And then Old Henry came, stepping through the doorway in between rooms, just like that, smiling his leery, broken smile.
“Well this is a new ‘un, never seen it before. A strange walrus girl on a cold, icy floor. Old Henry’s good fortune smiles ‘pon him tonight. A novel addition, the jackpot he strikes.”
He approached the girl, who just sat looking at him in wonder. In the center of the room now, his arm reached out to pat her.
I stepped out into the doorway opposite him as Deacon filled the doorway he had come through.
“Old Henry,” I said, my voice so full of emotion it sounded like love, “you have something of mine I need to pop round and pick up.”
His face showed alarm and a crafty fright. “What’s this, a trick? A catch as catch can?” He picked up the girl and backed up towards Deacon’s doorway. “A ruse to ensnare a helpless old man?”
I held up the crystal egg. “And I believe I might have something of yours.”
He stopped and peered, squinting. Then he drew his head back and the leer left his face.
“What you’ve got there? This thing can’t be right. Old Henry….” he paused, and a look of puzzlement and confusion came across him. “….Old Henry… Old Henry can’t remember ever bein’ a child.”
He walked towards me, his eyes fixed on the egg.
“It’s been… it’s been long. Lost in the cold. I’ve lived me too long. I feel like… Old Henry was born old.”
My hand gripped around the glove of my claws, but I kept them still. Plan B was holding the blades to his throat. Based on his reaction though, I decided to stick with Plan A. “Old Henry. I want you to take us back to your place. We’re going to make a trade, you and I. I want my brother in exchange for this egg. I want you to put the girl down and take me and the Djingo back with you. Do you understand?”
He looked at the walrus girl. “No, not the girl, a rare, wondrous find. I’ll give two for one, by fair rights she’s mine.”
We stood there, eyes interlocked, for a long tense pause.
Finally he sighed and put the girl down. “Alright then. Come on.” He scuttled towards the doorway. “‘Ere, take my hand.” I did, grabbing Deacon with my other. “Back to my place….”
I interrupted him. “Do you always have to talk in rhyme?”
His leer returned. “I am who I am.”
And we stepped through.
I heard the front door slam behind us as we entered his front hall. It was made of worn wood, nailed poorly together, the walls sagging. It was less a house than a large, multi roomed shack that shook in the fierce wind which assaulted it from outside.
The hallway was long and narrow. We walked down in towards a room far at the end. We passed doorways that opened up into a dilapidated dining room, a dark, garish sitting room that smelled like cheap, over burnt incense, and other rooms whose purpose was more difficult to discern.
But at the end of long, crooked hallway was an archway. Through the archway was an immense obsidian room, its walls black and shiny, speckled with glittering grey dots. Inside this shiny black room was pedestal after pedestal, hundreds, each holding a glowing snow globe. These, along with an ornate fireplace, gave off the room’s only light.
I wandered through the display, peering at the globes. Inside each was a beautifully rendered scene, varying from quaint storefront to igloo, to tree house in the woods, and every manner of picturesque abode that could be imagined. Candy houses, underwater sea caves, a giant top hat house, a front door in a crescent moon…
“My village, my world, my gift to them all. My paradise lands for the young and the small.”
“My brother is in one of these?”
“Your brother and others, my children most dear, I keep them all safe from old age and fear.”
“You steal children and shut them inside your little gallery of globes? You take their lives away from them.”
He scowled. “Lives out there?” He waved his hand wildly. “What lives are that? Out there they grow old and tired and fat. Here they are safe. In dreamlands they run. Loved by Old Henry, and forever young.”
Stupid, geriatric, pedophilic Dr. Seuss reject. I shook my claws free with a noisy clang and marched slowly towards him. “I want my brother back you son of a bitch.”
Old Henry backed away. “Which one’s your brother? A hint or a clue. So many lovelies. How do I sort through?”
“Twenty years ago. Portland, Oregon. Three children. Two older girls, one younger boy, brown hair, orange shirt. Went by the name of Chris.” I slowed my approach so that he could think.
