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Botch’s Astronomy

by Cheryl W. Ruggiero

 

What I have in place of a heart — what of all my kind have in place of a heart — is a hole. I wonder if that’s why I don’t feel tonight’s cold on my never-clothed, mud-flesh, or why I’m out here at all, when other Beings are all inside the Nineteen Towers. Other kinds than mine are sleeping, drinking, bathing, carousing, using their various Traits on each other, sometimes with very dark results. The Queen will call me before dawn to dispose of formerly-whole somethings or someones.

I slip the leather hood from my telescope. The air’s so clear. Good seeing, but only I am seeing and I have no eyes, any more than I have a heart.

“Botch!”

That’s one of the Queen’s pleasures, giving my troll kind ugly names. Botch, Sludge, Wart, or names of creatures she doesn’t like, such as Worm, Toad, or Buzzard, even Crow.

“Hey, Botch!” But it isn’t Queenie calling me. It’s that odd little Ilf called Mars. He’s nice to be around sometimes. But then he’s still young, not tall enough, and certainly not mean enough. He steps out at the top of the Tower Three stairs, hugging himself for warmth. “Botch, let me look.”

So I do. I like the image of the Moon reflected over the wide black hole in his eye that is called a pupil. It’s not like the hole where my heart is not. It does not devour like mine does. It does things with light.

Mars turns to me. “Watch, Botch!” He curls his skinny arms toward his chest and then flings at me a small, faint Moon made of light. I catch it and it tingles. I toss it back and it almost reaches Mars before it dissipates. He’s getting better at his Light-Shaping. This ball had dark patches like the real one. It’s a nice Trait, that one. I reach down and touch his shoulder carefully. He knows that means I like what he did with the Moon.

“Mars! Where are you?” The whiny voice echoing up the stairs belongs to a cruel little Pook named Geer. I want to stomp him. But I will not. I put my scope in its case. I fill the Tower door when he wants to get through. I’m half again as big as the largest Mortal. I like it that Geer has to hop up into a lamp well until I go by. Mars can always deal with Geer, somehow. Perhaps it’s his heart that gives him that remarkable power.

I go down the stairs, thinking about Mars’s power. I wonder if that’s what I want. I want something, but I don’t know what. The other trolls do too. I know. They can’t tell me because trolls don’t talk. We have no real mouths, just gaps in our heads for Swallowing. Queenie only gave us gaps, and bound the senses of see, hear and smell into our mud flesh, just enough to serve her. She doesn’t seem to realize that we listen or seem to care. And she doesn’t know that I can read delicate patterns like letters and numbers. Queenie doesn’t know everything.

A tower bat scoops a moth out of the air ahead of me, but I don’t Smash and Swallow it, though I could use its energy. Swallowing doesn’t give me what I want. I can Swallow whatever I can spread my gap around. Queenie made a hole in us that’s bigger inside than outside. I have more strength afterward. Trolls Smash and Swallow at the Command of the Queen — her enemies, friends she’s tired of, any Being who can’t pay taxes, things she breaks, things she kills.

I cross to Tower Four. I still want to see the Moon. I can climb faster than most Beings. Trolls don’t need to breathe, and we don’t bleed, or breed, or die — unless Queenie calls her light back out of us, and then we fall as a shower of muddy brown dust. I’ve seen Queenie do that a few times. I don’t know if that’s really Death, since I don’t know if what I have is really Life.

Ah. I am up on Tower Four now, and the Moon is high. I let the lens throw its light on my chest, where I have carved a disk like the Moon’s. I want the Moon to see that I know its beauty. The Moon is like me, too. With scarred flesh, but it doesn’t show its hurt.

• • •

“Botch!” Blast. I like Mars, but I’d rather be alone. Here he comes, and Geer with him. “Botch! I came to tell you I saw Sludge on the fifth level, heading down. He kept scraping a circle on his chest — like your Moon, and thumping it. I think he wants you.”

I wish I could teach the other trolls. If they could read and write, they could tell me what they want. Buzzard and Crow and Slap can make a few marks, but it’s not easy for them. Sludge won’t even try. I don’t know why it’s easy for me. I wonder if Queenie did, in fact, botch my making and give me something extra. I wonder if that’s why she calls me more often than the others.

I pack the scope and point toward the door. Mars and the Pook go ahead of me. 

Sludge is down to the ground level by the time we catch up to him. I wave Mars away. He and Geer patter back up around the turn of the tower, where I hear their feet pause.

Sludge has gouged a circle into his own chest. He grasps my arm and tugs me to follow. 

We like it down here. It took us centuries to carve tunnels and halls from the bedrock. The Queen’s Voice can always find us, but other Beings don’t like it here. 

We gather in the Big Room. We begin the We-Slap on our chests, coming together in the first simple One-One, then moving to the Two-Tap, the Three-Touch, the Chaos, and back down the numbers to the simple One-One. That feels good. Very good together.

Then Burp turns to me and gouges a rough disk on his chest. Then Dung. Then Tangle. They’re all doing it! What is this?

They shuffle apart to make an aisle to where Crow, Tub, and Wart stand beside a… a chair? A big rock chair. Why would a troll need such a thing? We don’t have muscles, we don’t tire, and we don’t sit.       

All those Moons on all those chests. An aisle. A chair. I can tell that I’m supposed to go up there. I get near and see that Crow is holding something. 

Oh no. No. 

Crow holds a small rough figure, limbs and features crudely fashioned from brown mud, adorned with pebbles and weeds. Crow has tried and tried to make one of our kind, and Crow always fails because Crow does not have the Trait of Light. Trolls have no Traits.

