Alternative History, Magical Realism
Published: September 2019
Publisher: Pipsqueak Productions
We are great at little things, at manipulating tiny threads of life. We are the gods of small affairs…until we are not.
“God of Small Affairs” is a creepy and slightly twisted mystery tale of a small mid-Western town, struggling to survive, told from the perspective of man who is culturally a stranger there and yet learns to find comfort and gives back love to people in need…his and those that reside in the town of Wilkins.
It’s a bit of a horror story, a bit of fantastical science fiction, and a take on what the world would be if one could talk directly to a god…even a god who is only interested in micro-management of human species.
The sharp sound of ripping leather disturbed Jon’s reverie. He looked down with a start; they both did. Ay-Tal’s knee-high black leather boots had split along the inside seam. With bated breath, Jon watched as the boot started to swell, letting the gray flesh squeeze out like stringy putty between sheared strips of leather. He of course knew about the metamorphosis—the Change—but it had all been very theoretical up till now. He inhaled subtly though his nose so as not to appear rattled and then looked up and caught Ay-Tal’s eyes. This was why he was here with her, right now, on this journey home.
Jon sat across from Ay-Tal in a small but private train cabin. She was almost thirty years his senior, but he thought she was still very beautiful. There was a severity to her features: a strong chin, a slight widow’s peak, dark, thick hair cut short with a few stray grays but not too many, full lips and dark gray eyes, long face and slim figure, very light skin. In short, she was everything he wasn’t—except for her eye color. Gray eyes were common among his tribe. There didn’t seem to be a trace of Inuit in her. And yet Jon knew her tribal roots ran far deeper than his own. His own great-great-grandmother was English, he was told, one of those who came to Alaska during the Gold Rush all those years ago. Ay-Tal was pure…
“How bad?” she managed to ask. Even under duress, her voice was deep and velvety—a perfect oration organ. It had been beautifully designed by his grandfather.
Jon bent down to examine the boot. In some places, the leather polish was thicker than the remaining leather. Even with extra care and regular repair, thirty years was just too long for city boots. He hoped they would last all the way to the little village hidden on the shores of Alaska’s National Coastal Conservation Area, but one didn’t always get all that was hoped. Jon’s father had made these boots to last the duration, and now it was Jon’s job to make them endure these last four thousand miles. Seal fur with a whale hide foundation would have been more durable, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate, not for Boston, not for Washington, D.C., and certainly not in front of the Supreme Court.
He lifted Ay-Tal’s legs onto his lap for a closer inspection and grabbed his tools. Pressing the sides of the ripped leather together, he started to carefully wrap the specially made leather tape over and over the boot’s perimeter to repair the damage. He felt the pressure ease a bit; the gray flesh composed of millions of intertwining threads retreated and resumed the shape of a human leg. The repair wouldn’t last long, but perhaps long enough to get home? He pulled the hunting knife to cut the tape and scrape away the frayed edges.
“Tickets!” The compartment door slid open, and the conductor stared at Jon.
Jon looked down at Ay-Tal’s legs bound in tape and the long blade in his hand and back up at the horrified face of the conductor. Ay-Tal tried to talk; it came out like strange whalesong moan. She waved to the conductor, but her muscular control was still off, and what should have been a friendly hello turned into spasmodic jerks. She came across as terrifying even to Jon, and he understood what was going on. “It’s not what it—” he started to say.
The conductor dropped his pad and whipped a pistol from behind his back. “Stop right there!” he ordered.
Jon dropped his knife and tried to straighten out. Ay-Tal let out a loud howl, more animal than human. It would take some time before she would be able to speak again; too much of the transformation had been triggered by the ripped boot.
“Don’t move!” screamed the man.
“It’s not what it looks like,” Jon tried to explain. But he could guess what it looked like to this uniformed man: a dark-skinned man with a scar above his eye (an old hunting accident) threatening a white woman in a business suit with a big knife after binding her legs together. How could he explain it away? And Ay-Tal wasn’t helping. “Officer,” Jon tried again. “I was just trying to help Ms. Blue with her—” He reached for Ay-Tal’s legal case to pull out some documents.
