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ursulav

Bark Like A Fish, Damnit!


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ursulav

Writing Snippet!

A buddy of mine reminded me that this existed...he was asking about the House of Red Fireflies, and I remembered I had a story about the golem girl somewhere. I hadn't remembered that it was finished, though--I think I had a vague notion that there was something else I wanted to do with it, something rather darker that took place behind the Door, but with a little perspective, I see this is an origin story, and it doesn't belong in here, and anyway, I'm not sure if the golem's the one to do it with. I don't see myself writing ceramic snuff. *cough*

Possibly the djinneyeh's story. She at least has opinions. On the other hand, I don't know if I'm the one to write that one...well, anyway.

On the third hand, possibly this story was just too much like the mandrake girl's, and I couldn't figure out how to make it different.

Well, that's all neither here nor there. In the meantime--have the golem girl's story!

 
The golem girl sat in the corner of a ruined basement.

The basement was under about fifteen feet of rubble, in a small town southwest of Carthage, on the edge of the desert which had once been held up as an example of learning for its sorcerers and scholars, and which was now held up as an example of what an earthquake could do to the unprepared. 

The golem’s creator was dead. He had been caught under an enormous beam, and though the golem girl had moved it aside as lightly as an empty seedpod, it had crushed the old rabbi’s body, and he died with his head in her cool clay lap. His last blood-flecked words, as he saw the end approach, were a common enough sentiment among people in that situation—“Not yet! Wait…!”

The golem girl accepted this final command with the cool ceramic stoicism that she had accepted all the others, and she waited. 

It was dark in the basement, after the city fell on it. Dust sifted down, and beams groaned, for the first few weeks, and that was all. The rabbi mummified in the dry desert air, his skin dry and cracked and leathery, lips skinning back from the teeth, where they lay against the golem girl’s knee.

She waited. 

The winds that fall blew the dust and the dirt aside, and piled it in corners, so that it sifted down again in places, and small holes opened up in the tangle of beams and let light in. It was a muted, indirect light, but it divided the world into day and night again.

She continued to wait. 

Two years later, the grandfather of all sandstorms blew up from the desert. Travelers a hundred miles away reported that the noon sky turned black as sackcloth. In the ruined town, darkness came, and lasted for three days as sand fell like gritty rain.

In the basement, newly buried again under several feet of sand, the darkness stayed for three centuries. 

This did not bother the golem girl. When you are fashioned of immortal clay, immune to boredom, hunger, pain or weariness, very little bothers you. Her skin was the cool, firm texture of clay that potters call “leather hard” to the touch, but neither swords nor sandstorms left a mark on it. Short of a direct nuclear blast, being dumped into a live volcano, or running afoul of a mob of trained rabbinical scholars with enchanted sledgehammers, she was unlikely to be destroyed. This removed the primary source of angst in life, and left her as placid and calm as the darkness around her.

The thoughts of a golem are much like clay, as one might expect. They are laid down in flat sheets, like sedimentary layers forming on a lakebed, each on top of another, the weight of slow and ponderous thoughts crushing down, until the bottom layers are as hard and implacable as stone. If you sliced open a golem’s consciousness—assuming you could find it, which is the tricky part, golem consciousness being one of those rare items like virgin’s milk and the philosopher’s stone—it would look like a cross-section of fine bands, each memory fossilized within it like a tiny leggy creature captured in shale. 

In the basement, the memory of the dark grew into a thick band of rich black across the golem’s mind. She sat, immortal and alone, cradling the rabbi’s body, while centuries filtered by like sand grains trickling from the holes in the ceiling. The wind outside sighed and whistled and rubbed itself across the rubble, but found no entry.

The rabbi desiccated in the dark, becoming hollow bone wrapped in parchment-like rags of skin. This did not bother her either. The rabbi had sent her to defend the city, once, and she had torn men in half with her delicate ceramic hands. It would be hard to say if that had bothered her, particularly—she was mute, as golems always are—but the layer of those thoughts was a thin, rust-colored band, that stood out shockingly red against the grey and dun sediments on either side. 

She continued to wait.

Eventually the winds wore away at the sands until daylight came again. The rabbi was as fragile as ancient scroll now, but since the golem girl did not move, that didn’t much matter. 

