Proverbs 27:1: Boast not thyself of tomorrow, for thou knowest
not what a day may bring forth.
Karat Eku Ra 2934: Tlundran fa tlundran fa sraf. Flaro fa ra Flaro fa ra lad na etru.
The poor are uncertain. The Chosen Ones walk in security.
Mom still made us go to church every week, and I dreaded Sundays.
I hadn't minded it so much back when we had a car, but now Mom
made us walk almost a mile to get to a building as run-down as
our house, so we could thank God for letting her live another
week. I would've rather asked why He was sitting idly and watching
her die, though I knew He'd smite me if I asked. When the faithful
brandished pitchforks and drove me out of there like a monster,
it would just make Mom ask what she'd done wrong, raising me.
That's why I kept my mouth shut at church.
Mom took longer to get ready this wee. We'd meant to leave 40 minutes before Sunday School, but we were 20 minutes late getting out the door. Frieda always said she didn't mind getting up early, or being late. She told me she was just glad Mom could still make the walk, no matter how long it took. Soon enough the only church Mom would see would be the hack televangelists on Sunday mornings. At least, until we had to pawn the TV. Then I guess she'd have to imagine the preaching, unless we could maybe put wheels on her bed and push her to the church. She was too proud to ask for a ride, and no one offered to drive her.
Mom had to stop and rest four times along the way, and Frieda and I took turns helping her along when she wasn't standing and gasping for breath. We were all hot and tired after the hour-long walk, and even Mom didn't see any point to going in to the last 10 minutes of class. We had a few minutes before church, but it was hardly enough time to stop sweating. Usually May mornings weren't too uncomfortable, but this was an unusually hot day.
Back when I was younger the brick church had been in better shape, our neighborhood still had kids in it, and I'd liked going to church. I'd loved God and thanked Him for all He'd done. For giving me a good house and friends, for keeping us healthy, for letting us have pizza every Friday. And for sending His Son to trade his life so that sinners like me could be saved. When I had closed my eyes, when I had tried to think of death, I used to feel secure and happy. I had been sure of Jesus, completely sure I was going to heaven. But now that Mom was going to die, I no longer felt safe. How could there be a heaven, if we couldn't see it? Who was God, to let Mom fall sick, to kill her? And who was she, to pretend she wasn't scared? Every time I thought of dying now, I imagined passing out of existence, and I was terrified, scared of dying, scared there was no heaven for God to be God of, and no God to rule heaven. Or if there was a God, that He didn't know what He was doing.
The church was mostly empty, and it smelled like Lysol. It was one of those old-style churches, with long pews, enough space to seat 250 people, although I couldn't even imagine a hundred willing to sit on the dirty, patched padding. Long, narrow windows lined the side walls. At the front, all three members of the choir sat on a half-pew behind the pulpit. An empty baptismal was placed uselessly to one side. No one had been "saved"--come forward to acknowledge Jesus as the one who could save them from hell and ask Him to be Lord of her life--for at least a year. So there was no sense in filling the tub, unless we wanted to open it up as a bath for homeless people.
But it was too stifling in the church; the homeless wouldn't have braved the heat even for a steak dinner. The church had tried. The promise of eternal life was all that brought the few people there, and attendance had taken a nosedive in the past couple years, so even that gift had lost its appeal. Or maybe no one believed anymore.
Or, maybe, it was just too uncomfortable to sit through a service. Though the building was mostly empty, the old people sitting there radiated enough warmth, I'm surprised no one spontaneously combusted.
The old lady who played the organ was back. She had been out for another hip replacement, and the tapes our elderly music leader had us sing along with (stuff trying to be classical) had sounded just stupid in our empty church. I hated the organ music, too, but at least it felt like it belonged.
At least, it usually did. Today, Mrs. Anders must have left her hearing aid at home, because her music was so off-key I couldn't even recognize the hymn. Judging from the expression on the music leader's wrinkled face, he couldn't either. The music was so bad, I was tempted to find a cat and throw it in a running washing machine, just to hear something more pleasant. I tried to ignore the noise, to zone out into a dream, not expecting it to work.
"Thank you, Mrs. Anders," the pastor said politely, trying to stop the terrible solo. He was new, fresh out of school (high school, to judge by his complexion). Mrs. Anders ignored his plea, playing on, louder and louder. The song suddenly became familiar, to me, at least, but it wasn't a hymn. I'd heard it in my dreams.
