It came to me that I should run away from home taking nothing but myself and so I thought I would and so I did. I’d not gone ten turns of the spiral before a small leathery suitcase began to tag along in my invisible wake. “Take me! Use me! Fill me!” it said. “Please, please fill me; I need to be filled.”
I scarcely spared it a glance. “Sorry,” I said, my voice as firm as the clist clist clank of my heels striking sparks against the metal of road beneath me. “Sorry, but I’ve no use for a thing needing filling. I’m on my own.”
I had to admire the thing; had to give it some credit, for even on its tiny legs it managed to keep pace with me for another hour. It kept its silence, but I felt its sorrowful gaze tugging at my skirts like younger brothers. By the time I stopped for lunch, it was breathing hard but still looking determined. I pulled an apple from my pocket and began to peel the green green skin away with my small pointy teeth.
Suitcase gasped. “An apple!” it said. “This whole time you’ve had an apple in a mere pocket, when it could have been filling me in your service!” Its eyes narrowed. “What else have you stuffed in those pockets? What else?”
Under its accusatory scrutiny, I sighed. I carefully buried my apple core under small mound of earth by the side of road. Averting my eyes from little green apple grave, I turned the lining of both pockets inside out until seams screamed their violation and balls of lint fell to earth like evicted tenants. Along with lint fell three hairpins, a hard roll, and a dead pewter penny.
Suitcase gasped. It opened its mouth and closed its mouth several times like an air-drowning fish, then unfastened its top and popped everything from my pockets into itself. Even lint, which squealed with delight at being included and snuggled down into lining and creases and sang a little fuzzy chorus of grateful thanks.
I harrumphed as best I could and stood. I dusted off my skirt, cleared my throat, straightened my shoulders, and resumed my march in an ever-increasing spiral away from home. Suitcase, emboldened and full of purpose, had no trouble keeping up. It was only after blanket and three-legged stool joined somewhere along the third bend in the whorl that suitcase began to slow down, distracted, I believe, by the clattery clattery clatt of three-legged stool (though perhaps it was the sussely-sussely of blanket slithering along metal road).
“No room, good sirs,” said suitcase in all officiousness. “No need for your services, thank you very much goodbye.”
Little three-legged stool looked as if it would leave off, but blanket drew itself up in confident array. Addressing me rather than suitcase, it said, “Come night you’ll have need of the likes of me. I desire nothing in this world so much as to wrap myself around you.”
To which short speech I could take no offense, as it was delivered in all sincerity and with a boldness I found charming. “Well,” I said, stopping to consider. “I suppose sun will be setting soon enough, and night is sometimes sharper than the teeth of saws. Especially when road is out of temper and freezes over like river.”
Three-legged stool waved one leg in the air, teetering on the other two. “Ooo, oo!” it said. “I’d be happy to slip beneath you for a spell while you rest and consider. And tonight, when you make camp, and fold blanket next to fire, I could be there too, holding you off cold ground and assisting while you make meal.”
I gave my patented harrumph. “This is getting much more complicated than it should be,” I said, in turn eyeing suitcase then blanket then three-legged stool. “When I left home this morning for good and forever, I swore I would take nothing but myself and so I did.”
“Aha!” exclaimed blanket. “You didn’t take us; we took you–”
“For a sucker,” grumbled suitcase beneath its breath.
Blanket shot suitcase a glare. “I took you for someone who could provide what I’ve always wanted; a person of my very own to wrap around, to keep warm and safe against night and cold.”
Said three-legged stool: “And I for someone who would just let me hold her–”
Added suitcase, all begrudging: “And I for someone who could fill me in any small way with things, both necessary and un.”
