Storytime: The Hagfish.

May 24th, 2017

The silverware sparkled.
The glass gleamed.
The dishes… well, they didn’t bear describing. Words failed.
And in the center of the table in a great gold platter, dripping in her own sweat and bile, lay the Hagfish. The guest of honor once again.

“Five years?” a courtier inquired of a fop.
“Six, surely,” the fop guessed.
“It’s seven, or I’m senile,” assured a countess.
“Nine,” said a voice.
It was not a voice that should be listened to. Every instinct screamed at every smarmy syllable. If it had been a vase of flowers, it would consist entirely of little red trust-me-nots, shining with the meaty intoxications of freshly-picked fibs.
But it belonged to their host, the Duchess of Dalby, and so instead of throwing their drinks away and kicking off their shoes and running (not screaming! Waste of breath to run with!) for the windows they bowed and scraped and muttered many congratulations, humble thanks, flattery on her apt memory, etc, etc, etc.
The Duchess smiled, and they looked up it without flinching, and they knew their task was complete, and thankfully so. The Duchess’s memory for happy moments was exceeded only and greatly by her perfect and crystallized recall of any and all grudges.
For that, one had only to examine the banquet table. And the Hagfish.

“A grand ball.”
“Your finest yet.”
“Really, is this truly the hundredth? How time flies!”
And the Duchess of Dalby smiled and nodded and said “thank you,” and “my thanks,” and “indeed!” but what she thought after the last comment was how very funny a thing counting was. It all depended on where you started the list.
For instance, if one counted all the parties, balls and processions she had hosted as a single unit, this was her hundred-and-forty-ninth.
Then again, if one also included all the parties, balls and processions she had hosted under an assumed name, or anonymously, that total would grow again to one-hundred-and-sixty-three.
And if one truly wished to be generous, and included all the parties, balls and processions she had so thoroughly managed on others’ behalf as to have hosted them herself, the total would rest at a respectable three hundred and ninety seven, at which point it would be easier to count those she had not been involved in at all.
But this particular ball was special for a specific and most particular reason, as it was the hundredth since a most particular day indeed.

As the evening wore on, the requests came, pit-a-pat.
“Duchess, a word.”
“Duchess, if I might.”
“Duchess, may I be so bold?”
And obliquely and haltingly and hesitantly and discretely came the details, coughed up from the black depths of the human psyche and the bitter dredges of bad old wounds left to rot and fester in the mind.
“She spurned me.”
“He insulted me.””
“They wronged me.”
And the Duchess of Dalby nodded and smiled and made polite noises and kept most careful track of all that was said and requested and promised – so many meanings behind each word exchanged! – and recorded them in her most faithful logbook, which was inside her skull and nowhere else, and finer than that made by any pen.
She would be busy indeed when the ball was done. Truth be told, the planning of the things bored her to tears, but oh she did love the work they brought in.

The meal was served – no, launched. The Hagfish squirmed in limbless appreciation at it, chuckling from the depths of her serving platter.
“A good spread tonight,” she told the Duchess of Dalby as she served herself of the grand stew – a seething, frothing thing whose body was meat and whose spirit was sublime and whose smell was euphoric. The Hagfish’s voice was coarse and strangely high. Years before it had been very different, the Duchess thought fondly. Before she had made a project of her throat. She patted the old mangled thing on her hip – touching the raw exposed bone and needling a bare nerve – and strode away to the appetizers.
“Use the knife!” the Hagfish called after her. “They always like a spotless death, but it works better if you use the knife! They never forget that.”
Eleven years since the first piece came out of her hide and the old bat still persisted in telling her what to do, thought the Duchess, as she savagely skewered a selection of cheese. You’d have thought she’d have learned her lesson after the Duchess removed the fiftieth fragment of her liver.
But no. This wasn’t the Hagfish’s night. She was just the table setting. This was her night. Her moment. Her commemoration. She mustn’t forget that. She mustn’t let anyone else forget that.
The Duchess clicked her fork against the side of her glass, once. And the room fell silent.
Yes, this was what she needed.

“A toast,” she said, “to yourselves. My clients, my friends, my proud acquantances.”
The cheers flew freely.
“A toast!” she cried, “to this night. A wonder the likes of which I promise you’ve not seen.”
Oh, the windows shook.
“And a toast,” she screamed, “to the old-gone queen of the assassins, the handmaiden of death, the mother of murder, the Hagfish, Nella Triy, who was once the host for so many lovely parties such as these, and whom I have mutilated so thoroughly in the past eleven years nine months and fourteen days that even I, in all my long, careful memories, cannot recall how pieces of her flesh have been cut off and thrown away!”
And the cheers were loudest of all, coming though they did from mouths stretched tooth-baringly wide with terror.
But the sound that killed the applause was very small and slight, and it was the chuckling from the grand banquet table. From the golden platter. From somewhere inside the torn, eviscerated frame of the Hagfish.
“Oh my me!” she rasped. “Oh really! I had the guess that on?”
The Duchess of Dalby did not sigh.
She did not frown.
Not so much as a crease puckered her brow.
So it couldn’t have been more glaringly obvious how furious she was, as she strode up to that table, one hand reaching into her eighth hidden pocket for something sharp and smoky-dull-shaded.
“You know better,” she murmured, as she stood above the Hagfish, considering her target, “than this.”
“And you as well!” said the Hagfish cheerfully. “Why, I knew you’d lose count some day. I just thought you’d be less proud of it. Tell me, did you enjoy the stew?”
The Duchess of Dalby opened her mouth to retort, but fell silent. Something was sinking inside her, dragging her back twenty years to when she had made a boast to her teacher, Nella Triy, and had realized immediately that it had been very stupid.
“Just a little piece,” said the Hagfish. She winked. “Nobody’d miss a little piece of me, would they? And dearie, dearie me, you DO remember how I always said never to use a poison you haven’t tried yourself.”
The sinking feeling was accelerating, and the Duchess of Dalby’s knees shook.
“I’ve got more death in my littlest scrap of flesh than you have in your whole body, poor mite,” said the Hagfish. “Although, well, I suppose that now you do too.”
The Duchess of Dalby’s mouth still had not closed. Her muscles were quivering against the bone; her blood was boiling up around her teeth. And when she fell, it was as if a signal had been raised.
There were exactly seven hundred and forty-eight guests. But there was no one there to count their bodies, no one but the Hagfish, laughing on the banquet table.
“A bit of a long job,” she said to herself. “But I’ve never fussed much about the little details. They’ll come out or they won’t, I always say. Right, m’girl? Oh! Never mind.”


Storytime: The Orchard.

