Storytime: Big Eater.

September 21st, 2016

The kitchen was compact without being cramped, well-stocked, well-cleaned, well-loved, and well-used. The tiles glowed under the soft moonlight; the counters glistened with illusory moisture.
Detective Newman couldn’t help but admire the kitchen on a level far deeper than any training, any words of wisdom from his grandparents onward. It was TIDY. He liked things tidy.
It was what made the horde of bloodthirsty cutlery roving around the floorboards beneath him so very difficult to bear.

It had been a difficult time, this morning. He hadn’t been put off his donut for years, but the crime scene had done it. It was returned to its cellophane nest in his coat pocket untouched, unblemished by even the ghost of his breath.
It wasn’t the body – god no. Char-broiled, thinly sliced, mashed, chilled…he’d seen people end up in any number of ways. It was the abstract complication that this particular one had been thoroughly eaten.
He had consulted with Theresa, the wrinkled gnome who ruled forensics with extreme stoicism.
“Dead twelve hours,” she told him.
Newman nodded. “Right. Right. And how much of him’s been eaten?”
“Seventy-three percent soft tissue total including internal organs” she answered promptly.
“Nobody’s that hungry.”
“Likely.”
“So, how many people were in this room?”
She shrugged. “There were a lot of different forks. Knives.”
“No footprints.”
“No.”
“No fingerprints.”
“No.”
“How many different forks and knives.”
She tapped the side of her head. “Fifteen forks and twenty-four knives; sixteen butter and eight steak.”
Newman turned around and touched the stove with one hand. Then he stretched a little and, with great strain, made it to the kitchen sink with his free hand.
“Not spacious,” he said.
“No.”
“A very small and also very tidy horde of cannibals, seeing as they loaded up the dishwasher before they left.”
She nodded.
“Nothing else?”
Theresa tapped her chin for a moment.
“You need to eat better,” she said. “Donuts are not a good breakfast.”

Thank you, Theresa. Thank you. At least the donuts wouldn’t be what did him in; god she’d have been insufferable at the funeral. Although she’d probably be the one checking his pockets in eight hours, so she’d get the satisfaction of knowing he hadn’t managed one last bite.
A tinkle from the kitchen floor dragged his attention to the notion of more unpleasant bites. God, where had this stuff come from? If it was a factory or something making them they had to find out fast; the world had enough regular hazards without having to worry about your silverware turning on you.
Newman had always been embarrassed by his reaction to fear. He hopped. Just a little start, but always straight upwards. This evening – this stupid, stupid, totally unnecessary evening, WHY had he come back to the crime scene? – it had saved his life. Despite being voracious, the parade of murderous utensils didn’t seem possessed of particularly good senses. As long as he was quiet on top of the kitchen counter, they were hunting for a ghost.
Then again, there were an awful lot of them. What if they could climb? What if they could FLY? Such things were not what you expected from a humble fork, but neither were voracious teeth.

Mother Newman had been very firm about what you did to avoid this sort of thing.
“Clean your dishes,” she told him. “Clear your plate, then clean it.”
And reluctantly, eventually, he had done as he was told. First at familial gunpoint, then habit, then inclination.
There was something uniquely appalling about an uncleaned dish. He wondered if that was what had set off this batch.
Had it been left in the sink one hour too long? Scraped too casually of a crust of melted cheese? Tolerated low-grade soap one load too many?

There was a rattle from the cupboard above his head.
Newman’s body froze while Newman’s mind ran in circles screaming to itself.
What had been in the dishwasher that morning?
Cutlery. A lot of it.
Plates.
And cups.
Slowly, slowly, creakingly slowly, the latch above his head undid.
Wonderful.
He wasn’t even going to be killed by sharp objects.

“One plate, one cup is all you need,” his scoutmaster had told him. If more people had listened to that advice, he wouldn’t be in this fix.
“Eat from it, clean it, repeat it. One plate, one cup is all you need.”
The man had been earnest in his advice, despite his constantly wavering gaze. It was a wonder he ever managed to count the troop correctly; he must have been seeing them in triplicate for years.

There was a light thump as the first mug dropped out from the cupboard above his head. It didn’t shatter, against all rhyme and reason. The movements were all wrong; it was like watching a ceramic ferret. Mugs should bumble and bustle; he felt very strongly on that based on several Disney movies he recalled from his childhood.
It sniffed at the air.
Newman held his breath.
Slowly, slowly the mug relaxed. Then it slid to the edge of the counter and slipped over it, joining the cutlery on the floor.
Newman relaxed. And then, from above, another thump.
Around fifteen place settings.
Around fifteen mugs and cups?
Around… twenty minutes, on and off, of trying to hold his breath and remain absolutely still.
He was going to die. He was going to take a big breath and wheeze and he was going to be beaten to death by carnivorous tableware.
It was just like his grandmother had always said…
Newman tried to finish that thought. His grandmother had said an awful lot of things.
“Don’t go outside when it’s raining, you’ll catch cold.”
“Don’t fish in the offseason; the fines are fierce and you can’t bribe the officials like you did back when your daddy was little.”
“Don’t chew that gum and walk at the same time or you’ll fall over and break your nose.”
“Don’t live like a pig. Clean up after yourself.”
…which was thoroughly useless advice at the moment if he’d ever seen it, because the carnivorous cutlery hadn’t cleaned up after itself at all. Christ the crime scene had been a MESS. A macerated corpse, a dried ketchup-madhouse of blood covering half the floor. About the only concession to neatness was the fully loaded dishwasher-
Detective Newman did not move for thirty seconds.
Seven of those were spent realizing the import of his thoughts. Thirteen were spent in nerve-biting hysterical certainty of doom. And the last ten were simply the word ‘maybe’ over and over again at increasing volume.
Slowly, slowly, at the speed of a single hair’s growth, he reached into his pocket and extracted the old, old donut from this morning.
The cellophane crinkled.
The movement from the floor halted.
And in that one, long, slow-moving moment, Newman threw caution to the wind and the donut to the floor.

It was grisly.

Some time later, Newman took his fingers out of his ears and listened.
Rustlings. Clinkings.
But no longer aimless, no longer fruitless.
There was a destination.
The soft groans and creaks of the dishwasher’s drawer were music to his ears. The soft shish-shish-shhhhs of the soap. The groan of over-loaded racks.
The sweet, sweet click of the lock.
Newman waited for four minutes, listening, and waiting. Then he slid off the counter, rolled across the floor – coating himself in donut residue – and twisted the dial around seven times.
A long load. A very, very long load.
Now. First things first, phone for backup.
Second, get a donut.
Third, throw out all his damned tableware. Paper plates seemed very appealing right now.


Storytime: Garbagemen.

September 14th, 2016

First stop, first stop, let’s see what kind of slop…
Hot DAMN!
Hey Murray, check this shit out!
HD TV! The highest-damned-def! And not a scratch on ‘er! Fuck only knows why they’re tossing it, but hah, more luck for me!
Haha, c’mon man. You know the rules. The can man gets first pick, the driver gets second. Says so right on the dashboard.
Hell of a way to start the route, eh? Helluva way.

Now, let’s see what’s behind trash number… oh.
Oh man! Look at this!
A whole fridge, man! Yeah, we’re taking this. Here, get out, give me a hand. Look, it’s the least you can do, you’re guaranteed a 50/50 shot at this thing after all.
Huff. Puff.
Man that IS heavy. Hey, wait a minute…
Paydirt! It’s full! Nice insulation too; still cold in here. Awwww damn is that a defrosting steak? Nice. Nice! Hey you might get that TV after all Murray; I barely watch the stuff anyways.

Good day so far though. A good day.
Woah, woah, woah. Stop stop stop look.
Yeah, they did put it out. It was behind the caoh my goodness fucking gracious.
They’re junking the car!
They’re junking the car, Murray!
Look at this thing! Can’t be more than a month old! Still has the dealer’s smell on it, greasy and woolly! The keys are in the ignition.
Let’s just yank those and come back after the day’s done, okay? ‘Cause MAN. Man.

