Two Branches

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It had taken Miranda a year of searching just to find the entrance to the land of the Golden Sky.

A year of opening dusty books and closing them again in frustration. A year of endless travel, of sleep broken into small pieces, of tears and terror. And through it all, a foreign child in her arms, whose skin shone gold in a way that human skin never could.

They were at war, the humans and these Golden Ones. Why, no one knew. If you asked how long (because Miranda had asked it, of librarians and wise women and seers), you would simply be told forever. There were casualties at times, battles that raged suddenly and ended in a blood-soaked silence. To forestall this, the humans had tried destroying all the gates between their world and the land of the Golden Sky, searching out every liminal space and slicing it into shards with human weapons.

But there had to have been at least one gate left, Miranda knew. How else could the Golden Ones have stolen her son and replaced him with one of their own?

Miranda learned about the Prophecy in a crowded library in Prague that smelled like incense and coffee, with a little boy on her hip who smiled and gurgled and chewed on a plastic toy. The Golden Ones apparently believed that a human child would rise up and end the war. A child with dark skin and wild red hair, strong and round and stocky, who bore on his leg a birthmark of paler skin in the shape of a tree with two branches.

Miranda had been so taken with the beautiful birthmark on her newborn son that her phone was full of the pictures. There were no pictures of him past the age of two days. 

Because the prophesied child was human, the Golden Ones feared that the war would end with their annihilation. And so they’d come in the night, while Miranda slept— was it any wonder she hardly slept now, even three years later?— and they’d stolen him away.

At the end of that first year, Miranda finally located the gate between worlds in a stand of trees on a snow-swept plain. It was hardly visible— you could more feel it than see it, in what one book had called a thin place. The book had not mentioned that the gate would be locked.

Miranda sat down in the snow. She didn’t mean to be so disappointed, hadn’t thought herself to be so fragile. She’d known none of this would be easy. And yet the impassable gate was a weight so heavy that she felt crushed.

The little boy— for some reason she’d called him Stephen the first time someone had asked his name— was playing in the snow, trudging along in red snow pants and heavy boots, swallowed up by a coat that was a bit too big for him. He was just a year old, so he fell over more than he walked, but he was delighted with the snow in any case. When Miranda sat down, he plowed a wobbly path to her side and climbed in her lap, soaking her legs with snow and dirt from his boots.

The child was content to sit a while, imitating Miranda, maybe. She’d noticed he liked to do that, to take his cues from his— well, the person he no doubt thought of as his mother. If Miranda was sitting in the snow, then that was obviously what one did in the snow, and he copied her, proud to have learned another rule of the world. Of course, it wasn’t his world. His world was through the gate that shimmered every so slightly in and out of view.

Miranda knew she ought to get up and go back to her tour of libraries, searching now for a key to this gate. But the gate was right there, her son was right there. Did he have someone? she wondered. A woman he thought of as mother? Did she keep him warm in the snow? Was he a pariah there, as Stephen was here, the golden shine of his skin giving away his inhuman nature, scaring people into making signs against evil and witches and hexes and whatever else they thought a tiny, defenseless little boy could somehow do to them?

Miranda herself knew what that felt like: her own parents had married across the lines of a blood feud so old no one knew its start or could see its end. Miranda thought it odd to find such fear in a family which over the years had blended so many cultures into itself. But some additions were still not welcome.

Stephen grew restless now in her lap, and she helped him climb off so that he ended up with his feet at the bottom and his head at the top. Naturally, he couldn’t quite keep to that and fell over in the snow again, this time right in front of the gate. And it changed. It glowed, it creaked and clanked, it got so bright it was hard to look at, and then it opened, a door in the snow, leading to another plain, another path.

The child was acting as a key, Miranda realized, and she couldn’t fathom why until he turned back to her and whined softly, and she reached into her pocket and brought out a little box of crackers and raisins for him. 

Miranda had fed him, that first terrible morning. The unknown child she’d found in her son’s cradle had cried with hunger, and Miranda’s new-mother body had ached in response. And so she’d fed him with what she’d had at the time, with milk that had been made for another baby. She’d fed him every day since. And now he must be quite literally a bridge between two worlds. A Golden One nourished by a human body. Miranda took his hand and they stepped through the gate.

It seemed like the Land of the Golden Sky was as deserted by this gate as the human world was. For two days, they saw no one. And then they’d been intercepted, housed (jailed), examined, questioned, lectured. They tried to take Stephen from Miranda only once, and never again.

