Portrait of a Cliffside Town lit by Lantern Light
The Quik'N'Cheep vending machine on the eastbound platform of the Ashland Midtown Subway Station was out of LottoChoco bars. Alice frowned. She had put the bill and three quarters into the machine without paying attention, and now she was forced to choose from the assortment of brightly packaged but unappealing rows of junk. As soon as she input the 63 for the peanut protein bar (chosen for its proximity to the empty rack of LottoChoco) she realized she could've just pressed the coin return.
Making her way to the bench three-fourths of the way down the platform she thought about how silly she was for letting this bother her. Well, it wasn't just the chocolate bar; she'd had a bad day at work. She hadn't caught a missing apostrophe in some recent ad copy. The ad had been run in the previous morning's paper with the error, and now the sponsor was furious. Said it made them look unprofessional. They were though, weren't they? Can't even be trusted with a contraction. Don't they have their own copy editors? She had asked her boss that. He said they were a local company. Small. Her boss always called her by her first name: Prudence. She hated that name. Prudence Alice Valentine. Cautious wonder and romance. Cautious, maybe that was accurate. The same couldn't be said for the other two.
She looked at the protein bar in her hand and reluctantly peeled back the wrapper. Alice didn't adapt well. LottoChoco was her go-to when she was stressed. She bit into the protein bar. The chemical taste of synthetic chocolate instantly killed any desire she had for another bite. When the train pulled up to the platform, she left the bar on the bench.
Midtown Station had been renovated a few years ago. Lots of bright lights and clean, white tile, almost like a hospital. However, many of the trains were still decades old on most of the lines. The seats in each car faced each other in two long rows. The upholstery of the train Alice boarded was torn in two places on the nearer row of seats. Alice situated herself between the tears. Across the aisle, an old man hid his sleeping eyes behind the brim of his hat. A few seats away, a mother was scolding her child for some unseen offense. The doors slid closed. "The next stop is: Lynch Street Station. Change here for the Metropolitan Ring Line." Alice settled in. It was seven stops on the King Line until she was home. Probably around a forty minute commute every day, both ways. Usually the gently rocking of the train would put Alice to sleep between the stations, but she'd jolt awake each time the train stopped. That day, however, she was exhausted, and so she slept for five straight stations, awakening just in time to watch, bleary-eyed, as the old man got off of the now empty train.
"This train is now transferring to the Soto Line. The next stop is: Navidson Station."
Alice shot up, and tried to dash for the doors. They were already closing again. As the train slowly started to pull away from the station, Alice let out a dejected sigh and returned to her seat. She'd have to get off at the next station and find a way to transfer back to the King Line. That might not even be possible though, it occurred to her. If she just got on the train going the opposite direction, she'd probably wind up at the previous station on the Soto Line, not back on the King Line. Did trains really change lines mid-route like this? That seemed bizarre to Alice. Come to think of it, she'd never even heard of the Soto Line before. She always got on the same train, at the same time, from the same station, every day. At some point she should've at least heard that trains on the King Line transferred right? This was probably some new route some braindead traffic engineer thought was a good idea.
At Navidson Station, Alice found out (via a map of the Ashland metro system) that in two more stops, the Soto Line had a connection with the King Line at Wooltown Station. Wooltown Station also appeared to be the last station on the route. So once more, she boarded the Soto Line, fuming. She'd have to write a letter to the Department of Public Transit. This type of thing was unacceptable.
Wooltown station was old. In contrast to the clean, safe, sterile lighting of Midtown Station, Wooltown Station was dimly lit by an orange, fluorescent glow. The floor was concrete, and where the yellow caution strips would be in any other station were two lines of burgundy bricks. In the center of the platform, a tile mosaic bearing the words "Wooltown Station" in black letters was inlaid on the ground. Despite the station's apparent age, it didn't seem to be in disrepair. Rather, it gave the sense, somehow, that more of the world had seen Wooltown Station. It appeared to be well-traveled.
Alice looked around for the LED signs that displayed the train timetables, however there were none. Alice was pretty sure that even the oldest stations in Ashland had been installed with those. At the far end of the station, near the turnstiles, was a ticket booth. Alice made her way over.
The ticket booth windows were tinted black. Alice couldn't see anything through them but the vague shadow of the worker within.
"Hello?" Alice asked, ducking slightly as though a different angle would help her see more clearly. "Can you tell me how to transfer to the King Line?"
