Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land

Tikanu, land of laws and patterns, magic and wild mint, is not found behind hidden doors.  It passes across borders and takes root wherever its people settle. This collection of seven commentaries reveals a world waiting patiently at the edges of vision, that welcomes all who are willing to do the work of building it.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by acquiring editor Carl Engle-Laird.

1

It Is a Tree of Life

The land of Tikanu spread from Dinah’s garden along with the wild mint. Neighbors on either side kept it in check with their pesticides, but it crept up the back porch and into the kitchen. After work, she would come home and bake bread, leaving crumbs by the anthill in exchange for tiny jewels.

Miriam begged for a cutting from the garden. She loved the lights that flickered in the dusk, the blue and silver wings that embraced the house on Friday nights. Dinah warned her three times, as the law required, then instructed her in the ways of magic.

Miriam took the seedling to her home by the ocean, and planted it in the backyard. Soon strange footprints appeared in the dunes, and a tree grew by the doorstop: perfectly symmetrical, young twigs curling in intricate fractals. Mint grew around the base. Within a year, garrisons of dolphins began to mass just beyond the sandbar. Miriam’s husband found books in the attic, musty and leather-bound. He made careful notes, and at low tide the children brought them to the dolphins. So they learned together how to defeat Leviathan.

When Miriam’s company closed their local offices, the family had to move. They sold the house, at a loss, to a family they knew would care for the tree and treat the dolphins with respect. In the city, they could only afford a small apartment, cramped and lacking a yard, let alone an ocean—but on the balcony, in a little pot, they planted a sprig of mint.

 

2

Songs of Solomon

Judy’s child lay in her crib, pale and feverish. Within the land of Tikanu, Judy had earned three names beyond her birth-name. In the outside world, she was a professor of mathematics, a woman of renown in her field. But parenthood was new to her. Doctors and books gave her no answers, and still the child sickened. So she turned to the library.

The stewards of Tikanu do not sneer at modern technology. The wood golems who tend the library’s collection type swiftly with their gnarled hands, more at ease answering patrons’ questions by e-mail than with their own grating voices. Their response to Judy came swiftly: they easily recognized the sign of trespassing lillim.

Tikanu is a land of laws, they explained, of names and patterns. The rebel spirits reject all these things. Sometimes in the chaos of their existence, though, they grow cold, and steal life and form from others to fill their own formlessness. Infants, rich with the energy of new growth, are the most vulnerable. The theft can never last, but can be deadly if left to run its course. Strong patterns, full of meaning, will force the lillim back to their proper place at the edges of the created world. The librarians recommended a Seal of Solomon—a treatment as common as aspirin, and as trusted.

Many books had appeared in Judy’s study over the years, and she found a diagram of the Seal easily enough. She copied it onto the crib’s headboard and waited. Still the child sickened. She thought then of pattern, and meaning, and considered what tools were at her disposal. The Seal is a symbol: ancient and well-practiced, to be sure, but its creators of old could have easily used other symbols, in other combinations. There are stronger patterns, stronger names, embedded in the fabric of creation.

She chanted her own mantras, then: the digits of pi as far as she could remember, the prime numbers, the Fibonacci sequence. She saw the child’s eyes clear a little, but the fever did not abate. Not pausing in her chant, she knelt and began to draw on the floor around the crib. With markers and pens and fine-haired paintbrushes, she inscribed the painstaking lines of the Mandelbrot set. Leaves curled into their miniature selves in endless permutation: parent and child and grandchild, ever-changing and unchangeable.

By morning, the child’s fever had broken. Judy slept on the floor, holding tight to her pen, curled around the pattern she had remade.

 

3

Other Nations

Even in the city, Miriam could always see the moon from her balcony. It rose and set in its proper courses—no magic in that—but clouds broke apart as it passed between apartment buildings, the city’s harsh brightness faded, and for a few precious minutes silver light poured down. Sometimes, on Friday evenings, she found it draped with aurora, green and indigo streaming around the silver.

