Storytime: Peak Populace.

February 21st, 2018

The origins of Risbit are shrouded in history’s thickest fog. It’s unknown if they were from the Rockilees or the Hollow; if they served Immish or Talgo; or even if they were male or female. Nonetheless, the legend has a straightforward shape.

One day, Risbit was hunting prongnose on the middle heights, far above what passed for the highest villages of the time. The Peak was thinly settled, but the prey had already learned what to expect from the bipeds with pointy bits in their hands and glints in their eyes, and was predisposed to nervous flight.
It went down from blood lose somewhere up the Trundledowns. Uneven terrain, but clearly above their houses. From there they could see every twinkle of light, every flicker of movement, almost close enough to touch.
It made the knowledge of the five-mile downhill stomp with whatever bits of a five-hundred-pound piece of meat they could rip off even more depressing.
And then Risbit spoke The Words. And, as The Words were so very wise and important, they are known with a precision that no other detail of this story can be sure of. Much else fades, but they remain, seared from brain into the stone of the Peak itself.
Risbit spoke The Words, and The Words were: “Why don’t we just roll it down there?”

Ten minutes later the slightly battered corpse of the prongnose slid off a last slope and pinwheeled into Risbit’s house, denting the wall. It is for this reason that the Peakward face of all houses constructed to this day contains a slight indentation.

There were consequences beyond the dreams of any.
First, there was now incentive for hunters to walk the higher slopes. Now that they knew of The Words, there was no true problem with killing a fat beast far from home. As long as the distance was vertical, it was, for all intents and purposes, insignificant.
Second, there was an innovative explosion in packaging, along with an exploration of material properties. The right kind of padding in the right place could keep a prongnose or bulkhead from exploding – or losing limbs – for an extra half-mile. Once the foragers got interested, baskets were designed that could safely deliver first sturdy tubers, then delicate berries – and weighted just so, so that their momentum was sustained until they reached home.
Third, Risbit was titled ‘the Poly’ by the general acclaim and agreement of their peers.

Some centuries later, after Risbit the Poly was safely buried, their home village became embroiled in a dispute. It seemed that another, younger clan had built their own village directly Peakward of the pre-existing settlement, and the manner in which this blocked off the necessary access to rolling resources was deeply resented. The accused maintained they had done nothing wrong, and in fact that the deeply Flatward positioning of the prosecution gave them unfair title to an unnecessarily large strip of the Peak. This was disputed with sharp objects, and a bloody battle ensued until the smaller, Peakward village, on the verge of defeat, heaved a large boulder down on a shale scree and triggered a very sharp and sudden avalanche.
To this day, the exact location of Risbit the Poly’s tomb and village is unknown.

So, another factor came into settlement. The lower the village, the more Peakward slope it could lay claim to for transport. But the higher the village, the less likely it would be that some upstart rival would claim its Peakward land and threaten its Flatward neighbour with burial by rock. War went from vanishing scarce to a constant threat; every person kept an eye on higher ground and slept with their shoes on. In vocabulary, ‘Peakward gaze’ went from referring to clear-headed planning to creeping paranoia.
At length, the fate of the Peak in general came to rest in the uppermost of its denizens: a council of four headsfolk whose settlements were placed so highly as to be unassailable by rolling, yet deathly impoverished – all of their foraging had to be done downslope, and hand-toted back. Above them was only a little cap of summer frost. As none of them could hurt the other, they talked as equals without fear for the first time in several generations, largely to complain about their problems.
It must’ve been then that some had the idea of extortion, which wafted around like a bad smell until – as many bad smells do –everyone grew accustomed to it and decided it wasn’t so bad. If the Four on the Peak couldn’t roll their own resources, they could profit handsomely from the rollings of their Flatward tributaries. Larger, more prosperous villages were forced to yoke their bounty and drag it upslope by rope (later chain) and by hand. It is believed this wearying vassalage led directly to the domestication of the stupid-but-tractable bulkhead, which spent a lot of its time wandering up and down the Peak anyways and didn’t mind carrying an extra quarter-ton or so of food and supplies as it did so.

For some time the Four on the Peak prospered. Unassailable from below, unrivaled above, at last the most obvious problem reared its head: what to do about those beside you. It was such an obvious thought that all four of them had and executed it at about the same time, leading to a mathematically unlikely quadruple ring ambush. So great and obvious was the hubbub and confusion at the summit that several of the larger, bolder Flatward vassals armed themselves and stole up to the heights. Hardened and embittered, they overpowered the weakened and reduced forces of the Four, although several emergency avalanches were deployed before defeat was obvious. The villages of the Four on the Peak were razed and their supplies of deadly boulders and shales depleted by the expedient measure of dropping them down empty slopes.

A time of relative peace blossomed. The Peak’s heights were now depopulated, and the strategic benefits of their position were now known and defended against. Walls were sculpted around settlements to both ensnare rolling goods along specific paths and (in wary preparation) to deflect barrages from above. In truth there were now few enemies from within; the shared suffering inflicted by the Four had forged a small bond of commonality. Rather than competing for rollzones, most codified and elaborated upon their own pre-set roll-routes.
This mutual pacifism was well-timed, for it was not longer after this that those strangers, the Flat, came to the Peak. They had interesting and exotic goods and metal weaponry. The first they bargained with, the second they threatened with, and if the Peakers hadn’t been wary from the get-go things might have ended very badly – conquered first from above, then below. As it was many of the most Flatward settlements were razed, but the newcomers didn’t know of The Words, and thus were wiped out in vast numbers when they sought to climb higher Peakward into the waiting stone rain.
The Peak solidified in friendship at this defeat of a common, alien foe, and the proto-Peak Republic was formed in the loosest sense of the term.

What followed was not unimportant, but was devoid of dramatic shifts. The Peak Republic solidified. The roll-routes were formalized into the rollways, which were deep, broad, and required the relocation of much of the Peak’s good stone into their surfaces. Agriculture – practiced initially at the behest of the Four on the Peak for greater tribute – was refined. The prongnose went extinct. Erosion became a concern, and sculpting of the slope beyond its use for rolling became more common.
This was referred to as the Combing.

The Peak Republic fell in the end not to infighting among peers, but friendship between strangers. Numerous kinds of Flat came to trade at the bottom of the Peak, and in time some of the Flatwardmost settlements came to enjoy a nigh-monopoly on exotic goods and luxuries, from which they profited handsomely. Jealousy grew in those consigned to the Peakward heights (who paid the greatest sums for the smallest tastes of these indulgences) and in the end quarrels grew into denunciations grew into embargoes grew into incitement grew into deliberate disruptions of the rollways. Shielded well from stone, the protecting Peakward walls of the Flatward settlements were not proof from stink and sickness – the Peakward settlements beset them with rotting and diseased carcasses and sewage, choking their fields, forage, and rollways with murderous bacteria. In the end every settlement Flatward of the Rockilees was emptied, either driven into the arms of their Flat allies and friends or eradicated by plague.
This was the second great redistribution of the Peak’s population. Now both the extreme heights and the farthest lows were relatively devoid of habitation. The Peak was girdled with life, and by history, inclination, custom and practicality, this range did not change greatly from that point onwards.

At some point, something had to be done about the trees.
Wood wasn’t what you built a house out of in most of the Peak, but it was needed for an awful lot of tools and smaller-scale projects. The Peak had been forested thick to the treeline in the old days, but toward the mid-life of the Peak Republic that coverage had been thinned thoroughly. Now, with the concentration of population in the Peak’s midsection, competition for timber began to grow. Each settlement also now needed more cropland – Peakward, preferably.
Nobody was above them. Nobody could sneak up on them from below.
So, once again, precautions grew into paranoia. War against one of your neighbours risked an ambush from your other, so it was safest to fortify and content yourself with sabotage and mending the effects of the sabotage of your rivals.
There was plenty to mend. But it was a lot harder than the sabotage, so nobody ever put quite as much effort into it.

