The Length of Time

Fantasy Short Fiction, First Appeared on the Word Whores Blog 1.11.11

Wump glanced up from her crouch amid ash-coated rubble at the newcomer in sparkly clothes and shiny sandals. “Not all toes, just the big ones.”“Wretched girl, the cloth is used to cover your face not your toes.”

“If you keep breathing in this rot and dust, you will die.” He paced a narrow path, casting glares at shadows dancing beyond his torchlight. “You will never see the sun. You will never feel the rain. Pure air will never dance within you. Do you understand that?”

“What I care for things I not know?”

One large hand, unmarred and freckled, flicked dirt from his long blue robe threaded with silver and gold. “Decretum CDLVIII: ‘All progeny of the incarcerated will be introduced to the service of the Benevolent God when the first curls of maturity bloom.’ Do you know what that means?”

Hair matted and fetid whipped from side to side.

“When you come of age you will see the sun. Now, tell me how long you have been here.”

“How long you be here?”

“How long have I been here. ‘Been,’ is the proper word.” The man pinched his crooked nose and shook his head. “Decretum DCLXIII: ‘All progeny of the incarcerated will be educated in God’s Word so that they may serve Her glory, thus atoning for the sins of their parents.’ Nowhere does She say, ‘I be. You be.’”

“How long you been here?” Her tongue slid through the gaps in her missing teeth and rolled around a tattered strip of fabric.

“A week, a fortnight?” The man pulled a round thing from his robe and slapped it against his hip. Once. Twice. On the third hit it made a sound. Tick-tick-tick. His face lit up. The noise stopped. A frown formed and he slid it back inside his robe. “It is difficult to say when one’s watch no longer tells time.”

“What do it say?”

“Does,” he snapped. “What does what say?”

“Watch what does it say to Time?”

“The watch should tell me the time, but it broke when I fell on these miserable rocky passages.” He coughed repeatedly, pressing his fist against the fabric covering his nose and mouth. “Time is very easy to tell when one can see the sun. The repeating change from light to dark informs one of how much time as passed.”

“Wump never see sun. Wump never know light repeat. Wump know how long she been here.” She wiggled her toes, all brown and black save for the bulb of blue around one big toe.

“Your parents have told you, and soon they will tell me once you are done fiddling with your feet and take me to them.”

“Wump not have parents.”

“Of course you do. All children have parents. Without them, you could not exist.”

Her chin jerked toward the bottomless pit yawning just beyond his torchlight. “Wump parents fall. Wump father trip. Wump mother thrown by other woman. Wump not have parents. Wump still know how long she been here.”

“Blessed Mother, forgive us our transgressions,” he shrieked and staggered back from the edge. “How long have you been orphaned?”

Her fingers tickled the small pouch hanging around her neck. She cast a sly grin at the man. “Wump not see sun. Wump not have watch. Wump know time. Wump smarter than you.”

He patted his chest and puffed his cheeks. Words escaped in little huffs. “Are you now? Do enlighten me.”

“Sit here. Wump show you how tell time.”

He perched on a large rock, gripping his torch until his knuckles turned white. She took his empty cold hand and turned it so his palm showed. With great solemnity, she untied the little pouch from around her neck and emptied it into his hand. Tiny yellow half-moons tumbled into the creases of his palm. She took one preserved treasure and held it up to her naked big toe.

“When nail long like these, Wump be here that time.”

He jostled the thick toenails sticking to the dampness of his skin. “You’ve been here forty-two toenail times? That tells me nothing other than you are horribly malnourished.”

“Wump live forty-two times without parents. Wump smart. Wump live longer than other orphans.” She held his hand still. Blunt fingertips scraped the bits from his palm and dropped them back in the pouch. “You wrap toes. You know time.”

“That is revolting.” He stood, kicking a pile of stones. He swore. “Stupid rocks. I shall not have a single nail left.”

“That bad. No nail left. No time left.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” He wiped his hands on his robe and turned down the path. “Come, Wump, let us find a prison guard so there can be a witness on record of your qualified release.”

She shook her head and clutched her pouch to her chest. “Wump not go with you.”

“Child, you have no choice. We are all servants of the Benevolent God. Whatever neglect you have suffered down here will be set to rights at the temple.”

He reached for her. She jerked back, sharp stones poking her bottom.

“Child, I told – ”

His words turned into a scream as his sandals slipped on the rocks, pitching him headlong into the pit.

Wump crept to the edge and shook her head.

“No nail. No time.”