Originally posted on Patreon in September 2018 and part of the Great Patreon Crossposting to WordPress.
This story is not, per se, for this month, but since it’s about Autumn, here it is. This is because Eseme made an Autumn doll, but her hair faded, leaving me with the urge to write a story about Autumn’s hair fading.
The working title of this story, right up ‘till today, was ‘Autumn Hair.’
At over 7000 words, it’s a bit of a read.
The fest was just beginning Day Four — Thursday — when Autumn came into town to set up her booth. That was within the festival rules; as long as you were there for the weekend and as long as you paid for the time you were there, you could show you whenever. It was part of what had attracted her to the fest in the first place.
She unloaded her gear from the back of her van, set up her tent, and, from the pleasant shade of its canopy, looked around.
The town — just big enough that it could call itself a city, but it felt more like a town — was bright against the grey sky in the background, the houses a rainbow of color, even the old stone and brick business sporting brilliant splashes of color. In contrast, the vendors and the tents looked pale and washed out, wan.
Autumn put out her two favorite umbrellas — hand-painted and hand-inked in colors and patterns for herself and her sister Spring — in front of the booth, and hung a batik scarf that she’d picked up at the last festival, done in colors that reminded her of her sister Summer, from the canopy of the tent. She smiled at her neighbor to the left – a gentleman doing lovely black-and-white-landscapes – and asked him a couple questions about the locations.
He was lethargic, reluctant to answer in more than monosyllables. She tried the woman on the other side, who was selling glass sculptures, many of them with faint pastel coloring; she seemed ill and tired.
They hadn’t let the customers in yet, so Autumn headed down to the coffee booth and bought three coffees and three teas. Even there, the workers, in their faded green shirts, seemed like they would rather still be in bed, so she tipped twice what was reasonable and then a bit more and bought some scones and muffins, too.
She set out the little spread just inside her tent and then called out to her neighbors. “I’ve brought some goodies.”
She was surprised at how quickly the glassworks woman came over. “Oh, you’re a saint. You said your name was – oh, Autumn. Like your hair.”
“Like my hair,” Autumn agreed, because her hair was autumn-leaf orange-and-red. “Help yourself, tea or coffee, muffins and scones.”
“What do I owe-” Andy started, but Autumn shook her head.
“My treat. How long have you been here?”
“Oh, since Monday. It’s usually such a lively thing. Wait until you see the parade! It’s something to see.” For a moment, Andy’s face lit up with color and expression. “They do it twice a day. I don’t know how they keep up the energy. The weather, it just drains you.”
Autumn looked up at the sky – blue, with a couple white fluffy clouds. It was warm but not oppressively so, not too dry but not too wet. “Has it been raining a lot?” A sprinkle was fine, but a storm could kill a fest.
“You’ll see,” Andy answered ominously. “You’ll see. Can I invite Dave over?”
“Is he-” Autumn gestured at the black-and-white photography and, at Andy’s nod, raised her voice. “Dave? Sir? Would you like some coffee or tea and a muffin or scone?”
He appeared only a few moments later. “Finally, something good about the day. These look nice. Thank you.” The thank you was a bit grudging, but he took a tea and a scone and nibbled on them.
“Have you been here since Monday?” Autumn asked, when his mouth wasn’t full.
“Tuesday. Meant to get here Monday, but I hit a traffic jam, didn’t get into town until almost midnight. Seems like most of the tourists come on the weekend, anyway. Business has been good but not great.”
“I almost ran out of the pumpkins.” Andy smiled crookedly. “You know, they’re my least favorite, but they always sell.”
Autumn tried to imagine a pumpkin done in Andy’s pale pastel hues. She wondered if the sunlight through them made them look brighter.
“I have a couple prints like that. And, ah, themes. Last year it was fairies.” She wrinkled her nose. She didn’t have anything against fairy art, but she had grown tired of the wings. “This year it’s variations on Green Men and dryads. I have seven different dryad prints and five green men.”
“Bridges.” Dave gestured at his booth. “And broken-down barns. I don’t get it. But I did one set and they all sold out. Now I have a ‘bridges’ calendar every year.”
“I hear you. And then all of a sudden it will change and nobody wants fairies – or bridges – anymore.” Autumn made a sympathetic face. “What can you do, though? Just keep swimming, as the lady said.”
“Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming,” Andy hummed. She was looking more and more vibrant. “That’s what we do. It’s not like we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t like what we were doing, right?”