"Well, you're in the right place," the worker answered. There was something incredibly strange about the worker's voice that Alice couldn't immediately place. Something about the cadence. "That being said, I'm sorry to say I've got some bah-ah-ahd news. No more trains are running tonight. The earliest train for the King Line comes around dawn tomorrow morning."
"Are you kidding me?" Alice said with a bit more venom than she had intended.
"Sorry ma'am. However, of all nights to get stranded, tonight's a lucky one. It's the annual Wooltown World Festival tonight. It's a big deal around here, everyone prepares for it for months. You should go up and try to enjoy it! Think of it like a happy accident."
"I'd really rather just go home. I can just hail a taxi at street level, right?"
"No taxis tonight. Most of the roads a closed on account of the festival."
Alice balked. "Are you serious? There's no way for me to get home tonight?"
"Afraid not. There are plenty of hotels in town though. I'm sure finding a bed won't be a problem. People tend to be extra hospitable during the Festival."
"I'd much rather not have to find a bed," Alice snapped, then immediately felt guilty for doing so. "Sorry, I've had a rough day. I know it's not your fault."
"No worries, ma'am. We all have our bah-ah-ahd days. Try taking a walk around the festival. I'm sure it'll lighten your mood."
Alice nodded vaguely then waved her hand and walked off. As she climbed the stairs out of the subway, she wondered how difficult it was going to be to find a hotel. This festival seemed to be a big deal, she imagined if they shut down roads for it, most of the stores and businesses would also be closed. How come she had never heard of this Wooltown World Festival? She had worked at the paper for three years now, she was pretty up to date with current events in Ashland (even though she was just a copy editor). This event was supposedly annual too.
Actually... had she even heard of Wooltown before?
As Alice climbed out onto street level, it became overwhelmingly clear that the more relevant question was not "had she heard of Wooltown" as it was "where the hell is Wooltown." From the subway exit at the base of the town, Alice could see the entire structure of Wooltown. It's brick-paved roads sprawled forward and upward, spidering their way up the side of a mountain face, winding and twisting back and forth. Lining the streets, as densely packed as possible were rows and rows of houses, shops, restaurants, and various other buildings all nestled next to each other and building atop one another in layered tiers. Some of the buildings looked relatively new, made from concrete or some other modern material, but some were wooden and looked quite old. The architecture was unlike anything Alice had ever seen: large, angular roofs whose wooden frames poked out from underneath them; dark, lacquered siding with warm colored accents; cobblestone walls with ivy creeping its way through the gaps. Alice turned around to look behind her, and gasped as she realizes she was standing on the edge of the road, with only a small, metal fence separating her from an immense drop into the valley below. Alice's mind raced. While it was true Ashland was nestled in a large valley and surrounded by mountains, she was very sure no part of the Ashland metro system actually led into those mountains. Furthermore, in the vast valley below her she could see nothing but fog. Not even the tips of Ashland's tallest buildings. However, what truly convinced Alice that she was very, very far away from home was the sky. The light of the city of Ashland often made it so that it was hard to pick out more than a dozen stars in the night sky, but here in Wooltown hundreds of points of light dotted the midnight blue blanket above the town.
Panic set in quickly. Where was she. How did she get here. How could she leave. These thoughts formulated not as questions in Alice's mind, but as statements. Imperatives to which no answer could be denied. She needed to find someone to ask. She could see bright lights coming from deeper within Wooltown, and if she listened hard she could hear music and voices. At a pace only slightly slower than a run, she set off towards them.
Just as she had expected, much of Wooltown seemed to have closed up for the night. Many of the houses and shops she passed were all black within, and the darkened streets, illuminated only by streetlamps, were all abandoned. As Alice followed the winding streets upward, she noticed something strange about all the signage and posters she came across. The language they were all written in was not English. It vaguely resembled English, and maybe was some sort of sister language, but still she couldn't recognize it.
The deeper into the town she got, the louder the noise got. She followed the voices that were singing songs in, presumably, the same unidentifiable language the signs were written in, until finally she rounded a corner and found the bright, boisterous Wooltown World Festival sprawling out before her.
Contrary to the dim lighting of the side streets she had been on until that point, the festival road was lit by hundreds of paper lanterns that were hung in a criss-crossing pattern. Rows of booths lined both sides of the street, some of them selling sizzling meat skewers, some of them selling immaculately crafted sweets, others seeming to be set up for different types of games and still more selling art, clothing, and a variety of other trinkets. Throngs of people littered the streets, all in different forms of colorful dress. Children ran gleefully through the crowd as their parents frantically chased after them. Couples walked hand-in-hand sharing candied apples. Further down the road, the crowd was parting to allow a procession of drummers and dancers parade through the festival.
