Storytime: King of Beasts.

November 15th, 2017

“He’s very well-trained, you know. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. Isn’t that right?”
A tawny, half-toasted sort of day.
“Oh yes dear. Not even one of those big fat ugly flies, the ones we get in August. Ugh!”
A tawny, half-toasted sort of cat. Big and sleek until the mane ruined everything, obliterating the smooth line of the back in a furry explosion of fluff.
It yawned in the August sun. The tongue was surprisingly red.
“Can they pet him?”
“Oh they may, they should, they must. Go on, give him a tickle. He loves a good tickle. Good afternoon officers, may I ask what’s the matter?”
“Murder,” said Constable Bell, who’d always wanted to say that. Murr-durr. Sonorous, like a whale. Except Constable Bell had a voice like a chickadee, so instead it came out as meer-deer.
“Oh no!” said Mr. June. His pale shocked eyes stood out in his pale thin face. “You little kids had better move along, this is grownup stuff. Murder!”
“Oh no!” agreed Mrs. June.
“Oh yes,” said Constable Drum, who had a deep sonorous voice like a whale and wasted it. “Just down the road. Horrible. Just horrible. Blood everywhere, very awful. We’re taking witness statements, do you want to make one?”
Mr. June and Mrs. June considered one another. They had their own language, made entirely of meaningful and meaningless glances.
“Yes,” said Mr. June, “we must. We’re brand new here.”
“No,” said Mrs. June, “we really musn’t. We’re brand new here.”
“Oh fine.”
“All right then.”
“If you insist.”
“No, no, no, have it your way.”
And Mrs. June turned to the two police officers once more.
“We are appalled and horrified and can’t believe our ears or eyes,” she said. “My goodness. What an awful thing to happen in such a nice neighborhood.”
Constable Bell swore.
“Goodness me!”
“No, no, it’s fine. I broke my pencil. Could you repeat your statement into this recorder?”
“Certainly. We are appalled and horrified and can’t believe our ears or eyes,” she said. “My goodness. What an awful thing to happen in such a nice neighborhood.”
“It wasn’t on.”
“Oh dear. We are appalled and horrified and can’t believe our ears or eyes,” she said. “My goodness. What an awful thing to happen in such a nice neighborhood.”
“Hang on, the switch is stuck.”
“Alright. We are”

“Quality people, they are,” said Constable Bell as their car started. We’ve always needed more quality people like that about. Not like the bums that grow up around this place.”
The Junes’ lion swished its tail indolently in the mellow sunlight, ears barely-prickling as the officers sped down the road. It yawned once more, with lazy satisfaction. And it belched.

***

September. The trees were ready to shed, but remained very fat.
“Those trees are very fat,” observed Constable Drum.
Constable Bell swatted Constable Drum’s hat.
“Ow.”
“Eyes on the murder.”
“Sorry.”
It was a messy thing. Half the man’s face had been chewed off, the other half had been spat out. The abdomen had been gutted, and what had happened to the guts was simply abominable. It made Constable Bell’s skin nearly crawl right off and go home early.
“I think it was a tiger,” said Constable Drum.
“Astute observation, Constable Drum,” said Constable Bell. “What makes you say that?”
“The big teeth marks and the big claw marks and the saliva and the way half of the body was buried in a shallow pit,” said Constable Drum.
“Very nice theory,” said Constable Bell.
“Thanks. I read it in a book.”
“Well, get a refund. Because, Constable Drum, there’s two tigers within five hundred miles and they’re both at the city’s zoo, and they’re both toothless and very much secure.”
“Shucks. Ooh! Ooh!”
“What’re you waving at?” snapped Constable Bell.
“The Junes! There they are!”
“Where?”
“Over there! Walking their lion.”
“Oh. That’s nice.”
“Wave back!”
“No need. Hello, Mrs. June, Mr. June.”
“Hello, sirs,” said Mr. June. “Geez that looks nasty. Any idea what could’ve done it to him?”
“Not an idea,” said Constable Bell.
“A tig-ugh,” suggested Constable Drum and Constable Bell’s left elbow.
“Could be, could be,” mused Mrs. June. “I don’t know what’s happened to this neighborhood. We bought a house here because of the good property values. I love good property values so very much, you know that? Anyways we bought a good house with good property values that I loved so very much, you know that, and after we’d bought that good house with good property values that I loved so very much, you know that, what’s gone and happened? Bodies everywhere.”
“That was an impressive breath you took there,” said Constable Bell. “Do you sing?”
“Oh, no. I just like talking.”
“Me too,” said Constable Drum.
“Yes,” agreed Constable Bell, with Constable Bell’s left elbow seconding.
Mr. June pursed his lips at the dismembered corpse. “These days,” he mused. “So much violence these days. Well, a rising tide belts all lifts.”
The lion leaned against his legs, seeking love and skritches. It received them.

***

“Trick or treat.”
“Scram, kid,” said Constable Bell, gently.
“Here, he can have a kidney.”
“Put it back, Drum.”
“She won’t be needing them anymore, surely.”
“It’s for the sake of procedure, doorknob. And besides, it’s HIS kidney.”
“Oh. Whoops. Wait, that leaves him with three. Was this one from the person behind the door?”
Sometimes you just want to sigh and rub your forehead. Constable Bell was elbow-deep in blood and therefore did not have that luxury.
“Five people. Three kidneys. Just put it down somewhere, we’ll figure it out later. God, I’ve always hated jigsaws.”
“Trick or treat.”
“Scram, kid,” suggested Constable Bell.
“It’s the Junes!”
“Coo-ee,” said Mrs. June. “Oh my goodness, that’s a new trick. I’ve never seen the Morgans turn themselves inside out before.”
“They had help,” said Constable Bell.
“Murder?”
“Or a very bad prank,” said Constable Drum.
“Or a very bad prank,” said Constable Bell. “Never know what the damned kids’ll pull off every year. Keep a hand on your lion, people. They could try and run off with that next. They’ll steal anything, these types. Low-lifes. Not quality folks like you and me.”
“And me.”
“And Constable Drum.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mr. June. “We’ve got a good tight chain on him. See? They’d need to bring bolt-cutters.”
“Hang on, I’ve got to phone the SPCA,” said Constable Bell. “That’s blood on its neck, that is.”
“Oh, it’s not the lion’s,” explained Mrs. June.
“Whew,” said Constable Drum.
“Whew,” agreed the Junes.
“Damnit,” said Constable Bell, stepping on the fourth kidney.

***

November forever, for ages and ages. Colder every day.
“Give me the coffee.”
“I can’t. My hands are full.”
“Of the coffee.”
“But I need a free hand to pass you it.”
“Just reach towards me and I’ll take it.”
“If you say so.”
Constable Bell took the coffee, then dropped it.
“Oh nooooo.”
“Hush up, you! It’s the Junes’ cat!”
“Where?”
“There! In the leaves! It’s lying low and the colours match – clever kitty. Here, kitty kitty kitty kitty. Here, kitty kitty kitty ki-ty-ty-ty-. GET IT!”
The scruffle was brief, but intense. The lion was groggy and rolled over, batting at the air and snoring.
“Help me out here, Constable Drum.”
“One moment Constable Bell. I’ve discovered a murr-durr.”
“What? Where!”
Constable Drum pointed.
“Buried in the leaves, see? Good job the lion was here, we never would’ve found him. And look, it put him to good use – big teeth marks! Poor hungry kitty.”
“Poor hungry kitty,” said Constable Bell. “Let’s take it home. It’s done enough detective work for one day. Hey, is the body Shaun or Sean?”
“How’d you know it was Shaun or Sean?”
“Because they’re the only two yobbos left in this burg.”
“Oh. It’s Shaun. I think. He’s got no face.”
“Only an improvement then. Miserable punk. C’mon, kitty kitty kitty ki-t-y-y-y-y.”

***

“I’m puzzled,” admitted Constable Bell.
“Wit’s end,” agreed Mr. June.
“Completely stumped,” said Mrs. June, loyally.
“Two-hundred and eighty-four murders,” said Constable Drum sadly, “and not one little murderer! It’s sure a sad new year’s day, this is.”
“Here,” said Mr. June. “More champagne. That always makes me feel better.”
“Aw thanks. You’re nice.”
“More than nice,” said Constable Bell. “You’re quality people. What kind of other folk would take time out of their holiday to let us know their cat found a body? Constable Drum, could you please grab the other goddamned leg and pull.”
“Okay.”
They pulled. They struggled. But the lion wouldn’t let go. Its ears flattened, its eyes narrowed, its throat made interesting and alarming sounds. But it wouldn’t let go.
“Well, piss,” said Constable Bell. “I don’t know how this lousy drunk stumbled into your cat’s mouth and then forced it to chew up and swallow him, but I guess he was the murderer. And much good it did him. Good thing he went in head-first or getting his fingerprints would be a real bitch. Got any more of that champagne?”
“Here you go,” said Mrs. June. “And thank you so very much, officers, for solving this case. It’s good to feel safe around here again.”
“No problem,” said Constable Drum. “I think we’ll get promoted. I’ve never caught a murderer before.”
“Yeah,” said Constable Bell. “Yeah, I guess so. Hey, you mind if I ask you folks a question?”
“Go for it,” said Mrs. June.
“Do you know where I could get a lion like that? It’s real nice-looking. Real quality. And it makes you feel safer, to know that kind of money’s in the neighborhood.”


