Hey, have you read the Adventuring Interlude and the rest of Adventures in Capitalism? You probably should!
Isabel’s bright red high-top sneakers crunched through the snow. The shadows had grown long in the pines, and night was falling. She walked with her arms wrapped around her thin frame, attempting to keep warm. Jeremy waddled next to her, less enthusiastic than he had been when they had begun their journey those hours-days-years…forever ago.
Truth be told, Isabel felt her spirit fading as well, sapped out by the cold wind and the darkening shadows. Emma was gone now, and Isabel didn’t know where she was.
She was, for the first time in her memory, afraid. All she had wanted was a fun little adventure with her friend, and now…now she didn’t know where she was. She had lost her friend in a very bad place, and she kept imagining bad things happening to her. Scraped knees and bruises and even a cut, and one image that kept repeating; Emma lying on the ground and not moving.
Isabel kept walking, though she didn’t know where she was going. She couldn’t feel her toes. She wanted to go home, and for Emma to come back, and for everything to be all right again. Let the Factory make their games. She just wanted to go home with her friend.
The sun set, and the forest faded to blue, and slipped into black. In glimpses of the sky through the trees, Isabel could see the stars and the moons, but their light was weak. She stopped walking. There was nothing but darkness around her, save the patch of moonsilver snow that she stood in.
Isabel curled up in a ball and lay down in the snow. Jeremy licked her face, and curled up next to her. Being a dog, he did not understand why her face tasted saltier than usual.
The sun was black iron, pocked with craters of sickly fire. A halo of ragged smoke drifted from its pores, crackling with aurora bands of lightning. Streams of glistening, burning oil poured from its grinding mouths, into an eternal, abyssal ocean, its water thick with oil and slurried flesh. Shards of bone, the corpses of old gods, rose above the water, fashioned into crucifixes for the ones who were spared. Icebergs, filled with thousands of bloodied souls, melting slowly.
The air, cold and empty, hummed with the distant moans of pain.
Isabel stood on the water, and saw beneath its obsidian sheen the pale, bloated faces of hundreds, packed together tight enough that each bone had been broken. Jellied eyes spun about in crumpled sockets; crushed jaws mouthed without sound.
She didn’t know how she’d gotten there. Jeremy wasn't there either. She tried closing her eyes and opening them again, and she was still there. She shut her eyes tighter this time.
“It’s just a dream, it’s just a dream, it’s just a dream…”
She felt something wet and slippery wrap itself around her ankle. She looked down.
It was a hand. It yanked down, plunging her foot into the water, and Isabel felt it go instantly numb. The hand’s broken owner pulled itself above the surface, its wailing joined with Isabel’s screams.
Isabel beat at the thing’s misshapen head, the flesh and bone separating like pudding around her fists. More arms reached up to grab her, to pull her down, to pull themselves up, and their grips did not loosen. She sank into the numbing murk, up to her shins, up to her thighs, up to her waist.
“Emma!” Isabel screamed as loud as she could. “Emma, please help!”
Emma wasn’t there to hear her.
Lower, lower, colder, colder. To her armpits now. Her struggling grew weaker, though not for lack of effort. The things were crawling on each other now, attempting to escape, and their weight pushed her ever down. Up to her chin. As she gasped for mouthfuls of air, Isabel saw, in the distance, a throne.
Upon the throne sat a King, all adorned in scarlet. The king had seven spears, which pierced the brides that lay bloodied at his feet, from whose wombs spewed the great Leviathans that teemed around the throne.
The King raised an arm, encrusted with barnacle-gods, and turned his thumb down.
Isabel dropped beneath the surface, and all was cold.
You will not have her.
Return to your abyss.
You will not have her.
Begone, all you evil spirits.
Begone, all you ranks of demons.
Begone, all you inhabitants of the Abyss.
You will not have her.
Begone, first of the Fallen Gods.
Begone, Defiler of Worlds.
Begone, Rapist King.
Begone, Lord of the Throne of Despair.
You will not have her.
I cast you out!