City dwellers treasure their private scraps of outside air, and the balconies around hers were often occupied. Laughter wafted from late-night parties. Tobacco and marijuana and grill smoke insinuated themselves into her contemplation. But she never saw anyone else looking at the moon, and presumed that no one outside her private scrap of nation could see it.

One Friday her husband came in, and told her of a silhouette two balconies over, leaning upward with delight. The figure had seen him and fled, but hadn’t there been a moving van parked on the street?

Miriam baked bread on Saturday—the best rest she knew—and walked nervously down the hall with the still-steaming loaf.

The woman who opened the door wore a head scarf and veil, and Miriam felt a pang of disappointment before the woman asked shyly, “Did you see the moon the other night?”

Inside she found the lingering smell of grilled lamb, and a platter of rosewater pastries drizzled with honey. Two young boys crouched on the floor. A wisp of fog skittered away from their snatching hands, then returned to curl catlike around their shoulders. A bearded man watched them over his book. He glanced at Miriam and smiled, then returned to his observations.

The mint never sent tendrils between their balconies. But they took pleasure in telling each other of their private wonders, and quietly shared library books. When an ifrit took up residence in Samira’s wiring, Miriam hurried over with a stack of references. Samira’s entire family helped repel the flock of flapping spirits, all wing and teeth, that tried to nest on Miriam’s balcony. And often, on quiet days, they shared bread. In a strange city, surrounded by strangers, it was a comfort simply to find someone else who could see the moon.

 

4

All Who Are Hungry

In the Old Country, they say, winters were hard. Summers too, in their own way, but for the practical necessities of food and warmth, difficulty was seasonal. Tikanu, though its patches and pots are separated by great distances, has its own seasons, complementary to the cycles of snow and leaf and the turning world. And some of those seasons are hard.

It was spring in the north and autumn in the south. Winter pressed close around the pot of mint at McMurdo Station, and summer parched the brilliant orange gardens of leonitis blossoms in Addis Ababa, when the season of trials came upon Tikanu.

Dinah’s yard grew brown and dry while her neighbors’ waxed verdant. They would say, she knew, that she did not care for it properly, and it was true that she neglected the fertilizers, herbicides, and endless sprinkler cycles that others wielded against their lawns. It had never mattered before. But the mint and creeping charlie were as brown as the Kentucky bluegrass. She consulted with the ants, through slow conversations of pebbles and twigs, and learned only that their hill was troubled as well. She increased her tithe of crumbs, even though shopping lists led her to mysterious gaps on store shelves, and whatever groceries she purchased anyway spoiled in her fridge.

She made phone calls, first to friends, then to the library. Tikanu is a land of laws, they all agreed, and one of them is this: in hard times, set a feast. But the traditional celebrations that herald new growth had already passed. Attempts to gather what was needed fell short: bitter herbs absent from produce sections and wilted in gardens, wine gone to vinegar in every bottle.

And so there were quests and journeys. The children of one household hunted among their neighbors for oranges. They wrapped them in consecrated silks scribed with the symbols of life, so they would not spoil. A call for horseradish went out in an online classified ad, resulting in rude responses from uninitiated trolls, and two small roots. Dinah visited Miriam in the city, and in the land and kitchen of her neighbors made flatbread of water and flour, racing the prescribed time limit from mixing to baking so that it could be made sacred.

The feast was such that it could only be held in the library. The people of Tikanu traveled there using scrimped and borrowed money, sleeping on each other’s couches and sharing each other’s cars, some converging on the few precious shortcuts through closets and trellises, but most traveling overland. The golems welcomed them awkwardly, voices harsher from the drought.

They ate scavenged oranges and roots gifted by strangers, and they sang with whatever voices they had. They cobbled together rituals from the gleanings of older traditions, from the library records, and from the truths they had found in their own corners of the land. And with food and song and prayer, they opened doors to welcome in the change they had invited.

