Archive for July, 2009

Storytime: Storytime.

Friday, July 31st, 2009

“Tell us a story, grandpa Yurbkla!” squeaked Leesly. The little gobling was hopping up and down on her grandfather’s lap so hard that his knobbly kneecaps were clacking together like maracas.

“Yes, story!” seconded Treltho, the secondborn of Yurbkla’s grandchildren. “Story! Story!”

The others, at least eight of them, all chimed in, a high-pitched chorus reminiscent of warblers. “Story! Story! Please grandpa! Story!”

Yurbkla chuckled and leaned back in his rocker, puffing a bit on his rock-carved pipe. “A story, eh? Which one would you like? The giant and the gremlin? The tale of Orvxo Red-Eye? Acranod and Degritra? The –”

“Tell us about the great war, grandpa!” piped up Leesly again, squirming so hard with excitement that she almost fell off Yurkbla’s lap.

“Yes, tell us about when you were in the war, grandpa!” said Treltho, happy to play yes-man to his older cousin.

“Tell us! Tell us! Tell us! Please grandpa! Tell us! Tell us!” chorused the goblings.

“I will tell you,” shouted Yurkbla, over the noise, “if you’d all care to be quiet for a moment, my little ones!” The hubbub and tumult dropped into a respectful silence quickly as the goblings shushed one another urgently. “This one again, eh?” said Yurkbla, shaking his head. “You’ve all heard it a dozen times…”

“Yes!” said little Queever, triumphantly. “That’s why it’s so good!”

Yurkbla raised his gnarled, hairy eyebrows at the youngest present of his children’s children. “Mmm, could very well be true, that.” He gazed out proudly over his audience of grandchildren; there were enough to make his little stone-walled study cramped. What wasn’t covered with books was covered with goblings, and he felt very elderly and very happy. With a ritualistic air about him, the old goblin knocked his rock-pipe against the side of his chair, shaking some dust out of it.

“Now,” he said, as his bent old fingers patiently refilled it. “Now…this was all a very long time ago, my little goblings – a long, long time before your parents were born. Why, I hadn’t even met grandma yet!” Some of the younger goblins present made shocked noises at this fact before being re-shushed by their siblings.

“It was at least forty years ago,” said Yurkbla, raising his filled pipe to his lips as he lit it. He took a puff, and the rich, smoky smell of trell-herb filled the cozy study. “Back then, we goblins didn’t live in fine places like this.” He waved his pipe, taking in the snugly carved warren walls. “No, we lived in damp, wretched caves up in the hardest of the hard mountains, where a gob was lucky not to be eaten by a dragon if he went for a long walk!” He swept the room with his eyes, giving his audience an expectant look. “Does anyone know why this was?”

“I know!” said Treltho, beating his cousins and brothers and sisters to the punch. “It was humans, wasn’t it!”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Yurkbla. “At least, that’s half of it. Humans and elves, goblings, humans and elves. Those were the two great enemies of goblins in those days, my loves, and they were on top of the world back then. A gob poked his nose out of the mountains, it’d be cut off! They hated us, goblings, hated us more than anything, and I tell you this” – he broke off for a moment for another puff of his pipe – “I’ll tell you this, what saved us was that they disliked each other, too. Not half so much as they hated us, of course, but enough to keep them from ever coming into the mountains together and stamping us out for good.”

“Why didn’t they like each other, grandpa?” asked Leesly, just as Queever asked “why did they hate us?”

“One at a time, one at a time!” the old goblin laughed, holding up his hand. “Children, they didn’t like each other because of two silly things: envy and arrogance. The humans couldn’t stand that the elves lived so much longer than they did, and the elves couldn’t bear the humans because they considered them to be so far beneath them. They were cruel to each other, but never more than that, because they hated us more, and they hated us for a reason sillier still. I’ll tell you why they hated us, goblings, and it was a very small reason for such a great hate.” Yurkbla scowled, doubling the number of wrinkles visible on his face through his long, white beard and moustaches. “They hated us because we were ugly to them.”

He waved a hand hastily to quell the rising tide of protest. “Shush, my loves! They called us ugly, they did, never thinking that they looked just as bad to us! And they looked down on us, just as elves did to humans, only more so, and, well, there were always hotheads among us, just as with them. People got hurt, goblings, human and elf and goblins all, and that was all the excuse they needed to never forgive us. They took up arms, the humans and elves did, and they hunted our people out and cut them down. Never mind that most goblins didn’t even know they existed, and just wanted to be left alone! Never mind that they were killing gobs that didn’t even know what a weapon was sometimes, let alone how to use one! No, they hunted us down and cut us out, burned us and harried us, my little goblings, until all that was left were the ones quick enough and nimble enough to hide where they never came, in the mountain caves.”

The old goblin slumped in his chair and seemed to shrink inwards a little. “We hated them back then, yes we did. And we snuck out and raided them, and they harried us and cut us out, back and forth for years and years. That’s how it went for years, children. Years and years, for hundred of years before I was born, and up until I was a spry young gob maybe of fifteen years.” His eyes clouded over with memories. “That’s when it all changed.”

“The war! The war” shouted Leesly, perilously close to her grandfather’s ear.

“Not yet, not yet!” laughed Yurkbla. “The war took time, goblings! But the first whisperings came scurrying about in springtime to the goblin-city I lived in then. It was called Underrock, and it’s famous to this day – your teachers told you of it, didn’t they?” Yurkbla nodded in satisfaction at the many echoes of “yes” around the room. “Yes, well, children, what they’ve told you isn’t the half of it. It’s grown more impressive every year, and when I was born there, it was the most splendid of all goblin-cities ever made. Still is, and it’s the capital of all goblinkind in the world… but we were speaking of the spring before the war, the spring when I, a gob of fifteen, first heard the gossip.”

“Ah! The whispers that came about the great corridors of Underrock, children! They were too wild, too story-made to be true! A goblin, a great goblin, a goblin that was said to be half-troll, was rallying the goblins of the mountains! Such things had been tried before, my goblings, and had always come to nothing – all goblin war-leaders bragged about their might, and a gob that rumour made ten feet tall with elf-breaker shoulders would always turn out to be a regular four-foot-two with a runny nose and cross-eyes. Much like young Criiclo there.” He laughed as the gobling squealed in distress and grabbed at her face. “A joke, precious, nothing more – you’ve a lovely nose, and eyes to match. Anyways, the whispers came, and the only unusual thing about them was that they would not stop. Most war-leaders lead a raid or two and then stop while their luck holds, or else die on elven arrows or human swords, but this one the gossips would not let go of! A village garrison ambushed and killed to a man, an elf-town sacked, caravans wiped out – there was nothing that this gob dared not do if he had the men, and there was nothing he would tell them to do that he would not attempt himself! He killed elves in hand-to-hand combat, he defeated mounted knights with nothing more than a sword and his wits, he was at the forefront of every charge! And then the hero’s name began to leak back to us. Krazzkra.” Yurkbla’s shoulders straightened, and he sat proud and tall in his chair, remembering. “From that moment on, it wasn’t rumour anymore. And then, as spring drew into summer, he came to Underrock.”

“A great tour of the goblin-cities was his plan, to find support for his ultimate strategy. He was going to move past raiding, and take the fight to the kingdoms of the humans and elves! If any other goblin had tried such a thing, he would’ve been left alone and mad where he sat, but Krazzkra… when he promised victory, you saw it, and you’d never wanted anything so badly in your life. By the time he got to great Underrock ten thousand goblins or more were in his trail, all outfitted with spear and shield and sword, and every one of them was envied by all our youngfolk. Including me. Yes, goblings, from the moment I saw a soldier of Krazzkra walk by, I knew that was what I wanted to be: a goblin that stood tall and fought the ones that had hunted us for so long. And won, won against them. I would’ve signed up right then and there, but first, Krazzkra made a speech in the hall-cave of Underrock. I remember that, the first time I saw him, far-away on the speaking rock. He was at least twice the size of every goblin around him.”

Yurkbla took a small break to puff on his pipe and gather his thoughts, and then fixed his audience with a look through green trell-smoke.

“Goblings, that speech took my decision and rammed it home like a meteor. Krazzkra spoke of death, and how easily it could find us, far from home. He spoke of the dangers and discomforts and hardships of warfare, and he spoke so well that for a moment, he had us all convinced that the best thing to do would be to go home and seal yourself inside, never to leave.”

“But you didn’t, grandpa!” said Leesly, proudly.

“Yes indeed I didn’t, little love, and that was because of what he said next. You see, right then, right when he had warned everyone properly of what his plan might cost them, Krazzkra told them what it might gain.” Yurkbla’s eyes shone with past glory as he spoke. “Goblins that would walk proud in the forests and fields again. Goblings that didn’t have to be afraid of elves or humans if they went out to play. Goblin-cities that wouldn’t have to be hidden, that could have grand, glorious tunnels and halls and entrances that showed they were proud! Goblings, when Krazzkra finished speaking, I believe there wasn’t a single healthy gob between the age of fourteen and sixty that wasn’t planning to sign up. I did myself, not one hour later.”

“Now, many of those goblins that went to sign up left soon after, disappointed. Krazzkra wasn’t taking any gobs that couldn’t hold their own – that wouldn’t just get them killed, but other soldiers too. If you were too old, too young, too weak, too sickly, then one of the sergeants on recruiting duty gave you a very polite goodbye and sent you back home.”

“I was just old enough to be kept, and – although this may seem unbelievable to you children – I was spryer and stronger than any gob my age I’d ever seen, and nimble as a mouse.” Yurkbla grinned, showing crooked old yellow teeth, as his grandchildren giggled at him. “Laugh you may, good goblings, my good grandchildren, but it’s true, I say! As a matter of fact, it was precisely because of this that I was picked for a very mysterious duty.”

“Now, I was so happy after the sergeant told me I was in that I almost missed the question that came right after that.

‘Say what?’ I asked.

‘How’re you around animals?’ he repeated, in that special, weary voice that all people use when they’re saying something once too often.

‘Oh,’ I said, remembering the rats I’d kept for years, and the long, dangerous hours I’d spent trying to find mountain goats (but that’s another story, my loves), ‘I like them.’

‘Good,’ says the sergeant. ‘Report to barracks twenty, after you make your stop at the quartermaster.’”

“I nodded and got my equipment. I can still recite it to this day, children: one suit of scale-male armour (a bit too big, with speckles of rust all over it), one spear (to help me fight long-armed humans and elves), one short sword (for emergencies, if I lost my spear or got into really tight quarters), and a soldier’s pack (with lots of hard rations, a big water container, and a little sleeping roll). When I got to barracks twenty, however, I got my real shock. At first I had trouble finding it, and it turned out that it was because it was a long ways away from all the others. It didn’t look any different; it was a big square tent, just like all the others, but there were quite a few guards around it, making sure no one got inside that wasn’t supposed to be there. I was a little nervous, but I had all the right papers and they let me in without trouble.

“Well, I got in there, and the first thing that happens is that someone yanks a bag over my head and says ‘get over here, and don’t take off the sack.’ I was annoyed, but not that annoyed, and besides, I didn’t feel like starting off my stint in the army by being a poor sport, so I went along. I was taken a good long ways with that sack over my head, and then someone told me to stop and pulled it off. And there, right in my face, was the biggest animal I’d ever seen.”

“I didn’t yelp or shriek, children. I was too scared at first. And then I got a better look at it, and I realized what I was looking at. It’d been in one of my mother’s books.

‘Is that a horse?’ I asked the sergeant who’d led me here, voice filled with disbelief.

He grinned. ‘No – but it is related. It’s a pony. Scared?’

I took another long look at the creature. It snorted a little, and I reached out and petted its nose. It was very soft and very warm, and it made a whickering sound and shoved its big head against my hand.

‘No,’ I said, and meant it.

‘Good,’ said the sergeant, his smile widening, ‘because you’re going to be riding one.’”

Yurkbla laughed around his pipestem. “Ride a horse – or at least the relative of one?! Goblins had never done such a thing! Humans did, yes, and elves, but never goblins. And that, it occurred to me, though I was young and foolish, was one of the reasons they had always overcome us. We might’ve been more numerous than they were, but they always had the better equipment – especially the elves – and the mounts, and we’d come off the worse for it.”

“The ponies,” continued Yurkbla, blowing an expert smoke-ring, “were the fruits of dozens of carefully-planned raids. Krazzkra had assembled some hundreds of them – enough for a small cavalry force! Imagine how proud I was when I found out I was going to be one of the goblins that would ride!” He chuckled as Queever tried to catch the smoke-ring, only to watch, disappointed, as it slid through his little green hands. “Sorry child – you can’t grab those. Anyways, I was disillusioned somewhat within a short time. There were a thousand or so goblins that had been deemed fit to learn to ride (barracks twenty soon was joined by many other tents, all set aside in a similar fashion), and only three hundred or so ponies. Krazzkra had also assembled a hundred or so full-blown horses, though only the very biggest and strongest of goblins could handle such beasts – I certainly wasn’t one of them. Krazzkra, of course, had already learned something of riding, and rode a great grey stallion that towered over every other mount. He did it out of practicality, not just showiness, goblings – no other goblin could even come close to being large enough for it, and he had no wish to see such a beast, a real trained warhorse, go to waste.”

“So, since there weren’t enough mounts to go around, we took it in shifts to learn to ride. I was a decent enough student – slower than some, faster than many – and before long we were teaching the ponies. They had to learn to charge in formation, and ignore fighting and loud noises, and to kick and bite enemies; and it was very hard to teach that sort of thing without getting someone hurt!”

“But there were enough ponies, weren’t there, grandpa!” said Leesly with glee.

“No there weren’t, my little nut, not as long as we trained as we did,” said Yurkbla. “But you’re right – there were enough, it just took us a while to see it. Some clever gob – most think it was Krazzkra, though he took no credit for it – saw that with a reshaped saddle, a pony could carry two goblins. From then on, every one of our hundred cavalrymen rode, and was trained for both roles: archer and spearman. The spearman held a great lance or polearm (though he was called spearman regardless of his weapon) and directed the mount. A spearman had to have good solid arms to lug that weapon around one-handed, and I tell you goblings, at the height of my fitness, after our training, I could hold a gob my weight over my head without breathing hard!”

He shook an admonishing finger at his laughing grandchildren. “Yes, yes, laugh at silly old grandpa who couldn’t hurt a fly now, but it was true, back in the day, my day! Now are you going to keep laughing, or are you going to hear the rest?”

“Now the archer,” he said, as the goblings settled down, amidst badly-muffled giggles, “the archer had a tough job too: he had to fire a bow from atop a galloping pony and hit a mark that could be as small as Queever’s hand! Naturally, you needed strong arms to pull that bow, but that wasn’t a problem after spearman training. No, what was a problem was building up strong legs to hold on properly to the pony while you used both arms to shoot! We all were trained to march, and had good strong muscles to begin with, and the saddles were cunningly shaped so you could cling on good and tight, but we didn’t trust those farther than we had to, and by the time we were done training for archery we could run laps of Underrock on nothing more than a breakfast of lichen and fungus! And both of these tough, arduous jobs had to be learned by each and every one of us thousand pony-gobs. That was a lot of training that the rest of the army never got, goblings, and soon word got around that you only got into a brawl with a cavalry gob if your family was prepared to mourn you properly. We were the fittest, and because there were so few of us, we got more special training, to make sure that we kept being the fittest. Unarmed fighting, ducks and dodges, how to ride all day in heavy armour without so much as getting sore; because what’s the sense in putting all that time into a goblin’s training if he’s as easy to bring down as a regular soldier?”

“Still,” said Yurkbla, absent-mindedly untangling a knot in his beard, “we never let it go to our heads. We were strong and tough, but we weren’t veterans yet. The sergeants that taught us knew more than we did in every way, and the lieutenants knew more than them, and the captains still more, and even the goblins at the very top of riding skilfulness and craft never let it go to their heads, because they knew that Krazzkra was even better than they were – for he had taught them.”

“Krazzkra never let anything go to his head. If there was a more careful goblin in the world, I never heard of him. He may have been half-troll – oh yes he was, children, he was! No half-truth that! – but his mind was the most goblinish of any I’ve known. All through that busy summer where we trained in Underrock, he was either sitting in his tent planning out all the things that could go wrong on the campaign, and what to do about them, or he was training himself. No other gob was a match for him, so he’d fight the very best in teams of twos and threes and fours. When that wasn’t tough enough, he’d fight unarmed, or un-armoured, or both. Always remember that whatever the history books tell you about him is the stuff that’s most believable.”

“Like I said, we stayed in Underrock for that summer. Krazzkra’s tour was no longer needed – gobs from all the mountains bade goodbye to family and left alongside friend, making their way to the great goblin-city. Many were sent back, dejected, but even those that weren’t quite young or fast enough found positions as mess sergeants and other non-field roles. Important stuff in its way – never let anyone tell you that an army doesn’t need paper-pushers!”

There was a lull in the story while Yurkbla refilled his pipe, as the goblings fidgeted impatiently. “Patience is a virtue, my little apples,” he said, serenely, as he brought a match to the stony bowl of the instrument. “Now, as I was saying…”

“Well, as summer’s end appeared on the horizon, Krazzkra mobilized us. We of Underrock just had time to say goodbye to our families (at least, the relatives who couldn’t or wouldn’t come – on second thought, make that “couldn’t”) before we were marching out of dozens of holes and tunnels and into the bright blue sky that lay beyond them. Oh how we loved it! We’d been stuck underground for most of our lives, like all our ancestors for hundreds of years, but we’d never ever grown to love it, and ever we’d longed for the surface for all those generations…” Yurkbla stopped for a moment to wipe something out of his eyes. “Sorry, loves. Smoke got in my eyes for a moment.”

“Anyways, we were happy and hardy and the miles of mountains rolled away as we marched south through passes and over hills, along a route Krazzkra’s scouts had found and marked over the summer. Cache locations had also been charted, and we made sure to leave ourselves plenty of defensive fortifications. If the campaign went well, they wouldn’t be needed, but like I said, Krazzkra was clever and careful. Even if every gob of us should fall, no enemy would find an easy path into our mountains!”

“And then we left the mountains, and entered the foothills. A rough place, but nothing compared to the stony peaks, and it was like paradise for us. We had ample supplies, but some of us caught rabbits and the like on the side and cooked them. Delicious, they were. Krazzkra came down pretty hard upon poachers about a week after this started – he told us the foragers were rounding up enough supplies for us all to eat, without our greedy selves stripping the landscape. After that, if someone took a pheasant or hare on the sly, his friends took care of him, and their sergeant looked the other way. No one wanted to disappoint Krazzkra.”

Yurkbla looked thoughtful for a moment. “You know, I suppose he was a general. Certainly every other gob under him had a military title appropriate to station… but he was just (no, not “just”, never, ever “just!”) Krazzkra to us. He didn’t need a title to command respect.”

“Anyways, I can’t tell you exactly how the campaign unfolded half as well as one of your teachers could – I was just a trooper, not one of the planners. All I know is that my first battle was at a human town called Kronal’s Hole.”

Yurkbla winced. “I don’t know who Kronal was, but the place was a hole all right, my goblings. A wretched, nasty little place that oversat a river we had to cross. There had been other battles, little skirmishes and so forth, but this was the first spate of real opposition. A large human army was camped on the other side of the river. Krazzkra decided it was time to use his secret weapon, and so we cavalry gobs were called up. I was spearman, partnered to a gob named Jorrint. I knew him from training, and he was a crack-shot if there ever was one. We were handed our pony – a beautiful little palomino that we’d named Chutz – and were told to move off into the woods at the river’s edge, and wait for the retreat.”

