Categories
Poems

The Monster, Malgremir

In this Gothic, fairy tale poem, a monster, Malgremir, wakes from an enchanted slumber and begins slaying children one snowy Christmas eve.  Over the years, the monster ruins the small town.

The church organist, Horace Anderson, attempts to stop the monster, and his journeys lead him to a desert labyrinth where he is met with a burning brazier and a strange surprise.

The rhyme scheme is abab.

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This is a brazier I made from rebar, steel, and expanded metal that I cut up then welded back together.  It works very well, puts out a lot of heat and light, and was very popular with friends and neighbors.  In “The Monster, Malgremir”, Horace Anderson finds a brazier that was inspired by this one.  I built the brazier during the last week of November in 2018.  Photo: December 6th, 2018.  The poem was written in a single day, my first day of writing in Mexico, December 17th, 2018.


The Old Railroad Track

An old railroad track arches over a dark, cold river
Whose banks are enveloped in glittering white snow.
A rumbling, screeching train barrels forth; the tracks shiver;
The falling flakes are illuminated in the headlight’s brash glow,
Sparkling, glistering for an instant, then moonlit and dim again.
The light catches the river, whose eddies spangle in yellow light,
Then the water, too, is cast back into darkness.
The locomotive plows on, its cattleguard hurling snow in its flight,
Leaving the old, arching track quiet once more, muffled and sparkless.
And still the river ripples unflaggingly on, rounding stones, carving banks.
The creaking pines stand still and portentous.
There then stirs a creature with ram’s horns and silvered flanks,
With scarlet eyes lambent in ursine skull, white and horrendous,
With muscular arms ’neath its glossy pelt,
And a long fleecéd tail finishing in the form of a spade.
That creature lugs itself from where it dwelt,
Long dreaming and woolgathering and artfully stayed,
Thrall to a woven spell, one gathered and cast in times forgotten and past,
By a profound sorcerer who fathomed that creature’s dark power.
And through seasons beginning and seasons last,
Age to age, plot to plot, sifting sands, hour upon hour,
The evil lay dormant. Time destroyed the mage.
But the spell remained, growing weaker as mountains grew,
Lessening in strength as the earth did age,
While the restful creature struggled with dreamy thews
And cloudy powers ’gainst that dwindling charm,
Until on the night before Christmas, when the town was aslumber,
The ancient abomination stirred and raised its arm.
Then its lucent, igneous eyes blazed, and it stood in wonder
To look about the snow-swept forest and peaceful star-washed night.

A Christmas Surprise

In the valley, white smoke billows sleepily from chimneys;
Snow lies pleasantly banked on quiet street corners.
Streetlamps cast their lemony glow on leafless, slim trees.
The quiet churchyard with its stones is absent mourners.
And as pearly clouds scud across the crescent mooned sky,
All is calm, all is bright.
Atop a hill stands a home in whose yard a quivering, lone leaf
Trembles in the cold night’s breeze, fixed by its thin stem
To an icy branch. Blustered and gusted in autumn’s withering fief,
And, having borne with silent fortitude the rain and wind,
The dead brown leaf at last releases its clinging grip.
The leaf floats past a lightless window, shaded by heavy sash,
On whose far side sleeps a child, fair of hair, soft of lip,
With dreams of peppermint, gifts, and seasonal Christmas hash.
A cloud sails away from the moon’s sickle shape;
Soft moonbeams filter onto the glittering snow,
As the hellish creature, prowling like some eerie ape,
Steals across the snowy lawn to the lulled child’s window.
And there, with its incandescent eyes shining redly,
It raises the unfastened glass, creeps into the room,
And with movements soft, practiced, and deadly,
Metes out to the sleeping child his untimely doom.
This ancient evil leaves only bones and blood
From its foul feast: pelvis and femur, ribs and skull.
That child, that dream-full spark, is permuted to an eternity of mud:
Far too calm, far too constant, far too distant, far too dull.
Then as the monster entered, so the monster leaves.
Thus it is that on the morning of gleeful anticipation,
The soul that is happy becomes the soul that grieves,
As Mother and Father scream for their lost creation.

