Recently I have spent a lot more time working on Karen Zipslicer’s adventures in Lundern, and I took to writing them as a correctly ordered sequence of chapters, allowing the story to unfold naturally. However, this morning I woke up and was inspired to write a dramatic incident that takes place towards the end of Karen’s story. So you could call this a spoiler alert. Or maybe it is a nonsense alert, because this chapter will not make any sense without the context of the chapters that would come before it. Either way, I like it, and wanted to share it anyway.
Once you get beyond a certain age, any decent children’s story (though I am not so confident this is a children’s story, more like a story for neo-adults) will contain some genuinely dark elements. This would be the dark sub-story in Karen Zipslicer’s adventure. If you like your stories covered in powdered sugar and pixie dust, you had best stop reading now.
It began with falling.
An endless falling, in a black void.
With no sense of time, into a space without limit, she fell. She knew it was falling because of the direction of the wind, because she touched nothing, but travelled downward. There was nothing real but the brush of air against skin. She knew it was falling because she felt it as falling. Her senses were blind, her emotions acute.
And so she fell, for an indescribable time. Hers was the journey of the dream-flyer, except always down, toward no perceptible ground. Downward, as if in some impossibly wide and bottomless well. She shouted something, she was not sure what. There was no echo. She heard no sound at all. Whatever she shouted, it was lost in the expanse, or perhaps it hung in the air above her as she plummeted down, seemingly ever down.
And she still felt she was falling, even when her feet touched solid ground. She had never been falling. She had always been falling. The falling was the loss of something she never had. The falling was the shadow of a joy she had never experienced. Someone had chipped off the top of her head like a boiled egg, and had consumed its contents. All that was left was a fragile, hollow shell. A surface outside, an empty inside.
Karen cried. Not a cry of physical suffering or of childish anxieties. She cried with an anguish of years she could not understand, years she had never lived. The tears streamed but could not release the pressure on the dam, holding back the reservoir of suffering. The waves of misery pounded her, overcame her. She fell to her knees. Perhaps she was screaming; the noises she made defied description. On all fours, wretched like a sickly spluttering dog, her fingernails clawed into the wooden floorboards. Between gasps and howls, the emotion poured down remorselessly, poured down on her and down from her, through her, downward. Prostrate, she was begging in her mind, begging for it to stop but without any hope that it would. Her hands and knees were glued immobile, but her body writhed, possessed with a hulking torment that split her insides, that burst at the confines of her lean frame.
Prostrate on the floor, she was tumbling downward. She fell in her mind to places where no-one should go.
A very sharp intake of breath, involuntary. Lungs filled, chest expanded. Quiet, for a moment. Not peace, but equilibrium. Karen felt the wooden boards with her hands again. She was in the Lady Emerald’s laboratory. She had put on the device. These feelings, these imaginings were part hers, part not hers. Reality. Remember reality, she told herself. This was the Lady Emerald’s laboratory. This was the floor of the Lady Emeralds’ laboratory. Not falling. Her heart steadied and she let out a long sigh. Then another sharp intake of breath. Repressurizing her system. Regaining control. Her face was sticky from tears. She rolled over, sitting on the floor, with her legs stretched out in front of her. She dragged herself a few inches across the floor, to rest her back against the broad leg of a workbench. Some sense of peace. Eyes looking but not seeing. She was in the Lady Emerald’s laboratory.
Karen did not comprehend. As her thought processes came back online, comprehension was restored in faltering steps. The device. She had put on the device. And now she was sitting on the floor of the laboratory, with no device. Just sitting, back where she had been. What had fallen? Where had that sadness come from? She had expected the device to play her memories. She expected them to be played out like a film reel inside her eyes. Instead there had been a storm of emotion, crashing down upon her. And now she was back, back where it had begun, and none the wiser.
But she was not back where she had begun. With her back against that workbench, she looked at her feet again. She was not wearing those magnificent red boots made by Winton. She was not wearing her beloved Heelys or any other footwear she had seen before. These were not her shoes. These were not her feet. Not her legs, nor her arms. She put her arms around herself, hugging, squeezing herself. This was not her. And then, tentatively, she raised a finger to her face, and placed it on her forehead, half touching her eyebrow. She traced the line of her eyebrow, then around and underneath her eye. She rode the bridge of her nose, then down its side, brushing past her nostril, to her mouth. There her finger lingered, pressed across her lips. This was not Karen. This was not her face, nor her body. But it was Karen. This was not Karen and it was Karen. This was a laboratory, but not the laboratory of the Lady Emerald.
