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J. E. Schroeder

"Signals" by J. E. Schroeder

SciFi/Fantasy text 10 out of 19 by J. E. Schroeder.      ←Previous - Next→
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Just a short (*gasp* under five pages? I never do this!) little piece, oddly enough (*gasp again*) set in modern times. As you may guess from all the fuss above, this short is a bit of a departure from my usual style. Not that I don't like it--I'm actually quite fond of the piece, and it was much fun to write ^_^

The main event in the story is based on a real-life incident of last summer. My dad and I were talking about it the other night, and voila: two or three short hours and a finished story. *Sigh* I do so love inspiration when it deigns to come my way...

Anywho, happy reading!

Oh, and the one non-English word in there is just an expression of weariness or frustration--if you're interested in the word's origins, just let me know! There's a literal translation at the bottom of the page, but the info above should let you make sense of the term in context.


Revision 5/19/2010 -- edited and generally polished up.  I fixed wordiness and typos in more places than I'd like to admit, and I reworked some lines/images for clarity.  Thanks to everyone who pointed out errors and stylistic issues in this piece :)

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The room stood bare before her as she lingered on the threshold, touching the tin knob with her fingertips. In her other hand she held a large bag—light, gray, and woven of a shimmering material softer than silk. She sighed, allowing her dark lashes to fall over her clear eyes. When she lifted them again, the gray of her irises filled with the light seeping in through the dusty window on the far side of the room.


She stepped forward, letting her hand slide off the knob. The worn carpet almost crunched beneath her sandals. Not caring to set her bag down on its ruined surface, she kept it suspended in her fingers as she drifted across the room. The window was etched into the wall above an old-fashioned heater which had long since begun to shed its coat of paint in white flakes. She kept her eyes up, squinting a little to see through the haze of the glass to the skyline beyond. A hint of green materialized as she came near, and she ignored the film of gray dust which clung to her palm as she wiped clean a small portion of the pane.


The morning sky was heavy with clouds. The street below bowed at either end, distorted by the warped glass. Leaning forward and looking to her left, Kaelyn looped her bag over her elbow and touched the fingers of both hands to the dusty sill. As she had hoped, she had a clear view of the young oak tree that she had seen upon wandering onto the narrow, litter-strewn avenue. It stood as if by accident amidst the beaten old cars and tumbling beverage cups, its adolescent foliage beaming like hope itself against the urban gloom encroaching on its roots.


Kaelyn allowed herself to smile, and the expression glowed on her timeless skin and fair features. Bending at the waist and tucking her long, blonde hair behind her ears, she closed her fingers around the iron handle of the window frame and pulled upward. Although the wood creaked, it refused to slide up the paint-clogged grooves.


A frown brushed Kaelyn’s brow. She tried once more, and again she was unable to undo the carelessness of whatever insensate workman had sealed the window. “Myssan,” she breathed lightly. She left the thought unfinished, unwilling to reawaken the bitterness that tugged so often at her soul.


Stepping back for a moment, she pressed her palms together and touched her fingertips to her lips, closing her eyes and ignoring the dry taste of dust. She stood silently for a moment, her white skirt and rose-colored blouse glowing mutely in the sunlight. When she moved forward again, nothing had changed except for the lighting of a pale blue glimmer in the depths of her gray eyes. Once more, she wrapped her fingers around the handle and pulled upward. This time the paint cracked, and the frame jolted upwards on long-compressed springs. Kaelyn sighed. Bending at the waist and resting her hands on her knees, she leaned forward to breathe the coolness in the morning air. The breeze drifted tentatively into the small, dark space, exploring the nearest corners before advancing into the room.


A tinge of metallic odor touched Kaelyn’s nostrils as she bent her face further towards the rust-caked screen. She frowned slightly, closing her eyes and trying to ignore the pungent scent. When she looked again into the street, she turned her gaze to the young oak and watched its leaves swaying with the wind.


“To be young,” she sighed after a moment, straightening her back and turning from the window. Almost without looking, she strode to the center of the room. She had seen a hundred places like this small apartment, and each was as distasteful to her as the last.


Allowing her bag to fall down to her wrist, she reached into it with her other hand and withdrew a neatly folded blanket. She let the folds of green material fall loose as she leaned down to spread it over the carpet, grimacing at the odors of cigarette smoke and sweat. Once the blanket was set, she lowered her slender frame and sat with her knees touching the floor—one leg in front of her and the other tucked back to her right.


She placed her bag on the blanket and reached into it again to pull out a medium-sized canvas. The surface was white and unmarked, and she set it aside as she searched the bag once more to find a bundle of brushes and paint tubes, a small section of colorfully stained cloth, a flask of water, a small metal cup and a metal plate, and, finally, an easel formed of woven branches. When she set the bag aside, it collapsed formlessly to the floor.