At length, a problem emerged. The rollways were wearing awfully deep, and some of the oldest and most-used were collapsing inwards. Alternate routes were found, but they were less stable to begin with (being in less preferable terrain).
There were several summits. During the course of these, it was determined that
(1) rollways were necessary for a Peak life. Existence without The Words was, fundamentally, not thinkable.
(2) without noticing, it appeared that a point had been reached in rollways were no longer sustainable at the scale necessary to sustain Peak society.
(3) the individuated benefits of ceasing to crumble the Peak with rollways were basically non-existent and if any given Peak settlement did so its neighbours would simple take its belongings.
So, having determined that they couldn’t possibly fix anything, the people of the Peak resigned themselves to merely enlarging and refurbishing the rollways as much as possible as fast as possible.

Some time later, Flats came to the Peak again. Not as conquerors, not as traders. There wasn’t much anymore to conqueror or trade with, so they had to settle for being explorers, and complained a good deal about their lack of fortune. Nothing but crumbled, buckled rocks, ruts, bumps, and dirt – very poor dirt at that.
“This is the ugliest hill I’ve ever seen,” decreed Abideel Gutchen, and those words were written in her journal and remain true to this day, centuries later.
Mind you, the years have taken their toll on the Peak since her day.
It was probably a whole sixty foot high when she saw it.

Storytime: Questing.

February 14th, 2018

Sleeping people, somewhere.
One less, now. But pretending.
Still pretending.
Ow that was the ribs never mind, up they go.
“About time! I’ve been poking you for hours and ages and forevers.”
“Why. I’m tired.”
“You’re always tired. You can be tired later. I have something very important to do! I am a hero, and a hero needs a story, and a story needs an adventure!”
“And I need you to come with me for it.”
“I’ve got things that need lugging. Luggage. You can be the luggee. The lugger, even.”
“Those sound like bad things to be.”
“You can be the luggage then, come on, come on. Time’s a-wastin’.”
Luggage would have protested, but The Hero had a maniacal endurance that wore away mere discomfort like a waterfall ate cheese, and soon he was prodded upright, packed with supplies, and placed on the trail.
“It’s important we sing as we walk,” said The Hero, “to show our fighting spirit. Also, to bid our loved ones farewell in case we all succumb on this desperate journey.”
Luggage waved at his friends and family. They waved back.
“Not good enough. Do re mi fa so la get going.”
Luggage didn’t know the words. That was okay – he could hum, and The Hero didn’t seem to know the words either. Or the tune. And sometimes when the path went rough the lyrics dipped into swears.
It was a good song, though.

By afternoon they ran out of trail.
“We’re leaving the Lands We Knew,” said The Hero. “That’s important. Here’s where the adventure kicks in. Keep your eyes open.”
“What’s the adventure, anyways?” asked Luggage. His feet hurt. They’d packed on the side of better-safe-than-sorry, which was making his spine extremely sorry.
“We’re going to find a ravening monster.”
“That sounds very dangerous.”
“Of course! And then we’ll risk our life and limbs to kill it!”
“That sounds even more dangerous. Why?”
“Because it’s a ravening monster. It needs to be stopped for the good of us all.”
“If it’s this far out it’ll get pretty tuckered trying to raven at us. Are you sure you can’t carry some of this?”
“I need both hands free for my weapon. Anything can happen right about…!”
And The Hero put his foot off the beaten trail.
Four hours and a lot of dirt, branches, twigs and leaves went by and ended at a camp, with a small fire and some foods. The Hero stood ramrod stiff next to the blaze, weapon in his hands, eyes darting.
“It’s not quite dark yet. We can see for a little ways. Would you like some?”
“Constant vigilance,” said The Hero. “I can hear something out there. We’re not alone.”
“You want first watch then?”
“I’ll stay up all night if I have to. They’ll seize any moment of weakness.”
“That’s yes?”
“There – there! You see that?”
Luggage hadn’t. Then it happened again.
“There….right ahead.”
“Yes. That’s a bat.”
The Hero shushed him and slowly and menacingly raised his weapon, eyes narrowed and face scrunched in devastating power.
Luggage went to bed. When he woke up, nothing had changed.

They didn’t sing on the second day. The Hero said it was because nobody was there to listen, so it didn’t matter. That and The Hero was extremely tired and kept tripping on things and yawning.
“Too many… Jagged rocks. Around here, that is,” he mumbled angrily. “This is….un’atral. Must be a draaaaaa—aagon. Mmph. Around here. That is.”
“We’re hunting a dragon? That’s pretty dangerous. Why are we doing this?”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!” said The Hero. “You’re loud.”
Then it started raining.

The second night was a lot quiet and simpler. No bats. No campfire. No watch, even, because The Hero demanded first watch again and fell asleep before waking up Luggage.
Just the trickle and hiss of soft, insistent rain against the river.
Breakfast was leftovers from the attempt at dinner. It was mostly enough, and it was mostly crumbs. It took a lot of concentration to eat, and so when The Hero grabbed Luggage’s arm and pointed, bug-eyed, most of Luggage’s attention was diverted to rescuing his next mouthful.
Luggage looked.
There, farther down the riverbank, lay a thing of scales and hide and teeth, mouth wide open against the dawn, embedded amidst the reeds and dirt and snoring just a little bit.
“Is that it?”
“That’s it.”
“Are you sure it’s it? It looks like a crocodile.”
“An alligator. But it doesn’t matter.”
“Are you sure it’s an alligator? Its snout looks a little narrow.”
“That doesn’t MATTER. Listen, this is all very metaphorical now. It’s both an alligator-”
“A croco-”
“-AND a dragon. We’re making things realer than real here. What’d we have for breakfast last week? You remember?”
“But it was real, right? What was that story your aunt told us last fall when we wanted to go nutpicking after dark?”
“You mean the one about the headless ghost with teeth the size of –”
“Exactly my point. Thank you. So! It’s an alligator. It’s a dragon. I’m a hero. These are all the things that matter right now, and so I say: this is it.”
The window bustled in a low-key sort of way.
“This is it,” said The Hero.
“This is it, I guess, okay,” agreed Luggage. “So, do you want me to distract it from the front, and you come up and –”
“No!” said The Hero, passionately. “I don’t want you hurt! This is my fight! My fight, using my rules, and for my reasons! A hero doesn’t risk other’s lives like that! I’ve got to do this selflessly, purely, and profoundly! You can sit behind this rock and worry about me.”
“Well, I’m very good at that,” said Luggage. “Alright. But please, be careful. And you still haven’t told me why we’re doing this!”
“It’ll all become clear,” said The Hero. “It’s all something meaningful. A Hero makes a story, Luggage, and stories always make sense. We’re at the denouement. The dragon is in our sights. All is to be revealed. If I die, remember the story. You ready?”
“I’m ready.”
“Get ready…get set….don’t do anything!”
And The Hero charged.