Autumn let her smile show on her face. “Just keep swimming,” she repeated. Was that all they’d needed, a little pep talk? “Oh, look, here comes some customers.
Green men and dryads were selling like hotcakes, especially the ones where she’d worked some color – mostly green, but some blue and in one case, even some pink – into her black-and-white art. Autumn spent the morning selling art and doing the free doodles that got her the most attention, pulling a little bit of a luck-design into the art for those who seemed to need it the most.
Her favorite came when she had a lull and the person waiting looked tired, so she took her time, drawing out an elaborate chest with runes carved on it, the hasp made of rough iron, and setting it in a dark woods that she managed not to make look too foreboding.
She was so immersed in her work, she almost didn’t hear the parade coming. She put the finishing touches on and handed it off to the harried-looking college student just the cymbals came close enough to be impossible to ignore.
Andy and Dave had gone to the front of their tents, she noticed, so she did the same. The parade, in stark contrast to the art and the tents, was brilliantly-colored.
“It’s the local kids and groups, like the Moose Club and the Shriners and that sort of thing,” Andy called over the drumming, and then there was no conversation to be had as the rainbow streamers and the bright uniforms and the flashy floats came by.
It was not a huge parade – after all, it was not a big city, although this was its only major festival – but it was bright and loud and seemed almost garish against the white tents and the browning grass. The marching band looked excited; the local celebrities on the floats (including “Miss Dairy Yolen County”) looked like this was the highlight of their day; even the clowns looked happy. Autumn found herself smiling along, getting excited for them, cheering when the gymnasts did something amazing. To either side of her, Andy and Dave were doing similar – more tiredly, still tired, but they were cheering. The customers were gathered by the front of the stands, excited. One woman was bouncing.
Autumn picked up her notepad to sketch, but she found the lines wouldn’t come. She loved what she was seeing, but she couldn’t draw it – not the baton-twirler, not the Danny Devito look-alike, not the Marilyn Monroe and James Dean actors up on their Silver Screen display.
She closed her eyes and thought about the tree that, according to family legend, had given the RoundTree family its name. She let the pencil flow up, down, the shape of the bark and the place where they’d had a hammock tied one year, until the rope grew into the tree, the boll there from some old lightning storm.
She opened her eyes and there it was, home, just as it should be.
The chest that nice customer had asked her to draw? This time she found it wanted to be drawn just a bit open, four fingers visible pushing up the lid.
She glanced over at Dave and, with a few quick lines, started the work that would create a Green Man with him as the base. This time, the lines came harder, the shapes not wanting to come from her pencil. But they came.
Andy, and a nice mother-figure dryad? The same struggle.
Andy caught her movements and winced sympathetically. “Yeah, don’t try too much. The noise of the parade – it seems to push all the inspiration right out of your head.”
“That’s… that’s some parade,” Autumn managed. Something here was – was what? Devouring artistic energy? She’d never heard of such a thing.
Maybe it really was just the noise. She settled back into her booth and started on a piece she’d been considering for ages.
Hours passed. She and Dave and Andy took turns watching each other’s booths while they went for lunch. The parade came by again at noon, and then at 4, just about an hour before the festival was going to wrap up into evening concerts.
It was different people each time. Autumn hadn’t been sure the second time, but by the evening parade, she could see that the baton-twirler was a different girl, the Marilyn impersonator was clearly different, and the last float wasn’t even the same float. They had not only enough people for a parade – but for three different parades every day?
A headache was pressing on her sinuses and threatening to knock her over. She locked up her booth twenty minutes after closing time, triple-checked both her locks and the charms that her sister Summer had drawn for her on all the clasps, and headed for the local library.
Autumn had spent more than a third of her childhood in libraries, and there she’d learned how to charm librarians and how to find just about anything.
This time, she found the librarian – a younger man who looked to be from out-of-town – un-charmable. Not only un-charmable, he was surprisingly unhelpful, and his library, such as it was, had no local history section at all.
“We like to think,” he told her, in a voice that was so prissy that she thought he might always speak of himself in the plural, “that this town is the sort that looks forward, not backward.”
“Thank you,” she said, as politely as she could muster, and went to the little motel where she – and almost all the other artists – were staying.
The local pizza place was doing a thriving business, sending delivery boys two at a time. Once she had changed out of dust-coated clothes and unpacked her favorite sketchbook, Autumn made the walk herself, rather than making the delivery boys make another trip, down two blocks and over one.
