Category Archives: Fiction

Narcissus

On a bare, placid wall face, between two sets of matching drapes pristine white and printed with pink flowers on thin green stalks, there hung a large blue painting. In the din of daytime’s yellow light streaming in through the veiled windows, the walls and the fixtures all seemed beige and the plush off-white furniture a deeper shade of it. It was a pleasant light. It kept the harshness of the warm sun away from your conscious, surrounding you instead in a hazy twilight where sleep fit better than activity. Many a day did young Master Kilroy spend there, watching TV or reading or simply lazing around like young people do, while the forgotten sun journeyed across the sky. He was all grown up now, farther away from here than anyone wanted and quite possibly, never returning.

Mrs. Kilroy, lying down on the sofa, stared at that blue painting. It was afternoon and that bleary delirium the sun up high in the sky beat down upon the creatures of Earth was creeping into the den. The room felt feverous but as she looked into the painting, a rush of cool breeze seemed to wash over her. A dabbling artist herself, she’d always appreciated the technical complexities of the painting. It lent character to the space and fit in comfortably brilliant contrast with the color scheme of the room. Today however, it struck her as a thing alive – not breathing or moving but somehow profound and far from inanimate. She found herself wondering what made the stolid, right-brained Mr. Kilroy ever purchase it.

Mr. Kilroy, a stout and proud businessman of honorable breeding and schooled in the old ways of conduct as a boy had purchased that painting on one of his trips to the mainland a long time ago. He wasn’t one for the arts, but the picture had caught his eye somewhere in a maze of cobblestone paths and tiny shops crowded with tiny trinkets and spices and perfumes and shaded from the sun by overhung cloth dyed in many shades.

The painting featured a view of a clear blue water surface. The water body was small and roundish, tufted by grass and dirt on the sides but ran deep just beyond the ground like a well that contained water up to ground height. The water’s surface wasn’t perfectly still and in the partial glimmer of a bright sun above, a face, barely discernable was hazily reflected. Past this mild disturbance, could be seen shadows and fish and sparse reeds clinging to the sides. There was detail even beyond that for the depth of this well wasn’t discernible in this picture and tiny creatures and suspended objects lay in the play of light that pierced the depths until it was choked out in deep dark corners and crevices. The work was titled ‘Narcissus’. Its artist was unknown.

Lost in the very many hues of blue it contained, Mrs. Kilroy saw in it today, the characters of both her husband and her son reflected. Both of them were men of few words whose demeanors seldom betrayed what thoughts their minds held. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, they only ever got along uncomfortably. All her life, she lived in the valley between these two cold mountains; under a perpetually grey sky that always threatened and sometimes broke into storm. She was tied to her husband but in her son she always hoped to see something special or some heroism she believed her own ancestors capable of or at the very least, something of herself, but young Master Kilroy wasn’t easily read and in the light of his actions was neither responsible like her husband was nor heroic in any way.

Kilroy, the old, had inherited his fields and his mills from his father and had taken good care of the business. Then, a great illness befell him, and over the years it grew stronger and stronger until he couldn’t walk or talk without much strain. All through that time, he had hoped that the young Kilroy would take after him and do what was his duty and although he never spoke of it to his son, he was sure he gleaned as much. 

Young Kilroy was still in school when his father fell ill. His mother lamented her son’s ill fortune but was ever sure he’d shoulder the responsibilities of his father without hesitation. He was a clever boy, devilishly insightful and admirably stoic. He’d been a precocious child and then had sunken into melancholy in his teenage years but his mother was sure it only showed his maturity.

As for young master Kilroy himself however, his father’s waning health and his mother’s hopes of him, incited no sense of responsibility for anything or anyone other than himself. He spent a lot of time in the den writing sad little tropes of mushy love affairs and timid rabbits fighting injustice in the world – they were terrible, although he thought them glorious. He said he wanted to be a writer, Mrs. Kilroy argued he could be both a businessman and a writer. He felt that his ‘art’ demanded perfect commitment; Mrs. Kilroy opined that perfect commitment demanded food to eat and a roof above his head. He knew his mother would never understand; no one could, but when the world came crashing down and it’s weight grew unbearable, it was the only thing that made him feel like he was anything at all.

That’s how he left. His father presented him with an ultimatum. The business had to be taken over by his son or be sold, in which case, young Kilroy would have to find his own work. He decided to walk out into the world and be a wandering writer – it encompassed the perfect commitment he thought essential for his craft; commitment that saw beyond hunger and comfort and even death.

Now a passing wind swayed the heavy drapes and threw momentarily, some bright light into the room. Mrs. Kilroy was thwarted back into reality. She looked once again at the painting her eyes had lost themselves in. ‘Young Kilroy must’ve spent a lot of time looking at it while he was here’, she thought to herself. Then, looking at it herself, she realized that she hated the picture.

 

The Jaguar’s Paw

Listen. Do you think you know what you want or why you want it? You attend my stories because I am so old, because you have heard of my great dealings from your mothers and grandmothers, and you believe that you reverence my challengings and my forwardings, the Road I travelled with H’han Day’keeper, the Choice I battled with the dravitshes of Aebiliyya’a. These are only stories, are they not, lordlings? You cannot read the ahk’alendar from my face anymore, my ahk’aunges are so gouged with wrinkles. Though my dealings have been spoken of over many fires—admit it, won’t you?—you cannot help but scorn me a little. I am older than anyone you’ve ever seen, and you think that Eb holds death’s door open for me in one of our near tomorrows. You believe that with one so old, the past’matrix holds all my dealings, however few or many, however magnificent or spare. While you, with only a single ahk’aunge, or maybe two, have a storehouse of dealings in future’matrix. But it is not that way—it is your elders who master the future’matrix, and you, lordlings, master nothing at all.

The story you hear next is about what some say is my most radiant’revealing, the revealing of the onehundred’thirteenth name of matter’states, the Unspeaking. I ask you to put your heart here, in my shaking hands, for this moment, this small present’matrix that is all you can claim, for the duration of the story I tell you. Your mothers have paid me well, but their beryl-stones will shine just as bright whether you listen or not. It’s up to you, of course. All your dealings are up to you.

When I was as young as you, my dealings had already won me fame in Korlhnn, which many say was then the greatest city in our space’matrix. You know already how I had been carried there as a small child on the swaying back of an ayriefaunt, on a long journey from somewhere, but no one knew where because my mother suffered a vanishing before we reached the agate walls of Korlhnn. It is possible she ran off or was abducted, but with all the abundant vanishing that marks this age, she most likely got lost in the forwardings of time, the hinterlands between one known place and another, a Road’vanishing. Wherever she went, she took my name with her. My history after that everyone knows very well, how quickly my long legs grew fetching and carrying for H’han Day’keeper, living in her beryl palace in the center of the city. There I learned the Day’keeper’s magics, though no one expected me, a girl whose dress never fit, a lanky, nameless girl from nowhere, to learn her magics quicker than any of the lordlings—like you—brought to study on litters studded with turquoise and amythyst, but that’s how it was. I absorbed the Day’keeper’s magic, and left her palace, and became a Jjkeall, one of the onehundred’twenty Time’keepers in my own right, tending to the ills and disappointments of wealthy clients throughout Korlhnn.

My forwardings had been successful. The rain sang sweetly to me over the misting city streets, and the old ahteeks patted my hands kindly, smiling toothless smiles behind their shapeless lips as they put an extra quince or chiea in my basket, but I was not satisfied with the city or city magics. Time’keeping is city magic, you know, the magic of paving stones and rooftops that stretch for miles, the magic of babbling tongues and mercantilism. These magics fitted me as poorly as my wardobe of gowns, though they had made me rich. I knew Korlhnn was not my home. I wanted wilder magics, the high, soaring magics of the mountains, and it is possible I wanted to know if there was any place I better belonged. From where had my mother brought me, lordlings, before she vanished behind the thousand’veils? I did not ask that question, but rather I was that question, and it drove me in ways I could not then fathom.

In truth, lordlings, I did not have a firm grip on Etznab, my Sharp’knife, but still I left Korlhnn one morning, on foot, alone, and headed for the twinned horns of Aebeliyya’a, home of devils and dravitshes that rode on night winds. None of the Day’keepers or Jjkealls of Korlhnn had ever met a dravitsh. They were spoken of in Korlhnn in terms that even bad children no longer believed. Already, the dravitshes were vanishing into another space’matrix, and our congress with them had dwindled to nothing. The Mong’g people of the mountains still spoke of dravitshes, but they were considered ignorant people, their knowledge less than useless. Stories of dravitsh spells and dealings enchanted my imagination, however, and though it was Qwetzma’ab the sorceress I longed to meet, I would’ve been glad to share dreamings with any dravitshes remaining in the caves of Aebiliyya’a.

We all fear our own vanishing, but in that vanishing await the mothers of motherless ones—do you see, lordlings? Without fear, I lacked a teacher, and so I sought something to frighten me, though I did not know it then. Day’Keepers will caution you to carry Etznab close in your fist, but I walked weaponless, waiting for and wanting a terrible thing to instruct me.           

Travelling through deserts and villages alone, it was necessary that I continuously repeat the onehundred’twelve names of matter’states in order to keep my feet on one ground, without anyone to relieve me of the chant. You, lordlings, have never travelled alone, and are unlikely to ever be so near the thin veils of a Road’vanishing as I was then, but, even with my constant chanting, I managed to speak with the creatures along my path to learn their voices and names. I saw scampering qkawls and silver-eyed bats and hunting fowlxes on the wing, and their wildness made my blood live and beat within my body. Back in Korlhnn, I had earned the name you know me by, Kna’Eb, Fate’keeper, but no one outside the city had yet heard that name. I was still a nameless child out there in the stone and dry earth of the world, but I was happy each passing hour, because I began to lose city orientation. I had not gone out of Korlhnn. I had gone into the world, and it was, I believed, where I belonged. The stony spires of Aebeliyya’a called to me, day by day, from the black mouths of their many caves.

As I walked, lordlings, the minaret cliffs of Aebeliyya’a seemed motionless against the sky’s prismatic blue, the single still point in a world that shifted with brown rock and orange sand. The villages I passed looked poorer and poorer the further I went from Korlhnn, and the Mong’g carrying their baskets of golgumes and tilling their paddy fields began to more closely resemble the craggy, brown ground they slept on and ate from. The further I walked from the city, the less able my tongue was to make their sounds, my ear less tuned to their meaning. But I already had four deep ahk’aunges on my face, and even those who had never heard of Time’keeping saw that I walked the power’path, that I was versed in unseen mysteries. They made room in their squat dwellings for my sleeping blanket, and fed me from their buckets of soft cheeses, made with milk taken from shantle ewes, which roamed in flocks through the rocky land. As Aebeliyya’a neared, the shantle became hardier looking, less fat and more sinew, and the people became more silent, watching the flames of their fires in the evenings with their lips seamed shut. Every so often among them, a face could be seen with a single ahk’aunge, but mostly the people who lived in these lands had simple dealings in a world that was to them simple. I would say that their dealings were simple, but their challengings, lordlings, are as complicated as any Jjkeall, though they won no ahk’aunges from them.

I was taller than any of these Mong’g people of mountain dust, people of the rock, and my eyes, hair, and skin lighter. During my walking days, I spoke the twentyfirst matter’state name, Sib’brighteye, to protect myself from being scorched by the long lived sun. And I began to speak the name of that dread dravitsh, Qwetzma’ab, to the Mong’g who sheltered and fed me. Mostly they turned their eyes to the fire and said nothing. Sometimes they made the napastock’sign above their heads to ward off danger.

At last I reached the base cliffs of the mountains, and began to climb, day by day, and when I rested at night, my dreamings floated a little higher than they had the night before. I was careful to keep my dreamings close, to not send them roaming as I was used to doing, to collect power from the night. I had always run a little reckless, lordlings, amongst the Night’keepers, which may have been why I had as many ahk’aunges as I did for one so young, although the Day’keepers cautioned me that I risked collecting corpse’dreams instead of power. In such unknown lands, so close to the caves of Aebeliyya’a, I became as cautious as they. My body ached and strained with climbing, and I spoke the seventh name of matter’state, Oc’airmatrix, to cushion my movements and make it easier to breathe.

On one scorching afternoon, so hot that even the air seemed burnt, I reached a small village dangling from a pebble cliff, and a youth ran out from behind a shantle patty wall to take my hand and welcome me. He smiled and rapidly spoke the words of his language. This had never happened, lordlings, in all the days of my journey. The Mong’g were a quiet, somber people, without the affective displays you’ve seen in the cities you all hail from, where easy abundance lifts so many of the burdens from the heart. But this Mong’g youth cavorted and chatted with the lightness of a Ti’graeb prince, and I wondered if he was simple or touched by some lightning’finger.

Unravelling his tongue by combining two matter’state names, I learned his name was Cib, one of the great names, the name of revealings. It had taken his mother some courage, or foolishness, to name her child one of the great names, I thought. He led me to the shade of his hut, painted in the traditional colors of copweet, gold, and orange, and ladled some broth into a cup for me. I was intrigued by this talkative youth, and listened carefully to his narrative spill. I recognized the names of dravitshes among many words my spells could not translate fast enough. I sat there through the heat of the day, suspending my upward climb toward the cave’mouths, and when I stepped out of his hut in the first shadow of evening, my white skin was covered in a fine sweat, and the other villagers regarded me darkly. I searched for water, and found the thin stream that served the village at its eastern edge, stooping there to wash. An ahteek hobbled near, making a polite gesture excusing my nakedness, and said,

“It is not wise for you to sleep in the hut of Cib’phantom. He has lost all his dreamings to the dravitshes, and we only let him stay here out of pity. He has no mother and he will never have a child. The ahk’alandar has made no space for him. Soon the sun will scorch away his flesh and the sand will grind down his bones.”

“Has anyone tried to retrieve his dreamings?” I asked. “Is there a dravitsh that serves this village?” I chanted certain matter’state names with my mind and my fingers in order to have this conversation.

“There is a powerful dravitsh nearby, but we do not seek her service. She serves only when she finds needful. We must have faith and fear.”

“What is the name of your dravitsh?” I asked, my fingers faltering in their spell’making as my excitement leapt, knowing which name was destined next to enter the air between us.

“By the power of your ahk’aunges, preserve me from entanglements, her name is Qwetzma’ab,” and the ahteek skillfully made four napastock’signs over her head.

“I will sleep in Cib’s hut tonight, ahteek’ba’a. May you be preserved from entanglements,” and I ran back to Cib’s hut without even covering my nakedness, my gown dripping from my fingertips.

Cib the smiling one, the one they called Cib’phantom because he had lost all his dreamings, had stoked the fire while I was gone and the smell of hot golgumes in cheese greeted me as I entered the low hut. I hung my dress to dry by the fire and sat, bare, in the dust, waiting for food. Cib smiled at me, but did not continue his narrative. His smile emerged from a heart that has no proper place in the ahk’alandar—he lived well outside Time’Keeping. Instead of being powerful and rich, I could have been like him, Cib’Phantom, living outside the world. I thought to ask him what had happened to his mother, but decided instead to stalk this knowledge later in my dreamings when he was powerless to yield anything but the truth entire. I wish I could tell you, lordlings, that my intent was clear, what it was I wanted to do in the hut of Cib’phantom, but I had lost track of Etznab, my sharp’knife, and I knew only that tonight my dreamings would hover near the dreamings of Qweztma’ab the dravitsh. You may think this was foolish of me, then just a Jjkeall, and you would be right, lordlings. Somewhere above us, the cave’mouths yawned. I ate my golgumes and lay down, a bit too eager to sleep.

The fire burned down, and so did my blood, and I waited, my hands on my face, tracing my four hard-won ahk’aunges. I was young for such dealings, lordlings, and felt that meant I had power yet to be discovered and that this power would protect me from vanishings, but Jjkealls of many ahk’aunges had suffered vanishings before, swallowed by the many-mouthed face of the time’matrix, and no Day’keeper could retrieve them again. I knew this and still I felt unafraid, waiting to send my dreamings into the night.

My dreamings had just begun to rise out of my skin when I felt a shift in the darkness of the hut. The dark was of a kind I’d never felt before, hot and pungent, from the other side of the mouth of some terrible vanishing. For the first time, a bud of fear crested my heart’soil, and I wondered if I should’ve stayed in Korlhnn. I sat up, the names of matter’states about to bloom on my lips, when the night pounced as one great form, swatting a paw very powerfully over my face, five sharp’knife claws fastening into my skin. My lips were sealed under that paw pulsing with animal heat, and I could not speak. My hands were pinned under a body as lithe and heavy as a river and I could make no spells, no signs, but worse, lordlings, was that my mind beneath the sharp intent of Storm’jaguar’s fist could not summon the matter’state names I knew so well.

A Jjkeall rendered silent and motionless, I began to disintegrate into the void, my being sifted by the thousand’veils, and in my vanishing, I saw with one open eye, the body of Cib rise from the floor of his hut, alight with dreamings. They were my own wan dreamings, thin and unfully formed, but they illuminated him and raised him, and he began to take on my features. His hair grew and gleamed—my gold but golder than mine. His face blanched the color of the moon and from it, his eyes glistened like two blue stars. His limbs shimmered with length and grace. He was beautiful, lordlings, though I had never been beautiful. He was still smiling as I had never smiled. And he was more myself than I had ever been, beyond Time’keeping.

I watched Cib’s transformation and then felt as Storm’jaguar bounded away, back into the night, his retreating claws tearing my eyes and lips, the ahk’aunges of my cheeks ripped open. Blinded with my mouth hanging shredded from my face, I could not even scream as I tumbled through the thousand’veils into the void.

The strangest thing of all was that the morning shouts of fowlxes on the wing woke me from this cavernous sleep, this corpse’dream, and I jumped awake, streaked with dust and sweat, my hands covering my ravaged face, which now felt entire and sound. Quickly, I began to mumble all the onehundred’twelve names of matter’states, eager for the earth’matrix I knew under my feet, the air’matrix I knew in my lungs, the time’matrix I knew emanating from my ahk’aunges and creating my ahk’alandar. I stood there like that, as the silver dawn air invaded Cib’s hut, the coals still glowing in his fire, his dishes still smeared with golgumes, and everything as it had been before my fearsome vanishing except that Cib was not there. Nothing in my spell’chanting could tell me where he was. This was magic beyond the verge of Time’keeping, beyond the power’path of a Jjkeall. Except, lordlings, I feared I was no longer a Jjkeall, but a phantom’Jjkeall, outside the world.

