When we stepped into the new world
(When we fled into the new world,
Heart-heavy, spines bowed)
Nobody was there
To greet us. Everybody was there:
The ticketmaster with lines beneath his eyes
To disregard our dream, salt-and-pepper
Moustache, the homeless wanderer,
Holding tight his hound, smell of cigarettes
And thick of fruit, the girls (they did not notice),
Singing hopscotch with silver dimes, the
Suitworn lady, bleach-clean, turned aloft, speaking
Curses to her phone, and
An angel came to greet us, or a devil
“Welcome,” she said, and try as we might
We could not see between heaven and hell
—When we stepped into the new world, Marjan Naghash
Bobby Naghash awoke and discovered, to his dismay, that his entire body had become a receptacle of pain. With great effort, he pried his eyes open—the better to uncover his circumstances—and then squeezed them shut again as the sudden influx of light and color sent him nauseous.
Steeling himself, he opened his eyes once more and peered into the unknown.
A pair of eyes peered back.
There was a choked sound of surprise, though whether it came from him or the boy those eyes belonged to, he couldn’t tell. It was the boy who fell, though—unfooted by the shock, with a thump as he landed across the floor. It was solid enough a noise for Bobby to forget his pain, for a moment—that he sat up, even as his head spun against the motion, to look over the side of his bed.
“Are you quite alright?” he asked.
The boy winced from where he sat. Bobby couldn’t see any blood, which seemed a well omen. “I’m fine,” the boy groaned. “Reckon I just bruised myself—‘sides, I oughta be askin’ you that question.”
For a moment, Bobby didn’t understand the statement—but then the pain returned, as if it had needed only the reminder. It was a full-bodied pain, an ache that seemed to fill his entire body—as if, perhaps, someone had forced him to march to the point of unconsciousness, and then somehow had him march even farther.
Suddenly, the urge to put head back to pillow was a palpable temptation. It was only manners that kept him upright—though he did allow a degree of slouch. “I don’t know,” he said. “what happened to me?”
And then another concern: “Where am I?”
Because the room he was in was unfamiliar, not only in itself, but in aesthetic. No hospital, this—rather, Bobby seemed to be laid in a cottage—wooden, utilitarian in design, with the ribs of the roof visible to the naked eye.
To a boy who had spent his living years in suburbia, the sight was a strange one.
“I found ya out on the seashore, by the cliffsides,” said the boy. “I wouldn’ta even seen ya, ‘cept that I happened to look downward.”
“Cliffs?” Were there cliffs, near his home? He didn’t recall—
“Yeah. They had to gather a couple’a folks to take ya up, even the long way. They were real surprised when it turned out you were still breathin’. Ah, not that that’s a bad thing—”
“Stop.” Bobby raised a hand. Indebted as he seemed to be to this boy (child? He seemed a few years younger than him, at any rate), he was still missing altogether too much to understand. “I’m sorry—but—where am I?”
“Oh, right. You’re at Fort Lucen. I dunno how far’s that from where ya meant to be, though.”
Fort Lucen? “I’m afraid I don’t know the name,” Bobby said.
“Yeah, I kinda expected that. We’re pretty far from the capital, and off the mainland, to boot, so it’s not like a lot of folks out there know us by name.” The boy picked himself from the floor, straightening his garments as he rose, and for the first time, Bobby noticed his clothes. Rather than a usual T-shirt, or even something that buttoned downward, he was wearing—a tunic? Something tunicesque, at the least, with all the imagery the word “tunic” might summon—stitching irregular, and the cloth fastened close at the waist with a length of cord.
Off the mainland. An inkling began to form in Bobby’s mind. He sidestepped it instinctively. “Have you a telephone?” He asked. “I don’t know how long I’ve been unconscious—” And at sea—and how had he become at sea? “—but my parents must be badly worried. It’d do well to let them know I still live.”
“Sorry, a what?”
“My parents,” Bobby repeated. “I certainly never informed them I would be away from home, much less adrift—rather than simply worried, they must be sick with it. So, any ways of communication would do.”
“No,” said the boy. “I mean, yeah, I got what ya mean, ‘bout parents. If I went off without tellin’ my ma, she’d worry herself something fierce. It’s just—”
“Yes?” said Bobby.
“What’s a telephone?”
The inkling began to gather into something large-spread. Noxious. Bobby thought very hard, as not to think anything else: No telephone. “Ah. My apologies. What would be the swiftest means to deliver my assurances, then?” he asked.
“Well...the pegasus comes ‘bout every week. If ya don’t mind waitin’, I reckon you could hand ‘em a letter the next they’re around.”
“And The Pegasus—this is the airplane that delivers mail, then? The ship?”
“What’s an airplane? A pegasus’s a pegasus. Gee, maybe ya better lie down again. You ain’t lookin’ so good.”
He looked, he suspected, about as well as he felt. The inkling was now a suspicion, heavy and thick, and he let himself sink with the weight of it. “The capital—” he murmured, “surely it’s called Sacramento...”