The Monster in the Cathedral

It is a cold, sunny morning, remarkable for its shining snow.
Parishioners pass the church’s crooked wrought-iron fence,
Past the gravestones which a child, yesterday, dipped below,
And through the heavy, wooden double-doors of the entrance.
Sunlight filters through the cathedral’s stained glass,
Tinting pews and aisle in colored light thick with dust.
A polished family of four, dressed smartly for mass,
Amble down the aisle in pacific, heavenly trust.
There is a brown-haired boy and a brunette girl,
And it is the boy, who, peering amongst the rafters and eaves,
Sees hanging, its arms ’round its chest in batlike curl
And warily alert of the oppugnant congregation it perceives,
That self-same creature whose dark deeds blasted the town,
And threw its calm citizens into fiery, disconsolate animosity.
“There!” cries the boy, “Look there! Hanging upside-down!
There’s a beast! It’s some kind of monstrosity!”
And his sister, looking upward, screams at the sight,
For there is the creature, tense at being seen,
Now suddenly scuttling in furious, fearful flight
Across the nave’s ceiling, as, in one voice, the two children scream.
Strange it is to see, however, that the confused parents
See nothing of the fell creature that climbs on the ceiling
And so they hush their children with hisses and unfair comments,
Til other children take up the cry. They also see the monster.
The children all gesture, point, and howl,
But the parents see an empty nave, rafters, eaves, balusters,
Nothing that skitters, scuttles, or moves. Not a thing that prowls.
And, looking at the curious scene, of many children screaming,
And of many blank-faced parents searching with their eyes and ears,
The church’s organist, his hands full of sheet music, wonders what he’s seeing.
This man, Mr. Horace Anderson, a bespectacled, retiring gentleman far gone in years,
Considers a moment the strange spectacle, watching with some inkling,
And looks in vain toward the ceiling to find a creature there.
But, like other adults, he sees nothing, yet he sets himself to thinking,
As the creature passes out the nave, towards its belfry lair.

An Ancient Tome

Mr. Anderson, driving home, takes a bridge over a cold dark river,
Whose banks are enveloped in glittering white snow.
Plunged in deep consideration of an antique scrivener,
Mr. Anderson circles up an icy mountain to his home on a windswept, wet plateau,
While the details of an elusive passage frustrate Mr. Anderson’s recall.
Thus it is with furrowed brow that he pulls into his drive
enters his house, and makes for the books near the wall.
Fingering each spine, he mutters and feels his mind revive
As he pulls a book off the shelf and sweeps cobwebs from its cover.
He blows dust off its pale and tattered binding,
turns its brittle yellow pages, and there discovers
the fell description of a child-eating thing,
cast into somnolence by an itinerant wizard
then left to rot in a solemn forest uncolonized by man,
through seasons of sweltering sun and gelid blizzards.
This arcane chronicle details how the child-eating thing
Was invisible to adults but well-seen by children.
The text tells how the evil slept inverted in lofty places, wherever it could cling,
And how, when it devoured a child, it left but bones and patches of skin.
Mr. Anderson read on into the bitter night,
His brow furrowed, and his lips drawn tight and severe.
Behind the twisted yellow moon, stars lay spangled with dull, cold light.
Then Mr. Anderson starts suddenly as he learns the monster’s hateful name, Malgremir.

