Starlings – Jo Walton

THE TRADITIONAL thing to say in the introduction to a short story collection is “Here are some stories, I hope you like them.” I can’t say that, for reasons I will now explain. For the longest time I didn’t know how to write short stories. That didn’t stop me trying. I liked reading them, and I knew that they were often where the cutting edge of SF was. I had also read advice that said it was easier to sell short work than novels, and so starting writers should concentrate on them. This advice so didn’t work for me. I sold novels before I sold anything short, because novels came naturally and short fiction didn’t. Even when I sold some, they mostly weren’t short stories. For ages I felt a fraud, because my short stories were either extended jokes, poems with the line breaks taken out, experiments with form, or the first chapters of novels. Once you’re fairly successfully selling novels, anthologists and editors ask you for short stories, and I always had to say embarrassedly that I almost never wrote any. I had published nine novels before I figured out short stories. In fact, I had written my Hugo and Nebula award–winning novel Among Others before I knew how to write short stories. So that career advice for writers isn’t necessarily the way it has to work. Funny, that.

When you’re writing a novel, you have a lot of space for things to happen and for the characters to show themselves and to generate plot for you. You don’t have to make it all up. There’s room for it to unfold slowly. In a poem, you’re focused on words. It sounds ridiculous to say that the art of poetry is making words say what you want, because that’s everything, isn’t it, from conversation on out? But poetry is about words and images and technique. I’ve always written poetry. This is my first short story collection, but it’s my fourth poetry collection. When I was trying to write short stories at the beginning of my career, I was also writing poetry. I’d send them both out, and while they were both being rejected, they were being rejected in different ways. The short stories got form rejections, or at best “send us your next thing” rejections.

The poetry got rejections that said it was great but not the kind of thing people could publish. This was a huge advantage, because it let me see that my short stuff wasn’t good enough yet, whereas my poetry would be if there was a market. There are markets now—there has been a speculative poetry renaissance this century, it’s wonderful. If I were starting off now, I’d have no problem selling those poems. But recognizing that the short stories weren’t good enough was very valuable. Being nearly good enough is a very difficult state for a writer. This is when people start believing in conspiracies and needing an in with publishers and sometimes give up and self-publish, even falling for scams. What I need to write is what I call mode, which is hard to describe but nevertheless essential. It has to do with where I am standing with regard to the text and the reader, which affects everything else. Anything I want to write has its own mode, and if I have the mode—the voice, and that stance, then maybe I can write it.

Without the mode, I have nothing. All the ideas in the world are worthless to me without it—and ideas are often the easy part. One thing with this is that I can sometimes borrow mode—I’ll look at the mode something else is written in and think what fun it would be to use it myself. I did eventually figure out short stories while trying to help my friend Alter Reiss fix a story called “If the Stars . ” that he eventually sold to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I read the beginning, the first few paragraphs, which were great, and I said, “I think this wants to be a novel, and maybe that’s why you’re having this issue.” He said no, it didn’t, and when I read the whole thing I saw that he was absolutely right. He then found a way to fix the issue and sold the story, but I kept on thinking about it. The end of that story wasn’t heavy enough to hold down a novel. It was a terrific ending for a five-thousand-word short story, but it would have been too slight for a novel.

And that’s the secret to short things, and what I needed to think about when thinking about the length something should be: the weight of the ending. I’ve shared this revelation with a bunch of people since 2011, and some of them have said “Aha!” and some have said “Well duh” and most have said “Huh?” thus proving that as Kipling said “there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.” Writers are different and write in different ways, and there is no off-the-peg writing advice that works for everyone. Pleased with this insight, I went on to write, and sell, a couple of actual short stories. Er, that is, specifically, two. You’ll find them toward the end of this book. I continue to think of myself as a novelist and a poet and not really a short fiction writer at all. So here in one place for your reading convenience are two short stories that I wrote after I knew what I was doing, two I wrote before I knew what I was doing, some exercises, some extended jokes, some first chapters of books I didn’t write, some poems with the line breaks taken out, a play, and some poems with the line breaks left in. I do hope you like them. THREE TWILIGHT TALES 1 ONCE UPON a time, a courting couple were walking down the lane at twilight, squabbling.