Storytime: Diggity.

November 8th, 2017

To: info@OGHotdogs.com
From: polly_pocket_383@gmail.com
Subject: Historic!

Hi there!
I can’t tell you how happy I am to see that building open for business again. My grandma wouldn’t stop telling me about how much she used to enjoy a nice footlong from your dad’s business when she was out on the boardwalk – with mustard, of course. Congratulations on bringing the past to the present and thanks for keeping our local spirit thriving! Kudos!!!

-Polly Packer.

PS: there was just one thing I thought I should mention: I asked for a hot dog and the man you had behind the counter put a Papillion on the counter and pulled out a lighter. I repeated myself, and he just shrugged and set the poor little thing aflame. Does he speak English?

To: polly_pocket_383@gmail.com
From: info@OGHotdogs.com
Subject: re: Historic!

First of all, thank you so much for patronizing my fine establishment. My dad died thinking he’d seen the last hot dog ever to be sold in Slandcrane leave his hands at the age of thirty-three, and I like to imagine that wherever the old man is now, he’s smiling at me. With as many teeth as he can manage.
Now, pleasantries aside, I must respectfully remind you that your grandma was a very old woman before she died (may you live to reach such age!) and she may have glossed over a few of the details.
You see, Slandcrane is privileged to be the home of not just A hot dog stand, but THE hot dog stand. That’s right, that fantastic treat you love to eat? It was born here, nurtured by the loving hands of my great-great-grandfather, Horton Louie. Then it was ripped out of his loving hands and carried away to strange and devious places by his horrible and evil assistant, who subsequently perverted this knowledge and produced the mass-market animal-tube of mixed meats we’re all unfortunate enough to know today by its stolen, unjust name of ‘hot dog.’
Our hot dogs are more than just delicious: they’re authentic. And honest. And ethical. And isn’t that reason enough for you that we used the old-fashioned, proper method of hot dog preparation, where we set the dog alight right there in front of you?

Thanks again,
Francine Louie, Manager
Southern Slandcrane’s Snack Stop: The ORIGINAL Hot Dog.

PS: Jason Taylor can speak English, he just didn’t want to speak to you, probably because you were being so snotty. Work on that.

***

To: info@OGHotdogs.com
From: huey_gottagonow0@hotmail.com
Subject: um…. SPCA much?

Okay, let me be blunt: when I asked for a wiener I didn’t exactly expect a dachshund….. or for it to be covered in gasoline…. The dude didn’t even put a bun on it…
Look, I’m a simple guy… I don’t ask for much…just a hot dog?.. with mustard maybe?… I didn’t ask for a dog that reminded me of my parents’ to be put in front of me and set on fire…. If your stand wasn’t right on the boardwalk it wouldn’t have made it to water….
Like, does the humane society know about this?… because this is the sort of thing they keep an eye on…

-Hubert…

To: huey_gottagonow0@hotmail.com
From: info@OGHotdogs.com
Subject: re: um…. SPCA much?

Thanks for your patronage, Hubert. And for your opinions. Let me reassure you about the ‘issues’ you’ve decided exist at our quality establishment.
As you no doubt noticed when purchasing one of our fine treats, Hubert, the sign above the counter reads as follows: Southern Slandcrane’s Snack Stop: The ORIGINAL Hot Dog.
ORIGINAL. That means something, Hubert. Authenticity. And if you’d read the last two words on that sign too, you’d have realized that anyone who asks for a ‘hot dog’ should expect what they should get: an honest to god canine served at high temperatures, either smouldering, cindered, or blazing as per customer’s request and taste.
Thanks again for your insights. If you paid.

Thanks again,
Francine Louie, Manager
Southern Slandcrane’s Snack Stop: The ORIGINAL Hot Dog.

PS: Do you even have a last name, or did you forget it?

***

To: info@OGHotdogs.com
From: fl0u0ffy_cudd1es@gmail.com
Subject: Death

You will pay for what you have done.
A whole german shepherd, up like a candle on a birthday cake.
All I ever wanted was pork. Like tears in the napalm rain.
I will see you dead.

To: fl0u0ffy_cudd1es@gmail.com
From: info@OGHotdogs.com
Subject: re: Death

First off, thanks for the notice. Hope you felt real brave sending that from your mom’s basement. Yeah, I know who this is, BRUCE – it’s bruce, right? That’s what your friends called you when they were trying to get you to wake up after you passed out. What kind of piece of shit reacts like that to perfectly legitimate – no, fucking LOCAL STYLE – cooking? I’ll tell you who. You. You do that, Bruce. You are the dogshit on the bottom of the shoe that is this town and if I ever see your pimply face near my snack stand again I’ll personally scrape you off, capiche?
I’m holding the crowbar, loser. Go on. Push me.

Thanks again,
Francine Louie, Manager
Southern Slandcrane’s Snack Stop: The ORIGINAL Hot Dog.

***

To: info@OGHotdogs.com
From: mayor@slandcrane.com
Subject: Notice.

Hello.
Francine, I’ve been honoured to have your family’s acquaintance for many years, and it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you this but that shack is coming down or the animal rights guys told us they’d do it themselves with you in it. With crowbars.
I know this is your dream. I know it was your dad’s dream. I know he gave an awful lot of us interesting and horrible dreams as small children, but that was another era and people didn’t have cell phones back then. I don’t want our town’s name to be permanently glued to a video of your business practices. It’s possible you should have stuck to more conventional hot dogs.
Please turn in your business license at city hall tomorrow morning and maybe leave town fast, because I can’t entirely guarantee your safety.

Tilly Whipsnirt,
Mayor of Slandcrane.

To: mayor@slandcrane.com
From: info@OGHotdogs.com
Subject: travesty of justice

Where the fuck do you get off??? Listen up you piece of shit: THEY. COPIED. US. The ORIGINAL hot dog, as it says on the building’s side which you’d know if you could READ you stupid piece of shit, is exactly what it sounds like. Hot. Dog. Even you can put those two words together and come up with an answer, right? Right? Or am I the only person in this fucking town that has the brains and the will to do what must be done???? Jason’s left me, Polly stiffed me, Hubert mocked me, the whole damned city laughs at me.
You know what?
I’m done listening.
I’ve got four hundred gallons of lighter fluid and a kennel full of Pomeranians and dachshunds back here. I’m giving myself a Viking funeral, and the lot of you useless, keening motherfuckers are going to be the thralls they throw onto my pyre.

Thanks again,
Francine Louie, Manager
Southern Slandcrane’s Snack Stop: The ORIGINAL Hot Dog.

***

LOCAL BUSINESS GOES TO THE DOGS, FLAMES.
Southern Slandcrane’s Snack Stop: The ORIGINAL Hot Dog became a cauldron of lava last night following what may have been arson or just bad luck. The flames, initially far too hot for firefighting crews, had cooled sufficiently by Thursday evening for the charred skeleton of local businessowner Francine Louie to be retrieved. Although a full autopsy has not yet been performed, ex-police coroner Craig Grousecrout (45) indicated he did not believe foul play was at work.
“It’s the Pomeranians, see? All that fluff and dander, and a little spark and POOF it goes up. Fine one at a time, but light a match in a room with forty of these suckers and wow, it’s no wonder there’s not meat on ‘er. But don’t put it in the paper or nothing.”


Storytime: Squashed Soup.

November 1st, 2017

I’m really very sorry about all of this. I don’t know how it got so far. I just was walking, you know, just walking
-just down the road, there, on Halloween eve –
and I saw some teenagers kick in a jack-o-lantern and run away. It’s much safer to do that nowadays, since a lot of them don’t have candles in them, but they’re teenagers, I bet they’d do it anyways, bet they’d do it if there were bonfires in there or welding torches.
But I thought to myself as they ran off laughing, ‘what a waste, what a waste.’
Then I caught myself and I considered it and realized…
…well. It’s ALL a waste, isn’t it?
And not just the candy and dental costs, but the poor gourds too. Some people save the seeds but I don’t know any myself, or hear of them. We cut them open and leave the husks and then we let them rot and then we throw them out. What a waste. What a waste.
But they don’t go mouldy for a good while after Halloween, do they?
So I thought about it. I got an idea, or maybe two. And the night AFTER Halloween, I went trick or treating.
No, no, no.
I went trick AND treating.
Much better.

So I came home with two garbage bags brimmed full, and I’d been choosey.
I had two little round ones.
A big fat blobby one.
Three medium ones, a little mottled.
Four tall, slim sorts.
And one with a very…. Well, not MEMORABLE smile, but a funny smile. It had a funny smile.
Yes, it was a very funny smile.