Uncalmed by my magics, hardly aware of what I was doing, I stumbled out of Cib’s hut into the morning. Behind me, the village had begun to shuffle and speak, and I did not know if the other Mong’g were aware of what had happened in the hut on the edge of their village. I faced the east, where Korlhnn awaited me, and the rising sun. I spoke the twentyfirst matter’state name, Sib’brighteye, watched as the sun shuddered and hastened at my request, but I was not assured by the Time’keeping power given to me by H’han Day’keeper. It seemed like a limp trick, dangling the sun on the chain of my magics. I could return even now to Korlhnn with these same tricks, but did not want to, even though everyone there reverenced me for them. Behind me were the silent mouths of the caves of Aebeliyya’a where Qwetzma’ab rested, her dreamings more powerful than mine. On the end of the leash of her dreamings, she kept Storm’jaguar, a being from somewhere beyond our time’matrix, seen only in the oldest records of the ahk’alander. I had never before heard of a Jjkeall, or any Time’keeper having an encounter like mine with Storm’jaguar. I could begin walking east, away from this place, without ever knowing why I came here, carrying the bud of fear I’d sown in my heart’soil, without unravelling the entanglement of the Choice I battled here.

Instead, I began chanting the onehundred’seventh matter’state name, Etznab’Knife, over and again, until the dust at my feet began to swirl and tremble. My eyes dried out with staring, but they were rewarded with the glint of sun on a sudden blade, and I snatched the blade from the ground and returned to Cib’s hut. I stoked the embers of his fire and put on his kettle to warm more golgumes. Such daily tasks were necessary for the Choice I was about to battle. The greatest of our Choices must be battled within the everyday, lordlings—do not forget. With the scent of hot golgumes in the air, I raised Etznab over my head, and chanted its intention.

“I will find Cib’Phantom, retrieve him from his vanishing, and encounter Qwetzma’ab the dravitsh in my dreamings,” lordlings, is what I said, and I plunged Etznab into the dust of my corpse’dream the night before.

Then I took the golgumes from the fire, stirred them into a bowl with soft cheese, and ate. That day I bathed once more in the stream, speaking to no one, dug roots in the dry forest, swept out Cib’s hut, and chanted the onehundred’twelve names of matter’states, feeling them soft upon my lips, saying them gently, almost shyly, as though I were learning them for the first time. I listened carefully to the sounds of the village, unweaving the words of the villagers with my magics, though none of them came near me or spoke to me. As evening began to rise from the dust and gradually overcome the air and sky, I resisted the desire to walk away from the setting sun. Though my bud of fear began to bloom, I scorned to return to Korlhnn with the same powers I had when I left. I chanted the names, and ate a small dinner from Cib’s dwindling stores. I slept, keeping my dreamings as close to me as a shroud, waiting for the dreamings of Qwetzma’ab. Perhaps she stalked near me, but I did not see her or her dreamings, and when I awoke, I felt rested and strong.

I spent my days and nights in Cib’s hut, lordlings, just like that, very simply. And the moon changed many times through the nights. I began to help the Mong’g to make their cheeses, holding the bleating heads of shantle as they were milked, and a small basket of golgumes appeared outside my door every morning. I watched the animals in the forest, and stalked with them in my dreamings. Soon, I knew the mountainside and its air’matrix and its earth’matrix as well as the Mong’g, and began to walk in wider and wider spirals, nearing the caves. I was as plain and ordinary as anyone, but I never forgot that I was here to battle a Choice.

On one of my walks, on a day split by silver skies and lightning, I spotted a strange figure ahead on the path, though what about her was strange, I could not say. I wondered if it was a dravitsh. I hastened my step, trying to catch up, and spoke a greeting, but the figure did not turn around. Over the orange mountain, a cloud appeared, flickering dark silver and then deep steel. Day had become night, and I wasn’t sure anymore if I’d been following my spiral path up the mountain, or if I were on the floor of Cib’s hut, enwrapped in dreamings. But I did not hesitate, lordlings, I kept following that figure without ever getting nearer, until, sudden as lightning, I was upon her, breathless, and I reached out and touched a shoulder. The face that turned then was beyond my words to say, lordlings. It was Cib.

But Cib wearing my face, the face that had been devastated by Storm’jaguar that first night, a face raked by five deep claw marks, the eyes split and unseeing, cheeks gouged open, lips hanging from shreds of skin around the jaws. I stared, and when I could speak, I spoke one of the great names, though I meant only the smiling boy who had lost all his dreamings.

Cib.

You have all heard, lordlings, how Cib’Owl was one of the first people to live in this space’matrix, speaking so many of the matter’states we now take for granted. But though we in the present’matrix need the air and wind and dust and animals to round out our existence, it was Cib in her deep wisdom who thought to provide them to us, Cib who inscribed their names in the record of matter’state’keeping. Only the wise, lordlings, can see what needful things do not yet exist and summon them from the world’s own dreamings.

My torn and ravaged face gazed back at me, blankly. I reached out to touch Cib, but he drew away, and fled up the path, his body moving with the lanky awkwardness I recognized as my own. It was then I realized that the body I had inhabited these many moons was different from the one I’d always known before—more graceful, more at ease. And my magics, when I spoke and thought them, emerged not just from my lips and my mind, but from my skin and flesh, and deeper, from my bones, and deeper—from the same heart’soil where that bud of fear had appeared. My magics had changed since I’d lived among the Mong’g people of the mountains. I lifted my hands to feel for my ahk’aunges—still four, deep marks running horizontally across my face, an ahk’alendar of my dealings, a record of my young life.

Many Jjkeall are content to have four ahk’aunges, lordlings, content to cease their forwardings and challengings. You have seen them in the cities riding in bejewelled litters, accepting the homage of people on the street. They sleep on beryl beds and Keep the Days effectively with their magics and dreamings. They do not seek further dealings with mystery and matter’states, however, and have become static bodies in the flowings of time’matrix. Do you know how old I am, lordlings? I doubt you’d believe me, but my last Forwarding was accomplished when I was onehundred’six, giving me this ahk’aunge here, below my chin, because there was no more room on my face to Keep my many Forwardings. I may have more yet. The future’matrix belongs to me, and I alone know what is best to be done with it. Do you believe that I am Kna’Eb, Fate’Keeper?

That morning, I did not know what the future’matrix held. I only knew that I wanted to release Cib from the spell that bound him to my own ruined face, even if it meant wearing that face myself for the rest of my Days. So I did a foolish thing. I continued to follow Cib further up the path, past many cave’mouths, my fear’flower climbing and entangling all my heart, until we reached a very small cave mostly hidden by talons of dry sage. He bent low, and vanished inside, and I went right behind him, into the darkness that Day could not illuminate.

What could I do in such darkness, lordlings? I took two steps inside the cave and all light was gone as though it had never been born from Cib’Owl’s dreamings. Darker than Eb, here I was blinded completely, and without sight, my other senses contorted and whirled, so that I could smell, touch, hear, and taste only darkness, and very, very keenly. Darkness smelled and tasted like earth and stone. It sounded like the stars falling, or the river stones singing under rushing water. And it felt—well, lordlings, it felt like my mother’s embrace, though how I could know that when my mother was lost in her vanishing so many years ago, I cannot tell you. What could I do blinded in such darkness with all my other senses so passionately panicked? I had followed Cib, but Cib was blind already, and whatever he did in the cave was hardly an example for me to follow. So I sat down, I was sure, on the floor of the cave of Qwetzma’ab, where my fear’flower took root, and I waited.

I think I waited through the revealing of the world. Then I waited through the all’vanishing and new radiant’revealings. I waited through the painful hunger and exhaustion of my body until the pain and hunger and fatigue left me and then my body left me, and I simply hung on the darkness the way fowlxes hang on the air or Night hangs in the sky. I dangled like a drop of shining dew from the immense petals of my fear’flower. And through all this time, my mother’darkness held me, singing her river’stone songs, her falling’star songs, and my dreamings flowed and surged like dark water under a dark moon. Finally a new magic was revealed to me, but when I opened my mouth to scream it, Storm’jaguar of Qwetzma’ab’s dreamings pounced again, her pulsing paw closing my magic upon itself, ending my chanting of matter’states, and this time, lordlings, I surrendered to the inevitability of my vanishing, compelling myself through the thousand’veils toward my mother’darkness, under the jaguar’s paw.

Do you think you know what you want, lordlings? You are not so great an entity, even, to want anything. You are yourself a dreaming in the mind of the world, and the world speaks you and all your dealings, and the world unspeaks you. Silenced by Storm’jaguar a second time, I found my true home, in the darkness, and I have never needed to seek another. That was my radiant’revealing in the cave of Qwetzma’ab, to discover the onehundred’thirteenth matter’state, Unspeaking, and Storm’jaguar’s paw dissolved into my mouth, sealed in Unspeaking now, and the jaguar herself dissolved into my mother’darkness, split with the forked lightning of my forwarding.

Cib stood before me, and blindly, I regarded my torn and bloody face, filled with Unspeaking. I moved to embrace Cib with all my darkness and all my darkened senses, and Cib’Motherless flowed back into his mother, who sat open-palmed in the center of my Unspeaking. I could feel my face bleeding, and I laughed with wonder, as Cib would laugh. Then, lordlings, Qwetzma’ab herself appeared before my blindness. She plucked my fear’flower and wove a garland for her hair, and I regarded her beauty with blind wonder. We sat together in her cave for so long that Day and Night had stopped existing, and the Day’keepers and the Night’Keepers, all the Time’keepers, were silenced in Unspeaking. When at last I stood and left the cave, Night danced around the world with radiant’revealing joy, the stars occupying all their spaces at once in defiance of Time’keeping, and the world shimmered and buzzed with the exuberance of newborn space’matrices.

The Mong’g people of the Mountains do not breathe this world’s air anymore, and you will never see their faces at all, let alone their unflappable faces gaping with surprise, as they gaped at me that morning. Throughout their own long ahk’alendar, whoever had entered Storm’jaguar’s cave had not come out again, and I had come back to them with no fewer than five new ahk’aunges, one for each terrible claw that rent the face of Cib, my motherless twin.

I have not told you a story. I have been Unspeaking you. What were my five dealings in the horned peaks of Aebiliyya’a, lordlings, that earned me five new ahk’aunges? You must tell me when we sit together tomorrow. And you must tell me how the speaking and unspeaking of matter’states changes the dealings of Time’keepers as the Ahk’alendar winds down to its end and we prepare for All’vanishing. And you must tell me what is the purpose of Day’keepers, as you aspire to be, lordlings, when we have run out of Days. And tomorrow you must tell me, what we will do tomorrow, when we have plucked the last tomorrow from future’matrix. That is your assignment. Now go to your dreamings, lordlings, and suffer their entanglements upon you.

Modern Eurydice

Modern Eurydice

 

     I wake up and she’s there, her head tucked under my chin.

     Sometimes, this is the best part of the day.

#

     Yep. It was the best part of the day. I pulled the eleven to seven shift at the diner again, delivering decent food to ungrateful tippers and yelling at chefs for messing up my orders. The diner gets surprisingly crowded on a Tuesday, and after eight hours on my feet, the only thing I’m good for is loafing on the couch and watching old sitcoms.

     As I drive home from work in my beat-up Camry, I contemplate life. Tuesdays are dismal. Tuesday night is Girls’ Night, and the house feels empty without my girlfriend, Bridgett.

     We’ve been together for just about four years. I still can’t understand how someone like her can find my stringy self attractive. Anyway, on Tuesdays she goes out with her friends, Kayla and Laurie.

     My phone starts vibrating in my pocket and I pull it out. I snap it open, heedless of any over-zealous cops. It’s probably Bob. Sometimes, he’ll come by to chill and commiserate.

     “Hello?” I answer.

     “Hey man! Hey! How y’doo-in?”

     Shit. Not Bob. I instantly regret answering. This voice belongs to Lobo, my token annoying friend.

     Ugh. Tuesdays.

#

     The condo’s foyer smells of medical tape, but as soon as I open our door, I’m embraced by the fruity odor of raspberries, Bridge’s trademark perfume.

     “Uh-huh,” I say into my cell. “Sounds good, man. O.K., I’ll see ya.” I finally hang up. Lobo’s the only guy I know who can talk non-stop for fifteen minutes about nothing.

     “Who was that?” Bridgett pokes her head out of the bathroom. I can’t help but smile when I see her. Suddenly, all the trivialities and aches from the day fade.

     “Lobo. He wants me to check out that lab he has in the city. Something about experiments with dead cats,” I say, toeing off my shoes.

     Bridge chuckles. “Ah, Lobo.”

     Whenever I mention Lobo, Bridge responds with an amused ‘Ah, Lobo,’ and a shake of the head. Which is merited. The guy is a character.

     Lobo is a self-fashioned mad scientist. A few years back, he got a job at a prestigious research facility in the city. This research is literally his life. Everyday it’s wake up, go to work, put in overtime, fall asleep in the office, wake up and realize you have to go home. He hardly has time to bother me, or watch his beloved Lord Of The Rings. Lobo views Tolkein’s works as the prime medium of mainstream understanding. He doesn’t know that discussing the pros and cons of elf versus orc isn’t exactly high ranking conversation on the social scale.

     But that’s not what makes him a character. Lobo’s problem is he tries to be normal. He expresses a manic interest in sports, particularly hockey, and buys label clothing, but then draws excessive attention to it.

     I’m cool with it though. In small doses, it’s amusing. Plus, I feel bad for the guy; I know he doesn’t get out often.

     “You gonna go? Take a train to see the cats and the lab?” Bridge asks, disappearing back into the bathroom.

     “Nah. I’m a busy guy. But I would love to another day,” I say, with the slightest hint of sarcastic mockery. I follow Bridge into the bathroom. I hug her from behind and nuzzle her neck.

     “Aw…” Bridge puts down her mascara and turns around to give me a kiss. Instead, I’m greeted with an expression of mild disgust. “Ugh, your breath stinks,” she says.

     “I had a salad with balsamic vinaigrette from work. Maybe that’s it.”

     “You? A salad? Are you turning into me?

     “God forbid.”

     Bridge always had a bit of hippie spirit. Whole foods. All natural. She’s big into the ‘what will be, will be’ mentality, and is convinced things happen for a reason.

     Me, I’m a Big Mac chomping, chaos theory advocate. Life is ruled by random chance. No mystical messages for me, no thanks.

     Nevertheless, she shrugs, gives me a peck on my smelly lips, and runs her small hands through her hair.

     “I look O.K.?” she asks.

     “Yeah. You’re being mean to Kayla and Laurie though. Their frumpy asses can’t compete.”

     “That’s not nice,” she says, but she’s laughing, and I can tell she’s pleased. She checks her cell.

     “Shit, it’s seven, I have to go pick them up.”

     “So what’s the plan?” I ask as she skips to the front door. Once again, I follow her.

     “Nothing major. Dinner, Barnes and Noble.” She stops to slip on her shoes. Flats. Characteristically Bridge.

     “Wow. Yeah. Girls’ Night.” I roll my eyes. She gets on tiptoes to give me a goodbye hug.

     “Augh, you’re breathing on me,” she laughs again, breaks away, and opens the door.

     “Get outta here,” I retort, and give her a shove to the shoulder. I can’t resist touching her. She arches an eyebrow and grins. Then she turns and closes the door behind her.

#

     The police told me it happened on Union Valley Road. Bridge was driving. I can picture the three girls, chirping and chattering about the bullshit they chirp and chatter about: the ongoing feuds at work, the antics of Laurie’s little sister, or where they want to be in a year, two years, from now.

     Devin Allister was also on Union Valley Road. I know Devin; I graduated with him. His father is the chief of police. They tell me he was wasted. I can picture how that went too. Devin and his cronies at a club, downing shots. Devin and his buds in the basement, guzzling beers. Or Devin, alone, getting drunk for the hell of it and then deciding a joyride was a good idea.

     The ambulance took sixteen fucking minutes to get there. I know this because Laurie told me, or, rather, the sad, current version of Laurie wrote this down for me, because the girl can’t talk. She knows it was sixteen minutes, because it’s tough being pinned in the shell of a car while your best friends are dying, bleeding, whimpering in shattered pain, and all you can do is sit fucking tight until help comes, and those minutes are long and indelible. Sixteen minutes.

     Kayla shattered her hip in the crash. They hope she can walk. Laurie busted a rib, and the teeth from her bottom jaw are gone. Just gone. Those rumors about dental problems and missing teeth causing Mona Lisa’s weird smile? Kinda true. 

     Bridgett’s dead.

     Devin was unhurt. We all want to press charges, but this is a small town. He’ll be acquitted because his father’s the chief of police, and he’ll be fine.

#

     It’s been a week. The only thing I do is sleep. I sleep all day if I can. I call up my diner buddies so they can cover shifts for me, and then I go back to the frumpled mess that is (our) my bed.

     I left the house to buy toilet paper. This was an accomplishment. It didn’t go so well. I almost broke down in the middle of ShopRite when I walked past the dairy aisle and saw the yogurt brand she liked.

     Bob calls me every so often, proposing hang-outs. I decline. It’s not like I have plans, I just don’t feel like doing anything. He says he understands.

     Lying bastard.

     I wish people would stop calling me and asking me to do normal, everyday things. Assuming I’d want to hang out is insane. How can he comprehend my non-Life now, how dare he treat me with brittle, walking-on-ice attempts at comfort?  

     God, I miss everything. It’s not our bed anymore. It’s not our place.

     The phone. Rings.

     I consider picking it up. It rings again, and I wince.

     “Hello?” My voice sounds old. Unused.

     “Hey! Hey man! It’s Lobo!”

     O.K. This was not what I expected. “Lobo?”

     “Y’man, you forgot about me?” His ridiculously excited tone confuses my already numb brain. I really don’t know how to react. I need to get off the phone with him. “Listen, I want you to come up to the Lab,” he says.

     “I’m…I’m not really in the mood, Lobo. You know,” I say, running a hand through my hair. And I’m not. I am in no mood for a conversation about Gandalf or serotonin. I am in no mood, period.

     “Yeah. I know.” And, the way he says it, I’m mislead into thinking he is trying to be considerate of my ruined feelings.

     “Look, can I call you back?”

     “Nah, man. You need to come here.” It took Lobo only two seconds to blow it. 

     “Look, Lobo, I can’t right now. O.K.?” I feel myself getting upset, testy, my voice cracking.

     “It’s about Bridge,” Lobo blurts. “She’s alive.”

