Archive for March, 2010

Storytime: The Weatherman.

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

The weather on Sunday, March 21st, was sunny, with a cool breeze, a chance of light showers overnight, and punctual.  All of which were things that Simon Beadley considered fine indeed, particularly the last.  Adjusting the timing was so difficult, particular for the clouds.  It never failed to blindside or annoy Simon that what was effectively a very large plume of water vapour was so difficult to point and place properly. 
Still, he could see them, and he could steer them.  It wasn’t easy, but if it were easy everybody would be doing it, and there would be a thousand thousand glistening and factory-fresh copies of the dented and complex contraption that sat across from his bed, where it was currently watching him engage in fierce battle against his sheets in an attempt to get up and make some coffee.  “What are you looking at?” snapped Simon, wresting clinging fabric away from his neck even as it latched onto his legs like an affectionate limpet.  The machine, sensibly, didn’t answer.  It never stooped to the point of open mockery; that privilege was reserved for Simon’s cat, which was a smug observer to his every moment of downfall.  He could practically feel the warm regard of its condescension upon his spine.  Simon dealt with this the only way he could: making coffee and deliberately ignoring it.  The first took time he no longer possessed, the latter self-control and acting skills he’d never had. 
Besides, he was out of milk. 

And so, with the lack of milk, the silent stares of his two companions, and the generally satisfactory state of the weather outside as his motivators, Simon Beadley decided that it was time for a walk.  Surely everything would be all right if he left for just a short time.  He got dressed, put on his less-faded pair of pants and his thick coat that could withstand anything up to and including showers of boiling oil or plagues of frogs, slung his noble and decayed rucksack upon his back, and set off down the ladder, all sixty-two feet of it, dangling from underneath the belly of what had once been a rather small water tower like a silken spider’s thread.  Simon reached the ground without incident, with a care born of nonchalant habit rather than worry or stress.  His knees may have creaked as a concession to his age, but only in the manner that sequoias did in a heavy breeze. 
Finding his way to town was a bit harder than he remembered.  The trail that led to the water tower had become a little overgrown, and what should’ve been a ten-minute stroll turned into a half-hour meander through thickets, but with no worse casualties than his patience and a few new spotty holes to adorn his pants at the malicious paws of some briars.  “Damnit,” said Simon, and some other words he liked to use at the cat when it was judging him.  It was possible they’d grow wild and mutated over the years, a far cry from whatever swearing stock they’d originated from, but he was attached to them quite firmly. 
Town itself was a surprise.  Some of the buildings had changed, and there was a new street with no stoplights that took him five minutes of indecisive wavering to build up the courage to dash across.  At least the store was how he remembered it, although the cashier was new. 
“Do you know Laurel?” he asked the girl at the register, as he awkwardly heaved his groceries onto the counter – while looking for the milk, he’d discovered that he’d run short of several other rather important things, like crackers. 
“Who?”
“She was here last time – has she gone away?  I’m not here often.  Very nice hair, very purple.  We talked about the weather, I believe.”
The girl’s expression was almost exactly too flat to be called blank.  “The weather?”  Her hair was brown, not purple. 
“Yes, she was very pleasant about it.  Said she liked my clouds.” Simon smiled.  “Quite nice of her, really, I didn’t think that was my best week – far from it, there were overcast afternoons and a few cloudbursts too many – but she said she liked it.  Shook things up or somesuch.  I can’t say I believe the same, but it cheered me up some, let me tell you.  Could you make some change of this five?  I prefer the coins.”
The expression did not change noticeably as the change was given, although part of the girl’s cheek twitched with alarming speed for a split second.  Simon was busy accepting his coins at the moment, and didn’t quite catch it. 
“Thank you.  You know, I’m quite proud of today’s sunshine – it took quite a bit to pull it off, what with it drizzling on and off and on and off all week.  You should go out after your shift and have a nice look; it’s going to be clear skies until this evening.  Then I’m going to have to let a little shower fall in.  I’d give you the excuse of “it’s good for the crops” and all but frankly I’m amazed they haven’t flooded out with all the water they’re getting.  It’s just too much to keep pushed away.”
An eyebrow raised.  “Is that so?”
Simon hadn’t heard sarcasm aloud since that awful dream three years ago where the cat could speak, and he was fairly sure that deadpan was a sort of Victorian kitchen implement.  Besides, he was talking about his favourite thing. 
“Yes indeed, I’m sorry to say.  I hope it won’t be too much bother, but I’ve been putting it off for a while.  With all the drizzle I know one more day of it must be frustrating, but better a bit of sunshine than none at all, eh?”
“Yeah, sure.”  It was to her great credit that she managed to keep her eyes from rolling until Simon was well on his way out the door, but somewhat less so was her unstifled laughter, which sounded like a firecracker trapped in a tin can being dropped down a steel staircase. 
For a moment Simon’s pace swayed and his face frowned, but then he shook his back like a dog, rucksack a-juddering, and it all washed away from him like rain down a waterspout.  Still, his walk quickened step by step, and by the time he’d crossed the new and alarming road again he was nearly running, although he wasn’t quite sure from what.  He came to the bottom of the staircase all out of breath, and he had to take a moment to pause and rest. 
“Just like the old days, which were the new days, which weren’t as good as the old old days,” he told the water tower, in between coughs.  “They listened to me then, remember?  Hundreds of them, maybe even thousands!  Lots, anyways.  Every morning, all of them.”  He paused to rub the sweat from his forehead, disparate strands of hair swept into their proper misplacement.  “And that was when I wasn’t even important.  Hah, now I do the real work and no-one cares – it’s ignorance, plain and simple!  Inexcusable and understandable on every level!”
The cat was happy to see him, or at least see his milk.  He put some in a dish for it, even though it never touched the stuff and he’d end up having to throw it out when it started to smell funny.  It was something they had to do.  In the meantime, there was coffee to be made, and once he held brew in hand, milk-laced, it was time to work at the machine. 
It began poorly, with him pulling the wrong lever.  It creaked and clanked inside in a deep and mournful tone, and in his wincing hurry to correct his error Simon’s elbow embedded itself in a tray of buttons, where it nearly stuck, giving him a nasty bruise and the machine a case of the fits, hiccoughing and galumphing inside so hard that it sounded like a rhinoceros that’d sprung a leak. 
“Damnit!” said Simon.  “Fludge it!  Helpernockel!  Shits and shams!”  It took him until well into the afternoon to get things fixed so that the machine’s big metal insides were in an agreeable state, and only then could he get down to the really nitty-gritty teensy-tiny details.  It was with a hard-worn and heavy heart that he turned the wheel and spun the ticker that would undo his careful, hour-long session of yesterday eve that had kept today so sunny, unleashing the dam of pent-up iresome rain that had spent the hours of clear skies rumbling ‘round the mountains and grumbling to itself. 
“Pity,” he said, looking out of the makeshift window he’d cut into the side of the water tower, a great slit that eeled its way around a third of its bulk.  The sunshine gleamed no less, but he could already tell what he’d sent its way.  “Such a pity.”  The cat leered at him, and he threw his sock at it.  

The remaining task of the afternoon, of course, was the report. 
Simon’s suit was worn and thin and his tie looked like it had been ravaged by vengeful locusts, but he could still stand straight and tall, and he stood straight as a ramrod in front of the machine, staring firmly into its flat, glassy eye. 
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  This is Simon Beadley, with an update for the rest of the week.  I hope you’ve enjoyed your sunshine, because that’s all we’re getting for a good time.  We’re going to have showers before breakfast, downpours by midmorning, and drizzle throughout the evening, with overcast skies and possibly some lightning overnight and continuing on through ‘till Wednesday.  If I can manage it, we should probably get clearer skies by the end of Friday, but I can’t promise anything.  Sorry.”
Simon went through the motions of double-checking the machine, then took off his suit, ate a can of cold beans, and went to bed, the vague stirrings of guilt wrapped around him like a second blanket.  He drifted into an uneasy, tossing, turning sleep, which melted into a series of confusing dreams.  The last was the clearest – he was back at the studio, in front of the bluescreen, presenting everything quite normally, except he was naked.  Strangely enough he didn’t mind this, and was trying to continue his forecast without being distracted by the shocked and startled expressions of everyone else in the room.  Some of them were making sharp hissing sounds and hand gestures, ordering him off the stage, gesturing to turn off the cameras, stop the broadcast, just like it’d been back when the old old days ended and the old days that were new days began, but for different reasons.  The cat laughed at him from its perch astride the camera.  One of the crewmen started to drag him bodily off the stage, and then someone dumped a bucket of water on his head.  He woke up sputtering with his eyes at the ceiling, where a broad but hitherto unnotable rust patch had given up the ghost and caved in, funnelling rainwater directly above his pillow. 
“That is that, and that is THAT!” declared Simon, as he heaved his bed out of the way and examined the sopping frame in disgust.  His sheets were ruined.  “I try to make a little concession,” he complained to the ceiling, “and this is how you repay me?  Just a little break, one little day of sunshine, and then I let you back in personally, and you treat me like this?  There are lines and you’ve just crossed all of them!”  He marched over to the machine and began yanking levers and twirling dials.  “And not a word out of you!” he snapped at the cat over his shoulder.  An inaudible snigger was its only reply. 
Readjusting the machine took all night and well past dawn, but Simon was too vexed to feel tired.  In the end, the only thing that stopped his toil was a button that refused to depress itself, stuck fast in its metal casing. 
“Oil, oil, oil” said Simon to himself, impatience seething within him.  “And I have none, and I’ve just been to town!  Damnit and spannit!”  He didn’t climb down the ladder so much as stomp, and although he got lost on his way to town again he was so irked that it didn’t much impede his way, despite the on-and-off showers that pelted him incessantly. 
“Just you wait,” he grumbled, as he stepped into the store.  He took some time to find the oil, and that calmed him down a little, enough that he only felt a slight twinge of an ill omen brush him by when he recognized the cashier of yesterday. 
“I thought you said you weren’t here often,” she commented as she scanned the oil canister. 
“It’s urgent,” said Simon.  “The weather, you see.”
“Oh,” she said.  “What about it?”  The total flashed up, and Simon began to hunt for his change. 
“The rain.  I told you I’d let it in and it simply took it too far – where’s that dollar?  I gave it what it wanted after asking it to hold off for one little day – aha, there you are! – and it came down like it owned the place.  Well, I won’t take that sort of thing.  No more rain!  Not forever, but none this week, and only a little the next if I forgive it, which I very well may not!  Yes, sunshine for the week, into the weekend, and damn the rain where it stands!”
The girl nodded absently, counting the change on the counter.  “Right.  You’re short twenty-two cents.”
Simon resumed his search for money, patting pockets, popping buttons, rummaging the inside of his coat like a small dog beset with large fleas, but all it revealed was nothing, acres and acres of nothing and lint.  He checked his pant’s pockets, and then at last, in desperation, the breast pocket of his shirt.  There was nothing. 
“I’m awfully sorry,” he said in a small voice, all the righteous resolve quite gone from him.  “I seem to be out of change.”
The cashier sighed.  There were several things that affected what she said next.  First, she wasn’t here to make a fuss over small coins, second, she’d already waited for at least two minutes for the greyed man in front of her to finish paying and the customers behind him were getting fidgety, and third, in a very tiny way that she probably wouldn’t have admitted to any of her friends, she felt sorry for him. 
“Let it go,” she said.  “You can pay back with that week of sunshine of yours, if it’s all right with you.”
Hope rose up through Simon’s face like an alarmed meerkat on sentry duty.  “Thank you – you have my word on it as a weatherman.  This mess will be over and done with by noon!  You hear that?” he said, turning to the (increasingly impatient) customers behind him.  “By noon!  Go home and get ready to get out the tanning lotion!”  He swept up the oil and left, his footsteps so light and fast that he seemed to hover through the doors. 
“What’s his problem?” she asked the next woman in line, who was buying some beer. 
She shrugged.  “Search me.  One day at the news station, the next out in the woods, that’s all I heard.  Nuts, but friendly nuts, and he can still take care of himself fine.”
“Where’s he get the money?”
“Not sure.  I heard he turns in beer bottles for some of it, but that’s all I know.  Maybe he panhandles now and then.” 