A few years later, a bird flying over the ruined city did something common to birds, and a wet white plop, angled with startling precision, fell through a hole in the boards and splattered on a pile of dirt about three feet from the golem girl’s right knee.

This did not bother the golem girl. When one resembles statuary, one learns to take the ministrations of birds philosophically within a very short time. 

There was a seed contained within the bird’s excrement. Surrounded by fertilizer, having landed within a hospitable pocket of dirt out of the sighing winds, it began to grow.

The seedling was tiny, and green, and the golem girl’s porcelain eyes were fixed upon it. It was a bizarre thing in the dim basement, an exuberantly green thing in a world of dusty brown and black. It grew lavishly, wastefully, throwing out pairs of leaves, growing leggily towards the daylight so far overhead. Its stem was pale white, shading to green at the base of the leaves, and the roots were yellowish where they clawed through the guano into the dirt. It was a whole universe of color. 

Almost imperceptibly, at the same rate that a seedling grew, the golem’s narrow clay chin rose, so that her eyes could follow that twining, ridiculous green.

There was not enough water in the basement. The leaves turned yellow, drooped. One fell, and at last, the golem moved perceptibly, her head turning, watching the leaf skitter and drift down, down, until at last it rested on the ground. The small, curled yellow leaf in the center of the dry ground might have looked like a death to a human, but to the golem girl, it was as if the leaf was an annunciation, as if by its touch, the ground had been made holy. 

Another leaf fell, a few hours later, and the golem turned her torso a few inches to watch it fall.

It was too much for the rabbi. Quietly, and without fuss, he crumbled into dust. 

The golem looked down, from the leaf, to her lap, at the dust and the few dull fragments of bone that had been a living man for eighty years, and a dead man for over three hundred.

It occurred to her then that the plant might die, as the rabbi had. 

The thin greenish sedimentary layer that a geologist—or psychologist, with golems the two were not entirely distinct—might identify with the arrival of the plant churned suddenly, as if on the bottom of the lakebed, a large fish had darted through the muck and roiled it up in murky clouds.

This was a thought too large and active to fossilize. This demanded action. The rabbi had told her to wait, and she had waited. But “wait” was a nebulous command, and it did not mean that she could not follow other commands, if only someone would give them. 

The plant needed water. It could not speak, of course, any more than a golem could. But the curl of the wilting leaves, the wan yellow color against the gloom—this was a cry for water, an order for water, in the language of plants. It was not a human language, but the golem was not human. Although the plant did not know it had acquired a golem, she had perceived the need, and the implicit order, as clearly as if it had shouted aloud.

The golem rose to her feet. There were stones and beams in the way, which she brushed aside as casually as a man might brush aside cobwebs. They fell, groaning, the air filling with dust, and she slung them away from the leggy, wilting plant. 

Centuries ago, there had been a well at the center of the town. The golem dug it out with her hands, excavating down forty feet in a single afternoon. Water oozed from the damp muck at the bottom, and she made a cup of one hand and climbed out, one-handed, her ceramic feet braced against the stones.

Using one hand as a cup, she ferried water back and forth to the plant at need, season after season, year after year, until it was a thorny, bright-leafed tree. When she was not climbing down the well, she sat under the tree, cross-legged, holding the tree’s afternoon shadow across her lap as she had once held the dying rabbi. 

One afternoon, the air crackled, and the sky turned grey, and a rare desert rain came down. Raindrop craters in the dust gave way to wet, glinting sand, gave way to puddles, and left a damp sheen on the trunk of the tree and the skin of the golem. The roots of the tree sank into the puddle forming in the basement, and drank deep.

And that was it. The tree did not need her any more. The golem stood up in the rain, and touched the tree. That is perhaps the oddest part of the story, that gesture. A golem girl, made of clay, without heart or by even the wildest stretch of theology a soul, patted the tree’s trunk, and the tree’s leaves whispered in the rain. 

She had been told to wait, but not where, or for how long.

She walked northeast. There was no particular reason to walk northeast, except that was the direction the street ran, and thus it required knocking down the fewest number of walls in order to leave the city. She left broad semi-circular prints that would never be mistaken for human behind her, and one by one, they filled up with rain. 