     The heartache is like a bullet tearing through my chest. There’s an actual, physical, pain.

     I lay back, dumbly, on the bed.

     “…what…” I whisper, after a long pause.

     “Hey! Hey man! You hear me?”

     I’m in shock. Maybe the massive overdrive of emotion has paralyzed my system, negating it to a numbed state. I try croaking again, and am only able to repeat myself.

     “What?”

     “I’ll tell you everything if you come up here. You think you’d be able to make it tonight? Hop over on the ol’ choo-choo train?”

     I tear the covers off, and fish a pair of pants off the floor, almost dropping the phone in the process. I yank the pants on while making my way to the front door, which hobbles my gait. I fumble for wallet, car keys, pants zipper, all at the same frenzied time. Make it there tonight? Hells yeah.

     “Lobo, if you’re lying to me-” I say, although I’m grabbing my jacket from the front doorknob.  

     “Only one way you’ll know, huh? Buddy, you’ll be able to talk to her! She’s here, in the, er, flesh. I swear. Room 205!”

     I bang the door open and shut in my haste, almost forgetting to lock it.

#

     She’s alive. Alive. I turn these words over like some forty niner panning for gold. I’m trying to hold onto this cruel glimmer as long as I can. There’s a chance she’s alive. Bridgett. My Bridge.

     The doors of the research facility are glass and automatic, easy to pass through. There’s a receptionist inside, but she doesn’t harass me. People who look like me, like someone possessed and who hasn’t showered in a few days, are not to be deterred from their destination by sign-in procedures.       

     There is nothing in my way, there is nothing that will stop me from seeing her.

     The inside of the lab facility blurs into pastel mints and whites, the tiling and walls unimportant, featureless. I find the door Lobo told me about and swing it open, recklessly. I have to know-

     -a dozen machines surround a bed, almost obscuring the girl laying in it.

     It’s her. Wrapped in stained bandages like an ancient mummy, with a sick labyrinth of tubes threading into her body at unnatural points. Her arm is slung at an awkward, stiff, angle. A weird, glossy film covers the few visible sections of her skin, and it looks drowned, puffy, discolored. But it’s her. I can still see her under this medical mess…

     “Bridge,” I croak. When people check the ‘donate my body to science’ box, I doubt they consider something like this happening.

     Just as she is about to say my name (Can she even speak? I don’t know. How is all this possible?) Lobo appears, grabs my shoulder, nudges my shocked and weightless self outside. I hadn’t even seen him alongside the bed.

     “Lobo,” I stammer, looking straight at him. He holds me by both shoulders and gives me this big goofy grin, his puppy-dog brown eyes looking for a bone of congratulations. His lab coat is stained with something dried and dark. “Lobo.” I try again. I’m overwhelmed. “How is this-“

     “Oh, it’s possible, pal. She’s like the Bride of Frankenstein. Night of the Living Dead. 28 Days Later.”

     I know he’s a socially inept asshole, but I have no idea what he’s talking about. And, I realize I have lost interest in the multitude of questions I thought about during the train ride. I

realize they do not matter. Not a bit. I have one answer to keep me satisfied, and that answer is simple: yes, she’s alive. All I care about is My Bridge, behind that door. “Lobo. Thank you. I don’t care how you did this, or if she’s a- what you’re saying, she’s a- look, we can talk about that later. I don’t want to know. All I care about is, she’s here. I need to see her. Talk to her. Please, Lobo, please. This is one of the few times I’ve been out of the house, except to buy toilet paper.”

     Lobo considers this, and then takes the opportunity to confide in me further. “She won’t survive for very long if we unplug her. All of her vitals…they wouldn’t last. And her rejuvenating tissues, like her skin. It’d die, all over again.”

     (All over again.)

     I decide I couldn’t care less. “Lobo. She’s here. That’s all that matters. You’ve done…what you’ve done is phenomenal.”

     Of course, he doesn’t understand. “I’m trying to improve all this. You know, self support, facial reconstruction. You know. She doesn’t like it. Thinks she’s a monster.” He sniffs. “So, uh, I take it you two want to be alone together? Huh?” Lobo asks, wagging his eyebrows. (God, he’s annoying. But a genius. I can’t believe this…

     He opens the door and leaves me alone with a carnival of blinking IV pumps and broad, multi-buttoned blocks of metal. They beep in rhythm, a twisted sideshow.

     This is an unreal dream, this is some beautiful, unreal dream, and I will savor every second. This is everything I’ve dreamed for, just to have her back, just to be with her, and I feel waves of nervousness mixed with bliss.

     “I wish you didn’t have to see me like this,” she speaks, a hoarse whisper.

     She can speak. Whatever semblance of control I had while with Lobo instantly dissolves. I’m shaking again, and I can’t comprehend who’s in front of me…

     “I missed you,” I say, my voice cracking, and I can feel tears in my eyes again. I want to touch her. I don’t know if I can. Will it hurt her? I wrap my arms around my skinny chest instead, trying to stabilize myself.

     “…that’s life,” she says, in that tissue-paper whisper.

     I see a chair near the bedside, and I take it, sitting down so I can see her better. Her eyes move towards me, and I see regret and timid fear.  

     “Can I…would it hurt if I hugged you?” I ask.

     “I don’t know. Go for it.” Her eyes look nervous, but willing to take a risk. Who would’ve guessed that a simple hug between us could be fraught with so much…uncertainty?

     I pull my chair closer to her bed, and, carefully, rest my arms around her shoulders, letting them relax naturally bit by bit. Gradually, in case it should hurt her. I hear her sigh, and I startle upwards, afraid that I’ve done it, that I’ve wounded her fragile self somehow, but she calms me, saying it’s O.K, and I relax again, and, for the umpteenth time in who cares how many days, I cry.

#

     It’s been another week. Bridge and I both added another week onto our mortal coil.  I’m at the Research Facility with her every possible minute, or on the train, on my way to her. I’ve been treasuring every day with her.

     I still don’t know or care about the details. Medical professionals shuffle in and out around us, Lobo hovers like a fly, proudly buzzing away. They’re talking about more media exposure soon since her condition’s stabilized. She still needs the machines, though. That’s O.K. by me. But, not by her.

     “You call this life? Look at me. Please,” she says, making a feeble motion with her cast-encased arm. The tubes still run in and out of her, her skin is still gray and puffy, developing splotches of bedsores. But I don’t care. She’s here. “This is half-life.”

     “Lobo’s working, you know that. He’s trying to improve everything for you,” I say. But, I feel like a recording, miming back what we both have overheard. I know that feels false, so I speak genuinely, lovingly. “Bridge, who cares if you can’t go out or whatever. You’re still here. That’s all we’ve wanted.”

     She remains unappeased. I’m not getting her drift. “Whatever. Even if Lobo’s able to ‘improve’ me and all that. This is still a false-life. I’m going on borrowed time and it’s just not right. I’m a monster.”

     “Bridge…You’re not a monster.” This wracks me, the thought she should consider herself such. When I do go home at night, this bothers me the most. “And I don’t care if you think this ‘isn’t right.’ I don’t know how to convince you. This is fine. You’re fine. You’re a goddamn miracle.”

     She looks disconsolately to the side. “It doesn’t matter,” she repeats, quietly, “I shouldn’t be here.”

     And I begin to feel a slow panic building.

     “What’s all this mean? Bridge? What’s that mean?”

     She doesn’t reply. She seems to either be trying to think of the right response, or on the brink of tears. Can she cry? (half-life, false-life) Did Lobo take the time to reconnect whatever ducts and glands she needs to make tears?

     “Bridge…” I can’t stand that hopeless look on her face. I slide onto the sheets next to her and, as gently as I can, put my arms around her. She lets her head rest under my chin, and I remember a morning when this nightmare of smashed cars and tubes did not yet exist and antiseptic odors

only existed in a funky, medical tape manner curious to our condo.

     This is peace. I try to hold onto this moment, that memory, for as long as I can.

     We wind up talking, laughing, petting each other with ginger, restrained care, for hours. Talking about what we used to talk about. Laughing over the absurdity of the serious things in life. She does her best to leave me with a handful of gilded memories, meant to last the rest of my lifetime. Or, maybe, just the rest of hers. She does her best.

#

     Do you know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice? Bridge enjoyed it, but it irritated me. It’s a Greek myth, about a guy named Orpheus and his bride, Eurydice. She’s bitten by a snake and dies on their wedding night. Distraught, Orpheus travels to the Underworld, and plays his lute for Hades, the king down there. Hades is so impressed that he agrees to let Eurydice return to the living world…on one condition. If Orpheus turns back before the couple reaches the land of the living, Eurydice will return to the Underworld.  

     And guess what? The stupid guy looks back.

     To me, Orpheus clearly messed up. But Bridge would just shake her head, smirk a little, and say, “Nah, I think she was meant to go back.”

#

     The next day, she is not there. Lobo is. And he is very vocal and angry about her disappearance.

     I stand at the doorframe, watching dumbly, my attention divided between the emptiness of the bed and Lobo’s outrageous fury. He tosses an IV pole out of his way as if he expects to find her behind it.

     “Where is she!” He hollers, the cords on his neck stringy, his face a violent shade of plum. I hear Bridge’s voice in my head.

     (I shouldn’t be here.)

     And I know she’s nowhere in this lab. Knowing this search is hopeless, that this remnant of myself is hopeless, I take the sheet off the bed, and try to find a shred of her scent (marred, hidden by the medical smells) and let myself slide to the floor while Lobo carries on his frenzied rampage.

     I should’ve expected this.

#

     They find her later. She didn’t have a chance to get very far; her (dead) body couldn’t support her past the hedges outside the Facility when the artificial life granted by the machines ran out.

     My Bridge. Bridge, was it really so bad…? Why’d you turn back?  

 

 

 

 

How the Albatross Got Its Wings

 

How the Albatross Got Its Wings

By Robinne Weiss

 

“Grandma! I dreamt last night that I could fly!”

“Yes, child. Of course you did. All those born of our ancestors do.”

“Why is that, Grandma?”

The old woman sighed. “Because once, we could fly.”

“Fly? How could we fly?”

“Many, many years ago, before I was born, before my grandma was born, before even my grandma’s grandma was born, the People had wings. We spent all day in the sky.”

The girl gazed upward while the old woman continued. “We soared with the kettles of broad-winged hawks in the autumn and kept the arctic tern company on her long migrations. We flitted with the chickadee amidst the winter-bare branches, and swooped silently with the owls in the night.”

The old woman chuckled. “We challenged the peregrine falcon to races—and always lost. We danced with the woodcocks in the air. We explored every bit of this land, from mountain to sea. We followed the Great River to its source in a small trickle welling up from the ground, and then to its wide mouth at the sea.”

The ancient eyes no longer looked at her granddaughter—their vision was focused far away.

“Then the Flightless came, with their treasures from the earth—gold, silver, precious gems. They worshipped these treasures, and taught the People their value. The Flightless showed us how to dig and mine, how to extract these treasures for ourselves. We forgot the sky. The silver ribbon of a river glinting in the sun was replaced by silver chains. The glitter of the northern lakes was lost to the glitter of polished stones. The golden rays of sunset gave way to the gold sheen of metal.

“We fashioned jewellery from these treasures. Bird-shaped earrings, necklaces of delicate feathers, pendants showing our own forms with wings outstretched. But we forgot what those wings were for. The tern flew alone, and the falcon raced only the wind. We dug and we delved into the dark earth, forgoing the sky.

“We began to crave the bright treasures. Those who found more than their share hoarded them jealously. Those who found less, stole.”

“When Albatross came to ask for our wings, we gladly cut them off our own backs. Wings were in the way in the underground mines. We could dig much easier without them.”

“Albatross took our wings and put them on his own back. He flew off, never to return to land again. He soars forever now over the sea, exploring the world, and landing only when he must. He lives with ease and dies with a sigh of contentment, for he has seen the wonders of the earth. Meanwhile, we live in toil, and die with our bodies and spirits spent. Rarely do we even look to the skies. We have forgotten the wind and the sun, the pull of stars, the sight of all the world spread out below us.”

Grandma smiled wistfully and sighed. “I suppose it is just a legend…a legend of flight.”

“But, Grandma…I know I flew last night! I went up and up until our house was just a speck, and the fields were wrapped around it like the quilt on my bed. And the forest was so dark and cool-looking, and I could even see the sea off in the distance, and the sun sparkled off the waves, and…Oh Grandma, it was so beautiful!”

“Yes, child. Don’t ever forget it.”

Puzwuk The Orphan Boy And The Starving Time

*Note on the text

Some while ago, in the now Alaskan place where the mountains came down to the sea, and in spring the walrus swam close to shore, and a man could cross the narrow ocean in a skin boat, was the Yapik village of Kingegan. In the village lived Teragloona, an old-man teller of stories.

When the winter snow swept unhindered down the beach, and no hunters went in or out

of the lodge, when the seal oil lamps burnt yellow and red, Teragloona would sit cross legged on the bed ledge and tell stories.

“Ubagok canok,” he would say. “Here is something I am telling you.”

He sat mending his net by the light of a seal oil lamp. “Many times in the not-so-long-ago there was no food. In one of these times, the wind had blown the ice hard on shore, so there were no seals. The walrus had gone south and the white bear did not come. There were no birds in the hills, no fish in the sea. Men went to the meat shelf and came back saying, ‘cowcow peeluck’- no food.

“The villagers sat by their oil lamps and began to starve. There was little seal oil, and as the lamps went out, one by one, death threatened in the starving time of not-so-long-ago. In that time there was an orphan boy named Puzwuk.” Old Teragloona had been speaking slowly, and he began speaking slower still. “He was not like other boys, that Puzwuk. His mother had died of sickness and his father had been carried off on an ice floe. He was passed from family to family, but no one accepted him for long, for he was too young to work, but ate as much as anyone else. Sometimes he was able to sleep on skins and eat pickled seal heart, but most times he slept on dirt and munched gristly polar bear necks.

“Finally a widow took him in and cared for him alongside her own son. And Puzwuk, to make himself stronger, began to run. At first he ran up and down the beach, then up and down the hills behind the village. He became the fastest, strongest runner in the village, with lungs like barrels and legs of iron. And then came this starving time.

“There were no seals to be caught, and the walrus had gone south. The polar bears did not

come down from the north- there were no fishes, no birds, no foxes. It was the starving time. As the oil lamps went out the cold crept in, and the villagers crowded into the cosgy, the main lodge.

“Only Puzwuk was strong enough to still go hunting each day. The other villagers only huddled together and cried ‘El-lect-pon-a-muck’– this is entirely too bad. Puzwuk went out every day, finding nothing and was about to give up when one day he saw little dark spots on the snow. The spots were tiny birds, sand pipers.

“Puzwuk ran so fast he was able to grab one of the sandpipers. When he brought the bird to the cosgy that night the villagers cried, “See, see. He has a bird. How foolish we were to put him out of our house.’ But a sandpiper has meat only the size of a thumb, and each of the villagers was able to only get the hint of a taste.

“The next day Puzwuk was able to catch two sandpipers, the day after that three. But the tiny birds could not provide enough meat, and the villagers continued to weaken.

When Puzwuk went out again to hunt he ran up into the hills. There his sharp eyes could see ptarmigans, little birds the size of quail. Ptarmigan feathers are all white, and the birds had hidden their black bills in the snow, but Puzwuk saw them anyway. And even though they flushed and started to fly away he was able to run down one of the birds and bring it back to the village.

‘Oh! See!’ the villagers yelled out. ‘He has a ptarmigan. How sorry we are that we put the boy out of our house.’ The villagers each ate a small, small bit of the bird, but were still too weak to move about, and so the next day Puzwuk once more set out to hunt alone. As with the

sandpipers, each day Puzwuk was able to catch one more bird. But it was not enough. More seal oil lamps sputtered out, and the villagers grew colder and weaker.

On the fourth day of running up into the hills Puzwuk happened to look back and saw a mist rising from the ice far out to sea. As he stared he saw the mist rise high, then disappear, then rise again. ‘Ahneca,’ he thought.’ There is open water out there, and there are seals in the open water. The mist is their breath. When it disappears they have dived, and when the mist reappears the seals have surfaced. I am too far away today, but tomorrow I will hunt for seal.’

“When he awoke the next morning the cosgy was completely black, not a single oil lamp burning. ‘Now it will become cold, very cold,’ he said. And when Puzwuk looked in the villagers’ eyes he saw that the light had died there as well, that they did not move, and scarcely breathed. ‘They are starved and perhaps will freeze,’ he thought. But he remembered the rising mist. ‘Perhaps,’ he told the villagers, ‘I may get a seal today.’

“It was a long trudge from the village to the spot of open water. The ice had heaped in great jagged piles. The boy moved slowly and carefully but even so fell often on the slick ice, banging his arms and legs on the sharp fragments. At last he came to the open pool. ‘Ahneca,’ he whispered to himself. ‘There are seals here.’

“Puzwuk crept up to the water’s edge and waited patiently for two hours until a young seal surfaced in range of his harpoon. He speared the seal and dragged it out of the water. He began singing happily, ‘I-I-am-ah” and the falls and bruises on the walk back to the village seemed not to hurt. He threw open the flap to the cosgy and dragged in the seal, ‘See what I have,’ he yelled.

“‘Oh! See!’ cried out the starving ones. ‘He has a seal. How foolish we were to put the boy out of our house.’ The widow had enough strength to cut up the seal and give each villager a thin slice of meat and a strip of blubber. The villagers grumbled, saying that each should have had bigger slices, but felt better and thanked the boy.

“Then Puzwuk gathered twigs together and made a fire, hanging a strip of blubber above it. Soon one seal oil lamp was glowing red and yellow, then two, then five. And the villagers began to hope that, after all, they might not starve and freeze.

The next day the boy went back to the open water and was able to spear two seals, then strained and panted until he had dragged the two seals back to his village. And the next day, again, he harpooned a seal.

But on the fourth day, after harpooning two seals, Puzwuk was caught in a raging blizzard that blew the snow like a pelt over him. The boy lost his way, and was afraid he would freeze in the howling storm. But he did not give up, and dragged the two seals after him. Finally he came to a shore. He knew that this was not his shore, but could see a faint light, and hoped to find shelter in a house. When he entered the house he saw several thin people huddled around a lone oil lamp, which flicked with its last drops of oil.

“’ This is too bad,’ Puzwuk said, ’You have no food. But see, even though this is not a proper visit, you may have my two seals.’ They took his gift gratefully and prepared meat and rendered seal oil for the lamps. When the storm had blown over Puzwuk left and after two days had found his way home. He told the widow what he had done. She was not angry.

