The Maker of Days

The Maker of Days

© Anna Reith. All rights reserved.

When I wake, there is this filthy smell in the air. It is everywhere. It seeps around me like fog: thick, enveloping, constricting. I cannot breathe in without it filling my lungs, cannot breathe out without tasting it on my tongue. For a moment, I panic, and with the panic comes nausea. My stomach rebels against the rankness, yet the nausea itself is familiar enough to jog my memory, and at once I begin to relax.

This is normal, this instant of terror and revulsion. It happens every morning.

It is part of the daily ritual, the result of a brain still clogged by sleep coming to terms with a new day. Half-asleep and half-awake, it has forgotten that there is no reason to worry… but it’s all right.

I do not open my eyes. It is not necessary. Not to begin with, anyway. All I need to do is speak. I must simply say a name and everything will be fine.

That name is Luka. He is the maker of the days. I call him firmly, but my throat is rough and dry, and the sound emerges as a croak, a dead whisper that he does not answer. I count to ten and call more urgently, small stirrings of fear beginning to ripple inside me.

But it’s all right.

I smile. It is always all right. There is a warm chuckle somewhere nearby. I hear the soft sound of footsteps, the rustle of movement, and then Luka is beside me. I wait quietly. I don’t have to tell him about the filthy smell. He already knows. His fingers close tightly around my wrist and, in seconds, the stench is going away.

I breathe deeply, gratefully. The air is sweet again. I smell jasmine, honeysuckle, and—every now and then, when the breeze is blowing the right way—a hint of roses, their scent heavy as incense.

“Sit up,” he says, “and drink a little wine. You sound parched this morning.”

I am. I lift my head from the pillows, prop myself up on my elbows, and wonder whether to risk opening my eyes or wait until he says I can.

“Is it time?” I ask.

“Of course it’s time. I’ve been awake for hours. Come on, Emma. Let the daylight in.”

I am excited by the news, but I have a little game to play first. Perhaps it is another little ritual. I try once or twice to anticipate, to picture what I’m going to see before I open my eyes. I imagine the colours, the shapes and textures… everything that the sweet scents suggest. The whole tapestry is woven behind my eyes and, only once I am satisfied with what I have created, do I look at what he has made for me.

We are in a bower, a lattice-walled gazebo. Jasmine and honeysuckle do indeed scramble up the walls, entwined with the lattice, entwined with each other, spreading their perfume everywhere. My bed is low and very soft; a single sheet of ivory silk covers me. Beyond the bower, through an opening framed by luxuriant fronds of green, I see a panorama of paved walks, low hedges, and fountains. Above, the sky is a rich, intense blue, dotted with fleecy clouds.

There are sounds: distant laughter and conversation, and the gentle bubble of water from the fountains.

“You like it?”

I am laughing when I turn to him, and I shake my head, trying to convey my joy where words just don’t suffice.

“I thought you would.”

He squats beside me, grinning his warm, boyish grin. His yellow hair is soft and fine like a child’s and, where it reaches the nape of his neck, it begins to curl slightly. His skin is pale gold, his body muscular but slim and athletic… as if he runs like the wind, hunts on foot for food, and swims effortlessly through wide stretches of water.

He is young and very, very beautiful. Nineteen or twenty: untouched by age, barely kissed by maturity. His eyes are the grey of the feathers on a ringdove’s breast. Like rain clouds, almost.

He reaches towards me, lifts a hank of hair from my shoulder and shows it to me. I, too, am blonde today. I have a rich, ringleted mane that riots down to my waist.

We smile.

“Want to go for a walk and explore this place?” I ask.

Luka shakes his head. “Perhaps later, hmm?”

He traces his fingers along the edge of the satin sheet, and I bite my lip as I peel the cover back, allowing him into the bed beside me. His skin is like satin, and I spend hours stroking his back, just so I can feel it under my hands. There is no hurry to make love.

No hurry to do anything.

* * * *

In the afternoon, I begin to feel hungry. With the hunger comes one of those jarring little frights I remember from other times, other moments in the days that Luka makes for me. It all begins when I try to get up from the bed, try to ease my shoulder out from under his. He stirs in his sleep but doesn’t wake properly, so I—not wanting to disturb him—move stealthily.

It would be nice, I decide, to return to compliment. To care for him as he cares for me, attend to his comfort and nourishment rather than let him provide for me.

It is a sound idea and I am very taken with it… except for the fact that I can’t seem to move properly. I cannot get away from the bed. Every time I attempt to take a step, my left leg aches and tugs horribly, so that I have no choice but to stand still again.

