If you look into the eyes of Notch you see, as though through a window, the blackness of deepest night. Look long enough and you might suppose that even stars and planets and all the cosmos live inside. That was the first thing people noticed about her when, eventually, they met her. They imagined they could look right through them into her mind.
Back in those days, they were always together, Notch and he. They went to all the worlds people talk about in stories, and more.
On a desert island, upon the crown of a mesa, they arrived. Notch and the tall man who hesitated at her shoulder. He looked around, at the mesa, the cliff side and the dark expanse of desert below them.
“See?” Notch took him by the arm and cuddled against him. “It’s just like I said it was. Sand and stars. And there’s the sea.”
The man smiled. “This one is boring. What should we call it?”
“I named the last one. Your turn.”
He disengaged from Notch and strolled to the edge of the mesa to peer down with hands in pockets. “Bland,” he said finally.
Notch laughed and joined him at the cliff side. She waved a hand at the distance before them. “The land of Bland. No one lives here. Do you wanna be the king of Bland?”
“No. It sounds like a dull affair.”
“Okay, but,” she said and stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, “it’s not that bland. We still have to, y’know…”
“It’s pretty bland.”
“…write about it.” She kissed him again. “No, stop saying that.”
“But the last one had flying trees.”
“Who knows what this one has? We’ve been here for only moments.” She sat down cross-legged on the ground and took out her notebook.
“You’re gonna write about it?” He looked down at her mournfully.
“Yeah. All of them.” She began to carefully write in the book, tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth.
With a groan he laid down beside her, propped up on an elbow. He tossed a few pebbles around, then leaned over at what she was doing. “Whatcha writing?”
“System… of… proximate… membranes…” she mumbled as she wrote. “In low… power… base…”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means the power base here is low. The whole system is low.”
“What’s thaaaaaat mean?” He nudged her shoulder a few times with his face.
“It’s harder to access—” She glanced at his pouting expression. “It’s harder to do magic here.”
“Ah!” He grinned. “Yeah. It feels that way.”
“Or the power we can access is weaker.” Notch frowned. “I’m still not sure which is a better way to describe the phenomenon.”
“Dismeh the phenehmineh,” he said, reaching up to pull her hair.
“Stop it.” She grabbed his hand.
Notch went back to writing. “Plane named…’Bland’…by…” She looked at him for a moment. “An ass who happened to be nearby.”
“You didn’t write that.”
She went on with her writing for another few moments.
Then he said suddenly, “Okay! The time for writing has passed. It is now time for sex.” He leapt to his feet. “Prepare yourself.”
She didn’t respond for a moment. Then, absently, “I’m busy.” The scribbling went on.
“That,” he said dejectedly, “never works the way I expect it to.”
“I guess I’ll build a tower then. Right on the mesa, here.” He strolled away, gesturing at a spot on the ground. “I’ll build it out of the rocks.”
Notch turned around and raised an eyebrow. “You have a one track mind.”
“What do you mean?”
She laughed. “If it’s not one tower it’s another.”
“I don’t get it. Anyway, with a tower here we can…”
He spoke on, but Notch only shook her head and continued writing. Only when he had hunkered down and begun to dig with his hands did she say,
“I don’t think there’s time, love.”
“We’re not staying?” He turned to her, dusty to the elbows.
She shook her head. “I want to keep heading downwards, to see how far the entropic degradation continues. To find the lower limit.”
He slapped his hands together and nodded.
“Someday we’ll return, to get a better look. To see what’s changed.” Notch smiled and slapped her notebook shut.
When pink morning light shone upon the mesa, only the shallow pit he had dug remained. So the island sat there alone, waiting for someday.
Kren made his way through the brush and over the rocks, away from his town. He had never come this way, but it was a punishment for himself. That was why the steps he took were through the deeper parts of the creek than usual, the wetter drifts of snow. It was spring, so no matter how thick his boots were, the snow could soak its way inside. And he was off the path and didn’t really know the way. He crunched and crackled his way through the brush. When the branches scratched him, he let them, to a point. When a twig got through to his eye, he slapped a hand to his face and sat down. He let the tears come then, trying to believe the pain had brought them.
Now that he wasn’t making noise, he could hear the steady sound of someone chopping wood not far in the direction he had been travelling. He got up with a sigh, his eye still stinging. He wiped tears away and headed for the woodcutter. He wondered who it was. Chopping wood this far from town seemed pointless unless you had a horse and cart to carry the wood, and as far as he knew the road never came this way. He was curious, but he also had an urge to get himself scolded for being in the way of somebody.