“’What you have done is good,’ she said. ‘Always do that way and you will never lack

game to hunt’

Teragloona stopped telling the story long enough to shift the seal net in his lap so he could work on a new spot. “The next morning Puzwuk took down his harpoon and walked back out to the open water to hunt for seal. But there were no seals at the hole in the ice and Puzwuk decided he must walk further out and find another spot.

“He walked further out, where the ice was drifting and piling up, and where giant ice bergs had gone aground. Puzwuk was walking around the base of a huge ice berg when he heard a loud, coarse roar. He thought the sound came from another ice berg breaking apart and falling into the water, and continued walking. But the roar came again, louder and fiercer.

“Puzwuk stopped and turned, holding his breath, trying to see the source of the roar. Then, Ahneca! A huge white bear came snuffling around the edge of the ice berg. Matna! Such a bear he was, with powerful forepaws, thick neck, gleaming eyes and bright teeth.

“The bear never paused, for this was his starving time as well. He roared even louder and charged, hoping to crack the boy’s bones with his ivory teeth. ‘Ahneca! Matna!,’ yelled the boy, and began to run around the base of the ice berg, with the bear chasing after him. Bears can run faster than man, but Puzwuk was able to hold his distance as they circled around and around the ice.

“Puzwuk heard the bear’s hoarse breathing coming closer, and willed his legs to move faster. All this while the boy had held onto his harpoon, and he had a desperate idea. “There is a spot of soft ice on the side of this ice berg,’ he thought. ‘ Each time I pass it I will give it a hard jab with my harpoon. When the space is big enough I can crouch inside it.’

“And so he did, running round and around the ice, jabbing each time until there was a big enough space for him to hide in. Puzwuk ran even faster, putting more distance between him and the bear, then jumped into the recess, turned around, and prepared to strike.

“’I may be killed,’ Puzwuk thought,’ but the meat we could eat and the bone marrow we could suck from this bear would keep us from starving until spring.’ The boy heard the rasping breathing approach, and when he saw the bear’s breath mist in front of him he struck. The harpoon entered just behind the bear’s front shoulder blade and pierced its heart. The bear dropped with a roar and skidded many feet down the ice. It was dead.

“Puzwuk returned to the village and told his people of the bear. ‘Those of you who are strong enough,’ he said, ’come with me so we can bring back the meat, bones and pelt. There will be plenty for all.

Teragloona put down his net and stared at those in the lodge before speaking again. “There was plenty, and the starving time passed. Little Puzwuk, unwanted except for a poor widow, had saved his village. Tiny sandpipers, little ptarmigan, seals and a great white bear, he found and killed them all. But think, had he not started with one tiny sandpiper, all in the village would have died.”

end

This is a retelling of and homage to a tale from Told Beneath the Northern Lights by Roy J. Snell (Little, Brown and Company 1925). The word Eskimo has been replaced with the native American name for the same reason that I’d prefer to be called Irish-American rather than Mick or Bog Trotter.

Two Muses

The first muse lay on the endless bed, a sprawling array of pillows and blankets and mattresses. She looked up at the other muse who stood on a few blue pillows. The other muse’s heavy brow was taut, he gave himself headaches. He pondered her strange skin and then the sky, which appeared like God’s dream—the world around them. The clouds were perfect, as always, breathlessly reeling with sweeping watercolors.

“What is it about you that attracts me?” she said. Her fluttering eyelashes made a zephyr that glided down toward the earth.

“I don’t know. Think about it,” he replied, and they dipped their toes into the never-ending conversation. “Am I attractive?” A shooting star fell below the horizon.

“There’s something that attracts, yes,” she said. “I’ll give you that much.”

“Physical?” He stepped lightly over a couple pink pillows and began to walk a circle around her. The endless bed was soft as water, light as air.

She shifted her body and twisted her thighs. A few distant clouds parted. “In a way, but there is more, something inside you I cannot place. But what is physicality anyway, but an extension of one’s mind?

And the sky whispered of darkness.

“So we have the world’s character,” he said, sitting down to the scent of pineapple and tulips. The endless bed opened to reveal a hole beneath them, and a couple pillows fell into the hole, through the sky as raindrops toward the city below. “See,” he pointed at the tiny figures, people who hurried from hiding place to hiding place. They wore hats on their heads out of respect for the muses. “See the people, we give them character, the static pool of warm existence. We also give them place and one another and to each person and place there is a situation.”

“That’s what I love about you, my One,” she said with a smile. Her purple eyes reflected the setting sky scape. Some people, near the shoreline, stopped to admire the colorful horizon.

He did not smile, but looked back at the city. “And for those who do not appreciate character, for them we give personality and desire. ‘Me,’ they say. For each, they plot their lives and weigh their woes and joys accordingly. A morsel is a feast or a curse. They love their bodies and their situations, but they do not seek our character or the warm pool of the air, or the bed…

She smiled coyly. The scarce trees of the city rustled. “That is but a part of you in their situation,” she said, scooting closer to him on the pastel pillows. She pointed, “See the stern, proud gesture when Robert there refrains from speaking his judgment to his acquaintance. That is a gleam of your character in his eyes.”

“That may be so,” he said as he stood. In the mountains snow began to fall. He pointed, “But where Angela puts down her fork to donate her leftovers on the street—that is your humble gleam.” He began to smile. His eyes reflected the yellow rising moon in the east.

She checked his smile with a serious gaze. “Perhaps we only see each other. Still, why do they place their lives on cards and then tack them to their walls, to frame existence, as if there were an end and a beginning?”

“For their breed of character they must believe that their walls are theirs, that the world changes with them, and that their skin is the limit of their lives. Or else conflict is lost.” He subdued his smile, relaxed his brow, and looked into her soft glossy eyes.

Her eyelashes intermingled. She shook her leg, as if to shed something light off it. “This is conflict.” From the edge of the pillows poured silos of water upon the city. The dark clouds above coalesced in anxiety. “Do I not have conflict, being in the place where I am? Does this not manifest?” she said. “Isn’t the conflict of space but energy in occupancy?”

He watched the rain fall upon the grimy concrete of the city and saw rubber shoes splash in a hustle toward shelter. “And what of time?” he asked.

“Must we go round and round forever in this way? Doesn’t memory cling to anything? Is it but sand thrown against a ceiling to never stick and show proof?” She sat more upright and pillows whisked in to fill the space at her back.

“Bravo, my One,” he said. “Belief keeps this ball aloft in volley between us.”

“A ball, you call it?” She stretched her leg and slid her toe along his ankle. The streetlights turned on in the city.

He sat back down on their pillowed floor. The starry space above them wound in elliptical fashion like the most intricate and ancient clock. “An oblong globe, then. That which bends on itself, an endless figure, an egg of perpetual motion.”

“There are two, remember?” She smiled more and moved closer to him. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders and her face leaned against his. A blanket of clouds nestled against the mountains.

“Two forcesbeing the same.” Something in him quieted. He looked at the people who began to unwind for the night. Each of them did what they needed, wasting time, rearranging and stacking blocks of reality. “See how the lack of character causes them to categorize?” he said. See how they separate and create tension, building more and more fractions between them, using more and more of their life to make a more exhaustive end?”

“It’s only natural,” she kissed him on the cheek. “From one there are two and from two there is one more. The egg of motion, remember? The cold air began to sink.

The egg is all character,they said in unison. He yawned and held her and they held each other. With a kiss his eyes caught the yellow reflection of the sun in the east and hers caught the moon, which was now purple.

Sweet Gluttony

In her prime, Adephagia would frolick in Sicily’s bounty – camel-hued fields of wheat and barley…

~

“No more.” She turned her head.

The dirty-pink chieftain grinned wide as a melon and shoved a squirming rodent in her mouth.

In spite, the fallen goddess chewed ravenously and lapped the vermin’s blood from her lily cheeks. And like a squall, she scanned the pigs with white-hot eyes, “You like that do you?”

“Yup!” The impish herd of swine snorted with delight; their overlord snatched more rats from the feeding cage.

Adephagia plucked a tendon from her teeth and managed to stifle a retch then pushed back her hair, now stringy and slick, trying to stay poised. “Why are you doing this?”

Several toads still flopped in her bloated belly, and she hunched over in shame; the crudeness made her cry. To block the filth and foul, the lady legionnaire closed her eyes hard and, though tightly bound, motioned about in her chains like a child, as if spinning, flying. “I used to dance amongst the harvests,” she sang out. But her feet were slippery atop the entrails – the sucking sounds were graceless.

“I remember the feathery stalks,” she said, “They were so –” the hecklers clapped their cloven hoofs and twitched their tasseled tails jolting Adephagia from her reverie. She dropped her head in despair, “– soft upon – my face,” she whispered.

 

“Yeah, yeah, let me guess. You did all that ‘so the poor could have enough’ right?” mocked the ringleader. Squeals spewed forth from the frenzied drove.

“Truly,” she begged, “Benedicite! If the meager were able to feast then we were all better off.”

The wild gluttons crinkled their sodden snouts and bleated… moving in on her.

“No wait! I don’t understand! I sacrificed. I loved!”

Amidst his trotters, the head swine clutched a knife – “Are you given to appetite ma’ lady?” he asked – and jabbed at her dainty throat but stopped abruptly.

“Wait, I almost forgot.” He dangled a writhing snake before her, “Eat only enough for you,” he grunted, “lest you have your fill, and vomit.”

“I’m in Hell!”

“No, dear Adephagia, you are mistaken. This is not your Hell, it’s my Heaven.”

A Cowboy in Camelot

Josh stood in his stirrups stretching his cramped and lanky legs. Shading his eyes from the hot afternoon sun he squinted at the horizon. At the far edge of the high desert plateau, over clumps of paloverde and proud spikes of saguaro he could make out dust clouds and smoke mixing with the mid-day mirages. That’d be Tucson, he thought to himself. In only a few hours the first phase of his quest would be over. He was nearly 17-years old, and ready, even rarin’ to take on the world.

It had been a couple of days of steady riding, long enough to almost forget his guilt and homesickness. He wasn’t one to rush into events. The slow, purposeful gait of his horse was just perfect for his manner. He’d learned the art of patience from his steadfast father, an educated man who’d given up the safe life of the East to try and scratch a living from the dead sands of the Southwest territories.

A sudden movement in the brush to his right and impulsively his hand snapped to the revolver strapped on his side. In less time than a scorpion’s sting the gun was out, cocked and aimed, ready to do battle. But his enemy only proved to be a jackrabbit startled awake from its mid-day nap.

In a smooth and practiced move Josh relaxed the hammer of the Colt and the trigger within himself. He felt a little silly, and knowing he was getting closer to town he reminded himself that he would have to bow to the rules of chivalry and keep his weapon sheathed until it was time. The right time.

He cradled his gun with both hands and looked at its nicked, blue finish and roughened,

worn walnut grips. He had always thought there was something feminine about his revolver, although he wasn’t really sure since he’d only seen a few women in his life. But its bulging, suggestive curves; smooth, warm touch; its buxom cylinder; the sharp smell that lingered around it, and of course its innocent appearance masking the explosive danger all suggested the kind of women the cowpokes around his ranch warned him about.

Years earlier, when the spread of his hands was smaller, Josh rescued this Colt from the personal effects of a dead ranch hand. The old guy had been a quiet sort, just a drifter who’d passed through one summer and stayed to work. He’d died of natural causes, pa’ said. Together, father and son gave him a decent Christian burial up near where Josh’s mother and sister were buried.

But before Josh told his pa’ about finding the body, he’d swiped the revolver, holster and a few boxes of shells from beneath the cowpoke’s bunk. Pa’ didn’t notice, and Josh carefully hid his booty of sacred icons from his disapproving father. Like any Wild West rancher, they always kept a loaded rifle and shotgun near the front door of their one-room cabin. But pa’ didn’t like handguns, “instruments for lowly men, brigands and highwaymen,” he’d say with a sneer.

For several years, after the chores were done or when pa’ was rounding strays in the high country, Josh would take the gun up to the barn loft. He named it “Excalibur,” after the famous sword from the stories his father was always reading to him. There, in the shadows and quiet he’d reverently weigh Excalibur in his hand, take it apart, clean it, reassemble it, load and unload it until the copper shell casings were buffed gold. Barn mice became desperadoes and black knights, and he’d draw the sights down on them with a speed he knew would win any tournament and protect Camelot from evil-doers.

Josh artfully slid the gun back in its holster and adjusted his posture in the saddle. He recalled the time when his father left the spread for a few days to do ranch business. Josh waited until his pa’ was well out of hearing range, then he gathered his weaponry and rushed to the arroyo. Even though he was alone for a thousand miles, he checked to see if anyone was watching. Satisfied he was alone he took aim on a nearby clod of packed dirt and for the first time fired the Colt. The shock of the explosion and recoil left him shaking, excited, even thrilled. He’d missed his target by a few feet, but where the 44-bullet crashed was a small crater of dust that somehow still filled him with pride.

He carefully examined what he had done, retracing the bullet’s path in his mind. He knew he had only so many bullets, not enough for trial and error testing. He’d have to be real “methodic,” like his father was always telling him. He removed the remaining bullets and practiced with the unloaded gun, noticing his tendency to jerk left when he pulled the trigger. Once he corrected this he placed one bullet in the chamber, aimed and squeezed. For some reason this time the report didn’t seem as loud, the recoil wasn’t as severe, and best of all, his target was a thing of the past. From dust to dust, he thought, just like pa’ said over the grave of Excalibur’s original owner.

For the next few years, Josh practiced his secret knighthood art with a passion that gave his young years focus and wisdom. Once his hands were large enough, and his arms as strong as Lancelot’s, he began to earnestly study the art of fast-draw. He practiced everywhere. He greased and massaged his holster until it gave no resistance, and filed down the barrel sites so they wouldn’t catch. And he continued to practice until he was faster than his own thoughts, and that’s when he knew he was ready for the tournaments in Tucson.

He reached the outskirts of the dusty town, winding through scattered adobes and darting, brawny chickens. A hot breeze smelled of the city’s secrets, scents he could only imagine: whiskey, women, tobacco, as well as odors he knew well, like men’s sweat and onions cooking. He grew excited as the exotic mixed with the familiar.

Would his father ever forgive him, he wondered? In his haste to leave before his father’s return, he’d left only a fragment of a message: “Gone to the Tournaments to make my fortune and find my fate.” He knew his father would understand what he meant, but would he understand why? Pa’ loved the eloquent stories of the Round Table, the heroic deeds of the men of yore. But Josh didn’t know what pa’ thought about these new times when swords and lances were exchanged for Colts and repeating rifles and sawed-off shotguns.

It made no difference. He’d make his father real proud, of that he was certain. He’d live strictly to the Code of Honor and go slow in his contests. He may be fast, but since he’d never seen another man draw, he didn’t know how fast the best could be. No, he’d happily start in the lower ranks and work his way up in a careful, methodic kinda way.

An old man stepped out of one of the squat adobes, stopped and looked up at him, then tucked his head and scurried away. Josh knew he wouldn’t be recognized, not yet at least. But he’d make a good first impression, and he straightened his posture and held his reigns high. He was satisfied knowing it wouldn’t be long before word about his victories and speed would be the talk of the land, and men such as that geezer would smile and salute him.

The main road into Tucson was long and thick in fine dust. Someone was baking. A sweet, intoxicating smell reminded him of the last few days of salted meat and sour bread. Josh inhaled deeply and remembered back to his last desert cottontail he’d out gunned on the trail. Nothing left but a pair of twitching ears and some ready meat for the greasewood fire. Times would be different soon.

Closer to the center of town his excitement grew. It was all so remarkable, probably not much different than Camelot, and so many people that they couldn’t possibly know one another. He was surprised that in the cooling brightness of the day there were no gun duels in the streets. He’d expected to find tanned and spidery gunslingers facing each other at dusk. And when the sun set, the final victor would collect up his winnings, his piles of guns and belts, his sets of new boots, hats and a fresh horse, and whatever money he collected from the purse of the losers. Then the victor would stroll back to the bar to be greeted with applause, warm embraces from the bar girls, and the winner would join the hallowed circle of champions.

Other than a leathery dog that chased out of a stable barking at his horse, no one seemed to notice him on this most important day. No messengers raced ahead to announce his arrival. No peasants asked to see him perform. No boys begged to be his page. But none of this really mattered. His invisibility would work in his favor in the early rounds. He had it all figured. He’d challenge a few beginners to duels, and then when his reputation was established he’d proceed to score against some of the older masters, at least those who’d dare to face him. He remembered the lessons his father told about the vain knights who’d rushed into contests too early, too ill prepared and how they paid for their foolishness with their lives, a fate Josh was in no hurry to share. No, he’d live by the rules, faithfully follow the Code, and work his way up to a point when he could return to pa’ and the ranch rich and respected, a trusted warrior of the Territory.

In the middle of town Josh found a collection of dirty, boisterous cantinas scattered around the main street. Music poured from some, while in others old men sat around tables playing checkers, cards or just talking in clouds of cheap cigar smoke. He made a random choice and tied his horse to a hitching post outside one of the more ramshackle establishments. It was a loud place, and he saw that it was active as a summer anthill as he stepped inside.

Nobody looked up, which was fine with him since he was standing there gawking like a horny toad on a desert rock. In the dim light of the smoky room he saw it was filled with men, more people than he’d seen in a lifetime, all talking and laughing and drinking. He boldly lunged towards the dark wood bar, and rested his elbows on the polished surface as if he’d done it a thousand times.

“What’ll ya’ have, son?” The portly barkeep approached him.

“Ah, nothin’ just yet.” Josh didn’t want to admit that he had no money, at least none yet. Besides, he had never taken a drink before and his pa’s warnings made him careful to do nothing that might affect his quick draw technique.

The bartender glared and walked away to serve another paying customer. Josh used the moment to turn and size up the other men standing around the bar. It was then that he noticed that none of them were wearing guns.

“Hey, cowboy, didn’t you read the sign? Or can’t you read?” It was a woman’s voice. “If you wanta stay, you gotta buy a drink and check in your gun.”

He reeled around to face a pockmarked, mustached, heavily powdered woman. He suddenly felt boyish, thick tongued. He had no idea what to say, so he did what seemed normal and ducked his head and fled past her towards the swinging doors.

