Archive for August, 2009

On Your Extended Family.

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Once again, it’s time to talk about people. This time, however, we’re going to do so under the aegis (delicious greek word) of physical/biological anthropology. We’re going to go check out the hominids in general. As per usual, I warn you that I’m not an expert and not only could you not take this information to the bank but you probably shouldn’t put it in your piggy bank either. Even inside a sock hidden under your mattress is a bit suspect. That said, here we goooo….

Mom, where do humans come from?

Why from the depths of time, Jimmy. Hah, just kidding. Humanity’s origins are barely from the very tip of the peak of the crest of the gently moving wave of the surface of the kiddy pool of time. We are latecomers and we are by here by chance, same as anyone else. Presumably, like almost every species ever, we’ll also soon be extinct. Them’s the breaks.

Annnnyways, our first appearances as a group (hominids) distinct from the rest of the primates show up around 6-7 million years ago, when our ancestors and chimpanzee ancestors split off from one another. Maybe someone said something they shouldn’t have in the heat of the moment, and if it weren’t for one mouthy simian, evolution’s course would’ve altered. Whatever. Anyways, after this follows a neat and linear progression of steady improvement from primitive ancestors to modern-day oh who am I kidding. Human evolution is a MESS, and our evolutionary tree looks more like a briar patch. Entire clans of anthropologists have vanished into it and never returned, and sometimes others come back changed and haunted by memories of seeing their colleagues torn limb from limb by rampant taxonomy.

austrolopithecus_africanus_saywut

The oldest thing we have that’s possibly a hominid (some people are arguing it’s too ape-ish) is Sahelanthropus tchadensis from Chad, dating back to the 6-7 mya (million years ago) limit or around then. We’ve got his noggin, some teeth, and five chunks of jaw. Maybe he was in a barfight. From then on we move into a gradually more and more tangled mess. We’ve got Ardipithecus ramidus from around 4.5 mya in Ethiopia, Australopithecus anamensis from roughly 4.1 mya near Lake Turkana in Kenya, and Australopithecus afarensis from 3 mya in Ethiopia and Tanzania (the species to which the famous fossil dubbed “Lucy” after the Beatles song belongs to). This last one comes with a twofer of confusion, where some of them are around five foot and 150 pounds and others are 3.5-4 foot tall, most likely from sexual dimorphism (the differing of shape between sexes in a species, most often in terms of size). This can only add to the trouble of identifying what the hell species some random jaw fragment you found belongs to.

Past about 3 mya afarensis‘s descendants started to split up further, making things even more annoying. You got the Australopithecus africanus of south Africa and 3 mya, the A. garhi from around 2.5 mya, and the more robust bunch of A. aethiopicus, boisei, and robustus from 3-1 mya around east and south Africa. Somewhere in this thicket is our ancestor. Or maybe we haven’t found him yet. Whichever.

Humanity Rhymes With Mundanity

Around 2-1.8 mya the genus Homo appears in its early forms. Bigger brains, smaller jaws and teeth, more dexterous hands, and diminished sexual dimorphism are its trademarks, along with the first stone tools (mastering the innovative and appealing idea of “smack chips off a rock, then take the chips and cut shit up,” leading into the Oldowan, the oldest form of stone tool industry).

Say hi to grandpa, kiddies.  Hiiiii grandpa!

Say hi to grandpa, kiddies. Hiiiii grandpa!

First up to the plate is Homo habilis, or “handy man.” Haven’t you ever noticed your plumber’s sloping cranium and pronounced brow ridge? If you have, you should probably phone an archaeologist somewhere. Dating back around 2 mya, this fella looked fairly similar to the good ol’ Australopithecines of ye olden dayes, but with a slightly less apelike skull. Apparently he still ate lots of fruit, but was more than willing to scavenge meat (whether or not they actually hunted is up in the air verging on not likely). He was walking upright and had a very strong hand – good for grasping and climbing, not quite so hot at fine manipulation, but still very precise and useful in toolmaking. Females were still probably shrimps compared to the big boys, and his larynx hadn’t descended yet – a process that begins around 1.5 mya with H. erectus and finished around 300,000 years ago, allowing complex speech and the uniquely human ability to choke on your own food. Thanks to the mess of our history, by the by, H. habilis may contain two or more early Homo species. Just in case you thought this was starting to become sensible.