“Useless, that’s what you are,” the girl said. “Why, I could make a man every bit as good as you out of two rhymes and a handful of moonshine.” “I’d like to see you try,” said the man. So the girl reached up to where the bright silver moon had just risen above the hills and she drew together a handful of moonshine. Then she twisted together two rhymes to run right through it and let it go. There stood a man, in a jacket as violet as the twilight, with buttons as silver as the moon. He didn’t stand there long for them to marvel at him. Off he went down the lane ahead of them, walking and dancing and skipping as he went, off between the hedgerows, far ahead, until he came to the village. It had been a mild afternoon, for spring, and the sun had been kind, so a number of people were sitting outside the old inn. The door was open, and a stream of gold light and gentle noise was spilling out from inside.

The man made of moonshine stopped and watched this awhile, and then an old widower man began to talk to him. He didn’t notice that the moonshine man didn’t reply, because he’d been lonely for talking since his wife died, and he thought the moonshine man’s smiles and nods and attention made him quite the best conversationalist in the village. After a little while sitting on the wooden bench outside the inn, the old widower noticed the wistful glances the moonshine man kept casting at the doorway. “Won’t you step inside with me?” he asked, politely. So in they went together, the man made of moonshine smiling widely now, because a moonshine man can never go under a roof until he’s been invited. Inside, there was much merriment and laughter. A fire was burning in the grate and the lamps were lit. People were sitting drinking ale, and the light was glinting off their pewter tankards. They were sitting on the hearthside, and on big benches set around the tables, and on wooden stools along the bar. The inn was full of villagers, out celebrating because it was a pretty day and the end of their work week.

The man made of moonshine didn’t stop to look around, he went straight over to the fireplace. Over the fireplace was a mantelpiece, and that mantelpiece was full of the most extraordinary things. There was a horn reputed to have belonged to a unicorn, and an old sword from the old wars, and a dragon carved out of oak wood, and a candle in the shape of a skull, which people said had once belonged to a wizard, though what a wizard would have wanted with such a thing I can’t tell you. There was a pot the landlord’s daughter had made, and a silver cup the landlord’s father had won for his brewing. There were eggs made of stone and a puzzle carved of wood that looked like an apple and came apart in pieces, a little pink slipper said to have belonged to a princess, and an ironheaded hammer the carpenter had set down there by mistake and had been looking for all week. From in between a lucky horseshoe and a chipped blue mug, souvenir of a distant port, brought back by a sailor years ago, the moonshine man drew out an old fiddle. This violin had been made long ago in a great city by a master craftsman, but it had come down in the world until it belonged to a gypsy fiddler who had visited the inn every spring. At last he had grown old and died on his last visit. His violin had been kept carefully in case his kin ever claimed it, but nobody had ever asked for it, or his body either, which rested peacefully enough under the grass beside the river among the village dead. As soon as the man made of moonshine had the violin in his hands he began to play.

The violin may have remembered being played like that long ago, in its glory days, but none of the villagers had ever heard music like it, so heart-lifting you couldn’t help but smile, and so toe-tapping you could hardly keep still. Some of the young people jumped up at once and began to dance, and plenty of the older ones joined them, and the rest clapped along in time. None of them thought anything strange about the man in the coat like a violet evening. It happened that in the village, the lord of the manor’s daughter had been going about with the blacksmith’s apprentice. The lord of the manor had heard about it and tried to put a stop to it, and knowing his daughter only too well, he had spoken first to the young man. Then the young man had wondered aloud if he was good enough for the girl, and as soon as he doubted, she doubted too, and the end of the matter was that the match was broken off. Plenty of people in the village were sorry to see it end, but sorriest was a sentimental old woman who had never married. In her youth, she had fallen in love with a sailor. He had promised to come back, but he never did. She didn’t know if he’d been drowned, or if he’d met some prettier girl in some faraway land, and in the end the not knowing was sadder than the fact of never seeing him again.

