The island that had been eclipsing the sun floated out of view. Rays of bright sunlight shot through the glass directly onto Heidi, who was still fast asleep. The sudden brightness began to disturb her from her much needed slumber. She’d only managed a few terrible hours of sleep last night. She subconsciously furrowed her brow, as if it were possible to shake the sunlight off. After a few moments of rustling around, she woke up.
Her eyes shot open but immediately winced from the rays of sunlight blasting her still adjusting eyes. She sat there in her worn-out leather chair with her head and arms sprawled out over the antique dark cherry desk she worked at. A tiny puddle of saliva had pooled on the wooden surface under her mouth while she slept. Her jaw stretched open, letting out a massive yawn. Slowly, she dragged her head along the desk, away from the beams of light intruding into her field of view. After a long breath, she finally decided to get moving.
Heidi sat up and rubbed the saliva from her chin with her forearm. “Not again…”
She turned to look out one of her windows, still squinting, getting used to the bright sunlight. Her body felt stiff and her upper back cried out with every crack and pop as she stretched.
“I need a vacation.” Heidi grumbled, yawning again.
Her mood improved when her vision cleared. The deep blue sky called to her. A smile spread across her face as she rose from her seat, shuffling over to the window. Releasing the lock, she swung the windows open. Clean mountain air flowed into her office.
Suddenly, a dark blue and grey flash swooped past her window. A blast of turbulence slammed against Heidi’s cottage, shaking the very foundation of the building. The gust of displaced air flung papers and maps all about the room. Heidi clutched the windowsill, desperately trying to keep her balance. What a wakeup call. Quickly, she leaned out the window just in time to see the gargantuan silhouette of a mammoth whale disappear over a nearby mountain peak. Her eyes sparkled with excitement at the mere glimpse of one of those majestic creatures.
“Come back! I need a good look at you!” Heidi cried out as if the whale could comprehend her.
But the mammoth whale was gone for now. She wouldn’t get a good picture of its thick fur coat or its sleepy black eyes. Frowning, she looked down at the flower boxes hanging from the ledge of her windowsill. The wonderful aroma of purple, yellow, and pink wildflowers kissed her nose. She lowered her head to the flowers and inhaled deeply, taking in the wonderful smells and letting out a loud exhale. Resting her arms and head on the windowsill, Heidi admired the world around her. She gazed out at the miniature islands floating in orbit around her own. She then reached down and picked up her sketchbook and a pencil. Heidi hastily sketched out Rocknell Island, which was a couple dozen kilometers away. The dark brown wooden buildings of the island were barely visible from this distance. She could only make out large ships and pillars of grey smoke from chimneys. The satellite of Rocknell tethered itself to the far northeastern corner of her home island, Kuhlund. As she scribbled in her book, a few puffy white clouds rolled in, obscuring the rocky bottom half of Rocknell Island.
“Come on… Move.” She mumbled to the clouds.
Heidi noticed her perspective shift and realized her island was floating upwards ever so slightly. The trade winds must be moving in. She got a quick look at the white-ish grey veil of clouds two or three miles below her island. Finally, Heidi accepted defeat and closed her sketchbook. The sky didn’t want to cooperate right now. She couldn’t get a good perspective on the island across the way. Maybe tonight she’d draw the moon. At least that didn’t float up and down at random. She put her notepad back on its shelf and laid the side of her head on her arms, watching the clouds float by. Feeling the warmth of the sun, she took another breath of fresh air; The faint cheerful chirping of a songbird echoed off the mountains.
It was a remarkable thing to just sit and gaze up at the colorful tapestry of the sky. Heidi never got sick of seeing islands float off in the distances. Sometimes she saw pods of mammoth whales or griffins flying way out in the distance.
She sat there, wondering what it’s like to freely explore the world like those whales. There was so much to see and experience. To think she’d been stuck here on this one lowly island for so long drove her crazy. She knew there was so much more to this world than just her little island. Why waste her life away on one dusty island? But out here, in the middle of nowhere, it cost a small fortune to escape. Someday, she’d explore the land of the sky. Maybe she’d get to see New Toki City or the falling waters of Shondrift. She picked her head up after a few minutes of sky gazing.
“What time is it anyway?” Heidi asked herself.
