Core on a Cord
by Karen Aschenbrenner
Don't pull the string.
El had given the Maun Tains the entire planet to whisk about on, a solid playground devoid of seas or winds or anything cool. El had given them Saun to greet them every morn, and two friendly maidens flying into their skies by night, guided to their waiting thrones by the strings that ran from earth up, up into the universe around it, the universe that was their playground.
The Maun Tains never lacked for company, or for food, or for a future worth knowing about. They knew what they would grow to be. There was just the one command.
Don't pull the string.
It was an easy enough command to remember, and they all tried their best to heed it, but there's something about the thrill one gets when doing the undoable. There were seven Maun Tains in those parts, lounging around the lush jungle environment, waiting. Waiting to grow, waiting to take their places as guardians of the earth. There's always been a lot of waiting going about.
They were young yet, not wide enough or rocky enough to grip onto anything for long and too impatient to stand still. They wanted to play, kicking and fetching and throwing through the tree lines, but they had nothing to kick or fetch or throw.
They looked up above them and saw the two big bright orbs that guarded their nights with white and pink and orange hues dancing across darkened skies beaming down at them. Lunalei and Le'lune. The two laughing women called down to them eagerly, We want to play, too. Pull us down, then.
“We're not supposed to touch the string,” the youngest Maun Tain, Roqi, reminded the eldest, Haemajua. Haemajua was pretty, pallid in her grey hues with purples and hints of something deeper, shadows that hid in the dark places and came out only when coaxed. She looked to Cascaid, who was perched beside her, for advice.
“Pull one down, but not both,” he suggested, “That way, we'll still be half-listening.”
“We only need one anyway,” added Altae. Tienchien silently nodded beside him.
“We're not supposed to,” Roqi repeated, the urgency in his voice coming out wheedling, like a whine. For all his wisdom, he sounded like a kiss-up and they all told him so. His supple brown skin hadn't yet lost their baby ripples, streaks of orange and red sunstrokes. His developing strides lacked coordination and he loped behind the last of them.
“Maybe we shouldn't,” Andai added, sidling over to Roqi's side. “There are other games we can play. We could dance and they could sing to us. That's always great fun.” Andai had moisture oozing out of all her pores, a walking forest of tears. Of secrets. She glistened gemstone green and cocoa.
They came upon the place where the two orb strings trickled down. The strings were of intricate weave, made of fine beads and spider's silk, detailed to make a story of the patterns, thin as could be. One was twined white and silver with star beams, the other glowed lavender and butter yellow, etched with the imprints of every other planet, connecting this one to them. The two strings swayed parallel to each other in a circular clearing amidst the sharp, sweet-smelling and bright jungle fauna and flora. Light streamed down, illuminating them.
“Which one shall we pick?” queried Cilmainhcarlo. He stayed off to the side, separate from the half-circle. A loner by trade--he was the leader among them, for all his height and strength--he slid back into the canopy, contemplating.
“Le'Lune,” several Maun Tains suggested at once.
“She's got the best stories.”
“Sees so much more, you know?”
“Yes, stars can only sing so much. But planets--I'm excited to be a part of this one, to watch it rise up and greet me.”
“Le'Lune's quite pretty, too…not that I'm looking, of course.” This last, delivered by a flustered Cascaid, prompted a punch from Tienchien.
“I'm not doing this alone,” Haemajua informed them. Her older age made her the only one with base roots to plunge into the earth and use as she pulled, but all the roots on Pan Gea weren't going to help her because she was shaking so much from hesitation and nerves.
“I'll do it,” Cilmainhcarlo finally offered, stepping up in front of them all and pushing Haemajua to the side. Haemajua was relieved and didn't second-guess herself as she fell back beside Altai.
“I'll help,” Cascaid volunteered, stepping up beside him.
They both gripped a side of the more colorful string, brushing against the fine weave tenderly. With only a thought, the string straightened itself.
They pulled it.
