Categories
Stories

House

House is the story of a house that picks itself up off the ground and walks across town.

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Grapes, 9/11/2018, Washington state

Then one day the 1926 two story white house with the green shutters at 4224 Whipple Lane—in that green, affluent suburb with the wide winding roads—tugged its foundation from the ground, scattering clumps of dark brown earth and roots, and began moving down the broad road, soon to be lost from view. The house’s family, when they returned from the mall, were quite surprised.

Little chunks of concrete and wood cracked off the house’s foundation as the house ambled down the road that led to the port. Inside the house, a clear glass vase on a hall table shook, and the vase’s water spilled out onto the glossy hardwood floors. The irises and petunias inside the glass trembled and shook, and the grandfather clock, which nearly always kept the wrong time, gonged in protestation. But with a mighty, creaking shrug of its wings, the house yawned through its windows, sucking fresh air through musty passageways. The air was salty from the sea, and the house’s windows drew up and down slowly, as if deeply inhaling. Chips of paint flecked off the sills and the bottoms of the windows, the curtains flapped and stretched themselves, and the fluttering blinds sounded like tambourines as they flexed in the warmth of the summer sun.

The house turned down wide, two-laned Maple Street, a quaint residential road whose houses butted up against one another like the apartments of New York City and whose yards seemingly were the size of postage stamps. At the far end of Maple Street was a cul-de-sac, and beyond the cul-de-sac lay a small grassy hill, a fisherman’s wharf, and the gently lapping ocean. The house continued along Maple, and the house moved so noiselessly and unobtrusively that, despite its colossal mass and concrete foundation, not even a man reading a newspaper at the Maple & 8th street bus stop noticed the house pass. When the house was not more than ten feet in front of him, the man, who was immersed in an article on Pennsylvania football, let a page of the newspaper dip and, for a moment, seemed to have discovered the house which moved blithely by. But the man picked up the drooping page, ruffled the paper, and continued reading, not any more aware of his circumstances than he was a moment before.

Further down the road, the house’s oven door fell open, and the scent of burnt casserole wafted out while crumbs of blackened crust pattered to the ground. The refrigerator door swung wide, and the cheese drawer fell open to reveal a healthy wheel of Gouda and three quarters of a cold salami. Shaking from the movement of the house, the milk sloshed in its plastic gallon jug, the zucchinis rolled onto the floor, and two half cut lemons gently bumped the side of the refrigerator. A woman beating her rug against her third floor balcony railing threw her hand to her mouth. The rug slid from her hands and fell at her feet. It wasn’t until the house had nearly passed her balcony that the woman recovered her voice, yet when she found it, she screamed so loudly that even her deaf neighbor shuddered, and the man reading the newspaper four blocks away pulled up his head, frowning in curious mystification.

In an instant, many of the windows were full of gasping faces. Doors opened. Men in slippers and women in curlers flooded into Maple Street, crowding the sidewalks as if a parade were passing. Simultaneously, a bus pulled into the station on 8th and Maple and, when the passengers discerned what was happening, the bus emptied, and the driver turned off the heavy diesel engine, descended, and locked the bus’ doors. The family who owned the house had followed the trail of cement, roots, and broken two by fours, and now they stopped their car a few blocks away, merging with the crowd that was following their house.

A woman with a big black camera which had an enormous flash strode up to the house, contorted her body and drew the camera to her eye. Every time she shot a photo, the people nearby blinked in stupefaction and had what seemed to be an eternal after-image from the blast of the flash. Onlookers began packing together more tightly, jockeying for the superlative view. With flashing red and blue lights, police began slowly motoring through the crowd of pedestrians, who parted like the Red Sea. The police dug barriers out of their car trunks, set the barriers parallel to the sidewalks, and formed lines to keep the crowds confined to the sidewalk.

“Move on back!” yelled an officer, shooing people back to the sidewalk like they were chickens. A family—bustling, grabbing their children’s wrists, and quickly counting to make sure all their children were present—moved back to the sidewalk. “Oh God, John,” said a woman with a baby in her arms and another six or seven year old with curly blonde hair held by the wrist, “I’ve just realized I forgot to take my birth control this morning.”

Staring up at the house, holding a three year old over his shoulder, and calling to a nine year old boy, John replied, “Not the first time… Lord, would you look at that house move!”

Dogs whimpered at the sight of the house, running off with tails tucked between their legs and casting pitiful looks over their shoulders. A girl limped behind the line of people, holding her father’s hand and pointing at the house. The father of the girl, a man with a short cinnamon beard, hairy forearms, and a bag of supplies slung over his free shoulder observed the house in silence while listening to his girl.

Past the cul-de-sac on the wharf, an enterprising vendor was selling fresh-caught shrimp out of his stall when he saw the house approaching his stand.

“You lazy shrub,” said the vendor to the pimply fifteen year old who worked for him. “Go out and tell those people to buy shrimp from me. There’s two thousand people lining those streets, and I’ve got seventy-five pounds of jumbo shrimp to sell. Can’t you see the business? Can’t you do the math?”

The boy saw the people, all of whom were focusing only on the house that was moving quietly down Maple. “I don’t think they’re hungry,” he observed.

Cursing filthily, the shrimper picked the boy up with a hand that only had four fingers, set the boy outside the stand, and kicked him to the ground with all his might, “Do I pay you to use your mouth or do I pay you to work?! Work!”

Picking himself up off the splintered, soggy boards of the wooden wharf and rabbiting away, the pimply fifteen-year old cast fearful glances over his shoulder as he hawked, “Fresh shrimp, fresh shrimp!”

In the crowds, a preacher nudged his wife and mentioned that the house was a parallel to the parable of the prodigal son. “That house… It’ll come back,” the preacher reassured her, and she nodded absently, her mouth agape at the sight of the moving house. A group of construction workers, greasy and unshaven, with thick arms and suntanned skin came over to watch the house.

“Huh,” observed one. “Wonder what happened to its plumbing?”

“Beats me,” replied a tall worker with jet black hair, “Probably broke it off. Whoever laid that foundation did a hell of a job, though, I can tell you that. Look at how fast that house is moving—you don’t have a house that moves that fast with a poor foundation.”

“Yep,” nodded the foreman. “You got that right.”

The sounds of conversation mixed and buzzed through the air, and the people followed the house’s path, making guesses as to where it was going, why it was moving, and how it moved at all.

“I know how it works,” said a fellow with short brown hair and brown eyes, nodding his head up and down and pointing at the house’s foundation. “There’s a motor in the kitchen of the first floor—there! you can almost see it through the window there—and that motor powers the wheels of the house which you can’t see because they’re hidden behind that concrete foundation. I know that much for sure. My only question is, why didn’t I think of it first?”

On the other side of the road, near the preacher and his wife, the wife in the family who owned the house spoke in rapid, rainy tones to her husband, “It’s my fault, isn’t it? I never cleaned the bathroom enough, and I just knew that something would happen—”

“Beatrice!” exclaimed her husband, nearly in a shout, “You didn’t know anything like that would happen. How many times do I have to tell you not to kick yourself for things that aren’t your fault?”

“I knoooow,” Beatrice whined mournfully, “But I just think that if we had treated the house better, it might still be where it belongs?”

Her husbands lips tightened and he shook his head.

“Bill!” said Beatrice, “Are you mad at me?”

“No,” he answered, his tone clipped and short. “I just think it’s silly that you think a house getting up and walking off is your fault. And I kind of wonder where it’s going, that’s all.”

“I can’t help overhearing you,” said the preacher, “But I can tell you, whereever that house is going, it’s sure to come back.”

Soon enough, the house came to the cul-de-sac at the end of Maple drive. A small hill lay to the house’s left, about a quarter of a mile away, and straight in front of the house—just past the end of the cul-de-sac and the fisherman’s wharf—lay the broad ocean. At the cul-de-sac the house veered from its path and climbed to the zenith of the small hill, where sailors and citizens backed out of its way. The house circled partway around, so that its back doors commanded a vista of the ocean, and its front faced the people and their town, and there, with a resounding thump, the house settled.

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Stories

The Skeleton Train

The Skeleton Train is the story of a train of skeletons who steam into a quiet village on one snowy winter’s night.  They are celebrating a girl, and her father–a terrible, violent man–cannot understand why.

I wrote The Skeleton Train when I was 23, then I did nearly nothing with it for more than a decade.  But the story always stayed on my mind.  When I re-read it yesterday, I only changed a few commas here and there, and I took out a pair of words that I added seven years ago; they were not part of the original draft.

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Skeleton wedding.  Nov. 11th, 2014, Mexico.  For Death don’t us part.

Snow fell, and the wind pushed it into drifts.  Railroad tracks carved past glacial lakes. The night slept: the trees resting their needles, the drowsy flakes blanketing the white hills, the mute town lights in the distance winking good night.

Aboard the screaming train, the skeletons shrieked.

Inside the compartment, fire red rugs rippled, and candles swung on a chandelier, flinging wax and spitting drops of fire. Splintery tables and chipped chairs rocked side to side and beat against one another’s legs as the silver, speeding train yanked around corners and bulleted up and down hills. Scenery whipped by the window: trees, boulders, and mountains.

The skeletons wore gruesome grins, and their heads were bone-white, round, and rough. Their arms flailed, long and fleshless; the skeletons stretched them out above their heads, pushed them down below their waists, sashayed them at their sides. Circling madly the room, shrieking, throwing their heads back, shaking their hands in the air, pushing off chairs and tables, the skeletons clattered their bones with their dance, and their shadows—hideous, porous—were thrown against the walls by the candle chandelier.

Ahead of the silver train, a tunnel yawned.

The train shot through the tunnel, throwing the skeletons’ car into near blackness, the compartment lit only by the swinging chandelier. Magnified in the tunnel, the train’s screams rose shrilly, cracking the silence of the peaceful night. When the train shot out of the tunnel, a light in a hushed, distant town winked yellow. As the train steamed nearer, lights in the town began flicking on. The lights winked one at a time, then a few at a time sporadically throughout the town, then in great numbers, until the whole town was lit, and the town clock—which read twelve minutes to the witching hour—was bathed in an artificial glow.

With a wail of brakes the skeleton train, whose windows were dark nightmares, save for the single lit window through which the skeletons could be seen, screeched into the station. A whoosh of its brakes announced the termination of its journey, and the locomotive exhaled a jet of white steam which hung sleepily in the snow chilled air. Some of the town’s folk nearest the station came to their doorsteps, but none spoke. Many people wore pajamas with slippers on their feet. Other people stayed inside, wrapped in robes, their faces pressed against the glass of a window to see the spectral sight.

The train door slid open, and an inferno of red light silhouetted the skeletons. The skeletons stood in the doorway. There were five, all identical. One stood with crossed legs, and an arm hanging by its side. This skeleton leaned against the frame of the train door, and it drummed its fingers slowly on the metal frame, one after the other. The pinky started first. One. The ring finger followed. Two. Then all the skeleton’s fingers clicked against the cold steel frame. A second skeleton stood with crossed arms, and a third skeleton slowly extended its arm out the train door and turned over its hand. The skeleton extended a single finger, and on its tip landed a snowflake.

A few moments passed in undisturbed silence. Then the five skeletons hopped from the train, their bones bending so their elbows nearly touched the ground when they landed. The snow before the skeletons had already been trampled; footprints meandered across the snow and a red splash lay in a frozen pool from a littered raspberry ice. Slowly, their knees bending, their hollow eye sockets searching, their arms swinging at their ossified sides, the skeletons proceeded up the main street of the town.

The street was an old one, older than the town. The houses that lined the street were pushed together, like the apartments of New York City, and before each house lay a tiny plot of land for a front yard. The land seemed not much bigger than a postage stamp. The houses were narrow, mostly two stories, sometimes three. The windows were lit. The street terminated in a doughnut shaped cul-de-sac, and the tall town clock, which read five minutes to the witching hour, stood stiff as bone in the center of the circle. With a gold façade and architecture like Big Ben, this timekeeper gonged the hours.

The skeletons walked down the street, pausing now and then to look at the numbers on the doors. Snowflakes fluttered through their ribs, and a rogue flake fell into the eye socket of one skeleton. The skeletons turned their heads; they took measured steps. One checked the clock. There still were no sounds in the street, and the white jet of steam that the locomotive had released hung dormant in the air.

Watching from their doorstep was an old couple. The man wore blue striped pajama pants, brown leather insulated shoes, and he held an unlit pipe between his teeth. His wife—stooped, bent, with silver hair kept in a bun by a tortoiseshell clip—stood by his side. She kept a cane in her right hand, gold-rimmed glasses on her nose, and her breath blew pearl smoke from ancient lips. As the skeletons passed by, viscous as deep sleep, her nod of recognition was nearly imperceptible.

The skeletons stopped at a door near the end of the street. It was the door to one of the few single story houses, and a mother and daughter stood staring through a window. She was taller than her mother now, wearing short blue shorts and a t-shirt. One of the skeletons raised its hand to knock. Its hand paused, rapt and pristine in the cemetery silent air, before falling with a hollow sound upon the door. At the precise moment the skeleton’s knuckles rapped the door, the bone stiff clock in the cul-de-sac gonged the witching hour.

The door creaked open, and a man’s head filled the space between the door and the frame. He peered out, ghastly and thin, with a shriveled mustache and brown and white thin hair to his shoulders.

“What do you want? I’ve got nothing for you. Get on with yourselves.”

The man began to shut the door, but the skeleton who had knocked lifted a finger in the air. As the man closed the door further, the skeleton gently laid the tip of its finger against the door and pushed the door open wide. On the skeleton’s face was a hideous grin, and each skeleton behind this first wore the same. The five skeletons walked in, and the last skeleton, nodding, shut the door. It put its arm against the door, turned the handle, and pushed the door closed, never making a sound.

“They’re lovely,” the young woman whispered.

“Yes. They are,” murmured her mother distantly, remembering the time she had seen them before. She squeezed her daughter’s shoulder.

The five skeletons stood near the end of a long table. The tablecloth was frost white, immaculate, and on it stood two candles with tapered, Christmassy light bulbs in place of wicks. The skeletons looked around the room slowly, and one skeleton picked up a picture off the top of a black piano near the fireplace. The skeleton wiped away a hazy film of dust. The photo showed the young woman as an infant, bundled in pink wool. The skeleton set the photograph back in its place.

The father had backed away when the skeletons came into the house, but now he stepped forward, “You can’t come in here,” he said loudly, gesturing toward the door with his hands. “I didn’t invite you in.” His hands gripped the back of a chair so hard that his veins pulsed.

He tried shooing them to the door again with his hands, then turned his head towards his daughter, “Run to your room Wendy, quick now!”

“No, I’ll stay to see the skeletons.”

“You’ll do what I tell you,” he answered, keeping his eyes on the skeletons.

A skeleton dragged a finger across the tablecloth. The skeleton turned its hand over and looked at its finger, which had not a trace of any dust.

“I washed it today,” said Wendy, before she thought not to let her secret out.

“I’ll thank you to shut your mouth,” said Wendy’s father. “And I’ll ask you another time,” turning back to the skeletons, “—because I’m being as nice as I know how—to get out of my house before I get angry.”

The skeleton who had wiped its finger across the tablecloth showed its spotless finger to the other four skeletons and snapped the fingers of its other hand. One skeleton leaned over to examine the finger. This skeleton stretched out a finger of its own, to touch the finger that had touched the cloth. Bone touched bone.

Another skeleton looked at the finger. This skeleton tossed its rough, bald head back, opening wide its mouth in voiceless laughter, its thin fingers wrapping around its ribs. A fourth began to jig its feet, its toes clicking on the hardwood. It opened its mouth, as if it was shouting.

“What are you doing?” demanded Wendy’s father. “I want you out of my house!” He picked up the dining room chair by its back, and he slammed it against the floor. Its legs produced a cacophonic clatter.

Wendy’s father stood at the corner of the long dining table, his whiskered jaw jutting and his hair hanging down like icicles from bad water. A few feet away stood his wife and Wendy, and across the table, a few steps past its end, a fireplace sunk into the wall with red embers still breathing in the crevices of black logs. Wendy’s father eyed the poker, heavy black iron, standing near the hearth.

Wendy’s mother followed his eyes. “Oh God, Jim,” she murmured so softly only she could hear, “Why is it always violence?”

The skeletons paid him no mind. The skeletons shrieked, circled, linked hands. They tossed back their heads, swinging their shoulders, kicking their feet, laughing soundlessly.

“They’re so joyful,” whispered Wendy.

“I’ve had enough!” Jim roared, gripping the dining room chair and tossing it against the wall so hard that one leg cracked. “Get out, you demons! Get the hell out of my house! You come in here without my permission, and I’ll break your bones!” Rushing to the fireplace, Jim snatched the poker up, accidentally catching its hook on a log in his haste, sending sparks whizzing up the chimney and rolling the logs.

“You two, to your rooms, the both of you! I’m throwing these skeletons out of my house!”

“Don’t you understand?” exclaimed his wife. “They’re celebrating for Wendy!”

He turned, leering through crooked teeth and past the thin strands of hair that covered his eyes. “You’ll both do what I say you will, otherwise I’ll make you feel my palms!”

At that, the skeletons’ dance stopped. The skeletons ceased their muted laughter, silent singing, and noiseless shrieking, craning their necks and peering forward with ghastly grins to observe the scene.

“Daddy, don’t, don’t, don’t!” pleaded Wendy. “Haven’t you seen them before?”

“He hasn’t seen them before,” said her mother, keeping her eyes fixed on Jim. “I never knew your father when they celebrated for me. He can’t know. But we can help him understand. Just listen to us for a moment, will you? The skeletons, Dear, they’re here—”

“They’re here for Wendy! I heard you the first time—But what kind of creature do you want to have in your house? A monster? If you want to be their mistress, Dear, go on and take ’em—side with a skeleton over your own flesh and blood husband.”

“Oh, no no no no no! it’s not that at all!” his wife cried, “You don’t understand! You never understand!” She looked across the long dining room table, seeming to plead him with her eyes. “Say something,” she begged, holding her hands together. “Say anything! Help me, won’t you? Just a little?”

“Just go to bed, will you?” her husband said, tucking his hair behind his ears. “Or do I have to use force?”

She looked at him, knew his face, and clutched her daughter’s arm. “Wendy… Honey… I’m so sorry… Let’s just go to bed, now dear. We have to go to bed.”

“Mom!” cried Wendy. “Don’t! It’s my night!” She yanked her arm away, crossing her arms across her chest. “I want to see them! I’m going to stay!”

“You’ll go to bed, girl, when I say you will!” he said, keeping a wary eye on the skeletons.

“I’m not your girl anymore.”

“You’re my baby until I tell you otherwise. Now. To bed, the both of you!”

“I won’t.”

“Honey, please,” implored Wendy’s mother, taking her daughter’s hand, keeping her eye on the poker the whole while.

“Why?!” exclaimed Wendy, gesturing with her hands, “The skeletons have come to celebrate me!”

“Because I said so!” He took two quick steps towards her, and Wendy and his wife screamed and fled the dining room.

Jim turned to the skeletons, his fist clenched near his chest, “And I’m coming now for you, I am—and I’ll show you the poker. I’ll break your bones!” He heard two doors slam shut in succession and two locks turn. “By God! I won’t have doors locked in my house! They’ll never keep this man out!”

Poker in hand, he darted from the room and disappeared down the poorly lit hallway. A heavy thud could be heard, and a shrill scream flickered from behind a locked door. The sound of crunching, tearing wood could be heard.

The skeletons turned towards one another, staring into one another’s eye sockets. One dragged a finger across the table cloth again and showed it, as if to bring a second chorus of laughter, but the white finger only snuffed the electric candles and threw the room into a darkness so black that the white finger became luminescent. The finger glowed white in the inky darkness, and slowly the house lights were restored, until finally the skeleton’s finger no longer seemed to glow. A woman’s scream reverberated against the walls, and Wendy’s father cursed. The poker sounded again on that locked door. One skeleton opened the house’s front door, and the remaining four skeletons followed it outside. The shutting of the front door muffled the screams within. The street stretched empty. Snow fell. The snow which had been earlier trampled by boots had become soft dimples by the falling snow. The town’s clock, even from a distance, seemed taller.

Chancing to look from her window, the old woman with the silver hair saw the skeletons. “Harry! Come look!” After a few moments, her husband joined her at the window. “The skeletons are going back to their train – it’s only a quarter past the witching hour!”

“Something’s gone wrong,” he agreed.

“I bet it was that awful father,” she mused, “Look at how those skeletons slink! They ought to be dancing!”

“They ought to be, I know.”

“Do you remember what it was like for us, that first time?”

“I do.”

Silence.

“It was that husband!” she said again. “He doesn’t understand anything, and I know Christine had Alan before him; why, everyone in town knew but Jim, he was so blind.”

She paused, tracing her finger up and down the curtain. “They were coming to celebrate Wendy, and he ruined it for her.”

“It’s the way of the world, honey,” her husband said sympathetically. He took one last look at the skeletons then hobbled back to bed.

Categories
Stories

The Gift of Flight

In “The Gift of Flight,” a few children around the world begin to float.  They float up and up and away.

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“Good night, Danny. Sleep tight.”

Mr. Dawson kissed his son’s forehead and tucked the covers under his chin. Then Daniel’s father left the second story room of the family barn, since converted into their home.

Violet, velveteen night enveloped the bedroom. The feeling of the kiss—damp, with a slight itchiness from the flaxen mustache’s bristley brush—lingered until Danny drew his purple pajama sleeve across his forehead. Danny shut his eyes, his fingers gripping the edge of the turned-down sheet.

He waited for piscine Slumber to gently nibble, bite, then swallow him whole. After a few fishlike nibbles from Sleep, Daniel felt himself fade away and float upwards. He opened his eyes.

He was hovering above the bed.

*****

In London, close enough to Big Ben that Kate could hear its bass toll, see its dull and colossal shape, its peering face, and its aging splendor, Kate listened to the high music of her mother scraping away at the violin. Her mother was playing Bach, a gigue, from partita number three, in E major. She was sitting at the window in the next room. Kate’s mother tended to get drawn away into a ruminative reverence, touching bow to strings with Chagallian fluidity and grace; she dove into the instrument until the music enveloped her, stripped her nearly bare, like a woman swimming undersea in a thin white gown. The sound was so lush, so liquid, that Kate could feel herself gradually falling into it, swaying her head in pleasant reverie, like a pearl diver dropping into sunlit coral depths.