May 17th, 2017

The trees were whispering lively strong that day. Maybe it was the steady sun, giving them all the good things and watching them grow. Maybe it was the soft wind, shaking their branches and filling the air with their rustling plans.
Maybe it was something else. Passing secretive, were those trees. But they could be persuaded to share, for a price.
And oh, she knew that price, the gardener did.
Under her chime, under the bough, under the leafiest, smallest of the orchard she waited, the gardener and her cups and her little mortar and littler pestle. Aged earth granted aged flesh.
Today there would be three. Busy. But that was people for you, the ones that weren’t trees.

The first was a slight, pale thing. Torn and frayed at the edges from worries and wears on the inside. It trembled in the breeze, and would’ve trembled without it too.
“Do you have dreams?” it asked.
“All dreams,” said the gardener. “Ever.”
“I have a dream. Can I find it here?”
“What is this dream?”
“I would dream to be strong,” it said. “I would dream to speak out when my friends are slighted, to protest when asked to do wrong, to stop harm when I see it done, to witness my bad acts and stop them before they reach my hands. Can you grant me this dream?”
“Yes, I can grant you that dream,” said the gardener. She selected a cup from the old stump of her table-top, and it was a very common cup indeed – wood, plain wood, fresh wood that was almost from any tree you’d ever seen. “Follow me.”
The walk through the orchard was quiet, but that was normal whether the gardener walked with thin trembling things or boisterous loud ones or by herself. The trees induced it. Nobody likes to interrupt a long-running conversation, whether from politeness or awkwardness, and this was very old indeed.
“Here,” said the gardener, at the edge of the grove, by a thin sapling. “Lie down.”
The slight, pale thing lay down in the soft grass and looked up at the sky, which was marbled. Thick warm blue and soft cool white, mushed up like scrambled eggs. The sapling’s branches flickered at the edge of the eyes – elusive, bare, but tipped with something that could be green.
A cup intruded upon this, trailing a mild scent that could’ve been bitter or maybe not. “Drink,” said the gardener. “This fruit came from this tree, and your dream is inside it.”
The slight, pale thing drank, and when the cup was empty it fell back entirely and closed its eyes and was gone.
“A very common dream,” said the gardener in the face of sleep. “But this is no bad thing.” She eyed the tree’s branches, squinting in place of glasses. “And maybe it may be, if it not maybe not.”

When the gardener came back to her chime and her bough the second visitor was already there and waiting, which did not surprise her very much. The trees had been awfully gossipy of it – it was fidgeting as it stood there, snapping a twig into smaller and smaller pieces and picking at the bark. Its muscles seemed to jump of their own volition, like startled weasels.
“Hello there, uh, oh, hi,” it said. It dropped the twig, almost swore, then started over. “Hey.”
“Hello,” said the gardener. “Where did you find that?”
“Found what?” asked the fidgeter. “Oh, that. Not sure. Hey do you have any dreams? I was wondering if you had dreams. Do you have a dream I think I might’ve been thinking of? It was a, it was a specific kind. It was big. I got bigger, and I knew more, and people listened, and I changed the world. I changed it. I did. Because it was a big idea, so big it changed it. I made things different. Better, I’m sure. Me. Can you think of a dream like that?”
“You know,” said the gardener, “I’m nearly sure I did. Follow me.”
The path they took was bumpy and more sticks than stones and stones than dirt. But the gardener was sure-steady as a tortoise, and the fidgeter, for all its shambling gait, seemed to find out where its feet were meant to be eventually. At the heart of the orchard they halted, at the foot of a winding, wandering thing whose trunk had branched and branched and branched until its twigs were nearly trunks in themselves, and whose crown was somewhere out of sight and above mind.
“Lie down,” said the gardener, and the fidgeter did this even if it took a while for it to find a spot that made its head comfortable – the ground was littered with broken branches and dead leaves.
“Drink,” said the gardener, holding a spiraling cup in her wrinkled palm. It had two or three openings and it took a moment and a bit of spillages for the fidgeter to find out where its lips should be.
“Tastes like ash, eurgh – or wait, just clean water, or wait, maybe-” and the gardener was alone again, although this one’s eyes, she saw, did not shut.
“A good sign,” she said, “for a dream that may be good or bad. Good luck, I suppose.”

The walk back for the third was longest of all, because the gardener’s hips were passing lax in their duty by this time.
Her third was just coming up the path as she sat down. Steady of gaze, strong of stride. Bright-eyed.
“You have dreams,” it said, forcefully.
“The trees have the dreams,” said the gardener. “I just make them easier to swallow.”
“Nevertheless, you can give them. I have a most rare and powerful dream, and I want to know if it is within your ability to understand this and grant me access to it, which I want very much.”
“Please, tell me,” said the gardener.
The bright-eyed thing leaned forward, shoulders hunched in the earnestness of the deathly serious, and it opened its mouth and it spoke. “I would see a world of mirror. I would see all those who do not look like me; who do not speak like me; who do not think like me; who were born in places I was not; who were taught things I was not taught; who act in ways do not; who have families that I do not see, I would imagine them gone, all of them, forever and in all places, until I am all that is left and I am many and I am all that there is and ever will be, unchanging. Can you grant me this rare and powerful dream?”
“Oh dear, my dear, oh dear,” said the gardener, and her laughter made her hands shake as she picked up her largest cup, which was carved from dead solid stone. “That is the oldest dream of them all.”

It was not a walk. It was barely a stroll. Just the other side of the path to the orchard it lay, outside the bounds and outside all company; a solitary, giant thing. Its bark was knotted, its trunk was twisted, and its branches seemed reluctant to spread, tucked tight against its sides. Its roots spread far and wide and passing shallow, and the ground was covered with its dead needles. It was a tricky thing to approach without losing foot, especially with the bright-eyed thing refusing to look down. But they managed it, and at its base the gardener pointed at the ground and said “here.” Her voice was loud and harsh against the flat air. There was no wind here, and the silence pressed down.
The bright-eyed thing sat down, but there was a frown that marred its face. “This prickles. Is there nothing better to sit against? Do you have a pillow?”
“It is what it is, and nothing less,” said the gardener. “It’s a shameful thing, to pretend a dream isn’t what it is. I wouldn’t dare.” She reached out her arms, gripping the ancient cup two-handed and wobbling. Old pungency seeped from its sides. “Here. Drink, and dream.”
The bright-eyed thing jerked its head back. “No, no, not like this, it’s meant to be”
The gardener lifted her arms up over her head and dropped the cup, which landed home with a firm smack, and she was alone again.
But the bright-eyed thing wasn’t. She could already feel the roots creeping under her feet, eager to anchor themselves. She could hear the groan of all those buried voices, under sap and bile.
“Congratulations,” she said, as she picked up the empty cup.

