dropping a stitch. When visitors came to check on his progress he was cheerful and boastful, telling them of the wonders they would see, and they would leave amazed. Mighty chains to hold the worlds together he crafted from the finest silver. Subtle passages were painstakingly worked with joists smaller than dust motes. Time passed.
Imagine weaving life and wind and a spring morning into a doorway no one can see in a meadow that won’t exist for eons, and doing it again and again without pause while around you a world tries to decide what it’s going to be. The magnitude of what he was daring began to press on him. He could frame in ten prophecies a morning with ease, but here were hundreds. It was simple enough to lay one path to guide little girls and third sons and wandering cats, but there were thousands still waiting and the world of Man cooled a little more every year.
Every joining was more desperate than the last, and deep in his heart he began to fear he would not make it.
One might think this to be the worst possible time for his wife to leave him. But even the Fae may not always control everything.
Aladriel stood hip-deep in a mountain stream, a summer storm in his left hand and the scent of newly-grown oak in his right, with the heat from the bubbling, boiling new world just a shade away, and he stared at the woman before him. “You what?” he said.
“I must go,” Rhosylleshe said sadly.
“You know what I face,” Aladriel said with no little impatience. “We will talk of this when I return.”
“It is done,” she said. “Here is the manuscript of divorce, signed by the Queen this morning on my request. There is little to discuss. I am leaving.”
Aladriel staggered. A few lightning bolts slipped from his grasp to sizzle in the stream.
“But why,” he cried. “Are we not perfect for one another? Do we not give each other what we need to be whole? Is there–” and here he paused, hoping she would stop him before he went on, but she simply met his gaze and waited. “Is there another?”
“No. But I must leave you.”
Aladriel screamed. The water around him burst into steam and the trees shook, and grass and dirt was scourged from the rock for a quarter mile around, but Rhosylle merely waited.
Finally, his chest heaving, Aladriel looked up at her. “Why?” he whispered.
Rhosylle stepped into the stream and walked up to him. ”This,” she said, and she slapped the side of the air, making the Way ring like church bells. One ethereal plank snapped free, neatly lopping off the top of a hill, but neither of them gave it any mind.
“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Aladriel said. “My bridge?”
“All of your bridges. How long have you worked on this one?”
“Some little while, I suppose. There was the planning, and the framing. I had to invent three new–”
“Sixty-seven thousand years,” Rhosylle said. “I’ve not seen you in sixty-seven thousand years, Aladriel. Supper,” she said, with a small smile and a single tear, “is getting a bit cold.”
Something inside Aladriel twisted and clutched. In all of his long life he had never known guilt, and it burned with cold flame. “It can’t have been that long. I’ve hardly begun! There’s so much to do and… well, I meant to send word. I did.”
“I know, my love. There is no blame here. There is only the recognition of what is. This is your life’s work. I am but a distraction from it. I have too much respect for you and too much ambition for myself than to be a distraction.”
Aladriel took Rhosylle’s hand and led her through the churning water to the bank, where gnarled roots rose and twisted together at his touch into a bench. “You are not a distraction,” he told her. “You are why I do this. You are why I do everything. Once this is finished–”
“There will always be another. That is who you are.”
“I can’t live without you!” Aladriel cried. “You must give me another chance! Please!”
Rhosylle smiled and stroked his hand. “Would you have even noticed I was gone, had I not come here first?”
The fate of a king, broken free of its temporary mooring, whipped across the stream and smashed through a forest, exploding in a wild burst of what-could-be’s that now never would. Several others twisted and strained in the rising winds, ready to follow.
Aladriel’s only reaction was to raise his voice to be heard over the din. “You cannot leave me! What are we without each other?”
“In pain,” Rhosylle said. “But with greater paths before us.”
“I love you more than life itself, but I will never have your attention, not while there are worlds for you to span,” Rhosylle said.
“For too long I have been nothing but an afterthought, an accessory. Let me go, so that we both may live!” Rhosylle said.