The walls of the church started to shake, and trees sprouted in front of the windows outside, their leaves blocking the sun, their branches breaking through the glass. Long stalks of grass came up through the concrete foundation, grabbing everyone by the ankles. The screams started then, though they couldn't compete with the organ in volume.
Though my legs were bound, I didn't struggle. I wanted the vines to take me away from that awful church, so long as no one else was hurt. Like Jonah, I was in the wrong place, and endangering everyone else by my very presence. I idly wondered if a giant Venus fly-trap was due to swallow me whole. Better than a fish, anyway.
Mom was crying, and Frieda was holding her, seeking comfort fro her like a child would.
"Leave everyone else alone!" I found myself screaming. "I should go! Take me!"
"Bonnie!" Frieda yelled, pulling away from Mom to grab my hand. But her fingers were sweaty, and I slipped out of her grip. The grass pulled at my limbs so violently I thought I'd be ripped apart. I shrieked, and Mom and Frieda yelled too, but their voices faded as the organ grew even louder. I covered my ears, but the music got through, trying to split my head open.
Then a light almost blinded me, and the grasses loosened their hold, caressing my strained muscles. An unfamiliar scent, some kind of heavy pollen, hung so thick in the air, I could almost see it. Tears flooded my eyes for a few moments. The grasses tried to set me down gently, but my bruised legs gave way and I fell to my knees. The organ music subsided as suddenly as a radio shutting off, and I took a few moments to catch my breath.
Green light streamed down on me, sunshine filtered through a weird canopy. The canopy wasn't quite made of fabric; it looked almost as if it had been woven from thin leaves. The light that penetrated was cool, nothing like the desert sun, and much prettier than the church's fluorescent lights. I sat in a round clearing, twice the size of our house, and the surrounding trees were intertwined with vines and moss up their trunks and into their branches, forming a natural enclosure. Beautiful, smooth, square tiles, cool on my knees, stretched across the clearing with few gaps. Each had its own grain, like petrified wood. Roots had pushed up from beneath some of the tiles, so the floor was uneven. But the trees looked trimmed, and I was sure the tiles were polished. The place didn't seem abandoned.
The two men from my dreams stood before me. Their long green uniform coats were even greener in the strange light, and their khaki pants were paler than their tan faces. They both stared, more surprised to see me than I was them. The taller one's long hair waved in a breeze I could only just feel. Behind them was an older man, sitting on a wooden bench in front of a gigantic pipe organ. Its pipes were all around the edges of the clearing, made of metal the same turquoise color as an oxidized penny. The stranger wore ornate green robes, embroidered with countless tiny multicolored flower designs that practically sprang off the fabric. Fancy ribbons that would've been almost too expensive for me to look at on Earth trailed behind his robe, already dirty from being tread upon.
The stronger man from my dreams, the one with the long hair, dropped to his knees before me, bowing three times. The other man ran forward and helped me stand. Once he was sure I was steady, he copied the actions of the first man.
"It's a dream," I murmured, but I was still holding my Bible, and I was still wearing the same long blue print dress Mom liked me to wear to church. I couldn't remember if the men had ever bowed to me in any of my dreams.
The three men all spoke to each other, but they were so quiet I couldn't understand them. The men in the green uniforms almost glowed with joy, but the old man scowled. I didn't know what he was unhappy about--maybe he was angry that he was such a bad musician.
The stronger man's hair was more beautiful than I'd imagined, black as ink, and much glossier than my own dirty blonde. He looked better than he had in any other dreams, and his green eyes glittered in the muted green light. He bowed to me once more, hardly daring to look at me. Then he spoke, but even though he enunciated, it wasn't English.
"What?" I asked softly.
The man spoke even more slowly, but it didn't help. The smaller man, with short brown hair (much cleaner than it had been in that last scary dream), smiled weakly. He caught my eye, with his own hazel eyes. They were larger than the other man's, reminiscent of a child's, though I don't think he was even younger than me. He said, "Slu Leander," pointing to himself.
Something clicked, and I replied, "Slu Bonnie."
Leander grinned, laughing. He said something to the other man, something with my name in it, but that's the only word I understood then. Much later he explained my name meant "woman arrives"--a pun.
"Slu Frun," Leander said, motioning cheerfully to the black-haired man.
I bowed to each in turn. "Leander. Frun." They looked a bit puzzled, but I was sure my pronunciation was OK. Maybe they'd never seen a woman bow before, but I didn't know how to curtsy.
