"Truth is a Stranger to Fiction"
Sandra M. Odell
"More! More!" the Menagerie chants.
From his seat at the head of the table, Master Robinson nods for another tale. The chimera comes up on its hind legs. I sidle behind its musty bulk to refill its mug with wine. The pitcher taps against the rim of the goblet, and a birdsong of silver and bone sounds high and sweet. Master Robinson smiles at me, and I love him.
The chimera smooths its belly fur with a wide paw.
"You were found under a giant cabbage leaf by a family of grigs," it says with three throats.
"They took you to their acorn home and raised you as their only child, along with your seventyeleven brothers and sisters. They plumped you up with henbane until you were thin as a damsel fly's wing, and a strong wind whisked you away."
The Menagerie hoots and howls with laughter, hooves and hands pounding the table, all save one slight form in midnight robes, wedged between the drake and the hippogryph. She has skin the color of sunset sands, and hair as splendid as a thundercloud. A gold and alabaster horn sprouts from the middle of her forehead, and tufts of down feather her chin and wrists. She only has eyes for Master Robinson, which I understand, yet her eyes are sad, which I do not.
Outside the pavilion, the night wind blows a lullaby to the dunes, a cold, lonely song. Inside, oil lamps and a full firebox warm the air, stories and wine the spirits. The thunderbird tells how Master Robinson's parents baked him inside a salt crust and then left him to cool on the windowsill, how they chased him into the sea and the crust washed away, forever making the water salty as tears. In a gravel voice, the catoblepas sings how Master Robinson was born in a bubble blown from a drunkard's pipe and floated away when the man passed out in his cups. I reach the woman, one pouring at a time. She has no cup.
"Why are you so sad?"
She looks at me without turning her head. I marvel at her eyes, dark as her hair.
"I'm not sad," she says so low I almost cannot hear her under the Menagerie's laughter.
"You reyes are. Drinking will make you happy."
I turn to fetch her a goblet.
She stops me with a hand on my arm.
"I don't drink."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
Her eyes are happy and sad at the same time.
"Don't be." She releases my arm, smiles.
"What's your name?"
I smile back, proud of my name.
She looks back to Master Robinson with sad eyes once more.
I pour wine and serve dishes of sweet treats and tiny, salted fish in oil, always to Master Robinson first and then the rest of the Menagerie. Master Robinson pats me on the head, calls me good girl, feeds me a treat and lets me drink from his cup. The kitsune, the raksasha, and the wyvern all tell tales in turn, and then the woman with sad eyes stands.
"You were born to a mother still a child herself," she says.
Lamp light edges her lips and words with cinnamon.
"She had been abandoned by your father, and tried to raise you on her own, but your mother's family was sick and the sickness had invaded her soul. By the time people came to take you from her, the girl was too sick to care, and when they told her she had to give up being your mother she didn't know any better than to say yes. So you were raised house to house, some good, some bad, but most indifferent which is the worst kind of house because indifference hollows out a child's heart. And it took your mother many years and cures to finally find you, and tell you how sorry she is, and how much she loves you."
The Menagerie erupts in gay and glorious mirth.
"Fantastic," says the gargoyle, chuckling a landslide.
"The best one yet!" says the troll, holding its sides.
All save Master Robinson. Shadows hang around his face, hiding his eyes. He lifts his goblet with a shaking hand, spilling wine on his fine shirt. I hurry to refill his cup, but the pitcher is empty. He does not call me good girl or pat my head.
I scamper outside to refill the pitcher and find the woman standing by the barrel. As I move around her to reach the tap, she gives a soft squeak.
"Oh, it's you."
I blink up at her, shivering in the night's lullaby.
"Who else would I be?"
"No, I mean. . .Never mind."
I position the pitcher under the spout, and the woman peels the down off her wrists and chin. She presses the sticky ends together until they form a puff too pale to have color in the dark. I watch with interest, still mindful of the pitcher so it does not overfill.
"Thank you, Sassy," she says, and pulls off the horn.
She rubs the place where it sat with her fingers, flicking bits of something to the sand.
I close the tap.
"For being there, here, for him."
She nods, put the horn and puff inside her robe.
"Yeah. Master Robinson."
She makes a sound almost like a laugh.
"They laughed. I didn't know what to expect, and I guess, I guess truth really is stranger than fiction."
I want to understand, but I have to get back inside to fill Master Robinson's goblet.
"Take care of yourself, Sassy. Take care of. . ."
She must run out of words because she stops talking and walks away, over the dunes and into the night.
I return to the pavilion and the Menagerie, where everyone laughs, Master Robinson hardest of all. Laughs until he cries.
Sandra lives with her husband, sons, and cats in Washington state. Her work has appeared in such venues as Daily Science Fiction, Jim Baen's UNIVERSE, and Crossed Genres. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.