I don’t dream of seeing. But I do dream of adventures. I think every boy does, and I never forgot that dream even when I grew older.
Yet it’s one thing to imagine being transported into another dimension or to another world, and quite another thing if it actually happens. Upon reflection, I think I would have rather eaten my quiche instead before I left, but we can’t have everything.
When I found myself in another world, I picked up on it right away for a number of reasons. First: I’m pretty darn sure that a food court doesn’t have grass inside of it, or trees. Second, it just felt different.
The air smelled strange to me immediately. You think I would have noticed the sun on my skin, but it was the stark difference in the way the wind smelled to me that stood out first. It’s like…honestly, it’s like the difference between living in a polluted city like New York – no, scratch that, somewhere really polluted like Hong Kong or Beijing – for a few months and then going somewhere where the air is pure and clean.
There is a quality to the air. In bad places like airports, it smells sterilized and stale, and that goes double for airplanes. In a polluted place, it’s more pervasive than anything else; after a while you get used to it, but then the fog is in your lungs, making even breathing harder than it should be.
The difference between clean air and polluted air is tangible even to people who don’t take that much notice of it. But the difference between the relatively clean food court and the place I was now in?
I look around, the bacon quiche still in one hand, my walking stick in the other. I feel like I should be freaking out but honestly, I don’t want to start running about. I can’t tell what’s around me right now except that I’m now standing on the grass, and I’d hate to run into a tree, if there are any in the area.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m blind. That’s not legally blind, of which there are many variations. I mean I see nothing. Not blackness, not a distinction between light and dark—nothing. That’s fine by me, but most people I’ve met make a big deal about it.
Normally, I get on just fine no matter where I go. I have good friends, my parents are overprotective, and I can always ask for directions or help in a pinch.
Which would be now. The only problem is, I’m getting the distinct impression I’m alone. My best friend Zoe is not sitting at a table a few feet ahead of me, and I can hear birds.
I sweep the ground cautiously around me with my cane, pausing as I feel dirt at the tip and grass. That’s definitely not ceramic tiles. Either someone’s playing an amazing prank on me or—
“Hello? Zoe? Is anyone there?”
No response. This is like a bad dream, the kind I used to have as a kid where I’m lost in a huge building with no cane and no one around me. Only then I kept imagining something was sneaking up on me and it was dark.
This…place is clearly somewhere in the light. I can feel sunshine on my skin, and I’m pretty sure it’s early morning judging by the dew on the grass. I know that because I’ve sat down.
Some people freak out when the unexpected happens. If I were someone else I might run around screaming, or panic. But being blind means that you learn bumping into things at high speeds is a bad idea. Plus, I still have the quiche in my hand.
I rest it on my lap as I sit to think. Well, I’m somewhere else. Not in the mall. I might have suspected a prank, but Zoe isn’t nearly that cruel, and it’s not as if I’ve blacked out or been distracted. I literally just took a step and found myself…
“Is it a forest? Or a meadow? A hiking trail?”
I touch gingerly at the grass and ground. Yep. That feels like morning dew. The grass is long and uncut—another sign? I’m not on someone’s lawn here. And then I find a flower.
It feels soft under my fingertips. The petals nearly stick to my skin, and I recoil when I realize the head of the flower is wet. What kind of flower is this? Has a bird or something pooped on it?
It smells sweet and odd, and like nothing I’ve ever smelled in my world. Already I’m at the other world conclusion, but this time I’m pretty damn sure.
The flower smells spicy-sweet, but also dark if that makes sense. It smells dark like I imagine the shade appears to people—not that I’ve ever seen it for myself. But I can imagine the shade—a wet, creeping thing as wide as an ocean that sucks up sunlight. That’s closest to the smell of this flower.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever smelled before, and I have a good memory. I’ve visited huge greenhouses and even flower gardens across different countries in the world – the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands were my favorite – and never come across this unique smell.
Cautiously, I reach down and pick the flower. I feel a bit bad, but I have to touch it, feel it. I’m aware it could be poisonous, but I don’t care. I smell it again, and this time realize the center of the flower was indeed sticky with that nectar.
Do I dare taste it? No, that’s probably too risky. But that adds to my theory. I am somewhere else, and something…strange has happened to me.
“Magic? Teleportation? Some kind of ultra-vivid hallucination?”
It can’t be real. But some part of me whispers ‘yes it is’. Yes it is.
This is real. You’re in another world.
And that makes me smile. Even if the curtain falls down in the next second or it turns out I’m being tricked. For a second I believe.
The air smells different. Cleaner. Sweeter, even. For that matter, even the sunlight feels…odd. I could have sworn it was quite warm in San Francisco—warm enough that Zoe and I went into a mall to cool down. But today feels like a crisp autumn day.
A breeze ruffles my hair. I smell grass and that strange otherworldly smell of flowers I’ve never seen before. And I hear a bird warbling off in the distance. That at least sounds normal.
It’s such a pleasant day. I could get up and walk into uncertainty, but right here the grass is soft. It could be I’m sitting right at the edge of a cliff and I’d never know. But here is nice.
How long did I sit there, holding the quiche in my lap, just listening to the wind and birds? An hour, maybe. I sat and listened and grew more and more convinced that I was somewhere else. Somewhere special.
That’s when I heard the voice. It was distant at first, and then grew louder, accompanied to the sound of branches crackling. Something wails and I hear a thud off somewhere behind me and to the left.
I get a bit worried. Okay, stepping into another world is a jarring experience, but I was keeping calm by rationalizing it as a Platform 9 and ¾’s experience. But no one wants to meet a monster.
Or a bear. Forest + large thing = bear in my mind. But this bear has a voice. And it’s upset.
