Enjoy “Dormanna,” by Gene Wolfe, a story inspired by an illustration from John Jude Palencar.
“Dormanna” is part of a five-story series curated by senior Tor Books editor David G. Hartwell. All five are based on a singular piece of art by John Jude Palencar and will be released for free on Tor.com every Wednesday in March.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor David Hartwell.
At first it was a small voice, a tiny tingly voice that came by night. Ellie was almost asleep—no, she was asleep—when it arrived. It woke her.
“Hello,” chirped the small voice. “Greetings, arrive Dutch, good-bye, and happy birthday. Is this the way you speak?”
Ellie, who had been dreaming about milking, was quite surprised to hear Florabelle talk.
“I am a friend, very small, from very far away. When others speak of you, horizontal one, what is it they say?”
She tried to think, at last settling on, “Isn’t she a caution?”
“I see. Are you in fact a warning to others, Isn’t She A Caution?”
Ellie murmured, “They don’t pay me no mind, most times.”
“That is sad, yet it may be well. Will you take me with you?”
She was almost awake now. “Where are we going?”
“You are to decide that, Isn’t She A Caution. You may go anywhere. I ask to accompany you. Can you see me?”
Ellie turned her head to look at the pillow beside her. “Not yet.”
“If you go to the heat spectrum?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Later then, when your star rises.”
Her door opened. “Time to get up,” Ellie’s mother told her. “Get up and get dressed, honey. Pancakes ’n’ bacon this mornin’.”
“I have to go to school,” Ellie told the small voice.
“And I, with you,” it replied.
Ellie giggled. “You’ll be gone when I get there.”
“Not hope I.”
The small voice said nothing while Ellie dressed. When she was cutting up her pancakes, she told her mother, “I had an imaginary friend this morning.”
“Really? You haven’t had one of those for quite a time.”
“Well, I had one this morning. She came in a dream, only after I woke up—sort of woke up, anyway—she was still there. I’ve been trying to think of a name for an imaginary friend that comes when you’re asleep. Can you think of one?”
“Hmmm,” said her mother.
“I thought of Sleepy and Dreamy, but they sound like those little men that found Snow White.”
“Sleepy is one of the Seven Dwarfs,” Ellie’s mother said.
“So I don’t like those very much. You think of one.”
“Dorma,” Ellie’s mother said after a sip of coffee.
“That’s not Anna enough.” Anna was Ellie’s favorite doll.
“Dormanna then. Do you like that?”
Ellie rolled the name around in her mouth, tasting it. “Yes. I do. She’s Dormanna, if she ever comes back.”
A tiny voice chirped, “I am ungone, Isn’t She A Caution. I watch, I taste, I listen.”
“That’s good,” Ellie said.
Her mother smiled. “I’m glad you like it so much, Ellie.”
“Ellie’s my real name.” Ellie felt she ought to straighten that out. “Not Isn’t She A Caution. That’s more of a nickname.”
“I know, Ellie,” her mother said. “I guess I use nicknames too much, but that’s only because I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mom.” Ellie paused, struck by a sudden thought. “I guess that’s a nickname, too. I ought to call you Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth is a fine name,” Ellie’s mother said, “but Mom and Momma are the finest, most honorable, names in the whole world. I’m hugely proud of them.”
There was a knock at the kitchen door, a knock Ellie recognized. “Mr. Broadwick’s here.”
Ellie’s mother nodded. There was something in her eyes that Ellie could not have put a name to. “Let him in, please.”
He was tall and lean, and there was something in his face that made Ellie think of Lincoln’s picture—not the one on the penny, but the one on the wall in Mrs. Smith’s schoolroom. “I brought over some scrapple,” he told Ellie’s mother.
He cleared his throat. “I made it last night, only by the time I got done I figured you ’n’ Ellie’d be asleep.” He held out an old enameled pan with a lid and a handle.
“Why thank you, Don. I’m afraid it comes too late for Ellie and me this morning, but I’d be proud to cook some up for you and Betsy.”
Ellie collected her lunch and her books, and slipped quietly out the door; neither her mother nor Mr. Broadwick appeared to notice.
“If you want to see me, put your finger in your ear,” Dormanna told Ellie as she was walking down Windhill Road to the place where it crossed Ledbetter and the school bus stopped.
“Now pull it out.”
Ellie did that, too.
“Do you see me now?”
Ellie looked, squinting in the sunlight. “There’s this little white blob on the end of my finger.” She squinted again. “Sort of hairy.”
