By: Larry Narron
It begins when you’re six—a Sunday with rain, the weather, it seems, that heroic fantasy finds the most inviting, the patter of drops on the windowpanes calling the books down from their shelves. Outside, wet leaves, green as the ones that grow in the Shire, flap in the wind, scraping themselves against the aluminum sides of your double-wide mobile home trailer. Your dad is in Mexico, bargaining prices on flowers (he’s taken your brother because he complained that you got to go last time), so you ask Mom to please read to you.
It’s days like these she drifts quietly into your room, sits down on your bed with a book full of giants, who climb down from the sky to chase you over endless green hills with clubs that squash them to meadows to find you in all your best hiding places. This time, though, the book she holds in her hands is different: bound in green leather, bordered in strange gold letters you cannot decipher, it looks like the kind that a wizard would study to memorize spells—Chain Lightning, Banishing Smite, Animate Dead, etc. Mom tucks you in for the evening, checks your head for a fever (you never complained of one), and begins reading aloud: “’In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’”
As she is reading, enlightening you on the finicky nature of halflings, you interrupt her to ask if you might see the book for yourself. Mom smiles as she hands it to you. It’s heavy, you realize, turning it over in your hands to study the golden illegible letters that line its edges and spine. Then, when you turn the front cover, there it is—glorious, mesmerizing: a sprawling map of curling red and black ink, the lands that it labels seeming to spill out beyond the book’s edges. In the upper-left corner, a feminine hand points east, and below it are printed the same strange letters that mark the outside of the book, though here they take on the relative shape and size of a legend that might help you to decode something if only you could read them. What language is this? you wonder.
“Those are called runes,” Mom says, smiling as if she is somehow aware of your thoughts.
When you ask her to read them aloud to you, her smile fades to a frown. She admits to you she can’t read Elvish but says she thinks perhaps you can.
For a moment, you study the runes that unroll like a scroll from the slender hand that hovers above it—a hand, you realize, that looks a lot like your mom’s. You look up at her, tell her you can’t read Elvish either but that your guess is maybe it says something about magic, maybe something about a sword. When you look back down at the map, your gaze goes slowly—almost involuntarily, it seems—where the woman’s hand directs it to go: east, toward the other end of the map, where a compass points back toward her finger. Your own finger goes where she tells it to go, its tip first rubbing the ink of her knuckle, feeling its comforting texture, then leaving it to cross all the rivers and mountains beyond, to cut through the forests, toward the compass, dodging the dragon that sleeps so lightly, it seems, in your path. All over the map you see words—penned in English, not Elvish—words you can read if only because of the clues of the pictures that neighbor each one. You can read Mountain and dragon and river. Mom points like a compass and traces the ink with her finger, helps you read Lonely.
Later that night, you wake and find a note taped to your door: Mom has left for the night; she says she’ll be back in the morning. You roll out of bed, crawl like a dragon into the silence of the music room. Beneath the piano, you trace all the colorful spirals in the patterns of Mom’s favorite rug, map out a dungeon to claim as your lair, one big enough for the treasure you’ll manage to steal early the following morning, when you’ll plunder and leave a Dwarven city in flames.
Years later, when you’re in sixth grade, your mom says she loves both you and your brother— even if she no longer loves your dad. Mom has to sell the piano, she says, because she never really played it that often anyway. Not long after Dad buys our new house, he moves out; you worry he’ll go to Mexico, never return. But he doesn’t go there. He just goes over the hills to the next small city, down near the border. Still, it feels farther away than it looks on a map. (You looked on the Thomas Brothers Dad left behind.)
Your mom is still there, but she’s hardly home now, spends most of the time with her boyfriend at parties way out in the desert. You make a map of the desert in your mind, name it the Place of No Leaves. Mom and her boyfriend make matching keys for you and your brother so you’ll never get locked out. To keep you both busy, Mom buys you both plenty of books with the money she gets for the piano.
One day, you and your brother stay home sick from school. (You would’ve asked Mom to call the front office, but she never came home from the desert last night). Who wants to go to school when you have to sit in those uncomfortable wooden chairs from the fifties? Who wants to sit there and dread the moment your teacher decides to call on you, knowing you haven’t read the two chapters of Island of the Blue Dolphins she assigned you to read? When the map you were supposed to draw to reflect the setting of the story doesn’t match the setting at all but, instead, is only a rip-off of the map at the front of A Wizard of Earthsea, and between all the islands you drew dragons instead of dolphins dipping in and out of the waves? Who wants to go when you know she’ll try to embarrass you in front of the class? When you know she’ll show them all how you never read anything you’re supposed to? Maybe you can’t, she’ll say.