Behind me, I hear the thing stop, and then hear what sounds like sobbing. That’s reassuring for me, but then I practically feel something punch something else. It sounds like a tree from all the branches rustling from the impact.
Is it a person? I listen hard. Contrary to public belief, being blind does not confer supernatural senses to me. I just use what I have more efficiently. I can sort out the sounds—yes, someone’s crying. They’ve got a deep voice which is why it sounded so odd. And they’re hiccuping.
I already feel a bit sympathetic for this person caught in their grief, although the thumping aspect I don’t like. If they’re hitting that tree, then I’m listening to it splinter from the impacts.
But there’s no helping it. I stand up and raise my voice.
“Hello? Is anyone there? Are you okay?”
Immediately the crying stops. I hear what sounds like the intake of breath. I call out again, turning towards where I heard the person.
“I think I’m lost. I’m sorry, but could I ask you for some help?”
“Help? I’m coming!”
It is a person! I never thought that would be the highlight of my day. But not only is it a person, it’s apparently a female person. At least, that’s what she sounds like. But she has a very deep voice; not that I object to that. Her voice sounds soothing.
Immediately after she speaks, the mysterious person runs over to me. I hear her crashing through branches as she makes a beeline in my direction.
“I’m here! What’s the prob—oh!”
Her footsteps make the ground tremble just a bit as she walks closer. I hold my ground and sense her as best I can.
Heavy. She’s definitely that. And big; that’s my general impression. And she smells. Not bad per se; but she smells…not exactly normal, I guess is the best way I could describe it. She’s certainly perspiring a bit, but that’s not unpleasant.
And then she speaks again, and I hear the worry in her tone. Her voice is deep but smooth, and she has good diction; it’s rare to hear someone enunciate as well as she does.
“I’m here. Are you lost, stranger? Are your eyes hurt? You have them closed.”
“What? No. I’m—”
I lift my cane a bit and I can feel her recoil backwards. I hear her take a step back. Did she think I was going to hit her? I lower the cane and raise a hand.
“I’m sorry. I’m blind. This is my walking cane.”
“You can’t see?”
The voice sounds shocked. She didn’t recognize my cane, either. It’s pretty universal—am I really in another world?
“Not at all. I can’t see you, but I can hear you.”
An intake of breath. I feel like whoever’s standing in front of me is huge; or at least their lungs are.
“You can’t see my face?”
“No. Is something wrong?”
Silence. And then—
“No. Nothing’s wrong.”
I smile. I’m not sure if I’m smiling at her, but it helps. It always does.
“That’s good. I heard you and didn’t want to interrupt, but I am in a bit of trouble. My name is Laken Godart.”
I offer my hand, and I sense hesitation. But then a hand engulfs mine.
A big hand. But it gives my hand such a delicate squeeze that I barely feel a thing.
“My name is Durene. How did you end up here, Mister Laken?”
Mr. Laken? How odd. Is there any country I know of that uses that kind of title? I smile ruefully.
“I’m not quite sure how I got here. I was at a mall, and I must have turned the wrong corner? Something happened because I was suddenly walking around here.”
“Mall? I’ve never heard of that town. I’m sorry.”
My eyebrows shoot up. Either she’s a brilliant actor and this is the greatest simulation of all time, or she’s serious.
“Can you tell me where I am?”
I think she nods. I’ve been told people do that a lot although I only understood the gesture after someone showed me exactly what they were doing with their head.
“You’re near the village of Riverfarm. In the forest, actually.”
Riverfarm? At least I was right about the forest bit.
“Is that near a city? I was in San Francisco just now and I have no idea how I got here.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know where that is. Is it a big city?”
“Very big. What’s the biggest city near here?”
“That would be Bells. It’s over thirty miles away, though.”
“…Is that anywhere in America?”
This is probably just a dream. Or a mental breakdown, although the psychiatrist my mom hired gave me a clean bill of health for the last few years. This is any number of things, but what I really want, a tiny bit, is for this to be real.
“Sorry Durene, I’m going to go out on a limb here, but…could you tell me what the year is? And what nation I’m in?”
“Nation? Year? I—don’t keep track of the years. I think we’re around 22 A.F.? And, um, we’re not in a nation. No one rules Riverfarm but the village head.”
“Oh my god. I am in another world.”
“I must be. Durene, do I look…unusual to you?”
A pause. I can feel her drawing slowly closer. I can’t tell, but I think she’s looking me over.
“Well…you dress a bit oddly. You have unusual clothing. There’s a strange symbol of a triangle on your shirt. It looks…colorful.”
I smile, a tiny bit. Being blind means my fashion sense is a bit skewed. I know I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt, apparently with a logo of the Illuminati eye on it. Zoe told me it looked good, but I have reason to doubt her fashion sense.
“Have you ever seen anything like it before?”
“Not so vividly. Are you a noble? A merchant who sells fabric?”
“No. I’m just blind. And I think—yeah, I think I’m very far from home.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. I think. If it is, I’d love an explanation?”
“What? No! I’d never—”
She’s so easily distressed. That makes me feel a bit guilty.
“I’m sorry. It was a joke.”
What to say? I’m usually a decent conversationalist. Or at least, I can always find something to talk about even if it’s not well received.
“I heard you crying. Are you alright?”
I’ve heard of a blush as well. Based on people’s descriptions and the one time I touched someone while they were blushing, I imagine heat filling their face. That’s certainly how it feels to me, and I suspect, Durene at the moment.
“It—it was nothing. I was just upset, that’s all. I didn’t think anyone was around.”
Her voice is rough with emotion. I pause, but why not follow this? There’s nothing to be gained from holding back. I learned that a long time ago.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to speak about it. But if you want to talk—”
I nod. But I can feel her hesitating. So I wait.
“Someone called me a name. That’s all.”
So many years, so much feeling can go into a single word. I face in her general direction, and I know she’s looking at me. And then I hear something funny.