A shot rang out. Jon felt Ay-Tal twitch and push his body out of the path of the bullet. With horror, he watched a hole in Ay-Tal’s chest start to pulse blood. The conductor dropped the gun, terror twisting his face. Jon sprung up and pushed the man out of the cabin, shutting the door with a click of the lock. He picked up the gun and hid it in his own waistband in the back, just like the conductor. The gun was still hot.
Jon looked at Ay-Tal’s ashen face. She was losing blood fast. She was his responsibility, his god, his reason for existence. And he owed her his life now too. He felt sick from panic. She blinked and blinked again, but then her eyes rolled back, closed, and didn’t open again.
“Aguguq take me!” Jon grabbed the knife and started to cut the boots off Ay-Tal’s feet. Cut and pull, cut and pull. It got harder with each incision. Ay-Tal’s fibrous flesh started to expand and push out again. But the bleeding ebbed and then stopped. Ay-Tal only bled in human form, Jon was told. Remove the boots, remove the humanity. That’s how his grandfather shaped her; the whole tribe had worked on finding the right form for those boots. When Jon was done cutting them off, he stood over a gray, twined blob covered in bloody clothing. Well, at least Ay-Tal was alive. It was time to get off this train.
Jon pulled down his backpack, his only piece of luggage, and grabbed Ay-Tal’s briefcase full of documents that solidified the tribe’s position on legal ownership of its land and mineral resources. Fifty years of work couldn’t end just because some white man misunderstood what he saw on the train. Gathering the synthetic blankets that came with their cabin, he wrapped Ay-Tal as securely as he could and stuffed the bloodied clothing under the seat with her suitcase. He wasn’t sure why he bothered—the place looked like a murder scene. Blood everywhere…
With the backpack on, Jon put his ear to the door. There were the usual noises of the moving train but no additional screams or suspicious shuffling. He dared to crack open the door and look out. The long corridor, running from one end of the train car to the other between the cabins, was empty. He had already considered jumping out of the window, but he wasn’t sure Ay-Tal was strong enough to survive the awkward fall. And he wasn’t too sure he was. Too high a risk. That meant carrying Ay-Tal through the train, out to the gangway connection between cars, and jumping from there. Jon deemed that safer. No more than a minute had passed since the gunshot, and Jon expected the authorities to return at any moment, guns blazing. It was now or never.
He felt a slight change in the motion of the train; they were slowing down.
“Ay-Tal,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I see no other choice.” With that, he hoisted the gray body wrapped in the Pacific Railroad blankets over his shoulder, grabbed the briefcase, and ran down the corridor.
Jon made it to the back of their train car without incident and slid open the door. Once between cars, only flexible walls separated him from freedom. He carefully lowered Ay-Tal onto the floor. Using his knife, he twisted and jammed the locks to each of the adjoining cars. It wasn’t much but it would buy him a little more time. A few quick motions with his knife and he opened a hole in the flexible siding big enough to push through. All those years of practicing on whales, seals, and reindeer…
He picked up Ay-Tal like a baby with one hand, pressing her…it to his chest, and with a briefcase in his other hand, he rushed for the opening and jumped.
He rolled over and over down the steep incline away from the train tracks. The early snow somewhat softened the impact. At least he hoped it was the snow and not Ay-Tal’s body protecting him yet again. The briefcase, unfortunately, was slapped from his hand when he hit the ground.
“Are you okay?” Jon asked as soon as he was able; the fall knocked the wind out of him.
