The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Girl Who Couldn't Fly

Originally published in "Unconventional Fantasy: A Celebration of Forty Years of the World Fantasy Convention", Nov. 6-9, 2014 - Washington, D.C.


The sound of wood chippers and chainsaws intermingled with the chatter of the cleanup volunteers.  The school secretary, Mrs. Owen, looked at Marianne with concern.
“Are you sure you can do this?” she asked.
"I'm approved to do light chores," she said.  "I'm almost fully recovered."
"Still, at your age, to have a heart attack…" said the teacher
"I was eight when I had rheumatic fever," said the teenager.  "It was nine years before I had my first heart-related incident.”
Mrs. Owen looked around the city park.  "Well, we need every hand possible," she said.
The hurricane that came inland knocked down acres of limbs across the small city. All the high school students had been let out to pitch in with the cleanup. Mrs. Owen gave her a look of concern.  “I know you don’t want to be left out,” he said.
"I'll be careful," said Marianne.
A once majestic 200-year-old oak tree had been so devastated by the storm that it was obvious it would have to be razed.  The pale dark-haired girl spent 15 minutes picking up and carrying small limbs to deposit in the large pile of brush at its base.
Mr. Branson, the social studies teacher, stood there in overalls and thick gloves, collecting the limbs from the students.
He smiled at Marianne. "Thanks for pitching in," he said.
"I want to help," she said.  "Even if just a little bit."
He smiled.  "Just take it slow, young lady," he said.
Suddenly, they both looked up at the sound of a loud crack.  The teacher instinctively jumped back, but Marianne was still looking up as a large limb of the tree broke loose and came crashing down towards her.  She was frozen in horror, and as it filled her vision, she felt a stabbing pain in her chest.
Someone was patting her cheek and speaking to her in obvious tones of concern.  She slowly opened her eyes and realized she was at the base of the tree, nestled among its large roots.  The brush had all been cleared away, and she was on the cold damp ground.
As her mind cleared, she was puzzled how she had survived the limb falling on her.  A man was kneeling beside her, a look of obvious concern on his face, and he was rubbing the back of her hand.
"Now my child," he said.  "What is wrong with you?  Where did you come from?"
She heard the voices of a small crowd that was standing around her.  "I don't recognize her," said one man. “Where did she come from?”
“There was a loud crashing sound, and when we looked over, she just appeared under the tree,” said another.
A gray-haired woman bent over her.  "She's obviously had some kind of severe shock," she said.
Marianne slowly opened her eyes.  "That was a close call,” she said weakly.  "I was sure that branch was going to crush me."
The man kneeling beside her look up and around.  "What branch?"
Marianne looked up and focused her eyes.  The tree was intact and green again.
She propped both hands on the ground.  "Help me set up please," she said.
The gray-haired lady and the man did so.
"What is your name, child?" asked the woman.
"Marianne DiFelice," said the teenager.
"When you live?" asked the woman.
"On Strasser Street," said Marianne.  "In the Southfield subdivision."
Marianne gave the people around her a good, clear look.  They looked like actors in a Renaissance Faire who couldn't afford to have their costumes dry-cleaned.
The man and the woman looked at each other.  The man shook his head.   "I've never heard of any of that," he said.  "You are babbling, young lady."
"Where is Mr. Branson?" asked Marianne.
The gray-haired woman placed a cold damp cloth on her forehead.  "Don't ask any questions, young lady," she said.  "We'll take you to the longhouse until you feel well enough to speak clearly and tell us what we need to know so we can take you to your home and parents."
Marianne began to fidget.  "I need my cell phone."
The gray-haired lady placed both hands on Marianne's forehead.  "Peace, my child, sleep now."
And Marianne did.
When Marianne woke up, she was much more clear-headed.  She sniffed a few times and smelled acrid wood smoke.
"They've take me to a bonfire?"
She rolled her head and saw she was lying on a low platform in a rough wooden- hewn pavilion-type structure -- open on all four sides -- with a great fire blazing in a central pit.