Closing the window behind her, she turned around and stepped back into her office. Maps of all sizes and scales cluttered the vast desk space in front of her. Some charts were finished with ornate illustrations while others were practically blank with only a few wayward lines scratched across them. In the corner of the room, a short wicker wastebasket overflowed with failed projects. A slew of tools for triangulating locations, calculating distances, and estimating elevation were stuffed into every corner and shelf they could fit in. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the seemingly infinite number of art supplies thrown about everywhere. The odd pencil and paintbrush used to illustrate her maps seemed to be stuffed into every corner. But she barely noticed and just pushed the mess aside when she moved around.
Heidi looked over at a tiny mechanical clock ticking away on her desk shelf. Ten thirty, why did that time seem important? She racked her brain for the answer. Then it hit her.
“NO!” She exclaimed, “I’m gonna be late again!”
Her heart pounded as she hurriedly scraped together the collection of maps and charts from her desk, sloppily rolling them up. She shoved them into a leather container without a second thought of whether or not they’d be damaged. Sealing the tubular map container, she threw it down the hatch where the ladder to her office poked through. She jumped onto the ladder and slid down towards the ground level of the cottage. Her boots crashed against the hardwood floor with a loud thud. She spun around and darted for the bathroom.
Heidi exclaimed, “I don’t have time for this!”
She ran to the mirror, hair-tie in mouth, and hastily wove her long blonde hair into the usual single braid. Whipping out a toothbrush and baking soda, Heidi furiously brushed her teeth as fast as she could. She took another look at the clock, Ten thirty-five. There was no time left; She needed to get to town as soon as possible. After spitting out the baking soda and taking a swig of water, she needed to leave. Heidi dashed over and picked the maps back up, knocking over a chair in the process. She swung the map container onto her shoulder and made a beeline for the door. As she ran, she grabbed her scarf and satchel hanging off the coat stand. Heidi slung the satchel over her shoulders and practically ripped the front door off its hinges. Partially blinded from the sudden blast of bright light, she stepped outside.
“Bye house, see ya later!” Heidi called out to her now messy little cottage, slamming the door behind her.
Down the hill, she ran as fast as her feet could carry her. She didn’t have time for the normal leisurely stroll down the mountain trail. Time was of the essence. While sprinting, it was all she could do to dodge rocks and sidestep hikers. She rushed past dozens of herds of cattle, ready to be milked for cheese. The satchel and maps violently banged against her body. Heidi leaped off large rocks, the wind flowing through her hair. A trail of dust followed her as she kicked up dirt. If anybody had been watching, she would’ve been little more than a blur. Nobody could say she wasn’t fast.
While she ran, she absentmindedly tied the green scarf around her head. Thousands of panicked thoughts rushed through her head. How would she explain herself again? Would Peter be mad? Was he finally going to fire her? She also had deliveries to make today and nobody would appreciate the tardiness. This would be another strike against her already somewhat lackluster record. The skill of managing time continued to elude Heidi.
A small rotting wood sign emerged alongside the trail as she ran. When Heidi got close, she slapped it, practically knocking it over. Painstakingly carved into the wood was the name of her village: “Käsdorf”. When Heidi crested a hill, the farming community came into view.
Clusters of wood and stone huts made up the perimeter of the humble town. The roofs of these huts curved downwards and reached the ground. Grass or moss grew over the top of them, blending the huts into the landscape. Käsdorf did have a downtown, a small one of course. It consisted of studier buildings made from white plaster and beams of ancient stained wood. The center of the village even had a clocktower, which was a big deal. A handful of cobblestone roads weaved through the community. But all those roads eventually turned into dirt paths once they left downtown. On the outskirts at the base of the valley, a train station which was essentially a ticket booth and a covered bench, kept Käsdorf connected to the rest of the island. On the other end, higher up on the foothills, sat the tavern. Every night, it seemed as if the whole population of Käsdorf crowded in there for drinks, songs, laughter, and the occasional drunken brawl.
Seeing the village was a good sign. At this rate, Heidi would be in town before anybody noticed she was late. As she got closer to Käsdorf, more and more cottages and grass-covered huts dotted the landscape. The odor of cow manure, which so often overwhelmed the fields, dissipated and transitioned into a strange mixture of stove fires and flowers. Houses were packed closer together and made of plaster and wood instead of stone and dirt. The dirt path she’d been sprinting across made the slow transition into cobblestone. She’d made it to Käsdorf.