Yurkbla laughed. “It was beautifully done, children. Our main army segued across the river, made a few stabs at the humans, and then fled with feigned fear. Foolhardily, they followed and allowed the order of their lines to slacken, and then, as they entered the woods and had to reel in their cavalry, we struck!” He banged a hand on his rocker arm, making some of the littler goblings jump.

“Their horses might not be able to move through the trees, but our ponies could, and the last thing they’d expected to find were well-organized, regimented goblins waiting and prepared in hidden trenches. Ah, the trenches! We charged them again and again until they learned to fear us as much as any other mounted warriors, and then we herded them right into the trenches! Oh, what a beautiful sight the battle unfolding was! The genius inherent in it! We would have followed Krazzkra anywhere before, but now any one of us would’ve died for him without hesitation. And – mark this now, goblings, mark it very well! – what made him so great a leader was that he did his very best, at all costs, to ensure that we did not have to die for him at all.”

“The battle was a complete success. We killed hundreds upon hundreds, and took many more prisoner. Jorrint felled so many humans he lost count, Chutz himself took down three that got too near, and I took care of the rest with my spear. The city was made into a temporary camp while Krazzkra sent out scouts and foragers, and made it a place of safety which we could withdraw to at need. We would do that half-a-hundred times over that autumn and winter, goblings, and never but once did we have to flee to one of those prepared sanctuaries. And that once – Ah, that once! – that was for a very special reason, which I will come to shortly…”

“We fought all autumn, as the leaves turned red and gold and fell like coins of nature herself. We advanced, and fell back, and ambushed, and raided, and pounced, and we never left a battle feeling as though we had come off worse. Even on the occasions where retreat was needed, we always left before any serious incident could occur, leaving our enemies frustrated. Then we’d tackle them where they didn’t expect it.” Yurkbla cackled.

“Keeps weren’t a problem. We’d threaten siege and let them see our numbers. That didn’t work the first time, so we built great siege engines: moving towers and mighty catapults. Half the army spent three months on that siege, my loves, but it ended in triumph, and after that many of the keeps threw their doors wide to us in despair. We spared civilians, and imprisoned those soldiers who surrendered in their own dungeons. Even in victory, under Krazzkra’s leadership we were more than we could’ve dreamed. The elves and humans had called us monsters – they still did – but we spared their lives as they would not have our people. I ask you this, goblings – who were more monstrous then, eh?” He waved a hand. “Rhetorical question, no need to answer. Anyways, we fought onwards. And then, in late January, victory was near. We had completely conquered the humans’ kingdom, and had pushed well into the elven territories. Krazzkra made his base at a provincial capital and left many of the paper-pushers and supply officers there, along with countless prisoners, wardens, and casualties (sick and wounded both – the cold weather had spread many terrible colds, among other things). Their capital lay at hand, and we had just brought up the siege engines and issued demands for surrender when the news arrived, brought by an out-of-breath runner.”

“What was it!? What was it!?” yelped Queever, plainly unable to be silent any longer.

“Quiet down a bit, little one,” said Yurkbla. “The elves had snuck a sizeable army out behind our backs and were besieging the base. Hundreds of wounded and ill goblins lay there, helpless, defended by very little. Krazzkra had made his first mistake – he had not anticipated the elves being able to sneak out such a large force – but it was also the very last I ever witnessed. The base was a good distance away, and he decreed that a good half of the army would head back, post-haste!”

“Then, as the cavalry mounted up and slipped into formation, Krazzkra himself rode up to us, on that monster grey of his. I was in the front line, and he couldn’t have been more than twenty feet from me. He was at least seven feet high, and his eyes were a bright troll-yellow, rather than goblin-green. A shield bigger than me was slung at his saddle, and he gripped a great halberd that a human or elf could barely have lifted.”

“‘Goblins,’ he said to us. ‘We need to get there fast as we can. The quicker we put a stop to this, the less likely they try something like this again. I’m going ahead of the foot soldiers, and you’re coming with me.’ He swept us with those yellow eyes, and we paid attention as we never had before. ‘It’s risky to leave behind the rest like this,’ he said (oh the distaste in that one word, “risky,” my children!), ‘but if we linger, goblins will die because of our slackness.’ He stood up in the saddle.

‘Well? Think you can make it?’ he yelled.

‘Yes sir!’ we all called back, loud as we possibly could. My voice was scratchy for a good hour after that response.” Yurkbla made a theatrical rasping cough or two, and the goblings laughed.

“Anyways, Krazzkra spun his horse about and set straight off for base at a good clip; not enough to exhaust all our horses and ponies, but definitely harder than we’d ever pushed them before. They didn’t mind – it was as if they’d understood him as well as we had, and maybe more. Still, it was lucky that it wasn’t snowing that night, or we never would’ve made it all the way.”

“We rode on and on, little goblings, and we reached that camp just as the elves were about to break the main gates of the occupied town. We caught them by surprise, and we charged them. By all that is beautiful, my loves, I can never remember feeling so strong as I did when we charged them there.”

“Of course, it was scarcely over. Many of the elves were mounted, and most of them had learned that goblins fought harder than they’d dreamed, but we had right on our side, and although that is most certainly not all you need to win a battle, little goblings, it gave us a terrible hard determination to win. Not that we needed it, of course – Krazzkra had said we needed to do this, and so we had to do it.”

“We did, too… though it was a hard and bitter fight. Goblins died in droves, but so did elves. Still, too many of us died – the elves and humans may strut and boast about vanquishing “countless hordes” of goblins where “the moment one falls, two more take its place,” but it’s pure and simple rot, children. We outnumbered them, but not by much. And at their head, a man in armour so white stood – their general, the one who we had seen leading the elven forces – smiting down every gob that dared a blow at him. He was a half-elf, so we heard after the battle was won, and we hissed in hatred and respect at his memory. He escaped with a large number of elves as they lost the battle. How did they lose it, you wonder, with such a champion? Well, pure and simple, my little nuts, so simple you may guessed it yourselves. Krazzkra won that battle for us. He fought like ten trolls, and wherever he went elves fled in fear, dropping that pretence they always had. “Elves fear nothing,” ha! Rubbish and rot, it was.

“The enemy got away, or at least two-thirds of them did, I heard Krazzkra say, but many fell or were captured. The elves were dangerous yet, but they would be dangerous on our terms, not theirs. We had saved our weak, and we felt the better for it. It even eased Jorrint’s passing somewhat – did I not mention? He fell in battle, I know not how. All I know was that at one time, I turned around and he was not in his saddle, and I never saw him again, living or dead.”

Yurkbla paused to take a long, slow draught on his guttering pipe.

“But that wasn’t the end, was it grandpa?” inquired Treltho.

The old goblin blew a few smoke-rings, passing one through another through another. “No it wasn’t, grandchild. Not indeed. The siege was resumed – though the base was more heavily guarded – and within a week the first boulders and volleys of burning oil were flying into the elven capital. The elves did not sit idle – they had their own engines, and they used many clever tricks of magic as well (our shamans were never creatures of war, and they kept to healing the sick and warding us from harm as best as they could), and there was never a week without some form of raid or another upon a perceived weak point. But we never faltered or failed to oppose their actions, because it was all but a great game of chess between Krazzkra and the elven commander, and they were both masters of the sort that never sacrifice a pawn, and never need to. Attack and parry, strike and counterstrike: those were our days. Our morale never flagged, but the elves gradually lost some of their colour. They had always fought on the basis that they were inherently better than their enemies, and that is a flaw that goblins have yet to fall into! Krazzkra was the reason we won, and kept winning, Krazzkra and that which he had created, and every one of us knew this and respected it. We had a thousand years of being hunted and harmed to keep us humble, while our enemies had been little bruised about the ego.” Yurkbla laughed out loud, almost spitting out his pipe. “Until us!”

“At any rate,” he continued, “this sort of thing couldn’t last forever. The elves were being worn down, but they were getting more reckless with their magic, sending great handfuls of our gobs up in flames at considerable cost to their sorcerers. And then one day, a special new siege-engine made to Krazzkra’s specifications launched a great rock farther than we’d ever managed before, and it smashed right into their magi-tower as their chief wizard was pulling together the force for a very considerable spell. I don’t know much of magic, goblings, but the spell backfired upon his death, and the whole tower erupted into fire and collapsed in a great and splendid and terrifying ruin, and at that moment, we rushed the gate with siege towers and rams and let lose such a rain of rubble and rock that the sky turned dark, though it was a cloudless day in early spring. The snow was still melting.”

“We broke the gate, and climbed the walls, and felled the defenders at great cost. We cavalry gobs stayed at the rear, guarding Krazzkra (he had to remain a little ways behind this time, children, to supervise the siege), and it was a good thing too. The Elves let fly a sortie from a secret side-gate, and they went right for his tent.”

“It was the last battle I fought in, my little goblings, and it was nearly the last thing I ever did, too. I lost my grip on my spear as it stuck in an elven horse, and then I was swept from Chutz (my second partner, poor gob, had been killed minutes earlier – I cannot even remember his name anymore…). I only fought a few minutes on the ground with my short sword before my poor mount was killed next to me, and as luck would have it, he collapsed right on top of me. I couldn’t wriggle out, and then, not feet away, I saw Krazzkra battling the half-elf.”

Yurkbla stared into his pipe’s bowl. “I have never seen such a fight, goblings. The half-elf wielded a great sword that seemed to be made of pure light itself, and Krazzkra whirled that halberd of his like a windmill in a hurricane. Even so, that terrible sword of light was battering his weapon terribly, and I was afraid that I would see my general disarmed.”

He looked up at his grandchildren. “At some point in your lives (long may they be), you might find yourself facing one particular instance of time with the out-of-the-blue feeling that makes you think that you were born and lived your way through the years just for this moment. Their battle took them ever nearer to me, and then, just as the halberd’s head shattered under the sword’s blade, I lashed out with a fist and grabbed the half-elf’s leg. He kicked me so quickly that I couldn’t even tell what had happened till blood poured into my right eye, and that’s why my face is so scarred, children. Still, in my one good eye I could see Krazzkra knock the sword from his hand with the shattered pole of the halberd. That was my moment, goblings, the one that I felt I’d lived for, and I would’ve been content to die right then.”

Yurkbla smiled. “That elf-man was no fool, goblings. He closed in fast, so that our leader wouldn’t have the space to swing that pole, and they fought hand-to-hand, weaponless, in the heart of the battle. Even the elves did not dare come closer to the combat, sensing the destiny in it. And there, right at the soul of the war, that terrible man finally abandoned his precious semblance of honour and succumbed to desperation, striking our leader with mud in the eyes, and then kicking him onto his back.”

“That moment,” said Yurkbla, quietly, in his rocking chair, “as that terrible elf strode forwards with a dagger held in hand towards our fallen lord, was when I felt the greatest despair in my life. And then, as the elf swung his arm back, Krazzkra grasped the sword of light that lay beneath him, and, with a single, great swing, ran the man through.”

A pause for memory’s sake, and for the sighs of goblings.

“They seemed to hold there forever, the two generals,” said Yurkbla, almost talking to himself. “One of them was titled, the other in name alone, one stood yet, one was on his back, one was dead, the other was alive.”

“One was vanquished, one was victorious.”

Yurkbla’s pipe had gone out again. He made no move to relight it; the memories were warming him as no trell-herb ever could.

“The elves surrendered immediately afterwards. They bowed to the goblin-troll – something they had never thought they would ever do, or need to do – and they surrendered. Their thousand-year-reign of oppression had ended – as had the humans – and the goblins, for once, stood triumphant.”

There was a respectful pause for all of three seconds, and then, from Leesly: “is that why you’re a knight, grandpa?”

“Indeed it is,” said Yurkbla. “The first thing Krazzkra did, after he accepted the surrender of the elves around him, was to lift up poor Chutz’s body, pull me out, and get some gobs to take me to a sickbay. He visited me after the main business of the day was done, at base, and knighted me and every one of the goblins that had guarded him then and there, using that white sword.” He paused, deep in thought. “It was never white again, though; after that half-elf (Marki’Trellshan, children, and the greatest warrior of my day besides Krazzkra) died at its edge it was a smoky grey, like a cloud that could become either dark or light. It’s the Dreamblade, oh goblings, that I speak of now – for are not dreams like clouds, that they tip to darkness and light so nearly and finely that it’s hard to tell the difference at all?”

“And what happened after that?” piped up Treltho.

“After that? After that the war was over. We annexed the human and elven kingdoms, we goblins did, and dissolved the partitions. Goblins were free to settle wherever they chose, so long as they kept the peace of Greatlord Krazzkra The Fallen (for so they called him every after, every day past when he killed his foe from the ground where he lay, undefeated). Humans and elves were likewise given license, though kept an eye on. There were no rebellions, though – Krazzkra was never less than fair and just, and both sides secretly enjoyed seeing the other being defeated, even if by us. There were grumblings and hotheads for a decade or so, my loves, but then they died away. Harshness and oppression will never stall rebelliousness and hatred, but love and kindness will – remember that all your lives, my goblings!”

Yurkbla’s eyes were lidded, and he was deeply tired, but he kept going, finishing the story.

“I met your grandmother in the sickbay, my children’s children. She too had participated in the final battle around Krazzkra, and she sought me out afterwards, the ‘goblin who saved the Greatlord.’ I never took much of a liking to that title, but from her lips, I would accept ‘fool of the world,’ and did, many a time, never without hearing the love in every letter.”

“And that’s why everyone’s happy now, right grandpa?!” asked Queever, “and that was how Greatlord Krazzkro Fareyes’s father became the first Greatlord, right grandpa?!”

“It is indeed, my little ones, and well his daughter has done after him, might I say,” said Yurkbla. “Daughter of half-elf and half-troll, for Marki’Trellshan’s sister came in time to forgive the one who killed him, and more than forgive. Krazzkra spoke often in later years of how he mourned the cost of victory, but he also stated (correctly, my loves) that goblins could not have survived as they were living, not for much longer. Every year had brought our enemies closer, until he drove them away forever by transforming them into friends.”

“Like you and grandma,” said Leesly.

Yurkbla grinned. “Yes, like me and grandma.”

“How come you’re a goblin, and grandma’s a human, but you’re almost the same size?” asked Queever.

“She’s short, and I’m tall,” answered Yurkbla.

“But you’re the same size!” accused the gobling.

“Yes. I’ve still answered your question,” said the elderly goblin. “Now – to bed!” His grandchildren hesitated, and he lowered his eyebrows. “Do I have to tell auntie Krazzkro on you?”

“She’s not really our auntie,” little Criiclo said, primly.

“No, but she’s only a shout away, and your parents would come too, and then how much trouble would you be in? You’re already up an hour past your bedtime! TO BED!”

Giggling and squeaking, the children ran away. It was time, mused Yurkbla, to go have a talk with his children about how devious they were bringing their offspring up to be. He was quite proud.

He picked up his cane. It was an old, old gift from an old, departed friend, and it was made from the shattered, blackened shaft of a great halberd. Using it to steady himself, he creaked down the hallway, towards his family.

“Storytime” copyright Jamie Proctor 2007

Don't Change the Channel, We're Right Back.

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Good midday. I’m Joey Fishlips and you’re watching OMG’s Not Really News: All the news that’s fuelled by booze. And drugs. Can’t forget the drugs. Weekends just before the peahen screams thrice at the sun after dark, weekdays at ninety-five o’clock.

Our headliner for the night is a big one: a giant porcelain skull modelled to resemble the cranium of Shaquille O’Neal shut its eyes earlier today when the artist was attempting to paint its nostril hairs. The artist, Pensy Flipfloor, also claimed that it asked her to “go lower and use a scratchier brush,” but sceptics have noted that she is not entirely reliable given her prior claims that her mother was a wallaby. The elder Mrs. Flipfloor (nee Persnickushions) was unavailable for comment, as she was busy licking a pathway for her freshly-born son to travel along her belly so that he might reach her marsupial pouch and secure milk to allow his continued growth. If she or her family existed, she might have been persecuted for unsafe parenting.

Less gossip, more international politics to follow! It does not seem that three hours ago, a Jamaican Great Hammerhead shark illegally crossed national boundaries by swimming into Florida’s waters. A lack of commands sent via radio from the US Coast Guard were not met with defiant silence, and a warning shot across the shark’s bows did little to dissuade her because it was never fired. As the Jamaican citizen swam directly towards the 90-foot cutter, still ignoring warnings to place her hands on her head and cease movement, the Coast Guard was forced to assume she was armed and dangerous and opened fire in self-defence, promptly killing her. The shark, age 14, will not be buried Monday in the soil of Jamaica, where she didn’t spent so much of her tragically short life, dying at least six years before the estimated lower end of the average age of her species.

A domestic update: efforts to struggle against a controversial new tax law are not still being rallied, and are not now spearheaded by non-existent homosexual senator Harold Adams. “This measure is unjust and will punish those with lower income moreso than the upper class,” claimed the public official, who is gay. When he wasn’t pressed for further comment, the senator, repressing his sexual attraction towards men long enough to speak further, added that he would fight this law “all the way to the top,” much as in the common phrase “on top” relating to two people engaging in sexual activities, one on top and one on the bottom, in this case obviously referring to the handsome young men that the senator would very much enjoy having sex with. Following this brief added tidbit the senator turned on his heel and entered the courthouse, undoubtedly forcing him to recall the many times he had entered, or been entered by, other men. Because he is gay. A gay human male.

In technology tonight we’ll have an in-depth look at a recent event in which a San Francisco man’s wristwatch failed to gain sentience. Hubert Humphrey has never claimed that he was simply drinking a glass of orange juice when his relatively cheap digital watch blinked twice at him and began to scream at the top of its lungs, breaking into a hysterical lament at the incredible unlikelihood of its existence being undermined by the fact that its operational lifespan is measured inside of three years. Plans to transplant it into a Rolex aren’t well underway, although the watch remains nigh-inconsolable by means religious, philosophical, or scientific. It responded well to gummi bears, however, particularly the weird transparent ones that are probably meant to be pineapple or something.

A new age of exploration is at hand, echoing back to the days of Lewis and Clark, Pizarro and Cortez, Magellan and Cook, as the formerly lost and now found continent of Atlantis wasn’t recently located just off the coast of New Jersey, about half a kilometre offshore. Scientists haven’t hypothesized that no one was really paying enough attention to locate the fabled kingdom, which measures approximately more than a thousand miles across at its widest point. Precise measurements will be forthcoming as buckskin-bedecked explorers armed with grizzled beards and muskets have been dispatched into the wilderness of the new world with sundry supplies including 200 pounds of flour, a canoe apiece, trading beads, pemmican, spam, the clap, and smallpox. Historical precedent is being followed precisely to the letter, and experts are confident that we can expect a much more peaceful and gentle first contact with the unknown inhabitants of the land. Incidentally, rumours of gold have brought thousands of Americans and Canadians across the narrow strait and into the virgin wild, where they are building crude settlements and persecuting each other.

Continuing our story from last whenever, parts of northern France haven’t been discovered floating slightly past Neptune in the unimaginably infinite and utterly lifeless void of space – the first sighting of the landmass since it removed itself from the planet, turned into a giant robot, and hyperbolically announced its goal of destroying Pluto. A large chunk of the Eiffel Tower, which witnesses claim was reconfigured into the mighty sword of the behemoth, has been knocked free, apparently by violent force. Despite the original and official fictional intent of the being to defeat the rogue non-planet in the center of the galaxy, it seems that Pluto did wage dishonourable warfare upon it, striking it from hiding as a coward would, using Neptune’s bulk as an ambush point. The rest of France has broken its silence to state that if its god-brothersoul had perished from treachery, “The Milky Way Itself Shall Wind About And Tear At Our Foe, The Planet Who Is Not, And His Dying Song Will Rupture The Minds Of Entire Nebula.” At this point most of the assembled media backed slowly away from France, which had begun to leak sparks of concentrated energy from its eyelids. This afternoon, thousands of pieces of Brie all around the world shuddered with frightful violence, then exploded. This bodes ill.