Back on the street he found a secluded corner out of the hustle and traffic where he could sit, think, breathe. This wasn’t what he expected to find in the big city. He felt rattled, cheated. This wasn’t at all like what he thought it’d be. It wasn’t like pa’s stories or the book his mother had toted from their Eastern home, the book with sweeping illustrations of maidens and proud men in armor atop muscular steeds. Maybe he’d just gone into the wrong place. Surely, even in Camelot there must have been rotten people and evil places. It was time to try some other saloons around town. He’d need to win at least one man’s purse and booty by nightfall in order to find a room and meal, and it was gettin’ late.

He stood, dusted off his arms and thighs, and continued his quest. The next bar was nearly empty except for a short barkeep and a stout, well-dressed gent who was probably the town banker. They both glanced at him as he stepped inside, and nothing was said as he quietly retreated back to the street to seek the next place.

The third bar was a low ceiling, dirt floor cantina. A few senoritas pressed through a crowd of low-life men passing out short glasses of amber drink. Several men played cards while others hunched over a crude wooden bar. All wore pistols and looked tough, rowdy, ready for a challenge. He immediately knew this was the place he sought.

Josh stepped inside. The smell of thick smoke and unkempt bodies nearly stopped him, but he was determined to get his first challenge over with, get the day over with, collect his reward and maybe, he was surprised to admit, even head back to the ranch for a few days with pa’. He threaded his way through the mob to a small gap at the bar. Before the bartender could ask him what he wanted Josh turned around and faced the room.

“Is there anyone daring enough to accept my challenge?” His voice felt strangely weak and thin compared to the whiskey drenched roar around him. No one seemed to notice.

“I said, is there anyone willing to accept my challenge!” This time he shouted and the room grew immediately silent.

A dusty cowpoke a few men away asked, “What’s that you say?” A few others chuckled as he stepped away from the bar and repeated his question, “What was it you jus’ said?”

Josh looked around trying his best to not show his pity for the rumpled fellow.

“Once again, I asked if there was anyone who wanted to accept my challenge.” He pointed to Excalibur on his hip then raised his hand and motioned past the swinging doors. “It’s getting late in the day, we’re losing light.”

Out of the throng clumsily stepped a particularly vile cowpuncher. He wore a greasy and spotted kerchief over a frayed denim shirt. But around his waist was a shiny black gun belt, and hanging in the holster a sparkling, silver six-shooter. This would be a good first prize, and dispensing with this man would feel OK, to boot. The man approached Josh in only a few steps. Suddenly he was standing directly in front of him, pushing into his face.

“What da’ya’ mean with this here ‘challenge?’”

Josh figured his foe wasn’t used to challenges, or maybe in Tucson they had a different word for it. Plus, who’d want to challenge this loathsome creature anyway, even for such a new looking gun set.

“You know, out on the street, ten paces, face to face.”

“Are you trying to say you wanna gun fight? Out on the street?” His adversary turned and addressed the crowd in slurred speech, “This little shit wantsa gun fight! Didja’ all hear that?”

The crowd laughed, and Josh turned red and angry.

“Yea, you heard me. Usual rules. Best man wins the other man’s goods.”

“Usual rules, you says….” He was still shouting at the other men of the bar, “Usual rules? Does that mean no shootin’ at peckers?” He suddenly turned and pressed his face within inches of Josh’s. “You want usual rules, you got ’em. I accept.”

For a brief moment Josh realized that his knights of yore probably had to start like this too, sparring with riff-raff and cleaning out the ranks. But he was looking forward to the day he’d be past this lowly form of challenge, to the time when it would be more dignified, mannerly, when his opponents would be more refined, like he was.

“Well come on sonny boy. Like ya’ said, light’sa fadin’.”

He swept his burly arm towards the door and the men in the way stepped aside clearing an aisle that led to the street. Josh didn’t wait for a second offer. Boldly and filled with the confidence of any 17-year old on the first step of his fate he marched ahead. Just as he reached the swinging gates he heard a loud explosion behind him, and in that instant felt a powerful punch on his back and a burning ripping through the core of his chest. The force plowed him through the doors and face down into the dusty street in a limp pile.

He couldn’t move and he was feeling very cold. The world suddenly felt hollow, filled with echoes and shadows. Out of the corner of his vision he could see the spreading blood leaking from somewhere inside him. It was brown and matted down the street muck. Behind him he could hear a pile of men rushing through the door to look. They were laughing, slapping his foe on the back and mumbling something about the usual rules.

Josh tried to protest, tried to yell and that he’d been cheated and claim the Code had been broken. But nothing on his body worked as he felt the cold take hold and Camelot fade in the distance.

The Intensest Rendezvous

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
                —“The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” by Wallace Stevens

“…But, [in] ancient Greece and ancient Rome – people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings…People believed that creativity was a divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source…they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius…”
                —“Your Elusive Creative Genius” by Elizabeth Gilbert

“He’s at it again. Feeling sorry for himself.” X looked down on the writer, a man once handsome in an intriguing way, now sagging and balding, sitting at the kitchen counter before a blank piece of paper. He scratched out a few words, but she could see they were stillbirths again, just black marks on the page. The few words they had managed to breath life into moments ago had turned into black flies that had died, now scattered haphazardly over the white paper. The writer went to the bathroom, opened a drawer in the sink vanity, pulled out a swab and cleaned his ears. He sighed, returned to the kitchen and poured himself another cup of coffee.

“Someone poke him,” X said.

Q jumped down from her perch immediately and poked him in the back. He absently mindedly scratched his back, and then his face relaxed and they could feel his mind start to hum. “Goody!” Q said dusting off her fingers. She returned to her perch and folded her thin legs around each other, delicate as a grasshopper.

The man sat back down and scratched out a few more words. X crept up behind him, laid hand on his shoulder and leaned over to breathe into the words, but just as they began to wriggle into life he swatted them. The humming stopped. More dead flies.

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you twice, we should just go find someone else,” W said without looking up from the sharp edge of a fingernail he had been filing with fierce concentration.

“Will you quit with the clichés?” X said, swatting the air at a the spray of little gnats his words had launched. “Once you let them in, you can’t get rid of them.”

“What can I say? I’m flabby. Sitting around 40 years is bad for a genius’ health. Talk to the writer. We need some action.”

They watched silently as the man began to rearrange the flies on the page.

“God help us. There he goes, carting them around like Romeo dancing with Juliette’s dead body in the tomb. Another failed rendezvous.” W threw down the nail file. “I can’t watch.” He vanished.

“Come back! We need you!” Q bleated.

“Don’t worry,” X said, patting Q’s cheek where she had a birthmark shaped like a tiny hand. Maybe geniuses could be born again to another writer, she mused. Maybe Q had been Nathaniel Hawthorne’s muse, helping him to spawn “The Birthmark.” Maybe they wouldn’t fade away into nothing if this writer never developed a productive practice.

“W will be back,” she said. “He acts negative, but underneath he’s a die-hard, just like us. The old faithful.”

“How many did there used to be?”

“Oh, hundreds.” X’s voice was low and warm. “When our writer was just a boy, it was one non-stop party around here. We frolicked, we merged, we divided and multiplied. It was a good time.” She rubbed her thighs and gave a worn smile.

“What happened to them?”

“Faded,” she shrugged. “One by one. They couldn’t help it. Some gave up. Some left.”

“To find other writers?”

“You can’t switch writers, as far as I know. Others have tried. But we’ve never heard from them again. We are part of him, unique to him.”

“So it’s our fault that he can’t write?”

“No, it’s more complicated than that. It’s about working together. Everyone has to do their part.”

The writer got up and went to the corner of the kitchen. With his bare hand, he gently brushed few dead spiders and flies onto a piece of paper, then dumped them onto the page at the counter and rearranged their bodies. He paused, peering into other corners. He gathered a few cobwebs and brought them back to the page, attaching them to the various flies and spiders.

It was a mess.

He crumpled the page and left the room.

*

Q had been trying on all of the writer’s different coats and hats in front of the mirror and cavorting around for a few hours before the writer finally decided to take a walk. He, too, dithered over his coats and hats. Should he wear the beret or the cowboy hat? Maybe Sherlock’s hat? Or Emily’s white dress? He settled on the artist’s beret. They hovered over him hopefully as he strolled, notebook in had, through the park. But he dismissed everything he saw.

W tisked and shook his head. He was a shade paler ever since he had vanished. X laid her hand silently on his arm and shushed him. Q darted after the writer, poking him, laughing and running away. As the writer passed a willow tree, she hung from the branches, shaping herself into similar silver tassels. He paused briefly and studied the tree.

He gathered a few flowers. There weren’t many at this time of year, some Purple Cone Flowers and Black-Eyed Susans. They held their breath as he returned to the house and tried to mold the flowers into words. This was good material. But the arrangements turned out stiff and stilted; he was being too meticulous and thoughtful. Nothing happened on the page.

*

Another time the writer finally noticed the flint and quartz rocks they had channeled for him, and now he hunched over the white page at the kitchen counter, striking them against each other, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, trying all kinds of different angles.

“Come on,” X whispered tensely. She could feel his mind begin to hum.

Then it happened. He chanced upon just the right angle and speed, and a spark flew.

“He’s got it,” W cried.

W, X and Q gathered around him and channeled language chi for all they were worth adding their chemistry to his brain juice. The spark he had struck floated, glowed orange and formed a word. Then more word-embers appeared, beautiful breathing things, piquant, and fluttery. The writer grabbed up his pen and began writing, and embers emerged from his pen, twisting themselves into words, burning themselves onto the page and rising again into the air, sparking more words to life. The color began to return to W’s face. X’s eyes grew bright. The writer looked up in wonder at his creation, the light of the words writing tiny orange messages across his face.

“Here we go!” Q clapped her hands.

But they all smelled it at the same time, slightly turpentine at first, then blossoming richly.

A knock came at the door.

The writer didn’t seem to hear it.

“Oh God. It’s them. Too soon.” X said. “W, do something.”

W jumped down and braced himself against the door. “If he lets them in, it’s all over,” he said over his shoulder to Q.

“Who is it?” Q cried.

“The critics, the judges, the egos, the perfectionists. Where they flourish we die!” he yelled.

The knocking came again, louder, the smell suffocating.

The writer’s eyes twitched halfway to the door for a millisecond, watering slightly. The words slowed and dimmed a fraction.

X grabbed his face and kept it trained on the words.

There it was again, more fists this time. Insistent.

The writer got up and headed for the door. X groaned.

“Every time! Every god-damned time,” W said, leaning all his weight against the door.

Like a man facing the firing squad, the writer opened the door, sending W sprawling backward. In marched a panel of judges, black robes flapping, skunk smell blasting explosively all around them.

Q jumped down from her perch and scooped as many words as she could into her skirt, but they were already turning to ash.

“What’s that crap I smell?” exclaimed one judge, pointing at the skeletons of words on the page, now no more than pen scratches. Gathering more cloth in one hand, Q goosed the pile of ash in her skirt, trying to fluff it up.

“Looks derivative to me,” said another.

“Get me a cup of tea!” said another.

“Coffee for me!”

“And croissants! Don’t forget the croissants.”

“Only the best!” they said to each other, chuckling.

Eyes wide with horror, Q looked from the judges to the disappearing pile of ash in her skirt as the writer slouched toward the stove to put on water and reached under the counter for a jar of flour.

“It’ll never go anywhere,” said a judge, flinging the writer’s pages to the floor.

“Why did he let them in?” Q asked, feeling queasy. “Why does he see them so clearly and not us?”

X shook her head, sadly. W dusted himself off and kicked a judge savagely in the backside. The judge didn’t seem to notice, commenting, “A bad idea to begin with.”

“Only a brilliant man can write literature,” said a fat one, nodding gravely.

The writer placed a silver tea and coffee set on a tray before the judges and turned back to the laborious process of making croissants. The judges delightedly poured for each other, sat down and prepared for a long and judicious night.

Q, dropped her now empty skirts, and the three of them retreated to a plane where they would be safe from the stench.

*

The writer was searching the corners for more insects again, dust pan in hand.

“I don’t feel so good,” Q said.

X lay her hand on Q’s brow with a worried expression. “You’re a touch feverish.” She brushed her thumb over Q’s tiny handprint birthmark. Hawthorne’s story had been about the divinity of imperfection. When the alchemist had tried to remove the birthmark from his wife’s cheek, he had killed her.

“You don’t look so good yourself,” Q said.

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

W lay weakly in the corner, scowling. One of his legs had begun to disappear. The writer had gotten out a long, thin rag, laced it behind the radiator and was now gently pulling it back and forth watching the wads of dust and debris fall out.

“We’re doomed,” W said.

Q looked tearfully from W to X. “Tell me a story.”

“About what?” X asked.

“Like where I came from.”

“You just popped up,” said X.

“From where?”

“From him. Every once in a while, he opens up to us and when we all find the flow, new geniuses are born. The more of us there are, the stronger we get. We were so thrilled when you sparkled into existence. The writer was sitting by a moonlit lake, and you seemed to come shimmering out of the trail of light across the water, a delicate sprite. It had been a very long time since any new muses were born.”

The writer was on his hands and knees now, counting the tiles on the kitchen floor.

“How old am I?” Q asked.

“Very young. You’re only half formed. Just a baby.”

“How old are you?”
“Very old, and yet not so old at all. I’ve been here since the writer’s beginning.

W, too.”

W smirked and circled an index finger dismissively in the air. “Ride ’em cowboy.”

Q looked back toward the writer. He was walking resolutely into the center of the kitchen dragging an enormous dictionary. He dropped to his knees, placed the dictionary on the floor and slammed open the cover. He grabbed a word in each hand and clunked them down on the floor.

W raised an eyebrow and sat up. “Could work. They’re not alive, but that could change.”

The three crept up behind him. The writer took more words and began laying a brick path. Q, X and W locked hands and breathed. The path took an unexpected turn, opening a portal into a new world, and sped up. The writer’s hands sped up, laying more bricks. The bricks began to shimmer. Q burped and felt better, and the faintest outline of W’s foot appeared.

“That’s it,” X cheered quietly, not wanting to break his concentration. “Easy does it.” She rested a hand lightly on his right arm.

The bricks began to multiply as a leafy new world bloomed around them. The writer lay more, his hands flying now, and for a while the path and he worked symbiotically, he placing words in exact concert with their growth. The path forked, then forked again, and a wonderfully complex garden of forking paths began to immerge.

“Over here!” W exclaimed, leading him toward a fountain, and the man followed.

“Now this way!” X cried, gesturing toward an enormous maple. The writer heard and followed.

“Ooh! Try this,” Q leapt just as a bridge over a creek appeared. And the writer leapt.

He didn’t need to add bricks any more, they were flying into place on their own, vibrating with life and breath. He leapt down the path, following its twists and turns. As it began to branch off, he somehow straddled more than one path at a time, leaping back and forth between them, doubling back and picking up new directions. X, Q and W laughed and leapt too, dancing, prancing, now ahead, now behind, strong, vivid, more vibrant than they’d felt in ages, spinning by grottos and green-lit glades. They were dancing and pirouetting so fast that they didn’t catch the first whiff.

But the writer slowed, then paused. He placed a foot down on the path and it split into five directions. He faltered, looking around in dismay.

“It’s okay, stick to the left!” Walter said.

The man turned right and placed his foot irresolutely down. Ten new paths sprang from beneath his foot, crisscrossing the other paths. He stopped dead, one foot in the air. The path was no longer clear.

“Just keep going,” X said. “Hurry. Don’t think. Just go. The middle way is just as good.”

“See?” Q jumped on the middle path. “Just as good.”

The man turned around. Four more paths obliterated the old. He stopped, paralyzed. The skunk smell swarmed.

“Damn!” W said, looking wildly around. “Where are the bastards?”

“I don’t see them,” X said worriedly.

The man finally took another step, but 20 new paths sprang from his foot, turning the garden into a hopeless maze. The whites of his eyes shone in the sudden dusk. They could feel his heart speed up.

“Don’t stop!” W said, picking up a sledge hammer. The writer froze, sweating, one foot suspended inches from the ground. The paths continued to multiply, some dark, some light, and the bricks, now nothing but heavy stone, began to pile up around him. W began to whack the writer’s feet with the hammer, but still he stood. The bricks piled up around the writer, trapping him inside. W dropped the hammer and the three of them began pulling the bricks away, scraping their hands as they worked. The man beat his fists on the bricks, but as fast as they fell, they piled up faster.

The writer was completely buried when the bricks finally stopped. W, X, and Q stood bent over, hands on knees for support, gasps ripping their lungs like saws. All was silent.

Bursting from nowhere, an eagle descended, its massive talons delving effortlessly through the bricks to grasp the writer.

“Grab a hold!” W yelled, as the eagle rose.

“What is it?” Q grasped a talon.

“A new genius. Magnificent!” W said as they were lifted into the air, buffeted by the downdrafts of each of the eagle’s enormous wing strokes.

“But how?” Q said, struggling to make herself heard over the beat of the wings.

“A strong block can suddenly yield,” X cried looking up at the striated feathers.

“A mystery!” The eagle’s reptilian eye, rings within rings, pierced the distance with fierce knowing.

They flew to hitherto unknown heights, ecstatic, the eagle’s foremost edges as sharp as they were soft. The writer was mesmerized at first and all was well, finally getting somewhere. Then terror struck. He clutched at the eagle’s feathers above him, trying to wiggle from the talons, trying to climb up the legs and grasp the wings like a drowning man killing the rescuer.

“Relax,” W yelled at the writer. “Go with it. This is the one we’ve been waiting for!” Q and X tried to stop the writer from struggling, but it was no use. He was climbing up the legs, up the back, knocking the wings out of line.

The eagle landed and shook the writer off, but he jumped on it. The eagle turned into a snake. The writer squeezed it. The snake turned into a bear, slashing him with its enormous paw. Bleeding, and suddenly producing a rope from nowhere, the writer tried to bind it. The bear turned into a burning hot poker. The writer dropped it. Then it vanished with the pop like a thumb in cheek.

X, Q and W stood there panting, staring at the man. W was transparent, barely there. X couldn’t seem to catch her breath. Q was queasy.

“Where did it go?” she cried.

X shrugged. “It happens like that sometimes,” she panted.

“Particularly if you get grabby,” W said between gasps, hands on his knees. He coughed and staggered.

“It’s not his fault,” X said.

“Of course it is. This guy is obtuse. He’s too caught up in himself, controlling, rigid, perfectionistic. He can’t keep himself open to the gifts we offer. He barely knows we’re here. We’ve steered him right a million times and he just doesn’t listen. I wish he’d just quit for good this time. Get it over with. I’m tired.”