The gray, twisting blob that used to be a beautiful woman purred. Jon wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. His father and grandfather had told him stories, but even they only saw the Change once. And he didn’t think it was this dramatic back then. From what he was told, he imagined it was more like going into a room as one person and coming out as another…after many hours. He didn’t know if anyone in his tribe’s living memory had seen Ay-Tal for what it was…like this. It wasn’t revolting or anything. Jon wasn’t repulsed touching the soft, fibrous gray flesh, but he did find it difficult to look at it directly. He needed Ay-Tal to assume a human form again. Fast. Soon. The boots were gone. Ay-Tal would never again have the look of a highly educated lawyer from Harvard, arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court. That person was dead, just like the conductor and the rest would assume…jump to conclusions. Jon knew he would have too if he saw what that man saw. There will be a murder investigation, he realized.
“We need to get out of here,” he said. He stood up and looked for the briefcase. It wasn’t visible. He would have to come back for it once Ay-Tal was safely hidden. Even if the Union Pacific train was far in the distance now, Jon wasn’t naive enough to think they were out of trouble. There was going to be a search. He gently gathered Ay-Tal in his arms and carried her—he felt uncomfortable thinking of her as it—farther away into the shelter of the thick low boughs of the evergreens growing on the edge of the forested strip of land surrounding the train tracks. Tucking Ay-Tal out of view, Jon left to look for the briefcase.
All along the railway, there was garbage strewn about among the vegetation, trash snagged on craggy branches and caught among the barren bushes, tall, dead grasses, and exposed rocks of the late fall. Civilization slithered through nature, leaving its slimy discards. Jon felt disgusted and experienced a strong urge to pick the crap up off the forest floor. But that wasn’t what he was here for. He scanned the ground for the briefcase; it couldn’t have landed too far from where they hit the ground. It was well made so unlikely to have opened and spilled its precious contents all over Wisconsin…or was it Minnesota already? Jon wasn’t sure, but he had a map and a satellite phone in his backpack; normal smartphones were not very useful out in the far northern country of his people. Although all the kids had smart tablets and shared educational materials by linking those directly. Technology had changed his people in the last few decades, but far less than Ay-Tal had when she joined their tribe. There might not even have been a tribe without Ay-Tal.
He spotted the brown leather of the briefcase in a ditch off to the side. He rushed over and almost tripped over a kid’s Dora the Explorer backpack. It was so covered in mud that Jon almost didn’t recognize the friendly face from his childhood. He bent down and picked it up. Probably fell from the train, he thought. It felt heavy; he took a quick look inside. Girl’s clothing, a coloring book, and…Yes! A pair of little pink boots! An idea formed in Jon’s head. It was crazy, but it just might work. He grabbed the muddy briefcase in his other hand and rushed back to Ay-Tal.
Jon had never seen the Change ritual; he was only a few months old for the most recent one. He had been told about it, of course, but hoped never to have to personally put into practice the legends of his fathers. There were chanting and singing and some drumming, but Jon believed all that was for his people’s benefit and not strictly necessary. He knelt before the gray form that was bundled in the ugly blankets and maneuvered the child-sized pink boots under the soft flesh. It almost felt like the gray tendrils burrowed into the earth beneath the Ay-Tal’s body, merging with networks of tubular filaments of mycelia that Jon knew naturally permeated the ground under the tree.
“Ay-Tal?” he said softly. “I know this is not what you would want. And I will help you with…with something else later.” He felt uncomfortable even talking about the Change, much less requesting Ay-Tal to become a child for him. But he saw no other way. The authorities would be looking for him and a woman. An injured woman. Perhaps if he posed as a father of a little girl… “Please?”
Slowly, oh so very slowly, thin tendrils snaked their way into the tiny boots. His father told him it took over a week for Ay-Tal to become the woman he met. How long would it take now? Back then, his grandfather spent several years designing the person Ay-Tal would need to become to win the tribe’s case in front of the Supreme Court. Ay-Tal knew what was required of her and helped shape that person. But now? How would it work now? Jon sat and watched and prayed to Aguguq that the metamorphosis didn’t take too long.
He woke up with a start. It was dark and very cold. The moon was out; he could see its light shining through the branches of their tree. A small hand touched his cheek.
“Jon?” The voice was very high. A small child was staring at him from inside a nest of blankets. “Will this work?”