Java man: unrelated to coffee or scripting.

Java man: unrelated to coffee or scripting.

After H. habilis came Homo erectus (“upright man”), whose name makes my filthy-minded sister snigger constantly. Pervert. Anyways, he showed up around 1.9 mya and celebrated the occasion by spreading around like crazy, starting out in eastern Africa and ending up in southeast Asia by 1.8 mya, probably motivated by the Sahara getting dry as a bone, forcing them northwards and outwards across the planet. Like habilis, erectus may or may not include a few species lumped together, such as H. ergaster, which it may in fact be a subspecies of. Or H. ergaster may be a subspecies of erectus. Or not. Look, it’s complicated, all right? Whatever their relationship, by a million years ago they were pretty much the last hominids standing, from a 1.6 mya pre-Ice Age population of five or sixish species. Being bigger may have helped.

Erectus and co were larger, less prone to sexual dimorphism, and in general much more similar to modern humans in overall proportions (probably less hairy than their predecessors, too). They had pretty fancy brow ridges still, but they had a cool 750 cubic centimetre brain size – an improvement over the 600-700 cc size of habilis, and one that shaped their skulls quite differently. They used it, too – fire shows up in east Africa nearly two million years ago, tamed fire in south Africa and the Kenya Rift Valley around 1.6 mya, opening up many diferent food sources, protection, and hunting. Stone tools were getting more and more complicated, even in Asia, where stone tools are slightly rarer because the locals sensibly used bamboo for many things (lightweight, strong, sharpenable…what more do you want?). Flaked hand axes, wooden spears, and scrapers for wood and skinning all show up, and a specific form of hand axe technology covering Africa, Europe, and parts of Asia is termed Acheulian. It was the greatest thing since chipped rocks, and more specifically, the Oldowan. Big-game hunting was helped along by both the bigger bodies and the nasty new toys, and horses, rhinoceros, bison, deer, and bears were all brought down in various locations.

Enter the Most Ironic Scientific Name Ever Conceived, Plus, Uncle Ned

Anyways, around 250,000 years ago (woah, what happened to millions?), archaic versions of Homo sapiens (“wise man”….ostensibly) show up. But we don’t have the scenery to ourselves for long. Another Homo offshoot sprouts up, the eminently cold-adapted and robust Homo neanderthalensis (or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, depending on whether or not you think they’re a subspecies of us or just very close relatives), or the Neanderthal (if you want to be very German, as you would due to his bones being found in the Neander Valley, pronounce it “Neandertal”).

Your cousin Julie, twenty thousand times removed on your mom's side.

Your cousin Julie, twenty thousand times removed on your mom's side.

Neanderthals were by far the most similar to us of all our relatives, which made their differences all the more notable. They stood about five foot on average, were built robust (think dwarves – hugely strong bones with massive muscle attachments), had almost no chins, brow ridges, receding foreheads, projected faces, and brains that seem to be slightly larger than our own. Needless to say, explaining why we’re still around and they aren’t has always been an interesting affair. They were built for the cold, and did pretty well in Ice Age Europe. The stone tool industry termed Mousterian is heavily associated with them, and was quite an improvement over the old Acheulian hand axes – the same pound of flint that could make two nice hand axes could be turned into more than 30 inches’ worth of Mousterian cutting-flakes, using “prepared cores” of flint to create perfect surfaces to strike sharpened flakes from. It was also hard as hell; there are probably about twenty modern flint knappers that can approximate some of its tricks (“Levallois technique,” anyone?) as well as its creators did. Stone tools ain’t no game for kids.

