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Picture in Sand

Susan A. Shepherd was born and raised in California. When her college plans derailed due to illness, she decided to try her hand at fiction. This is her first professionally published story. Susan hopes it will be the first of many.
Yesterday's storm has blown over, and the sun is out. My parents have moved their worktable out to the patio, to enjoy the warm air and the light. Naturally, they want us outside too, so they can keep an eye on us.
Which means I have to look after Kev and Brianna. Not that this bothers me (too much), since Brianna sleeps all the time and Kev isn't bad as much as hyper. But it keeps distracting me. I mean, I'm going to be ten next year, and I haven't even found my talent yet, so I'd really like to have time to myself now and then so I can fiddle with the nine skills until I know where my talent lies.
Father understands, I think, more than Mother does. She tried woodcarving, and got it right on the first try. She still has the pendant she made--a little horse of softwood pine, with a hole through the middle for a string to go through. When you talk to it and hold it in your hands, it makes these tiny running motions like it has places to go and things to see. When I was younger, I used to imagine I could hear it neighing.
So she doesn't understand me when I voice my concerns. Not the way Father does. He went through all nine skills, and found nothing that worked. He carved wood and stone, seashells and goathorn, but the things he made had no life of their own either before or after the waker touched them.
Then he tried other crafts. Pottery, and painting, and cooking. No result but a burnt hand. He dyed cloth and wove a tapestry, and ended up with nothing more than what he had made. So he turned to the two Great Arts--well, three if you count waking itself. When both healing and orating failed him he resigned himself to the five lesser skills. You know, sand direction and writing and the trio of architecture, ropemaking and metalwork.
Now he makes sand images. Look at him now: sitting at the worktable, a smooth round plate before him, pouring minute quantities of stone into a grinder. There are piles of dust, turquoise and jasper-red and the gorgeous purple of amethyst, arrayed in a loose circle at the middle of the plate.
He empties his grinder, and a stream of multicolored gemstone sand falls into an anthill at the plate's edge. A touch here with an edged wooden directional, a series of strokes with a horsehair brush, and I can see it, now, a turquoise river running through an open wood. And it's beautiful.
Until Kev reaches out and hits Father's hand. The directional's edge dips, spraying sand for inches. I can see the surprise on Father's face, the devastation of the scene he'd made.
He acts decisively, though. Doesn't even snap at me, just looks, and I can see the hurt in his eyes as he carefully moves Kev back from the worktable.
I can't stand the look in his eyes, so I turn away. I pick up the plate, careful not to destroy it any further. I can see the ruin of my Father's work, but I can also see, from a stubborn place in the back of my mind, the way the turquoise water ran across red jasper rocks. The way the jade and tigereye came together in the undergrowth, in the foliage.
And the sand moves on the plate.
I nearly drop it from shock. Father reaches out with a lifetime's experience guiding his reflexes, and takes the plate from me. He lifts it to his face, so high I strain and arch my neck and still can't see the sand picture. After a moment, he blows on it, scattering the sand.
Then he begins to smile, to grin, his eyes bright now and fairly glowing. Across the table, Mother and Kev and I all stare at him, Mother with concern, Kev with a bright happy face because she knows Father isn't sad anymore. I don't know what to think.
He lowers the plate to the table, meets my mother's gaze, and says softly, "Congratulations, Revka. I think you've found your talent."
As I look down at the flowing river, watching the faint movement of wind through the branches, hearing the far-away burble of the current turning to foam as it moves across the rocks, I can see the last grains of sand cast off by Father's breath, coming back to take their place in the picture.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010


I originally planned to write and submit a short story for a flash fiction contest that wanted fantasy. Unfortunately, the contest had a firm 500-word limit. When I reached 460 words, I stopped, re-read what I had down, and concluded there was no way to cut the story down to fit. Three hundred words later, I finished the story, proofread it and sent it off to Daily Science Fiction. This was an unusual story for me in that I did not plan it out. Not at all--and usually I have a key scene in mind when I start, or a character to work with, or at least an idea to explore. But I spent most of “Picture in Sand” making it up as I went, including the magic system and the ending. I frequently look on my work a week or two later with the feeling that I could have done better. This story remains an exception. It isn't perfect, but I still like it quite a bit.

- Susan A Shepherd

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