“Ay-Tal?” It was one thing to know about the Change, but to witness the transformation? Jon was shaken. The child in front of him was no more than five, perhaps even younger. A skinny little arm was attached to a tiny little hand with miniature fingers. The eyes staring at him were deep blue, with just a hint of gray around the edge. A bit of red hair poked out from under the dirty cloth. That and those pink boots.
“Will this work?” the child asked again.
Jon forced himself to focus. “Yes. That’s very good, Ay-Tal.” It felt strange complimenting a god. “Thank you.” He quickly looked at the child’s face and then had to look away—too strange. “I have some clothing here.” He pulled out the Dora the Explorer bag and gave it to Ay-Tal. “If you could dress, we should try to get out of here as quickly as possible. They will be looking for us.”
The child nodded and took the bag. There were some pink tights, a t-shirt with another Dora print on it, and a sweatshirt. The clothing was covered in mud and blooming with spots of mold. Not enough to keep a child warm, Jon noted to himself. Ay-Tal wiggled out of the blankets and started to put on the clothing, slipping off only one boot at a time.
The child was male, Jon noticed in shock.
When done, Ay-Tal smiled at him. “Ready?”
“Y-yes,” he stammered. “Are you cold or anything?”
“I will be,” the boy answered. “But not yet. It takes time to adjust to the Change.”
“Yes, of course.” Jon had no idea what that meant. “Can you walk?”
“Only for as long as a kid my age can,” the boy said with a smile…a very adult smile. “And call me Al. I think it works better for this body, don’t you?”
“Al. I can do that.” Jon tried to smile back, but it didn’t work—his face refused to make it. So he gathered their meager possessions, rearranging his backpack so he could carry all of the legal documents on his back and tied the rest into a bundle made from one of the blankets. Ay-Tal…Al put on the dirty little backpack and tried to bury the briefcase under the many seasons of pine needles and other detritus surrounding the base of their tree hideout.
“Let me help you with that,” Jon said and with just a few movements of his wide hands finished the job of concealing the bag. It would be found, of course. But anything to give them additional time to melt into the American landscape was worth it.
The child that was Ay-Tal watched him cover the now empty briefcase and strip a dead branch to make a stick to tie up their bundle for ease of carrying; a hobo stick. They climbed together from under the tree. Jon swung the bundle over his shoulder, resting the stick on the strap of his backpack. Al gave him his hand, like a child would. And they walked into the woods, away from the tracks. Jon hoped to find some shelter before the moon set. In this part of the country, they were really never too far from civilization…for better or worse.
A few hours later, Jon was carrying the sleeping child over his shoulder, wrapped in a blanket like a burrito. He walked on the shoulder of US-12, a highway he had located on his map, pegging their position near the town of Wilkins, Wisconsin. It was still dark and there was no traffic, but Jon was ready to jump into the trees along the side of the road if he spotted any headlights. He was sure there was a manhunt on for him and didn’t want to take any chances.
They would need to stop and buy more appropriate clothing for Al. He almost said “Ay-Tal” in his head but stopped himself. That name was dangerous now—too memorable and too easily connected to current events. How many Inuit lawyers named Ay-Tal Blue that just won an argument in the highest court of land were there? She was all over the news last week and would be again now, for totally different reasons. Jon shifted his shoulders, and the child gave a soft sigh. Poor kid tried to walk by himself, and only after Jon pointed out that he was slowing them down did Al allow himself to be carried.
She doesn’t just mimic the attributes of the person she changes into—she fully inhabits that person, he remembered his father telling him. For good or bad, Al was a little kid now. Jon wondered if Al remembered all her…his previous lives. He must. Or it just doesn’t work. He decided to ask later, the next time it was convenient to have such a conversation.