The laws of Tikanu may be added to, but never lost. So it is that holidays grow, like mint, from the new crises of each season. Returning home to green buds and larders waiting to be filled, the people of Tikanu marked the Feast of Doors on their calendars for celebration in years to come.

 

5

In Every Generation

Judy’s child grew, quiet and bold. She could vanish between one glance and the next, always returning with a polished stone or the shed skin from a tiny dragon’s wing, which she would hold out silently for approval and explanation. Judy gave her answers and taught her how to draw out more with the right questions, and further, taught her what questions should and should not be asked outside her own nation.

When she was thirteen, she took a summer internship in the library. On her third day, she and three other interns became lost in the stacks. They wandered among forests of shelves and pools of ink. They found there strange creatures, born as descriptions in the cryptozoology section, who had taken on tenuous life from the golems’ exhalations. Judy’s daughter was able to draw on her mother’s lessons to create patterns that would let the creatures inhabit the library freely, without leeching from the books. And together they slew the chimera that, given such life, threatened them all.

When the interns returned, they found that Tikanu now granted them the status of men and women. Judy’s daughter took Lily for her newest name, to go along with her birth name, which was Yael in memory of her great-grandmother. It was a daring name, even though she liked the flower. She had always thought, secretly, that the lillim had left her a legacy of hunger for the world. She was pleased to give them this half-hidden honor in spite of the danger.

At fifteen, Lily took a boyfriend, gangly and orange-haired, who impressed her with the intensity of his arguments in Ecology Club and his willingness to pick up the more revolting trash during Beach Clean-Up Day without squirming or demonstrating sophomoric humor. She put on lipstick and blush for their first school dance, pleased with the effect. Judy had taught her about lovers too, and she’d read more in the library. Those had been uncomfortable conversations, but when he began complaining of her dreaminess and boasting of his own hard-headed skepticism, she was relieved to be able to set him by without worrying that he might leave her some permanent taint.

In college, Lily discovered girls, and skeptical thinkers who could still appreciate the nuances of late-night spiritual debates. She kept a box of mint on her windowsill, hoping thereby to pick out her fellow citizens, but none of her visitors made note of it other than to chew on its leaves, thoughtfully, during post-coital philosophical discussion.

She had been dating Amber for six months when she asked, nervously, “Have you ever thought that there could be hidden places—magical ones, around us everywhere—and people don’t notice because they don’t know what to look for?”

Amber hugged her, and said that she’d thought so sometimes, but hadn’t found anything so far. It was probably just the sort of idea kids have when they want a place to not be lonely. Are you sure that’s mint, and not some other plant?

“It’s mint,” Lily said. And then, “I could give you a pot of it to grow in your room. I think you’d like it.”

 

6

The Stranger in the Camp

Two months after Lily gave Amber the mint, she left her, for reasons that she would not explain and Amber did not understand. Amber considered throwing the mint from her dorm room window, but ultimately she decided that one green thing was more than she got out of most relationships. She watered it from the sink in the hall’s shared bathroom, and felt virtuous for forgiving the plant its source.

Three months after Amber received the mint, she slid her curtain aside to discover a tiny snake sunning itself on the ledge outside her window. It was black, spotted in gold and bronze, shorter than her forearm and narrower than her pinky finger. When she opened the window, it stirred itself and crawled inside.

She picked the snake up and held it in her palm. Tiny muscles flexed against her skin, warm from the morning light.

Where are you from, asked the snake.

After a moment of shock, Amber admitted to being from Cincinnati.

No, said the snake, what nation. Somehow, Amber realized that it wasn’t asking about the United States. She told it about her childhood fantasies, about worlds reached through secret doors, and the children special enough to find those doors, about quests for rings and battles to save the world. About friendship, and power, and duty, and sacrifice, writ in bold and beautiful colors.

I don’t think you’re from around here, said the snake. But you might like it anyway.