I put the water to boiling, and while it steamed I dipped a cloth in it and I started cleaning them off. They’d only been outside a few days, but hygiene and kitchenwork are like salt and paper, or fish and chits. It’s very important.
I cleaned out their eyes
And cleaned off their noses
I tidied their ears
And freshened their smiles.
Even the very funny smile.
When I was done they were bright and shining and the water was boiling. I opened the drawer and I took out the masher. I held it up high above my head and as I brought it down
-carefully! You can’t be careless in a kitchen!-
They jumped me.

It was easy to tie me up. Used my own apron, too! Hoist with my own petard.
They interrogated me after that. A bit of a rant crept through here and there. They were pretty cross about having their insides scooped out, I tell you what. Said they were all hollow and scrabbly now, and they needed to be full, rim to rim. Said they were scorched and parched from candles and needed to be soft and wet. Said that being mushed and mashed and souped was the final straw, and I should’ve known better.
I told them it was just a mistake, and all I’d intended, but they didn’t like that. Tied me with the other apron, and the other. Knew I shouldn’t have bought so many but they had so many charming slogans on them and I thought they were fun for barbecues. They’re torn into strips now and they’ve got me stuck fast hand and foot.
What a waste, what a waste.

I know I must sound awfully cheerful for someone in this kind of pickle, and most folks would be pretty ready to say some mean stuff about anyone who put them there. But all this kind of thing, well, it’s all down to me and my ideas, and I won’t let the buck go much farther than that. Don’t let this get around, but last year I had this idea about our Christmas lights and my when I was through it was just – oh!
I think I heard the door; I bet they’ll be back soon.
I wonder if they’ve found the knife?


Storytime: The Long Autumn.

October 25th, 2017

Once upon a while there was a warlord. But he didn’t war so much as pillage, and no noble line would claim him. A funny title, for a funny man.
And he WAS a funny man. He had a sense of humour, and a good one. Every time he and his army came to a new village, he would stomp into the center of it and challenge them fair and square: a wrestling bout, two falls out of three, for who would own the place. This was always completely hysterical to his sensibilities because he stood eight foot four inches, and was broad to match and then some. And so his realm expanded, along with his good humour.
One day that good humour was sorely tested. The warlord had just finished wrestling a stubborn old coot, and had been forced to break his arms and legs in three times as many spots as normally required just to get him to stop wriggling at him. Even now his bristly little jaws worked, fixing to chew at the warlord’s toes as he raised his foot high above his head.
“Good fight,” said the warlord grumpily. “Any last words?”
“Yeah,” said the old coot. “Twenty years ago I would’ve been biting you right now. But now I’ll settle for the next best thing. See that tree over there? The moment the last leaf drops off that thing, my ghost is going to jump out at you and eat your heart right out of your chest.”
The warlord finished stomping, but his heart was already troubled even un-eaten, and consultation with his best astrologer confirmed his fears.
“He lived a good clean life,” said the astrologer as she traced the lines on the old coot’s limp palm. “No swearing. Lots of surplus curse-juice. It’s all bound up in that one. Wow, you’ve sure had it.”
“No,” said the warlord. “I was getting sick of wandering around anyways. Time for everyone else to come to me now.”
So he crowned himself king, in the traditional manner of brutishness. And as his first command, blacksmiths were brought.
And a great chain was wrapped around the tree’s trunk
And a strong chain was linked to the great chain
And a sturdy chain was linked to the strong chain
And a thin chain was linked to the sturdy chain
And a slender chain was linked to the thin chain
And a fine chain was linked to the thin chain
And a little needle-thin chain was linked to the fine chain
Which held every single leaf of the tree in place with exquisite care.
Each chain was locked, and the king proclaimed himself pleased.
Then he had all his blacksmiths killed and began a long and happy reign of terror.

The years passed. The tree’s leaves turned grey and shrunken. The chains grew a little dusty, but the king prohibited their cleaning. And under that tree, in his court, in his castle, he would partake in his greatest sport and joy: every summer of every year every village would send him someone to wrestle. If they won, they didn’t pay taxes. If they lost, the king collected double. This pleased him immensely, and it often pleased some of the older villagers too, because there was always at least one strong young person who was too much trouble by half as far as they were concerned.
And then once upon a few whiles later, a young woman with a particularly stubborn and surly jaw came to the king’s court in mid July.
“Hello you miserable bastard,” she told him. “I’m here to wrestle. Let’s go.”
“Excellent,” said the king.
And they did. And the woman twisted and heaved and turned and spun and ducked and bit at least once, giving the king the time of his life for a good half-hour, but in the end he simply fell over at her and succeeded in breaking her left leg like a dry twig.
“SHIT,” she said shortly.
“One to me,” said the king. “The next will come tomorrow, at noon. You know, you have a familiar sort of stubborn jaw. Did I wrestle your grandfather?”
“You did,” said the woman.
“He only had the one grandchild?”
“My oldest brother is far away, studying. My middle brother is deathly ill with Lumps. My youngest brother is three. So they said ‘you do it.’”
The king laughed at that, and as he took his leave of court he rang for one of his servants to come and give her some splints. The servant was an extremely earnest boy of maybe-seven, and from the fixedness of his gaze and the care in his movements the woman saw that he was blind.
“We’re all blind around here,” he explained to her. “I was born with it. Some people have to learn it. There’s a sort of red-hot poker.”
“Ouch,” said the woman.
“Yes.”
“No, I was splinting my leg.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, it could be worse and it likely will be. Tomorrow he’ll probably break the other one and then my head, just like grandfather.”
“You can’t beat him?”
“You can only wrestle so hard when you’re wrestling a bear,” said the woman. “He’s just too big for anybody. Grandfather couldn’t beat him, I can’t beat him. The only thing he thinks can beat him is that stupid tree, and it’s tied with seven chains and bound with seven locks, so at this rate the leaves won’t come off it until the whole castle’s ground down to sand and bones.”
They talked for a while after that, but the servant boy was distracted. In a way he’d ended the conversation there, because now he had some ideas, and he had those ideas because now he’d had a friend.
Both were very new to him, but he was an eager learner.

That night the warlord snored.
This was normal and extremely loud.
That night the servant boy slipped through his master’s door.
This was abnormal and extremely quiet. And so all was well, until he opened the great cupboard of royal keys and found that – by his rough estimate – there were seven hundred and seventy-seven keys inside of varied size and ostentatiousness.
If he’d known any swears, he would’ve made the old coot blush.
Instead, he thought. And he thought. And he wished the king wouldn’t snore so, because it made thinking extremely difficult.
Then he thought about the king and smiled. He padded up to his bedside and breathed in.
“Gross,” he whispered.
Then he went back to the royal cupboard and followed his nose to the smell of greasy palms and pig-thick sweat.
It wasn’t easy. The keys had been closed up for a long time, with nobody dusting them. But faint as a whisper, as stinking as sepsis, they came to his nose and hand one by one.
Then he snuck out again.

Early that morning the woman woke up, tightened her splint, and faced breakfast.
Breakfast was a single half-loaf, crumbly.
Breakfast was wrapped in a white cloth.
Breakfast clinked softly as she held it, and when she half-unwrapped it glimmering metal revealed itself.
“Well,” she said. “Aren’t you clever.”
The servant boy nodded.
“Hah. Well, let’s just oh damnit why’s he up so early.”
And indeed the king had not stirred at that hour for decades. But uneasy dreams had rustled his pillow, full of creaking, rustling leaves – and he’d awoken in a fit at the sound of his creaking key cabinet, one door flapping wide.
He was in a bad mood. But he knew what made a bad mood good.
“Round two, it was?” he said.
“At noon,” said the woman.
“It’s close enough,” he said. And he went for her.
“Hold my breakfast,” she told the servant bot. And she went for him. Hopping.
The servant boy shrank back into a corner of the court with appropriate awe and terror. Then he picked up breakfast and ran around the wrestlers, ran to the center of the court, and hurried like a little squirrel up into the tallest branches of the chained tree.
And he unlocked the great chain wrapped around the tree’s trunk
And he unlocked the strong chain linked to the great chain
And he unlocked the sturdy chain linked to the strong chain
And he unlocked the thin chain linked to the sturdy chain
And he unlocked the slender chain linked to the thin chain
And he unlocked the fine chain linked to the thin chain
And as he unlocked the little needle-thin chain that was linked to the fine chain, the tiny, needle-thin dusty key snapped in the lock.
Which held every single leaf of the tree in place with exquisite and quite permanent care.

There was no time to panic. There was no time to swear. Instead the servant boy dropped. He dropped and caught and fell and snatched and clawed his way down that tree again, and he grabbed hold of the great tree wrapped around the tree’s trunk and he heaved as mightily as he could and because he was only maybe-seven it did absolutely no good whatsoever. He might as well have tried to move the castle.
But from the corner of her eye, half-blind with sweat, the woman saw him strain. And as she hobbled and dodged and grunted and shifted she hopped closer and closer to the tree, where she did a complicated thing.
With her stiff splinted leg’s toes she seized the great chain.
With her body she ducked underneath the hurtling mass of the king.
With her right leg she stuck herself right in front of the king’s descending foot.
And as the king went “WOOPS,” and her right leg went ‘crack’ and he went sailing by, with her hands she looped the last link of the great chain wrapped around the tree’s trunk over his foot.

