The Sockdolager

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from the Winter 2015 collection

Tamers of the Green

by David Steffen

Jori stood with her friend Hordan at the edge of the stone flats and watched the writhing green. Hordan stood so close that the surges in the green came within arm’s reach and Jori twitched to pull her friend back to safety. The green withered to brown and stilled, only to surge forward again. When it was green it moved too fast to see anything more than a blur of color, but when it withered she could make out the infinity of its slender limbs. During the withering time, those brown limbs looked so frail and vulnerable, and crumbled to dust when touched, but Jori had seen someone die in the green when she was very young: body split and cracked in the relentless frenzy.

The mothers had always warned all the children about the green but they didn’t bother telling Hordan anymore. Hordan didn’t listen. Hordan hadn’t listened since before Jori was born.

The mothers also warned Jori to stay away from Hordan. And maybe they were right. Maybe Hordan’s rebellion had worn off on her, because she often found herself coming out to the edge of the green to watch with her friend in companionable silence, standing on the edge of safety and watching the surging green under the flickering sky. The mothers hadn’t given up on Jori yet, but maybe someday they would.

“There!” Hordan signed. “Did you see that?” In her excitement Hordan’s hands moved so fast Jori could barely understand her.

“I saw nothing,” Jori admitted.

“Over there,” Hordan said, pointing ahead and slightly to the left.

They waited a while, and then Jori saw it, something new in the green: brown shapes, less than knee-high. They appeared in a cluster, were there for a few moments and then were gone.

“They’re back. They’re finally back,” Hordan said. “I knew I’d see them if I waited.”

“What are they?” Jori asked.

“Tamers of the green. The fast people. They can move across the green as easily as we can move across stone. Not only that, but when the tamers are there, we can step onto the green safely as well. The green is docile in their presence.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I saw them the last time they came. They look just like us: two arms and two legs, but with an extra nub on top of their bodies. And they’re not made of rock.”

“What are they made of, then?”

“I don’t know what it’s called. You have to see it. I even stepped onto the green once and they talked to me. They were very impatient, very curious, always asking questions.”

“Why haven’t you spoken about them before?”

“I used to try, but the mothers wouldn’t tolerate it. That was before you were born. But it’s all been worth it, Jori, all the watching and waiting. They’re coming again. They’re coming again and this time I will speak to them early. I’ll walk on the green and I’ll find out everything there is to know about them.”

A mother appeared behind them at the range of their vision, smooth skin setting her apart from the sharper angles of Jori and Hordan. “Stay back,” she signed. “Please.”

Another cluster of the low brown things appeared, then shifted, then disappeared again. The mounds ventured closer to Jori and Hordan, almost to the near edge of the green.

Hordan signed “Hello again, my friends. It has been a long time,” and stepped out among them.
The mounds disappeared in mid-stride and Hordan’s foot landed in the midst of the green. The green surged up her leg and she signed desperately “Help! Help! Help!” as the green sent cracks throughout her legs. She reached down to try to pull the green off her but the green only spread to her arms.

There was nothing Jori could do. If she touched Hordan, she would be killed too. Jori felt like a coward as she signed “I’m sorry, Hordan. I love you.”

And then Hordan was dead, just a toppled heap of rubble with the green pulsing all around her remains, breaking the body into smaller and smaller pieces.

“Stay back, Jori,” the mother signed. “Please, please stay back.”

The mounds returned, clustering near and around the remains of Hordan, even sitting atop the body. The mounds changed, became boxes with all straight edges, moved much less often, and they multiplied. And among them the green was tamed.

“Don’t go!” the mother signed. “We have lost Hordan. We don’t want to lose another.”

Jori should obey. She had always obeyed before. The mothers always had her best interests in mind. But… Without Hordan, rebellious and lovely Hordan, there would be nothing to interrupt the safe life on the stone flats, the unchanging future of the unchanging plains. The tamers of the green might never come back again, and Jori would have that endless eternity to contemplate her cowardice.

Jori took a step among the boxes. Jori would have Hordan’s adventure.