Seven Years Later

Seven years later, the quaint town lies abandoned.
Centipedes crawl fearlessly on homes’ stairs; mice inhabit dining rooms.
The cathedral, and particularly the belfry, is well shunned.
In the churchyard, in the cracks of the headstones, are dandelion blooms.
The cemetery gates swing creakily; a gentle wind rustles peeling paint;
The church door’s hinges are broken; the great Gothic door lies ajar and crooked.
Inside, mold grows behind a dusty portraiture of a haloed saint,
While the nave appears washed in hues of rose and blood and red,
For of the stained glass panes only the red remain unbroken.
The pews are covered in a thick layer of dust,
In which an occasional, devilish footprint is imprinted as a token
Of Malgremir, who remains in the belfry as still and as silent as a bust.
Only his brilliant eyes, vivid crimson, are visible in the darkness.
Malgremir hangs batlike from a rafter in the darkest, most shadowed corner.
His mind is as patient as a serpent’s, his behavior as indefatigable as a shark’s address.
Since that first Christmas night, he has made many more mourners
From the families of the staid and respectable parishioners.
He brought the strongest men limitless grief as their children were devoured,
And he bore comfortless heartbreak to loving mothers who fell, as wailing petitioners,
To their knees, beseeching mercy from that almighty heavenly power.
Searches for the monster were inaugurated, but they proved fruitless.
Children were consulted, and they pointed, quavering, at the ghastly thing.
Men fired guns at the points the children marked, their efforts bootless.
Malgremir could not be harmed by steel, lead, or matter made for firing.
Prayers were said against the creature, but they were ineffectual.
A Voodoo priestess was brought from the bayous south of New Orleans.
She brought garlic and woundwort, conducted exorcisms oral and textual.
Her incantations were for naught. That night, during her dreams,
A girl with a kind nature and gentle hand was consumed by Malgremir.
The townspeople sent the priestess away. The church was abandoned; still the wrongs kept on.
Children saw the monster in the night; street jokes grew black with fear.
More children were devoured; men mourned; women wept on.
School classes were cancelled, and the city council voted to desert.
Malgremir, placidly vicious, made a last raid, drinking drop by drop,
The lifeblood of sons and daughters, cracking and sucking their bones, savoring their hurt,
Until the townspeople vacated, and the demon-storm did stop.