THUD, he went on the ground.
GlinlglinlglinkglinkglinkglinkglinkPOP went the chains and the seventh lock.
Creak, mentioned the tree.

And the leaves fell in a single mass with the clattering rattle of a thousand dry throats, and every single one covered the warlord’s face like a shroud.
Oh, he screamed at that! He screamed and screamed and screamed all at once in a single breath and he screamed so hard that his heart JUMPED out of his chest and into his mouth and he ate it by mistake.

They probably didn’t get married, the servant-boy and the woman. Too much of an age gap. I’d think they’d have stayed friends after that, though.
What do you think?


Storytime: A Six-Hour Shift at the Beef Store in the town of X, Y County, Ontario, Canada.

October 18th, 2017

The air still smells nice in the early pre-noon as I clump up to the door. Trees, leaves, and the damp leftovers of last night’s dew still grimly clinging on.
But then I pop open the door and the red, meaty smell of animal hits me. Someone’s dropped a can on the floor and it’s popped open, spilling beef under a shelf.
Well, that’s one way to start a shift.

Hour one needs that sort of chore though. There’s not much else to it. Double-check the shelves for stock. Double-check the floor for spots you missed cleaning last night. Check signs, check your teeth, whistle if you can. I can’t.
The customers are mostly regulars. Very regulars. They’ve got stricter schedules than I do. It’s Wednesday, so that means he comes in at nine after the bell, smiling and waving. We talk a bit as I pack up his baggie of venison. He gives me a dad joke, which I appreciate.
“Hey. You know what the difference is between a hippo and a Bic?”
“Nope.”
“Well, the hippo’s a little heavier. And the Bic’s a little lighter.”
I don’t laugh. The listener never laughs at dad jokes, you just make disgusted spitting sounds without opening your mouth. The joker laughs instead, and he does so. His hands shake like rattlesnake tails as he takes the baggie of animal from mine.
“Don’t you start,” he says to me, serious now.
“I haven’t, I won’t,” I tell him. “Too cheap. Beef costs money, you know.”
“I’m serious,” he says, and he still is. He’s smiling but he means it very much. “It’ll ruin your life.”
“I won’t,” I say again, and he smiles more and he waves and we say goodbye until Wednesday.

Hour two. Now the business picks up, past the regulars. It’s time to get in the car with a cooler and fill it up with animal in any form you can imagine. Baggies and cans fly across the counter. Especially the baggies of hamburger – it’s so fatty, it goes down easy. The men love it the most, and they’ll chug it by the case with their friends.
“What’s that flavoured crap?” one of them asks his wife in that mocking voice that’s just joking and therefore absolutely serious. She gives him and me and the world a giggle that’s grown awkward from overpractice and I sell her a bag of peppered beef jerky, a single stick of which has more protein in it than mister macho’s entire case and then some. Pemmican and jerkies, hard to imagine anything harder, but you don’t grill them so they aren’t manly even if they’ll trash you faster than you can say boo.

Hour three is when the part of the day I’ve been expecting happens and I say the magic words, which are “Mind if I see some ID?”
And I get my genie’s wish fulfilled, because it’s definitely SOME ID, it’s just not theirs. The face is broader and flatter. Probably an older sibling. They get the birthday wrong twice when I quiz them, and they don’t have any other photo cards. I write it down in my little booklet as I explain to them why this baggie of gravlax isn’t going to happen now, and I’m lucky because they’re young enough that they just get sullen instead of belligerent. Give it a year.
They slink off out the door and out of the parking lot and away down the road and I know in the next hour or so some adult is going to walk in the door and buy a couple of things. One of them will be a baggie of gravlax. They will meet my eyes with absolute sincerity and I will have no grounds whatsoever to say anything about it.

Hour four is the lull, where everyone’s probably at home, devouring their bounty. I take the time to wander back into the fridges and refill the shelves where they’ve been stripped bare. Some stuff needs this treatment hourly; others I’ve left there for months. It’s like a memory puzzle, seeing how much you can hold in your brain in one trip. Four gravlax eight pepperettes six sirloins and two tri-tips and a partridge in a pear tree. Twenty bags, two hands, I make it work. I’m very proud of that. The last time I dropped anything I was only holding two bags, don’t ask me how that works.
When I’m putting the sirloins on their shelf someone walks up behind me and bites me on the neck in a not particularly enthusiastic way. I yelp – that’s it, no scream, no roar, just a genuine ‘AH WHAT WAS THAT’ sound, pure and unpolluted. The biter shows no reaction whatsoever. Turns on her heel and walks out the door. By the time I’m thinking of descriptions and police she’s already in the parking lot (on foot, so no license plates) and all my memory has to go on is ‘has teeth.’ Helpful.

At hour five some of hour two’s customers come back in. Some of them are already wasted – god knows how, off’ve light beef, but I could smell it on their breath. Their eyes are red; their mouths stink of old muscle tissue and dried blood. Even with their lips shut the smell seeps out of their pores. I turn them down and they stare, bug-eyed. This must be some kind of mistake, they say. Some fucking lunatic has killed the clerk and taken over the counter. What in the name of every god and devil could be the reason for this unique and special calamity that now crosses my path?
“Whad’ya mean?” they interrupt me as I explain. “What? I’m fine! What?”
I double-check for myself. It’s hard to tell with all the frying in the air around here in summertime, but no. These two might be surly, loud and uncoordinated at the best of times, but right now there’s more than attitude at work here. The call remains.
I don’t learn any new swears as they head out the door. Contrary to expectation, you don’t get any better at cussing after a few beefs. It’ll speed your lip up but it slows down the brain. No creativity.

Hour six is very quiet. Very, very quiet. A few people missing that last thing they promised to get for their relatives coming over tomorrow. One or two people coming off their own shifts, somewhere else. And a panting, bleeding man in a ragged coat who trips on our rubber mat and falls flat on his face as he runs in the door.
He jumps up again. From flat, like a frog. His eyes are wide, his pupils maybe not nearly so, and I wonder what’s going on there. It’s not animal, but he’s definitely taken something that’s disagreed with him. Though not half as much as he’s disagreed with someone else; that’s a knife cut he’s clutched his palm over, on his right arm.
“Help!” he yells. Or something like that.
I pick up the phone and by the time I’m finished dialing he’s run out the door again.
At least I have a description this time. ‘Stabbed’ isn’t comprehensive, but it’s awfully distinctive.

That’s it.
Well….
I lock the door, empty the till, run the settlements, band the receipts and put them in the safe with the cash, file tomorrow’s starter money in the envelope, sweep, mop, stock, turn off the lights and turn on the security and then lock the door.
Then I make sure I locked the door.
Then I make sure that I made sure that I locked the door.

After the hours are gone I go home, I eat everything I can fit in my mouth, and I go to bed so I’ll have plenty of strength tomorrow, when I go back and do the world some more good.


Storytime: Dirt Nap.

October 11th, 2017

Oh no.
Oh dear.
Oh my, my my my my. My very own.

Have you fallen down?

Ah, it’s no wonder. Goodness me, you’re light as a feather – and half of your feathers have come loose. All plucked and bruised, my poor thing. Bloodied and beaten up by life. It’s a shame it always has to pick on things smaller than itself, but that’s how it is.
Don’t cry. You’re too tired to cry. And it wouldn’t help anyways. No, no, no. I know what you need right now. A nice long nap.
The longest kind there is.

We’ll use dirt.
It’s the best there is.
Proper soil, too. As unsanitary and unsterile as can be found. A fistful of microbes in every mouthful, a rioting campus of detritus and joy hiding inside every clod. It’ll keep you company. Some people like to hear a little noise when they’re napping, you know. To remind themselves that it’s not night, and it’s a nap. You can’t mistake nap for sleep, you know. It’s a bad idea. But it’s often done these days, with so many people having so much to do and so few naps to take. And fewer and fewer places to take them.
You know, some people have to nap on solid stone. Hard. Unyielding. And untrustworthy. It looks as steady as the world itself, but it’ll crumble away underneath you in an eyeblink. Just like that. Good soil will never do you wrong that way. It’ll pack itself in around you. This is good dirt and it will love you and you will love it.
And it’s much easier to dig. I wouldn’t ask you for help, of course, but you can’t blame me for making it easier on myself, can you, dear?

That pit’ll do. A nice shallow scrape. Folks all over the world sleep all night in worse. Some have to do under the open sky, poor mites. What an awful thing. A bird could take you away. A bug could land on your face – go right up your nose, just like THAT! Dreadful. Awful. Terrible.
I don’t know how you could nap for a minute up there. Here, I mean. There’s too much fresh air and stale air and air.
Lean on me. Just lean on me. In you are.

Here. I’ll pack in the substrate tight overhead. Seal you in properly. If you’re inclined, if you’d like, if you’re lucky, you may fossilize. Seeping slowly into yourself until you’re a cast of minerals thinking they’re you. Or just empty space.
But that’s mostly luck. If you’re not already a three-times-lottery-winner I wouldn’t fuss yourself with the notion. It’s not worth fussing about. It’s not a time to be fussing about. Get serious. Get comfortable.
Put your feet up. Tuck them in and let your mind wander. Count roots and seeds and millipedes, and feel the thrum of the highway, far away. Gather moss with all the other stuck stones.

