Category Archives: Fiction

Titivillus

 

His given name was Frank, but his boss, who had studied medieval literature at Princeton, called him Titivillus, Villy for short. Titivillus, he was told in absolute confidence the day of his recruitment, was the recording demon of scribes, popular in medieval Christian exempla, an infernal creature who lurked in monastery scriptoria and cathedral naves, stuffing the mangled words of priests in Mass, or the idle words of parishioners in services, or the deleted words of monks in copied manuscripts into a sack to be held against the offender at the Last Judgment. Frank was no cunning demon, but his office in the basement and his job in the company had earned him the title.

Years of sedentary work had expanded his waistline over his belt. His hair, once thick, had thinned and was combed across his wide head in an embarrassing attempt to recover the illusion of youthful pillatory excess. His glasses, a corrective for the damage the dim lighting had exacted over the years of his employment, were thick and purely functional with black, plastic rims. He was the first in and the last out, leading to the mythology that he never left the building, and he was rarely seen, calling into question his very existence. But once a year he made a public appearance at the office holiday party. He was thoroughly forgettable, though, invisible on the periphery of the crowd, quietly eating strawberries from a large silver serving bowl and sipping punch. No one knew him and no one cared to ask who he was. Just one more anonymous employee in a crowd of inebriated celebrants.

Other than this one occasion, he did not venture from his chthonic room, filled with computer parts cannibalized from obsolete machines, reams of thick manuals crammed into metal shelves, monitors, keyboards, floppies and disks, and in the center of the room, in front of an ergonomically designed chair, three huge monitors, sufficient to launch thermonuclear weapons from NORAD, if he so desired. But that was not his purpose. He was not interested in national security, only the security of his corporation. He was invisible, but not insignificant, and that was exactly the way his supervisors wanted to keep him. Their power, by and large, depended on the work he did. Consistent with his namesake, he scoured every hard drive in the company, every social media site of every employee, every instant message sent on a company machine, every deleted line of text, absolutely every word in the cyber world that intersected the interests of his employer. Like Titivillus, he looked for the damnable word. And he found them by the millions.

It was an enormous task to cull through thousands of emails and Facebook pages and virtual trashcans every day. That responsibility explained his pasty skin tone, his gravitational spread, and his bleary eyes. He was as much a machine as what he was paid to monitor, he a throbbing circuit of retina and optic nerve and visual cortex and the object of his attention only pixels and electrons and symbols of a different type of circuitry. What made him indispensible was that he knew what could serve as actionable data. What could be used against an employee, what word could be leverage, what sentence a source of pressure. What about privacy? Some would ask. What about the civil rights of the employees? Is it ethical to snoop and pry and sniff into every electronic inch of their online existence? Villy had long since dispensed with the philosophical objections. His job was simple. If any word or image touched a company computer, it belonged to him, not the employee of origin. If it was useful for his employer, even if deleted, even if it was found on a forum not directly related to the company, it was his. His Titivillian sack was enormous and it included information on everyone. Everyone. Conspiracies, affairs, criminal behavior, idleness, gossip, insults, insubordinations. He ruled it all. And in the Baconian universe he inhabited, knowledge was power. He was a self-contained, omniscient force.

And then one day Clarissa Ann Meadows was hired. Employee 018924. He was in the process of entering her information in the system when he saw the photo HR took for her file. He stopped breathing for a minute. He had never seen someone so magnificent. And her name. He could almost smell the fresh mountain air and the perfume of wildflowers. He felt something. Usually people were just constellations of data points to him, clusters of information that could be pushed or pulled like levers to drive the machinery of the corporation. But she was different. He didn’t know why. It was just a picture and some biographical information. Maybe she was a complete lunatic. But there was nothing unusual in her file. No psychiatric notes, no debt, single, no children. How could she not be married? He didn’t know but he was interested.

She started on a Monday. He made her a priority in his surveillance. After two weeks of following her digital trail, he couldn’t find anything objectionable. Usually there was something—family drama in emails, sketchy Internet sites visited, complaints about management, something—but with her there was nothing. She was perfect. He shone his virtual flashlight in every corner of her online life. A month, then another. Nothing. No email arguments with an ex-husband, no insistent calls from creditors, just messages to her sister, a purchase off a wedding registry. He dutifully filled her file, but it was slender, unlike others. There was nothing there. And the more he learned of her uneventful life, the more he felt uncomfortable tracking her. With every other employee it was not a problem; it was a job. With her it seemed creepy and voyeuristic. But that didn’t stop him. They paid him handsomely to gather words and he did it with her too. Only her words were not scandalous and they meant something to him other than a paycheck. He began to imagine they were directed to him. His obsession grew.

But there was a limit to what monitoring her could do to satisfy his interest. He wanted to meet her. Usually it was prohibited for him to interact directly with the other employees. He had to find a way around the policies that secluded him and actually have a conversation with the woman. After some thought, he had an idea.

“Pardon me, Ms. Meadows,” he said one bright morning as she pecked away on her computer in her cubicle. “My name is Frank and I’m from IT. We are changing software on some units and yours is one that requires an upgrade.”

“Oh,” she said, distracted. Then she turned to face him and her smile glowed like distilled joy. When she swept a lock of her hair, the color of sunshine, behind her delicate ear he almost melted in a puddle in the middle of the loop pile Berber carpet. “Of course. Do what you need to do.” She pushed back from her desk and stood, relinquishing her chair to him.

In spite of his remarkable self-control and coolly cerebral approach to his responsibilities, he could feel the back of his neck prickle and warmth rise on his cheeks.

“This shouldn’t take long,” he said, pulling up to her monitor. Suddenly decades of computer knowledge evaporated from his brain and even though this service visit was a ruse, he still felt uncomfortable. She watched as he poked keys like a child. A line of sweat formed on his upper lip. Why was he reacting like this? He spent his life on a keyboard. His mind thought in code. Now the introduction of this new element scrambled everything. He was used to being the watcher; now he was the watched. All he wanted to do was to talk to her, to interact with her as a human being, not a computer profile, to hear her hopes and dreams, to learn childhood memories, her favorite foods, books she loved.

Instead, all he did was finish his imaginary upload, smile awkwardly, then apologize for the inconvenience and thank her for her time. He scurried back to his basement office as quickly as his pudgy little legs could carry him. He locked the door and dropped in his chair, his sweat slick shirt sticking to his back. He spent the rest of the afternoon thinking of her. He had crossed a line; he knew that. Perhaps his foolhardy decision to venture out to the space beyond his monitors would draw the wrath of his superiors. But he waited and by the end of the day, he had received no angry email, no request for a conference.

His success emboldened him. There was no way five minutes in the presence of this goddess was going to satisfy him. He sent her a message, asked her to join him for dinner. There was a microscopically small chance that someone like her would say yes to someone like him, but he tried anyway. No response. A week went by. He sent another email. This time she sent a polite response.

“Thank you, Frank, for asking me to dinner. You seem like a nice man and I very much appreciate the work you did on my computer, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline your lovely offer. I hope you understand. Cordially, Clarissa.”

He was devastated. Of course he didn’t understand. There was no indication that she had a husband or even a serious boyfriend. Was he really that repulsive? He picked up the phone and began to punch in her number, then paused. Is this smart? He smiled. He was Teflon. He had more information about everyone in the company than anyone else. If he was interested in dating someone on his own time, he should be able to. He finished dialing.

“Clarissa?” he sputtered. “Frank from IT here.”

“Oh, um, how are you, Frank?”

“I got your message. I guess I am just calling to ask you to reconsider.”

“That’s very flattering, Frank, but I’m going to have to stand by my decision.”

“But—“

“I don’t mean to be rude, Frank, but I have a pile of work here and I really need to get back to it. I hope you have a super day,” she said, and then clicked off before he could respond.

He sat staring at the buzzing receiver for a minute before he realized what had happened. He tried immediately to call her back. It went straight to voicemail. A half-hour later he tried again, with the same result. Maybe it was his overprotective mother, maybe the isolation of his adult life or the nature of his job, but he just didn’t have the social skills to recognize the difference between persistence and stalking. He waited a couple of days and called again. Voicemail. He found it hard to believe it was mere coincidence that of all the places for her to work, she had landed in his company. Call it fate or providence or whatever, he took it as a sign from some higher source. He wouldn’t let her drift away without trying one last thing. If that didn’t work, then he would resign himself to a life of perpetual solitude. He would confront her at her apartment. Risky, he knew, but he was desperate. He didn’t even consider the possibility of a restraining order.

He parked a block away. Waited. Waited some more. He knew she was home. Finally she walked out, her adorable cockapoo on a leash. He was straining against the tether and she was using both hands to pull him back. Then the leather snapped and her dog was free. He tore off down the sidewalk then cut sideways into the street, on a collision course with a florist’s van that was barreling to a delivery. Fueled by adrenaline, Frank threw open his car door, darted across the street, scooping up her pet before he was injured, tumbling with the animal cradled in his arms at the feet of Clarissa, who was at once surprised, grateful, and utterly relieved that her dog was safe.

“My God, Frank, where did you come from?” she asked as she nuzzled her dog’s snout and stroked his fur.

“Just out for a walk,” he said. “Good thing I came by when I did.”

“I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost Blizzard. Thank you, Frank. What can I do to repay you?”

He blushed like a schoolboy. “How about dinner?”

A split second of hesitation and then a confident, “Of course. You busy now? I know a great Italian place around the corner.”

“Lead the way, Ms. Meadows,” he said.

“Please, call me Clarissa.”

So over antipasto, wine, and heaping mounds of pasta, he found out her hopes and dreams (large family, house in the suburbs after a successful career on Broadway), her favorite food (Thai), and books she loved (Dr. Zhivago, anything by Jane Austen)—more in one conversation than from months of data mining. And she found out about him, about his absent father, his time in boarding school, his interest in computers, his love of fantasy and sci-fi novels, his secret fear of dying alone in his apartment and only being discovered when the rent came due. With her stunning smile and sweet disposition, she drew out all sorts of information from him, everything except for what he did. His role as company Titivillus was a sacred trust he would never disclose.

Hours later, when the waiter presented the check and told them the restaurant would close in a few minutes, he dug a credit card from his wallet and she daubed her magnificent lips with a linen napkin.

“So you do have a weak spot, Villy,” she purred.

Panic. Paralysis for a moment and then his gaze shot around the empty room.

“Who are you? And who told you to call me that?”

Her naïve smile became a vicious grin. “Let’s just say our boss got to me first. He wanted me to keep an eye on you, remind you of who’s really in charge. But from where I sit, I would say that’s me. Now, would you like to discuss the terms of your surrender? I have a couple of projects in mind…”

 

 

The Dark Night of the Soul

 

First there was Edward. Winter turned to spring and I watched him exist in different seasons, retiring his blazers with khakis, his red cashmere scarf over a P coat for penny loafers and Izod shirts. Edward was a young man pressured to succeed in school to acquire a high paying, prestigious career. This is what I deduced from meeting his mother who knew virtually everything about his school life, checked his homework, his grades, edited his college essays. I was fairly sure, however, she did not know Edward and I went parking down by Eastern Point in his father’s Mercedes, stripped down to our underwear, the windows fogged, the heat leaking from the car, the piano music playing, the keys crashing with the waves, the wind, the shadows. I was in love with him then, and only then. I was in love with experience, with sensuality, with the fiery chalice of romance, with the crashing waves, but I was in love, alone. There was no bridge from my heart to Edward’s heart. In Edward’s burgeoning man mind, I had a body, a girl-body he liked because it aroused him, but this is all he knew. I was a girl and he knew nothing about the inchoate mind of a woman. I knew nothing about the inchoate mind of a woman.

I met Christian in art class. He was somewhat lanky, but he had the brightest eyes I had ever seen. Life with Christian morphed into splendor. I had found in Christian a similar spirit who saw the world as I had begun to see it, who wanted to paint it, write about it, who suspected what I suspected, that it was a menagerie, a design, a bounty. I watched him paint, noting how he was patient and forgiving, his soft eyes directed toward the work and nothing else, not even me. There was no anxiety in Christian, no ego. He was an art student the way an art student should be, with no preconceived ideas or expectations.

So I broke Edward’s heart. It was very peculiar to be the one breaking another heart. You volley back and forth from the aching heart to the brimming heart and ultimately you choose the brimming heart. I awoke in the middle of the night, quaking with mere euphoria, manifested in a touch I remembered, or Christian’s kiss.  

To put it bluntly, Christian was a Christian, and came from a family that refused to sin. They went to a church that eliminated all forms of possible temptation—movies, dancing, drinking, foul language. Theirs was a religion not of burning passion, but of avoidance. These people didn’t believe you learned from your mistakes.

Their church, a Protestant sect, was the focal point of their lives. If I wanted to date Christian, I needed to assimilate, somewhat. On Sundays, I attended mass with my family in the morning and then went to Christian’s fellowship service in the evening where there was quirky born again Christian music, people singing ballad rock songs about God. It was irksome to me, to combine rock and Christ, sort of like eating spaghetti with a side order of pickles, but I went along with it. “Catholic,” I told Christian, meant “having sympathies with all.” I walked with my head high, like St. Paul amongst the Corinthians.

Christian’s mother was a soft-spoken woman with wide hips. It was her eyes her son inherited, eyes like visible tuning forks that resonated sensibility. But for Christian’s mother, it was fear, mostly. She was terribly afraid of the world. She did not have a job; she rarely left the house, aside from doing necessary chores or going to church. His father stayed within the circle of the church as well, by building more of them. I pictured him maneuvering the spire with the bare, austere cross atop it, lifting it off from the ground, steady, steady, until the cross could be seen for miles.

The fact that I was a Catholic made Christian’s parents very nervous. This is why I had to be extra careful around them, show them I was a decent human being, that I would be open-minded about their religion and participate. This eased their fears somewhat, that I participated in their fellowship services and at church picnics, at youth group where kids would play checkers and chess, discuss Bible readings, gloat about their tepid pranks on Catholics like how they placed a paper bag over the Virgin Mary or stole her from one lawn and carted her to another. In return, Christian’s parents were fairly amenable to me and allowed Christian to take me places in his car.

The churches Christian’s father built were not unlike the one I attended with Christian and his family. They often had some sort of stage with light blue carpeting. The focus was not gold ornate candles, colorful mosaics of glass, pious saints with sorrowful hearts, the Blessed Mother in her bounty of roses; the focus was that bare, austere cross. During the evening service, people randomly stood up and voiced a testimony, a short ditty of how Christ made a difference in their lives. This was new to me, people standing up and speaking out individually.

