In the featured image for this post, you’ll see a set of nine “story cubes” — dice with pictures on them. My daughter, Una, chose this set of nine and asked me to tell her a story. Because I cannot write short fiction, this is what came out of it.
Once, in the middle of a very flat field that stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see, there was a house. It was a farmhouse, and a farmer and his wife lived alone there with the animals you would expect: A strong draft horse for plowing, cows for milk and meat, chickens to follow the cows and eat the insects that ate the cow pats, pigs for pork and conversation, sheep for wool and goats for eating the weeds that the sheep wouldn’t eat.
To the north of the house, just out of sight if you looked out through the kitchen window, there was a clear, cold stream in a stone bed; and over the stream there was a bridge built from the stones of the stream. If you walked north from the farmhouse and crossed the bridge, in the distance, you would see the edge of the forest; and at the very edge of the forest, straight north from the bridge, there grew a perfect white flower. The stalk was the height of a child of perhaps seven or eight, and stalk, sepals, petals, pistils, stamens, and pollen were all the same perfect white. But if you leaned and put your eyes directly up to the flower, so that your nose was nearly touching it, you could look into the bower of the petals and see a tiny red flame, burning like a candle. No one on the entire earth knew about this flower except the farmer and his wife — not even their children, who had grown up and left the farm long ago, for although they had seen the flower and marveled at it in their time, their memories of it had faded when their feet no longer trod the soil of the farm.
One day, when the farmer was in the field and his wife was straightening a shoe for the horse, a strange thing happened in the sky to the north of the farm. They had lost count of the rainbows they had seen, to the north and otherwise, crisp arcs of color that embraced the fields with colors as bright as a king’s robes after a storm. But there had been no storm, and this was no ordinary rainbow; from a clear blue sky it had come, and instead of rising from the earth to touch the sky and descending again to take root in the earth, it dipped from the sky to loom over the earth, then rose back up into the sky; and instead of the lively bands of a normal rainbow, its colors were muddy shades of grey that bled unpredictably into one another. When the farmer’s wife saw this ugly presence in the sky, the horseshoe fell unstraightened from her hands, for she — and she alone, not even her husband — knew what an inverted rainbow portended. A normal rainbow comes after a storm, you see; and an inverted rainbow, the farmer’s wife knew, means that a storm is yet to come.
The horseshoe fell from her hands, as we have said, and she stomped down the weed-lined dirt paths to find her husband harvesting the wheat, which he would grind at the little mill on the stream and send half of to the city (the other half he would store in a brace of great glass jars, which would keep it dry and clean for winter baking). She stomped past the pumpkins big as pigs, and the shy onions that would make a hardened general weep, not merely with pain, but with true sorrow, if he cut them (but would spare the eyes of any girl-child’s mother, for the mother of a girl is a friend to pain until the day of her last breath), and the goats eating weeds that would make a dragon’s mouth swell and bleed, and she said “Husband,” (she always called him “Husband”), “harvest what you can so you’re in the cottage within the hour, and lock the door.”
He looked north, where her eyes had wandered, and began to laugh, and had he not looked into his wife’s eyes he would have said these words: “Wife,” (he rarely called her “wife,” but was accustomed to use her given name, Yvaine), “cease your jumping at shadows. That is not the first strangeness we have seen in the sky over the white flower, nor the first you have noted with concern, and no ill has come to the farm yet.” But he did look in her eyes, and the words died on his lips, and he nodded without speaking.
She thanked him, using his name (history has forgotten it), and began the trek back to the farmhouse, where she would collect the needful implements. As she did so, she saw that the strange light of the rainbow had given her a second shadow. The first, small beneath the noonday sun, was a farmer’s wife’s shadow: A shadow of a blouse, a skirt, of boots made to shrug off the mud, of a bosom and a belly that rambled a long, snarled tale of child-bearing and -rearing.
The second, long and etiolated, pointing straight south: A flat-bellied warrior in plate and mail, with a cap helm protecting her head and a sword strapped to her back.
All that would come soon enough, thought the farmer’s wife, Yvaine. First, it was time to get the animals in the barn, and the husband behind the locked cottage door.
Thunder rumbled to the south. She looked as she walked, her boots leaving inch-deep prints in the firm dirt, and after a few seconds came the lightning, swift and far-off and black.