Isabel woke up, gulping in frigid nighttime air. She could feel the snow against her, and hear Jeremy’s whimpering by her. She was back in the forest, far away from the horrible place she had seen. Her breathing slowed. Just a dream, she thought, the images melting away from her mind like snowflakes on skin, leaving only impressions. Deep cuts of cold and fear…but just a dream. It wasn’t real.
She sat up, and saw a man standing before her. He was short, stocky, draped in furs, with a broad face lost in folds and wrinkles of wind-tempered skin, and a wide bulbous nose like some overripe fruit. A thick mane of tangled silver hair rested on his head and on his chin. In one hand he held a stone-tipped spear. In the other, a torch.
Standing in the flickering shadows behind him was a great grey wolf whose shoulders came up to the man’s chin, watching intently with yellow eyes.
Isabel grabbed Jeremy and held him close. The old man smiled gently.
“I am not going to hurt you,” he said. His voice was guttural, rumbling and groaning as if he had not spoken in a long time. Yet, his words belied a great joy in even their very speaking. So different from the vision she had received – his air was of safety, of warmth.
He knelt down in the snow in front of Isabel, placing his spear to the side. “What is your name, child?”
“Isabel,” she said, letting go of Jeremy. "Who are you? Santa? You kinda look like Santa."
The old man's smile creased his face again.
“No, no. I am just an old man. And who is this?” he motioned towards the dog, who had not barked at all the entire time.
“Jeremy,” Isabel said.
“Ah.” He extended his hand, and Jeremy sniffed at it for a moment, before licking it. The old man scratched the corgi behind the ears. “He is a fitting companion for you. And what are you doing out here in the snow, Isabel and Jeremy?”
“I’m…I’m looking for my friend Emma. I lost her, but now I don’t know where I am, and I’m worried about her, and I don’t know if I can find her or my way home…could you help me?
“Would you allow me to help you?”
“Yes please.” Isabel nodded her head vigorously.
“Then I will help you.” The man stood up, and Isabel followed suit. Jeremy went over and attempted to sniff the wolf’s butt. The wolf pushed him onto his side with a lazy paw, then grabbed him with its mouth and proceeded to carry him, like a pup.
“Come with me,” the old man said. “I will show you a safe path.”
Isabel followed him.
They walked through the dark, passing from the woods to the switchbacks up into the mountains. The old man said nothing, but it was the good kind of nothing, Isabel had decided. The kind of nothing that filled up afternoon naps and cloudwatching. The wolf had decided that Jeremy squirmed too much, and now the corgi trotted along beside, nipping at the wolf’s heels. The wolf ignored him.
When they had risen above the trees, the old man paused, and looked out over the valley.
“What are you looking at?” Isabel asked.
“Merely where we have been.”
The path rose higher up the cliffside, before levelling off in a shelf scattered with snow drifts and banks of pebbles. A cave entrance yawned in the mountainside, a trickle of water flowing out of it to freeze as it dripped over the edge.
“This path will lead you homeward. I cannot follow you beyond its mouth,” the man said. “You and your companion must walk it alone.”
Isabel frowned as she gazed into the darkness. She had grown used to the old man’s comforting, quiet presence.
“Is it safe?”
“It is as safe as you will it.”
“Can I at least have the torch?”
There was no answer. She turned to see that the old man and his wolf were gone, as was his torch.
“Oh…well he was a load of help,” she said, and she meant at least some of it. “Come on Jeremy. Stick close to me.”
Isabel placed a hand on the wall of the cave, and slowly began to walk.
The tunnel’s path was at an incline, though it did not wind about. Soon removed from the light of the moons, Isabel navigated solely by the rough stone wall under her fingertips and the crunch of gravel under her feet. Time did not pass at all, and it did not pass in large quantities. The trickling of water and Jeremy’s padding steps were her only accompaniment.
The wall ended. The floor flattened out. Isabel stumbled, righted herself, moved her hand back to where it ought to be and found only open air. She waved an arm in the general direction of where the wall had been. Nothing.
