CJ’s First Notebook
by Sherwood Smith
ONE — In The Beginning…
In the beginning I lived on Earth.
Now, Earth is a big world, full of people, many of whom are happy and content and would never spend one moment thinking about other worlds, much less wanting to go to one.
Well, I wasn’t one of those people.
I was eight years old, and I did not fit.
There was nothing dramatically wrong. Nothing what they called criminal in those days. Since that time I’ve met people — from several worlds — who were born into what anyone anywhere would call Evil and Doomed. Me, the first biggest problem was that I never really felt safe at home but everywhere else I went I felt like an outsider. Second, I did not like the things that everyone else seemed to like, or value what others valued. And what I liked and valued either got me laughed at, or punished.
So — third — I read a lot in order to find places in the imagination that weren’t like where I lived, since I couldn’t get free any other way. But almost every book I read, every adult I listened to — well, even kids — worked hard to convince me that “belonging” was my duty, and I ought to work hard to fit myself into the world into which I’d been born.
Plenty have heard that. Some shrug it off, for the call is not strong, and can be answered through music and art, or reading, or games, or finally just in strange dreams. Others find their spirits warped into conformity; a few take the dark road out, figuring a short, sharp pain is better than a long slow death of heart and soul.
Enough of that.
I want to get to the good stuff, so let me say here and now, the part of Earth I lived on, and the time I was born into, was — to me — determinedly ugly. I can’t even translate some of the words that were part of everyday life — like cigarettes, and plastic, and smog. The houses were ugly, the clothes were ugly, the smells were ugly, but mostly (to me) the spirit was ugly. Most of the ugliness was perpetrated in the name of Progress, and was not ugly to the perpetrators. To them, cutting down all the trees and covering the ground with cement was Progress. To complain meant you were not conforming to the standards of Progress.
The best part of my day was night, when I saw a kid in my dreams. She lived somewhere green, and fun. During the day I’d draw her, and her surroundings, and imagine on long car rides that she was flying alongside, in the free air and away from the choking smog and angry grownup voices.
Once in a while dreams do turn real. That is, people — real people — find one another and turn out to have what the other needs.
And so it happened to Clair and me.
I’m a light sleeper. Always was. I’d wake up in the night and stare at the scalloped molding on the ceiling, lit sort of green-yellow by the street lamps. This particular night it was really hot, and the smog was especially heavy, making a kind of pain in the middle of your chest if you breathed too deeply.
My bedroom seemed stuffy, and I felt a strong urge to go outside, where it might be a bit cooler and there was more space.
My room had a glass door that opened onto the little square of grass called the backyard. I slipped outside. The grass was slightly cool on my bare feet, but not cold, and the thick air was still, with faint hazes around the glary streetlights.
I looked up. Only a few faint stars were visible.
I ran to the back part of our yard where the weeds grew high. They were dry and full of thistles. I picked my way through, wincing when my feet hurt, for I wasn’t permitted to go barefoot, it not being considered ladylike. I climbed up onto the cement fence and sat looking over at the neighbors’ yard, a small square of neatly cut grass. They had a tree near the fence, a little scraggly tree that always looked limp and thirsty in the sunlight. Now it was a dark shadow against the square, pink stucco garage. I could just reach for a skinny branch and swing down, except then what? If the neighbor father woke up, he’d tell mine, and all the adults would be angry, and I’d get the belt.
I stood on the fence and looked down the row of yards, each boxed in by the connecting fences. Then I tipped my head back and looked up at the stars, faint pale lights in the dark haze. I longed to find some way to reach them —
And a flicker on the edge of my vision caused me to jump. Instead of a furious adult looming, a girl sat on the fence beside me. In the bleachy light of the street lamp she looked a little bit older than I, but not by much, and her long, waving hair was so pale it seemed white.
I gasped. “I know you.”
“Who are you?”
“Call me Clair. You dreamed about me, and where I live.”
“Yes!” The forest — the mountain — the rainbow lake. — only how did she know? “I don’t get it,” I said. “How can I dream real? And how did you come here? Did you have a nightmare about me and where I live?”
She laughed, a soft, pleasant sound. “No. But — well, there’s magic involved.”
“Yes. Someone did a spell that found you. I don’t know how the dream part works. I just know that it does.”
“Oh,” I said, too surprised to think of any more questions.
“Know any good games?” she asked.
Again I was surprised. Games in the middle of the night? “I know some. But we’d have to be quiet. I don’t want to get into trouble.”
“We could tell stories,” she suggested.
“Oh, yes. I love stories.”
“What kind do you like best?”
“Adventure stories. With magic. And happy endings,” I added firmly.
“Tell me one.”
I told her the story of Enid Blyton’s The Castle of Adventure, which I’d recently read.
She listened closely, smiling at the good parts.
When I was done, I said, “Your turn.”
“There’s a land far away,” she began very slowly.
“Where?” I asked.
She turned her head this way, then that way, and at last waved upward. “Far away. Over the sea, you might say.” She pointed toward the dim twinkles in the western sky.