The apartment was simply furnished: unscrolled wooden chairs, a white cloth sofa, a black and white photograph of Kate’s grandmother—her mother’s mother. Kate stared at the photograph for a moment: at the woman’s mesmerizing eyes, grim mouth, conservative collar, and wrist-length, lace sleeves. When Kate turned to look out the window, into winter’s night, she found that she was floating in air.

*****

The gift of flight was bestowed upon very, very few children. One in ten million. Perhaps fewer. That night in December, ten year old Hans—in northern Norway, drinking a cup of hot chocolate and looking out across the fields of twinkling, glittering snow, into the forest of black pines that lay lit by the waving, emerald contours of the aurora borealis—drifted upwards.

Mikael Proudhom—born in France, raised in Russia by a French mother and a Russian father—glided over his town: a living ghost, a silent, warm specter. He glided across the fallow wheat fields, swathed in snow. He sailed toward St. Peter’s basilica, one child pointing at him—wordless in surprise—as Mikael obscured the moon, ah what a gorgeous photograph that might have been, and swept northwest.

*****

And what was the reaction of the people? That is the natural question. The dreamers, who have minds like Italo Calvino or Borges or whom-have-you, contemplated the spectacle of flying children with delight and wonder. The children’s flight may have been excessively romantic, an immoderate venture into the sentimental. But, what to do? The flight was as natural as a rainbow. It was not the stringed stage flight of a Broadway artist. The dreamers mused and appreciated. Hunters, of course, joked about shooting the children down, like ducks. Ten points. Twenty points. The priests, as you might expect, chattered worriedly about the rapture, the Muslims called it Haram, and the Buddhists said Live and let live. In short, the people acted according to their natures.

There was only one thing that was beyond-a-doubt baffling, and that was that the children could not seem to come down.

*****

In the case of Kutu Boro, a Masai child, he floated off into the clouds, then higher and higher.  He finally grew so cold that he shivered, shook, then he suffocated from lack of oxygen. His body continued to rise. When he reached the exosphere, his body heated, until it caught fire and was incinerated, then his remains drifted to terra firma. Ashes to ashes.

Daniel’s flaxen haired father, a very practical man, tossed a bedsheet up to his son, who was floating against the roof of the converted barn. Using the sheet, Mr. Dawson pulled Daniel down. The father then looped a belt around the son’s waist, and he attached a carabiner to a line that he strung throughout the barn. Now Daniel could move like a mountain climber, hand-over-hand, from one room to the next.

Kate’s mother didn’t have ingenuity like Daniel’s father, nor did she have carabiners. So poor Kate just bumped repeatedly against the ceiling.

*****

The marvel turned into quite a disaster. In the first twenty-four hours—while statisticians attempted to determine how many Floaters there were, while scientists tried to determine what had relaxed gravity’s laws for some but not for others, and while people who wished to fly muttered, “What the hell? That’s not fair!”—the vast majority of the floating children perished horribly, in the same way as Kuto Boro.

Hans, from northern Norway, was let outdoors by his brother, Samuel. Samuel and Hans wished to see how high Hans could fly. The last that Samuel saw of Hans, he was vanishing like a helium balloon, albeit like a balloon that waved and shouted frantically.

Mikael Proudhom, very fortuitously, got his belt stuck on the steeple of the basilica. After the citizenry calmed enough to credit his predicament, they proclaimed that he was in a dilemma. The citizens, accordingly, dispatched firemen to the rooftop and charged them with getting the boy safely down. Thirty anxious minutes later, Mikael was safe and sound.

As for Kate, the joys of flight wore off quickly, as she felt herself being gently pressed by a reverse gravity against the ceiling.

Danny, attached to carabiners, felt delighted.

*****

Heaven only knows how statisticians do their jobs, and the devil only knows how accurate their numbers are, but twenty-four hours after the children first took flight, the figures were in. Of the estimated 248 children worldwide, 231 of them had floated into outer space and been suffocated, and one had floated upwards only to be sucked—like some otherworldly or ungainly goose—into the turboprop of a passenger aircraft. That left an estimated 16 children. Sixteen very unlucky—or very lucky, depending on how you look at it—children.

*****

A few theories began to circulate about what to do with the floating children. The first was that the children should be given time, and that they would come down on their own. This was, as you might expect, answered with the question, “Well, what if they don’t (come down)?”

The second theory involved the addition of weight. Those advocating this theory suggested that the children could walk around with a backpack of full of lead weights and water, and, much like a hot air balloon with ballast, the weight would keep the kids at equilibrium. Those people against this solution asked, “What if the children, by accident, don’t carry enough weight? They will zip up into the atmosphere, and we know what happens then!”

The final prevalent theory (there were many minor theories), was that a medical procedure could be performed on the floating children, so that they could be cured. This was advanced with much of the same pseudo-science as the theory of curing homosexuals with electro-shock therapy. In other words, there were some very confident, very determined predictions, but there was not one iota of actual evidence that this procedure would work.

The gist of this last idea was that the children would benefit from a small surgical incision in the belly, and that, much like the deflating of a helium balloon, they (the children) would return gently to earth. The children’s parents balked at this idea, and, because the scientists had no rats with this particular floating syndrome, no lab trials could be conducted.

The long and the short of the problem was that nobody knew what to do.

*****

Daniel’s father, recognizing no quick solution to the problem, chose to bolt steel plates with eyelets to the barn walls, with the idea of permanently anchoring the carabiner lines. His plan worked out flawlessly for his marvelous son.

Mikael Proudhom’s mother, who was more practical than the father, permitted a team of government-endorsed doctors to perform psychological tests upon her child, at the rate of 55,000 rubles, or $23,000, per test. Five tests were scheduled, and by the time that the doctors were finished (one shudders to report honestly, but accuracy is the name of the game), Mikael was blind in both eyes, and his brain had been reduced nearly to cinders.

Still, he floated.

Kate’s sensible mother, knowing that the press would hear of Kate, first changed her floating daughter out of a skirt and into a pair of jeans.

“The first thing those pigs at the Daily Mail will do is take prurient pictures of my daughter,” Kate’s mother muttered.

Indeed, it was only a matter of time before the men in the media stormed their quiet apartment, and, when they did, Kate was front page news in denim.

But stories must have legs, or they will cease to run. So, after a month without developments, even the story of the floating children was relegated to the back page. After still more time, the story vacated the newspapers entirely.

*****

On the one year anniversary of the day that the children were given flight, the floaters descended to earth. Each of the children drifted slowly back down.

Mikael Proudhom, who had the brain of an infant, could not walk, and he never would walk again.

Kate, who would go on to become a botanist, described the experience in her artful way, “I was, for awhile, but a bird.”

Daniel told the story to his friends with a great deal of glee, and, later on, he married a sturdy Nebraskan wife, and together they farmed wheat.

The doctors scratched their heads, the carrion eaters circled once more with their microphones and cameras, and the statisticians sent up a final tally. Of the original 256 children (the number had been adjusted throughout the year), 250 had died; one (Mikael) had suffered mental incapacitation; two more had suffered physical incapacitation; and that left Kate, Daniel, and another girl named Azahara.

It was Azahara who created the works that you can see today in the Prada Museum in Madrid; they are the wonderful oil paintings of flying women. And it was she who, in her black-and-white photographic studies, captured the intimate daily life of Catalonians. Finally, it was she who became world renowned for her impersonal literary diaries, of which this shall be her final entry.

Categories
Stories

The Eleanor

A mysterious man orders an unusual car.

1967 Ford Eleanor

It was Tuesday morning at seven fifty-five when Mike Peters let himself into his shop. There were bluebird skies and the promise of typical August heat. He had a client scheduled for eight o’clock, first thing. He flipped on the lights, and he walked past the half-completed ’69 Camaro into which his team was putting the engine from the 2019 ZL1. He entered his office, opened the blinds, and put on a pot of coffee. His office featured posters of classic cars, a stack of brochures, and a handful of awards that he’d won at Iola.

At eight o’clock precisely, a man whom he had never seen before walked into the shop, and Mike went out to greet him.

“Hello!” said Mike cheerfully.

The man was small with closely cropped hair, sideburns, and a clean-shaven face. He looked like any ordinary man, and he was carrying a briefcase.

“Hello,” said the man. “My name is Steve Adler. I have an appointment at eight.”

“I’m Mike Peters, owner and manager here at Restomod Automotive. Your appointment’s with me. Come on back to my office.”

“Thank you,” said Steve. His tone was stiff, formal, and polite.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” asked Mike.

“Yes, please.  Thank you.”

“Well,” Mike looked over at the coffee. “I spoke too soon.  Just give the pot one more moment. In the meantime, have a seat, and let me know what we can do for you.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Steve. He set the briefcase down, and he folded his hands into his lap. He sat very straight in the guest chair. “I’m interested in purchasing a 1967 Ford Eleanor with a thousand horsepower. Can you build that for me?”

Mike whistled softly. “Lotta muscle. That’ll be a beauty. Yes, we can build it. I can talk you through your choices with the chassis, interior, brakes, and so on, and you can think them over and let us know what you want.”

Mike pushed across a brochure, but Steve kept his eyes on the shop owner.

“I’d like to make all my decisions within the next hour, if that’s all right with you, sir,” Steve said. “I know exactly what I want.”

“Well, we can do that,” Mike said. “But most folks like to take more time.”

“I would also like to pay for the entirety of it in the next hour,” Steve said imperturbably.

Mike raised his eyebrows. He glanced at the clock. It was three minutes after eight.

“Depending on your customizations, Mr. Adler, we’ll be starting at a hundred and fifty grand and going up.”

“Very well,” said Steve in a clipped but polite tone. He nodded his head shortly. “Would you mind turning your computer on and pricing out the cost to the exact dollar? I will get the coffee.”

Mike raised his eyebrows again.

“Sure,” he said, turning on his computer.

Steve was already halfway across the room to the coffee pot.

A few moments later, as he poured the coffee, Mike asked genially, “So you from around here?”

“Originally, yes. Not too far from here,” Steve replied, not turning around. “But I’m all over now.”

“Oh, whereabouts?”

“Oh, here and there,” Steve replied.

“Traveler?” Mike grinned as he laced his fingers behind his head.

“Yes, sir. Would you like sugar or cream?”

“Just black, thank you.”

“Me too.”

Steve brought the two coffees back.

“Well, the computer’s ready to go,” Mike said.

“Very well,” said Steve. “Are you ready for my preferences?”

“I am.”

“Good,” said Steve. “I’d like the ’67 Shelby GT500. Cortez silver with black stripes—Eleanor trim. Black leather interior. Fourteen inch disc brakes. The thousand horses. That only comes with automatic transmission, correct?”

“No, you can get six speed manual.”

“Then I’ll take the stick.”

“Manual it is.”

“I want A/C, EFI, modern everything including power doors, windows, and keyless entry. Bluetooth wireless. Modern suspension, modern exhaust—that’ll be dual exhaust, won’t it?”

“Yes, sir, it will be.”

“Right. Modern radiator, steering, and chassis.”

“You want the bump steer tie rods on that steering?”

“Yessir.”

“And did you want to add a roll bar?”

“With a thousand horses, I’ll eventually need it.”

“Five point harness?”

“No.”

“What size tires?

“Sixteen.”

“Allright,” Mike looked over his order form. “We’ll have other questions come up, no doubt, but ’til then you’re looking at two hundred and forty thousand, six hundred forty-one dollars and thirty-nine cents.”

Steve set his coffee on the desk, and he opened up the briefcase. Inside there were stacks of hundred dollar bills.

“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to answer additional questions as they come up,” Steve said politely. “I’ll be unavailable. Each of these packets contains ten thousand dollars.”

He counted twenty-four packets out.

“That’s two hundred and forty thousand dollars,” Steve said.

He peeled off six one hundred dollar bills from another packet.

“That’s two hundred forty thousand six hundred dollars.”

Then he stood, reached into his wallet, and pulled out two twenties and a one.

“Two-forty, six hundred and forty-one dollars.”

He jingled his pocket, then he put his hand into it. He pulled out a quarter, a dime, and a nickel.

“Two hundred and forty thousand, six hundred forty-one dollars and forty cents. You can keep the change.”

Mike licked his lips slowly. He glanced back at the clock. It was only nine minutes after eight, and none of his employees would be arriving ’til half past. He chewed his lip.

“Uh, Mr. Adler… It’s unusual that we take such a large amount in cash.”

“I’m afraid it is my only means of payment,” Steve smiled back politely but without warmth.

Mike gave no smile.

“Where did you say you got that money?”

“I didn’t. But I earned it.”

“And what is it, Mr. Adler, that you do?”

“I take on government contracts from time to time.”

“With what sort of government?”

“With ours.”

“What sort of contracts?”

“Unrecorded.”

Mike shook his head, as if he were trying to clear it.

“And what exactly did you say you worked on again?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say.”

“You can’t say.”

“Mr. Peters, the money is legitimate. I earned it while working for our government. I cannot tell you what I have done, nor where.”

“I’ll need someone to vouch for you.”

“No one will acknowledge me.”

Mr. Peters was silent.

Steve continued. “I understand that there’s a policy whereby you post videos and photos of the cars that you’ve built, and, at times, of the owners?”

“Uh… Yeah… Yes, we have that.”

“I cannot be a part of any publicity,” Steve said. “I hope you’ll understand.”

Mr. Peters sighed, and he shrugged. “Sure,” he said. He looked at the pile of money on the table. He swept it off his desk, in multiple sweeps, into his desk drawer.

“We’ll build your car, Mr. Adler. But you sound like a CIA spook.”

“I am a wage earner, Mr. Peters.”

“Well, I thank you for your service to our country,” Mr. Peters said.

Steve nodded his head briefly in acknowledgement. He did not smile.

“You’re welcome, sir. Is there anything else?”

Mr. Peters scratched his jaw and considered.

“Yes,” he said.

He drew out a contact information sheet. “When we build the car, there’re always questions that come up about the car, and about the client’s specifications—”

Steve did not so much as glance at the sheet.

“You will have to make those decisions as best as you are able, Mr. Peters. I’m afraid that I’ll be incommunicado.”

“But if we need your input—”

“Mr. Peters, I trust your sensibilities. Make any decisions according to your own lights. I want the ’67 Eleanor body in silver and black with a modern engine and all the modern amenities.”

Mr. Peters nodded.

“When should I expect the car to be ready?”

“Well,” said Mr. Peters, “Today’s the twelfth of August, and it usually takes us a year… We ought to be able to finish this job in a year’s time.”

“Very well. In exactly one year’s time, at eight o’clock on the twelfth of August, either I—or a family member of mine, whose name will also be Steve Adler—will come to collect the car. In the event that my family member arrives, it will be because I am deceased. In that eventuality, you will place the car into his or her care, just as you would mine.”

“You mean that you might not come back?”

“That is correct. But I assure you, Mr. Peters, someone will.”

“Someone whose name is also Steve Adler?”

“Mr. Peters, as you may have gathered by now, Steve Adler is not my real name. The people with whom I associate are not kind, loving people like you, nor are they like the good men and women who work in your shop. The people with whom I associate do not play nicely on the playground.”

“Mr. Adler, what kind of a person are you?”

“Mr. Peters,” said Steve Adler, still smiling politely but now very coldly, “I am my own man.”

“And… And… You’re saying that if I don’t see you in a year, then you will be dead?”

“That is the most likely explanation. Is there anything further, sir?”

“Uh, no… I guess not.”

Steve stood. He picked up his briefcase in his left hand. He offered his right hand to Mike Peters.

“Thank you, sir. I look forward to seeing you again in a year.”

“I—uh… Yes, I hope to see you again too,” Mr. Peters replied.

“Thank you,” said Steve. “Wish me well. If I return again, it means that I will likely be free of my profession forever—and I will want nothing more than to drive the blazes out of this car. To drive a ’67 Eleanor has been a dream of mine since I was a boy.  This is my last hurrah.”

Mike stood. “Then good luck you.”

“Thank you very much.”

Steve turned, and he walked out the office door. Through his office window, Mr. Peters saw him striding across to the shop door. He saw him open the shop door, and it shut again behind him.

Peters was sitting in his office with his head in his hands when Brian Steech came in ten minutes later.

“Hey, Mr. Peters!” said Steech jovially, rapping the office wall then poking his head through. “Did you—Hey, is everything all right?”

Mr. Peters looked up from between his fingers. “I think I’ve met a real-life spook.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell you when everyone else gets here.”

When the rest of the employees arrived, Mr. Peters called them together, and he told them of Mr. Adler. They were silent for awhile.

Then Jim Bryant said, “Well we’ve got a car to build. Let’s make sure we finish this one on time.”

During the year that passed, Mr. Peters and his crew often thought about the strange man who’d passed through Restomod Automotive’s doors that August twelfth. They built the car as they’d been paid to do, finishing her just four days ahead of schedule. On the twelfth of August, Mike and all five of his employees arrived at the shop at seven thirty to be present for the pickup.

At eight o’clock precisely, a tall, slim, black man with a shaved head walked into the shop. He glanced first at the silver and black 1967 Ford Eleanor which was sitting on the shop floor. He then glanced at the six people who were staring at him.

“Hello,” the man said. “My name is Steve Adler. I’m here to pick up the Eleanor.”

Mike Peters sighed deeply. The others looked from one person to another.

“You have my condolences,” said Mr. Peters.

The man looked seriously at him. He said nothing for awhile.

Then he said, with a nod, “Thank you very much.”

Categories
Stories

Mason the Puppeteer

Mason the Puppeteer is the story of a young man pursuing his dreams and finding the woman that he loves.

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Mr. Bitt worked worked with drills, of which there are, of course, many types. The sort that Mr. Bitt worked with are the type used to make holes and to put screws in things, rather than the military sort which involves training and procedure. He felt that it was a nice, manly profession. Mr. Bitt was very pleased to be in it, and his mind rarely strayed from drills, unless it was to consider the screwdriver, to which the drill is related, and its many applications. Drills were Mr. Bitt’s life.

Mr. Bitt had a single son, whom Mr. Bitt had named Mason, after the masonry bit.

Mason was eighteen years old, and he was tall and rather narrow with a prominent Adam’s apple, and thin black hair that he liked to brush out of his eyes repeatedly. He was a shy, awkward fellow who could have been more popular if he’d thought more about society, or even if he were just a trifle less reticent. But the fact was that he rarely thought companionship, or friends, or anything other than puppets.

Mason was a budding puppeteer. He wanted nothing more in life than to make shows with his puppets. He had started his career early, with sock puppets, when he was a child. He’d drawn faces on them; he would put his hand up the socks, and he’d made the sock puppets talk, as young children sometimes do.

Mr. Bitt was amused, and he thought that this was a passing phase.

Mr. Bitt was wrong.

Mason progressed from sock puppets to paper mâché puppets.

Mr. Bitt frowned a little bit at this development. His son, at this time, was eight years old, and Mr. Bitt thought that he ought to be outside climbing trees.

Mr. Bitt bought Mason a screwdriver, a box of screws, and some wood. He showed Mason how to use them, and he encouraged the boy. It was Mr. Bitt’s plan to make Mason eventually learn to love drills.

Mr. Bitt was pleased when Mason returned with a small section of boards that had been screwed together.

Mr. Bitt was displeased when he learned that the section of boards was the background for Mason’s puppet show.

“Puppets,” Mr. Bitt kindly informed Mason, “Are for weaklings, cowards, and perverts. Do you want to be a weakling, coward, or pervert, son?”

Mason shrugged.

Mr. Bitt frowned quite a lot at this, and he resolved to keep a close eye on his son. After all, he did not want the boy growing up wrong.

As Mason grew up, Mr. Bitt became more and more disturbed by what he saw.

Mason proved not to be interested in drills at all, or even in hammers, nails, or screws. Mason appeared to have few friends. The boy did, however, begin making marionettes.

These puppets-on-strings began to grow in the complexity by which Mason made them. At first, they were rude copies of a complicated, subtle marionette. Soon, however, magazines on puppetry began appearing in the Bitt household, and Mason’s marionettes advanced in sophistication.

Mr. Bitt, treating the puppetry magazines like they were smut, threw them out. Mason responded by procuring more puppetry magazines. These, like dirty magazines, he hid beneath his mattress.

One day, upon discovering that Mason was still reading puppetry magazines and still making marionettes, Mr. Bitt confronted his son.

Mason was sixteen at the time. He was at the age when he could drive.

“Do you want a car, son?” asked Mr. Bitt.

“Not particularly,” said Mason.

“Well how in the world will you get a date?” asked Mr. Bitt. He peered closely at his son. His son had hit his growth spurt, and he was already six feet tall, an inch taller than his father’s five feet, eleven inches.

“I don’t want a date, Dad.”

Mr. Bitt was staggered.

“Well what do you want?”

“More puppets. To be a puppeteer.”

At this response, Mr. Bitt drew himself up to his full height. He stalked from the room. His face was as red as a beet. He entered his son’s room, and he began tearing up all the puppets that Mason had made, one after another after another after another. He tore them all to pieces, shouting and yelling that he would not have a pervert or a weakling or a coward for a son.

Mason watched in horror from the doorway.

The next morning, when Mason got up to school, there was a brand new cordless drill standing on the kitchen table in the place where Mason liked to sit. Mason pulled the trigger on the drill. The drill whined. Mason took the battery out of the drill. He pulled the trigger again. The drill did nothing.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” asked Mason.

“Well, first you put the battery back in,” said his father.

“No, thanks,” said Mason.

When Mason turned eighteen, he was still playing with puppets, and his father, who could think of nothing better to do with him, sent him to the military.

“I’d like to speak with the drill sergeant,” said Mr. Bitt.

A drill sergeant was procured.

“Drill my son,” said Mr. Bitt. “His name’s Mason. Drill him and drill him and drill him! That’s what the boy needs! A good drill sergeant!”

“Yes sir,” shouted the drill sergeant. “I will!”

The drill sergeant drilled Mason and the rest of the troops mercilessly.

There are many things that a military is well known for, but puppetry is not one of them. There were very few opportunities to practice puppetry while Mason was in the military. Two years later, however, he was honorably discharged.

And it so happened that when he got out, Mason was still very much interested in puppetry.

He moved to San Francisco.

He bought a few puppets, and he began to play shows.

