Without Wishes to Bind You

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Hugo and World Fantasy finalist E. Catherine Tobler lives and writes in Colorado. Weird how that works out! Her debut collection, The Grand Tour, is available from Apex Book Company. Her short fiction appears in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and others. You can find her on Twitter @ECthetwit.

Michael is afraid to go farther. Pudgy pushes him on.

They walk through the shrouded city, the sound of footsteps all but obscured. Pudgy holds hard to the band of the broken fedora that perches crooked atop Michael’s bent head; the knees of Pudgy’s trousers are soaked from kneeling against the brim. Rain drips steadily from above, rainbows fanning out across the surface of every oil blotch on the ground. Fields of dry ghost-grass whisper, window blinds in abandoned houses watch and murmur. Two figures, three meters. Four meters. Five … moving east. Away.

Michael looks sideways the first time he hears the murmur and pays little attention until one voice announces that they’ve turned south. Pudgy stomps a foot on the fedora’s wet brim, as if he can stop Michael’s momentum. Michael walks on, the blotches of oil more common the farther south they go.

Slurred voices, mechanical and flavored with bursts of static, accompany them, security systems still doing their jobs though no one remains to listen. Michael looks at one house and then its neighbor, the window blinds whispering to each other, marking his progress. Two sus … pects closing. Four meters. Three meters. Two meters. Figures mov-hic! away.

Pudgy bites into Michael’s ear. Michael swats at him as he would a bug, but Pudgy, despite his name, is quick, and burrows into Michael’s collar. He quickly becomes a small source of heat against the cool of the day.

“Don’t like south.”

Michael doesn’t like south either, but keeps walking that way, intent. Gravel crunches beneath his shoes, greasy puddles seeping into the broken soles, grey laces dragging.

Heather told him, her voice sweet as orange blossom honey, that there were three sure ways to catch a leprechaun, the first being to manufacture a rainbow and wait for the little men to arrive in droves with their pots of gold. The pots would be small, but would seem infinite as the creatures began to gather. The second method involved resting in a plot of autumn sunlight with your long, bare legs outstretched, your best pair of shoes in plain evidence—the method Heather claimed she employed every single time and she had three leprechauns to show for it. The third and most foolish method involved pints of beer (though none had been seen in years) into which the small creatures would tumble, helpless to resist the scent. They would drink themselves dead quick though, so one needed to tend beer traps carefully.

Michael didn’t use any of these methods, yet Pudgy was still trapped. Michael had been reaching for something else entirely, the exposed end of a pocket knife across a dark slick of oil. The clouds parted; a momentary trail of sunlight gave the oil a rainbow sheen and there he was: Pudgy, all five inches of him, his feet stuck in the goo. Michael pulled him free.

Pudgy whines a little as they head deeper south, tiny fingers rubbing at the well-worn lapel of his velvet coat. “Velvet and buttons,” he whispers. “Brocade and brass.” It’s like a small incantation to keep the dark things at bay, and in the daylight hours, seems to work well enough. When night falls, not much can keep a person from shivering their bones out of their skin.

“Just give me one,” Michael says. Just one clue toward the treasure, that’s all he wants.

Pudgy’s whine deepens to a little growl and above him the thunder echoes. Michael reaches up, meaning to grasp Pudgy and shake him, but the leprechaun is quick and darts around Michael’s shirt collar, into his tangle of dark, fragrant hair. “Satin and herringbone.” He digs his hands into his pockets, curling them around the bits of paper there.

Michael bites the inside of his cheek and walks deeper south.

§

Dear Michael,

The oil keeps coming. Mama says the waters are calming, but it looks to me like it’s more oil than water, so naturally, the water is calmed. Calmed by the black slick atop it. So many have given up, so many have moved away, and those who stay have turned cruel.

Mama doesn’t rest and doesn’t want to leave, and with the baby coming, I don’t want to go, either. Every day she’s out there, looking for a way to make it work. Her nets are useless now, and her cages only haul in dead creatures. When I asked her why she kept on, she threw a blackened sea star at me. I caught it the same way I caught that leprechaun and held tight. I tucked the star into my drawer and lift up the hem of my folded nightgown in there every day to look at it.

I watch the waters, but I don’t see them. Not any more. I see used-to-bes and wonder if you will ever make it home. Will you know this place? Will you know me? They’re limiting the number of people they allow into the region now, but every day I look for you. Every day. Did you find a place we can go?

Mama is calling. I must go. -H.

§

The fire that evening is small and hard to start. Every bit of wood is wet. Michael is relieved when he finds a small cabinet wedged into a closet that is easily broken apart. He feeds the dry wood to the flames and they kick higher, sparking against the dark sky. Pudgy sits on the broken edge of a drawer, pulling shoes and socks off, wriggling his damp toes. Michael crouches across from him, watching.

“Are we close?”