You sprawl out downstairs on the comfortable living room couch, poring over the middle chapters of The Sword of Shannara, flipping back now and then to the map of the Four Lands at the front to trace your finger along the ridge of the Knife Edge Mountains; to imagine making ripples with it in Rainbow Lake; to skip rocks across its shimmering surface in which you swear you can almost see the reflection of the enchanted chain-mail armor you imagine you wear; to caress the cloud-like tops of the trees of the forests of Westland. It’s pouring outside, and the rain is sliding down the French windows’ little blue squares of glass like overlapping waterfalls. Blurred by the falls, the bamboo wind chimes that replaced Mom’s piano are now played softly by the wind. Two floors up, on the roof of the house Dad bought, you can hear the raindrops slapping against the shingles and, below them, the clatter of six- and twelve-sided dice on your brother’s linoleum floor (Mom says he’s allergic to dust) as he rolls new ability scores for a character—most likely another half-orc paladin, you think, lawful evil, as he almost always aligns them. . . .
Later that evening, you wake on the couch, not remembering having fallen asleep at all. Mom still isn’t home. Outside, it’s still raining, but upstairs, your brother’s dice no longer roll. Instead of your place in the chapter, you dogear the map of the Four Lands, set The Sword of Shannara back down on the glass of Mom’s coffee table. You roll off the couch and start climbing the steps to your brother’s room; through a softer patter of rain, you can almost hear the links of your chain-mail armor clinking together. The familiar sounds of Japanese electronic orchestral music become louder as you reach the second floor.
It’s too dark to see in the hallway upstairs. You try the switch on the wall; the bulb is burned out. You let the wall guide you, reading it like a map with your finger when, suddenly, you make out a rectangular outline of faint blue light escaping your brother’s room through the doorframe. On the door itself, the silhouette of Lara Croft grits her teeth from a poster from an issue of Game Informer, points her gun straight at you. (This is a new addition. You wonder why your brother has taped her to this side of the door.)
You gently knock Lara’s knee; your brother says to come in.
Inside, the blue light from the TV nearly blinds you at first. As your eyes adjust slowly, you see how it lights up the graph paper that covers all four of his walls, his closet, the inside of his bedroom door (that’s why Lara has to stay outside, you realize), the landscapes and dungeons your brother has drawn sprawling out, winding in and out of each other, a labyrinth of little blue squares. They resemble the waterfalls that flood the panes of the French windows downstairs.
“Hey,” says your brother. He’s sitting on a beanbag he’s placed too close to the TV, playing Final Fantasy VII again. “Come in and close the door,” he says through the sound of electronic flute music.
You sit down on the bed, pick up the strategy guide on the pillow, and start flipping through its pages to the place where your brother’s bookmarked it with a torn scrap of graph paper, the halls of some abandoned crypt drawn on it.
“Can you read me the steps while I play?” your brother asks. “I hate having to switch back and forth.”
“Sure,” you say, plopping down on your brother’s bed on your stomach, propping the book on his pillow, tracing the words with your finger, mouthing the words under your breath before saying them out loud for your brother to hear. (You have to make sure you get it right first.)
You look up at the screen and see Cloud running through Midgar’s sooty industrial streets, an oversized sword sheathed on his back.
You look back down at the book. There’s a map of the city, each section captioned with words in italics, bold-faced terms like the ones in schoolbooks you’re supposed to commit to memory. You study them now, tracing the serifs of their letters.
Then, faintly, through the music that blares from the speakers, you can hear Mom and her boyfriend come in through the door downstairs. They’re both laughing, probably drunk, you think.
You don’t look up from the book. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see how your brother keeps playing, doesn’t look away from the screen. He switches to the map of the world. The red crosshairs that hover over the island resemble a compass. The music keeps playing.
The rain pours harder outside.
Larry Narron grew up in San Diego County and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where he attended Joyce Carol Oates’s short fiction workshop and was awarded the Dorothy Rosenberg Memorial Prize in Lyric Poetry. His poems have appeared in Phoebe, The Brooklyn Review, The Boiler, and elsewhere. They’ve been nominated for the Best of the Net and Best New Poets. Currently a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Larry lives in Philadelphia, where he works as a research assistant and reading specialist intern.