But don’t forget to wake up before tomorrow, alright? Your mother’ll be looking for you then. Your mother, with her shovel and belt and spite. She’ll come looking and looking and when she can’t find you, well, won’t she be surprised? I think she will. I think she will. Oh yes she will she will she will BUT

That’s for later. Worry later. Nap now.

There you go, dear. There you go.


Storytime: A Bit of a Bite.

October 4th, 2017

It was a hard, hard march, over rocks and trees and ferns and moss that all alike grated themselves eagerly into slippery mush under my feet. And it was a little harder than maybe it should’ve been, because Auntie Moc was over my shoulder, my good strong shoulder that I carried wood on, and she was not being helpful at all. Dead weight, lolling from the gashes in her gut, stretched wide by when she’d sprinted when she shouldn’t have.
She’d always told me never to think overmuch on what should or shouldn’t be done. Well, maybe I’d think that advice over again now. If it’s good, it’s good, but you can’t use the same ideas all day for everything. It leads to sticky spots, like the half-dried tackiness spread over half my back where Auntie Moc had been dribbling in drips for a night and a morning.
But that was enough. On top of the hill, on top of the leg cramps, on top of the sore spine and petulant muscles and finicky tendons, I’d reached the nearest spot. A little clearing and a big rock that was very good and somewhat flat and not very colourful.
Perfect.

Auntie Moc was big. I’d been bigger than her for two years BUT STILL and it was nice that the rock didn’t diminish that. It held her entire, but it held her up, not down.
And that was perfect too.
Auntie Moc’s knife was gone, left behind in some poor sucker’s sternum. And her other knife. And her axe. And a couple of her teeth. I’d have to use my knife – but it had been her knife, years ago, which she’d given me when I was old enough for it to be my fault if I cut myself by mistake.
And that was better than perfect.
It was mid-morning now; the sun was awake but still pulling off the cloudy blankets. Golden overcast, enough to make things hard to see but beautiful to look at.
That was probably the most perfect thing of all.
So under that perfect glow, on that perfect rock, with my perfect knife, I cut into Auntie Moc’s cheek and her other cheek and around and about and I pulled off her face.

It was in one piece. That was good. She wouldn’t be distracted by having to watch me make all sorts of mistakes, and she’d have plenty of room to get out and go when I was through. Nice knifework if I said so which I did.
I rolled up Auntie Moc’s face and pocketed it for the trip home, then I wiped the knife clean on my eyeteeth and aimed it for her side. THERE and there it was, right where it should be. And out there, in the forest where it shouldn’t be, clumsy footsteps.
Well, I was irritated. But not surprised. Places like this always pull people to them; that’s what makes them so handy. They give you a good view of everything, and if some folks ignore the everything for the forest and just look at that well that’s understandable enough. It’s just a pain when they walk in on the important things.
This pain was small, and clumsy, and mostly limbs. It ran out of the trees and ran through the grass and bounced off my shoulder, which made me sort of proud because I’d been holding very still and wanted to see if that’d happen.
“Ow!”
“Sorry ‘bout that,” I lied.
“Oh!” said the little thing. It was probably an adult, and might’ve been a woman, and I guessed it was large? Maybe? Hard to tell with these people from far away. They don’t weigh much and they don’t wear much and they don’t talk enough to make things clear, just to confuse themselves. It’s a real pickle. “Oh! Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh-”
“No oh noes thanks. It’s fine. You’re just interrupting me a little. If you’re looking for the town your folks put up, you’re going the wrong way. It’s down the –”
“No, I’ve got to find them! Oh no, oh dear, oh no,” she said. And she sobbed in a very dramatic way that made me very impressed. I think tears came out of her nose.
“Find who?” I asked. I wasn’t very interested but I knew someone who wanted to tell a story when I saw them and the faster I pulled it out the faster I could get back to Auntie Moc, who if she’d still had a face would be rolling her eyes right now.
“My parents,” she sighed, and moped, and wrung. “My poor poor parents! They’ve been missing for days, and days, and nobody else will look and nobody else will help and they’ve all given up and now it’s me, just me, lonely me oh boo hoo hooo hoooooooooo.”
I patted her on the shoulder, which would’ve made her jump if it hadn’t sunk her an inch into the dirt. “Cheer up. See this view up here? You can see this hill from anywhere, and you can see anywhere from it. Look for your parents, go down and check, and if you’re lost you can double back and try again. It’s easy.”
And she wiped away her tears and murmured away her thanks and hiccupped and cough and as almost an afterthought asked “what are you doing there?”
I followed her finger to my little arm, my weaker arm, which was still gripping my (Auntie Moc’s old) knife and hilt-deep in her side.
“Cutting out a bullet,” I said.
“Oh!” she said. “Well, good luck!” and she ran away down the hill, heels flashing and hair bobbing all the way until she was gone.
Odd. But it wasn’t my business, I was sure.

About time. The knife was coated with some of Auntie Moc’s more resentful and acidic secretions, and I had to put both hands into the cutting where the flesh was growing stiff and cumbersome.
Off came the armour that I hadn’t already pulled away for a speedy haul. Out came the hard half-crescent of skin and muscle and (lean, very lean) meat. In went my hand and out came a liver, fighting the whole way to stay in its home. It dragged its feet, it gripped its walls, it squelched and cursed me the whole way and when it was finally under the sky it finally softened up on me, as if it had been just playing a joke the whole time.
It had to get in line behind the rest of the world, because the trees were rustling and grumbling again, carrying shouts from the woods up to my perch, and even as they came so did their creators, thrashing through grass and tearing up dirt clods and sneezing and peering and coughing and occasionally spitting and marching all the way up to my seat, where they stood up tall and fanned out and snapped and grunted and eventually noticed me and asked “you seen ‘er?”
I pointed at Auntie Moc. “Yep. There.”
They looked at Auntie Moc. Then they looked away again very quickly.
“No, no. We’re looking for someone else.”
“Well you aren’t being very particular with your words. Who’re you looking for?”
“A thief,” announced their leader, who was the best-shaven and dirtiest. “A goddamned thief and a black-hearted scoundrel and a liar to make a mockingbird gasp. She took our property and she took our savings and she took our innocent trust and faith in a decent, kind, just and reasonable world. She was about yay tall and had shoddy sandals on. Seen her? Seen her tracks?”
I shrugged. “I’ve been busy and distracted enough with my own business.”
“Yes. Yes, you have. What IS that, exactly?”
“This scumbag stole my kill’s liver and so I beat her up and cut her face off,” I said.
“Fair enough. C’mon, spread out. Meet back here at noon when we’ve scrubbed the place clean.”
And they clang bang clattered down the hill and back into the green, which finally gave me the chance to eat Auntie Moc’s liver.

It was a big liver. She’d been that kind of person.
It was a tough liver, and she’d been that kind of person too. It nearly got one of my teeth, and it didn’t stop fighting until I’d swallowed the last scrap.
There. The first bit was finally over, and none too soon. The rest would be easier now that I had that energy, and now that she’d lost it maybe she’d stop putting up such a damned fight. Sawing at her was like cutting down a tree.
Well, next things next. The gruntwork. I decided to start with the left leg. It had been her favourite, and after a good ten minutes I could see why. It put up more of a fight than her own liver had, and it kept trying to trap my blade in a bunched muscle, or a tangled sinew, and pull it out. I think if it had it would’ve slit my throat with it.
“Trouble there?”
I actually jumped. It had been a long, long time since anyone had snuck up on me, but the leg, but they were so quiet, but but but bah buts don’t count for much.
Although they HAD been very quiet. The four little strangers standing there behind me were dressed almost sensibly. Heavily armed (as heavily as such small arms could be), covered in soft colours and muddled shades, stepping where feet should go instead of where they shouldn’t. Amazing how hard that came to some, but there you go, faint praise has to come from somewhere.
“A bit,” I said. They WERE good. Not a single one of their eyes followed the motions of the dripping knife in my palm. “Looking for something?”
“A bunch of murderous kidnapping thugs,” the one in the lead said. And spat. Unnecessary, I thought. “Shiftless sacks of shit. They took someone, they took off, they’re going to come back. With or without noses.”
“Huh.”
“Have you seen them?”
I thought. “Not sure. Hard to be sure what you’re seeing today. If you’d like to look about, feel free, but I’m a bit busy.”
“Yes. I can see that. Who was she?”
“My worst enemy,” I said which wasn’t really lying because what else is your best friend?
“Good. Hope we can join you later on.” A nod and a nod and they were down the hill and sinking into the grass – such short legs! – and almost out of sight. One whisper paused at the treeline for one more word.
“A finger would be an easier trophy.”
And then it was gone.