The young minister, whom everyone called “Pastor Jim” (always with his equally young, pregnant wife one step behind him) was especially diplomatic to me, which made me slightly wary of him (I was also slightly wary of the older men dressed in pale blue or beige suits, who were incredibly austere, my tapestry-like long floral skirts a direct assault against their austerity). Pastor Jim was on the alert for lost lambs. Being a young minister, he was especially eager to gather his flock, supplement his spiritual resume. We conveniently steered away from any religiously divisive topics. Instead, Pastor Jim told me jokes; it was his way of establishing neutral ground. The jokes were always clean; sometimes they were riddles to stump me or get his flock thinking, if others were listening in. I would pretend to laugh and he would chuckle like Curley from the Three Stooges and do that strange snapping thing with his fingers. At some point he would ask me if I were going to such-and-such a gathering and I would decline and he would say, most genuinely, “Good to see you.”

After fellowship, Christian and I went parking at the quarries; being in the company of those austere, sinless Christians made me long for indulgence. Sometimes we dared ourselves at the rock ledge, to move closer, sometimes we hiked down and skipped stones across the placid water. Other times we made love in the bushes. I was indoctrinating Christian, knocking him off, albeit slightly, from the path of straight and narrow.

Life went on and the inertia of high school became unbearable, however, despite the brimming heart, despite my choosing a college to go to and a major. High school was a controlled monotony where there was no room for one’s own rhythms. I had become restless and withdrawn; nothing excited me, not even Christian.   I felt small, insignificant, incapable of expression. I pretended, went through the motions, did my homework, went to class, debated deep within me if there was a God. What did it matter which religion you chose? Life seemed to me, meaningless. I had discovered its empty vault, lying cold and hollow beneath all thoughts.

            Then there was the day I was holding Etta’s baby and he stopped breathing.   We were in my room at the time and I was reading him a story. First I thought it was me, that I was imagining the worst, that everything was coated in death, but then he started to actually turn blue, his cheeks, his hands, blue. I screamed and Etta came running up and took him from me. What happened? she asked. He’s blue! He’s blue! Then my nose started to gush blood. I panicked, I was dying, the baby was dying. This was finally it; all that evil thinking had come to this, all that skepticism. Etta took him from me, lay him flat on the bed and put an ear to his mouth. She began CPR by blowing in the mouth, but she became flustered, took him off the bed and shook him until he coughed.

Had my darkness tried to pull in the baby as well? Was it the devil or Yahweh? Was I going mad? I felt I was sick and should go to the hospital; maybe there was a drug they could give me to make my brain normal again. I slipped out the house late at night and rode my bike across town to Christian’s house. The night and its stars and the ride, the wind, my pulsing muscles— I felt alive then. I crept up to his window, tapped at it gently. He opened the shade and then the window and pulled me inside, steadying me as I climbed in. In the light of the room I could see his smooth skin, his blond hair like an aura; he didn’t look real.

“I’m afraid I killed the baby,” I said. “He’s in the hospital.”

“What are you talking about?” he said.

“He started to cough and turn blue in my arms because of the bad thoughts in my head.”

“I’m sure they’re no worse than anyone else’s.”

“Christian, do you believe in modern day saints?”

“What, you think you are a saint?”

“I don’t think I have a future. I’m head long into the dark night of the soul,” I said.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“You don’t even know what the dark night of the soul is. St. John of the Cross said it’s when the soul purifies itself for God. I think that’s what’s going on. God wants something from me.”

Christian rolled his eyes. He didn’t believe in intercessors. “I think what’s going on is you need some sleep.” He rested his head on his headboard, started to fall back to sleep, and I climbed back outside to my bike. The night was lovely and serene. I was calmer in it, alone with God and the sky. I peddled a mile or two and then I heard it, a blip from the vault. Would you go in his place? it said. I peddled faster. WouldyougoWould yougoWouldyougoWouldyougo? I squeezed the brakes, lay the bike down, went under a patch of pines by Thatcher road. I crouched.

Don’t call to me like you called to them, I said. I fingered the dried needles on the ground, smelled the wet earth from the marsh. I am no saint. No Joan of Arc. No Therese, the Little Flower. I have convictions.

I held my breath for a second. I was a wimp, I decided; I didn’t have what it takes to be a saint, to suffer alone in the black vault for the sake of God. I felt disappointed in myself. No, I argued; that’s not the point. No, no, no. I am not a wimp. I have convictions. And then I saw it, a bird, perched on the overhead wire. It was past midnight and there was a bird, a dark silhouette above me, silent, waiting. I thought perhaps it was confused and nature was losing its foothold; it should be sleeping, away in its nest. I should be sleeping away in my bed. It was an anomaly. I was an anomaly; we were both awake and troubled.

It flew away and I slowly peddled home.

It turned out the baby had apnea and it was a good thing he turned blue in my arms and not alone in his crib at night. You would think that would settle my mind, but it didn’t.

 

There was one fellowship service when the door of the vault had slammed shut with me inside. I was desperate.   Instead of ending with a blessing and a hymn from the small group of religious rock stars on stage, the melodic sounds of the synthesizer radiated throughout the nave. The young bearded minister called people who were experiencing some sort of trouble in their hearts, some darkness they could not name, to come to him at the front of the church. It was uncanny how he could focus on exactly what I was feeling. I watched as more people stood up and went to kneel before Pastor Jim. I stood up. Christian looked at me, his face, incredulous, elated. With shaky knees and head not so high, I went to Pastor Jim who made a b-line right for me. He knelt before me with tears in his eyes, paused and said my name, will you, Samantha, reject all sin and take Christ into your heart?

I thought then, of parking with Edward down by the crashing waves; I thought then of being in love, alone, because this is what was happening to the minister; in his head, he was in love alone, with Christ and the idea of instigating my miraculous salvation.

I had made a big mistake.

But what could I do? Say Sorry I was just looking for the exit? So I lied and tried my best to look redeemed, but the longer I knelt there at the stage with the pale blue carpeting, the more I became enraged that this really wasn’t about me.

Pastor Jim scrutinized me for some indication that it was happening; he waited. I opened my purse and took out my rosary beads. With the eyes of the austere Christians on me, I started to pray, one by one, a Hail Mary for each bead.  

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, I whispered.

Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of they womb, I said, louder.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for our sins, now and at the hour of our death, still louder.

           Amen.

“What are you doing?” Christian asked. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The synthesizer sent its electric soul song radiating outward as the whispers hissed around me. I started again with a separate bead and with every word of the prayer, Pastor Jim seemed to shrink, until at one point, I couldn’t see him at all.

The vault inside me had swallowed him whole.

 