Up, she got. She looked around for a mirror. There was none. Karen remonstrated with herself: why would there be? This was a laboratory, not a dressing room. Whilst the palace’s opulent exterior was covered in mirrored finery, she was inside a place of work. But this was not the laboratory of the palace. The Lady Emerald’s laboratory had a magnificent view from its lofty tower. The view from this laboratory was also beautiful, its own way, but it was from a ground floor, and it looked on to a valley like none that Karen had seen in Lundern. Karen stepped towards the window; it was a little dirty, so she swung it open to better admire the surroundings. This was a village, congregated on one side of a river that snaked through the valley. A long and sloping meadow of lush green grass separated this house from the next cottage over. A footpath meandered over the uneven land, stretching from the house leftwards, a minor artery leading to the village’s heart. This house was slightly elevated and aloof when compared to its peers; the village was low-lying and generally flat. Smoke rose from some of the chimneys, but the air was fresh and not too brisk. It was afternoon in early springtime. Karen looked upon the scene. Most of all, Karen saw the sky. Truly, and clearly, she could see the blue sky, peppered with clouds of varying shades of white and, more in the distance, some of grey. Karen had not seen the sky in Lundern. She reached for the window handle, in order to pull it closed again. As she did, there was an accident of light and angles, and Karen saw herself reflected in the pane. Saw herself, and not herself, for she was not herself. She was a girl, some other girl, about the same age as Karen, but this girl was very fair-haired and her eyes were a striking green. Karen looked sadly at this reflection of another girl. The girl in the reflection looked sad to her.
A man came into view, walking on the footpath. He was fair-haired too, and sported a beard. It was her father. It was not Karen’s father but it was this blonde girl’s father. Karen knew this, without knowing how. He walked steadily, a measured gait, with a stick to help him balance though he did not seem to need it. As he came closer, he looked at Karen, or rather at the blonde girl that was his daughter. He looked at her, without expression. There was no wave. He walked up to the house, and inside. Karen remained in the laboratory. She had thought of fleeing, like a burglar flees the scene of his crime, but there was no reason to flee. This was her father’s house. She belonged to here. The blonde girl’s father was out of sight, but she could hear him moving about the place. Eventually he would come to his laboratory. She dreaded him. Karen thought about her own dad, her real dad, and James. She wanted to be with them. James had cried when she saw him last. Big girls don’t cry. She wanted to go home but there was no way. No escape. No hope of escape. She was forgetting about any place but here. Karen could not tell if these feelings belonged to her or the blonde girl, but she shuddered when the door handle turned. Here was the father, his face placid. He stroked his beard with his hand. He spoke. “Good girl. I like it when you’re here, waiting for me to begin. Good girl.” The words of praise welled up inside the girl like a fist punching its way out of her stomach. Punch. Karen wondered if she would be sick. Punch. But somehow the girl had got used to this. Somehow her mind was drifting away, disconnecting from the here and now. But whilst Karen felt that about the girl, she could not leave the laboratory. She was stuck in the intensity of this moment, this grotesquely serene moment of foreboding.
