February 2012

The terminal housed busses and the occasional passenger train that still chugged along the line. It was hard to escape the fact that it was a relic of the days when our withered burg had been a transportation hub of the mid-South before the highway had been cut fifteen minutes east.

In the men’s room before my bus arrived, I noticed that someone had scrawled a racial epithet. That sort of thing always irks me, not least because such things reinforce the Hollywood stereotype of the South as a land of relentless bigots. It made me feel a bit better, though, that other people had apparently been as disturbed as I and scribbled their own ripostes.

My personal favorite: “One day, we will all be asked to account for our actions on this earth. Do you really want to explain your men’s room graffiti to your lord and savior?”

He never wanted for business, and the kids’ parents tended to pay well–very well. Helicopter parenting did wonders for his bank account as investment bankers fretted that their children might acquire criminal records for youthful hijinks before they could take over the family business.

Sometimes, though…

Stevens looked through the police report. His latest client had gotten into an altercation at a house party in the student ghetto (over a boy) and she’d been caught trying to cut her romantic rival’s brake lines with a pair of scissors. Red-handed, she had stabbed her discoverer in the leg with the aforementioned shears and fled in her car–in the presence of 8-10 witnesses, no less!–causing minor scrapes and damage to other vehicles in her wake. One of the witnesses had actually been a reporter for the student newspaper, allowing the incident to be blown up and lurid on the next day’s front page (“SOUTHERN MICHIGAN STUDENT STABBED IN ATTEMPTED MURDER”) with exclusive pictures.

The girl in question had blown a .10 when she’d been taken into custody–12 hours after the incident!–and been found carrying an aspirin bottle filled with Ecstacy and methamphetamines. So there were no less than 13 indictments or other charges facing the girl, and her father had literally faxed a blank check from his tri-state plumbing supply business that morning.

Stevens sighed, and began composing a short press release for the SMU student paper.

“Look, I was told that I could find the person I’m looking for here,” said Davis. “This just looks like another saloon in a town full of them.” The various customers didn’t react to his outburst, save a little girl seated near the back who regarded Davis with intelligent eyes.

“You come in here whining about how you want a molder to make you a person, on the strength of a rumor you heard over a glass of whiskey, and you complain to me about it?” The bartender laughed. “You’ve got to realize, son that the Permeable Lands are just like the world outside. You’ve got to give something to get something. What have you got that anyone who could mold that well would ever want?”

Davis produced a handful of crystals and dumped them on the bar. “I think you know what these are.”

The bartender raised an eyebrow. “Another thing you’ve got to realize, son, is that the Permeable Lands aren’t like the world outside at all. What do you suppose I mean by that?”

Davis stared quizzically at the man for a moment before comprehension dawned on his face. “All the bottles behind your bar are empty,” he said. “The people in here–all of them–haven’t made so much as a sound. Saloons aren’t like that even on a quiet day. And that little girl staring at me…no one would let a kid like that into a place like this and put her at a table with four full-grown men playing poker.

“Now, that’s more like it,” said the bartender. “You’ve passed the first test.” As he spoke, the figure before Davis melted away into sand.

As did the bar, the walls, the other patrons.

Davis was left standing in an alley, covered with alkaline dust and gripping his payment in the palms of his hands. The girl was the only thing that hadn’t vanished on the wind.

“Name’s Caroline,” she said. “I’m the molder you were looking for, and you’ve interested me enough to hear you out.”

F. Randall Dortmund’s parents had worked in publishing–specifically, in remainders–so he grew up surrounded by books that no one wanted to read. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, that worked out to writers of high Victorian prose and Gothic melancholy romances. Surrounded by reams of the stuff, Dortmund imbibed it all deeply and came to feel that those old authors were being wrongly overlooked in a cynical and overly practical age.

So it’s scarcely surprising that, when he came of age, Dortmund would write the sort of book he wanted to read. Toiling away in business school with a vague notion of taking over the family business, he wrote novel after novel of his own curious blend of chaste Victoriana and towering Gothic melodrama. His family connections were enough to get the first few published, but in 1947 that wasn’t what most people wanted to read.

The later postwar era, though, saw an explosion of interest in Dortmund’s work, enough that he was able to support himself as a full-time writer. His books shed some of the most irksome features of the 19th-century works they emulated–and all the more palatable to modern readers as a result–but were utterly chaste, with mainly psychological, internal, and melancholy conflicts with precious little blood. They were regarded as suitable reading for all ages.

One would have thought that the counterculture movement that followed would have spelled the end of Dortmund’s popularity, but his books soon became newly popular in an ironic sense, with many readers delighting in the innuendo that could be found in his naive prose. This led the author to accentuate those features to an extent bordering on parody, alienating many earlier readers but gaining new ones.

There is much speculation on how Dortmund’s private life and sexuality influenced his later writings, but he was notoriously aloof and private even as he made himself available for regular public consultations with fans (the “Dortmund circle”).

When he died from a combination of pneumocystis pneumoni and Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1984, Dortmund’s executors found one last novel in his private safe (with instructions that it be published immidiately), along with a signed press release to be issued on the author’s death.

The press release ready, simply: “Be kind to animals, love one another honestly, and dream gothic dreams.”