Rumbling. Gurgling. A massive stomach. And I remember I do have something in one of my hands. I smile even as I sense Durene shifting and presumably, blushing.
“Durene, would you like to share this quiche with me?”
“Are you sure?”
“Why not? Let’s sit and talk. You seem like a nice person.”
I sit down on the ground. After a second, I sense someone sitting next to me. I don’t have a fork, but it’s no trouble to lever the quiche out of the tin container and break it apart. I give the bigger section to Durene over her protests and we eat and sit and talk.
That was how I met Durene, and my introduction to another world. As I said, I would have liked to eat my quiche first. It was only lukewarm at that point, but at least the company was nice.
When I woke up, I once again confirmed that I was in another world. I didn’t freak out.
That mildly surprised Durene, when she found I was up and quietly exploring her house. She lives in a rather large house next to a stream. I can’t imagine it as a whole yet, but my exploration and her descriptions of the building give me the sense of a building of wood and rough stone, but carefully patched to avoid the elements or nature getting in. The stone floor is only slightly rough on my bare feet, and the lone window has no glass.
In short, this is a medieval building, and from what Durene told me in our hours-long chat yesterday, this is a medieval world. With magic. And only a limited grasp of technology. She was amazed to see my fiberglass cane; she exclaimed over the material as if it were alien to her world, which it was, in a sense.
Now I sit at a table, feeling like a midget in the chair Durene put me in while she clatters around the kitchen. I can smell something cooking, and it sounds like she’s making eggs. The scent of warm bread is already filling my nostrils.
“Here you are, Mister Laken. I’m sorry it’s a bit burnt.”
“It smells delicious. And call me Laken.”
I hear and feel the big plate being placed in front of me. After cautious exploration with a fork I find the eggs—only slightly runny—and the toasted bread. Yes, it’s crunchy, but it is quite good, and I tell her so.
“Thank you for letting me sleep here. I think I took your only bed. I’m sorry about that.”
“Oh, no! It’s nothing. And I like sleeping outside.”
Well. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever startled someone into silence so quickly. I hear her shifting, clearing her throat, and then she bursts out.
“Aren’t you worried?”
I raise my eyebrow. I have no idea if it looks good, but friends assured me it did, and I fell in love with the idea after reading a story where the main character did it to great effect.
“Well, you said you’re lost. Alone. In another…another world? How are you so calm?”
That makes me smile. I may act calm, but I spent a good bit of last night while Durene was snoring outside freaking out and trying to affirm I really wasn’t hallucinating. I have a sore arm from all the times I’ve pinched myself.
“What’s the point of freaking out? I’m more excited than anything else, actually. I’m in another world, one with magic. There’s no magic where I come from.”
“But you told me you have so many strange things. Like these ‘cars’ and ‘malls’. It sounds amazing.”
“I’m surprised you believe me, to be honest. If I heard someone talking about my world, I’d assume they were crazy.”
“But you make it sound real. And that stick you have which folds up—”
Another miraculous invention by her standards. I think it was actually that which convinced Durene I was from another world. That, and my iPhone. I think Siri scared Durene more than anything else.
Yes, it turns out I have no wireless, and without battery I turned Siri off to save energy. But having an iPhone, even one with limited power, is amazingly useful in a survival situation, which is what I find myself in.
So is having a friend. I smile at Durene.
“I don’t think my world is that special. But I am glad you found me, Durene. I’ve always found that I can trust most strangers.”
Another pause. Another hypothetical blush.
“Really? But you can’t even see—and you just trusted me to help you. I could be—”
“But you’re not. And I have a good sense for people, or at least, I like to think so. You seem like a very nice person, Durene.”
“I—thank you. But you can’t see—”
I smile wryly.
“I do notice some things. For instance, I know you’re taller than me. And stronger. And you have calluses on your hand, your table is cracked here—and you have a big appetite.”
It’s hard not to notice her chomping down her food, to be honest. Durene shifts in her chair, making the wood creak.
“What? What are you sorry for?”
“I quite enjoyed the eggs and toast. Did you make it yourself?”
This time I think she nods, because there’s a bit of silence before she speaks.
“Oh! Yes! I eat a lot. So I have a big garden and I um, raise chickens and pigs and other animals. But I can’t cook well because I don’t have any Skills.”
“That seems rather harsh. Your food tasted good to me.”
Silence. And then—
“Thank you. But I have to buy a lot of food anyways. The villagers sell me lots of things I can’t make by myself.”
“So you live in a village? How many people live there?”
If it seems odd we didn’t cover that yesterday, well, there’s a lot of explanations and confirming to be done when you think you’ve ended up in another world. Another part is convincing a scared young woman that you haven’t trapped a person in your iPhone.
Is she young? Durene sounds like she’s a bit younger than I am. Of course, I’m terrible at judging ages so she could be anywhere from my age to still in her teens. Girls grow up quicker than guys, after all.
Back to the conversation. Durene apparently lives in a small village of around sixty souls, most of whom live closer to each other. They inhabit a lovely area of farming land fed by a river, hence the name Riverfarm. The people there grow crops and raise animals—they have a blacksmith, and a dedicated person to go and trade for them at a town, that person having the most skill at buying and selling.
The people in this village live together in large families. The children often go out to learn jobs in other towns as they grow, or manage the family business. It’s rare to see a single new face in a month, let alone a group of people aside from adventurers or Runners now and then.
Oh yes, this world has adventurers and the weirdest postal service I can imagine. But what stands out to me in all of Durene’s explanations is an odd…lack of detail. Namely herself.
Durene doesn’t live in the village. From what she says, the only other people who live alone are bachelors or bachelorettes or those who have lost their partners. But Durene is far too young to fit either criteria, and she tells me she’s never met an adventurer, despite them being popular with all the kids.