A band of ragged travelers found her, several days later, a clay woman leaving a track as straight as a razorblade across the desert. They had camels—great grumbling, ill-knit beasts with foamy lips and weary eyes. The travelers spoke to her, and what they said was not terribly important. Much of it was jeering, and baffled. More important were the glazed eyes of the camels. The golem girl read a need there, and with the need, an order, phrased, perhaps, in the creaking and grumbling language of camels.

The travelers asked her to follow, and she did. It was just as well that they asked, because she would have followed for the sake of the camels, and this was less awkward. They asked her to do the dishes that night, and she did, and later to water the camels, and she did, and so, as an uncomplaining servant, she crossed the great desert. They were not good men, but this did not bother her, and she took excellent care of the camels. 

They did not realize that she was obeying them out of convenience, and that her masters were three large, gloomy animals that stank and spat and kicked their owners, and so the travelers were very surprised that once they had reached the other side, she simply walked into the city and took their camels with her. She left the beasts in a stableyard on the other side of the city, where the animals were healthy and well-tended looking. She believed they would be happier there, and the odds are good that they were.

The golem girl traveled for a long time. She went through several different worlds, the walls between them of no great concern to her. She continued to wait, and while she waited, she followed the unvoiced orders of a great many creatures, seemingly at random, from a cranky tortoise to a small, struggling trillium flower. (An entire road was rerouted, and several men died, in the course of following the trillium’s orders. The golem girl was not malicious, but she was extremely efficient.) She set an emperor on the throne, almost by accident, in order to make his small granddaughter happy. She took a dull black pebble from a mountain and walked across most of a continent to set it down in the middle of a stream. She carried a baby musk-ox away from a pack of wolves, and six months later, she was snapping the necks of rabbits to feed a gaunt-ribbed wolf and her three crying offspring. 

Eventually, she came to a house in the forest, built in the trunk of a great tree, hung with red lanterns and full of laughter. She came there carrying a small luxuriantly finned fish, wrapped in wet leaves, and she went inside, and walked to the mistress of the house, and stood there, a nude woman the grey-brown color of unfired clay.

“What brings you here, my dear?” asked the mistress, aware of the silence spreading around her, as clients turned to look at the golem girl, as if the noise was sediment in a pond settling slowly to the bottom. 

The golem girl proffered her fish.

If this had been a normal house, the mistress might have laughed, or have said something scathing, or just have asked what the devil a naked clay woman was doing walking in and handing her a wet fish. But this was the House of Red Fireflies, the greatest whorehouse in the world, and the mistress was a plump, matronly woman who had once killed a god with a broken beer bottle, and she looked at the fish, and she nodded. 

She waved to one of the other madams to take her place, and she led the golem girl down to the bar. The golem girl pointed to a round, wide-mouthed glass vessel. It contained a rare liquor made of the tears of elephants mixed with fermented honey, but the matron dumped it into another bottle without a second thought, and handed the jar to the golem girl.

The golem washed it very carefully, and filled it with spring water to an inch below the brim, and carefully unwrapped her fish and dropped it into the jar. It shivered its fins, and swam a circuit, and the golem girl nodded solemnly, and looked up at the matron. 

“Do you have a master at the moment?” asked the matron.

The golem pointed to the fish. 

This did not faze the matron noticeably. “Would your fish object to you being a prostitute?”*

The golem, and possibly the fish, considered this. 

“I could pay you in fish food…” said the matron, feeling a trifle lightheaded.

The golem’s expression was hard to read, but the matron quickly amended to “Partially in fish food,” anyway. 

The golem gazed at the fish. She dipped her finger into the liquor made of elephant tears and wrote with a damp finger across the bar, in neat letters, in a language not commonly spoken aloud for three hundred years.

The matron said “Hmmm,” and grabbed a servant, who grabbed another two servants, who fanned out through the bar area, calling “Is there a scholar of ancient tongues in the house?

There were three. The House of Red Fireflies was just that kind of establishment.

Of the three, one recognized the text. He was tall and bearded and had close-set blue eyes that lit appreciatively upon the golem girl. “I have not seen craftsmanship like you in a very long time,” he said, and bowed politely to her. “My compliments to your creator.” The golem girl bowed politely in return.

He read the text, and said to the matron, “She wants to know if you have a garden.” 

“We do,” said the matron. The golem girl wrote more.

“She wishes to put a pond in it, for her fish.” 

“There are several ponds already.”

“The fish wants a new one.” 

