Glimmer: Orphan – start on a rough draft

The season comes at last, and with it, the monsoon clouds.  They sweep in from the southeast, rolling over the broad green Empire, the mangrove coastline, the terraced fields, the steep green hills and mountains, into the hinterlands, unloading torrents of warm rain as they go.  Life slows; animals are brought in from the fields and mud chokes the paths and roads.  Rivers swell and overrun their banks, depositing thick alluvial soil on fields, clogging irrigation ditches and drowning crops that are not prepared, or were planted late.

The rains always come – and with them, the monks.

Sliding and wallowing along choked roads, the wagons rumble down from the monastery.  Each is pulled by two buffalo; driven by a family that has had this job for generations.  In each is a monk, hidden from the weather by an lacquered wood awning, seated next to the driver, face serene.  Despite the awning providing shelter over the seat, their robes, like everything during the monsoon season, are soaked and heavy about them.  They travel to the orphanages that lie on the outskirts of the larger towns in the province, purchasing children.


Glimmer stands, his feet already soaked by a falling sheet or water running off the dormitory roof above him.  Across the courtyard of the orphanage compound, he can barely make out the girls standing in front of their own dormitory, obscured by a similar sheet of water. The rain is ten thousand tiny hands pounding on the tiles above him, day and night, as it always is in this season.  Weeks without sunlight have left the land both soaked and cold, but Glimmer knows better than to shiver where Mother can see him.

Mother is not his mother, of course – she is the headmistress of this orphanage, a member of an obscure sect of priestesses who have this calling and, if Mother is any indication, do not enjoy it.  There are times when she and her novices, two younger women, endeavor to teach the precepts of their faith to the children.  Glimmer does not understand any more than the other boys his age, but they know that if they listen quietly, they are fed.

He knows the wagon is approaching the courtyard because he hears the sudden lowing sound of a buffalo who has had enough of the rain.  The only animals near the orphanage are chickens and a few pigs – hearing the buffalo’s voice sends a thrill through his body.

He hears its hooves striking the cobbles, obscured under a layer of mud, as it enters the courtyard.  He sees them splash with each step, and one of the buffalo tosses its enormous head, snorting in the torrent, and shakes down the length of it’s body, shedding water which is immediately replaced.  

The look of awe he feels on his face is mirrored by the boys around him.  What a wonder!  Its shoulders would loom over him if he dared to come close to it; its horns would easily be the length of his arm if they were not sadly cut off just over its ears.

And behind the buffalo comes the wagon.  It is enormous – so large it barely fits through the large double doors of the compound, flung open before dawn in preparation.  Its wheels are as tall as Glimmer and studded with metal – the gleam is barely visible beneath layers of mud.  He sees a man sitting, holding the reigns of the pair of buffalo, his face obscured beneath a broad hat.  Seated next to  him is a figure Glimmer knows to be a Temple monk, layered robes plum and grey in color, her bald head gleaming like an egg.  Clinging to the side of the wagon is an older boy, seated on a small wooden seat and soaked to the bone from the rain.  As the wagon slows to a stop, he leaps down and fetches a stool from a shelf under the wagon and runs around to the side the monk is on, placing the stool on the swimming courtyard stones and producing a lacquered wood umbrella which he pushes open and holds out, as high as he can.

The monk leans down from her seat and climbs slowly and nimbly down.  Still, the time between the awning over her seat and coming under the umbrella is enough to soak her anew.  As she comes around the buffalo toward the boy’s dormitory, Glimmer stands straighter.  He puffs out his chest even though beneath it he feels his heart pounding so quick and sharp it is like applause.  He squares his shoulders the way he has seen soldiers do from a distance.  He is not tall for his age, but it helps.

He feels Mother’s hand come down on his shoulder, surprisingly gentle.  The monk’s eyes meet his.  There is a moment, like a flash of lightening, when he feels he may faint, but his vision clears and he is still standing.  The monk, umbrella still held over her head by the soaked older boy, is suddenly in front of him, looking him up and down.

Mother speaks up – her voice cracks slightly.  “This is the one – his name is Glimmer.”

The monk stares into his eyes and  he looks down after only a moment.  “He is small.”

Glimmer feels Mother’s hand tense on his shoulder like a bird’s claw.  “This is the boy.  He is the one.  He’s – “

“Very well.”  The monk leans down – she smells like something Glimmer has never smelled before, a mixture of otherworldly spices.  She smells like mystery.  “Boy.”  His eyes rise again to meet hers.  Mother’s claw on his shoulder tenses to the point of being painful, and he suddenly remembers to bow, deep and low, like he practiced.  “Boy.  My name is Sister Grey Sky.  Do you know why I am here?”

He tries to say something, still facing down in his bow.  

“You mumble.  Speak clearly.”

He glances up at her.  “You are…a monk.  You are here to take me to the Emperor.”