Nothing seemed to happen. The seven Maun Tains looked at the Maun Tains to the left and right of themselves. If there wasn't anyone beside them, they looked at the ground. Then they looked at the sky where everything was vast and dark and Lunalei stuck out like a melancholic but steadfast beacon all on her own. Then they looked down to the floor, brushing aside dead twigs and fallen leaves. They scanned the wild periphery. Then they glanced at each other suspiciously.
They heard the thumping of running paws on the forest bed and the rustle of brush being pushed aside, the movement getting closer and closer to where they gathered together, clinging to each other. They thought they were alone.
A giant lion pounced into the clearing, sitting daintily in front of them all, looking up at them through regal dark eyes, surveying. The mane, which should have, for all practical purposes, been tangled and matted with torn-out twigs that ripped off their branches during his wild run, fell like swaying crabgrass that brushes back and forth in one fluid, unified motion.
They all knew what a lion was though they'd not seen one before. They'd memorized every type of being that made a planet what it was, just by piecing together Le'lune's stories of more developed planets, and by asking El during a talkative mood swing.
They'd never seen any animals, actually, as they were of Earth, the last place To Be. The final touches. When they grew to their fullest height, they'd dig their roots into the soil basin of their choosing and not move again. The trees had already settled in, and the rocks, and the sky. When they did, Pan Gea would be complete, and the animals would come, and the humans, too. And one couldn't ask for more.
“Why'd you do that?” El asked, brows furrowed, right paw scratching up past the mane's rim--an empty comfort as the mind whirled around problems that couldn't be fixed. “I told you not to pull the string. You could do anything else. Well, nearly anything else. I was so clear.”
“You were quite clear,” Roqi admitted. “But I was rather outnumbered.”
El cocked his head to the left, his version of raising an eyebrow. “A problem does not form with an excuse.”
“We were playing. It's that simple,”
“It was simple. Now, it's complicated,” El sighed, pacing, tail switching to and fro. His overzealous tail wagged as he pivoted about and bopped his nose with the fur tassel. He sneezed. “In future, remind me to pick a different form.”
“We don't even remember who pulled the string,” Cascaid realized as he searched his mind, looking around at his friends who were all mirroring his vacant expression. He was, in fact, still holding onto the string, which had fallen from the sky and was drooping on the ground in a swirl. Maun Tains were creatures of far-spanning thought and memory. They weren't great shakes at the short-term.
As they stood in thought, they heard another rustling in the trees, a padded hopping sound. They saw a lavender whirl arch over the lion then bounce off into the surrounding trees.
Andai and Tienchan ran off after the laughing bright orb, chasing it out of the jungle and over the rock wall and across the flat plains of Pan Gea as it bounced just out of grasp, mocking. They thought if they could bring it back everything would be alright.
Panting, drained but triumphant, they resurfaced seven hours later. Lunalei had long since tired of waiting around and had taken leave of her attachment, drifting off to better hear the symphony of the stars. A near-lifeless orb was tied by the very forbidden string she'd been linked to and was dragged between them.
They quickly freed Le'Lune of her bonds and waved and cheered her back into the sky as she bounced up, up, and out of sight.
El stopped his pacing, straightened, and turned to face them all.
“Not good enough.”
The Maun Tains stood in a huddle and searched each other's faces, trying to gauge how to respond. The darkening sky was temporarily devoid of the last of its glow. El walked off, leaving them there alone, but they could still hear his voice resonating through the foliage, “Now things will change.”
The seven of them stayed rooted to their spots, now all in a line, as their home, Pan Gea, fell out before them in parallel looping lines. Mud and then the sand that trickled off of it sifted, then fell away, leaving web-patterned abysses. They all stared downward, unmoving, unfeeling, as their world literally crashed around them.
In these new crevices, subterranean wells sprang up with aquatic vegetation and activity, bubbling its greeting, sliding out before them in what became downstream. Seven rivers. The identical waterways glided off, twisting and turning, looping, spinning off past the horizon's marker, sectioning the land between into seven sections, each starting to drift off on its own will the moment the connection between them broke.
“Do you see the point where you can see no more?” El asked them from a distance.
They all nodded. None saw it. But they figured if they couldn't see it that was a good thing.