Jon also needed to let his tribe know what happened. He was wary of using phones, but there was an email account set up that he could use to draft a message in code. Messages from that account were never sent, in order to avoid interception in transit. Someone back home checked the account several times a day and read all of the unsent email drafts. Nothing was ever addressed to anyone; nothing ever moved across the network. Ay-Tal had set up the message drop system when the Internet came online, decades ago. Now the whole tribe used this spy-craft stuff. Encryptions, codes, secure passwords, cyber currency, anonymous accounts… It had all been fun and games until now. But Ay-Tal taught them well; clearly, she foresaw it might become necessary someday.
He needed papers for Al. There was no easy way to get over the Canadian border without passports. And the kid didn’t look like his son. A shame, that. It would have been so much easier if Al was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-skinned little boy. People would ask questions, the way Al looked. Perhaps they could use hair dye and sunglasses; it would work at a distance, but not at the border inspection or during any other interaction with authorities. Jon felt cold sweat run down his back as he thought of the police arresting him for murder and taking Al away. They would accuse him of child trafficking, too, and put Ay-Tal in foster care. He needed to stay away from people as much as possible and come up with a good cover story. He could change his appearance somewhat; he could shave his head and grow a beard, perhaps. Would that confuse any face-recognition systems? He could use skin-lightening creams. He could dye his hair red to match Al’s. But then his passport… He was never into the cloak-and-dagger stuff; he was a traditional Inuit artisan, just like his father and his father’s father before him.
A squat building with white walls and a dark-shingled roof surprised Jon out of the early morning mist. “Wilkins Nite Club” said giant letters across the entire facade. On one corner of the building, there were signs of fire damage that were patched up and covered with two giant flags, Wisconsin’s and the Stars and Stripes. Jon looked around. There were no other structures close by and no cars parked in the gravel-covered parking lot. He dashed into the lot and behind the nightclub. He needed to rest a bit and change his own clothing. All this mud and blood would attract attention. Back on the train, Jon never got to the point where his and Ay-Tal’s tickets were actually checked—the conductor never learned their names. Would the conductor remember what they…he looked like? People were notorious for being lousy eyewitnesses. And he still needed to dispose of Ay-Tal’s IDs; it would not be good to be found with those.
He lowered Al, still wrapped in the Pacific Railroad blanket, onto the back porch. The ground was wet and cold, covered in a silvery frost. “These blankets have to go too,” Jon mumbled under his breath, which came out as a small silver cloud about his face. “Should have left ’em under that tree for the police to find.” But the kid was cold. “Aguguq. So much to do.”
Al was sleeping peacefully. He looked like a little cherub from one of those greeting cards. And that was a big problem. Jon actually didn’t look like a typical Inuit—those English genes. He was taller than average for his people, just under six feet, and his eyes were an unexpected dark gray, not brown. But who would take the time to check his eye color when looking at Al’s wide blue-as-a-clear-March-sky eyes? Aguguq, help me.
And looks like a girl too, Jon continued his train of thought. A little white blue-eyed boy…or girl traveling with a guy like him raised eyebrows as well as questions. He needed to get the kid sex-appropriate clothing, something dark and grungy. But those boots… He looked at the shocking patch of pink sticking out from under the drab navy-blue blanket. Those had to stay. So more raised eyebrows, more questions.
He pulled out Ay-Tal Blue’s wallet and passport. Keep or destroy? As far as Jon knew, Al would never be able to take on that identity again. If they were discovered with these… Jon stuffed the papers deep into his backpack and lay down next to the child, pressing the little body close. The kid was still cold and made pathetic little snorts in his sleep. A child who is not a child. How do I keep him safe? And with that thought, Jon fell fast asleep.
About the Author
Olga Werby got her B.A. from Columbia University in Mathematics and Astrophysics and worked at NASA on the Pioneer Venus Project as a programmer. She received her masters from U.C. Berkeley in Education of Math, Science, and Technology and went on to earn a doctorate in education. Together with her husband and business partner, Olga conceives, designs, and creates products, ideas, websites, and exhibits. Along the way, she writes science fiction.
Olga is an indie author. Her stories have won awards and got some nice reviews (thank you, readers!).