The needles were sharp underfoot, and though it was the shortest the walk back home seemed oh so painful.
But the wind was still there when she returned, and so were the whispers of the orchard.


Storytime: Mother’s Day.

May 10th, 2017

“Happy mother’s day!” said the sea turtle.
“Well, that’s a surprise,” said the sea turtle’s mother. “I can’t say I expected that.”
“It did take me forty years to find you,” the sea turtle admitted. “But you know, you DID bury us in the sand and swim away immediately.”
“Fair true, fair true. So. Did you get me a present?”
“Well, we were going to make you a nice brunch-”
“Ooh!”
“-but Barry was going to get the groceries, and a seagull ate him –”
“Ooh.”
“-and Janice was the one who was going to work the pancakes, and she was buried too deep and suffocated before she could dig her way out of the nest –”
“Oh.”
“And the rest were eaten by various fish one way or t’other. Sharks, a lot of us. I’m all that’s left, sad to say.”
They bobbed there in the current, considering all this.
“And what was your job, may I ask?”
“Oh. I had to wish you happy mother’s day.”
“Well done.”
“Don’t mention it. Well, see ya.”

“Happy mother’s day!” said the bear.
“Well isn’t that just adorable,” said the bear’s mother. “And what have you got there?”
“’s a cooler!”
“Well that’s nice.”
“’s blue!”
“A good colour.”
“Got sandwiches innit!”
“Oh my!”
“’n those guys wannit back!”
“Well. That DOES explain the crashing noises. Tell you what dear, I’ll hold onto this for you – thank you so much, it’s really very lovely – and you climb this tree for a moment.”
“Aw.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll save some for you.”

“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant.
“Happy mother’s day!” said the ant. “The others said to say ‘happy mother’s day!’, but they couldn’t fit in the brooding chamber.”
“That’s very kind of you all,” said the queen ant, their mother. “May I make a request?”
“Yes!” they chorused.
“Could you please take care of your younger sisters today? They grow up so fast, and they really do need a nursemaid or four dozen.”
“We do that every day,” one said. “That’s just normal.”
“Girls, please kill and dismember your sister and feed her to the babies.”
“Augh!”
“Thank you very much, all of you! Such lovely daughters I have.”

“Happy mother’s day,” said the elephant.
“Fuck off,” said the elephant’s mother.
“I got you a present.”
“Go to hell.”
“It’s a really nice one.”
“It’s shit and so are you.”
“It’s this little shiny thing I pulled off a car.”
“I never want to see you again.”
“Look ma I TOLD you I’m sorry that our gestation period is nearly two years, and I feel real bad about-”
The elephant’s mother rammed him repeatedly until he ran away into the bush and left his birth herd forever, as was customary for his age group.
“NOW it’s a happy mother’s day,” she said.

“Happy mother’s day,” said the cowbird. “Can you feed me? I’m starving away here.”
“Are you sure?” asked the mother warbler. “I’m sure I just fed you. And wait, did you say-”
“Yes, it’s mother’s day. A happy one. I demand you bring me breakfast in bed. Peep peep peep oh no I’m withering away, feed me feed me feed me aaaauuuugh.”
“Alright, if you say so.”
“Sucker.”

“Happy mother’s day,” said the global community to the planet at large.
“Well, that’s nice,” said the planet. “What brought this on?”
“I need a loan.”
“Oh.”
“Just a little one though.”
“How much?”
“Everything you’ve got times like one point five, at negative interest.”
“That’s-”
“Thanks mom. See ya.”


Storytime: The Monarch

May 3rd, 2017

“Pillories.”
It was a beautiful blue sky.
“Shackles.”
Most people would give a lot to see that kind of sky.
“Thumbscrews.”
But at that particular moment, naked and bleeding on his back, in that meadow, the king would’ve given more and more besides to make it go away behind those tiny white wisps of cloud.
“Knives! Torches! Pinchers! Salt!” screamed the king, and collapsed even farther in on himself, with a thump.
One of the little white clouds detached itself from the sky and landed on the tip of his nose.
“Hello,” she said.
“Begone, my subject,” said the king. “I am suffering in silent dignity.”
“Goodness,” said the cloud. “That must be hard. Why are you doing that?”
“I am the rightful king, and I have been deposed and betrayed and backstabbed and exiled and stabbed.”
“You said stabbed twice.”
“The second time was less metaphorical than the first.” The king winced. “And now I am left to cook to death on my back in this damnedable meadow of mine. If the thirst won’t take me first.”
“This meadow is yours?”
The king glared, and if his eyes were feeble oh his brows so very much made up for that. They beetled with the fury of a full jungle topsoil. “ALL things here are mine, as I am king. This is my meadow, my grass, my boiling, awful sky, and you are my subject and MY cloud, damn you. Why you do not cloak this sun from me, I do not know. More treason, no doubt.”
“I am a butterfly, actually,” said the butterfly as politely as she could. “And I didn’t know I was yours. Is there anything I should do to help?”
The king wheezed out a grand, slow sigh.
“Pardon?”
The king’s eye twitched.
“Hello?”
The king’s pulse wobbled alarmingly, then hiccupped reluctantly back to normal.
“Oh dear.”

When the king woke up again, he sputtered. His mouth was full of soft sweetness, mixed with the tiniest granules. His face smelled like flowers.
“Don’t spit it out! Don’t spit it out! It’ll take AGES to get all that nectar back in you!”
The king swallowed, then passed out again. The next few days were like that.

“It was my sons, you see,” he told the butterfly.
“Was what?”
“Who committed the grandest of treasons, my subject. They turned upon me for an early inheritance, to take what was mine from me and divide it up amongst themselves. But I’ll warrant they’ve already fallen to their own backbiting – the first betrayal makes the second so much smoother. Swine! Filth! I’ll have them placed in a gibbet and garroted! I’ll have them scalded with branding irons, then placed in iron maidens! I’ll see them drawn and quartered in this very meadow, under this damned, burning, always-searing sky!”
“Oh that sounds very nice,” said the butterfly. “When you’ve finished drawing them, may I see the pictures?”
The king tried to explain, but as he rasped he shifted and writhed in pain. “Ah!”
“Is it the backstab? You said there was a backstab-”
“The sunburn. The sunburn. Always the damned, damned, damned sunburn,” he moaned. So he turned over – painfully – onto his stomach, showing his pale spine to the world and hiding his reddened face under his beard. And he refused to say another word but made his way to painful, prolonged sleep.
His dreams were full of whispers, a soft susurrus that didn’t come from anything as complicated as a mouth. Tiny, hairy legs brushed his ears, and he whimpered until he was gone again.