Neanderthals buried their dead at least occasionally, ate one another now and then (reasons unknown), and seem to have occasionally left items in burials like red ocher powder and goat horns, pointing at some sort of symbolism. Who hasn’t done all of those things at least once, I say. Anyways, they were all gone by about 22,000 BC. Whether we outcompeted them, killed ‘em off, or absorbed them is up in the air, although genetics testing says the last option’s probably not very likely beyond limited hanky-panky. Also, given our historic attitude towards things even marginally different from us (“Your skin is weird! WAAAAAAAAAAAUGH!“), I think I know where I place my money.

Yes, we sent porn into space.  Just in case.

Yes, we sent porn into space. Just in case.

Well, what else is there to say? Homo sapiens either showed up in Africa and spread out like crazy (the “out of Africa” theory, a la erectus) or H. erectus populations worldwide gradually evolved into first archaic H. sapiens, then modern humans (the “multiregional model”). The latter option feels uncomfortably racist (“This uncivilized lot probably only became modern in the past millennium!“) and also has to deal with the issue that African populations have the most diverse types of mitochondrial DNA of anywhere on the planet, which fits nicely into the idea that we’ve been living there longer than anywhere else – which is confirmed by African finds showing modern features earlier than anywhere else on Earth. Don’t think we’ve gotten out of the confusion yet, though – human distribution patterns worldwide make no sense more often than not (“How did we manage to colonize Australia 45,000 years ago again, thousands of years before good boats?“) and there’s more than plenty to argue about.

The rest of history after this is a long and cloudy series of people stabbing each other repeatedly and building statues.

Original material copyright 2009, Jamie Proctor.

  • Picture Credits:
  • Australopithecus africanus sculpture: crafted by Toni Wirts, public domain picture from Wikipedia. Cruellly vandalized in Paint by yours truly.
  • Skull KNM ER 1813: picture taken by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, 2007, public domain image from Wikipedia.
  • Illustration of Java Man’s skull: drawn by J. H. McGregor in 1923, public domain image from wikipedia.
  • Reconstruction of Neanderthal child: “Some people claim that this image is “incredibly human.” However, according to Christoph P.E. Zollikofer, it was made using modern techniques of computer-assisted paleoanthropology from the Gibraltar 2 Neanderthal specimen discovered by en:Dorothy Garrod at Devil’s Tower, en:Gibraltar in 1926. Tomographic scanning was used to convert the remains into a computer model, from which a physical model was constructed using a stereolithography apparatus. Soft tissue was then extrapolated using a thin plate splining technique originated in 1991.When distributing this image, provide a link to Anthropological Institute, University of Zürich as a courtesy to them.” Public domain image from Wikipedia.
  • Depiction of man and woman from the Pioneer’s plaque: Public domain image from Wikipedia.

Storytime: Bagel.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

I’m back. And without further ado, here you go.

Jack Mackenzie was sitting at his breakfast table, preparing to toast a bagel, when he heard the doorbell ring. Taking a last look at the bread product, he arose with a wistful sigh and trudged to the doorbell, half-heartedly combing down what was left of his hair with one hand.

It was a knight on a white horse. Quite a young one, mid-twenties or so, with silver armour and a shield emblazoned with a golden crow.

“Hello there,” said Jack.

“Greetings,” said the knight.

“How can I help you?”
“Be you Jack Mackenzie?”
Jack nodded, thinking longingly of his bagel. “That I am.”

“I am questing for the Grail. Would you accompany me?”
Jack shook his head, sad and slow. “’Fraid not. Family responsibilities. You know how it is.”

Insofar as it was possible to tell through the twenty-three pounds of metal covering his head, the knight looked a tad disappointed. “Ah, yes. Say no more. Well, if you’re really sure, then…”

“I am,” said Jack, firmly. “Good luck out there.”

“Thanks.” The knight unholstered his lance, clicked his spurs, and was off down the driveway at eighty miles an hour, leaving only a small heap of horse droppings to mark his passing. Jack picked up the local newspaper that had been left at his doorstep (despite plaintive requests not to) and gingerly scooped it into the geraniums.