“We can do that,” said the matron, not one to let existing landscaping get in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime procurement opportunity.

The scholar looked at the matron, and then, because he was a decent man, he spoke to the golem girl in the dead tongue, for several minutes, and explained in that dry, precise language what would likely be asked of a golem in the House of Red Fireflies. He felt somewhat foolish doing so, for a golem was arguably no more sentient or emotional than a crowbar, but he did it anyway. 

The golem girl wrote out a question. 

The scholar’s white eyebrows shot up, but he said to the matron “She says that you must know she follows the orders she…perceives…not the orders that may be spoken aloud.”

“What do you think?” asked the matron.

“I think this is not a usual golem,” he said, and drew his coat around him. 

“It’s fair,” said the matron.

The golem girl nodded, and extended her hand to the matron, who took the cool ceramic fingers in her own warm human ones, and shook it. 


At the House of Red Fireflies, on the banks of the Feverstream, there is a golem girl who works in the evenings. She serves often behind the great black Door, at the bottom of the shallow spiral staircase etched with peacocks made of chains, where the dangerous creatures of the otherworld come to sate themselves. This does not seem to bother her. When you are indestructible, and feel neither pain nor boredom, and when you have found a place where you belong, very little bothers you.

She discovered early on that the great and terrible creatures behind the Door sometimes give very different orders than the ones they speak aloud, and as she told the matron, it is those unspoken orders to which she answers. But whatever those answers may be, they stay behind the Door, and behind the golem girl’s ceramic eyes, and we will not discuss them here.

She is paid a great deal of money for her services, and with the occasional aid of the tall and bearded scholar of ancient tongues, she uses it to buy plants. The garden of the House of Red Fireflies was attractive enough before, but now it is a wonder. At the center, there is a large fishpond, which contains a contented long-finned fish, and around it are a number of thorny, bright-leafed trees, which occasionally send yellow leaves flickering down to the surface of the water. 

And there she continues to wait.

 

*Disturbingly enough, this was not the first time she had had to ask that question of someone.


If you want other tidbits about the House of Red Fireflies, which I'll do something with one of these days, I swear...maybe I should just make it an open world, which is something I've thought about, set a few things as canon and let people play with it all they want, since I can't really explore it all myself, and it's wide open enough that it would lend itself well to that...um, what was I saying? Oh, yeah. Links!

The House of Red Fireflies    (Non DA Link)
The Mandrake Girl     (Non DA Link)
Kingfisher    (Non DA Link)
Golem Girl

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I adore your writing. It's like you paint with words and feelings. Honestly, every time I read anything you write, I get shivers at certain sections, which I must then reread about three times. Only one other writer does that for me, and that's Tolkien. You, madam, are wonderful.

That's an amazing story, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing!

Yes thank you. That was beautiful.

Also, if you do decide to open the House up to other contributors, I would love to write a few people in it. Especially if I might add into the mix Orchid House, a brother establishment a few days, months, or seasons journey away.

Nifty!

hey... speaking of long passed stories what ever happened to Sings-to-trees and Celadon Toadstool?

I still don't know. It hasn't quite come together yet (not like I have a lot of free writing time anyway...)

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee! *bounce!*

Are there other links to the wonderful stories for those of us who do not have DA memberships?

House of Red Fireflies bears a slight resemblance to Lady Sally McGee's house (Spider Robinson's books). Sounds like one of those places that people find if they need to be there :)

NOT making silly noises about copying and such, just noting that you both seem to have tapped the same archetype.


I thought of that myself. McGee's house struck me as more of a sci-fi flavor, while this is more of a fantasy/mythology sort of flavor, but there are definitely parallels.

And I love these stories! They are wonderful.

(Deleted comment)
I really think the House fo the Red Fireflies should stay all you, and be some sort of short story anthology. I really enjoy these.

Your writing is amazing. I want to know more about the House of Red Fireflies.

oh, that's fabulous :D

Three cheers for the scholar of ancient languages :D

If you would open this world up and let us play, I would be grateful. If you choose not to do so, I will still be thrilled to see more. Win win, with lots of glee.

Thank you for this. You have the knack for capturing my imagination and feeding it tidbits so it follows willingly.

Oh, this was beautiful. I feel like there's something very bittersweet about your golem girl, still waiting. And, for some reason, it makes me very happy that that fish is thriving in his pond.

