Archive for ‘Short Stories’

Storytime: The Monarch

Wednesday, 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.

Wednesday, 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.

Wednesday, 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.

Wednesday, 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.

Thursday, 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.

Wednesday, 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.

Wednesday, 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

Storytime: March.

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Sorry I’m late.
I know, I know, I KNOW. You gave me VERY detailed instructions and I was diligent in memorizing them, I tell you no lie. But you know what it’s like out there!
It’s cold!
It’s wet!
It’s dreary!
And the snow’s come-and-gone so many times that nobody can keep track of where all the frozen dogshit is!
So because of all those VERY GOOD REASONS, can I be blamed so much for letting my mind wander? At a light, I might add? I was safely parked, one eye always on the intersection, and just for a minute – a moment, a milli – no, a picosecond! – my thoughts drifted the way of warmer things and times.
And so when my light turned green I twisted my grip on the wheel, without really knowing why, and took the right.

Let me tell you, it was a shocker. One moment bleak cold and wind, the next wet fists in my car’s face. Showers fit to kill flowers, hail turning into thunder turning into ice cold turning into a warm slush. I couldn’t tell if I was meant to switch to second gear or break out flippers or attach an icebreaker’s prow to the bumper.
And that sound! That pounding, pulsing sound! The trees all beating together like a heart the size of a mountain pulsing on a drum the size of a continent.
BOOM.
BOOM.
BOOM.
MAKE THE SAP FLOW
MAKE THE LEAVES GROW
UP
WE
GO
!

Now while I was distracted by all of this, you surely can understand why I’d miss the next few intersections. I was busy trying to stay alive and not hit anyone, as any responsible driver would prioritize. So my hands were on the wheel and my eyes were on the road and my beams were on low and my foot was light on the gas and my brain was spinning, just spinning out all over the place with the horn blaring and brakes pumping.
Look! Geese in the world’s only flying letter! They’re coming back!
Wow! Buds glistening on bare brown branches!
Gee! Bare ground turning green with rebounding life!
Willikers! A groundhog making ardent love to his shadow in the middle of the street!
That last one caught me a bit more off guard than all the others put together and I spun out all over the place, horn blaring and brakes pumping. And when I stopped spinning I was stuck in the rotting remnants of a giant snowpile in the far corner of a half-flooded parking lot in a dingy old strip mall that had been in the 90s once upon a time.

I bought fruit by the foot. Its bright colours pleased the atmosphere.
I bought fruit by the pound. It was seasonal and furiously unripe, shiny and hard and sour and tart.
I brought out my camera, and took picture after picture after picture. Click click click robins! Click click click flowers! Click click click puffy clouds on deep blue!
By the time I was done my car had melted free and the air smelled like plants fucking without limits. My sinuses were a roller-coaster of emotion and mucus and the tears that came down my face were emotional as shit.

I got back on the road and it was easier now. Cleaner. The old stale salt and dead black ice had been scraped away by the sun’s own shovel and the traffic was calmer, sedate. Everyone still had their winter tires and paranoias on, nobody’d yet started driving like the maniac that July made of you. There was a hint of slush that slapped affectionately against your wheels now and then, but it was more liquid than solid and it was nothing but love.
It was the most fun I’d ever had driving a car.

But all good things end. I came to a red light, and as I stopped there I looked ahead and I saw something new. Something REALLY red. Something burning and furious and real. There was dry grass in the distance and bonfires in my nose and I could almost feel the endless days creeping under my fingernails.
Dead ahead. Almost there.
Why not? My god, why NOT? Fuck this nonsense of waiting, why walk when you could drive? Get there in half the time with twice the fun at the low low cost of a lot of bills. Why not?
This, said the police car behind me. Its lights were flashing. Its sirens were not. This was the vehicular version of clearing your throat noisily. Behind its windshield a pair of sunglasses were watching me, and I could see the road ahead burning inside them.
I pulled over.
As the officer got out of his car, I felt no fear and no anger. I knew what I’d done wrong: in my heart if not my body I had speeded, I had roared down that road with both feet and hands on the accelerator and my soul in my teeth. It was there right now, at this moment, and it was amazing how close the warm air had brought everything to me. Until this second I’d never really seen the dew on my windshield, the dust in the air, the bit of snot on the police officer’s moustache.
I turned my smile to him and I knew at that moment that everyone and everything was my friend, speeding ticket or no. The world was in my heart and it was warm and soft. “What seems to be the problem, officer?” I asked.
And the next thing I knew his knee was in my back and the world was in my ribs and it was extremely cold and gravelly.
I asked him something very polite about what the fuck he was fucking thinking the motherfucker.
“It is illegal,” he told me in quiet, authoritative tones, “to take the right of spring before the end of March. You prick.”

