The ground rules of Daniel’s apprenticeship (as determined by tradition) are as follows:
No names. Master and student are to refer to each other by their chosen fetishes. In this case, the master is to be called “Yarn” and the student is to be called “Penny”.
(Part of Daniel is pleased with this development — not that they would admit to it.)
No using the m-word or any of its relatives. It’s potentially confusing, makes you look mad and worst of all, it’s undignified. The practice being taught is to be referred to simply as “the art”.
(This rule is a little silly, but Daniel says nothing.)
No back-stories. The master and student should refrain from discussing their motivations for learning the art.
(This rule is something of a mercy, under the circumstances.)
Once the apprenticeship is concluded, neither party has any obligations to the other.
Yarn sets these rules out at the start of the first lesson, which takes place a few days after their initial meeting. The venue is a disused dance studio in one of the more run-down parts of town.
Daniel’s not going to say anything, but as far as they’re concerned this is the worst choice imaginable. As is typical of such studios — at least so far as they’ve seen on TV — one of the walls is a giant mirror, which serves as a constant reminder of everything they despise about their body. They do their best not to look, but it’s impossible not to notice their wide shoulders and lack of hips, even underneath the baggy clothes they’ve worn to hide themself. The framing of their long but unstyled hair does little to soften the features of their face. Was all that avoiding of haircuts really worth the trouble and effort?
When Yarn speaks, it’s a welcome distraction.
“Take out your coin,” he says, “and hold it between your thumb and forefinger.”
As Daniel does this, Yarn readies his string in a similar manner. There’s a visible tension in the room, and it takes a moment for Daniel to realise they’re holding their breath.
“Roll it over your finger to your knuckle,” says Yarn, “and we’ll go from there.”
Daniel tries to follow Yarn’s instruction but they’re not quite sure what they’re actually meant to be doing. Their breaths are shallow, and the world seems slightly distant, moving their hands as though they’re on the other end of a radio controller. They’re not sure if it’s anxiety, nervousness or excitement, but whatever it is, they can’t quite manage to keep their hands from shaking.
The coin slips out of their grasp and falls to the floor, ringing out as it spins on the lacquered wood. Yarn reacts before the coin’s stopped spinning, pulling his string into a loop around his ring finger; the coin jumps off the floor with a chime as though it were yanked by a thread, landing in Daniel’s open hand before they’re even aware of what’s happened.
“Don’t worry,” Yarn says, “I’ll catch you if you fall.”
Somehow everything that’s scary about his tone is gone, and the quiver in Daniel’s muscles settles down a little.
“I’m not sure what I’m doing,” they complain weakly.
Yarn straightens, his new posture exuding a sense of purpose and direction. “Right. Watch this.” He looks Daniel directly in the eyes. It’s pretty intense. “I mean, really watch.”
They’re not sure what he means but they do their best to pay attention.
Yarn readies his string by winding it around the fingers of his right hand like a one-handed cat’s cradle. After a moment he takes his left hand away and the fingers of his right hand start dancing in and out of loops, pulling this way and that; it’s like the string is alive, slithering around his fingers like a snake. Daniel’s watching as carefully as they can but it just looks like magic to them. That’s probably not the right thing to say, though, is it?
“Now you try,” Yarn says, and he tugs on the string deliberately with his little finger. Daniel immediately finds themself turning, spinning on their heels to face the mirror-wall and their own hated reflection. They cringe inwardly, but they don’t look away.
Yarn says simply: “Watch.”
Once more, Daniel readies the penny between their fingers. Making sure to watch the reflection of their hand rather than their face — a mercy in itself — they carefully move the coin from knuckle to knuckle. It’s pretty awkward at first, fingers stumbling over each other like an overcrowded party that nobody’s enjoying. They nearly drop the coin several times but somehow Yarn’s demonstration has helped; it’s a different set of motions but the underlying principles are the same, a bit like two different dialects of the same language. Daniel feels the coin as it moves through their fingers, really feels the whole thing: the weight of the metal; the shapes of the letters embossed on it around the crown-and-portcullis insignia; the ripples it makes in the gossamer threads of reality.
It’s as wonderful as it is bizarre.