Forty feet of empty shore lay ‘twixt monster and man. It was mostly mud, and deeper than it looked. The Hero’s charge foundered, but his weight sustained it, and he ploughed through marshy grass and slopping sludge with weapon held firm. His battle cry DID taper a bit, but he needed his breath for bigger things.
The crocod – the alligator, the monster – turned its head a bit. Its mouth was still open, but it didn’t really move much, right up until the point where The Hero took a flying leap and landed right on top of it.
For a single, shining moment The Hero’s arm and weapon were framed against what would’ve been the sky if there hadn’t been trees there. Instead they just sort of stood out against the leaves. A bit.
Then it came down, quick as lightning. THUNK.
The monster grunted – more of a snort, really a puff of air if anything – and went limp.
Luggage realized in the sudden silence that he’d been holding his breath. Also, clenching his toes. He could hear the twitch of his tendons as they relaxed.
NOW came the roar, erupting from the chest of a human rather than the beast. Huge and great and guttural with emotion and joy over a death evaded, a death embraced, came the call of The Hero, the climax of the saga.
“HOLY SHIT,” he yelled at the world as he leapt to his feet, arms wide, mouth agape. “LOOK HOW BIG MY DICK IS!”
And the alligator spun about, grabbed him by the pelvis, and pulled him under.

Luggage ran over to the water. He thought about doing something, but it was as thick and clear as mud on a warm morning. All he could see was six no three no one not one ripple. Smooth as a weed-clotted plate.
So instead Luggage picked up the leftovers of breakfast and put them in his stomach for safekeeping, and he walked home.
The bats didn’t bother him.
The rain didn’t bother him.
The rocks didn’t bother him.
The night didn’t bother him.
His feet were a bit sore by the time he got home, all alone, and with the most attention he’d ever seen.
“Where’d you go?”
“What happened?”
“Where’s your friend?”
“What happened?”
“Did anything happen?”
“Something happened.”
“Tell us what happened.”
“Yes, tell us a story about what happened. Tell us a story.”
“Tell us a story.”
Luggage thought of all the things he’d been told to remember and they all clotted in his mouth and the words he couldn’t imagine jumped out of him instead.
“An allegory ate him.”

And they had to be as happy as they could be with that, because that WAS that.

Storytime: I Spy.

February 7th, 2018

“Look at the light.”
“Look to the right.”
“Look to the left.”
“Look to the ceiling.”
“Look at the floor.”
“Now look straight ahead and read the letters until you can’t see them.”
I squinted.
I squinted harder. Oh, there it was.
“I’m sorry?”
“Splon. The last letter on the chart is splon. I almost couldn’t see it.”
“There’s no splon there.”
“Yes there is. It just took me a moment. I didn’t expect it.”
“There’s no such thing as splon.”
“Look at the chart.”
“I can’t see a splon.”
“Well, then talk to the manufacturer. Because there it is. Fairly clear, too, now that I know it’s there. Splon.”
“Wait here.”
I waited here. Some time and more here later, along came the optometrist again, this time with a relaxed woman in a suit.
“Hey,” said the woman. She was so relaxed her eyelids were barely open. “Do me a favour. Open your mouth and say om.”
“No. Om.”
“Hah! Thought so. He’s got third eye. See? Right in the middle of his forehead.”
The optometrist squinted. “I don’t see it.”
“Exactly. Right, come into the room next door. We’re going to run a few more tests. It’s not a common condition.”

“Breathe in, breathe out, visualize yourself, yadda yadda. Okay, you meditating?”
“I guess.”
“Good. Now meditate at the light.”
“Shh! Meditate to the right. Now the left. Meditate waaay up high at the ceiling. Now meditate at the floor – down, down, a little more – there! Now meditate and look at what I’m holding in my hand.”
“It’s hard and black and cold and stained with the guilt of failing to clean the coffeepot before you left home this morning.”
“It’s the fifth time you’ve done that this month. You’re sorry but you don’t know how to make it better. It’s all your fault. You’re the worst.”
“Weird. That’s not normal third-eye behaviour. I figured you were going to see this die in my hand and tell me what number it came up from. Wait here a second.”
I waited a second. When the woman in the suit came back, it was with a man in a bathrobe.
“Huh,” he grunted. “Bend over.”
I bent over.
“What do you see?”
“A wasted life. A hollow existence. A failed marriage. Three resentful children that will not come to your funeral.”
“Yep. Sounds about right. Classic fourth eye. It’s lodged up your backside, and you’re seeing the backside of all humans with it. Ah well, whatcha gonna do.”
“Is there a cure?”
“Hell no. Why would there be? We’ve all got something like it, yours is just abnormally acute. Now, bend over and look at this picture.”
“Hollow longing for immortality, a desperate anxiety to make a mark.”
“You betcha. Now look ahead. Now look left. Right. Up. Down. Ahead. Now, concentrate as hard as you can on what’s in my pocket.”
“It’s fuzzy. And impossible to get ahold of.”
“You kidding? It’s my alimony cheque. They stick like glue.”
“It’s a cheque? I can’t see a cheque. Just an uncertain mass of…stuff.”
“Huh. Hold on a tick.”
The man in the bathrobe left. When he came back, it was in the company of a woman in a coat and a full-sized scanning electron microscope.
“Hello,” said the woman in the coat. “Do me a favour and tell me what this machine is looking at, without checking the display.”
I had to squint pretty hard. “I can’t tell, sorry. All I can see are stringy bits.”
“Well shit,” she said. “Looks like you’re sub-sub-sub-atomic. Or something. Hell if I can tell. Any alternate universes down there?”
“Let me look.”
I looked.
I looked REAL hard.
And when I was done looking, I looked around some more and found I was all alone in the room and they’d tied me down pretty good.
There’s an argument outside the door. Pretty energetic. Not sure what’s going to happen when it’s over. There’s ethical quandaries, and political ponderings, and some sort of abstract angles.
If I’d looked ahead a little bit harder, I bet could’ve seen this coming.
Oh well. My hindsight’s always been 20/20.

Storytime: The Last Supper.

January 31st, 2018

The nest wasn’t much. A clump of down and some pebbles, crammed in the crutch of what must’ve been a nice tree a hundred years ago, and had probably had leaves up until the last decade.
No twigs. Hadn’t been any twigs for ages.
Still, a nest was a nest, and that’s why its occupant slammed beak-first into Alistair’s eyeball, popping it like an overripe grape.
“Fuck!” said Alistair. And he fell over backwards, nest in hand, grasping, flailing, wailing, and he bumped down ten feet head over heels and somehow missed landing on his neck, which was quite a feat.
“Fuck,” concluded Alistair. His eye throbbed. His back ached. The wad of feathers and tiny frail broken things that had been a bird was mashed against his collarbone, and that hurt too. “Fuck.”

The bunker wasn’t much either. Concrete, steel, earthworks. And a lot of forethought and hope. It had been camouflaged at one point, back when that might’ve served a purpose. Time had scraped that smug look off its face.
Inside was a light, surly and shrunken in the face of the incoming dawn. It was a big day. They could afford to use the last matches.
At the light was a fire, and beside the fire was Barbara, and under Barbara was a chair, which was placed at a table, which was covered in objects.
“This is way too complicated,” said Alistair.
“Tell me about it,” she said. “Hey, what’s up with your eye?”
“Bird,” said Alistair.
Barbara raised an eyebrow.
“A fucking bird,” corrected Alistair. “But I got the eggs. One of them. It’s a little cracked. But it’s an egg.”
“Oh that’s nice. Should we boil it or fry it?”
“I thought you said you’d scramble it.”
“You need milk for that, properly.”
“You need water to boil it.”
“Well, that’s for the drinks. We’d better fry it.”
“We need butter for that.”
“Maybe if we boil it with the bad water and get rid of the shell?”
“That sounds dangerous. Oh well.”
The bad water took a while to boil, thick and truculent as it was. Alistair poured the good water into the two glasses. Barbara rooted through the metal box that had been a refrigerator when it had power, and a coldbox when it had insulation, and was now basically a cupboard with odd smells and creaks.
“Where’d you put the rat?”
“I minced it up and put it in the old butter container.”
“The becel?”
“That’s margarine. I put it in the old BUTTER container.”
“Margarine’s basically butter.”
“No it isn’t. Vegetable oils. Very different.”
“Tasted the same.”
“No it didn’t.”
“Oh yeah? Prove it.”
The argument ended there. Most of them did. Barbara found the minced rat inside an old tuna tin.