What they did was to promise to give Miranda information on her son if she completed several trials, and they attempted to be fair about it— or so they claimed— by not asking Miranda to do anything that required magic to solve. 

And so Miranda learned over the coming months and years that you could carry water in a sieve if you lined it with mud and grass. That you could charm an enchanted silver bird from a tree by offering twigs of redwood for its nest. That the Terrible Old Man on the Mountain just wanted someone to talk to, and that if you brought along a rapidly-growing little boy— two years old at that time— that the Old Man would be delighted to watch him play and to hear tales from the valley below. And that coveted magic mirror the Old Man kept locked in a storeroom of his tower— of course, Miranda could have it, it was just gathering dust anyhow, and more importantly, would they like to stay for dinner, because Stephen had never had mountain stream fish, and the Old Man knew he’d love it. (He did. Stephen was an adventurous little boy.)

When two years and five trials had passed, Miranda put her foot down. And since it was a foot, so to speak, that had crossed the River of Night and brought back the Herb of Plenty from the Forbidden Valley (or some such nonsense), the Golden Ones finally began to pay her a little respect. Miranda then learned the truth about her son. He was not here, in the Land of the Golden Sky. He had not been, for a very long time.

The following day, Miranda went back through the gate with Stephen. It was winter again, but there was no snow on the ground at the moment. They walked through the woods and into the nearest town, and Miranda found a park and collapsed onto a bench as Stephen ran to play. He found a companion, almost immediately— another little boy, with red hair and a face that very strongly resembled Miranda’s father.

Miranda turned, shaking, to see another woman sit down on the bench beside her. There was a golden sheen to her dark skin. They stared at each other a moment, and then back to the little boys, Stephen, and Miranda’s son— 

Except Miranda realized suddenly that she wasn’t sure what that meant. Her son. 

Which one was he?

“You kept him warm,” she said finally, noting the hand-knit blue sweater on the human boy.

“I put a spell in it,” the other woman said. “Keeps out the rain. It rains a lot more here than it does at home.”

Miranda said quietly, “I didn’t want to believe you’d be like them. I couldn’t, with my son in your hands.”

“And I hoped you’d keep my child alive because you would need him in order to make the switch back.” The woman had a stricken look on her face. “Is that why you did?”

“No,” Miranda answered.

The little boys played in the afternoon sunlight, and Miranda talked with the mother of her son— whichever way one could mean that. Her name was Glen. She’d called the human child Hope.

Glen had not known that the switch would be made. They’d stolen Stephen from her as treacherously as they’d taken Hope from Miranda. One night, in desperation, Glen had held a knife to the throat of one of her own kind and he’d pointed her to Miranda’s town in the human world. But by the time Glen reached it, Miranda and Stephen had already left on their search for a gate. Which meant Glen was on her own in a strange land, with a baby to feed.

“I had to wait tables,” Glen said.

Miranda groaned. “Oh, that’s got to be worse than learning to play a perfect tune on the Enchanted Golden Harp.”

Glen looked at her in surprise. “However did you manage that?”

“Oh, I didn’t,” Miranda confessed. “The harp plays itself. You just have to get the name of the tune exactly right and ask politely.”

“It’s no wonder your son is so clever,” Glen said.

“It’s no wonder yours is so brave.”

Glen smiled a bit, and it was quite beautiful. On the playground, Stephen took a tumble and both mothers leaned forward instinctively, making sure that he righted himself without help.

“I eventually saved up enough money to hire a private detective,” Glen explained. “He tracked you two all around the world. And finally, yesterday, here.”

“Here,” Miranda said. “Here our journey ends.”

Hope climbed onto a swing, head-first, and swung belly-down, watching the ground go back and forth beneath him. His hair flashed flame-red in the sun. Stephen came to join him, tummy-down as well, and they swung side by side.

“His father left before the birth,” Miranda said.

“It’s just been the two of us as well. That is, me, and— and your son.” Glen looked down at her hands. “They were too afraid to kill him, or to kill you, but they hoped to pacify you with someone else’s child— they don’t understand humans.”

“I think,” Miranda said, “they don’t understand mothers.”

“You know, he has your eyes,” Glen said, gazing at Miranda. “I’ve always loved those eyes.”

The boys became friends, and the mothers became more. When the spring came, Miranda and Glen kissed beneath the blooming trees, and when the winter came again, they wed amid the falling snow. The four of them spent their honeymoon visiting the Old Man on the Mountain. 

And thus the Prophecy was fulfilled, by a family who refused to let a border divide them. The war was ended, quite simply, by those who chose peace.

Written for the False Gods zine.