Simon wasn’t panhandling now, and he never did, although for some strange reason little donations of canned goods and such would appear at the base of his water tower now and then.  No, Simon was working, and working hard.  Oil aplenty was let flow, not just on the stuck button but all the various rusted points and parts of the machine, and there were many, many, many of them.  The levers were especially bad, and he had to break out his old and gnarled, club-like wrench to provide necessary leverage, which was rustier than the machine itself.  When Simon set the oil can down at last it sloshed hollowly, emptied to maybe a third of what it had held before, its contents spread thin and glistening across the machine’s hide and semi-exposed innards, which he decided were more properly outards. 
“In or out, they turn and spin and slide and push properly now, at least,” he told the cat, “so stop your smirking!”  As usual, it didn’t even dignify him with a response. 
After the oiling and wrenching came the work, which also contained wrenching, as the oil had made some of the parts difficult to get a good grip on.  Simon used his second-most-worn shirt as an oil rag.  The most-worn was part of his suit, which was its elder by some six years at least and had escaped its levels of decay only through his care to only don it for the report. 
It was at least eleven o’clock by his reckoning (and a very good reckoning it was) when he felt he was able to get a good, solid start on the work itself, with nothing to distract him.  Even the cat’s gleeful grimace simply rolled off the back of his coat as he spun and pressed and manoeuvred and wheedled the machine towards his plan, bit by bit, whir by whirl, adjusting forwards and backwards and (but just once) sideways, which was very tricky and required judicious use of his wrench. 
“Done!” he said at last, with warm triumph filling his face as he pressed the button.  “Done and done, and just before noon, as promised!  You hear that?” he said out the window at the drizzle, which he fancied already looked thinner.  “You’re done!  Go home!  Go away and don’t come back ‘till Sunday’s past again, you hear me?”  He chuckled and guffawed and broke into a long gleeful laugh, stamping his feet and shaking his arms in what was very nearly some sort of dance.  Already he could see the sunbeams in his mind, bright and happy.  His lunch beans tasted friendly and soft in his mouth as he ate with his back to the wall, and his ears told him what his eyes didn’t need to see: the drip and drop and silence of the fading-away rainclouds. 
The report was a special one, and he stood straighter than ever as he addressed the machine. 
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  This is, as ever, Simon Beadley, with a very special forecast for you.  This week shall be bright and sunny, viewers, without so much as a speck or droplet to trouble your days.  I can promise, and I promise you this by everything above you and on my word as a weatherman: the skies will be sunny and clear!  That is all, and good day!” 
With those words he fell over backwards straight into bed, not even bothering to take off his suit first, so quickly did his pent-up exhaustion take him. 
There were dreams again, but gentle and queer rather than raw and aged.  He was in the studio, and he was waving his arms over the bluescreen again, like a magician, with the cat watching him quietly.  The weather followed his hands, clouds tracing from fingertips and sunshine blossoming from his palm.  Winds washed down his wrists and bled their way across a map that he could see clearer in his head than anyone could on a screen, twisting over and into each other like a puzzle-knot of steel, only stronger and nobler.  It was the old old days at their best, when they were the good old days, with all the hundreds that were maybe thousands watching him and listening to what their weather was going to be. 

 The next morning Simon woke up much refreshed, made some coffee, threw out the cat’s leftover milk, and smiled at the perfect day outside his window.  The only dampness left lay on the ground, gently melting away into the air.  It was a sight fit to make him whistle, if only he knew how.  He gamely gave it another try as he worked on the machine, still in his suit, sleeves carefully rolled up, with the usual disastrous results; something between spitting and humming with the appeal of neither.  It touched his mood not at all, and he was even more pleased to see that the machine had weathered its efforts overnight with no trouble at all.  “It must be the oil,” he told the cat knowingly.  “It wanted a tune-up.  I should’ve done this last year at least, poor thing.”  It merely smiled, but for once it seemed friendly rather than all-too-knowing.  In the spirit of friendship, he poured it another dish of milk. 
After his work was done – and in half the time it should’ve taken, the thing just seemed to spin by under his hands – Simon found himself bereft of tasks.  There was only one thing to be done for it, especially given the state of the machine.  “I am going for a walk,” he informed the cat.  “It’s simply too fine a day to sit on my rear and grow slobbish.”  The cat, of course, didn’t agree, but it didn’t seem to mind either, and watched Simon go down the ladder with tolerant bemusement. 
Off through the woods went Simon, on a trail that had already started to become more solid and true than it had on Sunday morning.  What water that was left was little and damp, and even the thistles and briars seemed less prone to touch and claw Simon.  By the time he reached the roadside he’d taken off his coat and was enjoying the light breeze as it tickled the tie of his suit, which seemed fairly surprised to be out in the fresh air.  And such freshness! thought Simon.  Filled with the calm and even vapours of rain-gone-by, thawed and warmed out into a smooth balm by steady sunshine.  It was enough to make you breath deep just standing there, the sort of diet you weaned Olympic swimmers on. 
“Hello!” he called to the people in cars as he waited to pass at the street without stoplights.  “Lovely weather, isn’t it?”  Some of them ignored him, some of them stared, but he didn’t mind.  “Beautiful to see some sun,” he said to passer-bys on the downtown sidewalk, out and about doing shopping.  When he came near the park and saw the children on the playground, he didn’t say anything, only laughed and laughed as he walked by.  Some of them laughed back. 
His walk took up almost the whole day, and his last stop on the way home was the store.  The brown-haired girl, he was told by the boy at the counter, worked morning shifts and was named Teresa.  “Let her know I’ve started paying you back,” said Simon.  “I expect she knows already!  Go on, go out and get some air!” he encouraged the store at large, which stared at him.  “I didn’t make this for you to stay indoors in!”  He left the store laughing again, and didn’t stop ‘till he was halfway home, leaving him winded after the climb but still quite happy. 
“A good day!” he told the cat as he worked on the machine.  “A very good day!  And all still ticking along smooth and careful, too!  You haven’t been keeping it fixed while I’m out, have you?” he joked.  The cat only smiled.  

“Good to see you, ladies and gentlemen,” he said to the machine.  “This is Simon Beadley and the forecast has not changed and shall not change.  Sunny and clear!  That is all, and good day!” 

Simon Beadley said that five more times, or at least something like it.  The week went on, the machine ran smooth, the clouds were at bay and his walks grew longer.  His suit saw more use that week than it had in all the rest of its life at once, parading with him through forests and parks and alongside roads and highways, blinking at dust and brushing aside dew, while his great and solid coat rested peacefully in the water tower.  On Wednesday he made the store his first stop on his walk and left early, so as to catch Teresa and make sure she knew he was paying her back. 
“Conner told me,” she informed him. 
“Just wanted to be sure,” he said.  “I’d hate for you to think I was trying to cheat my way out of the bill.”
“Sure.  Got it,” she said in a dulcet monotone.  He was pleased to note that she’d acquired something of a light tan. 
If his days were spent with the long blissful walks, his nights were spent with the old old days, dreams following dreams in endless and cosily enfolding loops.  The bluescreen that wasn’t for him, he and the suit together before the wear of the years, and the things that followed his touch, the wind chill factor, the humidity, the warm and cold fronts, the chance for fog or rain.  It was like singing a rainbow with his fingers.  And in the dreams and the mornings the cat seemed to care about him, even if it still refused the milk. 
Sunny and clear.  

