(Determined by a random story idea generator)
The story features a woodsman, who can be cold, and a pickpocket, who is prim.
It’s a magical realism story about broken dreams. It kicks off in an echoing cavern with a prayer being thrown up to the winds.(Note that: someone in the story has a reputation to salvage.) And there’s a twist! (Which I will keep a secret, for now.)
The near future.
The old man knelt in the cave’s entrance, knees and shins pressed against the hard rock floor. His head was lowered in prayer and he mumbled a few soft words only he and his god could hear.
He started every day with this plea to the universe, but it wasn’t for forgiveness. Emil had no use for the shallow, meaningless gesture. It was easy for man or god to say I forgive you, one only had to ask for those words and they were given. But that wasn’t enough.
Emil prayed for opportunity.
This pose—head down, eyes closed, hands folded—lasted some minutes. Orange light skipped across his stooped figure as the sun beyond the cave slowly rose. Emil prayed with sincerity and conviction, but little hope. For when his god answered, he ordered Emil to leave his hideaway and go into the world he so feared. It was the only way.
Every morning Emil also begged for another.
The sunrise broke free of the horizon; its light glowed behind Emil’s eyes. He opened them, raising his head and his hands at once. He imagined his words pooling like rainwater in the palms of his hands and flung them into the air. The wind carried his prayer away.
Give me an opportunity to do good, the message begged.
Then words of forgiveness wouldn’t need to be said, because the deed would speak for itself.
He left the cave and walked the well-worn path to his cabin, as he’d done every morning for fifteen years. As was habit, when he made the gentle turn left and downhill and came upon the view of the cabin nestled cozily by a small pond, he thought of Anna.
This had been their summer retreat; he still saw it that way. After the revolution, she didn’t come back here, but that wasn’t a surprise. Everyone would’ve denounced their old lives and the cabin was associated with a traitor. Still, Emil had long ago planned his escape: a secret room that led to a twenty-foot long tunnel, which snaked from the cabin to the woods. Just in case the authorities came to visit. He’d never used it.
The rest of the morning passed quaintly. Emil had his breakfast and fed the birds, chipmunks, and one shy fox, greeting each with the name he’d given them. He sat on his porch and whittled what would, eventually, be a white-tail deer. As he carved, the sun yellowed and climbed the sky. The trees that ringed the pond were still bare, the reeds dry and withered, but a veery thrush sang its otherworldly trill from a distant tree, announcing to Emil’s ears alone that spring had arrived.
In these solitary activities, Emil was at peace. His only chore for the day was to till the garden. Life was simple, quiet. It didn’t extend far beyond his own thoughts, and the little pond and its cabin, and the woods around it. So accustomed was he to his own company that he felt the presence of another person like a gust cutting through the trees.
Emil glanced up from his whittling to scan the lawn, expecting to find someone standing there. He was, as he had been, alone. But he felt her, somewhere, and not far way. He listened. The veery chirped. A second presence joined the first.
A man and a woman. Where could they have come from? He was miles from any town. He put down his whittling knife and the nascent deer.
Then came proof of his instinct: for the first time in fifteen years, he heard a human voice that wasn’t his own.
And it was a girl, screaming.
He leapt off his rocking chair and it thunked against the floorboards. Down the steps, around back of the cabin, into the woods. Old leaves cracked under his boots and she screamed again, her voice closer this time, her presence in his mind stronger.
They were near the river where he fished brook trout every summer. He could picture them there and he saw the girl in danger and knew she believed herself doomed.
The river flowed through a shallow ravine. This time of year, the narrow passage choked snow melt into a foam of rapids. He knew this part of the woods intimately—every rock in the river, every tree on its bank. He stood on high ground over the familiar spot, irrationally afraid.
Emil had never seen people there. They looked out of place, when he set eyes on them—the man and the woman.
Seeing them, Emil suddenly felt foolish for coming; he should’ve stayed at his cabin. He hadn’t considered the risks; now someone would know where he was. And who knew what this man would do? A quick glance told Emil the man had a gun, so he ducked, but too late. The man had already seen him.
Emil stood straight. He looked not at the man, but the tiny, elfish blond girl wriggling under his grip; her face was small at this distance, but vivid. It would be easy to run away and let this man do what he wanted to do, but that face told him to stay and save her. Instinct whispered that she was worth it.