Jack returned to the sanctuary of his kitchen, and put his bagel in the toaster. He began to slice some cheese in preparation for its arrival, nice and slowly. His son, William (age 14, shoe size 10), announced his arrival at this point with his traditional fanfare of banging down the stairs at mach 8, ricocheting off every available surface as many times as he could, and Jack gave a small, half-subconscious moan at the sound.

Ding-dong, ding-dong went the doorbell. “I’ll get it,” said William, headed off before he could invade the kitchen. There was the familiar squeak-thump of the door opening, a low mutter of voices, and then the predictable call of “DAD! It’s for YOU!” Jack popped his bagel from the toaster, half-toasted, and abandoned it once more.

It was a dragon, a silvery one with reddish markings and bright yellow cat’s-eyes. Faint hints of sulphurous vapors wafted from the corners of its mouth, and the air above the driveway it had disturbed in landing was a-shimmer with heat.

“Are ye,” it asked, voice a grumble of gravel deeper than a coal mine’s shaft, “Jack the Mackenzie?”

“Yes,” said Jack Mackenzie.

It squinted at him. “Will ye come to the high mountains, in quest of ancient treasure hidden ‘neath mountain’s roots?”
“Sorry,” said Jack. “I’m retired.”

The dragon blinked. “How do ye feed yer kin then?”
“I do postal work.”

The dragon’s shrug displaced as much air as the passing of a 747. “So be it then; I shall find another. Fare ye well.” It took off, and the jetstream it left flattened the neighbour’s picket fence and nearly overturned Jack’s station wagon.

Jack trudged back to the kitchen. In his short period of absence, William had prepared and eaten what looked to be three bowls of cereal, each a different brand, and two entire apples. “Growing again?” he asked.

“You’re such a dork, dad.”

He took this in stride, and pushed the bagel back into the toaster, then extracted a plastic canister of cream cheese from the fridge. He pulled out a knife from the cutlery drawer. Then the doorbell rang again, and he swore very softly to himself. Saturday mornings. It was always Saturday bloody mornings.

He answered the door, William tagging along behind him. It was a specter, a hooded and robed form just out of synch of this side of reality. A butterfly flew through its torso as Jack watched.

“!&#^@*235!27867^^^%$6^%q$” said the specter.

Jack blinked. “Ah. Sorry, my 39@!*& is a little rusty. Do you mind if I speak English?”

“^*#^$(58233587!&*%#><” replied the specter, amiably enough.

“Thank you. Now excuse me, what is it?”

*&^#$*@$>?:{>:>^87>:{@$45’;242’34’;@#<$@#<:@>}232.:$%>#>\\” said the specter, somewhat lengthily.

“Ah. I’m sorry, I’m no longer up for that sort of thing. I do postal work now.” The specter looked dejected, or at least the hem of its robe sagged and a low-pitched hum filled the morning air.

“I’ll do it, dad,” volunteered William.

Jack frowned at him. “I think you’re a bit young for this sort of thing, Billy.”

William scowled. “I hate that name. No one calls me that name but you. Why do you keep calling me that? And you were younger than me when you started!”

“All right, all right, all right. Go on. That is, if it’s all right with Mr. ^$& here.”

“(3&#^2&$*4)” opined ^$&.

“Great! See ya later, dad.”

“Take care. Don’t take any free gifts ‘cause there’s no such thing, offer fair trade, and look both ways crossing the road.” Jack watched his son and the specter walk down the driveway, then hastily added “And don’t trust witches, faeries, or wizards!”

“I know, dad!”
Warning delivered, Jack headed back to the toaster, from which a burning, festering smell emanated. With a sinking heart, he pressed the eject button, and found his worst fears confirmed. The bagel lay before him, charred and cindered as a volcano’s heart. Could this morning get any more inconvenient?

The doorbell answered him, smartly on time. Jack swore, quietly yet savagely, then got up again, leaving the ruins of his breakfast to glimmer malevolently at him from the toaster.