I smell a rat. And Durene. She still smells…off. If I met other people I might understand what’s different about her, but until then I just keep the conversation going and tell her a bit about where I come from.
That’s me Laken Godart, blind son to two fairly affluent parents, one a lawyer, the other a businessman. I’ve travelled more places than Durene’s heard of, and I’m blind. That’s a basic description, but the key to selling yourself is embellishment.
And all too soon, I find that Durene’s big breakfast has affected me in another way. I clear my throat politely.
“Uh, Durene? Can you help me get to the bathroom again?”
Yes, it’s embarrassing to have to ask someone you’ve just met to help you out, but I’m used to it. Don’t want to walk into the ladies’ room now, do I? But then, they’ve always been quite considerate the two times I’ve done it by accident.
Anyways, it’s always easier if I ask for help, especially since any door could be the wrong one. And Durene is happy to help.
“No problem. This way—oops! Let me just push this aside—the door’s over here.”
She’s very considerate. Normally people have a hard time directing me, but she’s gotten the hang of it quite quickly. She lets me grab onto her arm—I can feel her muscles rippling every time she shifts—and she walks forwards at a reasonably fast pace.
It’s not as if I have trouble moving around, and I can sense whether she’s walking up an incline or stepping around something. It’s natural to me, and once I explained that to Durene she got the trick of it quickly.
Her bathroom is an outhouse located outside of her home and a ways away from the stream. She has to wait at a respectful distance afterwards, but I don’t take long. There’s only one problem.
“Do you have any toilet paper? Uh, anything to wipe with?”
“I’ll get some leaves!”
“Leaves? Hello? Durene?”
It turns out toilet paper is a luxury so rare Durene’s never heard of it before. But the leaves she gives me are serviceable, and my butt doesn’t complain too much.
The outhouse is definitely an outhouse in the sense that I know there’s no water below me as I toss the leaves down. But it smells nice; Durene’s put some fragrant herb there to chase away the smells. I say as much as I leave.
“Your home seems very nice, Durene. I’m envious.”
“It’s nothing special. It’s really not. It’s—crude.”
“I don’t think so. But uh, do you have anywhere I can wash up? And some soap?”
It takes me a while to get across the basic idea of hygiene to Durene. That’s my first worry. But she boils some hot water for me and when I’m reassured it’s not scalding, I use that.
“You really need to wash your hands, Durene. In my world, countless people died in the past because they didn’t keep themselves clean enough.”
It’s amazing, flattering, and humbling how Durene takes all my statements at face-value. I tell her about the Black Plague, and within minutes she’s swearing up and down to buy some soap the next time someone goes into town.
Before I know it, it’s lunch-time. I could certainly use something to eat, and Durene takes me around the garden, letting me feel the growing plants and the bunch of potatoes she yanks up.
But then we hit a problem. Durene goes into the kitchen to cook them while I sit outside and listen. But after twenty minutes I know something’s wrong. I can hear her trying to be quiet, but the clattering and the burnt smell can’t be so easily hidden.
“Is everything okay? Durene?”
There’s a catch in her voice when she comes out and tells me she’s ruined the potatoes. I don’t get it, but if there was a fire alarm in her house it would be blaring. She doesn’t even let me inspect the ruined food; apparently it’s so burned she just dumped it outside for the pigs.
“I can’t cook potatoes. I’m sorry. I normally eat them raw.”
“Well, we can’t have that. Let me help you.”
“Help? But you—”
“I can’t see, but I can cook. Come on!”
I reach out and touch her arm. It’s a big arm, and she recoils instantly. But I soothe her and guide her back to the kitchen.
It’s an odd thing, cooking while mainly instructing someone else. Odd, but fun. Only for me at first, but then Durene gets into it.
We make sautéed potatoes. It’s an easy recipe, but I have to show Durene how to cut properly at first. I hear her cut herself twice before I realize her form is off.
“Like this, see? If you’re cutting leaves like this rosemary—do it like this.”
Durene gasps, but I place the knife at my knuckles and roll it across the cutting board, slowly slicing the herbs into small slices.
“Easy as anything. Don’t worry; even if you can’t see, there’s no way to cut yourself like this, see?”
“I do! That’s incredible!”
“It’s not. Really. Now, let’s get to work on the rest of those potatoes, okay?”
“Okay. The chopped potatoes are…here. We boil them?”
“That’s right. Is the water boiling? And you added the salt? Put them in. They’ll go there for about four minutes, okay? Now. Where’s the pan?”
“I put the oil in.”
“Now the potatoes. Flat side down. There. Doesn’t that sound good?”
The sizzling oil makes my stomach wake up. I smile as I hear Durene clumsily sliding the sliced potatoes around the pan.
“Is it crispy golden brown? Okay, let’s reduce the heat. Now…a bit of butter. Just a bit…and the rosemary…doesn’t that smell delicious?”
“It does! It does!”
Success. We sit down and Durene eats her food as if it’s the best food she’s ever had. Apparently, it is.
“I’ve never cooked anything like that before. Do you have a Skill? You must!”
“I wouldn’t call it skill. I just learned from a great chef.”
Thank you Gordon Ramsay. I might not be able to see them cook, but I do love chefs who tell me exactly what they’re doing.
“Are you a [Chef]? Is that your class?”
That’s an odd way of putting things. I shrug, a bit embarrassed.
“I wanted to be a professional chef, and then a professional food critic when I was younger. I gave up on that when I found out someone else had already become blind Masterchef. And, it has to be said, I’m not that good at cooking.”
“It’s not nearly as good as something professional chefs can make, believe me. And you did all the hard work.”
“You know so much, though.”
I want to squirm a bit with embarrassment.