“Race towards it. Don't stop moving. Some of you might fall, but those who don't, continue. Leave your friends. Those of you who fall, do not cry out or plead for help. Pick yourselves up, any way you can. Search high, but also look low. It is in the depths one usually finds direction. You are no longer seven but one.”
Maun Tains were gleeful beings, wise and strong. Not easily swayed to do much of anything they didn't want to do, and since they only did want what they already knew, they didn't end up doing anything at all. This time, though, they moved. They moved with a fire they'd never known that started from under their feet, bubbling up and up. The faster they ran, the cooler they felt. Those who couldn't move far were consumed by the flames and exploded, flinging bits of themselves about every which way, and little Maun Tain essences wriggled into existence around them, keeping them company in the spot where they fell, in the spot they anchored to, forever and ever, amen.
El watched the goings-on and marked them. He saw Haemajua and Tienchien, growing taller, wider, as they fled east while Roqi and Andai fled west. Cilmainhcarlo went off on his own, the picture of head-to-toe control, unwavering. He went on his own time, picked a spot, and rooted there. He didn't want for company. He, and he alone, felt true guilt over what had occurred. He remembered, after it all, who had pulled that string. To him, and him alone, was gifted the promise of redemption, dangling way up by his highest peak. Just out of reach. Cruelly tantalizing.
Roqi was young. He was slowest, but steadiest, and persisted long after Andai wearily fell away in the comforts of a jungle, stretching herself out, out, shooting out steam all along the way and leaving a trail of herself until it was naught but memory.
Roqi stopped before his breath was gone because he realized the heat welling up under him wasn't consuming him but rather was a part of him now. He controlled his temper in a way some of the older Maun Tains never would be able to. Whirled about a bit, like a dog pacing out his circle. Seven times he rotated, then sank down.
With Pan Gea sectioned off and severed forever, the spirit that guarded its hearth was released from the bowels of the earth and she was flung helpless into the midst of the storm.
With creation's acceleration, the earth kept aging and aging, hundreds of years flying by in a millisecond. Young trees sprang up and wilted before they could ever reach up off the ground and flowers stagnated, not even bothering to flower. The waters whirled about, their female guardians screaming out in their dizzying agony like sirens. The embodiment of the earth, a beautiful, supernatural woman with flowing waves of silken coal and skin darkened to a rich berry, holding all the free-falling sunlight in its pores, sped about. Gea, she was called, and it was a gravity her dark waves grayed and fell out, her beauty waned before it fully waxed on.
A snake-like being with golden fur and wide green eyes twirled about her leg, and when she finally fell in the heart of Briatan, her body stuck straight up in the grass, hands stretching up to touch the sky, and turned to stone...but not before the snake-like entity had slid off, free of continuous, disorienting motion at last.
He traveled to the realm Cilmainhcarlo had claimed guardianship of. He came up to Cilmainhcarlo's feet and hailed his greeting.
“I am Sss'pan,” he introduced himself, arching his long, long neck up, up, until he was eye-level with Cilmainhcarlo's peak. “I put the Pan in Pan Gea, but that didn't quite pan out now, did it? No matter. This is far better than lounging about in the core with that woman's honeyed voice singing, singing endlessly about nauseating things like sundrops and moondrops and teardrops. I wanted to drop, you know, from the exhaustion of it all Wonder why I'm so tall? I'd stretch myself so I could hear you-all playing and carrying on. Thanks for the golden ticket that got me up here.'
'You're not looking too good now, mate, by the way. Showing age, you know. Burdened by cares. Me, I'll never age--I doubt it. Secret to longevity, of course, is--Drum roll. Cue the spotlights. Back-up dancers. Secret is, don't care. Don't attach yourself to anyone else, don't expect anything. Just hitch a ride and see where it goes.”
“You are dangerous and I'll have nothing to do with you.”
“Nah. I'm misunderstood. Maybe I'm even, dare I say it? Completely right. I'll leave you to sit on it for a while, ha ha.”
Sss'pan traveled far before finding a place to settle down into. Found a place located in the center of everything, the exact same distance away from the furthest Maun Tains both east and west. Mecca of the earth, dubbed Mesha, the very sprawling plane Roqi had settled himself and his smallest seedlings into.