They sat down. The plates were ready. The dishes were ready. The water was still clear, untouched by the faint haze of the air.
Forks up. Dish uncovered.
“Oh lovely,” said Barbara. “Where’d you find them?”
“Under an old shed. Must’ve been used to store fertilizer and seed.”
“Is it crabweed? Looks like crabweed.”
“I don’t know. What’s crabweed look like?”
“I’m not sure. My mother used to call anything that she didn’t want in her garden crabweed.”
“Huh.” Barbara put some of it in her mouth and chewed. “Tastes like crab.”
“Huh. Really?”
“No, I’m fooling you. It tastes like weeds.”
And it did.
“What’s the dressing?”
“What kind?”
“I squeezed whatever I saw lying around.”
“Oh. What’re the little gritty black flakes?”
“What little gritty black flakes? I can’t see with this eye.”
“They’re little. And gritty.”
“Well –”
“Oh, and they’re black. Almost forgot.”
“Could be anything. Maybe they were part of the crabweeds.”

Salad was finished. The plates were flipped over, for cleanliness’s sake.
“Minced rat. What’d you do to it?” asked Alistair.
“I browned it over the lamp. Then I seared it over the lamp. Then I fricasseed it over the lamp. Then I sautéed it over the lamp. Then I roasted it over the lamp. Then I pan-fried it over the lamp. When I couldn’t see any more red bits I figured it was done. Deglazed the pan with water to produce the sauce.”
“So it’s a sort of rat sausage, is it?”
“Those are stuffed into the intestines. The intestines are part of this. I think it’s more of a haggis, maybe. Maybe?”
“That needs oats. And it uses sheep.”
“Salads don’t use crabweeds. Beggars can’t be choosers. There’s not many more fish in the sea.”
“None at all, I think. Couldn’t find one last week. Just jellies.”
“Not bad for rat though, is it? At all, I mean.”
“I’ve had better rats. But this is the best rat I’ve had since I haven’t seen any in months.”

Finally, the main course. The egg. Pale, off-white-blue. Creased and folded even before it cracked. Twisted on both sides. With the sludge of the bad water wiped away.
Inside, it was deep brown.
“Is that normal?” asked Alistair.
“I can’t remember,” mused Barbara. “Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever had an egg that looked like this before. What kind of bird was it?”
“Here it is,” said Alistair. He peeled the bird out of his collarbone and held it up for inspection.
“Flatbird. Not very informative. Could be a redwing blackbird no no those aren’t wings, that’s its insides. Nasty.”
“Good egg, though.”
“Yes. Surprisingly sweet.”

The daytime fog was coming in, thick and rancid-hot.
“Dessert?” said Alistair, raising his glass.
“Dessert,” confirmed Barbara.
“Have you got your pill?”
“Always do, for twenty years.”
“Well then. Bottoms up.”
“Here’s to the future.”
Gulp. Chug. Chug. Clink.

Storytime: Burgin’.

January 24th, 2018

At the chime of the town clock – helpfully provided by an earnest youth with a big mallet – they gathered for Sunday council, the aldermen and the mayor.
“I have an important announcement,” said the mayor. “I’m about to bite it.”
“Oh nooooo,” said the aldermen.
“Oh yeah,” said the mayor. “I’m going to bite it big time. It’s been a good life, or I think so, but it’s almost over. I’ll croak before the week is out.”
“Oh nooooooooooooooooooooooooo,” said the aldermen.
“I have just one, tiny, simple, eensy-weensy, microscopic dying wish,” said the mayor. “I’d like a burger, the way I had when I was a boy, back before the bombs fell and the streets cracked and the grass grew. I have in my possession an ancient map dating back to the old days, showing the path to a fabled McDonald’s, and I entrust this most sacred and holy of tasks – my last burgin’ before my next life – to two carefully-selected individuals. One is my good for nothing, scheming, malevolent, capricious, selfish, backstabbing, good-for-nothing, atrocious, abominable, wretched, snivelling, gormless, heartless son, Jason.”
“Meheehehhehehehehehehehehehehehehehehe,” said Jason, as his fingers tango’d wildly.
“Right on, my boy. The other is Brad, our neighborhood’s most wholesome and obvious protagonist in twenty years.”
“Gosh!” said Brad, manfully.
“And they can each bring along as many nameless sidekicks as they need. This could be dangerous.”
“Jeepers!” said Brad, eagerly.
“And some food. Lots of it. It’s hard travel.”
“Save it for the road, Brad.”

The valiant duo (and a few dozen nameless sidekicks) departed from The Neighborhood that very afternoon, under the august blessing of the mayor, the frenetic, off-kilter chiming of the town clock, and a fat red haze in the sky.
“Farewell!” called the mayor, aldermen, and townsfolk.
“Bye folks!” said Brad, in passing.
“Hehehehheheheheheheh,” said Jason.
The sidekicks probably said something too, but whatever. The important things were the banners and the cheers and the tears and the sobs of joy. An adventure as big as this hadn’t happened in years! They couldn’t wait to sit at home until someone told them how it’d gone.

Six minutes out of the Neighborhood, Jason tripped Brad into a lawn of quicksod, where he immediately sank.
“Nuts!” said Brad, in a bubbly manner.
“BWA-hahahahahhahahahahhahahaha,” said Jason.
The sidekicks rolled with it.
They had a lot more to roll with by the time that day was out. First came the heat waves, sweeping across the trail in scorching white sheets as the cloud cover thinned, pan-frying flesh and crisping hair. Those who couldn’t reach shade withered in the open, left to stagger home as sunburnt cadavers.
Jason shielded himself under the charred surfaces of three of his more expendable sidekicks, while giggling.
Then after that came the great haze – the seeping morass of mist and leftover ground-sludge that coated everything with a fine orange ooze, rusted skin and burned metal. Into the trees they went, and the laggards were turned unceremoniously to gloop.
Jason climbed up on top of two of his tallest sidekick’s shoulders and waited until the mist was passed, upon which they fell over.
There were also large feral dogs, but those only made a fuss for a few seconds before Jason threw the meatiest sidekick at them and the rest of them all ran away.
Finally, that evening the expedition came upon the Valley of the Highway, and even from that great distance, in that dim light, they could see the gap in the tree-cover, where the corpse of the road lay. And glittering in the distance – half-visible between leaf and leaf – was it? Truly?
“An arch,” proclaimed the head flunky of the sidekicks. “A golden arch.”
“Meheheheheheheh!” cheered Jason. And he pushed the head flunky over the embankment.

The night at the valley’s edge was quiet, deep quiet. The kind of quiet that makes neighbours nervous. Not a raccoon at the garbage pail; not a noisy stupid dog; not even a neighbour and her husband engaging in ritualistic murder or sex or both.
It was….TOO quiet.
Until the rogue ultrafox circling the camp’s perimeter picked up its third victim by their leg instead of their neck, at which point all hell broke loose.
“Get it!” yelled an unnamed hero, who it savaged.
“Run for it!” screamed an unnamed coward, who tripped over the embankment and fell forty feet onto old cracked asphalt.
“HAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAH!” commanded Jason, and the rest followed him down, down, down the swirling madness of the on-ramp into the night and the rust-choked debris of the Valley of the Highway, where tetanus scurried underfoot with the rats.
And where the rats scurried, so too did their predators. You could fit a lot of feral cats comfortably inside a single broken car, and here there were hundreds. They’d grown fat and wild and even crazier than usual, and to add to their consternation they’d been invaded by a host of what smelled like squeaking extra-large rats.
It got so ugly it shouldn’t be mentioned.