“I just studied a lot of different professions, that’s all. Chef, food critic…at one point I wanted to be a billiards player, but that’s not actually possible. I wanted to do anything that wasn’t boring, so I tried a lot of things.”
“That’s so amazing. So much better than I am.”
I think she’s staring at me. I can feel her proximity towards me. Her voice is also much more intent—she sounds fascinated. I can’t help but smile.
“You’d be surprised what you can pick up if you work at it. Forget cooking—I once disassembled and reassembled an old computer by hand. That’s…like a complicated device.”
“I wouldn’t know. I…I only have the [Farmer] class.”
There it is again. Class? I frown.
“Classes? Do you mean jobs? You mean, you get assigned a job?”
“No. I’m just a [Farmer]. Level 6. Do you not have classes in your world?”
Is it obvious? Did I not notice it because I can’t see? But Durene assures me she doesn’t have her class and level floating above her head like an MMORPG. Even so, my mind is blown because now I realize I’m in a video game. Or something like a video game.
“You mean, you played games with the fates of people?”
“No! It was all just pretend. But it’s exactly like how you’re describing your world.”
We sit together, in her garden, talking. By this point Durene and I are comfortable enough to sit closer than before, and yes, she is tall. I’m not short myself; apparently I’m around 184 cm, or around 6’1’’ for people using the horrible US measuring system, but Durene is at least a head higher than I am. Possibly bigger; she hunches over as we talk.
And she is huge. And conscious of that; she treats me even more like a glass object than people who just know I’m blind. I am grateful in her case, though; it does feel a bit like a giant is keeping me company.
Hmm. A giant?
One last detail: Durene’s skin is rougher than normal. Her inside palm is fairly smooth, if callused, but the few times I brushed against the outside of her skin, it was surprisingly rough and even felt cracked in places.
Odd. But she is a great listener, and we sit together long into the night. I tell her stories, and she tells me of this world. Magic and adventurers and a gaming system.
Dinner that night is marinated mushrooms, again thanks to me marathon watching Ramsay videos. It’s good that I remember so many vegetarian dishes; Durene likes meat, but it is apparently a rare delicacy for her, despite the pigs she introduced me to earlier today.
We don’t have any vinegar, but Durene’s garden is plentiful, and everything is so high quality that we barely need any seasoning to make it go down. Fresh water from the stream completes the meal, and Durene eats four times what I do. Good thing we made a lot.
Sometimes I wish I could see. I have no idea what it would be like, and usually I don’t ever care. But when I’m having a bad day or I’m frustrated and wish things were easier, I wish I could see.
But now, I just want to see her face. Even though it seems like Durene is self-conscious about it.
I wonder why. I wonder as I tuck myself into her bed and listen to her snoring outside.
At least I know she’s not a Troll. The ones from the Hobbit turn into stone in the morning, don’t they? Maybe people just grow really big in this world.
Maybe. But she’s still a good person, regardless.
Apparently, one of Durene’s obsessions is fish. Understandably so; she can’t catch much game and she sells most of her pigs rather than eat them. Her occasional chicken only comes when one dies, and as I’ve observed, she has trouble cooking even the most basic of meals.
But fish? Fish is hard to get wrong, and Durene has a crude fishing rod that she tries to catch fish at the stream with almost every day. Apparently, she has little success and I figure out why quite soon.
“You need some bait that wriggles. Worms are better. And you’re moving the line too much. Let the fish bite before you pull it out of the water. See? Patience is key.”
It’s amazing. But no one’s ever taught Durene this, and she observes me fishing with rapt attention. I feel—
I feel happy to teach her, and supremely annoyed no one ever taught her something as simple as this. Do people in her village not know how to fish?
Or is there another reason why she lives alone?
I get half my answer after I yank the second small fish out of the stream, much to Durene’s delight. I hear voices, laughter; the sounds of several children. And then I hear the voices.
“Freak! Come out, Freak!”
Beside me, on the grass, Durene goes still. I pause, the crude clay mug Durene gave me half full as I scoop water out of the stream.
“Where is she? Freak!”
I hear merry laughter, running, shouts of joy at odds with the words and tone in the childrens’ voices. It doesn’t take them long to find us.
“Freak! Freaky freak! Fr—who’s that?”
I turn my head as the sounds of running feet stop. I counted…six kids? All young; probably around ten. Mostly boys, although there’s one girl in there. They pause uncertainly.
“This is Laken. He’s a stranger to these parts.”
Durene tries to explain. I smile and introduce myself, but the instant the children discover I’m blind, respectfulness vanishes.
“A freak! Freak’s gotta friend!”
Is there something in the water here? Or is it just them? I frown at the kids.
“That’s not a word you should be using about Durene.”
“But she’s a freak!”
One of the boys protests. Then I hear a yelp and the girl speaks.
“I think he don’t know. He can’t see her!”
“You should run, Mister! Durene’ll eat your heart out!”
“No I won’t!”
“Aah! Run from the freak! She’s gone mad!”
Durene stands up in anguish. And then I hear her yelp. Someone’s tossed a stone at her! I hear it plop into the stream.
“Eat dirt, Freak!”
Okay, mudballs. Another one flies. Durene’s not doing anything to defend herself, so I stand up. The mug of water is still in my hands. For a second I’m tempted to hurl it but—that wouldn’t be right. The children go silent. What should I say?
“It’s nice to meet all of you. Cheers, mates.”
I raise the mug of water in their general direction and then drink from it. Honestly, it tastes a bit like clay. I look at the kids, or rather, in their general direction I hope.
“Now piss off.”
Silence. I keep my face still. I’ve never actually stared anyone in the eye mainly because I could miss, and I can barely keep my eyes open for a staring contest in any case. My eyes still get watery even if I can’t see.
But I am good at holding still and remaining calm. The children aren’t. After a few more seconds I hear them retreat.
