The horses stop. Aunt Mari and Uncle Josh face me across the small table in the wagon. It's almost all quiet. I imagine the stars are singing. But it's just Lucy Longtooth whistling outside.
Uncle Josh pushes aside the curtain. He breathes deeply and rises to open the shuttered doors, to let in the last of the night's silence. Mari takes my hand. As we climb out of the wagon, we call to the others, emerging in ones and twos. Hands drenched in pre-dawn shadow wave in greeting while they go about their tasks.
Uncle Josh sees to the horses. A ribbon of pink-colored sky hugs the horizon to my left. Mari still clenches my hand. She whistles to Josh and pulls me with her towards the long line of trees to our right. The trail had led us along with them. A thick clump extends outwards, towards us. It seems to me they are pushing away from the rest of the trees like mud squirting through toes. Oozing.
I wave a hand through the emptiness in front of me. Air is empty, but I breathe it in and breathe it back out. If the air was the skin then what was the ground? Bad comparison. Mud and toes and trees and ground. Air isn't toes. But Uncle Josh told me once that the trees breathed too, just different than us. Ben had laughed when I told him that. But then he had grown thoughtful and said there has to be something to what Josh says, seeing as how the trees are alive, like we are.
Mari stops and glances back towards the wagons. Lots of quick work at setting up camp, and the voices, some of them in song, reach us. She smiles, tilting her head and squeezes my hand harder. "Let's run through to the other side. Pretend it's a secret passage," she says.
I nod, grinning. For no reason. It feels good.
We charge through, listening, feeling, breathing. Pine trees are thick here, giving off their clean sharp scent. Maybe they are breathing it out, if what Uncle Josh said was true. Too soon we emerge into a wide open space. More trees on the other side. All around. We no longer see the horizon for all the trees. The sky is a velvety blue now.
Mari had a dress that color once. But she had to sell it for potatoes at one of the towns. She hadn't cried at all. I had, though. She looked so beautiful in that dress. And Uncle Josh's eyes got all shiny when she wore it.
Mari twirls in a circle, her head thrown back. I dance around her, laughter coming in squeaks and giggles. We are between towns now. We are free. We can breathe, and it isn't the stink of the toilets or cattle too close together. In towns, everything ís too close together. And it seems like everything stinks of it. That isn't the worst, though. Not really. The smells only take getting used to, and Mari says if we stayed put in one of them for any length of time, we wouldn't notice it after a while.
No, the really bad thing about towns comes from something different. The sour sweat of the townsfolk accompanies the frowns and all the stares. That brings on the worry. We constantly fight the distrust and bend to the rules. Always the rules. We have to. They punish those that don't. Mostly the rules are the same, but sometimes not. And we have to figure that out quick every time.
Mari stops and pulls me to her in a tight hug. "Sit for a spell?" she asks, her breath quick, like mine.
We sink to the soft mossy grass. It's cropped short, not like the grass on the prairies where we are headed to camp over the winter; so something comes and eats it. Ben always looked forward to bagging a deer when we camped. Benweather is his name, but I’m the only one can call him that. Seems like every one of us has a good long name. Except me. I am just Lew. Mari is Marianna Ravenswing. And Josh is Joshua Gatling Jonson. Means son of Jon, that last one. Don't know where the Gatling comes from. Ben said he had been in a battle once. Uncle Josh limps when the weather gets all dreary wet during winter rains. But Josh won't talk about it. And Ben doesn't know anything more either.
Sometimes Ben calls me Blue Lew after we get out of the water from swimming in some stream so cold it makes my teeth chatter. He does it just to make me feel better, but he also likes to make fun of me. I am glad of it, to have him for a friend. Some of the others are scared of me. Mari won't let him swim with me any more, now that we are both of an age. Uncle Josh is the one behind that. I don't think Mari would mind if Ben and I explore each other's bodies. The others our age already do it. I asked Ben about it once, sidling up next to him while he was hammering out a piece of iron he had scavenged, but he turned such a bright red that I ran back to the wagon and didn't come near him for three days after that.
Between towns means freedom. I hope that the while of our stay will be the whole winter long. But it's never long enough before hunger or some other necessity drives us out.
"Are you ready," Mari says, "to tell me that dream again? Do you want to?"
We lie on our backs, tops of our heads touching with Mari's raven-black hair a soft curly cloud around us. The sky lightens more quickly now. Leastwise, it feels like it.
"Don’t know. Don’t want it to happen again.”
“It’s okay, Lew. Let’s just relax, then.”
I shake my head, try to stop the shivering. I close my eyes, going into that deep place where I keep it.