The restaurant had a “locals are always here” feeling to it, but nobody looked askance at her as she settled into a back booth and ordered a beer and a pizza. The fest was big business around here; she probably wasn’t the only tourist in the place.
As she ate – more food than she thought she needed, but her appetite was amazing tonight and she’d learned to trust such things – she listened. Someone named Bonnie had been fighting with Tib. Tybalt? Tiberius? Tib, either way. Something Tib had done hadn’t set right with her, even though she, it appeared, should have known better, and she was making a fuss.
Someone was at his wit’s end about a stepson. He’d done everything he could, but the kid hated him.
…and they’re doing what they ought to. I think some of the vendors…
Her soda and second order of wings arrived. “Quite an appetite, sweetheart,” the waitress teased her. “Where you putting it all?”
“Oh, knowing me, the walk from here to Georgia’ll do it.” Autumn smiled brightly. “I brought my van in but I’m planning on dropping it in East Meyer County with my cousin and walking from there.”
“Oh, bless your soul. Here, have these.” She slipped a set of mozzarella sticks on the table. “Nothing wrong with them, the – the lady who ordered them said they weren’t what she ordered. East Myer County to Georgia. Bless your heart,” she repeated.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Autumn tucked in, discovering that this place made some of the best mozzarella sticks she’d ever eaten, along with some pretty darn good wings. She reached out for the conversation she’d almost been eavesdropping on, but now all she could hear was Bonnie and Tib.
Well, it was only Thursday. She headed back to the motel the long way, noting the colors of the place, the way that everything looked astonishingly vibrant. There wasn’t a white house or a grey one, a washed-out slate blue or a dull needs-repainting sage green anywhere. Even the electrical boxes were splashed in galaxy-like swirls of color and stars.
The sun was almost down, and most of the houses had out little strings of lights. No white lights for these people, either – it might be July, but these were strings of christmas-bright rainbows garnishing every single porch.
Even her motel had some, little chili-pepper and beer-bottle shaped lights. Autumn smiled at them, but found even the smile wore her out. She was asleep in her room almost before she’d gotten her shoes off.
Friday was much the same as Thursday, although she stopped on the way in to get enough breakfast pastries for the whole row of vendors and a whole box of coffee, plus two teas.
It was – or would have been – a little more than her budget could really handle, but the barista — who turned out to also be the owner, a lovely woman with hair like a mane all the way down her back — both gave her a generous discount for being a fair vendor and asked her to come back and do a commission for their bare wall when the fair was over, if she had time, so Autumn chalked it up – in her haphazard accounting that made her brother Winter wince every time he did her accounts – as a business expense.
She sold every Green Man print she had left, all but one – a particularly weird piece – of the dryads, and about a third of the rest of her prints, two originals, which made her bless every deity that might care, because the originals were stressful to ship, stressful to carry, and stressful to know were sitting in storage while she walked, and seven commissions, which meant that this time, she barely noticed the afternoon parade, except that the artwork suddenly became a little harder and her patron stared out at the parade instead of at her penwork.
She spent an hour matting more prints that evening after a dinner with everyone she’d brought breakfast for – Dave and Andy, who were both looking more than a little worn, argued about who would pay for Autumn and, in the end, the bead-worker and lampwork artist at the end of the row ended up paying for everyone. The local printer did an amazingly good job, bringing detail to the prints that she had only seen before in originals. In one – a piece she’d drawn earlier in that day – she could actually see the way she’d linked in the Strands, tying the artwork to the town. It was a Green Man of this town, something she liked to do when she had the time and the business was going well. The dryad of the town did not have the same linkage, but perhaps that she had drawn the Green Man from the face of the man at the pizza shop had something to do with it; the dryad was just a passing tourist who had stopped long enough to be sketched.
That night, exhausted, she dreamed of rainbows, rainbows and grey clouds everywhere. She woke with the obnoxious feeling that she was missing something, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what and there really wasn’t enough data to bother Winter, their sisters, or their mother.
When she looked in the mirror to put her hair up, she almost reconsidered. Her hair was normally a vibrant autumnal meld of several shades of brown and red. Now, however, there was a streak of almost-white blonde through it, and the ends of her hair was nearly pink.
“Now that,” she muttered, “bears looking into.”
She was going to buy breakfast again but ran into Charles, who sold wooden piggy banks and puzzles, on his way out of the cafe. “My turn,” he informed her, and so she followed him back to the craft festival.