“What, do you think all dryads have to be prissy little girls prancing around sprinkling fairy dust? I’m an androdryad for Pete’s sake!”

“Well, excuse me!” Jennie cried. “It’s not my fault that all the dryads in d’Aulaire’s are girls!”

“Yes, please do take others’ prejudices and perpetuate them,” the young man snapped back. “That’s going to heal the wounds of generations of androdryads who feel like chopped liver while their sisters are celebrated in melody and verse!”

Jennie opened her mouth to respond, but found herself preempted. “Syke!” Whelk screamed from the back. “Hurry up with those customers! I’ve boxes that need moving!”

“A fine fate for a son of Oxylus and Hamadryas, working as a stockboy for an ungrateful dried-out old bogey,” the androdryad–Syke, apparently–hissed under his breath.

Jennie needed to speak to the shopkeeper, not his assistant, but her curiosity was piqued. “How is it that he can boss you around like that? I thought dryads generally did their own thing. And aren’t you supposed to be tied to a tree or something? What are you doing inside?”

“Oh, so now the clay’s going to lecture me about my own nature, is that it?” Syke said. “d’Aulaires left that bit out, did they? For your information, clay, I am in fact the bound spirit of a fig sapling. The old bogey has it under a fluorescent lamp in the back, and if he doesn’t think my countenance is cheery enough, he holds the water for a few days or switches the light off. He-”

The young man suddenly staggered, looking quite pale. “You like that, do you?” Whelk shouted. “I’ll pull off another leaf if you don’t get rid of that clay and snap to this instant!”

“Now, I run an honest faro bank, good sir,” Evans said with his best ten-dollar smile. “I’d stake my reputation on it, and I’m known from Dunn’s Crossing to Prosperity Falls.”

“Hmph,” Perkins snorted. “That might be enough for the miners and other hardtack types wandering through here, but I’ve read my Hoyle’s. It says there ain’t an honest faro bank from ocean to ocean and I’m apt to agree.”

“Well, if you see it that way, sir—not that I agree with said interpretation—I could see my way to moving on.” Evans kept smiling even as his mood darkened and he slowly reached for his faro box. He’d hoped for a few more days—maybe even a week—in town.

“Now, I ain’t closed you down yet on account of the fact that no matter what I say, people with more money than wits is gonna want to play, and I’d rather you out in the open where I can get a clean shot then in some back room where you’re free to put .44 to brainpan if someone catches you at your cheating.” Perkins rested his hand on the heavy Colt Walker by his side. “I may not go by ‘Gravedigger’ Perkins anymore, but I’m not afraid to fill six feet of earth with them that deserve it.”

“You wouldn’t gun down an unarmed man in broad daylight with witnesses, would you, deputy?” Evans said. He kept the grin at its brightest even as he eased his box closed, ready for an upturned table and a run to the post outside. “Seems like that’d be bad for all kinds of business, not to mention raising all sorts of questions. I’ll see myself out, if you don’t mind, and save you the cost of a cartridge.”

The voice had come from behind. Jennie, startled, turned and pressed herself against the marble wall.

“I said, have you come to steal the treasure? Come to steal the Prophetic Orb?” One of the decorative caryatid columns, the one that looked like a nude young woman carrying a sword, stirred and stepped off its pedestal.

“N-no, I swear!” Jennie cried. “I’m just here to talk to it!”

The caryatid immediately relaxed. “Thank goodness!” She stuck her swordpoint in the ground and leaned against its hilt in a casual pose. “I would have had to kill you then, and I really do hate killing people. Gives you the feeling that you’re just ruining their day, you know? Or I guess any other days that might possibly have from now until forever, too.”

“But I’m okay if I don’t want to take it?” Jennie said, relaxing a little herself. Posed as she was, all the statue needed was a pair of tights and a cell phone to be the spitting stone image of a college freshman.

“Oh yes. I was created–or was that summoned, I forget–strictly to defend the Orb. Other than that and not leaving except to pursue it, things are pretty well wide open. I love it when pilgrims come to talk to the Orb. Gives me a chance to catch up on all the latest news and trends. Why, I remember about a thousand years ago it was even considered good luck to talk to me before seeing the Orb. I don’t mind telling you–even though I’m a teensy bit ashamed–that I turned that into an opportunity to get the nicest shoes and clothes from those poor folks. They always rotted away after a few decades, though. Pity. Would you like to talk? I think you might be about my size, maybe a little bigger.” The caryatid didn’t notice Jennie bristle at that remark. “Maybe you have some cast-off closet-filler I can drape? I promise, it won’t take but a moment–or maybe two–and then you can go see the Orb.”

“The Orb, huh?” Jennie said. “You mean the one that used to be in the orb-shaped dimple on that pedestal?”

The caryatid glanced over and then did a double-take so comical that Jennie had to laugh despite herself. “It’s gone! Oh no, oh no, oh no! The Fáidh told me this would happen if I kept trying to extort visitors for pretty things!” She glanced at her visitor with a darkened expression–well, really more of a pout than anything–and tried to tug her sword out of the ground. “You took it, didn’t you?”

“And where would I keep an Orb the size of a regulation basketball in this outfit?” Jennie cried. “My pockets are barely big enough for my cell and wallet!”

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