Things changed a little over the weekend.  For one thing, the oiling finally started to run thin.  Luckily, Simon had the rest of the can available, and redid the job immediately after he spotted a dial pause in its spinning.  When it was over it the canister was dry as a buried bone, but once again the machine was smooth and happy.  He reminded himself to save up and buy more once he’d finished paying it off.  “Perhaps it’d be a bit much to purchase it the same way,” he admitted.  “I’d need months of nothing but sunshine for that, and that wouldn’t be good for the plants and things.  But surely I can save a little better and use it sparingly, just to keep the machine from sticking up badly, can’t I?”
For another, people started to recognize him.  The children on the playground began to wave at him, and he would wave back.  The averted gazes and downcast eyes transformed to nods and quick smiles at his greetings.  Even Teresa, whom he made sure to keep up-to-date on his promise, was a little more friendly. 
“Sunny and clear!” he told her on Saturday.
“For two more days,” she said, and he nodded as he went home to his cat and the machine.  He was careful to tune it up with painstaking exactness now that the oil was gone, before and after his walks.  A promise was a promise, and one that he’d repeated all week was a very large one by now.  

On Sunday, he saw the flickering flashes far off in the distance.  “Heat lightning,” he reassured people on the streets, pointing at the dark faraway blots on the horizon.  “A hundred miles off at least, and five times too far for us to even catch wind of the thunder.  Don’t worry – sunny and clear!”  They shrugged, smiled a little, and went on.  “Just showboating,” he told Conner at the store.  “It’s all a big nothing.  Tell Teresa there’s no problem.”  Conner nodded a little and shrugged. 
“It’s nothing,” he informed the cat, which he thought looked doubtful.  “It’s all working properly, and I said it would be, so I’m sure.  Sunny and clear.”  Then he threw out yesterday’s milk and lay down to sleep in his rumpled suit. 
It was the old old days again, he saw.  In front of the bluescreen, wearing his suit, the cat and its camera on him and his hand on the weather, his eyes on the reports and his mind in the sky… and then the reports were gone.  Halfway through the typed-out forecasts the air pressures and local temperatures and wind speeds simply stopped dead, printing errors rendering the rest of the sheet a blank mess with a slight, artistic smear of ink the only remaining marking. 
What he did next was the right thing, the thing that made sense, and it was all wrong.  He kept talking on calmly, kept pointing at the bluescreen that he couldn’t see that was there, and he said what the weather was where it was.  The useless non-reports sat there on his desk and it was only when he gently brushed them off, still-talking, that they realized what he was doing.  The cut-off gestures, the stop-the-broadcasts, the cameras stopped moving (but the cat didn’t stop smiling from them), the cameramen grabbed him, they all took him offstage and asked him why didn’t you stop, why didn’t you say, what did you think you were doing.  And then he told them, told them that he’d told the weather what it was going to be, but it was what he did and they heard him say it and before he knew it he was out on the curb, besides the street, suit and tie and final notice and out hanging in the breeze, just him and the old days, which were the new days then, and were the bad days. 
Then he woke up to the sound of the thunder.  

“Oh no,” said Simon to the cat, fumbling blindly upright in the deep dark of the late night.  At least, he thought he said it.  The rumbling was too loud.  “This isn’t right.  This makes no sense.”  The cat leered at him in the lightning-flash. 
“This isn’t proper!” he insisted, overridden by the roar.  “I said that it was clear!  Clear and sunny, sunny and clear!”  He darted to the machine, eyes blinking and worrying at controls that gloomed like gargoyles in the dark, their meanings and intent deeply inscrutable.  He yanked at levers and pushed a whole row of buttons, and stared in horror as they worked perfectly, without making an ounce of difference to what was overhead.  The oil was still there, the controls were still smooth, the machine was ready to perform and nothing was happening.  He picked up the wrench and wrenched, wrangling and wrestling with the innar – with the outards, and nothing happened.  There was a ping above him as a globe of hail sparked its way off the dome of the water tower, followed by others. 
“This isn’t right or proper!” he repeated, talking not to the sniggering cat or to the machine but to the world at large.  “I told you what to be and you aren’t it!  Why aren’t you sunny and clear!”  He hammered on the machine in a fury, wrench bashing in surfaces and slipping off dents in a tiny cacophony lost in the wail of the wind outside.  “Why aren’t you working when you’re working!” he yelled, flinging the wrench to the ground, a useless, rusty club.  The sky rumbled at him, and he thought it sounded like the cat laughing.
“SHUT UP!” he yelled at it, and he swung his way up onto the ladder, the other half of it that he never used, up and up to the curved roof where he slammed his balled fist into the stuck and rusty ceiling-hatch. 
“Good night” *pound* “ladies and gentlemen.” *thud*  “This is Simon” *slam* “Beadley!”  Clang!  Smash!  The door was open, and he was scrambling free into the night air, the wind blowing at him so that his shoes skidded on the slick roof and his tie flapped in the gale. 
He stared into the sickly bruise-dark clouds that glared back down at him, full of outrage.  “The forecast has not changed and shall not change!” he yelled as he struggled to the stubby little peak of the tower, trembling with fury.  “Sunny and clear!  I order you, sunny and clear!  You listen to me!”  The sky snarled at this as it spat lightning, and he snarled back even as a tree a hundred yards away went up in flames.  The hail was bone-chillingly cold and half-sleet, and his suit was being plastered and frayed against his skin, flayed thread by thread.  “You do listen to me and you will listen to me!  I made a promise!” 
Simon took a deep breath, and the air around him seemed to thicken like toffee even as he waved his arm unsteadily over the sky.  It followed his fingers, didn’t it?  Didn’t it?  “Sunny.  And.  Clear!  That is all, and good night!”
There was a great flash of light that seared through the curtains on every house in town, a clap of thunder that woke hundreds, maybe thousands for miles around, the tower shook from root to tip, and Simon Beadley held the lightning in his hands. 

They came looking for him the next day, the people that had left him food and other things, that had checked in on him.  The sound and fury of the night had damaged power lines for miles around and toppled telephone poles here and there like tinker toys; heavens knew what it could’ve done to one old and creaky water tower.  No one answered to their calls, and so they went upstairs, into the small and creaky den that Simon Beadley had lived his life in. 
There weren’t many things.  A careful store of food, of course – much of which they recognized.  A makeshift bed crafted from a thin mattress and several dishevelled sheets.  An elderly stuffed animal, shaped as a smiling cat with half-lidded eyes, set in a strange sort of place of pride atop a rudimentary shelf.  One of the people said she recognized it from television somewhere, some sort of old logo.  And strangest of all, a great creaking thing, a long, low oblong of machinery and knick-knackery, gears and widgets shaped into a bulky and oversized console with more controls than an aircraft carrier.  All its moving parts connected to nothing – those that still worked.  It was severely damaged and dented, and it appeared to have never had any sort of power source. 
What worried them more was the open hatch in the roof, but search as they might they could find no body on the ground below.  A very small scorch mark marred the tip of the tower, the size of a dollar coin, but they missed that, and went home puzzled. 
All in all, they said, it was a strange night, and they said that for years to come.  All that sound and fury, all that roaring and booming, the flash and the bang, the gales that shrieked – and all of that howling on for so slight a time before it faded so quickly, leaving scarcely enough rainwater to make the gutters swirl, let alone overflow.  

The weather on Sunday, March 28th, was sunny, with a cool breeze, a chance of light showers overnight, and punctual.  As promised. 

 

Copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.

On People: Enough White Guilt to Fill the Santa Maria.

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

As per usual, I have completed a course.  As per usual, I believe that my final exam was 85% desperate floundering and 15% filling out simple definitions while feeling smug.  In this case, it was on aboriginal cultures of North America.  So a little depressing, but interesting.  Also as per usual, I will generously share my misconceptions and useless notes that did me so much good a few days ago. Quite a lot of these will be from things I haven’t known of or cared about for over four months, so there’s an added fact-filter there too. 

You have failed to impress Sitting Bull in the slightest.

You have failed to impress Sitting Bull in the slightest.

First off, let me tell you about culture areas.  Culture areas are what you get when you take a map and divide it into big lumps, then stand back, squint, and say “I guess the guys in there sort of live similarly kind of really.”
Okay, not really.  Culture areas are based around a few ideas that work together.  First off, in an environment, people will probably use the stuff in it.  Second, they’ll probably use it in a way that’s useful.  Third, if they find out someone else is doing something neat (“GRINDING the acorns for flour, as opposed to stuffing them in your ears, you say?….”), they’ll probably try it out themselves.  The upshot of this is that groups living in the same broad vicinity of each other, within the same environment, will likely exploit the same resources and share certain methods of doing so through diffusion.  That’s the concept of culture areas, really – you live in sort of the same place as some other people, you’ll all probably have broad similarities.  Naturally, this isn’t as easy as it looks, don’t try this at home kids, etcetera, etcetera, excrement. 

Now that we’re all up to speed and sped up, here’s a vague overview of the culture areas within North America.  Probably.

The Arctic

These bears can't imagine why someone would need so much metal to go swimming in subzero water.

These bears can't imagine why someone would need so much metal to go swimming in subzero water.

The place: The Arctic is a fun place to live.  There’s not much to eat, so if you CAN eat something you’d damned well better.  A lot of it’s going to be meat – there’s a reason the polar bear is the only real pure carnivore of its family, you know.  Plant life on the tundra packs everything it’s got into a neurotic and paranoid summer of buoyant growth before dropping into a pathetic coma afterwards. 
The people: You can lop the Arctic’s inhabitants into three big crude groups: Aleuts (who lived in…well, the Aleutian Islands, and part of the Alaskan Peninsula), Yup’ik (south-southwest Alaska and the Asian shore of the Bering Strait), and Inuit (the entire top of North America, the Arctic Archipelago, and Greenland’s coasts).  The Aleutians and Pacific Yu’pik liked a lot of seafood – and they had a lot of seafood, enough to get some complex society going, with chiefs and slaves and commoners and everything! -  and the inland Yu’pik and Inuit less so, with more caribou and such in their diets. 
How they’re/have been screwed: Global warming and the Arctic are playing happy funtime pals, and there’s oil in them thar hills. 

The Subarctic

Too pretty to be funny.

Too pretty to be funny.