She noticed as she walked by that the lampwork looked less bright than it had the morning before; the bead-worker appeared to be doing a lot of grey and black-and-white work; even Charles’ stuff looked less colorful than she remembered it. The clowns in the next booth over looked sad, which they often did, and dull, which they rarely did.
Even Andy’s pumpkins looked even more washed out than before. And Autumn’s primarily black-and-white linework seemed a little greyer than should be.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” she muttered. A glance down at her outfit – one she hadn’t worn yet on this trip – told her it was still its normal brilliant colors. But the scarf in front of her tent was already as faded as if it had been in the sun for several years, and so were her umbrellas.
Well, she could add some more color. Two scarves she had tucked away, deep in the bottom of her props box, still had most of their brilliance. She draped them over the umbrellas, adding a splash of sunshine-yellow and a sprinkling of paprika-red to her display.
“It doesn’t last long.” Andy’s voice wasn’t so much dour as it was tired. She gestured at the clear glass decorations she had hanging from the front of her tent. “None of it does.”
“You… you noticed?”
Behind her, Dave snorted. “We’re not blind, just exhausted. The money’s really pretty good, the audience is appreciative, and, ah, the weather’s a little weird here. That’s all.”
Neither of them had said it. Autumn smiled slowly. “I think I have an idea. It might be an awful one, but it’s at least colorful.”
“That’s just what this town needs,” Dave muttered dourly. “More color.”
“The town might not, but we do.” She pulled out the last of her prep boxes, the ones she usually saved for special clients and really special circumstances.
This counted as both, she was pretty sure.
“First things first. Do either of you have day jobs you’re going back to on Monday, and, if so, how do they feel about a little – let’s call it henna work?”
“I don’t.” Dave’s smile was the brightest she’d seen from him yet. “Retired last year. Now I travel around settling photographs to people. And taking more photographs. Was gonna turn the back of the RV into a darkroom, but with digital stuff, don’t even need that, just a really good printer.”
“I work at the glass museum.” Andy pulled the arm of her shirt down enough to reveal a full-back tattoo. “The more ink, the better.”
“Good. Because the stuff that stains a bit is the stuff that works better for this sort of thing.” She laid out a set of inks on the table. “Okay, so what I’m going to do is going to be like face paint or henna. Arms are best for this sort of thing, or shoulders or back. It’ll give us some color to, ah, stand up to, and it might, if I’m very lucky, tell us something about where the color is going.”
They looked at her for a minute, both of them quiet, as if trying to figure out if she was nuts. Then Dave snorted.
“Shoulda figured. Ran into one a your sort a few years back – oh, relax your back, missy, I don’t mean no harm by it but it’s not like you have a name for yourselves, do you?”
Strand-Workers, but that was only one name among many, and not all of them agreed on it. “Okay,” she muttered, as she tried to, as he had so gracefully put it, relax her back.
“There was something going on where everyone got really, really stupid attached to their routines. This guy came in and did a bunch of really messed-up macrame, and suddenly things started shaking their way back to normal. Draw away, missy. Be fun to see what they say at my next festival.”
Whatever Andy’s thoughts on the matter, she seemed content to keep them to herself, but she did hold out her arms for Autumn to paint.
Autumn did first one arm of Dave’s, and then of Andy’s, then the other arm of Dave’s, and then of Andy’s and then her own. She used all the colors of ink in her kit, drawing out a pattern that looked abstract unless you looked very closely, when it talked of clouds and the sky, bridges and crossings, the moon and the stars and the water below
She was putting the finishing touches on her own arms when she heard “Oh! I didn’t know you did painting! Is that the ko-one?” The tourist’s voice had dropped to a whisper, but Autumn could hear the way the Strand wove around the word, the word that meant nothing in any language.
“It is.” She nodded. “Would you like a design?”
Under normal circumstances, that conversation would have gone very differently. But as the flyaway streak of nearly-white hair reminded her, this was not a normal circumstance.
“I don’t – I’m not… I know where my connections are.” The woman shifted. “But it’s beautiful.”
“Perhaps,” Autumn smiled, “you can find something new. Maybe a very small thing. Maybe a forgotten thing.”
The woman smiled back at her, a warm expression that told her that she knew Autumn was up to something. “Or perhaps you are doing something complicate with the inks, and I can help you by carrying it around.” Her smile grew wider. “Then a general search for those things I don’t remember or don’t have? Is that possible?”
“Anything is possible. If you’ll tell me something about yourself, just about your day is fine…” Autumn picked up a brush and chose an ink color that went well with the woman’s slightly-faded shirt.
