It had been an unusually warm late September afternoon. Tova only had enough money to afford one day at the convention - the Saturday - and she'd been there since the morning, in the bowels of the hotel's conference centre, listening to writers discussing made-up languages and made-up landscapes.
She'd had to walk out on a discussion of whether global warming was real or made-up when the opposing panelists had deteriorated to mud-slinging, but then she'd lingered, looking at all the fantastic books and costumes on display until her head started to spin and she had to go topside.
She'd been resting her eyes on the trees across the way, savouring their quiet autumnal glory and wondering if it was worth braving the crowds downstairs to hear Samuel J. Burnside read, when a stocky dark-haired man had come up and leaned against the wall next to her.
"Sure is a nice town y'all got here," he'd said in his pleasant, cheerful drawl.
Tova didn't think of herself as an outgoing person, but he seemed okay so she asked, "You're visiting from down south?"
"Matter of fact I just moved here. Spent the last twelve years in New York City, but I hail from the Lonestar State. Texas," he added, pointing to the yellow rose on his sweatshirt, which said AMARILLO in bold letters.
"I was born in Detroit, but I've lived here most of my life," she told him.
"That so? Then I guess you know all about that pretty crystal palace out yonder."
"That's the Allan Garden's Conservatory - it's like a big greenhouse."
And then, because he'd really seemed interested, she'd described the conservatory's palm room that always made her think there should be dinosaurs wandering among its venerable trunks and munching on the enormous leathery fronds, and she even told him about the squirrel she'd seen rummaging among the epiphytes in the north wing.
"Like it was looking for a cozy place to curl up in," she'd said.
"Now that's something I'd sure like to see - maybe you could show me around there some time," he'd replied with a smile, and then looked at his watch. "Oh, my, I got to go. I'm Sam, by the way."
"I'm Tova," she'd said, looking at him more closely, "and you're -"
"Samuel J. Burnside, large as life and twice as ugly. I was hopin' you mightn't recognize me. Y'all gonna come hear me read?"
"Will you read some of your poetry?"
Before he could answer, his agent came out of the hotel and hustled him away.
Tova had wandered back into the hotel and downstairs to the crowded ballroom, where she'd found a space to stand at the back of the rows of chairs and waited for Sam to step up to the podium. He'd barely acknowledged the mass of fans before him - he was shy, Tova realized with a pang of empathy - but when the applause died down, Sam began to read with a fierce theatricality.
First, he'd delivered an old favourite - the original Crane story, the one where the hero captures the mage-king in his lair and gets all his secrets out of him, including his bespelled sword - and then he read a new one, an unfinished one about a vampire. With a ghost of a smile (and still without looking up), Sam said he wasn't sure how he felt about cashing in on a trend, but that he couldn't resist trying his hand.
Especially since he'd always been fond of bats.
And then, to the obvious displeasure of his agent, who was hovering off to the side, Burnside had pulled a notebook from his pocket, ducked his head even more and said, "My minder here - I mean to say, that is, my esteemed agent, Mr. Montgomery Dickson - don't care for me wastin' my time on what don't sell, but I can't seem to stop writing these here poems. And I had a special request from a lady, so y'all just bear with me, now. I swear it'll be a short one."
There had been more applause and a few whistles from the audience, and then the man's face seemed to change, relaxing, his voice dropping as he began to read. Someone coughed softly and the room went silent but for the warm, dark voice of the poet.
"Once I stood upon a bridge, not
heading for a bluer place -
imprisoned in a broken mind
that strong legs could never outpace.
Wind and water soothe my soul!
I prayed aloud from earth-bound grief.
It seemed my only open road
must lead to hell - an end to me.
I saw a bird dive down through waves
and feared it could not resurface;
I saw a fish leap into air -
of its element, most heedless.
And who was I to question time
and place and boundaries soft -
like beaches flowing into rime
and sea-clouds flying aloft?
I made an arcane choice that day,
between cerulean and marin:
to fly, to swim, my limping way
though I have neither wings not fins."
The poem was one Tova didn't know. Few of Sam's poems had been published, but she'd read some of them on his website, where he persisted in posting them even though his agent deleted them as quickly as he could. This one was full of Burnside's trademark rhythm and imagery, dream-like yet poignantly real.
It spoke to her of freedom, fear and failure, of pain and hope. Or at least, that's what Tova heard. All she could remember afterwards was something about cerulean skies and broken wings; that, and the feeling it gave her.
Like someone had reached in and caressed a hidden part of her soul.
YOU ARE READING
Once upon a time there was a warrior queen who loved peace ... Mild-mannered writer Samuel J. Burnside is working on his latest adventure story, set in ancient Susa, where Queen Esther is teaching former harem slaves how to fight! But can Sam's new...