When he woke, he was covered in the lightest, airiest sheet he could’ve imagined, something between a robe and a blanket. It was pale in the morning glow.
“What is this?” he asked the butterfly.
“Spider-silk,” she told him. “Most of them are quite friendly if you’re too big for them to eat. And I’m a little too big, and you’re MUCH too big, so they were a little friendly enough to feel much too friendly. Is it nice?”
The king hadn’t felt anything so smooth since his childhood cradle. And here was where he found his problem: he couldn’t nod regally to signal his gratitude, because his head was squished into the dirt against his beard.
So he did something else, something he hadn’t done for. Well. Maybe ever.
“Thank you,” he said. And he meant it.

There were good days and bad days.
On the good days, the king stood up, and walked all the way to the tree at the edge of the meadow and back.
On the bad days the king tripped over a root at the tree and fell over on his injured back and couldn’t get back up again, or even turn himself over.
There had only been one bad day. But it had been enough.
“Are you alright?” asked the butterfly.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” said the king. “It’s nice and shady here, anyways. It’s good to have a break from the sun. Nobody should be boiled like that.” He yawned. “You know, I had people boiled once.”
“Really? What for?”
The king shrugged. “Foolishness.”
“They must have been very foolish indeed to need it boiled out of them like that.”
“Oh no, the foolishness wasn’t theirs.” The king scratched at his beard. “This is a good meadow. I feel silly to have never seen it until now.”
“But you said it was yours.”
“Oh, everything is mine,” said the king. “But most of it I hardly had any use for. A real pity. I feel like I could’ve done a lot with that. It’s all over now, though. I don’t think I can be a king anymore. No throne, no court. No crown.”
“What’s a throne?”
“A sort of seat.”
“Well, you have the tree. What’s a court?”
“A bunch of subje – of people, who help you.”
“You have us. What’s a crown?”
The king tried to left his hand to his brow, but all his arm would do was shake. “A sort of hat. It goes on your head. Goodnig” and that was the end of that conversation, as it had been so many.

When the king woke up at sunset, there was weight in his lap. Not much, but weight.
Reeds and stems, willow and weeds. Woven in silk, beaded with water, and smelling just a little like fresh pollen.
“You’re still a king now, aren’t you?” asked the butterfly.
The king smiled. “I suppose so. But still, not for much longer. Do you know, I’m seeing more than a hundred of you?”
“There ARE more than a hundred of us. How do you think we carried the crown here?”
The king was covered in little white clouds, each as delicate as a baby’s breath. He wanted to laugh, but was afraid to hurt them. Or his lungs.
“Thank you,” he told them. “Thank you all so much. But even if I was well, I think you’d be much finer monarchs than I ever was. You should keep this. I can’t wear it.”
“But we don’t have crowns, or thrones, or courts,” said the butterfly.
“Those aren’t the real things that make a king or queen,” said the king. “It’s what others think about you. And right at this moment, I am most definitely your subject. And I will show you exactly what I think.”
And the king reached up with one trembling, withered finger to his brow, and with another he tapped the tip of the butterfly’s face, and when his finger came away the butterfly had turned from the whitest of clouds to the bright strong orange of the cloudy evening sky.
“Thank you,” said the old man. And he died.

The monarchs ranged far, after that, and travelled wide and furiously.
But they remembered the little places and things wherever they roamed. And one in particular.


Storytime: Years.

April 26th, 2017

“Happy birthday,” said his mother.
“Happy birthday,” said his father.
“Happy birthday,” said his brother. “Now make a goddamned wish, I’m hungry.”
His mother bopped his brother on the head. Carefully. It was a hard head, and her hand was small.
Joshua looked at the cake in its squat, icing-crusted, soft-cored glory. But his eyes were on the candles. Little wax cylinders.
“What are they for?” he asked.
“Each of those is a year,” his mother told him. “One two three four five. You’re five!”
Five years, melted on the spot. Wax dribbling down their sides. Burning up.
“Can I have something else?”
“You don’t like cake?” his father asked. “But you asked for chocolate. Are you sure? We might have some ice cream-”
And they went on and on and eventually Joshua got some cake, even if he hadn’t managed to make himself clear.
But he remembered that, and regretted that. And when the cake was done and the day was too, he crept downstairs from his bedroom – avoiding all the proper floorboards and tiptoeing at all the right times – and made his way to the garbage can.
Five little half-melted blobs. Five years.
Safe now.
That morning, his parents found him awake early, bolt-upright in bed, staring out the windows. The candles bobbed at his side like fireflies, swirling between him and the world.

A camping trip, and home with him came the paddle and a recording of the slap of water-on-wood.
The cat died, and its grave travelled home.
A book he’d read ten times over.
A passing thought, stewed on for too long.
Term papers, thesis papers, research papers, a full Phd. defense.
Seventeen pop songs, one after another.
One more thing, one at a time, over and over. More baggage for the trek, piled on top and all around.

“I do,” he said.
“I do,” she said.
More words.
Clap clap clap
The knife moved through the cake, and into the wall. The dancing was a little awkward with it in the way, but they managed.

The dog’s first steps.
The baby’s first nap.
The broken tire from the interstate.
All swept up and carried along.

“Dad?”
“Yes?”
“There’s this girl-”
The conversation only got more embarrassing from there. And it folded in, and tied itself off, and slid into the spot set aside for it. It covered half the breakfast table.

A sore back, an x-ray.
An argument, an apology.
An entire collection of increasingly-comfortable chairs.
A broken tooth, and its cap.
Another dog.
Around and around they spun.

“I do,” she said.
“I do,” she said.
Clap clap clap. His arms were stiff by the end of it, but he was happy.
A different cake, a different cut, and another brick in the wall. He had three chairs to himself on all sides.

A new desk came in and the old one came along with him.
They moved, and the entire house followed. So did three of the trees, his favourites for years.
They went on a trip to the Caribbean and half of the sea came home on the plane. It was damp around him, but it clung tight and would not let go even as it sogged its way through years of words and scribblings.
Words aloud, too. Conversations with dead men and women. Pet names for pets, for grandchildren. Swirling eddys of half-overheard arguments from his childhood. All wrapped in tightly.