Crow wants a child. I remember the daughter of a Mortal farmer I used to like, how she giggled and sat on my arm. I think this Feeling I have now is called Sorrow. I don’t know if I want a child, but I feel Sorrow for Crow, who wants one so much.

Tub taps the Moon disk on his chest. Then he points to his head, to the Swallowing gap. He shapes the edges of the opening into lips. He thumps the disk. He slaps his new lips. I know what he wants: speech.

I think what I feel now is Anger. Queenie makes us mute in a world where even mice and mosquitoes speak.

Wart pushes me to sit in the chair. I have a very bad feeling for which I have no name.

Wart opens his chest and pulls out something gold. Oh. No. It’s a circle with small points. A crown. I push Wart away, but the crown is set on my head. Crow lays the small troll-shape in my lap. Tub bends down and presses the new lip-shapes against the seam where I open to Swallow.  

If I had a heart, it would now break. How can I get speech and children for my kind? They think my reading and writing are some kind of Power — and they are, they are. But not that kind. 

The Queen, she could …

“Botch! Botch!” Mars is running up the silent aisle. “Botch!” He stops before me, staring and panting. He hunches — is it a bow? Bowing to a crown is a well-trained reflex in Queenie’s subjects.

“Botch, we saw! And Geer, he Jumped. He’s gone to tell Her Majesty. Botch!”

I am moving. I hold the small troll shape. I want to throw it down, but I think of Crow. And Tub. And Wart, and Sludge. I didn’t want this. Buzzard, and Bungle, and Toad, and Mud. They did this. I feel I can’t un-do it. They’re bigger together than I am. We’re all the same flesh.

I am moving. I have to get to Queenie before…

I am pounding up stairs, I am shaking lamps in their wells, I am making dust fall from mortar. I hear a small cough behind me. Mars is light and fast. Is he with me? Can’t look back.

Eight Ilfi march down the stairs toward me. They carry those staves that glow and kill. Not me. Only the Queen can do so. But Mars? If Geer told her he stayed to warn me, she will hurt Mars a lot before killing him. I’ve seen her do that. I reach back with one hand, not slowing. Mars is quick, he climbs up my arm and clings to my neck.

The eight Ilfi leap apart. I’m moving too fast to stop. I slam open the great doors to the Queen’s Dancing Hall. I can feel her rage like the heat from a volcano.

I go on one knee before her, as I once saw the Pook King do. And the Selka Queen. And at those moments, I had felt Queenie swell with elation. A Queen of Queens, a Queen of Kings. Honor. Honor. I do her honor. I bow my head, a crowned head bowing before her. I gather all the feeling of Awe and Worship that I can. I try to do the reverse of Swallowing. I try to give. Majesty. Worship. Awe. Be honored, Majesty. Pity us, Majesty. I hold out the mute and un-living mud child.

She rises like a tower of lava. Gems flash on her scarlet gown. Her red hair throws sparks as it lashes like a thousand flails, in her fury. She stretches her ruby-taloned hand toward me. I feel her begin to call back her light. I will not! I will not fall to dust! I will not leave Mars to her rage! I will not! I Open.

I Open past light and all the way into black, black, black. I Swallow.

I feel myself here in the blackness. I feel Mars. I feel time, and space, and falling.

• • •

I lie face down on stone buckled under me. Mars still clings to my shoulders. The crown presses into the flesh of my head. It is night. I hear crickets. I smell damp. From far away, I hear voices, roars, and noises like harsh trumpets.

I sense footsteps, wandering, stumbling. Two sets. I smell sweet smoke and wine. “Hey, Man! You all right? Hey!” Not Ilfi voices, but they use words I understand. 

Mars rolls off my shoulders and sits up.

“Whoa. There’s two! Hey, Matt! Look how big this guy is. Get out your lighter. Let’s see who these guys are.”

A puny flame wavers in a shaking hand. Is that his Trait? It’s not much.

“Whoa. Are you naked, man?”

I feel so heavy. I Swallowed more than I know, but I feel drained. I need to Swallow again, life-matter of some kind, as I never needed before. Queenie’s control… I don’t sense it. I don’t know why I am still whole without it. I push to my knees, then to my feet. The weak flame winks out and something clatters on the stone.

“Jeez, Man. Oh, Jeez, Man. You’re big! Oh, Jeez.” The voice trembles. 

They stumble and run into the dark, breaking brush, and fade into the distant roars.

They smelled like Mortals, but different. I wonder…

I think I Swallowed myself, and Mars, and came out the Other Side. That was one of Scholar Pandusis’ ideas, that Holes can be made between the Sides, that all holes are the same no-thing, even the one I Swallow with. Queenie burned Pandusis for that book, but it’s still hidden in her library.

They say this Side is a world of Mortals and machines. What if I am a mud machine, made by Queenie’s overpowering Trait? Can I learn how to make the machine that is myself speak? Can I find a way to give machine life to the mud child in my arms? 

Mars hums, a nervous little sound. I touch his shoulder, and he knows that means I like him, that he is safe from me, even though I must Swallow. I sense dead and live things nearby in the night.

The dark changes as clouds part. The Moon is high in the sky above tall trees, full and bright, just as I saw it from Tower Four. I feel its light on my chest. I think that it sees itself in me. I think it likes me, even here.

 

 

Cheryl W. Ruggiero writes in the elder mountains of southwestern Virginia, where glimpses of the other side seem to be waiting for just the right angle of light. One of her grandsons believes in science, not magic, though the other may disagree. Both would like to meet a troll. Cheryl’s work has appeared in CALYX, South Carolina Review, The 2River View, The Potomac, Wolf Moon Journal, and Abyss & Apex, among others.


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ISSUE #19

May 2010

FICTION