The place: Strictly speaking, what you’re in if you walk south of the little dotted line that says “Arctic” on it.  The Subarctic covers a lot of Canada, with forests being more and more evergreeny the farther north you go (near the top, lots of spruce).  Usually there isn’t a lot of rain or other precipitation.  The eastern Subarctic is heavily defined by the Canadian Shield (the hugeass rock base that surrounds Hudson’s Bay on all sides), and has all sorts of bogs, swamps, lakes, and rivers, speckled with fur-bearing animals, fish, moose, caribou, and all sorts of other stuff (like blueberries – everybody loves blueberries).   The western side of the Subarctic in Canada wanders a bit north of the treeline into tundra territory, with lots of lich and nary a tree to be found.  Caribou are all over the place, making their meat a must over here, spiced up with fish and migrating birds and whatever else you can find.  Which includes musk ox.  Everybody loves musk oxen!
The people:  From here on we’re running on examples of one or two cultures per area.  In this case, the eastern Subarctic has the Cree, the western the Chipewyan/Dene (“Chipewyan” being a Cree word for “pointed skins,” which apparently refers to the dangling points on poncho-like thingies the men wore), who lived spread thinly across tundra eating lots of caribou and a good deal of fish.  There are quite a lot of Cree – their geographic territory has actually increased since contact, and they’re one of the largest First Nations groups in North America – but they’ve rubbed elbows with Europeans for so long that figuring out their precontact lifestyles and beliefs in any sort of great detail is like searching for semidigested food in Gandhi’s gullet. The Chipewyan were and are a lot less numerous, and it took quite some time for any Europeans to run into them – none of whom managed to get back really reliable input.  After a while they migrated into trapping as a business, some of them went a bit farther south, and they absorbed a rag-bag of miscellaneous concepts, beliefs, and attitudes – notably from the Cree. 
How they’re/have been screwed: The James Bay Cree in particular are stuck in an off-again-on-again-off-a-hahahahaha-no-it’s-on-again dispute with the federal government and Quebec over why exactly they would prefer not having giant honking hydroelectric dams built near them, which they’ve kept on top of (which may sort of kind of not really have been possibly worked out..to a degree).  The Chipewyan are spared such issues, because they already went through the whole decimated-by-disease-and-forced-schooling-of-children-far-away-from-their-parents things (in the 1800s and 1935+ respectively) and have decided they’re through with it. 

 

California 

Once upon a time, this was in no way associated with Hollywood.

Once upon a time, this was in no way associated with Hollywood.

The place: California’s geography is all over the place – high, low, desert, forest, barren, fertile.  Depending on where you’re living you’re grinding mesquite beans into nutritious mush, gathering acorns to make a deliciously gritty flour, fishing for salmon, or maybe hunting sea lions.  Surfing, however, simply was not done. 
The people: The California culture area is pretty varied, so the Cahuilla end up as the  standard example simply by dint of having more information about them than anyone else.  Such as about the vast, fresh harvest of money the Palm Springs Cahuilla reap every day from thousands of suckers entering their casinos.  There’s three rough population divisions of Cahuilla – desert (Palm Springs), mountain, and pass.  The desert Cahuilla own billions of dollars worth of land, two casinos, a spa hotel, and whatever other stuff they feel like. 
How they’re/have been screwed: Exactly the way you’d expect any minority group owning a lot of money to be.  Technically they’re tax-exempt, but there’s an awful lot of pressure to give more and more cuts to the state and such.  There’s also the fun situation of being a major gambling player in a state that sends around $9 billion worth of business to Las Vegas every year.  They aren’t friendly competitors. 

 

 

The Great Basin

Not quite Mars, but the next best thing.

Not quite Mars, but the next best thing.

The place: The Great Basin is named for a fun little feature of its geography: not a single one of its waterways flows into the sea.  Instead, it’s pretty much evaporation or nothing.  Alas, the culture area of the Great Basin extends slightly outside the basin itself, which takes up a big chunk of the American West including most of Nevada, lots of Utah, and bits and pieces of Mexico, California, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.  It’s not all hot sagebrush and steppe though – just nearly all.  The higher the land, the more precipitation and coolness it gets, and there’s some highland trees that make a decent living partway up the mountain ranges, to say nothing of the flora you’ll get along the waterways. 
The people: Our item today is the Western Shoshone, who were one of those peoples that weren’t let in on the whole “Hello, melanin-deprived individuals are taking over your stuff” thing until a bit of the way into the 1800s – around 1828-1829, to be precise, when the Ogden party came along the Humboldt River to do some trapping.  They said they were a bunch of poor, wretched jerks that had to eat roots or starve to death, then their livestock ate some of their edible foods and they left.  When the next bunch of trappers arrived, the Shoshone were somewhat annoyed, and told them to give them food and horses or else.  The trappers politely disagreed by killing some of them, and relations didn’t exactly go anywhere mellow from then on. 
To be fair, the Shoshone DID eat roots..and seeds, and hares, and rabbits, and antelope, and nuts, and just about anything else that was around, from migratory birds to bighorn sheep.  They were very flexible. 
How they’re/have been screwed: The Ogden party was really the best indicator of things to come the Western Shoshone could’ve recieved.  Miners and settlers passed through to California and Oregon, using up resouces along the way, and both they and the Shoshone had their hands full quietly murdering each other out of resentment.  Salt Lake City sprung up, and ranchers and farmers started taking up good food and water.  The 1862 Homestead Act sent more and more people after land, and a lot of it was Western Shoshone land.  Shoshone collecting silver at Battle Mountain for crafts were displaced without compensation in 1862 up until the early 2000s – during which time the miners at the silver deposits were piping in lots of local water, using vast amounts of charcoal, and heaving around heavy equipment.  A reserve at Ruby Valley was made, was crappy, and was abandoned, and the solution was apparently to build a fort (Fort Ruby, naturally) and systematically kill Shoshone to make them calm down a little.  The Treaty of Ruby Valley eventually gave the Western Shoshone some sort of half-assed right to their own land and some supplies every year that often were stolen or stolen and sold back to them, in exchange for agreeing not to molest any settlers, which they grudgingly abided by. 
On the bright side, smallpox wasn’t as nasty as it could’ve been.  Its 1860 arrival was blunted by the Western Shoshone living mostly in small, disparate groups, and a quick federal vaccination program.  

 

The Plateau

Yep, that's a plateau all right.

Yep, that's a plateau all right.

The place: The Plateau itself consists of the Interior Plateau of British Columbia – the continuation of said plateau into the states is the Columbia Plateau.  Plateau, plateau, plateau – yes, by now I believe it’s lost all meaning in my head. 
The Plateau is a diverse, higgledy-piggledy environment, with a continental climate and vegetation gradiating from forested Upper Columbia to mixed coniferous Fraser River grasslands and down to sagebrush steppe in Middle Columbia.  The main connecting features between its many peoples, tangled up as they are in its diverse environment, are as follows:

  1. They had semi-permanent winter or summer villages.
  2. Kinship groups within each band maintained stewardship over resources.
  3. They liked salmon a whole bunch like you wouldn’t even believe.

3 there corresponded nicely with Columbia and its river systems (the Fraser and the Columbia), so for the most part that worked out. 
The people: The plateau’s peoples, as said above, were nicely diverse.  In Upper Columbia you had the Northern Okanagan and the Ktunaxa/Kootenai; in the Fraser River area the Salishan, and Middle Columbia had the Sahaptians and some Salishan outliers.  Most of them weren’t living in enormous groups – a chieftain would lead a large village, or a few connected small ones.  Beyond the salmon, plant harvesting was a biggie – and the acquisition of them was half-gathering, half-horticulture – such as yellow avalanche lilies, which were harvested before having their bulbs and tips replanted, often in good soil where they wouldn’t be able to find their way naturally, or at least with any ease. 
How they’re/have been screwed: Well, the BC gold rushes of the 1850s-1860s didn’t exactly do ANYONE any good, but it was especially hard on the St’at’imx, Secwepemc, and  Okanagan.  The smallpox epidemic of ’62 wasn’t a helpful followup, and by the time the gold rushers finally left in the 1870s settlers had followed along.  By the 1880s the locals had been turfed out of most of the most fertile land. 
The Kootenai of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, as a small example, were encouraged to relocate from their prime, luscious valley bottom land to the Flathead Reservation of Montana.  Those who weren’t quite gullible enough to leave were grudginly allocated their land by 1887, which was divided into tiny little allotments that they were told to farm, ignoring the issue of it being too small for farming or their more traditional gathering practices.  By the time a few generations of inheritance had passed by, the allotments were tiny beyond belief and mostly leased to farmers in what were occasionally bills of sale. 

 

The Plains 

Back in MY day, we HAD to walk through the tall grass.  And beat off the 'raptors with HALF a stick.

Back in MY day, we HAD to walk through the tall grass. And beat off the 'raptors with HALF a stick.