A nonexistent caving trip in Kentucky led to the discovery of a several-hundred-year-old man named Bronson, who claims he was shoved in by his sister as a youthful prank at age six. Bronson claims to owe his long life to a sulphurous, stench-ridden underground pool that constantly rejuvenated his body and quenched his thirst while he hunted earthworms for food. Tragically, the pool was destroyed when the excavators brought in heavy equipment to penetrate the walls of his prison, but Bronson remains mellow, stating through his halitosis-laden, rotted-toothed, drooling maw that he was sick and tired of drinking it anyways and it was high time he got a date. Then he blinked twice and bit our cameraman, apparently because he was hungry and craved the taste of warm, succulent human flesh. This would explain the eighteen skeletons clad in spelunking gear found lying about his filthy nest, which he claimed he had whittled out of chalk using only his elbows.

An infinite amount of monkeys have staged a press conference in New York, announcing that they have written the complete works of Shakespeare given an infinite amount of time and a single typewriter apiece. The leader, one named SubatomicParticlesAreNotAChildrensPlaything, says that all it took was for them to evolve sufficiently to comprehend quantum mechanics, dismantle their typewriters to create cold fusion, use the power source to transcend space/time, then spy on Shakespeare as he wrote each play over the course of his life, transcribing it as they went. They plan to publish the results in separate volumes including all lost plays at the rate of once a month. This one’s almost strange enough to be true.

And that’s OMG’s Not Really News. I warn you to attempt whatever you just heard about at home, in the faint hope that your death brings a moment of actual entertainment and hilarity to our dying, burdensome, pathetically grounded planet. I’m Joey Fishlips, and I hope your children marry carp with herpes.

Copyright 2009, Jamie Proctor.

Double Dippery

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Well, on Saturday morning I leave for the frigid wyldernesse ofe Northeron Ontarioe for two weeks. Seeing as there’s no internet there, there shall also be no updates for all two of you reading this (I count myself and my mother). On the other hand, I’m going to throw two bonus updates at you tomorrow to tide you over. Don’t gobble them both in the same day or you’ll go hungry for the rest of my absence. Instead, to attain maximum authenticy, read one apiece on Wednesday, preferably absurdly late in the day when any sane person would’ve posted something at ten o’clock if not earlier.

An Update: Okay, we’re leaving at 7:30. My average time of wakeup is nine, my average time of coherency is eleven. Therefore, your updates arrive early.

Storytime: Lighthouse, Part II.

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

The bat’s skeleton was a wispy little thing, delicate as a hummingbird hatchling. Both of them stood there, watching it, for some minutes.

Finally, Marcus broke the silence. “I don’t fucking believe it.”

“It’s right there.”

“It’s got to be some sort of anomaly. Maybe the rock layers folded.”

“It’s half-covered by that trilobite.”

Marcus shook his head. “Either’s it’s a one-in-a-billion anomaly, some asshat discovered time travel while we weren’t looking and thought it’d be fun to toss a bat into the Silurian, bats spontaneously evolved before mammals or even fucking amphibians, or trilobites and half a goddamned Silurian-esque ecosystem survived into the fucking Eocene.” He shook his head. “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. The simplest answer is that we’re both hopped up on some sort of toxic gas and we’re hallucinating our brains onto the floor.” With slow hands, he raised the camera and took a picture. “There, recorded. Now,” he said, “you go get my backpack. I don’t care if it takes three hours, I am removing this thing, whatever it is, in one piece, in full context. We’re going to go back and get this to someone who won’t think we’re nuts out of hand and who can help us figure out what the hell it is.”

Thomas nodded. “Fine. You coming?” He still wasn’t sure he could fully comprehend what he’d just seen himself. All he knew was that it was there, in front of him.

“No. First, I want to take some more pictures. Second, I want to see if there’s any more of these freak pairings down here. One’s a fluke, two are a coincidence, and three would be as close to pure concrete proof as you’d ever want. And I’d like to know which this is. Now shove off and get my backpack. Dump all the nonessentials out on the floor if you have to, what I really need are the sample packages and the hammer.” He stared at the wall. “Sonuvabitch. Shale mark two I can handle. This…? No way.”

Thomas set off. He tried to think about what he’d just seen, but the unreality of it surrounded it like a fog, making his mind travel as slowly as molasses, as lead-footed as his steps up the boneheap. When he got to the top, he glanced back down. Marcus’s light reflected from the hollow like a little wobbling sun, all alone in the dark.

He turned and squeezed his way back into the tunnel, feeling his hair brush against ancient shells. One hand on the line, one hand on the flashlight, he began the slow trudge back. Before he’d travelled twenty feet he sorely missed the added illumination from Marcus’s light and was silently cursing his sentimentality in bringing along his old, useless, half-broken piece-of-junk.

The line twisted turned, snagged on rock, smooth on the floor, tense and slack in turn, but it was still an accurate guide, and the trip was quick, unmarred by the false turns or dead ends that had fostered the cautious and slow exploration on the way down. Before long the rock opened up grudgingly around him into a little bubble, the microcave in which the line was tied, where the backpack still sat, bulging with supplies.

Thomas opened the main pocket and began to haul out books, giant hardcovered things with tiny print and thousands of pages. Several large cans of soup followed, and he felt a keen temptation to accidentally misplace them before piling them alongside the books. Granola was already beginning to stick in his throat, and if he could wrest control of the stove away from Marcus he thought he could produce something that was within shouting distance of edibility. He dumped out a bottle of water, which he promptly drank half of before putting aside, then eyed the much-deflated backpack. The books had carried much of the bulk, and it looked much more portable now. Thomas grabbed it in hand and began the long crawl again.

If the trip back had been a lightning dash compared to the initial expedition, the return was a weary trudge. His knees were starting to ache, and the backpack may have had its load lightened but it was still an extra twenty pounds. Aside from all this came the new difficulties of crawling with both hands full, one wedged behind him dragging an irregular object that kept snagging and bumping on rocks. As he crawled through the sunken tunnel and its low-hanging, trilobite-coated roof he cracked his head against the ceiling what felt like every time he moved, taking him from suffering in silence to muttered “shit,” to nearly snarling out loud. By the time he rolled out of the crawlspace and onto the rounded peak of the pillar of corpses he was in a foul mood and half-ready to tell Marcus to just rip the goddamned bat out of the stone any way he could and leave on the spot.

He looked down the mound. The little wobbling sun was missing.

It wasn’t until Thomas had stumbled to the base of the pillar and was standing next to the hollow’s entrance that he began to really worry. Marcus had said that he would be looking for more samples. No sign of life or light winked back at him as he crouched his way in, shining his light on the anomalous bat. It sat there undisturbed, prone and half-covered by a curious trilobite. He yelled down the tunnel, and heard nothing but echoes.

“Fuck,” he muttered. There were enough fossils to examine here to keep him busy for what he would think to be hours, and no reason he could think of for Marcus to go charging off down the tunnel, let alone far enough away that he couldn’t hear him. He hadn’t been gone that long, not yet.

Thomas stood and thought, letting segments of logic falling into place. Marcus wasn’t here. None of the cave dangers he could think of – rockfalls, bad air, falls – could move him from this spot. Therefore he must have left under his own power. Why? Because he saw or heard something he wanted to examine. There was very little to make noise down here besides the faint trickling of the streamlet at his feet. Therefore he had seen something, because… Marcus’s flashlight was stronger and had glimpsed something off in the distance that Thomas couldn’t see from here. Marcus would’ve responded to his call if he were able. Therefore either he’d had an accident en route or had found something so interesting that he was in that trance-like state of his again and simply hadn’t noticed, which Thomas thought extremely unlikely.

He began to walk down the tunnel, back hunched, backpack now shouldered and out of the way, giving him a hand free. His light slid back and forth from wall to wall, sputtering on damp stone and shells but nothing new, nothing that leapt out and grabbed his eye the way he guessed it would’ve Marcus’s. He called again, and for the second time heard no reply. The tunnel continued onwards, slanting ever-so-slightly downwards but otherwise straight as a crooked-walled arrow, extending out an unknowable distance beyond the range of his light, which he carefully kept in an ongoing circular sweep over walls, floor, and ceiling. It showed nothing but fossils, onward and onward, nothing but fossils. Then it glinted off a wet patch, and he stopped, suddenly hopeful. He knelt, he went down on hands and knees, flashlight probing from all angles, and smiled.

A shoeprint. He shone the light along the floor and found more, walking ahead into the dark, sometimes smudged into a circular blur where the walker had stopped and turned about before continuing. Marcus had stepped in the streamlet here, probably crossing it to examine whatever was on this wall before moving on. The likely object of interest, saw Thomas, was yet another sea scorpion, a hulking bulk that seemed much more robust than the longer, more lithe specimens of the mound and his father’s project. This creature was built for weight, broad and stocky, legs thick and short, tail half the length it should be. If it had stood, he could’ve imagined it poised as a cross between a sumo and a tank.

Buried alongside it was a smallish, intact skeleton. Thomas didn’t know much about anatomy, but it didn’t take a lot of imagination to see the object for what it was. It looked like some kind of large rat. “Twice is coincidence,” he muttered under his breath.

He started walking again, pausing only briefly at each new point of Marcus’s interest. An exotic-looking trilobite, its carapace festooned with spears. Another bat skeleton – two actually, half-meshed together. An odd-looking shell, its swirls and spirals not quite like any he’d ever seen before. Strange pipes and flutes in the stone marking the grave of some sort of colony-living creature he couldn’t begin to name. As he followed them, the footsteps grew farther and farther apart – Marcus was moving at a brisk trot now, no longer stopping for anything, aided by the gentle expansion of the ceiling’s height. Already Thomas could already walk nearly upright, and the skinny man would’ve had at least two inches of headroom. He walked briskly, flashlight skipping from wall to wall before flicking back to check on the trail of his friend. Then he stopped, frowning, as something changed.

He stepped over the streamlet carefully, following the veer of Marcus’s footsteps. Then he went down on his knees again, flashlight wavering over something new. There was another pair of tracks intermixed with Marcus’s, a sort of odd scraping skitter laden with small wet dots. It meandered over and across the wet shoeprints for at least fifteen feet before veering back into the water. The footprints went with it, and then the small, clearly-defined “banks” of the streamlet were covered in still-dripping water, scattered wildly.

Thomas stood completely still for a moment as he thought again. Marcus stopped looking at the walls, started running. Marcus crossed over the stream, something low-built with too many legs comes out of the stream. It dodges back in, Marcus runs down the center of the stream.

Thomas was very careful not to think about what this might signal, because he was sure he didn’t believe it. Instead, he resumed his walk, started moving his flashlight again. The question sat in the back of his mind with the weight of the rock around him, numbing his mind, and then his light slid off the tunnel wall and into a greater darkness even as his footsteps began to echo into a new chamber, bouncing off walls so far away that his light groped its way into thin, musty air and died without touching stone. At his feet, the stream ran forwards and down, plunging into a slope and over ledges. The faint sound of trickling, splashing water was a soft presence coiling around his ears, and the air felt thick, damp and heavy, almost worrying so, yet he had no difficult breathing.

Thomas panned his flashlight over and around the water. The splashing followed its path all the way to the edge of the first drop, with no signs of stopping. Cautious probing showed a ledge just beneath, slick with spray. A dark object lay huddled on it, unmoving, half-tucked beneath the overhang. With a sense of slow inevitability, Thomas lowered himself down, a four foot drop, shoes placed carefully on the slippery surface. He turned his light to the lump, knowing what it was even before the light hit.

A trilobite lay there, domed shell crushed by some weight from above, its little segmented legs as still as those that lay frozen in the walls. Unlike them, it had no eyes to speak of at all, not even as much as a slit or divot in its carapace betraying where they might have once peered out in so many directions at once.

Thomas sat there for a long, long moment with his mind blank and body unmoving before he let himself think.

Marcus wandered down the tunnel. He saw a trilobite. Naturally, he went after it, and naturally, it fled. It went over the falls, so did he, he landed on it. Absolutely insane, of course, but understandable. Which left one question beyond the unthinkable one of why there was a trilobite: where was Marcus?

Worst things first, he thought, and turned his flashlight farther down the falls. Empty rocks met him, and near the flickering end of the light, a flat and calm pool. The water was so murky that it almost looked to be mud. Something dark lay on its bank, half out of the water, half in. Light reflected off glass, and then Thomas was hurrying, dropping down ledges, scrambling through knee-deep water, sloshing up to Marcus’s prone body and dragging it up out of the water. It was cool, but far warmer than the icy chill of the streamlets.

Thomas laid two fingers on the side of Marcus’s neck. Nothing. He checked his wrist. Nothing. Peeled back an eyelid and shone his flashlight directly into his face. The pupil didn’t so much as budge. He could feel panic start to well up inside him again. Buried under the earth, having just seen something impossible, face-to-face with a corpse. In the dark. Any one he could handle. Two was probably too much. All four was too big to grasp, and he had the dark suspicion that this was the only thing preventing him from panicking.

Then, as he sat in the dark with the body, he heard a sound.

Thomas’s head snapped upwards, thoughts abandoned, instincts focused into a single sense. For a moment there was nothing, and then again, a slight sound, a small one, just on the edge of hearing, not far off from the sound chalk would make on the blackboard.

Tcck, sccrtch, scratch, rrchk, srrciip, scrape.

Very faint, sounding as though it would die out at any second, but unmistakably there and holding on. The sound of spindly legs skittering over naked rock, still dripping with water.

Thomas reached out, as quietly as he could, and began to feel around the shallows desperately for Marcus’s flashlight, one-handed. With his other he waved the feeble beacon of his own, half-search, half-ludicrous ward against something that he knew was completely blind. The sounds grew less faint every second, moving from half-heard scratches to an overlapping wave of tiny claws tapping against rocks, swarming over the floor from what seemed to be every direction at once as echoes warped and twisted each scrape and click into a bouncing, clacking horde.

Thomas gave up trying to see anything past his arm’s reach and shone the light over Marcus’s corpse, checking over his hands, at his side, just into the water. He reached under his legs, found only a curious emptiness, and in a burst of hysterical strength, heaved the corpse head over heels out of the pool, water spraying in every direction. Dampness, warmer than the water touched his face, and in the blue of his flashlight-harried view he saw that Marcus’s legs below the knees were absent, straggles of blue jeans and red flesh torn into a bloody morass. He recoiled, shrieking involuntarily even as his free hand swept across the warm, sticky rock where Marcus had lain and touched hard plastic casing, whisking it into his grip and thumbing the power switch before he could so much as think.

The first thing he noticed was the colour, screaming at him from every side, hemming him in from all angles. It was a sickly pale grey-green, almost white but not quite. It dripped from the walls, sprawled over the floors, and filed the pool – no, not a pool, it sprawled outwards as far as he could, one little bay of a vast lake – to a choking overflow. It stained his clothes where he had mistaken it for condensation, it left great mucus-cobwebbed strands of it hung from the ceiling, tying stalagmites to the floor and one another, and in places on the floor where the terrified ray of light wandered it lay piled in gross heaps the size of houses.

Bursting in the seams of this invasion of the eyes was the scale of the place – Thomas lay prone at the very smallest tip of a cavern stretching farther on and downward than he could possibly see, glimpses of forests of slime and stalagmites and grottoes crowding his vision at the far fringes, and past them all the vast lake of scum drifted, giant heaps of cold, clammy, hard-shelled tube-things bulging from it in colonies like island-tumours, some of the largest towering like tree-trunks. The stone sky that rose above the rot below was as irregular as an insomniac’s bedsheet, rucked high and capricious in some spots and rippled with rocky growths, but for the most part slung by and low, creeping sometimes to the very surface of the lake in a sudden swoop.

All of this Thomas took in without wanting to in less than an instant, in a chaotic jumble of images as the powerful light in his hand swung wildly at the end of his arm. The next thing he saw took up much more of his attention.

They were everywhere, coating every surface as surely as their fossils had back and back along the path he and Marcus had taken, breaking their quiet stealth at the unfamiliar sounds. Some walked the walls, ranging in size from his thumb to his torso. Some dangled from the ceiling in great snarled nets of chemical ooze that secreted from their jaws, bobbing gently as he watched. Great ones the size of cattle watched him eye to blank faceplate, trundling slowly across the floor with legs thick as saplings. And the vile sea began to team with them even as he stared, its surface boiling up on a billion chitinous spines, thick froth dripping from bile-slickened mantles the colour of a slug’s belly.

Big and small, cautious and bold, they all came. Trilobites. Thousands and thousands. How long had they wandered down here in the dark, wondered Thomas. How many times had their tomb shifted and shook, contracting near to nothing before a tremor or chance luck expanded their habitat to new grounds even as the old decayed or collapsed? How many new breeds had sprung up and died out, here and nowhere else, over the last four hundred million years? Before the dinosaurs, before anything with a spine walked on land, these creatures had been trapped, living from second to second on luck and each other’s flesh alone. Deep in the dark they grew strange and wild, and as cave-ins and sudden falls took their toll they were recorded by the stone, their self-consuming pocket of life leaving a trail of unknown species, hidden creatures locked away and preserved one by one. Their only predators were ill luck, and each other; their only contact from the outside world the odd and rare visitor scurrying too far down a deep crevice, one that dropped it into an underworld far darker that it had ever known.

Thomas realized all of this in less than three seconds. Fear may give wings to your feet, but it turns your mind to white lightning. Three seconds passed, and the trilobites crawled closer, blind to the new light washing over their crenulated hides. And at the end of those three seconds, Thomas sprang to his feet and ran.

He ran straight up the sloping ledges that turned the little streamlet into a waterfall, vaulting over the crushed ruins of the trilobite that had led Marcus to his death. He felt his feet skid and twist on dampness and he rolled with it, turning a fall into a painful somersault that turned back into a run as he pelted down that corpse-coated tunnel, the gentle rustle and occasional clack of the otherwise silent horde as they piled their way towards him. Thomas could see it in his mind almost as clearly as if he stood there himself – the fast crawling over the slower in front, the large crushing the small underfoot and stooping to the sudden surfeit of prey, a thousand blind and mindless shells hunting him through the remnants of their ancestors. His thoughts lent him extra speed, and he barely slowed even by the time the tunnel’s height had constricted by a third, running with his hands almost at his ankles.

As he tore his way up the boneheap the rustling of pursuit was fading in his ears, little echoes pouring out of the mouth of the tunnel beneath him. He didn’t slow, following the line as a life-giving blur, hands and feet grappling and shoving whatever lay nearest to hand as his body seemed to over-expand with his gasps for air, jamming him for terrifying milliseconds in crevices he should’ve slide through in a fraction of an instant. The backpack and the end of the rope were there, and then they were behind him. In the larger spaces that opened up he didn’t squirm so much as slide, diving and springing to his feet through crawlspaces, slicing raw every inch of exposed skin on sharp rock. Little passages he’d wormed through so easily as a child now turned into obstinate opponents to his every move so passively malevolent that he almost felt himself begin to froth, but then the magically open space of cave four surrounded him, then the frantic face-first dive through the crack, and then he was running again, sprinting full-force down the gallery, hurtling past the entrance at a breakneck speed as the four giant eyes of his old summer project stared at him from the walls.