“He can’t quit as long as we’re here,” X said.

“We’re not gonna make it much longer. He killed all the others. It’s only a matter of time before he gets us, too.”

“Stop talking like that,” X said.

Q sat in a tiny heap, quietly crying.

Time passed.

The writer stood up. They were all perched on a huge precipice. He walked up to the very edge of it and looked down, swaying forward and back once.

“No,” W muttered sardonically. “Don’t do it.”

“Oh no!” Q leapt to her feet.

X stayed her hand. “It might be just the right thing.” The writer looked over his shoulder, right at X, as if he saw her. She smiled and nodded.

The writer took a big breath and let it out slowly. Then he turned around, raised his arms, locked eyes with X and let himself fall over the cliff.

X, Q and W waited a second to see if he would fly. But he plummeted.

“Let’s go,” X said, springing into the air.

They jumped after him and grabbed him, X on his right arm Q and W on his left. They made like wings and flapped wildly, but still they hurtled toward the ground. The writer kept his eyes closed and his body pliable, giving himself over completely to the fall.

“The tail. Grab his feet, make a tail!” X yelled, the air sucking the words right out of her mouth.

Hand over hand, fighting air’s friction, W worked his way down the writer’s body. The ground was close now. Soon they’d all be splotches. He dug his nails into the man’s feet and trailed his legs out behind. His legs caught the wind and immediately they all straightened out. Opening his eyes and looked from side to side, the writer finally saw them and smiled straight into their eyes. The smile passed through them like an electric current that bound them together into a single thing, a whole. He clasped their hands with his, and inches from the ground they pulled up. The writer flapped his arms, and, with Q flapping on one side and X on the other, all working together symbiotically, they rose. Up and up they went, and they began to feel an obscure order, that which arranged this rendezvous. Each pump of their arms and legs filled them with color and light. More geniuses sprang from nowhere, gold and silver, animal and mineral, alphabetical and punctuational, and together they soared. Their flesh became language, language became flesh, and God and imagination became one. They didn’t know when it would end or what it would add up to, but for now, being there together was enough.

END

Prey to the Lady in White

As the Lady in White swiftly slipped in and through the paths of her well known forest of Woild, vines of silken green and brown wove their fanciful patterns at her indomitable instruction: designs that no human eye would recognise as threads cleverly intentioned to entrance and entrap. To lose such a sweet prey once was shame enough; twice, quite unthinkable. At this thought, the lovely face took on an even sweeter countenance. A second visit was quite enough to lure and entice. This would be the lad’s last ride in the world of men. In expected anticipation she flashed a green-eyed glance toward the town from where her quarry would come.

On his way home to a lovely warm stone fireplace, over which was placed some even lovelier vegetable and rabbit stew, a young man would come across a being that he had once, with most difficulty, escaped before. The hour was just past eight, the wind was scattering brown, lifeless leaves across the forest floor, and the swirling mists around the wood through which he must pass were already slipping down through the darkening trees and their gnarled outstretched limbs. There was no moon yet, but still enough light escaping through the covering clouds to allow for a slip of sight to expose various secrets which the forest seemed inclined to hide. For the youngish man, the sight that he saw inspired the type of terror that is entirely impossible for a modern to even glimpse. For not only was the forest full of unknown wraiths birthed from the faraway lands of the unknown, the whiffs of what such creatures could do to the soul of a mere mortal where undiscoverable, and thus all the more awful. But just as the roots, crannies, crooks, and dark places of the gathered trees held unknown ugliness and unwelcomed surprises, the earlier generations of men were not so foolish as to only associate evil with that which was unseemly and grotesque: the shining brightness of beauty could also hide within it a nefarious and malicious intent to harm and hurt. This, though now nearly forgotten, was not lost on the young man.

Riding his May, the most well-behaved horse any would have been blessed enough to possess, the lad was making his way home after a long day in town. He would have never entertained the idea of going home through the Woild forest, but he had little choice. His young wife was expecting, and with the increasing cold of the evening, he wanted to be sure to be around if he was needed. Not that his wife had asked for old lady Mildred the midwife, but he wanted to be around, still. A man couldn’t do much good at the delivery, but he could always be handy for something small – even if it was to simply pray. All these things floated in his mind as he rode May down the evening path.

The forest he was now in the middle of was not unlike most of the other forests, only he felt that this evening had a purpose for him that he didn’t entirely want to be a party to. While leaving the town a dog had strangely made a number of runs at May; the dear thing was sturdy and surefooted as ever, but the happening was off. Not only was the dog of pure white, it was sleek and fast on its feet. It seemed only to wish to torment. Most city dogs were simply want to have a little fun at a horse’s expense, but this dog had rather sharp looking teeth. Later on the path, and just at the entrance to the Woild forest, a wiry birch tree had nearly caught his old leather pouch of money. The path had been used by more than a few travelers, so the fact that a branch had been sticking out and hadn’t been cut off previously was most odd. After he passed, the tree almost looked sorry that it had failed in its mission of mischief. Then there were the strange white birds that kept circling around his and May’s path; and their calls were of an off note and pitch. May was mostly unbothered, but every once in a while she would press her ears to the back of her head, look annoyingly upward, and snort. While the birds never got close enough to identify, their presence passing in and around the often tightly knotted limbs of trees made for a strange impression of malaise.

Horse and man had travelled for some time through the Woild Forest without so much as a bothered heartbeat until the sun began to fall in earnest and the air began to take on the nature of night. Not that either horse or lad was prone to fear, it was just that the opportunity for something of the fearish kind could make itself more apparent. As cool eddies of air passed by and the shadows stretched in unpleasant ways, as they are so often wanting to do, both travelers became more sensitive.

The slight movement of a white shape in the trees ahead of them was so quick at first that only May noticed it. She faced the way of the passing white blur, but then lost interest. A few clopping steps later and the white blur was more in line with a recognizable shape: it was of a young woman dressed all in white. Recognition made a tightly knit knot of the lad’s stomach.

After the glimpse of her, he tried without much effort to coax his old mare forward. The horse too had sensed the presence, as indeed most animals are more apt to do, and had become in her fear more prone to paralysis than speed. The lad knew that this second time in his life he hadn’t enough will power to defeat the thing that was following him. In desperation he prayed the two prayers he had been taught, but as his lips mumbled them his heart was quite certain in its own faltering lack of faith. This time the white darkness would take him. It would be gloriously wicked, indeed! His mind began with unstoppable force to produce the images that tore at his heart. How would his small little family survive without his strong back and skill? He knew that strength would be the first thing to be sapped from his him. Though not his physical strength so much as his will. Yet he knew that even while it would happen he would veritably be thrilled – like the lost soul on the edge of a great precipice, who knowing that he is about to damn himself from the Church, feels both fear and utter exuberance. And it would happen so quick.

With savage desperation he kicked the sides of his poor mount; he even felt pity while he did it for she had always been a true and faithful beast. As he struck and squeezed and cursed he knew with a terrible certainty that it was all for naught. Yet like the hare with its neck stuck firmly in the noose, it continues to pull horribly backward, until the very end has been realised, and at last there is no more life left from which to resist.

The poor horse began to go at first faster but then slower and at last staggered; she even began to waiver left and right, causing him to fear that she would fall over. The thought of having a horse on top of him momentarily gave his otherworldly fear reprise. He secured the reins and whispered reassuringly in the horse’s ear, “my dear May, don’t scare so. It’s all right, ssshhh, it’s all right.” Like most animals, it trusted the voice of the one it knew and settled. Her flaring nostrils slowed and her feet began to become more firmly placed. His own heart, for truth, had slowed too. For a long moment, as the leaves circled in their falling path, he considered if the whole thing was nothing but a fleeting fancy caused by an upset imagination. The horse had almost gotten back to its normal pace. The light was now nearly gone out from the sky and all was dark and grey shadows that had stretched past any kind of meaningful form. The wind still blew the smell of fall, and the odd old birch let out a misgiving creak and the pines the occasional snap. And so it continued for unknown minutes.

After passing through the part of the forest which was the worst, the rider began to grasp at the hope that he had passed the plight of capture. Indeed, a slip of moon now shown on the path that he knew so well. He began to imagine the trees as nearly becoming friendly. “It’s ok, it’s all going to be well,” they seemed to say. He felt the slightly colder night air brush against face as he reached the near end of the forest boundary. His horse also seemed to be steadying. She, like many a horse realising that home is in sight, began to quicken her pace with a happy plodding. Both beast and boy’s breathing were free’er from fear. And as they neared the last clump of trees the moon fell full on the path beyond. It would be a good evening.

Passing the clump of birch, the horse first, and quite unexpectedly, tensed and then absolutely fell forward on both knees, and finally over into the ground completely. The lad jumping free got to standing a foot away. Wanting to offer assistance to the horse, he went to go to her, only as he did, his foot caught a horribly large root, and he landed prostrate in the leaf scattered forest floor. Scrabbling on hands and knees, he called to the horse, “May, are ye ok?

Don’t fret, your feet are fine. We shall sort ourselves and then be off for a good meal … May?” After calling out a few more times, he could hear nothing but the odd leaf reach the ground. As he brought himself up, he noticed the sweet wafting of vanilla and cedar and something else. As he sniffed at the air, he heard a rustling nearby, followed by a questioning voice ask, “but dear May, will it truly be ok? Or will we both be of a mind to stay; to ne’r from her stray.” As he came full upon his feet, he could see by the moon a slender young form dressed in white, leaning against a tree. Her eyes reflected the moon like a forest creature, and in them he could see the nearest hint of green. Forthwith he fell directly down and did not rise.

When at last he opened his eyes, and onto the thing which he feared most, his heart sank to the utmost of despair. The wispy and soft voice of the fae came into his ears like the welcomed dew of the morning to the dry petal of posy. It was not cold or bad or unwanted; it was warm and lovely and welcome. He raised his head and looked at her. The white flowing dress streamed outward like a rippling from the recently bumped surface of water. The ground which touched its hem seemed to glow even a little more green – not that this was possible to see in only the grey moon – and the very air seemed to thicken. While her outline was clear in the pale light, her eyes, emerald green, swiftly brought back his fear to its full. “It is far too late in the chase for that my dear, you shall not be saved by any haste or other hope that embraces, save me.” As her eyes grew greener, he could feel the will in him fail. Oh merciful heaven, help me in my hour of utmost need. My own horrible desire for notability was something I wished too much for … but after I knew of the cost, I did recant … I turned her down … Mother of God have mercy and don’t let me be tempted again, lest I fall forever and never return to the things I have learned to truly value.

“How is it that you have evaded me for so long dear one,” the fae spoke. He did nothing save stare back into the night, though as if trying to defy to the last, and not let his eyes fall into hers. As she drew closer, his memory began to bring back all the early memories from their last encounter. “Why don’t you speak to me, when I know it to be that you very much wish to?” she asked with her clear voice that had a hint of crystal, and perhaps also crystalline sharpness as well. “You know that I do not wish it all; I have never properly before, and I never shall in any future of mine. I do not wish it. I do not want to hear what you have to offer. I know what it is, and I refuse,” he stated flatly. At this, she glided across the ground and knelt down by him and put his chin in her hand and slowly – deliberately – made him look into her eyes. Perfectly placed within the white face, her eyes had seemed to have stolen the very essence of a perfect emerald; and it was with these eyes she looked full into his face. “You will recall, dear one, that it was you who called me when you came to my stream in the far-off woods; it was you who wept and pleaded for some skill that you had only partially; it was you who when first seeing my form rise from the water nearly kissed the feet that were still wet. And it was you who plead, at the cost of anything, for my inscrutable instruction and assistance. So how can you now say that you never desired it?” Without looking into her eyes he breathed out slowly, “I was young, ill-bred, overly excited, and too little read; I did not understand the price which was asked in return.” In a sweet flourish the fae stood up, releasing his head from her hand, and with a near matronly movement, swept her arms upward, and then finally looked down at him like a misunderstood governess. “Oh you poor young and inconsolable creature, allow me to help you now, like I wished to before; the price is not so stern as you make it sound; indeed, as you know, it is no price at all, merely an offering that you yourself willingly give. You are not the first who has set his gaze against the world and looked to me alone.” She bent back down and put a soft hand on his head and whispered, “follow me, and all will truly be well. You are not leaving family of ken or land except for the best of reasons: to reach the utmost pinnacle of perfection, to be that thing that you must be.”

The lad’s head slumped a little and rested slightly on her now stronger hand. He had wished it once: the power over verse and rhythm and rhyme. He couldn’t quite remember why he had refused the first time when he had finally found this lovely muse: this lovely and beautiful creature. She only wanted him to go away with her for a time. She only wanted to help him in that other land. And he would only have to stay as long as he wanted. It was no sentence of death or destruction, but rather a short reprieve into her land. “Can I still see them if I wish to in later years?” he asked. “My dear one, but of course you can; you are entirely free to do and act as you wish.” At this softly spoken word his face flushed and his head, so it seemed, had suddenly began to clear. “And you will help me?” he asked with a little more boldness. With that she took both her hands, bent over his face and smiled a fresher smile than any night could afford and peered with emerald eyes first back towards his earlier destination and then into his eyes. “You, my dear, shall have me and what is of me for as long as you shall live.” As he rose up with her aid, the lad began to smile a faint and wispy smile. He never heard the nickering of his horse May; to him it was as the quiet whispering of the leaves blowing around his ankles: not a warning, but a welcoming of loveliness ahead.

Black dangles of her hair bobbed as she looked at him – what was the word that humans used, she mused – “chattel.” She then returned her attention to the boy and asked, “now when is it that you plan to come back for a visit, my sweet dear?” He replied in the voice of the wooed, “when were you wishing to come back?” “Probably never,” she said sweetly as she gazed at him with those dazzling green eyes. “Well, then I guess I won’t be wanting it either.”

Like a small fawn being led onward by a silken strand, the horse May only watched as the boy was led by the hand back deeper into the forest by the Lady in White. Only once did she turn her head backwards and give one final green eyed stare to where the lad had almost escaped. As the wind blew and tussled her white dress, both she and the lad began to pass into the mists. The horse, of course, could not know, but as the Lady in White led the boy out of this world, she was smiling.

End

Indigo Child

December.

You wake seemingly for no reason at all. Half-asleep, you note two things. One: it’s a nuisance to wake up in the early hours of the morning because you already have to wake up at four o’clock. Two: the time is four-thirty. Huh. Four o’clock, and it’s four-thirty. This thought leads to the ambling realization that the alarm you set has failed, and you’re out of your bed, stumbling across the floor, before you manage to think of anything else.

With an odd, stumbling gait you practically dive into your clothes. What you choose doesn’t have to look good. It doesn’t even have to match—well, yes, it probably ought to match, but it won’t matter because if you’re late to the airport, your best friend is going to kill you, and no one will find the body. You pull on your clothes as quick as you can, clumsily because you’re still half-asleep, and now you’re in a hurry. You rush into the bathroom, and the mirror does you no favors. The smooth surface cheerfully reflects your sleepy eyes and disheveled hair. Your efforts to fix both are practically nonexistent. Suddenly, your reflection isn’t staring back at you. It’s someone else. You blink, and your face stares back.

Okay, that was weird. You really are still asleep. For a brief moment, you consider climbing back into bed. But no, you promised to get your best friend from the airport, and you’ll do it. With renewed energy, you grab your keys and head to the car. You are never getting up this early again. Next time, your friend can take a taxi.

 

January.

The holidays are finally over. You climb into bed, grateful for the warmth and promise of sleep. Your dreams are a strange, disjointed mess, filled with wars and blood. And people screaming in Greek.

When you wake, the dreams are still there, lingering in your mind, but they’re not worth staying in bed for—even though it’s going to be unpleasantly cold once you free yourself from your cocoon of blankets. They’re strange. Your bed is strange.

Why? You haven’t the faintest idea. It just is.

Confused, you make your way to the bathroom. The mirror, again, does you no favors, and someone else’s face stares back at you. Who is that? What is that? You stare and blink, but the face never leaves. Cassandra. Tragic, dear seeress Cassandra. Dear God, you’ve lost your mind.

 

February

You know you’re insane when you begin hallucinating that you’re Cassandra, Troy’s famous prophetess, but this, in a bizarre way—that makes sense to you—isn’t alarming in the least. It feels right. It’s terrifying, the feeling of him—of another person, another conscious being in your mind. It’s terrifying, but it’s strange and wonderful and right. In some bizarre way, you are Cassandra, a legendary seer, because who else would you be?

It’s all reincarnation, which you didn’t believe in once but must believe in now. Because it’s true.

 

March

The awe of being Cassandra reincarnated wears thin at times. The woman isn’t constantly there. She seems to come and go through some sort of mental door whenever she pleases. Mostly, she just makes snide comments. Coffee? Seriously? How do you drink that?

Cassandra hates coffee. She hates being awake. When she’s awake, she has visions. Cassandra likes to sleep, likes to enfold herself into the soft embrace of Morpheus, where she dreams of a silver-eyed woman with soft blue robes, a woman whose name Cassandra never tells you. You’re not even sure if Cassandra knows the woman’s name, but the prophetess loves her, whoever she is.

The woman dislikes practically everything you do, and she’s bizarrely critical of your clothing choices. Too constricting, she announces about jeans. How are you going to run if you need to?

You consider seeing a professional. Really? Cassandra scoffs. And how would that help? It’s not as if I’m going away.

Part of you knows that you’re not really crazy, and this is really happening. It’s that small bit of you that is both yourself and Cassandra simultaneously that knows this, and you can’t quite bring yourself to do anything about it.

 

April.

Cassandra isn’t exactly forthcoming as to why she’s been reincarnated. The few mental conversations where you’ve broached the topic all end with her snapping, Will you stop asking questions?

Cassandra’s dreams speak louder than her thoughts. She dreams more of the woman in blue. The woman in blue, silver-eyed daughter of Zeus, the woman who promises that, yes, yes, yes, everything will be fine. She says that, but she doesn’t lie. She never lies to Cassandra. It’ll end, and you’ll be victorious, Cassandra. Victorious! I’ll stay with you.

Cassandra already knows she’s dying. She knows before Agamemnon burns Troy, before Odysseus’s Trojan Horse, before Helen, before it all. She knows when Apollo cracks her—part of her is still afraid—and when the woman in blue appears. The woman in blue believes Cassandra and believes in her. She’s the only one who does.

The woman is never there when everyone else is. Cassandra used to think she wasn’t real. “Who is she?” you ask.