The pain is alarming. There is no pain when Luka is with me, and the thought of it creeping in from somewhere outside is terrifying. With the pain comes the stink in my nostrils again. The nausea, the dry throat, the sensation of weakness….

“Luka,” I croak as I fumble for the edge of the bed and try to sit down again.

He is there instantly, soothing and comforting. He feeds me wine and, within seconds, the pain in my leg has vanished and the stench has gone away.

I sleep.

When I wake, he has peaches and apricots for me.

* * * *

We are standing at a window, looking down over an ancient, walled city.

I want to go down for a tour, but Luka won’t let me. It’s too dangerous, he says. The people are warlike and insular, and they do not take kindly to strangers. Up here, he tells me—watching them from the cool shade of our retreat, high above the roofs and alleyways—we are safe.

But we must stay here.

Oh, I do not mind. There is plenty to see. Below us, there are dancing girls in the streets, clasping bells and tambourines. Fights are breaking out between traders in the marketplace, and detachments of horsemen gallop across the great dusty bridges, silk banners flying out behind them.

I turn to Luka and study him carefully.

Today, his skin is amber and his hair is black and rich as ebony. He is ten years older than before, with dry, arrogant, desert-bred features, and dark, hooded eyes. There is a beryl stud in his narrow, hawkish nose and heavy gold hoops in his ears.

He makes a fine picture. Outlandish, exotic… intimidating. I could watch him for hours, and I would do, if I had less on my mind. The trouble is, I have this pain in my leg again.

It is nothing more than a dull ache, but it is there, and it shouldn’t be.

I find myself experimenting; walking across the width of the window and waiting to feel the tugging pain restricting me. This is wrong. I know it. I feel ungrateful, as if I’m trying to catch him out in some kind of trickery. I know it’s sly, and stupid of me, but my head hurts too. And my throat is dry, which it shouldn’t be.

It is distracting.

This discomfort imposes itself between me and my enjoyment of this day, which Luka has made for me. He knows, of course, and he is doing his utmost to amuse me.

Today, I am naked except for my jewellery… and I am fat, almost. My body is made up of soft, over-generous curves, all covered with silver necklets, bangles, bracelets and medallions, so that I have my own music whenever I move.

It is a novelty for both of us. We find it interesting.

He is very taken with this body he’s given me. He puts it through its paces for most of the afternoon and I fall asleep, exhausted but gratified, at sundown.

* * * *

“Luka. Luka?”

I call him, my heart hammering. It’s nothing, of course—just an ordinary little fright first thing in the morning. Perfectly natural. Not worth the energy of worrying.

I call him again.

The stench is really hurting me now. My stomach spasms, and I struggle to resist the urge to vomit.

“Luka. Luka! Are you there?”

It seems like hours. I want to open my eyes, but I just don’t dare. If I do that, he will be furious with me. He has been clear about this. Everything stops if I look too early, if he’s still at work—if the day isn’t made properly.

So I don’t.

I try to keep calm, even though I’m trembling with fright. I hate it when I tremble; when those small, barely-noticed joint pains intensify. I can feel myself sweating. Cold, damp beads swell on my forehead and trickle, salty and stinging, into my eyes.

I brace myself to call again. My lungs creak as I inhale. I want to yell, but I cough instead and, before I can recover, I hear someone else’s rasping breath beside me.

I hardly dare ask.


“It’s all right,” he says, his voice as hoarse as mine feels. “The heat is hurting me today, Emma. Would you like to dream a little?”

No. I shake my head. I want to open my eyes to see the day but Luka isn’t going to let me. He doesn’t want me to look, does he? He isn’t listening. He just curls his hand around my wrist and the stench fades immediately. It is a relief to be rid of it, but I feel my consciousness slipping away.

He is giving me dreams. I don’t want dreams. They’re cheap and easy. I can have them—every night of my life if my head’s all right—without Luka there to help me. Who needs them? I don’t. Mythical creatures I cannot touch, food I cannot eat, scenes that shift and fade the instant I look at them directly… they’re just soiled rags. All rubbish. All nonsense when compared to the days Luka makes for me.

I want my days.

I try to fight it, to concentrate on my pains, to listen to Luka’s laboured breathing, but it’s no good. Nothing works properly. Numbness begins in my fingers and toes, and it creeps up through my body.

He makes me sleep, and I don’t want the dreams.

* * * *

I have this terrible nightmare.

I am in a tent, listening to the ragged awning flap in the wind. Occasionally, when a gust is particularly strong, a noise like a pistol shot sounds, and I hear the rip of rotting canvas.