Pudgy’s eyes look like black holes for a moment. He blinks and then looks up at Michael, eyes reflecting the firelight. 

“Velvet and buttons, yes,” Pudgy says, his voice gone soft. He draws his left hand against his empty belly, fingers of his right hand scrabbling over the itchy skin on the back of his left. Michael blinks, then looks up to the trees that arc over them, bare-branched and thin. It is summer, yet nothing grows.

The fedora comes off, rain hissing into the fire when Michael gives the hat a shake. He’s as wet as Pudgy, if not more, but he doesn’t take his shoes off. The last time he did that, they ended up abandoning camp, leaving shoes and supplies behind. The shoes he wears now, though broken, are his size and he’s of a mind to keep them.

“How many days?”

The fire answers with a crackle. Michael feeds it another slip of wood while Pudgy considers. “Copper and buckles,” Pudgy whispers and leans against the edge of the broken drawer, still thinking. In leprechaun steps, it’s a much longer journey. “Do you not know this place?”

Michael looks beyond the camp. Buildings rise in a jagged line to his left, barren trees dot the road. He can almost picture cars lined there, and, in fact, the firelight glints off something metallic. He imagines that it is a car, that they can hop in and drive and never stop. The storefronts are ruined, signs blackened. Mailboxes are beaten to the ground, addresses obliterated. This place doesn’t want to be known. In the distance, he can hear the murmur of a security system, tracking something.

“Should I?”

Pudgy murmurs a word that sounds like “cree,” but says nothing more. Michael falls to silence, too, not demanding anything. His stomach is empty. Exhaustion claws at him. Not much farther, he tells himself, but not necessarily because they are close; only because he cannot go much further. If Heather is out there, she needs to be close.

§

Dear Michael,

They burned Mama’s boat today. The boat screamed as it died, an inhuman sound as systems tried to monitor themselves and then flicked offline. The smell of burning oil woke me, flames bright like daylight against the windows. I stood for a long time, watching the flames lick their way up the oily hull, watching the men in the distance throw up their hands as if to encourage the flame.

I had to hold Mama back when she saw it. She shrieked and tore at her hair and I had to dig my feet into the floor and lock the door before she could run out there and fling herself into the flames. You know she would have.

Other boats burned tonight, too. When I got Mama into bed, I climbed up the back fence and onto the roof like we used to do to watch the stars. All up and down the coast, I could see little pinpricks of light, bright and reaching up into the sky.

That scent—the burning—is inside everything. It’s in my clothes, it’s in my hair. Some days I fear it’s inside me, but it’s only the child kicking now.

They’ve stopped all travel into the region. The men who want to stay are building a wall like they mean to make a compound.

Will you still come? Can you? I can see the soldiers from the roof, too; they patrol now more than ever, long into the night. They don’t seem to mind the pinpricks of firelight. I do. Each one is a thing burning.

– Your H.

Post Script: Samuel Michael, just about five pounds, born this morning, during the storm.

§

Pudgy is not pudgy; he’s anything but. He likes his bread toasted in the fire with a little black pepper and olive oil, but hasn’t had this in more months than he can count. His coats no longer fit properly, which shames him. They are loose in the shoulders and belly, but he still wears them buttoned, anxious fingers polishing the brass buttons to a high shine. Michael made a comment about vanity only once. Pudgy’s shriek was a reminder to never comment on it again.

Two wishes remain within Pudgy’s grasp, two wishes and then he’ll have his freedom once more. Only Michael doesn’t make the wishes; Pudgy thinks Michael is saving them, trying to trick him in some way, but Pudgy can’t figure it out. He’s not a very good leprechaun, he supposes, but then, he’s only been caught once before, and that happened long before the world turned upside down and fell apart. Pudgy can feel these wishes pressing against him like a small weight. Secretly, he does not mind. He was lonely before and is no longer.

Midday, they find a mailbox still standing, and Pudgy, tucked into the breast pocket of a jacket Michael took from a broken store window, points to its side. Michael steps closer to brush the layers of dirt from the name stenciled there.

“This is the place,” Pudgy tells him. Pudgy remembers the town Michael talked about, remembers the lines of mailboxes with their painted names and their red metal flags. He leans over and pushes this flag up, as if to say “we’re here.”

“Not her house,” comes Michael’s reply and he snaps the flag down.

Pudgy clucks his tongue, a small sound from a small man, but Michael still hears it; he’s come to expect it almost.

I wish we would find her house. Go on and say it. Go on.

No wishes, only treasure. Give up your treasure.

No. 

Pudgy is as resolute on that as Michael is on not giving up the wishes. There is common ground in their stubbornness, but it will get neither anywhere. They see this, yet neither bends.

While this is not Heather’s house, it is a house in the right town. Michael turns and Pudgy clings to his collar. Dark footsteps in sodden earth trail out behind them.