Dawn found a reduced expedition, fortified atop the rotten hull of an old transport truck. They breakfasted; the sidekicks upon old beans, Jason upon chortles and the sidekick with the weakest heart, who’d stopped moving during the night.
“The arches,” pointed the new head flunky.
Indeed, there they were, just across the way. Dawn had put the cats to bed, and the rest of the crossing was without incident until they had reached the deserted temple of the McDonald’s, brown-walled, red-roofed, vine-choked and silent.
The doors were locked. Someone had crashed a car through the larger windows.
“Hehehehehheheehhehehehe,” commanded Jason, who knew much of the old world through the tales of his father, the mayor. And he was correct: the drive-in window was still unblocked, although very small. The largest sidekick had to come in, after a lot of tugging, as three separate pieces.
Inside was dark and heavy dead. Not a rat’s-breath had moved the air inside since the days before. Vats had idled. Griddles curdled. Fryers fizzled.
“Heh-heh. A-hah. A-heh, hah, HAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHA!” said Jason. And so it was.
By his word, the sidekicks searched what had been a freezer, for what had once been meat.
By his word, the sidekicks assembled what could be a bun, burned against the surface of what could be a pan.
By his word, the sidekicks minced, chopped, ground and pummelled the meatiest of the three separate pieces of the largest sidekick, inserted it into an ancient meat-forge, then turned it on and discovered it was a half-working furnace.
The second-meatiest piece of the largest sidekick went onto the actual griddle, and it worked much better, which was a good thing because after it was finished the furnace’s gas leak finally found a spark.

Out of the inferno they rose, the last five of the expedition, Jason bearing the burger from the temple’s depths in a gory fist. Across the dread Highway they fled, Jason cackling them onwards, too scared to sleep or pause lest he put his lips to their ears and chuckle them awake. Through the fetid parklands they ran in the dead of night on dying legs, two falling, never rising, until at last in the eyeblink of dawn they stumbled, more-or-less-corpses, past the gates of The Neighbourhood.
“Ahahahahahhahahahahahah!” roared Jason, and all the neighbours came out into the streets and marvelled at what they saw. So did all the neighbours. \
“They return!” cried the neighbours.
“They return!” replied the neighbours. And the cheers rang high.
“To the mayor!” cried the neighbours.
“To the mayor!” replied the neighbours. And through the happy throng the expedition was led.
“Here they are, mayor!” cried the neighbours.
“Here they are, mayor!” replied the neighbours. “And by mayor, we mean Brad, who returned heroically two days ago after you were all eaten by wild and dangerous beasts and the old mayor died in his sleep of a heart attack!”
The neighborhood politely put the cheering on hold for a moment to let everyone figure out what was going on.
Brad was indeed the mayor. He waved at the expedition.
“Heh?” said Jason.
“Hi sport! Stake them all out in the sun for the buzzard-flies!” said Brad, warmly.
And it was done, and so for many, many more happy years, The Neighborhood remained a safe, clean and wholesome place to raise your 2.5 children and dog.
Bit light on burgers though.

Storytime: The Rain Room.

January 17th, 2018

There was a man who almost had everything.

He was almost the richest person of all.
He was almost the most famous person of all.
He was almost – ALMOST almost, but not quite – the meanest person of all. But not quite.
And his most famous, treasured, and coveted almost was his house, his mansion, his tower, his eyesore, which had almost a thousand rooms. Nine-hundred and ninety-nine rooms. Of almost every kind you could ever imagine.
He had a stone room, where every surface was cold and sun-warmed and gray and red and sandy and sooty and solid as eternity.
He had a wood room, with paneling, and floorboards, and rafters, and branches, and roots.
He had a song room, whose walls were speakers and whose roof was scrolling sheet music and whose walls were insulated triple-thick.
He even had a sun room, where ten hundred hundred gems reflected and trapped and cajoled the light from dozens of windows, keeping it aglow no matter what the hour.
But there was one room that was missing, one room that wasn’t there.
He didn’t have a rain room.

Almost anyone else would’ve decided nine-hundred and ninety-nine rooms was enough. Certainly enough for one person. Especially enough for one person who only ever slept in one room and did business in another three or four ninety-nine days of a hundred. But not this man. His house had been under construction for decades, his hair had turned grey and fallen out, his teeth were loose and yellow, and his eyes were watering. He almost knew exactly what people thought of him, and it made him half-mad to think of what they’d say when he was gone.
No, he had to have one thing wholly. He had to have his house complete. He had to have his rain room.

He asked sages, scientists, philosophers, pundits, and plesiosaurs.
“You can’t put rain in a room,” they told him. “It’s the most fickle and fluid of all things. If you let it stand, it’s a puddle. If you let it flow, it’s a stream. If you let it boil, it’s vapor. It’s out of everyone’s grasp and yours too.”
The man cursed them all roundly and threw them out of his nine-hundred and ninety-nine room house, where he spent the night trying to think and falling asleep, in that eerie zone where an hour is a second and a minute lasts five months. It’s a strange place to be in. Things can find you there. Like you.
Whatever it was that bumped him in the night, it left a mark. The man woke up sore-backed, stiff-necked, and bright-eyed. A spark had found him, and it leapt into his fingers, his keyboard, his commands.
People with iron rods and beards were set to work. People with sunglasses and carefully-chosen suits were told to walk. Money moved soundlessly under the world like a fat-bellied, dainty-toed rat.
Construction resumed on the man’s home for the first time in twenty years. Some of the blueprints hurt your eyes, some of them hurt your head, and all of them made a little knot twist behind your backbone, like something invisible and important was being pinched, or maybe filched.
But enough money can make someone do almost anything.

On May 23rd – a Thursday – the rain stopped.
It was in the sky, and then POP it was gone and the sky was empty. Bleeding a little, but empty.
It didn’t actually go POP but it looked like it should have.
When the sky went POP, the man was standing in his home, in his thousandth room, and he was waiting. He’d been waiting for hours. If he hadn’t fallen asleep ten minutes ago, he would’ve been able to see the first drops fall, as opposed to feeling them run down his nose. It made him cough and run down the hall for a tissue.

/In the rain room there are ten trillion droplets a thousand thunderheads and one billion gentle showers. There is nothing underfoot but ripples and there is nothing overhead but grey./

It didn’t take long for somebody to panic, and that’s the sort of mood that always attracts hanger-ons. People need crops. Mists. Clouds. Downpours. They’re the bread and butter of a good sky.
So the people came to the thousand-room house of the man, and they asked, demanded, begged, and requested that they receive rain, that they see rain, that maybe one person shouldn’t have all the rain in the world in one room.
And the man answered their pleas with the carefully-chosen proverb, aphorism, koan and keystone of the oldest philosophy of all, which was “I don’t care about you.”

/In the rain room there are places where you can wait and fill yourself up again. Stand there and let the cold and warm and wet beat into you and slide through the skin and sluice the sludge out of every vein and let it run clean and calm again./

In the weeks that followed, the world did a lot of things. It strained seawater, filled bathtubs, drained reservoirs, and a lot of other things. It almost did a lot of other things too.
The man didn’t notice any of it. He was too busy walking through his house, his thousand-room house. Opening every door. Checking every room. Some of them hadn’t seen anything but cleaning staff since he was a young man. It was very peculiar for him to have something, instead of almost having something, but he didn’t feel any different at all. That made him a little nervous.
He was saving his rain room for last. In case that helped.