I worked quickly, and a little sloppily after that. But Auntie Moc was practical and would understand when I had to bolt her legs down without much chewing, or when I had to settle for half-wrenching her arms out of their sockets rather than sawing neatly, or when I simply ate her fingers whole – crunch crunch crack, like nuts – rather than chewing the meat off their bones.
The morning was getting awfully weary and long in the tooth, and my own teeth were getting achy. All that muscle! I loved Auntie Moc, truly I did, but why couldn’t she have been the sort of Auntie that cared more about, I don’t know, eating, or sleeping, or lying around very slowly getting rounder. At this rate I’d be living here on this hill for the rest of my days.
But maybe not. The limbs were stripped bare. The viscera I’d bagged inside Auntie Moc’s own backpack, to be pounded into jelly by the weight of my footsteps on the long run home. The rest of the body’s flesh was peeled away inch by inch, sucked into my mouth in a long single strand.
It was the most productive time I’d had all morning, and I was almost proud when the next interruption caught me with just her head left. Less proud that it was someone pointing an extremely large musket at my head, but still. Just a little.
“Don’t move.”
“I’m not moving.”
“Don’t move less.”
“You want me to move more?” Honestly, these little people.
“You know what I meant.”
“Clearly not. Hello, nice to meet you, why are you pointing that at me?”
“You’re holding a severed head.”
I looked down at my hand. Auntie Moc’s face was gone, but her teeth still gave her a saucy grin. ‘Now look at your stupid self,’ she told me.
“Yes, but it’s my aunt’s,” I told the small thing with the gun.
“You burying her?”
I thought very carefully about the angle of my back and the width of my body and sightlines and which way the wind was blowing and the exact position of the rest of Auntie Moc. “Yes,” I said. “The last bit I’ve got to remember her by, this is.”
“Huh. You seen a posse?”
“A what?”
“A bunch of over-armed, over-eager maniac deserters. See my face?”
I looked. It was pretty small, but it was there. “Yeah.”
“Seen one that looked like it before?”
The nose looked familiar. Maybe. The stealthy ones had been mostly covered, in mud and daub where it hadn’t been clothing. “Sort of.”
“Their leader is my stupid, useless, shiftless, time-wasting, blood-lusting sister. And I’m going to go and give her a court martial or a bullet or both. Which way did they go?”
I told her. I didn’t tell her that they were probably running around in circles out there by now turning the place upside down looking for some scattered incompetents. No sense borrowing trouble.
No thanks. Not even a nod. Just off and walking, a long-strided, straight-backed charge that probably looked more intimidating at ground level. To me it mostly looked silly. Like watching a stick insect on parade. And damn if that thought didn’t make me want to laugh pretty hard – but I was busy with my own business, and this wasn’t it.

Auntie Moc, bless her dearly, I did hope she’d understand. Noon was coming on, that soft light was being peeled away by clouds, and I didn’t have much time left. So I swallowed my pride and swallowed my reluctance and dislocated my jaw and jammed her whole skull in there and started chewing as hard as I could, worrying it like a dog with a bone.
And as I chewed, I laid out the bones. The shattering came last, like always.
There were specific words and specific rhythms and specific thoughts and specific weights for it, like a walk or a dance or a song.
I substituted (muffled) swearing for all of them, because I knew it wouldn’t bother Auntie Moc any and it would make me feel better. The sun was high and the world was starting to sweat and all that low cloud was going up in steam and the stupid, time-eating, miserable so-and-so that was the first girl ran up the hill full-tilt and tripped over the stone, landing face-first in Auntie Moc’s partially pulverized bones.
“Shit!”
“Min yow angage,” I warned her.
“Shit shit shit shit shit SHIT” she shrieked. “Hide me! Drop whatever you’re doing and hide me! They’re there, they’re there behind me, they’re just there, down there!”
“’ere?”
“THERE!”
I looked. They weren’t there. They were behind me instead, which was very easy when I had someone wailing full force two feet from my eardrums.
“There you are!” wheezed the leader of the scruffy ones. Surely I should’ve smelled it coming if I hadn’t blocked both my sinuses with Auntie Moc’s cranium. “Damned sprinter. Hold still and don’t raise your weapons and we’ll make this simple.”
“Who? Who? I have no idea who you are I’m looking for my parents please go away please please do leave me alone!” screamed the girl, who was waving my knife at them.
Hey. I needed that.
“Freeze and don’t blink,” said a dead voice from my elbow, and that one I felt fairly sure I wouldn’t have noticed no matter what on any day. Half the hilltop stood up and pulled out weapons. “You’re under arrest for kidnapping. Dead or alive, your choice. Well, our choice.”
“Us? Listen, that was a mistake, she told US to take HER with-”
“Not interested!” snapped the one at my elbow, who was holding a knife uncomfortably near my groin. “Drop yours on the count of three or we’ll drop YOU. One-”
A bullet breezed past the voice at my elbow and also my elbow and also my nose. I blinked and patted it.
“Next one goes through your empty fool head, sister” said the one with the longgun. “You and your hooligans are coming back with me. And if I’m real friendly you’ll all get to keep a couple fingers to beg with.”
“You can’t shoot all of us, and it was all for a good re-”
“Fair enough. But I’ll start with you.”
The sun was high now. My eyes were watering, my head was pounding from heat, and the stone was starting to shimmy in its own juices. Auntie Moc’s gritty bones sparkling like diamonds. The ring of steel around the base of the hill glowing like an oven.
A little thing with a long horn stepped forward, made a noise like a grand over-plated fart and spake forth: “Will the traitor and renegade Marshall Sliloo –” and the longgun one did most carefully NOT twitch at this, as I observed very closely “- come forth and surrender peaceably or will she be stopped by force?”
“And I’M a deserter?” asked the elbow voice.
“It was for a good cause,” said longgun. “You did what you did for the hell of it.”
“Oh please.”
“Can we go?” whined the shortest ruffian.
“No,” said longgun.
“No,” said elbow voice.
“Well this is all very nice but oh dear I REALLY must find my parents and –”
“Hey, she’s got a knife! Look, see! I told you! I told you! Get the knife off her! Get the-”
“Shut up,” said elbow voice. “Look, we’re surrounded, we’ve got to-”
I picked up the stone, tipped it back, tipped my head back farther, and shoveled Auntie Moc into my throat until my throat felt like it’d been mortared shut. Then I sneezed and started walking.
Nobody noticed. Well, nobody on the hill.
The one with the horn called something as I walked, but my ears were mostly caulked with bone paste by now and I just shrugged at it.
“-prese-ive. M-nger?”
“Bworl,” I responded.
The one with the horn said something again, then made a complicated sort of wave and backed up. A small one with a truly shiny breastplate strode up to me.
Ah! Now I understood! Amazingly clear, really.
“Egguus,” I said.
The shiny breastplate was talking.
“Eccoose,” I tried.
The shiny breastplate kept talking.
I opened my mouth, shoved my fist inside up to my elbow, and shook it around four times and I hacked and spat and hissed and coughed until I could breath again and my ears were full of the roar of blood and Auntie Moc laughing her ass off at me.
When I stood up again the shiny breastplate was waiting quietly and respectfully with very large eyes.
“THAT’S better,” I said. “Excuse me. I’ve just got to-”
“What terms do they offer?” asked the shiny breastplate and I knew oh damnit this one was used to being important, weren’t they.
“Ah-”
“Because we’ll pardon anyone who brings in the Marshall. Fully.”
“Wel-”
“Tell your compatriots that, and you can leave.”
Well. It wasn’t particularly the ideal moment but I HAD finished eating and it WAS more or less my business.
“Look, I’ve got just one question.”
Shiny breastplate looked affronted, but after the coughing fit probably was a little more willing than usual to put up with untotal deference. “Yes?”
“Were you ten miles east of here two days ago when you got into a scuffle with someone a little bit shorter than me? Like so?”
And I showed shiny breasplate like so, with my hand.
“There was an incident, yes, but nothing worth-”
“Right, got it, it’s okay. Thanks. I’d been waiting all morning.”
“Waiting for what?”
“This.”
And I showed shiny breastplate this, with my other knife.

It ended up being a pretty confusing afternoon. Mostly because right after I showed shiny breastplate my other knife someone shot someone, which meant someone else shot back, which meant someone else charged and someone else ran away and in all the confusion everyone forgot who was someone else and they took it in turns, which is a terrible way to organize a fight.

At the end of it I sat down at the bottom of the hill. On the stone, I was surprised to see. Someone had kicked it over during the ruckus and it’d rolled all the way down to say hello.
Appreciated. My side was hurting like the dickens. All that lead and steel and spite.
“Well, Auntie Moc, I hope you’re happy,” I told my belly. It giggled malevolently at me.
I looked at the sky. Too damned hot. I could almost feel the fever sowing seeds in my wounds, and I sighed enough for four lungs.
“And you know the damnedest thing about it all? Now I’m hungry again.”


Storytime: For Whom the Bird Tolls.

September 27th, 2017

No bells tolled.
The cars didn’t slow. The lights didn’t dim. There were no pallbearers or mourners or even plain gawkers. Not a blink from an eye.
After all, it was only a small dead bird.

There it lay, turned on its back with its head to the side. Feathers ruffled in the breeze when it burst hard ‘round the corner. It had been kicked by careless toes once, twice, five times until it was off the beaten centre of the sidewalk, and the slight smear of its blood had been worn away by ten million soles since then, since the morning.
Like most bodies, it looked a little surprised. But no one else was.
After all, it was only a small dead bird.