As the woman told her about a phone call from her mother at far too early in the morning and showed her a piece of jewelry that she’d picked up, despite a bit of dullness to its shine, Autumn drew. When she was done, the woman was wearing a cuff bracelet of rather simple design in three brilliant colors.
“I think,” Autumn murmured, as she stretched her fingers over the design, “that there’s a number on your phone with no name that you ought to call.”
“Almost like having my fortune told,” she chuckled. “I’ll do that. Thank you. And, ah. Good luck.”
The woman bought one of Autumn’s favorite prints, a dragon who looked as if he was part of the landscape, and paid a little extra, “considering the free art and all.” Autumn watched the strands of the design – and the odd connection to some mystery – trail off into the fest.
“Ko-one?” murmured Andy.
“It’s a nonsense word. But it’s a nonsense word with meaning.”
“Well, that’s nonsense if I’ve ever heard it.” She looked like she wanted to be irritated but decided not to be. “It has something to do with the designs and the colors?”
“Well, that’s the hope. It has, ah. Something to do with ink and the world, in broad. Like fortune telling, but – don’t tell Madame Marta over there – more genuine and generally more targeted. Less ‘you will meet a handsome stranger.’”
“Hello? I was hoping to find something for my – that’s some nice ink.”
There was a handsome stranger standing in front of her tent. Autumn smiled back at him and let him admire the inkwork on her arms. “Thanks. I did it myself. The right arm is always the trickiest. What can I help you find?”
“Oh, my sister has a Green Man collection, and someone said you had the best green men around. Can I look?”
“Of course, of course, right over here…” Andy was making faces at Autumn over the man’s shoulder. She tried not to giggle.
When she’d helped the man to a Green Man original and wrapped it up for him, when she’d seen him on his way and watched him leave with a love to watch you go, hate to see you leave sort of vibe bouncing around in her head, when Andy punched her in the arm, finally Autumn let herself giggle.
“I swear that doesn’t normally happen. I mean, okay, this town is full of doesn’t-normallies, but that one’s a little over the top.”
“Guess the gods of cute thought you needed a little sunshine in your life – oh. It’s the parade.” Andy gestured as the sounds started coming down the aisle. “At least they waited until Tall Dark and Handsome had made his purchase – and an original. Not bad for the tea leaves.”
“Not bad at all.” Autumn stood between her faded umbrellas and focused on the lines on her arms and Andy’s and Dave’s, on the lines around the wrist of the stranger somewhere on the other side of the festival, on the sounds of the parade.
This time, she was watching as the bright cheerleaders and brilliant dancers bounced by. She was watching the clowns in their crisp white-and-red-and-blue-and-green. She was watching the floats, with their brilliant flowers and faux-Marilyn’s bright smile.
She saw it this time. It was like a very slow winch on the back of Marilyn’s float. It pulled in a whisper-thin line of color as it went, attaching onto everyone watching the parade, everything near the parade. Whimsy, she realized, and awe, wonder and the spark that made art. They weren’t pulling in much from each person or each creation, but everything made of color, the winch – shifting her sight told her it was a brilliant rainbow made of something like fifty different shades of tissue-paper flowers, filling the back of the float – the rainbow-winch pulled in a little bit of.
Autumn hadn’t even known such a thing was possible. And knowing that, now, she had to learn – as the winch pulled at the colors in her inkings and drew in a thin line of her own power, connecting her to it – what they did with it, and why they were doing it.
After the parade went by.
When the noise of the band had dulled to a quiet thumping far in the distance, Autumn shook herself. “Andy, could you-”
She gestured at her booth.
“Serve all the tall handsome men wanting originals? Of course.” Andy grinned. “Are you going to – hunh.”
Her arms, the brilliant rainbow of colors Autumn had painted there, were now markings of a sort of heavy pastel. Looking at her own body, Autumn could see the same thing.
“Well, that – that’s what we expected, right?” Andy rubbed her hands over her arms. “I mean – okay, it feels weird. Chilly.”
Autumn touched her own markings and found that they, too, were chilly. “Okay, that’s good to know. I won’t be long.” She paused before she left, a thought hitting her in the head. “Hey. Have the sales been better here than normal for you?”