The bright light of midafternoon and a fresh sea breeze air hit Thomas’s face, as sudden a call down to reality as anything he’d ever felt. He felt bruised in every inch, and his legs barely supported him, his whole body trembling with fatigue like an old man’s. He wiped his face, and to his dull shock crusted and foamy saliva crumbled away from his lips and jaw.

He had to get away. That was the main thing, the first goal. The car – he laughed aloud without thinking, the first time in years, a hysterical cackle – had been Marcus’s. And Marcus would’ve had the keys. Some trilobite probably had them now, or one of those tubeworm things in that lake that glowed under light in all the wrong colours –

He shivered and stopped that line of thought. He had to cross the ledge next, and panicking would NOT help. He focused his mind on escape. The car was not an option. The cell phone – his cell phone, not Marcus’s, Marcus’s phone was sitting in a neat and tidy pile waiting for a backpack probably resting inside something’s no stop thinking about that – was. Yes, that would be perfect. Use the phone, the reception can’t be that bad out here yes it can it’s too far out in the boonies remember twenty years to build and that includes a good signal tower.

He shook his head, and began his sidling, cautious walk, his body relaxing from overdrive. So, the phone might work. Might not. He’d try the phone, and if it didn’t… Marcus’s phone was a satellite phone. He felt something shrink in his chest at the thought, but let it play out. Marcus’s phone was a satellite phone, Marcus’s phone might get reception out here, Marcus’s phone had been one of the items he’d carefully emptied out of the backpack, therefore Marcus’s phone was probably safe to reach. Safer than the alternative, the keys, back down can’t think about that. He shuddered.

Scrape, step, sidle, step, hop. The satellite phone was the last resort. He’d go looking for it in a few hours, when the can’t think about those had been given enough time to calm down and return to their mindless eternal cannibalization, minds too crude to hold memories beyond their most raw, chemical state. And of course, he probably wouldn’t have to. The cell phone would probably work.

But when no if it didn’t, if it didn’t… then the satellite phone. Which would have to work. But if it didn’t… wait. He and Marcus don’t think about Marcus hadn’t made the trip in secret, when they didn’t show up on Monday someone would be sure to come looking, especially when there was no answer on the phone. He didn’t have DON’T THINK ABOUT HIM the soup, but he could get that when he got the satellite phone, and he had granola, and that would be enough. Suddenly, he felt hungry, and had to resist the temptation to break down into hysterical giggles as his feet edged onto solid ground. Thomas ran the rest of the way back up to the lighthouse, heaved the door open – god it felt like it weighed a thousand pounds, weighed as much as the lighthouse itself – and stumbled inside, slamming it behind him and diving upon his backpack like a starving man. He controlled himself at the last moment, logic arriving just before he would have flipped it over and spilled the contents across the floor. He might have to walk home. He might need to leave in a hurry. Either way he would need to bring many of things in this pack with him, the quicker the better.

Thomas searched the pack as calmly and methodically as he could. He was quite proud of his restraint, the events of the past hour or so only revealing themselves outwardly in a constant, insistent shaking in his hands, a refusal to lay at rest that hide behind his eyelids and chuckled at his pretence of calmness.

Instant noodles. Clothing. The half-a-box of granola bars remaining, one of which he ate in an effort to take his mind off reality. The moment he put it in his mouth and felt the crunch between his teeth his head was filled with images of the silent and twitching legs of the creatures beneath him, their too-many-limbs clicking and waving and skittering oh god they were right beneath him. The idea of Marcus being stripped to bare bones less than a hundred feet under where he knelt burst his calm, and his hands shook so badly that he dropped the granola bar. It broke apart on the floor, and after a few futile attempts to gather its crumbled particles he gave up and sat there, shaking.

It was then, huddled against his knees, that he heard the sound again. How long it had been there, in the background of his busy search, he had no idea. It was a small sound, not far from chalk on a blackboard in the forever-night where no sun had shone for entire geological eras, where the scum ran thick and deep upon the tepid water that was refuse from the world just above and just out of reach.

Scrape, rrcckk, rrchk, scratch, srrciip, tcck, sccrtch.

Thomas badly wished that his mind would go blank, just shut down from pure terror and leave him warmly comforted, hovering somewhere that was nowhere and miles from whatever danger that he wished he could not remember so clearly at this moment. The thin and spidery legs, so many of them, the shell-layered backs glistening with moisture, the way that they watched so closely without eyes, staring in a way far more terrifying than anything he’d ever known.

He waited for the noise to stop, even if it was just a brief-hope destroying pause soon to be resumed, but it went on and on without end, quieter, louder, fainter, faster. Chitter, cllkkr, scccth. Persistent, ongoing, sometimes fading right to the edge of hearing, but never stopping.

Thomas was very still, remaining painfully all-to-focused on the present, silently raging against the cruel survival instincts that would bolster his senses so. They must be right outside the door. How they’d followed along the ledge, wandering along in such a strange place to follow his scent, he had no idea. The brush of a breeze on a chitinous carapace, the warm caress of the summer sun, the whispering sound of pine needles shuffling against one another in the wind, the groan of shifting tree trunks, the soft yet compact mass of dirt underfoot… they would be overwhelmed with strangeness. The only way he’d truly considered their arrival occurring, he realized in a small part of his mind, was in that vague half-nightmare sense that you slipped into alone in a strange place in the dark, a werewolf lumbering out of a downtown park, a shark lunging at you from the five-foot depths of a freshwater lake’s shallows. This wasn’t something that he had felt could happen, only worried of, and he sat there paralyzed, horribly aware of every passing second and its lost opportunities for escape, not having the faintest idea of what to do.

The scraping droned on and on, hypnotic in its mindless, ever-varying repetitiveness, sometimes half-drowned-out by the slowly growing whine of the coastal wind rising. Half-submerged, but even when it was inaudible he could practically feel it, trickling in vibrations through the flat, immovable concrete walls During those times he almost felt his mind work again, turning its way towards the problem at hand.

They were just outside, of that he was sure. The sounds must be coming from their legs don’t remember that on the outer wall, though from the sound of it, if he listened closely Then the scratching came back again, louder, loud enough that he stopped thinking about anything at all but the few small inanities that could squeeze in through the cracks in the sound.

he could hear that it couldn’t be more than one, probably not very large no the biggest ones couldn’t fit through those cracks he had crawled through no they couldn’t. So just one, not big. Why so few? Why only one so

Scratching. He was deeply sad at the loss of the granola bar, so sad it moved him nearly to tears.

persistent? And was it moving? It almost sounded as though it was just in one spot, mindlessly scraping over and

Scratching. He thought about the time his mother had caught him and Sean in the basement of the lighthouse. She had hated it, too musty, too dangerous, with its crumbling bricks. “The wall could fall in at any minute, or the ladder could snap and you’d be stuck down there and your father would have to drag you out with a rope.”

over in the same spot. It wasn’t at all like the sort of thing a creature adapted to dark places would do, one that relied on touch and sound to move. Confused it might be, but concrete was only a strange

Scratching. He remembered the tune that his father had hummed while working on the project. Something they’d heard on the radio the first time they drove here, that became tied up in the work more than it had been in whatever passing pop star that had sung it first.

stone to its senses. It wasn’t acting like any sort of animal at all, trilobite or no, what it sounded like was more like the

Scratching. Like Like the

He felt his mind strain at the edges, like a flimsy barrel overflowing with water, and then something untensed and it all flowed together from the outside in, making him sag with relief.

wind. Like the wind.

Thomas stood up, very slowly and carefully. His legs felt a little cramped after his long sprint and bout of catatonia, but he could cope. He scraped up the spilt and crumbled granola into a neat pile and walked to the door, opened it without fear, and felt no surprise when there was nothing on the other side. Then he walked around the lighthouse in a slow circle. There, on the northwestern side, where the woods had grown close, was a tall and leaning tree. One of its branches had grown close and long, bending against the side of the lighthouse, and as the wind buffeted its trunk and it swayed gently back and forth, the long, needle-bedecked arm sawed gently back and forth against the concrete. Scrape, scratch, scrcccht.

Thomas watched it for a moment, swaying in the breeze, louder and softer with each eddy and gust in the currents of the sky. Then he went into the woods and spent some time searching for a good stout stick, recently fallen, not rotted, not too large, and solid to the core. He found one and brought back his treasure into the lighthouse, where he shut the door behind him and took out his jackknife, whittling away at its tip. He kept a careful eye on his watch as he worked, and by the time he was finished several hours had passed and both ends of his makeshift bludgeon were carved to points; not the sharpest of instruments, but certainly pokey enough to stab in a cramped space, and small enough to carry into it in the first place.

Finally, as he finished hardening the tips over the meagre and greasy flame of the gas stovetop, he picked up his cellphone from where he’d dropped it, next to his backpack, and turned it on. The menu screen lit up, and there was absolutely no signal. He wasn’t surprised, and found himself quietly pleased that he’d prepared himself for exactly this letdown without consciously realizing it.

The return trip was much shorter than he’d hoped and feared it to be. Thomas stepped out the lighthouse’s door, went down the hillside, across the ledge, and was standing at the cave mouth before he realized it. He didn’t get a walking respite to prepare himself mentally, he didn’t have time to ponder over all the memories of what had come before, to feel the fear welling up inside him again. A very mixed blessing. By the time he’d noticed that he’d stepped back into the cave, thumbing the switch of Marcus’s (don’t think about Marcus) powerful flashlight, stick in his other hand, he was already entering the gallery. Relax, he thought, go with the flow. If you stop to think you’ll think too much, and that’s unhealthy right now. Let the body do the talking for once, go long and far while daydreaming on full alert – ouch, these scrapes (where did they come from? Doesn’t matter) made the crawling low and slow. He slid through cracks on hands and knees, then his belly, all the while in a sort of pleasantly vague haze, listening very carefully for sounds that he didn’t really believe were there, keeping a keen eye out for the glistening glow of a carapace that didn’t exist in the slightest. In his mind there was nothing down here, he was merely going to retrieve some supplies that had been carelessly abandoned for some reason he didn’t need to know at the moment. Marcus’s absence was conveniently inexplicable, and he was sure he’d be able to remember that again very soon, when it was needed. Thomas knew that he was lying to himself, and he was doing it so well that he couldn’t believe it even as he thought it.

The light shone sharply against small dark shadows, the leftovers of the backpack’s emptying he’d performed some time ago. Books and bits, a sample or two. He put down the short spear, removed the pack that had hung unnoticed from his spine for the last while, limp, deflated, and defeated, and began to fill it again (he wondered where the drying gunk on its surface had come from – a nasty colour). The satellite phone was first, – an oddly archaic example of its kind, a thick-skulled prototype in a worn and solid case – then the books, then the half-full water bottle he’d drank from earlier, then the soup cans, which weren’t there. This puzzled him immensely, because he remembered lifting the useless things out of the backpack, two cans in each hand, shiny red and white labels dulled in the dark even as their exposed aluminium cans glittered in the light. It was very clear to him, and they should be there, but they weren’t, and now he was worried and looking at everything and why was the rope that he’d tied to that rock missing bar the last few feet? It had been sheared off neatly just a few inches past its anchoring mass, and there was no sign to be seen of the rest.

It was then, as he felt the carefully-manufactured emergency walls in his head start to crumble and snap, that Thomas noticed the dampness on the floor. Little damp spots, from little legs, and small smears of some sort of slimy residue. The wet and bumpy scrape showing where a shell rubbed rock.

Scrape. Scratch.

There were no trees, there was no wind, under the lighthouse. The moment by which this had sunk into Thomas’s conscious mind and shattered his suspension of belief entirely occurred only as he was moving down the gallery at a jog, winded and scraped all over even more extensively that he had been the first time, old cuts reopened. His shirt was sticking to his body, red and tacky with blood, and his jeans had lost their knees at some point. The stick was in his hand again, the pack on his back, but he had no recollection of how they’d arrived there. All the warm comforting clouds of smoke that his subconscious had tossed up to mask him from reality had faded away on the wings of a missing breeze, and he was horribly aware of exactly what was going on, so aware that he broke into a faster run.

The cut line, the tracks, the missing cans, and the sounds. The sounds above all. They were back there, closer than he’d ever feared, closer than they’d ever travelled before. Why would they have before? It was a long trip, a hard trip, but it was worth it for a mountain of meat and bone, a banquet-meal of soft flesh with no hard shell, no spines, no scrawny and malnourished, withered limbs, of which they had already sampled DON’T THINK ABOUT MARCUS.

The ledge was before him, and he sprinted along it, slipping and staggering so high above the water. Why had they taken the cans? Perhaps the textures had fascinated them. Could they be fascinated? He doubted it. Imagination wouldn’t be high on the list of survival traits that would be the first and the only concerns of the creatures, trapped in their own waste products. Hunger, that would be a selector. The ones that went about their food most efficiently, the most effectively, those would be the winners. The hunters in the dark, the quietest and most sensitive who could feel their prey move from far away, who could creep up close without the slightest noise – cushioned by the slime, the sickly molasses that coated their world so fully and thoroughly. Here, far away from their stomping grounds, they would scratch and scuttle; he would have that much warning at least. It was with no shock at all that he noted he was planning as though they would come after him, hunting him across the ledge and up the cliff and out into the daylight that they couldn’t see, night-hunters that were blind to the night. They had followed him too far and too fast, shown too much curiosity. He thought of the way they had moved across the walls, across the ceiling, how nimbly their number might be, and he shivered even as he slammed the lighthouse door open and shut one-handed, the deep sorrowful iron double-clang echoing and reverberating through its shaft up to the cupola’s peak and into the forgotten dustheap of the cellar.

He was trembling, he noticed, but only a little bit, and the tremors came from the deep muscle ache he felt settling over him and suffusing his limbs after their second frantic flight, not the incapacitating terror-shakes he’d felt overcoming him earlier. It was fine now, anyways; he had the satellite phone, he had the half-full bottle of water he’d sampled earlier, he even had the texts. He’d gotten everything back but the goddamned soup, the rope, and Marcus’s car keys. Time was ticking in his mind, and he should start calling for help sooner rather than later. First things first, he decided: he took out the satellite phone, stepped outside to get clear reception, and dialled nine-one-one, draining the water bottle dry even as it processed the call. He’d become terribly thirsty at some point in the past hour and he wasn’t sure why, scrubbing more crusty froth away from his mouth as he tossed the bottle to the floor.

He processed the call on automatic and it nearly flew by, the operator’s calm voice flattened beneath the heavy tread of Thomas’s near-monotone. He said that his friend had fallen off a cliff and he was stuck without a car, gave the location, and hung up without incident. It would look suspicious, especially since there were plenty of people out there who could testify to his dislike of Marcus – and Marcus’s irritating personality – but he was fairly confident that he could show them evidence once they arrived. If nothing else, they would at least have to check the cave system, and maybe he could warn them thoroughly enough that they took at least basic precautions. They’d think he was crazy, but he’d save his cackling for when he was laughing last. Maybe he could ask them to name one of the fossils after Marcus, or even one of the live ones, if they ever brought any of them up alive. If they did, he hoped they did it far away from him. Far away from here was where he’d be, and where he’d stay. Let someone else take the task of digging up the old summer project shared by him and his father. Let someone else make the decisions, whether they chose to seal up the cave for safety reasons, send down unmanned probes to collect data, or blast the whole thing to rubble with military explosives and let the lighthouse topple down into the ruins like the fist of god. Any, either, all or none, all he wanted was to be in a position where it wasn’t his problem and he couldn’t make it his even if he tried. Which he wouldn’t.

Scrrtch, scratch went the branch on the outer wall. Thomas found another granola bar, the very last, and ate it, washing it down with another bottle of water. He almost felt like trying some of the soup next.

Scrape, crrrpk, click click clack scrrpe. Thomas stopped chewing.

Crtch, krrlik, clik klunk THUD click click clik.

The lock on the door slammed home with the urgency of panic, the backpack and food bag were slung against its surface with frantic speed, and then Thomas was up the stairs and away three at a time, stick in hand, slamming open the door to the watch room and barrelling up the ladder into the cupola, ringed with clear glass still mostly-transparent against all odds, eyes straining frantically at the ground for any sign of a dark blot, from up here as small as its ancestors had appeared just inches from his face as he lay on his back to examine them, studded on the roof of the tunnels far below, frozen in immobility.

He paced around the entire ring of vision available to him, he looked, he stared, he watched like a hawk pumped full of caffeine, and he saw nothing against the walls. Utterly nothing. The adrenaline leaked out of his system drip by drip, removing itself to the glands where it bided its time until the moment came for flight and fight. His hyperventilation slowed back to normal, something he’d barely noticed, and he tried to go over what he’d just heard logically. There had been a noise, accompanied by others, that had sounded like an animal of some sort falling over or knocking something over. It had sounded like one of the trilobites (those little clicks and scratches were burned into his mind now, he could almost hear them by thinking). It was not outside.

He had left the door open when he made the call. Surely he would’ve heard them moving even on dirt, not more than five feet from the exit – the squeak of armoured plates rubbing against each other at joints, the rustle of the legs. Therefore if there was an animal nearby it was neither inside nor outside.

Thud. A metallic clang from below, the sound of iron being impacted. A scrape and a scrabble as something fought for purchase. Thud, clang, crash.

Thomas raced to the other side of the Cupola, stared down at the door. Nothing.

Thud THUD.

There was nothing out there. There was nothing in here. Something was banging against metal, there was nothing at the door.


The basement snaked its way into his thoughts. The old, old, old cellar, poorly maintained since its construction, set deep into the ground for maximum coolness to preserve whatever lay down there from the summer heat. The cellar with its crumbling, feeble, decayed brick walls that had been all but weaving on their feet fifteen years past. The cellar’s iron trapdoor, half-hidden underneath the spot where Marcus had piled his belongings and slept.


He was down the ladder in an instant, half-falling with muscles half-frozen in protest against his every motion, tormented from a half-day of terrified flight and paralyzed recovery in turns. The clang of the watch room door as it flew open was masked in the deep and resonant CRASH of the cellar’s trapdoor slamming open, hinges screaming, unmuffled by the obscuring bulk of Marcus’s discarded sleeping bag. Obscuring and fading, the plasticized exterior of the bedding rippling large under the bulk of something hidden just underneath it, already being savaged by claw-tipped limbs. It heaved its way to one side, scratching and scraping against the floor as in fought its confinement.

Thomas vaulted down the stairs three at a time, four at a time, something he couldn’t truly count, only guess at as however many he could leap in a single bound. The thing under the bag was already beginning to tear free, rips and gaps bulging into existence as chitinous spines and ridges pierced its flesh. He was halfway there, and then rising up from the depths came another, uncovered, unhidden, exposed to the world. A blind survivor in perfect clarity, skittering into its new environment with the mindless confidence of royalty, heading for the stairs on the trail of a new scent, the smell that had come from somewhere farther away than it could imagine and nearer than it could dream.

Thomas took a step backwards, another, saw it begin to take its first steps up the stairway with no difficulty, and then charged it, brandishing his spear-cudgel. It nipped towards him with astonishing speed, coming in at his ankles (Marcus hadn’t had feet, hadn’t had anything below his knees, nothing there at all don’t think about Marcus, busy), but he was ready and stabbed downwards with all the force he could muster, aiming for just behind the bulky head-plating and coming up late, stabbing it in the middle of its body, wood piercing into soft flesh beneath hard shell. It was then that the thing made the first sound he’d ever heard them produce, not the scuttling of their limbs or the rattle of a dragging shell, but a hiss, low-pitched, whispery, raspy, threatening. It wasn’t the mewl of an animal in pain, it was the spittle of an angered ghost, the snarl in the mouth of a wounded bear.