Aww look. A perfectly normal trash can. Well, three out of a street ain’t bad, right? And one’s yours, ol’ buddy ol’ pal. One’s yours.
Little light. Rattley, but light. More feels floppy, actually. Shit, there better not be a dead raccoon in here.
Holy shit!
Holy shit!
HEY CHECK THIS OUT LOOK IN THIS!
Great, right?
Hahaha man, I heard stories about this but I never thought I’d get to see one! Holy fuck I wonder whose leg this is?
Damn right we’re keeping this. I’ve got a big dog at home, Murray, a big dog. That dog’s a guard dog, Murray, but he ain’t ever tasted the flesh of man. How’m I supposed to get a good guard dog without feeding him someone? This is manna, Murray. Oldschool mana-from-fuckin’-heaven we’re witnessing.

Light again.
Huh.
Huh.
Damnit.
No, no, nothing good. Whole can’s full of little cards that say ‘HELP’ on them.
Yeah, let’s leave ‘em. Stupid fucks can’t put their recycling in the right bin, they can keep it.

No can here. Let’s move on – oh, wow!
Hey, lean over here! Check this out!
No, I don’t even know how they got ‘em to stack that good, that’s ART that is! Wow!
Yeah, we’ll take ‘em. They’re compost, right? If chicken bones count, so do skulls. And y’know what, let’s set aside this big sucker right here. I got a nephew, Murray; you ever meet him? He’s a cool guy. He’d like a cool skull, got no doubt.

Oof!
Huh.
Aw, shit.
Man, I don’t think we can take this one. They put the house in it.
Yeah, see down there at the bottom? Look, you can even see the bodies in the bedroom.
Nah, I got no idea how it fit in there, but it feels just about as heavy as the real thing. No Bueno, buddy.
Guess you’re right. A demolition company, maybe? Whatever, not our problem, that’s up to management.

Dum de dum.
Dum de dum de dum.
Hey, why aren’t we stopping?
Ohhhh.
Right.
Yeah, right.
Yeah, yeah.
Yeah, yeah, yeah OKAY FINE I get it, I never pay any attention to what’s around me when I’m not the driver. NOW you happy?
Sure, I guess. Not much point in keeping going when you put it that way.
No, I’ve got no idea. I mean, what, do I look like I’m a rocket scientist or something? How’m I supposed to know what they did with the rest of the neighborhood? I don’t have any test tubes on me, mister science, I can’t just slap my dipstick on that oozing green shit over here and say ‘hmmm yess this is clearly radium-calcium-capsized suburban material no doubt grant now please.’
Nah, I made that up. But shit, does look radioactive, don’t it?
Short shift’s nothing to sneeze at, anyhow.

What’ll I pick?
Weeeeelll…
…Maybe I’ll take that old TV after all. It’s been a while since I checked the news.


Storytime: Modern-Day Faeries.

September 7th, 2016

Before you read on, you should know that they are very shy, even in these days. Their rural kin and kith may have faded, their own fortunes may have flourished, but latter-day faeries are still rather like chameleons. Most of them are uncomfortable when they are being watched, and content when they are watchers.

They are the most common, and the least-noticed. Walk down a street without seeing it; drive home from work without even looking at the stoplights; stare out the window and forget dinner is on the stove. Hazies are everywhere. They swarm under every brow, behind every eye. In small doses they feed on absent-mindedness and brain farts. In clumps they emit small clouds of daydreams. When over-fed, they secrete lucid mindlessness, a walking sleep that shrugs out thought, emotion, or the senses.
Treasure them for the stories they show you; much can be done with them if you’ve the knack for it, or the work ethic, or the urge. Fear them for the consequences. Too much nothing is not a good thing, although there may seem to be many somethings that are so very worse indeed.

Most things have felt the touch of affection, save for the most automated and remote – an anonymous plastic toy. A scrap of continental bedrock. A fresh puff of Pacific cloud.
Fewer things are cherished. A particularly well-sewn teddy bear. A crib the last four generations of children lay in. A tacky souvenir from a departed grandparent, the ‘made in’ sticker still intact.
And some, a very, very slim some, are loved well and loved long. And it is in these places, around these things, that the slow, old, never-yet-common Yesterlongs converge.
Yesterlongs are patient, which is good because without that they would never get anywhere, or go mad. They linger by nature and love by instinct, and you can tell them by their soft paws and damp noses. A Yesterlong feeds off its home, and feeds back double. What is loved becomes moreso with time, and as its affection grows so too does the faerie. They can be bigger than mountains, they can be bigger than worlds. And at every size, they can fit inside a heart, no matter how small.
Wince when you see nostalgia fade. As it goes, so too must they. And the trip to the next home can be long, it can be hard.
But do not cry. There will always be something new.

If you’ve ever walked on a springtime riverback, you have seen the rushes grow.
And if you’ve ever driven on a weekday morning, you have seen the Rushes dance.
Go! Traffic!
Go! Lunchtime!
Go! Release date!
Go! Weekend!
Go!
Go!
GO!
They are furious in flight but they always move too slowly; they are ravenously hungry but they never manage to eat a thing; they are timeless but always hurried.
Go! Go! Go!
You can feel them in your pulse, in your sweat, in the tightened skin around your widened eyes. Suck in breath through your flared nostrils and smell their bitter acridity. Taste their iron on your tongue.
GO!
Without them, things would still get done. But my, we would be less worried about it.

The Hopesmiths have not been mentioned so far, not because of their importance but because of their detestability.
Hopes and dreams are fragile and snap and crack under the inflexible weight and pressure reality puts on them. Left to their own devices, they will sink and simmer and smelt down into the world again, ready to become fresh inspiration, to be mined again by new mines of new miens.
But the Hopesmiths are watching, and the Hopesmiths are hungry, and they are very small and fast, the fastest of all faeries. A working hope is far too strong for their frail bodies and slim hands, but a broken hope, a crippled dream – these are the tools they need. They will swarm an injured hope like carnivorous flies, stripping it for parts from the outside in and burrowing down to its ragged core.
There they dine, and there they forge, not out of necessity now but purest delight. Frankenstein with malice in his heart; a pernicious Yahweh.
The new-forged hopes that rise up from these ashes are hollow cinders: light, airy, and if one should ever brush a hand, burning and instantly-extinguished. But most remain forever just out of arm’s-length, wafting on the breeze and forever taunting those unfortunate enough to listen, singing the song of Somedays.
Someday I will be rich
Someday I will be famous
Someday my numbers will come up
Someday they’ll call me back
Someday I will be happy
The song has no end. Its only cure is to realize there is no beginning.

The last are the shyest. And they are the strangest.
They will not look for you. They will never find you.
Unlike every other faery, they must be found.
Stand up. Go for a walk.
Look without seeing – not outside, but in. Drop into yourself and fall down a hole without a bottom, turn off the world and shut out the lights. Dim the sounds and quench the people, the so many people you know and don’t know and will know and when it’s all too much, when you’ve gone down as far as you can be.
There they are, fleeting and motionless. The Little Lonelies. A flickering light, down here in the dark at the base of the brain, hiding inside plain sight.
You can dwell on them, these Little Lonelies. You can watch their wings flicker in circles. Hear their tiny, sad songs. Smell the soft scent of their aches and bruises and tiny slow desperations.
It’s not fun, but it’s easy, and it’s distracting. So much safer than the world. So much calmer. So much easier to deal with than people or places or being a person.
You can dwell on them, these Little Lonelies. But you should not stay for long.
They will not take you away. But you may do that yourself.


Storytime: Graveyard.

August 31st, 2016

The nice thing about a graveyard is that any description of it tends to be good for a long time.
The quiet.
The shade.
The stones.
Even the specifics – who’s under what rock where and when – don’t change very quickly. Time is quarantined here, kept under tight control to prevent any sudden moves or rash decompositions.
No, not much changes in a graveyard.
Until now.