She kept busy, and while she was waiting, she had fallen into the habit of weaving a rose wreath for every bride in the village. She had the best roses for miles around in the garden in front of her cottage, and she had a way with weaving wreaths too, twining in daisies and forget-me-nots so that each one was different. They were much valued, and often dried and cherished by the couples afterward. People said they brought luck, and everyone agreed they were very pretty. Making them was her great delight. She’d been looking forward to making a wreath for such a love match as the lord of the manor’s daughter and the blacksmith’s apprentice; it tickled her sentimental soul. The little man made of moonshine played the violin, and the lord of the manor’s daughter felt her foot tap, and with her toe tapping, she couldn’t help looking across the room at the blacksmith’s apprentice, who was standing by the bar, a mug in his hand, looking back at her. When he saw her looking he couldn’t help smiling, and once he smiled, she smiled, and before you knew it, they were dancing. The old woman who had never married smiled wistfully to see them, and the lonely widower who had invited the little man in looked at her smiling and wondered. He knew he would never forget his wife, but that didn’t mean he could never take another.

He saw that smile and remembered when he and the old woman were young. He had never taken much notice of her before, but now he thought that maybe they could be friends. All this time nobody had been taking much notice of the moonshine man, though they noticed his music well enough. But now a girl came in through the back door, dressed all in grey. She had lived alone for five years, since her parents died of the fever. She was twenty-two years old and kept three white cows. Nobody took much notice of her, either. She made cheese from her cows, and people said yes, the girl who makes cheese, as if that was all there was to her. She was plain and lonely in her solitary life, but she couldn’t see how to change it, for she didn’t have the trick of making friends. She always saw too much, and said what she saw.

She came in, bringing cheese to the inn for their ploughman’s lunches, and she stopped at the bar, holding the cheese in her bag, looking across the room at the violinist. Her eyes met his, and as she saw him, he saw her. She began to walk across the room through the dancers, coming toward him. Just as she had reached him and was opening her mouth to speak, the door slammed back and in walked the couple who had been quarrelling in the lane, their quarrel all made up and their arms around each other’s waist. The moonshine man stopped playing as soon as he saw them, and his face, which had been so merry, became grave. The inn fell quiet, and those who had been dancing were still. “Oh,” said the girl, “here’s the man I made out of two rhymes and a handful of moonshine! It was so irresponsible of me to let him go wandering off into the world! Who knows what might have come of it? But never mind, no harm done.” Before anyone could say a word, she reached toward him, whipped out the two rhymes, then rubbed her hands to dust off the moonshine, which vanished immediately in the firelight and lamplight of the bright inn parlour. 2 It was at just that time of twilight when the last of the rose has faded into the west, and the amethyst of the sky, which was so luminous, is beginning to ravel away into night and let the first stars rub through. The hares were running along the bank of the stream, and the great owl, the one they call the white shadow, swept silently by above them.

In the latticework of branches at the edge of the forest, buds were beginning to show. It was the end of an early spring day, and the pedlar pulled his coat close around him as he walked over the low arch of the bridge where the road crossed the stream, swollen and rapid with the weight of melted snow. He was glad to see the shapes of roof-gables ahead of him instead of more forest stretching out. He had spent two cold nights recently, wrapped in his blankets, and he looked forward to warmth and fire and human comfort. Best of all, he looked forward to plying his trade on the simple villagers, selling his wares and spinning his stories. When he saw the inn sign singing above one of the doors, he grinned to himself in pure delight. He pushed the door open and blinked a little as he stepped inside. There was firelight and lamplight and the sound of merry voices. One diamond-paned window stood ajar to let out the smoke of fire and pipes, but the room was warm with the warmth of good fellowship. The pedlar went up to the bar and ordered himself a tankard of ale.