Michael feels the press of Pudgy against his throat as he starts up the small hill. It will crest with the theater on top. He cautiously remembers how, in the summers, the scent of fresh popcorn seemed to cascade down that hill and settle into the valley, drawing kids up and up toward the illuminated screens.

Michael knows where they are, and yet he asks: “Are we close?”

Not to Heather’s house, he doesn’t mean that. (From this point on the hill, Michael knows exactly how many steps will get him to Heather’s house, if he can take a direct route. He doesn’t need to make a wish to know what is already burned into his bones.) Pudgy holds his tongue for a long moment as Michael moves up the hill, toward the now-silent theater. No popcorn scent today, just the wet and the rain.

Are we close? Pudgy is a small homing beacon; he can feel the pull of the treasure no matter where they go.

Just give up the treasure. They share the thought, though leave it unspoken this time. What harm is there in it now? There is no profit to be made … Pudgy’s small hand curls into the lapel of Michael’s coat.

“Brass and brocade, close,” Pudgy whispers. As they come to the top of the hill, he sees the first ragged line of the wall.

§

Dear Michael,

Most everyone has left. Mama won’t leave, so I must stay. She thinks there is a life yet to be had here. I can’t imagine where I would go, not with Samuel in tow. He’s still so tiny and cries at night.

Mama and the others who stayed go out every morning in an attempt to fish. They don’t catch anything edible. They come back midday and hunt through the ruins, often finding a thin coyote or a bear cub. They leave the cubs alone, which may almost be a deeper cruelty, these offspring without parents to teach them the ways.

The wall is nearly finished. It circles three blocks of town, from the Cantrels’ house to ours, and is made of metal sheets and trucks and billboards. I look out my window now and see an advertisement for a seafood restaurant. The mud-splattered crab still tries to dance across the surface, claws twitching. After a rainstorm, it glistens with an oily, rainbow sheen. Yesterday, double rainbow.

Yours, H.

§

I wish we would never get there.

This is Pudgy’s own wish, though he never makes it aloud. He watches Michael across the fire then picks his way over, moving over log and rock so his feet never touch the ground. The leather of his shoes is starting to harden and he fears it will crack. He lost the left buckle some time ago and tied it shut with a ribbon once red, but now gray. At Michael’s side, he looks up and waits for the man to nod before placing a foot against the human’s thigh and beginning the climb up. Thigh, arm, biceps, shoulder. Shoulder is where he’s most comfortable. He loves to tuck in next to Michael’s neck and feel Michael’s pulse as he drifts off to sleep. It’s like some great, unseen ocean, that sound. In and out, and it drags the small creature down into dreams, though tonight he’s reluctant to let that tide carry him away.

“Why did you go?”

Pudgy asks the question and expects no real reply. It’s not something they’ve ever talked about. Michael talks in his sleep, mostly murmuring Heather’s name, but he’s never said her name while awake and in Pudgy’s company.

Michael holds his silence. Pudgy supposes everyone goes sooner or later. He left his own people to roam, to explore more of the land. He also supposes most people don’t end up in such dire straits. Least they didn’t used to.

“Ribbons and thread,” he whispers. He craves these things the way he does olive oil on his toast. Thread moving through fabric, joining two separate pieces into one whole. Beautiful ribbons to bind edges. In blue and orange and the green of his mother’s eyes. He shoves his hands into his pockets, small fingers worrying at the frayed bits of paper inside; closes his eyes and listens to the thrum of Michael’s heart.

“Used to be,” Michael eventually says, “that I would go so I could come back.” A soft exhalation of breath, and Pudgy finds himself holding his own. “Sometimes a person just needs to go.”

Pudgy understands. He’s never gone back though, so doesn’t understand that side of it, though now he tries to picture it. Coming back to the woman he dreams about. Coming back to his home. At the very thought, he exhales and feels calm, but when he knows he can never go back, his little shoulders tighten up again.

“Here.”

Pudgy withdraws his hand from his pocket, an irregular scrap of paper held between his fingers. When Michael looks up, Pudgy waves it, wanting him to take it. Michael is careful when he takes it, eyes narrowed on the small image there, maybe once a pansy, and the two numbers, 54. In another life, it was a postage stamp.

“I wish you would take me to your treasure,” Michael says and his hand closes over the paper, making it vanish.

“Wishes don’t work like that,” Pudgy says, though Michael already knows this. “But …” His small eyes, once very clear and beautiful and lined with kohl on festival days, search the sky beyond their camp. “I will show you.”

§

Dear Michael,

We have to leave. Every day, things are worse and Mama won’t see it. She is staying, but Samuel and I must go. The risk to stay is just too much. We’re going to head north—to Moss Point, where I think my aunt still lives.

Mama thinks I am foolish, but like you, I have to try. The fires never stop. The air is thick with smoke. Samuel cries himself to sleep, then wakes up crying all over again.