“It is I, Ellie. You see me now. Did I pronounce your name correctly?”
“Sure. You ought to comb it.”
“Those are my arms. With them I walk and swim and fly and do many other things. Now I hold on to your finger. Would you wish to see me fly?”
“Sure,” Ellie said again. She herself had stopped walking and was standing in the dust at the edge of the road, staring at the tiny blob.
The tiny blob rose and seemed to float in the air an inch above the end of her finger. “Gosh!” Ellie exclaimed.
“Indeed, white is an impressive color. Do you like it?”
“I like it a lot,” Ellie confessed. “White and pink and rose. Rose is my number-one favorite.”
Dormanna promptly blushed rose. After that Ellie tried to return her to her ear, but got her into her hair instead. Dormanna said that was perfectly fine, and she would explore Ellie’s hair and have an adventure.
On the bus Ellie decided that an adventure in hair would be an interesting thing to have, but she herself needed to be at her desk before the bell rang. As soon as she got off the bus, she put her lunch in her locker and opened her backpack to put her civics book on her desk. Class always started with civics this year.
“Today I’m going to begin with two hard questions,” Mrs. Smith told the class. “They are questions I won’t answer for you. You must answer them for yourselves. I know what my answers would be. Your answers don’t have to be the same as mine to be right, and I want to emphasize that. They must be yours, however. You must believe them and be prepared to defend them.”
Ellie could feel the tension in the room. She felt tense herself.
“Here’s my first question. From the assignment you read last night, you know that nations are formed when tribes—whether they are called tribes or not—come together to form a larger political unit. You know that mutual defense is often given as the reason for this coming together. My question is, what reason ought to be given?”
In front of Ellie, Doug Hopkins squirmed in his seat.
“And here’s my second question. Why are some nations so much richer than others? Raise your hand if you think you have a good answer to either question.”
Mrs. Smith waited expectantly. “Come on, class! I’m sure all of you read the assignment, and many of you must have thought about it. Maybe all of you did. I certainly hope so.”
Somewhere behind Ellie a hand went up. Ellie knew one had because Mrs. Smith smiled. “Yes, Richard. What’s your answer?”
Dick Hickman said, “They should come together so that everybody will be happier. That’s what I think.”
Betsy Broadwick said, “Sometimes a lot of work takes more people.”
Ellie whispered, “What is it, Dormanna?”
Mrs. Smith smiled again. “I can see you’re thinking, Ellie. Tell the rest of us, please. Stand up.”
Ellie stood. “I think the best reason for people coming together like that is so they won’t fight each other. Only sometimes they come together but they fight anyway. That’s the worst kind of fighting, because when anybody fights like that she’s really fighting herself.”
Softly, Mrs. Smith’s hands met over and over again, applauding a dozen times or more. “Wonderful, Ellie. That’s a perfectly wonderful answer. Don’t sit down yet.”
Ellie had begun to.
“Do you have an answer for our other question, too? I’d love to hear it.”
Ellie hesitated, gnawing her lip. “I guess sometimes it’s oil wells or gold mines or something. Only lots of rich countries don’t have any of those. Then it’s mostly the people, good people who work really hard.” She paused, listening and longing to sit. “It’s freedom, too. People who are free can do the kind of work they want to, mostly, like if they want to farm they can do it if they can get some land. It’s people who want to farm who make the best farmers. So freedom and good laws.” She sat.
She remained seated that afternoon, when school was over. When the last of her classmates had trooped out, Mrs. Smith said, “I believe you want to talk to me. Am I right, Ellie? What do you want to talk about?”
“I cheated, Mrs. Smith.” It was said very softly. At Mrs. Smith’s gesture, Ellie rose and came to stand beside Mrs. Smith’s desk. “Those answers you liked so much? I—I . . . Well, I’ve got this imaginary playmate today and she told me.”
Mrs. Smith smiled. “You have an imaginary playmate?”
“Yes, ma’am. I dreamed about her, only when I woke up she was still there. Still here, I mean. She wanted to go to school with me. I think she’s still with me right now.”
“I see. You don’t know?”
Miserably, Ellie shook her head.
“Can I see her?” Mrs. Smith was still smiling.
“I don’t think so.” Ellie sounded doubtful and felt the same way. “She’s real little and rose-colored, and she’s in my hair. Her name’s Dormanna.”
“You don’t have head lice, do you, Ellie? Are you telling me you have head lice?”
Ellie shook her head. “No, ma’am.”
Mrs. Smith got a comb from her purse and parted Ellie’s hair several times anyway.