Cassandra doesn’t answer. She never does.

 

May.

Helen of Troy isn’t beautiful when she cries. Her eyes are red and puffy. She sniffles. It breaks Cassandra’s heart because Helen isn’t really a bad woman. She’s young and has no idea—not really—that she’s been deemed worthy of Destiny. Men die for her, and she hates it. She feels bound in chains, and she has no idea how tightly. Helen prays to the goddess of peace, which will come at a high price. The end is near. Helen will die. Cassandra, too.

It’s then that you find the courage to say, “There’s something bad happening, isn’t there?”

Yes.

 

June.

Cassandra thinks about dying. She thinks about it a lot. She thinks about it and a tall woman in blue.

Cassandra doesn’t admit that fear claws at her stomach. She doesn’t want to die. Not really,

You write the names of all the Grecian goddesses on a list and try to find Cassandra’s woman. She isn’t Athena; Athena is too gold, too bright, too glorious.

Cassandra makes no comment on the names, instead choosing to fill your head with the jittery, uncertain excitement that something is about to happen, and you need to do something about it. She doesn’t clarify—if she even knows.

Some things even Cassandra can’t see.

 

July.

Cassandra ceases to make snarky comments. You note it and wonder what, precisely, to do about that—if anything at all. You debate on it for a while, but before you can decide, Cassandra

emerges, invading your metaphorical mental space, and says, It’s her.

The person in question isn’t a her. It’s a he. “What?” you mutter.

Her, Cassandra insists, her attention focused on the young man with dark hair and green eyes, who is standing at the bus-stop, texting on his phone. Her! It’s her! That’s Eirene!

The moment she says it, you know it’s true. The woman in blue finally has a name. Eirene. Irene. The silver-eyed sister of Athena.

Those eyes are just like Eirene’s. Exactly. She may be a young man, but she’s still very much Eirene, daughter of Zeus and Thestia. You approach him, and both you and Cassandra smile. “Hello. Eirene?”

The man glances at you and shakes his head. “You must be mistaking me for someone else.”

There is no teasing in his gaze. Eirene doesn’t remember you. But she…how could she not remember you? She was the one who always knew everything! She was the calm before and after the storm, the one who said death was victory, the one who held Cassandra’s hand as she bled onto old, stained stones. “Oh…sorry, you just look like someone I know. From behind.”

“Ah. Okay.”

He goes back to texting. That is Eirene, though. It is! Maybe she doesn’t know yet, but it’s definitely her. “Can I give you my phone number?” you ask.

Eirene raises an eyebrow. “Um, really, I’m sorry, but I’m just not interested. Asexual. Sorry.”

“I’m not trying to ask you out!”

The bus stops. “Right. Well, bye now!”

With those words, Eirene leaves.

 

August.

You hang the list on your refrigerator. The names seem to mock you. Cassandra retreats in

silence, but she can no longer hide the sharp pain she feels when she, too, sees the names. “Sorry,” you mutter one night, knowing she’ll understand your intent.

She doesn’t answer. She never has and never does.

 

September.

Cassandra doesn’t make any appearance. She creeps back to the place where she goes when she wants to ignore you, and she stays there. Only the occasional dream slips through, and it’s always Eirene, Eirene, Eirene.

 

October.

Life goes on. The world hasn’t ended, even without Cassandra’s assistance. No potential gods, goddesses, or heroes have come forward. In fact, you’ve not seen anyone familiar since Eirene. Maybe this was all a mistake.

Maybe you’re just not Cassandra material.

Maybe whatever god or cosmic force thought you ought to be her made a mistake. You’ve failed. Both of you have.

 

November.

It’s the last day of November. You enter your house, grateful for the warmth, and stop in your tracks. Sitting in your living room, sprawled over the couch, is a young man with dark hair and green eyes. He holds a piece of paper in one hand and his phone in the other. “Terrible of you to keep me waiting, Cassandra,” the man says.

“Eirene.”

The sly green eyes meet yours. “The one and only,” the man says. “Close the door, won’t you?

You’re letting in a draft.”

Wordlessly, you close the door. “Out late, aren’t you?” Eirene asks, glancing at her phone. “It’s nearly midnight.”

“Hm.”

Eirene purses her lips. “It’s very good to see you,” she says after some length.

“You, too.”

Eirene nods. “Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing?” you ask.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t.”

“You really don’t know? You always have the answers.”

Her smile is sad. “I only know that I’ll be needed at the end. I’ve never had all the answers, Cassandra.”

She’s right. She hasn’t. “You’re looking for the others?” Eirene asks, waving the piece of paper that you realize is your list.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“That’s a good place to start,” Eirene says. “I don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, but it certainly wouldn’t be bad to have some of the heroes on our side, would it? Though, the years haven’t been too kind to Agamemnon and Troilus, have they? Some of the things people say!”

“They’re no worse than the things people say about you.”

Eirene laughs bitterly. “They say very little about me,” she says. “It’s depressing, but I think I’ll survive.”

 

December.

12:01 AM. Eirene smirks and crosses her name of the list.

One for the Crow

It is the first frost of autumn. The stars are reflected everywhere. Dusting the spiked grass. Lighting up the withered morning glories. Silver-lining the fallen leaves covering the frozen ground. In the distance, corn stalks sway against a pale brittle moon. Several large, black birds have arranged themselves in a row on the fence outside our vegetable garden. Crows. Jackdaws. Grackles. Ravens. Pop says they’re the smartest birds around.

“We can’t tell them apart from one another, but they can tell us apart,” he says. “That gives them the advantage.”

Pop’s engaged in constant battle with the local avian population. It’s a useless struggle though. Mama won’t let him kill any of them on account of bad luck.

“Talulah, come away from the window.”

Mama stands in the doorway. Her hair is unsheathed and it falls down her white nightgown like buzzard feathers. Her lips are a pale slash of disapproval. Pop says she was beautiful before I was born. Then whiskey and worry worked its way with her.

Mama thinks I will be swallowed up by the moon. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell her that the moon isn’t a giant mouth in the sky, she won’t hear a word of it. It pains me, because I love the shine of the night. She’s protective during the day as it is. She never likes me to be out of her sight. At night she’s zealous in her mothering.

“Too many dangerous things out there,” she says. “Moons with mouths, devils with pitchforks, lakes that will swallow you whole.” She can go on and on.

I tell her these things must be there all the time, but that only makes her double up her daytime rigor.

I don’t go to school with other girls my age. I see them sometimes, boys too, swinging their books and talking and laughing from the window or the garden. Sometimes I’m allowed to help outside with the washing or the gardening. This is my favorite thing. To feel the earth buzzing beneath me. I have an irrational fear that one day mama will close the shutters for good. Then the separation between me and the rest of the world will become tangible.

During the day she teaches me things. How to avoid superstitions and evils. Also, Latin and French. I can play the harp and the piano and recite most Shakespearean soliloquies. I practice them to the corn, sometimes bending the stalks backwards as if I were Romeo and Juliet were a swooning, silk-tassled vegetable. Except our forbidden love trysts only take place in the daylight. As soon as the moon is visible in the sky mama whisks me inside, stokes the hearth and gives me a task, any task, that keeps me busy until Pop comes home and supper is served.

Sometimes I sling paper airplanes with messages scrawled on them to the children who are making their way to and from school. Silly messages. Sometimes my name. Sometimes what I’ve been thinking about behind the closed shutters of my room. Sometimes asking about their lives. I wonder a lot what it’s like to be free.

Pop treats mama’s behavior like it’s nothing out of the ordinary. I only know different from all of the books I read. Moons don’t eat girls. Devils don’t hide in the crevices of night. Children don’t need to be locked inside.

“You’re so pretty,” says Pop, whenever I complain. “Your mama’s just looking out for you. She has her own way about these things.”

Pop likes to say that when I was first born, they washed me in cold spring water, and flowers grew from everything I touched. Flowers that smelled sweeter than any other. And when they combed my baby fine hair, pearls and rubies tumbled down to the ground like rain. Mama won’t confirm or deny this.

Pop usually brings me presents when he comes back from the market. I have a collection of golden beetles with wings that move and legs that click. They have wheels and gears inside like tiny clocks. My favorite is a giant scarab that buzzes recklessly though the air when I wind it up. I have garlands made of butterflies that dust my room with soft shimmery sparkles and paper stars that light up my ceiling in a swirling simulacrum of the world outside. I have an entire city built out of cardboard that is slowly industrializing my bedroom floor. In the cardboard city, the lamp posts turn on at dusk and the people, made of cornhusks, hurry home from work to their corn dolly families. Origami birds swim up above the rooftops and sometimes get swept away in the breeze from my open windows.

We’re rich. Pop’s cornfields stretch far across the dusty plains and beneath the heavy hung skies. During drought or flood they remain fruitful. Mama has lots of jewels and nice dresses but she never wears them. The devil comes calling to see people done up in their finery. That’s what she says. Besides that, there’s no place to wear them around here anyway.

Being cooped up in the autumn is the hardest, with the crackle of frost and the smell of change. The cawing of the grackles, crows, and jackdaws. I toss restlessly instead of sleeping. Whenever mama forgets to lock my shutters I jump at the chance to peek at the sepia night outside. The moon slices across the cornfields, growing yolkier as the season turns closer towards winter. Each night the branches grow a little more bare, until I can practically count the separate leaves on their bony fingers.

Lately pop has been looking at my arms. My hands more particularly. Sometimes even my shoulders. The way his gaze traces over them makes me nervous. I wind up my scarab and set it buzzing about the kitchen to distract him. It lands in the pot of oatmeal mama is cooking for our breakfast and she yells.

“Trinkets and toys! Devilry! Now tell me how much a golden scarab is worth when it’s covered in oatmeal?”

Me and Pop both keep our mouths shut. He’s back to looking at my arms. The hollowed out parts where my shoulders curve into my collarbone. I feel my skin starting to burn.

“Is it almost time to cut the corn?” I ask.

“Soon,” he says, sitting back in his chair and sipping his coffee. He transfers his gaze to the wall. Pop is like a lumberjack. He turns mama into a small angry shadow. “The Harvest Moon is nearly here.”

We still run by tradition around here. In his way, Pop is superstitious too. He never begins the reaping until the moon becomes pumpkin colored and pregnant, hanging in the sky like an engorged mother. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like. It’s the secret to his good fortune. During the harvest, I’m allowed to help during the day. Not just with the shucking but with the swishing of the scythe. The hacking. Releasing the earth from its heavy burden of ripe fruit. Of course the real thrill is being in somewhat close proximity of other people. Pop hires on lots of hands during harvest time. Last year there was a brother and sister, near to me in age, with faces covered in freckles, who wore straw hats and laughed at each other in a way that made my heart ache. I even made two corn dolly replicas of them for my little town.

I silently urge the moon on faster. I can’t wait until it’s time to cut the corn.

Pop leaves for work and I help mama clear the dishes.

“Talulah,” she says, “Go read the psalms for a little while and then you can help me hang the washing up outside.”

She’s in a soft mood today. I know she also wants the liquor bottle that she hides underneath the sink. Either way, I am more than happy to abscond to my bedroom with the promise of autumn sunshine awaiting me. Even when the air gets cold and thin, I can feel the sun tingling on my skin.

“You have a complexion like fresh cream,” mama’s fond of saying. She’s proud that I’m not hearty and tanned like most of the other folks around here.

I have no intention of reading the psalms. Instead I creep over to the windows and pull open the shutters filling my bedroom with glittering, autumn light. My paper village shudders and the butterflies spin through the air in a riot of color. The birds are sitting on our fence again. Today there are even more than usual. They’ve been temporarily displaced from scavenging in the cornfields. Beyond the fence and out in the fields I can hear the voices of men.

It’s past time for all of the village children to be at school, but I see a head bobbing up and down over the fence. It’s one of the local boys. He walks along unhurried. His hair is glossy and black. His presence disrupts the crows again and they scatter and realign themselves on the top our roof.

Now I can see his face. It’s square cut and chiseled and he’s whistling. He looks a little older than most of the others. There’s a familiarity to him, but I can’t quite remember when I’ve seen him. I’m better at differentiating corn dollies than humans. When he turns to look at me I’m rendered immobile. The clash of our eyes shocks me. He smiles and lifts his arm. A paper airplane sails in my window, executes a dizzying sweep of circles, and crashes into an unwitting husk family lounging on a pebble beach. By the time I look back up he’s gone. The crows are resettling with glossy, ruffled feathers.

Inside the folded paper is written a name.

Lucian.

I study the letters. The pen strokes are bold and confident. I imagine his hand scrawling them down.

“Talulah,” mama calls.

I hurry and close the shutters. I fold the paper into tiny squares and stick it under my pillow.

Lucian.

“Come on! It’s time to do the washing.”

Lucian.

There are thrills running all along my body. He knows my name too if he’s responding to one of my airplanes. I wonder if he’s said it out loud.

Outside the air is chill but sunny.

“Gracious,” says mama. “Look at all of these birds. I’ve never seen so many.”

She chews the insides of her cheeks worriedly.

Pop is wrong. I can tell some of the birds apart. There is a giant grackle that is bigger than all of the rest, and its partner, whose feathers are so black they shine an iridescent green. There is a small jackdaw that’s missing an eye, and a crow that hops on one foot. I can tell them apart from each other. A few of them I can even recognize by their caws.

“We’re going to have to do something about them,” mama says.

I’m used to her worrying. I pull the tub of water into a patch of soapy sunlight and begin dunking Pop’s dust brown clothes into the sudsy water and rubbing them up and down the washboard. There’s a simple delight in the transparent bubbles that rise up around me and burst midair. There’s the far off rustle of the corn in the fields. There’s the memory of that paper folded up beneath my pillow. I am drunk on the autumn breeze.

“We’ll need to put bowls out,” says mama.

She’s still looking uneasily at the birds. She crosses herself. Sometimes mama puts dishes of oil out to keep away the birds. It’s another one of her superstitions. She says crows are so vain that staring at their own reflection keeps them from getting into devilry. As I wash the clothes and wring them dry for hanging, she goes in and out of the house carrying dishes of oil and setting them on the ground a safe distance away. She puts the most around my bedroom window.

That night I peer through the slats of my shuttered windows into the darkness. The moon is fat and swollen. Ready to burst. The birds are scattered about the yard gazing at themselves in mama’s bowls. The grass is glittering with a light frost. On my window sill there is a new dolly. One that I didn’t make. It’s much rougher than my own corn people. Tied sloppily and without any arms. I can tell from the bristling skirt and the long plait of tassled corn silk hair that it’s meant to be a girl. I shake the frost crystals away and carry it inside carefully. I wonder if it’s a gift from Lucian. Or a clever trick from the birds.

I look out again at the assemblage of black shapes hovering in our yard. The big grackle pauses in his reflection, gazing to look up at me. I close the windows and carefully put the dolly under my pillow alongside of the piece of paper.

Tomorrow we will begin the harvest. The corn is so heavy it is bending down the stems.

I lay with my head over the name of the black haired boy.

Lucian.

I fall asleep with the sound of it on my lips.

 

“I don’t know if she should go today,” mama says.

“Elspeth,” says Pop. “I’ll be twenty yards away from her. Nothing can possibly happen.”

I’m all ready. I was up at dawn with the cawing of crows. I have an old pair of work boots on and a dress that is already tattered and stained from previous harvests. Mama has arranged a mason jar full of witch hazel leaves and bright red viburnum berries as a centerpiece on the table. I work some into my braids as they argue.

“I don’t care how many birds you saw yesterday,” Pop is saying. “They’re just birds. They come to eat the corn. Name me one farmer who doesn’t have to deal with them.”

“They’ve been watching the house,” mama says.

Pop gets up from the table abruptly. “Enough of the doom and gloom already.”

He wins. I knew he would. He tosses me some gloves and smiles a kingly smile.

“Wear these. I don’t want you to hurt your hands. Are you ready for the harvest Talulah?”

I smile back and nod. This is something me and Pop share. Probably that’s what makes mama so worried. In my pocket I have my wind up scarab and the paper with Lucian’s name on it.

“She’s a farmer’s daughter,” says Pop, as if that settles it.

We say goodbye to mama, taking our lunches and our water containers, and head out towards the cornfields.
The workers are waiting for Pop. They stand all in a line watching silently, reminding me of the birds. Some of them really look like crows, all hunched over and hungry. They watch me and Pop approach with careful eyes, waiting for his instruction.

“Harvest time!” Pop shouts and there are some vague hurrahs. The men are glad to have work, but their faces show a slight resentment that they are laboring in someone else’s fields. Still the sway of tradition and the promise of a plentiful crop wins out. There is a zing to the air that makes my skin ripple and my senses more aware.

Hooky! Hooky!

The shouts begin resounding around the assembled throng. I want to yell too but I know Pop wouldn’t like that.

I don’t see the freckled twins but my eyes pick out Lucian right away. He’s leaning on a chaff-cutter and staring straight at me with a little smile. My insides flutter. His eyes look wicked. He tips his head in my direction and I glance quickly at Pop, but he doesn’t notice.

“What are we waiting for?” Pop asks. “If you don’t have tools of your own grab one out of the wagon. The women will bring down cider and refreshments in a few hours.”

Inside the wagon is an assortment of sickles, fagging-hooks, chaff-cutters, hoes, and winnowing baskets. The few females present that don’t carry baskets, retrieve some. I take a

sickle and a corn husker. The blade gleams in the silvery morning light.

We scatter into the tall rows of corn. I try to keep one eye on Lucian but he has disappeared.

“Talulah,” Pop calls. “Remember to stay close.”

I wave my sickle at him and smile. Around me the swish and crackle and hacking of the reaping has begun.

Inside the cornfields I become a much smaller version of myself. Tall stalks reach up over my head, closing off the sky. I can see down the narrow aisles… shadows of men swinging sickles. Women scurrying after them picking up the golden ears and silken tassels and stacking them in their baskets. There is something primordial in it all.

I make a game of it. I lose myself in the tallest parts of the corn field. I fall into a rhythm that resonates with the wind. Swish. Swish. Blade through stalk. Thump. Thump. Corn to earth. It’s almost trancelike. Then I hear whistling ahead of me. I hear it around me. Lucian appears from behind a cluster of cornstalks.

“Talulah,” he says. His eyes are not dark at all. They are the gold of the corn fields. “I’m not supposed to talk to anyone,” I say.

I’m not used to direct eye contact. I want to stare, but I can’t. My gaze wanders off to the waving tops of the corn. The shuddering leaves. The silver curve of my sickle.