He broke into a clearing. It hadn’t always been a clearing, evidently. The stumps of a couple dozen felled trees surrounded him. In the middle of the clearing was a shirtless man whacking at a downed tree with a sword. Kren didn’t know him. He had angry black hair to his shoulders, bulging white muscles and no shoes, his toes splayed in the dusting of snow beneath him.
“Hey,” Kren waved.
The stranger looked up at him, pausing in his swing. He grinned sort of crazily. Sweat poured down his chest. “Hey.” The sword came down again.
“You shouldn’t do that.” Kren crossed his arms and pouted.
“I got a sword for my birthday last year,” Kren replied. “Dad caught me trying to cut branches with it and beat the snot out of me. Dulls the blade. Use an axe.”
“What,” said the stranger, “the hell is an axe?”
“It’s for cutting wood.”
“They have a thing for this?” The stranger was amazed. “Specifically for this?”
“Yeah. Why you cutting wood anyway?”
“I’m building a fort.” The stranger smiled and hammered his blade down again.
“Oh.” Kren was a fort master. He’d been building forts since he was little. Tree forts, stone forts, snow forts. But grownups hated him trying to get in the way of their forts. He’d tried to help them build the town wall so many times and they always shooed him away.
“Can I help you build it? I have an axe at home.” He whined in his whiniest voice, “Please?”
“Yes.” The stranger stared at him with wide eyes. “Yes. Bring the axe. Immediately.” He brought the sword down again.
“Um,” said Kren, not sure exactly what to say. He’d been expecting rejection. He stepped around a tree stump and got a better look at the stranger’s handiwork.
There was a huge pile of wooden cylinders at his feet, each ringed by bark. He’d been shearing the trunk in half with each strike. “Um!” Kren said shrilly. “I’ll be right back!”
He ran almost all the way back home, stumbling up the hill, scratching himself a few more times. He hauled open the shed and got Dad’s heavy lumber axe, swung it onto his shoulder and almost fell over it was so heavy.
He tried to return to the stranger as quickly as he had left, but it was difficult going with the axe. He tried to stride the whole way there with the axe over his shoulder but ended up holding the head with two hands and dragging the haft the last leg of the journey.
The stranger was no longer in the clearing. Kren looked all over for him and eventually espied the man on a nearby rocky hilltop. He had to clamber over some big boulders and eventually reached the top of the hill, breathing hard. The stranger pranced over to him, his bare feet coming to rest atop a rock before Kren. He held his hands out for balance as he came to a stop.
“This,” Kren said, “is an axe.”
He hefted it by the end of the handle and held it up triumphantly, and this time he really did fall over. He blushed.
The stranger scowled down at him, reaching down to take the axe. He held it easily and swung it a few times, first with two hands, then with one. “Why you fallin’ down, little one?”
“Well, I’m not big and strong yet,” said Kren. He was nine years old and small for his age. “Actually I’m pretty weak and kinda stupid too.” His voice got mumbled and quiet at the end, and it was hard to say. To admit.
“But you have an axe,” the stranger pointed out. “A machine I’ve never heard of. And I am very smart. Very. So smart.”
“How do you know you’re so smart?”
“How do you know you’re stupid?” The stranger grinned and seemed proud of himself. That sounded like a pretty smart thing to say, so Kren decided to take his word for it.
“Look here.” The stranger walked away and pointed at the ground where he’d put in four tree trunks as posts. “These are the corners of the fort. This spot shows where the enormous tower will soon be.”
“Unfathomably huge.” The stranger nodded. “It should be visible from miles away.”
“I don’t think I can help you. My forts are all pretty small compared to that,” Kren said dejectedly.
“I’ve never had help.” The stranger shrugged. “So who knows? The interior will be wooden, like this. And the walls will be made of rock slabs as large as you are. Hundreds of them.” The stranger pointed into the distance. “Over there is a mountain I’ll smash to pieces to use for the walls.”
“That’s Guard Mountain,” Kren mumbled. “You shouldn’t smash it up.”
The stranger looked at him. “Is it your mountain?”
“No, but I like it.”
The stranger lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the sun and looked at Guard Mountain. “I see. Well. That makes sense. I will probably have to obliterate a large portion of the ground nearby and make a big quarry to get enough rock then. Is that alright with you?”
“You have to ask the Mayor. And probably talk to the Shaman. You’re a Shaman too, right?”
“Not that I know of.”
“You’re doing magic, though.”
“Oh, yes. All kinds of magic.”
“Ok.” That made Kren feel a bit better. At least it wasn’t just his imagination.
“Still want to help with the fort?” The stranger smiled at him.
“Bring me more trees.” The stranger handed him Dad’s axe, then turned back to where he had made a big pile of trees he’d cut down himself.
“Ok,” Kren said. “I’m Kren. What’s your name?”