The Labyrinth

Mr. Anderson left town in the fifth year of Malgremir’s ascendancy.
The erudite man left not for evasion, but to learn the solution to this fey riddle,
Searching far for a missive that would, for Malgremir, signal death’s embassy.
Long studied Anderson the lore housed in the fabled Alexandrian Library and the Bam Citadel,
But therein he found only hints and clues, trifling gestures as to the secret’s key.
Traveled he thence to the Beineke library of rare books and singular scripts.
Discovering there, at most, vague descriptions and veiled references to the monstrosity—
Yet also mention of a secret library whose doors open only during a total lunar eclipse.
A weathered volume, whose yellow parchment was delicate and cracking,
Told of doors in a Badakshan mountain that were fastened by a genius of the Dark Age
And which led a doughty traveler into an antique wasteland beyond all mapping.
The library, called Maktaba Ghazni al-Khan, lay at a desert’s edge,
And held within its labyrinthine shelves the scrolls of necromancy and power
That did at one time summon djinni, influence sprites, and banish Shayṭān.
And in the center of the Maktaba’s labyrinth was a glass for counting the hour;
Through its glass globes poured the very measurement of Time, in form of falling sand.
Deep study takes time. Seven years had passed since the monster’s ascendancy,
And again Mr. Anderson set out, now from Yale, now to Afghanistan,
For the matter that would snuff the fell creature’s lambency,
And restore fairness and order to the bedeviled land.
From Kabul he traveled the Hindu Kush road through cracking Soviet tunnels;
Thence from Fayzabad, Mr. Anderson set out by donkey,
With a guide promising to take him but halfway, to where the river funnels
Out past the old capital of Wakhan, Qila-e Panj, deep in the Wakhan Valley.
When the guide left Mr. Anderson, he had been traveling for a week.
He was tired, but he felt that his journey had barely begun.
He looked out of his spectacles, down his long nose, and he rubbed his cheek,
Taking in his surroundings. Tall, craggy mountains blotted out the sun.
The gorge that he was left in held nothing but sparse vegetation,
And the way forward appeared both trackless and treacherous.
He found himself longing for his music, his pleasant church, his former station,
And he had no desire to continue upon a path so adventurous.
Mr. Anderson made a few notes in his daily diary, then he laid out his bedroll and slept.
The stars wheeled magnificently above him; a snow leopard peered down on him,
While through the jagged peaks, the Persian wind galloped and swept,
And Mr. Anderson dreamt of caravanserai and carpets, shorn and silken.
In the morning, the sun illuminated the valley, and Mr. Anderson set forth.
He traveled for four nights through chancy mountain passes,
His faith in the book oft-times wavering, his compass steering him further north,
Until in the midst of his dangerous isolation, he came upon weirdly formed crevasses,
Whose lines of cleavage seemed symbolic or runic in nature,
As if fashioned by man rather than nature, and Mr. Anderson, studying the stone,
Noted how the shape of an arcade appeared within the granite architecture,
And that in the stony portal’s area there was a nearly seamless fault, thin as a crack in bone.
Here Mr. Anderson consulted his almanac, reassured himself of the upcoming syzygy,
And did then encamp before the fractured crag. There he remained for six nights.
On the seventh night, the lunar eclipse induced the nearby mountain creek to froth fizzily
And queer characters to luminesce in the adamant stone in tints of radiant blueish-white.
The fracture in the cloven stone did shine with that same color,
While strange shapes as of astrolabes, sextants, gnomonic sundials, and stars appeared.
Mr. Anderson—caught between exhilaration, hope, and dolor—
Observed the glow strengthen into an aura. And the night grew weird.
A flash of light. A purple fire. All at once, a door materialized.
Taking his water and his pack, Mr. Anderson stepped through the door,
And he found himself, quite suddenly, with the sun blinding his eyes,
For he was on reddish desert stone, swept as flat and clean as a palace floor.
Around him, in all directions, was a labyrinth of pathlessness.
There were no mountains to guide his way, no points of any kind.
The place was bleak and flat, dry and severe, wrathful and boundless.
Yet the learning from the Beineke manuscript sprang to his mind,
For its contents directed the traveler due west, two hundred-seventy degrees,
Until, it said, one meets “the fire in the desert”.
Ancient texts being mistily allusive by nature, Mr. Anderson had not fretted,
But now he wondered if greater consideration would have been wise.
But, he thought, it was not a mistake to be greatly regretted,
There being no other texts, to his knowledge, on the subject anyway.
So to the place where there was fire in the desert he bound himself,
Adjusting his pack’s straps, tightening his belt, setting out on his way,
And wondering, with black humor, of the feasibility of diagnosing insanity in oneself.
The thought preoccupied him as the miles turned to leagues under his feet,
And there was no change to the dullish red landscape
And only the compass’ needle to guide him as he crossed this desert sheet,
For he felt that certainly no other explorer could have survived this barren land, this plane shape,
For had another explorer gone but a degree astray in any direction,
Then assuredly death would have risen to meet them.
The wayward traveler would have, step-by-step, separated further from the connection
Until in the name of starvation or thirst, Death would greet them.
Yet Mr. Anderson found himself wondering if the desert were also a labyrinth for the mind,
Whether he truly was insane, for who had heard of such travelers, such places?
And he wondered how to test his insanity, for if the mind were cracked and brined,
How then to know the sanest of its many faces?
Doggedly, and by dint, Mr. Anderson continued onward.
The desert floor remained as flat as a chessboard, and he was its only wanderer.
The sky above was as blue as the sea, and the land as red as dried blood upon a sword.
For three days did Mr. Anderson continue on this path, as worried a ponderer
As ever there has been, nearly freezing in the desert night, doubting his sanity by day,
Until, at last, on that flat and featureless horizon that ringed ’round him,
There appeared to be a spark flickering in the distance.
Another day passed, and Mr. Anderson kept onwards, hopes now slim,
For his water had been used, and of more there was not a trace.
But the spark in the distance grew in size as he drew near,
Until he found himself standing before a hanging fire basket made of steel.
The fire basket hung from a chain that was supported by three legs welded to a sphere.
Inside the basket were logs that burned but did not diminish, crack, or peel.
Mr. Anderson, reaching out to warm his hand upon the flame,
And looking around the desert in some confusion and no little concern,
Then saw the sand beneath the brazier suddenly shape itself into a sandy lane.
On either side of this new path and at regular intervals torches did burn,
And so, ducking his head beneath the fire in the desert, Mr. Anderson descended.
The path was narrow, soft, and mellow, and it soon gave away to a spiral staircase made of sand.
The recessed sconces lit the vertical passage with soft, flickering light, and, as he wended,
he saw that, at the foot of the stairs, the shaft did expand.
When he reached the bottom of the sand-stair, Mr. Anderson found himself in a chamber.
The walls, ceiling, and floor were constructed entirely of sand,
And the room appeared to be round like a wheel laid upon its side.
A single shelf, stocked with ancient books, circled the room like a band,
And, at the center of the room stood another hanging fire basket, six feet tall, two feet wide.
Of the fabled hourglass of time there was no trace,
So Mr. Anderson wondered if there were yet more secrets within the labyrinth,
And whether those secrets held the hourglass in a hidden space.
There was, too, in the room, a kind of plinth,
And upon that plinth stood an unmelting block of ice.
The place held the mysterious air of an enigma;
Thus Mr. Anderson, feeling strange forces at work, was at the books in a trice,
Finding one leathery tome with the inscription, Mælgrymyr, beneath a lunate sigma—
Or perhaps a crescent moon—and, opening the book,
The learned scholar saw an illustration of that thing the children had limned.
As Mr. Anderson took a steady and careful look,
A grain of sand, then another, fell from the ceiling onto the open volume.
Rapidly then did he scan that venerable text for clues on how to slay the beast,
As his mind, able in reckoning, leapt at once to the affairs as they had come to pass:
That, surrounded by fire and ice and texts, he himself was in Time’s frothy yeast,
The room was but a chamber, a globe in Time’s hourglass,
And as the hidden library slowly disintegrated,
Mr. Anderson felt his reasoning fragment,
And the ice, dripping water, did at that time ablate
While the fire did flicker, sputter, and stagnate.
As Mr. Anderson gained more knowledge, the labyrinth crumbled.
Sand poured from the ceiling, onto the book, as Mr. Anderson lifted it vertically to read,
And, reading still, he made for the sandy staircase, reading as he stumbled.
Until at last, at the start of a paragraph, he saw the Latin lead,