The organist didn't introduce himself, and I realized where I'd seen his expression before. It was the look Frieda and Mom got when they saw my report card, or lectured me about not putting my clothes away. I wasn't good enough.
"Slu Chran," Frun said, motioning to the organist disapprovingly. The man nodded, but didn't bow to me, nor did he speak. Maybe he was afraid to muss his expensive robes--or they were so long, maybe he thought he'd trip over them if he moved. Frun said something to him, harshly, and Chran put on a sad frown and apologized immediately. He bowed three times and knelt to me, a mask of reverence hiding a disgust to obvious even I could see it.
"Glina, noyink," Frun said in a gentle voice that made it into a request. He and Leander extended their hands to me, each of them ready to escort me. I chose Frun's hand. He could protect me, and he'd be better able to catch me if I tripped over a vine.
We left the clearing through an arch covered in leafy ivy. Chran stayed back, examining it. I slowed my steps and watched as Chran said some words in a mechanical voice, holding his hands over either side of the entrance. He slowly drew them together, and vines spun from his hands like spiderwebs. Chran crossed his hands, planting the vines every few inches along the arch and stretching them across, until I could hardly see through to the clearing. Even the marigolds I'd once tried to grow in school had died prematurely, and my first instinct wasn't to be awed at Chran's power, but instead, jealous of it. The old man looked almost ill after he'd done the spell. Maybe he was a young man who'd just worked so hard, he'd aged himself. Maybe I didn't want to learn his magic.
We hadn't walked much farther when I spotted three of the weirdest creatures I've ever seen before. They were tied to a nearby tree, head-to-tail, harnessed together like horses without a cart. Each of the creatures had coarse blue fur with front legs like bird's feet. Their back legs were thin, with catlike paws. They had stumpy tails and tiny eyes half-covered by a huge fringe of fur. Their ears were nearly as big as their faces, and perked up at the side of their heads, like dinner plates. Their whiskers swept backwards and just glanced their ears. If a giant cat had caught a canary and a mouse and cross-bred with the both of them while wishing he'd married a deer instead, these weird things would probably be the result.
They were something I can hardly describe, and I never could have dreamed them up.
They wore cloths strapped around them like saddlecloths, and Frun and Leander expected to help me onto one.
"What are they?" I asked, a little worried that they might like gnawing on my fingers, like Tina's cat had.
"Cohn?" Leander said. "Slu letun."
So they were letun. But I didn't know how to ask if they were safe. I tried to climb on, but Frun had to pretty much lift me onto the creature in front. Close-up, it looked gentle, almost cute, and it didn't so much as stomp its foot when I awkwardly settled myself onto it. I couldn't straddle it in my dress, so I had to ride sidesaddle,. I was pretty sure I'd fall, but Frun got up in front of me and put one of my hands on his shoulder, telling me to hold on. I'm glad he was there, because my legs were no use now, and once we started moving, it was a bumpy ride. The mismatched legs left peculiar tracks in the path, but as we gained speed, the ride was a bit steadier. The scenery almost flew by.
Most of the trees in the forest had green leaves, but some of them were blue, pink, or yellow, or even combinations of colors. The leaves were symmetrical, but oddly-shaped. One floated onto my lap as we went by, almost as if something had directed it. It had thirteen points, and it took me about twenty minutes to get the courage to take one hand off Frun to touch it. It was stiff enough to keep its shape even if pressed hard, but it was nearly as soft as a flower petal.
All the tree trunks looked smooth, and their bark was a deep green or a rich, smooth brown. Moss grew on some of the tree trunks and rocks. Blue moss.
None of the trees looked at all familiar. Even the sprouts looked more like baby's breath than saplings. We passed by a wide patch of pink grass, and a rock as jagged as a twinkling star but large as a boulder--naturally formed that way.
Unlike my previous dreams, nothing happened for quite a while. I kept waiting to wake up, but I didn't, and, as my cheek rested on Frun's back and I closed my eyes to tune out all the weird things around me, I wasn't sure I wanted to go home.
I spied a weird man peering at us through the trees. He reminded me of the Jolly Green Giant, except he had long hair, and wasn't that jolly, and was a bit on the small side for a person, let alone a giant. The Young Green Elf, I decided.