The tree was a stately one, lending the outer plots shade in the summer and keeping its roots to itself on its own side of the fence, out of everyone else’s business and graves.
Slowly, it began to shake and shiver. Fevered.
And from somewhere just a little distant came the shouts and roars.
The fence was very high. The dead like their privacy, and the living like the dead having their privacy too. But the clambering climber was a fast one, practiced and panicked, and she made it just before the mob swarmed the base of the tree, rolling over the iron spikes and down onto the soft green grass that grew just a little too high to be tamed.
The climber lay there for a moment in the shade and the shouting, cursing a string of small and helpless gods under her breath. She was all limbs and harsh angles, and whiffed sharply of sedition. The main gate rattled and her jaw clenched with a throbbing cowardice but it was well-locked and well-secured, and the creaking, clashing metal grew no louder.
“Hello,” said the dead.
She looked around wildly. But she was still alone.
“Hello again,” said the dead. “We are beneath you. We are around you. Why are you in our house?”
The climber looked back up at the tree, but the branches were far too high to grasp, and anyways the dead people were being polite. “Mob,” she said.
“That’s not good. Mobs are ruckus and rattle and roars. They make it hard to sleep. Will you tell them not to make so much noise for us?”
“The mob is after me. They want to hang me by my elbows and ankles until there’s nothing left.”
“That’s not good either. What did you do, to make them so cross and wilful?”
The climber clawed at her hair for a moment, then shrugged. “I am a vandal and a thief and have no friends or family and I have broken clockwork and not paid for it in proper ways. I am altogether unsuitable to live.”
The dead laughed. It’s not as terrible a sound as it seems at first, once the chill’s been scrubbed out of your ears and the shivers from your skull. It doesn’t sound joyful at all, no, but there’s a tired acceptance in it, a been-there-before camaraderie. “Go to the gate. The key is under the smallest rock. We will be with you.”
The climber looked up at the tree again, even let a little practice hop come out of her knees for a moment.
“Fine.”

It was a nice, orderly, well-dressed sort of mob.
The clothes were immaculate. The hair was well-combed, well-washed. Hats were firmly affixed to skulls and every crude club picked up was from someone’s garage; no loose branches left to lie about THIS neighborhood! Not a blazing torch in sight, either; electricity had reduced the old fire hazards to fireplaces in a flash.
The faces, though, were timeless. There’s something in the eyes, and something more in the mouth. The furious gnashing, spoken or not.
The cemetery gates swung open despite everything the rust did to prevent it. Vocally.
The climber stood there, face to faces.
“Go home,” she said.
The mob disputed this.
“Go home, please,” she said.
The mob was not pleased.
“Go home, please, the dead are tired and wish not to be disturbed.”
And at this the mob hushed itself for a moment, and in that one moment its always-fragile self-esteem crumbled and guttered and fell away leaving no mob at all but some thirty-two acquaintances, neighbors, and peripheral friends wondering what they were doing out at one in the morning on a weekday. It didn’t disband, it dismembered.
The climber looked down the street after the trailing moblets, watching them shuffle towards their ticking, clicking houses, and saw them look up the street back at her.
“There is work,” the dead said to her in their earth-soft, dirt-tempered voices. “If you would like it.”
And the climber became the digger, more or less.

It wasn’t so bad, working for the graveyard.
The old trees grew small and sour fruit, but there were a lot of them.
The family crypts were cool in the summer and kept heat in the winter.
And the dead were, if not the chattiest company, then very civil and enormously accepting. Nothing brings people together like having something in common. Nobody had more in common than the dead.
All that was required in return was, well, maintenance. Plucking the more obnoxious weeds. Removing old, old flowers. Picking up sticks. Shooing away gophers, which now and then supplemented the fruits.
And then, about a year into the digger’s tenancy in the graveyard, the gates creaked and banged from a force that wasn’t a wind.
“Go home, please,” said the digger through the bars. It was a small mob, with downcast eyes and darkened clothing. They clutched a hidden mass in their midst.
“Let them in,” said the dead from behind. “Let them in.”
The gate was more rusted than ever, but the digger had strong arms. The mob filed in without so much as a word of thanks, a word at all, and after placing their cargo on the ground and standing in silence for some half-hour they simply turned around and left.
The digger tested the lid. It was sealed shut.
“Please,” said the dead – from inside the box, a fine trick – “bury me.”
The digger had no shovel. The digger had no map. But the dead told her where there was space, and the dead told her how far to dig, and her fingers were strong and her palms were broad.
“The first this year,” the dead sighed as she began to push the dirt on top of it. “The first this year. Of how many this decade?”
“Four,” said the other dead. “Four.”
“No time for that sort of thing,” said the new dead, voice already fading into the earth. “No time at all.”
And the digger thought how true that was, but she kept her thoughts about that sort of thing to herself because she was not sure if they would approve.

She had been sneaking out, late at night.
The tree was jumpable, after all. And the dead, although often spry to note anything new, seemed readily ignorant of anything old. She was there, so they assumed she was there. And after a month cooped up, and a month without fear, she felt well enough again to go on the prowl.
The streets were just as she remembered them; spread out in well-planned cogs. Houses ticking along like watches, shops that glittered like glass. The whole city, wheels in wheels and wheels outside of wheels all spinning at different speeds to keep up the same pace.
How could she not want to smash it?

The bounty of those expeditions were stashed all over the graveyard; in gopher holes; under rocks; at the back of crypts tucked behind old coffins.
The dead didn’t think of it, though they thought less and less these days. The living didn’t come looking for it, though they looked for little at all these days.
Really, nobody came looking for anything here. She was the digger, but in three years she dug two graves. The dead wondered, in that idle, decomposing way of theirs, but she knew, or thought she might, or theorized she may one day.
She found them, tucked on mantelpieces and under beds and in cupboards and over fireplaces.
Little boxes, with intricate locks and embellished writing and many promises.
With so few left to run the gears and grind the grist of the city, why would you leave to rot what you might someday use?

One year a tree fell down, across the fence. The digger hauled it over entire, bit by bit, and she spent some time learned to make gravestones that weren’t stone at all but wood.
Some of the dead helped, the few that were left. So did a sharp rock. So did the digger’s fingers.
They really were quite strong by now.

She broke more than she stole nowadays. Smashed the little boxes and scattered the remnants on the careful carpets; shattered the storefronts and left them to fall apart empty. Fresh rainwater soaking into old floors and staining the dust.
Wasteful, but what else was there to do but bury, and who did bury? The freshest dead were over a decade old; the eldest thirty years and fading fast. The graveyard was hushing around her. It frightened her to hear the silence sometimes, but she didn’t dare disturb it.
Sometimes she stood close to the gate and wished she hadn’t let the rust grasp it so rigidly, so that it could still creak. And she pressed an ear to the bars and listened for the ticking of the city.

It was broad daylight.
The city seemed so much smaller in broad daylight. Clearer, but dirtier. All the little flaws that had hidden away under the dark dragged out into exacting detail. A distracting display, but she had no time for it. She was following her ear.
Right down main street, right to the fountain. It was crusted-over, engulfed in a friendly tide of algae and mould. The liveliest sight she’d seen.
A pair of boots sat next to it. And next to the boots, a little box, palm-sized at best, plain and without writing.
The digger held it to her ear, just in time to hear the last tick.

When she got back that evening, she was just in time to hear the last of the dead too.

She stood beneath the tree and considered.
Grave?
Or the road?
The grave was old; even just-dug, it smelt of tired worms and dying soil.
The road was gone; ruts within ruts within buckled asphalt.
It was lonely, but it was home.
It was long, but it was strange.
She wished she had a mob. Mobs were good at making decisions for you. They chopped off choices until it was simple.
So instead she sat down besides the grave, looking up at the branches of the tree, and she rested. For a while.


Storytime: Seed Money.