I breathed deep and counted to twelve. I lifted my hand to shade my eyes and watched as tangerine sun dipped beneath distant indigo mountains, allowing crepuscule and gloaming to scuffle before twilight and darkfall. Glowfruits lit trees lining rural road, their interior fires illuminating night like round paper lanterns strung for festival. Blanket, proving itself more than just another pretty quilt, slithered over to the glowing globe of a fallen fruit and rolled it back toward us, bumping it along the soft blades of dew-damp grass with silken binding. Three-legged stool rapped smartly on the hollow sphere, so crack split down its middle and halves fell to each side. Flames leapt from the shallow bowl of hollow shell, crackling merrily, causing shadows to jump into stark relief despite the continuing violet of sky not yet quite black.
Stool scuttled close to fire. Blanket rolled itself out neat as a bed, and suitcase arranged itself nearby, showing its willingness to play temporary table by propping itself on end with the hard roll on top. A sense of camaraderie settled upon our small camp with the comfort of heated milk.
I sat upon stool, which purred with satisfaction beneath my weight. I ate the hard roll, brushing crumbs off proud suitcase with a murmur of thanks. After dinner I curled next to fire, snuggling into blanket as the first drops of evening dew fell on ground and nearby road. On road, dewdrops glistened in light from fire’s dying embers, glimmering like small scattered beads of amber and mercury.
Next day was quite like first, except by the eighth spiral out on the whorl which led from the city to the end of the world I trailed behind me a strange menagerie, which clittered and clattered and whoosh-whoosh shooshed along the flat steely surface of road like a kite-tail of cans and ribbons tied to the bumper of a bridal carriage. Blanket and suitcase, carpet and frying pan, bucket and fishingpole and three-legged stool. Suitcase had filled itself with glowfruits.
I’d explained to each as it joined our procession: No thank you. I’ve left home with nothing more than myself, and I travel alone.
Which made me the most obvious of liars.
By the third night we’d slipped into comfortable routine. Suitcase would make fire while carpet helped three-legged stool and blanket make camp. Fishingpole and bucket would stroll together to nearby river, which everyone knows runs parallel to road in outward spirals at least as far toward eternity as anyone has ever traveled the whorl. They’d be gone for some short while, then return, giggling and filled with private happinesses, bucket brimming with water and fishing pole carrying a modest evening catch. Their romance was delightful; they made everyone cheerful who came into the orbit of their contentment. With the assistance of frying pan and, by the end of that fourth night, the company of harmonica and deck of cards, we were a jolly little crew. It was on the fourth night we met a traveler coming from the other direction.
“Lo, outward-bound! River and road.” He was beautiful. His teeth were clean the way I like them; pearly and smooth as polished nickels. His skin was lovely-dark, and burnished like ebon bark and scented like the vanilla bean which grows deep in jungle between spirals of whorl.
I lifted my hand in return. “Lo, inward-bound. River and road. May your feet never never slip from metal and your head never never slip beneath water.”
I’d forgotten what it was like to be in the company of another person, and that night at the fire my tongue seemed to tie itself in bows and make untidy ribbons of my words, which fluttered from my mouth like brightly colored things to be quickly collected by magpies and buried in nests. Shiny things are not always useful things, and that’s how my words felt.
I don’t know what he replied to my colorful senseless ramblings. I do know his name was Crispin (which I thought very pretty) and I told him my name was Sethily (which it was). All my companions of travel and camp kept silent, as is their custom around people plural. Person singular is a different case entirely, of course, and though I understood and respected the parameters of their conventions, I missed the easy comfort of our previous nights. Even bucket and fishingpole lay limp and silent by fire, though their wooden edges touched upon each other lightly.
Crispin hefted frying pan with masculine confidence and indelicacy, his large slender frame crushing three-legged stool, his enormous dusty beautiful manfeet splayed out across poor rumpled carpet, grinding it into dirt. Harmonica and deck of cards took refuge inside suitcase, which lay at an awkward angle across damp ground. I briefly missed their cheerful contributions, but was soon distracted by the play of firelight on Crispin’s smooth, blue-dark skin.
“Why are you outward bound?” he asked me. “Why leave the city to walk the spirals of whorl?”