She spun around, feeling out into the blackness.
Her voice did not even echo. The trickle of the water was absent. The empty space closed around her, choking her heart with long fingers. Gouged impressions of that terrible cold, that terrible fear, erupted in her mind, and she could not shake them.
“Jeremy! JEREMY! JEREMY!” her voice snapped. “Jeremy…don’t leave me alone.”
She sank into the darkness, and faded.
And she heard a voice. Two voices. More. A chorus, rising up from the dark.
I know of the names of the stars
And sung the animals their names
And discerned the course of the winds
I hold the heart of all stories within my breast
And mark the kinship of the beasts of the land
And know the land as friend
Who first looked up?
Who first loved?
Who held the first child?
It was I.
It was I.
It was I.
Who seeks beyond the horizon? (It is I)
Who makes real the future? (It is I)
Who carries the past? (It is I)
By wonders untold, the gift to create wonder
It was I
Who was gifted in humility
In creation I am made
In creation I am whole
In creation, I create
And the span of humanity rests in me
For I raised up my hand
“And there was fire…” Isabel whispered. A flame, delicate and small, flickered to life in her palm. She picked herself up off the ground, and the fire in her hand grew brighter, warmth and light pouring out, casting away the darkness.
She stood in a vast cave, the hollow heart of the mountain, now illuminated by the fire in her hand. Statues of stone, plaster, copper, steel, wax, clockwork, plastic, wood, refuse, and rubber filled the floor, peeked out of alcoves, clung to stalactites, sat carved in pillars. Paintings were spread across the walls in oil and ash and store-bought tempera, mosaics across the floor in tile and shell and bone. Men and women of the whole spectrum of humanity, from every age, from every place, from every time, thousands upon thousands upon tens of thousands upon more. Among these were other figures. Assistants, apprentices, companions, human and animal alike, all as varied as their employers.
Isabel walked alongside the stream towards its source, and was awed.
In the center of the cave, there was a pool of water, fed by a spring, and a great stone column that reached up to the shadowed dome of the ceiling. A face of the column had been cut to provide a flat face, and upon it, Isabel saw an image of herself, standing there, legs akimbo, fists on hips, grinning goofily. Emma stood next to her, unflappable as always, and Jeremy sat at her feet, chewing on a squeaky toy.
At the base of the pillar was a smaller stone, upon which was, in black and ochre, the figure of a man in furs, holding a spear in one hand, and a fire in the other, alongside a great grey wolf.
“It’s me…” Isabel murmured. “It’s all me…it’s always been me…” She whirled around. “It’s all me! Memories of you! You’re all me! All of this is me!” She no longer saw statues and paintings, but a vast multitude, their faces as familiar as her own. She knew them. She knew their names, their histories, the twined and bundled paths of their lives. Each facet of their souls was a face of her own.
She knew each and every wonder they had made. She knew them all, the greying bishop with a sack full of toys and his fat, red-coated brother. The girl with deep orange hair and purple thigh-high boots, obscured by a cloud of moths. The dusty woman with a bonnet, sitting atop her medicine wagon. The smirking man with waves of hair and an accordion. The dark woman with a headscarf, who smelled of ink and paper. The serious, pale woman with a worn guitar and a weathered soul. The ancient tinkerer with his clockwork animals. The entrepreneur from the north in her flamboyant blue sealskins. The lanky man in a tacky purple suit, with top hat and cane. The girl with braces and glow in the dark sweater, sitting atop a wild boar. The old man and his wolf, and on and on down through the thousands.
And her father. Jeremy sat at his feet. The corgi waddled over, to Isabel, barked, and she picked him up.
“Don’t you ever do that again, young man,” she said with mock sternness. She looked over to where she saw the image of her father – herself – standing. He gave her a nod.
And that was that.
Isabel stood there in the presence of all her other selves, her spirit now unified with theirs, and knew precisely who she was, what she was doing, and where she was going.
She was Isabel Wonder-Maker, and she was going to find her friend.