“I dunno ‘bout any ‘Sacramento,’ but the capital’s called ‘Ylisstol.’”
It was a terrible thing, to be right.
“I feel I must inform you—I seem to be in the wrong world entirely.”
It was a sentence that gathered no good attention, though attention it did gather. Donnel, for example—for that was the name of the boy who had saved Bobby’s life—ceased his awkward shifting so as to properly adopt an expression of puzzlement.
His mother’s reaction was similar, but only so. The woman had been freely subrident the first she’d entered, carrying for him a bowl of thin soup which Bobby nonetheless had finished with swiftness and thankfulness both, but now—now, with this revelation in play—she, too, favored confusion.
Confusion, and a certain wariness.
“The wrong world?” Donnel replied first. “Don’t ya mean ‘the wrong country’?”
“I’m afraid not. Your land’s name is wholly unfamiliar to me. This, and the presence of pegasi—” He grimaced to say the word. “There can be no other conclusion. This is not my world.”
Donnel’s mother—her name still unknown to Bobby, as she had only introduced herself suchwise—raised her hand, though whether for comfort or warding Bobby couldn’t know. “You can’t say that for sure,” she said, firmly. “You might just be from someplace far off, only where they don’t have pegasuses.”
“Except that my world is wholly mapped,” Bobby said. “And with nigh certainty, I can say this: There is no country in my world called ‘Ylisse.’”
The room returned to silence, long enough for all parties to digest this. And then—a small, self-directed mutterance, but heard by Bobby:
“Those clothes are awful fine.”
Donnel’s mother nodded. “When Donnel brought you in—I thought your clothes looked different to the ones we’ve got here. I’ve done a fair bit of tailin’ in my time, but I’ve never seen a shirt with stitchin’ that tight in.”
“A keen eye. Mass-produced and machine made, this—see here.” Bobby reached to his collar, Donnel and his mother tensing at the sudden motion—but it was only to hitch around the tag at the back of it, after all, and this quickly abated. Donnel’s mother even approached, tugging it farther up herself, into a better position to squint and peer.
Though before long, she gave it for lost. “Donny, can you read this for your ma? My eyes ain’t what they used to be.”
“So?” prompted Bobby, after Donnel, too, had had his turn to spy.
Donnel stepped back, uncertainty to his face. “Um...I can’t read that.”
“I can devest myself, if you wish.”
“It ain’t that. I can see the letters just fine, even if they are a mite small. But they don’t look any sort of language I’ve seen before.”
“Are they not in—” “English,” Bobby nearly said, before it occurred to him the unlikelihood of Engles, “the same language we speak now?”
Donnel shook his head. “I know my letters pretty good, and I ain’t seein’ none of ‘em here.”
Necopinatius etiam necopinatius, thought Bobby, grimly.
Donnel’s mother frowned. “Well—whether you’re from this world or not,” she said, and Bobby suspected very much that she favored “not,” “at least you seem like you don’t mean harm. Though, if I was you, I don’t know I’d keep on with that tale ‘bout bein’ from another world—‘less you can find one of them magefolk to prove it.”
Pegasi and mages? Truly, this was a fantastic world Bobby had come into. “I take it that traveling from world to world is less the norm.”
“It ain’t even close—”
But alas—whatever it wasn’t close, Bobby would never hear. The door behind her swung open, and a man came tumbling through with high franticity. His eyes lit upon Bobby, then Donnel, then Donnel’s mother in quick succession, focusing themselves upon the last.
“Abernathy’s kid told me the creep woke up,” he growled. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
Donnel’s mother’s frown became deeper, stonier. “Kendric!” she exclaimed. “He’s barely woken!”
“Which means he won’t have any time to make up some cock-and-bull story about washin’ ashore. And anyway, I don’t need to ask ‘im anything to tell he didn’t come from Ylisse.”
“Which ain’t to say he’s dangerous, either,” said Donnel’s mother. “There’s plenty places which ain’t Ylisse or Plegia.”
“And if you’re suggestin’ he washed up ashore from one of those, all I’ve gotta ask is how he managed to ‘wash up’ bone dry!” The man turned his attentions to Bobby in full. “What was your plan, huh? Measure out the fort and tell your Plegian friends where to strike?”
“There’s a great deal of information I’m missing,” Bobby responded carefully—he could do little else, “but I can assure you that I’m not—‘Plegian.’”
“That’s a load of bullocky!” And to Bobby’s supreme discomfort, the man—Kendric—reached over to prod at his chest with one white-etched finger. “The only place folks come out with skin like this is from Plegia and Ferox, and ya sure as saints ain’t from Ferox!”
What impeccable logic! Yes, Bobby’s skin was noticeably the duskiest of the room, but this was by consequence of Iranian diaspora (his parents, naturally), not Plegian machination—whetever “Plegia” might be. Somehow, though, Bobby doubted this argument would hold weight in Kendric’s eyes. His response, therefore, was less rebuttal and more wry suggestion:
“Perhaps you ought to reconsider your worldview? You’ve founded it on sand.”