Sss'pan would go out of his way every once in a while to torment the other Maun Tains, but once the first of the humans emerged, he found them much easier to sway…and they were far less volatile.
The Maun Tains, meanwhile, could no longer converse amongst themselves. For all that they loathed Pan's taunts, his visits broke the monotonous thought process, what did we do? Why are we here? How can we fix this? while each called out from his or her core for help.
The wind parted into oxygen and carbon dioxide. The foliage multiplied and transformed. What had once been a four-foot and thick brown basin holding down Saun's flowers shrank to wiry and fragile. Suddenly there were rivers, not streams, then lakes, then oceans. There were fish swimming about, and the bubbles they exhaled floated up to the surface and out, grew wings, and started flying about, searching out blood. There were reptiles emerging out of the waters. Some basked in the sandy shores they landed upon while others flopped about, wanting more, and they grew feet and walked off. Some went south and developed a loping swagger because the sand was so hot while others went north and their skin thickened, hardening from the cold. They were all fighting with each other for territory. Some species died out right where they'd come into being moments later.
Some animals burst out of their furry skins so that only the topmost part couldn't break free. They bent down and grabbed at the grass, at the rocks laying about. They flung the rocks at other animals and watched them fall. They lugged those carcasses away and dug into the earth, slipping into it, into its mountain crevices and its basins. They ate what they had caught and saved what they could not eat, burying it like treasure, like offerings. They peeked out from their hiding and saw the world around them. Thought of how they could manipulate it. With those first thoughts, they changed, but animals they ever remained.
One thought remained the same: things could not go on this way.
El jaunted up to Roqi's midpoint and looked up at him. He had taken on the form of those walking, talking animals. He found it more comfortable, flexible, but vulnerable. He looked about him and told Roqi he would be brief.
El drew a circle on the ground, partitioning it into sections. Blessed a nearby tree and broke off a branch. Used the stick to point to different sections. When this section lit up, this would happen. When that one did, that would happen.
“How will anything light again?” Roqi wondered despairingly.
“I have spoken with Saun. She will return, and soon. She will not linger or be anchored, but will come and go as she pleases. However, Saun will always shine upon you, because you spoke true,” El promised, “and though you failed, you hesitated. Hesitation doesn't help, but it is a snag that doesn't ease the wrong path along. I will remember that.”
“Where did Le'Lune go? Is she lost?” Roqi couldn't get the sky's overshadowing darkness out of his mind. Saun would come back and everything would seem ordinary, he thought. But nothing would never be ordinary again, not until a new ordinary came about.
“Le'Lune will come back, when she is called. She will not be welcome.”
Roqi thought it best not to voice his confusion. He was, after all, used to being confused.
“Though you are youngest, you know the ancient beat. If you lose it, this world, too, will be lost,” El told him, and it was so.
Roqi looked at the shadow arching over the day. It was dark, indeed. He hadn't previously known what light was, so he had not mourned its absence. Now, he saw.
The string had been pulled.
Karen Aschenbrenner is a graduate fellow at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee studying healing in writing. She spends her free time doing rune readings, oil-painting, and searching for a home for her first novel, a farcical fantasy.
What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story?
Responsibility enriches action which inevitably enhances the product. Responsible fantasy is a lot of things to a lot of people. Some fantasy writers say fantasy is like every other genre. The story floats or fails on the quality of the characters and narrative arc. Some push this further and say that if a story can be accomplished without the fantasy element, it should not be a fantasy. Fantasy should blur the lines between good and evil, perception and reality, and remove the world we know so that we can better see reality through a different lens. Personally, I think responsible fantasy world-building mirrors the pre-modern narrative, favoring the oral traditions and mythopoeia the creation of twentieth century fantasy drew from. The strength of the work is in the eyes of the reader and what the reader’s imagination does with the story. Fully-fleshed-out characters, plot progression, and universalism fall below the world the prose creates. The responsible fantasy writer knows he/she is not writing for his/her self but is providing the framework for readers’ constructions. The more one learns, thinks and reads, the sturdier the structure one can make.