“Notch calls me Shadow.”
Kren was sweating before a big oak tree. He’d been hacking at it for the better part of an hour and managed to make only a dent in it. Each swing put him off balance and he’d fallen more than once. Sometimes the axe went sideways and hit the tree with the flat part, jolting his arms. Now he was getting the hang of it, and most of his swings bit in. He was making an angled cut the way the lumberjacks did. But his shoulders and arms hurt like anything.
Shadow descended from the hill and found him there. “Hm,” he said, looking at Kren’s work.
“Told you…I am weak…” Kren wheezed and leaned on the axe.
“Yes. But I am strong. And my magic is strong. I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re small only by comparison.”
“I’m only nine,” Kren agreed. “I can’t do much.”
Shadow grinned at him. “You can do this.” He poked the little wound Kren had made in the tree. “Precisely this much.”
Kren said nothing for a moment. Then he said, “Who’s Notch?”
“My lovely lady. You should meet her. She’s off somewhere writing stuff. She doesn’t help me with my forts. Nobody does. ‘Til now.”
Kren blushed a little bit. “You have a girlfriend?”
“Yeah. Do you?”
“Uh-huh. She doesn’t know yet. Should I tell her?”
Shadow nodded. “Yeah. Something like, ‘You’re my girlfriend now, impossible one.’”
Kren blushed even more. “Is that what you said to Notch?”
“That’s exactly what I said to Notch. A long time ago.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘You’re joking, idiot.’ And I said, ‘No.’ And then she was my girlfriend.”
As the sun was setting, Kren said goodbye and started off for home. He could still hear the whacking of Shadow’s sword through the calm winter air for a few minutes as he walked away.
“There’s a magic lumberjack in the forest,” he said quietly to his family at dinner, but nobody heard him.
As soon as Dad had gone off into the fields the next day, Kren grabbed the axe from the shed and hauled it off into the woods again. His arms and legs were still aching from the day before, but he was humming a song this time as he went.
Shadow was down in a ravine near the hilltop from the previous day. He’d apparently been cutting rocks apart with his sword, because there was a pile of sliced up boulders next to him. There was a woman with him this time, sitting on top of a rock next to him, watching him work and swinging her feet in the air.
Shadow’s frustration seemed to be mounting. He called out to Kren as the boy approached. “They won’t go the right shape!”
Kren approached more slowly as he got a look at the woman and drew close to her presence. She was very beautiful. She wore a simple black dress. Her hair was so black there seemed to be no individual strands of it. And her eyes were like windows into darkness. She made him feel queasy in a good way, watching him with those eyes.
He sidled up to Shadow, still looking at her with wide eyes. “Is that Notch?” he whispered.
Shadow was wearing more clothes today: a brown cloak and boots. “What? Yes. Oh! Yes. This is Notch.”
“Hi,” said Kren, waving shyly at her.
Notch frowned at him and said with a clear voice, “It’s a little one.”
“I’m Kren.” Kren grinned at her, and waved briefly again before remembering he already had.
“Hi.” Notch slid down from her rock with a slight frown on her face. She came over to him and gently tilted his head back with a hand at his chin. Her fingers were slender and warm. “You didn’t say he was a child. How much have you aged, Kren?”
“What? I mean…” He instinctively corrected himself. “Pardon me?”
“How old are you?”
Notch looked away for a moment. She shook her head in amazement. “Years?” Then she smiled over her shoulder at Shadow. “I told you the power base is getting shallower. This system is probably the lowest yet.”
Kren looked at Shadow for clarification, but Shadow only shrugged. He turned around and cut a boulder in half with a crack like lightning.
“I don’t think I can help you with this fort, Shadow,” Kren said nervously, flinching at the blow. “I’m not strong enough.”
Notch said, “Oh that’s fine, I’m sure.” She ruffled up his hair and smiled pleasantly down at him. Kren smiled back, smitten. “He mostly likes people to watch and make impressed noises. Let’s sit over here on this rock and watch him.” She took his hand in hers and they clambered atop the rock. She picked him up and set him down in her lap, which was less welcome and made him feel like he was only a kid.
“The rocks are bad,” Shadow was muttering below them, half to himself, piling pieces of rock on top of each other and trying to make them stay in place.
“You should make them square like bricks,” Kren said.
“That would require foresight,” Notch whispered only loud enough for Kren’s benefit, but he didn’t know what foresight was.
They watched Shadow for a moment and then Notch said, “Excuse me,” took Kren from her lap and set him beside her. He shifted so his leg was touching hers. Notch took a big leather-bound book from a satchel she wore and wrote a few words down.
She looked at him. “Do you know about other worlds?”
Kren shrugged. “Like up there?” He pointed to the sky. “With the gods?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Sure. And down there.” He jerked his thumb down at the ground. “With the devils.”
“There are no devils. And yet up,” she pointed, “and down are good metaphors. But there’s a long way up, and not so far down. And a long, long way to either side.”
Suddenly Kren got it. “You’re magic too. Like Shadow. Are you guys from…” His voice was tremulous. “…from…down?”
Notch smiled. She pointed. “Up.”
“In a way. We are the highest there are. There are those above you. And those above them. We’re above all but our own. Many hundreds of layers up.”
“The question is, how far down does it go?”
“Does what go?”
Notch smirked. “Everything.”
Kren’s head was whirling by the time he made it home that day. At dinner he mumbled through a mouthful of stew: “There are gods in the forest.”
Dad gripped his spoon with a fist at the end of a thick hairy forearm with a half-rolled sleeve. “What’s that, boy?”
“Speak up, Kren. We’re listening,” Dad said, clearing his throat.
“I found two gods in the forest. The man god, Shadow, is building a fort. The girl god writes a lot in a book.”
Dad set down his spoon and took off his glasses, probably so he could concentrate on frowning. “Is it a man and a girl, or gods?”
“Well it’s a god who looks like a man and a god who looks like a lady.”
Dad looked at him blankly. “Maybe it’s just a man and a lady. Why would a god need to look like a man?”
“I don’t know,” Kren mumbled. “They said they were gods. She did.”
Dad took a long pull from his ale and held Kren’s eyes. “No more stories. Did you really see people in the forest? People you didn’t know? Gods or not.”
“I did but—”
“You did. You’re sure? You’re not making this up?” Dad leaned back, considering the news.
“No,” Kren said glumly.
“No, you’re not making it up, or no, you didn’t see them?”
His sister snickered at him because he was in trouble.
“No, I’m not making it up,” Kren said mournfully.
Dad looked ashen. “What were they doing? Snooping around? Poaching game? Building a fort, you said.”
“Yeah, but it’s just for fun I think. He’s not building it for war or anything.”
“I have to tell the Mayor about this. I don’t trust anybody who isn’t inside the walls.” He began eating his stew again, enlivened. “Spies, maybe. Enemies. Maybe not. Either way the Shaman will be able to tell.”
Notch lay in Shadow’s arms beneath a blanket. They stared at the stars above them. Notch was pointing, telling him about them.
“The world circles one of them, but much closer. The sun. Most worlds do. The time it takes for the world to circle the sun is what they call a year. Some use that revolution to measure their time. That’s why your little friend said he was nine years old. He’s seen the world circle the sun nine times.”
Shadow was puzzled, looking up with his arm behind his head. “How long does that take?”
“Well…” Notch said in a slightly strangled voice. “It’s not very long, I can tell you that much. It only means something in a relative sense. Each sun and planet are different.”
“How old am I, for starters?”
“I don’t know.” Notch kissed his bare shoulder. “Maybe nobody knows how old they are where we come from. Maybe we don’t have an age. Even that the people here measure time in years means we must be nearing the end. The lowest possible world. Do you know why they look like us?”
“Imagine a stack of paper. Say, as thick as your hand. Shine a light on the paper and it will penetrate through from top to bottom. But it’s brightest at the top and dimmest at the bottom. We are like the light at the top and they are the light that shines through. They are formed by us.”
“And the paper is the stack of worlds,” Shadow mused.
“You say the world circles the sun. It moves.”
“The planet does. Yeah.”
“If it’s in motion, how do we find it and arrive?”
“Gravity is the force that holds us on the planet. That pulls us back down when we jump.”
Shadow thought about that for a long moment. Then he said, “It didn’t even occur to me that there would need to be such a force.”
“It’s the force that holds all things together. Maybe the most important one. Some worship it under other names.”
He held his hand an inch over her cheek, thinking that there was her warmth, and the memory of it, and the anticipation of it, and they were not quite the same thing. Like the present, past, and future. “Does it hold me to you?”
“In a small way. Negligible.”
“Then it’s not as useful as it could be.”
She cracked a smile. “Oh, very good. Well done.”
“I mean it. What good is anything that won’t tie me to you?” He touched her chin and ran his thumb over her lower lip.
Notch blinked, kissed him, then embraced him so tightly it was almost painful. Shadow wheezed out a bit of a chuckle. “What?” he said.
She looked in his eyes and he saw the stars as plainly as if he had lain on his back again and looked to the sky. “Would you ever leave me?” she asked plaintively.
“No, of course not. Never.”
“I will never leave you either. I love you.”
He agreed that he loved her and they made love for a long time. Then they lay silently.