Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz
Presenting a new original story, “Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz,“ by author Marissa K. Lingen, a tale in which children and adults must be taught how to daydream properly; a respite against the never-ending war that rages around them.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
My grandmother says all stories begin with a death. My grandfather says with a birth. And Aunt Albert says they’re both wrong, and stories begin with someone not getting what they want.
But no one was born, and no one died, and I got what I wanted, and that is where this story begins.
What I wanted most was for Uncle Flower to come home. He had been away fighting for four years, which was a third of my life, nearly half of what I could remember. When Uncle Flower left, I had no breasts and could not read from the Book of the Old Santhreu and still dreamed like a child. I was sure Uncle Flower would be surprised to see how much I had grown up when he returned. I couldn’t wait to talk to him again, to show him how much I had learned and tell him all the interesting things I’d wondered but had not wanted to put in a letter for Grandmother’s eyes—or the army censor’s.
After they got the notice from the Family that Uncle Flower was returning, Aunt Albert brought me up practically first thing. “We’ll need to get Zal a new dress for Flower’s homecoming.”
Grandmother frowned. “You can make do with your double solstice dress, can’t you, Zal dear?”
I had had another century dream the previous night and was still in the shock of the metal and the heat and the attention from all the grown-ups when I woke. I was in no mood to fuss and argue for new clothing. But I didn’t have to open my mouth; Aunt Albert, as usual, was on it.
“She cannot either. Look at her, another two inches taller since the double solstice. Her elbows will be out the wrists, to say nothing of anything else we shouldn’t say anything of.”
Grandmother and I blinked at Aunt Albert for a moment, trying to parse what on earth she was talking about. Then Grandmother looked at me again, and her face softened. “All right, Zal,” she said. “A new dress for you. You can’t greet your uncle with your shirttails trailing.”
I wanted to say something about how I could, Uncle Flower wouldn’t mind, he loved me whatever I wore and whatever I did, but when I opened my mouth, what came out was, “The scientist called Murphy didn’t come back because she couldn’t find her dog.”
I was not yet used to the century dreams.
My grandmother, on the other hand, had shepherded half a dozen children through their transition to their adult dreams. She knew what she was about. “We will write that down, Zal, and we will tell the scholars in Pollack. We will get you a dream book while we are out getting your dress.”
And that was that—the dress and the book all in one trip. When we bought the book, Grandmother went into the inner sanctum to discuss my dreams with Madame Lumiere, and I tiptoed over to listen at the crack.
“When she is used to the book, we will start the rest of her training,” said Madame Lumiere. “First here, and then in the capital where they can guide her closer to what we need to know.”
“If the capital still stands then,” said Grandmother. Grandmother was a year dreamer, and it had helped to secure the family’s position for her entire life. “Zally, get away from the door.”
I sighed. Grandmother did not have the intimate, timely knowledge most people, day dreamers, did to guide her hand, but she managed with a keen eye for human behavior. I sat picking at my cuticles while Grandmother talked to Madame Lumiere just out of my hearing, and then I went and recited, carefully, for the scholars, who made notes and frowned and looked at each other and never at me.
My new dress came home with us, wrapped in tissue for the ball we would have to celebrate Uncle Flower’s return. He was to come in an army conveyance. It glided and swayed along the driveway, and it seemed to take ages to arrive as I watched from the top step, Aunt Albert’s restraining hand on my shoulder.
Uncle Flower was not quite how I’d remembered him, before he went off to war. He was just as tall, just as strong, but his long brown hair was edged with grey, and he’d grown a grey-tinged beard. He had braided tokens of his campaigns into his hair and beard, slim flashes of copper and strands of blue wool. He was not wearing his uniform. He looked tired.
We waited for one breath, two. Then I couldn’t bear it anymore; I flung myself down the steps shrieking his name like a baby of three. I would have been embarrassed if I’d stopped to think of it, but Uncle Flower grinned, all the weariness vanishing from his face, and swept me up in a hug.
“You’re nearly as tall as Albert,” he said, holding me at arm’s length, and then hugging me tight again, “taller than your mother ever was. Oh, Zally, how did you ever get so big?”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said, “I missed you, Uncle Flower.”
“I missed you, too, kid.”