He knew something was wrong as he approached the door. Absolute silence lay on the other side. Stifling worry, he opened it, and no one was there. A parchment post-it note was attached to the front of the door. Jack yanked it down and read it.

We have the boy. Leave 3 thimblefuls of mortal sweat & tears & happiness at the curb of Main and Thomas Ave. on Sunday sundown, or he gets it.

Jack read the note three times, each time his brow furrowing a little deeper, his eyebrows slouching a little lower. Right. So that was how it was going to be, eh?

He went back into the kitchen, examining its contents with a ready eye. Then, with surprisingly quick movements, he plucked the bagel from the toaster, the cheese slicer from the cheese, and the cream cheese from the counter. He tucked them into his pockets and walked outside, slamming the door behind him.

Someone had a lot of nerve if they thought they could take his son like that, without so much as a by-your-leave. Even more if they thought he couldn’t take care of it himself nowadays. Besides, he didn’t have a lot of tears or happiness to spare in these busy times. Sweat was still plentiful, though.

At the end of his driveway Jack’s walk took on a complicated twist, as if he were trying to walk sideways in both directions at once while still moving forwards, something John Cleese might have managed but would foil any other human on the planet. About a twinkling of a moment after he began this, he vanished without fanfare.

Orange St. was much prettier when you were looking at it properly. From this side of perspective, Jack’s home (a rustic and well-kept cabin) was in a tidy forest glade, alongside a babbling brook that murmured gleefully to itself as it played with a fallen tree.

“Hold any further callers,” Jack told the brook. “I’m busy today.” It splashed insolently at him, sputtering nonsense and agreement.

Jack set off. Down the forest trails he went, twisting and winding every way, taking the left-right-left and the left-left-left-right, and then the trick question that was the right-right-left-right-stand-still-for-five-seconds-and-walk-backwards-three-paces. That one could catch you up if you weren’t careful. Then he came to the tree-stump that blocked the path, bigger than his house, said “Argulbathanara” to it very carefully in a high-pitched voice, and walked into its knothole.

There was a surprisingly large amount of room inside it. A whole city, for one thing, a warren of brownies and other miniature faeries that would barely come up to Jack’s calves. The polite thing to do would be to adjust your size accordingly and be a respectable guest, but Jack was in a hurry and made haste, taking the spiraling grand staircase downwards thirty steps at a time, sending the pedestrians scattering away. He would have to apologize the next time he came through.

At the bottom of the stair (which was longer than it looked) was the river. It was deep and dark and a deep dark peat smell wafted up from it. The dock Jack stood on was ancient wood, the great old tap-root of the stump, and it creaked and bent in the water, stronger than steel. Jack walked down the root and stood before the ferryman who stood at the end. His ferry was a modest punt.

“Will you pay your fare this time, Jack?” asked the ferryman politely, in the voice of an aged woman.

“No thank you,” said Jack. “I talk too much for it to be convenient.”

“Such a little thing,” sighed the ferryman, in the dulcet tones of a young maiden, “all it is sound.”

“My voice stays,” said Jack. “Besides, you always love seeing how I get out of it.”

“Very well,” said the ferryman, rough-throated as a giant in his prime. “But one day, that voice will be mine. You know the rules: pay the toll or float ‘till the thirst or the river takes you.” A chuckle, a cackling goblin-laugh. “But I can’t wait to see how you try and get out of it this time. You know I can’t be fooled the same way twice.”

“As always.”

Jack stepped onto the punt and the voyage began. At first they moved slowly, oh so slowly. The dock drifted away behind them with the speed of a departing snail. Jack tried to catch the exact moment the current took them, but as always, he missed it. One instant they were idling in the water, the next sweeping along, earthen walls a blur, the fumes of the river whipping at him like a lash.

“Your destination is near-reached, Jack,” called the ferryman in the rock-grit voice of a dwarf. “Now pay the toll.”

“Alas, ferryman, I shall not,” replied Jack. He said the same words every time.