She heard a voice.  "The young lady is awake," said a young man.  She looked over to where the voice came from.  The speaker was a handsome young man who looked like a refugee from a Viking-period movie.
The gray-haired woman who'd been there when she woke up under the tree came to Marianne’s side.
"Are you feeling any better, child?" she asked.
"Yes, I am," said Marianne.  "And I'm not a child.  I'm 17."
Marianne propped herself up on one elbow.  "Where am I, and who you?"
The older woman looked at the young woman with an expression of concern.
"We're in Litchfield, child," said the woman.
"I've lived here all my life, and I've never seen you before,” said Marianne.
The man who'd been with Marianne at the base of the tree walked up to the pair. "Altund is coming," he said.
The teen Viking smirked. "Perhaps he can parse the maiden," he said.
A tall man with a long white beard dressed in long robes and carrying an elaborately carved staff walked up.
"Is this the girl?" he asked.
Marianne had set up, and swung her legs over the edge of the low platform.   She was about to stand up but stopped as she gazed upon the impressive figure.
"Oh wow," she thought. "Gandalf has come to town."
The man walked over to her and leaned down somewhat; he was very tall and would've loomed over her even if she was standing up.  "You have a story to tell me?"
He sat down beside her and laid his staff across both their laps.  For some reason Marianne felt gesture was one of sympathy.
She explained about how the hurricane had come inland from Long Island Sound and devastated Southern New England, and how the teachers and students had gathered to help with the community clean up.
She also talked about her damaged heart and how much she resented having to curtail her activities because of it.  She spoke at great length but the old man was patient and listened well.
When she finally ran out of steam, he patted her hand, and asked some simple questions.  They made her realize she was not what she had been before.
He then returned to the events of that morning and asked her to very exactly recall what happened before she became unconscious.
When she finished, he leaned over and hugged her very paternally.  "My child," he said.  "You have embarked on a great and special journey."  He stood up and faced her.  "For you have died and been reborn"
"This is the afterlife?" Marion asked.
"No, this is another life." He half turned to the small crowd that stood behind him. He knew they were listening.  He turned back to face Marianne.
"As maimed as your heart was, it failed you because of the small exertion you did," he said.  "You had, as you would put it, ‘a heart attack’ at the exact same moment the remnants of the damaged oak fell down upon you."
"As a great prophet once said, ‘It is appointed for a man to die but once and then comes the judgment’,” he continued.  “But if death should strike down a man--or in your case, woman--twice at the same time, the fates decree that one should have a second life. You are reborn; in another world instead of the afterlife."
"You mean I had a fatal heart attack at the exact same moment the tree branch crashed down and killed me?" asked Marianne.
"Yes." He took her hand.  "You can never go back to your old world, but I welcome you to mine."
He turned and gestured for the old gray-haired woman to step forward.  "I will explain all to Marla here, and she can take you in her home.”
He gestured to the old woman and spoke to her for a minute. When they were done, she came over to Marianne and extended a hand.  Marianne looked up at her in confusion.
"I know this is a lot to accept," said Marla, "but I will help you find your way in this second life."
Marianne rose unsteadily and slowly shook her head.  "This is hard to believe,” she said.
"Come with me to your new home," said Marla.  "And you will rest."
Marianne did.
Life in her new world wasn't as strange as one would think, although its history was very different.  In this world great nation states such as Rome and Egypt had never arisen and society had always been organized around small kingdoms, tribes and principalities.
The great religions of Marianne’s world such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and such had never expanded outside their original founding provinces. The people who settled her village were Druids as were their ancestors in Britain.
It was after a week that Marla needed to go into the village -- the village that was what Litchfield had been in the other world -- when Marianne learned of one major difference between the two worlds.
Marla took a small solid wheeled cart.  After they joined the road to the village, Marianne saw a shadow pass over them and ahead along the path. Marianne looked up and realized someone was flying past them just above the treetops.