August 22nd, 2016

Teacher En was out of money again. This was unfortunate, especially since she was in a bar, and doubly so, because she had just drunk it.
“Pay with your wallet or with your kneecaps,” the barkeep kindly informed her.
“A fair offer,” she said. “But I’ve got a better one.”
“A better one what?”
“I’ve just told you that,” said Teacher En, a little irritated. “A bet. I’ll bet you I can take this old bar nut from the deepest crevice of your floorboards and grow it into a tree that soars higher than any may have ever imagined anywhere.”
The barkeep was interested despite herself – it had been years and years since there’d been a tree to shade the front stoop and cool away the fierce noons – but she was wary of old weird wanderers and deadbeats besides. “I accept your bet,” she said, “but on one condition: me and my sons get to do whatever we can to stop you short of uprooting the thing and throwing it away.”
“This is fair,” said Teacher En, and they shook hands and right then and there Teacher En stepped out the front door one two three four strides and moved some dirt with her thumb and plonked down the old bar nut. Just as she moved to sweep it back over, she paused for a second and leaned close to the little hole.
“Get a move on,” she whispered. And it was buried.
“Now it’s my turn,” said the barkeep. And she called her sons, her three big and variously fat sons, and all of them unzipped their pants and turned the little dimple in the soil into an (extremely acid) latrine.
“A good bet,” the barkeep told Teacher En, “but maybe not a wise one. Tell you what: you can do the washing-up tonight, if you’d like. If you’re good at it and keep going for the rest of the week, you can pay with that instead of your kneecaps.
The old woman smiled. “Kind of you. It’s been too long since I’ve dealt with a good dish anyways.”

The next day the barkeep woke up early from the shouts and hoots outside. She emerged with an itch in one hand and a scratch in the other and had to blink for a good five minutes before the sight in front of her made any sense: look at that, a whole seedling had sprung up out of the soil. A foot tall and stretching for the sun.
“Now how’d it live through that?” she asked, and asked, and asked, but nobody had an answer until they leaned down close and saw the waxy coating of its form, sealing outside from in.
“Well, you’re a cleverer person than you look,” she said to Teacher En, who’d just finished last night’s dishes and was setting the washcloths out to dry on the railing. “But it’s my turn now.” And she and her three big and variously fat sons went over that seedling with tweezers and peeled and plucked every single strip of bark from it until it was as soft and naked as a newborn.
“Nice try,” the barkeep told Teacher En. “Your turn.”
The old woman squatted down next to the seedling and turned over its biggest leaf and carefully put her mouth to it.
“Hurry up now,” she muttered, and let it be again.
A shout from indoors came; the morning had begun, and there were new dishes to be washed.

The next day the barkeep woke up late, hung-over from a round of self-congratulation. She staggered outdoors with an ache in her pants and her head and hurt her nose pretty badly on the sapling, which was now ten feet tall and covered in thorny barbs on a layer of bark that could’ve been used as a warship’s hull.
“How’d you do that?” she demanded of Teacher En, storming back inside. “Do you have people out there switching trees on me every evening?”
“I travel by myself with myself only,” said Teacher En, who was shoulder-deep inside a particularly stubborn mug. “And sometimes I leave myself behind to get some peace and quiet. Feel free to stay up and keep watching, but if you’ll look at the soil, you’ll see nobody’s been digging out there all week.”
“After today we won’t need to check,” vowed the barkeep. And her three big and variously fat sons fetched her stepladder and she went up there and plucked every single leaf from the crown of the sapling, and snapped off many of the smaller green twigs.
Then they went in before rush hour started, and only just made it. Teacher En had to help wait tables to keep up. But that evening she walked down to the sapling, and she bent down to the nearest knothole.
“Rush it up,” she scolded. And was done.

The next day the barkeep woke up early because it was so quiet. Deathly quiet. The air was still and creaking.
She tiptoed downstairs past arrays of – surprisingly well-cleaned – mugs and bottles and over a freshly-scrubbed floor and stepped out into a small crowd of morning regulars, each and every single one of which was staring up dead-eyed at the tree.
It was big, but hard to measure. Over a hundred feet tall everything looks the same. The fresh green leaves waved mockingly.
“Right,” she said. “That’s it. Bring me the pitch.”
It took many, many buckets and the three tallest ladders in town, but by evening’s dimming the barkeep and her three big and variously fat sons had coated every inch of the tree they could reach with pitch. As the sun set, fire spat and clawed its way up its sides like hungry cats.
“You’ve been a good employee,” the barkeep told Teacher En, as she took over the shift in the dying light. “But I think you’ve got a poor knack for gambling.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” said Teacher En. And she took her break there, which she spent sitting next to the blazing trunk and warming her hands. As she sat up to head back in for the dishes, she leaned in close to the embers and the roots.
“Walk it off, finish up,” she sighed.

The barkeep woke up at her accustomed hour. She walked downstairs and nothing was unusual. She was so on edge that she nearly jumped out of her skin twice over, and it came as a great relief when she looked out the window and saw the largest tree she’d ever dreamed in front of her building, blotting out half the sun and waving cheerfully in the breeze.
She sighed, half-disappointed, half-relieved, and she and her three large and variously fat and entirely confused sons walked over to the till where Teacher Enn was counting out the cash and told her the bet was won.
“Yes,” said Teacher En with a grimace. “I did bite off more than I could chew, didn’t I? Well, I’m half-done the week already, so I suppose I can pay you through that rather than with my kneecaps.”
“But how have you failed, teacher?” they asked her. “Your seedling has grown all out of recognition and sense in every way.”
“Yes,” she said. “But it has completely failed to fly.”


Storytime: Passing By.

August 17th, 2016

As I was sitting at home one day, which is what I do, I shook my head and then myself.
The world’s too pretty to spend it cooped up in a box, I decided. I was going for a walk.
So I walked
All
The
Way
Down
to the docks, where there was a little boat with a big catch. Huge nets were rolling up on its deck, thousands of feet long, and fish were spilling everywhere. But they were throwing most of them overboard.
“Sharks,” the captain told me. “Who wants a shark? Not me. Not most people. They taste bad, they look ugly, and they can tear your children apart just like that –” and here he twisted his hand a little just like that “- you ask me, preserving them’s brainless. Nothing but mindless eating machines, living to fill their bellies. You know anyone like that?”
And I didn’t know anyone like that, no; I didn’t know anyone like that.

The docks were meant to be bracing, I’d heard, but the air was so bracing it was trying to knock me over. Full of sea salt and fish guts and drying paint and crusted oil. Very aggressive.
So I walked
All
The
Way
Down
to the brush, where there was a white flock of fluffy round things with simple, stupid faces and kind little eyes. I skritched one behind the ears and it baa’d at me.
“Those are my sheep,” said a suspicious voice. I looked over and saw it came from a suspicious sort of man and was nothing personal. In his right hand was a gun and in his left hand was a scruffy, mangy sort of beigey animal with brown stripes on its back and too much jaw.
“Tasmanian wolf,” he informed me, with a sweep of his arm. “Tasmanian tiger. Thylacine. You name it, I’ve killed it. Hopefully this is the last one. You’ve got to kill them, you know. For the sake of the sheep. If you don’t kill them they kill the sheep and then we can’t kill the sheep either. Blood-suckers they are, blood-suckers with parasitic inclinations scavenging off our hard work. You know anyone like that?”
And I didn’t know anyone like that, no; I didn’t know anyone like that.

The brush was meant to be mysterious and wild, I’d heard, but the air was full of fleece and dung and I was starting to sneeze.
So instead I walked
All
The
Way
Down
to the plains, where there was wide open spaces and a big blue sky and a whole field of dead, dead, dead animals, each bigger and hairier than I was and deeply impressive in their appearance of grump, even after death.
“That’s my trophy get your own,” said a man who was also bigger and hairier than I was. He crawled out from behind one of the animals, brandishing a severed and half-bloodied skull. “Beautiful, eh? Something for the fireplace. These here are buffalo and if anyone calls them ‘bison’ I will punch them. You’ve got to shoot buffalo. They’re in the way. They’re useless, nobody decent uses them for anything important. We could put a cow here you know, if there weren’t any buffalo. A cow and maybe a man and maybe a mall. What do you think about that? You’d like it, I’d hope, because these are useless animals that live to eat and to make more of themselves and spread around their own manure. Know anyone like that?”
And I didn’t know anyone like that, no; I didn’t know anyone like that.