If he could see the eyes under the hood, he’d guess they would be twinkling. “Then on you go forever and ever – unless you think you can escape.”

Jack grinned into the teeth of the wind. Always the old rituals. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the bagel, its charred rim biting at nothing. Then he snatched at its center, faster than a cobra, and pulled away something clenched in his fist, knuckles white with the strain of holding it.

“What is that?” asked the ferryman, dull curiosity in an ogre’s brutal tones.

“A bagel,” said Jack. “They normally look a bit different. I took something important out of this one just now.” And he slapped his palm against the hull of the boat and let slip the bagel’s hole.

“Oh NO!” laughed the ferryman in a little boy’s shrill squeak, water flooding the punt in an instant’s instant. “You tricky fox! That’s almost as good as the time that –” water made its next words indistinct, and Jack left the wreckage behind at a breast-stroke’s pace, holding his breath as tight as he could against the intoxicating vapour of the river. Light glimmered from a shore just ahead, and he hauled himself out of the water just as his vision began to swim grainily in front of his eyeballs. He spat on the grassy bank just to be safe, glancing back over his shoulder. The merest sip of the alcohol that permeated the stream would put you out for a week. A mouthful would leave you lying for a century. Jack had had that happen once, and that was more than enough.

A thought struck him, and he checked his bagel. Its hole was missing, and it looked forlorn, as if it knew it were no longer a proper bagel. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but it was you or me.” Then he smeared a little cream cheese on it and ate it. He needed to keep his strength up.

Jack walked onwards, up away from the river, not looking back. He passed through a dense forest, much more dark and sinister than the one that stood in the same place as Orange St. There were no paths here, and the trees spun and twirled to block his path when they thought he wasn’t looking, but Jack knew their tricks and whistled sharp and loud whenever he saw them creeping up on him, sending them flinching back and waving their branches in a tizzy. Before long they thinned out, and he left the woods muttering and grumbling in his wake, much put out by his refusal to lie still and become fertilizer.

At the end of the woods lay a barrow-mound, its entrance lit by a blazing bonfire. And in front of the barrow-mound was a great troll. It stared at him.

“I suppose you aren’t going to let me pass,” said Jack.

“No,” said the troll.

“Do you have a riddle?”

“No,” said the troll.

Jack frowned. “Then will you fight me?”

“No,” said the troll.

Jack thought for a moment. “Will you prevent me from entering?” he inquired.

“No,” said the troll sarcastically, and it unsheathed a gigantic sword from its belt, narrowing its eyes.

“It was worth a shot,” admitted Jack. He drew out his cheese-slicer.

The troll smirked as it compared the weapons, eyes traveling from its own six-foot blade to the six-inch length of jack’s implement. “No,” it repeated, smugness filling the word.

“Bewitchment, I take it?”

The troll tapped its chest as it stepped forwards, sword hanging idly in one hand. “No.”

“Ah. A pleasure to meet you, No, and a greater to know your name. Names are important.” Jack waved the slicer. “Tell me, do you know what the name of this is?”

“No,” confessed the troll. It hefted the sword overhead, looming over Jack.

“Would you not rename your sword ‘Cheddar’?” asked Jack, speaking very quickly now.

“No,” said the troll, a bit of puzzlement entering its tone. Its blade came screaming down with the force of a diving jet plane and impacted Jack’s cheese slicer, which skimmed off a good quarter of its length.

The troll’s eyes unsquinted, nearly bulging from their sockets as it examined the length of the blade. “No!”

“You can’t be not really not named ‘Cheshire,’” added Jack, lunging forwards.

“No!” denied the troll in furious bemusement, and then it roared as Jack’s cheese slicer whipped through its leg, which came away in neat and tidy sheets. Jack danced circles around Cheshire as it flailed, slicing and slicing until sweat ran down his face and Cheshire was a heap of thin troll-slices, still grumbling and rumbling in anger.

“A pleasure, Cheshire,” said Jack, wiping his cheese slicer on his pants leg – more for show than anything else; he feared the troll’s blood had corroded the metal beyond recall.