Kaelyn placed the easel before her and carefully settled the canvas onto its frame. Untying the cord which bound the brushes and paints together, she sorted them into piles near her right hand. Next she spread the drop cloth across her lap and, uncorking the flask and setting the cup further off to her right, poured the vessel half full of clear water. Replacing the cork, she lifted her eyes for a moment to the window. Sunlight streamed brightly through the worn screen, gradually filling the room as the sun rose higher above the horizon.


Hearing a step far down the hall, Kaelyn suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to close the door. Without glancing back at the entryway, she let her dark lashes fall over her eyes and sat still, focusing. After a moment, she heard a creak and a soft click and lifted her eyelids. She knew better than to invite trouble with an open door.


Shaking her head to clear the thought, she turned again to her easel. Brown, she thought. Lifting one slender-tipped brush between the last fingers of her right hand, she caught hold of a hazel-labeled tube and unscrewed the paint-encrusted top. She placed the tube over her tray and squeezed a bit of paint into one corner. Setting the tube aside and twirling the brush up to her thumb and forefinger, she dabbed up some of the light-colored oil and began to make soft lines on the canvas. As the moments passed, the strokes began to form the outline of the young tree’s slender trunk. She painted from memory, recalling the various branches and roots with pristine clarity.


After she finished sketching the trunk, she switched to a muted yellow and began to color in the bodies of the leaves. She worked tirelessly, adding light blues to an imagined sky and gentle greens to an ideal earth. Thus the tree began to take shape, forming itself once again before her eyes, this time free of the cement chains which clutched at its ankles.


The morning grew older as she switched to the darker detailing shades, and before long the laughing shouts of school children began to echo up the street and through her open window.


Kaelyn paused to smile. She dared not think of their mortality as she imagined faces for the youths and let them drift laughingly through her mind. She listened, holding a fine-tipped brush suspended over the veins of one tiny leaf, until the buses rolled in and rumbled away—taking the childish laughter away with them to prisons of bricks and mortar.


“To learn of the world,” she mused darkly, lowering her eyes to her canvas. The tree stood tall before her, stretching its slender length towards the sun. She painted on as the hours passed, ignoring the shouts and clamor which rose up intermittently through the window. The sounds were too familiar to alert her senses.


Only after the noon hour did she hear something which brought her back from the inner world of recollection. She lifted her chin sharply, drawing her broad blending brush back from the clouds of her painting. The noise came again: short and sputtering like the crackling gasps of a wounded animal. One more choking wheeze, and then a low roar filled the afternoon.


Kaelyn rose and strode over to the window, her long skirt sweeping over the soiled carpet. The sun shone on her face, its radiance shimmering in her gray eyes, as she bent to look into the street.


The roar directed her gaze to the left, down to the level of the street. She stopped her breath. Two men clad in denim and orange vests stood at the foot of the oak tree, looking up into its branches. A tall white machine was stationed in the street, its skeletal neck stretched to the top of the oak tree. A third orange-vested man stood perched atop its head, holding the roaring saw firmly as he stretched forward to cut away the first of the young branches.


Kaelyn shuddered as the savage teeth bit into the wood, sending torn fragments spiraling up into the still air. The bits filtered down slowly as she looked on, disturbed only when the branch fell with a crack to the earth. The dust scattered in a cloud to either side, swirling madly before settling back into its gentle descent. One of the men on the ground came forward and took up the fallen branch. Without ceremony, he dragged it back several meters and hefted it into the wide bed of a utility truck.


Kaelyn stood still as death as the breeze whispered through the remaining branches, carrying the murmur of the leaves and the smell of bleeding wood up to her window. She folded her arms across her body. The saw bit down a second time, throwing another branch to the cement below. Another man came forward and took the limb away to the truck. The process went on and on, every roaring moment whittling away at the livelihood of the oak. Only once did the saw sputter and stall, but a quick jerk on the starting cord shattered the lull and brought it raging back to life.


Within half an hour the truck started its engine and drove away, carrying with it the precious burden of emerald leaves and severed branches. The trunk stood stark and naked, clinging to the bits of dust which landed in the grooves of its rough skin.


The workmen stopped to refresh themselves after the truck left, and as they rested on the curb a stocky man emerged from the apartment housing complex across from her room. His dark suit fit his form poorly, and the air of professionalism he exuded sickened her like a miasma even at her distance from the street. He walked lightly up to the workers, stopping just short of them and looking up at the barren form of the oak. Kaelyn listened, turning an ear to catch his distant tones.


“Looks like you’re making some progress,” he said cheerfully.