"Who's that?" I asked. Frun looked around, and his gaze lingered on the direction of the stranger. But he didn't slow down, and soon the man had fallen out of sight. Frun said something in hushed tones, but I had no idea what he was trying to tell me, if he was talking to me at all. Chran murmured something to himself, and Leander stayed silent.
The forest thinned, and I spied a gigantic tree in the distance. It was taller than any of the trees, probably at least five or six stories. As we drew nearer and came into a clearing, I saw people through a couple of its open windows. I thought it was a giant tree-house, but Frun didn't understand my questions, so I'd have to confirm for myself. The tree-house shone in the sun, like stone, but thick blankets of leaves covered every horizontal surface, and square branches came out at odd intervals, not quite parallel to the ground, but stretching slowly upwards, towards the sun. As we drew closer, I saw joints in the building, almost like blocks. Then it dawned on me. It wasn't a tree-house, just a castle built to look like a tree.
It was even weirder than the letun, which were at least pieced together from familiar animals. This was a building as grand as a palace, prettier than I'd imagined the pyramids--and unlike anything I'd seen before, even in a movie.
A pair of iron gates opened on the far side of a muddy moat, and then the wooden drawbridge slowly came down, all confirming my suspicions, that it was a grand fortress.
"Bonnie!" a woman's voice called. Then I saw the church, sunlight pouring in through the glass that had been broken by the rapidly-growing tree branches. The carpet was covered in grass and leaves. One of the old ladies swore a miracle had happened, and Frieda called it all a freak accident.
"Someone took her," someone said, and I saw it was Mom, on the other side of the church, sitting half-dead on a pew. She looked so much sicker, I felt guilty for even imagining myself escaped from home. "Something took her," Mom said, "and it wasn't God."
Sean Darrelton from the news came into the church, nearly tripping on a fallen branch. I ducked behind a pew, not wanting to be seen--wanting to be back with on the letun, with Frun. I closed my eyes.
"Miss," I heard the anchor ask someone, "can you tell me what happened?"
Of course he was talking to Frieda; she was the only woman under 40 in the whole church. "Get away from me," she said, and I knew she was pushing him away. But I stayed hidden, hoping Frieda hadn't seen me, hoping I could stay hidden. That hope was short-lived, as she ducked behind my pew and grabbed my shoulder. "What happened?" she whispered.
"Was I really gone?" I replied. "How long?" A thick vine had grown up from among the grasses, and it edged its way towards me.
Sean Darrelton was staring at us. "Excuse me!" he said, loudly, to get our attention.
Frieda grabbed me and pulled me up, yanking me past the eager man. "No, excuse us."
Mom lay on the pew now. I must have only been gone for a few minutes, because the paramedics hadn't come yet. She smiled to see me. "Bonnie...you vanished, and Frieda said we'd lost you."
I looked down at the broken floor. The vine was following me, and I stepped on it to flatten it, and then I put my arms around Mom. "I'm fine. Don't worry about me."
Mom coughed, worse than I'd ever heard her sound.
Frieda twisted my arm suddenly. "Don't think that if you leave this world, you'll keep Mom from leaving it too."
Shocked at the pain, I yelled, "I thought you wanted to get rid of me!"
Frieda looked every bit as upset as she had when Mom finally sat us down and told us about her cancer. "Bonnie, don't be stupid!"
She stopped talking when Mom whispered my name. Her eyes were shut. "Bonnie," she murmured. "Bonnie, I love you. Stay safe. I'll see you again...someday."
Frieda gasped, turning her attention back to our mother. "Don't give up, Mom!"
Sirens blared; the ambulance was finally coming.
And then my ankles felt like thick cold ropes circled them. I couldn't lift my feet, and the vines ran up my legs, circling me like ribbons around a maypole. My wrists were pinned before I had time to think.
"Rick, keep filming," Sean Darrelton said, and he had that same excited look he'd had when he announced a triple murder a couple weeks ago.
I screamed for help. Frieda dropped Mom's hand and grabbed at the vines, trying to free me. She scratched me with her fingernails, but she couldn't even nick the vines. Soon I was covered like a caterpillar in a cocoon, and every bit as motionless as a dead bug.
"Lord, protect her," I heard Mom whisper again. I couldn't even see; my eyes were covered. Then I heard strange chanting, repeating the word "Eku" again and again. There were fingertips on my forehead, and they pressed down so hard it felt like they'd reach my brain. The voice shouted "Eku!" and finally I fell down into sleep.
On to Chapter 3: Bunfa
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