The plains were meant to be beautiful and airy but they smelled like blood and even more manure than I’d ever imagined, so I picked up my feet again and walked
All
The
Way
Down
to the park, where things were quiet if they knew what was good for them and I could get plenty of brochures. I sat down on a log next to a scenic trail and a scenic trail signpost and I felt pretty happy until BANG a gunshot went off to my ear. A man walked up to me, dragging a wolf.
“You with the park?” he asked me. I wasn’t, no.
“Damnit,” he said. “Shoot. Shucks. Shit. I’ve got to give this thing back to the park. It wandered off and it looked at my sheep, it did. That’s how it starts, the looking. Then comes the biting. Then comes the eating. Hard times, it is, when a merciless predator is given better housing and care then most of us. An ungrateful bastard in your own house making free with your possessions at your expense and you can’t do anything about it. You ever known anyone like that?”
And I didn’t know anyone like that, no; I didn’t know anyone like that.

The park was a little tense for my tastes, and the air was a little hazy with gunsmoke, and most importantly I’ve got to be honest with you: my feet were starting to ache something fierce.
So I walked. I walked back through the park and the plains and the brush and the dock and I walked
All
The
Way
Back
Home.
And I walked up to the door and I opened it and there was a man there, tapping his foot and frowning with his whole body.
“About time you showed up,” he said, and stuffed a sheet of paper into my palm. “You’re being evicted. You spend too much time paying too much attention to too many things that don’t matter and not enough to anything that does. You’ve got your head in the clouds and your butt on the ground, and now your feet’ll be out the door so you can have a matched set.” He shook his head despairingly. “Looking at things that aren’t even real, eh? Where would we be if everyone did that? You know anyone else who does that?”
And he walked out the door and was gone.
I was really tired, but since I was evicted I sat down on the stoop and not my bed. And as I sat there, I waited for someone to come across me and get me moving. To move in. To yell at me to get a job. To put out their garbage. To pass by on the other side of the street, doing something, going somewhere.

I waited all day long and all night and more.
But I didn’t see anyone like that, no.
I didn’t see anyone like that.


Storytime: From A to B.

August 10th, 2016

Five weeks after Jesse was born, his mother heard a sharp, sudden yowl emit from his room, immediately followed by the blurred, orange shape of their cat, Pinkerton
She raced in with her heart in her mouth and her stomach in her throat, but what she saw turned her fears to tears of joy.
Gentle curves spun round the crib, barb-tipped and slowly nudging their way around the room.
Arrows, she realized through the warm rounded puffs of her own head. Her baby boy was thinking in arrows.

From that point on, Jesse’s path was well-marked, well-monitored, and well-trodden. A gift like thinking in arrows couldn’t be left to lie fallow and blunt itself. It was an investment.
Tutors, of course, were mandatory. To place Jesse in public school, amongst public plebeians, would be tragic for all involved. The teachers – those careful, stolid square-makers, so diligently turned to the nineties at each degree – would only blunt him at best, while the mushy and unformed masses of his fellow classmates might suffer injury from exposure to his unfettered attention.
No, Jesse was to be turned and honed to higher purposes. His tutors were lean and tall and set their feet broad and firm on the ground, matching their bodies to their triangular thoughts. Raise yourself high, they told him. Raise yourself high.
Jesse listened, and as he listened he learned, and as he learned he grew past them. Their points were sharp, but their aim was lacking. They were good teachers, but they were poor examples. When he was seventeen he fired all his tutors – for he had since assumed control of his own finances – and applied for several advanced schools. Education loomed ahead of him like Everest; vast, touching the heavens at its tip but arising from an endless range of lowly dirt.
He had spent years learning triangles such as these, and graduated some two years later, with little difficulty. He was, after all, a reasonable, rational adult, and thought as such.
From there, Jesse’s life reached its goal: he was hired. He was placed in an office, in a company, in a building, in a block, in a city, in a country, all of the highest quality as could be determined by the finest metrics. He was given tasks of vast and vague size, which he unerringly skewered to the heart. His gaze was sharp and unwavering and came from unpredictable angles, and wherever it landed it sundered waste and pinpointed profit. No one dared meet it, and if he derived any satisfaction at all from anything that was not purely and wholly his job it was the way everyone else’s thoughts seemed to get just a little smaller and tighter when he walked by them in the hall.
This was the absolute, and if Jesse could be said to be content he was, or at least he had no end of targets to inflict his contentment upon.
And then, there was the park.

It was not a good park.
There was too much grass in the fountain and not enough grass on the lawn. There was one swing out of two. The slide was broken, and besides it had been too hot to touch in the summer.
It was not a nice park.
Plastic littered the bushes; cardboard crept upon the ground. The one park bench there was permanently occupied; half by a tired old man and half by a duffle bag that had sat there for six years.
It was, however, a very good opportunity.
Jesse spoke to the city, and his expertise and authority pinned them to the wall with its force. He spoke to the neighborhood association, and they saw the magnitude of his points and surrendered immediately. He phoned the police and directed to them the most pressing of their problems that day which was a tired old man sleeping on a bench.
And it was a nice day and everything was all set right up until the demolition foreman phoned Jesse in his office and told him he’d better come down here.
“Why?” asked Jesse, probing him from across the line.
The foreman’s wince was a tickle against his forebrain. “There’s someone here.”
“Remove them,” said Jesse, pushing a little harder. “They’re trespassing.”
“Yes, but…there’s someone here.”
Jesse didn’t repeat himself. It wasn’t a matter of principle, or of policy, or of a private rule he kept. It was just one of those things that didn’t happen to him, like flying by flapping your arms very hard or turning into a giant cockroach.
“Remove them,” Jesse repeated. “They’re trespassing.” And he frowned, because something troubled him and he wasn’t sure why.
“You’d better come down and see this for yourself.”

The park was even uglier in person. But Jesse saw past it, because that’s what he did. He peeled aside its simple surface and darted to its core: the real estate, the value, the prize to be claimed from the bullseye of its existence.
And he bounced off it quite badly, so hard that he blinked instead of swearing.
“What?” he asked.
It had not been directed at him, but the foreman answered anyways. “Just there,” he said. Sensibly squared as he was, he had to point with his bare arm and hand to indicate. “Down by the swings.”
Jesse walked around the bench – empty of the tired old man, but strangely, still bedecked with its duffle bag – and into the park, past broken grass and dead lights and under a half-living tree, and in that swingset he found a person.
They were hunched, a little, and small, very. Their legs kicked up short in the swing, and it was taking a lot of work to keep it moving. The chains jangled like an old man’s keychain.
“You are trespassing on private property,” said Jesse.
The swinger did not reply.
“You are trespassing on private property,” said Jesse, and he felt that twinge of discomfort again. “And you must leave,” he added hurriedly.
The swing ceased movement. The person looked up at him through the oddest eyes he’d seen. They were very blank. Not empty. Halted, maybe.
“This is my swing,” they said.
“This is my property,” Jesse said. “This is not your swing,” Jesse said. “You will leave now or I will have the police remove you,” Jesse said. “Your eyes are very peculiar and this alarms me,” Jesse said.
And Jesse didn’t say a single one of those things, instead he squared his shoulders and folded his arms and furrowed his brow and set his thoughts freely upon the small and strange person, because he was very uncomfortable and he wanted no part of this any longer than was absolutely necessary. Out folded his sleek arrows and his firm lines and from every which angle they shot out at the hunched frame before him, jabbing at critical points and cutting through the bullshit and
blunted, bouncing on nothing. Each and every single one.
Jesse did not scream. Jesse did not sweat. Jesse did not stare.
Jesse didn’t even panic, because he didn’t know how.
Instead he narrowed his eyes, reached out again with all his streamlined intent and careful aim and slid out towards his target.
Right there, right where it should be. There should be corners. There should be angles. There should be weaknesses, points of entry. Deliberately constructed arguments to undermine and penetrate.
And instead, there was nothing but smoothness, almost nothing there at all. Where there should be a complexity and a comprehensibility and a humanity to interrogate and infiltrate, a shape, a reason, a MEANING, there was instead something impervious to pressure and perfectly sealed in upon itself.
It reminded Jesse a little of a marble, he realized. Or a beach ball.
“You have to go,” he said. With words, like a primitive, like a primate.
“I can’t go,” said the thing in front of him. “I walk here. I walk here every day at ten o’clock. I walk clockwise around the park.” They pointed at the bench, at the bag that shouldn’t be there. “I pick up the nicest stone I can find and I put it in the bag.”
“Why?” asked Jesse.
They looked at him, and for the first time they met his gaze deliberately rather than his having to hunt it down. “Because it’s what I do,” it said. “It’s what I’ve always done. I have to keep doing it.”
“You have to go,” Jesse said. His brain was starting to hurt. His hands were starting to shake. “Be reasonable. You are a reasonable, rational
adult and you see my point. You have to go.”
“I can’t go,” said the person.
Jesse shook his head twice, shot out his breath in a tight swear, and made every single point he could inside his head ten times over.
Then he threw them like thunderbolts.