Kaelyn watched as he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glaring sun. One of the men on the curb looked up.


“Be done in about an hour, I guess,” he replied dully, setting his beverage can down alongside his booted feet. “Just got to take down the trunk and cut it up. When the truck gets back, so we can load it up. We’ll chip up the roots tomorrow.”


Kaelyn saw the owner’s face light with a broad smile—each tooth shining keenly.


“Tell your boss I said thanks for the work,” he mused. “This’ll really perk business up, I’m sure. The dish should work a hundred percent better now, the company said.”


The working men nodded, chewing and sipping silently on their lunches. One man tossed his sandwich wrapper into the street and watched it tumble a few feet in the breeze.


“Well anyway, I’d best be getting back inside. Customers waiting, I’m sure.”


The men nodded again, one or two raising a thoughtless hand to wave him off. The man turned to shuffle back across the street, checking both ways for incoming vehicles before skittering across. Kaelyn watched him pass through the glass door of his building, listening as the faint chime of a bell drifted up the street. Narrowing her eyes, she turned her gaze towards the roof of the red brick structure. A luminescent dish sat prominently on the upper lip of the building. At only two stories high, it was several feet below the former height of the oak.


Kaelyn felt her heart surge, but she had nowhere to direct the emotion. It rose like heat to her mind and eyes, burning brightly for a moment before sinking cold and dead to the center of her body. It would return to her heart eventually, a lifeless mass of bitterness and regret.


Kaelyn pushed away from the window and returned to her painting. She did not see the men rise from the curb fifteen minutes later as the truck returned, but she heard the rattling of its frame and the snarl of the saw. She held the image of the tree in her mind as she finished blending her blue-white clouds, and when she turned her brushes back to its form she felt the sting of tears in her eyes.


“Let your soul live here,” she whispered to the image.


She worked on blindly, and only when she heard the wheels of the buses and the cries of the returning children did she lift her eyes again from the canvas. The saw had died away long ago, and the rumbling of the loaded truck echoed only in her mind. She set down her brush. The painting was complete. She heard the children"s feet scuffling up around the barren stump—heard the hushed whispers and angry little shouts. She smiled, bitterness creeping into the time-worn expression. She knew they would forget soon enough. The lures of the world were too strong to be resisted.


Sighing deeply, she collected her things and returned them to her bag. She left the cup, the easel and the painting out as she rose to her feet. Bending briefly, she took up the portrait and straightened to stride over to the window. Gently, she set the canvas on the windowsill. The chatter of the children wafted up to her ears, a mixture of sadness and indignation.


“To be young,” she whispered, examining the painting’s green leaves and blue skies. Turning away, she returned to the middle of the room and moved the easel to her bag. After she set the cup aside and looped her bag over her elbow, she took up the blanket and carefully folded it. Sliding it into her bag, she knelt to pick up the cup and crossed over the partition separating the main room from the bathroom. Stepping behind the wall, she poured the water into the free-standing sink and returned the cup to her bag.


As she moved to the door, she heard the voices of the children begin to disperse and fade. Her eyes shone, but this time she held down the coldness in her heart. Unfastening the lock, she turned the handle and opened the door. She stepped onto the threshold and stood with her back to the room, feeling the coolness of the breeze against her bare arms. Hearing the faint murmur of rustling leaves, she passed into the hall and quietly shut the door.






Myssan – "Spirits"


←- On the Morrow | The Willow -→

26 Aug 2006:-) Peter F. Blair
Very ... I don't know. Very something. When a word is invented that describes it, it will apply. Until then, we'll have to settle for 'very'!

I really enjoyed this piece (enjoy may not be the word, I was riveted to it though). I'm glad I came across it, it was definitely a worthwhile read. I think the description that came across most strongly to me was the 'snarl of the saw'. I think I've read some of your other work, but I'll have to make a point of poking around your shelf again.

Keep 'em coming!

1 J. E. Schroeder replies: "Hee hee... thanks! I think, anyways! Can you say what it is about the piece that makes it so indefinable? Personally, I worry that I may not have included enough background information (as a few of my readers have told me already) to allow Kaelyn's place in the piece to make sense.

In any case, I'm glad that you "enjoyed" the story! You're welcome back anytime, and I promise that the rest of my pieces are less "very" ^_~

I'll be sure to check out your shelf as time allows! Thanks for visiting!"
6 Sep 2006:-) Joelle Duran
That’s quite beautiful and sad, J! I love how you described her transfer of its beauty, form, and life into the painting.

Made me think of a few trees I’ve lost. =(

I guess the only thing I would pick on is the amount of adjectives you use...but that’s partly a stylistic thing. I loved the stage-setting here--the reader gets a real feel for that dingy room and the setting the oak stands out from like a jewel. I like the mystery of the story as well--who is she? Why is she there? Foreknowledge? Destiny? Coincidence? Nice hints of her past, as well.