The penalty was harsh but fair, firm but rigid. Two hours in the cooler.
So, that’s where the freak blizzard came from. And that’s why I’m late. And please, don’t make a fuss when I say this: I really am not shovelling tomorrow.

Storytime: Chalk.

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

“Why not?”
As far as questions asked in bars went, it was pretty typical.
“Because it’s stupid.”
“It’s not stupid. I’ve got the paper right here, Mill.”
“You know I can’t read.”
“No, but I can and I’m telling you, black-and-white, page one, there it is.”
“And I’m telling YOU, Tyle – you right there – that flesh-and-blood beats black-and-white hollow. I don’t care how many crazy professors you care to tell me of-”
“Hadly, his name’s Geistoff Hadly, and he’s found-”
“–I don’t care what his name is, I wouldn’t go out into the chalklands for the king of the world and his eldest daughter too. Count me out.”
Tyle frowned, and as usually was the case with Tyle’s frown, it was immediately followed by Tyle’s fist. Matters continued in that way for a few minutes, whereupon Tyle returned to his table.
“No luck,” said Ram.
“Nope.”
“No luck at all,” repeated Ram, looking more than ever like a burnt-out tree stump. He shook his head at his drink, which was nearly as half-empty as he was. “But that’s not new, eh?”
“Mope less, help more. We still need that guide.”
“No luck.”
“I KNOW that,” said Tyle, but he left it there because beating up Ram was about as productive – and painful – as beating up a rock. At the end of it you had sore knuckles and no breath, all for a few nicks on its hide. “Miserable town this. A few hundred miles south, a fat old man can pull trinkets out of the ground worth more than gold with barely a spade. And here? You can’t so much as persuade ‘em to look outside.”
“They’re scared.”
“Of WHAT? There’s nothing out there but grass, rocks, and rocks on grass! It’s the most boring landscape I’ve ever laid eyes on!”
“Nothing left to see but yourself,” intoned Ram. “Nothing left to do but give up.”
“Oh, shut up. If you really believed that crap you’d have thrown yourself into a pond years ago.”
Ram shrugged, an expression as wholly unique to him as Tyle’s frown was. His shoulders didn’t actually move, but he somehow hunched even further inwards.
Tyle ignored Ram’s shrug and looked around the bar again. A bunch of miserable bastards here, nearly as bad as Ram in their way. They looked to hate each other as much as they did him; the whole damned building could burn down and nobody in town’d miss them.
Oh. Well that was a thought.
“Ram? Give me your drink.”
“No.”
Tyle took Ram’s drink from his unresisting hands and strolled down to the far end of the room, to the darkest, dustiest table of them all. Its occupant matched it. A walking stick seemed to be supporting his entire body, even while seated. It wasn’t enjoying it.
“Say, friend,” Tyle said with the happiest smile in the world, “care to help me finish this? I seem to have half left.”

The sky was blue.
“That was a mean trick.”
The grass was brown, but playing it up as golden.
“Worked, didn’t it? Now look, he’s awake.”
And the world was creaking slowly and surely.
Hed was chained up inside a wagon made of rotten wood and crammed next to a barrel. Again.
“Hello there,” said the smiling one. Tyle. “Now, care to show us the way?”
“Sure. Where to?”
“The chalklands.”
“Nobody goes out to the chalklands.”
“Well, you’re nobody right now. But be nice and maybe you’ll leave a richer nobody than you came along with.”
“Got a drink?”
Tyle raised an eyebrow. “After what the last one I passed did to you?”
“That was you hitting me.”
“Fair enough.” Tyle tapped the barrel, which didn’t slosh in the way very very full things didn’t slosh. “Tell you what. Point the way into the chalklands, and I’ll give you two drinks. Get clever and point us back into town, you get last night over again.”
“On one condition.”
“Oh?”
“You have one too. I don’t like to get drunk lonely.”
Tyle smiled. A big, happy smile.