“What are you doing out here, gramps!” The man barked up at him. “This isn’t a residential zone!”
Emil showed him his hands and made his way down the slope, boots skidding on leaves and soft ground.
“Just taking a walk,” Emil said.
“That’s against the law, too.”
It was unwise to question this man. He spoke with authority; he held a gun to the girl’s head and he enforced rules Emil didn’t understand. There was a flatness to his eyes that frightened him and beyond what he could see, an unnerving lack of patience.
The girl, too, was outwardly emotionless, but for different reasons. Composed, yet angry, she scowled at Emil, judging his appearance. He had a villainous look—a deforming scar on his left cheek that offset his mouth, obsidian eyes, slanted, winged eyebrows. And he was dressed like a beggar.
Emil smiled, though he knew the effect wasn’t pleasing. “Let the girl go.”
The man snorted. “You, get down on your knees, and put your hands on your head.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
With the gun, he tapped an emblem on his shoulder; Emil now noticed that the man wore a black uniform with gold trim. The set included trousers, tall boots, a long coat, and beret; the emblem on the shoulder of the coat was a modified version of one Emil had seen fifteen years ago, back when he still lived in the city. Over the course of a decade, it had been spray painted on buildings, then marked propaganda, and, in the end—just before he was declared traitor—adorned flags.
An eye, nestled in the outstretched wings of an eagle.
Emil dropped to his knees; he didn’t want to be shot for disobeying. If he was shot, the girl’s fate was sealed, whatever it may be. The man squeezed her shoulders tighter and she suppressed a whimper. Her eyes gave away nothing, but Emil could tell what she was. Tomboyish, her hair was cropped short and she had a plain face with a soft complexion. Long limbs gave her the illusion of height; her small size, the illusion of youth. She wore frayed clothes, originally a size too big for her—possibly hand-me-downs from a brother, given the masculine style—but showed signs of being hemmed to fit. A bag was looped around her shoulder and it bulged.
“Who did she steal from?” Emil asked. It wasn’t a guess.
The uniformed man’s flat eyes sparked. He drew himself taller, flicking up a sharp-tipped nose. “A Commander. She pilfered a jewelry box from his summer home. I’ve been tracking her for miles.”
To extenuate the injustice, he wrenched the girl’s arm behind her back.
Emil extended his hands. “She’s clearly in need. If this Commander is as wealthy as he seems, surely he can part with one trinket. She needs it more than him.”
The man’s thin lips flattened. “What are you suggesting?”
“Just a simple act of charity.”
“Charity!” The man spat the word loudly and it pinged off tree trunks. “Suffering elevates Sinners to Saints! Would you deny this Sinner,” and he wrenched the girl’s arm again; a faint whimper spilled from her lips, “the opportunity to earn a better place?”
Spittle dripped from the man’s lip. Emil had heard such talk before, but back then, only a handful of people spouted such dogma. They had been powerful and persuasive and it seemed their ideas had crystallized and spread.
Emil longed for his cabin and the simple thoughts of the chipmunk and chickadee, but he sensed those things were in his past. Something new had arrived and he trembled before it.
“Put your hands on your head! When I am through with her, you are next,” the man said, but his voice was fading into the background, even as it increased in volume. “The Watchers will be most interested to meet a beggar living illegally in the woods, freely sprouting prohibited doctrine.”
A second voice, commanding and clear as a bell, slipped into Emil’s mind.
Come on, old man, do something…
The girl wriggled under the man’s grip. Her eyes glanced down, at her boot.
Distract him… her thoughts pleaded.
It had been so long so he’d read a mind, Emil had almost forgotten what it was like. Her thoughts dizzied him and he felt himself sever from his surroundings.
But he recovered quickly as it all came back to him—the gift he’d spent fifteen years desperately avoiding.
Go out into the world, his god said. Foolish of him not to listen. Pointless, really. Emil refused to comply, and so the universe brought the world to his doorstep.
Come on old man! The girl thought. What are you doing?
Her face gave away nothing. Only the eyes—wide and burning like tiny fires—revealed her desperation to any observer. Emil looked to her boot, measured the distance between himself and the uniformed man, and then looked to the sky.
And then, he took a step.