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by Jason Fischer

Awareness came when something sharp descended, scratched out two neat slashes to serve as eyes, and opened a mouth beneath these. He took his first look at the world, ponderous, lazy-lidded. She hovered over him, a toothless giant backlit by weak firelight, one eye black and mean, the other a rheumy sea of cataracts.

She pinched his face and made a nub of a nose, massaged his cheeks into ears and then he could hear; the coughing of someone very sick, a pair of dogs snarling over a bone, the low talk of the man-folk. Worried murmurings over the stink of their sputtering cook-fire.

He looked up at the hag, confused. She gripped him in the vice of her fingers, and he blinked before the sour rot of her breath as she whispered over him.

‘Finding-Man of clay and bone,
Find the lostling,
Bring her home.’

Then a curtain of hides was drawn aside, and he took in the stars, the bright curve of the moon, the soft curve of the hills beneath these soft lights. Then everything wheeled and span, and he realised his creator had cast him from the rude hut, flung him out into the night.

He drank the moonlight into his damp clay skin, until he found life and movement in his stubby limbs. He brushed off the pine-needles and stones as best he could, and stood. He walked deep into a dark wood, the black trees looming above the straggle of huts and lean-tos. The clay man wondered at the fragility of the man-folks, wondered why the forest did not snuff out their foul little settlement.

He followed the rough paths of that benighted place, followed ways that were long forgotten and almost reclaimed by nature. He heard the faintest of whimpers, more like a lost animal than a child, and found the tiny girl-child nestled in the twisted roots of a tree, terrified and chill to the touch.

She took his hand without a word. He led her back through that dark place, past wild animals that would have snapped her up but stared warily at her clay chaperone. They stole through the camps of rough men, who slumbered on as the girl stepped over their sprawled limbs and scattered refuse. Finally, the child found herself on the threshold of her home, blinking and confused as her family descended upon her, tearful and scolding.

The clay man was gone.

When the little girl was herself an old lady, she told the story to her own little ones, of being lost in the old woods, of the perfect little boy who found her and brought her home.

‘He glowed in the moonlight,’ she said, a distant smile on her crusty old lips. ‘And he had such beautiful eyes.’


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