However, Alice barely managed to register all of this, because the fact of the matter was that the people of Wooltown were not people in the sense Alice was used to. They were sheep. All of them were sheep. Sheep that were walking on their hind legs, wearing clothes, operating booths, and speaking some sort of sheep language, but sheep nonetheless. Alice took a very long time running through every possible explanation she could come up with in her head for what she was seeing, but in the end she came up with nothing, and was left staring blankly at the festival.
A tall, golden crown of sorts bobbed across the sea of sheep, through the crowd down towards Alice, and, when it finally emerged from the crowd, revealed itself to be connected to a rather stout little sheep who flung his arms open wide and bellowed, "Welcome!"
Alice looked at the sheep and blinked, then looked back at the festival.
The sheep cleared his throat, threw his arms wide again and repeated, "Welcome to our guest of honor! Welcome to the Wooltown World Festival!"
"Are you talking to me?" Alice asked, then, deciding that shortening the question would be more apt, repeated, "are you talking?"
"Of course I'm talking to you! You're our guest of honor. Please, please you must come with me. Many people are excited to meet you." And without another word the crowned sheep began to make his way through the crowd. Alice hesitated for a moment, then thought that, perhaps, he would know a way for her to get home, or how she got there in the first place, and so she quickly followed after. The crowd of sheep seemed to notice her for the first time as she stepped forward, and they all began to part in front of her. As she passed by them, their eyes remained glued to her, some of them even whispering confidentially between themselves.
"Listen, can I ask you a question? I'd like to know-" Alice was promptly interrupted.
"I do apologize but we're a bit behind schedule, so we really must hurry. You absolutely can not miss the feast," the crowned sheep said apologetically, but rather curtly.
The festival street was very wide and long, and seemed to be a main artery road because it cut straight upward through Wooltown. At the end of the street, near the peak of the town, there was a massive square whose perimeter was lined with booths as the street was, but whose interior was filled with several long tables organized into a circle, in the center of which was a great firepit. At the far end of the circle there was an unoccupied throne, and beyond that a large structure that resembled a longhouse but was much more angular and painted with vibrant red, jet black, and several gold-leaf accents.
"Come, take a seat!" The crowned sheep bid, gesturing to the table situated at the right hand of the throne. Alice did so, and the crowned sheep took a spot next to her. Many other sheep had been following behind them and now were fanning out around the circle and finding their own seats.
"Well, here we are now!" The crowned sheep said with an air of satisfaction, "It's a shame we had to rush. I would've greatly enjoyed showing you around the festival, but there just wasn't much time. You arrived quite late, not that you could help it."
"Listen," Alice was beginning to get very anxious, and the longer she spent with the countless rectangular eyes of the sheep on her back, the less comfortable she felt. "I appreciate all this hospitality, I really do," she lied through her teeth, "but I'm extremely lost and I'd just like to know how to get home."
"Ah yes, no worries at all. First thing tomorrow morning you can get back on the same train you boarded to get here, and it will take you right back where you came from," the crowned sheep said, and then, as if that was a satisfactory answer, started explaining the courses of the feast that would soon be coming.
"Wait," Alice interrupted, "wait. Look, again, I appreciate the hospitality, but I'd really rather go home tonight. Is there any-"
"Hello miss!" A young sheep girl had plopped herself down next to Alice, and was beaming up at her. She was wearing a large, pink bow. "Hey miss can I ask you a question?"
"I-uh, sure," Alice answered instinctively, not exactly sure of how to respond.
"Do humans really eat lamb?" The sheep girl asked. Alice's eyes grew wide, and she glanced around desperately looking for a way to answer.
"No we don't-" Alice fumbled her words, "I mean we don't usually... I mean we don't at all-"
"It's okay if you do. I'm sure a lot of the things we eat would be really gross to humans," the sheep girl said earnestly. A sheep garbed in some sort of silk robe ran up behind the sheep girl, and immediately started bleating harshly at her while batting her head softly with a rolled festival flyer. Then the robed sheep turned to Alice.
"I'm sorry if my daughter bothered you. She has absolutely no manners. She's just very excited to meet a human is all," the sheep mother said, then, turning back to her daughter, picked the sheep girl up, and stormed off with her.
The crowned sheep, who had been engaged in a conversation with a sheep in a suit vest, turned back towards Alice and said, "the children are always so excited for the festival every year. Many of them get out of school to help their families set up the booths. Those whose families don't have business often make a booth with their school club or sports team."