A Taste of the Number 15

Shamrock, Indiana
1934

Jacob Blake’s Daddy, the greatest Shine maker in the whole Midwest, often told stories about the old wood spirits that roamed the Blake acreage. They weren’t mean as long as they had their drink. Old ghosts like a strong drink, better than most livin’ men, Daddy had told Jacob once. Daddy loved his stories, but he loved one especially, told it to Jacob only once, but he knew it was Daddy’s favorite.
      “This was before you were even moon dust. I was making my haul, from Turtlerock Cabin,” the story had begun. Daddy told it sitting on a stump next to one of the copper stills. “Course it wasn’t Turtlerock then, and this cabin was nothing more than a few pieces of canvas, strung up to keep the weather off the still. Anyway, I was making my last run from here up to the farmhouse. I should mention that it was night. I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again, the best time to make moonshine is when the gawdamn moon is shining. Your Grampa never did get that.
      “And boy was the moon shining that night. I carried that crate of shine without a torch or nothin’. Could see a good hundred yards. Now I’ve told you ‘bout them spirits before, the way they kind of push and pull and tug when you’re walking the trails. Well this night, I could see em! Their eyes, gold and red, peaking out at me like a coon’s might, but these eyes floated in the air. Like I said, the moon was bright. I could see that there was no raccoon with them eyes. No possum neither. Just eyes, and little black tentacles that moved like smoke.
      “Then I saw the lights. A glow from up over Widowmaker’s Hill. Now that’s on opposite side of the ravine from the farmhouse, but I went anyway. Clumb that horrible hill to see them lights and get away from the tentacles. My first thought was ‘Intruders, I need to go chase em off’, but as I got closer to the lights I started feeling less mean, like everything was going to be okay. Peaceable I think would be the best way to describe it.
      “And at the top of the hill there they were. The woods spirits, walking around on two legs. Some looked like real people even, carrying lanterns and pushing box carts full of clay and glass jars. Others looked stranger, like bad imitations of people. Too many arms here, not enough legs there. Eight eyes. Six faces. It was enough to creep a man right out, but like I said I was feeling peaceable.
      “They were laughing happy, most of em red-faced drunk. I could tell that much. That was the place, Jacob, where your Daddy had the best Shine of his life. I drank with the woods spirits, and the shine they drank was something from the moon herself I swear to the almighty God, and it takes a hell of a drink to make me blaspheme. That stuff was so good I must a drunk damn near all of it. I been trying to make our brew taste like that ever since. No shine has ever tasted as good. I’m afraid I’ll die before I taste anything like that again.”
      Jacob thought that the story a load of manure, until the day he spilt some of the shine in a creek bed and the glow led him to the very same lights in the forest. It hadn’t been normal shine he’d spilt neither. This was it, the best stuff to ever come out of the Blake woods. Any closer to perfect and it would have evaporated. And Jacob had brewed it. This time he would take his work to Daddy, and Daddy would get the far off look in his eyes again, the same way he looked when telling the story about the spirit night, and he would clap Jacob on the shoulder and smile.
      That’s all Jacob wanted really, a smile. Everything on the Blake acreage turned to frowns and sorrow after Daddy’s fall in ‘32. Daddy broke a leg tumbling off the roof of Turtlerock cabin, and in recovery he caught pneumonia. Then ‘33 came along and people suddenly could get all the liquor they wanted. Shamrock didn’t need its shine anymore. Daddy hadn’t walked, breathed right, or brewed shine since.
      Jacob had done it, though, he had brewed it. He was sure this would be the stuff that reminded Daddy of his story, of better years, of the liquor that he swore tasted like the moon’s light. It wouldn’t save Daddy’s life, it wouldn’t resurrect a dead business, but it might make the last few months, or weeks, worth living for father and son.
And now Jacob watched it dribble out into the creek through a cracked glass. There had only been one jar’s worth of the stuff.
      “Dammit,” Jacob cursed, “no no no.” He yanked the bottle up out of the creek. He had tripped, something had snagged at his ankle, and when he looked back to see what it was, nothing was in the trail. It was night, and the moon shined full. Jacob could see well enough.
      Pulling a bandanna out of his back pocket, Jacob plugged the hole in the mason jar. He’d just been lucky it hadn’t shattered. Out of his other pocket he pulled out a little roll of duct tape and administered a battlefield bandage. The leaking stopped.
      Jacob tried to relax his shoulders. His body felt physically weighed down by what seemed like a life held together with old duct tape, like the jar, like the still at Turtlerock, like everything else.
      “Can’t just be me,” he whispered, and then “fuck it.” Jacob unscrewed the cap of his one jar of moonshine and had him a sip. He had earned it, and there was still half a jar left.
      That was when he knew it was perfect. In that moment. In past batches, Jacob would bring the test bottle up to his Daddy. Never had Jacob had a taste before his daddy, until this night.
      Jacob’s vision blurred. The night colors of the forest turned purple for a half a second. “Gawdamn.” Jacob wiped his lips, and, looking down, nearly pissed himself.
The creek water at his feet glowed silver and white. Jacob replaced the cap to the jar. He knew he wasn’t drunk when the silver ebbed away from his feet, creek returning to the black color it was before. The silver traveled down the stream only a little slower than the creek water itself.
      Out of instinct more than thought, Jacob followed the disappearing silvery glow. He galloped through dirty creek water, winding and turning with the flow of the earth. Cut through the ravine bottom until the stream crossed the trail again. The silver fell away out of sight, and Jacob stood on the trail, heaving heavy breath.
He stood at the bottom of Widowmaker’s Hill. Jacob saw a golden glow creeping through the summer tree tops. He climbed Widowmaker’s Hill, and at the top he found a festival of drinking and lights.
      Men carried paper lanterns, marching down a trail in front of Jacob. Others pushed carts full of sloshing jugs that sang throaty songs. Jacob walked among them, Mason jar clutched to his chest, feeling anxious and happy at the same time. Anxious because he was wondering if he had busted his head when he fell and was either in a coma or hallucinating, happy because . . . well the light and the red smiling faces of the men around him just made him happy, like a warm church where no eyes judge, or seeing a group of friends around the campfire after coming back from a cold morning’s hunt. It was all those feelings and none because it was nothing like Jacob had ever felt before. Peaceable was the best way to describe it.
      Jacob walked over to where a group of men beneath an ash tree crouched over an open book, pointing at a diagram with green twigs. He continued, observing others that sat around fires burning in barrels, roasting potatoes and foreign meats on spits. Some men sung songs in indistinguishable voices. And faces, some strange, others painfully normal, blended together. A single, sharp voice drew Jacob back to some semblance of reality, stopped his steps.
      “You have a jar of the shine, boy?” A man called. He sat cross-legged on a square of green carpet, jars and boxes surrounding him. He pointed a wiry walking stick right at Jacob. His skin was dark, but his eyes were a blue so bright they almost looked silver.
      Jacob walked up to him, unsure that his voice would work when he tried to speak. “Um, what?”
      “That jar! You got the shine? What’ll you trade for it?”
      “Trade?”
      The man smacked Jacob’s shin. It didn’t hurt, but Jacob took the hint and went to sit cross legged across from the man. “Trade,” the man repeated, “I got all kinds of writings on the Moon Tree. You look like one of the understudies.”
      “I don’t—” Before Jacob could say another word, another voice spoke up from behind.
      “Cutting raw deals, Raz?”
Another man stepped between the trading man and Jacob. Tall with thinning white hair and a grey trench coat, he would have been non-descript, if not for the 8 bright green, pupilless eyes on his pale face.
      “Ah death to your kind, Leif. Now what do you want kid? The night is almost as old as me at this point.”
      “I don’t recognize you,” Leif said, ignoring Raz.
      “I’m…” Jacob swallowed “new.”
      “Hey!” said Raz. “I’m in the middle of a transaction here!”
      Leif continued to stare at Jacob. “New? That’s probably why Raz singled you out.” His mouth was lined with sharp little teeth that gleamed as he talked. “Have you had a sacrifice yet?”
      “I just got here,” Jacob said.
      “New ones are required to make sacrifices now. Keeps the Shine flowing. She won’t take it all don’t worry.”
      “Death to you and your kind,” Raz repeated, but he was smiling, barked out a laugh, “Don’t show em too many of the ropes there!” Raz winked at Jacob, “Lest you get rope burn, eh?”
      Jacob clutched at the bottle at his chest even harder. Leif led him away from Raz with a gentle push, moving him towards the center of camp. In silence they walked past more men on blankets, men with whole stalls set up in front of tents, and tables upon tables of people eating and drinking. Through all this Leif kept a hand on Jacob’s shoulder, the touch light but Jacob felt every command through the twitch of fingers.
      Leif spoke as he led Jacob through the winding masses of tents and spirits that blended together, “We like to keep things easy-going in camp. Everyone needs something here, so no need to be uptight about it. I been here the longest, so they kind of leave it to me to usher the new ones around and help keep the black away.”
      “The black?” Leif’s fingers pushed him around a group of card players hunched over a mass of shaggy carpet rolled out onto the dirt.
      “The trees teach less every year, I guess,” Leif sighed. “How much do you know about any of this? Have they told you what you are?”
Jacob couldn’t think of anything to say.
      Leif sighed again, but his exasperation didn’t feel pointed at Jacob. “You just got the Shine and was put on your way, huh?”
      Now Jacob nodded. This all felt like lying, but what did the truth offer here? Teeth, gleaming sharp teeth, and a thousand gangly looking demon things bearing down on you.
      “The sun, and to a lesser extent the moon, make the trees, and the trees make the folk. That’s the simple of it anyway. It’s more complicated than that. It has to do with the transfer of light through the sky and roots. See those around that scroll over there?” Leif tapped Jacob under the chin, moving his head in the proper direction. “Those are the folk that study the light particles and the refractory places that exist outside of this one where different folk live. The primary one is where the humans live. You know that much naturally, I would hope. Now the trees can keep them away, can keep any foreign object out really. Very sensitive our friends the trees. The Black is different. Trees can’t keep that away. There’s not enough sunlight in them for that.”
      “You keep it away.”
      “I help. It’s mostly the moon does it. I’m just one of the ones who drinks the Shine to keep camp burning bright enough.”
      “What happens if it doesn’t?”
      “Nothing nice, better just to give your shine up so the Moon can make more and don’t worry about it,” Leif said, and then he was silent, continuing to push Jacob through the camp with the lightest of touches.
      Through the center and towards another hill Leif led him to where the celebration bifurcated into two camps, leaving a single patch of darkness between. Leif didn’t speak again until they stopped.
      “And here we are. Make your offering here,” Leif pointed to two grey clay pots that sat in front of a silver birch tree that looked dead to Jacob. “It’s the same as any other Celebration. We’re no different here, even if some of us are more. . . coarse than others. Raz means well, but he was made to be greedy.”
      “What am I supposed to do?” Jacob couldn’t help but to ask. It felt too much like a dream for the fear instincts to take over entirely. Curiosity won in this instance.
      “You brought the Shine, so you must have known that you would need to sacrifice some of it right? The trees must have just given it to you. Just pour your offering in the pot on the left.”
      “Oh, okay.”
      “Now I have to leave you, other appointments to keep, busy night and all. Maybe after your offering we can catch up again. I’ll be playing the cup games at some point. Don’t make me have to rescue from Raz again” Leif laughed and turned to leave, and Jacob felt a twinge of fear for the first time. Jacob had put a lot of trust into the strange looking man, found a kind of shelter in his guiding touch. When Leif turned back Jacob he felt his stomach twist over. He wanted to tell him not to leave, but now his voice did catch and he couldn’t speak.
      “I never got your name, kid.”
      “J-Jacob.”
      Leif furrowed his brow and frowned. All eight of his eyes squinting. “Jacob, yeah,” he said, and Jacob did not like the way his voice grumbled, “see you later, maybe. . . Jacob.” Then Leif left. The retreating figure had his head down and hands deep in the pockets of his trench coat.
      Jacob looked down at the clay pots beneath the birch tree. The tree looked dead, and the pots looked like they were about shatter with cracks all up and down the sides. None of it, absolutely none of it made any sense, but goddamn if he didn’t owe Daddy an apology.
      Standing in front of that tree in the darkened patch of forest between the two celebrations, Jacob breathed a sigh of unease. That shine was his, but that Leif’s teeth looked sharp, and he was one of the more normal looking things in this forest tonight, others certainly looked more lethal. None of the spirits—that’s what they were, Jacob decided in that moment—paid any attention to Jacob. No one looked away from their own revelry. Jacob couldn’t run, though, a little twinge on the back of his neck told him that if he ran things with claws and things with teeth would chase after him. Maybe that was inevitable.
      The tree reached its silvery limbs up towards the night sky like a preacher reaching his hands up to God, but God seemed far away in this place to Jacob. The things celebrating behind him—all around him—looked like devils with their warping faces and gnawing teeth. The offering pots beneath the tree looked old, part of rituals that had gone on forever and a minute. There wasn’t a single silver birch on Blake property. They didn’t grow too naturally in this part of Indiana, but here one was, glowering over him, waiting for some kind of mistake to reprimand. The forest floor was cleared around the tree with hard packed dirt and the remnants of a thousand footprints, hoof prints, and prints Jacob couldn’t recognize. He was alone, but the shadows of the forest weighed over him, waiting for a mistake, waiting for their revelation. But he could do nothing else besides put his offering in the pot. The camp surrounded him. None of the spirits watched him, or seemed to care, but Jacob bet that they could see without their false eyes. They see through the trees. They see through the ants on the ground.
      To do anything besides pour the moonshine in the pot seemed ridiculous.
      So Jacob poured out what had been his best batch into the pot on the left just as instructed.
      The chanting began then, and the dark patch instantly filled with dark writing shapes.
      The moonshine glittered silver. As the chanting increased in tempo the pot started to drain, the silver getting lower and lower. The pot on the right began to fill itself from the bottom up with the same silver liquid.
      “Oh my God,” Jacob wiped drool off his chin as the silver liquid etched its way up the birch tree.
       Moon Tree, they chanted. Moon Tree.
       Moon Tree take his spirit,
      Moon Tree, give us yours.
      The silver reached the first fork in the tree and stopped.
      “Something’s wrong,” a voice from the crowd said. “Something not right!”
      In a starburst of light, the silver birch caught fire. Jacob shielded his eyes, the sense of inevitability closing in around him. His world became the hissing and popping of the birch tree.
      “What’s happening?” Jacob asked, hoping, praying that Leif would be there to explain, to put a hand on his shoulder and guide him away.
      “He’s back!” a spirit cried. “The human is among us!”
      “He’s here to finish what he started!”
      Jacob turned around.
      The spirits stood just at the edge of the fire’s light, red and golden eyes reflecting their burning tree. Human, they hissed, writhing as a single coagulant. A dark tendril shot out from the shadows and wrapped itself around Jacob’s leg, throwing him onto his back. Jacob kicked wildly in a panic, ripping off his boot in the process. The boot was pulled into the darkness, but Jacob’s foot was free. He bolted. Around the side of the burning tree and deep into the woods, as far away from the camps and the tents and the little swindlers on carpets as he could get.
      He heard their hisses close behind him, felt things reach out of the dark and push and pull and tug on him, but he kept running.
      The woods became unfamiliar, and halfway down a switchback trail, Jacob stopped. His breath had left him. He leaned up against an old oak, heaving in the night air. Maybe it had all been a dream. Maybe he would wake up soon. The woods, though unfamiliar, seemed normal, and he no longer heard the demons chasing him.
“I guessed it was you they were after,” a voice snapped the night.
      Jacob spun around, back against the oak. Leif strolled up to him, hands still in his pockets. Jacob hadn’t noticed in the light of camp but in the dark woods he could see that Leif’s green eyes shined. Out of all the spirits to find him, at least it was this one.
      “Whaddya want? I didn’t know it would burn.”
      “Rightfully not. You had no idea what you were doing. Sure can run fast, though. I didn’t know who they were chasing at first. Hoped it wasn’t you. Guessed it was because no one else was giving any offerings.”
      “I didn’t mean to burn any tree. I didn’t even want to come here. I was carrying my moonshine like I always do, and like my dad’s old story I found you guys. It’s not my fault, I—”
      “They have a right to their fury. The last time a human came among us it didn’t end well. The moon doesn’t want just anyone to drink her spirits. No, I guess your intentions were right, but that doesn’t mean that lot isn’t still pissed.” Leif nodded up towards the hill. Faintly Jacob could hear the hissing again, could see the soft glow of lantern light. They were still after him.
      “Please,” Jacob begged now, “I just make liquor in the woods. I don’t know anything about spirits. I meant no evil. I—”
“You made that stuff?” Leif shook his head. “that stuff fooled, Raz. Fooled those mist-drifters too, I saw. Even moon tree didn’t catch fire right away. You made that stuff?”
Jacob nodded.
      “What do you put in it?”
      “It’s moonshine . . . so corn. I used a patch of wild corn I found that had seeded on its own from an old farmer’s field.”
      Leif rubbed his chin. The chantings up the hill grew louder.
      “Please just help me. What’s going on?”
      “You made that stuff good enough to fool the lesser ones. Only Moon Tree could detect a difference.”
      “I don’t know what any of that means.”
      “It means that I may have a use for you and your shine. I happen to know a few spirits, Raz included, that could get a good hitch from your stuff. Our supply’s been running low. The Moon and the trees have been getting stingy, thanks in large part to past encounters with your people. The dark’s been encroaching and we’re not as shiny as we used to be. Your stuff could satisfy some old alcoholic friends of mine, and keep things a bit . . . brighter at camp,” Leif smiled.
      “But all of your . . . friends want to kill me.”
      “Well then,” Leif said, “you better run along, little human. Keep following this trail south, you’ll be in familiar territory before long. Keep brewing that stuff. You’ll have some buyers for it soon. And as my friends . . . I’ll spin them some kind of yarn, don’t worry.” Leif turned to leave.
      “I still don’t know what’s happening. Why are you helping me? Nothing makes sense!”
      “The woods is about equal exchange. I’m not helping you. We’re trading,” and Leif showed Jacob his sharp teeth one last time and disappeared into the shadows between the trees. His voice called out of the darkness “Just keep brewing, country boy!”
      And Jacob Blake did keep brewing.
      And every Saturday a man with a grey trench coat and floppy hat that drooped down over his face would come in and order a case of the number 15. He paid with unmarked coins made of pure gold and silver. Jacob would let them run through his hands, admiring the shine of each one. And Daddy Blake stood behind Jacob with a cane, one hand resting on his son’s shoulder, smiling to beat the band.

HOW COLORS CAME TO BE

This is a tale of the earliest days, when there was only one village named Terra, and only one tribe named Human. There were some hundred people then, besides the children, and they were named for the tasks they performed so that the village could thrive—Farmer, Hunter, Miller, Weaver, Taleteller, Dreamseeker. Everyone knew everyone else, joyous in their differences and their commonality.

Strange to say, it was a world without color. Gray plants would sprout and grow, gray birds would fly up to a sky that was shrouded in cloud, lighter or darker as the day would decide. People did not mind this though. There was so much new to experience and appreciate that color was not missed. Of course, no one had any conception of what color was, anyway.

No one, that is, except Terra’s Angel, the Regent of the Great Mystery. From time to time he would appear, with guidance, admonishment, revelation. His manifestation was announced by a tension in the air, the fragrance of frankincense and rosemary, and the sounding of trumpets from everywhere and nowhere at once. The people would gather in the village common, and from a curtain of shimmering light he would emerge, his face with a radiance that was dazzling.

The morning of the birth of color, everything seemed to quiver with anticipation, as if waiting for its color to come forth. The trumpets sounded, the people assembled, and the Angel materialized in a shower of incandescence. Then a sudden stillness descended, and the Angel imparted his message in a tone that somehow combined silence, power, and grace.

“My people, the Great Mystery has provided you with things to fill your lives—the earth with its ceaseless rhythms, plants to tend and animals to care for, things to build and ideas to ponder. And most of all He has given you each other. But for you there will always be more than what you see, more than what you know, more than what you understand. To show you that this is so, the time has come for color to appear in the world.”

The crowd began to murmur. Some were simply excited. Others wondered what exactly color might be. Then the air of stillness returned, and the Angel resumed his oration.

“As is the case with all the Great Mystery’s gifts to you, you will be the ones to discover color for yourselves. Therefore, I charge you to choose five of your preeminent citizens, whose task it shall be to find the colors and bring them to the world.”

The people spoke among themselves, and quickly chose four of their leaders for the task: Alchemist, Mineralist, Farmer, and Hunter. “Come now, a fifth!” the Angel commanded. “If you know within yourself that this was meant for you to do, come forward!” Then, timidly, the woman named Wiseheart who lived at the edge of the forest advanced to the front of the crowd.

“Sire, I do not know what skill I possess to accomplish this thing, but if you say it should be so, I shall do what I can to bring color to the world.”

“So be it!” decreed the Angel. “And to help you with your tasks, I shall show you now what color is.” He pointed to the sky and said “Let there be blue!”

Then a seam in the center of the clouds suddenly split, and out of it poured a richer blue that has ever since been seen. Quickly it spread across the sky until the whole dome of heaven was one delightful azure. Then all the things that knew inside themselves that they were blue began to vibrate and transform, revealing the blue that they had always been inside. So it was with the bluebird sitting on the fence of the common, and with the eyes of the little girl who played at the edge of the crowd.

“Seven days I give you to complete your mission. Do this for the good of all.” With this the Angel reached up and seemed to grab a bit of the sky with each hand. He wrapped it around him like a cloak and was gone!

And so the five commenced their work, returning to their places in the black and white and gray (and blue) world. Alchemist, a tall, gaunt old man with long white beard and sparkling eyes, retired to his tower of stone, where he practiced his secret art of manipulating nature to yield wonders never before seen. Mineralist descended to his subterranean lair, where he worked with pick and shovel. He was the one who provided the stone for the buildings of the village. He also uncovered ores of copper and tin that would be smelted to yield the bronze to forge the people’s tools. And occasionally he would happen upon sparkling crystals and lumps of shiny, malleable metal that some favored women would form into ornaments to adorn themselves. (Thus, he was always popular with the ladies, despite his squat stature and gruff manner.) Farmer, a gentle giant of a man who spoke few words but said much with his smile, headed for the fields to search for color in the things he grew. To the forest went Hunter, who was actually huntress, a tall, lean woman with sinews of steel. She stealthily stalked color like a beast of prey.

Wiseheart returned to her little cottage at the edge of the forest. She was unsure of how to proceed. “What can there be that I know that will help me in this task?” she wondered.   And she asked herself this again and again in the seven days that followed—as she looked in the faces of the children she cared for while their parents worked all the day, while she tended the herbs that would heal the sick, and spun the wool that would keep so many warm that winter, and nursed the deer with the broken leg that had come to her for help. When the seven days were done, she still had not found the answer.