The place: The plains that are permanently known as “great,” these formerly-grassed stretches of absolute Flat occupy a nice core of North America, from Texas to Alberta.  You can also call them “prairies” because that is much more stylish and Canadian*.  Whatever.  They consist of lots and lots of rolling grasslands, or did, before we wandered in and replaced an awful lot of it with crops.  To do this we had to evict an awful lot of people. 
The people: A grossly abbreviated list of peoples that at one time or another have been on the prairies would include the Crow, Blackfoot, Bungi, Assiniboine, eventually the Plains Cree, the Comanche, and about seven zillion others, give or take a few.  Some roamed around the shortgrass plains (sometimes with dogs to haul stuff), some farmed along the eastern edges. 
How they’re/have been screwed: Well, there’s the obvious issue of loads of them rather enjoying bison, leading to the whole attempted extinction of them and such, but there’s a bit more.  Interestingly, part of the issue was horses.  The shortgrass nomads took to them like ducks to water, and it’s interesting to note that the word for horse in many plains languages means something along the lines of “big/great/better/AWESOMETASTIC dog.”  A horse was like a dog, but better in every conceivable way – it hauled more, could carry you, made travelling miles a breeze, and hunting bison was a chore no more.  The less nomadic villagers agreed, used it to hunt buffalo, and were promptly beaten to a pulp whenever they tried that shit by nomads, who weren’t tied down to stupidly vulnerable houses and crops and didn’t appreciate the competition. 
So, the nomads got nice toys at least?  Wrong.  The farther north you got, the more likely your horses wouldn’t make it through the winter.  The Blackfoot in particular got it hard – only the southernmost branch of them, the Piegans, got anything near parity, and they did it with help from living in the warm-wind’d chinook belt by the Eastern Rockies.  The Crow were similarly advantaged, living in a cold, northern area near the Rockies that nevertheless had the Windy River Basin and some woody riversides for overwintering.  Everyone else near them (like the Blackfoot and Gros Ventres) just had to deal with replacing horses constantly, and tended to take it out on them.  In general, horses were so valuable that raiding for them was common and war became common as hell – not only did those other dicks have horses YOU should have, but they were taking up grazing ground YOU should use!  Oh, and the Crow had to get guns to fight back, got guns with a free microbe bonus, died in droves, and then were nearly obliterated when the Lakotas moved into town.  Their existance from then on largely depending on clinging very closely to other people – Gros Ventres, Assiniboine, and Americans. 
Well, it was better for the southerly tribes…right?  Alas, no.  They could get loads of horses – the Comanche were veritable horse emperors for a time – but they competed fiercely for grazing ground with the very buffalo that, thanks to the horses, was being overhunted.  To throw another wrench into the bargain, the previously eglatarian societies had realized that everyone being equal worked only when everyone was poor, and now they had tons of horses.  Societal stratification went from zero to through the roof. 
Pretty much the only people that got pure mileage out of the horses was the Lakota Sioux, and that was because they had the lousy luck to live in an unusually chilly spot with a shitty growing season.  This kept their herds on the small side – not stunted, but small – and prevented any buffalo-based collateral damage.  At least until the US army stepped in, and well, past that I think we know what happened.

(*Canadians are always stylish) 

 

The Northeast

The gorgeous telephone poles of the New England autumn.

The gorgeous telephone poles of the New England autumn.

The place: Or the Eastern Woodlands, if you would be so kind.  Lakes, rivers, richly mixed coniferous AND deciduous forests, teaming with game, fruits, nuts, roots, and even wild rice.  Good growin’ foods include maize, beans, and squash.  Fish and all other manner of life aquatic were eminently devourable. 
The people: Two ultra-broad groups for the most part: Algonquian-speakers and Iroquoian-speakers.  The Iroquoian-speakers farmed a little more, and the Algonquian-speakers hunted, fished, and gathered a little more, although they both dabbled in one another’s specialities quite heavily.  Groups included the Mi’kmaq (who were highly maritime-based hunter/gatherers – much more productive than land-based gathering), Huron/Wendat (Iroquoian-speaking horticulturists), and the groups of the Iroquoian Confederacy – the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, which formed the Six Nations (ditto).  Technically, the Huron/Wendat were a similar assemblage, and this kind of confederacy of tribes was sort of a thing in the area in general. 
How they’re/have been screwed: The entire Northeast coast was pretty much ground zero for most of North America’s colonialism, or at least some of the fiercest bickering over it.  The Iroquois played a game of balance-the-powers for a long time, between British, French, and American, and although they were damned careful at it, sooner or later there were always gaps in the warfare, and whenever the European powers weren’t beating each other up they were perfectly happy to start sniping at them.  The Huron allied themselves a little too closely to the French, and were sufficiently weakened by smallpox from their good missionary friends that in 1648-1649 winter attacks from the British-backed Iroquois absolutely destroyed all of Huronia as a nation and united people.  The Mi’kmaq also fell in with the French, were encouraged to strike out against the British, and in return recieved systematic genocide and some accidental bacterial fallout from their own allies (deja vu).  Peace agreements made at Halifax in the mid-1700s weren’t long-lasting or nearly enough, and the bounties on their heads thinned them down farther still.  Food and land pressure became unbearable post-1775.

 

The Northwest Coast

The Northwest Coast's primary artform consisted of beautifully hand-carved inadvertant stereotypes.

The Northwest Coast's primary artform consisted of beautifully hand-carved inadvertant stereotypes.

The place: The temperate rainforests of the Pacific coast stretch from the northish edge of California into south Alaska, and they’re filled to the brim with salmon spawning routes and more shoals, schools, and beaches of marine food than you could toss a net over and devour messily.  Add in the gratuitous quantities of red and yellow cedar prime for the chopping and shaping into, well, practically ANTHING, and you’ve got yourself a pretty serious spot to settle down and make some excellence.  Which many people did. 
The people: The first Northwest Coasters were probably among the very first people to wander into North America.  The easiest route past the glaciers that were busy throttling most of Canada (uncovering the Canadian shield from underneath all that troublesome soil in the process) was the coast, which was relatively ice-free.  The common languages of the area show some signs of age too.  The Haida, the Tlingit, the Tsimshian… all of them shared a lot in common, most notably a desire to get their hands on as much salmon as humanly possible.  Salmon was THE food, salmon oil THE condiment and preservative, and getting ahold of as much as possible every run was SERIOUS BUSINESS.  No matter how much salmon might flow, there was something like a 1,000% peak variation in salmon frequency over the four-year cycle they followed, and you can’t really risk under-fishing when you’re all clumped together using up tons of food and the winters are harsh.  Plus, if you lived in the interior, you were getting oil-poor salmon that had tuckered themselves out getting all the way inland, so you had an extra handicap. 
The Northwest Coast societies had quite a lot, and like all societies where people have a lot, some people ended up with QUITE a lot and others merely a lot.  Ranking was based on household positioning, clan segment, and clan, aided by personal merit.  There weren’t exactly classes, just lots and lots of ranks (bar slaves, but, as is the case with slaves, no one especially cared about that). 
How they’re/have been screwed: Once salmons canneries opened up on the coast (and my goodness, there were a LOT of them opening up on the coast), someone noticed that there were these uppity savages out there taking all the salmon by gumdrops and gumption we can’t have that.  Throw in abrupt efforts at controlling fisheries, reservations out of nowhere, gold mining pouring from every orifice, and in the US’s case a serious overdose of rapid “MANIFEST DESTIIIIIIIIINYYYY!” and you’ve got nothing but acres and acres of troublesomeness. 

The Southeast

There is no way to say anything about the South that is both funny and nonoffensive.

There is no way to say anything about the South that is both funny and nonoffensive.

The place: The Southeast is pretty much where you’d think it’d be, and the environment likewise.  Some hunting, some fishing, some farming beans, squash, and gourds. 
The people: The Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek Confederacy, and Chickasaw are jointly referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes.”   The Cherokee, who covered the most land, certainly met any standards being thrown at them – they reacted to the strange things being thrown at them (“Wait, you think every one of our villages is responsible for what the others do?  OKAY GUYS, TIME TO CENTRALIZE GOVERNMENT!”) with flexible adaptation.  They already had political parties (the reds and whites – the former expected to be war-happy young idiots, the later older and mellower) of sorts, and they organized a sort of centralized priest-state during the 1700s.  Along the way they ran into slavery, decided it bore some similarity to the way they treated war captives, and adopted it, carefully learning from escaped Cherokee slaves the best methods to squeeze the most labour out of theirs – the men became skilled slave catchers.   In 1827 they founded the Cherokee Nation, with a government modelled after that of the US.  A man named Sequoya/George Gist had invented an entire syllabary a few years earlier in 1821, and it was adopted as the nation’s written language – within no time at all, almost everyone was literte. 
How they’re/have been screwed: Unfortunately, the Cherokee still lacked the most important facet of civilization, which was being white people, and so in 1829 most of the Cherokee Nation was made into state holdings by Georgia.  In 1838 soldiers shoved whatever leftover Cherokee they could find in stockades and shipped them out to Oklahoma, or “Indian Territory.”  4,000 out of 15,000 died in the Trail of Tears.  The Qualla Indian Boundary, land purchased for them in North Carolina by allies (they couldn’t buy it themselves; I’ll let you guess why), was pretty much their last eastern holdout. 

 

The Southwest

If you want a more classic picture, go watch a Roadrunner cartoon or something.

If you want a more classic picture, go watch a Roadrunner cartoon or something.

The place: The Southwest is made up of bits of Utah, California, Colorado, and Texas, along with almost all of New Mexico and Arizona.  As you might guess, it’s a little hot.  And dry.  And rocky. 
The people: Groups include the Navajo/Navaho and the Pueblo peoples, which themselves include the Eastern Pueblos (Isleta, Zia, and Taos among them) and the Western Pueblos (including the Acoma, Hopi, and the Zuni). 
The Hopi didn’t move around much; their villages were small, but very stable.  To the point of insanity – Oraibi/Old Oraibi, their central village, has been settled for something like over a thousand years continuously, which makes it among the record-holders if not the record-holder of North America.  They farmed all sorts of plants (various beans, gourds, and sunflowers, maize, squash, and others), looked after wild species, and really liked the hell out of maize, because it was either that or eat about one third as much as everyone else. 
The Navaho, by contrast, only appeared as a distinct people until somewhere around 1725.  They’re numerous, highly well-known in general, and resilient – which, given where they chose to take up subsistence, seems a necessary qualification.  They’re well known for their blankets and silverworking, the former of which they help along by owning lots and lots of sheep,
How they’re/have been screwed: The Navaho EARNED that label of “resilient.”  They were pestered by slavers for ages, and when the US got ahold of New Mexico it also inherited a lot of angry Navaho, which it utterly failed to placate.  Fort-building followed, and around 1863 they gathered up 9,000 or so Navaho and herded them 300 miles to Bosque Redondo, a distant fort.  Approximately 2,000 died on the Long Walk itself or at the fort, and an equal number evaded capture – quite a few of which were nabbed by slavers.  Then the livestock reduction policies of the 1940s cut down harshly on their sheep herds to prevent erosion, jobs went flying everywhere, the herding economy went belly-up, and in general things sucked. 
The Hopi had fun under the thumb of the Spanish from about 1540 to 1680, when they joined in the Pueblo Revolt and then ran for it.  After that they lay low, about eight hundred at their lowest ebb near 1755, many surviving only by living with the Zuni.  Navaho land disputes, erosion, and lots of smallpox followed the removal of the Spanish and the arrival of the Anglos in the mid-1800s.  Oh, and from 1964 onwards strip mining on Hopi and Navaho land for coal has been in the sort of swing best described as “full.”