For the rest of their first lesson together Yarn focuses mainly on how to keep control of a fetish. It’s almost a co-operative relationship — as hard as you push reality, reality pushes back — and by the end of the session it’s almost like the coin’s controlling Daniel rather than the other way around. They learn to roll it along their knuckles, to toss it into the air and catch it balanced on its edge on the back of their hand and to spin it on the tips of their fingers. Yarn teaches them all of this and more despite having no apparent skill in the area himself. All he has to do is lay out the rhythm and rhyme; the individual words hardly matter at all.
Daniel can’t help but finding this all a little unsettling.
As they both pack up, Daniel plucks up the courage to ask Yarn about transformation. After all, that’s why they’re here.
“I, um,” they say, the words lingering in their mouth for a few seconds before becoming audible, “I wanted to learn how to… to change myself. Could you..?”
The question’s left hanging unspoken, but Yarn seems to get the idea.
“Ah…” he starts, but stops immediately after. A minute or so of mulling passes by — the wait is excruciating — before he says, simply: “It’s difficult.”
Difficult. It’s a bittersweet word in this case, isn’t it? It implies hope at the same time as challenge.
“But is it teachable?” Daniel asks, making sure to keep their voice as level as they can manage.
“It is,” says Yarn. “But… not yet.”
That seems to be all he has to say for the moment so Daniel decides to let it lie. They exchange their goodbyes and Yarn heads out the door.
Daniel’s left alone to reflect.
Staring at the mirror-wall, Daniel begins to practise their coin-trickery, swinging the coin to and fro through the heavy atmosphere of the studio until it starts to cling to their hand like a satellite to its planet. After a while, their attention drifts from their hand (now on autopilot) to their chest, their face, their arms and their legs, following the lines of their body like they’re transfixed by their own shape. They stand there for what feels like hours but is probably more like minutes, willing for something, anything to change.
But nothing does, so they decide to head home.
The route Daniel takes home goes along what could be described as the back-streets of the town. They’ve not exactly chosen this route: they’re taking it out of habit more than anything else, but they’re so used to avoiding their classmates on the way home from school that this kind of route is second-nature, an improvised tour through the quieter and more detached areas of the map.
In any case, it’s a lot nicer. These particular back-streets are mostly residential areas for the middle classes, the kind of people who think of themselves as being averagely well-off when they’re actually somewhere near the top 10 percent of income. Residences for these embarrassed-to-be-well-off types are detached houses built in 20th century mock Tudor style, with front gardens and two-car driveways hidden behind tall, well-kept hedges. The street itself is decorated verdantly by trees of varying species spaced evenly on both sides. Some of these trees are decorated by tiny pinkish petals that also litter the ground around them; the rest are presumably not in season. It’s a nice day for it too: the horizons are connected by clear blue sky that’s interrupted by only the most delicate of clouds.
However, Daniel’s best reason for choosing this route home has nothing to do with the foliage and much more to do with commerce. The alternative route involves going along a major high street which is likely to be filled with shoppers and worse: advertisements. In particular, the adverts where men are real men who buy deodorant, and women are real women who do the washing up. Adverts are basically Daniel’s secondary bully, after their tormentors at school; they’re particularly pernicious because there’s really no way to fight back against the way they constantly reinforce their antiquated social attitudes. It must be nice to work in marketing, Daniel thinks, because it must mean being completely unburdened by fifty years of feminist progress.
It’s probably not normal to think about gender as much as Daniel does, so they make sure to think about something else for a bit; in this case they decide to think about 12-tone Serialist music, alien harmonies playing inside their head so as to distance themself from the rest of humanity. It’s something that’s reassuringly almost as overthought and unlikeable as they are.
Unfortunately, the distracting power of this train of thought is a bit of a two-edged sword as it takes them quite a while to realise that they’ve somehow strayed from the route home.
In fact, they’re a bit lost. The trees, the cars, the houses and even the road have all disappeared. Well, that’s not entirely accurate: there are still trees here, but rather than leafy green plants on the verge of blossom these trees are bizarre semi-fungoid things that sprout out of ash-covered rock, sail-like appendages hanging limply in the air. In the shade of these trees, where there once were things like postboxes and cars and house numbers, there are strange skin-like sacks with contents that project ominous shadows onto the surface. And instead of the blue sky and fluffy clouds there is an endless void that emanates a dull orange glow. No clouds and no sun, but no stars and no moon either.