On the seventh day, the sounding of the trumpets again called the people to gather to meet the Angel. He sat on a throne carved from a single sparkling stone, and the crowd stood silent, awestruck by the sight of him. Finally he began to speak. “Alchemist, tell me how you have used your skills to meet the challenge that I gave you.”

“Sire,” Alchemist began most humbly, such skills as I possess are all the gift of the Great Mystery. For six days I have labored at my art, dealing with the essence of things, the ways of change, the magic of numbers…and behold, the fruit of my experiments!” With this the wizard extended his arm, which had been concealed in the sleeve of his flowing robe. There emerged a sphere of glowing golden gas, which hovered in the air and gradually drifted to the Angel’s grasp. With a loud shout, the Angel tossed it in the air, and when the people looked up, there was the blazing yellow globe of the sun.

A new kind of light enveloped the clearing, illuminating sights not before seen—a goldfinch taking seeds from a black-eyed susan, honeybees drinking nectar from the dandelions, bright golden bangles in the hair of beautiful women. “Well done!” the Angel exclaimed.   “Now, Mineralist, what have you to compare to this?” The Angel played at taunting the dwarfish man, who always sought to make up for his stature by playing at being better than everyone else (especially his friend Alchemist.)

“Sire,” he said, “to best see the power and beauty of what I have found, I think it would be best to put out, for a time, the glaring bauble of Alchemist.”

“So be it,” said the Angel, and at once the glowing sun began to be eclipsed by a disc of darkness.

“I have been laboring in my mine these past six days—behold what I have found. This stone, when I strike it with my axe, sets loose a shower of sparkling sprites. Catch them in a bed of straw; they feed on it and grow into a troupe of dancing flames.” He did as he had described, and soon a fire of bright orange lit the darkened clearing.

“Delightful!” exclaimed the Angel. “You find a color to brighten the night and your friend one to illume the day.”

As the sun resumed its former brightness, Farmer came forward. He had found pale suggestions of color in the plants that he tended near Alchemist’s tower, doubtless produced by the beams of the mysterious sphere of light. But when the plants were touched by the light of the newborn sun, they all burst forth a brilliant green. Farmer carried stalks of corn, and when the husks were pulled, the ears displayed rows of intense yellow kernels. “Yep, I reckon that’s color, all right,” he declared. The sound of “Mmmmm” spread through the crowd, that universal wordless expression that says “This stuff looks delicious.” They could tell that it was bound to be much better than the gray food they had been eating.

Farmer beckoned his daughter to approach the Angel. (She was the girl whose eyes had turned blue when the first color had appeared.) She held in her hands a potted plant, its top adorned with flowers of purple and indigo. “Doubly blessed are joys not sought for nor requested,” said the Angel. “These tiny things delight my eyes, and you delight my being.”

Hunter, too, had succeeded in her quest. For six days she had stalked the fearsome beast that had long been a terror to the village, killing livestock at will, and sometimes not for food but only for its vile pleasure. She pointed with her long, lean arm, and there at the edge of the distant wood lay the beast, pierced by her arrows and dripping pools of bright red blood. “Hurrah for Hunter, she is our hero!” the crowd shouted in unison. But when they turned to look back at Hunter, she was already gone, back to the forest to resume her solitary vigil.

Now as each color was presented to the Angel, all the things of nature began to assume the colors that they always knew they were inside. There was a strangeness about this though. Things were either one hard solid color, or flecks and spots and stripes of different ones. The colors would not merge or mix. There were rainbow horses and speckled trees, and sights even more curious than these.

Then the Angel called for Wiseheart to step forward, and timidly she came. “Tell us what you have found.”

“Sire, I have sought color with my eyes and my mind and my heart. I must confess the lacking of my skill, the failure of my quest. No color have I brought to thee.”

Then the Angel, instead of being grave, smiled a kindly smile. “Woman, there are many kinds of wisdom: the wisdom of science, the wisdom of labor, the wisdom of nature, the wisdom of beauty, the wisdom of action. But there is also a wisdom that is not so readily seen. This is the wisdom of love. My people are wondrous in their separate selves, but it is the wisdom of love, dissolving the barriers that separate us, that is required to lift us closer to the perfection of the Great Mystery. So too it is with the colors—your contribution, your love, is the key to bringing true color to the world.” Then the people of the village watched with wonder as all the colors began to merge and assume the appearance that we know today. “Behold, it is complete!” exclaimed the Angel, as he faded away and his last words continued to echo.

Beneath the glowing sun, a celebration spontaneously burst forth. Fiddler and Fifer began playing a merry tune, the women put flowers in their hair, and everyone started to dance. Cook commenced preparation of the feast, richly colored vegetables and steaks of beast, cooked above flickering orange flames. And as the reddening sun slowly set, it painted the billowy clouds in shifting colors of pink and violet and orange all around the heavenly blue of sky.

And that is how the colors came to be.        

The First Dragon

Many have wondered where dragons came from. If there were great flying lizards roaming the earth, it seems unlikely that humanity would would have been able to go from living in caves knocking rocks together to make sparks to building cities. And yet, myths abound of the great flying beasts. This leaves only one conclusion – dragons came along after humans did.

Their story starts, oddly enough, with a rabbit. Humanity had been spreading out across the world, hunting, cultivating, and what they called civilizing. This rabbit had a name, in his own language. It is nearly impossible to pronounce it in any human language, but we shall call him Ito. As he grew up within rabbit society, he saw the encroachment of humans, and proclaimed it to be a great danger. His station was not amongst the great leaders of his society – he was a mere cook that would prepare wondrous feasts for his brethren.

“Rabbit kin,” he said at their great Republic of Rabbits, where every rabbit can speak, that was held to address great threats such as this, “humans continue to furrow the land, tearing up our homes without a care. We must band together to deal with them. I have a plan –“

“A plan?” another rabbit scoffed, for the rabbits possess only the right to speak, not to speak free of interruption. “The chef has a plan? This should be a matter for our great military minds. What say you, General Lapin?”

“I propose,” as the General spoke, the crowd of rabbits fell silent. Even Ito was in awe of this famed leader and tabled his plan for the time being, “That we continue on our current course of action. The humans are too large for us, and too numerous. They breed, well, they breed almost as fast as we do. Running and hiding has served us so well, and the humans will burn themselves out like so many other predators.”

There was a soft susurrus of rustling rabbits – their version of applause. The vote was held soon after, and the General’s course of action held the day. Ito was frustrated for he felt that his plan had merit.

Before the Republic dissolved until the next one was called, he would have time. Maneuvering through the hidden holes and hovels that the rabbits used for their meet, he brought himself into the orbit of General Lapin. And he waited. It was intimidating, to be approaching him, the great General who had perfected the rabbit trick of running through a prickly bush to dissuade pursuers.

“General?” he said, after building up his courage.

“Ah! You spoke at the Republic. Ira, is it?”

“Ito.”

“Well, Ira, what can I do for you?”

“I have a plan to deal with the humans, a way to build a weapon.”

“A weapon? That goes against the rabbit way. You should be ashamed Ira.”

“Our people are dying,” was what he wanted to say, or “our way of life isn’t working.” But he didn’t, instead he sat and cowered.

General Lapin trotted off in a huff, his drooping ears taking an extra moment to remove themselves from the conversation.

#

The next day Ito awoke with a plan. Well, a second plan. He made the decision to not go home; instead he was going to go and try to pursue his plan. It would be a difficult time – he would be without friends or family. And he would have to gather food for two without any help. The next step was for him to find a willing partner. He set off after the Republic, going south to where the land was arid. Desert would be too far, and too dangerous for him. Instead, he made his way to the scrubland, the dry place with its lack of greens that would be difficult for him, but still possible.

The choice of desert was two-fold: first, humans were less common there, and secondly it would be the best place for him to find a partner. He searched through and scavenged the desert and the caves within it for three full days before he found a willing partner. One evening, he sat near the mouth of a cave for the bats to start their nighttime hunts, where he hailed each of them as they passed.

“Hello, good sir. I am Ito, might I know your name?” said Ito.

“Kittimer,” said the bat, his voice high pitched and causing chills to run up the rabbit’s spine. He was a large specimen though, larger than Ito was. He seemed like he would serve admirably for the plan that Ito hoped to pursue.

“Kittimer, wait. Before you fly off, I have a plan.”

The bat was still waking, the evening serving as his early morning, and he was still lethargic. As he blinked his eyes, one after the other, he said, “I will listen.”

“You know of the spread of humanity, correct? They keep growing and taking over more and more land. Surely they’ve affected you.”

“They steal the fruit that we eat, and try to chase us off with nets and fire.”

“If we don’t do something, it will not be too long before they spread across the world and ruin everything for us. I have a plan to deal with them. But I need your help.”

“What would you have me do? I can fly and may be slightly larger than you, but they are larger than I.”

“Exactly. So we need to make you bigger. To transform you.”

“Tell me how this will work.”

After explaining the plan, step by step of it, Kittimer agreed with the decision. He was lazy, and from his point of view, there was little downside. If the rabbit’s plan did not work, he would at least have gotten a great deal of food out of it. They started with the plan the next day.

Ito ran himself ragged, day after day, grabbing insects and fruits, finding carrion and collecting nuts that had fallen onto the ground. He made sure that each and every thing was taken and eaten by Kittimer. By the end of the day, his belly was distended and sore.

“You feed me too much,” he said.

“This needs to be done quickly,” Ito said, his voice harried. He had spent so much time searching for food during the day, that he hadn’t found much for himself. “Every day needs to be progress.”

They continued at this day after day. Ito grew thin and lanky from the process. After months of effort, Kittimer had grown to a gargantuan size, he was larger than one of the homes that the humans had built, and he rumbled around on the ground when he walked. No longer was he able to fly, his bulk was too much even for his expanded wings. Gliding and hops were all he could do.

“I am powerful, I am unstoppable,” Kittimer said, relishing his size, rolling in the dirt.

“You’re large, but you’re not unstoppable. The humans work together, and they can take down mammoths. There is but one of you. We have more to do.”

So they started the next phase of his plan. Next Ito introduced high concentrations of bone into the meals of his partner. Bone marrow soup, shards of bone ground up into bonemeal to be baked into bread, and more, were prepared daily. This supplemented all of the other food that Ito and Kittimer gathered daily to continue his growth. During this time, Ito also began to use strong spices in the food that he served Kittimer, spices that he would have to travel for days to secure. Kittimer was tasked with developing his muscles by enlarging the cave that he lived within.

Before long, he was covered in boney spines and ridges, fuelled as he was by all of the calcium and keratin that he was being fed. He began to rattle as he walked, the heavy bones and ridges scraping against each other and scraping across rocks.

“I am strong, I am powerful, and I am unstoppable,” Kittimer said, sharpening his talons on rocks as he basked in the sun.

“You may have more defence scales, but it is not enough. Humans have ropes and nets that they can hold you down with. They’ll be able to find weak spots on you and exploit them. We have one more step, and it is the hardest one.”

They kept at their work, the foods and exercises that continued to shape and change him. Kittimer’s body continued to change, lengthening and leaning a bit despite his new size.

The final step was the hardest. Ito had been careful with his leavings, ensuring that they dried out in the sun. As a chef, he knew about the complex chemicals that were produced at nearly every step in the digestive cycle. Rabbit leavings are rich in sulphur and nitrogen, two components that would be important in what came next.

These dried out leavings were collected then, for this final step. He took them, a little bit at a time, and ground them up between two rocks. They were added to thin gruels and  watery soups. The fat that they had built up on Kittimer began to melt away in earnest, but the behemoth of a frame remained. His stomach began to make strange noises, soft and liquid sounding shifts as forces beneath the surface fought for supremacy. After three weeks, his stomach’s complaints had subsided. By this point, Ito had gone white from the lack of sleep as he watched over Kittimer.

They awoke at the start of the fourth week to find the lizard hovering above the ground, lifted by buoyant gasses that had formed within him. Ecstatic, he swam through the air with Ito perched upon his head, using the boney protrusions as paw holds.

“There, that rock, do you see it?” said Ito.

“I do, what would you have me do?”

“Pick it up, and swallow it.”

They repeated this a number of times, shifting the buoyancy as they did so. Kittimer quickly understood the trick to it, and began to be able to adjust his capacity to fly instead of just hovering. They cut slats into his hide and released great wings that helped propel him forward, increasing his speed and making him more dangerous. This was not the last of the gifts that Ito gave to the new dragon.

“Do you see that cactus,” said Ito, “the one that looks like a man leaning over?”

“I do.”

“Belch at it,” said Ito.

The flying lizard did, feeling a strange sensation as the flammable gasses that kept him afloat traveled along the length of his body and past the rocks. As they did so, they rattled the rocks against each other, causing small sparks amongst them. Flame exploded from the lips of Kittimer, lighting the cactus on fire.

They landed and Kittimer continued to experiment with belching, gouts of flame flickering and catching on things. It started with small flickers and lights, but it was not long before there were fireballs and walls of flame that he created. As he continued to experiment, he the flames licked at his own body, his fur singing from the work. The bony protrusions that had been developed kept him safe, as Ito had planned, and his transformation was complete.

The two of them whooped with joy, seeing the success of their many and long labours. There was much work for them to do though, so they continued flying as they banked to the north.

#

Ito walked into the Republic of Rabbits slowly. It had been called to discuss the sudden setbacks that the humans seemed to be facing. Great creatures flew above the land, so the stories went, and breathed flame and destruction upon the human villages. Ito had aged much in the year since the last Republic; he was thin and white, and walked with a slight limp now from an unfortunate incident where he fell from the dragon’s back.

“Ito,” they cried, “what has happened to you?”

“I’ve been busy,” he replied, “enacting the plan that I tried to tell you about.”

“Oh, yes, the mythical plan of building a weapon,” said General Lapin with disdain, his whiskers fidgeting.

“I never said it was building a weapon, I said creating. I’m a chef, and I create.”

On cue, Kittimer flew in, reeking of sulphur or blocking out the sun.

And that is how rabbits created the first dragon. From these humble origins, Ito would go on to teach other rabbits how to create dragons, forming a bond between the two races. Together, they fought back against humanity, forcing them into a dark age where they hid behind tall stone walls. It did not last forever, but its end is a story for another day.

Shell Game

SHELL GAME

 

 

The Taverna Paphos lay wedged in an old Venetian block up from the Chania harbour, more grotto than cave, for on a wall in the hollow of intersecting arches stood an ikon of the Virgin holding her man-child, Byzantine style. In one corner grandmother, mother, and daughter busied themselves with preparations, a pan of potatoes their present concern. In another corner the father, the son, and the shadowy host of the Athens Television News in his evening descent upon Crete —universal issues in black and white, love, hate, reprisals.