“Reconsider this, you and your band of cutthroats—” Prod, again. “If ya ain’t from Plegian, then who was it that set off that bloom of magic last night, huh? Was it Naga, maybe? Reachin’ down to give you a little light show?”
“Alright, that’s far enough!” And in the midst of this degradation, Donnel’s mother wove herself between the two of them. “You—” she said, first, looking to Bobby—to Bobby? “Stop rilin’ Kendric up! It ain’t helpin’ matters none!”
“‘Rile’? I’ve done nothing of the sort—”
“And you!” Donnel’s mother spoke over Bobby’s words, but her ire seemed focused on Kendric, so he minded only by half. “Maybe he’s Plegian and maybe he ain’t. But he says he ain’t Plegian, and there ain’t nothing yet provin’ otherwise. If you end up takin’ your pains on him and he ain’t Plegian after all, what kind of lout are you?”
“But he is Plegian!”
“And if he turns out to be Plegian, and he turns out to be in with those bandits, I’ll be the first to give him lumps! But till then, nobody’s harmin’ anybody under my watch, hear?”
Kendric hissed, low. “Fine,” he said. “But I’ll be the first to say ‘toldja so.’” And with that Parthian shot, the man strode from the room, closing the door behind him with floor-shaking force.
“Well,” Bobby muttered, “that was singularly unpleasant.”
Thought he his host would agree? Yes, he had been sure his host would agree, which was why the glare in Donnel’s mother’s eyes froze him to his spine. “And as I said—you didn’t do much but rile him up,” she said. “If you’re stayin’ here, I won’t have you foul-mouthin’ Kendric like that—you understand?”
Very well! It was the least of tolls. “Ut vis,” Bobby acquiesced. “That is—as you wish.”
“Good!” Her face reconfigured itself back into something less a scowl, though all Bobby’s reckoning couldn’t say how shallowly—or not—it say. “Now, you rest up—and I daresay I oughtn’t catch you from bed for any reason. You understand that?”
Donnel’s mother made a satisfied sound—a sharp huh. And with that, she, too, made her departure.
For a minute, perhaps two, Bobby remained still, looking through the space Donnel’s mother had occupied—as if something else of interest would manifest itself, if he waited long enough. Finally, though, he began to lay himself back again, letting himself run back through what speech—what information—had made itself available to him. There were names and circumstances that wanted for context. Plegia, Ferox, bandits—but for now, this could wait. For whatever reason Donnel’s mother had recommended he stay abed, the course of action was a desirable one to himself, as well—
There was a noise—a small shuffling. Bobby nearly lost his balance—halfway as he was, suspended between sat and laid—but prevented it, somehow, from slipping fully. He turned his head.
Donnel—whose existence Bobby had inconceivably forgotten—was a huddled form against the side of the bed. His head was ducked. His head was adorned—with, of all things, a brazen-brown cooking pot. That head angled itself up to Bobby’s sight.
The smile on Donnel’s face was unsteady. “Ma’s plenty scary when she starts gettin’ mad,” he offered, by way of explanation.
“Is she?” Bobby said. “She seemed...” he paused, “...bearable.”
“Only ‘cause she wasn’t mad yet. She was headed there, though.”
“Thus your makeshift incaskment?” asked Bobby.
“In what now?”
Bobby gestured to Donnel’s improvised helmetage.
Donnel’s smile became ever steadier, ever more self-aware. It was a smile accompanied by cheerful irony. “Ya haven’t seen it when Ma’s mad,” he said.
Then his form straightened. “Ah,” he said, blinking. “I plumb near forgot! There was something washed up on the shore next to you—well, not ‘washed up,’ I suppose, seein’ as it wasn’t wet, neither. But now that I think on it, it matches pretty well that writin’ ya showed me—on the back of your neck. Ya want me to go fetch it for ya?”
Some English-laid object? “If it wouldn’t trouble you,” Bobby said.
“It wouldn’t, not at all! You wait here—I’ll go ‘n’ get it!” And so exited the last of Bobby’s newest acquaintances, ere he could mention that he had little intention of leaving his bed regardless.
No matter. This was delightful news. He had thought himself thrust into a new world with only the clothes upon him, but it seemed that something else had been left, as well. And—though perhaps he was too quickly heightening his hopes—there was the possibility that whatever this item was, it might provide him some sort of explanation for his current whereabouts.
It was no time at all before Donnel returned—though to Bobby it seemed eons. “Here!” Donnel said, pushing the object toward him.
Under Their Eyes Unseen
Bobby read its title for a second time, just to be certain. He had no need to. He might have easily recited the words with his eyes shut tight.
“Well?” said Donnel, expectantly.
“Well,” said Bobby.
He took the offered item, regardless.
A stranger, stranded in some otherworldly land.
And all he had to his name were his garments and a collection of his mother’s poetry.