I sit back down next to Durene. She’s trembling.
I keep my tone light as I reach for the fishing pole again. I can’t find it, but then Durene silently presses it into my hands.
“Do you know what I meant when I said ‘cheers’? It’s an expression from another culture. It means, well, it’s something you say before you have a drink, or at a party.”
Her voice is quivery, but it is curious. I nod and smile.
“I met an Australian guy once who could make that word sound like a threat. He said it to a bunch of soldiers who were bothering us and—well, it’s not always polite. It’s all about nuance, you see?”
More silence. I hear Durene gulp.
“I—I’m sorry. What they said—”
“—Is none of my concern. Those little wankers were being obnoxious anyways. They’re too good to be called brats. Do they harass you often?”
It’s nice to know more than one culture. It helps when you want to add to your repertoire of insults. Durene laughs shakily, then goes quiet again.
“Sometimes. I mean, they come by sometimes but they don’t do more than throw things.”
Silence is my answer. I clear my throat.
“They’re miserable little monsters; don’t listen to them. Anyways, they’re just kids, aren’t they? Can’t you chase them off?”
“I couldn’t do that! I might hurt someone, and then—”
She sounds genuinely shocked. And afraid. Is she worried about the mob of stereotypical farmers with pitchforks? But that had to come from somewhere. Maybe she’s right to be passive.
“I’m sorry if I got you in trouble. But I couldn’t stand by and let them harass you.”
“It’s okay. I think. Yes, it’s okay. But I’m surprised you weren’t angrier when they called you a freak. You’re not.”
Again, her tone suggests…what? Depression? Low self-esteem, certainly. But the clues aren’t all there yet, even if I know most of what’s going on. As for me…I shrug.
“I used to be a lot angrier than this. But I’ve gotten calmer now; I don’t lose my temper that much. I’ve been called names too.”
I smile again, but this time with an edge.
“Everyone gets called names. I’m just an easier target since I can’t see anything coming. Then again, I get it. When you’re a kid, anything weird is a target. Anything different or scary…it’s easier to shout insults than get to know the person. That doesn’t mean I think what those brats did was right, of course. Next time one of them calls you names, hit him. Or just call him names as well.”
“I couldn’t hit anyone! And I’m not good with insults.”
“What? Insults are easy. Come on, try one. Call me something.”
“I—I don’t know. What would I even call them?”
“Unexploded pimple? Pitiful asshat? Cowardly mushroom? Insults can be anything you want them to be.”
The laugh that comes out of Durene is more like a bark of amusement, but it’s genuine and real.
“Tell you what. Let’s grill up these fish and I can teach you some of the really pithy insults I’ve heard of, okay? You might want to cover your ears though; some of them could make a sailor blush.”
She laughs delightedly and I smile again. It’s a better day, despite the kids. And the fish isn’t even burnt this time.
I find myself spending almost all my time with Durene day by day. She’s an open person and easy to talk to; she likes listening more than she likes speaking, but she can break down this strange world into easy-to-understand fragments for me.
She’s in the middle of giving me a history lesson about some version of Alexander the Great when I hear a shout. I’m ready for the kids this time, but to my surprise, only one comes running.
“Durene! The wagon’s lost a wheel! Come and lift it, our Da says!”
“What? The wagon? I’m on my way!”
Durene jumps to her feet with amazing agility, and then hesitates.
“I have to go help, Laken. Will you be okay? I can take you there—”
“I’m fine. Go. I’ll be okay until you come back.”
Again, being blind is not like being porcelain. I let Durene run off with the kid and think of what to do. Twenty minutes later, Durene thunders back to the cottage looking for me.
“Durene. You’re back. Is everything okay?”
She smells a bit of hay and some other animal scent. And a bit more of that musky odor that’s probably her sweat. I hear her clear the stream in one jump.
“Everything’s fine. I helped Mister Prost with his wagon; that’s all. The axle of the wheel broke, so he had Finnon go get me.”
“Huh. Do they always call on you for help? It seems like they’d need a team of people to move a busted wagon.”
She shifts next to me. Uncomfortably? It’s surprisingly easy to tell when someone’s hiding something even if you can’t read their face.
“Oh—it wasn’t that hard. I just had to help lift it up a bit, that’s all.”
She doesn’t even sound winded. But she ran off and came back in less than ten minutes and helped a farmer put a new wheel on a wagon?
Odd. Odd, odd, odd, odd…
“You do repairs often, then? That’s pretty handy of you.”
“Well, I don’t have a class. But if they need help lifting or, you know, raising a barn—”
“Gotcha. So how bad is the damage?”
“They’ll have to fix it later, but it looks like it was just the axle that went. I just got the wagon back to their home so they could give old Evera a rest. She’s their plow horse and she gets tired quickly.”
Okay, so she pulled a wagon which might or might not have been full of produce an unspecified distance. Hmm.
It could just be her class. Durene said she was a Level 6 [Farmer], but she has one [Enhanced Strength] skill already. Apparently that makes her way stronger than normal; when I asked her to demonstrate, she lifted me up with one hand as if I was a feather.
But the skin? And the things those kids said? What could that—
Bah. What am I, a detective? The answer is no, because I can barely solve a Sherlock Holmes mystery, let alone figure out those stupid wire puzzles. And Durene deserves respect from me, if no one else.
She’ll tell me when she’s ready.
“I need a class.”
That was what I told Durene when she woke up in the morning. I get up before she does; not that either of us are late sleepers. We’re both morning people actually, although I tend to function just as well in the dark as in the light for obvious reasons.
But I do like to hear the birds sing and feel the sunlight on my face. I don’t mind relaxing for an hour or two by myself in the mornings. As Zoe once told me, I’m the chillest blind guy she knows, which is to say I’m the only blind guy she knows. She knows a blind girl—Teresa, but she and I don’t get along.