As it happened, children loved his shows.

He did a puppet show of a tiger, a witch, and a polar bear. In these shows, the witch had enchanted the polar bear and turned the bear into a tiger. But all that the polar bear wanted was a life without stripes.

The play proved very popular. It proved so popular that a local television station asked Mason to audition for a half hour slot.

Mason appeared at the audition, and he was awkward and shy until he began to play with his puppets. Then his more confident side came out. For each of the different characters, he spoke in a different strong but authoritative voice. The pace of his play moved swiftly. His characters he imbued with qualities of humor, laughter, and love, and the plot entangled them in circumstances tragic and dire.

“My heavens,” said the local T.V. manager. “What is this? What do we have here?”

He was frowning in surprise. Mason’s play was not just good, it was great.

At the end of the audition, goosebumps rose on everyone’s skin. It was an extraordinary surprise. The performance was auspiciously good.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said the TV manager. “Can you do that again?”

“I can,” said Mason. When he put the puppets away, he looked shy and timid. He glanced down at his feet. He was six feet four inches tall by this time, and he towered over everyone in the room. Still, he was as thin as a scarecrow, and his time in the military had made him more diffident rather than less so.

“Well,” said the manager. “Somebody sign this guy up.”

Just like that, Mason thought, his dreams had come true. People were going to pay him—pay him!—to do puppetry. It was like getting paid to play a game.

He marveled at his good fortune.

In addition to puppets, Mason liked french pastries. It so happened that, as he left the audition, he was walking down the road, reveling in his good fortune, when he passed a French pastry shop.

It’s a common thread among humans that, when they’re celebrating a stroke of good fortune, they often go for something to eat or drink, and Mason was no different. He pushed open the door of the pastry shop.

Inside the pastry shop, it was like another world. The sweet smell of croissants, the savory scent of fresh baked bread, and the creamy fragrance of a thick bisque wafted through the room. Mason felt that he was in heaven.

Behind the counter was a young woman with sparkling eyes. Her name tag said Eloise. She had long black hair and delicate hands, and she and Mason were the only two people in the entire pastry shop.

“May I help you?” she asked. She had an extraordinarily pretty smile.

“Yes,” said Mason. And just like that, he felt himself, for the very first time, anxious to try to impress. He felt, for a moment, his timidity wash away. “I have just gotten a job,” he said boldly. “As a puppeteer for a TV station.”

“Oh,” she said. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” said Mason. “Would you like to be married?”

“Married?” she said. Her face turned pink. “I mean, I don’t know. I suppose so. I mean, maybe one day. Would you like a…” She lost her train of thought, then she regained it. “Would you like a soup?” Then she added very hurriedly, “Or would you like some bread? We have excellent bread.”

“Would you like to go on a date with me?” asked Mason. He smiled at her.

“I… I don’t even know your name,” the girl said.

“I’m Mason,” he said. “You must be Eloise.”

“How did you know that?” asked the girl. Then she blushed. “Oh, it must be on my name tag.”

“Would you like to go out with me?” said Mason.

Then the girl appraised him.

Mason smiled again at her. He smiled in what he believed was his most winning and hopeful way.

Eloise smiled back.

“You can pick me up at seven,” she said. “On the corner of Fillmore and Pine.”

“Okay,” he said happily. “I will. We can go where ever you want.”

He got a bread and a bisque, and while he ate they spoke. It was a quiet day, and only one other customer came in to interrupt them. The customer got his food to go. When Mason finished his bread and bisque, he ordered a crème brûlée and a coffee. As he ate, his spoon sometimes tapped against the white ceramic. Their voices warmed the air. He felt heavenly. By the time that Mason was ready to go, both he and Eloise thought that they might be talking to a person whom they could fall in love with.

He picked up Eloise that night at seven o’clock sharp. She was wearing a white wool coat and pink shoes. She wanted to go to a seafood restaurant, so he took her to one. He’d never eaten at a seafood restaurant before, and, still riding his wave of courage, he ordered a fish whose name he’d never heard of. He watched in fascination as Eloise cracked open her lobster and ate it. The lobster cracking seemed so complicated.

They spoke for the entire time, and he was relieved to discover that she did not view puppetry as a career exclusively for weaklings, cowards, or perverts.

She wanted to become a pastry chef when she was older and own a restaurant of her own.

At the end of the night, she said she’d like to see him again. He was thrilled.

Four years later, Mason married Eloise. He invited his father to the wedding, but Mr. Bitt declined to attend.

Within the year, Eloise took a job in Paris at the Ladureée Paris Champs Elysées. Mason joined her. They packed their belongings. They bought a plane ticket. Mason saw the Eiffel Tower, and he learned to speak French. They got a small room on the outskirts of Paris, and Eloise worked long hours while Mason looked around for a puppeteering job. When he finally found one, his work was treated as a unqualified success. It became more popular than Belle and Sebastian. Mason became very wealthy, and children from all over the world wrote him letters. He responded to as many as he could. Over the years, Mason and Eloise grew warmer and closer to one another. One day Mason got a telephone call from America saying that his father died, and Mason wept. He went to the funeral, and he left drill bits on his grave, a gift that he thought his father would like. More years passed, and Eloise retired, then Mason did too. They were an extraordinary couple, people often remarked. Simply extraordinary. People looked at them, at Mason and Eloise, and they would say that they’d never, in all their lives, seen two people who could look any happier together.

 

Categories
Stories

Sixty Years of Silence

In Sixty Years of Silence, a young woman, Sophie, risks all that she has to move to a new place, Grymsk, to play an instrument, the carillon, that has not been played there for sixty years.  The instrument, however, probably won’t work.

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Sophie Bellevedere was appointed carillonneur of the Grymsk Bells after sixty years of silence. A carillon is a set of bells in a tower, and the carillonneur is the person who plays them. For sixty years, there had been no carillonneur. There had been no music sounding over the city of Grymsk. The tower’s clock had stopped. It struck no hour; it kept no time.

On the day that she assumed her position, Sophie was led through the cathedral by a hunchbacked caretaker with cataracts in one eye. They walked down the aisle of the cathedral, passing dusty pews and the cracked altar. The stained glass windows which were unbroken let in a light of mostly reds and blues. The cathedral was completely silent, and Sophie followed a few steps behind the caretaker.

Sophie looked around wonderingly and with some apprehension. This was not her city. Grymsk was a northern town renowned for scarcely surviving the war. The city had been reduced nearly to rubble. Many of its homes had been torn apart. Then the war had ended, and winter had come. Many of the remaining residents had departed. The town became buried in rubble and snow. Strangely, one of the buildings that had undertaken the least damage was the Grymsk Cathedral, which housed the tower and the bells. But during the war, the carillonneur had died, and no one had come to replace him.

For some years an aging watchmaker had climbed the spiral stairs, and he had wound the Grymsk Clock. But then he had died, some forty-five or fifty years ago, and the clock had remained stopped ever since.

“It’s up here,” said the caretaker. His words jarred Sophie out of her considerations.

She looked. The caretaker was pointing at a cobwebbed door that sagged on rusted hinges.

“You’ll find it’s not working, I expect,” said he. “Hasn’t been played. I’m too old to go up there myself anymore. You’ll have to take the stairs on your own.”

He put a large skeleton key into the lock, and he tried to turn it. The lock wouldn’t budge. The caretaker cranked on the key. With a sound like a shot, the bolt popped back.

“Ha ha!” laughed the caretaker. “It works! Thought I might break the key! First time that door’s been open in ages!”

He turned around to look at Sophie. He had a wart on his cheek from which hairs sprouted, and a chin that curved up like the toe of a genie’s slipper. His one eye shined bright, and his face turned up in a horrible, but honest, smile. His teeth were carious, and many of them were missing.

“In you go!” cackled the old man.

Sophie poked her head through the open doorway. The air smelled musty and stale. Cobwebs hung from the corners, and they stretched across the spiral stair. The spiral stair itself was constituted of granite stairs that were chipped and cracked.

She entered the tower. She heard a sound behind her, and she turned her head sharply.

The caretaker was prying the skeleton key off a big ring which held many keys.

“Here you are,” said he. “It seems I put ten keys on this ring for every one I take off, so I’m always happy to see one go. Good luck to you, southern lady. Let’s hear those bells pealing again. It’s been so long since I’ve heard them, that I can’t even remember how they sound.”

“Thank you,” said Sophie, taking the key and pocketing it. “Is there a light?”

“Nah,” said the old hunchback. “You’ll have to just mind your step.”

“Mind my step,” muttered Sophie. “Very well then,” she said in a louder voice that she tried to imbue with confidence. “I’m going up to see my new workspace.”

“Well enough,” said the old caretaker, and with a wave, he left.

Sophie waved back, and she watched him until he was gone. She looked back at the spiral stairs, and she shivered in the sudden silence. It was a spooky place, this belltower.

She brushed the cobwebs away, and she mounted the stairs. Sophie took a deep breath, and she began to ascend. Bats fluttered away from her, flying up the spiral stair. Spiders scuttled into the cracked mortar. As she climbed, she passed the mechanism for the old clock.

The mechanism was housed in a dimly lit room a third of the way up the tower. Sophie looked for a moment onto its gears, cogs, springs, and steel. The mechanism had not yet rusted out, but certainly it had not been put into motion for ages, and she thought that it must be stuck in many places. Here again, spiders had made their homes. Sophie smelled the droppings of rats, and she heard their soft scurries.

Sophie continued up the stairs. Now and then she passed a small window which was really no more than a chink in the stone tower. As she rose, she gained views of the surrounding town, which seemed to become more and more beautiful.

The town of Grymsk was situated in a valley. On this day, the sky was overcast and grey. Many of the small cottages, those that had not been rebuilt, looked like ruins up close. But from a distance, from her height, the cottages, and the holes in their roofs and walls, took on a nostalgic, picturesque appearance. They looked like quaint ruins. Beyond them were long meadows, then there were the hills of green grass dotted by white wildflowers. In the distance, veiled in haze, lay the striking fjords for which this northern land was famous.

Sophie next passed the carillon’s enormous programmable wheel. When working, this drum shaped object went round and round like the wheel of a water mill. In it were metal pins. These pins could be moved about to create different melodies. Sophie stopped here, and she went into the chamber where the programming drum was housed. She blew some dust off it, and she examined it. Its steel cables were still attached to the clock mechanism, as appropriate. The pins were bolted into the wheel, as appropriate.

Here, too, were housed the Grymsk Bells. The bells, much like handbells in a choir, were of different sizes so that different octaves could be played. The bigger the bell, the deeper the sound. The bells’ wires, which were used to ring the bells, appeared intact.

Sophie looked up. Still more steel cables ascended up into the highest part of the tower, where she knew that the keyboard itself, from which music could be manually played, would be kept. These wires, too, seemed in order.

Sophie gasped, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. This was her first musical job, her first time in her desired career since graduating from university, far to the south in Brendenia, the university city on the sea. There, in Brendenia, it was warm, and there, too, it was a haven for the fine arts. Brendenia was a place known around the world for its culture and cuisine. But there were no jobs to be had for a poor, young lady without social or political connections in Brendenia. The jobs in Brendenia went to the wealthy, and, through a system of patronage, they were passed from one noble family to the next. She’d been working as a clothes-washer when she had overheard a customer speak of the blighted, blasted Bells in the shattered city of Grymsk. He had mentioned its carillon. Sophie’s ears had perked up. It was not often that a person heard of a carillon. She had timidly asked the customer for details. He had readily supplied them.

One week later, Sophie had written to the city of Grymsk, asking whether they might have a job for her. She had waited more than a month for their reply.

When Sophie had received the city’s letter, she opened it very carefully and with a heart that beat like a tambourine.

The city of Grymsk’s reply was pleasant, polite, and practical. First the city had thanked Sophie for her interest. They then wrote that they would accept Sophie, but that they had very little money. The city of Grymsk wrote that Sophie, if she wished to take the job, must work without pay, but that they would provide her with a furnished room and board. Furthermore, the city wrote, they had doubts whether the carillon would work at all. And if the carillon did not work, then the city did not have the money to repair it.

Sophie found herself facing a terrible choice. If she took the job in Grymsk, she would make less than she did in Brendenia, for a post that likely would amount to nothing, because everything depended on the carillon and whether it would work. If the carillon did not work, then she would use up her savings in getting to and from Grymsk.

But Sophie was desperate, and she hated the idea of living her life working at the launderette. After a week of consideration, Sophie sent the city of Grymsk a letter accepting their terms. In a part of her mind, her anxiety increased. She felt frightened and afraid. Yet, as she prepared to leave Brendenia, the idea of playing music in a town that had, for sixty years, gone without the sound of its bells, became more and more romantic and attractive to Sophie.

One cold fall morning, Sophie took her luggage aboard a train, paid the fare with the few coins that she had left, and she steamed north, to a country unknown to her, to a city that she had never imagined, to be the carillonneur for a carillon that might not work for a job that did not pay.

Now she found herself examining the very heart of that great and powerful musical instrument, the carillon, and finding it to be in far, far better shape than she had dared to imagine. Perhaps, she thought, it was even in working order.

Sophie’s hopes surged as she re-entered the spiral stairwell and climbed higher. She climbed the last three hundred stairs, and she emerged in the uppermost landing of the Tower of Grymsk.

This was the room which housed the keyboard, the space from which she could play the carillon. Around the room were many windows, so that the room itself was flooded in light. Whereas the other chambers in the passage had been lit solely by holes in the tower’s sides, this room’s windows held glass. The panes were very small and square, and Sophie found them charmingly reminiscent of the glass panes on a greenhouse.

The view was extraordinary. She could see for miles in every direction. She spent time walking around the room, savoring the glorious views, imagining herself dusting the sills, painting the flaking wood, and having the broken panes replaced. She dared not look too closely at the keyboard in the center of the room, at the controls of the carillon.

If the programming wheel and bells were the carillon’s heart, then the keyboard was its mind.

Sophie willed herself into low expectations. She told herself that when she examined the keyboard, she would find it broken, with a year’s worth of work necessary to repair it. She dared not hope at all. She reminded herself that Grymsk had been bombed heavily during the war. She considered the cobwebs, the bats, and the traces of rats that she’d seen on her way up. She looked at some of the panes of glass in the windows, panes which were smashed and broken. Nature and animals would have destroyed the keyboard. Birds would have made their homes in it for decades. There was really no use hoping for anything more than a keyboard which would, ultimately, need to be completely replaced, an action which the town would not have the money to even begin.

Sophie drew a deep breath.

She looked down at the carillon’s keyboard.

The keyboard was wooden, of white oak, with conical wooden keys like lathed staves. There were forty-eight keys, one for each bell. There was a wooden bench.

Sophie touched the bench, and it wobbled but held. She sat upon the bench, and she looked beneath the keyboard. The steel wires, save one, were connected to the keys. These wires, she knew, led back to the bells.

The moment she’d been waiting for had come. It was time to test whether the carillon worked.

She set her fingers lightly over the wooden keys, feeling anxious and nervous.

She drew her hands back. They had been shaking. Sophie drew a breath to calm herself. She stood up, and she walked in a small circle around the room.

She’d given up her life in the south for this job. She’d traveled across the continent. She had no friends here. Little money. No salary. And for what? For the chance to play a rare, unpopular instrument that might not work—that might not ever work. She might be a fool, she thought, looking out the window.

The Bells of Grymsk.

Grymsk: a small, bombed out city in the north, where the winters were so cold that people dashed from the shops to their homes to avoid freezing. Grymsk: a city where there were eighteen hours of darkness when winter came. The people here, she knew, owned fur cloaks and sleds with runners.

Sophie had never even seen snow.

What was she doing here?

She sighed, and she shook her head. She looked thoughtfully out the window, over the broad meadows and pretty land. It was very quiet up in the tower, and Sophie appreciated the silence. It gave her peace and tranquility.

Sophie realized that she had to know whether the great instrument worked. She’d given up the life that she knew to be here.

Sophie sat down again on the wobbling bench. She straightened her back. Her long auburn hair fell to the middle of her back. Her delicate hands touched the keys. She set her feet on the pedals.

She thought of what she’d like to try. A song by the Brendenian composer Itelo Vesperelio.

Sophie struck the keys, and the bells began to chime.

A thrill shot through her.

Throughout Grymsk, villagers looked up at the tower in wonder. They stopped the things that they were doing. They stared.

Sophie didn’t stop at the first notes. She continued straight through the song, her heart hammering in her chest, more powerfully, she felt, than the sound of the bells. The bells clanged, and their overtones hung in the air. The song lasted for three minutes, three minutes of glory and ecstasy for Sophie, for she had proven for a moment, to herself, at least, that she had made the right decision. That not everything she’d striven for was in vain.

Out in the streets, an old lady, so shocked to hear the Grymsk Bells again, a sound she had not heard since the war, broke down and wept. The last time that she had heard them, she had just been married to a young, handsome man named Francko, and then he had gone off to war. There he was shot and killed. The bells, shortly thereafter, had gone silent. The sudden, unexpected sound of the Grymsk Bells brought the memory of him flooding back, and she wept in the middle of the street. Her groceries, from which a baguette stuck out of the bag, lay beside her. Her knees were on the hard cobblestone of the streets, and her face was in her hands.

When Sophie was finished, she went into another song, and then another. And then another after that. The music was triumphant, joyous, the jubilee of smashing sixty years of silence.

And when she’d finished playing, and while the overtones of the music still hung in the air, Sophie stood from the old wooden bench, and she went to one of the windows of the loft, and she opened it wide. She put her head out, and she looked over the scene. The streets were dotted with people standing stock still, looking up at the tower.

Sophie gave them a wave.

Categories
Stories

The City of Glass at the Edge of the World

 

In The City of Glass at the Edge of the World, a wizard is roused from his peaceful work by the actions of a greedy king.  After trying to reason with the king, the wizard is forced to take action against him.

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Far out on the edge of the world, where the end of the sea reaches the sky, the water falls off the earth’s edge. In this place, there are always mists and spumes, and there is a total silence. A waterfall’s sound is heard when falling water impacts pools or stone. Here, once the sea water leaves the edge of the earth, it falls and falls and falls. It never impacts anything but falls forever.

Years ago, sailors sailed to find the edge of the world. Most never reached it. Their ships were dragged under by the whirlpools of Charybdis, the great krakens of the sea, or the many headed hydra that is Scylla.

Those boats that reached the edge of world never returned. At the world’s edge, the currents are so powerful that the ships could not sail against them, thus they were dragged off the edge of the world, and those ships are still falling to this day.

There are very few tales of any living creature traveling to the edge of the world and surviving to tell the tale.

One is of a sea witch.

The sea witch’s name was Clymenoptra, and she was a very old and aged witch. She had great wisdom and power, yet even she was afraid of sailing to the edge of the world. Her skin was green. She had golden eyes like an owl. She carried a broom, but she dared not ride her broom out to the edge of the world where the currents of air are more arbitrary and dangerous than the currents of the sea. Instead she sailed upon a charmed sea shell.

Clymenoptra came to the edge of the world in order to save the lives of the men and women of Atlantis who one day came to her for help. But that is a story for another day. Suffice it to say that Clymenoptra, when she reached the edge of the world, filled a glass jar with water from the sea’s edge, and she held the water to the moon, muttered incantations, and added the breath of the wind. When the sea water transformed into a potion, the aquamarine water turned pale pink, and it was with a great sense of urgency that Clymenoptra turned her seashell back and returned to Atlantis.

Another tale of one who survived the journey to the world’s edge concerns a great wizard.

His name was Brollmyr. He came from the fjords of Norway. He wore a long blue robe, and his beard cascaded to his knees and was as white as snow. Brollmyr was a snow mage, one of the last of that race, and he is reputed to have been the greatest of them all. He carried a gnarled wooden staff that stood as tall as he did, and he traveled to the edge of the world by riding upon the back of an enchanted whale.

Brollmyr, like Clymenoptra, had no desire to visit the world’s edge, and only he did so from a sense of urgency. In Brollmyr’s case, a spell of a thousand years of winter had been cast upon the snow covered northern lands, and the folk there had forgotten summer.

Whereas Clymenoptra had not faced the kraken, for her bewitched sea shell had skimmed silently over the water, the sounds of Brollmyr’s enchanted whale awoke that fell creature. The kraken rose from the dark depths where it had been sleeping.

For many days, under lightning and thunder, through the rain and the night, Brollmyr battled the kraken. The waves rose up in a fury, the wizard’s magic spells colored the atmosphere, and the ancient kraken’s powerful strength and many tentacles surrounded the great wizard.

But, like the story of Clymenoptra, the tale of Brollmyr is for another day.

For today there is the story of the floating city of glass that came to the edge of the world.

A city of great splendor once existed. It had a beautiful white palace, and many cool, refreshing gardens that could be enjoyed by the citizens. In this city, there were no murders, and there were rarely any thieves. There were fountains that splashed cool, clean water from which anyone could drink. The inns for travelers were cozy and warm. Their beds were good and the rooms inexpensive. The streets were paved with cobblestones and kept clean of trash and debris. The men and women of this city were well educated and prosperous. There was even a small library, with books that anyone was permitted to read. In the windows of the cottages were planters from which vines and wisteria trailed down. The horses were healthy. The children climbed apple trees in the summer, and, in the winter, on Midwinter’s Eve, they received gifts of chocolate and toasted gingerbread.

For many years, for as long as the eldest of the elders could remember, life had gone on in this fashion. The people enjoyed prosperity under the good King Dunscombe. Then one day the good king died of a fever, and he was replaced by his nephew, a man long known for his greed.

The new king, King Venwerth, was a tall, skeletal man, with a sharp pointed black beard. He had high cheekbones, and a narrow face. His features were bony and gloomy. He had dark, piercing eyes, heavy black eyebrows, and black hair that he grew to his shoulder. He wore a king’s robe of crimson red and royal gold, embellished with anthemion designs.

In the first month, like a sleeping dragon, he did nothing, but everyone feared him. In the second month, some villagers felt that he awoke from his slumber.

King Venwerth commanded that the nearby mountain, Mount Aristrides, be mined of its gold and silver.

The townspeople felt uneasy. They begged the king’s counselors to intervene on their behalf.

