« Stories & Fiction
Letters from the City
This is a series of short stories I wrote as background material for my character Serin. I wrote the first two and the last one, and had ideas for the intervening ones, but never got around to writing them.
Part I. The Letter to Friends and Family
Serin sighed, and absent-mindedly flicked another few twigs onto the fire that smouldered away in front of her. After a few moments they caught the flame and began to burn. As she stared into the flame, seeking enlightenment or perhaps retinal damage, her mother's right hand appeared over her shoulder and dangled a steaming cup of coffee between her and the fire.
"Come on," came her mother's voice from behind her. "Drink up, and tell me what happened."
Serin's mother, Anja, positively dwarfed her daughter as she moved around to sit next to her on the bench before the fire. While the two women shared many of their features - long auburn hair, olive-tanned skin and eccentric clothing - a lifetime of cooking and eating good food had left Anja with what would be described as a 'weight problem' if she were ever to consider it a problem. Serin, by contrast, had spent more than half of her thirty-two years as a fortune teller. As she was told by her mother when she was young, fortune tellers had to be beautiful, and distant, and of course thin. "Fat 'n' middle-aged jus' don't do for a lady o' fate," Anja used to say. "Leastways, not outside the Carribbean."
So it was that while her mother became fat and middle-aged, Serin stayed thin - mostly - and beautiful - depending on one's taste - and distant. Or at least, she tried to remain distant.
"Distance, that's the problem," Serin confessed. "They all expect me not to care, but I can't help it."
"I know, dear, I know," her mother replied. "I'm sure you'd rather be making them a cup of coffee and having a chat, really, but there you go."
"Yeah. I guess there ain't much money in that, though, is there?"
"Oh, I wouldn't know about that. Have you ever heard of Guidance Counsellors?" Anya said the words slowly and carefully, seemingly for her sake rather than Serin's.
"Hah!" exclaimed Serin. "Not really our style, is it?"
"No, no, that's quite true."
There was a long pause while both women sipped their coffee.
"So," Anya asked at last. "What's got you ruffled today?"
"Well..." There was another pregnant pause. "There was this woman and her husband, came in for a reading. I could tell, just by looking at 'em - you know the way it is - that they was in trouble. It's a shame, they were such nice people deep down. But one thing had led to another, and another, and now their marriage is up certain creeks and they've not a paddle between 'em.
"Problem is, with just a few things said at the right times, they could have been on the way to fixing. I think I might even have been able to help them on their way, too. But... That ain't my job. I just told 'em what the cards said, and they weren't saying good things. It's all they wanted, and all they got. It just... saddens me to think how much better things could'a been if I'd been a friend not some weirdo mystic in a li'l tent.'
"There, there," Anya said as she patted heavily her daughter's shoulder. "I understand. But you can't be friends with everybody, right? Your friends are us lot. She waved her hand at the rest of the camp. ?Everyone else is just strangers or customers. Nobody can make friends with the whole world, dear."
"'S'pose you're right," Serin said, staring down at the coffee cup on her lap. "That don't make me feel any better about going to the city on my own, though."
"Sorry," her mother replied, standing up and kissing the top of her head. "Come on now, off to bed with you. Gotta' be up early tomorrow!" With that, she disappeared off to her own caravan leaving Serin alone by the fireside.
For a few minutes Serin sat in silence, listening to the crackling of the flames and the snores of those who were taking their well-earned rest. For a moment, the scene was illuminated by the faint light of the moon, before as suddenly as it had arrived it disappeared again behind the next bank of cloud.
Her body settled and her mind peaceful, she withdrew from her bag her other set of tarot cards - the ones customers never got to see, the cards that were only for her. She shuffled them absent-mindedly for a while, then began to pick at random from the deck.
"The Fool," she said, taking her first card. "Innocence, naivete, the beginning of a journey. Figures."
"Four of Swords. Relaxation, respite, yet with a sense of boding. The calm before the storm. Yep."