That was lovely.

I love how you throw in little details that hint at whole stories beyond the one you're telling.

I'll second (or third or fourth or whatever) the notion of a book of short stories with these snippets!

...it was killing the god with the beer bottle, wasn't it?

I have always loved the House of Red Fireflies since you first started throwing out ideas of it. Between the stunning imagery of the house itself to the little funny details about who comes for what to the dangerous underbelly that's also there to the way the character's are crafted so elegantly through the back story given... It's an amazing world and I would love to see someone do more with it, whether it's your or others.

I support the notion of a book of short stories about this world, though I don't think you necessarily have to write them all. Your worlds are intricate and inviting as they spark the imagination, yet I understand perfectly why so many of them aren't open. They're delicate and, well, yours. No one else gets to tromp through your house without approval, why should anyone else tromp through your worlds?

But hey, if you can't share in a whorehouse, you're probably doing it wrong.

Either way, I would love to see more of the House of Red Fireflies.

On a note specific to the story, I love the Golem Girl. She's... creepy in the way she's so inhuman, yet also sympathetic in tending to other creature's needs. Though one must ask, if everyone has needs, why does she pick some needs and not others? Is it those who need most strongly that draw her? Or is it something in her which allows her to pick what need to fulfill? It's a fun question to think about the silent golem girl.

How does she pick which needs to fill?

(Anonymous)

2008-05-24 06:24 am (UTC)

I kind of think of it as, she does the things that a person/plant/animal really, truly NEEDS her to. It seems like, most often, the 'needs' people are most vocal about aren't really 'needs' at all; they're 'wants'. Sometimes it's when we need something the most that we can't communicate it vocally. Perhaps she understands this better because she herself can't communicate vocally. Those who can say exactly what they need are capable of getting someone else to do it; they don't need her. The ones that can't, though, need the golem girl and her expertise. She doesn't waste her time with people who don't need her, because there are too many people that do.

At least, that's the way I see it. Oh, and this was lovely, beautifully written. My dad introduced me to the works of Elizabeth Moon, David Weber, and Lois McMaster Bujold when I was eleven (the Babysitters Club just wasn't cutting it anymore)and honestly, you are just as good a writer as any of them. And I'm picky about what authors I like.
~Laurie

P.S. By the way, Ursula, I find the timing of this post interesting. Just a few hours ago, I was re-reading that story you wrote about Myra and Rail and the Threnodox mage, and I was wondering if you were going to do more with any of the stories you were working on back then. 'Cause, you know, you OBVIOUSLY don't have enough to do. Heh.

That was just....awesome!
I actually have a character I created for a comic I read which is on hiatus who would be perfect in the House. She's a snake spirit (of course, because I'm obsessed with snakes). I thought her up before I got my baby, so she's a New World Sunbeam Snake spirit and not a corn snake spirit. But she is way awesome.
~Jessica

"Is there a scholar of ancient tongues in the house?"
There were three.


laughed... out... loud...

<3 the House of Red Fireflies... lots and lots


what about your other story of the girl locked in her own brain in the nunnery who was really an assassain and something about tattoos? (am I even remembering it right?)

"...the girl locked in her own brain in the nunnery who was really an assasin and something about tattoos?"

I totally laughed hard core at that statement. :-D
I think it was the "something about tattoos part that just struck me as really hilarious. Haha.

~Jessica

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
I want to read in this world forever and ever! Hopefully by you. It would sell! It would!

Thanks -- you shook loose a story of mine, and I wrote the beginning.

Then again -- the beginning is in second person.

there are no words to say how much i adore your House of Red Fireflies stories.

Well, your almost permission was enough for me to run off and write something. If you ever decide to make it actual permission, I'll post it somewhere online.

This is violently publishable, beautiful work.

You're probably way ahead of the game on me in that score, but if you need any submission guidelines for magazines, I have a List.

The tone of the writing reminds me of A Stone in a Shoe, by Greg Stolze, which is another story I really like.

I think that's the core thing I can say about this story: I am jealous that I wasn't the one to write it.

Very well done.

Much the same applies to Digger, thinking about it, although one of the things I love about Digger is that it's not a story I'd think of - so I could never have written it, and the characters are worlds away from being the folks who pop out of my head. I vastly approve of this.

I have a fried who could use that list...

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