It had been a lovely birthday. The cars were lined up around the block. One of them was larger, faster, stronger, and had flashing lights on top.
“Is it not safe to move him?” asked his daughter.
The paramedic shrugged. “Well, it could be. Well, it could be not. Well, if I’m honest, it’s awful hard to tell what with that thing around him. Well. Y’know.” She scratched her elbow absently. “Well. Any drinks left?”
“You’re on duty, aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but I’m not driving.”
The bed loomed over the two of them and the whole rest of the party, monolithic in its scope. Inside, on top of the covers and under eighty-eight years, he lay. Breathing or not, hard to tell. He couldn’t see his family behind the layers of his adolescence, adulthood, and god knew what else. He couldn’t touch anything, couldn’t move his arms – pinned down under an infinite weight of accumulated past. He couldn’t even hear his own heartbeat anymore, past the lull of a thousand memories whispering.
Five candles in front of his face. Blinking out one after another, no matter how hard he squeezed. They were dripping through his fingers, running, running away from him, and he was very worried he’d be trapped there, all alone with himself.
Oh dear.
Had the way out always been that simple?
And with a slow sigh that was neither particularly happy nor sad, the high wall of years faded away and the world saw his face unobscured for the first time since childhood.


Storytime: Splashes.

April 19th, 2017

Blue sky, warm sun, white clouds and green world.
It was a good days, so I decided to spend them on the river. Just me and the boat, listening to the splash and thrum and whistle of hours and years and centuries sliding by under the keel. Shut your eyes and dangle your fingers in the millennia. A good way to spend a while.
Someone yelled. I didn’t know the language but most human languages are pretty similar. This was the sort of yell that said ‘hello.’
I opened my eyes again and looked shoreward, where there was a woman and a spear and a basket and berries and a dead lion the size of my boat, in no particular arrangement. And some flies, but they were just arriving.
“Hey, did you see that?” she said. “Wow. Bit of a close one. What’s that thing you’re in?”
“A state of temporal flux,” I said.
“No, I mean the wooden thing.”
“Oh. Woops. It’s a boat.”
“Nice trick. Hey, I’ve got a trick too. Wanna hear it?”
“Sure.”
“See that cliff over there?”
I squinted. There was a cliff over there.
“See that ledge on that cliff over there?”
I squinted harder. There was a ledge on that cliff over there.
“See that shadow underneath that ledge on that cliff over there?”
I squinted hardest. “Ow.”
“Careful. But there’s a hole in there, a hole in the rock. And I live in there, where it’s pretty dry when it rains and it’s hard for anything to sneak up on me. It’s a nice trick. And you can’t fall out of it and drown, either.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s a good trick you showed me. But I’ll stick with the boat.”
And I stuck out the oars again and left that behind me.

Just up the river someone called me again. It was basically a halloo, whatever those are.
This guy was dressed to the tens. Nines were probably hand-me-downs for his nieces and nephews. ‘Robes’ didn’t even begin to describe it. There were multiple funny hats each inside the other, like nesting dolls. Very stylish.
“Hey moron,” he was telling me, in that kindly way of the aristocrat, “didn’t you know that’s my river?”
“Woops,” I said. “My bad. Won’t do it twice.”
“No fooling. Because when you come ashore, I’m going to have my guys gut you. You have any idea whose river that is?”
“Yours?”
“And who’s yours truly?”
I thought about this. “No idea, sorry.”
“Me? I’m the big boss around here. Look at this. You ever seen a thing like this before?”
There was a muddish, squarish thing in his hands.
“Is that a brick?”
“Damned straight. It’s my own idea. And see that bluff over there? See that palace on that bluff? See what it’s made of?”
“Slow down, slow down.”
I looked, one after the other.
“Okay, yeah. I’ve got it. Go on.”
“Bricks, baby. Nothing but grade-A, one-hundred-and-ten-per-cent sun-dried, fire-hardened, mass-produced, artisanal, fabricated, calibrated, finest Brick with a B. I’m not living in no tree. I’m not hiding in no cave. I’m through with hunting, and with gathering, and with doing much beyond eating these little round grapes people bring to me. They’d peel the grapes if I asked them to, you know.”
“But the skin’s what gives it texture!”
“I know, right? Still, they’d do it. That’s what matters. Hey, you gonna come ashore so I can have my boys gut you?”
“Thanks,” I said, “but maybe later.” And I swung out the oars again and stroked for later as hard as I could.

I overshot, I did. Barely three pulls and BANG I bumped into a pier, attached to a shoreline, attached to a city. All three were concrete, steel, and a smear or three of seagull shit.
A seagull screamed at me.
“Pardon.”
It screamed louder. Never worth it with those folks.
“Hey down there,” said someone above my head.
I relocated my head and its angle, correcting the view. There was someone above me, burning a little bit of dead plant matter in their mouth.
“You’re on fire,” I warned them.
“This? No, it’s electronic. Hey, you’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope.”
“It’s the boat. It’s a little old-fashioned. Also, you’re parked where my yacht goes.”
“Oh dear.”
She shook her head. “I’ll sue you later or something. You got any idea what goes on around here? Hey, let me tell you what goes on around here: whatever you can imagine. We think of towers, bam, towers. We think of planes, bam, planes. We think of dragons with polka-dotted scrotums, bang, flash, pazow, dragons with polka-dotted scrotums.”
“I don’t see any.”
She laughed at that so hard she nearly choked. “Not here, stupid. In here, the real place, the only thing that matters.” She heaved something over her head, arms straining.
It was a glass screen with some heavy metal attached.
“Digital, kid,” she said as she put it back down. “Digital. If it’s not online it’s not real. And if it’s online, it’s obsolete.” She raised her hand high and showed me a glistening black thing like a dead beetle. “I mean, just look at this. Here, y’know what a Blackberry is? Not the fruit, the electronic, the symbiotic, the Personal Digital Assistant for your Personal Digital Age, the tool, the universal remote for your miserable dumpster fire of a dead-end life.”
“No,” I replied.
“Good,” she said, “because it’s fucking garbage ten times over.” She threw it in the river, where it sank with a sploop. “Hey kid, hey c’mere, you wanna buy an iPad? An iPod? An-”
I rowed upstream in a real hurry.

Actually, I rowed a bit too hard. Wrapped right around myself, almost got stuck in the Big Crunch. Would’ve been a real mess if I hadn’t brought a punting pole with me. As it was I got turned around for a few billion years and by the time I was headed home I was tired and hot and sweaty and in no fit state to recall exactly which way I’d come in by.
So when I went by the shore again, I was shocked to see most of it was underwater. There was nothing there but rust and grime and empty, dead streets. And the woman was sitting there next to it, staring at a seagull.
The seagull was staring at her. It was doing a better job.
“Hello?” I inquired.
“FUCK,” she shouted, and she lunged, and she missed. “DAMN. PISS. That was my dinner you stone-aged jackoff.”
“My bad.”
“No, no, you’re good. Look, at least you’ve got a boat. You know what I’ve got? Storm surges! Dust bowls! Shortages of electricity, water, food, and entertainment, and nowhere to go but down. And you scared off my dinner! Mine! You have any idea how many French fries that little shit’d taken off me? I was owed a collection!” She spat at me, then glared in fresh anger. “Hey! Gimme back that saliva! I’m dehydrated!”
“Sorry,” I said. And I booked it.