Many years before, the townsfolk knew, Mount Aristrides had been bewitched by the great sorcerer, Huzalmin. The spell that Huzalmin lay upon the mountain granted peace and prosperity to the town, so long as the townsfolk did not dig into the mountain. Huzalmin wished to use the mountain for his home. It was a pact long observed. The townsfolk were permitted to picnic upon the mountain, to climb it, to throw its stones, to enjoy its scenery. The mountain overlooked a valley with a beautiful river.

Huzalmin was not a wicked sorcerer. He let the townsfolk enjoy the natural beauty of the mountain. But his own work, profound and extraordinary, required him to dwell within the deepest chambers of the mountain. Most days, Huzalmin read from tomes of ancient lore, and added, very slowly, to his knowledge. Other days, he cast powerful spells deep within the mountain’s heart. His work in these times was careful, delicate, and dangerous, and he needed silence and space.

The villagers had never sought the gold of the mountain, having prosperity enough.

But King Venwerth was greedy. The simple pleasures of the town were not sufficient. He wanted gold, and he wanted silver, and he knew where they lay: deep in the heart of Mount Aristrides.

Six counselors agreed to intervene on the villagers’ behalf. They requested an audience with King Venwerth, and he granted them time to speak.

The counselors spoke to King Venwerth late one night. The king’s chambers were lit by a burning brazier, and carpets hung on the walls. It was a room that the counselors had found warm and welcoming when the good King Dunscombe was in power. There King Dunscombe had held feasts during the daytime. He’d invited townsfolk and their families to these feasts, and good King Dunscombe had spoken to the men and women as if they were his dearest brothers and sisters. Children had played on the carpets, and mothers had nursed their babes on the benches.

Now the same room, by night, with the scowl of the greedy king and the flickering light of the fire baskets, took on an ominous air.

The counselors, once free with their thoughts before the king, and always ready for a laugh, became afraid to speak. Strange men with battle axes in their hands hovered in the shadowy corridors.

“My liege,” stammered the first counselor, and he explained about the town’s pact with the sorcerer Huzalmin.

As the King Venwerth listened, his anger grew, and he began to consider the counselors weak and superstitious.

At the conclusion of the counselor’s speech, King Venwerth turned up his lip in a sneer.

“Is this how you all feel?” asked the king.

The counselors, casting looks at one another for support, nodded in unison.

“Very well,” said the king. “You may go.”

The counselors breathed a sigh of relief. They scurried from the room.

When they were gone, King Venwerth summoned his Captain of the Guards, a brutal man named Henry Coldcaster.

“See that those counselors do not leave this castle alive,” said King Venwerth.

“Yes, your majesty,” said the captain with a bow.

Beneath the castle ran a river, once famed for its purity. It was cold and clear, and, in the time of good King Dunscombe, it was used for drinking water and for swimming.

Now under King Venwerth, the river had a new use. The counselors were rounded up and captured at the palace door. Their ankles were chained to heavy stones, and they were dropped into the clear river water that ran beneath the palace. There they stayed, and anyone who walked beneath the castle could see the six counselors through the crystal clear water, their ankles chained to stones, the fish nibbling away.

Soon after the counselors’ elimination, tunneling began upon the mountain. For some days, as the surface was scratched, there was no sign of the great sorcerer, Huzalmin. Some in the town whispered that Huzalmin had not yet heard the sounds of digging. Others said that Huzalmin was simply being patient, while hoping that the king’s men would stop digging of their own accord. Still others muttered that Huzalmin had died.

After five days, the last group was proven wrong.

Huzalmin emerged from the mountain. He was a man of dark black skin, a shaved head, and with a golden ring in his ear. He wore a shirt of light white cotton, open at the neck. He wore silk red pants that were baggy at the knees and tapered near the ankles. He wore comfortable leather sandals whose insides were lined with sheep’s wool.

He emerged with a frown on his face, and he went first to see an old friend, Florian Derfler, who lived in the town.

Mr. Derfler, who was now ninety years of age, and who smoked cherry tobacco from a long-stemmed pipe, was delighted to see Huzalmin. He gave him as hearty a handshake as he could. Mr. Derfler had one good eye and one that was sky blue from cataracts, and his good eye twinkled with happiness at seeing the wizard.

“It is good to see you again,” said the old man.

“And good to see you,” said the wizard.

“I thought that we might never see one another again.”

“Well, here we are. And you are looking well.”

“Thank you. I feel my age.”

“Of that I’m sure,” said Huzalmin. “But tell me, dear friend, what’s the explanation for this digging? There have never been problems in the past.”

“We had a different king in the past. We have a new one now.”

“Hasn’t he been told of our agreement?” Huzalmin asked, astounded.

“Of course he has! And he killed the six messengers who asked him not to dig.”

“What!”

“He did.”

“That’s terrible! And what does he want by digging in the mountain anyway?”

“Gold,” said the old man.

“Gold!” Huzalmin exclaimed, astounded once more. “But he has prosperity! He is the king! What does he need gold for?”

“You had better ask him,” said the old man. “Because I don’t know.”

“I will!” said the wizard. “What is his name?”

“Venwerth,” said Derfler. “King Venwerth.”

“Well, I will ask him now.”

“Very well. Good day to you, Huzalmin,” said the old man. “If I don’t see you again, then goodbye.”

“Good day, my old friend,” said Huzalmin, giving the old man a hug. “And lots of love to you.”

“Lots of love to you as well,” said the old man.

And with a wave of his hand, Huzalmin cleared the cataracts from the old man’s eye. The old man blinked once or twice in wonder, then he looked around eagerly, and he chuckled heartily.

“Many thanks!” he cried.

Huzalmin waved his acknowledgement as he left, heading toward the palace.

At the palace gates, two guards crossed their battle axes, and they denied the wizard entrance.

“Who goes there?” said one.

“My name is Huzalmin,” said the wizard. “I go here. I have always been accepted at the palace, and I have always been a friend of the king. Now he’s mining on the mountain in violation of our concord.”

“King Venwerth made no treaty with you,” said the guard. “And he said that you may not enter.”

“May not enter!” snorted the wizard, and he waved his hand. At the wave of his hand, the guards lifted up their axes against their will. Huzalmin walked past them, feeling frustrated and upset.

Huzalmin walked through the lush courtyard, once filled with hanging plants and singing birds, now overgrown with weeds. He frowned.

He walked up the marble stairs, normally clean and white, now dusty and littered with garbage. He scowled. The torches, which used to always be lit, were now burned out in five or six places, and their condition made for a darker hall. Huzalmin shook his head.

Outside the king’s chambers, Huzalmin saw two guards, and, bidding them good morning, he introduced himself.

“My name is Huzalmin, and I am here to see the King Venwerth.”

“You may not,” said the guards.

“Preposterous,” muttered Huzalmin, and, like before, he waved his hand, and the guards, whose hands had crept toward their swords, paused in their motions.

Huzalmin knocked on the chamber doors, then, after waiting a moment, he turned the handle, and he let himself in.

King Venwerth was standing with his advisors over a map, and they were discussing how to tunnel into the mountain. He looked up angrily when Huzalmin entered.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Huzalmin. I am a wizard. For more than three centuries, I have lived under Mount Aristrides, and I have kept a peaceful and happy accord with each of the kings. Now I have heard you mining on my mountain, and when I come out to investigate, I hear that you are digging for gold.”

“Who told you that?” demanded King Venwerth. “And how did you get in here? I gave special orders that you not be allowed into this castle.”

“Never mind that,” said Huzalmin. “Is it true? Are you mining for gold?”

“I am,” said King Venwerth, and he straightened himself up. He lifted his chin arrogantly. “And I’ll have you know that I have no plans to stop. I’m king. I’ll do what I please.”

“The mountain is my home,” said Huzalmin patiently. “I’ve been in peaceful relations with this city for centuries. Are you aware of the agreement?”

“I am,” said King Venwerth. “But I did not make it. Therefore I have no obligation to honor it.”

Huzalmin breathed out through his nose and mouth. “Look here, King Venwerth,” he said with some heat. “I was initially under the impression that this mining may have all been an accident. But now I’m beginning to see that it’s not. Now, on the whole, I consider myself a pretty nice guy. But you’re provoking me. I really feel that you’re provoking me. Just say that you’ll stop mining, and that we can go back to the way things were, and all will be well.”

“No,” said King Venwerth.

“Look,” said Huzalmin reasonably. “Is there gold in the mountain? Yes. Is there silver? Yes. I don’t deny it. I never have. But why do you need it? Your city has prosperity. You’re the king. You can have virtually whatever you want.”

“I can have whatever I want,” said King Venwerth.

Huzalmin threw up his hands in exasperation. “King Venwerth, you don’t understand who you’re dealing with here. I’m powerful. I’m a wizard. If you don’t stop mining, I’m going to curse this town. It’s been a beautiful town, and I’ve liked the residents. Just stop. Leave me and my mountain alone.”

“The mountain is mine,” said King Venwerth.

“It’s ours,” said Huzalmin. “I’ve shared it with the villagers for hundreds of years. We can keep sharing it. Just don’t mine the mountain. I make delicate potions, I study, I do my work beneath the mountain, and I can’t do that work properly with you drilling and making noise and tunneling.”

“Get out,” said King Venwerth.

Huzalmin sighed, and he shook his head. “Look, King Venwerth,” he started to say.

“Get out!” roared King Venwerth.

Huzalmin’s head snapped up. “Don’t talk to me that way,” he said abruptly. “I feel like I’ve been very polite.”

King Venwerth took a marble bust of himself from off the table, and he hurled it at Huzalmin. “Get out!” he shouted again.

Huzalmin raised his hand, and the marble bust stopped in the air. There it floated.

“Do you see the kind of power I have?” Huzalmin asked. He snapped his fingers. The marble bust burst into flame. It stayed floating in the center of the room, the stone burning. “I’m going to make trouble for you if you continue.”

“We’ll stamp you out,” sneered King Venwerth.

Huzalmin’s eyes widened in astonishment at the foolishness of the king. He shook his head.

Huzalmin said, “Don’t tunnel any more, or you’ll be sorry.”

He left the room.

When he left, the marble bust remained floating in the air at eye level, still burning.

Huzalmin returned to his home beneath the mountain.

“Is this wizard dangerous?” King Venwerth asked his advisors.

No one, his advisors told King Venwerth, had seen Huzalmin perform any strong magic in the last three hundred years. The way that Huzalmin made the marble bust float in the air was weak magic, the advisors said. The king’s soldiers could overpower a man of that sort. There was no need, King Venwerth’s advisors counseled, to fear Huzalmin.

Over the course of the next two weeks, King Venwerth doubled and then tripled the work force of the men who were mining on the mountainside.

Not a peep was heard from Huzalmin. The townspeople waited in fear. This time there was very little disagreement upon them—they all seemed to feel that Huzalmin was going to be as good as his word, and that he would curse the town.

Then one evening, just as the sun was setting, and just as a group of miners was carting a load full of gold from the mountain to the palace vaults, Huzalmin appeared. He stood up on the ledge of a mountain like a preacher on a pulpit, and he started to speak. The words that he spoke began with mutterings. Then, as the sun set, and the sky grew darker, and the stars glittered, and the moon shone, then his words became a shout. He raised his hand, and light flew from his hand, illuminating the night.

The night flashed with a bright light.

Everyone stopped in fear.

The flash vanished, and all was dark again.

Huzalmin retired to his chambers in the mountain.

From the room atop the castle spire, King Venwerth looked out on the wizard first with terror, then, after the flash occurred and nothing, seemingly, of import followed, then King Venwerth’s terror changed to contempt. He curled his lip. The old wizard was just smoke and lights.

The next morning, King Venwerth woke early. Even before he rose and dressed, he noticed that his room had changed. The castle had changed. It had been a palace of dazzlingly white stone. Now it was transparent.

The castle was made of glass.

King Venwerth stood, and he looked out of his window. A vista of pleasant meadows, hills, and cottages usually greeted him. Today, he found that the glass castle stood upon a cloud that floated over water. The water was like an ocean, and it was rushing off the end of the earth.

King Venwerth ran down the stairs in his royal robe. Along the way, he passed his golden candelabra, which was now made of glass. He passed through the grand hall, where the dining table and the portraits had been turned to glass. King Venwerth pushed open the castle door, and it shattered for its hinges were glass. He ran across the castle’s acreage, normally made of pleasant green grass. Now the courtyard was smooth glass. When he reached the glass castle wall, he wrenched the castle door open. Its hinges, too, were of glass, and this door shattered as well.

King Venwerth looked in horror upon the scene. The cobblestone streets had been turned to glass. The pretty wooden homes had been turned to glass.

The wizard had turned everything to glass.

King Venwerth looked out along the horizon. Aside from the pretty village and the king’s castle, there was no recognizable marker. His city now lay at the edge of the world. There was the ocean, all around. To the east, the ocean stretched as far as he could see. To the west, the world ended, and there was a precipitous drop where the water poured off the edge of the world. Mist and the smell of salt water permeated the air.

One by one, like kittens first venturing away from their mothers, the townspeople came out of their cottages. They looked round at the desolate scene, and they cried out in grief. They were not ocean people. They were inland people. Many of them had never swum before. There was not a boat among them. They found themselves, quite suddenly, isolated in an ocean at the edge of the world, with no shelter except glass houses. They looked through the cobblestone street. All that suspended them above the rapid, rushing ocean water was a puffy cloud.

A number of townspeople, sobbing, ran back into their glass houses. The king ran back to his glass castle.

No one did much that day. From time to time, people would walk out of their cottages, and they’d walk the short distance to the edge of town. There they’d stand on the road of glass cobblestones, and they’d look out over the edge of the world. They looked out upon the glass castle, and they saw through its clear walls the king alternately pacing and sitting. They looked through their neighbors’ glass houses, and there the townspeople saw despondency to mirror their own.

When the sun reached its zenith, there was no shade. The people seemed to cook in their glass homes. Some citizens went outside where they sat on the edge of the town, with their legs dangling off the brink, and they’d look out over the sea.

The king did not leave his palace again that day.

Then the sun set far beyond the edge of the world. The night was very beautiful, for the stars shine brightly at the edge of the world, and the moon makes a pretty glint off the smooth ocean surface.

But the villagers were melancholy. They felt bitter and despairing. They were cold during the night, for the sheets on their bed were made of glass, and glass sheets provide no warmth.

The next day, the villagers, in one body, marched up to the palace, and they called the king out.

He came into the courtyard, bleary-eyed and sleepless.

“This is the fault of the wizard!” he cried. “He cursed this town.”

Never before had any of the townspeople had any reason to dislike the wizard, Huzalmin. They saw no reason to now. There was an angry murmuring from the villagers.

“This is your fault!” one of them cried.

“Yes!” cried one.

“Yes!” shouted another.

“No!” cried the king.

“Yes!” cried the crowd.

And without further preliminaries, they dragged King Venwerth out of the courtyard, and they carried him to the town’s boundary. The king kicked and screamed. The townspeople hardened their hearts to him. They tossed him over the edge of the town, into the sea. The swiftly moving ocean took King Venwerth in its rapid current and pulled him over the edge of the world. He is still falling to this day.

As soon as the king disappeared over the edge of the world, the palace, and the town, and the townspeople were restored to their former setting. They were surrounded by meadows, fields, and the spectacular mountain. There was fresh green grass. There were tall trees waving in the sunshine, orchards, and lakes.

Huzalmin was there. He instructed the townspeople to choose a new king. They chose a good man, a fellow with red hair and a red beard, tall, strong, honest, and wise.

After he was crowned king, Huzalmin paid him a visit.

“Will there be more tunneling into the mountain?” Huzalmin asked.

And the king said, “Certainly not.”

Categories
Stories

Pale Blue Dot

The Pale Blue Dot is a story that starts off with a perspective of how small Earth is.  Perhaps the main part of the story begins a little further in.  It’s the story of Katy Miller, a pop star, and her desire for fame, fortune, peace, and tranquility, and of the plan that she and her handlers hatch to get Katy what she wants.

More skeletons, much to my delight.
Life and Death

Imagine yourself as having lived since the dawn of time. Take a moment. Describe to yourself how long that might be. You would have been alive since before the planet Earth. You would have been here when Earth was being formed. You would have been here when carbon dioxide was first created. You would have been here when our planet, for lack of a better word, first started to breathe. You would have been here during the time of the dinosaurs, who survived for tens of millions of years. You would have seen the meteor hit, and the dinosaurs destroyed. You would have seen the earliest hominids, who survived for hundreds of thousands of years. You would have seen the Stone Age, the Iron Age, and finally the last couple thousand years of modern civilization, the Anthropocene, which are less than a blink in time.

Additionally, you would have had time to consider how small the planet Earth is with regard to the universe. The planet Earth is one planet in our solar system. A single one. One single planet. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are a hundred thousand planets. There are many, many galaxies in the universe. The universe is a decent sized place, and we don’t know whether or not there are other universes.

Now, for one moment, imagine yourself at the edge of our galaxy.

For this exercise, don’t even imagine yourself at the edge of our universe, because that perspective is so big that the mind boggles.

Just imagine yourself at the edge of our galaxy. The planet Earth would be so small that it would seem like a pale blue dot. The people on planet Earth would seem like tiny, squibbling things like bacteria or molecules. The people on Earth live for a hundred years or so, which is not even a blink in time. A hundred years is far, far less than a blink in time.

The lifespan of a star is a blink in time, and stars live for ten or fifteen billion years. The Earth is only four or five billion years old. Our universe has been in existence for ninety or a hundred billion years. We, human beings, live for a hundred years. A hundred years is nothing. Nothing.

Now, imagine, during this time, getting all wrapped up in determining which human has more pieces of paper than another human. That’s greed for money. It’s not noticed beyond our solar system, I guarantee it. In fact, no one outside our solar system cares whether Honduras owes money to China or whether China owes money to Honduras. It doesn’t matter. Not one iota.

Now imagine the humanitarian efforts of our people. Those are not noticed either.

Imagine the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of humans. Outside of Earth, it doesn’t matter. No one outside of Earth notices or cares.

The fact is, we’re not noticed by anyone. We’re operating on our own, in a distant galaxy surrounded by eight lifeless planets, circling around a burning, lifeless star. We’re four light years from the next nearest star, and no one’s in that solar system either.

We are a long ways from anybody.

When you die, nothing will happen. You will just be dead. Death will be like a dreamless sleep, and I guarantee that too.

However, that being said, none of this information, not one bit of it, was mentioned by Katy Miller’s handlers when they proposed to her the idea of the living room camera.

Katy Miller was beautiful. She had a mesmerizing profile. Even her silhouette was breathtaking. Additionally, she had a voice as clear as a bell jar. She could move a hundred million album-equivalent units, which was the music industry’s measurement for reckoning how many albums were sold, now that albums had gone digital and everyone consumed their media electronically. She was as rich as a sultan, as pretty as a plum, as famous a musician as money could buy, and she had the trappings to go with her attributes.

She had an Aston-Martin that ran solely on electricity, and it did none to a hundred in 2.3.

She had a pet lemur. She had four pet dogs, two of which could fit into her handbags.

She received Gucci sunglasses in the mail, promotionals, and she never wore them nor even knew what became of them.

Katy Miller had a staff of maids, lawn-grooms, and butlers to keep her mansion looking perfectly, outrageously neat.

Katy Miller had a team of handlers who sought to leverage her fame and fortune, and to make her celebrity status bigger, more consumable. Audiences, they knew, wanted access.

It was Raúl Wang, her agent, who first suggested the living room camera. Raúl was just under forty, olive-skinned and handsome, with a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He wore Versace and Armani suits. He was born in Queens, and he came of Latin and East Asian blood. He had moved to Los Angeles to make his career, but retained his east coast connections. Raúl was very much in vogue.

“Katy darling,” he said. “I’ve just had the most fabulous idea. Why not put cameras throughout your house and stream your daily life live?”

Katy was smart, but she was also interested in money and growing her brand. She paused. “There’re tons of other people already doing it.”

“But you’re famous, Katy darling! People want to see how famous people live: the mansions, the cars, your darling Toto.” Raúl held up Toto, her lemur.

“No,” said Katy. “It’s unoriginal. I only do new.”

“Wear a camera,” suggested Millie Lundquist. Millie Lundquist was one of Katy’s entourage, and she was reclining on Katy’s divan. “I mean, have cameras all over the house, and wear a camera too. People can choose to toggle between your point of view or the POV from the house cameras. If they want to look at Toto, they look at Toto. If they want to follow you, they follow you.”

“Hmmm,” said Katy. “Warmer. But not quite hot.”

“What if you asked all your friends to wear cameras?” asked Lucas DiLorenzo. He was Katy’s boyfriend, and, she thought, he might not be for much longer.

“Too much of a bother,” Katy replied. “I’m meeting new people all the time, traveling the world. I meet friends, CEOs, executives, media personnel, et cetera. They’d all have to be mic’ed up, and that would be a hassle. And I wouldn’t want the cameras on during business negotiations, nor would any of the execs.”

Lucas shrugged.

“I like Millie’s idea,” said Raúl.

“I do too,” said Katy.

Millie blew a puff of smoke into the air, and she shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, Of course it’s just casual genius.

“And all that Millie’s idea needs is a little twist,” Raúl continued. “Something to make it more flamboyant and original. Something that takes it beyond the pale into true originality. I’ve almost got it—you’ll have cameras all over the house, you’ll wear a camera, and…” He paused, at a loss for what the twist would be.

“You could record everything,” suggested Lucas.

“Ok,” said Katy. “But so what?”

“People could go back and review what you said. It would give your life the illusion of the eternal.”

Katy shrugged her shoulders. “I guess.”

“Biographers could go back and review everything.”

“No,” said Raúl, “Too long-term. Recordings are interesting and utilitarian from a historical perspective, but they’re not click bait. A recording’s not sexy enough. It doesn’t generate enough pop.”

“Fine,” said Lucas.

“Oh, Lucas darling, don’t be petulant. It was a good idea,” said Katy.

“Thank you,” said Lucas, looking mollified.

Katy realized she’d need a new boyfriend soon. There were hundreds of likely candidates to choose from. Lucas was handsome, but she wanted a man she could, at times, follow, not one she whom she always had to lead. She found that exasperating.

“What we need,” said Raúl, “Is something sensational.”

“I’ll fake my own death,” said Katy brightly. “That would be sensational. I’m bored of the glamor anyway. Well, not bored of it, but I need a respite.”

“Fake your own death!” Raúl marveled. His mind wondered as he considered the possibilities.