"Stop," came a voice from behind her as her fingers reached for the third and final card. Kyren's voice. Serin smiled as the man hugged her from behind, and moved her hand subtly across to a different card. "Try that one instead," he said. Then, almost before she had a chance to appreciate being so close to him, he was gone again, heading back across the camp as silently as he'd come.
Still smiling, she drew the card that he'd chosen for her.
"The Magician. Power, potential, the ability to achieve your desires."
Serin grinned, and whispered a 'thank you' into the night air, just far the chance that Kyren might hear it.
Slowly packing away the cards, she was half tempted to turn over the card that she was going to pick last, but after a moment's thought decided against it. Some things were better not known.
Early the following morning, the light dawned slowly across the gypsy camp. But it dawned across one caravan and two horses fewer than it had set upon the night before, as by that time Serin had long since gone, riding east into the rising sun.
Besides the patch of trampled and cropped grass where her horses had stood, Serin left only two things behind - two neatly folded letters, one pinned to the door of her parents' caravan and one pinned to Kyren's. Both were read by those intended, and neither was spoken of again.
Part II. The Letter to the Brother and Sister
That was the surest sign that she was approaching a big city, Serin reflected. Not the ever-increasing number of houses or the ever-thickening air, although those were definite clues. No, the really telling thing was the number of passers-by who reacted as if they'd never seen a proper caravan before, or horses for that matter. Still, it was better than being the modern kind of gypsy - where they faced fear and hatred from the loacls, all she ever had was suspicion and bemusement.
As dusk fell, she pulled up into a barren patch of land with barely enough grass to keep the horses happy.
"Still," Serin muttered to herself as she clambered up onto the roof to retrieve a bale of hay for them. "Might be the best I'll get for a while."
Hay in tow, Serin started to climb back down again, until a voice piped up from behind her that nearly made her fall off.
"'Scuse me," the voiced asked confidently, "are you a witch?"
Serin turned awkwardly on the ladder, still hanging onto the rail at the top of the caravan. Standing by the horses was a young girl, seven years old at most, her mucky hands twisting her checkered blue dress out of shape. Behind her right leg the face of a younger boy peered up at her, his attitude a complete contrast to the girl's defiant stance.
Serin let go of the rail and dropped to the ground.
"Mummy says you mus' be a witch so we have to stay inside, but I snuck out to see if you was or not. You're not an old crone with a big black hat, so I don't think you are, but mummy said 'the whores of the Devil have many disguises' or something like that an' I pretended to understan'."
"A witch?" Serin chuckled. "Heavens no, I'm just a lady with strange ideas!"
"Oh," said the girl, looking thoughtful for a few seconds, until she at last decided that the gypsy woman's answer had been satisfactory and nodded.
"Well, now that we've established that I'm not going to poison you or shut you in the oven, what would you each say to a gingerbread man?"
At this, the little boy piped up as the voice of parental reason.
"Mummy said not to take sweets from strangers."
"Well then, dear, my name is Serin. See, I'm not a stranger anymore! Now, what's your names?"
"My name's Elizabeth Turner," announced the girl as she stood up straight and tried to look respectable.
The boy shrank back further behind the girl's dress. She looked down at him.
"Come on, Lawrence!" she whispered just loud enough for the entire field to hear. The boy shook his head, and Elizabeth sighed melodramatically.
"This is my baby brother Lawrence," she announced.
"Now then, since we're all introduced," Serin replied, "I'll go and get the sweets."
Less than a minute later she was back outside, carefully unwrapping a cloth bag and handing its contents to the two children. In the time in which Serin was inside the caravan, Lawrence had finally come to the conclusion - doubtless with Elizabeth's 'assistance' - that Serin was not a threat, and he ate his gingerbread man with almost as much vigour as did his sister.
Barely had another minute passed when a bell rang out from one of the houses along the road. A look of panic crossed Elizabeth's face. She wolfed down the remainder of the biscuit, wiped the crumbs from her hands onto her dress, and grabbed her brother's arm.
"Wait for us!" Elizabeth called out as she half ran with and half dragged Lawrence home. "We'll be back after dinner!"