Amber knew that snakes were not to be trusted. But she also knew that invitations to strange worlds were not to be turned away. Walking around campus with the snake in her jacket pocket, she found books of lore in odd corners of the library, bright purple toadstools in the woods, symbols scribed delicately in spiderwebs.

When she knocked on Lily’s door, late at night, her ex-girlfriend seemed neither offended by her presence nor surprised by what she told her. The next weekend, they went on a picnic behind the gym, among the toadstools.

Living in Tikanu was sometimes hard for Amber. Patterns that made themselves plain to Lily remained opaque to her, no matter how thoroughly she examined them. She often learned secondhand of the small missions, the repair and maintenance, that were so integral to the life of the land. The snake stayed by her always, but told her many times that neither of them could ever be truly at home in Tikanu. She believed it, and yet she had never felt more at home elsewhere. And there was beauty and satisfaction even in secondhand quests.

In Tikanu, Amber was not lonely. At gatherings she met strange, intelligent, friendly people. Leaning against Lily, arm around her waist, she joined in their arguments and sang their songs. They fed her, shared jokes and stories—and every once in a while, said things that simply struck her as wrong. Where she was from—wherever that was—something else was true.

Two years after Lily gave her the mint, Amber was clearing the previous tenant’s detritus from the closet of her senior year dorm room, and found that it seemed to go back farther than it ought to. From beyond the pile of papers, she smelled snow and pine needles and the smoky sharp tang of a bonfire. A lilting flute drifted on the edge of hearing. The snake poked its head out from her pocket, alert and eager.

Before she cleared away the last of the papers, she called Lily, and asked if she would like to visit Amber at home.

 

7

You Shall Be a Blessing

The land of Tikanu spreads from a thousand gardens along with the wild mint. Many people, faced with neighbors inexplicably enamored of weeds, still mark its boundaries with pesticides. But others have learned to recognize a magic akin to their own, and to mark boundaries more gently. They have found that, though one land’s wisdom is never quite so powerful beyond its own borders, still each land benefits from the sharing.

The Feast of Doors has grown to include a celebration of that sharing, because when the people of Tikanu were hungry, people from other nations gave them oranges.

This year, Samira brings her family to join Miriam’s at the library. Dinah is also there. She hugs her old friend, and they settle in a pair of well-cushioned chairs to catch up on gossip. Samira wanders off into the stacks, where she finds Lily and Amber arguing over a history book.

The book claims that, many generations ago, a questing party from Tikanu found a gate to Amber’s homeland. Amber knows the story of the princes from another world, of course, but the accounts diverge so far that she cannot believe they refer to the same events. Samira is drawn into their discussion, and relates her own land’s tradition of a pair of wanderers, at home nowhere, who pass from place to place, always claiming to have started their adventure in the one just past.

Eventually, they go in to where the table is set with oranges and parsnips, horseradish and flatbread, something from every household that has come to the library. This is a season of plenty, now. They sing songs, and give thanks for the turn of the year and the land’s well-being. Every child asks a question, some truly seeking knowledge, others secretly hoping to stymie their elders. And around the table, around the room, places are set for ants and golems, spirits and small winged things, and snakes who come as honored strangers.

Over salad and sweet minted lamb, Amber and Lily share their argument about the history book. Even in Tikanu, everyone has heard a different version of the story. With every conflicting detail, it seems to grow richer. It is a story of wanderers and rulers tied to their kingdoms, of bold sacrifice and quiet obligation, of boundless childhood and adults who grow into their strength. Some of the guests, exasperated by the disagreement, turn their attention to other topics, but Amber and Lily find themselves in love with the tale and all its contradictions.

After the feast, Amber and Lily go home with Samira. They spend a few days with her, learning the ways of her land, and then travel onward. On their adventures, they tell everyone a different story about their origins, some more true than others.

But they know, both of them, where they are from.

“Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” copyright © 2014 by Ruthanna Emrys

Art copyright © 2014 by Scott Bakal

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