Grace A. Johnson
And The Winner Is...
Sonder by Cathy Rose
This story instantly amazed me! I loved the way Cathy wove the Scripture from Isaiah into the story! Her writing is beautiful and poetic, and she intrigued me from the first sentence! Marvelous job, Cathy Rose!
I hope y'all enjoy reading her story, Sonder.
Thus says the Lord who created you, who supplants
He who formed you, who wrestled with God
Fear not, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name. You are mine.
When you walk through fire you will not be burned
And the flame will not devour you.
It was just a dream after, wasn’t it?
Let me tell you a story, sir. One you should know if you ever thought about anything other than your own lies. Oh, you played a part in this story, more than I could ever tell you with words…
Once upon a grim time, there was a boy naïve enough to dream you were his friend. He thought you protected him from them, from a mother who only ever dreamed of stealing the crown, from her husband, a king, from blood-stained alcohol memories. You know, the fun stuff. See, those were the days he trusted people like you. I know, right, what kind of fool trusts people these days? But, once upon a time, there was a boy who believed there was a line people just wouldn’t cross.
And you know, that child never got a chance to thank you for the knife you left in his back.
What is the sharpest revenge you can ever have on someone like that, do you wonder?
It’s to heal, regardless.
Years pass and none quietly. All the same, right here, right now, at the Ruins, there is quiet. It’s the end of his journey. Feels strange, chimerical. A rippling fire glides through his bones like threads of soul as he stares silently.
Old days are changing again, refracting from the fever of another war and the rise of necromancy, bleeding black souls that still claw for the living.
Ages ago gifteds bore the responsibility of protecting the world and guiding the people. They bore sacrifice, more than most humans could imagine. That was before the war. They always said the gifteds betrayed them, but you know how victors tell the story. Alessio rarely believes people or stories now anyway. Hot sunset silhouettes crinkles shadows off the summit like a mirrored light, catching the gold irises in his eyes. Just looking at it gives a bit of chill under his skin as numb and hot as a blazing white stake of chronic panic. I’m at the end of it but I don’t know where to go, he thinks. In the end you always just wanted to burn down the world.
This is my journey now, even if it was meant to be yours.
He can hear them all across the crumbled field. Very softly, scattered gifteds drawn to the Temple Ruins sing prayers like white incense into the sky. It’s just enough to sound like hope, like rising from ashes to a new, strange and perhaps even better life.
Lights slowly rise, just small candles lifting to the sky on equally small square platforms of aerial wood.
And he’s really here, like a crown in a dream.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you.
Written words on the back of a map he was given long ago by a healer before he left a place diffused in lies and occult. There weren’t any heroes there, and the words seem cliché or trite or just an ideal in the sky. No heroes, no villains; just hurt people who kept on hurting any way they’re allowed. Because that’s how people act where there’s no light.
There was a story once, you know, in a dream or a memory but it never seemed to have a good meaning. It was about a Tree who just wanted to reach the Sun. Why? Who knows, but it never stopped reaching, climbing to the sky. At least, not until one night a bolt of lightning cracked the Tree apart, blazing alive for three days and nothing but ash in the end of it.
Reaching for something it could never have, I guess…
Seeing the lights rise in the dusk sky can make strange thoughts, even as if the supernatural is real. With all the quiet, a sudden voice behind him makes Alessio flinch. “This is, uh, it?” Asrael, not a bad sort. In fact, far better than most people he’s met, but that isn’t exactly saying much. But he’s still here, so that’s something. Alessio shrugs imperceptibly, nearly touching the edge of his hood before he catches himself and drops his hand away from the stiletto-thin scar slanted across his forehead, hooking his left eyebrow and still crimson like fresh blood.
“I…guess so,” Alessio says. “Where’s–?” Meira. The glassgirl who should never be left unsupervised, ever.
“Oik, what ain’t we done now?!”
He jumps out of his skin with a stifled yelp, so she jumps back from less than a reasonably sized step behind him. Personal space, who needs personal space anymore? Certainly not Meira, who cackles and jostles his shoulder, smearing something sticky on him.
“Is yo gents ever going to over there?” Meira grumbles with her mouth full, her reflective ivory skin making her look like a shiny gold-speckled ghost in the candlelight. Uncertainly, Alessio almost touches his shoulder as if the same as the vestige of unfamiliar physical contact, but instead rubs his arms and stares from her frosting-coated hands to her crumb-crusted face.
“What are you eating…?” Alessio tentatively asks, although he isn’t sure he wants the answer.
“They got cake,” she grunts amiably. “Want some?”
“I’m good,” he says quickly, “thanks.”
