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Short Story

taps, short story, jen frankel

"Taps" is a unique story for me. Although I love weaving a spiritual or moral element into my stories, it's very seldom expressed explicitly. And while I am a fairly knowledgeable student of religious history, I have hardly ever otherwise written about the Church, early or otherwise.

The only other story I wrote is also set in the past, but about halfway between this and the modern age, in the Dark Ages. It's called "Christmas In Arabia," and is a little less subtle than this piece. "Arabia" is set during a period of Islamic/Christian conflict in a fictional desert country, and deals with broader issues of intolerance and war, while "Taps" is a more interior journey.


Jen Frankel

I was alone in the garden, in the dark of the blowing blossoms and scented fountains.

The trees were ripe for climbing, but all was so still I couldn't imagine disturbing the glassy silence with the sound of twigs snapping, a rock to puncture a pool of water. Normally I can move with utter quiet, but tree climbing has always defeated my best intentions.

Don't get me wrong—I had no fear that someone would see me. That's a game we all play. I just didn't want to break the perfection of this night with a whim. And thinking about it, I was hardly in the mood for games. Something about the quiet, bringing with it solemnity that was unique for me to feel.

The paths of the garden were strewn with white, and out of season too. Powerful magic at work here, I thought, there might be. But there was nothing in the heights of the garden but a man, crying. He was a traveller, I could tell, and poor. It looked like he hadn't had a bath in months—but that wasn't terribly uncommon. These people believed in cleanliness like they believed in black magic: it existed, but it wasn't something nice people talked about.

So, a man, crying, his face in his hands, long hair over long fingers. His robes were torn and dirty, and stained with wine. A drunkard, I thought. Who else would be in the garden after dark? And what sorrow was this particular wine-sot trying to forget?

A sob escaped him, and I heard quite clearly him say one word: "Why?"

He dropped back into his tears then, and I thought perhaps the show was over. Instead, he raised his head, and I saw the shimmering lines cutting his face into streams. I noted that the moonlight seemed brighter where he was. Magic at work, or just fancy?

Then, face upturned, eyes looking above me at the night sky. "Father," he said, "Please, give me strength. Don't make me do this thing you want of me."

A familial thing, then, that drove him alone to the garden at night. That first cry of why, still, it had captured my attention. I knew the who but not the what, nor the why, and it seemed unlikely that he would ramble on aloud for my benefit without some prompting. I approached, silently in the shadows, and touched his shoulder.

"What are you crying about?" I asked.

Showing no surprise, he turned his face from the sky to look at me. Instead of the shock or fear I am used to seeing break onto a face viewing me for the first time, his spread slowly into a sad smile.

"Hello, imp. Is it you then that will be my only company tonight?"

"I guess so," I said, casting around for his trail on the beaten path. He must tread with the lightness of a fairy himself.

"My friends all sleep, drowsy with wine. I wanted someone to sit up with me, tonight of all nights."

"Why, human?" I asked. "What's so special about this night?"

"I think," he said, smiling again, "That if you had but one night of freedom remaining in your life you would desire your friends to spend it with you."

"I think that it's rather unlikely I would ever get caught in a situation similarly," I said. "Are you gifted with prophesy, then? I thought the talent had gone mostly from your race."

"It had," he said. He seemed to consider for a moment, then reached a finger to me. I took it in my hands, feeling the bumps and lines of the skin warm and dry. "What do you know about the politics of this world, imp?"

I pushed myself up with his finger and wrapped my feet around his wrist. "Temporal government interests me very little," I said. "I am a wind rider, a burrower, a dancer and musician. Government cannot bind when the spirit is free."

"Good, good, little one," he said. In another, I might have taken this as condescension, but this man was a born teacher. I accepted his praise as gentle encouragement.

"What am I missing?" I said. "Why is my answer only part of what you want me to say?"

He raised his wrist, me on it, to the level of his eyes, and stood, so I could look over the garden, and down the slope to the walls, and out past the walls to where the city slept.

"Look at the city, imp, and imagine the number of people that lie there now, slumbering in their beds. You and I, we stand vigil, and the city knows nothing of our watching. See there—" He pointed, and I saw the windows of a distant building burning with torchlight. "There is the garrison, and there are the other people that are awake tonight. They know I am here, and they know I watch."

"I don't understand," I said, trying to fathom the connection he was trying to communicate to me. "What does the garrison have to do with you? Are you some kind of criminal? Is that why you cry, in remorse for your crimes? Do you blame your father for how you turned out, then?"

He laughed. "No, little one. My meaning is subtler. I have no doubt that your people are clever enough to understand, but perhaps I have been too obscure. My thoughts are quick tonight. There is so much left to do, and the ending is here already. I am trying to hold to a dream now morning has come, and wondering if it has all been in vain. How much can one person do for a world?"

"You ask the wrong questions, teacher," I said. "My race is notoriously selfish. We look on altruism as the worst of fool's folly. Why worry about the masses? History takes care of itself, and the individual's duty is to care for himself. If everyone learned to do that, your world would be much happier."