“Is that possible?” asked Millie.

“I’m the Queen of Pop.” Katy shrugged. “Anything’s possible.”

“What about us?” asked Lucas. “You and me? We wouldn’t be able to be seen in public anymore.”

“We’d have to figure that out,” said Katy.

“Oh,” said Lucas.

“We’d have to figure out a million other details,” said Katy, soothingly. “But the idea’s got some panache, you’ve got to admit.”

“Panache?” said Millie.

“Vim and vigor,” said Raúl absently. “You know, pop.”

And just like that, he had an idea. “You’re the Queen of Pop,” he said. “Why don’t we make you just go ‘pop’?”

“What do you mean?” asked Katy.

“You’ll vanish in a puff of smoke. You’ll disappear.”

“Okay…” said Katy.

“Death is too morbid. It’s too macabre. People would feel betrayed when you reappeared. There would be a police inquiry. No, death’s too much of a pain. But vanishing, disappearance… Now there’s an idea! Put the disappearance together with the idea of you wearing cameras all the time, so that none of the audience can see you planning your own disappearance. Now we’re cooking!”

“I love it!” said Katy. “So the idea is that we plan the entire disappearance beforehand, correct?”

“Right,” said Raúl, nodding and thinking.

Millie sat up on the couch.

Lucas leaned forward.

“A month before my final concert date, I begin to wear the camera, and I have cameras installed in the tour bus, on set, wherever I go. I live stream everything. The audience has total access. Everyone follows me everywhere.”

“Right,” said Raúl. “And at the last concert, after all your contractual obligations are complete, you come out for the encore, and we arrange for a puff of smoke at center stage. We suddenly shut all the cameras off. The stage has a trap door that we’ve never used before, so that even the band has no idea where you’ve gone. You go through the trap door, and I am waiting beneath with a disguise. We hustle you out. There will be thousands and thousands of people screaming. No one will look twice at a person who doesn’t look like you. They do quick changes at the Super Bowl, we’ll do a quick change beneath the stage. Then you’re in a car that Millie drives, and you’re gone. We send you away for a year.”

“There would be a police investigation for a disappearance too,” Lucas put in.

“No,” said Katy, “We just put it out to the masses that I’m going on an extended holiday, à la Dave Chappelle. He vanished to Africa for a year. The police didn’t look for him. I’ll vanish somewhere for the same.”

“The police won’t investigate a holiday,” agreed Millie. “I love it.”

“People will go crazy about it—” Lucas said admiringly. “And you can record it. The Disappearance of the Century it will be called. People will talk about your vanishing for decades after you come back.”

“Yes, we’ll record it. People will review the recording like it’s the Zapruder film. And the disappearance will give me a year of peace and quiet that I can’t get any other way,” said Katy happily. “And, at the same time, it will make me the most fashionable celebrity in the world for another year. Everyone will be guessing at my disappearance and anticipating my return.”

“We’ll have you ‘pop’ back into existence at New Year’s,” Raúl said with sagacity and cunning. “We’ll have you pop back in Manhattan, New York right at the moment that the ball drops at the turn of the new year. Times Square. New York. Everyone will be watching. The ball will drop, and, in a puff of smoke, you will reappear. We’ll have the band ready. You can launch right back into a song. Don’t do a new one of your own. No one would know the words. Do a cover. Do Elton John’s, ‘I’m Still Standing’.”

“It’s perfect,” said Katy breathlessly. “I love everything about it!”

Millie applauded. Lucas held up a flute of champagne. His eyes were shining bright for Katy.

“I’m happy for you, Katy,” he said.

In that moment, when she saw his handsome face, and she felt her heart fluttering, her mind changed, and she thought, “I could see myself marrying this man.”

“But wait,” said Raúl suddenly, dampening the affairs for a moment. “What if plans change during the last month? How will we communicate even a slight change to you? You’ll have cameras on you literally all the time.”

They all paused, puzzled for a moment.

Then Katy had the solution. “I’ll tell you what,” said Katy, “We’ll do it the old fashioned way. How did people get a message across when they didn’t want others to see it? They did it in code. On the day of my last concert, you tell me what changes must take place, and tell me in writing. The audience will see what I’m reading, but you write the real message so that I only need to read every third word of the document. If I understand it, then I’ll sign it. That way, the audience will think that they’re seeing something like a legal document, but they won’t understand that they’re really seeing a code.”

“Excellent idea!” said Raúl. “And I’ll only put the code in the last paragraph. So you can just disregard the rest of the document and go straight to the code. That way, people will understand why it seems to be taking you a while to read it.”

“Wonderful!” said Katy.

“Marvelous!” said Raúl.

“Great!” said Millie.

“Let’s do this!” said Lucas. They toasted with four flutes full of champagne. They spent the night getting happily drunk together, and, for the next month, they made the logistical preparations.

The logistics went well. They got a disguise for Katy, and they put a trap door in the stage. They bought a burner car without a title.

When everything was ready, Katy gave Lucas, Millie, and Raúl a hug. They wished each other well. They made their final checks.

Then, perhaps most importantly, they turned on the cameras.

Everything that Katy did for the next three months of her tour was filmed: her shows, her dressing, her interviews, her flights, her bus rides, etc.

The concerts were a smashing success. Katy Miller’s personality was vibrant, audacious, at times a little too aggressive for the pundits. The audiences ate it up.

Katy Miller’s popularity soared.

For the next three months, Katy was as busy as a bee. She flitted from one venue to the next.

Six weeks into her three month-long touring schedule, Katy broke up with Lucas. The cameras recorded it all. His tears, and hers, were the covers of tabloids for two weeks.

Katy felt herself growing weary at times, and she began to feel eager for her break from fame and fortune. It was tiresome, she felt, to be hounded all the time. The vanishing act, she realized, was going to be a boon that she’d needed. She really would take some time off for herself. She contemplated a long break that filled her days with fresh fruit and yoga, something like Julia Roberts did in Eat, Pray, Love, except that Katy would skip the Love part… And, she thought with an amused grin, maybe she would skip the Pray part too. Maybe she would go somewhere quiet and just Eat.

When the big day came, Katy reflected that her final concert date had arrived, and she thought, Good, I’m exhausted.

Her tour manager came into her dressing room with a long, contractual looking document that he said was from Raúl.

The tour manager said, “Katy, Raúl wants you to read this document and sign it, if you agree with what it says. Is now a good time for you to do that?”

“Never a better,” Katy replied.

The tour manager laid the document onto the table. It was a page long, in fairly small print. Katy went right to the last paragraph. This was the coded letter that she’d been anticipating.

The paragraph read.

You are everything, and what is, shall always still be looked on. I know no other lady changes the music from the old—my dated generation’s side. Sign of times if you want; you’re the best; All Timer, you’re ready!

Every third word read, “Everything is still on. No changes from my side. Sign if you’re all ready.”

Katy signed.

A short time later, she went on stage. She made a playful mention of an upcoming disappearance. It was vague, but not too vague. Then Katy sang her songs. At the end of the concert, she stood in the center of the stage. Her arms were raised on either side. She wore a glittery red costume that looked like a swimsuit. It was very revealing. It could not be mistaken.

There was an enormous puff of smoke. For a moment, Katy could see nothing.

Then the trap door opened, and Katy fell through. Raúl caught her, and he set her gently on the ground. He had waiting for her a frumpy black hooded sweatshirt and some grey sweat pants. He had some tennis shoes. He had sunglasses.

The first thing that Katy took off was the camera. When she pulled it off, it was like the weight of a millstone coming off her neck. It weighed but a few ounces imperial, but several hundred pounds, and gaining, psychological.

Katy pulled the clothes on, and she and Raúl slipped out from underneath the stage. She kept her head bowed. They were like salmon going upstream against a current. Security, police, and media were hustling toward the stage.

No one prevented their escape.

Millie was waiting outside with the car idling. Raúl and Katy stepped into the car. They shut the doors behind them. Millie drove slowly away. The car’s windows were tinted black. Raúl pulled the back of the backseat down, and Katy crawled out of the backseat, into the trunk of the car. Raúl put the seatback back up again.

Millie and Raúl were very quiet as they drove out of Los Angeles, out toward the desert. It was a horrible thing that they had in mind to do.

When they reached the desert, it was two-thirty in the morning. Raúl opened the trunk, and he helped Katy out.

She was a smart girl, Katy, and as soon as she saw the desert, she knew that something, at some time, had gone wrong in the plans. Her moment of realization came a moment too late. Raúl struck her ferociously with the tire iron, and she went down like bricks into the sea.

Millie and Raúl had left shovels in the desert. These they used to bury Katy.

The document which Katy had signed, the great part of which she had not read, was recorded by all the cameras that she’d used. She’d signed that she planned to go away, that she’d been planning her vanishing since before the cameras had been turned on. The document stated that she was tired of the materialism and wealth, and she was leaving half her hundred million dollar fortune to Millie and the other half to Raúl.

Millie and Raúl, having cooked up this scheme between them, felt a hundred million dollars to be a prize well worth one human life. They reasoned that the police would search only half-heartedly for Katy, since she signed that she was going away.

Millie and Raúl didn’t need much, they realized, for all that money. They needed the will to commit murder. They both recognized that they had that will. And, Millie and Raúl fathomed, they’d have to bury Katy deep. So deep that she’d never be found.

They buried her deep.

It was a sensational little human drama: the sudden disappearance of the Queen of Pop, the conspiracies, the love, the recorded evidence, the police investigation, the strange and unlooked-for will, the mystery, the intrigue, the glamor, and the fame.

Lucas was right. People called it The Disappearance of a Century. Some people believed that Katy Miller would return or be seen again, like Lydie Marland, the governor’s wife who lived in a mansion with a secret room. Conspiracy theorists said that Katy Miller had been murdered by Raúl and Millie, and these theorists were mostly disregarded. The police, reviewing the final concert, realized that Katy had playfully mentioned her upcoming disappearance. The lead detective thought she went south to Mexico then, perhaps, to Peru. Raúl and Millie, on separate occasions, had informed this detective that Katy was interested in temazcal.

So the detective moved on from the Miller disappearance without much sorrow. There were murders where the victim had certainly been killed, and disappearances where the victim had definitely been kidnapped. These cases had substance, and, although they weren’t so glamorous, still the victims and families in such cases needed police help. There was only so much time that a detective could devote to one case, even a high-profile one, without shirking his duties with regard to the rest of his caseload.

And outside of this pale blue dot of a planet that we call Earth, no one batted an eyelid that one meager life was lost or that pieces of paper changed hands. No one heard the collective buzz of millions of people conversing about Katie Miller. The pleas, whims, words, and actions of humans were utterly and completely muffled by the vastness of space.

But on planet Earth, for decades after the fantastic circumstances of Katie Miller’s disappearance, many people continued to care.

 

Categories
Stories

Fingers

Fingers is the story of Imad Al-Bokhari, a man so desperate that he will sell anything for a price.

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Imad Al-Bokhari of the desert city, Shangri-La, was born with ten fingers at the stroke of noon to a young woman with healthy teeth, breasts full of milk, three fingers on her left hand and two on her right. The right hand was wrapped in fine gauze—thin, soft, and stained crimson—because Asra had needed to pay for a doctor and was otherwise impoverished.

Asra, during the truncated time she knew Imad, said he was a strong baby—so strong she feared he would perforate her nipples with his baby teeth, so strong that his midnight cries roused the neighbors through the thin apartment wall, causing them to plead, “Allah! Destroy that child!” Asra smiled when she heard these solicitations, however, because she felt Imad would one day be an leader among men, and the strength he possessed as a baby would be necessary in the future. She kissed Imad’s forehead with her nose, rocking him in the crook of her left arm, and favoring her right hand which, in the month since his birth, had turned crocodile green due to a staph infection.

A month later, Asra felt feverish: her right hand throbbing, her palms sweaty, her forehead hot. The infection had led to pneumonia and, within two months, Asra lay dead in a hospital which had too few beds, two hundred patients, and three doctors. As Asra’s family was unknown to her friends, Imad was raised by Asra’s neighbors, the Al-Bokhari’s.

By the time Imad turned twenty-two, he had become the preeminent thief of Shangri-La. He wore a long white robe, a ruby ring on his thumb, and he had no education at all. His beard was long because he did not want to cut it, and his face was ugly with warts, acne scars, and rotten yellow teeth. From long nights of drinking and cigarettes, from years of consecutive mornings without ever brushing his teeth, and from his abominable habit of sucking onions, Imad had acquired what seemed to be a permanent case of halitosis, and it was only because he tied a bandana around the lower half of his face—to confine the stench—that he could steal jewels at midnight from the bedsides of the somnolent.

It was during one of these nights that the thief found himself treading stealthily across a soft, deep rug toward a boudoir, having filled himself with a touch too much to drink. Imad hardly worried about the drinks, however, because the rug was silent and the room was spacious and uncluttered. But the rag began to slip down his face, and Imad was so drunk that he did not notice the slipping rag or the misfortune that approached like a thief in the night. With a small hiccough, the rag fell off, and the terrible stench of his halitosis was emitted. The tenants awoke; all was undone.

In the months after Imad was released from his ten year incarceration, he found no work at all. No employer wanted to hire a convicted thief, or a motherless bastard. So Imad was forced to sell his fingers as talismans. The butcher who bought Imad’s digits was a spectral man, much shorter than Imad, and thin like a slim iron rod. This butcher’s hair was long, and his face was sallow, with malicious eyes and a tongue that was said to be sable and like a trident. The cleaver that the butcher carried on his belt seemed half the size of his body, and this butcher, Hasim Hussein, was considered an evil man for all the amputations he had performed. Hasim’s amputees were paid an amount equal to three month’s wages of a working man, and the amputations were performed in a sunless alleyway which contained, at its far end, only a merchant’s stall that sold fava beans and rice. The wheels of the stall were broken, and the merchant hardly tended to his stall anymore, only sat behind the broken cart and read the daily paper, his cracked lips muttering as his eyes moved. The merchant was so accustomed to the violence of Hasim Hussein’s business that he rarely blinked when the echoing screams of men and women drowned the SCHNINK of the cleaver as it slammed into the stones of the street.

Once the fingers were dismembered, Hasim would place them in a vat of boiling acid, which ate the flesh away and left only the bones. The boiling acid would be dumped out, and Hasim would catch the finger bones with a filter, place them on a towel, and allow them to dry in the scorching Shangri-La sun. The finger bones would be strung onto a necklace by Hasim’s wife, Shahira, and the necklaces would be sold to voodoo occultists who came to Shangri-La looking for medicine from bones.

The stump, where Imad’s thumb used to be, burned. Imad’s hand was wrapped in gauze—fine, soft, and stained maroon—and he was afraid that he would either catch a staph infection and die, or that the stump would heal and he would live.

“Either way,” he mumbled to himself, “I’ll want to be out of the sun.”

The Shangri-La sun, which was hot even in winter, seemed to boil the city now that it was summer. The air above the cobblestoned, sandy streets shimmered with heat waves. The white apartments of the quarter where Imad lived reflected the sun, and the mosque, which was the whitest, cleanest building of all, seemed blinding, so that as Imad walked past it on his way to an illicit bar which lay in a basement below some crumbling tenements, he was forced to shield his eyes with the rough cotton of his sleeve.

Inside, Imad helped himself to a drink of palm wine. He lifted it with the two stubs of his hands. The gauze stained the glass, and the glass became viscous and red wherever the gauze touched. But Imad cared very little if the barman asked him to purchase the glass, for Imad had the equivalent of six months of a worker’s wages in his shoe. Hasim Hussein had taken Imad’s final finger that afternoon, and Hasim had doubled Imad’s payment in a rare display of empathy.

“You’ll need the money, Imad. You’ve got nothing left to sell,” Hasim had said, then he brought the cleaver down. At the end of the street, the vendor licked his dry lips, his eyes feasting on the news.

After six weeks of drinking had whittled six months of wages into spare change, Imad spent the last of his money on an onion. He set the onion on the ground, which was yellow and sandy, and he kicked off his sandals. He lifted the onion between his fingerless hands, and, through a nearly unbelievable act of contortion, he peeled away the onion’s skin with his toes.

Imad’s toes were blistered. He had yellow toenails, and calluses had formed on his feet’s soles. He could feel the customers in the market watching his contortions and, through the corner of his eye, he saw a woman in a black shawl turn her head. The onion skin felt light and flaky between his toes, and the hot wind whipped the thin peel away. Below him, the ground was sandy and burning, and the shimmering yellow sun—always hot, potentially lethal—made the back of his neck sweat, because Imad was leaning forward and was stretched like an ostrich. When Imad’s muscles began to cramp, he ignored the feeling; similarly, he ignored the cool, uncomfortable trickle of sweat beginning to creep down his neck and into his shirt. People passed very near him, edging around him to speak to a vendor in the market or to pay for their fruits, their vegetables, their poultry. The marketplace was quite loud, but Imad was unconcerned with the noise, because his focus was on the white onion whose skin was now gone. With his head between his hands, Imad could smell the eye-watering scent of onion, his own body odor, and, from nearby, the tantalizing smell of falafel. Using the very tips of his toes, Imad tore off an onion peel and let it fall to the ground. Chickens were clucking in the hands of a butcher as Imad trapped the peel between his two fingerless hands, put the peel into his mouth, and began to suck.

It was dusk, nearly dark, very late for business. But though the day was cooling, and though the butcher’s arm was sore, it was plain from Imad’s frantic actions that he had lava in his veins.

“What do you want, Imad?” Hasim Hussein asked, looking over his shoulder. But when Hasim looked, he saw in Imad’s eyes the drought and the sobriety that had weathered Imad, and Hasim answered before Imad could speak. “I will not subtract your toes, Imad. There’s no market for it.”

But Imad, whose thirst had charged his resourcefulness, had expected that reply. “There is a woman,” Imad said, “With a fetish for feet. She’s so rich she wears a necklace whose band is made of blue diamonds. It’s not my toes she wants, Hasim; it’s my feet.”

Hasim Hussein eyed Imad uncertainly, “Come back tomorrow.”

“It’s true—every word of it, butcher.”

“Come back tomorrow.”

When Imad returned the next day with a splitting headache, shaky hands, and pupils dilated nearly to the size of marbles, Hasim Hussein knew that Imad had been telling the truth, and that he could exploit Imad’s condition for his own economic gain. Hasim waited for Imad to speak.

“Have you made up your mind? Do you realize I’m telling the truth?”

“I have made up my mind that you are lying,” replied Hasim. “Come back tomorrow.”

“Consider, butcher,” begged Imad, “Who would lie to you in order to have their feet cut off? Surely you must know I am telling the truth? You are twice a wicked man if you know.”

“Come back tomorrow.”

Imad shook his head gravely. “I’ll find someone else,” he said. “Any fool can wield a cleaver.”

“You’ll find others,” replied Hasim. “but my amputations are like surgery.”

“Then do it.”

“Alright, but I want your hands as well.”

That night, Hasim was forced to boil the flesh off all the bones himself, because Shahira had said the feet and fingerless hands were too grotesque to handle, and that any person who touched them would catch a pox, and their body would erupt in sores.

Imad Al-Bokhari’s foster parents had told him the story of his mother’s death, so when, two days later, Imad’s foot began to turn the shade of a crocodile, Imad knew immediately that he had contracted the disease that had killed his mother.

Imad had a coin between his teeth when he first noticed the discoloration on his calf. Throughout the entire day, Imad sat on his legs in the market, and some people tossed Imad a few coins. He had started the habit of pullling open his long, tattered coat with his handless wrists whenever people tipped him, and showing the philanthropists that he had no feet. Occasionally, he would receive another coin and a morsel of conversation. But when Imad discovered that his calf was becoming the hue of healthy vines, he struggled to his feet and, walking like a penguin, he began picking his way through the maze of unmarked roads and burning cobblestone streets that constituted Shangri-La.

Imad arrived in the sunless alleyway of Hasim Hussein and the fava bean merchant who read his newspaper unceasingly, who allowed his foods to wait and grow cold. In the middle of the alleyway, resting crookedly against a cracked three story tenement, was Hasim Hussein. As Imad walked into the alley, he noticed that the air was redolent with the scent of fresh blood, and flies incessantly buzzed around the body of Hasim Hussein. Hasim’s eyes were shut tight, and his chin lay slack on his chest.

“Hasim!” Imad called. “Butcher! Are you dead?”

Hasim lifted his eyes, “No—it has only been a busy day.”

“My leg, Hasim—look at it!” Imad lifted the hem of his robe.

Hasim observed the leg without discernable emotion.

“I need you to cut my leg off,” continued Imad. “The infection will give me pneumonia.”

“I can not do anything with a leg,” replied Hasim. “And you can do even less without it.”

“I’ll take my leg with me.”

“You’ll die if I cut it off.”

“I’ll die if you don’t.”

“Then it is all the same to you,” said Hasim reasonably. “And I am a businessman, not a charity.”

“I have nothing, Hasim. You can sell my leg.”

“I can’t sell your leg. No one wants a leg. I could continue to chop you into tiny parts, Imad, and no one would want any of you. Even your heart is worthless.”

Imad, impoverished, miserable, and with abominable breath, shifted from one stump to the other, and scratched his beard with the stub of his wrist. “Please,” he said.

“You’ve been a worthless wretch your whole life,” laughed Hasim fondly. “Allah should never have let you live. But I will relieve you of your staph infection. Lay down on the alley, and put your foot out in front of you.”

Imad let himself down slowly. Setting the stumps of his wrists against the stones of the street caused a trickle of blood to stain the gauze further, for the wounds were still fresh. Imad grimaced, but Hasim, who observed Imad’s face, displayed no emotion. Imad lowered himself to the ground, then lay on his back gingerly, stretching his legs out before him. Above him, a clothesline stretched from the rooftop of one tenement to the next, and orange and red linens fluttered against the backdrop of a blue bird sky. The alley’s stones were cool against Imad’s skin, and he watched as the linens flapped. Hasim stood over him, standing near his waist. Then Hasim kneeled on the ground, holding the cleaver high above his head. It wasn’t until Hasim grinned wickedly that Imad understood what was to occur, but Hasim brought the cleaver down, and the SCHNINK was notable only because it echoed throughout sunless alleyway, with no cry to muffle it, and even the merchant looked up in fear.