She shocks Glimmer by laughing at him.  “No, boy, I am not taking  you to the Emperor.  You have been chosen to serve the Emperor.  You are going to be his tool, to wield how he chooses for the betterment of all.  From amongst the other orphan boys,” – she gestures around him to the only family he has ever known – “you were chosen.”  She places a hand under his chin and firmly pulls him up out of his bow.  “I am taking you to a place where you will learn to serve the Emperor, with other boys and girls.  You will never come back here.  I hope you have said goodbye.”

Mother takes this moment to speak up again, addressing the silent gathering of orphan boys around her.  “The Emperor is our Father – he is Father to all of us, and he will be Father to Glimmer now.  It is an honor for Glimmer to be chosen.  Next year, another of you will be chosen to follow him and learn to serve the Emperor.”

The  monk glances at Mother.  “Even so.”

She turns to walk back to the wagon, and Glimmer realizes he is supposed to follow, rushing to catch up, and then at her hard glance, falling back a few paces, remembering his place.  A monk!  They are like soldiers – he has only seen them from a distance, along the road, while doing chores outside the compound, in their small fields or among the few animals.  Always in the colors of dusk, always shorn of all hair, traveling in small groups or alone.  His head fills with every story he’s heard of their magical powers – that their robes let them fly like birds, that the are as strong as ten men, that they can read your thoughts the way that a sage reads written characters.

None of these powers are apparent as Glimmer follows the monk to the wagon.  He steals a moment to glance back – Mother stands with the other orphan boys, still as a grey statue.  Like the rest, Glimmer was warned not to wave or to squirm to speak unless spoken to.  He cannot see if any of the others dare wave through the sheets of rain that separate them.  They are faceless, then formless, then gone.

He knows how proud he should be, but tears are hot on his face, mixing with the rain.

The monk – Sister Grey Sky she said her name was – leads him around to the back of the wagon.  Glimmer glances back at the driver’s bench, confused, but the monk continues, the parasol still held over her head by the older boy, and takes a ring of keys out of her robes.  There is a heavy iron lock on the rear doors of the wagon, and she unlatches it with a loud, sharp sound and swings one side open.

Inside are children.  At least a dozen – it is hard to see in the muted morning light.  The ones near the door shy back, pressing against the others, shielding their eyes from what is to them sudden brightness.  

Glimmer’s feet feel rooted in place.  He glances back at the boy’s dormitory, and can barely make out the shapes of the other orphans through the rain, filing back into the building.  It will be breakfast soon, vegetables and clumpy rice, and then chores, and then lessons.  Just like every day, until they are old enough to be sent on to find work in one of the nearby towns.

He takes a step back, but is stopped again by Sister Grey Sky’s heavy gaze falling on him.  They stare at each other for what seems like an eternity before, sighing angrily, she thrusts out a hand and grasps Glimmer by the front of his smock and pulls him toward the crowded wagon.

She leans down and speaks in his ear, her voice like a raincloud.  “This is not your home.  You belong to the Emperor now, mind, life and limb.  You are his.”  She holds his gaze, and he sees there the utter certainty of what she is saying.  “Get in.”

Blinking back fresh tears, he climbs into the back of the wagon.  It is dark, crowded, and smells like sick and unwashed bodies.  Someone in the back, far from the door, is coughing continually.  He shuffles awkwardly until he finds a place to sit, pressed between a larger boy and a girl who looks to be about his age.

The monk speaks to the children in the wagon.  “We’ll eat when we stop at midday.” She closes the rear door, and Glimmer hears the key in the heavy iron lock again.


4 thoughts on “Glimmer: Orphan – start on a rough draft

  1. Wow I really enjoyed reading this! It was so evocative that it took me right back to my visit to a Thai orphanage during monsoon season. Except your recounting is WAY cooler 😉

    Is this a book you're working on?


  2. Thanks, glad you liked it. This is the beginning of what I want to be a series of short stories, stand-alone if possible, that tell the story of Glimmer. Maybe combined they would be a novel with five distinct parts, but I want to start with short stories. I'm a long way from being able to put out a full novel that is worth reading.

    This is what happened, basically – in 2003 I started working on an rpg setting and system, which stalled utterly, but I was left with a setting that I like, and so it became a fiction setting instead 🙂


  3. Doug;

    I really like this story! Your setting and description of place are excellent. The reversal (female monks) is our first real indication that you are going to take us on a journey even more exotic than we imagined – nice!

    You also have a great turn of phrase and use of metaphor.

    I really look forward to reading more!


  4. @ Eddie: Thanks! I love hearing what other people notice. There are actually both male and female monks (kind of like some Buddhist sects now) and I hadn't thought about opening with a female one – at least not for that reason. But yeah, their order is a little different, and even among their order, these particular monks are on the fringe.


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