Someone had most of a hot dog and was left with the unfortunate part of a hot dog, which was the butt-end of the bun. Someone let it drop. And because it landed next to the body, that was where the pigeon found it.
It bobbed its head, as pigeons do, and muttered and chuckled its odd pigeon voice.
Then it left.
Then it came back.
By the end of the day there were a round dozen pigeons standing on that little stretch of curb. Some would take off, some would come in. But never less. Never less.
It was a peculiar sight to any that noticed it. A couple motorist swerved. One honked. The pigeons would take off and land again. Bobbing. Talking.
Nobody really noticed what they were standing around. After all, it was only a small dead bird.

In the morning the first seagull stopped by. And from there word moved on faster, farther. Magpies and crows and starlings oh my, all in a row on the lights and storefronts and curbs and all staring, all staring in that lidless bird way that usurps words.
That evening the first raptor stopped by – a youngish peregrine falcon, a resident of the skyscrapers. It slid out of the sky like an otter down a riverbank and tucked itself in between a couple of finches, which didn’t so much as twitter.
The ducks came in, which raised a few eyebrows. And the big, foul-tempered geese. And the little batch of swans that had stopped by the week before, taking time out of their trek to stand around on a streetside. Honking and muttering, shifting from foot to foot and tucking heads and necks into place.
Waiting and watching.
People were taking pictures now, with and without selfies. Amateurs and idlers and professionals and perfectionists, dropping by or coming over.
But there wasn’t really any sort of explanation they could see for it. After all, it was only a small dead bird.

The city woke up to find itself corralled in feathers. Birds lined every roof, rail and corner. A stare for every footstep taken, every inch of every block. Storks in the parking lots, crows in the suburbs, ospreys on the balconies of the condos. Woodpeckers clung to the great glass panes of the skyscrapers, giving offices an unexpected new decoration.
There was no wood. Mind you, they weren’t pecking either. Just watching.
And nobody was sure what they were watching for, either. Because nobody had any idea why they’d all come. After all, it was only a small dead bird.

That evening, a formal petition was left on the doorstep of city hall, signed by an uncountably vast number of tiny little claws and beaks. The writing was chickenscratch, but a definite list of demands.
This got the attention of more than the photographers. Scientists became involved, and the media. Interviews were conducted with councillors and Phds. Everyone was extremely excited to hear that birds could communicate with people, let alone in a legal or quasilegal context. It was quite a novelty. A few thousand gigabytes were wasted on it very quickly, here and there and everywhere, and the city went to bed wide-eyed, waiting for more. The news wasn’t happening fast enough anymore.
The day following that a fresh copy of the petition appeared on the stoop of every councillor, plus inside the local paper’s mailbox. And everyone was very excited until they realized it was the same old thing they’d seen yesterday. How dull. Birds couldn’t be as interesting as all that after all.
Besides, they were in the way now. Birds clogged the streets as well as the sky. Sometimes they crapped on the ground and people stepped in it, or it landed on them, and that was intolerable. They obstructed traffic. They called loudly to each other at inconvenient times, or indeed at all, and this annoyed people that were trying to get to work and just keep on staying alive. It was all a nuisance, and for what? Why all the fuss? Who could understand what kind of nonsense could make perfectly normal birds get up to that kind of irrational nonsense?
Nobody had any idea. After all, it was only a small dead bird.

On Friday, the birds stopped waiting.
Executives were picked up bodily and swung head-first into their own shining glass-walled towers.
Storefronts were defaced with guano.
City hall was picked up by ten million geese and ducks with a lot of rope and dropped into the harbour.
Every single polished, sweeping plate-glass window in the city was broken into extremely small fragments, allowing pigeons in through the new door to flip cartwheels through the businesses and high-rises and whole world they’d been barred from.
And the mayor was waylaid, abducted, and left stranded and clinging for dear life atop the tallest antenna in the city.
“You mind telling me why you went and did all this?” he asked the pelicans that had ferried him there, before they lifted off. “I really don’t understand why.”
The pelicans consulted with their translator, a particularly ruffled and therefore entirely ordinary crow.
“There was a small dead bird,” said the crow.
“What? Well that’s… well, bad, obviously. But scarcely unusual! It happens every day here. Why? What was so special about that happening?”
“Mostly that it wasn’t special,” said the crow.
And they left the mayor high and dry. But with plenty of grips to hold on to.
In a bit of a breeze, though.

The papers wouldn’t shut up about it for days. But it was real peculiar.
After all, it was only a small, flattened mayor.


Storytime: Treed.