"What exactly is this festival for?" Alice asked.
"Well it's in the name isn't it? The Wooltown World Festival! It's a festival celebrating world culture. You see given the unique nature of Wooltown we don't often get to go and see the world, but nonetheless we're fascinated by the ways you humans all live. So every year we hold this festival where we display and enjoy art, music, and, of course, food from around the world. Now, as I was saying earlier, the first course will be coming soon, after that the king will arrive, then the show will start alongside the second course and-"
"Wait, so how did I get here? Did you somehow bring-" Alice started but was once again interrupted as a gray sheep in a driver's cap sat down next to her.
"Is the Vizier talking your ear off?" The capped sheep asked. The crowned sheep, who Alice guessed was the Vizier, bleated angrily at the capped sheep who laughed heartily in response. "He means the best, but sometimes he's a bit over enthusiastic with the guests. Listen if there're any concerns he's yet to address for you, I'd be more than happy to listen to them."
"Actually, yes. I'd really, really appreciate it if someone could tell me how I got here, and how I can-"
"Ah!" The Vizier almost jumped out of his seat with excitement. "The first course is arriving! I think you'll be familiar with it, you are from America, are you not?"
A platoon of suit vested sheep were delivering white plates to each of the many attendees of the feast. With a great flourish, one of the waiter sheep placed a plate down in front of Alice, bowed, and took his leave. On the plate, on a simple kaiser bun, was a rather plain looking cheeseburger. It was misshapen, and the condiments were beneath the patty. It was the type of thing you'd imagine someone who had never actually seen a cheeseburger would make. The capped sheep and Vizier quickly set about cutting theirs into small squares with forks and knives. Alice was a bit more reluctant, but after a moment picked the burger up and bit into it. It tasted not quite like beef. The Vizier and capped sheep exchanged glances with each other.
"Excuse me but," the Vizier asked, "is it traditional to eat such a meal with your hands?"Alice was taken aback for a second, but then realized that, of course, the sheep would have no idea how to eat a cheeseburger.
"Well, normally you do just pick the burger up with your hands," she took a bite to demonstrate and swallowed, then glance at the sheep's' hooves. "But I guess using your hands would be kind of difficult for you guys considering... Wait, hold on, how were you using the-"
From the main festival street, drums began beating, and the same procession of drummers and dancers spilled out into the square. This time however, a large, open palanquin followed behind, upon which rode a black sheep who wore no crown but seemed to emanate a regal manor nonetheless. He bore a silver, jewel-encrusted saber at his side. The palanquin stopped just before the circle of tables, and as the King rose and stepped to the ground, so too did all the attendees of the feast rise and bow. Only when the King took his seat at the throne did the attendees resume their own seats.
"My good folk of Wooltown!" The King said with a booming voice, "Are we all enjoying the 636th annual Wooltown World Festival?" Raucous cheers and applause. "Well then, let there be no pause to the festivities. I believe some entertainment has been arranged for us?"
With that, two sheep stepped out before the King and bowed to him. One wore a red-feathered tricorne and the other wore a blue cape. Both were holding rapiers.
"I do apologize," the Vizier whispered, leaning over to Alice. "This performance is a very traditional part of Wooltown culture. It must be spoken in Woolese. I think you'll still be able to follow the gist of it though."
The two sheep bowed to the King then took ten paces away from each other, turned to face, and began bleating at each other. The waiter sheep came around with another course. This time it was far less appetizing than the previous one. It was presumably a traditional Wooltown meal, with various vegetables that Alice struggled to name, and a large, slimy, pink organ of sorts making up the primary component of the dish. Alice pushed the plate to the side and looked back at the show. The two sheep had drawn their rapiers and were now engaged in a fierce duel with one another. I occurred Alice that she did not know whether or not this performance was staged. The audience was enraptured, and as the duel grew fiercer, many members of the audience began cheering in Woolese and stomping their hooves on the table. The noise grew slowly louder and louder, until finally, in one swift motion, the tricorned sheep plunged his rapier into the caped sheep's bosom. Crimson blood blossomed out from behind the sheep's blue cape and soaked into his pure white wool, staining it. For a moment, he clutched his chest and staggered, desperately trying to remain upright. Then, his legs finally giving out, he collapsed to the ground, lifeless.
The tricorned sheep bowed to the King once again, then to the audience, and exited the circle as they all applauded. Two waiter sheep carried the corpse of the caped sheep out of sight. The King rose.
"Truly a wonderful display, Sir Rolaine's skill never ceases to impress," he declared loudly. "Now, is it not time for the main event?" More thunderous applause and wild bleating came from the crowd. "Before the next course, I'd like to speak with our esteemed guest of honor." The crowds eyes all locked upon Alice.
"Go on," the Vizier said, "there's no reason to be nervous. He just wants to give you something." Cautiously, Alice rose from her seat, and as she did she remembered suddenly the question the sheep girl had asked her. It seemed strange, why did she say it was okay if humans ate lamb? As she approached the King's throne, three waiter sheep seemed to materialize behind her, carrying a spit roast. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see them start to assemble it over the firepit. Something in the sight sparked Alice's imagination, and in her mind thoughts cascaded, growing ever more anxious and desperate, until she realized, with dawning horror, what was going to happen next..
They were going to roast her.
She stood stock-still in front of the King, deadly afraid to run but also desperately searching for a way out. This had been why they wouldn't tell her how to leave. Why they wouldn't let her leave. What had the worker in the ticket booth said? Finding a bed wouldn't be a problem tonight? That must've been some sort of twisted joke. Alice thought of the not-quite-beef beef of the cheeseburger, and the slimy organ of the second course, and, as she glanced back towards the firepit, if there had been any more "guest of honor" that had arrived before her. The King rose.
"Sir Rolaine, I ask you to bear witness," the King said in a solemn voice. The tricorned sheep emerged from outside the circle and stood just to the side of Alice. The King drew his saber, without any flourish, and approached Alice. She needed an idea. Now. The light of the fire glinted off of the tricorned sheep's rapier.
The king rose his saber into the air, and in a commanding voice said, "I now declare you Knight of-"
Lightning quick, Alice snatched the tricorned sheep's rapier, and, with all the force she could muster, rammed it into the King's stomach. The telescoping blade of the sword collapsed harmlessly all the way down to the handle, depressing the sponge around the base and squeezing what was left of the red dye held there. Alice almost toppled over as the rapier uselessly brushed past the King, and the blade sprang back out.
It wasn't a real rapier. It was a prop.
Utter silence came over the crowd. The King gently lowered his saber and tapped it on Alice's shoulder. Alice staggered backwards and turned around. Every member of the crowd was unblinkingly following her every movement. The waiter sheep, who had been in the process of hoisting a large fish onto the spitroast, were now frozen in shock. The blue caped sheep, who had just sat down to the feast after washing the dye out of his wool, was now standing. A few seats away, the sheep girl with the pink bow had tears welling up in her eyes.
She sprinted faster than she ever had in her life. She flew down the festival street, past the school club booths, and the games, and the collected art. She fled through the dim back streets, past the houses, and the shops, and the Woolese signs. In the distance she heard a great clamor and commotion, some of citizens of Wooltown were chasing after her. Whether they wanted to apprehend her, or simply catch up to her, Alice didn't know. Alice didn't stop running, until she found herself back at the Wooltown Station, panting desperately, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. She ducked into an alley and climbed herself into a dumpster. There she hid away and watched as the Vizier, the capped sheep, the sheep girl and her mother, the tricorned sheep, the caped sheep, the booth worker, the waiters, the feast attendees, the dancers, the drummers, the shopkeepers, the schoolchildren, the couples, and the King all passed her by. Only when the first light of morning began to creep out into the valley below did she emerge from the dumpster and silently sneak down into the station, passed the turnstiles, and into the train that was already waiting there to take her home.
Alice sat on the bench three-fourths of the down the platform in the Ashland Midtown Subway Station eating a LottoChoco bar she had bought from the Quik'N'Cheep vending machine. The same type of chocolate bar she bought from the same vending machine in the same platform while waiting for the same train every day. At work, she had spent the whole day checking the copy for dozens of different ads and articles, reformatting other people's words while not paying attention to a single one of them. When she got home she would watch the same TV shows, and eat one of the same five meals she knew how to cook, then fall asleep and wake up and do it all again.
Alice sat and ate the chocolate bar, and wondered how she became so afraid to go outside of her own small, safe world.
The train pulled into the station, and Alice rose and started towards it. Just as she was about to board, she stopped, stepped back, and looked at the train. Rather than the blue accents of the King Line trains, this one bore purple ones. Above the door, printed in a clean, black font were the words: Soto Line.
For just a moment, Alice wavered. Then she stepped onto the train, and the doors slid closed behind her.