She gasped.  "What is it?" asked Marla.
"You people can fly?"
"At my age, my flight is unstable, and so I stay earthbound.  I'm sure as you have recovered, you will soon be able to fly again yourself."
Marianne saw as they traveled to the village that people could levitate as easily as walk if they wished.  While most of the adults were earthbound because of carrying supplies and goods--either on horseback or wagons--almost all the unencumbered young people, those the same age as herself, soared just above treetops level; many chatted as they did.
By the time they arrived at the village and its market, she was feeling very much like she did in high school when she was stuck on the sidelines because of her infirmity.  Now, as they entered the market, which was bustling -- for it was trades day -- Marianne’s sense of alienation grew in proportion the size of the crowd.
Marla hopped off the wagon and engaged a vendor in loud haggling.  Marianne sat in the wagon and nervously looked around the busy market.
She snapped out of her thoughts as she heard a familiar voice.
"Well, if it isn't the reborn maiden," said the young man whom she had first seen in the longhouse.  She looked up at him and he could tell she was unhappy.
"What is the trouble?" he asked in a surprisingly genuine way for teenage boy of any world.
“None of your business,” she snapped.
A man walked up to them and put a hand on the shoulder of the young man.
"Get my horse ready, son," he said.  “We are ready to go,” he said.
The young man looked at Marianne with some concern but did as he was told and left.
Marianne realized the father was the man whom she had first seen at the base of the tree when she woke up after her doubled death.
He looked at her sympathetically. "I know how difficult it is for you to accept the great change in your life, but think of the great gift you've been given. You died, but yet was given a second life.  In time you will be as happy in our world as you were in yours."
"It would be difficult for me not to be happier" she said. "But I still don't fit in.”
The man looked at her sympathetically.
Marianne looked up and saw young people levitating as they entered and left the market. The father’s gaze followed hers, and as he saw nothing remarkable he was puzzled.
There was a whistle and the father saw his son had the horse prepared. “Be at peace,” he said. ”May your God be with you.”
When Marla returned to the wagon with sack of goods she pried loose from the vendor at a good price, she sat down heavily and exhaled deeply.
One look at Marianne told her there was a problem.
“What is it?” she asked. “It is obvious something has made you unhappy.”
Marianne’s first reaction was to give her brush-off like she had the young man, but Marla had been good and kind to her.  It all began to gush out.
Marla hugged her and at the end grabbed her by the shoulders in a reassuring way and said, “I felt this visit to town today would be a good opportunity for you to counsel with Altund. You met him on your first day here.  He is the head priest of our grove.”
Marla picked up the reins and they left the market. “I can finish later,” she said. “Now is a good time for you to speak with Altund.”
They returned to the longhouse where Marianne had been brought from the city park the day of her rebirth. It was there the elderly druid priest presided.
Marla greeted him, and spoke into his ear.  He nodded and gestured for Marianne to come over to him.  Marla went outside, leaving the pair together.
"I trust Marla has been a good mother to you," he said.
"She is sweet and has been very kind to me," said Marianne. "I couldn't ask for anything more."
"Well, the strangeness is wearing off, but today is the first day I have been in the village and I have learned something that means I will never be able to fit in."
"Marla has told me," he said. "The people in your world cannot fly.”
“We call it levitate,” said Marianne. "But yes, we don't know how."
"With time and patience you may learn.  If this is not possible, no matter. There are many who cannot fly for different reasons."
"Yes but I see all the young people do," and Marianne. "Now I am an outsider again."
The wise man nodded.  "It is natural for young people to want to, how would you say… spread your wings?”
He put his hands lightly on her shoulders.  "I have the ability to sense many things. I sense great contentment will come to you in this second life.  Be patient little one. If in time you cannot fly, I am sure you will find an even better reason for great happiness."
"I wish I could be as sure of a happy ending as you are," she said.