All the things I had meant to tell him while he was gone flew from my head. The reality of his scrubbed and worn self was overwhelming, making me shy for a moment. But by then the others had come down the steps in a more dignified fashion, and they collected embraces from him at a more measured pace. He kept ruffling my hair and grinning at me behind their backs, and I decided I didn’t mind looking like a silly kid; my uncle was home.
Grandmother encouraged Uncle Flower to put his uniform back on for the evening’s entertainment, to be welcomed home by his friends and neighbors. Uncle Flower did not seem pleased, but neither did he seem surprised; he put on the blue and copper thing, and it made the campaign tokens show up better in his beard somehow. He was distinguished. I was so proud. The neighbors my own age did not have new golden dresses that shone like sunlight, and they did not have brave veteran uncles returned home.
After Grandfather had made a little speech and Uncle Flower had led Grandmother and then Aunt Albert out in their dances, I knew it would be my turn. But the adults in my family seemed to have forgotten, clustering in the corner talking in undertones. I crept up on them.
“...don’t know enough about it,” Grandfather was saying.
“I think we already know too much,” said Aunt Albert. “The other countries will never let us have such a thing. We will be crushed. Mother has seen—”
“I have seen problems for the capital,” said Grandmother archly. “That may not mean anything for the country.”
“We aren’t the only ones to flirt with atrocities,” said Uncle Flower. “The things those bastards did to their own troops—some of our prisoners were normal enough, but the twisted ones—”
He broke off, seeing me standing there. “Zally, shouldn’t you be—um—”
“I wanted to dance with you,” I said. “What’s going on? What were the twisted ones like?”
“You forget you know anything about that,” said Uncle Flower. “I wish I could.”
“I’m not a little kid anymore, Uncle Flower,” I said. “I don’t dream like one.”
He raised an eyebrow at Grandmother, who nodded. “It’s true. Zally has been having century dreams. You should be proud of your niece, Flower. She’s done well to adjust this far, and it will only get easier with time. I should know.”
Uncle Flower didn’t smile at me the way he was supposed to. Instead he frowned at Grandmother and me both. “We had a decade dreamer in my unit. He was always set apart. I don’t want that for Zally.”
“Century dreamers are different,” said my grandmother nervously. “Not so close. Not poking into things.”
“They can’t help but poke,” said Uncle Flower. “Look here, Zally: Is this something you want? This dreaming?”
I swallowed hard. This was not how I saw things going at all. Uncle Flower was supposed to see how grown-up I was. He was supposed to be impressed with my dreams. “Don’t call me Zally anymore,” I blurted.
Uncle Flower gave my grandmother a raised eyebrow.
“It’s Zal now, dear,” she told him gently.
He shook his head like a mutt coming out of the lake. “Zal, then. You don’t have to have these dreams if you don’t want ’em.”
“Don’t tell her that,” said Grandfather, speaking for the first time.
“Why not? It’s true.”
“You can’t just—we need her,” said Grandfather.
“Father, she’s twelve. Look at her.”
I smiled tentatively.
“She wants nothing more than to please you!” said Uncle Flower.
“The person she wants to please is you,” said Grandfather. “Dance with your niece, Flower. See how happy you can make her by treating her like the young lady she has become.”
“That,” said Uncle Flower, “is the last thing you want. All right, Father. Come, Zal.”
The band had selected a waltz, which was good; I could do a real waltz, not like a hamerade or a jill-step. Uncle Flower was not a fancy dancer, but I didn’t mind. I was happy whirling around with him, just like when I was little and he would dance me around the room on his feet. But it was not just like it, and before too many measures I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer.
“Uncle Flower, what did you mean about not having to have my dreams?”
He sighed, his whole strong body dropping a notch as we waltzed. “The dreams aren’t something we have naturally, Zal. They’re because of something we did to ourselves, we humans. So we can interfere with them if we want to. There are powders you could take, made into pills or tea, that would make you dream like a child again.”
“What would they do?”
Uncle Flower sighed, pausing on the dance floor. “We don’t know. That part is lost. We can’t create the dreams with any kind of certainty—I don’t know if we ever could. But we can disrupt them. In the army they give the powder to—”
He stopped speaking, dancing as though nothing was going on. I twisted to see if someone was behind us, close enough to hear, but the nearest dancers were several feet away, and Uncle Flower’s voice was low. “To who?”