“No,” muttered the heap. It jiggled grotesquely.

Jack shrugged. “Have it your way, then.” He walked onwards and into the barrow-mound, beneath a massive archway of slab-sided stones, snatching up a burning piece of kindling from the troll’s bonfire to serve as a torch as he went.

The mound’s pathway twisted and turned, and soon the disgruntled grousing of Cheshire was left far behind him. Dark paintings loomed and leered on the wall in turns, bison and bulls, men and monkeys, swords and stallions, war and women. Jack examined them with a keen yet idle eye as he passed. The kindling burned lower, and lower, and then, just as it was about to scorch Jack’s fingers, the final corner of the corridor was turned and he was in the barrow’s heart. The withered corpse of some or another long-dead faerie king lay on a slab, and in an iron cage just before it sat William. “Hey, dad,” he said.

“Hello Billy. Know anything about what’s guarding you?”

“Just some troll. Haven’t seen anyone else since I got stuffed in here.”

Jack inspected the cage’s bars. Sound as any five bells you cared to name. “And how did this happen again?”

“Dunno. Got to the end of the driveway and it all went blurry and black.”

Jack sighed as he pulled out the cream cheese. “It figures. The one time I let you go out on your own is the one time it’s someone out to extort me.” He chucked the plastic container through the bars, and William caught it one-handed. “Slather yourself up with that and squeeze on through the bars.”

“Gross.”

“If you’d like to stay in there, son, be my guest. Or the guest of whoever it is that’s caught you in the first place.”

Grimacing, William coated himself finely with the spread, then slowly began to squish his way past the bars, which grudgingly made way for him. He took one step, two steps, was out of the cage, and then slammed to a standstill, hand stuck.

“What is it?”

“Wasn’t enough, dad.”

Jack took a look, and sure as daylight there hadn’t been enough cream cheese. William’s left little finger was uncoated, and it was stuck fast between the bars of the cage. “Damn and blast. Should’ve had eaten that bagel.”

“What now?”
“Now we wait for your mother to show up,” said Jack in disgust. William tried his hardest to look innocent. “Oh, don’t play the fool. This was all the doing of the pair of you, wasn’t it?”

“Pretty much,” said a soft voice behind him.

Jack forced himself not to jump and failed rather badly, half-turning and half-falling in midair. Mary Mackenzie smiled at him. She was only four feet tall and she had a short tail, but that only showed itself this side of perspective or when she tried very hard. “Really, Jack, it took you this long? In the old days you would’ve seen right through me at the doorstep, or recognized my accent.” She clicked her tongue and the cage swung open.

“Why bother?” demanded Jack. Mary gave him a look. “Dear,” he amended.

“Because you were getting tired, Jack dearest. “A bit of a break” is all well and good, but a quarter-century one? You were starting to say you were retired for goodness’s sake, and you should’ve been taking William on trips since he was nine and letting him roam free at twelve, not little hand-holding tours starting two years ago. It’s time you manned up and headed back home for a time. Besides, we haven’t seen my parents for half a century.”

Jack winced. “Sorry, dear. It’s just that the mail route-”

Mary poked him in the belly, and he doubled up wheezing. “You despise that mail route, Jack. I’ve heard you grumble and moan about it every morning for twenty years and that’s quite enough for goodness’s sake! Besides, you may be rusty, but you did a fine job today. One I hope will be the first of many more to come. It’s not too late to get yourself back on track and William an education.”

Jack surrendered. He knew when he was beat, and it was now. He’d faced three trials, used three tricks, and his quiver was shot. “Fine then. But we’ll need time to pack.”

“I did that after you went out the door. We’re all moved in.”

He sighed. “Wife dearest, I have one request, one demand to make even as you overturn my life again.”

Mary raised an eyebrow. “Yes, husband?”
“Could you make me a bagel? I can’t seem to get it done without burning it these days.”

Copyright Jamie Proctor, 2009.