Heidi could slow down. She finally stopped and rested against a fence to catch her breath. Her heart felt like it would burst right out of her chest. Coughing and wheezing between breaths, she lifted her head to check her time. The clocktower read: Ten forty-five. She’d made it. Beads of sweat profusely trickled down her forehead. She untied her scarf and wiped the sweat from her brow, stuffing it in her skirt pocket without a second thought.
After a moment’s rest, she pushed herself off the wooden fence and trudged onward. Her legs felt like jelly. Heidi reached behind and pulled out a water bottle from her belt. It felt empty.
“Please have something left.” She whispered to the little blue bottle.
To her dismay, only a few drops leaked from the mouthpiece. She cursed under her breath and stowed the bottle back in its pouch on her belt. Heidi continued her journey into town. Eventually, she regained her strength and caught her breath. Heidi’s legs no longer felt like they’d give out under her. But she was still thirsty.
Heidi went on, strolling into town, keeping an eye on the clock tower. As long as she made it to Peter’s shop by Eleven fifteen, she’d be fine. The white plaster walls and colorful shutters of the downtown felt especially welcoming today; Like they were congratulating her for making it here on time for once. As she walked past the stores, her stomach began to rumble. Heidi’s mid-morning sprint had worked up quite an appetite. She began searching the stores for food. She peered into each shop window, looking for something to eat.
All of a sudden, the aroma of fresh bread caressed her nose. The smell of toasted pastries led her down the street. Her hunger was getting the best of her. After a few blocks, a rusting iron sign creaked back and forth on its hinges, catching Heidi’s attention. The chimney of Weiss’s bakery puffed out a thick column of black smoke, meaning something was cooking and it would be delicious. As she approached, Heidi cupped her hands around her mouth and called out.
“Morning Mr. Weiss! Any table scraps for a poor little girl?”
A thunderous voice replied from inside the shop, “Not for the likes of you!”
Mr. Weiss stepped out of his bakery, practically shaking the ground with his massive feet. Compared to Heidi, he was a giant; Standing almost two heads taller than her, he possessed a figure more akin to a bear than a man. Flour covered his hands and caked his fingernails. A few white splotches dotted his face, blending into his snow-white hair. Despite the rude response, he had a pair of welcoming blue eyes and a great big smile across his countenance. He opened his arms out and laughed.
“Heidi, my girl! Same outfit? You must’ve slept in again!”
Heidi grinned, her face heating up from embarrassment. She’d hoped it wasn’t obvious she slept in. That didn’t seem to be the case. Maybe because she still wore the same coat and skirt as yesterday. The most telling was the absence of her green floral scarf. Regardless, she tried her best to make the most out of this embarrassing situation.
She laughed nervously and embraced Mr. Weiss in his giant arms, “What can a girl do? I need to get my beauty sleep.”
They let go and he gave her a quick once over.
“You just woke up, didn’t you? You’re a mess!” Mr. Weiss chuckled.
“That’s why you should give helpless old me a few pastries.” She said in her sweetest, most pathetic tone.
Mr. Weiss let out a booming laugh and gave Heidi a firm pat on the shoulder, rocking her back a little. His hand left a giant white print on her shoulder. He laughed a little more and shook his head.
“Not a chance, little lady!” He chuckled, grinning, “I only give out pastries to good little girls who wake up on time.”
“You gotta have something for me. Maybe a roll and a little sausage?” she replied, her voice a little more sincere.
Heidi’s stomach rumbled a little more, barking at her. She’d take actual table scraps right about now. Mr. Weiss noticed the honesty in her eyes. He frowned and rubbed his cheeks with his massive white hands, leaving streaks of white on his jaw. Humming to himself, he thought of what to give this poor starving girl.
He finally spoke, “I think I burnt a loaf earlier today. You can have that one.” His voice drifted off.
Heidi gave a massive smile and nodded rapidly. She waited patiently outside while Mr. Weiss went back into the bakery to fetch her food. As she stood there, she kept an eye on the clock, Ten fifty. She needed to get going. He returned, handing her a miniature loaf of rock hard bread wrapped in red and white checkered paper. Heidi took the parcel and stuffed it in her satchel.
“Thank you so much, Mr. Weiss!” She exclaimed.
Heidi reached into her pocket to grab a few marks to pay him. “I think I have some cash for this.” She mumbled.