/In the rain room there are no taps or faucets. Nothing can be turned off or closed. Open-ended only./

On the first of June – a Saturday – the man dressed himself in a waterproof grey coat. He picked up a black, ivory-hilted umbrella. He put on rubber boots.
And then the man stepped into the rain room, which was bigger than he expected. And damper, too. He sneezed.
He looked around in every direction he could name, and he heard the endless pit-a-pat and felt it on his clothing.
“Dull,” he said. And he reached for the doorknob.
It wasn’t there. This is the sort of thing that happens when you try to fit a closed system in a close space.
The man shouted for a bit, but the rain drowned him out.

/In the rain room there is no talk of chance. There is no risk. It is, and it is, and it continues to is. No tenses permitted beyond the present./
For a while the rest of the world looked pretty dire, and it almost seemed like things were going to get bad. The rain was wedged pretty tight into that house, and it wasn’t coming out.
Then the obvious solution presented itself: why not bring the world in after it?
It took a lot of shovels, and a lot of boxes, but by August 4th – a Sunday – the world had moved in to the Rain Room, and the rainwater puddled and streamed and vaporized as it should again, where it should again, when it should again.

The rest of the house fell down but almost nobody noticed.

Storytime: I and a II and a III.

January 10th, 2018

In the beginning, there was the beat.
And it went
Bam-bippity-bam-bam-BAM bippity band so on and so on. It spun, it dove, it ducked, it dipped, it danced to and fro and back and forth. It made the rocks shake, it made the earth quake, and the entire planet exploded like an old grapefruit thrown at a new wall. Chunks of accreted cosmic dust blown back into the roaring gale of the solar wind.
Shit, They said. Better try that one again.

So this time They calmed it down a little. Made it sedate. A little less syncopation and a little more consideration. Something you couldn’t help but tap your toe to, but wouldn’t snap a finger. Just a bit of fun.
The planet bobbed and nodded and twisted out of orbit and spun out of the solar system, sailing through into the empty forever.
Oh come ON, They said.

In the end They considered their goals and options, wanted something, tried for more, and settled for less.
So They went
Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.
And the planet drifted aimlessly in its ellipse, safe and snug and dulled into sleep. Like a brainless baby in the biggest crib.


Now, that was the tempo sold. But there was something else missing. Something for the humming.
So They placed Themselves as the lotus.
And They took a deep breathe, in through the nose.
And They sang.
They sang of Wonder. They sang of Beauty. They sung of Glory. They sung of Majesty.
They sang so damned hard that the world in its grind couldn’t help but quiver a tear from its surface, and it gushed blue over itself until it was damp as old coffee grinds. And in that seep, brewed LIFE, boldly seizing the days, racing up and out and up and ONWARD on top of itself until the atmosphere curdled under the pressure of an infinite number of respiring lungs and the whole thing collapsed like a bad soufflé.

This time They sang of regular old wonder, beauty, glory, and majesty. And for a little while it looked like it was working – things cooked down there, but slower. Eyes raised to on high. Seeds sown in gusto. Flagella moving with purpose.
Then everything knew itself, looked upon its neighbours, knew they weren’t good enough to measure up, and shut down.
Fuck Me, They complained. What do You have to do to get this working?

So They sat down, cleared Their throat, and sort of hummed through Their nose really hard and kept going, and going, and wavering, and the pitch went up and the pitch went down and sometimes it went back to front to reverse to yellow to Sunday. In fact, it went just about everywhere imaginable, and so, nowhere understandable.
And hey, so did everything down there. And it kind of worked!
Kind of.
I mean, there was stuff. That was good.


Melody needs harmony.
They drew Their palms down the strands of the world, cupped it, caressed it, plucked it, blew on it. And it danced and whirled and churned in warmth and joy, rich in texture, bright in emotion, and its atmosphere expanded four times over and dispersed into space.
This time They just sighed.

Next (after cramming the damned thing back together), They tried, with the utmost care, rubbing the atmosphere gently.
The whole world sang out gladly, true as a bell, and then the Van Allen belts broke with a SPRANG sound and showered the whole place with radioactive particles.
And a new pack cost you ten, minimum. Pre-tax.

Finally They just put the planet up to Their lips and raspberry’d it. And from that fine spray, lo, did aimless restlessness emerge, and instill itself in the plates and crust and atmosphere and magnetosphere and all that was. And it was Good, or at least Functional, which was Good by this point.


After the initial recording session, They began playback. Then They threw the damned thing in the garbage, hung up Their hat, put on Their coat, and went to go get blitzed.

Storytime: Accomplishment.

January 3rd, 2018

“Feed’s clear. On your mark.”
“Right. Right. One second. The pole was crooked. Right. Ready. You ready?”
“We’re ready.”
“I claim this planetesimal, Pluto, this once-planet, in the august and democratic name of…of. Earth? Earth. Earth!”
“Wonderful job. Alright, mission over.”
“Can I take samples?”
“If you feel like it.”
“Are we done?”
“Oh. Did I do it properly?”
“Are you sure?”
“If I didn’t do it properly, I could take the flag down and put it up again. I could get it to wave. There’s wind here. I think it would wave very nicely.”
“No, that’s fine.”
“Are you mad that I forgot what country I’m from? I’ve been practicing my words for the last year, you know. I had to remembered most of them from scratch, from the tapes! It’s been a while, and I think you’ve got to admit I salvaged the speech very smoothly. Undetectable.”
“We can edit out the stammer.”
“Oh no. I stammered?”
“Yes. It doesn’t matter. We can inject the proper country into your speech, too.”
“Wow. That’s impressive. Did you need me to say anything at all?”
“Yes. Saying something here is more important than anything you say.”
“Do you think you could be a little more expressive? I know there’s hours and hours between every transmission we make, but I make the effort to remember how annoyed I am between them. I try very hard to remain angry for hours, because I presume you’ve put a lot of effort into making me very angry for other hours. It’d be the least you could do to try and be a good sport and reciprocate.”
“What do you want from us, Pluto? You’re the first woman to ever voyage this far from Earth. Shouldn’t you be proud? Elated? Expansive? Enlightened? Humbled?”
“I’m very cold and a little agoraphobic because I spent years and years in a little metal box and now I’m all alone in a very big space on a very small rock. You can see the horizon here! Wow!”
“You already knew that, Pluto. There’s a lot of things you already knew that you seem to have forgotten.”
“I remember everything very clearly! Just not why I did it. Why am I out here again?”
“To show off.”
“Aha! Should I do jumping-jacks?”
“If you feel like it. It’s more about us than you.”
“What d’you mean?”
“We’ve proven we can throw a human in a metal box a very long ways indeed. About as far as a good bit of money can take us. About as far as, well, humanly possible. We’re probably going to stop after this.”
“You make me sound very extraneous.”
“No more or less than you were back here. What you did was very important. It’s just not important at all that you did it.”
“I’m very suicidal now. I’ll jump, I swear it. I’ll jump off this cliff or into space or cut my oxygen, that’ll show you.”
“No you won’t. We checked before you left.”
“Well, then I’ll pout.”
“You will do that.”
“I suppose. When do I go back?”
“You don’t. We told you that before.”
“Slipped my mind. Oh well. At least I have my flag to keep me warm.”
“You can’t take it down. It’s historic.”
“Oh? What am I?”
“Part of history. It’s different.”
“Close enough. Blankey, here I come!”
“Don’t touch it.”
“Or what?”
“You’ll have violated the spirit of history and achievement that is what has motivated humankind since it first bashed a rock against another rock and made a sharper rock which it used to kill an animal.”
“I thought the bulk of humanity’s nutrition since before its existence was from foraged vegetable matter, and that by and large both an obsession with snowballing technological prowess was a recent development that was largely portrayed as inevitable and innate human nature, as is the case with all traits of a given society when said society cares to reflect upon them. Which they never do.”
“Very stirring.”
“I came up with that on year six.”
“Don’t touch the flag.”
“Oh, fine. Is there anywhere in particular you’d like me to die?”
“Either in the lander in bed, so we don’t have to look at you in the textbooks, or heroically posed next to the flag, so we can feel stirring pride.”
“Sure. Salute or wave?”
“I’m waving and you can’t stop me.”