With an oddly dainty shrug, she licks her fingers, making little happy noises the whole time. Half looking like a grizzly in the semi-dark, Asrael scrutinizes her cake-smeared face with his thick arms crossed.
“That’s disgusting,” he comments over her, so Meira whirls on him, whipping her indigo braid into Alessio’s arm. She yells at him to show her where she asked and Alessio winces at the noise, slipping a little deeper into the shadows until halted by Asrael’s hand on his back. His dark eyes flash a startled-indignant look at the knight who ignores it to make a face at Meira before dropping his gaze to Alessio.
“So we found the Ruins, don’t you have a plan now?”
“Um,” Alessio blinks and shrugs a little, feeling very small. “Actually, I thought we’d die inexorably long ago so I didn’t plan this far…”
“Oh,” Asrael says. “Ever the optimist, aren’t you?”
He nods innocently. “Thank you.” His gaze slides back to the spattered crowd under the candlelit sky, feeling like he’ll break the reverence of the place if he speaks above a whisper. Their low music rises like something sacred, that gives him an odd sense of being a stranger but at the same time belonging… or longing. Something that feels more home than any saccharine smell of alcohol on cold late nights in a lie-drenched palace.
What does he want from this place? To find - or be - the light he never had? Or just to see if there’s something like not feeling alone?
Around them are remnants of the castle-structured Temple Ruins melted into the eventide air like dry bones. Not the ideal place for a new empire or a new age to rise, is it? Not that I ever meant to have a crown, he thinks. Once upon a dream, there might’ve been hope for a better life.
Was it worth all the lives you stole? To see all the dreams you might’ve had crumble, just to watch the world shatter because you were alone? You know I’m coming to stop you and your own chosen curse. And one day nostalgic hate won’t be enough to hide from you all the ways you might’ve saved your soul
(Like I believed you could…)
Firelight ascends the dark sky like a dream or a crown of magic between memory and soul. It’s a beautiful sight to watch. They always said the Phoenix would come thousands of years ago to burn to ash and die, born again on the first light of morning. Because for some reason, light always seems to come with death and rebirth.
And their singing, hopeful chanting, is perhaps a vision in the sky.
“I don’t belong here…” Alessio murmurs softly. “Like the Tree that was always reaching for the Sun.”
“Right, ok, so just to be clear,” Asrael starts and Alessio braces himself for an excessive dose of accusative sarcasm. “We came all this way, nearly died like… what, five times at least?–” Meira begins counting on her fingers and the knight rolls his eyes at her. “–and let’s not even mention the two biggest world powers, complete with an occultic murder-guild, that are all trying to hunt us down–”
“I never would've guessed,” Alessio mumbles faintly, rubbing the pale scar-tissue on his wrists.
“Aaand, what? We’re just – I know, sightseeing. Because Tall, Dark and Annoying here doesn’t have a plan!”
“I don’t recall asking to be born,” he remarks. Especially not with powers, Alessio adds internally. Powers are… well let’s just say they are and most people don’t like them. Not after the Great War, now that the name gifted became so marred with scandal people just call them ability-borns or aberrants, most not even considered human anymore. Perhaps some strange race like the glass-people at best; an implicit outcast.
Alessio freezes, suddenly feeling Asrael’s hand on his head like he might’ve ruffled the young gifted’s hair if he isn’t hidden under a hood.
“Right, so as the only mature human being here–”
“I ain’t human,” The glassgirl chirps while Alessio tries to decide whether he’ll be more insulted by the implication that he’s not mature or that he’s not exactly human. Asrael sighs. “–I’ve decided we’re going over there,” he finishes.
“Great!” The knight shoves Alessio out of the shadows, whose fire-flecked eyes spark with a panicked indignation. Instinctively he scans the summit, his new bearings unsteady. As he does, his eyes touch an elderly gifted’s gaze, watching them. Seeing himself detected, his face wrinkles into a thin, ghostly smile and he continues to stare into Alessio.
“Don’t worry, they’ve all been half-eyeing us since we came here,” Asrael announces easily. “They probably stare at every new person here.”
Not reassuring enough. Alessio swallows a retort, glancing back at the elderly gifted who still looks directly at him, knowingly. The idea is enough to put an edge on his anxiety. He flinches when Meira pokes him and rubs his arm defensively, which makes her giggle maniacally. So Alessio is in the middle of an attempt at a withering glare when Asrael pushes them onto the cracked summit.
The knight decides to steer them to a smallish group in the crowd with several restless children and adults who are valiantly ignoring them. One boy stares up at him while stuffing as many fingers as will fit into his mouth. Alessio tries to smile at the boy but settles for a tiny awkward nod. A-matter-of-factly Meira grabs Alessio’s hand and squeezes, refusing to let go. Alessio’s eyes widen slightly, stiffening a little and turning scarlet. Do normal people just hold somebody’s hand, he really doesn’t know. This could just be normal for her?!