Phonecalls were made, later that day. Later still, they were heard. Secretaries had to listen to them first, of course. You couldn’t rush these things when you were the sort of man who talked to that sort of man.
(they were still mostly men)
They concerned the country, and more specifically the city, and more specifically the corporation and the park and the entire city block surrounding it and what had happened to it just the other day, and how to deal with it.
What the precise details were, well, that didn’t matter. Details don’t matter to those men. They think in broad terms, in only three terms.

=
and
<
and
>

That day, it was concluded that Jesse <

The park is still there. Nobody knows what to do about it. The earthmovers left in about a week. Someone paid the foreman.
The bag is still there. The tired old man isn’t. He may have found a shelter. He may not have.
But nobody wants to look too closely at the park. Nobody wants to find what Jesse did.
No reasonable, rational adult.


Storytime: A Meeting.

August 3rd, 2016

The flower was on the last cusp of colour. Grey and black had eaten it from the outside in, but on the very edge, a faint hint of blue lingered.
Courier Jessle slid her eyes away from the flower to the rest of the field. A dim sky, over a carpet of dim blossoms. They lay on their sides, as if they had all lain down for a strange sort of nap.
Each and every one had been carefully yanked out by their roots.
One of the villages must have done this, she reflected. One of the small, grey
(the colour of her hair now; when did that happen? It had been so long since she was here)
little villages she’d walked through just an afternoon ago. The people had been quiet and industrious. They hadn’t looked up at her footstep, they hadn’t hesitated at her stare, they had drifted out of her path as smoothly as the parting fog.
She had never been so disconcerted in her life. The sight of a good, honest pick-pocketing in the street would’ve cheered her up immensely.
But the villagers would never do a thing like that. They would never do something so pointlessly outside of their remit. They did as they were told. Nothing more.
Nothing less.
Jessle placed the flower down precisely not where she had taken it from. This gave her a tiny bit of satisfaction and sent an uncomfortable thrill down her spine, as if she were seven again and trespassing in her aunt’s bedroom. Exhilaration, coupled with a certainty of unknown, inescapable punishment yet to come.

The lake had not changed, she thought with relief, and then she saw that she had thought wrong.
The boats were still there: thick-oared, low-slung barges. The rowers were still there: downcast, over-robed young men. The dock was still there: dark wood sheathed in black iron.
But the boats were rotted – unfit to transport even a scant load of prisoners now – and the dock was bowed, and the rowers stared without blinking from pinpoint pupils, every muscle tensed for a single task and not permitted release.
She’d seen that stare before. But she would not permit herself that memory, and stifled it.
The oars had been quiet, back then. They were quieter still now. There were no ripples in the water, even as the rowers yanked and sweated furiously.
Not for the first time, Jessle reflected that this was not a job for a Courier. Couriers delivered messages. Sometimes the messages were demands. Sometimes the messages were sharp. Sometimes the messages were sharpened, and also came without any warning.
Couriers were not negotiators. And yet here she sat, on the deck of a waterlogged thing too miserable to be called a hulk, preparing herself to do just that.

The loss of the Stone had been an inconvenience that had been kept from being an emergency solely by dint of it being a wholly shared and mutual disaster for all involved. Every country, every empire, large and small and even unknown, they all had something or some person that had been incarcerated there. For any one of them, losing access would’ve been a crisis. For all of them, it was a joint frustration. A problem for diplomats to exchange gripes and commiserate on. A community-building occasion, nearly.
It would have been almost a net positive, if it hadn’t been for the silence.
Jessle counted her paces; one of many, many habits she’d diligently acquired, trained, and catalogued.
She’d entered the silence almost half a league before her maps – the most recent – had said she would. This was almost precisely where her briefing’s calculations – also the most recent – had told her she would.
Geometric growth. A terrible thing that tended to only appear so when it was already too late.
‘Too late’ came to mind for more than one thing; the lake had grown no larger, but the wallowing of the barges surely made it seem so. The piers of the Stone were finally in sight, swirling out of the mist, and on the piers stood a single man, waiting.
“Courier Jessle,” he said. His grip was cold on her arm, even through the broadcloth fabric of her coat.
Jessle did not forget faces, and that was one of her few talents that had been a gift rather than a hard-won habit. But the thing she looked at now defied her memories. “Warden?” she blurted out, not sure whether to be more shocked at yes or no.
The face did not move. “The Warden is waiting for you.”
Her mind was made up. The voice was the same; a whisper standing in for a grown man’s lungs. Every laugh-line was gone, smoothed away by years of immobility, but the broadness of the features was there. The wide mouth, the eyes, the cheeks.
The eyes were pinpricks, of course. Of course.
No, this wasn’t the warden. This was the man she remembered, but he wasn’t the warden. Not anymore.
She nodded, and followed the man through the splayed-open cragstone gates of the Stone’s walls, a defense that could’ve eaten armies left ajar, now obsoleted.

The way was long and winding, and there were no words from her guide. Jessle supplied her own, inside her head. She needed the practice, and the reminder of what sound was like. The mist was thicker with each step, and with it, the silence.
The towers were draped with moss now from the constant moisture. Some of it must’ve been new growth.
There were no guards posted anywhere.
Paths were visible in the flagstones; the older ones worn by centuries of heavy tread and made visible in damp puddles and pools; the modern by the crushed mess of stamped fungi and mosses. They were not heavily-used.
There were no rats.
That at least was not new. Jessle hadn’t been able to ride a horse for days. She also had not seen a rat.
The man guiding her was gone, she noticed. Except that wasn’t right, it felt as if she’d already known this and had forgotten to mention it to herself. She was alone, in the deserted, abandoned depths of the world’s most impenetrable prison, immersed in a fog that hid walls a mere armspan from her sides, and she was sure that this, like every other thing since she’d entered the silence of the Stone, was entirely under control.
Just not her own.

There was no door to the chamber – not a room, nothing so sophisticated, just a simple and sudden broadening of the passage, a gasp in the prison’s throat.
There was a grate set into the floor. Iron-barred and vast. A hundred men and women couldn’t have lifted it. The broken remains of a lever next to it suggested they once had not needed to.
And sitting next to this ancient, creaking thing was a table, brand-new and put together by violence and inexperience and too many nails.
There were three chairs. One was full, and a man sat in another.
Jessle sat in the empty chair and felt her bones cease the complaints she hadn’t even notice beginning.
“Courer Jessle,” she said. “From Gelmorre.” And as she spoke the words she felt them vanish before they even entered her larynx, eaten alive and leaving her lips to flail dumbly in empty space.
If the man opposite her was amused, he hid it well – although he had the advantage of her, with a full beard to hide behind.
Ambassador Honn, Jessle read from his lips. Of Matagan.
Something moved in the pit.
Jessle didn’t flinch, and she was proud of that as she watched the ‘Gan wince in his seat. She couldn’t move, her head was filled with memories of endless coils and winding, brutal strength and scales and a hardened, toothless beak that was nearly smiling.
The warden was there, and the third chair was full of its presence.
And she breathed again, without the comfort of the creaking of her ribs, and she began to recite the first offer she had been ordered to deliver.

More than two decades now, and she was still the only expert they had on Wyrms, or at least the only thing they had that looked like an expert, or the only one that could speak in full sentences.
Twenty-three years of Gelmorre’s scant colonies out there over the sea, in Afar, and only one book ever written. Mostly speculations and stories, short and stunted and frightened.
She had given them illustrations, with difficulty. Her pencil strokes had been unsure, self-doubting.
Mists and madness and a quiet that struck like a sledge and took your mind from your skull to play with, how you could lose that she wasn’t sure…
The memories were trying to hide from her.
But now, sitting not twenty feet from her former prisoner, she could see it again in her head as if it were brightest day.