“They – yeah. They have been.” She furrowed her brow. “Even though I’m usually selling really bright glasswork. Do you think I ought to-”
Autumn shook her head. “I don’t think that people are being pressed to buy, no, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll look into it, though. I think it’s something more of an atmospheric change…”
She slipped out into the crowd before she could worry Andy more, chasing the thin strands of color she could still see fluttering along in the wake of the parade. She’d never wondered before where the parade went when it was done. Why hadn’t she –
Probably the same reason she couldn’t draw it and couldn’t draw much that was around her when the parade was going by. She shook herself by the scruff of the neck mentally and kept following the trail.
Trails were easy. Winter and her pastor had taught her to follow trails when she’d first learned how to see the Strands, how to understand them. If she didn’t think about the parade-
the smell of cinnamon and frying dough caught her attention, and she had to force herself back on track.
The little wisps of color were more like smoke rings than strands normally were. They didn’t have the strength or the permanence of connections; they trailed along as if on the wind. She barely realized when she left the wide park where the fest was taking part and almost didn’t notice when she was crossing the street.
But there they were, little rainbows of color, wrapping up in the backyard of a grand Victorian painted in more colors that Autumn could quickly count.
She pulled a washable marker out of her pocket and drew a quick succession of lines on one arm, marking her as belongs here as well as she could. Manipulating the strands wasn’t what she did well; what she did was follow them. But this might give her just enough edge she needed.
She walked like she belonged there, looked around like she was looking for someone, and walked right up to the float.
The float itself, parked in the backyard between a gorgeous gazebo and an elaborate porch, was un-attended. There were a few people on the porch, however, and they looked like they were –
they were weaving with the color. Autumn frowned. They were moving as if in a dance, everyone taking their strand and sending it just right, here and there, up and down. Two people were acting as the heddle, two more as the shuttles. Everything moved slowly. The heddles, Autumn realized, were two of the cheerleaders and the shuttles were Marilyn and the band leader.
But what were they weaving? It looked like some sort of rainbow, but the Strands were often bright and as far as she could tell, they weren’t taking anything nasty, like volition or life force. Just… color.
Two more people – the clowns! – were feeding the weaving into small jars. The weaving appeared to compact and squish down into almost nothing as it was folded and mashed down in.
A man stepped out onto the back porch. He had smudges of paint on his cheek and in his hair, another long streak on his t-shirt, and he was holding a paintbrush. “I need more blue-and-the-sky,” he complained. “What’s taking so long?”
“There’s not that much blue left.” The absolutely ordinary voice coming from the clown’s paint was almost the weirdest thing that Autumn had experienced all day. “You know the Mayor took the first dibs on that for the gingerbreading on her house.”
“I don’t care.” The man did not quite stomp his foot, but from the wild look in his eye and the way everyone around him backed up, it was likely to be coming soon.
Autumn peered at him. With the streak on his face, she hadn’t recognized him right away, but he had a booth down at the end of the row. He’d been selling paintings – he hadn’t come to lunch with them, and he had been busy when she’d come by, so she hadn’t asked him about the colors in his art.
“Well, you know how the Mayor gets. You know how the council gets. They’re already hiring out-of-town artists for some of the art around here. Out of towners! If I don’t get this installation done, it’s going to be on your heads.”
Autumn was pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to hear the lead cheerleader muttering “On your head, you mean,” but since she wasn’t supposed to be there at all, she accepted that.
“The Mayor and the Council want their gingerbreading, too. You know how hard it is to get that award, and after we lost two cycles running to Hammondsport. So here,” the clown, no longer looking jolly, shoved a little jar of paint at the artist. “Here’s some grey. Make it a cloudy day.”
“Quaintest Town In America,” the other cheerleader muttered. “Why can’t we be something good, like the hottest town? The richest town? I’d like that. You probably don’t have to spend your weekends weaving to be the richest town in America.”
“Come on, Penelope, you know how it works out,” Marilyn tutted. “We end up with better money, better tourists, and that all ends up making everyone better, happier, and definitely richer.”
“And,” the band leader continued, “it’s not all that much work. Not as much as actually cheerleading or actually winning competitions, is it?” He was wheedling, as if he needed her skill in particular.
Autumn closed her eyes and pulled herself together. They were – she wanted to throw things. To scream. To rail. – they were stealing the color from their visitors? To make their city more quaint.
She walked slowly away until she was out of their sight and they out of hers. So. She sat down on a rock – a very grey rock – and considered. Color. She had never seen anyone steal color before. Which meant that, among other things, she didn’t know what the long-term effects would be.
She ran her fingers through her hair. She knew how to find out, didn’t she? And if she could do that…. well, if she could do that, she was pretty sure she could figure out how to reverse this, too.