Anyway, always great to read something new from you. Best of luck with your studies!

:-) J. E. Schroeder replies: "It’s criminal that I’ve never replied to the comments on this story--I would have sworn I had! Thanks so much for this--espcially for picking on my overuse of adjectives. That’s still a style point I struggle with. I get so obsessed with describing everything in minute detail... it’s a terrible habit, I know!

Anyways, I just wanted to give this nice comment the response it deserves 1 Thanks Joelle!"
16 Sep 2006:-) J. Alden
I found this story to be a wonderfully written tale, packed with thought provoking symbolism. Kaelyn (a specter of Mother Nature?) travels, searches for a place on earth that human kind has not needlessly contaminated. As our population continues to expand, we will inevitably destroy more forests to build housing subdivisions and we will continue to line deserted Caribbean beaches with condominiums, but I don�t believe that is what saddens Kaelyn; rather, it is the selfish and needless disregard of nature. Every where she turns, Kaelyn finds danger as she struggles to preserve an ideology which was once so pure. Kaelyn realizes that she is alone in her battle to prevent us from sinking deeper into our desires to satisfy our petty indulgences, regardless of the cost. A strong TV signal is more important to us than is a tree.

Nicely written. Thank you for the moment of reflection.

:-) J. E. Schroeder replies: "Thanks for the comment, J! I like your analysis, and I know you share my sentiment on what happened to the poor tree which inspired this story. It’s always sad to see them go for something so ultimately trivial. Thanks again for reading and commenting."
2 Oct 200645 L. Shanra Kuepers
Hurrah, I finally got around to this. ^-^

cool[,] tin knob <- no?

long[,] white skirt

Want to point out, right now, that I have no issues with the adjectives. I love the descriptions, me dear. Very, very gorgeous.

A tall[,] white machine

That’s all I caught. *sniffs* Very, very sad tale, me dear. Very beautiful too. Easily the best of yours that I’ve read. I loved the subtlety and the vividness and the reminders it brought. We used to have a relatively large patch of... well, mostly brown, high reedy plants. Looked more dead than alive, but certainly more lively than the houses they replaced it with. 8

Kaelyn is a gorgeous character. I love how her feelings of sadness, anger and bitterness are present, but not tempermentfully present, if that makes sense. Very gorgeous and symbolic piece, me dear. Thank you very, very much for sharing such a beautiful tale.

:-) J. E. Schroeder replies: "*responds to comment while fighting guilt pangs* I thought I’d replied to all of these years ago!

Thanks so much for the thoughtful words. I hear you about those plants--even less attractive plants are much nicer than aluminum siding. I’m having that problem in the new neighborhood I live in... everyone keeps cutting down the trees in their front yards. Everything looks so much sparser 8

Thanks again, and apologies for taking so long to answer!"
23 Jul 2010:-) Joelle Duran
Ah, it’s been long enough I’d forgotten most of this story (except how mad the tree’s fate made me). So getting your belated reply was a nice reminder to visit it again. Still love the sense of mystery here, and appreciate how vivid the setting is.

Just a couple spots I noticed:
"and, finally, an easel formed of dried fall wood"
I wasn’t sure what you meant by ’fall wood’--fallen wood? deadfall wood? or autumn wood, whatever that means?

"Kaelyn set the easel before her and carefully set the canvas onto its frame."
The double use of ’set’ so close together here is a little distracting.

Nice to revisit this. Don’t suppose you’ll have something new this year? =)

:-) J. E. Schroeder replies: "Mad is how I felt when I wrote the piece, too, so I understand! I was so upset when my neighbors chopped down the tree in their yard. The space felt so empty afterward... was rather sad 8

I meant fallen wood--specifically those branches always laying around in the woods. Wanted her to have a nice, earthy easel to work with!

Ah yes, death to double words. Thanks for pointing this and the previous problem out! I’ll be able to fix them easily with that neat edit tool 2

Thanks for reading again! It’s always a pleasure to get feedback from you 1 And I do have a new short on the way--hopefully you’ll like it! "
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 • Created by: :-) J. E. Schroeder
 • Copyright: ©J. E. Schroeder. All rights reserved!

 • Keywords: Bitterness, Kaelyn, Tree
 • Categories: Elf / Elves, Urban Fantasy and/or Cyberpunk
 • Views: 744

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More by 'J. E. Schroeder':
The Willow
Of Courage and Fire (9)
Heartstone (part two)
Flight in Darkness
Of Courage and Fire (4,5)
On the Morrow

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