And she went on, speaking a little faster, describing a small country far away, under a new queen. Her land had no cars, no smog, no plastic, or cement. It was mostly forest and farmland, with some mountains — just like in the dream. Magical people lived on the mountaintops. They loved stories told in songs, but they didn’t come down from their snowy heights.
The land was a quiet land, mostly, except for some people who wanted to have it for their own — not to better the lives of the inhabitants, but because one wanted more men to turn into warriors so he could conquer and make a big empire like his brother had, and the other because she liked people bowing to her. She also liked being rich, and owning more land, and people on it paying taxes, which meant she could have as many jewels and palaces and new gowns as she desired.
“Taxes!” I held my nose. “I hear a lot about taxes here. Do people pay taxes to the new queen?”
“Not to her, for she has magic, and lives simply. But they pay a tax, according to their abilities, to the regional governors, and that money goes for regional protections and improvements. Like roads.”
“Oh. Tell me more about those two who want to take the country away from the queen. Is it just because she’s new, then?”
“Yes.” Clair looked, and sounded, angry. Her eyes in the glary lamplight were a pale grayish-green, more green than gray.
Her expression changed, and she gave me a tentative, contrite glance. “This isn’t too boring? I’m not as good as you are at story-telling.”
“It’s interesting, because it feels real,” I said. “Like my dream.” I didn’t want to say, Tell me more about the bad guys, but I was thinking it. I just said, “Tell me more.”
Clair said, “Well, the woman is called Glotulae, and she got the land she holds now through a cheat. Her ancestors destroyed the Great North before the girl-queen’s mother was born, and built herself a fancy castle and a walled town around it.”
“And the other?”
“His people are long-time enemies of the new queen’s people. They’ve wanted to conquer them for centuries. In fact, that’s why the people came to this land from their old one, but unfortunately, the old man’s people came right after them to continue the fight. The queen’s people are the Mearsieans, from Mearsies Heili. ”
“Mare — CEASE,” I repeated carefully. “Mare-cease HI-ih-lee.”
“And the old man’s are the Chwahir.” The ‘ch’ sounded a bit like a gargle.
“The ruler’s name is Kwenz,” she continued, and now her arms were folded tightly across her middle, and her voice had gone angry again. Not strident — her voice was never loud — but low. “He’s nearly a hundred years old, I think. Almost a century of wickedness, he’s done. Mostly on orders from his homeland, but still.”
More and more I got the feeling that what she was talking about wasn’t a story but a real place and people, even though I’d never heard of them. I kept wondering if I was dreaming, except Clair did look so real, sitting next to me on the fence — and the cement blocks of the fence felt hard under me, and the air smelled stale, burned and metallic, just like it always did for most of the year, and I could hear the hiss of cars driving on the big boulevard three streets away. If Clair was a dream, then it was the most realistic one I’d ever had.
“Sorry.” She gave me an apologetic glance. “I ought not to just tell the nasty parts.”
“So tell me more about the beautiful parts,” I replied promptly, remembering what people in my life always said about me: that I was too wild, too weird with my silly made-up words and imagination games, that girls ought to be ladylike, or no one would like them.
I did not want Clair deciding I was too weird, and leaving.
“I love beautiful things,” I said longingly, looking at the ugly stucco houses, the smoggy black sky hiding the stars, the telephone lines, palm trees that never cast any shade. “I don’t get to see many beautiful things here. So I try to find them in books.”
“I love books as well,” Clair said. “What is the most beautiful name you can think of?”
I sighed, closing my eyes. “Cherene. It makes me think of jewels with fire inside, and purple and blue outside.” I opened my eyes. “Does that sound stupid?”
“Cherene.” She pronounced all the vowels, so there was a soft ‘eh’ at the end, which made the name even prettier. Cher-enn-eh. “Not at all.”
I grinned. “We have one kind of like that. Not JENN-et, but Jenn-ETTE. I love that name too! It sounds like a bird taking flight!”
Clair grinned back. “A bird on wing, up, up. I like that image very much.” She hugged her arms close. “Very much,” she said softly. Then, with a quick gesture, as though pushing something away, she said, “I wish I could do that — say things and see images from them. Tell me: what does Kwenz sound like to you?”
“Chewing a mouthful of rocks.”
Clair shook with silent laughter. “And Glotulae?”
“Gargling motor oil.”
She whispered the words to herself, and then shook harder, but no sound came out. Presently she wiped her eyes.
“So tell me about more beautiful things in that magic kingdom,” I asked.
“Well, there’s the Sherwoods’ Forest,” she began.
“You mean in England? Where Robin Hood once lived?”
She shook her head. “It’s not in this world. It’s called the Sherwoods’ Forest because that’s the last name of the royal family, and one of them kept Glotulae’s ancestors from allying with the Chwahir to take it, level it, and get more land. The Sherwoods come from ancient Sartor, near as we can tell. Maybe the name came from Earth, because humans have crossed back and forth from that world to this countless times, but it’s more likely it came from somewhere else, and just sounds similar.”
“What’s the somewhere else like?”
“Beautiful — ” She paused, frowned slightly. “Uh oh. It’s late. Would you like me to visit again?”