 

Picture Credits

  • Sitting Bull: Public domain image from Wikipedia, 1885, D. F. Barry. 
  • Bears on a sub: Public domain image from Wikipedia, taken by US Navy Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, October 2003. 
  • Tundra: Public domain image from Wikipedia, Kongsfjorden from Blomstrandhalvøya, Kongsfjorden, Spitsbergen (Svalbard), August 18th 2005, Sphinx.
  • Razorback Mountain: Image from Wikipedia, Black Rock Desert, August 6th, 2005, Ikluft.
  • San Jacinto Mountains: Image from Wikipedia, July 25 2009, Florian Boyd from Palm Springs, USA.
  • Interior Plateau: Public domain image from Wikipedia, July 31st 2006, Skookum1.
  • Plains: Public domain image from Wikipedia, 1897, US geological survey, Haskell County, Kansas. 
  • New Hampshire Woods: Image from Wikipedia, October 17th 2009, Werner Kunz, Grafton County, New Hampshire. 
  • Tlingit Totem Pole: Public domain image from Wikipedia, prior to Jan 1st 1923, Alaska. 
  • South Carolina: Image from Wikipedia, March 21st 2007, Lake Moultre, VashiDonsk
  • Arizona: Public domain image from Wikipedia, 2005, Doug Dolde, Mongollon Rim above Payson, Arizona. 

And now, a word from our sponsors.

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Happy crack o’ dawn to you.  I’m Joey Fishlips, and this is OMG’s Not Really News: dredged up from the seabed in massive trawls that cause nigh-irreparable damage to precious corals, then sent right to your table in little bitty cans. 

Today’s headliner is sports-related and political, the killer combination.  An African dictator who shall remain anonymous challenged a sack of potatoes to a boxing match, which he then lost.  Eyewitness reports from the several thousand forced onlookers, many of whom were being menaced by big shiny guns at the time, claim that the tyrant’s downfall was his inability to compensate for his dangerous habit of punching himself in the face when he wasn’t looking properly.  “I sure am glad that we toil fruitlessly and die futilely without an ounce of joy under our Glorious Leader, Sir ******,” said our interviewee.  “He’s so charmingly klutzy and clueless that you can’t help but chuckle whenever he orders another ethnic purge, the lovable little scamp.”  Upon being informed of his loss, the despot attempted to have the government-appointed referee executed, but found to his dismay that it is extremely difficult to hang a bull elephant.  We’ll follow up on his whacky, dictatorial attempts to make the official standardized rope of his country four-inch-thick titanium chain tomorrow. 

The Vancouver Winter Olympics have ended, but they aren’t the last word in this year’s sports.  The perennial Angriest Man in the Whole Wide World competition (located at its traditional site: Disneyworld) took place last week.  The event consists of airdropping the contestants over the Epcot centre, equipped with parachutes and megaphones, which they are encouraged to use to engage each other in casual, harmless conversation.  Up to 20% of the competitors are eliminated in the five minutes before reaching the ground, and the remainder of the event typically lasts about half an hour, give or take ten minutes depending on whether or not someone landed near a toolshed and was able to quickly acquire some sort of crowbar, sledgehammer, or otherwise blunt instrument.  The winner this year was Franklin N. Trepan, who incapacitated his final opponent by squirting high-pressure blood from his eyes in a manner not unlike that of the horned toad, if it were fuelled by single-minded rage and hatred towards all that lives.  Mr. Trepan was unavailable for comment, as we believe he may have eaten our camera or cameraman. 

A heartwarming story of success: bit actor Harlan Spinner has, as of the completion of his last acting role, officially played over forty separate gratuitously offensive stereotypes.  “Muchos gracias senor!” said Spinner, eyes comically rolling around like crazy on being presented with his large, ugly trophy.  “Mamma mia, this shit’s a-heavy!  Real gold-painted lead?  For moi?  C’est impossible, zut alors!”  His acceptance speech, though dramatic and visually compelling, was somewhat indistinct, marred as it was by half of it being delivered in an ultra-thick gangsta rap, the other half in guttural vaguely Nordic screaming, and a small case of stuffiness due to his cold.  All was set well again by the post-awards ceremonial lynching of Harlan; committed by nineteen different ethnic groups, the angry mob was a moving and uplifting gesture of joint effort and community. 

Anger is not the only emotion of the day of course – its polar opposite is love.  Which we’re very short on, so here’s a story about something else.  An anonymous North American man realized last week over his morning Cheerios, with dawning comprehension accompanying each laborious spoonful, that he was in fact the most boring person he’d ever known.  Confused, he sought verification, phoning up each and every one of his sluggardly slaggard friends, all of whom confirmed that he was the most boring person they’d ever known.  They asked their friends, who agreed, and they asked their friends, and so on.  This chain of events slowly wrapped itself about the globe over the past week, and apart from a four-hour period when there was thought to be a man in Chad that was substantially duller (disqualified when it was revealed he was a malnourished and taller-than-average chicken), no challengers emerged.  The misfortunate champion of the apathetic and unrelatable was crowned “king of the dullards” yesterday at an Iowa yard sale, in a ceremony attended by half a flock of pigeons and one old man who wished to complain to someone.  His first edict was to go home and nap. 

An elderly woman and grandmother of eleven finally revealed her true, sinister colours in Chicago today, when she successfully tricked her entire family into forfeiting their souls to her during a Monopoly game in a crafty and complex gambit involving dark magic, several contradictory and fiendishly-worded agreements and pacts with horrifying nether-powers, and a palmed “Chance” card.  Doreen McIntyre, 94, says that she just needed the souls as a starting point.  “I’ll wager I can parlay a few of them into eternal youth, maybe some blasphemous sorcerous powers, and then just buy-and-sell my way up,” the thrifty diabolist said as she carefully stitched the wailing spirits of her kin into a sampler displaying some kitties.  “The way I see it,” she continued, hexing charms of death and destruction to humankind into the edges, “if I take it slow and steady, I should be in the clear to be an archfiend by the next centennial sabbat.  A soul saved is a soul earned.” 

As we wrap up our news segment, we’d like to issue a correctional statement: one of our movie reviewers described an action film as “a rip-snorting” adventure.  Clearly, as was pointed out in over eighty pounds of angry spam, he meant “rip-roaring.”  Reviewer Eddie Jubbles has been suspended from service for eighty hours and had his larynx pawned.  I believe I speak for all of us when I say this is great, except for maybe Eddie.  But we’re not sure, since none of us here at OMG speak sign language except for the gorilla, and she’s on vacation. 

Finally, a word of encouragement: the northern coast of the nation of France has finally returned from its duel with Pluto, eyes bloodshot, splendid quantum-singularity armour in tatters, and with a pronouncedly funny walk.  When asked what had occurred between it and the renegade not-a-planet, France said “Oh fuck, I don’t want to talk about it.  It’s just, just too much of a deal to go over right now, okay?  Ask me later.”  An anxious request to know if France had triumphed in its goal, the country paused in its exit long enough to shrug its shoulders and say “Yeah?  Yeah, I guess so.  It’s pretty good, sure.”  France then departed for San Francisco, stating its intent to “get drunk and hook up with something.”  This may be connected with the overnight absence of the Golden Gate Bridge, and its apparent hangover this morning. 

 

None of this happened, but it’s very possible that, if you wished upon a star at the right time in the right place with the right person, it still never would’ve, ever.  I’m Joey Fishlips, and if you’ll excuse me, I have to see a man about a carp right now.  

 

(Copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor)

On Snakes: Strident Sibilants Spoil the Serpent’s Spoken Statements.

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

In our ongoing efforts to plunder, loot, and pillage the class Reptilia for everything it’s worth, this week we’ll be look at the svelter, slighter, and somewhat more-demonized snakes.  Yes, I know modern media hasn’t been the kindest to crocodiles either, but it’s harder to beat them up. 

If you can wish harm upon this face, you legally have no soul.

If you can wish harm upon this face, you legally have no soul.

As always, we’ll open the playing field with some useless information upon the denizens of the suborder Serpentes.  They don’t have any front legs (some of the more primeval species, like the boas and pythons, have fun little doohickeys called “anal spurs” that are the vestigal remnants of the hind legs and located exactly where you’d expect).  The exact moment that a bunch of lizards decided that having limbs was a mug’s game and went off the rails and into the flat, squirmy yonder is unknown (delicate skeletons make the fossilization process cry inside), but our earlier snake fossils pop up around 150 million years ago in South America and Africa.  Also, in an unrelated but highly excellent fact, the mosasaurs (which arose in the Early Cretaceous and pretty much took over as the dominant marine reptile from then on to the K-T extinction) are extraordinarily close relatives of theirs. 

Seventeen metres of snakoid goodness.

Seventeen metres of snakoid goodness.

This isn’t to say that the snakes themselves weren’t up to any great shenanigans.  They trotted along (figuratively speaking), persisted quietly through the Mesozoic and so on and so forth, but their real glory was kicked up a notch in the Paleocene, lasting just after the Cretaceous extinction to about 56 mya, where they discovered that (A) most of the big things that competed with them for food were gone and (B) hey there’s an awful lot of those little furry tasty buggers running around.  It was a sumptuous time. 

Modern-day snakes mostly fall into three broad groupings, two families and a superfamily, to be precise.  There are outliers, many of which are blind or burrowing snakes and eat earthworms, so we’ll be looking at some of the more “classic” examples.   As a final note before we embark, there will not be a single case of elongated “s’s” in this entire demi-article.  They are silly and stereotypical and you should be ashamed of yourself for ever associating them with anything as slithery and noble as the snake. 

Despite the anaconda having no proven human kills, it CAN eat crocodiles, caimans, and tapirs.  So hands off.