And if the world changes again? If you come back and I’m gone? I am making my last wish, Michael, my last wish upon this small leprechaun, that even if I am gone, you find me. You find us. This world is big, but it is not endless. Come north. Start in Moss Point. I love you.

Yours, H.

§

“I was running when she caught me,” Pudgy says, and Michael presses himself deeper into the log, as if he can vanish into a knot of the wood.

“I slowed down to look at those legs, smooth and bare in the fall sun. She was prettier than beer. She turned and all that autumn hair tumbled over one shoulder, leaves and cones tangled, and I reached out, wanting to touch a strand. Just one strand.”

Just one strand was enough to doom a man, Michael thinks in memory of tumbled hair, its fiery light, its cool smoothness. Just one. He doesn’t look away from the worn stamp while Pudgy talks about Heather; cradles it in his palm as though it’s a thread linking them across the ruined land. She didn’t have an address to write him and yet she wrote.

“Buttons and lace, she was beautiful.” Pudgy’s voice has dropped to a whisper and he sways in the crook of Michael’s neck and shoulder. “Those eyes, clear like my mother’s and the way she hummed, like a small hive of bees had taken up in her throat and were trying to get free, all furious wings.” Pudgy hums, a song Michael doesn’t know but one that sounds like Heather even so. Even without the words, he can feel the ghost of her there.

Should never have gone, he thinks, and then, had to go. Had to find a way, a better place. But there is none better, he knows now. None better than at her side, even with the waters rising and the world crumbling. No better place.

Michael lets himself remember more, the scent of Heather’s fresh-washed hair, the feel of her cool palm against his. “Moss Point?” Michael asks in a whisper. She had family there, an aunt and cousins and a dog named Goob.

“That’s what she said.”

Pudgy’s voice is so small now and Michael understands. Heather is the creature’s treasure too; the memory of her voice, her legs, and the sweet way she’d captured him.

“Swept me up while I was reaching for that strand,” Pudgy had said. “Held me in the palm of her hand and laughed and you would have thought it was a rain of buttons on smooth Formica. Those eyes—and the delight in her smile … I was trapped.”

Trapped but not a prisoner, oh no. Willingly held until Heather made her last wish and sent the leprechaun into the wilds. Under the wall of metal and trucks, beyond the puddles of oily water, in the same direction Michael had gone.

Pudgy slips his outermost jacket off and carefully spreads it across Michael’s shoulder. Michael watches from the corner of his eye as the leprechaun begins to peel the jacket lining away. The lining that is actually letters; small and folded and worried thin, covered with Heather’s handwriting.

And now Michael knows more. Knows all that Pudgy has hidden away these long weeks they have walked over this ruined earth. Knows that Heather’s words have kept the leprechaun warm and also fearful.

“Little man,” Michael whispers.

Pudgy backs away, as though afraid Michael means to hurt him. Slips down Michael’s arm, into the crook of his elbow. Michael doesn’t reach for Pudgy, but instead the letters, unfolding them to read. To read of his love and his son and that they are on the move.

When he looks down at the leprechaun, his eyes are overly bright. He scoops Pudgy into his hands, Pudgy who stands straight and tries to look dignified without his once-fine coat. Pudgy tugs on his blouse and meets Michael’s eyes.

“Not supposed to need anyone,” Pudgy says. His chin lifts.

“No,” Michael says and gives a slow nod. “Me either. But will you stay, anyhow?” He tries not to notice the way Pudgy’s small chin trembles, for he holds in his hands a powerfully vain beast. “Will you come without wishes to bind you?”

Pudgy does not answer and Michael wonders if it’s because he cannot. Those small eyes have welled with tears and his throat seems to be working an awful lot.

“I wish that, tomorrow morning, we find chickens and eggs,” Michael murmurs. It was a fine wish, one that would see them fed for the day. “And I wish that tomorrow night, we have good, dry shelter.”

A small glow surrounds Pudgy, telling Michael the wishes will work just fine. Eggs, he thinks, and can hardly wait. Of course, he should have wished for something proper to cook them in, but—

Heather kept a frying pan on the wall above her stove, and this they find when they visit the house in the early morning. Of Heather’s mother there is no sign, and Michael says a small prayer for that. Over an open fire, he and Pudgy cook and feast on egg after egg, and Michael finds a small cage in which he keeps two of the chickens. For a time anyhow, he thinks. For a time.

They do not spend the night, neither man wanting to find shelter in these walls that once housed Heather. Michael packs her pan and the black sea star he finds in her drawer—it gives a faint wriggle under the sudden warmth of his palm as if to say hello—and then they go, together.

Window blinds in abandoned houses watch and murmur. Two figures, three meters. Four meters. Five … moving north. Away.

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© E. Catherine Tobler

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