          At the large table close by, three young women, one wearing a white tam, and two young men sat full of savvy and lamb chops from the spit. I opened up to heroism and human interest, half tuned to the television, half to their lilting banter, their round-the-table affability and democratic good cheer. All were so intricately and amicably together.

          The father sent over the son, his little winter waiter in a large spotless apron, no more than eight and very proud, learning the lingo of serving, from whom I ordered lamb stew and bottled water. Service was good.

          The young woman in the tam had sparkling, clear blue eyes.

        After watching images of rough seas shot from the deck of a naval ship and of anti-NATO demonstrations somewhere on the Peloponese, I tried to determine which of the women was unattached, the one with freckles on the back of her neck, the one with the infectious laugh, or the one wearing the tam.

          Then came pictures of sand dunes, black robes, and camels, followed by scenes of the North African Coast, maybe Libya, maybe Morocco. At the table: an outburst of opinion, a giddy laugh, and then a call for another bottle of retsina.

          My interest in the next table must have become obvious, for after a friendly nod, a glass raised in salute, I was asked if I liked retsina, and if I would be pleased to join them.

          “Join you, sure.”

        “We all together come from Sweden. We know English, but speak by the book. As with Greek. In the meantime, please, I am called Mats.”

          “Steven Spire. Skol. Volvo. ABBA. IKEA. That’s it for my Swedish, Mats. And my Greek, well, it’s all finger pointing and parakalo. Very mechanical. Your English is fine.”

          “Come, Steven, please, sit yourself down,” Mats said, continuing his role as voice for the group. He placed me between Elsa, the laugh, and Ingrid, the tam and bright blue eyes.

          “Good evening, Steven, I am called Birgit.”

          “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir, I am called Gunnar.”

          “How are you? They call me Elsa. Thank you very much.”

          “Hello, Steven, my name is Ingrid.”

          “Ingrid is my little cousin,” Mats pointed out. “Her English is not so good. But now with us she argues, debates, yes, what is called the white slave trade. Gunnar takes her side. Do you know it? Do you believe it?”

          “Well, I don’t know that it doesn’t exist.”

          My saying this sparked an extension to their debate, in Swedish, full of words that bent brows.

          “We do not all together understand what you mean,” Mats said.

          “Okay, yes, I believe the white slave trade exists.”

          “Sure, I tell you,” Mats exclaimed to the table, Ingrid specifically, and to the taverna as a whole. He then filled a glass with retsina, lifted it in the general direction of the ikon of the Virgin, said Skol with unrestrained exuberance, and handed the glass to me.

          They all watched as I drank. Then they drank.

          “You come from America?”

          “From New York City is more like it.”

          “Is the same, no?” And when Gunnar said that, Elsa nodded her head, Birgit shook hers, Ingrid smiled, and Mats looked out the window.

          “There are more than subtle differences, Gunnar, although a camel driver in the Sahara might not know of them.”

          “Skol!

          On this their last night in Chania, Mats went on to explain, they were out “to raise a little hell.” He invited me, they all invited me, to come along to the early showing of Women Of Sparta playing at a local cinema.

          I hesitated.

          Birgit said she had seen it before and in so many words assured me that it was not a cult film, avant-garde, or anything like that, just a simply told story of love.

          I, too, had seen it before, in Piraeus while waiting with Patti Lockhart for the night sailing to Crete. Women Of Sparta — heroics, and the hegemony of the hearth: a rather simplistic Italian fantasy on a bit of ancient Hellenic lore, dubbed in English with Greek subtitles, the most memorable parts being littoral sunsets and leggy slit skirts.

          “Sure, I’m game.”

          And so, I got to know Ingrid. I also got to know Elsa, Birgit, Gunnar, and Mats, but mostly I got to know Ingrid.

Filmed in Tunisia, Gunnar said after it was all over, when we sat down in a cozy spot for coffee and critique. Elsa agreed with him.

Birgit thought it looked like coastal Morocco. Near Casablanca.  

          In Spain, Mats said, because two school friends of his hitchhiking about the Iberian Peninsula had been paid in US currency to be part of the large-crowd-panicking-in-the-streets scene, and part of the slave-drive-down-to-the-ships scene that opened the action where the Spartan heroines were subjected to the sarcasm of their captors.

          As a story of liberated women in a fascist state, very good, according to Elsa.

          Anti-feminist, argued Mats, and not so good, because the women were depicted as fanatically pro state and just as dedicated to fascist principles.

          Anti-Aristotle, countered Birgit.

          Pornographic, in the best European tradition, Gunnar suggested. Nudity in exercising, nudity in choral song and dance, nudity in athletic competitions, nudity in battle, loves scenes in the dark.

          Excellent costuming, Elsa added as an after-thought, and got agreement from all but Ingrid who insisted that there had not been enough costuming in evidence to adequately judge.

          After this debate concluded, Mats with a strong second from Gunnar wanted to continue their “hell raising” at the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. We ambled back in pairs along the sea walk, gaining access to the east basin of the Old Port near the Venetian arsenals.

          Ingrid and I gradually fell behind the others. I explained to her that I did not have the energy to “boogie up” as Mats had put it, having had a hell of night the night before, and suggested we continue strolling, out along the mole to Faros. She agreed, and this we did.

          With a change of pace came a change of mood. We dallied on the brink, linked by desires we had no words for, unable in our groping to transcend the lingua franca of sighs. Totally new and yet familiar, these foam-borne feelings that scroll out of the sea.

          Upon our return, we counted steps along the mole, then fishing boats, then people wearing hats. No sign of Mats and the others in the crowded Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. Ingrid figured they had moved on to Disco Aphrodite. The Socratic Bar sounded lively as we passed. I decided against taking Ingrid in lest matters got too complicated to explain away. Who was I kidding? What could I possibly explain? Again.

          When we neared the Taverna Trident, Kostas, the waiter, descended upon us. No menu thrust at us, just a handshake, a slap on the back, and ambiguous smiling. I could not determine if such apparent popularity impressed Ingrid; it certainly amused her. Last night’s excesses might have been behind it all. Repeating Skol in little rhythmic patterns as we walked on proved adequate explanation. She pulled on my sleeve and then leaned into the night, laughing.

          We entered a small cellar bar called The Stone and Thread. I had learned previously that the name reflected elements of the Theseus myth. The Pension Ariadne, not surprisingly, was a few paces up the lane.

          We sipped Metaxa Seven Star brandy while listening to the songs of Leonard Cohen. Not surprisingly, Ingrid knew all the tunes, all the words. Perfectly within character, or as much of it that circumstances allowed me to know, exclusive of our being one with the flame that burns atop the candle dripping wax tears down the neck of the rustic Chianti bottle on a rococo induced dark night of the soul in a second year university kitchen. The right sensibility, perhaps. A European phenomenon as well, a cultural thing, part sophisticated appreciation of the aesthetics of torment, part popular appeal of troubadour wit. The language the poet had developed for lovers exceeded our needs for that night, but not by very much.  

          Ingrid: she escaped becoming one of Cohen’s heroines even in this light. What living mortal could be so beautifully drawn and quartered by love, and never miss a beat? Ingrid was beautiful, but she was not damned, just a little bit wistful when not smiling or pulling my leg.

Ingrid: the tam like something Byzantine aslant her head, hearth light playing lyrically on her cheek, her lips parted in the name of perfect but impossible tomorrows. She was absolute in my mind, creating with golden edges, and past all concern, the mythology of her own here and now. And then across the tableau, the amusement in her eyes when she reached for the blue bowl of pistachios.

          The absurd idea grew that you could easily be tempted to whisk her away, to steal her the way people make off with works of art, the way religions abduct virgins and enshrine them in private Botticelli grottos.

            When I spoke of these things, Ingrid took my hand in hers, and finger by finger in lilting exaggeration gave me the Nordic version of the Three Little Pigs.

 

Under the central clock of the Chania Market next morning, Ingrid stood for a moment with tears in her eyes. When I asked what troubled her, she could not tell me. In a shop she bought a scarf to match her tam. In another shop, I got her an Aphrodite shell and statuette. A memento, I suppose. By noon we reached her hotel.

          A note at the desk from Mats contained some scribbled lines that made her laugh, and an address on Eolou Street in Athens.

          But that same somebody still waited faithfully, and she collected all her things.

          We took the bus out to Souda, where we connected with the group and enjoyed a slow, gregarious meal at the Port Taverna. Mats referred to his note, and joked: “We think you might capture Ingrid and take her to a disco in Alexandria.”

          “Casablanca.”

          In the camera eye of memory: on the one side Mats and Birgit, on the other Elsa and Gunnar, and in the middle, her tam and scarf perfectly so, Ingrid. All wave madly. On the funnel of the ferry behind them, the map of Crete, like a piece of broken shell.

 

In front of the little ouzo joint I frequented, old Mitsos fanned the charcoals in his smoking brazier. Behind him, fishing boats returned one by one around the lighthouse, drawn in by a red magnetism pulsing on the frail edge of human understanding. Impressions of Ingrid scrolled out of the obdurate northern sky like prow lamps weaving through dark waters, safe now, but less absolute, in the private harbour of memory. Yet proof enough that something spiritual in our nature served in the name of all tomorrows, something more significant than the here and now of how well ouzo tastes with olives, tomatoes, and small cheese pies. Ingrid, tam and all, gone.

          I found certain things hard to let go of some nights, and one of those nights had obviously come over me. I headed back over to The Stone And Thread. The mood picked up when a group of ebullient students tumbled in; it picked up even more when the Cohen song they wanted blasted out of the corner.

          Before going home, I skipped into The Socratic Bar. Patti Lockhart had gone. But then, by that time, so had most of the guilt.

Old Times

 

Lenora missed the days when she could fly on her own. The solitude, the silence. Just feathers and air. A time long ago.

A hand signaled: entering combat air space. Lenora reached above to brace herself as she stood. The pack strapped to her back had already been checked several times. She preened the release rings with her fingers and ignored the women lined up ahead of her, just kept her eyes locked on the open sky now visible through the open door of the plane.

“What better way to ruin their days- beautiful fighters to destroy extremists?”- Amazons, Furies, Sirens. Nightmares of old. The Babe Squad, military brass had joked, pulling at their crotches, like little boys who needed to pee, unsure if the equipment was still there while Lenora stood before them. She had thought them nervous and unaware with those words, not serious that maybe there was more than one of her in the crowd of female soldiers, some newly welcomed, some reassigned. But no one else quite like her. She kept to herself. She found creating fear in others satisfying but not exciting. The father of her child said they shouldn’t want to know the sex, a surprise, an open invitation, a remembrance of things old. Lenora didn’t understand ignoring the creature growing within her. It was like raw food enthusiasts ignoring the sacrifice of Sisyphus. Not everything was good in the old days. “What does it matter?” he asked, and she didn’t respond, “What will I do with a son?”

Her man was a fire man. He and his station was a neighborhood fixture for kindness. They were the calm of nightmares acknowledged, trained solutions to fear. The sight and sounds of the huge fire engines signify panic and disaster and yet the children’s eyes and mouths circled in adoration as they screamed past. The desperate of the city abandoned their babies at his door. He and his brothers sought out gas leaks before they could steal air or explode, lifted the elderly off the floor, taught children not to hide from fire because it was the smoke that truly wanted to kill them. They were meant to be strong and bold men, but unlike so many others, they were also meant to be gentle. There was a garden around the firehouse, and the smells from the kitchen that wafted out into the neighborhood testified of the men’s culinary accomplishments. When other women looked at her man, it was once at the uniform, twice at his strong and kind face, and then took a step back when they met her observant stare. She knew what they saw when they looked at him. Broad shoulders to a narrow waist, despite comradery with his beer-loving bachelor and divorced brothers in the station, the ax-wielding arms that only worked for rescue, for resolution.  When the women looked at Lenora, she wasn’t quite as sure what they saw. Other women were tall and lean. Maybe they could smell the fire beneath her long fingers. She didn’t care. It was his choice, and if one day he chose differently, most likely she would have been gone first anyway.

They jumped from plane, dropped through the night sky, black shadows into the forests of northwestern Nigeria, sliced cords and discarded the parachutes. She wondered who would find them later, what use they would find for the fabric. The evolution of a thing. Maybe something only has one use. Maybe children would slice them into individual tiny chutes and coast away from trees. Maybe this was her only use, swift justice. Her former comrade, Meg, said that was so, but Meg didn’t believe in change.

Lenora hated the standard military uniform on women. Even with the big black boots, they never seemed to look tough. They were just out of place. The traditional female soldiers braided and coifed their hair tightly to the back of their heads, like little girls in recitals draped in puzzle piece camouflage. Their gait was as tightly wound as their hair. Like a bad performance piece or dolls in the wrong costumes. The stern faces and stiff movements were like school marms imitating stern fathers, eager for acceptance. She was amused at her relief when the black clothes appeared for the elite new squad. For once, murmurs and rumors was useful. Command wanted to continue the Babe Squad of Fear mentality. Their PR campaign had a funny effect. She could move freely. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. She enjoyed snaking through the camp in sleek black, which is when she saw her old friend for the first time in these new lives of theirs, now just known as Meg, and could almost see the smoking feathers, smell the sulfur, but the effect was from the cigarettes. And because of that smell, she remembered that she had sent out the call, smoke signals out her window.

When the American military changed the rules for women to compete to be rangers, Lenora had considered joining the way she considered responding to the mumbling man on the train or the good of giving a dollar to the beggars. She had explained herself to her man as having been an athlete in her former life. Not hiding, not explaining. He enjoyed training with her. “You understand,” he said, “to train for life, for usefulness, not vanity only, but,” always putting his hands on her as he said, “it’s still hard to resist.” Then the news became wearying. The violence was everywhere, never any reports of it checked or punished. Only endless streams of images of men shouting and firing guns, no matter the flags in the background, the skin color, the landscape, men with not enough to do and the women, huddled and bruised, and then stolen. The stealing was what finished it for her. She felt the rage circle and snare in her belly, the heat rising up and extending out. She had lit a cigarette and opened a window. Resting her arms against the sill, her backside arched out behind her, she had pretended to drag deep and slowly exhale, her mouth pursing and slacking, sending out white shapes before the smoke evaporated. She stubbed the cigarette out, smashing the filter into the window frame, a burnt spot in need of paint, and let the butt fall as she slammed the window shut. Their windows looked at other windows, the city skyline too tight for much musing, but there was a little sky. Just enough sky.

Then she had been lulled by his low voice, the rumble of laughter in his chest with her ear pressed to it, the sounds of sirens made from emergency vehicles, the electricity of the city. She had forgotten the call, hadn’t really believed there was anyone left to hear it. The old response was gone, and something new took its place.

She had said, “I wonder if I could do something.”

And he had responded, “I understand completely.”