“Ab extra, ab initio, ad astra.  The Monster, Mælgrymyr, having been called thusly, is not, in fact, named Mælgrymyr, and has only been so denominated by monks of the Apostolic order who follow His footsteps in the heavenly name of the Divine, and by servants of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, and by those laypeople who speak of the Monster and know It by Its fiendish work. The true name of Mælgrymyr is a closely guarded secret, and it is thanks to anonymous, esoteric scholars—whose sedulous work and whose study of the arcane glyphs and ciphers found carved into long-buried ruins—that we of the Brotherhood at last learnt the true name of the Beast.

As Mr. Anderson read on, the sandy chamber, already deteriorating,
Gave way faster and faster, ’til he wondered how much time had elapsed.

Scholars now know the true name of the Beast, which, by saying its name, will spell the end of the Beast, and bring about Its sudden and immediate end. The Beast’s name is ‘Horace Anderson’.  Ab extra, ab initio, ad astra.”

“Horace Anderson!” he said, aghast, his frisson of horror accelerating,
Then the ice evaporated, the fire extinguished, and the chamber of sand collapsed.

Fin.

Categories
Poems

The Candle from the Cathedral

The Candle from the Cathedral has a rhyme scheme of ABCAABBCBCCA, and the poem tells the story of a young man coping with the death of a loved one.

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In his memory he saw the old woman sucking her hankerchief in the pew.
The widow wore a funereal black bowler, a starched jib collar,
oval glasses with smoky plastic frames, and her hair spun white and curly.
She held a candle like all the others among the ranks of grievers, not a few,
stretching back to the entrance of the dark, arching cathedral sanctuary under whose
vaulted ceilings the sputtering flames flicked like constellations of stars.
He stood out in the cold and windfilled and trashfilled street filled with cars
and he saw through unfinished iron girders and steel transoms the dreadnought sky.
He saw the low, threatening clouds elbow the skyscraper bazaar.
He put his hand above his eyes and he squinted then he spit deliberately.
There was a punk nearby whom he once saw animaleyed with a switchblade in the alley
and the punk leaned against a building looking at him like a window to be looked through.

In his memory he saw the bell glass half full of the white willow and ethanol tincture,
the color of motor oil, that the old man swallowed as medicine in his last weeks.
The old man had kept the bell glass in his office in a cherry cabinet stained
dark red. It had lain behind handcut glass doors on a pad of velvety fur.
He turned and trotted down the subway tunnel steps into the city under
the city and he boarded the first train that came and stood and heard the car creak.
There were not many people in the car, just a seated woman with an antique
face whose nose was high and pinched and a man who looked insane.
He rode the car until the end of the line then stepped off and stood on the brick
platform waiting for the train to come back again.
A bag lady came up on the platform near him, nodding, chanting a weird refrain.
The train was a long time in coming. As he rode he felt nothing, no hurt or pleasure.