I hate Teresa.
Durene is silent for a long moment after I tell her this. We made doughy crepes this morning and added some wild berries, but she stops eating them now.
“Isn’t it what people do in this world? You told me no one you know didn’t have a class.”
“That’s true. But…”
I wait, yet no further thought comes. I explain myself while I try to see what’s making her upset.
“I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and I need to have a class to survive in this world. I can’t just rely on your goodwill forever.”
“But a class—that means you’d go and get a job, right? You’d…leave.”
Oh. Oh. I feel like an idiot.
“I don’t want to be a burden, Durene. I’m already making you sleep outside and now you have to feed two mouths.”
“That’s not a problem!”
The table shifts as Durene moves. She apologizes, and then her tone changes, becomes more pleading.
“I don’t mind the grass! I don’t! And you eat a lot less than I do. I wouldn’t mind you staying! I…like having you around.”
What do I say? What do I do? Whatever it is, it must be something that won’t break her tender heart.
“You know I have a home, Durene, and a family. They’re probably worried sick about me. I want to get back to them.”
I can almost feel her drooping at the other side of the table. I clear my throat and go on.
“But I do enjoy staying here with you. If you’re sure I won’t be a burden, I’d love to stay here. I just mentioned a class because it’s fascinating, really.”
“You’ll stay here? You’re sure?”
It’s not pathetic how eager she sounds, how hopeful. It’s heartbreaking. Who left this girl alone? I nod.
“I doubt there are many jobs for a blind person in your world anyways. Unless I can learn magic? I’d love to learn that.”
“I don’t know. I’ve heard of spellbooks, but I don’t know if mages learn any other way.”
I make a face, mildly outraged as I eat more crepe. Even in this world I’m handicapped by a lack of braille books? And I very much doubt there’s any kind of audio spellbook.
“Well, that idea’s out. I guess I’ll have to sleep on it.”
Then I have another idea. I suggest it to Durene as I help her wash the pottery dishes. She doesn’t use soap, but hot water works pretty well. She can tolerate the heat far better than I, though. But her hands are clumsier, so we both work slow.
“Why don’t you show me around your village?”
Durene nearly drops the cup she’s holding. I push it back into the bucket of water just in time; the splash gets water all over my clothes.
“What’s wrong? I haven’t introduced myself, and I’m sure they’re curious about me.”
“I—I wouldn’t want to bother you.”
“It’s fine. I like meeting people. Besides, I have to meet them sooner or later, don’t I?”
It takes me two more days for me to convince Durene to take me into the village. She resists, stonewalls—not so much out of reluctance to visit on her behalf, but for fear of how the villagers will treat me, I think.
And how do the villagers treat me?
Oh, they knew a stranger had moved into Durene’s house, but no one had come by. I think they were more apprehensive than curious, and Durene herself might have told them to steer clear before then. It isn’t as if we are always together; she made several trips into the village prior to my arrival, and I can only speculate I was the topic of gossip.
When Durene finally lets me into the village, I hear a few mutters, but Prost, the [Farmer] who Durene had helped out a few days ago, is the first to shake my hand.
“You’ve got a fine grip, son. You’d be a good farmer.”
“Ah, but I’d keep trying to milk the bull, and that wouldn’t end up well for anyone, would it?”
A joke, a laugh, and I change from the scary unknown to someone approachable, even likeable. One mother smacks her son for calling me names, and soon I’m introducing myself as a traveler from far off, sidetracked by a spell and relying on Durene for help.
That bit of fiction is met by approval from all the villagers, but later on Prost takes me aside as Durene helps lift a few kegs for one of the farmers.
“I wouldn’t say much about Durene—she’s a good helper in times of need, but she’s a bit—”
“She seems like a nice, normal young woman to me. Wouldn’t you agree?”
I shut him down in an instant. I don’t want to know. Not from him. Not from someone who isn’t Durene who’s chosen to tell me. That ends the conversation; it’s awkward for a few moments until I ask about farming around here. Turns out that these farmers have quite the variety of crops, and they’re fascinated when I talk about greenhouses and crop rotation. Some high-level [Farmers] have Skills that approximate those effects, and soon I’m actually giving out vague advice on farming techniques I half-remember. Too bad I can’t give them a combine harvester.
Durene hovers around me anxiously at first, but then relaxes as time went by. The other villagers treat her—well, I guess. They have a huge mug of milk for her, and she helps drag a huge tree that had fallen out of the way. But—
We leave the village after several hours, with invitations for me to call on various families for a meal and conversation. I can tell stories about the places I’ve been to if I omit the parts that they wouldn’t understand, and in this small village I’m the equivalent of a celebrity, or a novelty.
The villagers like me. I think I can say that with confidence. They think I’m kind, charming, and okay, mad as a loon. But Farmer Prost’s wife Yesel gives me a basket full of goods to take back to Durene’s home—or rather, she gives Durene that, and I met a good deal of people that day. All in all it was a success.
I just wonder why they dislike Durene so. Or maybe not dislike? She’s clearly known them all her life. But there’s a wall between her and them, and no matter how kindly the villager are towards her and no matter how hard she tries to be as helpful and meek as possible, they still keep their distance from her. I hear it in their tones and observe it through their actions.
It makes me hate them, just a little.
I woke up knowing what class I’d have. I was so antsy that over breakfast I nearly put my hand on the frying pan in distraction. I broke the news to Durene as we ate cheese on scrambled eggs; neither of us could do omelettes.
“I think I’ll become an [Emperor]. Do you know if I have to declare that? Or is it just doing something that gives you the class?”
Durene choked on her eggs and I had to listen to her splutter for a while before any coherent words came out.
“That’s impossible! Laken! What are you saying?”