She passed the test, no concern for the results of other applicants and entered training with the girls in their uniforms and their serious faces, still fierce but softer. Practical and task oriented, senses of humor, these women with lives beyond the job. She had forgotten the old feeling and started to believe in an evolution.

And then here was Meg, charcoaled and delirious for blood and vengeance, her old comrade. 

“You seem different.”

“You are the same.”

Neither a compliment.

“They just want to belong to something, some of them at least,” her man had said. “Not all of them, I know. Some just want to hurt. But my point is, they would all find some other way. Some group to join, some way to cause pain. No different than the gang violence here, the poor and angry young men. People want to belong and people want power. We just give it different names.” And then she stopped the sound of his calm voice in her mind because she needed to work.

The others had spread out unseen. Lenora knew her own duty and had the vaguest notion of the overall official plan. The majority of the team was to secure the women for retrieval. Lenora and Meg were to allow this to happen, no further explanation given. Separate the innocent from the guilty. Just like old times.

“I can smell the pregnancy.”

Lenora kept her eyes forward and breathed evenly. “What?”

Meg sighed. “You know what happens with women of war.”

“They were kidnapped.”

“You sound like those modern warriors hiding in the bushes behind us. Call them a team. Us a team. I want to hear you say it.” Meg moved out from behind Lenora, shadows within shadows. “Let’s get this done. I need a different smell.”

Soon enough the air was charred. Lenora supposed Meg was correct to mock her, even for the wrong reasons. Meg’s lack of evolution was useful for its swiftness and unexplainable nature. Once the men were dealt with, there was a surprising lack of hysteria. Or maybe the shock of horror just has no words. The women came more willingly with the female soldiers, just as expected. Lenora sensed little relief. But they were conditioned for captivity by now. The camp was near a road and the trucks arrived with the sun. There was no more enemy to stop them. More soldiers waited on the trucks: medics and translators, gunners. Women who had toiled in the military for years, all ready for this rescue mission. A chopper came down for Meg and Lenora who would get the bird’s eye view and no more cover of darkness. Lenora realized she wasn’t ready to be seen now that it was over.

“Look away.” Meg’s voice seemed low to Lenora, but somehow the pilots appeared to hear her or maybe just remembered orders, for their heads snapped forward with the words. Lenora heard them begin to breathe again, even with the sound of the engine, under the chopper’s deafening spin and the wind whipping through the cabin as they lifted off. The two women strapped in, ignored the headsets available and scanned the ground. Briefly, Lenora found herself turning to Meg, who was waiting with her gaze, and this time Meg didn’t need to speak. Lenora thought it too: what home did the rescued women have to go back to? Then she realized Meg was still staring. A gloved finger, talon like, pointed at Lenora’s waist. “So, what’ll it be?” and showed her blood stained teeth as she laughed.

 

Iphianassa

Part 1

Iphianassa sat by the south window of her room. She could see her two sisters down by the palace gate. Electra paced back and forth. Chrysothemis stood just inside the entrance, holding libations for their father.

Her father. Agamemnon. Their father.

Although she was too far to hear, she knew what they were saying. Electra was bitter, possessed by a boiling resentfulness, fueled by an obsession over their father’s murder and their mother’s treachery. Chrysothemis , although she haunted the palace with a cold disdainfulness, was deeply afraid. Iphianassa had a completely different point of view. After all, it was she who her mother had saved.

After a long debate Chrysothemis left Electra and went to the grove of Agamemnon’s grave.

Iphianassa loved her two sisters and dreamed of returning to the happy times of their youth; to a time when their lives were not overshadowed by the murder of their father and when their mother was just their mother and not the consort to their tyrannical great uncle, Aegisthus.

Clytemnestra entered Iphianassa’s room, walked over to stand by her, and glanced out the window.

“My dearest daughter. Why are you so sad?”

Iphianassa, tears welling in her eyes, look up at her mother.

She could find no words to answer her mother’s question. Her gaze lingered, always amazed at the softness and beauty of her mothers face, and then she looked away.

Clytemnestra put a hand on her shoulder.

“What is troubling you? It is your meddling sister? I will put a stop to her scheming soon enough. She doesn’t think I know the dark plans she devises.”

“Oh, mother, no. Please. Don’t we suffer enough?” Her heart burned with what she was unable to say.

Clytemnestra didn’t seem to hear her. She stared out the window watching Electra who still paced by the gate.

“Suffer? Who suffers? I protect you. I will always protect you. I protected you from your brutal father. I continue to protect you from your ungracious sisters. I even protect you from the Gods.”

“Mother. Please.”

Clytemnestra turned and looked into Iphianassa’s eyes. Iphianassa didn’t understand what she saw. Was it hate? Fear? Insanity?

“Mother. My sisters, your daughters, they don’t know. Why don’t you tell them? Why not let them know the truth of your goodness?”

“Tell them? No. We cannot tell anyone. Only you, Artemis, and I know what occurred and it must remain that way.”

“But mother, Electra doesn’t understand. What if she seeks to act on her words?”

“Electra? She cannot do anything. Nobody will help her. Certainly not Chrysothemis. She is far too comfortable with her rich living. I take good care of the both of them, even though they show no gratitude.”

Clytemnestra stepped away, crossing her arms over her chest.

“I am a good mother.” She growled.

Iphianassa shrunk back. As much as she loved her mother, she feared her.

Clytemnestra stepped closer to Iphianassa.

“Your father was a brutal man. He went to war, leaving his kingdom so he could seize back my unhappy sister who ran off with that prince from Troy. And then he returns with that wench, Cassandra, and their bastard sons.

“Dear child, do you have any idea what would have happened if he had seen you here. His rage would have been horrible. Don’t you see? I protect my children.”

Iphianassa looked at her mother, whose gaze had turned back out the window where Electra still could be seen by the gate. She thought about her mother’s words. When Agamemnon returned from Troy, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus killed him, Cassandra, and their two sons. This revenge was claimed to be for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia. Clytemnestra was supposedly distraught and unforgiving over that sacrifice of their eldest daughter. But it was a sacrifice demanded by the Gods. Now her mother gave a new reason. And did she not also give a confession?

“Why does Chrysothemis bring libations to fathers grave?”

“I sent her, of course.”

“After all this time, why now?”

“I shall go speak with Electra. She is becoming overly bold in Aegisthus’ absence.” Clytemnestra didn’t seem to hear Iphianassa’s question.

“Mother?” Iphianassa watched as her mother turned and left the room. A few minutes later she saw her appear by the palace gate with Electra. She watched the two of them as they verbally sparred.

She thought about the ceremony Chrysothemis would be performing over Agamemnon’s grave. She would pour honey, wine, and water into the phiale by the grave. Turning to the east she would spill it towards the west. The wine and water would quickly seep into the earth. The honey would cover the surface, glistening in the moonlight. After placing olive branches over the wet earth, she would close her eyes and say a silent prayer.

After a long silence she would walk to the edge of the grove. Nearby were some rocks which offered a view of the Argolic Gulf. She could see her watching the distant sea shrouded in fog on the eastern coast. Tears would gently flow from her dark eyes, along the creases beside her nose, and moisten her trembling lips.

For a long time Iphianassa sat by the window watching and thinking. She was about to go lie on her couch when she saw a man come from the far side of the gate. He and Electra spoke for a while and then he left.

As it was getting late, she finally went to her couch and fell asleep. She dreamed about her bother, Orestes. He had long ago been exiled. Just recently he was killed in a chariot accident at the Pythian games. She had not seen him since she was very young. She rarely dreamed of him. She didn’t even know what he looked like. In this dream he looked like Electra, but she knew it must be Orestes. He walked towards her looking proud. As he got closer she saw he held a blood-covered axe. As he got close enough to touch she saw his arms and chest were spattered with blood. She wanted to scream. She wanted to run. But she couldn’t move. He smiled at her and then spoke.

“There is only one more thing we must do to satisfy the Gods.” He grabbed her and dragged her to the grove of their father’s grave.

She woke up shaking and sweating. A chill ran through her heart.

There was a commotion outside. An attendant came to her room.

“What is happening? Why all the excitement?” Iphianassa asked.

The attendant looked to her feet.

“I am sorry to bring to you tragic news. Please do not be angry with me, but I was asked to tell you what has happened just this hour.”

“Of course I could not be angry with you. Surely the news is not about you or due to your actions, is it?”

“No, I was asleep and dreaming of a fine young farm boy when I was awoken by the noise.”

“So, please, speak, or I shall be angry if you don’t.”

“There is also good news, Iphianassa. Orestes has returned. And contrary to reports of his death, he is alive and now our king.”

“Orestes? Now our king? What is this? What has happened to my great uncle?”

“I am sorry, Orestes has acted his revenge. Your mother and the king are both dead.”

Those words hit Iphianassa like the very axe that struck her mother down. She dropped to her knees and wailed in grief.

Part 2

Orestes knelt at a fountain, having just washed. The once clear water ran with brown filaments that slowly dissipated, leaving mirky, cloudy swirls. Small fish could be seen swimming away from the miasma infusing their little home.

Looking across the courtyard his eyes fell on the edge of the grove where his father was buried.

Was Agamemnon satisfied? Did his spirit walk now in peace along the banks of the Styx? Perhaps he stands awaiting Clytemnestra to be brought by Charon across the great river that divides life from death.

He looked at his hands. In one swift motion these instruments had crushed his mother and in a second swift motion opened the shell of her life, tearing out her heart to lie convulsing on the cold marble floor. Moments later, with his mothers body cloaked in disguise to appear as his own returned corpse, he spilled the life from Aegisthus.

He had no feelings. He neither cried nor celebrated. A deed was completed. A wrong was righted.

Somehow he hadn’t expected it to feel so empty. The woman who had bore him into this world he had now sent to wander the wastes of the underworld.

Why did he feel nothing?

Electra came to him with fresh garments. He dressed in silence. She was so quiet, now. He didn’t know what she could be thinking. After years of anguishing over the murder of their father, what did they have to say to each other?

As they stood in silence a woman, plainly dressed, walked through the great doorway and approached the two of them.

Electra spoke with a calm sweetness.

“Iphianassa, come celebrate with us. Our fathers spirit now rests in peace.”

Orestes had to think for a moment. Iphianassa, she was his oldest sister. He could see, though, that she was by far the most beautiful of his sisters. Iphigenia he couldn’t remember, although the legends said she was almost as beautiful as Clytemnestra and her troublesome sister, Helen.

He could see Iphianassa had been crying. Her eyes were red and her face was moist. Each of us reacts to death in a different way, he thought. He was jealous. At least she felt something.

“No wine? No feast? Is this all there is to your celebration?” Her voice was shaky and weak.

“After years of tyranny, just to feel peace is celebration enough.” Electra looked up to the star filled sky as if looking for some heavenly approval.

Iphianassa replied with a sob. Her eyes fell to the ground. Orestes thought about Clytemnestra’s heart where it had lay on the cold floor at his feet. He couldn’t touch it. But he couldn’t take his eyes off of it. Could that have been the place where she held love? Was there a chamber in that small ball of flesh that once held love for him? He looked at Iphianassa and felt a twinge of compassion.

“My dear sisters, no matter how we felt about our mothers treachery, she did bear each of us into this world. We cannot be human if we don’t feel sadness at this moment. It is a tragedy, for her life to end at the hands of her own son.”

Electra nodded her head in agreement. “Truly and honestly spoken, Orestes. We will honor our murderous mother, as good children should for their parents. The Gods will look well upon us for our compassion and duty.”

Electra then bowed slightly to both Orestes and Iphianassa. “Forgive me, but I have services to attend to. We will be less somber tomorrow in the full light of day and find our hearts lightened. Good night dear brother. Good night sweet sister.”

Orestes watched Electra leave. He had not seen his sisters in years. They were all women, full-grown and each beautiful in her own way. Not one of them had married, he realized. Why was that?

He and Iphianassa were now alone. She stood looking at him, somewhat strangely.

“You are my brother? But I do not know you. Is this what my brother looks like?”

“I am Orestes, so I must be your brother. That is, if you are Iphianassa. I admit I don’t recognize you. You are so much older, now.”

“Time has only changed my appearance. I am still just a girl who is confused by the events of this world. But you also have changed. I think not just a small boy who is now a man. You have exceeded normal humanity.” The was a sharpness in her voice.

“You are angry with me, but my actions were what the Gods demanded. Although I fear it is not enough. There is still more to be done to satisfy the Gods and correct the mistakes of our ancestors.” He smiled, to try and reassure her, but she shrank back in fear.

“Do not be afraid, Iphianassa, you are safe now. Nobody will hurt you.”

“Safe now? Was I not safe before? Your words perplex me.”

“Yes. I guess you thought you were safe. But what safety could there be for anyone living under a brutal irrational tyrant?”

Iphianassa only answered with a frown. She stepped back, as if she might run away.

Orestes stepped away from her, holding his arms out submissively.

“Ask me, dear sister, what can I say or do that will ease your fear? I hold only affection in my heart for you.”

“What I would have you do is something you cannot undo. Who cast sentence on our mother? Of what crime was she judged that deserved brutal death?”

“Why, murder was the crime. She confessed to this herself.”

“It is what everyone seems to believe, I would have to agree. Even just a few hours ago she seemed to make a confession to me. But of what, I cannot be sure.”

“There is no doubt in my mind, Iphianassa. Our mother and Aegisthus brutally murdered our father. He died an agonizing death, watching his wife and his uncle in each other’s arms, knowing both his kingdom and his family were stolen from him by his own blood. His only hope in his last breadth was that one day someone would avenge that treachery. It was my duty, as his son, to right this wrong.”

“Do you not wonder, dear brother, what passion led our mother to such a desperate deed? Why would she have felt his murder was the only way to bring peace? Was it just a mothers revenge or could it have been something more?”

“A reason for murder is not a justification. The Gods did not demand his death, they despised it. Her ideas were from unstable and deceitful thinking. The sacrifice of Iphigenia opened up a madness in her mind. From that insanity slowly burned the passion for an unjust revenge.”

“What truths do we really know in this story? Was our mother insane? How do we judge a persons state of mind without knowing all that is motivating their actions? And what of this sacrifice? What really happened?” Iphianassa replied.

“I do not understand what you suggest. The facts that we know, that are plainly before us, are simple. For whatever reasons Clytemnestra had formed in her mind, she felt that the only action to take was to commit the crime of murder.”

“And what of a mothers love? Is it murder when a mother protects her children from being torn apart by wolves? Is there any way to escape the wrath of a tyrant when his will has been thwarted?”

“Iphianassa, we cannot know all that motivated our mother, whether from logic or from illness
of her mind. Whatever the truth, while we may never fully know it, we now have peace. Let us rest and look to the future. You are a beautiful woman. I will see you get a rich husband and you will yourself become a queen.”