Mr. Weiss shook his head, “This is on the house. But I’ll need your help during the holidays. I might even pay you.”
“That’s a deal!” She replied, smiling.
The two said their goodbyes and Heidi ran off. She took a look at the clock tower. Ten fifty-five. She jogged down the street, passing and greeting the residents of the town. She got a few strange looks because of her clothes but everybody remained friendly as usual.
Downtown was unusually busy. A suspiciously large crowd of people sat in the barbershop, waiting for a haircut and beard trim. Heidi walked by the tailor just as he propped up an extremely well-dressed mannequin in his shop window. The women squeezed flowers and herbs into every available windowsill. Wafting through the air, the sweet aroma of flowers saturated the air. Heidi especially liked the lavender.
Even the Thomas the cooper in his humble little store was occupied setting out barrels of every size and shape. Several strands of his slicked back blonde hair hung down, obscuring his sweating brow. His sweaty work clothes concealed his muscular figure. Years of bending and shaping barrels definitely affected his body. Heidi saw she still had a few minutes left and slowed down as she passed him. She counted a dozen or so brand new and unfinished barrels displayed outside his storefront. Thomas finished setting down another barrel outside and spotted Heidi out of the corner of his eye. As soon as he saw her, he grinned and scoffed.
“Heidi’s awake now, everybody! Better late than never!” Thomas announced.
Heidi laughed him off and smirked. She approached his shop and leaned against a barrel. Folding her arms, she let out an exaggerated huff. Thomas stopped what he was doing and stood at his doorway.
“For your information, I was working late last night.” She stated in a matter of fact tone.
Thomas gave a sarcastic look of pity. He stuck out his bottom lip like he was pouting.
“Aww… Does the little map maker need her beauty sleep?” He said, mocking her with a mopey voice.
Heidi chuckled and nodded. “Among other things, yes. Yes, I do.” She looked around at the busy downtown and furrowed her brow. She turned back to Thomas and cocked her neck to the side. “What’s with everybody? Why’s it so busy today?”
Thomas gazed out at the residents running about, making last-minute preparations. He looked back at her with a perplexed expression.
“You do know the cows are coming down the mountain, right? Tomorrow’s this season’s Cheese Market.” He said flatly.
When he said that, her face dropped. An overwhelming feeling of dread washed over her. She could feel her blood pressure rising at the mere thought of the Cheese Market. Memories from every year she’d been forced to attend that damned event flooded her mind. Everything from the rude tourists and traders, to the parade, and the children’s choir made her blood boil. She’d been stuffed into those ugly dresses and made to sing too many times. The merchants and traders did nothing but try to scam money from her. Why ever attend such a packed and unpleasant event? It was all Heidi could do to not recoil in disgust from the idea of the market.
“Not this garbage again!” She cried, rolling her eyes.
Thomas sighed and shook his head. “You know… Maybe if you attended for once, you’d actually enjoy it.”
Heidi scoffed, “Fat chance! I’d rather jump off the side of the island than suffer through that again.”
“Well, have fun hiding in your house with your maps then.” He replied, going back inside his shop.
With a scowl, Heidi let out a huff and got up to keep walking. Her mood was permanently soured for the rest of the day now. So far, this day was going from bad to worse. Heidi gave a quick look up at the clock tower. Eleven O’clock, she had time.
After a fair bit of walking, Heidi spotted the fountain in the center of the village. Finally, she could get some water. The morning sprint completely dried her mouth out and she couldn’t ignore it. But she noticed a few ancient-looking women hovering around the fountain, talking to each other. They were bad news. If they saw Heidi, she could forget getting to work on time. Could she take that chance? Was that pool of refreshing mountain spring water worth it? Heidi could feel her throat drying up as she thought it through.
She couldn’t resist. So, she approached the fountain, keeping her head down. Doing her best to not be noticed, Heidi reached the pool and bent over to get close to the clear blue water. She cupped her hands and took a drink. The frigid cold water soothed her drying throat, rehydrating her. It felt nice. Then out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the elderly women hobble towards her.
The old woman’s wrinkled face looked like the only thing keeping her skin in place was the babushka scarf tied around her head. Her eyelids sagged almost completely over her tired brown eyes. The woman’s severely hunched back did nothing for her looks either. The faint odor of the town’s library seemed to emanate from her. Maybe the smell came from the tattered old orange shawl she had wrapped around her shoulders. Heidi glanced over at her multiple times. She did her best to ignore her, but the old woman just stood there, staring up at Heidi. The old woman opened her dry thin lips to speak.