“I’m going to be an [Emperor]. It seems like the easiest class for me to take, and perhaps I’ll gain some useful skills.”
Honestly, it was the first class that came into my mind as a viable option. But Durene told me flat out it was impossible. I told her she was wrong.
“You can be an [Emperor], Durene. You can, and I can.”
“It’s not possible! To do that—you’d need a kingdom, and a palace and white horse and—and—”
Her voice trails off, unable to even describe my folly. I can only smile.
“But you can, Durene. I know of a man, an ordinary man, who became an Emperor. All by himself, although he was poor and he had no palace or horse.”
There’s skepticism, but curiosity and eagerness in her voice in equal measure. She always loves stories from my world. This one puts a grin on my face even as I speak.
“He was known as Emperor Norton the 1st of America. He was a real man who became an Emperor just by calling himself one. I always loved his story.”
“Emperor? But you said America has no rulers. Only someone with the [President] class.”
My explanations of how my world works might have gotten a bit jumbled. I shake my head.
“That’s true. But Norton didn’t care what the rules were. One day, he declared himself Emperor. And he lived and died acting as one.”
It’s an amazing story, and one I have to struggle to do justice to. How can I explain to Durene the tale of Joshua Norton, a failed businessman who one day woke up and sent letters to every newspaper in San Francisco proclaiming himself as the Emperor of the United States?
Well, sort of like that, actually.
“He made proclamations and sent orders to the army—none of which were ever obeyed—and he even made his own money. I know it sounds ridiculous, Durene, and I’ll just bet you’re smiling, but here’s the crazy thing: it worked! The people let him go around calling himself Emperor, and in time they began treating him like one.”
“They did. Not all of course, but he eventually made his own money and became known throughout the city. The people of San Francisco accepted his currency, and he dined in the finest restaurants and went to famous plays in the theater where they would hold a seat for him. When he died, over thirty thousand people went to his funeral.”
Durene listens in silence, rapt with attention. I can only imagine it myself. His story captured my heart.
“Some say he was a madman. And maybe he was; he probably was, honestly. But he also dared to dream. And that’s something I’ve always admired about him.”
He dared to dream. There are worse things to be remembered by. And unlike the rich businessmen and famous stars and politicians of the day, Norton I is still marked in history as the first and only Emperor of the United States. It may seem funny to most people, but I think he’s the one laughing in the end.
“If one man can declare himself Emperor, I don’t see why I can’t follow suit. Kings might be born to rule, but the first kings were just men with an army who made themselves crowns. I might not have an army, or a crown, but it’s worth a shot.”
As impressed as she is by the story, I can hear the doubt oozing from Durene’s every word. But I just grin.
“I’m in another world, Durene, and from what you’ve said, classes rule this place. Why not take one of the best ones if I can? So. You can be my witness.”
I stand up dramatically, praying I don’t hit anything by accident as I gesture grandly.
“Hear my words, that they may be passed down for posterity. On this day, I, Laken Godart, declare myself Emperor of the Unseen, sovereign lord and ruler of all I survey. Not only Emperor; I declare myself Protector of Durene’s House as well.”
For a second I hold the pose, and then hear Durene giggle. It sounds amazing coming from her deep voice. I smile and sit back down.
“You can’t do that! What if someone heard you?”
“Well, then I’d demand that they show me the proper respect I deserve. And ask for their taxes. You owe me a tithe, I believe. I demand your finest crepe as your [Emperor].”
Giggling like a girl, Durene passes me one. I eat it with an air of triumph, and tell her several more jokes that make her laugh.
And that’s good. That alone is worth the crazy attempt. But as I sleep that night, I can’t help but think that it would be nice if I could be [Emperor]. I’d make the world a better place, or at least, try to.
I’d like to hear Durene laugh a lot more, and make it so she never has to cry herself to sleep another night.
In my heart, as I let sleep overtake me, I do believe I could do it. I believe. That’s what I learned to do. I believe I can be something more than people expect of me.
My eyes close. I breathe out. And then I hear a voice in my mind.
[Emperor Class Obtained!]
[Emperor Level 1!]
[Skill – Aura of the Emperor obtained!]
“Das war ja einfach!”
Durene is in a state of panic; I’m calm.
Sort of calm. I’m freaking out, but in a good way. Durene’s just freaking out.
I blink as she tromps past me, nearly hitting my leg. Her voice is strained as talks out loud.
“It can’t be! You don’t have any fancy clothes! How can you be an—an—[Emperor]? It doesn’t make sense!”
I don’t know. But I do know, at the same time. I sit up straight. I can’t tell how this new Skill I’ve received works, but I feel a bit…different. A bit more secure in myself. I was right. I dreamed, and I was right.
“Durene. Is an [Emperor] simply defined by his clothes? A king is still a king in rags, after all. It may sound silly, but in this world people become what they believe, I think. You haven’t become a [Cook] because you don’t think you can be one. But I? I think I can do anything I want to. And I think you can too.”
She stops mid-step. I can sense her facing me.
“I—I have to go. I have to—go.”
She practically knocks the door down trying to get away. I sit and think in her house, trying to figure out what it means. Something. What can an [Emperor] do? What could my skills do? Is it even practical? How can I get home?
Someday, I want to go home. Even if Durene is here, I…
I need to find my family again.
When the door opens again, Durene comes in silent, but no longer panicking. She avoids the topic of my class and I do too, at least for a bit.
“You have a nice home, Durene. But I’d love to visit a town someday, or a city.”
“I—I want to, too. But it’s tricky…”
I don’t ask why. Instead I just nod.
“You’ve said there are other continents in this world, filled with all kinds of different species.”
“Where are we? What continent are we on?”
“Izril. We’re on Izril.”
“Huh. Sounds almost familiar.”