When he arrived back at his apartment he put the key in the lock and let himself in.
He had brought back his candle from the cathedral and he lit it and left it to gutter.
There was only one window in the apartment and rain began to patter against it.
When the flame goes out, he said to the candle, I’ll start to stop grievin.
He went into the bathroom and stripped off his clothes and stood thinking
under the hot shower as the bathroom filled with steam from the water
and he soaked until his fingertips looked like sundried fruit and fog coated the mirror
then he stepped out of the shower and dried and dressed himself and looked to see if the candle was still lit.
He laughed when he saw the flame creeping along the drapes and towards the furniture
and he kept laughing as the fire slowly crawled towards a black cabinet.
He debated awhile whether to let the fire burn, but chuckled and smothered it.
The candle he blew out, and it let off a silver stream of smoke snakelike and thin.

Categories
Stories

The Gift of Flight

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

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“Good night, Danny. Sleep tight.”

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

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

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

He was hovering above the bed.

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Danny, attached to carabiners, felt delighted.

*****

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Still, he floated.

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Stories

The Eleanor

A mysterious man orders an unusual car.

1967 Ford Eleanor

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

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

“Hello!” said Mike cheerfully.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, please.  Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike raised his eyebrows again.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, whereabouts?”

“Oh, here and there,” Steve replied.

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

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

“Just black, thank you.”

“Me too.”

Steve brought the two coffees back.

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

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

“I am.”

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

“No, you can get six speed manual.”

“Then I’ll take the stick.”

“Manual it is.”

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

“Yes, sir, it will be.”

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

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

“Yessir.”

“And did you want to add a roll bar?”

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

“Five point harness?”

“No.”

“What size tires?

“Sixteen.”

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

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

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

He counted twenty-four packets out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike gave no smile.

“Where did you say you got that money?”

“I didn’t. But I earned it.”

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

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

“With what sort of government?”

“With ours.”

“What sort of contracts?”

“Unrecorded.”

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

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

“I’m afraid I can’t say.”

“You can’t say.”

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

“I’ll need someone to vouch for you.”

“No one will acknowledge me.”

Mr. Peters was silent.

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

“Uh… Yeah… Yes, we have that.”

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

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

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

“I am a wage earner, Mr. Peters.”

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

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

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

Mr. Peters scratched his jaw and considered.

“Yes,” he said.

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

Steve did not so much as glance at the sheet.

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

“But if we need your input—”

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

Mr. Peters nodded.

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

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

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

“You mean that you might not come back?”

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

“Someone whose name is also Steve Adler?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, no… I guess not.”

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

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

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

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

Mike stood. “Then good luck you.”

“Thank you very much.”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Stories

Sixty Years of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In you go!” cackled the old man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie drew a deep breath.

She looked down at the carillon’s keyboard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bells of Grymsk.

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

Sophie had never even seen snow.

What was she doing here?

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

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

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

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

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

A thrill shot through her.

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie gave them a wave.

Categories
Stories

The City of Glass at the Edge of the World

 

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

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

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

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

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

One is of a sea witch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After five days, the last group was proven wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you. I feel my age.”

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

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

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

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

“What!”

“He did.”

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

“Gold,” said the old man.

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

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

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

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

“Well, I will ask him now.”

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

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

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

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

“Many thanks!” he cried.

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

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

“Who goes there?” said one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You may not,” said the guards.

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said King Venwerth.

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

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

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

“The mountain is mine,” said King Venwerth.

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

“Get out,” said King Venwerth.

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

“Get out!” roared King Venwerth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He left the room.

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

Huzalmin returned to his home beneath the mountain.

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

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

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

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

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

The night flashed with a bright light.

Everyone stopped in fear.

The flash vanished, and all was dark again.

Huzalmin retired to his chambers in the mountain.

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

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

The castle was made of glass.

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

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

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

The wizard had turned everything to glass.

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

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

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

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

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

The king did not leave his palace again that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” cried one.

“Yes!” shouted another.

“No!” cried the king.

“Yes!” cried the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

And the king said, “Certainly not.”