Then he halts, for a second not able to place why but then it occurs to him. No one is singing, the music has stopped and everything is silent. A deep, deep quiet so that you can hear the wind crinkle and you can hear the fire in the crimson sky disappearing into the dark.
None of them move, even the little boy stops mid-noisy-sucking.
The last light of sunset drenches the world in red and gold, and black shadows stretching across broken structures and behind people like wraiths ready to vanish or possess their owners at the tip of a choice.
And it’s quiet. Except for a still, small wind like a voice in the soul.
Seconds. Minutes. Hours. It would’ve been all the same.
It’s not something I have words for, words evaporate, thoughts wander or dissipate and you can’t even feel it. Just the sense that…there aren’t words to describe it but if you could feel in a moment the whole world connected and alive, constant and quiet. And that’s just the things there are words for. You just know. You know there’s something out there. I can’t even say the word love because it’s just a word, but it’s the closest word you can get or string together.
It’s sunlight in midnight, knowing here and now and being lifted far beyond, both at once. Everything looks real, and small. If you could just see, the world is always in a dream, and for us reality is just a distant dream, what we might call an ideal or spirit or light, or truth. But truth is more than a word or any set of words you can pull together.
There just aren’t words…
All of them are staring at the sky, at the offerings of candlelit prayers. Words he memorized, over and over every day like a soothing repetition, are silent. Noiselessly, Alessio unwinds a cracked wooden map around his neck with written words on its back, causing Meira to shift and clutch his hand stubbornly but without saying a thing (quite unusual for her). Soothing words that might sound like nonsense for this world. But then, this world is just…paper and ink.
Thus says the Lord who created you…
Releasing the glassgirl’s hand he bends over to the ground with the half-shattered map that guided them here.
He who formed you, who wrestled with God
Fear not, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name.
You are mine, he finishes in his mind. The map isn’t aerial wood, and it can’t be raised to sky. It’s just here.
When you walk through fire you will not be burned, it says silently, and the flame will not devour you.
Shattered stone remnant of a once-shining Temple filled with lights. Fire crackles in a hushed defiance along the map in his hand. It’s broken anyway, and a sudden wind picks up the sparks, hurling the ashes into the air. Nothing left to give but the ashes of a dead life, after all.
Maybe long ago I would’ve thought I had something. Some polished, shining candle like all the rest to send into the air. Something that can reach the sky, something beautiful and pure. But hell happened.
And I’m still here.
You can watch ashes blow toward the melted-red sky like fractured dreams, whispering between the candles. It’s a cold and a broken sacrifice to a world beyond. Somehow this would be a death, something left behind. And they’d remember this day. The entire world will probably forget one day, but underneath they’d all remember.
“You.” The voice is soft. A murmur around him causes Alessio to look up, catching the elderly gifted’s eyes glimmering there, staring directly at him. And across the entire field everyone is watching him like a new hope, like standing on dry bones.
“He is calling you.” At once Alessio has no idea what the stranger is talking about and knows this is exactly what has tugged at his core his entire life. But this isn’t about feelings. This…
“You mean he’s the next chosen?” Asrael asks behind him but the words hardly register.
I’m not, he thinks numbly, I’m not…
I’m a villain. I’m a victim.
But I’m not a hero.
He can hear Asrael and Meira either protesting or arguing or both but it’s too much to hear. Even in the dark, as his gaze drops to the ground he can see wood beneath him. He thought he was standing on bare ground but it’s a broken piece of pier. Maybe the same one they say the Phoenix burned in. A firebird can do that, but just a wooden tree…
“Many are called,” the old gifted is explaining, “but we call them chosen because they have.”
“I’m not cursed with false humility, sir, when I say I am the last person…” that anyone would want to save the world. “I’m just…” ashes. Not a phoenix, not a beautiful burning bird that can rise from the dead. No, just the broken Tree that wouldn’t stop reaching for the Sun.
“Did the Tree die, or did it become fire?” Alessio flinches, realizing he must’ve thought half out-loud. Somehow, for some reason the gifted speaks like he knows. Wordlessly, Alessio’s ember eyes raise to the air, the candles on the wood gliding through the air like windblown leaves. His hand slides his hood back so the mark on his forehead like the edge of a thorn is visible, as he’s standing beside the fragments of an altar and scattered stone of a Temple. Around him is everything like dry bones. This is it. Everything he’s ever cared about before has already been ripped away. “Here I am.”