Like a programmed machine, the girl strode away from the window, and to her allotted place, a straight-backed wooden chair across the other side of the room. Karen could feel the girl’s mind floating away, whilst hers was inextricably rooted in this laboratory. The girl was as expressionless as her father, though inside her emotions were seething. Four circular free-standing shelving units surrounded the chair. The girl was thinking of lessons at school, or the grass in the fields. Upon the shelves there were innumerable metal boxes, with appendages and dials that yielded no clue as to what purpose they served. Karen feared them. Many of the boxes were haphazardly wired to each other. The father weaved inside and outside the shelves, walking around, tinkering with the connections between some of the boxes. The girl was thinking of the winter snows that had melted, she was thinking of the water in the river. The girl’s father brought over a wide tray of the precious energy crystals, and methodically inserted them into his instruments. The girl thought of a road that winded toward a nearby mountain-top. The instruments hummed or crackled as they fed on their new crystals. She could walk up that road. Some dials momentarily danced across their displays, but then rested back at zero. She would walk up that road. The father held up a gum-shield and asked his daughter to open her mouth and bite upon it; she complied without resistance. When the road had taken her to its highest point before plunging down the other side, the girl would have to scramble the remainder of her way to that mountain top. From behind her, the father pulled out what looked like a combination of a fabric skull cap and a coat-wire crown. It was criss-crossed with a hundred silvery threads; they made the pattern of an especially complex spider’s web. To spend the day looking out across that majestic view of the valley beneath, that was a very fine way to spend the day. The father connected the skull-crown with a cable that ran to several machines on the shelves behind the girl, then he put it down again. Evidently, he had forgotten something. Karen had been looking back over her shoulder, trying to see what the girl’s father was doing, but the girl resisted the motion, relaxing the muscles in her neck and slipping into her imaginings. It was hard work to climb up that mountain-side; the girl was using her hands to cling to it and pull herself up. The girl’s golden tresses hid two shaven patches on either side of her head, located above and behind her ears. The father took a barber’s razor and scraped the stubble from both spots. He dabbed at them with a cotton ball dipped in alcohol. It was fine to be alone on that mountain, above it all, above everyone. The father gently placed the skull-crown on the girl’s head. Like the devices, the skull-crown hummed, though more gently. Karen could feel the hum, physically running through the girl. There were pads on either side of the skull-crown that aligned to the places where the girl was shaved. The father tightened the screws so that the pads pressed firm against the girl’s head. Karen shook the girl’s head; the skull-crown was on tight. From up there, the village houses all seemed small, so insignificant compared to the wonder of the natural terrain. “Don’t shake your head,” the father snapped, “be a good girl”. The hands that were both Karen’s and the girls gripped the arms of the chair tightly. The father reached up on one shelf, and pulled down two black cubes. You could look over to the next valley, and you knew there were other places you could go to, in order to be free. Each cube had a recess on one face, and a thick long lead emanating from the opposite face. The father turned the recessed side of each cube towards his daughter’s face, and pushed them hard over her eyes. Both Karen and the girl yelped as their head was pushed against the hard straight back of the chair, but the noise they made was suppressed by the gum-shield in their mouth. Nothing could hurt the girl, once she was upon that mountain top. It hurt to have the boxes pressed against her eyes, but the girl bit down on the gum-shield; Karen felt some relief come of it. As the solid boxes were pressed against her face, they gradually seemed to deform, or melt. You could see the smoke from the village chimneys, but you could also see far-off mountain-tops. Beyond them would be places where they would never find you. The black boxes stuck to the girl’s face and they flowed into her eyes. She could see through them, and see into them, at one and the same time. Nothing could hurt the girl, when she was looking down at all else below. The father picked up the leads running from each box, and screwed the other end into each eye glass of a machine that looked like a pair of binoculars. The wind blew hard at that unsheltered height, but it was a cleansing wind, that blew away the cobwebs that gathered indoors. From his pocket the father pulled out four more energy crystals; two each were placed into compartments on either side of the binoculars. As the last one was put in, all the dials on all the meters on all the shelves swung across their scales. They gyrated for a few seconds, then settled into their new readings. The machines buzzed loudly now, and Karen felt the humming of the skull-crown right down to her toes. Upon the mountain, the wind gusted, and caught the collar of the girl’s coat, which flapped into her face. She turned into the wind, facing against it, leaning into it, defying it to move her from this spot. The father turned to face his daughter and raised the binoculars to his eyes, looking at her, looking down those eye glasses and those long leads, looking through them, looking into her, looking through her green eyes into the heart of her. She would not be moved no matter how the wind blew; she was safe up there. As he held them to his own eyes, he adjusted the lenses on either side of his binoculars. She was alone, and free up there. And when he was quite ready, and no more preparation was needed, the father continued his research where he had left it the day before. Upon the mountain, above all others, she was free. And he did so by asking his daughter a simple question, that any parent might ask any child. He asked her:
“What did you learn at school today?”