Hed, after a lot of wheedling, had been given a replacement walking stick and a very very small knife to whittle it to his satisfaction. Tyle had been against it until Ram pointed out he couldn’t exactly chase them down with it, chained as he was.
“Not much use for walking either,” Tyle had said.
“It’s not for the walking,” Hed explained. “Just something that needs to be done.”
It was a beautiful day, even if the place was sort of ugly. Although that could be the whiskey thinking it.
“Ugly as sin out here,” said Tyle. “Sky’s wasted on it. All that sky and all it’s got to shine on is some lumpy rocks and scraggly grass.”
“Fair enough,” said Hed. “Let’s go back.”
“No.”
“Alright. See that ridge?”
“Yes.”
“Go over it. Then let me off and I’ll go back.”
“No. You’re with us ‘till the end, old friend. Can’t have the word getting out. Early, I mean. Before we strick it rich.”
“It’s the chalklands. There’s nothing here.”
“There was nothing on the mesas either, until Hedly dug there,” said Tyle. Then he laughed.
“Who’s that?”
“Mad old professor. Liked to play in the dirt and pretend he was working.” Tyle shook his head. “But he found things. Arrowheads that moved on their own. Bowls that filled with water at a touch. And that was in the badlands, with nothing but dirt and stone for miles. It’s uglier here, but it’s better living and nobody’s ever checked it before. Who knows what’s out here?”
“Nothing.”
A shadow of a frown passed over Tyle’s face, but the sun ironed it out before it finished.
“I need another drink,” said Ram. “For my other hand.”
“Shut up and steer.”
“I’d rather not.”

“We’re here,” said Hed.
Tyle peered up at the stones around them, past the dusk and the dim and a considerable amount of whiskey. “Really? Faster than I’d thought.”
“It’s as far as we’re going in this light. Unless you want the horses to step into gopher holes in the dark.”
Tyle smacked him in the shoulder. “Damn good advice! See, I KNEW any one of you little bastards could help us! This isn’t so bad, eh? The big, scary chalklands. All nothing but green and grey and empty. What’s the worry?”
Hed turned his walking stick over and over in his hands. The shaft was slim as a wrist by now, but the handle had been shaved down to a near-blade.
“You should leave, you know,” he said. “This is your last chance.”
Tyle sighed. “Scared of rocks?”
“Out west the stone’s full, but solid. Out east it’s near-empty. Here there’s too much empty space, and anything can come bubbling up through the cracks.”
Tyle laughed at that, a full-out-throated guffaw with a set of after-chuckles that took up at least a full minute. He laughed in Hed’s face, and he watched the whole time as the sunburnt wrinkles didn’t so much as crease.
“You should’ve stayed home,” he told Tyle, quietly.
Tyle frowned.

Hed woke up with his head dangling out the back of the wagon, eyes filled with a black sky – overcast with cloud and something worse – and he knew he didn’t have a lot of time.
Slowly, carefully, wincing with every rib with every step, he crawled himself upright, took out the odd bit of wire he kept coiled around his back tooth, and removed the clumsy chain from his arm. He leaned against the whiskey barrel, testing his strength, testing its weight.
Half-empty. It’d do.
Then he took up his stick in the crook of his arm and heaved the barrel out of the cart just in time to catch the first drops.
A fist picked him up.
“Rain,” muttered Ram. His breath was a fountain of alcohol and rot. “Shouldn’t go out in it.”
Hed shook his head.
“No,” said Ram. His words were fading into the background, being eaten up by the long slow roar of water. “You stay.”
“It’s not rain.”
“Oh?” Ram squinted up at the sky.
“It’s the sea.”
And it came down on them.