“I’ve never been run out of town on a rail before.” she muttered. “This might get interesting.”
First, she had to get back to the tent. For one thing, she had been gone too long with the business they’d been having. For another, she needed more washed-out things than just her hair.
She wasted the time on the way to hit up a bakery and brought back coffee, tea, and scones for Andy, who looked like she needed it. Then, because it seemed like the right thing to do, she bought one of Andy’s palest pieces of glass-work and, from across the aisle, a pair of grey beaded earrings.
That and her hair and she had three pieces. Three and a piece of paper and her best inks and she was doing a very strange sketch in between customers.
Andy even looked over. “Looks like you’re drawing a psychedelic spider web.”
“Something like that. I’m aiming for the connections and the places that aren’t connected.” Which was sort of like looking at the sky and saying she was looking for water droplets and the air between them, but it was what it was.
“So – okay. I am going to pretend that makes sense.” Andy hurried over to help a customer, which left Autumn drawing wide, thick lines with a brush and very thin ones with a fine-tipped pen.
When she was done with her drawing – which did look something like a crazy spiderweb – she sat back and studied it. Yes, she could see where the color was coming from and going. Yes, it was being leached into that weaving. And – hrrm. “…really…?”
She ran her hand over the drawing a few times, trying to get another result, but the piece of work was being quite obstinate. She ran her hand through her hair and sighed.
The colors were taking with them a very small amount of vibrancy – either from the person, in the case of hair, clothing, or skin, or from the crafter, in the case of artwork. And that vibrancy – that life – it was staying where it was painted. The town would, indeed be very alive and very exciting. It would even be quaint. And each person might not be affected enough for them to notice at all. But they would be affected. And the results would last forever, and they would be cumulative.
She was definitely going to have to do something. And what was more, she already had an idea what she was going to do.
Infiltrating the painter’s studio was as easy as infiltrating the weaving had been. While these people were definitely skilled in something involving the Strands, they were not the most aware Strand-Workers, which just made Autumn wonder more who was behind all this, who had figured it out, and if they had any contingency plans for if they got caught.
In terms of long-term consequences, Autumn planned to call her mother and a couple of the more experienced Strand-Workers once she was out of this town. But she wouldn’t be able to show her face at holiday dinners if she didn’t first do her best.
When she had everything she needed, she gathered up every artist she could find – except the one who was behind this farce, of course – and en masse, they invaded the coffee shop.
“I have a plan for your blank wall,” she told them, the teenaged barista, her not-much-older friend, and Jocelyn, the coffee-shop owner with the beautiful hair. “I think — I hope — that you’ll like it.
With their approval, she the told the gathered artists more or less what she had in mind. As lead artist in this case, she started with loose pencil lines and rough sketches, the center of the long wall being her design. And then they divided up, each artist taking a corner and a set of paints in small jars and starting to work.
The center was a tree, one similar to a large oak she’d seen on the edge of the park where the fair was being held. The sides were the town – but it was the town with visitors. The visitors, the tourists, those were important. Daniel who did the wooden puzzles turned out to have a really good hand at a sort of style that was just this side of cartoonish; Raquel who did the clowns handled the backgrounds on that side. Emma who did beadwork sat on the floor making the grass and the foreground look like Monet had spent time here.
There was more than a little magic involved in making sure everyone’s styles merged attractively, but there was more than a bit of magic involved in this mural as a whole, anyway. The paints Autumn had stolen from the weaving station and the artist (who had stolen them from all of them in the first place, so it didn’t feel so much like theft as liberation). The skill and the strands, she provided, but she pulled in from the people in the shop – just tacking in their connection to the town, not binding them or taking from them but using them as a conduit – from the artists themselves – again, using their art and their emotions as a conduit – and from the feeling of solidity she got from the town itself under her feet.
It was ten minutes ‘till closing; they were all still painting with one hand while snacking on treats that would soon be day-old in their off hands; the mural was almost done and they were putting on finishing touches with the last dribbles and drabs of liberated paint. The mural spoke of a town vibrant with and, in some cases because of its tourism but, like the tree in the center, with deep roots. The strand-work spoke of connections, of mutual give-and-take, of sharing of ideas and of energy.
The artist burst into the coffee shop. “What are you doing? What are you doing?” He was followed close behind by the cheerleaders, Marilyn, and two clowns, now mostly in street clothes.