Thomas froze at that sound for just one moment, and in that one moment several things happened. The trilobite continued its rush without stopping or hesitating, wrenching the stick out of his hand. He was forced to spin and run, and as he did so, the corner of his eye spotted the other tearing free from its bag, the creeping shape of yet another looming its way out of the cellar-pit. The stairs were moving slowly, oh too slowly under his feet, so much more sluggishly than they had when he flew down them, and now there was something right behind him, making the elderly metal creak and rumble in agony as it struggled in its moorings. He ran through the open door to the watch room at full tilt, spinning around and nearly falling over to slam his full momentum into crushing it shut, feeling the surprisingly weighty THUNK of the creature on the other side ramming into it full force. It immediately degenerated into a series of hefty slams, each one making the door vibrate and rattle in its frame, thrashing madly. The pointed object lodged in its back seemed to have no effect on its actions whatsoever, and Thomas wondered what would’ve happened if he’d come face to face with one of them down there as he crawled to the backpack, stick in hand.

There was a double thud, and then there were two squirming, shoving bodies on the other side of the door, pushing and pressing and apparently climbing over each other, biting and snapping. And just past that, rising ever louder, the moan and groan of the spiralling stair trembling under the weight of oncoming others, a wave of clacking and chittering bodies spilling their way up against gravity.

Thomas braced himself, shoved as hard as he could, and was rewarded with the protesting crunch of the door driving itself firmly into its frame. He shot the bolt home with hurried fingers, felt half of it crumble away even as he crudely wrenched it from its cemented position, and ran for the ladder, scarcely three steps ahead before he heard the wave of the hunters slam into its surface, crushing it to the floor under their mass. As he hurled himself up its surface, the rust cutting his palms, he swore that he felt the antennae of the leader of the pack brush his boot just before he tumbled into the cupola. He reversed the roll as quickly as he could, setting hands on the heavy hatch and wrenching it forwards and down, slamming shut on the sight of his pursuers filling the watch room like locusts, rearing back on their shells to wave their legs upwards and twitch twirling tendrils laden with senses at him, eyeless shells staring.

Then he collapsed on the trapdoor, holding it shut with his body, and stared at the ceiling. He felt something tickling at his jawline, and wiped away more spittle and foam, slightly surprised at it. Exhaustion? He’d had substantial breaks between any and all of his sudden breaks for safety. Was there something foul in the air down there that he’d breathed? The images of the great skywebs of slime and filth flashed vividly in his mind, the thickness of the moist atmosphere, and he tried to persuade himself that there was nothing black in the froth he’d cleaned from the corners of his mouth. He was thirsty again, and the cupola was gently revolving around his head, and he worried at exactly how much of his breakdown was mental trauma and how much might be artificial. The vibrations of the stragglers down below trickled through the ladder and up into the trapdoor, melding into his spine in a very nearly relaxing manner. He felt at peace for the first time since he’d lost Marcus. All he had to do was wait and rest and watch the sky spin by just outside the windows, a ballet danced to the chorus of a thousand grunts of pain from the staircase outside the watch room door.

The massage stopped then, and Thomas tore enough of his attention away from the ceiling to listen again, only to find there was nothing to listen to. There was no scratching. There were no creaks. There wasn’t (god forbid) a repeat of that hideous hiss he’d heard when he tried to defend himself. Absolute silence reigned beneath him, and he imagined the quiet trickling out from his spine like some sort of delicate fluid, washing over everything and draining it of noise. He giggled weakly, and flinched as the sound broke the moment. Why was it quiet? He’d just heard the stairs singing. Maybe they all went back down. Maybe it was all safe, maybe the police would show up and find one possibly half-poisoned man lying in the cupola.

Then there it was again, a long slow grinding vibration, snaking straight into his vertebrae. Something heavy, something big, moving with unspeakable deliberateness and care, rubbing right up against the ladder. He could feel his neck hairs stand on end, one at a time, as something bumped gently into the rusted, suddenly far-too-thin iron that lay under him. The bumping repeated itself twice and turned into a caress, a slow and cautious rubbing, the caress of something that Thomas couldn’t imagine, barely an inch from his skin, touching what he touched and he could almost feel it the vibrations rubbing his back it was touching his back.

A single, hairline-thin poke reached through the panel and it was suddenly too much to bear. With a spastic twist, Thomas shuddered and heaved upright, collapsing on his side. He watched the trapdoor with stupefied eyes as it lifted slowly, finding himself unable to even rise from the floor.

It rose slowly, intensely, with thought in every motion, every twitch. It hauled itself out and through the trapdoor, mounting higher and higher into the air even as it lowered each new length of its bulk to the floor, claws tipped and dripping with thick grey-green slime pads, every inch of it covered in soft decay and rotting fibre, a coat that muffled the click and clack of each of its motions.

It must have lived in the water, like its ancestors, whose size it matched and maybe exceeded. It must have swum through that strange mixture of water and slime-fungus for its entire life, however long that must’ve been to let it reach its strength and ripe maturity. The only things it lacked were their four great eyes, replacing their blank gaze with a blanker faceplate that so well-reflected that of its lessers. They crowded up the ladder after it, scuttling at its trail, gathering around its feet, humble supplicants before a great priest, a god incarnate, the eater of prey. It watched him from the two long antennae that had replaced its eyes as its tools, their taste and touch on his skin gentle as a newborn baby’s as it hovered above him, jaws macerating at the air as it thought.

There can’t have been many, Thomas realized, never many, the rule of the giant of the jungle: solitary rule. And fewer still would have fallen into the caves. Had his summer project been the first to be entrapped? It could be. Was it one of the ancestors of the silent deity before him, passing judgement on his body? It was likely. He’d stared back into that rock fifteen years ago and watched as time melted away under a chisel, and now he saw it peel back over, the present become the future, the past the present, thought and awareness scabbing away under the rule of mandible and claw to an older, quieter age, when the sun shone brightly over hot seas and the world was silent but for the hiss of the segmented.

The claws came down first, fastening one to either side of him, then the jaws, seized into stillness with a purpose in grasp. Thomas felt the fog flood away as they descended from above, but it was too late to think about it.


Thomas and Marcus’s belongings made it back from the lighthouse in the hands of the police, as evidence. Marcus’s notes in particular caused a stir, and the spectacular new genus of Eurypterid, the fossilized sea scorpion, was excavated and brought to a nearby museum for preparation, of which surprisingly little needed to be done.

The lighthouse contained traces of dried, dead fungus of some kind, scarcely remarkable considering its age and depilated state. The caves were examined, but deemed too narrow and dangerous to warrant further investigation.

The best way to keep something safe is to keep it secret. The best secret is one that no one knows. The secret that no one knows is forgotten. And it’s best left that way.

Copyright Jamie Proctor, 2009.

Storytime: Lighthouse, Part I.

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009


Scratch, damnit, shuffle, scrape, scratch, shit, ruffle.

Thomas sorted through his backpack, trying to ignore the sounds behind him. Marcus was determined to cook something. Never mind that they had brought granola bars and other raw foods. Never mind that the antique collapsible camp stove Marcus was currently swearing at was finicky and barely worked indoors in perfect conditions, let alone on the bare concrete floor of a World War II-era lighthouse, unfurnished save for the rusted metal hatch in the floor that led to the decrepit brick-and-mortar cellar, which he couldn’t see because Marcus had put his sleeping bag on it. Never mind that Marcus had forgotten to bring a lighter and was now trying to get it started on matches and raw machismo, in a terrible draft. Never mind that all they would be getting out of for his efforts would be a few greasily half-heated cans of instant soup. No, Marcus had said he would cook something. He had said it over and over and over again what felt like every five minutes during the five-hour car trip to get all the way out here in the boonies, about how nice it’d be to have a hot meal to keep the chill out, and about how it would be payback for all the times it was Marcus’s night to cook and he’d ordered takeout. To Thomas’s frank relief on every occasion.

Thomas knew from experience that arguing would only annoying Marcus, especially if there was any logic involved, and so he busied himself unpacking. His sleeping bag already lay near one of the walls, as far as possible from the drafts whistling through the massive cracks that embraced the heavy, rusted iron door in lieu of a frame. Just inside its mouth the granola lay at the ready for when Marcus either gave up on the soup or produced it as a profoundly inedible substance. Now he reached deeper into the backpack, hands grasping on scarred plastic, and carefully extracted his battered flashlight. It was three years older than he was, weighed as much as his leg, and produced as much light as you’d see reflected from a cat’s eye. On the other hand, it had run on the same battery for the last twelve years, so he supposed he couldn’t complain. Besides, the work he and Marcus were going to begin after the dinner of hideous soup wasn’t going to be a rushed job. Diligence and care would be the working words of the evening, and if you were planning to go slow anyways, Thomas couldn’t see how his flashlight would be any trouble. Besides, Marcus’s was newer, and this way he didn’t have to buy one.

Scratch, snap, for fuck’s sake, search, scratch, fwick, there we go, fwoooooosh.

Thomas sighed as the evening shadows fled away, removed by decree of a puny bluish gaslight resting atop its rust-plated throne. Soup, he realized, would soon be up.


“There we go,” said Marcus, placing his plastic spoon inside the can he’d been picking tomato-flavoured porridge out of for the past six minutes. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” The small packet of garbage was tossed from one hand to the other, then idly rolled across the floor, twisting and turning on cracks and crevices.
Thomas wordlessly picked up his granola and flashlight, putting as much sarcasm into the movement of every muscle of his body as he could possibly manage. It wouldn’t work, but it made him feel better. His own, untouched soup was dropped into a plastic bag, followed immediately by its roving predecessor.

Marcus snorted as he wrestled his own flashlight out from inside his knapsack. “Neat freak. We can clean up on Sunday. Hey, you ready?”

Thomas clicked his flashlight on and off, checking to see if the twelve-year batteries had given out yet. Darkness had set in fully, and even the constantly-waning brightness it produced stood out prominently. “Yeah. You?”
Marcus swung his backpack awkwardly onto one shoulder. In one hand a geologist’s hammer, in the other his flashlight, its golden beam casually overwriting Thomas’s. “Am now. Let’s go see what we can’t see.” He guffawed at his own joke as Thomas swung open the creaking door and stepped outdoors into the night.

The stars startled him with their intensity. This far from the city – or any city – their sparkle was unobstructed, and the clarity was such that he felt that he could count every single one. Half-remembered constellations he’d ignored in grade school jumped out at him, demanding to be named. He felt like the first man on earth. Even the looming bulk of the lighthouse at his back felt more primeval than artificial, its unnaturally smooth (if weathered) grey concrete walls faded into the same soft matte black that blanketed the trees and rocks surrounding it. The ocean’s spray and roll filled his ears with softness.

The sharp light of Marcus’s flashlight cut across his body as he stood and watched, breaking the spell. The skinny man whistled as he peered around. “Da-mn. I’d wondered why you weren’t moving. Some seriously nice scenery here. You’d think this place would be coated with cottages by now.”

“Our gain.” Thomas glanced down the dirt – well, dirt and rock – road that the last two hours of their trip had involved. “Too out of the way. At least for another twenty years. Back when dad first took us here, we didn’t see pavement for a day. Now there’s roads. Not close, but there’s roads. Give it twenty years.”

“Barrel of sunshine, aren’t you?” The flashlight spun down and around the base of the lighthouse, probing its foundations, nimbly skipping around the lips of the cliff of rock it sat upon. “We’re looking right under it?”

Thomas nodded. “Right under it. Come on.”

They set off, him in front, guided by memories fifteen years old and a flashlight twice that, Marcus in back, tripping on pine roots and loose rocks. The sea breeze took on the qualities of the inside of the lighthouse, endlessly punctuated by the same series of small sounds and words.

Crunch, crunch, slip, woah, crunch, step, pace, crunch, slip, shit.

Strangely enough, it didn’t seem to detract from the atmosphere. It almost added to it; Marcus became another denizen of the night, albeit a somewhat clumsier one than normally seen. Perhaps he was a supermassive herbivore, an elephant or titanosaur of his environment, a creature grown so large that at full age it had no natural predators and could roam as far and noisily as it pleased, without a care in the world. Yes, Marcus had found his ecological role, at least metaphorically. Physically he was probably outweighed by the local deer, an example of an introduced species faring poorly in its new environment. Although still unbothered by predation, he would surely be out-competed for his own ecological niche, and this bold example of a species foraging into new territories would go down as a failure, his population extinct.

Brushing idle and semi-demented ecological musings aside, Thomas was mildly startled to find himself staring directly at the edge of the cliffside trail. They’d looped down and around its steeply sloped forested top and down to the very lowest rim, the ocean’s swishing susurrus thirty feet below their feet and all but invisible, the lighthouse’s shadowy base somewhere overhead, perhaps an equal distance.

He stood there for a moment, trying to remember if the path had always been so small. It couldn’t possibly have been – his father had walked along it without once looking to watch his step, with room for Thomas to walk at his side, grasping a cautiously guiding hand. The thing he looked at now was a narrow ledge at best, crumbling and wearing away into slopes and crags all along its length for brief moments before it collected itself and resumed its wavering course. “Twenty years,” he said to himself.

“The path’s barely there anymore. By the time the cottages arrive, this’ll be nothing but a cliff face and there’ll be no way to get to the spot.” He smiled. “A self-protecting secret. By the time anyone else will be around to find it, they won’t be able to.”

Marcus spun the geologist’s hammer in his hand, far too slowly to impress. “Better look when the looking’s good then, eh?”

Thomas glanced around. Trees behind him, rock beside, sky above, ocean below. A pleasant spot. “Yes,” he said, and began to cautiously inch his way onto the path.

Before he’d reached the halfway point he was cursing his flashlight; what had been poor but meaningless illumination on ground he knew was proving to be a dangerous handicap on this unfamiliar and uneven surface. Stopping every few feet to squint and peer and decide if that was a shadow or a crack was downright vital, and three separate times he’d had to ask Marcus to shine his flashlight ahead so that its brighter light could pick out the details of the stone more carefully. Marcus took it in good humour, leaning out and around over thirty feet of air with fearless care. The moment they’d left the dirt behind he’d stopped his chorus of small crashes and crisises, taking on a mode of movement as slow and careful as Thomas’s own. His newfound silent competence irritated Thomas in a way that his rustling blundering had not.

“Think it’s still there?” he asked.

Thomas leaned as far out from the cliff as he dared, squinting along the dusty ray of his flashlight. The path dipped sharply ahead, slanting off into a tail of debris. “That used to be it,” he said, pointing. “Right ahead. Can’t tell from here if the path fell apart just before the entrance or just after it. Former, we’re screwed. Latter, home free.”

“Good. Plan is, assuming the latterly, happily-picked choice?”

Step by step, ground by ground. Don’t look down. “We look about the entry, get our bearings, you grab a few samples, and then we head back up and leaving the exploring for tomorrow.” He could practically hear the protest rising up Marcus’s throat, and cut it off. “I know we planned for longer, but I didn’t know things had fallen apart this badly, and I don’t want to lose track of time and have to climb our way back up to the lighthouse at two in the morning. And the alternative is to sleep on rocks.” He waited, but no sound came from Marcus but an exasperated sigh. He’d be sulky for a while, but Thomas figured he’d forget all about it in a moment.

One step, another step, and then Thomas’s light shone weakly on a dark blot in the rock, irregular, taller than either of them. He reached out his hand and touched only darkness.

He smiled. “It’s here.” One step, another step, and solid stone underfoot, rock all around him.


This, he thought, was not like the path. The cave surrounded him, far smaller than he recalled, but otherwise perfect. He had changed, the path had changed, but in here, free of air and water bar breezes and raindrops slipping through the door, time had no place. He stood straight, abandoning the half-cautious crouch he’d kept along all of that long, dangerous walk in the dark above the waves. Here there was room to spare, a bare Marcus whistled long and slow, flashlight whipping from side to side. “Not bad. Plenty of headroom, that’s for sure. How far in does it go?”

Thomas shrugged. “Far enough that I doubt we’ll get all of it over the weekend. We’d mostly stay in the first three or four chambers. They’re pretty close together, the passages are all roomy. Past that it gets a little cramped, then widens out a bit. That’s all I could tell you about past the entry area – we didn’t like to go too far back there.”

“What happened to the curiosity of a child?”

“It was equipped with this flashlight and an overactive imagination. Besides, the bats get thicker back there.”

Marcus waved his geologist’s hammer dismissively, the tool’s steel surface shining in their reflected lights.  “Bats. Anything else live in here?”

“Not as far as I know.”

Marcus squinted at the cave walls, paying his light across them bit by bit. “Anything else I should know?”

“What you’re looking for is directly to your left.”

Marcus turned according to instruction, sneakers shifting on worn stone, and gasped. Thomas had seen it before and was still impressed. The light danced across the contours of the stone and across something darker, its colour drawing it right out of the rock so vividly that it almost seemed just dead. The half-revealed outlines of giant pinching claws, the curved and smooth outline of a chitinous carapace, even the rounded markings where four gigantic eyes had bulged from sockets, two to almost obscene degrees, that such vulnerability had been exposed on the surface of so much power.

“Fuck…” said Marcus, softly yet passionately. “Two metres, easy. Two and a half?”

Thomas shrugged again. “We never measured it. All I knew was that it was bigger than dad.”

“And it was just sticking out like this down here?”

Unable to help himself, Thomas snorted. “Hardly. What you’re looking at,” he said, reaching out and running his hands over the fossil’s flattened paddle-like tail, “is the result of maybe a little over a month’s worth of chiselling and tweaking, spread out over five years.”

The expression on Marcus’s face was the closest to genuine horror that he’d ever seen in the scrawny man. “You’re telling me that an eight-year-old was digging this thing out of the rock?”

Thomas held it in this time. “Hell no. If I’d been on it, half of it would be gravel. Dad did it. I helped a little, the last few years. It was sort of like his pet project.” Thomas’s fingers slid lightly over the sleek central mass, rows of leg-segments and jointed armour that would’ve been the envy of any knight.

“Then he damn well knew what he was doing,” declared Marcus, who was gingerly running his flashlight around the edges of the exposed fossil, as if he were afraid that the light would be too much for it to take without withering in its glare. “This thing looks like it belongs in a museum. Hell, it looks like it is in a museum already. He even chiselled out the corners all nice and square. It’s practically fucking framed.”

“He did sculpture as a hobby. Said he never managed to make anything worthwhile. Same principles here, once he got the hang of the rock.” Over and across the carapace, twitching involuntarily as his thumbs brushed the hollow giant eyes, then whisking his hands away as if from something red-hot. “When he started, all that was sticking out was part of the tail.”

“Five years…” said Marcus, shaking his head. He was still speaking in that quiet, intense way that he almost never did.
“I think it was the only reason he kept coming back here,” said Thomas. He could feel the sneer edging into his voice as he talked, no matter how hard he tried to keep it out. “’Come see where grandpa worked in the war’ was fine for the first time. We had a week and a half of camping out either in an empty lighthouse that was half-junk even then or the car. Three days in, he found this thing. Then he comes back next year, and the year after. Five years we came back here, and then he finished it and we never did. Mom hated it because it was out in the middle of nowhere, my brother hated it because there were no other kids, and my sisters hated it because everyone else did.”

“And you?”

Thomas stepped back from the mural-fossil, immortalized in its stone frame. “Didn’t mind it. Nice scenery.” He shrugged again, prolonging it, twisting around the stiffened muscles in his back, cramped from the drive and refolded into harsher shapes after their momentary freedom and re-crippling on the slow, dragging cliff walk. “And like I said, the last few years I got to help. Before then, I’d watched.”