He scurried down one of the aisles. From two rows over I followed him. He tried to keep a wide birth of me, and we circled each other as he muttered and nodded his head. “Yes, yes, you mention…. I think I know where…. orange shirted Christopher… ah, I believe he is….. here.”
Old Henry picked up one of the snow globes and held it close to him. He smiled at me. “Well, my dear, now it seems we’ve tied scores. You’ve something of mine, and I’ve something of yours.” He held it out to me, but mockingly.
I inched towards him. “Don’t play me, old man.” I was almost within arm’s reach.
He turned then. He whirled around to run and I lunged at him, my free hand grasping for the shiny globe. I touched it, but could not grasp it. It went flying, soaring over two rows of pedestals and shattered on the obsidian floor, tiny shards of glass flying outwards in all directions, sparkling in the firelight.
I froze. Arm extended, overcome by fear and shock.
I looked at Old Henry. He smiled. Staring dumbly at his crooked sneer, the motivation to move returned to me, and I lifted my claws to slice off his head.
“Stop!” a child’s voice cried.
Blades held high above me readying for the swing, I froze and turned towards the direction of the voice.
“What are you doing?” my brother cried. After twenty years I thought I had forgotten his face, chasing only the memory of a memory. But standing before me I recognized him instantly. Tears flooded my eyes and I lowered my weapon. I opened my arms and walked towards him.
He shouted in fear and ran to Old Henry. “Don’t come near me!” he yelled at me. “Who are you?”
I stopped and smiled. “Chris. Chris, it’s me. Your sister. Amber. I’ve been trying to find you all this time.”
“You’re not my sister,” he answered. “You’re old! My sister is young and pretty. You’re old and grown-up and ugly.” He looked up at Old Henry. “Don’t let her hurt me, Old Henry.”
“There, there,” said Old Henry, putting his arm around the young boy.
He smiled at me.
I felt another rise of rage. But I also felt very, very tired. I wanted to sit down.
“Chris…” I said. “You must believe me. It’s me, Amber. I’ve tried to find you for so long. Years and years and years I’ve looked for you. So I can take you back home.”
Chris drew back. “I don’t want to go home,” he said. “I like it here. I want to stay here forever.” Looking at Old Henry he said “Promise me you won’t let her take me away.”
Old Henry patted him and kept smiling at me.
My vision was a bit wet and blurry, but looking at the giant old man, my feet simply started walking towards him, my hands bunched into fists, my blades still extended.
Chris shouted in fear. “No! No! Stop!”
“Don’t hurt him! If you’re really my sister then you have to promise me you won’t hurt him. Promise!”
I looked at Old Henry’s twinkling eyes and his crooked, mocking smile.
I retracted my blades.
I lowered my head.
“I promise,” I said quietly.
“What happened to my bubble?” Chris asked Old Henry.
“Now there, my poppet, we had a small spat. I’ll make you a new one. Better then the last!”
The child’s face brightened.
“Chris…..” I said pleadingly.
He looked at me angrily.
“Chris, you can’t just live here forever in a little glass globe.”
“Why not? Why can’t I?”
“Because you’re missing out on the whole world.”
“So? So what? What’s so great about out there?” He waved his hand. “What makes out there so much better then my bubble world? My bubble world is pretty and safe and makes me happy. Is out there all pretty and safe and happy? Old Henry says it’s not. Did it make you happy?”
I stammered. “There’s… so much to see. There’s adventures and you can grow up and fall in love and learn to do all kinds of things…”
“Like get hurt and killed? Isn’t that right?”
“So I can’t get hurt and killed out there?” he asked, baiting me.
“Chris… well of course that might… sooner or later you will…. but there’s so much more to it. So much else. It’s exciting and….” and I was at a loss for words. I felt sad and tired. I felt beaten. My scar hurt.
“I don’t wanna grow up. Why? I think it’s stupid. Why’s it better then having fun and running around and being happy and everything being pretty? I don’t think it is at all. Right, Old Henry?”
Old Henry gave his shoulder a squeeze. “There’s a boy…” and both looked at me.
We stood that way for a minute.