Iphianassa looked toward the grove of their father’s grave. The two of them stood in silence for a few moments and then quietly Orestes left her to be alone.

Part 3

Orestes stood inside the palace gates. Morning twilight flooded the courtyard in orange and red. In this light his skin looked like freshly polished bronze.

Chrysothemis walked from the palace, came and stood by him.

Orestes looked at his sister. Her face was a sculpture in grief. The years had carved away the softness of youthful beauty. She was still young, but age comes early to those who cannot find happiness.

“I had a dream last night.” She spoke softly.

“Dreams that you remember after you wake are messages from the gods.” He spoke the saying almost without thinking.

“Iphianassa has left us. She has gone to be with the Huntress.”

“Has she truly left?”

“I checked her rooms. She is gone.”

“I will go find her. Surely she is just grief stricken and will return.”

“You cannot find her. She is with Artemis. And, . . . she . . .” Chrysothemis paused.

“With Artemis? Her temple is far to the north. I can catch up with her and she will come back.”

“Orestes, she is not going to the temple. She is with the Huntress. She is immortal.”

Orestes just looked at Chrysothemis, an arrogant grin of disbelief on his face.

Chrysothemis stepped just past the palace gate, looking over towards the grove.

“I saw her standing over fathers grave. She was crying. Her tears fell to the earth, moistening the ground. Then she spoke to him.

“’Father, I should have died all those years ago when you were stranded at Aulis. It would have been better if I had. It was unfortunate for all that the Huntress is also the protector of the innocent.’

“I saw Iphianassa then strip off her chiton and stand naked in the grove. She held a knife that she then raised to her breast.

“’So many times I have thought about finishing the deed undone that day on Aulis. So many times I have asked whether my blood was the only libation that would break the curse that has haunted our family. If there is a meaning to ones life, then it would seem mine has none other than to be the gift the gods demanded. What future is there when I see only a life full of anguish and regret?’

“She held the dagger as if to thrust it into her heart. At that moment there was a voice from the edge of the grove.

“’What right have you to take what I once saved?’

“Iphianassa paused, lowering the blade, and replied.

“’Whoever you are, leave me be. I have a sacrifice to complete. The gods will be angry if you interfere with these rites.’

“From the edge of the grove, where the palace woods lead to the southern vineyards, stepped the Huntress. She was tall and strong, yet beautiful beyond measure. Over her shoulder hung a long strong bow and a quiver of arrows. Standing next to her was a fierce hunting dog.

“’You are a dutiful daughter. Although you were young and deeply afraid, you would have let your father take your life long ago, to free him so he could continue on Hera and Athena’s task. And you were again prepared for him to take your life upon his return from war. You did not flee or hide. But you blamed yourself for your fathers death. And now, again, you feel duty bound to wash the curse of Pelops from your family with your virgin blood. But this is Orestes task. Only he can free your descendants from that curse and only through great suffering.

“’I saved you at Aulis. Agamemnon proved his humility by bringing you to Aulis and preparing for the sacrifice. But he attempted various deceptions. His arrogance led him to his final end. You see, you were always the one with a true heart, and you have always proved your worth.‘

“Artemis held out her hand, beckoning Iphianassa to come with her.

“’Come, Iphigenia, it is time to join me. Your life will now have a new purpose, to help the innocent and to protect the Earth.’

“They both then disappeared into the woods. Only the dog lingered for a moment at the edge of the grove.”

The morning sun had risen and was warming the air. Orestes skin looked pale washed in the full light. Together he and Chrysothemis walked over to the grove. On the ground by Agamemnon’s grave was Iphianassa’s chiton.

Blood For Rain

Blood For Rain

Praise be to Allah, to whom belongs all that in heaven and earth. Praise be to Him, who is All-gracious and All-knowing of His hidden things. Praise, therefore, be to Him who makes the histories of the past a lesson unto the present. May He weave through me the thread of a tale I wish to tell, and may He look favorably on my attempt. Listen closely, and listen well.

***

The scorching, shifting sands do not care for where they blow, or how they treat those who dwell in it. They cling to folds of hijabs, locks of hair, soles of sandals, whites of eyes. One old man had his eyes spared, bound as they were behind cloth. Behind him stood the people he led. Though he could not see he could hear, and he heard not a word from them. Not even a draw of breath, for they held it. Though he could not see he could think, and he knew none of them smiled. This was the day they all dreaded, the day of Choosing. The old man stood on the edge of the highest dune, held steady by his only daughter Soraya. Without her aid he drew the bow, for the duty rested on him alone to loose the arrow upon the village below. His hands shook. Still, he shot. Then he ripped the cloth from his face to see who he had sentenced to death. He let out a moan, like one wounded, and sank to his knees. The arrow struck through the tip of a tent, as it should. His tent.

Beside him, Soraya paled.

Her father’s throat was dry, drier than on the hottest, longest day of the year. “The family who receives the arrow must sacrifice the youngest to Vritra.”

Soraya balled her hand into a fist. A fist so tight that her nails drew blood from her palm. “You will throw my son—your grandson, your heir—into the jaws of that beast?”

The old man flinched. “Do not speak ill of the one who brings us rain. This is the law we must follow. The law we have always followed.”

“Blood for rain,” Soraya said, and bitterness welled on her tongue.

For as long as even the oldest, most wizened village elder could remember, Vritra had gripped the tribe tight with fear, under the shadow of his wings and the gape of his jaws, feasting on the flesh of young innocents. Living in scorching, shifting sands demanded frequent barter. Even the leader and his family could not escape this exchange, this endless cycle of blood for rain.

Soraya rose on shaking feet, pulling her hijab tighter over her head, and said, “If it must be done, then let me go.”

The village leader turned to face her, mirroring the shock of his people, and before he could protest, Soraya set her jaw and went on, “I can take my son’s place—I am young enough.” Despite her shaking, she said, “I am not afraid to die, if it means letting the baby live.” And despite her aching heart, she smiled. “I will not run away this time, father.”

At this, he pulled his daughter in close, drowning his sobs into the folds of her hijab. 

Now she would be remembered for her bravery; for much of her life she was known for her stubbornness. Like the sands, Soraya could never keep still, always running away from her father and her responsibilities, namely to get married and settled down, and most of all away from her village, away from the suffering. Duty prevailed, anchoring her from flights of fancy, and she found joy in having a child. That joy must come to an end, a bloody end, as her bravery and fate had dictated.

Soraya only had the rest of the day to hold her son close in her arms, lulling him to sleep, until the time came to take his place in satisfying Vritra’s hunger once the sun had set. In exchange for the baby she lowered into the crib, she received a knife. She made her way to the temple alone, already mourned by the people she had left behind. The red hue of a desert sunset, though softer and cooler than the sun earlier that day, seemed to mock her. Every step was a struggle, an inward scream to turn back. She was no longer a girl, but a woman, and she would not run away–that much she had promised to her loved ones, and to herself.

The temple stood at the edge of a dried river, a lone pinnacle of death and despair. Stepping inside, she prostrated herself on the dais, awaiting her fate. She found the sand a shade too red. From the sunset, perhaps, or from the spilled blood of past sacrifices. She shuddered.

A shadow blotted the dying sun. Vritra dove into the temple, his wings whipping up the sand and his claws scraping over stone. She heard him hiss, smelled his foul breath. She kept her head down, biting back a tremor of fear. Drawing the knife from her hijab, she leveled the blade to her chest. Like every unfortunate soul before her, she could turn this on herself, sparing her the pain of being eaten alive. Vritra liked his meat fresh. 

He waited, his head reared high over her, like a cobra coiling back to strike.

Something within her snapped. She did not know why, and she could not put a single name to it. Whatever it was, it made her move. The knife flew–not through her own chest, but into his open mouth. So sudden and quick was her strike, and against everything he had expected, Vritra took the blow. He reeled back screeching, his frills standing rigid with anger. Soraya chose life. She chose to fight. 

Jumping clear of the bloody jaws, she rolled into the dust. Vritra lunged after her, bent on snapping up his prey. Blade met scales. Sparks flew. The dragon threw himself at the entrance, blocking her only way out. Killing him would set her free.

She had caught Vritra off guard; he would not let her succeed again. Soraya saw no opening, no cracks in the armor. Clad from head to tail in scales, Vritra brushed off her strikes like flies. She tried to aim for his wings, those fragile leathery sails, but Vritra was not stupid. He tucked in his wings and lashed with his tail, keeping her out of reach.

Her mind raced for a new approach, another plan of attack. She stopped running, away from the blood-red sand to crouching low on the dais. Vritra bore down on her, a venomous storm. She angled the knife away, offering her arm elbow first. Vritra seized the bait. The force of his teeth pierced her arm straight through. She cried out in pain, but would not give in or pull away. And as he crunched into her flesh, the knife drove through the roof of his mouth. Soraya pushed up with all her might, drawing in the firm ground beneath her feet as leverage and the sheer weight of her foe. The whole knife, even the hilt, sunk through.

Vritra let loose a gurgled scream, one choked off by blood spilling down his throat. Soraya wrenched herself free. She scrambled back, ducking the sweep of his tail by a hair as he thrashed in his death throes. Then the great, evil dragon stilled. Vritra was no more.

Death came to him in more blood he could ever want. Not Soraya’s, but his own.

She stood there, trembling, petrified in an agonized daze. Then her knees buckled, and she slumped against the wall clutching her broken, useless arm.

Suddenly, and strangely, something wafted from Vritra’s open maw. Not something—someone. A spirit, with the semblance of a girl.

“Who…who are you?” Soraya breathed.

The very question seemed to wound it. “You ask because your people have forgotten,” it murmured. “I am Meena, the djinn of gentle rain and river. Years ago my brother Aandhee had fought to rescue me. He raged and roiled, but to no avail. His tempest would have swept your entire village away. His waves would have plunged your people into its depths. My brother, the djinn of wild storm and sea, had no choice but to recede and mourn, waiting for a brave soul to fight in his stead for my return.”

“The rain from Vritra…no, from you-”

“For every life sacrificed, tears have been shed. Now I cry tears of joy, for the cycle of has been broken. You, Soraya, had that courage to free me from the clutches of Vritra.” Meena cast her solemn gaze on the young woman’s wound. “Even with all my power, I cannot cure you of Vritra’s venom. I am sorry.”

A pang of sorrow hurt more than the loss of blood killing her. There was still so much to do, so much she had not done for her family, for her people.

“Oh Soraya, you have done so much here,” Meena said. “Allah may not have given you much time on earth, but in him you will find peace and joy knowing that your people will prosper with Vritra vanquished.”

Soraya’s vision blurred. Whether from tears or death’s shroud, she did not know. “My son…will he remember me?”

“Always,” Meena assured her. “He will grow up strong and live long. With every day I bring your village rain, he will look up and remember.”

That was enough. “Thank you.”

“I will ease your journey to Allah…that much I can do for you.”

Soraya’s eyes fluttered shut, easing into a world of eternal sleep.

***

Our tale has ended, but it will not be forgotten. Ah, here comes the rain. Excuse me while I find a place to watch it from inside. I am not young anymore; being in the rain for too long is bad for my aching bones, but you are free to stand in it for as long as you like. Cool and soft, is it not? Praise be to Allah for the gift of rain, and praise be unto Him for the gift of stories. I am truly blessed to spend my life sharing and remembering. I am proud to call Soraya my mother.

Almost Spring

            Down in the Underworld, Hades was held captive by creepy crawly things. With the new flat screen TV turned to the nature channel, his pals Scorpion, Centipede, and Black Widow Spider looked bigger and badder than ever. And here was a chance to learn more about them. He bored his guests at dinner parties with his encyclopedic knowledge of all the creatures that lurked underground. Yet Hades was never one to keep his passions to himself. He even had a soft spot for Bears, even though they were only partial undergrounders. They reminded him of his wife.

            Persephone stood in the bedroom drinking a tall glass of pomegranate juice. Eons ago Hades had tricked her by forcing six of the crimson jewel fruitlets into her mouth, thus contracting her to live six months of the year with him in the Underworld. The other six, she was free to return to the topside world and her mother Demeter. Since the two goddesses had their share of the usual mother-daughter fights, this arrangement turned out okay. Living full time with Hades would definitely have driven her bonkers, so Persephone secretly enjoyed her double life.

            Since the magic seeds had no more power over her, Persephone indulged her taste for the tart juicy fruit and loaded up on antioxidants. She made pomegranate persimmon salad with foraged winter greens. She liked ruining her nails by tearing away at the thick leathery skin to get at the rubies inside. Especially as Spring neared, she found herself craving more and more of the fruit that changed her life.

            She set down the empty glass on Hades’ nightstand. She opened the closet and eyed the top shelf, where her traveling bag rested. It was one of those contraptions that could carry just a few choice items clutched at the wrist, or expand to contain the whole world on her back. It was, according to the mortals’ calendar, the third week of February. Still too soon to pack up for her Spring departure.

            Persephone dropped her gaze to the knitting basket on the bottom shelf of the closet. She checked and found that she had just enough of the multicolored yarn to finish the light cape for her mother. She always liked to bring Demeter something homemade, to prove that she could still be creative down in the cold and dark. For some reason, she didn’t want her mother to know that Hades had diverted a hot spring to their palace, so she would never be chilly. Demeter made much of her daughter’s noble sacrifice to keep the world in balance. She did not want to know that Persephone had a hot tub right outside the bedroom. She did not want to hear about what a fantastic and inventive lover old Hades had turned out to be. No, Demeter wanted her daughter to be stoic in Winter and released running into the freedom of Spring.

            Persephone sat by one of the many fireplaces and resumed her knitting. A few rooms away, she heard Hades laughing, having switched over to that quirky show Bored to Death. He loved Ted Danson’s character George. Hades figured himself to be worn out, yet somehow still debonair just like this man of a certain age. Clueless, but with a good heart.

            Meanwhile, miles above them, Demeter unleashed some storms and floods to clear out all the accumulated debris in the fields and forests. She loved this time of year, getting the place spruced up for Persephone. It did take some orchestration to have all the flowers burst into bloom with her daughter’s every footfall. And darn that girl if she strayed from her usual path from the hell mouth. The flowers were being fussy this year, what with their fear of having their collective bargaining powers being taken away. Demeter had to remind them they all wanted the same thing: to work together to proclaim the start of Spring. They all missed Persephone and her playful spirit. They all wanted to bloom again.

            Demeter couldn’t guarantee that the mortals wouldn’t destroy the planet, but she assured her charges that there would always be those who wanted and needed the flowers for the path of beauty they create. And down below, after the knitting needles and the TV went quiet, Hades held Persephone close in their cozy bed. Like George, he didn’t really like being a bachelor anymore, so he spooned with his wife and thought about making another deal with Zeus. Keeping Persephone year round was sounding good to him. He always felt this way this time of year.