Bump! Not looking where I was going again! I’d bounced off a burning barge.
“Oh dear,” I said.
“You said it,” agreed the man with robes. These were even nicer than his last set, except for all the arrows sticking out of them.
“Oh dear,” I said.
“Yeah, twice now,” said the man with the robes. “Listen, I uh, I might need to mention this. You know what the downside of having a nice big house is?”
“Well, I’ve just got this boat.”
“I had like, ten the size of this one, and twelve bigger.”
“Nice.”
“They were! Nice! Nice and big. But you know, you know what OW jeezus the downside of all that stuff is?”
“Fill me in.”
“People start asking why they can’t have some too.”
“Valid.”
“And then you gotta have ‘em decapitated.”
“Maybe?”
“And then they get cranky and grumpy and then you get fourteen arrows through your liver.”
“Sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
“Yeah!” His eyes were brighter. “Yeah! You’re right! How ‘bout that, huh?”
And he died, so I left.

I stopped by the first shore again before I pulled in for the night. I felt like I needed closure.
“Me too,” said the first woman. “You ran off right while I was talking last time.”
“Sorry. Bad habit of mine.”
“Don’t mention it. But man, I’m glad you came back. I’ve got to talk to someone about this. See, there’s this idea I’ve had.”
“Yeah?”
“It’s called a ‘brick.’”


Storytime: Tidying.

April 12th, 2017

“It’s my fridge, you see.”
The man behind the counter looked unimpressed. It came naturally to him, but he worked hard at it anyways. He stood as a corpse.
“I uh uh I spilled some ah orange uhm juice and it went under and gosh y’know I just thought well I’d wipe it out with toileetttttttt paper and then it well it just fell apart and now I’ve got a cl, a cl, a clot of garbage wadded up under the fridge and do you – do you think you could-?”
“Here,” said the man at the counter. “Scrubby on a stick. Here. Soap for your scrubby on a stick. Here. Extra disposable scrubs for your scrubby on a stick. Pay me.”
Herb smile beamed, or at least warped. “Thank you. Thank you!”
“Pay me.”
“Oh. Uh. Right.”

The fridge was hard work, and the terrain was to its advantage but it was vanquished in the end.
Then, because there’s nothing worse than a scrubby on a stick without a target, Herb cleaned out his fridge too.
“Sparkling!” he smiled.
Then he stopped.
The counter could use a bit of a scrub.
Halfway through the counter, his eyes drifted to the cupboards.
And then, as the cupboards were behind him and his last disposable scrub was falling from bloodless fingers, his gaze fell to the stove, and turned bleak.

“I’m, uh, very sorry to just come back again and b-b-b-other you like this, but you see, well, but it’s the thing is the thing is the stove is just, just grimy, and, and…..and. And.”
Herb’s sentence trailed off into the deep woods and vanished forever.
“Boy, I could’ve warned you,” said the man at the counter. “You wanted to clean just one thing. Know what comes after one? Two.” He plunked down an ominous cylinder (spray-nozzled, with extendible hose) on the counter. “Here. Now scoot.”
Herb scooted. And ten minutes later, he sprayed. And ten minutes later, he woke up on the floor and opened all the windows immediately and then read the fine print on the spray bottle more carefully, or in fact at all.
“Wow,” he said.
He opened up the stove and looked inside. The gleam blinded him. Dark spots danced in front of his eyes.
“Wow,” he said. “Ow. Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow ow OW.”
“Ow.”
The world faded back into view. But the dark spots were still there. Dancing on the windowsill.
Herb’s brow furrowed. The rest of his face followed suit, like an accordion.

“I well I know I’m sorry to cause a fuss, a fuss you know but well I was just wondering if it was possible, not too inconvenient, if you had a moment, of your time, not too busy, uhhhhhhh-”
The man at the counter stared into the space beyond Herb’s ear. It was a familiar space to him, if an empty one, for it was all that stood between him and the building’s exit. Some days it felt so very much larger than others.
“Flies!” blurted out Herb. And then he giggled.
“Flyswatter.” Whack. “Tissues for fly gut wiping.” Whack. “Fly gut stain remover.” Whack. “Newspaper in case flyswatter is too small for the king fly.” WHACK.
“Thank you! Lots!”

“More stain remover?”
“Here.”

“Something to, well, wipe off a, wipe off a, a couch, maybe?”
“Here.”

“You know I just vacuumed and uhhhh the uhhhh floorboards could use a p, polish, and I was wondering if-”
“Here.”

The clock crawled on the wall like an insipid inbred spider, and the shelves grew emptier. And as the shelves grew emptier, Herb’s abode grew cleaner.
And as the man at the counter had noticed, Herb grew filthier. He looked like something that’d been found at the back of a septic tank, but stickier.
“SO IT’S A FUNNY THING,” he said. “BUT do you maybe have anything a bit….tidier?”
The man at the counter reached under it. Under the counter was a box. Inside the box was a small safe. Inside the safe was a featureless sphere. Inside the sphere (velvet-lined) was a tiny bottle suspended in a web of fine-linked titanium chains, each able to hold an automobile aloft indefinitely.
He threw the tiny bottle in a plastic bag and handed it to Herb.
“Here,” he said. “Dilute it in an Olympic swimming pool and go nuts.”
“Thank you thank you thank you THANK you thank YOU thanks bye.”

And the problem occurred at home, as Herb hadn’t seen the Olympics since he’d been old enough to choose his own news.
How big WAS an Olympic swimming pool anyways?
Well, it was big enough to swim in. But what did that mean, anyways? A full stroke without touching the bottom? Herb could touch the bottom in the local gym’s swimming pool when he was ten years old, even in the lap lanes. It wasn’t that important, obviously.
And when you got down to it, swimming was just kicking. And paddling. And that meant you just needed enough water to fit your arms or maybe at least one leg in. Really, when you thought about it, everyone was swimming with their lips whenever they had a drink. Wow. That was deep.
Herb blinked. “Ahahahahahahahhahaha. Pun.”

And then, with the best intentions, Herb filled the sink with half an inch of water and poured the bottle into it.