I looked into his beautiful grey eyes. “I left, taking nothing but myself. I’ve had my fill of things. My mother is an architect,” I said, “She builds the tallest spires in the city, and fills them with as many beautiful objects as my father can grow in his gardens. He grows many, many things, and my mother fills and fills her spires. Her house was so full when I was born, my mother designed an additional tower just to accommodate me. Of course, it was crammed with so many wondrous baby things that I had to go live in the garden under the ivory vines and the looming fruits of my father’s beautiful furniture and sculptures and other gardenworks. I lived under a slow-ripening pianoforte for nearly three years before it matured. It’s in the living room of the fourth spire by now, or perhaps the ballroom. I forget which.”
Crispin’s eyes glowed by the embers of fire. “Things, yes. I grew up at the outer edges of the whorl where nothing exists. No truly beautiful things grow away from the city; fewer and fewer the farther one goes. I’m from a spiral so far out the whorl, I was lucky to find anything growing at all, even wild little things such as this blanket, this frying pan, that bucket. My father’s rumored to have been a bicycle, so I suppose traveling is in my blood. I could never be sure, though, since my mother died when I was born.”
The thought of a free-wheeling father and a dead mother brought me indescribably low. That I’d seen my own parents scarcely above one day in twelve since the day I was born seemed of a sudden a petty thing.
“I’m sorry,” was all I said. I didn’t trust my clumsy tongue to say much more than that. But Crispin seemed not at all saddened by his own story. He laughed, and fished fishy fish from hot frying pan with naked fingers and breathed on them to cool them and held food to my lips which I couldn’t help but take. His eyes were simply too beautiful not to; his limbs simply too lithe. We fell asleep curled like twin questions on top of blanket, though long after Crispin’s light snores began to ruffle the hair on the back of my neck, I lay awake in dark, missing the chuckles and sighs of bucket and carpet, of fishingpole and harmonica.
The next morning I woke alone. Completely alone. There was empty husk filled with dead embers of last night’s glowfruit fire, but gone was bucket, suitcase, carpet. Gone was beautiful man named Crispin.
I bunched the hem of my skirt in both fists. My feet pounded road as I ran back along spiral toward the city. Clank clank clank clank. Soon the staccato of my boot heels hitting road were joined by the sound of my panting, syncopated like a lazy rhythm section or a constipated metronome. I clank clanked slower and slower, gathering all my skirts into one hand so I could clutch the other to the stitch threading itself between my ribs. My heart beat in the roof of my mouth, my lungs heaved in irregular, gasping halftime to my panting.
I stopped and stood stooped, hands on knees, head hanging down. When I caught my breath, I straightened and lifted my skirts to continue toward the city with as brisk a pace as I could manage when something caught my eye. There, off to one side, half buried in spindly grass, was one of the legs of three-legged stool.
I rushed to pluck it from the growth. Nearby, I spotted the rest of three-legged stool, and I ran to scoop that up too and clutch it against my breast. “Oh, little three-legged stool! What happened?” I tried to fit its broken leg to the corresponding hole in its seat, twisting it into the rattly place where it had once rested so snug.
Three-legged stool drew a ragged breath. “It wasn’t his fault,” it said weakly, words interrupted by its own feeble cough. “He was simply too big, too heavy, and didn’t possess the more delicate sensibilities.”
Anger flared in me like the flames of a dozen overripe glowfruits all tossed into a pile and ignited at once. I set three-legged stool on road beside me as gently as possible. I lifted the hem of my skirt to my mouth and used my teeth to start a tear in fabric. I tore two strips from the bottom of my overskirt and used them to bind the damaged leg as best I could. Cradling three-legged stool to my side, I set off at a decent–though more sensible–clip, spiraling ever inward back the way I had come toward the city at the center of the world. Before I’d completed even two turns I came across suitcase, battered and bruised, a deep dent disfiguring the top of its once-proud exterior.
I gritted my teeth as it told me Crispin had used it as a substitute for three-legged stool, only to find its sides were not meant for such abuse. Against my breast, it sobbed: “You know I’m willing to volunteer for additional use. You know!”