"And then how, except for someone to teach them, would the individuals who sleep below learn to take care of themselves?"

I thought I grasped his line of thought finally.

"You mean," I said, "You have been trying to change the world, and now it will overcome you. Your questions about politics, and the power of a single man. A baby in its parents' care learns to clean and feed and clothe itself. A scholar learns at the feet of its mentor. Why now should the world not learn the wisdom of the teacher in the garden? What was the moment, teacher," I asked, gently mocking, "that decided you on your course? Who told you you could save a world that cares not for salvation? What made you choose this life for yourself?"

"I was born," he said simply, and looked down over the garden and the city. He moved his hand to his shoulder so I could jump to it, a far more stable perch. His quiet dignity was unbearable. What a creature of control he was, a surface of liquid mercury, and underneath, a geyser of boiling lead. I could feel it in him, pressing my wing to his cheek. This control would break.

"How many years," I said, "Since you last cried?"

He was silent for a moment before answering, silent in reflection. I wondered if I had asked something that the teacher had no reply to. "Never before," he said, finally.

"Not even as a babe?" I said, incredulous.

"Not even then. I was an unusual child." He smiled, at some memory that made him happy even through whatever blows the night had dealt him.

"Why," I said, echoing the first I had heard him speak."

"Why what?" he said. He knew what I was talking about. This was the crack in his silvery veneer, in his armour.

"You really don't know, do you. You're about to sacrifice everything you have, everything you will have, and you don't know why."

I flopped down off his shoulder, awkwardly because there was no wind. "Poor human," I said. "Poor teacher. Will you die political death, or the real one?"

"The first real one," he said.

"A sacrifice, then," I said. "And on the cross, will still ask why."

"Have you no faith, then, imp? Do your people find nothing to pray for?"

"We have solved all our mysteries long since, teacher," I said. "The greatest puzzle left is humanity. We accept the world now as it looks, as it feels, as we move in it. There is nothing mysterious about a tree blossoming, or rain falling. The nature of our magic is to give extension to our desires, and once desire is understood, that ceases to be mysterious and is nature. Faith is for a people lost."

"And loss of faith is for a people bereft of hope."

I thought about that. "Fairies have no souls," I said. "We are eternal as long as we don't allow ourselves to be destroyed. After death, nothing. Why should we need hope?"

"It takes faith to hold on to life when the breath of it has faded," he said. "If doubt is gone, a path of hope is opened, and life has meaning."

This was going far too deep now. My head ached with doubt, with fear. This human—but then again, he was just a human. I had shown myself to him, and he had not shown fear, but he had demonstrated the deference that Faerie-kind should receive from non-magical creatures. Why then was he able to turn that deference into advantage?

"You mustn't," I said, unable for once to put my thoughts into words. "You are talking about dangerous things."

"Dangerous because they open your mind," he said. "New ideas are always dangerous. Remember, little one, you approached me this night. You were curious, and your curiosity has yielded more perhaps than you wanted."

"That's for sure," I said, attempting flippancy. We both fell into silence, because, below in the street, there was movement. I could see now that men slumbered below us in the garden, those friends of the man beside me who couldn't stay awake. The street was full of soldiers, and still they slept on.

"I must go down to them," said the man I had thought of as teacher. "The next chapter is about to be played. You have been good company, little one. I hope your people will find their way some day."

"Hope!" I said, incensed. "The Faerie will walk the earth long after humanity has done itself to death."

"I disagree," he said, starting down the path to begin his descent to his sleeping comrades. "The Faerie have lost their dreams. It is humans that will hold the key to your mysteries in the future. Your people will fade away, into empty desires and little magics until they are no more."

"You say this to hurt me," I said, and caught a breath of wind to fly again to his side.

"Truth is painful. Lies are simpler. I could lie and be kind, but this is my last night on earth and I am finished with lies." He laughed quietly, but easily. "I walk to my death, imp, but I do it joyfully. Death has been made a lie by faith. Thank you again for sharing this night with me. I am ready to go on."

"Wait—" I said, but he was gone, down the path, leaving me with my whirling thoughts.

What he had said of the Faerie was true, maybe. It wasn't for lesser creatures like myself to debate the extinction of a people, or to change their self-importance for seeking new mysteries. But I, perhaps, armed with the faith of a human man, would survive, because I had doubt. And if one fairy survived, who was to say that mystery had gone from the world?

I could see as clearly as if a blindfold had been taken from my eyes, down the ages, to the future of mankind, a future without magic, but with much mystery. I would be part of that mystery. There would be hope, while one faded, earthbound but generous human-creature existed.

Maybe the pride of Faerie kind was misplaced, if talk of hope could effect me more than any display of magic. The survivor of a people without hope would give hope to a people that had found faith.

Then the night darkened around me again. The men were awakened below, and the soldiers were descending on them, hundreds strong. My companion must be some kind of terrible criminal to warrant such caution.

I slipped into a crack in the world to return to Faerie, because dawn was coming.


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