My eyes feel gritty. They water as I stare out through that restless, tattered fringe to the landscape beyond. There is little out there except bleached bones and wind-whipped desert. Off in the distance, predatory animals are tugging a heap of rags this way and that… fighting over a body, I think. They are thin, vicious, and argumentative, with grizzled coats and tucked-up bellies. Jackals, maybe. Like jackals, anyway.

I am slouched on a mound of sacking.

My joints protest when I try to move my limbs. They feel hot, tight and gritty, just like my eyes, clicking and squeaking with even the slightest adjustment.

That stink is back again.

I turn my head, trying not to notice the scrape of sinew over bone, and look at the tent. There are more rags… and that stench…! At last, I locate its source. It is coming from a tooled leather bag that has fallen over so that the contents have tumbled out onto the ground in a disordered pile.

Spoiled fruit moulders; rotten meat heaves with maggots.

I want to be sick. I turn away and retch, then begin to draw my knees up to hug them for comfort in adversity, but I cannot do it. For some reason, one leg won’t come up. The left. I tug it anxiously. The pain is a huge, excruciating ache: the sort of ache that remains for weeks after you’ve broken a limb.

Have I broken a limb?

I ease myself into a tentative, lop-sided sitting position, intending to inspect the damage. Outside, the jackals are yammering and snapping amongst themselves: a hysterical outbreak of screaming and yelping that ends just as suddenly as it began.

I wait until quiet descends, then lean forward expectantly.

At first sight, there is nothing wrong with me. Nothing that a few good meals, a bath, and a course of vitamins wouldn’t cure, anyway. I move my leg experimentally. There is a metallic chink as a dull-coloured chain shifts slightly in the sand. Apparently, I am attached to it by a shackle of some kind. There is no fetter on my ankle, though, and I move my foot again to be perfectly sure that the chain is really connected to me.

And then I see the bolt.

It protrudes from a ridge of crusted scabs, two inches from the flesh on each side of my leg. I don’t have to touch it to know that it is driven through the lower part of my shin. The bolt has a small ring welded onto each end, and from these rings two narrower chains extend. They meet at the main chain—the one lying in the sand—on the hoop of another ring.

By now, I am half-in, half-out of the dream. The fright has almost woken me and I am reasoning with myself, trying to calm my racing heart, trying to make the nightmare fade. It isn’t easy. I work at it. Concentrating, I force myself to stare fixedly—trying to pin down the details I don’t want to see—and it works, as it always does in dreams.

The ragged tent dissolves and I fall into blackness again.

* * * *

When I wake, there is this filthy smell in the air. It is everywhere. It seeps around me like fog: thick, enveloping, constricting. I cannot breathe in without it filling my lungs, cannot breathe out without tasting it on my tongue. For a moment, I panic, and with the panic comes nausea. My stomach rebels against the rankness, yet the nausea itself is familiar enough to jog my memory, and at once I begin to relax.

This is normal, this instant of terror and revulsion. It happens every morning.

It is part of the daily ritual, the result of a brain still clogged by sleep coming to terms with a new day. Half-asleep and half-awake, it has forgotten that there is no reason to worry… but it’s all right.

I do not open my eyes. It is not necessary. Not to begin with, anyway. All I need to do is speak. I must simply say a name and everything will be fine.

That name is Luka. He is the maker of the days. I call him, but at first he doesn’t answer. I count to three and call again, urgently this time. Small prickles of fear surface to trouble me.

It’s all right. It’s always all right. There is a warm chuckle nearby, the sound of a quiet footfall, the rustle of movement, and Luka is beside me.

I wait. I don’t have to tell him about the smell. He knows already. Within seconds of his hand enclosing my wrist, the stench is fading. But there is something I need to ask him.

“The tent, the chain on my leg, the jackals….”

“That?” He laughs quietly. “Only a dream. Your brain is trying to make sense of this, trawling for a logical explanation. I read it from your head. Frightening, isn’t it?”

I nod, soothed.

“Time is short now,” Luka says. “I’ve made us one final day. It’s all we can fit in. Help is on the way, Emma, but I will have to leave.”

* * * *

We spend the day by a lake in a place that is just too exotic to be anything but one of Luka’s walk-in scenes. There are huge trees at the water’s edge, each one as big as an oak, and each heavy with white, waxy blossom. The smell is both familiar and intoxicating. It reminds me of every sweet scent I have ever inhaled, yet it is entirely different from all of them.

Today, Luka is brown haired, thin, and wears sharp, intelligent features that would be studious if it wasn’t for the mischief in his eyes and his pliant, ready grin. He is already waiting for the first question, so I ask it rather than disappoint him.

“Can we go for a walk along the lakeside?”

His grin gets wider, but he shakes his head regretfully.