Despite the anaconda having no proven human kills, it CAN eat crocodiles, caimans, and tapirs. So hands off.

Boidae
The Boidae family has, well, boas and their relatives.  None are venomous, and the family itself has a decent backlog of primitive features (that is, older ones – not outmoded).  The anacondas, including the friendly and ginormous (weightiest of all snakes, with a current record of 214 sinuous pounds), are boas, and the most charmingly aquatic of the lot, spending much of their time doing the reptillian version of snorkling.  Rule of thumb has boas in the New World and pythons in the Old, but that isn’t as accurate as it could be (boas in Madagascar and Fiji, among others), so just stick with “isolated areas.”  Elsewhere it’s pretty much all…

How can you resist that expression?  If you'll fall for those evil little grins dolphins wear even as they kill younger dolphins, this should be easy.

How can you resist that expression? If you'll fall for those evil little grins dolphins wear even as they kill younger dolphins, this should be easy.

…the Pythonidae family, which lazily suns itself from Africa to across Asia and all the way to Australia.  Again, non-venomous, and has the same basic feeding strategy as the boas: constriction.  You wrap yourself real fast around your unfortunate meal item, then hold tight – but you don’t really squeeze.  No, you just tighten yourself to the same degree of firm-but-as-unyielding-as-steel-wire every time it exhales, resulting in inability to struggle, move, breathe, or stay alive.  Then you eat it.  The reticulated (or “regal”) python is the longest of any snake, capable of wandering north of 28 ft.  It also, as I have said before, is surprisingly unlikely to kill you.  Many things are.  In fact, on this planet, the only thing that’s more likely than something not killing you is something killing you. 
Wait, what?

800px-Dispholidus_typusBitis-arietans-4490px-Laticauda_colubrina_(Wakatobi)

A surfeit of snakeage

A surfeit of snakeage

Xenophidia
The third grouping breaks the mould and the entire point of my attempt at pretending we have three equalish groups here by being a superfamily, a name well-earned because it has over 3,000 species in it (combined, the boas and pythons have well under a hundred).  Xenophidia has almost every poisonous snake, from the rear-fanged Colubridae family (home of two-thirds of all living snakes), the hinged-fanged Viperidae (including “pit vipers”), the sea-going Hydrophidae (that’s “sea snakes” to you and me and the man standing behind you very quietly right now), and the Elapidae, which boast the cobras.  We’ll be giving the lot of them quick comb-overs, which are exactly as useful as the other sort. 

A boomslang should seldom be confused for a boomerang, and never more than once.

A boomslang should seldom be confused for a boomerang, and never more than once.

Colubridae
The Colubridae is what you might call a mixed bag, or less charitably, the snake equivilant of the mixed-parts bin, or possibly an oversized rummage sale.  It isn’t even a proper natural/monophylatic grouping – many of its contents aren’t common descendants of an ancestor (which is sort of the situation for the popular terminology of “reptile” – if we wanted to be accurate, we’d have to put every bird in that category).  This disunity has resulted in an enormous hodge-podge that has no unifying or notable characteristics – they aren’t even spectacularly poisonous, barring odd exceptions like the entertainingly dubbed boomslang (afrikaans, “tree-snake”) which has very large pointy teeth at the back of its mouth with which it can murderate you most thoroughly. 
Sluggish, grumpy, and prone to biting.  Just like many of our relatives, I'm sure.

Sluggish, grumpy, and prone to biting. Just like many of our relatives, I'm sure.

Viperidae
The vipers have minced over much of the planet, sparing only Antarctica (traditionally snakeless for obvious reasons), Australia, and a clutch and a passle of islands like Madagascar, New Zealand, and Ireland.  All vipers have a pair of long fangs at the front of their mouths that can swing back nicely on little hinges, thus giving them optimum penetration power without the inconvenience of big teeth getting in the way of swallowing food or snapping off.  Also, all their scales are keeled – they have a slight ridge running down the center, making them a little rough rather than smooth.  The venom of choice, as a rule, is based around proteases – enzymes that digest proteins, leading to owies, soreness, boo-boos, dying flesh and cells, and blood pressure going for a trip on a trapeze while clotting takes a lunch break and lets his mentally handicapped brother Clyde take over.  Some of the enzymes help break down and pre-digest food, which is great because viper digestive systems are somewhat limited. 
Vipers contain the notable subfamily Crotalinae, the pit vipers, termed by their heat-sensing organs located one on each side of the head, ‘twixt eye and nostril.  The pit organ is highly sensitive, and an invaluable aid for any night-hunting predator – especially one hunting after succulent, warm-blooded rodent flesh.  The group contains the large bushmaster (12 foot!), the rattlesnakes, and other family favorites such as the fer-de-lance, sidewinder, and the moccasins/copperheads. 
One of the world's most affectionate and venomous creatures.  Can't you see all it needs is love?

One of the world's most affectionate and venomous creatures. Can't you see all it needs is love?

Hydrophidae
The sea snakes are closely related to the elapids, sharing with them a predilection for delightfully deadly neurotoxins and many physical traits (those that haven’t been adapted for sea travel.  In fact, they’re so taxonomically similar that there’s talk of just giving up on the whole family and relegating its inhabitants to various locations in elapid subfamilies, and this may in fact be the current state of affairs.  Look, if you want more information, read a book or something by someone who knows what they’re talking about.  At any rate, they’ve taken to the life aquatic like a duck to water – their lung runs almost the entire length of their body to aid buoyancy and manage air, their ventral scales (the ones on their undersides) have become reduced to the point where land travel would be downright impossible in many cases, and their tails are veritable paddles.  Some of them are reported to be extremely docile when it comes to biting, but others have less qualms.  They live out their entire life cycles at sea, and when brought out of the water are unable to even coil up or strike properly (although they do apparently get quite distressed and aggressive during this, so try not to get too grabby). 
Do not attempt to wrassle.  It would only irk him.
Do not attempt to wrassle. It would only irk him.

Elapidae
Elapids include some of the most venomous snakes in the world (just like sea snakes, which they also may contain, as said above), coupling incredibly potent venomwith somewhat less sophisticated delivery mechanisms.  Their fangs point backwards slightly and tend to be a bit stubby, requiring them to actually bite something full-out as opposed to simply stabbing and juicing.  A couple elapids (like the spitting cobras) have mastered the fun trick of spewing venom out of the tips of their fangs thanks to forward-facing holes at their tips, reaching up to around six-and-a-half feetish at maximum.  The venom itself is nasty, and is most often neurotoxic, causing muscle paralysis and eventual inability to breath, which is usually the killing factor.  Elapids themselves aren’t as widespread as vipers, mostly in the tropics to subtropics of the world.  Beyond the cobras (including the King Cobra, an 18-foot powerhouse and the world’s largest venomous snake), famous elapids also include the mambas (including the Black Mamba, both the largest venomous snake in Africa at 14 ft maximum and one of the fastest worldwide, capable of hitting 10-12 mph), and the entire genus of the Taipan of Australia, the species of which seem mostly to be rivalled in overall venomousness by each other

 

To end this useless monologue on a helpful note, here’s some advice: don’t screw around with snakes.  It’s better for all involved, especially the snake.  And barring the odd asshole species like the puff adder (which likes to sit in the middle of trails being camouflaged, is too lazy to move when something comes near, and announces its presence by biting whatever annoys it), for the most part they’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone. 

 

Picture Credits:

  • Garter Snake: Taken in North Ontario, Canada (near Cache Bay, Sturgeon Falls), Shemszot / http://www.studioepic.com
  • Hainosaurus: Public domain image from Wikipedia. 
  • Green Anaconda: Taken August 27th, 2006, by LA Dawson
  • Indian Python: San Diego Zoo, USA, by “Tigerpython.”
  • Boomslang: Snake centre, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, April 04, 2008, William Warby
  • Puff Adder: Photo by Al Coritz. 
  • Banded Sea Krait: Wakatobi, Indonesia, Sept 9th 2009, Craig D
  • King Cobra: Febuary 1st, 2006, by en:User:Dawson

Storytime: The Far Long Before.

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

This story is from the far long before, back when the world was hard and solid and rough as a ragged shale around its rim.  The greatfathers and the greatmothers were all gone, and the wound left over from the ending of the first times was still sore and raw and bleeding.  All things bled from that ruinous hurt, and many bled all the way down, but a few still lived.  The peoples scraped their way back bit by bite and belly by claw and the world began to heal a little, and perhaps even to soften at their touch.  The green came back from its smouldering ruins and crawled farther still, spreading life for life to feed on wherever it went.  The peoples grew stronger and larger and began to recover a bit of their old place, and that was when the troubles began again. 

The first sign of warning came from near the water, where people that went to fish would start slipping away and vanishing.  Oh well, said the others.  Should be more careful.  But when it happened more often, and sometimes to the others that talked about being careful, well, that was just puzzling and worrying. 

The next signs were from farther inland, in the murkier forests and bogs.  There it was even less noticeable – a bog could suck you down right quick and you had to be fast to stop getting eaten there – but by now everyone was nervous, and the people there took note of when they started vanishing, and they were worried too. 

The last sign came when Grandmother Cru was out hunting for some meat, and she heard a rustling down in the forest.  Out she flew and caught something, and it was only after she wrestled it down and it wasn’t moving that she saw that it was one of the scuttling people, the ones with the many eyes.  She was surprised deeply with that, since all the scuttling people had died under the wounding that ended the first times. 

That’s strange, she told the peoples.  That is strange, they agreed.  And why are they hunting us?  Scuttling people didn’t do that. 

Well, scuttling people do now, said Grandmother Cru.  And she was right.  They were angry and bold now that they’d been discovered, and they came swarming out of the shallow pools and bogs they’d been hiding in, lots and lots of them.  Scuttling people were everywhere, and they were angry, too angry to talk, too angry to think.  The peoples fought, but they were weary instead of angry and worried instead of warlike, and soon there were no more left but the children and the grandmothers and grandfathers. 

This is bad, they said.  What’re we going to do?

