Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
It had the distinction of being the quietest forest in all the world. Melody Korrespazey couldn’t even hear her footsteps. It was more than a month into autumn, the wind bit at her cheeks just over her thick orange scarf, so there should have been a healthy layer of crunchy leaves under her feet. Yet it was all yellow grass and whitish lichen.
Melody stopped for a moment and listened. There was no birdsong either. She wondered if anything even lived in there, but there had to be something. She followed the directions exactly. Just to make sure, she unbuttoned her shoulder bag. It was quite large, nearly big enough for a child of six or seven to sleep in, and made out of a frizzy misbehaving yarn that seemed to change pattern whenever you weren’t looking.
It was positively brimming with books, more than it should’ve been able to hold, but Melody wasn’t digging for new wisdom at the moment. She just needed the map her client had given her, which was tucked in the front cover of a volume titled: Murderous Muffins: Recipes for Detectives and Recent Crime Victims.
She checked the map. Yes, she was following the line exactly. Her journey had already lasted four days, so the last hours could’ve done her a favor and just hurried along. She was supposed to deliver a message to someone living in this forest who went by the name Stiffaper. She flipped the map over and saw the text she was supposed to repeat to this ‘Stiffaper’ fellow. She only glanced at it though, as the client had asked her to not actually read it until the recipient was in front of her. She placed it back in her bag and continued down the path.
The messenger job wasn’t permanent, as she told herself every morning. Five years maximum. Surely it wouldn’t take longer than that for her pet to succeed. Until then, she delivered documents and spoken messages to the regions surrounding her small but productive village. There was always the post riders, but they delivered anything and everything, and thus couldn’t give picky clients the attention they needed.
Melody could, thanks to her special tools: her library bag and her comforhat. She had a way with people, which is what convinced two of them to give her such useful tools in the first place. She hoped Stiffaper was the same agreeable sort. She didn’t stop again until the silence was broken, by tiny booted feet descending a wooden ladder.
“Hello?” she asked the man’s back as he reached the bottom rung. The ladder was leaned up against a tree full of leaves yellow as lemons. The man was strange, but as he had not turned around yet, Melody focused on the tree. Something about it seemed displeased, like it was waiting in line. The air itself was full of stiff irritation, and it started to make the young woman itch under her thick clothing.
The man wore a wicker basket with straps over his shoulders. It was full of leaves, so it obscured the shape of his head until he turned around. Melody successfully avoided gasping, as this wasn’t her first delivery to a foreign or magical place. He certainly wasn’t human. Even when he straightened out his back, rubbing a hard day’s work out of the bottom of his spine, he was still well under five feet tall.
His skin was ashen gray, his fingers long and sharp with black nails, and he had a wrinkled mouth that looked raised on a thousand dinners of peppered lemon wedges. Strangest of all was the top of his tall head, flat and rigid, something like a headstone. He stared at Melody, clearly expecting her greeting to turn into an explanation.
“Uhh, hello… again. My name is Melody Korrespazey; I run an independent messenger service. I’m wondering if you could direct me to a Mr. Stiffaper? Does he live around here?” The gray man looked like he was about to answer, but he was distracted by a leaf falling from the tree he’d just descended. He growled and lunged, catching the yellow thing before it could hit the ground. He placed it in the basket on his back and turned to address the tree.
“You varmint!” he scolded. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice because this big lady is standing here? She’s not as big as you dumb trees. I’m putting this back on you, and that’s that!” He went to climb his ladder again. Utterly confused, Melody looked around. This wasn’t an isolated incident. There were more of these gray slate-headed people about, climbing in and out of the trees, snatching any leaves that dared to fall. She watched one of them reattach a leaf to its branch with a drop of foul-smelling crimson glue.
“What exactly are you doing, if I may ask?” He didn’t answer until he was back on the ground, and the leaf back on its branch. He glared at it for a moment, daring it to fall again.
“What’s it look like? Keeping the leaves in the trees. We don’t like them looking dead. I mean, looking dead is one thing, but they never make up their minds. Dead, alive, dead, alive. Yellow, green, red, green. It’s chaos.”
“So you glue them back on? It’s just Autumn; It’s not that unpredictable.”
“I didn’t ask your opinion,” he spat. “You’re looking for Stiffaper?” He pointed deeper into the forest, down a hill. “He’s probably working the pond.”
“My thanks,” she said with a slight bow, eager to move on. It would still be four days back after all, and she wasn’t sure if she left Wry Pete enough seed. He’d probably be parroting his own stomach growls by the time she got back. She left the leaf-obsessed folks behind and descended the steep hill. On her way down she removed the comforhat from her head and fiddled with it.
It was a lovely thing, almost as fuzzy as her library bag or her thick coat. At the moment it was shaped a little like a sailboat with a green bow. It had numerous visible folds; she tugged on one of them, revealing a bulge of gray cloth. She pulled and twisted, knotted and folded, until the appearance of the hat was completely different. Now it looked something like the grave marker of a head on those she just left behind.
She donned it once more, pulling it over the tops of her ears to keep out the wind’s bite. Hopefully its new appearance would make these strange people a little more comfortable with her. That was the power of the comforhat; it could be folded to resemble any style, any caste, any species that she came across. It marked her as friendly, and her messages as the same, even when that wasn’t entirely accurate.
As predicted, there were several more of them gathered around a pond. They were spread out along its edge, at perfect intervals, waiting with strange wide-headed push brooms. They stared at the surface intently, just as the others had the trees. They sprang into action when an acorn fell from a tree, hitting the pond and creating several ripples.
When those ripples reached the edge the brooms dipped in. They swept forward, turning the ripples around and forcing them to go back to the center of the pond. Melody started seeing the theme. Apparently, none of the nature in this realm was allowed to go about its normal business. It had to stand still, act as decoration for the grumpy gray folk.
“Stiffaper? Is there a Stiffaper here?” When the last ripple was pushed back, one of them raised his hand. He was tall for them, and Melody guessed he was important by his royal purple garments. The others bowed to him in deference. At least he was the sort of leader who shared in the work, even if he did get the fanciest ripple-broom.
“I’m Stiffaper,” he said plainly. “Do you have business with me?”
“Somebody does,” she said with a weak smirk as she dug the map out of her bag. She flipped it over and cleared her throat. A dagger struck the middle of her mind. A realization. She saw the words on the page for the firs time. This was not a friendly message. All the same, she’d been paid to deliver it, and she’d never failed thus far.
“Out with it then.”
“Okay. Here is the message.” She cleared her throat again, but there was nothing left to make her cough sound believable. “Stiffaper. This is Laytrant. I’m sure you remember me from our encounter at the crossroads last year. I forgot to say something to you. You, fine raker of water, are a senile, bitter, out-of-touch and untouched-by-women, glass-jawed, slack-kneed, odorous, confoundingly dense discarded crow dropping of a man. May your misfortune be infinite and unavoidable.”
She lowered the map and stuffed it back in her bag. A few of the ripple brooms dropped from their hands and sank into the pond, without disturbing it at all. Jaws hung open like ominous caves. Stiffaper’s eyes were tiny and sharp. He dropped his broom as well.
“Aaaaaaaaaahhhhh!” he screamed, putting his hands to the side of his tall cranium. “What have you done! I’ll never get it out! Neveeeeeer!” He dropped to his knees and bashed his head against the mud, spraying it in all directions. The others swarmed around him, trying to comfort him with whispers.
“I’m sorry you didn’t want to hear that,” Melody said slowly, taking a step backwards. Their hostility was immediately palpable, like hissing snakes tunneling under her feet. “I’ll be leaving now.” It was quite the insult, but Melody couldn’t picture herself collapsing into tears over it. Either way, her job was done.
“You will not!” one of the women shouted. She hurled her ripple broom across the pond and jumped on it, riding it across the water as if it were ice. Once on the other bank she scrambled off and grabbed at Melody’s arm, forcing the girl to turn back. “You can’t just do that to a slatebrain and leave! You must make amends! Or die!”
“I don’t even know what a slatebrain is!” Melody growled, ripping her sleeve free and stumbling back. “I’m just the messenger. I didn’t say that. Laytrant did. Your disagreement is with him.”
“Hardly!” the woman shrieked, clawing at the skin on her own flat forehead. “Someone else bought the dagger, and you plunged it into his lifeblood!” She pointed at Stiffaper, whose fingers were now embedded in a seam along the sides of his head, a seam Melody hadn’t noticed before. “We are slatebrains! We never forget anything, especially an insult. Everything we see and hear is forever etched into us. Look, you foolish girl!” She plunged her black nails into a seam on her own head and pulled down. Her forehead opened from the top like a coin purse. Six slabs of slate, arranged like playing cards, separated some in the open air. Their bases were still hidden inside her skull. Melody saw golden handwriting across each of them, flowing but neat. No mistakes or revisions.
“Oh, you’re being literal,” was all she could think to say. Her comforhat was extremely flexible, but she doubted it could mimic that particular trick.
“Yes!” Stiffaper shouted, rising back to his feet and pushing his fellows away. He opened his own head and let the slates fan out. He grabbed one, twitching as if it shocked him, and yanked it loose. Someone threw another broom for him, and he rode it over to Melody to show her the results of her dedication. Melody leaned over and examined it as his black nails bounced next to one of the golden lines. tink tink tink
They weren’t lying. She could read the insult that she’d just recited on the slab. Even with the threat against her life she took a moment to admire the penmanship of the magic and envy it as well. She gently pushed it back towards Stiffaper and resumed her full height, hoping the diminutive people would find it intimidating.
“You should be thankful you have a perfect memory,” she argued. “Yeah, holding onto that kind of stuff hurts, but it happens. That’s just life. You have to deal with it. Laytrant can say what he wants to say. You could pay me to say something back if you want. My rates are very reasonable. In fact, I’ll give you a discount since you didn’t have to send for me.”
“I don’t care about that!” he screamed, hopping close to her face. “I care about what you did to me! I have to live with this insult, always! It will be there when I try to sleep, mocking me when I try to eat! We control everything here so we’ll be safe from your nasty change. Our leaves don’t fall. Our water is always a mirror. You ruined it for me! Pay! Die!”
Stiffaper swung the offending slate at her, trying to knock her down, but Melody stepped back. They wouldn’t be taking her up on the discount, it seemed. She turned and ran back up the hill, fast as she could. The slatebrains scrambled behind her, shouting, clawing at the earth. Her legs were longer than theirs, so she thought she was home free when the ground leveled out, but the leaf-gluing slatebrains had heard the commotion. They waited at the top, dumping their leaf baskets on her to blind her and get her to fall down the hill.
She would have if Stiffaper, in his rage, hadn’t provided such an excellent springboard. Melody tumbled backward, rested her feet on his weapon of solidified memory, and bounced off to the side. There had to be somewhere she could hide in the forest, until this blew over. Of course, if their shouting was to be believed, it would never blow over.
Her bag weighed her down, but she would sooner abandon her principles than the hundreds of books magically stored within it. She did her best to regulate her breathing, to focus on the in and out rather than the flung insults the slatebrains tried to lodge in her memory. Stiffaper was most aggressive in the pursuit, probably because the insult had struck him directly. He was by far the angriest, so angry that he nearly caught her when all the others had fallen behind. He tripped her with the slate and hoisted it over his head, wrinkled lips contorted terribly.
“Haven’t you ever heard ‘don’t shoot the messenger’?” Melody asked, hands outstretched.
“I’m not going to shoot you; I’m going to bludgeon you!” he howled. “Bludge, bludge, bludgeon!” the slab came down. It smacked against Melody’s palms as she grabbed the sides of it and wrestled for control. She didn’t think they had any teeth, but Stiffaper bit at the buttons on her jacket, ripping several off and exposing the loud sweater she wore underneath. It was such a vibrant color, a gift from her sweet departed grandmother, that it stunned Stiffaper like a bright flash of light. Melody seized the moment, ripping the slab away and knocking the slatebrain over with it.
She jumped to her feet, stowed it in the library bag so it wouldn’t be heavy anymore, and ran for it. The peace of the forest worked in her favor, as her flight made no sound and she left no trail in the leaves. She could hear slatebrains moving all about her, searching, growling, dragging various implements of nature-oppression in the hopes of being the one to bash the life out of her and be immortalized on all their slates as the Melody-silencer.
She tucked herself into an expertly trimmed bush, the leaves almost dense enough to hide her entire body. She snatched her comforhat and rearranged it once more, into something resembling a cluster of golden brown leaves. She put it back on her head and leaned forward to cover the bush’s one bald spot. Her camouflage was complete, and it proved itself when a group of three slatebrains stumbled by and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. She had time to think up a way out.
All she could think about was getting home to her loyal pet and best friend: Wry Pete. He was a cantankerous old parrot, his red feathers faded to their permanent Autumn colors, but he still had plenty of life in him. The parrot would probably outlive her, only getting famous and pulling his own weight immediately after she died.
Poor Pete. So talented when it came to voice and music mimicry. All the bird ever wanted was to be on a traveling stage with all the best animal performers, perhaps riding around on the shoulders of a dancing bear and whistling the anthem of whatever kingdom they traveled through. That was why Melody started the messenger business. They just needed enough money to keep him in seed, to keep him encouraged, until the right talent scout came along. Wry Pete would be a wonderful entertainer one day, but she had to survive the slatebrains to see it.
Pete was alone, back home, watching over the house with nothing but his infirm wings as defense against the cruel world.
Pete’s head lifted from the pillow on Melody’s bed. He wasn’t supposed to sleep there, but she would be gone for several days more. He would clean the sunflower hulls off it before then. Right after he cleaned up all the pie crumbs he’d left on the stove. Right after he swept the poppy seeds under the welcome mat. Right after he dealt with whoever was at the door.
whunk, whunk, whunk
Nobody was supposed to knock. They never arranged guests when Melody was out delivering a message. Wry Pete flew from the bedroom to the front door knob. It was a short flight, but it took most of his energy. He had no weapon, but he had his voice, and all the words Melody had left him.
“Melody, you in there?” a young man’s voice asked. “It’s me Hodgekiss. Remember? I hired you to deliver a message for a guy named Laytrant? Tell me you didn’t actually do it. Apparently, the gray-headed weirdo was drunk when he told me to tell you. How am I supposed to know what his ‘drunk’ looks like? It looked normal to me!”
“I’m busy cooking, please leave,” Wry Pete said, using Melody’s voice. He only had so many responses to work with. If anyone angry busted their way in, Pete wouldn’t be able to stop them from taking their nest egg. Years of Melody’s hard work. Half of a chance for stardom with the traveling stages.
“I’ll leave,” Hodgekiss said, slightly confused. “Just tell me you didn’t deliver it yet. Better yet, give it back to me. You can keep the money, just slip it under the door.” Pete had nothing to slip him but seed hulls and sawdust. The bird thought. Melody once scolded him for taking a bath in the sink while she washed the dishes. Maybe he could use pieces of that.
“Get out! You’re getting everything filthy!” Hodgekiss took a step back and examined his clothes. He smelled at his armpits.
“I’m… not. What’s wrong with you? Did you deliver that jab to Stiffaper or didn’t you?”
“I just did those!” Wry Pete repeated. Was that close enough? Better hammer it home. “Please leave, filthy!” Wry Pete waited, his eye stuck through the keyhole. Hodgekiss cursed under his breath, and ran away. With that taken care of, the bird returned to his pillow and nestled down for another nap. That was good practice for the stage. It was a little hard to sleep, as Melody’s voice reminded him of her, of her devotion to little old nearly-plucked him, but he managed. At least until there was another knock.
whunk, whunk, whunk
“Miss Korrespazey?” another voice demanded. “This is the sheriff. Mister Hodgekiss says you’ve got some property of his. I need you to open the door and hand it over.” The sheriff! He could bust down a door and it wouldn’t even be illegal. Wry Pete flew back to the knob, panicking so much that he gargled a few of his syllables. What did he have to talk the sheriff out of coming in?
Melody had her rules, the ones she lived by no matter what. Pete recalled them as best he could. They were like laws, and sheriffs dealt in those. He thought back to one night, after her third message, after she’d been clawed by a mountain lion on her way home. She sat near the fire, crying only a little, hissing when she put alcohol to her wounds. The bird couldn’t believe she’d done all that just so he could mimic and mock people on the stage. She made a little speech, to herself, the bird, and the fire equally.
“I know it’s not what we want to do forever,” she had started, “but this messenger stuff is important. I like helping people say what they want to say. You have to coax it out, or they never will. You have to encourage them to speak. Speaking’s the first step to everything. We’re that first step. It’s a great thing to have. I’m going to make sure that everybody can do it, that every message gets heard. Some will wither and die, but some will bloom because of me. I’m going to fight to make that happen, to put you on that stage so you can say whatever you want and nobody will stop you.”
“Messenger stuff is important,” Wry Pete repeated to the sheriff. He mixed and matched phrases from Melody’s speech as fast as he could. “Please leave.”
“Now Miss Melody, be reasonable. I’ve got an official complaint here…”
“Encourage them to speak.”
“I already spoke to you, woman!” Hodgekiss shouted. He was right behind the sheriff, groaning in frustration.
“I’m going to make sure… every message gets heard,” Pete repeated. “I’m going to fight… you… on stage!” the bird declared. Perhaps that concoction was a little over the top.
“What? I don’t want to…” Hodgekiss stammered. “Sheriff, can you just break it down? I want to see if she’s still got that map I gave her.”
“Say whatever you want and nobody will stop you,” Pete challenged. “But… I’m going to fight… you… you’re getting everything filthy!” The sheriff took a step back and examined his boots for dirt.
“She has a point,” the sheriff told Hodgekiss. “You two can say whatever you want, but without evidence of wrongdoing I can’t go in there. It’s her property. Now if you’ll excuse me.” Pete eyed them through the keyhole as they left. Hodgekiss looked back once, threw up an obscene gesture, but did leave.
Pete was so rattled that he didn’t even return to his pillow, to the calming smell of Melody’s hair. She needed to hurry back. He had quite the story to relay.
Melody’s back started to hurt, curled up as she was in that bush. There had to be a way to sneak by the slatebrains. All she had was her wits, her comforhat, her library bag… and what Stiffaper had accidentally given her. She pulled up the slate with the golden writing and read as fast as she could.
It didn’t just have the insult stored on it; there was a whole host of other memories and experiences to read through. The slatebrains had life all wrong, but she could hardly blame them. It likely was torture to remember everything perfectly, even your own faults and mistakes. They needed to get over that, rather than dwell on the worst things written in their souls.
She read, from his childhood memories, that the slatebrains had a castle past the forest. They kept it clean, organized, and filled with luxury goods, but none of them were allowed to live there. They were all too afraid of making mistakes inside it, of sullying its good name. It was a castle with no lord, worshiped by a people who would rather sleep in trees than say something that might offend someone else.
She looked at the footnotes on the slab of biased slatebrain history. That was where all the technical information was hidden. There had to be something she could use. Slatebrain folk songs? No. Religious history? No. A universal cry for help? Possibly…
There was one, recorded there in gold. It had explicit instructions. If she whispered her problem to a blank part of the slate, it would send a message. If her intentions were pure, only a slatebrain willing to help her would hear it. That’s what Stiffaper’s slab said, anyway. There had to be one among the hundreds who thought differently, whose speech was free enough to catch Melody’s meaning. She leaned forward, practically kissing the stone, and whispered.
“A slatebrain has taken a second-hand insult too seriously. My life is in danger. I need your help. Can you help me? Or can you help him get over it?” Her last word splashed across the swirls in the gray stone. She waited. If she expected anything, it was the sound of a slatebrain approaching from between the trees, perhaps leaves rattling in one of their baskets.
Instead, she felt something squirm under her arm. She set the slab aside and pulled her library bag into her lap. Something inside it moved, pressed against the clasp. She had no other avenues to investigate, so she simply leaned back and opened it. Out came the now-familiar grave-shaped head of a slatebrain! Two arms popped out as well, but they didn’t lunge at her or try to claw out her eyes.
“How did you get in there?” she hissed at the slatebrain. It was female, with long dusty eyelashes and a simple modest cloak that looked like a dictionary’s spine. The slatebrain yawned.
“I’ve always been in there,” she declared. “I guess you’re the one that owns this bag now? It changes hands so much I can’t keep up. I don’t really pay attention, as long as nobody steals any of the books in here. You wanted my help?”
“Wait, you live in there?” Melody asked. “I knew there were lots of books, I’ve added about twenty, but I didn’t think there was space for a person! What do you do all day?”
“Reading and re-reading. My kind make the best librarians. We remember where everything is supposed to go.”
“Your remembering is the problem,” Melody explained. “I’ve got one of you on my tail, mad that I delivered an insult. I don’t think he’s ever going to give up.”
“Yes, that sounds like us. Name-calling is just the worst. Worse than murder.”
“Well not to my people. We can say pretty much whatever we want. I wouldn’t have a living if we couldn’t. You don’t… you don’t seem too bothered by what I’ve done though,” Melody noticed. The slatebrain’s eyes were still very sleepy.
“Over exposure,” she said. “I couldn’t read all these books if I blushed at everything off-color. I don’t like it, but I know more because of it. Believe me, I wasn’t that way at first. Nearly cracked everything in my own brain over the way some of you humans write.”
“Well, that’s great for you. Can you help me? I can get you some more books. Something in your favorite genre maybe?”
“Well, I’m in need of some pirate stories,” the slatebrain admitted. “There’s only one way you can change one of our minds though. You have to do it literally. Here.” She opened her own head and extracted a slab, handing it to Melody. Then she took the one from Stiffaper and inserted it into her own fleshy bag of a head. She resealed it. “Oh yeah, no wonder he’s after you. I’m surprised he didn’t just kill himself on the spot.”
“What do I do with this?” Melody asked of the new slab.
“Put it in Stiffaper’s head,” she said simply, apparently learning his name from the newly-implanted memories. “It’s a jaded part of me, once that has read an awful lot about a lot awful. That’ll calm him down. I expect three pirate novels, and at least one of them must have a female protagonist.”
“Uhh… you got it!” Melody declared. “Soon as I can.” The slatebrain nodded and descended back into the library bag. That was certainly enlightening. She took her comforhat and folded it yet again, to a more daring shape, something a bit like a swashbuckler.
She stood. As luck would have it, it was the right moment. Perhaps Stiffaper had been tracking his own missing piece, following it with a compass needle in his mind. He was right there, looking tired but angry as ever. The front half of his head flopped weakly over his eyes, like a banana peel so black it was practically liquid.
It obscured his vision some, so he couldn’t tell what Melody was doing when she pounced and jammed a foreign slab into his head.
“No! No more of your words! They’re torture! You’re so mean… you’re so….” Stiffaper stopped. “Oh.” He said nothing else. He didn’t even look at her anymore. The slatebrain simply stood there, reading through new memories, rage dying down under the smothering weight of it all.
“Okay. Lovely meeting you. Sorry the discount wasn’t to your liking. I… won’t be coming back.” Melody made a run for it, past all the trees forced to hold their dead leaves, past the muffled water, and out of the land of the slatebrains. She had such a story for Wry Pete. She would tell it to him slowly, enunciating clearly. She wanted to hear him repeat it back, in her voice. She would have no problem falling asleep to that memory, using it as a springboard to imagine their future.
Wry Pete would sing and joke from his own stage one day, and Maybe Melody would join him and talk about the people who just couldn’t handle hearing certain things.