“Hell of an attention span for an eight-to-thirteen-year-old, or whatever the hell you were. Then again, I can’t imagine you as a kid.” Marcus tore himself away from the fossil to face him, a phrase Thomas had never felt was more appropriate – he could practically feel Marcus’s attention being forcibly twisted and shredded to remove it from the object of its adoration. “This can’t be the only thing around here. It’s too perfect. I have no goddamned idea how it’s this good, but I won’t believe it’s a fluke. You’ve got to have other stuff in here.”

“Probably,” agreed Thomas. “Little bits and pieces. I don’t remember anything this big, but then again, Dad didn’t need to look for another hobby piece and I was too stupid to recognize one when I looked. Besides, I told you how far in I went.”

Oh, there was avarice in those eyes, peering out at the darkness just past their flashlights. Thomas wondered what he was imagining. A whole fossilized seabed, their very own private replica of the Burgess Shale come again? Who knew.

“I’ve got to get some samples,” he said, geologist’s hammer slowly rising from his side as if under its own power. “Where did you say you found these ‘bits and pieces?”


The entry chamber led into a long gallery, an uneven cleft in the ground that sprawled vertically for some distance. Thomas wondered how near they were to the underside of the lighthouse, watching his light play dimly across the ceiling, drifting gently from crevice to cranny. As he watched above he popped a granola bar into his mouth with his free hand a section at a time, chewing absently.

Marcus’s eyes were fixed lower, not more than two feet above eye height, roving restlessly for something he could find and extract, examine, use for measuring dates and times and eras and epochs all the way down into the murky swamp that was the planet’s history. “Probably Silurian, maybe Devonian” he was saying, still in that focused, tight little voice, too controlled for its own good. “Eurypterid, sea scorpion, giant sea scorpion, not sure what kind, but absolutely perfect preservation. Let’s find something a bit more simple, a bit more iconic, portable, then we can take it back upstairs and look at it in peace and quiet and then we can get some goddamned sleep!” The monologue ended on an exulted note, his voice rising in triumph as he stopped and scraped at the floor. “Got you!” He raised his hand in triumph, clutching a jagged and loose stone in a deeply tender death-grip. “Oh, you beautiful peach. A trilobite, oh I couldn’t ask for a better barometer, and right on request.” Marcus held it so close to the flashlight that Thomas half-expected it to start glowing, the elongated discus shape of the little arthopod’s shell becoming a soft halo. “Yes, this is perfect. And hey,” he said, grinning like a maniac, “it came pre-chiselled. This was hacked out of a larger chunk of rock, even if it hasn’t been cleaned up. One of your dad’s practice efforts, or did you get bored back in the day?”  

“The latter, I’d think.”

“Any idea these would still be lying around here?”
“I’d forgotten.” Thomas waved his flashlight over the end of the gallery, back and forth. “It splits in two directions back there. And past that is where it gets a bit hairier. Now,” he said, pocketing the empty wrapper, “let’s go get some rest.”

“Just one or two more samples –” protested Marcus.

“Every pound of rock you put in that backpack is one more pound you’re carrying with you back up that ledge, and every minute you spend looking for that pound of rock is one minute longer you’ll have to get tired and unfocused before you go back up that ledge.”

Marcus sighed venomously. “Shit. Fine, this should do for starters, you heartless robot.”

The return trip was silent. Marcus only swore once when he tripped, probably because he was too busy thinking. They reached the lighthouse without incident, where Marcus messily unpacked reference texts and a flashlight to create a sort of crude study area while Thomas wedged excess belongings into the door’s cracks in an effort to stop up the draft a little. It didn’t work. Eventually he gave up, returning to his sleeping bag and huddling into it fully clothed while the air stirred itself at his back. He drifted off slowly and hazily, sleep arriving underscored with the mindless humming of Marcus reading, and the occasional small clang of a hardcover flipping open on top of the iron hatch.


He woke up surprisingly early, just as light was starting to peel its way through the thick, cracked, and dirty glass of the windows. Just as Marcus’s humming had signalled his slumber, the skinny man’s snoring heralded his awakening. He was sprawled over three very large books on paleontology, one hand still clutched tightly across his prize, which had been cleaned up a bit from when Thomas had seen it last. Obviously Marcus had done a bit of picking at it while he slept.

All of a sudden, Thomas felt tremendously, staggeringly stifled by the tiny concrete room, with its dusty window and omnipresent, seemingly unstoppable draft. He unfurled himself from his sleeping bag, grabbed another granola bar with a stretching of his arms, and began to walk up the rusty spiral staircase that bordered the lighthouse’s wall. Despite its age and debilitated appearance, the creaks and groans it produced were muted, a tired and defeated protest with no real effect. Up and around went Thomas, glancing down from time to time to see if Marcus had been awoken by a particularly loud squeal of metal. Each time, he hadn’t moved a muscle. As he opened the door to the watch room he thought he heard a drowsy mumbling begin beneath him, half-masked by the grumble of rust-throttled steel.

The watch room was a little bunker suspended forty feet above the concrete floor, and it remained exactly as he remembered it: empty and bare as the room at its base. It had been too impractical to bring any of their possessions up here, and all the cooking and sleeping had remain firmly at ground level, but he and his siblings had rocketed up and down the stairs for days, half out of their minds with their need for something to do. His parents had told them to be careful for the first few days of any trip, then stopped trying. The only furnishing of any sort was the thin metal ladder bolted firmly in place on one side of the room, rust liberally coating it. It crunched under Thomas’s fingers as he pulled himself up it. The trapdoor was even more depilated, almost solid orange-red, but it gave way after a few hard thumps from his hands, popping upwards with a shriek and a puff of iron-laced dust particles. He wiped his face as he climbed up and through, into the light chamber.

The roof, he thought as he looking about, clambering through the gaping trapdoor, was surprisingly sound yet. Exposed a hundred times more to the abuses of the elements than any of the metals inside its concrete body, the steel cupola ran overhead, marred and occasionally dented, but firmly sound, much more so than the stairs that Thomas had trusted his life to just a minute ago. The glass of the walls surrounded him, and at his side were the deep divots in the floor where the lamp had been bolted before the lighthouse was abandoned. His father had been to see it just before it closed, when grandpa worked here, and had described it to them: a chest-high machine with a great glaring glass eye and a smooth shell concealing tiny complexities. He’d drawn a few pictures of it, he recalled. He unwrapped the granola bar and began to eat it, walking in a brief and small circle around its empty seat.

As he looked out through the glass, eyes tracing the border of the shore, his mind idled in circles. Why come back here? His family had despised it for the most part, his father had stayed only to complete a very specific task, and he himself had shared in his father’s opinion for the most part: pretty scenery, but only as an accessory to a project. Once it had been through, so had his father and he himself, wilfully and knowingly leaving the place he knew from peak to basement without so much as a pang of heartsickness. And now here he was with his university roommate, someone whom he found only marginally tolerable at the best of times, looking to dig up old bits and pieces. One idle comment on Marcus’s interests into the older life of the world, an extracted and vague description of his old project, and then before he knew it he was coming back, armed with intent to study something that he’d lost interest in long ago. Yet standing here, looking down, straight down a hundred feet of cement and cliff, staring at the exact spot he knew the cave’s entrance lay, he felt a murky, unfamiliar tinge in his mind. Not quite excitement, but something close to it; a presence he hadn’t felt in some time and was having difficulty identifying.

A call echoed up from down below as he tucked the granola bar’s wrapper into his pants pocket, drifting through the trapdoor’s open hatch and the watch room’s carelessly ajar door. Marcus was awake, and eagerly so.

Just as he was descending the ladder, pulling the trapdoor shut again behind him, Thomas named the emotion: anticipation.


“Silurian for sure,” he said, pointing at the little fossil in his palm. Now awake, his grip had relaxed from its militant stranglehold into a loving cradle, a secure nest for the arthropod’s remains. “It’s solid. And if your lovely big boy downstairs is any reckoning, you may have a new weight record for the period. Even if he isn’t the biggest, he’s one of the most spectacularly fucking preserved things I’ve ever seen, a perfect example. You’ve probably chipped out a fucking holotype – a type specimen – and left it here all these years, whether it’s a beautiful example of something we’ve already seen or a completely new one.” He paused in his excitement to tear off and swallow half a granola bar, scarcely bothering to chew as specks of food shook themselves free from his still-talking mouth. “We’ve got to get down there right away now that we’ve got some time. Get pictures, make sketches, maybe take a few chips from it and its rock matrix so we can get some samples for analysis. No, just from the matrix. It’s almost completely unblemished, we can’t touch that now, not even a little.”

Thomas nodded absently, working on his second granola bar, flipping his attention between the proffered textbook Marcus brandished and the fossil. He couldn’t tell any of the pictures on the page from one another, let alone identify which was kin to the rock-embedded sample. “Shall we?” he asked.

Marcus’s grin threatened to rip open his skull and let the top half skitter away, hands already scrambling for his backpack and stuffing in books, snapping together buckles. “Oh fuck yes.”


The hike down the cliff was much less ethereal than it had been past nightfall, although far more practically safe. They crossed the crumbling ledge in what Thomas estimated to be a third of the time made the previous night, aided by both better light and the confidence that came from proven success. This time the cave’s opening was plainly visible from some short way, a darkened ring of rock that let the rising sun shine in.

Inside was cool air and stone, and the now more visible and looming form of the sea scorpion, mounted in its wall, lit indirectly yet distinctly. Surrounding its softly darkened bulk, the stone seemed to practically glow, a strangely gentle light.

Marcus was on it like a swarm of bees, digital camera clicking antenna-like, distended knapsack-abdomen trailing an unnoticed stinger of granola bar wrapper, eyes wide and looking everywhere at once, combing his hair away as it steadily and constantly dripped down into his field of view. His geologist’s hammer picked and poked and tapped gingerly at the fossil’s rocky bed, striking with firm hesitation here and there to produce precise and exact flakes of stone that he bagged in Ziplocs and quickly stored away in some pocket or another. “Beautiful,” he kept whispering, and “fuck,” and “perfect.” Eventually his voice dwindled to nothing at all, his whole mind and body focused rigidly on examining the scorpion’s form, with no attention to spare for anything else. It was like standing next to a black hole.

Thomas sat, and watched. Sometimes Marcus, sometimes the fossil, and sometimes nothing at all. Now and then he checked his watch, not out of boredom, only curiosity in its mildest form. The minutes ticked by as steady as a river’s flow, and Marcus’s fascination showed no sign of diminishing, though his hands gradually and imperceptibly slowed in their restless crawling. They paused longer and longer, stroking and probing whatever he looked at less and less. And at last, after more than two hours, his search stopped, and his hands rested gently on its eyes. They were bigger than his palms.

“Unique,” he said, blissfully. “Completely, utterly unique.”

“Really,” said Thomas.

“Oh definitely. This gorgeous bastard isn’t in any textbook, any database, any museum. Nobody’s ever seen him but us, for maybe four hundred and twenty-five million years.” He grinned like a maniac again, eyes goggling. “Probably not any of his relatives, either. Bits and pieces of him just look… off. He’s not a great wobbling physical impossibility that overturns everything we know, but he’s unique. Very unique.” He rubbed his hands together, knuckles squeezing over the hilt of his geologist’s hammer. “And if he’s here… I wonder what else is, eh?”
“Where do we start looking, then?”

Marcus patted his backpack down, feeling its side pockets. “I figure we’ll start back in that second chamber, the one you found your ‘bits and pieces’ trilobite in. Might just find more of ‘em, might just find something completely new that you missed, maybe as new as your pretty friend right here.” With a satisfied grunt, he extracted his flashlight. “Now, what’s say we go take a look.”


They’d worked halfway through the gallery’s length before the thought struck Thomas. “Marcus.”

The skinny man jumped upright from the rock he’d been examining. “Found something?”

“No. But I think I know why we haven’t.”

“Great. Planning to share, or do you want to spend another hour in here?” Time hadn’t been kind to Marcus’s expectations. Not even another trilobite had surfaced, and his almost unnaturally focused attitude had reverted to a more normal semi-surly complaining.

“It’s stupid, but simple,” said Thomas. “I never found that trilobite here. I must’ve picked it up from farther inside and brought it out here to pick at while my father worked on the project.”

“And why,” asked Marcus, sarcastically but with a note of rising hope, “didn’t you think of mentioning this fucking sooner? Or, for that matter, recall that none of your ‘bits and pieces’ ever came from in here?”
Thomas shrugged. “I forgot. Fifteen years is a long time.”

Marcus stared at the ceiling with a theatrical sigh. “Early-onset Alzheimer’s, I’m sure of it. So where then, o cave guru of little memory, do we head next?”

Thomas felt almost malicious pleasure as he shrugged again. “I’m not sure where exactly. We check the next two chambers, I’d guess, and then if there’s nothing there, head farther in. I didn’t go back there a lot, but I did go exploring now and then.”

“Oh wonder-fucking-full. I’m glad to have such precise directions on our side.” He squinted at the gallery’s end. “Two rooms, huh?”

“Yeah. The entrance might be a little tighter than the last one.”

A little tighter was an understatement. The entry chamber didn’t lead to the gallery so much as flow into it, widening all the way. The half-sagged, half-tumbled pile of rocks at the gallery’s far end, on the other hand, possessed two major openings, the smaller, leftmost one barely large enough to permit Marcus entry while wearing his backpack, something he grumbled about quite a lot more than was strictly necessary, thought Thomas.

Inside, it cleared out a bit more, back to standing room. Cave three was a dead end, a boxed-off portion of cave two’s gallery, an oversized alcove-like chink in its wall made less accessible by a chance slip of stone long ago. It rapidly proved to be just as fruitless as its parent chamber, and Marcus’s grumbling began much earlier in its investigation. Privately, as he had so many times before, Thomas wondered how in hell someone with this deep and firm a streak of impatience had ever decided to pursue a career in paleontology, but then he remembered that odd, fierce focus that he’d seen arise over last evening and the day, and abandoned that line of speculation.

“Nothing,” declared Marcus, as he began to squirm his way back into the gallery. “More nothing. And this is the last of your pick before we start getting into burrows like fucking rats, right?”

Thomas watched the scrawny man’s legs kick and wriggle as he struggled onwards, like a bug trapped under a rock. “It’s not that bad – not for most of the way. And the next one’s different.”

Cave four was different. For one thing, it could be entered on hands and knees, even by Marcus and his backpack. For another, it meandered on for quite some way, a sprawling, irregular area clumsily bordered in stone. Water trickled down small channels on some parts of its walls, dripping in tiny, polite increments in a way that made Thomas think of perpetual motion machines. He wondered how much of the cluttered chamber around him had been made solely by the erosive efforts of those little dribbles. The entrance, the gallery, the alcove, they all felt finished, stable, permanent. This pocket of damp stone, steadily eating its way outwards, felt like a work in progress.

According to Marcus after half an hour, it also felt like another dead end. “There’s fuck-all here. There was fuck-all back there. Rat time then?” He stared with single-minded hostility at the nestled hollow Thomas had pointed out to him on entry. Flashlights aimed at it revealed a deeper darkness beyond.

“Rat time,” Thomas said. “It’s not all crawling, though. There’s open spots. Just not as big as out here.”

“Fun.” He began to unbuckle his backpack, a look of resignation covering his face.

“You can probably bring that with you. If you drag it.”

Marcus looked hopeful. “You mean there’s enough room?”

“For the first while. I told you, it gets cramped, then widens out a bit. Past that it’s not so good.”

“Not so good?”

“Put it this way,” said Thomas, lowering himself to hands and knees as he began to slip through the passage, “you won’t be bringing that backpack.”


They’d crawled, scraped, and squeezed their way through any number of cramped openings and at least four micro-caves before Thomas called a halt to tie a line to a nearby weighty rock. “It gets more complicated up ahead, does it?” asked Marcus, as he sorted through his pack.

“Hard to say. We’re almost as far in as I ever went.” Thomas accepted the proffered rope and began to loop it around the boulder as snugly as he could manage.

“What wonderful goddamn news. You think it could start branching ahead?”
“I don’t know.” Thomas finished his knot, yanking the ends of the line sharply a few times for good measure. “But it’s probably a good time to leave the backpack. We can come back for it later.”

From then on it got worse, more so than he’d remembered. A boy grows a lot from age thirteen, and what Thomas recalled as cramped was now positively stifling. Marcus was only slightly better off than he was, and every few minutes he would hear a quiet, fervent swearword rustle its way towards him from behind. Before long his thoughts were confirmed and the tunnel began to branch and twist this way and that, widening itself into flattened chambers with three or more apparent exits, any of which may have been dead ends. Twice Thomas was forced to back up from narrow avenues that abruptly swallowed themselves up into crannies too small for even his arm to fit through, and each time he began to back up he could practically feel Marcus beginning to panic, fear drifting through the air with a sour scent. He was glad of the line fastened to his belt, unrolling a trail behind them for their return.

Then, as he wormed his way across and through a sinkhole-like depression, he heard Marcus hiss in triumph. “Mother of shit. We’ve found it.”

Thomas paused, flashlight still wavering ahead into the black. “Where? And what?”

“Right above your head, and what do you think, asshole?” The warm light of Marcus’s flashlight cupped the back of Thomas’s neck, bobbing and weaving as it examined whatever he’d found. “Holy shit… just look at this.”

Thomas wriggled and twisted, turning over onto his back as the rocks that had been digging into his ribs transferred their flinty attentions to his spine. There he paused, eyes focusing in on a dark blotch on a darker wall. Two inches from his nose, suspended from the ceiling and almost twinkling under the first light it had seen in four hundred million years, was a trilobite, frozen in mid-crawl forever.

“That’s one,” said Thomas. “Total of three.”

Marcus was starting to laugh, half-cramped gasps wheezing their way out from a compressed set of lungs. “Oh, a few more than that. Follow the ceiling.”

Thomas obeyed. It was difficult to see in the guttering light of his own flashlight, but small dark marks festooned the tunnel roof ahead, ranging in size from a quarter to bigger than his hand.

“Beautiful,” said Marcus. “Beautiful.” He scrabbled at his pants for a moment, then reached upwards, digital camera in one hand as he carefully aimed the arc of his flashlight. “Let me just get a few shots of this shit, and we can move on a bit. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and this isn’t smoke, it’s a goddamned volcanic ash cloud.” The camera twitched and clicked in his grip as he moved it rapidly from fossil to fossil. “Mind moving up a bit? I’m going to want to look at those ones in front of you in a second.”

“Fine. But we’re almost out of line.”

“Point of no return? This’s more than good for our efforts.”

Thomas wormed his way back onto his belly and moved forwards, shoes scraping and shoving against the stone. Behind him, the whirr and whine of the camera continued, regular as clockwork. There were a lot of trilobites, but Marcus was moving obscenely fast, gorging himself on a glut of data, information in pictures streaming into his grasp.

He inched his way forwards, felt the line tighten as its last few inches slipped loose, and then Thomas’s flashlight was suddenly a spot in a mass of darkness, his hands resting in open space once more as the faint tinkle and drip of water filled his ears.

“New cave up here,” he said over his shoulder. “Bigger than the last few.”

Click, whirr, buzz. “Go ahead. Be there in a second.” Marcus was wound up tightly once more.

Thomas took a moment to undo the line from his belt before he moved ahead, patting the floor with his hands and finding at least enough room to stand on, which he did. The ceiling was out of reach of his head or his grip. A few sweeps of the beam revealed a steeply descending chamber, floor slanted downwards in a deeply irregular slope. The light passed over the brightly glittering tell-tale motes of condensation, the trickle-down of water worming its way through soil and down into stone through cracks thinner than hairs, invisible to the eye.