“I brought some paper,” he says. “We can always make airplanes.”

I was right. His eyes are wicked. My own laughter surprises me.

“Is this your first harvest?” he asks.

In response, I swoop my sickle through the air, neatly taking down several stalks just below the ears. They fall to the ground in a series of crackles and thumps. The air between us glitters with the crystals of frozen morning mist.

Lucian looks impressed. “Of course it isn’t. These are your father’s fields.” He smiles when he says this.

I want to ask him if he put the dolly on my windowsill. And why he answered my paper airplane letter. And how many of them he’s read. Instead I stand there shivering along with the cornstalks. A woman comes by with a winnowing basket to pick up the wake of cut corn behind me, and Lucian disappears back into the tall stalks.

One for the cut worm.

One for the crow

One for the blackbird

And three to grow.

It’s an old rhyme. I’m not sure why it comes into my head right now. It’s for the planting not the reaping. The basket woman nods at me but doesn’t say anything. I begin cutting again. The swoosh of blade through stalk soothes me. I feel the relief of the cold earth under my feet as each ear tumbles to the ground.

The day warms a little between a pale sun and hours of laboring. My arms are aching, but it’s a good ache. Mama shows up with a few of the other village women halfway through the day. She has a gown on. The harvest is the only event she dresses for all year. Her gown is dark red and regal looking. Her hair is done up into coiled braids. I’m always surprised to see her looking like this. It gives me a glimpse of the young woman she must have been.

They’ve brought carts of refreshments. Hot cider, slabs of meat, loaves of bread, and steaming potatoes. The workers line up, dust streaked faces, blackened feet, and blistered hands. Mama oversees the feasting like a queen even though she didn’t prepare any of it. She’s been into the whisky I can tell, because her eyes are shining and her cheeks are flushed. It even takes her a little while to begin searching for me in the crowd.

“Don’t stand in line like you’re common,” she says, taking my arm and pulling me aside. She makes me up a big plate of food and rakes her eyes over me. “Have you had enough for the day then? Are you ready to come home?”

“Mama, please. I’m fine.”

I can feel the eyes of the others on me. She checks my hands beneath my gloves and examines my arms for cuts or gashes.

Pop’s also been into the whiskey. Or has his own stash of cider. They clash immediately.

“Elspeth, leave her be,” he says loudly. “This is a part of who she is. You know that as well as me.”

Mama’s lips flatten into their slashes. She rejoins the other women in overseeing the food and drink. I wander a little way off into the corn and sit down to eat away from her broody gaze.

Lucian sits down beside me.

“I wouldn’t,” I tell him. “If either one of my parents walks over here you’re as good as done for.” But I don’t really want him to leave.

“Your parents don’t frighten me,” he says.

He pushes a mug of cider into my hands.

“Why do you suppose they keep you locked up all of the time?”

Nobody has ever asked me that question. I haven’t had many conversations with people from the outside world. So I pretend that we are two of my corn dollies. This helps.

“My mama thinks the world is dangerous and full of the Devil. Pop’s just protective.”

The cider burns down my throat and into my stomach. It makes me tingly. The sun seems to shine a little brighter. Lucian’s eyes are positively glowing.

“Do you think the world is full of the Devil?” he asks.

I shake my head. “I have no idea what the world is full of. I’ve barely seen it.”

“So see it,” he says.

Around us the corn stalks are whispering in papery voices. The sun rests on my skin and I let his smile melt the thought of my parents away. We grin at each other in the dust for a moment and then Lucian gets up and offers me his hand.

 

I have never played with another person. We spend the rest of the afternoon running through the tunnels of corn, having cutting contests, and when the sky dims and the cries of Hooky, Hooky! start up again, I have already decided I’m not ready to go home. I hear Pop yelling my name but I don’t care. As the moon begins to rise up in the sky, glorious and orange, the basket women collect the last of the corn from the ground. Lucian pulls me through the narrow tunnels of empty stalks to the edge of the field where we watch in the shadows as the farmers light a massive bonfire and assemble the corn into giant piles.

“This is a husking bee,” says Lucian. He’s been refilling our ciders all afternoon. I feel closer to him than anyone else in the world. He makes me dizzy and alive.

“What’s that?” I ask. I see Pop scanning the crowd for me. He’s awfully wobbly on his feet.

“It’s a race to find the red corn.”

“Why?” With the shadows expanding his face looks a little different than it has all day in the sun.

The bonfire is crackling now. A few people have begun playing instruments and some are dancing around the fire. The husking bee is about to begin. The men are gathered around giant piles of corn with their shucking tools at the ready.

“Because,” says Lucian. “Whoever finds the red ear gets to kiss the girl of his choice. That’s how most courtships start around here. I’m not surprised your father never let you stay out to watch this before.”

My attention is divided between Pop’s silhouette calling out my name, the lights of our house up on the hill above, the dusty men getting ready to start husking, and mostly Lucian who is staring at me. My hair, my eyes, my neck, my arms.

“Don’t you want to be in the husking bee?” I ask.

Lucian shakes his head. The firelight is dancing across his face and eyelashes. Lighting up his eyes. He reaches up casually and pulls down a stalk from beside him that someone missed. He slices the ear of corn off with a small knife, and my eyes are stuck on his every move as he peels the tassels down slowly. Instead of the usual rich yellow, the kernels are a deep red. Like beating hearts. Like mama’s dress. The same time that he reaches for me I hear Pop getting closer. Mama is walking down the hill with a lantern, no doubt to bring me home. The husking bee has begun.

I take off running through the cornfields as fast as I can. Lucian chases me. We weave in and out of the tunnels of empty stalks. The Harvest Moon is sitting just on the horizon. It looks like a giant orange snail crawling across the earth. I have the irrational thought that we will meet it in the middle of the cornfields. That mama’s right. That all this time it’s been waiting to swallow me whole.

I slow my pace and Lucian tumbles me to the ground. We kiss with our mouths full of dirt and our bodies smashed together. He smells sweet. Like apples and corn. At some point the golden scarab in my pocket gets jostled enough that it kicks into action, its little legs clicking, its wings buzzing angrily. It swoops drunkenly off into the night. I have forgotten about everything but flesh and earth. Flesh and earth and all of the ways I have never known either of them well enough.

A shadow falls over the moon.

Pop is standing over us. His expression is terrifying. The stalks around us are quaking. I scramble to my feet, but Lucian takes his time. When he’s standing fully, he smiles at Pop. They are close to the same height. I don’t know which direction to panic in.

All of the sudden the moon seems in a hurry. It raises itself up into the sky and watches with a marmalade gaze as clouds begin to race across the stars. The world seems to swirl. Everything is too familiar. This place. This night. This moment.

“It’s just a little fun,” says Lucian. True to his word, he’s not scared of my father.

“How could you?” Pop says to me. “I’ve given you everything.”

I’m not sure what to say. Paper butterflies aren’t the same as real ones. He steps closer to me and Lucian. A curved blade reflects the hot orange of the moon. I can smell the alcohol on him. His face is dusty and streaked with tears.

Right up until the very last second I think he is going for Lucian. It never occurs to me that it’s my blood that the earth is thirsty for. Even when he takes my hands. Runs his fingers over my arms lightly. Even then, I don’t expect the blow. When it comes I can no longer see Pop, or Lucian, or the moon. Everything is blank.

 

When Pop said grackles were the smartest birds around, he was right. Maybe they are smarter than people. I never see my house again. The giant grackle, however, is waiting for me to wake up at dawn. The earth around me is still wet with blood, but my arms have been tightly bound with corn husks, just above the elbow, to staunch the flow. This time I don’t wonder who did it. Lucian is nowhere to be found. It takes me several tries to get to my feet. I’m weak with blood loss and light headed from pain. My balance is completely different with arm stumps instead of hands. I’m still blank though. My mind is blank. I don’t think about anything. I just walk. An assortment of birds flies just ahead of me. Grackles. Ravens. Jackdaws. Crows. Sometimes they swoop down to check on me as I stumble after them. I have hardly any sensation from the neck down.

I don’t know how long I walk before my father’s cornfields finally give way to grassy hills. Days. Weeks. My fever keeps me from having any real concept of time. The birds find puddles for me to drink from, until finally we come to a place that is green and smells like water. There is a stream and crickets. The air is slightly warmer. I have walked for so long that my boots are worn down through the soles and while my body has shrunk, my belly has already begun to grow. The grackle has changed the wrappings on my arms several times, and the wounds are no longer bloody and raw.

Beside the stream there is a copse of trees. I am so exhausted and grateful to find anything like shelter, that I bathe and drink from the stream until I feel full, and then fall asleep in the soft moss beside the water. I sleep for what must be days. I wake to a cold beak against my ear. The grackle and his mate are watching me. There is a pile of berries beside me and some small fish. I struggle to sit up, but the female grackle with the iridescent feathers hops over to me instead. She nudges my mouth open and drops a beak full of sweet berries in. Then repeats it with one of the fish.

It takes some time, but the birds build me a giant nest of twigs and moss, insulated enough to keep out the cold. It is a tremendous feat of skill and craftsmanship. Even so, the jackdaws, the more mischievous of the bunch, go on a pillaging raid to somewhere or another, and return with warm blankets and clothes to replace the tattered shreds that I removed when we first reached the stream. The ravens bring me rabbits and mice which I usually decline. The crows chatter all of the time. I don’t know how I ever thought that their caws weren’t musical. The grackles watch my every move. They know there is a baby coming. They busy themselves caring for me and preparing for the birth. When my arms are healed enough that I can use the stumps at least, I build a fire striking flint across a rock using my teeth. The grackles watch carefully and are soon more adept at it than I am.

We settle into a routine together. We bathe in the same stream. Eat the food that they bring back. I talk to them, just so that they know how much I need them there. Also, so I don’t forget the sound of my own voice. I never talk about Lucian and I never talk about home. I don’t know whether they miss it or not. At night I curl up in my nest, one arm cradling my belly, while the birds roost in the trees around me.

When the baby finally comes, the pain is fierce and the birth isn’t easy. It slices through the blankness inside of me. She’s small and pink and wrinkled. Her body spasms with furious, shuddering gasps and screams. I’m worried that her voice will carry all the way back to those faraway cornfields. I want to soothe her. I don’t know anything about babies. The grackles help tie off the cord with their beaks. My upper arm stubs are just functional enough that I can lift her to my chest although she’s still slippery.

We both sleep for a while. I wake up when she’s hungry. The response is instinctive. When she’s done feeding, the grackles start a fire and I crawl on my knees over to the stream. We both need to be cleaned before animals smell us. The water is clear and cold. I wriggle down into the water first for fear of dropping her. Then, carefully, I dip her in. She squeals. As soon as her tiny toe touches the water, flowers of every kind and color begin bubbling up to the surface.

I’m shocked, until I remember Pop’s story. Waterlilies, roses, hyacinths, and laurel go floating down the little stream perfuming the cool air. I dip her down farther. The flowers continue. I have no way to scrub her with my hands, so I use the soft moss that grows all along the bank to sponge her softly. Everywhere she touches it, flowers bloom. I’m enchanted. I’m half stunned that something so magical has come from me. This is when she slides out of my grasp and under the water.

Time stops. I stare down at my daughter as if through a glass case. I splash my amputated stumps around unsuccessfully. I try ducking under water and wrestling her back up, trying to get ahold of her flesh with my teeth, but I can’t grasp her. I feel pain. Real pain. The birds swoop over my head as I try again and again to lift her up.

Tears fall into the water. A new pain splits me open, this one so fierce I cry out. My heart will stop if I can’t save her. I duck down again, and this time get a firm grasp. I curl my fingers around her tightly and pull us both out of the water. She’s alive. Coughing and sputtering, but alive. I set her down and pat her back gently to help get the water up. Flowers are blooming in the soft grass around her.

It is only after I’m satisfied that she’s okay that I realize I have fingers. I have hands. I have arms. Fully functional ivory limbs as delicate and soft as my newborn. I hear the sound of wings flapping to see the birds, all of them, crows, ravens, grackles, and jackdaws lifting themselves up into the sky. Legs shaking, I pick my daughter up with my new arms and we sit by the warmth of the fire wrapped in a stolen blanket. I can hold her now. The way that a mother should. She sleeps and I stay awake, wondering if the birds will come back. There is something red lying in the grass beside the fire. With one arm I cradle the warm body and with the other I reach out and pick it up with my fingers. An action so simple and delightful at the same time.

The grackles have left one last present before returning to the home that I will never see again. It’s a necklace made of blood red corn kernels threaded onto a single string.

Harvest

All she had known was rain-kissed fields, unfurling blooms and the smell of sunshine soaked earth—and her mother, her constant guardian, her omnipresent shadow. Since she was little, learning to crawl among golden stalks of wheat, she remembered her mother walking beside her, lifting her after each fall, stroking her springy curls, teaching her the names of flowers and trees. She remembered the feeling of her mother’s tunic against her cheek, the smell of warm, peeled apples and grass emanating from her hair. She’d memorized the lullabies her mother sang, felt the timbre of her mother’s voice beneath her skin. Her mother was her second skin, a comfort she grew to expect.

She knew of her mother’s brothers, hinted at in brief, bitter invective. Their names

were never spoken; she knew her mother did not trust them, that they were anathema to her sheltered creation.

With each passing year, she wandered a bit further from her mother, no longer the toddler tangled at her hem. As a young woman, her pretty face was blooming into a timeless beauty, a beauty her mother feared and dreaded. Her face would awaken desires and break promises. A collective of nymphs trailed her, always giggling, always delighted by the same things. While her mother worked her earthly, secret magic, her beautiful cousins accompanied her, gossiping about the family, gathering flowers, comparing their white arms, plaited hair, and jewels, flinging insults with sweet smiles.

She wandered beyond them, tired of their arrogant voices, yawning at the endless fields of flowers and wheat. Glistening ahead, a peculiar ruby flower blossomed, the only of its kind, beckoning—a perfect centerpiece to her floral crown. She smiled and bent to pluck it from the ground.

As the flower’s roots tore apart, the earth rumbled, rising and spitting, heaving upward a dark man and a team of black, snorting stallions.

He moved soundlessly, ceaselessly cloaked in shadow. The gloom was like an enduring garment, heavy on his broad shoulders, trailing behind him in a syrupy dark train. Eyes black diamonds, their gleam the only sign of life, shone above a heavy charcoal beard, a bramble of black and silver hairs. His name conjured inferior suppositions of his actual appearance, a name that spoken or even thought, prompted terror and disaster.

Somehow she wasn’t afraid.

The chariot passed, wraithlike; the ephemeral horses nearly floating above the earth, their black, robust bodies glossed in sweat. She held out a hand and touched the chest of the closest horse as he swept passed; his flesh was cold and supple, smooth like polished stone. The team cried out in booming unison, rising on muscled hind legs, cracking the ground as they landed. He rose from the chariot, locking her eyes in his icy stare.

The flowers fell from her hand as he approached, the crown she’d been weaving dispersing in a cloud of petals. He stopped, maintaining a fair distance between them, and breathed a low greeting. Awestruck, she watched him press her hand to his cold, full mouth. His face was pale, finely sculpted and ageless.

It seemed as though an eon passed between them, his black eyes meeting her green ones, the trees still, birds silent, the wheat standing straight as arrows. She could not detect a distinction between his iris or pupil; his eyes were cave-like, deep and black and enigmatic. Suddenly her green and fragrant world seemed ordinary, even boring. In his gaze she saw another place, somewhere foreboding and strange—but new. Heady desire flooded her limbs.

“You will be a queen, “ he whispered, his voice hollow, nearly undetectable, like a cloudless day’s rapid metamorphosis into a violent thunderstorm. “No longer a companion of nymphs or prisoner of my sister.”

She looked over her shoulder, where the nymphs froze in a twittering knot, her cousins caught in debate, and her mother a tiny spot at the field’s edges. He lifted a golden curl from her shoulder, ran the hair between his dusty grey fingers, scanning her

expression. Her eyes rose to his, her nod as delicate as a fan of perfume.

His lips managed a sober smile, and with ease he grasped her waist, lifting her before him, the horses cold beneath her tunic. She could not look away, could not hear the earth churning backward, the ghoulish cacophony of his horses, the harried panic of her cousins, the shrill scream of nymphs, and the distant, pure melancholic cry of her mother.

Instead, she only heard his promises of the rarest, brightest jewels, only found in the deepest terrain, the incomparable power she would hold over his ever-expanding domain, the ebony throne she would occupy, twin to his own. Here she would be the most beautiful, the fairest skinned, the holder of the scarcest metals. Lightly, she rested her head on his shoulder, and watched, wide-eyed as they descended, gasping at the embedded, shining gems of azure, violet, fuchsia and vermillion jutting from the clay walls, just as he’d vowed. His hand enclosed her waist, his fingers firm and shockingly cold—but gradually his temperature roiled into her body, the familiarly of warmth evaporating from her skin.

They passed a bleak, cloaked man, standing before a ferry; black rivers of impossible depths; armies of marching wraiths; soaring, iron gates, bars as thick as temple columns; and an enormous black dog, its multiple heads cocked, curious at her approach—each wet nose sniffed her, shining eyes softening. It knelt at its haunches, wagging tails belying its fearsome appearance.

He held her small white hand in his, and led her to the queen’s throne. She ran her fingers along the smooth, black material, a greyed reflection of her face smiling regally

back at her. He waited for her to sit, then bent to his knee and lowered a radiant crown upon her head, sculpted with delicately veined gold leaves, and rubies as large as anemone flowers.

He sat beside her and spoke in his strange, hollow voice.

Your mother will search for you. She will mourn you. She will fight for you, and eventually, she will find you.

He reached into his tunic and held up a gleaming red fruit; in his palm it split into halves, revealing globes of crimson seeds, as glossy as fish eggs. Mesmerized, she took a half, glancing at his cautious smile.

This can be your home, he said. Your kingdom.

She did not miss the constant supervision, the inane giggling, the overshadowing splendor of her cousins; her mother’s constant paranoia. Above, she would always be a virgin, never a queen.

She brought the fruit to her mouth, and guided a chamber of seeds to her awaiting tongue. The burst of tart sweetness elicited a pleased smile, droplets of juice coating her lips with a ruby stain. She looked up at the black abyss above them, sky and clouds fading from her memory; she could not remember the exact features of her mother’s face, the blinding glare of sunlight, or the sensation of grass on her bare feet.

Eagerly she took her husband’s hand, and consumed the remaining seeds, ravenous for more.