Jocelyn – who, along with her staff, had been watching the mural take form while pretending to work – frowned repressively at the man. “Cameron Carter. I’m sorry, we’re closed for the night.” Her voice was icy.
“What are they-” he pointed angrily at the wall, at Autumn, at the mural “-doing? Why are they doing it here?”
“We paid Ms. RoundTree to do a mural in her style, and she has brought in some friends to help. I think it’s beautiful.” The owner, a woman who Autumn had yet to see wearing anything but a frown, smiled slowly. “Look at the way the tree is protecting the whole town. Look at the colors.”
“Yes, the colors,” Carter sneered. “Do you know where they got those colors?”
“I’d ask,” Autumn cut it, but it turned out she had no need. The cheerleader, Penelope, cut in.
“Do you know where we got those colors? Just because they stole them from us second doesn’t mean we didn’t steal them first.”
“Penelope! Shut up.” Marilyn’s hiss was meant to be quiet but could probably be heard in the next town over.
“No. I won’t.” That hair-toss was worthy of a movie. The stubborn chin made Autumn think of her own sisters. “So they made some art with our paint? So what? We stole it from them first, and you’ve been saying if they didn’t miss it, it wasn’t theft.”
“I miss this!” Carter’s voice was spiraling up towards panic. “There was already too little of it, the Mayor and the Council -” His ranting was stifled by a hand slapped over his face. Two hands – Marilyn and one of the clowns.
“You know,” the clown commented, “this was working fine until we involved you. A little bit here and there. Penelope didn’t mind when it was three parades a festival, any more than her sister or her cousin did before her. Did you?”
“It wasn’t greedy when it was three parades a festival.” Penelope wrinkled her button nose. “Now. Now, it’s just silly.” Her eyes finally landed on the mural. “Oooh. Oh, I see why he was angry. Ooh. That’s nice work.”
Autumn dropped a curtsey with one hand. The other one was still holding a paintbrush in mid-air like she could do some sort of magic with it. “I’m glad you like it. Would you like to take a brush and add your work to it?”
“I can – you’d want me to? He just told you -”
“What’s it do?” The second clown sounded dangerous. “What does this to do our plans?”
Penelope, needing no more urging when Autumn put the brush into her hand, knelt down and painted a few careful roots to the tree. “To your plans? Nothing. The paint went where it went. The charm and quaintness went where you wanted them.” She handed the brush back to Autumn. “You can’t put an egg back in its shell. But it does mean no more stupid parades.” She was smiling so brightly, Autumn thought she might light the town right into one of those magazines all by herself.
“What it does,” Autumn continued, “is seal up some really interesting loopholes in the magic around her. Not completely – if people are very happy here; if they are energized by this place and find themselves leaving better than they left, then they will leave a little trickle behind. You’ll see it here, in this mural. You’ll see it in the coffee shop roof and the shops to either side of it. On a really good year, it’ll stretch all the way down the shops on both sides. But, like leaving a penny at a grave, it will be a willing donation. And your vendors and tourists won’t leave your city drained out and grey anymore.”
“It’s not that hard to paint over a mural,” the clown snarled.
“It’s pretty hard to paint over work in someone else’s building,” Jocelyn countered. “Get out, Jeremy David Rice. Get out, Cameron Carter. The rest of you…. Penny, you can stay. You’re welcome here. The rest of you, get out. You’re banned for life.” Her phone clicked in quick succession, taking pictures of each of them. “Stealing people’s colors. Really. Only you.”
“You can’t banish me,” Marilyn protested. “I’m the Mayor!”
“I can, I will, and I do. Out.”
Five minutes later, the fuss of the banishment over, Autumn and a handful of artists were nibbling on more pastries. “Stealing color? I didn’t know that was even possible. But it, them, the whole thing, it explains so much.”
“It really does.” Andy flopped into a chair. “Autumn? You’re a blast, but the next time you’re going to be in a town, let me know so I can be somewhere else, okay?”
Autumn found that she had to laugh, although she was tired enough that she’d rather just fall to the floor. “It’s a deal. But thank you.” She looked around. “Thank you all.”
Emma answered for all of them. “Get a little back from someone who’d been messing with us? Any time.”
“I should leave…” Autumn murmured. “Before the Mayor decides I’ve broken some law.”
Jocelyn’s arm was warm and friendly on her shoulder. “Maybe in the morning.”
Autumn suddenly had more energy. She found a broad smile creasing her face. “In the morning,” she agreed. “Or maybe the early afternoon.”