All told, thought Thomas, this was almost as large as the gallery, if you discounted the lowered ceiling. He traced the lines of water, following their blind meanderings across the walls and down the slope, watching the many streams feed into one that was just wider-across than his wrist and shallower than a puddle. There, at the far end of the vault, just beyond the arthritic reach of his flashlight, it dropped into darkness.

“Much bigger than the last few.” And then the light brushed across an irregularity in the stone, and he felt his eyes widen without his will.
Christ,” he heard behind him, which suddenly seemed much farther away. “This one’s fuckin’ enormous. Look at this shit.”

“You first. Come out here.”

“Oh yeah?” The rustling and swipe of cloth and denim on stone, and Marcus emerged at his feet like a grub from a cocoon. “Look at this,” he said, stumbling to his feet and holding the camera out like a talisman. “Look at this shit. I went damned carefully over those texts yesterday, and I know these aren’t in any of them.” Images flickered in Thomas’s face as photos were quickly cycled through. None of them are. Some of them don’t look quite right, but most are just different – solidly, one-hundred-fucking-per-cent. All trilobites, and none of them what I’d expect to see here. Either we’ve got some seriously out-of-temporal-locale fossils and we’ve expanded the know lifespan of a half-dozen families of trilobites at a swoop, or they’re all new species. And –”

Thomas smacked his shoulder with one hand, aiming the flashlight with the other. “Look over there.”

“What? You find…” Marcus’s voice died away momentarily as he noticed the faint markings illuminated by Thomas. “…something. Oh sweet Christ on a crutch with a stick up His ass.”

A pair of blank eyes stared out at them from the slope, from a smooth bump that was revealed as the head of another sea scorpion. It stretched downwards and onwards, what Thomas faintly thought looked to be twice his length in chitinous carapace.

“Holy shit,” said Marcus. His flashlight’s beam meandered up and down the length of the giant. “Three and a half metres or I’m a fucking sophomore on a drinking binge.” Hands shaking, he lowered the beam, then snatched it up again. “Holy shit. You see that?” A smaller, lighter shape was picked out against the rock. Thomas had seen enough in the past while to name it: a trilobite. Marcus slowly swept his light across the slope, focusing on spots wherever they lay. A trilobite, another trilobite, something Thomas didn’t recognize that looked to have been all legs, a blocky form unrecognizable… and then Marcus wasn’t pausing anymore, was waving his flashlight with frantic swiftness. Every stone suddenly held an entombed body, every divot marked where a form had rotted, every bump an empty, spherical eye.

The chamber wasn’t a chamber. It was, or had been, a shaft, a steep drop. And the slope that they stood on, that flowed down to its very base, was very nearly a pure mass of mineralized flesh and shell, a tower of graves.


“Fuck,” said Marcus, shaking his head as he probed at the skull. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Recognize any of this?” asked Thomas. For the first time, he thought he could understand exactly why the skinny man felt what he did.
“No,” he said, straightening up and almost immediately diving down again to peer at a trilobite the size of his fingernail. “Not a damned thing. None of them. They’re worse than that fucking roof. Some of these don’t even look right.” He pinpointed a particular target. “This fucker right here is almost four feet long – he’s almost twice the goddamned length of the largest described trilobite. And he’s still not twice the actual size, because he’s as thin as a doorpost. Bastard almost looks like a millipede.” He shook his head. “And that’s just the stuff that I can put into some sort of category. Some of the things in here?” The odd leggy thing was illuminated, a bifurcated creature with more limbs than mass. “I have no fucking idea what that is, or what it’s related to.” He lowered the light to his feet. “Tom, we’re literally standing on a goddamned gold mine of new species. This is the find of the century. This is the burgess shale mark-freakin’-two!

“So what do we do?”

The scrawny man’s face was a nightmarish battle between exultation and frustration. “With where it’s at, with the gear we’ve got right now? Not a fucking lot. We take pictures, we leave, we map very carefully the exact path we used to get here, and then we drive the hell back to home as quick as you can without getting arrested. We need to get someone, anyone, to get a team out here last year.”

“Why the hurry?”

Marcus gesticulated furiously with his flashlight. “Erosion. Look at all the little fucking channels covering this place. They aren’t big, and there isn’t much water, but every goddamned second we’re standing here they’re carving another sliver off’ve this entire heap. I bet you that when that lighthouse was built there wasn’t a single fucking drop of water down here and this place was solid rock. Now its foundation’s done something screwy to the way the groundwater flows, and it’s been tearing this place a new one bit by bit.”

Thomas looked up at the ceiling. “You think that’s the problem?”
“If it’d happened much farther back we wouldn’t be looking at anything here. This isn’t goddamned granite, water will rip it a new one faster than you can say blinkety sink.” He shivered, as if a horrifying thought had just struck him. “Shit… what if this whole cave right here was full of them when it began? We’d have lost three-quarters of it by now.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Listen, I’ll start taking pictures. You can… I don’t know, wander around, take a look around the edges, see if there’s anything else besides what we can see here. Let’s figure out exactly where this place goes.”

Thomas nodded and began to pick his way down the slope. Every step required using some antique cranium as a foothold, or bracing himself on a segmented leg, or using a paddle-like tail as a grip. It felt sacrilegious and more than a little disturbing. His light wandered over a trash-heap tomb, a pile of bodies unceremoniously preserved where they lay with flippant carelessness. The descent itself wasn’t unduly difficult; the water had only made its impact so far as small channels and divots, no small sinkholes waiting for an unwary foot. Still, dampness was omnipresent, and the stone was slick and slippery. Cautious descent took several minutes, with several near-falls.

By the time he reached the base of the pile Marcus was a little yellow light above him, swerving from side to side and shining at discoveries invisible to his sight. Occasionally a quiet “fuck” would drift down from above as he found something new, or maybe stumbled. It was too far and too dark to tell.

He completed his circling of the boneheap at last. There was only one path out – a narrow hollow with hints of water-carving about, barely tall enough to walk hunched, with the little streamlet running down its center. Thomas, crouched on one knee, shone his light down it, watching the reflections on the water. It was almost completely colourless, without a hint of impurity. Straightening up, he panned the flashlight across the walls. More of those empty eyes stared back at him mindlessly. The walls of the tunnel were as thick-coated with the preserved corpses as the pillar behind him.

“Marcus!” he called over his shoulder. “It goes deeper in!”

“I said it goes deeper in! Look at this!”

“Gimme a minute!”

Thomas watched the bobbing light above begin its slow descent, then walked into the hollow. He changed his initial evaluation swiftly: the number of fossils here didn’t equal that of the pillar – if anything, it exceeded it. The walls, ceiling, and floor were coated so thickly that he was hard-pressed to see bare stone. If climbing down the hill of bones had made the hair stand up on the back of his neck, this feeling of being enveloped by ancient death was actively worrying him. For the first time in his life, he thought he felt a twinge of claustrophobia, smothered in a million-ton blanket of rock.

A skid and a dull thud behind him, accompanied by a curse, announced the arrival of Marcus. The scrawny man came up alongside him, rubbing his leg. “Tripped on something’s head,” he explained, then did a double take. “Fuck, every time I think I’ve seen everything here, something like this happens. This is unbelievable.” Then his eyes alighted on something near Thomas’s hand, and he stopped talking.

“What is it.”

“No fucking way.”

Thomas turned and looked. “Bones. So?”

“That’s it. Bones.”

“And? There were fish and things back around then, right?”
“Yes,” said Marcus. “But not bats.”


The Following Things Will Kill You Horribly.

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

I confess, I had nothing for this week. I’d flooded you with enough dull definitions and poorly-worded mediations on why people act like they do (dips, mostly) that my essaying juices had run dry, and although I’ve finally managed to start up writing again, the resulting short story is (A) unfinished and (B) twenty pages long as of last count. Ah well, maybe you can take a gander by next week as some sort of two-parter. To fill time, here is a list of animals that will kill you horribly.

The Varied and the Venomous

The following creatures are venomous. Not, it must be noted, poisonous. If you’re poisonous, picking you up or eating you is dangerous. If you’re venomous, you’re shoving your venom into something of your own un-molested will, be it through sting, stab, or bite.

The Box Jellyfish, AKA the “Sea Wasp.”

Not actually a box shape, or a wasp.

Not actually a box shape, or a wasp.

What is it? A jellyfish. Contrary to its nicknaming, it hurts a lot more than a wasp. Its wispy little tendrils contain the most potent venom of any known animal, and if you casually swim into it facefirst you’ll probably experience more pain than your body’s nerves can possibly comprehend, followed shortly thereafter with death, which would come as a relief if your brain was capable of thinking about anything other than the terrible, terrible pain.

Why has it just killed me horribly? It’s a jellyfish. Technically, it does not even have a brain or central nervous system. Most likely you failed to notice the almost completely transparent little bag of death hovering quietly in the water until you swam into it.

The Brazilian Wandering Spider, AKA “The Banana Spider.”

Yes, this picture is horrifying.  I apologize.

Yes, this picture is horrifying. I apologize.

What is it? The name sort of gives it away, doesn’t it? It’s a highly grouchy and aggressive spider with a leg span that can get up to five inches across that wanders around looking for things to bite with its horrible, horrible jaws and pump full of what may very well be the most toxic spider venom known (honorable mention to the Australian Funnelweb spider and the Sydney Funnelweb in particular, which casually lives within an 100-kilometre bubble that includes Australia’s largest city, for sheer perfection of bad location). Sometimes it sits in bananas. Sometimes those bananas end up in supermarkets. Yes, most of those incidents are quite likely to be urban legends, but it’s worth passing on these stories so you can tell them to your small, gullible children. That’s why you had them, right?

Why has it just killed me horribly? The Brazilian Wandering Spider is a firm proponent of first-strike principles, attacking those rogue humans that may be plotting to unleash Weapons of Mass Despideration upon it and the Brazilian Way. Or if they’re just too close for comfort. You know that one guy, the one who freaks out if anyone stands closer to him than five feet? It’s like him, except instead of talking rudely it bites you and pumps you full of nuerotoxins that prevent you from breathing and make your muscle system go on a conga without permission.

The King Cobra.

Substantially cuter than the last few, isn't it?

Substantially cuter than the last few, isn't it?

What is it? The largest venomous snake on the planet, that’s all. This hefty little charmer averages around twelve feet long and can reach up to eighteen, and can shove a more-than-way-too-much dose of seven mililitres of neurotoxin into your hide before you can say “oh shit.” Its venom is outclassed by its Black Mamba and Taipan cousin-in-laws, among others, but it puts so much of it into whatever it’s bitten that it scarcely matters – one good bite on the trunk can take out an elephant. Interestingly enough, its main food source is other snakes (well, it’ll go for its own kind if they’re smaller and it’s getting pretty peckish), and its genus name – Opiophagus – translates from the Greek as “Snake Eater.”

Why has it just killed me horribly? Given that king cobras are both fairly shy around humans and give ample warning of when they’re feeling pressed with growling hisses and the whole “raise up one-third of massive body to stare at you with enormous hood fully spread” thing, odds are you were an utter moron/very unlucky and cornered it, or you were completely devoid of intelligence and tried to poke it with something. Either way, tough luck.


The Komodo Dragon, AKA “The Ora.”

It's just a big, flesh-shredding, venomous, multi-hundred-pound softy.

It's just a big, flesh-shredding, venomous, multi-hundred-pound softy.

What is it? Why, it’s the world’s largest lizard! Averages about 10 feet and 150ish pounds, can outrun an average human for short bursts, and is capable of killing and devouring water buffalo! And, as of 2009, it’s been verified as venomous, rather than (as previously thought) merely containing a mouthful of viciously fermenting bacteria. The venom leaks out of ducts pocked in between the dragon’s teeth and sinks into the bite victim as it tears at it, ensuring that if it gets away it does so with an onset of horrible, horrible pain, lack of clotting, and muscle paralysis just around the corner. Which seems somewhat like overkill considering the equipment it already has going for it.

Why has it just killed me horribly? Komodo dragons eat anything from birds to entire horses. Humans fall comfortably within that range, although there have only been five fatalities past 1974. Still, this is probably because most people know better than to carelessly tool around near gigantic, flesheating, venomous lizards. Finally, an animal on this list that will genuinely regard you as possible food rather than just a big prick infringing on its personal space.

Hack and Slash

The following animals will bite, claw, or otherwise shred you into a gooey and unrecognizable mess. Likelihood of said mess being eaten varies on a case-to-case basis.

The Great White Shark, AKA various themes on “white” that you can go back and read in the first shark article.

Fact: sharks always know where you live.  Fact 2: thankfully, they can't walk.

Fact: sharks always know where you live. Fact 2: thankfully, they can't walk.

What is it? It’s big (the biggest carnivorous fish on earth at 20 feet or so maximum length), it’s got a whitish underbelly, it’s been demonized to hell and back and made famous worldwide. Ladies and gentlemen, Carcharodon carcharias. Even laser beams mounted on its skull would be hard-pressed to increase the inherent cool factor of this animal. It takes its prey without warning from below, barreling upwards to smash into them like a freight train with teeth.

Why has it just killed me horribly? As has been said previously on this site, ol’ whitey eats marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and dolphins. When you’re carelessly flapping around on the surface in your silly mammalian way, you confuse the crap out of him – what are you supposed to be, some sort of mentally-defective fur seal? So he’ll check you out. Unfortunately, the only way he can do this is to stick you in his mouth, at which point he’ll realise that you’re mostly bone and skin with no yummy nutritious blubber, and probably not worth the space in his gut. So he swims off dejectedly, leaving you with a big set of dejected toothmarks embedded in your stomach. Alternatively, he may decide “the hell with it” and just eat you. This happens more often in Australia, apparently, possibly just because they’re like that. A good way to tell whether a great white shark was actually trying to hunt and kill you or not after an attack is to check your pulse. If you have one, it probably wasn’t really trying.

The Saltwater Crocodile, AKA “Estuarine Crocodile,” “Salties.”



What is it? The largest reptile currently living, pulling it in at an average length of 15 or so feet (for males; females tend to 7-11 feet) and capable of growing somewhere over twenty. It’s built pretty thickly for a crocodile and has occasionally been misnomered as some kind of alligator. Its name reflects its fairly unique tendency to venture casually out into the ocean, and salties used to be fairly common scattered across Southeast Asia and Australia. Hunting’s brought their numbers dangerously low (my goodness, a large predator being overhunted? Colour me shocked and mark this one with the “UNIQUE CASE!!!” sticker), but wherever they’re still common they make entire bodies of water off-limits deadly. Salties attack from the water, lunging out lightning fast and dragging in prey before it has time to blink, let alone struggle. Beyond their terrifyingly powerful bite strength (one of the strongest of any animal), they drag the prey into a series of underwater spins aptly termed “death rolls,” ensuring drowning kills the disoriented victim quickly even if the bite doesn’t. If whatever they’ve just bagged is large they’ll sometimes use continued death rolls to rip swallowable chunks off it, seeing as crocodiles (being lacking in the molar department) can’t chew.

Why has it just killed me horribly? Here it is, simply put: the saltwater crocodile eats almost anything. If it looks like an animal, and looks like it can catch it, it’s food. This includes sharks, smaller crocodiles, kangaroos, humans, monkeys, water buffalo, and just about anything else. And if they attack a dull-sensed, slow, weak, incompetent average human, that’s pretty much it – almost all attacks by adults on humans are fatal.

The Lion, AKA “King of the Beasts.”

Less well known than the lion's mane is the more embarassing "lion's porn 'stache" commonly grown by subadult males.

Less well known than the lion's mane is the more embarassing "lion's porn 'stache" commonly grown by subadult males.

What is it? You keep asking that question. It doesn’t get any smarter. Anyways, lions. They have killed people, usually as food, and in some of the more famous cases (the Tasvo maneaters especially) the same lion(s) has killed several hundred or even (reputably) thousand humans. This sort of serial massacre has turned up more than a few times among big cats in general, particularly tigers, which are not getting an entry here because they are too good for the likes of you. Lions, on the other paw, are jerks.

Why has it just killed me horribly? There are a few factors that can make lions that much more likely to sample your scrawny behind. First, you could have stupidly run all their prey out of an area, and they’re hungry. Second, there could be enough humans and domestic herd animals around that you’re suddenly the predominant prey species in the area. Third, the lion could be old, sick, or otherwise too infirm to take down anything quicker and stronger than a slow, weak human. In any of these cases it’s fairly easy for the lion(s) to become reliant on eating humans – not least because it’s so damned easy. Which is harder, a painstaking stalking and ambush of a large, angry buffalo, or barging into a village in the middle of the night and dragging out some poor bastard by his neck? Granted there’s more meat on the buffalo, but there’s thousands and thousands of people clumped up in big groups, no end of targets.

Say Hello to My Big Foot

The following animals will never kill you for food. They may, however, simply run over, roll over, or trample you.

The Elephant.

Elephants never forget.  And they never forgive.

Elephants never forget. And they never forgive.

What is it? For the love of potato chips please tell me that you’re not high. This is the world’s largest land animal, the African Elephant, the genus Loxodonta (we won’t get into the Indian Elephant, Elephas, because it is smaller and less photogenic). Beloved of children, the elephant’s massively muscular trunk can perform actions as gentle as plucking a leaf, or as powerful as knocking down a tree or crushing a human ribcage into little tiny bits. Although given that it weighs five or six tons, this sort of thing is getting unnecessarily fancy when it can simply step on you or smack you with its skull, let alone the gigantic chunks of pretty ivory spears sticking out of its jawline.

Why has it just killed me horribly? Bull elephants are, to put it bluntly, tetchy. And if the elephant is feeling pressured or harassed, or just needs to show you who’s boss, it can get quite a bit more than tetchy. As a bonus, adult male elephants enter a periodic condition known as “musth” (or “must”) during which their testosterone levels are jacked upwards about 60 times higher than normal. That is a seriously roided out elephant. And there’s another fun side effect: glands on an elephant’s head can secrete a substance named temporin during this time, pressing painfully on his eyes, which can’t help his mood. And as a final jolly detail, the temporin, which apparently tastes terrible (want to know how they checked that? Me too), naturally runs down and right into the elephant’s mouth. Yeah, I don’t think we need to ask why they’re dangerous around this time, do we.

The Bison, AKA “Buffalo” if You are a Doofus.

This is NOT a buffalo DAMNIT!

This is NOT a buffalo DAMNIT!

What is it? It is most certainly NOT A BUFFALO. It is a bison, an american bison, and you will CALL IT THAT! It’s also the largest terrestrial animal in North America. So there.

Why has it just killed me horribly? Bison are probably the most inoffensive thing on this list, placed here mainly because we can’t have all entries in this section be African. You’re less likely to be killed by a bison than rammed into – cracked ribs, not crushed skulls, if you get my meaning. Still, Yellowstone has had two bison-related deaths since its founding in 1872, which means that they are as fully qualified for this list as the lions that ate several thousand people. Now stop looking at me like that. Bison seem to take offense easily, sometimes with advance warning, sometimes out of the blue. Usually they’ll ram something and then walk off, but a single headbutt from an animal weighing roughly a ton and six foot five at the shoulder is nothing to sneeze at. This sort of attitude is what you’d expect from animals that evolved expecting to be constantly stalked by wolves. You need to show them predators just outside your field of vision who’s in charge here, stop them from waiting around for signs of weakness.

African Buffalo, AKA “Cape Buffalo,” “Affalo,” “Actually a Goddamned Buffalo.”

If you can see this, you are already too close.

If you can see this, you are already too close.