The boxes were spaced too close together for Jori to fit her feet between, so she just stepped out among them and tried to crush as few as possible. Just before her foot came down on them, the boxes beneath her foot disappeared.

“Hello?” she signed. “Is someone there? Can you understand me?”

Jori went on, signing more greetings as she walked. As she passed the mound that had been Hordan, she laid a hand on it for a moment, in respect for her friend. The boxes continued to clear out of her way, springing up all around her and growing taller and taller. They were porous, with holes riddling their sides. What were they for? She walked on and on, and the boxes stretched taller and taller until they were even taller than Jori. These taller boxes flickered like sky, seemed to be built from the sky itself. She wanted to touch them, to find out what the sky felt like, but whenever she reached for one, it disappeared before her fingers touched.

There were now three mothers at the edge of the green. They didn’t speak, didn’t move, only watched Jori. Another joined them in their silent vigil. They did not dare come onto the green.

Jori longed to have Hordan by her side, so they could hold hands and explore this strange world together. Maybe some part of Hordan was walking with her, or riding on her shoulder, seeing everything she saw.

“Hello?” she signed for the hundredth time. “Is someone–?”

Before Jori could finish, something appeared directly in front of her chest, something smaller than a finger but so close it startled her. She swatted at it reflexively, but it dodged around her arm. It was shaped like a person, but smooth all over and with a nubby appendage atop its shoulders. It moved its arms as though it were signing but so quickly she couldn’t make out the individual words.

“What?” she signed.

“Hello?” the little person signed, still fast, but at a rate she could follow. “Is someone there? Can you understand me?”

“What do you mean?”

“Saying hurts. Say more.”

Jori pause, unsure what it meant.

“Say more,” it signed. “Say more and more. Say and say and say and say.”

If it wanted Jori to talk, Jori would talk. She spoke freely, talking about the mothers watching over them out in the safety of the wasteland, about the death of Hordan. She was in the middle of telling them about Hordan’s story about the tamers of the green when the creature interrupted.

“How long do you live?”

“For always, unless we fall into the green.”

“How does one of you become two of you?”

“I don’t know.” When Jori was younger, a group of the children had built a person out of stones. It looked just like the real thing, but it wasn’t alive. Only the mothers knew how to make the stone be alive. When Jori was older, when it was time for Jori to become a mother, the mothers would share their secret.

“How do you move?”

“Why do you pile question upon question?” Jori signed. Jori wanted to ask questions too, for Hordan.

“Children are born and die in your answers and the spaces between.”

So, this wasn’t a single creature, but generations of creatures in quick succession. Jori noticed now that there were discontinuities in the creature’s position, so small she hadn’t noticed them before, tiny twitches of movement that balanced out over time. It must be difficult to talk to something that moves so slowly.

“Tell me quick,” it signed, “Did someone make your kind or did you just happen, like the green?”

“I don’t know. I can ask the mothers.”

“Tell us now, quick. We–”

From one moment to the next, the creature was gone. All the high boxes that flickered with sky were gone; only wreckage stood in their place. The green did not return. The world was gray and nothing but gray. The creature did not return. Jori felt certain that the creatures were gone, gone forever and always.

Frightened, Jori picked her way through the broken pieces and returned to the four mothers who were waiting for her. They encircled her in a group embrace, and for long moments they stood there in silent community.

One of the mothers stepped back to sign. “We know it’s hard. We have all met the fast people, and we have all seen the coming of the gray that makes them die back. You will see it many times before you are a mother. In time, the green will return, and so will the fast people. They will be different, but also the same. We are sorry. The first time is always the hardest.”

And so the mothers led Jori back home, to be with her family. She watched as the ruins disappeared behind her, with no sign of life.

David Steffen is a writer, editor, and software engineer. He is probably most well known for running The Submission Grinder, an online resource to help writers find markets for their work. He edits Diabolical Plots, a zine that started publishing original fiction in 2015. On December 15th, the Long List Anthology edited by David will be released, which collects 21 stories from the Hugo Awards nomination list. The anthology will be available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats. His fiction can be found in Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Podcastle, and other fine venues.