Her words ran out, noiselessly. A moment to be certain, a working of his jaw, and Honn began to speak.
He was good, this ‘Gan. Jessle saw that. He had paid attention to her words, and to the words behind them, and to the orders and the intents behind the both of them. Read it all as surely as if Her Worshipped was sitting at Jessle’s shoulder, speaking them aloud.
And now came the counter-offer, sliding in so comfortably it was almost taken for granted, already-there. Better terms, of course. Better for both of them. Matagan’s tribute would be more fruitful, their exchange with the Stone more beneficial, their relationship more prosperous. For both of them. A better future would result. For both of them.
He was good, this ‘Gan. The very best. Jessle would’ve sent him, if she’d the choice. She knew that surely.
So why was she here instead?
That was a thought that could not be, and she had kept it out of her skull for three weeks now, for every day of her journey.
The silence of the Stone expands. A deal must be made. The ‘Gans want one too. Gelmorre must prevail. Courier Jessle will be sent…
And then chasing after it, finally sneaking inside her awareness, the final step she’d always suspected: …by the Stone’s request, as its former jailer.
Her expression didn’t change, she thought. It was hard to tell, numb as the world was. But something must have shown in her body, because the ‘Gan did not continue overlong, and his face as his lips stilled was – through the drawn-out fear – curving into a slight smile.
Jessle tried to shove her thoughts out of her head and spoke her own counter-offer. It went poorly.
Her words were done and her hands felt as if they must be shaking even though they weren’t and Honn was smiling openly now as he took his place, dismantling her arguments without ever once referring to them, mocking her miserliness with his generosities, painting a future so bright that Jessle could almost – with real effort – imagine colour again as something real.
He was finished. Jessle said something, she was sure, but even she wasn’t really listening anymore. The ‘Gan wasn’t watching her lips, his eyes were on hers, and he wouldn’t stop smiling, it was going to drive her out of her

There was a face at the grate.
It was larger than a warhorse, it was larger than a carriage, it was almost the size of a house. Bigger than before.
The beak was just shy of the bars, reluctant of the iron’s touch, but almost toyingly so.
She couldn’t imagine it being unable to lift it. She couldn’t imagine it being unable to do anything.
She couldn’t do anything at all but watch those eyes, those swollen-pupilled eyes, eyes bigger than she was, as they settled upon her.
Pressure was there, invisible but immense. She must have felt something like this before, something almost like this but infinitely slighter, when she knelt before the seat of Her Worshipped but thinking of her was impossible right now, thinking at all was impossible now and

Jessle breathed again. Something was missing. Maybe it was her. Maybe she’d never know. But the world was moving again (had it stopped?) and she knew some things that were carved inside her and would never come out again.
She had failed the terms of her mission. The Stone would be open again – to Matagant and aligned interests.
She had failed other missions, long, long ago. Her prisoner never was. Her victories had never been.
She would not speak of this. She would not think of this.
All those things were deeply, unfathomably true, and so she ignored them entirely and instead looked straight ahead, blindly following the one sense that was open to her, and came eye-to-tooth with Ambassador Honn, grinning as if he were a tiger with a whole birdcage wedged in his mouth.
She was done. She was dismissed. He had won. Wasn’t he going to say anything?
A muscle twitched.
Jessle looked closer and saw that wasn’t a smile, it had never been a smile. The man’s mouth was all teeth now, ridged and fixed and tensed to a screaming tauntness against his lips that sent blood trickling down his chin through the wrinkles, dripping in tiny specks from the fine hairs of his beard.
“Go,” it said from his mouth, in words, in real words that cut through Jessle’s thoughts like blades. “Now.”
She did.

After what had taken place in words, even the bone-seeping silence of the Stone was a relief. Jessle ran, without dignity, without care, up from the depths to the dock and only felt her breath return to her when the water began to move again under the lurch and tug of the boat’s oars.
She had never been so happy to fail in her duty – to Gelmorre, to Her Worshipped, to her family’s very reputation – in her life. Her report to the throne would be a devastation to speak aloud, a litany of failure and humble apology, and she would have to fight to keep from singing it.
She suddenly felt her smile to be too wide in her head, and it vanished in a shiver.
He was gone now, that ‘Gan. Gone for being too good at his job? Or for other reasons, or because of her? The Couriers delivered the words of Her Worshipped, but this would not be the first time they were used, unwanted, to deliver another’s message.
I am here, where you thought to keep me. I am strong, stronger than you knew, and stronger each day. I do not fear you. I do not respect you.
I do as I please, and my whims are what please me. You will not understand them, and I do not expect you to.
She realized her hand was trembling on the rail, her right hand, and she could not stop it.
No. Speculation was not the duty of a Courier unless ordered. If the monster appeared opaque, that was what she would take it for. She would not place herself inside its skull immediately after being spared that particular insult.
Courier Jessle stepped off the boat, away from the Stone, away from the silence, and away from her imaginings.
And as she did, she thought of a field of dead flowers.


Storytime: Lost.

July 27th, 2016

My city is lost.
It was right nearby when I last checked. It can’t have gone too far.
I’m putting up posters, and I’m sure it will come right back. It’s very distinctive; cyclopean masonry; timeworn slabs of stone; the dust of ages piled in every over-spider-webbed corner and cranny and crevice. There will be phone calls by the morrow.
You should have a look-around too, it would be worth your time. It’s got a diamond mine, or a gold mine, or something like that. A plunderable place to be sure, a conquistador’s wet dream without all the inconvenience of owners to deal with in barter and blades and bacteria and bloody thoughts. A convenient place, wasn’t it? I thought so. I thought so.
But it won’t mean a thing if I can’t FIND it. I need to find it. It’s been a long time, yes, but that long?

 

My civilization is lost.
Have you seen it? Can you help me find it? It was here, just a minute ago. I put it down and walked away; I just let its hand slip from my grasp for a moment; I swear it was right there, I’m certain.
Now it’s gone and crawled away under the tectonic floorboards, buried itself in a subterranean cyst and sunk down into the abyss. Are there impassable mountains? Plateaus? Deserts? It could be under them or in them or even above them. I just don’t know where it’s gone.
There could very well be something in it for you, if you must know. It was a Great and Glorious civilization indeed, which almost goes without saying; whoever heard of losing a Small and Modest civilization? It’s unheard of! Unthinkable! There will be fabulous riches, trust me. Fabulous.
Please, you MUST come with me and look for it! It’s very important – it’s so important! It invented everything you’ve ever heard of and everything they’ve been trying to keep hushed up. It’s the reason for the pyramids and the other pyramids and the Nazca lines and the JFK assassination and the Mars landings they pretended were on the moon. It can’t have gone far, the evidence is right under your nose. All the answers are right there, waiting, yearning, stretching up to reach past our assumptions and into our minds.
But they won’t mean a thing unless we FIND it.

 

My world is lost.
Can anybody see it around here? It seemed large at the time, but the planet’s much older and bigger than I’d thought and now it’s rolled away into the crowded bustle of nations. It might be one of them, for all I know. Can I describe it? I’m not sure what size it was.
It was filled with fronds, that much I’m certain. It’s choked with ferns and damp and steam; except where it’s a parched volcanic badlands, or a green and alien sea. The things that call from cliffs – always cliffs, never trees – aren’t birds, I can assure you. There’s a ruin in there somewhere, but we never found out who built it; it was architectural litter, not from us, or the snakemen, or the lizardmen, or the apemen, or the troglodytes.
It was an island – no a valley – no a mountain – no a continent – no a great cavern – no it was hiding right under your feet. Unless it was on Mars. Always Mars, unless it’s Venus.
I don’t understand how I could be so STUPID. I was distracted, and things moved on, and now it’s so old and everything else is so fresh and new. I hadn’t dusted or cleaned it in ages; it was rank with rot and fat and thick, bloated flabs of grossly morbid eugenics. It’s an heirloom, it’s not mine, I’ve only got amateur interest, it’s full of historical value. Don’t look at me that way; it’s not my fault!
It doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t mean a THING!
I can show you, I can show you, I WILL SHOW YOU
But first I need to find it.