“Yes,” I said fervently.
She nodded. “I’ll be back when I can.”
I jumped down off the fence, thinking she would as well, but no one landed beside me. I turned, saw that she was gone. Only a slight breeze briefly touched my face, then that was gone too.
I retreated inside, climbed into bed, and stared out the window. I didn’t believe she’d come back.
She didn’t come back the following night, though I stayed awake nearly the whole time, this time wearing my summer shorts and t-shirt under my nightie, and sweltering. That next day I was desperately tired in school.
A week passed with painful slowness, each day hotter and smoggier than the last. My spirits veered between hope and despair and anger at myself for dreaming that Clair and her story had been real.
About eight days after she first came, Clair came again, at night, tapping lightly at the glass door to my room. As soon as I saw her long white hair glistening in the light from the streetlamps, and her long skirt and bare feet, joy rushed through my mind like nothing I had ever experienced before.
I opened the door and eased out, not daring to exchange my nightie for clothes lest she disappear again. She didn’t seem to notice what I was wearing.
“Want to play?” she asked.
“Sure! Or tell me more about magic.”
“What about it?”
‘How it works, because here, there is no magic. Or, we’re told it’s not real.”
“There’s magic in this world,” Clair said, looking about as if she were about to sniff something. But she didn’t sniff. Instead, she grinned. “If there weren’t, I’d be stuck.” She really was from another world!
“Show me?” I asked.
“Well, here’s an illusion.” She muttered something under her breath, and made a gesture. A rose bush glowed on the grass in front of us. As I watched, the petals of the roses paired off, moving, then took off as bright butterflies, fluttering upward like golden embers and then winking out. The rose bush slowly faded, until I could see the grass through it, then it was gone.
“Oh. How pretty,” I breathed.
“I saw that in a play once.”
“Can you make a princess gown? And long hair? I always wanted long hair, but I’m not allowed to have it.” I tugged at my ugly Dutch-boy bob.
“I can give you the illusion, but it won’t be real. At home I could make you the dress, but it’s tremendously complicated magic. Easier just to buy one! And also, making hair grow means relaxing time, which is a really complicated set of spells. Way beyond me as yet, I should add.”
“An illusion is okay,” I said.
She did the muttering and gesture again. This time, faint glitter at the edges of my vision made me blink, then I looked down. My thin hair, chopped straight at my ears in reality, now lay in a shining mantle against a wide skirt of silken blue. I twirled around, but there was no sound, and I just felt my nightgown, full of static, clinging to my legs.
When the illusion faded, she said, “Those gowns are actually quite heavy, and you’d feel like a stuffed cushion in this weather.”
“I’d like to try one.. Just once.”
She grinned. “Maybe someday. Want to go somewhere? I can do transfers.”
“How about the beach? It’s close, but we hardly ever get to go.”
“Picture it in your mind,” she said.
I did. She murmured again, touched my arm, and a dizzy-spell splorched behind my eyes. But before I could do anything it passed, and my vision cleared, and I found that we were standing at the water’s edge. The crash and sigh of small breakers, the heavy smell of brine, the feel of wet sand under my toes were all real.
We ran, kicked sand, made mountains, and time sped by until she jolted me with, “I have to go.”
She touched my arm again, and we stood outside my room.
“I’ll be back,” she promised, and I went inside.
I was tired at school the next day, but I didn’t care. I no longer doubted her existence — and I believed her promise.
Sometimes it would be a week before she came again. A couple times the weeks stretched into months. Summer passed, and school started again, a new grade, the same old stuff. The first time she let so long a time go by once again I found it difficult to believe that she had been real, or that I would ever see her again, and my mood veered between the hurting kind of hope — when you don’t really believe, you only wish, really hard — and anger. Yet mad as I got, I never wished she hadn’t come. The memory of her visits was much stronger than the pain of hopes dashed yet another dreary day.
Of course I had to hide my feelings, for I knew that I could never talk about Clair. Oh, just the thought of mentioning a girl with white hair who came from another world and knew magic would make me cringe inside, for I’d either get laughed at for more silly stories, or else called a liar. And if I dared to say that I wished I could go away with her, I’d get the belt for being pouty. You want something to whine about? I’ll give you something to whine about. I can still hear that threat, and the sickening feeling that one could not get away, that one was not safe in one’s own home, and then afterward, Smile! If you pout you’re asking for it. Even though you never, in your whole life, would ever ‘ask’ to be beaten with a wire hanger or a belt, or to have a shoe flung at your head.
Not that I lived with villains, for I didn’t, really. I know what real villains are. But that was the way people treated kids in those days, and they hit you the harder, convinced that it was somehow good for you — that they were in the right. If you got in trouble at school, you could count on getting in more at home, for having been bad enough to have the first trouble.
So violence was used to get you to behave, to work harder, to listen — and to think, or at least to pretend to think, like everyone else, to behave the way they told you to. The only safe place was away from adults. And the very idea that someone like Clair could be real would be something the adults would feel they had to beat out of me for my own good.
CJ’s First Notebook
by Sherwood Smith
$1.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-044-6