The chiming grew; it was so loud it drowned my pulse’s roaring and my ragged breath. So long we’d waited; Browning wrote it well: “This grew.” It grew, and now we had to run, and quickly, quickly, out, away.
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I had my box of sonnets. I had the ones that bled, and I pushed them into the box, bad bleeding on good, and I felt the snot that comes with terrified tears running from my nose. I must have looked like Ken. I wonder if Ken was always afraid, or if bulls were always afraid, or if being a bull made one chronically snot-nosed and that’s all there was to it.
He grabbed me, and we both ran, snot-nosed and frightened. I still could hardly bear his touch, but for all that it made my chest tighten because I knew it meant I was failing—failing worse than ever before—I also trusted the touch. It was always failure. This time was no different, really. Ken’s touch always meant the same thing.
The void was so familiar, but I thought it was only for my Astrophel and me, and I thought it was where one got lost. I wasn’t wrong, I suppose, save that after we broke through what felt like glass and I came out bruised and bleeding (I felt like my failures, still clutched tight in my arms), there were others. Glowing bushes. A pretty wood creature like a dryad (how Sidney would have loved her) with a badger. A silent gargoyle. Two beautiful, fiery boys. Royal, one of the boys, tried to bandage me. With Ken there, I could hardly find the examination and treatment invasive. That’s how things could be. With a little assistance from me, the bandaging would do. Berries were eaten for warmth. The gargoyle left and returned—left again? We gathered ourselves, gathered materials for torches (everything was wet and cold and oily, and I shivered in my gown until Royal gave me his coat), and then Royal lit himself and we proceeded out. I walked with Ken. Zai, the pretty wood thing, stayed with us. Lire, the other beautiful boy, followed.
Hobgoblins. I tried to stay attentive, but I hurt. The boys tried to fool our way past the ugly things, but instead we were forced to make a Pledge: collect things from the ship—the underwater Edmund Fitzgerald, sunk under icy water and being picked over by these scavengers—and collect more things in a few weeks (what is a week, again?), and we would be granted a better chance of getting out. Out of where? The Hedge. Of course it was the Hedge. I felt strung between places. The creaking of the ship was not the chiming I was used to.
We moved toward the Captain’s Cabin, scrambling up ladders in an upside-down ship, walking on ceilings. In a room, we found a creature named Edward. He had been a man once, but he was nothing more than a sack of skin and bones, shapeless as an ugly shirt. The Bagman, he said, had hung him there. Rats, he (almost) said, had eaten their way through his skin. In his fear, he tried to attack us, but between Ken and Royal, he had to stop. He was disgusting, worse than the snot on Ken’s bull nose or the staleness of his breath. Royal and the gargoyle left to hunt things, and something spoke over the . . . the PA? There was music. There was a threat. We locked Edward back in his room and found what things we could as quickly as we could.
Before, when things went quiet, my Astrophel had come. Now, when things went quiet, the Bagman came. Of course, without any sense of decorum or taste, he restarted his music. A soundtrack for himself. Then we ran. Ken knew there weren’t enough objects for all of us. He gave his to Royal. My torturer and savior. I hated him then. I hated him more when, as we ran and ran and the great slobbering face of the Bagman appeared, chasing us, Ken ran at him and died screaming and bellowing.
I felt as frozen as the water. Where had my fear gone? I couldn’t place it. I was warm inside and covered by a fine jacket. I had my poetry. I had my so-called baubles that were my tickets out of this groaning, wet hell of a place, so opposite to what my head and belly insisted were home. Lire had to drag me along, finally, and together the gargoyle, Zai, Lire, Royal and I either ran or fought our way past the skin-creatures, rats, and water the Bagman called up. I took more injuries. I don’t remember when or how.
We climbed and ran. We got out. We made it to a boat with the hobgoblins. I think I sat; I do not remember talking to anyone. Eventually we landed, and I am afraid I did little to help as we entered the forest and began to follow its paths. One of the boys led us. Zai and I stayed close to one another, and I tried not to miss Ken’s wet cow smell. I mostly succeeded.
Then we were in the world, and I’m afraid I turned . . . off. Royal (at least) had been replaced by a fetch. The gargoyle spoke; his name is Sam. We found an empty house, broke in, and took clothes and food once Zai dealt with the family dog. I found some decent things to wear and stored my own clothes away in one of the bags we found. Zai and I doled out bread. Part of me couldn’t believe I was doing this: breaking and entering? Stealing mundane items? Addressing practical needs? There were no unseen servants. There was no perfect warmth and golden glow. There was no demigod to sing my words back at me. That part I was supposed to be grateful for. How I managed to be so complacent about robbing a family of basic supplies after escaping a sunken ship in the Hedge I don’t know.
We were home in Duluth. At least I had that. I could remember streets and what was where; the maps of the town flickered to the front of my mind when we called on the information. The boys dragged us to a bar where they had some success with some young women while Zai and I had none with some of the men. Sam did steal a wallet. He will be useful. I am contemplating the usefulness of a thievish gargoyle as we walk unfriendly streets with bodies not our own. This is mad.
The boys left with the women after diffusing a fight. Zai and I did not go with them. Sam got us money. We will meet at a hotel. A hotel. Will I be able to sleep without Ken at the door? Will I sleep at all? I don’t know.