He took a long draft and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “That’s the best ale I’ve had since I was in the Golden City,” he said. “That’s high praise if you like,” the innkeeper said. “Hear this, friends, this stranger says my ale is the best he’s tasted since the Golden City. Is that your home, traveller?” The pedlar looked around to see that the most part of the customers of the busy inn were paying attention to him now, and not to each other. There were a pair of lovers in the corner who were staring into each other’s eyes, and an old man with a dog who seemed to be in a world of his own, and a girl in grey who was waiting impatiently for the innkeeper’s attention, but all the other eyes in the place were fixed on the pedlar. “I don’t have a home,” he said, casually. “I’m a pedlar, and my calling gives me a home wherever I go. I roam the world, buying the best and most curious and useful things I can find, then selling them to those elsewhere who are not fortunate enough to travel and take their choice of the world’s goods. I have been to the Golden City, and along the Silver Coast; I’ve been in the east where the dragons are; I’ve been north to the ice; I’ve come lately through the very heart of the Great Forest; and I’m heading south where I’ve never been, to the lands of Eversun.

” At this, a little ripple of delight ran through the listening villagers, and that moment was worth more than wealth to the pedlar, worth more than the pleasure of selling for gold what he had bought for silver. His words were ever truths shot through with sparkling lies, but his joy in their effect was as real as hot crusty bread on a cold morning. “Can we see what you have?” a woman asked shyly. The pedlar feigned reluctance. “I wasn’t intending to sell anything here,” he said. “My wares are for the lands of Eversun; I want to arrive there with good things to sell them, to give me enough coin to buy their specialities. I’m not expecting much chance to replenish my stock between here and there.” The woman’s face fell. “But since you look so sad, my dear, and since the beer here is so good and the faces so friendly, I’ll open my pack if mine host here will throw in a bed for the night.” The landlord didn’t look half as friendly now, in fact he was frowning, but the clamour among the customers was so great that he nodded reluctantly.

“You can sleep in the corner of the taproom, by the fire,” he said, grudgingly. At that a cheer went up from the crowd, and the pedlar took his pack off his back and began to unfold it on a table, rapidly cleared of tankards and goblets by their owners. The outside of the pack was faded by the sun to the hue of twilight, but the inside was a rich purple that made the people gasp. Now, some of the pedlar’s goods were those any pedlar would carry—ribbons, laces, yarn in different colours, packets of salt, nutmegs, packets of spices, scents in vials, combs, mirrors, and little knives. He had none of the heavier, clattering goods, no pans or pots or pails that would weigh him down or cause him to need a packhorse to carry the burden. These ordinary goods he displayed with a flourish. “This lace,” he said, “you can see at a glance how fine it is. That is because it is woven by the veiled men of the Silver Coast, whose hands can do such delicate work because they never step out into the sun. See, there is a pattern of peonies, which are the delight of the coastal people, and here, a pattern of sea waves.” When those who wanted lace had bought lace, he held up in each hand sachets of salt and pepper.

“This salt, too, comes from the Silver Coast, and is in such large clear crystals because of a secret the women of that coast learned from the mermaids of making it dry so. The pepper comes from the Golden City, where it grows on trees and is dried on the flat rooftops so that all the streets of the city have the spicy smell of drying peppercorns.” “Does it never rain?” asked an old woman, taking out her coin to pay twice what the pepper would have been worth, except that it would spice her food with such a savour of story. “In the Golden City, it rains only once every seven years,” the pedlar said solemnly. “It is a great occasion, a great festival. Everyone runs into the streets and dances through the puddles. The children love it, as you can imagine, and splash as hard as they can. There are special songs, and the great gongs are rung in the temples. The pepper trees burst into huge flowers of red and gold, and the priests make a dye out of them which colours these ribbons. It is an expensive dye, of course, because the flowers bloom so rarely.

They say it makes the wearers lucky, and that the dye doesn’t fade with washing, but I can’t promise anything but what you can see for yourselves, which is how good a colour it makes.” He lifted handfuls of red and yellow and orange ribbons in demonstration, which were hastily snapped up by the girls, who all crowded around.

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