He really was remarkably clean when the team pulled him out.
And, even in a dinghy old lead-lined vault, he stayed that way for at least forty years. Didn’t even need to dust him.


Storytime: Overheard Outside the Chicago Field Museum, December 2000.

April 6th, 2017

“What is it?”
“Look in here.”
“I’m looking, mom, but I don’t see –”
“Through that window. You see?”
“Oh.”
“Yes.”
“What are they?”
“Those are your grandmother’s bones.”
A long, slow silence, broken only by the shuffle of thousands of human feet.
“They’re awfully big.”
“Things were bigger back then. We were bigger back then.”
“When? Is this about before the buildings?”
“Before that. A long, long time before that.”
“They look like rocks.”
“They are. She’s turned to stone. See how heavy she is now – once she was as light and hollow as you and me.”
A siren sounded, approached, arrived, and departed.
“Can we go for lunch? It’s almost time for the man with the br-”
“No. First you need to understand what this means.”
“I know, I know. It’s a big old-”
“That’s two important things you just said. Think about what they mean.”
“Big and old?”
“Exactly. Think about time, my son. Think about time that exists beyond your imagination, and what it does to us and the world. Think about being big, my son. Think about life that spends generations on a scale unimaginable to us; above our heads, below our notice. Think about spending aeons with flippers; claws; wings. Think about what your grandmother did, and how she lived. Look at her teeth, each half as tall as you are, and stout to boot. Look at her legs, built to run and chase. Look at her bones, and what has been done to them. There they stand, alone in splendour, held high above everything else in this place. Think about what they think of her, and tell me this now: what is the lesson that is being taught here?

The son preened himself over three times in nervous thought. His eyes darted among the great concrete skyscrapers from building to building, height to height, and despite his best efforts his conclusion became inescapable.
“Everything dies, no matter how big it is.”
“Good!” said the mother approvingly. “Very nearly correct. And?”
“I don’t know.”
“Everything dies, no matter how big it is, but as long as you look good first, it doesn’t matter. Now come on, it’s past time for the man with the bread to show up in the park.”
And in a flurry of feathers, the bones were alone again.


Storytime: When Day Goes.

March 29th, 2017

Martin was pulled out of the white cold world on the day of his fourteenth first birthday and his first second birthday.
Sound was there again, washing in from above. Shadows and hands and darkened gloves. They’d seen his ski-pole, thrust up from the white into the who-knows-where, and they pulled him loose of the snow and took him away.
They asked him where Louis was.
“Louis?” he asked. And that was their answer, in the soft little whine of air that was all the noise he could raise.
A thought came to him, as he watched the hills roll away below the helicopter. It was why Louis had been there. It was why he had been there.
“It’s my birthday soon,” he whispered to them. And then he learned he was wrong. He’d been under the avalanche for five days.
So Martin was given a little piece of cake and ice cream in his hospital bed, once it was determined it wouldn’t upset his stomach or heart or liver or kidneys or brain or mind.
He didn’t eat it. He was busy watching. Watching the new red world around him. It was crawling into his arm from the IV stand; it was pumping through the halls, it was frozen and locked away downstairs, it was spurting, oozing, clotting, pooling, every minute every moment.
It was like seeing traffic for the first time.
Then he made up his mind, and put the cake and ice cream in the garbage, without spilling a drop.
In the black when the day had gone, he saw Louis again. Louis’s neck was bent. And his eyes were frozen. And he wouldn’t go away.
But Martin could turn away, and he did so.

The scalpel was very light. Its edge was very fine. There was almost no blood, and the little that appeared seemed too surprised to flow properly.
But Martin had the clamps ready anyways, and before anything could happen, it didn’t.
In, in, in. Find the problem. Find the issue. Find the incision. And quick and clean it was gone, in a sing of the blade.
Then came the stitches, inevitably and tediously. And when Martin was done he breathed again, and tied the last knot, without spilling a drop.
He knew he was a surgeon now. Everything after this was formality. It was inside the eyes and minds of the others around him, no matter what the papers and files could speak of.
He was a surgeon. He was the perfect cutter, the relentless hand of excisions. And it was not enough, but it was right, or at least closer to right than wrong.
He still saw Louis, in the space left when the day goes and the emptiness fills up with dark. But he still turned, and he still breathed, and it came again.

The old woman was very small in her coffin.
Death shrinks people, it’s true. But Martin found to his surprise that she’d been that size inside his head for years. A bare mouthful in a wooden maw, lost in the dress.
It made his fingers itch and his teeth ache. He looked out the window and thought until his eyes ran red over the green spring lawn. Grass cropped low by a mechanical chewing, every Thursday. A waste of food.
A friend was telling him respects. His mother’s friend, of course, not his. He didn’t need friends; he had colleagues.
“Thank you,” he said.
“What will you do now?”
Martin thought about green and red and the turning of one to the other.
“Feed the poor,” he said.

Wheat. Greens. Potatoes. All as massed as massed could be, accumulated under fields far and wide by his will and his word and his whim. Ordered and moved. Hectares and miles and millimetres churned and toiled at a command.
The beef was the hard part. It warranted a personal touch.
But not too personal. Martin had people for that.
The sun was so hot it ached, but the herd still shied from his eyes. Heads tossed, eyes rolled. No bawling, though. It was too warm to breathe deeply enough.
Martin patted the side of the animal gently. It vibrated in the hands of his employees, and he felt the flush spread under his palms, damp and thick.
“So, what do you think?” asked the rancher.
The field was more brown than grey. The stream was a trampled puddle. The air was thick and used.
“It’s going perfectly,” said Martin.
And the other end was even better. A scalpel the size of a stadium complex, fueled by arms that never slept while current flowed.
And vats and ponds and puddles and slurries, for disposing of the excess, with no speck wasted, no drop spilled. Shining red.
He shivered in the red world, under the heat.

The ribbon-cutting of the first restaurant had kept the morning fresh.
The final touch-ups on the last leg of the initial marketing campaign had made the afternoon pass swiftly.
But now was what he’d been waiting for.
He put down the folder of perfect pictures of perfect hamburgers from perfect angles onto the Desk. It was most definitely a Desk, deserving of capitalization by dint of capitalisation.
The sun was coming down. The world was red. The day was going. It was time again, for the first time.
Martin stood up and walked the two paces from his Desk to his window. He looked out over the world and knew how much of it was his and how much of what it was done was for him, somewhere under his bones.
He remembered Louis and his frozen face and his bent neck and the terrible hunger and the white cold world and the terrible hunger and the trembling of his teeth and the terrible hunger and the terrible, terrible, endless hunger.