Serin smiled and disappeared inside her caravan.
Two hours later, the two had still not returned.
Ah well, Serin thought, and supposed that their mother must have detained them with more tales of witches and the Devil. She sighed, and retrieved the Tarot deck with which she did readings for customers.
Six of Pentacles. King of Wands. The Magician.
Intrigued, she drew more and more cards for more detail on the reading.
By the time her tiny table was all but covered and barely two dozen cards remained in her hand, she seemed satisfied. Grabbing a pen and paper, she pushed the cards aside and began alternately to wite and to idly chew the end of the pen.
The following morning, Elizabeth and Lawrence rushed to the field as soon as they were allowed to leave for school.
They found no caravan, no horses and no Serin. Instead, lying in the thin grass where the caravan had stood, was a cloth bag containing a half dozen gingerbread men and, attached to the top, a letter addressed to them both.
Elizabeth read it and nodded sagely. As usual, she pretended to understand it.
When she got home from school, it was pressed between the pages of her diary, which in time was consigned to a box in the attic.
For fourteen years it was forgotten about, until one day she was suddenly reminded of it by a lecturer of hers at the time, a certain Professor McThaggin. A mere few weeks later, Elizabeth showed the letter to the professor - and both their lives changed forever in a moment.
But that is, of course, another story.
Several parts still to come...
Part VIII. The Letter Home
The coachman vaulted down from his perch, leaving the horses calmly snorting behind him. Instantly he had an audience.
An old woman elbowed her way to the front with surprising ease. For a moment she and the coachman looked at each other confused, before he at last matched her face with Serin's description of her mother.
"That'd be me."
"Then this would all be for you," he said, gesturing to the caravan. "As would these."
So saying, he handed her the heavy box and the letter that Serin had given him along with her instructions.
The box, Anja passed to the burly man standing beside her, who drew considerable attention when he opened it to reveal more money than those present had ever seen. Their smiles grew even wider when they saw the note that said 'For Everyone'.
For a crowd so enraptured, it was perhaps surprising that the tiny sound of paper being torn attracted their attention instantly back to Anja again.
She opened the letter from her daughter, cleared her throat, and began to read.
And this is what she said.
"Dearest Mother, Father, Kyren and all of you my friends, greetings from the City.
"A full year has passed since I left before dawn on that misty Spring morning. It feels so long ago - life here is much more quickly-paced than our docile life on the road. It almost seems that some here are simply too busy to sleep!
"Of course, they make the best customers. Even in the big city, it seems, people have the same problems, the same worries and the same superstitions that they do in the country.
"These days I'm a regular fixture of the market here. One of the markets, anyway - there are so many in London, and most run every day of the year!
"Just a month ago I was named in a magazine for our sort (they have magazines for everything here!) as the most accurate fortune-teller London has seen in recent years. Such an honour, and business has more than doubled since! It's keeping me busy indeed, so much so that I barely have time for other commitments.
"Speaking of such, do you recall that man from the city who travelled with us for a while, a few years back? It turns out that he's still around and having fun dabbling in anything and everything he can. In fact, he and I are being paid to go hunting ghosts in some old manor house soon!
"Life becomes more and more like a storybook with each and every passing day!
"That's why, for now at least, I'm going to keep turning the pages. I'm staying in the city for a while, running free through the multitudes who crowd this land of opportunity.
"Please take care of the horses, look forward to the next letter and the next box of money, and wait for me.
"I'll be back to see you all again some day.
"Thank you, all of you, for the person I've become and the chance that I've been given.
"Now the future calls, and I must go.
"My blessing upon all of you.
"Eternally by your side,
Anja sighed, and smiled, and as rapidly as if she'd commanded it tears were wiped from eyes, and life returned to normal. Her audience shuffled off to resume their jobs - all except Kyren. As Anja walked past him to unhitch the horses, she gave him a knowing pat on the shoulder.
"Now then young man, just so's you realise, you don't need ta' be leavin' us fancy letters. We know."
Kyren just smiled, and thought.
And, the following morning, the camp was short of a caravan once more.
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