This story available on Feb 13, 2021
Balls in the Air
“Thank you, my friend,” I told the small black cylinder sitting side by side with me on a shelf. “Now I understand why you were singing Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.”
“I am glad you enjoyed it,” said the cylinder. It played a few bars of a Strauss waltz to remind me of the majestically circling spaceships and space stations from the movie it had just shown me. I was amused that the film was named for the year eight centuries after I had been born in Little Poland in 1201. “Now it’s your turn again,” it said, flashing a blue light on its upper edge.
“You want to hear more about my adventures?” I asked.
“I do,” said my new friend. “Where did you and the girl go after she rescued you?” Its blue light flashed faster, which I interpreted as eagerness.
I’d already shared the first part of my personal tale, recounting the story of my death and rebirth as a sentient skull after the Mongols sacked my home city of Sandomir. I had been a student of alchemy and the wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus, searching for an elixir of immortality, and had somehow retained my consciousness after my head had been lopped from my body by an invading Mongol warrior’s blade. I had just been rescued from my lonely perch atop a pile of bones by a girl—a young woman, really—who became my traveling companion in return for my promise to teach her Indian mathematics from Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci. I’d also committed to instructing her in the art of alchemy and the Hermetic mysteries, so she could begin her own quest for immortality.
Advanced instruction of that sort required ample funds and a secure place to live, however. We had neither, so we were on the road heading west from Sandomir, avoiding the route the Mongols had taken on their advance southwest toward Kraków through Chmielnik, hoping to collect a few coins by teaching local merchants about the power of nothing, Fibonnacci’s concept of zero.
“Do you have a name?” I asked the young woman who held me in two hands against her bosom.
“Yes,” she replied, saying nothing further.
I smiled to myself, though I had no lips to indicate my expression. My companion was a precisionist. I would have to adjust my questions accordingly.
“My name is Profesor Mateusz. What’s yours?”
“Kazimíra,” she replied. “My parents thought I would be a boy and had planned to name me for my uncle Kazimír. Everyone calls me Kazi—and I will call you Matti.”
“Kazi and Matti it is,” I said. “If we are to share each other’s company on the road, Profesor Mateusz is far too formal.”
“And takes too long to say,” she replied.
“Tell me. I saw you arrive in Sandomir from the east. How did you escape the Mongols?”
Kazi didn’t answer for a hundred steps.
“My stepfather was a stonecutter across the Vistula,” she said at last. “I liked to visit him at his work. When the Mongols came, everyone in my family was at home except me. I was at the quarry, shaping small pieces of stone into a set of blocks as a present for my younger brother.”
“Very thoughtful,” I said, because go on didn’t seem appropriate.
“I was in a shallow cave when I heard what sounded like thunder,” said Kazi. “I went to the entrance and looked up, but the sky was clear.”
“The sound of Mongol ponies’ hooves?”
“Correct,” said Kazi, “Though I didn’t learn that until later. I heard the screams from the village first.”
“This was a year ago?” I asked. “When you were—”
“Fifteen,” said Kazi. “My brother was about to turn thirteen, but he never reached that age.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Another hundred paces passed.
“I hid in the cave until the screams stopped and the sound of thunder echoed away to the west.”
A drop of liquid hit one of the sutures joining the plates of my skull-self together.
“I smelled smoke and my heart was heavy. I put various stonecutting tools and the collection of blocks I’d carved so far into a leather backpack. Gathering my courage, I climbed out of the quarry carrying my father’s mallet,” said Kazi. She swallowed and continued. “As it turned out, I didn’t need a weapon. The Mongols were gone and so was my village. It had been burned to the ground. I saw three charred bodies in the smoldering ashes where our cottage had been.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“So am I,” Kazi replied. “Perhaps if I can learn alchemy and make myself immortal, in time I’ll find a way to kill three hundred Mongols—five score for each member of my family.”
“It’s good to have goals,” I said, without even a touch of irony.
Kazi walked on as more tears struck me. She rubbed them away with the edge of a scarf.
“How did you make your way to Sandomir?” I asked.
“Carefully,” she said. “I found food. I’m a fair hand with a sling and rabbits are often unwary.”
“Duly noted,” I said. “How did you cross the Vistula?”
“I walked,” said Kazi.
“Am I in the presence of a saint, then?” I asked.
“Hardly,” said Kazi. “The river was high from spring floods and blocked with a great snag of downed trees and unmoored barges. I could step from obstacle to obstacle without getting my feet wet.”
“A stroke of luck,” I said.
“That’s more true than you know,” said Kazi. “Moments after my feet reached the west bank a barge near the center fractured and the snag broke, sending debris swirling downriver.”
“I’m pleased to be traveling with someone Fortune favors,” I said.
“I suspect finding you is another example of my good luck,” said Kazi. “You’ve given me hope I can avenge my family.”
“Such a hope may be like seeking vengeance on a hailstorm or retribution against a whirlwind,” I said.