I conjure dreams for townsfolk who have none of their own. The telling comes into being as I speak, woven into the surroundings. You can touch them and feel them and smell them, the things – and the people – in my telling. It's a fine trade, but it doesn't keep enough bread on the table for any of us.
It helps, though, and each of our band has to do the thing they are good at. Benweather’s apprenticed to a smithy, and that fetches in a good deal more than my filigree magic, for magic it is. Machine magic, maybe, like those keyboards. No one knows for sure. Least of all me. And like so many things, magic is forbidden.
Mari hums softly.
I have to try, to get past the fear.
The only reason my telling is tolerated is because after I conjure, the things, the people, everything, disappear as soon as I stop, vanishing like the mist that hugs the deep canyons where we had once wandered, way out west. The townsfolk tolerate something that doesn't threaten them, that gives them a respite from their lives. They love a touch of forbidden. But they don't love it enough. They give a pittance in return for the glow of wonder and joy on their faces I see when I do the telling.
I picture the place I see in my dreams. But the frowns I saw a few towns back haunt me, keep me away from where I want to be. Haven’t been able to do any telling since then. Even though no one can see me now, it’s still hard to get past them – it’s like a wall of frowns barring the way.
Mari takes my hand. “It’s really okay.”
But I’m already sinking past.
Towers and roofs of giltwood winking in sunshine. Walls of sand-colored stone, smooth as glass. Paved stone streets and everything within walls of a darker stone. Rough and hard. Durable stone. Makes you feel safe. Then the people come. All at once, they're there, flowing in and around a big market in the center, like in some of the hub towns we visit, only this one is bigger.
Cloth and wood and fish are all on offer – stinky fish with small dead eyes and long whiskers. Nasty-looking crabs that snap when you walk by. Music wafts through the stalls. Guitars and steam-driven keyboards. Machines! Forbidden things! My feet want to skip.
The shudder goes through me, and I begin to tell, calling it all up in front of us here. The glade disappears. Mari and I wander through the market. She skip-dances as she walks, to this tune and that. The sounds all mix together in a crazy jumble. Mari weaves us through, her hair doing its own dance. A man nods to Mari, his admiration showing in his smile, and hands her a hot bun to eat. She breaks it in half and shares it with me. It tastes sweet and rich and smells like yeast.
The crowd pushes us apart, and I'm a little scared as I search for her. I think I see the outline of the trees every now and then. I don't know what makes me turn. Did the music stop? All I know is everything is quiet, all at once.
Then I see him. He stands there and isn't looking my way. That's good because I rarely have a chance to watch him like this. He has on pants that billow out at the thigh, narrowed from the knees down. His fine leather sandals lace up to his ankles.
His long black hair – as fine and straight as Mari's is thick and curly – is pulled back and bound with a leather tie. Those high cheek bones are very pronounced from the side, but I can't really see his beautiful-shaped eyes, eyes like a teardrop turned sideways.
My heart feels like a three-day muscle ache, the one that comes after pulling the wagon through rutted dirt trails made impossible by spring muds. It won't stop for some time after the dream ends, the ache. I know that already, but don't care.
I want to breathe in his smell, but he never gets close enough for that. I want to ask him his name, but dread having to tell him mine. I run a hair through my spiky tangle of hair, smoothing it down on my head.
Mari had shorn it for me last spring after it got some bugs in it from one of the towns. I had felt like a sheep. Uncle Josh had to spend precious coin to get a powder to make the itching stop and the bugs go away. The rest of the band wouldn't let us back in until it did. Couldn't afford anyone else getting the bugs. It itches again now that it's growing out. It must look ridiculous. Mari gave me a cap to wear over it. Ben says I look like a lederhosen boy.
The man in my dreams, the man who only came to these, my private dreams, turns to me. He holds up a fine piece of silver filigree, running it through his slender fingers and looking at me curiously. Am I just a part of his dream? His hands are those of a craftsman. Not like my hands, the hands of a migrant Teller. He is made of finer stuff.
The man in front of me belongs in this city of my dreams. I am a foreigner everywhere I go. This dream is as forbidden as my heartbeats, the ones that betray me. But I will fight to hold onto this dream forever or at least as long as I can. It is one of the few things I can call mine.
Mari loves it here in my dream city, too, but she too gets afraid, and I only dare conjure it for us when we are sure we are alone. The music is as forbidden as the magic. Mari touches my arm. "Time to go."
The city disappears. The smell of pine and regret draw me back. The forbidden mud of my dreams oozes backwards into the deep well where I keep it. Hidden it will have to stay. Forever, I think, and wonder if it is a struggle I can win. Or if my longing for freedom will someday betray me.