Lives fade after they’re spent. Everything but the most important bits.
For most of them, it’s how they ended.
The waves were strong, and the current deep. But the real weight of the long-dead water that pressed down on the three men was from the things inside it.
A billion billion schools of long-dead fish; uncountable clams and who-knew-whats. Swarms of spiralling things like squids stuffed into ram’s horns.
Tyle was screaming, and that made it fast. His mouth was still open as he floated beneath Ram, fading down and away. All slackness in his jaw, with none of the tight-skinned warnings his expressions had given it.
Ram, to his great astonishment, found that he wanted to live. His arms were thrashing, his legs were kicking. His body, in spite of all that had ever been, was trying to stay alive.
The water churned around him, then opened up into teeth.
Ram had never seen a swimming lizard before, let alone one quite that size. The startlement nearly dulled the bite.

Hed shut his eyes, felt which way the blood in his body was surging, then swam for it. The whiskey keg was an inert lump at his side, neither pulling him down nor buoying him up. But when it broke surface and he flung a leg over it, it did the job well enough. He took a moment to catch his breath, then dipped his walking stick in, blade-first.
Splish. Splash.
Now and again he saw a shadow or felt a current and dropped low, stopped moving. In this way his night was spent. And when the sun came up the water came down, so very quickly it couldn’t be seen. One moment he was sculling, the next standing.
He looked down under his feet and scuffed a toe. Grass and dirt peeled away and underneath was the chalk again, milky and unconvincingly dead to the eye.
“You’ll be back, you fucker,” he told it. And he spat and threw away his stick and started walking. Then running.

It was almost night again by the time Hed walked back into the bar. It was good timing. The keg had nearly run dry.

Storytime: Dig Yourself Deeper.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

She’d been a nice woman. Honest, upright, forthright, honorable, diligent, hardworking, and dependable. Hell, she might’ve even been good.
But that was past, and so was she. Elsie Holmes – ‘Granny’ Holmes for thirty years and counting – had been over and done with for days. This was just the catch-up.
It was a properly overcast day, and the rest followed suit.
The priest said her words.
The family sobbed theirs.
The gravedigger took up her spade.
And WHACK with one hard blow severed the spitting, slobbering, fanged skull of Elsie Holmes from her neck, cutting the spinal column and setting it into a more mellow sort of rictus. Then everyone slammed shut the coffin, nailed it, and shoveled it under as fast as we could before it could pull itself back together and crawl back out.
It was a pretty good funeral, as far as they do around here, and we all said as much.
“That’s a funny thing to say,” said the visiting girl – a friend of a friend of the deceased, or so she’d claimed. “I mean, she tried to eat you. Is this whole cemetery like that? Because that’d explain the barbed wire on the walls. And the walls. And the guard tower.”
We explained to her that it wasn’t the cemetery as much as the town. You get about a few days – half a week if they’re very old. Then they’re up and feisty. It’s a lot to deal with, but here’s like anywhere else in the world: folks get used to it. The sun’s too hot, the wind’s too cold, the rain’s too thick or too thin, the dead rise after a few days and thirst for your flesh and blood. That’s just the way it goes in Downsville.
“Fair enough. Ever thought of doing something about it?”
Now she had our attention – and our irritation too. But we kept our words and fists to ourselves, because it was obvious to anyone with half a wit that she was one of those travelling folks, the kind you don’t get a chance to see very often, those roamers. Appleseeds and Coyotes and others. You don’t start things with them, and you don’t hope they stay, but you keep your ears open if they happen to you.
“Right. So you don’t want to move, and you can’t fix it. But you can make it a lot more bearable if you just try burning them instead of burying. Saves time, saves on fortified cemeteries and reinforced concrete in coffins, saves wear and tear on shovels. Even saves space – what’s harder to keep aside for your grandpa; a six-by-three-by-six of nice land or a prize spot on the mantelpiece? Go on, give it a try.”
Well it was advice, of a sort. And the priest said it wasn’t traditional, but she only said the words as words; and the gravekeeper and gravedigger were a bit reluctant, but they liked the idea of never getting up at three in the morning to shovel someone back into their coffin; and the town was altogether reluctantly experimental and so we tried it.