I rocked back and forth, crooning, “There, there. Of course you are. You’re an excellent little suitcase, really . . . top notch . . . a lovely little thing . . .” and so on, until its sobs hiccupped into subsidence. Gently, I unfastened its latch and peeked inside, whewing with relief to see deck of cards and harmonica cowering in the bottom alongside inert penny and lint. The three hairpins were nowhere to be seen, nor was there any sign of glowfruits.
Neither suitcase nor three-legged stool objected to the indignity of riding together in my arms as I set my feet once again on road in the direction of the city. By nightfall I’d come across and gathered up carpet, bucket, and frying pan. I treated their wounds and scrapes as best I could, and continued to grit my teeth against their dogged insistence that the man on road before us didn’t mean to be callous or cruel or insensitive; he simply used things up with complete disregard for their physical or emotional well-being. Unanimously, they maintained that he acted out of carelessness rather than neglect or disregard for the welfare of the objects around him.
Since I carried suitcase rather than allowing it to walk, I loaded it with frying pan. Carefully rolled, carpet lay across my shoulders like a thick woven boa. Bucket felt well enough to bump along at my heels, having been abandoned more out of a lack of perceived usefulness rather than any real physical damage. In some ways, its hurt ran the deepest. Apparently, only blanket and fishingpole had been deemed useful enough to travel with the beautiful, careless man.
I didn’t stop for the night. Metal road was easy to follow even by starlight. Without campfire to ruin my night vision, river and road glittered, near-identical ribbons of reflected starfield; silver-white on silver-black sparkling like long swards of diamond-headed moon poppies, furling in tightening inward spirals as we approached the city.
Denser and denser grew buildings, my mother’s handiwork less apparent at the impoverished outer rims but dominating neighborhoods closer to city center. Her style had been so heavily copied, her designs had become ubiquitous. Pale towers with ballooning attachments and slender spires soared overhead. Melodious wind whistled through carefully-orchestrated archways and vaulting, curving, bone-colored walls.
Sown between buildings and along edges of ever-narrowing road, my father’s gardens displayed tidy white-on-white rows of lamps, of dining chairs, of coffee tables and teaspoons and dinnerplates and mailboxes. Here and there, a massive divan or enormous four-poster bed dangled, heavy on the end of its ivory stalk, full with its juices and nearly ripe for picking after what had been a most excellent growing season.
I didn’t stop. I knew where Crispin, whose father was a bicycle and whose mother didn’t exist, would go; he would go to the very center of the only city in the world. I also knew what he would find there: the house of my mother and father, at the very middle of the very meeting of all the spirals of the whorl of road.
Me sore and dusty, bucket rolling unevenly on its rims and poor suitcase, carpet and three-legged stool considerably worse for wear, we limped through open gate to largest garden in the only city in the world. All was shades of white and ivory and bone, with the deep polished chrome of road running below and the creamy arching spires of my mother’s constructions rising into clouds above.
I limped to door. Balancing suitcase on my hip, I unlatched door one-handed, propping it open with my foot to allow bucket to enter behind me. On all sides towered stacks and stacks of the most beautiful objects my father could grow. Pale bisque ewers and platters and vases and sculptures tottered and teetered, piled row after row alongside the whites of tables and chairs and trunks and draperies and everything a person could think to use and want; all of it shades of the palest cloud-white to the smoothest milk-white to the softest powder-white. Only a narrow path wound through the towers of beautiful junk, just barely wide enough for a girl and her carpet and her three-legged stool to limp through, with their bucket following closely behind.
The path spiraling through the rooms crammed full of beautiful things wound around, mimicking the spiral of the whorl of river and road. At the very center of my mother’s house was a large open room, calm and empty like the eye of a hurricane or the exact midpoint of a tornado. In this room crackled fire in white marble fireplace. Three enormous damask wingback chairs clustered about an ivory table covered in delicate china, teapot steaming and platter heaped with small crustless sandwiches cut into triangles.
I stopped. “Mother,” I said. “Father. Crispin.”