And with that, Aladriel grabbed Rhosylle up and wove her into the maelstrom.
Instantly she was overwhelmed, her mind reeling with the mad colors of history and the rushing tide of time. She was at the threshold of a billion doorways that didn’t yet exist, in a gate at the bottom of a million gardens, in the back of a thousand unused cabinets, in a wooden door in hundreds of stone walls and halfway across the stepping stones of dozens of unremarkable streams. And at every single one of them, she was being torn apart.
Aladriel watched, horrified, as his creation shuddered and twisted. The ruinous forces he’d been barely holding at bay ripped up tendrils of possibility at the roots, one at a time, with sounds like redwoods being snapped in two. He’d used every bit of material at hand, every scrap he knew how to build, and it had not been enough. The worlds of Fae and man were too powerful to bridge. The ground rent beneath his feet and from a distance he could hear screams and mighty towers crashing to the ground as Fairyland shook itself to pieces. With one foolish, spiteful act, he’d doomed them all and lost his people, his land, and his Rhosylle.
With a roar he threw himself in after her.
Everywhere she was, he went. Faster than thought he found her and carefully, delicately extracted her. He pulled her from a sunny glen. He scooped her from underneath toadstools and carried her out of flower rings and gently pulled her from reflections in ponds. As fast as he had built before, he worked twice as fast now with every bit of his skill. Never once did he say anything, for nothing could possibly be said. And when every last bit of her had been collected, he flung Rhosylle back to the stream where she stood gasping and dazed. The Queen and all of her people were waiting there, watching their world fall apart.
That could have been the end of this tale, but there’d have been no one to tell it and no one to hear it. What happened next was this: Aladriel began to truly build, from the inside.
Where before he had used fire and wood and wind and stone, now he built with rage and shame and regret and pride and, most of all, with love.
He remembered their courtship and a billion crossroads sprang into being. He thought of their wedding and created a billion thresholds. He called up the memory of every time they had ever walked together and wove it into every fence and border, every trail and track. He touched every connection between the world of the Fae and the world of Man that would ever be and strengthened each one with his shattered hopes and his endless guilt.
The shrieks of metal and tortured wood lessened, and ceased, leaving behind a humming sound so low as to be beyond hearing that added an ever-changing symphony to the air more felt than heard.
The Fae looked out over their lands and found something new. The Ways between Earth and Fairyland shimmered before them, whole and complete and of a complexity and artistry no one had ever seen in the history of the Fae. On the other Side they could feel the heat of a simmering new world, bursting with potential and possibilities.
The Queen stepped forward and touched the air lightly. “It is done,” she said, “and it is greater than I imagined. This will be a source of inspiration and companionship and worthy enemies for the rest of our days!” And the celebrations began.
After the 12th round of toasts to Aladriel, a bedraggled figure approached the Queen. “Does he live?”
The Queen finished her glass and considered. “What are you asking me, Rhosylle?”
“I am mindful of a few conversations you granted me, these past few years. Very consoling you were, your Majesty, and worried about my welfare, with many helpful suggestions.”
“It is a lovely bridge, is it not?” the Queen said. She lowered her head to whisper into Rhosylle’s ear. “Hate me if you wish, but know that there was no other way. We will thrive, now.” Then, louder: “Go, have a drink. Find a lover! All of you, rejoice!”
The Fae followed their destiny for thousands of years after, meddling with the lives of Men for good and for ill. The Ways always worked flawlessly, with new permutations discovered every year. Children were told it was the Spirit of the Builder, endlessly mending before anything could break. No bridge has ever been built since that rivaled it, and the worlds of Man and Fae are richer for it.
Only one Fae refused to ever enter. She’d been there already, she would tell anyone who asked, and had no need to see it again.
But every now and again, when there was a summer storm, she travels to a specific stream and sits on a bench that grows from the bank. There she rests her hand upon the air, and she smiles, remembering what he can not.