“The actions of a single individual against forces of nature—and have no doubt, the Mongol hordes are such forces—are not likely to be successful.”
“Then I will have to change the odds,” said Kazi. She squeezed me tight to her chest.
* * * * *
“Do you have any thoughts on where we should stop for the night?” asked Kazi. “You don’t need protection from the elements, but I do.”
“Włostów isn’t far,” I said. “It’s a small place, but it does have an inn. Perhaps the innkeeper will have pity on you and let you sleep in his stable.”
“Better that than being invited to share the innkeeper’s bed,” said Kazi.
“I doubt that will be a problem,” I said. “You’ll be the crazy girl with a talking skull.”
“Perhaps,” she said.
“Wait a moment,” I said, struck by inspiration. “How would you like to make enough money to buy a bed, dinner, and breakfast?”
“What would I have to do to make this money?” she asked.
I told her.
* * * * *
Most of Poland is as flat as a griddle cake. That meant I could see the modest wood and stone structures of Włostów well before we reached the town. I judged it had enough buildings to hold eight dozen families, plus an inn and church. The town was small but would suit our purposes.
The children of Włostów saw us approach before any adults gave us notice. I was nestled in the crook of Kazi’s left arm, draped with a scarf and not immediately visible. Kazi and I had experimented and determined that I could see even if my eye sockets were covered, so it posed no problem to hide my presence.
Several children ran down the road to meet us, peppering Kazi with questions faster than a Mongol can shoot. I’d coached her on how to reply.
“I come from across the Vistula and am heading for Kielce,” she told the children. “I seek food and lodging and—” She paused, causing the children to listen more closely.
“And what?” asked an impatient girl of eight or ten.
“And anyone interested in listening to a miraculous storytelling skull,” said Kazi.
The girl frowned and shook her head. “You’re making that up,” she said.
“I’m not,” said Kazi. “Do you have a market square in Włostów?”
“Of course we do,” said the girl. “It’s between the church and the inn. But market day was yesterday.”
“I’m not here to shop,” said Kazi. “I’m here to amaze you. Run and tell your families that the talking skull’s stories will begin in the market square within the hour.”
“I’ll tell my father,” said the girl. “He’s the innkeeper.”
“Mama says my father is the priest,” said a small boy in a dirty tunic.
“Tell him to come and witness the miracle,” said Kazi.
The collection of village children stood staring at Kazi, still circling around her like herding dogs around a flock. I decided to light a fire under their feet, pitched my voice low, and spoke from under Kazi’s scarf.
“Run, children!” I growled. “Tell everyone to gather at the square!”
The children scattered, departing in a flurry of motion.
“That was effective,” Kazi whispered. “Everyone in town will know about you in less time than it takes to sing the Te Deum.”
* * * * *
The town square in Włostów was crowded when we arrived. It was late afternoon during planting season and the seeds were already in the ground, so there weren’t many competing activities to keep people away from the novelty our presence provided.
Thirty paces on a side, the square was bounded by a wooden church to the south and the stone inn across from it. Shops for merchants and craftsmen formed the east side of the square and large homes for what must be the wealthiest citizens of Włostów were to the west.
In the middle of the square was a small circle of grass with a four-foot fieldstone pedestal in its center. Perhaps they were going to put up a statue. It didn’t matter. The setting was perfect for us.
Kazi strode into the square and entered the circle. “Good people of Włostów,” she said. “My name is Kazi.” With a flourish, she removed the colorful scarf that covered me, and placed me atop the pedestal. “And this is my good friend, Profesor Mateusz from the University of Sandomir. He’s here to regale you with tales of wisdom, war, and adventure.”
There were gasps from some in the crowd, and a few laughs, but everyone grew quiet after I began to speak, pitching my voice to be heard around the square.
“Good gentles,” I said. “By some great miracle I have retained the power of speech after my head was lopped off by a Mongol’s sword.”
I could see that many looked skeptical, convinced Kazi was tricking them, so she did what we’d discussed and wrapped the scarf that had been hiding me around her mouth. Then she moved to stand on the church steps some distance away so no one could say it was she who was talking.
As I had for Kazi earlier, I recited a paternoster, adding in the Symbolum Apostolicum for good measure. “I have given evidence that I am no demon,” I said. “I am on a quest to find out how it is that I yet live. My companion and I are traveling to Kraków seeking answers. On our way, I will be sharing stories, relying on your generosity to help speed our travels.”
Kazi took that as her cue and removed the scarf from around her mouth, holding it in a curve between her outstretched hands to collect coins.
“I will also be instructing those who desire to understand the new Indian numbers, which are far superior to Roman numerals for calculations and keeping accounts. Please tell Kazi if you would like to learn. The cost is one silver piece—but you will save that and more in the first week of applying your new knowledge.”