It was a stupid way to break a leg, falling off that barn roof. All Teresa’d had to do was nail in a board and come back down the ladder but no, had to show off to her friends and do it one-handed and whoops down she came. A stupid way to break a leg, let alone her neck.
But tick tock, time was a-wasting. So the procession came, and the lumberjack with the driest cords he’d cut, and we all went down to the pavilion in the cemetery, where the bonfire could burn in even the most appropriately funereal of weather.
In went the torch, and up went Teresa, in smoke and ash and an awfully porky smell. Weren’t as many pig-farmers around here now as there were a generation ago; folks just couldn’t quite muster the stomach for it. But there went her stomach, and her eyes, and her face, down to the bits of the bits of the bits of the bones and then they were gone too, cracked up and cindered. And that was when we all put on our masks because Teresa came screaming out of the coals at us, bowled down the graveyard gates, and set three houses and the church on fire.
“Well that’s something,” someone said, and we knew it was a stranger because nobody else would be surprised and we knew it was the travelling girl because nobody else would get over it that quickly. “This happens every time?”
And we explained to her that yes, pretty much it did. Some of the older folks went quieter; some of the younger, louder. In general the more time they’d had to put themselves to peace the better. It was a sort of therapy. And the bucket brigade had things well under control. It might seem odd, but that’s just the way it works in Downsville.
“I see,” she said in the way that people did when they didn’t see at all but didn’t want to call you a stupid, inbred old so-and-so to your face. A lot of us had heard it before. We’d had kids. “You know, I was suggesting this to make things easier for you, right?”
We knew.
“This doesn’t look easier.”
We pointed out that the fire precautions were both cheaper and more generally useful than the old graveyard guard had been and we stopped when it was obvious she was just waiting for her turn to talk again.
“Sky burial. Lay out your dead for the birds. You’ve got crows around here, right? Ravens? Turkey vultures? Do it. Just smack up the bones with a mallet afterwards, they won’t go anywhere otherwise.”
And she walked out of town again.
So we tried it. But we kept the fire brigade at work anyways, and we were glad of it. We do what we know works, here in Downsville. And we don’t forget it, either.

It’s a long walk, the path out there. Well-worned, well-tended. There’s flowers, and people that tend them. And the pallbearers use oiled wood that doesn’t so much as creak, let alone groan, god no. No sound but soft footsteps and sobs all the way to the burial platform, where we leave them to be as they were born: naked and soft.
Then we walk back while the antiaircraft guns fire.
She was waiting for us on the road back again, hands bloody and covered in feathers. She didn’t have a gun, the travelling girl.
“So. I see people in Downsville still do things differently.”
Well, who doesn’t where?
“There’s different, there’s different, there’s DIFFERENT different, and then there’s just plain obstinate. So, when did the birds get this big?”
It was a bit of a fuzzy record, that. See, back in the old days they were the size of junkyard dogs and a strong arm with a bat’d keep them away. Then they got bigger and meaner, and we broke out the shotguns. Nowadays they’d carry your car off, if you let them, and the funerary business around here was awfully dependant on army surplus.
“Right. Right. Hey, any of you got a cigarette? I don’t smoke but I really need to say that. Right. Right. Okay.”
The travelling girl walked around town about three times saying things like that. In the end she wasn’t much calmer but she was sure dustier. Her patience hadn’t improved any either.
“I’m out of ideas,” she told us. “You’re all too stubborn, even after you die. You linger and make a mess for years after you’ve stopped being even REMOTELY useful and I’ve worn out the last threadbare hint of a germ of a ghost of a favour I owed Elsie. Wad it up and throw it all in the trash for all I care; I’m out.”
And the travelling girl left, but she left something behind by mistake: a damned good idea.

Downsville doesn’t have a cemetery any more. The bonfires haven’t roared for years. The old anti-aircraft guns were turned into public statuary, and the pigeons that poop on them are normal birds.
Our garbage dump does moan a lot, late at some nights. But there’s ten thousand tons of mangled, immortal plastic twixt us and whatever we put in there.
I realize this all might seem a bit strange to you, but you really must remember.
That’s just the way it goes in Downsville.