“If you want, Chris, I guess we can build you a new snow globe. I’m sure Old Henry can whip something up.”
He looked satisfied, then turned and ran off.
I approached Old Henry.
“Don’t forget, luv,” he said, “You promised the boy. No harm to Old Henry. Now….”
“Shut. Up. Please.”
He waited silently for me to collect myself.
“Okay,” I said quietly. “The terms. Build him another. Make it… make it nice, but not too nice. And make sure he can see out of it. That part’s non-negotiable. I want him to see out.”
Old Henry nodded.
“Then we trade. One for one. You give me the globe with Chris, I give you the crystal. Then you escort me out into a land far away and we never cross paths again. Acceptable?”
“Old Henry says fine, these terms I will…”
“Stop. I can’t take another one of your damn rhymes. Good. That’s enough. But one last thing. Just a question.”
“With the crystal, you’ll have at least a tiny piece of your own childhood again. You won’t need anymore of theirs, will you? You can stop collecting.”
“Afraid I can’t say. It’s been quite too long. I started ‘cause no, I had no childhood of my own. But I love all my lovelies, and I still yearns for more. Being old is a curse,” he gazed around at all his globes, “they’re all I live for.”
He turned from me and headed across the long, dark room to a small, wooden door, his workshop, which he entered and remained in for the next several hours.
During this time I wandered around the strange, dreamlike house, mostly hoping to sit down with my brother, but he was always darting out of a room as I was walking in. I could hear his footsteps running across the house, and I tried to follow him. The house’s shifting architecture and my desire to not be seen as aggressive made it difficult, however, and I never actually saw more then a glimpse of him.
Old Henry’s voice eventually rang out through the house. Another bloody rhyme that was sorely testing my patience.
He stood in his obsidian gallery with a new globe. Chris ran to his side. I looked into it. It was a tree house in a tall oak on top of a hill, a faint tinge of soft light radiating from it. I nodded and handed it back.
Chris, smiling, reached out and touched it. As he did, he slowly became smoke, seeping into his new home. His glass bubble.
I took the snow globe, holding it carefully, and Old Henry walked me to the front door. The entrance hall still shook and shuddered in the harsh, artic wind.
“The high disks, please,” I told him. “Third one.” I handed him his crystal.
“Don’t judge Old Henry too harshly, my luv. A lonely old man with no childhood to speak of. I takes special children to someplace real nice, a land that they love outside of cruel time. They gives me some comfort, I gives them some, too. And I gives them the best gift of all…” He opened the front door. “Eternal youth.”
I stepped far away.
I stayed in the mountains I loved, surrounded by trees and animals for just over a month, keeping the globe out at all times, so that my brother could see if he chose. Sitting in front of the fire at night, I comforted myself with the thought of Old Henry’s fate.
I had promised not to harm him, and left his house far behind, but Deacon had made no such promise, and in fact had squirreled himself away just after we arrived. Whether through oversight, senility, or just plain forgetfulness, Old Henry had forgotten about Deacon. The thought of that smug bastard ripped from limb to limb made me chuckle sometimes.
Deacon had options after that. He had a charm into my home world that I urged him not to use for himself, as he would fare poorly there. But he could pay off my debt to the monks by giving them a globe as promised. Preferably an empty one.
He had another charm that would take him to an Alchemist’s basement in the Soulstice Lands if he wished. But I think that he may have chosen to stay for a bit out there in the white tundra, in the old dreamhouse, keeping watch over a gallery of children playing forever in their small, glass spheres.
I wandered through the woods until one day I finally arrived at the edge of the disk. I waited until night, and then stood, listening to the soft tones of the far stars. When I heard a particularly beautiful one, I held out the snow globe and stepped off the side of the world, floating off into space, and whispering to my brother.
I whispered that maybe, somewhere out here, drifting in the shimmering starlight towards a far, far away place, perhaps he would see something beautiful, something curious, something that might entice him out of his tiny bubble. To come outside and see the big, strange world. Learn to love, to grow up one day and touch the stars around him. And keep his lonely sister company, drifting on a glittering tone into a shimmering, obsidian sky.