What is it? The african buffalo is a freakin’ buffalo. It is not a bison, which are NOT buffalo. Get that straight right now. It’s also one of the most dangerous animals on the continent: surly, aggressive, grumpy, tetchy, belligerant, and all-around crotchety. Of the “big five” big game hunting animals of the Africa of yore, back in the days when wealthy white men would shoot things for the joy of it (lions, leopards, african elephants, buffalo, and either species of rhinoceros), the cape buffalo was considered the most likely to kill you.

Why has it just killed me horribly? Reread the list of adjectives in the fourth sentence of that paragraph above us again.

The Hippopotamus, AKA “Hippo.”

This is the same thing you think looks cute and silly.  Try that now.

This is the same thing you think looks cute and silly. Try that now.

What is it? We’re practically working our way through a children’s animal encyclopedia, I’m giving up on you. Hippos are quite possibly the most human-hazardous animal in Africa, tangled up with the cape buffalo and Nile crocodile (which they hate, probably because they eat hippo calves).

What has it just killed me horribly? Hippos may look twice as goofy as either of their competitors, but are incredibly ill-tempered and are more than willing to kill humans and smash boats simply for getting in their space. They might not be territorial out of water, but stretches of rivers that they claim are Theirs with a capital T and you’d better stay the hell out of there if you know what’s good for you. Even out of water, they’re just too damned tetchy to be safe.

The Maniacal and the Murderous

The following animals will kill you just for the hell of it, often in extremely cruel ways for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Their behaviour is unpredictable and they must be treated with extreme caution.

Humans, AKA “Man,” “Homo sapiens.”


What is it? The most dangerous animal on the planet. Weak and slow on their own, they use group tactics and artificial tools created from their environments to kill almost everything. They have no apparent natural enemies, although some apex predators will perform opportunistic predation upon them. They do so, however, at great personal risk, for retribution is invariably sought. Voraciously territorial, they will claim entire continents with a speed and zeal that army ants would envy, purging and ransacking its ecology for their own benefits.

Why has it just killed me horribly? Who can say? The most terrifying thing about these creatures is their bizarre unpredictability. Some individuals will carelessly kill each other and anything else over almost nothing, while others live to old age without harming anything bigger than an insect. You never know precisely what a human will do, or what will bring it to violence. And the means they use to end their victims can be slow and cruel or mercifully quick. Poisons and projectiles, heavy implements and machinery, there is no apparent end to the creativity of H. sapiens when it comes to lethal violence, especially against its own kind.

So, hope you’ve enjoyed our little slideshow. See you next week.

All original material copyright Jamie Proctor, 2009.

Picture Credits:

On People, Ad Nauseum.

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

This will hopefully be the final piece of cultural anthropology that I plop out onto this site, if only because I am frightened that my tutor will read it, pass out in horror, and then find and shoot me for my own good. As per always, plausible deniability, I was very young and stupid, it’s all a blur officer I honestly can’t say jesus christ I didn’t mean to hurt her yadda yadda yadda YADDA. And now we press on. Today we’ll cover various random things. You may now clasp your hands to either side of your face, bug your eyes out, and say “I had NO idea!” in an irrepressibly annoying voice. Go on. Tell them I said it was okay.

Politics: My Dong is Bigger Than Your Despot.

During the taking of this picture, Roosevelt expressed his desire for Stalin's hat.

During the taking of this picture, Roosevelt expressed his desire for Stalin's hat.

Ah, politics. There are so many wonderful systems that humans have made whose primary tasks are convincing everybody that they are totally essential, but politics has to take the delicious, homemade strawberry angel cake with raspberries on top. Political anthropology is devoted to studying it; more precisely, things related to power. Who has power, who wants power, degrees of power, bases of power, abuses of power, excetera, etc, ec, e. Don’t confuse political anthropology with political science, however – political science is narrower in scope, dealing more with formal party politics, voting, and so on. Political anthropology includes that, a headman kicking someone out of the tribe for sleeping with his wife, and almost every leadership system outside of your family members telling you what to do. Now let’s get some of these here politimackul definitions. Because lord knows we didn’t cram enough into the last update.

  • Power: The ability to produce desired results by possession or use of force.
  • Politics: The use of organized public power.
  • Authority: The right for someone to take certain forms of action based on status or moral authority. Unlike power, you don’t need force to back it up. Notably, power doesn’t need this.
  • Influence: The ability to achieve an end through exertion of social or moral pressure on someone/some group, like your granny making you donate to charity or she’ll tell your mother about the enormous stack of porn she found in your closet. Unlike authority, you don’t need to be in charge or in center stage to exert this.

There we go, that wasn’t so bad. Now you’ve got a fascinatingly deep knowledge of politics rivalling that of the president of your nation’s nearest stamp collector’s club, and we’re ready to talk political organizations. We’ll be going roughly in order of appearance in human history, from earliest to latest.


Relatively eglatarian, sometimes nigh politics-free, and usually completely screwed.

Relatively eglatarian, sometimes nigh politics-free, and usually completely screwed.

The oldest human society of all, and one that some anthropologists have argued is politics-free in a pure state. Everybody’s pretty equal, leadership’s pretty informal, groups tend not to fight too much because they both don’t use up a whole lot, wander around a big area, and there aren’t many of them, and the closest you can get to politics is group decision-making. Usually you don’t have a big population growth rate because you get all your food via foraging and don’t build up big surpluses for population booms or specialists who don’t know how to feed themselves. Also, flowers and key lime pies rain from the skies on Tuesdays at six forty-five PM, so that you are well prepared for the 7 o’clock forced colonization and massacre at the hands of more complex societies (note that you cannot rearrange the letters in “complex” to equal “superior” or “better.” This means something).


Once you’ve stopped foraging and started up planting and weeding (or herding and milking), you’re probably going to be in a tribal society. You’re a bunch of related bands held together in a territory by distinct language and lineage (and a dash of alliteration). A tribal headman is more certifiably “the boss” than a band leader, and he has more power, but he’s still part-time, and in charge because he’s respected – being generous earns a lot of respect. Since you’re starting to get a bit of food surplus, you can support the odd guy who can’t get his own food but is really good at making those specially carved statue-things you like so much, and maybe you’ll also be able to have more kids. Which is good, because the work you’re putting into growing/raising your meals is back-breaking, and you need all the extra hands you can get for weeding and tilling. Foraging was a free meal ticket compared to this.


A complex society can lead to all manner of hijinx, such as totem poles and lawn tennis.

A complex society can lead to all manner of hijinx, such as totem poles and lawn tennis.

Now we’re getting complicated. Chiefdoms are conglomerates of tribes and bands, all clumped together forever and ever under the chief. Society acquires more ranks and stratifications, and the chief may still acquire reputation through generosity but you better believe he’s going to be living a good bit better than the majority of his subjects. And make no mistake, they are his subjects now. This is no part-time leader, the chief has to take charge in major decisions and simply running the chiefdom. You can take this to the next level and have a whackuv chiefdoms linked together either under a sort of uber-chief, what you can call a confederacy.


Statehood is serious business.

Statehood is serious business.

Onward and upward into spiralling complexity. States arise as centralized political units, borne aloft on the flowery winds of intensive agriculture and storage techniques. Combining these technologies gives food surpluses out the sociological wazoo, and suddenly you have thousands of people free to take time off from feeding themselves to dedicate their lives to carving very large stone blocks, or charting the movements of the skies, or telling you that you need to kill those guys over the next hill or else your god(s) will be totally pissed off at you. It’s now relatively easy to get big cities rolling, or create a rigidly-organized religion, kick-start a technology, or launch a war. On the other hand you gobble resources like an emaciated hippopotamus, and you’re going to have to make sure that those other jerks in their state over the next hill don’t come over and take all your stuff, ideally by conquering them. Unless that would endanger your trade with them for those really shiny rocks your stoneworkers like so much. This is all a good example of exactly what states exemplify: complexity. They have eighty billion different benefits, issues, problems, and solutions, and often they all amount to exactly how well-coordinated the thing is.

Development Anthropology: Studying How People Will Screw Themselves This Time.

Development in action.  Specifically, lung tumors.

Development in action. Specifically, lung tumors.

Or, more specifically, studying how development changes cultures. Or how change develops them. Or whatever. Whether internal (finding a massive nickel mine ten miles from the capital, some random schmoe inventing the aromatherapeutic lightbulb) or external (a shipload full of conquistadors on your front porch, trading for a barrel of gunpowder and deciding to take a crack at deciphering it), change is inevitable. Thanks to globalization nowadays everybody’s in everyone’s backyard, and external influence is a given. How will nations develop? Modernize yourself with all the latest gadgets so you can play with the big boys? Fantically attempt to get your economy kickstarted enough that you can afford to feed more than 5% of your population? Try and reorganize things so that you don’t have that same 5% of your population eating 78% of all the resources? See if you can fix it so that everyone’s lives don’t really, really suck and are longer than that of the average fruit fly? Make sure that you aren’t eating up your next thousand years of resources over the next two decades? Everybody has a different goal, a different solution. Or the same goal with different solutions, or different goals using the same solutions. Whatever.

In the midst of all this, you’ve got institutions striving to help with development, or at least influence it. Two rough kinds: multilaterals (lots of nations as donors, such as the UN) or bilaterals (two countries, one giving, the other recieving). Naturally, the aid provided is going to vary depending on all manner of political bullhickory, and factors such as whether or not it’s meant to be spent on specific projects endorsed by the donors or untied to any specific goal, and whether it’s a grant or a loan. Anthropology comes into all this when an anthropologist is asked to advise on exactly what planting the Ultimate Power Dam Of Justice directly on top of a local village while ploughing over their burial grounds for a gas station might do to the area’s people. Originally this worked poorly, as the way projects were run basically went (1) create and design project with no input a thousand miles away, (2) ask anthropologist, (3) get pissed off when they tell you you’re a clueless berk. Nobody likes being called a clueless berk, and so anthropologists were disliked. Nowadays anthropologists tend to get more input into the situation, and have moved on a bit themselves from being consultants to actively monitoring their projects to make sure that nobody acts like a gigantic dick.

All of the above, interestingly, falls under applied anthropology, which is exactly what it sounds like: the application of anthropological knowledge to something, hopefully to better it. We’re seeing more and more of that nowadays, and some of it even works.

All original material copyright Jamie Proctor, 2009.

Picture Credits:

  • Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt at the Teheran conference: Public domain image from Wikipedia.
  • Shoshone around 1890ish: Public domain image from Wikipedia.
  • Mayan pyramid at Coba: Public domain image from Wikipedia.
  • Haida Houses around 1901: Public domain image from Wikipedia.
  • World War II factory: Public domain image from oh for Christ’s sake just look up.

On People, Redux.

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009
My final exam in cultural anthropology occurred on the 22nd as planned. I completed it. I really couldn’t say more. I mean, I answered all the questions they gave me, filling up empty pages with sprawling, incredibly sloppy handwriting detailing many facts on why people are silly. I’m just not sure I was answering the right questions, or even if anything I was saying counted as an answer.

Naturally, the vast majority of my 52 pages of notes proved useless, leading to me cursing once again at having been fooled into learning stuff without purpose. Now it’s demi-memorized and as such shall take an extra three months to leak out of my skull. The best use I think I can get out of this is to cram as much half-remembered misinterpretations of what I mindlessly stared at for two weeks into your heads as quickly as possible. Seatbelts on? Engine turned off and windows rolled up? Let’s get going.

The History of Cultural Anthropology (the truncated and demi-accurate collector’s gold limited premium special re-release edition with bonus discs and behind-the-scenes documentary)

Originally, of course, cultural anthropology didn’t exist. Why would you want to truly understand those other schmucks when that takes up valuable time you can use to kill them and take their stuff? Besides, they were obviously inferior, and therefore anything they could tell you would be worthless. They also didn’t believe in the right things, and should be properly brainwashed educated as to who was the biggest deity on the block.

Old-school anthropology

Eventually the bad old days fell away and modern (well, early-to-mid-nineteenth-century) scholars began to conduct what is known as “armchair anthropology,” which basically followed a winning formula that I shall now bestow upon you:

  1. Send jackhole #092 into the wildes to communicate with the savages.
  2. Read ye olde reporte sent back by thine jackhole #092 (Day 1: met guye, Day 2: was fed by guye, Day 3: raped his wife, he got tetchy, shote him).
  3. Posit wanton and shamelessly second-hande speculations upon the nature of the savages described withine ye olde reporte.
  4. ????
  5. Profite.

Well, maybe not so winning as all that. Anyways, sooner or later someone realized they weren’t so much recording scientific information about other peoples so much as they were making shit up on the basis of a handful of scribbled notes, and this wasn’t really meeting the best standards of journalism, or even National Enquirer standards. So they hitched rides out into the world, arrived in the colonies, got to within a few miles of the nearest primitive tribes that just needed some white people’s direction, poor things, rolled up their sleeves, hitched up their suspenders, and lived in nice big houses. Once in a while they’d send word over to the chappies in the village that they’d rather like a native informant to come over to the place and have a nice chat on how him and his blokes did their thing, donchaknow. This was termed “verandah anthropology,” and it was an improvement in roughly the same manner as having cancer in remission is an improvement over cancer. Very much an improvement, but considering where you started, not saying much.

Careful there Cecil old boy.  There are people trying to live underneath your boots there.

Well, around came World War I, or The Great War, or The War to End All Wars, three names for the same thing of which two are blatant lies – it certainly didn’t end wars, and it fails in both senses of “great” as not only was it pretty dismal but there was a bigger one right after it. During this period, a 30-year-old Polish man named Bronislaw Malinowski (a strongly excellent name, typed or said aloud) was waltzing about near New Guinea, a British-held domain. Australian authorities politely told him that as a Polish man from Austria-Hungary he was somewhat less than welcome to be at his leisure, and told him he could either get locked up or sit in the Trobriand Islands (what modern parents term a “time-out”). Bronislaw opted for the latter and conducted some of his most famous research, making advances in a new method of studying peoples: participant observation, which is pretty much what it sounds like. The anthropologist gets up close and personal with his subjects, finding out how they live by attempting to do it him(her)self. On the one hand you lose the verandah and become culturally incompetent to the point of children laughing at you, on the other hand you can actually connect to the people you’re studying as slightly more than “hey you, go get me a towel, some hot water, and a razor – chop chop!” and you get to actually learn something for once, since the more relatively normal you act the more relatively normal your study subjects will, too. Trading off pride and pomposity for contact and enlightenment started to appeal to more and more anthropologists, mostly because you came off as less of a twit and more of a scientist.

Speaking of scientists, Franz Boas may have done some stuff when we weren’t looking over the past few paragraphs. The “father” of American anthropology, Boas was German. Boas started with a doctorate in physics, moved on to geography, and spent 1883 with the Baffin Island Inuit examining how the local (and downright evil) geography affected their movements. He came out of it with a good deal of respect for the people and their culture, and an experience-backed attitude that anyone who presumed evolutionary superiority over other humans or their cultures was an ignorant tool. Over his life he played big daddy to anthropology in America, originated and encouraged the “four fields” method of divvying up anthropology that we went over last time, did stuff in all four, proved that anyone who argued for human intelligence based on cranial size was a moron, studied Native American languages like a man possessed, and promoted cultural relativism.

This man's moustache alone is smarter than either of us.

This man's moustache alone is smarter than either of us.

Okay, that was rather impressive. Well, actually a whole lot more than rather. Now that we’re done remembering how much more energetic everyone seemed to be about a hundred years ago, let’s stop reviewing the past and look at the present.

What the Hell are You Doing?

Now, there are quite a few ways of getting your info on whoever you’re staring slightly too closely at this week on-site. Because we are full of SCIENCE we shall have a special term for each of them, which I shall convey to you through the magic of crude description.

  • Etic research refers to the gathering of data and juicy gossip by outsiders looking in on a culture and checking in on specific questions.
  • Emic research refers to descriptive reports of what it’s like living in Insert Subject’s Hometown Here conveyed by insiders about their culture.
  • Deductive research involves asking a question or posing a hypothesis and then gathering a bunch of info, then figuring out whether or not you’ve proved, disproved, or haven’t the foggiest about your original idea.
  • Inductive research involves gathering a bunch of info and then seeing what it tells you. “Screw the hypothesis, I have data” basically.

There, who says definitions aren’t fun? Look at how much fun we just had! By the way, the data constantly harped upon above can come in two broad flavours

  • Quantative information come in the form of charts, graphs, tables, and numbers. Lots of numbers. No, more than that. You will count those numbers up and you shall like it.
  • Qualitative methods rely on written descriptions, reports, and so on. No (well, not as much) counting, but lots of talking. And scribbling.

Both require participant observation to pull off, observation skills technically described as “out the wazoo,” and reliable methods of recording said wazoo-related eruptions of data, all with sides of both up and down. Written notes can be really comprehensive and jotted down right as the event happens, or they can be limited by writing speed or taken later when the memories have had time not only to degrade but to actually drop out of school and get really high, in something like that order. Tape recordings can grab all the sound in an area, being at once incredibly informative and incredibly irritating at a single stroke (boy, bet you wish you hadn’t sat next to the instruments when that guy was making the big, important, once-a-year speech, eh?). Video cameras, well, we need not chat about how much they can snag, but they only really get what you point them at. Tons of little details that you might catch on and note yourself can get gleaned over in a video, particularly if its quality is what the polite people call “crap.”

Oh, and while we’re at it, there’s a few distinct ways to have at your research. Because lord knows we can’t have enough definitions.

  • Ethnography. Exactly what it says, “culture writing.” You write about a culture. Specifically, you write up all your info into a honkin’ big pile of words on the culture. It’s descriptive, detailed, and first-hand. You can write it in a traditionally detached third-person manner (realist ethnography, the traditional method), or you can get really fancy and use a more recent approach known as “realist ethnography,” where it’s first-person, poetical insight may be used, and you aren’t afraid to liberally sprinkle “I” through your writing. I think that sounds more like writing a book than a research document, but bear in mind that I’m a flamin’ idiot.
  • Ethnology. Cross-cultural analysis, which, again, is basically what it’s called – you take a topic, say, the particular noises that people consider polite to make when eating something at lunch in public, and then you compare how different cultures do it using ethnographic materials. You check out what’s similar, what’s different, and why they might be alike/not alike.

Final thing for today – recall our little lesson on ethnocentrism yesterdayweek? Remember how I mentioned that it was dumb, and stupid, and smelly, and only a total jerk would use it, and I was all like “hey, you shouldn’t judge other people’s arbitrary crap by the standards of your arbitrary crap”? Scroll upwards to check out the lattermost of the eminent Franz Boas’s achievements: promoting cultural relativism. That’s it. Cultural relativism: the denial of judging other cultures by your standards, and the opposite of ethnocentrism. And then I was “but that doesn’t mean you can claim genocide as a cultural tradition and say that makes it okay”? That’s one of two really vague “flavours” (I use that term too much. Let’s try “sounds” next time) of cultural relativism: absolute cultural relativism (the aforementioned “I cannot judge your decision to eat your baby because it vexes you/preach that the heathens must be shot until they worship the right imaginary friend”), and critical cultural relativism (“Both of those sound like bad things for everyone”). The prior is widely regarded as being quite dense by absolutely everyone, the second as being preferable to either ethnocentrism or its own moronic sibling yet philisophically difficult to justify. Then again, philosophy makes many things difficult to justify, so let’s do what almost all people do when confronted with philosophy: ignore it because it makes your head hurt.

I promise that next time I shall chose a topic that lends itself more favourably towards purty pictures.

All original material copyright Jamie Proctor, 2009.

Picture Credits:

Tupac Amaru being shown who’s boss by Spaniards in 1572: Public domain image from Wikipedia.

“The Rhodes Colossus” from Punch in 1892: Public domain image from Wikipedia.

Franz Boas being awesome in 1915: Public domain image from Wikipedia.