“It’s ’to whom,’ Zally,” he said absently. “There are people whose dreams are not displaced in time. They’re—spatial dreamers. We use some of them for spies. But if we can’t trust them, or if we can’t get them into locations where they’d be spying on the enemy, we give them a powder to suppress the dreams. It’s as though they’re children again.”
“But ordinary people can’t do that. Only the weird ones with the army.”
“Zally, no century dreamer is ordinary.” The music ended, and Uncle Flower quite properly escorted me off the dance floor. He was chewing on his mustache, looking down at me, and Grandmother glared at him. He hastily smoothed it with his fingers when he saw her look.
I wanted to put my hands on my hips, but my ball gown was too fine for that posture. “What else does the powder do?”
“Um,” he said.
He sighed. “You look just like your mother when you’re suspicious like that.”
“And what would my mother have said next?”
“She would have demanded to know what I was keeping from her. Zally,” said Uncle Flower, “really it’s your choice. It is. And if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. But I thought you should know there was a choice, and Mother would never have told you.”
“They sleep most of their days,” he said in a rush, “and they seem to be in a sort of childlike state when they are awake. It goes away when they stop taking the drug, eventually. It has to work its way out of their system.”
“You want me to sleepwalk through my life?”
“Not your life,” he said. “Just for a few years, just until you’re old enough for these dreams. Zally, I’ve seen what they’re doing now—I can’t imagine what they’ll be doing a hundred years in the future.”
“Maybe nothing bad,” I said, but I’d had too many century dreams to really think so.
I had another that night, with cooking in it I thought: it smelled like someone had burned saffron rice, and everyone kept talking about the melting point, but then they were eating something completely different, fried bread and a spicy sauce wafting through the air to follow the burnt saffron. And there was a little boy who got given colored pencils and paper, so I liked that part all right.
I wrote it down like I was supposed to, and Grandmother was a good deal more excited about the pencils than about the melting point. I was shaken and confused. Without my uncle, and without the familiar porridge with berries for breakfast, I would have had trouble keeping track of when I was supposed to be.
Uncle Flower watched us talk it over at breakfast with a sad, guarded look. I grabbed his sleeve when he got up to follow Grandmother and Aunt Albert out.
“There’s nothing I can do that will be the grown-up thing now,” I said. “Is there? If I go for training and stay a century dreamer, then you will be sure that I’m just doing it because of Grandmother and Grandfather. But if I get treated for it and have child-dreams again, they’ll be sure it was just to please you. You’ve set it up so that someone is shaking their head and saying poor little Zally no matter what.”
“I didn’t mean to, Zal,” he said quietly. “I just wanted you to have all the information.”
“Nobody ever has all the information, Uncle Flower. If we did, we could all dream like children and rest easy every night.”
He stared at his hands, looking glum, and I saw that they were stained a darker brown in the palms, but I didn’t know why. Something he’d used in the war, and I probably would never know what. “You’re going to do this, aren’t you, Zal?” he said.
I didn’t answer.
“I saw you this morning. You were scared out of your wits.”
“Weren’t you ever scared in the war?”
“Twelve years old,” he muttered. “I was scared in the war, but I wasn’t twelve years old.”
“I won’t be twelve forever. When I’m older, maybe I won’t be needed, but I am now.”
“They will use you,” he said, grabbing my shoulders. “They used me, and they will use you. They will train you to send your dreams where they want them, to get the information they want about what to support, what our future problems will be, and our future triumphs. Zal, I told you I couldn’t imagine what would be around a hundred years from now. But we have inklings already. If you go to study with them—” He fidgeted with the campaign tokens in his beard. “Zally, please. Please don’t.”
“If I spend another year as a child,” I said. “A sleepwalking child. If I spend two, three. How will I learn then, not to be used? How will it ever get better?”
Uncle Flower reached out and stroked my head. “Oh, Zally. I don’t know if it will.”
“I can do this. I need to do this.” He didn’t say anything. “Uncle Flower, do you really want me like the boys you saw?”
He couldn’t say no, but he couldn’t say yes, either.
I stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “It’ll be all right, Uncle Flower. I promise.”
“You can’t know that.”
“I can. I dream in centuries, and there’ll be more centuries. So it’ll be all right.”
Uncle Flower stayed home to write his letters and make his speeches, but when I left for the capital, he gave me a little silver token to braid into my hair, a line and two circles for the century.
“Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz” copyright © 2011 Marissa K. Lingen
Art copyright © 2011 Julie Dillon