Dear readers, a plea: If you have a few minutes, I would be eternally grateful if you downloaded and reviewed my excerpt for the Quarterfinal round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. While reviews and downloads don’t affect the judging at this stage, some honest feedback is always helpful for me as an author.
And now, have yourself a Short Story Day as preemptive thanks.
It was wrong to sneak out of the house every night, wrapping soft rags around his bare feet to stifle the sound of his footsteps on the rusted tin roof of the first floor as he lowered himself carefully out of the upper story window. Manu knew it was wrong.
The window shutters wouldn’t be bolted shut if he was supposed to leave. His mother wouldn’t firmly keep her back to the door, a sliver of dirty light slanting through the small, misshapen hatch that let in their food and let out some portion their rubbish and waste every day. His father wouldn’t sit in his chair, tucked into a corner far away from that cold block of sun, surrounded by high piles of everything that he wouldn’t let escape: old newspapers and boxes from the weekly food packets and clothes that no one had worn for years.
If it wasn’t wrong to leave, maybe his parents would do so once in a while, instead of having Aunt Yeno and Cousin Sou trudge to the depot every morning to bring back parcels to support both their families, twenty-five children between them, and poke paper tubes filled with dried beans and canned vegetables and soft, supple bags of uncooked rice, one by one, through the only portal they allowed into their dim and darkened home.
There was nothing wrong with the outside, at least not as far as Manu could see. There was the rest of the village, of course, and the finger of Horse Head Lake that nearly cut the town in two, the cluster of little houses bending into a long, thin line as it traced the shore. The line was filling up, now, ever since the Wall had crept along the edge of the lake, and the town had reared itself upward, block upon block of houses piled on top of each other to reach dirty fingers up into the sky, the poorest residents hovering like birds five stories in the fetid air.
Manu’s family was poor, but they were also long-established, and had moved into their residence back when the village was young. The Wall hadn’t even reached them yet, all the way back when his great-great-great grandparents had worked at hauling water from the lake to fill the baths of the well-to-do for a penny a day, but Manu had lived behind it for all of his short life. He thought it was a beautiful thing, but his mother frowned at him when he said so. She didn’t think anything was beautiful. She just wanted the Wall to leave them alone.
He had only seen it at night, since he was scared to leave the house when his father was awake. They could hear it breathing all the time, of course, day and night and in their dreams, but seeing the unbelievably massive edifice, craning his neck upwards to hope to get a glimpse of the ridge of its back, was something else entirely. He had seen it sleeping, heaving ever so gently as it lost itself in thoughts so far beyond Manu’s mind that they may well have been the musings of a god. His mother had told him that. That he couldn’t understand it – that there was safety in not knowing the Wall. She had told him that there was no point in trying, but he wasn’t sure he could agree.
The Wall had been come a friend, of sorts. Not his only friend – he had his brothers and sisters and his Cousin Sou, who sometimes came into the house and tried to scrub the floors, her lips firmly pinched together under the kerchief she wrapped around her nose. There wasn’t much floor to see under his father’s piles of things, but he shouted at her when she tried to move them, and her brows lowered so far as to touch the edge of the flowery fabric that tried to keep out the worst of the smell.
The Wall wasn’t Manu’s only friend, but it was his most mysterious one. Someone had told him once that it wasn’t a wall at all: it was the tail of an enormous beast made of stone, and each new scale, each inch that it grew and grew and grew to thread across the whole of the kingdom, was an unanswered wish. The beast fed on disappointment, they said. Every kind of discontent was its food, and that is why it had gotten so huge. It was a good thing, they said. They needed the Wall just as the Wall needed them.
Manu didn’t know if that was true. He didn’t think so. He had touched it once, and it felt as cold and dead as any of the pebbles he kicked down the road in the shadow of the moonlight, breathing as much free air as he could before his father woke up and bellowed at him for his breakfast. It had been frightening to get so close. He had had to dodge the guards, walking stiffly in rigid pairs as they tried to keep the curious peasants away from whatever the Wall was. Sometimes someone would sneak past, and pin a piece of paper onto the stone, scrawled with a prayer or a hope or a bargain that the Wall never seemed to keep.
It would fly away some day, they said. The tinker claimed to have seen its wings, coiled in anticipation around the unfathomable bulk of its body, lying deep in the Darkwood Valley where the river crashed down into the hollow between the mountains. It would fly away and leave them defenseless – but what the Wall helped defend them against never seemed to be all that clear.
His father had said that he was keeping all his things for the day the Wall went away. There would be panic, he predicted, and fear, and no more food. Manu didn’t think he really had any food that would still be good when that happened, but he knew better than to argue. His father would eat anything. His mother would let him. They still wouldn’t ever go outside.
Manu would, though. He would stay outside forever if he didn’t fear a beating. Aunt Yeno would bring him back, his ear clamped between her bony fingers, and his father would pick up something hard from the pile and hit him with it for a while. Sometimes Manu didn’t mind so much. Maybe his anger helped the Wall grow bigger. If he kept going outside, and Aunt Yeno kept bringing him back, maybe he could help the Wall get big enough to soar away.
He would go outside to see it. Maybe his mother would turn around and peer through the hatch, disapproving and scared. Maybe his father would scramble over his walls, shouting in panic, and stand in front of the door so no one could see around him. Maybe Manu would slither out the second story window and sprint for the Wall, grabbing on as it stretched its wings to block out the sun and took to the air, the boy clinging tightly and tiny to a corner of its tail. Manu had dreams where it happened. Maybe that’s what the Wall dreamed of, too. Hoping so might make it bigger, and maybe one day none of them would need disappointment anymore.