And he opened up his long, lipless jaws into the red light and tipped back his head and he swallowed the thousands of cattle and the millions of acres and the steaming fields and the roaring factories
Without. Spilling. A. Drop.


Storytime: Shh.

March 22nd, 2017

By the time your eyes cross this page, my dearest Helen, I pray that I shall be dead. If not, worse will have come to pass.
I know you must feel betrayed even as you open this letter – had I not told you that I was going for a mere afternoon saunter, to aid in my (delicate, owing to a family history of nervous disposition and artistic temperament) digestion? But damn my wandering feet – yes, damn them, even unto their very soles! – they led me astray from the sunny thoroughfares of our fair little town of Millford and through doors unknown to me. While my mind was pleasantly preoccupied by the question of biscuits or jams for tea-time, my foul legs were plying their treacherous work, driving me blind and heedless into uncertain paths.
But at last the deception could be hidden no longer: I walked into a post. And with that sharp, vicious slap to my sinuses and the stabbing pain of shattering cartilage, I cast about with wild glances and found myself a stranger amidst strangers.
And such strangers! A stooped, haggered crone of degenerate heritage leered at me from behind an alien desk of pale and shining complexion; a quarrel of noisome little urchin youth gabbered away in their strange jabbering tongue; an aged and rotted man with few teeth and a stained beard.
And all of them ignoring me, immersed in their books. And they were not spoilt for choice, Helen, for this was a true archive: a collection to rival that of Alexandria before the torch. Great steely shelves towered above out of my sight, stacked with manuscripts whose covers boasted lurid covers that only tempted one to speculate upon the depravities within.
“Are you lost, dear?” inquired the crone. My heart in my mouth, I retained what little strength of wit of which I could be sure of and managed a sharp jerk of the head. Simultaneously my groping hand found a bannister, and I fled up it, praying to the very feet whose treachery I had so recently cursed to spare me from this foul place.
Above was quieter, untroubled by the murmuring yammer of the hordes below. But it was no comforting hush, Helen: this was a sound I had heard before only in my boyhood illness, in the deathly-still wing of the hospital past the witching hour. It was the silence of an open grave, and in its thickness the walls grew ever higher.
Here is where my pen nigh-fails me, my dearest love, for it is here that I must admit the greatest stupidity that could be committed under the circumstances: alone, fearful, and bereft of companionship, I thought to myself that reading might be my solace, and I plucked a tome from the nearest – and lowest – of those cyclopean shelves. May I be forgiven for such hubris!

Helen, if your innate smallness and feebleness of spirit threatens to overcome you, I must warn you now: TURN AWAY! For the truths I must speak – and damn them, they ARE truths! – will utterly destroy, annihilate, and mangle any who stumble upon them unprepared. I would have never read them, but having done so, I find they must be expressed, as if they were a terrible venom lurking within my mind.
The first tome alone was more than I could believe. Within the slim pages of this volume, a ghastly series of images was prepared. They began innocuously enough – with a fish, of all things, a humble dinner-companion! – but lo! and horror, the very next page illustrated the beast crawling forth from the water to stand upon legs! My mouth dropped open, but my fingers turned even as they shook, and I saw the un-fish rendered swift and predaceous, possessed of a great shock of teeth and fierce will to boot! Hair sprouted from its pores, its forelimbs mangled, and its gait became bipedal until, at the very last page, the fish had become a man!!!
A fit of wildness overcame me, and when I was next lucid I was fetched against a wall, back aching; in my horror I had stumbled. The book was gone, but by chance – BLACK-HEARTED BITCH – another had toppled from the shelves and landed in my lap.
I opened it. Damn me for that. Perhaps I had thought that all the world’s lunacy had enveloped me, and that this would be soothing balm to a fevered brain.

The spheres. I swear on my grandmother’s grave, Helen, it spoke of the heavenly spheres. It shewed their orbits across the skies, it described their features and properties as vividly as I might my own back yard! It revealed those too far-removed for the most powerful of hand-held telescopes, it treated them as friends! And the numbers… god, no, no, no, there was no god in those pages, Helen, only numbers, ABOMINABLE numbers, figures of such size and scope as to render our dear Earth and all its inhabitants into utter nothingness in the teeth of a screaming void whose scope was immeasurable for it encompassed ALL WORTH MEASURING!!! The universe was empty, and we and all that we knew did not dignify notice even as a speck amidst specks – for the sum totally of all those specks was rounded to oblivion itself!

When I next knew the breath of life again, my watch and the daylight creeping through the unnaturally-formed windows of that dreadful place told me that some time had passed. How long had I been overcome? Who knew. My only thoughts now were of flight and home and bed and your arms, dear Helen, that might persuade me that all I had seen was but a fancy of a monstrous figment. Far better that my mind might harbor such deviant illusions than that they be reality itself.
Reality asserted itself heartlessly. Across my lap the book’s cold weight lay, as if a dead thing. My skin crawled, and – more’s to the pity – mine eyes did too. It was not the book I had perused. It was another.
Rocks. It was a book on stones.
I collected rocks as a child, Helen. It was a virtuous, nourishing habit that bolstered my frail frame and increased my health greatly. I loved nothing more than a nice amble to a lovely outcrop. But now those childhood memories led me into my final blasphemy, for it was in the coddles of their kindness that I stupidly made my final error and turned the page.
Have you any inkling, I wonder, of the horror that is time? Of the repellant nature of the second, the vileness of the minute, and the inutterable THING that is a millennium?
What of a million of them?
What of a million of THEM?
Time, time, time. The world was drowned in it, rotted and pustulent – it sores were bones gone to rock, its tumours the black lumps of oil and coal. Millions, Helen. Billions. Never speak those numbers again, and never let another say them to you. The ancient pharaohs were clamouring youths among the mammalia; the mammalia upstart peasants against the arthropods; the very existence of life grander than a cell a novelty, and life itself but a breath, a faint squeak, at the coldest and farthest edge of the mindlessly vast blade of the clock that measured the universe.

At this I screamed and vomited for a time. When I woke once more, I was writing. Writing this.

Only one thing remains left of my own will as I finish this revolting letter, Helen. Besides sharing my insanity with you, I must forwarn you of it. As I sat, pen in hand, my gaze hunted restlessly for some means, some beacon, some sign of which to warn you away from this place, lest its horrors infest all of mankind’s thoughts as mine had. And god help me, right above my very skull, on a foully obsequious and tidy plaque, I found it.
I slumped in my feet, my scream ate itself in my mouth. The unspeakable, inutterable, madness-ridden truth was revealed in the emblazoned placard:

MILLFORD LIBRARY
CHILDREN’S NONFICTION