Storytime: Cycles.

December 29th, 2017

The cock had crowed. The bell had rung. The sun had set. And every single one of the particular and funny-shaped dice had spun widdershins when thrown and come up as full sixes, as they were very carefully made to be.
“It’s time,” said the old priest.
“It’s time,” said the even older priest.
“It’s time,” chimed in the very young priest who had recently had to fill in for the oldest priest of all who was now resting somewhere soft and loamy and dark.
And the three walked, with varied creaks and stumbles, to the dark room, barred with three beams and locks. And they unchained and unlatched them, and they opened it, and inside was a big, beautiful boy of about adult years, which in those parts was older than you’d think. Life was good and fairly easy, and when life is good and fairly easy, you get a childhood that lasts longer.
“It’s time,” said the old priest.
“It’s time,” said the even older priest.
“Yes, it’s time,” said the very young priest who was practically squirming with impatience because he’d been practicing a lot for four months. “Now you-”
“Now you are the new year,” said the old priest, deftly shushing him with a single finger. “Here is your crown.”
And he handed the man who was the new year a little garland of leaves, and kissed him on the cheek.
“Here is your raiment,” said the even older priest.
And he draped over the new year a soft and billowing robe, and as the priest slipped the sleeves over the new year’s arms he whispered in his ear.
“And here is your gift,” said the very young priest, and he shoved a little round ball of what was equal parts bread and masonry into the new year’s palm.
“Now go!” they shouted (especially the very young priest) and the new year followed their fingers and he stumbled into the gently-falling snow of the temple’s courtyard, through the white drifts and billows, as shaky-legged as a toddler because it had been almost a month since he had seen full light.

In the wall was a door. It was made of hard, blood-red wood, sun-baked. At the door was a knocker. It was gilded but probably just brass.
The new year thumped at it.
“Go away,” said a voice.
The new year stood there.
“Twice more” whispered the voice.
The new year thumped at it again.
“Go away,” said the voice.
The new year thumped at it again.
“Enter,” said the voice. And he did.
Face to face, old year and new year. Old year in his hooded cowl that let only his beard and eyes escape; new year in his garland crown. One of them pale as a cave-fish, the other tanned and rough from a year spent walking from rite to rite.
“You’re late,” said old year. “The snows are here already – when I first walked this path, the grass was yet green and the birds still sang.”
The new year shrugged.
“The priests,” said the old year. “Bah. Follow me. Follow me and listen to me. You must do both of those things very well.”
The new year nodded.
“And stay quiet.”
“Yes,” said the new year.
The old year smacked his ear.

“This is the sundial,” said the old year, ushering the new year into his little gated court. “Here is where I sit at dawn, to make sure the days spin by on track. Here, hold the tip of its blade with your left hand, take its measure.”
The new year did that, and yelped. Blood dripped from his finger as he jammed it into his mouth.
“It likes you,” said the old year. “It didn’t bite me half as deep. That is good. It’s important to be on fine terms with your days. They’re your mortar, brick, and bread.”
They stood there.
The old year coughed.
They stood there.
“Rightpocket,” the old year coughed again.
The new year jumped, fumbled, and eventually retrieved the little loaf that the priests had given him. He handed it over and almost opened his mouth but the look the old year gave him forbade it.
“Thank you for your gift,” said the old year. “Now we may proceed indoors. Follow me into my house.”

The house of the old year was empty and vast. Air currents swam with the depth and force of the ocean through its hallways, in between the creaks. Shelves and shelves of books hid every wall so thickly they very well might have replaced them.
“One journal per week,” said the old year. “You will fill fifty-two. Can you write?”
The new year nodded.
“Good. Otherwise it can be troublesome. Fill them with your thoughts. Fill them with your fears. Fill them with your blessings, and the names of every place you go, everyone you meet, every meal you take, and every festival you attend. Write the week, and in the end you will write yourself. Understand that.”
The new year nodded.
“Light the fire.”
The new year nodded, and took the little bag of flint and steel he was offered, and nodded, and was pointed towards the vast and terrifying fireplace, and nodded, and was swatted, and stopped nodding and managed to strike a few sparks until a little blaze was huddled in the center of the capacious stone mouth.
The old year placed the eldest of his journals on the edge of the hearth. “Like this,” he said. “Sear them until the ink runs, then scorches. It has to be cleaned before it’s shelved for good. I will wait in the next room until you are done. Remember, fifty-two.”
The new year remembered. He lost count twice, but he remembered, stubbornly. Even if he did burn his fingers once or twice.

The next room was as different from the halls as possible. It was a kitchen.
“You will cook everything,” said the old year. “You will stew winter potage. You will roast fall gourds. You will bake summer loaves. You will make spring jams. To live the season is to eat it, and first it must be cooked. Properly. These books are not scorched, they are recipes. Use them. Properly.”
The old year pulled the little loaf that the new year had given him out of his robe and ate it in one bite and a lot of chews.
“More properly than this,” he grimaced. “Hard-baked on the outside, raw on the inside. Do not trust a priest with an oven. Ever.”
The new year nodded.
“And stop nodding.”
“I didn’t say you could start talking again either. Watch. Listen. Learn. Follow me.”

So the new year followed the old year.
He followed him to the bedroom, high in the spire, where the bed was at the center of an enormous clock-work that would always turn him towards the dawn. Above him, in the spire itself, was a weathervane that would tell the weather what to do, if he used it properly.
He followed him to the etching-room, where the walls were torn to shreds by hatch-marks, and where he would tally his own days with a blunt and ragged blade. There were words he was told that would shape the day as he marked it, if he spoke them surely.
He followed him to the garden, behind the kitchens, where herbs grew and plotted furiously, ripening for the reaping. Listen closely to them and they would warn you of the plans of men and women, if you were sympathetic.
He followed him until his feet ached and his mind smeared and his toes were worn and frozen, and he learned the ways and means and ins and outs and sheer, overwhelming complexity of the grandness of the year, in the house of the old year.
“And now it is time to pray,” the old year told him. And it was.

The prayers were of a particular sort, and had to be performed in a particular place, which was a little stone garden under a little skylight above a little but surprisingly deep pond, which the new year carefully washed their feet in as he poured them each a small glass of very strong….
“Herbs,” said the old year. “It will broaden your mind, but pull it a bit thin. The rest of the day will stay strong but this…may go away. That’s later. For now, listen to me. Listen to me and do what I say, as I do what I say. First, you will step into the spring.”
The new year stepped into the spring. It was warm and sulphurous, dragged up from underground. His toes bit at him as they came back to life.
“Now, you will anoint your brow with your first sip of your drink.”
The new year’s forehead steamed in the cool air. His eyes swam.
“Down it.”
The new year’s throat ached and punched and kicked.
“Bow down and cleanse your hands.”
The new year bowed down and scrubbed his palms briskly.
“And then,” said the old year, as he scrubbed his hands against the rough stones in the cold, cold water, “you will withdraw the little knife that the priests gave you from your right sleeve, and you will slit my throat with it.”
The new year’s right sleeve was already half-raised. The knife was in his hand. His foot was raised to take a step. His course was set, he needed only to complete it.
Instead he said “W-” and while he was busy doing that the old year spun around, glistening rust in his palm, and opened his neck up both ways.
It was a very clean cut, but then it had been a very good knife. Before it was left under a rough stone for twelve months.