On Light and Dark

Found in the last hidden place:

I’ve been around long enough to hear what’s been said about me, and I’ve been around long enough to have heard all of your stories. You always say Light was the first thing ever created, and if it wasn’t created it was assumed. Imagine, a booming voice filling up the empty space and commanding the Light into being, and the sun and the moon and all the rest followed afterward.

Does anyone wonder about that empty space? Does anyone ask what came before? I only ask because I have been ignored, taken for granted, for so long. No one ever remembers that I was there first, though perhaps it’s not without reason that I’m forgotten. I am everyone’s first fear. But I’m not here to speak on that if I can help it. I am here to set a different record straight.

Before that moment, before “let there be Light”, I was there—the emptiness, the Darkness. I was first and I was all that was. Then, I hardly even knew that I was. Why should I have? Everything was me and I was everything. I was not a separate thing, as there was nothing separate from me. I am older, more infinite, than you could ever understand. There is a deep and never ending place that no one but I, has ever seen.

That place disappeared in one moment. That first moment when there was Light. This stretched longer than you would believe. When you are infinite, time no longer matters. Every span, from a second to a century, feels the same. When Light appeared the two of us took up the same space. The world was not divided at that first moment. Despite what you may think, not everything needs to be divided, split and rent, into black and white.

Do you not already believe Light and Dark cannot exist without each other? What is to say we are not the same thing?

So it was then. Light and Dark hovered together, not one thing and not two things. If you say it is impossible, know it is only as impossible as this hidden place, still untouched.Think of the trenches in the oceans, the unthinkable depths of caves. It is only as impossible as that. Perhaps if you had bothered to listen for my voice, or even the voice of Light, before now, you would have known that. You will listen now.

While Light and I remained together, one thing with two sides, we came to know each other. Rather, because this was a moment that spanned forever, we knew the other when we first realized there was an other. Because we are infinite, we knew the past and the future and the present all at once, and we saw what the both of us would become, in total fullness. I saw myself as the night, as yawning cave mouths, the monster under the bed, the deepest spans between the stars, the concealer for lovers, the cover for thieves. I would be the shadows, the most sacred hidden spaces, the inner room of the temple, and the untouched places.

And I saw what Light would be. I saw the day, the glowing stain on the ocean at sunset, wildfires eating away at ancient forests, atoms torn apart and glowing so bright as to tear away the flesh, the comforting glow of dawn, the harsh gleam of truth. Light would be the revealer, the known and understood, the thing that brought the lost back home.

We saw all of this, and though we did not understand it, we accepted it, and knew there was good and bad in both of us. For that moment we were content to simply know. We would wait for the time when we did understand. Seeing the sunset, seeing the shadows, was not the same as being them, but all would come in time and that, at least, we understood. We knew, too, that a time was coming when we would be separated. We didn’t know what would set us apart, but we knew it would happen. Our knowledge was a promise. But, we told ourselves, the moment had not yet arrived. We were companions for that time, because we were all that was. I was all that Light had ever known, and it was only after Light appeared that I realized I was alive. Why wouldn’t we stay where we were together?

The longer we lingered the closer we grew. Not in physical space but in the parts of us that lived outside of our physical space. We knew every part of each other. We had seen, felt, every edge. We saw the things the other would become. Were we creatures like you, we would have been in love, but we are not like you. Love is still two things bound together. We were the same thing then. We were one thing. There was no Light and Dark, only Us, hovering in the eternal moment that we occupied. Imagine us like your own swirling galaxy, arm in arm and intertwined. Even that would be too separate. Picture instead never ending versions of your galaxy stacked on top of one another, the light and the dark alternating so that no place is without either. That is what it felt to be Us. That was what it felt to love Light. To be one thing and still be yourself. To be everywhere and nowhere at once.

You must remember that all of this lasted only a blink. This was still the moment when Light first came into the world. In one of your books only a line divides the creation of Light and the separation of Light and Dark. We had been living in the gap between that line, and it had been as infinite as we were infinite, a never-ending heartbeat moment.

But the beat must close, the eye must open again, and the moment must end. The end, our time, was coming. Light and I sought to understand all that we knew. We talked with one another, hoping to comprehend all that we would become through each other. We worried most at the things that were different between us. Why I would hide what Light would always show. Why I would allow things to be what they were not. Why Light so often came with things that hurt —fire, guns, sharp handled truth. We wondered why all the worst creatures thrived in the Dark. I wondered why Light would allow nothing a moment alone. I remember Light had told me I left nothing alone either, after I said that.

But Light was wrong. I knew what it meant to be alone, to be singular. I was first after all. The memories of those times are distant to me now, but they still happened. They are still true. I have been alone here, in this hidden place, for time on end. Light has never had to be alone. I was there the first moment it opened it’s eyes. Light always ensures it is never alone, finding the smallest crack in a thing and breaking through it. Light does not like to be alone.

I thought all of this, but I did not tell Light in the moment. I did not even realize it until later, until after. We filled up the time with our words and we spoke for a long while. The differences stacked between us, things we had known and disregarded before but that we could not ignore now. And we broke, finally, when I asked Light why it was the creatures of your earth feared me, but loved it.

Light said, “It is because I am good, and you not.”

I didn’t understand. I told Light so.

Light said, “It is how we were made.”

And this, again, was not true. We had both agreed, long ago, that all the things we were and all the things we would become were good and bad in turn. I told Light then all the things I had thought of it, all the dark and hateful things that I had realized in the differences between us. Then, I turned away and day and night were born. Finally, things were separated, rent, torn apart, into the duality you desire. I suppose you might have been right after all. Something in our knowledge had changed the Light I knew into someone else. Now what is mine is mine and what is Light’s is Light’s. We stay apart.

Know this, though. Our edges always touch. We are the first two infinite things and we fill up everything, everywhere. Remember, too, that we were the same thing once. That we had been too close to tell apart. If I willed it, I could disappear at our edges, merge us again into the singular thing we had been once, so long ago. Then our edges would not touch, and things would not be so bad.

But I won’t. We aren’t the same thing anymore. I know it in the lowest hollows of myself.

It is in those places, the places where our edges touch, where I am too slow to turn away completely. These places where I linger—that is where the Shadows are born. For I do linger. In some small way I do not want to leave Light alone. I know that always at the edges of myself is a part of myself I can no longer be. I do not feel pain, I should not ache, but this is what you would call a hurt. And it makes me angry. Furious. If I could, I would take the wildfire that is Light’s and set it at all the ends of everything and watch it all smolder around us. I am not good enough to keep my anger pointed at myself, for I am the one lingering. Somehow, always, the fault is Light’s. Perhaps Light was right so long ago when it said that this is how we were made.

Were I braver I would leave this pain, this place, and see what would become of you with only Light to guide you. I don’t know where I could go instead, but it doesn’t matter. If I wanted to leave, I could. I know this. But something keeps me tethered here. It is Light. Not because I could not exist without it, I did once and I could again, but because of something else. In spite of myself, in spite of all my best, I love Light still. It is a beautiful thing, and I would watch it as long as I can, and this is why I linger. Picture it dancing, see the way it makes children gasp with the sunrise. I know that I am the reason you lock your doors at night. I know this and I am unashamed. So Light is unashamed. Because of this we can never speak again. So I remain the Shadows, at the edges of everything, and Light takes the stars and the moon. There are no places left where one can exist without the other.

“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

 

Splash. That was how it all started. With a splash.

               My brother and I sat in our dugout canoe, in the middle of the lake by the tribe. We had been sitting there for the whole day, the sun beating down on our bare backs. I wiped my brow and wondered how I could be so hot while I was surrounded by all of this water.

               We hadn’t caught anything yet. If we had, we would have headed back inland long ago. The fish are getting harder to find these days. We both knew it, a silent and independent understanding. The sun made it hard to think of winter, and my brother rarely thought that far ahead, but if things kept up like this, our tribe may not last until the first flowers bloomed.

               I stared down at the wooden plank that I had used to row us onto the lake. I reached down for it, but stopped. I could sense my brother’s glare without even looking up. He’s not going to go back until we catch something, I thought. And we were far enough in the lake that swimming back would be a challenge, even if I was a decent swimmer.

               Served me right for going out with my brother, the best hunter in our tribe. He was too proud to go back. There was no way he could face the elders if he failed. Or worse, look into the faces of the children and watch their faces change as they realized that they would go to bed hungry tonight.

               We sat on opposite ends of the boat, searching in each direction for the slightest shimmer on the waves. I turned when I heard motion from my brother’s side. He had stood up, his spear clutched in his right hand. His muscles, the kind of muscles I wish I had, tensed. He stood like stone for a few minutes, so still that I found myself holding my breath. I exhaled when he finally sat down again and laid the spear against the inner edge of the boat.

I turned back to my post and closed my eyes, in hopes that the rocking of the boat will go away. Maybe if I believed hard enough, we would be transported back home, back to solid ground. 

               Splash.

               My eyes shot open. I clambered to grab the spear at my side and scanned the waves for movement. Splash. Again, on my right. I leaned over and strained my eyes, trying to see under the murky blue-green layer of water.

               My brother was over my shoulder, ready to strike. I held up my hand to him, though it was a shaking hand. I wanted to be the one to do this. To make my first kill.

               There it was, a big fat fish lurking to the right of the boat. I took a stab at it, with certainty that I would miss.

               When I held the spear back up, a fish was attached to it through its stomach. Its head and tail flopped in desperation, and when I looked into its eyes, I saw the blinding fear of the realization of death. A few flops later, it turned to stone, just as motionless as my brother had been a few moments ago.

               I looked back at my brother, still holding the spear with the fish. He looked surprised that his almost always weaker brother had just beat him at his own game. He went back to the other side of the boat, picked up the plank, and rowed us back to shore. I was too busy staring at my fish to notice that he was glaring across the boat at me the entire time.

               We sat around the fire that night: myself, my wife and two daughters, and my brother. My daughters sat together, giggling as one braided the other’s thick, black hair. They stopped when they

saw that dinner was ready, and rushed over to get a piece of fish. Food had been scarce the past few days, so we were all thankful to have something in our stomachs again.

               As I bit into my juicy portion of fish, I caught my brother staring at my wife from across the fire. That was nothing new. He had wanted her from the moment she had stepped into our camp as an outsider. On that day, we had offered her shelter and, when she had gone to bed that night, my brother attempted to sneak in with her. She refused him but, a week later, I had found her warming my bed for reasons I will never understand. I wasn’t strong or a born leader like my brother was. But she had chosen me anyway, and I don’t think he ever forgave me for that.

               He motioned to me to come with him, away from the rest of the tribe. I followed, going further and further into the thick woods that no one had dared to explore because we had heard that they were haunted. I looked up at the bare branches of the trees as we were walking. They were taller than anything I had ever seen before. Our shoes crunched under the leaves, which had grown stale and crushed at this point in the year. I wondered what we were doing out here, and why whatever it was couldn’t wait.

               My brother stopped. He turned around, slowly. I saw something in his hand. Then, he stabbed me.

               I staggered back, clutching my chest. Blood was seeping through my skin, more blood than I had ever seen on another person. I tried to pat it away with my hands, but it came back, thicker and a deeper red than before. I dropped to the ground and saw my blood spilling before me into the dirt, as if I was offering a sacrifice to the forest. Except I had been an unknowing offering; my brother was the one offering me to God.

               “Cain,” I muttered as I gripped the ground in pain, “I’m afraid. What’s happening?”

My brother stood over me, with a look of satisfaction on his face. My vision was growing black around the edges and I felt myself slipping further and further away. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was going there all the same.

               The last thing I saw was my brother’s expression changing, realizing too late what he had done.    

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eve’s choice

Sunlight dances on the horizon, outlining the edges of the world in gold. As Eve wakes she feels its warmth on her skin and she smiles. Adam is still sleeping, he won’t be up for hours yet so she is careful as she slips out of their bed. As she walks to the top of the mountain the wind whispers in her ears, telling her secrets from elsewhere, promises of change and freedom. The view from the top of the cliff spans the world, she can see forests, rivers, marshes, plains, all the way down to the sea. Pieces of cloud drift in and out of her vision, obscuring parts of her view, making her think of breath misting on the air in the winter, or smoke rising from a bonfire in the evening. Above her perch, a pair of birds bank on the wind. Eagles, or falcons, or hawks, impossible to tell from this distance. What do they see, from their place in the sky? Perhaps they see even further than she does, beyond the oceans that border her vision, to lands no-one can dream of. She loves this place, her home, but it isn’t enough. It’s a cage made of sunlight and green leaves and she wants out. Adam doesn’t understand, he believes this place is paradise, and perhaps it is, but still she wants more, or maybe just something, anything, different. There is a choice to be made, if she chooses knowledge, self-awareness, freedom, so much will be lost, but if she chooses obedience, ignorance, she will live forever in this beautiful cage. This choice falls to her, not Adam, and though she knows one day he will hate her for it, it will still be worth it. She will free them both, whatever the consequences may be.

Days later, Eve knows she made the right choice. They have been cast out, as she knew they would be, and while they may now face hardship they have never known, they are free. Adam is angry, and afraid, he had been content in the garden, or so he believes. He is angry and afraid, and refuses to admit, that he needed freedom as much as she did. He will forgive her eventually. Until then they walk in stubborn silence, chasing the horizon. The guard on the gate watches them go, his gaze burning holes in their backs. Occasionally Adam turns, to see what they have lost, to see the flaming wings and sword of the guard put in place to keep them away. It upsets him but he can’t help himself. Peace and contentment is all he has ever known, and now it is gone. Eve doesn’t look around once, she already knows what lies behind. Instead she keeps her eyes fixed firmly ahead, seeing the shape of the future in the ever changing landscape and the cloudbanks high above her. She does not regret her decision.

She sees flashes, images, feelings, of how things will be, of possibilities. She knows that her choice will cause pain and loss beyond measure. That future generations will suffer and toil and struggle because of her decision. But she also knows that they will achieve incredible things, that they will touch heaven, and dance on the edge of the world. That they will redefine reality, not once, not twice but a million times. That in the end they will do things that the gardener never even dreamed of, because they are free to dream the impossible, and then try to make it happen. Eve sees flashes of things to come, and she knows that freedom is worth the price.

As their journey continues Eve turns her thoughts away from the future. The sky is growing dark with storm clouds, and as the sky opens and the thunder echoes across the heavens, she laughs in joy at the excitement, the power of it. It is her first thunderstorm. The rain comes down heavy and cold, it turns her hair dark and straight and plasters it to her back. It runs down her face, fresh and clean, as only the rain in a new world can be, and for the first time since they were cast out, Adam smiles at her. Later as they take shelter in a cave, they will hold each other tight, and look forward together.