September 20th, 2017

The ground shook as the jug dropped.
It was merited. The jug was four feet tall and three feet across at its broadest point. It was iron, ugly, half-slagged pig iron that looked as though it had been allowed to cool rock-solid before pouring. A chain dangled from its neck, with links that had been mended so many times that they were almost little balls.
Lensh picked it up in one hand and swigged it. The swig turned into a slurp, elongated itself seamlessly into a swallow, and ended at rock bottom.
“A hateful death on tiny drinking vessels,” said Lensh, and gave the jug’s side an affectionate slap, which deepened the dent in its gut. She leaned slow against the tree, nuzzling her face into its bark until the trunk groaned. “One day I’ve got to get a bigger one.”
The tree moaned at her weight.
“Oh, silence yourself. It’s a bad habit but we all need one. And it didn’t kill me yesterday, and it hasn’t killed me today, and as for tomorrow why should I or anyone else care, eh?”
“An astounding philosophy. Meritorious. Mellifluous.”
Lensh squinted up into the tree’s branches. “Is that you Allysii?”
“I would applaud but both my hands are stuck to this branch.”
“It’s you, isn’t it Allysii?”
“Such words of wisdom could only come from the innocent and pure mouth of a born child.”
Lensh sniffed. “You are Allysii. I can smell your perfume from here. They used the eggs of little purple crabs to make it. I walked down the coast seventeen years ago on my way to get married and I had an entire bushel of those crabs for breakfast for every league I walked.”
“And how many leagues did you walk, o wife of wisdom and mistress of mastery?”
“Eighteen.”
“Amazing. They must have been astoundingly tasty.”
“Awful. But I was energetic, and still growing. I needed to keep healthy.” Lensh picked up the jug again, put it to her mouth, remembered it was empty and gave up with a sigh that shook the leaves. “Ah, that’s yesterdays. Yesterdays don’t matter. Tomorrows don’t matter. Now does. You are Allysii, and you are helplessly trapped and soon I am going to kill you.”
“How are you going to do that?
“I will tear down this tree, tear off your arms, tear off your legs, then tear off your head and tear apart your body,” said Lensh. “Then I will take all your pieces and drop them into the sea in different places that I find particularly pretty. This is the way I have killed all the rest of your family, Alysii, and you know that perfectly well. Do you have any more silly questions?”
“Certainly – three more, in fact!”
“Three! Such a chatterbox you make of me, Allysii. Go on, name your poisons you little squirrel!”
“Why are you going to kill me? What is the reason you carry that marvelous and wondrous and oh-so-illustriously lustrous drinking vessel? And also, last but not least, I humbly ask you this: who is this Allysii?”
Lensh laughed a lot at that. The tree’s roots buckled under her as she pounded the ground with a fist, and finally she shut herself up by tucking both her hands into her mouth and punching herself to be quiet.
“You ARE funny today Allysii. Well, I will answer you in reverse order, so your very baited questions are not left to very late in the evening. Immediacy is important! So, your third question.”
“You are Allysii. You are the very last child of the last person who offended me – well, the last who did so in such a great and unspeakable manner. For this, I have personally and gradually torn apart all of their relations (save you) and dropped their parts into different places in the sea. As you are aware.”
“I was not aware of any of this, my clever and honeytongued friend, but your elucidation is most appreciated. My goodness me! Such a long way to come to avenge the taking of your arm.”
Lensh checked her arms. “No, no. They are still here. Nobody may take my arms but me, I am very certain of this. You’re being weird, Allysii, but that is nothing new. At any rate, I have followed you for six years two months and four days and as my legs are long and strong and yours are spindly and week I have caught up with you and caught you and soon I will tear you apart into parts and drop those parts into different places in the sea, which is no surprise to you. Now, I will answer your second question!”
“I am listening with great and attentive care.”
“As you should!” said Lensh. And she raised her iron jug and toasted the tree.
“You see this dent?” she asked.
“I do indeed, revealer of secrets, speaker of truths. A grievous wound for any cup to bear, but on yours it only adds charm!”
“Absolutely. And my jug is nothing but charm. You must understand, when I went to marry seventeen years ago I was an innocent young thing that knew nothing of vice or hardship. All my life I’d been coddled in the foothills, wrestling mountains and playing with giants. But at last they were all too small for me, and I was very lonely until the day the ground shook under my feet and tore apart the hills.”
“Terrifying and fearsome! A shame for any child to endure such trauma.”
“Oh, it was wonderful! I’d never seen something so impressive! So I picked up a herd of goats to eat and a stream to drink and I walked down the hills to the coast and went looking for that earthquake, who I had fallen madly in love with.”
“Such romance at so tender an age? You are a prodigy and an ingénue in the same soul, my admirable companion.”
“Well, I was foolish and happy to be that way. What fool isn’t, eh? So I walked and sang and drank and ate, and although I ran out of goats on the third day I ate the little awful purple crabs instead, and made do.”
“And what did you drink? Surely not the sea?”
“Me and mine, no no no! So salty! It was a good-sized stream and it kept me going for half the journey, and when it ran dry I rolled it into a ball and squeezed it until the juice came out, and I drank the juice, and what was left I made into a cup, and when I was done I had a fine wedding present for my groom, who I found in the middle of destroying three cities at once.”
“So noble! It’s no wonder you fell for it on the spot.”
“He. Mind your tongue when you speak of my husband, Allysii. I give you questions, but if you trade me back impertinence I will give you my fist instead.”
“I beg the humblest of forgivenesses from the bottom of my heart to the heights of every heaven.”
“And I will grant it! Now, where was I?”
“Your husband, the earthquake.”
“Ah, yes. Well, after a week of marriage he’d shuddered down to a mere creak and could barely be bothered to knock the plates off the pantry. So I told him to do better. So he hit me. So I hit him back. So I left with my marriage gift and a couple bruises and all of his teeth. And let me tell you this: it matters no matter at all what I put in this jug, Allysii, but it tastes better than your dreams can ever know.”
“I am awed to be in its presence.”
“You should be.” Lensh shook her head mournfully. “Alas, it remains empty.”
“A sad yet joyous occasion, to take that burden of weight off the bad leg of yours.”
“Bad leg? Hah! Could I have outrun you so with a bad leg? Oh, and as for your third question, I am going to kill you because – as I am sort of sure I may have mentioned in passing, and besides, as you already know, being Allysii, who has been fleeing me for six years two months and four days in terror of my power and tremendous anger – your mother gave me horrible offense. When she did me wrong, I nearly ate her on the spot, but such was my shock and my anguish and my anger and my disbelief that I stood struck dumb as a stone for a week straight, permitting her time to escape with her person, her possessions, and her family. Which I then pursued, caught, tore into pieces, and dropped into different places in the sea, to my satisfaction and to your lack of surprise.”
“As was their just desserts, for inflicting such a blow to your poor weary heart, the fiendish louts.”
“Heart? Hah! I have none. I traded it to a tortoise in the desert past the mountains past the forest past the river past the lake past the sea to the south of here, in exchange for a good meal.”
“Was it so?”
“He tasted magnificent. I have no regrets, and never will – as you know, Allysii, yesterdays don’t matter.” Lensh clicked her tongue, scratched her side, wiped her nose, and cricked her knuckles. “Anyways, I am going to stand up and uproot this tree now. Are you satisfied?”
“Although I am spellbound, I regret to speak this most dread of words: ALMOST! That is a marvelous tale, worthy of any queen or empress’s court. But I must trouble you with one trifling detail, oh fablemaker, without which your tale lacks denouement to soothe my wary, weary soul: what offense in all the world did my mother commit to make you wish her and her family such harm?”
“Oh, that,” said Lensh. “Well, when I first walked on your family’s grounds I had never yet sampled from my old friend here, of the iron sides. And in taking my first few draughts I was a bit preoccupied, and a tad musty in the head. It was a warm night and I took all my clothes off to keep cool – there was a lovely breeze, Allysii – and as I strolled I danced, and as I danced I sang, and as I was so busy singing and dancing I smashed straight into your mother’s window, where I fell flat on my back until she came to see me.”
“And what did she do there to cause such offense, my benevolent keeper?”
“Well, I introduced myself. ‘I am Lensh, the inevitable and indestructible! Wrestler of mountains! Uprooter of trees! I married an earthquake, divorced him for his smallness and timidity, and left him with all of his teeth in my fist! Behold me!’”
“My.”
“No, me.”
“Indeed! And what transpired then?”
“She threw a cup of water on me.”
“The gall!”
“I thought so!”
“The cheek!”
“Absolutely!”
“And it drove you blind in your right eye?”
“Eh?”
“Oh, my mistake. It drove you blind in your left eye?”
“What?” said Lensh irritably. “You are getting slower and stupider by the day, Allysii! It landed on my forehead between my eyes.” She rubbed her face and parted the thick fur that matted her skull. “Right here!”
“Ah! I see!”
“As well you-”
It was a very small knife, and although Allysii’s whole body was behind it, it was a very small body.
But although Lensh’s fur and hair were tough as diamonds, her skin was as soft and supple as a baby’s.
“Damnation,” said Lensh, as she fell over, flat on her back. “I am Lensh! Behold me! The great idiot!”
And she died, with a belch.

Allysii left the jug where it lay. One day, some birds made a nest in it. And my, were their eggs strange.
But that was a story of tomorrow, which doesn’t matter.


Storytime: A Soft Touch.

September 13th, 2017

I used to make fun of my big sister whenever we went swimming. I’d hold my breath and go down deep, deep, deep as I could and feel around with my eyes shut against the grainy mud until I had a fistful of soft muck. Then I’d push off and – up up up and UP and throw it at her, laughing as she shrieked and yelled and splashed me until I either swallowed water or mom told me to stop.
“It’s just seaweed,” I told her. “It’s just seaweed.”
“It’s GROSS,” she told me. And I loved hearing that, because it meant it’d work again next time too, and the time after that at least.
“Why?” I asked her. “It’s soft. Soft things can’t hurt you. See?”
And I’d throw the other fistful at her and oh it’d get louder still.
“It’s SQUISHY,” she said. “GROSS.” And then she’d finally catch me when I was laughing too hard and I’d get dunked over and over until mom yelled something. It was fine, it was routine, it was reliable, it was my very own private manufactured and malicious version of the old man-on-a-banana-peel comedy.

But then there was that one, that other time.

It was a little late, but it was a little lake and a little ways from the little cottage. So it wasn’t a problem, was it? I knew how to swim better than most of the fish in there.
And the sun wasn’t down yet. Nice rosy water, still warm from the day and with no wind to whip you when you came out damp. A padded sort of moment, when the whole world was as calm and slow as a grandparent’s hug.
Then something grabbed my ankle and I went down.

And farther.

And deeper.

And darker – but only to a point. There was light down there, at the bottom of the deepest part of the lake. I’d never touched mud farther than a body-length off the dock, but here I was nestled in its lowest guts, and surrounded by fuzzy glows that made me think of fireflies.
I was in a chair.
Well, more than a chair. It had a high, tall back and the arms were more decoration than support. The word was ‘throne.’
Around me, soft and green and wavering gently, the seaweed gathered and talked and mumbled in their rippling voices and ambling minds.
“Why me?” I asked.
Because someone has to make the hard choices, they told me. Look, look!
And they stretched themselves out very thoroughly and I could see that there wasn’t a hard part in any of them, not a speck. They were algae with ambition and not much more.
So I was in charge. And it was a wonderful hour. I ruled, I judged, I decreed, I pontificated, I got to fulfill every petty tyrant’s ambition that a modern politician dreams of.
It was a wonderful hour but a lousy hour-and-a-half.
At first I tried being random. Then I tried being spiteful. Then I tried making deliberately bad decisions.
But all around me, all those things I did just rippled through those soft jelly-bodies without so much as leaving a mark.
I tried to leave, but my throne was seaweeds too. And the harder I hauled away from it, the tighter it clung to me. Ten million little tiny ropes tautening into wire cables. Scream and twist and shout and swear every bad word I’ve ever known and nothing happened.

I almost fell asleep there when the sun went down and the water ran cold over me. Wore myself out. But in the end there’s no amount of tired that can’t keep a little kid from crying from homesickness, even when they’re asleep. When I’d finally shaken myself free of that nightmare I wiped the tears off my face (don’t ask me how that happened underwater, because I’ve never found my answer), and that was when I found my arm to be free.
So I jumped up and my throne held me down again, and again, and oh I was a stupid child because it wasn’t until the fifth time I’d nearly choked myself on my own fear that I realized that the secret was to move just like the weeds themselves.
Then I took my time, and I made it careful, and I softly, slowly, smoothly slipped free of my chains and my crown and my rulership and I skedaddled.

Kicking was the problem. I shouldn’t have kicked. I wanted to get home fast, I thought that throne was the last obstacle, but oh I made a real ruckus when I sped for the surface. My lungs hurt, you understand. They’d remembered they were there, and were aching.
But as I kicked I felt my feet tickle, and my legs, and I looked down and was nearly blinded by swirling muck. The bottom was rising after me, with a thousand feathered arms and hands and it was gripping as tightly as its damp little palms would allow.
Those wire cables were on me again, that squishing touch that meant the droning voices and the unending hours and the chair that wouldn’t let go, but my hand broke the surface before theirs broke my skin, and at that moment – that very moment – they gave up, and went limp.
And that’s when my mother found me, lying on the shore, screaming my head off and covered in dirty old seaweed.

I still don’t swim by myself. And I can’t bring myself to eat anything too slimy, or too soft.
But on the whole I was pretty lucky, I think. Imagine if they’d ever done what I told them to.