In the courtyard, surrounded by birdsong, waited the priests. Each knew the time it would take to a minute, to a second, as sure as a grandfather clock. When the doors creaked open they smiled, and when they saw the robes they laughed, and when the new year strode forward in the garb of the old they blessed him warmly in his wake.
They bowed before him as he walked, seeing only the cowl and robe, not the face that filled it, the face they surely thought killed. First the old priest, then the even older priest, and then the oldest priest of all, whose cough was become quite severe these days.
And he walked on, smiling and triumphant across the bright green grass, into the year, and he felt like he could do this forever.

Storytime: Inspiration.

December 20th, 2017

Once upon a time there was a peasant and a sling and an empty stomach and a rabbit sat temptingly within range.
The rabbit wasn’t as unaware as it looked, the peasant was more careless than he thought, and the far side of the ridge the rabbit ran down was a lot steeper than you’d assume.
Still, once the world stopped spinning and the feeling crept back into his spine, opportunity presented itself. Particularly once he saw what was lying underneath his spine.
(it was another spine, a very elongated one, tapering to a tail-tip)
And what it was attached to.
(it was large, and scaly, and sleeping soundly)
And then he had a very, very crafty idea.

Once upon a while there was a minor noble.
On his eighteenth birthday his father took him into the dungeons of the family keep and showed him the thing they kept in irons there, and the blood they drew from it.
And then he chugged a big mouthful, belched, and wrote an astounding treatise on economic thought in five minutes, pausing only to freshen the ink.
“Someday, son,” he told him, “this will all be yourgkughug…uhr. Ahrgh.”
The minor noble cleaned up around the place and considered what to do with his newfound power. Preferably in a way that wouldn’t end with him in a similar yet crucially different situation as the one he’d just manufactured, someday.
So he sat down, made sure he had a sharp, fresh quill handy, and chugged a big mouthful of blood.
And then he had a very cunning idea.

Once upon a ways there was a tremendously wealth heiress.
This was normal in her family, and almost below-par, which she resented dearly. Any fool could make a fortune, or a few fortunes – at least, any fool with the right-sized cup and the right code to the family vault.
It was keeping the peace long enough with your relatives to make sure they put their codes in too that was the trick.
She was out of luck with uncle Edward. He favoured little cousin Edith these days. And grandma Victoria had hated her for years. And mom and dad only gave out their codes in exchange for open promises, which the heiress despised.
There had to be a better way than this, stultifying under the weight and approval of generations of insular aristocrats and their petty judgments. There had to be a way to break down the barriers. There had to be a way to get her hands on some inspiration. More than the cupful she had left. She’d been thinning it, making it last, mixing it with a lot of wine (expensive wine, but still a watering-down).
She downed the last of her cupful neat.
And then she had a wonderful idea.

Once upon a long ago there was a captain of industry.
Or well, brewery. Which relied on industry, and rhymed with it, and so was near enough. Besides, as her mother had often reminded her, just try and imagine the city’s elite without liquid inspiration. You’d have to start over from first principles, rubbing two gears together and hoping they fucked.
So industry it was. The valves and pipes and boilers and thumpers and kettles and bells and whistles and walls and wails somewhere buried under it all, attached to a particularly heat-proof set of tubes, was what everybody worth being anybody treasured most in their gin, in their throats.
And, more importantly, in their heads.
A lonely, lonely position she stood in, now that mother was gone. But as mother had always told her, that was best. The family would slow you down. Better to run alone. A good idea, one of many thousands mother had kept with her.
(She’d never asked what mother had done with the family. She’d heard ‘dynamite’ muttered in the old women’s last hours, and figured that was enough)
The city hummed outside her window. It hummed to her tune, the vibration in the blood in the booze in its belly. Resonant, tickling the brain cells.
Now if only sales would go up a little more this quarter, she’d be set.
Now if only this city’s elite would screw a little more often, and have a few more kids every five years, she’d be set.
Now if only this damned document her lawyer had handed her would make sense, she’d be set.
Now if only the traffic weren’t so loud, she’d be set.
Now if only her daily glass hadn’t curdled in her gut and left her brain numb instead of buzzing, she’d be set.
Now if only this damned empty pit under her clavicle would go away, she’d be set.
The captain of industry realized she was doodling with her pen. So she got up and threw it through the window. It was a cheap thing, anyways. Gold foil pretending to be plating.
And then she watched, just for a moment, and saw a man walk by, pick it up, and smile with the genuine warmth of those who believe themselves to be truly fortunate.
And then she had a fairly clever idea.

Once upon a last week there was a guy, and his name was Nicholas Forwards, and he was a playwright, and he was hard stumped for inspiration.
So he went down to the bar and ordered three pints. Low-calorie. Light. Gluten-free. Butane-free.
And then he drank it down and threw up and bought another three and drank it down some more and after he’d dropped the local booze level a good eight inches he lit up and lit out and ran into the street yelling “I’VE GOT IT I’VE GOT IT I’VE GOT IT” and was hit by a car.
It was the driver’s fault. Yes, he’d been running, but she should’ve been paying attention. She’d been distracted by thinking about circuit designs. Never mind that she was a carpenter, she’d had a circuit design stuck in her head for six weeks straight. If she’d been able to explain that she might have gotten off, but as it was all she did was try and explain circuits to the judge, which was poor luck anyways because the judge hadn’t been able to deliver a verdict that wasn’t a monologue on fork design in eight months.
People had a lot on their mind, these days. Even if it was just a little.
Walking into traffic and driving into the sidewalk, forgetting to eat and forgetting to stop eating. A lot of the infrastructure had become exostructure overnight, sometimes explosively.

Except the brewery.

In its guts, in the basement under the basement under the basement on the building plans, fighting through a keyring, is the great architect, the heir to the empire. He’s been down here for three days, living off his own urine and whatever bugs come too close, and he’s almost found the right key. He would’ve had it two days ago if he hadn’t spent most of the time trying to come up with a phylogenetic tree for keys.
Can’t complain, though. He knows he’s more put together than most folks these days. Which is what he’s hoping to fix. Because heeeyyy, after five hundred years of exploitative theft and greed, which you personally benefited from your whole life… well, ‘I’m sorry’ can’t hurt, right? It’s got to help, right?
Oh there’s the key. He knew he’d almost found it.

Finding the lock took another hour though.

Click clack clunk and the old vault scooches open, and inside, bound by iron and steel and odd little symbols etched onto every link, was
a three foot goanna.
“I uh, I release you from, I’m, uh, I’m sor. I’m sor.”
It blinked at him, reptile-slow. The blood-milking tubes hung limply at its side. They must’ve been running dryer and dryer for…ever. When had it got so small?
He cleared his throat again.
“thhhhhhhhhh” it said.
“y,” he concluded. And shrugged, limply.
He unchained the goanna anyways. It bit him and ran out of the room. A small squeak announced that the city’s rodent population had a new, hungry problem.
The heir to the empire examined the red dripping out of his palm, and wondered if his clearing head was from pain or something else, more fundamental. Maybe it was alright. Maybe the fuzz would stop. Maybe he could sit and rest, without worry, without thought.
He licked his hand experimentally anyways. Just in case.

It didn’t give him any new ideas, but it did contribute to his death a few days later.
Blood poisoning.