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.

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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

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

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.

 

Categories
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.