Categories
Stories

The Treatment

In the future, convicted criminals receive a genetic modification to their brains, then these criminals are released back into society. In this story, a killer, Craig Kowalski, receives the genetic surgery in the year 2051, and he is granted his freedom.

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Photograph of The Questioner of the Sphinx by Elihu Vedder (1836-1923), 1863, Oil on Canvas, Boston Museum of Fine Art

Craig Kowalski, the infamous serial killer, received genetic modifications to his brain and a subdural tracking chip was implanted in him. He was, accordingly, to be released from prison. Every week for the first four weeks, Craig would be required to see a brain specialist and a psychologist. Pending successful reviews of his behavior and scans of his brain, he would need only see his parole officer every two weeks. If the reviews of his brain and behavior did not yield satisfactory results, other resolutions—including hormone therapy, more intensive brain surgery, and additional prison time—would be sought.

Craig Kowalksi was known for the murders of no fewer than eleven young women, with some estimates as high as thirty-five. The murders are alleged to have taken place over a twelve year period. There was, therefore, no enormous and completely ecstatic crowd to greet him upon his departure from the W. Becker Neurosurgery Clinic. But Craig Kowalski’s one year term in prison represented a drastic departure from the punishment for serial killers to which the public was accustomed. There was, therefore, an enormous crowd to greet him upon his departure.

In the past, of course, serial killers typically received either death penalties—which proved morally, judicially, and politically fraught—or life sentences, which proved costly for the state and ultimately irritating to nearly all involved. In the year 2051, however, after numerous scientific and medical advancements had taken place with respect to the brain, these punishments were reviewed. There had already been a deep undercurrent of dissatisfaction associated with life imprisonment and death sentences, but neither science nor the judiciary presumed to have struck upon a more just solution as to what actions to take with the most loathsome of society’s offenders.

The main reason was that serial killers—in part because of their upbringing, and in part because of their character—seemed to be an incalcitrant bunch. It was Henry Müller, the German criminal psychologist, who first suggested the course of action newly practiced today. Dr. Müller had studied at length some of the most infamous statements by serial killers, and he was left struck by the impression that the serial killers shared one trait in common. They felt compelled to kill. Dr. Müller examined the literature. In the 1890s, the notorious killer, H.H. Holmes stated, “I could not help being a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.” Upon reading this statement from Holmes, Dr. Müller said that he sat back in his chair, struck by a ring of truth in the speaker’s words. What was it, Dr. Müller wondered, that made a person want to be an engineer more than a poet? Or to be a painter more than a train conductor? The answer, must, in part, lie in the person’s environment. For there were certainly families who, for example, grew up and lived near railroads for their entire lives, but the children of those families did not all want to be train conductors. The children of those families would want different things, and, despite their growing up in similar environments, those children had vastly different desires. The explanation to those different desires, Dr. Müller felt, was due to genetics. It was probable, then, that a person like H.H. Holmes must feel a desire to kill which was impressed upon him by his genetic makeup, and to which a person like Holmes must inevitably bend.

In the years 2040-45, Dr. Müller researched criminal ontology and brain genetics in his free time. In the autumn of 2045, he presented his findings which demonstrated a link between the brains’ genetic programming and a criminal’s actions. He was, initially, met with great skepticism. But Dr. Müller persisted. And, in the year 2050, genetic research upon the brain caught up with his theories. Scientists stated that, through the modifications of certain genes in a human’s brain, they could more or less prescribe what a human would do. Scientists could, in a word, increase aggressiveness or decrease libido or inspire a person to paint. The media hit upon this, saying that such science was all common sense, of course. Media personalities appeared on various channels spouting armchair psychology and citing historical instances to support their claims. They referenced a person who was struck by lightning then suddenly became musically inclined. They dredged up the case of Phineas Gage who was working on the railroad when a pole was jammed through his skull. Gage survived, but he gained a remarkable interest in collecting souvenirs—a habit to which he had not previously been disposed.

Dr. Müller was once again respected and consulted. He was thrust into the limelight.

He proposed a drastic solution which was heard around the world.

Dr. Müller proposed that the prison system be nearly entirely eliminated. In its place, repeat offenders, and serious offenders—rapists, murderers, pedophiles, and the like—ought to have their brains genetically altered. Then, these offenders should be sent directly back into society. Dr. Müller stated that these offenders would no longer pose a risk. They couldn’t. Their brains weren’t urging them to the same morbid ends.

This proposal was, of course, met with resistance. There is always resistance to change. One of the most complicated pieces of dialogue to unpack was the piece surrounding justice. Victims’ families contended, with no small rationale, that a man who killed thirty people ought to be punished for it. Nevermind the fact that his brain was wrong to begin with—that wasn’t the victims’ families fault—it was important to respect the fact that changing the way that a serial killer or a rapist thought wasn’t going to restore a murder victim’s life or un-rape a victim.

Some of these victims’ families went so far as to argue that a person could do whatever they wished, then plead that their brains had malfunctioned. The offender could get their brain changed, and, in effect, get away with murder.

On the other side of this very contentious argument, there was a group of people arguing vehemently that the very purpose of prison was to reform, and, if a person were reformed, then there was no use in keeping them in prison and of depriving that person of their liberty, and society of a good, reformed citizen. Take advantage of science, these people said.

It was all very heated.

And it wasn’t until the case of Craig Kowalski that science finally got its chance to try its genetic modification solution out.

In a relatively short surgery, neurosurgeons altered permanently the way that Craig Kowalksi thought.

The effect was that Kowalski went into surgery as one type of man, and he came out another.

Craig received a GPS tracker beneath his skin in case he tried to cut and run. He professed no desire to. He was pleasant and polite. The surgery seemed to have worked. The neurosurgeons declared it a success.

He was ready for discharge from the W. Becker Neurosurgical Clinic on December 4th, 2051. He was briefed that the crowd outside—which was composed of media members, members of the victims’ families, human rights groups, protest groups, and rubber-neckers—was liable to be a little antsy. The police and military were on hand to restrain them. It was expected of Craig Kowalski that he walk out of the Becker Clinic, head directly to his brother’s car (who was waiting there for him), and that the two should drive away as quickly and as safely as reasonably possible.

Craig agreed.

Craig was asked again if he could remember what crimes he had committed.

Craig said that he could remember, and that he was horrified to have done the deeds.

Craig was asked if he was ready to go.

Craig responded in the affirmative.

Accompanied by four large military men as escorts, Craig walked to his car. The crowd shouted and jeered. There was a fight in the crowd which was quickly broken up. A single tomato was thrown, but it missed. Craig got into his brother’s car, and they very slowly drove away. Some protestors beat on the windows, but the crowd was mostly restrained by their own sense of good behavior and the police.

Craig Kowalski, the media said the next day, killed at least twelve people, and he spent a year in jail for it. But was the Craig Kowalski who was released really the same Craig Kowalski that killed all those people?

A philsopher brought up the planks of Plutarch. Plutarch, the philosopher said, was an ancient Greek who talked about building and re-building ships. Plutarch’s general idea was that a person could replace a broken plank in a ship, and it’d still be the same ship. But Plutarch wondered what would happen if a person replaced more than just a plank. What if they replaced a mast? What if they replaced more than a mast? At what point, Plutarch wondered, did a person replace so much of a ship that it wasn’t really the same ship anymore, but a different one?

Some people seized upon this old argument as a fulcrum in the debate about Craig Kowalski. Craig had had a part of his brain modified, was he really the same Craig Kowalski? Or was he someone different?

To Craig Kowalksi, his problems were much more practical. Some people at his new job treated him with leery disdain and deep distrust. Others were super-welcoming, embracing him as if they were hugging the living embodiment of progress. It was hard for Craig to find friends. It was even harder to find a date, and he found himself wanting to get married and have children, but that wasn’t something he felt brave enough to talk about—because he remembered his past and felt guilty about it.

All these complicated and very human things were going on while, of course, poor people starved, and regular folk were encouraged not to forget about them, and while there were crises of migrancy and women’s rights and environmental destruction. Craig Kowalksi was, in effect, one small part of the ongoing human maelstrom. But Craig still felt that his problems were more real to him than to other people, and he wasn’t allowed to change his name or move states. He had to deal with his problems. And he sometimes wondered if it was fair and just that he had to deal with such problems—after all, it wasn’t his fault that he’d been born with a broken brain.

Fifteen years later, there were special clinics popping up which would allow for physical changes to a human’s body to change the way that the person felt. The doctors in these clinics used the tools in their disposal—primarily genetic and hormonal modification—to decrease symptoms associated with depression and bipolar personality disorders. Many people, however, also used the clinics for sex reassignment and sexual reorientation. The advances in medicine continued as a part of the cultural discussion as people around the world grappled with the discussion of what rights they had to access these services—was it a basic human right or just an option? Such questions impacted economics. The number of men and women in jails had decreased considerably over this time as more and more people received the treatment that was pioneered on Craig Kowalski. There had been a few cases of relapses, where the surgeries had not been properly done, but, overall, the process had advanced enough that the jails were slowly being emptied, and the number of offenses around the world was mainly limited to third world countries which did not have the medical facilities to systematically apply genetic modification.

Craig Kowalski’s case had changed the world.

 

Categories
Stories

The Sicario

The Sicario is the genesis story of a criminal prodigy.  The story traces the early and unlawful career of Santiago Ramírez, a budding, villainous genius, who lives life among the border cartels.  The story describes murder, mayhem, and family.  It portends that Santiago will one day be a powerful and Machiavellian cartel boss.

fullsizeoutput_a48Santiago Ramírez was born an American in San Diego. Immediately after his birth certificate was issued, his mother, Maria Louisa “Lulu” Ramírez, returned with him to her home country of Mexico, and Santiago became a dual citizen shortly thereafter.

Señora Ramírez was a mother in a cartel family. Her brother, David, was arrested for trafficking arms in Culiacán. Her uncle, Jesse, was arrested for trafficking narcotics, also in Culiacán. The family’s lives were remarkable for their sensational violence, police encounters, and criminal associations. When the authorities released Jesse two months after his arrest, he was soon shot to death outside a grocery store. Three hundred and fifty 7.62 mm bullet casings were found at the scene of the crime. The authorities described Jesse Ramírez’ murder as an open case, and his assailants were never found. Lulu’s sister, Yolanda, was sanctioned under the Kingpin Act for her alleged involvement in the cartel’s financial activities. Señora Ramírez’ mother, María Luisa Ochoa, had run a brothel before she married her husband, Señor Carlos Ramírez. Now she was rumored to control no fewer than twenty and to live in the shadows with Carlos, a man wanted in Mexico, Colombia, and the United States.

When Santiago was four, his family was murdered by a rival gang, the Jalisco Alphas, in an attack so successful and decisive that it secured control of the western seaboard and primacy in cocaine traffic for the JAs. The Ramírez Cartel was a paramilitary operation, and over the course of the following year, the lieutenants and captains in the cartel were either hunted down or integrated into the Jalisco Alpha organization.

The only Ramírez survivor of the strikes was Santiago himself, who was with his nanny when the hit happened. The nanny, Julia Ortega, had used her wits and saved their lives. She took Santiago’s passport, her own, and a sackful of pesos, then slipped away. She fled to Mazatlán with the four year old, then she took the ferry from Mazatlán to La Paz in Baja Sur. As Julia traveled, she fretted about what to do with Santiago, feeling that, while the rival cartel had no interest in her, they would certainly be interested in Santiago, and that his very presence put her life at hazard. She had neither love nor sympathy for the Ramírez family, who had unduly punished her for mild offenses and treated her tyrannically, and, though she had no care for the baby either, she was human enough that she was repelled by the idea of leaving Santiago alone and exposed. Still Julia she knew of no one who could take Santiago, and now she felt stuck in La Paz.

Julia found herself in the unenviable position of being an unemployed woman with the care of a child who was not hers in a city in which she knew no one, and that child was the only thing attracting a group of animalistic gang members who hunted and killed.

After a year of much anxiety, during which Julia read about the slow and steady decimation of the Ramírez gang, Julia decided what she would do.

Julia went north, to Mexicali and Calexico, border towns between California and Mexico. There she crossed the border with Santiago.

“Remember this crossing, Santiago,” she said to him. “If you wish to return, you’ll have to make it by yourself tomorrow. At least I am giving you this chance.”

The boy was five years old, and he remembered the vermillion and navy blue of a swallow, whose tail parted scissorlike behind it as it dipped and soared over a wet ditch. It was his first memory.

They returned to Mexico that night. The next day, they crossed into America again, and Julia left him there. She crossed back into Mexico alone, and she vanished from his life forever. The action she took that day haunted her conscience for the rest of her life, and she spoke of it to no one. She returned to Culiacán and went to work for her father who owned a small restaurant that served menudos and mariscos, and there she stayed until she died.

Santiago was found by a woman who turned him over to the authorities. The authorities held him for awhile, but no one claimed the boy, and ultimately he was remanded to the care of a foster home in San Diego.

His life there was miserable and unhappy, in part because of his own actions, for Santiago found himself drawn to crime. He stole and he lied, and he was caught at both of them, and punished, so that he became an angry child, tyrannical like his dead parents, and subject to overwhelming and passionate outbursts of violence and anger.

When Santiago was eight, his ferocity was noticed by a man with an eye for criminal genius. The man’s name was Julio Rodríguez, and he was an ex-convict and a man of foresight. He saw his own days of criminal activity to be dead and gone, so he set himself up as a recruiter and talent scout for a cartel in Tijuana. He saw in Santiago’s eyes and actions a boy who could be groomed for crime.

Julio Rodríguez invited the eight year old back to a restaurant, Don Pedro’s, where he spent his time. There were two other youth there, brothers, and a number of adults as well. The men would sit outside Don Pedro’s drinking beer, smoking, and laughing. They talked of old times, past crimes, and breathed regular life into aging vendettas. They had ties to the Camino Verde Cartel which operated out of Tijuana.

Julio introduced Santiago to Aarón and Alex Molinary, two brothers aged fourteen and fifteen. The Molinary brothers wore jeans and skate shoes. Alex wore a gold necklace with a golden bullet as its pendant. Aarón had a golden tooth.

“I’ve got a new friend for you,” said Julio. “Take care of him.”

“This kid?” asked Alex, looking skeptically at the eight year old.

“Yeah,” said Santiago.

The men at Don Pedro’s were sipping from their beers and smoking.

“I’m not a baby-sitter,” said Alex.

Santiago cursed at the older boy, and he told him where to go.

Alex’s face darkened.

The men laughed.

Then Alex, looking at them, laughed too.

“Avispón,” Alex said, which means hornet in English.

Aarón chuckled.

For the next two years, Santiago, or Avispón as they called him, distinguished himself through his brutality and aggressive flair.

Between the ages of eight and ten, he fought no less than once a week. He began skateboarding, drinking, and smoking cigarettes and marijuana. His eyes grew lean and sharp. He stole money and food from his foster home. He stole clothes from local shops. He grew into a boy more wicked and mature than his years suggested. He did anything and everything asked of him by Julio Rodríguez, Aarón, and Alex, and the men at the restaurant soon began to treat him like a ferocious pet, one whose startling temper was to be chuckled at, but with amused respect.

During this time, Julio felt realized that he had discovered a child prodigy so far as crime was concerned. Accordingly, he informed a captain in Calle Verde Cartel. Nothing happened for months. Then one day an order came down that the leadership of the Calle Verde Cartel wished for a test of Santiago’s mettle.

A foolish fresa—which translates directly to strawberry, but which refers to a rich, soft kid—wanted to be perceived as hard, and he’d gotten himself involved in the Camino Verde Cartel. He had money but no brains, no street smarts, and he simply wasn’t good at doing things right. His name was Sergio Rosa. The cartel, realizing that he was both expendable and willing, selected Sergio for the murder of a beautiful woman, Alexis Hernández. Alexis was the wife of a cartel member, Israel Hernández, who had been arrested and who was agreeing to a plea bargain with the feds. Israel’s talking threatened the leaders of the Camino Verde Cartel and their narcotics logistics, so the cartel needed to send a warning. That warning would be the murder of Alexis Hernández, the imprisoned man’s wife. Any more talking, the cartel would say, and Israel’s children would be next.

Thus Sergio Rosa was dispatched one night with orders to murder Alexis Hernández in her penthouse home in San Diego. Sergio was given a gun and instructions to throw it into the Pacific Ocean once the murder was completed.

The cartel had recognized in this upcoming murder an opportunity. They would send Santiago Ramírez into the penthouse apartment after the murder was committed. If that fresa Sergio bungled the murder, then Santiago could report back, and the Camino Verde Cartel would send in a professional to finish the job. If Sergio had done the job right, Santiago would have a first hand opportunity to see murder up close, and he could be desensitized to it from a young age. Julio, thinking through the cartel’s plan, reasoned that the risks were small. If Santiago was found on the scene, he was only ten years old. Nothing would go onto his permanent record, and any time in juvenile detention would be short.

On the night of the murder, it was a warm, clear night in August. Sergio Rosa arrived at Alexis Hernández’ apartment building with trembling hands and a look of frightened determination on his face. The gun was concealed in a shoulder holster. He carried a hot pizza in a cardboard box, as if he were a pizza delivery boy, and the guard let him up. Sergio punched the elevator for the top floor. The elevator was located against a vertical glass window that let Sergio look out over the city of San Diego as the elevator rose. The city spread out before him, like a carpet of lights and shadowy buildings until those lights reached the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and the sea gave way to darkness. The elevator came to a smooth stop on the fourteenth floor.

Sergio Rosa exited the elevator, and he walked to the only room on the floor. He knocked, and when Alexis Hernández opened the door, he pushed his way in. He dropped the pizza on the ground. She screamed. He pulled the pistol from his shoulder holster, but it caught on his jacket. The woman attacked him, screaming. Sergio got the pistol unstuck, falling back against the closed door. He shot her once, in the top of the shoulder. Alexis screamed again, and she fell back. He shot her twice more, once in the chest, once in the belly. She lay on the floor, moaning. Sergio fled from the room, not bothering to shut the door. When he was in the elevator, he looked up, and he realized that he was looking at a camera. He put his head into his jacket, and he began to cry. He was still crying when he reached the lobby floor, but Sergio looked the other way as he walked out, and he did not respond to the guard’s goodbye. Sergio had parked four blocks away, and he ran the entire distance, increasingly cognizant and frightened by how many cameras there were along the sidewalk. He reached his car, and he realized that he had parked it beneath yet another video surveillance camera. He dented the car behind him as he backed out of the parallel parking, then he sped away.

Fifteen minutes later, Julio Rodríguez dropped Santiago Ramírez off at the penthouse apartment. The ten year old was dressed nicely, and his hair had just been cut. Santiago smiled at the guard, and he told him that he was there to see his Aunt Alexis.

The guard gave the boy a warm smile, and, with kind eyes, he pointed the boy to the elevator and told him to punch fourteen.

“I think she’s got some pizza waiting up there for you,” the guard said.

“Pepperoni and sausage’s my favorite,” replied Santiago, and he walked to the elevator.

The elevator doors opened, and Santiago got in them. They closed behind him.

“Cute kid,” said the guard.

When Santiago reached the fourteenth floor, he found the door ajar. He went in to the apartment. There was Alexis Hernández, still alive on the floor. She was crawling toward the couch, and a trail of blood lay behind her.

When the boy came in, she turned her head. Her eyes were wide in terror. She thought the man had come back to finish the job. But her expression changed to relief when she saw Santiago. He was a boy, nicely dressed. In her pain, she did not wonder what he was doing there.

“Help me!” she said. “Help me get my phone.”

“Where is it?” asked Santiago.

“Near the couch.”

Santiago walked past her to the couch where her phone lay. He did not touch it. He merely looked at it.

“Bring it to me,” she said.

Santiago looked up.

It was then that her face changed to horror again. She suddenly wondered what the boy was doing in her apartment. And the boy’s face seemed evil.

But Alexis couldn’t give up hope, and she couldn’t completely trust her ominous premonition.

“Bring me the phone,” she said.

But the boy did not move. He’d been told to check on the apartment, and to see that Sergio had not left any evidence behind. He’d been told that, if the girl was still alive for any reason, to call Julio, and Julio would call someone in the Calle Verde Cartel.

Santiago looked around the apartment. The lights were on. The place was strewn with the woman’s dirty clothes. It was a fancy, wealthy apartment. The tables were made of glass and gold. The couch was white leather. The kitchen had marble countertops.

Santiago wondered if anyone could see into the apartment with its lights on. He went around the room, and he turned off all the lights. Alexis watched in horror, then she started slowly dragging herself towards her phone again.

Santiago came back from the kitchen where he’d been turning off the lights. He had a strong, sharp kitchen knife in his hand, and he used it to stab Alexis in the back. And from that wound she died.

Santiago looked around the room, and he looked at his hands. They had blood on them. He washed his hands calmly in the sink with soap and water, and he looked at himself in the mirror. He liked what he saw. Then the boy left the apartment, and he shut the door softly behind him until he heard it click. On the way down the elevator, he put his hands in his pockets, and he never looked up once toward the camera. He smiled and waved at the door guard as he left. On the street, Julio was waiting for him in the car, its engine idling.

Julio gave the boy a searching look as he got into the car, but he only reminded the boy to buckle his seat belt. Then Julio eased the car away from the curb, and he drove out, going no faster than the speed limit, back to Don Pedro’s restaurant.

“What’d you find?”

“She was still alive,” Santiago said evenly.

Julio’s face whipped around. His face was a mask of wrath and anger. “I told you to call me—”

“I finished her off,” said the boy coolly.

Julio’s jaw dropped. His features looked amazed. “You did what?”

“I knifed her.”

“Tell me everything,” Julio said.

The boy told him everything.

The next day, Sergio Rosa was arrested for murder, and, though the police searched for the ten year old boy who was caught on camera and seen by the door guard, they never found him. Sergio Rosa said that the boy must have knifed the girl, but the police did not believe him. Sergio’d been caught on camera putting a pistol back into his shoulder holster, and there were bullets in the dead girl’s body. He was going to be up for life. Men who were rumored to be associated with the Calle Verde Cartel paid Sergio Rosa’s bail. Two weeks later, four campers found a corpse in a shallow grave in the Mojave Desert. It took forensics specialists a month to determine that the body was that of Sergio Rosa, and his parents were unable to provide a definitive identification.