“Did you find Dormanna?” Ellie wanted to know.
“No. No, I didn’t. I didn’t find any head lice, either. I’m glad of that. Now listen to me, Ellie. Are you listening?”
“You didn’t cheat. Answers you get from an imaginary playmate count as yours. You said we needed good laws.”
Tentatively, Ellie nodded.
“That’s one of them. Suppose I were to say that Paris is a beautiful city with wonderful churches and museums, and someone were to say, ‘You cheated, Mrs. Smith. You’ve never been to Paris. You got that out of a book.’”
“That’s not cheating,” Ellie protested. “We learn things from books. That’s what books are for.”
“Exactly.” Mrs. Smith nodded. “Learning from an imaginary playmate isn’t cheating either. What you learn is coming from a hidden part of your mind. So it’s yours, just as a fact I learn from a book becomes mine.”
Betsy Broadwick had been picking wildflowers outside while she waited. “You’re smiling,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Ellie told her. Ellie’s smile became a grin. “Everything’s all right.”
“We missed the bus.”
“We can walk home,” Ellie said. “The snow’s gone, and everything’s beautiful.”
A tiny voice in Ellie’s ear chirped, “Try to remember this, Ellie. Even when you are grown-up like your mother and Mrs. Smith, you will want to remember this.”
“I won’t forget,” Ellie said.
Betsy stopped picking to look around at her. “Remember what?”
“To pick flowers for Mom,” Ellie said hurriedly. “You’re picking those for your dad, aren’t you?”
“Well, I think my mom would like some, too.”
Betsy gestured at the patch of wildflowers.
“You found those,” Ellie said, “and you were picking them. I didn’t want to make you mad.”
“You can pick too. I won’t be mad.”
Ellie picked. They were blue cornflowers and white-and-yellow daisies for the most part. When she got home, she put them in a mason jar with plenty of water before she presented them to her mother.
When supper was over and the washing-up was done, Ellie went upstairs to do her homework at the little table in front of her window.
That was when Dormanna, who had been quiet for a long, long while, spoke again. “Will you do me a favor, Ellie? It will only take you a brief time, but it will be a very big favor for someone as small as I am. Please? Isn’t that what you say?”
“When we want a favor?” Ellie nodded vigorously. “Sure, Dormanna. Anything you want.”
“Open the window? Please?”
“I’m supposed to keep it closed at night,” Ellie said as she opened it, “but it’s not night yet. Pretty soon it will be.”
“I will be gone long before your star sets.” For a moment, Dormanna was silent. “Will you remember this day, Ellie? The flowers and the sunshine, and me riding in your ear?”
“Forever and ever,” Ellie promised.
“And I will remember you, Isn’t She A Caution. Is it all right if I call you that again? Here, at the end? Already it has made me feel better.”
Ellie nodded. There was something the matter in her throat. “There won’t be any more imaginary friends, will there? You’re the last, and when you’re gone that will be over.”
“I must rejoin all the other parts that make up our whole. Each of us returns with new data, Ellie, and the data I bear will be good for all your kind.”
Ellie was not entirely sure she understood, but she nodded anyway.
“You spoke to Mrs. Smith of people coming together, many tribes uniting to create a great and powerful nation. We do that, too. We come together to make a great and powerful us. It is because we do it that I was able to tell you what I did. Look to the sky and you may see us, all of us as one.”
Quite suddenly, there was a rose-colored Dormanna with many tiny limbs hanging in the air before Ellie’s eyes. It said something more then, but though Ellie had good ears, she could not quite make out the words.
Very swiftly, Dormanna sailed out the window. Ellie had just time enough to wave before Dormanna vanished into the twilight. Ellie was still looking for her when she saw her mother. Her mother had come out of the house carrying a flower, and it was one of the daisies Ellie had picked, not one of the wild roses Mr. Broadwick had brought that evening.
While Ellie watched, she pulled off a petal and let it fall. Then another; and it seemed to Ellie that her lips were moving, though Ellie could hear no words.
Another petal . . . Then she froze, staring up into the darkling sky.
Ellie looked, too, and saw a thing impossibly huge with a thousand writhing arms, a thing darker than the clouds that for half a breath blushed rose as if dyed by the setting sun.
Ellie’s mother never forgot the vast sky-thing as long as she lived. Neither has Ellie, who for some reason recalls it each time she kisses one of her granddaughters.
“Dormanna” copyright © 2011 by Gene Wolfe
Art copyright © 2011 by John Jude Palencar