I gaze at him for a moment, trying to decide precisely what to ask next.

He waits patiently, eyes narrowed against the dappled sunlight. His silence seems to encourage me, and I wonder if he welcomes this new curiosity.

“Do you feed me drugs, to make me see all this? It’s not real, is it? We’re not really here, are we? If we move very far, the illusion breaks up in some way.”

He throws his head back and laughs heartily.

I am perplexed. For a moment there, I really thought I’d hit on something clever.

Still chuckling, he takes my hand and strokes it soothingly.

“Not bad. But wide of the mark, dear friend. This place exists. You are under the influence of nothing but my capacity to have you travel with me, and your movement is limited by nothing more sinister than the laws of physics.” He smiles again, but I don’t understand the joke, and he squeezes my fingers warmly. “You have one leg tethered in a here-and-now that is your here-and-now, and nothing to do with me. All I can do is extend the boundaries of my own reality. Wrap you in it, bring you with me… just for a little while.”

I sigh, and stare at him thoughtfully. I do my best to look intelligent, but his words mean nothing to me. In fact, as explanations go, that one was terrible, and it leaves me with more questions than I had at the beginning.

I open my mouth, but Luka frowns and raises his hand to silence me.

“It is later than I thought,” he says solemnly. “Time to sleep now.”

We have only just arrived, and I try to tell him so. I try to apologise for annoying him, not wanting to be dismissed. I hear myself promising not to ask any more stupid questions, if only he will let me stay awake… but he says it has to be this way. He smiles sadly, then his hand closes firmly around my wrist and, fighting it all the way, I go down into blackness.

I dream.

I dream of the ragged tent, the powerful stench, and of the terrible pains in my body. I dream of corpses rotting in the sun, being dragged away by predators, leaving furrows in the sand. And my leg. Always my leg. If I could wake, I would wake screaming in agony. I am too weak to scream; too weak to wake, apparently.

Finally, after what is far too long in terms of night, the morning arrives and I lie there with my eyes closed, waiting for the maker of the days to come.

I do not call him. I do not wish to show impatience for fear of offending him, but things are not right. That much is clear. There is no foul stink, no predictable moment of nausea to rely on, and its absence is far more frightening than its presence could ever be.

“Come on, dear,” a sweet, cajoling voice—far too close for comfort—murmurs in my ear. “I can tell you’re awake. No silliness now. Open your eyes, and let’s have a smile, shall we?”

* * * *

I have been here for some time now.

The nurse lets me read the newspapers in the hope that they will jog my memory, but so far everything remains obscured, as if behind a layer of fog. The column inches are filled with talk of predictable political ructions in the contested areas—the Desert Protectorate and the warring tribesmen, and the mines and wells that are being plundered—and they veer between bemoaning the humanitarian crisis that has exploded there, and writing off the indigenous factions as terrorists.

The black block-print tells me this latest attack—Survey Team Slaughtered By Rebels—has brought hostilities to a new pitch. It seems I am at the centre of a diplomatic incident… or I would have been, if I’d been awake for it.

 …Miss Emma Thorpe, the only member of the team from First Earth, was rescued alive an astonishing twenty-three days after the raid. Though severely dehydrated, scorched by the sun and very weak, a hospital spokesman said today that Miss Thorpe is in remarkable condition. Her left leg is badly broken, but she is not expected to suffer any permanent disability and, indeed, may owe her life to the overturned vehicle beneath which she was trapped. Doctors believe that the Mark II Light Utility Kleistmann-Apstellar Terrain Unit—one of the first generation of solar-powered vehicles with certified ATMOS capability, produced by the controversial weapons giant, Laugretsch-Hilland Corporation—may have protected her from the extreme temperatures of the Northern Provinces….

I let the paper droop in my fingers, ignoring the picture of the woman who doesn’t look like me, and refusing to let my gaze dwell on the images of the carnage the rescue shuttle discovered. There is no mention of the bolt, the chain, or the tent that flapped in the cold desert wind, ringing pistol shots over the yammering of jackals. I do not know whether I expected there to be or not. Perhaps either everything must be real, or nothing. It is hard to say. I don’t remember.

…With the clarity of hindsight, guidelines are now being drawn up to ensure that all scientific teams—especially those functioning in potentially hostile territory—are given adequate protection, in view of increased hostility in the area.

Private sector security personnel have been voicing concern for several months over the escalating tension in the Provinces and, with heightened involvement from Federal mining and resource management companies such as HillCorp, it seems inevitable that this attack, while deplorable, will not be the last in the region….