"The great spirit is neither capricious nor arbitrary.  "You were given the great gift of a second life for a reason, and I'm sure that reason will be revealed in its own time."
He straightened up to his full height.
"The one thing you need now is the one thing that all young people lack, in this world as well as others," he said. "And that is patience."
He walked them outside, where Marla sat patiently.
"I trust you have been a wise counsel for my young charge," she said.
"There are some things you could have just as well said," said Altund. "And then, there are some things that it is my role to know and sense."
With the final blessing, he sent the pair on their way.
As they traveled back to their home, Marla asked "What you think about what he said?"
“I don’t know,” said Marianne. “I really don’t know.”
Marianne began to know the people of the village as the weeks went by, and they also came to know her. The people of the district all knew of the circumstances of her unusual arrival, and considered it a blessing upon them-- although they considered it an unfortunate infirmity that she couldn't fly.
She traveled to the village every other day to take a treatment of natural medicine from Altund to strengthen her heart.  She felt better than ever, also thinking to herself the lack of stress in the non-technological world surely was helping her recovery.
It was a much quieter world, where spirituality and white magic was the basis of society instead of organized religion and technology. But the sense of exclusion she suffered from being unable to fly became like the dull pain of a nagging toothache.
Marla attempted to give her some rudimentary instruction, but it was obvious Marianne had no innate ability and it was quickly dropped.
The young man -- the Viking-like boy who caught her attention, Cedric was his name -- had offered to give her some lessons "just to be helpful," he said.  Any bystander could tell he was somewhat interested in the young lady.  But she rebuffed him; she was much too self-conscious.
 Rather than lay about Marla's home, where really there wasn't enough to do to keep her occupied, Marianne accepted an offer from a baker in the village whose wife had complained vociferously that she needed more help. And so she began a new routine of traveling to the village and working as an apprentice pastry maker with the baker's wife.
One day while she was making cookies in the shape of a man -- very much like the gingerbread men that she'd known as a child -- the baker’s wife called out to her.
 "Please take the muffins from the oven" she said.
Marianne did so, and set them down on a board next to the gingerbread men. The juxtaposition brought a childhood nursery rhyme to mind
"Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man? Do you know the muffin man who lives in Drury Lane?"
There were a number of people in the bakery that day, and as Marianne came to the end of her nursery rhyme she realized there was complete silence in the shop.  She turned and saw everyone was looking at her.
"What is it?" she sputtered.
They all stared at her pop-eyed.  "Did I do something wrong?" she asked.
The baker rushed in from an adjacent room "What was that?  This sounds you are making? They are beautiful!"
Marianne had a sudden realization that struck her as unexpectedly as that old oak tree limb had.  All during the time she'd been in the new world, she had never heard a song.  Music, yes -- but no singing.
The Baker's wife gasped. "You sound like a sweet bird who can talk."
For in this world they had reeds and flutes and pipes and whistles, but for some reason this society had never evolved stringed instruments, and so words and music had never been joined.
Until now.
"Do that again," asked the baker's wife.
Marianne remained somewhat puzzled, but complied.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star how I wonder what you are…"
People began to gather in the street to listen through the window.
Word quickly reached the longhouse, and when Altund heard of the new blessing the young woman from another world had brought to them, he smiled.
They built a pavilion for Marianne in the center of the village and cleared away around it, pushing back the market stalls, so people could sit on the ground and listen as she taught young and old alike.
It was a few years later, as Altund neared the end of his life, that he came to Marianne in her pavilion one day.  She sat cross legged, her blonde haired little child sitting beside her -- for she had married Cedric -- and plucked out a tune on a small stringed instrument she fashioned by hand.
Altund was quite frail now, but he bent down. She smiled up at him. He leaned heavily on his staff and whispered by her ear.
“Is this a happy ending?”
"Yes,” she said.  “They all lived happily ever after.”
 The old man smiled as he turned to walk away and go to the longhouse one last time.
Marianne faced the people around her and taught them how to sing.

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