Daniel definitely doesn’t recognise this as part of the route home. In fact, they’re reasonably certain that they’re no longer on the planet Earth.
The strangest thing about this alien forest, if it’s reasonable to call it that, is the silence. Ordinary terrestrial forests are filled with noise: the wind in the trees and bushes, the songs of birds, the rushing about of small woodland creatures. This place has no wind, and there are no birds or animals — unless the skin-eggs count. In fact, the trees are sparse enough that Daniel can see a fair distance in all directions, but nothing seems to be moving at all. It’s more than a little disconcerting.
Carefully, they reach out and feel the trunk of a nearby tree. It’s nothing like the trunk of an ordinary tree: it’s smooth where it should be rough, feeling almost like moist rubber. Definitely fungal rather than plant. Daniel’s hand comes away sticky and slightly itchy, like they’ve just washed it in overly-strong detergent, and they try to wipe the residue off on their jeans. It takes a few attempts before their hand feels clean again.
Next they go to inspect one of the sacks. The surface is dry and leathery, totally unlike the surface of the trees, but the sacks all seem to be connected to the trees by sets of tubes wrapped around the trunks. Maybe they’re trying to leech away water and nutrients, some kind of parasitic or symbiotic relationship. There’s no sign of wear and tear on any of them, but because there’s no wind or obvious fauna here that doesn’t mean a whole lot. They’re noticeably warm, however, and thus presumably alive. The warmth is mildly unsettling, like a seat that someone else was just sitting in.
A distant noise catches Daniel’s attention, pulling them harshly out of reverie. Looking up, they see a band of bizarre creatures coming out of the ground maybe half a kilometre away. The trees make it hard to pick out detail but they’re nothing like Daniel’s ever seen before, except for maybe in films; they’re pinkish-grey insectoid things with six limbs each, bigger than even the largest of humans. Not wanting to draw attention to themself, Daniel ducks behind one of the thicker trees, making sure to keep a hand on their special penny. They’re not sure what they could do with it — Yarn’s not taught them anything practical yet — but it’s kind of reassuring to have it anyway, soothing the roughness of their breathing.
Once upon a time, Daniel was a cub scout. Although the irony of membership of a boys-only organisation going to someone who wants to be anything but is not lost on them, they did get a few useful skills out of the deal. Their knot-tying has atrophied quite a bit in the three-or-so years since they last went, but in the back of their mind they can remember something Akela told them once about how the military respond to unexpected situations. It’s called the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
Observation has happened: alien planet, weird sacks, strange horde, et cetera. Next step is Orientation: put the information into context. The creatures came from the ground. Before they came, nothing was moving up here. This suggests that they probably live beneath the surface, maybe in caves, and they only came up here because they needed something. They’re probably gathering food, but everything up here is pretty static; there’s nothing to hunt. Therefore, these creatures are probably foraging rather than hunting, and are probably not going to be looking for a fight.
The other option, of course, is that they’re specifically here because Daniel is, but would they really be keeping watch on the surface like that when there’s so little up here that could pose a threat? So… the creatures are probably not dangerous, right?
More orientation: Daniel’s probably going to need help to get home. If these creatures are intelligent then they might be able to provide help. This idea leads to Decision: Daniel will reveal themself in as non-threatening a way as possible and attempt to communicate.
Finally comes Action. Daniel steps out from their hiding place behind the fungal tree and calls to the creatures. “Hello?”
It’s probably not important that the initial message be anything meaningful, given that these creatures probably don’t know English, but this seems like a good place to start anyway. Or at least, it would be if the creatures were still there.
Daniel looks over at where the creatures were before. They can see the hole they came out of and the area around it fairly well, but the creatures themselves are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they went back inside. But why?
Unfortunately all this attention focused ahead means that they’re utterly unprepared when they hear a voice from behind them.
“Hello, little one,” it says.
It’s the last thing Daniel registers before passing out.