Seventh Chapter: Death

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She opened her eyes to a queer blue bird looking at her with near motherly concern. A sudden caterwauling sent the bird into flight, long indigo tail feathers shimmering in the air as it arced above the trees. In the distance, she saw three mice scampering towards her. Only as they grew closer did she realize they weren't mice at all, but three little boys in weird oversized robes with odd vestments and long loose sleeves that hid the hands beneath them. Her throat burned and her eyes stung and her back ached, but she struggled to sit up as the boys approached.

"Well," said one, a little hoarse from shouting.

"You all right?" asked another.

The third looked away from her, arms crossed. "Stupid thing to do, crossing the river."

"Well I didn't want to," Iris snapped, still blinking as she stood up sorely. "There was a girl. Is she okay?

"No girl," the cross one said.

"Just a bird." The first boy's voice was a bit uneasy.

"That flew away."

"Good timing, too. It could have plucked your eyes out."

Iris shivered. "Where am I?" She tasted the strange air and eyed the strange landscape. It was familiar and yet eerily altered. "I'm not home anymore."

"You're on the other side of the river now. Welcome to the stranger shore."

On that enigmatic note, the three boys grinned mischievously and darted up the hill, running with the playful abandon of youth and swooping across each other's paths just for the thrill. Iris followed much more sedately to the lights that crowned the slope where her memories told her graves should be. Though the grass was green and the dirt was loamy just like home, the sky was a dusky mauve and the moon that shone was unrepentantly orange. A stranger shore, indeed.

At the top of a hill was a bustling village somehow squeezed into a small plot. Standing abreast of the village, its proportions seemed skewed and its perspectives odd; the houses seemed like crudely hewed toys of different sets all mixed together and the people like phantasms in warped mirrors. It reminded Iris of a child's drawing in the dirt; the shapes were familiar enough to communicate the image's intent, but little heed was paid to size relations or reality's true make. Or perhaps it was that the buildings all seemed very far away when Iris knew they were close enough for her to reach with a few brisk paces.

Yet as dizzy as it made her to stare at it from without, the layout grew clearer as Iris walked through the town. Each building was small and blurry until one grew nearer, at which point space yawned open to allow it more room and detail, as if proximity gave it priority. The first time this happened startled Iris abominably, as she found herself transposed suddenly from a communal street into a familial scene, with sisters chatting on a porch that only steps ago had seemed too small for a cat- the residences grew exponentially fast. It seemed to Iris as if the telescoping homes should give her a headache, but it made a sideways sort of sense if she didn't dwell on it. As long as you skirted their spheres of influence, the houses wouldn't loom too largely at you, so Iris kept to the streets and merely peered at the pocket-places off to the side.

As she wandered the streets, which also stretched queerly as you walked on them, depending on how many others bustled about, she saw glimpses of people she used to know. There was young Sally, who had been thrown off her horse during a thunderstorm, and old Randolph, who would always tell Iris long meandering yarns when she asked for alms. At one corner she even caught sight of Rina with her trusty rooster strutting behind her as she bustled off to the east. The people all seemed cheery, chatting pleasantly if they chanced to meet. Yet if Iris met someone's eyes, she was usually offered at most a bland smile, and for the most part people paid no notice to her at all.

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