I lose interest when the article begins to detail recriminations and political ramifications. They seem petty to me, and unoriginal. It isn’t our planet, after all; we went asking to borrow a cup of sugar, and ended by ripping up the carpet and trying to replumb the laundry room. It is rather difficult to believe I was part of the endeavour: a pipeline, trying to extract the natural gases from beneath the desert—cracking open the tribes’ sacred wells like so many deep-sunk eggs—and transporting it back to fuel our terraforming projects in the south.

Again… I don’t remember. It feels like a far-off dream, like the memory of something just a little too distant to touch.

I fold the paper, drop it to the hinged melamine tray that swings over my bed, and look up to find the nurse smiling encouragingly at me. She is hovering again, and this professional compassion and interest of hers drives me crazy.

I gaze past her to the window, and the world outside. I am, of course, back home. At long last. All I have to do is stare at the iron-grey sky and the drizzle chasing down the glass to know that with certainty. At least, here, our rain doesn’t come out of boxes. We don’t need to rely on the ATMOS generators, or the man-made lakes… but it won’t be long.

I had a close shave getting home in one piece, the nurse told me jokingly.

After the team’s disappearance was noticed, our unit commander sent the shuttle to comb the area, and they missed us twice. Only spotted the scene because of a lone curl of smoke or something. I don’t know. I… I don’t remember.

No one expected me to be alive. I shouldn’t be.

At least three different scientific teams have tried to lay claim to me, each desperate to run their own batteries of tests and curious proddings. They want to scan me, stick me, scrape me, put electrodes in my head and probes on my tongue… so I am very lucky indeed that Commander Talmadge pulled strings and had me sent back here. Of course, I will be expected to express my gratitude by doing my best to assist our own medical research scientists, once I have been sufficiently patched up.

HillCorp’s finest will, no doubt, be eager to pick me apart, and put every grain of me into the balance. There will be questions, and tests, and analysis. The sanctuary that the hospital provides—a modern equivalent, I suppose, to that once extended by churches to runaways, fugitives, and persecuted minorities—will not last long, especially now that my leg has been set, and the mass of crusted scabs has begun to fall like scales from my bloody, bruised shin.

I am grateful for it. Really. It won’t last forever but, while it does, I am able to rest, and consider what I should tell the scientists when they come. The truth would, I know without even having to consider it, at best make me a laughing stock and, at worst, get me locked up in a sanatorium.

Amnesia, I have decided, is the best bet.

Far better to be a vague, unreliable witness than a total headcase.

In the mean time, I have other matters to deal with. I have a faint recollection of being Miss Emma Thorpe. My biography has been recited to me and I have listened to it dutifully, like an attentive stranger being told a story on a train. It may be mine. I know it’s mine… but I don’t feel like it’s mine. It doesn’t fit me. I no longer belong to it properly.

Just so with the visitors who come to see me.

I do my best because I know, as any reasonably perceptive person would know, that they care for me. But I no longer fit them, nor they me. We stumble through the afternoons together like fumble-footed guests at a tea-dance, observing the niceties, and nothing more. They think they’re helping me. Post-traumatic stress. I must be jollied along and lured back into normality.

It is kind of them, but I wish they wouldn’t labour so relentlessly. This cheeriness they display gets almost grim at times, and it hurts my conscience to see how wounded they are when I lapse for a moment and get irritated with them. They blame the drugs the doctors are giving me. They blame the terror I experienced: a terror of which I have no recollection, incidentally.

It’s a pity, but there it is. It can’t be helped and I try my utmost to please them because the only thing I regret is the pain they seem to be suffering.

As for me? There is no pain. Not really. I am perfectly content to lie here, two pillows under my head, and stare at the bright steel shaft that passes through my leg and holds it in traction with the weights on the frame at the end of my bed.

The bone-ache is there again; the deep, dull ache that acts as a background for everything else. I don’t mind that ache. In fact, I’ll be sorry when it fades.

I feel like a stranger. A castaway of some kind, washed up on a familiar shore to discover that it is familiar no more.

As long as it’s there, this ache that stays with me, it feels like one last, loved and loyal friend. It is a constant reminder. It is the final thread that links my life to that of Luka, who was out there in the desert, working his tricks, keeping the horror at bay, saving my skin, and making my days for me.

This story was scheduled to appear in DieGo Publishing’s ‘Leagues of Fantasy’ magazine, which sadly folded. It instead circulated in DieGo’s newsletter.

‘The Maker of Days’ was adapted from a short story by A.D. Leland, my second cousin. After her death, I received several of her unpublished manuscripts and files of notes to work with. This permutation of the story is very close to the original, but also comprises the basis of the novel, ‘Making the Days’, which will be available soon.