“Late night again?” the older woman asked in her high pitched, crackly voice.
Heidi pulled the water bottle from her belt and submerged it in the crystal clear water of the fountain. Bubbles floated up and made faint popping sounds. She tried her best not to look at the woman. All Heidi wanted was to get out of here as soon as possible.
“Yes, Mother Ingrid. I had trouble with my topography estimates, but I figured it all out.” She replied quietly, taking the bottle out of the water and stowing it back in her belt pouch.
Mother Ingrid didn’t say a word but just kept looking up at her. They stood there for what felt like hours. The ancient old lady just kept looking at her with narrow eyes. She spoke up just as Heidi turned to leave.
“Where is your scarf? Any girl of mine ought to have one on.”
Heidi then remembered she wasn’t wearing her green floral scarf, exposing her braided blonde hair to the world. Her eyes widened with shock. She slapped her hand against her head to affirm the missing scarf. For a brief moment, Heidi panicked. A rush of adrenaline hit her. Patting herself down, she felt the bulge in her skirt pocket. She breathed a sigh of relief and pulled the scarf out, handing it to Mother Ingrid.
“My apologies Mother Ingrid. I don’t know what I was thinking.” She said calmly, lowering her head.
Heidi knelt a little, so she was the same height as Mother Ingrid, who began the normally lengthy process of tying Heidi’s babushka scarf. But Mother Ingrid’s boney and wrinkled hands flawlessly wove the scarf into the proper style. She did it with such ease; It was clear she’d tied that scarf hundreds, if not thousands of times over the decades she’d run her boarding house. Even Heidi, the owner of the damn scarf, couldn’t tie it as fast as Mother Ingrid could.
“You never were very good at knots.” The old teacher said, “I’d thought you would’ve learned a thing or two after twelve years with me.” She chuckled, her hunched shoulders bobbing up and down.
Once Mother Ingrid finished, she patted her former student on the head. Heidi stood back up and adjusted the perfectly tied green babushka scarf. The tiny crack of a smile appeared as she curtseyed.
“Knots were always a little boring. Thank you, Mother Ingrid.”
Mother Ingrid reached out with her shaking hands and grasped Heidi’s. “Remember my little flower, if you’re having trouble, my library is always open. Alumni can come in any time. You’re not the first map these old peaks.”
Heidi accidentally let out a slight chuckle but shook it off quickly and turned serious again. “With all due respect, Mother Ingrid. I doubt those old books are any accurate, they’re old and dusty.” Heidi countered.
Mother Ingrid scoffed and smirked slightly, “You’re probably right. You’re young and full of smarts. Me and my books are old and dusty with only stories to tell.” She said, chuckling. “But at least I can tie a scarf”
Heidi mumbled, “Maybe someday I’ll be as wise as you.”
Mother Ingrid’s sagging face beamed with energy when she laughed. Her expression of joy at the little comment made Heidi crack a tiny smile. Despite their contentious relationship, she couldn’t help but have a soft spot for that old lady. Mother Ingrid had been with her ever since Heidi was just a toddler. They were both a lot younger back then. Mother Ingrid taught and raised every single girl who ever graduated from the boarding house. For many, she was the mother they never had. Nobody on the island dared to question a woman with such clout and respect.
Mother Ingrid inspected Heidi, looking her up and down.
“You turned out to be one beautiful young lady.”
Heidi blushed slightly and nodded. Just then, she got a look at the clock tower. She was going to be late if she didn’t make it to the shop in two minutes. Her jaw dropped just slightly for a second. Helplessness washed over her. She’d been careless with time.
“Dang it!” Heidi exclaimed.
She quickly said goodbye to Mother Ingrid and ran off, sprinting down the street. Her boots clicked like a metronome against the cobblestone road as she ran. She passed more shops but had no time to say anything to anyone. She made another dead sprint. Heidi slid around a corner and saw the faded old cobbler sign hanging over one of the many shops. Paint chips peeled off the neglected sign as it rocked back and forth in the wind. Normally, the sight of that old sign would make Heidi cheery and bubbly. But not today. Skidding to a halt, she composed herself.
With a sigh, she gripped the cold iron doorknob, “Peter’s gonna kill me.”