Santiago Ramírez, when he next appeared at Don Pedro’s, was no longer treated as a ferocious pet. He was treated with a mixture of fear and respect. Aarón and Alex deferred to him. On his eleventh birthday, the men at the restaurant poured drinks for the boy and lit his cigarettes.

Three weeks after his eleventh birthday, Julio Rodríguez asked Santiago to step into Don Pedro’s restaurant because there was someone who wished to see him.

Santiago went inside. The bricks were cool, and the fans were turning slowly.

Sitting in a booth was a woman in a plain black gown which covered her entire body except for her neck and head. She had a curious expression on her face and penetrating brown eyes.

Julio gestured for Santiago to sit at the table with her. Santiago sat across from her, but he said nothing.

The woman waved Julio away. Julio left. Santiago was all alone with the lady.

“Don’t you even say Good afternoon?” said the woman.

“I do to those I wish it to,” replied the boy.

The woman said nothing for a few moments. The boy felt that he was being tested or appraised. The woman’s face remained stony.

“You’re an orphan,” she said.

“Is it a question?”

“No,” she replied coldly. “But I can offer you a family.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Alma Madero Díaz,” said the woman curling up her lip in a way that was at once haughty, proud, and beautiful. Her face seemed to sharpen in its angularity. She brushed black hair off her forehead, and Santiago saw rings of gold upon her fingers.

“I don’t know the name. And I have a home.”

“You have a foster home. You hate it.”

The boy said nothing.

“Many folk would kill to live with me, if only for the power that I possess,” the woman said softly. “You don’t seem to be so much as intrigued.”

“I’ve killed for nothing,” the boy replied, his voice just as soft.

The woman smiled then, a soft, enigmatical smile, as if his response had amused her, and as if he had just passed his appraisal. “You will come with me,” she said. “My family controls the Camino Verde Cartel. Or, rather, I control the Camino Verde Cartel. I have no children. I cannot. And I have never before wished to adopt. But I like the look of you, my dear boy. You can call me Mother.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then I’ll cut your throat myself.”

Santiago Ramírez smiled. Alma Madero Díaz smiled back at him.

Moments later, Santiago left Don Pedro’s restaurant with Alma Madero Díaz, and he never returned. The nearest that he ever got to Don Pedro’s again was to pass it in the streets. He never even said goodbye to Julio Rodríguez. A black Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows was waiting behind Don Pedro’s, and Alma Madero Díaz got into the backseat with Santiago. A man shut the door for them, then got into the passenger seat. He was armed with an assault rifle, and he wore Kevlar beneath his clothes. The Escalade was cool and quiet, and there was a driver behind a tinted partition. They drove out of San Diego, to a hacienda in the desert. The hacienda had a white fence surrounding the property, taller than head height, topped with glass and razor wire. They entered the hacienda grounds, and they drove down a dirt drive that was longer than a quarter mile. The hacienda itself was a dwelling that was low and white, Spanish colonial style, with a broad porch on which five men with assault rifles, CB radios, and sunglasses patrolled. None of them smiled at Santiago, and he smiled at none of them. The hacienda opened up into a brick courtyard with a fountain, hanging plants, and desert plants. There were full sized statues. Maids wore uniforms and moved softly about.

The woman, Santiago’s new mother, walked with him in these first few moments, then she left him in the courtyard. A while later, a maid came out with a lunch of enchiladas verdes on a white porcelain plate, carried on a silver salver. Santiago ate the lunch alone on a tile table in the hacienda courtyard, sitting on a black steel chair. The sound of the water pouring from the fountain into its pool was the only sound that could be heard. The air felt cool and pleasant in the courtyard, despite the dry heat without.

He spent the day exploring the grounds.

That night, a maid showed him to his room, and he saw his new mother for the second time.

She came to tuck him in. She sat on the edge of his bed, and she pulled the white cotton sheets beneath his chin.

“I have high hopes for you, mi avispón,” she said softly to him. The room had an arching brick ceiling and twelve inch wooden beams spanning it. The windows had no glass, only wicker shutters. There was nothing in the room except for the king sized wooden bed, which sat on a frame of oak stained black, the mattress and its white sheets, and a small end table on which sat a white porcelain pitcher filled with water, along with a nearby glass.

His new mother kissed his forehead. She brushed his hair with her hand. She smiled at him. “One day you’ll control the cartel I’ve fought so hard to establish and maintain. But before then, you’ll need to learn the business of drugs and death.”

“I’ve killed one person already,” he said.

“I know, my darling,” she smiled at him. “That’s why you’re here. I’ve had my eye on you awhile. But one murder is just a beginning. We’ll make a real killer of you yet.”

She kissed him, and she left the room, turning the light off behind her and closing the door.

Categories
Stories

Love, Revenge, and Death on the Mongolian Grasslands

This story concerns a tribe of Asiatic people, the Xiongnu, who are attacked by their dynastic neighbors, the Zhou.  The Xiongnu lived in present day Mongolia, and the Zhou lived in present day China.  Both civilizations existed hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.  The story also treats the desperate love between a young husband and wife, and the lengths that the husband is willing to go to to get revenge on his enemies.

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The Xiongnu people lived in the country that we currently call Mongolia. Mongolia is basically sandwiched between Russia and China, south of Russia, north of China. It’s a large country known for its broad flat plains, big blue skies, continental weather, nomads, and dexterous horsemen. People then lived in round buildings made of felt. They got the felt from the herds of sheep that they kept. Twice a year, they’d shear the sheep, roll all the wool smoothly out on the ground, pound it flat with sticks, then apply moisture and heat. It’s a process called felting, and it’s still practiced today. The homes of these Xiongnu people, which were called a yurt or a ger, had a circular ring at the top of each home, which held the roof up. These rings were connected by spindles, so that the form looked like what you’d see if laid a spinning wheel or a bicycle wheel on its side. This hub (that is, the ring at the yurt’s top) is called a compression ring. It’s the critical piece that allows the builder to put equal pressure on all the ribs, and which of course allows for a great deal more weight than otherwise to be put upon the roof. The yurts could be picked up, collapsed, and moved very easily, a necessary trait because the Xiongnu people who lived in them were nomads.

In those days, the populations of diverse species of animals were much higher. Accordingly, it was not uncommon to see snow leopards, Amur falcons, Caspian tigers (now extinct), wisent, and the Altai argali. A wisent is a type of European buffalo, and an argali is a brown-furred, white-faced sheep with heavy, spiraling horns.

You’d see the wisent bull rolling in the grass, its hooves up in the air, dust clouds rolling off the ground. You’d see the Amur falcon swooping over the river, rushing down mountain passes, high stone on either side. You’d see the world burnished at dawn and inked at dusk, painted every spring with pink, purple, and white wildflowers along the miles of green grass that faded into the mountains.

Every night, the stars glowed more brightly than you have ever seen. The summer sky was blue and rich. There was peace and quiet without engines or electronics. The Xiongnu people were known amongst other tribes for their excellent horsemanship and stylish fashion. They wore brightly colored clothes, of designs and styles not seen today, except in pictures and dreams. Winter clothes were made from the hides of Bactrian camels and summer clothes from light silk. They wore pointed caps and long robes, curving decorations along the shoulders, broad belts, and leather shoes. They had carpets of dazzling blues and reds and golds. They had fires, stories, and freedom. Now that world is gone, and it will never return.

At this time, there was also a group of people (we now call them the Zhou Dynasty) who settled in what is today China. The Zhou were at the forefront of global civilization’s bronze-making, and they were slavers, and, although they had a demarcated territory of their own, their armies were known for plundering, rape, and pillage. Their king was called King Li of Zhou, and he was infamous for his decree that he could issue a sentence of death upon anyone at any time.

For the most part, the affairs of the Zhou and the affairs of the Xiongnu did not affect one another, and the average citizens lived their days out in peace.

In a great valley surrounded by hills and mountains, there was a young Xiongnu couple. The woman’s name was Mazus Reptans and her husband’s name was Albie Sibirica. They herded sheep.

It was summer and the grass was green. The sheep’s wool was getting long, but it was not yet ready to be shorn, and there was little for a sheep herder to do during the day. Albie would sit among the stones on the hillside and would watch his sheep eat grass. There were no wolves or eagles nearby, which were the two main predators of sheep, other than bandits. Albie was near to a running stream, and every day when the sun was highest in the sky, and the day felt warmest, Albie would strip naked and bathe himself in the stream. During the days, he would think of going home at night to his wife, where there was sheep and goat meat cooked over the fire, and he could hold her in his arms at night.

Butterflies flew; crickets leapt in the grass; in the distance wild mountain goats sprang upon the rocks on the hillside. Falcons circled in the air, and, far out along the horizon, a herd of skylit musk deer grazed along what seemed to be the edge of the world, where the green grass met the blue sky.

The attack came with little warning.

Albie was naked in the stream when he heard rocks falling along the mountainside. He looked toward the mountain, but he saw nothing.

Then, a moment later, a horde of Zhou warriors stormed over the cliff face. The effect was as sudden as if they’d appeared out of thin air. One moment the warriors were hiding on the far side of the mountain, the next they were galloping down the near side.

Albie’ heart seemed to freeze a moment in the cold water, then he rushed out of the water, pulling on his pants and snatching his shirt. He ran back to his people.

From a distance, the Xiongnu camp looked peaceful and cozy. Their yurts were grayish white. There was a slow burning fire in the camp, its smoke winding peacefully to the sky. Horses stood staked to the ground, quietly eating grass. Women and children moved about their site. The women were mending fabrics and preparing foods.

Albie called to them, and one of them, hearing, looked up, and she dropped the work in her hands. Albie saw her hands fly to her chest as she screamed.

Behind Albie, the Zhou warriors quickly closed the distance. They drew nearer and nearer.

Their leader wore a purple and blue striped robe, and he carried a bow, with a quiver of arrows across his shoulder, and a hatchet in his belt. He rode a chestnut colored horse that was foaming at the mouth and whose eyes were wide. His face was Asiatic with a long black mustache whose ends hung off the corners of his mouth. His ears were pierced and hung with rings. Behind him thundered twenty more men, all on horseback, all with murderous intent.

By the time that Albie reached the village, the men were on horseback, and the women were carrying the children to such safety as they might. Albie ducked into his yurt, and he found there his wife, Mazus. He gripped her wrist. He pulled her out of the yurt. Together they ran to their horse. Albie pulled its stake from the ground, and he sprung astride it, Mazus leaping up behind him.

The Zhou hordes were upon them, however, and the Xiongnu people were not warriors, but shepherds. Coupled with the advantage of surprise, the raid was a rout. The Zhou men cut the heads off men and women and children alike, set fire to the yurts, and carried off the youngest girls. The Xiongnu horses were screaming, as were the remaining men and women.

Together Albie and Mazus fled their home. Albie turned the horse to the direction that the musk deer had been seen along the horizon, and he urged the horse to its fastest gallop. Mazus looked back. Three men pursued them. The men wore swords and carried bows and arrows, and they lofted the arrows over and around Albie and Mazus. Beyond the pursuers, Mazus could see their encampment burning. She saw a Zhou man thrust his sword through a person on the ground. She closed her eyes, and she looked ahead.

A moment later, one of the Zhou arrows caught the horse in the flank, and the horse fell. They were thrown from the horse. Albie and Mazus fell hard to the ground, and Mazus lay groaning. The men’s horses pounded to a stop beside them, and a man pulled taut the string of his bow and looked ready to let fly an arrow into Albie’ heart. But the man next to him uttered a sharp command, and the archer held himself in check.

The three men beat Albie, then they carried him and Mazus back to the site of the Xiongnu village. There were only four people left alive: Albie, Mazus, and two young women. The dead lay strewn about. The Xiongnu yurts burned.

Two Zhou men tied Albie’ hands with rope, and they hung a cangue around his neck. A cangue is like the stocks or the pillory without the base. A cangue is comprised of two sets of boards with a hole in the middle through which the prisoner’s head is put through, and then the boards are locked together. They are heavy, twenty pounds or more. But the most dangerous aspect of the cangue is that its shape makes it a barrier to feeding oneself. Prisoners can starve while wearing a cangue, because the prisoner can’t reach around the boards to feed himself. The boards of the cangue impede a person’s ability to put food in his own mouth.

The men then staked the cangue into the ground.

Albie looked at them. They were slim, dangerous men. They wore swords at sashes around their waists. They spoke in loud, rough tones. They laughed like horses. They spoke in the caustic, mordant Zhou tongue. Albie looked to the distance. The land otherwise seemed peaceful and calm. He felt a great fear for Mazus.

The man in the purple and blue striped robe looked at Albie. “If any come after, you will serve as the warning of the fearsome nature of the Zhou. Live or die, that cangue will mark you as a Zhou victim.”

Albie looked at his wife. Mazus was a short woman, five feet tall, with dark hair and dark eyes and skin the color of walnuts. She had teeth that Albie loved. The front teeth projected slightly like a rabbit’s, and he found them adorable. She looked into his eyes, and her eyes were wide with fear.

“I love you,” said Albie.

“I love you too,” Mazus said.

The Zhou raiders then pressed fabric into the women’s mouths, and tied the fabric into place to prevent the women from talking or screaming. Mazus and the two girls were thrown across the backs of three Xiongnu horses, and they were tied into place. Albie called to his wife, saying again that he loved her. He heard no reply. The Zhou rounded up the remaining Xiongnu horses and nearly a hundred sheep. The man in the blue and purple robe looked around at the waste and the desolation that he had laid upon the Xiongnu people. He looked round to see if there was additional loot.

The Zhou leader signaled to two of his men, “There is meat on the fire. Take it, and we will eat as we ride.”

The men did as they were bid.

With a last look around, the men took the hundred sheep, the twenty horses, and the three young women. Leaving Albie staked to the ground, his hands tied behind his back, and the cangue around his neck, they rode away.

After less than two hours, they were gone from sight. Albie could not free his hands. He could not stand because the horse, when it threw him, had tossed him at an awkward angle, and Albie felt that there was something wrong with his ankle. He could not rest easily, because he could not put his head down. The cangue around his neck impacted the ground long before his head could touch the soft turf of the Xiongnu valley.

By late afternoon, sweat dripped from his brow, and his neck burned. His mouth longed for the taste of cold, sweet water. As the sun set, Albie’ fear increased. That night, the clouds dispersed, and with them the heat rose through the atmosphere. The temperature fell. The moon and stars looked cold and merciless. Albie could not sleep at all. So it was that the next day, when the sun came, and the light colored the land, Albie felt thirsty, tired, and near death. His neck ached. His hands felt like they were going to fall off. His throat was parched. His thoughts felt crazy and his mind full of fear. He worried about himself. He worried about Mazus. When the sun rose, flies descended on his friends and family in the Xiongnu camp. The fires had burned out during the night, and there were black patches on the grass where the yurts had been. For as far as Albie could see in any direction, there was not a single person. He felt horror at the solitude. He knew that the Xiongnu camp was off the traditional road for any wayfarer. There should be no reason for a person to cross the plains and to find him. He gave himself up for dead.

In his mind, he saw the face of the man in the blue and purple robe. The man had a triangular jaw and crooked teeth. He had narrow eyes and thin black eyebrows. He had small ears. He was short and lightweight. He had in his throat an Adam’s apple. Albie kept the image in his mind, and he nursed a thought of revenge.

Near noon, Albie fell asleep. He slept for seven minutes, then his neck slowly drifted downwards until his windpipe was resting on the cangue, and the pressure cut off his air, and he woke again. Albie opened his eyes blearily. He fell asleep again, and a few minutes later, he was awakened again, coughing, as his air was cut off. Albie rested fitfully, waking and sleeping, waking and sleeping.

He pulled at the stake in the ground, but the captors had driven the stake deep, too deep to free.

Day turned to night. Albie thought that this night would be his last. Again the clouds parted, and again the heat vanished. Albie shivered, and he shook. The full moon shone brightly.

In the night, a man, horseworn and tired, came riding up out of the plains. Albie, spotting him in the light of the moon, tried to call out. His voice came as a kind of croak, a whisper. The man stopped in the distance. He appeared to be looking at the remains of the settlement, and trying to determine what it was that he was seeing. The yurts looked like strange structures. Their felt flapped in the wind, and the ribbed architecture of the roof looked skeletal.

The horseman rode slowly up to the encampment. Albie tried calling again. There was no voice to him left. As the man rode into the Xiongnu camp, he saw the corpses lying supine. The man stopped. He looked over the scene. He had the tense and wary energy of a stranger entering a dangerous place by night.

Albie stirred. The man nearly turned his horse and galloped away, but he checked himself. He trotted the horse forward.

“Who’s there?” asked the man in the Xiongnu tongue.

Albie tried to say his name. The sound was unintelligible and no more than a murmur.

The man rode up.

“You’re wearing a cangue,” he said. He saw then that Albie’ hands were bound behind his back.

“Are you the criminal that did this?” he asked. He was referring to the burned yurts and the dead.

“The Zhou,” whispered Albie.

The man frowned.

“Water,” whispered Albie.

The man pulled a leather pouch from his side. He dismounted, and he gave water to Albie.

“Help me,” whispered Albie.

The man frowned again. He looked around. “Who else is alive here?” he asked.

“Only me,” said Albie.

“And the rest?”

“Killed or taken,” said Albie.

“When did this happen?” asked the man.

“Help me,” whispered Albie.

“When did this happen?” demanded the man.

“Two days ago? Three?”

The man frowned.

The man led his horse away.

“Help me,” said Albie.

The man walked with his horse to a nearby yurt, and he looked inside cautiously. There was no one inside. The man walked into it. Its effects had been burned, and there was nothing useful inside. The man led his horse to the next yurt, and he repeated the process. Within a few minutes, he satisfied himself that Albie was telling the truth, that he was the only living person in the Xiongnu settlement.

The moon shone like a weak sun upon them as the man knelt next to Albie.

“Why are you in a cangue?”

“The Zhou said it was a warning,” whispered Albie. “Food. I need food. Get me out.”

The man untied the ropes that held Albie, and he broke the cangue with a stone.

Albie fell prostrate onto the ground. He was too weak to move. The man put some food into Albie’s mouth, and Albie slowly chewed it, but he could not swallow. The man lifted Albie’s head, and he poured a little water into Albie’s mouth. Albie was able to swallow.

The man put a hide of Bactrian camel fur over Albie, and he carried him into one of the burned out yurts.

There the man stayed with Albie for seven days, nursing him back to health. Albie slept most of the time, and, while Albie slept, the man buried the Xiongnu dead in accordance with what we now call slab graves. This kind of inhumation means that the people were buried in masses with their heads to the east and their feet to the west, and a great stone, that is, a slab, is laid over them. He tore the yurts down, and he reclaimed what felt he could for his own benefit.

The days grew in warmth, and on the seventh day, Albie was able to stand and to walk again. His ankle and his wrists felt tender, but he felt that they would completely heal.

As he recuperated, he thought of revenging himself on the man in the blue and purple robe, and of seeing his wife again.

At dusk, he sat down with the man, and they had their first real conversation. The man was a monk from the province of Hebei, and he had been falsely accused by the authorities for stealing seven sacks of grain from a local warlord who had, in fact, sold them for profit. The man had been forced to flee Hebei in the night, and along the roads there was a reward for his head.

“My name is Li Zhen,” the man said. “You should know that the government will arrest you and amputate your left foot. It is the penalty to those who help those who flee.”

“I owe you my life,” said Albie. “I’m not ashamed to be seen with you.”

“Then you’re welcome to come with me,” said Li Zhen. “I’m going north. But it is not an easy life. By night I ride across the hills and plains. By day I sleep.”

“I must go to the Zhou settlement,” said Albie. “I’m searching for a man with a purple and blue robe. He’s stolen my wife, and I must get her back and take my revenge on this man.”

Li Zhen thought for awhile. “Is he a small fellow? With a triangular face? And teeth like a donkey’s?”

“Yes,” said Albie.

Li Zhen said, “I know this person. His name is Lin Chow. He’s a government magistrate. He’s very corrupt, and he’s been known to murder his servants. His brother is the judge, so nothing ever happens to him. Together, they rule Cangzhou. I’m afraid that you have no hope. The city is loyal to them.”

“I have to try.”

“Do you say that they took your wife?”

“Yes.”

Li Zhen shook his head sadly.

“Why do you shake your head?”

“No,” said Li Zhen slowly. “It is not for me to say. It is merely speculation, and I would not want you to feel terror if my guesses are not correct.”

“Tell me what you think,” said Albie. “I’m not afraid of what you have to say.”

“I will tell you,” said Li Zhen. “But you must not hold me responsible if I am wrong or right. After all, I have only heard rumors, and the rumors have led me to my speculation.”

“I will not hold you responsible,” said Albie. “Just tell me what you think.”

Li Zhen looked out over the plains to the mountains beyond. He did not meet Albie’s eyes. He said, “I’ve been told that Lin Chow’s sister is the madame of the brothel in Cangzhou. If that’s true, then your wife is probably a whore by now.”

“I feared as much,” said Albie. “I have no time to waste. I must go.”

“But you don’t have a sword, a horse, or even any food.”

“I know the way to Cangzhou. That’s enough. I’ll steal and beg if I have to. But there is nothing for me here. Everything that I cared about is in my heart, with my people, who are dead, and with my wife who is captive.”

“Well,” said Li Zhen. “I will not go with you. I think your road leads to death. You are welcome to come with me. There are many more women in the world, and who knows? Maybe your wife is already dead. It’s suicide to take your path.”

“I have to go,” said Albie. “Even if it kills me.”

“Then take at least some rice that I have, and take with you my friendship and hopes for a good result,” said Li Zhen.

“Thank you,” said Albie. “You’ve saved my life, and I’ll never forget it. If I can ever do anything for you, no matter how big or small, you have only to ask, and I’ll do everything in my power to help you.”

“It was only what anyone would do,” said Li Zhen.

They hugged. Li Zhen gave Albie a bag of cooked rice, and Albie started into the mountains. He passed the river where he had bathed just a week before, when everything in his life had seemed peaceful and serene. He climbed up the mountain which the Zhou raiders had hidden behind. He crested it, and he looked over the rivers and dells that lay beyond.

The way to Cangzhou was a three day ride, and it would be a week long walk.