The crowd started to buzz at this. Very few of them could afford a silver penny, but I saw several thoughtful nods from men—and a few women—standing in front of merchants’ shops or wealthy citizens’ homes. If the inn wouldn’t put Kazi up for the night and feed her, perhaps one of them would.
“But now,” I said, raising my voice to recapture everyone’s attention, “it is time for tales of wisdom, war, and adventure.”
I went back to the Greeks for inspiration, using Aesop’s Fables for wisdom, the Iliad for war, and the Odyssey for adventure. My audience laughed at the lion with a thorn in its paw, cried at the death of Achilles, and gasped in wonder at the escape of the sailors from Polyphemus.
The sun was nearing the horizon as I finished and I could see that Kazi’s scarf held quite a few coins, so I ended my recitation before Odysseus returned to Penelope.
“Will any of you offer my companion food and shelter for the night?” I asked. “I am beyond such things, but she is not.”
“Come to the inn,” said a well-fleshed man standing next to the girl with blonde braids we’d met earlier. “You can teach me Indian numbers and we’ll call it even.”
* * * * *
I sat on a trestle table at the inn while Kazi sopped up soup with a thick slice of dark bread. The girl with blonde braids sat at her elbow. While I was explaining positional notation to her father, I overheard the girl whisper to Kazi.
“No. Really. How do you make it talk?”
Soon, the girl led Kazi upstairs. I asked the innkeeper to connect my jawbone to my skull with brass wire, so I didn’t have to worry about it detaching. I didn’t know if I needed my jawbone to talk but didn’t want to risk finding out the hard way.
* * * * *
“How much did we collect?” I asked Kazi as we walked west two days later.
“Twenty-two coppers and five silvers,” said Kazi. “I’m impressed.”
“We make a good team,” I said.
“We would have made more if you’d sworn each student of Indian mathematics to secrecy,” she said. “As it was, I’m sure several merchants plan to learn from their friends who’d paid you.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “It’s important knowledge and deserves to spread widely.”
“Maybe,” said Kazi. “But I still like collecting as many silver pieces as possible. We need to save for a permanent place to live.”
I couldn’t disagree, so we passed the time in companionable silence until a protruding stone in the road caught Kazi’s boot and she began to fall. I went flying as she tried to regain her balance and was sure I’d be smashed to bone fragments when something strange happened.
I caught myself on my arms, supporting my skull-self a few feet off the ground.
“What are you doing?” asked Kazi. She’d been horrified at the prospect of dropping me yet pleased she’d regained her footing.
“Holding myself up,” I replied.
“I think I’m doing a handstand,” I said.
“But you don’t have hands. Or arms,” said Kazi.
“I don’t have lips or lungs either, but I can talk,” I reminded her.
“True enough,” said Kazi. She took me from where I floated and tied me in a scarf around her waist, not wanting to risk inadvertently tossing me in the air again. “Can you touch my nose?” she asked after a thousand paces.
I tried and found I could, so I pinched it—gently.
“Hey!” said Kazi. She rapped on my dome through the scarf.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Are you coordinated?” she asked after more paces.
“You mean like dancing?” I asked. “I have arms, not legs.”
“No,” said Kazi. “I have something else in mind.”
She told me, and I could see the possibilities. We stopped early that night and Kazi transformed the blocks of stone in her backpack into spheres. We practiced until the light gave out.
* * * * *
A few days later we reached Kielce. It was a market day, so Kazi spent two coppers on a wicker basket. She found a highly visible spot and sat tailor fashion, her long skirts protecting her modesty. Kazi put the basket in front of her and removed a dozen small stone balls from her backpack. After seeding the basket with a couple of coppers, she started to juggle three of the balls in a simple circular shower.
Spectators gathered and soon Kazi added another ball, then another. More people came over to watch. One even added a copper to the basket. By the time Kazi was up to nine balls, half the people in the square were watching.
Then Kazi clasped her hands behind her back and the balls continued to circle in the air, forming a hypnotic pattern. I had to concentrate but kept them moving smoothly.
Dozens of coins clanked into the basket—silvers along with coppers. Onlookers cheered and clapped. Kazi brought her hands back forward and launched a three-ball fountain behind my nine-ball shower. Still more coins landed in the basket.
She ended her fountain and slowly removed balls from my pattern until only five remained. She juggled three in a sideswipe cascade while I invisibly held the other two out at arm’s length, tossing them up and catching them. That demonstration of skill led to even more coins, many of them silver.
We stopped juggling and Kazi collected the balls. She placed them in her backpack, along with the basket and its contents. Then she got up and left the market square without saying a word. I could hear the coins jingling as she walked.
“Maybe we’ll be able to afford a permanent place to live sooner now,” Kazi whispered.
“If we can keep all our balls in the air, I think you’re right,” I replied.
Dave Schroeder (SHRAY-der) is the author of the Congruent Mage fantasy series and the Xenotech Support science fiction humor series. He is a retired IT executive from Atlanta who enjoys performing with the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company.
Interview available on Feb 19, 2021