The three seated in high chairs turned as one to face me. My mother spoke first: “Sethily, is that you, darling? We’ve been entertaining your delightful friend. He’s a huge fan of our work, you know; came all the way to the center of the city just to meet us. Come in, dear; I feel as though I haven’t seen you in years. Is that dirt you’re tracking all over my floors, leaving those horrible sooty smears wherever you go?”
“Sorry, mother. And it has been years. Three years. We had tea once then. Before that it was four years and before that two.”
My father was frowning at the things littering the floor at my feet, their browns and reds and greens somehow shabby rather than vivid against the starkness of my parents’ pale neutrals. “Sethily? You couldn’t possibly be Sethily. No daughter of mine would traipse such common little weeds through this house; such ragged wild growths from outside the city, polluting the air and my gardens with their pollens of questionable provenance.”
Bucket, suitcase, three-legged stool and even carpet, rolled as it was, crowded close against my legs. A clattering sounded from the corner by the fireplace as fishingpole, in its haste to reunite itself with its beloved bucket, fell from where it was propped against the wall and skittered across the flagstone floor. It came to rest at bucket’s side, wooden surfaces meeting with a sloppy, lightly splintery kiss. I stepped forward to lift the limp, poorly folded and sadly creased blanket from the back of the third chair by the fire. “Hello Crispin,” I said.
He smiled up at me. In the middle of all those thousand shades of white–the walls, the marble, the floors, the furniture, my parents–his gleaming blue-black skin and long lanky limbs and pale grey eyes were more beautiful than ever. I remembered the warmth of him against my back the night before, and the gentleness of his breath upon my neck.
“Why did you take those things?” I asked.
His smile faded, replaced by a look of genuine confusion. “But you said you wanted no things, and nothing but yourself. I thought these random things had just gathered themselves about you.”
“Well, yes. I suppose they did.”
“And you said you never wanted to see another thing. You said that’s why you left this wondrous city.”
“Hrmph. I guess I did say that.”
“I just wanted to get to the place where beautiful things grow.” He swept his hand in a gesture which included not only the orderly arrangement of the carefully-appointed room, but also the tottering piles and stacks and towers and gardens full of beautiful things existing beyond the walls. “It didn’t occur to me they were anything special. I didn’t know you wanted them.”
Little murmurs wafted up from the folds of my skirt where bucket and three-legged stool and suitcase and all the rest clustered. We told you, they said. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t understand. He’s the son of a bicycle and a dead woman, and in his own way grew up wilder than we.
I cleared my throat to avoid harrumphing. “Yes. Well. I may not have thought I wanted anything, but it seems they want me, so . . . .”
Crispin’s smile returned, hesitant. “So . . . .”
My father, master of the harrumph, harrumphed. “Your friend here wishes to apprentice to me. He’ll grow you new things, considerably more beautiful, more appropriate things.”
My mother turned to look sharply at him. “Now, now! He’s agreed to apprentice to me. He’ll build Sethily a beautiful new spire to warehouse her ugly little objects. And another to house all manner of beautiful, perfect things, plucked fresh from the vine.”
“He’ll be a master gardener!”
I gathered together what I could of my little crop of wayward objects and we turned and limped from the room. At the doorway I paused to glance over my shoulder. Crispin, the only beautiful thing in the room, sat in his chair, holding his pale bisque cup of white tea and watching my parents argue over him.
I left the room, my odd little procession clumping and clattering and shoosh shoosh shooshing behind me. All along that unwinding spiral, out through the house crammed full of soulless objects a thousand colors of pale, I thought about the house I would build, somewhere out there beyond the city between river and road. I’d live by myself but I wouldn’t live alone; I’d have the company of a bucket, and a suitcase, and the cheery blather of a harmonica and a deck of cards. I’d have a blanket to keep me warm at night and a carpet to soften the floor for my feet. I’d have a frying pan and a fishingpole to make sure I ate well every day. Even humble lint would be welcome in my home.
All the way outward bound I scoured road for little lost hairpins, just in case they turned up, needing a ride.