Albie walked by the river, and he ate only small amounts from the rice every day. He was thin and lean. He passed field laborers, and he begged vegetables from them. They gave him spinach and rice. One night he came upon a couple of men sitting beside a fire. They said that they were bandits, but, because Albie had nothing for them to steal, and because he too was against the government, then they let him eat with them. They gave him stewed goat with bok choi, and they let him share their wine. Albie told them his story of the Zhou raiders, and, when the men exchanged empathetic glances, Albie asked them why they looked at each other that way. The bandits also said that Yang Wu, the sister of Lin Chow, was the mistress of a bordello, and that Albie’s wife was likely working for her. This information made Albie more determined than ever to reach Cangzhou and revenge himself upon Lin Chow.

When the bandits went to sleep that night, Albie repaid their kindness by stealing one of the bandits’ swords, and by riding away in the night with one of their horses and some of their food. He felt desperate. It was the first time that he had ever stolen anything. With the horse, he made better progress toward Cangzhou, and with the sword he felt more confident.

He realized that he would need a plan for confronting Lin Chow, and he devised one as he rode. He thought that because Lin Chow had cut off the heads of his family and friends, that he wanted to cut Lin Chow’s head off too.

At last, Albie settled on a plan.

When he reached Cangzhou, he found that it was a city bigger than any that he had ever been to before. There seemed to be a maze of streets stretching before him.

Albie stopped at the first place that he came to. There was a tall thin man who was pickled fish and chickens. When Albie stepped up to his stall, the man cut the head off a chicken with a large cleaver.

“Can I help you?” the man asked. He was deftly plucking the chicken, not even looking at it as he spoke to Albie.

“I’m looking for the fine and reputable establishment that I hear is run by the elegant Yang Wu.”

The chicken seller broke into a smile. “Ah! Hello stranger! You must be from out of town, because everyone in town knows where Yang Wu keeps her business.”

“I’m from out of town. Where is it?”

“It’s the only building in the town that has four doors. They are so that people can move discreetly in and out of the entrances. Just keep going into town. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

“Here,” said the shopkeeper. “Buy a chicken or some fish too, won’t you?”

“No, thank you,” said Albie, and he rode on.

When Albie saw the building with four doors, he noticed that it was across the street from the government office.

Albie went into the brothel. It was dark and cool inside, and there was a girl drinking tea and eating sheep.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’m here because I heard that there are new girls working here now.”

“Yes, there are three.”

“I want to see them,” said Albie.

The girl nodded, and she rose. She went past a curtain, and she was gone for a short time.

Albie felt his heart pounding in his chest.

When the girl came back, she had Mazus and the other two girls from the Xiongnu camp with her. They all expressed surprise at seeing them, but he shook his head quickly so that they would not speak. They looked tired and weary. They looked sad and broken. Albie felt hatred surge in his heart for Yang Wu.

“These girls look cheap and broken,” he said to the girl. “I was told that they were new.”

The girl shrugged. “They are Xiongnu girls,” she said. “What do you expect? Of course they are cheap.”

Albie held his temper. “I want to speak to the madam,” he said. “Yang Wu. Bring her to me.”

“You don’t want the girls?” asked the assistant.

“I traveled a long way to be here,” said Albie. “I was under the impression that the girls would look fresh and healthy. These girls look like they’ve been sleeping on a bed of iron every night and being fed with salt and water.”

The assistant shrugged and she went to get the madam.

As soon as she was gone, Albie and Mazus stepped forward. They embraced, and they hugged.

“I’m so glad you’re alive!” said Mazus. “I thought you were dead! Where did you get that sword? How did you survive?”

“Hush!” said Albie. “I’ll tell you everything soon. Now you should know that I have a horse, and a plan to get us all out of here. But you must play along—Yang Wu must be coming soon.”

Mazus stepped back. A few moments later, Yang Wu entered through the curtains. Albie was pretending to be examining the wall.

“What is it that you want?” asked Yang Wu. She was dressed in silky reds and golds , and she wore seven golden rings on her fingers. She had an evil face like an old and cunning wart hog’s. “You come into my place, and you tell me that my girls are not good enough? You should see yourself. You don’t look like a prince. You look like a scrawny vine.”

“Where is your assistant?” said Albie. “Bring her in too. I will show you more gold than you have ever seen in your life, and I want your assistant here so that she can speak to the truth of it. And I want you to tell everyone in town that there’s a new man with deep pockets, and he’s willing to spend—but only on the very best!”

Yang Wu looked doubtful. She called her assistant in, however, then Yang Wu said, “Now show me the gold.”

Albie instead drew his sword, and with one great swipe he cut off the head of Yang Wu. With a second great swipe, he split the assistant in half.

“You were a fool to trust me,” Albie said. “But your brother was an even greater one for leaving me alive. If your ghost wishes to haunt anyone, then haunt him for his foolishness. He is the true cause of your death. Without him, I would never have come here.”

Mazus and the other two girls were delighted to see that they had been freed.

“Let’s go home,” said Mazus.

Albie shook his head. “That’s impossible. Our home is gone. And I want revenge on Lin Chow. Here is my plan. I want one of you to go to the government office, and to request Lin Chow’s presence. Tell him that his sister, Yang Wu, has learned information which only he must hear, and that he must come immediately.”

One of the Xiongnu girls left to make the request.

“The other two of you,” said Albie, “Must help me clean this space. We cannot have corpses lying in the entranceway. If someone comes in, it would ruin our plans.”

Albie and the two women lifted the corpses of Yang Wu and her assistant out of the entranceway, and they placed them in rooms of the brothel.

“Now,” said Albie to his wife. “Stand outside the brothel. When Lin Chow comes, tell him to go into the brothel through one of the side doors. This will prevent him from seeing the bloodstains on the entranceway floor. When he inside, tell him to go into the room where his dead sister is. Tell him she is waiting for him there.”

Mazus agreed, and, a short time later, Lin Chow arrived at the brothel. Mazus stopped him from going in. She whispered in his ear that there was a special surprise for him. Lin Chow grinned widely. Mazus told him to go into the brothel by the side entrance, and Lin Chow did so. Then, she instructed Lin Chow to go into the room of the brothel where they had placed his dead sister.

During this time, Albie was waiting across the hall in a separate room. He heard Lin Chow enter brothel, and he heard him open the door. Then he heard Lin Chow scream in despair.

Albie appeared from behind the curtain. Lin Chow was holding his face in his hands. He was wearing his purple and blue robe.

“You left me to die,” said Albie. “And you destroyed my village and prostituted my wife. A simple death was too good for you.”

Then Albie ran Lin Chow through with the sword.

Albie took his wife and the two women from the Xiongnu community, and together they left the Zhou lands and went back into the Xiongnu lands. There they joined another nomadic tribe. Albie and Mazus had four children together, and their children had children, and Albie and Mazus lived happily ever after.

 

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Stories

The Kraken

The Kraken describes the monstrous octopus-like creature and its home, and the story also tells of the dreadful voyage of a Spanish ship which was attacked by a kraken in June of 1842.

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The Mariana Trench is known as the deepest canyon in the world. It lies nearly seven miles beneath the Pacific Ocean’s surface. The canyon appears to be an enormous crack on the ocean floor, jagged in shape and lightless in color. The creatures that live along the trench usually live near thermal vents which supply hot water and nutrients from the core of planet Earth. They are mostly small, spineless things, often transparent, usually simple in their cellular structure. They are known as extremophiles, because of their love of the extreme, and science does not often trifle with them nor do merchants traffic in them. Accordingly, the Mariana Trench is a place that is very quiet, calm, and alone. It might well be closer in character to deep space than to the humming, thriving terrestrial gardens upon Earth’s crust.

But there is a place in the Mariana Trench which lies at the juncture of a thermal vent and an underwater cavern. Here boiling water spews into the cavern, thousands of gallons worth of heat at a time, and the heat disperses throughout the cave. The result is that a pocket of warm water exists in an otherwise polar environment. This sea cavern is a haven for life. Within the pocket live sea cucumbers, snails, and spineless fish.

This sea cave is also the birthplace and nesting ground of the kraken.

There are many kraken in this cavern, as many kraken as there are rats in Paris. Most frequently, however, the kraken never leave their cavernous home, preferring instead to cling to the walls of the cave in the warmth, darkness, and serenity of their underground lair. For thousands of years, these krakens have bred and died many fathoms beneath the surface of the sea. They grow to colossal sizes, and as they grow older and larger, they become more languid and leathery.

The life span of a kraken is, more or less, a thousand years. They are born as thin-skinned, slimy creatures, and, at the beginning of their lives, they spend most of their time swimming near the heat vent at the mouth of the cave. Near the end of their twentieth year, they begin their adolescence, and they move to the walls of the cave. They find a rocky place on the wall, and they cling to it, only leaving from time to time to eat sea cucumbers and sea snails.

As the kraken grow older and more torpid, their skin hardens and thickens into leathery armor. The kraken gradually move into the darker, colder parts of the cave, further and further away from the heat vent. The greatest of the kraken occupy the coldest, most tomblike recesses of the cavern. There they remain for so long, and their skin becomes so hard, that they appear to become part of the cave. These great kraken can weigh up to five thousand pounds, and they can measure a quarter of a mile from the tips of their tentacles to the tops of their heads.

Around their five hundredth year, the kraken temporarily depart the cave. For a single day, the kraken visit the surface of the water. In order to surface, the kraken slowly unstick themselves from the cave wall, where they’ve held themselves on with suckers. The unsticking process is a slow one, and, for some kraken, it is deadly. Calcium builds on kraken while they remain stuck to the cave wall, and the calcium deposits cement the kraken to the walls. Many of the kraken are so attached to the stone that portions of their skin or entire tentacles rip off as they unstick themselves. These kraken can bleed to death.

Once unstuck, then the kraken swim out of the cave and into the Mariana Trench. The kraken then spend nearly a month in the laborious process of surfacing. When they reach the surface, they spend time in the sun. It is during this time that they are most aggressive, and it is during this time that ships can be attacked.

After seeing the sun, the kraken return to their sea cavern in the Mariana Trench, and they never leave the cave again. The kraken find a place deep in the recesses of the cave, and there they stay for the rest of their existence. When an ancient sea kraken dies, its body is fed on by young krakens, and so the cycle of life continues.

Benito Curácon was a sailor with long black hair and broad shoulders, dark heavy eyebrows, a smoldering scowl, and once-white skin now tanned to rawhide. His teeth were tartaric. His arms shone with sweat, tattoos, and corded muscle. His chest, beneath his ripped white cotton shirt, was comprised of a washboard stomach and strong pectorals. That white shirt lay open at the collar so that a V of skin could be seen, as could Benito’s leather necklace which held as its pendant a sailor’s knot made of gold. He wore shorts upon the ship’s deck, and he walked barefoot. His toenails were long or broken. His ears were pierced, and he kept in them thorn shaped ornaments of ebony wood. The man carried his life’s fortune in a sealskin bag that he tied to his waist; in the bag were some eight pieces of silver.

The ship was called The Maiden’s Fancy, and she was a whaler. Her length was one hundred and twenty feet, with a beam of twenty-nine feet, and a burthen of six hundred tons. The Maiden’s Fancy had as her figurehead the carving of a near bare-breasted woman, her hair flying backward, and her eyes uplifted as to the horizon beyond.

Eighteen men crewed The Maiden’s Fancy, and her captain was Jorge Rodriguez. Captain Rodriguez’ reputation was that of a martinet. Cold, severe, grave, high-handed and authoritarian, Captain Rodriguez wore a stiff tall collar and a pea jacket in weather fair or foul. He wore tapered breeches and boots which a crewman shined to a mirror polish every morning. Captain Rodriguez was well known for beating a Chinese traveler and author on one voyage, and he was legendary for having reputedly slashed the throat of an idle, drunken sailor during another voyage in the Indian Ocean. The gallows sought him in Cadiz, but when the trial came, the crewmen’s testimonies did not, and the rumor was that the judge was paid handsomely in gold, and the press in silver, so that the result was that Captain Rodriguez not only escaped with his neck, but came out looking all the finer for it.

If he was known for his murderous temper, he was equally as well known for his extraordinary skills in navigation and his command of a ship. His father had been a captain, and his grandfather a sailor. It was said, without much doubt, that Captain Rodriguez had spent more time on sea than land, and that his mother had nursed him on milk and salt water.

So it was that he retained his command, fiery but fair, competent beyond the measure of all other captains.

Benito Curácon was a hard-working, capable sailor, and though he’d been slapped by Captain Rodriguez on one occasion, he knew that the other sailors aboard The Maiden’s Fancy had all suffered worse at Captain Rodriguez’ hands, and that he, Benito, was, so far as Captain Rodriguez’ good graces went, in them.

On nearly every ship there’s a despicable man, and the man that Benito Curácon and his fellow sailors despised was the first mate. Tall and gangly and with olive colored skin and pretty black curly hair and green eyes, the first mate, Salvador Bucarelli, was a Spaniard by birth, half Italian by ancestry. He was handsome and vain, sneering by the overhead light of the full sun, striking with his clenched fists by the horizontal lights of dusk and dawn, and threatening with knives by the glimmer of the stars. The first mate came from wealthy stock, knew nothing of the water, and, worse still, took a sadistic pleasure in the torment of the crew. His captain hated him and shackled him as he could, but the Bucarelli family owned a share of the ship, and so Bucarelli could operate with great latitude and little fear of reprisal.

Bucarelli had found that he could push the crew to the brink of mutiny against him, but no further. The crew feared and respected Captain Rodriguez too much for insurrection, and they relied upon his unparalleled seamanship.

It was a cloudy morning in June of 1842 when the sun rose on a stretch of water so flat and calm that it was like a sheet of blue glass. Floating like a toy boat upon this seemingly limitless expanse of blue was The Maiden’s Fancy. Not another boat had been seen for days, nor was there any to be expected. The morning, despite the month, felt cool and fresh. The sailors rose from their cabins. One man replaced the night’s watch.

Bucarelli was having coffee with the captain, which was the first thing that the cook was instructed to make every morning. He made it in a cast iron pan over flames from a coal fire in his galley, and he strained out the grounds with a knife held to the lip of the pan, with the result that the coffee was always saturated with grounds at the bottom of the cup.

Now the cook was busy preparing breakfast for the sailors, the mate, and the captain. There was half an apple for each man, and a whole one for the captain and the mate. There was salt pork, fried like bacon, and sea biscuits or hardtack, which tasted of flour and salt.

The sails were up, but there was no wind. There was not much spoken, other than the good morning greetings, and a few utterances about what must be done for the day.

Benito Curácon’s morning washing consisted in splashing his face and body with salt water pulled up from the sea by the bucket. He ran his fingers through his long hair to comb it back, and he looked out on the ocean. All was water, everywhere, all about. There was nothing to see but water and clouds, sky and sun.

A voice came. It was Bucarelli’s. His knife was not sharp enough to cut the salt pork, he said.

Curácon curled his lip in contempt. He looked up.

Bucarelli was walking up the steps from the captain’s quarters. His features looked aristocratic, his step petulant. He was carrying the knife.

Bucarelli walked across the deck, and he trotted down the steps to the galley.

Curácon heard a sound. Captain Rodriguez had stepped to the top stair of his captain’s quarters, and he was watching the movements of his first mate. Captain Rodriguez wiped his lips with a stained white cloth napkin, then he tossed the napkin back into his quarters.

A moment later, Bucarelli appeared on deck again. Now he had the cook by the hair, and the knife to the cook’s throat.

“Who is responsible for sharpening the knives aboard this ship?” he asked.

“I am!” screamed the cook, miserably twitching in the first mate’s grasp.

“Then you’ll know that the knives should be sharp!”

“Yes!”

“We’ll test this one,” said Bucarelli, smiling evilly.

The other sailors had stopped to watch. The captain was watching. Everything, for a moment, seemed still. The wind was dead, and the ship was fixed like in a painting. The water was still. The crew stood silent. Bucarelli stood with the knife at the cook’s throat.

“I will draw this knife across your throat,” Bucarelli said. “And we’ll see if the blade’s been whetted right.”

Bucarelli began to draw the knife across the cook’s throat, and a drop of blood appeared. Its redness could be seen against the cook’s olive skin from thirty feet away.

“Enough,” said Captain Rodriguez. “Take your hands off that cook, Bucarelli.”

“No,” said Bucarelli.

“No?” said the captain.

Bucarelli sneered. “You can’t do anything to me,” he said, and he slit the cook’s throat.

The cook gasped, a horrible sickening sound, and he grasped his throat. Blood poured around his fingers as the cook slumped to the ground.

“Catch him!” shouted the captain, roaring at his sailors and pointing at Bucarelli. He looked over, and he saw Benito Curácon. “Benito! Now!”

Benito moved forward, and, as he did, he saw other sailors—Juan Gamboa, Fernando Silva, and Ricardo Benítez advancing as well.

Out of the corner of his eye, Benito detected movement in the flat ocean. There was a very strange, large ripple. He glanced at it. Crowning the ocean surface was hideous monster.

It was a kraken. It was shaped like a colossal octopus. Its head was brown and grey. Its eyes were black. The tentacles of the creature rose from the surface of the ocean. A spume of misty saltwater rose around it, and the ocean seemed to bubble and to boil from the froth raised by its motion.

Benito became aware that the sailors were screaming. He looked back aboard the vessel at his shipmates. Bucarelli’s olive face had turned ashen, and the knife had slipped from his fingers. His eyes were wide as he stared out at the strange and frightening monster.

Benito then became aware of words, shouted words, from his captain.

“Below!” Captain Rodriguez was hoarsely crying. “Man the oars! Man the oars!”

Benito glanced up. Indeed the wind was still so calm that it did not so much as ruffle the sail. He rushed toward the hatch with the other sailors to man the oars. They would need to paddle away.

As he reached the hatch, Benito looked back at the scene. The monster had certainly seen the ship, and it was swimming toward them at a tremendous speed. There was no hope, Benito realized, of paddling faster than the monster. Paddling was slow, and it would take time to create any speed at all. The kraken would be upon them before they were able to row any distance.

With a sinking, hopeless feeling in his chest, Benito realized that the kraken would reach them, clutch their ship in its powerful tentacles, and drag them to the bottom of the sea. He had heard tales of it before. He’d heard how quickly ships foundered, how the strength of the kraken could crush the mast’s timbers and break spars like toothpicks. He’d heard of the Charybdian whirlpools that the monster would suck them into, and how the sailors would be carried down with their treasure and their dreamless sleep, past the fishes and to the bottom of the sandy sea where the ruins of other ships lay in perpetuity, where the water was blue and dark and cold, and the fish nibbled the flesh off men’s bones and left them as skeletons which the currents passed through.

In a flash of rage at this merciless fate, Benito pushed his long hair out of his eyes, and he rushed across the deck to Bucarelli. Benito Curácon felt that he had nothing to lose, no future to look forward to. He felt fury. He felt a desire for revenge. Reaching Bucarelli, Curácon punched him in the face, as a token of revenge for the murder that the first mate had done.

The kraken swam closer. Its eyes rose above the level of the sea. Its tentacles streamed behind it, propelling it forward.

On the deck, Captain Rodriguez was shouting. Curácon felt the captain strike him across the back.

“Below decks, sailor!” shouted Captain Rodriguez. “Man the oars!”

But Benito Curácon knew that it was too late for the oar. In front of him, Bucarelli reeled back from the punch, then he staggered. He found his balance, and he touched his nose where it was broken.

The ship was, in fact, very still. Curácon could hear the oars rattling through their port holes. He could hear his fellow men shouting in the galley. But no oar had yet touched water, and the wind was not in the sails.

Bucarelli lunged at Curácon. Curácon jabbed with his knee, and he caught Bucarelli in the chin with it, rattling Bucarelli’s teeth. Bucarelli rose, grabbing his mouth. His face was pale and frightened. Curácon hit him again, and the punch spun Bucarelli around. Curácon caught Bucarelli by the belt and the shoulder, and, facing the direction of the monster, Curácon ran forward with Bucarelli to the rail on the deck, then, reaching that rail, Curácon hurled the first mate overboard.

The first mate plunged into the water with a scream and a splash. A moment later, he bobbed up again. The ship’s tender lay on the opposite side of the ship, and there were no cables or ropes hanging down from the side of the ship that Bucarelli was on, so he struck out in a strong crawl stroke toward the opposite side of the boat.

The kraken had observed all this. It saw the man thrown overboard, and it saw him splashing about in the water.

The kraken disappeared underwater. A few moments later, the ripples from its swim vanished, and the sun broke through the clouds.

Only Captain Rodriguez and Benito Curácon stood on deck. But for the faint sounds of Bucarelli swimming, and but for the cook’s corpse upon the deck, the day seemed calm and peaceful and like any other.

The men found that they were holding their breaths. There came the faint rattling of oars.

“Quiet down there!” roared the captain, rushing to the hatch and shouting down into the galley. “It’s too late to paddle. Stay still men! Stay still and quiet!”

The sounds stopped immediately.

It might have been a just another pretty day at sea, save for the men’s feelings which were thick with fear.

Curácon drew a breath. He looked out over the water. The kraken was gone.

All was quiet and calm.

Then, suddenly, a tentacle flashed out of the water, and it seized the hull of the ship. Yanking at the hull, the kraken pulled the ship down, nearly to the water.

Casks and barrels toppled over. Curácon and the captain tripped and fell, sliding toward starboard side.

Then, just as suddenly, the tentacle released the ship, and the ship sprung back to her natural balance, whipping back and forth until she regained her equilibrium.

They heard a scream. It was a short, piercing scream. It was Bucarelli’s voice.

Too horrified to move, Curácon and Captain Rodriguez, both of whom were laying on their sides up against the guardrail, met one another’s eyes. In each of the other’s eyes, they read what the sound had meant. Bucarelli had been dragged underwater by the kraken.

The men felt they were next. They remained calm, and very still. They did not move a muscle. But no further sounds were heard.

They waited. Their muscles were tense.

Their feelings were anxious. They felt consumed by horror.

Nothing happened.

The kraken had taken Bucarelli, and it had vanished.

Slowly, gingerly, the two men rose to their feet. They looked one another in the eye. They saw terror in one another’s features. The men breathed again. Slowly, very slowly, the captain walked to the hatch.

“Sailors,” he called. “Come up slowly. Very slowly. Do not make a sound.”

In a few minutes, all of the sailors were standing on the deck again. None of them spoke. They looked round.

The day was partly cloudy. There was not a puff of wind in the air. The sea was as smooth as blue ice.