 

I am lost.
Can you tell where I am? Where I’ve been? Where I’ve gone? I’ve called and called for help but I’ve heard not a single answer. It’s a wilderness out there, undoubtedly untrammeled and bereft of a single familiar voice.
Please, won’t anyone come find me? Anyone like me. I’m not meant to be lost, you must understand. Other places are lost. Other places are meant to be found. I am always found. That’s how I do my finding. But now I’m lost and lost and lost, and all that’s between me and everyone else is my four stone walls.
These walls are high and thick and tall and I will never take them down. They keep me safe from whatever’s prowling around out there, stomping in that jungle (it must be a jungle, it’s always a jungle) with its spears and its teeth and its hot terrible breath that smells of raw meat.
I am lost here, behind my walls, my strong walls. They are crumbling now, but they always have been. I made them that way on purpose.
Let you others take down your walls and rove and roam and romp.
Simpletons!
Simpletons!
I am safe. I am safe. I must be safe behind my old stones and old words and old thoughts.

 

 

I wonder.
I wonder who will ever find me?


Thudmaker and the Sea.

July 20th, 2016

The day started early, but the breakfast was late.
The little Thudmakers found it at last – the biggest two did – in the back of the bottom of the end of the crooked cupboard hidden in the corner. They shared it with their siblings, quietly, and took very small bites apiece.
“I guess it’s time again,” said Thudmaker.
Out came the yellow hat, out came the brown boots, out came the overalls. And out the front door, shutting it quiet as a mouse, came Thudmaker, sixteen feet tall and going on sixty, headed down the street to look for work.
But looking high, there wasn’t any. And looking low, there wasn’t any. And nobody looks in between, but Thudmaker looked there too, and there wasn’t any.
There was one more place, though. It wasn’t any of those things.
It wasn’t anywhere at all.

And so Thudmaker headed down to the docks. Oh, woah Thudmaker, scars and muscles and old burns and new callouses and such a sight on the shining Main Street. Parents covered their children’s eyes; cars drove by a little faster. You don’t look at Thudmaker, they knew. You need, but you don’t look. And you don’t speak.
Down by the way of damp smells there was an older store that Thudmaker squeezed into and came out with a battered old sou’wester that was bent a little too far to the south. And a block farther down there was an even older store that Thudmaker couldn’t fit into at all, where a man had a boat that was half tin and half wood and you couldn’t tell the two halves apart if your life depended on it. Nobody wanted it and nobody would pay for it.
It fit Thudmaker, that boat. Like a glove. And it came with a little pair of oars.
Thudmaker dipped them into the water and pulled up and down and along and along.
Thud, thud, thud.
Out to sea went Thudmaker, with nobody watching from the shining streets. And they felt just a bit relieved to not see what they saw.

So Thudmaker rowed out to sea, over waves blue and green and strange, looking for fish with a battered old rod in a battered old pocket. And by and large there were things shimmering in the water, but a hook hauled up nothing, nothing, nothing.
“What’s this?” Thudmaker asked.
“A good question,” bellowed a passing voice. Thudmaker looked up and met eye to eye with a cargo ship, long and cold and steely-iron, a smooth cylinder covered in bulky boxes. “It’s plastic. Scrap plastic. Microplastic. You get a lot of it out here, from over there.”
“Over where?” asked Thudmaker.
“Everywhere. It all washes out, you know.”
Thudmaker dipped a paw in the water and came out with nothing, but a very special kind of nothing; thin and filmy and indestructibly tiny. “Is it safe?”
“Of course not, but it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing out here, you know.”
“I thought the sea was out here,” said Thudmaker.
“Yes, well, nothing real,” said the ship matter-of-factly. “I thought you’d know that, being a sailor.” And it pushed on, idly tipping a container over its side as it went.
Thudmaker fished there for a while, watching shoals of plastic and schools of rubber duckies drift by under the line. But there was nothing at all, and so down came the oars again.
Splash, splash, splash.
The plastic swirled around the bow.

Then Thudmaker went a little farther out to sea, under skies of blue and grey and black and white, until the boat went aground with a crunch and a crack and a tinkle and a rattle. But mostly a crunch.
Thudmaker got out and waded around to check the bow. It was dented, but that was normal.
“Whew,” said Thudmaker.
“Careful,” said some tourists. “Mind the coral.”
“Coral?” asked Thudmaker, looking at the tourists. They were covered in swimsuits, wetsuits, and cameras of very interesting kinds, and they were all wearing cages as they swam around Thudmaker’s ankles.
“Yes, the coral. The white, crumbly stuff. There’s not much left, you know.”
Thudmaker looked at the coral. There didn’t look like there was much left, it was true. It was practically bleached.
“Now would you please move?” asked the tourists. “We’re here for a shark dive. It’s very exciting and dramatic and thrilling and natural, and it might not be here next year.”
“Why?” asked Thudmaker.
“Well, the coral sure won’t be,” said the tourists. “Now beat it or you’ll get in the way of the chumming.”
Thudmaker beat it back into the boat and watched as the water turned red with filleted former fish and the fins appeared, nosing for treats and bumping cages that flashed and clicked and hummed with pent-up excitement. Some of them came and bumped Thudmaker’s boat too, but all Thudmaker’s pockets were empty except for crumbs.
“Will they be alright next year?” asked Thudmaker.
“Who knows?” said the tourists. “Who cares? It’s the sea; it’s big, and there are always plenty more fish in it and plenty more of it, no matter what happens. We’d think you’d know that, being a sailor.”
Thudmaker thought about fishing there, for a while. But the sharks were so small, and they looked so hungry, and in the end the hook stayed tucked with the rod and line and the oars came out again.
Splish, splish, splish.
The corals whitened behind the stern.

Now Thudmaker came farther out to sea yet, under wind and sun and cloud and over water, nothing but water, as far down as could be imagined and further still.
Thudmaker looked high, and there wasn’t anything there.
Thudmaker looked in the middle, and there wasn’t anything there.
And Thudmaker looked low, and saw the sea.
There were words for it, but they weren’t small enough to fit inside anybody’s head, let alone their mouths. They were too big even for Thudmaker’s; a skull that could split stone with a jaw that could crack walnuts. But there were things about it that could be grasped.
There were waves.
Thudmaker’s boat bobbed in the blue on top of them, like a cork that had seen the worst side of a corkscrew. The rod was fished out.
There were fish.
Thudmaker could see them down there, deep and fast and thick, all shining and wide-eyed. The line was fished out.
It was real.
And that was what hit Thudmaker like a calm slow stroke of lightning, sliding up inside from boots-to-hat. The hook paused mid-threading.
The sea was real, and it was there, and it was all around Thudmaker, edge to edge as far as could be seen no matter how high Thudmaker reared up into the horizon.
And they were alone together.
Thudmaker looked down at the little fishes. The sea looked back up at Thudmaker.
And the oars dropped down into their locks.
THUD.

It had been a good day, a busy day, a day for making things and building things and trading things. A long, productive day. And so the lights kept going as the sun turned itself out, because if there’s one thing that a day like that needs it’s a bustling night.
Everyone bustled appropriately, pushing papers, hauling girders, checking and filing and bending and breaking and they were so busy that they almost didn’t see Thudmaker come back in, down at the docks.
But they heard it when the road groaned. And they felt it when the air changed. And when the smell of damp and more came in…
Well.
That’s when people, even when they know they’re not meant to look, have got no choice.
And that’s when they saw them. The two of them. Filling the road and overflowing it, side by side, hand in hand, each leaning on the other after a long, tired journey.
Thudmaker and the sea.
Some people stared, shut-eyed. Some people screamed, quietly. And some other people ran, clumsily.
But none of that seemed real, not real at all, as the bright lights turned soft on the glimmering bodies of small fishes, as those two walked together up the shining Main Street.

There wasn’t much for dinner.
The youngest two little Thudmakers found a can; the oldest two found an old paper bag.
But it was enough for them all, and for one more. And that was all they needed.