Grandfather No had an idea.  He always had ideas.  We can’t fight them this way, he said.  So let’s find new ways.  We’re old, too old to fight fair.  Let’s go and learn and take what we need until we can fight. 

Good plan, said the others, and so the grandmothers and the grandfathers went their separate ways, all around and out and far.  They didn’t want to leave the children unprotected, so they dug a dark pit in the ground and stuffed them into it, then locked it with a fallen tree.  Stay put, they said, and stay quiet.  Now remember, don’t make any noise, for any reason, or the scuttling people will hear you.  The children were good children, and they did as they were told. 

 

Grandmother Cru journeyed far to the east, off into the sea.   The water looked oh so good and tempting, but she knew that she would drown if she walked in, so she looked along the beach.  It was covered in little mud droplets, all hiding bright-coloured, vain little sea-shells. 

Who here can swim? she called. 

Me!  Me!  Me! clamoured all the sea shells, shrill with importance.  Me!  Me!  I can do it!  They dug themselves to the surface and tumbled over each other in their haste to prove their claim.  Grandmother Cru just laughed and gathered them all up, and had a fine meal, cooking them all in the fire.  When it was through she took the charred-burnt shells and slapped them all over her body, and she had a fine suit of armour that made her stiff and sturdy and slow.  She took to the water and swam along, a bit portly and bumpy but altogether pleasant, and then she ran into a shark. 

What are you? asked the shark.  He was young and brave and very foolish. 

I’m me, replied Grandmother Cru sensibly. 

The shark was hot-tempered, and this annoyed him.  Don’t be rude, he yelled, or I’ll bite you clean in half.  My teeth are strong and sharp enough that no armour can stop them, not even that clanking coat of yours. 

My, my, they are sharp indeed, said Cru.  But I’ll bet they can’t bite me. 

If I can’t bite you in half, said the shark, then I’m as flat and toothless as a sea slug.  I’ll show you.  And the shark plucked up Grandmother Cru in his jaws and shook her all around like a little fish, teeth gnashing and clashing and jaws squeezing and biting.  He seized her so hard that she squished in the middle and stretched out both sides, until she was long and lean, but Grandmother Cru just laughed at him no matter how hard he tried.  He wriggled and shook and thrashed until every tooth fell out of his head, his mouth withered up, and he’d beaten himself flat against the water.  Finally he gave up in exhaustion, and Grandmother Cru took his teeth.  You aren’t a shark, but you aren’t quite a sea slug, she said.  I think you are something new, and I will call you a ray.  It is a good word. 

Grandmother Cru popped her new teeth into her toothless old maw and snapped them tight.  They were good strong teeth still, built for gnashing, and her new thin firm body was as muscled as anything.  She laughed and clacked and roared her way along the coast and into the rivers and swamps, and the scuttling people fled from her in fear, those that she did not tear apart and swallow. 

 

Grandfather Ter went wandering north.  There were many tall trees there, so tall that his old, old neck creaked to look up at them, and he walked so long and far that his feet hurt and he had to stop to rub them besides a creek.  There were dragonflies about the creek, just the thing to eat, but he had nothing to catch them with.  So he sat and thought and rubbed his arms and legs, cursing his old, brittle bones, and then he had a cunning idea.  He walked over to one of the tall trees and picked off as many branches as he could carry, and then he covered himself with them very carefully.  He held those branches up all day, arms straining, legs bowing close to the dirt with the effort, and at nightfall the dragonflies came to perch.  Grandfather Ter waited until they were asleep, then quick as lightning bit out at them one after another, swallowing the plump bodies and spitting out the gummy wings, which fluttered all over him.  Their legs were sharp as anything and stuck to the roof of his mouth, which hurt badly, and Grandfather Ter swore and jumped up and down, spitting and cursing as loud as he could until the moon nearly blanched.  He swore and hawked and cursed and jumped and as he did so more and more of the wings and branches were glued all over his stretched and strained thin old arms by his own spittle.  His bowed legs were stomped down to nubbins by the time he collapsed in exhaustion at dawn, and although the spikes in his mouth no longer pained him, they were stuck firm and never moving again, his yelling and their prodding turning his voice into a squawking croak. 

The sunlight dried Grandfather Ter as he dozed, and by midday he stood up and found it was too hard to walk, his legs had got so short and his wings-and-branches arms so heavy.  More dragonflies were above the stream, and when he hopped and leaped at them, hoping against hope, that was when Grandfather Ter found that he could fly. 

Up and up he flapped, needle-filled mouth snatching at food, and he cackled so hard he nearly choked.  His old thin bones floated on the winds and troubled him no more as he circled in the sky.  The scuttling people heard his voice from on high, and the sound where there had been silence filled them with worry.  He cackled and dived down at them, pecking with his needles, and they did not stay in his lands. 

 

Grandmother Cth took to the west, and she came to the sea as well, all around the other side, in different waters.  It seemed so very large that her knees shook to look at it, and they shook so hard that they nearly came loose.  Now don’t do that, she told them, and they hushed up some, which let her wander the beach in peace and quiet.  It was a big, broad sea out there, and she sat and thought on what to do for a long time.  A plan popped into her head at last, and she began to gather up pebbles and throw them into the water, splashing them about and making a dreadful noise.  Soon up came a big angry fish.  What are you meaning throwing those stones onto my reef? he asked angrily.  It’s brand-new as it is, thanks to the wounding, and now you go and throw stones on it.  What do you want anyways? 

Awfully sorry, said Grandmother Cth, but I can make it up to you.  How would you like to trade?  I’ve got a set of good legs here, and I’ll let you give them a try if you’ll let me see your thick hide. 

The big fish was still a bit angry, but he thought it over.  He’d always wanted to see the land above the seas for a bit, even a little bit, but the thought of leaving his precious water made him leery.  All right, he said, but only for a short time.  I’ll try your legs, and you can try my hide, but we’ll trade back after I’m finished, is that clear?

Yes indeed, said Grandmother Cth, and she was so eager to take off her legs that it made the big fish suspicious.  One more thing then, he said.  To make sure no one cheats and runs away, we’ll each keep ahold of something important.  I’ll keep my eggs, and you can keep your lungs. 

I’ll be fairer still, said Grandmother Cth.  We can share my lungs.  That way I can’t run away, and you don’t have to hold your breath while you walk.  This generosity put the big fish off his guard, and as he walked onto the land he did so in utter good faith.  However, after his fifth step in Grandmother Cth’s wobbling old knees, he knew something was wrong. 

Old woman, what have you done? he cried, but his only answer was a laugh as Grandmother Cth sped away over the waves.  She didn’t have eggs, but she would think of something, and she didn’t have lungs, but she could hold her breath.  The big fish hopped up and down the shore in a fury all night before limping inland to find somewhere wet where his skinless body wouldn’t dry out.  It was small comfort to find himself able to breath above and below the water, for his old worn-out kneecaps were too feeble to bear walking, and he had to hop everywhere he went.  He was bitterly unhappy, and called himself a frog, which he thought was a foolish person. 

Grandmother Cth had not a care in the world for it, and she swam the ocean main, boldly, far out into the warm and shallow expanses that the scuttling ones had called home.  Her snapping bill and gnashing teeth drove them away in fear, and she had little care for her missing legs – she had hands and feet to paddle with, as well as her strong long tail. 

 

Grandfather No walked south, and he walked farthest.  Off into the deep desert he marched, old grandfather No, and he thought as he walked, bolt upright, muscles firmed.  The sun baked his skin firm and painted it strange hues, the walking stiffened his legs so that they were warped straight as a line, his body itself wavered and shrank to almost tiny size under the sky’s gaze, but on Grandfather No marched.  He ate young lizards as they basked on rocks and caught them as they slipped under rocks, his bleached and firmed tendons and muscles growing snap-fast to grab and long and delicate to probe.  The energy and warmth of his prey entered him, and he grew younger and more vigorous with each life he stole, a quick and lithe predator.  His movements grew jerky and darting, and he walked until one day he stood alone in the desert, mouth empty of flesh, and surveyed the horizon from atop a single broken rock. 

I am what I am meant to be, said Grandfather No.  All of this will be mine one day, I think. 

He walked home then, and ate little on the trip, yet remained as lively and rapid as ever.  The scuttling people never heard his three-toed footsteps coming pit-a-pat upon the red dirt towards them, never saw his fanged snout approaching their delicate eyes, but they knew those places he roamed were not theirs, and they left in great fear. 

 

All of this took quite some time, and the defeat of the scuttling people with many eyes took longer still.  By the time the last of them had vanished the grandmothers and grandfathers had nearly forgotten where the children had been left, and had had many new children of their own.  They called and called and called, so loudly that it rang across all the world and deep into the burrow of the children, but their voices had grown strange and unfamiliar to their ears, and they were good children, and made not a sound in replay. 

I can’t find them, wailed Grandmother Cth, splashing in the seas.  I traded my legs for flippers, land for sea. 

I can’t find them, rumbled Grandmother Cru, drifting through the swamps, I am not meant for such long walks, armoured as I am. 

I can’t find them, squawked Grandfather Ter, flitting through the trees, I cannot sit upon the ground again, and I am too high up to see them. 

I will find them, hissed Grandfather No, padding across the land. 

That is good, the others said. 

Grandfather No took many more steps before he found the children’s place, some on top of each other, but he did find them, following his snout.  He opened it up with his delicate hands and found that the children were many now.  Alone in the cold they’d made strange soft stuff from their skins to keep the warmth, and they had had their own children long, long ago, feeding them on milk.  They did not recognize him, and hissed and snapped, and Grandfather No felt a coldness arise in his warm-beating heart as he looked upon them. 

If you will not know your elders as such, he said, you will know them as your betters.  I and my children, and their children beyond will teach you this lesson until you know us again.  He fell upon the children and drove them deep into their burrows, and killed and ate several before he returned. 

The children are not our children any longer, he told the grandmothers and grandfathers.  They have gone from our sight.  And the others mourned for the loss, but not for too long, for they had children of their own to look after now, and Grandfather No the most.  

Copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor.