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The small hours are badly named for three reasons:
1. There is only one of them.
2.  It is by far the longest of the hours.
3.  His name is Minno.

While the other Hours were constrained by a vague boundary of sixty minutes each, Minno was the only grandson of Time himself, and so on occasion his grandfather would slip a bag of minutes into his hand as he left so that anyone awake at two o’clock in the morning might think the hour went in a flash.

Minno hoarded minutes, scraped from the end of a blizzard in November, a pale April, and an orange July. These he kept in a drawstring bag in the base of an oak tree that should have fallen over years ago.

Minno had once fallen through a hole in the highest branch and found himself wrong way up at the base of the tree. His minutes had fallen out of his bag, and he still could not account for three of them no matter how hard he looked. He had climbed out of the tree trunk and jumped to the ground, landing like a cricket on the grass. His feet were bare and cold and he seemed not to touch the ground at all. His hair was short and spun in ringlets which smelled of dreams, dreams of storms at sea and pearl necklaces. Looking into a lake or splitting his reflection with pebbles showed Minno a blackness of mine-shafts in his eyes, all deep and dusty, cough-black. Black that makes the sun shudder.

Minno delighted in reflections, reaching under the surface of the water and brushing his fingers along the reflections of reeds and making them snap into thousands of scraps until the water calmed. He wondered why the reflection reeds moved with the real ones but the real reeds did not break and form like the reflection. Sometimes he would meet another Hour and they would sit palm to palm and tell each other of the passing of the worlds, the time exchange between universes and tales of the races inhabiting them.

“Aletheo is out of synchronisation with Krusos, because Argentis is mourning the death of her husband and has neglected the younger stars. They are going out earlier and earlier to play so that the night is as thick as fog and all beings despair in its emptiness.” Minno smiled ruefully. He knew more than most Hours of the despair that the blackest nights could bring to some races. He had struggled to calm the hatred of humans, clung to their shirts in protest and willed his time to pass on to a less demanding Hour. He had stroked the hair of children too afraid of the dark to cry for their mothers. He had soothed the thoughts of mothers worried about school runs and packed lunches and ironing piles. It seemed to him that Men were the most susceptible to misery after midnight. Elves revelled in the darkness that kept them hidden, Dwarves felt it as a homecoming, Grublims did not notice it and the Aeries were so contented that the night meant only a pleasant change from day and a chance to study the stars.

“Lagré is in love with a gondolier from Italy and has been granted permission to become human for three days. This morning, Krakatoa exploded in one world, a continent disappeared in another, and Skarl was entirely obliterated by fire. That’s what comes of leaving the Lands in the charge of Terrans.” Minno asked who Terrans was and learned that he was Lagré’s apprentice and was not nearly qualified enough to be left as overseer.

Of all the Hours, Nané was the best storyteller. She was one of the oldest Hours and had skin that looked like fire under a sheen of water. Her work took her through the thoughts of men tired by a day of work, leaders tired by war, and Troll-giants tired of undermining the earth. Nané, Dusk to the world of Men, had a cloak of phoenix feathers that grew with the passing years as Namata, the phoenix who controlled the turning of the worlds, shed one each evening.  The cloak was so light that Nané barely felt its touch, only the warmth that still radiated from the feather stems. It was the long warmth of old light that slits through Venetian blinds in the evenings and turns skin to a fire like that of Nané’s.  She told Minno of the long shadows of the sun—he told her of the shadows of the moon on serrated leaves and of slides in children’s parks slipping with mercury. Nané was the one who told Minno to guard his minutes. She told him of a rhyme Namata had whispered to her:

“Time is ancient as the four winds
and as changing as the minds of Men
as precious as a splint of ice
and as dangerous as both of them.”

Minno didn’t tell Nané that he had lost three minutes but he thought she might have guessed. She usually did.

It was many years later when Minno went back to the old tree to find his bag of minutes. When he got there, he could only stare. Then he leant forward to touch the side of the tree—it was soft and permeated by green tendrils that recoiled at Minno’s touch. The top of the tree was shrouded with leaves, black leaves as though Midnight had forgotten her gloves, but the sun was bright. Minno climbed up to the top and felt the bark shake and creak. He found the entrance to the hollow trunk and looked down. He smiled a crescent across his face—another tree was growing inside the dead oak, a beautiful silver ash, extinct now from most worlds as it is sensitive to light in the early stages of growth. The protection of the old oak had proved a perfect haven and this silver ash was nodding its head to the sky. Minno suddenly realised why the leaves were black and velvet thick. One of his lost minutes had been scraped from the darkest night of the year for him by Callidus—the midnight Hour—as a gift.  Minno was sorry to lose it but this tree was so beautiful that he didn’t mind. He sat in it for a long while so that, for the sleepless souls that night, his Hour passed peacefully.

Minno sat with Nané in the silver ash. Its bark was cold and the darkness of the leaves made him think of storms in the Atlantic a thousand leagues under the sea where the pressure makes heads crack and lungs collapse and the creatures survive by becoming dark or transparent. Nané looked at Minno and he knew she had spoken to the silver ash and had found out that he had lost a minute. They sat for a while, Nané’s cloak bright against the dense leaves.

“Minno,” she said, very quietly. So quietly that if Minno had been a man or Dwarf or Quarl, he would not have heard. He glanced at her and almost said something. They sat palm to palm, and Nané told Minno a story.

“Once, not so long ago, in a world where men fought over land that didn’t belong to them, religions changed at the whim of kings, and the forests still advised the wiser men, there was a small village.

“This village was snuggled in a valley, so that in the winter, the square in the centre of the village was lit up by the sun for only an hour as the light broke over the rim of the surrounding hill. A little further down the valley, following the edge where the hills met, a path led down to a large lake. This lake was so deep that all the hills surrounding it could have been sunk to the bottom and it was so still that it looked as though they had been thrown in as a reflection.”

Nané stopped and looked at Minno, who had recognised the lake as one of his favourite haunts, on account of the reflection. Nané continued, “The village depended on the lake for water. It was fed and drained by an underground stream in the bottom of the deep bowl of the lake, but now, Minno,” Nané’s face became serious, “they have no water supply. Last week, a huge thunderstorm blew something into the lake. It was swallowed and now a grey monster lurks, terrifying the villagers. The Valley of Loch Ness will never be the same.”

Minno gulped and looked at his bare toes. He knew where the second minute had gone now.

That night after his Hour, he went down to the lake. It was very still. The moon wasn’t very bright, and the sky was cloudy. He waded into the water, his feet so pale that at first he could see them under the surface, until his knees sunk in and his feet disappeared. He supposed the water was cold, but being a Small Hour he was used to cold air by all measurements, and the Hours could not feel cold as a bad thing, so as the dark water flapped quietly over his head, he enjoyed the quiet that was so much thicker than the dimly moonlit world he had just left. His vision slid into tonal perception and the steady movement of the underwater made him feel at ease. He sat on the floor of the lake and looked up. The moon was behind a cloud, and he could barely distinguish where the lake edge ran. He felt that he was being watched. A face peered out of the gloom. The eyes were large and bulbous and had a glazed look of confusion. Its head was stretched from its body so that it was suspended out in front, obviously a matter of some discomfort as it kept turning to look at its back as though it felt stalked. Its fins had lengthened and scraped the sandy floor, scratching a cross-hatching of shapes in the sand. She shuddered a low frequency and Minno knew that she was lonely. He had been learning to think in low frequency, but it is far more complicated than any of the four thousand languages he had been born with.

Minno sat for a long time. He was not surprised when just after the sun had risen, he saw Nané’s cloak in a shimmer on the water’s surface. She could not venture down into the deep water or she would fade into a wraith and dusk would be always grey. He left the dark, tendrillic strings of weed and the creatures only ever found in this isolated crater.

Nané smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back. She waited and watched him wonder at her smile until he noticed the stream dribbling into the lake. They walked slowly up the stream, which had grown a little wider, until they came to the outskirts of the village. Far up on the ridge of the hill, Terrans was digging and the ground shuddered and split. Already the stream was flowing stronger and as its course was brought out from underground, it found its way down the hill along the path.

Nané lightly touched Minno’s head “Terrans wanted to increase daylight Hours in the valley and arranged for an earthquake; the underground stream is no longer buried, and the village now has water.”

Minno looked relieved.  “Don’t tell Grandfather,” he said.

“He knows,” she replied simply and left him feeling a little nervous about his next meeting with Time.

Minno’s worry over the whereabouts of the third minute had left him wandering out to the closest galaxy. He watched Sidera dancing for some time, curling his legs under him as he sat.

The planet Storlan, Sidera’s favourite dance floor, was a slightly flattened sphere with a huge plain on one side. The whole planet was made entirely of marble and shone with an extraordinary brightness, flickering in and out of shadows as Sidera spiralled and somersaulted and flew spinning across the surface.  Her movements were entrancing, then sad, then still, only swaying slightly, then galloping faster and faster and soaring through the black of space and landing just above the marble floor, as though en pointe. Her hair and skin were the palest blue so that she looked white against the black of night and blue against the marble.

As Minno began somehow to understand the pattern she was dancing, he noticed a difference in the stars that stood as a backdrop to the scene. The great bird of the Ignavair constellation let its beak descend to the eastern edge of the planet, while the wing tip touched the dark above the west, stretched out as though in flight. A group of stars, still under Argentis’ instruction, were sitting in the Long Shore star system practicing their positions until Night gave them their cues. But above the horn of Asterlana, a star split through the black of space. Minno looked again and drew the figure of Asterlana with his hand in the sky, her long dress with the embroidered hem, her hand clasping a twisted horn and the wreath on her head. The star, unusually bright, looked as if it was being blown out of her horn as in a song of festivals and banners. It had not been there before, he was sure. It was not long before he noticed Argentis sitting beside him. “That star…” he began.

“Isn’t a star,” she finished his sentence for him but not quite how he had expected. Her eyes flickered from clear to black and back to clear again; she could not blink, only pull a cold veil of space over her eyes. “It appeared a little while ago. It was very small to start with, but all life in all the universes touching it seemed to slow down. They live longer and do it faster. A dying elf has taken up long walks and a girl from Arctan can run twice as fast as she could than if it was four hundred light-years further away.” Minno grinned and went to find Nané. He found her scattering sunset on the sea like corn in a farmyard. She didn’t turn around but listened while he told her of the star and smiled.

“It does not always work out so easily,” she said. Minno looked ashamed, but she pressed something into his hand. He looked down. It was a perfect, spherical, warm minute, slightly flattened and made of marble. As he looked closely, he saw a miniature Sidera, dancing. He looked up. Nané had gone, and instead he found himself looking at his grandfather’s eyebrows.

“Have you ever looked at a minute that closely before?” he said. Minno shook his head. “Well,” said Time and left a small brown bag on Minno’s lap as he stretched himself out to go home. Minno sat to look at his minutes closely, each one a picture of a memory that he had enjoyed. He thought for a moment and looked around.

That night in his Hour, the section of night in which he ruled the speed at which the worlds turned, he placed his minutes, all nine of them, in nine places in nine worlds so that in the morning there were nine dreams inside them, full of scraps of daytime and flakes of evening and blurs of thought. And nine people felt that maybe the Small Hours of the night were not so long.

 


Vicki Northern is more commonly known as Ermintrude or Paradox, due to a daisy chewing habit and having odd friends. Her favourite things include watermelon pip spitting contests, quoting The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and playing unaccompanied Bach. She doesn’t like riding rickshaws down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, aeroplane curries, or the beeping sound microwaves make when they have finished cooking. She spent her childhood in East Africa learning to avoid rabid dogs, cycling through national game parks and wearing flip-flops. She reads anything she can get her hands on, mostly due to the fact that she has never had a television. She writes poetry and fiction. Now she lives in Guernsey and wants to be Postman Pat when she grows up.

© 2005, Vicki Northern

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